Film / Book Reviews

What Jesus’ teachings meant to the early Christians

Dec 2003    

Beyond Belief
Author: Elaine Pagels


PROFESSOR Elaine Pagels’ latest book, Beyond Belief, is on the New York Times bestseller list. She reflects her own religious quest and scholarly research on early Christianity, exploring historical and archaeological sources and what Jesus and His teachings meant to eyewitnesses and early Christians.

Her personal crises led her to wonder about the kind of faith that would deal with such matters. Going back to church again she thought about the meaning of Christianity for the people in the early days of persecution. Christians survived brutal persecutions before their beliefs were concretised into creeds, formulated into doctrines and institutionalised into church establishments. What was it that went beyond belief?

Pagels’ investigations began with an analysis of the contents of an important archaeological discovery in 1945 near Nag Hammadi in Upper Egypt, a cache of writings, rituals and dialogues about Jesus and His disciples, but not incorporated in the body of similar writings which became what we now know as the New Testament.

She concentrated her study on “how certain Christian leaders from the second century through the fourth came to reject many other sources of revelation and, instead, constructed the New Testament gospel canon of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, along with the ‘canon of truth,’ which became the nucleus of the later creeds that have defined Christianity to this day”.

Within a century after Jesus’ death, the leaders began to select from the various Christian writings what should be included or excluded for the Christian community. That was how the Nag Hammadi writings, which included the Gospel of Thomas, were set aside, a rigid process followed in the Roman Catholic Church and even now in our diverse Christian communities today.

However, “despite the diverse forms of early Christianity – and perhaps because of them – the movement spread rapidly so that by the end of the second century, Christian groups were proliferating through the [Roman] empire despite attempts to stop them”. The Church Father, Irenaeus, saw how divided the Christian groups were and shared the hopes of other religious leaders that Christians should be united and see themselves as one catholic or universal church.

Convinced that the Gospel of John was written by the disciple of the Lord, Irenaeus regarded it as the first and foremost one and linked it with Matthew, Mark and Luke, and declared that “only Matthew, Mark, Luke and John collectively – and only these gospels exclusively constituted the whole gospel … This four-gospel canon was to become a powerful weapon in Irenaeus’ campaign to unify and consolidate the Christian movement during his lifetime, and it has remained a basis of orthodox teaching ever since”.

Dealing with members of the charismatic movement who claimed to be spirit-filled Christians and who were persecuted by the Romans, Irenaeus labelled them “dangerously deviant” while the orthodox religious leaders denounced their writings, as well as others’ who documented their experience in their search for God.
Irenaeus also insisted on the “canon of truth” – his interpretation of the gospels – as being the only correct one, rejecting all other interpretations.

Many of the writings of these seekers of God were read, copied and revered. The Nag Hammadi discoveries reveal how the Egyptian monks in the monastery of St Pachomius treasured and hid them after the Bishop of Alexandria in 367 AD demanded that they be destroyed. But they were saved, moved from the library and sealed in a heavy six-foot jar, buried in the hillside at Nag Hammadi, only to be stumbled upon by a villager in 1945.

In comparing the Gospel of John with the Gospel of Thomas (which was uncovered at Nag Hammadi), Pagels believes that John’s Gospel could have been written to refute Thomas’ Gospel – both written at about the same time, around 100 AD.

John’s emphasis was on believing, Thomas’ on seeking. Many of John’s teachings, which differ from Luke and Matthew, are similar to Thomas’.

Historians recognise that it took more than theological arguments presented by Irenaeus to become dominant in the churches. It was the Emperor Constantine who converted to Christianity in 312 AD, interpreted as God’s miraculous intervention, that allowed him to order the bishops throughout the empire to meet at Nicaea (325 AD) to work out a formulation of the Christian faith. Intense debate and further council meetings resulted in the Nicene Creed, and the decision to select 27 religious writings to form the present canon of the New Testament.

The adoption of the Nicene Creed, endorsed by Constantine himself, became the authoritative and official doctrine for all Christians, while the Catholic Church was declared the only church recognised by the emperor.

The Rev Dr Yap Kim Hao, a member of the MM Editorial Board, was the first Asian Bishop of The Methodist Church in Singapore.


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