Nicolaus and Paul

Nicolaus and Paul September 4, 2018

Nicolaus, one of the first seven deacons, whose followers (if not himself) were condemned in the Apocalypse (cf. Rev. 2:16), was quoted by his followers as saying “One must misuse the flesh.”[1] After mentioning this earlier in the Stromata, St. Clement of Alexandria returned to it, putting context to the dictum:

But when we mentioned Nicolaus’ remark we omitted one point. They say that he had a pretty wife. After the Saviour’s resurrection he was accused of jealousy by the apostles. He brought his wife out into their midst and offered her up to anyone who wanted her in marriage. They say that his action was consistent with the saying “The flesh is to be treated with contempt.” Those who are members of his sect follow his word and act simply and uncritically, and indulge in unrestrained licence.[2]

There is the possibility, which Clement seemed to suggest but others like St. Irenaeus did not, that Nicolaus’s saying was being abused by those who came after him, using his dictum at cross purposes from Nicolaus’s own intentions. Clement suggested that Nicolaus was an ascetic who therefore “abused his flesh” in his ascetic labor. How, then, did a saying about “abusing the flesh” become turned into a statement which seems to imply Nicolaus gave his wife over to anyone who wanted to use her? It would seem that there is some proto-Gnostic spiritualism going on, where the flesh is seen as the feminine principle of the person which is wedded to the masculine spiritual principle. The flesh is to be abused for the sake of the spirit. Nicolaus’s wife, therefore, could easily have been a metaphor for his body. But then others, hearing the dictum, took it literally, and understood his actual wife was handed over to be abused by anyone who would want to copulate with her; likewise, then, this served as the basis for a licentious attitude which saw anything which people desired to do in the material world was permissible.

The relationship between the body as being feminine and the spirit masculine can be found in many proto-Gnostic sources, including but not limited to, the Gospel of Thomas. Women were allowed to become followers of Jesus Christ because he would render the masculine, that is, “living spirits”:

Simon Peter said to them, “Let Mary leave us, for women are not worthy of life.”

Jesus said, “I myself shall lead her in order to make her male, so that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males. For every woman who will make herself a male will enter the kingdom of heaven.”[3]

This dualism between flesh and spirit, between a feminine principle represented by the material world and a masculine principle as being represented as the higher spiritual ideal, was taken up not only by the Gnostics but also by many early Christian thinkers, especially as they engaged Scripture and interpreted it allegorically. Nonetheless, contrary to the Gnostic rejection of matter, and therefore, the rejection of the so-called feminine principle, undermining the value of women in the process, the orthodox tradition affirmed matter, affirmed femininity (especially through the promotion of the Theotokos), and decried any attempts to deny the material world and its salvation. They said matter is good, and with it, the feminine principle must be preserved as good: it was not, like the Gnostic suggested, a principle which sought to trap masculine principles in darkness. It is good, as it was made by God, and it is affirmed in the incarnation. The body, the feminine principle, and therefore, women, are not to be mistreated nor told to become something they are not (as the Gospel of Thomas suggested). The material world matters, and so the good of the body is important: it is not to be abused, nor as a consequence with their perceived relationship to the material world, should women be abused. Now, looking back, we can and should question the dualistic distinction between matter and spirit, feminine and masculine, as outlined by ancient sources, but the key is to realize this distinction was understood by ancient writers, Gnostic or not, and to understand what they wrote, we must understand the symbolism which they accepted and employed.

Nicolaus the deacon seems to represent a connection between two divergent traditions which emerged in the early church. He was, at least for some time, active with the Apostles, before his ideas were examined and were seen to go astray. He caused contention within the early Christian community, with some following him as they found themselves in conflict with the Apostles and their successors. Nicolaus, and even the ideology found in other Gnostic sources such as the Gospel of Thomas, seem to represent dangerous influences which helped shape the orthodoxy community, because Nicolaus was not initially rejected by the Apostles despite the ideas which he had.  The suggestion could be made that the slow removal of women from central positions within the church could be tied, in part, with this Gnostic and proto-Gnostic interference with the Apostolic Tradition.

Perhaps, moreover, this dualistic rejection of the body (and with it, femininity) could have caused Paul, writing to the Ephesians, to give this unusual statement about the relationship between husbands and wives:

Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.  Even so husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself.  For no man ever hates his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body. “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.”  This is a great mystery, and I mean in reference to Christ and the church;  however, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband. (Eph. 5:25-33 RSV).

Nicolaus, from what tradition suggested, had no love for his wife, and this tradition suggested it was tied to his disdain for the flesh. Paul, in Ephesians, almost seems to be answering Nicolaus, perhaps because he had heard what Nicolaus had apparently done with his wife and the words he spoke in regards the flesh. Paul said that men are to love their wives, because loving their wife goes with loving their own flesh, their own body. Nicolaus disdained the flesh and so disdained his wife; Paul said to do the opposite, and even suggested, outside of ideological philosophies which convince people to subject their flesh to harsh punishments, people generally love their flesh and treat it well. Paul, therefore, seems to be following the ancient symbolic understanding of the feminine principle with the material world and the body, but instead of using it as a way to counter the feminine principle and undermine women, he attempted to affirm both as a response to the proto-Gnostic rejection of matter entering the church.


[IMG=Paul Writing Scriptures by Valentin de Boulogne [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons]

[1] St Clement of Alexandria, Stromata: Books One to Three. Trans. John Ferguson (Washington, DC: CUA Press, 1991), 234 [II.118(3)].

[2] St Clement of Alexandria, Stromata, 272 [III.25(4-7).

[3] The Gospel of Thomas in “The Nag Hammadi Library.” Ed. James M. Robinson  (New York: Harper Collins, 1990), 138 (Saying 114).


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