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Desert Solitaire
by Edward Abbey

Lost Christianities

Lost Christianites: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew
Bart D. Ehrman

Lost Christianities
The take-away lesson of Lost Christianities is that the Western Christianity as we know it today is just one of may possible Christianities that were in circulation in the second and third centuries. The dogmatic tendency is to tell the story as one of truth and heresy, but prior to one version of the religion gaining a dogmatic standing (in large part because of state endorsement by the Roman emperor), there was no dogma, and hence there was no heresy. There were only competing versions of a proto-religion all claiming to have the most authoritative set of scriptures and the best interpretation of those scriptures. Only once one version became the “winner” could its competitors be labeled heretics.
HellAnd these are no small matters of theology that differentiate the competitors. For example, how many gods are there? The Western dogma is of course that there is only one God, there has always been only one God, He is eternal, all-powerful, etc., and Christianity has always believed it to be so. But to say that is a-historical at best and dishonest at worst. The number of gods was a pressing question for early Christians. It wasn’t until the Middle Ages that the idea of a tidy three-in-one trinity would be articulated. Were Jesus and God the same thing or not? Were the Hebrew god and the Christian god the same, or were they competitors? When god says in Eden that Adam has “become as one of us”, to whom is he speaking? When god says to Moses that “you shall have no other gods before me,” doesn’t that admit that there are other gods? When Jesus asks on the cross, “God, why have you forsaken/deserted me?” to whom was he speaking? With 1700 years of dogma behind us, these may seem like silly and/or heretical questions now, but they were far from it in the first 300 years following the death of the historical Jesus, and the scriptures that remain are the ones that supported the emergent dogma. Once the dogma formed, the now-heretical scriptures and theological tracts were removed from circulation and usually destroyed.
But one of the things that Ehrman does well is not to chastise the surviving dogma for its selectivity. He does a nice job of demonstrating why it became the surviving dogma. To take an obvious example, a Christianity that required circumcision of all adult males who wished to join the church just wasn’t going to have a strong appeal to the Gentile world. Paul’s success was largely because he was willing to extend the offer of salvation to non-Jews, without requiring that they adhere to Judaic law. However, a total abandonment of Judaic history wasn’t really a contender, either, because of the reverence that the Roman world held for antiquity. A brand-new religion didn’t have any roots, and therefore didn’t have any credibility. So proto-Christianity kept the Judaic scriptures and grafted new scriptures on to it that said that converts didn’t need to keep to the Judaic law. Constantine was won over by a religion that could claim roots in the ancient world while not requiring him to go under the knife or eat kosher. With Constantine’s conversion and the establishment of the state-sponsored church in Rome, the Western dogma was born.
One of the things any dogma has to do in order to survive is to obliterate its own past. We see it in religion, we see it in science, and we see it in politics. We’re at war with Oceania — we’ve always been at war with Oceania. That’s not necessarily a bad thing — it’s just a feature of dogma, and adherence to dogma is useful (and perhaps necessary) if we’re to function in the world. We can’t question every belief we hold every hour of the day. But questioning some of those fundamental beliefs some of the time and examining their historical formation is a tremendously beneficial exercise, even if we don’t end up changing them. Lost Christianities does a wonderful job of just that.