The lives of the very early Christians

An informed but breezy look at the myths surrounding Jesus' most influential followers.

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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.

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That's 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.

"Peter, 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 of Rome.

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 seeing things.

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.

While 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 with Jesus.

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 own perspective.

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.

The historical facts are important, he says, but so is an understanding of how people have made the Scriptures meaningful in their own lives.

Jane Lampman is a Monitor staff writer.

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