Visions that laid a foundation for Christianity?

Creative Commons License

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

Engraved illustration of the "chariot vis...
Image via Wikipedia

Following the publication of Alan F. Segal’s recent book, it is clear that Jewish mysticism must occupy a more central place than has previously been the case in any construction of the matrices of Paul’s experience and thought. (Morray-Jones, C. R. A. 1993, “Paradise Revisited (2 Cor 12:1-12): The Jewish Mystical Background of Paul’s Apostolate. Part 1: The Jewish Sources”, The Harvard Theological Review, vol. 86, no. 2, p. 178.)

A number of scholars have suggested that mystical visionary experiences appear to have played a foundational role in the emergence of the Christian religion. (Recently I mentioned Larry Hurtado’s proposal that visionary experiences were at the heart of early Christians coming to exalt Jesus to a divine status.) If the visionary experiences initiated Paul’s missionary work, and we find indications that there were other early apostles basing their authority on similar visions, are we really very far from suggesting that Christianity itself originated in such experiences?

I would surmise that if there is some sort of “movement” in which such visions are a repeated fact of life, that there is some particular set of social conditions that is creating special problems and needs that these visions answer. But maybe this is not always necessary and they could have been but one of the many Second Temple Judaisms.

Rachel Elior is cited by April DeConick as showing that

in the aftermath of the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, Jews within mystical circles were perpetuating Temple worship by fostering the idea of a surrogate heavenly Temple, developed largely from the visions of Ezekiel that were written following the destruction of the first Temple. Refusing to accept the end of their religious worship in the wake of the destruction of their cult center, they focused on the notion of a spiritual world whose cultic practices now operated on a mystical-ritual praxis. (DeConick, April D. (2001) Voices of the Mystics. Sheffield Academic Press. 58.)

I think a similar setting — in the wake of the destruction of the Temple — answers a lot of questions about how Christianity itself might have begun as a religion.

The “only” trouble with this setting as the womb of Christianity is that Paul’s letters, although unknown in other works until the second century, themselves testify to being compositions of the 50s. So let’s work with this.

What is particularly significant with such visions, Jewish and Christian, and pagan, too, is that the vision was believed to endow the one experiencing the vision with the supernatural qualities of the one seen. DeConick quotes the Greek magical papyri in which an initiate into the Mithras mystery is quoted:

I am about to behold the immortal Aion with my immortal eyes — I, born mortal from mortal womb, but transformed into something better by tremendous power and an incorruptible right hand and with immortal spirit. (p. 47)

Morray-Jones comments on the Hekhalot Rabbati (the equivalent to chapters 1 and 2 in this pdf online translation):

Supernatural power and authority are conferred upon the one who attains to the vision of the merkabah, and the person functions as God’s emissary and (eschatological?) judge of both Israel and the angels. In Peter Schäfer’s words, “The Merkavah mystic is the chosen one of God to whom messianic qualities are ascribed.” (p. 276 f.)

Several of the New Testament epistles speak of Christians becoming one with Christ, filled with his power and immortal life, and being exalted to dwell with Christ in heavenly places. I am not suggesting that every Christian convert had such a visionary experience, but we definitely do read of visions of a spirit or transfigured Christ in Paul’s epistles and another attributed to Peter. When Paul speaks of his own vision he also says (12:12) that his rival apostles also had visions.

The gospels speak of apostles chosen apostles witnessing Christ transfigured in a vision upon a mountain, as well as of seeing a living Christ after death. Forget for a moment the gospel narratives about Jesus carrying out missionary activity in Galilee and Judea. All of that, we can say for now, emerges some time after the epistles.

As for the sorts of social conditions that lie behind a cultural emergence of related mystical experiences, Morray-Jones turns to Gerd Wewers:

Gerd A. Wewers infers that this passage (equivalent of chs 1 and 2 of HekRab) was written against the background of a social environment that the writer perceived as hostile and toward which he adopted an attitude of patient, passive suffering based on the “servant” model encountered in prophecy and the Psalms. Despite his personal powerlessness, the adept is vindicated by the intervention of divine power on his behalf and possesses divinely conferred authority to pass eschatological judgment on his adversaries. Like Schäfer, Wewers observes “that the mystic aligned his self-portrayal with eschatological individuals (Elijah, the messiah) and saw himself as corresponding closely to these figures (or identified himself with them?).” (p. 277, my emphasis)

Life was unpleasant enough for many groups under the Pax Romana, and no doubt these conditions worsened for many Jews and Jewish sympathizers in the decades following the Jewish war of 66 to 70, which conditions involved anti-Jewish uprisings in cities across North Africa to Mesopotamia, right up to the persecutions of Jewish Christians in the Bar Kochba rebellion in the 130s.

But I promised myself to work with Paul’s letters at face value — and I am quite prepared to accept that they really might be “by Paul” and from the 50s. (At least for the sake of many arguments, at least until I have time to resolve a host of related questions.)

Morray-Jones concurs with a number of scholars who think that Paul’s own visionary experiences were linked with the hostile responses from his fellow Jews over his preaching of his gospel. So let’s work with that. It might even be right.

Morray-Jones’ article is a detailed discussion of Paul’s description of his own visions in the context of other Jewish mystical visionary experiences that appear to have a history going back prior to the destruction of the temple.

Here is how Paul describes his experience (2 Corinthians 12:1-12):

It is doubtless not expedient for me to glory (boast). I will come to visions and revelations of the Lord:

2 I knew a man in Christ more than fourteen years ago (whether in the body I cannot tell, or whether out of the body I cannot tell — God knoweth). Such a one was caught up to the third Heaven.

3 And I knew such a man (whether in the body or out of the body I cannot tell — God knoweth),

4 and how he was caught up into Paradise, and heard unspeakable words which it is not lawful for a man to utter.

5 Of such a one will I glory, yet of myself I will not glory, except in mine infirmities.

6 For though I would desire to glory, I shall not be a fool, for I will say the truth. But now I forbear, lest any man should think of me above that which he seeth me to be, or than he heareth of me.

7 And lest I should be exalted above measure through the abundance of the revelations, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I should be exalted above measure.

8 For this thing, I besought the Lord thrice, that it might depart from me.

9 And He said unto me, “My grace is sufficent for thee, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.” Most gladly therefore will I glory rather in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.

10 Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in privations, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake; for when I am weak, then am I strong.

11 I have become a fool in glorying. Ye have compelled me, for I ought to have been commended by you. For in nothing am I inferior to the very chiefest apostles, though I am nothing.

12 Truly the signs of an apostle were wrought among you in all patience, in signs and wonders and mighty deeds.

Morray-Jones compares this vision described by Paul with visions of other Jewish mystics, and finds very close similarities to the other Jewish visions of the time. Since these other visions were quite probably “induced by the use of a mystical technique”, it is very likely that Paul’s vision was produced the same way. Mystical techniques to induce visions still allowed the person to understand that the experience was divinely granted (rather than self-induced), and Paul’s understanding of being “caught up” (12:4) does not imply the absence of such techniques.

Significantly, Paul introduces this vision in order to justify his status as an apostle. This is not the only time he insists that he is an apostle on account of his vision (or visions) of Christ (Morray-Jones, p. 270). In an earlier letter Paul wrote that his claim to apostleship rested on his having seen Jesus:

Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord? (1 Cor 9:1)

Paul regularly stressed that his apostleship came directly from God or Christ and not through any human mediation (2 Cor 10:8; 13:10; Gal 1:1; 1:12; 2:7; Rom. 1:1-7).

(Curiously our theologian friend not very long ago was slamming such an interpretation of Paul’s letters as if it were some “mythicist” argument, yet the argument is well known and understood among his scholarly peers, and I am paraphrasing one of them here. Perhaps he believes his own fabrication that “mythicists” don’t engage with the scholarly literature and therefore would not know any better if he himself contradicts many of his peers.)

It is also significant that Paul nowhere gives any indication that he experienced the type of visionary experience that we read of in Acts where the heavenly Lord struck him down on his way to Damascus.

Rather, the vision he describes in the above passage, like many other Jewish visions, involved an ascent through the heavens to see the Lord or his (personified) Glory (kabod) on the heavenly throne.

Contrast between human weakness and divine power

A central theme of this passage is Paul’s contrast between his own weakness and the power of the Christ. (p. 271)

It is necessary for Paul to make this contrast. The only reason he is boasting about the vision is to answer, as he must, the accusations of his opponents that he is not a properly qualified apostle. But by boasting he is doing what he blames these opponents for doing. So he wiggles out of the contradiction by, as Morray-Jones says, “modeling his position on the example of Jesus”. That is, through his human weakness he manifests the power of Christ. I see no suggestion in the passage that Paul is imitating Jesus here at all. In fact Moray-Jones himself proceeds to show that this contrast between human weakness and the glory of the vision is part of the regular Jewish teachings (in the hekhalot literature) associated with such visions.

R. Ishmael said: . . . the Angel of the Presence, said to me: “. . . this has not come about through your effort or through your power, but by the power of your Father who is in heaven.”

Warnings not to boast in visions

Paul bends over backwards to stress his own unworthiness and weakness despite his boasting. He is not wanting to boast so attempts to invert his boasting into a boast in Christ and not in himself.

This also comports with the lessons handed down for visions. Again in the hekhalot literature:

R. Ishmael said: . . . the Angel of the Presence, said to me: “Son of the noble ones, do not exalt yourself above all your companions, and do not say, ‘Even I, out of them all, have been worthy!’

In one of the recorded visions, the famous rabbi Akiba who survived a visionary experience of Paradise explained that it had nothing to do with his own worthiness:

Why did I go up in peace and come down in peace? Not because I am greater than my fellows . . .

Rabbi Ishmael in the earlier quotation also justifies his own naming of angelic gatekeepers he has seen in a vision — (he is challenged for doing this and must justify why he has revealed these names) —

I did not do it for my own honour, but for the glory of the King of the Universe.

This does not sound unlike Paul’s boast that it was not for his own glory but for Christ’s.

Why did Paul speak of a “man in Christ” and not directly of himself?

Morray-Jones sees a double explanation at work here. Firstly,

the “man in Christ” formula . . . reflects his discomfort over the issue of “boasting” and may represent an attempt to observe the pseudepigraphic convention of the apocalyptic-mystic tradition . . .


The formula may also possess a deeper, mystical significance. . . . . [T]he ascent into heaven and the vision of the kabod (glory) (whom Paul identifies with Christ) involves a transformation of the visionary into an angelic or supra-angelic likeness of this glory or divine image, and that this seems to be the background of Paul’s concept of “glorification” (for example, Rom 8:29; 2 Cor 3:18). The “man in Christ” is thus Paul’s “heavenly self” or “apostolic identity,” which is conformed to the image of the enthroned and glorified Christ and therefore possesses “power” and divinely conferred authority. “This man” is contrasted with Paul’s earthly, human self. Thus, just as Paul’s earthly personality is conformed to that of the earthly Jesus (characterized by “weakness,” 2 Cor 12:9-11), so his “heavenly being” is conformed to the image of Christ-as-kabod (characterized by “power”).

This only makes partial sense to me. Morray-Jones assumes Paul is identifying his weakness with a human Jesus, but there is nothing in Paul’s account to suggest anything of the sort. The whole point, it would seem to me, is that Paul is contrasting his own human weakness with the divine glory and power of the heavenly Christ. There is no weakness or humanity of Christ here at all.

This same idea of the human dying or ceasing to live in some sense while the power and life of Christ takes over is common to Paul and the essence of his Christianity: 2 Cor. 4:18; Gal. 2:20; Eph. 2:6; Eph. 4:24.

Ascent to the third heaven/Paradise, and hearing “unutterable words”, was crucial to Paul’s  apostolic authority

Morray-Jones sees Paul’s account of ascending to the third heaven and seeing Christ as being the same type of vision as the Jewish mystic merkabah vision that ascended to see the divine glory (kabod). For Paul, this glory was Christ.

In Jewish mystical tradition Paradise (pardes) was a term for the heavenly Holy of Holies which was always in the highest heaven.

We often hear of a seven-tiered heaven, but Morray-Jones cites Ralph P. Martin and Young when he says “there is evidence for an alternative, and probably earlier, three-heaven cosmology”. This may have been what Paul spoke about.

Jewish mystical vision literature also describes visits to paradise and the heavenly temple where unrepeatable words are heard.

R. Aqiba said: At that time, when I ascended to the merkabah, a bat-qol went forth from beneath the throne of glory, speaking in the Aramaic tongue . In this tongue, what did it say? . . .  And who is able to explain, and who is able to see? . . . Moses says to them, to these and those: ‘Do not investigate with your words . . . “

And again,

It was said in the presence of Rabban Gamaliel: Though created beings do not have permission to declare the true being of the Creator, they do have permission to declare his praise. . . . Life depends upon his praise, but his true being is concealed.

The Thorn in the Flesh

Here Morray-Jones discusses some of the suggested explanations for this “thorn in the flesh” and finds them all wanting, but then finds the most satisfactory explanation by a certain Robert M. Price in an article of his in the Journal for the Study of the New Testament, vol. 7, 1980, 33-40: “Punished in Paradise (An Exegetical Theory on II Corinthians 12:1-10)”.

Robert M. Price has pointed out . . . the close connection that exists in Paul’s mind between the “thorn” and the visionary experience and suggested that the reference is to an angelic opponent similar to the gatekeepers of the hekhalot tradition, who attack and punish those deemed unworthy to ascend to the merkabah. This view is consistent with Paul’s emphasis on his “weakness” and his dependence upon the power of Christ. (p. 282)

Compare Aqiba’s vision of “paradise” and what happens to him:

and when I arrived behind the curtain, angels of destruction came and wanted to drive me away, until the Holy One, blessed by he, said to them: My sons, leave this elder alone, for he is worthy to behold my glory.

Compare Paul’s “messenger (=angel) of Satan”. In Aqiba’s experience, one of his four companions was actually “stricken” by an angel of destruction, and the word used (nipga( ) is “precisely the meaning of the verb” (Greek: kolapsizo) for “strike” or “buffet” used by Paul.

This interpretation is by no means inconsistent with the theory of a nervous illness or reaction to ecstatic experience, which Paul believed to be caused by the angel’s blows. . . . Paul’s report that he besought Christ to make his tormentor leave him corresponds to God’s intervention on behalf of Aqiba, “Leave this elder alone”.

Morray-Jones’ conclusion

(With my emphasis and formatting . . .)

The cumulative weight of evidence seems overwhelming: Paul’s account of his ascent to paradise and the Jewish pardes story have common roots in the mystical tradition. An enigmatic quality, due to the reticent and elliptical manner of description, is common to both accounts. The correspondences of detail indicate that they are even more closely related than has previously been suggested. We may conclude, then, that Paul is describing an ascent to the heavenly temple and a merkabah vision of the enthroned and “glorified” Christ. The context in which his account occurs suggests that he bases his claim to apostolic authority on this vision.

Since this is so, there are no grounds for the assumption that his visions were purely spontaneous, involuntary events. It is quite probable that they were induced by the use of a mystical technique, which may have been less elaborate than some of those described in the hekhalot sources but cannot have been markedly different in its essentials. (p. 283)

When the Gospel narratives finally appear on the scene, they indicate in various ways, in particular in the Temple cleansing episodes and Jesus’ claims at his trial, that Jesus is himself the Greater Temple. Jesus’ teaching is also in some places, such as in Mark’s gospel, directed at an authority that is traced back to the beginning of creation, the time of the Garden of Eden, certainly before Moses. The connection between these motifs and the content of the validating vision of Paul’s apostleship should not be overlooked.

The following two tabs change content below.

Neil Godfrey

Neil is the author of this post. To read more about Neil, see our About page.

Latest posts by Neil Godfrey (see all)

If you enjoyed this post, please consider donating to Vridar. Thanks!

28 thoughts on “Visions that laid a foundation for Christianity?”

  1. “The “only” trouble with this setting as the womb of Christianity is that Paul’s letters, …… themselves testify to being compositions of the 50s.”

    Can you elaborate on this .. please?
    I was under the impression that the only solid chronological marker in ‘genuine’ Paul was the reference to Damascus and Aretas 4 and that even that was controversial [was it Aretas 3 or neither?].

    1. This comes back to the method I have discussed in relation to the Gospels. Self-testimony alone cannot be a guarantor of authenticity. One post (a few years old now) I did on Rosenmeyer’s “Epistolary Fictions” shows that the letter-genre was a popular one for advancing fictions hidden beneath verisimilitude: http://vridar.wordpress.com/category/book-reviews/rosenmeyer-ancient-epistolary-fictions/

      And we know Christians did forge letters in various apostolic names, and that forgery was easy enough in ancient times (again another post I did on this predates Ehrman’s new publication by some years: http://vridar.wordpress.com/2009/07/04/forgery-in-the-ancient-world/ (And it is naivety to work with a default assumption that there are no interpolations in Paul.)

      Then there is my favourite 1904 Schwartz quote that I won’t repeat here.

      And the little problem that the Aretas reference does not quite seem to easily fit other chronological indicators, and you allude to this.

      And the fact that we hear nothing of Paul’s letters until the Marcionite dispute in the second century. So when they first do emerge in the external evidence they are found to conveniently serve as a political football.

      And the topics raised in the letters of Paul are germane to the interests of second century discussions. I have also in earlier posts addressed a few apparent anachronistic words in Paul’s letters that seem to place at least one of the letters in the second century.

      And the first appearance of Paul’s letters in the external evidence coincides with a time when there is a great interest in Paul AND acknowledged forgeries in his name: the Pastoral letters, the Acts of Paul and Thecla, and the Book of Acts (okay, so that last one is not a ‘forgery’ so much as a little Hellenistic novel of sorts).

      So I do not think it is “hyperscepticism” to keep an open mind about a second century provenance for these letters.

      1. I think we are agreeing Neil.

        When I first started looking at Paul I just presumed from the orthodox assertions that abounded that his writings were to be dated around 50 CE roughly.

        Then I realized that the only marker, to my knowledge anyway, that could be used to justify that dating was the controversial Aretas reference.

        So now I don’t know when to date Paul’s writings.

        So when you wrote that his writings testify to the 50s I was wondering what I had missed.
        I believe that there has been some sort of [tenuous?] argument that addressing a letter to people in Corinth is a date marker, Corinth apparently not being inhabited at the time of Aretas 3 in the first century BC and thus Paul must have written after the mid first century BC.
        But that doesn’t help us much.

        There is the reference, as some see it, to the destruction of the temple which would place the date of writing, of those lines at least, to post 70 CE which would offend the traditionalists.

        For me the date of Paul is pretty wide open, anytime from mid first century BCE to mid first century CE when his works start getting referenced by others whose dating is itself pretty nebulous.

          1. You’re right Evan, I meant 2nd C CE [Marcion and all that].
            There were too many “..century CE sentences” up there, I was bound to trip over one.

            Which brings us to the central point of this [which I realize is a digression from Neil’s general post], which is …how do we date the [genuine ???] writings of Paul with any authority?

            Any thoughts?

  2. Supernatural power and authority are conferred upon the one who attains to the vision of the merkabah, and the person functions as God’s emissary and (eschatological?) judge of both Israel and the angels

    This seems familiar:

    1 Cor 6
    1 If any of you has a dispute with another, dare he take it before the ungodly for judgment instead of before the saints?
    2 Do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if you are to judge the world, are you not competent to judge trivial cases?
    3 Do you not know that we will judge angels? How much more the things of this life!

    1. It’s fascinating how so many other things can open up to a new and more coherent understanding once we find a specific context for one core element.

      I am still trying to come to terms with the visionary experiences (as per my previous post), being based on the studies of Isaiah 6 and Ezekiel 1, are directly associated with the visionary “being sent” to deliver the message to his people.

      This ties in with the whole “apostolic” concept, and the heart of the Christian narrative of its origins, with the apostles being sent to preach after a “vision” of Christ that was not part of his earthly life.

  3. Neil, This is very interesting. Thank you for bringing the Morray-Jones article to our attention. But regarding 2 Corinthians 2-9, I would like to offer an alternate interpretation.

    As you note, in a number of places in the epistles Paul claims that his apostleship was due to a vision of Christ he received. However, I don’t think the vision described in 2 Corinthians 2-9 is the same one that made him an apostle. Surely his readers already knew about that life-changing vision. Since Paul relied on it as his accreditation, it must have been something he told his communities about right from the start. In 2 Corinthians 2-9, on the other hand, one gets the sense that Paul is bringing to the attention of his Corinthian brethren something they have not heard about before. He’s letting them in on something new to counterbalance the self-important claims of the superapostles.

    So I think it is not quite accurate to say that Paul introduces the 2 Corinthians 2-9 vision “in order to justify his status as an apostle.” Rather, as I see it, he introduces it to show that he is in no way inferior to the superapostles. This is not the same thing. His enemies could concede he was an apostle, yet still want to relegate him to a status below that of the superapostles.

    But why would Paul bring up the matter of visions unless the superapostles were in some way basing their superiority on it? Here’s one possible scenario that would explain it:
    As I’ve indicated in a couple previous posts, I think that Christianity originated in a vision – the vision of Isaiah (Chapters 6-11 of the Ascension of Isaiah as represented by the Latin and Slavonic versions). In that text Isaiah forbids his hearers from telling anyone about it or writing it down. Yet, lo and behold, an account of the vision apparently turns up around 30 CE. If the Vision of Isaiah is the founding vision of Christianity and if it first surfaced in the hands the superapostles, it is easy to see that Paul would be at a distinct disadvantage. True, the Vision says that the risen Son of God “will send out preachers.” And Paul could claim that the risen Son had appeared to him and sent him out to preach. But the fact would remain that it was the superapostles who had been divinely favored to “rediscover,” by way of a divine revelation, Isaiah’s precious endtime vision.

    Paul would not have been able to plausibly deny that Isaiah’s Vision had come to the attention of the church via the superapostles, not him. Faced with that fact, he did the only thing he could do to avoid relegation to subordinate status: he claimed to have received a comparable vision. Isaiah forbade anyone from telling the vision or writing it down; so Paul too claims in regard to his own revelation that he “heard words that it is not lawful for a man to utter.” In Isaiah’s Vision it is unclear whether Isaiah was in the body or out of it. He is portrayed as standing with his mouth shut but his eyes open. Not to be outdone, Paul too says he is not sure whether he was in the body or out of it when he received his revelation. Thus 2 Corinthians 2-9 may be Paul’s way of saying that he received a revelation that was in no way inferior to the foundational one revealed to the pillars.

    But if the pillars’ vision was the spark behind what became Christianity, how could Paul’s vision have been in any way comparable to it? And if it was, why the secrecy? Instead of this business about “not lawful for a man to utter,” why not come right out and say he received the same vision the pillars did?

    The answer to that depends on who Paul was. As you know, in the early church there was someone who, at least in private, claimed to be more than an apostle of the Son of God. He claimed to be a new manifestation of “the Son who suffered in Judaea.” Remember that in the Vision of Isaiah the Son doesn’t undergo birth and he doesn’t preach, teach, work miracles, exorcise demons, or gather disciples. He suffers. More precisely, he gets crucified. And the assumption would naturally be that the Son’s crucifixion was to take place in Judaea, for that is where the vision supposedly occurred, and Isaiah’s audience – King Hezekiah and a group of prophets – were all Judaeans. So a claim to be “the Son who suffered in Judaea” doesn’t need to have anything to do with the later portrayals of the Son of God that turned up in the four gospels. The claim could just as well have reference to the Son described in the Vision of Isaiah.

    So I cannot help but wonder whether the 2 Corinthians 2-9 words that Paul declined to publicly disclose were the words: “You are my beloved Son.” And, correspondingly, perhaps we are guilty of “seeing but not perceiving, hearing but not understanding” a deeper meaning in Paul’s words “I live now not I, but Christ lives in me.”

    1. There’s a whole area of study that you are opening up here, Roger, that I would like to return to. Ironically, it was in my days as “a believer” that I began to see suggestions in the epistles that “christ having come in the flesh” meant “christ in the believer”. But the heretical shadows that that notion brought in its train forbade my taking it too seriously. (Compare also “Paul” “completing/perfecting the sufferings of Christ in his own body”.) It sounds like you are way ahead of me in this line of thought, though.

      One begins to see how the early narratives of Jesus are a symbolic or projected representation of the motifs associated with the various aspects of these visionary experiences.

  4. In the aftermath of the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, Jews within mystical circles were perpetuating Temple worship by fostering the idea of a surrogate heavenly Temple, developed largely from the visions of Ezekiel that were written following the destruction of the first Temple. Refusing to accept the end of their religious worship in the wake of the destruction of their cult center, they focused on the notion of a spiritual world whose cultic practices now operated on a mystical-ritual praxis.

    On the contrary, I think that Simon Peter and the other mystics who originated Christianity practiced and developed their mystical religion with a contemptuous attitude toward the Jerusalem Temple and its rites, while they still existed. Climbing to the summit of Mount Hermon and praying and meditating toward a personal, divine vision was a much better religious experience than traveling to Jerusalem and donating an animal for sacrifice.

    The disdain that the original, mystical Christians felt toward the Temple and its priesthood was maintained clearly as the mystical religion evolved into the gospel religion.

  5. The “only” trouble with this setting [the aftermath of the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple] as the womb of Christianity is that Paul’s letters, although unknown in other works until the second century, themselves testify to being compositions of the 50s.

    I think that the best evidence that Christianity began as a mystical religion before the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple is The Epistle to the Hebrews and The Revelation. Both those documents include passages that indicate that the Temple still existed and operated.

    A person who thinks that Christianity developed from stories about a real, human Jesus Christ will perceive that those two documents seem to represent an elaborated, abstracted, evolved interpretation of the original, primitive, simple teachings.

    However, Christianity developed in the opposite direction. Christianity began as intellectual mystics interpreting and elaborating mystical visions of an imagined situation in a celestial realm and then evolved into simple, folksy stories that supposedly took place in actual Jewish society.

    From this perspective, The Epistle to the Hebrews and The Revelation closely represent the mentalities of the first, mystical Christians who personally had experienced mystical visions of Jesus Christ as the Chief Priest of the Temple in the celestial realm and who had no concept of a human-like Jesus Christ, a carpenter in Galilee.

    In those two documents, the Temple in Jerusalem seems to be existing and operating and is mentioned as an Earthly counterpart of the Temple in the celestial realm.

  6. Why did Paul speak of a “man in Christ”?

    We should keep in mind that (according to The Ascension of Isaiah) God the Father sent his “son” Jesus Christ down from Heaven’s seventh level to the Firmament for the purpose of experiencing a crucifixion, burial and resurrection. The accomplishment of that mission expressed God the Father’s love for human beings.

    I think that Simon Peter experienced a mystical vision that encapsulated that simple image and concept.

    As Simon Peter taught his own followers how to experience and interpret that vision, then the image and concept gradually elaborated. Eventually the concept involved teachings that Jesus Christ was acting in this drama as a scapegoat who was taking on and taking away the sins of humanity.

    By the time Paul experienced the vision, the drama included the idea that the mystic was merged into Jesus Christ during the crucifixion and burial. The process of merging the human mystic into the crucified Jesus Christ was the mechanism whereby the divine and sinless Jesus Christ received the burden of the human sins. The mystic left the body of Jesus Christ before the resurrection. The mystic watched Jesus Christ ascend into Heaven, and the mystic understood this event as a foretelling of the mystic’s own future ascension.

    Paul was the very last Christian to experience this mystical vision, and by that time the image and concept had been maximally elaborated by the Christian leadership. After Paul, no subsequent mystical visions of this kind were approved as valid by the Christian leadership. The termination of approvals for valid visions was related to James’ decision to join the religion and by James’ immediate promotion into the top leadership.

    Paul’s teachings about the mystical vision were approved by the Church leadership. When he taught that he himself had been crucified in Christ, that particular teaching was approved by Peter, John and James. The disputes revolved around other, mundane issues.

    Paul taught his own followers, who were converted after the deadline for valid visions, that they too were crucified in Jesus Christ, but this teaching for them was only an intellectual understanding, not the mystical drama that Paul himself had experienced. Paul himself had participated in the mystical drama of merging into Jesus Christ on the cross. Paul himself thus had brought human sin to Jesus Christ. Paul’s followers understood Paul’s teaching only as a vicarious experience for themselves. The could only imagine themselves as doing vicariously what Paul had done actually.

  7. Roger Parvus: in a number of places in the epistles Paul claims that his apostleship was due to a vision of Christ he received. However, I don’t think the vision described in 2 Corinthians 2-9 is the same one that made him an apostle.

    When James entered the religion’s leadership, a decision was made that no more mystical visions would be recognized as valid. (Eventually one exception was made: Paul.) By that time, more than 500 people had experienced the vision, and for a coherent religion that was far too large a number of people who could claim they had received direct communication from Jesus Christ.

    Not only was there a termination of all additional visions, but I think there was a purge of many of the 500+ people who had experienced valid visions. Those who had become troublesome were downgraded or discredited. On the other hand, those who were deemed to be reliable and effective were awarded the status of “apostle”, which means they were authorized to teach and preach and to convert new members into the religion.

  8. I think a lot of questions about what early Christianity was like are answered by the Dead Sea Scrolls. If we set aside paleographic and carbon dating (which aren’t certain), the internal evidence plausibly looks like what an early “Christianity” could look like. There are too many coincidences to ignore. “Both” sects refer to themselves as The Way, The New Covenant, The Sons of Light, The Poor, etc., and the biography of the Righteous Teacher is the same as what we know of James. If you want to know what early Christians thought, look at things like the Pesharim, the Damascus Document, the Community Rule and the Temple Scroll. Additionally, the DSS do not suffer from the interpolations or fidelity to Rome that Josephus, the New Testament and rabbinical literature exhibit.

    I was convinced by Eisenman of this over ten years ago and nothing I’ve seen has ever changed my mind. It’s only gotten more convincing, and I’ve never understood anyone’s resistance to the internal evidence. It doesn’t answer every question, but it’s a wonderful place to look, if not the best. You seem to discuss all other relevant pieces of the Jesus puzzle that exist, but not the Scrolls. I’m sure you must have a take on them, but I lament what seems to be an absence of much discussion of them in the study of Christian origins. I’ve read some “kooky” things about the Scrolls, but the idea that the Righteous Teacher was James, the Spouter of Lies was Paul and the Wicked Priest was Ananus is satisfying.

  9. The Scrolls and Christian literature do overlap in places, and they do contain evidence for diversity of Second Temple “Judaism” comparable to other writings such as Enoch. When I did look more closely at the Scrolls a little time back I was not confident that those scrolls that are said to reference James and Paul can securely be dated to the mid first century period.

  10. Awesome information, thanks for this fine post.

    (1) Curiously, Prof. Price seems unaware of being cited by Morray-Jones, see

    http://www.robertmprice.mindvendor.com/theolist.htm#Citations and Discussions of my Work

    (2) You wrote: “Morray-Jones cites Ralph P. Martin and Young when he says ‘three is evidence for an alternative…'”

    According to A. T. Lincoln (Paradise Now and Not Yet, 1981, p. 79), there are only one or two other passages where Paradise is located in the Third Heaven:

    (a) “And those men took me thence, and led me up on to the third heaven, and placed me there” (2 Enoch 8:1).

    (b) “And … the Father of all … stretched out his hand, and took Adam and handed him over to the archangel Michael saying: ‘Lift him up into Paradise unto the third Heaven'” (Apocalypse of Moses 38:4).

  11. Interesting issue. On a few of the blogs I brought up the question. Has anything been demonstrated to show that the pauline letters MUST have been written before all the gospels? While a number of people have responded by “all (or virutally all) scholars think that”, nobody has been able to come up with specific arguments why it must be the case. Or know of others arguments that indicate that it must be the case.

    Could this be a case of prior Church dogma simply have been being accepted and assumed by the religion industry? Or has it been conclusively been demonstrated that the pauline writings MUST have been written before all the gospels?

    Cheers! RichGriese@gmail.com

  12. In response to Evan and Rich above, I don’t always know the appropriate way to respond to questions about the “genuine” letters of Paul. All we have is a group of letters that reflect a similar style and theology, or at least some progression/adaptation of theological thought, and since the style especially is somewhat ‘robust’ or ‘passionate’ in places, it is assumed that these must be the genuine letters of Paul and we therefore know Paul was quite passionate at times.

    It could be, of course, that these really are “the genuine letters of Paul”, but we really have no external anchor for that judgement to hold on to.

    But then the next question is to ask who is this Paul? Are we thinking of the character in Acts? If so, then what are we to make of the fairly obvious neat copy-catting by Paul of Peter’s miracles in the first half of the gospel, and what are we to do with the arguments that see the Paul of Acts as a catholicized creation or representation to bring Paul into line with “orthodoxy”. Until then he had, it seems, been considered more in the camp of the Marcionites and Valentinians. (I am assuming a second century composition of Acts, of course.)

    And then place this image of Paul beside the Paul of the Pastorals and the Paul of the Acts of Paul and Thecla that appeared around the same time. Will the real Paul please stand up?

    There are so many uncertainties about the letters of Paul. That’s why I tend to work with them as an irregular verb. If I am thinking of some model that assumes Paul’s letters are mid first century works, then I see where that goes. If I am thinking of another model that requires them to be second century, then I’ll check that out, too.

    But I won’t be digging in and insisting that they must be one firm date on the understanding that everything else must fall into place around that.

    The evidence simply won’t let us be dogmatic, I don’t think. The important thing is to be able to argue well for whatever position one does work with, and to accept the tentativeness of all arguments anyway.

    (Sometimes it seems others have thought I am trying to be evasive when I won’t let them pin me down to a black and white response to the question about what I “believe” about Paul’s letters. Some seem to need to work in black and white certainties and find it difficult to accept that there are some things we just can’t be certain about and need always to be prepared for some new understanding of the evidence we are working with.)

  13. Dear Neil,

    A few interesting thoughts. Remember that we do not have anything other that small pieces of the texts until around the Chester Beatty Document. This is our earliest really complete set of the texts we have. Now, these documents are from pretty much right around the time of Irenaeus. Now… we know that Irenaeus was very interested in the idea of creating a Church organization. And one of the things he claimed was important in this church organization of his was this concept of apostolic authority. And, it is important to understand that pretty much all the documents we know of in the canon were known and were available to him.

    It seems to me that there is the possibility that someone like Irenaeus could quite easily have used a variety earlier documents as material to build an entire history that he could claim for his flavor of Christianity. It would have been possible for him to change any or all of the documents that he used as material either slightly or to a large extent. Since the church later destroy all the documents of opposing groups we would have no way of know if there was even an accusation of him doing this.

    The question I am particularly on with regard to this line of thought is is it possible to for us to determine if we can determine with certainty if the pauline group documents MUST have been written before the gospel type documents. I am not sure what to conclude depending of if one group is before the other, but it is something worth trying to determine.

    I think in addition, we need to look at Alexandrian Christian which I think was a major alternate flavor of Christianity that Irenaeus was trying to make his flavor more dominant then.

    I get the sense that one of the reasons that Irenaeus group eventual won out is that he made the political decision to align with Roman political leaders that helped make his flavor of Christianity more dominant.

    Cheers! RichGriese@gmail.com

  14. Dear Neil,

    To expand a bit further. It seems to me obvious that characters like Jesus, Paul, and the very early stories contain many legendary elements. So trying to piece together a history from these legendary elements may be impossible.

    But, if we start examining Christianity from a time that things become clearer in history with Irenaeus, Philo, Tertullian, and examine the issue they were trying to put forward we have a better change of actually discovering the historical origins of Christianity.

    Cheers! RichGriese@gmail.com

  15. Hi Rich,

    I don’t know of any reason to think that Irenaeus had the sort of power and influence that your scenario would imply. He was one among many ecclesiastics who argued against a host of others. He argued that there should be a canon of four gospels, and that the “true church” could trace its apostolic genealogy back to Peter and the Twelve in Jerusalem. But this was just one set of claims among others that were also competing for influence, as Irenaeus himself in effect concedes.

    From what I understand I can’t imagine that he’d be in a position to doctor all the texts that became part of our canon. He was only one bishop among many and I don’t think we have reason to think he had any political power over too many others.

  16. Dear Neil,

    My main point is that Irenaeus is a much more historical figure then that legendary Paul & Apostles, and it is only from around his time that we have any surviving texts. He also seems to have had or eventually had friends in the Rome political structure. It is a person or group like him that can be learned about. Also, if you read his _Against Heresies_ we see great amounts of what we call today Church Dogma created. Starting with his writings. This is obviously a historical person and group we can examine. He mentions many alternative Christian groups that we can begin to examine. It is the kind of time period that may yield more actually historical knowledge, than the constant speculation that much of the industry is simply wasting it’s time on.

    While the industry needs to keep it’s faithful supporters happy, and therefore writes mostly about “the big three”; Jesus, Paul, and the gospels. Almost all of it is based on speculation on top of speculation. It is a dog and pony show that may make the faithful happy, but it is not expanding on our understanding of early christianity.

    If you start to follow someone like Stephan Huller’s blog, http://stephanhuller.blogspot.com/, he is at least putting some effort into this time period. He is examining specifically lately groups like the Carpocrations, Clement, and others of this time. When was the last time you heard the religion industry talking about groups like the Carpocrations. Yet, unless he is simply making stuff up whole sale, he seems to describing some actual useful historical information.

    I would like to see others in the religion industry abandon the speculative dog and pony show on speculation on speculation of jesus, paul and completely unhistorical legendary stuff, and put that effort into this later time period which seems to me, as least to hold HOPE of returning some results.

    BTW… as a fantasy… wouldn’t it be great to find a complete copy of the text by Celsus; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Celsus Now THAT would be a really helpful discovery.

    Cheers! RichGriese@gmail.com

  17. Hi Rich, I think there is more to many studies of texts than speculation. I do think the historical Jesus “quest” is flawed from the start, being based on circularity and presumptions of historicity that we do not generally find in other historical studies. And I have noted that a few scholars have recognized this. But there are other studies that I find very informative, especially literary analysis and comparative studies of the theological and philosophical content of the NT literature and contemporary non-Christian literature.

    There’s nothing wrong with studying the period of Irenaeus, too, and I sometimes skirt over into that territory. The reason I don’t focus more on it is because it is clear by that time that Christianity has been developing for some time before then. Irenaeus has inherited something that he has sought to influence and shape, but has not created it, and no-one else in his time has either. It is older than Irenaeus.

    I prefer to focus more on Justin Martyr because he precedes Irenaeus, and is therefore potentially a better indicator of what a pre-Irenaeus Christianity looked like.

    Physical manuscripts are important for dating texts obviously, but there are also reasons for believing that the texts existed well before the time of their earliest surviving physical evidence.

    I can understand you wanting to begin working with stuff that is clear cut and certain, but I don’t think that will ever be possible for this period of Christianity. How sure can we be that the texts we have by Irenaeus are still their original words according to Irenaeus? How much confidence can we have in what he says about other groups?

    By starting and staying with the “clear cut” evidence, how can we be sure we are not allowing ourselves to limit our investigation to the questions the “victors in history” would want us to investigate?


  18. Dear Neil,

    Ah yes Justin. I at one point thought that he might be a key. But as I looked into him, I saw him as erratic and unreliable. He seemed to me to be a crazy person, with a complete death wish. While I am not saying tat I would call Irenaeus “sane”, but I see him as more stable. Also, I think that Irenaeus also takes us more into the intellectual circles, at the stage that Christianity we becoming more planned out. While I see Justin as more of a out of control renegade, I see Irenaeus as a planning intellectual that wished to moved Christianity into the main stream.

    But yes, I think Justin can be a very useful character, and I don’t mean to discount him, and/or fixate on Irenaeus specifically. Both Justin and Irenaeus, I think hold much potential.

    RE analysis of texts. Yeah, again, I think that is great stuff. especially any kind of computerized analysis we can do on them.

    Yes, I agree that Christianity had been developing by Irenaeus time, but it seems to be only with Irenaeus time that we begin to get into historical reality. Even characters like Marcion I think have become legendary to some extent. To some a legendary hero, and to others a legendary villain. But he is a Robin Hood or King author type figure.

    Plus, Irenaeus _Against Heresies_ gives us some good historical data to pursue. The other groups he talks about, his and Tertullian’s references to Celsus potentially tell us a great deal about the relationship between his Christian group, other christian groups, neo-platonic groups, and non-christian opponents. I just think there is a potential gold mine of information.

    I guess in one respect I think that before we can learn about the earliest legendary times, we will first need to learn about and understand the “fathers” time.

    Yet, I guess overall, I am interesting in discovering and learning the history. I see too many people in the history as working very hard to maintain legends, and as Stephan Huller would say “keep a tidy house”.

    Cheers! RichGriese@gmail.com

    1. If I understand you correctly, I think you are looking for the sort of data that consists of names and movements and specific events etc to map out a clear narrative of who did what, etc. Something not unlike the current story that has certain disciples doing certain things in this and that place and time, etc. But the evidence of Irenaeus doesn’t tell us how Christianity began. There are histories that do look at the emergence of the orthodox church and that discuss the role of Irenaeus, but that’s a different topic from the one I’m focussing on.

      In ancient history it is often not possible to write a history with that sort of detail. The evidence available obliges us to fall back on being content with trying to understand more general developments, relationships among and growth of ideas etc.

      Sometimes we might speculate about James, Paul, Simon Magus, etc, but I don’t think any of that can be anything more than just speculation. The history of Christian origins will not be so specific.

  19. Dear Neil,

    I guess my near term project is to try to break from say 30-300 in generations. To identify the major player/s in Christian history into those generations, and then see if I can identify major changes or evolutions of ideas in each of the transitions. If nothing else I’ll learn a bit more about the subject.

    But, I think it is not so much specific names/dates that I am interested in, but the changes that took place in each of the generations.

    Cheers! RichGriese@gmail.com

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Discover more from Vridar

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading