Book Review: Lost Scriptures (Bart Ehrman)

Lost Scriptures

Lost Scriptures

In Lost Scriptures: Books that Did Not Make It Into The New Testament (OUP, 2003) New Testament scholar and textual critic Bart D. Ehrman compiles a translation and brief introduction to forty-seven writings of the Jesus Movement and Early Christian Church. Providing the scholar and student easy to understand and accurate English translations of these non-canonical texts, Lost Scriptures is an invaluable resource for those studying the early history and development of Christian faith and practice. Containing materials of a variety of genres and positions, Lost Scriptures presents its readers with a plethora of source-text based examples of the various strands of early Christian faith. While not a perfect introduction to early Christianity, Lost Scriptures does an admirable job of presenting pertinent historical facts alongside readable English translations of early Christian literature.

Lost Scriptures begins with a brief introduction to the materials presented, including a historical sketch of the Jesus Movement and the importance of realizing that canonical texts do not represent the entire picture of early followers of Jesus of Nazareth. Ehrman lays out the texts in the order of their canonical genres, ordering his materials as gospels, acts, epistles, and finally apocalypses and revelatory texts. Ehrman presents seventeen non-canonical gospel fragments, each of which provides some perspective concerning early Christian views on the pre-history, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. These gospel accounts, which vary greatly in length and source-type (some are reconstructed from other writings while others have been discovered in extant form and translated), include such notable works as the Coptic Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Mary, and the Secret Gospel of Mark. Also included are some texts that are not typically labeled as gospel accounts, such as the Gnostic Second Treatise of the Great Seth, which nonetheless claim to include allegedly biographical information about Jesus.

Ehrman follows the gospels with five non-canonical accounts of the acts of the Apostles, including the Acts of Paul and the incredibly popular account of the Acts of Thecla, which was especially popular among young celibate women and ascetics in the early centuries of Christianity. Lost Scriptures next includes thirteen non-canonical epistles and related writings of a variety of types and lengths. Included in these are known pseudonymous works, such as Paul’s Third Letter to the Corinthians and his Letter to the Laodiceans, both of which are mentioned in canonical writings attributed to Paul, but have been long understood as lost. Ehrman also includes literature that was both widely popular and generally (proto-) orthodox, but eventually excluded from the New Testament canon, such as the Epistle of Barnabas, I Clement, and the Didache. Additionally, presented are some rather interesting and clearly late writings, such as the Correspondences of Paul and Seneca, where the Apostle Paul and the greatest philosopher of his day engage in a series of short exchanged that by-and-large praise Paul and his rhetorical work spreading the gospel.

Finally, Lost Scriptures includes seven non-canonical apocalypses and revelatory treatises, including the Shepard of Hermas, a popular treatise that was popular enough in some parts of the Early Christian Church to be included in several important New Testament Codices (most notable Codex Sinaiticus). Ehrman also includes five early canonical lists, including the Muratorian Canon, and those of Origen, Eusebius of Caesarea, and Athanasius of Alexandria in his 39th Festal Letter. While Ehrman offers no concluding remarks, the canonical lists marks a fitting end to his presentation of materials in Lost Scriptures, as their acceptance signals the general end to the use of non-canonical writings for those belonging to the catholic Church who formally approved the final New Testament canon.

Bart D. Ehrman

Overall, Lost Scriptures should be commended for broadening the scope of early Christian literature to which those studying early Christianity are exposed. In this book Ehrman seeks to provide textual evidence for his presentation and argument concerning the diversity of the early Jesus Movement that he outlines in Lost Christianities (OUP, 2003). However, it should be noted that Ehrman fails to adequately provide readers of Lost Scriptures with a fully developed contextual understanding of the materials that he presents. Perhaps most striking is a curious lack of approximate dates for some of the documents presented. While Ehrman includes compositional dating information for some of the documents he includes and we must remember that not all early documents have a certain date range, it is nonetheless perplexing that he fails to include as much contextual information as possible in the presentation of these documents. Some have noted that this presentation borders on obscurity, leading uninformed readers to assume that all of the texts included in this volume come from the same basic point in time (and thus has equal claims to historical truth). The fact of the matter is that numerous fragments and documents presented in Lost Scriptures come considerably later in the historical record than writings now included in the NT canon or those of the Apostolic Fathers. In short, Ehrman’s presentation here at times seems to shift the textual evidence toward his narrative of a vast variety of ‘competing’ Christian faith traditions that leaves little room for a (proto-) orthodox Christian faith amidst the volume of textual perspectives.

To conclude, Lost Scriptures provides readers with a variety of diverse texts of the early Jesus Movement and early Church. These texts demonstrate the breadth of belief in the formative years of the Christian tradition, and while Ehrman seems to slant their presentation at some points, the writings included in Lost Scriptures continue to present readers with insights into theological and practical questions for today. While not a perfect presentation of the Early Church and a developing body of Christian literature and canon, it should be concluded that Lost Scriptures does an admirable job presenting the reader with an extremely valuable tool for research and study.

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