Tag Archives: Gnosticism

The Circumcising Gnostic Opponents of Paul in Galatia

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.) read more »

Paul’s Gnostic heritage & Gnostic opposition

Continuing from my last post — and in particular responding to the earlier commenters — here are some more shorthand notes from Walter Schmithals. Schmithals argues that Paul has a very Gnostic view of his apostleship in that for him an apostle is one who has a direct revelatory/visionary calling by God or Christ. In this he insists he is no different from those who were apostles before him, such as James the Lord’s brother, Peter/Cephas and John.

But there are other ways in which Paul separates himself from other Gnostic apostles who are apparently opposed to both Paul and the Jerusalem pillars.

In 2 Corinthians we read of

the demands which the Gnostic apostles in Corinth make upon Paul if they are to recognize him on an equal basis as an apostle, 44 . . . (p. 30 Paul & the Gnostics) read more »

The two-edged sword of Christian allegorizing

What if a second century attempt to allegorize the Christian holy books had succeeded in the way early Christians allegorized the Jewish scriptures? read more »

A gnostic mind game with Paul and Mark

Elaine Pagel’s The Gnostic Paul cites the many gnostic interpretations of Paul’s letters. The point is well made that our interpretation of Paul is inherited from the founders of the orthodox church today. Yet this interpretation was not so universal in the second century. Irenaeus took issue with the gnostics for claiming to have secret traditions that they claimed had been handed down from Paul in order to explain the spiritual (“pneumatic”) understanding of his letters. read more »

Gospel of Mark — modern meets gnostic interpretation?

The Gospel of Mark is a parable or largely allegorical according to scholars such as Kelber, Tolbert, Weeden, and others Thus Galilee and Jerusalem have theological meanings, the former representing the Kingdom of God and the latter, opposition to that kingdom. The twelve disciples led by Peter are the seed found in rocky soil that sprouts quickly with promise but just as quickly whithers into failure. And so forth.

Such modern interpretations of Mark sit in remarkably close conjunction with the (second century) Valentinian allegorical interpretations of Paul’s letters as explained by Elaine Pagels in her The Gnostic Paul: Gnostic Exegesis of the Pauline Letters. And is it significant that the Gospel of Mark is sometimes argued to be embedded in Pauline theology? read more »

Gospel of Mark and Gnostic Gospels compared. 1

As I continue to read Majella Franzmann’s Jesus in the Nag Hammadi Writings it is interesting to reflect how the distinctive themes of the gnostic texts overlap with themes of the strongest interest among scholars of the Gospel of Mark.

Markan scholarship is signposted by such studies as Wrede’s The Messianic Secret and Weeden’s Mark: Traditions in Conflict, as well as discussions around the gospel’s apparent adoptionist Christology. Wrede’s work attempts to explain why Jesus’ spiritual identity was to be kept secret and Weeden’s book looks at an explanation for the disciples being incapable of understanding their teacher. Kelber’s The Oral and the Written Gospel also argues that the whole of Mark was written as a grand parable.

These studies unexpectedly continue to echo in my head as I read Franzmann’s study. So the Jesus of among authors of the Nag Hammadi texts was:

  1. essentially a being whose true identity was not meant to be recognized when he appeared on earth;
  2. essentially a being who was meant to be incomprehensible;
  3. who gave secret teachings to his disciples;
  4. in a dramatic moment of illumination one disciple alone (whether Thomas, James, Mary Magdalene, Judas, Peter, Paul) does “see” him for who he is — although in the Gospel of Mark Peter’s “insight” proves to be a false one and it is the reader — “let the reader understand” — who is the real recipient of the divine revelation;
  5. essentially a being who originated in heaven whether he also had real human parents (both father and mother) or not (in some texts he did in others he didn’t);
  6. essentially a being whose appearance on earth was marked by events that were forordained or patterned in heaven;
  7. Blindness and nakedness are symbolic of inability to comprehend the spiritual and sinfulness.

I look forward to continuing this book and then the opportunity to write up more comprehensive notes, perhaps a grid, highlighting the prominent features of this “other Jesus”. I do not mean to imply that the author of Mark’s gospel borrowed or adapted his ideas from the gnostics responsible for these texts. No doubt orthodoxy and the simple fact that the originals of the Nag Hammadi texts are dated no earlier than the mid second century would make this impossible. But then I have yet to see any external evidence for the appearance of our canonical gospels that establishes a date much earlier. Ditto for the Pauline canon. And in that Pauline canon we read that that author was at odds with Christianities extolling “other Jesus’s” and “other gospels”. But these are just first-thoughts off the top of my head as I read through Franzmann. No doubt I will have time to reflect more deeply on all the evidence over the coming weeks. But I do find interesting the fact that the author of Mark’s gospel would not appear to be unaware of the sorts of concepts we also find among the Nag Hammadi texts. Or did those gnostic authors really allegorize Mark and a “historical” person with such unprecedented verve?


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