Review of Ehrman's Lost Christianities

To understand the value (or lack thereof) of this book, and how it needs to be reviewed, we first need to determine its purpose. Is the purpose a) to inform its readers of early challenges to orthodox Christianity (what he calls "proto-orthodox") with a focus on their beliefs and the techniques used by the orthodox to win, b) to inform its readers of the early challenges to orthodox Christianity as well as a similarly full and fair description of orthodox Christianity or c) to critique the proto-orthodox and by extension modern orthodoxy. If the goal was "b" then the book was not very successful as it was definitely focused on the non-proto-orthodox. If it was "c" then the book was successful to only a certain degree and also unfair as it failed to represent the proto-orthodox as fully as their opponents.

But even though I may be wrong in this, I am going to review it by assuming "a", that the intent was not to attack proto-orthodoxy or to represent it fairly but to focus on the "losers", those whose ideas were stamped out by the proto-orthodox. Ehrman has made it quite clear in his other writings and appearances that there is no love between him and modern orthodox Christianity and is himself an agnostic, so the intent is probably more than just informative. But in this review I will focus more on how this book succeeds in achieving its stated purpose. And, along those lines, lets go ahead and quote from the introduction to get to that purpose in Ehrman’s own words:

What could be more diverse than this variegated phenomenon, Christianity in the modern world? In fact, there may be an answer: Christianity in the ancient world. As historians have come to realize, during the first three Christian centuries, the practices and beliefs found among people who called themselves Christian were so varied that the differences between Roman Catholics, Primitive Baptists, and Seventh-Day Adventists pale by comparison.

Most of these ancient forms of Christianity are unknown to people in the world today, since they eventually came to be reformed or stamped out. As a result, the sacred texts that some ancient Christians used to support their religious perspectives came to be proscribed, destroyed, or forgotten - in one way or another lost. Many of these texts claimed to be written by Jesus’ closest followers. Opponents of these texts claimed they had been forged.

This book is about these texts and the lost forms of Christianity they tried to authorize. (pp. 2-3)

The Good

There are a number of things that are quite good about this book. Here is a short list.

First, it is written in an entertaining way. Subjects like Secret Mark and the gospel of Thomas are interesting, so they ought to be presented in an interesting way. This is the first book I have read in total by Ehrman, and I do like his writing style. It is a great pleasure to read. Popularizers of academic topics need this ability, and Ehrman has it better than most.

Second, not only can he entertain, he can explain well. Many do not like his conclusions (I do not in a number of cases), but it is difficult to doubt his ability to bring the material down to a popular level and express what it is all about.

Third, his picking of discussion topics was good. There is a great deal of interesting material in early Christian history, and he picks pretty well.

Fourth, keeping in mind the discussion on focus mentioned above, in most cases the material was handled pretty well. I would have hoped for more discussion of the beliefs of gnosticism (you don’t get how really weird they were until you do), but you have to cut the material short somewhere. The canon discussion, for example, was also excellent, with the only exception being no discussion to speak of regarding the role of oral tradition in the early church.

The Bad

Other than more info on gnosticism and a weakness in the discussion of canon mentioned above, here are some weaknesses in the book.

First, I did not care for the discussion on textual criticism. Though the discussion on changes to the tradition was interesting and is certainly true to an extent, the reader is left with the impression that this had major effects on the textual tradition. But as far as I can see, that is not the case. If this were happening to a significant degree then it would seriously undermine our ability to reconstruct a good text. Along with this he mentions the number of variants in our New Testament Greek manuscripts, presumably for sensationalist effect, and that they outnumber the number of words in the text itself. Despite the fact that he mentions "the single most common mistake in our manuscripts involve ‘orthography,’ significant for little more than showing that scribes in antiquity could spell no better than most of us can today" (pg. 220), the reader is still left with the impression that the manuscripts are so full of variants that they are completely unreliable. But that is not true; there is a lot we do not know and we cannot prove on text critical grounds what the text was in the first century, but we can go pretty confidently back to the second and third centuries and from there see virtually no evidence for anything else ever existing (which does not prove that the New Testament was not significantly different in the first century; it just shows that we have no evidence for it, which is significant), with the possible exception parts of Luke and Acts. I find this kind of presentation in poor taste and not very responsible from someone who should know better.

Second, and picking up from the last note in the previous paragraph, I think the work does not adequately and responsibly point out that this book is a one-sided presentation. If I am wrong in my thoughts about about the purpose of the book and he is trying to give an accurate account for all sides then he has failed seriously, but since I am giving him the benefit of the doubt on this one, it is important for him to spell out clearly that there is quite a bit more to learn before an adequate picture of the early church is constructed and someone ought not to view this as the last (popular level) word on the matter.

Third, the book gives you the impression that active suppression was the main cause for much of the missing documents. Sure he is right in pointing out that this is partially due to the efforts of the proto-orthodox. But anyone who says that is the main cause is either on some exotic drug or has forgotten that most of ancient literature is missing. Where are the writings of Papias? Where are the writings of Irenaeus? We only have portions of his Against Heresies in Greek. Our translations today are mostly from the existing Latin manuscripts, last I heard. Also, we only have one copy of the Didache, a pretty important early Christian text. Were they suppressed? Many books disappear from history not because of suppression but because of lack of interest.

The Real Question He Does Not Answer

I understand that this was apparently not his stated purpose, but there is a question that comes out quite clearly that this book is only partly useful in answering: Should the proto-orthodox have won? That is the question unless you just want to look at all this as a bunch of historical data. As it was noted above, Ehrman’s personal views certainly would not cause him to naturally lean toward a strong liking for the proto-orthodox, though the closest he ever gets to this question is the occassional historical musing about what would have happened if some other movement would have won. But then again, if he would have answered, I would have likely not agreed anyway, so I cannot see much of an actual benefit in him trying.

A Pleasant Fiction?

Do I live a pleasant fiction in giving Ehrman the benefit of the doubt in the review regarding his motives? I will let the reader decide.

Closing Thoughts

Despite its good qualities, I would have difficulty recommending the book to most people. Those who are up on their early Christian history (which is very fiew) would find it interesting and would certainly derive benefit from it, so I would recommend it for them. But I would not for the average lay-person. For example, this review is quote overly-optimistic about all she learned. It does take some previous knowledge to balance out some of the presentations in the book. This book is hardly a replacement for some decent study in early Christian history. I read several reviews that stated that the views of the proto-orthodox were the beliefs that rose in the Roman Catholic Church, for example. While that is obviously true, you get the impression that those readers think that these debates ended in the third or fourth century then "poof!", you have the Roman Catholic Church. Seriously, there is a lot more to early Christian history than that.

In some cases the reviews went the other way, via the route of vehement attack. Note this review. You can call Ehrman a number of things, but "naive" is not a word I would use. Many will reject the work because it attacks their rather tidy view of early Christian history, which is unfortunate. Ehrman has a lot of valuable things to say, even if the presentation is one-sided.

There is at least one good review out there, however, and I recommend reading it if you are going to read the book. It is by Michael Kaler.

So what about an overall rating? For its recommended audience (from my perspective), I have to give it a "4" out of "5". For everyone else I have to give it a "2" because of the problems its focus apparently causes. So, if you are up on your early Christian history, give it a read. If not, well, you have other reading to do!


Patrick Gardella 2008-09-06 08:24:32

You wrote, Though the discussion on changes to the tradition was interesting and is certainly true to an extent, the reader is left with the impression that this had major effects on the textual tradition. But as far as I can see, that is not the case.

In fact, that is exactly what he believes. In two other books, he has spelled out that belief. In Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why (HarperCollins, 2005), he makes the case, in popular writing style, that the NT is unreliable because of the changes that took place as a result of the struggles of proto-orthodoxy. In his The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture: The Effect of Early Christological Controversies on the Text of the New Testament (OUP, 1996) he presents a picture less controversial, where the struggles of the early church did leave a mark on the NT, but did not essentially change the doctrines. He doesn’t come out and say that quite that clearly.

If you are interested in this topic, you can buy the podcast of the Greer Heard Forum, New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, April 2008. There Ehrman, Dan Wallace, David Parker, Michael Holmes, and others debated the reliability of the NT that was brought into question as a result of these books by Ehrman.

As for me, I agree with you. There are minor effects on the text of some manuscripts, but in general, we can recover the text of the earliest manuscripts.


Eric 2008-09-06 09:53:31

Thanks for dropping by Patrick. I have heard this about Ehrman a few times, and it is a shame. I own both his Orthodox Corruption and his Misquoting Jesus, but have not gotten around to them. I know his Orthodox Corruption is worth reading. In your opinion, is the other?

I have thought about buying that podcast. I have heard all about the debate from Dan but still want to listen to the thing myself.