DATE December 17, 2003 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Bart Ehrman discusses neglected and recently
rediscovered ancient Christian writings
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
Christianity in its many forms as we know it today is based on the 27 books of
the New Testament, but we get conflicting views of Jesus Christ's life and
teachings from the recently rediscovered ancient gospels that were excluded
from the canon. My guest Bart Ehrman is a scholar of neglected and recently
rediscovered ancient Christian writings. He has two new books. "Lost
Scriptures" is a collection of writings from books that did not make it into
the New Testament. Some of the translations are his own. In the book "Lost
Christianities," Ehrman examines these non-canonical writings and analyzes
what they tell us about the various forms of Christian faith and practice in
the second and third centuries. Ehrman chairs the department of religious
studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Many of the non-canonical works that you've collected and written about in
your two new books belong to three different schools of thought. Let's talk
about what those three different schools are. Let's start with the Ebionites.
Who were they?
Professor BART EHRMAN (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; Author):
The Ebionites were Jewish Christians. They started out as Jews who followed
Jewish customs. They were born Jewish, probably followed Jewish customs such
as circumcision, observance of the Sabbath, kosher food laws and such. But
these Jews had come to believe that Jesus was the Messiah. They accepted
Jesus as the Jewish Messiah sent from the Jewish God to the Jewish people in
fulfillment of the Jewish law, and so they understood that to follow Jesus, a
person needs to be Jewish.
That meant that the Gentiles, the non-Jews, converting to the faith, according
to the Ebionites, had to become Jewish. The men had to be circumcised, and
men and women had to keep kosher and observe Sabbath and such. And so they
were a Jewish group within early Christianity.
GROSS: So they didn't see Christianity as a break from their Jewish faith,
just as a new development within it.
Prof. EHRMAN: Yeah, they saw Christianity as the fulfillment of the
expectations of Judaism, and they maintained since Jesus was the Jewish
Messiah sent from the Jewish God, that obviously this is still a Jewish
religion. And so they retained the Old Testament as their Scriptures and had
other scriptures that did not eventually make it into the canon, but other
gospels, for example, that they said were inspired and authoritative that
emphasized the Jewishness of Christianity.
GROSS: Now what about the Marcionites?
Prof. EHRMAN: The Marcionites stand at the other end of the spectrum
theologically from the Ebionites. The Marcionites followed a teacher from the
second century named Marcion, who was a famous theologian, philosopher who had
as his hero the apostle Paul. Paul had said that a person is made right with
God apart from the Jewish law, and Marcion pushed this to an extreme, saying
that there's a difference between the law on the one hand and the gospel on
the other hand; that the law is given by God in the Old Testament, it's a
harsh law that nobody can follow, and so there's a penalty for not following
the law, which is death.
This harsh, vengeful God of the Old Testament is contrasted with the God of
Jesus, who is understood to be loving and merciful, who's come to save people
from their sins rather than to condemn them for their sins. Marcion concluded
therefore that there are, in fact, two different Gods. There's the God of the
Old Testament and the God of Jesus and Paul. And so he wasn't a monotheist.
He believed in two Gods, and he rejected all things Jewish as coming from this
other God, the wrathful God of the Old Testament.
GROSS: Do you think that there's anything from that basic premise that
survived into the canon?
Prof. EHRMAN: Well, the hero of Marcion, of course, is the apostle Paul, as
I said, and Paul's writings form a central component within the New Testament.
Now Paul has more books attributed to him than any other author of the New
Testament. And I think, in fact, that this Marcionite view continues on in
some churches unknowingly today, where people continue to talk about there
being a difference between the Old Testament God of wrath and the New
Testament God of love. That was the original view propounded by Marcion.
GROSS: One of the groups that some of these writings fall under is the
Gnostics. Who are the Gnostics?
Prof. EHRMAN: Well, the Gnostics are a little bit hard to describe because
there are a number of early Christian sects that scholars have lumped together
under that term, `Gnostic.' The term `Gnostic' comes from a Greek word,
`gnosis,' spelled with a G, G-N-O-S-I-S, gnosis, which means `knowledge.'
These people are called Gnostics because despite the differences among them,
they all emphasized that knowledge is the way to salvation.
The basic Gnostic system appears to have maintained that this world we live
in, this material world, is not the creation of the one true God, but in fact
is a cosmic disaster that happened and that people are trapped spirits,
spirits that have been entrapped here in human bodies and need to escape this
evil material world. And the way they escape this evil material world is by
acquiring the proper knowledge, the gnosis, necessary for salvation. In these
Gnostic religions, for many of them Christ is the one who comes from heaven to
reveal this knowledge that can set people free from bondage to their bodies.
GROSS: One of the best-known of the Gnostic gospels is the Gospel of Thomas,
which includes over a hundred sayings of Jesus. And some of them are very
similar to his sayings that appear in the New Testament, but they're, on the
other hand, kind of different from them as well.
Prof. EHRMAN: Yes.
GROSS: One of the really interesting ones that you quote is a variation on
`seek and ye shall find.'
Prof. EHRMAN: Yeah.
GROSS: Do you want to read what the variation is in the Gospel of Thomas?
Prof. EHRMAN: Yeah. This Gospel was a fairly recent discovery. It was
uncovered in 1945 with a collection of other works near a town in Egypt that's
called Nag Hammadi, and so these books are sometimes called the Nag Hammadi
library. They contain 52 different books that appear to be Gnostic in their
orientation. So this was a terrific find because it was the first time that
we had a large number of original documents from the Gnostics themselves,
including this Gospel of Thomas, which has 114 sayings of Jesus, some of
which, as you said, are very much like what we find in the New Testament, but
others of which are quite different.
There are some sayings that sound like the New Testament, but then they start
to have an interesting twist at the end. For example, this one you're
referring to, saying number two. It goes like this: `Jesus said, "Let him
who seeks continue seeking until he finds. When he finds, he will become
troubled. When he becomes troubled, he will be astonished and he will rule
over the all."'
GROSS: How would you interpret that?
Prof. EHRMAN: Well, it sounds a lot like the saying in the New Testament,
`seek and ye shall find,' but then it has this funny twist that when somebody
finds what they're looking for, they become troubled. Then after being
troubled, they become amazed or astonished, and then they rule over the all.
I take this to be a Gnostic saying that once one finds the true secret of
one's identity, that one, in fact, doesn't belong here, that one is a spirit
that has come from the divine realm and has been trapped here in a mortal
body, well, that's a troubling discovery that leads to amazement. But once
one is amazed and has full knowledge of his or her identity, then one has the
opportunity of returning to the divine realm itself where the person will,
with the other divine beings, rule over all there is.
GROSS: I don't know if this is fair, but the New Testament `seek and ye shall
find' sounds more almost like a self-help homily, whereas the Thomas one
sounds more like a Zen koan.
Prof. EHRMAN: Yeah, there's something to that. The New Testament, I think,
really the `seek and ye shall find' is actually more geared toward answers in
prayer. The idea is that whatever you ask shall be given you, whatever you
seek for, ye shall find and whenever you knock, the door shall be opened. But
the person providing that is God, so that God is the one who allows you to
find and to have your prayers answered. Whereas here, it really does seem
more internalized, that you discover who you are and, as it turns out, you are
a divine being who has the power to rule over all there is. So it does have
more of a kind of Eastern Zen-ish feel to it.
GROSS: My guest is Bart Ehrman. His two new books are "Lost Scriptures:
Books that Did Not Make It into the New Testament" and "Lost
Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew."
We'll talk more about early Christianity after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Bart Ehrman is my guest. He has two new books, "Lost Christianities:
The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew" and "Lost Scriptures:
Books that Did Not Make It into the New Testament."
Let's talk about some of these early books and what some of their different
interpretations are. Let's start with the divinity of Jesus. What do the
different sects of Christianity that these books are from say about the
divinity of Jesus? Is he the Son of God? Is he divine himself? Is he merely
Prof. EHRMAN: This was one of the hottest debated points in early
Christianity. Today, of course, Christians tend to say that Jesus is both
divine and human, both God and man. But in early Christianity, there were
wide-ranging debates over who exactly Jesus was. This group called the
Ebionites, this group of Jewish Christians, maintained that Jesus was
completely human and only human; that he was born to the sexual union of
Joseph and Mary, that he was like the rest of us, only he was more righteous.
And since he was more righteous than the rest of us, God chose him to be his
son and appointed a task to him, to be the one who would die for the sins of
others. So in that system, Jesus is completely human and not at all divine.
Contrast that with the Marcionite Christians, who maintained that Jesus was
completely divine. He was one who came from the good God to save people from
the wrathful God of the Old Testament, and he didn't belong to the God of the
Old Testament who created this world. Since he didn't belong to the God who
created this world, he couldn't be part of the creation itself, which means
for the Marcionites he was never born. In fact, the Marcionites maintain that
he descended from heaven as a full-grown human in the appearance of human
flesh so that he was, in fact, a phantasm, fully divine and only seeming to be
And so these are two opposite extremes, one saying he was fully human and not
divine, the other saying he's fully divine and not human. And other people
wanted it both ways, saying, yes, he is fully human, but he's also divine.
He's divine but, yes, he's also human.
GROSS: What about the Gnostic texts?
Prof. EHRMAN: The Gnostics have a particularly interesting understanding of
it because they understand that there's something divine and human about
Jesus, and so what they maintain is that Jesus Christ is two things: That
Jesus is a man like other humans, who was born into this world, who was a
righteous man, and the Christ is a divine being that comes down from heaven to
inhabit the body of Jesus, so that the Christ is different from Jesus. The
Christ is a divine being inhabiting Jesus' body during his ministry. That's
why he doesn't start doing any miracles until after his baptism for these
people, because that's when the divine Christ came into him. And then at the
end of his life, since the divine element cannot suffer, since it's divine,
Jesus at the end cries out, `My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?';
literally, `My God, my God, why have you left me behind?' It's because the
divine element at that point, according to the Gnostics, had left Jesus and
returned to its heavenly abode. So for them, Jesus Christ was two things.
There's a separation between the Jesus and the Christ.
GROSS: How do the early sects of Christianity explain the birth of Jesus?
Are there virgin birth stories in the other early sects?
Prof. EHRMAN: Some of the early sects maintain that Jesus was born of a
virgin, and even in what I would call proto-Orthodox circles, in other words,
the circles that held to the views that eventually became Orthodox, even in
these proto-Orthodox circles, there are traditions about Jesus' miraculous
birth that are somewhat different from the traditions we find in the New
There's a very interesting early text called the proto-Gospel of James which
is allegedly written by Jesus' own brother, James, in which there's an account
of Mary giving birth, and when she gives birth, Joseph, narrating it in the
first person, actually sees time stand still. He sees the sheep aren't moving
in the field and birds aren't flying through the air and humans are frozen in
space, just as the Son of God is being born. He goes off and, according to
this proto-Orthodox story, the proto-Gospel of James, Joseph goes off then to
find a midwife in order to assist with the delivery. But when the midwife
arrives, the child's already been miraculously born. The midwife doesn't
believe it, however, and decides that she needs to give a physical inspection
of Mary, a postpartum physical inspection, to see if, in fact, she really was
a virgin. And she gives her a postpartum inspection, and it turns out not to
have been a good thing because then her hand starts burning off in judgment
for disbelieving that the virgin has given birth. Jesus, then, the infant
Jesus, ends up healing her hand, so it all works out well in the end.
This has to do with the idea that Mary continued to be a virgin even after
Jesus, as is a doctrine, for example, in the Roman Catholic Church that Mary
was a perpetual virgin, and so this is part of an early, early narrative
description of that idea.
GROSS: And what about Jesus' death and resurrection? How do the early sects
that you were describing describe his death, and do they believe in his
Prof. EHRMAN: Well, you know, that's a really good question. These
different groups had different understandings of the death and the
resurrection. There were some groups, of course, who said that Jesus' death
is what brings about the salvation of the world. That would be the
proto-Orthodox view. There were other people who said that Jesus died, but
his death had nothing to do with the salvation of the world. For example, the
Gospel of Thomas, these 114 sayings of Jesus that appear to be Gnostic in
their orientation--they think that they way to have eternal life is by
understanding Jesus' secret teachings. His death has no role to play in
salvation. There were some Gnostic groups that maintained that when Jesus
died, it was just the man Jesus who died, that the Christ had left him to die
alone on the cross so that the divine element didn't suffer at all. There are
other Christians who maintain that since Jesus was fully divine and not really
human, that he didn't have a flesh-and-blood body, so that he didn't die at
all, that it was just an appearance to deceive the enemies of Jesus, the
demons and the devil. But in fact, Jesus himself never actually died.
GROSS: And heaven and hell and afterlife--did the early Christian sects, the
three main ones that you were describing earlier--did they believe in an
afterlife and in heaven and hell the way Christians have come to understand
Prof. EHRMAN: Well, I think many of these sects did believe in some kind of
heaven and hell. Some of them believed, though, that instead of there being a
heaven and hell for individuals in the afterlife, the idea that you die and
your soul goes to heaven or hell, some of them, for example, the Ebionites,
appear to have thought--held to the view that may have been the original
Christian view, even the view of most writers of the New Testament, namely
that it isn't salvation for the individual soul, but that God is going to
bring a new kingdom here on Earth and that eternal life will be an earthly
life in which the sin that happened in the Garden of Eden is reversed and we
live here in paradise forever, or for those who are not among believers, they
are banished from this paradise forever and suffer eternal punishment.
GROSS: And the others?
Prof. EHRMAN: Well, it's hard to say about the others. The Gnostics are the
most interesting group because the Gnostics maintain--some Gnostic groups
maintain that there are three kinds of human being. One kind of human being
is made up purely of animals, just like your pet cat or dog or just like
insects or other animals. When these animals die, they die and that's the end
of the story. So you squash a mosquito and the mosquito's gone forever.
Well, some humans are like that. They're pure animals; they die and that's
it. A second group of humans, according to these Gnostics, were people who
could have an afterlife if they had faith and good works. It would be a good
afterlife. It wouldn't be fantastic, but it would be pretty good. This
afterlife is reserved for people who were Christian who do good works and have
faith. But then there's a third group, the Gnostics themselves, who are the
insiders, who have insider knowledge, who learn who they really are as sparks
of the divine. These people, once they acquire the knowledge necessary for
salvation, they're entitled to an afterlife that's fantastic, that'll be a
return of the spirit to the divine realm that it came from in the beginning.
GROSS: How did the texts that are in the New Testament become the canon? How
come the other texts didn't make it in? Who decided? What was the process
Prof. EHRMAN: Well, it's an interesting process, and people who've thought
about it have sometimes concluded that there must have been some kind of vote
taken among bishops of the churches or there must have been some kind of
church council where it was all decided, and in fact, that's not how it
happened. There were long, drawn-out debates over which books should be
included and which should be excluded. In the second and third Christian
centuries, so a hundred, 200, 300, years after Jesus' death, there were
Christian groups who held to the canonical standing of books that eventually
didn't make it in. Some Christians thought the Gospel of Thomas should be
included, or the Gospel of Peter or the Gospel of Philip. Others maintained
that other apocalypses such as the Apocalypse of Peter should be included, or
a book called the Shepherd of Hermas. Some people didn't think the book of
Revelation should be included, or the book of Hebrews.
So there were these long, drawn-out arguments. It's interesting and quite
shocking to many of my students, my undergraduate students, to learn that the
first person ever to list our 27 books as the 27 books of the New Testament
and no others--the first person to do this was a man named Athanasius, who was
a powerful bishop of the church of Alexandria, Egypt, who wrote a letter to
his churches in the year 367 in which he listed the 27 books that we have.
This is the first time in history that anybody listed our 27 books and only
our 27 books, so that it took over 300 years before the canon was put into
some kind of final form, and there continued to be debates long after
Athanasius into the fourth and fifth centuries as Christians continued to
GROSS: Bart Ehrman has two new books, "Lost Christianities" and "Lost
Scriptures." We'll talk more about early Christianity in the second half of
the show. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Coming up, we continue our conversation with religion scholar Bart
Ehrman about early Christianity and the texts that were excluded from the New
Testament. And film critic David Edelstein reviews "The Return of the King,"
the final installment in "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Bart Ehrman, a scholar
of early Christianity.
He has two new books. "Lost Scriptures" is a collection of ancient writings
that did not make it into the New Testament. His book "Lost Christianities"
analyzes these non-canonical texts and discusses what they can tell us about
how early Christians interpreted the life and teachings of Jesus and how they
practiced their faith. Ehrman chairs the department of religious studies at
the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
When we left off, we were talking about how the 27 books that became the canon
were chosen in the second half of the fourth century.
Were the texts that didn't make it into the canon suppressed?
Prof. EHRMAN: Yeah. Well, once it was decided which books were to be
included, there was also a decision that the heretical books had to be
destroyed and taken away. That's why we often don't have the original
writings of many of these early Christian sects, because they were destroyed
on the order of some of the bishops.
I should say something about how the Christians decided that these 27 books
would be in instead of some others. We do have discussions in early church
writings about how to decide which books to include, and the early Christians
seemed to follow four major criteria for judgment. First, a book had to be
ancient if it were going to be included, so that if a really good Christian
book were written just a year or two ago, that isn't good enough; it has to go
way back to the time of Jesus and his apostles. Secondly, related to the idea
of it having to be ancient, a book had to be written by an apostle or a
companion of the apostles.
Now some of the books were anonymous, which created problems. Matthew, Mark,
Luke and John, for example, don't claim to be written by people named Matthew,
Mark, Luke and John. That's the titles they have, but whoever gave them these
titles was trying to say that, `This is the Gospel according to Matthew.'
That isn't something Matthew himself would say; he would just say, `This is
What happened is Christians in the early second century started saying, `These
anonymous books actually are connected with apostles.' Matthew is the
disciple, the tax collector; John is the beloved disciple; Mark was understood
to be the secretary of the apostle Peter; Luke was understood to be the
traveling companion of Paul. And so they attached names of apostles or
companions of the apostles to these anonymous books so they could be accepted,
because books had to be not only ancient, but also apostolic.
The third thing is that books had to have widespread usage throughout the
world of Christendom in order to be accepted into the canon. And fourth, and
finally, books had to be orthodox; meaning they had to agree with the correct
understanding of the faith to be included. So that a book like the Gospel of
Peter or the Gospel of Thomas ended up be excluded precisely because these
books were understood not to represent the Orthodox faith.
GROSS: The group that you describe as proto-Orthodox in early Christianity is
the group that's closest to what is in the New Testament. Who was this group?
Prof. EHRMAN: Well, it's a somewhat amorphous group in that we know of some
people who belonged, but it's probably a fairly large group with many
differences among them. We call them the proto-Orthodox because they
represent the points of view that eventually became dominant in early
Christianity, that eventually became Orthodox. But these people were living
before this victory that they won, and so we call them proto-Orthodox.
These are people like Ignatius of Antioch and Clement of Rome and Tertullian
and names that many students of early Christianity would be familiar with,
although they're not household names any longer. These were people who
insisted on certain theological points of view. They insisted that there's
only one God--there is not two or 12 or 30; that Jesus is his son, who's both
human and divine. He's not just human, he's not just divine; he's both.
These are people who developed the idea of the Trinity, that God is in three
persons. There's only one God, but this God is manifest in three persons.
These are the people who developed the creeds that eventually got formulated
by the fourth century, creeds that continue to be recited by Christians today;
the Nicene Creed and the Apostles' Creed. They're the one who decided which
books would be in our 27-book canon, these 27 books and no others. And
they're the Christians who decided how the churches would be run. They
insisted that there would be bishops over churches and eventually that there
would be bishops over bishops, and eventually that there'd be one bishop over
all, the bishop of Rome, who eventually then becomes the pope.
So these are the people who insisted on points of view that became dominant in
Christianity and that determined the shape of Christianity for the ages to
come down to our own day.
GROSS: Was it the only Christian group that had a hierarchy like that?
Prof. EHRMAN: There were other Christian groups that did have hierarchy, but
the proto-Orthodox especially emphasized their hierarchy. And they used their
hierarchy to good advantage, because the bishop was able to call the shots
over the church. This relates to the formation of the canon, because bishops
tended to be the most educated people in their congregations. Most people in
the ancient world couldn't read. Probably at this time period, something like
10 percent of the population was literate, which creates an interesting irony
for early Christianity because it's insisting that its religion is based on
written text, but these written texts would be ones that people, by and large,
were unable to read. The bishops, however, could read and could interpret.
And so the interpretation of these texts by bishops, by leaders of the
churches, then, are what's determining what Christians believe. So there's
some kind of interesting connection between high literacy rates and leadership
in these early Christian churches.
GROSS: And was there any connection, do you think, between the hierarchy in
the proto-Orthodox church and the fact that that's the group that kind of won
out in terms of the dominant approach to Christianity?
Prof. EHRMAN: Yeah. The way I see the process working itself out in early
Christianity is that there were a wide range of groups who believed a wide
range of things and had a wide range of practices. And eventually, one of
these groups acquired more converts than others. It's a group of Christians
that we're calling the proto-Orthodox who had a base in the city of Rome.
There were more proto-Orthodox Christians in Rome than other kinds of
Christians, and Rome, of course, was the capital of the empire. Some people
think that because this kind of Christianity was explicitly in Rome that that
was a certain advantage that they had, that the Roman Christians, under their
leader, the bishop of Rome, tried to assert their influence over other
churches in surrounding areas and then, eventually, throughout the world. So
that by investing this bishop with certain kinds of power and then getting
like-minded bishops in other neighboring churches then throughout the world,
this group was able to establish itself as dominant throughout Christendom.
GROSS: If the New Testament is, in part, a way to make the teachings of
Christ consistent and to do away with some of the contradictory sects, do you
find it interesting that in spite of that there are still so many different
approaches to Christianity that have flourished?
Prof. EHRMAN: Well, it's extremely interesting. Christianity's always had
kind of two movements, one toward unity and one toward diversity. These two
movements seem to happen simultaneously. So that the idea of creating a canon
of Scripture was to create a unified text that could be used as an
authoritative witness to how Christians should believe and practice their
religion. But this unified text that emerged is 27 books written by different
authors to different audiences at different times. And, in fact, there are
different viewpoints found among these 27. By putting them between one hard
cover, a set of hard covers, the proto-Orthodox Christians were hoping that
that would stabilize the religion.
But since there's so much diversity even within the New Testament, the ploy
didn't really work because there are different viewpoints found in the
different Gospels, for example, and between, say, Paul and Matthew and between
the Book of Revelation and the Gospel of John; different viewpoints that
different Christians latched on to leading to, again, more variety within
early Christianity. So that today, even Christians who all subscribe to the
notion that there's a 27-book canon of Scripture can disagree on the most
fundamental things of the faith--including things like: What is an
appropriate form of baptism? What is one to believe about the divinity of
Christ?--I mean, major issues that can't be resolved even on the basis of
these canonical texts.
GROSS: My guest is Bart Ehrman. His two new books are "Lost Scriptures:
Books that Did Not Make It into the New Testament" and "Lost Christianities:
The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew." We'll talk more
about early Christianity after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Bart Ehrman is my guest, and he's the author of two new books about
the early Christian texts that did not make it into the New Testament. One
book, "Lost Christianities," is about those texts, and the second book, "Lost
Scriptures," excerpts some of those texts.
How did you become interested in the early non-canonical texts?
Prof. EHRMAN: Well, when I was in graduate school, two things were happening
that sparked my interest. One was I became increasingly interested in the
diversity of the New Testament itself. I had started out as an evangelical
Christian, thinking that the text of Scripture was completely inspired and
without any error. But as I started working on these texts, reading them in
the original Greek language, studying them intensely, I started finding
wide-ranging differences among these books. And soon, I started seeing
contradictions in the texts, and I started seeing that these different authors
had different perspectives, including perspectives that were at odds with each
other within the pages of the New Testament.
At the same time I was finding that, I became interested in other books not
found in the New Testament. I started studying the Gospel of Thomas, the
Gospel of Peter, books that are called the Apostolic Fathers, such as the
Shepherd of Hermas or the Epistle of Barnabus. And I began to realize that
Christianity outside the canon was even more diverse than the Christianity
within the canon. And so these two elements of my study are what really
sparked the interest that culminated in these two books that I've written.
GROSS: In your own studies, when you realized that there was such diversity
of reporting among the different early texts about Christ, did that become a
crisis of faith for you?
Prof. EHRMAN: Yeah. For me personally, it did lead to a crisis of faith,
because unlike a lot of my friends who were studying the same material, my
friends didn't have the kind of evangelical belief in the inerrancy of the
Bible that I had. Their faith was rooted in something else other than a
particular doctrine about the Bible.
But since my faith had been rooted in evangelical teachings about the Bible,
once I started realizing that there were discrepancies in the Bible that I
simply couldn't resolve without having to do a lot of very fancy footwork, I
decided that the Bible wasn't the inerrant rule of faith and practice that I
had assumed. And for me, this led to a real crisis, an emotional crisis of
But it's interesting that my friends at the time--I happened to be at
seminary, Princeton Theological Seminary. My friends at the time learned
everything I learned and would agree with most of the things that I think and
continue to be solid believers. But it's because their faith wasn't built on
some understanding of the inerrancy of the Bible.
GROSS: Can you speak at all about how you resolved that crisis of faith, or
how your understanding of Jesus Christ has changed?
Prof. EHRMAN: Well, I think what I've come to is a realization that
Christianity, above all, is a historical religion that makes historical claims
about a historical person, about Jesus of Nazareth. So it seems to me that
whatever a person happens to believe theologically that Christians are
obligated to consider their religion historically. And that historical
knowledge about Jesus, about the time he lived, about what his apostles did
after his death, about the books that they wrote, the books that were forged
in their names, about all of these things--all historical knowledge is
important for people who have a historical faith. And that historical
knowledge can threaten faith, and it may threaten to change a person's faith.
But it's not a bad thing, because this is a historical religion and historical
knowledge can deepen the understanding of this religion precisely because it's
such a historical faith.
GROSS: Can you explain again what you mean by a historical religion?
Prof. EHRMAN: Well, there are a lot of religions that aren't based on the
life, teachings and death of an individual. But Christianity makes claims
about Jesus, that Jesus was born at a certain time, that he taught certain
things, that he did certain things, that he died under Pontius Pilate. These
are claims that a historian could look at to see whether Jesus really did do
these things. Did Jesus really say these things? Did he really die when
Pontius Pilate was the governor of Judea? The faith is based on these
historical notions. I'm not saying that the faith is only historical. In
other words, it's not that Christians are, by their very nature, historians,
but the faith that they have depend on historical information, which means
that it's subject to historical investigation. So that the investigation of
historians into the beginnings of Christianity does have relevance to what
GROSS: Would you consider Judaism and its connection to the Old Testament a
Prof. EHRMAN: Yeah, in some ways I think it is. I think that traditionally,
Judaism--even though it is also is historical because there are historical
narratives in the Hebrew Bible. But Judaism doesn't have as heavy an emphasis
on theology as Christianity has. And it's the theological claims of
Christians about the historical person Jesus that creates this interesting
tension between belief and history, because Christians make theological claims
about a historical person, whereas in Judaism, it doesn't quite work that way
because Judaism has traditionally understood itself to be a living tradition
that changes according to circumstances over time. And so the historical
components of Judaism aren't quite as central to the Jewish faith as the
Christian historical claims are to the Christian faith.
GROSS: What's been the most interesting discovery since you started studying
these early texts?
Prof. EHRMAN: Well, there continue to be discoveries all the time. One
would think that we would get to a point where nothing else would be
discovered, but in fact, there are books discovered all the time. The most
recent one was discovered by a couple of American scholars tucked away in a
library in Berlin. It's a Coptic manuscript that they've entitled the Gospel
of the Savior. They just published it a couple of years ago. It's not widely
known to people, but scholars know of it. It's a really interesting text
because it's a text which describes Jesus' last hours in which he actually has
a conversation with the cross. And he tells the cross not to fear; soon he
will mount up upon it and bring salvation to the world, and it has this
But the other interesting scene is that Jesus, during his prayer in
Gethsemane, is actually transported up to the throne of God, and he and God
talk it over about what he's going to do. When Jesus says, `Let this cup pass
from before me,' he's actually in the heavenly throne room having this
discussion with God.
So all the time, there are these--not all the time, but on occasion, there are
these discoveries, and they each have to be given careful consideration
because they all reveal the rich diversity of early Christianity.
GROSS: Since we're about to celebrate Christmas, it would be interesting to
hear what some of the early sects believed about how Christ's birth should be
Prof. EHRMAN: The idea of celebrating Jesus' birth wasn't prominent in any
of these early Christian groups that we know of. What was celebrated was his
death and his resurrection. And so there were commemorations of his death and
resurrection from the earliest of times among a variety of sects who would
celebrate Easter in a variety of ways.
But it's not really until the fourth century, with the Emperor Constantine,
that people start thinking about Jesus' birth as being a moment to celebrate.
And the reason the birth becomes important for celebrating in the fourth
century is because theologians began to emphasize that at his birth is the
time in which God became man. And so that moment becomes very important. But
when these sects are battling out over their different perspectives in the
second and third centuries, the celebration of Christmas really wasn't even an
GROSS: Well, Bart Ehrman, thank you so much for talking with us.
Prof. EHRMAN: You're welcome. Thank you for having me.
GROSS: Bart Ehrman has two new books, "Lost Christianities" and "Lost
Scriptures." He chairs the department of religious studies at the University
of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Here's Dave McKenna playing "O Little Town of Bethlehem."
(Soundbite of "O Little Town of Bethlehem")
GROSS: Coming up, David Edelstein reviews the final film in "The Lord of the
This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Review: Final film in "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy, "The Return
of the King"
TERRY GROSS, host:
The last installment of "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy opens today. Film
critic David Edelstein has a review.
DAVID EDELSTEIN reporting:
Of all the things to love about the third and final film of "The Lord of the
Rings" trilogy, "The Return of the King," it's the lightning shifts in scale
that I find the most thrilling. I don't mean just the sudden impossible
hugeness of it: hundreds of thousands of demonic Orcs led by massive trolls
and winged dragons called fellbeasts and eight-story elephants called mumakil,
as they surged toward a seven-tiered city that soars into the sky. I mean the
way the director, Peter Jackson, cuts from that amazing vision to something
small: a spiked wheel grinding as the heavy gates of the city close. Then a
human face, the hobbit Pippin say, played by Billy Boyd, with his mouth grimly
set and his eyes shocked open. Then a few hundred thousand more marauding
Orcs. So you get eye-popping spectacle, then a close-up with texture and
weight, then a flash of human emotion, then more eye-popping spectacle. The
threads are awesome, but it's the weave that's spellbinding.
This is the best of the three "Rings" movies. More than that, it makes the
others look even better. You can finally see the arc of the trilogy, not just
J.R.R. Tolkien's, with its blend of Norse and Christian myth, but Peter
Jackson's. The New Zealand director got his start in the horror genre and has
always grooved on splattery excess and a manic invasiveness. It works like
gangbusters for Tolkien, whose demons are the enemies of the land itself.
They plunder Middle-earth with infernal machines and try to rip out its guts.
They claw for the accursed title ring of power like drug addicts. Jackson
brings a visceral intensity to the battle of good and evil that makes the
stiff, well-mannered drones of George Lucas' "Star Wars" epics look like stick
figures in a bad, Japanese-made, Saturday-morning cartoon.
Like its predecessor "The Two Towers," "The Return of the King" opens choppy,
and it took me maybe an hour of its three to get up to speed. I wanted a map
of Middle-earth, maybe a family tree. There are three separate story lines.
The first features the martial energies of the future king, Aragorn, and the
warriors of Rohan.
In the second, the hobbit Pippin and Sir Ian McKellen's wizard, Gandalf, must
convince the acting ruler of that seven-tiered city, a dangerously depressed
guy, to mount a defense against the army of the evil Sauron.
Last, the hobbits Frodo and Sam, played by Elijah Wood and Sean Astin, thread
their way through treacherous mountain passes into Mordor, where they hope to
destroy the ring of power. They're still dogged by the schizoid Gollum, who
loathes himself, yet slobbers with glee at the prospect of reclaiming the ring
he calls his precious. Once again, the computer-generated creature, voiced by
Andy Serkis, is a shocking portrait of addiction, now fawning, now bestial but
always completely disgusting.
(Soundbite of "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King")
Mr. ANDY SERKIS: (As Gollum) Master!
Mr. ELIJAH WOOD: (As Frodo) No, Sam! Leave him alone!
Mr. SEAN ASTIN: (As Sam) I heard it from his own mouth! He means to murder
Mr. SERKIS: Never! Smeagol wouldn't hurt a fly. Yeah, he's the hobbit, fat
hobbit who hates Smeagol. He do make some nasty lies.
Mr. ASTIN: You miserable little maggot! Don't you...
(Soundbite of struggling)
Mr. WOOD: No, Sam!
Mr. ASTIN: Call me a liar? You're a liar!
Mr. SERKIS: (Screams)
Mr. WOOD: Don't scare him. We're lost.
Mr. ASTIN: I don't care! I can't do it, Mr. Frodo. I won't wait around for
him to kill us!
Mr. WOOD: I'm not sending him away.
Mr. ASTIN: You don't see it, do you? He's a villain.
Mr. WOOD: We can't do this by ourselves, Sam, not without a guide. I need
you on my side.
Mr. ASTIN: I'm on your side, Mr. Frodo.
Mr. WOOD: I know, Sam. I know. Trust me.
EDELSTEIN: Sam wants to pitch Gollum over the rocks, but Frodo is inclined
toward Christian charity for the pathetic creature, which makes him a
different kind of hero than the usual sword-and-sorcery he-man. But this is a
different sort of epic, one in which tens of thousands of humans die to
destroy what is, in essence, a weapon of mass destruction. The central
villain, Sauron, is only seen as a giant, flaming eyeball on a mountaintop.
But the sense of evil is palpable and giving one's life to defeat it glorious.
People even come back from the dead to fight the good fight.
If the cutting among the plot lines feels arbitrary--and it's sometimes hard
to keep hold of the spiraling narrative threads--it's harder still to resist
the heroic dialogue delivered with Shakespearean precision by gorgeously
blue-eyed actors and actresses and the rush of mythic imagery, one miracle
following another. "The Lord of the Rings" saga took seven years and a
veritable army of artists to execute, and the striving of its makers is in
every splendid frame. It's one of our great martial operas.
GROSS: David Edelstein is film critic for the online magazine Slate.
(Soundbite of music; credits)
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.