Lost Christianities: The Battle for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew

by Bart D. Ehrman

Hardcover, 2003




New York : Oxford University Press, 2003.


The early Christian Church was a chaos of contending beliefs. Some groups of Christians claimed that there was not one God but two or twelve or thirty. Some believed that the world had not been created by God but by a lesser, ignorant deity. Certain sects maintained that Jesus was human butnot divine, while others said he was divine but not human.In Lost Christianities, Bart D. Ehrman offers a fascinating look at these early forms of Christianity and shows how they came to be suppressed, reformed, or forgotten. All of these groups insisted that they upheld the teachings of Jesus and his apostles, and they all possessed writings that bore outtheir claims, books reputedly produced by Jesus's own followers. Modern archaeological work has recovered a number of key texts, and as Ehrman shows, these spectacular discoveries reveal religious diversity that says much about the ways in which history gets written by the winners. Ehrman'sdiscussion ranges from considerations of various "lost scriptures"--including forged gospels supposedly written by Simon Peter, Jesus's closest disciple, and Judas Thomas, Jesus's alleged twin brother--to the disparate beliefs of such groups as the Jewish-Christian Ebionites, the anti-JewishMarcionites, and various "Gnostic" sects. Ehrman examines in depth the battles that raged between "proto-orthodox Christians"--those who eventually compiled the canonical books of the New Testament and standardized Christian belief--and the groups they denounced as heretics and ultimately overcame.Scrupulously researched and lucidly written, Lost Christianities is an eye-opening account of politics, power, and the clash of ideas among Christians in the decades before one group came to see its views prevail.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member stacyinthecity
Growing up in a Christian family, the Bible just was. It existed, it was the word of God. But how did that come to be? The first time I learned about the authorship of the Bible was interestingly enough, in my Catholic High School's Freshman Religious Studies class. I learned about the source material for the Gospels (Q) and other interesting tidbits. Still, it wasn't discussed much, or in great detail.

As it turns out, there were many forms of early Christianity. Their teachings varied widely from each other. Roman Catholics and Baptists are practically identical compared with some competing Christian churches in the ancient world. This book discusses those versions of Christianity, where they came from, what they believed, what religious texts they used, and ultimately, why they died out by about the 4th Century.

The author is a well regarded professor of Religious Studies who focuses on early Christianity, so his angle is purely academic and not religious. This may offend people who didn't realize that the church did not spring fully formed when Christ ascended. This book also discuss theological questions, nor does it claim which version of early Christianity was the One True Church.

I found the book fascinating and the writing clear. I just had one minor annoyance - it would have been helpful if he used footnotes instead of end notes.
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LibraryThing member reannon
Ehrman in this book writes about the broad variety of Christian viewpoints in the early centuries after the life of Jesus and the apostles. It was not until the 4th century that the books of the new Testament were finalized, and it was around the same time that what Ehrman calls the proto-orthodox views of Christian belief overcame the other views to become the orthodox Christian standard views. As the other sects of early Christianity lost out, their writings were, for the most part, lost. Over time, some of these writings have been found again, most notably with the Nag Hammadi discovery in the 1940s.

Thus a new vision of early Christianity is required, one in which there were many competing doctrines, with proponents of each having lively debates with each other, and in which each church might have its own set of works it considered sacred Scripture.

There's some unexpected humor in the work. Look at page 146-7 to find out what one early author thought was the relationship between weasels and oral sex.,

Ehrman is a decent writer, which is necessary, as he is a scholar writing about scholarly topics, which can tend to get rather dry. Yet the topic is quite fascinating, to see a new picture of a particular period that had so much influence on our world today, unfold. Recommended.
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LibraryThing member GeekGoddess
Ehrman, who frequently appears on History Channel and the science stations. This book is a discussion of some of the different churches and beliefs of Christians during the first century. A main point of this history is that the present form of Christianity, that we tend to think of as the 'right' or orthodox viewpoint, is merely the one that won the debates. The winners get to write history, while the losers have their books destroyed, lost, or declared heretical. The religion could have just as easily turned out to be Peter's Jewish form rather than Paul's Gentile Christianity; Gnostic; Ebonite, or any of the other 40 or so verifiable church beliefs during the first two hundred years.… (more)
LibraryThing member jontseng
The majority of the book is a compelling mixture of hardcore hermeneutics and engaging exposition. Spoiled somewhat by the author's conspiracy theories about the spread of "orthadox Christianity". Occam's Razor may have been a simpler alternative.
LibraryThing member Arctic-Stranger
If you are looking for proof that Dan Brown got it right in the Da Vinci Code, this is NOT the book for you. But if you are looking for a serious, but readable tome on the varieties of Christianity in the years before the Council of Nicea, you could not do much better than Ehrman. This is a compliment to his [Lost Scriptures], which a collection of early Christian "Bibles." Ehrman gives a cogent, historically accurate account of the different early Christian traditions; how people took the story of the life, ministry and death of Jesus, and used it as a touchstone for belief.… (more)
LibraryThing member dickmanikowski
Not only am I not a biblical scholar, I never read the Bible. But I still was fascinated by this story of how historical evidence points to how very early Christian churches initially diverged along varying interpretations of underlying doctrines before the movement that the author calls 'proto-orthodoxy' gained enough authority to set what we now see as the Christian agenda. Much of this story is framed in how the 27 scriptures that now comprise the New Testament were selected from a much larger pool of writings, and how even some of them were altered from their original form to resolve doctrinal disputes.
It's not always easy reading, and I know I skimmed through portions of it. But this book was definitely worth starting and finishing.
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LibraryThing member ncnsstnt
Excellent overview of early Christianity, before it was decided which 27 books would form the New Testament canon that we have today. Ehrman is very readable and does a great job of explaining what happened as well as offering brilliant insights as to why.
LibraryThing member mldavis2
Dr. Ehrman is an historian, not a theologian, so he looks at ancient texts with the eye of an historian, factually, empirically. This may dismay biblical literalists who begin with a rock solid belief and then learn that the scriptures upon which they rely so heavily are the result of centuries of struggle, unknown authorship, forgeries and alterations by the hands through which they passed before they were found. Many interpretations and views were dominant at one time or another before being distilled into the current canon used by most Christian churches today. The present proliferation of Christian denominations shows that this interpretive struggle is still with us today, although somewhat more homogenized.

Dr. Ehrman has been called a heretic by a few fundamentalists, but he does not advance any religious view or belief. He simply presents the historical evidence of what we do know from study of ancient and recent finds (Dead Sea scrolls, Nag Hammadi, etc.) in comparison with the currently accepted canon and raises the questions of authenticity.

So read it at your own risk. If you want to know the historical origins of the bible with an open mind, this is a stunning introduction to the beginnings. If you are offended that anyone would consider a challenge to the bible on factual rather than spiritual grounds, you may be more comfortable keeping your blinders on.
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LibraryThing member T_K_Elliott
I can unequivocally recommend this book for anyone who wants to learn about the early history of Christianity and How It Got The Way It Is.

Ehrman writes from the perspective of a historian, not a theologian, so he is not trying to push one particular view as "true" - his intent is to discuss what all these disparate people, who all called themselves Christians, actually believed. What we have nowadays, he makes plain, is the result of a sort of last-man-standing war of attrition.

There's probably something in this for anyone who hasn't already made a reasonably in-depth study of the period, and plenty for anyone who hasn't. I admit that the parade of different groups (Marcionites, Ebionites, etc) makes one feel a bit as though one's head has turned into Euston Station, with all these people milling around, pushing and shoving, but Ehrman's writing style makes this more than tolerable.

Bart Ehrman has the gift of writing in a very engaging way in a subject that might, in other hands, be dry. Reading this, I had the feeling that I was sitting in a warm study with him, with a log fire and probably also crumpets, listening to him chatting about the first four centuries or so of Christianity (yes, while my head felt like Euston Station). This is a book you can curl up with for relaxation, not something you have to tackle with trepidation.
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LibraryThing member DubiousDisciple
One of Ehrman’s best, I think. Thought-provoking and speculative, yet grounded, this book explores alternative early Christianities before “Proto-Orthodox Christianity” won the battle and shoved the rest aside. You’ll read about the Ebionites, the Marcionites, Gnosticism, and the evolving orthodox church. Ehrman puts all on even ground so that each has an equal voice, because recent discoveries such as the Dead Sea Scrolls have proven just how diverse Christian practices really were back in the first and second centuries.

Ehrman doesn’t mince words when he discusses the “forgeries” both in and out of the Bible, so do be aware the topic gets plenty of ink. This does lead to some interesting conversation, though. The Secret Gospel of Mark, the Pastoral letters in Paul’s name, and the Gospel of Thomas come under scrutiny. Small wonder that in the battle for supremacy between the various Christian branches, the claim for apostolic succession played a central role. Quickly in orthodox church tradition, our 27 books of the New Testament are all tied directly to the apostles or companions, while other Christian writings are denounced as inauthentic.

So what are the repercussions of the victory of proto-orthodox Christianity? How has our world been shaped by this? Ehrman feels the significance of this victory can scarcely be overstated. Christianity would surely have no doctrine of Christ as both fully divine and human, and of course no Trinitarian doctrine. But the effects would have been felt far further than Christian debates, and the book’s final chapter left me with much to think about.

Definitely recommended.

Oxford University Press, © 2003, 294 pages

ISBN: 0-19-514183-0
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LibraryThing member bicyclewriter
Ehrman is very good at speaking in plain and understandable language about topics that folks often try and make complex and hard to understand. Folks who want no part of asking hard questions about the modern western orthodoxy will not like this or others of his books. You can see this plainly in the reviews and comments folks leave regarding his books.

However, if you're someone who asks the hard questions and you're willing to evolve and grow your faith as you learn more, then you'll very likely enjoy his books.

In this one, he focuses on the different early forms that Christianity took, prior to the Romanization of the religion when it was melded with official Roman state authority in the 4th century.
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LibraryThing member davidpwithun
It's hard to say whether I actually liked this book or not. I will say that it was exactly what I expected from Dr. Ehrman, being familiar with his writing. As always, his facts are flawless, his conclusions and hypemanship are worthless. He's a great read on early Christianity if you can skim past the hype and BS and get to the meat. I'd love to see him write an unbiased, nonjudgmental, truly scholarly work. I haven't seen one from him yet.… (more)
LibraryThing member ablueidol
I have been interested for years in "lost voices". The cliché is that history is written by the winners so what were the strands of Christian practice and thought that were removed by the mainstream church that emerged from the post roman empire world? The source of my interest is a)what if or counterfactual history b)critical view of the authoritarian nature of mainstream Christianity c) rejection of the theological position of most Conservative Christians d)Wanting to remove from Christianity its historical and cultural baggage so that it can have an adult conversation with the 21st Century.

This book walks you through the different strands and gives you their views rather then the edited views of the victors. It gives an honest view of why in some cases they remained marginal and what was lost at some of the suppressions. Jesus clearly was a Jew and not here to found the Christian/catholic church this was a consequence of many religious-political decisions and circumstances of the first 400 years of the church.

However, I also read the book to give me a view of what the mainstream church was like to balance the views of the modern Gnostics who are critical of the "Literalists" as they see the church as now. As a Quaker I am drawn to this pre Nicene /Constantine world and the Gnostics and gospels such as Thomas. But the current criticism whilst important forgets that the spiritual groups of all the main monotheistic groups remain non mass movements or monastery based as say in Buddhism. We must not assume that the literalist mass movements are about fooling the people most of the time. Each religious impulse has its hope and despair side including the non-literalists. The issue is how to hold these impulses in a single community so that they enrich each other. They reflect the whole us!
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LibraryThing member stillatim
When you search for this book on Goodreads, the first two results are Dickens' 'A Christmas Carol,' and Milton's 'Paradise Lost.' Not sure what to make of that.

As for Ehrman's book, I do know what to make of it. Ehrman is a solid scholar who seems to have decided that he needs that cash money baby, so he writes more or less respectable books in such a way that they sound like a Hollywood movie. So nobody argues with a person when they disagree with each other, instead, they "set out" to destroy/annihilate/banish etc etc... them. Arguments are not conducted with any sense of rational or historical validity, they are more or less wars in which discussants have an arsenal or weapons and use tactics rather than syllogisms. In the grand tradition of late twentieth century academia, Ehrman assumes that the other is good, no matter its constituent parts, and that what wins out is bad, no matter its (comparative) rational or historical accuracy. Therefore, the only way the winners can become winners is if they *force* the others to accept their viewpoint. I don't doubt that force was involved in the winners becoming winners, but it certainly wasn't the only thing involved, which this book may suggest.

So, if you're aware of all this, and can translate out of academese on the fly, LC will be very interesting. If not you may be very puzzled, or even disgusted by the way he casts this 'battle,' or his preference for the more ludicrous early Christian doctrines. In either case, it's a quick, easy read, and parts one (on the discovery of non-canonical early christian texts) and two (on the varieties of early christian thought and practice) are well worth your attention. Only those Christians whose knowledge of Christianity is bounded by Billy Graham in the past and the Apocalypse in the future will be shocked to learn in part three that people argue about religious texts. But those people don't read anything anyway, so it's really a superfluous hundred pages.
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LibraryThing member ritaer
Ehrman ably describes the theological issues of early Christianity--should Christians continue to follow Jewish law? should they reject Jewish law as no longer relevant? Was Jesus a human chosen by God for his mission, was he God incarnate only pretending to occupy a real body or was he both man and God? Which writings were genuine expressions of true doctrine, which were scripture for some groups and not for others? Thes might seem to be dry questions of interest only to theologians and historians, but Ehrman points out that our modern world would be quite different if those he terms the proto-orthodox had not prevailed and created the Christianity that we know today. A Christianity that insisted on converts becoming Jews, including circumcision and the observance of Jewish dietary law would have been unlikely to convert a Roman emperor and become the religion of the empire, for example. He doesn't address this particular issue, but anyone familiar with Christian apocalyptic sects would wonder what a Christianity in which the Book of Revelations had been excluded from the canon would be like.… (more)



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