In my previous post I mentioned my second trade book, Lost Christianities (Oxford University Press, 2003). I just now looked at the beginning of the book; I hadn’t read it in years. It made me want to read it again! I do know there are things I would change if I did the book now: my understanding of Gnosticism and the Gospel of Thomas are different, for example. But on the whole, I still rather like it.
But books are like that. They’re like your children. Each one is near and dear to your heart.
Here is how Lost Christianities starts.
Recouping Our Losses
It may be difficult to imagine a religious phenomenon more diverse than modern-day Christianity. There are Roman Catholic missionaries in developing countries, who devote themselves to voluntary poverty for the sake of others, and evangelical televangelists with twelve-step programs to assure financial success and prosperity. There are New England Presbyterians and Appalachian snake handlers. There are Greek orthodox priests committed to the liturgical service of God, replete with set prayers, incantations, and incense, and fundamentalist preachers who view high-church liturgy as a demonic invention. There are liberal Methodist political activists intent on transforming society, and Pentecostals who think that society will soon come to a crashing halt with the return of Jesus. And there are the followers of David Koresh — still today — who think the world has already started to end, beginning with the events at Waco, a fulfillment of prophecies from the book of Revelation. Many of these Christian groups, of course, refuse to consider other such groups Christian.
All this diversity of belief and practice, and the intolerance that occasionally results, makes it difficult to know whether we should think of Christianity as one thing or lots of things, whether we should speak of Christianity or Christianities.
What could be more diverse than this variegated phenomenon, Christianity in the modern world? In fact, there may be an answer: Christianity in the ancient world. As historians have come to realize, during the first three Christian centuries, the divergent practices and beliefs found among people who called themselves Christian were so vast and fundamental that the differences between Roman Catholics, Primitive Baptists, and Seventh Day Adventists pale by comparison.
Most of these ancient forms of Christianity are unknown to people in the world today, since they eventually came to be reformed or stamped out. As a result, the sacred texts that some ancient Christians used to support their religious perspectives came to be proscribed, destroyed, or forgotten – in one way or another lost. Many of these texts claimed to be written by Jesus’ closest followers. Opponents of these texts claimed they had been forged.
This book is about these texts, and about the lost forms of Christianity they tried to authorize.
The Varieties of Ancient Christianity
The wide diversity of early Christianity may be seen above all in the theological beliefs embraced by people who understood themselves to be followers of Jesus. In the second and third centuries there were, of course, Christians who believed in one God. But there were others
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