In part one of this series, I spoke about the Jesus that Paul preached. I gave five or six reasons and presented more than a few scriptures to justify that Paul’s Jesus was in fact a mythical Christ that served as a model for deeper revelation. Today’s post will continue unveiling some of Paul’s sayings that point to Gnostic principles. This is important ground work and hopefully it will open many doors of understanding for us when we get into how and why the institutionalized church developed (It’s not all about Constantine).
In this post we’ll also unveil the biggest proof text used by traditionalist to state Paul believed in a historical Jesus. Many traditionalist believe that this proof text closes the debate down for good, but I believe they are sorely mistaken (respectfully, of course :)).
Before we break down some of Paul’s statements, we must make a few pertinent points about Gnosticism.
How the Gnostics Classified People
The Gnostics designated people into three groups: the pneumatics, the psychics, and the hylics. Let’s take a brief look at each of these designations:
The pneumatics were considered the highest order of spiritual humans who had realized gnosis, a personal, experiential knowledge allowing them to transcend the material world. Pneumatics had received the direct revelation of Jesus Christ, the inner truth, or divine spark of Sophia (wisdom). The emphasis on the pneumatic was an inner truth that couldn’t be received from any man, which birthed the higher nature in man.
(Keep this in mind as you remember Paul’s gospel which was received by the direct revelation of Christ rather than flesh and blood!).
The psychics were the middle order of humans who had potential, but had not yet reached gnosis. These people still believed that the scripture was literal. They emphasized a literal resurrection of a literal Jesus who also allowed for the bodily resurrection of the saints. The Gnostics found these beliefs absurd, and believed in a resurrection not at some future date, but in this earthly life.
The Gnostic pneumatics often worshiped side by side with these individuals, but then often met in secret to discuss the higher mysteries of spirituality outside of the more institutionalized church. (It is important to note that the institutionalization of the church was a process that took a few centuries, which we shall discuss more in this series later).
This class of person was considered by Gnostics to have no interest in developing the higher nature, basically a heathen, never being able to obtain the seed (in that life) that would develop the soul from the lower animal nature to the higher.
A brief note about Valentinus
Valentinus began the biggest Gnostic movement of the 2nd century, and was perhaps the most well-known Gnostic of all time. His teacher, Theudas, claimed to have been a direct disciple of Paul. This is plausible since Valentinus was born 100 A.D., a mere 40-45 years from the date that Paul wrote his epistles. Valentinus was known, even by his most fierce opponents (the literalists), as a “brilliant” and “eloquent” man.
Remember the three spiritual classifications (pneumatic, psychic, and hylic) the Gnostics assigned to man? Valentinus taught his disciples that Paul’s epistles instructed on two levels: the pneumatic and the psychic. In other words, a literal and spiritual level. But do not be confused. Valentinus would have also said that Paul used a literal interpretation of scriptures only to help develop the higher nature of man, hoping that they would one day move from a psychic understanding (literal interpretation) to a pneumatic understanding (gnosis, the direct revelation of Christ). For Paul, at least according to Valentinus, the literal interpretation was of no real value in the end. It only served as a foundation with which to begin spiritual training.
Valentinus would have also claimed that Paul did with his disciples just as Jesus did. Remember that Jesus told the disciples it was given to them to know the mysteries (gnosis?) of the kingdom, but to the multitude (the psychics?) he taught in parables. In like fashion, Paul makes many scriptural claims that seem to point to the same line of reasoning. Could Paul indeed have tried to pull the psychics up by their bootstraps and initiate them into the higher mysteries, possibly being his main mission to the gentiles? To answer this question, let’s look at some important and controversial New Testament scriptures.
Paul’s method and Christ
Let’s begin with Hebrews and Corinthians. I will admit that my overall argument has one weakness as it pertains to Hebrews. Did Paul really write it? Most literalist say he did, and on this point I must concur. In an early codex (late second century) Hebrews was assigned to Paul immediately following the epistle to the Romans. The Church of Rome later disputed Paul’s authorship, which I believe was because many of Paul’s sayings in Hebrews sounded too Gnostic. At any rate, the write had Gnostic beliefs. Consider Hebrews 6:1-2:
“Therefore leaving the principles of the doctrine of Christ, let us go onto perfection; not laying again the foundation of repentance from dead works, and of faith towards God, of the doctrine of baptisms, and of laying on of hands, and of the resurrection of the dead, and of eternal judgment…” (Hebrews 6:1; 6:2).
I don’t think many traditionalists stop long enough to ponder what this verse is really saying. Notice that the author (if not Paul than certainly a Gnostic) desires to get away from doctrine. Isn’t doctrine what gives the institutionalized church and the hierarchical structure therein their authority? Why would the author, if he was a literalist, motion to leave it behind? The obvious answer is that this author also believed in a mythical Christ. Pneumatics hated doctrine. Doctrine is the literalist’s main weapon. To the Gnostic pneumatic, it serves no real purpose because it cannot impart gnosis, the direct revelation of the spiritual Christ. Notice how the author wants to leave the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead. This is important, because, according to the Gnostic, the resurrection happens while one is physically alive through a direct experiential knowledge of the spiritual Christ.
The Gnostic Gospel of Philip states this about the resurrection:
“People who say they will die first and then arise are mistaken. If they do not first receive the resurrection when they are alive, once they have died they will receive nothing.”
Whether Paul wrote that verse in Hebrews or not makes little difference when we consider his other sayings that are very similar. In comparison, Paul has stated the following in 1st Corinthians 15:50:
“I declare to you, brothers, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable.”
Think about this statement. If Paul believed in a literal resurrection of the dead, why would he say this? If flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, then a literal resurrection makes no sense. Jesus made it specifically clear to his disciples through the Gospels that he was flesh and bone, even enjoying a meal of fish! Is that the Jesus that Paul knows? It certainly isn’t the resurrection of Jesus that he preaches. On the other hand, if Paul taught a direct experiential revelation of Christ through gnosis, then the above scripture makes sense. It is a completely spiritual experience having to do with the mind and spirit, and nothing to do with the physical body.
Furthermore, in 2nd Corinthians 6:2 Paul claims that “…now is the day of salvation.” In other words, it’s not a future event that Christians should look forward to. Rather, it is an event that can be experienced now.
Returning to Hebrews 6:1-2, where the author wishes to leave doctrine behind, the author seems to be in effect saying, c’mon you psychics, let’s move to the level of a pneumatic. Paul states in Romans:
“For I am a debtor both to the Greeks, and to the barbarians; both to the wise, and the unwise” (Romans 1:14).
Is it possible that Paul is stating the wise are the pneumatics, and the unwise are the psychics? Paul seemed to have a genuine compassion for all people. I think his mission to the gentiles would make sense in this light. Let’s consider more scripture:
“And I, brethren, could not speak to you as spiritual (pneumatic?), but unto as carnal (psychic?), even as babes into Christ. I have fed you with milk, and not with meat: for hitherto you were not able to bear it. Neither are you yet now able to bear it. For ye are yet carnal…” (1 Cor. 3:1-3).
We know here that Paul is blasting the Corinthian church for being carnal. In the above scripture Paul seems to be saying that “babes in Christ” are in fact the very ones who refuse to leave behind a literal doctrine and interpretation of Christ. What is the milk? It is literal doctrine. What is the meat? It is the pneumatic revelation. Paul also says,
“But the natural man receiveth not the things of the spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him…” (1 Cor. 2:14).
In other words, the natural man, or the psychic, cannot understand the pneumatic or spiritual things of God. They seem “foolish” because they are only experienced through direct revelation, just as Paul is claimed to have on the road to Damascus. If one reads that encounter in Acts closely, it’s hard to see it any other way than Paul’s inner experience with a mystical Christ. Remember again, Paul didn’t receive his gospel from man, nor flesh and blood, nor a historical Jesus. He never met Jesus.
Romans Proof Text for Traditionalists
Now we come to the nail that the traditionalist says proves Paul was preaching a historical Jesus. The scripture reads:
“Concerning his Son Jesus Christ our Lord, which was made of the seed of David, according to the flesh; and declared to be the Son of God with power, according to the spirit of holiness, by the resurrection from the dead” (Romans 1:3-4).
At first glance the above scripture does seem to make a strong case that Paul taught a historical Christ. He mentions the seed of David and the term flesh. This is the only verse in all his epistles that strongly links Paul to a literal historical figure. But not so fast, if you are willing to believe that Valentinus was correct in saying Paul was a Gnostic. Remember that Valentinus claimed Paul taught to both the pneumatics and psychics. Elaine Pagels, in her book, The Gnostic Paul, breaks this scripture and concept down for us:
“Paul now demonstrates how he preaches the “gospel of God” in two different forms: first he proclaims the one who “came into existence of the seed of David according to the flesh,” and second, the one “designated Son of God…according to the spirit.” What does Paul mean? Does he refer first to the savior’s human lineage, and second to his relation to Yahweh, the creator? So the psychics understand Paul’s message; but the Valentinians reject such “literal” exegesis. The initiated reader learns from secret tradition that here again Paul is speaking symbolically. “David” signifies the demiurge himself—an appropriate metaphor, first in that he dominates his creatures like any petty king; and second, in that, as demiurge, he has formed and “fathered” mankind “according to the flesh.” Paul characterizes in 1:3, then, the psychic preaching of the savior “according to the flesh,” as son of the demiurge (David); but in 1:4 the pneumatic proclamation of Christ “according to the spirit” as “one designated son of God”—of the Father.” (Pg. 14).
Wow, that was a mouthful! Let’s break it down. Pagel relates to us that Paul was teaching both psychics and pneumatics in this opening to the Romans. By including verse 1:4 immediately following 1:3, Paul knew that the initiate would understand that the Jesus he was referring to was the mythical power that could be birthed within. This is why he emphasizes “according to the spirit” in 1:4.
Why would Paul tie Christ to the lineage of David in the first place? The answer is easy, and is found in Romans 1:2:
“Which he had promised afore by his prophets in the Holy Scriptures” (Romans 1:2).
Remember in our first post of this series I mentioned that Paul’s Christ was a mythical, mystical messiah rooted firmly in the Old Testament scriptures, much akin to what mystic Jews would have believed about their messiah. Paul already said the story of Abraham’s two sons was an allegory in Galatians 4:24. He is simply using the same method here to teach a deeper mystery.
I want to back up briefly to Elaine’s Pagels explanation of David being compared to the demiurge. That might have surprised some of you, unless you are already familiar with the concept of the demiurge. Before I understood more about Gnostic thought, I was appalled at such imagery. I was also appalled that Gnostics compared Yahweh of the Old Testament to the demiurge as well. But then the light bulb came on when I learned more.
How the Gnostics used the Old Testament
In his book, The Secret History of the Gnostics, Andrew Smith states:
“The only problem that the Gnostics had with the Bible as that they didn’t agree with it. Yet their disagreement led neither to a search for some other source of myth, nor to a simple rejection of God or religion, but to a creative engagement with the Hebrew myths. The Gnostics turned the Bible on its head: they made biblical heroes into tools of the evil demiurge…” (pg. 12).
I believe that first sentence by Smith is a little harsh. It’s not that the Gnostics didn’t agree with the Old Testament, it’s just that they knew it wasn’t meant to be taken literal, just as Paul confirms in Galatians chapter four. Therefore they used it accordingly to teach to the initiated. Smith has written a great book that should be read by anyone interested in Gnosticism, but I think he has missed one fundamental issue here. The Gnostics didn’t turn to other scriptures because they wholeheartedly accepted the fact that they were great spiritual tools and myths that spoke to the human psyche and soul. AND THAT WAS THEIR AUTHOR’S ORIGINAL INTENTION.
Yes, it is true that the famous Gnostic Marcion rejected the Old Testament, but I believe that’s because Marcion didn’t understand the original intention of its authors like Paul and other Gnostics did.
Who was the demiurge?
Many Christian scholars have demonized the demiurge simply because the Gnostics seemed to do the same, but that is only because Christian scholars have failed to understand who or what the demiurge, according to the Gnostics, really was.
The demiurge was not some literal lesser God of the Old Testament. The demiurge was a part of all humanity. Gaskell tells us that the demiurge is “A symbol of the Archetypal man—the self completely immersed in the matter of the lower planes—who is the World-soul and progenitor of the human race…The Higher Self, or World-soul, descending into matter, becomes perfected as the Archetypal Man from whom matter drops away. He is then the potential pattern of humanity to become actual in the perfected souls of all.”
When I was still young and inexperienced in allegorical interpretation of the Old Testament, I thought the Gnostics were doing a terrible thing to call Yahweh or King David the demiurge. But this is only because originally I thought the Gnostics were saying that the demiurge was a literal “lower” God when in fact the Gnostics believed the demiurge to be a phase necessary in the spiritual development of humanity. Yes, their language demonized him, but only according to the level that a psychic would understand him. The pneumatic would know that the demiurge was simply part of the bigger plan for spiritual development. Ah, the lightbulb goes off! The Gnostic teaching begins to make a lot of sense!
If we take all this information and combine it with the first post, we can see a more than plausible pattern that shows Paul preached the mythical Christ. As a side note, a few popular websites have claimed that Paul’s teaching can be divided into three views: the literal Christ of history, the mythical Christ, and the mystical Christ. But this is where I believe they are wrong. There is only two views, because the mythical and mystical Christ are ONE. The camp that teaches Paul can be divided into 3 categories muddies the waters too much and has little understanding of the true meaning behind the allegory and myth behind the Old Testament scriptures.
I hope these first two parts in the series helped you understand a little more about Paul’s Christ. Even if you reject that Paul’s Christ was mythical, I hope you now have a better appreciation for why anyone could make such a claim. In the next posts I am going to begin to explain why I believe the institutionalized church developed, clearly against the wishes of the earliest Christians. It was important to discuss Paul and Gnosticism because I believe I can make a very good case that traditional Christianity developed directly because of Gnostic Christianity! At any rate, modern scholarship has proven that the two theories began a fierce battle beginning in the early second century, some 60-70 years after Paul began writing his epistles. Both viewpoints claimed Paul as their hero. But as of yet the church was not institutionalized! This point is crucial as we’ll see. I believe traditional Christianity came about as a reaction to an earlier belief system.
You’re thoughts and comments are appreciated!