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Combing through lost articles of faith

("Lost Scriptures: Books That Did Not Make It Into the New Testament,'" by Bart D. Ehrman; Oxford University, 342 pp. $30.)

("Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew'" by Bart D. Ehrman; Oxford University, 336 pp. $30.)

History, it's often said, is written by the victors. University of North Carolina professor Bart Ehrman argues in a pair of intriguing new books that the same could be said of the Bible's New Testament. That Ehrman makes his case without pushing into territory considered heretical by many mainstream Christians shows a deft touch with the most volatile of subjects. Ehrman does not suggest Christians are wrong to believe what they read in the 27 texts that, combined, make up the New Testament. He leaves polemics to others. Instead, the longtime religious studies professor tries to explain in simple terms what biblical archeologists already know when it comes to documents the earliest followers of Christ left behind -- those that did and didn't make it into the canon.

The information may be old to specialists and academics, but Ehrman's will shock more than a few lay readers. The 27 New Testament gospels, epistles, acts, and revelations, it turns out, were only a handful of the letters, arguments, visions, and accounts of Christ's life in wide circulation in the early centuries of the religion. And they were hardly the only ones to claim direct ties to the Apostles.

In "Lost Scriptures," Ehrman provides English translations -- many of them his own -- of 47 nonbiblical texts written by early Christians and later unearthed by theologians, historians, and archeologists. In each case, he provides a short explanation of when and where the writing was found and how he believes it compares and contrasts with the New Testament. Virtually all were, at various times by various Christians, considered sacred.

It can be a fascinating exercise to, say, read the "Apocalypse of Peter," considered canonical by a number of early churches and thought to be the inspiration for Dante Alighieri's "The Divine Comedy," alongside the biblical revelation of John. Or to puzzle your way through the "Gospel of Thomas," discovered in an Egyptian grave in 1945 and attributed to Didymus Judas Thomas, who some believe was Christ's brother. The text claims to record 114 direct quotes from Jesus, and some scholars have sparked controversy by saying those might be closer to what Christ actually taught than anything in the New Testament.

Perhaps most interesting, Ehrman includes five lists from early Christian writers discussing which books should and should not be counted as scripture. The variety of suggestions shows that the specifics of what we know today as the New Testament were in flux well into the fourth century. The first author to claim that the 27 books of the New Testament were, in fact, the one and true scripture was the bishop of Alexandria in AD 367 -- almost 3 1/2 centuries after Christ's crucifixion.

"It comes as a bit of a shock to most people to realize that the Church has not always had the New Testament," Ehrman writes. "The books that eventually came to be collected into the sacred canon were written by a variety of authors over a period of sixty or seventy years, in different places for different audiences. Other books were written in the same period, some of them by the same authors. . . . Only a fraction of the early Christian writings came to be immortalized."

But who made the decisions about which books to include in the canon and which to exclude? And why? The Apostles themselves -- and anyone who knew anyone who knew the Apostles -- were long gone by the fourth century.

An analysis of these questions fills Ehrman's companion volume, "Lost Christianities." In it, he presents the major strains of early Christianity and explains how each feuded bitterly with the others. He also discusses how and why the group representing the closest thing to modern-day Christianity ultimately won out, leading to a statement of beliefs at the First Ecumenical Council in AD 325, which dictated that followers were to believe that there is one God, that he created the world, that Jesus his son is both human and divine, and that Jesus' death brought the world salvation, fulfilling Old Testament prophecies.

At least until that council of church leaders at Nicea, the city in Turkey now known as Iznik, every one of those core beliefs was still in dispute by people who considered themselves devout followers of Christ.

Was there one God, or two, or 30? Did the Jewish Scriptures have the same authority as apostolic Christian writings? Was Jesus divine, human, or both? Did Jesus die? If so, was it the Crucifixion that brought redemption or simply Jesus' teachings? All of these questions were hotly debated by Christians for centuries -- and those on each side claimed to have documents from the Apostles themselves backing their views. Naturally, sifting through forgeries claiming apostolic pedigrees kept leaders busy on all sides of the conflict.

The first third of "Lost Christianities" is devoted to a discussion of known forgeries.

The rest of the book discusses the major early Christian groups -- including Jewish Christian Ebionites, anti-Semitic Marcionites, Gnostics, and the eventual victors, whom Ehrman calls the proto-orthodox -- and how the last group came out on top.

"Had things turned out otherwise, not just the Christian Church but all of history would have been quite different," Ehrman writes. Given Christianity's ultimate impact on the Roman Empire and the Roman Empire's ultimate impact on Western culture, it's a statement not as hyperbolic as it sounds on first pass.

For modern-day Christians, the temptation is to deny or ignore the research Ehrman discusses here because it raises uncomfortable questions about the divinity of the Scriptures and the nature of the religion itself. For non-Christians, the temptation is to see the information as proof of the illegitimacy of the faith. In both cases, readers would be placing their own biases on a work of scholarship that makes no such claims.

The realization that the earth was not the center of the universe did not destroy religions whose leaders mistakenly believed otherwise. Christianity will survive the findings of Ehrman and other biblical archeologists, too, and probably be better off for them. Individual readers interested in issues of faith and religion certainly will be, and this matched set of books is as good a place to start as any.

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