Bart Ehrman's "Lost Christianities"

Political correctness has ironically brought us yet another tome of self-righteous certainty. It is not that Ehrman gives what he admits are later Christianities equal chance of being right -- that question is avoided -- but rather, he wants to give them equal time to be heard, never quite telling us why, if they don't have a chance of being right, there is any sense in hearing from them to begin with.

Christianity of the patristic period is said to be "more diverse" than what is even loosely called Christianity today, a difference by which those of today "pale by comparison"; clearly Ehrman has not got on with learning about what is offered by Mormons, JWs, Unitarians, and the entire lot, for otherwise he would know the error of that statement. He is too busy rather implying that there is something wrong in denying the name Christian to someone like David Koresh [1] or to Arians who denied the divinity of Christ [2], though presumably he would not happily allow just anyone to affix to themselves the term New Testament scholar with the same level of permissiveness.

It is not that Ehrman is evil, or ignorant (as a scholar, he deserves great respect); it is that he is so afraid to offend that he doesn't think his way through his own presentation. It is not sufficient to object that there was one "form" of Christianity that came out the winner; the question is, did the winner deserve the trophy, and as with his other prior work (Orthodox Corruption of Scripture) Ehrman is monumentally silent about this. There is much about variations on Trinitarianism, but not a word about pre-NT Jewish Wisdom theology that backs up the Niceans. Ehrman even admits readily that the heretics forged books [9] (while of course accusing the orthodox of doing the same; no discussion of course, though a note is given to his own guide to the NT) so he obviously is not incapable of delivering an assessment of who is (if anyone) actually on the side of truth. It is just that he does not want to.

The bulk of the book offers sometimes interesting discussions of partricular heretical stances, and how the world today may have been different had a heretical variety won out; here there are times when Ehrman's tolerance becomes so overpowering that he has to forge a path in which he wants to appreciate docetists or even anti-Semites in spite of themselves, In the process I cannot help but be reminded of local female librarians who were all for unlimited free expression and not putting filtering on public Internet terminals, a fine and dandy state of affairs until vagrants parked next to their desks and started viewing pornography, denigrating to their own womanhood, in their sight.

Readers may still appreciate Ehrman's look at these sects. Still and all Ehrman admits that they all cannot have been right [91] but dismisses this as a concern first because the polytheistic Romans didn't care about such things (though Judaism, Christianity's parent, did with a vengeance, as he also admits); second, by creating a list of questions about what proper belief actually would be; third, by noting as he did before that the other groups claimed apostolic succession as well (never mind that the docetists claiming back to Peter requires the impossibility of a Jewish, Galileean peasant holding a Greek view of the material world). Ehrman never gets past, "they thought they were right" and to "which of them was right". Not surprisingly, completely missing from Ehrman's bibliography is the quite sensible Hidden Gospels by Jenkins, who unlike Ehrman, did not shrink from that crucial question.

A few notes of interest to me. The Impossible Faith maven in me found some amusement in Ehrman explaining how Marcion's movement was doomed for precisely a reason I say Christianity could never have survived (newness). Ehrman makes issue of "vitriolic" attacks by Paul, et al. (see especially Chapter 9) but apparently has never heard of challenge-riposte.

He notes some poor answers to heretics by Irenaeus and Tertulian, for example, on Jewish laws; but this hardly erases much better answers they were unaware of (rooted in ritual purity. Again and again, we have such statements as, "...put a dozen people in a room with a text of Scripture, or of Shakespeare, or of the American Constiution, and see how many interpretations they produce." [195] I say put in that same room Shakespearian scholars, or a copy of The Federalist Papers, or material establishing interpretive contexts, and those "many interpretations" will all disappear save perhaps one.

Ehrman wonders how Ephiphanius would have had knowledge of heretical rites. He supposes that the details of such sexual rites as described would have been revealed to a potential convert. It seems not to occur to him that such details are precisely what would be prime evangelism material for such a group. Ehrman's objection that Epiphanius does not name his sources [201] ignores that this was a normal mode of operation for ancient writers.

In sum, while having some valuable information, this book lacks a critical nature so necessary for discernment.