Wednesday, August 06, 2008
Lost and Found-- a Student critique of Ehrman's 'Lost Christianities'
The following is a seminar paper presented by one of my doctoral students which I thought was a useful critique of Bart Ehrman's popular work on 'Lost Christianities.
ALTERNATIVE VIEWS OF CANON AND CULTURE:
AN ANALYSIS OF EHRMAN’S LOST CHRISTIANITIES
SUBMITTED TO DRS. WARREN SMITH AND BEN WITHERINGTON
IN PARTIAL FULFILLMENT OF
NT805—THE EARLY CHURCH FATHERS
AND THE FORMATION OF THE CANON
JULY 26, 2008
Had Jesus of Nazareth left an autobiographical account of his life, teachings, and ministry, there would be perhaps no need for the Gospel accounts and other writings of the NT as we have them today. In the absence thereof stands instead an ongoing debate over the authenticity and accuracy of alternative (and oftentimes competing) accounts of the Jesus Event. This begs a foundational question: are all accounts valid? Further, what constitutes the basis for such determinations? An initial foray into the arena of canon formation and criteria reveals a lack of precise consensus not only on what the criteria for canonization were and are, but also as to the method of preserving the history of that canon.
In Lost Christianities, Bart Ehrman sets out to examine the NT documents themselves, and more specifically, to bring to light some of the various documents that failed to reach canonical status. Suggesting that there may in fact be value in resurrecting these ancient writings, he embarks on a journey that examines the trail of remains of written sources from—along with the extinct manifestations of—early Christianity in an effort to demonstrate their role in preserving the Christian heritage and its diverse history of theology and practice. He argues that the ongoing commitment to a closed NT canon of twenty-seven documents is in reality not only a product of the hegemony of the orthodox tradition emerging from the fourth century, but perhaps also an incomplete and inadequate account of early Christianity and the diversity of forms representing it. Recent discoveries (such as the Nag Hammadi documents) create opportunities, he maintains, for understanding ancient and contemporary Christianity in new ways.
Ehrman’s approach is built around the following methodology. The first part examines a number of pseudepigraphical writings which “tell us about the various forms of Christian faith and practice in the second and third centuries” (ix). By appealing to a broader range of writings, argues Ehrman, a richer and more diverse composite sketch of early Christianity can be discerned. The second part looks at a number of rival social groups standing in contrast to a particular form of Christianity that eventually carried the day. These groups represent various points on a theological spectrum, and generate the tensions Christianity experienced with Judaism on one hand, and pagan philosophy on the other. The third part addresses the conflicts that ensued between the various groups and belief sets, illustrating “how one early Christian group established itself as dominant in the religion, determining for ages to come what Christians would believe, practice, and read as sacred Scripture” (ix). The conclusion of the book offers Ehrman’s reflections on the status quo of the NT canon alongside non-canonical documents.
Embedded in his methodology is a three-fold argument advanced along the following lines. First, he makes a literary argument addressing pseudonymity and its role in canon formation. Second, he develops an historical argument that indicates how one particular form of Christianity emerged as dominant. Third, he packages his overall presentation within an ethical argument, addressing the need for religious tolerance amid diversity. The flow of these arguments is to a large degree linear: the literary argument is a subset within the historical argument, which in turn is a subset of the ethical argument. The aim of this paper is to assess and analyze these arguments as they impinge upon alternative views of Christianity, their sacred texts, and the cultures created by those texts.
1: The Literary Argument. Ehrman begins his discussion by highlighting the significance of alternative early Christian communities and documents, noting the impact of recent textual discoveries like those from Nag Hammadi. He highlights several texts, but none is featured as prominently as the Coptic Gospel of Thomas. About this particular text Ehrman says:
[It is a] remarkable document, an ancient forgery condemned as heretical by early proto-orthodox Christians and lost or destroyed, until the remarkable discovery of the Gnostic library in Upper Egypt, near Nag Hammadi, preserved now for us as the secret sayings of Jesus, which, if rightly understood, can bring eternal life. (65)
In so saying, Ehrman displays a sympathetic affinity for the document, especially as it sits in the shadow of the larger orthodox structure. Calling Thomas a “forgery,” Ehrman is really highlighting the pseudepigraphical character of the work, which, by so doing, heightens the interest of and rapport with his primary audience: the non-academic community.
Clearly acknowledging the pseudonymity of the document, Ehrman delivers a pre-emptive strike to his detractors by candidly accepting the chief criticism lodged against the Gospel of Thomas: namely, that it is not Thomas’ writing. Nevertheless, he counters, such should not be a reason for overlooking this document given the apparent “forgeries” currently located within the NT canon. Specifically, he states that the “author of 2 Peter [for example] explicitly claims to be Simon Peter, the disciple of Jesus, who beheld the transfiguration (1:16-18)” (11). In the following sentence, he then adds, “But critical scholars are virtually unanimous that it was not written by him.” Thus, he insists, “forgery” (as a literary judgment) “by rights should cover some of the New Testament books as well, including the letter of 2 Peter” (11).
It should be noted that Ehrman does not use the term “forgery” in the typical pejorative sense to which his readership may be accustomed, but invokes it as a means of avoiding the technical complexity and nuance of “pseudepigrapha,” which, he maintains, “is typically taken to refer only to the noncanonical books that claimed, and sometimes received, scriptural standing...” (11, emphasis his). He does, however, differentiate between acceptable and non-acceptable uses of the literary tactic. Decidedly unaccepted usages of “forgery” would be those which,
are as artificial as one can imagine and are useful chiefly in revealing the gullibility even of modern readers. They tend to be the stuff of supermarket tabloids and are valuable in showing that there are still forgers in our midst who have no qualms about fabricating complete lies, even about their own religion, or order to make a splash and possibly get across their point of view. Or, at least, to earn some royalties. (68)
The question then becomes: if some of the NT documents are “forgeries,” why is the Gospel of Thomas not afforded the same authority as, say, 2 Peter? The answer, he says, lies in an altered perspective on history.
2: The Historical Argument. The establishment of the NT in the fourth century as an exclusive canon of twenty-seven books, he argues, is a result of the hegemony of the prevailing and dominant Christian culture (which he brands as both “orthodoxy” and the “winners”). Further, Christianity was a richly diverse phenomenon up through the second and third centuries (2), more diverse than even the various extant forms of Christianity observable today (1). As a result of the establishment of orthodoxy, certain texts—and their cultures—were rejected (“lost”) in favor of a more unified presentation of the Jesus Event. The “winners” then justified their position by re-writing history:
[T]his victorious party rewrote the history of the controversy, making it appear that there had not been much of a conflict at all, claiming that its own views had always been those of the majority of Christians at all times, back to the time of Jesus and his apostles, that its perspective, in effect, had always been ‘orthodox’…and that its opponents in the conflict, with their other scriptural texts, had always represented small splinter groups invested in deceiving people into ‘heresy’. (4)
As a result, the prevailing culture effectively neutralized diverse perspectives and their sacred texts.
In characterizing this history-revising enterprise, Ehrman adopts the Religionsgeshichte previously developed by Walter Bauer in Orthodoxy and Heresy (172-76). Arguing from a novel position against the traditional view of the history of early Christianity, Bauer proposed that the prevailing majority opinion of scholarship accepting the Eusebian account of church history was in error. Rather than assume that all heresies were variations or corruptions of an original and singularly orthodox view (as it was promulgated by a cadre of highly unified apostolic witnesses), Bauer asserted that early Christianity was instead constituted of a number of diverse perspectives on the Jesus Event, and that it was as a result of the Romanization of Christianity in the fourth century that one form of Christianity gained dominance. Thus, two different perspectives on the history of the canon are offered: that of Eusebius (Figure 2, p. 15 of this paper), and that of Bauer (Figure 3, p. 15).
Although his assessment of the advent of orthodox belief nearly replicates that of Bauer, Ehrman does diverge from Bauer in two important respects. First, he is far less explicit about the effect of Romanization on the development of orthodoxy than is Bauer. Whereas Bauer points to defining moments such as Constantine’s conversion, the adoption of Christianity as the imperial religion, and the Councils of Nicaea and Constantinople, for example, Ehrman tends to focus primarily on texts. One of those texts is Eusebius’ Church History, about which Ehrman says,
Writing a century and a half after the Muratorian canon…, Eusebius shows how debates over canon were still very much alive. At one point of his ten-volume work, Eusebius states his intention is “to summarize the writings of the New Testament” (Church History 3.25.1). To do so, he sets forth four categories of books. The first he calls “acknowledged” books, meaning those books accepted by all sides within the orthodox tradition…. His second category involves books that are “disputed,” meaning writings that may well be considered canonical but whose status is debated…. [He] then names books he considers “spurious”…. Finally, Eusebius provides a list of books that are heretical. (244)
Another text is “the famous Athanasian letter of 367 CE” in which Athanasius “came up with a definitive list of books to be included in the canon that matched our list today” (245). Ehrman goes on to say that,
[A] significant moment occurred in the history of the formation of the new Testament canon in the late fourth century. It was in the year 367 CE that the powerful bishop of Alexandria, Athanasius, wrote a letter to the churches throughout Egypt under his jurisdiction, in which he laid out in strict terms the contours of the canon of Scripture. This was the first time anyone of record had indicated that the twenty-seven books that we now have in our New Testament canon, and only those twenty-seven books, should be considered as Scripture. Moreover, Athanasius insisted that other ‘heretical’ books not be read. (54)
Even with the mention of these two texts, however, Ehrman is less than clear on what constitutes the defining moment for the triumph of orthodoxy over what would become the noncanonical texts.
A second difference between Bauer’s view of history and Ehrman’s is academic. Whereas Bauer characterizes his approach as being objectively historical, Ehrman demonstrates a multi-disciplinary approach that varies from literary to theological to ethical. It is with respect to the latter that his final argument comes into view.
3: The Ethical Argument. Traditional views of the criteria for NT canonization reflect a certain degree of variance, but in large measure maintain consistency. For example, the criteria according to J.T. Barrera involve “apostolic origin of the writing in questions, its traditional use [“catholicity”] in the liturgy from time immemorial and the orthodox nature of the doctrine expounded.” L.M. McDonald agrees with the foregoing formulation, but adds to it “antiquity” (meaning, “those [books] that came from the apostolic era”). F.F. Bruce follows McDonald’s core formulation, as does D.A. DeSilva.
Ehrman offers a different perspective, one which can actually be viewed in two ways. It is here that his argument becomes an ethical enterprise as he distinguishes between his view of the actual process of canonization (a descriptive undertaking), and what he proposes as a preferable set of criteria (a prescriptive undertaking). Concerning the actual formation of the NT canon, he avoids endorsing the traditional view of canon criteria, suggesting instead that Eusebius, Athanasius and others among the camp of the “winners” gained their victory (marked by the formation of the canon) through the following: a claim to ancient roots of Judaism; a rejection of contemporary Jewish practices; the primacy of a church hierarchy; and, a well-established network of communication (179-80). These, then, became the circumstantial factors for the canonization of the NT, as opposed to the more traditional theological factors.
Ehrman, if read closely, actually suggests an alternative method for evaluating texts with respect to their canonical status. The centerpiece to that method would seem to be motive. Ehrman argues on behalf of preserving alternative forms of Christianity, citing the need to be “tolerant” of diverse perspectives. However, he himself is quick to discredit certain texts:
Strange Gospels appear regularly, if you know where to look for them. Often these record incidents from the ‘lost years’ of Jesus, for example, accounts of Jesus as a child or a young man prior to his public ministry, a genre that goes all the way back to the second century. These accounts sometimes describe Jesus’ trips to India to learn the wisdom of the Brahmins (how else would he be so wise?) or his exploits in the wilderness, joining up with Jewish monks to learn the ways of holiness. (68, emphasis his)
For Ehrman, it would seem that the invalidity of these “strange Gospels” is self-evident. What remains to be seen, however, is what constitutes his normative device in differentiating the “strange” from the acceptable. It would appear to be an issue of motive:
Those captivated with this fascination [with alternative understandings of Christianity from the past] commonly feel a sense of loss upon realizing just how many perspectives once endorsed by well-meaning, intelligent, and sincere believers came to be abandoned, destroyed, and forgotten—as were the texts that these believers produced, read, and revered.” (257, emphasis mine)
Ehrman thus rejects “strange Gospels” on the basis of motive: they are designed to deceive or to exploit. If one reads him correctly, then, it would appear that an acceptable, or canon-worthy, text would be one which evinces an authorial intent characterized as being “well-meaning, intelligent, and sincere.” Leaving aside the issue of authorial intent as a potentially enormous issue for explication, Ehrman’s test of canonicity, when properly recognized, may be rather problematic.
Responses. At a number of points, Ehrman’s discussion generates questions. Some of these, within the space remaining, will be addressed according to the order of his presentation. First, with regard to his literary argument, Ehrman’s claim that 2 Peter is a “forgery” may be rather overstated. Consider the following observations by Ben Witherington,
[It] is rather amazing that many contemporary scholars just assume that pseudepigrapha was an accepted literary genre and practice that raised no ethical concerns for ancient Christians. This is not so. But it is equally surprising that many scholars today do not seem to realize there are other options besides declaring this document to be a pseudepigraphon or a letter composed by Peter himself. I attribute this to the fact that most New Testament scholars do not know sapiential literature as well as they should, and they especially seem unaware of the scribal practices found in early Judaism and early Christianity, where scribes would not merely copy but also edit together collections of valuable sacred traditions, just as we see happening in 2 Peter. These are not exercises in pure creativity or in pseudonymity. They are ways of preserving sources and traditions from the past and applying them in later situations, with the editors neither claiming authorship nor trying to deceive anyone about he sort or identity of their sources.
2 Peter becomes understood in this sense as a composite document, not a “forgery”.
With regard to his historical argument, several things can be said. First, Ehrman assigns the culpability for the loss of various early Christianities to the orthodox tradition. However, and at the same time, he recognizes that some of these movements failed on their own merit. For example, he cites the Montanists as being a “lost” Christianity, but acknowledges their failure to enlist popular support due to their miscalculations of the eschaton. About this group he says, “There is nothing like a radical disconfirmaton to make your group a laughing stock” (150). And about the Ebionites he notes that their tenacious commitment to preserve Jewish customs, especially that of circumcision, lacked popular appeal. He compares early responses to Ebionite and Marcionite Christianity: “[P]otential converts from among the pagans were not flocking to the Ebionite form of religion, which involved restricting activities on Saturday, giving up pork and other popular foods, and, for the men, undergoing surgery to remove the foreskin of their penises” (103). It can rather clearly be seen, then, that the disappearance of certain strains of Christianity was more a result of internal weaknesses than external pressures.
Second, Ehrman’s terminology is ambiguous. In his invocation of terms such as orthodoxy, proto-orthodoxy, and heresy, it is often unclear whether he is using the terms from his own perspective or for that perspective claimed by the participating parties. Further, he often vacillates between describing these terms in relation to individuals, to groups, and to beliefs. The net result is a presentation that lacks focus and precision, and as a result, fails to advance his argument to the degree that he might have. An example is his treatment of Tertullian, who—being referenced by Ehrman perhaps more so than any other patristic figure—is shown as being both “proto-orthodox” and heretical. The sheer volume of citations of Tertullian indicates that Ehrman is setting Tertullian up as an exemplar for proto-orthodoxy. How, then, can Ehrman reconcile his identification of Tertullian as a precursor to orthodoxy when Tertullian was actually branded by the dominant orthodox group as a heretic? This begs the question: when dealing with Tertullian, are we to understand him as an individual, as a member of a body of believers, or as a figurehead espousing a certain set of beliefs? The same issue can be observed, in fact, with respect to the term Christianity. Is [a] “lost” Christianity really [a] Christianity at all?
Third, contemporary Christianity, given its global manifestations and using the same refractive prism that Ehrman uses in describing early Christianity, can hardly be said to be less diverse than that of the earliest centuries of the church. His is an assertion devoid of any data. When the multitude of variables are considered in the present context, it can hardly be accepted that Christianity—now firmly established on six of the seven continents, after nearly two millennia—is in any way more homogenous than that of the first three centuries. In addition, and pursuant to his historical construct in which all competing forms of Christianity were neutralized by the prevailing orthodox party, he claims that “virtually all forms of modern Christianity, whether they acknowledge it or not, go back to one form of Christianity that emerged as victorious from the conflicts of the second and third centuries” (4, emphasis his). This is a surprising statement for two reasons. On one hand, it seems inconsistent with the premise of his primary argument that he would be able to claim this about modern forms of Christianity contra members of those forms themselves. The reader might note the implications of Ehrman’s verbiage: “whether they acknowledge it or not”.
On the other hand, he fails to recognize movements such as those that led to the Armenian Christian church: a community of ancient Christians who, thanks to their geographic separation from the Mediterranean and a steady northeasterly expansion along the Silk Road, remained beyond the Roman imperial embrace of Christianity. Further, one wonders where Ehrman assigns other groups along the spectrum of orthodox Christianity. Can the Mormon Church claim early Christian origins in light of Joseph Smith’s textual discovery? Where might Ehrman place the Jehovah’s Witnesses on this spectrum? Does the ongoing presence of Messianic-Jewish movements not indicate an ongoing persistence of Ebionite Christianity? And in the same vein, might not modern the New Age movement simply be yet another embodiment of Gnostic beliefs, beliefs which, contrary to his historical analysis, continue to thrive?
With respect to his ethical argument, and perhaps most significantly, Ehrman champions the cause of tolerance and diversity with respect to texts and communities, yet he overlooks the embracing and inclusive features of the NT canon itself. The very structure of the NT reflects a desire to draw into communion a very diverse constituency: the champions of pro-Semitic, Ebionite Christianity (and its texts reflecting an ongoing commitment to the Jewish underpinnings of Christianity, such as the Gospels, James, Hebrews, etc.), and advocates of a distinctively Marcionic, “New Testament” Christianity (primarily committed to the Pauline corpus). F.F. Bruce observes that,
The gospel collection was authoritative because it preserved the words of Jesus, than whom the church knew no higher authority. The Pauline collection was authoritative because it preserved the teaching of one whose authority as the apostle of Jesus Christ to the Gentiles as acknowledged (except by those who refused to recognize his commission) as second only to the Lord’s. The bringing together of these two collections into something approximating the New testament as we know it was facilitated by another document which linked the one to the other. This document was the Acts of the Apostles, which had been severed from its natural companion, the Gospel of Luke, when that gospel was incorporated in the fourfold collection. Acts had thereafter to play a part of its own, and an important part it proved to be. ‘A canon which comprised only the four gospels and the Pauline epistles’, said Harnack, ‘would have been at best an edifice of two wings without the central structure, and therefore incomplete and uninhabitable.’
Thus, the NT canon represents a body of literature strategically developed and arranged so as to accommodate the widest readership.
Conclusion. In summary, it can be observed that: 1) Ehrman’s employment of the term “forgery” to describe pseudepigraphical NT works perhaps strikes more of an affective chord than a literary one; 2) his conclusions with respect to the history of the formation of the canon seem somewhat lacking with regard to concrete historical events and realities; and, 3) his primary ethical aim of advancing “tolerance” as a means of preserving “diversity” is contradictory, both in light of his own positions with respect to various movements and positions, and also in terms of his lack of acknowledgement of the inclusive and diverse materials of the NT itself.
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Barrera, Julio Trebolle. The Jewish Bible and the Christian Bible: An Introduction to the History of the Bible, trans. Wilfred G.E. Watson. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1998.
Bauer, Walter. Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity, Robert A. Kraft and Gerhard Krodel, eds. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1971.
Bruce, F.F. The Canon of Scripture. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1988.
DeSilva, David A. An Introduction to the New Testament: Contexts, Methods, and Ministry Formation. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2004.
Ehrman, Bart D. Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.
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Johnson, Luke Timothy. The Writings of the New Testament: An Interpretation, rev. ed. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1999.
McDonald, Lee Martin. The Biblical Canon: Its Origin, Transmission, and Authority. Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 1995.
Witherington III, Ben. , Letters and Homilies for Hellenized Christians, Vol. II: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary on 1-2 Peter. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2008.
Yates, Timothy. The Expansion of Christianity. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2004.
P.S. In an earlier draft of this paper, Johnson also rightly made the point that Ehrman defines the term Christian far too broadly, in fact so broadly that the NT writers would surely have repudiated the definition almost immediately. When you define Christian as "someone who claims to be a follower of Christ", you do not reckon with the various definitions implicit and explicit in the NT documents themselves where we hear things like "a Christian is a person who confesses that the crucified Jesus is the risen Lord" (Paul), or "no one who denies Christ come in the flesh" can claim to be his follower (1 John), or even one who denies there will be a second coming is a true follower of Christ (Jude and 2 Peter). In other words, there was a standard of Christological orthodoxy already in the first century A.D. and none of the Gnostic groups or the author of the Gospel of Thomas or Marcion would have been identified as Christians by the apostles and their co-workers. This being the case, Ehrman's book should have been entitled 'Seven Little Heresies and how They Grew' not 'Lost Christianities'.