St. Paul and the “god of this world”

It’s amazing how so many Christians today still believe that St. Paul was an orthodox Christian. In spite of this popular perception there are many passages in the Pauline Letters which indicate that Paul was something entirely different. Today it may even be said that Paul was about as “orthodox” as Christmas or Easter. At face value both of these holidays appear to be Christian. But in reality these holidays have their origins in pagan rites which were dedicated to other gods. A similar situation exists with the theology of St. Paul. Orthodox tradition claims “Paul” for itself; but close scrutiny reveals that Paul’s doctrine was rooted in a completely foreign school of theology. Paul’s “God” was not simply the Judeo-Christian God of Christian orthodoxy.

To this day the Pauline Letters still contain elements of Paul’s unique theology and doctrine. One of the best examples can be seen in the intriguing passage in 2 Corinthians 3:6-4:4. Scholars and theologians both ancient and modern have recognized the unorthodox quality of this passage. Marcion and the Gnostic theologians all recognized this passage as evidence that the God of Moses was not identical with the Supreme Being (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 3.7.1.; Tertullian, Against Marcion, 5:11). And scholars in the 20th century believe that some form of Gnostic system is reflected in Paul’s rhetoric regarding the “god of this world” (2 Cor. 4:4). The late great Rudolph Bultmann wrote of 2 Corinthians 4:4 that “It is Gnostic language when Satan is called “the god of this world”.” (Theology of the NT., vol. 1, pg. 173).

We should also note that one of Paul’s interpreters, the author of Ephesians, seems to have understood Paul in a similar theological context. Hence the author wrote: “And you walked according to the age of this world (aion of this cosmos), according to the prince (archonta) of the power of the air…” (Eph. 2:2). Orthodox Christians typically believe that the words “age of this world” simply refer to the present world age. But the Greek text actually contains a wider scope of meaning. Ephesians 2:2 and 2 Corinthians 4:4 both share in common the word “aion” in Greek, which is translated in 2 Corinthians 4:4 as “world” and in Ephesians 2:2 as “age”. In Greek/Hellenistic culture the word “aion” can mean an age, or it can refer to the world, or the cosmos, or a god, such as Chronos/Saturn. In this context it is most plausible that “the aion of this cosmos” is merely a different form of the expression “the god of this aion.” Among the ancient Greeks the “Aion of this cosmos” would have been construed as a reference to Chronos. Both Chronos and Saturn were regarded as gods who were in charge of time. These gods were identified by the word “Aion” as a name (e.g. ). These gods were also identified with the seventh heaven and were honored on the seventh day of the week.

The rhetoric in Ephesians 2:2 implies that the author identified Satan with Chronos or Saturn. But the problem of this interpretation becomes apparent when we notice that Paul identified Satan as the “god of this aion.” In the paragraphs that follow I will present evidence to show that Paul actually identified the “god of this aion” with the Lawgiver that appeared to Moses. I will also show that Paul, and the author of Ephesians, and certain elements of Jewish tradition, all share certain ideas which the Greeks associated with Chronos: one example being the concept of time-keeping.

The scholar Richard Reitzenstein noticed a correlation between the concept of time keeping and the prayers used by Jews in the ancient Hellenistic synagogues. In these prayers the Greek-speaking Jews referred to their God as the “King of the Aion” who has taught the “learned scholars” the “times of the months” (Hellenistic Mystery-Religions, ET: J. Steely, pg.180). Thus Paul’s rhetoric in 2 Corinthians 4:4, regarding the “god of this aion”, reflected the current usage in the Hellenistic synagogues. Certainly the expressions “king of the aion” and “god of this aion” are nearly identical. If a Jew in this period can call his God the “King of the Aion” then why would he also not refer his God as “God of the Aion”? In my view Paul’s expression reflects the current Jewish usage at that time. Paul also associated the Law of Moses with the concept of time-keeping just as the Jews did – only Paul warned against observing the law of Moses and of observing “days and months and times and years” (Galatians 4:9-10, 5:4).

Overall it seems that there is a correlation between the Hellenistic Jewish prayers, Paul’s expression in 2 Cor. 4:4, and the expression in Eph. 2:2. The Jewish prayers affirm the Jewish God as “King of the Aion” whereas Paul blames the “god of this aion” for blinding Jews against the gospel (see below). In the Jewish prayers the “King of the Aion” was said to have taught the “learned scholars” the “times and the months.” Paul warned his disciples against observing the “times” and “months”. And in Ephesians 2:2 there is an apparent reference to “Aion” which can be construed as a reference to Chronos, the Aion, the god of time.

Let us now turn to the passage that holds the most compelling evidence of Paul’s foreign theology. I refer to the passage in 2 Corinthians 3:6-4:4. The key to this passage is to understand that Paul’s words reflect the Apostle’s interpretation of Exodus chapter 34. This passage contains the account of the second giving of the Law. The first tablets of the Law had been smashed when the Israelites lapsed into idolatry while Moses was still on Mt.Sinai, where he received the first set of tablets in the presence of the Lord (Ex. 32). In the second giving of the Law (Ex. 34) Moses returns to the summit of Mt.Sinai. New tablets are cut and Moses returns down the mountain after 40 days in the presence of the Lord. And when the Israelites see him they are frightened by the supernatural glow in Moses’ face which was the result of his time with the Lord. Thus when Moses gave the Lord’s commandments to the Israelites, he wore a veil over his face. The scriptures report that whenever Moses went into the presence of the Lord, he removed the veil. But when he came out to dictate to the Israelites, he wore the veil in their presence (Ex. 34:32-35).

Orthodox Christians believe that Exodus 34 reports that Moses received the Law anew from the living God after the Israelites repented from their idolatry (Ex. 32). But is this what Paul believed? Let us now see what Paul’s comments were regarding these biblical events.

In 2 Corinthians 3:7 Paul explicitly refers to the Law of Moses “written and engraved in stones” as the “ministry of death.” Right away I must point out that this statement runs counter to what Jesus told the rich young ruler in Matthew 19:16-18. The young man asked Jesus “Good Master, what good thing must I do to have eternal life?” Jesus’ answered that he must “keep the commandments” meaning, specifically, the 10 Commandments (vs. 18). Yet Paul refers to these same commandments “written in stone” as the “ministry of death.” And in Romans 3:20 Paul wrote “…by the deeds of the Law shall no flesh be justified.” And in Galatians 5:4 Paul warned gentile Christians against demands from Jewish Christians that they keep the Law: “Christ has become of no effect for you; whosoever of you are justified by the Law, ye are fallen from grace.” These passages from Paul and Matthew reflect the historic reality that there were profound disagreements among the earliest Christians. And Paul himself accused certain other Christians of preaching “another gospel” and “another Jesus” (2 Cor. 11:4). Most significant here is that Paul reflected a school which believed that the Law was an instrument of death: whereas Matthew 19 reflected a school which maintained that the Law was godly advice for a good life, and that those who obeyed the Law would inherit the Kingdom. These conflicting doctrines have deep and profound theological implications.

Getting back to our subject: we must note that in 2 Corinthians 3:7 Paul portrays Moses and the Lawgiver in a negative light. Paul states that the Law is the “ministry of death” and that Moses wore a veil so that the Israelites would not see the “fading glory.” This same charge is made again in 2 Cor. 3:12-15:

“Seeing then that we have such hope, we use great boldness of speech: And not as Moses, who put a veil over his face, so that the children of Israel could not stedfastly look upon that which was fading away. But their minds were blinded: for unto this day remaineth the same veil unremoved in the reading of the old testament; which veil is done away in Christ. But even unto this day, when Moses is read, the veil is on their heart.”

Here Paul explicitly states that Moses deceived the Israelites. He concealed the fading glory which is indicative of a lesser god: and he mislead the Israelites as to the true death oriented nature of the Law. By comparison we can see that Jesus’ words in Matthew 19:17f. are consistent with the Jewish tradition that the Law is the means to justification and immortality. Paul said the opposite. In Galatians 1:6-9 Paul expressly condemned Jewish Christians who demanded that Paul’s converts needed to keep the Law in order to be Christians. Paul answered that “in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female…” (Gal. 3:28). Paul believed that in Christ the Law was completely abolished: neither Jews nor Gentiles were obligated to keep the Law.

Paul had his own ideas about what the gospel stood for. And in 2 Corinthians 3:18 Paul writes of Jesus as appearing open faced without a veil. Paul here writes in terms of the mystery language of the Divine Vision: Those who look into the glory of Jesus’ unveiled face will be “transformed into the same image from glory to glory…” Hence those who look upon Jesus’ glorified face will be deified. (Paul’s concept of the Vision has no basis in the Old Testament but reflects instead the mystical piety of the Mystery religions of Paul’s day; Samuel Angus, Mystery Religions, pg. 135; R. Reitzenstein, ibid., pg. 89.)

In the above passage there is another break with orthodoxy. Paul evidently believes that Moses did not receive the Law through the pre-existent Jesus, or that Jesus was somehow the face of God in the Old Testament. According to Paul, the Law of Moses and the glory of the Lawgiver lead mankind away from the glory and immortality that (according to Paul) are visible and potent in the face of Jesus Christ.

Without a doubt Paul has accused Moses of leading the Israelites away from the truth. And 2 Corinthians 3 is not the only passage where Paul actually opposes Moses. Another example is in Galatians where Paul denies that circumcision was given by God, as is stated plainly in Genesis 17:1-14. In opposition to scripture, as supposedly written by Moses, Paul says that God accepted Abraham by faith alone, and that circumcision was instituted later through Moses (Gal. 3:6-9, 15-18).

Evidently Paul did not believe that Moses told the truth in his writings. Paul accused Moses of concealing the fading glory from the Israelites, and that their minds remained blind in their reading of the “old testament.” Paul’s rhetoric can be construed to mean that he did not believe that Moses shared an accurate knowledge of God. Worse, is that Paul implies that Moses misrepresented things and concealed the truth.

Paul returns to the theme of dishonesty in 2 Corinthians 4:1-2; and the ideas run parallel with the statements made in 2 Cor. 3:12-14. In 4:1 Paul writes “Therefore seeing we have received this ministry, we fail not. But have renounced the hidden things of shame, not walking in craftliness, nor handling the word of God deceitfully…”

Certainly the words of Paul above are directed back at his adversaries among the Jews and Jewish Christians, and the priority they placed on Moses. Paul is probably answering a charge from them that he keeps impious secrets (Elaine Pagels, Gnostic Paul, pg. 97). Certainly it is true that Paul wrote of the “hidden wisdom” that is spoken of only among the “perfect” (initiates); and that the “natural man” cannot comprehend spiritual wisdom (1 Cor. 2:6-7, 12-14). Paul explains that spiritual wisdom is “foolishness” to the natural man. Spiritual wisdom is of course the knowledge of salvation. To display that wisdom to the uninitiated is to risk their damnation in that they might blaspheme and reject the truth before they can understand it (1 Cor. 2:12-14).

Certainly this is the logic behind Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 4:3-4,

“If our gospel is veiled, it is so for those who are perishing: In whom the god of this aion has blinded the minds of them which believe not, lest the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God, should shine unto them.”

Paul’s statements here are a natural extension and parallel of what he wrote regarding the Law of Moses and the Lawgiver in the preceding passages. Moses is the image of the Lawgiver who is the lesser god, viz. the god of this aion. Moses concealed the fading glory of this god, and dictated the Law to the Israelites. The Israelites were blinded by Moses’ veil and they were led into believing that the Law is the path to life. Through this blindness they rejected Paul’s gospel and his doctrine that the Law is the “ministry of death.” Paul presents Jesus as the image of the supreme God, who reveals the life giving glory of God in his open face. The god of this aion seeks to prevent the Israelites from beholding the glory of Christ.

Without a doubt Paul is identifying the Lawgiver with the “god of this aion.” Obviously Paul’s God was not simply the “God of the Bible” as so many Christians presume today. If Paul’s God was not the biblical Lawgiver then who, exactly, was the God behind Paul’s theology? This is the greatest Mystery concealed in the letters of Paul. –jw

By James M. West. Copyright © October 1, 2007; revised June 26, 2014.

All Rights Reserved.

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