Tag Archives: Gnosticism

Was Marcion Right about Paul’s letters?

I have copied Roger Parvus's recent comment here as a post in its own right.  (Neil)

Couchoud’s books contain many valuable insights. He was rightly dissatisfied with the mainstream scenario of Christian origins, and he rearranged the pieces of the puzzle together in a new way that provides a fresh perspective on them. There is much that he says that I agree with. I would not be surprised, for instance, if he is right about the role played by Clement of Rome. But I am disappointed that Couchoud—like practically everyone else—still does not take seriously Marcion’s claim that the original author of the Gospel and Pauline letter collection was someone who professed allegiance to a God higher than the Creator of this world, to a God higher than the God of the Jews.

The automatic assumption on the part of confessional scholars

The automatic assumption on the part of confessional scholars is that Marcion must have been mistaken in his views regarding the origin of the Gospel and Pauline letters. I cannot recall ever having come across a single mainstream Christian book that even considered for a moment that Marcion may have been right. Their attitude is understandable since, if Marcion was right, it would mean that the original Gospel and the Pauline letters were written by someone who was basically a gnostic, by someone who sounds very much like Simon of Samaria or one of his followers. Perish the heretical thought! But even non-confessional admirers of Marcion like Couchoud seem likewise unable to take seriously Marcion’s claim. Instead they make Marcion himself the creator of the Gospel and say that he either created the Pauline letters or imposed his own religious ideas on letters that did not originally contain them. For some reason this solution is thought to be preferable to taking Marcion at his word. As far as we know Marcion never claimed to be the author of those writings. He claimed that when he came across them they were in a contaminated state. They had been interpolated by people who Judaized them, who turned their original author into someone who believed in a single highest God who was the God of the Old Testament and the Creator of the world. Is Marcion’s claim so unbelievable? Is it really out of the question that the original Gospel and Pauline letters were Simonian and that it was their opponents who Judaized those writings? (I say “Simonian” because the early record does not contain the name of any other first century Christians who held the belief that the creators of this world were inferior to the supreme God, and that those creators tried to hold men in bondage by means of the Law.) read more »

The Gnostic Gospel (Apocryphon) of John – 2

This post follows on from my earlier post on The Secret Book of John, possibly a Jewish pre-Christian work, as translated and annotated by Stevan Davies.

Stevan Davies’ translation of the Secret Book/Apocryphon of John is available online at The Gnostic Society Library.

The Prologue is said to be a Christian addition to an earlier non-Christian book. But what sort of Christianity interested the scribe who added this? The disciple John is said to see Jesus appearing variably as a child, an old man and a young man. I am reminded of Irenaeus’s belief that Jesus had to have been past his 50th birthday when he was crucified so he could experience all the life stages of humanity and thus be the saviour of all. One is also reminded of the letter of 1 John that addresses the “children, fathers and young men” in the church. Of related interest to me are some of the earliest Christian art forms that depict Jesus as a little child – in particular when he faces an elderly John the Baptist to be baptized. Christ crucified does not appear.

See http://smarthistory.khanacademy.org/Sarcophagus-Santa-Maria-Antiqua.html for related pagan images

The same prologue has Jesus say “I am the Father, the Mother, the Son. I am the incorruptible Purity.” The Holy Spirit in the eastern churches was grammatically feminine and so the Holy Spirit itself came to be regarded as feminine.

The Christianity that is appropriating this originally non-Christian gnostic text was one that viewed Christ as not only a discrete personality who had been crucified and risen as a saviour, but one that also accommodated gnostic-like ideas of Christ being identified in the different forms of humanity. Or perhaps it is more correct to say that the range of humanity is a representation of the divine.

But enough of my ramblings and speculative asides. Back to the gnostic myth. read more »

The Gnostic Gospel of John (1)

Recently I began a series on the pre-Christian Christ Gnosticism but have recently read a book that I think may throw more direct light on that question — The Secret Book of John: The Gnostic Gospel – Annotated and Explained by Stevan Davies. Several things about this Gnostic gospel particularly attracted my attention:

  1. The Apocryphon of John did not originate as a Christian Gnostic document; apart from a few annotations scattered in the main body itself the main Christian elements (those bits that present the work as a revelation by Jesus to his disciple John) were tagged on to the opening and closing of a much older text.
  2. A clarification explaining that there are two types of religious metaphors: those that compare the divine to social and political models on earth (God as king or father, etc) and those that compare the divine to mental or psychological processes (e.g. Buddhism, Gnosticism).
  3. A partial coherence with Walter Schmithals’ claim that Jewish Gnosticism is not strictly dualist — the material world is not a reality opposed to the higher world but in fact is not a reality at all.
  4. More complete coherence with Walter Schmithals’ that among the saving powers are Christ, Son of Man and Daveithi, a word that “possibly means ‘of David'”
  5. Coherence with Walter Schmithals with respect to the absence of an individual descending redeemer figure. Thus though there are descents they are not on the part of figures truly distinct from the one being saved.
  6. Adam was created in a “heavenly realm” before appearing in a physical and worldly Eden.
  7. Repeated emphasis that in mythology the modern mind should not expect consistent logical coherence.

Though I suspect Stevan Davies would re”coil at the suggestion there is much here that overlaps with Earl Doherty’s arguments for the Christian Christ originating as a heavenly mythical figure. Schmithals himself argues that the false apostles and gospels Paul opposed were probably teaching something like this Gnostic Gospel. Nonetheless this text does help us understand another facet of the thought-world through which Christianity as we know it eventually emerged.

Oh, one more thing. I was not really aware before reading this book that the Apocryphon of John “is the most significant and influential text of the ancient Gnostic religion”. (But then I’m way behind many others in my knowledge of Gnosticism.) So for that reason alone it is worth close attention. read more »

Pre-Christian Christ Gnosticism 5 — The Christ Title (2)

Continuing the series that is archived here.

Here is my understanding of Walter Schmithals’ argument so far. (Others who have read ‘Gnosticism in Corinth‘ — Roger? — please do chime in with corrections. I have not found reading S easy and am quite open to being shown that I have forgotten or overlooked some significant aspect of his argument.)

Schmithals guiding principle appears to be that nature (or human culture) would produce a singular trajectory or evolutionary progression from a “system” which begins without a clear individualised redeemer myth (i.e. one in which a personalised redeemer descends from heaven to rescue mankind enabling them to follow him back into heaven and their true home). At the beginning the potentially saving power lies dormant in all humankind and is activated by saving knowledge (gnosis) of its origin and ultimate home. This power was part of the great power or creative force that produced all things.

Jewish influence or Jewish gnostics are said to have led to the adoption of the title of “Christ” as one of the names of this power. This adoption took only the title or term Christ and not the full conceptual embodiment of what that figure supposedly meant to Jewish thought. In this primitive gnostic thought the title Christ was thus amenable to being attached to the Primal Man or Adamus (heavenly Adam) concept.

None of the above is said to have shown any hint of Christian influence. read more »

Pre-Christian Christ Gnosticism 4 — The Christ Title (1)

This continues the series on an introductory chapter from Walter Schmithals’ Gnosticism in Corinth. The full series is archived here.

Now it is no longer a very long step to the identification of this system as “pre-Christian Christ Gnosticism.” When Simon identifies himself as the “Great Power,” he therewith makes the claim, not to be a definite divine emanation, but an emanated part of the one original God himself. We have seen that the Apophasis developed just this Simonian claim and how it developed it. It is immediately understandable that all the divine predicates can be claimed by Simon or can be attributed to him. Thus, following Irenaeus, Hippolytus rightly says that Simon tolerated “being called by any name with which people wished to name him.” Hence he is called not only Great Power or The Standing One, but also God, Son of God, Father, Holy Spirit, Kyrios, Savior, and so on. (p. 45)

The pre-Christian system of Simonianism did not use the Judaistic term Christ in the sense of being a unique redeemer but as a title only. So when Hippolytus says that

Simon had appeared as a man although he was not a man, and had apparently suffered in Judea, had appeared to the Jews as Son, and to the other peoples as Pneuma Hagion [Holy Spirit], it is still clear in this late report that Simon is the Christ not as the one Christ who has appeared in Jesus but as the Pneuma who has appeared in all, and only thus also in Jesus. (p. 46)

Dositheus who was reputed to have been Simon’s teacher presented himself as Christ, according to Origen (Celsus, 1, LVII).

But of course none of the above proves the existence of a pre-Christian Christ Gnosticism.

For Schmithals what is important first of all is to be clear about the nature of what he calls “the structure” of the pre-Christian Gnostic system: read more »

Pre-Christian Christ Gnosticism: 3 — the pre-christian date

How old is the Gnosticism described in the first two posts?

Schmithals holds that the Apophasis (c.f. Apophasis) attributed to Simon and from which (or from a summary or paraphrase of which) Hippolytus apparently drew his information was not itself written by Simon — at least according to what we can understand from the way Hippolytus speaks of it. Three points are singled out:

  1. New Testament quotations are included in the Apophasis [VI.9.10 = 137.11ff; VI.14.6 = 140.3.4; VI.16.6 = 142.23 ff.]
  2. The second century Galienus is perhaps used [VI.14.8 = 140.15 ff.]
  3. The Apophasis appears not to have been a unitary work in all respects.

I don’t have access to a copy of Hippolytus with either of these numbering systems so am unable to pull out the quotations. The NT ones in particular could be significant — are they from Paul’s epistles or elsewhere?

But the question is not the age of the Apophasis but the age of the system of Gnosticism described in it. And that is the theme of this post.

Schmithals begins with another account of Simon’s teachings that they share the terminology we find in Hippolytus’ account but that differ significantly in other respects. read more »

Pre-Christian Christ Gnosticism: 2

Continued from post 1.

To sum up the significant themes I will sometimes paraphrase and sometimes repeat the words of Walter Schmithals on pages 39 to 40 of Gnosticism in Corinth.

The Gnostic system described in the previous post is attributed to Simon (i.e. the Simon Magus of Acts 8:9ff).

Hippolytus tells us that all of this was written out in a work attributed to Simon, the “Apophasis Megale” or Great Revelation.

In this Revelation Simon speaks with divine authority: “To you then I speak what I speak and write what I write. The writing is this.”

“His authority is of the great power in general, which he himself is as well.”

Now we know from Acts and other early sources that Simon is infamous for having claimed to be the great power. read more »

Pre-Christian Christ Gnosticism: 1

Last week my copy of Gnosticism in Corinth by Walter Schmithals arrived in the mail and the first thing that hit my attention about it was a discussion in the “Introduction A” chapter of pre-Christian Christ Gnosticism. This looks interesting for the obvious reason that it just might throw some light on one particular interpretation of the New Testament epistles — that they know only a spiritual Christ who bears no relation to the Jesus of the Gospels.

Schmithals’ is always a densely packed read so I know I need to step out of character and be patient and read this slowly. And since I know I’m not the only one interested in this I have decided to take the time to type up blog notes as I go through this section. (I sometimes freely copy phrases of the translated Schmithals in what follows.) This topic is new to me and understanding gnostic thought is not easy. I welcome feedback about any mistakes or misunderstandings in what follows.

One interesting remark by Schmithals reminded me of the question of Paul’s knowledge of details of a Christ myth. He writes:

In general one may say that an excess of mythological speculation is always a sign of diminishing existential tension — and conversely . . .  (pp. 29-30)

Food for thought here, I think, about the question of the emerging mythological details that accrued around the Christ Jesus as the years progressed.

Schmithals describes what he sees as a pr-Christian system of Jewish Gnosticism.

He begins with a discussion of the thought system of Simon (Simon Magus in Acts) as described by Hippolytus. This surprised me since other scholars (e.g. Birger Pearson, Ancient Gnosticism) dismiss the account of Hippolytus as a description of a much later — very post-Christian — development of Simon’s thought. But Schmithals does present a number of reasons to think that what Hippolytus is depicting is, rather, very early — pre-Christian — Jewish Gnosticism. (I am sure Pearson has read Schmithal’s works so I would like to read his responses. If anyone can point to his or other reviews I’d be grateful.)

Schmithals then describes similar Jewish Gnostic systems that he sees as related to the thought-world of the Simonians and shows how they embraced a Christ idea that is quite unlike the concept of Christ in the later (very Christian) Gnostic thought. Schmithals shows the way the Jewish Christ was reinterpreted to identify the Primal Man, or the Great Power that generated all.

It is difficult not to see overlaps here with passages in the Pauline letters. (But Schmithals clearly distinguishes Paul’s thought from that of this early Gnosticism.)

I don’t know if I will finish all of Schmithal’s discussion in a few blog posts but I can at least start with good intentions. read more »

Gnostic Ebionites?

This is a postscript to my recent post The Circumcising Gnostics . . . in Galatia. For what it’s worth I quote a section from a more recent (1996) work on Gnosticism, Princeton University Press’s Rethinking “Gnosticism”: An Argument for Dismantling a Dubious Category by Michael Allen Williams.

Elsewhere, Hippolytus’s use of the term gnostikos is quite ambiguous. It is possible that at one point he applies it both to the teacher Cerinthus and to the “Ebionites.” This is worthy of special note because the Ebionites, at least, are virtually never included in the modern category “gnosticism.”

Speaking of Theodotus of Byzantium, a second-century C.E. Christian, Hippolytus says that this teacher was in partial agreement with those belonging to the true church, in that Theodotus confessed that all things were created by God. On the other hand, “borrowing from the school of the gnostics and Cerinthus and Ebion,” Theodotus claims that “Christ had appeared in a certain manner, and that Jesus was a human born from a virgin by the will of the Father” (Ref. 7. 35.1-2).

Now one reading of this would be that Hippolytus has in fact distinguished Cerinthus and Ebionites from the “gnostics,” though the problem then would be identifying the “gnostics” to whom he refers. The similarity between the alleged doctrine of Theodotus and what had been reported of Cerinthus and the Ebionites is clear, but neither the Naasenes nor Justin the “pseudognostic” provides  a very good parallel.

The most recent editor of the Refutatio has suggested that the text in 7.35.1 should be emended to read, “borrowing from the school of the gnostics Cerinthus and Ebion,” which would then apply the label directly to Cerinthus and the Ebionites. Such an emendation is possibly supported by the recapitulation of these sectarian positions in book 10. There the summaries of the teachings of Cerinthus and the Ebionites are once again followed directly by an account of Theodotus’s doctrine, but this time we encounter the simple remark that the latter’s teaching about Christ resembles that of “the aforementioned gnostics” (Ref. 10.23.1). This remark is obviously a rewording of 7.35.1, and therefore Cerinthus and the Ebionites seem to be included among the “aforementioned gnostics,” and they could even be the only “gnostics” intended by this particular reference. (pp. 38-39, my paragraphing)

I recommend Rene Salm’s research into the Nazarenes and the origin of the term (linked below), too, for anyone interested in the likelihood of the “gnostic” character of one of the earliest forms of Christianity.

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The Circumcising Gnostic Opponents of Paul in Galatia

This post continues from the previous two that argue for an unconventional understanding of Paul’s — and his contemporaries’ — understanding of what it meant to be an apostle and how this related to the truth of a gospel message being preached.

This post examines an argument that Paul’s opponents in Galatia were Gnostic Jewish Christians. It also incorporates a view of Paul that defines him, too, as embracing a certain Gnostic view of Christianity. In the course of discussion I discover reasons to refer to both Earl Doherty’s discussion of Paul’s view of Jesus being a son of David and Roger Parvus’s argument that the Ignatian correspondence was from the pen of an Apellean Christian who broke from Marcionism.

A minority view among biblical scholars holds that Paul’s opponents in the Galatian churches were not “judaizers” trying to persuade the Galatian followers of Paul to keep the whole law but were gnostics who (as we know several major gnostic groups did) practised circumcision for symbolic or “spiritual” reasons. Paul’s opponents in Galatia, these few scholars argue, were not siding with the Jerusalem pillar apostles, James, Peter and John against Paul. They were rather accusing Paul of being a subservient extension of these Jerusalem apostles and for that reason claimed he was both no apostle at all and that his gospel was a false one.

I have not yet sought out criticisms of this argument so what I post here is a raw (uncritical) summary of it as presented by Walter Schmithals in Paul & the Gnostics. (Some asides I enclose in tables and some of when I do include my own thoughts I type them in bracketed italics.) read more »

Paul’s Gnostic heritage & Gnostic opposition

Continuing from my last post — and in particular responding to the earlier commenters — here are some more shorthand notes from Walter Schmithals. Schmithals argues that Paul has a very Gnostic view of his apostleship in that for him an apostle is one who has a direct revelatory/visionary calling by God or Christ. In this he insists he is no different from those who were apostles before him, such as James the Lord’s brother, Peter/Cephas and John.

But there are other ways in which Paul separates himself from other Gnostic apostles who are apparently opposed to both Paul and the Jerusalem pillars.

In 2 Corinthians we read of

the demands which the Gnostic apostles in Corinth make upon Paul if they are to recognize him on an equal basis as an apostle, 44 . . . (p. 30 Paul & the Gnostics) read more »