Bart Ehrman

2004 SeasonEhrman

Bart Ehrman is the Bowman-Gray Professor and Chair of the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He came to UNC in 1988, after four years of teaching at Rutgers University. He completed his M.Div. and Ph.D. degrees at Princeton Seminary, where his 1985 doctoral dissertation was awarded magna cum laude. Since then he has published extensively in the fields of New Testament and Early Christianity, having written or edited eight books, numerous articles, and dozens of book reviews. Among his most recent books are a college-level textbook on the New Testament, two anthologies of early Christian writings, and a study of the historical Jesus as an apocalyptic prophet -- all published by Oxford University Press. He is currently at work on a Greek-English Edition of the Apostolic Fathers for the Loeb Classical Library (Harvard University Press).

Prof. Ehrman has served as President of the Southeast Region of the Society of Biblical literature, chair of the New Testament textual criticism section of the Society, book review editor of the Journal of Biblical Literature, and editor of the monograph series The New Testament in the Greek Fathers (Scholars Press). He currently serves as co-editor of the series New Testament Tools and Studies (E. J. Brill) and on several other editorial boards for monographs in the field.

Winner of numerous university awards and grants, Prof. Ehrman is the recipient of the 1993 UNC Undergraduate Student Teaching Award, the 1994 Phillip and Ruth Hettleman Prize for Artistic and Scholarly Achievement, and the Bowman and Gordon Gray Award for excellence in teaching.


Lost Christianities: The Battle for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew (2003)
Lost Scripture: Books That Did Not Make it Into The New Testament (2003)
The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings (2003)


Excerpt of Chapter Six from Lost Christianities: The Battle for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew

"Christians 'In the Know': The Worlds of Early Christian Gnosticism"
by Bart D. Ehrman


The Tenets of Gnosticism

As we have seen, Gnostic Christians maintained that in the beginning there was only One. This One God was totally spirit, totally perfect, incapable of description, beyond attributes and qualities. This God is not only unknown to humans; he is unknowable. The Gnostic texts do not explain why he is unknowable, except to suggest that he is so “other” that explanations—which require making something unknown known by comparing it to something else—simply cannot work. CHRISTIANS "IN THE KNOW" - pg. 123
According to sundry Gnostic myths, this one unknowable God, for some unknowable reason, generated a divine realm from himself. In some of these myths, the perfect essences of this One become themselves, somehow, self-existent. So, for example, this One spends eternity thinking. He thinks, of course, only of himself, since he is all there is. But his thought itself must exist, since he thinks. And so his thought becomes its own entity. Moreover, this One always exists. And so his eternal existence, his eternality, exists. And so it becomes its own entity. This One is living; in fact, he is Life. And so his life itself exists. Life then becomes its own entity. And so on.

Thus there emerge from this One other divine entities, emanations from the one, called aeons (Thought, Eternality, Life, etc.); moreover, some of these aeons produce their own entities, until there is an entire realm of the divine aeons, sometimes called the Fullness or, using the Greek term, the Pleroma.

The Gnostic myths are designed to show not only how this Pleroma came into existence in eternity past but how the world we live in came into being and how we ourselves came to be here. What these myths appear to have in common is the idea that there is a kind of downward movement from spirit to matter, that matter is a denigration of existence, the result of a disruption in the Pleroma, a catastrophe in the cosmos. In some of these systems, it is the final aeon who is the problem, an aeon called Wisdom or, using the Greek term, Sophia. The myths have different ways of explaining how Sophia's "fall" from the Pleroma led to the awful consequences of the material world. One of the more familiar myths is found in the Secret Book of John, an account of a revelation given to John the son of Zebedee by Jesus after his resurrection. This book was one of those discovered (in several versions) near Nag Hammadi in 1945; a version of its myth can also be found in the summaries of Irenaeus. In this Gnostic myth, Sophia decides to generate a divine being apart from the assistance of her male consort, leading to a malformed and imperfect offspring. Fearful that her misdeed will be uncovered, she removes her offspring from the divine realm into a lower sphere where no one can see him, and she leaves him then to his own devices. She has named him Yaldabaoth, a name reminiscent of "Yahweh, Lord of Sabbaths," from the Old Testament, for this malformed and imperfect divine being is the Jewish God.

According to this form of the myth, Yaldabaoth somehow manages to steal divine power from his mother. He then moves far off from her and uses his power to create other lesser divine beings-the evil cosmic forces of the world-and the material world itself. Since he is the creator, he is often called the Demiurge (Greek for "maker"). Yaldabaoth is ignorant of the realm above him, and so he foolishly declares, "I am God and there is no other God beside me" (Isa. 45:5-6). But he, along with his divine henchmen who have helped him create the world, are shown a vision of the one true God; they then declare among themselves, "Let us create a man according to the image of God" (i.e., the true God they have just seen-cf. Gen. 2:7). And so they make Adam. But Adam, not having a spirit within him, is completely immobile.

God then tricks Yaldabaoth into conveying the power of his mother into this inanimate being, by breathing the breath of life into it, thereby imparting the power of Sophia into humans, making them animate and giving them a power greater even than the lesser cosmic forces that Yaldabaoth had created. When the cosmic forces realize that the man who was created is greater than they, they cast him into the realm of matter. But the one true God sends his own Thought into man, to instruct him concerning his true divine nature, the manner of his descent into the realm of matter, and the way in which he can reascend.

Other myths have other ways of describing the creation of the material world and the creation of humans. What they share is the notion that the world we live in was not the idea or creation of the One true God, but the result of a cosmic disaster, and that within some humans there resides a spark of the divine that needs to be liberated in order to return to its real home.

The only way this salvation can occur is for the divine spark to learn the secret knowledge that can bring liberation from its entrapment in the world of matter. Knowledge is thus central to these systems, knowledge of who one really is. As Jesus indicates to his brother, Judas Thomas, in one of the Nag Hammadi tractates, "While you accompany me, although you are uncomprehending, you have in fact already come to know, and you will be called the 'one who knows himself.' For he who has not known himself has known nothing, but he who has known himself has at the same time already achieved knowledge about the depth of the all" ( Book of Thomas the Contender 2.138.14-18). 12

This knowledge can come only from revelation. One cannot simply look at the world and figure out how to be saved. This world is evil, and any knowledge acquired within it is simply material knowledge. True knowledge comes from above, by means of a revelation. In Christian Gnostic circles, it is Christ who provides this knowledge. In the words of a Gnostic hymn by a group known as the Naassenes, quoted by the heresiologist Hippolytus,

But Jesus said: "Look, Father, upon this being [i.e., the human] pursued by evils, which on the earth wanders about, far from your breath. It seeks to escape from the bitter chaos and knows not how it shall win through. For its sake send me. Father! Possessing the seals I will descend, all the aeons will I pass through, all secrets will I reveal, the forms of the gods will I disclose, and the hidden things of the holy way, which I have called 'knowledge,' will I impart" ( Refutation 5.10.2). 13

But how can Christ enter into this world of matter and not be tainted by it? That is one of the puzzles the Gnostics had to solve, and different Gnostic thinkers did so in different ways. Some took the line we have already seen in Marcion and others, maintaining that Jesus was not a flesh-and-blood human being, but only appeared to be so. These Gnostics took the words of the apostle Paul quite seriously: Christ came "in the likeness of sinful flesh" (Rom. 8:3). As a phantom sent from the divine realm, he came to convey the gnosis necessary for salvation, and when he was finished doing so, he returned to the Pleroma whence he came.

Excerpt from Lost Christianities ©2003 by Bart D. Ehrman is used with permission from Oxford University Press.