Paul’s Gnostic heritage & Gnostic opposition

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by Neil Godfrey

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)

And that footnote 44 reads:

These demands call for speaking in tongues (1 Cor. 14) or for a demonstration of the Christ who is speaking in Paul (II Co. 13:3); for his proclamation which has been issued only in contemptible words (II Cor. 10:10) conceals the gospel (II Cor. 4:3). The apostle has to preach himself as pneuma-self (II Cor. 4:5; 10:12), and therefore many not withhold his ecstasy from the community (II Cor. 5:11, 13) but must produce for it the proof of his apostolate by means of the ecstatic σημεῖα τοῦ ἀποστόλου [=signs of an apostle]. He must prove that the Pnuema-Christ is in him (II Cor. 13:5). According to II Cor. 12:1, in particular the demand for ecstatic rapture also appears to have been emphasized.

Paul supplies his own evidence that proves he fulfills the demands made of an apostle:

This Gnostic understanding of the apostle can be studied nowhere better than in the Corinthian epistles, especially in II Corinthians, and this in 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 as well as in the evidence with which Paul proves that he fulfills this demand.45

And 45 says . . . ? This is where Paul conflicts with other more “traditional” Gnostic apostles.

Paul indeed sharply rejects the Gnostic norm for the legitimacy of the apostle: The apostle does not commend himself, but God commends him by blessing his preaching (II Cor. 10:13-18); hence he has to preach before the community, not to adduce his ecstasies (II Cor. 5:11-15), and would rather speak five words τῷ νοΐ [=with my mind/understanding] than one thousand ἐν γλώσσῃ [=in tongues] (I Cor. 14:19); therefore he tells only very reluctantly of his raptures which for him indeed have nothing to do with his apostolate (II Cor. 12:1, 11). But even Paul allows no doubt to arise that the apostle must be called immediately by God and his opponents’ demand, for a proof of qualification of the apostle for his office, is in principle justified (I Cor. 9:1ff.; 15:7ff.; II Cor. 5:11b). This shows the Gnostic heritage of his view of the apostolate.

Gnosticism born in pre-Christian Judaism

Now very few other scholars would agree that Paul was a gnostic. Gnosticism is widely understood as being a product of the second century. But there are scholars who have specialized in this area and who do place the roots of Gnosticism back into the period of Second Temple Judaism. I copy here what I once wrote in another post.

Thus we have Michael Edward Stone, author of Scriptures, Sects and Visions: A Profile of Judaism from Ezra to the Jewish Revolts (1980), who wrote a chapter discussing all of this. He concludes after discussions of much pre-Christian Jewish literature:

Many questions thus surround the Jewish sources of Gnosticism . . . . Clear conclusions cannot yet be drawn, therefore, as to where and which types of Judaism contributed to the formation of Gnosticism. That there were such contributions, however, now seems beyond doubt. (p. 104)

Birger A. Pearson, author of Ancient Gnosticism: Traditions and Literature (2007), writes after comparing pre-Christian Jewish literature with later Gnostic texts:

So it is more likely that Gnosticism arose out of a Jewish milieu, and only subsequently came into contact with Christianity, than that it arose from within early Christianity . . . . (p. 11)

Gnosticism is clearly dependent upon aspects of Platonist philosophy. It is also clearly dependent upon aspects of Jewish religion, most notably apocalyptically oriented Judaism. The most plausible way of explaining these dependencies is to posit a Jewish origin for Gnosticism, involving Jews who had imbibed a good deal of Greek philosophy.

So I shall conclude this discussion by positing that what we call Gnosticism originated among unknown Jews who incorporated aspects of Platonism into their innovative reinterpretations of their ancestral traditions. At least that is, in my view, the most plausible conclusion that can be drawn from the sources available to us. (p. 19)

Even Michael Allen Williams, who argues that the term “Gnosticism” itself is problematic in Rethinking “Gnosticism”: An Argument for Dismantling a Dubious Category (1996), argues for the inclusion of Judaism as one of the roots of Gnosticism:

I will maintain that we can most adequately account for these phenomena [“gnosticism”] as a whole by allowing for multiple origins, rather than trying to trace all of this back to some single tradition, group or set of social or historical circumstances. But pre-Christian Jewish tradition ought to be included among these multiple matrices. (p. 218)

There are other possibilities, too, and some comments on my previous post allude to those.

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Neil Godfrey

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3 thoughts on “Paul’s Gnostic heritage & Gnostic opposition”

  1. There never was a Jesus Christ who walked around on Earth and performed miracles and preached sermons or did anything else. That is why none of the epistle writers ever write anything at all about anything that Jesus Christ did or said.

    The first Christians all experienced a mystical vision of Jesus Christ being sacrificed on the Firmament in a mystical drama, which did not include any miraculous healings or wise sermons.

    The first Christians essentially were the first Gnostics. The later Christians (a century later) who decided that a human-like Jesus Christ walked around on Earth, etc., were a late but ultimately triumphant deviation from the original mystic religion.

    Paul lived and wrote when the entire religion still was mystical — when they all were Gnostics. He was troublesome in some of his teachings (his own unique mystical vision, his misappropriation of the title “Apostle”, his opinions about circumcision and pagan meals), but otherwise he taught the religion’s essential and conventional beliefs, and he succeeded in converting many Gentiles into the religion. So, he was troublesome, but he was sufficiently conventional that in general he was tolerated by many and even supported by some in the Church leadership.

    Paul was like a salesman who breaks company rules and annoys the management but who far exceeds his sales quota.

    The whole idea that Christianity started out as a followership of some human Jesus Christ on Earth and then much later some Christians evolved into a mystical “Gnostic heresy” is all backwards. On the contrary, Christianity started out as a mystical vision of a divine Jesus Christ on the Firmament, and then much later some Christians evolved into a heresy about Jesus Christ walking around like a human being on Earth.

    Paul was in the religion when all its members were mystical “Gnostics” — almost a century before the origin of the heresy about a human Jesus Christ on Earth.

    Therefore, explanations along the lines drawn by Walter Schmithals and by most other theologians are anachronisms.

  2. Paul is a fiction of second century, and any attempt to see him and his falsely so-called letters before the fall of the temple is vain and deceiving.

    To seek for Jewish roots of gnosticism in whatever form, one should read the reviews by Robert Price on works by Margaret Barker and Birger Pearson.

    1. A second century construction of Paul is certainly a possibility. I think it is going too far to see the traditional model as “vain and deceiving”, though. I can see reasonable arguments for both options.

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