I believe Stark has hit the nail on the head. That is the point of my discussions on the topic and that of other commentators. As I have earlier noted, the problem with Ehrman and Pagels name dropping alternative 'early' Christianities is that they present (1) later schools of thought and (2) fail to discuss their legitimacy as first century alternatives. Would Ehrman and Pagels take the challenge to argue that Jesus was in fact a Gnostic? We know that Ehrman does not hold this view (see his Apocalyptic historical Jesus based on the earliest sources) yet he makes no qualification in Lost Christianities."Purely as a matter of faith, one is free to prefer Gnostic interpretations and to avow that they give us access to secret knowledge concerning a more authentic Christianity, as several popular authors have recently done. But one is not free to claim that the early church fathers rejected these writings for nefarious reasons. The conflicts between many of these manuscripts and the New Testament are so monumental that no thinking person could embrace both (p. 142)."
"Elaine Pagels stresses that the Gnostic writers 'did not regard themselves as "heretics"'. Of course note. But the issue of heresy is hardly a matter of self-designation. Let us assume that these writers (including forgers) sincerely believed that they possessed the truth and that the conventional Christians had it all wrong, while the conventional Christians were equally sure that theirs was the true Christianity. Within the confines of faith, the charge of heresy can be resolved objectively only on the basis of which side more accurately transmitted the original teachings of Jesus. That decision must come down to sources (p. 152)."
"Had the Gnostics prevailed, they presumably would be viewed today rather more in the manner that Pagels and other 'Ivy League' Gnostics would wish, assuming that such a thing as Christianity still existed. But the Gnostics did not prevail, because they did not present nearly so plausible a faith, nor did they seem to understand how to create sturdy organizations. Instead, most of them did and taught their own 'thing'. To sum up, the Gnostics gospels were rejected for good reason: they constitute idiosyncratic, often lurid personal visions reported by scholarly mystics, ambitious pretenders, and various outsiders who found their life's calling in dissent. Whatever else might be said about them, surely they were heretics. As N.T. Wright put it, they 'represent ... a form of spirituality which, while still claiming the name of Jesus, has left behind them every things that made Jesus who he was, and that made the early Christians what they were' (p. 154)."
Stark is absolutely correct in stating:
Within the confines of faith, the charge of heresy can be resolved objectively only on the basis of which side more accurately transmitted the original teachings of Jesus. That decision must come down to sources.As I have repeatedly stressed, we can make an argument for orthodoxy and heresy historically. What do our earliest sources say? When did these alternative movements emerge? Do the alternative movements fit the Jesus movement? Do they fit the context of late second temple Judaism? All legitimate questions that can give a 'faith-free' answer to the debate.