A gnostic mind game with Paul and Mark

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by Neil Godfrey

Elaine Pagel’s The Gnostic Paul cites the many gnostic interpretations of Paul’s letters. The point is well made that our interpretation of Paul is inherited from the founders of the orthodox church today. Yet this interpretation was not so universal in the second century. Irenaeus took issue with the gnostics for claiming to have secret traditions that they claimed had been handed down from Paul in order to explain the spiritual (“pneumatic”) understanding of his letters.

Irenaeus (Adv. Haer. III.2.1): When, however, they are confuted from the Scriptures, they turn round and accuse these same Scriptures, as if they were not correct, nor of authority, and [assert] that they are ambiguous, and that the truth cannot be extracted from them by those who are ignorant of tradition. For [they allege] that the truth was not delivered by means of written documents, but viva voce: wherefore also Paul declared, “But we speak wisdom among those that are perfect, but not the wisdom of this world.”(1 Cor 2.6)

Jews and Greeks

So when Paul wrote of the law in relation to the Jews and Greeks, there were two ways of interpreting his words. One could read them as a discussion of literal Jews and Greeks in relation to law. Or one could read the references to Jews and Greeks as symbolic of less spiritually discerning “psychic” types and the more spiritually aware “pneumatics”. Then, of course, Paul’s discussion of their respective relationships to law enters a totally different dimension. By Jews Paul would then, at a more “spiritual” or “pneumatic” level of understanding, mean less spiritually mature “psychics” and by Greeks he would mean the spiritually mature “pneumatic” types.

To us today the symbolic reading certainly seems unnaturally forced. But when examining these documents historically we cannot avoid the evidence that this was not always the case. Is our interpretation of Paul so culturally embedded that it has become almost inconceivable to imagine a non-literal reading? Is there any evidence within Paul’s letters to justify a symbolic reading?

Romans 2:28-29: For he is not a Jew, which is one outwardly; neither is that circumcision, which is outward in the flesh: but he is a Jew, which is one inwardly . . . .

To us, Paul’s meaning is unambiguous. He is meaning that a spiritual Jew is one who complies with the spirit of the law within. Surely this is what Paul himself originally meant.

Other support for an allegorical interpretation

The Stoics, and Plutarch, read Homer as an allegory, presumably in order to rationalize his worth to the current elites who were becoming ashamed of his immoral depictions of gods and heroes. Modern scholars such as Kelber and Tolbert have argued that the Gospel of Mark was intended to be read allegorically or as a parable.

When Paul said true Jews were not outward Jews but were not even recognized as Jews by the racial Jews, what if that is what he meant every time he spoke of Jews and Greeks. Pagels tells us that this is how the Valentinians understood Paul, so that when he talks about differences for Jews and Greeks he is really talking about the psychics (coded as Jews) and pneumatics (coded as the Greeks).

I’m not saying this is how Paul originally meant his letters to be understood, but it is how a huge bulk of Christianity did understand them in the second century.

What this could mean, then, is that the author of the Gospel of Mark, if he knew Paul’s letters, read them as symbol, or as parable or allegory, and he composed his gospel in the same way.


If Paul meant his letters to be read that way then when he talks of adoptionism in the same letter as he talks about Jesus only “appearing to be like flesh”, then possibly we are not dealing with interpolations but rather with little confusions that come up trying to sustain a letter written at 2 levels — with its surface meaning for the psychics and the spoken tradition or wisdom accompanying the written letters (1 Cor. 2.6) telling the initiate how the pneumatic was to understand the letter. Or if there were interpolations it would appear that they would not trouble the “pneumatic” interpreters anyway since they could possibly interpret things they did not like at the “psychic” level of meaning.

Mark’s Jesus was outwardly for the psychics — just as the adoptionist status of Paul was for the psychics. Both may be ‘parables’ — more specifically both may be the same parable — or whatever the correct figure of speech is for this.

Divorce and kids?

If there is anything to any of this, this would also possibly go some way to explaining a little problem I have had with Mark — that its central teaching on the eve of the most climactic passion narrative is about such disconnected things that seem so out of place in the rest of Mark — his Jesus breaking in to lengthy lessons about how to treat little kids (or the spiritually childlike) and some rule on divorce!

But IF Mark is from a Valentinian-like interpreter of Paul, then those passages in Mark suddenly take on a whole new dramatic meaning. They are not about divorce and how to treat kids. They are about the most central themes of the gnostics — the separation of Eve from Adam — the psychics falling away from the pneumatics — they are to return to the spiritual state they had from the beginning. And the children are the sexless — the original state of the ‘perfect’. The marriage and divorce teaching is midway between the first two predictions of the death of Jesus. It is wedged either side of warnings against offending little ones. Did the author of Mark really intend to so well adorn a teaching about literal divorce?

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Neil Godfrey

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2 thoughts on “A gnostic mind game with Paul and Mark”

  1. ‘For [they allege] that the truth was not delivered by means of written documents, but viva voce: wherefore also Paul declared, “But we speak wisdom among those that are perfect, but not the wisdom of this world.”(1 Cor 2.6)’

    Hans’t Bauckham proved that this sort of verbal communication was the preferred method of conveying Christian truths?

  2. A statement by someone can always be taken out of context or to another by someone. This differs on the objectivity of the one who takes the message. I think this discussion is lost to us until we get to have time machine to ask Paul himself. Until then we are left to our own with bickering and lost wits.

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