Saturday, December 25, 2004

What I didn't learn in Sunday School

I've been catching up on some reading this winter break. The first book down is Bart Ehrman's "Lost Christianities: The Battle for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew". I first heard about it some months ago when Ehrman, a theologian at UNC, was interviewed on Fresh Air.

I read the book on the 20hr-odd journey from ORD to MAA (but skipped some chapters to get to the good parts... so excuse me if i've got some of his ideas wrong). He says that the beliefs that we know as core christian ones (the stuff that's in the nicene creed for eg. --- the trinity, the divinity of christ, belief in the resurrection, etc.) are the results of theological battles that were won and lost not necessarily purely on the strength of the ideas. (We're talking about the first couple of centuries here... way before the nestorian controversy etc.) Early christians came up with widely-varying explanations to try and explain/reconcile the various sayings of Jesus, the facts of his death, his position within the jewish tradition etc. And in order to perpetuate their ideas they resorted to some heavy-handed, less-than-noble methods including slandering the opposition and forging documents (including, possibly, some that made it into the New Testament!). And though the eventual winners of the debates (the "proto-orthodox") that wrote the official history (through church historians like Eusebius) made it seem like their ideas were always predominant, in reality ideas that we know today as heresies had a much larger following than previously thought.

Though i found the book very informative, theological-historical research involves more guess-work and conjecture than i would like. There seems a little too much resolution by democracy ("most experts agree"), rather than strong evidence, leaving too much room for ideologically-driven conclusions. Maybe all historical research is like that... I'm probably wishing for too much.

One of the early controversies was about how exactly old jewish practices fit into the new religion: did men still need to circumcised ? Paul was a vocal opponent of the practice. Ehrman writes

His letter to the Galations seethes with white-hot anger. His opponents are false teachers who stand under God's curse. They have "bewitched" their hearers. Those who follow their instructions will lose their salvation. Paul hopes that when they themselves are circumcised the knife slips and they castrate themselves (Gal 1:6-9; 3:1-5; 5:2-4,12)
I don't remember hearing that in sunday school... should've paid more attention.


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