Monday, July 17, 2006

Lost Christianities, Bart D. Ehrman

I'm really enjoying the work of Bart D. Ehrman. In the last few years I've read most of his books. He has a very straightforward writing style and a good way of presenting complicated things in an understandable manner. Of the bookshelves I have read about early Christianity, this is easily the most worthwhile book for anyone who just wants an orientation and an overview.

In very plain terms Ehrman lays out the story of the incredible variety of religious phenomena which flourished prior to the emergence of anything we recognize as Christianity, and he also has a sense of humor about it in pointing out that the proliferation which preceded the emergence of the Roman Church by now has led to a proliferation of sects and religions which have split off from that church again that is almost as rich and varied or more as it was back then. He constantly focuses the mind on the fact that there was no defined NT at first and there was no Christianity as we think of it today for the first few hundred years.

The great service this book renders is by showing the forest without getting lost in the trees of the many bizarre variations of those early years, many of which would seem very alien to us indeed because  they are interwoven with many religious forms and beliefs that are definitely from another time and another place, and can confuse us - a frequent problem with many books that seek to cover this material. And yet he quotes sufficient detail for the reader to come away with a feeling of a real taste of this incredible world that was the crucible from which Christianity emerged, and which in the process eliminated, suppressed, destroyed, or buried a huge amount of divergent beliefs that all at one time or another identified with the teachings of Jesus.

The one and only minus point about the book is that Ehrman is too much of a Christian to accord the gospel of Thomas the position it has in the eyes of more and more scholars, so rather than recognize that it represents a pre-Pauline tradition of fairly reliable sayings of Jesus, he dismisses it from serious consideration on grounds that I find to convoluted to even try to repeat. The interesting part here is that Ehrman describes in other places how his own voyage of discovery as a student and scholar has much loosened his own views of his religion from his early fundamentalist days, quite evidently the Thomas material represents too much of a challenge for him to embrace a positive view of it. I tend to look at this as a professional blind spot, and I just deal with it, just like you try to stay out of the blind spot of an 18-wheeler on the highway.

In the greater scheme of things I do find that the mischaracterazation of Thomas is a fatal flaw, since I find nothing more important than to realize that Jesus truly was the wisdom teacher we find in the Thomas Gospel, and not the idolized savior that Paul and those who followed made of him, who certainly had no interest at all in founding a new religion. But with that proviso the rest of the book provides enough to make it worthwhile, particularly if you don't expect to read much else on those early years, for there isn't much available that is this compact and informative. And with the Thomas Gospel and a few other sources, the reader is obviously at liberty to chart their own course.

Copyright, © 2006 Rogier F. van Vlissingen. All rights reserved.

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