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«« Contextualizing the Apocalypse of Paul » Michael Kaler Laval théologique et philosophique, vol. 61, n° 2, 2005, p. 233-246. Pour citer cet ...»

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Given the less than ample remains of their writings which we possess, it is difficult to say how unified a movement “Valentinianism” may have been. The specific beliefs of the various Valentinian leaders varied, at least partly by design — the Valentinians were excoriated by later heresiologists precisely because their theologians improvised and worked with the material that they received from their teachers, justifying this practice by an appeal to divine inspiration in the form of gnosis, a mystical understanding of the true nature of the universe.5 But in general Valentinian groups shared certain ideas about the not entirely positive relationship between the soul and the created universe ; the inferior nature of the creator god, the Demiurge, who was to be distinguished from the transcendent higher god ; and the need for salvific gnosis, or knowledge, in order that the soul might realize its true nature and escape from its captivity in the universe.

Unlike other heterodox Christian groups such as the Marcionites, the Valentinians did not see themselves as being separate from the proto-orthodox Christian church. Rather, they saw themselves as representing a spiritual elite within the church. There are also strong indications that they felt a responsibility to guide and protect their fellow Christians.6 This necessarily drew down upon them the ire of the emergent proto-orthodox ecclesiastical authorities, who saw Valentinian claims to enlightenment as a threat to their own status. As I will discuss below, it is my contention that in the Apocalypse of Paul we see the literary remains of a battle between Valentinians and proto-orthodox over the correct interpretation of the legend and writings of the apostle Paul.

3. Paulinism Paulinism has to do with the reception of the apostle Paul and his writings by later generations of Christians.7 Now, by and large, scholars who have been interested

5. It is not to be doubted that the Valentinians, like other philosophical schools of their day, were somewhat inconsistent, and allowed room for individual teachers to put their own stamp on the basic understandings of the sect. However, the heresiologists’ claim to represent a pristine tradition of unsullied orthodoxy, faithfully and completely conveyed from Jesus to the apostles, and thence to their own successors, is nowadays seen as being (at best) grossly exaggerated. If the Valentinians did in fact, therefore, justify their claims on the grounds of personal inspiration, then from the point of view of modern research we must admit that they were at least more perceptive than were their opponents.

6. See KOSCHORKE’s insightful analysis of the “gnostic” (his term, although his evidence and discussion make it clear that Valentinianism is his main focus) understanding of the church in the final section of his Die Polemik der Gnostiker gegen das kirchliche Christentum [Leiden, Brill (coll. “Nag Hammadi Studies,” XII), 1978], “Das ekklesiologische Modell des inneren Kreises,” especially subsections 2 (“Die Kirchenchristen als Adressaten gnostischer Propoganda”) and 3 (“Die Kirche als notwendiger Ort der ‘Formung’”). Although his book was published in 1978, subsequent research has tended strongly to support his conclusions. See also E. PAGELS, “The Mystery of the Resurrection : A Gnostic Reading of 1 Cor 15,” Journal for Biblical Literature, 93 (1974), p. 276-288.

7. The concept first appeared in F.C. BAUR’s 1831 article for the Tübinger Zeitschrift on “The Party of Christ in the Corinthian Church,” and had to do with the alleged clash in earliest Christianity between the supporters of Peter and Paul over the definition and direction of the Church, with the Paulinists supporting


in Paulinism have looked at it in terms of the use of his theology, or more generally of his thought. Thus the concern has been to analyze the ways in which later writers accepted or disregarded his thought, and whether they developed it in ways that were faithful to his original intent. But this focus on his thought has obscured the fact that there were many thoroughly Paulinist Christians, people who wholeheartedly received Paul, but who received him as a great legendary figure of the past, not as a theologian per se, in much the same way that those of us who know nothing of, let us say, Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s theology nonetheless respect him as a modern Christian martyr. This somewhat overlooked aspect of Paulinism8 was stressed by the late Hans-Martin Schenke as far back as 1974, but his article9 was also largely overlooked. It is with this sort of Paulinism that I am concerned.

Now, I said above that this paper deals with how these three currents converge in one gnostic text, the Apocalypse of Paul. Currently, there is no scholarly consensus regarding the definition of gnosticism. In fact, Michael Williams has relatively recently argued that the phrase is no longer useful and should be replaced10, but I think that he goes too far — in my opinion, the present scholarly unwillingness to venture a definition is a necessary reaction to earlier attempts to define gnosticism which ended up with neat, oversimplified definitions which did not match up with the evidence.

But to assume that this unwillingness will last forever is naive. Scholarship, like all human activities, goes in dialectical spirals, thesis leading to antithesis leading to synthesis, which then becomes a new thesis when the cycle starts again. We are now in the antithesis phase, with a synthetic period still to come.

However, this paper is not the place for an attempt to inaugurate the new synthetic phase of our never-ending scholarly spiral. Accordingly, for the purposes of this paper, we shall limit ourselves to saying a) that gnosticism was a religious movement which denigrated this cosmos and awaited a saviour figure who would rescue the gnostic believers from it, and b) that Valentinianism is considered to be one of the two main branches of gnosticism, along with Sethianism, so that insofar as the Apocalypse of Paul is Valentinian, it is also gnostic by default.

Paul’s distinctive vision and more Hellenistic orientation. The term’s application has since widened, to include any significant reception of Paul’s theology.

8. Particularly in the field of gnostic studies : it is gradually becoming more accepted in the broader realm of Pauline studies, especially following the publication of Paul and the Legacies of Paul (ed. W. Babcock). In a paper delivered at the Society for Biblical Literature meeting in Atlanta in Nov. 2003 (“The Legendary Paul”) I attempted to argue for the importance of taking this element of the reception of Paul into account in our studies of gnostic Pauline texts.

9. “Das Weiterwirken des Paulus und die Pflege seines Erbes durch die Paulus-Schule”, New Testament Studies, 21 (1974), p. 505-518.

10. This is in fact the raison d’être of his recent work Rethinking Gnosticism : An Argument for Dismantling a Dubious Category, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1996. See also Karen KING’s What is Gnosticism ?, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 2003.


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The Apocalypse of Paul’s sole extant exemplar is the second text in codex five of the Nag Hammadi collection, a collection of 12 codices and the remains of a thirteenth which was buried in middle Egypt in the mid to late fourth century and discovered in the mid-nineteen forties. The story of the discovery, edition and publication of the collection is a long and interesting one, but somewhat off-topic here.11 For the moment it will suffice to say that the collection contains some 52 texts, most of which are “gnostic”12, using that term in a loose sense, and whose genres and contents vary enormously.

The codex in which the Apocalypse of Paul is found contains three other apocalyptic texts (one apocalypse of Adam, and two different apocalypses of James), and seems to have been compiled specifically to be an apocalyptic codex. The texts of this codex are written in the Sahidic dialect of Coptic, but with influences from another dialect, the Bohairic, suggesting strongly that they were translated from the Bohairic dialect into Sahidic. As is usual with Nag Hammadi texts, it is assumed that the Apocalypse of Paul was composed in Greek and only later translated into Coptic.

However, this hypothetical Greek original text is entirely unattested : there are no sure references to our Apocalypse of Paul in any of the ancient literature.13 The Apocalypse of Paul is a short text, around seven pages of Coptic, or three pages when translated into a modern language. It is fairly well preserved, with a few big holes in the manuscript. Where the text is preserved, it is generally clear and understandable, with the exception of two instances where a translator or copyist seems to have gotten things mixed up.14 The story features the apostle Paul, who meets a divine spirit while he (Paul) is on his way to Jerusalem. This spirit whisks him up to the third heaven, and from there they ascend through the rest of the heavens together, ending up in the tenth, where Paul is united with his “fellow spirits.” On the way, they see such stereotypically apocalyptic sights as the judgment of a soul, and they encounter the Judeo-Christian god in the seventh heaven.

In terms of its genre, the Apocalypse of Paul is a classic example of the sub-genre of ascension apocalypses that I mentioned above, which recount the adventures of a visionary who rises through the various heavens and ends up by meeting God. In fact, I would say that it is even a bit too classic, it conforms too knowingly to the standards

11. See J. ROBINSON, “From the Cliff to Cairo : The Story of the Discoverers and the Middlemen of the Nag Hammadi Codices”, in B. BARC, ed., Colloque international sur les textes de Nag Hammadi (Québec, 22-25 août 1978), Québec, Les Presses de l’Université Laval ; Louvain, Peeters (coll. “Bibliothèque copte de Nag Hammadi”, section “Études”, 1), 1981, p. 21-58.

12. Some of the works are clearly gnostic by any reasonable definition of the term, some could be considered gnostic but need not necessarily be so, some are amenable to gnostic readings and interpretation without themselves being clearly gnostic, and a few are clearly not gnostic.

13. See note 18 below.

14. 18,10-13a ; 20,5b-8a.


of its genre to be a naïve exponent of that genre. Rather, it seems that it reflects a knowledge of the genre as such, an acquaintance with its characteristic motifs, images and concerns — in the same way that, say, Raiders of the Lost Ark conforms too knowingly to the conventions of the 1940s action film to actually be mistaken for such a movie. We will return to this point below.

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