Elaine PagelsBen Witherington III To help make sense of the scholarly debates about Jesus and Paul, we asked two of the preeminent scholars to email each other about early Christianity (while letting us peek in). Elaine Pagels, a professor of religion at Princeton, is the author of the bestselling Beyond Belief and The Gnostic Gospels. Ben Witherington III is professor of New Testament interpretation at Asbury Theological Seminary in Kentucky and author of The Paul Quest and numerous other books.

Round 1 Round 2 Round 3
Elaine Elaine Ben
Ben Ben Elaine

Dear Ben,

Reflecting on Jesus and Paul, I'm intrigued by the difference in what they taught. According to Mark, the earliest of the gospels, Jesus came to announce that "the Kingdom of God is coming-repent, and believe in the good news!" Matthew and Luke added sayings in which Jesus tells what one has to do to "enter the Kingdom"--which range from "take what you have and give to the poor" to "love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself."

Yet Paul's "gospel" was not about the Kingdom--it was about Jesus. Paul, instead of asking his audience to follow the teachings of Jesus, demanded belief in what he called "my gospel," which declared that "Christ died for our sins...and that he was raised." Astonishingly, although Paul had never met Jesus, he insisted that, having encountered the risen Christ in a blaze of heavenly light, he understood the gospel far better than any of those who, like Peter and James, had known Jesus well. Paul knew Christ through his own direct encounter in "visions and revelations."

And this passionate and intense apostle, who said he wanted to be "all things to all people," went a long way in succeeding! Even today, the issues he addresses in his letters--from Jewish practices to sexual ones, from his views of God, Christ, baptism, and resurrection--are often read in radically different ways.

Take, for example, Paul's bitter argument with Peter. Most Christians take Paul to mean that the Torah given to Israel has become obsolete; followers of Jesus can forget about circumcision and kosher laws. But a few scholars, including my colleague John Gager at Princeton, suggest that Paul meant that while Jews should continue following Torah, Christ opened up a new way of salvation especially for Gentiles. I wish that I thought this more ecumenical view was what Paul meant--but I suspect it wasn't: no wonder they call Paul the "founder of Christianity."

Or a second issue: George Bernard Shaw called Paul the "eternal enemy of women" because of his negative views of women and his "hatred of sex" (like many male commentators, Shaw thought of women and sex as virtually synonymous). One lone (male) scholar, Robin Scroggs, says that Paul was "the greatest spokesman for women's lib" (you can tell he was writing in the '70s!) But I think Scroggs far overstates the case, for although Paul included women among his patrons and fellow evangelists and said that "in Christ there is neither male nor female, slave nor free," he nevertheless took for granted that husbands rule wives, and that "man is the....reflection of God, but woman is the reflection of man; and man was not created for woman, but woman for man." Slaves, too, although they may be "one in Christ" with Christian owners nevertheless remain slaves until the "age to come" arrives. Paul thought it wouldn't be a long wait, but 1,900 years later, his letters fueled the pro-slavery propaganda of the Christian American South.

In his own time and ever afterward, many Christians revered Paul for teaching--and practicing--celibacy, since he characterized marriage as a form of equal-opportunity bondage. He believed its only excuse was to legitimate sexual intercourse and only, he warned, between heterosexual married partners (during times they were not engaged in prayer) for those too "weak" to renounce sex altogether. It's amazing to me that the letters Paul wrote to various groups some 20 to 30 years after Jesus' death have been taken as if they were blueprints for "Christian" sexual and social attitudes--for 2,000 years so far.

Yet radical as they were, the intense conviction they carried earned them wide prestige--so much so that those who disagreed with Paul and wanted to reaffirm traditional Jewish values of family and procreation did this by writing letters they attributed to Paul that taught opposite values-and put them into the New Testament under Paul's name! Here is what I mean: like many other New Testament scholars, I share the view that Paul only wrote seven of the 13 so-called "letters of Paul" that are in the New Testament (only these share his distinctive and eloquent style). The six "deutero- Pauline" (this means "secondarily Pauline," but perhaps could be called more bluntly "pseudo-Pauline") letters take Paul's inclinations to subordinate women and slaves to a new level. The letters to Timothy are good examples. They insist that bishops should be married men, whose capacity to control their wives and slaves demonstrated their capacity to "rule over the church"; in these letters, the fiery and charismatic Paul becomes the very model of an ecclesiastical bureaucrat.

What I find very intriguing, too, is how imaginative and rich Paul's language is. He often reminds his audience of how many "visions and revelations" God had granted him directly--even an unexpected glimpse into heaven during his lifetime, in which he says he saw and heard "things that no mortal is allowed to utter.
" These visions inspired believers and "heretics" from Marcion to Valentinus. The picture of Christ that Paul borrowed from an ancient Christian hymn, as one who, being "equal with God," voluntarily "emptied himself, and became a human being," taking on the form of a slave to redeem a lost humanity, became enormously influential in later Christian interpretations of Jesus and his mission, from the church father Irenaeus to Valentinus.

In fact, the African church father Tertullian grumbled that Paul had become the "apostle to the heretics"--and many religious visionaries, from the first century to the present, have claimed him as "the great apostle." For while those who called themselves orthodox claimed to love Paul, so did those they called heretics, as we can see from the recently discovered library of ancient Christian books discovered at Nag Hammadi in Egypt in 1945. These texts begin with the Prayer of the Apostle Paul and include the Apocalypse of Paul as well as dozens of other texts like the Gospel of Philip and the Gospel of Truth, whose anonymous authors love Paul's letters, and quote them all the time. Yet because some of the pseudo-Pauline letters--I Timothy, for example-pictures Paul as a champion of orthodoxy (even though that orthodoxy had not been invented in Paul's day), certain church fathers were able to reclaim the disputed territory of Paul's letters for the churches they called "orthodox."

What all this suggests to me, Ben, is that, historically speaking at least, there is no one single way to read the letters of this astonishing apostle, which still intensely engage many Christians. Enough for now: I'll close this ramble with one of Paul's passages that I love: "I am persuaded that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus."

Looking forward to your reply,

Yours sincerely, Elaine

Dear Elaine:

You're off to a rousing start, and I can see this discussion is going to be far from boring! I must tell you from the outset that I am more than a little weary of the old liberal rant that goes "back to Jesus, and away with Paul, the first great corrupter of the simple Gospel of Jesus."

The idea of Jesus as Messiah was not an invention of Paul. In our earliest Gospel Mark, Jesus not only predicts his own death and resurrection three times in three chapters (Mk. 8-10) but suggests, alluding to Is. 53, that his death would provide a ransom for many. In other words, Jesus had a messianic self-understanding.

You seem to have also overlooked that even in the undisputed Pauline letters, there are six or seven places where Paul talks about the Kingdom of God as both present and also future, using the same sort of language as Jesus about inheriting or obtaining or entering the Kingdom as Jesus uses (see e.g. 1 Cor. 15.50). It is a caricature of Paul's Gospel to say it was not about the Kingdom but about Jesus--it was about both. It is likewise a caricature of the teaching of Jesus, even if we confine ourselves to Mark, the earliest Gospel, to say that Jesus' teaching was just about the Kingdom and not about himself. Perhaps we can move on from the old stereotypes and admit that a non-eschatological, non-Jewish, non-messianic Jesus just doesn't make sense given our earliest and best evidence about him--by which I mean the four canonical Gospels and elsewhere in the New Testament.

In regard to your various complaints about Paul, I think you are right that Paul does say in Galatians that the Mosaic Law--while a good and glorious gift of God--was given only for a specific period of time in the life of God's people, and that now that Christ has come, it is time to recognize that new occasions teach new duties.

While Paul was fine with being the "Jew to the Jew and the Gentile to the Gentile," he did not believe Jewish Christians needed to keep the Mosaic covenant. It could be seen as a blessed option, but not an obligation for anyone who was in Christ. His was a more radical position than that of some Jerusalem Jewish Christians. One of the reasons why Paul takes such a view, as he makes plain in a text like Rom. 9-11, is that he believes that Christ was and is the messiah of the Jews, as well as the Savior of the Gentiles. He believes that God intends for there to be only one people of God in the long run, namely Jew and Gentile united in Christ. On this matter, I suspect we agree.

It's also a caricature to paint Paul as some sort of endorser of an oppressive patriarchalism. Paul was a major proponent, not only of women in ministry, but also of a significant overhaul of the traditional patriarchal family structure.

Let me suggest for a moment that Colossians and Ephesians, as I and most scholars still think, are by Paul. I suggest another way to read those books' household codes. These codes, however much they have been misused down through the centuries to repress women, must, in fact, be read in the context of other similar comments by both Gentiles and Jews about household management and in light of Paul's rhetorical purposes.

Furthermore, Colossians in general, and Col. 3-4 in particular, is the sort of thing one would say as an opening salvo to an audience one has never addressed before. Paul had not been to Colossae, a church which seems to have been founded by some of his co-workers. When he begins to address the issue of Christians household structures he must start where they are -- and then begin to move them in a more Christian direction. Thus in Colossians we see him attempting to lessen the harsher effects of the patriarchal structure on all the subordinate members of the family.

He does this in two ways: he addresses all the members of the family--including the children and slaves, as well as the wives--as free moral agents. He does not, for example, do what we find in other household codes where the head of the household is told how to manage his extended family. Paul urges a limiting of the head-of-household's power and obligates him to provide loving and compassionate treatment of the other members of his family. The exhortation to love especially distinguishes Paul from most other ancient advice to the head of the household.

In Ephesians, Paul goes much further in trying to inject the leaven of the Gospel into the pre-existing patriarchal structure. He begins his whole discussion by exhorting all Christians to be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ (Eph. 5.21). In short, he exhorts men and women to mutual submission, which certainly cannot be said to simply baptize the patriarchal structure as it is. In fact, Ephes. 5.22 is elliptical, and so when Paul gets around to saying "wives to husbands as to the Lord." and so on, he is presupposing the meaning of submission enunciated in vs. 21--namely that that wife's submission should only be offered in the context of mutual submission. When the husband is exhorted to love his wife as Christ does the church, this is another form that mutual submission takes in Christ.

In Philemon, he says the sort of thing that one would say to a close friend or confidant. In regard to the slavery issue, to read what is said in Colossians and Ephesians outside the context of other Pauline remarks in Philemon and 1 Cor. 7 is a huge mistake. In Philemon, we hear loud and clear the clarion call for the emancipation of the slave Onesimus. He is to be treated "no longer as a slave, but as a brother in Christ." Paul's remarks in Colossians and Ephesians are meant to ameliorate the situation and help slaves out, and when Paul has the opportunity, as he does in Philemon, this shows where his argument is leading--toward emancipation.

I will save the majority of my comments on the Nag Hammadi finds for the next e-mail, but for now I'll just say that those documents do not deserve the name Christian. They are antithetical to what our first-century sources would characterize as Christian--values which include, among other things, a profoundly Jewish appreciation of the goodness of creation, human sexuality, and marriage.

Gnosticism certainly deserved to be deemed a heresy precisely because: 1) It is so very anti-Semitic in character; 2) It espouses a message of self-salvation from within, which is antithetical to the idea of a God who intervenes repeatedly in human history and even takes on human form, lives, dies, and rises again--a God who offers salvation from without, through Jesus, by grace through faith; and 3) Gnosticism is profoundly elitist--it's self-salvation only for those in the know. As you yourself have suggested, theology is reduced to anthropology in the hands of the Gnostics.

More to come. For now I will just re-stress-enough with the caricatures of Paul. He was more in concert with Jesus and Jesus' agenda than you allow. And Paul was a far better advocate for women than several of the Gnostics who urged that women had to become "male," or like a man, in order to be fully human and so saved.


Dear Ben,

Receiving your e-mail, I see that we have much to discuss, especially Paul's views of marriage and slavery, on which we have different viewpoints.

First, however, let's get the ground rules clear. Since I completely agree with you that we should do away with "old stereotypes," I was surprised-and, frankly, disappointed----that you immediately introduced three such stereotypes-beginning with "liberal" (surrounded by rather nasty characterizations) vs. "conservative."

Actually, I think of historians of Christianity, like myself, as people who think there is much worth conserving. Yet it is true that I am one of those who does not hear "liberal" (or "conservative," for that matter) as a dirty word. I often associate the term with liberal democracy-with the vision of a free society, in which diverse points of view are discussed with mutual respect-as, for example, in this open conversation.

What makes this point so important is not just that you then distorted what I said-or, rather, what I did not say--but that the whole point of my opening statement was to show that as the author of 2 Peter 3:15 wrote early in the second century. The letters of "our beloved brother Paul" contain some things that are "hard to understand"-and so have been interpreted in widely different ways.

Since you and I have some substantive disagreements on what Paul said, it's important for those participating in this conversation who are not scholars to know that this discussion is not just a matter of "liberal" vs. "conservative,"-much less "he said, she said"-- but that serious scholars, the great majority of them Christians, like you and me, can honestly interpret these letters differently. Those who want to read more about the various viewpoints will find here suggestions of a few places to start, so that they may come to their own decisions.

But first, just a comment on the other two stereotypes you brought in with the first one-and then proceeded to attack--as if attributing them to me: first, the view of Paul as "the great corrupter of the simple Gospel of Jesus."

What set you off in this direction, apparently, was that I started by pointing out the obvious fact that strikes--and often puzzles--anyone who compares the Gospel of Mark with, say, the opening of Galatians, or of I Corinthians 15: that what Paul preaches as gospel is quite different from what Jesus proclaims, according to Mark (1:15). Noting this, of course, is an essential starting point for understanding our topic-Jesus and Paul.

Second, you brought in the stereotype of a "non-eschatological, non-Jewish, non-messianic Jesus." Whomever you are addressing here (and no one, so far as I know, suggests that Jesus was not Jewish; the rest, I would guess, belong to your recent discussion with our colleague Dom Crossan), your polemic certainly was not relevant to this conversation. Since you obviously don't know my views on this, I'll simply state that my own views follow the basic line of Schweitzer's argument-articulated better, in terms of contemporary scholarship, by such scholars as E.P. Sanders in The Historical Figure of Jesus and others like you, who see Jesus primarily as an apocalyptic preacher, whom Mark and the other gospel writes place clearly in Jewish tradition, both prophetic and messianic.

So please throw away the straw men, and address what I actually do say. And, of course, you can expect the same collegial courtesy from me. What interested me when invited to do this conversation with you is that, having used your writings in my courses at Princeton University, I believed that we could have a serious and substantive discussion of the complex issues of how we read Paul, and what it means for the ways we understand Christianity today.

So let's talk about the two issues on which you express yourself most strongly-Paul's views of marriage and of slavery. In my opening message, I indicated that Paul expresses serious reservations about the place of marriage in the lives of the Christians he addresses. You replied that, as you read him, Paul endorses what you call the "Christian" and "profoundly Jewish appreciation of the goodness of creation, human sexuality, and marriage."

Second, I pointed out that Paul seems to accept slavery as a necessary condition of human society--as he experienced it in the first century--as indispensable to ordinary life as using money. You, on the other hand, take Paul's letter to Philemon as a "loud and clarion call for the emancipation" of a slave. I wish I could agree with you on both points. Who would not like to have the weight of Paul's authority agreeing with his or her own convictions? But as a historian, I find the evidence does not support those conclusions.

First, what does Paul say about marriage? As you know, how we answer this question has everything to do with which letters later included in the "Pauline corpus" were actually written by the apostle himself. I follow the view of many of our colleagues that, of the 13 letters later included under the loose rubric of "Pauline," Paul himself actually wrote those that demonstrate the distinctive style, vocabulary, and viewpoints that we find in the earliest collections-his letters to the Romans, I-II Corinthians, I (and maybe II) Thessalonians), Galatians, Phillipians, and Philemon.

Reading what he writes in his major discussions about marriage and sexuality, then, in I Corinthians 6-11, I find nothing to suggest that Paul thought marriage--at least for followers of Christ, himself and those he converted--was "good." Yes, he certainly inherited what you rightly characterize as a "profoundly Jewish view," but he tells believers in Corinth that "in view of the impending crisis"--the coming end of the world, which, as you say, he anticipated was imminent, everything now looks different. Startlingly, in I Corinthians 6, he uses the Genesis passage that rabbis generally took as a statement about marriage as if it applied to recourse to prostitutes-and then contrasts the believer who is "one in spirit" with the Lord to someone involved with prostitution. Then, when he addresses the question of marriage directly in I Corinthians 7, he never says it is "good"-much less any of the other affirmations you make above. What he does say is "good" is celibacy (7:1,); remaining single, as he does, is "good"(7:8) (although he may well have been widowed himself, and in Galatians he says he has a right to travel with a wife, should he choose to). But he advises those who cannot remain single and celibate that "because of immorality" they are better off marrying, "for it is better to marry than to burn (with passion)"(7:3-6.).

Paul says he wishes that all believers were unmarried, like himself, but acknowledges that not everyone has "the gift" of celibacy, and that Jesus himself prohibited divorce; however, he thinks that the unmarried will be happier, freer to devote themselves to the Lord, and better prepared to face "the impending crisis" of the eschatological age.

Here Paul says nothing about the "goodness of marriage and sexuality," nor of the sacred purpose that Jewish tradition finds in both-the capacity to fulfill the first divine commandment, to "be fruitful and multiply"-not only because of what seem to be his own particular views of sexuality and marriage, but especially because of the "shortness of time" in which, as you say, he believes himself to be living. (Those interested in a fuller discussion of Jesus and Paul's views on sexuality and marriage are referred to the first chapters of my book, Adam, Eve, and the Serpent.)

What, then, is the basis for your view that Paul affirms the "Christian and profoundly Jewish" affirmation of marriage and sexuality? As you indicate in your e-mail, everything depends on which of the letters now included in the collection called "the Pauline corpus" actually were written by Paul. You can see I take the conservative view that the genuine letters of Paul are those that demonstrate his distinctive style, vocabulary, and viewpoints-a conservative view because all scholars, so far as I know, would agree that Paul wrote these letters.

Your argument, however, depends on a suggestion, that, as your e-mail indicates, you know many would not agree with- that other letters that are often called "deutero"(secondarily) Pauline were also written by Paul. Instead, we have evidence that persuades many of us that they were, instead, written by followers of Paul after his death, to extend his views, and invoke his authority.

Yet your e-mail indicates that you do agree that some of the letters often called "Pauline" were not written by Paul-specifically, the letters of 1-2 Timothy and Titus. For had you thought that Paul did actually write 1-2 Timothy, Titus (and Hebrews for that matter), you could have found much in them to bolster your own view. Since you say nothing about any of these, I take your silence to mean that you agree with the rest of us that these are not letters Paul actually wrote.

What you invoke as the basis for your contention that Paul affirmed Jewish tradition about the "goodness of marriage and sexuality" are the letters called Colossians and Ephesians. I appreciate how cautiously you phrase this: "If you will allow me to suggest for a moment that Colossians and Ephesians.are by Paul, a view that I agree with"-since you know that very many of our fellow scholars do not agree with you.

As you can see, I am among those who agree with the view expressed in what is perhaps the most widely used current text, Bart Ehrman's The New Testament: A Historical Introduction, that if Colossians were actually written by Paul, " then ..Paul adopted a different writing style, advocated different views, and assumed a different tone from his other letters." Ehrman speaks for many when he says, "We must conclude that Paul did not write the letter."

I trust you will note that you find here no wild-eyed feminist critique, no discussions (so far) about important other topics, like Paul's views of homosexuality.

Yet the view you express so tentatively here is, of course, essential for the case you make, since only in the deutero-Pauline letters-and not in any of those we all agree are genuine-are statements that confirm the view you express above. And although the various deutero-Pauline letters differ in style and viewpoint, they all agree in reaffirming that what Paul really meant is what you say he meant-that he reaffirmed a "traditional Jewish view about the goodness of marriage and sexuality."

That is as true for I Timothy and Hebrews as of Colossians and Ephesians. All attempt to remedy what they seem to acknowledge as a major problem in Paul's letters--that Paul did not express the traditional Jewish affirmation of marriage-and all intend to reinstate Paul (as your view does as well) as a traditionally minded Jew in this respect.

In the process, as you know, all of them reinforced-with the minor modifications you note-traditional views of the dominance of the husband over wife, master over slaves, and father over children, by invoking Greco-Roman "household codes," as you note. (Those interested in these issues might enjoy Dennis MacDonald's book, The Legend and the Apostle: The Battle for Paul in Story and Canon, and David Balch's Let Wives Be Submissive -which explores the "household codes" in I Peter, but which may help illuminate how they come into Colossians and Ephesians).

This leads to the second issue: You say you hear in Paul's letter to Philemon concerning his runaway slave "a loud and clear clarion call for the emancipation" of this slave. Here I can only point out that if this is what Paul meant to say, he failed to say so-much less say it loud and clear! Yes, he accepts the slave as a "brother" in Christ; yes, he urges the aggrieved master, also a Christian, to accept the slave back without punishment, as a favor to Paul, also as a "brother" in Christ; yes, he expects that the relationship between master and slave henceforth "will be set in the context of the church, and transformed by the love that is active there," as we read in the preface to this letter in the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible.

But the one question Paul does not discuss is emancipating the slave. Let me quote again from that standard preface: "Paul does not address the general question of slavery as a social institution, nor does he discuss whether or not Onesimus should be set free." Ehrman's text discusses this issues, and concludes that "unfortunately, there is little in the text" that suggests this; adding that "it may be that modern abhorrence for slavery has led interpreters to find in Paul a man ahead of his time, who opposed the practice."

Finally, let me make something clear: I am not finding fault with Paul for having views that are somehow "deficient" by 21st century standards. On the contrary. As an historian, I would ask the opposite: how could we possibly expect Paul to have anticipated the situations of Christians for thousands of years after his death-or to have provided ready "answers" for all the urgent social questions that have emerged during all that time?

As one who has enormous respect for this "first Christian theologian" and his powerfully expressed views, and as an historian, I suggest we need to see him in his context, as a man who, as you say, expected the end of the age to come soon, and who found the twin "bondages" of slavery and marriage to be nearly irrelevant, since he thought both would soon be obsolete (I Cor 7:29-31).

What I am suggesting, then, is that we who read Paul over 2,000 years after he wrote need to remember that, remarkable as he was, he was also a man of his own times. When we see Paul in historical context, we need to recognize that just as he addressed the issues he confronted in the first century, so we need to address those in ours.

So while his views on sexuality, slavery, marriage are still, for many Christians, an important first word, they can hardly be the last. Those who try to make him their all-purpose authority on everything often end up with a Paul who conveniently suits our time-because we are reading our values back into his words. Instead, as you see, I think we need to take on the responsibility for sifting and testing these issues-on the basis of tradition, often, but without pretending that past tradition solves all present problems for us. It is true that Paul has a vision of human society that transcends these distinctions-in Christ-yet the assumptions of this first century teacher have for nearly two millennia provided ammunition to those who have claimed that slavery and other forms of social domination are divinely ordained.

And now, Ben, I am delighted to turn to the question of how we understand the canon. Even to read Paul accurately, we have had to engage this very important issue. And I look forward to getting into the issues you say you intend to raise, since it is on these that questions of authority-then and now-often turn.

Yours sincerely, Elaine

Dear Elaine: Well, I can see from your second letter that it is a good thing we had a ground-clearing exercise in the first exchange so that we are not talking past each other. Since this part of the discussion is going to be about Paul, I intend to focus on Paul's views of eschatology and marriage within parameters we both accept, so I will limit myself to what Paul says in 1 Thessalonians and in the Corinthian correspondence. For the record, I think the Pastoral Epistles were written by a co-worker of Paul, probably right at the end of Paul's life, or just after, and fully reflect both the views and wishes of Paul. If you're in Mamertine prison preparing for execution, you need a little help to get the word out. Also for the record, I am astounded to hear what you say about Bart Ehrman's Introduction to the New Testament. It is not even close to being the most-used text in either colleges or seminaries. Try the recent much-praised Introduction by Green, Meye Thompson and Achtemeir. It does a far better job of introducing the New Testament and it doesn't have Ehrman's axes to grind in regard to the canon or the earliest forms of Christianity.
Let's get down to Paul's actual views. In regard to his eschatology, I have expressed my views as clearly as possible in my book Jesus, Paul, and the End of the World. Neither Jesus nor Paul went for the eschatological jackpot of believing, much less predicting, that the end would definitely come in their lifetimes or shortly thereafter (see e.g. Mk. 13.32). Paul considered it possible that the Second Coming might transpire before long. The "thief in the night" motif, used by both Jesus and Paul, speaks clearly enough of a coming at an unknown and surprising time, meaning everyone must always be prepared. I do agree that the eschatological views of both Jesus and Paul condition what they both say about marriage, family and related issues. But both Jesus and Paul affirm fidelity in marriage and celibacy in singleness as two good options for the followers of Jesus. Let's consider what Paul actually says about these matters. Take, for instance, 1 Thess. 4.3-8. Without doubt, this is a passage about holiness in relationships. I would say that the majority of commentators believe Paul is talking about not defrauding a brother or sister by invading their marriage. Instead, believers are to learn how to acquire a wife in holiness and in honor. But even if this turns out to be a more general exhortation to holiness in all relationships, 1 Cor. 7 is quite clear. I, along with the large majority of those who have written commentaries on 1
Corinthians, feel certain that 1 Cor. 7.1--"It is good for a man not to touch a woman"--does not in any way represent Paul's own views. Here he quotes an opinion of some Corinthians, an opinion which he then qualifies before setting out his own view. Notice how he phrases the matter: "Now in regard to the things about which you wrote: 'It is good for a man...'" It is not Paul's view that "it is good for a man not to touch a woman"; it is the view of various ascetical Corinthians. To the contrary, says Paul, at the very least, in view of the problem of sexual immorality (already at issue in Corinth, as 1 Cor. 5-6 shows) "each man should have his own wife, and each woman her own husband." This hardly sounds like a Paul who thinks that marriage is somehow inappropriate or unclean in the eschatological age. Indeed, it sounds like someone who thinks it is the appropriate, normal course for the vast majority of his converts. Paul speaks in terms of a `charisma,' a grace gift. Some believers have the grace gift to remain single for the sake of the Kingdom, and they will have less anxieties about family if they do so, and can be more single-mindedly focused on God. But others are given the grace to be married in the Lord. Both are good options in Paul's view. Marriage and sexual relationships within marriage are seen by Paul as grace gift from God, and marital partners are encouraged not to deprive each other in regard to sex.
With the majority of Corinthian commentators, I don't think 1 Cor. 7.6 reflects Paul making a concession to marriage. Rather, it's Paul conceding a time apart from sexual relationships in marriage for the sake of prayer. Paul is not ascetical when it comes to human sexual relationships, any more than Jesus was. Jesus spoke of the goodness of the one flesh union of men and women joined together by God (see Mk. 10). To say otherwise is to badly misread both the meaning and the trajectory of both Jesus' remarks in Mk. 10 and Paul's remarks in 1 Cor. 7. There are, in fact, some pretty radically egalitarian remarks by Paul in this same section of 1 Cor. 7, not the least of which is he says that the husband's body belongs to the wife. I doubt you will find another first- century person in that patriarchal culture speaking as directly as that! There will be no sexual double standard for Paul. Men and women both must be chaste and only express their sexual desires with their marriage partners. Indeed, Paul goes on to say in 1 Cor. 7.14 that the unbelieving spouse of a Christian person is "sancitified" by their relationship with the believer, and so there is no reason for the believer to initiate a separation from their unbelieving partner. Again, this hardly sounds like Paul the ascetic. Two more small points--- it is big mistake to translate 1 Cor. 7.26 as if it reads "now because of the imminent crisis" (i.e. the eschaton). It's another blunder to translate 1 Cor. 7.29 "the time is short." The former text says clearly enough, "in view of the present crisis or distress," and the later text reads literally "the time has been shortened." The latter probably refers to an event that has already happened which has changed the eschatological situation-namely the Christ event, his death and resurrection. This is what he means when he says the `schema' or form of this world is already passing away (notice it is a process already set in motion). The former text, 1 Cor. 7.26, is speaking about some present crisis affecting Corinth, not about the impending Second Coming. The problem, Elaine, is that your misreading of Paul's and Jesus' eschatology leads to your misreading of at least Paul's remarks about marriage as well. As for 1 Cor. 6.16, Paul is not denigrating marriage there! He is making deliberately shocking use of the Genesis text, in order to shock his audience into seeing the spiritual implications of becoming one body with a prostitute. It has nothing to do with Paul suggesting that sex is somehow inherently dirty or inappropriate for Christians. 1 Cor. 7.5 will not allow for such a reading of 1 Cor. 6.16. I look forward to the discussion about the canon next time. Cordially, Ben Witherington

Dear Elaine:

It hardly seems possible that our dialogue is already just about over. It was just getting interesting. In this e-mail, I want to address the formation of the canon, the Gospel of Thomas, and the role of Gnosticism in early Christianity. This is a tall order for a single e-mail, but I will do my best.

Let's start with the subject of Gnosticism first. I, along with the majority of New Testament scholars, do not think we can really talk about there being an extant belief system called "Gnosticism" in the first century A.D. Most scholars prefer the term "proto-Gnostic" for ideas found in some documents that may date to the first century A.D.

The earliest of the so-called Gnostic Gospels is generally agreed to be Thomas. As you know, there is considerable debate as to whether one should really even call this document Gnostic. But let's suppose for the sake of argument that it is. Is there any good reason to think this document, or any Gnostic document, comes from the first century A.D. or represents early Christian beliefs from the apostolic age? In my view, the answer is probably "no," for a whole host of reasons:

1) There seem to be echoes, allusions, and partial quotations from all sorts of NT documents in Thomas-not only echoes of all four canonical Gospels but also echoes from some of the Pauline corpus, from Hebrews, and from Johannine literature. In addition, as Craig Evans has pointed out, there is rather clear evidence that Thomas' author knows the final redaction of the four canonical Gospels, not just its source material.

Evans writes*: "Quoting or alluding to more than half of the writings of the New Testament (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Acts, Romans, 1-2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Col., 1 Thess., 1 Timothy, Hebrews 1, Rev.), Thomas could be little more than a collage of New Testament and apocryphal material that have been interpreted, often allegorically, in such a way as to advance second- and third-century Gnostic ideas."

"The entire system of salvation offered in Gnostic documents is at odds with that [of] New Testament texts." --Ben Witherington III

Evans' careful demonstration shows that Thomas is even dependent on documents widely believed to be written in the last decade of the first century--i.e., the Johannine literature, including Revelation. I can't think of any scholar who has written a commentary on John and thinks that Thomas is earlier, or that Thomas influenced John.

Where could the author of Thomas have come into contact with all this material before at least the early second century A.D.? My answer is, nowhere. Thomas could not have been written before the second century A.D., particularly because the Gospel of John--which you rightly say bears the closest affinity with Thomas of any canonical Gospel--dates to the last decade of the first century.

There is no strong case to be made that any Gnostic document, even Thomas, reflects first-century Christian beliefs. To the contrary, even Thomas is a meditation on the earlier documents of the New Testament era. Earliest Christianity was certainly less diverse than you and Karen King seem to think, and there were already standards of right believing in the first century A.D.

2) The character of Gnostic documents reflects a reaction, indeed an over-reaction, to the strongly Jewish flavor of all the New Testament documents, which in my judgment were all written by Jews, or perhaps in the case of Luke-Acts by a Jewish sympathizer (a God-fearer). These Gnostic characteristics include:

  • strong matter-spirit dualism
  • often, very strong asceticism
  • no positive use of the OT
  • an anti-Semitic and anti-creation theology bias

    The Gnostic documents seem to have been written almost exclusively by Gentiles. Perhaps this is why the Jewishness of the historical Jesus gets almost completely lost in the Gnostic documents. More could be said along these lines, and my forthcoming book The Gospel Code deals in some depth with the Gospel of Thomas. But let's move on to the post-apostolic age, which saw the creation of the New Testament canon.

    In the first place, it seems clear to me that there was already a collection of Paul's letters, as well as a codex collection of the four canonical Gospels, circulating in the early second century A.D. They were apostolic and sacred texts used for teaching and preaching in the church (see 2 Peter 3.15-16). One of the reasons none of the Gnostic documents were ever recognized as canonical or apostolic texts even in the second century (indeed, they were deemed heretical by Irenaeus, Tertullian, and various others) is precisely because they were so out of character with the profoundly Jewish nature and belief system found in the apostolic documents.

    We really shouldn't talk about the "exclusion" of Gnostic documents from the canon, because frankly, they were never seriously considered for inclusion (as Bruce Metzger taught me long ago when I took early church history from him at Princeton). Not a single early canon list, or council, or church Father--not even someone like Origen--lists any of these documents as possible sacred texts for early Christians. By their very non-Jewish and non-early Christian character, they excluded themselves.

    It is thus an exercise in revisionist history to blame Constantine or the council of Nicea for imposing some standard or orthodoxy and canon that was not already widely accepted in the church, both West and East. All the council of Nicea did was formalize and recognize what was already widely accepted in the church-that only apostolic and eyewitness documents from the first century A.D. should be in the canon. As James Dunn has recently said, the canonical Gospels and the letters of Paul already show us the parameters of right thinking about Jesus.

    There's another good reason for questioning the notion of Gnostic Christians in the first century A.D.: The entire system of salvation offered in Gnostic documents is at odds with that found in numerous New Testament texts. Gnosticism emphasizes esoteric knowledge and matter-spirit dualism. The focus of the New Testament is on the historical life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, not on some esoteric knowledge that Jesus revealed to the elite after Easter. And it is precisely the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus that is said to be the means of our salvation.

    While salvation does of course involve knowing certain things, it would be incorrect to say that it involves obtaining some sort of esoteric secret knowledge. The focus of the New Testament is belief in the atoning death of Jesus, which overcame the world's sin problem. Information without transformation of human nature availeth not, and it was believed that if one confessed Jesus as the crucified and risen Lord, and believed that God raised him from the dead, one was saved. Salvation was more a matter of who one trusts as Lord and Savior than whether one could cope with esoteric ideas about aeons and demi-urges and matter being evil and spirit being good. As you yourself have said, in Gnosticism theology is reduced to anthropology. This is quite foreign to the Christocentric focus of the New Testament.

    There is much more I wish we could discuss, but this will have to do. Thanks so much for being willing to talk about these matters, in ways which I hope our readers will find helpful.

  • Blessings on you and your family,

    Ben Witherington

    Dear Ben, Thank you for your letter, which helpfully clarified various viewpoints on these early gospels-and on the early Christian movement. As I read it, you make two basic points: First, that sources like the Gospel of Thomas, being "Gnostic," must be late sources-coming from the second century, or later-and therefore have nothing to do with the beginnings of the Christian movement. Second, that what we find in the Gospel of Thomas is "at odds with what we find in New Testament texts"-that is, confession of Jesus as the "crucified and risen Lord." What those of us working on these texts have come to conclude, in the course of extensive research on the Gospel of Thomas and the New Testament gospels, is that the first point is wrong, and the second is questionable. Instead, we're convinced of the following: First: The Gospel of Thomas is not "Gnostic," but a "gospel" compiled from various sayings traditions, probably around the end of the first century (my dating). Second: Instead of being "at odds" with what we find in the canonical gospels, the Gospel of Thomas presupposes what Mark tells of Jesus' life, teachings, death, and resurrection-and claims to go beyond it. Thomas depicts the Risen Jesus speaking not of "forgiveness of sins" and "faith," but encouraging each one to "seek, and you shall find" a relationship to God.
    Both of your points are assumptions all of us, I would guess, were taught in graduate school. The earliest editors of "Gnostic" texts thought that they were dualistic, escapist, nihilistic, involving "esoteric ideas about aeons and demiurges," as you yourself write. As my former teacher at Harvard, Krister Stendhal, said to me recently about these texts, "we just thought these were weird." But can you point to any evidence of such "esoteric ideas" in Thomas? Anything about "aeons and demiurges"? Those first editors, not finding such evidence, assumed that this just goes to show how sneaky heretics are-they do not say what they mean. So when they found no evidence for such nihilism or dualism-on the contrary, the Gospel of Thomas speaks continually of God as the One good "Father of all"-they just read these into the text. Some scholars, usually those not very familiar with these sources, still do. So first let's talk about "Gnosticism"-and what I used to (but no longer) call "Gnostic Gospels." I have to take responsibility for part of the misunderstanding. Having been taught that these texts were "Gnostic," I just accepted it, and even coined the term "Gnostic gospels," which became the title of my book. I agree with you that we have no evidence for what we call "Gnosticism" from the first century, and have learned from our colleagues that what we thought about "Gnosticism" has virtually nothing to do with a text like the Gospel of Thomas-or, for that matter, with the New Testament Gospel of John which our teachers said also showed "Gnostic influences."
    What we came to see, Ben, when we worked carefully comparing the various gospel texts, is that we do find in Thomas, just as you say, many resonances with the New Testament gospels. Many sayings in Thomas are either the same or similar to their parallels in Matthew and Luke ("blessed are the poor"; the parables of the sower, of the "pearl of great price," the fisherman, and many others). Second, Thomas holds other sayings that resonate with the language of the Gospel of John (e.g. "I am the light of the world...") You conclude that these are all taken from written New Testament sources-which brings you to an early second century date. However, I tend to agree with Harvard scholar Helmut Koester (Ancient Christian Gospels) and others: whoever put together the Gospel of Thomas apparently had access to the kind of sources Matthew and Luke used to write their gospels. Koester suggests that the Gospel of Thomas comes from about the year 50, and so is the earliest of the New Testament gospels. I hold to a more conservative dating, since I think Thomas also includes what looks like later sayings tradition, parallel with the Gospel of John. I think a date of 90-100 fits both the sources and the papyrus evidence, although these dates are only educated guesses, as you know. A further indication that Thomas is not "Gnostic," by your own definition, is that it does use the Old Testament in a very positive way-just as the Gospel of John does. Both frame their views of the gospel with midrashic interpretations of Genesis 1. Recognizing this has led scholars far beyond what you learned as a graduate student from Bruce Metzger, and what I learned in graduate school. That's why those of us working in this field-including Birger Pearson-have come to recognize these texts not as "Gnostic"-whatever that fuzzy term meant-but as early Christian, and immersed, like all the early Christian sources we know, in the Hebrew Bible.
    Early Christian sources-bishop Irenaeus, for example-tell us that the Gospel of Thomas is one of those that some Christians revered; that's why we think that the movement was much more diverse than any of us were taught, or than anyone imagined before the 1945 discovery of these texts. Indeed, the Nag Hammadi texts were originally copied and read by Christian monks in one of the first monasteries to be established in Egypt. Second: As you say, the New Testament books focus on "belief in the atoning death of Jesus." The Gospel of Thomas, indeed, is different; it begins with the words, "these are the secret words which the Living Jesus spoke." It's true that the teachings of Thomas are not about "belief in the atoning death of Jesus." Here, instead, the "Living Jesus" encourages his disciples to "seek, and you shall find," adding that "the one who seeks should not stop seeking until he finds; and when he finds, he will be troubled; and when he is troubled, he will be astonished..." This collection of teachings urges not "speculation," as we were taught, but seeking God-and suffering through the process of discovering one's relationship to "the living Jesus" and to God. Like you, I was taught a generation ago that this kind of teaching was antithetical to what we find in "the real gospels." Since that time, however, many scholars have realized that the Gospel of Thomas would make no sense to anyone who was not already familiar with the account of Jesus' activities, his death, and resurrection as, for example, the Gospel of Mark tells it. Like John's gospel, Thomas' apparently assumes that the reader already knows about Jesus, and knows about his public teaching. Otherwise, offering his "secret teaching" would make no sense at all. But for those who already have accepted the public teaching, certain disciples are ready to learn the "secret teaching" which goes beyond this. John's gospel, of course, relates such intimate teaching in chapters 13-18, in what we call the "farewell discourses" that Jesus directs to his disciples alone.
    Instead of offering a wholly different teaching, then, the gospel of Thomas, like John's "farewell discourses," claims to go beyond what one already has learned. Nothing here suggests that faith does not matter-in fact, it is assumed; but what is also assumed is that some will now want to go beyond belief-beyond the elementary teaching-in a process of spiritual inquiry. Teachers like this cited Paul as their model-as in I Corinthians 2 he declares that, so long as he was speaking to immature Christians-"babies in Christ"-he "decided to acknowledge nothing, among you, except Jesus Christ crucified," although, he says, "we do speak wisdom among those who are mature-the hidden wisdom of God, which God ordained before the ages (aeons) for our glory." Paul goes on to allude to matters that can be discerned only by those who have attained to a level of spiritual insight-"the deep things of God." The gospel of Mark (Mk 4:11f) has Jesus explain to his disciples that "to you is given to know the mystery of the Kingdom of God, but to those outside, everything is in parables." So we find in the New Testament gospels and in Paul's letters hints of teaching that are not among the elementary and essential ones on which these writings focus. Even if we recognize that Jesus-and Paul-may have entrusted certain non-public teachings to certain disciples, does this mean that the Gospel of Thomas contains Jesus' actual secret teaching? We just don't know. I tend to think that Thomas is a collection of various teachings, probably different strata of sayings. Many are shared in common with Matthew and Luke, but are presented with no narrative and little interpretation, as sayings that impel the believer to "seek" further. Others-those that speak of the Kingdom as already present-I take (unlike some of our colleagues) to be later interpretations of Jesus' teachings, like those we find in certain passages of the Gospel of John.
    Like you, I love this tradition, and work on these sources because they work on me as well. The fact that we do not agree on every point has much to do with the difficulty of making certain historical judgments about first century sources-and also with the various ways we understand the beginnings of Christianity, and what it means for us today. Many will take up these questions in the future, and teach us to see new elements in the history of the faith that we share. Thank you for the spirit of collegial discussion in your e-mails, and for stating your views so clearly. I look forward to continuing our discussion offline, perhaps when we meet at conferences. Yours sincerely, Elaine

    * "Thomas, Gospel of" p. 1176 in Dictionary of the Later New Testament and its Development, Downers Grove: Inter Varsity Press, 1997, eds. R.P. Martin and P.H. Davids.

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