Mike’s Prattle

Miscellaneous

Elaine Pagels – The Gnostic Paul

Posted by Mike on July 11, 2008

I’ve read a couple of Nag Hammadi scholar Elaine Pagel’s works before, her classic “The Gnostic Gospels” and the later “The Origin of Satan.” Despite the years that have gone by since these were written, the debate still rages around the origins of Christianity. Bruce Chilton’s recent reevaluation of “The Gnostic Gospels” shows a partial refutation of the work, much of which I can’t imagine Pagels disagreeing with, given the work was written over 30 years ago. In “The Gnostic Paul” Pagels even discusses the idea that the debate over the orthodox and various Gnostic exegeses of the Pauline letters often seems to reinterpret first century ideas via the theological issues of the second century. Very few of the issues and ideas in “The Gnostic Gospels” that Chilton incisively criticizes are relevant to “The Gnostic Paul.”

Generally speaking and before the Nag Hammadi discoveries, much of what we knew about the Gnostics comes from the early Church writers like Origen and Tertullian who were dedicated to stamping out heresy. With the popularity of “The Da Vinci Code” this is an argument that seems even more heated than usual, and Chilton gets this when he says:

“Ms. Pagels is too wise to pretend that the Gnosticism of the historical sources supports the Neo-Gnostic fashions of our time that have thrived in New Age circles. Yet in “The Gnostic Gospels,” she does compare the texts to what existentialists, feminists, and environmentalists have to say. Her habit might be seen as part of the historian’s function, to use today’s language to help explain yesterday’s events and movements. But by impact if not by intent, her book has promoted the view that Gnosticism is a liberal version of Christianity, when in fact liberalism and Gnosticism are radically different phenomena.”

While it’s problematic interpreting the original Pauline letters by second and third century issues, it’s even more so when trying to understand what happened in the first century through the lenses of “The Da Vinci Code” and the idea that Gnosticism is the inverse of orthodoxy. In fact it still seems like the debate seems to exist to disprove orthodoxy, which to my mind confuses what’s a much more complex situation, the idea that there were numerous Christian groups in the second and third centuries all of which developed different, diverging theologies. Even the New Testament makes this clear, that there were groups around Peter and Paul. The Valentinians felt that there were strong disagreements between these two groups, where the orthodox, particularly via Acts, claims the disagreements were generally reconciled.

Pagels’ “The Gnostic Paul” presents what is basically theoretical (if often substantiated by other extracanonical scriptures) Valentinian exegeses on the letters that are generally considered to be written by Paul and were prized as the pivotal scriptures the Valentinians used to support their positions. The most fascinating part of this is the translation of these Pauline letters so that the Gnostic terminology remains. The word fulfillment is the original “pleroma.” The debate between the Hebrew and the Gentile is seen as an intiated metaphor discussing the psychic and the pneumatic, the soul and the spirit, the exoteric and the esoteric.

In many ways this idea of an outer church and an inner church has replayed itself over and over again through the ages. Take for example, Karl von Eckhartshausen’s “The Cloud Upon the Sanctuary,” a classic work of the “Inner Christianity” that was an inspiration for the Golden Dawn and Aleister Crowley. The idea that many are called (the psychics) but few are chosen (the pneumatics) was very much in play with the Rosicrucian documents, particularly the idea that there is a hidden meaning to the scriptures that only an enlightened group fully understood. These are powerful ideas but fairly typical of a religious response versus its detractors, no matter whether a person is orthodox or not, there’s the dominating idea that those who disagree with their beliefs are not enlightened, elect, spiritual or what have you. You can hear “you just don’t get it” all through religious history.

It’s probably quite tempting for those with anti-orthodox views to see books like this as a refutation of these views, but I’ve never read any good scholarship that doesn’t make it clear that this is not what the work is about. It’s extremely unclear from an unbiased view point to have any bearing whatsoever on which one of these young Christian groups was the “correct” one, and such a question really has no merit in these studies, after all it’s a religious and not scientific question.

But in an age where evangelism/fundamentalism via Calvinism and pre-dispensationalism is one of the most dominant modes of Christian thought, the idea of a hidden Gnostic christianity seems to be attractive (as does the idea of Mary Magdalene bringing “the Secret Gospel” to Europe), even if the idea that there was one Gnosis is at least an historical fallacy. I found that “The Gnostic Paul,” despite what is primarily the exegesis of the Valentinians and those they strongly influenced, was aware of this multiplicity of belief.

The prose I found to be quite difficult, which is something I was aware of in all the Pagels books I’ve read, particularly in that in moving from Romans to Ephesians to Hebrews, we’re continually reintroduced to the same ideas, supposedly delivered in varying metaphors that mean something a lot different to orthodoxy. Particularly when discussing Paul’s exhortation that women submit to men, the Valentinian exegesis implies it’s an initiated metaphor for the psychics/Hebrews/those under the influence of the demiurge submitting to the elect, pneumatic and initiated inner group. In fact this was the crux of the arguments the orthodox fathers had against the heretics, that by establishing an inner group within Christian groups, it naturally spread discord among the young groups, fomenting jealousy and infighting. Although it must be said, enough of this exists in orthodoxy through the ages, that forcing the Gnostics underground made little difference.

Essentially, Pagels makes a powerful case for a new interpretation of Pauline literature while not attempting at all to unseat the orthodox interpretation. Instead the implication is that there is indeed Gnostic terminology in the Pauline letters, whether Paul was speaking as one or about one. At the very least the book is successful in theorizing how at least one non-orthodox group of Christians may have seen things. Along with the work of Bart Ehrman and others, it helps add a piece of the puzzle to the emerging first century controversy over the origins of Christianity.

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