Archive for category Ethics

On the “wrath of God” Romans 1:18-32

This text is an excerpt from from my article On the Ethics of St. Paul, viz. the final section regarding Paul’s “wrath of God” speech in Romans 1:18-32. I’ve decided to present this section as a separate piece due to the depth of the subject matter. This is a revised and expanded version of the original text. The speech is referred to here as the “sermon”.

In the main article I argued that Paul’s statements in 1 Corinthians 6:12 and Galatians 3:28 (see below) cannot be reconciled with the message in Romans 1:18-32. In the main article I stated my conclusion that Paul did not condemn homosexuality, but only the open expression in the form of indiscreet or indecent behavior which in turn confused the Gospel ministry and exposed the ministry to accusations of scandal. I believe that Paul’s position on homosexuality was the same as his position on idol meats in 1 Corinthians 8: that the liberty of “gnosis” is not to be displayed in front of the weaker brother. But in order for my conclusion to stand I must also account for the passage in Romans, which appears to be a condemnation of homosexuality itself. Here is a quote from the passage:

“For this cause God gave them up to vile affections: for even their women did change the natural use into that which is against nature. And likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust toward one another; men with men working that which is unseemly, and receiving in themselves that recompence of their error which was due.” (Rom. 1:26-27)

The typical “orthodox” Christian will point to this passage as evidence that Paul condemned the act of homosexuality itself. But I would like to raise the question of whether this passage is interpreted in its correct context? The passages I have already presented elsewhere suggest that Paul was not condemning homosexuality in and of itself, hence “All things are lawful” (1 Cor. 6:12)[1]. Furthermore, Paul spoke of a social order where traditional structures no longer existed; hence in Christ “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28). The question is: is there a relationship between the concept in Romans 1:26f. and the concepts in 1 Cor. 6:12 and Gal. 3:28? I believe that we cannot simply ignore some concepts in favor of others.

And regarding the overall passage, verses 18-32, there is the question of whether this passage reflects Paul’s theology and worldview as stated in his other letters. For example, in Romans 1:20 it is stated that “For the invisible things of [God] from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made; even his eternal power and Godhead…” Whereas in 1 Corinthians 2:14 it is said that the spiritual nature of God cannot be grasped by the “natural” man. And in another passage Paul wrote: “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 that are not seen are eternal.” (2 Cor. 4:18) Note that in the latter passages Paul does not affirm that the invisible things of God can be seen through the physical creation. The latter passages state the opposite

Again I question whether these passages can be reconciled—and that we can’t just ignore some concepts in favor of others.

I think the cause behind this conflict of ideas is that “orthodox” Christians have misrepresented Paul’s words in Romans. The traditional interpretation is to the effect that Paul’s sermon refers to pagans who have rejected the true God, and God in response gave them over to “vile affections.” However I believe there is evidence in the sermon which shows that it reflects a conflict between Christian sects, and never referred to pagans at all. And, the words in Romans 1:26-27, et al. do not refer to pagans, but are a repetition of slanderous rumors that circulated between sects.

To word this in another way: I would like to propose is that what we really have here is an apology by Paul against other, more conservative Jewish Christians who have misrepresented and slandered Paul’s ministry and doctrine. And, that Paul’s words in Romans 1:26f. are part of the list of accusations that he proposes to defend himself against. I know this seems far-fetched, but please bear with me as I explain the problems and set forth the evidence.

To begin with: It must be understood that Paul’s letter to the Romans is a letter of introduction (A. Schweitzer, Mysticism of Paul., pg. 44f. W. Kummel, Introduction to the NT, pg. 312). Paul had never been to Rome, and he sent this letter as an explanation of his doctrine in advance of his arrival. Now it is important to understand that a proper letter of introduction is a note of endorsement that is provided by a higher authority. In early Christianity a letter of introduction (or “commendation”) was a letter that the Apostolic leaders sent with an individual who was traveling among the churches. The letter confirmed that the man was authorized by the church leadership, and was not simply out on his own. In 2 Corinthians 3:1–5, Paul actually mentions the fact that he had no such letter to show to the churches in Greece (Kummel, ibid., pg. 284). In this context it is highly significant that Paul actually admits, in 2 Cor. 3:1–5, that he has no such letter. Paul also had no letter to take with him to Rome (note that Paul conveys no greetings from the Apostles at Jerusalem). Paul’s letter to the Romans is his own introduction, and it represents a defense of his doctrine. Paul even refers to his critics:

“For if the truth of God has abounded more through my lie unto his glory; why yet am I judged as a sinner? And not rather–as we be slanderously reported, and as some affirm that we say–let us do evil, that good may come?” (Rom. 3:7–8)

My point here is that the letter to Romans was written in the context of a conflict over Paul’s teaching on the Law, viz. his Liberation doctrine (2 Cor. 3:17, Gal. 4:1-9). Paul’s “wrath of God” sermon is actually in reference to this conflict, and the accusations in the sermon are those of Paul’s enemies, which are set forth as the starting place for his defense; his apology. Moreover, the passage may be quoted from another letter that was circulated against Paul, and was the source of the statements in Romans 1:18-32.

In “orthodox” tradition Paul’s sermon is represented as an attack on pagans who are immoral and have a wrong view of God. This is supposedly represented in Paul’s words: “Because when they knew God, they glorified him not as God…And changed the glory of God into an image made like to corruptible man, and birds and four-footed beasts and creeping things… And even as they did not like to retain God in their knowledge, God gave them over to a reprobate mind… Being filled with all unrighteousness… Backbiters, haters of God…covenant breakers…” (Rom. 1:21, 23, 28, 30)

Supposedly this speech is an indictment against the pagans; but I would like to point out a number of details here which are inconsistent with a proper description of pagan religion. For one thing, Paul never actually mentions the issue of polytheism or idolatry. The words “idol” and “gods” do not appear here at all as compared with the other letters (e.g. 1 Cor. 8:4–5, “eidolon”/“theoi”). The entire sermon is couched in the context of monotheism. The passage reads that the “wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness” (1:18). The problem here is that pagans had no truth of “God” to “suppress in unrighteousness.” Again, the pagans were polytheistic idolaters who worshipped false gods. There was no truth for them to suppress. The pagans never knew God as Paul described: “Because when they knew God, they glorified him not as God…” I believe these words refer to a heresy, and not to (supposed) pagan, polytheistic idolatry.

The sermon also says that “when they knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools, And changed the glory of the uncorruptible God into an image made like to corruptible man, and to birds, and fourfooted beasts, and creeping things”. (Romans 1:21-23)

One central tenet of early heresy is that the Lawgiver Jehovah was really just an angel in rebellion against the Good Father above (e.g. Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 1.24.2, 1.25.4). There is language in Paul’s letters that reflects the same doctrine, e.g. Galatians 3:19 & 4:1-10, 2 Cor. 3:12-4:4; cf. also Colossians 2:13-18. In these passages observing the Law is equated with worshipping angels (cf. Hebrews 2:2f.). In context of the sermon, in the Bible the angels in question, viz. the Seraphim and Cherubim, are described as having both human and animal traits, having the forms of man, serpents, birds and four-footed animals (Isaiah 6:2-6, Ezekiel 1 & 10). This could also be the context of the passage in Romans 1:23, that the heretics have reduced the supreme Deity & Lawgiver to the inferior status of an angel which has the corruptible form of man and various animals. (Note: In later classic Gnosticism the biblical creator was portrayed with animal traits, e.g. in Sethian myth Yaldabaoth is portrayed as having the body of a serpent and the face of a lion.)

The conflict of ideas here regarding the pagans can also be seen when the sermon is compared to what follows in Romans 2:14-15,

“For when the Gentiles (ethne), which have not the law, do by nature the things contained in the law, these, having not the law, are a law unto themselves: Which shew the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and their thoughts the mean while accusing or else excusing one another…” (Note: the Greek word for “gentiles” ethne is found nowhere in Romans 1:18-32.)

Can the above passages be reconciled? In the wrath of God sermon it is supposedly said that the gentiles, the pagans, have rejected the true knowledge of God, even after knowing him, and are therefore in a state of mental & moral corruption. Whereas in Romans 2 it is said that gentiles who don’t know God or the Law still follow a “law written in their hearts”. Again, I propose the solution that Romans 1 doesn’t refer to pagans, but to another party altogether.

Paul also asserts that the sinners in question are “backbiters” and “haters of God…without understanding, covenant breakers…” (1:30). These words do not match clearly and neatly with the notion of an indictment against pagans. In reference to pagans, these words lack context. The simple fact is that not all pagans are “backbiters” or “covenant breakers.” If this were true then the Roman system of government could not exist. The Pax Romana would not exist. What Paul’s words really refer to is the rivalry and acrimony among Christian factions (read: heresies, cf. 1 Cor. 1:10–12, 11:18–19). The words “backbiters” and “covenant breakers”, etc., refer to accusations that rival Christians made against each other. Indeed these words only make sense in reference to parties who know each other, and who accuse each other of being backbiters, God haters and covenant breakers.

Again, I think Paul’s sermon is a characterization of an attack made by his Jewish Christian adversaries. According to them, Paul is a backbiter (read: betrayer), a covenant breaker (Paul teaches against the Law, viz. the Mosaic Covenant) and a God hater (Paul disparages the Law of God and teaches that the Law was “ordained by angels”; Gal. 3:10-13, 19).

There is also the accusation that the truth of God is “suppressed in unrighteousness” (Rom. 1:18b). Of note is that Paul actually accused Moses of this very offense in a polemic in 2 Corinthians 4:1–2, “Therefore seeing that we have this ministry…we do not fail; but have renounced the hidden things of shame, not walking around in craftiness, nor handling the word of God deceitfully…” These words follow Paul’s statement that “Moses” blinded the eyes of the Israelites to the death oriented nature of the Law: “Seeing then that we have such hope, we use great boldness of speech: and not as Moses, who placed a veil over his face, so that the children of Israel could not steadily behold that which was fading away. But their minds were blinded: for unto this day the same veil remaineth in the reading of the old testament…even unto this day, when Moses is read, the veil is upon their heart” (2 Cor. 3:12–15).

Paul wrote the words above in reference to Jewish Christians who denounced his teaching on the Law. We should also note that this passage actually begins with the problem in that the Church leadership, presumably the Apostles at Jerusalem, refused to give Paul a letter of commendation, showing that Paul was sent by the Apostles. In 2 Corinthians 3:1–2 Paul writes to his readers that “Ye are our epistle written in our hearts, known and read by all men.” Paul goes on to explain that his Jewish Christian adversaries fail to understand that the Law of Moses represents the “ministry of death” and that the true redemption comes through the “Spirit” alone (2 Cor. 3:6–7, cf. Mt. 19:16–17). Paul believed that Moses misrepresented the word of God, which was symbolized by placing a veil over his face. Paul writes that this veil concealed the “fading glory” that radiated from Moses’ face after he spent forty days in the presence of the Lawgiver (i.e. Ex. 34:27–35). The meaning is that, according to Paul, Moses blinded the Israelites to the truth, which is that there is no salvation through the Law, and that this Law was given by lower angels, not God (Gal. 3:19, cf. Col. 2:13–18, Acts 7:38, 53; Hebrews 2:2).

In Paul’s letters the “truth suppressed in unrighteousness” is a theme that has context and reflects an accusation that he made against Jews, and which Paul and his adversaries probably traded back and forth. In Galatians Paul argued that the Law of Moses was not from the supreme Being, but was given by lesser powers which were described as “angels”, “guardians” and “stewards” (Gal. 3:19, 4:1–2). Paul actually believed, and taught his followers, that observance of the Law had nothing to do with worshipping God: “But now, after ye have known God…why turn again to the weak and beggarly elements, whereunto you desire again to be in bondage?” (Gal. 4:9) This was Paul’s warning to the Galatians against Jewish Christians who were attacking Paul, and were demanding that the Galatian Christians observe the Law of Moses. Paul’s warning is as follows: “Christ is become of no effect unto you: whosoever of you are justified by the Law; ye are fallen from grace.” (Gal. 5:4) In these words it is obvious that Paul did not believe that the Law represented the righteous commands or worship of God. This theological position is reflected further in 1 Corinthians 10:18–19, “Behold Israel after the flesh: are they which eat of the sacrifices not partakers of the altar? What say I then? That the idol (eidolon) is anything, or that which is sacrificed to idols is anything?”

In the preceding passage Paul denounces temple rites at Jerusalem as mandated by the Law. Note that Paul refers to the God that Jews worshipped in the Temple as a false god or “idol” (cf. Acts 2:46, 21:20–26!). When we consider these passages above it is possible to understand how Jewish Christians would accuse Paul of “changing the truth of God into a lie” (Rom. 1:25).

The sermon also reflects the accusation that there is homosexuality among Paul’s followers, because they do not retain a proper concept of God, as Lawgiver, in their minds (Rom. 1:25–27). It must be noted again that Paul does not exactly condemn homosexuality; he only condemns those who are enslaved by sexual desire. In reference to the sexual act itself, Paul states that “All things are lawful.” Paul means that under some circumstances it is lawful to engage in homosexual sex. Paul also states that in the new spiritual order, in Christ, that there is no longer any distinction between Jews and Greeks, slave and free, or male and female (Gal. 3:28) Among Paul’s attackers this means that Paul and his followers lead lives of homosexual confusion. They break the covenant, and they revile (read: backbite) other Christians who adhere to traditional Jewish principles. Paul and his followers are God haters because they do not acknowledge the Godhead of the Lawgiver. Instead, they have reduced the Lawgiver to the level of the creation, i.e. an angel, and to the likeness of a man or animal. (Note: Again, this latter point would be in reference to Paul’s rejection of biblical anthropomorphic descriptions of God, which he viewed as a lower angelic being, in context of the biblical descriptions of the angelic Seraphim which were said to resemble winged serpents, e.g. Isaiah 6:2-6, or to the description of the Cherubim in Ezekiel chapters 1 & 10, which were said have the four-fold features of a man, lion, eagle & ox. Herein may lay the true context of Romans 1:23.)

Thus what the “wrath of God” sermon actually describes is the lawless doctrine and lifestyle that Paul’s accusers claim that he leads along with his followers. Paul repeats these accusations in their exaggerated and libelous context, and was probably quoting from another letter. Paul is not out to openly attack respected Apostolic leaders, which may back-fire; his purpose is to answer the charges against himself and his followers. For this reason he sets forth the sermon like a riddle. Paul doesn’t make clear who the accusers and the accused are: he leaves it for his readers to make the connection. And in that time and circumstance the readers in Rome might have known right-away what those words referred to, whereas the immediate context of the passage would be lost to readers of later centuries who were, inevitably, reading someone else’s mail, just as we are today. 

(Note: The Uncial Manuscripts are the only extant sources for the text of Romans that we have today. These manuscripts were prepared by the Catholic clergy under the direction of the Roman Emperor Constantine. The possibility cannot be ruled out that the Catholic scribes subtly altered the text of Romans 1 in order to blunt the context of the sermon, so that it appears to be a positive statement of Paul’s doctrine, and to obscure the acrimony and conflict that actually existed among the earliest church leaders, as described by Paul in Galatians 1 & 2.[2] For example, I think it’s entirely possible that Romans 1:18 might have began with the words It has been written: For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven…etc. The simple act of striking those words in preparing the uncial texts alters the context of the entire passage, thus making it appear that Paul was speaking his own affirmative opinion rather than quoting someone he disagreed with. And while this cannot be proven it also cannot be entirely ruled out. There is no question that the uncial texts contain heavily redacted copies of manuscripts, comprised of parts of the Pauline letters and not the letters in their original forms and original entirety. Galatians and Philemon are the only letters that exist in their entirety, but even then not without editing or interpolation, e.g. Gal. 2:6-9.)

Moreover, it is entirely possible that the sermon could be from a letter circulated by the Jewish Apostles and could be the very words of Peter himself, or James, reflecting the conflict as described in Galatians 1 & 2. (Note: Paul’s historic conflict with the Jewish Christians, including the Apostles at Jerusalem, has been addressed in my three-part series St. Paul and the Apostolic Tradition.)

Another clue that Paul’s speech doesn’t refer to pagans can be seen in Romans 2:1. Here, Paul’s speech, supposedly against pagans, all of a sudden refers to Jews without a break or change in theme. In Romans 2 Paul warns Jews against judging other people when they sin against the Law themselves (Rom. 2:1ff, 17–23). In Romans 3 Paul admits to being a liar–in the same breath that he refers to God as the Lawgiver–but he denies teaching that Christians should practice “evil” so that “good” may come (Rom. 3:8). The balance of Romans is a diplomatic treatise in which Paul defends his teaching against the Law. Thus Romans 1:32 marks the end of the quotation and 2:1 marks the beginning of Paul’s rebuttal and apology.

If the evidence I have presented above is correct then it must be recognized that Paul was not condemning homosexuality in Romans 1:26-27 and that this passage was part of a slanderous speech, a letter, that was aimed at Paul, in which he and his followers were accused of being homosexuals who embrace a wrong theology. If the reader follows the train of Paul’s ideas from Romans 1:18 to 2:29, it becomes obvious that Paul’s speech is actually an apology against Jewish Christian prudes who judge others by the Law, but can’t keep the Law themselves–and will not acknowledge the grace (that Paul says) comes through Christ. Paul insists throughout Romans that the grace of Christ has supplanted the Law, and that this is the truth that all Jews should accept. But among conservative Jewish Christians and traditional devout Jews, this amounts to treason (cf. Mt. 5:17-19). Paul is accused of teaching his followers “Let us do evil, that good may come” (Romans 3:8). Personally I have no doubt that Romans 3:8 is a direct reference to the statements in the “wrath of God” sermon; that in the original context this passage was quoted from a letter circulated against Paul.

One last issue before concluding is regarding the opening of the sermon in Romans 1:18-20. In light of the information presented above we may reflect on the following themes: The suppression of the truth in unrighteousness, in verse 18, refers to Paul’s suppression of the Law. The statement in verse 20 that the invisible God and attributes can be seen through the visible creation means that even apart from the Law, Paul and his followers are condemned by nature, so that “they are without excuse”. As I pointed out at the beginning of this treatise, Paul does not affirm that God can be seen or understood through the natural creation (e.g. 1 Cor 2:14, 2 Cor. 4:18). To the contrary Paul can be quoted as teaching the opposite. Given the passages cited, Romans 1:18-20 could be seen as a rebuke of Paul’s doctrine.

Considering the evidence I have presented, I believe it is wrong to assume that Romans 1:18-32 is a positive statement of Paul’s doctrine. It should, rather, be considered as the quotation of a letter that was circulated by Paul’s Jewish Christian adversaries (cf. Romans 3:8). Paul quoted from this letter as the original setting for explaining and justifying his own teaching on the Law. Note also that Paul made no appeal to Peter or any of the other Apostles in support of his teaching. In this context Romans 1:18-32 may be the earliest extant example of a (proto) Gnostic sect being condemned and slandered by an early Apostolic faction. –jw

Notes

1) Note the paradox between these passages:

From Paul, 1 Corinthians 6:12, “All things are lawful, but I will not be brought under the power of any.”

From the Law of Moses, Leviticus 20:13, “If a man also lie with mankind…both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death…”

2) Eusebius preserved a letter from the Emperor Constantine ordering the production of 50 standardized bibles (Life of Constantine, 4:36 & 37). Some scholars believe that two of the oldest uncial texts, the Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Vaticanus, are surviving copies. Or, they may be copies derived from those 50 bibles, reflecting a standard uncial style text and editions of the biblical texts. The uncial texts that still exist today are the oldest known manuscripts of the Christian Bible and especially the New Testament. Yet the uncial texts are far removed from the original writings of Paul and show that his letters were heavily edited and re-organized. See my article Was Paul a Misogynist? for details on this issue.

By Jim West. Copyright © 2012, 2014; revised on Sept. 28, 2014.

All Rights Reserved.

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On Fundy Gnosis

(Sub-title: Addressing the Problem of Evil and the theology of St. Paul)

Recently I received a letter from a reader in response to my article On the Origin of Evil. This person will be identified here as “Bob” which is not his real name. Bob wrote to me in protest because I deny that God is the ultimate source of Evil. Gnostic tradition teaches in various ways that evil enters the universe either through Error or the rebellion of lower angels. However, Bob disagrees and he insists that Evil originates from God himself; and that evil is one of the instruments by which God educates humanity about the value of goodness. (Similar statements are made in the Tripartite Tractate, but this treatise represents the exception in Gnostic tradition and not the rule.[1])

Of course I have heard variations of these arguments before from mainstream “orthodox” leaning Christians. What makes Bob’s argument worth mentioning is that Bob believes that Evil is not really evil at all. Bob supported his opinion by presenting me with the link to an online book entitled:

The Problem of Evil and the Judgments of God” by Adolph E. Knoch (1874–1965) [2]

This book represents an effort by one “orthodox” leaning theologian to explain the paradox of evil, and, in my opinion, to rescue the war-god Jehovah and his evil-doings from a logical moral scrutiny. The author attempts to accomplish this by claiming that there is a difference between “evil” and “sin”; and that the real onus of immorality or injustice is tied to sin and not evil. The author defines “evil” as an amoral force which causes mayhem and thereby brings curses, famines, plagues, wars, misery and death upon sinners. The author conveniently refuses to make any connection between the evil orchestrated by “God” and the murders and other mayhem which result from the said evil.

I believe it is a very dangerous thing for religious men to deny evil for what it is: evil. I see this as a very convenient way that fundy Christians rescue their evil biblical war-god from the implications of his own morality/ ethics. But even more important, and more dangerous, is that when theologians seek to excuse the evil that scripture (written by men) assigns to their own god, these same men inevitably remove the onus from the evil that might otherwise define their own actions. This danger can be seen in the following statement from Jeremiah 42:6, where the loyal followers of Jehovah proclaim:

“Whether it be good, or whether it be evil, we will obey the voice of YHWH our God.” (Jeremiah 42:6)

Even Al Queda henchmen or Hamas suicide bombers, or KKK Klansman, could say something like this. This type of reasoning becomes the justification for persecuting people of another race or creed. Evil is not really evil, but is an instrument by which “sinners” or infidels are punished. Whether in theory or in practice, I believe this reasoning is morally wrong, and evil. There is no doubt that the history of Christianity has been scarred by this kind of twisted logic. I direct my readers to the book Foxe’s Christian Martyrs of the World for a record of the macabre atrocities that “Christian” leaders have been able to justify and inflict on other Christians.

The behavior of “orthodox” Christians in late antiquity, and in the Middle Ages, is a reflection of the same evils that are attributed to Jehovah in the Old Testament. Jehovah is a god of war who is involved in all kinds of heinous atrocities, which anyone of us today would call crimes against humanity. Jehovah sends his followers on military campaigns to invade the lands of other people and to butcher women and children like animals (e.g. Deuteronomy 2f., Joshua 6; see my article On God and Justice). Are we really to believe that this is what “God” is like? Is this what I’m supposed to believe? In Isaiah 13:16 Jehovah informs his prophet Isaiah how he will punish the Babylonians; and how their “wives” will be “raped.” But according to Bob and his scholar buddy, this is not “evil” as we understand it. Evil is the instrument of “God’s” justice whereas the rape is not part of the evil, because, well, evil and sin are two different things, and sin is what is bad—not the evil. Surely my readers must recognize how absurd this reasoning is. And if you don’t believe me, then just read the first chapter of the book by Adolph Knoch at the link above.

Personally, I think that Knoch’s book “The Problem of Evil and the Judgments of God” is one of the most wicked books I have ever read. But to be fair, I doubt that Mr. Knoch, as a theologian, was really trying to justify evil behavior in the literal sense, or in his personal life. (But certainly the logic that Knoch uses has been used by other Christians in the past to justify their vicious crimes.) In my opinion the flawed and dangerous reasoning of Knoch was driven by his need to rehabilitate the theology of the only religion and “God” that he knew. Rather than simply admit that the God of the Old Testament is evil and move on, Knoch turned instead to quibbling and diluting the definition of evil in order to create a moral loophole for his cherished god.

The most fundamental problem with guys like Bob and Mr. Knoch is that these men insist on believing that the Bible is the literal, infallible “Word” of God. These men fail to understand that many of these scriptures were written by men who were concerned with mundane struggles for power as opposed to a genuine spiritual quest. I would like to summarize my point with a quote from my article On God and Justice:

“[T]he real issue at stake in the Old Testament has nothing to do with what is right or wrong – the real issue is the acquisition of Power by the Israelites and their priesthood. …the Law of Moses, and the history of Israel, and its ethics, and its theology, are all the expression of an historic people who projected their personal problems and national woes into their conceptions of God. It is the height of foolishness for people to take these writings and erect these as a record of God and a higher judicial standard.”

Please don’t misunderstand me, I don’t have a grudge against ancient Hebrews whose religious beliefs reflected their primitive times and struggles. On the other hand, I do believe it is a mistake to take these ancient, arcane writings and to erect these as if they are some infallible record of God’s nature and actions. To simply rely on these writings as explanations for the mysteries of God and the origins of evil is to play the fool. And this is exactly how I feel about people like Bob and Adolph Knoch. These guys regard the Bible as an infallible revelation of what God’s nature is really like. These guys fail to understand that the Bible is a collection of other people ideas about God that are second hand at best. I am not about to accept the proposition that God is the source of evil just because some guy says the Bible says so. Ultimately, all true Gnostics understand that this is a question of introspection and soul-searching and has nothing to do with what the Bible says. (Bob of course fails to notice that I don’t rely on the Bible in my article On the Origin of Evil yet he brings forth a fundy Bible theologian in his effort to correct me.)

Even more bizarre is that Bob believes that Knoch’s opinions represent a form of “gnosis.” By which he means that “evil” is some sublime mystery which has come out of the heart of God, and by which men and women are educated and initiated into a higher understanding regarding God’s nature, and the nature of evil. If I didn’t know any better I would think that this came from some esoteric or ‘Gnostic’ wing of the Jehovah’s Witnesses (if they had a Gnostic wing). I suppose that what I am confronted with here is a kind of ‘Fundy Gnosis’ (hence the title of this article). All I can say on this point is that I think that such rationalizations serve the purpose by which fundy Christian justify the continued adoration of their false and evil god. And this goes back to Bob’s contradictory stance in that he needs the assistance of a fundy Bible theologian in order to back up his own gnosis.

Next we will now go to the second issue in this article which is the problem of St. Paul and the notion of a Unity of God. Like many theologians of all stripes, Bob and his mentor make an appeal to Paul as justification for their notion that “evil” originates with God. In Romans 11:36 Paul (the assumed writer of this passage) exclaims of God: “For of him, and through him, and in him, are all things” (Romans 11:36).

Both Bob and Mr. Knoch reason as if this one passage is the last word on Paul’s theology. But these guys fail to acknowledge that “Paul” says all kinds of things; and when all of Paul’s theological statements are brought together, these statements do not constitute a unified theological system (see below). This, in a nutshell, is the whole problem with Paul that theologians and scholars have struggled with for ages. Bob and Mr. Knoch pretend that Paul’s theology can be summarized in one little passage; but this is just more of the same wishful thinking that so often characterizes the myopic opinions of fundy Christians.

The question we will now consider is did Paul ever affirm the Unity or Monarchy of God? Again, if we base our answer solely on Romans 11:36 then the answer would be a simple yes. But let us consider some other statements which place Paul’s theology in doubt, and have led to the breakout of theological disputes and heresies for ages. I invite my readers to read and compare the following passages.

Let us begin once again with Romans 11:36,

“For of him, and through him, and in him, are all things.”

1 Corinthians 15:24–28,

“Then cometh the end, when he (Christ) shall have delivered up the kingdom to God, even the Father; when he shall have put down all rule and all authority and power. … The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death. … And when all things shall be subdued unto him, then shall the Son also be subject [unto the Father] …that God may be all, and in all.”

Note that in Romans “Paul” says that all things are in God, whereas in 1 Corinthians Paul says the opposite: all things are not in God; and for this reason “all rule and all authority and power” must be subdued or destroyed so that “God may be all, and in all.”

Can these two passages be reconciled? I think the answer is no. I believe the problem here is that Bob and Mr. Knoch are taking Paul’s statement in Romans too literally without acknowledging the true complexity of Paul’s theology as is truly reflected in the second passage. The reality is that Paul does not believe in a simple unity of the biblical godhead.

I see Paul’s statement in Romans 11 as a speech intended for public consumption. Paul does not get into the deeper issues of theology that appear in Galatians or the Corinthian letters (see below). Paul speaks of God in a popular way that is familiar to Greek-speaking Jews and Gentile God-fearers who often thought of God along the lines of Stoic ideas [3]. I don’t believe Paul is writing to “initiated” people as in other letters; most notably in 1 Corinthians 2 where Paul reveals that there are “spiritual” men and “natural” men and that spiritual wisdom cannot be received by the natural man (1 Cor. 2:14). This ties into Paul’s statement that there is a “hidden wisdom” which is spoken in a “mystery” among the “perfect” meaning the initiates (teleiois; 1 Cor. 2:6f.). The meaning here is that Paul does not say all things to all men (cf. Romans 1:10–13). I believe this is the source of the contradictions in many of Paul’s statements. Paul has different doctrines for different people depending upon their spiritual nature or lack thereof. Paul’s practice of double talk is openly stated in 1 Corinthians 9:20,

And unto the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might win the Jews; to them that are under the Law, as under the Law, that I might win them that are under the Law.”

Given the complexities of Paul’s ideas and statements, I believe I am under no obligation to recognize Romans 11:36 as a concise summary of Paul’s theology. I’ll leave that for the fundy simpletons who are always in search of fast and easy answers to everything. (In this case Adolph Knoch simply chooses to accept Old Testament scripture for what it says about evil and the nature of God—rather than resist and deny like many other fundies do. Knoch admits that “God” is an evil-doer and then tries to rehabilitate from that point. Knoch’s error is in his failure to understand that he is wrestling with the ethics of a different age. This leads him to conclude that “God” is the source of all evil.)

Next I would like to get into the question of whether Adolph Knoch and St. Paul even share the same system of theology and Bible interpretation. As I understand it, Mr. Knoch believes in adhering to a strict, literalistic interpretation of biblical languages; but is this same standard used by Paul? The fact is, Paul did not quote the Old Testament in either a faithful or accurate manner. An example may be seen in Paul’s interpretation of Genesis in his doctrine of the priority of faith over the Law. Paul teaches that Abraham was accepted by God through faith alone (Gal. 3:6–9); whereas Genesis 17 literally says that Abraham accepted and practiced circumcision as a sign of his faith and the covenant with God (Gen. 17:10, 23). Clearly Paul has misquoted and twisted the Law in order to teach the very opposite of what the Law says. Paul evidently did not believe that males should be circumcised as mandated by “God” in the Law. Paul believed something else: just as Paul also believed that the Law was “ordained by angels” as stated in Galatians 3:19 (cf. Hebrews 2:2f., Acts 7:38, 53). Here again Paul is teaching against the very word of the Law of Moses. Obviously Paul did not accept the Law as infallible Holy Writ—and Paul relied upon a different tradition and theology as opposed to the Law of Moses.

Think: Why would Paul deliberately contradict the Law by saying that the Law was ordered by angels? By adding this concept of angels Paul is at best confusing the meaning of scripture. And at worst he is guilty of twisting biblical theology—and for what purpose? I believe that Paul’s introduction of angels was intended to undermine and deny the notion of a unity of God in scripture—without compromising the basic tenet of monotheism.

My point over all is that Paul does not embrace either the same theology or mode of Bible interpretation that Adolph Knoch does. These guys come from two different schools of theology—and Knoch carries on the “orthodox” tradition of projecting his theology into Paul’s writings. Again, guys like Mr. Knoch take the Bible literally and believe that the “Law” was given by God; but this is not what Paul says.

Mr. Knoch believes that Paul was defending the sovereignty and unity of God in Romans 9:18–22. But again, does Paul really say all things to all men?—is Paul stating his true opinions in Romans 9, or is he trying to convict Jews using their own scriptures? (Note: there is no solid evidence that Romans 9 was part of the original Romans letter.) In comparison with Romans 9 we can look at Paul’s statements in 2 Corinthians 3:12–4:4. Here there is language which shows that Paul did in fact attack the authority of the Lawgiver. This passage contains Paul’s interpretation of Exodus 34:27–35 where Moses received the second set of tablets from the Lord, and he spent forty days and nights in the presence of YHWH on Mt.Sinai. And when Moses returns down the mountain his face has a supernatural glow which frightens the Israelites. Moses then places a veil over his face and he recites the terms of the Law and the covenant to the Israelites.

In Paul’s interpretation Moses placed a veil over his face in order to conceal the “fading” glory, and he accuses Moses of blinding and deceiving the Israelites. Paul’s exact remarks are as follows: “Seeing then that we have such hope, we use great boldness of speech: And not as Moses, who put a veil over his face, that the children of Israel could not steadily behold that [glory] which was fading. But their minds were blinded; for even unto this day, when Moses is read, the veil is upon their heart.” (2 Cor. 3:12–14, cf. vs. 6, 7)

In the above passage Paul is making a connection between Moses and the “god of this world.” Thus Paul writes further “Therefore seeing that we have this ministry…we do not fail; but have renounced the hidden things of dishonesty, not walking in craftiness nor handling the word of God deceitfully… But if our gospel is veiled it is hid to them that are perishing; in whom the god of this world has blinded their minds…” (2 Cor. 4:1–4)

Again, Paul did not simply believe that the Law of Moses or the “covenant” came from God as Mr. Knoch does. This means that Paul did not regard the writings of Moses as wholly inspired or infallible.

The reality here is that Paul interprets the books of Moses in light of some other tradition and theology. And without a doubt Paul is denying the supreme sovereignty of YHWH the Lawgiver. Paul identifies the Lawgiver with the “god of this world.” Paul insists that salvation can only be achieved by beholding the glory of the unveiled face of Jesus Christ (2 Cor. 3:18). Clearly Paul did not identify Jesus with the Lawgiver; from whom Moses received the Law; and which Paul referred to as the “ministry of death” (2 Cor. 3:6–7).

Guys like Mr. Knoch want to place all the emphasis on Romans and the theology as it appears in that text. Everything else that Paul says in his other letters is simply ignored. A further problem is that one cannot even be sure as to the original form and length of Paul’s letters or even the context of Paul’s statements. This in turn raises the question of whether Romans really gives an accurate picture of Paul’s theology? Sure, Mr. Knoch can point to things that resemble “orthodox” opinions. But I can point other things that are unorthodox or otherwise do not conform to Knoch’s ideas. If Paul’s letters are not wholly orthodox then they are unorthodox. It is really up to people like Mr. Knoch to prove that Paul’s letters really are theologically correct, or otherwise preserve a correct theological system.

Getting back to the issue with Bob: Bob wants to style himself as a Gnostic; and as someone who knows more about “gnosis” than I do. Yet he has to rely on the dubious research and rationalizations of fundy Bible theologians who take the Bible literally—and who rely wholly upon the Bible for everything they know about God. This is not what Gnostic tradition is about. It is true that Gnostics do study the Bible and other texts and traditions in search for spiritual insights. There are certain elements of the Bible that reflect the thoughts of true aspiring mystics. In this context there are spiritual nuggets spread throughout the Bible, both Old and New Testaments. And the incredible truth in this regard is that the Bible contains the seeds of its own heresy. But ultimately the true Gnostic is concerned with discovering the reality of God in his/her own being. It is here that we discover the true nature of God, and we realize that we are spiritual beings and not animals. We realize that God is not the source of evil: but that evil originates from ignorance. If Bob’s God has some grand plan for evil in our lives then it is because Bob’s God is himself an ignorant and limited being… In truth this “God” is the Demiurge and he lives and creates and governs in the shadow of his own ignorance.

My other comments on the inherent goodness of God have already been stated in my article On the Origin of Evil. —jw

 

Notes

1] The Tripartite Tractate is the one “Gnostic” text that does state that God the Father has a grand plan to reveal evil to mankind. Hence it is the Father’s Will that “man should experience the great evil, which is death, that is complete ignorance of the Totality, and that he should experience all the evils which come from this and, after the deprivations and cares which are in these, that he should receive of the greatest good… Because of the transgression of the first man, death ruled. It was accustomed to slay every man…because of the organization of the Father’s Will, of which we spoke previously” (107f. ET: H. Attridge, D. Mueller, Nag Hammadi Library, HarperCollins, pg. 89). The Tripartite Tractate is atypical among Gnostic texts which are generally concerned with separating God from evil and materiality. A comparison of these traditions is presented in my article Orthodoxy, Heresy and Jesus, III: The Pattern of Gnostic Truth.

Elsewhere in the Nag Hammadi Library this very philosophy, as stated above, is condemned in the Book of Thomas the Contender. Here Thomas asks Jesus: “What teaching shall we give to these miserable mortals who say, ‘We have come to [do] good and not to curse,’ and will [say] further ‘If we had not been born in the flesh we would not have known iniquity’ ”?

Jesus answers Thomas: “To tell the truth, do not think of these as human beings, but regard them as animals. As animals devour each other so people like this devour each other. They are deprived of the kingdom… They pursue derangement not realizing their madness but thinking they are wise.” (141, M. Meyer, Nag Hammadi Scriptures, pg. 242.)

Note that Jesus condemns this kind of thinking in the strongest terms. People who argue that God has a purpose for evil, and thus for the world, choose to believe such things because in reality they love the world and are not really troubled by the evil that goes on. For this reason Jesus condemns them like animals—which is a metaphor for the material man who loves materiality and worships the material god.

2] Based on everything I have been able to learn about Mr. Knoch, from his writings, he is a fundy Bible theologian—by which I mean that he believes the Bible is the literal revelation and word of God. On the other hand, Mr. Knock also brings ideas to the table which may not be shared by every fundy theologian. For example, Knoch believes that God’s plan was based from the very beginning on a dialectic between good and evil: Good + Evil = knowledge of God’s supreme Goodness. Thus God created both good and evil from the very beginning in order to guide human evolution and to perfect human nature. Mr. Knoch also rejects the doctrine of eternal damnation and believes instead that there will be a complete reconciliation of everything in God “all in all.” Mr. Knoch’s ideas seem to resemble a form a Stoic philosophy which holds a similar view of good and evil in the Stoic theory of the unfolding providence of God (see note #3).

3] The influence of Stoic thought in early Christian theology is addressed in my article The Gospel and the Greek Philosophers. Stoicism was an ancient, pagan school of Greek philosophy which offered many pragmatic ideas about God and ethics. Many Hellenistic Jews and Christians adopted Stoic ideas to their own notions of theology. The Stoic philosophers offered a unique view of God as a monistic supreme Being whose “logos” was present in everything and guided the order of the cosmos. They also believed that good and evil were together a part of God’s ever unfolding providence (e.g. Cleanthes, Hymn to Zeus). The Stoics believed that evil was a necessary part of existence; and for this reason they refused to condemn evil or to be disturbed by it. The modern definition of our word “stoic” originates from this ancient philosophy and attitude toward evil—to accept evil or misfortune without complaining.

 

By Jim West. Copyright © 2009, 2013. All Rights Reserved.

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On the Origin of Evil

There are people out there who insist that evil has its ultimate origin in God, the supreme Being. They reason that if God is really supreme, and all powerful, and all-wise, then there is no way that evil could exist unless God allowed it for a purpose.

To make matters more complicated I must point out that historically even the Gnostics disagreed among themselves regarding this issue. Most Gnostic myths agree that evil entered the world either through the error of Sophia or through fallen angels who rebelled against the Father above. The Gnostics were known for the way they established a chain of emanations between God and the world. The purpose was to show that evil began somewhere down the chain from God; where some lower agent fell into error and introduced evil into the universe.

And yet even among Gnostic texts there are dissenting opinions. The most notable example is in the Tripartite Tractate where the author informs us that the fall of the Logos and the existence of evil are all according to the Father’s plan of revelation; hence “man should experience the great evil, which is death, that is complete ignorance of the Totality, and that he should experience all the evils which come from this and, after the deprivations and cares which are in these, that he should receive of the greatest good… Because of the transgression of the first man, death ruled. It was accustomed to slay every man…because of the organization of the Father’s Will, of which we spoke previously” (107f. ET: H. Attridge, D. Mueller, Nag Hammadi Library, HarperCollins, pg. 89).

Thus even among Gnostics there was disagreement on the issue. And even today the Gnostic movement is divided between those who either believe that our world never came from God, and those who believe that evil is a necessary part of God’s providence. Personally I am part of the faction which holds that no evil can come from that which is by nature purely Good; thus providence as we see it in this world cannot originate from the Divine.

Now of course I have been accused of self-delusion and of failing to grasp one of the greatest and most sublime of all mysteries: which is that God himself introduced evil in order to teach us about the value of goodness. After all, how could we know the evil of the Holocaust unless there actually was one for us to know? Or how could we know the evils of child rape and kiddy porn, unless these heinous crimes were realities for us to know? And how could we ever condemn the evil of nuclear weapons; unless we know the horror of nuclear weapons? Supposedly we are blessed by God because we now know what these things are; and maybe have been victims of these evils ourselves.

Now again I have my own reasons for doubting that evil can come from God; and for me this is a matter of gnosis at its deepest level. In this article I will share my thoughts as to why evil cannot have its origin in that which is purely Divine. And I would like to explain, in the light of Gnostic wisdom, why the above proposition is not the best explanation for the paradox of how a good God and “evil” can both exist at the same time.

For me the question of whether evil comes from God is not simply a question of intellectual debate or dialectics. That sort of debate is more applicable to the question of whether this world, and the Human race, are from the providence of a supreme Being. Before we can discuss the origin of evil we really must consider and reason logically on the question of whether this world is from the hand of a supreme Being, i.e. from a being with a purely Divine nature.

In my view, the notion that this world was created by a supreme Being is wishful thinking. We would all love to believe that we are from the hand of some supreme and wise God. But the facts at hand point to a prospect which is much less flattering.

If this world was really created by some supreme and perfect God then it seems to me that this world, and the Human race, should reflect these attributes accordingly. But the ugly truth is that our so-called “civilized” world emerged from three or four dozen centuries of wars in which numerous tribes robbed, raped and murdered each other in their quests for survival.

To make matters worse, we Humans today, in spite of our ‘progress’, still don’t know where we came from or why we are here. Our religions offer their doctrines and fables; and scientists offer their theories – but there is no unified consensus on the question. The Human race as a whole has no natural or innate knowledge of its origin or why it exists. If Humans discover the answers at all, it is only through a difficult process of soul searching. This is not something that most Humans have a natural, conscious awareness of. Most Humans are not inclined to know themselves. In Western culture there is an entire industry – known as psychiatry – which is dedicated to helping people figure themselves out. This is very strange indeed.

As a race we have no innate sense of purpose. We are unable to live in harmony with each other, or our inner-selves, or with the natural environment. We don’t understand our own bodies and how to care for them. There is something about us Humans that is unnatural and artificial. We never seem to fit into the Earth’s environment; and are constantly at odds with it. The more advanced we become technologically, the greater the probability of self annihilation, possibly through war, or tampering with genetics and viruses, or because of pollution. We Humans can be compared to some genetically altered bacteria which has infected the Earth’s surface.

And then there is the future. What is the future of the Human race? Do we have a practical vision or goal for the future – aside from the easy saying that “God” or “evolution” will provide? The fact is, as a civilization, and as a race, we Humans have no practical vision or goal for the future. And again, this is a result of the fact that the Human race has no natural understanding of its own identity and purpose. So how can anyone define what the future is? If you approach the Fundy Christians, they will tell you that the future will bring Christ’s Kingdom, and that Jesus will ‘fix’ everything. The Atheists will tell you that Humanity’s future will be determined by evolution (not very re-assuring!). The Muslims will tell you that the future will bring a world dominated by Allah and ‘His’ obedient Muslim servants. The Jews in turn envision a world where YHWH rules, and Israel dominates the world. The “New World Order” people believe that the world’s problems will be solved with the imposition of a UN world government and global “Free Trade” which will solve everyone’s problems. (In the case of the latter group, money, power and cronyism are the answers to everything.) And the Communists imagine that someday they will control the world, and provide all the answers…

My point is that Humanity has no unified sense of itself, or its purpose for existence, or its origin. The origin of evil on Earth can be traced to Humanity’s fundamental ignorance regarding itself. Most Humans don’t really know within themselves why they are here. So they just focus on surviving, competing, fucking, and engaging in the never-ending game and business of war. Each culture has its own religious explanation for Human existence: and none of these religious traditions agree. Nor do these traditions provide any practical solutions for anything.

The question now is am I really obligated to believe that this is all simply the providence of a supreme Being? Can this be proven? I think the answer is no. Why should I be expected to believe that the supreme Being is the author of ignorance and chaos? And, why should I be expected to believe that a supreme Being should benefit from something like this? (I think my argument here is applicable to atheists too. Why should I be expected to believe that “evolution” produced this chaos we call the Human race? Is there a precedent for this? I think the activity of some deviate intelligence is a valid theory that may explain this enigma.)

So, to me the proposition in the Tripartite Tractate is improbable. It runs counter to my intuition and I am not obligated to accept this, viz. to accept the notion that all the heinous evils and miseries of this world are simply God’s Will for our own good. To me it’s like someone hitting a foul ball and then claiming I meant to do that!  I find this explanation to be most implausible and uninspired.

I think that simple, consistent logic dictates that this world is the expression of some lesser intelligence which is in turn at odds with itself. To proclaim this world and Humanity as evidence of a supreme Intelligence is to believe the improbable and the illogical. I also believe that such a proposition is dangerous because if a supreme Good God is responsible for the existence of this world, and the manifold evils herein, then this constitutes an obscuring of clear definitions for good and evil. It amounts to believing that that which is purely Good, purely Divine, somehow produced evil. To believe such a thing is immoral, illogical and is spiritually degrading. To embrace such an ideal is a poor choice; especially when the thesis can never be airtight anyway.

This unsound opinion is also very dangerous because it opens the way for the idea that evil can be used to achieve a ‘good’ purpose. This is the foundation of Machiavellian philosophy. And it is the creed of all tyrants like Hitler, Stalin and Mao in their pretensions to solve the world’s problems. This is also the creed of the God of the Old Testament: “I form the light and create darkness. I make peace and create evil. I, the Lord, do all these things” (Isaiah 45:7) and also “The Lord has made all things for himself: yea, even the wicked for the day of evil” (Proverbs 16:4).

Indeed we know a tree by its fruit.

Some of the early Gnostics were unique among the religious traditions in that they refused to impute any form of evil to the supreme Being. And they wrote their myths with the purpose of explaining the paradox of how a good God and an evil cosmos could exist at the same time, and why. They didn’t base these myths on a scientific knowledge as we know it. They used images and symbols from the religious traditions of their day in order to explain why goodness does not hold sway over evil in the world. (We must remember also that the ancient Gnostics lived in a time where violence, poverty and suffering existed at a level that few of us have seen today. I shudder to think of some of the evils that these people either witnessed or endured.)

The Gnostic myths appear in the form of two main themes or motifs. The older and more primitive theme expresses the notion that this material world was created by certain fallen angels who rebelled against the good Father. The Savior is sent from the Father in order to bring gnosis to those good souls who share some essence in common with the Father. Irenaeus attributed this motif to Saturninus, Cerinthus, Marcelina, Basilides and Carpocrates(Against Heresies, 1.24-26). According to this scenario evil came into existence because of the angels. The God above it all will save the good people and destroy the cosmos.

And then there are the schools associated with Valentinus, the Sethians, and the Naassenes. They developed the myth of Sophia, which was based on the “wisdom” parables in Proverbs 8 and 9, and the Apocryphal Wisdom of Solomon. According to this scenario “Wisdom” is identified as an “Aion” (an alternative title for a “god” among the Greeks; used most often in reference to Chronos/Saturn). This Aion in turn resided in a perfect archetypal realm that was called the “Pleroma” in Gnostic jargon. (The latter term was derived in part from the words attributed to Paul in Colossians 2:9, “For in Him dwelleth the pleroma of the Godhead bodily.” Irenaeus reports that the Gnostics construed this passage to mean that Jesus represented the Pleroma in person (ibid. 1.3.4).

Wisdom, or Sophia, resided in this Pleroma with other Aions. And all of these Aions in turn were the progeny of one supreme Aion of Aions. This concept of an archetypal realm was based on Plato’s concept of the primeval archetypes on which the material cosmos was created, and by which order was brought to the primeval, material chaos. Thinking in the context of Plato the Gnostics introduced the notion that this chaos came into existence as the result of error by Sophia: which is to say that chaos and evil came into existence as a result of a disruption of the primeval order. This is described symbolically as a futile desire by Sophia to be like the Father. This desire leads her into error, and causes her to conceive a miscarriage. In the Valentinian myth this miscarriage is ejected from the Pleroma and accounts for the existence of Plato’s primeval chaos, from which the cosmos was created. (Platonism does not assign an origin to chaos, but maintains that it existed from eternity. In contrast, the Gnostics believed that chaos, and evil, originated from a breach in the primeval order as symbolized by the Sophia myth; e.g. the Gnostic treatise The Apocryphon of John; see Marvin Meyer, Nag Hammadi Scriptures, pg. 114f.)

Sophia’s miscarried metaphysical goo becomes the substance from which the material cosmos and the souls of Humans, angels and gods were created. Evil exists in this cosmos as the result of Sophia’s misguided passion and error. The purpose of the myth is to convey the idea that both the cosmos and evil came into existence through error, and not through the will of a supreme Being. Let us here note this plain statement from the Gospel of Philip: “The world came about through a mistake” (NHC: II, 3.75; M. Meyer, ibid., pg. 179). This is an example of where extant Gnostic texts disagree, viz. the Gospel of Philip and the Tripartite Tractate. (For more research and details on divergent Gnostic doctrines see my article The Pattern of Gnostic Truth.)

I know that others will say that if the supreme Being is truly supreme then he must have allowed evil. But this is speculation. And it depends on the unsound idea that evil has its ultimate origin in Good. And at this point I could appeal to simple logic: It is illogical for me to believe that Good can produce evil. Good may produce error, and from error, evil proceeds. But there is no reason why I should believe that evil has a direct origin from Good. The Gnostic mythos is based on this simple formula, and for this reason they established a chain of emanations in their myths.  Hence from God came goodness, from Sophia, the twelfth emanation, came error, and from error came evil. Some people think the Gnostic myth is a scandal and a form of self-deception. But is this really any worse than the claim made by some that evil came out of Good? I think the latter proposition is far worse and is a gross error. To believe such a thing is to embrace an opinion that is logically and ethically perverted.

But again there are those people out there who want to believe that God has it all under control; and that only a stupid and weak God would allow evil without willing it. In my opinion this approach is symptomatic of those people who desire to believe in a “personal” god who has it all under control. But in reality there really is no evidence that God has it all under control. If God has this world under control then he has shown himself to be a corrupt and incompetent ruler indeed.

To embrace such logic, and to jump to such conclusions that God is in control if it all, and is the source evil, is to engage in rude speculation that is unworthy of a true Mystic or Gnostic. The true Gnostic understands that God is sublime. God is not about power: God is about consciousness: perfect consciousness. There is nothing physical about it. What I refer to here is part of the experience of gnosis. Perfect consciousness has no connection with evil and has no need for it. The goal of the Gnostic is to tap into this perfect consciousness and to join with it.

Personally, I believe this perfect consciousness is identical with the Light that certain people have encountered in so-called “out of body” experiences. This is the unknown God that true Gnostics have encountered. I believe this is also the source of those experiences, or visions, which were known among ancient mystics as the “Vision of the Divine.” This is the Vision of the Light of the Good God. This is the good God that awaits us once our earthly lives have crumbled into dust. For the Gnostic, to know this God is to know peace, and to know that good will ultimately prevail in the end to matter how ugly and how evil this world becomes. If you have seen this Light then you are a Gnostic in Truth [1]. You share a portion of the divine nature, and by nature you will be saved from this world, and from death. You beheld the Vision because the Light is aware of your existence and has revealed itself to you.

This is the unvarnished Gospel of Gnosticism.

Getting back to the subject in question: those who know the Light know that there is no evil in God, in Divinity. The world we know is imperfect, and is plagued by evil. This world is evidently the product of an imperfect consciousness which has revealed itself, and struggles with itself, through the existence of the Human race. Gnostic wisdom tells us that we are capable of redemption because our Sentience originates from the highest and finest substance. We can discover that redemption, that hope, by seeking within ourselves. The Light appears to those who seek self-understanding and maturity. And this in turn is relevant to the most important reason that we must not attribute evil to the Light: because it is a wrong conception of God that will obscure the Vision: and will lead us into communion with the lesser god instead – and the seeker will remain enslaved.

Remember above all else that no evil comes from God. Those who maintain base conceptions of God will seek and find according to their own distortions. –jw

Note

1] This sentence: “If you have seen this Light then you are a Gnostic in Truth” is an over-statement on my part. It is meant to be emphatic but not exclusive. To clarify my point: In my view anyone who has the Spiritual Seed is pre-destined by nature for salvation, even if they know nothing about Gnosis or Gnosticism. Moreover, if a person with the Seed has a conscious awareness of that Seed within themselves, then that person is by definition a Gnostic.

By Jim West. Copyright © 2007, 2012; revised Feb. 17, 2014.

All Rights Reserved.

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Do Gnostics need to be Christians? (revised)

[A note to my readers: Writing this article has been a real can of worms for me. I think I should preface this work by warning that this material is not suitable for everyone. For example, if your faith in Jesus helped you to over-come a great obstacle in life; or if you believe that your faith in Jesus saved you from a demonic attack or possession, then I recommend that you don’t read this article. This article is not meant to address or question such experiences, and I claim no authority to speak in those areas. This article addresses my personal issues involving certain historical problems. I don’t believe it’s a good idea for every person to occupy themselves with these issues as it may do nothing to help or improve your situation here in the present. On the other hand, some of us are in a position in our lives where we need to resolve our problems with the past so that we can be at peace in the present.  —jw]

On the historical record Gnosticism first appears as a form of Christianity. The Catholic Church Fathers of the second and third centuries wrote numerous treatises against Gnostics whom they regarded as false Christians, as heretics who spread blasphemous doctrines about God under the name of Christianity. The writings of the Catholic Fathers mark that historic struggle where various theological schools vied for sole control of the Christian name and legacy. In the forum of public opinion the Catholic Church eventually won that battle; and the Gnostics and other so-called “heretics” were destined to be a persecuted minority, oppressed by the ‘Christian’ Roman State. The Church historian Eusebius recorded the edicts of the Roman Emperor Constantine against the “Valentinians, Marcionites and Paulicians” (Life of Constantine, 3:64f). Whether we like it or not the Catholic Church won the rights to the Christian name and the legacy of Christ. And for centuries to follow the Church would enforce those rights through violent repression, through the threat of imprisonment, torture, and cruel public executions—all in the name of Jesus Christ.

As a Gnostic today I contemplate the precedents of the past with great interest. I believe that the Gnostic heritage contains profound truths far more powerful than anything I learned in mainstream Christianity. Yet the name of the very teacher whom the Gnostics revered, “Jesus”, also proved to be very powerful in the hands of their enemies. At the same time I was also appalled by the wicked hypocrisy of the Catholic Church; which spread it’s gospel across the world with the use of invading armies and with the use tactics we identify today with terrorism. Wasn’t Jesus supposed to be the Prince of Peace? How could the Catholics possibly justify the brutal suppression of other sects, religions and cultures, all in the name of Jesus?

For me the answer to this question, and the source of this paradox, was revealed in the pages of the New Testament, and in the words that are attributed to Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew. In these words there is a paradox. Jesus is widely known for these lofty words in Mt. 5:9,

“Blessed are the peacemakers: for they will be called the sons of God.”

But then in Mt. 10:34 Jesus also said,

“Think not that I came to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword…”  [1]

So much for the Prince of Peace, and Peace on Earth, and all the other good Christmas cheer! In my opinion the two passages above expose the fatal flaw in Christianity that confronts anyone who seriously lays claim to the Christian name. The problem is that the Bible, both the Old and New Testaments, can be used to justify anything. There really is no clear theological or ethical standard. And indeed this lack of a standard proved useful for Catholics and Protestants who were carrying forth their conquests and genocides, with a sword in one hand, and the “Gospel” in the other. The passages from Matthew above are just one example. An entire book could be written on this problem. (Numerous books have been written on the general subject of New Testament theology and its paradoxes: J. Charlot, New Testament Disunity; Werner Kummel, Theology of the New Testament; J. Dunn, Unity and Diversity in the New Testament. The problem is that the New Testament writings do not contain a consistent theological standard. As for the inherent contradictions in Jesus’ Gospel preaching, see my articles Orthodoxy, Heresy & Jesus, parts I and II.)

As a Gnostic I have come to realize that it really is futile to bother with any claim to the Christian name. I am a Gnostic, not a Christian. And I believe there is some merit to the traditional ‘orthodox’ argument that “Gnostics” are not “Christians.” Of course the problem for the ‘orthodox’ crowd is that neither Jesus nor Paul ever used the word “Christian.” They never called themselves or anyone else “Christians.” And the books in the NT that do contain this word are of secondary importance and of doubtful provenance (i.e. Acts 11:26, 26:28; 1 Peter 4:16).

I don’t regard myself as a Christian because I don’t believe that the history and doctrine of Jesus as presented in the New Testament are credible. Even if Jesus did actually exist there is still no way of really knowing who he was, and which opinions are really his. That leaves open the question regarding the passages from Matthew as quoted above: Which saying really came from Jesus? Was it “blessed are the peace-makers”? Or was it “I came not to bring peace”?

I know that the ancient Gnostics did not handle the issues the way I have chosen to do. But a lot has happened in the last 1,800 years. Since the time of Valentinus and Marcion so many evil things have been done in Jesus’ name that this name can no longer be regarded as “holy.” This name, and all the muddle and confusion that goes with it, belongs to orthodox Christianity (falsely so-called). I do believe that some elements of the Gospels were written by genuine mystics with Gnostic leanings; but it is no longer realistic to take the position that all the diverse Gospel teachings originate from one source (again I recommend my articles Orthodoxy, Heresy & Jesus, parts I and II for a presentation of the problem).

I still revere and contemplate the Gnostic myths. But for me it is no longer practical to apply the name of Jesus to them. It was the “Savior” who came down from the Pleroma, not Jesus. Jesus doesn’t really belong in the essential core of Gnostic myth. The Gnostic myth is about the Savior. That essential theme is true. The use of the name Jesus is extraneous. Furthermore I must state my feeling that the people who developed these myths never had any contact with the historical Jesus. What they had was a legend, and they used this legend, and the name “Jesus”, to convey a mystical truth. (The same is true of St. Paul, and it is well-known that his doctrines were not connected with an historical Jesus.) Today there is no reason to assume a literal connection between Gnostic myth and Jesus, and all the problems that inevitably go with it.

In their own way, and in their own time, the ancient Gnostics understood the issues to which I refer. They did not believe that the words of the Apostles, or of Jesus, were wholly true or accurate. The Catholic Father Irenaeus described the Gnostic position this way:

“But again, when we refer them to that tradition that originates from the Apostles… they object to tradition, saying that they themselves are wiser not merely than the presbyters, but even than the Apostles, because they have discovered the unadulterated truth. For they maintain that the Apostles intermingled the things of the Law with the words of the Savior; and that not the Apostles alone, but even the Lord Himself, spoke as at one time from the Demiurge, at another from the intermediate place (Sophia), and yet again from the Pleroma. But they themselves, indubitably, unsulliedly, and purely, have knowledge of the hidden mystery: this is, indeed, to blaspheme their Creator after a most impudent manner!” (Against Heresies, 3.2.2., cf. 3.12.12.)

At least one Gnostic teacher of the second century understood the issues completely, i.e. Basilides. Irenaeus reports that the followers of Basilides declared that they “are no longer Jews, nor yet are they Christians.” (Ibid., 1.24.6)

The ancient Gnostics understood in their own way that the Apostles did not have a clear concept of the truth, and that even Jesus himself did not speak the truth in a clear way. The Gnostics believed that the Apostles were just the beginning, and that the learning of the truth was part of an ongoing spiritual process. Thus the Gnostics of Irenaeus’ day admitted that they knew more than the Apostles. The Apostles weren’t right about everything; and the learning of the truth is part of a process of spiritual growth. The reason that ‘orthodox’ Christian tradition cannot admit to any knowledge beyond the Apostles is because that tradition is spiritually dead.

With the benefit of both hindsight, and spiritual development, I, as a Gnostic today, am fully aware that the Apostles were not right about everything. And I know that the teachings of Jesus are a collection of discordant and contradictory elements. It is useless for me to cling to Jesus as any kind of authority. The core truth of Gnosticism is beyond all this. On the intellectual level the core truths of the Gnostic creed are Five: 1) the purely good Unknown God above the judicial Creator; 2) Dualism: the contrast and conflict between spirituality and materiality; 3) The Three Natures: the notion that the universe is comprised of three levels of reality and substance: spirit, soul and matter; 4) that the aspiring Gnostic must seek the revelation of the Divine within through personal soul-searching. 5) Faith in the guidance of the Holy Spirit (Sophia), which will guide the aspiring Gnostic into Wisdom. For me personally, these are the five central tenets of Gnostic intellectual truth which will open the door to Gnosis. Otherwise there are millions of people today, and countless millions through the centuries, who pray to Jesus, or through Jesus, all day long and they are no closer to the truth.

St. Paul and the author of the Gospel of John certainly understood these tenets in their own ways. And the words of “Jesus” show the influence of these ideas in certain Synoptic passages (e.g. Mt. 5:38–48, Lk. 6:35; see may article Orthodoxy, Heresy & Jesus, II). I have no doubt that Paul and some other New Testament writers were people who had genuine mystical encounters with the Divine, and that these encounters influenced these writers toward Gnostic ways of thinking. The reason the New Testament is of any interest at all is not because it is “Christian”, but because some writers show the emergence of Gnostic thought in their expressions. For this reason these writings are valuable sources of insight.

Personally I consider Gnostic truth to be the product of a reaction to, and repentance from, the errors and contradictions of early Jewish and Jewish Christian doctrines. And it is only in this context that there is a meaningful connection between Gnosticism and Judeo-Christian traditions.

I’m certain that Hellenistic Judaism and the Jews of that generation and culture provided the historical situation where the intellectual points of Gnostic truth first emerged. In that period Jewish tradition and theology presented a paradox that Greek speaking Jews were in a unique position to solve. The problem was that Jewish tradition laid claim to the one true God, and to the Law and ethics, and righteousness, as supposedly revealed by that God. All other nations were simply depraved idolaters who lived in darkness.

Ironically the subsequent fortunes of the Jewish nation did not show the benefits of this supposed revelation. The Greeks and the Romans were superior to the Jews, and Zion lay hopelessly under the heel of Greco-Roman domination, both culturally and politically. This paradox led some Jews to re-evaluate this lofty theological and moral standard which their ancestors had so arrogantly lifted above everyone else. These Jews arrived at the conclusion that the tradition and theology of Moses was a lie, at least as it was traditionally understood. Thus it was among Hellenistic Jews that the elements of Gnostic truth first emerged, and the first elements of this can be seen in Philo Judaeus, Stephen, Nicolaus, Simon Magus and St. Paul. (The latter four names were actually members of the obscure “Hellenist” wing of the early Church at Jerusalem.)

In general, Gnostic theology emerged as the result of efforts by theologians to resolve theological ambiguities and paradoxes in both the Old and New Testaments. When these obscure elements fell into line in a certain way they resembled truths that the mystics recognized from their own experiences. Gnostic doctrine was born. Paul wrote under the influence of these ideas, and some of these ideas were placed in Jesus’ mouth. On the other hand, I seriously doubt that Jesus or his original followers were Gnostics, or even thinking that way.

My point overall is that Gnosticism is really a tradition by itself. It is not Christian. Christian refers to orthodox Christianity and its obsession with Jesus and the mixed bag of doctrines that are attributed to him–all compounded by a literalist reading of the scriptures. Gnosticism is about the direct encounter with the Divine. The intellectual Gnostic creed is meant to inform the aspiring mystic that God is something beyond any tradition or theology. The true Gnostic is someone who has encountered the divine and has learned this truth first hand. This is not a “Christian” phenomenon. And I think that the Gnostic creed alone provides the clearest explanation of the relationship of the Divine to the world, and to worldly traditions.

Now please understand that my forgoing statements are not meant to be a pronouncement against any readers who are Gnostic Christians. I have no criticism whatsoever to offer against Gnostic Christians. But I do have personal doubts as to whether Christian tradition is relevant to core truths, or whether Christianity is in fact a stumbling block. If there are Gnostics out there who can make Christianity work then I wish them well. My message is meant for those who may never be able to make peace with their Christian background. They need to know that there is a way to move forward, and to leave the past behind. —jw

Note

1] Early Gnostics interpreted passages such as Matthew 10:34 as allegories. E.g. Irenaeus explains that according to the Gnostics Mt. 10:34 refers to the power of Horos who separates spiritual substance from material substance (Against Heresies, 1.3.5.). Whether this intepretation is consistent with the original intent of the person who wrote Mt. 10 remains as an open question to me. I suspect that Mt. 10 preserves Jesus’s original, historical message: it is a message intended for Hebrews only and is laced with false prophecy (Mt. 10:23).

By Jim West. Copyright © 2007, 2012; revised January 27, 2014

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Orthodox Outrage

In Roman times the Catholic clergy spread the most vile and slanderous rumors against the Gnostics. The worst attacks were made by a cleric named Epiphanius of Salamis (310–403) and are preserved in a lengthy anti-heresy diatribe known as the Panarion (“medicine chest”). In this bitter, venomous diatribe the Gnostics are accused of masturbating, of mass fornication, and of eating semen and flux as symbols of the body and blood of Christ. As the final, ultimate outrage, Epiphanius informs his readers that when some Gnostic woman became pregnant, as a result of all this alleged promiscuity, he claims that the Gnostics had a special ritual where they extract the fetus, pound it with spices, roast it, and eat it (Panarion, 26).

The famous theologian Augustine of Hippo (354–430) was another cleric who made similar accusations against the Gnostics. Augustine accused the Gnostic Manichean sect of eating a Eucharist “sprayed with Human semen” (de Haeresibus ad Quodvultdeum, 46). A similar accusation comes from Cyril of Jerusalem (315–386), who accused the “Manichees” of eating pieces of pork dipped in semen (Catechetical Instruction, 6.33). [1]

Of course all of these vile accusations begin to crumble under close scrutiny. Augustine, as an example, had been a member of the Manichean sect for nine years, and was a fanatical defender of the sect, just as he would be for the Catholic Church later ( http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/02084a.htm ).

The amazing fact is that Augustine never witnessed any such ritual first hand in the nine years he was in the sect. The basis for his story originates from a scandal supposedly involving local Manicheans in the city of Carthage. This scandal involved the abuse of two young women in an alleged Eucharist ritual that is too bizarre and too depraved to be believed (W. Barnstone, The Other Bible, pg. 676). I will not repeat the sick and disgusting details of this story here. I can only express my disbelief that religious people would engage in such perversions as an expression of their spirituality. I can see where deranged perverts would engage in such depravity, but not religious people. The supposed ritual that Augustine describes is no more sacramental than the molestation of altar boys by Catholic priests can be considered to be a sacramental ritual. Yet this is exactly how Augustine wants this story to appear. He is eager to see this account laid at the front door of all Manicheans everywhere; even as they protest their innocence of such evil deeds. Again, I find it incredible that Augustine was in the Manichean sect for nine years, but never witnessed anything like this with his own eyes.

Personally, I think the more plausible explanation for this paradox, in Augustine’s story, is that Augustine is the kind of man who will repeat such perverted lies when they suit his purposes. This is the kind of man that Augustine was; and this was the kind of smut that he was willing to traffic in. I think the same is true of Cyril of Jerusalem. Cyril claims that the Manichean elect eat a special Eucharist meal comprised of pork dipped in semen. But all historians know that the “elect” Manicheans were strict vegetarians. (Note: Cyril’s comments may have been intended as pure ridicule, malicious humor, and not to be taken literally, viz. that pork is a metaphor for their alleged filthy ritual.) We should also note that in the days of Cyril and Augustine that the Manichean religion was an international movement that eventually spread as far as China. Yet there are no other witnesses from any other source outside of the Catholic clergy who can corroborate Augustine and Cyril. If the Manicheans were really engaged in such perversions as an organized practice then certainly there would be a pattern of reports about it. Sooner or later disgruntled members would leave the sect with stories of its perverted activities–which would stretch all the way to China.

In the case of Epiphanius there too is good reason to doubt the truth of his account. And I will state here that I think that Epiphanius’s accusations are too sick, and at the same time, too fantastic, to be believed. This guy writes of these people in such a way as to lead us to believe that these people aren’t even human. We’re supposed to believe, on Epiphanius’s word, that these people are just a bunch of pigs who revel in their own excrement; and we are expected to believe that this was their concept of religion and piety. Please forgive me if I remain skeptical, and if I note that these accusations have not been settled in court where each side has equal opportunity to state their case. We should also note that in the Roman Empire that Epiphanius and Augustine lived in, the Roman Catholic Church was united with the imperial state. Heretics had no legal rights. The Roman emperors Constantius and Theodosius had both outlawed all other sects and religions, either Christian or pagan. So one need not presume that heretics ever received a fair hearing in court. History has not allowed these people to defend themselves against the monstrous accusations which have been perpetrated against them. To this day, the Catholic sources allow us to know only one side of the story.

Epiphanius actually leads his readers to believe that he was a witness to the deeds he describes. But at the same time he also makes statements indicating that he was never actually present, and that he was “not led away” by the Gnostics he encountered. The dubious nature of his sources appears in the following statements by Epiphanius himself:

“Indeed, beloved readers, I happened upon this sect in person, and was instructed in these matters face to face, by the people who naturally observe this doctrine. Certain women, who had been deceived in this way, not only offered us this verbal information and revealed such things to us, but also…reached out to us in our youth and with babbling recklessness attempted to drag us down. … For though reproached by these deadly women I laughed scornfully, when they indicated to one another, making fun of me, that “We have not been able to save the young man, but have abandoned him to perish in the clutches of the Archon”…

“The women who gave us instruction in this trivial myth [2] were very beautiful in the form of their appearance, but in the content of their wretched thought they possessed the full ugliness of the devil. But the merciful God delivered us from their wickedness. And thus after we had read their books and truly understood their intention we were not led away by them, but rather we avoided them and did not become hooked. And we devoted ourselves to the problem of the moment, pointing them out to the bishops there and detecting the names of those who were hidden within the church. And so they were expelled from the city, about eighty names…” (Panarion, 26.17.4–9) [2]

Epiphanius’s statement here shows that his material is second hand; and is based on a conversation that he had with a group of young women, and not the actual leaders of the sect. He leads us to believe that his evidence is first-hand; but why would these women divulge things to him that are supposed to be secret? Did these women really tell him the whole truth? And, furthermore, has Epiphanius presented an accurate account of what he was told, or is he giving us his own prejudiced interpretation? Indeed there are too many unanswered questions in relation to Epiphanius’s account and the lurid accusations that he makes. Until these questions are answered, Epiphanius’s highly prejudicial statements (which are manifest throughout his treatise) cannot be accepted at face value. Nor can we assume that the “Gnostics” are guilty of the crimes that he charges them with.

The one crime that this sect was actually guilty of under Roman/Catholic Law is the crime of “heresy” and of holding religious services that were not sanctioned by the bishop. This was punishable by the Roman state; and offenders were liable to confiscation of property/books and exile or imprisonment. Epiphanius states that he reported this sect to the bishops, and that they were rounded up and sent into exile. If his accusations of cannibalism were true then it would seem that the sanctions against this sect would be much more serious, and more widely publicized in Catholic sources. Again, Epiphanius’s charges, and the magnitude thereof, lack support.

There is one other issue regarding Epiphanius that I would like to submit for the consideration of my readers. I want to raise the question of whether Epiphanius’s vicious libel was possibly the result of his own sexual repression. Historically, Epiphanius was a lifelong monk ( http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/13393b.htm ). It’s quite possible that he was a virgin his whole life. For a young man the celibate path can lead to enormous emotional pressures. The desire for female companionship and comfort can be very powerful, and can lead to deep unhappiness if not fulfilled. I believe it is possible that Epiphanius became agitated over these women. Knowing that these “beautiful” women were heretics, he probably confronted them with some stupid condescending questions or accusations. They probably answered his foolishness with a stinging wit and rebuke, and made fun of him. Epiphanius’s account may very well be an expression of his anger and hurt that he felt toward these women as well as the sexual repression that he felt because of them. He reacted by making these women and their sect the object of all his venomous frustration and anger. Could this be the true source of the emotional charge in his account–as opposed to the popular notion that he witnessed something bad?

Again, Epiphanius can provide no eye-witness to confirm that any of the practices he describes ever took place. Furthermore there is evidence to show that the worst of his accusations are actually derived from a stock of folklore that had been spread against Christians and other groups for years (see below).

So what do the Gnostics themselves say about these issues? It is a simple fact that no extant Gnostic text from antiquity can be shown which gives any sanction to such practices. Nor can the Catholic clergy provide any such evidence from Gnostic circles. Epiphanius claims to quote Gnostic texts, but conveniently, these texts are no longer extant; and there is the problem of whether his interpretations can be trusted, let alone corroborated by other Gnostic sources.

Quite to the contrary, extant Gnostic texts can be shown to actually condemn these practices that Epiphanius complains about. Here is an example from a dialogue between Jesus and his disciples in the Gnostic text Pistis Sophia (387; 2 Jeu. 43). The disciple Thomas informs Jesus of a certain rumor regarding some who observe the Eucharist:

“We have heard that there are men on earth who take the sperm of men and the flux of women, and mix them with lentils and eat them… Surely this is an unseemly deed?”

Jesus responds as follows:

“Then was Jesus wroth with the world and said unto Thomas, Amen I say, this sin is more heinous than all sins and all iniquities!”

Jesus next tells his disciples of the fate of those people who engage in such practices:

“Men of that kind, they shall be instantly taken into the outer darkness…they shall be destroyed, they shall perish in the outer darkness, in the region where there is no mercy and no light, but weeping and gnashing of teeth. And every soul that shall be carried into the darkness, shall never again return, but shall perish and be dissolved.” (G. Mead, Pistis Sophia, Theosophical Pub., 1896, pg. 390)

The passage above certainly reflects a time in late antiquity when Gnostics were being accused of such activities. The intent in this passage is to cite the highest authority, Jesus, that such practices are condemned in the strongest terms in Gnostic tradition. There will be no “mercy” for those who engage in such practices. They will not enter the Bridal Chamber with Sophia and the Savior, but will inherit the “outer darkness” instead.

In the Nag Hammadi text Thomas the Contender there is a passage which reflects on the larger issue of promiscuity. Here Jesus warns Thomas that it is the desire for sex and procreation that binds the material order together. Jesus warns Thomas: “Woe to you who love intimacy with womankind and polluted intercourse with them!” and also “Listen to what I am going to tell you, and believe the truth. That which sows and that which is sown will dissolve in fire…” (144:8f., 142:10f.).

The Gnostic text The Sophia of Jesus Christ makes repeated references to sex as the “unclean rubbing” (93, 108).

Hippolytus reports that the Naassenes regard sexual intercourse as an “extremely filthy and wicked practice” and that the Mystery cult god, the castrated Attis, is a symbol of the spiritual man who avoids sexual intercourse (Refutation of All Heresies, 5:2; Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 5, pg. 49).

The passages above represent a general consensus of what the extant Gnostic texts actually say regarding sex and sex-oriented sacraments. These statements make it unlikely that Gnostics considered sex and emissions to be suitable sacramental instruments. There are no Gnostic writings in existence which extol the joys of sex and the (supposed) power of its essences. Nothing like that exists. There is no Gnostic version of the Kama Sutra. This is really quite significant when you think about it.

But again the Catholic Fathers have their reports, which cannot be entirely ignored. Irenaeus complains how that the Valentinians insist that it is “always necessary for them to practice the mystery of [sexual] conjunction” (Against Heresies, 1.6.4). He also preserves this supposed Valentinian saying: “Whosoever being in this world does not so love a woman, so as to possess her, is not of the truth nor shall attain the truth” (ibid.). Irenaeus claims that the Valentinians are for this reason notorious for seducing women. But then this has to be compared with the testimony of Clement of Alexandria, who wrote of the same sect and doctrine at the exact same time as Irenaeus. Clement was much closer to the Valentinians and had direct access to the letters of Valentinus himself, which Clement quotes on numerous occasions in his treatise Stromateis (3:7, 4:13, 6:6). In book 3 Clement gives this description of the Valentinian doctrine of conjunction: “The Valentinians justify physical union from the divine emanations above (the Aions) and approve of marriage” (Strom. 3.1.1). In my article Orthodoxy, Heresy & Jesus, III I noted how that Clement actually gave credit to the Valentinians for setting a good moral example in comparison to the Carpocratians (Stromateis, 3.4.29., 3.7.59). Clement spoke with grudging respect for the Valentinians while at the same time castigating the Carpocratians for their sexual immorality (ibid. 3.109.2).

From both Irenaeus and Clement there is plausible evidence that the Valentinians regarded sexual union as a “mystery” of the order above. And Clement’s report on the Carpocratians implied that they regarded free sexuality as a demonstration of the liberty that they (supposedly) attained through the Gospel (see below). If there is any truth to what these “Fathers” say then it may be true that there was some womanizing among the Valentinians; and the Carpocratians may have condoned some form of free love. The most important point to be noted in connection with these reports is that neither of these men make the vile accusations as found later with Epiphanius and Augustine. Stated bluntly, neither Irenaeus nor Clement accuse the “heretics” of drinking semen or menstrual blood, or of eating babies. Surely these men would have mentioned these details if these rumors were credible.

Probably the most honest and concise statement from the Catholic clergy on this matter is from Justin Martyr (c. 110–160) who lived during the heyday of the heresies. Justin regarded the rumors against the heretics with skepticism; and he wrote accordingly to the Roman Emperor Antoninus Pius:

“Whether they perpetrate those fabulous and shameful deeds–the upsetting of the lamp, and promiscuous intercourse, and eating human flesh–we know not.” (1 Apology 26)

Justin disbelieved the rumors that were being spread about Christians and heretics even in his own day. Here we see that Epiphanius’s story has roots which go back over 200 years. But what is the source of these rumors? Did they originate among Christians? Justin indicates that these rumors were spread by the pagans against Christians. The historical record indeed shows that there is a long pattern in pagan Roman society where obscure religious groups became the targets of public gossip, slander and persecution. Justin complained in his Apology how that Christians were bearing the same libels and injustices that were also endured by the Greek philosophers, especially Socrates. In real history these kinds of accusations can be shown to be part of a pattern of superstitious rumor-mongering that had long existed in Roman society. Even before the birth of Christ there was a pattern in pagan Roman society where foreign or secretive sects became the objects of public abuse. In the context of history the Christians were simply the latest in a long line of victims that, before them, also included the Druids and the Mystery cults of Isis and Dionysos/Bacchus. [3]

One of the best examples of this persecution can be seen in an account provided by the Roman historian Livy (i.e. Titus Livius, 59 BC–17 AD). Livy records a scandal that broke out in Rome in the year 186 BC, which involved the spread of a Greek mystery cult into Italy that was dedicated to the worship of Dionysos, and whom the Romans called Bacchus (in Latin). The scandal began with the lurid story of a certain young woman who did not want her boy-friend to be initiated into the cult. This offended the young man’s mother and step father, and she was compelled to tell her story to the Roman Consul Postumius. (In the Roman Republic a “Consul” was the equivalent of our “President” today, and was appointed by election. The Romans elected two consuls at a time so that no one consul would have too much power.) The young woman told a lurid story of how young men and women were lured into a secret life of sex crimes and murder:

“From the time that the rites were performed in common, men mingling with women and the freedom of darkness added, no form of crime, no form of wrongdoing was left untried. There were more lustful practices among men with one another than among women. If any of them were disincline to endure abuse or reluctant to commit crime, they were sacrificed as victims. To consider nothing wrong, she continued, was the highest form of devotion among them.”  (Livy, 39.13.10–12; Loeb Classical Library, vol. 11, pg. 255)

Livy records that Postumius brought these charges to the Senate and before the people. He denounced the Bacchic rites as a “false religion” (“prava religio”) and as a secret society engaged in a conspiracy against the state. Postumius also warned about how that “foreign cults” can corrupt the Roman tradition:

“How often in the times of our fathers and grand fathers, has the task been assigned to the magistrates of forbidding the introduction of foreign cults, of excluding dabblers in sacrifices and fortune tellers from the Forum, the Circus, and the City, of searching out and burning books of prophecies, and of annulling every system of sacrifice except that performed in the Roman way.” (Ibid., 39.16.8–9)

Here we can see that religious intolerance among the Romans was an ancient tradition indeed. With the permission of the Senate the consuls Postumius and Marcius set out to remove this menace and to arrest and prosecute anyone who was initiated in the cult. However, Livy never presents any hard evidence that these crimes actually happened. And historians today doubt that this was the real motive behind the suppression of the cult (J. Cook, Cambridge Ancient History, vol. IX, pg. 762; N. Lewis, Roman Civilization, vol. 1, pg. 503). The real motive appears in the second passage quoted above. The Bacchic cult was foreign and it had a secret priest-hood that operated outside of the official Roman religious establishment. Many historians believe that this was the real reason that the sect was suppressed. When we read about the charges leveled against the cult, both in terms of what they do in secret in the dark, and the foreign nature of its rites, we can compare this to the charges that were made against the Christians later by pagan critics. In a later period the Romans accused the Christians of the same litany of offenses that the Bacchists were accused of over 200 years before. The Christians were accused of being a secret society, of sexual immorality and cannibalism. Both Justin Martyr and Tertullian wrote Apologies in defense against these accusations, and both writers wrote fiery reproaches against the Romans for the perversions and abuses that they tolerated among themselves every day, even while they pointed fingers at Christians.

The attitude of many Romans toward the early Christians can be seen in this passage from the Roman historian Tacitus (c. 59–117), in which he relates Nero’s decision to blame the Christians at Rome for the great fire of 64.

“Nero set up as culprits, and punished with the utmost cruelty, a class hated for their abominations, who are commonly called Christians. Christus, from whom their name is derived, was executed at the hands of the procurator Pontius Pilate in the reign of Tiberius. Checked for the moment this pernicious superstition broke out again, not only in Judea, the source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their center and become popular. Thus those who confessed [to being Christians] were first arrested, then on evidence from them a large multitude was convicted, not so much for the charge of arson as for their hatred of the human race.” (Annales, 15:44; cf. Justin, 1 Apology, 26)

In the words of Tacitus it is obvious that the Christians were regarded by Romans in a manner on par with the cult of Bacchus. Like the Bacchists the Christians are regarded as a criminal class of perverts who are of absolutely no worth to ‘good’ society.

But then again, not all Romans agreed on the historical record as to whether the Christians were bad people (aside from their refusal to worship the Emperor and their impiety against pagan traditions in general). Other pagans living in the same age as Tacitus had their doubts. One example is Pliny the Younger (c. 61–112). Pliny was the Roman governor (procurator) of the Asian province of Bithynia, under the emperor Trajan (r. 98–117). Pliny wrote to the emperor of his concern that he could find no evidence of criminal wrong-doing in his investigations of Christian religion and practice. He found that Christians indeed refused to worship the Emperor; but he found no evidence that the Christian religion encouraged immoral behavior. Trajan advised that he should only prosecute Christians if they displayed their piety or defied Roman customs openly; but that no effort should be made to search them out. Trajan also warned Pliny about prosecuting people on the basis of anonymous accusations: “They are not to be sought out; if they are denounced and proved guilty, they are to be punished… But anonymously posted accusations ought to have no place in any prosecution. For this is both a dangerous kind of precedent and out of keeping with the spirit of our age.” Thus both the emperor Trajan and Pliny agreed that Christianity was not some criminal conspiracy orchestrated by perverts–as Tacitus and others would have us believe.

Here is link to the extant letters exchanged between Pliny and the Emperor Trajan: http://ccat.sas.upenn.edu/jod/texts/pliny.html

Another Roman emperor who is said to have doubted the rumors against Christians is Trajan’s successor, the emperor Hadrian (r. 117–138). Eusebius preserved a “rescript” supposedly written by Hadrian, in which the emperor orders that Christians are only to be condemned through a court trial, and not simply on the basis of innuendo. Hadrian furthermore urges punishment against those who spread false rumors of criminal activity: “By Hercules! If anyone bring an accusation through mere calumny (slander), make judgment in regard to his criminality, and see to it that you inflict punishment.” (Eusebius, Church History, 4.9.1–3. Note: the authenticity of Hadrian’s “rescript” is disputed by some historians. I have chosen to include the text as evidence because I believe it is plausible. I’ll leave it to the reader to judge the evidence.)

Trajan, Hadrian and Pliny represent the better side of Roman society. These men did not allow themselves to be swayed by the vulgar imaginations and rumors of the common mob. If we can accept the rescript of Hadrian as genuine then this emperor even went out of the way to punish those who reported these slanders to the authorities. But again, these men reflect the exception and not the rule in Roman society. Most Romans traditionally regarded foreign cults with suspicion and contempt.

Over time, this traditional Roman view of foreign cults would become part of the culture of the Catholic Church as it grew and became a mainstream institution. The historical record shows the pattern in the way that the Catholic Church treated the heretics: slander, political repression, confiscation of writings and properties, exile and/or imprisonment. (In the later medieval period these measures would also include the cruelest tortures and public executions–which reflect the exact same measures that pagan Romans used on early Christians.)

Of course, even at an earlier stage the early Catholic clergy can be shown to have engaged in the popular defamatory tactics of the day. An example can be seen with the Catholic Father Hippolytus (c. 170–236) who wrote a scathing account of the Roman church while it was governed by a rival “orthodox” theologian named Callistus (Refutation of All Heresies, 9:7). At this time the Catholic Church was actually divided between two “orthodox” schools of theology. These schools were divided over the question of whether the Son and the Father were actually one (cf. Jn. 10:30) or if the Son and the Father were separate entities (cf. Mt. 19:17). Callistus represented the former position and Hippolytus the latter. This conflict in turn was played out in Rome, in the early third century, where contenders from both sides vied for dominance in the Roman church. Hippolytus represents the faction that eventually won the conflict. Historians refer to Callistus’ doctrine as Monarchianism.

Hippolytus describes the Roman church, under Callistus, as a brothel (ibid.). He accuses Callistus of allowing a lax environment where young women from upper classed Roman families frequent the church out of a desire for intrigue (in an outlaw sect) and to seek out sexual liaisons with low born men and slaves. And, when some of these women became pregnant, Hippolytus claims that Callistus allowed them to induce abortions in various ways. Hippolytus claims that some of the women took poisons to expel their fetuses, whereas others wore braces around their waists which forced the fetus out as it grew in size.

Such were the affairs in the Roman Church in the early third century–that is, according to Hippolytus. Ironically Hippolytus is not talking about a sect of Gnostics. The Monarchian school aspired to orthodoxy and simply believed that Jesus and Jehovah were one and the same. The question is can we really believe Hippolytus’s account? Or is his testimony the product of a factious theologian who was filled with jealousy? Was Callistus really to blame for the sordid events that Hippolytus describes? Or is Hippolytus really blowing certain things out of proportion so that he can smear Callistus? To this day Catholic historians doubt the veracity of this account, and they note that there never was a time in Catholic history where Callistus or his supporters were ever out of communion with the Catholic Church. In general Catholic tradition Callistus has a good reputation. Hippolytus is the only “orthodox” writer to attack him; and indeed Hippolytus slanders him in every possible way.

I suspect that Hippolytus was taking everyday big city social problems, that the Catholic Church had to struggle with, and he was cynically blaming this on Callistus. But Hippolytus’s integrity is suspect, and this can be clearly seen in the way that he tries to link Callistus’ theology with the Greek philosopher Heraclitus (ibid., 9:2–7). This is an absurd stretch, and it shows the length to which Hippolytus was willing to go to smear other people’s reputations. Hippolytus was inevitably compelled to smear his own Catholic Church as a depraved den of whores. But in the bigger picture his defamatory tactics are all too familiar.

In the cases of the Catholic clerics I have named in this article, Epiphanius, Augustine, Cyril, and Hippolytus, I think the case can be made that the charges they make are more a reflection of their own depraved minds, and fantasies, or frustrations, or jealousies, as opposed to anything that “heretics” were really engaged in. When we read such lurid accounts, and such disgusting imagery, we must give equal consideration to the mindset of the writer as well as to those who bear the brunt of such defamatory attacks. There can be no doubt that all of these men set out to defame someone else. But what is the motive? And are the reports based on verifiable facts? Too often in these reports the corroborative evidence is lacking.

Personally, I think that Epiphanius, Augustine and Cyril, etc., all had depraved minds to begin with; and this shows up in the ways that these men chose to handle the problem of heresy. Another example of this can be seen with Irenaeus of Lyons (c. 130–202). Historians regard Irenaeus as the great father of Christian “orthodoxy.” Irenaeus wrote a massive treatise against the Gnostics which was entitled “For the Detection and Overthrow of falsely so-called Gnosis.” Today the treatise is known by its short title Against Heresies (c. 180). Against Heresies represents the first exhaustive effort by an “orthodox” theologian to give a systematic explanation of why “orthodox” doctrine is right, and why everything that the Gnostics and Marcionites say is wrong. In this treatise Irenaeus accused the various heretical groups of engaging in all kinds of excesses. Irenaeus doesn’t repeat the vile accusations that Epiphanius does, but the malicious intent is there.

Inevitably, in his zeal to attack and refute the Gnostics Irenaeus makes certain statements which can only lead one to question the integrity of this man’s state of mind. In the passage quoted below Irenaeus sets forth the most bizarre allegory from the Old Testament in order to drive home his belief that the Gnostics are wrong for finding evil in the Old Testament. Irenaeus claims that if the scriptures do not condemn a certain act as evil then readers are not to judge for themselves, but are to regard the passage as an allegory for something else (Against Heresies, 4.31.1). Irenaeus chooses the biblical account of Lot and his daughters following the destruction of Sodom. Lot’s daughters fear that they are the only survivors and that their father is the last man on earth. So they decide to get him drunk and fornicate with him so that they can preserve his lineage (Gen. 19:32). The children of this incestuous tryst become the tribes of the Moabites and Ammonites, which are portrayed in scripture as enemies of Israel. In Deuteronomy 23:3 it says that “An Ammonite or Moabite shall not enter into the congregation of the Lord…for ever.”

Irenaeus would have us believe that this incestuous tryst between Lot and his daughters was actually arranged by God, and that this is an allegory for the Holy Spirit (read: sperm) that was poured out on both the Jewish and Christian “churches” which are symbolized by Lot’s two daughters:

“[T]he arrangement designed by God was carried out, by which the two daughters (that is, the two churches)…gave birth to children begotten of one and the same Father… For there was no other person who could impart to them the quickening seed… Moreover, by the words they used this fact was pointed out–that there is no other one who can confer among the elder and younger church the power of giving birth to children, besides our Father. … Now this whole matter was indicated through Lot, that the seed (sperm) of the Father of all–that is, of the Spirit of God, by whom all things were made–was commingled and united with flesh–that is, with his own workmanship; by which commixture and unity the two synagogues–that is, the two churches–produced from their own father living sons of God.” (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 4.31.1–2; emphasis added)

Irenaeus thus believes that the biblical account of Lot’s incest is a symbol of the Holy Spirit that the “Father” pours out on both the Jewish and Gentile churches, and allows them to beget spiritual children (i.e. converts). The fact that Irenaeus can see correlations between Lot’s filth and the Holy Spirit, and between incest and the providence of God, is incredible to me. That someone could even think this way makes me wonder what kind of things were tolerated at Irenaeus’s house, or at his church? Personally, I don’t see the biblical account of Lot as a suitable allegory for anything. And it seems to me that the biblical story is really a sanitized version of a slanderous myth that the early Israelites told about their enemies, viz. the Moabites and Ammonites, that they were the descendants of a scandalous incest. The Bible itself admits that the children of Lot’s incest, the Moabites and Ammonites, were the enemies of Israel, and were banned from the congregation of YHWH “forever”. This biblical factoid (I’m being facetious) in turn shows that there really is no theological consistency in what Irenaeus says. His allegory is completely inappropriate and disgusting. (Even the Ante-Nicene Fathers editors express their reservations about Irenaeus’s statements; see Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 1, pg. 504, footnote #10.)

I think that Irenaeus’s perverted and blasphemous allegory is typical of the twisted thoughts that thrive in the minds of fanatical “orthodox” theologians. In the same way we can see where other “orthodox” clergy are eager to repeat the most twisted and perverted rumors against people with whom they disagree on theology. And I suspect that this neurotic pattern has some reflection in the Catholic priesthood today, where there is an epidemic of child molestation, and an organized pattern of cover-ups where offending priests were shuttled from parish to parish. Just recently the Pope even came to America to apologize personally for this ongoing scandal. And then there are those Evangelical leaders in America who preach against homosexuality and gay marriage, while at the same time these guys are privately soliciting gay prostitutes and using Meth. It’s all indicative of the reality that some “orthodox” theologians–usually of the fanatical variety–have sick minds to begin with. And once again I’d like to drive my point home regarding Epiphanius: I think Epiphanius invents the sick and lurid stories that he does because this man has a repressed and perverted mind to begin with. In Epiphanius’s “Panarion” we are witnessing the filth that originates from within a man, and not what goes in terms of eye-witness evidence and facts.

On the other hand, I know that there are some pro-Gnostic writers out there who seem more than happy to give credence to people like Epiphanius. I recall the statement of one particular writer: “There is apparently no reason to doubt Epiphanius’s testimony. If we possessed eye-witness accounts of other sects, they would surely describe scenes that varied only in their minor details.” Again I express my skepticism: How can this writer be so certain that Epiphanius actually witnessed what he reports? To my knowledge there are in fact no eye-witness reports that any of these things ever happened. I pity the fool out there who is pretending to be a Gnostic, and is drinking semen, simply on the basis of something that Epiphanius said. Again, I think Epiphanius’s tales are mostly the products of his own sick mind.

Finally, let us consider if there is any core truth at all to what these writers say. Personally I think that Clement of Alexandria gave a reliable account of the Carpocratians in Alexandria. Readers can find this account in book three of Clement’s Stromateis. I cover this account briefly in my archive article Orthodoxy, Heresy and Jesus, III: The Pattern of Gnostic Truth. Clement described the Carpocratians as a sect which believed that the liberation of the Gospel was fulfilled through sexual indulgence. Clement castigated them for this: but he never mentions any of the vile accusations as made by later clergymen. It’s possible that Clement did make some exaggerations. Obviously I can only speculate and rely on my instinct in trying to get to the truth of the matter.

I suspect that the Carpocratians and some other Gnostic sects were controversial because they believed that the Gospel was bringing in a new spiritual/social order. This concept is summarized by St. Paul in Galatians 3:28, where we read that in Christ “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female: for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Gnostics saw this as a release from the bonds of the Demiurge, and the traditional institutions of gender, marriage, slavery and nationalism in the biblical sense (cf. Clement, Stromateis, 3.2.6; Hippolytus, Ref., 5:2). I think that this led some Gnostic sects to have lax and progressive attitudes that in turn were a scandal to other less enlightened prudes. I suspect that some Gnostic sects condoned things like spouse swapping, and they tolerated homosexual activity. None of these things are considered crimes among progressive people today. But in ancient times these types of things led to public gossip and rumors among the common folk, i.e. the “vulgar.” [4]

Some of my readers may be thinking of Paul as they read my words. Wasn’t Paul against fornication and homosexuality? I believe that Paul’s words have to be taken in context, and that we cannot assume that Paul’s letters, in their present form, represent Paul’s statements in the original context. I address these issues in my article On the Ethics of St. Paul. (See my archive article Was Paul a misogynist? for an example of this problem of context in Paul’s letters.)

Hopefully this article has offered my readers an opportunity to reconsider the traditional view of Gnostic morality. I do believe that the ancient Gnostics have been portrayed unfairly; and even some modern pro-Gnostic writers have contributed to this problem. Hopefully I have offered my readers an opportunity to dispel some of that disinformation. –jw

 

Notes

 [1] H. Maier, The Journal of Early Christian Studies, vol. 4, Number 4, Winter 1996, pg. 441f. Cyril’s comments were probably in jest and not to be taken literally, viz. that pork was a metaphor for their alleged filthy ritual.

 [2] My quote from Panarion, 26.17.4–9 is derived primarily from the translation of Bentley Layton along with some material from Frank Williams. The words “trivial myth” are from Williams. Cf. B. Layton, The Gnostic Scriptures, Doubleday, NY (1995), pg. 213f. F. Williams, Panarion., E.J. Brill, NY (1987), pg. 97f.

[3] Some readers may notice that I haven’t mentioned Jews here. But historically it is a fact that the Jews and their religion were given special legal recognition by the Roman state beginning with Julius Caesar (Geza Vermes, Who’s Who in the Age of Jesus, pg. 63f.). For this reason Jews cannot be compared to Christians or the worshippers of Bacchus, etc. It is certainly true that Jews were persecuted by the later Catholic Roman state; but this article does not provide the appropriate occasion and context in which to discuss this issue.

[4] As the very word implies, Vulgar people (being ignorant, uncultured and uneducated) are exactly the type of people who spread scandalous rumors and lies about other people or subjects they don’t understand. A modern example is where a vulgar person speculates about someone who is bookish or weird. The vulgar man will choose to label that person a “queer”. Among educated people that person may be held in high esteem as a scientist, or a philosopher or theologian. I believe that this simple vulgar mindset is the source of these scandalous and disgusting tales that some Catholic clergymen told about the heretics. These stories originated from vulgar people (among the pagans) and were developed over generations into lurid and vulgar fables as found in Epiphanius. I believe that Cyril, Epiphanius and Augustine repeated these stories because these men were from vulgar backgrounds themselves. In contrast the Catholic Fathers quite often describe Gnostic teachers as educated men schooled in Greek philosophy. Among the Catholic clergy both Justin Martyr and Clement of Alexandria had backgrounds in high education and culture. Neither of these men affirm the most vile of the vulgar stories about the Gnostics.

By Jim West. Copyright © 2008, 2012; revised July 12th, 2015.

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On the Ethics of St. Paul

St. Paul’s letters provide us with the only authentic eye-witness record of the first generation of Christians. In contrast with the ideal picture presented in the book of Acts, Paul’s letters reveal a Christian movement that was in turmoil, and in which there was a moral crisis. Paul repeatedly warned his readers against factious disputes, drunkenness, fornication and homosexuality (1 Cor. 1:10–11, 5:1–5, 6:9f. Gal. 5:19f.). In one passage Paul reproaches his readers:

“Sober up to righteousness and stop sinning, for not all have the knowledge of God (agnosian). I speak this to your shame.” (1 Cor. 15:34)

The passage above is an example of a peculiar duality that is found throughout Paul’s doctrine and ethic. This is summed up in the basic concepts of “faith” and “knowledge” (gnosis) that appear in Paul’s letters. Faith refers to the concept of justification by faith (Gal. 2:16) whereas “knowledge” refers to liberty from the Law of Moses (1 Cor. 8:9–10). In Paul’s letters there is this precarious balance between the two, between the piety that comes through faith, and the liberty that comes through knowledge. For this reason we can find Paul making some very strange statements in which there is a dual message. An example is where the Apostle warns against fornication and homosexuality:

“Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals…(etc.) shall inherit the kingdom of God.” (1 Cor. 6:9f.)

Paul’s message here seems to be clear enough. But the problem is that he does not stop here. Instead he goes on to qualify himself:

“All things are lawful for me, but I will not be brought under the power of any.” (1 Cor. 6:12)

Why does Paul qualify himself here? What is the point? Inevitably we must conclude that Paul does not regard the sexual act itself as “unlawful.” What Paul considers to be unlawful, or sinful, is when someone becomes a slave to sexual desire, but not because of the sexual act itself. Certainly Paul has created a loophole in the moral code of the early church, and this controversy is reflected in his letters, and in the later Christian/Gnostic movement [1][2]. The problem here is that Paul does not actually make plain that “fornication” and “homosexuality” are sinful in and of themselves. His words are open to interpretation.

Paul’s concept of knowledge and liberation is described most clearly in 1 Corinthians 8. Here Paul informs his readers that Christians who have “gnosis” are free to eat meat that has been sacrificed to idols (1 Cor. 8:9–10). Paul’s only concern is that this is not done in front of those brothers who are “weak” and who lack “gnosis” (1 Cor. 8:7). Partaking of idol meats is forbidden in the Law of Moses, and in Acts 15:29 the Apostles at Jerusalem prohibit the practice among gentile Christians. Yet Paul resists, and he asserts once again, regarding this matter, that “All things are lawful” and that Christians should buy their meat from the market, asking no questions (1 Cor. 10:23, 25). Here again, the underlying principle in Paul’s statements is that Christians who have “gnosis” are liberated from the Law of Moses. In Paul’s letters this underlying concept has implications in every aspect of Christian/Gnostic life.

The implications of this liberation can be seen in the passage below from Galatians 3:28. In this passage Paul informs the Christians of Galatia that salvation is achieved through grace alone, and they must not observe the Mosaic Law, or else they will inherit the curse (Gal. 3:10–13). In this context Paul informed the Galatians that a new age was beginning in Christ, and that for Christians the Law of Moses was no longer binding. Paul therefore informed his readers that in Christ:

“There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal. 3:28)

Paul is not simply referring here to a state equality among Christians. Paul refers to the passing away of the old testament and the old social order that was established under the Law of Moses, where Hebrews were divided from gentiles, and men separated from women, and women subservient to men bound in marriage, and also the biblical laws distinguishing free men and slaves (Dt. 7:6, Gen. 2:24, 3:16, Lev. 25:39ff.). For Paul, the Christian church is the harbinger of a new spiritual order that will overtake the world with the arrival of the kingdom of God.

Paul’s concept of liberation from the Law is an idea that is traceable to Jewish tradition. Among Jews, or certain Jews as the case may be, there was this idea that once the Messianic Age arrived, that the Law of Moses would no longer be in force. The scholar Hans-Joachim Schoeps documents the history of this idea in Judaism (Paul: The Theology of the Apostle in the Light of Jewish Religious History, pg. 171f.). The reason that Paul fell out with his fellow Jews is that he introduced the idea, unique to his version of the gospel, that the Law of Moses ceased with the resurrection of Jesus, and that all Christians were released from the Law. On this point Paul was in conflict with both Jews and Christians alike (see below).

This concept of liberation is also found in other New Testament books aside from Paul. In the Gospel of Matthew this concept is mentioned in two notable passages. In Matthew 22 Jesus cites this doctrine in his answer to the Sadducees regarding a wife with multiple deceased husbands: hence which man will she be married to in the kingdom? Jesus answers that “For in the resurrection they neither marry, nor are given in marriage, but are as the angels of God in heaven.” (Mt. 22:30)

And in Matthew 5 the following warning is attributed to Jesus–probably against the followers of Paul–regarding those who teach that the Law will pass before the kingdom arrives:

“Think not that I am come to destroy the Law… For truly I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, not the smallest letter or stroke will pass from the Law, till all be fulfilled. Whosoever, therefore, shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great…” (Mt. 5:17–19)

In comparison to the above passage let’s now note the proclamations of Paul on the same issue:

“Therefore by the deeds of the Law shall no flesh be justified…” (Rom. 3:20)

And also, regarding circumcision:

“For I testify again to every man that is circumcised, that he is a debtor to do the whole law. Christ is become of no effect unto you, whosoever of you are justified by the law, ye are fallen from grace.” (Gal. 5:3–4)

And again, regarding the Sabbath:

“One man esteemeth one day above another: another esteemeth every day alike. Let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind.” (Rom. 14:5)

Indeed this concept of liberation from the Law is alluded to both in Paul’s letters and in Matthew. Most interesting however is that Paul and “Matthew” actually oppose each other on the issue. The “Jesus” of Matthew commands his followers to observe all of the law, not withstanding the smallest “letter” or “stroke”; whereas Paul teaches the opposite. In Matthew 19:16–17 Jesus tells the young aristocrat that in order to have “eternal life” that he must “keep the commandments.” But again Paul taught the opposite, as documented above; and in 2 Corinthians 3:6–7 Paul refers to the Law of Moses as the “ministry of death.” In these conflicting passages we can see that the earliest Christians were deeply divided, and that the “Jesus” of Paul and the “Jesus” of Matthew are irreconcilable in terms of the concept of redemption. Thus in Paul’s letters “Jesus” saves man from the Law; whereas in Matthew “Jesus” saves man through the Law. These two concepts of redemption are irreconcilable–and represent the teachings of two opposing Christian factions.

My point overall is that Paul does not refer to some abstract or mystical concept of unity and equality in Galatians 3:28. Paul refers to a new social order, and a new ethic, which has already begun among Christians, and which will soon overtake the world in the coming Messianic age. This is why Paul argues against the practice of circumcision (Gal. 5:4), and is not concerned with prohibitions against eating meat sacrificed to idols (1 Cor. 8:9–11), and is not concerned about which day Christians should rest, or even if they bother to observe any Sabbath at all (Rom. 14:5). In other parts of the New Testament “Jesus” censures those who cease from observing the law before the end of the age is fulfilled (Mt. 5:17–19).

But again there remains the question as to what type of ethic that Paul and his followers were to live by. Some of my readers will point out to me that “Paul” specifically instructed his followers to adhere to the institution of marriage rather than indulge in fornication (1 Cor. 7:2). But I raise the question of the context of Paul’s statements. Did Paul prescribe marriage as the ideal arrangement? Or did Paul prescribe marriage for those who could not gain mastery over their desires? Because, repeatedly, in Paul’s instruction, and in his warnings on fornication and homosexuality, he qualifies himself: “All things are lawful for me. But I will not be brought under the power of any.” (1 Cor. 6:12, 10:23) Again, the implication here is that Paul does not regard the sexual act itself as evil. What he regards as evil are those who are slaves to sexual desire.

Overall I find the preceding statement inconsistent with one who is out to eradicate unconventional ethics among his followers. Why remind them that “All things are lawful”? I also urge my readers to bear in mind that Paul’s writings have been bequeathed to us in a heavily reworked and redacted form. And in this we can see inconsistent elements in “Paul’s” teaching and admonitions on the issues of ethics and morality. It’s entirely possible in my view that some of the harshest statements against homosexuality or fornication are actually from another writer or editor.

I documented in my article Was Paul a Misogynist? that the letter of 1 Corinthians alone is comprised of more than one letter. For example, in 1 Corinthians Paul can be shown have both allowed and prohibited women from prophesying in the church (e.g. 1 Cor. 11:5 & 14:34). I mention this because I want my readers to be aware of the fact that the Pauline letters are not purely Pauline. And here again in 1 Corinthians 6:9–12 Paul condemns sex outside of marriage, and gay sex, and yet bothers to remind his readers that “All things are lawful.” Something does not add up here. But I do accept Paul at his word that the body and spirit are meant for God, not sex. I do believe that Paul did not want people following him who were “gay” first and Christian second; nor did he want the church to be a brothel. In this context it is possible that Paul told the ‘flamers’ to get lost; because these people showed themselves to be more interested in gay sex than in the initiation that Paul offered.

On the other hand I remain unconvinced that Paul condemned people who were discreet about their sexuality. I doubt that Paul was interested in spying on their liberty. I think the same is true on the issue of fornication: “All things are lawful.” Paul did not want his teaching to be used as a license to solicit prostitutes (Harlots); but at the same time, he was not against unmarried people who loved each other in a pure spirit. Indeed they were liberated from the Law, and nothing is impure for the pure.

The best reason I can advance for Paul not speaking in clear terms on the issue of gay sex or fornication is this: The aim of Paul’s ministry was to convert Jews along with Gentiles (Rom. 11). Paul knew that, typically, Jews were offended by homosexuality, and for this reason Paul had to present the gospel to them in a form that they would accept (1 Cor. 9:19–23). Indeed this reality is confirmed in Paul’s own words: “And unto the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might win the Jews; to them that are under the Law, as under the Law, that I might win them that are under the Law” (1 Cor. 9:20). Note that Paul himself is not really under the Law; he only pretends to be when the occasion calls for it. In light of this, I raise the question of whether we can simply accept Paul’s anti-gay rhetoric at face value? Is Paul really down on homosexuality, or is he only down on the issue when the occasion calls for it?

I believe that Paul’s words “All things are lawful” points to his expectation of a time in the future when more enlightened views would prevail. In 1 Corinthians 8 Paul warned his fellow Christians, who had “gnosis”, about flaunting their “liberty” in front of those who lacked knowledge. And once again there is that strange admonition: “Sober up to righteousness and stop sinning, for not all have the knowledge of God. I speak this to your shame.” (1 Cor. 15:34) In these words Paul admits his belief that a sin is a sin only when it is committed in front of someone who lacks gnosis (agnosian). Hence All things are lawful, and gay sex is only a sin when it is displayed in front of someone who believes homosexuality is a sin.

Now some people will find my reasoning impossible to accept. But this passage in 1 Corinthians 6:9–12 is not the only place in the New Testament where there is a loophole on homosexuality and fornication. In the Gospel of John there is a conspicuous theme in which Jesus has a male lover, who is referred to repeatedly as the “disciple whom Jesus loved.” And let us note the fact that nowhere in John is it said that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were lovers. The disciple whom Jesus loved is a male figure. Moreover, the author of this Gospel informs us that this male figure is actually a subject of controversy for the other disciples. Thus at the end of this Gospel, as Jesus prepares to depart, Peter asks him in reference to the disciple:

“Then Peter, turning around, saw the disciple whom Jesus loved… Peter, seeing him, asked Jesus, ‘Lord, what shall this man do?’ Jesus answered unto him, ‘If I will that he remain until I return, what is that to you? You follow me’.” (Jn. 21:20–22)

Note the details in this exchange. Peter has a question about the “disciple whom Jesus loved.” The language indicates that Jesus loved this disciple in a special way that was different from his relationship with all other men. Jesus loved this particular man. This relationship is so peculiar that Peter asks of Jesus as to what this guy will do when Jesus is gone. Jesus’s answer is practically a rebuke: “If I will that he remain until I return, what is that to you? You follow me!” Here Jesus puts Peter in his place. Why the controversy if there is not something unusual and unconventional about this relationship?

Personally I suspect that the author of the Gospel of John was a homosexual, and this was how he portrayed Jesus. Hence, Jesus’s love transcended the traditional conventions mandated by the Law of Moses. Because Jesus was divine and pure, he was able to engage in any form of love. The underlying theme here is that in the resurrection there will be no traditional conventions regarding love. Jesus and the disciple demonstrate this. Hence they are portrayed as being gay. Indeed this coincides with Paul’s admonition that “All things are lawful.”

I would also like to point out that this homosexual theme actually represents another fulfillment from Old Testament scripture, which also mentions a homosexual affair: between young David and his beloved friend, Jonathan. Indeed in the Old Testament David’s love confession is stated in plain language:

“Your love to me was wonderful, surpassing the love of women.” (2 Samuel 1:26)

Wow! For David, loving Jonathan is better than loving a woman! The underlying message here is that David and Jonathan were lovers. And for the Gnostic reader this passage is based on a very important theme. The conventional rational thinker would say that this passage is a contradiction because the Law of Moses condemns homosexuality. But for the Gnostic reader there is no contradiction here. In this case the love affair between David and Jonathan is an image of a higher paradigm. I refer to the first creation account in Genesis 1:27, where man is created in the image of God “male and female.” The Gnostic understands that David and Jonathan were loving each other in the image of a higher order, and not the order that was established by the lesser god, Jehovah, in Genesis 2, where Adam was created alone and male, and Eve was derived later from his rib, being female. For the Gnostic this is why David and Jonathan do not incur the wrath of the Lawgiver (the blind god), because they reflect the image of a higher God and have found grace. I propose that this concept I describe is also the underlying theme of Jesus’s affair with one of his male disciples.

Another latent homosexual theme, in the Gospel of John, may also be seen in the account of the Passover meal that is unique to this one Gospel, in John 13. Here Jesus is portrayed as behaving in a way that is atypical of Jewish culture and piety, and is more consistent with Greek culture. (Again, I think the author of this Gospel was definitely Greek, and he was probably gay–or at the very least, condoned homosexuality.) In John’s version of the Passover, Jesus is portrayed as standing up in the midst of the meal. He undresses himself and is completely naked. Such nudity on this occasion is certainly not consistent with Jewish culture and piety. Traditional Jewish culture rejects nudity whereas Greek culture celebrates it. In John’s Gospel, Jesus is walking around naked at the Passover meal. He then ties a towel around his waist, and proceeds to “wash the disciple’s feet.” Peter is portrayed as being very disturbed by these events, just as he was disturbed at the presence of the “disciple whom Jesus loved” as mentioned above.

Personally, I suspect that the imagery in this Passover account is meant to be symbolism which conceals a sacred rite, an initiation, that Jesus administered to his disciples. The towel around the waist represents the ceremonial apron that was worn by the high priests in the Mystery religions. And the “washing the disciple’s feet” conceals the rite that Jesus administered.

Epiphanius’s malicious account of the Gnostics is probably based on a misunderstanding of the account in John. He actually accused the Gnostics of quoting John as a sanction for literally eating semen as a sacrament (i.e. Jn. 6:53, Panarion, 26.8.4–6). Of course we are under no obligation to accept Epiphanius’s accusations as factual. I have explained the credibility problems regarding his account in my article Orthodox Outrage (see Article Directory). But certainly the Gospel of John does provide the basis of an allegorical doctrine regarding the spiritual seed that Gnostics receive both from Sophia, and through Christ. This is a spiritual reality that transcends traditional moral conventions. But if this is practiced literally it becomes an abominable sin and a work of the flesh, and the fleshly, hylic race. (The practice of literally eating sperm, and menstrual blood, is condemned in the strongest terms in the Gnostic text Pistis Sophia, 387).

Coming back around now to the ethics of St. Paul, I believe that all of these ideas are implicit in Paul’s statement that “All things are lawful.” Paul believed that the Law of Moses would pass away with this age, and that gay sex is an image of a higher truth, which was also symbolized in the love between David and Jonathan.

On Paul’s ‘wrath of God’ speech in Romans 1:18–32.

Now again, some of my readers will object to my statements, and they will point to Paul’s ‘wrath of God’ speech, in Romans 1:18ff., as absolute proof that Paul condemned homosexual sex, viz. the sexual act itself (Romans 1:18–32f.). Here is a quote from the passage:

“For this cause God gave them up to vile affections: for even their women did change the natural use into that which is against nature. And likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust toward one another; men with men working that which is unseemly, and receiving in themselves that recompence of their error which was due.” (Rom. 1:27)

The typical “orthodox” Christian will point to this passage as evidence that Paul condemned the act of homosexuality itself. But I would like to raise the question of whether this passage is being interpreted in its correct context? The passages I have already presented above suggest that Paul was not condemning homosexuality in and of itself, hence “All things are lawful.” Furthermore, Paul spoke of a social order where traditional structures no longer existed; hence: in Christ “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28). The question is: is there a relationship between the concept in Romans 1:27 and the concepts in 1 Cor. 6:12 and Gal. 3:28? I believe that we cannot simply ignore some concepts in favor of others.

I also want to briefly point out that Paul’s definition of nature in Romans 1:27 seems to be at variance with Paul’s statements in 1 Corinthians 15:45–50 and Romans 8:21. In these passages Paul states that man according to nature (the “earthy”) and that nature itself (the “creature”) are under a state of corruption. Whereas in Romans 1:27 nature is made into a standard by which morality is defined. Again I question whether these concepts can be reconciled—and that we can’t just ignore some concepts in favor of others.

To me it is obvious that Romans 1:27 and the other passages are irreconcilable and that Romans 1:27 cannot be regarded as a true statement of Paul’s doctrine. I do believe that Paul wrote the passage but I do not believe it is an actual statement of his doctrine.

I think the cause behind this conflict of ideas is that “orthodox” Christians have misrepresented Paul’s words in Romans. The traditional interpretation is to the effect that Paul’s speech refers to pagans who have rejected the true God, and God in response gave them over to “vile affections.” However I believe there is evidence in the speech which shows that it reflects a conflict between Christian sects, and never referred to pagans at all. And, the words in Romans 1:27 do not refer to pagans, but are a repetition of slanderous rumors that circulated between sects.

To word this in another way: I would like to propose that what we really have here is a polemic by Paul against other, more conservative Jewish Christians who have misrepresented his ministry and doctrine. And that Paul’s words in Romans 1:27 are part of the list of accusations that he proposes to defend himself against. I know this seems far-fetched, but please bear with me as I explain the problems and set forth the evidence.

To begin with: I must inform my readers that Paul’s letter to the Romans is a letter of introduction (A. Schweitzer, Mysticism of Paul., pg. 44f. W. Kummel, Introduction to the NT, pg. 312). Paul has never been to Rome, and he sent this letter as an explanation of his doctrine in advance of his arrival. Now it is important to understand that a proper letter of introduction is a note of endorsement that is provided by a higher authority. In early Christianity a letter of introduction (or “commendation”) was a letter that the Apostolic leaders sent with an individual who was traveling among the churches. The letter confirmed that the man was authorized by the church leadership, and was not simply out on his own. In 2 Corinthians 3:1–5, Paul actually mentions the fact that he had no such letter to show to the churches in Greece (Kummel, ibid., pg. 284). In this context it is highly significant that Paul actually admits, in 2 Cor. 3:1–5, that he has no such letter. Paul also had no letter to take with him to Rome (note that Paul conveys no greetings from the Apostles at Jerusalem). Paul’s letter to the Romans is his own introduction, and it represents a defense of his doctrine. Paul even refers to his critics:

“For if the truth of God has abounded more through my lie unto his glory; why yet am I judged as a sinner? And not rather–as we be slanderously reported, and as some affirm that we say–let us do evil, that good may come?” (Rom. 3:7–8)

My point here is that the letter to Romans was written in the context of a conflict over Paul’s teaching on the Law, viz. his Liberation doctrine. Paul’s “wrath of God” speech is actually in reference to this conflict, and the accusations in the speech are those of Paul’s enemies, which are set forth as the starting place for his defense; his apology.

In “orthodox” tradition Paul’s speech is represented as an attack on pagans who are immoral and have a wrong view of God. This is supposedly represented in Paul’s words: “Because when they knew God, they glorified him not as God…And changed the glory of God into an image made like to corruptible man, and birds and four-footed beasts and creeping things… And even as they did not like to retain God in their knowledge, God gave them over to a reprobate mind… Being filled with all unrighteousness… Backbiters, haters of God…covenant breakers…” (Rom. 1:21, 23, 28, 30)

Supposedly this speech is an indictment against the pagans; but I would like to point out a number of details here which are inconsistent with a proper description of pagan religion. For one thing, Paul never actually mentions the issue of polytheism or idolatry. The words “idol” and “gods” do not appear here at all as compared with the other letters (e.g. 1 Cor. 8:4–5, “eidolon”/“theoi”). Paul’s entire speech is couched in the context of monotheism. Paul writes that the “wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness” (1:18). The problem here is that pagans had no truth of “God” to “suppress in unrighteousness.” Again, the pagans were polytheistic idolaters who worshipped false gods. There was no truth for them to suppress. The pagans never knew God as Paul described: “Because when they knew God, they glorified him not as God…” I believe these words refer to a heresy, and not to (supposed) pagan, polytheistic idolatry.

Paul also asserts that the sinners in question are “backbiters” and “haters of God…without understanding, covenant breakers…” (1:30). These words do not match clearly and neatly with the notion of an indictment of pagans. In reference to pagans, these words lack context. The simple fact is that not all pagans are “backbiters” or “covenant breakers.” If this were true then the Roman system of government could not exist. The Pax Romana would not exist. What Paul’s words really refer to is the rivalry and acrimony among Christian factions (read: heresies, cf. 1 Cor. 1:10–12, 11:18–19). The words “backbiters” and “covenant breakers”, etc., refer to accusations that rival Christians made against each other. Indeed these words only make sense in reference to parties who know each other, and who accuse each other of being backbiters, God haters and covenant breakers.

Again, I think Paul’s speech is a characterization of an attack made by his Jewish Christian adversaries. According to them, Paul is a backbiter (read: betrayer), a covenant breaker (Paul teaches against the Law) and a God hater (Paul disparages the Law of God).

There is also the accusation that the truth of God is “suppressed in unrighteousness” (Rom. 1:18b). Of note is that Paul actually accuses Moses of this very offense in a polemic in 2 Corinthians 4:1–2, “Therefore seeing that we have this ministry…we do not fail; but have renounced the hidden things of shame, not walking around in craftiness, nor handling the word of God deceitfully…” These words follow Paul’s statement that “Moses” has blinded the eyes of the Israelites to the death oriented nature of the Law: “Seeing then that we have such hope, we use great boldness of speech: and not as Moses, who placed a veil over his face, so that the children of Israel could not steadily behold that which was fading away. But their minds were blinded: for unto this day the same veil remaineth in the reading of the old testament…even unto this day, when Moses is read, the veil is upon their heart” (2 Cor. 3:12–15).

Paul wrote the words above in reference to Jewish Christians who denounced his teaching on the Law. We should also note that this passage actually begins with the problem in that the Church leadership, presumably the Apostles at Jerusalem, refused to give Paul a letter of commendation, showing that Paul was sent by the Twelve. In 2 Corinthians 3:1–2 Paul writes to his readers that “Ye are our epistle written in our hearts, known and read by all men.” Paul goes on to explain that his Jewish Christian adversaries fail to understand that the Law of Moses represents the “ministry of death” and that the true redemption comes through the “Spirit” alone (2 Cor. 3:6–7, cf. Mt. 19:16–17). Paul believed that Moses misrepresented the word of God, which was symbolized by placing a veil over his face. Paul writes that this veil concealed the “fading glory” that radiated from Moses’ face after he spent forty days in the presence of the Lawgiver (i.e. Ex. 34:27–35). The meaning is that, according to Paul, Moses blinded the Israelites to the truth, which is that there is no salvation through the Law, and that this Law was given by lower angels, not God (Gal. 3:19, cf. Col. 2:13–18, Acts 7:38, 53; Hebrews 2:2).

In Paul’s letters the “truth suppressed in unrighteousness” is a theme that has context and reflects an accusation that he made against Jews, and which Paul and his adversaries probably traded back and forth. In Galatians Paul argued that the Law of Moses was not from the supreme Being, but was given by lesser powers which were described as “angels”, “guardians” and “stewards” (Gal. 3:19, 4:1–2). Paul actually believed, and taught his followers, that observance of the Law had nothing to do with worshipping God: “But now, after ye have known God…why turn again to the weak and beggarly elements, whereunto you desire again to be in bondage?” (Gal. 4:9) This was Paul’s warning to the Galatians against Jewish Christians who were attacking Paul, and were demanding that the Galatian Christians observe the Law of Moses. Paul’s warning is as follows: “Christ is become of no effect unto you: whosoever of you are justified by the Law; ye are fallen from grace.” (Gal. 5:4) In these words it is obvious that Paul did not believe that the Law represented the righteous commands or worship of God. This theological position is reflected further in 1 Corinthians 10:18–19, “Behold Israel after the flesh: are they which eat of the sacrifices not partakers of the altar? What say I then? That the idol is anything, or that which is sacrificed to idols is anything?”

In the preceding passage Paul denounces temple rites at Jerusalem as mandated by the Law. Note that Paul refers to the God that Jews worshipped in the Temple as a false god or “idol” (cf. Acts 2:46, 21:20–26!). When we consider these passages above it is possible to understand how Jewish Christians would accuse Paul of “changing the truth of God into a lie” (Rom. 1:25).

Paul’s speech also reflects the accusation that there is homosexuality among his followers, because they do not retain a proper concept of God, as Lawgiver, in their minds (Rom. 1:25–27). It must be noted again that Paul does not exactly condemn homosexuality; he only condemns those who are enslaved by sexual desire. In reference to the sexual act itself, Paul states that “All things are lawful.” Paul means that under some circumstances it is lawful to engage in homosexual sex. Paul also states that in the new spiritual order, in Christ, that there is no longer any distinction between Jews and Greeks, slave and free, or male and female (Gal. 3:28) Among Paul’s attackers this means that Paul and his followers lead lives of homosexual confusion. They break the covenant, and they revile (read: backbite) other Christians who adhere to traditional Jewish principles. Paul and his followers are God haters because they do not acknowledge the Godhead of the Lawgiver. Instead, they have reduced the Lawgiver to the level of the creation, and to the likeness of a man or animal. (This would be an exaggeration of Paul’s rejection of biblical anthropomorphic descriptions of God. This also assumes that the wording in Romans is unmolested by “orthodox” scribes.)

Thus what Paul’s speech actually describes is the lawless doctrine and lifestyle that Paul’s accusers claim that he leads (along with his followers). Paul repeats these accusations in their exaggerated and libelous context. Paul is not out to openly attack respected Apostolic leaders, which may back-fire; his purpose is to answer the charges against himself and his followers. For this reason he sets forth his speech like a riddle. Paul doesn’t make clear who the accusers and the accused are: he leaves it for his readers to make the connection. (Note: Paul’s historic conflict with the Jewish Christians, including the Apostles at Jerusalem, has been addressed in my three-part series St. Paul and the Apostolic Tradition.)

Another clue that Paul’s speech doesn’t refer to pagans can be seen in Romans 2:1. Here, Paul’s speech, supposedly against pagans, all of a sudden refers to Jews without a break or change in theme. In Romans 2 Paul warns Jews against judging other people when they sin against the Law themselves (Rom. 2:1ff, 17–23). In Romans 3 Paul admits to being a liar–in the same breath that he refers to God as the Lawgiver–but he denies teaching that Christians should practice “evil” so that “good” may come (Rom. 3:8). The balance of Romans is a diplomatic treatise in which Paul defends his teaching against the Law.

My main point is that in the ‘wrath of God’ speech, Paul is not condemning homosexuality, he is defending himself against the charge that he and his followers are homosexuals who embrace a wrong theology. If the reader follows the train of Paul’s ideas from Romans 1:18 to 2:29, it becomes obvious that Paul’s speech is actually a polemic against Jewish Christian prudes who judge others by the Law, but can’t keep the Law themselves–and will not acknowledge the grace (that Paul says) comes through Christ. Paul insists throughout Romans that the grace of Christ has supplanted the Law, and that this is the truth that all Jews should accept.

It is an elementary point for me to mention, once again, that “orthodox” tradition has recreated the Apostle Paul in its own image. But undoubtedly Paul’s letters, even in their present form, retain a lot of material that reflects on who Paul really was. Paul’s letters reflect that ancient world of early, Hellenistic Christianity that has been subsequently associated with the later Gnostics, such as the Naassenes and the Carpocratians [2]. In Paul’s teaching there is a gap between the notion of absolute morality and the concept of liberty, and the notion that “All things are lawful.” Paul dispensed with the Jewish foundation of Christian morality in favor of the notion that a Christian’s nature and morality would be guided by the Spirit, and not by the letter of the Law (1 Cor. 3:6–7). This led to a certain level of chaos among Paul’s followers. And the later Catholic Fathers report that some Gnostic sects defined their radical ethics on the basis of such passages as 1 Corinthians 6:12 and Galatians 3:28. The later Gnostics were continuing Paul’s effort to articulate a spiritually enlightened social order based on liberty, equality and (to varying degrees) temperance.

Paul believed that a true moral ethic would be established when people put God first in their lives. Paul did not believe that this true morality could be reached by simply abstaining from and condemning homosexuality, or fornication. Paul understood that the acts of homosexuality and fornication were not at the root of the real problem in human nature. He recognized that the real problem was rooted in a lack of priorities: in a fundamental lack of understanding of what God’s nature really is, and in a lack of understanding the proper place of pleasure in human existence. Simply abstaining from and/or condemning homosexuality does not in itself make one a Godly person. Whereas a truly Godly person might be caught in a homosexual tryst–just as Jesus was portrayed in the Gospel of John, or as David and Jonathan in the books of Samuel.

The truth behind all of this is that true, divine Love transcends all conventions. All true Gnostics understand this without becoming slaves to vice. The shocking truth is that when two men love one another with a pure heart–the two become an image of the Divine. The problem however is that this divine love cannot be revealed before the eyes of those who are uninitiated, who lack gnosis. Aspiring gay Christians today would do well to heed Paul’s wisdom. According to Paul, gay Christians aren’t condemned because of gay sex which is lawful. They condemn themselves because they flaunt the liberty of the Gospel before the eyes of the uninitiated, by which they turn the liberty of gnosis into a stumbling block. –jw

Notes

1) Note the paradox between these passages:

From Paul, 1 Corinthians 6:12, “All things are lawful, but I will not be brought under the power of any.”

From the Law of Moses, Leviticus 20:13, “If a man also lie with mankind…both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death…”

2) Clement of Alexandria reveals that Carpocratian morality was based in part on their attempts to interpret and apply Galatians 3:28 (Stromateis, 3.2.6). Hippolytus shows that the Naassenes noticed the subtle contradiction between Gal. 3:28 and Rom. 1:27 (Refutation of all Heresies, 5:2; Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 5, pg. 49f.).

By Jim West. Copyright © 2008, 2012. All Rights Reserved.

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Was Paul a Misogynist?

In orthodox tradition Paul is portrayed as taking a hard line against women. This ‘traditional’ perception of Paul has even influenced many outside of Christianity who identify Paul with the stereotype of the cold, hard, conservative Christian prude. Without a doubt there are certain passages in the New Testament which tend to reinforce this popular view.

1 Corinthians 14:34f.,

“Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience, as also saith the Law. And if they will learn anything, let them ask their husbands at home: for it is a shame for women to speak in the church.”

1 Timothy 2:11-15,

“Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection. But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over a man, but to be in silence. For Adam was first formed, then Eve. And Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived was in the transgression. Notwithstanding she shall be saved with childbearing, if they continue in faith and charity, and holiness with sobriety.”

These passages seem to make it clear that Paul had a problem with women. And most conservative Christian leaders prefer to believe that this is how Paul really was, historically. But is this really what Paul believed? Is it really that simple? And do the Pauline letters contain a consistent position regarding Paul’s attitude toward women? Does Paul say consistently in his letters that women are to keep silent? – or that women are to blame for the fall of mankind? At the very least, I hope to demonstrate for my readers that Paul’s writings contain no clear consensus on what his position actually was – and that the “orthodox” tradition of Paul was really based on the needs of the later Catholic Church, and had nothing to do with Paul or his immediate circumstances.

To begin to understand the nature of this issue, we must first understand that most of Paul’s letters are composite. The letters we know today as Romans, and 1 Corinthians, and 2 Corinthians, are in fact artificial creations; they are fictions. These letters are actually comprised of fragments from smaller letters. And then there are some fragments in these letters which are not from Paul at all. This can be demonstrated by simply comparing the various passages, and noticing the conflicting ideas which become apparent.

Let us look at some simple examples which show that Paul’s letters are composite in nature. A very simple example may be seen in a comparison of the opening and closing chapters from the supposed second letter to the Corinthian Church, i.e. 2 Corinthians. At the beginning of this letter Paul displays a very positive attitude toward the people he writes. Paul says to them “Grace be to you, and peace from God our father…” and also “For we write none other things unto you than what you read or acknowledge…that we are your rejoicing even as ye are ours…” (2 Cor. 1:2, 13-14) Yet by the end of this same “letter” Paul’s writing has taken a remarkably different mood. From chapter 10 onward Paul writes as if he is at odds with his readers: and he answers charges that he is a coward (10:10), and that he is a false apostle (11:5, 22). By the end of the letter Paul is reduced to making threats: “This is the third time I am coming to you…and being absent now I write to them which heretofore have sinned, and to all the rest, that, if I come again, I will not spare: since you seek proof of Christ speaking in me…” (2 Cor. 13:1-3)

Let us note this paradox! At the beginning of 2 Corinthians everything is bliss between Paul and his fellow Christians at Corinth. They rejoice in each other and accept each other (cf. 2 Cor. 3:1-3). But in the concluding chapters Paul is visibly angry, and he writes as if he is confronted with rebellion and betrayal. If 2 Corinthians is really just one original letter then we need to think seriously about the sanity of Paul: in this case it appears that he was suffering from some sort of psychotic, manic-depressive mood swing. Thus Paul’s “letter” opens with a happy greeting and affirmations of friendship, but at the end Paul is ready for a fight!

The most plausible explanation for this odd combination of themes is that 2 Cor. 1-3 and 10-13 are actually from different letters which address different occasions. Chapters 10-13 were evidently from a letter where Paul quarreled with the Corinthian church. The fact that no specific names are mentioned, nor specific events or confrontations, indicates that only part of this polemical letter has been preserved. (I suspect that the reason this information was omitted is because it directly involved the Apostles at Jerusalem and certain emissaries they sent to Corinth to oppose Paul. I cover this subject in my three-part series “St. Paul and the Apostolic Tradition”.)

Another example of composite elements in Paul’s letters may be seen in a comparison of 1 Corinthians chapters 8 and 10. In chapter 8 Paul tells his readers that pagan idols are nothing, and that eating meat from the temples is of no consequence (8:4). Paul only warns that such partaking should not be done in front of the weaker brethren who lack gnosis (8:7-11). But in chapter 10 Paul says that the idols in the temples are devils, and that one cannot eat from the Lord’s table and also from the table of devils (10:20-21). Obviously Paul has changed his position. Did he do this all in one letter that he mailed to the Corinthians? Or do chapters 8 and 10 represent two separate letters which address the same controversy? In my view 1 Cor. 10 represents a second letter written in response to another letter that was sent in reaction to Paul’s earlier letter as preserved in chapter 8. In the chapter 10 letter Paul backs away from his position regarding “gnosis” and idols: Paul admits instead that pagan idols are devils, and that one may not participate in pagan rites. (Personally I believe that Paul’s true position is stated in chapter 8, but others have forced him into a more conservative position which is reflected in chapter 10. In spite of all this, Paul maintains that the Israelites worship an “idol” and that “all things are lawful”; 1 Cor. 10:18-19, 23).

Scholar Walter Schmithals believed that 1 Corinthians was comprised of as many as 15 different letters, and that 2 Corinthians was comprised of six letters (Gnosticism at Corinth, pp. 87f., 90, 96). Albert Schweitzer took a more conservative position with his opinion that the two Corinthian letters were comprised of no less than four letters (Mysticism of Paul, pg. 48f.).

The letter to Romans also shows evidence of being composite. Most obvious is the final chapter, Romans 16, which is filled with greetings from Paul to various people. This chapter has been shown by scholars to have originated from another letter addressed to a church in Asia, not Italy. The main problem is that no one mentioned in this section can be connected to the church at Rome (e.g., cf. Rom. 16:3, Acts 18:1-2). Albert Schweitzer believed that Romans chapters 14-16 actually belonged to a different letter that was addressed to the church at Ephesus (A. Schweitzer, ibid., pg 49f.).

In my own opinion I think that these latter chapters were added to Romans in order to make things appear more cozy than they really were. The addition of chapter 16 to Romans makes it seem as if Paul is this popular character and that he has all these friends in Rome. Whereas, in reality, the true state of the picture is actually preserved in Galatians and 2 Corinthians: Paul had many enemies among the early Christians, and among the Apostles at Jerusalem. The historic reality may have been that the Roman Christians may not have welcomed Paul at all. Paul’s letter to the Romans appears to be nothing less than his own letter of commendation. Such letters seemed to be running in short supply for our friend Paul (cf. 2 Cor. 3:1-5). But I digress…

Albert Schweitzer made this astute observation regarding the overall composite nature of the Pauline Letters:

“We have therefore to reckon with the possibility that the copy of a collection of the Pauline Epistles, on which our knowledge of the Apostle’s letters rests, did not contain the Epistles to the Corinthians, Philippians and Romans in the original form, but in the versions which they had assumed in the copies prepared for the purpose of reading at public worship.” (A. Schweitzer, Mysticism of Paul., MacMillan Co., NY: 1960, pg. 50)

The point here is that the Pauline letters we know today are an artificial creation. These letters represent the corpus of Paul that we have received from the Catholic Fathers. They organized these letters into a format suitable for Catholic worship. Many important elements from these letters were obviously discarded; and this reality is reflected in the way these letters are so often garbled, fragmented, and lacking in context.

Next we must briefly take note of the fact that Paul’s letters are not comprised of purely Pauline elements. Some elements of the letters were evidently not from Paul, and this issue will inevitably reveal the fact that Paul’s views on women have been completely misunderstood and misrepresented in “orthodox” tradition. A related problem is that some of Paul’s letters are not really from the Apostle at all. We will address the latter issue first.

The general consensus among scholars is that there are seven genuine Pauline letters (i.e. as the texts now exist): these letters are Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians and Philemon. The next category is those letters on which scholars generally disagree: 2 Thessalonians, Ephesians and Colossians. Some scholars insist that these letters are also from Paul; and others believe that these letters were written by Paul’s followers shortly after his death. The third category represents those letters which most scholars agree could not have been from Paul, and were written long after Paul’s death: 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus (the so-called “Pastoral Letters”).

I could write an entire article (or even a book) on the differences between these categories. For lack of space I will set forth one example here, which will be a comparison of Philippians and 1 & 2 Timothy. These letters purport to have been written while Paul was imprisoned in Rome (Phil. 1:13, 4:22; 2 Timothy 1:17). But I think that anyone who sits down and reads these letters side by side must see that the writing styles are so different that they cannot come from the same author. This paradox is more than obvious even when the texts are read in English. The author of Philippians writes like the lively Paul of Galatians and Corinthians; but the author 1 & 2 Timothy writes like a tired old cleric who is concerned with the problems of a different age.

The letters of Timothy contain terminology and concepts which are unique to these letters in contrast with Philippians and the other letters. An example is where the writer to Timothy repeatedly uses the expression “sound doctrine” (1 Tim. 1:10, 2 Tim. 4:3). This term is never used in the other letters. The Timothy letters also refer to the “laying of hands” which is never mentioned in the other letters (1 Tim. 4:14, 2 Tim. 1:6). The letter to 1 Timothy also refers to the “office of bishop” whereas Paul knows no such office (1 Tim. 3:1). (In Philippians Paul refers to “bishops” and “deacons” but these terms are not used in the context of official offices as in Timothy. Aside from Phil. 1:1 these words appear nowhere else in Paul’s authentic letters.) The writer to “Timothy” uses a form of the name “Timothy” that Paul never used (timothee); whereas Paul always referred to him as “Timotheos” in the genuine letters.

A most striking example of the differences between these letters may be seen in a comparison 2 Timothy 3:16 and Philippians 4:8.

2 Timothy 3:16,

“All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness.”

Philippians 4:8,

“Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.”

Note that in the Philippians passage Paul does not propose the “scriptures” as a standard for all that is true, honest, just, pure, or lovely, or of good report. Paul does not recommend the scriptures at all! And certainly we must notice that where the scriptures are mentioned, i.e. the Law, that Paul in fact refers to the both the Law (which is scripture) and the Jewish tradition as “rubbish” (Phil. 3:5-8; KJV: “dung” or in Greek: skubala).

It is an amazing paradox that in an open letter to the Philippian church Paul refers to the Law as “rubbish” whereas in a private letter to Timothy Paul says instead that “scripture” is the true standard for church doctrine. These passages cannot be from the same writer who was held prisoner in Rome.

The Philippians 3:5-8 passage is a relevant standard when it comes to testing other elements in the Pauline letters in general. An example can be seen in 2 Corinthians 6:14-7:1, which many scholars believe is a non-Pauline fragment (e.g. R. Bultmann, Theology of the NT., vol. I, pg. 205, W. Kummel, Introduction to the NT., pg. 287). In verse 16 “Paul” literally quotes the Law from the mouth of “God.” Yet in Philippians 3:5-8 Paul places the Law under the category of “rubbish” or, in English “dung” or in contemporary vernacular: SHIT (Greek: skubala). It is amazing to think that Paul can refer to the Law as “rubbish” in one letter and at the same time place the Law in God’s mouth in another. Surely Paul is not the writer of the passage, or fragment, in 2 Cor. 6:14-7:1.

Briefly I should remind my readers that Paul’s pejorative statements about the Law reflect a consistent pattern that is found throughout his writings. In Galatians Paul wrote of the Law that it was a “curse”, and was “ordained by angels”, and is “bondage” is of the “elements of the world” (Gal. 3:13, 3:19, 4:3). Paul also warned those Christians who insisted on observing the Law that “whosoever of you are justified by the Law, ye are fallen from grace” (Gal. 5:4). In 2 Corinthians 3:7 Paul referred to the Law as the “ministry of death.” I documented this pattern in my articles Was Jesus sent by the Lawgiver and On God and Justice.

The “dung” passage in Philippians 3:5-8 also casts a shadow on Paul’s supposed proscription against women in 1 Cor. 14:34, “Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience, as also saith the Law.” But then again Paul referred to the Law as “rubbish.” Is Paul the real author of this passage, or fragment? Or are Paul’s writings in fact a mixture of Pauline and non-Pauline fragments?

Further evidence against the passage in 1 Cor. 14:34 can be seen in 1 Cor. 11. Here Paul states that women can speak, or “prophesy”, in the church (11:5). Paul’s only condition is that women have their heads covered – not because of the Law, but because of the “angels” (11:10). Nowhere in this passage does Paul denigrate women. It is true that Paul does have a patriarchal mindset, as most men did of his day. But Paul here never blames women for sin as is the case with the writer of 1 Timothy 2:11-15, as quoted at the beginning of this article. In 1 Corinthians 11:11 Paul affirms that men and women are integral to each other and that one does not bear greater guilt than the other: “Nevertheless, neither is the man without the woman, neither the woman without the man, in the Lord.”

1 Corinthians chapter 11 shows that 1 Cor. 14:34 and 1 Timothy 2:11-15 cannot be from Paul. Paul was not a misogynist. Furthermore, Paul ultimately believed that Christ signified an approaching spiritual order where both male and female, and marriage, and slavery, were soon to be abolished. Paul wrote accordingly in Galatians 3:28, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.” Paul believed that the end of his world was approaching, and that the old social order as mandated by the Law was soon to pass away (cf. Mt. 22:30).

Many people have assumed that Paul was against women, and that he failed to oppose slavery. Paul was in fact against traditional gender structures and slavery. But he wrote as someone who expected that the end of the “aion” was coming soon. Paul did not instruct Christians to oppose both the Jewish and Roman conventions because he thought that Jesus was returning soon (e.g. 1 Cor. 15:24-28). Unfortunately this was part of Paul’s grand delusion about the times in which he lived.

These non-Pauline fragments that we have noticed were actually products of a later time where the early Catholics struggled to establish a stable church structure. When this historic background is taken into account, such passages as 1 Cor. 14:34 and 1 Timothy 2:11-15, and their non-Pauline nature, become comprehensible in the context of history.

Early Catholic records make clear that early Christianity was a deeply divided movement: and that women played active roles among the various sects. There is even evidence in Catholic records that women played a greater role in the Church than the later status quo would allow. The Catholic Father, Clement of Alexandria, cites a version of 1 Timothy, no longer extant, which affirms that Paul ordained women deacons! (Stromateis, 3.6.53) Of course there is much in Clement’s writings which could not pass the test of orthodoxy in the long run: and his writings show that the early Catholic Church at Alexandria was much more liberal and closer to Gnostic thought than the later Church would be. Irenaeus and Tertullian represent the later standard that would take over. Tertullian complained bitterly about the roles of women in the heretical clergies: while at the same time his fellow cleric Clement cited “Timothy” as evidence that Paul ordained women deacons! (cf. Tertullian, On Prescription Against Heretics, 41).

Of course Tertullian would himself defect over to the heretical camp. He joined the heresy named after “Montanus” and which was known as the “New Prophecy.” The Montanists were a major schismatic movement which rejected the increasingly secular and bureaucratic nature of the Catholic Church. The Catholic clergy was resigned to the fact that Jesus wasn’t coming back soon. In order to prevent disorders the Catholic clergy adopted a different doctrine of the end times (2 Peter 3:1-9) and they also maintained that the spirit of prophesy ceased with the Apostles. The Montanists wanted to preserve the active spirit of the early church and the end time enthusiasm as found in Paul’s letters. (See Adolph von Harnack, History of Dogma, vol. 2, pp. 94-106, Bart Ehrman, Lost Christianities, pp. 150, 238).

The Montanist movement was known for its prominent women leaders and prophets. They were a threat to the emerging “orthodox” Catholic system. The Montanists shared the same basic theology, and were actually ahead of the Catholics in that respect (e.g. Tertullian, Against Praxeas). But the Montanists also insisted that the spirit of prophecy was alive and present among Christians, both men and women – just as Paul said in 1 Corinthians 11, 12 & 14. Thus these men and women were constantly coming forth with new revelations from the spirit. The Catholics rejected this approach out of concern that the constant introduction of new doctrines would result in the destabilization of the church. There is also the natural problem in that the second coming of Jesus is always expected – but it never does arrive.

The Catholic Church inevitably won this controversy with the Montanists; and the Montanist movement faded away by the end of the third century. To me it is obvious that the early Catholics reacted against the Montanists by curtailing the concept of the prophetic spirit, and by silencing the women. The Catholic clergy succeeded in preserving the stability of church culture and doctrine, while the Montanist enthusiasm eventually burned itself out. But even this isn’t the whole story. I believe that the Catholic Church over-reacted in its struggle against the Montanists and other sects. And this is the source of those fragments in Paul’s letters which demand the silence of women, even while in other passages Paul reports that women prophesy in the churches, and that men and women are “one” in Christ.

I also believe that the suppression of women, and the feminine, was an important cause of the homicidal nature of the later Catholic culture that emerged after Constantine – and would continue to be ever more monstrous and satanic in the Middle Ages. The Catholic Church went on to establish a social order where it was acceptable for local townspeople to stand in the town square and watch while accused “heretics” and “witches” were literally burned alive for not professing “orthodox” doctrine. I believe this was the fate that the Catholic Church experienced as the result of its own excesses and errors. When the Catholic clergy suppressed its women it ceased to be Human, and it ceased to be spiritual (even in the relative sense). The Church became this Frankenstein that held the Western world in darkness for a thousand years, and spread tyranny and death to millions of people through the offices of the Inquisition.

Of course since the 1870s the Catholic Church has moderated in its disposition; and women clearly have a much greater influence. Mother Teresa’s life of sacrifice has helped to put a positive face on the Church. But the all-male, celibate Catholic clergy still remains in a state of crisis, as everyone knows. If the Catholic Church ever hopes to turn the corner then it must open the priest-hood to married men and women! (But then again, I’m a Gnostic… What do I know?)

In any culture or sect women are a part of our Humanity. We cannot simply exclude one gender or another and expect to remain balanced. Whether we are men or women we must always remember that the other gender is an image of that which is hidden in ourselves, and which will make us perfect if we have gnosis of it. As men and women we cannot suppress each other and at the same time have a true understanding of ourselves. If we don’t understand ourselves then there is no hope of attaining a true gnosis of God. Let me make my point here with this important nugget of truth which is found in a place none other than the Old Testament:

“And God created man in his own image…male and female he created them.” (Gen. 1:27)

The writer of this passage in Genesis 1 understood what the nature of God was. The Gnostic understands that this is not the same God as the “Lord” who created the first man from the dust, and later created the first woman from one of his ribs (Gen. 2:7, 21-22). In truth there are two Gods, two principles, mentioned in Genesis. One of them is the unnamed “good” God (LXX: Theos) and the other is the creator of evil (i.e. the “Lord”, Isaiah 45:7, Gen. 2:4ff.). The Gnostic understands that Genesis 1:1-2:3 is an allegory of the Pleroma: and that the “beginning” and the seven days symbolize the Ogdoad. Genesis 2:4 and everything thereafter is a demonic shadow of the primal order. However this is a subject for a future article… My point here is that the Bible itself admits that the male and the female has its equal origin in God, and that everything that “God” created was “good” (Gen. 1:31). Indeed it is only with the “Lord” and his creation that we learn that some things are not good. The Lord Jehovah admitted this when he said “It is not good that the man should be alone” (Gen. 2:18). Hence the Lord admitted that what he did was “not good.”

Paul himself alluded to this truth when he wrote that “neither is the man without the woman, neither the woman without the man, in the Lord” (1 Cor. 11:11). Paul of course referred to the spiritual dispensation in the Lord Jesus, where the male and the female will be reunited into one (Gal. 3:28). This is the salvation of the Human Spirit.

In the Gospel of Philip we learn that the separation between men and women is the origin of death (NHC: II, 3.68). In Gnostic doctrine that breach is restored when the elect shall enter in with Sophia and the Savior into the Bridal Chamber (ibid., 3.70). The meaning is that men and women are two halves of what was once joined, and which is joined in the spiritual realm. In this world of poverty and ignorance we struggle through our lives as “men” and “women” but in our deepest spiritual essence we still contain the image, or seed, of the order above. To know of this order is to discover our own connection with the Divine: It also means the discovery of our own immortal nature. It also means the discovery of God as a reality. This is no accident: when we know God, it is because God knows us. We look upon Light and we become Light from Light…

To experience this reality is to know an unspeakable Joy. It cannot be shared; it can only be known. –jw

By James M. West. Copyright © 2007, 2012. All Rights Reserved.

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