Were Paul’s Teachings Condemned by “John of Patmos” in the Book of Revelation?

بِسْمِ اللهِ الرَّحْمٰنِ الرَّحِيْم

Were Paul’s Teachings Condemned by “John of Patmos” in the Book of Revelation?

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“But I have a few things against you: you have some there who hold the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel, so that they might eat food sacrificed to idols and practice sexual immorality.”

– Revelation 2:14 (ESV)

            Christians are taught that the different books of the “canonical” New Testament are in harmony and do not provide contradictory views, and by and large, most Christians blindly assume this to be true. Yet even a cursory examination of the New Testament will reveal numerous contradictions, whether in theology, soteriology, or eschatology. In this article, we will see an example of one contradiction, in which the teachings of Paul seem to be contradicted and condemned by “John of Patmos”, the author of the Book of Revelation.[1]

Paul and Balaam: Birds of a Feather?

            Respected author and scholar Elaine Pagels provides evidence in her book Revelations: Visions, Prophecy, & Politics in the Book of Revelation that “John of Patmos” was a critic of Pauline Christians.[2] In Revelation 2:14–16, John recounts his “vision” of “Jesus”, who warns the church in Pergamum to “repent” of some of its practices, namely eating food sacrificed to idols and “sexual immorality”:

“But I have a few things against you: you have some there who hold the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel, so that they might eat food sacrificed to idols and practice sexual immorality. So also you have some who hold the teaching of the Nicolaitans. Therefore repent. If not, I will come to you soon and war against them with the sword of my mouth. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who conquers I will give some of the hidden manna, and I will give him a white stone, with a new name written on the stone that no one knows except the one who receives it.’”[3]

Note that these sins are likened to those committed by the Israelites due to the false teachings of Balaam. Numbers 25:1 states that the Israelites “began to whore with the daughters of Moab” and ate food sacrificed to their idols. They also took wives from the Midianites:

“While Israel lived in Shittim, the people began to whore with the daughters of Moab. These invited the people to the sacrifices of their gods, and the people ate and bowed down to their gods. So Israel yoked himself to Baal of Peor. And the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel. And the Lord said to Moses, “Take all the chiefs of the people and hang[a] them in the sun before the Lord, that the fierce anger of the Lord may turn away from Israel.” And Moses said to the judges of Israel, “Each of you kill those of his men who have yoked themselves to Baal of Peor.” And behold, one of the people of Israel came and brought a Midianite woman to his family, in the sight of Moses and in the sight of the whole congregation of the people of Israel, while they were weeping in the entrance of the tent of meeting.”[4]

In addition, Numbers 31 blames Balaam for enticing the Israelites into taking wives from the Midianites and worshiping idols at Peor. As a result, the Midianites were wiped out, except for the young, virgin girls:

“Moses said to them, “Have you let all the women live? Behold, these, on Balaam’s advice, caused the people of Israel to act treacherously against the Lord in the incident of Peor, and so the plague came among the congregation of the Lord. Now therefore, kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman who has known man by lying with him. But all the young girls who have not known man by lying with him keep alive for yourselves.”[5]

Thus, we can see that when John of Patmos referred to these sins among the Christians in Pergamum, he was talking about eating food sacrificed to idols and marrying idolaters in the same way the Israelites did. As Pagels and other scholars (cited in her book) have noted, these practices were allowed by none other than Paul! As Pagels states:

“Those whom John says Jesus ‘hates’ look very much like Gentile followers of Jesus converted through Paul’s teaching. Many commentators have pointed out that…the very practices John denounces are those that Paul had recommended.”[6]

When did Paul permit his followers to eat food sacrificed to idols? Pagels explains:

“When converts in the Greek city of Corinth had asked Paul about meat offered in sacrifice at pagan temples, for example, Paul wrote back that since ‘we know no idol in the world really exists,’ eating sacrificial meat could not do any harm.”[7]

Paul’s heretical advice is found in 1 Corinthians 8, and though he warned his followers not to eat sacrificed food in front of Christians of weak faith, he did nonetheless allow them to eat the food without any feelings of guilt. He even calls it a “right of yours”:

“Therefore, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that “an idol has no real existence,” and that “there is no God but one.” For although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”— yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist. However, not all possess this knowledge. But some, through former association with idols, eat food as really offered to an idol, and their conscience, being weak, is defiled. Food will not commend us to God. We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do. But take care that this right of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. For if anyone sees you who have knowledge eating in an idol’s temple, will he not be encouraged, if his conscience is weak, to eat food offered to idols? And so by your knowledge this weak person is destroyed, the brother for whom Christ died. Thus, sinning against your brothers and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble.”[8]

Similar advice was given in 1 Corinthians 10, and though Paul advised his followers not to eat food offered by someone who clearly indicated that it was sacrificed to idols,[9] he also said that Christians could freely eat meat sold in the market “without raising any question on the ground of conscience”, a concession that would virtually guarantee that Christians would unknowingly eat impure meat eventually.[10] As David Frankfurter (University of New Hampshire) explained in an article in The Harvard Theological Review:

“The liberal position Paul takes with regard to eating heathen offerings is, to be sure, meant to elevate sectarian concord over strict observance; but from a more observant Jewish perspective it could easily be understood as promoting the acceptance of heathen food.”[11]

Regarding “sexual immorality” like that of the Israelites taking pagan women as wives, Pagels links it to Paul’s teaching that married Christian converts should remain
in their marriages instead of divorcing their pagan spouses.[12] This teaching is found in 1 Corinthians 7:12–16:

“To the rest I say (I, not the Lord) that if any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her. If any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him. For the unbelieving husband is made holy because of his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy because of her husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy. But if the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so. In such cases the brother or sister is not enslaved. God has called you to peace. For how do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife?”

Pagels states:

“Since the groups Paul addressed consisted primarily of Gentiles, strictly observant Jews
like John could have inferred that he sanctioned mixed marriages, which some of them called ‘uncleanness.’”[13]

Paul had seen it as an opportunity to “recruit” new converts but he also forbade divorce because he thought Jesus had forbidden it. But to John of Patmos, this was a promotion of sexual impurity. As Frankfurter explained, the Greek word porneia (used in Revelation 2:14) was the equivalent of the Hebrew word zenut. According to Frankfurter:

“[i]n Jewish texts of the early Roman period, zenut often refers to intermarriage between Jews and Gentiles and its moral impurity.”[14]

However, he also explains that (emphasis in the original):

“…zenut/porneia became in sectarian Jewish circles a common, sexualizing characterization of what lay outside an integral purity of the sect. In the case of Revelation, John’s adulation of those ‘who have not defiled themselves with women’ (14:4) suggests that what he means by porneia could be sexual activity itself.”[15]

If this is true, then we can see how John saw the teachings of Paul as promoting “sexual immorality” in another way, by permitting his followers to engage in sexual activity within the confines of marriage in the first place, though he also advised them that it was better to abstain.[16] Frankfurter notes that while Paul was “…quite concerned with porneia as the sexuality of those who are of the world…”, he still made a “concession…to marital sexuality (1 Cor. 7:6)…”.[17] Moreover, Paul did not make this “concession” “on the traditional Jewish grounds of procreation—obviously not a pressing issue in the last days (cf. 1 Cor 7:26–31)—but rather on the grounds of ‘burning’ passion (7:9), on ‘what is owed’ to one’s spouse (7:3), and on not denying one’s spouse pleasure (7:5)”.[18]

By permitting the consumption of food sacrificed to idols and advising Christians not to seek divorce from their pagan spouses, Paul had led Christians astray. According to Pagels (emphasis in the original):

“The prophets John derisively calls by the biblical names of despised Gentile outsiders—Balaam and Jezebel—are likely to be Gentile converts to Paul’s teaching.”[19]

Frankfurter came to the same conclusion:

“…John of Patmos would have viewed adherents to Paul’s far looser sense of Jewish observance as incomplete, inappropriate, and even threatening to the purity and cohesion of the saints.”[20]

Conclusion

            As the evidence presented in this article has shown, there are conflicting views between Paul and John of Patmos, contrary to the claims of “harmony” or “uniformity” that Christian apologists often make. While Paul made “concessions” regarding the eating of meat sacrificed to idols and to “sexual activity”, these concessions were seen as heretical by the more Jewish-minded John of Patmos. To the latter, Paul and his followers were new versions of Balaam, Jezebel, and other false teachers.

And Allah (Glorified and Exalted be He) knows best!


[1] See here for a detailed discussion of the Book of Revelation: https://quranandbibleblog.com/2015/05/31/the-book-of-revelation/

Also see here for a short video on the eschatology of the Book of Revelation: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A2LvGsEhuTE

[2] Elaine Pagels, Revelations: Visions, Prophecy, & Politics in the Book of Revelation (New York, New York: Penguin Books, 2012), pp. 53–55.

[3] Similar accusations were brought against the church in Thyatira, due to a “prophetess” called “Jezebel”. See Revelation 2:20.

[4] Numbers 25:1–6.

[5] Numbers 31:15–18.

[6] Pagels, op. cit., p. 54.

[7] Ibid.

[8] 1 Corinthians 8:4–13.

[9] 1 Corinthians 10:28.

[10] 1 Corinthians 10:25.

[11] David Frankfurter, “Jews or Not? Reconstructing the ‘Other’ in Rev 2:9 and 3:9,” The Harvard Theological Review 94, no. 4 (2001): p. 416.

[12] Pagels, op. cit., p. 54.

[13] Ibid., pp. 54–55.

[14] Frankfurter, op. cit., p.415.

[15] Ibid., pp. 415–416.

[16] See 1 Corinthians 7.

[17] Frankfurter, op. cit., p. 417.

[18] Frankfurter, op. cit., pp. 417–418.

[19] Pagels, op. cit., p. 55.

[20] Frankfurter, op. cit., p. 423.

One thought on “Were Paul’s Teachings Condemned by “John of Patmos” in the Book of Revelation?

  1. I ordered Elaine’s book just now

    ” contrary to the claims of “harmony” or “uniformity”

    Good to underline that their “harmonizations” are quite artificial especially in regards to chronological contradictions (temple curtain in mark and luke, cleansing of temple and cursing of the fig tree in mark and matthew) and Joseph’s genealogy or even the issue of the resurrection stories

    Liked by 1 person

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