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Paul, an Apostle – Gnosis and Special Knowledge

 

Paul, an Apostle
Gnosis and Special Knowledge

A Continuing Exploration

Paul
Gnosis and Special Knowledge

 

 

**Copying – Unauthorized linking –  or usage of this Academic Paper is forbidden without Proper citation and author permission** Theology 236 – Spirituality:Personal, Social and Religious. **

This paper, on the topic of Paul, the Apostle, is the second in a series of discussions on the topic of Paul, post conversion on the Road to Damascus and what I found intriguing about Paul in regards to the postulation that ‘Paul’ received special knowledge from the ‘Christ’ during his experience with the risen Christ during that experience which greatly changed the life and ministry of a man, that had been such a zealot against ‘Christians and Christianity.’

This concept of ‘gnosis’ and my interest in the concept of special knowledge began when I started reading the Gnostic gospels, namely the first “the Gospel of Mary Magdalene.” In that text, we find that Mary Magdalene occupies a specific location in the life of Jesus and as well, her presence in the ‘Christian story.’

“It is important to remember that Jesus Christ does relieve Mary of the seven demons – or, perhaps, those aspects that can cloud vision and energy at each of the seven charkas. Presumably, she no longer possesses the seven deadly sins… In their place exist the corresponding virtues – the way has been cleared for “the seven virgins of light… On the third morning after the Crucifixion, Mary Magdalene feels a call to visit Jesus’ tomb. She takes with her a container of unguent, perhaps one in the series of ancient oils to assist the dead through the underworld and into the realms of spirit. She alone meets Jesus Christ at the tomb in his resurrected body. It is easy to imagine that she receives an important teaching [special knowledge] here, one that can be comprehended by a person whose seven demons have been lifted.”[1]

 

It is said that Mary Magdalene had been cleansed and thereby allowing her to see the risen Christ, ‘between the veil’ of the earth and the heavens. Her prominence in biblical literature is readily apparent, as the one woman who has had a series of blessed encounters with the Christ, in service, prayer, and suffering and most importantly in the ‘resurrection.’

Leloup continues later, in saying that:

In the legends and stories told about Mary Magdalene there can be found some hint of what she may represent to us today: As one who was cleansed from sin; who remains with Christ throughout his death on the cross; and who first witnesses, understands and believes Christ’s resurrection, she represents a human being who is open and available to true ‘inner knowing,’ who can ‘see’ in deeper, clearer ways through a unique spiritual connection to both earthly death and the Divine.”[2]

For me this introduction by way of Mary Magdalene is important to build my foundation to begin the discussion of the Apostle Paul in greater detail. It is my postulation that like Mary Magdalene, Paul was the recipient of ‘cleansing’ of the former ways he was a persecutor of the Christ. Unlike the Apostles of the living Christ, having lived, worked and suffered along with him,

“Paul’s experiences will be examined as a cross-section of the tree of Christian experience. St. Paul was the first experient of Christ after the Spirit who wrote down his experiences, and he quite definitely identified the Christ of his vision with the Jesus whom the other apostles had known in Galilee.”[3]

Since my introductory paper on St. Paul, which we will discuss here as well, I was very interested in the way Paul wrote his many epistles and why. Through academic research I have come to learn that Paul, in fact, did understand more deeply the words he was writing, [see Corinthians later in the paper] there was special insight and understanding of Christian ritual and his vision of community and what was most important to the Christian community, those being ‘community and the Eucharist.’

I have posed these questions to academics in my field of study and have attempted to entertain my fellows about the ideas of Paul having special ‘gnosis’ or knowledge. None of those respondents dared to offer even speculation on my queries. I am led, then to investigate texts that may enlighten my investigation of Paul to a greater extent.

I have spent a great deal of time looking for writers who would definitively answer this question once and for all, and to my dismay, those answers have not materialized. Although, through research we can make several educated observations about Paul. Elaine Pagels is one of my favorite authors and educators on the topic of Gnostic literature, many disagree with my adoration of her, but I offer some words from her book, The Gnostic Gospels.

“Paul, referring to himself obliquely in the third person, says that he was “caught up to the third heaven – whether in the body or out of the body I do not know.” There, in an ecstatic trance, he heard “things that cannot be told, which man may not utter.” Through his spiritual communication with Christ, Paul says he discovered “hidden mysteries” and “secret wisdom,” which, he considers “Mature” but not with everyone. Many contemporary scholars, themselves orthodox, have followed Rudolph Bultmann, who insists that Paul does not mean what he says in this passage.”[4]

Elaine goes so far to say that indeed Paul discovered hidden mysteries. Can we then postulate that hidden mysteries are synonymous with ‘special knowledge’ or ‘Gnosis?’

Pagels goes on to say later that “Gnostic authors often attribute their own tradition to persons who stand outside the circle of the twelve – Paul, Mary Magdalene, and James.” [5]

It just seems interesting that Paul’s post resurrection vision of the Risen Christ imbued him with zeal and adoration for the Christ, that became a contention with those apostles who knew, lived and participated in the life of Christ. The movement from zealot and persecutor of Christ to the position of one of the most important figures in the propagation and ministry of Christian faith in early history as a faithful “bond-slave” as Rattenbury writes must indicate that along with the ecstatic vision that Paul witnessed came with certain special knowledge that Christ must have known that Paul needed to convict his heart and to be able to share the ministry of Christ with others.

Some of Paul’s central ideas about community, Eucharist and ministry were specific areas where one can begin to see that in Paul’s writing, which he is writing from a place of knowledge and wisdom. Not only is Paul’s wisdom apparent in what he writes in his epistles, but how he phrases his words and in the ways he relates sacred information.

After Paul had his conversion experience and began to write and work within his ministry, there were authority arguments between the apostles and Paul. Paul’s claim of authority came by Jesus, “the 1st fruit.” The end times had begun for Paul in his mind. The crucifixion of Jesus became absolutely central to Paul’s ministry, then the center of Christian belief. For Paul, Christ brings deliverance from sin. The relations between Jews and early Christian communities (Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians eating at table together) were strained. The “Table” is absolutely vital to Paul’s theology. Paul’s vision of Christian community and the evolution of Christian faith lie in the death and resurrection of Jesus; this had to manifest itself at the “table.” The table was “central,” not incidental. There was no Jew, nor Greek, male nor female, this was Paul’s community. The fellowship was crucial and if disturbed the community would fall apart. There are three Pauline Ideas: the table, the community around that table and the fellowship as a whole, the “saving table” – where all are welcome and all are equal.

In the theology of Paul, he dealt with the Jewish/Gentile problem at table. As I mentioned before, the shared meal was vital to Paul. The theological reasoning was that it was to maintain the memory of the death and resurrection of Jesus, to proclaim a genuine faith, manifesting at a shared meal, the shared meal was in anticipation of the end times. With Jesus as the first fruit, the general resurrection is near. God became what he was not in Jesus, a lowly human being. For Paul, a Christian is a Christian. New boundaries were being created without separations. If you separate at the table, you undermine the community. The table is the convergence point, all in fulfillment of God’s will. If one breaks up the table one threatens the community and people’s ability to participate. Let us look at Paul’s concept of fellowship.

The fellowship for whatever purpose it was constituted was found to be a most potent means for promoting the development of spiritual insight and of character. But it seems probable that this function was discovered to operate with special effectiveness in connection with the Lords Supper or Eucharist. St. Paul gives no direct teaching on the subject, but it seems to be involved in the symbolism of the feast that it was intended and calculated to provide spiritual nourishment and to stimulate spiritual growth. It was ‘the table of the Lord’ and if it had judgment power as ‘a savior of death unto death.’ It was also a savor of life unto life. (Scott 180)

 

Focusing on Paul’s epistle demonstrates what Paul saw in the Eucharist. The following pages of ‘vision’ will give certain clarity to ideas on Paul’s important understanding of the “covenant,” with respect to rites and historical connection to the Sinai tic literature and how they impact upon Paul’s New Testament writings. I found this portion of my research to be particularly interesting, shedding light on the reading that I had not considered. While long, this scripture reading is necessary to give context to the remainder of my paper. 1 Corinthians 11:17-26.

Abuses at the Lord’s Supper

“Now in the following instruction I do not commend you, because when you come together it is not for the better but for the worse. For, to begin with, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you; and to some extent I believe it. Indeed, there have to be factions among you, for only so will it become clear who among you are genuine. When you come together, it is not really to eat the Lord’s Supper. For when the time comes to eat, each of you goes ahead with your own supper, and one goes hungry and another becomes drunk. What! Do you not have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you show the contempt for the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What should I say to you? Should I commend you? In this matter I do not commend you.

For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, This is my body that is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me. In the same way he took the cup also, after supper saying, this cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me. For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord.

Examine yourselves, and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgment against themselves. For this reason many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. But if we judged ourselves, we would not be judged. But when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world. So then, my brothers and sisters, when you come together to eat, wait for one another. If you are hungry, eat at home, so that when you come together, it will not be for your condemnation. About the other things I will give instructions when I come.” (NSRV 1Cor. 11:17-34)

 

“The verses in question (1Cor.11:23-34) are embedded in a section (vs.17-34) where the thought is as closely knit as anywhere in Paul. This will be seen in the first place if we recognize how certain ideas in the earlier verses find echo in the later. These people were gathering together for worship not to their advantage, but to their disadvantage (v.17). And the disadvantage is described in (v.30) in terms of physical consequences of a serious kind. The question in (v.22,) ‘have ye not houses for your eating and drinking?’ finds an echo in (v.34,) ‘If anyone is hungry, let him eat at home.’ And the suggestion that the people whose conduct is criticized do actually ‘despise the Church of God’ reappears in (v.29) where the same attitude or temper is described as ‘not having a proper sense of the Body,’ i.e. of the Church.” (Scott 188) At Corinth, Paul addressed an issue in which the community is eating separately rather than together. This had the effect of creating a collection of “individual meals” rather than one community meal. Only the latter can be called the “Lord’s supper.” (1Cor 11:18-21)

Thus Paul counsels that they should eat together rather than separately: “So then, my brothers and sisters, when you come together to eat, wait for one another. If you are hungry, eat at home, so that when you come together, it will not be for your condemnation. About the other things I will give instructions when I come.” (1Cor. 11-33)

As Paul developed his arguments, he referred to the power of the meal to create social bonding and define social boundaries. His arguments for social ethics within the community drew upon banquet traditions of social obligation toward one’s meal companions. He responded to issues of social stratification at the table but will especially develop the theme of social equality. In his discussion of early Christian worship, he utilized many features from the rules of banquet entertainment, suggesting that worship took place at the community table. … These themes also informed other sections of Paul’s theology and ethics beyond the texts immediately concerned with the meals at Antioch and Corinth. (Smith 175)

 

In Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, “Paul refers to the Christian ritual; meal at Corinth, to which he gives the name “The Lord’s Supper” – a designation for the event not otherwise found in the New Testament and hardly known in other early Christians literature.” (Bradshaw 44)

There is specific notation to make notice when Paul writes to the communities of Antioch and Corinth. As was Paul’s preoccupation for admonishing and teaching, Paul did not mince words when it came to his zealousness for Christ and making sure that the communities he preached to understood this. As [Bradshaw] suggests in Eucharistic Origins, “when Paul cites the Last Supper narrative it is not to remind the Corinthians of a ritual sequence that they are neglecting but rather to underscore a meaning of the meal of which they have lost sight. There is no necessary reason to suppose, therefore, that the celebration of the Eucharist at Corinth was influenced by the order of the Last Supper narrative at all” (Bradshaw 45).

This Lord’s supper narrative and the words of Paul give us an idea that “[i]n any case, the fact that Paul felt compelled to give his readers catechesis about the true meaning of the rite itself that its import was not fully manifest in the words that were actually used” (47). Paul talks about the partnership that those who are at ‘table’ become part of. This may lead to the thought that “fellowship with the blood of Christ, in the sense of fellowship with Christ in his death; ‘fellowship with the (living) Body of Christ’ in the sense of fellowship with the Christ in the new life, through His living Body, the Church. It is in favor of this interpretation that it would assign to the Lord’s Supper the same significance which we have found in Paul attaching to Baptism, as a pictorial setting forth of that which has taken place through faith, the dying with Christ to the world and to sin, and the living again to God and righteousness” (Scott 187).

In my research, I have found that there was a connection between the practices of Judaism when it comes to sacrifice and ritual and how those rituals of the past were modified and took their place in the Christian lexicon of worship. Just a mention about covenant: “As one of the implications of the old covenant at Sinai had been found in the constitution of a People, the People of God, so the new covenant carried with it the constitution of a new People, the People of God in Christ. And this People was represented by any group or society of believers met to recall Christ, to proclaim to one another and to the world outside the death of the Lord as the foundation of their fellowship and the secret of their mutual love. The reality of their experience both past and present was attested by their attitude to one another as members of the same sacred body” (Scott 192-193).

When one sifts through the writings on and about St. Paul, there is such a wealth of insight to be learned. It is my understanding and belief that Paul was imbued with an understanding from his religious conversion experience, well beyond his peers and detractors, and even the apostles themselves. I imagine that when Paul wrote his epistles that he had this foreknowledge, which I think, was lost on those he was writing to, is quite stunning and religiously informing, that Paul was given special insight to the ministry of Christ, that is stunning thought to ponder, and sheds new light on the preacher Paul. Nevertheless, he persevered in teaching them from his perspective. I am not sure that the communities he wrote to had the wherewithal kind of ‘depth of thought’ to really ‘understand’ the minutiae of what he was trying to impart.

But I can imagine that maybe some understood at some level. This kind of vision and understanding of religious writing could only come from Godly inspiration.

And this gives us more insight to what may have been imparted to Paul on the road to Damascus by Jesus. I would even venture to believe that after researching this paper, that Paul might have had some ‘sacred vision’ of reality and scripture as Mary Magdalene has been purported to have at the time she witnessed the risen Christ on Easter morning. This special vision has only been conferred on few religious figures that I have run across in my studies. But this is my opinion as a student of religion. I want to close my paper with a final thought from Anderson’s text.

How profound and even overwhelming Paul felt this experience to be is shown by his belief that a definite ‘holiness’ is the Old Testament sense of the word came to be attached to the rite. A man incurred real danger, danger to health and even to life, by participating in it rashly or wrongly. He made himself responsible for, or to, ‘the body and blood of Christ’; He sinned against ‘Christ and him crucified.’ The Lord’s Supper had the same judgment-force as the Word or the Gospel, and for the same reason.

Each of them was calculated to convey so penetrating a sense of the unmerited and redeeming love of God that it acted to the dividing asunder of them that were being saved and them that were being lost. And it would appear that Paul believed that illustrations of physical consequences corresponding to such a judgment had fallen within his observation, or at least come to his knowledge. From this it was only a step, and a natural one, though it was one which Paul did not himself take, to transfer to the symbols themselves the qualities of that which they symbolized.

On the other hand, right use of the Eucharist, the use of it in a spirit consonant with its origin and its purpose, both expressed and confirmed the experience of Fellowship, of Oneness in and with Christ, of mutual articulation as members of the living Body, a Body which had Christ for its head. The important thing is that the criterion of right or wrong in the use of the sacrament was the character of the ethical reaction to the significance of Christ and Him crucified. (Scott 196-197)

Rattenbury writes that “The importance in Christian history of Paul’s experience of God’s Christ cannot be exaggerated, not only on account of its quality, but also on account of its timeliness. Such a man, with such as experience, humanly speaking was necessary at that time, for the world-wide development of Christianity.[6]

I have found that in incorporating my collection of work on the topic of Saint Paul sheds more light on the subject of Paul and what he really knew, post conversion and how that information affected him as a man and the world as his ministry. But like God, dare I say this; can we really know everything about Paul, intimately and completely? Are they to be known ultimately? And would that ultimate knowledge bring forth new wisdom or would it end the mystique and mystery of the unknown in both cases? I end with this though from Rattenbury,

“To catalogue the spiritual experience of Paul is not easy; to label them is often to loose them. Even to summarize the accounts he gives of his own experience requires a careful and exhaustive study of his letters. No mere analysis of his experiences apart from himself can give us a complete understanding of him.

 

If we are to follow the river of his experience it is necessary to walk along the banks, to notice the trees, to visualize the surrounding scenery through which the river flows; and it is because experience is fluent like a river that it is difficult to estimate it truly when it is analyzed point by point. Hence arises a difficulty which we are unable to solve.

 

The only way to adequate way to understand the experiences of Paul is to read and re-read every word he wrote…” [7]

WORKS CITED

 

1. Bradshaw, Paul F. Eucharistic Origins. London: Oxford University Press, 2004.

 

2. Scott, Charles A. Anderson. Christianity According to St. Paul. London: Cambridge University Press, 1966.

 

3. Smith, Dennis E. From Symposium to Eucharist. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003.

 

4. The NSRV – Holy Bible, New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

 

5. Rattenbury, Ernest, The Religious Experience of St. Paul, Cokesbury Press, Nashville, 1931

 

6. Leloup, Jean-Yves, The Gospel of Mary Magdalene, Inner Traditions Publishing, 2002

 

7. Pagels, Elaine, The Gnostic Gospels, Vintage Books, 1989

 

 

 

 

 


[1] Jean Yves Leloup, The Gospel of Mary Magdalene, 2002, Inner Traditions Pub, pgs. Xvii-xxi

 

[2]Leloup, Jen Yves, The Gospel of Mary Magdalene, 2002, Inner Traditions Pub, pg. xxi

[3] Rattenbury, Ernest, The Religious Experience of St. Paul, Cokesbury Press, Nashville, pg. 51

[4] Pagels, Elaine, The Gnostic Gospels, Vintage Books, 1989, pg. 15

[5] Pagels, Elaine, The Gnostic Gospels, Vintage Books, 1989, pg. 22

[6] Rattenbury, Ernest, The Religious Experience of St. Paul, Cokesbury Press, Nashville, pg. 52

[7] Rattenbury, Ernest, The Religious Experience of St. Paul, Cokesbury Press, Nashville, pg. 104