This bookstudy will begin July 25, 2021 only on Zoom.
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What if Marcion's canon—which consisted only of Luke's Gospel and Paul's letters, entirely omitting the Old Testament—had become Christianity's canon? What if the Ebionites—who believed Jesus was completely human and not divine—had ruled the day as the Orthodox Christian party? What if various early Christian writings, such as the Gospel of Thomas or the Secret Gospel of Mark, had been allowed into the canonical New Testament? Bart Ehrman is a professor of religion at UNC Chapel Hill and offers answers to these and other questions in this book, which rehearses the now-familiar story of the tremendous diversity of early Christianity and its eventual suppression by a powerful "proto-orthodox" faction. The proto-orthodox Christians won out over many other groups, and bequeathed to us the four Gospels, a church hierarchy, a set of practices and beliefs, and doctrines such as the Trinity. Ehrman eloquently characterizes some of the movements and Scriptures that were lost, such as the Ebionites and the Secret Gospel of Mark, as he outlines the many strands of Christianity that competed for attention in the second and third centuries. He issues an important reminder that there was no such thing as a monolithic Christian orthodoxy before the fourth century.
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Week 12 Questions
(From Last Week)
8 – If Eusebius rejected the Gospel of Thomas, why do you think the Jesus Seminar decided to include it? 244
1 – How important do yo think it was that Christianity was a religion of Belief (or Trust) rather than a religion of some kind of action (in order to win)?
2 – How can (or do) you determine that people are Christian today?
3 – What features would you include in a religion you wished to “sell” to an emperor in the year 300 CE?
4 – Is intolerance built-in to Christianity? How/ Why?
5 – What do you think is the best solution to the dilemma of “Everyone who has thought about religion wants their own” VS the religious community of one-ness?
6 – Is there one “lost” Christian belief that you most wish had not been lost?
Responses to Week 12 Questions
Chapter 12: “Winners, Losers, and the Question of Tolerance” (pp.247-257)
1. How important do you think it was that Christianity was a religion of Belief (or Trust) rather than a religion of some kind of action (in order to win)?
It obviously was important to the proto-orthodox. But, as many of us here have already said, orthopraxy (doing the right thing) is far more important than orthodoxy (believing the right thing). Believing in something or someone is not, in itself, a bad thing, but when you insist upon others believing exactly as you do, it becomes stifling and, ultimately, destructive.
As long as it causes no harm, heresy, then, should be allowed (if not completely accepted) because it just means one wishes to retain the right to choose what or what not to believe – including why and how one makes those choices.
2. How can (or do) you determine that people are Christian today?
If people try – as best they can – to follow the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth and show the same kind of compassion for others as he did, they may rightly claim the name of Christian. Being an active member of a church should help; however, it’s not a prerequisite. Far too many people, unfortunately, choose to do none of these things yet still claim to be Christians.
3. What features would you include in a religion you wished to “sell” to an emperor in the year 300 CE?
Being open to ongoing clarifications, editing and variations in the phrasing, I would attempt to “sell” him at least these features:
• Following the path and teachings of Jesus can lead to an awareness and experience of the Sacred, as well as the Oneness and Unity of all life.
• The teachings of Jesus provide but one of many ways to experience the Sacredness and Oneness of life; we can draw from diverse sources of wisdom in our spiritual journey.
• Seek community that is inclusive of ALL people.
• The way we behave towards one another is the fullest expression of what we believe.
• You will find grace in the search for understanding and come to believe that there is more value in questioning than in insisting upon absolutes.
• Strive for peace and justice among all people;
• Strive to protect and restore the integrity of our Earth.
• Commit to a path of life-long learning, compassion, and selfless love.
If you didn’t recognize these bullet points, they are a slightly edited version of the “8 Points of Progressive Christianity” as they were outlined back in 2012. Now, would they convince a ruler in the 3rd century (or any other century) that they were good points to follow? Probably not. Rulers everywhere – even here in the 21st century – still consider them to be naïve, at best, and impossible to achieve, in reality, by any society.
4. Is intolerance built-in to Christianity? How/ Why?
Not in my version. But when orthodox Christianity continues to insist upon a laundry list of things that one absolutely must do or believe in order to call oneself a Christian, clearly, that’s intolerance. Such attitudes of intolerance consistently remain to be about who has the power to define Christianity and who doesn’t – of who’s in and who’s out.
On the other hand, if someone wants to be a part of my church and claims that God calls him to slaughter animals (or worse) as part of the Sunday morning rituals, not only would I not tolerate it, I’d call the cops and insist that this guy undergo a psychological evaluation.
5. What do you think is the best solution to the dilemma of “Everyone who has thought about religion wants their own” vs. the religious community of one-ness?
You can have both, you know – if not always in the same room.
I think of religion as being much like a huge tree planted into the soil of all that humanity has considered to be of value and, so, holds sacred. Soon after the planting of the first tree by our ancient ancestors, branches began to sprout from it as different experiences and expressions of the Holy began to grow and spread – most, if not all, then spreading branches of their own from out of those earliest branches. There were vines within these branches, as well, that began to reach out to others as they sought to interact with those from different branches nearby.
But here’s the key to the fruition of this Sacred Tree: If the branches, vines and leaves continue to flourish and blossom and cause no harm to any of the other parts of the tree (from roots to trunk to the tips of every offshoot), then we have a wonderful metaphor – if not “the best solution” – for nurturing all that is Holy. We have a healthy tree.
Unfortunately, however, there grew to be some within the tree itself who wanted to cut away portions of that huge tree – simply calling it a necessary pruning – because they couldn’t stand that those other branches didn’t look, act or smell like their own. But each branch, vine, offshoot and leaf has every right to remain part of the tree.
That, I think, is how religion, worldwide, ought to be seen.
6. Is there one “lost” Christian belief that you most wish had not been lost?
For me, what I “most wish had not been lost” would be the recognition that Jesus was completely – if extraordinarily – human and not divine.
While that seemed to be a belief held by the Ebionites, I think their insistence that “being Jewish was fundamental to a right standing before God” (p.109) was a mistake common to most fundamentalist expressions of religion. What’s more, that then made them completely intolerant of Paul and his “teaching of justification by faith in Christ apart from the works of the law” (Ibid.). Law then came to govern behavior, not love.
Tragically, from its nascent beginnings to the present day, the history of Christianity has been more about winners and losers than it’s been about following in the footsteps of Jesus.
Week 11 Questions
1 – “understood by most Christians to be the word of God.” Do you agree with “most” and HOW is it the word of God? 229
2 – What single book would you add to the 27 listed by Athanasius AND what single book would you remove? 230
3 – What part of the Apostolic writings are actually by Apostles? 231
4 – “Jesus presented his interpretations as authoritative” What do you think? 233 (watch out for anachronism!)
5 – What is the definition of Apostle at the time the canon was being considered? 234
6 – Can you recall a time when you invoked an authority to add weight to your argument? 235
7 – What criteria would you use to replace Ancient, Apostolic, Catholic and Orthodox? 243
8 – If Eusebius rejected the Gospel of Thomas, why do you think the Jesus Seminar decided to include it? 244
Responses to Week 11 Questions
Chapter 11: “The Invention of Scripture: The Formation of the Proto-orthodox New Testament” (pp.229-246)
1. “The New Testament...is understood by most Christians to be the word of God....” Do you agree with “most” and HOW is it the word of God? (p.229)
I’d say that, yes, for most orthodox or traditional Christians, the whole Bible – if not just the New Testament – is considered to be “the word of God.” How the average person in the pew understands that phrase, however, is a matter of wide-ranging opinions: from literally the voice of God speaking through the very words on each page, to God’s revelations being passed through the creators of the text as direct inspiration, to a profound and important message from the past that has relevance for our own time in how to live a better life.
Following the given readings of the scripture lessons on Sunday mornings, many pastors have intoned to their congregation some version of this phrase: “The Word of God for the people of God.” What might that mean? For many conservative or evangelical folks, it meant that in the words just read and heard, a message was being delivered – even if indirectly – to them from God. For the rest of us? It may be considered sacred, but for other reasons.
It’s even more complicated than that. Whenever I would preside over that traditional time when elementary-school-aged children were given a copy of their first Bible, I would always say to them something like this: “This is a dangerous book. Be careful how you read it. You will have to have help from someone you trust to understand it.” My intention was to let everyone present – both children and adults – know that while there are wonderful, inspired, profound, and even sacred messages of truth within its pages, there is also much fiction, horror, and misrepresentation of the truth within those 66 books. One must be carefully taught how to distinguish the difference. We’re still trying to figure out how best to do that.
2. What single book would you add to the 27 listed by Athanasius AND what single book would you remove? (p.230)
Like the Jesus Seminar scholars, I would add the Gospel of Thomas, because I think that it adds some interesting and fascinating insights into the person of Jesus as a wisdom teacher. I would remove Revelation because it’s simply a bizarre type of apocalyptic literature that has more in common with the book of Daniel than it does reality – or the life and teachings of Jesus.
3. What part of the Apostolic writings are actually by Apostles? (p.231)
Probably none of them were written by the traditional apostles. More than likely they were written by scribes whose only job was trying to preserve the words that either they heard spoken by the apostles themselves or were stories that they heard from others who claimed to know what the apostles had said.
Remember, the vast majority of people of that era were illiterate – many biblical scholars believe that Jesus, himself, could neither read nor write.
4. “Jesus himself, of course, presented his interpretations of Scripture as authoritative.” What do you think? (p.233)
No doubt, from time to time, Jesus did quote Scripture (for him, of course, that meant the Hebrew Bible) to make a point. But I also think that, more often than not, he followed it up with his own interpretation of it. The most classical example of this can be found in his so-called “Sermon on the Mount” (Matthew 5: 21-48) where his interpretations are often prefaced by the phrase, “But I say to you....” In fact, out of the 107 verses comprising this renowned sermon, 28 verses are dedicated to his using exactly that preparatory phrase.
5. What is the definition of Apostle at the time the canon was being considered? (p.234)
Let’s start with both terms that were used for those earliest followers of Jesus. The word, “disciple,” in the Koine Greek – μαθητής (mathētḗs) – generally just means "a learner, pupil or apprentice.” The word “apostle” – ἀπόστολος (apóstolos) – means “one who is sent off/out.” In the Gospel According to Mark, four of Jesus’s disciples were the first ones who seem to have been invited into such a role: Simon and Andrew, then James and John (Mark 1: 16-20). The other synoptic gospels indicate much the same thing (Matthew 4: 18-22 and Luke 5: 4-11) – while John, of course, is a different story (cf. John 1: 35-51). But it’s only Luke’s account that claims Jesus “sent them out” – like apostles – in pairs on a specific mission.
Curiously enough, Paul (even though he wasn’t among the “original” twelve) described himself as an apostle, saying that he was called by the resurrected Jesus during his revelatory “road to Damascus” event (Acts 9: 1-19 – vv. 5 & 6, especially). Later, Paul also describes himself as “the apostle of/to the Gentiles” (Romans 11: 13). So, if you accept the dates for the Pauline corpus (sometime in the early 50s CE), that term was being used even back then for those who seemed to have left everything behind to follow Jesus – and this was long before anything like an authoritative canon was being considered.
As our author points out later on in this chapter (pp.240 ff.), the so-called Muratorian Canon (c. 200 CE) is considered to be the earliest compilation of canonical texts that at least resembles the New Testament. But it wasn’t until sometime in the 5th century that all of the different Christian churches finally came to a basic agreement on our current Biblical canon.
6. Can you recall a time when you invoked an authority to add weight to your argument? (p.235)
In a sense, I have done so every time that I’ve closed a prayer with the word “Amen.” The basic meaning and Semitic root of this word is derived from concepts that meant “firm,” “fixed,” or “certain.” The related Hebrew verb also means “to be reliable” and/or “to be trusted.” So, the first Hebrew Bible translated into Greek usually renders amen as “so be it” – I’ve been known to often repeat after my amens the statement “Make it so.”
What “authority” then, you may ask, am I invoking? Your own, of course.
7. What criteria would you use to replace Ancient, Apostolic, Catholic and Orthodox? (p.243)
I would use the same criteria that the biblical scholars of the Westar Institute used in creating their SVT – the “Scholars Version Translation.” It’s a translation meant to invoke in the reader an experience comparable to the one that would’ve been had by those who first read the Bible – or listened to it being read to them. Most importantly, however, the SVT is a version that’s been created without any ecclesiastical or religious control over the text.
I’m reminded of Westar’s own definition of itself:
“Westar Institute fosters collaborative, cumulative research in
religious studies and communicates the results of the scholarship
to a broad, non-specialist public.”
As I’ve said, many times, the work of the Jesus Seminar saved my ministry.
8. If Eusebius rejected the Gospel of Thomas, why do you think the Jesus Seminar decided to include it? (p.244)
Several of the scholars were of the opinion that it must be significant for at least three reasons: 1) Eusebius condemned it as “the fictions of heretics” and 2) because it was part of the Nag Hammadi Library. Then 3) – but maybe most significantly – because those works were buried in response to a letter from Bishop Athanasius who wanted only his version of the canon to be the authoritative one. This “pillar of the early Church” was the one who wanted the Gospel of Thomas omitted. That fact, alone, would make a biblical scholar wonder why.
Since its discovery in December of 1945, scholars also have seen the Gospel of Thomas as evidence in support of the existence of Q (quelle in German, meaning “source”) which was probably a gospel very similar in its form to the Gospel of Thomas – a collection of sayings of Jesus without any accounts of his birth, life and death, i.e., a “sayings gospel.” Almost two-thirds of these so-called sayings of Jesus in Thomas resemble those found in the canonical gospels (even if some seem to be from the Gnostic tradition). 13 of its 16 parables are also found in the Synoptic Gospels.
I also think that the Jesus Seminar considered the Gospel of Thomas to be important because, while it doesn’t directly point to Jesus’ divinity, it also doesn’t directly contradict it either. What’s more, not only does it not mention his crucifixion, his resurrection or any kind of final judgment, neither does it mention a messianic understanding of Jesus. When Jesus is asked his identity in this gospel, he usually deflects his answer, ambiguously asking the disciples why they don’t see what’s right in front of them. That sounds like the response of a very wise teacher. In that sense, it’s very similar to passages in the canonical gospels – e.g., Luke 18: 34 or even later in John 12: 16.
For all of the reasons, above (and maybe more that I don’t know about), the Jesus Seminar decided to include it. I’m glad that they did. It remains to be one of my favorites.
Week 10 Questions
1 – What would be most different about your life if you could NOT read (let alone write)? 203
2 – How would you describe the difference(s) between the Infancy gospels of Jesus and Grimm’s Fairy Tales? 206
3 – How do you think something like the proto-Gospel of James would be received by those who heard it read? (back when it was written) 209
4 – Have you read, or can you quickly describe, any modern “entertaining tales of the heros of the faith”? 212
5 – How does the fact that the New Testament changed over time affect your view of its quality? 221
6 – Why (or not) do you find the adoptionist version of Jesus’ divinity more convincing? 222
7 – Do you own our use bibles that have different versions of Luke 3:22? 223
8 – What do you think of the separationist view of Jesus – Christ? 224
9 – What effect do all these small language changes make on your church life? 226
Responses to Week 10 Questions
Chapter 9: “Additional Weapons in the Polemical Arsenal: Forgeries and Falsifications” (pp.203-227)
1. What would be most different about your life if you could NOT read (let alone write)? (p. 203)
I would be impoverished. I also would be far more ignorant than I am now and much too dependent upon others for critically significant amounts of information. As Ehrman points out in his opening paragraph, literature provided the very reasons for the Bible. In fact, he concludes, “...it is no surprise that a good deal of the conflict among competing understandings of the faith occurred in writing....” As the Westar Institute has so cogently put it, now, more than ever before, we need religious literacy.
2. How would you describe the difference(s) between the Infancy gospels of Jesus and Grimm’s Fairy Tales? (p.206)
The only similarity (that I can think of) is that both genres seem to be examples of romantic nationalism – groups whose fairy tales are used to give them political legitimacy to then garner unity over those they govern. Other than that, they’ve very little in common.
3. How do you think something like the proto-Gospel of James would be received by those who heard it read (back when it was written)? (p.209)
I suspect that those who took the Hebrew Bible literally back then, could’ve received this bizarre story of the supernatural aspects of Mary’s birth, childhood, and young adult life just as literally. In matters of religion and faith, the power for self-deception is often very strong.
4. Have you read, or can you quickly describe, any modern “entertaining tales of the heroes of the faith”? (p.212)
It’s neither a literary genre that I read nor the kinds of stories to which I pay much attention. No doubt evangelical churches, however, would describe many (if not all) of their missionaries to third world countries in this way – but only another evangelical would be entertained by such “tales of the heroes of the faith.”
5. How does the fact that the New Testament changed over time affect your view of its quality? (p.221)
I don’t question its quality as much as I question its conclusions. Those conclusions don’t necessarily represent the truth as much as they represent the careful theological constructions of the proto-orthodox – the “winners” that gave rise to the traditional Church.
On the other hand, biblical scholars like those of the Jesus Seminar and the Westar Institute have made immeasurable contributions toward explaining what most likely was the real quality behind the life and teachings of one Jesus of Nazareth – a remarkable human being.
Significantly enough, one of the more important statements that our author makes about the construction and changes of the New Testament was made a few pages earlier:
“We do not have the ‘originals’ of any of the books that came
to be included in the New Testament, or indeed of any Christian
book from antiquity. What we have are copies of the originals
or, to be more accurate, copies made from copies of the copies
of the copies of the originals.” (p.217)
Wrap your mind around that one! Consider what we surely have lost during that transition.
6. Why (or not) do you find the adoptionist version of Jesus’ divinity more convincing? (p.222)
While that version may seem appealing, initially, because it affirms that Jesus was not the supernatural Son of God but a fully human being. However, that it then claims that just such a magical relationship occurred at the moment of his baptism, makes it every bit as unconvincing as many other orthodox accounts similar to this.
7. Do you own or use Bibles that have different versions of Luke 3:22? (p.223)
Yes, I do. But none of them (except maybe in the most conservative evangelical circles) would point to this particular verse as proof of the doctrine of the Trinity – i.e., that divinity was bestowed upon Jesus by the Holy Spirit at his baptism.
It’s worth highlighting one more statement by our author here about this verse:
“Even though the potentially dangerous (‘heretical’) form of the
text is found in virtually all our oldest witnesses and is less easy
to explain as a scribal alteration, it is the altered form of the text
that is found in the majority of surviving manuscripts and reproduced
in most of our English translations.”
Why, do you suppose, this happened? Somebody had an agenda to promote.
In this digital age, actually owning different versions of the Bible aren’t as important to me now as they once might have been. I use the internet almost exclusively when I think that the accuracy of the Hebrew or Greek translation seems to be critically important (e.g., refer to my response to question #4 of Week 9 – as well as elsewhere – over issues like this). Not surprisingly, the many publications written or edited by biblical scholars of the Westar Institute have become the most invaluable resources for me overall. I refer to them often.
8. What do you think of the separationist view of Jesus – Christ? (p.224)
I find this “two distinct beings” proposal just as bizarre as other supernatural claims for Jesus’ elevation to divinity – in much the same way other such cults began to make similar claims for his mother, Mary.
9. What effect do all these small language changes make on your church life? (p.226)
The particular “language changes” that Ehrman refers to here have had no effect at all on my church life. The Westar Institute and the work of the Jesus Seminar scholars, however, literally saved and reinvigorated my ministry. In truth, I would’ve left ordained ministry within The United Methodist Church had it not been for Bob Funk and his seminars in Santa Rosa. He and his gatherings of biblical scholars delivered a whole new purpose to my vocation. And it wasn’t about the unbelievable – in fact, the often horrific – aspects of the deity that I found portrayed in the Bible; it was about revealing a more believable Jesus. I rediscovered the man worth following – the one I’d first met in my church as a child.
Week 9 Questions
1 – How do you feel about people in the new church keeping “The Law” or not? 184
2 – Do you think that the line ‘a whole year with us’ supplies any confirmation that the teaching of Jesus lasted one year, as the Synoptics suggest, rather than the three years suggested in John? 184
3 – Compare the relation of the Gnostics to the proto-orthodox with the relationship of modern liberal, progressive Christians to fundamentalist Christians. 185
4 – Where does the idea of Jesus laughing at people who don not understand come from? 188
5 – What response do you have to the Unity and Diversity section on pg. 189?
6 – Why did the proto-orthodox never try to dissect their own myths? 190
7 – Why don’t you agree with Tertullian’s definition of “God”? 190
8 – How do you understand the relationship of theology to philosophy? 192
9 – Can you reconcile Truth by apostolic succession with Truth by prophecy? 193 (and then what happens to Paul?)
10 – Since most of Jesus’ teachings were about sexual morality, is it obvious that the arguments by the heresiologists were correct? 198
11 – Compare Epiphanius’s account of Phibionites with modern pornography. 200
Responses to Week 9 Questions
Chapter 9: “The Arsenal of the Conflicts: Polemical Treatises and Personal Slurs” (pp.181-202)
1. How do you feel about people in the new church keeping “The Law” or not? (p.184)
If someone wants to “keep the Law” as a matter of ritualized piety, let them – just as long as they don’t then begin to insist that the rest of us “law-breakers” are all going to Hell.
2. Do you think that the line ‘a whole year with us’ supplies any confirmation that the teaching of Jesus lasted one year, as the Synoptics suggest, rather than the three years suggested in John? (p.184)
No. No one really knows when Jesus grew into his role as a teacher (to paraphrase Paul in 1 Corinthians 13: 11, when he no longer talked, thought and reasoned like a child and became an adult, putting childish ways behind him). He could’ve been more of teacher than a student long before the New Testament records show that he was. It’s just that his neighbors and the community surrounding him woke up much later to see just how special he really was.
3. Compare the relation of the Gnostics to the proto-orthodox with the relationship of modern liberal, progressive Christians to fundamentalist Christians. (p.185)
While both ancient and modern groups were (and always have been) at odds with each other, I see no comparison between the first Gnostics and “modern liberal, progressive Christians” like us (and, say, members of the Westar Institute). We have no “secret knowledge” but continue to search for answers as to who we are and why we are here – even as we know that all of our questions may never be answered.
I do see similarities, however, between those first “proto-orthodox” and the majority of “fundamentalist Christians” of today. Both insist that their views are sacrosanct and never to be questioned, modified or changed.
4. Where does the idea of Jesus laughing at people who don’t understand come from? (p.188)
To begin with, there is no verse in the entire New Testament that says “Jesus laughed” – I think that it’s safe to assume, though, that he did! However, oddly enough, the so-called shortest verse in the Bible translated as “Jesus wept” (John 11: 35 – in Koinē Greek, ἐδάκρυσεν ὁ Ἰησοῦς / edákrusen ho Iēsoûs), does not literally mean “weeping” at all. Did you know that? What’s more, it could legitimately be translated that he “snorted” (like a horse!) in frustration at everyone’s failure to understand – which, then, could be seen as a kind of ironic laughter. It is in Luke 19: 41, by the way however, where it reads that he literally “wept” (ἔκλαυσεν / eklausen) – and there it’s over his sight of the city of Jerusalem because, I think, he views how much his people had failed to serve the purpose for which God had intended.
To my knowledge, the only place in any ancient manuscript that indicates Jesus laughing is in, ironically enough, The Gospel of Judas – and he’s constantly laughing at his disciples’ failure to understand in that one! But, again, it’s those sardonic, significant, how-little-you-know kinds of laughs. In this manuscript (which, of course, isn’t really a gospel at all) it’s only Judas who seems to know what that laughter signifies: “I know who you are and where you’ve come from,” he says to Jesus. “You are from the immortal realm of Barbelo” (supposedly a divine and blessed kingdom named by the Gnostics which was free of the materiality of our earthly realm). And Jesus is startled by Judas’s insight. Ha! How about that one?
5. What response do you have to the Unity and Diversity section on pg. 189?
I’ve always maintained that it would be a good thing to remain a unified people in spite of our diversity. We should be able to do both. This is what e pluribus unum means – “out of many, one” (the motto proposed for the first Great Seal of the United States by John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson way back in 1776). The fact that we have failed miserably to live up to that motto is the deepest tragedy of the never-united states of America.
As far as this part of Ehrman’s exposé of the proto-orthodox is concerned, unity meant going along with their narrow definitions of the truth – divisions, they maintained, were only caused by heretics. So, the problem of disunity was created by anybody who disagreed with them. As our author notes, this was their flawed theological conclusion: “Disunity shows division and division is not of God.” Tertullian’s conclusion took it a step further:
“Where diversity of doctrine is found, there, then, must the
corruption both of the Scriptures and the expositions thereof
be regarded as existing.”
Ehrman makes one more cogent observation about this sad state of affairs in a footnote:
“...one wonders how it might be turned against the proto-orthodox
themselves, who also had a wide range of opinions on numerous
topics. ...none of them could be right because they all disagreed
with one another.... (footnote #10, p.274).
I’m reminded, however, of the countless tragedies that have been part of human history when disagreements have led to outright warfare between people – leaving the right on one side and the dead right on the other. Even when it’s not gone quite that far, legislative and judicial bodies have become paralyzed into inaction for lack of understanding or being unable to compromise with others with whom they disagree. Witness the disunity that we’re currently experiencing within the Church – as well as within our government. But, then, it’s been this way for as long as I can remember. Once again, Walt Kelly’s cartoon character, Pogo, seems to have had it right when he observed, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”
6. Why did the proto-orthodox never try to dissect their own myths? (p.190)
They didn’t need to. They had the power and influence. The Gnostics did not.
7. Why don’t you agree with Tertullian’s definition of “God”? (p.190)
Interesting that you should assume that I don’t. But I disagree in a different way than you might think – not only because his definition uses anthropomorphic-like images, but because it simply assumes too much. There is far more to God than we know.
8. How do you understand the relationship of theology to philosophy? (p.192)
I think the theologian, Paul Tillich, had something to say about that. For him, philosophy described the “structure of being” – i.e., with objectivity and detachment. Philosophy may have pronouncements that sound very much like doctrine, but its search for truth stays within the bounds of reality and pure reason. Tillich posited that theology, on the other hand, seeks to discover the very “meaning of being” itself – so, Tillich referred to God as “the ground of being” – which is absolutely an existential concern and has led to interpretations of the divine while often coming up with dogmatic conclusions, and unquestionable beliefs in the supernatural.
9. Can you reconcile Truth by apostolic succession with Truth by prophecy? (p.193) – and then what happens to Paul?
No, I would not. Apostolic succession is a manufactured fiction – i.e., that since Jesus, as the Christ, had handpicked his apostles, those that they then chose were, in a sense, ones who’d be chosen by Jesus himself. On the other hand, prophecy was never meant to be mystical predictions of the future. Given the current circumstances, a biblical prophet would simply conclude that if those situations did not change, this or that inevitably would happen. It would be like a diplomat or soldier in Afghanistan having said (to anyone who would’ve listened to them), well over a decade or more ago, “This will not end well.”
10. Since most of Jesus’ teachings were about sexual morality, is it obvious that the arguments by the heresiologists were correct? (p.198)
I see that conclusion as a non sequitur. Most of Jesus’s teachings were not at all about “sexual morality,” but about morality itself – about doing the right thing and showing compassion when the mores of his current society and culture clearly were not.
If any of the “arguments by the heresiologists were correct,” it was purely by accident. One can never conclude “that those who side with God will lead moral, upright lives and be unwilling to do anything to defile themselves or others.” Immorality has been rampant within the Christian Church for centuries – from Popes, to Bishops, to priests, and on down the line.
11. Compare Epiphanius’s account of the Phibionites with modern pornography. (p.200)
Any comparison would be quite a stretch.
To begin with, most of the accounts about the Gnostics came from their sworn enemies, the proto-orthodox, and not from the Gnostics themselves – most, if not all, of their writings were either lost or destroyed. Epiphanius’s account is not to be believed. In fact, he could’ve made it all up just out of spite. Conspiracy theories have proliferated throughout history.
So, except for its connection to bizarre expressions of human sexuality, Epiphanius’s exposé seems, to me, to have little comparison with modern pornography. The former appears in the guise of sacred – if grossly twisted – liturgy; while the latter is a corruption of human sexuality and, more often than not, about the degradation of women.
Week 8 Questions
1 – What would you most like to keep about your Christianity, and what would you most like to give up? 160
2 – “they believed that being right mattered”: how do you view being right today? 161
3 – What word(s) [or phrases] do you least understand in the version of the Nicene Creed on pg. 163?
4 – Where did the idea that truth comes before falsehood come from? 164 Why can’t these people see that they had to keep trying to get it right?
5 – Where did the idea that the church could create truth come from? 167
6 – Has anyone heard of a book that might be entitled “The Agendas of the Canonical Gospel Writers” that describes in detail the differences between all four? 170
7 – Does the analysis of Acts as the founding myth of Christianity lead you to wonder about the Life of Jesus story presented in the Synoptic Gospels and probably written by Mark(‘s author)? Comments? 172
8 – Do you think that everyone lives their life in accord with Truth as they find it? Comments? 174
9 – Everyone read Eusebius, and therefore absorbed his biases about church history. Can you think of another (non-church) case where this happened? 176
10 – Why (or not) is Ecumenism the solution to the orthodox – heresy conflict? 178
11 – So was Jesus similar to Data of Star Trek? 178
12 – Which of the four factors listed on pg. 179 do you think is most important for orthodox success? Or do you wish to propose another?
Responses to Week 8 Questions
PART THREE: WINNERS AND LOSERS (pp.159-257)
1. What would you most like to keep about your Christianity, and what would you most like to give up? (p.160)
To begin with, I’d like to keep my somewhat-borrowed definition of “church” that I gave in my answer to question #5 (Week 7). Then, using some of Ehrman’s questions in the opening two paragraphs of Chapter 7 (p.135) – and in keeping with my “both/and” perspective – I’d like to keep these:
• socially liberal – so, with a “solid social ministry”
• politically active and spiritually focused
• strong music program and thoughtful sermons
• an active youth group and a variety of small groups for adults, as well
• a vibrant outreach program and nurturing and compassionate care for all who attend our church
• a church that keeps an open dialogue about the perspectives of all of the documents about how Christianity was being envisioned – including, but not limited to, the traditional New Testament
So, let’s finally give up and get over this “winners” vs. “losers” mentality (p.161), can we not? Let’s maintain in fruitful dialogue about our similarities as followers of Jesus – not just our differences – much like as it often happens between and within many of the ecumenical and interfaith groups today (e.g. the World Council of Churches, the National Conference of Christians & Jews, the “21 for 21” project of Christians, Muslims and Jews - https://faithsforum.com/tag/21-for-21-project/ , et al.). Such movement as these should reach out, as well, to interreligious groups to include dialogues with people with other religious perspectives (e.g., Buddhism and Hinduism, et al.). But, again, it should always be about dialogue, and not at all about proselytizing or trying to prove where we are right and those “others” are wrong. Religion should be about our highest values, not about claiming that ours is “the one true faith.”
2. “...they believed that being right mattered”: how do you view being right today? (p.161)
Unless you’ve scientific proof, “being right” can be destructive – even dangerous. As we’ve been reminded, above, all too often this then can lead you to insist that others are wrong – without any real proof! It’s better to keep the dialogue open and inviting, rather than make it a debate that seeks to destroy others, to welcome them into a larger circle of inclusion, rather than erase them from the community. It reminds me of an interfaith circle program of which I was a part many years ago. We used this quote from Edwin Markham as our guide:
“You drew a circle that shut me out –
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout!
But love and I had the wit to win:
I drew a circle that took you in!”
Even Davey Crockett said, “Be sure you’re right; then go ahead” – not claim you’re right, first, without clear evidence.
Chapter 8: “The Quest for Orthodoxy” (pp.163-180)
3. What word(s) [or phrases] do you least understand in the version of the Nicene Creed on pg. 163?
How about just these:
• “the Father, the Almighty”
• “the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God...begotten, not made”
• “for our salvation he came down from heaven”
• “became incarnate from the Virgin Mary”
• “he ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father”
• “We look for the resurrection of the dead”
Think about it: all of these manufactured images of divinity are incomprehensible.
4. Where did the idea that truth comes before falsehood come from? (p.164) Why can’t these people see that they had to keep trying to get it right?
As Ehrman began this section on the page before: “Heresy was any deviation from this right belief” (p.163). So, it began very early when the “church fathers” sought to claim their right to be the sole authority on all things theological. It was about holding power over others. If they claimed to be right, then, ipso facto, everyone who came after and disagreed with them were heretics – wrong believers. It was these guys who redefined “heresy” – turning “choice” into “wrong belief.” And the Church has suffered from their decisions ever since.
As I’ve said, at least they’re not burning us heretics at the stake any longer. But one can still be excommunicated from the Church for simply holding an unorthodox point of view.
5. Where did the idea that the church could create truth come from? (p.167)
[see #4, above]
6. Has anyone heard of a book that might be entitled “The Agendas of the Canonical Gospel Writers” that describes in detail the differences between all four? (p.170)
I have not. But, then, there’s this other book from our author:
“Ehrman, the author of Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden
Contradictions in the Bible (and Why We Don't Know About Them),
[said] that he discourages readers from ‘smash[ing] the four Gospels
into one big Gospel and think[ing] that [they] get the true
understanding. When Matthew was writing, he didn't intend for
somebody ... to interpret his Gospel in light of what some other
author said. He had his own message,’ Ehrman says.”
As we know, this perspective also led the Jesus Seminar to conclude back in 1991 that only 20% of the sayings attributed to Jesus by the Gospel authors are authentic – the clear implication being that the New Testament authors invented the remaining 80%. Why? ...to push their respective agendas.
7. Does the analysis of Acts as the founding myth of Christianity lead you to wonder about the Life of Jesus story presented in the Synoptic Gospels and probably written by Mark(‘s author)? Comments? (p.172)
While Mark, literally, may have been the first of the authors of these three so-called Synoptic Gospels, one cannot assume that he – or any of the others (even Q) – got the life and teachings of Jesus just the way in which Jesus, himself, lived it and spoke about it. All of these writers came with their own perspectives and points of view. That they include many of the same stories – often in a similar sequence and in similar or sometimes identical wording – doesn’t, necessarily, mean that they accurately portrayed who Jesus of Nazareth actually was. Ehrman reminds us of the fact that there already were a number of early traditions about Jesus – even in the 1st century – that influenced what and how these authors reported about him.
8. Do you think that everyone lives their life in accord with Truth as they find it? Comments? (p.174)
I think that’s largely true. Even siblings from within the same family will tell stories about their lives that often make it seem like they had different parents and lived in a different kind of community (I know; I had four brothers – two older and two younger than me.). Your truth is just how you internalize your own experience of reality. It may, or may not, be accurate – and with all kinds of shades of truth in between.
9. Everyone read Eusebius, and therefore absorbed his biases about church history. Can you think of another (non-church) case where this happened? (p.176)
An American historian named George Bancroft (1800 - 1891) wrote the earliest and most comprehensive 10-volume study of the origins and development of the United States. He’s often been referred to as “the father of American history.” Did he get it right? Not really.
A more contemporary author, Howard Zinn, wrote in 2003 A People’s History of the United States which presented a different side of history from the more traditional “nationalist glorification of country.” He portrays a side of our nation that can largely be seen as the exploitation and manipulation of the majority by rigged systems that hugely favor a small group of elite rulers from within orthodox political parties. Did he get it right? Not really.
Both perspectives were biased. But could the conclusions of both have elements of the truth? Yes. That’s why those of us who read about history shouldn’t narrow our sources to only those with whom we agree (e.g., think of the effects of contemporary social media). What are the voices of others saying – voices we’ve never heard from before? A most recent example, in that regard, was the report I heard from a journalist on PBS about interviewing native Afghan women who lived with their families in the more rural areas of that country. All of them experienced the artillery barrages and airstrikes from Afghan and American armed forces as terrorist events every bit as much as they did their interactions with the Taliban.
As that 1947 prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials, Ben Ferencz, concluded over seventy years ago, “War makes murderers out of otherwise decent people – all wars, and all decent people.” That, tragically, is the final and only absolute truth that history has shown us.
10. Why (or not) is Ecumenism the solution to the orthodox/heresy conflict? (p.178)
As Ehrman rightly points out here, “heretics could be found virtually everywhere.” Fundamentally, this is why “Ecumenism” – in and of itself – cannot solve this conflict. When you have people in positions of power who are able to dictate who’s right and who’s wrong, you effectively eliminate half of the equation. As ecumenical movements have been employed, their intention has been to achieve universal Christian unity. That will never happen. At best, we should be able to cooperate on matters of mutual concern (e.g., poverty, injustice, a world without war, etc.), but we will never agree on church doctrine or polity.
11. So was Jesus similar to Data of Star Trek? (p.178)
I see no similarity. Data was a synthetic artificially-intelligent android incapable of human emotion. Jesus was a fully human being.
12. Which of the four factors listed on pg. 179 do you think is most important for orthodox success? Or do you wish to propose another?
I’d say #3: “The proto-orthodox stressed a church hierarchy” with #4 a very close second: “The proto-orthodox were in constant communication with one another, determined to establish theirs as a worldwide communion.” One logically leads into the other. If I were to amend both, I would remind us that all of those “church fathers,” by and large, were literate men who held privileged positions within their respective communities. For the most part, we’ve not been allowed to hear from anyone else [See NOTE, below].
This is what’s made the work of biblical scholars like those of the Westar Institute all the more critically important. Without them, Christianity itself – as we have come to know it – will become irrelevant and lost to history like all of the other versions before it.
NOTE: The 1st Council of Nicaea in 325 CE had long and fractious debates over just what exactly was the relationship between Jesus and God. The arguments became narrowed down to the two Greek terms homoousios (ὁμοούσιος) and homoiousios (ὁμοιούσιος). The word homoousios means “of the same substance,” whereas the word homoiousios means “similar in substance.” After much wrangling (and threats from the Emperor Constantine!), the council finally affirmed that God, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are homoousious (of the same substance). These two words homoousios and homoiousios differ only by one 'i' (or the Greek letter iota). This is the source of the English idiom “not one iota of difference” – meaning that the two things you’re comparing are really the same thing, i.e., of the same substance.
Week 7 Questions
1 – To be a martyr, or not? Is there any cause for which you would? What’s the difference between a soldier who dies and a martyr? 138
2 – Pg. 140 speaks of “proof positive of the validity of their faith.” What do you accept to prove the validity of your faith?
3 – How much do you care about the organizational structure of your church? Jill, Bob/Jack – can you say a few words about the non-Methodist structure here? (I’m assuming that the rest of us know how the Methodist church is organized.) 141
4 – If you agree with our author that democratically electing early church officers would be anachronistic, how do you think they would have been chosen? 142
5 – Write a statement like the single sentence paragraph near the end of pg. 151 that describes your view of God and Jesus/Christ. It may take two (or more?) sentences. Would you happily join a church like this?
6 – Why do you think universal salvation never made it into orthodoxy? 156
7 – How important is the Trinity in your particular congregation(s)? (This may be more interesting for pastors with multiple congregation experience.) 156
Responses to Week 7 Questions
Chapter 7: “On the Road to Nicaea: The Broad Swath of Proto-orthodox Christianity” (pp.135-161)
1. To be a martyr, or not? Is there any cause for which you would? What’s the difference between a soldier who dies and a martyr? (p.138)
As always, we would need to agree on one’s definition of the word “martyr.” If you mean “a person who willingly suffers death rather than renounce his or her religion,” then I would not. If, on the other hand, you mean “a person who is put to death or endures great suffering on behalf of any belief, principle, or cause” (e.g., a martyr on behalf of social justice and equality), then I might choose to accept such a martyrdom – if I was convinced that it would actually make a difference to my family, the larger community, or society as a whole. In the end, you’ll never know what you’ll do until you’re forced to choose.
It seems to me that the “difference between a soldier who dies and a martyr” is that far too many soldiers die for no good reason at all. They just die following orders – what’s more, sadly, often without any sense of duty.
2. Pg. 140 speaks of “proof positive of the validity of their faith.” What do you accept to prove the validity of your faith?
Flipping the so-called Wesleyan Quadrilateral around into an acronym R.E.S.T., remains to be my guide – and in that order, i.e., not with scripture and tradition predominating. “R” – reason is always primary for me. If it doesn’t make sense, I’ll either doubt it or simply discard it. “E” – experience will bring it closer to home. If I’ve learned from lived-experiences in the past (directly mine or by observing others), I’ll now know better how to address similar experiences in the present. “S” – scripture only becomes valid if it reaffirms reason and experience. Just because it’s in the Bible doesn’t make it true or sacrosanct in and for every time and place. “T” – tradition remains helpful only as it relates to the lessons we have learned from our collective past. To continue to affirm something, or act in one way, solely because “we’ve always done it this way,” isn’t good enough. It must pass the scrutiny, finally, of reason and experience.
3. How much do you care about the organizational structure of your church? (p.141)
The organizational structure of the whole Church – not just The United Methodist Church – has always been of concern to me. It continues to be top-heavy (hierarchical) and overwhelmingly orthodox.
4. If you agree with our author that democratically electing early church officers would be anachronistic, how do you think they would have been chosen? (p.142)
I like to think that the early leadership began with those who knew and were closest to Jesus and for whom his teachings and lifestyle were more important than what one believed (so, orthopraxy over orthodoxy). As Christianity became more “organized,” however, it became more subject to the authority of the elite and entangled in bureaucratic influences.
5. Write a statement like the single sentence paragraph near the end of pg. 151 that describes your view of God and Jesus/Christ. It may take two (or more?) sentences. Would you happily join a church like this?
Every person, in a free and responsible search for truth and meaning, can have a direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder affirmed in all cultures that we call God – that Spirit which moves us to a renewal of our own spirit opening us to the forces which create and uphold life. Jesus of Nazareth – simply a man, not an incarnation of this deity – continues to call us to resist and transform unjust systems that divide us and reshape them for good, to transcend our pride and selfishness and choose instead to love and serve our community by doing good and caring for each other.*
*NOTE: Restricted to just two run-on sentences, the above statement is largely my revised and reshaped summary of the principles that I have learned guide the Unitarian Universalist Association – and, yes, I would happily join a church like this!
6. Why do you think universal salvation never made it into orthodoxy? (p.156)
At the direction of those in power (from Emperor Constantine forward), leaders of the Church always sought to justify their own theological conclusions and, guided by them, establish just who was “in” and who was “out.” They never considered salvation was to be given to everybody. You had to earn it – and within a narrow, orthodox, understanding of just how you could do that.
7. How important is the Trinity in your particular congregation(s)? (This may be more interesting for pastors with multiple congregation experience.) (p.156)
As I have no “particular congregation” at the moment that’s calling for my loyalty, it’s not important at all – but then it never has been. The closest to a congregation for me, now, has no geographical center. That would be my retired United Methodist colleagues, as well as my friends and associates both inside and outside the institutional Church – and none of them think that the Trinity is a critically important doctrine either.
Week 6 Questions
1 – What’s the difference between (how you understand) Gnostic writings from ~2000 years ago AND modern anti-science of today? 114
2 – Why don’t we have any writings from Gnostics who where successful in escaping from this world? 115
3 – Based on our earlier books by Jewish authors, do you think our author’s comment that “most … biblical writers maintain that the evil in the world results from human sin,” comes from his cultural Christian environment? 116
4 – What do you think actually happened at the Exodus? 117
A – Remember that on reason Ehrman is not a Westar fellow is that his Jesus is apocalyptic and Westar is not.
5 – Is modern advertising a primary cause of our “entrapment in this material existence.”? 119
6 – Was the Gnostic God conscious – or can that attribute be applied here? 123
7 – Why would there be a downward movement from spirit to matter rather than an upward movement from matter to spirit, i.e. emergent properties? 123 What makes one direction more probable than the other?
8 – Is science the true knowledge referred to in Gnosticism? 125
9 – Did you find the sections of the Gospel of Truth clear? My copy is only 12 pages (from Nag Hammadi) if you wish to read it all. 129
10 – The Treatise on the Resurrection is only 4 pages. Why do you think it was lost, destroyed, removed? 132
11 – Did you find the Gnostic ideas presented here inviting? Why? 132
12 – I am to much of a materialist. I simply can’t understand how “The story of how we got here … can only be told as a myth”. Any help here? 133
Responses to Week 6 Questions
Chapter Six: “Christians ‘In the Know’: The Worlds of Early Christian Gnosticism” (pp.113-134)
1. What’s the difference between (how you understand) Gnostic writings from ~2000 years ago AND modern anti-science of today? (p.114)
I’m not certain just what you might mean by “modern anti-science,” but I don’t think such people believe that our world is miserable and we’d be better off escaping it into some kind of Gnostic spiritual world that’s our true “heavenly home.” People who are against science are just ignoramuses – that, however, may make them more dangerous than any Gnostic!
2. Why don’t we have any writings from Gnostics who were successful in escaping from this world? (p.115)
They simply died. It was their only real means of escape, so they were never heard from again.
3. Based on our earlier books by Jewish authors, do you think our author’s comment that “most … biblical writers maintain that the evil in the world results from human sin,” comes from his cultural Christian environment? (p.116)
Well, it is what we’ve been taught. Evil certainly is not “written into the fabric of the material world itself,” however, as most Gnostics believe. At least Jesus has shown us how not to sin – that we have the capacity for compassion and goodness and should be able to act in ways that don’t perpetuate the evil deeds of our past. It does not mean, however, that we’re all stained by something that the Church has called “original sin.” Tragically, from the very beginning, we just haven’t seemed to learn much about how to behave as moral human beings. To paraphrase the Spanish-American philosopher, George Santayana, “Those who fail to learn the lessons of history are destined to repeat them.” A latest example: the “nation building” that led to the tragedies of the war in Vietnam has been repeated in Afghanistan.
4. What do you think actually happened at the Exodus? (p.117)
A group of Jews were able to flee to safety from some of their Egyptian captors who were pursuing them. The Jews’ escape may have been aided by a simple stroke of good luck. They were able to cross a tidal area near the Red Sea while its floodwaters came between them and their pursuers. Somebody then claimed it to be “an act of God” and the stories that began to circulate about their experience totally embellished the event into something completely unbelievable. If Moses was actually there, and really helped them all get across safely, it was because he was a very lucky man, nothing more.
5. Is modern advertising a primary cause of our “entrapment in this material existence.”? (p.119)
The entrapment is of our own making. Through our ignorance and lack of attention, we’ve allowed corporate money to manipulate and even hide the truth through advertising. Advertising is just the tool with which, hammer-like, we’ve allowed ourselves to be knocked senseless.
6. Was the Gnostic God conscious – or can that attribute be applied here? (p.123)
The Gnostic God seems to be every bit as “conscious” and sentient as the orthodox Christian God. They are inventions cut from the same cloth – both “pull the wool over our eyes.” In short, both concepts deceive us into a delusion that salvation is out of our hands. If we are in the midst of a “cosmic disaster” (p.124), it is of our own making – and it is well within our power to un-make it. Neither of these Gods will do it for us.
7. Why would there be a “downward movement from spirit to matter” rather than an upward movement from matter to spirit, i.e., emergent properties? (p.123) What makes one direction more probable than the other?
When it comes to sentient beings (especially human beings) they are all infused – animated really – by spirit. You cannot separate one from the other. Without spirit you have no being. I’ve no idea whether or not the reverse is true – i.e., without being what you have left is only spirit. Both Gnosticism and orthodox Christianity teach that that is so.
However, I do believe in “emergent properties” that evolve within our material world. If there is such a thing as salvation, it could and should happen within the realm of our physical existence, and we would be the only ones able to make it happen. Will that spiral continue on after matter ceases to exit? I do not know – and neither does anyone else.
Speaking of things emerging, Bernard Brandon Scott, a Westar Institute biblical scholar, comes to this sobering conclusion in his latest blog, “God’s Shrinking Space:”
“Religion has an important role to play in society and the various
religious traditions of the world offer rich resources in this regard.
... The radical changes required of religion to be a positive influence
is a very heavy lift now, so heavy that it faces dwindling into
insignificance. If Christianity had evolved with science and not in
resistance to science, we would be in a very different situation.
But not to change is death; evolving is life.”
8. Is science the true knowledge referred to in Gnosticism? (p.125)
No. Gnostic knowledge is “secret” knowledge – which is supposedly available only to the “spiritually enlightened” few. Scientific knowledge, at least, is always open to peer review as to whether or not it is true (i.e. provable fact), or might be a theory (conceivably true), or is a complete fabrication (fiction) – as is this, so-called, “Gnostic knowledge.”
9. Did you find the sections of the Gospel of Truth clear? [Most copies from the Nag Hammadi texts are only about 12 pages long.] (pp.127-129)
It’s clear enough. I think Ehrman’s comparisons between the Gnosticism of that gospel and his outlining of “‘Orthodox’ Christianity” was helpful.
10. The Treatise on the Resurrection is only 4 pages. Why do you think it was lost, destroyed, or removed? (p.132)
Most likely it was rejected for much the same reasons that all of the Gnostic writings were; they were considered to be heresy. So, it was “lost, destroyed, or removed” probably because it claimed that our world was nothing more than an “illusion.” The proto-orthodox could not accept that conclusion (At least they got one thing right!).
11. Did you find the Gnostic ideas presented here inviting? Why or why not? (p.132)
Not really. At least the “Gnostics took the suffering of this world seriously...,” but that they then “turned their backs on it” was regrettable – to say the least. I cannot accept that we human beings “are alienated here” and that we, somehow, “belong to another world.” (p.133). It is true that, as Ehrman notes, “Christianity in nearly all its forms has always had its spiritual elite” (p.132), but that that elite became “virtually fetishized” (Ibid.) by the Gnostics is, again, regrettable. We have been given a wonderful world and magnificent universe in which to live, learn about, and care for. That, alone, is an immense gift. That we should turn away from it, I don’t find “inviting” at all.
12. I am too much of a materialist. I simply can’t understand how “The story of how we got here … can only be told as a myth”. Any help here? (p.133)
To open up Ehrman’s quote, “The story of how we got here is filled with mystery;” that is true. We still have only theories on just how the reality of this universe actually began. Beyond the scientific speculation, any other idea is “a myth, not...a propositional statement of historical fact.” What we’re left with are only our best guesses. So much of what’s out there – within and beyond our universe – remains, still, to be a mystery. That doesn’t mean we can’t find answers. With the help of science, we can. And, along the way, religion can help us become the caring and compassionate people that we were always meant to be. But, as Bernard Brandon Scott reminds us, we’ve still got a lot of evolving to do.
Week 5 Questions
1 – Would modern society be better off worshiping multiple gods? Why? (or do we anyway without thinking?) 92
2 – How do you think today would be different if the followers of Jesus did not develop a belief based religion but instead and action based religion? 92
3 – Because “religion” in general seems to imply a divinity “above” humanity, does religion strongly support a hierarchical society with the majority at the bottom? 93
4 – Page 95 has seven kinds of Jew that Jesus might be. Which one(s) would you pick as best fitting your view and which one(s) as least fitting. Extra Credit for ordering all seven.
5 – If you could go back in time, what question would you ask any author of ancient Christianity? 98
6 – If the Ebionites were following Peter and James, why do you suppose they were overcome by followers of Paul? 100
7 – Did Paul preach Jesus preexistance or virgin birth? 100
8 – What do you like AND dislike about the Ebionites as described by our author? 103
9 – What do you think of Marcion’s idea that there must be two gods, one Jewish and one Christian? 105
10 – Why would you make a good Marcionite (or NOT)? 106
11 – What about the idea that Marcion already had a version of Luke’s gospel in the form he published it, rather than chopping it up himself? 108
12 – If the only two churches in town were the Ebionites across Randolph Street from the Marcionites, where would you be on Saturday/Sunday? 110
13 – Why is the age of an idea important? 112
Responses to Week 5 Questions
PART TWO: HERESIES AND ORTHODOXIES (pp.91-157)
Chapter Five: “At Polar Ends of the Spectrum: Early Christian Ebionites and Marcionites” (pp. 95-112)
1. Would modern society be better off worshiping multiple gods? Why (or do we anyway without thinking)? (p.92)
We would, first, have to define just exactly what everyone means by those two words “worship” and “god” (or “gods”) – and I expect we couldn’t even come to an agreement over either one! While I might prefer worship to mean, simply, “to feel an adoring reverence or regard for those things that we would consider Sacred or Holy,” most people want to place their image of a deity front-and-center in all of that. Where it becomes problematic is when a person or group insists upon a narrow definition of that deity – e.g., God is an anthropomorphic and paternalistic being lurking about whom we must appease in order to be accepted.
It’s been said that either we worship God or we worship things that we’ve made into our god – e.g., money, power, comfort, nature, et. al. In some ways, then, we already worship multiple gods. Are we better off? Apparently not.
In the end, if we all could religiously follow something like the Golden Rule (expressed in different ways by many religions) we would be better off than we are now. So, what we ought to have is some version of orthopraxy, not orthodoxy (as many of us have already expressed in this group) – and that doesn’t require a god-figure at all. Isn’t that interesting?
2. How do you think today would be different if the followers of Jesus did not develop a belief-based religion but instead an action-based religion? (p.92)
I’d like to think that we’d be far closer to an egalitarian and compassionate society than we are today. However (in spite of my conclusion in response to question #1, above), humans, being what we are – largely self-centered and driven by hierarchical notions – we wouldn’t be much farther along than we are now by simply following some kind of “action-based religion.” The Golden Rule is ignored more often than it’s actually followed.
3. Because “religion” in general seems to imply a divinity “above” humanity, does religion strongly support a hierarchical society with the majority at the bottom? (p.93)
Here, again, we need to define just what we mean by “religion.” Yes, the vast majority of religions do seem to imply “a divinity” of some kind and, unfortunately, most of them have imagined their deity to be some version of a hierarchical being – but that’s because they’ve all been conceived and designed by human beings (most of them men!).
I still want to redefine “religion” based upon its semantic roots – from the Latin "religare" meaning that which “binds” something together. Religion ought to reflect our highest values – those that would, indeed, bind us together as a species. By virtue of those shared values, no one would be better off or more valuable than any other person. The alleviation of suffering, then, must be a global concern and not just for the privileged. I believe that would go a long way toward eliminating this “top-to-bottom” mentality that has long infected the Church.
4. Page 95 has seven kinds of Jew that Jesus might be. Which one(s) would you pick as best fitting your view and which one(s) as least fitting. [Extra Credit for ordering all seven.]
Here’s what I’d come up with (and #s 6 and 7 being, absolutely, the “least fitting”):
(1) social radical
(3) holy man
(5) prophet – x
(6) revolutionary*– x
(7) magician – x
*NOTE: If I could, I’d put “revolutionary” as my #1, but I’d want to use it in a different sense than the way Ehrman has defined it: i.e., as someone who “urged an armed rebellion against the Roman imperialists.” Instead, Jesus was someone, like Gandhi, whose ideas and concepts of community were completely “revolutionary” for their era (or any other era for that matter!). Since I am limited by Ehrman’s definition, I ranked “social radical” #1 and put that more militant image of “revolutionary” next to last – including it among the “least fitting” three.
5. If you could go back in time, what questions would you ask any author of ancient Christianity? (p.98)
Maybe something like this – and probably in this order:
(1) What in the world did you think you were doing?
(2) Who taught you what to believe and what not to believe?
(3) Did you ever change your mind about those earlier beliefs? Why or why not?
(4) What do you actually believe about who we humans are and who created us?
(5) Who is God for you – and why do you believe in that God and not some other one?
(6) Which of you actually knew Jesus, personally?
(7) What were your first impressions of him?
(8) What was everybody else saying about him?
(9) Do you think Jesus really wanted to establish a new religion or just reform his own?
(10) When, if ever, did you come to believe that he was the one-and-only Son of God?
(11) We’ve had to put up with centuries of orthodoxy. Why do you think the early
Church didn’t include more points of view – i.e., allowing for more interpretation and dialogue which has always been part of Jewish tradition? Can you give some examples of such views that you wish had been included about Jesus or his teachings?
6. If the Ebionites were following Peter and James, why do you suppose they were overcome by followers of Paul? (p.100)
I think that they were finally “overcome” by the proto-orthodox who were meticulously doing away with all of the Ebionites’ writings about Jesus – as Ehrman points out, “we must base our understanding on the words of their opponents.” What’s more, since Paul had such a strong opinion that you didn’t have to be Jewish to follow Jesus, he was in stark disagreement with the Ebionites who insisted that “one needed to be Jewish.”
This marks a radical turn for the early church because, again (as Ehrman points out), “The Ebionites did not subscribe to the notion of Jesus’ preexistence or his virgin birth.” Not surprisingly, as Ehrman notes, “they did not accept any of the writings of Paul.” (p.101). This is extraordinary, because apparently significant leaders in the early church like Peter and Jesus’ own brother, James, did not follow Paul but stood with the Ebionites.
7. Did Paul preach Jesus preexistence or virgin birth? (p.100)
The first quote of his that comes to my mind is this (Galatians 4: 4-5):
“But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born
of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who
were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children.”
Sounds like a natural childbirth to me. Then there’s this long-winded opening salutation of his that seems to claim Jesus to be a very human descendant of David (Romans 1: 1-4):
“Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart
for the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his
prophets in the holy scriptures, the gospel concerning his Son, who
was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared
to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by
resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord,...”
...which is just really odd, overall, because it seems more like Paul is trying to justify his position and authority here in his opening to that letter to the Roman church. Finally, there’s this quote that reads more like an early church catechism or hymn (Philippians 2: 5-11):
“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who,
though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality
with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form, he humbled himself and
became obedient to the point of death – even death on a
cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him
the name that is above every name, so that at the name of
Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and
under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus
Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
So, did Paul believe that Jesus actually “was in the form of God” – a preexistent deity – even though he was, somehow, “found in human form?” What do you think?
I remain unconvinced that Paul was the original author of all of this – or, if he was, that he literally believed in this extraordinary and “exalted” image of Jesus. Again, to justify and confirm his authority, though, I think that he could’ve just made it all up.
8. What do you like AND dislike about the Ebionites as described by our author? (p.103)
I like these aspects of the Ebionites’ theology:
(1) They “were and understood themselves to be Jewish followers of Jesus.” (p.100)
(2) They “did not subscribe to the notion of Jesus’ preexistence or his virgin birth.” (Ibid.)
(3) They “maintained that their views were authorized by the original disciples, especially by Peter and Jesus’ own brother, James, head of the Jerusalem church...” (Ibid)
(4) “For them, Jesus was the Son of God not because of his divine nature or virgin birth but because of his ‘adoption’ by God to be his son.” (p.101).
(5) They believed that what “set Jesus apart from all other people was that he kept God’s law perfectly and so was the most righteous man on earth.” (Ibid.).
(6) They did not believe in using animals as a ritual sacrifice before God.
I dislike these aspects of the Ebionites’ theology:
(1) They “believed that Jesus was the Jewish Messiah sent from the Jewish God to the Jewish people in fulfillment of the Jewish Scriptures.” (p.100) (Ibid.)
(2) They believed in the resurrection as it’s presented in Matthew’s gospel. (Ibid.).
(3) They believed that Jesus was, in fact, “the perfect, ultimate, final sacrifice for sins” – even though that meant that “there was no longer any need for the ritual sacrifice of animals.” (p.101).
(4) They “retained the Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament) as the Scripture par excellence”...while “they did not accept any of the writings of Paul.” (Ibid.).
9. What do you think of Marcion’s idea that there must be two gods, one Jewish and one Christian? (p.105)
It’s just absurd – at best, irrational. But then the Church has always fought over things just as ridiculous as this.
10. Why would you make a good Marcionite (or NOT)? (p.106)
I would NOT make a good Marcionite because while rejecting the “Jewish god,” they also rejected everything good about Judaism. What’s more, there is no “wrathful, vengeful God” behind Judaism – any more than there is a “loving, merciful God” brought into the world through Jesus. Love, mercy, grace, compassion, forgiveness, reconciliation, redemption, and living a full life have always been possible – Jesus just reminded us of that and showed us the ways to do it. It’s bizarre, then, to think (as the docetist Marcion apparently did) that Jesus “did not have a flesh-and-blood body”...that he “was not actually born” and “not really human.” (p.105). Jesus was all of those things and more – much more. His life and teachings were, indeed, all about love, mercy, grace, compassion, forgiveness, reconciliation, redemption...in short, a life worth living. But you didn’t have to go through God – to get God’s permission – to get there. That’s as true today as it was for Jesus in his day.
11. What about the idea that Marcion already had a version of Luke’s gospel in the form he published it, rather than chopping it up himself? (p.108)
Knowing what we do about Marcion, while he may not have “chopped up” a copy of Luke’s gospel, more than likely he simply removed portions of the original that were “offensive to his views” (p.108). That’s just what he did to any of the texts produced by the early church with which he disagreed.
12. If the only two churches in town were the Ebionites across Randolph Street from the Marcionites, where would you be on Saturday/Sunday? (p.110)
I’d be at the evening Lutz Book Group, or at an online seminar of the Westar Institute, or at the library...then again, maybe I’d be out kayaking somewhere with friends.
13. Why is the age of an idea important? (p.112)
Fundamentally, because we know more about the nature of reality today than did the generations that came before us. Scientists know this. We should know this. New ideas will always be emerging; and while not all of them will be found to be true or worth following, many of them will be both. So, to believe that “there’s nothing new under the sun” would be either to remain stuck where the proto-orthodox have put us for all these past millennia or to simply remain blind, deaf and with a limited capacity for emotion – especially compassion.
Week 4 Questions
1 – If you were going to attempt a forgery, what would you forge and why? 67
2 – Have you heard of Morton Smith before? 70
3 - Do you know of any modern church sects with activities like the Carpocratians? 73
4 – Are (or were) the Carpocratians real? 73
5 – Do you think that scribes copying a manuscript are more likely to ADD or SUBTRACT material? 74
6 – If you were going to forge an ancient piece of Christianity, what are some of the steps you would use? 76
7 – What evidence do you see that Jesus was (could have been) gay (or at least different from the majority)? 76
8 – Did Smith choose his verifying scholars carefully (so as to get a positive answer)? 81
9 – Did our author make up (forge!) the story on pgs. 83-84?
10 – Which way do you vote, authentic or forged? What piece(s) of evidence most influenced your vote? 89
11 – Extra Credit: Did Walter Fritz read this text when it was first published? (See “Veritas” by Ariel Sabar)
Responses to Week 4 Questions
Chapter Four: “The Forgery of an Ancient Discovery? Morton Smith and the Secret Gospel of Mark” (pp.67-89)
1. If you were going to attempt a forgery, what would you forge and why? (p.67)
I can’t even conceive of doing such a thing – either for duplicitous reasons or purely for self-aggrandizement. I wish that I could write poetry like Mary Oliver, however – I love what she has to say and how she says it.
2. Have you heard of Morton Smith before? (p.70)
Yes. Below are excerpts from the Westar Institute in an article written by Charles Hedrick which was published in The Fourth R, Volume 13-5, September–October 2000:
“One of the most controversial manuscript discoveries of the
twentieth century was a fragment of a previously unknown
letter of Clement of Alexandria (end of the second century) to
an otherwise unknown Theodore. This fragment contained two
very brief excerpts from a text Clement called the Secret Gospel
of Mark. The fragment of Clement’s letter, with the excerpts
from Secret Mark, was discovered by Columbia University
Professor Morton Smith in the summer of 1958 at the Greek
Orthodox monastery of Hagios Sabbas (known in Arabic as
Mar Saba), near Jerusalem.
“Smith’s high regard for the historical value of the fragment led
him to suggest a radical revision of Christian origins. He argued
that the Christian movement began with Jesus practicing a
baptismal initiation in which the initiate received the spirit of
Jesus and ascended into the kingdom of God during the initiation.
“It was a baptism administered by Jesus to chosen disciples,
singly, and by night. In this baptism the disciple was united with
Jesus. The union may have been physical (…there is no telling
how far symbolism went in Jesus’ rite) but the essential thing is
that the disciple was possessed by Jesus’ spirit. One with Jesus,
he participated in Jesus’ ascent into the heavens, and was
thereby set free from the laws ordained for and in the lower world.
“Virtually no one takes seriously Smith’s conclusion that a secret
erotic rite is to be traced to the historical Jesus. Even Clement had
denied that such a rite was a part of the Secret Gospel. ...
“The accusation that the fragment is a forgery has cast the darkest
shadow over Smith’s admittedly spectacular discovery. In a sharply
critical review of Smith’s two books, Quentin Quesnell* made a
case that the fragment was forged sometime between 1936 and
1958. Quesnell broadly hinted that Smith himself had perpetrated
... “One major element in his argument was the inaccessibility
of the manuscript to scholars. No Western scholar, except for
Smith, had ever seen the manuscript at the time of Quesnell’s
review (1975) – and that remains true today, a half century after
its discovery. ...
“Perhaps the real value of the Secret Gospel of Mark for the
historian of Christian origins is its confirmation of the instability
of gospel texts during the period between 70 C.E. and 200 C.E. ...
Virtually all manuscripts of Greek New Testament texts are dated
third century and later. Based on multiple different readings of
the same text among the earliest manuscripts, scholars have
known all along that, from the earliest period, gospel texts
underwent modification. ... So, it should not be surprising that
multiple different versions of the same gospel existed at the end
of the second century.”
*NOTE: See footnote #19 on pp. 266-267 of our text in reference to Quentin Quesnell.
3. Do you know of any modern church sects with activities like the Carpocratians? (p.73)
No. The closest might be the Mandaeans, an ancient gnostic sect that’s still active in portions of Iran and Iraq as well in small communities in other parts of the world.
4. Are (or were) the Carpocratians real? (p.73)
Apparently there is enough evidence to accept that, for a time, this libertine gnostic sect flourished in Alexandria during the latter part of the 2nd century CE.
5. Do you think that scribes copying a manuscript are more likely to ADD or SUBTRACT material? (p.74)
It’s more likely that these scribes added material. Given that most ancient manuscripts are incomplete to begin with – filled with holes (lacunae, from the Greek), with indecipherable lettering, or are, quite literally, only in scraps – most biblical scholars have concluded that, more often than not, scribes added to the material using context clues to fill in these gaps. There is evidence, as well however, that some scribes seem to have added material of their own that, curiously enough, were found to correspond with their own personal point of view.
6. If you were going to forge an ancient piece of Christianity, what are some of the steps you would use? (p.76)
(1) Make sure that it’s on scraps of papyri that can scientifically be dated close to the century that you have in mind – or artificially create such papyri (no small feat!).
(2) Do the same with the ink or dye that would be used for your lettering.
(3) Make sure that it’s in the same language, style and syntax of that era and then hire an expert paleographer to handwrite it. He or she would have to be paid a lot!
(4) Make it seem to affirm the religious beliefs or political claims of that same era.
(5) Manage to have it “discovered” near some recognized secure archeological site.
(6) Get it passed a reputable purveyor in the antiquities market.
(7) Last, get a recognized biblical scholar to sign off on it – knowing full well that there have been some who’ve been ostracized from within reputable academic circles (like Morton Smith eventually was), have been purged from academic programs, or who were never recognized as reputable scholars in the first place.
By now, you can see that it’s almost an impossible feat to pull off. But then (as P.T. Barnum once said) “There’s a sucker born every minute,” so you might be able to either find a whole string of them or end up having to spend a lot of money in bribes!
7. What evidence do you see that Jesus was (could have been) gay (or at least different from the majority)? (p.76)
There is no such evidence. None. But neither is there any evidence that he was asexual or heterosexual. It seems likely, as well, that he had more women disciples among his close-knit group than the record indicates. No one knows. He was, of course, “at least different from the majority” in much more significant ways than this or he’d have quickly been forgotten.
8. Did Smith choose his verifying scholars carefully (so as to get a positive answer)? (p.81)
More likely he just browbeat them – he was known to be that way among colleagues.
9. Did our author make up (forge!) the story on pgs. 83-84?
I see no reason why he would. I agree with his final conclusion there about this whole affair: “What is certain is that no one has carefully examined the book itself, and it may be that no one ever will.”
10. Which way do you vote, authentic or forged? What piece(s) of evidence most influenced your vote? (p.89)
Reading what I have about Morton Smith, I’d vote that it was a forgery, but a masterful one – he was that accomplished in his field. Significantly, however, he violated a number of steps in not getting it authenticated by reputable biblical scholars. Finally, the text just seemed to “mysteriously” disappear. Unbelievable.
11. Extra Credit: Did Walter Fritz read this text when it was first published? (See “Veritas” by Ariel Sabar)
If you’re talking about the Walter Fritz who was a former Egyptology student and dropped out of the Free University of Berlin in the early 1990s after the chairman of its Egyptology Institute accused him of intellectual plagiarism, then, who knows? He may well have read it. But Fritz only acknowledged that he’d studied Coptic, the language in which the papyrus is composed.
Week 3 Questions
1 – Who has traveled to where ancient manuscripts have been found? What can you tell us about it? 47
A – My copy of the Didache is only 4 (full) pages. You may want to read it. earlychristianwritings.com has a copy.
2 – On pg. 49 our author extols earlier manuscripts as closer to the original. Comments?
3 – Why do you think our author says that some of the sayings of Jesus in the Gospel of Thomas “may be authentic”? 51
B - My copy of Nag Hammadi has 49 entries.
4 – “The tides of scriptural preference shifted.” Comments? 54
5 – Comment on the last 3 questions on pg. 56
6 – What kind of Christology would you develop from the Gospel of Thomas? 58
7 – What modern application of salvation through knowledge can you think of? 59
8 – Paul promoted salvation through belief (in or of) Jesus’ death and resurrection. Gnostics promoted salvation through understanding secret knowledge. What is another way of salvation, AND how are you saved? 59
9 – Do you see any compatibility between Gnosticism and a modern scientific worldview? 60
10 – Comment on the first paragraph on pg. 61.
11 – Perhaps we should turn from the question of HOW to get salvation to WHAT KIND OF salvation we should be getting. Comments? 64
12 – Extra credit: Is the final “paragraph” a sentence?
Responses to Week 3 Questions
Chapter Three: “The Discovery of an Ancient Forgery: The Coptic Gospel of Thomas” (pp.47-65)
1. Who has traveled to where ancient manuscripts have been found? What can you tell us about it? (p.47)
While I didn’t go climbing down into the rock caves where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found, I was close. On a trip to Israel many years ago (Larry & Ginnie Pearson were on this trip, too.), we did get a close-up look at the Qumran Caves. There are eleven of them there in the Judaean Desert near Ein Feshkha (or Ain Al-Fashka) about one mile west of the northwest shore of the Dead Sea – in what’s now called the West Bank. Actually, literally thousands of other written fragments have been discovered in that same area; but the vast majority of them have only small scraps of text so are virtually worthless.
What struck me most, though, was just how desolate this area is – and it probably was not a whole lot better when that mystic Jewish sect called the Essenes hid themselves away from the rest of the world in those caves from the 2nd century BCE to the 1st century CE. It was a strange feeling to actually be there.
[NOTE: A copy of the Didache may be found at earlychristianwritings.com.]
2. On pg. 49 our author extols earlier manuscripts as closer to the original. Comments?
This is an established conclusion among most reputable biblical scholars. Most (if not all) of the later manuscripts have been redacted or revised in many ways by scribes who had their own agendas and opinions guiding their interpretations of the older texts. So, the older the manuscript, the closer it most likely is to the original author’s writing.
3. Why do you think our author says that some of the sayings of Jesus in the Gospel of Thomas “may be authentic”? (p.51)
Because, of course, they may be just that. As Ehrman rightly, I think, points out:
“We need always to remember that these canonical Gospels were
not seen as sacrosanct or inviolable ... no one, except possibly their
own authors, considered them to be the ‘last word’ on Jesus’ teachings
and deeds.” (p.50)
The same is also true for the Gospel of Thomas. Some portions may have gotten Jesus exactly right (ipso facto, “authentic”); some of it may not have. We’ll never know for certain one way or the other.
4. “...until the tides of scriptural preference shifted.” Comments? (p.54)
It’s simply a matter of conjecture on Ehrman’s part; that’s why he posits this possibility as a question. Those who squirreled these manuscripts away (if, indeed, that’s what they did) may have hoped that, in the future, some Christian communities would consider them as important as their own community did. As our author completes this paragraph, “We will never know.” I agree with him.
Even in the 4th century there was no unanimity of belief about who Jesus was or wasn’t. That’s why this “powerful bishop of Alexandria, Athanasius,” sought to impose his will upon others by claiming that he knew what the authentic sayings/teachings of Jesus were, while others did not. Regrettably, this same kind of powerplay became the tactic of the Church in all of the centuries that followed. The “rulers” of the Church are still doing it today.
[NOTE: Most copies of Nag Hammadi texts have just 49 entries.]
5. Comment on the last 3 questions on pg. 56
a) “What is one to make of these peculiar sayings?”
Like everything else in the body of works that have come to be claimed as “the Holy Bible,” the “Word of God,” or the “actual” sayings and teachings of Jesus, you can make of these “peculiar sayings” whatever you want. But, I will at least give deference to those biblical scholars who’ve devoted their entire adult lives to the study of these manuscripts and texts and who’ve been thoroughly trained in the ancient languages in which they first were written. In that, I defer more to such scholars as we’ve heard from in the Westar Institute than I do anyone in orthodox seminaries or the more conservative evangelical churches.
b) “What do they mean?”
Your educated and well-informed conclusion is as good as anybody else’s – but let it be at least that. In the final analysis, don’t get your meaning irrationally, by just “pulling it out of a hat,” or solely because the institutional Church always has told you what it means.
c) “And where did they come from?”
Honestly? Who knows? This is why biblical scholars came up with the idea of an as-yet-unknown source (quelle) that they’ve labeled the Q document – if, in fact, it was such a singular document. As Ehrman points out, what makes the Gospel of Thomas so compelling is that there’s no story in it at all about the death and resurrection of Jesus (p.57), just 114 of his so-called sayings or pronouncements – only 79 of those are somewhat similar to ones found in the canonical gospels. If the Church has made such a big deal out of the death and resurrection of Jesus as proof that he was the Christ of ancient Jewish legend, then why isn’t that there in Thomas? Maybe, because it never really happened.
6. What kind of Christology would you develop from the Gospel of Thomas? (p.58)
If you define “Christology” in some way to be a divine manifestation of God (i.e., an orthodox position), then you won’t get it from the Gospel of Thomas. What you get is a Jesus who’s more like a poetic sage or mystic teacher and not the one-and-only incarnate Son of God. Not surprisingly, my interpretation of Christology is not at all like the “high” Christology of the traditional Church; it’s similar to the Jesus we find in this gospel – but even more like the Jesus we read about in his parables as we find them in the canonical gospels.
7. What modern application of salvation through knowledge can you think of? (p.59)
Why, salvation can happen in and through science, of course!
8. Paul promoted salvation through belief (in or of) Jesus’ death and resurrection. Gnostics promoted salvation through understanding secret knowledge. What is another way of salvation, AND how are you saved? (p.59)
I think that we should begin such a discussion, first, by defining just what you mean by the concept of salvation. If you mean some kind of “life after death,” then you’ve already lost me. There is simply no way of knowing if such a life exists – let alone how we’re to get there.
If, however, you can conceive of salvation as a goal in this life, then that is clearly worth pursuing and obtainable. If we can’t save ourselves in this life, nobody else can – and certainly not, then, in the next life (if, in fact, there is one). That, of course, puts me at odds with what always has been taught to us by the Church.
Clearly, I would also disagree with the Gospel of Thomas in its conclusion that (as Ehrman puts it) “Salvation means escaping the constraints of the body.” (as in Saying 37, p.60). We do not live in the midst of “a cosmic catastrophe” such that our only way to salvation means “escaping” from this world (p.61).
On the other hand, oddly enough, I find myself in agreement with Thomas that in a truly profound way the so-called “Kingdom of God” is spiritual. It’s inside as well as outside of us. To paraphrase Saying 3, “When we come to know ourselves...we will realize it is us who are the offspring of the living God.” (Ibid.) -- all of us.
We can achieve salvation ourselves as a species through the combined help and guidance of ethics, compassion and science – and I would include psychology and the other behavioral or social sciences as science (e.g., sociology, anthropology, economics, and political) because they, too, follow the empirical method. In the end, salvation should be viewed as a collective, this-world, goal for all sentient life – including (but not limited to) human beings. At the same time it is, it can be, and it will be a deeply spiritual experience.
Any kind of life-after-death salvation, to my mind, remains to be seriously flawed – or, worse, nothing more than a pipe dream.
9. Do you see any compatibility between Gnosticism and a modern scientific worldview? (p.60)
The only similarity might be that both are in pursuit of knowledge – but it would have to be real knowledge and the pursuit of real truth if its going to be compatible with a modern scientific point of view. If it’s “secret” knowledge meant only for the privileged and enlightened few, then it’s not science. It’s the wishful thinking of a cult.
10. Comment on the first paragraph on pg. 61.
It is an odd choice of words – especially as Ehrman describes our world “as a place of confinement for divine spirits.” I do experience our world as a place filled with “spirits” – ours along with other sentient beings – and there does seem to me to be a greater Spirit within and beyond us all that I would call God. But none of us is “divine” – in the classical sense of that Supreme Being given to us by traditional theology. What’s more, I don’t feel “confined” in or by this world – except by my own physical limitations and human fallibility. That I am alive and can spiritually experience all of the gifts that our world has to give us is an immense blessing for me.
I would also take issue with Ehrman’s conclusion that “the other way around” was “completely impossible” – i.e., that “human spirits came into being as a result of the creation of matter.” They did. And that, ultimately, is what makes it so amazing, miraculous, or (in the words of Thomas) “a wonder of wonders.” (Saying 29). The history of science, itself, is a testimony to the development and progress of the human spirit.
In the end, I would take issue with the conclusion that seems to be made by the Gospel of Thomas (or Ehrman’s take on it), that my “spirit must escape” from this world “and then it will be one again” – a “unified spirit” within another plane of spiritual existence as part of some theory of esoteric cosmology. That just seems too weird to me. But what do I know?
11. Perhaps we should turn from the question of HOW to get salvation to WHAT KIND OF salvation we should be getting. Comments? (p.64)
I may have addressed this, to some extent, in my response to question #8, above. In my vision of salvation, it ought to happen (or at least begin) here on earth. What happens after – when our physical lives come to end – is completely unknown. There is absolutely no scientific or believable proof that we become disembodied spirits following our physical deaths and then continue to live on within a different plane of existence – whether that’s a reunification with God/our Creator or among all of the other spirits that once were human beings but are now beings of another sort. Such a vision of “Heaven” (or “Hell”!), I believe, is sheer speculation and wishful thinking, at best.
To my mind, salvation should be and can happen when creation as we know it reaches its highest peak of evolution and we become the creatures we were always meant to be – fully realizing our potential and so, in a very real sense, creating a kind of “heaven” wherever it is that “we live and move and have our being.” (cf. Acts 17:28). That might happen here on earth, but it also could happen somewhere else in the universe with a race of people far different than the human race as we know it today.
12. Extra credit: Is the final “paragraph” a sentence?
It does read more like a meandering stream of thought than it does a coherent sentence. The whole paragraph as written by our author is, at least, very awkward syntax.
I certainly would re-write it to make it read more clearly – maybe something like this: drop both of the commas after “destroyed” and “Hammadi” and insert the verb “is” following “Hammadi” then, finally, a period after “Jesus” instead of a comma. The second, and last, sentence of this long paragraph could then be rewritten to say something like this: “If rightly understood, the Gospel of Thomas means to bring us to the ultimate experience: eternal life.”
...just my 2¢.
Week 2 Questions
A – This is a short chapter, so you may want to spend a bit more reading time on the Acts of Paul and Thecla.
1 – What is your response to canonized forgeries? 30
2 – What do you imagine the book stall selling Galen’s book looked like? 30
3 – What kind of modern stories are modeled after the Thecla story? 35
4 – Are the described “ancient novels” really state sponsored propaganda designed to further the patriarchal society of the Roman Empire? Comments? 36
5 – What about the Christian stories with their opposite agenda? 37
6 – Why do you think our author makes such a weak statement about Paul’s position on woman’s leadership: “- may have lined up on the other side of the issue.”? 37
7 – Why do you think the church has been so successful in suppressing women? 39
8 – Why do you think the early church was so much about sex when Jesus was so much about economics? 39
9 – What do you think about Jesus’ twin brother? 40
10 – I suspect that by now most of you have read Thunder, Perfect Mind. How would you fit it into the stories our author is describing? 41
11 – Why would the (possible) coming of the end-of-the-world have anything to do with sex? 45
Responses to Week 2 Questions
Chapter Two: “The Ancient Forgery of a Discovery: The Acts of Paul and Thecla” (pp.29-46)
1. What is your response to canonized forgeries? (p.30)
The more bizarre and supernatural that they are, the less significant they are to me. This is true, however, no matter which of the 66 books of the Bible you’re talking about. In the final analysis, they’re all interpretations made by the original authors – whoever they may be (and we can’t be certain who most of them were). What’s more, all of them have been revised and redacted throughout the centuries that followed, so it’s very difficult to determine the “voice” of the original author from one verse, or one chapter, to the next.
2. What do you imagine the book stall selling Galen’s book looked like? (p.30)
I imagine it looked very much like what you can see contemporary street vendors do as they set up shop along sidewalks and roadsides. I envision that most of the city streets in the ANE resembled what we still see today in our so-called “flea markets”.
3. What kind of modern stories are modeled after the Thecla story? (p.35)
I don’t know of any. The woman named Diana (and Artemis, before her), called “Wonder Woman” might be one. An earlier version of this character was Queen Hippolyta – regent of a culture of particularly large and strong women known as the Amazons. The darker-skinned version within our culture gave rise to yet another Wonder Woman, called “Nubia the Real One” (who was said to have been formed from a darker shade of clay). She was considered to be the true heir to Hippolyta’s throne and Diana’s elder sister. There seems to have been many spin-offs from her in other cultures as well (The new Brazilian superhero Yara Flor, for example, takes up the tiara as Wonder Woman in the Future State of DC comics). But were any of them directly “modeled after the Thecla story?” I doubt it.
4. Are the described “ancient novels” really state sponsored propaganda designed to further the patriarchal society of the Roman Empire? Comments? (p.36)
I see no evidence of that. Most novels reflect the societies from which they arose, but it doesn’t seem to me that the Romans would bother with creating novels to further their empire. They had armies to do that for them.
5. What about the Christian stories with their opposite agenda? (p.37)
Now, that might be believable, because they had no armies and might want to use subversive (from the state’s point of view) or gnostic-like literature to reach the public in more subtle, less dangerous, ways.
6. Why do you think our author makes such a weak statement about Paul’s position on woman’s leadership: “The irony is that Paul himself – the historical Paul – may have lined up on the other side of the issue.”? (p.37)
The letters of Paul do provide vivid clues about the kind of leadership roles women played in the 1st century CE. He greets a deacon named Phoebe (Romans 16: 1) and later lifts up the names of Prisca, Junia, Julia, and Nereus’ sister, all who worked and traveled as missionaries in pairs with their husbands or brothers (Romans 16: 3, 7 & 15) – and he praises Junia, especially, as a prominent apostle. Mary and Persis are also commended for their hard work (Romans 16: 6, 12) and Euodia and Syntyche are called his fellow-workers in the gospel (Philippians 4: 2-3). Paul also references women who were the leaders in the so-called “house churches” (Apphia in Philemon 2 and Prisca in 1 Corinthians 16:19, as well as Nympha of Laodicea in Colossians 4: 15 – although that letter, they say, probably wasn’t written by Paul).
Maybe Ehrman was just thinking of those infamous words from 1 Corinthians 14: 34-35 that women “should keep silent in the churches” and not speak up. But, oddly enough, in that same letter Paul doesn’t seem to be rebuking those who were “praying and prophesying” in the church (1 Corinthians 11: 5). On the contrary, he gives them instructions on how to do it in the right way – that allows them to speak, but that at the same time honors the male leadership. So, this single instance may be what Ehrman was referencing. Who knows?
7. Why do you think the church has been so successful in suppressing women? (p.39)
In many ways, coordinated systems of hierarchy have been completely dominated by males throughout most of the cultures all across the world – from the beginning to now. It’s to be expected, then, that such deeply engrained systems would be transferred to the religions within those cultures. Regrettably, it’s only been during our own 20th century that women have begun to finally come out from under that domination and suppression.
8. Why do you think the early church was so much about sex when Jesus was so much about economics? (p.39)
Of course, Jesus was about so much more than just “economics,” but when the early church came to be dominated by so many men (single or married), it seems inevitable that their own twisted and suppressed sexuality would be manifested in the Church.
9. What do you think about Jesus’ twin brother? (p.40)
No doubt Jesus had more than one sibling; some of them were female (but, in keeping with this paternalistic culture, nowhere are their names given); and one or more was probably male. The orthodox tradition, however, lists just four brothers: James (a.k.a. “the just” – and Paul seems to be the first to mention him in Galatians 1:19), then Joses, Simon, and Jude. But I very much doubt that any one of those was Jesus’ twin – even the one named Jude. We would’ve heard a lot more about him than we have. I think that it was just a syntactical invention because each one of those three names – Didymus Judas Thomas – can legitimately be translated with the word “twin.”
10. I suspect that by now most of you have read “Thunder, Perfect Mind.” How would you fit it into the stories our author is describing? (p.41)
In all of the Nag Hammadi library, Thunder: Perfect Mind is virtually unique and very unusual. It has no apparent structural divisions and is written in the first person throughout, interweaving and combining three types of statements: self-proclamations in the “I am” style, exhortations to listen or pay attention to the speaker, and criticisms for failures to listen or love, etc. What’s most distinctive about all of these self-proclamations, though, is that so many of them are antithetical or paradoxical.
I do find it interesting that – at least in content and style – Thunder’s a lot like the “Hymn of Christ” in the Acts of John – vv. 94-96, in which Christ sings of himself in a succession of antitheses and contrasts like this, just without ever using the “I am” formula.
It’s hard to classify Thunder. It has no distinctly Christian, Jewish or gnostic allusions and doesn’t seem to connect to any particular gnostic myth. It does resemble some of the wisdom hymns in the Bible, though. But if the multiple assertions are meant to speak to the universality of God’s wisdom, maybe the antithetical ones are a way of asserting the totally other-worldly transcendence of this one who claims to be the revealer.
The speaker throughout, named Thunder (like Sophia, a feminine noun in the Greek), is supposed to be understood in terms of the parallel phrase in the title: Perfect Mind. In Greek myth (as well as often in the Hebrew Bible) Thunder is the way that God makes God’s presence known on earth. Thunder becomes allegorized as the Perfect Mind here, though, so is meant to be understood as the extension of the divine in and to the world (1, 1-2).
It reminds me a lot of the concept of the cosmic Pneuma – understood as the active, intelligent element in all things, principally in air and fire. In its manifestation as reason, it was also able to instruct those who would listen about the way to true life. But, still, with Thunder’s conception of the immanence of the divine in all aspects of the world, it shouldn’t be classified as gnostic. Again, Thunder: Perfect Mind is hard to classify.
11. Why would the (possible) coming of the end-of-the-world have anything to do with sex? (p.45)
Why not? If, for any reason – ascetic lifestyles or not – the cycles of reproduction became interrupted or corrupted, eventually all that would be left would be old life forms doomed to die without progeny. Final extinction would be the result, then, simply because there would be no one left to procreate.
On the other hand, if you were convinced that the end of the world was near, why would you want to bring children into the world? It would have nothing to do with the end of “an evil age” even if “one strand of Pauline Christianity” seemed to have assumed that it did. Ehrman is of the opinion, however, that “neither Jesus nor Paul urged a social revolution. ... The end was coming soon, and the best one could do was prepare for it.” (p.46) – apparently that included abstaining from sex.
Week 1 Questions
A – I don’t think the Robert Miller mentioned in connection with Oxford Press is the same Robert J. Miller who edited the Polebridge Press version of The Complete Gospels.
1 – How many of the Major Christian Apocrypha have you heard of? xi
2 – What do you see as the “strangest” modern Christianity? 1
3 – Of Christology, Trinity and Canon, which is most important to you, and which do you think has been historically most important? 5
4 – If you could change one thing that you know about Christianity now (before reading the rest of this book), what would it be? 6
5 – The term Gnostic has fallen out of favor. How do you understand Gnostic now? (again before reading the rest of this book) 7
6 – How do you feel about using the word Forgery rather than some other term? 10
7 – How do you think the disciples viewed Jesus? 16
8 – What do you think about the difference(s) in the resurrection account(s) in the canonical gospels vs. the Gospel of Peter? 19
9 – Is it worth you time to investigate (actually read or read about) many noncanonical texts? 24
10 – When did Peter become a saint? In other words, what’s the earliest possible date for the Peter ostracon? 24
11 – What do you think of so many ways to torture and so (relatively) few ways to describe eternal bliss? 26
Responses to Week 1 Questions
I’d like to highlight a very important statement by our author right there at the beginning:
“This is a book about the wide diversity of early Christianity and
its sacred texts. Some of these texts came to be included in the
New Testament. Others came to be rejected, attacked, suppressed,
and destroyed.” (p.ix)
Ehrman goes on to infer that these lost texts can tell us quite a bit about how diverse early Christianity actually was. Only one version came to dominate the scene and decided for the rest of us what we were supposed to believe and consider as “sacred Scripture.” The result is mind-boggling in its implications.
1. How many of the Major Christian Apocrypha have you heard of? (p.xi)
Between seminary and this book, I’m at least familiar with most of them – but particularly three: The Gospel of Mary and The Gospel of Thomas, of course; but (while not a part of the “Major Christian Apocrypha”) I did spend some time with The Didache (διδαχή or “The Teaching” in Koine Greek – a.k.a. “The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles”). It’s a somewhat enigmatic primitive document of the early Church. Its real significance, though, is its description of what kind of ethics, practices, and order should organize that community – a kind of church polity for the 2nd century. I’ve also read The Shepherd of Hermas – which was particularly important for one of the so-called “Church fathers,” Irenaeus. It has five visions, twelve mandates, and ten parables and relies a lot on allegory. It pays special attention to the Church and the way that it calls the faithful to repent of their sins that have harmed the Church.
Introduction: Recouping Our Losses (pp.1-7)
2. What do you see as the “strangest” modern Christianity? (p.1)
I don’t think it has a name, per se, but I think it’s people who believe in the existence of non-human beings in another plane of reality – beliefs about the supernatural, if you will. It would have to begin with that divine mind that Christians call God. That being has never appeared before us, but people seem to be incredibly confident in it – from the depths of their philosophy to the heights of their experience. In much the same vein, many Christians still believe in angels, demons (or a literal Satan/Devil) and other “heavenly creatures.” People expect them to be active, even if they’re not often aware of them. Pope Francis and probably your neighbor are believers in such beings. People still believe – even if in different ways – that God has directly communicated with human beings. The central problem, to my mind however, continues to be the claim that one Jesus of Nazareth was both fully human and fully divine – i.e., the full body of God. How is that possible – I mean, really?
My point? You don’t have to go very far (e.g., snake handlers or miracle workers) to come across “strangeness” – even in so-called “modern Christianity.”
3. Of Christology, Trinity and Canon, which is most important to you, and which do you think has been historically most important? (p.5)
In many ways, of course, each influences the other. However, without an orthodox Christology you don’t get a doctrine like the Trinity, that then becomes ensconced in a Canon (a term, our author points out in a footnote, “comes from a Greek word that means “measuring rod” or “straight edge”...so, “a ‘standard collection of writings.’” (#1, p.259). From my point of view, then, if you begin with a flawed conception of Christology – the nature and work of the Jewish messiah (or “anointed one”) – everything that follows, tragically, becomes problematic, even unbelievable. So, it seems to me, the most important concept that needs to be reformed is our Christology. We need to think that one through again if Christianity is to survive.
4. If you could change one thing that you know about Christianity now (before reading the rest of this book), what would it be? (p.6)
As I’ve said, above (and a number of us in this book group have confirmed, as well), we should change this problematic use of the supernatural as we conceive the nature and reality of God – and, from there, we bring Jesus back down to earth. That Jesus is worth listening to and following because he’s one of us.
5. The term Gnostic has fallen out of favor. How do you understand Gnostic now? (again before reading the rest of this book) (p.7)
Well, of course, I already read this book long ago, and I had enough Koine Greek in graduate school to know that that word γνῶσις (or gnosis) is a noun that means “knowledge” – so an agnostic is simply someone who has the courage to admit that he or she doesn’t know, or doesn’t have all the answers. We should all be agnostics – at least as it applies to religion. It just means we don’t know it all. We can’t and never will.
As Ehrman points out here, what we’re supposed to know – and so not to question – was established very early on by the “proto-orthodox.” They thought that they knew better. They didn’t. And Christianity has suffered from their ignorance – not their “knowledge” – from the very beginning until now. We ought to have the courage to question what we think we know and think it through again. If we don’t, I believe that the Church and Christianity as we’ve come to “know” it will not survive. But, that might not be a bad thing. The death of orthodox Christianity might just spur a radically new reformation so that a reformed and renewed Christianity can be given birth. Let’s start with what we know.
PART ONE: FORGERIES AND DISCOVERIES (pp.9-89)
6. How do you feel about using the word “Forgery” rather than some other term? (p.10)
Many of these works, indeed, proved to be forgeries (in the modern sense) because they were written by somebody else and attributed to another – usually someone whose name and authority was well-known within one of the early Christian communities. But from what I’ve read of church history, this wasn’t uncommon in the ancient world. Such works were not necessarily “written under a false name with the intent to deceive.” A “ghost writer” would attribute their work to another as a way of honoring that person – i.e., the actual writer was no more than a devout disciple. So, the ancient context is not as outrageous as we think about similar such forgeries today. Still, they were forgeries and we ought to know that – whether or not one chooses to refer to them as pseudepigrapha (“false writings”) or apocrypha (“secret” writings). Unfortunately, many such writings came to be viewed as authoritative texts by those early Christian communities – and still by some today.
Chapter One: “The Ancient Discovery of a Forgery: Serapion and the Gospel of Peter” (pp.13-28)
7. How do you think the disciples viewed Jesus? (p.16)
I think that they viewed him with profound respect and with a measure of awe at his
courage. He was a man of great wisdom who earnestly tried to reform the corrupt practices of both his native Judaism and its Roman oppressors. In doing that, however, he came face-to-face with powerful people who became implacable enemies that finally had him killed.
But his ideas didn’t die along with him. His disciples believed in him so passionately that they would not let his life and teachings go unrecognized. They made him into their hero – and, in the process, made him larger than life itself. If Rome could claim divinity for its emperors, they could do the same for this wise but humble teacher from Nazareth. Many even came to claim that Jesus was, indeed, the long-waited-for Messiah who would remove the yoke of Rome from the shoulders of the Jewish people. Eventually, the early Christian communities would come to claim that this 1st century sage was much more than that. He was God himself – a claim that I believe Jesus never made nor ever would’ve accepted.
8. What do you think about the difference(s) in the resurrection account(s) in the canonical gospels vs. the Gospel of Peter? (p.19)
The account in the Gospel of Peter is even more bizarre than the canonical gospels At least the Gospel According to Mark comes close to presenting a believable account of the end of Jesus’ life (except, of course, for that vision of “a young man dressed in a white robe” – Mark 16: 4-7). The body of Jesus could not be found. Seeing that the body was not there, the three women who get to the tomb, run away, “because they were afraid” (v.8). The earliest manuscripts end there.
Unfortunately, not long after 65 CE, however, stories begin to accumulate and grow about the physical body of Jesus literally being resurrected and “eye witness” accounts of that begin popping up all over the place.
It’s all high drama – and all of it complete fiction. Resurrection should never be about a resuscitated corpse getting up from his grave and walking around. But, it is about a charismatic leader who continued to live on in the life of his community.
9. Is it worth your time to investigate (actually read or read about) many noncanonical texts? (p.24)
Yes, it is – if, for no other reason, than to begin to recognize and appreciate just how many stories there were circulating around the ANE (Ancient Near East) about the life and times of one Jesus of Nazareth.
10. When did Peter become a saint? In other words, what’s the earliest possible date for the Peter ostracon (pottery shard)? (p.24)
Who knows? I’d say that almost all of the ancient Christian churches venerated Peter as a major saint from the very beginning; so this could be dated either from the 1st or 2nd century – even as early as 30 CE. Peter was believed to be the founder of the Church of Antioch as well as the Diocese of Rome sometime around that time.
According to early Catholic teaching, Jesus promised Peter a special position in the Church (e.g., Matthew 16: 18 – where Jesus supposedly says to Peter, “And I say to you, you are Peter; and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”). That account was circulating around the ANE as early as 70 CE.
Some claim that Peter’s sanctification happened on the same day as Pentecost – when the Holy Spirit was supposed to have poured out upon the gathered apostles and they all began to “speak in tongues” (Acts 2: 1-4). Who knows, however, when or if that ever happened.
Peter became “officially” recognized as a saint, though, much later than people might think. The records show that he was canonized by Pope Innocent IV on March 9, 1253 – often referred to, not surprisingly, as “the fastest canonization in papal history!”
11. What do you think of so many ways to torture and so (relatively) few ways to describe eternal bliss? (p.26)
Regrettably, the history of humanity simply shows that we’re far more capable of the former than we are the latter. We’ve devised more ways to punish each other than we have shown ways to care for one another. We know more about Hell on earth than we do anything at all about Heaven.