The Gnostic Paul – Gnostic Exegesis of the Pauline Letters by Elaine Pagels
Trinity Press International
Book Review by Robert Tulip
Elaine Pagels, Professor of Religion at Princeton University, has been a student of Gnostic heresy for some forty years. I read her book The Gnostic Gospels in 1980, and on reflection now consider it the single book that most influenced my own thought by opening me to think about the clash between knowledge and belief in religion. So it was with great pleasure that I recently found and read her 1975 book The Gnostic Paul, a brilliant scholarly analysis of the conflict in the early church over the teachings and writings of Saint Paul.
Pagels explains how Valentinus and other Gnostic theologians read Paul as speaking at two levels. The Gnostics say that Paul’s letters distinguish between a secret spiritual or ‘pneumatic’ level of teaching aimed at initiates and a popular simplified ‘psychic’ version for ignorant newcomers. As in other mystery philosophies who provided esoteric spoken instruction within their schools and exoteric written material for the general public, the Gnostics claimed that Paul had secret teachings that are explained in code in his public writings such as the letters to the churches in Rome and Corinth.
For example, Gnostics said Paul’s teaching of the resurrection of the dead was code for how a person grows from psychic ignorance to pneumatic spiritual knowledge. The ‘psychic’ learners are ‘resurrected’ as they learn the secret mystical teaching of the cosmic Christ. The orthodox church rejected such Gnostic readings as heresy, arguing instead that all the seemingly impossible miracles of Christianity are literal historical fact, and that doctrinal belief is sufficient for salvation of the soul. The irony in reading this material now is that the Gnostics seem far more enlightened and wise than the Bishops, who just seem to be crass political schemers.
In the conclusion to The Gnostic Paul, Pagels describes the conflict between Gnostic and orthodox Christianity in clear terms. For orthodox theologians such as Bishop Irenaeus of Lyon, basic patterns of Valentinian exegesis presented a danger to their efforts to unite Christian communities. Irenaeus considered that the Gnostic heretics had split the church into factions, encouraged arrogance among initiates, incited confusion and controversy by disturbing the faith of simple believers, and called the authority of church leaders into question. At the end of the day, there were far more pious believers than Gnostic initiates, so the political numbers meant that Gnosticism was doomed to defeat.
The orthodox critique of heresy arose from the practical problem that allowing doctrinal debate produces institutional schism when opponents cannot agree. Of course, this political agenda of church unity was cloaked in claims about spiritual truth, but the dogmatic tradition that sees orthodoxy as on the side of the angels ignores the Gnostic reading of Saint Paul. Pagels observes (p1) that Gnostic writers claim Paul’s letters as a primary source of Gnostic theology and revere him as a Gnostic initiate. The church sought to wipe this idea from the face of the earth, but ancient texts discovered at Nag Hammadi in Egypt in 1945 help to tell the Gnostic side of the story.
My own view on early Christianity is that the Gnostics had a secret cosmic faith in which the observation of precession of the equinox, known in astronomy as the Great Year, provided an enframing mythic structure. We see this theme emerging in numerous Biblical texts, including all the discussions of the end of the age, many of the parables and miracles of Christ, the symbolism of Revelation, and the cosmology of Saint Paul. Because this stellar vision was unacceptable to Jewish culture, the Gnostics spoke of it only in code, embedding it throughout the main texts of the New Testament.
For those whose knowledge of Saint Paul comes only through the church, Pagels is an eye-opener. Although Pagels is careful to choose her words to avoid possible accusations of heresy, and does not explore the role of the stars in the mystery traditions or the basic question of whether Jesus Christ was historical or myth, The Gnostic Paul is an immensely valuable building block in reconstructing the fragments of the coherent Gnostic vision of salvation. Seeing the story of Christ as an authentic myth of cosmic mediation, we can see that this integral story of human spirituality was appropriated by stupid fools in the orthodox church who nonetheless had an excellent ability to spin a convincing narrative that would be attractive to public opinion over thousands of years. The general sense of guilt and spiritual emptiness produced by the Roman conquest of the Mediterranean region paved the way for the rise of Christianity, in which secret wisdom teachings were twisted to serve secular power. Orthodox Christian faith met the emotional needs of the general public, and its intellectual vacuity only really became a problem in modern times as logical thinkers pointed out that Christian doctrine is absurd and unhistorical. Study of the Gnostics helps to untangle the web of deception that was woven by the Church Fathers.
The Gnostic Paul has chapters on the main letters by Paul – Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians and Galatians – and the Pauline letters Ephesians, Colossians, Hebrews and Philippians. Pagels provides close textual analysis of the conflicting readings made by the Gnostics and the Orthodox. She does not discuss the pastoral letters as these were late pieces by the Peter faction that had by then taken control. My impression is that some claims in the pastoral letters Titus and Timothy, and also in letters of John and Peter, bear a similar relation to the early work of Saint Paul as Stalin’s Principles of Leninism bears to Marx’s Das Kapital, primarily serving the propaganda interests of a clique rather than developing a general theory. I mention this comparison not out of sympathy for Marx, but to illustrate how the method of corrupt appropriation and censorship of visionary ideas was borrowed by the Communists from the Roman Catholic Church, turning a messianic vision into a hierarchical organisation.
See alsohttp://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Gnostic_Paulhttp://theologytoday.ptsem.edu/jul1976/ ... eview9.htm