This post revises a hypothesis I proposed a few years ago in the Vridar series “A Simonian Origin for Christianity.” In those posts I argued for a scenario in which Paul was in reality Simon of Samaria, and the seven allegedly authentic Pauline letters were in fact letters of Simon that, in the early second century CE, received a makeover by some proto-orthodox Christians. By means of certain additions and modifications to the letters these people in effect co-opted Simon’s work and turned him into a proto-orthodox Paul. I argued too that the gospel message embraced by the author of the original letters was some form of the Vision of Isaiah (chapters 6-11 of the Ascension of Isaiah).
I had misgivings about the hypothesis even before I finished the series, but two years of mulling it over has left me even less enamoured. I am still quite convinced that the Vision of Isaiah is the correct background for several key passages: 1 Cor. 2:6-9; Phil. 2:6-11; 2 Cor. 12:1-10. I have come to doubt, however, that these passages belong to the earliest parts of the letter collection. My changed understanding of 2 Cor. 12:1-10 in particular has led me to think it more plausible that the bulk of the letters was composed not by Simon but by later followers of his who converted to Christianity sometime between 70 and 135 CE. In my revised scenario Paul, not Simon, is the author of the original letters; and the bulk of the additional material — material that turned letters into epistles — was likely composed by a circle of Saturnilians, a community founded by the ex-Simonian Saturnilus of Antioch. Proto-orthodox input consisted of some final sanitizing touch-ups.
This revised scenario bears a definite resemblance to that of the biblical scholar Alfred Loisy (1857-1940) and I acknowledge that a re-reading of his later writings has contributed to my change of heart. Loisy held that only a kernel of the seven allegedly authentic Paulines really went back to Paul, and that the rest consisted largely of stitched-together late first, early second-century materials. He characterized many of these materials as gnostic but preMarcionite. Where I go further than Loisy is in recognizing the role of the Vision of Isaiah in the letters, and in proposing a specific provenance for their incipient gnosticism: Saturnilian Christianity.
Before I explain this revised scenario in more detail I should first review the Pauline texts that show, in my opinion, that their author knew the Vision of Isaiah. It is clear, in general, that the Vision would be a congenial text for Paul’s congregations, for Isaiah is described as receiving his revelation in the midst of a gathering of forty prophets. They look to him for guidance and
And they had come to greet him, and to hear what he said. And they hoped he would lay his hands on them and that they might prophesy and he would listen to their prophecy (Asc. Is. 6: 4-5)
While this was going on
they all heard a door opened and the voice of the Holy Spirit (Asc. Is. 6:6)
Now recall the passages on pneumatic gifts in 1 Corinthians where Paul gives guidance and encouragement to his Spirit-filled congregation regarding the gifts of the Spirit and especially prophecy. In the church at Corinth we are again among a gathering of Spirit enthusiasts. But apart from this general affinity there are three texts in particular in which the Vision of Isaiah shows through.
(One last preliminary: Please note that when I refer to the Vision in this post I am also including the so-called “pocket gospel” as part of it. It is found at 11:2-23 of the Ethiopic [E] and first Latin [L1] versions of the Ascension of Isaiah. For reasons that will become clear as we go along I am willing to accept that it was part of the text that the Pauline interpolators knew.)
1 Corinthians 2: 6-9:
6 We speak wisdom among the perfect, but wisdom not of this world, nor of the rulers of this world, who are coming to nought. 7 But we speak God’s wisdom in a mystery, that hidden wisdom which God decreed before the ages for our glory. 8 None of the rulers of this world understood this, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. 9 But, as it is written, ‘What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor has it entered into the heart of man, what God has prepared for those who love him.’
Notice first the similarity in motif between the Vision’s prophecy that the rulers of this world will crucify the Son “not knowing who he is” (Asc. Is. 9:14) and the statement in the passage above (verse 8) that the rulers of this world, in crucifying the Lord of glory, acted out of ignorance. Notice next the context of the Corinthians passage. It is part of a larger section (1 Cor. 1:18-2:16) in which its author is discussing the difference between God’s wisdom and the wisdom of this world. This context has verbal affinities with the context of Isaiah’s Vision. Immediately before the account of Isaiah’s ascent to “a world which is hidden from the flesh” we are told that “the wisdom of this world” was taken from him:
And the vision which he saw was not from this world, but from the world which is hidden from the flesh. And after Isaiah had seen the vision he recounted it to Hezekiah, and to Josab his son, and to the other prophets who had come ״ but the people did not hear, for Micah and Josab his son had sent them out when the wisdom of this world was taken from him as if he were dead.” (Asc. Is. 6:15-17)
In Isaiah’s Vision the “wisdom of this world” seems to refer to his human mind: “… his mind was taken up from him” (Asc. Is. 6:10); “… the mind in his body was taken up from him” (Asc. Is. 6:11). In Corinthians too the phrase appears to be related to mind, for the discussion ends with the words “but we have the mind of Christ” (1 Cor. 2:16).
Notice next that in verse 8 of the Corinthians passage Paul uses an expression for Christ that he uses nowhere else in the entire Pauline corpus: Christ is “the Lord of Glory.” In the Vision of Isaiah the Son is called ‘Beloved’ and ‘Lord,’ throughout but it is his glory that is especially emphasized. He is one “whose glory surpassed that of all, and his glory was great and wonderful” (Asc. Is. 9:27). When the angels in the firmament realize their mistake the first words they utter are:
“How did our Lord descend upon us, and we did not notice the glory which was upon him, which we (now) see was upon him from the sixth heaven?” (Asc. Is. 11:24)
The Father tells the Beloved:
“Afterwards you shall not be transformed in each of the heavens, but in great glory you shall ascend and sit at my right hand. And then the princes and the powers and all the angels and all the rulers of heaven and earth and hell will worship you.” (Asc. Is. 10:1415).
Finally, notice how in verse 9 of the Corinthians passage the following words are quoted as Scripture:
But, as it is written, ‘What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor has it entered into the heart of man, what God has prepared for those who love him.’
It is sometimes claimed that Paul was here quoting Isaiah 64:4 (“No one has heard or perceived by the ear, no eye has seen a God besides you who acts on behalf of those who wait for him”), but that has proved to be a hard sell. There are four obvious differences between the verses: (1) Is. 64:4 has the order of the hearing and seeing inverted; (2) it is missing the words “nor has it entered into the heart of man;” (3) its object is God himself, not the things he has prepared, and (4) it has those who “wait” for God—not those who “love” him—as the recipients.
Thus, many scholars admit that they cannot positively identify the source that is quoted in 1 Cor. 2:9. It “cannot be found either in the Old Testament or in Jewish canonical writings” (1 Corinthians, H. Conzelmann, p. 63). The verse does, however, match up nicely with 11:34 of the second Latin [L2] and Slavonic [S] versions of the Vision of Isaiah:
This angel said to me, “Isaiah, son of Amoz, it is enough for you, for these are great things, for you have observed what no one born of flesh has observed. What eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor has it entered into the heart of man, how great things God has prepared for those who love him” (Asc. Is. 11:34).
5 Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus, 6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being made in the likeness of men. 8 And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself becoming obedient unto death, even death on a cross. 9 Therefore God also highly exalted him, and gave him the name which is above every name, 10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven, on earth, and under the earth; 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
This passage is considered by many to be a hymn or poem but, since there is no agreement about how the strophes should be arranged, I have left it in prose form. From comparison of it with the Vision of Isaiah it is immediately obvious that they share the motif of Christ’s descent, crucifixion, and return to heaven. In both texts Christ is a pre-existent heavenly being. In Philippians he is in the form of God but not completely equal to God; in the Vision, even before he accomplishes his commission, he receives the worship of all the righteous and angels of the seventh heaven but here too he is not completely equal to God. In both texts he is obedient; in Philippians “becoming obedient unto death, even death on a cross,” while in the Vision he obeys the Fathers “command” (Asc. Is. 10:16) to “Go out and descend through all the heavens…” (Asc. Is. 10:7) even though that will entail crucifixion (Asc. Is. 9:14; 11:20).
In both writings “form” plays a part. In the poem Christ swaps the “form” (Phil. 2:6) of God for the “form” (Phil. 2:7) of a slave. In the Vision he takes on consecutively the form of the inhabitants of the lower five heavens. For example, Asc. Is. 10:20: “… in the fifth heaven he made his form like that of the angels there, and they did not praise him, for his form was like theirs.” Ultimately he takes a human form like Isaiah’s: “become like you in form” (Asc. Is. 9:13). Among other shared vocabulary are he words “likeness” and “appearance.” In the poem the Son “was made in the likeness of men” and “found in appearance as a man” (Phil. 2:7-8). According to the Vision the Son will be “transformed until he resembles your [Isaiah’s] appearance and your likeness” (Asc. Is. 8:10). He will be “like a son of man” (Asc. Is. 11:1, in S and L2).
Because of this language of form, likeness, appearance and resemblance both texts give rise to a suspicion of docetism. In the Philippians hymn, “The veil of unreality is cast over his earthly life by phrases that seem to suggest that he was not really human” (F.C. Porter, The Mind of Christ in Paul, p. 210). Similarly, the Vision’s statement that people “will think that he is flesh and a man” (Asc. Is. 9:13) seems to imply that the Son didn’t actually become flesh and a man. A really human baby doesn’t suckle just to keep up appearances but, according to the Vision, that is what baby Jesus did: “…he sucked the breast, as was customary, that he might not be recognized” (Asc. Is. 11:17).
Finally there is similarity in the treatment of the exaltation of Christ. In both texts he is exalted even higher than he was before and receives worship from the inhabitants of all three parts of the universe. The Philippians poem says every knee “in heaven, on earth, and under the earth” will bow in worship to him. And every tongue will confess that he is Lord. The Vision says that “the princes and the powers and all the angels and all the rulers of heaven and earth and hell will worship you” (Asc. Is. 10:16). Both texts also make reference to a new name for the Son. In Philippians it is a name which is above every name. In the Vision Isaiah is told that “…you cannot hear his name until you have come up from this body” (Asc. Is. 9:5). According to M.A. Knibb this is “apparently a reference to a secret name of Jesus.” (“Martyrdom and Ascension of Isaiah: A New Translation and Introduction,” in The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, edited by J.H. Charlesworth, note g, p. 170)
It seems to me, then, that the many points of contact between the two texts render plausible the possibility that the Philippians poem was composed with the Vision of Isaiah in view. It is true that the poem doesn’t have some of the other elements of the Vision. That however is to be expected. The poem is short and its focus is just on the self-denying obedience of Christ and its reward by the Father. It says not a word about redemption, atonement, reconciliation, or whether Christ’s obedience benefitted anyone else in any way. Not a word either about the Holy Spirit. So such a limited theme would explain why other elements of the Vision of Isaiah were left out.
2 Corinthians 12:1-10
1 I must boast; there is nothing to be gained by it, but I will go on to visions and revelations of the Lord. 2 I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows. 3 And I know that this man was caught up into Paradise—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows—4 and he heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter. 5 On behalf of this man I will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses. 6 Though if I wish to boast, I shall not be a fool, for I shall be speaking the truth. But I refrain from it, so that no one may think more of me than he sees in me or hears from me. 7 And to keep me from being too elated by the abundance of revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan, to harass me, to keep me from being too elated. 8 Three times I besought the Lord about this, that it should leave me; 9 but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” I will all the more gladly boast of my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. 10 For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities; for when I am weak, then I am strong.
In this text Paul’s aim is to trump the visions and revelations of his opponents. One would normally expect his trump revelation to be the one in which he was entrusted with his gospel and his apostolic mission to preach that gospel. If, as he claims elsewhere, his gospel and mission were received by revelation from God himself, not from any man, that would certainly seem the best way for him to beat his Corinthian opponents at their game. Yet New Testament scholars are reluctant to see any reference here to that revelation. They don’t see any link to Paul’s gospel and so they are left with a Paul who responds by, in effect, saying: “A long time ago I received an abundance of revelations that were more impressive than those of my opponents. However, you will just have to take my word for it because I am not going to describe what I saw and I am not permitted to tell you what I heard.” To me such a response comes across as weak; a very ineffective way for Paul to counter the opposition, especially given the cards he was holding.
Now just because scholars see no link to Paul’s gospel in the passage does not mean that Paul’s original readers didn’t see one. Those readers may have recognized what Paul was referring to when he spoke of an ascent through numbered heavens to a place where he heard words “that cannot be told, which man may not utter.” Such a description fits well the Vision of Isaiah, for after Isaiah recounts his vision to King Hezekiah he makes the king
“swear that he would not tell this to the people of Israel, and that he would not allow any man to copy these words” (Asc. Is. 11:39).
So it may be that Paul was not saying that he couldn’t make his revelation known. He was saying that the gospel revealed to him consisted of things hidden for ages. This would be the case if his gospel was the Vision of Isaiah, for even though the door was briefly opened hundreds of years ago for Isaiah and a few others, it was immediately closed again until the last times. Paul’s gospel as the Vision of Isaiah also lines up with how his message is described in other passages, e.g., Col. 1:26: ” the mystery hidden for ages and generations but now made manifest to his saints.”
Note too that the Vision tells us it was forbidden for anyone to “copy these words” (Asc. Isa. 11:39). It is a matter of words, words that supposedly somehow re-emerge in the last times. Paul’s revelation too is a matter of words. He had said at the beginning of the passage that he was now turning his attention to “visions and revelations” (2 Cor. 12:1), but he never gets around to describing anything he saw. His focus is on what he “heard” (2 Cor. 12:4). He heard things “that it is not lawful for a man to utter” (2 Cor 12:4). Paul, then, appears to be presenting himself as the chosen vessel who in the last times received and revealed the words of the Vision of Isaiah.
One objection should be addressed before continuing. In verse 2 of the Corinthians passage Paul says that he was caught up to the third heaven, but in verse 3 the trip is said to be to Paradise. Now, it is often claimed that Paul was using parallelism here, and that for him Paradise was located in the third heaven. If this is so, my proposal identifying Paul’s gospel with the Vision would, of course, fail, for in the latter the highest heaven is the seventh. Keep in mind, however, that some commentators do not accept the parallelism idea here. They think that if Paul spoke of a third heaven and of Paradise it was because he had some kind of sequence or progression in view. Without more information it is impossible to know what the sequence or progression was. But Paul does use the plural in verse 7 (“abundance of revelations”), so I think it remains a viable possibility that some of his revelations were received in the third heaven and others in Paradise. In Isaiah’s own ascent the greatest revelations were received in the highest heaven, but some things were revealed to him in the lower ones.
2 Cor. 12:1-10, then, appears to be presenting Paul as the one chosen to reveal the Vision of Isaiah “in the last generation” (Asc. Is. 11:38). I failed to realize this when I wrote installment 7 of the Simonian series. When I wrote that post I was thinking that Paul was simply claiming to have had a revelation LIKE the Vision of Isaiah. It didn’t register with me that he was actually claiming to be God’s chosen conduit for the revelation of that text. The difference is big and changes my perspective on the Pauline letters and on a number of other early Christian issues.
First of all, I can no longer seriously consider Simon of Samaria to be the author of the Pauline passages in question. From what we are told about Simon he would not have been content to be the mere conduit for a text. He saw himself as a Christ figure, the great power of God. He would and apparently did put himself in the role of a descending redeemer — not in the role of an apostle of that redeemer.
Second, I have a hard time seeing Paul himself as either the author of the three passages above or of the Vision of Isaiah. Paul seems to have had a hard enough time just selling his idea that Gentile converts don’t need to be circumcised. It was apparently still an issue at the time of his last allegedly authentic letter: Romans. I don’t see it as plausible that he would try to spring on the church a whole new gospel besides. He admits that there were apostles before him (Gal. 1:17). These must have been preaching some kind of gospel, presumably an eschatological message that the kingdom of God was at hand and that the resurrected Jesus was about to come and inaugurate it. I expect that if Paul had come to the Jerusalem pillars and claimed that God revealed to him a new gospel this would have caused far more controversy than his circumcision stance ever did.
No, it seems to me that the best time for springing such a gospel on the early church was after Paul and the pillars were gone. Sometime after 70 CE one would not have to worry about flak from the Jerusalem church. And one could project onto Paul any gospel one liked. We know that all kinds of things were in fact later projected onto him by the deutero-canonical Paulines, the Pauline Pastoral letters, and other apocryphal letters, just as all kinds of things were later projected onto Jesus by the canonical and non-canonical gospels. The projection onto Paul, I suspect, started with large chunks of material right in the seven allegedly authentic letters.
With 70 CE as a safe estimate for the terminus a quo of the projection, the terminus ante quem would seem to be before Marcion’s arrival on the scene. On this matter I stand by what I wrote about him in the 4th post of the series. It is a safe bet that neither Marcion nor his followers would have turned to the Old Testament prophet lsaiah in order to anchor Paul’s gospel. But Marcion is useful to our purposes in one way. He had 2 Thessalonians in his collection of Paul’s letters, including the section about the “man of sin” (2 Thess. 2:1-12). Joseph Turmel presented a good case for identifying that man as Simon Bar Kokhba (See Neil’s 2011-05-31 post: Identifying the “Man of Sin” in 2 Thessalonians). And since at the time that section of Thessalonians was written the man of sin had been manifested but not defeated, its date of composition was apparently shortly before Bar Kokhba’s demise in 135 CE. Thus I think we need to look between 70 and 135 both for the author of the Vision and for the one who projected it into Paul’s letters. We are not necessarily looking for two people. There is no reason why one and the same person could not have done both tasks.
Continuing . . .
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