Lost and Found Christianities: Bart Ehrman and the Christianicity of Mormonism

Worlds Without End is pleased to present this offering from guest poster Richard D. Lamborn. Richard practices law within the shadow of Yankee Stadium. In addition to a University of Utah J.D., he holds an M.A. from Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School and a M.Phil. from Drew University.

Lamborn1Has there been more than one Christianity? Is Mormonism one of them? Which scholarly discipline is best suited to answering these questions? In his book Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew, popular biblical scholar Bart D. Ehrman writes that “theological categories are not necessarily the best way to describe social groups” and instead takes a historical approach (151). This makes sense. While everyone might be entitled to their own theological opinion, everyone is not entitled to their own set of historical facts even if those facts are about religion. What are the facts about the beginnings of Christianity? When Ehrman looks into the past he discovers that there were in fact a number of Christianities (173).

The Ebionites

Ehrman begins by contrasting the Christianity of the Ebionites with that of the Marcionites. Ebionites saw Jesus as a Jewish prophet more important than Moses, perhaps even the Messiah (100–101, 109),[1] but they did not see him as God. To them we owe the inclusion of the Hebrew scripture in the Christian canons.[2] Ebionites would not accept the Mormon claim of Mormons being Israelites, but the Mormon belief echoes the Ebionite emphasis on Jewishness. Once Joseph Smith had restored what he saw as New Testament Christianity, he turned to restoring some ancient Hebrew practices such as polygamy which Ebionites had in their own scriptural tradition.

More importantly for Ebionites and Mormons, there would be no purely spiritual Jesus. The Mormon Jesus resonates with the full fleshly humanity of the Ebionite Jesus. Issues of substance, personas, natures and wills could not have concerned Ebionites less, as they concern Mormons not at all.

Marcion of Sinope

Marcionites take their name from a Christian gentile who rejected all things Jewish (except Jesus), including the Hebrew scriptures (109). According to Ehrman, this rejection was the first attempt to create a Christian canon, albeit by reduction. What Marcion was willing to include showed an affinity for Paul’s rejection of the Jewish law (107). Despite Mormons’ acceptance of the Hebrew scriptures, claims of being Israelites, and attempts at polygamy, they would agree in general with Marcion that one need not be bound by the strictures of Jewish law. Once widespread, the Marcionites disappeared, as did the Ebionites. Yet their disappearance proves the plurality of Christianities. That’s history, not opinion.

Paul’s Vision

Ebionites either knew Jesus or knew well those who did. Paul’s Christianity—a third, though not a lost Christianity—could claim neither. He knew only briefly and fleetingly those who knew Jesus. His major claim was revelation, not mortal fleshly acquaintance. Revelation—a word that pings the radar of anyone interested in Mormonism. According to Ehrman, some Petrine texts contended that Paul was Gnostic because his knowledge of Jesus was merely revelatory (183).[3]

Who’s a Gnostic can be as contentious as who’s a Christian and who’s a Mormon. But the relevant point is that Ehrman now gives us a fourth Christianity, Gnosticism. One of Gnosticism’s dominant traits was a belief that Jesus left a tradition of secret knowledge with his closest associates, who then passed it on to those able to receive it. In some versions, Gnostics held that Jesus was only spiritual and not flesh at all (223-7). This teaching, called Docetism, becomes a fifth Christianity. Docetism became so connected with Gnosticism that they are not always as distinguished as they should be. But the Gnostic/Docetist point was that one need not have known Jesus in the flesh because there was no flesh to know; one obtained the secret knowledge from a spiritual Jesus spiritually. While neither Paul nor Joseph Smith would have denied Jesus’ flesh, both knew him spiritually, through revelation.

Like Paul and Joseph Smith, and in contrast to the first Ebionites, most members of the various Christianities had no chance of knowing Jesus in the flesh. If they wanted to know him directly, it would have to be as Paul and Joseph had done. Ehrman finds in Ignatius—Church Father, Bishop of Antioch, Catholic Martyr and Saint—a claim of revelation. Specifically, the Spirit told him personally of the importance of his own rank, bishop (148). Joseph similarly learned of his own important positions by revelation: apostle, as in Paul’s vision, and prophet.[4]

Montanus of Phrygia

A sixth Christianity was Montanism. It claimed the loyalty of no less a figure than Tertullian, a Catholic Church Father. Montanus, the William Miller of his day, received revelations and picked a date for the return of the New Jerusalem. When it failed to appear, ongoing revelation got a bad name (150–51). Thus, in the first centuries after Jesus, the predictions in the old texts became easier to deal with than the then-current predictions of a living religious leader.

Christianities Lost and Found

In reaction to Christianities such as Docetism and Montanism, a textual tradition connected to a mortal Jesus of flesh became the backbone of a powerful, enduring Christianity (142, 193, 242–43). But Ehrman sees that as a historical development, not as a theological claim. A historical approach such as Ehrman’s, based on facts, provides an interwoven, dynamic, and three-dimensional view of the past. Narrow theological analysis of the Christianicity of Mormonism will always be a matter of unprovable opinion. However, Ehrman shows that historically there have been multiple Christianities. This provides a useful point of departure for understanding both Christianities and Mormonism. If there have been lost Christianities, there can be new “found” Christianities whether or not one agrees with Mormonism’s claim that it is the one true restored church.

 

NOTES

My appreciation goes to Christopher Smith for his assistance with this post. WWE has a prior insightful post on the Christianicity of Mormonism with helpful comments at http://www.withoutend.org/christianity-or-lack-thereof-mormonism/.

[1] Ebionites were not the only Jewish-Christians, and it is not known with which group James, the Lord’s brother, was most closely associated, not to mention Peter, perhaps another James, and John.

[2] In view of Ehrman’s theme of pluralities, I fault him for not acknowledging that there are multiple Christian canons. Many readers will be surprised to learn that the canons of Ethiopian Coptic, Egyptian Coptic, Syriac, Armenian, Eastern, Church of the East, Anglican, Roman Catholic, and non-Anglican Protestant churches are not all identical.

[3] Ehrman relies heavily on Pseudo-Clementine writings, seeing their arguments against Simon Magus as thinly veiled arguments against a Gnostic Paul and in favor of Peter who knew a mortal Jesus in the flesh. He also takes Justin Martyr’s failure to quote Paul as an indication that Justin did not see Paul as authoritative, and Irenaeus’s reliance on Paul as an attempt to reclaim him from Marcionites and Gnostics. In addition, see Elaine Pagel’s The Gnostic Paul: Gnostic Exegesis of the Pauline Letters, a little-known work of the well-known Gnostic scholar.

[4] D&C 21:1.

Comments

Lost and Found Christianities: Bart Ehrman and the Christianicity of Mormonism — 3 Comments

  1. I like this post. I really enjoyed Ehrman’s Misquoting Jesus; now it looks like I have another book to track down and read! It seems the typical approach to defining Christianity, both today and in the past, has been to cherry-pick the texts and beliefs that support (or seem to support) contemporary beliefs of a given group and declare that those were True Christianity all along, which transforms the history of Christianity into a Whiggish march of the triumph over error into Truth. Mormons are as guilty of that as anyone in our own idiosyncratic way, but it’s really interesting how people have fought over where to establish the bounds of Christianity without truly acknowledging how messy the actual history is. Do you think there’s a way to effectively communicate that idea throughout the LDS church today?

  2. Thanks for your positive comment and most of Ehrman is well worth reading.

    Worlds Without End is certainly one way to get the word out.

    History, like the present, is certainly messy. Ideas of an original ecclesiastical unity and exclusive authority are pretty deeply ingrained in both Mormonism and today’s Christianity.

    But things always change, don’t they.