Reading Galatians afresh: a Gnostic Paul, James, Peter and John?

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by Neil Godfrey

Ron Goetz posted a comment elsewhere that reminded me of the works of Walter Schmithals on Paul’s letters. The one I have read most of, Paul & the Gnostics, is not the easiest of reads but is packed densely with detailed argument and detailed references to the scholarship of his day. But it does force one to re-think what is commonly written or assumed in other studies on Galatians.

Schmithals argues that Paul’s critics or opponents among the Galatian churches are not “orthodox” judaizers from the Jerusalem leadership of James. I won’t repeat those arguments here but will go through the way of reading the first two chapters of Galatians his arguments opened up to me. What follows is a mixture of Schmithals and my own interpretation, but I conclude with a quotation from Schmithals.

Paul’s Galatian church is being persuaded to embrace a different gospel (a perverted form the gospel) from the one he presented to them.

I marvel that ye are so soon removed from Him, that called you into the grace of Christ, for another gospel. For this is not another; but there are some who trouble you and would pervert the Gospel of Christ. (Gal. 1:6-7)

But then there is something unexpected for anyone who is reading within the perspective of disciples who have gone out from Jerusalem after believing they had seen the resurrected Christ. The gospel is something that can conceivably be preached by an angel from heaven.

But should we, or an angel from Heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached to you, let him be accursed. (Gal. 1:8)

Let’s take this “seriously” as they say. This does not fit the orthodox image of what we would expect to read after having read the Gospels and Acts. I know the various explanations for this, that it is hyperbole, that angelology had a significant place in Judaism, etc. But let’s put aside for a moment all of that and try to read this letter clear away from the shadow of orthodoxy.

Paul continues:

As we said before, so say I now again: If any man preach any other gospel unto you than that which ye have received, let him be accursed! (1:9)

Paul is saying a gospel can come to people either by men or by an angel from heaven. The “from heaven” does not sound as if he is thinking of an angel disguised as a man and whom people think is a mere man. There is a heavenly aspect to the angel delivering the gospel.

Paul proves his gospel is the true gospel by asserting that it came to him direct by a revelation from Jesus Christ.

 But I certify to you, brethren, that the Gospel which was preached by me is not according to man; for I neither received it from man, neither was I taught it, but by the revelation of Jesus Christ. (1:11-12)

Paul’s gospel did not come by a man or an angel but by a revelation from Jesus.

This is given as the proof that his gospel is the true one.

Paul then reminds readers of his zealous orthodox Judaism, his persecution of the church, and then his call to be an apostle.

But when it pleased God, who separated me from my mother’s womb and called me by His grace, to reveal His Son in me, that I might preach Him among the heathen . . . (1:15-16)

God called him to be an apostle to the gentiles by revealing his Son Jesus “in” him, whatever that means.

That, keep in mind, is the proof that his gospel is true.

I conferred not immediately with flesh and blood, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me . . . (1:16-17)

There were apostles before Paul. The valid apostleship, we glean from here (and in 1 Corinthians), is one that comes by a direct call from God and revelation from or of Jesus.

Paul in effect is saying that he is, just like the other apostles, an apostle by virtue of having had a revelation. He is no less than the others. He is an apostle on the same grounds that they are apostles. His gospel is therefore a true one.

There is no suggestion that apostleship is established by having known Jesus in the flesh. That qualification comes from the author of Acts. It is the anti-Marcionite “Luke’s” intention to argue that “orthodoxy” can be verified by apostles  who claimed their authority on the basis of having been with Jesus from the time of his baptism to his death and resurrection. This view of apostleship was introduced by the author of Acts as a political claim for “orthodoxy”.

Before then, however, in this letter to the Galatians, there was no such notion of apostleship. Apostleship, even that of James, Peter and John, was verified by having a direct revelation from God or Jesus.

There are no “twelve” apostles in Galatians. That, too, is a later development. It appears that “orthodoxy”, as we read in Acts, sought to establish apostleship by contact with the human Jesus — apparently in contradiction against an earlier view of apostleship. Even on the orthodox view of apostleship James the brother of the Lord cannot have been an apostle because he never went with Jesus during his ministry. In Galatians James the brother of the Lord is an apostle like Paul — because he, too, has had the gospel revealed to him by God. In Acts this James is not one of the Twelve but is “managed” by the author by being made the one that directs the assembly of the Twelve and others at the Jerusalem conference.

So when Paul describes is encounter with James the brother of the Lord, Cephas/Peter and John he says it was Peter who was the apostle assigned to preach to the Jews. There is no hint of a body of twelve. Peter is the counterpart of Paul.

when they saw that the Gospel to the Uncircumcision was committed unto me, as the Gospel to the Circumcision was unto Peter (for He that wrought effectually in Peter to the apostleship of the Circumcision, that Same was mighty in me toward the Gentiles) . . . (2:7-8)

James is the leader. John’s role is not explained. Peter/Cephas is the apostle to the Jews as Paul is to the gentiles. All are apostles because they have “seen” the risen Christ.

Schmithals writes:

But then who is opposing Paul with the basic argument that an apostle must have received his apostolic authority and therewith automatically his gospel directly from God or Christ, so that in Gal. 1:12 Paul counters by saying that he too — that is to say, as they assert of themselves — has received the gospel, not from men, but by means of [a revelation]?

This argument is genuinely Gnostic. The Gnostic apostle is not identified by means of a chain of tradition, by the apostolic succession, but by direct pneumatic [spiritual] vocation. When Paul says, “Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord?” (1 Cor. 9:1), this combination, which represents an equation, is in origin typically Gnostic. The Gnostic apostle is called by God directly. He then is shown to be such by means of . . . ecstatic attestation of the pneuma-self. (p. 29)

He cites 2 Corinthians 12:12

Truly the signs of an apostle were wrought among you in all patience, in signs and wonders and mighty deeds.

Compare Romans 15:19 and Hebrews 2:4.

He adds in a footnote:

A vision of the celestial world and of the way to it . . . may have been the special precondition for the office of the Gnostic apostle. On this, one may compare 1 Cor. 9:1; 15:5-8; II Cor. 12:1; Gal. 1:12, 16 with the conclusion of the Coptic Gnostic gospel fragment . . . in which Jesus speaks: “. . . (that therewith I) may reveal to you all my glory and show to you all your power and the secret of your apostleship. . . . Our eyes penetrated all places we beheld the glory of his deity and all the glory ((of his lordship)). He clothed ((us)) ((with)) the power ((of our)) apostle ((ship)) . . . .”

Reading Galatians the way Walter Schmithals does one finds Paul saying that James, Peter and John were also ‘gnostic’ apostles.

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22 thoughts on “Reading Galatians afresh: a Gnostic Paul, James, Peter and John?”

    1. Or it may be that the letters were put together from Gnostic (Simonian) materials by the Simonian Cerdo, the one who—according to the proto-Catholic heresiologists—corrupted Marcion’s faith. The earliest person mentioned in connection with a Pauline letter connection is Cerdo (chapter 6 of pseudo-Tertullian’s “Against All Heresies”).

      If Marcion did come under the influence of Cerdo at Rome, he for some reason never fully embraced Gnosticism; for the system he went on to develop and preach lacked a number of characteristic Gnostic elements. The most fundamental difference is that his “alien” God is distanced from mankind even further than the Gnostic “unknown” God. There are not even a few “sparks of divinity” in man. And the alien God’s lack of all contact with mankind is perhaps the reason why Marcion, unlike the Simonians, felt he could not use—even allegorically—any parts of the Old Testament to support his doctrine. So it may be that Marcion either did not fully understand what Cerdo was peddling, or did understand but decided to improve on it.

      By the way, by calling Simon the Samaritan a ‘magus’ we may be unwittingly siding with his opponents. I suspect he or his followers called him ‘megas’ (‘great’) and it was his opponents—unable to use that descriptive without choking on it—who took him down a few notches by changing it to ‘magus.’

      1. The most fundamental difference is that his “alien” God is distanced from mankind even further than the Gnostic “unknown” God. There are not even a few “sparks of divinity” in man.

        I find this to be an interesting observation. We could look at both a gnostic ‘god’ and Marcion’s god as distanced, but connected to humans in different ways.

        Christ came from Marcion’s alien god of love in order to save humankind from the world’s imprisonment by the demiurge. Marcion was interested in faith and pure gospel he determined, not so much a kind of secret knowledge.

        Gnostic mythologies provided distancing through series of emanations from the unknown, ineffable source. Lower emanations in the mythologies were involved in the entrapped sparks of divinity during human creation. Distance was also maintained through human ignorance of the inner spark, but gnosis would bring awareness of an individual’s pneumatic spark. Christ was this revealer. When Neil writes, “God called him [Paul] to be an apostle to the gentiles by revealing his Son Jesus ‘in’ him, whatever that means”, I could think of Christ or Jesus Christ, the “Son”, as this kind of inner revealer. (BTW, it may or may not be significant that the quotation referred to says “Son”, not “Son Jesus”.) The Son is revealed “in” not “to” him. The gnostic elect would receive an awareness of an already present, inner pneumatic spark through an “inner” Son, rather than just an outward presence of Jesus involving only sense perception.

        1. pearl: “The Son is revealed ‘in’ not ‘to’ him.

          I think this is exactly the message in the Gospel of John. “No man has ever seen God,” declares John — no matter what the OT says. God is removed from our plane of existence and can only make contact through messengers (imperfectly) or via his Son (the Word). It saddens me to see current NT scholars brush Bultmann aside. Surely John’s Jesus is the Gnostic revealer and the revelation — he’s the medium and the message, the door and the truth.

          Today’s sorry crop of pygmy scholars say Bultmann was wrong. Of course they haven’t actually read or understood him, but they have read summaries written by their conservative pals, whom they quote extensively with thankful footnotes.

          1. Tim, there did seem to be something about John’s gospel that was compelling for gnostic exegesis. It’s not at all surprising that Valentinians should be interested when right at the beginning of the gospel we see interest in cosmogony instead of genealogy of Jesus or the births of John the Baptist and Jesus foretold. Right away there also is cosmic imagery of light and darkness.

            I have read that Bultmann considered Jesus Christ to have been presented in gospel narratives as a pre-existent divine being in a mythical sense, even though he also believed Jesus was a concrete figure of history.

            Interestingly, Elaine Pagels writes in the Introduction to The Johannine Gospel in Gnostic Exegesis, p. 13:

            Gnostic theologians do not necessarily deny that the events proclaimed of Jesus have occurred in history. What they deny is that the actuality of these events matters theologically. Heracleon claims, for example, that those who insist that Jesus, a man who lived “in the flesh,” is “Christ” fail to distinguish between literal and symbolic truth. Those who write accounts of the revelation as alleged biographies of “Jesus of Nazareth” – or even of Jesus as messiah—focus on mere historical “externals” and miss the inner truth they signify.

  1. Drats! How did I miss that? Neil, you’ve made it abundantly clear. “…or an angel from heaven” can only be meant in one way: the idea that the kerygma was sent from heaven, but while it had been implanted in inspired prophets like Paul through revelation, Paul offers the theoretical parallel of being sent from heaven in a heavenly appointee, an angel. No room there for any concept of receiving the kerygma from an earthly Jesus.

    Gal. 1:11-12 thus becomes Paul’s claim that he too received the kergyma in that legitimizing fashion (in parallel with Peter receiving his role as apostle to the Jews in the same way, as stated in 2:8), and had not been dependent on receiving it from an earthly source, which in itself rules out the concept that the Jerusalem apostles had done precisely that: they received it from an earthly source, namely Jesus. At the very least that little anomaly would have screwed up Paul’s defense of legitimacy and would have to have been clarified.

    This analysis also accomplishes something else: it undermines if not destroys the common apologetic claim that 11-12 is referring only to that aspect of Paul’s gospel relating to the non-requirement of circumcision for gentiles, or the general principle of the Law not having to apply to gentiles. Paul’s defense of his own legitimacy here is far too sweeping to be that restricted, and he is hardly going to set up a claim to ‘equality’ with the Jerusalem apostles on a subject toward which they seem to have taken the opposite stance: namely, that certain aspects of the Law DID have to apply to gentiles.

    Thanks, Neil.

    1. Earl, I am interested in what Detering’s argument about the source of “Paul’s” epistles might mean for your JNGNM. If the letters were constructed in the 130-140 CE timeframe from earlier material, does this alter the argument, or does the earlier material still reflect the belief that Jesus was a spiritual being revealed in heaven and was never an in habitant of the Earth?

    2. …or an angel from heaven” can only be meant in one way: the idea that the kerygma was sent from heaven,

      I think it means that the person who came to Galatia and taught differently from Paul claimed a visiting angel as his authority. Furthermore, it seems that the key issue was circumcision. In other words, some guy came to Galatia and claimed he had been visited by an angel who said that all male converts had to be circumcised.

      This was not a debate about “Gnosticism”, because they all were “Gnostics”. At that time, no Christians had any idea that Jesus Christ had descended to Earth and walked around and performed miracles and preached sermons on Earth.

      Paul is not criticizing the principle that a person might be visited by an angel who delivered a divine message. Rather, Paul was criticizing specifically this one person who claimed that specifically he had been visited by an angel who told him specifically that all male converts should be circumcised. In Paul’s opinion, this one specific person was an unreliable fool, because Paul reasoned correctly that God Almighty would not care whether male converts were circumcised.

  2. Schmithals also argues that Paul’s opponents were also opposed to the gospel of the Jerusalem pillars. He argues that circumcision was indeed taught by these “gnostic” opponents apart from the remainder of the Jewish law. Look forward to finding the time to present his arguments.

  3. A person’s title “Apostle” does not mean that the person ever saw Jesus Christ in the nature of human being or spiritual being. Rather, a person with that title is delegated by the Church leadership to travel and represent the Church leadership in distant locations.

    In Paul’s time, lots of Christians never experienced a mystical vision of Jesus Christ. Paul himself wrote that he was the very last Christian to experience the vision. We can suppose that lots such belated Christians nevertheless were designated to travel and represent the Church leadership and so were titled “Apostle”. They had the title because they were trusted and so delegated by the Church leadership.

    At the very beginning of Galatians, Paul defines the title “Apostle” as someone who has been sent on a mission, but then he immediately specifies that in his own exceptional case he was sent by Jesus Christ himself (i.e. not by the Church’s human leadership). Clearly, the title’s essence is that the person has been sent on a mission, not that the person ever saw Jesus Christ.

    At the beginning of 1 Corinthians 9, Paul writes: Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord? Are you not the result of my work in the Lord? Even though I may not be an apostle to others, surely I am to you! For you are the seal of my apostleship in the Lord.

    The three questions are separate questions. He asks these three separate questions of anyone who questions his authority to instruct his own converts in Corinth. At the very beginning of the epistle, Paul specifies that he calls himself an Apostle because he was delegated by God.

    In Paul’s time, all the Christian leaders said that they had experienced a mystical vision of Jesus Christ. For example, Peter describes his own such experience in 2 Peter 16-18. Therefore we might say that the original Christian leaders were the first Gnostics.

    In Paul’s own mind, Paul was unusual only in that 1) his experience was a solo experience, not guided by the Church leadership and 2) his experience was the very last experience and 3) during his experience he was delegated by Jesus Christ to title himself as an “Apostle”.

    Aside from those peculiarities and in general, however, Paul taught the same religion that the Church leaders taught. He taught that anyone who believed that Jesus Christ was the Son of God and had been crucified, had died and rose from the dead mystically on the Firmament would be purified and would be able to live eternally. That was the main, essential teaching.

    Paul differed from many of the Church leaders on a couple of secondary issues — circumcision and eating with Gentiles. These were secondary issues about which many Christians, even Church leaders, of that time might have disagreed.

    1. Mike, assuming, as Detering does, that the Pauline letters were constructed in the early 2nd century, then there is no connection with the Jerusalem group. Rather, the letters may be a counter to the emerging proto-catholic church arguing for an Earthly Jesus. “In Paul’s time” may be casting backwards. There may be no “Paul’s time”. He is a construct. And Luke-Acts is a theological treatise defending apostolic succession against the Pauline doctrine.

      I don’t think Paul taught the same doctrine as the proto-church. Paul is not talking about an Earthly Jesus.

      1. My own explanation is that Paul’s letters were collected by the wealthy Marcion, who thought that they supported whatever religious disputes Marcion was conducting. It is my understanding that Marcion rejected what we now call the Old Testament and tried to replace it with writings created during Christianity’s early years — in particular writings of Paul.

        Marcion thus had the motive, family money and personal relationships with far-flung Christians that would have enabled him to assemble a lot of such writings. If so, then it is likely that he selected and distributed the writings that supported his opinions and unlikely that he fabricated or altered the writings. He was involved in a serious religious debate and would have wanted to present serious evidence.

        Marcion might likewise have collected some or all of the non-Paul epistles (James, Peter, John, Jude) that now are in the New Testament.

        Marcion’s wealth might also have been important in that he would have been able to pay for a lot of copies of his collection and then distributed the copies in an effort to support his own position in the religious disputes.

      2. I think that Luke’s Acts of the Apostles is a sincere attempt to write a true history. This work includes only a few supernatural events, and they are at the work’s beginning, before Paul enters the story. Almost all of the part about Paul is a plausible history, so I think it is reasonable as a basis for believing that there was an actual person Paul who traveled around and created new churches as Luke described.

        That does not mean that Acts of the Apostles is inerrant, and it is apparent that Luke did not have as a source the epistles that now are in the New Testament.

        I think it is safe to assume that the time-frame indicated by Luke is approximately correct, so that Paul’s missionary work happened during the period of about 35-65. I think that Luke wrote Acts around the year 150, so he wrote about a century after Paul’s main activities.

        I would guess also that Luke was based in Antioch when he wrote Acts, and that city was kind of the base for Paul’s missionary work. It’s plausible that there were enough written works in Antioch that would enable Luke to assemble a long, detailed narrative about Paul.

        All just my speculation, of course. I can’t prove any of it.

  4. Detering has never convinced me. But what do you mean by “constructed” in the 130 time frame? Splicing certain original bits together with very little editing, let alone original composition? That is within the realm of possibility, perhaps by Marcion or someone else. Fortunately, whoever it may have been, they preserved a certain personality within the letters we can call “Paul.” And that person believed in an entirely heavenly Christ, from what I can see.

      1. well here I am reading things from 8 years ago, anyway I’m having trouble understanding exactly who invented Jesus if Paul is talking about him 20 or 30 years before Mark. Are we talking about a gnostic clique which Mark heard about and then decided to take in another direction, meaning activation or coalition of the faction that wanted a Jesus who was born of woman. Easier to get back at the Judeans if they had murdered an actual human instead of a demigod who had come down fully formed at Capernaum and wasn’t even really occupying corrupt flesh? I would be satisfied with that much . . . thanks!

  5. Gnosticism ofcourse does not come from jews. They have different gods.
    The gnostic god lives in the universe, the jewish god Jahweh/the Lord
    lives in heaven. Originally gnosticism comes from Plato. He invented
    the unknowable god in the universe, and the demiurge, the much lower
    god the creator. The one is spiritual, the other material. Paul is a
    gnostic, he preached from about 85 to 120. Marcion was his disciple.
    He got the 10 original letters of Paul and Paul’s gospel. Nobody knows
    if he was rich; I would not listen to church-fathers. Marcion went to
    the church of rome around 125. It was only then that the church of
    rome got involved.

    Paul’s son of god lives in the universe. He never comes down. Paul
    never writes “church”, only community. There was no church in
    Jerusalem. There was no church anywhere (except in rome).
    There was no christianity. Paul wrote chrestos, not christos. It is
    one of many forgeries. The other apostles were jews, and therefore
    ofcourse no gnostics. Just orthodox jews. Therefore they had ofcourse
    no son of god, and they did circumcise and keep the law. After
    galatians Paul became their worst enemy: he had their title apostle,
    and he had deceived them. He did not bring their message, he did
    something totally different, like start a religion with it. These
    people have been wiped from history by the church. Luke does not
    exist, the Acts are completely false. It is the master-forger from the
    church of rome at work. Paul’s letters have been forged. The original
    ones from Marcion we have never seen. Hope this helps.


    1. Yep, that helps — as much as a hammer blow to the thumb. You return here to comment under various names and email addresses and most times you astonish us with a dogmatism matched only by your ignorance. I would suggest you read more widely but I don’t think that would help. You know too much already.

      But for others interested in the question and to help them recover some serious knowledge that is lost after reading your comments, note that gnosticism can only be explained as a product of Judaism. Gnosticism engaged with the Jewish Scriptures. It re-interpreted the Jewish Scriptures in order to reject the ‘orthodox’ reading of them. That origin is inexplicable except from a Jewish context. Of course, once one interpreted the Jewish Scriptures so that their God became the Demiurge, the serpent and Cain the repositories of wisdom, etc, one was pretty much removing oneself from the Jewish fold. But the springboard out of Judaism was itself, of necessity, Jewish Scriptures.

      Wilson, Robert McLachlan. The Gnostic Problem: A Study of the Relations between Hellenistic Judaism and the Gnostic Heresy. A.R. Mowbray, 1958.

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