This is the second post in the series: A Simonian Origin for Christianity.
|Some argue that Paul’s theology just underwent a very rapid development.
Or that he changed his position to suit changed circumstances.
Others chalk up the inconsistency to his temperament. He was impulsive and wrote things in anger that he probably regretted later.
Or he toyed with ideas that he never seriously embraced.
Some say he just had an undisciplined mind and that we should therefore not expect logical consistency from him.
Was he even aware that his assertions were contradictory? Some scholars think so, and that love of paradox may explain his apparent unconcern for contradictions. But others think he was clueless.
. . . from the very first indications in the extant record of the existence of a collection of Pauline letters voices were raised to protest that it had been tampered with. . . .
A Reworked Collection of Simonian Letters
A major problem for Pauline interpreters has always been how to explain the inconsistency of Paul’s theology. The inconsistency shows up, especially when the letters deal with subjects about which the proto-orthodox and early gnostics had differing positions. It is particularly noticeable in passages concerning the Law.
For instance, has the Law been abolished? Or is it still valid?
You can find passages in the Paulines to support both positions.
Can anyone actually do all that the Law requires?
Again, one can find Pauline passages to support either a yes or no answer.
Was the Law given by God? Or by angels?
That depends on which Pauline passage you look at.
Was the purpose of the Law to incite man to sin and multiply transgressions? Or to lead men to life?
Again, the letters can be enlisted to support either.
Did the author of the letters think that being under the Law was something to be rightfully proud of? Or was it slavery?
All kinds of explanations have been offered to account for the zigzagging, but with nothing close to a consensus reached. There are those, for instance, who argue that Paul’s theology just underwent a very rapid development. Or that he changed his position to suit changed circumstances. Others chalk up the inconsistency to his temperament. He was impulsive and wrote things in anger that he probably regretted later. Or he toyed with ideas that he never seriously embraced. Some say he just had an undisciplined mind and that we should therefore not expect logical consistency from him. Was he even aware that his assertions were contradictory? Some scholars think so, and that love of paradox may explain his apparent unconcern for contradictions. But others think he was clueless:
[T]he thought wavers and alters with heedless freedom from one letter to another, even from chapter to chapter, without the slightest regard for logical consistency in details. His points of view and leading premises change and traverse without his perceiving it. It is no great feat to unearth contradictions, even among his leading thoughts. (William Wrede, Paul, p. 77, my italics)
Ten scholars who argue for interpolation
But there have always been scholars who solved the problem of Pauline inconsistency by questioning whether the letters were in fact the work of only one writer. And not just the Deutero-Pauline letters, but also the seven generally regarded as authentic. The inconsistencies existing right within the individual letters are such that many think it more likely that more than one writer was involved:
If the choice lies between supposing that Paul was confused and contradictory and supposing that his text has been commented upon and enlarged, I have no hesitation in choosing the second. (J.C. O’Neill, The Recovery of Paul’s Letter to the Galatians, p. 86)
Among those who put forward interpolation solutions were Allard Pierson and Samuel Naber. In their late 19th century Verisimilia they argued that the letters contain “two strata of thought which have been worked together. The one is of a sharply anti-Jewish character; the other consists of milder and more conciliatory ideas.” (Albert Schweitzer, Paul and His Interpreters, p. 124)
The antinomian parts of the letters are the earliest, while “[T]he present form of the letters is due to the fact that a later ‘Churchman’—the authors call him Paulus episcopus, and think that he may have served as the model for the Paul of Acts—worked into them the second, milder set of ideas.” (p. 124)
Another promoter of an interpolation solution was Daniel Völter. In the early 20th century he disengaged in the letters “the parts which are mainly plain and practical from those which relate to an antinomian speculative system” (Paul and His Interpreters, p. 146). Schweitzer had much good to say about Völter’s book Paulus und seine Briefe, praising it as “one of the adroitest performances in whole field of Pauline study” (p. 145). And he recognized the existence of the contrast that Völter used as his criterion:
It is not particularly difficult to separate in the letters the parts which are mainly plain and practical from those which relate to an antinomian speculative system. The resulting division between original text and interpolations has a more natural and simple air than is the case in any of the other attempts to draw the line between them (pp. 146-7).
But ultimately Schweitzer rejected Völter’s method as a dead end. For on what grounds, he asked, can one decide which of the untangled parts is original and which was added later?
Völter asserts that ‘simplicity’ is the mark of what is genuinely apostolic and Pauline. Since when? How does he know this? How, if it were just the other way round, and the strange, the abstruse, the systematic, the antinomian, the predestinarian represented the original element, and what is simple came in later! (p. 147)
I mention this because I for one would indeed turn Völter’s scenario the other way round. If Paul was Simon of Samaria, almost certainly “the strange, the abstruse, the systematic, the antinomian, the predestinarian” belonged to the original stratum.
Among other subscribers to an interpolation solution are Joseph Turmel, Alfred Loisy, L.G. Rylands, Robert M. Hawkins, Winsome Munro and, most recently, Robert M. Price.
The last named, in his excellent book The Amazing Colossal Apostle, views each Pauline letter as a patchwork quilt and, by using as a measuring rod the soteriology each literary patch exhibits, seeks to match it with the early Christian theological background it best fits. “I want to discern the most plausible Sitz-im-Leben (life context) for each” (p. 248). Thus, Price subjects the individual passages in the Pauline letters to the same kind of treatment that scholars use on Gospel passages. Using that method he reaches some conclusions with which I agree: that some parts of certain letters go back to Simon himself; and that the entire canonical ten-letter collection was padded by the proto-orthodox with new material in order to domesticate and sanitize it for their use.
But my hypothesis does differ from his in one important respect. I will cover that in my 4th post.
The First to Cry: “Interpolated!”
Recourse to an interpolation solution should not be dismissed as just an overly-convenient and lazy way to explain the Pauline zigzags. For the extant record testifies that the very earliest Pauline interpreter too was convinced that the Paulines had been interpolated. Marcion claimed that someone had woven additions into the text and that the insertions were not innocent. Someone had deliberately changed the meaning of the original text. They Judaized letters that had been written by an apostle who believed in a supreme God higher than the Creator God of the Jews.
And when we ask how Marcion came up with that idea, the extant record again provides us with a believable answer: he learned it from a Simonian.
Irenaeus says that “a certain Cerdo, originating from the Simonians, came to Rome under Hyginus… and taught that the one who was proclaimed as God by the Law and the Prophets is not the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Against Heresies, 1, 27, 1).
Thus Cerdo came from Antioch to Rome shortly before Marcion’s arrival there. Pseudo-Tertullian says that Marcion was Cerdo’s disciple and tried to prove the doctrine of his teacher. And apparently Cerdo too held that the Pauline letters had been interpolated: “Of the Apostle Paul he [Cerdo] takes neither all the letters, nor in their integrity.” (Against All Heresies, 6, 2). According to Hippolytus, “Marcion corroborated the tenet of this one [Cerdo] in the work he wrote and which he styled Antitheses.” (Refutation of All Heresies, 7, 25).
Thus from the very first indications in the extant record of the existence of a collection of Pauline letters voices were raised to protest that it had been tampered with. And that protest can be traced back to someone associated with Simonians and who was from Antioch, the city that was the base of operations both for Simon’s successor Menander, and for Menander’s disciple, Satornilus.
Now if, as I have proposed, Paul was Simon, the natural assumption would be that the early letter collection bearing Paul’s name is Simon’s too. And that would explain why the earliest protest to arise regarding the Paulines was Simonian. So it seems to me worthwhile to try to test this,
- first by taking what the proto-orthodox tell us about Simon and his followers and, based on that information, seeing if Simonian authorship of some parts of the letter collection is plausible.
- And, second, by seeing if the zigzagging in the letters can plausibly be explained as caused by proto-orthodox corrective interpolations to letters that were Simonian in origin.
I think the earliest parts of the original collection of Paulines were written between 50 CE and 130 CE by Simon of Samaria and his successor, Menander. Simonians were secretive, so the collection was likely intended for their use only. But by the early 130s some proto-orthodox Christians came to know of it and, by making certain additions and modifications, attempted to co-opt it for proto-orthodoxy.
This hypothesis can take in many of the insights of the scholars mentioned above who hold that the Paulines have suffered significant interpolation. And, importantly, it can plausibly identify the parties involved and provide a reason why the interpolations were made. The antinomian and sharply anti-Jewish stratum identified by Pierson and Naber, for example, would be the work of Simon. It is a stratum that includes many of the elements tagged by Völter as strange, abstruse, systematic, antinomian and predestinarian.
I think it can be shown that this was the original part of the letters. And that the other stratum consisting of simpler, milder and more conciliatory ideas was the superimposed work of the proto-orthodox. The reason why they interpolated those ideas into Simonian letters, I submit, was to co-opt them for proto-orthodoxy. It was part of making the new Paul someone distinct from Simon and proto-orthodox in belief.
Now, to make this case is going to be a big project. I will need to go through all the letters and show that there is a pattern to the alleged interpolations and that my hypothesis can explain that pattern. I obviously cannot undertake that project here in this overview. But I do want to give an example of the kind of analysis I am talking about. To illustrate I will discuss a passage that sits right at the beginning of the letter collection as it currently stands.
Romans 1:18 – 2:29
Many scholars view this passage as a digression. An impulsive, undisciplined Paul, they say, immediately digresses from the subject he had just introduced in 1:17: righteousness through faith. But Daniel Völter, Joseph Turmel, J.C. O’Neill, and Robert M. Price, among others, see it as an interpolation.
The passage falls into three easily discernible sections: 1:18-32; 2:1-16; and 2:17-29.
Who was God?
The first of the sections argues that immorality springs “from culpable refusal to recognize God as Creator” (O’Neill, Paul’s Letter to the Romans, p. 40):
Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse; for although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking and their senseless minds were darkened.
And because the gentiles culpably refused to recognize God as Creator, God gave them up to idolatry (Rom. 1:23 and 25), dishonorable passions (Rom. 1:26-27), and a multitude of other vices (Rom. 1:28-32).
O man, whoever you are!
The second section (Rom. 2:1-16) is addressed to “O man, whoever you are” and tells him that he cannot pass judgment on another, for he himself does the very same things referred to in the first section. And it tells this man, whoever he is, that he is wrongly expecting to escape God’s just judgment:
Do you suppose, O man, that when you judge those who do such things yet do them yourself, you will escape the judgment of God? Or do you presume upon the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience?
The passage then goes on to assert that
[O]n the day of wrath when God’s judgment will be revealed… he will render to every man according to his works… For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law that will be justified. (Rom. 2: 5, 6, and 13)
The third section of the passage (2:17-29) is addressed to Jews. It acknowledges that because they are “instructed in the Law” (2:18), they know God’s will and approve what is excellent. Since the Law is “the embodiment of knowledge and truth” (2:20), a Jew instructed in the Law is “a guide to the blind, and light to those who are in darkness, a corrector of the foolish, a teacher of children” (2:19 – 20). But they are warned that they must not only teach that Law, but also fulfill its precepts,
For circumcision is indeed of value if you obey the law, but if you break the law, your circumcision becomes uncircumcision. (Rom 2:25)
Regarding this, J.C. O’Neill notes:
This is a fine appeal to a Jew from a fellow-Jew to keep the Law which they both profess… The whole assumption of this section, as of the last, is that Jews and Gentiles can keep the Law, and can act in a manner to deserve God’s praise by obeying the commandments. There is no suggestion that righteousness is elusive… One Jew is addressing another in confidence that he can be shamed into becoming worthy of his high status, and this section is not attempting to show the utter moral bankruptcy of Judaism. (Paul’s Letter to the Romans, pp.53-54)
For O’Neill the whole of Rom. 1:18 – 2:29 should be recognized as an interpolation on grounds of vocabulary and style (p. 41), and also for reasons of content.
The passage’s “logical lameness” (p. 50) is particularly important to him. All three of its sections “are oblivious of Paul’s problems” and “their line of argument is irrelevant to his immediate purpose” (p. 53). For “Paul’s problem is that even the Jew who conscientiously keeps the Law fails in the end to attain the righteousness acceptable to God, fails to become a truly righteous man.” Of this problem, the interpolator apparently had “no inkling” (p. 53); he had “no understanding of the problem Paul is concerned with in writing to the Roman Christians. (p. 53).
But O’Neill can provide no better reason for the lame interpolation than to say it was an honest mistake. The interpolator saw the word “righteousness” in 1:17 and basically said: “Hey, I know of another tract about righteousness. Why don’t I insert it here as a supplement!”
Naturally, a later commentator could easily feel the urge to say just how much Gentiles needed to become righteous; it seemed an obvious supplement to Paul’s argument to point out that refusal to worship the Creator led to immorality. (p. 41)
The explanation I wish to put forward is that 1:18 – 2:29 was written by some later commentator on Paul. He used a verbal similarity, in writing v. 18, to make a bridge between Paul’s argument and his own. Of course, he believed that his supplement was perfectly in tune with Paul’s thought; by providing arguments to show that God’s wrath descended only on those who could have known the truth, and who acted unnaturally by their immorality, the commentator believed he was supporting the statement that God’s righteousness (i.e. his justice) was revealed in the gospel. I think, however, that he has missed the true force of Paul’s statement in v. 17. (p. 43)
Whatever the true story of how and why the interpolator first added his long excursus, there is little doubt that his motive was not to correct Paul but rather to incorporate into Paul’s epistle another old and revered document which, he thought, bore on the same problem. (p. 54)
Now O’Neill may well be right that that Rom. 1:18 – 2:29 was a pre-existing tract that was brought into the letter. Robert M. Price thinks so too. But I don’t think the reason it was brought in was just an honest mistake. My hypothesis, I maintain, can provide a better reason for its insertion. And it can make much better sense of the murky second section of the passage, the part addressed to “O man, whoever you are” (Rom. 2:1-16).
The author was targeting Jews, they claim, and got ahead of himself. What he meant to say was . . . .
But there is a better solution . . . .
O’Neill points out that the “O man” is “a stylistic device used by Stoic philosophers to enliven the argument by conjuring up an objector” (p. 49). But he and Pauline commentators in general are hard put to identify who that conjured objector is. As we saw above, he is someone who is presuming to judge the gentiles, but does the same things they do. And he knows of the judgment of God but expects to escape it. Since commentators can find no good fit, most of them bring in prematurely the Jews of section three (2:17-29). The author was targeting Jews, they claim, and got ahead of himself. What he meant to say was “O Jew, whoever you are,” and the text of the second section probably made that point more clearly but has suffered some damage in transmission.
But there is a better solution, one that can not only plausibly identify the “O man, whoever you are,” but also show how his identity ties in with section one’s condemnation of those who refuse to recognize the Creator as God, and with section three’s positive evaluation of the Jewish Law. Our mysterious objector is none other than Simon/Paul himself and Rom. 1:18 – 2:29 was an anti-Simonian tract. The interpolator has boldly placed an anti-Simonian tract right at the beginning of the letter collection at the point that Simon/Paul was starting to lay out his righteousness-through-faith doctrine.
An Anti-Simonian Tract
Reading Rom. 1:18 – 2:29 with my hypothesis in view brings the full meaning of the passage into focus. The “very same things” (Rom. 2:1) that the objector, just like the gentiles, has done is “exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshipped and served the creature rather than the Creator” (Rom. 1:25). He and his followers have failed “to honor him [the Creator] as God or give thanks to him” (Rom. 1:21). That is to say, Simon passed judgment on the gentiles but, protests the author of the tract, he really has no right to do so. For his failure to recognize the Creator as God is the very same sin the gentiles committed, the sin that led to their idolatry and immorality.
Simon’s “lie” was that the world was made by lower and ignorant angels, one of whom was the god of the Jews. “He [Simon] says that the God who made the universe is not the highest” (Pseudo-Clementine Homilies 2,22).
Who was God?
And although Simonian Christians did not worship lifeless idols, their recognition of a man, Simon, as “the Power of God that is called Great” (Acts 8:10) was, in the eyes of proto-orthodox Christians, a form of idolatry. It was the worship and service of the creature rather than the Creator (Rom. 1:25). Justin relates that “almost all the Samaritans, and a few even of other nations, worship him [Simon] and acknowledge him as the first God” (1st Apologia 26). And according to the Pseudo-Clementine Homilies “he [Simon] wished to be regarded as a certain highest power, even above the God who made the universe” (2, 22).
O man, whoever you are!
And like the “O man” addressed in Rom. 2:3, Simon knew of the judgment of God but expected to escape it:
Although he says there will be a judgment, he does not expect one (Pseudo-Clementine Homilies 2, 22, my italics).
It is fitting too, for an anti-Simonian tract, to make clear that “on the day of wrath when God’s judgment will be revealed… he will render to every man according to his works… For it is… doers of the Law that will be justified” (Rom. 2: 5, 6, and 13). Simon taught that, since certain parts of the Law were instituted by the world-making angels to enslave men, those who believe in him need not heed their precepts, for “by his grace men are saved, not by just works” (Against Heresies, 1, 23, 3). This reliance on grace is what Rom. 2:4 sees as rash presumption on the kindness of God.
Finally, the third section of the passage (Rom. 2:17-29) too makes sense as part of an anti-Simonian tract. Simon dismissed Judaism and its Law as a way of salvation. Salvation came rather through the knowledge (gnosis) he imparted (Against Heresies, 1, 23, 3), knowledge about the supreme God and the Son he had graciously sent to redeem us from the world-making angels. The author of the anti-Simonian tract in Rom. 1:18 – 2:29 counters this by saying that the Law is “the embodiment of gnosis and truth” (Rom. 2:20). And it is those who are instructed in the Law who are “a guide to the blind, and light to those who are in darkness, a corrector of the foolish, a teacher of children” (2:19 – 20).
Why the Paulines are Strangely Ambiguous
Heikki Räisänen, in his Paul and the Law, speaks for many scholars when he makes the observation that Paul’s negative statements with respect to the Law “are made problematic because other Pauline statements contradict them. Paul’s most radical conclusions about the law are thus strangely ambiguous” (p. 201). But if, as I submit, an interpolator lodged an anti-Simonian tract right in the first chapter of the first letter of a Simonian letter collection, it is inevitable that strange ambiguity should be the result.
The interpolation cannot help but color the way readers will understand the rest of the letter and the rest of the letters in the collection.
The Simonian zig— righteousness by faith—will be interpreted in light of the accompanying proto-orthodox zag—the anti-Simonian tract. I submit that throughout the letters wherever an unacceptable Simonian zig has been deemed too conspicuous, a proto-orthodox zag has been inserted to render it harmless.
But to make that case adequately will take some time. The above example illustrates how I intend to go about it. In the meantime, I am sure mainstream Pauline scholars will continue year after year to try to construct a cogent Pauline system out of Simonian zigs and proto-orthodox zags. It is wasted effort, in my opinion. They are starting out with incorrect assumptions.
In my next post I will argue that the earliest of the Deutero-Paulines—the letter to the Colossians—was written by Simon’s successor, Menander.
Latest posts by Roger Parvus (see all)
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