Recent studies of Christianity suggest that the present may be more like the early days of Christianity than we realize.
As Karen King reminds us in the introduction to What Is Gnosticism?, in 1945, an Egyptian farmer digging for fertilizer near Nag Hammadi uncovered a clay jar containing nearly 46 different 4th-century papyrus books. There were new Gospels, new sayings of Jesus, new creation stories like Genesis, "stories of Mary Magdalene as a spiritual disciple and leader, as well as feminine images of God." Suddenly, we envision a rich early Christian culture of story and debate. These voices would later be thought of as unorthodox, even heretical. Gnostic, King shows, has meant marginal, sectarian, esoteric, mythical, syncretistic, parasitic, and Oriental. The process of defining Gnosticism in the 20th century was governed by issues of Christian identity and scholarly control, not historical fact. Now, the goal is "to open up space for alternative or marginalized voices."
Bart Ehrman's Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew tells the story of the rise of orthodoxy and of what was lost in the process. Where King's style is tartly academic, Ehrman's is marked by the narrative thrust of a good story or even a sermon. He reveals the early Christian centuries engaged in "healthy literary battle," at least until the council of Nicea in 325 "the first council at which bishops from around the world were brought together to establish a consensus on major points of faith and practice." The end result of the establishment of consensus, he argues, was that the mix of early Christianities that he is at pains to identify, and which he clearly treasures, was lost.
Among the weapons employed in the battles for Christian supremacy, he shows, were "the construction of polemical refutations, the publication of character slurs, the creation of forged documents in the names of the apostles." The doomsday weapon was the formation of a canon of sacred authorities.
Ehrman has provided fresh authoritative translations of the texts that fell outside in the canon in Lost Scriptures: Books that Did Not Make It into the New Testament. These "lost scriptures" feature 17 gospels (including the Gospel of Mary, on which Karen King has recently published a commentary), five "acts," 13 epistles and related writings, and seven apocalypses and revelatory treatises (including "The Shepherd of Hermas," which, as Ehrman points out, was exceedingly popular among early Christians). Dipping into "Lost Scriptures," one feels a rush of enticing strangeness attending the opening of the Nag Hammadi pot.
This patient and multifaceted study is exceptionally clear about the logic of heresy. He exposes the false arguments that privilege orthodoxy as original, when in historical fact it was the end product of conquest and negotiation, of attack and consensus. "The apostles, for example, did not teach the Nicene Creed or anything like it. Indeed, as far back as we can trace it, Christianity was remarkably varied in its theological expressions." If this reminds you of the contemporary taste for diversity - well, me, too.
Ehrman's new Loeb Library edition of "The Apostolic Fathers" (a title unknown before the 17th century) presents a scholarly edition, with a lively translation, of Christian writings that circulated before the Biblical canon was established. Some were popular, some not; some were considered part of the sacred Scriptures. His edition replaces one published in 1917-18. The Loeb Library, famous for pocket-book-sized editions of "classics" in red (Latin) or green (Greek) cloth bindings, and now published by Harvard University Press, presents the newly edited original text, with English translations en face, at affordable prices.
As Charles Taylor argues in Varieties of Religion Today, both belief and unbelief now leave us unsatisfied. We live on the cusp. "For what believer," he asks rhetorically, "doesn't have the sense that her view of God is too simple, too anthropomorphic, too indulgent?"
This short book by a great contemporary philosopher revisits William James's "Variety of Religious Experience" and finds much of it still valid a hundred years later. He revives James's attack on "the agnostic veto": "Don't believe in God until you have overwhelming evidence." And he observes contemporary varieties - including revived heresies - with calm detachment.
Observing that "the present dispensation" includes many "somewhat shallow and undemanding spiritual options," he nevertheless reminds us that the alternatives are unacceptable: "hypocrisy, spiritual stultification, inner revolt against the Gospel, the confusion of faith and power, and even worse."
By his own example, Taylor shows that as a form of attention to "the double call" of doubt and faith, religion is an enduring good.
• Tom D'Evelyn is an editorial consultant in Providence, R.I.