For over two thousand years, orthodox Christianity has served the Western world, revealing a legacy of inspired spirituality and unimagined creativity in music, art, literature, human compassion, healing, and education – that has and continues to leave a positive mark on the advancement of the human race. However, it is now being deeply questioned, and is presently enduring a significant loss of faithful followers. Beginning in the 16th century with the advent of scientific thinking, and eventually with the industrial and technological revolutions, it is, for those with deeply questioning minds, increasingly failing to speak to their daily needs. The resulting religious void has resulted in increasing individual and collective efforts to fill this gap, among them, recourse to other religions, and a desperate search for new understandings of the original Christian message.
This paper addresses recent discoveries of previously unknown Christian scriptures which predate the orthodox canonical gospels of Mathew, Mark, Luke and John. Surprisingly, these earlier writings reveal a totally different kind of Christianity – one which could very well speak to the needs of the lost Christians of today.
Primary among these are the Gospel of Thomas, and the Gospel Q which appeared 20 to 80 years closer to the time of Jesus life. And it is precisely because these writings appeared earlier than the four Gospels that scholars consider them likely to be more historically accurate than the messages of the four gospels.
Yet it is in those four gospels that convention establishes the basic beliefs of traditional Christianity! – the virgin birth, Jesus dying for our sins, resurrection of the body, the end time, etc. This conflict is now causing these new scholars to seriously question the accuracy of that orthodox Christian religion that has flourished for over twenty centuries!
But before rushing in to replace something established and familiar because it appears scientifically inaccurate with something entirely new, it behooves us to carefully consider all factors involved before acting on any conclusion.
On this note I deem it important to recognize a significant difference between one person’s preference for a religious belief – that is, one based on faith, and another person’s religious belief – based on historical fact, and the resulting choice to follow one path or the other – or both. Many orthodox Christians have a solid faith that serves them well and cannot be shaken, but the growing number of those who are moved to question orthodox Christianity now needs something more than that orthodoxy to rely on. It is for these persons that a “New Christianity” is being sought – which from recent research appears might actually be very old, since scholars are finding the Gospels of Thomas and Q are the most promising sources.
But before proceeding, and in view of any controversy about what came first and what next, it may be helpful to review the chronology of Christian writings in the Current, or Common Era – (CE, formerly AD):
Year 1-30: Jesus of Nazareth and John the Baptist
30-60: First edition of the Gospel Q (about 50 CE);
First edition of the Gospel of Thomas (about 50 CE);
Paul’s letters (50 – 60 CE).
60-80: First Gospel of Mark (about 70 CE)
80-100: Gospel of Matthew (about 80 CE); Gospel of Luke (about 90 CE); Gospel of Peter 50-100 CE; and Gospel of John (about 90 CE)
100-350: Secret Book of James; Gospel of Mary, & Gospel of Judas (150-325); Selection of the four gospels as Canon, emergence of the New Testament, Council of Nicea and of the official creeds (325 CE), and the first surviving (hand written) copies of the New Testament Bible (325-350 CE).
While for many it is outrageous to now question the origin and authority of orthodox Christianity, this same questioning actually began shortly after Jesus’ death. Peter’s Jewish Christians and Paul’s Gentile Christians clashed over the issue of whether to follow a religion about Jesus, or the religion of Jesus. The religion about Jesus taught that we are saved by Jesus. The religion of Jesus taught that the kingdom of God is already within us, and around us, and can be realized through an intentional, conscious inner effort to know ourselves. This has also been identified as relating to the beliefs of Gnosticism, which in Greek means “knowledge” – more specifically – a knowledge of oneself. But following Jesus’ time, the Christian movement of inner knowing was not as easily grasped as was one’s outer hope of being saved by Jesus’ life and death. The result was that the “inner” belief system almost perished. In fact the Thomas theology of believing in God within, was actually condemned by Constantine as not only unsuitable but a threatening interference to his chosen state religion of orthodox Christianity, which served better as an empire-controlling influence. It is only now that enough people are seeking something other than the orthodox message, that the issue of self knowing is again coming to the fore. But again, 2000 years after it was first offered, it is still not for everyone. The thesis herein is that both the spiritual orthodox belief in Jesus as savior, and the spiritual historical belief of self-knowing of God within, are valid approaches to our Christian faith, and only by constant and sincere self-honesty can one decide which to follow, and when to include both.
I offer below brief examples of the differences between the orthodox faith and the new historical Christian faith that can be seen in the words recorded as coming directly from Jesus:
In 30-60 CE the gospel of Thomas has Jesus speaking about working on and within ourselves:
Thom. 2:00 “Jesus said: ‘Those who seek should not stop seeking until they find. When they find, they shall be disturbed. When they are disturbed, they will marvel, and will rule over all.’”
Thom. 3:00 “Jesus said: ‘If your leaders say to you, Look, the Father’s imperial rule is in the sky, then the birds of the sky will precede you. If they say to you, It is in the sea, then the fish will precede you. Rather the Father’s imperial rule is inside you, and outside you. When you know yourselves, then you will be known, and you will understand that you are children of the living Father.”
Thom. 26:00 “Jesus said: ‘You see the sliver in your friend’s eye, but you don’t see the timber in your own eye. When you take the timber out of your own eye, you will see well enough to remove the sliver from your friend’s eye.’”
Then thirty years later in 90 CE, John has Jesus calling attention to himself:
6:35: “I am the bread of life. Anyone who comes to me will never be hungry, and anyone who comes to me will never be thirsty.”
7:38: “The one who believes in me – will be the source of rivers of living-giving water.”
14:6: “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one gets to the father except through me”.
These are two very different messages, the first directed inwardly, the second, outwardly. Is it possible that those of us who need to depend upon a religious authority outside of ourselves choose an external God (or Christ) to follow, while those of us who need to develop our own internal religious authority choose an internal God to follow? Who can judge one right and the other wrong? And, as suggested, being imperfect, many of us at different times need to seek both. These very different paths have great significance to the present and future of our faiths, and I will continue to explore the possibilities of this influence on our individual and collective (community) lives.
Is it possible then, there are two valid Christianities – or two paths within the same Christianity? And that what now appears to be the newest path may actually be the very oldest one. In any event, both exist and both will survive – because both are needed.