Were there Lost Christianities?

It’s a bit of a long one, this time!

So, maybe the best thing is to just pick one or two headings that jump out at you? This book has had such a negative impact on the marketplace of ideas, I wanted to respond to it as thoroughly as I could. These ideas undercut Christianity and the authority of the New Testament (“authority? lol”, says the internet) in a fundamental way, because it stops us asking whether the Bible is true. It changes the question to, “Why are Christians so gullible to believe a book that is simply the result of ecclesiastical power-plays?”

Now – I enjoyed reading Bart Ehrman’s book, and his writing style appeals to me. Yet his central claims must be challenged. Bart says that Christianity is not the result of:

  • Jesus of Nazareth’s life, death and resurrection
  • the life and writings of his immediate circle (the apostles)
  • the formation of the church based on apostolic witness

Rather, Christianity is the result of the life of Jesus, followed by centuries of battles between equal and opposing groups, for a final set of Christian beliefs that were established long after the fact. I think there are good reasons to reject Ehrman’s claims.

 

1 – Ehrman’s “Text Battles”

Ehrman uses the term “proto-orthodox” to refer to the “winners” of his supposed first century battle for the Christian religion. He says, “we will consider how proto-orthodox Christians engaged in these internecine battles which eventually led to their victory.”[1] The proto-orthodox, to Ehrman, eventually became the Christianity of today.

In using this term, Ehrman neatly imposes an unevidenced assumption into his book. He sets up the idea of various Christian groups in the first century that were all on the same footing and equally valid. Yet they all believed different things. Now, only one of these groups could survive, so they duked it out in a kind of “theological, literary survival of the fittest” contest. Ehrman assumes this without adequately demonstrating the existence of multiple, equally footed first century Christian groups.

Ehrman is popularising an old idea from Bauer in the early 20th century which has since been discredited by the majority of scholars. Bauer assumed there were four centres of Christianity in Asia Minor, Egypt, Edessa and Rome and they were centres of various beliefs like Gnosticism, Docetism and Marcionism. There are many problems here.

  • like all good conspiracy theories, it is an argument from silence, imposing conjecture into the first century.
  • Bauer imported second-century data into the first-century to manufacture his data.
  • Bauer is viewed as having failed to consider the evidence that orthodoxy could have been widespread, while heresies could have existed in small pockets.
  • Bauer fails to consider the possibility that theological standard control could have existed in the first-century church.[2]

Besides, the power was found in the message of the Christian Gospel, not a particular people group. Yes, in Paul’s letters we read him challenging Judaizers (Christians need to follow Judaism) and Gnostic ideas (secret knowledge, material world bad). But these read like localized and fragmented people who were infiltrating the established churches. These don’t appear to be equally valid Christian sects in their own right. Yet some common ideas did exist among these heresies.[3]

In appealing to Bauer’s old thesis, Ehrman fundamentally misleads his audience.

 

2 – Forgery of Sacred Texts

Ehrman claims that some of the New Testament books were forged, written by other people posing as the Jesus’ apostles, so that people would accept their beliefs as true. He states, “forged documents in the names of the apostles … provide[d] authorization for their own point of view, falsified writings … The battle for converts was … the battle over texts, and the proto-orthodox party won the former battle by winning the latter.”[4]

First, this assumption ignores the evidence of the “4 S’s” the set the trajectory of Christian orthodoxy. Think of these as like an early guidance system for Christianity prior to the writing of any books that eventually comprised the New Testament. They challenge Ehrman’s idea that different groups and different beliefs battled for converts, showing there was a core of shared Christian belief before the texts were written down.

  • “Scripture” was the Christian baseline; assuming continuity with the original Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) meant they were rooted in Jewish monotheism.
  • The original Christian doctrines were “Summarised” and recited orally by the church, then passed on in written form.[5]
  • The church “Sang” theology, and the Old Covenant Yahweh themes were applied to Christ in these hymns.[6]
  • Fourthly, the “Sacrament” of communion, practiced regularly by the church, acted out core Christian theology.

Second, Christianity was literary and bookish from the start. These people don’t fit the caricature of dumb goat herders. Christianity was initially rooted in Judaism where all young boys learned to recite the Torah from an early age. As such, there would have been quality control. Yes, forgeries existed in the ancient world, but they were rejected when discovered. Forgeries did occur among early Christian writings, the Gospel of Peter is an example, but they were rejected when discovered. We have no good reasons to assume forgeries made it into the New Testament. Again, Ehrman is importing an idea into his book that serves his thesis, but does not reflect the evidence. Also, note that that authorship of the four Gospels was never in question by the earliest witnesses, although some discussion exists over which “John” wrote that gospel.[7]

 

3 – Is the Canon a Later Thing?

Ehrman suggests that the reason the New Testament canon had to be collected, was so that different second century heresies could be challenged, “prophetic movements such as Montanism from within proto-orthodox circles and opposition to heretical forces outside these circles.”[8] And the final ratification of the canon in the fourth century was the ultimate victory of proto-orthodoxy. They have won the battle of the texts!

While it is true the emerging canonical texts helped maintain orthodox belief, I think this idea misrepresents the culture that gave birth to Christianity. I would suggest the evidence shows that, rather than being imposed later as a final victory of proto-orthodoxy, the canon emerged gradually in the second half of the first century. The letters of Paul, and the later Gospels, were copied and circulated amongst the Christian church, respected as they were written by, or recording the views of an apostolic source. The canon emerged early and naturally, and Ehrman’s view starts from mistaken assumptions:

  • The beliefs of the first-century Christians was steeped in Judaism. They lived in the second temple period, and were waiting for God to finish the story we read in our Old Testament. They believed Jesus of Nazareth completed the story.
  • The first Christians believed Jesus had established a new covenant. Covenants were an ancient near eastern form of agreement that is reflected in the original Hebrew scriptures. The Jewish Christians expected a new covenant to be accompanied by texts from the beginning.
  • They believed the apostles were authorized to write the new covenant text.

Given this cultural, it was natural for the Christians to recognise an emerging canon from the start.[9]

 

4 – Was there Diversity and Disagreement Over Christianity?

Was there diversity in early Christianity? Of course there were different styles, and different ideas that some people had that were not in line with the established and early Christian core. Just because this diversity exists, this proves nothing. It certainly doesn’t prove Ehrman’s thesis that everyone had different ideas about what Christianity was. Just because people disagree on a question, this does not mean there is not one answer to that question.

Was there disagreement over what went into the New Testament canon? Yes. But to suggest there was fundamental disagreement over all the books is misleading. Some of the books were controversial, the core books and letters were not and had been used and respected by the church from the beginning.

 

5 – Can History Be Written By the Winners?

Ehrman has setup a non-evidenced “battle of the texts”, a fight for what Christianity would become. And so, having started there, it is natural for him to state that the final New Testament is an untrustworthy text from the winning, proto-orthodox group. “You can never rely on an enemy’s reports for a fair and disinterested presentation.”[10]

But Ehrman sets up an impossible demand on the New testament authors here. The writers were clearly passionate people, you can see that in the text. And this passion is what Ehrman uses to disqualify them. But aren’t Ehrman’s books and lectures and debates also undertaken with his passionate belief, and so personal bias? Why bother saying anything otherwise? Clearly, Ehrman believes he is able to communicate particular ideas in a passionate way. So what evidence does he have that the New Testament are unable to do the same? Or is Ehrman the only one we can trust to passionately tell the truth? No, clearly, “all writers are biased, including Ehrman!”[11] To require neutrality is an unreasonable standard to apply to everyone.

It is unfair of Ehrman, and others, to make the starting assumption that the New Testament writers hold strong convictions, and this necessarily means they are also dishonest. The earliest faith in Jesus comes from eyewitnesses with a “vantage point,” but this fact does not “necessarily impugn the credibility of the … writers.”[12] To assume that it does leads to a bottomless regress of suspicion on all written communication, including Ehrman’s.

[1] Bart Ehrman, Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), 7.

[2] Andreas J. Kostenberger and Michael J. Kruger, The Heresy of Orthodoxy How Contemporary Culture’s Fascination with Diversity has Reshaped Our Understanding of Early Christianity, (Wheaton: Crossway, 2010),, 41-68, summarised.

[3] Kostenberger, 99.

[4] Ehrman, 180.

[5] 1 Corinthians 15:3-7 is an example of an early Christian summary.

[6] Philippians 2:9-11.

[7] Jonathan Morrow, Questioning the Bible 11 Major Challenges to the Bible’s Authority, (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2014), 76 – 91, summarised.

[8] Ehrman, 238.

[9] Morrow, 59 – 63, summarised.

[10] Ehrman, 103.

[11] Kostenberger, 73.

[12] Kostenberger, 74.

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Respond

I live in the UK, I'm married to Janet and I'm passionate about proposing a case for the historic Christian faith. You can find me on Twitter at @stuhgray.

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