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Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew    by Bart D. Ehrman order for
Lost Christianities
by Bart D. Ehrman
Order:  USA  Can
Oxford University, 2003 (2003)

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* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

In Lost Christianities, Bart D. Erhman gives us a cogent and objective analysis of the implications of a long-running battle of, and for, minds during the evolution of the orthodox version of Christianity.

Though the details (at a level that will satisfy academics) are dry at times, there is exciting stuff in here - ancient fraud and forgeries, libels and accusations of licentiousness, even of cannibalism. There are also some great lines. Incensed by a Gnostic infusion of philosophy into Christianity, Tertullian demands 'What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?'. The Coptic Apocalypse of Peter (part of the 1945 discoveries at Nag Hammadi), denigrates the leaders of the Christian churches of the time as 'dry canals'. And the Muratorian canon rejects heresies since 'it is not fitting that gall be mixed with honey.'

There's a summary at the beginning of the book of the 'Major Christian Apocrypha' discussed, and it's a handy timeline to guide you through the details. The most entertaining seemed to me to be the '(Infancy) Gospel of Thomas' - which describes a very irascible child Jesus - and the 'Acts of Thecla', recounting miraculous adventures of Paul's famous female convert Thecla, a 'cult hero' in early Christendom.

I found the information on 'Gnostics' ('the ones who know') fascinating. Their interpretation of scripture was apparently figurative (often obtuse), and hence rejected by the orthodoxy that eventually developed, which leaned towards the literal. Having just read Saira Shah's Storyteller's Daughter, the parallel struck me between this early Christian dichotomy of views and that which exists in Islam to this day, between a tolerant interpretation and one which insists on the literal letter of Islamic law.

There's an intriguing discussion of whether or not Morton Smith forged the 'Secret Gospel of Mark', and an explanation of the views of various lost Christianities (ultimately considered heresies) -groups like the Jewish-Christian Ebionites and their opposites, the Marcionites, who rejected the Jewish scriptures, customs and their God. And Erhman tackles the question of 'how did the one form of Christianity, the form at the root of all major branches of the Christian church down to the present day, attain a level of dominance?'

He does an excellent job of covering this literary battle for supremacy, in which rival groups traced apostolic connections back in time, and fought for their particular interpretations of sacred texts. But what I appreciated most in the book were the author's speculations towards the end of how the world would have evolved if a different interpretation of Christianity had been adopted - covering issues that range from tolerance of religious diversity, to the unfolding of western civilization, even to the way in which we read the newspaper.

The complexity of this book is not for everyone, but if you have a passion for the subject of early Christian faiths, it's a must read.

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