Snatched into Paradise (2 Cor 12:1-10): Paul's Heavenly Journey in the Context of Early Christian Experience by James Buchanan Wallace (Beihefte Zur Zeitschrift Fur Die Neutestamentliche Wissenschaft: De Gruyter) In 2 Corinthians 12:1-10, Paul claims to have been snatched into paradise but then tells how he received a ""thorn in the flesh"". Many recent scholars contend that Paul belittles ecstatic experiences such as the ascent to paradise. This monograph places 2 Corinthians 12:1-10 in the contexts of ancient ascent traditions as well as other accounts of extraordinary religious experience in Paul's letters, and it engages premodern interpretation of the ascent. This study argues that for Paul, extraordinary experiences such as the ascent enable self-transcending love for God and neighbors.
Excerpt: At least three times in the undisputed letters, Paul describes some kind of visionary experience of the Lord Jesus Christ. In the midst of the most heated portion of his correspondence with the Corinthians, Paul comes to a topic which he similarly describes as "visions and revelations of the Lord,"2 but the experience he describes is unique among all his letters. In 2 Cor 12:1-4, Paul claims to have traveled to the third heaven and to Paradise, where he heard "words unutterable, which it is not lawful for a human being to speak" (12:4). Paul then relates how he later received a "thorn in the flesh" to prevent him from being too exalted over such experiences. Through a revelation from the Lord, he even learns that "power is perfected in weakness" (12:9), which leads him to prefer to boast in weaknesses and sufferings, for he now sees them as making him powerful.
For the Russian Orthodox theologian Vladimir Lossky, 2 Cor 12:1-4 intimates the very essence of theology, for theology entails the direct vision and apprehension of divine realities. The verses play a programmatic role in his works The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church and Orthodox Theology: An Introduction. Not only does the passage suggest Paul's actual experience of things heavenly, but the impossibility of speaking these things sets limits on the theological task. Theology can neither explicate the experience itself, nor can it put these highest mysteries into human language. Thus, while honoring Paul's reticence about his ascent to the third heaven, Lossky understands these verses as expressing the very apex of Christian life and theology.
In holding 2 Cor 12:1-4 in such esteem, Lossky follows his fourth century forebears. St. Gregory Nazianzen and St. Gregory of Nyssa discovered in this brief account a mandate for how to do theology. They opposed the theology of Eunomius, who sought to define the essence of the Father as "uncreated" and the essence of the Son as "begotten," with Paul's contention that heavenly mysteries dare not be spoken. If Paul, who had been to the third heaven, remained silent as to God's essence, then the essence is unknowable. Thus, Paul did not just give an account of an experience but an example. Second Corinthians 12:1-4 proved that he experienced the heights of divine knowledge yet allowed them to remain mysteries.
Second Corinthians 12:1-4 has not fared so well at the hands of modern biblical scholars, especially those of the past sixty-five years. For many of these more recent interpreters, Paul's account in its larger context actually suggests that Paul disparages such experiences, or, at best, regards them as being of private importance. Others have argued that the experience was of immense importance for Paul and should be taken seriously, but that the experience remains primarily of significance only to Paul. At most, it intimates certain elements of his larger religious worldview but basically remains irrelevant for the community that hears the claim.
Since recent interpreters privatize the ascent and/or interpret Paul's presentation of the ascent as an attempt to disparage such experiences, several simple yet crucial questions get bypassed: What could Paul accomplish by presenting himself to the Corinthians as a heavenly traveler? How might such claims have shaped the community's own expectations for extraordinary religious experience? What is the relationship between the ascent to heaven and the other forms of religious experience which Paul describes in 2 Cor 12:1-10?
In this chapter, I will first provide an initial analysis of 2 Cor 12:110 and thereby establish familiarity with the passage and its problems. I will then discuss the history of interpretation of the passage, focusing on the heavenly ascent. The examination of this history will reveal that the significance of Paul's ascent for his community of readers has hitherto been neglected. I will then offer a more in-depth examination of the most important contributions to understanding Paul's ascent to demonstrate how a new approach to the passage can illumine not only 2 Cor 12:1-10 but also can provide a crucial foundation for understanding how Paul construed his own religious experiences and those of his communities. Thereafter, I will briefly outline some of the problems of the phrase "religious experience" and propose a working definition. Finally, I will outline how the subsequent chapters of this study will redress the limitations of previous scholarship.
Throughout the preceding section, I have discussed heavenly ascent texts that depict a vision of the cosmos. However, each of these descriptions of the cosmos is a literary device, and all of them except Poimandres quite explicitly so. Indeed, with the exception of Cicero, where the ascent is a dream, the authors give overt clues that the narratives should not be understood too simplistically as "what was seen and heard during the ascent." Rather, an ascent is an alternative way of knowing through direct experience. It never entails leaving the mind behind, but it does entail getting an alternative glimpse of reality. Hence, the eschatological myths of Plato, Cicero, Plutarch, and even Poimandres should not be too quickly conflated with ascent as an actual experience. Indeed, these eschatological myths have perhaps wielded too much weight in our understanding of heavenly ascent, especially insofar as one seeks to understand heavenly ascent as a religious experience. In Poimandres, we appear to have the residue of a religious experience, but the ascent of the soul through eight levels and into the ninth is not something in which the speaker participates; the speaker only hears about it. He "sees" the reality (though again, it is only his mind which "sees" it), but it takes place in the future.
The relationship of ascent to the body and to divine empowerment which these texts suggest (whether fictional or not) is varied. For Cicero, the ascent is simply a dream, but the experience would presumably spur the dreamer (and readers) on to a willingness to sacrifice, so that at the end of life, one could be transformed into fiery, divine substance. In the myths of Er, Aridaeus, and Timarchus, the travelers experience some kind of bodily catastrophe (death, falling, something like a blow to the head, respectively), which stills the body so that the mind or soul might enter another world, just as some iatromentes could apparently do. Timarchus, however, unlike Aridaeus and Er, is actually inquiring at an oracle, and he was likely to have been required to undergo ritual preparations. He dies soon after his ascent, in accordance with a prediction. Aridaeus has led a dissolute life; the ascent inspires him to change. They are both, however, reticent to speak about their experiences, and both visions suggest that the virtuous may expect transformation in the other world. Timarchus even emerges with a radiant face. Er, on the other hand, becomes a prophet of the world he has glimpsed. All of their visions, however, and Poimandres with them, suggest that life must be led with a certain amount of asceticism, or at least moderation, when it comes to things of the flesh. The flesh must be stilled to free the mind and allow it to return to the divine, luminous realm where it belongs.
In the texts discussed in this section, we again encountered language of the mysteries used in combination with heavenly ascent. We also see predictions and oracular "information" attained during the ascents. At the same time, the highest level of the cosmos is in fact a world beyond the material cosmos itself, and this realm is depicted as indescribable.
In examining heavenly ascent as a religious practice, we find many of the same constellations of themes as in previous texts: mystery language, revealed knowledge/oracles, encounters with deities or whatever is perceived as ultimate and divine, and in some cases, the desire for immortality. As befits mystery cults and/or the use of the language of mysteries, authors are frequently reticent to report too much. Since these texts and traditions portray ascent as a human potential, they offer a good opportunity to consider how bodily abasement, divine empowerment, and heavenly ascent might interrelate. In many instances, preparation for ascent requires ascetic practices that purify the traveler in order for the ascent to be made. The ascent itself, in turn, bestows various divine gifts on the traveler, whether immortality or revealed/oracular knowledge. However, this is only part of the story. In the Mithras Liturgy, the traveler might encounter danger during the ascent itself, though proper knowledge can ward away such danger. Moreover, in other traditions, ascent to heaven is only one small part in a larger complex of religious devotion. Lucius engages in ascetic acts and then undergoes an initiation which takes him into another world. After the initiation, he continues in contemplation and adoration. Later, he must undergo further initiations and engage in the accompanying ascetic practices. Likewise, the evidence suggests that the initiates of Mithraism underwent numerous initiations as they ascended through the grades, and some of these may have included ordeals that involved bodily suffering. 1. Paul describes himself as ascending to the third heaven and Paradise. None of the texts or traditions examined in this chapter uses language of Paradise. The number of heavens suggested by these texts display great variety: three (implied by Plutarch's Fac.), four (implied by Gen. Socr.), seven,192 eight (Poimandres; implied by Plato's Resp., Mithraism, and possibly the Mithras Liturgy), nine (Disc. 8-9; Cicero's Resp.). Thus, one cannot conclude from these texts how many "stories" Paul's heaven may have had. Nonetheless, one crucial observation can be made. In many of the texts explored, the "highest heaven" or the destination for which the traveler is bound is not simply the highest floor to which the celestial elevator will go. Rather, it is an entirely different realm, a world beyond the material. Depending on the traveler's perspective, this is the realm of absolute, noetic truth, or where one encounters pure Mind, or where one encounters the highest deity.
Paul claims to have heard "ineffable words, which it is not lawful for a human being to speak." The phrase "ineffable words" draws on the language of the mysteries; were the ritual acts, symbols, and secrets meanings that were too sacred to be shared with anyone not initiated, though it could also refer more generally to sacred knowledge not to be passed to others. Similarly, Philo uses language of the mysteries and the term to speak of the most sublime revelations open only to a select few. The language of the mysteries was drawn on by philosophers, such as Plato, to characterize the "divine" and "sacred" noetic realm, wherein what one learned and experienced surpassed human language. The language of the mysteries served these purposes well, for the noetic world can indeed be glimpsed and grasped, but the reality can only be comprehended by those who have actually experienced it. Consequently, the language of ascent and the mysteries frequently mixes. The language of the mysteries serves to express that element of the heavenly world that is so sublime and ineffable that it can only be known by direct experience. Likewise, the secret initiations into the mysteries of Isis and Mithras entailed ascent, for they brought the initiate into that realm of the divine. Initiates guarded what they learned. Paul insists on the strictest prohibitions regarding what he has heard; these ineffable things cannot be disclosed to any human being at all. What he has learned is too glorious and sacred to be known in any other way than through the experience itself. For Paul, as for writers discussed in this chapter, the reality of the heavenly world resists being captured in human language.
Paul is not sure if his travels were in the body or out of the body. The evidence from the Greco-Roman ascent texts includes non-bodily ascents, bodily ascents, and ambiguity reminiscent of Paul. On the one hand, many cases clearly describe an ascent without the body. Indeed, traditions of iatromentes and the philosophical ascent of the mind appear to merge in complex ways, yielding the notion that the mind can move beyond the material world to "see" the noetic world of intelligible truths, though these truths may be expressed through elaborations of the cosmos which reflect noetic realities. On the other hand, some of the iatromentes disappear bodily. Also, the "ascents" of the mystery cults are, at the very least, related to ritual enactments of ascent, and hence, the body is involved. The Mithras Liturgy depicts what appears to be an out-of-body experience, yet the initiate can "see" himself or herself ascend, and initiates must perform bodily rituals even as they ascend.
How do heavenly ascents relate to the B and C type experiences discussed in chapter one (see §1.1 and §1.5)? Frequently, B-type experiences, whether ascetic feats or near-death experiences, lead to the ascent (B—>A). In some cases, the ascent encourages a more virtuous or ascetic life (A—>B; Delay; Poimandres; Plato's and Cicero's Resp.). Indeed, ascent may be one part of a longer sequence of ascetic practices and initiations which entail further revelations and encounters with the divine (Metam.; probably Mithraic mysteries). Further stilling of the passions may prove necessary to continue or maintain contact with the divine world, especially in cases where the emphasis is on the mind's ascent. Hence, Paul's sequence of an A-type experiencing yielding to a B-type experience is not unique, though the precise way he understands this interrelationship is unlike anything described thus far.
Issues of bodily suffering and/or deprivation relate to the other question of the body—whether ascent is in or out of the body. In most of the cases examined in this chapter, the object of ascent is an immaterial heaven that far transcends material reality. Consequently, bodily senses and materiality—including corporeality—hinder access to this realm. This heavenly realm is accessed by the mind or the spirit. The body—its senses and appetites—must somehow be stilled and controlled, whether by asceticism or a blow to the head, to encounter the heavenly world. Consequently, one frequently encounters the sequence of A-type experiences following B-type experiences. For most of these texts, the body poses a problem to be dealt with before one ascends; Paul ascends and then faces issues with his body. Nonetheless, in several cases examined above, ascent can provide a glimpse of ultimate reality which encourages control of the body in order for this contact with the ultimate to be maintained or repeated.
C-type experience, admittedly, is an even vaguer category than B-type. I have used this designation for Paul's experience of divine power. Insofar as one looks only for explicit mention of power, only the speaker in Poimandres describes being empowered after the ascent (A—>C). The Mithras Liturgy and the Discourse on the Eighth and Ninth evince complex relationships between ascent and power. In the Mithras Liturgy, power appears to be a prerequisite possession of the initiate (B+C—A). In the Discourse on the Eighth and Ninth, the father's power is a prerequisite for ascent, though prayer brings even more power, and power is conveyed to the son through the discourse (B+C—>A—>C).
Insofar as divine power might be exhibited by individual powers, such as healing, telling the future, or attaining immortality, the last two are tied directly to the ascent itself, not subsequent asceticism or bodily suffering. Healing powers are not mentioned in the ascent texts proper, though they are mixed in with the legends of the iatromentes. In the cases of the iatromentes, the exact interrelationships between A, B, and C experiences cannot really be recovered. However, it should be noted that bodily wounds and/or transformations could be markers of descent and/or initiation. Finally, insofar as divine power could simply be equated with an immediate sense of the divine being at work in one, the situation becomes more complex. In the texts and traditions which follow a more or less Platonic trajectory and emphasize the mind, closeness to the noetic world would appear to increase as one stills bodily passions. Likewise, the initiatory ascent of Lucius is only one aspect of a continuous relationship with Isis.
Tabor, among others, emphasizes the proleptic character of the ascent, and there is indeed a good deal of truth to his observations. However, where we can discern actual experience behind the text, does this aspect deserve most emphasis? Certainly, the travelers in the eschatological myths of Plato, Plutarch, Cicero, and Poimandres observe the fate of souls after death, but the travelers' participation is limited. Indeed, the experience that the texts appear to reflect, or rather, the human potential for ascent that they appear to assume (with the exception of Cicero), is the ascent of the mind much like the philosopher's flight of the mind. It is not so much that the travelers participate in a proleptic experience of the soul's fate after death; rather, their minds rise to 11 receive a "grasp" or "vision" of ultimate reality and the meaning of human life. Indeed, when we turn to ritual enactments of ascent, then much more clearly the emphasis is on the vision of the gods or of the world beyond. This vision, though it may convey favors in the next life (Apuleius) or bestow immortality (Mithraism, the Mithras Liturgy), has an inherent value of its own.
In seeking a social role for heavenly travelers in the Greco-Roman world, I can offer only conjecture based on texts that often have a highly fictional quality. The iatromentes do indeed appear to have functioned somewhat like medicine men. They were privy to special knowledge and could cure and purify others. Some travelers are depicted as being like the philosophers; they are scouts of the other world and return with a commission to reveal what they have learned. Plutarch, however, depicts his travelers as reluctant to tell just anyone what they have seen, even though it is edifying. When we turn to those texts and traditions which appear more tied to actual experience, this reticence is even stronger. Ascent, tied to initiation rituals and/or magical practices, is for the select few and should be spoken of only among the select few who are prepared for such experiences or who have undergone them.
In some cases, the one who has ascended and experienced the other world prepares the way for disciples to do likewise (Disc. 8-9; implied by Mithras Liturgy). Indeed, in the Discourse on the Eighth and Ninth, the father's ascent enables him to be the vehicle of revelation to the son; the son sees his vision in the father.
Hostility in the heavens is only really encountered in the Mithras Liturgy, though a hostile heaven responsible for human vices may be implied by Poimandres.
I will now make two closing observations that do not fit neatly into my analytical categories. Ascent rarely has anything to do with ecstasy, insofar as ecstasy is conceived as an abandonment of rationality or the mind. On the contrary, the ascent to heaven provides the traveler direct access to what is beyond the limits of human reason as it is confined by the senses; the other world is super-rational, but not irrational.
Finally, attention to the complexity of ascent literature and traditions reveals that ascent is one experience—albeit an extraordinary and inherently valuable one—in a range of other experiences and practices, and it cannot be fully understood in isolation. According to Apuleius,
Lucius's ascent initiation was only one in a series of initiations, and each initiation required further sacrifice. The Mithras cult required successive levels of initiation and probably entailed a gradual ascent. Each level of initiation probably required completion of a set of trials or feats. Even in texts that speak of the flight of the mind, glimpses of the noetic world require a life of continuous virtue, asceticism, and contemplation. The seer is never satiated. These data further legitimate my insistence that in order to understand Paul's ascent, one must investigate his language of religious experience throughout his letters.
Paul claims that intimate knowledge of Christ is possible; he even claims that Christ lives in him. This kind of experience of Christ is intimately bound with suffering like Christ's. Some scholars have denied that Paul's claim to have Christ living in him has mystical connotations. The cumulative evidence tells against this interpretation. Paul does not simply identify himself with Christ or follow Jesus' example. He claims that Christ lives in him, but he also claims that Christ speaks in him. Paul insists on the possibility that he can know the "power of [Christ's] resurrection" (Phil 3:10), but he also insists that this power can burst forth as he performs miracles. Indeed, Paul can even manifest the life of Christ to others. Thus, when Paul speaks of having Christ within him, he means what he says.
Paul experienced a new source of power. He experienced this new source of power as so alien to all he had known before that he could describe it in no other terms than of Christ Himself taking residence in his body. Paul asserts that his own ego, his very self, has been transcended by the life of Christ now at work within him. So foreign to the world and its values did he believe this life to be, that he could proclaim that he and all other true Christians were no longer citizens of the earth, but had their citizenship in heaven (Phil 3:20). By making such a proclamation, Paul expressed the sharp contrast between normal life according to the flesh and life in Christ while simultaneously expressing the superiority and stability of the latter.
When Paul uses the language of suffering in conjunction with his intimate communion with Christ, he refers to his physical suffering in the body. He also uses this language, however, to include his willingness to give up all worldly prestige and honor. Furthermore, Paul's experience of Christ as alive in him is an inner reality of his earthly suffering body.
"B" and "C" type experiences go hand in hand for Paul. Indeed, as suggested in the first chapter, B=C may still be the best means of expressing this relationship. The two aspects of Paul's life simply stand together. In both Gal 2:19-20 and Phil 3:10, they are listed as being intimately bound with one another, but Paul does not use any language that would elucidate how this connection works. Suffering does not simply lead to power nor vice versa, though it appears that suffering allows internal, divine power or life to be more fully realized and displayed. For Paul, this dynamic relationship between divine power and suffering has its origin in his visionary encounter with Christ. I have shown that in two of the key passages that connect mystical communion with Christ to suffering that imitates Christ (Gal 2:19-20; Phil 3:7— 14), these elements are inspired first and foremost by encounter with Christ. In other words, Paul consistently maintains that A-->B=C; or A—>C which necessitates B.
Just as in 1 Cor 9, Paul often speaks from his specific experience in order to provide an example for others. Even when Paul is engaged in harsh polemics, as in Galatians, he speaks of experiences which other Christians can and should know.
Nonetheless, Paul does at times apply a particular emphasis to his own experiences of power and suffering. His ability to bear divine power enables him to manifest Christ to others; he serves as a living, walking Christophany. Paul knew, however, that divine power was dangerous for those who mishandle or abuse it, and rejection of such a God-bearing apostle meant, in turn, divine rejection and judgment.
The variety of the experiences Paul describes is too great to allow a simple summary, and to provide one would be repetitious. I will now highlight the conclusions of this chapter which are most salient for the overall argument of this project. In numerous ways, Paul understands himself and his congregants to be in contact with the divine, invisible world. Such experiences are foundational not only for himself but for all Christians. Only in the case of glossolalia does Paul harbor certain reservations.
For Paul, "visionary" encounter with Christ, whether described simply as visions or as internal experiences, is the origin and catalyst of the self-transcending desire for Christ that yields both a sense of Christ's immanence and labor on behalf of Christ. Even though the internal presence of Christ and the Spirit will only be fully realized in the eschaton, communion with Christ and the Spirit can be experienced to a lesser degree in the here and now. The vision of Christ (to choose one set of language) endows Paul with an internal energy—whether described as power or grace—which is the very power of God which raised Jesus from the dead. Indeed, the vision, perhaps thanks to this power, grants Paul a sense of Christ's immanence; Paul even understands his very life to be that of Christ. This communion, however, is not a fully consummated one. Paul continues to live in the flesh, and he retains his own identity; it is not submerged into Christ. Indeed, for this very reason, Paul strives to put away all forms of his own self which might serve as hindrances to his access to this reality. These hindrances include his ego and desire for prestige or status based on any worldly thing, and they include his own body, which must be weakened and must suffer in order to conform to Christ's death and to allow the power of Christ to manifest itself clearly to others. The power has its origins in the visionary experiences, but it is refined and made available to others through suffering and service.
The religious experiences Paul describes are forms of contact with another, heavenly world, but this "world" should not simply be thought of as a world above or a world of the future eschaton currently breaking in. The vagueness of Paul's own descriptions of his encounter with Christ as well as his retention of sensory language even to describe internal experiences reveals that he uses sensory language in an inexact way. This fact is not surprising, since even Paul's own experiences of revelation are the work of the Spirit (1 Cor 2:6-16). In many cases, including encounters with Christ as well as experiences of the Spirit, the experience is first and foremost an internal reality. Rarely, if ever, is the experience given a discursive content. Rather, putting the revelation into language is a secondary step. In several passages and in several ways, Paul suggests that the "language" of the other world is not utterly incomprehensible; its meaning can often be intuitively grasped, but only with further help from the Spirit can it be worked out in human language.
Paul insists that most of the experiences described in this chapter can and should be experienced by all Christians. Even Christ can be "seen," for those who have the eyes to see, in Paul and his co-workers' bodies and ministries. For these converts, too, vision leads to transformation (2 Cor 3:18). Similarly to some of the heavenly travelers explored in the previous chapter, Paul serves as an example and a living icon of the otherworldly realities he proclaims. His very presence enables others to see the power of God which raised Jesus from the dead at work.
Just as will be the case 2 Corinthians 12:1-10, Paul ties physical suffering together with the deprivation of status. Furthermore, Paul almost always expresses reservations about using his visionary experiences—even the Damascus experience—as the basis of heavy-handed authority or exalted status. Thus, Paul's refusal to use his ascent to heaven as a trump card in a plea for authority does not indicate that he belittles this kind of experience. Indeed, throughout his writings, Paul portrays such experiences as playing a vital and foundational role in Christian life. The ascent to heaven should not be viewed merely as a foil for suffering and service. Rather, the language Paul uses to describe his ascent and the connections between the ascent, the "thorn in the flesh," and the "power perfected in weakness" deserve careful analysis in light of the evidence compiled in this chapter and the two previous chapters.
My interpretation of 2 Cor 12:1-10 fits well with other passages in which Paul describes extraordinary religious experience, especially 1 Cor 9, 2 Cor 4:5-12, Gal 1:11-17 and 2:19-20 (and see also 4:13-14 and 6:17), and Phil 3:4b-21. An extraordinary encounter with Christ—whether a vision, an inner revelation, or being seized by Christ —serves as the initial experience of grace and a moment of self-transcendence and communion with Christ. This taste of true life and divine power reorients all values and redefines Paul's life as a life for God and Christ. Encounter with the crucified and risen Christ and the authority thereby bestowed upon Paul, however, necessitates that Paul live out the cruciform existence of Christ. In his suffering body and humble, gentle apostolic service, Paul lives out and displays to others the resurrection power of God in Christ so others may experience it for themselves. The basic thrust of 2 Cor 12:1-10 is no different. Rather than being a censor of ecstatic experiences, 2 Cor 12:1-4 fits quite nicely into a broader strategy for treating extraordinary religious experiences.
Paul regards "visions and revelations" as private only insofar as they are not appropriate for boasting and self-commendation, especially when the Corinthians should already have experienced enough to recognize Paul as a "powerful" apostle (compare Gal 3:1-5; see §18.104.22.168). Extraordinary encounters with Christ and the Spirit are, however, part of Christian life. They serve as the encounter with a divine, otherworldly power that begins a process of transformation which should ultimately reverse all worldly values. Thus, those won to Christ should live out the cruciform existence of Christ; they should perfect the gift by suffering and service.
My interpretation also makes sense with regard to the larger religious and cultural worlds of Paul's day. In chapters 2 and 3, I have shown that ascents to heaven were not just the framework for narratives but also experiences sought out through various means. Paul's report of his ascent does not simply adopt an understanding from any one text or tradition, nor does he seek to undermine cultural understandings or expectations. Rather, he offers an account of heavenly ascent from the point of view of a follower of a crucified and raised Messiah, which resembles other ascent accounts in many ways but is also distinct. Most of the elements of Paul's account are familiar from other ascent traditions, but Paul offers a distinct configuration of how these elements relate to one another.
Like other accounts of heavenly ascent, 2 Cor 12:1-10 associates themes of vision, suffering, and power, but there the similarity ends. For some writers, asceticism serves as preparation for ascent. In the Hekhalot and related traditions, the unworthy ascender may meet with physical punishment, even death. In other texts, a vision or ascent results in disinterest in matters of the flesh. For Paul, ascent is an experience of power and grace, but the experience of physical suffering prevents excessive elation and ensures that he continues to follow the pattern of the crucified Messiah, thus enabling him to perfect the divine power he has experienced.
Finally, the comparative materials of chapters 2 and 3 suggest one more intriguing possibility. In many cases, heavenly travelers, in one way or another, help their communities or disciples undergo similar experiences of the world beyond (Mithras Liturgy; esp. Disc. 8-9; Hekhalot Rabbati). So it is for Paul. He is himself a Christophany who enables those with eyes to see to enjoy, through the work of the Spirit, something analogous to a visionary experience. He has also guided the Corinthians in their exercise of spiritual gifts, and he has manifested God's power in Christ through miracles. This similarity is all the more striking in view of my argument that Paul is not just trying to best his rivals but recall to the Corinthians the fact that they should recommend him as the father of the community. His mention of an ascent to heaven coheres with and reinforces his insistence that he is the one through whom the community has encountered the otherworldly power and life they now enjoy.
Since I have argued that the ascent is not belittled, I have offered thorough analysis of Paul's language with reference to the larger Greco-Roman and Jewish worlds. Indeed, even his association of the ascent with suffering, power, and bodily injuries is consonant with larger cultural patterns, though distinct from any particular example.
The ascent provides insight into how Paul understands these experiences. Käsemann concludes that such experiences rip one out of history and preclude agape; I conclude that the visions begin the experience of self-transcendence that must be brought to fruition and shah with others in agape. My theological conclusions, however, will given fuller and more precise formulation with the help of four 131 modern exegetes who recognized both the promises and pitfalls of visionary experiences. I now turn to these interpreters.
The premodern interpreters examined in this chapter offer theological avenues for reconsidering the meaning and significance of 2 Cor 12:110, and especially the heavenly ascent. I have argued that the "ineffable words, which it is not lawful for a human being to speak," suggest that on one level, Paul could grasp what he "heard," but that it transcended discursive reason and could not be formulated in language without risking blasphemy. It could only be understood by those who experienced it. Most of the premodern interpreters discussed in this chapter likewise insist Paul's experience transcended human reason and brought him into the immediate presence of God. This line of interpretation coheres with many of the ascent texts dealt with in the second and third chapters. In many of these texts and traditions, the highest heaven transcends the sensual world entirely. Even in Jewish texts which climax with a vision of God's glory, the language of these texts indicates that the author seeks to suggest God's majesty but pushes against any literal interpretation of the description.
Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, Symeon the New Theologian, and Gregory Palamas all take 2 Cor 12:1-4 seriously as an account of religious experience, and thus they pay close attention to the experiential details of the passage, especially Paul's language of the body, which provides a vital clue as to the nature of the experience. This emphasis accords well with Paul's own repeated insistence that he does not know whether he ascended in the body or out of the body. Since a vision of God is beyond the capacities of the human senses, this ambivalence did not surprise the premoderns. Origen formulates the teaching on the spiritual senses to deal with these kinds of experiences that are so real yet beyond the capacity of the physical senses. This teaching, however, is given better formulation by Gregory Palamas, for he emphasizes that the vision of God also transcends the mind. In keeping with Paul's insistence that spiritual things are discerned by the spiritual through the Spirit, he interprets this kind of experience as entirely the work of the Spirit.
Perhaps the most troubling aspect of the interpretations presented in this chapter to a modern critical scholar would be the very centrality and importance with which they vest this experience that Paul himself seems to have spoken of only reluctantly. For many of the premoderns (Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory Palamas), it appears to represent the high point of spirituality. Indeed, it is the high point precisely because Paul cannot speak about it, for it is the realm of true theology, where theology is vision and direct experience of God, not merely a word about God. For Symeon and Gregory Palamas, one who has not had this experience should not even dare to theologize. Insofar as these interpreters see the ascent as a proleptic experience of the gifts of the next life, contemporary critics such as Tabor might be amenable. Indeed, Tabor would even allow that the ascent entailed transformation and may have helped to give Paul his understanding of salvation as transformation. The question then becomes, how does one account for the juxtaposition of the ascent with the stake in Paul's flesh?
The premodern interpreters give the ascent a fuller theological interpretation than have contemporary critics, and their insights allow for a new perspective on the passage as whole, even though they often do not deal explicitly with verses 5-10. The proleptic experience of the joys of the next life transforms the visionary by reorienting desire towards heavenly things. The ascent provides a taste of God, Who is above all material (and for Gregory Palamas, all noetic) things. This experience is expressed as an ecstasy out of this world not simply because one enters an altered psychological state or even because one is "above" the material world, but because one is drawn out of oneself. Only on this precondition can one serve God and neighbors. In this respect, Symeon may be the most faithful to Paul's own presentation of the experience, since Symeon recognizes that such ecstasy is really a beginning, not an end.
Nonetheless, even Symeon, and especially Gregory of Nyssa and Gregory Palamas, can speak of ascent as the ultimate goal of spiritual life. These points of view, however, do not entirely contradict one another. The two Gregories emphasize that spiritual progress is as infinite as the God with whom the mystic unites. It has no end. Thus, Paul's perfection of power through weakness is his struggle to move even further in his life with Christ. Indeed, in Phil 3:12-14, Paul states that he now runs to seize the One Who has seized him. Furthermore, for Symeon, "ecstasy" is the emotional reaction to initial communion with God. Rather than seeking something more sublime or more practical, one should grow accustomed to it and seek to live it out.
Gregory Palamas's theology allows us to give an even more precise and more daring interpretation of 2 Cor 12:1-10. The ascent indicates that Paul has realized a degree of union with God and has thereby experienced, and been transformed by, God's glory, which is God's energy or power. This transformation, however, must be lived out in concrete acts of love and service, and the body itself must be brought ever more into conformity with this reality, that it may become a point of manifestation of God's energy. As I emphasized throughout chapter 4, Paul views his body as a Christophany for those who have eyes to see. Likewise, in 2 Cor 12:7-10, Paul tells how, through the "stake" in his flesh, he learned that this power must be perfected. The stake does not bring the power; the power is a presupposition. In keeping with the frequent association of visionary ascent with strengthening, power, and transformation in the ancient world, it is safe to conjecture that the Corinthians would have understood Paul's ascent as an experience of power. The ascent is, moreover, a gift or grace bestowed by God. "Grace" and power become virtually synonymous in 2 Cor 12:9, as they are in many passages. Paul's bodily weakness, as well as all forms of weakness that entail the transcending of worldly ambitions and status-markers, becomes the opportunity for further commerce with divine power. Paul makes clear that his suffering and weakness also serve to manifest this power—he works signs, wonders, and powers. Through his dying body the very resurrection Life of Christ Himself becomes manifest for others to see. To borrow Gregory Palamas's analogy, the divine fire which Paul touched in his visions has ignited his entire body and burns so that all may see.
Paul's ascent to heaven is in tension with his weakness only insofar as he may be tempted to misuse the authority and gifts he has been given. At a deeper level, however, the ascent and his weakness do not stand in tension but in continuity. The weakness allows the power of God to manifest itself. This interpretation fits with the complex logic of 2 Cor 12:1-10 in its context. Paul maintains that, based on all they have clearly seen and heard from him, the Corinthians should recommend him; they have seen "signs, wonders, and powers." They may be unimpressed with his gentleness and humility and may prefer the high-minded and heavy-handed rivals, but Paul will stick by his Christic weakness. Indeed, he chooses to commend himself only with reference to his weakness. He does not even forthrightly claim his ascent. But he does make clear that even the most dramatic experience of God and God's power must be ever perfected through suffering, service, and weakness, a truth the Corinthians desperately need to learn. At the same time, Paul's warning in 13:3 is a real warning. Paul may do no other than behave himself humbly, but by virtue of this very behavior he bears divine power. If the Corinthians decide to play with fire, they will be burned.
The underlying logic of 2 Cor 12:1-10 which I have sought to bring out coheres with many of the other passages in which Paul describes his extraordinary religious experiences. For Paul, experience of Christ is a gift, and it is an energizing gift that allows him to transcend himself; he labors only for Christ and knows Christ to live in himself. To realize this powerfully and to manifest it to others, he must be crucified with Christ. Since Christ suffered and died in the body, so must Paul suffer in the body. Since Christ lived in humility, gentleness, and weakness, so must Paul. This life of weakness and service, however, is not a matter of coming back down to earth and living in real history. It is a matter of maintaining the transcendence Paul has already experienced by living no longer for himself but for Christ. The life of suffering and service allow the divine power and grace experienced through vision to abound all the more and shine forth so that others, with the help of the Spirit, may themselves have a vision of God. Those who have this vision will likewise be freed and empowered to transcend themselves and live for Christ and their neighbors.
In the first chapter of this investigation, I demonstrated that many scholars have used 2 Cor 12:1-10 to argue that Paul belittles personal, ecstatic religious experience as a distraction from concrete works of love and service. For these interpreters, the signs of Paul's apostleship are not his ecstatic experiences but his suffering to spread the Gospel. I elucidated the theological presuppositions driving these interpretations, and I suggested that they are buttressed by assumptions about the literary disunity of 2 Corinthians and the nature of Paul's "opponents."
Other interpreters, such as Tabor, have maintained that Paul greatly valued his ascent personally, but the account of his ascent is still viewed as little more than an attempt to trump his opponents. Indeed, for all the other virtues of Tabor's work, it is wanting in sustained exegetical treatment of the passage itself. In this monograph, I have sought not only to offer a more compelling exegesis of 2 Cor 12:1-10, but I have also sought to draw out the resources this passage might offer for theology and reflection on Christian religious practice.
In the second and third chapters, I offered a comprehensive examination of ascent texts and practices from the Greco-Roman and Jewish worlds, respectively. In each case, I evaluated the ascents with close attention to literary context. Moreover, I demonstrated throughout the course of the investigation that even though many of the most important literary witnesses of heavenly ascent should be treated first and foremost as literary texts, heavenly ascent was also a religious practice throughout antiquity.
Throughout chapters two and three, I posed analytical questions directly related to the specific exegetical quandaries of 2 Cor 12:1-10. Like other interpreters, I sought the cultural and religious background of the terminology of the passage, such as the "third heaven," "Paradise," and "ineffable words, which it is not lawful for a human being to speak." The number of heavens was in flux in antiquity, ranging from three to five to seven or more. Paradise could be an earthly place or a heavenly one, and it could be conceived as the resting place of the righteous. The phrase "ineffable words" draws on the language of mystery religions, suggesting the secrets learned in initiation but forbidden to be passed to the uninitiated. The phrase, "which it is not lawful for a human being to speak" may have derived from Paul's Jewish context. To express in human language the divine realm or the vision of God might create misunderstanding and compromise the glory, majesty, and otherness of God. Although exploration of the background of these terms proved helpful, I also insisted that only the internal evidence of 2 Cor 12:1-4 itself determines their significance for Paul.
I also posed analytical questions that do not usually receive full treatment by scholars. I analyzed the ways in which the highest heavens and encounters with the divine are depicted in various ascent traditions. I argued that in most, if not all cases, the highest "heaven" transcends the world of human sense perception. Even in Jewish ascent texts that climax with a vision of the glory of God, the sensual description is, to some degree, self-deconstructing. Despite the fact that later writers became uneasy with the potentially blasphemous anthropomorphic descriptions of God, the ascent texts themselves often strove to maintain the otherness and glory of God.
I examined the role of the body in ascent texts. In many Greco-Roman ascent traditions, only the mind can enter the highest heaven. The body is a problem in Jewish texts as well. In pre-70 texts, the ascender travels in a dream or receives a new, heavenly corporeality. In several post-70 texts, the direct encounter with God drops out.
I analyzed the relationships between ascent, suffering, weakness, strength, and power, and I demonstrated that these relationships could be configured in several different ways. One common configuration portrays suffering and/or bodily deprivation as a necessary prerequisite to ascent. In other strands of tradition, the ascender may return disinterested in matters of the flesh.
The role of an ascender for the community could vary. The ascender might be the prophet or scout who comes back to tell about the true, "heavenly" reality. The ascender may also be the guide to the same experience or provide avenues for participating in similar, albeit less dramatic experiences.
In the fourth chapter, I explored the register of Paul's language of religious experience throughout his letters. In several passages, Paul describes extraordinary encounters with the Christ made alive by the power of God. Paul uses both visionary and auditory language; sometimes his language suggests an external vision and sometimes an inner 1 revelation or illumination. Paul could also speak of being "seized" by Christ. This experience reverses all of his previous values. Moreover, Paul maintains that he must suffer and labor in order to make the grace he has received effective. The grace is, in many cases, synonymous with power and life. Following the example of the crucified Christ, the more Paul suffers and serves, the greater share he has in this power. This power transforms him, allowing him to manifest and to communicate this power to others. Paul becomes a Christophany. This power bursts forth in the signs and wonders Paul works. Hence, as in 2 Cor 12:1-10, a pattern emerges in Paul letters: A-->B=C. A revelatory experience leads to suffering and service, which is in fact the means to further divine empowerment.
Although Paul is always reluctant to give details about his experiences or use them as the basis to claim the accoutrements of authority, they are foundational for all he is. Furthermore, such experiences are not restricted to Paul alone. Through the Spirit, Paul expects all Christians to be in direct contact with divine power that is real and transforming but that defies formulation in human language. Indeed, Paul himself, as a living Christophany, can be the means of a vision of the life and glory of Christ for those empowered by the Spirit so to see him. Communion with the Spirit should continue throughout Christian life and become more refined as one follows the pattern of Christ.
In the fifth chapter, I offered a thorough exegesis of 2 Cor 12:1-10 in its literary context, and I did so with minimal reference to Paul's rivals and without an elaborate partition scheme of 2 Corinthians that would require a reconstruction of Paul's interaction with the community. I demonstrated that 2 Cor 12:1-10 fits the basic pattern elucidated in chapter 4. Extraordinary religious experience, which is itself an experience of power and life, leads to suffering which follows the pattern of the crucified Christ, and this suffering perfects the life and power that have been encountered and allows them to show forth to others. Paul does not belittle his ascent, nor does he parody such experiences. Rather, he clarifies the nature of his weakness while simultaneously providing a relevant example for the Corinthians.
Paul refuses to wield heavy handed authority with the Corinthians, and he refuses to boast in anything but weakness. He boasts in his suffering, weakness, and humble service, especially as displayed in his refusal of financial support. Nonetheless, Paul maintains that weakness — whether bodily weakness or humility—is the means to the power that raised Christ from the dead, and Paul bears such power. He will do no other than act humbly and gently, but he can also do nothing against the truth. If the Corinthians disregard him, they do so at their own peril.
The ascent is also an example for the Corinthians. They, too, have been granted spiritual gifts, but they risk being puffed up. They seem to despise Paul's weakness and gentleness, and they do not want to contribute to the Jerusalem Collection. Paul warns, through the narration of his ascent, that God will allow those puffed up to be humbled. The Corinthians can face the fact that they have already been humiliated by the rival missionaries, reform themselves, and perfect their grace through contribution to the Collection. Alternatively, Paul himself may be the means of their humiliation.
Thus, although experiences like the ascent can lead to being puffed up if the gift is not perfected through suffering and service, the ascent itself is not belittled or undermined any more than Paul's other accounts of his visions and revelations, including the Damascus experience. This being the case, I have explored the details of the passage in order to mine it for its theological significance. Furthermore, since experiences very similar to the ascent are possibilities for all Christians, I sought the passage's relevance for Christian religious experience and practice. In order to deepen this interpretation and to seek a theological understanding of "ascent" and "ecstasy" different from that of Käsemann and similar interpreters, I drew upon the work of four premodern interpreters.
Through an analysis of Greco-Roman and Jewish ascent literature, 2 Cor 12:4, and the interpretations of premodern theologians, I argued that Paul's ascent is best described as a direct encounter with Christ. He understands himself to have been snatched into a divine realm that is as real as anything perceived through the senses, but transcends these senses. The direct experience of Christ also resists formulation in human language. Paul does not imply he cannot understand what he experiences. At some level, he grasps what he experiences, but it can only be experienced directly. It cannot be experienced vicariously through language.
Paul does not know whether or not he was in or out of the body. I maintain that the doctrine of spiritual senses, as formulated by Origen but perfected by Gregory Palamas, offers the best theological interpretation of this ambiguity. Paul experienced something that is beyond the sensual but beyond the mind as well. Indeed, in many others passages, discussed in chapter 4, Paul emphasizes the role of the Spirit in opening the human being to perceive divine realities. The Spirit can be the means and the object of these experiences. Thus, the Spirit opens a new realm of perception that is neither sensual nor purely intellectual, but beyond both of these realms.
The premodern interpreters provide a possible answer to the most perplexing question my exegesis raises. If Paul neither discourages ecstasy nor parodies ascent but does, ultimately, highlight the dangers of resting content with such experiences, what is the positive role and importance of such experiences? Although Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, Symeon the New Theologian, and Gregory Palamas might formulate their answers to this question differently, they would agree that such experiences draw human beings out of themselves through a taste of the goodness and glory of God. Origen and Symeon recognized the danger such experiences could present if one became boastful or refused to progress further in Christian life. Nonetheless, they insisted that the experience itself is good, and for Symeon, it is almost essential. Being seized by God and brought up into the divine life draws human beings out of their realm of immediate concerns and selfish desires. When human beings recognize that another dimension of reality exists and that this dimension is sweeter and greater than the self, only then can they be motivated to abandon selfish passions and desires.
I find this theological interpretation of ecstasy as self-transcendence compelling, for it coheres with many other passages explored in chapter 4. The encounter with Christ—whether a vision, an inner revelation, or being seized by Christ— draws Paul out of himself and his previous life and its values. Indeed, worldly prestige and even bodily health and well-being lose their hold on him. All he desires to do is to seize the One Who has seized him. He has been snatched into Paradise. Even though the power of the Resurrection can be known in its fullness only in the next life, Paul is confident that one can participate in it in this life. Through self-denial and suffering, believers can experience this life. Furthermore, by transcending themselves and striving to imitate Christ, they can manifest this life and power to others.
For Symeon the New Theologian, the ascent to heaven is a dramatic expression of what should be part of every Christian life. The ascent to heaven is direct encounter with Christ in Christ's glory and sweetness. It is "ecstasy," in the traditional sense that one loses awareness of one's surroundings, only insofar as it is at first overwhelming and startling. Nonetheless, this immediate communion with God is open to Christians through the regular practices of the Church, especially the Eucharist and prayer. In some respects, there is little difference between ascending to heaven and taking Communion. Ultimately, for Symeon, Paul's ascent reveals that God can be truly known and truly experienced by those who so desire. God is so good and so glorious that tasting God's life can be described in no other terms than as something above and beyond this world, even beyond knowledge itself.