What It Is, What It Was

Page from the Gospel of Thomas, detail.

Page from the Gospel of Thomas, detail.

In Nobel Prize-winning writer Jose Saramago’s novel The History of the Siege of Lisbon, the protagonist, an embittered copyeditor, amuses himself by inserting a single word into an otherwise dry account of a long ago world-changing event. In his mischievous hands, an account of 12th century European crusaders en route to the Holy Land reports that they did not stop in Lisbon to help Christians defend their city from Muslim invaders. In fact, they did. Once written, though, even the most grievous errors have a way of gathering the downhill momentum of fact.

The joke of the novel — that someone as apparently inconsequential as a copyeditor could alter our perception of that which we hold most sacred, the past — is also its truth. God may or may not be in the details, but history definitely is. The stories we tell ourselves about where we come from ultimately come down to crossing t‘s and dotting i‘s — to choosing this word over that and watching the subtle shifts of meaning that result ripple into collective memory. Whether it is a “did not” inserted into a book about crusaders and moors, or sixteen words slipped into a presidential address, there is no shortage of evidence that the angel of history hefts not a halo but a mighty red pen.

As interesting as this is to consider within the universe of a novel, and as enraging as it is to hear in the war cry of a commander-in-chief, there is something uniquely unnerving about realizing the ways in which our own sense of the past has been shaped by rewrite men, redactors, and the other copyeditors of history. As scholar Bart D. Ehrman tells it in his new book, Lost Christianities: The Battle for Scripture and Faiths We Never Knew, no less an engine of western civilization than the Christian faith has been shaped by the selection of this text over that, one phrasing of an esoteric belief over another — in other words, by editors.

“What could be more diverse than Christianity in the modern world?” Ehrman wonders, and then provides his own answer. “Christianity in the ancient world.

“During the first three Christian centuries, the practices and beliefs found among people who called themselves Christian were so varied that the differences between Roman Catholics, Primitive Baptists, and Seventh-Day Adventists pale by comparison

“In the second and third centuries there were, of course, Christians who believed in one God. But there were others who insisted that there were two. Some said there were thirty. Others claimed there were 365.

“In the second and third centuries there were Christians who believed that God had created the world. But others believed that this world had been created by a subordinate, ignorant deity. (Why else would the world be filled with such misery and hardship?) Yet other Christians thought it was worse than that, that this world was a cosmic mistake created by a malevolent divinity as a place of imprisonment, to trap humans and subject them to pain and suffering.

“In the second and third centuries there were Christians who believed that the Jewish Scripture (the Christian ‘Old Testament’) was inspired by the one true God. Others believed it was inspired by the God of the Jews, who was not the true God. Others believed it was inspired by an evil deity. Others believed it was not inspired.”

All of these believers, all of whom called themselves Christians, had their own texts that they considered sacred. Each was legitimate and true to its own set of adherents. There were Gospels of Mary Magdalene, of Simon Peter, and of Jesus’ twin brother Thomas. There were also extra epistles, alternate apocalypses — one in which a disciple is treated not with the Book of Revelation’s vision of a world ended in war, but with a guided tour of heaven.

Ehrman’s book is a catalogue of the scriptures left on Christendom’s cutting room floor. The first known delineation of the 27 books we today call the New Testament as the standard texts, the canon, of the faith appeared in a letter signed by Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria, in the year 367. Thereafter, an entire spiritual library was shunted aside. Despite predating much of what was then declared to be gospel truth, many of these texts were forgotten, sentenced to obscurity in tucked away monastery libraries. Others were condemned as books filled with dangerous theological error — scattered pieces of the original Heretic’s Bible.

The implication of all this is simple and startling: The world we know is shaped by one faith more than any other, and that faith could have been far different than the one we know today. Imagine a world in which the Christians of the 365 gods prevailed in the second century religious marketplace. Imagine a Christendom in which the canvases of renaissance art were crowded with marching bands of deities instead of a single solo-singing Christ. What the world would look like today? Would Saramago’s crusaders have headed to the Holy Land at all? Would we now be occupying Babylon?

Such questions, of course, are the stuff of fantasy. What was, was. Not even the cleverest of proofreaders can unmake the canon now. We are left only with the repercussions of ancient editorial decisions.

But still there are the echoes of what might have been. When I was an undergraduate religion major, my New Testament professor once remarked that whatever one thought of the historicity of the events in the life of Jesus of Nazareth, it was clear that something fairly special had happened around the time he walked the earth. That the world experienced a spasm of religious creativity in his wake could not be questioned. At the time, I remember countering that such a supposition judged the cause by the effect, a bit like someone seeing a hay barn burning and proclaiming, That must have been one hell of a match!

Lost Christianities suggests that, yes, it was. Not just one match, in fact, but — far more interestingly — a whole book set on fire.

Peter Manseau is the author of Songs for the Butcher's Daughter, Vows: The Story of a Priest, a Nun, and Their Son and, most recently, Rag and Bone: A Journey Among the World's Holy Dead. He founded Killing the Buddha with Jeff Sharlet, and the two wrote Killing the Buddha: A Heretic's Bible. Follow him on Twitter @petermanseau.