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Popular fiction and a new 'gospel' put scholars of early Christianity in the spotlight

Historians in the News




Studying the early Christian writings found in Egypt over the past 110 years is painstaking, even frustrating work. The texts were written on brittle papyrus, often in tantalizing fragments, in Coptic — an Egyptian language rendered in Greek letters.

Until the 1980s, the scholars who worked on these writings formed a small circle in which almost everyone knew everyone else. Thanks in part to the success of a series of books written by the Princeton University professor of religion Elaine H. Pagels over the last 25 years, the circle of researchers delving into once-lost texts such as the Gospel of Mary and the Gospel of Phillip has widened considerably [thanks in considerable part to Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code]....

At a time when many in the humanities lament their disconnect with the public, growing interest in what scholars say about early Christianity is a notable exception.

Researchers are unanimous in insisting that such interest is welcome. "It really is a pedagogical moment," says Karen L. King, a professor of ecclesiastical history at Harvard Divinity School. "Gospel of Mary? Gospel of Thomas? Gospel of Phillip? What is that?" Questions that The Da Vinci Code raises about the New Testament and what was and was not included in it, she says, "can open up people's capacity to read the Bible fresh."

Ms. Pagels, one of the great popularizers of the Nag Hammadi texts, agrees. "I'm not a snob about how this material reaches a general audience," she says.

Indeed, Ms. Pagels's skill in weaving lost Christian texts back into the history of the religion has made her a highly visible expert on the varieties of early Christianity. And her books have created a template of sorts for scholars who seek to find a general audience for their scholarship.

Mr. Ehrman's 2003 book, Lost Christianities (Oxford), is a good example. It is a scholarly book that examines a wide variety of ancient texts that did not make it into the New Testament, with verve and accessibility to a general audience. (Oxford also published an accompanying volume, Lost Scriptures, with translations of the texts.)

"I've been grappling with ways to communicate this material to a general audience," says Mr. Ehrman, who has published three other books on early Christianity aimed at a popular audience in the past two years. "I think the best people to communicate with the general public are people doing genuine research."

Marvin W. Meyer, a professor of Bible and Christian studies at Chapman University, also writes books for general audiences about the rediscovered Coptic writings.

"We live in a brand new world when it comes to a popular audience's attention," says Mr. Meyer. "The good news is that the words are getting out there to the public as never before. ... When this is done in a responsible way, it is, in large part, a good thing. It's a lovely sort of thing."...

Read entire article at Richard Byrne in the Chronicle of Higher Education

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