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CH101 Book Reviews

CH101 Book Reviews
Retrieving the Tradition & Renewing Evangelicalism, by D.H. Williams

Did Jesus Exist?, by Bart Ehrman
Peter, Paul & Mary, by Bart Ehrman
Lost Christianities, by Bart Ehrman

Will the Real Heretics Please Stand Up, by David Bercot
A Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs, by David Bercot

The Doctrine of the Trinity, by Anthony Buzzard
The Christian's Secret to a Happy Life, by Hannah W. Smith
Flea Market Jesus, by Arthur Farnsley II
A History of the Early Church, by Hans Lietzmann

Music Review: The Collection
Movie Review: End of the Spear



The Christian’s Secret to a Happy Life, by Hannah Whitall Smith

My review is in response to a very “sad” review written from an already established position. The reviewer (I think Tim Challies) gives us what he thinks is the thrust of the book, “What must the Christian DO in his quest for VICTORY?,” then offers his simplistic review of Hannah Smith’s response, “NOTHING.” Challies then sums up Smith’s work with his critique of “the man-centered and subjective age in which we live,” and puts Smith in this category. This is an amazingly simplistic (and ignorant) summation by an educated person - this is why I think it betrays “an already established position.”

I HIGHLY recommend this book - it is a Christian Classic and will continue to be read and to help believers for years to come. Buy this Hannah Smith book on Amazon.com

Hannah Smith lived in the latter half of the 19th century - the terms “happy” and “gay” had different meanings in common use than what we have today. A better title for this book would be “The Christian’s Secret to a Joyful Life,” but we cannot retitle the work.

Smith is writing to refute the basic practical theology of her strict Quaker background which apparently leaned heavily on the force of a person’s determined will and discipline to gain freedom from sin. Many of us have seen how this emphasis, while possibly effective in the life of one generation, can lead to dead works and dry religion in the following generations that lack the intense affections of the initial leaders and have only been given the “right doctrine” to live by.

Let’s allow Hannah Smith to speak for herself:

The most difficult thing we have to manage is self….In laying off your burdens, therefore, the first one you must get rid of is yourself. You must hand yourself and all your inward experiences, your temptations, your temperament…all over into the care and keeping of your God, and leave them there. He made you, and therefore He understands you and knows how to manage you, and you must trust Him to do it. Say to Him, “Here, Lord, I abandon myself to thee. I have tried in every way I could think of to manage myself, and to make myself what I know I ought to be, but have always failed. Now I give it up to thee. Do thou take entire possession of me….And here you must rest, trusting yourself thus to Him continually and absolutely….

Perfect obedience would be perfect happiness….
Consecration is the first thing….In order for a lump of clay to be made into a beautiful vessel, it must be entirely abandoned to the potter, and must lie passive in his hands. And in order for a soul to be made into a vessel unto God’s honor, “sanctified and meet for the Master’s use, and prepared unto every good work,” it must be entirely abandoned to Him, and must lie passive in His hands….

Oh, be generous in your self-surrender! Meet His measureless devotion for you, with a measureless devotion to Him. Be glad and eager to throw yourself headlong into His dear arms, and to hand over the reins of government to Him. Whatever there is of you, let Him have it all. Give up forever everything that is separate from Him. Consent to resign from this time forward all liberty of choice…
(I cannot find my copy to give a reference - I have used the online version)

This is far from doing NOTHING. Smith’s focus is on the most difficult aspect of living for God - the abandonment of YOUR will. She maintains that IF you can truly abandon yourself (I do not think this can be done 100% of the time anyway) God will do His work in you. In the past, some 20 years ago when I first read this book, I wondered if Watchman Nee had read Hannah Smith. In his little powerful book, “Sit, Walk, Stand” he says this,

“If at the outset we try to do anything, we get nothing…For Christianity begins not with a big DO, but with a big DONE.” p.14 (Tyndale, 1977)

Maybe Challies believes that Nee also distorted scripture here (I should confess that I am not a fan of everything Nee writes).

Again, Challies: “God calls Christians, not to happiness, but to holiness.” Smith’s comments on “perfect obedience would be perfect happiness” directly address this accusation. Did Challies really even read Smith’s book? It is difficult for me to think so.
“The Christian’s Secret to a Happy Life” is far from the “self-help psychobabel” label Challies gives to it.

It is true that Hannah Smith did not have a “happy” life. She had some marital issues and an unfaithful husband; she seems to have suffered some depression; and her theology was not always orthodox - she apparently struggled with the concept of eternal punishment (like Origen!). Nonetheless, this book by Hannah Smith has remained a Christian classic for a reason - it is challenging and good.

And by the way, Hannah Smith did die in great misery - she suffered from arthritis during the final years of her life.

R.A. Baker
Ph.D. Ecclesiastical History


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Peter, Paul, & Mary Magdalene: The Followers of Jesus in History and Legend, by Bart Ehrman

(This review was posted on Amazon.com - December 26, 2007)His use of the legendary counter-cultural rock group aside, there are very few new ideas in this book for those who have already read other Bart Ehrman books. He opens this work taking familiar passages from the New Testament, standing them next to passages from extra-biblical documents and asking, “Does the historian accept what is found in the Scripture as being historically accurate and what is found outside of it as inaccurate? On what grounds?” (Introduction, p.xiv) He rightly reminds the reader that every writer, both ancient and modern, has an agenda that must be understood if you are to correctly understand the document, “This is especially true of the early Christian Gospels.” (p.10)

Let me state from the outset, I like Bart Ehrman. He is an accomplished scholar; he is a good writer (I enjoy reading his work and typically read every word); and he is a charismatic lecturer (I have sat in on one of his lectures). I agree with many of Ehrman’s thoughts and I especially applaud the fact that he is forcing us to think more critically about the New Testament.
*sigh* Glad I got that out of the way.

Ehrman challenges you to read the NT gospels “horizontally,” meaning to compare stories from Mark’s gospel to the same story in Matthew or Luke. His purpose is to make you see the various differences and to question which version is trustworthy. He cites a few examples to get the discussion rolling, something he does in his other books, but his objective is not just to “help” you understand better. I would recommend that a reader have some other materials in front of him when reading Ehrman, thus reading him more horizontally. He has a tendency to present data with only his desired emphasis. Yes, Bart Ehrman has an agenda.

He begins with Peter. The discussion on Peter is not as potent as that on Paul and Mary Magdalene, but he does bring out the various extra-biblical documents regarding Peter which is good for anyone interested in this subject matter. Ehrman always does a good job of introducing extra-biblical works and these are the texts he uses in his study of Peter: the Gospel of Peter, the Acts of Peter, the Apocalypse of Peter, the Letter of Peter to Philip, and the Pseudo-Clementine writings. He gives a good overview of why scholars have doubted the Petrine authorship of the NT documents 1 and 2 Peter. He also does a nice job of illustrating from the early church writings why Peter should not be called the first pope, or even the first bishop of Rome. There is not much else in the section on Peter that demands comment. It is here, however, that I must offer my first scholarly critique - Ehrman consistently points to his other works in footnotes without any explanation. I realize these works are meant for a popular audience and not to be academic writings, but he could do a better job here. For example, Ehrman makes it clear that he believes the sermons of Peter contained in NT Acts are basically nothing more than the author of Acts putting forth his own views in the mouth of Peter. (pp.66-67) This is a text-critical statement, highly relevant in the overall thesis of this book. Yet rather than give the reader some explanation, some supporting data for this extremely important point, Ehrman points you to another of his books on the New Testament in the first footnote.

[If you follow that footnote (I do not yet own that particular Ehrman text) you will likely find that he is referring to a famous passage of the fourth century Greek historian, Thucydides, in his “History of the Peloponnesian War,” where he states that he will do his best in the lengthy speeches he records to give the reader the gist of what was said, but that he obviously cannot remember every detail word for word. Most biblical scholars believe that the author of NT Acts does this in the sermons recorded. Fine. But if Luke is the author he would not have been present for Peter’s early sermons. It would do the reader good to know that the Greek in the early portions of NT Acts, especially the sermons, is quite different from the Greek in the latter part of Acts where the author is supposedly giving an eye witness account. The early sermons contain Aramaisms, phrases in Greek that are obviously translations of Aramaic. Luke’s presentation in the early chapters of Acts most likely comes from early Aramaic sources. Ehrman knows this, or least is familiar with the theory, but has decided not to acknowledge it. As he argues, Peter is supposedly illiterate and it is likely that he only spoke Aramaic - any writing attributed to Peter (all we have is in Greek) is likely to have been written by someone else, maybe Peter’s personal scribe. Ehrman gives a good account of this in chapter one, then does an excellent job in chapter six, showing that it is highly unlikely for Peter to have written any document with his own hand. I laughed out loud in my study while reading his humorous sarcasm on page 76 - good stuff.]

The section on Paul opens in typical Ehrman style, showing how the three accounts of Paul’s conversion in NT Acts have differences. Similar to the empty tomb accounts there are differences, yet the basic thrust of the story is the same: Paul is on the road and has a phenomenal (supernatural) encounter with the risen Jesus, and somehow this is witnessed by his traveling companions. Ehrman points out several items to illustrate that “Luke doesn’t have the details right.” (p.97) Ehrman cites examples that are disputed by other scholars, but he fails to mention this even in a footnote.

On page 98 he points to the sermon recorded in Acts 17 - Paul is speaking to philosophers and says that God has overlooked their ignorance. Ehrman says that Paul would have never said this, pointing to Romans 1: “Would he preach the opposite of what he believed?” Ehrman knows that in Romans 1 Paul is referring to those who “oppose” or “suppress” the truth and in Romans 2 Paul sounds very much like the “Lukan” message in Acts 17. He knows this - he just ignores it.

Another example is his treatment of the death of Jesus (pp.143-144). According to Ehrman, Luke portrays Jesus as wrongly put to death, a miscarriage of justice that leads men to feel guilty, which should then lead them to repentance and forgiveness. Paul, on the other hand, views the death of Jesus as necessary, as an atonement. While I basically agree with this argument, Paul makes statements very similar to those made in the Acts sermons about the death of Jesus (1 Thess. 2:14; 1 Cor. 2:8). My point here is that Ehrman finds problems where there might NOT be any problem.

Having pointed out a few places of disagreement, let me say that Ehrman’s discussion on Paul is very good. There are many places where he sounds much like N.T. Wright, but many of these ideas are not new. He never references Wright, but then again, I have never seen Wright reference Ehrman (I have not read more than a couple works of either author).

The section on Mary Magdalene, in my opinion, is the best part of this book. Ehrman shines brightest not when offering his take on New Testament passages, but when he discusses Gnostic writings. He reminds (or informs) the reader that “not much is said” about Mary in the earliest source documents. (pp.185-187) Mary Magdalene appears more frequently, and with more fantastic flare, as we move further away from the first century - Ehrman’s presentation of this is excellent. (pp.248-249) What Ehrman succeeds in doing with this examination of the various Gnostic writings, contrasted with the NT documents, is to illustrate the struggle the early church had with the questions of gender, sexual relationships, and leadership.

Indeed, the early church leaders struggled with many issues as this new understanding of spirituality challenged old ideas of race, class, gender, and nationality. How difficult it must have been during the first century to understand (and apply) Paul’s radical statement, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal.3:28) There were bound to be disagreements and struggles!

But let’s not invent problems. Ehrman is obviously a proponent of gender equality - he makes equality statements throughout the book. Fine, but he basically accuses Gregory the Great of misogyny (pp.190-192) when he comments on Gregory’s homily regarding the anointing of Jesus by the sinful woman. Gregory assumes this woman to be Mary Magdalene. Ehrman finds fault with Gregory’s application of this text and states, “The only redeeming feature of her body is when it turns from its dangerous acts (dangerous, that is, to the men concerned) and falls to the feet of the man Jesus in repentance and sorrow. It is the sorrowful penitent who is acceptable; that is the kind of woman these texts seek.” (p.192) Yes, Gregory is encouraging his hearers to be sorrowful in penitence, even to the point of falling on their knees…but not just women! In Luke 5:8 Peter does the same thing, falling at the feet of Jesus and saying, “Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!” I am sure Gregory would have the same view of Peter’s response.

In the end, I do like Ehrman’s challenge to bible-believing Christians to re-examine biblical texts. Faith does not rest on the text, but on the resurrection of Jesus. It is also good to consider the message of various Gnostic writings. There were indeed reasons for many of the ancient documents to be rejected by the early church. Ehrman’s examination of some of these extra-biblical documents helps to shed light on why many of these did not garner a significant following and were rejected.

R.A. Baker
Ph.D., Ecclesiastical History


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The Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew, By Bart Ehrman

(This review was posted on Amazon.com - January 20, 2004)Probably due to an undercurrent of anti-Catholic sentiment in the USA that began with the Puritans and can still be found among Protestant fundamentalists, there remains a dearth of knowledge and understanding of early Christianity. Ehrman, like a hide-n-seek friend jumping out from behind a bush, overwhelms the uneducated with a dizzying array of texts and obscure references from the first two “Christian” centuries. His point (which I agree with) is that these texts should not be so obscure, but have been “lost” or rejected by what he calls the “proto-orthodox.” This designation refers to the dominant Christian group in the first three centuries - church leaders and theologians, speaking for an accepted faith, and standing against abberant viewpoints. “Proto-orthodox” because some of the views of this primitive group ultimately were rejected by later orthodoxy as theological issues continued to be defined.

Ehrman successfully illustrates the diversity of early Christianity. This diversity began with the apostles and is alluded to in the first Christian history, the Acts of the Apostles. Chapter 15 of Acts indicates some resolution in what was a growing problem for the early Church - was the Christian message to be separated from Judaism, or were converted Gentiles required to follow the laws of Moses? Ehrman documents how this struggle continued into the next two centuries.

In particular, Ehrman reviews some of the evidence for the Ebionites (an early Jewish-Christian sect), Marcionites (an anti-Jewish/Old Testament and somewhat Gnostic sect), Christian Gnostics (as depicted by various documents advocating extreme asceticism), and the Montanists (a sect given to ecstatic utterance and apocalypticism). In addition, Ehrman cites various texts that did not make it into the New Testament canon and further illustrate the diversity of belief in the first three centuries: The Gospel of Peter, Acts of Paul, Didache, The Infancy Gospel of Thomas, The Gospel of Thomas, The Epistle of Barnabas, The Shepherd of Hermas, and The Gospel of Truth - this only represents around half the documents Ehrman cites.

While Ehrman does a fine job of introducing these various sects and documents (one of his stated goals), some of his underlying assumptions are dubious. Throughout this study he states that these non-canonical texts were rejected, scorned and burned. Clearly there were times when documents were rejected and burned, but every document has its own story for why it was not accepted, or disappeared. Ehrman says as much in the chapter on how the NT canon came to be, and he consistently gives a fair historical synopsis when he discusses a particular text, but he misrepresents this historical period by consistently commenting on documents being “lost, rejected, and/or burned.” It seems clear that Ehrman’s commentary is predicated on the thesis that these non-canonical texts were discriminated against in a patristic conspiracy. As Ehrman states in the chapter on the NT canon, there were a few NT documents that only made the canon after years of debate and consternation. In an alternate space/time continuum Ehrman (and others) would be moaning about the “lost” Christianities due to the rejection of the Gospel of John, Hebrews, and that strange little letter attributed to the brother of Jesus, Jude. These NT books contain shades of Philo/Middle Platonism, ebionitic christology, and Judaistic apocalypticism respectively. There was no way to have a canon that contained all the texts claimed by “Christians” - the only practical option was to “accept” the best texts and allow the others to drift slowly into the sands of time. There are too many conflicting pieces of evidence in both the non-canonical texts and in the patristic record for the conspiracy theory to hold up.

Another dubious assumption Ehrman makes is to assign more historical validity to these non-canonical sources than to the accepted NT texts. Against the NT record and all the writings of the early fathers, Ehrman wants us to believe the Acts of Thomas and the Gospel of Thomas which both claim Thomas as the twin brother of Jesus. Although Ehrman does not think this Thomas really authored the gospel in his name (p.57), he appears to accept the claim that Jesus had a twin brother, Didymus Judas Thomas (didumos being “twin” in Greek). But, if this Thomas was in fact a twin, he could have been the twin of James, rather than of Jesus. The twin brother theory is never even alluded to in the NT and, as far as I know, is not supported in any of the early fathers.

Again, in the Acts of Paul and Thecla we see extreme asceticism that goes against the Pauline record (1 Timothy) in the NT. Though Thecla is known to be a forged document, Ehrman believes these stories were not completely fabricated, “there are reasons for thinking that he [the forger] compiled stories he had heard, oral traditions that had been in circulation for years” (p.32). Belief in the conspiracy keeps Ehrman from granting the same latitude to the NT documents. Ehrman sees the Thecla stories to be more in line with NT Paul and the motivating factor for “Paul” to write 1 Timothy (p.39). So, we should consider the oral traditions behind Thecla to be more reliable than the oral traditions recounted by the fathers for Paul’s authorship of the Pastorals. Why? The Conspiracy.

More examples could be cited, but Ehrman states his presupposition, “Where did we get our New Testament Gospels in the first place, and how do we know that they, rather than the dozens of Gospels that did not become part of the New Testament, reveal the truth about what Jesus taught?” (p.93)

The victors write the history and there were socio/geopolitical struggles that influenced the NT writers, but does that mean we disregard anything they tell us? Five hundred years from now someone will find twentieth century Neo-Nazi writings defending the Nazi party of the 1940’s. Why would anyone believe this testimony over the writings of Winston Churchill or Dwight Eisenhower? Yet this is exactly what Ehrman seems to be advocating in Lost Christianities.

R.A. Baker
Ph.D. Ecclesiastical History



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