By Mike Gleason
Lost Scriptures: Books that Did Not Make It into the New Testament, by Bart D Erhman
Oxford University Press, 0-19-514182-2, 342 pp., 2003
In my opinion, it is beneficial for those of us who are not Christian to read writings related to the early days of Christianity. Many of these writings are considered “Gnostic,” some are merely “heretical,” and some have simply fallen out of favor with the orthodox authorities. The stories told in many of these writings reveal how Christianity responded to their pagan neighbours during the days of the early development of the religion. In some cases, they show how many of their beliefs were influenced by pagan thought.
If you think that pagans have no need to know about these writings, I feel you are mistaken. Many non-Biblical stories have found their way in “common knowledge” about Jesus and his family and followers, and have their origins within these works. They have inspired medieval artworks, commentaries of accepted stories from the Bible, and other beliefs. When speaking with Christians, it may be beneficial to be able to point out the source of some of their beliefs
This book is aimed at the non-scholar, unlike many of the collections of such writings which have been published in the past 150 years. The author has also taken great pains to make the translations easy to read and understand. Many of the earlier translations were incomplete, or couched in language which appears, at the least, stilted. This publication offers a very readable translation, and has the benefit of the continuing investigations into the history of Christianity and the ancient world in general.
I remember seeing mention of many of these works in an older book in my library (Lost Books of the Bible and The Forgotten Books of Eden), which was published prior to the discovery of the Nag Hammadi texts. They were still among the “missing” at that time and there really wasn’t much hope of finding them.
Although these “books” are not an acknowledged part of the modern Christian Bible, they are part and parcel of the early period of growth of the Christian religion. They were, in many cases, accepted by vast numbers of Christians; in many instances for hundreds of years, before they were put aside in favor of the currently accepted composition of the bible.
Professor Ehrman provides general backgrounds on the various “classes” of the books contained within this volume (Gospels, Acts of the Apostles, Epistles, and Apocalypses) as well as the canonical lists which are included at the end of the book. Each individual “book” is also put into historical perspective (where possible), and the reader is given a sense of its major differences from the accepted texts. Some of the works are not citied in their entirety due to their length, but significant excerpts are given, and some of them have not been found in their entirety. Where differences of opinion exist regarding the translation of a particular word or phrase, it is noted.
Some of the images which these works convey may seem unfamiliar (or even downright frightening) to the average non-scholar. On the other hand, many of the stories will remind the reader of stories which have often been the subject of medieval artists and which have, therefore become part of the “accepted facts,” even if they are unofficial, of Christian beliefs.
Bearing in mind that some of these works were once considered to be authentic, but judged unworthy of inclusion among the accepted canon of scripture, one is led into speculation about the validity of the current canon. While it is unlikely that reading these books will convert anyone (one way or the other), they may serve as a useful tool in exploring the development of Christian thought through the early centuries of its development.
Professor Ehrman provides a valuable reference tool by assembling this mass of data in an easily understood format. By keeping his comments brief and predominantly free of obscure references, he makes a welcome addition to the library of the layperson interested in religious history.
While it is not a necessity for a Pagan library, it could be a valuable resource for those wishing to learn more about early Christianity. The author has also produced Lost Christianities, if you are interested in further information on this topic.