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The Big Questions about Jesus, God, Christians, and the Rest of Us

by Shirley Paulson, PhD

Hands holding stars

Why? How? What does this mean?

Most people ask these questions of their religious leaders at some point in their lives. Many of us keep asking when the answers aren’t satisfying. These are the questions that have led me back – way back! – to the earliest writings of the people who knew Jesus or wanted to follow him. These treasures haven’t always been available to people trying to answer the questions. But now, as of the past few decades, we do have some extraordinary resources to draw on.

How did Jesus heal? What does it mean that he was resurrected from the grave? Did Paul really think women should be church leaders or excluded from leadership roles? How could God become human? Did Jesus intend to exclude people? Where does authority really come from?

I hope you’re as excited as I am to discover from these long-lost texts much more shape and color to fill in the shadowy pictures our ancestors have made for us over the past two millennia. These ancient books and gospels, written by people who wanted to understand and follow Jesus after he was gone, fill in many of the gaps from what we find in the New Testament writings and church teachings. But, as is usually the case, the more you know, the more you question. So, while we find answers to some questions, we will no doubt encounter many more questions we had never thought of before.

Here are some teasers that got me scratching my head. These are some quotes I ran across when I first started reading these extracanonical texts. What do they mean? How does the Bible help me understand them better? How do they help me understand the Bible better?

  • From The Secret Revelation of John: “Lord, will all the souls be delivered into the pure light” (23:1)?
  • From the Dialogue of the Savior: “Mary said, ‘Master, look, while I wear a body, where do my tears come from, where does my laughter come from?’” (126).
  • From The Gospel of Mary: “Will matter then be utterly destroyed or not” (2:1)?
  • From The Gospel of Thomas: “Jesus replied, ‘Look here, I myself will lead [Mary] to make her male, so that even she may become a live spirit, like you males…” (Saying 114).
  • From The Gospel of Judas: Jesus’ disciples asked, “Lord, what great race is there that is more exalted and holier than we are, yet is not in these realms? Now when Jesus heard these things he laughed. He said to them, ‘What are you contemplating in your heart about the strong and holy race?’” (3:5-8).
  • From The Secret Revelation of John: “It is difficult to disclose these things to any others except those who are from the immovable generation” (23:3).

These questions and statements introduce what the authors want their readers to understand. The answers to their own questions shed light on the meaning of such things as salvation, the substance of life, and gender in antiquity. But it is easy to see how these answers lead to even further questions!

Each blog, podcast, course, and conversation on the Early Christian Texts website will offer new insights to these questions. I’d like to encourage you to share the inevitable questions they stir in you! Please share your questions – either about the quotes in this blog, or any other kind of question you would like to see addressed in the comments below.