I recently picked up Elaine Pagel's The Gnostic Paul. I found it sloppy and irresponsible. Her thesis is that the historical Paul was a Gnostic who represents the first major schism in the early Christian movement. This theory echoes the hypothesis of F. C. Baur, the founder of the "Tübingen School". Baur and his disciples believe that Paul's "gospel" was noticeably different from the primitive Judeo-Christian doctrines under the leadership of Peter and James of Jerusalem.
Baur and the Tubingen school believed that "proto-orthodox Christianity" emerged as the second century was able to paint over the schism between Paul on one hand and Peter and James on the other. Acts was considered by them to be a second-century masterpiece that brings together the lives of Peter and Paul. The Pastoral Epistles of Paul and 2 Peter were created to splice together Peter and Paul. The tradition that Peter and Paul were martyred together in Rome on the same day is also an element in the great second-century conspiracy. The Johannine corpus is also a crowing achievement of the second-century "catholic" conspiracy.
This theory has been abandoned by serious scholarship since recent papyrus discoveries have proved that the John's Gospel belongs to the first century. It is also now accpted that Acts and the Pastorals belong to an era earlier than assigned by the Tubingen school.
But Elaine Pagels has resurrected the theory and put a twist on it using feminist hermeneutics.
Pagels sees Paul as a full-blown Gnostic. The second-century Gnostics were not a later schism broken off from "Apostolic Christianity". Rather, the Gnostics continued the esoteric Pauline tradition.
Paul, claims Pagels, was a Gnostic who promoted a radical social agenda in which the "flesh profits nothing". Paul's discussion of Jews and Gentiles is code for pyschics (soulish Christians) and pneumatics (spiritual Christians). Part of Paul's message was the complete liberation of women of the bondage of pre-assigned gender roles. Pagels claims that Paul is a spiritual feminist! As a Gnostic, bodies do not matter and neither does sexuality. The Pauline Gospel (Luke) focuses on the importance of women and the early Marcionites also promoted women's leadership. This feminist steak can be seen in Paul's own writings (e.g. the deaconess in Rom 16). The 2nd century "Acts of Paul and Thecla" also recall Paul's egalitarian outlook.
Pagels believes that the true second-century conspiracy occurred when the imperial middle-class took over the church (ecclesiastical class war-fare??), and produced Pauline forgeries that "corrected" Paul's feminism. These forgeries taught that women could not speak in church, would be saved by childbearing, could not be leaders, etc.
Is it not interesting that the feminist, new-age, Gnostic scholar of our era, Elaine Pagels, has perfectly cast Saint Paul in her own image? The whole thing is so obviously hack scholarship and yet she is tenured at Princeton...