I have a confession to make: I’ve been reading a book. Yes, it’s true.
Right around Palm Sunday, I read/heard some interviews with Bart Ehrman, a religious scholar out of the University of North Carolina. He was talking about his most recent book, “Did Jesus Exist?” Hearing the interview reminded me that I actually own another book by Ehrman, “Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew.” I picked it up a few years ago after seeing the interview above (on another book…”Misquoting Jesus“) on The Daily Show. I actually tried reading it back in 2006, but one thing led to another and I stopped. What can I say…
Regardless, I picked it back up again and am about halfway through. Part of what intrigued me about Ehrman’s books, in general, is that they are not only discussing the content of the Bible and other historical documents, but also the context in which they came into existence, how and when they were discovered, and how accurate their translations were. I can’t say I’ve ever been a huge fan of the idea that the Bible should be taken literally, and books like these make it clear that there was quite a bit of politics involved in which books made it in and which ones didn’t.
This book, specifically, is talking about different, early forms of Christianity that were “snuffed out” by what he terms the “proto-orthodox” church. That is to say, the earliest version of what we have today. He points to the Gnostics, the Ebionites and the Marcionites (thus far) as examples of competing views on how Christianity should be viewed. The nature of Christ, Himself. How much the Old Testament (and Judaism) should figure in to what eventually becomes “Christianity.”
Reading through it, two things come to mind:
1). The Early Christians didn’t know everything, either. Barnabus, for example, traveled with Paul and shows up in Acts and a few Epistles. He wrote a document, “Epistle to the Hebrews,” that suggests that Jewish Law (e.g. Leviticus, the Ten Commandments, etc.) was not meant to be taken literally and that things like “don’t eat pork” really meant “don’t eat like a pig.” This guy knew and traveled with Paul and even he disputed the meaning of ancient texts…and he was around at the time of the writing of many of our “ancient texts.” And these discussions between Paul and Barnabus (and others) were going on while they were writing what got into our Bible.
2). It’s easy to look at “Christianity” as a mish-mash of different belief systems today when you look at Methodists, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Catholics, Baptists, and so on and so forth. Each one has their own “quirks,” traditions, hierarchies, et cetera. And there are definitely individuals within each group that thinks that they have it “right” and that they are “saved” and the others are not. Strangely enough, it seems like this is the way it has been since the beginning. The only difference is that one group (the one inspired by the writings of Paul) won out 2000 years ago and effectively stamped out the others.
Crazy to think about what that would mean if the same thing happened today, eh?
Regardless, it’s a pretty fascinating book, and brings up many interesting ideas that help out in my various discussions. We’ve been reading through the Gospels in our small group, so the things this book presents really gives me a different perspective than what the others in the group are bringing to the table. At the very least, it certainly highlights the fact that the Bible is an important document to many, but as with anything historically-based, it’s shaped by those who came out on top.