Another thesis introducing a Simonion gnosis into Paul’s letters

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by Neil Godfrey

Prosper Alfaric

If you find the following mix of machine translation and my own editing horrific enough you may prefer to read the original French itself that I copy afterwards. But first, some background will help. Earlier in the article several redactions of Paul’s epistles have been postulated (credit to Turmel):

The original letters of Paul:

inspired by his faith in the forthcoming restoration of the kingdom of Israel which had been announced by Jesus and which constituted the initial substance of the Gospel.

A second redacted version had been attributed to Marcion and

corrected this messianic nationalism by the anti-Jewish gnosis of Marcion.

A third series of redactions produced the versions closer to what we have today, and

maintained the Gnostic Spiritualism of [Marcion’s edition] by dismissing or hiding its anti-Judaism.

The following passage we read a modified hypothesis:

(2) After the revolt of the Jews in 66 and their final crushing in 70, a strong current of anti-Judaism spread in the eastern part of the Roman Empire but especially in Syria. The Judeo-Christians of Jerusalem had retreated to the confines of Transjordan, where they lingered, under the name of “Nazarenes” or “Ebionites”, away from the rest of the Christianity, almost foreign to his life and evolution, so that they soon became heretics.

Antioch became the great metropolis of the Christian world. There was formed a “school of theology” which claimed Simon, the former Esmoun of the Phoenician coast, became the saviour god of the Samaritans. It repudiated the God of the Jews, considered the spirit of evil. It was said that Simon, whose name means “obedient”, had come from heaven to obey the will of the Most High and bring to men the “Gnosis”, that is, the true knowledge, that of their origin, of their nature and their end. The mind, it was said, came from God but fell because of an original fault, in the bonds of the flesh. It can recover its original purity and return to lost Paradise only by rejecting the traditional laws, especially those of the Jews, made to enslave him, and professing a docile faith in the liberating doctrine of Simon. With him, by the grace of the supreme God of whom he is sent, one is freed from sin. It is liberated from this mortal body to reach the life of the spirit by the practice of mortification, abstinence and continence.

It is a Christian transposition of this simonian gnosis offered to us in the econd redaction of Paul’s epistles. It differs singularly from the first. If it was added by a series of skilful interpolations and convenient suppressions, it was because she found there points of attachment which allowed her to benefit from the prestige of the Apostle without risking the disfavor of novelty in religion.

The original

(2) Après la révolte des Juifs en 66 et leur écrasement final en 70, un fort courant d’anti-judaïsme se répandit dans la partie orientale de l’empire romain mais surtout en Syrie. Lés Judéo-Chrétiens de Jérusalem s’étaient repliés sur les confins de la Transjordanie, où ils végétèrent, sous le nom de « Nazaréens » ou d’ « Ebionites », à l’écart du reste de la Chrétienté, presque étrangers à sa vie et à son évolution, de sorte qu’ils firent bientôt figure d’hérétiques.

Antioche devint la grande métropole du monde chrétien. Il s’y était formé une Ecole de théologie qui se réclamait de Simon, l’ancien Esmoun de la côte phénicienne, devenu le Dieu Sauveur des Samaritains. L’on y répudiait le Dieu des juifs, considéré comme le Génie du mal. On y disait que Simon, dont le ùom signifie « obéissant » était venu du ciel pour obéir à la volonté du Très-Haut et apporter aux hommes la « Gnose », c’est-à-dire la Science véritable, celle de leur origine, de leur nature et de leur fin. L’esprit, expliquait-on, est issu de Dieu mais tombé par suite d’une faute originelle, dans les liens de la chair. Il ne peut recouvrer sa pureté première et regagner le Paradis perdu qu’en rejetant les lois traditionnelles, surtout celles des juifs, faites pour l’asservir, et en professant une foi docile en la doctrine libératrice de Simon. Avec lui, par la grâce du Dieu suprême dont il est l’envoyé, on s’affranchit du péché. On se libère de ce corps mortel pour atteindre à la vie de l’esprit par la pratique de la mortification, de l’abstinence et de la continence.

C’est une transposition chrétienne de cette Gnose simonienne que nous offre la seconde rédaction des Epîtres de Paul. Elle diffère singulièrement de la première. Si elle lui a été adjointe par une série d’interpolations ingénieuses et de suppressions opportunes, c’est qu’elle y trouvait des points d’attache qui lui permettaient de bénéficier du prestige de l’Apôtre sans risquer la défaveur qui s’attache aux nouveautés en matière de religion.

Alfaric, Prosper. 1956. “Les Epitres de Paul.” Bulletin Du Cercle Ernest Renan 35 (April). p. 4

Please note, though, that I present the above as a summary of an idea that has connections with others that have been presented on this blog, especially though Roger Parvus’s posts — in the last of which he finds himself leaning towards a historical Jesus at the root of it all. As for my own views they are far from decided. There is simply so much material I have yet to consider and think through.

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13 thoughts on “Another thesis introducing a Simonion gnosis into Paul’s letters”

  1. Other works by Alfaric:

    Alfaric, Prosper (2005). Jésus a-t-il existé?: et autres textes (in French). CODA. ISBN 978-2-84967-022-4. “A collection of his texts.”

    Publisher: “It is not Christ who founded Christianity. It is rather Christianity that has gradually developed the figure of Christ. Prosper Alfaric (1876-1955) examines in this work with erudition the historical aspect of the founding myths of Christianity. It was at the suggestion of Michel Onfray, who for the occasion wrote an unpublished preface, that we have gathered these texts.”
    Jésus-Christ a-t-il existé? (1932)
    Comment s’est formé le mythe du Christ? (1947)
    Le problème de Jésus (1954)
    • also publications per Bulletin du Cercle Ernest-Renan and Publications de l’Union Rationaliste

  2. This is what gets me about the whole “historical Jesus” discussion based on the supposed writings of Paul. We know they were edited, compiled, changed, and added on to. And yet, the best historical evidence for the historicity of their central charachter is a few vague references that are really out of charachter with the rest of the work. If you really think about it, it becomes ridiculous.

    1. Yes of course. At this point, the two “most solid” pieces of evidence that establish the humanity of Jesus are “Q” and a couple of phrases from Paul’s letters, oh and maybe the Testimonium Flavianum. This seriously is what you’ll hear from many so-called critical scholars. Dennis MacDonald is a good example of this. So basically we have an imaginary document, some corrupted texts that are vague and open to interpretation, and an obvious interpolation/forgery.

      But as for this specific topic, I’m still a bit dubious regarding those who claim to be able to decipher out “layers” or redactors of the Pauline letters. That redaction happened is certain, but yet I find all those experts who claim to be able to identify certain authors based on style, etc. and various layers, etc. to be generally overreaching. The same goes with all those people claiming to identify various layers of Q. And all these same people have failed to see Mark’s use of Paul’s letters or even various OT references.

      So I am not quite certain what to think about such studies. Yes, the letters of Paul are certainly redacted. Can we ever really sort it all out? I doubt it.

      1. A clunky machine translation of another part of that same Alfaric article:

        Read, in the Epistle to the Galatians, the fragment of autobiography where Paul tells, quivering, his quarrel with Peter at Antioch (II, 11-14) and theological dissertation which abruptly interrupts the outburst and which is reduced to a tedious sequel of abstractions. It is really not possible for such discordant texts to be in the same hand.

        1. There is certainly something going on in Galatians. I agree that Gal 2:1-14 seems to be a continuous segment, that Gal 2:15-21 seems to be a commentary on Gal 2:1-14, and that Gal 3 seems to be from a separate text altogether.

          But this doesn’t necessarily lead to the conclusion that this wasn’t all written by one person. It could be that Galatians as we have it was redacted by Paul himself. It could be that Paul took his memoirs and used them as the bases for this longer letter. I’m just saying, the supposition that the letters of Paul are the product of multiple sources that were redacted together by a different scribe sounds a lot like claim about the Gospels having been produced by scribes who worked from multiple lost sources.

          It could be true, but I don’t think it’s sufficiently proven at this point.

          Gal 3 certainly seems to come out of nowhere.

          But I think a lot of this goes back to the question of where the proposed original Pauline material would have come from.

          Let’s assume there is some original material, whoever wrote it. What was the purpose of that material, how was it recorded, how was it transmitted, why and how was it preserved?

          Let’s first assume that the original material does come from letters of correspondence. Much of the material does indeed have the character of correspondence. If Paul himself retained copies of such letters, then he would had to have made two copies himself, kept one and then sent the other. Without knowing enough about this to really draw a conclusion, my first reaction to such a proposal is that it sounds unlikely. Maybe that was a common practice back then, I’m not sure. It doesn’t seem likely though and I haven’t heard of such a practice. If that was a known practice then perhaps “Paul” himself was the source of the original collection.

          The other option is that Paul wrote some letters to the Galatians (and various other groups) and that the recipients made copies.

          But now look at this. If we are to account for the collected works of Paul along these line it would mean that Paul wrote various letters to these various groups, let’s say many small notes. These notes were collected and preserved by the various communities independently. Those various notes were then copied and re-collected by a group of redactors. Those redactors then stitched the notes together and added various digressions when combining the notes to further expound on the lessons they derived from the notes.

          Yikes, even that sounds pretty far fetched.

          So this gets me back to Paul himself. What if these are all from a journal written by “Paul” that Paul never actually sent, and he then later redacted himself into longer documents as a sort of final memoir?

          I don’t know. Honesty, the more I try to figure out the “letters of Paul” the more confusing it gets. The epistles certainly contain passage that appear to be best explained as genuine correspondence to groups of people that the writer has an relationship with. That’s point one. I do believe that these writings contain at least fragments of genuine correspondence. How we get from letters of correspondence to a collection of semi-canonical writings I have never seen a coherent explanation of.

          That the epistles are “pure fabrications” also doesn’t make sense to me, because their material doesn’t seem like what would be produced for such a purpose. In that case I’m trying to imagine the epistles having been produced in a format kind of like the dialogues of Plato, as a sort of one-sided dialog. But I’ve never seen one-sided dialogs, so that doesn’t seem likely either.

          I don’t know. I guess my point is, I’ve not seen any explanation of the letters of Paul that seems satisfactory.

          1. That the epistles are “pure fabrications” also doesn’t make sense to me, because their material doesn’t seem like what would be produced for such a purpose.

            Yet earlier critics certainly saw in Paul’s letters themes relevant to second century theological disputes.

          2. The other option is that Paul wrote some letters to the Galatians (and various other groups) and that the recipients made copies.

            No reason to assume any of the original Pauline material was addressed to communities in Galatia, who quite possibly didn’t even exist in Paul’s day.

            The 2nd Century disputes addressed in Galatians were not confined to a single geographic location. The named recipient church is merely a ruse to convey authenticity, thus authority to the polemic.

          3. If the Catholic Encyclopedia is accurate that Marcion was the son of a bishop, then the bishop was not an orthodox Christian because that hadn’t coalesced yet. I say that they were the ancestors of the Hypsistarians, a local para Judean/Samaritan sect of the Pontus area. One can assume that this ethnic group had been evangelized by believers in the Judean/Samaritan bible (I think most likely the Samaritans). Marcion began with their god, and derived a different god from the Letters of Paul?

            Where did the letters of Paul come from? The simplest explanation seems to me is that Marcion’s father wrote them. He kept copies. Or he collected letters that other bishops had written or received, and found wise and useful. Or Marcion himself, having decided that work by this “Paul” was worth seeking out, asked other congregations of his ethnic group if they had any letters by “Paul.” As Marcion was wealthy, he could afford to take the time to obtain these letters.

            Then Marcion edited them and perhaps wrote his own. Again, he had learned how to do this from observing his father preparing texts for reading to his congregation.

            The orthodox found Marcion’s versions of these letters valuable. Why? Notice most of the second-century orthodox activity is around Ephesus, where one would expect to find–Hypsistarians. I think the orthodox felt that a revised version of Marcion’s letters would help them hold onto their Hypsistarian god-fearers. It was a local solution to a local problem, initially.

    2. • Even Paul prima facie is problematic.

      Randall, John H. (1970). Hellenistic Ways of Deliverance and the Making of the Christian Synthesis. Columbia University Press. ISBN 9780231033275.

      Christianity, at the hands of Paul, became a mystical system of redemption, much like the cult of Isis, and the other sacramental or mystery religions of the day. —(p. 154)

      Mack, Burton L. (1988). “The Congregations of the Christ”. A Myth of Innocence: Mark and Christian Origins. Fortress Press. ISBN 978-0-8006-2549-8.

      Paul was converted to a Hellenized form of some Jesus movement that had already developed into a Christ cult. […] Thus his letters serve as documentation for the Christ cult as well. —(p. 198)

      1. Dionysos by Richard Seaford:

        Paul was a hellenised Jew from Tarsus, which according to Strabo(14.5.13), an older contemporary of Paul, was a flourishing centre of Greek education. Paul spread Christianity to the Greeks, and wrote very competent Greek. Tarsus has not been much excavated, but surely contained a cult of Dionysos. A first century
        Discription from Seleucia ad Calycadnum, about eighty miles west of Tarsus, attests the presence there of Dionysiac mystery-cult.

        The Pauline letters sometimes contain clusters of terms or ideas that suggest the influence, direct or indirect, of mystery-cult. One instance is the words ‘for now we see through a glass darkly, but then we shall see face to face’ (1 Corinthians 13.12). What the Greek says is, in modern English, ‘through a mirror in a riddle’. The image owes something to the Old Testament (Numbers 12.8), but this is not enough to explain it. In mystery-cult the transition from the phase of ignorant anxiety to the phase of joyful knowledge might be effected by the use, in the first phase, of riddling language and of the mirror, both of which gave an obscure image of what was subsequently revealed (ancient mirrors were much obscurer than modern). I have mentioned the use of the mirror in Dionysiac mysteries both in the Villa of the Mysteries at Pompeii and (along with the use of riddling language) in Bacchae(Chapter 5). Paul is here imagining eschatological transition in terms taken from the transition (itself embodying a kind of death) from ignorance to knowledge in mystery-cult. Paul in his letters also proclaims a doctrine of baptism ‘into the death’ of Jesus Christ, of burial with him (through baptism), and of resurrection associated with his resurrection (Romans 6.3–6; also e.g.Romans 8.11; Galatians 2.20; 3.26–7).
        This doctrine is to be found neither in the Gospels nor in Judaic religion. It has been suggested that it is influenced by one or more of the forms taken by mystery-cult, whether performed for Greek deities such as Dionysos or Demeter or for deities originating from outside the Greek world such as Isis and Attis.

        A huge amount of scholarship has been devoted to this controversial issue over many years, and I do not intend to enter the controversy here. Suffice it to say that although we know of no mystery-cult that reproduces exactly the same configuration as the Pauline doctrine, we do find in mystery-cult the ideas of the death and rebirth of the initiand (e.g. Apuleius Metamorphoses 11.21), of the sufferings of the deity (e.g. Athenagoras Supplication 32.1), of the identification of initiand with deity, and of the initiands’ (transition to) salvation depending on their finding – or the return to life of – a deity (e.g. Lactantius Divine Institutions 18.7; Firmicus Maternus
        On the Error of Profane Religions 2.9; 22.1–3). As for Dionysos, the gold leaves (Chapter 5) preserve the mystic formulae ‘Hail you who have suffered what you had never suffered before. You became a god instead of a human,’ and ‘now you died and now you came into being, thrice blessed one, on this day. Tell Persephone that Bakchios himself freed you.’ And the mystic myth of the dismemberment of Dionysos and his restoration to life was probably associated with a similar transition for the initiand in the mystic ritual (Chapters 5 and 8).

  3. son surely refers to ‘its’ (Christianity’s) evolution, not ‘his’; the feminine la Chrétienté receiving the pronoun sa before vie, but declined to son before the vowel at the start of évolution.

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