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
- he is dependent upon men for the apostolate
- 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:
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.
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?
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.
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.
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)
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.”
(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.
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.
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)
TO BE CONTINUED . . . .
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.
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).
Writing also to the Galatians, he inveighs against such men as observed and defend circumcision and the (Mosaic) law. Thus runs Hebion’s heresy.
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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