Question: Were the gnostic gospels and other excluded material left out because they too progressive for their time, or maybe too conservative? Who were those people back then to say that those writings were not for us to learn from?

I will oversimplify in my answer, but regarding the Gnostics, one problem for mainstream Christians was that they tended to reject not only the value of the body and the bodily resurrection argued for in mainstream Christianity, but also the Hebrew bible and its God. For them, Yahweh was a kind of fallen or bad God, and Jesus was the antidote to him. Early Christians wanted to emphasize that God and Jesus were one–John says over and over, “I AM the way, the truth, and the light” where “I am” is a reference to  Yahweh’s name. The author of Matthew, a Jewish Christian, said that Jesus was there to “perfect” the law, not reject it. So mainstream Christians stressed continuity between the Hebrew bible and the New Testament.

Gnostics echoed Plato in suggesting the body was part of the fallen state, something to be transcended. For example, in the gospel of Judas, Jesus needs Judas to free him from his bodily prison so he can go back to his spiritual home. In that way, Gnosticism resembles some modern cults like Scientology or Heaven’s Gate. Some were also progressive in that they emphasized women like Mary (not Peter or James) as closest to Jesus; early Christianity was highly misogynistic. 

Unlike Rabbinical Judaism, which is a tradition that embraces debate and multiple perspectives, mainstream Christianity really wanted a unified message and in some ways still does. The word “orthodox” suggests a right way of teaching and a wrong way. So people were executed for what feel to me like small differences of interpretation–when to celebrate Easter, whether God is three or one, etc.

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