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.



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.


Barker, Glenn W., William L. Lane and J. Ramsay Michaels. The New Testament Speaks. San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1969.

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.

Irvin, Dale T. and Scott W. Sunquist. History of the World Christian Movement, Volume I: Earliest Christianity to 1453. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 2001.

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'.


Mark K. Sprengel said...

"someone who claims to be a follower of Christ"

Well, that tells me where a fundie atheist got his info from. He was using that very criteria to say that things such as the trinity do not determine Christianity. I tried to point out that while salvation may still be obtained, Christ certainly made enough claims that support using the trinity as a defining doctrine of orthodox Christianity.

Of course this kid once tried to argue that Paul/author of Hebrews was not talking about a literal Christ and when I noted Doherty's arguments had already been refuted, he claimed to have not heard of that author.

Anand said...

Wow! That was Awesome! I'm assuming he got some bonus points for citing his professor?

I especially enjoyed the following:

"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."

- exactly, there are no baselines for the difference

"Second, Ehrman’s terminology is ambiguous."

- ambiguity, if left unquestioned, covers up all the little holes in his arguments

"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)."

- He got down to the main reason why there is no argument. I find that most debates really come down to exposing the false definitions of key terms.

I was introduced to Dr. Ehrman's writings with his book "The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings" back in college, as an elective. ( I was studying computer engineering )Even as a babe, I was weary of Dr. Ehram's conclusions.

Great critique!

David Clark said...

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.

And it's good he took it out, it's circular reasoning. The NT authors are by definition orthodox, so they present an orthodox definition of Christian. Heretical Christians would appeal to other writings to define Christianity as well. Unfortunately for them, their stuff get left out of the NT. You can't simultaneously say that 1) We won't include your definition of Christian in the NT and then 2) Say that your definition of Christian is not correct because it's not in the NT.

Ben Witherington said...

Hi David: There is no circular reasoning when in fact the only documents we have from the first century which tell us the character of earliest Christianity are the ones in the NT today. The NT documents, and their statements about what amounts to Christological orthodoxy were not created in the 2nd, 3rd, or 4th centuries, unlike Gnostic or Marcionite or Ebionite etc. documents.

That definition of orthodoxy already existed in the first century itself, and was used as a basis to evaluate false teaching and false teachers. Whether you call it proto-orthodoxy, or something else, the fact is, there were boundaries of belief for Christians already in the first century A.D., and it did not ever include: 1) the dualism of Gnsotic theology; 2) pantheism as in the Gospel of Thomas; 3) universalism, and I could go on. The issue is not measuring history by the NT. The issue is evaluating first century Christianity on the basis of the only first century Christian documents we have. Notably, the only non-canonical ones from this period (1 Clement, the Didache, possibly the Epistle of Barnabas), do not present us with any Gnostic or Marcionite ideas either. Sorry, but your argument is the circular one.


LGM#3 said...

Hey David, I think Ben is right in his response. I have a few follow up points:

1) Do you believe in religious truth or are you a believer in religious subjectivism (regarding propositions concerning religion) and thus, by extension, a religious pluralist? If not, please explain your view.

2) What is your proposal for criteria for ascertaining whether a document should be canocized? Does the time when it was written have anything to do with it viability as canonical? Further, what do you think about a document like the *Secret Gospel of Mark*, which, in all probability, was a fabrication by Morton Smith from the 20th century?

In sum, my guess is that, as Ben has put it, your view reduces to circularity.

Lawrence M.

David Clark said...


I think it was a good thing that he took it out of his paper. In other words, I thought that it showed good judgement on his part. At no time did I share any of my theological views, nor did I say if I agree with the paper or not. I am familiar (though not expert) on the issues you bring up Dr. Witherington, I didn't want to debate them. I wasn't espousing religious pluralism, nor was I wanting to open a debate on what should be canonized. Fingers off the triggers fellas!

The point I was making was logical and not religious.

wabbott said...

Just a few comments on the paper:
1) I think the point about Ehrman being inconsistent in his use of Tertullian either uninformed or disingenuous.

Ehrman is perfectly justified in citing Tertullian's earlier works as indicative of proto-orthodox positions. Tertullian, in his earlier writings, gives us information about alternative Christian views. Only later in life did Tertullian adopt views that ran afoul of his orthodox (or proto-orthodox) brethren.

2. The argument about the distinction between "composite" and "forgery" lacks rigor and borders on being specious. What evidence is there that everyone in the early Christian communities "understood" that when 2 Peter was read to them in church that what they were "really" hearing was, not beautiful Greek that flowed from the lips of a Galilean fisherman, but a composite of some scribal scribbles from the mouth of Peter along with a chain of scribal "editing" adapted to the situation of the community?

You can use the word "composite" because it sounds nicer than "forgery", but that's just putting lipstick on a pig.

3. I'll agree with David that the "P.S." argument is, in fact, circular. There may have been "boundaries of belief" in the first century, but we can't know what they were in general. We can only know "the boundaries" that made it in to orthodox canon. It's difficult to prove a negative, so saying that the seeds "gnostic dualism" or "thomistic dualism" did not exist in some strains of first-century Christian thought seems to be stretching. They may not exist in the selected canon, but that's only pointing out the obvious.

LGM#3 said...

Hi David and Wabbott:

I hope that I can respond to both of you in brief. (Wabbott, interesting and informative post, btw, I'll on refer to point 3). I think David's original and second post reduces to a tautology rather than being circular. So there is an issue of circularity here, however; it depends on how we use the term and what the issue is when one is trying to determine, logically, whether an argument is circular. If I'm understanding, David's view reduces to the following: Proto-Orthodox writings were Proto-Orthodox, which, obviously, is just a definition. His objection, then, wasn't really logical in my book. Contemporary philsophical logic (and I studied with Kwasi Wiredu) looks a lot more like mathematical tables than what Davids wrote.

Hence, Wabbott, I don't think David was right in pointing out that the "P.S." argument was circular. It may have been only definitionally informative, rather than being an argument, but my view is that it was an argument: referring to the question of 1st views on Christ, resurrection, dualism, etc. Of course, we may be saying the same thing, just with different terms :)

I think the distinction between "gnostic" and "thomistic" dualism to be genuine. The former deals with categories more related to ontological evil/good, while the latter deals more with anthropological issues relating the ontology of humans. I think there are, at least, implicit notions of "Thomistic dualism" in the NT canon, and no hint of "Gnostic dualism" in them. It seems *probable* to me that gnostic dualism developed in the second century, much later than the *essential* Christian theological doctrines.

Best wishes,

Lawrence Miley

wabbott said...

Your clarifications with regard to circularity vs. tautology are well-taken. To me, the main issue boils down to this:
1. The books in the current canon were selected by people. There were disagreements on what should be in and what should not be in, but eventually a particular opinion on the correct list of books won the day and this view became 'orthodox'.

2. In the first century, we have little idea of the number of diverse opinions that existed concerning the meaning of Jesus. We simply don't know all of what was written or said about Jesus; only those things that were selected. So making an a priori claim that opinion X about Jesus did not exist before the 2nd or 3rd century simply because the first writing we know about that contains the opinion is from the 2nd or 3rd century is going beyond the evidence.

Short form: because an opinion on the meaning of Jesus didn't make it in to the New Testament as we have it is not evidence that the opinion did not exist at the time the New Testament books were written.

It is an all-to-human tendency to exclude opinions that are counter to our own (especially were we to believe that people holding those opinions might be dragging our brethren to hell by propagating them!)


Ben Witherington said...

Hi Friends: There has certainly been no personal attacks on Bart Ehrman on this blog post or any other. Its a matter of facts, issues, and arguments not ad hominem attacks at all. And the facts are these: 1) it is entirely an argument from silence to say "we do not know what else was believed in the first century beyond the written texts we have". This is an argument based on no evidence, and no evidence gives you a basis for no assumptions or conclusions; 2) what written evidence we do have from the first century (not merely from later centuries) is that Christianity, like its mother religion Judaism had some standards of orthodoxy and orthopraxy from the outset. These became more refined and defined over time, but clearly enough in earliest Christianity a Christian was by definition someone who accepted the Jewish ideas about one God, and about resurrection and applied these ideas to Jesus-- he was viewed as the Jewish messiah, and indeed as the divine Son of God who came, died and rose again for the salvation of the Jew first and also the Gentile. This is what our earliest, middle and latest witnesses from the NT period all tell us. In other words, Bart Ehrman's definition of who a Christian was will not do if the question is what did the earliest Christians say in their documents about this. This is simply a historical matter of fact, not a theological debate. One can accept or reject such theological views, but it is not an option to ignore, deny, or distort what the earliest historical evidence says, and then rewrite history on the basis of one's new definitions. That would be an example of revisionist historiography.



LGM#3 said...

Dear Wayne,

I have no idea what you mean by "going beyond the evidence." Please site in an example in a contemporary subject that is also practical. For instance, does Jon Gruden, or has he ever, gone beyond the evidence while calling a play while coaching for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Oakland Raider, Philadelphia Eagles, Green Bay Packers? How about when he played QB at Dayton? Is it possible that he did so?

Your position_s_ seem so skeptical but come across as so from those I know in the intelligensia. So, in short, all I can do is continue to live, watch football, and hope that Jon doesn't go beyond the evidence, assuming he has, anymore.


Ben, your so correct in your post; moreover, on this topic, your statements are so obvious that I'm curious as to how there could even be such a scholarly discussion concerning beliefs in the 1st century.

Maybe I'll ask Dr. Ehrman to clarify his response to Richard Swinburne if I ever get a chance concerning [on] the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus. Apparently, Ehrman thought Swinburne's arguments to be laugable, at least at a respected institution (olo). . . Please remember, Dr. Witherington: the joke is sometimes on 'i'.

wabbott said...

he was viewed as the Jewish messiah, and indeed as the divine Son of God who came, died and rose again for the salvation of the Jew first and also the Gentile. This is what our earliest, middle and latest witnesses from the NT period all tell us. In other words, Bart Ehrman's definition of who a Christian was will not do if the question is what did the earliest Christians say in their documents about this.
Dr. Witherington,
From my readings, even the writings from the New Testament don't seem to agree on all of these points. For instance, the author dubbed "Luke" does not appear to see Jesus death and resurrection as having any atoning significance. In Luke and Acts (which comprise a large portion of the New Testament) the author seems to view Jesus death and resurrection as simply a vindication of the man Jesus by God. I don't find in his writings the notion that Jesus "died for our sins".

As for Jesus being the divine Son of God, if this was the common understanding of first century Christians and was a settled issue within the church, why would the followers of Athanasius find it necessary to murder the followers of Arius some three centuries later over this point?

Again referring to the author of Luke-Acts, the speech attributed to Peter in Acts seems to make it clear that in "Luke's" mind, Jesus was a man who was "made" (Acts 2:36) Lord and Christ by God, not a divine being who existed co-eternally with God as Athanasius insisted.


wabbott said...

I have no idea what you mean by "going beyond the evidence."


To be clearer, I think a historically implausible "Golden Age of the Apostles" is being presented by Ehrman's detractors. It's understandable because every society produces a mythology of its beginnings. Some quick examples for study: (1) The Roman myths about Remus and Romulus and the founding of their empire, (2) The Nazi myths about the ascent of the Aryan race (3) The Israelite myths about their beginnings. ("Israelites" are in reality Canaanites. Reference: Mark S. Smith, William Dever, Israel Finkelstein)

The idea that "there was a golden apostolic age in the first century in which from the resurrection of Jesus until 100 AD all Christians agreed on the important points until some upstarts with crazy ideas about Jesus starting appearing 'ex nihilo' in the second century after the apostles were dead and gone" has taken hold of modern Christians with a fervor that would stun Seneca.

The evidence given is that the books selected by the Pauline branch of Christianity don't say anything about these other ideas, _therefore_ these other ideas must have just sprouted up out of nothing in the 2nd and 3rd centuries. They couldn't have possibly have roots in the first century, because Paul and the anonymous authors selected for inclusion in the orthodox texts don't say anything about them.

Just take a moment, take a breath and ask yourself: from what we know about the history of the transmission of ideas and culture, does this scenario seem remotely plausible?


Ben Witherington said...

Hi Wayne:

Nobody is presenting a golden age of the apostles idea. Anyone who has actually read 1 Corinthians or Acts knows there were issues. As for Luke, he does not emphasize the atonement as much as other writers but its definitely in both of his volumes-- in Luke's account of the last supper, and in Acts 20, the Miletus speech ('the blood of his own'), not to mention all the times he uses the phrase 'release/forgiveness for sins and applies it even to Israel. So while he does not emphasize the atonement as much, he knows very well the importance of the idea. You need to realize he is operating as an ancient Hellenistic historian, not as a biographer, and so it is to be expected he would focus more on just the history and less on the theology.


Ben Witherington said...

p.S. Wayne, I would recommend you read my volume New Testament History and compare it to your other readings. The Pauline branch of Christianity did not differ much on theology with the non-Pauline branch from what we can tell. The issues he had with the Jerusalem church had mainly to do with orthopraxy, namely on what basis could Gentiles and Jews fellowship and eat together.



wabbott said...

Thank you, Dr. Witherington. I will certainly pick up a copy of your New Testament History to balance my reading.

About Acts 20, I believe there are textual difficulties with the passage that leave the original reading in doubt; I do appreciate you sharing your views on Luke's soteriology; you have given me food for thought for which I am always grateful.

Take care,

wabbott said...

Kyle writes:
What's wrong with God using a man who hardened his own heart against him as a public judgment in order to deliver Israel and demonstrate Himself to the nations as a saving God? I see nothing arbitrary about that.

I think it's very important to deal with the actual text as it reads and not how we would like it to read. Exodus 7:3 clearly says:
But I [Yahweh] will harden Pharaoh's heart, and though I multiply my signs and wonders in the land of Egypt, Pharaoh will not listen to you

Many other passages including Exodus 14:8 affirm this:
And the YHWH hardened the heart of Pharaoh king of Egypt and he pursued the people of Israel as they went forth defiantly.

So there is no doubt in the text that Yahweh is responsible for the hardening of Pharoah's heart. He is the agent of the hardening.

Many a fanciful commentary and sermon on Exodus has tried to make this passage say something else, but it says what it says: YHWH hardened the heart of Pharoah so that everyone would know who YHWH was. Pharoah was 'elected' for this purpose.

LGM#3 said...

I don't know how a thread on the works of Bart Ehrman came to discuss Yahweh vs. Pharoah. But I'd agree that, yes, Yahweh hardened the heart of a despot ruler, bent on oppression.

I seem no problem of any kind with that. Apparently, thus, YHWH does what he wants.

wabbott said...

Thank you for catching this. This was intended for the other thread on 'Election'. I'll try to repost it there.

And thanks for your support.