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I recently read several scholarly books about various aspects of daily life in the Roman Empire that had extensively cited the book Lost Christianities by Bart Ehrman, that had been published in 2003. I decided I wanted to read it, but was rather surprised when I discovered the book was for the general reader. (The author bio proudly states he has appeared on A&E and the History Channel, which aren’t generally regarded as respected media for scholarly debate.) However, I quickly learned that the book is not some pseudo-academic History Channel fluff.

Basically, the book details Christianity’s diverse forms prior to the time of Constantine. They fall into four broad categories: those who follow Jewish law (Ebionites), those who reject Jewish law (Marcionites), those who were mystical (many types of Gnosticism), and those who later prevailed (the proto-orthodox Christians).

Ehrman describes their various beliefs and histories, which sacred writings they followed (and how we know about them), and how they interacted with one another. Moreover, he places all this in the context of the world-view of the ancient Romans, which is often neglected by theologians. Oftentimes it seems that historians approach religious history in one manner while theologians use a different tact. I can’t pretend this is truly a cross-discipline work, but at least Ehrman seems to have some experience with ancient Rome outside purely religious studies.

The subtitle of the book is The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew. A major portion of the work is this “battle for scripture,” explaining the different views on sacred writings and how the sacred writings themselves changed (both literally and how they were interpreted) due to conflict between different Christian groups. This was simply fascinating.

The topic being what it is, it is easy to start drawing parallels between these ancient conflicts and today. However, Ehrman largely resists this and stays firmly in the time frame: the people and places of the first several centuries of the Roman Empire. If one is interested in how this religion evolved prior to Constantine I heartily recommend this book.
Seconded - I read most of Ehrman's stuff when I was researching Rome: The Emperor's Spy - on the basis that the fire was deliberately lit, and likely by 'one of the early sects of christianity.' It took me *months* to work out that all of the early sects her refers to grew up decades after the fire - but I learned a lot in the process and his work is always fascinating.

There's a piece on his website somewhere that points out that the details of the Last Supper, in particular the wine and bread as 'sacrifice' were added *after* the earliest versions of the manuscript, and were, in his opinion, a relatively late addition.

I'd recommend in conjunction: 'Judas the Galilean: the Flesh and Blood Christ' by Daniel T Unterbrink; 'Caesar's Messiah' by Joseph Atwill; and 'James, the brother of Christ' by Robert Eisenmann - all shed interesting light on the roots of what we now know as a coherent message.