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What Kind of Ancient Christian Books Might Be Discovered?

On and off of the past few months I've posted on which books from early Christianity -- from the time of the New Testament! -- I'd love to get my grubby paws on.  Here is a related question I received.  What are the chances? QUESTION: What do you think are the odds that a really startling discovery like Q or an early Paul letter is still out there and likely to be discovered? RESPONSE: This is a really great question, and like many really great questions, there is no really great answer.  It is, of course, impossible to come up with any actual “odds.”   The best we can say is “pretty slim indeed." But let me put some flesh on the bare bones of that answer. The first thing to say is that there are indeed instances in which a modern discovery has been made of a book that we had reason to suspect at one time existed.   But that very rarely happens. In virtually every case that it *has* happened, it is not a document [...]

Was Paul Peter’s Enemy?

In a lecture I gave recently, I was talking about "forgeries" in the name of Peter, Jesus' disciple -- that is, books that *claimed* to be written by Peter but certainly were not.  They were written by Christians living later who *said* they were Peter -- possibly in order to get more readers for their books! There is a big question about the canonical books of 1 and 2 Peter.  The vast majority of critical scholars (i.e. those who make their historical judgments apart from questions of what they would personally like to believe about the Bible religiously) agree that 2 Peter was not written by Peter; whoever wrote it, it certainly was not the author of 1 Peter.  A lot of scholars, including me, somewhat forcefully, also argue that Peter could not have written 1 Peter either.  But that's a topic for other posts (which I've made in the past). In my lecture I mentioned three others, that no one disagrees about: the Gospel of Peter, the Apocalypse of Peter, and the Letter of [...]

How Could Christ Be Both God and a Human — At Once? The Unusual View of Origen

In this long thread on the Trinity I have been trying to explain how Christians came to the view that Jesus was God but that he was separate from God the Father – that both were God, but they were two different persons, and yet there was only one God.  I will have far less to say about the Spirit, since he/she/it got added to the mix more or less because Christ was already in it, as we will see. So far I have taken us up to the early third century, where one view had come to be widely rejected even though earlier it had been prominent: that Jesus actually *was* God the Father, come in the flesh (often called “modalism”).   Now I want to look at a more sophisticated way of understanding the relationship of Christ to the Father.  This one comes in the writings of Origen, one of the truly important Christian thinkers of the first three Christian centuries. Origen came from Alexandria and was exceptionally learned and unbelievably prolific. According to [...]

Are God and Christ the SAME Person?

In this thread on where the Trinity came from, I have been focusing on early Christology – the understandings of who Christ was.  My reason for that is simple.  The issue of the Trinity arose only because Christians said more than one being was God but that there was only one God.  The “other” being at the outset, of course, was Christ.  After his death his followers called him God.  The Trinity doctrine, as I will now start to explain in greater detail, emerged by the problems that then arose: two beings who are God, but only one God. I will be getting to the Spirit later, but frankly there is not as much to say there. First I need to keep going on the idea of Jesus being God and God being God.  The question that naturally arose among the Christians was how that could be the case: how could *BOTH* of them be God?  In what sense? That’s an issue I dealt with in my book How Jesus Became God.  Here I’ll provide some of [...]

Lost Christian Writings I’d Love to Get My Hands On!

I thought it might be fun to intersperse some posts from years ago to break up here and there the thread on the Trinity, for those who have, well, lots of other interests too!  So here's a good option. I did a short thread before the vast majority of you were on the blog (and maybe before you were born. :-) ) based on a question:  among all the ancient Christian writings that have been lost, which ones would I especially love to get my grubby paws on? Here's the original question and my first response to it.   QUESTION:  What lost early Christian books would you most like to have discovered?   RESPONSE: Ah, this is a tough one.   There are lots of Christian writing that I would love to have discovered – all of the ones that have been lost, for example! But suppose I had to name some in particular.  Well, this will take several posts.  To begin with, I wish we had the other letters of Paul.   Let me explain. In [...]

Christ as Non-Human (but fully God) in the Early Second Century

On this slow path we are taking to see where the doctrine of the Trinity came from (it may seem slow, but of course a full analysis would take volumes!) I have been trying to show how different understandings of Christ emerged in early Christianity – starting from the original belief of his disciples in his resurrection and exaltation, to later exaltation views (he was a man who became divine at his resurrection; NO! at his baptism; NO! at his birth) and then incarnation views (he was never a man who was not God.  He was God who became a man). Paul has both views: Christ was a divine being who became human but then got exalted to a higher level of divinity; the final view is found in the Gospel of John: Christ was completely divine from the beginning, and in fact was the Creator of the universe. Wow. In the last post I showed that this incredibly “high” Christology in John was taken yet higher in the later Johannine community, as some members [...]

An Apocryphal Story of Mary’s Conception of Jesus

In my previous post I introduced the seventh-century Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew, one of the most popular Christian writings of the Middle Ages.  It tells an expanded version of the events leading up to Jesus’ birth, and then yet more legendary tales of what happened afterward.   I continue here with another intriguing portion of the account: the events surrounding Mary conceiving Jesus, even though she was a virgin, and the reactions of Joseph when he realizes she is pregnant, and then – something completely missing from the New Testament – the religious “test” inflicted on her by others to see if she was telling the truth. Again, this is taken from the translation in my book The Other Gospels, produced with my colleague Zlatko Pleše.   The Annunciation 9 1 On the next day while Mary was standing beside the fountain to fill her small pitcher, an angel appeared to her and said, “You are blessed, Mary, for you have prepared a dwelling place for God in your spirit.   Behold, a light will come from heaven [...]

A Different Account of Joseph and Mary!

As we move to the Christmas season, I thought it would be interesting to post some extracts on one of the most popular Gospels in the Middle Ages, an account of Jesus’ birth – and before that, his mother Mary’s birth – and what happened in the aftermath.   It is called the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew, because modern scholars once thought that it had claimed to be written by Matthew (the author of the first canonical Gospel); but in fact, as you will see, it claims to be written by Jesus’ brother James. The Gospel comes to us in Latin and was probably produced in the early 7th century.   Some of you may know, from the blog or elsewhere, a Greek Gospel of this description from the 2nd century, the Proto-Gospel of James.   This later Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew is a kind of reworking and expansion of the Proto-Gospel, with some parts removed, lots more added, and others simply altered.  It may be that its unknown author wanted to propagate the stories of the Proto-Gospel in the [...]

Ancient Numerical Interpretations of the Bible

I have recently received this question about a very interesting and little known phenomenon in the New Testament. QUESTION: What is the use of the concept of Gematria? And was it used in the NT? RESPONSE:               Ah, the question is a bit tricky but pretty fascinating.  Gematria was an ancient Jewish way of interpreting texts that relied on the fact that in ancient writing systems (Greek, Hebrew, etc.) the letters of the alphabet also designated numbers.  It doesn’t work that way for us, since we use the Latin alphabet (A B C D E….) but Arabic numerals (1 2 3 4 5….).   But in ancient languages, the letters were also the numerals.  So, in Greek, the language of the New Testament, the first letter alpha was 1; beta was 2; gamma was 3; etc. Once you hit iota it was 10, and after that it went by tens, so that the next letter kappa was 20, lambda was 30, and so on.  Once you hit a hundred it went by hundreds. Greek in the [...]

Our Most Important Gospel from Outside the NT: The Gospel of Thomas

This week in my graduate seminar we will be discussing the Coptic Gospel of Thomas, not to be confused with the Infancy Gospel of Thomas that I mentioned in a post last week, with which this one has no relation, apart from the fact that both claim to be written by Thomas, a.k.a. Didymus Judas Thomas, i.e., Jesus’ brother Jude. By far this Gospel of Thomas is the best known, most read, and most significant Gospel from outside the New Testament.  It was accidentally discovered in 1945 near Nag Hammadi Egypt as one of the 52 documents contained in a set of twelve books, with part of a thirteenth, now widely known as the Nag Hammadi Library.  Most of these documents are Gnostic. Like all the others, this one is written in Coptic and is a Coptic translation of a Greek original.  The book that contains it was produce in the mid-fourth century CE.  But the Gospel itself was originally composed in the early second century CE.  It is hard to say when after this [...]

2020-10-29T16:48:35-04:00September 14th, 2020|Christian Apocrypha, Early Christian Writings (100-400 CE)|

My Early Christian Apocrypha Seminar

I am teaching a PhD seminar this semester on the early Christian apocrypha; it's a little hard to define what those are, though hundreds of people have tried!.  The way I define them are as non-canonical books that are similar in genre and contents to those that did make it into the canon.  Or something like that.  They comprise Gospels, Acts, Epistles, and Apocalypses, they can be "orthodox" or "non-orthodox" (= " heretical"); most of them claim to be written by apostles (but not all); the ones I'm most interested in date from the second to the fifth centuries. It's a fairly but not crazily heavy-hitting class.   It meets once a week for three hours.  Here, for your amusement and reading pleasure (especially if you do the assignments!) is the syllabus: To see what follows, you will need to belong to the blog.  Not a member yet?  Now's the best time ever to join.  Why?  Because you can't join in the past.     Reli 801: Early Christian Apocrypha Instructor: Bart D. Ehrman Fall 2020 [...]

The Opening Section of the Gospel of Judas

Here is the first bit of the Gospel of Judas from the translation of my colleague Zlatko Pleše in our book The Other Gospels.  After this bit here, the Gospel gets very strange, at least to most modern readers.   But as you can see, it is really interesting. The first paragraph is the explanation of where we got the text from; then the translation of the opening scends, and after that I give the bibliography for further reading that we cite in our book.   ************************************** Our translation is based on the Coptic text of Rodolphe Kasser, and Gregor Wurst, eds. The Gospel of Judas: Critical Edition.  Washington, DC: National Geographic, 2007.   New portions of the Gospel appeared in 2006, when the one-time owner of the manuscript declared bankruptcy and his remaining antiquities collection was turned over to a bank in Ohio; included in this collection were numerous small fragments of the Gopsel of Judas.   These have been photographed and they have begun to be studied; for our translation of the account here we have [...]

Sethian Gnostics and the Gospel of Judas

Soon after scholars had a chance to examine the Gospel of Judas it became clear that it embodied a form of early Christian Gnosticism known as "Sethian."   Most descriptions that you find of Gnosticism are simplistic and do not actually reflect the mind-boggling complexities of the texts that embody it, to the extent that even if you master the basic descriptions you find, it is very hard to make sense of any of the texts. That is certainly true of the Sethian writings! To say they are gloriously confusing is a serious understatement.  They involve myths filled with wierd names and intricacies of relationships and events that are hard to explain in the abstract. But hey, you gotta try!  And if you don't have much space to do so, well, you do the best you can.  Here is how I explain Sethian Gnosticism in my book After the New Testament , 2nd edition.  (The book is actually an anthology of early Christian texts writings all kinds, and I include selections from three key Sethian texts.) [...]

When I Learned the Gospel of Judas Had Been Discovered

As I said in my last post, after receiving an out-of-the-blue query about the Gospel of Judas I looked it up to refresh my memory: it was allegedly a book used by a group of Gnostics named the Cainites, a book that told the story of Jesus from the perspective of Judas Iscariot, his betrayer – not in order to malign Judas but, evidently, to celebrate his deed, since it was (somehow) to Jesus’ advantage. Soon after reading up on the Gospel (there was very little to read about it, since we didn’t have it; all we had were some comments in the writings of church fathers who opposed it, principally Irenaeus), I received a second phone call, this one from a person at National Geographic, asking what I knew about the Gospel of Judas.  I obviously realized that something was up. So I told her what little we knew about the Gospel as probably a Gnostic text.  In my mind, I wasn’t sure – before this – that the text actually *ever* existed.  Some [...]

How I First Learned About the Gospel of Judas Iscariot

Over the past few weeks I’ve had a thread dealing with Judas Iscariot and another thread dealing with claims from the second century that Christians were highly immoral (sexual reprobates, murderers, and cannibals).  Or at least that some Christian heretics were.  As it turns out, these two threads are closely related in a way one would not expect – at least in a way I never expected until I got involved with the “Gospel of Judas” that was discovered in recent times.  I posted on this many years ago but it would be interesting to do so again. This will take several posts.  I begin with how I first found out about the Gospel of Judas, back when experts in early Christianity knew virtually nothing at all about a Gospel of Judas. In the Fall of 2004 I was in my study minding my own business (well, talking with a graduate student) when the phone rang.   It was a woman named Sheila, whom I had known for years.  Sheila had sponsored a number of archaeological [...]

Did Early Christian Heretics Promote Outrageous Sex Rituals?

In my post a few days ago I mentioned the widespread rumor in the ancient Roman world of the first couple of centuries CE that Christians were flagrantly immoral, engaging in wild sex and infanticide and homicide in their weekly meetings.  A couple of readers have asked if that might have been true for *some* of the Christian groups of “heretics,” and that Roman outsiders who knew of their activities assumed all Christians engaged in them. Great question!  I’ve thought about this one for over thirty years.  What I concluded about twenty-nine years ago is what I still think now: these kinds of charges were commonly leveled in the Roman world against whomever you didn’t like and suspected and there is very little any evidence that they were ever true.  Almost always they are just slanders.  It is worth noting that very similar charges were leveled by pagans against Christians, pagans against Jews, pagans against each other, Christians against pagans, Christians against … Christians! I’ve talked about this in some of my publications, most fully [...]

The Outrageous Immorality of Early Christians (!) (?)

The question I addressed yesterday: could the obvious benefits of the Christian community – a community of love, fellowship, and mutual support – have drawn converts into it, who very much wanted that kind of thing?  The surprising answer, I think, is no, at least in the early centuries when Christianity was trying to establish a foothold in the world.  There’s another reason for thinking what I do, and it’s not one you would expect. There were reports about the early Christian communities among outsiders.  But it was not that they were a loving and caring group of unusually upright and morally committed people.  On the contrary, the Christians were known to be flagrantly immoral, engaged in heinous, licentious, and murderous behavior.  Hard to believe, but that is the charge we repeatedly find.  Here is what I say about it in my book The Triumph of Christianity.  Brace yourself. *************************************************************   In the early centuries Christians were accused of almost unfathomable outrageous behavior.  Both Justin around 150 CE in Rome and Tertullian some fifty years [...]

How Could Torture Not Hurt?? Guest Post by Stephanie Cobb

Here now is the second of three posts by Stephanie Cobb on her recent book about early Christian accounts of the martyrs.  As you'll see, she makes some rather astonishing and counter-intuitive claims.  But I think she's completely right.   This is fascinating material.... - Stephanie Cobb's most popular books are Dying to Be Men and Divine Deliverance.   *********************************************************   In the previous post, I detailed the reasons martyr texts ought to focus on the suffering and pain of early Christians experiencing torture and being executed for their faith. I also, though, noted that despite those reasons, the texts exhibit an interest in protecting the Christian body from the experience of pain. In this post, we’ll look at some of the ways Christian authors accomplish their goals of illustrating Christian insensitivity to pain. But first, a quick caveat: in my work, I focus on rhetoric and narrative—not history per se. That is, I am not arguing that torture does not hurt. In fact, I am certain that torture hurts and to deny that is a [...]

What Kind of Book Was Papias Writing? Guest Post by Stephen Carlson

This is the second part of Stephen Carlson’s guest post on the important but now-lost work of the early-second century Christian author Papias.  In the previous post he talked about the mind-boggling abundance of wine and wheat there would be in the kingdom, based on Papias’s reporting of a “word of the Lord.”    Now he explains that saying, and in doing so develops a bold way of understanding what kind of book Papias actually was trying to write.   Most of us have long assumed it was a kind of commentary on Jesus’ teachings.  But was it? Stephen Carlson is the author of The Gospel Hoax and The Text of Galatians and Its History. **************************************************************** Scholars have long noticed that this fertility tradition has important links with the late first-century Jewish apocalypse 2 Baruch 29.5 (“Also the earth will give its fruits, one in ten thousand. And one vine, there will be on it a thou­sand twigs. And one twig will make a thou­sand clusters, and one cluster will make a thou­sand grapes, and one grape [...]

Wine Flowing in the Kingdom: Guest Post on Papias by Stephen Carlson

Here is yet another guest post by Stephen Carlson on the intriguing but puzzling quotations from Papias, the elusive second century church father who wrote a five-volume book called “Exposition of the Sayings of the Lord.”   What was this book, and does it give us any information from outside the Gospels – from an extremely early source – about the sayings of Jesus? In this post Stephen addresses one of the most, well, unusual passages known to be from Papias’s work.  As you’ll see, in this account Jesus thought that in the millennial kingdom yet to come, the wine will be flowing…. I have broken the post into two because of its length.  Part 2 will come next. Stephen Carlson is the author of The Gospel Hoax and The Text of Galatians and Its History. *************************************************************** The Fertility Tradition in Papias In our last post, we looked at the preface of Papias’s Exposition of Dominical Oracles, and noticed that it mentions two kinds of content in the work. One kind of content is characterized by [...]

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