Thursday, October 30, 2003

HERE'S A BOSTON GLOBE REVIEW by Scott Bernard Nelson of two new books by Bart D. Ehrman on early Christian noncanonical literature and traditions (via Bible and Interpretation News). Excerpts:

In "Lost Scriptures," Ehrman provides English translations -- many of them his own -- of 47 nonbiblical texts written by early Christians and later unearthed by theologians, historians, and archeologists. In each case, he provides a short explanation of when and where the writing was found and how he believes it compares and contrasts with the New Testament. Virtually all were, at various times by various Christians, considered sacred.

It can be a fascinating exercise to, say, read the "Apocalypse of Peter," considered canonical by a number of early churches and thought to be the inspiration for Dante Alighieri's "The Divine Comedy," alongside the biblical revelation of John. Or to puzzle your way through the "Gospel of Thomas," discovered in an Egyptian grave in 1945 and attributed to Didymus Judas Thomas, who some believe was Christ's brother. The text claims to record 114 direct quotes from Jesus, and some scholars have sparked controversy by saying those might be closer to what Christ actually taught than anything in the New Testament.

Perhaps most interesting, Ehrman includes five lists from early Christian writers discussing which books should and should not be counted as scripture. The variety of suggestions shows that the specifics of what we know today as the New Testament were in flux well into the fourth century. The first author to claim that the 27 books of the New Testament were, in fact, the one and true scripture was the bishop of Alexandria in AD 367 -- almost 3 1/2 centuries after Christ's crucifixion.


But who made the decisions about which books to include in the canon and which to exclude? And why? The Apostles themselves -- and anyone who knew anyone who knew the Apostles -- were long gone by the fourth century.

An analysis of these questions fills Ehrman's companion volume, "Lost Christianities." In it, he presents the major strains of early Christianity and explains how each feuded bitterly with the others. He also discusses how and why the group representing the closest thing to modern-day Christianity ultimately won out, leading to a statement of beliefs at the First Ecumenical Council in AD 325, which dictated that followers were to believe that there is one God, that he created the world, that Jesus his son is both human and divine, and that Jesus' death brought the world salvation, fulfilling Old Testament prophecies.

Read it all.

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