Paul was Neither a Gnostic Nor a Mystery Cultist.
Atheists and Jesus mythers have shaped Paul in the image they would like to see him. They have developed such a vast palimpsest over this material that it's almost impossible for them not to regard their twisted speculations as facts. It's time we did some straight talking about the factual knowledge of Paul.
The Fact that proto versions of the Gospels circulated in writing, with the story of the empty tomb as early as perhaps AD 50 is well proved by Helmutt Koester. See my Doxa pages Gospel Behind the Gospels. Many sources indicate multiple streams of gospel material flowing at the time Paul converted.
I.The Pauline Connection
The notion that there was "a Gospel" per se, that the message about Jesus was distinctive from the one about the Messiah, that Jesus gave it a kind of life of its own, was also slow in coming. The first real formation of it was the Apostle's Church council which we find in Acts . Before this time emphasis was upon Jesus as Messiah. Now Jesus did not cease to be the Messiah, but the church's vision of what that means in terms of the mission to the gentiles and something more than just liberation of Israel from the Romans began to dawn upon them at that council. The Word preached in Antioch, by Hellenistic Jews, the first to be called "Christians." The Antioch church knew their traditions independently of the Apostles. The Creedal formula Paul quotes probably came out of this this council.
"The creedal formula quoted in 1 Cor 15: 3-7 in which the "gospel" is defined as the death, burial, resurrection, and appearances of Christ make it possible that the understanding of the Gospel shared not only by the Church of Antioch from the very beginning but also by others who are named in the citation of those to whom Jesus appeared (Peter and James). This is confirmed independently in Paul's report about the Apostle's council" (Gal 2:1-10). (Koester p. 51)
"What Paul preached was never the subject of the controversy between Paul's Gentile mission and the church in Jerusalem. Jesus death and resurrection was the common event upon which their proclamation was based. Through the proclamation of this eschatological event the communities of believers became the New Israel. As new Believers came into the community they were baptized in the the death of Jesus so they would share also in Jesus' Resurrection." (Ibid.)
In other words the Antioch community didn't just Preach Paul's doctrine, they already had the basic core of the Gospel which they knew from their migration form Jerusalem. They knew the cross and the Resurrection from the beginning. Clearly they located these events in history, in their own recent past as did the Jerusalem church. This will be seen shortly.
Paul had several opportunities to Meet Peter and James, perhaps even other Apostles or those who saw Jesus in the beginning. He knew the stories to some extent, although perhaps not all of them and not well. But he clearly grounded himself in Jesus teachings. The creedal formula which he quotes places Peter and James in the thick of the action, ignoring the women witnesses of the Gospel (probably because they were women) and only counting these two men as early witnesses. Yet this was circulating during their life time. Peter and James knew this talk of Jesus resurrection and themselves as witnesses was being noised about the very city in which they lived. They clearly did nothing to hush it up! Why would they have no issues with Paul's basic message if that message was that Jesus was not an historical figure? The creedal statement says: "For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that the appeared to Peter, then to the Twelve..."
Why would an ethereal spirit require burial? Clearly the passage is speaking of events that occurred in space and time as we know it, in our world, involving flesh and blood historical figures. Paul knew those who were involved in the events and they had no problem with his understanding of those events or the core message.
First, there is no reason for Paul to include such references since the epistles are not an attempt to convert pagans, but letters to churches dealing with practical and theological matters. Secondly, Paul was an intellectual, a thinker and a theologian. His concern was theology. He sought to answer the hard questions about the faith which were not answered by mere repetition of the basic facts of Jesus life. Why should he go into detail about Mary and Joseph and Christ born in a manger when he had more lofty matters to deal with? Finally, he wasn't present during the ministry of Jesus and he was not an eye witness, it is doubtful that he he ever saw a copy of Mark, or any of the other Gospels, so he may not have known all the facts or all the sayings. But he knew enough to formulate a theology. (see Doxa: What did Paul know of Jesus?) Granted it is a lofty theology, he does have something of a "cosmic Christ," but Paul's Christ is not a Gnostic redeemer, and Paul does demonstrate many times a basic awareness of the core Jesus story. But we should not expect to find it in great detail. This is argument from Silence and proves nothing. I will argue that not only do we find many direct contradictions to Doherty's views, that the Gnostic redeemer myth is bunk, and that Paul saw Jesus was a flesh and blood man who lived in history, but that some traces of the Gospel theology and material come through in Paul's understanding.
II.Paul's Jewish Background.
In speaking about Jewish concepts, N.T. Wright tells us
"within this spectrum two points need to be made very clear: first, though there was a range of belief about life after death the word 'resurrection' was only used to describe reembodiment, not the state of disembodied bliss. Resurrection was not a general word for 'life after death' or 'going to be with God' in some general sense. It was the word for what happened when God created newly embodied human beings after whatever intermediate state there might be." (N.T. Wright The Challenge of Jesus: Rediscovering who Jesus was and is," Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter varsity Press, 1999, p. 134)
The Jews expected a flesh and blood Messiah! They never looked forward to a mere ethereal being. Gnosticism did originate in Judaism but not as "Christian Gnosticism" which developed in the second century (with forrunnigs in the first).
The theological background for a Gnostic redeemer myth existed among Jewish sources, but Paul was not a Gnostic.
Paul was a Pharisee, a student of great Rabbi (Gamaliel) he was very proud of his tradition. He could not be further removed form gnosticism. There is no point in assigning to him a Gnostic ethereal theory of the universe when plainly he did not hold to such clap trap. there is simply no reason to think that he believed this.
III. Paul Battles the Gnostics
Piece No. 3: REVEALING THE SECRET OF CHRIST
Paul and other early writers speak of the divine Son of their faith entirely in terms of a spiritual, heavenly figure; they never identify this entity called "Christ Jesus" (literally, "Anointed Savior" or "Savior Messiah") as a man who had lived and died in recent history. Instead, through the agency of the Holy Spirit, God has revealed the existence of his Son and the role he has played in the divine plan for salvation. These early writers talk of long-hidden secrets being disclosed for the first time to apostles like Paul, with no mention of an historical Jesus who played any part in revealing himself, thus leaving no room for a human man at the beginning of the Christian movement. Paul makes it clear that his knowledge and message about the Christ is derived from scripture under God's inspiration. [See "Part Two" and Supplementary Articles Nos. 1 and 6.] (Doherty)
As We have seen above this is totally false. There are Pre-Pauline and Pre-Markan references to Jesus as a flesh and blood man, and the basic historical setting of the Gospels existed in written and oral traditions from at least the middle of the century. We have no reason to assume that this doesn't' reflected the basic facts of the original events and Jesus' actual sayings. Even though Doherty tries to connect his theory to the Mystery cults, it really belongs more firmly in the realm of Gnosticism. The Gnostic redeemer myth was that of a ethereal being whose participation in history was margin and whose fleshly appearance only illusory. The Gnostics traded in "secret knowledge" and "hidden wisdom." It is really the Gnostics that fit the theory better, but they do not fit Paul at all.
Fred Layman, Northwestern Nazarene University, Wesley Center Online, "Male Headship in Paul's Thought", April 2004
Historical studies have increasingly shown the pervasive presence of Gnosticism in the background of several New Testament books, especially those which are important for this discussion-1 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Colossians, and the Pastorals. At this stage Gnosticism was not so much a defined religious philosophy as it was a radical pneumatic disposition which was diffused throughout many religions including Judaism and Christianity.
(He documents 12 Constance F. Parvey, "The Theology and Leadership of Women in the New Testament," in Reuther, Religion and Sexism, p. 121.13Ibid., pp. 121f.14Walter Schmithals, Gnosticism in Corinth (New York: Abingdon, 1971), pp. 160f.15Ernst Kasemann, New Testament Questions of Today (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1971), p. 71.)
Paul Does seem to know a wisdom saying source for Jesus' sayings but it is one that is also reflected in the canonical Mark. The believers in Corinth seem to have a different take on the Gospel than many others. In the first couple of chapters of 1 Cor. Paul uses a different terminology than he uses anywhere else. Mainly this consists of words like "wise" and "wisdom." He uses these 10 times in the first chapter, but only four times in all the rest of his corpus. Therse terms bring up a set of sayings from Mark that are noted as distinctly different from Jesus' other other sayings. Mark: 11:25,27, 13:16-17--Luke 10:21-24. The contrast between terms "wise" and "clever" found there are used nowhere else in Jesus' sayings. These refer to Isaiah 29:14:"I will destroy the wisdom f the wise and the cleverness of the clever I will thwart." Paul refers to this saying. Other contrasts include hidden and revealed. All of these concepts pertain to Gnostic ideas of the secret knowledge and those who possess it vs. those who possess it not. In 1 Cor. 4:5 "the Lord who will illumine the hidden things of darkness and reveal the councils of the heart." This is parallel by Mark 4:22 and also has a parallel in the Gospel of Thomas.
What's going on here? Does this mean that Paul was a Gnostic? It means that there was a Gnosticizing element in the early church, one which complied an early sayings list, and fragments of that list are used in the canonicals (perhaps because Jesus really said them?) But the Gnosticizers put their own Gnostic spin on these sayings. Such a faction existed at Corinth. Paul is entering their scheme and their language to deal with them.
Koester tells us
"Paul not only alludes to the sayings where were evidently of crucial importance to his opponents, he also adopts their schema of revelation which speaks of the things that were formerly hidden, but have now been revealed. This scheme is characteristic of the Q sayings...though it is not really typical of the Synoptic Saying Source as a whole. IN the genuine Pauline letters, it is used only in 1 Cor 2:6-16, while it occurs frequently in the deutero-Pauline letters and also appears in the secondary ending of Romans" (16:25-26).(Koster p.59)
"For the Corinthian wisdom theology this revelation schema, of central importance for their understanding of salvation, it related to the sayings tradition by another element, namely, the recourse to the authority of certain persons: Paul, Appeals, Cephas, possibly Christ "(1 Cor 1:12, 3:4-5, 22).(Koester p 62)
There are three elements which together call for an answer: (1) the Corinthians knew saying which they took to be a hidden wisdom saying source. (2) Paul rejects that his calling had anything to do with Baptism (1 Cor. 1:15-17) the claim of belonging to a specific person may have entered into this. (3) Several other sources indicate that Apostolic Authority and the name of a specific Apostle played a role in transmission of sayings for both Orthodox and Gnostic. These sources include: Gospel of Thomas, The Apocrypha of James and Ptolemy's Letter of Flora.
Koester concludes form all of this that at Corinth Paul faced a Gnosticizing faction which believed that they had been initiated into secret knowledge through baptism. "They understood particular Apostles as their Mystagogues from whom they received sayings from which they received life giving wisdom...Paul's arguments against this understanding of Salvation become quite clearer if they are understood against this background." (Koster, p.62).
As pointed out already, he only uses these terms of Wisdom and wise four other times in his whole corpus. Koester says that with this background in mind the way he speaks of the cross as hidden wisdom before the ages becomes understandable, because he is dealing with this Gnosticizing faction in their own terms. It is also important to note that the Cross was "hidden" to human understanding. The only verses about it in the OT are "hidden" and require interpretation, which even the Jewish people don't' accept today (Is 53, Ps 22, Zach.10:11).
Moreover, as Koster states: "Nowhere else does Paul speak about the Cross of Christ in such terms." (p.62). Doherty is merely confused and reversing Paul's meaning to place him in a position the opposite of which he was taking.
It does not require much persuading to get most knowledgeable Bible readers to agree that Paul was not pleased with the Corinthians, that only when he was flattering them to coax them into submission was he saying positive things about their behavior. In the opening chapter he is clearly arguing against everything they think. He denies the importance of attaching one's self to a famous Apostle but one should only follow Christ. He denies that his mission was baptism precisely because they thought baptism by an Apostle or noteworthy was initiation into the secret mysteries. That's why he says "I thank God I did not baptize any of you." The rest of the time he is telling them they are not wise. They do not have the full truth, they are immature.
Note: There probably wasn't a blow blown Gnosticism at Corinth since this doesn't show up tied to Christian Doctrine until the second century. The Corinthians probably didn't deny that Christ was a flesh and blood being, but just believed that they had "secret wisdom" that other churches didn't have. That is why Paul doesn't just come out and say explicitly "this is wrong, Christ was in history..."
Paul's repudiation of the Gnostic faction at Corinth can be seen as a repudiation of all Gnostic positions, especially any position that would detach Jesus Christ form Jesus of Nazareth, the Jesus of flesh and blood and history. Paul clearly rejected the hidden wisdom schema, why than assume that he rejects the rest of the Gnostic schema? Moreover, Doherty sites this Gnostic vocabulary as grounds for the assumption that Paul is working in the Mythos of a mystery cult. Yet Paul repudiates the mystery cult diatribe. Let's look further at some of the verses Doherty sites.
Doherty, Piece No. 4: A SACRIFICE IN THE SPIRITUAL REALM
"Paul does not locate the death and resurrection of Christ on earth or in history. According to him, the crucifixion took place in the spiritual world, in a supernatural dimension above the earth, at the hands of the demon spirits (which many scholars agree is the meaning of "rulers of this age" in 1 Corinthians 2:8). The Epistle to the Hebrews locates Christ's sacrifice in a heavenly sanctuary (ch. 8, 9). The Ascension of Isaiah, a composite Jewish-Christian work of the late first century, describes (9:13-15) Christ's crucifixion by Satan and his demons in the firmament (the heavenly sphere between earth and moon). Knowledge of these events was derived from visionary experiences and from scripture, which was seen as a 'window' onto the higher spiritual world of God and his workings." (See "Part Two" and Supplementary Articles Nos. 3 and 9)
As we have seen, Paul most certainly did place the Crucifixion in history, even tying it to historical witnesses Peter and James, and the Resurrection. But moreover the Pauline Verses (and Hebrews) Used to place the Crucifixion in this ethereal realm of The Gnostic Redeemer myth are totally misconstrued. Of course these other souces he he uses, the Ascension of Isaiah for example, has nothing to do with Pauline letters and was produced late in the first century. He can't tie that to Pauline thought at all.
This is a very deceptive statement Doherty makes above, for while many scholars do believe that the phrase "rulers of the age" could refer to demon powers, very few of them actually believe that Paul places the crucifixion in some ethereal Plaroma or nether world. In fact the statement does not have to be understood this way at all. The word Archon (ruler) merely means "firt" or "commander." It is used of human commanders and rulers all the time. While Aeon, "age" just means a period of time, or this epoch in history. So this statement could just as easily describe human rules as demonic ones. The statement , taken by itself, just in terms of its language, could as easily place the crucifixion in history as outside it. Since we have already shown so many ensconces where Paul thinks of the crucifixion as historical, it is foolish and absurd to make this one enstance into anything more, especially when we know that he is adopting the terminology of a Gnsoticizing faction in order to coutner their heresy.
Now it is probable that Paul did use this phrase of demonic powers. But he believed that demonic powers played a hand in the running of the world, the affairs of state, that they controlled governments. They were able to motivate the crucifixion for this very reason. That still means however that the crucifixion was in history. It is the demonic powers influence over human affairs of which he speaks, not some ethereal events in some realm removed form history (Whiteley, Theology of St.Paul Fortress:1965, 229).
2:7 "Now we speak of God's secret Wisdom. A wisdom that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began. None of the rules of this age understood it for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of Glory. "(8)
He adopts the language of the Wisdom faction at Corinth while arguing with them. This is a basic Pauline strategy "I become all things to all men that I might win some for Christ." He's merely striving to appeal to his audience. Nothing in this statement implies that the crucifixion was not in history. Rather, it was motivated by the demonic powers since they control the worldly reigns of power, through their stooges the humans who are not clinging to God but sold out to the "worldly powers." This is clearly an event in history.
The framework of Palestine in the first century was a melting pot of several cultures cross fertilizing each other. "It must be remembered that Jewish and Hellenistic thought both grew up together in the Eastern end of the Mediterranean, both owed a little bit to Egypt and a great deal to the civilization of the Trigris-Euphrates valley. Both alike derived something form Aegean culture."(D.E.H.Whiteley, The Theology of ST Paul. Philadelphia: fortress press, 1964, p.5) It is not surprising then that some concepts and expression, modes of thought would be cross fertilized and "borrowed." This is a far cry form the "copy cat" savior theory that skeptics such as Dohrety often go in for.
As for the notion that Christianity was a mystery cult, D.E.H. Whiteley one of the greatest Pauline scholars tells us, "the subject need be considered only at the level of popular misconceptions. Most of our evidence for the extant mystery cults comes from after the time than that of ST. Paul. For example Apuleius whose Golden Ass is one of our sources for these cults wrote in the third quarter of the second century...St. Paul does not seem t have been the sort of man to barrow from pagan sources. He was brought up as a strict Jew...Col. 2:8 'do not let your minds be captured by hollow and deceptive philosophies' is a warning against the kind of thinking we find in the mystery religions." (p. 2). Moreover Whiteley points out had Paul borrowed from the mystery religions we should expect to find his "Judaizing opponents" attacking him for that.
"St. Paul does not seem to have been the Sort of man that we should expect to find borrowing from Pagan sources. He was brought up as a strict Jew (Phil 3:5) Col 2:8 'do not let your minds be captured by hollow and deceptive speculations'...this is the kind of thinking we find in the mystery religions: it is not directed against philosophy in any modern sense of the word." (Whiteley, p. 2).