A well-crafted, scholarly tale of forgeries, burned books, doctrinal feuds, and other episodes in the making of the New Testament and the early Church.
Or, better, churches. If Christianity today has a bewildering number of faces, its early forms were even more various, writes Ehrman (Religious Studies/Univ. of North Carolina; Jesus, Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium, 1999). So, too, were its writings, including many that were suppressed, forgotten, cast aside, edited out, and otherwise not encouraged to survive alongside the canonical texts. Like many ancient writings, many are known only by mentions in other texts, and those little hints are fascinating: one epistle, attributed to Barnabas, might have laid the seeds for generations of anti-Semitic scripture, for here Paul’s follower “argues that Judaism is a false religion” and that “the Old Testament is a Christian book”; one wonderful, thoroughly non-canonical text, the so-called Infancy Gospel of Thomas, recounts the adventures of Jesus as a child, in which “the boy has a temper and is not to be crossed,” so much so that even his father of record, Joseph, tells Mary, “Do not let him go outside. Anyone who makes him angry dies”; another Gospel of Thomas attributes to Christ a Zen-like detachment and his assurance that “it is by learning the truth of this world and, especially, of one’s own divine character, that one can escape this bodily prison and return to the realm of light whence one came”—all very New Age. These and dozens of other texts were not incorporated into the canon, and sometimes for obvious reasons. Yet, Ehrman wonders, what would have happened had they been? As it is, a canonical tradition arose with a rigidly structured church over the centuries, one that presented a nearly unified body of creed and dogma—but that, in time, splintered into the multifaceted Christianity, or perhaps the many Christianities, that we know today.
Somewhat less fluent than Elaine Pagels’s like-minded Beyond Belief, but of considerable interest to students of early Christianity and its evolution. (N.B.: To be published simultaneously with the author’s Lost Scriptures: Books That Did Not Make it Into the New Testament; Oxford Univ.; 0-19-514182-2; 352 pp. $30.00.)