Peter, Paul, and Mary Magdalene: The Followers of Jesus in History and Legend
by Bart D. Ehrman
The lives of the very early Christians
A review by Jane Lampman
The title of Bart Ehrman's latest book -- Peter, Paul, and Mary Magdalene
-- may prompt a smile, even from those who aren't fans of the 1960s folk trio.
But that's typical of Dr. Ehrman. The religion scholar knows how to grab the attention
of an audience. So popular are his classes at the University of North Carolina
at Chapel Hill that The Teaching Company now sells tapes of his lecture series
on early Christianity.
Of course, it's just the right moment for such a venture.
The early years of Christianity are definitely "in" right now.
not only due to The
Da Vinci Code or recent publication of several controversial gnostic gospels.
Many Christians are focusing anew on the early centuries: Conservatives seek renewal
in orthodox teachings, even as an "emerging church" movement adopts
early practices such as house churches.
As an expert on writings of the
first three centuries AD, Ehrman has his own passion - separating fact from fiction
on the foundations of Christianity. Another of his recent books, Misquoting
Jesus, has made the New York Times bestseller list.
Paul, and Mary Magdalene explores history and the legends that developed around
all three. In a breezy style, Ehrman discusses how each is depicted in the New
Testament, apocryphal, gnostic, and historical writings.
His amusingly titled
chapters on Peter, playing on the "Rocky" theme, sort out the influential
roles of the leading disciple, including head of the Jerusalem church and first
converter of Gentiles. Ehrman covers interesting tidbits such as how Peter brought
his wife on his missionary trips and why he could not have been the first bishop
He rather harps on the idea that Peter was probably illiterate
and couldn't have written the books attributed to him. Yet could not a scribe
have taken down his words? Luke did write the book of Acts, after all, though
Ehrman presents his case that Acts isn't a historical record, but Luke's way of
One of Ehrman's main themes is that, for the most part, writers
of the various gospels -- whether New Testament or gnostic -- weren't presenting
history as moderns would perceive it, but telling the story from their own theological
perspectives or agendas.
As for Paul, Ehrman says that only seven of the
13 epistles attributed to him are indisputably his: Romans, I and II Corinthians,
Galatians, Philippians, I Thessalonians, and Philemon. The letters, Ehrman says,
respond to specific needs and cannot give a full picture of Paul's teaching.
Peter and Paul vividly inhabit the New Testament, Mary Magdalene is mentioned
only once before the crucifixion. But her role as the "apostle to the apostles"
is a crucial one. As the first to give the news of Jesus' resurrection, Ehrman
says, she could be called the one who started Christianity. He examines biblical
and gnostic gospels related to her, but finds no evidence of an intimate relationship
Ehrman acknowledges that thousands of converts were drawn to
the faith as a result of the miracles performed, but his lengthy discussion of
miracles dwells most on rather bizarre stories in non-New Testament works, such
as Peter bringing a dead smoked tuna back to life and Paul baptizing a talking
lion. He then asks, "Aren't all impossible stories strange, whether in the
Bible or outside it?"
This book contains valuable historical scholarship.
It also encourages readers to approach the Scriptures with fresh and enlightened
eyes. Yet Ehrman is proof of his own theme that people tend to write from their
Born into an Episcopalian family, the writer converted
to fundamentalist Christianity as a teenager, and became a star pupil at both
Moody Bible Institute and Wheaton College. But as he delved into early writings
in the original languages, he became aware of the numerous changes made to early
texts over time. His belief in an inerrant Bible was eventually shattered. Today,
Ehrman calls himself a "happy agnostic."
With his divorce from
literalism, the author doesn't appear to have grappled much with the sense of
the power of the Spirit that pervades the New Testament. He views Jesus and his
three major followers as "apocalypticists" who expected the kingdom
to come in the very near future and "return the earth to its original paradisiacal
state." And it did not.
Despite his disbelief, he recognizes the power
of Christianity in shaping Western civilization and the lives of millions. By
exploring the stunning diversity of writings on Peter, Paul, and Mary Magdalene,
he illustrates how fully the "greatest story ever told" captured the
imagination of those in early centuries and took different forms.
facts are important, he says, but so is an understanding of how people have made
the Scriptures meaningful in their own lives.
Lampman is a Monitor staff writer.
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