For early Christians, gospels weren't histories or eye-witness accounts, they were writings aimed at personal transformation. Like current self-help books, the writers offered their own viewpoints and opinions. Jesus' earliest followers were unable to read and write, so they passed their stories around orally. Written gospels started circulating among more educated Greek speaking Christian converts about 25-30 years after Jesus died.
Early Christians had hundreds of gospels to choose from. During the first three centuries after Jesus' death, Christianity was extremely diverse. Each gospel offered a different slant of Jesus' life and teachings. When you take a close look at the Bible gospels, you'll see that they each tell a very different story about Jesus. As these stories about Jesus circulated, people formed groups to support the story they thought were true. Since it was impossible to know exactly what Jesus did, said or meant, none of these groups could prove they were right.
Some of Jesus' earliest followers were gnostic Christians. Gnostic comes from the Greek word gnosis, and means "knowing" or "knowledge." But gnosis isn't an intellectual pursuit and Gnosticism is not a religion. It's more accurately described as a spiritual "approach" that predates Christianity. It can best be understood as a personal, intuitive, experiential process.
Some groups of early Christians organized and a clergy class developed, but gnostic Christians preferred to learn through independent experience. They felt that Jesus had set the example they were following. Although Gnostics didn't have churches, they did meet informally and passed around gospels that described what they had learned through a direct, personal experience of the Divine. Since each person's experience was unique to them, gnostic Christians did not want to create sacred texts or dogma.
Early Christian diversity came to an end when the "Peter group" gained power. This group believed Jesus has told one of his followers, Peter, to begin a church. This church aligned itself with the political and military might of the Roman Empire and began to systematically destroy any Christians that disagreed with them. Eventually they chose the four gospel accounts that most agreed with their way of looking at things (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) and those four gospels became part of the church approved Bible. The church became extremely powerful and was so effective at destroying its enemies; it wasn't long before people forgot there had ever been Christians who held other views.
When the Gnostic gospels were found, a very different picture of Jesus emerged. An earthenware jar filled with gnostic texts was accidentally found in Nag Hammadi, Egypt in 1945. It had probably been buried by monks from a nearby monastery some 1,500 years earlier when they feared that their beloved books would be destroyed by the church. Scholars were thrilled to discover that these books presented a completely different picture of Jesus and early Christianity.
Generally, Gnostics were not literalists who adhered to specific doctrines or holy books. However, some gnostic Christians who may have been closely associated with ancient "mystery schools," did feel that gnosis was a step-by-step process. Their writings are filled with arcane language that can barely be deciphered. Although gnostic writings are quite diverse, many of the texts are as fresh and valuable today as the day they were written and present an exciting, and very different, picture of Jesus' teachings.
Gnostic writings were meant to be interactive. The reader was expected to search his or her own heart and discover meaning themselves. Gnostics felt that Jesus spoke in parables so those who wanted to be spiritually awake would have to extend themselves to discover the deeper meaning. Gnostic Christians believed Jesus was a wisdom teacher who invited his followers to take responsibility for their spiritual growth and experience God for themselves.
It's impossible to prove that any early Christian writings are more authentic or trustworthy than any others. Every Christian sincerely interested in Jesus' teachings owes it to themselves to find out what early gnostic Christians had to say.
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From Lee & Steven Hager, the authors of The Beginning of Fearlessness: Quantum Prodigal Son.
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