PJEFC LIBRARY MONTHLY BOOK REVIEW – JUNE 2020
Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew
By Bart D. Erhman
294 pages, Oxford University Press
Goodreads rating: 4.04 out of 5
This is book is an advanced study in the historical criticism of the Bible. It raises uncomfortable but valid questions on the history of our scripture and faith, so this is not a book for beginners nor the young in faith.
When I was a kid, I had a picture Bible depicting the scriptures in a cool, comic format. At the end of the hefty book, there was a section on ‘How We Got Our Bible’ telling, in a few pages, how our Bible came together, and a little bit on how it survived the two millennia (give and take a few hundred years). Given what I know now, that account was a rather simplistic telling, it was, after all, meant for children. But if you want to delve further into the history of our holy scriptures, then you should be prepared for more than a few surprises along the way, that will challenge your system of beliefs and what you think you already know.
The history of the Bible isn’t the primary focus of this book by the pre-eminent biblical scholar, Bart D. Erhman. The ‘how we got our scripture’ portion is only the first part of the book. In the subsequent chapters, he talks about the battle the proto-orthodox (those who fought for the canonical beliefs that we have today) versus the heretics (those who argued for different versions and lost) and how the battle was won. Those who lost – the Jewish Ebionites, the anti-Jewish Marcionites, the various Gnostic sects, and so many more are called the lost Christianities. Their teachings and theology are known only through a few scarce mentions in surviving texts (mainly the writings of church fathers), and also through recent archaeological discoveries like the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Nag Hammadi library. Undoubtedly, Erhman believes there are innumerable other sects and Christianities that we do not know of, lost forever in the sands of the Holy land.
Erhman gives a few examples of pseudepigraphal books, and how we know they were not inspired by God. They are either forgeries, falsely attributed to one of the apostles, or just plainly written with a different agenda in mind. Some of these are very interesting and entertaining reads, for what they are worth. In the final section, Erhman gives a short treatise on what our religion would have looked like today if a different path was taken by our early church fathers, though he qualified that this would have been highly unlikely given what we know today.
The value of this book does not lie in reading about the obscure books like the Shepherd of Hermas or the Gospel of Judas (to name just two such books that have been in the media spotlight recently), but in knowing how and why we hold the 66 books of the Bible as God-inspired. In this, Erhman writes a concise chapter – why since the time of the Athanasius and Origen these books were accepted by most of the churches, and why this was so. I was rather doubtful going into this book, what with the writer’s reputation going into the mix, but I left with a stronger faith about the validity and primacy of the Bible, which is the written word of God.