Gerald Massey on Peter vs Paul

Elsewhere we have briefly noted Gerald Massey's attempt to discern a "Gnostic Paul". Here we have occasion to discuss his attempt to magnify the Peter-Paul "rhubarb".

Like many Peter vs Paul theorists, Massey sees the division as a matter of a fundamental disagreement, but in accord with his mythicist orientation, the division as he sees it was upon the supposition that we have a "real Jesus" (Peter and James) vs. a Gnostic Jesus (Paul) who never lived on the earth. To the end of proving this Massey uses number of arguments we have seen before from Earl Doherty (about Paul not knowing if an earthly Jesus), alleged conflicts between Acts and Paul's epistles, the use of "firstborn" in Col. 1:15, the allegation that Paul does not believe in a physical resurrection, uses Paul's "thorn in the flesh" phrase to suggest it refers to Paul's condition of falling into trances (! -- see here for an understanding grounded in the contextual realities of the situation), misapprehends the eschatology of the NT, and charges that the Pauline letters have been mangled and interpolated even though there is not a shred of textual evidence for it.

We need not recount all of these arguments, but will move instead to the particulars unique to Massey and a summary of his argument.

  • Here is the central thesis stating discord: "[Paul] did not think much of [James, Peter and John] personally, but scoffs a little at their pretensions to being pillars in the church."

    Massey offers no exegesis explaining his position, but this is the primary verse he cites:

    Gal. 2:6 But of these who seemed to be somewhat, (whatsoever they were, it maketh no matter to me: God accepteth no man's person:) for they who seemed to be somewhat in conference added nothing to me...

    Is Paul "scoffing" at the pillars' pretensions? Actually, no -- Massey is out of touch with the social dynamics being portrayed in Paul's letter, which was written in the context of an agonistic (honor/shame) culture. Paul is, after a fashion, "downplaying" the social status of the pillars, but he is doing so at the same time that he is acknowledging their status, and he is not downplaying the status of the pillars so much as he is downplaying the whole concept of "status" from its roots.

    Massey, working from within his own perceptions as a modern, misses a very important point: Paul needed the recognition of the pillars, for in a collectivist society like the ancient Mediterranean, his claims had to be validated by those already possessing honor and status in the Christian movement (especially since he had previously been a persecutor of the movement). If Paul had had a vision and mission of a "Gnostic" Christ it would have been foolish and pointless to approach the pillars or the Jerusalem church on anything. His only live option would have been to ignore the Jerusalem church and start his own movement.

    But the very fact that he went to the pillars at all shows that he considered himself to be in a position of social and honorary inferiority to them -- and that he needed their endorsement and approval, lest his mission had been run in vain.

    But in Galatia, Paul also has a problem, because the "false brethren" teaching the view he opposes are vying for the same validation from the pillars -- and they probably have an upper hand, having been part of the movement for a longer time (or as Nanos supposes, were Jews with some honor and authority). Paul is walking a tightrope, playing two ends against a middle, out of necessity. How did he resolve the matter? We explain using Witherington's treatment [Galatians commentary, 128ff].

    Let us note again the actual issue: It is one, as we have shown here, of purity taboos. The "dialectic" of honor and shame began most likely when Paul brought Titus to Jerusalem. Those who opposed admitting Gentiles to the Kingdom of God without circumcision (the "false brethren" -- which as we noted, did not include James, Peter, or any of the "pillars," and were probably non-Christian Jews) would have considered this a challenge to their personal honor. (For an understanding of this emphasis on honor in the ancient world, see deSilva's Honor, Patronage, Kinship and Purity.)

    When Paul brought Titus, he was "not compelled" to be circumcised -- in other words, Paul "won" the contest of honor with the "false brethren" because the pillars didn't demand that Titus be circumcised as the "false brethren" had wanted. They agreed with Paul. Paul 1, False Brethren 0.

    But enough is enough: Now some people are coming up and apparently influencing Peter (wittingly or unwittingly), horning in on Paul's territory and perhaps getting back at him for winning the previous honor contest. For Paul these "honor contests" are becoming spitting contests, and it is time to put it to an end. He therefore takes the radical step of distancing himself from the entire "honor" exchange problem, and that is the "why" behind the "scoff" Massey sees in Gal. 2:6. What Paul is scoffing at is not the pillars themselves, but the honor rating awarded to the pillars by the false brethren. When he says that the pillars "added nothing" to him he does not mean that they added nothing to his teachings, but that they added nothing to Paul's personal honor rating. (Note that Paul says that they added nothing "to me" -- not "to my teachings" or "to my gospel".)

    To emphasize this point he adds that he was not beholden to the pillars for his status as an apostle or as a teacher of the gospel, which is of no issue in terms of the content of the gospel and offers absolutely no indication that he was teaching anything differently. Rather, his "status" as an apostle came from God's commission. God is the one in charge -- not Paul, not the pillars, and certainly not the false brethren, who are now in the precarious position of seeming to oppose God, who has endorsed both Paul and the pillars.

    Yet Paul was still in a bind if that was as far as he went. In the Greco-Roman world, honor was deeply bound in with authority. Paul had to downplay the honor rating accorded the pillars by the false brothers, who claimed the pillars' authority as their own; but he also needed the honor rating of the pillars to support his own arguments and views, for otherwise he would disconnect himself from the authority of the Jerusalem church and be cast into shame, losing the upper hand in the Galatian controversy, and losing his entire point that the pillars gave him the "right hand of fellowship."

    In all of this he fully acknowledges that the Jerusalem church was the proper authority to recognize his mission as valid, and that it is the pillars he must defer to in matters of authority.

    This is another important point Massey misses: That Paul laid an honor challenge against Peter at all indicates that he knows that Peter is in an authoritative position. Had he thought nothing of Peter's status, Paul would have ignored Peter, not addressed him.

    So Paul was darned if he did, darned if he didn't -- leaving him only one option: to downplay the concept of honor itself (note his comment that God "accepts no man's person" -- 2:6). In this way he acknowledges the authority and power of the pillars (thus keeping their endorsement of his mission, Gal. 1), while at the same time distancing himself with regard to his subservience to them (thus confounding the false brethren who are according the pillars high honor and thereby deriving from their authority). Trying to make this a matter of preaching a "different Jesus" than the pillars (as opposed to the false brethren) is a serious misinterpretation.

    That's the main point; let's look at some minor ones:

  • On "adding nothing" as well, Massey thinks it odd that there was no discussion of the crucifixion, resurrection, relatives, or whatever about Jesus, but this is the same mistake made by critics. Paul could hardly have persecuted the church before this if he had no idea what they were teaching and what they were all about.
  • Massey also illicitly climbs from Galatians to Corinthians, identifying the latter's "super apostles" with the pillars, but there is no commonality between the opponents. Those in Corinth were teaching the necessity of pneumatic displays, which is not at issue in Galatians.
  • Here is a point we have seen elsewhere: Massey takes 1 Tim. 1:4's warning against "endless genealogies" to be a slam against the genealogies of Matthew and Luke. That's fairly inventive, especially since Matthew and Luke's lists are far from "endless", and there are a host of other factors about the false teaching Paul was addressing that Massey does not consider, which don't fit in with polemics against Matthew and Luke.

    The heresy did have Jewish elements (an emphasis on the law), but the focus on genealogies also fits lists found in the OT and in the book of Jubilees. The heresy also involves ascetism (1 Tim. 4:3-5). If anything, Paul's description matches a belief system similar to that of the ascetic Essenes (as allowed by Summey, Opponents of Paul, 261). Imagining Matthew and Luke to be in mind is to take a common element of Judaism and indeed the ancient world (genealogies) and argue as though it is unique to Matthew and Luke.

  • Massey makes much of Paul's admonitions to others to remember "his gospel" as though it implied a rivalry. The phrase "my gospel" appears only three times in Paul (Rom. 2:16, 16:25; 2 Tim. 2:8) and never in opposition to the phrases Massey sets in opposition, "another Jesus," which appears only once in an entirely different letter and context (2 Cor. 11:4), and "another gospel" (Gal. 1:8-9).

    Paul also refers to the Gospel "I preach" (Gal. 2;2), but as noted above, this cannot be set against 2:6, for it is meant to emphasize that Paul had been preaching the same gospel he always had and that he passed it by the pillars for validation. (See also link to Nanos above; the use of "gospel" to refer to the influencers' message is a sarcastic irony.)

    We should close by noting that Massey has no conception of the issue being one of purity taboos, as we have offered. His interpretation of the Galatian controversy is an artificial construct of Massey's presupposed and imagined Paul of Gnosticism.

    -JPH