The Gospel of Mary, the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Judas, and many others: You won’t find them in the bible, yet at one time in the infancy of the Jesus Movement they were widely accepted in the emerging philosophy. According to biblical scholars, there were thousands of texts, stories, and oral histories in the first centuries AD within the new movement related to the life and times of the rebel preacher from Nazareth. All were accepted as valid representations of Jesus by large swaths of his following.
But there was also considerable disagreement among early followers as to just who Jesus was. Some thought he was a prophet, some a great moralist, some a champion of the poor, some a failed liberator from oppressive Roman occupation. Others thought he was a divine entity come to save souls, some as a beacon of everlasting ‘truth’ and hope. Despite those differences of opinion, there was general agreement that he was one who had the courage to take on the suicidal mission of exposing the corruption of the Jewish hierarchy, its collusion with Roman occupation forces, and the opulence of the priesthood; wealth that they obtained upon the backs of the poor.
Taken in their totality, these early writings and viewpoints painted a diverse representation of an individual with both extraordinary abilities and very human qualities. Modern biblical scholars recognize many of these stories as being exaggerations in the common pattern of hero worship, but overall they painted a picture of a complex historical figure who had the capacity to captivate the attention and passions of a growing number of followers. But after the death of Jesus and as the focus of the Church shifted away from Jesus’ birthplace and ministry in Palestine to Rome, almost all of those stories were (in legalese) stricken from the record. In general nearly everything that highlighted Jesus’ human side or his Jewish faith or the role of women was expunged, and the emerging Christian priesthood recognized only those few stories that portrayed Jesus as divine. It was selective editing in order to promote a particular point of view.
The Gospel of Judas portrays a completely different picture of the relationship he had with Jesus (friend rather than betrayer) compared to the accepted version, the Gospel of Mary hints at an intimate relationship Jesus had with Mary, the Gospel of Thomas proclaims the kingdom of heaven is not ‘out there’ but ‘in here’, the human heart or soul. Several other Gospels expand the narrative of Jesus in totality creating a portrait of a complex individual. Yet, as the power of the Christian priesthood grew in Rome, all other texts other than those specifically proclaimed ‘true’ were outlawed; nearly all these were labeled false teachings and were confiscated and burned. Other completely new texts, laws, and mandates were introduced by early Christian fathers to strengthen the growing power of the Church, even though they had nothing whatsoever to do with the Jesus Message. The depth and cultural richness of the ideas and thoughts of the early movement was destroyed in order to create a single narrative.
If the early Church demanded the destruction of these early texts as heretical and under pain of death, how do we know they even existed? Some few survived and the existence of others came down through the ages by word of mouth. But then in modern times thousands of authentic ancient fragments of documents from that time period were discovered hidden away in caves in Jordan and in Egypt. These represent some of the earliest copies of at least some of those early texts, verifying their existence. The only known copy of the Gospel of Judas was found amongst those artifacts. In large part they substantiate the diversity of thought in the early days of the Jesus Movement and provide powerful evidence of the deliberate manipulation of the early texts to suit the goals of the early Christian priesthood.
What we can glean from the study of the historical Jesus is that he was a wandering preacher from Nazareth, one of the poorest communities in all of Palestine, who never asked for payment and was a champion of the poor. He saw first hand the corruption of the Jewish priesthood where they bent and molded and took advantage of the ancient Jewish texts to enrich themselves, making the poor essentially slaves to the establishment. Money and resources that should have gone to help alleviate the plight of the less fortunate was instead used to enrich the power of the Jewish priesthood and to create and maintain a magnificent temple. Jesus, like many other zealots of his time, took upon himself the mission of exposing that corruption, which was his primary goal. He had wide support within the peasant population, but like whistleblowers throughout human history, he came up against the power of the entrenched greed of the established bureaucracy and the corrupt forces in power.
So by selective editing of the vast number of stories related to the life and times of Jesus, the early Church created a wholly divine character. In perhaps the greatest irony of all, the emerging Christian priesthood merely followed the playbook of the corrupt Jewish leadership. They fed upon the ignorance and gullibility of the peasant population. Any early writing contrary to that which was ‘canonized’ was destroyed, dissenters were labeled heretics and murdered by the Church. The Catholic Church at one point even prohibited anyone not specifically authorized by the Pope to own a bible, so as not to have parishioners ‘think for themselves’ and create alternative interpretations of officially sanctioned scripture. The Jesus Message was taken hostage, sculpted, manipulated, and institutionalized and the historical Jesus, The-Flesh-And-Blood-Man, faded into history.
To be continued…
Email Terry Mejdrich at email@example.com.