Gnosis in Paul’s writings– 

Some gnostic Christians, such as the “Valentinians”, read Romans very differently than most Christians do today. They perceived Paul to be a champion of their approach to Christianity, and considered Paul’s writings to be a cornerstone of their perspectives. Let’s continue exploring The Gnostic Paul, written by the Princeton professor Elaine Pagels, to learn why some gnostic Christians saw gnosis as being a critical part of Paul’s vision for the Christian message.

If you haven’t already done so, I’d encourage you to start by reading my previous post on the Valentinian exegesis of Romans 1, Bold Gnostic Thoughts About Jesus (and Homosexuality?) from Romans 1. In that post, I talk a bit about two kinds of Christians– psychic and pneumatic; this distinction will soon become very important!The Gnostic Paul by Elaine Pagels

The Gospel of God, Not The Demiurge

Let’s start off by talking about Paul’s distinction between the God he serves and the Demiurge. In case you’re not certain what I mean by “Demiurge”, I’d encourage you to check out my post, The Demiurge, Intriguing Solution to Hard Old Testament Problems, in which I go into it at greater detail.

To summarize: today, when we read the Old Testament, we’re often struck by how… differently God is portrayed in the Old Testament than in the New Testament. Early Christians were struck by the same thing. Many early Christians responded to the tension by arguing that the God of the Old Testament is not the same God that Jesus serves in the New Testament, rather, he is a “Demiurge”– or, if you’d like, a lower/lesser God.

In Romans 1, according to Elaine Pagels’s book, some gnostic Christians saw Paul as drawing a distinction between God (the father of Jesus) and the Demiurge in passages such this one (this, and all quotes that follow, are from the NRSV):

[Jesus Christ, our Lord, was God’s] Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness

In the previous post on Pagels’ book, we discussed the psychic/pneumatic distinction; let’s tie it to the concept of the Demiurge. When Paul writes that Jesus was descended from David according to the flesh, Valentinian Christians thought that “David” signified the Demiurge– Yahweh, the creator, the giver of the law and the deity in the Old Testament whose actions and commands elicit such tension. However, Jesus’ pneumatic heritage (that is, the spirit of holiness) from the true God reveals that he was able to preach and communicate to the psychic Christians, but also spoke to pneumatic Christians.

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Paul, Speaking Pneumatically

Some gnostic Christians saw Paul noting that he serves not the Demiurge, but the true God and the father of Jesus. Paul writes

First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is proclaimed throughout the world. For God, whom I serve with my spirit by announcing the gospel of his Son…

Note first that Paul offers thanks to “my God through Jesus Christ”; the claim is that he is explicitly stating his God is through Jesus Christ, rather than the God others serve. Second: how does he serve God? He serves God “with my spirit“– that is, pneumatically.

Paul does not lord this over others, however– later in Romans 1 (in a passage we’ll provide context to in the following section), he writes that he is,

…a debtor both to Greeks and to barbarians, both to the wise and to the foolish…

Valentinian Christians saw the distinction between Greek and barbarian as being between pneumatic and psychic; the distinction between the wise and the foolish as being the same. Foolishness is connected to the Demiurge– but that’s a topic for another post!


The Pneumatic Charisma: Gnosis

So, what is it Paul is trying to accomplish in his letter? He shares his objective with us in Romans 1:11-13 (emphasis added):

For I am longing to see you so that I may share with you some spiritual gift to strengthen you— or rather so that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine. I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that I have often intended to come to you (but thus far have been prevented), in order that I may reap some harvest among you as I have among the rest of the Gentiles. I am a debtor both to Greeks and to barbarians, both to the wise and to the foolish—hence my eagerness to proclaim the gospel to you also who are in Rome.

Let’s outline what Paul wrote, and how Elaine Pagels argues that Valentinian Christians interpreted it:

Paul seeks to share a “spiritual gift”, or “pneumatic charisma”. To what end? Gnosis. Paul “want[s] you to know”, and desires that the knowledge “reap some harvest”.  That harvest would be mutual–  the pneumatic Christians would all learn and grow from each other.

Unfortunately, he has been “prevented” from coming to them. Why? Because he is a debtor to not only the pneumatics, but also the psychics. Paul cannot turn his back on psychic Christians who still serve the Demiurge, for he is in their debt– after all, Christ was not only pneumatic (“declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit”), but also psychic (“descended from David”).


Acceptance of Different Christianities

For the Valentinians, then, psychic Christians ought not be dismissed or treated as inferior. To them, it is true that Paul is a pneumatic and understands that the true God– the Father of Jesus– is different than the Demiurge and the God of the Old Testament. Nevertheless, Paul acknowledges Jesus’ relationship with the Demiurge, and notes that he himself is a debtor to that tradition. Rather than simply dismissing those they considered to be less “in-the-know”, these gnostic Christians saw the different approaches as each contributing something of value.

Paul confirms this in Romans 1:16-17, noting:

For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, “The one who is righteous will live by faith.”

For Paul, per the text we’re working through, the gospel has the power of salvation, both to the Jew (the psychics, the descendants of David, those who affirm the Demiurge as God) and the Greek (the pneumatics, who do not consider the Demiurge to be the ultimate God).

Fascinating, isn’t it? This is but one of many types of exegesis performed by early Christians, and there’s a tremendous amount of depth; we still have roughly a third of Romans 1 to go! If you’re interested in exploring further on your own,  I would highly recommend that you pick a copy of Elaine Pagels’ The Gnostic Paul; I’ve read it several times, and it contains tremendous depth.


Recommendations for Further Reading