The Circumcising Gnostic Opponents of Paul in Galatia

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by Neil Godfrey

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.)

Setting aside the usual explanations

As for the identity of the “false brethren” in Jerusalem Schmithals finds it more likely that these were Jews who had not yet been baptized in the name of Jesus. But that is another argument.

To begin with, Schmithals addresses what he sees as the unlikelihood of a strongly judaizing group from James or who went further in their judaizing beliefs than James engaging in a gentile mission anywhere, Galatians included. Yet some argue that the troublemakers for Paul in Galatia were such people — going out to the Galatian gentile converts to have them observe the entire law.

A worldwide judaizing Gentile mission is a contradiction in itself. (p. 15)

A related explanation, that these judaizers, more radical Torah observers even than James himself, just happened to have been passing through the areas where there were Galatian churches of Paul (that is, were not part of a systematic world-wide judaizing-the-gentiles program) strikes Schmithals as ad hoc.

Some scholars have seen several varieties of heretics or wayward groups that Paul is attempting to address in his letter: libertines who oppose the judaizers, taking Paul’s teachings too far for Paul to accept; “so-called” judaizers who are more likely Hellenistic Jewish gnostics than pro-Jamesian or Pharisaic-legalistic adherents. One also often reads that Paul may have only been poorly informed about the exact nature of those he was writing against in his letter.

Schmithals’ argument starts with two other assumptions: that unless Paul states otherwise, the heresy he is addressing is a singular belief or group; and that he knew what he was talking about when he was addressing their challenge to his Galatian churches. (pp. 17-18)

It is also sometimes suggested that Paul is writing from the context of having had earlier debates with the heretics and so is writing in a way that assumes this previous argument and thus bemuses modern readers. Schmithals argues that these suggestions (that the letter is written from the context of a second visit by Paul otherwise unattested) are contrived. On the contrary, it is evident in the letter that “Paul is completely surprised at the apostasy of the Galatians”.

The accusation against Paul

As addressed in an earlier post Paul faces a two-edged accusation. From the opening of the letter Paul is defending himself against charges that

  1. he is dependent upon men for the apostolate
  2. his gospel is false

The two charges are bound up as one and the same.

Thus for the schismatic Christians in Galatia, purity of the gospel and the nonmediated character of the apostalate are inseparable from one another . . . (pp. 20f.)

Now it is to be noted that Paul accepts that the two are indeed bound up as one. They cannot be separated. This is

a conception which will be significant for determining the nature of these Christians, a conception however which Paul shares with them.

What Paul himself is saying is this:

For Paul does not say that one can receive his apostalate also from men and demand unconditional obedience for a gospel proclaimed with such apostolic authority. He rather says: naturally the apostle must be called by God if he is to proclaim the gospel with apostolic authority. But I am in fact called by him. I too have not received my gospel from men but — like the opponents — through a revelation of Jesus Christ (Gal. 1:12). It pleased the One who separated me from my mother’s womb and called me by his grace to reveal his Son in me (Gal. 1:15-16). Then I was active as an apostle for more than fifteen years before I came in contact with those who, in Jerusalem, were apostles before me, a contact so close that I might very well have received my gospel from them (Gal. 1:16-2:1). In this meeting and later I preserved the independence of my gospel (or apostolate; Gal. 2:7-8 . . .) throughout. Titus did not have to be circumcised in Jerusalem (Gal. 2:3); for the sake of the truth of my gospel (! Gal. 2:14) I vigorously withstood Peter and even thereby demonstrated my independence (Gal. 2:11 ff.); and the “pillars” in Jerusalem finally confirmed to me by a handshake that the gospel among the heathen was entrusted to me by God just as independently as Peter was called to be an apostle to the Jews (Gal. 2:7 ff.).

Thus Paul can prove that the assertion that he had received his gospel or his apostolate from men even historically simply cannot be true. (pp. 20-21)

So the accusation against Paul assumes something Paul himself accepted: that the gospel was bound to the apostolate in such a way so that “the authenticity of the message was measured simply by the apostolate of the messenger.”

But this view of how to assess the truth of the message was not found in the earliest Jerusalem church itself. Rather, in the Jerusalem or Palestinian churches the correctness of the message was first assessed and the apostolic status of the messenger was determined by the truth of his message. This is the opposite of the view held by Paul and his opponents.

Who accused Paul?

Who accused Paul of receiving his apostleship and gospel from men? Who were these people who equated the truth of the gospel with the apostleship of the messenger being directly from God?

It could not have been the Jerusalem authorities or anyone claiming to be representing them. These Christians did not believe that the truth of the gospel was inseparable from the apostle being directly called as such by revelation or vision from God. Schmithals justifies this with 3 reasons:

Reason 1:

The dispute over circumcision in the Jerusalem church shows that the correctness of the teaching was the measure by which one’s status as an apostle was decided.”Luke” in Acts declares that an apostle was one who had personal acquaintance with the historical Jesus (Acts 1:21). For this claim Schmithals finds no convincing evidence in the New Testament. James, the most important of the pillars in Jerusalem, had not been a companion of the earthly Jesus. It is also quite possible that all the twelve had not been with Jesus from the time of his baptism.

But if people in Jerusalem had held an encounter with the exalted Christ to be constitutive for the legitimacy of the authoritative proclaimer of the gospel, one could not conceive of wishing to exclude Paul. (p. 23)

Reason 2:

Paul flatly states that the Jerusalem apostles recognized him as an apostle. Was he lying or did the Jerusalem apostles deceive him or later retract their view without telling him?

Both alternatives many be ruled out.

Reason 3:

It is “inconceivable” that either the Jerusalem apostles or representatives of those Jerusalem authorities accused Paul of being dependent upon them. Such an accusation would certainly reduce Paul’s status as an apostle, but it would at the same time be the highest commendation of the truth of his gospel!

If Jerusalem Christians are bringing to Galatia another gospel and claiming Paul’s is a false gospel then they would be want to accuse Paul of being unacceptably independent from the other apostles.

Scholars have long recognized this difficulty and have found various ways of explaining it away.

But every one of these explanations runs aground on the very fact that the charge actually concerns dependence, and not a single world concerns apostasy. But this means that one must completely abandon the fiction that behind the heretics in Galatia stands the authority of the leaders in Jerusalem. (p. 25)

Whoever is accusing Paul is also opposed to the Jerusalem authorities. They are accusing Paul of being “in the extended line of the original apostles” (p. 26).

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 an ἀποκάλυψις?

This argument is genuinely Gnostic. The Gnostic apostle is not identified by means of a chain of traditions, by the apostolic succession, but by direct pneumatic vocation. When Paul says, “Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord?” (1 Cor. 9:1), this combination, which represents and equation, is in origin typically Gnostic. (p. 29)

(The concept of “apostolic tradition” is “nothing but an early, and early successful, attempt of the church which was in the anti-Gnostic battle and in the debate with Marcion to limit the apostles to the twelve disciples (+ Paul; Luke!) and to concede to them alone as Jesus’ personal disciples the evangelical authority and the power to hand this on by the laying-on of hands (Pastoral Epistles!), in order to take away from the pneumatic apostolate the immediate authority which for Paul was still so self-evident. In connection with the monarchical episcopate the apostolic tradition then was developed into the apostolic succession.” p. 30)

Paul finds himself in the same situation with the church at Corinth.

In Corinth, moreover, as in Galatia, the question about the content of the Pauline proclamation, and thus about the truth of his gospel, is to be decided by the question about his apostolate. This too is just as typically and originally Gnostic as it is un-Jewish and therefore un-Judaisitic. (pp. 30-31)

And not only Paul, but those who taught in his churches, too

In Galatians 6:6 Paul admonishes:

The one who is taught the word is to share all good things with the one who teaches

The emphasis is on sharing fellowship (Κοινωνείτω) with one’s teachers. The same admonition is found in 1 Thessalonians 5:12 and Hebrews 13:7, 17 and 24. Do not forsake teachers of the word (i.e.” already relatively fixed doctrine”). It appears that some in Galatia were being persuaded to turn away from their “official” teachers or officeholders, holding them in contempt, because their “official” teaching was not “pneumatic” or spiritual since its author, Paul, was not a true apostle. The status of these Pauline teachers was criticized as being as lowly as that of Paul himself — dependent upon men. Paul’s teachings, and those of his appointees, were considered as lacking in pneumatic immediacy in the Corinthian letters.

Some have considered Gal. 6:6 a gloss but Schmithals believes there is no need to think this if we read the epistle with Gnostic opponents of Paul in mind.

Who are those of the Circumcision?

Most commentators have assumed that the opponents of Paul in Galatians are judaizers because of the letter’s stress on the issue of circumcision. Schmithals doubts this for two reasons.

1. Those preaching circumcision were not at the same time requiring the observance of the whole of the law. Paul

  • has to point out to the Galatians that circumcision brings with it the obligation to keep the whole law (Galatians 5:3)
  • points out that these teachers do not keep the entire law (Galatians 6:13)

Clearly then, reasons Schmithals, the Galatians had failed to grasp the implications of circumcision.

Paul has to point these out to them. Those who were teaching circumcision also did not keep the law but appear to have opposed it on principle.

2. It had been earlier decided in Jerusalem — in the Jerusalem church led by James — that the gentile converts did not need to be circumcised. The way Paul writes makes it inconceivable that this decision had been overturned subsequently by those in Jerusalem.

Indeed, Jewish Christian groups played an ever-diminishing role in Christianity in the post-apostolic era. Christians teaching and practicing the observance of the whole law became insignificant.

If, therefore, the opponents of Paul in Galatia were teaching Christians to observe the Torah then we must understand that they were an anomaly in the history of Christianity. They had no connection with the past given the fact of the apostolic council rejecting the requirement of the law for gentiles, and they have no trace of continuing influence in the future.

But – – –

The situation becomes quite different when we envisage an agitation by Jewish or Jewish-Christian Gnosticism. Jewish Christian Gnostics, whose home in any case was not Judea, naturally had no connection at all with the “apostolic council” and its agreements. But even in the later period their missionary work was indeed not limited in scope. Rather, Gnosticism seriously threatened the community that was growing up in the Hellenistic environment. And of it — and this is now the most important thing — the church fathers unanimously know to report that precisely in the early, the New Testament, the Pauline era, and precisely in Gentile territory, especially in Asia Minor, it had preached circumcision. (p. 36)

Schmithals refers to the “abundance of documentation” for this that is found in

  • Hippolytus (against the Gnostic Ebionites, Phil. VII. 34:1-2; against the Elchasaites, Phil. IX. 14:1)
  • Tertullian (against Gnostic Ebionites, Prescription 33
  • Epiphanius (against Gnostic Ebionites, Heresies XXX. 2, 26, 28, 31, 33. Against Cerinthus, XXVIII.1ff. XIX.5
  • Plilastrius (against Cerinthus — Heresies, 36
  • and others (e.g. Pseudo Tertullian — re Dositheos — Against Heretics 3; Irenaeus — re Gnostic Ebionites — 1.26.2; Eusebius — re Gnostic Ebionites — History 27; Titus 1:10)

I quote some of these (not all, unfortunately) at the end of this post.

Cerinthus — especially as described by Epiphanius — bears a striking comparison with the Galatian adversaries of Paul.

Cerinthus was clearly a major threat to “the beginning of Gentile Christianity”. Later traditions became less reliable, but they testify to his threatening activities long afterwards in the imagination of the church. We read in Irenaeus and Eusebius of his altercation with the apostle John in Ephesus. Irenaeus says the Gospel of John was written to combat the errors of Cerinthus. Epiphanius, on the other hand, speaks of a view that the Gospel of John was originally the author of the Johannine literature. (I am reminded of the scholarly assessments that the Johannine writings are marked by layer upon layer of various redactions.)

Cerinthus definitely worked in Asia Minor. According to Epiphanius his school was in Galatia itself. Cerinthus “without question connects  typical Gnosticism with a confession of Christ and with Jewish practices such as that of circumcision.” (p. 37)

Schmithals does not say we need assume that Paul was writing specifically against Cerinthians in Galatia. But he does insist that the opposition to Paul were not judaizers. Circumcision

fits just as well — following what has been said, even far better — at any rate in that time and place, with Jewish Christian Gnositcs who are conducting a mission in Paul’s tracks. (p. 37)

Jewish Christian Gnostics?

Schmithals notes that early Christian Gnosticism had to be Jewish in origin. Jesus Christ can only have entered a gnostic perspective in a Jewish setting. In my previous post I addressed more recent scholarship on the existence of pre-Christian Jewish Gnosticism. Schmithals points out that the earlier this Christian Gnosticism is in evidence the more likely it is, therefore, to have incorporated Jewish mythological and Mosaic motifs.

Why Circumcision?

So if these Jewish Gnostics were not teaching the entire Torah, why were they teaching circumcision? Various Jewish Gnostics no doubt differed in their approach to the law but it is unlikely they were requiring observance of it in a Pharisee sense.

Gnosticism was highly adaptable and reinterpreted many of the Jewish (and Christian) practices according to its own various belief systems.

For example, the Gnostic supper could not accept the connection between the bread and the flesh of Christ so interpreted the bread in terms of the cosmic body of Christ. This Gnostic tradition, says Schmithals, stands behind 1 Corinthians 10:16-17 where Paul himself puts the “body” in parallel with the spiritual body of Christ as it lives in the church. (Does this demolish any possibility of a likeminded connection between Paul’s “Lord’s Supper” and any “tradition” we read of in the Synoptic Gospels?) Similarly in the Didache (9:3-4)

Now concerning the Eucharist, give thanks this way. First, concerning the cup:

We thank thee, our Father, for the holy vine of David Thy servant, which You madest known to us through Jesus Thy Servant; to Thee be the glory for ever.

Here the eucharistic prayers “stem from this Gnostic stream of tradition. In these prayers the cup also is connected in a roundabout way, by way of the gnostically interpreted vine (of David; cf. Ps. 80:9-20), with the primal man rather than with the blood of Christ; in Gnosticism the primal man often appears as the vine. One bread also in Ign. Eph. 20.2.”

come together man by man in common through grace, individually, in one faith, and in Jesus Christ, who was of the seed of David according to the flesh, being both the Son of man and the Son of God, so that ye obey the bishop and the presbytery with an undivided mind, breaking one and the same bread, which is the medicine of immortality, and the antidote to prevent us from dying, but [which causes] that we should live for ever in Jesus Christ.

(Gnosticism and the primal man is here linked with the vine of David? And recall Roger Parvus’s arguments in his series that the author of the Ignatian letters was from an Apellean branch that broke from Marcionism. This all may throw a new light on Paul’s reference to the seed of David in Romans 1:3.)

All this is to illustrate the nature of early gnostic reinterpretations. In a similar way, argues Schmithals,

circumcision underwent a Gnostic reinterpretation. Traces of this appear to me [Schmithals] to have been preserved in Col. 2:9 ff. (cf. Eph. 2:11).

[Footnote: “The interpretation of circumcision found here is unique. This makes interpretation of the passage difficult. But cf. also Od. Sol. 11.3 and Phil. 3:3.”]

Within a section that heavily relies on Gnostic tradition, there is mention of the “circumcision not made with hands,” by means of which Christians are circumcised in the “putting off of the body of flesh, in the circumcision of Christ. A little later we read that the Christians were “dead in the uncircumcision of your flesh.” Now if in the Christian amplification of the Gnostic model the foreskin or the entire body of flesh is equated with sin, and circumcision with baptism, it is unmistakably clear that in the model, which indeed is somewhat less than complete, the foreskin symbolized the body of flesh and thus the — really performed — act of circumcision portrayed the liberation of the pneuma-self from the prison of the body. Only thus does the intricate symbolism of the passage become understandable.

But for the Gnostic original there thus results a splendid and striking interpretation of circumcision which may well have been proposed in Galatia.

Cf. also Saying 123 of the recently discovered Gospel of Philip . . . : “When Abraham rejoiced that he would see that which he was to see, he cut off the flesh of his foreskin, whereby he shows us that it is necessary to destrory the flesh of all members  of the world.”  In this connection one may further compare the interpretation which is given in the Naassene Preaching (in Hipp. V, 7) to the mythological story that the mother of the gods mutilated Attis , her own lover: “For Attis was mutilated, that is to say the earthly parts of the lower creation, and thus came to the eternal higher being.” . . . . The equation of private parts == demonic body, which underlies the interpretation of circumcision given, also occurs explicitly in the Coptic Gospel of Thomas, Saying 38, which was already known to us through Pap. Oxyr. 655 and through Clem. Alex. Stom. III.13.92: one is to put off shame or tread under foot the garment of shame. (pp. 38-9, my formatting)

To avoid persecution?

Paul specifies a reason that these opponents require circumcision in Galatians 6:12

Those who desire to make a good showing in the flesh try to compel you to be circumcised, simply so that they will not be persecuted for the cross of Christ.

(Schmithals reserves the discussion of these “false apostles” “glorying” for his chapter that addresses the Philippians, specifically 3:2-6.)

Paul is obviously being sarcastic here. For Paul, there can only be one implication of circumcision — that is the requirement to keep the whole law (Gal. 5:3). But he knows that these advocates of circumcision do not keep the law, so he finds an opening to impute this less noble motive to them.

In fact there are indeed other indications that these proponents of circumcision did have a more sincerely religious interest in the practice. Some Gnostics practiced outward rituals while others rejected them as completely unnecessary (Irenaeus, 1.21.4). “At least the Gnostic interpretation of the Supper also created no little difficulty (flesh and blood!). Gnosticism appropriated to itself these ceremonies when it was expedient — and thus possibly for the sake of toleration — but could, on the other hand, wholly abstain from them.” (p. 40)

(I am reminded of Paul’s admonition to comply with certain practices to avoid offending “the weak”.)

Schmithals sees that circumcision is still an issue among the Philippians (Phil. 3:2 ff.), but in Corinth we hear nothing more about it — despite Corinth having surely been reached by the same opponents of Paul as were in Galatia.

Thus it may well be that the Galatian false teachers to a considerable extent held to the practice of circumcision for tactical reasons . . .  (p. 40)

It may have been true that their religious motivation for requiring circumcision was secondary.

But the more this is the case, and thus the more Paul in Gal. 6:12-13 gives a genuine justification for the legalism of the Galatian heretics, the less we are dealing here with Judaizers for whom circumcision was the central expression of their religious conviction. . . . (p. 40)

Why did Paul preach circumcision?

The above argument is supported by Paul’s own statement in Galatians 5:11

But I, brethren, if I still preach circumcision, why am I still persecuted?

It thus appears that some in Galatia were pointing the finger at Paul and saying that he, too, preached circumcision. But we know what Paul did in fact do that could have led to this interpretation. Paul did have Timothy circumcised (Acts 16:3) and he did allow Jewish Christians to continue the practice (Gal. 2:1-10) and elsewhere he says that to the Jews he could become a Jew (1 Cor. 9:20 ff; cf Acts 21:15-26).

Such reference to Paul’s conduct, however, makes sense only if people in Galatia valued circumcision as he did and did not regard it as the beginning of a way of salvation determined by the law. (pp. 40-41)

That is, even Paul could enjoin circumcision (“to avoid persecution” or at least to gain favour) at certain times without at the same times enjoining the whole law on those who practiced it. His opponents, for whatever reason, were doing advancing circumcision for more generic or ongoing principled reasons.

Alternating between theory and the Galatian trenches

This explains why Paul launches into a tirade of preaching against the value of the law itself as a way to salvation in Galatians. Circumcision implies the need to keep the whole law, and the law is not the way to salvation, he says. This middle section of the letter to the Galatian churches is in places theoretical and not specific to the “in the trenches” situation in Galatia.

Galatians 3:6-14

Galatians 3:15-18

Galatians 3:19-4:7

Galatians 4:21-31

In these sections Paul is catapulting his thoughts into the entire question of law righteousness. For Paul, circumcision means seeking righteousness and salvation by the works of the law, and this he flatly opposes. For Paul, the Galatians to whom he is writing may not have seen the question this way. They appear not to have understood it from Paul’s perspective — that circumcision implies the observance of the whole law.

Thus chaps. 3-4 do not interrupt the train of thought, but are intended to warn against the consequences which are given for the Galatians with their going over to the side of the opponents. (p. 41)

But in other passages in this central portion of the letter, Paul does address the specifics of the Galatian situation. And when he does so it is apparent that his readers had not yet finally resolved to reject Paul and definitely and finally go the way of Paul’s opponents.

Galatians 3:1-5

Galatians 4:8-11

Galatians 4:12-20

Galatians 5:1-12

No one (except non-Christians) preached circumcision for salvation

Some commentators claim that Paul’s opponents were preaching the necessity of circumcision for salvation. Passages such as Gal. 5:2-3, 6, 12; 6:12-13 are cited. But Schmithals responds:

Actually in not one of these passages is it even suggested that the Galatian false teachers are demanding circumcision for the sake of salvation. Quite the contrary: it is Paul who by means of repeated arguments through the entire epistle must first make clear to the Galatians the significance of the problem of the law for salvation. (p. 42)



Some references to circumcising gnostics:

Irenaeus 1.26.2 (Gnostic Ebionites)

Those who are called Ebionites agree that the world was made by God; but their opinions with respect to the Lord are similar to those of Cerinthus and Carpocrates. They use the Gospel according to Matthew only, and repudiate the Apostle Paul, maintaining that he was an apostate from the law. As to the prophetical writings, they endeavour to expound them in a somewhat singular manner: they practise circumcision, persevere in the observance of those customs which are enjoined by the law, and are so Judaic in their style of life, that they even adore Jerusalem as if it were the house of God.

Hippolytus Refutations 7:22

The Ebionaeans, however, acknowledge that the world was made by Him Who is in reality God, but they propound legends concerning the Christ similarly with Cerinthus and Carpocrates. They live conformably to the customs of the Jews, alleging that they are justified. according to the law, and saying that Jesus was justified by fulfilling the law. And therefore it was, (according to the Ebionaeans,) that (the Saviour) was named (the) Christ of God and Jesus, since not one of the rest (of mankind) had observed completely the law. For if even any other had fulfilled the commandments (contained) in the law, he would have been that Christ. And the (Ebionaeans allege) that they themselves also, when in like manner they fulfil (the law), are able to become Christs; for they assert that our Lord Himself was a man in a like sense with all (the rest of the human family).

Tertullian, Prescription Against Heretics 33

Writing also to the Galatians, he inveighs against such men as observed and defend circumcision and the (Mosaic) law. Thus runs Hebion’s heresy.

Eusebius Church History 3: 27

they, like them, endeavored to observe strictly the bodily worship of the law.  There seems to have been no difference between these two classes in regard to their relation to the law; the distinction made by Justin is no longer noticed.

These men, moreover, thought that it was necessary to reject all the epistles of the apostle, whom they called an apostate from the law

Hippolytus Refutations 9:9 (Elchasaites)

This Elchasai puts forward as a decoy a polity (authorized in the) Law, alleging that believers ought to be circumcised and live according to the Law, (while at the same time) he forcibly rends certain fragments from the aforesaid heresies.

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19 thoughts on “The Circumcising Gnostic Opponents of Paul in Galatia”

  1. Schmithals’ work is a superb example of creative writing. Such imagination! I bet he was good at poetry, too.

    Gnosticism was a 2nd Century heresy which did not exist in Paul’s day. The Ebionites were not gnostics and none of the church fathers accused them of gnosticism (not even the ones you quote here).

    Epiphanius’ critique has been exposed as inaccurate; his mistake was to confuse the Elcesaites, who match his description, with the Ebionites, who do not (see for example Shlomo Pines’ The Jewish Christians Of The Early Centuries Of Christianity According To A New Source, 1966). Having asserted that gnostic sects practice circumcision (evidence, please?) you apparently conclude that every group which practised circumcision must have been gnostic. Outstanding.

    1. I’m very open to critical discussion of Schmithals’ thesis. This post is primarily to help me set out his argument for easy reference and to help me grasp it in a way that I can critique.

      But you can best help if you offer some knowledgable criticisms. You only skimmed my post it seems and failed to notice the pointer to the scholarly arguments of late that gnosticism had pre-Christian Jewish roots. I deliberately pointed to post-Schmithals works specifically addressing gnostic studies.

      It seems you overlooked what I cited one of the church father’s actually saying about the Ebionites. Of course the later the evidence the less reliance we can place upon it. I have discussed Epiphanius in this context before.

      But once again you come here and fail utterly to read what I write with basic comprehension. Where ever did I remotely suggest that every group which practiced circumcision must have been gnostic? I thought I was (1) clear that I was uncritically outlining Schmithals’ argument and (2) even in that summary pointed out non-gnostic groups who enjoined circumcision.

      You would offer something more constructive if you came here without your “anti-mythicist” vendetta. It renders your comments a waste of space.

  2. During Paul’s life, there were not any Christians who thought that Jesus Christ had been a human-like being who walked around anywhere on Earth and did deeds and preached sermons. This was not an idea that was in the mind of any Christian anywhere at that time. That is why none of the epistles mention any of his deeds or sermons.

    The idea that some Christians were or were not “gnostics” is nonsensical. They all were what we now call “gnostics”. For all of them, the religion was a mystical experience.

    The core of the original believers spoke Greek as their main language. According to Acts 6:1, many of the original believers could speak only Greek and could not speak any dialect of Hebrew. All the extant writings from the religion’s first centuries are in Greek and none are in any Hebrew dialect, and there is no evidence that any of the religion’s early writings were in any Hebrew dialect.

    If so, then we can suppose that a large portion of the original believers were not circumcised and that the original religion did not require its believers to be circumcised.

    The idea that male believers should be circumcised was a later development, which erupted while Paul was doing his missionary work. The idea that Paul changed the religion’s original attitude toward circumcision is wrong. Rather, the original religion’s attitude toward circumcision was neutral, and Paul supported and taught such neutrality. During Paul’s time, however, a new, dissident group of Christians raised a new demand that all Christian males should be circumcised, and it was this group (not Paul) that challenged the earlier consensus.

    Apparently, one of the group’s arguments was that this circumcision demand had been communicated from God to one of the group’s members by an angel who had descended to Earth.

    The idea that God might deliver a message to a human being through an angel was not controversial. The religion was based on a foundation of belief that spiritual beings could descend from the Heavens through the Firmament to the Earth and that some human beings could ascend in the opposite direction. All the original Christians had climbed to Mount Hermon’s summit, from where they were mystically transported to the Firmament, which was populated by various ex-Earthly human beings (e.g. “rulers of the age”) and spiritual beings (e.g. angels).

    Paul did not object to the idea that a person might receive a divine message from an angel. Rather, Paul rejected as false and accursed this particular claim that this particular person really was visited by an angel who really informed him that Almighty God insisted that all male converts should be circumcised. Paul’s basis for rejecting this claim was that it was absurd in the context of the mystical religion.

    Paul’s ultimate troubles in relation to circumcision were caused, according to Acts, by his bringing an uncircumcised male into the Jerusalem Temple. Because of the circumcision issue, Paul got into trouble with the Jewish leadership, not with the Christian leadership.

    We can suppose that the Christian leadership was divided about the circumcision issue. Some leaders agreed with the new dissidents that males should be circumcised, and other leaders maintained the religion’s original and long-standing neutrality about circumcision. Paul did not jeopardize his status in the Church by adhering to the latter, neutral group. Paul could bring his uncircumcised colleague to Jerusalem and introduce him to Christian leaders there and not cause any significant problems. When he took the colleague into the Temple, however, he caused a riot and was arrested.

  3. The way I understand Galatians is this:

    (1) In Acts James confronts Paul in his last trip to Jerusalem saying “We wrote to Gentiles that they need not bother with circumcision…NOT that Jews should stop circumcising their sons” thus recapping the Jerusalem Council. In Galatia, therefore, Peter, James, and John have taught that the JEWS who had stopped circumcising their sons that they need to keep circumcising their sons. And Paul goes ballistic about it because to him circumcision needs to stop completely for both Jews and Gentiles.

    (2) Peter, James, and John differ with Paul with respect to some sort of sacred meal. Peter will at first eat this meal with the gentiles, then stops. What is this meal? I think its the Eucharist. In the Didache the symbolism of the eucharist is:

    cup = Jesus is vine of David (i.e. Messiah)
    bread = Jesus’ teaching

    This then, is the original as taught by Peter, James, and John. When the gentiles saw it this way, Peter could eat with them. When Paul changed it to

    cup = Jesus’ blood
    bread = Jesus’ body

    Peter had to stop eating with the gentiles, and Barnabbas even takes Peter’s side.

    That’s Galatians in a nutshell.

    1. On this point about the Eucharist, Hyam Maccoby points out that Paul (who is adamant that he received his gospel by revelation not tradition) says “I received of the Lord that on the night he was betrayed he took bread…” thus showing that the Eucharist is Paul’s invention and not something that was practiced prior to him. I would modify this and say that the cannibalistic symbolism is Paul’s invention. For it is clear that the Corinthians were already eating some sort of meal, and it sounds like the one in the Didache which only begins with the Kiddush (Eucharist) of cup = Jesus is vine of David , bread = Jesus’ teaching, but continues to a larger meal, as the Didache says “and when you are full” — this is the kuriakos deipon or “Lordly supper” Paul is railing against in Corinthians 11. He wants the “Lordly supper” the big meal to be done away with, and for the symbolism of the Kiddush derived Eucharist to be changed to be cannibalistic.

        1. I tend to generally share your point of view, rey, and think your outline above is plausible. I would only add a touch of the Dead Sea Scroils, since I am convinced that they are they writings of the early “Jewish Christians.” Therefore, I think the scene concerning the meal in Antioch has something to do with the passage in the Community Rule that forbids associating with law breakers. “No member of the Community shall follow them in matters of doctrine and justice, or eat or drink anything of theirs …” (1QS 5:15-16 Vermes).

          The issue in Galatians is the necessity of keeping the law (of which kosher eating is but one element) vs. having faith in Jesus, which is what Paul admonishes Cephas for: “We have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ, and not by works of the law, because by works of the law shall no one be justified” (2:16).

          1. I don’t think we disagree as much as it seems at first. This is to say the same as what I said, but with more evidence in its favor, due to bringing in the DSS. Considering the wine in the eucharist to be Jesus’ blood can be interpreted as breaking the law for the law forbids the consumption of blood, and in addition to that, even the letters drafted to the gentile churches according to Acts 15 mention “abstain from blood” as one of the requirements for gentiles. And Galatians does have something to do with this Jerusalem council and Paul insinuates that the Antioch incident was related to the council’s decision somehow.

    2. Apparently, Luke had one extant document from the so-called Jerusalem Council, because the document was sent to Antioch, and Luke himself apparently was based in Antioch. Luke provides the document’s entire text in Acts 15:23-29. The text’s first lines indicate that the Christian leadership in Jerusalem never had questioned the status of any Gentiles who ignored any Jewish laws. Rather, this trouble had initiated recently by some non-leadership, self-initiating, trouble-making group in Jerusalem.

      This document was written several decades after the religion had originated, and so those decades had passed without anybody in the religion making an issue about circumcision. Paul simply supported the religion’s long consensus of neutrality toward circumcision. Furthermore, the document authorized Paul to speak for the Church leadership on the general subject of Gentiles ignoring Jewish laws. The leadership trusted Paul to speak on this subject, because his opinions fit comfortable within the leadership’s consensus on the subject.

      Luke created an artificial drama of disagreements between Jews and Gentiles. In his Gospel, Luke wrote that Jesus Christ descended to Earth as a divine-human being who was a Jew and who interacted mostly with Jews and who thus gave the Jews the most opportunities to observe his miracles and listen to his sermons. Therefore the Jews should have been able to confirm that Jesus had been a divine-human being who had walked around on Earth and performed miracles and preached sermons.

      In fact, however, there never had been any such Jesus Christ, and no Jews at all ever had seen such a person walking around. There were some Jews among the early Christians, but the total number of early Christians (Jews and Gentiles) was tiny, and none of them had thought that Jesus Christ walked around on Earth.

      In Luke’s time, in the middle of the Second Century, the Christian religion still was tiny and still comprised a mixture of Jews and Gentiles. Basically only a few Christians, based in Antioch, had come to the belief that Jesus Christ had walked around on Earth more than a century earlier. Those who adopted this new belief were overwhelmingly Gentile, and they were located overwhelmingly in Antioch and in Christian communities founded by missionaries who had been based in Antioch — in what is now Turkey and Greece.

      Luke’s explanation for these phenomena was that the Jews perversely had rejected overwhelming evidence that there had been a divine-human Jesus Christ on Earth (all the evidence that Luke presented in his Gospel and that Paul had almost single-handedly saved the religion by spreading it among Greek communities northwest of Antioch. According to Luke, Paul succeeded because he recognized and rejected the Jews’ perverse rejection of the overwhelming evidence about Jesus.

      Therefore Luke created an artificial drama in which Paul challenged and overcame Jewish stupidity among the original Christians. For example, Luke concocted a huge disagreement between Paul and the Jewish-Christian leadership about circumcision. There indeed were some Jewish-Christian odd-balls in Paul’s time who traveled around and claimed that an angel had descended to Earth and delivered a divine message that all male converts should be circumcised, but they were just a few odd-balls who managed to cause dissension that was largely disproportionate to their minuscule number.

      The most important concept to keep in mind is that Paul himself did not think that Jesus Christ had descended to Earth. Paul agreed with the leadership and all the other members that Jesus had descended to the Firmament. That is why Paul never wrote anything in his epistles indicating that Jesus had walked around, performed miracles, taught sermons or done anything else on Earth.

      In Paul’s time, all Christians were what we now call “gnostics” and their religion was mystic. It was almost a century later that some Christians started to believe that Jesus Christ had descended to Earth as a divine-human being.

      Luke lived in that latter time, when some Christians had not only come to a belief in an Earthly Jesus but furthermore had created a written canon (including Luke’s gospel) and spread this new belief, mostly among Greek communities northwest of Antioch. This geographic spread coincided with the area of Paul’s missionary work, but the relationship was not that Paul taught about an Earthly Jesus, but rather that people who already believed in a Firmament Jesus were more receptive to the new idea of an Earthly Jesus and generally respected Antioch’s intellectual authority. Also, the Greeks in Turkey and Greece were far enough from the Jewish homeland that they had practically no opportunity to verify skeptically and intelligently the historical claims about an Earthly Jesus that appear in the new Gospels.

      1. I think rey is right that the issue of circumcission (and all of the Torah) is not whether it applies to Gentiles but to Jews. This is why “some from James” of “the circumcission party” (2:12) make Cephas and “the rest of the Jews” separate themsleves from table fellowship with Gentiles (2:13). Barnabas may have been more inclined (or intimidated, from Paul’s point of view) to fall in line with them, This makes Paul upset because “they were not staightforward about the truth of the gospel” (2:14). Paul does not say that the issue is about eating with Gentiles or interpreting the meaning of the food or drink, but the greater issue of a perosn not being “justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ” (2:16). That is what his gospel is, and why he spends the rest of chapter 2, 3, 4, 5, really the rest of the letter, explaining how the law no longer applies to anyone.

        Paul asks the Galatians, “Who has bewitched you … Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? (3:1-2). The only people he mentions in this context are “falso brethren,” “some from James,” and “James, Cephas and John.”

        It’s a grey area where full “conversion” (to “Jamesian Judaism” or “Jewish Christianity” or whatever it was) is concerned. It may be a question of degree. Some may have expected circumcission and greater adherence to the law. In the Dead Sea Scrolls, even Jews must pass through a series of hoops over the course of years before becoming full members of the sect (1QS 5 and 6), and there was a ranking system according to a person’s spirit and deeds, as well as a “Community Council” consisting of “three” and “twelve” in 1QS 8:1. There is a similar ranking system within “Jewish Christianity,” with “apostles” (Gal. 1:19) and James, Cephas and John being called “pillars” by Paul, or “of repute” or “reputed to be something” (Gal. 2:2, 6). It’s not unreasonable to suppose that something similar existed for the Gentile “joiners” of the Dead Sea Scrolls sect (CD 4:3) and for Gentiles entering the “Jewish Christian” sect.

      2. One obvious flaw in mythicist argumentation is explaining how a Jewish Christianity even developed. If Jesus began as a myth, just some non-existent fairy who was fictitiously crucified in the sub-lunar space by evil principalities in heavenly places, who by belief in his fictitious death could save the initiate from this horrid world and the eternal hell fire that the Demiurge will subject us to after it……how did the Jewish Christianity that saw Jesus as just literally a normal worldly Messiah who wanted to overthrow Rome and become king but got himself crucified and yet would still somehow come back and finish the job of overthrowing Rome and becoming king of the Jews anyway ever develop? You can’t explain that. Why would Jews take a mystery religion like Paul’s Christianity and create from it a standard Jewish Messiah and documents like the Didache and the Pseudo-Clementines? They wouldn’t. But a man like Paul would take a movement that began with a failed worldly Messiah (who was somehow expected to come back from the dead to finish his worldly mission) and turn that into a Pagan Gnostic mystery religion. The development from Pagan Gnostic mystery religion to Torah observant Jewish sect makes no sense. The track from Torah observant Jewish sect to Pagan Gnostic mystery religion does make sense. Ergo, Mythicism is an entertaining theory, but also an impossibility.

        1. rey: “Why would Jews take a mystery religion like Paul’s Christianity and create from it a standard Jewish Messiah and documents like the Didache and the Pseudo-Clementines?”

          Presumably you need the intermediate step of the (tall-tale) canonical gospels, which fleshed out Paul’s spiritual Jesus. The Ebionites took the gospel of Matthew and further concretized Jesus and turned him into a wholly human pious prophet.

  4. John D. Turner also refers to Col. 2 in Sethian Gnosticism: A Literary History, III.A.5.

    5. The Early Sethian Baptismal Rite. The spiritualized conception of baptism as a saving ritual of enlightenment reflected in the Sethian texts must also have been current in the first century, to judge from the complex of ideas in Col 2:8-15, where circumcision (regarded as a stripping off of the body of flesh) is connected with a baptism conceived as a dying and rising, and Christ’s death is interpreted as a disarming of the principalities and powers. To judge from the Sethian baptismal mythologumena, the Sethians, wherever they derived their original rite, must have developed it in close rapprochement with Christianity. They must have sustained their initial encounter with Christianity as fellow practitioners of baptism, indeed a baptism interpreted in a very symbolic and spiritual direction. For example, the Sethian name for their Living Water, itself a conception found also in Johannine Christianity (John 4:7-15), is Yesseus Mazareus Yessedekeus, which seems very much like a version of the name of Jesus into which Christians were baptized, perhaps in a threefold way. Yet to adopt this name did not necessarily mean understanding oneself principally as a Christian, as the rather cryptic and concealed form of this name suggests. Indeed it was adopted by the redactor of the (apparently in all other respects) non-Christian Apocalypse of Adam.

  5. On the other hand a number of details point against the circumcision advocates also teaching the need for the whole law. Paul, for example, must point out to them that if they do accept circumcision they are obligated to keep the whole law. This suggests, does it not, that the whole law was not what they originally had in mind?

    1. I would explain this by Paul’s audience being a mixed audience. James and Peter had preached that Jews need to continue circumcising their sons and any males of Jewish extraction who had not been circumcised by their parents due to Paul’s teachings needed to get circumcised. Paul blows this out of proportion to fear-monger the Gentiles, suggesting that what James and Peter really want is to circumcise them, and furthermore to subjugate them to the whole law.

      That Paul is exaggerating throughout is apparent when we get to chapter 5. For there he says “Behold, I Paul say unto you, that if ye be circumcised, Christ shall profit you nothing.” In other words, circumcision = damnation. And again “For I testify again to every man that is circumcised, that he is a debtor to do the whole law.” In other words, again, circumcision = damnation, because in Paul’s theology it is not possible to “do the whole law” and to be a “debtor to do the whole law” therefore means to be damned. He also says “Christ is become of no effect unto you.” YET, he then goes on to say “in Jesus Christ neither circumcision availeth any thing, nor uncircumcision; but faith which worketh by love.”

      This proves he is fearmongering!!!! He builds up his case that circumcision damns, to scare the crap out of the Gentiles, and perhaps the Jews too (the ones whose parents hadn’t circumcised them). But then he admits that everyone he just said is full of crap because it really doesn’t matter to Jesus whether you are circumcised or not. He is just playing with their emotions. He intends to have them so worked up into a frenzy that they wont even see his concession.

  6. There was no such thing as a first-century epistle of Saint Paul to the Galatians. The best description of the opponents of fictional “Paul” is given by Hermann Detering in his work Die Gegner des Paulus im Galaterbrief. So there aree three categories:

    law-abiding Christians, most specifically the Elxaites.
    allegorizing/speculative gnostics such as Basilides and Valentinus
    nascent Roman Catholicism. Stuart Waugh specifies them more closely as adherents of the Gospel according to Saint Matthew

  7. What did I read? Gnostic jewish christians? Three things that do not go together. This man must be really confused!!! Gnosticism comes from Plato en has a different and higher god than Jahweh. Paul is a gnostic, he is against circumcision and the law, he is about faith. He starts a religion around 90 – 120. It is a mystery-religion. He is not a christian: he says chrestos, which means saviour. Paul is very obviously not a jew.
    Then there are jews in judea. THERE ARE NO CHRISTIANS. It is all fake. A jew would also never become a christian ofcourse. I don’t think Jahweh allows it. There is no jewish christianity, never has been. So who are the men from James? What about the James Paul comes from? (the brother of the Lord is a forgery). James and his organization are normal JEWS. Paul works for them, they think.
    How long is it going to take to look through the fake and forgery of the NT? Yoap.

    1. Yup. With opinions as entrenched as yours you have no need to actually read other points of view. You can’t possibly be only partially informed.

  8. No, I can’t. I have read all the other points of view. More than you know. But as an historian I did the by you highly praised “historical investigation”. I know how that works. You start with a FACT, with a date and a name. You investigate that. You find confirmation. You have a fact. This fact can be connected to another fact. Which is different than you thought. Important is to keep the whole period 1-200 in view. This is done without the NT, because like you say there are no facts there.
    If you work hard enough and are lucky you find the solution. I can’t help it that you can’t. What I gave are no opinions and certainly no dogmatism, these are confirmed facts, on which I studied hard to find them. I just wanted to help but with your incredible rude reaction, I am done. Dogmatism only matched by IGNORANCE. You are good in putting down people you don’t know because they have different ideas than you. Just like the biblical scholars. Who are you to judge? Are you more right than I am? Do you know something I don’t know? You are a blog owner and you behave like that? I am ignorant? Well I did my historical investigation which I cannot say of any of you. All the NT-scholars and most types on this blog (except the people reacting) can go on and on until judgement day (joke) with talking about the NT, and certain words in Paul, and certain lines in revelation but the answer is not there. The NT is fake, and nothing comes from Judea. There was nobody there.
    There is not even a cross. You can research everything. The Sea of Galilea did not exist, Kafarnaum did not exist, so why would Nazareth have existed? There was no living Jesus. In fact the name Iesous was invented in rome in 160. This is a fact. And Iesous is a greek name and has no connection with aramaic/hebrew. Christos/christ (spoken Grist) is also greek and decided on in 170 in rome. It does not mean anointed and certainly not messiah. I cannot find any messiah in the gospels. Jesus is certainly not a messiah. You all believe everything the church comes up with. Like I said before: THERE WAS NO CHRISTIANITY. (except in Egypt where christos was a spirit in the gnostic universe, which is totally different). There was no Jesus, so he could also not have followers. Stop believing the Acts. The Orthodox christian church (rome) started exactly in the year 200. That is also a fact. You can look it up if you don’t believe me. That is the start of christianity. Haven’t they hidden it perfectly? Think about that. I think facts are the most wonderful there is. You enter a whole new world. You can stuff your contempt and disdain somewhere where nobody sees it. Grow up.

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