Who was Jesus? Who is The Christ? Are they the same or was the reality molded to become a stronger unifying influence — with all good intent, mind you — by the early church?
The early church is arguably one of the few stabilizing or even civilizing influences through the Dark Ages which are generally agreed to begin with the fall of the western Roman Empire around 476 AD and continued to the Renaissance in the 1300s.
But the Dark Ages did not suddenly begin on some day in 476 AD. Things were not peaceable and pleasant for everyone in the days before.
Politically, things were falling apart all over the place and the early Church was in the midst of it. There were many different and competing ideas, not just in the world at large but also within the ranks of those who thought of themselves as followers of Jesus.
It was that early church that selected the 27 specific books we now find in the New Testament.
And in making that selection, they rejected others. Most of those rejected works have, over the centuries been completely lost. And in some cases, they didn’t last that long — many may have been systematically and intentionally eradicated, expunged from libraries and copies destroyed.
Scholars know these missing documents did exist only by the references to them in surviving works.
Records of the early church’s selection process, of why they kept this document but rejected that one, are similarly gone, lost, or the result of unwritten agreements by those making the selection.
Until 1945, that is.
In 1945, a stash of early documents was discovered in the desert. Those documents would be separated, passed around, some lost, but many eventually re-collected and, finally, studied.
These are the Nag Hammadi documents.
What is particularly intriguing is that many of the 1st through 3rd century documents in that collection predate much of the work of that New Testament selection process. As such, the Nag Hammadi documents offer both a clearer but also more complex view of the varied followers of Jesus.
Some reports call these other followers the Gnostics but the situation was, according to scholars who have studied the documents, much more complex. There weren’t two factions, Gnostics and Orthodox. Instead, there were dozens and perhaps many more than that.
The early followers of Jesus, with little common reference material and very little communication between groups, became highly fragmented. Different groups might choose different aspects to emphasize or gloss over. And with the slow transportation and great distances, their theologies drifted in different directions.
This was the situation the early Church tried to rectify.
“Of all the manuscripts discovered at Nag Hammadi, The Gospel of Thomas is by far the most important and well known. Some scholars now generally refer to Thomas as the fifth Gospel …
“… What is startling is that some of the Thomasian versions [of Jesus’ sayings] have been shown to be older — that is, more original — than the versions we find in the New Testament. … there are substantial differences in meaning between the Thomasian version of a saying and the version that appears in the canonical Gospels.
“Such comparisons of parallel sayings [found in both Thomas and in the traditional Gospels] have provided direct evidence that the authors of the canonical Gospels reworked Jesus’ teachings to fit their own Christian theology!”
Put yourself, for a moment, in the shoes of those making the decisions on what to include or exclude from the New Testament.
The world is a fractious place. Not only are there many religions, but there are also many factions within those who claim to be followers of Jesus. One so-called faction might be the Gnostics but historians now say this was not a single group with common beliefs. Instead, there were many groups with similar but still widely divergent beliefs, all calling themselves followers of Jesus.
No doubt you are familiar with the statement, “United we stand, divided we fall.” That concept is attributed to Aesop in the sixth century B.C. in the fable of The Four Oxen and the Lion. And no doubt some of those involved in trying to build up the early church were also familiar with the concept.
They undoubtedly feared Church would dissolve into ever smaller factions without a common set of beliefs until, ultimately, it would be completely lost.
So would it be surprising to find that the picking and choosing of what to include or exclude in the New Testament may have strayed from reality and chosen, instead, that which they felt would have provided the strongest unifying influence? Would it be surprising to find they might reject doctrines that were fractious or more difficult to comprehend and, instead, choose those ideas that were in common to the largest numbers of followers?When we choose a leader, do we choose the one whose ideas most of us can understand, or do we choose someone whose ideas are radical, difficult to grasp, and who doesn’t necessarily provide solutions to our blindness and crippled limbs but instead says that God is within you and to look there for peace, not elsewhere?
Was the choice between a Jesus with radical, hard to comprehend ideas versus Christ with straight forward baptism to cleanse your soul and the profoundly simple “believe and you will be saved” faith?
Which would you choose to engender the success of your struggling institution?