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)
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 . . . “
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”.
(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.
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