Heavenly Visions: the foundation of Paul’s Christianity

Creative Commons License

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

by Neil Godfrey

The Ladder of Divine Ascent is an important ic...
Ladder of Divine Ascent: Image via Wikipedia

The New Testament epistles inform us that the original Gospel was a revelation from God. That means it did not originate by means of spoken tradition relayed from historical events, by word of mouth, from eyewitness or preacher to others. Rather, one might almost say that the medium itself was the message: the revelation or vision was, in a significant sense, the Gospel and conversion experience.

Thus Paul — thought by some scholars to be the real founder of Christianity — says that he was not taught the Gospel by men. “In Galatians 1, Paul claims that he did not receive the gospel from a human source. . . . In Galatians Paul speaks of his conversion as a revelation (apocalypse [1:12])” (Segal, 1990: 35, 36)

I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ. . . . But when God, who set me apart from my mother’s womb and called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son in me so that I might preach him among the Gentiles, my immediate response was not to consult any human being. (Galatians 1:12, 16)

Later we read in the final chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans the same thought:

. . . . my gospel, the message I proclaim about Jesus Christ, in keeping with the revelation of the mystery hidden for long ages past, but now revealed and made known through the prophetic writings by the command of the eternal God . . .  (Romans 16:25-26)

In another epistle we read that the mystery of Christ was revealed by the Spirit to the apostles and prophets:

. . . . if indeed you have heard of the dispensation of the grace of God which was given to me for you,  how that by revelation He made known to me the mystery (as I have briefly written already, by which, when you read, you may understand my knowledge in the mystery of Christ), which in other ages was not made known to the sons of men, as it has now been revealed by the Spirit to His holy apostles and prophets . . . (Ephesians 3:2-5)

And in Titus we read  more of the same:

. . . . eternal life which God, who cannot lie, promised before time began, but has in due time manifested His word through preaching, which was committed to me according to the commandment of God our Savior (Titus 1:2-3)

Colossians likewise explains that God’s ages-old secret has been revealed for the first time through Paul’s gospel (Doherty, 2009: 39):

the mystery of Christ, namely Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge (Col. 2:2)

the mystery which has been hidden from ages and from generations, but now has been revealed to His saints. . . . which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. (Col. 1:26-27)

Paul, like Enoch, a sky traveler

Alan F. Segal, in Paul the Convert, explains Paul’s understanding of his own conversion experience:

Paul describes his own spiritual experiences in terms appropriate to a Jewish apocalyptic-mystagogue of the first century. He, like Enoch, relates his experiences of heavenly travel, in which he sees the secrets of the universe revealed. He believes his salvation to lie in a body-to-body identification with his heavenly savior [see Galatians 2:2 above], who sits on the divine throne and functions as God’s glorious manifestation. (p. 35)

It might be interesting to reflect on the implications of this against the place of “uranography” or “astronomics” in the ancient world as discussed in my previous post about the genre of the book of Revelation.

Paul claims that he did not receive his gospels from a human source (see Galatians 1:12 above).

Paul called his experience of receiving the gospel an apocalypse, or a revelation.

I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation (ἀποκαλύψεως apokalupseōs) from Jesus Christ

Paul left us a description of one of his visions in 2 Corinthians 12:1-9:

It is doubtless not profitable for me to boast. I will come to visions and revelations of the Lord: I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago—whether in the body I do not know, or whether out of the body I do not know, God knows—such a one was caught up to the third heaven. And I know such a man—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows— how he was caught up into Paradise and heard inexpressible words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter. Of such a one I will boast; yet of myself I will not boast, except in my infirmities. For though I might desire to boast, I will not be a fool; for I will speak the truth. But I refrain, lest anyone should think of me above what he sees me to be or hears from me. And lest I should be exalted above measure by the abundance of the revelations, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, a messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I be exalted above measure. Concerning this thing I pleaded with the Lord three times that it might depart from me. And He said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.

This should be read alongside Moray-Jones’ explanation of how precisely this description fits the mystical visionary experiences found in other literature such as the Ascension of Isaiah and the book of Enoch. I have posted on this in Visions that lay a foundation for Christianity. This post is a continuation of the theme begun there.

Segal supports this:

One important meeting, possibly but not necessarily the first one, took place in a heavenly ascent to the enthroned presence of Christ. Paul’s claim is not strange or ridiculous for a first-century Jew, since this experience parallels ecstatic ascents to the divine throne in other apocalyptic and merkabah mystical traditions in Jewish Hellenism. (p. 36)

(Segal suggests that it is possible (though it cannot be certain) that Paul in the above 2 Corinthians passage is explaining his original conversion experience. He says there that this particular vision occurred 14 years earlier, and in Galatians he indicates that he visited Jerusalem 14 years after the period of his conversion. 2 Corinthians is recognized as being a composite letter, so we cannot know when the various parts of it were composed.)

Segal explores this further in relation to other visionary-ascent literature, and writes:

Like Enoch, Paul claims to have gazed on the Glory, whom Paul identifies as Christ; Paul understands that he has been transformed into a divine state, which will be fully realized after his death; Paul claims that his vision and transformation is somehow a mystical identification; and Paul claims to have received a calling, his special status as intermediary. Paul specifies the meaning of this calling for all believers, a concept absent in the Enochian texts, although it may have been assumed in the original community. (p. 47)

As explained in my earlier Visions that lay a foundation (linked above) and related posts, one of the consequences of the vision experience was a transformation of the visionary into the glory or the divine nature of the one being seen. Paul describes this transformation experience, and indicates he was not the only Christian to have experienced it in 2 Corinthians 3:18-4:6.

Greater than the experience of Moses

Here he teaches that the Christian’s visionary experience, and its transformative consequences, are greater than the visions and resulting glory experienced by Moses:

 3:18 But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as by the Spirit of the Lord.

2 Corinthians 4

1 Therefore, since we have this ministry, as we have received mercy, we do not lose heart. 2 But we have renounced the hidden things of shame, not walking in craftiness nor handling the word of God deceitfully, but by manifestation of the truth commending ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God. 3 But even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing, 4 whose minds the god of this age has blinded, who do not believe, lest the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God, should shine on them. 5 For we do not preach ourselves, but Christ Jesus the Lord, and ourselves your bondservants for Jesus’ sake. 6 For it is the God who commanded light to shine out of darkness, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.

Paul often talks of the transformation of believers into the image of Christ: Rom. 8:29; 2 Cor. 3:18; Phil. 3:21; 1 Cor. 15:49; cf Col. 3:9.

Paul explicitly compares Moses’ experience with his own and that of Christian believers. The experiences are similar, but the Christian transformation is greater and more permanent. . . . His point is that some Christian believers also make such an ascent and that its effects are more permanent than the vision Moses received. The church has witnessed a theophany as important as the one vouchsafed to Moses, but the Christian theophany is greater still, as Paul himself has experienced. The Corinthians are said to be a message from Christ (3:2), who is equated with the Glory of God. The new community of gentiles is not a letter written on stone (Jer. 31:33), but it is delivered by Paul as Moses delivered the Torah to Israel. The new dispensation is more splendid than the last, not needing the veil with which Moses hid his face. Paul’s own experience proved to him and for Christianity that all will be transformed. . . . .

The result of the journey is the identification of CHrist as the Glory of God. What Paul says that he preaches that Jesus is Lord and that God “has let this light shine out of darkness into our hearts to give the light of knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ: (4:6), he is describing his own conversion and ministry . . . . (pp. 60-1)

Paul describes his ministry as a prophetic calling. Like the prophets he was called through a visionary experience. As was typically believed of such experiences, he believed he became transformed into the image of the one he saw in the vision.

The role of baptism

In Galatians 1:16 (quoted above) Paul speaks of God revealing his Son “in him”. Segal explains,

Being in Christ in fact appears to mean being united with Christ’s heavenly image. The same, however, is available to all Christians through baptism. (p. 64)

Segal informs us that mystical and apocalyptic Judaism also practiced the ritual of baptism as the central purifying ritual prior to experiencing a visionary ascent into God’s presence. (They never taught me that in any of the church’s I ever attended.)

Dying and being resurrected along with Christ in baptism is the beginning of the process by which the believer gains the same image of God, his eikon, which was made known to humanity when Jesus became the son of man — the human figure in heaven who brings judgment in the apocalypse described in Daniel.

Here I am reminded of the Gospel narrative of Jesus’ baptism. It was followed by the heavens opening and God’s voice being heard by Jesus, and the spirit of the Christ entering into Jesus — the glory of God entering (and “transforming”?) him.

For all believers, a bodily conversion

In Romans 8:29 Paul speaks of God fore-ordaining his elect to be “conformed to the image of his Son”.

But when Paul states that believers conform to the image of God’s son, he is not speaking of an agreement of mind or ideas between Jesus and the believers. The word symmorphe itself suggests a spiritual reformation of the believer’s body into the form of the divine image. Paul’s language for conversion — being in Christ — develops out of mystical Judaism. (p. 64)

There is much more, and these snippets will for many spark associations with other passages in the New Testament epistles.

Segal never questions the historicity of Jesus, but I suggest his argument would have been even more cogent had he done so.

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!

16 thoughts on “Heavenly Visions: the foundation of Paul’s Christianity”

  1. Two thoughts crossed my mind while composing this post, but that I forgot to include:

    1. I wonder if this vision experience that involved being changed into the image of the one seen in the vision is related to the various early Christian texts (e.g. Gospel of Thomas) teaching that women must become men to enter the kingdom of God. Presumably there was no vision of Christ as a woman. Would such a vision background explain both teachings existing side by side: there are no men and no women, but all are one in Christ, and that women must become men?

    2. The Gospel of Mark begins with a baptism followed by Jesus experiencing God tearing apart the heavens to speak to him and send his spirit. We have the conclusion of the Gospel with a man in white baptismal robe — after Jesus had just undergone his “baptism” of death and burial. But there is no vision of Christ afterwards. This failure to see the resurrected (heavenly/spiritual?) Christ may take on special esoteric signficance for the early Christian audience if they were all taught to expect that the vision must follow the baptism — since the whole purpose of baptism was a purification ritual to prepare one for that vision.

    1. Regarding Gospel of Thomas, Bentley Layton offers a translation of Saying 114 from Gospel of Thomas in his The Gnostic Scriptures (p. 399) that uses terms “female” and “male” instead of “woman” or “man”.
      A footnote reads — “female (element) . . . male”: it was a philosophical cliché that the material constituent of an entity was “female,” while its form (or ideal form) was “male.”

        1. You’re welcome. I’d be curious how you and others make sense of all this, Neil. A few more thoughts:

          In Galatians 3:28, “no male or female” could relate to social distinctions. But what does all are “one in Christ” mean? How or why would they all be one or accepted in a social context? How does this transformation specifically happen?

          In Galatians 3:27 those baptized put on or were clothed with Christ. I don’t think this refers to putting on matter. It could be referring to taking on form, as mentioned in your post. (Modern feminists might not prefer to refer to form as “male”, if Bentley Layton’s footnote mentioned above has any bearing, but we are constrained often by symbolic language within cultural contexts even describing something possibly beyond these kinds of limits.)

          So, when Segal says:

          “But when Paul states that believers conform to the image of God’s son, he is not speaking of an agreement of mind or ideas between Jesus and the believers. The word symmorphe itself suggests a spiritual reformation of the believer’s body into the form of the divine image. Paul’s language for conversion — being in Christ — develops out of mystical Judaism. (p. 64)”

          … this “form” does not seem to refer to Platonic Form so much as something more like an Aristotelian form?

          In any case, an actual material Jesus would not seem necessary for this process. Christ would provide form, not matter. Even with Aristotle, form is not matter. Perhaps someone adept in philosophical matters could explain better.

          1. Paul also speaks of the inner man being renewed day by day. The convert is being literally transformed bodily into a spirit, though this won’t be fully realized till the resurrection. The believer has glimpsed what she will become — has even been momentarily changed — when in the presence (in vision) of the Glory (human-form?) of God. But that won’t be a permanent state till the resurrection. This is my understanding, but I will need to refresh my reading of Segal to be sure it is consistent with what he actually wrote.

            There is another view, not completely unrelated, that Paul is also adapting Stoicism’s concepts. The conversion happens when one is identified with the Christ (Reason/Logos), but one still must live out the rest of this life in the flesh. Nonetheless, all converts are now members of a new society and their old self-centred selves are replaced by a Christ-community self-identification. http://vridar.wordpress.com/2009/11/08/christian-conversion-an-idea-crafted-by-paul-from-ancient-philosophy/

            I agree with you when you say that an actual material Jesus is not necessary for this process. In fact, a material or historical Jesus is quite irrelevant to it. Segal tries to salvage a role for this historical Jesus by saying that the Jewish mysticism of Paul was “informed” or “refined” by his awareness of the “historical Jesus” event, but that’s when he seems to be to be diluting an otherwise very cogent argument that only makes sense within the context of a fully heavenly or spiritual Christ who is the Glory of the God. (The Son of Man image itself is derived from the heavenly Son of Man in Daniel and not from any Jesus saying on earth. Not that Paul uses this expression, but the idea of the Heavenly Man does underly Jewish mysticism and appears in other related visions, such as those of Enoch.)

  2. I am interested in the question of whether the fact of Paul’s vision of Jesus Christ was accepted by the Christian leadership.

    Furthermore, I wonder whether Paul even informed the leadership about his vision? In Galatians 1:15-19 Paul wrote that after he experienced his vision, he did not tell anyone, and then three years passed and then he visited Jerusalem for fifteen days during which he met with the apostles Peter and James. Readers of this passage naturally assume that Paul must have reported his vision belatedly to Peter and James on that occasion, but the passage does not confirm that assumption. Indeed, since Paul had not told anybody about his vision for three years, the best assumption might be that he did not tell anybody likewise during those fifteen days.

    Paul claimed further in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8 that he was the last person to experience a vision of Jesus Christ. I interpret that passage to mean that the Christian leadership validated a few more than 500 such visions and then stopped validating any more after James experienced a vision and joined the leadership. Then this termination of visions was confirmed in a final vision shared by a special group that was titled the “apostles”.

    Paul’s own admission that he did not tell anybody at all about his vision for at least three years discredits his claim that his own belated vision was accepted as valid by the Church leadership. Furthermore, he himself must have recognized the futility of even trying to argue to Peter and James that his late vision should be accepted as a single exception to a general rule that the visions of Jesus Christ had ended. Therefore, Paul would have been prudent if he had refrained from even mentioning his own alleged, belated vision to Peter and James.

    In his letters, Paul did not indicate that new converts might themselves experience visions of Jesus Christ. Therefore it seems to me that he agreed with the Christian leadership’s rule that such visions had ended. Paul claimed that his own vision was the very last valid vision, but his claim was not necessarily approved or even known by the Christian leadership.

    Another question about Paul’s vision is whether his vision conformed to other characteristics of the vision experiences that were shared by the other first Christians. Aside from the disqualifying problem that Paul’s vision happened too late, did Paul’s vision experience otherwise qualify as a vision experience that would have been validated by the Christian leadership? Or was his vision experience odd and unqualified in various of its features?

    Paul’s passage in 1 Corinthians indicates that there were two distinct periods when visions were validated. There was a period when the visions were experienced by Cephas and then by “the twelve”. Then afterwards there was a period when the visions were experienced by more than five hundred. Then James experienced the vision and joined the leadership, and that was the end of all new visions (“the apostles” experienced a last, repeated vision that apparently confirmed the end of all new visions).

    My explanation is that the first visions (Cephas and the twelve) required a climb to the summit of Mount Hermon. This difficult physical requirement eventually was waived and was replaced by another, physically easier procedure, and therefore the pace of validated visions increased significantly. Indeed, too many visions were validated too quickly, so that the new leader James convinced the Christian leadership to decided to terminate further validations of visions.

    I speculate that the physically easier procedure during the second period was a baptism in the Jordan River, perhaps at the foot of Mount Hermon. The gospel stories of the baptism of Jesus Christ indicate that the baptised person might experience a mystical vision of divine phenomena in the sky — the heavens opened, the Holy Spirit flew down like a dove, God the Father’s voice declared the presence of Jesus Christ as his beloved son. In other words, instead of having to climb to the summit of Mount Hermon, a new convert could experience essentially the same vision if he stood in the right place in the Jordan River and was baptized by a Christian baptizer.

    We can assume that Paul was baptized, because he preached the practice to his own followers, but his own vision experience apparently was a solitary experience, during which no other person was present. After all, he himself admits he did not tell anyone else about his vision for at least three years. This admission indicates that he did not experience his vision while he was being baptized by a baptizer. Indeed, according to Acts, he experienced his own vison while he was traveling on a road, accompanied by a group of people who all were opponents of Chrisitanity.

  3. Is it safe to rely on what we read in Galatians about Paul’s visit to the Jerusalem leaders, and the passage in 1 Corinthians 15:3-11, as authentic to Paul? Doubts have been raised about both. Paul became such a political football with many different groups presenting their own biographies of him.

    1. 3.Is it safe to rely on what we read in Galatians about Paul’s visit to the Jerusalem leaders, and the passage in 1 Corinthians 15:3-11, as authentic to Paul?

      We all are speculating about all of this. At some point, each of us has to decide that some early texts are authentic. At some point, the real history begins.

      You, Neil, have convinced me that wealthy, honest, truth-seeker Marcion assembled real writings of Paul that served as a basis for Marcion’s own Christian teachings. (Maybe that conclusion was not your intention, but that is the lesson I took from all your articles about Marcion.) Marcion was a rich, careful person who was able to acquire some authentic documents.

      Therefore, I base my own opinions on an assumption that at least some of the letters attributed to Paul indeed were written, as we know them, by the historical Paul. I think that Marcion and his idealistic followers preserved those texts in their original content. And I would include Galatians and 1 Corinthians in that collection.

  4. It seems to me that when the first Christians experienced their mystical vision, the essential element was that they saw Jesus Christ and heard God the Father declare from above that Jesus Christ was his beloved son. This same element happens in the story of the Transfiguration and in the stories of the baptism of Jesus Christ.

    A main idea of the story of The Ascension of Isaiah is that God the Father send his son Jesus Christ down from Heaven’s seventh level to the Firmament, where Jesus Christ then went through a crucifixion, burial and resurrection in order to demonstrate God the Father’s love for beings on the lower levels.

    The first Christians — Peter and the Twelve — climbed to the summit of Mount Hermon, from where they somehow perceived that crucifixion, burial and resurrection happening on the Firmament. In accordance with The Vision of Isaiah, the lesson of the vision was that the mystical experience was that God the Father had sent down his beloved son to demonstrate God the Father’s love for the lower beings. Therefore, the vision apparently included God the Father’s declaration from above, explaining the mystical vision’s meaning.

    The story of the Transfiguation preserves the memory of the first period, when the very first Christians (Peter and the Twelve) climbed to the summit of Mount Hermon. The stories of the baptism of Jesus Christ preserve the memory of the second period, when the following Christians were baptized in the Jordan River, perhaps at the foot of Mount Hermon. All these stories include the element where God the Father declares the presence of his beloved son Jesus Christ who has descended to demonstrate God the Father’s love for humanity.

    According to Acts, Paul’s vision lacked that element. Instead, Jesus Christ himself addressed Paul (“Why do you persecute me? I am Jesus. Arise and go to the city.”) Paul did not hear the voice of God the Father.

    In Paul’s own letters, Paul emphasized another concept about the role of Jesus Christ in the vision. Instead of the original concept that Jesus Christ descended to demonstrate God the Father’s love, Paul emphasized a concept that Jesus Christ was merged mystically with Christians who had experienced the vision personally or who believed in the vision vicariously, based on the reports of the original Christians.

    According to Paul, the divine Jesus Christ and the human Christian believer were merged mystically in the vision of Jesus Christ being crucified. We were crucified in Christ — or Christ was crucified in us — or something like that.

    The original emphasis of the story is different from Paul’s emphasis.

    The original emphasis was that Jesus Christ represented God the Father — Jesus Christ descended to demonstrate God the Father’s love.

    Paul’s emphasis was that Jesus Christ represented human Christians — Jesus Christ descended so that he could merge mystically with human Christians during the crucifixion. Through this merging with himself, Jesus Christ demonstrated to God the Father that human Christians should receive divine mercy from God the Father.

    In Paul’s vision, the communication was between Paul and Jesus. There was no communication from God the Father to Paul, informing Paul about Jesus Christ. The only communication was from Jesus Christ, informing Paul about Jesus Christ and about Paul’s relationship to Jesus Christ. (Why do you persecute me. I am Jesus. Go to the city.) In Paul’s vision, Jesus Christ was a mercy-petitioning, divine-human-merging intermediary between Christian humans and God the Father, rather than being God the Father’s demonstration of love to human Christians.

    As a late-comer to Christianity, Paul was more in tune with the later generation of Christians that no longer was allowed to experience valid mystical visions of Jesus Christ. This later generation began to write gospel stories about Jesus Christ descending from the Firmament to Earth and compassionately healing the blindness and other infirmaties of stragglers on the road through Bethsaida to Mount Hermon. Paul wrote letters arguing that the Jesus Christ who was crucified on the Firmament was merged mystically with Christian humans who themselves had not seen that crucifixion. In other words, Paul was in tune with a new generation that emphasized direct communication, direct interaction between Jesus Christ and human beings on Earth.

    1. “It seems to me that when the first Christians experienced their mystical vision” — why is it to be taken for granted that they actually saw a vision as opposed to made one up?

      “In other words, Paul was in tune with a new generation that emphasized direct communication, direct interaction between Jesus Christ and human beings on Earth.” WRONG. Paul never says anyone else will be granted such a vision. The vision is for Paul alone, and is why (in Paul’s view) everyone must listen to him or be “fallen from grace.” Anyone who teaches a gospel at all different from Paul’s is to be accursed (according to Paul) and if others also saw visions, their gospel would of necessity differ from his. This is why he also includes angels when he says “if even an angel from heaven preaches any other gospel, let him be accursed.” Paul is not teaching that humanity is going to get to have direct communication with Jesus via visions. Nor did Paul himself have a vision. Paul is like the televangelists who claim that God spoke to them or laid the message on their hearts that if you give them your money you will prosper. He was a charlatan using a false claim of having seen a vision to gain control over people’s lives and finances.

  5. What I do not yet understand is how to reconcile the language of mysticism in relation Paul’s converts with his inference that his mystical visionary experience was something very unique to him (or certainly not experienced by everybody). He speaks of the conversion experiences of his converts in terms that cohere with the transformation of those who experience the sorts of visions he experienced, yet speaks of his visions as if they are not shared by everyone.

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