We know what Christianity says and does today, and regardless of your stance or belief in the religion I feel it is important to explore its roots and why it has the message that it has today.
This is of special importance to me because while I follow the words spoken by Jesus, the remainder of the beliefs and dogma of Christianity leave a sour taste in my mouth. I've long been unable to name exactly what it is about the religion that feels wrong, but I have finally reached an understanding as to where and how the changes were made in Christianity that lead the religion away from the teachings of Christ and his true meaning.
After the death of Christ, all that was known of him was left to the people of the time and to his disciples. The two centuries that followed his death until the religion of Christianity was relatively settled into what we know today saw lots of change and turmoil. As the apostles went out to share their message, the words themselves were spread but the meaning may have been lost as the words were spread. Some of the apostles may not have been as true to the meaning as we've assumed they were.
I think that when Christ worked directly with his apostles, he was able to guide and show them the path. Then, when they moved to share it with others, they could show them some of it... and the teachings degraded from there. Eventually you get to the coalescing of the various writings into a volume, decided upon by the Council Of Nicaea.
The Nicaean conference was a platform that decided which of the many available texts were to be considered canon and which were not. Presumably copies of all of those not selected to be included were destroyed to cement the decision and to help direct the path of Christianity.
What we have as the Bible today is primarily what was decided by that council around the third century AD.
The non-canonical texts which were rejected disagreed with the beliefs of that council. This does not mean that the texts are invalid, only that this one council of bishops decided they didn't like the texts and felt they were heretical.
This is the sticking point of the entire situation: a group of a few hundred men decided that certain books were ok and certain others were not. These few hundred men were each bishops, with deacons and priests and congregations below them. They each had their own decided way of running their churches. They chose books that gave continuity to their cause - or did not take away continuity.
We know that human beings are falliable, and we know that these men were part of an empire which had just recently begun converting to Christianity and was about to make it huge. These men stood at the precipice, poised in the oh-so-perfect spot to influence millions of people to come. Of course they didn't know that, at least not to the degree that we do today. I suspect it was quite an honor to be able to be a part of this, to cast each of their votes on the many issues brought before the council.
But today we also know that people can and will do what benefits them the most. Looking at the governmental system in the U.S., there are two such councils of men so that the two can (theoretically) balance each other out. It is generally accepted that not only is several hundred men all voting their own way good enough, but having two seperate councils of over a hundred men is better. And even then, both councils as a whole are distrusted by the majority because they seem to pass laws that benefit them or play to their individual senses.
By looking at Congress and the general opinion of it, we can apply this method of thought to the Council of Nicaea. We can also apply the general opinion of the Catholic church, as the council was the beginnings of that church. Granted the church has many members and believers, but they have also acted in ways that have shocked and saddened many in the world. There is a certain impression that comes with the words "Roman Catholic" and in some circles it may as well be a joke.
So, knowing all of this, I ask why on earth we should trust what this council decided all those years ago. Who were they to pick and choose what would become the Christian religion? Because of this situation, I feel it is incredibly important to read not only the texts which were included in the Bible but also those that were not. Books which were rejected include some of those in the Dead See Scrolls and in the Nag Hammadi library. (links at end)
It may be that the men of this council had our best interests at heart, but as they were neither God himself, nor the Christ, nor had they any direct contact with the Christ, we cannot trust that they were correct or accurate in their decisions and as this occured so long ago, we cannot assume that they held anyone's interests except for their own.
From this we should understand that there are chapters in the Bible that probaly should not be there and there are things missing from the Bible that could be terribly important. And, we have no way of knowing which is which.
The best clue we have is the words of Jesus himself. Take his words, and in trying to understand them read the other books of the Bible, and those which were not included. You may come to find the next piece of the puzzle that leads us to understand where modern Christianity came from...
A large number of chapters of the New Testament consists of letters written by Paul to various churches. In these letters, he proceeds to specify how the scriptures are to be understood and how the church should worship and spread information out to it's followers.
To me, these do not sound like something that should be included, after all it is the writing of just one man expressing his views on the subject. The writings of a single person can be incorrect, which is why it is useful that we have multiple gospels telling of the same stories. This allows us to see what they agreed upon and what they disagreed upon. So, simply on the basis of Paul being a single person writing the letters they are questionable.
They become further questionable when you begin to read them and compare what was said by Paul to what was said by Jesus. It may be a simple question of semantics, but Paul tends to word things in a very different manner and creates an all-together different image of salvation as offered by Jesus.
To put the difference in the simplest, non contextual terms:
Jesus: Salvation is not for everyone, it does not come easy, it requires giving up everything dear to you in the name of following Christ and following his path.
Paul: Salvation is a free gift from God, all you have to do is accept and the blood of Jesus magically redeems you.
These two messages are drastically different. And, most ironically, Christianity today seems far more based on the word of Paul than on the word of Christ. Should we begin calling it Paulism in order to differentiate the two ideas in the minds of the masses? Probably... but it's not likely to happen.
Here we have two major examples, one of a single person driving the entire ideology of the church, and another of a small group of church elites picking and choosing what was to become the one book to influence a major religion.
What are we to believe?
My suggestion is reading all of the texts available to you - from every major religion and every culture which has existed. It would likely take an entire lifetime (the Hindu texts put the Bible to shame with their length) but you have to start somewhere. If your interest lies in the Bible, then a good place to start would be with the non-canonical texts which were rejected from the original Bible. Keep in mind we cannot know the motivations of those who made the selections, and each text whether canonical or otherwise should be read for itself, pondered, and considered as possible truth but not guaranteed truth. Resonate what you learn in your heart of hearts and do not allow yourself to make any rash decisions. Re-reading the texts later can help too, as your frame of mind will have changed and will allow you to see them in a different light.
Don't give up on your search, as the journey is often more important than the destination.
Nag Hammadi Library
The Gospel of Thomas
The Dead Sea Scrolls
The Gospel of Judas