End of the story as the church knew the truth! (Thankfully, many of us can believe eternal life is spiritual and still be Christian today) Not then! As the bishops taught, all their beliefs were "immovable." All the beliefs were exactly what Jesus taught, and they need not be questioned. (All this is in historical records.) Although this seems a far cry from what Jesus taught and died for on the cross, this church one hundred years, as so many churches after them, declared that his truth equaled only their answers and should be accepted "on faith."
Now these gospels, attributed to disciples as those in the Bible, show that they believed in Jesus, strongly, as Lord and Savior, and that they are filled with many beautiful expressions of faith in Christ. This was not expected, but the 1945 discovery brings new facts that clarify that these gospels were not just alternatives to the biblical gospels but support the faith message found in them as well. The sad fact is that this church said they should not even be read because they did not totally support the proper beliefs that were found exclusively in only four gospels. All others contained no "truth," and so they were officially condemned. Space limits but here a few examples from these condemned gospels.
The Gospel of Thomas, verse 77 states: "Jesus said, It is I who am the light which is above them all. From me did the all come forth. Split a piece of wood, and I am there. Life up a stone and you will find me there."
1. Indeed, our beliefs can change without losing our faith.
2. In regard to faith, we can differ in our beliefs.
3. All beliefs can be challenged.
4. What is true for both the world and religion can be open to question.
5. Faith is more than what we believe or what church to which we belong.
6. Faith is a relationship led by our gnosis (our knowing) the living Christ.
As a threat to this purity, the judgment on these who challenged some of the knowledge of the church came to be called "Gnostics, “and they were described as "know nothings," which was the intent of the name. Particularly, any belief that differed, for example, belief in a spiritual resurrection rather than a bodily resurrection, was simply false and wrong.
If he wanted all to believe the same way, why didn't he set forth beliefs and doctrines in writings or dictate that himself? Yet a radical take from these gospels is that they make it exceeding clear that one form of Christianity won and established over others what were to become the correct or orthodox beliefs of the faith. I guess the question that must be asked, but for which can only be a subjective answer, as so many have answered for themselves, "Is this what Jesus really desired?" Of course, that is an open question, but for those of us who believe Christianity can be valid in more than one way, these gospels open a new door in understanding Jesus in a more inclusive way.
Thus, the Gnostics would argue that this early church got it wrong. What is immovable in Christianity is not our beliefs -- but our faith!
A Modern Kind of Faith
Unfortunately, the Gnostics have been defined mostly for what they believed, and generally, it was assumed that they simply had a different set of beliefs than the church. Now that these new gospels can speak for themselves, it will be seen there is more to their story. They were told they were false Christians because they didn't believe correctly. Ouch! Doesn't that happen sometimes today? They didn't believe this narrow judgment, and as will be seen in the verses below, they had a deep commitment to Jesus with a desire to hear a more loving and caring message from him.
Within the development of the early church, then, as now, even sincere Christians did not believe the same. Yet as the church developed with a growing number of those called bishops, they were able to claim by political power and self-declared authority that there need not be conflict or difference of beliefs for Christians. Long before Constantine, in the second century, a hundred years after the death and resurrection of Jesus, what was first called the "apostolic church" boldly declared that only their beliefs were the eternal and the unquestionable spiritual truths. There was no need to question or differ from them. Their message was: Only their knowledge (gnosis) of Jesus and God was correct.
Yet to insist that one's church or its beliefs (as many still do today) are the only way to know God is -- arrogant judgment -- not faith, and the deeper power and love of Christ gets lost. Thus, their way of faith, not the beliefs of the Gnostics, reopens, incredibly, faith as a relationship. To be clear, the Gnostics do not have all the answers, and so their inspiration for those of us who believe in Jesus, is that we should identify ourselves as more as seekers because that is how we find our vital relationship with both truth and God. Thus directly and indirectly, this is what the Gnostics have to offer. Faith is foremost a living trust in a God who loves us, and the Gnostic Gospels give support to those who believe faith, not immovable beliefs, was the message of Jesus.
Very early in Christianity, the Gnostics begged to differ because they never said truth was a closed issue. As will be seen, they had some different beliefs and myths but never do they say that what they believed was final, unquestionable, and immovable truth. In this sense, they were ahead of the times (at least for those today who believe theological diversity is fair). Thus they become viable as an interesting new and different way to believe in Jesus. In fact, their way of faith is very much the way many Christians believe today yet aren't able to express it because that is not how we were told to believe. Indeed, instead of ancient "stuff," their message is quite relevant and modern as this way supports a new kind of freedom in how we believe. It supports:
That only one form of Christianity had the exclusive truth was a watershed for the meaning of faith as the focus became on beliefs. With such need to be right and "the" orthodox, deep emotional battles over beliefs began in earnest. Christian wars were to come. Faith became particularly over "our" beliefs, and it lasted long into history as evident in the major Protestant/Catholic divisions, which are now thankfully beginning to show signs of peace. The point is that somehow between Jesus and Christianity, too often, faith became defined by beliefs, what one's church believed, and particularly, what one believed about Jesus.
Totally shocking is that those called Gnostic were, at least, at first, members of the church. In their writings, bishops of the church wail against their participation, and yet, almost unbelievably, a Gnostic leader was almost elected Pope after the death of Hyginus in 143 C.E. (that might have changed things). So effective was the cry "heretics," before the Gnostic Gospels were discovered in recent times, many believed they were not even Christians.
Verse 16 of the Gospel of Truth says, referring to Jesus, "... the one who is addressed as the Savior, that being the work he is to preform for the redemption of those who are ignorant of the Father, while in the name of the gospel is the proclamation of hope, being discovered by those who search for him."
The Gospel of Mary says in Verse 8: "The blessed one said, Peace be with you. Receive my peace unto yourselves. For the Son of Man is within you. Follow after him! Those who seek will find him."
Hopefully, a few are surprised at the depth and faithfulness of these verses, which only scratches the surface! Verses, such as these, are not usually what one hears are in these gospels. These are chosen, nonetheless, as examples lifting up a theme many have found in these gospels. In these, one can see how the concept of seeking was essential to the faith of the Gnostics (take a look again at them). Interestingly, seek and you will find is not a closed answer but a process -- a part of our faith journey. Yet it is undeniable that these verses express a belief and trust in Jesus.
Thus it seems natural that many want to just put the Gnostics as a part of this battle for beliefs, but their beauty is that these gospels bring forth a different kind of faith than just establishing another belief system. To have beliefs is not wrong, and to argue our differences, is the cure for just believing anything. Believe anything? No, they would argue that is why we have the right and need to challenge each other.
Background as to why even today many assume naively that these so-called "false" Christians have nothing to say to modern Christians.
Nevertheless, earlier it was mentioned that these gospels contain verses that contradicted beliefs that the church was saying could not be challenged because only the apostles knew the "truth." Well, when we listen to other apostles than those "chosen" by the the church, the fact is there are some major conflicts about beliefs. Some specific examples are: The Gospel of Philip raises questions about the virgin birth. (Is this a requirement for faith?) The Gospel of Truth and several others argue for a spiritual resurrection. In contrast, a church father wrote, "Anyone who denies the resurrection of the flesh is a heretic, not a Christian" (a clear example of the early demand for the necessary or correct belief). The Gospel of Mary Magdalene makes it clear that even all the disciples did not agree (she argues boldly with Peter) and gives support that women should be priest.
These gospels do something dramatic and transforming for faith. It becomes obvious that not all the disciples believed the same, yet the "ideal" that Christianity was one voice has been the norm for centuries. Of course, that is what Constantine wanted for "harmony" in his Empire, but now these new gospels take us back to a much earlier time in the development of Christianity. They make us rethink the message of Jesus. These gospels allow us to go back beyond the rule of this church and listen to Jesus in a new and different way.