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,




                                             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 October 18, 1977 at

7:00 p.m. in Williams Hall, University of Pennsylvania. The classic treatment of the

theme appears in W. Bousset, "Die Himmelsreise der Seele," Archiv fur Religion-

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 (Bern: Peter Lang,

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 [1987] 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 Paradise in its Greco-

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" (Missoula:

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

Enoch [Leiden, 1985]; and on the heavens in the Testament of the Levi, see H. W.

Hollander and M. de Jonge, The Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs [Leiden, 1985]

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 (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1966, reprint of

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 (Oxford, 1924-]936, four

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)



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 Religion (Boston, 1963) 165-73; Tabor, Things

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 (Cambridge, 1953) 10-53; A. Schweitzer, The Mysticism of Paul the

Apostle (London, 1953) 26-29; C. H. Talbert, "The Myth of a Descending-Ascending

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, E. Yamauchi,

"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 Philadelphia Seminar on Christian Origins and the work of Kurt Rudolph, Gnosis:

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.

7 2 Corinthians 12:1-10. See also V. Furnish, II Corinthians (New York: Double-

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 Paradise and the Nature of Talmudic Mysticism (Hebrew

University Monograph Series, 1986) 3-33 (Hebrew). See also I. Gruenwald, Apoca-

lyptic and Merkavah Mysticism (Leiden: Brill, 198?).29-72; he discusses. Ascensio

Isalae on pp. 57-62; cf. G. Scholem, Jewish GnostiCism, Merkabah Mysticism and

Talmudic Tradition (New York: The Jewish Theological Seminary of America, re-

 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); S. Mosaiov, Merkavah

Shelemah (Jerusalem: Makor, 1972); Rachel Elior, "Hekhalot Zutarti," Jerusalem

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 (Vermont, 1986) 146-248,

who deals with the tractates individually as he comments upon the tenants of gnostic


11 R. M. Grant, Gnosticism and Early Christianity (New York: Columbia Uni-

versity Press, 1959) 61.



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-

tween them.




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 (Ithaca: Cornell

University, 1980).

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

Jewish conception that he as well as his readers in Corinth, had

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

the third heaven where he was in "Paradise" (h[rpa<gh ei]j to>n para<


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 Damascus

road experience (Acts 9:3-6, 26:12-18); his vision of Ananias (Acts 9:12); the appear-

ance of the Macedonian man after which Paul responds by immediately trying to travel

to Macedonia (Acts 16:9-10); the vision of encouragement in Corinth (Acts 18:9-10);

his. experience in the Temple where apparently Paul was in ecstasy or some kind of

trance-like state (gene<sqai me  e]n e]ksta<sei, Acts 22:17-21; 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 23:11); 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 1:12)

and that he took time to sojourn in Arabia apparently for contemplation (Gal 1:17).

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 World [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1983]


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.



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 4:13, 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 "Paradise of

righteousness"  xFwq Mdrp  (J. T. Milik, The Books of Enoch [Oxford: The Clarendon

Press, 1976] 232, [357], 289-90). The "Paradise of righteousness" is also mentioned in

the Vitae Adae et Evae where Adam ascends, " ...raptus  sum in paradisum iustitiae"

(see n. 31 below). In II (Slavomc) Enoch (8:1f.), Paradise is located above in the third

heaven (compare Apocalypsis Mosis.40:1-2). .IV Ezra (4:8) also seems to elevate

Paradise above the earth but there is not universal agreement (see n. 8b by F. I.

Andersen, "2 Enoch," Charlesworth, The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, 1:114-15;

 and see M. Stone, "Paradise in 4 Ezra iv:8 and vii:36, vii:52," Journal of Jewish Studies

17 [1966] 85-88). See also the entry for paradeisos in the revision of W. Bauer's A

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 Paradise while the later Aramaic Targumim

give a more literal translation. Was "Paradise" demythologized at a later time?

19 Schafer,28.

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

the Vienna manuscript, "he ascended in peace and descended in peace" (Lieberman,

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

version of the story in the Vienna manuscript, which contains 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

Vienna manuscript is thought to be superior to that of Erfurt (ibid.). However if a

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 Vienna manuscript, "R. Akiva ascended in peace and

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 (New Haven: American Oriental Society,

1980) 86ft".

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.



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

experience to demonstrate to the super-'pneumatics at Corinth that he

also was acquainted better than they with visions and revelations.

This message, as well as 'being snatched away,' was important for

Paul's purposes.

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 [Grand Rapids: Baker, 1979],

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 Christians at Corinth.

25 E.g., 2 Cor 11:23-28 and 12:10.

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

the Christians at Corinth and not merely to boast about his ascent

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

Damascus Paul is said to have seen a bright light; in Troas a man

from Macedonia appeared to him; and on the ship he saw an angel.27

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 (Jerusalem, 1931) 13-15, quoted by Halperin,

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



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

between the texts that much more significant. If Paradise was com-

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



This text describes how Adam "was caught up into the Paradise of

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

22:17) 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 [1878] 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 Paradise, see n. 18 above. On

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;Pa.

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.



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

Flusser has connected it with the Dead Sea sectarians.36 The other

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 13:12 and Leviticus Rabbah 1:14 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 problem at Corinth.

33 R. H. Charles, The Ascension of Isaiah (London: Adam and Charles Black,

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 Dead Sea

Sect," Israel Exploration Journal 3 (1953) 30-47. Flusser has presented some strong

arguments concerning the terminology, ideology and historical allusions to the so-

called "Martyrdom of Isaiah" which link the text with the Dead Sea sect.

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 (Philadelphia:

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 Testament, (Oxford: Clarendon Press,

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),



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

4:12 NIV).


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 21:16) and

perhaps upon the reports concerning King David's executions carried

out by the means of saws (2 Sam 12:31; 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 [1972]

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 Paradise. .." (see also n. 18

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, London: Adam and Charles Black, 1900) and compare E. Tisserant,

Ascension d'Isaie (Paris, 1909). A new critical edition of the text would be highly


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.



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. .."

(Chapter VIII.7).

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 (New York:

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 (New York: Schocken

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 (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark,

1973), 1:96f.

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 (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication

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 8:27), 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 Tehilim (Israel,

reprint 1977) 236a. Cf. W. Braude, trans; The Midrash on Psalms (New Haven: Yale

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 2:32 (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. Judah Goldin trans., The Fathers

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 Paradise in the third heaven. While

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



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 [1955]

225-39; cf. J. Bonomi and S. Sharpe, The Alabaster Sarcophagus of Oimenephtah 1

 (London, 1864); A. de Buck and A.H. Gardiner, The Egyptian Coffin Texts [University

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 (111,2:41,9):


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-

known Father.


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 [1967] 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 E. Hennecke and W. Schneemelcher,

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 Christianity (Philadelphia: Fortress

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-

tian Gospels," E. Hennecke and W. Schneemelcher, eds., New Testament Apocrypha,


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 W. Schneemelcher '. eds., New Testament Apocrypha, I: 197 -98). The

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.



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 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-

ship [London: Kingsgate Press, 1966] 286ff.). While not all Jews were very knowledge-

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,2: 18,20; Ibid., V,2:23, 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

of Jericho, as he is traveling to Jerusalem.77 Apparently, the small

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

John 88).78

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

Jerusalem also appears in both narratives. As the passage in Galatians

continues, Paul did not go up to Jerusalem immediately, in order to

have his message approved by the other apostles; only later did he

make his way to Jerusalem and meet with Peter and James. Another

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, 2:23, 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,"

NHL, 239.

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,2:18, 5-16; 19,12; cf. with translators note on V,2:

18.5. The significance of Jericho is unclear. The writer of the apocalypse is acquainted

with the route from Jericho to Jerusalem. Whether he was indeed familiar with the

geography of Palestine cannot be ascertained from this evidence because he could have

known this travel route from other sources (for example Luke 10:29-37). For the

significance of Jerusalem, cf. Klauck, "Die HimmeIfahrt des Paulus (2 Kor 12,2-4) in

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.

79 Ibid.

80 Gall:12.

81 The Apocalypse of Paul V,2:18, 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 (Wiesbaden, Germany: Krauss Reprint

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 (Missoula, Montana: The Society of BIblIcal Lrterature,

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


86 James,50-55.

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,2:18,22; 19, 10.

90 Ibid., 19,26-32.

91 2 Cor 12:3.

92 The Apocalypse of Paul V,2:22, 14-16.

93 See nn. 74, 75 above.

94 Isa 6: Iff.; 1 Enoch 14:17ff.

95 NBc,48-49.

96 The Apocalypse of Paul V,2:23, 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.




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 (Boston: Beacon Press,

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

describes how Satan aroused the people of Israel to nave the Beloved

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,2:18,22; 19, 10.

106 Ibid., 24,1-30; The Ascension of Isaiah IX. 1-5.

107 The Apocalypse of Paul V,2:23, 20-26.



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

of Paul.110

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




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

Paradise in the third heaven, present the personal testimony of mysti-

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 debatable. Wilson observes, "At the very least, however,

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).



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

seventh heaven.




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.



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