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BookCover by Lost Christianities
Knowing More
Discovering Lost Christianities

One of a series of articles posted in 2004, also including
Exploring the Legacy of the Gnostics

The Mystery of Mary Magdalene

Women in American Religious History

By Marcia Ford


Bart D. Ehrman, chair of the religious studies department at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, is an authority on early Christian writings—and a scholar whose ability to convey his findings in a lively, engaging style has made him a popular author. His book, Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and Faiths We Never Knew, explores the richly varied ways in which early Christians expressed their faith and the writings that circulated freely among churches before the canon of Scripture was established. In an interview with contributing writer Marcia Ford, he discusses what his discoveries mean with regard to the faith to 21st century Christians.

Ford: Your latest book is titled Lost Christianities. Why "Christianities"—plural?

Ehrman: One of the theses of the book is that there are many kinds of early Christianity that were so different from one another that they could almost be seen to be different religions, and so scholars have begun to think of them not just as different kinds of Christianity but as different Christianities.

Ford: One of the biggest struggles in determining the canon of the New Testament was between the Gospel of John and the Gospel of Thomas. How would the way we express our faith be different had Thomas been chosen in place of John?

Ehrman: One of the most striking things about Thomas is that it maintains that a person will have eternal life ("will not taste death") by coming to understand the meaning of the secret teachings of Jesus—not by believing in Jesus' death and resurrection! If it, and not the other Gospels, had become Scripture, then Christianity would have been a religion focused exclusively on Jesus' teachings. And not just the ones that are easy to figure out, but the highly mysterious, even Gnostic ones, of the Gospel of Thomas.

Ford: You emphasize reading the canonical Gospels in light of the purpose for which they were written. Explain the difference between the writers' intentions and our 21st century understanding of "biographical" writings.

Ehrman: It's important to remember that these books are "Gospels." They are not "histories." I stress that because the word "Gospel" means "proclamation of good news." The authors were not interested in giving history lessons about objectively verifiable events in first century Palestine. They were interested in proclaiming their faith in Jesus as the one through whom God had brought salvation into the world. Anyone who insists that the Gospels be 100 percent historically accurate in presenting the words and deeds of Jesus has seriously misunderstood the intentions of their authors.

Ford: How has your study of the lost books impacted your own faith?

Ehrman: It has shown me that there were many kinds of belief in early Christianity, and many kinds of Scripture used to support these beliefs. This makes me less dogmatic in insisting that I've got the right understanding of things and that everyone else is wrong. Christianity from the beginning has embraced a rich diversity of faith and practice, and if we want to be true to the history of this faith, we too will be tolerant of diversity.

Ford: You encourage people to reflect on what was lost and what was gained by the decisions that were made to keep certain books out of the Bible. What has your own reflection on that issue taught you?

Ehrman: What was gained is obvious to most of us: a canon of Scripture, creeds recited by Christians still today, church structure and organization, and the like. All of these are obviously tremendously important. But what was lost was important as well—the rich diversity of early Christians who had a remarkably wide range of belief and practice which, when known about and understood, can broaden our own horizons and help us recognize the richness of the Christian tradition.

Ford: What should the church's approach be to the once-lost books? How can churches best use these books—or should they use them at all?

Ehrman: Of course these books will never become part of Scripture. But they can and should still be read by church people, to see what our ancestors in the faith believed and to give us a richer understanding of the nature of the Christian faith.

Ford: Is the canon of scripture on shaky ground now, with the new discoveries?

Ehrman: Not at all; none of these other books will ever be considered by the church at large as the "Bible."

Ford: What makes these lost books so appealing in the 21st century?

Ehrman: Many of the concerns of these books reflect concerns of people today: They often embrace an anti-materialistic stand which insists that meaning and value cannot be located in the "stuff" we try to accumulate to comfort ourselves in the midst of this uncertain world. They contain mystical reflections on the meaning of life and truth. They show us alternative ways of looking at the world and our place in it. And some of them are simply terrific reading.

Ford: How have the rediscovered books fueled the current fascination with mysticism? What can those who are drawn to mysticism learn from these books?

Ehrman: Many of these books were produced by Christian mystics who were less concerned with logical/propositional truths about God and more interested in spiritual experiences of the divine. Reading these books can help people today enjoy comparable experiences.

Ford: How can these lost books help—or hinder—people who are searching for a new way of being Christian? As you point out, Gnostics apparently worshiped right alongside Christians who held what was eventually determined to be the "orthodox" view. Is that same scenario possible today? Can neo-Gnostics comfortably worship in traditional churches?

Ehrman: Yes, I think some (but certainly not all!) churches are willing to embrace diverse points of view, beliefs, commitments, values, priorities. By reading these ancient texts we acquire new and compelling insights into our world, our relationship to God, our relationship with one another. We don't have to accept everything these texts say in order to learn from them. The kind of rich and deep understandings of the world that they present can inform our faith—without making us give up faith or even the traditional understandings of faith that many people still want to hold on to today.

Excerpt from Lost Christianities

Marcia Ford (www.marciaford.com), author of Memoir of a Misfit and 11 additional books, is a journalist who has covered religion and spirituality for 30 years. You may contact her at misfit@marciaford.com.

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