This is Part 1 of a several part series.
Over the centuries, the figure of Paul has played a vital role in defining Christian belief, in many permutations. One can think of there being the “Sexist Paul”, the “Pro-Slavery Paul”, the “Libertine Paul”, the “Gnostic Paul”, and many others.

In the modern era, debates have formed surrounding the “New Perspective” on Paul and how to reinterpret his writings for the modern age. Its critics summarize this New Perspective, to give one example, as rejecting the notion of justification by faith alone, arguing instead that works are required for justification. The movement’s proponents explain it in a number of different ways; N.T. Wright argues that Paul charges us “with being and bringing signs of hope, of restorative justice, to the world… Let’s put the justice back in justification.” The Gnostic Paul by Elaine Pagels

Of interest is N.T. Wright’s argument in the linked article that “anything to do with strong religious emotion, anything which downplays outward observance… reinforce that gnosticism which is a poison at the heart of much contemporary culture”.

I would disagree with Dr. Wright, and in fact argue that his position is aligned with gnostic perspectives on Paul. In fact, as we continue looking at Elaine Pagel’s book The Gnostic Paul, we’ll see how certain gnostic thinkers interpreted Paul’s writings. Specifically, in this post, we’ll look at a gnostic interpretation of Paul’s letter to the Galatians.

Interested in learning more? Click below to continue reading!

The Psychic and the Pneumatic

We’ve previously touched on perspectives regarding the Gnostic Paul on Romans. In those articles, we discussed how these early Christian thinkers thought Paul made a crucial distinction between the “psychic” and the “pneumatic” ; the topic is too broad to rehash at length. If you’re not familiar with the terms, I encourage you to read about the distinction and why some early Christians thought that the Paul– we’ll call him the Gnostic Paul, to clarify that this was a gnostic understanding of him– was referring to this distinction when referring to men and women (rather than referring to people’s genders/sex).Bright Sun Sheds Light

This helped to shed a substantially different light on Romans, especially when one sees how the figure of the Demiurge plays into it; it will be similarly useful when understanding Galatians. This distinction is critical when understanding Valentinian perspectives on the Gnostic Paul’s writing. Pagel’s book focuses primarily on a Valentinian perspective, so that’s the perspective we’ll be exploring in this article.

The Gnostic Paul kicks off this distinction right in Galatians 1:1, writing: Paul an apostle—sent neither by human commission nor from human authorities, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead. Modern readers may skip over this passage, but the Valentinians paid close attention to it. For them, this shows Paul differentiating himself as one who is pneumatic, in service to the Father of Jesus rather than the Demiurge (who is responsible for human commissions and authorities).

The Demiurgical Gospel

The Gnostic Paul goes on to charge that he is astonished that his fellow Christians are abandoning the gospel of Christ! Why is that? Let’s look at Galatians 1, starting with verse 6:

I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— not that there is another gospel, but there are some who are confusing you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should proclaim to you a gospel contrary to what we proclaimed to you, let that one be accursed! As we have said before, so now I repeat, if anyone proclaims to you a gospel contrary to what you received, let that one be accursed!

This is quite a strange claim for most modern readers. Paul is saying to reject a gospel different from what is known even if “we or an angel from heaven” should proclaim it. Why would Paul reference an angel from heaven? Were people walking around, saying that they had received different gospels from other supernatural forces?

Mirrored Bible Two SidesFor the Valentinians, this was exactly the case; the angel in question, who bore a different gospel, was the Demiurge. It was the Demiurgical gospel, advocated by figures such as Peter, which was competing with the true gospel of Christ. Those still in service to the Demiurge, whose will is represented (among other places) in the Jewish scriptures, are therefore– knowingly or unknowingly– proclaiming a false gospel, causing many to be confused.

This reading of the text helps the following section of Galatians 1 to make much more sense:
You have heard, no doubt, of my earlier life in Judaism. I was violently persecuting the church of God and was trying to destroy it. I advanced in Judaism beyond many among my people of the same age, for I was far more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors. But when God, who had set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me
Why does Paul transition right into his history of violence in Judaism? Because, for the Gnostic Paul, his time in Judaism was time serving the Demiurge. This explains the real cause of his violent persecution of the church of God. And yet, God– the father of Jesus Christ, not the Demiurge– elected Paul prior to his birth to be among the pneumatic, and revealed Christ to him.
Concluding Galatians 1, Paul makes it a point to mention that he only saw Cephas (Peter) for 15 days, briefly saw James, and had not other contact with the other apostles. The Valentinians, per my reading of Pagels, believed that the other apostles served the Demiurge, while the Gnostic Paul served the true God.

The Gnostic Paul’s Opposition to the Psychic Peter

In Galatians 2, Paul discusses how he waited 14 years before returning, and then had a private meeting with the Gentles. Despite Paul’s attempt at sharing his secret meetings, a spy had infiltrated the group, who wanted to “enslave” us. For the Gnostic Paul, this spy would have been a psychic Christian serving under the apostles, meant to bring the pneumatic Christians back under the yoke of the Demiurge.

Paul had to defend himself, and describes the process starting in Galatians 2:7:

On the contrary, when they saw that I had been entrusted with the gospel for the uncircumcised, just as Peter had been entrusted with the gospel for the circumcised (for he who worked through Peter making him an apostle to the circumcised also worked through me in sending me to the Gentiles), and when James and Cephas and John, who were acknowledged pillars, recognized the grace that had been given to me, they gave to Barnabas and me the right hand of fellowship, agreeing that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised. They asked only one thing, that we remember the poor, which was actually what I was eager to do.

For the Gnostic Paul in Galatians, then, he had been entrusted with “gospel for the uncircumcised”– the gospel of the pneumatic– while Peter had been made the “apostle to the circumcized”– the apostle to the psychics, still servants to the Demiurge. They agreed to go their separate ways– the Gnostic Paul and Barnabas in service to the pneumatics, while James, Cephas (Peter), and John in service to the psychics and the Demiurge. Frayed Knot Tension Breaking

At this point, however, things seem to be going amicably. In fact, Paul and Barnabas are asked to remember the poor, which to Valentinian readers would be understood to be the psychics! Even though the desire was that Paul not carry his gospel toward them, he ought still remember them and care for them.

Unfortunately when Peter came to Antioch, things fell apart! Galatians 2:11 records:

But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood self-condemned; for until certain people came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But after they came, he drew back and kept himself separate for fear of the circumcision faction. And the other Jews joined him in this hypocrisy, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. 

What’s going on here? Here’s the trick: where you see “Jew” read “Psychic”, and where you read “Gentile” read “Pneumatic”. Peter came to Antioch and Paul had to publicly call him out as a hypocrite. After asking Paul and Barnabas to remember the psychics as a way of bridging the gap, Peter broke the cease-fire.

Peter started distancing himself from pneumatic Christians (out of fear of the “circumcision faction”, or those who follow the Demiurge), resulting in others– including Paul’s helper Barnabas– being led astray from the gospel of Christ. When Peter was in psychic gatherings he would expect the pneumatic Christians to behave like psychics, but now in a pneumatic setting, he didn’t hold himself to the same standard.

What argument, in Galatians, does the Gnostic Paul give Peter to call out his hypocrisy? For that, we’ll need to dive into Galatians 3, which we’ll cover in Part 2 of our series of the Gnostic Paul on Galatians!

For Part 2, click here!

3 thoughts on “The Gnostic Paul’s Intense Conflict in Galatians 1 and 2

  1. Hi and many thanks for this, your most excellent site. 53 years ago aged 6 I had an ‘experience’ and declared that I’m not meant to be here. Aged 15 in front of the local RC priest with the intent of applying to the priesthood, when I was asked to described God, I replied with a discourse about a vast energy of light and love that surrounds and fills everything. Unsurprisingly the priest told me I couldn’t be a priest. Several ‘experiences’ later I’m still learning, still grasping that which is, at times, just in the corner of vision, often offering that ‘now I see it’ moment. I have found nobody as yet to tell my story to; don’t worry, I’m not a desperate soul in need of an audience (unless asked to tell). That being said, I am pleased to have found your site and will explore heartily. 😊

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