Ehrman sketches the diverse, variegated Christian groupings in the modern world, and in the first three centuries of the church’s story, summarizing varied practices and beliefs of those who called themselves Christians.
Most of these ancient forms of Christianity eventually came to be reformed or stamped out, and the sacred texts Christians used to support their religious perspectives have been destroyed or forgotten or lose. Ehrman sketches the wide range of writings of the early church—acts, gospels, epistles, gospels, apocalypses—and reflects on ‘what was both lose and gained when these books, and the Christian perspectives they represented, disappeared from sight’ (p 4). This process represented both gain and loss; what if some other form of Christianity had won the early struggle for dominance?
Ehrman identifies especially three groups: Jewish-Christian Ebionites, anti-Jewish Marcionites, gnostics. And standing over against each of these groups was the form of Christianity that endorsed the beliefs and practices that eventually dominated the religion toward the middle of the third century (he calls this expression of Christianity the ‘Proto-orthodox’); out of these conflicts the New Testament being. (Significantly, these confrontations were waged on largely literary grounds, thereby shaping the canonical process.)
Ehrman comments on the significance of this one form of Christianity over the others, and what was lost when so many forms of Christianity and the texts they espoused came to be lost to posterity—only to be found again in our time.
He stresses that we need to recognize that alternative understandings of Christianity from the past can be cherished today; they can provide insights about our world and G-d’s actions in that world. Our own religious histories are comprised not only of the beliefs and practices that remerged as victorious (proto-Orthodox), but also ‘those that were overcome, suppressed and eventually lost’ (p257).
A book that reminds us of the complex history of our religion.
Vern Ratzlaff is a pastor and professor of historical theology at Lutheran Theological Seminary in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada.