I wasn’t quite sure what to expect with this book. I had heard various things about Ehrman, though had not read anything of his before. Since he is a former student of Bruce Metzger, I expected extremely careful and thorough scholarship. At the same time, I had heard that his own beliefs had covered a gamut of viewpoints over the years from christian to atheist to agnostic, and that his writings were deeply critical and challenging to modern day christians. So, unsure of precisely what to expect, I opened his book with an open mind.
I have to start with a comment on Ehrman’s writing style and communication abilities: they are superb. He makes his case very cogently and acknowledges where there are doubts and possible objections to his propositions. Thoroughly honest in his approach, his model of writing is one that could well be followed by many others. Few theologians I have read have written with such clarity.
So what are these propositions? Well, he invents a new term for an old group known to any historian of church history. The early church leaders are now rebranded as “proto-orthodox.” That is, a group of people in the 2nd-4th centuries whose beliefs became what we now recognise as Christian orthodoxy. To summarise, imagine a young tree sapling. The traditional view of church history has been that “heretical” views and non-orthodox texts and opinions grew out of early christianity as a kind of ‘branch’ that either was cut-off or died anyway, leaving the main trunk intact. The revisionist viewpoint espoused by Ehrman was that there were lots of saplings growing in parallel, and that in the battle for survival, most of the saplings were killed and the victors, being the ones who wrote the history, distorted the true picture of what happened. Ehrman’s hypothesis, crudely outlined above, owes a great deal to Walter Bauer, who is given due recognition and acknowledgement in the text.
This certainly should raise a few eyebrows amongst historically-minded christians. For the first third of the book, which I thought were the most interesting, he looks at a few early non-canonical writings at the stories they contain as well as the stories behind their discovery and their authorship. Throughout this discourse, there is this thread of “proto-orthodox” though it seems entirely superfluous to the discussion, and no attempt is made to justify it. The central third of the book looks at the different bodies of beliefs, looking at the Ebionites, the Marcionites and there is a broad overview of the broad spectrum of belief which fell under the umbrella term of Gnosticism.
It is only in the last third of the book that Ehrman attempts to justify his proposition of the “proto-orthodox.” Crucial to this discussion is the authorship of the books of the New Testament. Here is where some of his arguments seem to lack coherency. For example, he states (quite correctly) that we have no surviving “original” documents but then goes on to argue that the “proto-orthodox” have altered the originals to suit their own doctrines. But if you do not know what the originals said, how can this be justified?
Likewise, I am well aware that there are controversies over the identity of the authors of the New Testament, but Ehrman does not really explore these. On a number of occasions, he states that the books of 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Titus and 2 Peter were probably forgeries, though no evidence to support this proposition is ever given. Instead we have reference to “most scholars” though these are not named or referenced. So, whilst being eager to get to grips with this more revisionist viewpoint, I was left frustrated that it was not well supported.
In conclusion, I do not find Ehrman’s revisionist definition of early christians as “proto-orthodox” to be convincing. It is well-argued, but the evidence presented just doesn’t seem to provide sufficient weight to back up his proposition. The conclusion of the book is also slightly odd. Ehrman recognises that there are some elements of heretical groups that are making a comeback in one guise or another, and he seems to suggest that a plurality of belief and the resurrection of some gonostic or Marcionite thinking is necessarily a good thing. But to me, applying Occam’s Razor, the simplest and most logical explanation behind the demise of the heretical elements looked at here were because they were late inventions that grew out a pre-existing orthodoxy that was already in place from the time of Acts. These later ideas lacked that most important ingredient: truth. While having different opinions is perfectly welcome, I do not agree with Ehrman that this in itself is a good thing if it introduces untruth. I have great respect for his writing and his research, and would recommend this book to anyone interested in this history of early christianity and the heretical beliefs that grew out of it. However, I would recommend it as part of a wider study, which I shall be doing myself. I have, as you may see, recently completed The New Testament And The People of God by N.T. Wright and on my table, waiting to be read this summer/autumn are Alister McGrath’s Heresy: A History of defending the truth and W.H.C. Frend’s The Early Church.