Grace Theological Journal 9.1 (1988) 73-103
Copyright © 1988 by Grace Theological Seminary. Cited with permission.
THE ASCENSION MOTIF OF
2 CORINTHIANS 12 IN JEWISH,
CHRISTIAN AND GNOSTIC TEXTS
BRAD H. YOUNG
The heavenly ascent motif is common in religious documents of
late antiquity. A preoccupation with the similarities between these
accounts leads some to overlook the equally important differences.
Care should be taken, however, to distinguish between mystical eso-
tericism and extraordinary religious encounter.
Earlier Jewish traditions provide the proper context for under-
standing Paul's visions and revelations; certain Gnostic texts evidence
yet another distinct stage of development in the ascension motif But
thematic parallels do not warrant the assumption that various reli-
gious traditions are basically identical in origins. And parallels should
not lead to indiscriminate grouping of essentially unrelated texts.
* * *
THE motif of the ascension through the celestial spheres provides
many insights into the religious thought of various traditions
and sects in late antiquity. Here the primary texts for examination
are: Paul's experience in 2 Cor 12:1-10, selected rabbinic narratives,
the Ascension of Isaiah and the Nag Hammadi Apocalypse of Paul.
Before turning to the textual examination, a few prel1mmary observa-
tions must be made in view of the great methodological problems
presented by this theme. At the outset, it must be "noted that the
ascension motif is not uniquely Jewish or distinctively Gnostic.
Neither does Paul's. description in 2 Corinthians make it an exclu-
sively Christian motif. In fact, the heavenly ascent is very widespread
and appears in many religious contexts. In some of the ascent des-
criptions, it is difficult to determine if a literal heavenly journey is
taking place or if a vision is being described. Sometimes, it is not
clear whether an author is relating a specific revelation or if he is
explaining the geography of the unknown celestial spheres. Other
questions are related to these problems. Is the soul or the body
74 GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL
ascending? Is the ascent induced or does a heavenly messenger appear
to initiate the experience unsolicited? When does the journey occur?
How is it connected to death? Does the ascent begin after death or is
it a mystical experience?1
The heavenly ascent theme seems to be the common property of
the ancient world. One finds it in the so-called "Mithraic Liturgy.2 It
appears in Jewish pseudepigraphic-apocalyptic literature,3 in Hermetic
texts like Poimandres,4 in the Nag Hammadi codices,5 and also in
1 Some of these problems are discussed in a Seminar Paper which the writer
received through the courtesy of M. Stone, see, Philadelphia Seminar on Christian
Origins, "Heavenly Ascent in Graeco
Roman Piety," meeting of
theme appears in
swissenschaft 4 (1901) 136-69. Recently a number of studies have appeared which treat
these questions. See especially A. F. Segal, "Heavenly Ascent in Hellenistic Judaism,
Early Christianity and their Environment," Aufstieg und Niedergang der riimischen
Welt, 11.23.2 (1980) 1333-94. M. Dean-Otting's thesis has been published, Heavenly
Journeys: A Study of the Motif in
Hellenistic Jewish Literature (
1984). However Dean-Otting did not include what was defined as Christian texts and
thus unfortunately the Ascension of Isaiah was excluded (cf. also M. Himmelfarb's
review, JBL 106  126-28). See also Hans-Josef Klauck, "Die Himmelfahrt des
Paulus (2 Kor 12,2-4) in der koptischen Paulusapokalypse aus Nag Hammadi (NHC
V/2)" Studien zum Neuen Testament undseiner Umwelt 10 (1985) 151-53, where he
discusses some of the various components of the ascension theme. J. Tabor has
proposed four types of heavenly ascent, "(I) Ascent as an invasion of heaven (2) Ascent
to receive revelation (3) Ascent to heavenly immortality (4) Ascent as a foretaste of the
heavenly world," idem, Things
Unutterable Paul's Ascent to
Roman, Judaic, and Early Christian Contexts (New York: Lanham Books, 1986) 69.
Nonetheless extreme caution must be exercised. Even as a heuristic device, categoriza-
tion of this theme can be misleading because the ancient writer may employ a combina-
tion of these familiar elements as he works to achieve his purpose.
2 Franz Cumont, The Mysteries of Mithra (New York: Dover Publications, 1956)
130-36. See the new translation, M. W.
Meyer, The "Mithras Liturgy" (
Scholars Press, 1976).
3 See, e.g., I Enoch 14:1-15:4, and cf. Enoch's journeys in chapters 17 through 36;
chapter 70; 2 Enoch 1-22 and the Testament of Levi 2:6ff. (J. H. Charlesworth, ed. Old
Testament Pseudepigrapha, 2 vols. [New York, 1983-85] has made these texts more
accessible; see also the iecent critical edition of Enoch by M. Black, The Book of
Hollander and M. de Jonge, The
Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs [
134, as well as n. 18 below). A. Segal's work (op. cit. n. I) is especially helpful and he
has also called attention to Philo of Alexandria (idem, I 354ff.). See also the works on
the ascension theme cited in n. 1 above.
4 Cf. R. Reitzenstein, Poimandres: Studien zur griechisch-iigyptischen und fruh-
christlichen Literatur (
1904 edition). As has often been noted, the English edition published by Walter Scott
and A. S. Ferguson in the first volume of
their Hermetical (
volumes) suffers from the editors' somewhat free emendation of the text. See also
R. M. Grant, Gnosticism (New York: AMS Press, 1978) 21 Iff., and B. Layton's new
translation and annotations, The Gnostic Scriptures (New York: Doubleday, 1987)
YOUNG: THE ASCENSION MOTIF OF 2 CORINTHIANS 12 75
New Testament Apocryphal texts like the Christian Apocalypse of
Paul6 as well as in the New Testament itself.7 One also finds direct
and indirect references to it in both rabbinic literature and in mystical
Jewish texts.8 In fact, these texts only begin to illustrate the great
amount of literature .that is associated with this motif. The Inherent
dangers of comparative study are manifest: how, if at all, are these
449ff. Cf. also H. Jonas, The Gnostic
Unutterable, 66; and Segal, "Heavenly Ascent," 1379-81. For a discussion of some of
the questions raised by Reitzenstein's conclusions and especially his proposal concern-
ing a pre-Christian redeemer myth, cf. also C. H. Dodd, The Interpretation of the
Fourth Gospel (
Redeemer in Mediterranean Antiquity," New Testament Studies 22 (1976) 418-39;
C. Colpe, Die Religionsgeschichtliche Schule: Darstellung und Kritik ihres Bildes vom
gnostischen Erlosermythus (1961) 16f.; and E. Yamauchi, Pre-Christian Gnosticivm
(Grand Rapids: Baker, 1983, revised
edition) 69-83, 244-45. See also,
"Hermetic Literature," Interpreters Dictionary of the Bible, Supplementary Volume,
408 and C. H. Dodd, "Hellenistic Judaism and the Hermetica," The Bible and the
Greeks (London, 1935, reprint 1964), part 2, 97-248. Grant observes, "The most
obvious explanation of the origin of the Gnostic redeemer is that he was modelled after
the Christian conception of Jesus. It seems significant that we know no redeemer
before Jesus, while we encounter other redeemers (Simon Magus, Menander) immedi-
ately after his time" (ibid., 18).
5 In addition to the Nag Hammadi Apocalypse of Paul discussed here, see also e.g.,
The Gospel of Truth 1.3.21-22; The Apocryphon of John 11.1.20; The Apocryphon of
James 1.2.10-15; The Tripartite Tractate 1.5.123; On the Origin of the World ll.5.116,
127; The Exegesis on the Soul 11.6.134. Cf. also the discussion of "Nag Hammadi" in
the Nature and History of Gnosticism (New York: Harper and Row, 1987) 171-203.
6 E.g., The Apocalypse of Paul Ilff., cf. H. Duensing's edition, in E. Hennecke and
J. W. Schneemelcher, New Testament Apocrypha (London: SCM, 1974), 2:763ff. See
also n. 10 below.
Corinthians 12:1-10. See also V. Furnish, II Corinthians (
day, 1984) 523-32.
8 Cf. b. Chagigah 14b (parallels tos. Chag. 2.1; j. Chag. 77b, Chap. 2. halo 1) and
see E. E. Urbach, "Hamasorot Al Torat Hasod Betekufat Hatannaim," Studies in
Mysticism and Religion Presented to G. Scholem (Jerusalem: Magnes, 1967) 7 n. 25
If where he notes the texts from tos. Megilah 3 (4):28 (Leiberman's edition, 361-62) and
the parallel in b. Megilah 24b, "They said to R. Judah: Many have discerned suf-
ficiently [with their mind's eye] to expound the Chariot, and yet they never saw it"
(Mhymym htvx vxr xlv wvrdl vpc hbrh hdvhy ybrl vl vrmx). Some of the
methodological problems of comparative study have been outlined by P. Alexander,
"Companng Merkavah MystIcIsm and GnostIcIsm: 1 Essay m Method," JJS 25
(1984) 1-18, and for a summary of the research, see Yehuda Liebes, The Sin of Elisha:
the Four who Entered
University Monograph Series, 1986) 3-33 (Hebrew). See also I. Gruenwald, Apoca-
lyptic and Merkavah Mysticism (
Isalae on pp. 57-62; cf. G. Scholem, Jewish GnostiCism, Merkabah Mysticism and
Talmudic Tradition (
vised edition, 1965); Ma'aseh Merkabah and Hekhaloth Rabbati; For editions see
76 GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL
exemplary texts related and what are the differences between them.
Nevertheless it is certainly a grave error to minimize the importance
of the differences in an effort to prove that all religious traditions of
late antiquity are similar or basically identical.9 The differences may
appear insignificant to a modern outsider, but to insiders, i.e. those
initiated in cultic practice and belief, subtle distinctions were often
It should be noted, however, that the idea of the heavenly ascent
carries a considerable weight of importance within the framework of
Gnostic religious thought. For instance, the Nag Hammadi Gospel of
Truth teaches, "Since perfection of all is in the Father, it is necessary
for the all to ascend to him" (I, 3.21.20).10 While it may not be clear
when the ascent will occur, it does appear that all will be required to
ascend. In other words, the ascent is unavoidable. As Grant has
shown, the soul's ascent may be understood in some contexts as the
spirit's escape from evil matter.11 No doubt the Gnostic believer
viewed his ascent through the celestial spheres as his journey to the
highest degree of perfection. This ascent through the hostile celestial
S. Wertheimer, Batei Midrashot (Jerusalem: Ktav Vasefer, 1980); A. Jellinek, Beit
Hamidrash (Jerusalem: Bamberger and Wahrmann, 1938);
Shelemah (Jerusalem: Makor, 1972); Rachel Elior, "Hekhalot
Studies in Jewish Thought, Supplement I (1982), based upon Jewish Theological
Seminary manuscript 8128; and especially the important work of P. Schafer, Synopse
zur Hekhalot-Literatur (Tiibingen: J. C. B. Mohr, 1981). The present study will show
that careful research of specific texts is the best way to approach these questions.
9 Pace Tabor, Things Unutterable, 4ff.; Tabor claims, "Jacob Neusner has repeat-
edly documented similar attempts to mark off periods or figures or sources belonging to
a 'pure' past (conceived in various ways) by scholars working in the area of Judaism in
late antiquity. This essentially 'fundamentalist' tendency is encountered often in the
history of the 'history' of religions." Tabor continues, "The perennial 'Hellenistic vs.
Judaic' debate will not appear [in Tabor's book], since I am convinced that emerging
Christianity and the other forms of Second Temple Judaism are, by definition, 'Hel-
lenistic' (strictly, Roman imperial) religions, essentially similar to the other religions of
the period" (ibid). On the contrary, a tenditious blending together of all religious
traditions because of some similarities and by ignoring the limitations of time, historical
figures and careful analysis of literary sources as well as the distinctive characteristics
of each tradition will certainly lead to questionable results. Objective historical analysis
requires consideration of these factors in order to understand and to interpret early
religious texts within their original cultural milieu. "
10 Compare also the Epistula Apostolorum, 20-21, prepared by H. Duensing, in
E. Hennecke and J. W. Schneemelcher, New Testament Apocrypha, 1:205. In addition,
cf. J. Doresse, The Secret Books of the
Egyptian Gnostics (
who deals with the tractates individually as he comments upon the tenants of gnostic
11 R. M. Grant, Gnosticism and Early Christianity (
versity Press, 1959) 61.
YOUNG: THE ASCENSION MOTIF OF 2 CORINTHIANS 12 77
regions was considered dangerous and special knowledge or a guide
was needed to make the trip successfully. Some systems emphasized
the need for this knowledge and increased the number of spheres that
the traveler must pass. Basilides, for example, maintained that there
were three hundred and fifty six heavens.12
Whether this ascent happens at death is not always clear. At
least, the; Christian Apocalypse of Paul provides a parallel that could
be related to the Gnostic idea. At death, when a soul passes from its
body, wicked angels and holy angels are waiting to meet it. On the
one hand, the evil angels take the sinner's soul to the place of torment
and on the other hand, the holy angels escort the righteous one's soul
through the perilous heavenly spheres to paradise.13
How did the ascension theme develop? Any attempt to try to
trace its genesis back to a single origin is unsatisfactory. The wide-
spread use of the motif makes it difficult to show that influence comes
from one source. This phenomenon did not arise in a vacuum. It
appears to be the product of a combination of themes that were
circulating within a common religious environment. At this point,
any identification of this mutual religious environment and its rela-
tionship to Gnosticism is premature. Rather than trying to isolate a
specific sphere of influence, it is more productive to view elements
within specific texts and to understand their relationship to each
other. Here after a careful textual examination, different stages of
development will become clear. On the one hand the scholar must
take care not to group unrelated texts together, but at the same time
he must carefully consider parallel themes and the connections be-
PAUL'S VISIONS AND MERKABAH MYSTICISM
That Paul had polemical motives in mind when writing 2 Corin-
thians has often been noted. Apparently he was polemicizing with a
group of super-pneumatics and wanted to say that he had also
received numerous visions and revelations. As reported in the account
12 See Irenaeus, adv. haer. I, 24:3 and cf. J. Danielou, The Theology of Jewish
Christianity (London: The Westminster Press, 1964) 75.
13 The Apocalypse of Paul 14-17; in E. Hennecke and J. W. Schneemelcher, New
Testament Apocrypha, 2:766ff. Cf. with the Testament of Job 52:lff., S. P. Brock,
Testamentum Iobi (Leiden: Brill, 1967) 58, and the new English translation by R. P.
Spittler in J. Charlesworth, The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, 1:867. (David Flusser
called my attention to the Testament of Job.) Compare also the Coptic texts discussed
in J. Zandee, Death as an Enemy (New York: Arno, 1977) 328-36, and on the Greek
conception of death, cf. R. Garland, The
Greek View of Death (
78 GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL
of Acts, and it seems that this work is closely connected to Paul
himself, Paul had at least eight visions.14 Bowker has argued that
these experiences of Paul may very well somehow be related to Paul's
training in merkabah contemplation.15 Perhaps Scholem has been the
most prominent advocate for claiming that Paul's experience as
described in 2 Cor 12:1-10 is a description of early merkabah mysti-
cism, "It is obvious that Paul, who wrote these lines about the year 58
C.E., was speaking of an idea with which his readers were familiar, a
conception that he as well as his readers in
brought over into the new Christian community.16
Recently Schafer has challenged Scholem's approach and a num-
ber of scholars may question whether the story of the four who
entered into the sDer;Pa as recorded in talmudic literature should be
discussed in the context of the ascension motif.17 The controversy
surrounds the rabbinic tradition concerning the four sages who en-
tered into the sDer;Pa and Paul's ascent (literally being caught up) into
heaven where he was in "
14 J. Bowker, "'Merkabah' Visions and the Visions of Paul," JSS 16 (1971) 159
n. 2. Here are some of Paul's visions
recorded in Acts and his epistles: his
road experience (Acts 9:3-6, 26:12-18); his vision of Ananias (Acts ); the appear-
ance of the Macedonian man after which Paul responds by immediately trying to travel
his. experience in the
trance-like state (gene<sqai me e]n e]ksta<sei, Acts -21; and compare the language
used to describe Peter's vision, Acts 11:5; see n. 29 below); the night vision after his
appearance before the council (Acts ); the angel who appeared to him before his
shipwreck (Acts 27:23-24); and of course 2 Cor 12:1-10. It should also be noted that
Paul speaks of the gospel he preached as being derived through revelation (Gal )
and that he took time to sojourn in
15 Ibid. David E. Aune has observed that 2 Cor 12:9 forms an oracular response
which has parallels both in Greco-Roman sources as well as in the prophetic narratives
of the Old Testament and in the ancient near eastern literature. He understands the
passage in 2 Cor 12:1-10 as describing two different experiences. Here I have suggested
that the continuation of the passage (2 Cor 12:7-10) is a further description of his
ascent (vv 1 -6). Although Aune notes the form of a Heilsorakel giving the apostle
assurance, Aune believes that the description is probably an actual experience rather
than a mere parable which is used for Paul's purpose (see Aune, Prophecy in Early
Christianity and the Ancient Mediterranean
16 G. Scholem, Jewish Gnosticism, Merkabah Mysticism, and Talmudic Tradition
(New York: The Jewish Seminary of America, 1965) 17. It seems that Scholem
probably was too quick to make a connection between early Christianity and Jewish
mystical texts especially when he proposes that merkabah mysticism was well known
among the Corinthian congregation.
17 G. Schafer, "New Testament and Hekhalot Literature: The Journey into Heaven
in Paul and in Merkavah Mysticism," JJS 35 (1984) 32ff. While the present author has
difficulties with Scholem (see preceding note), Schafer's approach seems to lead too far
in the other direction.
YOUNG: THE ASCENSION MOTIF OF 2 CORINTHIANS 12 79
deison).18 Schafer has suggested that originally the story about the
four sages was probably "meant to demonstrate four different types
.\ of Torah teachers and, by way of the type represented by Akiba, to
show the desirable model."19 He bases this interpretation primarily
,. on the reading of the Tosefta which records that R. Akiva "entered
and came out" instead of the terminology that would betray a mysti-
cal tendency, namely that he ascended and descended.20
18 Ibid., 25-26 and 32. The meaning of the word sDer;Pa in the story of the four sages
and the word para<deisoj; in 2 Corinthians will continue to be a controversial question.
The word sDer;Pa only appears three times in the Old Testament (Cant , Neh 2:8 and
Eccl 2:5). In rabbinic literature a sDer;Pa may be nothing more than a garden or an
orchard. The Hebrew word seems to be derived from the A vestan pairidaeza, and is a
loanword from old Persian, pairi-daza- (read pari-daiza- or -deza-) which originally
meant "beyond the wall," and hence an enclosure, a pleasant retreat or park. See also
L. Koehler and W. Baumgartner, Lexicon in Veteris Testamenti Libros, 776, and
especially J. Jeremias' treatment in TDNT, 5:765-73. In addition, cf. Tabor, Things
Unutterable, 115-21. Tabor carefully deals with the materials in parallel sources but
wrongly suggests that Paul describes a two stage journey in 2 Corinthians 12 in which
the third heaven was a station on the way to paradise. However his suggestion makes
little sense from the context of Paul's epistle where the third heaven is best understood
as being parallel to the term 7 para<deisoj. The question has been entertained by Klauck
who suggests, "Der dritte Himmel ist zugleich der hochste Himmel. 'Paradies' sagt nur
etwas mehr iiber seine besondere Qualitat aus," Klauck, "Die Himmelfahrt des Paulus
(2 Kor 12,2-4) in der koptischen Paulusapokalypse aus Nag Hammadi (NHC V /2),"
155. Moreover as has often been noted, according to the better reading, the T. Levi
2:7-10; 3:1-4 also conceives of three heavens). Moreover it is important to note that
the LXX translators used the term para<deisoj; when referring to the Garden of Eden.
The Greek word has also been connected to the place of blessedness for the righteous
(e.g., T. Levi 18:10 and Luke 23:43, and cf. with Billerbeck, Kommentar zum Neuen
Testament, 2:265, 3:532-35). As has been noted by others, the Aramaic portions of
Enoch discovered in Qumran Cave 4 have
provided further witness to the "
righteousness" xFwq Mdrp (J. T. Milik, The Books
of Enoch [
Press, 1976] 232, , 289-90). The
the Vitae Adae et Evae where Adam ascends, " ...raptus sum in paradisum iustitiae"
(see n. 31 below). In II (Slavomc) Enoch
heaven (compare Apocalypsis Mosis.40:1-2). .IV Ezra (4:8) also seems to elevate
Andersen, "2 Enoch," Charlesworth, The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, 1:114-15;
see M. Stone, "
17  85-88). See also the entry for
paradeisos in the revision of
Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and the Other Early Christian Literature by
F. W. Gingrich and F. W. Danker, (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1979)
614; and cf. the Aruch Hashalem, 6:413. One must also ask why the LXX translators
render the Garden of Eden by the term
give a more literal translation. Was
20 Ibid., 25. Schafer suggests that the more original version, "he entered in peace
and went out in peace" was altered by later mystics and this accounts for the reading in
tos. Chag. 2:3, 381, and Zuckermandel tos. Chag. 2:4, 234). Of course Schafer is
80 GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL
While terminology is an important aspect of all textual studies
in the case of the four who entered the sDer;Pa, the difference between
the terms entering and leaving and between ascending and descending
does not change the basic facts of the story. These four sages are said
to have undergone a very dangerous experience. In all the parallels of
the tradition, one of the sages actually dies and only one of them
survives without injury--R. Akiva. Moreover, it is not clear that the
the story in the
phrase, "R. Akiva ascended in peace and descended in peace," is
secondary.21 It might be ventured that the terminology of ascending
and descending is used in regards to R. Akiva because he is the only
one of the four sages not to be harmed by the encounter. But even if
this story is understood as a metaphoric paradigm as Urbach and
Schafer suggested-it is doubtful if it was designed primarily to
present R. Akiva as the model Torah teacher, but rather to teach the
dangers of mystical contemplation and at the same time to de-
mythologize the whole tradition.22
The exact connection between this story of the four who entered
the sDer;Pa and Paul's experience will remain a mystery. Nevertheless it
seems that the two traditions are indeed closely related. Paul speaks
about being "taken up" as if his ascent were involuntary or at least
unsolicited. The way that he describes the whole affair makes it
difficult to determine whether he felt that the ascent was self-induced
correct when he claims that an issue like this cannot be solved by noting that the
mystic was making a modification in the text he most certainly would have used the
more common expression of yarad for the ascent. In addition, it is also quite possible
that a scribe may have adapted the phrase "R. Akiva ascended in peace and descended
in peace" to the introduction of the story "four entered the pardes." After a harmoniza-
tion had been made, other scribes would quite easily have corrected the Tosefta on the
basis of the parallels. While it is difficult to be dogmatic on this point, much evidence
supports the reading of the
descended in peace."
21 See the preceding note. The main texts of the story are found in tos. Chagigah
2:3-4; j. Chagigah 77b, chap. 2, halo 1; b. Chagigah 14-15b; and see now D. Halperin,
The Merkabah in Rabbinic Literature (
22 The various restrictions from early sources which were placed upon those desir-
ing to become involved with the merkabah strengthen this approach, and see Halperin,
19-63. See E. E. Urbach, "Hamasorot Al Torat Hasod Betekufat Hatannaim," Studies
in Mysticism and Religion Presented to G. Scholem (Jerusalem: Magnes, 1967) 12-13
(Hebrew). Urbach suggests that the whole story should be treated as a parable. He
interprets the phrase, "R. Akiva ascended in peace and descended in peace" as referring
to his climbing the fence of the sDer;Pa in the lwAmA. But if this were the case surely a fence
would have been mentioned in the text.
YOUNG: THE ASCENSION MOTIF OF 2 CORINTHIANS 12 81
or not. Paul's description is very intriguing because it is a first hand
report about his own experience. The rabbinic story is preserved in
narrative form and this may account for some of the differences
between the traditions. Paul does not know whether he is in the body
or out of the body, a fact which he repeats for emphasis. He begins to
tell the story about himself in the third person perhaps in order to
express his feeling of detachment during his ascent or less likely as a
literary device.23 Though not all will agree, a careful reading of
2 Corinthians 12 will show that verses 5-10 are most likely a further
elaboration of Paul's revelation. Interestingly three times Paul asks
that this messenger of Satan be removed from him and he receives the
to response, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made
perfect in weakness."24 It may be that he made his request and heard
this voice as he entered each celestial sphere, though Paul does not
explicitly say this himself.
When the connection between 2 Corinthians 12 verses 1-5 and
verses 6-10 is thus understood, the whole mystical experience is a
response to Paul's complaint concerning his "thorn in the flesh" for
which many explanations have been developed. It is most likely that
the thorn in the flesh was related to the difficulties and persecution
that Paul suffered which are discussed in the context of this epistle.25
This interpretation also fits Paul's expression, the "messenger of
Satan," which he used to describe this thorn in the flesh. It harasses
Paul in order to prevent him from becoming too elated "by the
abundance of revelations" (vs. 7). Hence, Paul's mystical experience
seems to have had a dramatic effect and a great influence upon his
personal life. The message, "My grace is sufficient," and "My power is
made perfect in weakness," was probably what Paul considered to be
one of his most profound revelations-at least he selected this
to demonstrate to the super-'pneumatics at
also was acquainted better than they with visions and revelations.
This message, as well as 'being snatched away,' was important for
While Paul does not describe seeing anything specific in this
revelation (in contrast to the four sages in rabbinic literature), it
23 2 Cor 12:8-9.
24 Of course another reason why Paul repeats himself here may be because he
had not fully organized his thoughts before writing. Some have suggested that
Paul was referring to someone other than himself because of his use of the third person (e.g.,
F. Jackson and K. Lake, The Beginnings
of Christianity [
4:281 on Acts 22:17). However for among other reasons, this theory hardly seems
tenable because it is highly unlikely that Paul would have described someone else's
vision in order to impress the pneumatic
25 E.g., 2 Cor -28 and .
82 GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL
should not be hastily concluded that this experience was not accom-
panied by some sort of visual phenomena, as well as by the message
concerning God's grace and the a@rrhta r[h<mata.26 For one thing Paul
does state quite clearly that he has had "visions and revelations of the
Lord" (vs. 1). The various revelations described in Acts often include
both visual phenomena and auditory messages. Since Paul could not
determine whether he was in or out of his body, he was apparently
seeing something or he was in some trance-like state or both. Paul is
relating a personal experience and one in which he received a special
message. He desired to communicate this aspect of his revelation to
and the "unutterable things" that cannot be told. In the other visions
of Paul described in Acts, one can see that he often received direc-
tions or that each revelation had a specific purpose. On the road to
Paul is said to have seen a bright light; in
In 2 Corinthians, Paul does not describe the heavenly spheres, but he
is aware that he has entered the para<deisoj; in the third heaven and
thus he must have seen something.
The story of the four who entered the sDer;Pa seems to be related to
Paul's mystical experience in the third heaven. The precise nature of
this relationship will remain somewhat of an enigma because of the
fragmentary state of the evidence. Urbach has suggested that the
story from rabbinic literature should be interpreted metaphorically.
Even though Urbach considers it as a type of allegory, he maintains
that the object which the rabbis were viewing (Cych) was the
merkabah.28 Nevertheless Urbach would not describe Akivi,'s and his
colleagues' experience as an ecstatic revelation. Certainly the self-
induced mysticism described by Hai Gaon does not seem to be
appropriate for these four sages' experience.29 Flusser pointed out
that outside of this text in rabbinic literature and 2 Corinthians, the
26 Perhaps Schafer (op. cit. n. 18 above, p. 23), has been too hasty to conclude that
Paul only heard and did not see anything. Of course Schafer's well thought out
argument does call attention to the fact that in 2 Corinthians, Paul does not claim to
have viewed the merkabah.
27 See n. 14 above.
28 See E. E. Urbach, "Hamasorot AI Torat Hasod Betekufat Hatannaim," Studies
in Mysticism and Religion Presented to G. Scholem (Jerusalem: Magnes, 1967) 12-13.
Urbach's position is treated by Schafer, op. cit., n. 17, p. 26.
29 See B. Lewin, Otzar Hageonim (
The Merkabah in Rabbinic Literature, 3. According to Hai Gaon, the one who
possessed the special qualities to look at the merkabah had to prepare himself. He had
to fast, place his head between his knees and recite specific songs and hymns. Hai
Gaon's description is one that suggests a self-induced trance or ecstatic state. It is
difficult to ascertain if some were involved in this kind of activity during Hai Gaon's
YOUNG: THE ASCENSION MOTIF OF 2 CORINTHIANS 12 83
terms sDer;Pa or para<deisoj; are never used to describe the "destination
of the mystic's ascent of the soul.30 This fact makes the connections
texts that much more significant. If
monly understood as being located above the earth, then it is no
wonder that Paul had to ascend. In the Vita Adae et Evae Adam
describes a vision to his son Seth:
.while we were praying, Michael the archangel and messenger of
God came to me: And I saw a chariot like the wind and its wheels were
fiery. I was carried off Into the Paradise of Righteousness, and I saw
the LORD sitting and his appearance was unbearable flaming fire. And
many thousands of angels were at the right and at the left of the
describes how Adam "was caught up into the
righteousness" where he saw the Lord. But can this text and Paul's
experience elucidate the story about Ben Azzai, Ben Zoma, Elisha
ben Avuyah and R. Akiva? What exactly happened to these sages?
The truth is that no one will ever know because the rabbinic passages
describing the four who entered the sDer;Pa do not elaborate.
The tradition is related about the rabbis and it is unfortunate
that no authentic texts have been recovered in which the sages in-
volved describe their own experiences. Paul obviously feels that his
journey to the third heaven was a very impressive revelation--one
time. The vivid and detailed description would suggest an affirmative answer. Mystical
experience is very difficult for scholars to analyze. One researcher employed this meta-
phor: scholars studying mysticism are like accountants planning finances-they know
all about the treasures of others but are unable to use them. This does not mean that
personal mystical experiences would aid scholarly research-but it does point to the
difficulties of analyzing someone else's encounter. Hai Gaon may be making an attempt
to understand what happened. In the book of Acts, it may be Luke who adds the detail
while he was praying' to some of the accounts concerning visions (Acts 9:5?; 11
) which probably was not in his source but surely is a characteristic Lukan
addition (compare the appearance of the word proseuchomai in the texts of the
30 D. Flusser, "Scholem's Recent Book on Merkabah Literature," JJS 11 (1961) 62.
31 Vita Adae et Evae 25: 1-3 (M. D. Johnston, "Life of Adam and Eve," Charles-
worth, ed., The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, 2:266-68, and W. Meyer, Abhand-
lungen der Bayrischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, 14/3  229; the text was
discussed by Scholem, Jewish Gnosticism, Merkabah Mysticism, and Talmudic Tradi-
tion, 17; see also J. Licht, "Adam and Eve, Book of the Life of," Encyclopaedia
Judaica, 2:246-47 and cf. with J. Charlesworth, The Pseudepigrapha and Modern
Research with a Supplement, 74-75). On the location of
the idea that certain verses of scripture like Ezekiel's merkabah were used in mystical
contemplation, compare Urbach, "Hamasorot Al Torat Hasod Betekufat Hatannaim,"
2, 16-17, and Halperin, The Merkabah in Rabbinic Literature, 179-85. Adam sees the
Lord enthroned above and the merkabah.
84 GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL
that would commend his epistle to the pneumatic Corinthians. Never-
theless Paul does not indicate that this revelation was dangerous but
rather describes its meaning to his readers. Like Paul, the rabbis are
said to have
had some kind of extraordinary experience in the sDer;
The precise nature of this experience is difficult to define. There
is an appropriate uneasiness with the term "mysticism" when it comes
to the passage concerning the four rabbis and also with respect to
Paul's testimony in 2 Corinthians. A sharp distinction should be
made between a sort of mystical esotericism and an extraordinary
religious encounter. However, if one can understand mysticism in the
sense of a deep or dynamic spiritual experience, then it could be that
both Paul's testimony and the narrative about the four sages in some
way reflect a kind of early pre-Christian mysticism concerning which
modern scholarship knows comparatively little. In this way without
denying that such experiences have occurred and probably have in-
fluenced a number of the great religious geniuses of history, it is
possible to de-mystify the spiritual encounter from an extreme eso-
teric and sometimes self-induced mysticism that appears in some
form or another in multiple religious traditions. However, in the final
analysis, Paul's visions and revelations and specifically his experience
when taken up to the third heaven should be interpreted in the context
of an early stream of pre-Christian Jewish mystical contemplation.32
Ascensio Isaiae also deals with a vision as the text describes the
prophet's ascent through the celestial regions. The Ascension of Isaiah
was well known and widely circulated. Manuscripts are extant in
Ethiopic, in Coptic, in Slavonic, in Latin and some portions of
32 Flusser has pointed to the Essene influence in the second stratum of Christianity
in his article, "The Dead Sea Sect and Pre-Pauline Christianity" Scripta, 4:215-66. It
should be noted that the Essenes believed in the prophetic gift. But one should not be
too hasty to see a connection with early Christian pneumatics (see n. 29 above; and the
work of David E. Aune, op. cit. n. 15 above). Nevertheless, in 1 Corinthians 12-14,
Paul discusses various pneumatikoi<. Fascinatingly enough Paul's wording, a@rti di]
e]so<ptrou e]n ai]ni<gmati., is partially paralleled in some midrashic texts which speak
about the divinely inspired utterances and experiences of the prophets and of Moses. In
one of these texts preserved in the name of R. Judah bar liai, one of the five disciples
of R. Akiva who survived the revolt, one finds that the midrash contrasts Moses to the
other prophets by observing, "But Moses beheld [prophetic visions] through a polished
[glass] specularium, as it is said, The similitude of the Lord doth he behold (Numbers
12:8)." (Lev. Rabbah 1:14, Soncino translation, 17, see also the critical edition of
Margulies, I :30-32). Thus Moses was able to view the y"y tnvmt. Compare also b.
Yebamot 49b, "All the prophets looked into a dim glass [specularium], but Moses
looked through a clear glass [specularium]." See the context in b. Yebamot 49b where
Isaiah's theophany and his words, "I saw the LORD," became a point of controversy.
YOUNG: THE ASCENSION MOTIF OF 2 CORINTHIANS 12 85
Greek. Most of the scholars who have worked with the text agree that
it is a composite work, written by a number of authors at different
periods. While Laurence, Burkitt, and Burch have argued for the
unity of the text,33 scholarly consensus rests decidedly with the view
that the work is a composite variously divided anywhere from two
distinct sections to four separate parts.34 The first part is "the Mar-
tyrdom of Isaiah" which is thought to be of early Jewish origin.
Knibb suggests that it was composed during the period of persecu-
tions of the Jewish people by Antiochus Epiphanes (167-64 B.C.E.).35
connected it with the
sections seem to augment the account of the Martyrdom in the first
section.37 Here it would be ventured that the text is a composite of
three basic sections, the "Martyrdom of Isaiah," the "Testament of
Hezekiah" and the "Ascension of Isaiah." The last section, which
deals with Isaiah's ascension through the heavenly spheres is impor-
tant for the present discussion.
Nevertheless, it must be remembered that the tradition concerning
Isaiah's tragic death at the hands of Manasseh was popular in Jewish,
Christian, and Gnostic circles. The Talmud reports that Rabbi Shimon
ben Azal found a scroll In Jerusalem Which told that Manasseh killed
Isaiah.38 The death sentence was decreed because Isaiah had claimed
Both I Cor and Leviticus Rabbah are closely connected to Num 12:8. See
Billerbeck, Kommentar zum Neuen Testament aus Talmud und Midrasch, 3:452-53;
cf. Aruch, 1:191. The mid rash deals with exegesis and the relationship of Moses to the
other prophets. Paul addresses a specific
33 R. H. Charles, The Ascension of Isaiah (
1900), p. xxxvi-recalls that Laurence, Ascensio Isaiae Vatis, 1819, viewed the text as a
unit; J. Flemming and H. Duensing, "The Ascension of Isaiah," New Testament
Apocrypha, eds. Hennecke and Schneemelcher, 2:643, cite F. C. Burkitt, Jewish and
Christian Apocalypses, 1914, and Vacher Burch, Journal of Theological Studies 21 .
(1920) 249ff., as supporting single authorship; cf. James H. Charlesworth, The Pseude-
pigrapha and Modem Research (Missoula, Montana: Scholars Press, 1976) 125-26.
See especially the article by David Flusser, Encyclopaedia Judaica, 9:71.
34 See M. A. Knibb, "Martyrdom and Ascension of Isaiah," Charlesworth, ed., The
Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, 2:147-49.
35 See Knibb, "Martyrdom and Ascension of Isaiah," 147-49.
36 See David Flusser, "The Apocryphal Book of Ascensio
Isaiae and the
arguments concerning the terminology, ideology and historical allusions to the so-
called "Martyrdom of Isaiah"
which link the text with the
37 See Box, The Ascension of Isaiah, ix-x. Box further segments the text into "The
Testament of Hezekiah" (chapter iii. 13-v. la), the completion of Isaiah's Martyrdom
(chapter v. Ib-14), and finally "Isaiah's Vision" (chapters vi-xi). On the composite
nature of the text, see also M. A. Knibb, "Martyrdom and Ascension of Isaiah,"
38 B. Yebamot 49b; cf. b. Sanhedrin 103b; and see also j. Sanhedrin 28c, chap. 10,
hal. 2 where Isaiah is elevated to the status of Moses-probably to heighten the gravity
86 GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL
to have seen the Lord sitting upon His throne of glory. Isaiah's vision
opposed what Moses had taught, namely, that no one may see the
Lord and live (Ex 33:20). In an attempt to escape, Isaiah hid himself
within a tree. Manasseh had the tree sawn in two and killed the
prophet in the process. Thus Isaiah was executed because he claimed
to have seen the Holy One enthroned on high! The whole story is
somewhat ironic because Manasseh is by no means portrayed in the
Hebrew Scriptures as a king who displayed interest in theological
purity and yet Manasseh had Isaiah executed because of the prophet's
mystical vision of the Lord enthroned in His glory.39 Does this
tradition betray tension against mystical contemplation?40
Within the Christian tradition, Isaiah's death is more than likely
alluded to in the New Testament. The Epistle to the Hebrews relates
that some saints were sawn asunder, contending for their faith
(Heb 11:37). .Often with good reason, commentators have suggested
that here Hebrews seems to make reference to Isaiah's death. Early
Christian writers such as Justin Martyr (Dial. c. Tryph. chapter cxx)
and Tertullian (De patientia chapter xiv; Scorpiace, chapter viii)
mention Isaiah's execution by the wood saw. The tradition was also
known to Ongen, Epiphanius, and Jerome.41
The reference to Isaiah from the Nag Hammadi Tractates, is
related to the prophet's death. The writer of The Testimony of Truth
was familiar with the legend. Unfortunately, some lacunae are found
in the text, but the translators have rendered the passage as follows:
But the word of [. ..] and spirit [. ..] is the Father [. ..] for the man ..
[. ..] like Isaiah, who was sawed with a saw, (and) he became two. [So
of Manasseh's sin and the greatness of God's compassion in forgiving him. At any rate,
in the Jerusalem Talmud the greatness of Isaiah is emphasized, for like Moses, God
spoke to him more directly. See C. C.
Torrey, The Lives of the Prophets (
The Society of Biblical Literature and Exegesis, 1946) 20, 34; D. R. A. Hare, "The
Lives of the Prophets," J. Charlesworth, ed., Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, 2:385f.;
and also M. Stone, Armenian Apocrypha Relating to the Patriarchs and Prophets
(Jerusalem: The Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities, 1982) 160-61 and cf. n. I.
39 Cf. preceding note and R. H. Charles, "The Martyrdom of Isaiah," The
Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha of the Old
1977),2:158. Also see Billerbeck, 3:747. Also it should be noted that Flusser observed,
"It is not surprising that the author of Ascensio Isaiae projects the religious disputes of
his own day into the period of Isaiah, and presents them as a dispute between Isaiah
and the false prophets," idem, "The Apocryphal Book of Ascensio Isaiae and the Dead
Sea Sect," 40.
40 It is reasonable to assume that some sages would have viewed visions and
mystical experiences as a possible danger. A charlatan could have employed stories of
visions to lead the people astray.
41 For a more complete list of references see Emil Schiirer, The History of the
Jewish People in the Age of Jesus Christ (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1891),
YOUNG: THE ASCENSION MOTIF OF 2 CORINTHIANS 12 87
also the Son of Man divides] us by [the word of the] cross. It [divides
the day from] the night and the corruptible [from] incorruptibility, and
It [divides] the males from the females. But [Isaiah] is the type of the
body. The saw is the word of the Son of Man which separates from the
error of the angels.42
Here the author has taken the tradition and allegorized it into his
framework of dualism. He seems to have stylized this passage on the
famous verse in the Epistle of the Hebrews:
The word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged
sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, and joints and
marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. (Heb
At least, these texts show that the tradition concerning Isaiah's death
was known to Jewish, Christian, and Gnostic writers alike.
When the story concerning Isaiah's death existed independently
is difficult to determine. The legend is apparently based upon the
scriptural accounts of Manasseh's blood letting (2 Kgs ) and
perhaps upon the reports concerning King David's executions carried
out by the means of saws (2 Sam ; I Chron 20:3, cf. LXX). The
tradition seems to be an early one. Of course, it is difficult to answer
the question: How long did these texts and traditions exist before
they were made into a composite work? An equally important dif-
ficulty is the tradition's form and stage of development when the
above ancient writers became acquainted with it: these early references
I do not necessarily refer to the same text or to the same form of the
text which has been preserved today.43
division II, 3:144-45, and the new edition, revised and edited by G. Vermes, F. Millar
and M. Goodman, 3/ 1:337ff. .
42 The Testimony of Truth (IX, 3.40,105); quoted from James M. Robmson, The
Nag Hammadi Library in English (New York: Harper and Row Publishers, 1977) 409-
10 (referred to ahead as NHL).
43 Cf. Flusser, "The Apocryphal Book of Ascensio Isaiae and the Dead. Sea Sect,"
31. The difficult chronological problems of the text cannot be avoided. It is generally
agreed that the present form of the text is not to be considered earlier than the second
century (Charlesworth, 125-26). However, the various sections of the text appear to
come from the first century. First it should be noted that the Testament of Hezekiah
seems to be dependent on the Ascension of Isaiah (Chapter 3.13; cf. A. K. Helmbold,
"Gnostic Elements in the 'Ascension of Isaiah,'" New Testament Studies 17 
227). Then it must be observed that a union of three independent themes. has occurred
within the text: I) Antichnst, 2) Bellar 3) Nero redivivus. Such a fusion of motifs
would most probably have occurred not long after Nero's death (68 A.D.) and seem-
ingly not much later than 100 A.D. Of course, one must maintain an open mind in
dealing with texts that have a complex history like Ascensio Isaiae. (Cf. Charles, The
Ascension of Isaiah, pp. li-Ixxv; Danielou, 12ff.). See also M. A. Knibb, "Martyrdom
88 GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL
The vision of Isaiah is contained in chapters six through eleven.
This unit is properly called a vision because Isaiah goes into a trance
and an angel from the seventh heaven comes to him. The text gives
the following description:
And while he [Isaiah] was speaking with the Holy Spirit in the hearing
of them all, he became silent, and his mind was taken up from him,
and he did not see the men who were standing before him. His eyes
indeed were open, but his mouth was silent, and the mind in his body
was taken up from him. But his breath was (still) in him, for he was
seeing a vision. And the angel who was sent to show him (the vision)
was not of this firmament, nor was he from the angels of glory of this
world, but he came from the seventh heaven (VI.10ff.)44
Thus Isaiah commences his vision and his ascent through the heaven-
lies. Later Isaiah relates the vision to the king and the prophets, but
not to the people (VI.16-17; XI.39).
The text's view toward the structure of the cosmos fits well into
its contemporary understanding of the heavenly spheres. The author
describes seven heavens. His main concern is not to give a detailed
description of the heaven lies, for unlike Slavonic Enoch he avoids
elaborate descriptions of the heavens, the angels, or their tasks. The
writer of Ascensio Isaiae makes little differentiation between the first
five heavens. A throne is situated in the center of the sphere with
angels on the left and angels on the right.45 The angels on the right '"
and Ascension of Isaiah," 149-50. Knibb views the martyrdom as coming from the end
of the first century but prefers a second century date for the ascension. However, he
follows Charles' argument quite closely and does not present compelling evidence to
reject Charles' conclusion concerning the date, i.e., "Thus the composition of the
Vision in its primitive form G belongs to the close of the first century" (Charles,
Ascension, p. xlv). Indeed some form of the text of the Ascension of Isaiah may well
have existed before the beginning of the second century. At least while the date cannot
be determined with precision, nothing in the narrative points to a later time.
44 Here the Ascension of Isaiah provides a description of the visionary's state while
he is experiencing his vision. Few texts actually provide these details and this should be
compared both to the Epistula Apostolorum (20-21, op. cit. n. 10) and also to Paul's
description in 2 Cor 12:2, " ...whether in the body or out of the body I do not know,
God knows. And I know that this man was
caught up into
above). Concerning the angel who appears to Isaiah, compare also Enoch 20:8 "Remiel,
one of the holy angels, whom God set over those who rise" (Charles, The Book of
Enoch, 44, see note on 20:8 as the text is missing in a number of manuscripts). In the
present work, Knibb's translation of Ascensio Isaiae has been used (M. A. Knibb,
"Martyrdom and Ascension of Isaiah," op. cit. n. 34; and see R. H. Charles, The
Ascension of Isaiah,
Ascension d'Isaie (
45 While this on the whole is true, it should be noted that, in comparison with some
other texts, the writer of the Ascension of Isaiah provides more information concerning
the heavenly realms than some other similar narratives.
YOUNG: THE ASCENSION MOTIF OF 2 CORINTHIANS 12 89
are somewhat more glorious than those on the left side. The angels
praise Him who sits on the throne in the seventh heaven (VII.16-
17).46 The praise of the angels on the right is superior to the praise of
the angels who occupy the left. As Isaiah ascends, the heavens be-
come more glorious and the praise is more sublime. The higher
heavens have more light than the lower heavens. One finds a dualism
between light and darkness. For instance, in the sixth heaven Isaiah's
angelic guide explains: "If you rejoice over this light, how much more
(will you rejoice) in the seventh heaven when you see the light where
the LORD is and his Beloved. .." (VIII.25). As Isaiah relates the
vision, he comments that on earth there is "much darkness"47 when
compared to the heavenly region. In the sixth heaven, the scene
changes and all the angels look alike and their praise is alike. No
throne is present. The power of the seventh heaven is so strong that it
coordinates the functions of the sixth heavenly sphere. The angel
makes this clear to Isaiah and explains: ". ..(they [angels of the
sixth heaven] are directed) by the power of ~he seventh heaven,
where the One who IS not named dwells, and his Chosen One. .."
A similar structure of seven heavens is found in the Apocryphon
of John. Yaldabaoth has fashioned for himself seven heavens with
rulers for each realm.48 This text provides the following description:
And he [Yaldabaoth] placed seven kings-corresponding to the firma-
ments of heaven-over the seven heavens and five over the depth of
the abyss, that they may reign" (II,1.11.5). However, this cosmic
structure is not unique to Gnosticism. Seven firmaments are also
found in the Testament of Levi (according to some readings) and also
in SlavonIc Enoch. One of the homiletically midrashim Pesikta Derav
I Kahana49 describes the Divine Presence ascending and descending
through the seven heavens.50 The Midrash on Psalms indicates that
46 This is stated in the first heaven. "And I asked the angel who lead me, and I said
to him: 'To whom is this praise directed?' And he said to me, 'To the praise of [the One
who sits in] the seventh heaven, the One who rests in the holy world, and to his
Beloved, from where I was sent to you. To there it is directed.'" (Chapter VII. 16-17).
47 The Ascension of Isaiah VIII. 24.
48 Andrew K. Helmbold, "Gnostic Elements in the' Ascension of Isaiah' ", New
Testament Studies 18 (1972) 225.
49 Hermann L. Strack, Introduction to the Talmud and Midrash
Atheneum, 1978) 210-11; and see now the extensive revision by G. Stemberger,
Einleitung in Talmud und Midrasch (Munich: Beck, 1982) 270ff.; and cf. George F.
Moore, Judaism in the First Centuries
of the Christian Era (
Books, 1974), 1:168; and see the revision by G. Vermes and F. Millar of E. Schurer, The
History of the Jewish People in the Age of
Jesus Christ (
50 Pesikta Derav Kahana, 1:1; Bernard Mandelbaum ed., Pesikta de Rav Kahana
(New York: The Jewish Theological Seminary of America, 1962), 1:2. Cf. W. Braude
and I. Kapstein trans., Pesikta-de-
Rab- Kahana (
90 GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL
there may have been a progressive development in the sages' under-
standing concerning the celestial regions. It says that "our teachers"
taught that there are two heavens on the basis of the verse in Psalms
68:33 (34 in Hebrew), "To him that rideth upon the heaven of
heavens" (KJV). The darshan continues that others maintained that
there are three heavens, as it was said, "the heaven and heaven of
heavens" (I Kings ), but Rabbi Eleazer taught that there are seven
heavens and then he names each one.51 This idea was apparently well
known for Rabbi Meir lists the seven firmaments in Avot de Rabbi
Nathan and they also appear in other rabbinic texts.52 To support the
theory that a conceptual development occurred, it should be noted
that the Apostle Paul and an early recension of the Testament of Levi
mention only three heavens.53 The Ascension of Isaiah's seven celestial
spheres is acceptable to a Jewish and to a Gnostic understanding of
Society, 1975) 5-6. On the number of heavens, see also the important discussion of
Tabor, Things Unutterable, 116ff.
51 The Midrash on Psalms, on Psalm 114:2, S. Buber, Midrash
reprint 1977) 236a. Cf. W. Braude, trans;
The Midrash on Psalms (
University Press, 1959),2:215. In a parallel passage to this text, the tradition is attributed
to R. Jeremiah b. Eleazar which is probably due to scribal confusion (Yalkut Shimeoni,
vol. I, remez 855). The conception of seven heavens also appears in other midrashic
texts: Yalkut Machiri on Ps 114:5 (parallel to Midrash on Psalms; also attributed to
R. Eleazar) and on Ps 24:22 (Resh Lakish); Deuteronomy Rabbah (Rav [probably a
scribal error] says there are two heavens while R. Eleazar names seven); Leviticus '..
Rabbah 29: II (anonymous, cf. M. Margulies' excellent critical Hebrew edition, 3:680);
cf. also Numbers Rabbah 12: 17 (the amoraim R. Huna and R. Abin are mentioned in the
context); Song of Songs Rabbah 6:4,2; Esther Rabbah I: 12 (see the English translations
in H. Freedman, ed. Midrash Rabbah [Soncino, 1951]). In b. Chagigah 12b R. Judah
(bar Ilai, one of Akiva's disciples?) says that there are two firmaments but the Amora
from a later period, Resh Lakish claims that there are seven. See also following note.
52 Avot Derabbi Natan, Recension A, Chapter 37, Solomon Schechter ed., Aboth
de Rabbi Nathan (Israel, reprint, 1980) 55b. Cf.
according to Rabbi Nathan (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1956) chapter 37. Cf.
some other Rabbinic passages that present a similar cosmology or are parallel to the
above references: Pesikta Rabbati, 5 (Friedmann's edition, 18b); and see Friedmann's
notes there. The Midrash on Psalms, Ps 92:2 (Buber's edition 20Ib); and see also the
preceding note. Cf. P. Alexander, "3 (Hebrew Apocalypse of) Enoch," J. Charlesworth,
ed. The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, 1:239f.
53 2 Cor 12:1-4; Paul says that he encountered
this does not necessarily prove that according to Paul there were only three firmaments
and no more, it seems that this indeed is Paul's cosmology. Moreover Charles sug-
gested that the earlier version of the Testament of Levi contained three heavens and
was later expanded to seven heavens (The Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha of the Old
Testament, 2:304). In I Enoch 14:8-18 one discovers a vision in which Enoch rises: I)
from the earth into the heavens; 2) through a wall of fire into a "house;" and finally
3) into a second house wherein is located the divine throne. While Enoch was not
primarily interested in describing heavenly geography, it must be observed that its
description fits the three firmament conception quite well. While it seems reasonable
that a system of a smaller number of heavens was later expanded, this is not absolutely
YOUNG: THE ASCENSION MOTIF OF 2 CORINTHIANS 12 91
the heavenlies and cannot be said to be distinct from the ancient
world's view of the regions beyond.54
Nevertheless, the Ascension of Isaiah has some remarkable affini-
ties to the Gnostic scheme. The thrones in the five lower heavens are
occupied by the most glorious angel of that particular sphere. It
seems that he leads the praise of the other angels and that he also
determines who enters and who exits his celestial realm. This can be
paralleled to the kings who reign in the seven heavens in the
Apocryphon of John. The marked dIfference between the two schemes
is that the seven celestial realms in Ascensio Isaiae seem to be in
harmony with the Beloved, and He who is enthroned in the seventh
heaven. While it is true that the power or influence of the seventh
heaven decreases with each degree that is lower than the seventh
heaven, the spiritual struggle is located in the earthly realm where the
angels of Satan are in conflict and are said to be "envying one
another.55 This great disharmony is found in the lower terrestrial
region. Indeed it is called the "alien world. 56 The lower firmament is
viewed as having hostilities between the angelic beings.57 In contrast
to the Ascension of Isaiah, the Apocryphon of John views these seven
cosmic regents to be united with Yaldabaoth in their rebellion against
the highest deity.
Another important element presented in Isaiah's vision is its
concept of the trinity. Isaiah's vision shows the primitive stage of an
emerging trinitarian. formulation. The .text's expression of the trinity
may be summed up In the words of Isaiah: "And I rejoiced very much
that those who love the Most High and his Beloved will at their end
go up there through the angel of the Holy Spirit."58 In the sixth
heaven Isaiah exclaims, "and there they all named the primal Father
certain and more research is needed. For instance, though not directly connected, one
may compare the ancient Egyptian belief in the dangerous journey of the soul passing
from life into death through the numerous gates which involved dealing with the
different gatekeepers (see Zandee, Death as an Enemy, 25-31, 112-25 [especially 123];
H. Goedicke, "The Egyptian Idea of Passing from Life to Death," Orientalia 24 
225-39; cf. J. Bonomi and S. Sharpe, The Alabaster Sarcophagus of Oimenephtah 1
J of Chicago, 1935] and cf. also n.13 above concerning the Greek view of death).
54 Bousset, 234, saw IranIan Influence reflected m this cosmology.
55 The Ascension of Isaiah VII.9.
56 Ibid., VI.9.
57 J. Danielou has pointed out the background of this belief, "Besides Satan and his
angels there are the lower demons, the pneu<mata. I Enoch saw them as the souls of the
giants who had been born of the union of the Watchers and the daughters of men, and
Justin accepted this explanation (II Apol. v, 2-6) as did Athenagoras (Suppl. 1,24). It
occurs in the Clementine Homilies (VIII. 18). Whatever origin is ascribed to them,
however, these demons live in the atmosphere surrounding the earth," idem, 190-91.
58 The Ascension of Isaiah VII.23.
92 GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL
and His Beloved, 'the Christ' and the Holy Spirit all with one voice."59
The Beloved is identified as Christ and the Most High is the Father.
Perhaps the most interesting element in the formulation is the under-
standing of the Spirit as an angel. One of the functions assigned to
the angel of the Holy Spirit is to guide the righteous through the
heavens.60 All three are worshipped.61
Helmbold has tried to show some of the "Gnostic elements" that
are found in the Ascension of Isaiah. In his article, he points to
similar trinitarian doctrines in the Nag Hammadi literature. One of
his examples is from the Apocryphon of John (II, 1.2.13f):
You are not unfamiliar with this likeness are you? That is to say, be not
timid. I am the one who [IS With you (pl.)] for ever. I [am the Father], I
am the Mother, I am the Son. I am the unpolluted and incorruptible
A similar passage is found in the Gospel of the Egyptians (111,,9):
Three powers come forth from him; they are the Father, the Mother
(and) the Son, from the living silence, what come forth from the
incorruptible Father. These [came forth] from the silence of the un-
These texts provide the normal trinitarian formulation from the Nag
Hammadi literature, namely the Father, the Mother, and the Son.62
The Mother replaces the Holy Spirit. This development is of course a
radical deviation from the texts in Ascensio Isaiae where the formula-
tion appears to be based upon some early Christian tradition (cf.
Didache 7:1) or perhaps even upon the one widespread reading from
the gospel of Matthew where this well-known baptismal formula is
stated, " ...baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son
and the Holy Spirit."63
However, it is of great interest that the Gospel of the Hebrews
contains a passage that links the Holy Spirit to the mother of Jesus.
59 Ibid., VIII. 18.
60 Ibid., VII.23.
61 Ibid., IX.27-36.
62 Helmbold, 224.
63 Matt 28: 19 (ASV). The original reading of this text probably did not contain this
formula, see the critical apparatus in the 25th edition of K. Aland's Greek text and his
Synopsis Quattuor Evangeliorum. As David Flusser suggested, the better text and
earlier reading was, ...teaching all nations in my name" (according to the readings
of Eusebius before the Council of Ancyra-cf. Flusser, "The Conclusion of Matthew,"
Annual of the Swedish Theological Institute 5  110-20). For no apparent reason,
this text has been deleted from the 26th edition of the Nestle-Aland Greek New
YOUNG: THE ASCENSION MOTIF OF 2 CORINTHIANS 12 93
Origen and Jerome both quote this narrative a number of times in
their commentaries, "Even so did my [the Savior's] mother, the Holy
Spirit, take me by one of the hairs of my head and carry me away to
the great mountain Tabor.64 Perhaps the designation of the Holy
Spirit as the mother developed from speculation surrounding the
incarnation of Jesus or even because the grammatical gender of the
word spirit in Hebrew is usually feminine. The Apocryphon of John
calls the Holy Spirit the "mother of the living." This passage describes
how the Sophia of the Epinoia created "the likeness of himself"
without the consent of the Spirit. Afterwards:
...she surrounded it with a luminous cloud, and she placed a throne
I in the middle of the cloud that no one might see it except the Holy
Spirit who is called the mother of the living. And she called his name
The notion of the Holy Spirit being an angel can also be paral-
leled in the Jewish Christian sect of the Elkesaites. Hippolytus pro-
vides the account that a huge angel some ninety six miles high had
reportedly revealed a book to Elchasai. This male angel was accom-
panied by a female angel. He writes, "The male is the son of God but
the female is called the Holy Spirit.66 Here, the Elkesaites not only
view the Holy Spirit as an angel, but as a feminine angel as well. The
identification of the Holy Spirit with an angel or with a female figure
such as the mother of Jesus seems to be connected in some way to an
early Jewish Christian theology.67
The last item to be observed about the ascension is Isaiah's
transformation. Isaiah's form undergoes a change as he ascends to
each sphere. Isaiah exclaimed to his angelic guide, "And I said to the
angel who (was with me), for the glory of my face was being trans-
formed as I went up from heaven to heaven, 'Nothing of the vanity of
that world is named here'" (Ascensio Isaiae VII.25). The leader of the
praise in the sixth heaven restrains Isaiah from entering the seventh
heaven because of his garment. Once he has received the proper
64 P. Vielhauer, "Jewish-Christian Gospels," in
eds., New Testament Apocrypha, 1:160 and also especially p. 164 where the passage is
quoted. Vielhauer cites the following references: Origen, Com. on Jn. 11.12; Hom. on
Jer. XV.4; Jerome, Com. on Micah 7:6; Com. on Isa. 40:9; Com. on Ez. 16.13.
65 The Apocryphon of John (II, 1, 10.9f.), NHL, 104.
66 Hippolytus, refutatio omn. haer., Prol. IX, 13.1-3; Epiphanius Pan. 19.4,1 and
53.1,9; and see F. J. Klijn and G. J. Reinink, Patristic Evidence for Jewish-Christian
Sects (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1973) 56, 114, 115, 158, 159, 196, 197; cf. Danielou, 65.
67 Here, it should also be noted that Origen and Jerome quote what has been
named the "Gospel of the Hebrews" as identifying the Holy Spirit with the Savior's
mother. Furthermore, the Elkesaites viewed the Holy Spirit as a feminine angel in the
94 GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL
garment from the Beloved, he enters. Again he undergoes transforma-
tions to join in the angels' praise.68 Likewise, when the Beloved
descends, he also undergoes transformation. The idea of Christ's
physical metamorphosis is already alluded to in the so-called Christo-
logical hymns. Thus in Phil 2:6-9a one reads,
...who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality
with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form
of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in
human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death,
even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him. ..69
Here the word morfh< is very significant. Christ was transformed
"taking on the form of a servant." Moreover in Ascensio Isaiae his
descent is hidden from the five lower heavens and also from the .ct
terrestrial realm. This seems to go back to an early Christian tradition
which teaches that Christ's identity was concealed from the god of
this world.70 This teaching may be reflected in Paul's first Epistle to
the Corinthians, " ...none of the rulers of this age has understood;
passage quoted above. The quotations from the Nag Hammadi texts omit the Holy
Spirit in their trinitarian formulations. Instead, "the Mother" appears. Thus one
discovers a connection between the Gnostic texts and the so-called "Jewish-Christian"
Gospel of the Hebrews and the Elkesaites. Nevertheless the early Christian traditions
concerning the birth of Jesus could possibly have caused similar independent inter-
pretations by different sects. Various approaches can be found among scholars when
they try to define Jewish Christianity. Of course the sources compiled by A. Klijn and
G. Reinink, Patristic Evidence for Jewish-Christian Sects, have greatly contributed to
research; and cf. Hans-Joachim Schoeps, Jewish
Press, 1969) 9ff.; Danielou, 7ff.; Jakob Jocz, The Jewish People and Jesus Christ
(Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1979) 146ff.; the important study by S. Pines, The
Jewish Christians of the Early Centuries of Christianity according to a New Source
(Jerusalem: The Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities, 1966); and the un-
published doctoral dissertation by R. Pritz, "The Jewish Christian Sect of the Naza-
renes" (Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 1981; a revised version is currently being
prepared by Magnes Press). For more bibliography, see P. Vielhauer, "Jewish Chris-
68 The Ascension of Isaiah IX.30.
69 Flusser suggested that the transformation of the Beloved in the descent is already
alluded to in the so-called Christological hymns whose sources are probably pre-
Pauline. The same idea is expressed in the Epistula Apostolorum 14 which is re-
markably similar to Ascensio Isaiae. (See H. Duensing, "Epistula Apostolorum,"
E. Hennecke and
idea of transformation in both texts was noted by Duensing, ibid., 190 and see also
M. Hornschuh, Studien zur Epistula Apostolorum (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1965) 2ff.
70 The Ascension of Isaiah X. I Off.
YOUNG: THE ASCENSION MOTIF OF 2 CORINTHIANS 12 95
for if they had understood it, they would not have crucified the
The infrastructure of ideas, the concept of the world, and some
basic elements in Isaiah's vision could be easily transferred into a
fully developed Gnostic framework. However a Gnostic believer would
feel that the author of Ascenslo Isalae was not fully enlightened. The
text could quite possibly have been used by Jewish Christian orders,
Christian groups, or semi-Gnostic sects?72
THE APOCALYPSE OF PAUL
The intriguing Nag Hammadi tractate, The Apocalypse of Paul,
describes Paul's heavenly journey to the tenth heaven. He is directed
through the cosmic regions by the spirit who acts as his celestial guide
and helps him pass the gatekeeper in the seventh heaven.73 The gate-
keeper is called the old man and he tries to prevent Paul from
completing his journey and returning to his fellow spirits in the tenth
heavenly domain. The other twelve apostles are mentioned, but it
seems that Paul is given priority over them.74 A preference for Paul
71 1 Cor 2:8 (ASV). The position that "the rulers of this age" refers to demonic
powers has recently been challenged by G. Fee, The first Epistle to the Corinthians
(Grand Rapids: Eerdmanns, 1987) 103-4, and see especially n. 22.
72 The semi-Christian groups are those who could accept a Docetic view of Christ
(The Ascension of Isaiah XI). Gnostic groups may have used the text, but the point here
is that the Ascension of Isaiah itself is not a Gnostic text. The Gnostic would sense that
the author did not know some essential facts, e.g., the division of the deity (cf. R. McL.
Wilson, "Jewish Christianity and Gnosticism," Rechereches de Science Religieuse 60
(1972) 263f. and Hans Jonas' discussion in J. P. Hyatt, The Bible in Modern Scholar-
able about their religious traditions, it seems quite probable that the text was compiled
by a Jewish Christian. One can observe that the text is set in the atmosphere of Jewish
apocalyptic. The cosmology, the angelology, the throne room, the angelic guide, and
other elements all have antecedents in Jewish literature. This does not mean that they
are uniquely Jewish. Yet, the culminative impression given by the text is inescapable.
Also, the identification of the Holy Spirit with an angel is not without its significance
(cf. Box, p. xxv). At this point, the author can only concur with Box's suggestion,
" ...the 'Vision' (vi-xi) was, at the earliest, composed at the latter end of the first
century A.D., and probably by a Jewish .Christian" (Box, p. xx1v). The reasons for an
early date for the sources of the ascension have been noted above (n. 43). Damelou
views the text as coming from the first century (the period between Nero's death and 80
or 90). and postulates Jewish Christian. authorship. Other scholars hold to the view that
the vision was a Christian composition (Charles, p. VIII; Charlesworth, 125-26,
J. Flemming and H. Duensing, 643).
73 The Apocalypse of Paul V,,20; Ibid., V,, 2-30.
74 This point is debatable. For instance, the other apostles arrive in the tenth
heaven ahead of Paul. However, the whole narrative revolves around Paul's experience.
It is Paul who successfully leads the conflict with the old man figure. Is it possible that
96 GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL
may be identified as a Valentinian an feature.75 The narrative is con-
cerned with Paul's ascent and transformation into a spiritual being.
The translators have noted three different episodes in the text: 1) an
epiphany scene, 2) a judgment scene, and 3) the ascension motif.76
In the epiphany scene Paul meets a small child on the mountain
child symbolizes Christ. This view is proposed by the translators who
point to other similar texts that parallel this thought, where a child
represents Christ (Apocryphon of John BG 2 20, 19-21,4; Acts of
The narrative of the epiphany scene appears to echo Paul's
Epistle to the Galatians.79 In this letter, Paul explains that he received
the gospel through the revelation of Jesus Christ (a]pokalu<yewj;
]Ihsou? Xristou?).80 The title of this codex, the Apocalypse of Paul,
therefore reflects Paul's term apocalypsis in Galatians. The city of
Paul did not go up to
have his message approved by the other apostles; only later did he
make his way
point of contact between Galatians and the Apocalypse of Paul is
Paul's conversation with the young child. The child designates Paul
as the one who was blessed from his mother's womb.81 This expres-
sion from the epiphany scene apparently comes directly from Paul's
his confrontation with the old man enables the others to ascend (The Apocalypse of
Paul V, , 30-24,2)1 At one point during the journey, Paul passes the other apostles
who were before him (ibid. 22, 14-16). In short, it seems that Paul is given prominence
over the other apostles (cf. William Murdock and George MacRae, "The Apocalypse
of Paul," James Robinson ed., Nag Hammadi Codices (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1979) 48-49
(noted ahead as NHC).
75 NHC, 49; George MacRae and William Murdock, "The Apocalypse of Paul,"
76 NHC, 48. Cf. Klauck, "Die Himmelfahrt des Paulus (2 Kor 12,2-4) in der
koptischen Paulusapokalypse aus Nag Hammadi (NHC V /2)," 167.
77 The Apocalypse of Paul V,, 5-16; 19,12; cf. with translators note on V,2:
18.5. The significance of
with the route from
known this travel route from other sources (for example Luke -37). For the
der koptischen Paulusapokalypse aus Nag Hammadi (NHC V /2)," 185-86.
78 NHC, 48; NHL, 239. Compare also Epiphanius, Pan., 30.3,6 (F. J. Klijn and
G. J. Reinink, Patristic Evidence for Jewish-Christian Sects, 178-79) where some of
the members of Jewish-Christian sects are said to have believed that the Spirit who is
Christ had come upon the boy Jesus.
81 The Apocalypse of Paul V,, 12-14.
YOUNG:THEASCENSIONMOTIFOF2CORINTHIANS 12 97
womb, and called me through His grace was pleased to reveal His
Son in me" (Gall:15-16a ASV).
In the epiphany episode, not only does the young child serve as a
figure of Christ, but he also has another important significance in the
text: he identifies himself as the Spirit. functioning a leader or as a
semi-divine guide, the Spirit accompanies Paul during his revelation
and during his ascent through the heavens. This spirit is also referred
to as the Holy Spirit.82
The writer of the Apocalypse of Paul does not give an extensive
description of the heavenlies. In this respect, the Ascension of Isaiah
provides a much fuller picture of each celestial realm. Here, the text
skips the first three heavens entirely and takes Paul to the fourth
heaven. It is difficult to determine if this is an actual journey or only a
revelation. Unfortunately, the first part of the text has not been
recovered or it might have alleviated this difficulty. Nor is it possible
to know exactly when the journey occurs. Nevertheless, it may be
cautiously presumed that this is an interpretation of Paul's experience
which he describes in his second epistle to the Corinthian congrega-
tion. Even though this is true, in the Corinthian passage, Paul reports
that he was lifted up into the third heaven, which is contrary to the
Nag Hammadi document where he passes through the seventh heaven
to Ogdoad and continues rising on to the tenth celestial realm. It may
be conjectured that the author did not consider the evil domain of the
old man in his mathematical formulation and only started countIng
the heavens at the point in which Paul was liberated at Ogdoad.
The judgment and punishment motif has been gleaned from
Jewish apocalyptic and seems to be dependent upon the Testament of
Abraham.83 The Testament of Abraham presents several textual and
redactional problems,84 but the core material of the book seems to go
back to a Jewish provenance and is probably based on Semitic
sources.85 The present form of the text has been re-edited and
redacted, as is indicated from the two recensions. Christian influences
82 bid., 18, 20; 19, 20-26.
83 0ne other example besides the Testament of Abraham (chapter 10) can be found
in 1 Enoch 56. 1-3.
84 M. R. James, The Testament of Abraham (
Limited, 1967) 54-55. See now G. Nickelsburg, Studies in the Testament of Abraham
(Missoula, Montana: Society of Biblical Literature, 1976).
85 G. H. Box, The Testament of Abraham (London: SPCK, 1927), p. ~v. Stone has
made a new translation based on James' Greek text cited above (n. 65J. ~Michel Stone,
The Testament of Abraham (
1972). Now the theory of a Semitic original for the Testament of Abraham has been
seriously questioned, E. P. Sanders, "Testament of Abraham," J. Charlesworth, ed.,
The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha (New York: Doubleday, 1983), 1:873-74.
98 GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL
have been introduced into the text.86 The motif as it appears in the
Apocalypse of Paul is more similar to the longer recension of the
Testament of Abraham, which James and Box consider to be, gen-
erally speaking, less original than the shorter recension.87 The trans-
lators of the Apocalypse of Paul noted that the judgment section in
the Coptic version of the Testament of Abraham is even more similar
to the Apocalypse's version.88
Paul's ascent begins with the young child asking Paul to let his
mind awaken.89 During the ascent, Paul is instructed to view his
likeness upon the earth.90 Apparently, this is to answer the exegetical
question that arises from Paul's account of his ascension experience
in the Corinthian letter. Paul wrote that he was uncertain whether he
had remained in his body or whether he had arisen out of his body.91
At the beginning of the Apocalypse narrative, the twelve apostles are
above or ahead of Paul; however, in the sixth heaven Paul passes
them.92 Because he passes the twelve, the text appears to exalt Paul
above the other apostles, although they arrive at the tenth heaven
ahead of him. However, Paul is the one who contends with the old
man in the seventh sphere and this may be what allows the twelve to
go on before him. This indicates that Paul still occupies a prominent
position in relation to the remaining apostles. Moreover, the entire
narrative centers around Paul and the twelve are of secondary im-
portance to him.93
Naturally, the most important aspect of the text is Paul's trans-
formation into a spiritual being. The old man of the seventh heaven
appears to be connected to the evil God of Israel who is enthroned on
high in Jewish literature.94 Here he is the Demiurge figure who tries
to prevent Paul from completing his journey.95 He asked Paul where
he is going. Paul answers with the phrase, "I am going to the place
from which 1 came.96 This, of course, is an important element in the
87 Box, The Testament of Abraham, p. xii; James, 49.
88 NBC, 48. Unfortunately, the Coptic version of the Testament of Abraham was
unavailable to this author, but when the text was discussed with George MacRae, he
reiterated the point. Namely, the Coptic Version of the short recension of the Testament
of Abraham (Chapter 10) forms the basis for the Nag Hammadi codex. It should also
be noted that such a judgment motif is not unusual in Jewish apocalyptic (e.g., Enoch
89 The Apocalypse of Paul V,,22; 19, 10.
90 Ibid., 19,26-32.
91 2 Cor 12:3.
92 The Apocalypse of Paul V,, 14-16.
93 See nn. 74, 75 above.
94 Isa 6: Iff.; 1 Enoch 14:17ff.
96 The Apocalypse of Paul V,, 8-10.
YOUNG: THE ASCENSION MOTIF OF 2 CORINTHIANS 12 99
Gnostic religion; the divine spark has to make its ascent back to the
highest deity.97 After Paul passes through Ogdoad, the eighth sphere,
and the ninth celestial region, he enters the tenth heaven where he is
greeted by the now transformed apostles, his fellow spirits.98 Thus,
Paul and the apostles have undergone transformation into spiritual
One fascinating but bold question remains to be asked about this
text: What is the author's motive? Of course, the question of motive
or intention is not answered satisfactorily or with a great amount of
confidence. One suggestion is that the author had an exegetical motive
in mind. His interest to enlarge or to interpret an unclear or an
obscure passage of the New Testament has been observed in his
treatment of the Pauline epistles. He wants to fill in the missing
details. The second suggestion is that the author wrote from a po-
lemical concern.99 This theme is seen in his conflict with the old man
I who best represents the God of Israel. Indeed, the Father who rules
the seventh heaven in Ascensio Isaiae has been transformed into a
Demiurge figure. Of course, other possibilities exist. The author
develops various themes around his exegetical interests, but the
polemical interest is quite prominent.
THE ASCENSION OF ISAIAH AND THE APOCALYPSE OF PAUL
A cosmological structure, a conceptual frame of reference and
literary connections clearly exist between the Apocalypse of Paul and
Ascensio Isaiae. The cosmic structure of the universe in both texts is
very similar. The Ascension of Isaiah has seven heavens while the
Apocalypse of Paul has ten. By way of comparison, both texts have a
region that is hostile to the supreme deity. By way of contrast, the
Apocalypse of Paul has seven realms dominated by a Demrurge figure
which is counter to the Ascension of Isaiah which lacks a fully
developed Demiurge character. The Ascension of Isaiah exhibits only
the terrestrial realm as being involved in a spiritual struggle contrary
to the Father and the Beloved in the seventh heaven. This realm
contains demons with a hierarchy of powers. In addition, the judg-
ment and punishment motif distinguishes the Apocalypse of Paul
from Isaiah's vision. Instead of angels punishing a soul, the angels in
the Ascension of Isaiah praise the One enthroned in the seventh
heaven. This is the primary theme in Isaiah's celestial regions. In spite
97 See the discussions e.g., H. Jonas, The Gnostic Religion (
1963) 35; Grant, Gnosticism and Early Christianity, 7-8; and Rudolph, Gnosis, 171ff.
98 The Apocalypse of Paul V,2:23,30; 24, 1-8.
99 The author is grateful to have had the opportunity to discuss this text with
George MacRae and for his helpful insights.
100 GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL
of the differences, the Ascension of Isaiah and the Apocalypse of Paul
are constructed upon the same basic cosmology.
The texts also seem to be closely related conceptually. The con-
cept of ascent and transformation is strong in both narratives. Paul
ascends to be changed into a spiritual being. Isaiah, on the other
hand, ascends to see the unknown heavenly world and to view the
hidden descent of the Beloved. Isaiah returns to share the vision with
the prophets, but Paul is absorbed into spiritual reality. Isaiah is
transformed as he enters each new level of the firmaments, but Paul's
transformation occurs as he enters the regions beyond the old man's
domain. An anti-Jewish polemic apparently underlies the old man
figure in the Apocalypse of Paul. Likewise, an anti-Jewish tendency
surfaces in Ascensio Isaiae. For instance, Isaiah instructs that the
vision cannot be entrusted to the people of Israel.100 Another passage
how Satan aroused the people of
crucified because they did not know his true identity.101 This primitive
anti-Jewish propaganda is unfortunate indeed, but it is still far re-
moved from the notion that the God of Israel should be identified
with a Demiurge figure.
Other mutual literary connections attest to the relationship be-
tween the two narratives. The Ascension of Isaiah teaches that the
angel of the Holy Spirit will lead the righteous (those who love the
Beloved) through the heavenlies.102 Notably, Paul's ascension guide is
called the Holy Spirit.103 Another connection is that Isaiah's mind
was taken from his body at the beginning of his vision.104 This is
parallel to the instruction that Paul received to allow his mind (nou?j)
to awaken.105 In 2 Corinthians Paul also speaks about being "out of
the body." Here both the Apocalypse of Paul and the Ascension of
Isaiah relate the mind to the experience of ascent. As Paul is restrained
at the entrance to Ogdoad, so also is Isaiah delayed at the threshold
of the seventh heaven.106 Paul looks to his guiding spirit who tells him
to give the signal to the old man and then he enters Ogdoad.107 This
sign functions as some kind of password that forces the old man to
open the gate. Isaiah, on the other hand, is given the proper garment
and then his entrance is allowed. His angelic guide explains that the
leader of praise in the sixth heaven delayed Isaiah until he received
the proper garment. Along this same line, it is remembered that Paul
100 The Ascension of Isaiah XI. 39.
101 Ibid., XI. 19.
102 bid., VII. 23.
103 The Apocalypse of Paul V,2:18, 20; 19,20-26.
104 The Ascension of Isaiah VI. 10-11.
105 The Apocalypse of Paul V,,22; 19, 10.
106 Ibid., 24,1-30; The Ascension of Isaiah IX. 1-5.
107 The Apocalypse of Paul V,2:23, 20-26.
YOUNG: THE ASCENSION MOTIF OF 2 CORINTHIANS 12 101
orders the toll collector to open the gate of the sixth heaven.108 As
noted above, Paul was required to give the special signal to cross into
Ogdoad. Similarly, in reverse fashion, the Beloved gives the proper
watchword to enter the three lower celestial realms during his descent
earth.109 The purpose here, is not to suggest a literary dependence
of one of these texts on the other. However the connections between
these texts suggest that they developed in a similar religious climate.
It is reasonable to assume that the Ascension of Isaiah represents an
earlier stage of religious thought than that presented in the Apocalypse
Ascensio Isaiae betrays earlier Jewish sources which have been
employed in a Christian work. First, it should be remembered that
the Ascension of Isaiah is an expansion of an early Jewish text no
longer independently extant concerning Isaiah's tragic fate. Second,
the entire .cosmological system of the text can be paralleled in Jewish
apocalyptic literature. Third, the concept of the Holy Spirit being an
angel can also be seen in Jewish Christian sects. Danielou and Box
have suggested that Ascensio Isaiae was written by a Jewish Chris-
tian and as already noted this approach has much to commend
itself.111 Even though this theory concerning the authorship of Ascen-
sio Isaiae is sound, it is not absolutely certain. These issues could
conceivably have captured a non-Jewish. writer's imagination who
could have obtained Jewish sources for his work. In some ways the
work resembles a targumic expansion or a free midrash loosely based
upon Isaiah and it addresses matters which are related to Jewish
Christian theological concerns. While admittedly these issues would
also have interested some non-Jewish Christians, the combination of
all these elements suggests that the final compiler of Ascensio Isaiae
was indeed a Jewish Chrisitian.112
The Apocalypse of Paul seems to have shared a common reli-
gious background with the Ascension of Isaiah. The Apocalypse of
Paul has a structure that can be paralleled in Jewish Apocalyptic. The
author is acquainted with some form of the Testament of Abraham.
The mention of three witnesses in the judgment scene can be found in
Jewish sources.113 But all of these elements could have come into the
text second hand, through Christian influence. If one would accept
108 Ibid.,22, 18-22.
109 The Ascension of Isaiah X. 24-29. It should also be noted that the four sages
are also put to the test, see n. 10 above.
110 The similarities between the texts are greater than one might assume at the first
examination of the texts.
111 Box, The Ascension of Isaiah, p. xxv; Danielou, 12fT.
112 See n. 72 above.
113 The Apocalypse of Paul V,2:20,20-21,22; Num 35:30; Deut 17:6; 19:15; compare
tos. Sanhedrin 11:1 and parallels; Matt 18:16.
102 GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL
the difficult challenge to try to define this influence more narrowly,
the outcome would probably point to some form of a Jewish Chris-
tian theology. At least, the latent sleeping Gnostic framework in the
Ascension of Isaiah is awakened and fully developed in the Apocalypse
of Paul. Could the beliefs of early Jewish Christian groups114 have
played a role in blossoming Gnostic religious thought?115
MYSTICISM AND THE ASCENSION MOTIF
The study of the Ascension Motif in selected Jewish, Christian
and Gnostic texts suggests certain stages of development. Paul's reve-
lations, to a lesser extent in Acts but particularly his ascent to
cal experience. Even though he hears words that cannot be uttered
and receives a message so significant for his own work, there is no
hint of an exclusivistic esotericism in his account or that he expe-
rienced great danger in his sublime encounter. In talmudic literature,
the four rabbis also enter sDer'Pa and only Akiva returns unharmed.
Isaiah, the Beloved, and Paul undergo transformation in Ascensio
Isaiae and Apocalypse of Paul, whereas neither Paul nor the rabbis
do in 2 Corinthians and talmudic literature.
Hence, Ascensio Isaiae introduces a new stage. Although an
exegetical interest is prominent and the descent of the Beloved is of
114Whether Jewish Christianity actually provided the matrix for Gnosticism re-
mains an open question. Nonetheless many of the ideas of "classical Gnosticism"
preceded the rise of Christianity. W. W. Combs, "Nag Hammadi, Gnosticism, & New
Testament Interpretation" GTJ 8:2 (Fall 1987) 195-212. See for instance the difference
between Eugnostos the Blessed and the Sophia of Jesus Christ (NHL, 206-28).
D. Parrot may be correct when he suggests that the version of Eugnostos the Blessed
existed before the text was adapted to have the risen Christ teach his followers
revelation in the Sophia of Jesus Christ (NHL, 206). But is Parrot correct in saying
that the Eugnostos is free from Christian influence? The question is discussed by
R. McL. Wilson, Gnosis and the New Testament (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1968) 111-17.
Whether the Eugnostos the Blessed is to be dated before the rise of .Christianity or is
free from Christian influence is
they [some seemingly Christian terms in the text] seem to demand a due measure of
caution over against assertions that Eugnostos is entirely non-Christian or shows no
sign of Christian influence. There is nonetheless a further possibility: is the Epistle of
Eugnostos itself a Christianised version of an earlier document?" (ibid., 116). See also
the analytical discussion of E. Yamauchi, Pre- Christian Gnosticism, 104-7.
115 Here it is worthwhile to quote Wilson who speaks about a possible environment
that would have provided a seedbed for Gnostic thought, "At least, one could say that
there existed a great variety of thought-forms and tendencies, which are generally
classified in the quite vague category of Gnosis. The 'classical' gnosticism of the second
century is a consequence of these currents. In an attempt to show that Gnosis had its
Sitz-im-Leben in a Christian milieu, inspired by Jewish-Christian apocalyptic, Danielou
has rightly drawn our attention to the fact that Jewish Christianity was a factor in the
development of the ideas from which a precise gnostic system was formed" (Wilson, 259).
YOUNG: THE ASCENSION MOTIF OF 2 CORINTHIANS 12 103
prime importance, one discovers the motif of metaphysical transfor-
mation which is already alluded to in the Christo logical hymns.116 An
angelic guide is required in order for Isaiah to make the ascent and of
course such guides are well known in Jewish apocalyptic. However, in
the Apocalypse of Paul, one enters a new phase where the mysteries
and the dangers of the heavenly regions become patent. The Apostle
Paul becomes Involved In the conflict with the old man figure and it
seems that a basic mystical experience has been used in a developing
doctrine of esotericism and rebellion against the old man figure who
seems to represent the God of Israel. The text emphasizes the special
knowledge required to make the ascent through the hostile celestial
spheres in order to join the fellow spirits. The one making the journey
must know how to avoid being deceived by the Demiurge in the
From this study of the heavenly ascent in mystical speculation, it
is clear that the stages that make a distinction between a mystical
experience and a sophisticated doctrine of esotericism can provide an
instructive heuristic for further research. No doubt the exact relation-
ship between merkabah mysticism and gnosticizing ideas in Jewish,
Christian and Gnostic texts will continue to be a current issue in
scholarly debate. In the very least, the present textual study suggests
that the differences between these texts are of far greater significance
than are the similarities.
116 See D. 69 above.
This material is cited with gracious permission from:
Grace Theological Seminary
Please report any errors to Ted Hildebrandt at: firstname.lastname@example.org