Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Saint Paul

Painting of Saint Paul by Georges de la Tours (1593-1652).  The original, believed to have been completed c.1620, has been lost.  A later copy hangs in the Musée Toulouse-Lautrec in Albi, France (in the Laguedoc region).

Notice the anachronistic spectacles balanced on Paul's nose.

The town of Albi gives its name to the Albigensian Crusade (1209-1255), a war waged by the Catholic Church and the King of France to eradicate an heretical sect known as the Cathars.  One account passed down through the centuries-- which is likely apocryphal but nevertheless indicative of the crusaders' ruthlessness-- tells of when a town was stormed and a commanding knight was asked by his men how they were to distinguish between the heretics and the innocent townspeople.  He famously replied, "Kill them all; God will know his own."

According to their accusers, the Cathars preached a "manichean" worldview. This means that they drew a firm distinction between the perfect spiritual universe and the physical world which is inherently debased and corrupted.  This doctrine can be found in the writings of a much earlier sect (dating back to the 1st century AD) called the Gnostics.  "Gnosis" (γνῶσις) means knowledge, and the gnostics placed "true knowledge" (spiritual knowledge) and wisdom above all else.  

They claim that the true God (referred to in at least one text as the "Preexisting Father") created the perfect spiritual universe through the Word (identified here not necessarily with Christ but with "Sophia" (Σοφία) or Wisdom).  It was then a lesser, false god who created the physical universe.  This Demiurge is often identified with the God of the Hebrew Bible; when he stated "I am God and there is no other God than me" he showed his ignorance of the true God, the Preexisting Father, and thus he is called the god of fools.   

Some Gnostics claimed that their beliefs were shared (or at least anticipated) by Paul.  They point to his first letter to the Corinthians where he speaks of "God's wisdom, secret and hidden, which God decreed before the ages for our glory" (I Corinthian 2:7, I am using the New Oxford Annotated Bible).  Moreover, in his second letter to the Corinthians, he speaks of ascending to the third heaven (II Corinthians 12). 

Traveling through the different levels of heaven is mentioned in Gnostic texts, and it is also central to Merkabah, an early school of Jewish mysticism (Gershom Scholem says it began around the first century and lasted until the tenth century).  See also the dream in Kafka's novel the Castle.

image taken from wikipaintings