Thursday, March 18, 2010

Unraveling the Great Apostasy

Bart D. Ehrman.  The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture: The Effect of Early Christological Controversies on the Text of the New Testament.  Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993.  ISBN 0195102797.

Bart D. Ehrman.  Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew.  Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.  ISBN 0195182499.

Before taking a really serious look at the history of Mormonism in the nineteenth century, I was heavily engaged in seeking evidence to bolster the Prophet Joseph's claim to have restored the primitive religion practiced by Christ and the apostles in the first.  This quest began when I read the Book of Mormon as a teenager, and led me eventually to the writings of James E. Talmage (the LDS apostle) and Hugh Nibley (a scholar whom many regard as one of the LDS church's foremost apologists).  When I matriculated at the University of Georgia, I chose religion as my major and studied Latin, Greek, and biblical Hebrew before taking a two-year break to preach the LDS version of the Christian gospel in northern Spain.  I returned from Spain to study at Brigham Young University, where I continued working on early Christianity with a number of dedicated professors (and changed my major to classical studies since BYU offers no degree in religion per se).  It was at BYU that I first encountered the work of New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman, whose journey out of a 'literalist' evangelical Christianity now neatly mirrors my own departure from the 'literalist' Mormon Christianity practiced by the LDS.

I was introduced to Ehrman in the context of a familiar argument in LDS apologetics.  Both the 1838 account of the First Vision (the account which the LDS church includes in the Pearl of Great Price as Joseph Smith--History) and the earlier (1830) Book of Mormon (1 Nephi 13-14) posit the existence of a massive ideological break between primitive Christianity and what came later.  Talmage refers to this break as "the Great Apostasy," and tries to locate it somewhere between the first and fourth centuries CE, when the collections of doctrines and rituals that define Catholic and Orthodox Christianity (and all their offshoots) were gradually becoming explicit and being systematized.  Somewhere in this process, the primitive institution founded by Christ turned into something radically different and lost plain and precious truths critically important to authentic Christian identity (see 1 Nephi 14:23).  This Mormon story of apostasy is not wholly unique: it has clear historical precedents in the Protestant Reformation, which was originally much like Mormonism in its attempt to bridge a perceived gap between Christianity then (under Christ) and Christianity now (under apostate prelates).  The Reformation in turn has precedents in various 'heretical' movements within the Catholic and Orthodox churches, many of which conceived of themselves as a return to primitive Christianity.  So when the Prophet Joseph said that Christianity had forgotten Christ and that a restoration of the old ways was necessary, he was not saying something completely new or unexpected.  As I understand it now, the Mormon idea of Restoration was Joseph's final answer to a problem that has been with Christianity for a long time.  I did not realize how long until I began to dig into the work of Bart Ehrman.
My LDS professors at BYU found Ehrman interesting because he confirms Mormon teaching that Christianity has evolved radically over time, providing a scholarly platform from which to argue that the Great Apostasy really did take place, and thus that there really was a historical need for Joseph Smith's Restoration.  Unfortunately, Ehrman does much more than this.  He demonstrates very effectively that (1) Christianity was never a monolithic movement, as far as we can tell; and that (2) the New Testament (NT) cannot be regarded as any kind of objective history: it is a collection of myths collated relatively late from a wide variety of sources; its narratives were composed originally in the context of polemical disputes between early Christians who disagreed profoundly and irreconcilably on the essence of Christianity (the divinity of Christ, the nature of the church, basic doctrine and practice such as baptism, Mosaic observance, priesthood, etc.).  After reading Ehrman and digesting him for several years, I can no longer entertain the LDS story of Apostasy and Restoration as a historical reality.  If there never was any monolithic Christian movement, what was Joseph Smith restoring?  Even a cursory glance at the Pearl of Great Price and the Doctrine and Covenants (not to mention the Book of Mormon) shows that Joseph was leaning heavily on the NT in his reimagination of Christianity, and Ehrman (to my mind) effectively destroys the New Testament's claim to special consideration as preserving "the authentic brand" of Christianity.  Speaking from the historian's point of view, it is impossible for me to agree that the NT looks back to a strain of Christianity that is prior to the other strains that it attacks, ignores, and eventually replaces (for the most part: there are still some obscure Christian sects that do not use the NT as their canon).

How does Ehrman work his magic?  First, he retells the story of the creation of the NT, showing that it was not created in a vacuum: from the first century to the fourth, many books of scripture were written and used by Christians; the NT represents only a small group of these.  Taken as a whole, the books that did not make the NT roster represent variations of Christianity as ancient and argumentatively compelling as what Ehrman calls the "proto-orthodox" faith tradition (the source for Catholicism, Orthodoxy, and Mormonism).  Second, Ehrman deconstructs the NT, showing that many books (e.g. 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John) are manifest forgeries, while others (e.g. Revelation) are of dubious apostolic origin and were strenuously denied entrance into the canon until the very last minute.  He also provides extensive documentation of how early fights to establish authoritative doctrine colored and reshaped NT narratives.  I entertained his arguments initially because they matched the Eighth Article of Faith articulated by Joseph Smith in the Wentworth Letter ("we believe the Bible to be the word of God as far as it is translated correctly") and the teaching of the Book of Mormon ("they [apostates] have taken away from the gospel of the Lamb many parts which are plain and most precious" [1 Ne 13:26]), which imply that Christianity as we have it in the records is somehow corrupt.  What Ehrman really shows, however, is that there is no time in history (as far as we can tell) when Christianity was not "corrupt," by which I mean that there was no time when people with legitimate authority did not dispute its most basic essence and interpret it in very idiosyncratic ways.  After reading Ehrman and finally coming to understand him (a process which took several years, since I was not prepared to relinquish my literalist views overnight), I was left without any compelling ancient evidence for monolithic Christianity.  Why should I read Revelation as the inspired word of God but reject the Shepherd of Hermas, an equally "authentic" text that many viewed as authoritative, or the Gospel of Peter, or the Gospel of Thomas, or the Gospel of Philip, or the Books of Enoch, or any number of other holy books written or adapted by early Christians to proclaim so many different versions of the true faith, all of which looked like Mormonism (and Catholicism and Orthodoxy) in some ways, but not in others?  Why do the Gospels contain so many contradictions in narrative and doctrine?  What was I to make of the fact that so much early Christian literature was plainly pseudepigraphic (composed under a false name, usually that of an early church leader or someone thought to have been close to Christ)?

In the end, I think Ehrman's solution to the problem of early Christianity is the most compelling I have seen.  There never was a singular Christian movement: we have been defined from the beginning by schism and "apostasy" as different individuals and groups among us have inherited and adapted myths and practices from others.  Seen from the historian's perspective, we all have equal claim on Christ: all of us are connected to him, but no one of us owns him in any way that precludes or trumps the others.  The Mormon myth of the Great Apostasy is a rhetorical ploy to make one claim appear preferable to others.  It has no basis in history.  Confronting this fact was very hard for me as a good LDS.  It marked the beginning of the end of my literalist Mormon worldview.


  1. Call me "simple" in my own approach to Christianity, but I must own that my own testimony and sense of spiritual well-being are really not founded on any such "literalist" view of the Gospels or BOM. To me, the importance of my relationship with Christ lies in its effect on my life and happiness.

    That having been said, I think it rather interesting how the curcumstances surrounding the "canonized" version of the First Vision mirror the canonization of the NT books that you describe above. I haven't read any other FV accounts, and am therefore going quite out on a limb here, but wasn't the "accepted" version of the FV given in response to a need for a stricter (more "literal," if you will) account of what Joseph Smith saw/experienced? I wonder how many "plain and precious truths" are lost when, instead of focusing on [what I perceive to be] the more important aspects of spirituality -- i.e., cultivating a personal relationship with God, whetever you perceive him/her/it to be -- we find ourselves striving so hard to pin down exactly how many angels can dance on the heads of pins (and when and where they first began thus dancing).

    Maybe that comment doesn't make sense. As I see it, my two cents can be summarized in one of two ways: (1) I hereby roll my eyes at scholars who use history and fact to debunk literalist orthodoxy. (2) I hereby roll my eyes at orthodoxists (?) who use a literalist approach to deny scholarship. Either group runs the risk of forgetting what religion claims to do/should do in the first place: help us find spiritual peace.

  2. I agree wholeheartedly with your comment, inasmuch as it represents a radical devaluation of literalist attempts to forge artificial (and arbitrary) links between ethics (or "spirituality") and historicized mythology.

  3. My initial crisis of faith in Mormonism also came about because of the problems of early Christian history. I had similar concerns but for myself the series of books which lead me down that road was Elaine Pagels books about the Gnostic Gospels and the Nag Hammahdi scrolls.

    I wanted to understand more about the roots of our religion and this seemed like a great way to better understand the religious climate that Christianity was born into. It was a teeter-totter ride. Sometimes I felt validated in the need for a restoration and other times I felt an overwhelming lack of confidence in the New Testament. The New Testament after all is what it is ALL about.

    Our religion allows much room for error in translation but what about the idea that the divinity of Christ was a much later development? That's a bigger issue. Using the excuse of mistranslation seems like a good one until you see some solid evidence that our version of Christianity is based off of one view of Christ among dozens that existed.

    I am rediscovering the teachings of Christ in a whole new way. I still esteem them very highly but I cannot really see the value in believing whether or not he was actually born of a virgin, or performed some amazing magic tricks, or even that he came back to life after he died. He was something remarkable though for sure.