191 – Did you know there are around 100 early Christian writings but only 27 of them are included in the New Testament?
This week on the podcast I talk with Shirley Paulson about these non-canonical early Christian writings, how they shed light on the Bible, and help us understand the followers of Jesus before the institutionalization of the church under Constantine.
Shirley is the founder and principal producer of Early Christian Texts, the Bible, and Beyond, a podcast and blog about the early followers of Jesus and which explores the ancient manuscripts to get a better understanding of the Bible.
I was surprised to learn just how much there was that I didn’t know about the early days of Christianity.
To download and read the full transcript, Transcript Episode 191.
Institutionalization of the church
During our conversation, Shirley and I talked about the consolidation of power in the Roman Empire under Constantine’s rule and how religion played a significant role in this process. One thing that really stood out to me was Shirley’s observation about how the establishment of Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire led to a new hierarchy in which individuals who had been previously oppressed, such as followers of Jesus, suddenly found themselves at the top.
Shirley explained how the concept of heresy was created to consolidate power by pushing everyone else down. This led to the exclusion of certain groups, such as women, healers, and individuals with spiritually inclined thoughts. Women in particular had previously been active in leadership roles in the early church, but suddenly found themselves no longer considered for positions of power and authority.
“Many of us have been educated to think of healing in a medical context. They weren’t thinking of it that way then. I think the best way to understand healing in antiquity is to realize that that word is really the same word as salvation. And so when you think about I mean, the word is actually in Greek, it’s sōtēria. And the word sōtēria is used is translated as both salvation and healing. And in our modern world, we don’t think of those words at all the same. We tend to think of salvation having to do with sin and healing having to do with a medical condition. But in those days, it was all about a relationship with God.”
This was a poignant reminder of just how much things have changed since the earliest days of Christianity.
Throughout our conversation, Shirley emphasized the importance of respecting different perspectives, even when we disagree on important theological points. There’s a great need for empathy and understanding in our interactions with others, even when we don’t see eye to eye.
Early Christian writings focus on healing
Shirley’s academic work focuses on early Christian writings, and she has a particular interest in healing practices and theology in the early followers of Jesus.
She shared some fascinating insights about the role of healing in Christianity and how it was viewed as a threat to the hierarchy because it gave individuals a direct relationship with God, without the need for the power of the institutionalized church.
One of the early manuscripts that Shirley really digs into is The Secret Revelation of John, a long text focused on the theology of healing. She noted that this book is not explicit about healing but instead focuses on restoring the body and soul, which she sees as the essence of healing.
The Secret Revelation of John is a comprehensive book on the basis of creation and healing and is the most thorough on this topic of all the manuscripts found in
The Significance of the Nag Hammadi Discovery:
“When you consider that Christianity has been based on 27 books and that Nag Hammadi has 40 more new books, that tells you that there’s a much bigger view and understanding of Christianity than the world has ever known.”
Throughout our conversation, Shirley emphasized the importance of looking beyond the Bible and exploring other early Christian manuscripts that aren’t traditionally included in the canon. She talked about how reading various texts has helped her to understand the Bible better, filling in gaps in her knowledge and providing a more colorful picture of the struggles faced by early followers of Jesus.
Gnosticism is not what you’ve been taught
One topic that we discussed that particularly resonated with me was the concept of gnosticism. Shirley noted that while many people consider it to be the biggest heresy the world has ever known and identify with it as dangerous and bad, the word “gnosticism” was actually created in the 17th century to explain what scholars thought was going on in the heretical world.
She emphasized that there’s really no consensus on what gnosticism is or was, and that the texts in Nag Hammadi don’t say the same thing. Throughout our conversation, Shirley continually emphasized the importance of considering different perspectives and looking beyond our own assumptions and preconceptions.
She talked about how reading and exploring different texts has helped her to better understand the Bible and the early followers of Jesus. I was struck by her dedication to studying this period in history and her passion for sharing her insights with others.
Our conversation was a powerful reminder of just how much we still have to learn about the early days of Christianity. Her insights into the consolidation of power under Constantine’s rule, the concept of heresy, and the exclusion of certain groups were particularly illuminating.
Three things suppressed by the church institution
“And so I found that there are three basic kinds of people who were excluded from the power. Obviously, women would come first because that’s an easy kind of separation. So women had been very active in leadership roles until then. And then suddenly you begin to see writings and all kinds of evidence of as to why women were no longer considered for positions of power and authority. That’s number one.
“Number two, I think it’s interesting to see that, in fact, healing became a threat to the hierarchy. And if you think about why that might be, healing and salvation together have to do with your relationship to God, that if you have your own relationship to God, you don’t need to have the power of a church to tell you you have an access to God. You have it by yourself. That’s a threat to the power of the hierarchy. So healing suddenly became a threat to the power of the church.
“And then the third, I think of there are three basic ones. The third one is the more spiritually inclined a text or thought might be, the more a threat it would be to that power of that hierarchy. The reason is that, again, spirituality implies that you have your own relationship with God, with the divine. And again, you don’t need someone else’s power. So spirituality and healing and women always go together, and they are a threat to hierarchical powers”
Shirley has a passion for exploring early Christian writings and a dedication to sharing her insights with others. In trying to understand better the Bible and the early followers of Jesus, Shirley’s reminder to consider different perspectives is something we should all take to heart. Shirley’s passion for exploring early Christian writings really shone through in our conversation, and I was struck by her dedication to learning more about this period in history.
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James Early, the Jesus Mindset Coach, is a Bible teacher, speaker, and podcaster. He conducts Bible workshops online and in person. His focus is on getting back to the original Christianity of Jesus by embracing the mindset of Christ in daily life. Contact him here.
Shirley Paulson is the founder and principal producer of Early Christian Texts, the Bible and Beyond. She loves to explore and research early manuscripts that are not in the Bible. And that all got started when she was working on her Master’s of Theological Studies at Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary, and that led to getting her PhD in Religion and Theology from the University of Birmingham in the UK.
Shirley’s academic work focuses on all these early Christian writings, and she really likes the things well, there’s so many categories, but especially she likes to look at the healing practices and theology of early followers of Jesus. And recently, she’s written a book called Illuminating the Secret Revelation of John. That’s one of those early manuscripts, Catching the Light, and it explains in everyday language why this classic ancient text is important for modern Bible readers. She’s also contributed a chapter to Westar’s book, after Jesus Before Christianity, and she’s serving on the board of directors of the Westar Institute as well. Shirley, you’re living in Illinois
Romans 16:7 KJV
7 Salute Andronicus and Junia, my kinsmen, and my fellowprisoners, who are of note among the apostles, who also were in Christ before me.
Ephesians 2:5, 8 KJV
5 Even when we were dead in sins, hath quickened us together with Christ, (by grace ye are saved😉
8 For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God:
John 8:32 KJV
32 And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.
1 Corinthians 2:9, 10 KJV
9 But as it is written, Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him.
10 But God hath revealed them unto us by his Spirit: for the Spirit searcheth all things, yea, the deep things of God.
1 Corinthians 12:27 NKJV
27 Now you are the body of Christ, and members individually.