St. Paul and the Apostolic Tradition III

(Sub-title: The Hebrew and Hellenist churches; and the hidden origins of Gnostic Christianity)

It is difficult to know for sure just how much of the book of Acts can be regarded as a trustworthy historical record. Certainly Acts provides a distorted picture of Paul, as I have shown in part I of this series. What else is distorted or wrong in Acts? It may be tempting at this point to completely discard this text as unreliable and biased. But to do so is to throw away what is undoubtedly one of the earliest attempts at compiling a history of the early church. I believe it is a mistake to presume that there are no elements of historic truth in the text. And indeed the book of Acts contains some subtle paradoxes which indicates that this account is the product of someone’s effort create harmony out of a history that was filled with conflict [1]. An important clue in this is that Acts attributes ideas to some of its characters which do not fit the “orthodox” theology that this book supposedly represents. This presence of unorthodox elements in turn implies that the theology of the earliest Christians was not as unified and harmonious as the “orthodox” historians would have us believe. In this article we will examine some of these unorthodox elements, and we will consider the implications of this material as this applies to the “orthodox” theory of history: which revolves around the notion that there was a single uniform theology among the earliest Christians and their leaders. Inevitably we must question whether the book of Acts itself can really support this thesis.

An example of unorthodox material in Acts appears in the account of St. Stephen’s speech and martyrdom (Acts 7:1–57). Stephen’s remarks regarding the Law and the angels resemble certain Hellenistic Jewish ideas of the day as found in the writings of Paul, Philo, and other Hellenistic Jewish sources [2]. Among Hellenistic Jews of this time period there was a tendency to regard God—in line with Greek philosophy—as a transcendent Being far removed from the world; and that the various acts of God as portrayed in scripture were to be regarded either as allegory or as the intervention of lower angels. Like Paul or Philo, Stephen also shows this same pattern of reducing the biblical God to an angelic status (see below; see also my archive article On God and Justice). Like Paul, Stephen believed that Moses had received the Law from an “angel” on Mt.Sinai, and that the “Law” was received through the “disposition of angels” (Acts 7:38, 53). These ideas are out of line with either Jewish or Catholic orthodoxy, and in this case shows that Acts preserves an early stratum of Christian thought that is inconsistent with the overall theology of Acts (cf. Acts 3:46–47, 7:48) and of the Catholics who used this book against the heretics (e.g. Irenaeus and Tertullian).

Again, “orthodox” Judeo-Christian tradition maintains that either God the Father, or His Son Jesus, appeared to the patriarchs and prophets in the Old Testament. But both Stephen and Paul can be shown to have attributed these appearances to angels and not the Son or the Father. This in itself shows that Paul and Stephen were of a different school of theology than the Catholic Fathers, and that this other theology was embraced among the earliest Christians. It is also highly ironic that while Acts contains so much disinformation about Paul, at the same time this book contains a description of Stephen’s doctrine which is actually consistent and is corroborated in Paul’s own writings. Stephen says that the Law was given through the “disposition of angels” (Acts 7:53, diatagas aggelon) and indeed Paul himself wrote in Galatians, using similar language, that the Law was “ordained by angels” (Gal. 3:19, diatageis di’ aggelon). I believe this is solid evidence that Stephen’s speech is based on an authentic source that is likewise reflected in Paul’s writings. Hence, this speech is not purely the work of the ‘historian’ who wrote Acts and the dubious history of Paul therein.

The Acts account of Stephen raises questions regarding the state of the early church’s theology. And, under closer scrutiny it seems that the Acts account may actually conceal some important differences between early Christians like James and Peter, and other such Christians like Stephen, Nicolaus and Paul. The implication here is that the early JudeanChurch was not simply one homogenous cultural or theological entity. The book of Acts contains insights which implies that the original Christian Church in Judea was divided into two distinct Jewish and Hellenist groups or factions. These insights are not obvious to the uninformed reader; but they become obvious once they are pointed out.

Our first clue appears in Acts chapter 6 where the author reveals a new detail regarding the early church: The Church at Jerusalem was already at this time comprised of two cultural groups, viz. the “Hebrews” and the “Hellenists.” And, there was some form of strife between these two groups. According to Acts the source of this strife is the murmuring among the Hellenists, who accused the Hebrews of neglecting the Hellenist group and of not tending to the needs of their widows. The “twelve” then convene the entire church and they appoint seven men from among the Hellenists to take care of the widows. The “twelve” further state in their decision that they cannot be distracted from preaching the word to “wait tables.” (Acts 6:1–6)

The notion here that the Apostles were somehow expected to “wait tables” seems implausible. The appointment of certain “deacons” to feed the widows is really a non-event and was more than likely one issue in a much larger complex of problems that divided Hebrews and Hellenists. I think the reality behind this account is that the “seven” were actually the leaders of the Hellenist group and they were recognized as such by the “twelve.” I suspect that the reason we do not find a clear statement of this in Acts is for the same reason we do not find a clear statement of Paul’s character. In both cases the interest of this historian is in smoothing over conflicts and making the early Church appear as a unified institution. (Paul’s letters alone show that this was not the case.)

The seven deacons were more than likely the leaders of the Greek-speaking Jewish Christians. Their names are as follows: Stephen, Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolaus. Some of these men are notable for the following reasons: We already know Stephen for his controversial teaching regarding the Law and the angels which resembles Gnostic doctrine. Philip is notable for his conversion of Simon Magus; who is later credited as being an instigator of heresies, and of the more exaggerated claim that Simon is the father of heresies. Nicolaus likewise was known as a father of heresy, and the book of Revelation actually assigns notoriety to Nicolaus above Simon Magus. The Catholic Fathers acknowledge the role of Nicolaus in promoting heresy; and an elaborate and blasphemous theology is attributed to him in Catholic sources (see below). To the legacy of these men we can also add the name of Paul, who was also a Hellenist and was attached to the Hellenist wing of the church. Paul’s writings also figure prominently in the legacy of heresy (2 Peter 3:15–16); and his doctrines tie into some fundamental differences between the Hebrew and Hellenist factions.

As the Acts account progresses evidence emerges which indicates that the Hellenist church had a life, ministry and theology of its own. This clue first appears with Stephen and his preaching. And it becomes obvious that Stephen was preaching a doctrine and incurring accusations, and persecution, that never involved Peter or the Twelve. (And again, Stephen’s doctrine resembles something that was preached later by Paul, and was also controversial; as may be seen in the Galatian letter.)

According to Acts Stephen was hauled in before a Jewish tribunal on a charge of blasphemy, of speaking “blasphemous words against Moses, and against God” (6:11). The author of Acts places a speech in Stephen’s mouth which, as I said above, must have been based on an authentic source. When this speech is examined closely the nature of the accusations against him become obvious; and it also becomes obvious that Peter and the Twelve were never accused in this manner; as will be shown below.

Stephen defends himself before the Jewish tribunal with a lengthy speech in which he attempts to explain his conviction that the Pharisees and Sadducees, and their forefathers, have completely misunderstood the Law and the Prophets. Stephen admits the biblical truth that God appeared to Abraham and he admits that God gave to him the rite of circumcision. However, like Paul, Stephen does not take this rite literally (see below). Stephen also admits that God sent Abraham to Canaan; and he repeats the rest of the early history in a theologically correct manner. This may be authentic, or it may be part of the general reconstruction of Stephen’s speech as attempted by the author of Acts, in which the offending elements are included. And certainly there is evidence in this regard that Stephen’s speech is comprised of both orthodox and heterodox elements.

The heterodox side of Stephen’s speech appears at three main points: 1) Against the testimony of scripture Stephen declares that Moses received the Law from an angel on Mt.Sinai (Acts 7:38, 53). 2) Stephen does not admit that God commissioned King Solomon to build the Temple (2 Sam. 7:12–14, 1 Kings 5:5). Stephen speaks of Solomon as if he disobeyed God: “But Solomon built him a temple. Howbeit the Most High dwelleth not in temples made with hands” (Acts 7:47–48). This is clearly against the testimony of scripture as cited above. 3) Stephen ridicules his accusers for engaging in a literalistic interpretation and practice of the Law: and he accuses the Jews of being “uncircumcised in both heart and ears” (Acts 7:51) thereby implying that he does not accept the literal practice of circumcision—just as Paul didn’t. Stephen’s speech concludes with the accusation that the orthodox Jewish authorities have persecuted the prophets, and have received the Law of Moses from angels, which they have failed to obey (7:52–53). With these words the Jews become enraged (v. 54) and Stephen is dragged out and executed for blasphemy.

On these three points Stephen’s speech shows a pattern that is remarkably similar to Paul as mentioned above. In part II we noticed where Paul has this practice of quoting scriptures in an inverted fashion in order to extract some other interpretation. Simon Magus is portrayed in the Clementines as engaging in a similar practice: in which Simon inverts the Old Testament in order to discover the higher God above. This practice is based on the concept of dualism: which entails the notion that all worldly forms are shadows of higher realities. One of Paul’s interpreters attributed this concept to him. Thus in Colossians we read that the rudiments of the Law “are a shadow of things to come” (Col. 2:17, cf. Heb. 10:1). An example from Paul himself can be seen with the allegory of Jerusalem in Galatians 4:26; where Paul states that the earthly Jerusalem is an earthly type of the Jerusalem above. And then there is the most remarkable statement in 2 Corinthians 4:18 where Paul says plainly that “we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen: for the things which are seen are temporal; but the things which are not seen are eternal.” (Cf. Plato, Phaedo, 79)

These types of statements are supporting evidence which may help to explain why Paul inverts the scriptures and otherwise denies the obvious. An example once again being where Paul denies that God gave the rite of circumcision to Abraham. Stephen in comparison admits that God gave this rite to Abraham, but he denies that it was a physical ordinance. What may explain this interpretation is that both Paul and Stephen inverted Genesis 17 and looked for the spiritual reality behind it. Hence God never wanted man to engage in genital mutilation, and that what God intended was a spiritual ordinance. This would also explain why Stephen and Paul attribute the Law to angels rather than God: these men believe that the outward worldly law was given by lower powers, angels, and that the Law is based on a higher, spiritual archetype that was from God. In this context Stephen and Paul only acknowledge the spiritual Law and reject the worldly, fleshly Law; and insist that no salvation can be obtained through the observance of this fleshly Law (cf. Rom. 3:20, 7:22–23). This concept would also explain why Stephen denied that God commissioned King Solomon to build the Temple. Stephen doesn’t believe that the real spiritual God would have ordered Solomon to construct a physical Temple, because the “the Most High dwelleth not in temples made with hands.” (cf. Paul in 1 Cor. 10:18–19)

These three points in Stephen’s speech indicate that Stephen subscribed to a radically different system of theology, and indeed, a whole different paradigm. The points of connection with Paul show that Stephen’s ideas were not an isolated case. The ideas shared in common by these two men indicate that their opinions represent a theological consensus that was embraced among the Hellenists. The ultimate implication in this regard is that Stephen and Paul don’t see God directly in the Bible. But, like Simon Magus, these men see the scriptures as a shadow of that perfect God above. This is why neither Paul nor Stephen could simply admit that the Law of Moses was given by God: because these men did not believe that the scriptures contained a pure revelation of God.

The question now is whether Stephen’s ideas were ever shared by Peter and the Jewish Church as reported in Acts? The fact is Peter and the Jewish Apostles were never accused of the kind of offenses that Stephen was accused of. In every situation where Peter and his companions are dragged in before the authorities the charge is preaching Jesus as the Messiah, but there was no charge of blasphemy (Acts 4:15–21, 5:17–42). The Jewish authorities were concerned that Peter, et al., were advocating Jesus as some kind of political cause: i.e. that Jesus was the Messiah who would restore Israel and drive out the Romans. There was no question of wrong theology or impiety.

According to Acts the first major persecution against the Church was the result of Stephen’s testimony before the Jewish tribunal in which he was charged and convicted of blasphemy. In Acts 8:1 we learn that Stephen’s execution was followed by a great persecution against the Church at Jerusalem, and that the church was dispersed throughout Judea; and that Paul (named Saul) participated in this persecution. A curious note is that the Apostles are reported to have been unaffected by this. According to this passage, all of the Christians were dispersed from Jerusalemexcept the Apostles. But why should the leaders remain unmolested while the rest of their followers are dispersed? Certainly the Jewish authorities would have wanted the leaders more than the followers. The best way to stop a movement is to decapitate its leadership. Yet the Apostles remained. Is the picture really that simple? Or was this persecution directed against the Hellenists only, and the Jewish Apostles and their followers were left unmolested? A further clue is offered with Saul/Paul. Saul is reported as participating in the persecution and of being a notorious leader thereof. Yet Paul reports in his own account that he was “unknown by face to the churches of Judea” (Gal. 1:22). Thus it is doubtful that Paul played the role that Acts describes; and it is doubtful that all Christians at Jerusalem were the victims of this persecution. The real target was the Hellenists, not the Hebrews; and the author of Acts admits that the Apostles were unaffected. The accusations against Stephen did not involve them, and they were never summoned before the Jewish Council to begin with.

At this point I am tempted to present and compare the case of Paul in Acts and how the pattern resembles that of Stephen. But I have already shown that the Acts account of Paul’s conversion, and his stay at Jerusalem, and the circumstances of his departure, cannot be squared with Paul’s own account in Galatians. The Acts account must be discarded as fiction. What may be gathered however is that Paul did visit the Jerusalem Church three years after his conversion, and he stayed with Peter and James for two weeks—and then departed for Cilicia. I propose that the truth behind this is that Paul did not learn his doctrine from the Apostles, but from the Hellenist wing of the Church that he once persecuted. As I have explained above, Paul’s doctrine is derived from the same doctrine that was attributed to Stephen. Paul was a member of the Hellenist faction; and he preached the doctrine of that wing of the Church. (Acts also mentions Paul as being present, and as consenting to the execution of Stephen for blasphemy. If this is true, could Paul have heard the gospel first from Stephen? —and that Paul later adopted Stephen’s faith out of guilt for what happened to him?)

I believe there is a discernable pattern in Acts in which the author has tried to smooth over the differences between the early Hebrew and Hellenist Christians. But on close examination holes begin to appear in this story. Peter’s doctrine and fate are not the same as Stephen’s. And the Acts account of Peter and Paul, and their doctrine does not hold up when compared to Galatians (see part I). If we are willing to accept the veracity of Paul then there really is no way that Peter and James accepted any ministry to uncircumcized gentiles. These guys were Jews to the end; and their Messiah was Jesus. The plausible elements in both Galatians and Acts show that Peter and James were Jewish Christians who embraced what may be described as a traditional, Judeo-Christian theology. Hence: God the Creator gave His Law to Moses and the Israelites. But the Israelites failed to obey the Law and the Israelites were punished with national catastrophes. But God also provided for the redemption of Israel. God revealed His plan through the Prophets: A chosen one or Messiah would be sent to redeem Israel and to bring all nations under God’s rule in a new age. That Messiah was Jesus of Nazareth. This is really the simplicity of the primitive Jewish Christian gospel. But it seems that the Hellenists could not maintain this simplicity without question. In Stephen’s speech we learn that there is a lot of other theological baggage as well—and this is carried over into Paul, and further on, into the theology of the Gnostics. The Gnostics also denied that the Law was given by a supreme Being or that the Old Testament was the pure revelation of that Being.

I believe the evidence shows that the theology of the Hellenists was influenced by the Greek philosophical view of God as the transcendent supreme Being. The Hellenists no longer accepted “God” in terms of the simple national war god of biblical tradition. This was why Stephen and Paul brought in the concept of angels. Inevitably the Hebrews and the Hellenists did not embrace the same theology, nor worshipped the same God. 

 

Paul, Nicolaus, Simon Magus and the legacy of heresy

On the historical record Paul, Nicolaus and Simon Magus all figure into the legacy of heresy. Anyone who has studied the Catholic Fathers knows that Paul was popular among the Gnostics. Paul’s writings are easily conducive to Gnostic thought, and Paul is not helpful in establishing any firm ‘orthodox’ standard in terms of theology, or in terms of a “tradition” passed down via Apostolic succession. As we have already seen, the Catholic Fathers can claim Paul only by disregarding the Apostle’s fundamental tenets (e.g. dualism, angels, etc.) and by twisting the meaning of his words; or by omitting words (see part I). Paul has been forced into orthodox tradition. He does not really belong there by nature [3]. The Catholic Fathers tell us that Paul obeyed the Apostles before him and that he abstained from meat sacrificed to idols. The book of Acts is quoted to support this view; but when we read Paul’s own words, his position on meats is vague at best, and Paul declared his independence from the Jewish Apostles in Galatians. If Paul received his doctrine from anyone on earth then it was from the historically murky, Hellenist wing of the early Church. Before Paul were people like Stephen (executed for blasphemy), Nicolaus and Simon Magus. In “orthodox” tradition the latter two names are connected with the spread of heresy/Gnosticism.

In the annals of Christian tradition Nicolaus has been assigned a reputation just as bad as Simon Magus. The Revelation of John implies that Nicolaus was a sectarian, and that the doctrine of the Nicolatians is something that the Lord “hates” (Rev. 2:15). This doctrine is not described in detail; but the Catholic Fathers offer some clues. Irenaeus, in this case, can confirm nothing beyond what he has learned from Acts and the Revelation of John. And the fact that he has anything further to report is only the result of his sloppy reading of the latter. Irenaeus conflates the “doctrine of Balaam” with the “doctrine of the Nicolatianes” when the text does not in fact identify the two as the same (Rev. 2:14f.; Against Heresies, 1.26.3).

The Father Hippolytus actually points the finger at Nicolaus as one of the prime instigators of the Gnostic heresies. He also confirms that Nicolaus was one of the seven deacons ordained by the Apostles (Hippolytus, Refutation., 7:24).

Next there is a text attributed to Tertullian by some, and to a certain Victorinus by others. This source also affirms that Nicolaus was appointed by the Apostles, but that he also devised a blasphemous theology that was inherited and expounded upon by the Gnostics. Here are the main points:

“A brother heretic emerged in Nicolaus. He was one of the seven deacons who were appointed in the Acts of the Apostles. He affirms that Darkness was seized by a lust, a foul lust, for the Light: out of this permixture…were born, moreover, daemons and gods and [the] spirits seven, and other things sufficiently sacrilegious… Enough it is for us that this heresy of the Nicolaitans has been condemned by the Apocalypse of the Lord…” (Against All Heresies, 1; from Tertullian or Victorinus)

Here Nicolaus was charged with inventing a theological myth: in which, before all creation there were two primeval beings Light and Darkness. Darkness lusted after and attacked the Light. From this unfortunate union emerged various gods, entities, and the seven celestial spirits which govern the cosmos. From these powers emerged the troubled world of mankind. In this myth the God of the Jews was not the supreme Deity above Darkness and Light, but was ranked instead among the seven celestial spirits; hence the blasphemous nature of this theology.

At a later time Epiphanius also confirmed that the Gnostic movement emerged from the Nicolatians and the teachings of Nicolaus; who was ordained originally by the Apostles (Panarion, 25).

In contrast with the above sources is Clement of Alexandria. Clement defends the character of Nicolaus, and claims that his followers (which includes the later Carpocratians) devised their heretical doctrines as a consequence of their misunderstanding of Nicolaus’ teaching (Stromateis, 3:4). If this is true then even this is part of a familiar pattern. The Gnostics were accused of misunderstanding Paul in a similar way. But then again, there is plenty in Paul’s writings that could be misunderstood and doesn’t represent an orthodox system anyway. And, to thicken the plot even more, the fact that Clement would even defend Nicolaus is even more significant if one is familiar with the esoteric piety of Clement himself (e.g. Stromateis, book 5). Indeed Clement shows much in common with the Gnostics. And considering his esoteric piety, one may even question whether Clement’s ‘orthodox’ theology is merely apparent. Later Catholic theologians had their doubts about him; and his status as a saint was disputed (http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/04045a.htm ).

Along side of Nicolaus is Simon Magus. In Acts 8 Simon, a sorcerer from Samaria, was converted by one of the seven Hellenist deacons, named Philip. But later Simon is rebuked by Peter because he offered to buy the Holy Spirit from him. The Canonical texts do not tell us what became of Simon after that. The book of Revelation mentions only the heretical legacy of Nicolaus, not Simon. Justin Martyr is the first to claim that Simon was the father of heresy. Irenaeus expounded on this and gave the legendary description of Simon’s system: Simon claimed to be the incarnate supreme Being. His first thought was an incarnate woman named Helene, whom Simon purchased out of a brothel in the city of Tyre. The primeval cosmology of Simon is told this way: In the beginning Simon used his “Thought” (i.e. Helene) to create angels. These angels in turn created the cosmos. At some point the angels became jealous of Helene and they took her prisoner. They molested her and then forced her into a cycle of re-incarnation among mankind—which the angels had created. Helene is said to have appeared as numerous illustrious women throughout her successive incarnations, including Helene of Troy. The supreme Being incarnated as Simon, and he finally located Helene in a brothel, in Tyre. The Simonians were a relatively small sect that worshipped Simon and Helene and believed that Simon’s teachings liberated them from the angelic rulers, and that Simon, the supreme Power, would someday destroy the world. In Simon’s system the God of the Jews, viz. the Lawgiver, was one of the angels (Against Heresies, 1.23).

Simon doctrines were in turn said to be the inspiration for the later Gnostic teachers and their schools: Menander, Cerinthus, Saturnilus, Basilides and Carpocrates. Irenaeus even established a counter-lineage of succession in opposition to the supposed ‘orthodox’ line of succession (ibid. 3.4.3 Clement Alex., Strom. 7:17). Thus, in opposition to the Catholic clergy, and the tradition it received from “Peter and Paul”, etc., there was the counter succession of Marcion, Valentinus, Carpocrates, Basilides, Saturnilus, Cerinthus, Menander and Simon (Irenaeus, ibid., 1.23ff., 2. pref.). And, I might add, Simon was in turn a member of the HellenistChurch who was converted by Philip.

It is highly doubtful or course that any of these schools actually received anything from Simon, or that they held him in any kind of esteem. To the contrary these schools were known for their belief in an Unknown God that had never been revealed to mankind, except through Jesus. The Catholic sources are also vague on exactly where Nicolaus fits into this counter-lineage. Was Nicolaus a disciple of Simon, or the reverse? Or did Nicolaus and Simon emerge separately? Or is it possible that the Simon story is mostly legend, and that the real heretical tradition emerged from Nicolaus and Paul (and Stephen)?

I think the latter scenario is the most plausible. And I think the argument can be made that Gnostic theology represents the legacy of the HellenistChurch and the teachings of Nicolaus and Paul. I think that Simon actually had less influence because the Simon myth is so outlandish. Simonianism is truly the doctrine of a small, eccentric fringe group that actually rejected Christianity. But the historical record shows that the Gnostic movement laid claim to Christianity. The Gnostic movement also had a comparatively large following, and was concerned with intelligent philosophical questions that would appeal to thinking people. The Gnostics admired Paul and recognized their own ideas in Paul’s writings. Paul was also a deep thinker; and his efforts to work out the paradoxes of the flesh and the spirit, and of the Law and the Gospel, led to ideas that were new and revolutionary.

Let us now investigate the question as to what extent the doctrines of the early Gnostic movement can be linked with Paul, Nicolaus, Simon and the HellenistChurch (Stephen). First I want to set forth a theory of the doctrines that Paul, Nicolaus, Simon, and even Stephen, shared in common. Most significant is that Paul and Stephen had unorthodox notions of biblical theology. I have set forth this evidence above. Paul and Stephen refused to believe that God was active everywhere in the Old Testament (2 Cor. 3:14) and that the Israelites were instead under the rule of angels—not God (Gal. 3:19, Acts 7:53). It is difficult to know for sure whether Paul and Stephen believed in a supreme Creator God, or of a higher God altogether. But it is a fact that Paul did not regard fleshly man as created in the image of God as indicated in Gen. 1:26 (1 Cor. 15:45–49). Paul associated the creation of man with Gen. 2:7 alone; hence man bears the image of the earth, “earthy” (1 Cor. 15:47). This leaves Paul’s theology and cosmogony open to interpretation. Paul also made clear that he did not regard God as completely sovereign over the world: but that the world was under the authority of rulers and enemies “and that the last enemy that shall be destroyed is death.” Indeed Paul wrote of a time to come when all rule and all power and authority would be put down, so that God the Father may “be all, and in all” (1 Cor. 15:24–28). In light of these statements one may conclude at the very least that Paul believed that the world was ruled by angels: and that the plan for salvation was orchestrated by God alone through the spiritual ministry of the Son. Paul made clear that he regarded the angels as rulers in Galatians 3:19–4:9. Stephen identified these angelic rulers as the “hosts of heaven” (Acts. 7:42).

It is possible that Nicolaus thought along similar lines. The passage quoted above from Against All Heresies is somewhat lurid, but the motif on which it is based is primitive: Darkness conquered and raped the Light and begat seven tyrannical angels which created the material cosmos. It is doubtful that Nicolaus invented the idea of the Darkness conquering the Light. But it’s possible that he regarded the world of his day as being ruled by the seven planetary powers which, in Jewish fashion, he would have identified with angels. Simon Magus also shared the idea that angels governed the world. These angels opposed the higher authority which Simon identified with himself.

The early Gnostic systems all share primitive themes that resonate with the consensus that can at least be established firmly with Paul and Stephen, and is reflected in Simon and Nicolaus. The early Gnostic teachers, i.e. Menander, Cerinthus, Saturnilus, Basilides and Carpocrates, all share the notion that the world was created and ruled by angels. They also agree that the God and lawgiver of the Jews was an angel. The supreme Deity is a lofty unknown Being that is revealed to Human kind through the Savior Jesus [4]. These fundamental themes can be regarded as mere expansions of revolutionary ideas that were introduced among the Hellenist Christians. All of the major Gnostic tenets can be traced back to Paul, and from Paul, to Stephen. Nicolaus and Simon are two suspects who were present in the vicinity at the time. The Catholic Fathers focus on Simon and Nicolaus as the culprits. But I suspect this is a cover story. The real story and the real consensus are preserved in the writings of Paul and the speech attributed to Stephen in Acts.

Paul and Stephen were part of a HellenistChurch that refused to assign the whole ugly story of the Old Testament directly to God Himself. The Hellenists had more complex and lofty ideas of the Deity as compared with their more primitive Hebrew counterparts. The Jewish Christians still believed in the jealous war God of the Old Testament. But this old traditional view had never been fully inculcated among the Hellenists, many of whom had been exposed to Platonic and Stoic concepts of theology. Indeed the author of Acts was familiar with such ideas; and these ideas were placed in Paul’s mouth in Acts 17, where the Apostle gives his speech regarding the “unknown god” before the Greek philosophers of Athens (on the Hill of Ares). The Hellenists did not have a purely Jewish view of God. And this caused them to interpret the Bible in ways that deviated from traditional Jewish doctrine, which the Hebrew Christians continued to embrace. Inevitably, the evidence at hand shows that the HellenistChurch had a different theology, and a different God, in comparison with the Jewish Church. This other theology and God of the HellenistChurch eventually emerged into the Unknown God of later Gnostic theology.

In my view the “orthodox” New Testament writings contain evidence which shows that Irenaeus’s “Apostolic Tradition” is nothing more than a façade which continues to hide the real history of the earliest Christians, and the highly peculiar nature of their doctrines. Without a doubt the early Christian movement represents one of the most fascinating and profound developments in the history of religious ideas. —jw 

 

Notes

1] Once again I am indebted to the research of the late Unitarian theologian Arthur Powell Davies and his excellent book The First Christian: A study of St. Paul and Christian origins.

2] E.g. Robert M. Wilson, The Gnostic Problem, pg. 43f. Wilson states his opinion that some Jews were willing to modify their beliefs in the face of “philosophical criticism.” If there was a passage in the Bible that seemed to present a crude anthropomorphic portrayal of God, then Jewish exegetes would re-interpret the passage as referring to an angel. See also J. Charlesworth, Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, vol. 1, pg. xxxi.

3] The famous scholar Wilhelm Bousset states that Irenaeus made Paul suitable for orthodoxy by “distorting the genuine Pauline ideas and divesting them of their essential nature” (Kyrios Christos, pg. 446). James Dunn states that the Catholic Fathers could only rescue Paul from the Gnostics by “abusing” him (Unity and Diversity in the New Testament, pg. 291). We have seen examples of this abuse in part I.

4] These points are affirmed by Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 1.23–26.1. Even in Irenaeus’s own report he admits that all the Gnostics, in contrast with their supposed founder (Simon), all affirmed that Jesus was the Savior and Son of the unknown Father, whereas Simon made no claim to Christianity.

By Jim West. Copyright © 2008, 2013. All Rights Reserved.

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