Paul and Gnostic Thinkers-

Did you know that some ancient gnostics, such as those today called Valentinians, considered Paul to be primary source of their theology? In what is perhaps professor Elaine Pagel’s best work, The Gnostic Paul, she explores the perspective of these early Christians writing in the second century, who thought very differently than how most approach Christianity today. “Gnostic” can mean many different things, and it’s unlikely that many (if any) ancient Christians branded “gnostic” by heresiologists would have self-identified as such, but let’s stick with the concept for now as we explore some different perspectives. In this post, we’ll explore Romans 1 by using Pagel’s work as our guide.

The Gnostic Paul by Elaine Pagels

Ready to dive in? Let’s go!


Flesh, Spirit, and a little greek

In Romans chapter 1 (as quoted from the NRSV), Paul differentiates between two attributes of Jesus:

Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures, the gospel concerning his 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 by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord…
(Emphasis added)

Pagels notes how the Valentinians took this to be a dichotomy– Jesus was both fleshly and spiritual. For the Valentinians, Paul was differentiating between “psychic” and “pneumatic” (spiritual) modes of being.  “Psychic”, in this context, doesn’t refer to having superpowers like being able to see through walls or tell the future; instead, it refers to the “psyche”– the soul, which is more than mere matter (as rocks/trees/animals are) but less than spiritual.  “Pneuma” is the word for “spirit” in this context, so “pneumatic” refers to spiritual modes of being. While later posts will likely break down these distinctions in greater detail (“hyllic” versus “psychic” versus “pneumatic”), for now, we’ll use the words “psychic” and “pneumatic” to refer to worldly and spiritual, as that more or less matches how Valentinians wrote.


Jesus as psychic and pneumatic

Let’s revisit that passage. It states that Jesus was:

  • Descended from David in the flesh (psychically)
  • Declared to be the Son of God with power pneumatically by resurrection from the dead

Note the distinction; Jesus was able to preach and relate to those whose who experience the world psychically, while also being given the power to preach pneumatically. The gnostic Christian Theodotus, per Pagels, cross-referenced this passagewith Philemon 2:7-9, which

states in the NRSV  that

[Christ Jesus,] who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.

For Theodotus, Philemon 2:7-9 perfectly illustrates what Paul discusses in Romans 1– that Christ Jesus was pneumatic but emptied himself that he may become psychic, a slave born in human likeness.

Therefore, Paul does likewise– in Romans chapter 1 (referenced above), he references himself as being “set apart of the gospel of God” (meaning that he is pneumatic), but lowers himself to be called and a slave. Following Christ’s model, he does not take his pneumatic stature as something to be lorded over others, but lowers himself to being a psychic slave for Jesus Christ.

Homosexuality, or psychics and pneumatics?

Let’s talk about the implications of this perspective to one of the most hotly debated passages in Romans 1, from the NRSV:

For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error.

This passage has meant a lot of things to a lot of different people, but for some early Christians, Paul was not speaking about homosexuality. Rather, the Valentinians interpreted this as being about the alienation of psychics and pneumatics. Man’s “distorted relationship to God” (to quote Pagels) has resulted in psychic Christians worshiping with psychics, and pneumatic Christians worshiping with other pneumatics, rather than uniting together in harmony.

The solution? The Valentinians seem to suggest looking to Paul, and looking to Jesus.

Both of them were pneumatic —

  • Jesus being “declared to be the Son of God with power pneumatically by resurrection from the dead” (Romans 1)
  • Paul being “set apart for the gospel of God” (Romans 1)

And yet, both of them became psychic–

  • Jesus emptied himself and took the form of a slave (Philemon 2)
  • Paul accepted his calling and became a servant/slave of Jesus Christ (Romans 1)

By allowing the psychics and pneumatics to worship together in one community but experience worship, preaching, and redemption in their own diverse ways, the Valentinians thought, Christians could finally begin to heal the fractured human experience.

“But wait, this raises lots of questions!”

You’re right! Most likely, Valentinian exegesis is very foreign to you, and this raises lots of questions that this blog post hasn’t answered. Things like–

  • What’s the difference between a psychic and a pneumatic Christian?
  • How does the psychic experience of Christianity differ from the pneumatic Christianity?
  • Why are psychics and pneumatics different, per early Valentinians Christians?
  • There’s a lot more in the passages discussing degrading passions that you didn’t talk about!
  • Why does Paul consider men and women to be symbols for pneumatics and psychics in the above passage?
  • And, what about all the other stuff in Romans– you only covered four verses (plus two in Philemon)!

I’m afraid those will need to wait for later blog posts. I would strongly encourage you, if you’re interested in the topic, to pick up a copy of professor Pagels’ The Gnostic Paul for yourself and dig in. There’s a tremendous amount to cover, and I’m sure you’ll find it as fascinating as I have!