A wild thought about scripture

One of the things that has deeply struck me as I have been rereading the ancient sources like John and Paul as I am writing chapters for my book

The Gnostic New Age

, is that our assumptions make all the difference to our understanding of what a text says. 

Now this is not a new revelation for me.  I have known this since I was an undergraduate.  But knowing it intellectually is very different from really experiencing it.  Scholars know this.  But, by and large, we don't do anything about it.  We continue to read texts as we have been trained to read them (as orthodox Christians have read them for centuries), and there is great turmoil if someone suggests otherwise. 

We assume that the orthodox Christian reading of scriptural texts is the author's intent.  We gloss and harmonize what doesn't fit.  We do it unconsciously so that the text fits our preconceived mental frames.

With the work I have been doing (some of it in cognitive studies), I have come to see that the assumption that the orthodox Christian reading of scriptural texts is the author's intent is simply wrong.  The authors of the New Testament texts were not orthodox.  They were not even proto-orthodox.  They had their own ideas, many of which were innovative, revolutionary, and wild.

What makes the text orthodox is its interpretation, one that is imposed upon it by later readers who had a stake in how the Christian tradition was unfolding.  We simply have inherited this interpretation and consider it authorial.

There was a war over these texts and their meaning, a war that continues today.  It was an early war too.  This is not about Gnosticism at the end of the second century that somehow got the interpretation of the texts all wrong.  This is about the first century.  It is about Palestine and Samaria.  It is at the root of the Christian faith. 

Paul of the letters is far removed from the author of the Pastorals who tries desperately to tame Paul's wildness, or Luther's Paul who is further excised of any charisma.  John of the Gospel is far removed from the domestication that the Elder in the Johannine letters imposed on John and later orthodox church leaders picked up and developed. 

Once I was able to dislocate myself from my orthodox training, I have come to see that both Paul and John were impacted by Gnostic spirituality.  It forms the center of their concept of the Christian faith.  Both were reacting to Judaism, which they saw as a religion that did not really know the true God or what he actually wanted.  Both preached liberation from the old forms of Servant spirituality that was the cradle of all the Near Eastern religions.  Both believed that the experience of God, the revelation of God, was what mattered, and it was to be experienced by everyone through initiation.  Both were transgressors who understood the old Jewish scriptures in ways that subverted its accepted meanings.  And on and on.

I guess what I am saying is that I think there is more work that needs to be done on Christian origins, work that demands we set aside our assumptions about orthodoxy, and come to see the wild innovative nature of the early Christian communities.

Who was Paul really?

I have been making quite a bit of good progress on

The Gnostic New Age

book.  I just finished chapter 4 on the Gospel of John and the letters of John called "The Dark Cosmos."  It was thrilling to write this chapter and finally get down my reading of the Fourth Gospel and its Gnostic predisposition.  Yes.  I really find in the fabric of that text Gnostic spirituality merging with Jewish scriptures and nascent Christianity. It is not just later Gnostic interpretation imposed on an orthodox gospel.  It is there in the soul of the Gospel.

My next chapter is on Paul, so I am now immersed in Pauline literature and just got the chance to read James Tabor's newest book on the subject,

Paul and Jesus

.  The Paul that Tabor speaks about (and his relationship to the Jerusalem church and other apostles) dovetails nicely with the ways that I have come to understand Paul over the years.

I remember as a young woman really disliking Paul.  What I didn't know then is that what I disliked was not Paul but Luther's Paul.  That is when I discovered Paul the mystic.  I read Albert Schweitzer's book and then Alan Segal's book, both on Paul the mystic.  Suddenly Paul made sense to me.  But he wasn't anyone that contemporary Christians could relate to.  What he was saying was way out there.  Undomesticated.  Wild.  He was a visionary who realized union with Christ whom he saw as the manifestation of God.  He developed rituals that helped democratize this experience so that all converts could similarly be united.

One of the features that I really like about Tabor's book is that he starts from the position that Paul was a mystic.  Tabor then breaks down Paul's message into five understandable chunks.  This makes Paul the mystic more accessible rather than wild.  Tabor's book is written around these chunks:

  • The resurrection body is a new spiritual body that believers attain.
  • Baptism gives the believer the Christ/Holy Spirit with unites with his/her own spirit and makes him/her a child of God, part of a new genus of Spirit-beings who will inherit God's Kingdom.
  • The believer achieves a mystical union with Christ due to this Spirit infusion, a gradual process that is transformative involving also the sacred meal where Christ is taken within as food.
  • The world is in the last throes of its existence, and life would soon be transformed. 
  • Paul turned his back on the Torah and abandoned Judaism, replacing it with the new Torah of Christ.

Of course as I am thinking about Paul the mystic, I am also wondering about Paul the Gnostic.  Have we worked so hard over the centuries to domesticate Paul that we have lost touch with his Gnostic aspects too, like with the Fourth Gospel?  Anyway, these are my thoughts right now as I am in the reading and thinking phases of writing this chapter.