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From The Book

The Battle for Scripture and the Faiths
We Didn’t Get a Chance to Know

The common wisdom about the development of Christianity is that there was an unbroken chain of wisdom that started with Jesus, was passed on by the apostles, and in turn passed on to their successors in the organized church—elders, ministers, priests, and bishops. The was one organization, one faith, one practice, all combined to “guarantee the unity and uniformity of Christian belief and practice,” as Karen King put it. This orthodoxy was ratified by the New Testament canon, by the Council of Nicea, and the carefully proscribed rituals of the church.

In the past few decades, however, a wide range of scholarship has shown us that early Christianity, while monotheistic, was anything but monolithic. There is no single, master narrative. In point of fact, the first few centuries can better be described as a great religious stew, with various oral traditions, alternate scriptures, lost gospels, mystery cults, and other teachings all vying for acceptance and primacy.

Among the leaders in the pioneering work of studying the cross currents of the era is Bart D. Ehrman, chair of the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Ehrman is an authority on the life of Jesus and the propagation of his teachings in the first centuries of what came to be called Christianity. This is the subject of his earlier book, Lost Christianities: the Battle for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew and his current Peter, Paul, & Mary Magdalene.

In this interview, Ehrman talks about the most important alternative threads of what became what we now call Christianity (a term which wasn’t in existence until the 2nd century). Over time, these alternate sects came to be seen as a threat to the spreading orthodoxy. Competing ideas were, in effect, systematically declared to be heresy and then suppressed or marginalized by the Church triumphant.

Ehrman welcomes the popular interest in the early days of Christianity, propelled by The Da Vinci Code, which he calls “unusually intelligent for this genre.” Still, he would like to set the record straight, and point out that the actual history of early Christianity is as replete with struggles, personalities, perfidy, and surprising revelations as any current thriller.

The common wisdom about the development of Christianity is that there was an unbroken chain of wisdom that started with Jesus, was passed on by the apostles, and in turn passed on to their successors in the organized church—elders, ministers, priests, and bishops. The was one organization, one faith, one practice, all combined to “guarantee the unity and uniformity of Christian belief and practice,” as Karen King put it. This orthodoxy was ratified by the New Testament canon, by the Council of Nicea, and the carefully proscribed rituals of the church.

In the past few decades, however, a wide range of scholarship has shown us that early Christianity, while monotheistic, was anything but monolithic. There is no single, master narrative. In point of fact, the first few centuries can better be described as a great religious stew, with various oral traditions, alternate scriptures, lost gospels, mystery cults, and other teachings all vying for acceptance and primacy.

Among the leaders in the pioneering work of studying the cross currents of the era is Bart D. Ehrman, chair of the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Ehrman is an authority on the life of Jesus and the propagation of his teachings in the first centuries of what came to be called Christianity. This is the subject of his earlier book, Lost Christianities: the Battle for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew and his current Peter, Paul, & Mary Magdalene.

In this interview, Ehrman talks about the most important alternative threads of what became what we now call Christianity (a term which wasn’t in existence until the 2nd century). Over time, these alternate sects came to be seen as a threat to the spreading orthodoxy. Competing ideas were, in effect, systematically declared to be heresy and then suppressed or marginalized by the Church triumphant.

Ehrman welcomes the popular interest in the early days of Christianity, propelled by The Da Vinci Code, which he calls “unusually intelligent for this genre.” Still, he would like to set the record straight, and point out that the actual history of early Christianity is as replete with struggles, personalities, perfidy, and surprising revelations as any current thriller.

You have brought to light ways in which Christian belief underwent change as this new theology and its body of documents moved from the Holy Land in the time of Jesus to become the de facto state religion of the Roman Empire several centuries later. What, in fact, are some of those changes? How drastic or trivial are these differences?

Christianity shifted from being an other-worldly Jewish religion, in which the end of all time is at hand and people should not live for the values of their society but should deny themselves in preparation for the coming Kingdom, to being a this-worldly Gentile religion. The latter did not stress the imminent end of all things and taught instead that it is important to work with the world in order to convert the world, so that people could have life after they died. Some people would argue that the Christianity that ended up triumphing was a completely different religion from the one that started in Jerusalem after the death of Jesus – that it is, in fact, a different religion from that of Jesus himself! In this view of things, Christianity is less the religion that Jesus taught (the religion of Jesus) than the religion that proclaims Jesus (the religion about Jesus). I’d say these are fairly enormous differences.

The so-called "Gnostic Gospels," found near the Egyptian town of Nag Hammadi, have rightly gained a great deal of attention. What has been the most important implication of this find from your perspective?

The most important “discovery” of modern times has been that early Christianity was extremely diverse – far more diverse than previous scholars ever could have imagined. What we have learned from the Gnostic Gospels is that there were groups of Christians who believed an enormous range of things that most people today would not even call Christian. For example, some believed that the world is a cosmic mistake, created by an inferior, lesser deity rather than by the Lord God Almighty; that Christ did not really suffer on the cross; that the way to eternal life is not through belief in Jesus’ death but through understanding his secret teachings. These, and many, many other beliefs, were held by people who considered themselves Christian, who claimed to be following the teachings of Jesus and his apostles, and who had books to prove it – books allegedly written by the apostles themselves. If nothing else, the discoveries of Nag Hammadi have opened our eyes to just how diverse the early Christians really were.

People who read the Gnostic Gospels in English translation frequently come away very confused. The gospels are filled with ideas that are very foreign to mainstream Western religious thinking. Given that many different groups have been lumped under one rubric, that of “Gnostics,” is there a single consistent body of thought expressed in these documents?

The books are confusing not only in English translation, but also in the Coptic originals! The authors of these books did not think like most of us. Many of them were very metaphysically and mythically oriented. They were not interested in setting out straightforward propositional truths, but were intrigued with the poetics of existence and the mysteries of this world and how we came to inhabit it.

Having said that, I think it does help to have a conceptual understanding of what the Gnostic systems involved, as I try to lay out in another of my books called Lost Christianities. In a nutshell, Gnostics believed that this world was not a good place, but was the result of a cosmic disaster. Some of us do not belong here, they said, but are spirits from the world above who have been trapped or imprisoned in these material bodies. The goal of the Gnostic religions is to teach us how to escape. We can escape the material trappings of this world by learning the secret knowledge (Greek: gnosis) of who we really are, where we came from, how we got here, and how we can return. Salvation then comes to those who learn the truth about themselves, and these Gnostic books – many of them very confusing, to be sure – are attempts to help us come to fuller self-knowledge. When we understand it, then we can be set free.

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For the rest of Bart Ehrman's interview, in which he discusses the many faiths we never got a chance to know and also the battle over which gospels, among many, would represent the One True Faith, please see Chapter 4, page 144 of the book.