home > archive > 2003 > this article
A history of lost Christianities
By Steven Martinovich
The greatest weapon in the Christian arsenal has long been its set of beliefs laid out in the Bible. Long before their weapons of words were regularly turned against the outside world, Christians engaged in battle amongst themselves to determine the future of their faith. For centuries after the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, Christians battled with each other in an effort to establish what each thought was the true message of their savior.
Bart D. Ehrman explores the early centuries of Christianity in Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scriptures and the Faiths We Never Knew, a marvelous introduction to the field of early Christian theology. Although Ehrman's effort is very far from the first look at the struggles that eventually gave us the New Testament it's nonetheless an enjoyable look at those tumultuous centuries.
Ehrman begins Lost Christianities with a look at four of the many religious texts that did not manage to make it into the Bible. Scholars today -- and those in the second and third centuries -- considered them to be forgeries designed to promote a specific view of Christ that the many factions of Christianity were advancing. The Gospel of Peter, notable for its anti-Jewish line, promoted the notion that Christ wasn't a human being and therefore could not suffer on the cross. The Acts of Paul and Thecla demanded an ascetic life while the Gospel of Thomas was a collection of supposed sayings of Christ. By far the most controversial was the so-called Secret Gospel of Mark, a text which none to subtly tells the homoerotic story of Jesus Christ and a man he raised from the dead.
From there Ehrman explores the factions that used these and other texts. The Ebionites believed that Christ was fully human and that Christianity was a part of Judaism, which demanded believers to follow the religious laws of the Jews. The Marcionites, who produced the first Christian canon of scripture, were their polar opposites and argued that the God of Jesus Christ was not the same God as that of the Jews. The ascetic Gnostics considered themselves the elite of Christianity, thanks in part to a complex belief system, and believed that humanity was trapped on Earth until they gained the requisite spiritual knowledge to return to God.
They were all opposed by a group which Ehrman refers to as the proto-Orthodox, a loose collection of Christians who more or less are responsible for the Christianity we are familiar with today. They condemned the other factions of Christianity as heretics and engaged in literary warfare -- which included forging scriptures to support their own position -- to eliminate them as a threat to the message they believed Christ had delivered to humanity. Theirs was a faith that relied on order that was supported by a rigid church structure. They rejected Judaism but accepted the Old Testament because of its prophecy of the arrival of the Messiah. Eventually the proto-Orthodox began purging itself of ideas it considered heretical.
As Ehrman illustrates, each group relied on scripture it accepted as the truth to defend itself and go on the attack against other groups it considered to be heretical. With such importance placed on literature it's perhaps not surprising that forgeries were produced for centuries after Christ's death and resurrection. Even the most conservative scholars today admit that much of the New Testament itself is forged; the authors we traditionally tie to each of the 27 books of the Bible were not in fact their authors. Even when the canon we are familiar with today was finally established, constant revision took place to ensure that no passages supported the views of heretics.
Christianity is a varied group of denominations today but Lost Christianities shows us that there were an incredible number of variations in the years after the crucifixion. Practices and beliefs that we would consider bizarre today were accepted by large numbers of Christians and jostled against other versions of Christianity for supremacy. Although it was unlikely that any of the non-proto-Orthodox versions of Christianity would have achieved the same level of success, for reasons that Ehrman explains, he does take the time to consider what the world would have been like had a different strain of Christianity triumphed. The world today likely would have been a very different place.
Ehrman takes care never to promote any agenda he may have outside of simply laying out a complex world of competing Christian ideologies and how they related to each other and it works both as a history and an exploration how the faith of a billion people evolved to what it is today. Lost Christianities may cover the same ground that other earlier efforts have but it stands on its own as an informative and highly pleasurable read.
Steven Martinovich is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Ontario.
Buy Lost Christianities The Battles for Scriptures and the Faiths
We Never Knew at Amazon.com for
only $21 (30% off)
Get weekly updates about new issues of ESR!
© 1996-2017, Enter Stage Right and/or its creators. All rights reserved.