Was Paul actually a Gnostic? The idea is taken seriously by no one in NT scholarship today; even Elaine Pagels, the Gnostic-promoter premier, declines in her book The Gnostic Paul to say yea or nay to whether Paul was actually a Gnostic, instead concentrating on how the Gnostics interpreted Paul's letters.
For this essay we have chosen to highlight two proponents of the Gnostic Paul (hereafter GP):
- Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy, The Jesus Mysteries -- regular readers know this pair well; we have addressed several of their claims in our pagan copycat series. They claim that Paul uses Gnostic terms and that his genuine letters (the accept only seven, but do quote from outside the seven, like Colossians and Ephesians, to prove their case anyway, and add Hebrews to the mix) are "full" of "distinctively Gnostic doctrines."
- Gerald Massey -- this early 20th century writer was of the view which rewrites the history of the world to make Africa the most prominent locale. Massey claimed to be trained in Egyptology, and held that the Christian myth was derived from Egyptian myths.
How recognized is Massey in this field? An Egyptologist I corresponded with had this to say had never heard of him; nor have others. (See here.) It is also clear from our source (Gerald Massey's Lectures) that Egyptologists of his day said much the same thing, as in one essay he delivers a "retort" to Egyptologists who refer to his work as poor. His reply in essence is, "What do you expect from Bible-believers?"
Massey relies heavily on broad and sparsely-documented claims that some carving or document says this or that, but he never offers enough documentation to easily check back on his claim; Massey relies on sources like the Toledeth Yeshu, and makes claims without any documentation at all, with obscure and worked-over esoteric interpretations ("The coming Messiah is called Dag, the Fish, in the Talmud"; Jesus as Messiah "instructs men by day, but returns to the lake of Galilee, where he demonstrates his solar nature by walking the waters at night, or at the dawn of day").
For this essay on the GP we have drawn upon Freke and Gandy's [FG] Jesus Mysteries and an essay by Massey titled "Paul the Gnostic Opponent of Peter." Our methodology shall be to run over the verses used by these writers to show Paul to be Gnostic, in order by their appearance in Paul's letters. At the end we will make general methodological comments.
1:11-12 For I long to see you, that I may impart unto you some spiritual gift, to the end ye may be established; That is, that I may be comforted together with you by the mutual faith both of you and me.
FG translate this, "that I may share with you a certain pneumatic charismata," and ask, "If Paul wants to urgently share something...why doesn't he write it in his letter?" They reply that it is because Paul wants to share a secret and personal "initiation." 
If this is the case, if a secret is in the offing, one wonders why Paul would say so in a letter to be read to the entire congregation and addressed to the entire congregation. That would seem rather counter-productive.
That said, what of these gifts? The word is used of the gifts of tongues and healings, of the gift of ministry (1 Peter 4:10), and of a gift to Timothy (1 Tim. 4:14). It means any divine imputation and as such is no more unique Gnostic property than the word "gift" used today. Paul's "gift" in mind here is that his presence would mutually encourage the faith of himself and the Romans (v. 12, which FG neglect to quote). This can indeed only be transmitted in person (as a visit today is much better than a phone call) but it hardly requires secrecy, and this announcement in a public letter read aloud to the congregation makes no sense under FG's Gnostic interpretation.
14:1-5 Him that is weak in the faith receive ye, but not to doubtful disputations. For one believeth that he may eat all things: another, who is weak, eateth herbs. Let not him that eateth despise him that eateth not; and let not him which eateth not judge him that eateth: for God hath received him. Who art thou that judgest another man's servant? to his own master he standeth or falleth. Yea, he shall be holden up: for God is able to make him stand. One man esteemeth one day above another: another esteemeth every day alike. Let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind.
"Like the Gnostics, Paul is extremely disparaging of the externals of religion -- ceremonies, holy days, rules, and regulations." [FG, 164]
We are told that Gnostics preached this "same freedom from human legislation" -- but what is distinctively "Gnostic" about preaching freedom from legalism? Is this a requirement unique to Gnosticism? Of course not. By itself it is a doctrine that can be inserted in any religious context.
As Pagels notes , the Gnostics did interpret themselves as the "strong" and others as weak, and felt themselves free to attend pagan festivals and eat dedicated meat. It is certainly understandable that they would use this passage to their own ends. But this is far from "disparaging" by Paul (he tells the "strong" to "receive," that is, admit with friendship and hospitality, the "weak", says not to "despise" the weak, and concludes by saying everyone ought be "fully persuaded in his own mind" -- hardly the language of a disparager), and fits just as well, indeed better, in the paradigm of the doctrine of justification by faith.
2:9 But as it is written, Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him.
FG suppose  that an "initiated" reader would "undoubtedly recognize these words as a Mystery formula pronounced at the time of initiation." Their only proof that it was such a formula comes from interpretations of later Gnostics, and it is again not surprising that they would absorb this into their fold, but perhaps they, like FG, were unconcerned to the fact that this mirrors the LXX versions of Is. 64:4 and 65:16 (Is. 64:4 KJV, "For since the beginning of the world men have not heard, nor perceived by the ear, neither hath the eye seen, O God, beside thee, what he hath prepared for him that waiteth for him.") Was Isaiah a Gnostic?
FG also use the same argument as Earl Doherty on 1 Cor. 2:7-8. Massey also mirrors much of Doherty's arguments that Paul never knew a human Christ, and Robert Price's arguments on the use of the word "gospel", and offers a Gnostic interpretation of Colossians 1:15-18 which would have been better informed with knowledge of the Jewish Wisdom background.
FG also quote 1 Cor. 6:12 ("All things are lawful unto me, but all things are not expedient: all things are lawful for me, but I will not be brought under the power of any.") as Paul's personal proclamation of his Gnostic "spiritual freedom" but are apparently not informed of scholarship which regards this and other phrases (7:1, 8:1, 8:4, 8:8, 15:12) as "slogans" engineered by the Corinthians which Paul is repeating, then refuting (note the "but"!). [Witherington, Corinthians commentary, 167]
Indeed Winter notes in After Paul Left Corinth that the slogan in question matches not with Gnosticism, but with a common aphorism used by those who reasoned "on the grounds of first-century Platonic anthropology, philosophical hedonism, and social conventions"  in which it was asserted that the body was designed for pleasure and that such activity did not harm to the soul. This was part of a secular more of ancient Corinth -- not a Gnostic specialty.
12:12 For as the body is one, and hath many members, and all the members of that one body, being many, are one body: so also is Christ.
FG regard this as Jesus being "a symbol of the Universal Daemon of whom we are all limbs." In light of the context -- the unity behind the diversity of gifts among persons in the church -- and a lack elsewhere of identification of Jesus with this Daemon, this seems more of a forced exegesis than a case of reality. Unity among a body of believers and their deity is a social construct of all ancient groups and a result of their collectivist thinking (see Malina and Neyrey, Portraits of Paul). It is not a unique "Gnostic property".
FG also misuse 1 Cor. 15:50. FG suppose that Paul sees resurrection as "a spiritual experience that can happen right now," but their "proof" consists of:
- Misquoting 2 Cor. 6:2("now is the day of salvation"), which assumes that "salvation" is equal to "resurrection" -- if it does then Luke 1:69 says, "And hath raised up an horn of resurrection for us in the house of his servant David..."
- Misusing Phil. 3:11 ("If by any means I might attain unto the resurrection of the dead.") -- FG do not quote the "might attain" part which indicates a future event, and need to know that this is better linked with the purely Hebrew (not Gnostic) allusion to the Maccabeean martyrs who died "that they might obtain a better resurrection".
Massey uses this passage differently; he regards it, as is, as "pure Gnostic doctrine", but does no more than place a Gnostic overlay unto the words when they are perfectly readable and understandable within a Hebrew context.
3:6 Who also hath made us able ministers of the new testament; not of the letter, but of the spirit: for the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life.
FG interpret this, as they do Rom. 14:1-5 above, as a proscription against dogma. But the word "testament" here means a covenant or contract and has specific reference to the Mosaic covenant. As such it is no more "Gnostic" than Paul's comments that no one will be justified by the law (Rom. 3) and that disobedience brings death (Rom. 5). Paul would not be Gnostic here unless he offered a Gnostic "solution" -- he and the Gnostic recognized the same problem, but that does not make him a Gnostic anymore than my cognizance that suffering is a problem makes me a Buddhist.
1:15-16 But when it pleased God, who separated me from my mother's womb, and called me by his grace, To reveal his Son in me, that I might preach him among the heathen; immediately I conferred not with flesh and blood:
FG find it "significant" that Paul here says "in me" rather than "to me", and Massey finds this useful as well.
Gnosticism? Only if you fail to think as an ancient. Witherington (Grace in Galatia, 106f) notes that this must be read in light of the lack of a ancient category distinction between objective and subjective revelations. A revelation was both objective (because it came from God) and subjective (because it was deeply personal).
When Paul says the Son was revealed "in" him it means no more than that it was a personal revelation which no one else was privy to -- and this praxis existed in the OT as well with the prophets. It is not a concept that is "Gnostic property".
3:20 Now a mediator is not a mediator of one, but God is one.
FG ask what Paul could mean here by God being a "mediator" and say that literalist readers "have no answer," therefore we can accept the idea that he means Yahweh is a Gnostic demiurge, a lesser deity who mediates between the supreme God and creation. They further read the verse as, "The mediator is not one; God is one."
The words in bold above are indeed KJV add-ons, but the "of" is not, and if FG think "Literalists have no answer" they have not looked very far. In 3:19 Paul says that the Jewish law was "ordained by angels in the hand of a mediator." The "mediator" is Moses. In v. 20 Paul's point is to stress unity where the Galatian congregation has been divided over the issue of the observance of the law. In other words, this conflict cannot be the right way of doing things.
Reading the idea of a "demiurge" into this passage is presumptuous and anachronistic -- and despite FG, "Literalists" do have an answer, and it is not that God is the mediator (which seems to be what FG think -- apparently they think the verse means, "God is one of those mediators".)
3:3 For we are the circumcision, which worship God in the spirit, and rejoice in Christ Jesus, and have no confidence in the flesh.
Of this it is also said: "Like the Gnostics, Paul is extremely disparaging of the externals of religion -- ceremonies, holy days, rules, and regulations." [FG, 164] But this is not one of the passages Pagels cites as used by the Gnostics. And little wonder, since "flesh" is a metaphor for human weakness in rabbinic Judaism, and here, is followed upon by Paul's recounting of his human achievements. By this accounting, any expression of humility is a sign of Gnosticism.
3:3 How that by revelation he made known unto me the mystery; (as I wrote afore in few words...)
FG and the Gnostics noted the word "mystery". But even as today the word has multiple connotations. It can indeed mean something not comprehensible except by initiates, but it also had the meaning of something which had to be revealed by God and could not be discovered by human means. (1 Tim. 3:16, "And without controversy great is the mystery of godliness: God was manifest in the flesh, justified in the Spirit, seen of angels, preached unto the Gentiles, believed on in the world, received up into glory.")
In other words, there is a wide variation between a "secret incantation", a "top secret military file" and a "secret recipe." What makes the mysticism is not the word, but the subject, and this is ably demonstrated by Raymond Brown [The Semitic Background of the Term 'Mystery' in the New Testament], who shows that the word used here (mysterion) had precedents in the Greek Old Testament that had nothing to do with Gnosticism or mysticism as FG understand it, but rather referred, for example, to that which was revealed by God alone.
2:20-2 Wherefore if ye be dead with Christ from the rudiments of the world, why, as though living in the world, are ye subject to ordinances, (Touch not; taste not; handle not; Which all are to perish with the using;) after the commandments and doctrines of men?
"Like the Gnostics, Paul is extremely disparaging of the externals of religion -- ceremonies, holy days, rules, and regulations." [FG, 164]
Though FG reject Pauline authorship of this letter, that doesn't stop them from using this one. It's also not cited by Pagels. Just as well, because it is better understood in light of Paul's indications that food and drink are nothing in themselves (Rom. 14:17), and as noted above, such anti-legalism is hardly to be thought of as an exclusively Gnostic province.
Naturally these letters, which are regarded as seriously anti-Gnostic (or inimical to a Gnostic position; the heresy they address is considered rather proto-Gnostic, not full-blown) pose a serious problem for the GP thesis, and must be explained away. FG resort to the standard dismissals of the letters as not from Paul, which we have answered here. They also misinterpret 1 Timothy 2:11-14 as "anti-woman," a point Glenn Miller has refuted here.
For the record, while FG dispense with problematic passages mostly by removing entire books (not consistently) from Paul's authorship, Massey prefers to hypothesize as convenient that Paul's letters were worked over by editors after Paul's death. Naturally he cannot offer a shred of textual evidence for such a conspiracy.
Among the miscellaneous reasons given for the GP thesis:
- Paul shows pagan/Gnostic influences, for he "writes in Greek...quotes only from the Greek version of the Old Testament [and] His ministry is to Pagan cities dominated by Greek culture." [FG, 162]
None of these offers and indication of a GP. Writing in Greek could hardly be a proof of Gnosticism. The point about quoting only the LXX is false (and makes "writes in Greek" irrelevant, since the LXX compilers were not Gnostics); Paul quotes from a broad range of traditions, including Hebrew texts. Paul also ministered to Jews, even according to his own letters, and one could hardly minister outside Judaea or Galilee without entering such cities.
FG's cites are not at all relevant for a GP thesis. On their point about Tarsus, see Miller's response to a similar charge here, which also offers a corrective to the idea of Greek influence on Paul (including with reference to Paul's quotation of pagan works).
- On Mithraism see here.
- FG say : "Paul frequently uses terms and phrases from the Pagan Mysteries, such as pneuma (spirit), gnosis (divine knowledge), doxa (glory), sophia (wisdom), teleioi (the initiated), and so on."
This is an epistemically invalid useless criteria. The terms FG refer to are universals of religious language and would hardly have been barred from non-Gnostic or anti-Gnostic discussion. "Pneuma" appears over 350 times and in every book of the NT, even in the "anti-Gnostic" Pastorals, and is no more Gnostic in specific orientation than the Hebrew ruach.
"Gnosis" means any knowledge -- divine or otherwise. Summey, Other Opponents of Paul, notes that it was "a widely used term which could be applied to nearly any body of religious teaching, and was applied to many," including Christianity. It has no Gnostic orientation by itself; the same may be said of sophia (as in 1 Cor. 1-2), which is no more Gnostic in orientation by itself than the Hebrew chokmah (see more here).
"Doxa," like "pneuma," appears many times in the NT (over 150), even in the "anti-Gnostic" Pastorals and is used by every writer; it is no more Gnostic in orientation than the Hebrew kabod.
"Teleiloi" means initiated, they say -- but into what? The word is found in 1 Cor. 2:6 ("Howbeit we speak wisdom among them that are perfect: yet not the wisdom of this world, nor of the princes of this world, that come to nought"), but it isn't exactly "initiated" that it means (Matthew 5:48, "Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect."
In fact Paul does refer to those who are mature and perfected in Christ (cf. also Heb. 6:1), and it is of course understandable that the Gnostics would claim, "Yes, that's us!" a century later.).
The same may be said of other words like pleroma (filled) -- they are general and capable of multiple uses ("filled" with liquid, "filled" with the Spirit, "filled" with mystical gnosis).
That the Mysteries used some of the same verbiage is neither surprising nor meaningful. Even today religious traditions as varied as Judaism and Buddhism share words like "spirit" and "glory". When Paul speaks of seeing reality "face to face" [1 Cor. 13:12] it is far easier to see an allusion to Gen. 32:30 ("And Jacob called the name of the place Peniel: for I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved."; cf. also Ex. 33:11, and Ex. 34:33 for the "veil over the face" idea; Deut. 5:4, Judges 6:22, etc.) than to pagan correspondents. No one has a market cornered on metaphors in the religious world.
- FG suppose that Paul's referral to OT stories in terms of "allegories" (Gal. 4:24) and "symbols" (1 Cor. 10:6) indicates Gnostic tendencies. But aside from that these would be but two examples, versus dozens indicating a belief in a literally historic OT, it was not beyond the praxis of rabbinic Judaism to use such stories allegorically or symbolically, and even an "allegorist" like Philo maintained a dual interpretation (allegorical and literal).
For more see here.
- Massey links the GP idea with the supposed division between Peter and Paul, even going as far as identifying Peter as the "man of sin" in 1 Thessalonians and claiming that "another gospel" Paul refers to is the gospel of a physical Christ, as taught by Peter and the pillars. Meanwhile Peter is actually roundaboutly insulting Paul in 2 Peter.
He overplays the division using arguments we have previously refuted here.
From here he finds in the Pastoral warning against "endless genealogies" a criticis against the genealogies used in Matthew and Luke. Apparently Massey forgets that genealogies were a feature of the OT as well, and is also unconcerned for the ancient concern for ancestry. The heresy in question is rooted in Jewish speculations and has nothing to do with Matthew and Luke (whose genealogies are far from "endless").
- The Bible uses the phrase "all things" over 200 times, over 170 times in the NT. According to Massey, "all things" is a "title of the Gnostic Christ".
So by this logic, Luke 10:22 for example actually says, "The Gnostic Christ are [!] delivered to me of my Father: and no man knoweth who the Son is, but the Father; and who the Father is, but the Son, and he to whom the Son will reveal him."
We may summarize the case for a Gnostic Paul by referring to the way FG illicitly summarize Col. 1:25-28 with the sentence, "The secret is this: Christ in you!", or that they rework 1 Cor. 2:14 to say, "But the Psychic receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are Pneumatically discerned," and read "Jews" as "psychic Christians" and "Gentiles" as "Pneumatic Christians."
Like the Gnostics of the second century, one can only manufacture a Gnostic Paul by wrenching words from their context and reapplying and filling them with their own meaning.