Book review: Peter, Paul & Mary Magdalene

by Bart D. Ehrman


This may be my favorite among Ehrman books. It details the legends of three of the most important followers of Jesus in the Bible.

Few of the stories told are considered historical; even stories that derive from the Bible are not considered literally true by Ehrman. For example, many of our stories come from the book of Acts, and about a quarter of Acts is made up of speeches by its characters, mostly Peter and Paul. But the speeches all sound about the same; Peter sounds like Paul and Paul sounds like Peter. This may seem a bit odd, given the fact that Peter was an illiterate peasant who spoke Aramaic, whereas Paul was a well-educated, highly astute author raised in a Greek-speaking environment. Ehrman handles these situations with characteristic bluntness: “When we examine what Peter is alleged to have preached, we are in effect seeing what different authors imagined him to have said—which may come down to the same thing as seeing what authors would have wanted him to say.”

Nevertheless, even knowing that nearly all we have about these characters is legend, the legends are fascinating and the book is fun to read. Ehrman takes a shot at unraveling which epistles are written by these three (a few of the Pauline epistles is all) and he dives into a number of second-century non-canonical Christian writings, presenting his findings in three parts: One part for each character. The section on Peter is absolutely fascinating; the section on Paul is argumentative, and not so original (Ehrman’s usual chip on the shoulder regarding pseudonymous writing makes an appearance); and the section on Mary will leave you bewildered, definitely thinking differently about her and the role of women in early Christianity. Ehrman puts it like this:

“The Christian religion is founded on the belief that Jesus was raised from the dead. And it appears virtually certain that it was Mary Magdalene of all people, an otherwise unknown Galilean Jewish woman of means, who first propounded this belief. It is not at all far fetched to claim that Mary was the founder of Christianity.”

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