The current canonical Gospels were approved during the Council of Nicea in 325AD by Emperor Constantine. Prior to that ancient council there were many Gospels in use, the most widely utilized being the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of the Hebrews. Unlike other Jewish-Christian gospels, the Gospel of the Hebrews was not dependent on the Gospel of Matthew as it’s source document. These early followers may have claimed James as their founder and leader and is more similar to the canonical Gospels. The Gospel of Thomas had a more Gnostic flavor and was more similar in nature to the Gospel of John. There was a lively following of early Christians that recited and remembered the stories of Jesus and his miracles. Since society at this time was largely illiterate, their primary form of transmission of teachings would have been through story telling.
What did they believe though and how did it differ from what we believe now? Rome was in decline during the 4th Century and Constantine saw an opportunity to capitalize on the up and coming Jesus movement to sanctify his role and position. He used the Church to strengthen and expand his kingdom “in the name of God” and with the Church’s blessings. What impact did that have on early believers? Sadly, a significant and tragic impact. Many of the early sects ended up being declared heretical and the Romans were more than willing to partner with the Church to eliminate those not in agreement with them.
The outcome is perhaps even more tragic, the victors memorialize history and tell the tale that they want to be told. One only needs to look to American history for a recent and applicable example. Up until recently, history was written according to the recollections of Christopher Columbus and crew and he was hailed a “hero” for discovering America and slaying the savage “Indians”. Well, we now know that perhaps it was the Europeans who were the savages, the aggressors and that the natives were actually the victims.
The same can be applied to early Christians. Take one group for example, the Cathars – from the Greek for “pure ones,” who were a Gnostic sect and followers of John. They were well entrenched in southern France and their followers numbered as high as 20,000 in around the 12th-14th Centuries . By the early thirteenth century Catharism was likely the dominant religion in the area and many Catholic texts refer to the concern that Catharism would actually replace Catholisism completely. They were known to the people in Southern France as the Bons Hommes or “Good People” and they followed a simple communal life where men and women were considered equal and could hold leadership positions, but their beliefs were quite different than those of the Roman church.
Cathars were dualists believing in the idea of two Gods or principles, one being good and the other evil. The good God was the God who was the creator of the spiritual realm, contrasted with the evil God who was the creator of the physical world – much like the Jehovah and Satan of mainstream Christianity today. The only way to escape the physical world was through rounds of reincarnation, which according to another early Church Father, Origen, was also taught by Jesus.
The Cathars believed that one would continue to reincarnate until they could deny their attachment to the material world. They believed a man could be reincarnated as a woman and vice versa creating an atmosphere where gender was completely meaningless. The spirit was the most important to the Cathars which they also considered not from the material world and sexless. Because of this, the Cathars believed women and men were equal and just as capable of being spiritual leaders, which stood in direct conflict with the belief of an all-male priesthood held by the Roman Catholic Church.
The Cathars, like the Gnostics who preceded them, felt Mary Magdalene held a more significant role in the spread of Christianity than even Peter. Her vital role as a teacher was the model for the Cathar belief that women could serve as spiritual leaders. Women were counted among the Cathari Perfecti or leaders, in significant numbers.
Fearing for loss of control of the people and the Church, under orders of Pope Innocent III and with the full support of the King of France, Dominic led a campaign against the Cathars and after 40 years and the extermination of the Cathars, the Roman Church had proof that a sustained campaign of genocide could work. The year 1234 AD saw the start of the inquisition with the goal to root out any remaining Cathars. Sadly, their march against those in opposition continued until all detractors were eliminated.
We must begin to piece through what was original to these early Christians and what was added to serve competing agendas of successive church and civil leaders. Now with the finding of the Nag Hammadi documents, the unadulterated Gospels found in Egypt in 1947, we can begin to see into an earlier and perhaps truer form of Christianity.
We owe it to ourselves to understand the truth or at least to make sure what we believe is not the result of years of indoctrination founded on violence and more on what the genuine teachings of Jesus actually were.