Bart Ehrman describes the early Christian communities, exposes their writings, plots their controversies, and provides arguments why one of these communities came to dominate the belief system of all the others, thus earning the name “Christian” from then until now. He also asks us to wonder what if another early community dominated early Christianity so that today it would be "our" Christianity.
What if those we call Marcionite Christians were “the” Christians? Would we have an “Old” Testament? One God? The four gospels? What if those we call Ebionites were “the” Christians? Would we be observing all the Jewish rules of Kosher? Of Circumcision? Would Christianity be no larger than Judaism? If even that? What if those we call Gnostics were “the” Christians? Would we even think of a literal meaning of the scriptures? Would only a special few be those who had the “true” meaning? Would there have been any creeds and controversies? These “what ifs” are enfleshed in Eherman’s exposition of the holy scriptures of these lost Chritianities, their interdependence upon each other for both development and exposition, and a description of the linguistic communities from which they came.
The first part of the book covers the discoveries and forgeries associated with these holy scriptures. He reviews the following documents: Serapion and the Gospel of Peter, the Acts of Paul and Thecia, the Coptic Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Market. Those books that have entered into our present canon of Holy Scripture are also reviewed more in dialogue with these recent discoveries. In this dialogue, however, our present scripture is described both in detail and in development. Also there are many other ancient documents that are reviewed that were born from these various Christian, “lost”, communities.
One community of belief came to dominate the others. It had many centers but especially Rome with its rich, well educated, constituents who bought slaves and helped out its sister churches and was able to press its Christianity as "the” Christianity. There were a number of principles used to argue its case. Shouldn’t “the” Christianity follow what the apostles taught? If so, then we teach what the apostles and those Sees that were founded by them taught. Shouldn’t “the” Christianity be continuous with what God revealed to the Jews? If so, we accept the Jewish scriptures as the Old Testament to our Nee Testament. Isn’t God one? If so, Jesus as both totally human and divine, is the same God who revealed himself to the Jews. Shouldn’t “the” Christianity be logical? If so, look at the other Christianities. They are full of nonsense and contradiction. Shouldn’t “the” Christianity lead to a good life of love and discipline? Look at what the other false Christianities lead to individually and socially. This cannot be God’s work. Shouldn’t “the” Christianity be in line with the baptismal creeds we all know? Look and compare. Look to their scriptures. They are neither old nor written by those who walked with Jesus. Ours are. Finally, look to the willingness to die for these truths. Look to the martyred. Whose Church do they belong to? In addition to these earthly arguments, we must realize, “the” Christians say, that our beliefs on earth have eternal consequences because our thoughts and actions determine our eternal fate. If we are wrong on earth, we will be burned in hell.
The community that ultimately produced the Nicene Creed, the present Canon of scripture, the Sees of apostolic succession, and reading the scriptures with the primary focus on what they say rather than on a hidden, mystical meaning, is Christianity as we know it.
Eherman leaves his story in the fourth century. Indeed this was the recognized form of Christianity for the next fourteen hundred more years. In my experience of teaching both graduate and undergraduate theology, I find all of these communities represented among the students I teach. Sometimes they come from a bible based community. Sometimes they come from a mainline community. Always they come from a group of teachers who are starting their Christianity anew based on the needs of the present and the interpretation by the unskilled.
Eherman allows us to see the battles and opinions of the past. He provides an excellent summary of how that past has influenced our culture. Churches, yes. But also, our culture. One wonders how our present controversies, certainly representative of our present diversity, curiosity, and knowledge will influence all the churches and cultures in our new, globalized, world. Because, as Eherman reminds us, the orthodoxies of one age can become the heresies of another.
Eherman writes well. Sometimes he is unwilling to take for granted known religious and historical terms. At those times, he breaks the narrative of his prose to explain the word as it occurs in the text. This will serve the undergraduate well in her or his reading. It may, at times, bore the more advanced reader. However, it will never take away from the excellent discussion of the texts, communities, controversies, and truths that shaped Christianity.