In this study I investigate two areas of Paul’s thought: first, his message, then his understanding of his apostolic authority and mission.
Much of the debate among Pauline scholars in this century has been over the question of the center of Paul’s theology. E. P. Sanders (Paul and Palestinian Judaism) has provided one of the more persuasive presentations of the case that Paul’s central ideas develop from his experience of being “in Christ” and vice versa (what he calls “participatory” in contrast to “juristic”). With Sanders’ treatment of Paul’s understanding of the Law, righteousness by faith, the human plight, et al., I basically agree, as I do with his notion that we should ask how a religious system as a whole and on its own terms “worked.” However, his description of how a religion is perceived by its adherents to function as “how getting in and staying in are understood,” does not lead one to consider why they wanted in in the first place: Paul’s converts wanted salvation, and yet this is something that Paul rarely stops to define. This salvation involved more than a particular understanding of God’s grace and forgiveness of sins. Sanders’ statement that Paul’s primary conviction is that “Jesus Christ is Lord, that in him God has provided for the salvation of all those who believe . . . , and that he will soon return to bring all things to an end,” is a good general summary, but needs to be more fully laid out. Paul’s understanding of salvation involves a rather astounding (at least to modern ears) scheme of “mass apotheosis” and imminent cosmic takeover. We must turn to the essential passages which more fully treat the content of this salvation which Paul offered his followers.
Firstborn of Many Brothers
In Rom. 8:29-30 Paul provides a sequential outline of what he calls the plan(prothesis–v. 28) of God for all his converts. I shall present a rather tight and technical analysis of his language here, and how it connects to his discussions elsewhere. I want to show that he is at least coherent, if not systematic, when it comes to what I believe is central to his whole salvation message: his belief that a new cosmic family–immortal “Sons of God” he calls them–is soon to be dramatically revealed as an agent for carrying forth the final stages of God’s plan for his creation. He sketches the essentials in a few lines:
For those whom he foreknew (proegno) he also predestined (proorisen) to share the image (summorphous tes eikonos) of his Son, that he might be the firstborn of many brothers, and the ones he predestined he also called (ekalesen), and the ones he called he also justified, and the ones he justified he also glorified (edoxasen).
These carefully composed verses function as a theological climax to this section of the letter. They come at the end of Paul’s sustained presentation of his gospel message in 1:16-8:25, thus offering an epitome of Paul’s system of belief. The central elements break down into three groupings.
1. The Predetermined Secret PlanThe first two thought units are expressed by the verbs “to foreknow” and “to predestine.” “To foreknow” (proginosko) is used only one other time by Paul, in Rom. 11:2, where he refers to the selection of the nation of Israel. In both passages its object is the group, or people, of God, for whom the purpose of God is to be unfolded. He uses “to predestine” (proorizo) in only one other place as well, 1 Cor. 2:7, where it is also closely connected to this same idea of a secret “plan” of God:
But we impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God determined (proorisen) before the ages for our glorification.
Here, as in Rom. 8:29, “to predestine” or “to determine” is directly connected to the idea of glorification (doxa), even though the vocabulary and context of this section of 1 Corinthians is quite different from that of Romans. This concept of doxa can consistently epitomize God’s ultimate goal, although Paul is addressing desperate situations in his letters. The prefix pro-, in both verbs of Rom 8:29, indicates priority in relation to the next mentioned action, i.e. first knowledge, then designation, (then calling, followed by justification, and finally glorification). However, the phrase “before the ages” (pro ton aionon), would indicate that in Paul’s thinking the original formulation of this plan of God took place before “the present evil age” (Gal. 1:4). It should also be noted that in 1 Cor. 2:7 Paul says he teaches or speaks “in secret,” or perhaps “in a mystery” (en musterion). Later he writes of the transformation or glorification of believers which is to take place at the return of Christ from heaven (1 Cor. 15:51), and he calls it a “secret” or “mystery.” This secret plan, hidden from the “rulers of this age” (archonton–which I take to be a reference to hostile spirits in the heavenly realms who exercise powers of fate and death–1 Cor 2:8), relates ultimately to glorification. Both to “foreknow” and “to predestine” in Rom 8:29 should be understood in this cosmological sense. The point is not only that God has known and determined something beforehand, but that salvation for the select group is a strategy on God’s part in a hostile cosmological context. This is obviously what he has in mind in the following verses of the chapter (31-39), where he lists the various spiritual powers of the heavens who will be conquered by Christ.
2. A Cosmic FamilyThe phrases (1) “to share the image of his Son” and (2) “that he might be the firstborn of many brothers,” indicate (1) the immediate content of God’s decree and (2) one of its consequences.
Since Paul thought sharing the form of Christ involved sharing his death (2 Cor. 4:10), sharing the form cannot be immediately equated with glorification (i.e., it stands here at the beginning of the list of stages that concludes with glorification). The word used here in the phrase ” sharing the image” (summorphos) occurs elsewhere only in Phil. 3:21, where Paul seems to assume this identical sequence, but is referring to the final stage, the glorification or transformation of the believer at the heavenly return of Jesus. He writes:
For our commonwealth exists in the heavens, from which we expect a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body into the same form (summorphon) as his glorious body, by the power with which he is able to subject everything to himself.
A related verbal form of summorphos: metamorphoomai; is used in 2 Cor. 3:18, along with eikon (“form” or “image”), which is the other key term in the phrase (“sharing the image”) from Rom. 8:29.
But we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed (metamorphoumetha) into his image (eikona) from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.
Although the meaning and context of this verse is difficult, I do not think one finds here, or in the following section of 2 Cor. 5:1-10, any shift from the idea that transformation/glorification is completed only at the return of Jesus from heaven. Even though he uses the present tense in 2 Cor. 3:18, coupled with the phrase “from one degree of glory to another,” (apo doxes eis doxan), the thought is the same as Rom. 8:29. It is his use of eikon (“image”) which I find striking. Phil. 3:21 shows that he has in mind a transformation of what he calls the soma (“body”). He elaborates his idea of a transformed body in 1 Cor. 15, which I discuss below. This connection of eikon with doxa occurs elsewhere. In 2 Cor. 4:4 he speaks of the god of this age who has blinded the eyes of unbelievers so that they can not see the “light of the gospel of the glory (tes doxes) of Christ, who is in the image (eikon) of God.” In verse 6 he says that God’s illumination of the hearts of these believers brings about the “light of the knowledge of the glory (tes doxes) of God in the face of Christ.” Paul’s message is a gospel of the glory of Christ, i.e., a gnosis of the glory of God seen in Christ, who is the eikon of God. Such language is not mere rodomontade. We are dealing here with the heart of Paul’s system of thought, the belief that Christ bears the image and glory of God, and that believers in Christ have already begun to share the glory of Christ, being transformed into his image, and will share it completely in the End.
The second phrase, “that he might be the firstborn of many brothers,” stands as an expansion of the thought about sharing the image of God. The word translated “first-born” (prototokos) occurs only here in Paul. The idea is closely linked to Paul’s argument in 1 Cor. 15 (vv. 20-28; 42-58) where the term aparche (“first fruits”) is used as a basis for arguing that Jesus’ transformation or glorification foreshadows that of the many “in Christ” who follow. “First-born” as used here is therefore anticipatory, pointing toward recapitulation. It means more than preeminence; it implies there are those who will be “later-born.” The equation of Jesus the Son of God, with the many glorified sons of God to follow is God’s means of bringing into existence a family (i.e., “many brothers”) of cosmic beings, the Sons of God, who share his heavenly doxa. Or, to put it another way, Jesus already stands at the head of a new genus of cosmic “brothers” who await their full transformation at his arrival from heaven. Paul uses the verb doxazo (“to glorify”) to indicate the conclusion to which both these phrases of Rom. 8:29 point, summarizing the idea of the “hope of sharing the glory of God” which he introduced in Rom. 5:1 and develops in 8:17-25. To be a “son of God” (or “child of God,” which is his other phrase in this chapter) through receiving the Holy Spirit (Rom. 8:14-16), is to be an heir, even a co-heir with Jesus. Such a relationship involves a suffering with him (8:17), along with glorification (sundoxaza) like his, but the suffering will be transient, the glory will endure. Paul uses the various forms of the word “heir” (kleronomos) frequently. That the concept is connected to complete glorification at the return of Jesus from heaven is clear, may be seen not only in Rom. 8:17, but by comparing 1 Cor. 6:9-10; 15:50-53; Gal. 5:21; Phil. 3:20-21 and 1 Thess. 2:12. One inherits the “kingdom of God” at the return of Jesus and through a transformation to immortal heavenly life. Paul’s discussion of the validity of the Torah, of how one is declared righteous, and of whether Gentiles must become `Jews’ to be a part of God’s elect people has to do with the issue ofwho is to be considered an heir. The kleronomia is not from the Torah (Gal. 3:18; 4:30; Rom. 4:14). It belongs to those who are “sons of God” by faith in the Christ, stemming from the promise made to Abraham that he would “inherit the world [cosmos]” (Rom. 4:13; Gal. 3:26-29; 4:1-7). Thus, Paul’s whole treatment of the Law in Rom. 1:16-4:25 and Gal. 3-4 must be seen as subsidiary to a broader concept, the meaning and content of the kleronomia. For Paul this concept moves far beyond the idea of inheriting the land of Israel, or hopes of national restoration. It is rulership over the entire cosmos. He exultantly writes:
For I think that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is about to be revealed in us!
(Rom. 8:18) This is the climax toward which his presentation in Romans (beginning in 1:16) moves. He then proceeds to explain how this glory is to be revealed and what it will involve:
For the creation expectantly longs for the revealing of the Sons of God; since it was subjected to futility, not through its own desire but by the will of the one who subjected it in hope; because the creation itself will be set free from its enslavement to corruptionobtaining the freedom of the glory of the children of God. Because we know that the whole creation has been groaning in birth pangs until now; but not only the creation but we too, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, we groan inside waiting for our sonship, that is, the redemption of our bodies. For we were saved in this very hope. Now hope that is seen is not hope, for who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see we wait for it patiently. (Rom. 8:19-25)Just as in Phil. 3:21, which I have already quoted, Paul has in mind here the transformation of the body, i.e., its release from decay and glorification at the return of Christ from heaven. The use of the wordhuiothesia (translated “sonship”–v 23) to refer to this event is significant. Several manuscripts (chiefly Western) omit the word, probably because it appears to contradict 8:15:
For you did not receive the spirit of bondage to fall back into fear, but you have received the spirit of sonship (huiothesia) in which we cry out “Abba! Father!”
In Gal. 4:4-7 Paul expresses the identical thought:
But when the fullness of time arrived, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive sonship (huiothesian). And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts crying, “Abba! Father!” So through God you are no longer a slave but a son, and if a son then an heir (kleronomos).
I don’t think there is any necessary contradiction here regarding the meaning of “sonship.” Believers now receive the spirit of sonship and are sons of God and heirs with Christ (Rom. 8:17). Gal. 4:4-7 parallels this thought. The reason for the “sending of the Son” was that believers might receive this “sonship.” The completion of the process is identified in Rom. 8:23 precisely as “the redemption [i.e., transformation] of the body” which comes at the return of Christ. This tension between present inception and future consummation is common in Paul. I have already noted 2 Cor. 3:18, where he speaks of glorification as a process already begun (cf. 2 Cor. 4:7-12). In 2 Cor. 5:5 Paul refers to the Spirit as a “down payment” or “first installment” (ton arrabona). Note also that Paul links the release of the creation itself to the realization of the destiny of the Sons of God, a complicated notion with which he also deals in 1 Cor. 15:20-28. This underlines thecosmic aspect of Paul’s understanding of final salvation.
3. The Implementation of the Secret PlanThis cosmic plan of bringing forth “many brothers” is implemented through God’s “calling,” “justifying,” and “glorifying” the special group of believers (Rom. 8:30). This idea of calling (kaleo) occurs frequently in Paul’s letters. In 1 Thess. 2:12 he exhorts the group to “live a life worthy of God who calls you into his own kingdomand glory.” Here again Paul connects the idea of inheriting the kingdom with that of glory. Those who are transformed from flesh and blood existence (i.e., glorified) at the coming of Christ from heaven are those who “inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Cor. 15:42-52). The one word “justify” here (dikaioo) summarizes the complexities of Paul’s whole argument in Rom. 1:16-4:25 (i.e. “justification by faith”) and represents as well the results of that justified life which he discusses in 5:1-8:17. Rom. 5:1-2 states the position of the community living in the time of the end:
Therefore being justified by faith we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have access to this grace in which we stand and we rejoice in the hope of partaking of the glory of God.
The combined sense of kaleo and dikaioo is that Paul’s gospel message divides humanity into two distinct groups. There are those being saved and those perishing, those being reconciled to God and those yet his enemies, those being justified by faith and those under his wrath, those who have begun to see the light and those whom Satan has blinded (1 Cor. 1:18; 2 Cor. 2:14-16; 4:3-6; 18-21). God has called his elect ones and begun their justification, has made them Sons of God through the Spirit, and has destined them for the final glorification at the return of Jesus from heaven. It should be noted that all five of the main verbs in Rom. 8:29-30 (foreknow, predestine, call, justify, glorify) are in the aorist tense. In a single stroke Paul sketches out the key elements of his understanding of God’s cosmic plan–the final glorification of many Sons of God.
The Last Adam
This teaching of Paul regarding the glorification of many Sons of God is obviously tied to his understanding of the glorification of Jesus and his status as firstborn “Son of God,” exalted Lord of the cosmos. Paul sees in the career of Jesus the model of this plan involving the many to follow. He understands Jesus to be a kind of second or last “Adam” who has shown the way for the whole race. In Phil. 2:6-11 Paul quotes an early Christian hymn which reflects this pattern of salvation:
a) He was in the formof God (morphe theou),b) but did not consider equality with God (einai isa theo)
something to be grasped, but emptied himself,
c) taking on the form of a slave.
a) Being in the likeness of men,
b) and found in human form, he humbled himself,
c) becoming obedient to the point of death.
[even death on a cross]
a) Because of this God has highly exalted him,
b) and given him a name,
c) above every name.
a) That at the name of Jesus
b) every knee should bow in heaven, and on earth,
and under the earth,
c) And every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord,
to the glory of God the father.
I have arranged the hymn in four stanzas of three lines each following the structure proposed by Charles Talbert (with the phrase “even death on a cross” excepted as a Pauline addition). Stanzas one and two parallel one another. Rather than describing a move from divine heavenly life to mortal human, they both state in parallel fashion the choice made by this second Adam. I therefore cautiously agree with Talbert and others that the hymn is not presenting the notion of a pre-existent descending/ascending heavenly figure, but rather builds on a contrast developed from the story of Adam in Gen. 3. Here a second “Adam,” who though made in God’s image (Gen 1:26), does not grasp at equality with God, as the first Adam did when he took the forbidden fruit (Gen 3:5-6), but through humble obedience shows the true way to exaltation. Paul is exhorting the community to have the same attitude of mind so that they too can experience a similar exaltation (Phil. 3:12-21).
It is in 1 Cor. 15 that Paul offers his most systematic treatment of the destiny of the elect as related to the career of Jesus as a second Adam. There was a party at Corinth which was saying that “there is no resurrection of the dead”(15:12). The position of those making such a denial is difficult, if not impossible to determine. Some would take the denial as an expression of skepticism, perhaps akin to the position of the Epicureans or that of an ultra-conservative Jewish group like the Sadducees, who denied the very idea of an afterlife.. One problem with this view is that it does not take the 1 Cor. letter as a whole, dealing with sections such as 3:1-4; 4:8-13; 10:1-12; 12-14, which might reflect a general problem with some kind of “over-realized” eschatology. Still new consideration has been given to the possibility of an Epicurean position behind some of the polemics of the N.T. (See Jerome H. Neyrey, “The Form and Background of the Polemic in 2 Peter,” JBL 99 : 407-31). The real strength of this position is that it seems to best fit Paul’s argument in 15:29-34, while the other interpretations appear to make little sense here. A more common interpretation has been that we have here a “Platonizing” position which viewed the notion of the resurrection of the body as crude and superfluous. The position favored by most scholars is that some were denying the futurity of the resurrection, claiming in some way to already be experiencing that mode of existence. It is conceivable that such a group might have denied both the somatic and future aspects of the resurrection doctrine. To further compound the problem, one must ask whether Paul himself clearly understood the position of this group.
What has been overlooked too often is that while the occasion of Paul’s discussion was some type of denial of the resurrection of the dead, the chapter as a whole deals not so much with resurrection (which for the community would apply only to the minority who had died, cf. 1 Thess. 4:13-18), as with transformation or changeof the living and the dead at the return of Jesus from heaven. In other words, the lines of his discussion in 15:20-28 and 35-58 apply to those alive at the coming of Christ as much as to those of the group who have died. Thus Paul writes:
I tell you this, brothers: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, neither does the perishable inherit the imperishable! Lo! I reveal to you a secret! We shall not all sleep [die], but we shall all be changed (allagesometha), in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the final trumpet. For the trumpet will sound and the dead will be raised imperishable and we[i.e., those living] shall be changed(vv. 50-52).
Paul’s affirmation of the resurrection of the dead,in this context at least, is essentially his way of affirming the participation of the “dead in Christ” in the final glorification (i.e., change of the dead/mortal body, Phil. 3:20-21; Rom. 8:18-24) which was expected at the return of Jesus. Paul does not elaborate on the “state of the dead,” preferring the metaphor of sleep, but he is emphatic on the point that the change from mortal to immortal body is at, not before, the appearance of Jesus from heaven. There is an “order” (tagma) involved in this secret plan of God (v. 23). Paul declares that “all shall be made alive” (zoopoieo), but each in his own order (v. 23). It is clear that the verb “to make alive” refers to more than raising the bodies of the dead; it is equivalent to allasso (“to be changed”) in verses 51-52 and includes the living as well.
The other problem, whether actually raised by some of the Corinthians, or anticipated by Paul (v. 35) was that of the “somatic” nature of this transformed immortal existence. Here, as in Phil. 3:21 (and implicitly in Rom. 8:23), Paul speaks of a glorified body (soma). Specifically, he contrasts the mortal “flesh and blood” body which he labels psuchikon(here meaning “natural” or “physical”), with the “spiritual body” (pneumatikon) which is to come (v. 44b). He builds his case on what appears to be his own midrash on Gen. 2:7:Thus it is written, “The first man Adam became a living being” [physical being], the last Adam became a life-giving spirit (v. 45).
His phrase, “life-giving spirit” (pneuma zoopoioun), is equivalent to his “spiritual body,” and is related to his use of the same verb, “to make alive” in verse 23.
The implications of this Adam typology are striking: as Adam was the head of a race of physical human beings, subject to corruption and death; so Jesus (as a last Adam) is the first of a transformed race or genus of heavenly beings, immortal and glorified. That Jesus is human (i.e., mortal, “Adam”) is crucial since his transformation to an immortal, glorious state is representative for all those who follow. Paul makes this clear in v. 21:
For as by a human[Adam] death came, so by a humanhas come also the resurrection of the dead.
As we have seen, by the phrase “resurrection of the dead” here, Paul includes this whole cosmic reality: the transformation/glorification from mortal to immortal heavenly life. This pattern of salvation, seen here and in Phil. 2:5-10, is the same as in Rom. 1:3-4, which most scholars take to be a pre-Pauline confession. Paul describes the “gospel of God” as that:
. . . concerning his Son, who became a descendant of David according to the flesh and was appointed Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness from a resurrection of the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord.
Paul sets forth six contrasts in 1 Cor. 15 which describe what is involved in this “change” from a “First Adam” type of existence to that of “Last Adam”:
1. “living physical being” to “life-giving spirit” (v. 45)
2. “perishable” to “imperishable” (v. 42)
3. “dishonor” to “glory” (v. 43)
4. “weakness” to “power” (v. 43)
5. “physical body” to “spiritual body” (v. 44)
6. “from the earth, of dust” to “of heaven” (v. 47)
At the end of this section he concludes:
Just as we have borne the image of the one of dust, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly one (v. 49).
The terms which characterize the existence of “first Adam” apply equally to the man Jesus as well as to all humankind, while those of “last Adam” apply equally to the exalted Christ as well as to the destiny of the select group.
The idea of “inheriting the kingdom,” is closely connected to this notion of transformation, as I noted above (1 Cor. 15:50). In 1 Cor. 15:20-28 Paul presents an overview, which to us must necessarily remain cryptic, of the plan of God from the resurrection of Jesus (the “first fruits” of the harvest) until the telos, or final end, when God will be “all things to all” (v. 28). He evidently saw the time period between the return of Christ from heaven to transform the elect, until this final end, as one of cosmic battle and conquest of hostile demonic forces. He speaks of Christ “destroying every rule, authority, and power,” and finally death itself (vv. 24-26). He quotes Psa. 8:6 (which in turn is an interpretation of Gen. 1:26), which says that God has put “all things under his [mankind’s] feet.” He applies it, in keeping with his Adam typology, to the man Jesus Christ, but by extension to this whole new race of heavenly “Adams.” Earlier he had reminded the Corinthians:
Don’t you know that the saints are going to judge the world (kosmon)? If the world is to be judged by you, are you incompetent to handle petty cases? Don’t you know that we will judge angels? How much more matters pertaining to this life! (6:2-3).
He assures them that “all things” belong to them (3:21-23). This same theme of cosmic conquest is also found in Rom. 8:37-39. God has given Jesus the power to “subject all things to himself” and this energeia will be manifested at his return from heaven when he glorifies his chosen ones (Phil. 3:21). To inherit the kingdom or rule of God, then, is to share in this cosmic power and glory, or as he puts it in Rom. 8:17, to be a co-inheritor with Christ.
Robin Scroggs (The Last Adam) and others have argued from these texts that Paul understands the nature of Christ in his resurrected existence as a “human nature.” He represents “true man” and thus opens the way for mankind to achieve the “true humanity” intended at the creation. Although one finds some support for this in Paul’s interpretation of Gen. 2:7 in 1 Cor. 15:45-49, one must not miss the radical implications of Paul’s understanding of the destiny of the elect group. Paul develops his exegesis from Gen. 1:27 and Psa. 8:6 as well. These texts speak of man in the “image” (eikon) of God, having “all things placed under his feet.” Paul interprets this in the light of Christ, who is the “image of God” (Rom. 8:29; 2 Cor. 3:18) and has been given all rule and authority (1 Cor. 15:24; Phil. 2:10) with “all things” subject to him. So it takes on the vastly expanded meaning of cosmic rule, power, and exaltation. What is said of Jesus as glorified Son of God, is also said of those “many brothers” who follow. In the wider context of Hellenistic religions, it makes little sense to speak of an exalted, heavenly, group of immortals, who are designated “Sons of God,” as human beings. The old rubric, “Gods are immortal, humans are mortal” is apt here. Paul’s understanding of salvation involves a particularly Jewish notion of apotheosis, and would have been understood as such by his converts.
Paul’s message of salvation then is a message about cosmic conquest and liberation. The elect group are freed from their bondage to death and mortality brought on by sin. They are released from the power of Satan and his demonic forces which rule the cosmos. As glorified immortals they will participate with Christ, in the rule of God, bringing about the final end of all opposition to his will.
In my opinion, this idea of heavenly glorification is the core of Paul’s message. I have noted his use of the terms doxa/doxazo in various contexts to summarize his overall view of God’s plan of salvation (1 Cor. 2:6-8; Rom. 5:1-2; 8:17-25; 29-30; 2 Cor. 4:16-5:10; 1 Thess. 2:12). Every major aspect of his system is related to this concept. When he speaks of the death, resurrection, and exaltation of Christ, he has in mind a Christological pattern (Phil. 2:5-10) which has the most direct bearing on this heavenly destiny of the elect. His discussion of the weakness of the Torah and the resulting chain of sin and death is connected to the question of how one can be an “inheritor” of the promises made to Abraham, which he interprets cosmically (Rom. 4:13-15; Gal. 3:15-29). This whole cluster of ideas (Torah, covenants, sin, death, promises, inheritance) provides the basis for his emphasis on justification by faith. This is the way one enters the elect community, becomes an inheritor, and is given the hope of glorification. Indeed, Paul’s emphasis on grace and gift reaches its most eloquent expression when he focuses on the cosmic destiny of these sons of God and their transformation at the return of Jesus (2 Cor. 4:13-18; Rom. 8:31-39). The giving of the Spirit, “sonship,” and “life in the Spirit,” all point toward glorification (Rom. 8:15-17; Gal. 4:4-7). The model he presents of suffering, as the “boast” of the true follower of God, points directly to subsequent glorification (Rom. 8:17-18; 5:1-5). His idea of inheriting the kingdom of God and the kind of ethical life this requires is directly related to the change from “flesh and blood” to immortality at the return of Christ (1 Cor. 6:9-11; Gal. 5:15-21; 1 Cor. 15:50). Obviously, one might take any single element of Paul’s message and argue that it isrelated to various others, but the ultimate content of the plan of God must be more basic than its “ways and means.” Paul’s use of the language of glorification, in these key contexts, is what is noteworthy. Paul is consumed with two great insights–the vision he has had of the exalted and glorified Christ whom he knows to be the crucified man Jesus, whose followers he had once opposed; and his conviction that by grace through faith this same heavenly glorification is the destiny of the elect group. All else falls in between.
Visions and Revelations of the Lord
If Paul’s understanding of heavenly glorification is at the core of his message, I now want to ask how his reported experiences of epiphany and ascent might be related to that expectation. The relevant texts are 1 Cor. 9:1; 15:8; Gal. 1:12, 15-16 and 2 Cor.12:1-10.
I first turn to his “conversion” experience. There can be no doubt that Paul’s conversion to the sect of Messianists, who were proclaiming that Jesus was raised from the dead and had been exalted to the throne of God, was based on his own experience of having “seen” Jesus, several years after his execution. In 1 Cor. 9:1 he rhetorically asks, “Have I not seen (perfect of horao) the Lord?” Here and in 1 Cor. 15:8-10 he is concerned to show that his office as an apostle stems from his vision of the resurrected Jesus and is in line with the witness of the other apostles who came before him. In 1 Cor. 15:8 he writes, “But last of all he appeared (aorist passive of horao) to me.” Whether Paul thought his own “seeing” the Lord was the same kind of experience as that of the other apostles or not, he clearly means something other than the kind of “appearances” of Jesus in the later tradition (Luke 24:36-43; John 20:26-29) There the emphasis is on the literal “flesh and bones” body that was crucified. These accounts are obviously apologetic and intended to counter the charge that the appearances of Jesus were merely visionary. For Paul it is different. Jesus is no longer flesh and blood, but has become a “life-giving spirit” (1 Cor. 15:45,50). His body is that of a glorious heavenly being (1 Cor. 15:42-50; Phil. 3:20-21), and he sits at the right hand of God in heaven (Rom. 8:34). Since, as we have shown, all the terms that apply to Jesus’ present mode of heavenly, glorified existence, apply as well to the elect group awaiting final transformation, then Paul’s message in this regard is directly related to what he saw at his conversion. Perhaps his experience was something like that reported of Stephen in Acts 7:56–“Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man [Jesus] standing at the right hand of God!”–but whatever its exact nature, my point is that he identified the glorified one he saw with the crucified man Jesus, and such a vision of glory must have been in his mind when he spoke of the expected glorification of the elect. It was something he had seen. In Gal. 1:11-12 he declares:
I want you to realize, brothers, that the gospel which I preach is not a human gospel, for I did not receive it from man, nor was I taught it, but it came through a revelation of Jesus Christ.
Then further in verses 15-16 he says:
But when the one who set me apart from my mother’s womb and called me through his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I did not consult with any human being.
Some scholars would deny that the terms “revelation” and “reveal” here in Galatians refer to visionary experience. The issue seems to be whether or not Paul derived his theology from such visions. These scholars would maintain that Paul disparaged ecstatic experiences and certainly would place no weight on such in his “exposition and defense of the Gospel.” It is obvious that Paul refers to his vision of the resurrected Jesus at his conversion. Such an experience might well have involved a verbal revelation as well. Paul elsewhere reports such communications with the Lord (2 Cor. 12:8-9; 1 Thess. 4:15). In this case, the message he received and the vision he saw have everything to do with one another.
In 2 Cor. 12:1 Paul speaks of his many “visions and revelations of the Lord,” and goes on to recount one such experience from fourteen years earlier, his ascent to Paradise, the subject of this book. Certainly his use of the term apokalupsis(“revelation”) here and in 12:7 refers to visionary experience, which would lend support to my interpretation of Gal. 1:11-16 above. I shall argue below that nothing in the context of 2 Cor. 12 should lead one to conclude that Paul disparaged such experiences. To be taken up to heaven, to hear and see things “impossible to express,” and which “one is not permitted to utter,” was a privilege of the highest order. Given Paul’s emphasis on the heavenly glorification of the elect to be revealed at the return of Jesus, there is every reason to conclude that this experience, along with that of his initial conversion, would have closely tied in with his gospel message.
Apostolic Authority and Mission
I begin this section with a summary and application of the work of John Schutz on apostolic authority (Paul and the Anatomy of Apostolic Authority). Schutz carefully distinguishes between the conceptual coordinates power, authority, and legitimacy. Authority is an interpretation of power while legitimacy is an interpretation of authority. Power then, has priority (like Weber’s charisma), and is the source of authority, while authority interprets power and makes it accessible. Legitimacy is a formalization of authority, an attempt to communicate authority and make it accessible. Paul comes before such a formalization; thus to understand Paul as an apostle, we are not concerned with the concept of legitimacy, but with authority itself, i.e., Paul’s own sense of apostolic authority as seen in his letters. We have no normative concept of “apostle” from Paul’s own time with which he can be compared, so how does Paul interpret his power and upon what grounds does he view it as an ultimate source of authority? Paul’s letters are a combination of proclamation and parenesis (exhortation). As he seeks to mold and control the beliefs and conduct of his churches, the range of subjects he covers in our limited collection of letters is wide. A partial breakdown would include:
1. sexual conduct in general (1 Thess. 4:3-8; 1 Cor. 7:1-7; Gal. 5:19;
1 Cor. 5:9-10; 6:9
2. frequency of sexual intercourse (1 Cor. 7:1-7)
3. incest (1 Cor. 5:1-5)
4. homosexuality (1 Cor. 6:9)
5. prostitution (1 Cor. 6:15-18)
6. celibacy (1 Cor. 7:8-9)
7. marital states (1 Cor. 7)
8. separation and divorce (1 Cor. 7:12-15)
9. alms and support of the ministry (1 Cor. 9:1-14; 16:1-4; Rom. 15:15-29;
2Cor. 8-9; Gal. 6:6; Rom. 12:13; 16:1-2)
10. non-retaliation (1 Thess. 5:15; Rom. 12:14-21)
11. community expulsions and lawsuits (1 Cor. 5; 6:1-8)
12. vegetarianism, idol meat, alcohol (1 Cor. 8:1-13; 10:23-31; Rom. 14)
13. slavery (1 Cor. 7:20-24)
14. circumcision (1 Cor. 7:18-19)
15. relations with outside society (1 Cor. 5:9; 10:27-31)
16. dress/hair length (1 Cor. 11:1-16)
17. regulations for meetings (1 Cor. 11:17-34; 14)
18. observance of holy days (Rom. 14:5-6; Gal. 4:10)
19. relations with civil government (Rom. 13:1-7)
20. paying taxes (Rom. 13:7)
21. jobs and employment (1 Thess. 4:11-12)
When he sets forth and defends his positions on matters of belief or practice, he is concerned to draw implications from his gospel message (making use of dialectical argument, appeal to tradition, and exegesis of scripture); but often as not he simply appeals to his authority, demanding imitation, submission and obedience. I will argue that Paul exerts this kind of personal authority based upon his understanding of his special role as an apostle.
In response to the fragmented and confused state of affairs in the Corinthian congregation Paul writes:
I am not writing you to shame you, but to admonish you as beloved children. For if you have numerous guides in Christ, you do not have many fathers, since I begot you in Christ Jesus through the gospel. I urge you, imitate me! This is why I sent Timothy to you . . . to remind you of my ways in Christ as I teach them in all the churches. Some are arrogant as though I were not coming to you, but I will arrive soon, if the Lord wills, and I will ascertain the power of these puffed up ones,not their talk. For the Kingdom of God does not exist on talk but on power! What do you prefer? Shall I come to you with a rod, or with love in a spirit of gentleness? (1 Cor. 4:14-21)
These verses are paradigmatic of the way Paul exercises authority in the churches he has founded. His position is that of the auctor. Although he recognizes the legitimate role others may play in carrying forward his work as “father,” or in building upon the foundation of the master builder, his authority remains preeminent (see 1 Cor. 3:10; Rom. 15:18-21). At times this position is reflected in language which is intimate, tender, and deeply personal. He reminds the Thessalonians:
But we were gentle among you, like a nurse caring for her children, so having such yearning love for you, we were ready to share not only the gospel of God with you, but our very selves, since you had become so dear to us (1 Thess. 2:7-8).
Further on, he uses the image of a father with his children (2:11). Even in a situation as heated as that in Galatia, he tenderly appeals to them as “my little children,” picturing himself as a mother in labor pains over them (3:19). He pleads desperately with the Corinthians:
Our mouth is open to you Corinthians, our heart is wide . . . open your hearts to us; we have wronged no one, we have corrupted no one, we have not taken advantage of anyone. I do not say this to condemn you, for I said before that you are in our hearts . . . (2 Cor. 6:11; 7:2-3a).
Twice he reminds them that his authority is for building up, not for punishing (2 Cor. 10:8; 13:10). Often he mentions the return of Jesus and the overflowing joy he will have in presenting them to Christ, faithful and blameless (1 Thess. 2:17-20; 3:8-13; 2 Cor. 1:14; Phil. 1:10; 2:16). At other times his tone is severe, threatening, and overbearing. This is particularly clear in 2 Cor. 10-13, where he seems uncertain of his ability to maintain his position:
I beg you that when I am present I may not have to be overbearing with the kind of persuasion I plan on employing against those who accuse us of living on a human plane (10:2).For even if I boast a bit of our authority (which the Lord gave for building up, not for destroying you) I will not be put to shame . . . . let such people realize that what we say by letter when away, we do when present! (10:8, 11)
I warned those who sinned before and all the others, and I warn them now while absent, as I did then when I was there on my second visit, that if I come again I will not spare them–since you want proof that Christ is speaking through me (12:2-3a).
Intrinsic to the authority of the auctor are the concepts of imitation and obedience. As father and founder, Paul exhorts the Corinthians to “imitate me” and sent Timothy as his representative to remind them “of my ways” as taught in all the churches. The apostle is the mediator of divine power in the world and the guarantor of the “success of the enterprise.” He not only speaks “in” or “for” Christ, but in a representative sense is Christ manifest in the world. To disregard him is to disregard God who has given him this position. Faithfulness to God is indeed faithfulness to God’s message, with all its implications. But in a practical sense this faithfulness is demonstrated (or judged) by submission to the apostle. The source of authority is not merely “rational” but “irrational” or ultimate. This is nowhere more forcefully illustrated than in the language Paul uses in 1 Cor. 5:3-5 in dealing with the reported case of incest within the congregation. He writes:
For although I am absent in body, I am present in spirit, and as present, I have already pronounced judgment in the name of the Lord Jesus upon the man who has committed such a deed. When you are assembled, and my spirit is presentwith the power of our Lord Jesus, deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that his spirit may be saved on the day of the Lord.
The apostolic ego is the key point to be noted here. Paul passes the judgment “in the name of the Lord” and Paul’s spirit is present “with the power of the Lord.” The prepositional phrases are clearly subordinate to the immediate manifestation of divine power in the community. Such language is extraordinary and implies an interpretation of power quite different from later church concepts of apostolic succession and legitimacy.
1 Cor. 11:1-16 is of particular interest in this regard, even though much of Paul’s argument will likely remain obscure to us. Paul begins the chapter with his formulaic command, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.” In the following verse he commends the community for remembering him in every matter and maintaining the traditions (paradoseis) which he had delivered to them. He then proceeds to detail instructions regarding how women are to wear their hair. He concludes by asserting:
If anyone would like to argue, we recognize no other practice, nor do the churches of God! (11:16).
He concludes the longest section of this letter (chapters 12-14) with a similar, though more forceful, declaration. After giving detailed instructions regarding the proper use of “spiritual gifts” in the assembly and pointedly ordering that women are to remain silent, he declares:
If anyone considers himself to be a prophet or a spiritual one, let him acknowledge that what I write you is a command of the Lord. If anyone disregards this then he is disregarded! (14:37-38). What should be noted here is that the final test of spirituality, in a situation in which various charismatics set forth their claims, is submission to the authority of the apostle. Paul speaks unequivocally for the Lord–his voice is to be heeded and his life imitated as the locus of divine power for his communities.
The tension he feels in resolving issues of controversy in his churches is particularly clear in 1 Cor. 7, where he offers both advice and directive regarding marital states, divorce and states of life in general. Several of these issues, raised explicitly or implicitly by the Corinthians (7:1), demanded a specificity that went beyond what might have been deduced or argued from the theological content of his gospel proclamation. Although he does label what he writes regarding whether it is better to be married or single as his opinion, he pushes his own position forcefully and fortifies this “opinion” with the tactful phrase, “And I think that I have the Spirit of God” (vv. 6, 25, 40). The juxtaposition of verses 10-11 and verses 12-16 is most interesting:
To the unmarried I give order, not I, but the Lord, that the wife should not separate from her husband (but if she does she is to remain single or else be reconciled to her husband), and the husband is not to divorce his wife (10-11).
Here Paul relates his command to a saying of Jesus which he has received from the tradition. He then introduces his further discussion with the parallel phrase:
To the rest, I say, not the Lord . . . (12a).
The clear force of this is not merely that he has nothing from the tradition regarding this matter, but that he equates what he sets forth in the following verses (12-16)with a saying of Jesus. In fact, verse 15 offers a reason for divorce which moves beyond the logion of Jesus, and taken at face value, contradicts it. Paul then, is willing to legislate, in matters as weighty as divorce, and is willing to go beyond a traditional saying of Jesus. To write “I say” or “the Lord says,” for Paul, equivalently represents the authority of God. This is not to say that he exercises such authority indiscriminately, but that in various ways and in various contexts his claim to such is clear. In verses 17-24 he takes up the questions of circumcision and slavery. He declares:
Let each person lead the life which the Lord has assigned him, each as God has called him. This is my rule in all the churches (7:17).
In each case he does offer theological grounds to support what he orders (vv. 19, 22-23), but his use of the verb diatassomai (“This is my rule”) is forceful and characteristic. He uses it twice more in a similar way in this letter. First in 11:34, following a series of responses to questions and situations in the community. He concludes:
Regarding the other matters, I will give orders when I come.
Then in 16:1 he directs them to prepare the collection of funds he was to take to Jerusalem. This verse, with its matter-of-fact tone of authority should be compared with the complex appeal he makes regarding the same collection in 2 Cor. 8-9. There he obviously feels under fire and fears he has lost hold on portions of the group. He exercises the utmost tact, appealing to a “rational” source of authority.
It is in the portions of this collection of correspondence (now preserved in 2 Corinthians) where Paul’s authority has been directly threatened by rival “apostles” and he is pushed to the wall, that the direct demand for “obedience” is especially evident. In his reconciling letter to the Corinthians (1:1-2:13; 7:5-16) he refers to his previous “letter of tears”:
Because of this I wrote in order to test you in everything, to see if you are obedient in everything (2:9).
He echoes the same concern in 7:15 in commenting on the reception of Titus as his envoy:
And his [Titus’] heart goes out all the more to you as he recalls the obedience of you all, as you received him with fear and trembling.
He had introduced this theme of “obedience” in the previous letter (10:1-6):
We overthrow argument [i.e., with the weapons of divine power–v. 4] and every proud obstacle to the knowledge of God,. and take every thought captive to obey Christ, having prepared to punish every disobedience, when your obedience is complete (10:5-6)
The destructive use of his authority which he threatens in 10:8 and again in 13:10, is intended for the outsider or the opponent, not for the obedient child who imitates the father. The situation reflected in 2 Cor. 10-13 is so desperate that the “children” themselves are in danger of moving into this category, and thus suffering the destruction of divine power mediated by the apostle. This is very serious business (remember the language of 1 Cor. 5:5). Obedience to Christ is to be gauged by obedience to the apostle, as we have seen above. The ideal is well expressed in the Philippian letter, where Paul feels strong support and acceptance of his authority:
Thus my beloved ones, as you have always obeyed, so do so now, not only when I am present, but even more when I am absent–accomplish your salvation with fear and trembling! (2:12).
Such obedience “with fear and trembling” is ultimately directed toward God, but immediately manifested in the degree of submission to the apostle. It is the test and indicator of faithfulness and thus the guarantee of participation in full salvation. Such imitative submission is a test for Paul as well, that his labor was not in vain (Phil. 2:16). I have already cited the passages where he speaks of the joy they will share at the return of Jesus from heaven. His hope is that he can present a blameless and obedient community to Christ as the fruit of his labor. But it is quite obvious that no individual who rebels against Paul and rejects his authority, will be included in that gathering.
The tone and approach adopted by Paul in asserting “his ways” in his congregations varies in any given situation according to the degree of acceptance he thinks he has from the group. This accounts for the broadly different ways his authority comes across in various letters. 1 Thessalonians reflects a high degree of acceptance. Although there may have been some criticism of the character and motives of the absent apostle (thus the mild defense in 2:1-12), it likely stemmed from outsidepersecutors. Paul is mainly concerned with encouraging and building up the fledgling group in the face of such opposition. The general tone of the letter is warm and deeply personal. In the parenetical section (chaps. 4 and 5) he exhorts and encourages them (4:1), gives them “instruction” (4:2, 11), warns them (4:6), corrects their misunderstanding concerning the resurrection of the dead (4:13-5:12) and closes with a series of imperatives (5:12-22). Several times he mentions that they are already following the right course and asks them to do so “more and more” (4:1; 9-10; 5:11). His most insistent language comes in 5:27–“I adjure you by the Lord that this letter be read to all the brethren!” All of the elements of Paul’s apostolic authority are evident, but the tone and approach is mild. They are to “imitate” their “father” (2:11; 4:1); what they are told is the “word of God,” not of men (2:13; 4:8, 15). But the enemies are outside, and the harsh language, of which Paul is so capable, is directly against them, i.e., in this case the Jews (2:14-16).
Philippians reflects a quite similar manner of asserting authority. The tone is gentle, encouraging and deeply personal. They are, nonetheless, to obey and imitate the apostle:
What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me–do!And the God of peace will be with you (4:9).Brothers, join in imitating me, and mark those who so live as you have an example in us (3:17).
These imperatives offer excellent examples of how Paul views the model follower of Christ, the one assured of God’s favor. I have noted previously his exhortation to obedience in 2:12. The polemical section of the letter (3:2-11, 17-19), although similar in language to sections of Galatians and 2Corinthians, and quite harsh in tone, is again clearly directed against outsiders. Paul is confident that the group is receptive to him.
1 Corinthians represents a midway situation. There are factions within the congregation, and the language he uses is considerably heated. There is some doubt in Paul’s mind about the degree of submission he will receive. This accounts for the much stronger language, some of which I have already quoted above. The same elements are present (Paul as father, the idea of imitation, commands and directives ), but they come across in a more demanding and absolute way than in 1 Thessalonians or Philippians. Overall, though, Paul still perceives himself to be in charge.
It is in sections of 2 Corinthians and in Galatians where one finds a changed approach–though the opponents Paul faces are different. Here the ground has shifted. In Galatians he uses hyperbolic language with a full repertoire of cursing, sarcasm, dire threats and warnings:
I am amazed that you are so quickly deserting him who called you . . . (1:6a).
If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be damned! (1:9b)
O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you! (3:1)
I have confidence in the Lord that you will take no other view than mine and that the one troubling you will bear his condemnation, whoever he is! (5:10)
I wish the ones unsettling you would mutilate themselves! [i.e., their penises by a slip of the circumcision knife] (5:12)
In this situation the issue is sharply defined–must a Gentile convert to Judaism and observe the Torah in order to be saved? It is not, then, a simple case of Paul asserting his position as father to the community. Although the opponents are outsiders, they have clearly made internal gains. He puts forth arguments to support his case (especially in chaps. 3 and 4). But still, there is a very strong personalappeal, particularly in 3:12-20; 5:10 and 6:17. He knows it is possible that he may have lost his power in the group. Therefore, he must defend the content of his message “rationally,” as well as the unquestionable authority given to him as an apostle of God.
However, it is the situation reflected behind the texts we now have collected in 2 Corinthians that best illustrates Paul’s understanding of his authority per se. Despite the impossibility of reconstructing the identity and theology of his opponents with any certainty, the situation is desperate and his hold is weakened over portions of the group. The key chapters are 10-13. Paul’s efforts to re-assert his position as “father” to the congregation exhibit a different tone and approach than that of any of his other letters. It is here that he sets forth his most complex and personal defense of his authority as an apostle, making an outright demand for their obedience and submission to him. It is important that his ascent account, which comes in this section of the letter, be understood in this context.
In all of his letters, despite the differing tones and variety of approaches and situations, the essential interpretation of power is the same–to please God and be accepted by Christ at his return one must live presently in imitation of and submission to the apostle whom he has sent. Paul himself represents the working of the true Spirit in the community.
This raises this question of the extent to which Paul’s mediation of divine power is shared by every other person “in Christ,” to use his language. All possess the same Spirit (1 Cor. 12:12-13). The manifestations of this Spirit are spread throughout the whole body (1 Cor. 12, 14). The community as a whole is “called by God” and is participating in the mission and work of God in the world. There is certainly an extent to which the “children” are like the “father.” That is the obvious force of the notion of imitation. The task of the father involves an “augmentation” of the power he represents. Yet all are not apostles (1 Cor. 12:29). All are not fathers (1 Cor. 4:15). No one else could have used the language toward the community which I have just examined. The issue is who is to be ultimately heard and heeded, imitated and obeyed, in a situation of shared charismata. Rational appeal and argument can work in certain situations, and Paul makes full use of these, but when rivals also claim to have the “Spirit” and to speak for Christ the lines of battle can become very blurred. This is the case in 2 Cor. 10-13.
Sign of a True Apostle
One could hardly point to a more difficult portion of the Pauline corpus than 2 Cor. 10-13. There is the problem of style; Paul’s language and lines of argument are extremely complex and difficult. The identity of his opponents seems beyond our abilities to reconstruct. Does Paul face a different situation than that of 1 Corinthians? What might be the origin of these opponents–the Jerusalem church, the diasporic Christian mission, or the Corinthian community itself? Are they best characterized as Judaizers, Pneumatics, Gnostics (or gnostics) or some combination of these? How does Paul differ from his opposition? In what ways is he similar? John Gunther (St. Paul’s Opponents and their Background), in an extraordinary job of cataloging, offers thirteen categories of identification of these opponents, reflecting the positions of thirty-nine scholars! He lists: Wandering Jewish preachers taking over the Gnostic opposition of 1 Cor.; Jewish Gnostic Christians of the same sort as in 1 Cor.; Pneumatic-libertine Gnostics; Gnostics; Alexandrian syncretistic antinomian pneumatics; Jewish-pagan-Christian gnostics; Hellenistic Jewish Christians; Non-Judaizing Jewish Christians; Palestinian Jewish-Christian Gnostics; Jewish Christian syncretists with Gnostic elements; Jerusalem Judaizers; Palestinian Jews–not Judaizers in the Galatian sense; Judaizers; Judaizers and pneumatic Gnostics. It is obvious that his list is inflated, overlapping, and imprecise, however, its very unwieldiness illustrates the difficulties of such attempts at identification. How one evaluates the ascent account is generally related to one’s characterization of the position of the opponents. Without attempting to cover all the nuances of such identification, I want to isolate several of the main lines of interpretation as they are related to this question of how Paul regarded his ascent experience.
First, there is the view that the opponents were criticizing Paul as an ecstatic visionary who relied on his “revelations” to legitimate his apostleship, but lacked the authorization of the Jerusalem church with its connection with the historical Jesus. Most often they would be seen as “Judaizers,” perhaps similar to those in Galatia, and either commissioned by the Jerusalem apostles, or at least claiming authority from them. This interpretation generally brings together Paul’s defense of his call (Gal. 1:11-12), his remarks about the “reputed pillars” of the church (Gal. 2:6-9), his insistence that he is not inferior to the original apostles, his claim that he too has “seen the Lord” (1 Cor. 9:1), and his reference to no longer “knowing Jesus according to the flesh” (2 Cor. 5:16). Thus, the “superlative apostles” contrasted themselves with him as though he had no rank (2 Cor. 11:5; 12:11). Schoeps (Paul: The Theology of the Apostle in the Light of Jewish History) has argued that the pseudo-Clementine texts, while reflecting a much later stage of anti-Paulinism, preserve for us in compact form the essential arguments of these Judaizers at Corinth (whom, according to Schoeps, Paul faced at Galatia as well). He relies on the debate between Peter and Paul (who appears under the name of the heretic Simon) in Homily 17. Peter argues that “Paul’s” claim to “revelations” of the Lord have no validity:
The personal knowledge and the personal instruction of the true prophet gives certainty; vision leaves us in uncertainty. For the latter may spring from a misleading spirit which feigns to be what it is not.
I see two major weaknesses with this position. First, there is no convincing evidence in these chapters, nor in 1 and 2 Corinthians as a whole (despite the reference to a “different gospel” in 11:4; cf. Gal. 1:6-9), of a Judaizing position akin to that of the opponents at Galatian who demanded that Gentiles be circumcised and keep the Torah. The way Paul goes about defending his apostleship simply does not correspond to that kind of opposition. Second, even though Schoeps’ appeal to the pseudo-Clementine materials has a certain attraction, it seems unlikely that Paul would appeal to his “visions and revelations” (even if “speaking as a fool”–11:21) if such visionary experience was the very point at issue. The rhetorical subtleties which he employs in his “Narrenrede” (irony, sarcasm, parody) indicate something much more complex is at stake. Paul is pressed to boast of his revelations precisely because his opponents were making claims on the basis of their own ecstatic experiences.
Schmithals (Gnosticism in Corinth) holds the position that the opponents were genuine Gnostics of Palestinian origin who boasted of pneumatic-ecstatic experiences of all kinds. He argues for a “one front battle” with Paul facing the same Gnostic opposition throughout the Corinthian correspondence. Such opponents would have charged that Paul was not a Pneumatic (at least on their level) and therefore not an apostle. Paul defends himself against such a charge both in 1 Cor. 14 and 2 Cor. 12. In both cases he does not reject such experiences; indeed, he must show that he has them “more than you all” (1 Cor. 14:18) and in “abundance” (2 Cor. 12:1, 7). Schmithals, however, holds that he depreciates them as expressions of individual or “personal religion,” fundamentally different in character from his Damascus revelation, and of no value to the community as a whole. Thus, in 2 Cor. 12:1-10, he is unwillingly pressed to meet his opponents on their own ground, “foolishly” boasting of an abundance of visions and revelations.
Dieter Georgi (Die Gegner des Paulus), arguing from 2 Cor. 2:14-7:4 and 10-13, has proposed that Paul faces a new group of opponents who had come into the community after he wrote 1 Corinthians. He characterizes them as wandering Hellenistic Jewish pneumatics who viewed Moses and Jesus on the model of atheios aner, glorying in their revelations and miracles as demonstrations of their “power” (dunamis). They are part of an organized Christian missionary movement, stemming from diasporic Jewish-Christian circles. Paul, while ironically boasting of his own pneumatic experience, stands in sharpest contrast to them with his emphasis on the crucified Jesus and his model of the suffering apostle who has power in weakness (2 Cor. 4:8-12; 6:4-10; 11:23-29; 12:10).
While Schmithals opposes Georgi’s overall thesis, he agrees that the false apostles in Corinth are the type of traveling Pneumatics which Georgi describes. However, he would insist that they are Gnostic apostles and that Paul faces their oppositionthroughout the Corinthian correspondence, not only in 2 Corinthians.
There does seem to be a growing consensus among scholars on a number of key points. First, the lines of battle are drawn over the issue of who is a true apostle–what Kasemann calls the question of “legitimitat.” Paul’s authority has been questioned and he is pressed to defend himself (though strictly speaking he denies this–2 Cor. 12:19) in contrast to his opponents, whom he asserts are false apostles (11:13) and servants Satan (11:15). Second, contrary to Schmithals, a new situation has developed from that reflected in 1 Corinthians. Third, this new group of “apostles” are certainly of Jewish background (3:7-18; 11:21-23), taking pride in such identity, though probably unlike the Judaizers at Galatia. Whether they are Hellenistic Jewish Christians from the diaspora or Palestinian Christians from the Jerusalem church seems impossible to resolve. Finally, and this point is crucial,both Paul and his opponents claimed pneumatic powers, the ability to work miracles and various experiences of vision and revelation.
At issue then is how Paul, in 2 Cor. 10-13, goes about defending his apostleship against these newly arrived Jewish opponents who are also claiming pneumatic powers; and specifically, for this study, what is the point of his mentioning his ascent to Paradise in such a context? E. Earle Ellis (“Paul and His Opponents,” inChristianity, Judaism, and Other Greco-Roman Cults, edited by Jacob Neusner, vol 2: 264-98) offers a succinct characterization of this type of situation:
The Pauline mission was an enterprise of pneumatics, persons who claimed special understanding of scripture and who experienced manifestations of inspired, ecstatic speech and of visions and revelations. The primary opposition to that mission arose from within a segment of the ritually strict Hebraioi in the Jerusalem church and with variations in nuance continued to pose, sometimes as a counter mission and sometimes as an infiltrating influence, a settled and persistent “other” gospel. Each group claimed to be the true voice of Jesus, each claimed to give the true gnosis of God, and on occasion, each made its higher appeal to apostolic status. It was, in a word, a battle of prophets, and the congregation was called upon to choose–Paul or his opposition.
Most scholars have concluded that Paul, in facing such opposition, to one degree or another, disparaged pneumatic experiences, refusing to allow such to serve as a basis for validating his authority. The following comment by C.K. Barrett on Paul’s ascent experience typifies this viewpoint:
It is true that xii.2ff describes an experience in which Paul was caught up to heaven and heard words which he was not allowed to communicate to his fellow men; . . . It remains significant that, to find a suitably impressive example of visions and revelations of the Lord (xii.1), he goes back fourteen years (xii.2); such raptures did not happen to him every other week . . .. To Paul, the spiritual world was unmistakably real, and from time to time he experienced it in an ecstatic way; but so far from cultivating this kind of experience he rather disparaged it, and laid no weight on it in his exposition and defense of the Gospel (Second Corinthians, p. 34).
Barrett argues that the apostle’s legitimacy appears not in the power of his personality, not in such ecstatic experiences or revelations, not in his commissioning by the right ecclesiastical authorities, but only in the extent to which his life and preaching represent the crucified Jesus. Accordingly, even if Paul must reluctantly compare himself with his opponents, ultimately he refuses to do so, “boasting ” only in his weaknesses and sufferings. Bornkamm essentially follows this same line of interpretation. I have already noted how Schmithals argues that Paul depreciates such experiences as expressions of individual religion. W. D. Davies (Paul and Rabbinic Judaism, p. 87) holds that the ascent experience is not of “primary importance” and that Paul never makes any vision he may have had (as the “Hellenistic pneumatics” must have done) the basis for any of his teaching. James Dunn (Jesus and the Spirit, p. 339), while admitting the obvious, that Paul “was no stranger to ecstatic experiences,” says the question of real moment is whether they were important to Paul. He concludes:
Certainly Paul knows experiences which take him out of himself–even, it perhaps seemed at the time, out of the body (II Cor. 12:2ff.). But such experiences are the least significant for Paul; it is the daily experience of weakness that finds him closest to God and the power of God most effective through him (II Cor. 12:9f.; 13:4).
He goes on to say, “Paul derived his authority as an apostle not from the inspiration of the present but from the decisive events of the past which remained determinative for believers” (p. 277). He is referring to the authoritative Jesus tradition and his once-for-all revelation or appearance to Paul, whereby he was commissioned to take the message to the Gentiles and establish the church through that ministry. Russell Spittler, in an article appropriately called, “The Limits of Ecstasy,” (in Current Issues in Biblical and Patristic Interpretation, edited by G. Hawthorne, pp. 259-66) concludes:
The paradise rapture would not even have been mentioned now but for the fact that Paul was forced to do so . . . that is, he was forced to respond to attacks on his apostolic authority based on charges (whether expressed, or implied in the extravagant ecstatic claims of the opponents) of his ecstatic or pneumatic deficiency. The thrust of his polemic is by no means an attempt to outdo the opponents by detailing a superior ecstatic experience. Rather, and still “speaking as a fool,” he inverts the very criterion of his opponents by saying in essence that ecstasy is no proper cause for kauchesis nor does it provide any adequate apostolic accreditation.
A. T. Lincoln (Paradise Now and Not Yet, p. 71-85), in a comprehensive treatment of the passage, acknowledges that such an experience must have been “outstanding” and “highly valued” by Paul, yet goes on to conclude:
In this context it becomes clear that Paul introduces his visionary experience of heaven only in order to show that it is not such experiences on which he relies for evidence of his apostleship.
I could cite any number of other scholars who draw similar conclusions.
My own position runs directly counter to this trend of modern interpretation. The resolution of the question must involve at least three lines of inquiry. First, there is the question of the exegesis of the text itself. Does Paul’s overall defense in 2 Cor. 10-13, and the way in which he brings in the ascent experience, indicate that he disparaged such revelations, or that he is, in fact, defending his authority as an apostle on the basis of such? Second, in a wider context, with regard to Paul’s overall understanding of revelation and authority, what would be the significance of this particular experience? And finally, is it important that Paul mentions an ascent to heaven when he comes to “visions and revelations,” and not just any pneumatic experience, not even his initial vision and call at his conversion (as in Galatians)? This third question relates to an even broader inquiry–the significance of ascent as a religious experience in the Hellenistic period. I will take this up in the following chapter. At this point I will argue that for Paul the experience of ascent to Paradise was important and did serve to confirm his self-understanding of his authority as an apostle, and further, that it is significant that he tells of a journey to heaven, and not just any ecstatic experience.
Throughout these chapters Paul exhibits fierce indignation, and asserts his authority to the uttermost. His invective amounts to a “declaration of war” against those whofail to submit. He warns the community (i.e., anyone who would interpret his “weakness” as a lack of divine power) in 10:11: “Let these people understand that what we say by letter when absent, we do when present!” His purpose in writing is not ultimately to defend himself before them (13:19), but to give them opportunity to correct their ways and submit to him before he makes his visit (12:21; 13:10), so that he will not have to be severe in his use of the authority given to him by Christ (12:10). There is a sense in which Paul is in complete control of the situation. He knows that he may have lost a portion of the group, as I have discussed earlier, thus his tone is severe and desperate. But in his own final analysis, Paul cannot lose. He has no doubt of his authority from the Lord, including the power “to destroy” if necessary (10:8; 13:10). His discussion begins and ends on this note. He wants those who have been influenced by the opponents to “mend their ways” and “complete their obedience” (13:11; 10:6) before he arrives. For the opponents and those who will not come around, there is no hope. They are “false apostles,” “deceitful workers,” and servants of Satan himself. He confidently declares that they will suffer an end corresponding to their deeds (11:13-15). Precisely what form this threatened punishment of the disobedient is to take we cannot say. I think it unlikely that he has in mind judgment at the coming of Christ. Reacting to the charge of his enemies, he dispels any notions of “meekness” by speaking of the boldness that he intends to show against his enemies when he comes (10:2). The military language of 10:3-6 is more than rhetorical display. Paul plans to take some kind of action when he arrives. He speaks of “weapons” which have “divine power to destroy,” using terms which he often associates with his own apostolic office (10:8; 12:9; 13:1-4, 10). The kind of scene described in 1 Cor. 5:3-5, where the man is to be “`delivered to Satan” for destruction is probably our best indication of what he contemplates. As Morton Smith has shown, our best parallels for understanding this kind of talk and action are in the magical papyri. In 4:18-21 he had spoken of the arrogance of some who did not seem bothered by his threats to “come” to them; he offered them the choice of gentleness or a rod, and reminded them of the divine “power” at his disposal. In 2 Cor. 10-13 the situation is more desperate and Paul is ready to act. Even though Paul does take up a certain kind of ironic defense of himself in 11:1-12:10, the overall tone of the chapters is one of full confidence to deal with those who have attached themselves to the opponents. With all of this boldness he still makes the most tender appeal. He reminds them how he loves them and how he is willing to “be spent” for them (12:15). He only wants to build them up, and is disappointed that they have not returned his love and “commended” him themselves (12:11).
One charge made against Paul was that he was bold and forceful in his letters, but that when actually present was weak and unimpressive (10:2, 10; 11:16). It was said that he had “overextended” himself in various ways as he sought to exercise his apostolic authority (10:14). This might be related to his policy of not taking financial support from them, which some saw as proof that he did not have the full rights of an apostle (11:7-11; 12:13-18). There is every indication that some in the group went on to question whether Paul had the right to be called an apostle at all, asserting that he did not meet “the test” in comparison to others (10:18; 13:3). This probably involved an appeal by the opponents to “signs, wonders, and mighty works” (12:12), as well as to “visions and revelations” (12:1), which they felt demonstrated their own power and standing as apostles. They, at the same time, took pride in their Jewish background as Hebrews, Israelites, and descendants of Abraham (11:22).
Several of these charges Paul refutes directly, using a technique of denial and reversal. It is they who have overextended themselves, not he; he was the “first to reach them” and is their founder, while these false apostles “boast” of work done in another man’s field of labor (10:13-16). He did not take money from them because he loved love, like a parent who sacrifices for his children. He showed no trace of craftiness or guile (11:7-12; 12:13-18). The opponents, on the other hand, take all kinds of advantage over them, seeking to enslave them, and would never adopt Paul’s way of not “burdening” the church, because they are greedy for the gain it brings them (11:12-21).
The crux of his response, however, involves the subtle and shifting use of four key terms: weakness (astheneia); power (dunamis); boasting (kauchesis) and foolishness (aphrosune). Paul’s concern is to make it clear that he is not the least bit “inferior” to the opponents, whom he sarcastically labels as “super-apostles.” The core of his defense begins and ends with this assertion (11:5; 12:11). His argument is very difficult because of a complex mix of sarcasm, irony and parody. He reverses the level of the discussion, so that at various points he is operating on two different planes, with the key terms of the discussion carrying different meanings. At one and the same time he meets the opponents on their own ground, and denies the validity of that very ground, by setting forth his authority on a different level.
He charges that the opponents operate kata sarka, “on a worldly plane” (10:18). They attempt to do battle with him on that level (10:2), claiming that Paul fails to meet the “test” (dokimos). This idea of a test or proof is important in these chapters (10:18; 13:3, 5-7). The Corinthians wanted “proof” that Christ was speaking in Paul. But he closes his letter by asking them to examine themselves, to see if it might be they who have failed the “test.” This test is finally whether or not they submit to him. Their operation on this worldly plane causes them to boast over “worldly things” (11:18). They compare and measure themselves with one another (10:12), commending themselves on the basis of their pneumatic powers and their Jewish connections (10:18). They see themselves as having power, while Paul is judged as weak and unimpressive (10:10; 11:6).
Speaking as a “fool” (11:1, 16-17, 21; 12:11), Paul is able to engage the opponents point by point on this level. He too can boast of worldly things. He is a Hebrew, an Israelite, a descendent of Abraham, a servant of Christ (11:22-23). He too can speak of “visions and revelations” which he has experienced (12:1). But in doing so he actually cuts the ground from under them. First, he denies that they are, in fact, servants of Christ. They are evil and deceitful ministers, false apostles, who are serving Satan, not Christ (11:13-15). And as for their revelations, he implies in 12:6 that such claims were based on falsehood. By this he does not mean that their visions are fraudulent, but as servants of Satan, their claim that their power is from Christ is necessarily a lie. Paul insists that “another spirit” stands behind their manifestation of pneumatic power (11:4)! His point is that since his many “visions and revelations” are truly “of the Lord,” even if he did wish to meet them on this point, he would at least be speaking the truth. But ultimately he refuses to operate on this level of comparison and boasting of himself and what he has experienced (12:5), instead he shifts the ground. He says in 10:18, “for it is not the man whoapproves himself who is accepted (dokimos), but the one whom the Lord approves.” They had charged that he was weak (10:10). Paul turns the charge against them. If he “must boast” (11:30; 12:1) then he will boast of this–his weaknesses (11:30; 12:5). On the “worldly plane” this would be an admission of defeat, but in terms of “whom the Lord approves,” weakness turns out to mean divine power, the power of Christ himself (12:9-10). It is in this context, between 11:30 and 12:10, that he mentions his ascent to Paradise. Paradoxically, this extraordinary and exalted revelation brought “weakness”:
And to keep me from being too elated because the revelations were so marvelous (huperbole), a thorn in the flesh was given to me, amessenger of Satan (aggelos), to harass me, to keep me from being too elated (12:7).
I have taken huperbole to refer to the greatness or privileged nature of the revelations (i.e., things both impossible and unlawful to utter–v. 4). On Paul’s celebrated “thorn in the flesh,” the speculations are endless and at times sound like entries in a medical encyclopedia. This focus on the phrase “thorn in the flesh” throws one off. There is no indication here that Paul is writing about some physical ailment he suffered. Perhaps our best clue is what he plainly says, an angel of Satan (i.e., a demon) was allowed to afflict him (without specifying what such harassment involved). Paul knows that he too could fall victim to the temptation of self-exultation, especially because of such a privileged experience. At first he asks the Lord to send this Satanic one away, not once, but three different times (12:8, like Jesus facing his own temptation in Gethsemane– Mark 14:32-42). Each time he is told the same paradoxical message by Jesus himself:
My grace is sufficient for you, my power is brought to fullness in weakness (12:9).
Paul is able to mention the experience, obliquely, using the third person, because he is nothing (12:11). It was nothing he could boast of, but rather something granted to him by the Lord (12:1, 5). On a “worldly plane” such a privileged experience means “weakness,” but in terms of “whom the Lord approves” it brings a fullness of divine power. Paul, of course, relates this paradox of weakness/power to Jesus’ death on the cross: “For he was crucified in weakness, but lives by the power of God” (13:4). Paul is like Christ. Though he is “weak,” he will “live with him by the power of God,” when it comes to dealing with them (13:4). The opponents had charged that he was weak and that he boasted too much of his authority (10:8-10). His answer is based on his experience. Yes, he is weak, but that weakness signifies that the power of Christ is fully displayed through him; yes he does boast, but not of himself, he boasts “in the Lord” (10:17; 12:1, 5).
By recounting this revelation Paul is not trying to assert the validity of suffering as a criterion of apostleship, contrasting it with visionary ecstatic experience. That is not the way his argument runs. Rather he is setting forth two ways of commendation. There are those who commend themselves, boasting on their own behalf, and there are those whom the Lord commends, who of themselves are nothing and can boast only of weakness. This is the heart of his argument, as 10:18 clearly shows.
His extraordinary ascent to heaven was certainly evidence of the Lord’s commendation. This experience is to be compared to his “Damascus” vision and calling. Both were granted to him by the Lord. He calls both “revelations.” The first relates to his call and commission as an apostle, the second is a highly privileged confirmation of the Lord’s commendation. Indeed, that this journey to heaven is a higher and more privileged experience than that of the epiphany at his conversion. As Albert Schweitzer (The Mysticism of Paul the Apostle) pointed out, all of the apostles had “seen the Lord,” but as far as we have evidence, only Paul claims to have been taken to heaven and told secrets he could not disclose. It is preciselybecause he regarded this experience so highly that he is most careful and reticent in recounting it to the Corinthians. He does not want it to be taken as the same kind of boasting that characterized his opponents. At the same time he is eager to demonstrate that he is not the least bit inferior to them.
My argument in this section is that Paul’s experience of ascent to Paradise is related to the ways he exercises authority in his churches. I have shown how he asserts that authority in various situations in his letters. It is his unwavering conviction that he “speaks for the Lord.” That authority is based on his self-understanding as an apostle: an apostle whom the Lord has called; upon whom the power of Christ rests; whom the Lord, not men, has commended. In a crisis situation, such as that reflected in 2 Corinthians, when that very authority is called into question, he asserts it all the more, with a rigor unparalleled in any of his other letters. In this context his recounting of his ascent to heaven is his way of affirming in the boldest possible manner that he is the one commended by the Lord, that he is the one who must be heeded. He does indeed “boast” in his weakness in this chapter, but that very “weakness” came as a result of his highly privileged revelations (12:7). For Paul the issue is singular and clear cut–the opponents are of Satan, while he speaks and acts with the authority of Christ.
Last of All He Appeared to Me
Paul did not view his apostolic authority in a vacuum, but understood it in the context of his apostolic mission. Apostolic authority and mission must be seen hand in hand, together forming his apostolic self-understanding. After listing the appearances of the risen Christ to Cephas, to “the twelve,” to James, and then to all the “apostles,” he tells of his own selection:
Last of all, as to one abnormally born, he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, actually not fit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than all of them, though it was not I, but God’s grace in me. Therefore whether it was I or they, this is what we preach and this is what you believe (1 Cor. 15:8-11).
Paul finds it important to stress that he and the other apostles preach the same message (15:1-4), and that together they form a single line of witnesses to the resurrection of Jesus. But even here, when he wants to stress this unity and continuity with the others, he actually separates himself from them. Christ appeared to him last. He is like an untimely birth. He is the least of the apostles, not even worthy to be one at all. All of this is self-deprecating. But at the same time, from another viewpoint, these very factors can be seen to underline the special position that he holds. He says he “worked harder than all the others,” so the grace God extended to him was not ineffectual; then quickly adds that none of this was due tohim, but to God who worked through him. Paul understands his apostalic call and mission as sui generis, different from the others. It is worth noting that 1 Cor. 15 is not a context in which he is defending himself as an apostle (in contrast to 1 Cor. 9), yet this same kind of tone still comes through. Paul sees his mission and role in the plan of God as special and important, separate and beyond that of any of the other leaders.
He sees himself as one called to a very particular mission. I pointed out previously how Rom. 1:3-4 offers a terse summary of Paul’s essential message. The very next verse is a similarly formulaic statement regarding his mission:
Through whom [Christ] we have received grace and apostleship for the obedience of faith among all the Gentile nations for the sake of his name.This language is echoed in Rom. 15:18, which comes in the middle of one of the most basic treatments of his understanding of this mission:
For I will not dare to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me, to win the obedience of the Gentiles . . . .
In Gal. 1:16 he says most directly that God called him through his grace and revealed his Son to him, “in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles.” He goes on to explain his understanding of the difference between his apostolic mission and that of Peter (and the others at Jerusalem):
For the one who worked through Peter for the mission (apostolen) to the circumcised, worked also through me for the mission to the Gentiles (2:8).
He claims that the others accepted this understanding of his work, which he relates back to his initial conversion and call. He would go to the Gentiles, the others to the Jews (2:9). He calls himself an “apostle to the Gentiles” (Rom. 11:13), and it is this fundamental mission which gives him his special role in the plan of God. These passages from Paul’s own letters (in contrast to Acts), show how utterly Jewish the earliest Christian movement was. All of the Jerusalem apostles concentrate on the primary mission, the witness to Israel. This scheme makes no sense at all for the later movement and is only to be understood in the intensely apocalyptic times before the Jewish War and the fall of the Temple. As Johannes Munck (Paul and the Salvation of Mankind) has shown that Paul understands his special role as apostle to the Gentiles as the key to the final events of the End. He presents his understanding of this eschatological plan in Rom. 9-11 and 15:7-33. God has not rejected his people Israel, even though, at the present time, only a few have joined the Messianic movement (11:1-5). This is in keeping with God’s inscrutable ways. Through their rejection of Jesus as the Messiah, salvation is now being offered to the Gentiles, to make Israel jealous (11:11-12). It is all part of the secret plan of God, now revealed by Paul. He tells the Gentile believers:
I want you to understand this mystery brethren, so you won’t be conceited: a hardening has come upon part of Israel, until the full number of the Gentiles come in, and thus all Israel will be saved (11:25-26b).
Paul understands that there is a certain select group of Gentiles that God has chosen and is calling to make up a new Israelite community (Gal. 6:16; Phil. 3:3). His preaching in the major cities of the empire, both east and west, is the means by which they are gathered together and prepared for their role in God’s plan. When his work is completed he expects Israel as a whole to come to believe in Jesus as Messiah and Lord.
Paul develops this understanding of his Gentile mission through an interpretation of prophetic texts in the Hebrew Bible, particularly sections of deutero-Isaiah. This is a major factor in understanding the dynamics of Paul’s apostolic consciousness–he literally finds himself and his apostolic mission in these texts of sacred Scripture. Isa. 49:1-6 (LXX) is perhaps the single most significant text. I have put the phrases and terms in italics which Paul may have understood to refer to his own ministry:
Listen to me, O coastlands,
and hearken you Gentiles;After a long time it will happen,
says the Lord.
From my mother’s womb he has called my name.
And he has made my mouth a sharp sword,
and he has hidden me, under the shadow of his hand;
He has made me as a choice shaft,
and he has hidden me in his quiver.
And he said to me, “You are my servant, O Israel,
and in you I will be glorified.”
Then I said, “I have labored in vain,
therefore this is my judgment with the Lord,
And now, thus says the Lord that
formed me from the womb to be his own servant,to gather Jacob to him and Israel.
I shall be gathered and glorified before the Lord,
and God shall be my strength.
And he said to me, “It is a great thing
for you to be called my servant,to establish the tribes of Jacob,and to recover the dispersion of Israel.
Behold, I have given you for a covenant of a race,
for a light of the Gentiles,that you should be for salvation,to the ends of the earth.
Paul directly quotes this chapter in 2 Cor. 6:2. He alludes to it in Gal. 1:15 when speaking of his call before his birth, and again in Phil. 2:16 when he contemplates the final outcome of his work. In Rom. 15:21, where he defends his special mission to the Gentiles, he quotes from Isa. 52:15, a closely related section of deutero-Isaiah. More significant than these allusions or direct quotations is the way in which Paul’s general understanding of his role corresponds to the thematic thought-world of such texts. He, like the Hebrew prophets, is called by God at a crucial moment of history. The language he uses to describe this call in Gal. 1:15 seems to echo Jeremiah’s commission:
Before I formed you in the womb
I knew you,
and before you were born I
I appointed you a prophet to the nations (Jer. 1:5).
Paul writes of his own commission:
But when he who had set me apart before my birth, and had called me through his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, so that I mightpreach him among the Gentile nations, I did not consult with flesh and blood . . . Gal. 1:15)
Jeremiah’s authority to “destroy” and “build” (Jer. 1:10) might well lie behind Paul’s formulaic language in 2 Cor. 10:8 and 13:10. Paul’s extreme statement that he wished he could be cursed by God in order to save Israel (Rom. 9:1-3) corresponds to Moses’ prayer in Exodus 32:30-34 where he asks that he be destroyed rather than the nation of Israel. Paul directly contrasts his ministry with that of Moses in 2 Cor. 3. He sees himself as doing a greater work. He seems to identify his situation with that of Elijah: the lone and faithful servant of God, rejected by all (Rom. 11:2-6). My point is that Paul portrays his role in the plan of God in the same language as was used for the greatest figures of Israel’s past. In the case of the deutero-Isaiah material, I think he goes even further. He actually sees himself as fulfilling the role of the “Servant” who brings Israel back to God through a ministry to the Gentile nations. This is not to deny that he may also have seen Jesus as such a servant. He says in Rom. 15:8 that “Christ became a servant to the circumcised . . . in order that the Gentiles might glorify God.” This is the key to Paul’s thinking. Both Jesus’ and Peter’s preaching to Jews was a ministry of hardening, which would in turn lead to his own ministry to the Gentiles, which would then finally bring about the salvation of Israel (Rom. 11:7). Paul’s mission and role are therefore absolutely central to the sequence of this plan of God. Paul recognizes the greatness of the task he has been given. In Rom. 11:13, after explaining the basic outline of the plan, he says, “Inasmuch as I am an apostle to the Gentiles, I exalt my ministry.” Later, in chapter 15, he says he has written “boldly” (v.15) to them, explaining:
In Christ Jesus, then, I have reason to boast of my work for God. For I will not dare to speak of anything except what Christ has worked through me, to win obedience from the Gentiles . . . (15:17-18).
This is the same kind of language he uses in 2 Cor. 10-13 as we have seen. Paul’s “modesty” in Christ does not mean that he lacks any appreciation for the importance of his role in God’s plan. On the contrary, his assertion that his work is from and through Christ makes it all the more significant. His calling was special and he receives spiritual power from Christ himself to carry out the work.
In Romans 15:7-29 he sets forth his modus operandi. He has been called as a “priestly servant” (leitourgon) of Jesus Christ to the Gentile nations, in the priestly service (hierougounta) of the Gospel of God, so that the offering (prosphora) of the Gentiles may be acceptable (15:16). His collection from the Gentiles’ churches, which he was preparing to take to Jerusalem, is an embodiment of that priestly service (v. 27). He likely has in mind Isa. 2:2-4 and 60:5-9, where the Gentile nations are to flow into Jerusalem bearing gifts from all nations of the world. He feels that this offering from his churches in Macedonia, Achaia, and Asia is a vital sign of the validity of his mission (Rom. 15:27; 2 Cor. 9:12-15). At the time he writes the letter to Rome, he has finished his work in the East (15:19-23). After the trip to Jerusalem with the funds he has raised, he plans to move on to the West, via Rome, to Spain; then his commission will be completed (15:24-29). This extraordinary sense of itinerary illustrates just how concretely he understands his role in God’s eschatological plan. He is headed for unknown regions, fired by the vision of deutero-Isaiah, that “those who have never heard” shall be told (Isa. 52:15; Rom. 15:21).
Closely tied to this understanding of mission is Paul’s idea about suffering on behalf of his congregations. His model here is Jesus, but he seems to be drawing as well from themes in deutero-Isaiah. Since all believers are “in Christ,” and the paradigms of suffering/glory and weakness/power lie at the center of his theology of the cross,all “share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings” (2 Cor. 1:3-7). This is related to his idea of imitation. He tells the Thessalonians that they “became imitators of us and of the Lord” because they faced great affliction (1 Thess. 1:5; cf. 2:15). But there is a sense in which Paul’s sufferings are different. He represents Christ, present to his churches, and like Christ he suffers on their behalf.
In the fragments of 2 Cor. 2:14-6:13, 7:2-4, Paul gives his most profound description of his “ministry.” One should note carefully his use of the first and second person in this section. I am convinced that when he uses the plural “we” he is speaking of his own particular work as an apostle. He has his special role in mind, not the ministry in general. He is the aroma of Christ to God, the one through whom the world is being divided into two classes, those who are being saved and those who are perishing (2:15-16). He has received his commission from God and “speaks in Christ” (2:17). His message is that Jesus is Lord, and he istheir servant, because of Jesus (4:5). The catalogue of sufferings (4:8-9) is described as “carrying in the body the death of Jesus” which leads to life for them (4:10-12). All this is “for your sake” he tells them (4:15). He has been given a “work of reconciliation” so that God makes his appeal through him to them (5:18-20). He is Christ’s “ambassador” (5:20). The commendation of his ministry is his abundant sufferings (6:4-10). This latter passage is quite similar to 11:23-29, where he also lists his trials and sufferings, speaking as a “fool.” The same contrast between Paul and the community is found in 1 Cor. 4:8-13, where his irony expresses a judgmental tone. As an apostle he is “last of all” like one “sentenced to death,” a “spectacle” (theatron) before men and angels (4:9). He recounts his many sufferings (4:11-13), describing himself as the “refuse of the world,” and the “offscouring of all things.” Paul concludes his heated letter to the Galatians with the sharp declaration, “From now on let no one bother me, I bear on my body the marks (stigmata) of Jesus!” (6:17). Whatever he means by “marks,” he appears to have in mind some type of suffering which he relates to Jesus’ own. His most explicit statement is in Philippians, where he is contemplating his possible death (1:19-26). He tells them: “Even if I am to be poured out upon the sacrificial offering of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with you all.” The language is difficult to interpret, but he appears to picture himself as a sacrificial priest who will offer their faith as a gift (cf. Rom. 15:16, 27), crowned with the pouring out of his own blood over it. In 3:8 he says that he has suffered “the loss of all things” for the sake of Christ. He is like Jesus, who “emptied himself” and gave up all he had (2:7). But he expects more than suffering, he expects to die like Christ as well:
I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that if possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead (3:10-11).
The way he describes the resurrection in this verse is unusual. Rather than the standard phrase “anastasis ton vekron,” He uses ei os with the verb, the prefix exwith anastasis followed by the preposition ek with nekron. The tone of the verse is also different, as if Paul is speaking of something other than the general hope of resurrection of the dead at Jesus’ coming. Albert Schweitzer (Mysticism of Paul the Apostle, pp. 136-37) has argued that Paul has in mind a special and immediate translation to heaven, like that of Enoch or Elijah in Jewish tradition. If he dies, he will “depart to be with Christ,” he says (Phil. 1:23). This is not something he expected for other believers who had died, as he makes clear in 1 Thess. 4:13-18; 1 Cor. 15). The “dead in Christ” will rise to meet Christ in the air at his return. Paul’s language in Phil. 1:23 and 3:11-12 is difficult to reconcile with this more general hope. There is the language from 2 Cor. 5:1-10 which describes death as being “absent from the body” and “at home with the Lord,” which many would take, along with Phil. 1:23, as evidence for Paul having shifted his thinking on this question of the “state of the dead.” I think this is highly unlikely. The language of 2 Cor. 5:6-8 can and likely does refer to the Parousia (v.10); whereas Phil. 1:23 canonly refer to Paul’s death. Schweitzer’s proposal seems to make the best sense. It fits well with his overall notion of being called for a high mission. Paul sees himself after deutero-Isaiah’s model of a “suffering servant.” Isa. 49:7 speaks of one whom God has chosen as “deeply despised” and “abhorred by the nations.” He quotes Isa. 49:8 in 2 Cor. 6:2, and alludes to the chapter in two other places, as we have seen (Gal. 1:15; Phil. 2:16); while vv. 1-6 describe his mission in detail. He quotes Isa. 52:13 and applies it to his ministry in Rom. 15:21, and the very next verse, Isa. 52:14, speaks of the servant “marred beyond human semblance.” There can be little doubt that Paul has worked through this section of Isaiah and it has influenced his understanding of his role. This whole matter is complicated by two factors. Paul’s model is Jesus, so the language he applies to himself from deutero-Isaiah regarding suffering he may well also have applied to Jesus. He is, in turn, the model for the community, so even if he speaks of his suffering for them, they too are to learn to follow him in this regard. But neither of these factors diminishes the obvious way he does understand his apostleship as a special call to bear suffering. And this role is part of his eschatological mission.
Hans Windisch, in his valuable study Paulus und Christus, has shown how similar Paul and Jesus are, in the portrayal in Acts, as well as in Paul’s own letters. He argues that both fit the type of the theios aner, that both are prophet, apostle, pneumatic, teacher, scribe, servant and mystagogue. Indeed, Paul can be seen as “greater” than Jesus in that he is sent to all nations, while Jesus went only to Israel. There is some truth to this. Paul is called to be God’s servant to the Gentiles, but this is Christ’s service, carried out through his power. But the “slippage” inherent in Paul’s language is the problem. Certainly for Paul, Jesus is Lord, he is the Son of God, the suffering one, the one who has been exalted to God’s throne with all power and glory. Yet his message is that he, and all believers, are destined to rule, are the Sons of God, must also suffer in this present time, but will be glorified and exalted at the End. So we have Christ, Paul and his communities. The same language, with various nuances, can be applied to all. Still, in for the present historical working out of God’s plan, Paul’s special identity does stand apart. His task is different from Jesus’ (Rom. 15:8-12). Indeed, it was Jesus’ ministry that really prepared the way for his own role in bringing about the final events of history. Both Jesus and Paul are servants and agents in the plan (1 Cor. 15:28). God sent forth his Son. He commissions Paul. Yet, at root, Paul is theocentric. The beginning and end of God’s purposes belong to God alone. Paul expresses this most eloquently in Rom. 11:33-36. Still, as apostle to the Gentiles, Paul’s work is more important than, and far surpasses, that of even the greatest figures of Israel’s history, or of any of the other apostles. As Munck pointed out, he has been appointed by God to fill the key position in the last great drama of salvation.
Assuming that entering Paradise does mean that Paul was taken up to the highest heaven and given some extraordinary secret revelation, what significance might such an experience have had for him? Here I want to move a bit beyond the context of the report in 2 Corinthians 10-13. Given what he says in the report itself, what we know generally of the phenomenon of the heavenly journey in this period, and what appears to be his understanding of his unique mission and revealed message–what more can be said about the experience?
Paul does not emphasize what he saw, but what he heard. We can only conclude that since it was something beyond human ability to utter and was to be kept secret, that he would have understood it to be a highly privileged revelation. But he does tell us what he did, namely he entered Paradise–that is (as I understand it), he was taken into the highest level of heaven, before God’s throne. We might speculate a bit about this, though there is not a lot one can say, given the limited nature of his letters on this kind of subject. He does believe that Jesus has ascended to heaven, and has been given a place of rule at the right hand of God the Father (Phil. 2:10; 1 Cor. 15:24-28; Rom. 8:34). This is quite literal to him, for he speaks of him “descending from heaven,” to the level of the clouds, and gathering his saints to join him in the air above the earth (1 Thess. 4:16-17). He has a glorious (shining?) body (Phil. 3:20-21). We can assume, that as an educated Jewish scholar, Paul would have pictured the throne of God in the highest heaven much like it is pictured in the Hebrew Bible (especially Exodus 24:9-11; Isaiah 6:1-5; and Ezekiel 1 and 10). We have no way of knowing to what extent he might have delved into any form of further speculation, akin to the merkabah lore, about the heavens and the throne of God, though it is hard to imagine that this would have been absent from his training as a scholar and teacher. We do know that he uses technical terms for various levels of heavens and orders of angelic/demonic powers, none of which are found in the Torah or Prophets, and that in a general way he participates in this “explosion” of interest in the unseen world among Jews in Second Temple times. The main features of his apocalyptic vision are known to us from texts of the period, though as a prophet himself, he adds his own detailed revelations (such as 1 Thess. 4:16-17). So we can safely assume, that if entering Paradise meant being taken before God’s throne, given Paul’s beliefs and expectations, this would have been an absolutely extraordinary experience. In his world of men and angels, what could be greater than this ascent to heaven?
The only thing greater would be the events he expects to take place at the coming of Jesus from heaven. But there is a relationship between these two journeys, his and Jesus’. He expects two main things at Jesus’ return. First that he (and the others) will be transformed from a mortal to a glorious immortal body, and second, that they will all “be with the Lord.” He closes his apocalyptic section in 1 Thess. 4:13-18 by saying “and so we shall always be with the Lord.” He tells them later in the letter that it doesn’t matter if they die before the end, because either way they will “live together with him.” When late in his career he thinks he might die before the end comes, he speaks of “departing to be with Christ,” which I take as an indication that he expects by this time some special resurrection and ascent to heaven of his own (Phil. 1:23; 3:10-11). In such case, this would be a return to heaven for him, since he had already had this experience in the 40’s C.E. In other words, there is a sense in which he has already, however briefly, “been with the Lord.” What about his other expectation–the change of the decaying body? Obviously he does not think his body was changed on his journey to heaven. He knows he is flesh and blood and will die, and he expects that he might be resurrected like Christ (Phil.3:11). But if he has been in the highest heaven, and seen Christ “seated at the right hand” of God, in his shining immortal form, then he has actually already seen what is to come. In this sense his journey is proleptic and functions like some of the others I surveyed, as an anticipation or foretaste of what he expects to come. I would argue then, that his ascent to Paradise has several direct connections with his message. If the core of that message has to do with glorification and rule with Christ at his coming, Paul’s ascent reflects it completely. It is not mere theological speculation for him. He has been with Christ, he has experienced the glory and power he associates with Jesus, the very one who has been transformed from a mortal to an immortal son of God and who reigns over the whole cosmos at the right hand of God. Paul himself equates the power to rule with the power to transform (Phil. 3:22), so there is a direct connection between the two.
What about his mission? Given the perceptions he has of his special calling–that he was chosen before birth like a great prophet, that he has seen the Lord, that his mission to the Gentiles is a fulfillment of Isaiah’s vision of the end and will bring about the final redemption of Israel, and (possibly) that he too, like Jesus, will die, be resurrected, and ascend to heaven before the end–this extraordinary experience of having already gone up once and received secret revelation only completes a picture. Next to his initial calling and conversion, (which is always unparalleled as a demonstration of God’s overflowing grace in choosing one so unworthy for so great a task) his ascent to heaven must have been his highest moment. He says as much in 2 Cor. 12:7. Because he might be too elated over what he has been given, he is harassed for years by an angel of Satan so that he will always remember the lesson that suffering and weakness lead, paradoxically, to power and glory. He has had a taste of that power and glory, a special taste. This gives powerful conviction to all his statements about “beholding the glory of the Lord” (2 Cor. 3:18) or the slight momentary affliction which is to result in “glory beyond all comparison” (2 Cor. 4:17) or the sufferings of the present being unworthy of comparison with the “glory soon to be revealed” (Rom. 8:18).
Beyond this there is little one can say. I think the texts I examined in the previous chapter can shed light on Paul’s experience. Broadly speaking he presents a Hellenistic way of salvation–a particular scheme of apotheosis, or “immortalization,” with certain apocalyptic peculiarities. The broad contours of his religious experiences–epiphany, the reception of oracles, visions, the journey to heaven, secret revelations–these are all well known to us, especially from the Greek magical papyri, the Hermetic texts and various forms of esoteric Judaism of the period. Add to that his specific expectations regarding his mission to the Gentiles, the conversion of Israel, and the imminent parousia of Jesus as cosmic Lord, and you have it–his own particular vision and version of that most general Hellenistic (and human) hope–escape from mortality. And yet it is those very apocalyptic “particulars” that make Paul really Paul. His was not a scheme of salvation for any place or for all time. Although he has endured and been appropriated in many different ways over the centuries, from the standpoint of the history of Judaism, he belongs in those crucial years of hope and promise, before the terrible days of August, 70 C.E., when many such dreams came to an end. For Paul the “appointed time” of the End had drawn very near (1 Cor. 7:26, 29, 31). How near, it is difficult to say, but he wrote that in the early 50’s C.E.. If he, like others in the movement before 70 C.E., expected the fulfillment of Daniel 11 and 12, with the “desolating sacrilege” set up in the Temple at Jerusalem, then events such as Gaius’ attempt to have his statue placed there (41 C.E.) would have fueled his apocalyptic speculations. Apparently his plans to go to Spain never worked out, due to his arrest under Nero (Rom. 15:28), so his grand hope of bringing the bulk of Israel to accept Jesus as Messiah through his Gentile mission became more and more hopeless. By 70 C.E. it was becoming increasingly difficult to maintain any immediate hope for the “redemption of Israel.” Others could pick up the pieces in various ways, as Jacob Neusner and his students have demonstrated so clearly, but Paul was gone and what emerged in his name, even in the short decades after 70 C.E., was the beginning of a new and very different story.