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Peter, Paul, and Mary Magdalene: The Followers of Jesus in History and Legend Hardcover – May 1, 2006
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From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. There is a bit of irony in the subtitle of this terrific book. Ehrman, chair of the Department of Religious Studies at UNC–Chapel Hill and author of several well-received volumes including Lost Scriptures and Lost Christianities, struggles with the very issue of how to separate history from legend, whether it can be done at all and whether it matters. He contends "it is often easier to know how the past was remembered than to decide what actually happened." By shifting focus from the tales to the tellers, Ehrman enters the ongoing discussion of biblical literalism and reliability, insisting that we're not arriving at satisfactory answers because we're not asking the right questions. Drawing widely from history, scripture and extra-biblical writings, he studies the many stories of the lives of the first-century "Peter, Paul and Mary," arguing that inclusion of some accounts in the canon should not elevate these texts above the others, some of which were accepted early on by the church but later excluded from the canon. As with his other works, Ehrman presents his case clearly and succinctly. So, are the biblical stories more reliable than those outside the canon? The answer, my friend, is blowin' in the wind. (May)
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*Starred Review* Prolific biblical historian Ehrman has titled his book with a wink and a nod to the beloved folksingers, but he makes the point that they sang about injustice, oppression, and other issues that were also concerns of early Christians. Here he presents three of the best known and most important of Jesus' followers and does so in a way that is uncompromising in its scholarship yet utterly engaging for general readers. Ehrman uses New Testament texts, other historical writings, and, interestingly, legends and myths to define his subjects; in the latter case, he examines the stories that sprang up around this trio, noting that they all expressed the "beliefs, concerns, values, priorities, and passions" of Christians. Ehrman has quite a lot to work with in his discussions of Peter and Paul--whose lives are well documented--and he delves deeply into the characters of both men as well as their beliefs, arguments with one another, and roles in the early church. As for Mary, he notes that though little is actually known about her, she has become the "media star" of the group. (Ehrman also covered this aspect of Mary in his book Truth and Fiction in The Da Vinci Code, 2004.) Throughout, Ehrman asks questions and makes readers think about the answers. This interactive technique, paired with a highly readable, entertaining style, will garner a wide popular audience for a book whose subject often leads to work that is dense and arcane. Ilene Cooper
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
Top customer reviews
While nearly half the NT scripture is attributed to Paul, according to the gospel of Thecla, Paul was bald, fat, bow-legged, had a big nose and had bushy eye brows that met in the middle. Peter was a hot head who was insensed by all the attention Jesus paid to Mary Magdalene. While far less is known about Mary Magdalene, it is she who arouses the most interest. She is only mentioned 13 times in the NT, however, Ehrman believes she began Christianity and was the first Christian.
While Ehrman sometimes uses the same material in many of his books and is redundant in many of the chapters in this book, his information is well researched and he is an expert scholar of biblical history. He was educated at the Moody Bible Institute, Princeton, and now teaches at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.
Ehrman states that many of the stories in antiguity are changed, modified, amplified, and embellished. And sometimes they were made up. Therefore we must use all the tools at hand to determine the truth about these characters to determine what was their true nature.
Hhe goes step by step through his research and thinking processes for each of the points he's trying to make, then he lets the reader decide for him/herself. He doesn't just beat you over the head with facts and his opinion.
The book is divided into thirds, about one third about each of the apostles Peter, Paul and Mary Magdalene, and the contributions each made to the formation of the church and organized religion.
Much of this felt like rehashed version of his others books and this one felt a little pushy. More like a diatribe than just merely informative. Much of what I read here, I have read in some of his other books. In many places, I just wasn't convinced by Ehrman's research. His convictions and passions, yes! His research seems to be lacking here. Of course, he's digging through things thousands of years old, so there probably isn't much to go on in the first place. However, I just wasn't swayed.
The book was also a little boring. Although equal amounts were given to each of the Big 3, Paul's section drug on a bit and the Magdalene's section didn't really have any new revelations. However, it was my favorite section. If you're wanting to learn anything significant about these three power players or the beginnings of the early church, you should probably start somewhere else.
Bart Ehrmann is not just re-chewing old cabbage from previous books here, though he is forced by his subject matter to reexamine old ground from a new point of view. The rationale for his title, which he obviously found just too pawkishly juicy to resist, is the way in which the sixties folk pop trio, like the Biblical one, came on the scene in an apocalyptic time bearing a pop-countercultural message, the latter as expressed in what became the Gospels, the latter-day one in such a song as "If I Had A Hammer."
In the Biblical case, unlike the sixties case, this book's central question is who were these people? Modern Christians seem to be pretty sure they know, for all that their opinions may vary all over the map. By way of illustrating the real problem, Ehrmann would ask, for example, who was Jesus? For all that modern Christians may think they know that one, the reality is that the four different gospels portray four different Jesuses, with radically different personalities. For modern Christians, of course, who read the Bible "as a little child," if at all, this is not necessarily a crisis of faith. They just go with the Jesus they like best, most usually the rather Buddhistic "cool guy in sandals" Jesus of Matthew, and let it go at that. Obviously for a serious scholar like Ehrmann, that's not good enough, for understanding either the real Jesus or other such lesser players as Peter, Paul and Mary.
Simon-called-Peter, for a start, is particularly problematical, in that, important as he must have been, we only know him from the accounts of others. By all accounts, he was an illiterate Aramaic-speaking blue-collar fisherman, a strange choice for what Jesus called "The rock upon which I will build my church..." especially since Peter seems, by temperament, anything but a rock. As both the apostle who cut off the ear of one of Jesus' adversaries and who denied Jesus thrice, Peter always seems rather a volatile, constantly doubting, vacillating hothead, to a degree that occasions Ehrmann to suggest that Jesus may have simply been being sarcastic. The writings attributed to Peter, in highly literate Koine Greek, are obviously not really his, nor do we know for sure what he actually may have gone on to do, all accounts being variously unreliable and contradictory. To the Catholic church, he was the first patriarch of Rome, where he was eventually martyred, though alas there is no verifiable record of Peter's ever actually having visited Rome, and significant reason to suppose that he wouldn't have in any case, so who was this masked man anyway? For Ehrmann, though, this is just where it gets interesting. Just as important as who Peter really was is the issue of who people, from then to now, have thought he was, as expressed through legendry and literary forgeries about him down through Christian history, which have had such a profound effect on that history and on church doctrine.
This is even truer of Saul-called-Paul, the only player, including Jesus himself, who we can be reasonably sure ever existed as a flesh and blood historical character, and who has left us some actual record in his own words. Again, just as important as who Paul was is who people since then have thought he was, with its corresponding influence, for better or worse, on church history and doctrine. Obviously, not all of that has worked out the way Paul himself might have wanted. Of all the New Testament epistles under his name, for example, almost half are later forgeries written by others, and it is in fact the forgeries that have caused him to be remembered mainly, in history and church doctrine, as a woman-hater and an anti-semite, policies plainly contradicted by a careful reading of the epistles Paul actually wrote, but which have caused huge problems for Christianity ever since.
Which is not necessarily to say that Paul was really just a misunderstood goodguy, of course. He was, after all, the Pharisee who ultimately hijacked the newborn church from the original Nazarenes and radically transformed it from a Jewish heresy into a paganized, gnosticised mystery cult, with a central message that pretty much flew in the face of what would appear to have been Jesus' own central teachings, all on the basis of a brief epiphany on the road to Damascus, which may or may not ever have really happened. Paul, who never met Jesus, was no disciple, after all; he seems, in fact, to know practically nothing about Jesus himself. He has none of the things to say about the life or teachings of the real flesh-and-blood Jesus that a disciple normally would, and shows no interest in any aspect of Jesus apart from his spiritual significance as resurrected savior; not so much the Jewish "Messiah," or "Redeemer," as simply the paganized "Christ," or "Annointed One," a troubling distinction that today's Christians manage to melt together just by not thinking too much about it, but which has been problematical for Christianity all the way back to Jesus himself, who sometimes seems to have been of two or more minds about it.
One could call Paul, as he called himself, an "apostle," of course... but an apostle of what? Actually, of his own ideas and doctrines, a huge problem for Christianity all the way down to Martin Luther and on into our own time, and perhaps the biggest cause of Christianity's central problem of epistemological incoherency, leaving Christendom perpetually stranded at the crossing-points of who Paul was versus who people have thought he was.
In getting round to Mary Magdalen, Ehrmann seems to take a lot of pleasure in shifting gears and having some fun. He points out the irony of Mary being, today certainly, the biggest rock star of all the players despite, or perhaps even because of, receiving the least notice in scripture. Since the gospels say so little about her that we can't be absolutely sure about such issues as whether she was a prostitute or even knew Jesus all that well, it's intriguing to see her toil on down through Christian history to become not just the intimate and confidante of Jesus, but even his mistress or wife and, ultimately, the mother, by Jesus, of the founder of a line of French kings. Obviously what is at work here is the spontaneous evolution of a compelling corpus of post-biblical modern mythology, with its own informal sub-religion of zealous believers. Ehrmann gets an excuse here to discuss in some depth not only such rather deplorable pop fables as Jesus Christ Superstar, The Last Temptation, The DaVinci Code et al., but traces the genre back through mediaeval legendry, some of it spawned by clergy, to roots in early Gnostic and apochrypal writings such as found in the Nag Hamadi trove, and classical era gender lore. To my mind, it's an ideal wrap-up for a thoroughly engaging book.