The Christianity Battles

What if Ebionite Christians, Marcion Christians, or Gnostic Christians had been more convincing?

BY: Interview by Deborah Caldwell

 
The early Christian Church was a chaos of contending beliefs, according to Bart Ehrman, author of Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew. Ehrman says some groups of early Christians claimed there was more than one God. Some believed Jesus was human but not divine, while others said he was divine but not human. In his book, Ehrman looks at how these early forms of Christianity came to be suppressed, reformed, or forgotten. He spoke recently with Beliefnet about what Christianity might have become if a different strain had emerged victorious from first-century intellectual battles.

Your book discusses the hypothetical questions of what would have happened to Christianity, and by extension world history, if a different type of Christianity had survived. What are your best guesses about that?

It depends on which of the other sides had won. The

Marcionites

decided that everything Jewish had to be taken out of the New Testament and that the Jewish Bible was no longer going to considered part of the scriptures. They thought there were two different Gods--the God of the Jews and the God of Jesus. If they had won, then I guess we wouldn't have an Old Testament anymore and there would be no connection between Judaism and Christianity. My hunch is that if that had happened, anti-Semitism wouldn't have developed among Christians. What drove anti-Semitism was the competition between the Jewish understanding of scripture and the Christian understanding of scripture. But if there were no competition because they didn't have the same scripture, then we may well have never had any anti-Semitism.

Do you think the Marcionite version of Christianity would have become a dominant world religion the way Christianity is now? Or do you think that Judaism would have remained equal with that version of Christianity?

It's a good question, because Marcionite Christianity was popular for the same reasons similar beliefs are popular today. Today people will talk about how there's a difference between the Old Testament God of wrath and the New Testament God of love. And people who make that distinction are far more drawn to the New Testament God of love. Well, that was a Marcionite distinction, because they really thought there were two different gods, and that was attractive to people. Jews throughout the ancient world, as a whole, really weren't persecuted, but most people thought the Jews were a little bit strange as a people. And so if this religion had nothing to do with Jews and Judaism, that may have been attractive to a wider range of people.

What would Christianity have looked like if the Ebionites had won?

We would have a different New Testament to begin with. The Ebionites were opponents of the Apostle Paul. They thought he was a heretic. A lot of the New Testament had to do with the Apostle Paul and his writings. Those would have been excluded from the get-go. They would have kept what is now our Gospel of Matthew but maybe not any of the other Gospels. And it would mean that Christians would have to be Jewish, which means uncircumcised men would have to get circumcised and people would be keeping kosher food laws and would be keeping the Sabbath, worshiping on Saturday, keeping Jewish festivals. So Christianity would have been more recognizably a sect of Judaism.

What do you think would have happened if the Gnostics had been the dominant?

It's a little hard to know with the Gnostics, because there were so many different kinds of Gnostics competing among themselves, as well as competing against the Christians who ended up winning out over the others. Gnosticism is a religion based on insider knowledge, and it's hard to know whether that can ever become a mass religion or not, since it presupposes that you've got a large group of people who don't understand, and only a few of the insiders who do understand. If Gnostics had become dominant, Christianity would have been quite different from what it is now.

Maybe more Buddhist?

That's how a lot of people look on Gnosticism--it seems more like an Eastern religion because its practitioners are interested in acquiring insight and enlightenment rather than salvation through the death of Jesus.

Continued on page 2: »

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