The book covers much the same ground as does earlier books by the same author. Jesus is presented as an apocalyptic Jewish prophet, whose message cannot be properly understood outside the context in which he lived and taught. Perhaps the most interesting part of the book, at least for those who have read Ehrman's previous books, is his penultimate chapter, entitled 'Who Invented Christianity?'. The usual answer given to this question is 'St Paul', but Ehrman finds that Paul is only part of the story.
Jesus preached only to the Jews, but some early Christians universalised his message to make Christianity a world religion. They transformed the Jewish Messiah into a suffering figure who died for our sins. They gave Christianity an anti-Jewish character, with appalling results in the later history of the West. They made Jesus into a divine figure, one member of the Trinity. And they transformed the belief in a general apocalyptic resurrection of the faithful into a teaching about the immortality of the soul and the idea that when we die we are immediately translated to heaven or hell. All these developments came about over a long period spanning many years, indeed several centuries. Paul was not wholly or even mainly responsible for this sequence of events; many other early Christians, mostly unknown to us, played their part.
In his final chapter Ehrman injects a personal note to explain what all this has meant for him. He has moved from being an evangelical Christian to becoming an agnostic, but not, he says, because of his researches in the New Testament. Plenty of convinced Christians are familiar with these facts and are able to retain their faith, and Ehrman finds this to be perfectly reasonable. What caused his own faith to ebb away was his inability to reconcile the notion of the Christian God with the existence of human suffering.
10 July 2011
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