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Paul’s Vision of the Afterlife

PAUL IS OUR first Christian writer. His writings present us with the first reflections on the faith that the man Jesus was both Christ and God and that, through Him, all who have faith will be resurrected. His writing not only presented the first witness to an important new vision of the afterlife in Judaism, it also gives us interesting evidence for the notions of afterlife among the Pharisees, which we found difficult to understand from Josephus’ report alone. Our difficulties are compounded by the fact that the Rabbis, who claim the Pharisees as their forebears, did not redact their literature in canonical form before the beginning of the third century. When the first Rabbinic literature was finally produced, the Rabbis had already refined their notion of the afterlife in subtle ways. So Paul gives us good evidence for the history of Jewish ideas in the mid-first century, evidence which we cannot easily find elsewhere.

Paul offers us the same opportunity with regard to Christianity. He wrote in the mid-decades of the first century CE before the Gospels were compiled. He made very infrequent reference to any of the traditions found within them, although we believe that the Gospels were already in some stage of development. He rarely gives us any of Jesus’ words. He quotes Jesus directly on only two subjects, divorce (1 Cor 7:10-12) and the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor 11:23-27), indirectly only on a few more. Both categories have enormous significance for our understanding of Christian afterlife. Paul’s testimony is consonant with later Gospel tradition about the Lord’s Supper and divorce but does not agree with it in every word. His understanding of the ritual parallels his notions of the resurrection body. Other than that, Paul gives us scant information about the man Jesus.1What Paul gives us is a record of his own spiritual life and his faith in the crucified messiah. To appreciate all the important data that Paul gives us regarding both Judaism and Christianity, we need to be able to distinguish between Paul’s use of Jewish and Christian teaching and his innovations. This task is most difficult.

But we have some aid. When Paul quotes Scripture, it is the Hebrew Bible in Greek that he cites. For him, there was no other Scripture, no written New Testament Gospels and no Christian document with the authority of Scripture. Though he must have known something about the Gospel traditions, the evangelion was for him an oral message, which was a genre certainly familiar from his Pharisaic background. He even uses Rabbinic formulas of transmission when he quotes them (e.g., 1 Cor 11:23). Although the Gospel traditions fulfilled Scripture, they were not yet Scripture.

Most scholars agree that Paul’s characteristic rhetoric and style have little in common with the language of the Gospels. Although he may have considered the actual words of Jesus part of an oral tradition, he quotes them only where a Pharisee would need to rely on exact formulations: for deciding legal issues. When dealing with apothegms and other traditions, Paul shows us the same willingness to paraphrase and even to encode for memory that a Pharisee might have utilized in learning Rabbinic tradition. In short, Paul is surprisingly free of the religious thought structures of the Gospels and, what is even more interesting, the Gospels (which are later than his writings) are surprisingly independent of Pauline thought. Considering the effect that we now automatically ascribe to Paul’s career, this is a very important observation. It shows us that he was not nearly as influential in the first century as he appears to be now. This will give pause to all those who think that Paul invented Christianity. He did not. But his testimony is extraordinarily interesting because he tells us his inner Christian experience.

Paul understood the messiahship of Jesus through his resurrected appearances in Paul’s own experience, while the Gospels understood the messiahship of Jesus through the events of Jesus’ life and mission. This difference in perspective stamps each writing in unique and sometimes un-reconcilable ways. This difference in perspective is extremely important in the history of Christian ideas about resurrection.

Commission and Conversion

PAUL’S MOST BASIC perspective is as a convert and a missionary. By “convert,” we can mean what Christianity later will mean by “convert.”2 But Paul is not himself the best example of the later Christian model of conversion because he did not convert from paganism to Christianity, rather from a sophisticated and educated form of Judaism to a new, apocalyptic form of it. A minimum definition of “conversion,” then, would be that Paul changes religious community-from the Pharisaic community to a group of sectarian, apocalyptic Jews who had unique and novel notions about the divinity and messiahship of their founder, Jesus of Nazareth. To understand Christianity one really needs to understand the effect of conversion and mission on the organization of the religion. The mission and expansion of Christianity was not just a historical accident but is also traceable to its internal dynamic, which put immense energy into the conversion of the world. Paul’s understanding of conversion was not exactly the model that triumphed in Christianity, though Christians looked back at him as a model for how a missionary should behave.

In one respect, at least, Paul was completely unlike the later model of mission and expansion: Though Paul leaves Pharisaism, he never shows any recognition that his Christianity was different from his Judaism. He never felt that he left Judaism, so we should consider any departure from Judaism to be the opinion of his enemies and not his own opinion. By his own estimation, Paul remained a Jew throughout his life, changing from one kind of Jewish denomination to another.

Paul’s Vision and the Power of the Spirit

PAUL’S REASONS for changing religious communities are plainly stated. He grew to know Christ, whom he took as his Lord:

But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as refuse, in order that I may gain Christ. (Philip 3:7-8)

There is reason to believe him, for revelations were common in his day. The only thing strange about Paul’s further reflection on his conversion is that Paul did not know the man Jesus, or at least there is no evidence that he ever met him. So Paul’s writing, though it is the first Christian writing, is the writing of a convert after the Easter events. Although Paul is not a disciple of Jesus, he is a Jew and he can also claim an important and prestigious pedigree in Pharisaism; in these crucial places, he does so. But he also says that all that is overthrown by his Christian commitment, so he offers himself as a demonstration of the power of the Spirit. This is not only a conversion but it is one that Paul himself ascribes to a religiously altered state of consciousness (RASC). He has received this conversion as a gift of the Spirit. His personal biography functions as a miraculous witness to the power of the Spirit in his life and in the world.

For instance, Paul reminded the Corinthians that they had already accepted his claim of legitimacy and that others too became evangelized because of them, his gentile converts; indeed they are his “letter from Christ” (2 Cor 3:3). His seemingly miraculous success in evangelizing the gentiles also is validation for his claims to special revelation and mission. This is, for Paul, proof of the operation of the Holy Spirit in the end-time and the validity of his RASC.

The Spirit and the Church’s Apocalypticism

PAUL’S UNDERSTANDING of the end of time is apocalyptic. He imminently expects the end. His grasp of the resurrection is firmly mystical but in the Jewish tradition, not the Greek one.3 He describes his spiritual experiences in terms appropriate to a Jewish apocalyptic-mystagogue of the first century. Even in his earliest preaching and writing, his discussions of resurrection depended directly on the apocalyptic end:

For they themselves report concerning us what a welcome we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come. (1 Thess 1:9-10)

This is not philosophy; it is missionizing. He reminds his readers what he has told them when he was there. Having been evangelized by the Spirit himself, Paul uses the language of spiritual transformation to evangelize others, in this case gentiles. Paul’s use of kerygmatic formulas in missionary activity is evident. After turning from idols, Paul’s gentile converts learn to wait for God’s Son from heaven, who will rescue them from the coming wrath. This seems in some respects a violation of the passage in Daniel 7:13 where the role of the “Son of Man” was to bring judgment against sinners. But that is how an apocalyptic mission functions. It warns people that the only way to avoid punishment is to join the apocalyptic community. This is true in apocalyptic communities in Judaism. Here it has been transferred to the sinning of the gentiles themselves. The innocent Early Church was, conversely, part of the larger role of judgment against the mighty and the sinners; but even the new converts would be protected and rescued from the wrath which will soon overtake the whole earth.

The proof that all these things are about to happen is that Jesus, the Son, was raised from the dead. The resurrection was a sign that the end of time is upon us: “But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits (aparchē) of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Cor 15:20). Paul uses two traditional Jewish metaphors at once in saying that the dead have only fallen asleep (Isa 26:19; Dan 12:2). He further suggests that Jesus was the special thank offering, the first fruits offered, following which the resurrected will soon awake and begin ripening in the fields or on the tree (Deut 26). This is not just what Paul proclaimed. It is also what the church proclaimed, as he again used the language of tradition transmission:

Now I would remind you, brethren, in what terms I preached to you the gospel, which you received, in which you stand, by which you are saved, if you hold it fast-unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. (1 Cor 15:1-6).

A similar formula of the kerygma, the basic proclamation of the church, can be found in the salutation of Paul’s letter to the Romans where Jesus is mentioned as “seed of David” according to the flesh but, more importantly, “Son” according to spirit and power and from the resurrection of the dead, “Our Lord.” Jesus’ Lordship is inherent in his resurrection, the transformation from his earthly, fleshly, meek state to his heavenly, spiritual and powerful state as the Christ and Son from heaven. Thus, the relationship between flesh and spirit is homologous with the relationship between “son of David” and “son of God.” Though the contrast is characteristic of Pauline thought, it may well have preceded Paul’s use in his sermons and have been part of the primitive tradition. This is also visible in 1 Cor 15:45: “Thus it is written, ‘The first man Adam became a living being’; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit.” Spirit is not only what God gives man, it is the goal of human evolution to a higher state.

Spirit for Paul is seen within a Jewish context. In 1 Corinthians 15:45 he refered to the creative spirit of God which was hovering over the waters in Genesis 1:1. The spirit of the Lord resurrects the dead in Ezekiel 37:6. The spirit of the Lord gave Paul his prophetic visions. Christians will be changed into spiritual bodies in their resurrection state (1 Cor 15:44).

The very same Spirit of God which directs prophecy also directed Paul’s sermons and also miraculously accounts for Paul’s success and the success of the Gospel. In form, however, Paul’s kerygmatic message appears to grow out of Jewish missionary literature, in which the promise of resurrection and the fear of the end of time feature prominently, as one would expect from a preacher. Thus Paul’s own experience helped organize the early Christian church for mission and mission; conversely, it energized the group’s commitment to the new religious sect.

Mission and Vision

THE SPECIFIC nature of Paul’s personal vision of Christ changed the quality of that apocalyptic prophecy in a characteristically christological way. It is not so much that Paul affected Christian apocalypticism as he exemplified Jewish apocalypticism with a single and important change-Jesus had ascended to be the Messiah and heavenly Redeemer, a part of God. This would be characteristic of Christian preaching ever afterward.

Here is another Pauline version of the vision of the end, this time seemingly in answer to a crucial question for new converts:

But we would not have you ignorant, brethren, concerning those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, shall not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first; then we who are alive, who are left, shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air; and so we shall always be with the Lord. Therefore comfort one another with these words. (1 Thess 4:13-18)

Some in the community died without the end having come. The resurrection of all Christians will follow closely upon the coming of the Lord, also explicitly called both Jesus and Christ. (This formula demonstrates Paul’s transferral of the traditionally divine name YHWH to a designation of the Messiah [Kyrios = LORD].) It both shows Paul to be entirely within the Jewish mystical tradition, yet to have made important Christian modifications in it. But he did not go on in baroque detail about the nature of the apocalyptic end. Instead, he concentrated on the issue of resurrection in a way that was not necessarily characteristic of apocalypticism before.

But Paul was preaching the start of the period of resurrection based on the death and resurrection of the Christ, to gentiles at that, so the lack of apocalyptic detail is understandable. In 1 Thessalonians 4, the resurrection of all living Christians immediately follows upon the resurrection of the dead. Jesus will keep faith with the dead, again called “those who have fallen asleep” as in Daniel 12. Thus, Paul reproduced a typical apocalyptic pattern, though his apocalyptic pattern also had several unique and quite identifiably Christian characteristics. At the same time, the enormous value of sermons of this kind for the mission of the church are obvious.

The Chain of Vision and the Spirit

WE SEE THE same connection between Paul’s apostolic authority and the resurrection of the Christ when Paul replied to accusations of antinomianism: “Paul an apostle-not from men nor through man, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead” (Gal 1:1). The epistolary greeting emphasizes the connection, especially as Paul, otherwise, was fonder of simple salutation formulas in his correspondence (1 Cor 1:1; 2 Cor 1:1) and Romans 1:1.4 In 1 Corinthians 9:1-11, Paul again responds to accusations that appear to have been leveled at his missionary activity. And once again, he emphasizes his personal vision of Christ: “Have I not seen Jesus our Lord?” (1 Cor 9:1).5

In 1 Corinthians 9, Paul used the perfect tense of the verb “to see” to describe his visionary experience (“Am I not free? Am I not an apostle? Have I not “seen” Jesus our Lord? Are not you my workmanship in the “Lord?” 1 Cor 9:1) Paul emphasized that his vision was equivalent to normal “seeing,” just as you and I might see each other. But Paul actually did not want to stress the ordinariness of the seeing, only that he saw as clearly as the other apostles. He was aware of the special nature of his revelation.6

Paul also wanted to demonstrate that his vision of Christ was the same type and order as that of the other apostles, even though he experienced Christ in visions only, while they learned directly from Jesus. In 1 Corinthians 15 and elsewhere Paul used the Greek aorist passive ophthei (the passive voice of the simple past) to describe this kind of seeing:

… and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. (1 Cor 15:5-7)

The visionary language works in several ways at once. First, it follows the tradition of the LXX for describing visions. In the Septuagint the aorist passive of the verb “to see” is used frequently with the sense either of “visionary seeing” or of “seeing a divine being.” In short, it has the sense of the word “appear” in English, when that word is used to describe a visitation of a divine figure.

Secondly, Paul used the very same verb and form to describe his own seeing and that of the original apostles. This demonstrated that he was their equal in every way. Conversely, Paul assumed that he saw exactly the same person that the original apostles saw except that he saw the risen Christ. Just because Paul is using the technical language of vision, however, does not mean that he thought they were hallucinations. To the contrary, these were visions undertaken through the Spirit and were therefore spiritual depictions of what is soon to become actual.

Paul was essentially saying that he is among those few special prophets who received a vision of God-prophets like Abraham, Enoch, Noah, Job, Moses, Elijah, Isaiah, and Daniel, those same people who followed in the ancient Near Eastern tradition of Enmeduranki, Adapa, Etana, Gilgamesh, Dan’el and Aqhat. Implicit in this tradition is the conclusion that Jesus ascended to heaven to become the “Son of Man,” just like the heroes of ancient Biblical tradition. When he returns, the end will come upon all and only those in Christ will be rescued.

He contrasted that with the experience of the disciples of Jesus, who saw merely the man Jesus. It is not their experience of the teacher Jesus which was important. And the reason for this is that it is not the earthly Jesus who preached and demonstrated that the resurrection had already started. Rather it is the risen Christ who has ascended to the Father. Because Paul had seen the Christ in his resurrected body, Paul knew that the resurrection had begun and that all who came to believe in him were the firstfruits of this resurrection. Paul and all those who saw him are the first apostles and prophets of this new epoch in human history. That his seeing was visionary means that it was of a higher order than ordinary seeing. What Paul said about the spiritual bodies is a direct result of that vision, a further description of that vision.

Paul’s Own Mysticism

IN SECOND CORINTHIANS 12 Paul said even more-that he himself, like the Biblical and mythical Enoch, also traveled (harpagenta, “seized”) to the heavens looking for the answer to cosmological problems. This is one of the highest spiritual gifts that Paul could imagine and it was meant to establish his credentials as a receiver of spiritual gifts (pneumakia, 1 Cor 9:11; 14:1; 2 Cor 2:13). Paul’s references to apocalypses and visions, as well as heavenly ascent, put him squarely within apocalyptic tradition. Although the account of Paul’s ecstatic conversion in Acts is a product of Luke’s literary genius, Paul gave his own evidence for ecstatic experience in 2 Corinthians 12:1-10:

I must boast; there is nothing to be gained by it, but I will go on to visions and revelations of the Lord. I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven-whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows. And I know that this man was caught up into Paradise-whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows-and he heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter. On behalf of this man I will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses. (2 Cor 12:1-5)

As in Galatians 1, Paul called this experience an apokalypsis, an apocalypse, a revelation. Just as in Acts and Galatians 1, the actual vision is not described. Unlike Luke’s general description of Paul’s conversion and Galatians 1, however, this passage contains hints of a heavenly vision or possibly two different ones, depending on whether the paradise visited in the ascension can be located in the third heaven.7 The vision was both mystical and apocalyptic.8 The Pauline passage is also deeply rooted in Jewish ascension traditions, which imposed a certain structure of ascent on all reports of this period.9 Similar ascensions can be seen in apocalyptic literature-for instance, 1 Enoch 39:3; 52:1; 71:1-5 as well as 2 Enoch 3; 7; 8; 11; 3 Baruch 2.

The information contained in 2 Corinthians 12 is so abstruse and esoteric that it must be teased from context and combined with our meager knowledge of apocalypticism and Jewish mysticism. While techniques of theurgy and heavenly ascent were secret lore in Rabbinic literature (see b. Hagiga 13a-15b), Rabbinic literature starts in the third century, so without Paul we could not demonstrate that such traditions existed in Pharisaism as early as the first century.

Most people understand 2 Corinthians 12 as referring to Paul himself, but that the rhetoric demands he stress his modesty.10 To identify himself as the heavenly traveler would be boasting, and it would have conceded the point that special revelatory experience grants special privileges, which is what he was fighting against in the passage. This would contradict his statement that charismatic gifts cannot themselves prove faith (1 Cor 12-13). Yet, if the dominant interpretation is correct, Paul was actually revealing some information about his own religious experience in this passage.

For one thing, Paul seems to be talking about himself. By the end of the passage, Paul undoubtedly spoke about himself, without specifying that he had changed the subject. He said that he had spoken three times with the Lord about “a thorn in the flesh” (2 Cor 12:7-10), which he called “a messenger from Satan,” probably an infirmity; but “the Christ” decided that it perfected his power. As a sudden change in subject would be clumsy, most scholars affirm that Paul is speaking about himself throughout. Furthermore, Paul’s admission that he had spoken to Christ about his infirmity three times in itself implies a communication greater than petitionary prayer.11

Some scholars, like Michael Goulder, see this passage essentially as Paul’s satire on claims to heavenly knowledge. But in order to see the section as ironic, one needs to find a crux to warrant an ironic reading. Otherwise, anything in any passage could be used ironically.12 Paul had no problem admitting to other visions and apocalypses so there is no problem in positing that he had an apocalyptic, mystic, ecstatic spiritual life. Although the passage can be understood in other ways, Paul revealed that he had several ecstatic meetings with Christ over the previous fourteen years.

Christopher Morray-Jones has very persuasively argued that Paul’s experience in 2 Corinthians corresponds to the Temple vision of Acts 22:17.13 He has also recently published a brilliant analysis of the famous “transparent illusion” in the Hekhaloth texts.14 The conclusions seem reasonable. But, even if Morray-Jones’s conclusion is not accepted, the evidence of 2 Corinthians is undoubtedly a first-century report of a heavenly ascent that Paul says is important for Christian experience.

We should not think of 2 Corinthians 12 as the verbatim recording of Paul’s actual experience. Rather we should think of it as his mature reflections on the experience after many years of Christian learning. Converts learn the meanings of their experience in their new community. This is true of Paul’s mysticism as well; even though he is our first Christian writer he is not the first Christian. He learned his Christianity from the community in Damascus and, in turn, became a spokesperson for it. His subsequent Christian experience cannot have failed to have affected his memories of these events as that is a quite common and widely verified aspect of conversions even today.15 This implies a significant growth of his maturity of Christian thought in the years between his conversion and his writings which we cannot clearly delineate.

It is only surprising that a Pharisee would claim these visions, since we tend to think that the Rabbis were rationalists. The Rabbis, the successors to the Pharisees, keep a respectful silence about these spiritual experiences, even though we have certain evidence that they were not so rare. Yet Paul does not give us much description. Hence, we do not know whether Paul was unusual for a Pharisee in his reception of these visions or whether he was actually quite typical. If so, Rabbinism would then have expunged them from its purview after Paul and the rise of Christianity. We know that the Mishnah contains very many serious cautionary rules in the way of open discussion of such experiences (e.g., m. Hagigah 2). But Merkabah Mysticism continued to develop even after the Rabbinic rules were put into effect, as the hekhaloth literature and various haggadic and Talmudic stories are all later than these traditions. Jewish mysticism certainly, and perhaps apocalypticism as well, sought out visions and developed special practices to achieve them.16 Thus, we may safely assume that Paul experienced a number of visions in his life, that his conversion may have been one such prophetic incident, though it need not have been one, and that the meaning of these ecstatic experiences was mediated by the gentile Christian community in which he lived.

Mysticism and apocalypticism were part of Jewish tradition before Paul converted; he may thus have learned about ecstatic experience as a Pharisee or merely known about them from his general Jewish past. He may also have learned them in Christianity. Ultimately someone Jewish must have brought them into Christianity since there was not very much time between the end of Jesus’ ministry and the beginning of Paul’s. From the Damascus Christian community and Paul’s own protestations of his education “from the Lord,” it is much more likely that Paul was educated in Jewish mysticism before his conversion, and hence brought this style of spiritual experience to bear on his Christian experience.

Paul’s Christian interpretation of these apocalyptic mystical visions is also a mark of his long association with the Christian community.17 The Christian nature of his vision is due to the experience itself as he interpreted it. We need not suppose that the divine nature of Paul’s revelation precluded influence from his supporting Christian community as well. All converts naturally find the meaning of their conversions in the community that values them, and that meaning is revealed to them progressively after conversion.

Apocalypticism and Mysticism

APOCALYPTICISM and mysticism have rightly remained separate categories in scholarly parlance because they refer to two different, easily distinguishable types of literature. But they do not appear to be unrelated experiences. Jewish mystical texts are full of apocalypses; early apocalyptic literature is based on ecstatic visions with profound mystical implications. Normally in an apocalyptic text we get a description, often in the first person, of a vision and ascent. In the mysticism of the Rabbinic period we get the same kind of description, in the mouth of a famous Rabbi, equally as pseudonymous, together with some of the preparations necessary to receive the vision. They may just be two different ways of describing the same kind of experiences. This suggests that scholars have without sufficient warrant carried a distinction in literary genre into the realm of experience. It is likewise misleading always to distinguish between ecstatic, out-of-body visions (as found in mysticism) and literal bodily ascensions to heaven (as are more frequently found in apocalypticism).18 They may all be RISCs described in different terms.

In Merkabah Mysticism loosely construed (traceable from composition of Enoch to the rise of Kabbalah in the twelfth century), the mysticism of the early Rabbinic movement which concentrated on ascents to heaven, magical chants and procedures, as well as spells and rituals to remember Torah, the voyager often spoke as though he was actually going from place to place in heaven; yet we know from the frame narratives that the adept’s body was on earth, where his utterances were questioned and written down by a group of disciples.19 Paul spoke at a time before these distinctions were clear or accepted by his community. He was not sure whether the ascent took place in the body or out of it.

We should note that Paul did not utilize the concept of a soul (psyche) to effect this heavenly travel. Not being sure of whether the ascent took place in the body or out of the body is the same as saying that one is not taking account of the Platonic concept of the soul. Had Paul been using the Platonic version, he certainly would have known quite well that the only way to go to heaven, to ascend beyond the sublunar sphere, was by leaving the body behind. Indeed, we shall see several important places, especially 1 Corinthians 15, where Paul’s concept of “soul” was quite limited, unschooled by Platonic ideas of the soul’s immortality.

Rather, as we have just seen, Paul used the term “spirit” (pneuma) more frequently. Paul’s pneumatology derives from the traditional language of Biblical prophecy and it is also the way Paul understood resurrection to arrive. This suggests that Paul may have understood being “in Christ” as a literal exchange of earthly body for a new pneumatic, spiritual one to be shared with the resurrected Jesus at the eschaton, since “spirit” is the source of all Paul’s knowledge gained in visions. For him it was not yet concrete reality because it was not fully present. On the other hand, the spiritual vision was not hallucination either. It was prophecy in process of becoming concrete.

Even if Paul was not sure of how a visionary journey could be taken, we are. The question of whether a heavenly journey could take place in or out of the body may be settled for us only by assuming that this was an ecstatic journey, a RASC. Modern science balks at the notion of physical transport to heaven, except in space ships, whereas a heavenly journey in vision or trance is credible and understandable. This only underlines Paul’s interesting conflation of what to us seems two different categories. So we are not free to ignore that fact when we try to establish what actually happened. When a heavenly journey is described literally, the cause may be literary convention or the belief of the voyager; but when reconstructing the actual experience, only one type can pass modern standards of credibility.

Paul’s confusion as to whether his ecstatic journey to heaven took place in the body is a rare insight into first-century thinking, since it demonstrates either a disagreement in the community or more likely a first-century mystic’s inability to distinguish between bodily and spiritual journeys to heaven. In effect, then, Paul was merely saying that the ascender experienced a RASC. But our world no longer supports his quandary; nor did the ancient world shortly after Paul’s time. They adopted the Platonic notion of the soul, which answered the question sufficiently for them. Indeed, the answer still informs religious life today. It seems likely, however, that the presence of a heavenly journey is itself a signifier that ecstatic experience is taking place.

The Spiritual Body and Its Presence in Ascent Mysticism

WE MUST ASK how Paul conceived such a journey to take place without a developed concept of the soul. The first answer may just be that he thought it took place in the body. He had already told us that he was not sure whether the ascender was “in the body” or not. He was quite sure that resurrection would not be fleshly, though it may be bodily. Since it already seems clear that Christ’s body, as it appeared to him in visions, and the body of the resurrected believer were parallel, it must be that the ascender’s body and the body of the resurrection were analogous as well. The demonstration appears to be 1 Corinthians 15:44, where Paul described a mystical notion of a spiritual body (soma pneumatikon) which was received by the Christ, and Paul found residence in it in the same way that God inspired the prophets or Enoch became part of the Son of Man.

Paul used a prophetic anthropology to explain this spiritual body. God gave the prophet His spirit and the spiritual body participated in the resurrection. This put Paul in the same category as the apocalypticists who first recorded the notion of bodily resurrection. It also put him rather far from those classes of people who championed the notion of the immortality of the soul, though Paul, being an apostle to the gentiles, may have known of the doctrine. He certainly seemed familiar with Stoic and Cynic doctrines and methods of argumentation.20

With only the most general hints about Paul’s conversion in his own writing, we must fill in how the Jewish cultural context informed his experience. Ezekiel 1 was one of the central chapters that Paul used to understand his own conversion. The vision of the throne chariot of God in Ezekiel 1, along with the attendant vocabulary of the Glory or kavod (kābôd) for the human figure described there as God’s glory or form, has been recognized as one of the central themes of Jewish mysticism, which in turn is closely related to the apocalyptic tradition.21 The very name Merkabah-that is, Throne chariot Mysticism, which is the usual Jewish designation for these mystical traditions even as early as the Mishnah (ca. 220 CE: See Mishnah Hagigah 2:1)—is the Rabbinic term for the heavenly conveyance described in Ezekiel 1.22 The truly groundbreaking work of Hugo Odeberg, Gershom Scholem, Morton Smith, and Alexander Alt-mann23 showing the Greco-Roman context for these texts in Jewish mysticism, has been followed up by a few scholars who have shown the relevance of these passages to the study of early Rabbinic literature,24 as well as apocalypticism and Samaritanism, and Christianity.25

The entire collection of Hekhaloth texts has been published by Peter Schaefer26 and translations of several of the works have already appeared.27 Nevertheless, the results of this research have not yet been broadly discussed, nor are they yet well known.28 The ten volume compendium known in English as The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, edited by G. Kittel, has scarcely a dozen references to Ezekiel 1, although it is a crucial passage informing the Christology of the New Testament, as Gilles Quispel has so cogently pointed out.29

The Angelic Liturgy from Qumran (4QShirShab) confirms the same themes of Jewish mysticism which we can only date to the third century from mystical sources.30 The “Angelic Liturgy” cannot be dated later than the first century CE and is very likely pre-Christian. In it there are many oblique references to the divine hierarchies, the seven heavens inside one another, and the appearance and movements of God’s throne chariot familiar to scholars who study Merkabah Mysticism.31 The adepts thought that they had ascended liturgically to the heavenly temple to worship on the Sabbath; they assumed that they achieved angelomorphic immortality. First Enoch and Ezekiel 1 seem to be the Scriptural passages informing these beliefs but the hierarchy of the heavens is best known to us from such Merkabah documents as the Reuyoth Yehezkel (“The Visions of Ezekiel”). Paul’s ascension was parallel to the mystical experiences which apocalyptic Jews like the Qumran community were reporting and, hence, an important clue to the beginnings of Merkabah Mysticism.

Whatever the intention of the author of 1 Enoch, which may be construed in any number of ways, the relationship of Paul’s experience to the theme of the ascension of the great ones to heavenly figures is extremely important.32 Like Enoch, Paul claimed to have gazed on the Glory, whom Paul identifies as the Christ. Like Enoch, Paul understood that he had been transformed into a more divine state, which would be fully realized after his death. Like Enoch, Paul claimed that this vision and transformation was somehow a mystical identification with the Son of Man figure. Like Enoch, Paul claimed to have received a calling, his special status as intermediary, which also came through the spirit. Paul specified the meaning of this calling for all believers, a concept absent in the Enoch texts that we have, although it may have been assumed within the original community. All of this is further confirmed by the angelomorphism of the Angelic Liturgy at Qumran.

Yet complete surety about the history of this tradition is elusive. Paul did not explicitly call the Christ “the Glory of the Lord.”33 And because the Parables (1 En 37-71) are missing from the Dead Sea Scrolls, we cannot date them accurately. As opposed to the earlier Enoch material, they may date to the first century or later and may have been influenced by Christianity, since they are extant only in the Ethiopic version of Enoch, the official canon of the Ethiopian Christian church. Yet, whatever the date of 1 Enoch70-71, there is no doubt that the stories of Enoch’s ascensions in 1 Enoch 14 antedated Paul and could have influenced any of his conceptions about the heavenly journey.34

Shortly before his death, Morton Smith reported that he had found a text which firmly anchors these experiences to the first century and to Qumran, thus necessarily to a long prehistory in that community. In 4QMa of the Dead Sea Scrolls found at Qumran, Morton Smith sees evidence to translate a passage:

[El Elyon gave me a seat among] those perfect forever, a mighty throne in the congregation of the gods. None of the kings of the east shall sit in it and their nobles shall not [come near it.] No Edomite shall be like me in glory. And none shall be exalted save me, nor shall come against me. For I have taken my seat in the [congregation] in the heavens, and none [find fault with me.] I shall be reckoned with gods and established in the holy congregation.

Smith’s translations are careful and his reconstructions conservative. Along with the Angelic Liturgy this is now persuasive evidence that the mystics at the Dead Sea understood themselves to be one company with the angels, whom they call the b’nei Elohim , which they must have achieved through some Sabbath rite of translation and transmutation.35

As long as the date of 1 Enoch 70-71 cannot be fixed exactly and as long as evidence of the Dead Sea Scrolls remains provocative and debatable, Paul himself remains the earliest author explicitly expressing this kind of angelic transformation in Judaism. But the transformation that Paul achieved is coterminous with achieving resurrection in the afterlife. If his discussion of transformation can be related to apocalyptic mysticism in Judaism, he also becomes the only Jewish mystic of this period to relate this personal experience confessionally. The difference between this experience and the other ancient Near Eastern journeys to heaven-Adapa, Etana, Enoch, etc-is that from this period onward, the journey is most often being made through RASC. In Paul’s writing, we have an anomalous case where he is not sure whether it is made in the body or in the spirit. But it seems clear that spiritual bodies and angelic bodies must now be considered analogous. They are bodily but they are not flesh. Paul believed that they were bodies like the heavenly bodies but with distinctions to be made between heavenly bodies (1 Cor 15:41). This suggests that Paul would have ranked Christ higher than an ordinary angel but that he would have considered both divine in some general way.

There is adequate evidence, then, that many Jewish mystics and apocalypticists sensed a relationship between the angels and important figures in the life of their community. The roots of this tradition are pre-Christian, though the tradition was massively developed by Christianity. Furthermore, Jewish scholars have overlooked Christianity as evidence for the existence of these traditions in first-century Judaism. Paul did not have to be a religious innovator to posit an identification between a vindicated hero and the image of the Kavod, the manlike figure in heaven, although the identification of the figure with the risen Christ is a uniquely Christian development. If so, along with the mysterious, anonymous psalmist from Qumran, Paul was a rare Jewish mystic who reported his own personal, identifiably confessional mystical experiences in the fifteen hundred years that separate Ezekiel from the rise of Kabbalah.

Paul himself gives the best evidence for the existence of ecstatic journeys to heaven in first-century Judaism, with his report in 2 Corinthians.36 His inability to decide whether the voyage took place in the body or out of the body is firm evidence of a mystical ascent and shows that the voyage had not been interiorized as a journey into the self, which later became common in Kabbalah. Since the Rabbis proscribed the discussion of these topics except singly, to mature disciples, and only provided they had experienced it on their own (M. Hag. 2.1), the Rabbinic stories interpreting the Merkabah experience often took place while traveling through the wilderness from city to city, when such doctrines could easily be discussed in private (b. Hag. 14b). This is precisely the scene that Luke picked for Paul’s conversion.37

It is significant that in 2 Corinthians 12, when Paul talked about mystical journeys directly, he too adopted a pseudepigraphical stance. He did not admit to the ascent personally. Apart from the needs of his rhetoric, Rabbinic rules also forbade public discussion of mystic phenomena. A first-century date for this rule would explain why Paul would not divulge his experience in his own name at that place. It would also suggest why Jewish mystics consistently picked pseudepigraphical literary conventions to discuss their religious experience, unlocking the mystery behind the entire phenomenon of pseudepigraphical writing. But none of the standard discussions of this incompletely understood phenomenon mention Paul’s confession or the Mishnah here.38 Again, Paul may be giving us hitherto unrecognized information about Jewish culture in the first century which is unavailable from anywhere else.

Transformation into the Christ

WHEN PAUL was not faced with a direct declaration of personal mystical experience, he revealed much about mystical religion as it was experienced in the first century. Paul himself designated Christ as “the image of the Lord” in a few places: 2 Corinthians 4:4, Colossians 1:15 (if it is Pauline), and he mentioned the morphé (form, shape) of God in Philippians 2:6.39 More often he spoke of transforming believers into “the image of His son” in various ways (Rom 8:29; 2 Cor 3:18; Phil 3:21, and 1 Cor 15:49; also Col 3:9). These passages are critical to understanding what Paul’s experience of conversion was. They must be seen in closer detail to understand the relationship to Jewish apocalypticism and mysticism, from which they derived their most complete significance for Paul. Paul’s longest discussion of these themes occurs in 2 Corinthians 3:18-4:6. Here he assumes the context rather than explaining it completely:

Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being changed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit. Therefore, having this ministry by the mercy of God, we do not lose heart. We have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways; we refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God. And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled only to those who are perishing. In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the likeness of God. For what we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. For it is the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the Glory of God in the face of Christ.

Paul began this passage by reference to the spiritual nature of the Christ, calling him both “Lord” and “Spirit.” He ended this passage by identifying “the Glory of God” with Christ. The question is, how literally did he mean it? There is reason to think that he was being fully literal and candid, since transformation was a sensible expectation of apocalyptic Jews in the first century. Paul used these terms in their Biblical technical sense to identify the Christ with the human manifestation of God and then suggested that this was the same as his spiritual visions of Christ. For now, the main point must be the usually unappreciated use of the spiritual language of transformation in Paul’s works. Paul’s entire description of resurrection is framed around his visionary experience, which in turn carried his argument that he was the equal of the fleshly disciples and apostles of Jesus.

In 2 Corinthians 3:18, Paul said that believers will be changed into Christ’s likeness from one degree of glory to another. He refered to Exodus 33 and 34, where Moses’ encounter with the angel of the Lord is narrated. Earlier in Exodus, the angel of the Lord was described as carrying the name of God (Exod 23:21). Moses sees the “Glory of the Lord,” makes a covenant, receives the commandments upon the two tables of the law and, when he comes down from the mount, the skin of his face shines with light, as the Bible states (Exod 34:29-35). Moses thereafter must wear a veil except when he is in the presence of the Lord. Paul assumed that Moses made an ascension to the presence of the Lord, was transformed by that encounter and that his shining face was a reflection of the encounter, perhaps even as a foretaste of his angelic destiny. But Paul also made a polemical point about the fading of Moses’ halo of light (2 Cor 3:13) that implied Christians have a more lasting glory (2 Cor 4:4) because they have accepted the Gospel.

Paul used strange and significant mystical language. But what is immediately striking about it is that Paul used that language to discuss his own and other Christians’ experience “in Christ.” Transformation becomes the possibility and goal of all believers. Paul even explicitly compared Moses’ experience with his own and that of Christian believers. Their transformation is of the same sort, but the Christian transformation is greater and more permanent. Once the background of the vocabulary is pointed out, Paul’s daring claims for Christian experience become clear. The point, therefore, is that some Christian believers also make such an ascent somehow, also share in the divine spirit, and also experience more permanent spiritual effects than the vision Moses received. The church has witnessed a theophany as important as the one vouchsafed to Moses but the Christian theophany is greater still, as Paul himself experienced and testified. The Corinthians were said to be a message from Christ (2 Cor 3:2), who was equated with “the Glory of God.” The new community of gentiles was not given a letter written on stone (Jer 31:33) but God’s message was delivered by Paul as Moses delivered the Torah to Israel. The new dispensation was more splendid than the last, not needing the veil with which Moses hid his face. Paul’s own experience proved to him and for Christianity that all will be transformed.

Paul’s term, “the Glory of the Lord” must be taken both as a reference to Christ and as a technical term for the Kavod, the human form of God appearing in Biblical visions. In 2 Corinthians 3:18, Paul said that Christians behold the Glory of the Lord as in a mirror and are transformed into his image.40 For Paul, as for the earliest Jewish mystics, to be privileged enough to see the kavod or Glory (doxa) of God was a prologue to transformation into His image (eikon). Paul did not say that all Christians made the journey but compared the experience of knowing Christ to being allowed into the intimate presence of the Lord, to be given entrance to God’s court. And he himself had made that journey.

The result of the journey (over several years of proselytizing) was to identify Christ as “the Glory of the Lord.” When Paul said that he preached that Jesus was Lord and that God “has let this light shine out of darkness into our hearts to give the light of knowledge of the Glory of God in the face of Christ” (2 Cor 4:6), he seems clearly to have been describing his own conversion and ministry, just as he described it in Galatians 1, and just as he was explaining the experience to new converts for the purpose of furthering and strengthening their conversion.41 His apostolate, which he expressed as a prophetic calling, was to proclaim that the face of Christ is the “Glory of God.” It is very difficult not to read this passage in terms of Paul’s description of the ascension of the man to the third heaven and conclude that Paul’s conversion experience also involved his identification of Jesus as the “Image” and “Glory of God,” as the human figure in heaven, and thereafter as Lord, Spirit, Christ, Son, and Savior.

The identification of Christ with the Glory of the Lord brings a transformation and sharing of the believer with the image as well. This is the same as regaining the image of God which Adam lost. This transformation is accomplished through death and rebirth in Christ, which can be experienced in direct visions as Paul apparently did, or by anyone through baptism. But the important thing is to note how completely the theophanic language from Greek and Jewish mystical piety has been appropriated for discussing what we today call conversion. It was Paul’s primary language for describing the experience of conversion, because it gives a sense of the transformation and divinization (or angelification) that he felt was inherent in his encounter with the risen Christ. This transformation and angelification is authenticated in communal life, in social transactions (for instance, 1 Cor 12-14, also 1 Cor 5:1-5).

Concomitant with Paul’s worship of the divine Christ is transformation. Paul said in Philippians 3:10: “that I may know him and the power of his resurrection and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death” (symmorphizomenos toi thanatoi autou).Later, in Philippians 3:20-21, he said: “But our commonwealth is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will change (metaschematisei) our lowly body to be conformed in shape (symmorphon) to his glorious body (toi sēmati tés doxes autou) by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.”

English does not allow us to build such a vivid image into one word. If we had an English word for it, it would be symmorphosis, like “metamorphosis” but with a more intimate and transformative meaning. The Greek verb means literally “to be morphed together with,” what our word “metamorphosize” suggests, except that it states that the reformation will explicitly take place “together with” (sym-) his glorious body, suggesting the outcome is a new compound of both. The body of the believer eventually is to be transformed together with and combined into the body of Christ. The believer’s body is to be changed into the same spiritual body of glory as that of the savior.

We need to coin another new word to understand the next part of this statement, where Paul talked about transformation in a slightly different way. Paul struggled with the expression of his mystic intution. He also said that the change will metaschematize(change the structure of) our lowly body so that it will become His glorious body (Phil 3:10). Again English does not easily allow us to appreciate this unusual feature of the Greek language. But Paul was suggesting that this transformation from our lowly body to His glorious body “metaschematizes,” creates a new “metascheme,” perhaps to be understood as a new master-narrative of the history of salvation in Israel. This vision, would, in effect, produce an entirely new understanding of what salvation meant. We know that a great deal of the story is not new. But the identification of the divine figure in heaven with the crucified Messiah on earth, with whose suffering one is to be identified, is entirely new. And it clearly came not from any preexistent prophecy but from the events of the end of Jesus’ life.

Paul exhorted his followers to imitate him as he imitated Christ: “Brethren, join in imitating me, and mark those who so live as you have an example in us” (1 Cor 11:1). The followers were told to imitate Paul as he himself imitated Jesus. All of this suggests that the body of believers would be refashioned into the glorious body of Christ, a process which starts with conversion and faith but ends in the parousia, the shortly-expected culmination of history when Christ returns. It all depends on a notion of body that is a new spiritualized substance, a new body which is not flesh and blood, which cannot inherit the kingdom (1 Cor 15:42-50).

Paul’s depiction of salvation and the transformation of the believer was based on his understanding of Christ’s glorification, partaking of early Jewish apocalyptic mysticism for its expression. The basic notion of transformation into an angelic or astral form may even have survived from a pre-Christian setting because Paul did not mention resurrection here at all. Clearly glorification is doing the work of resurrection in this passage. Likewise, in Romans 12:2 Paul’s listeners were exhorted to “be transformed (metamorphousthe) by renewing of your minds.” In Galatians 4:19 Paul expressed another but very similar transformation: “My little children, with whom I am again in travail until Christ be formed (morphea, morphēthēi) in you!”

This transformation, surprisingly, was to be effected by being transformed into Christ in his death (symmorphizomenos toi thanatou autou, Phil 3:10). This identification with the death of Jesus is a crucial issue for understanding Paul’s religious experience. Paul predicted that the believer would be transformed into the glorious body of Christ, through dying and being reborn in Christ. As we shall see, Paul saw the phenomenon as being related to baptism. Paul’s central proclamation is: Jesus is Lord and all who have faith have already undergone a death like his, so will share in his resurrection by being transformed into his form, spirit, and shape. As we have seen, this proclamation reflects a baptismal liturgy, implying that baptism provides the moment whereby the believer comes to be “in Christ.” Christianity may have been a unique Jewish sect in making baptism a central rather than a preparatory ritual, but some of the mystical imagery came from its Jewish past, probably through the teachings of John the Baptist.42

Paul’s conception of the risen body of Christ as the spiritual body (1 Cor 15:43-44) at the end of time and as the body of Glory (Phil 3:21) thus originates in Jewish apocalypticism and mysticism, modified by the unique events of early Christianity. Spirit is a synonym for the “Glory” and “form” which Christ has already received. The meaning of Romans 8:29 can be likewise clarified by Jewish esoteric tradition. There, as we have seen, Paul spoke of God as having “foreordained his elect to be conformed (symmorphous again) to the image of his Son.” Paul used the genitive here rather than the dative as in Philippians 3:21, softening the identification between believer and savior. But when Paul stated that believers conform to the image of His Son, he was not speaking of an agreement of mind or ideas between Jesus and the believers. The word behind the English word “conformed” is symmorphon again. Appearing in an oblique case, the word symmmorphous itself still suggests a spiritual reformation of the believer’s body into the form of the divine image. Paul’s language for conversion-“being in Christ”-developed out of mystical Judaism.

This, it seems to me, is the reward that Paul expected Jews, and by extension gentiles, to gain when they had faith in Christ. They came to be “in Christ.” It may be that Paul assumed all who were part of Israel were to be saved, as he says in Romans. What he was offering those who believed in Christ was not merely salvation but transformation. This was beyond the rewards offered by the Sadducees certainly, and by those usually understood to be righteous Jews in Pharisaism (i.e., mSanhedrin Io).43 He was maintaining that those who believe in Christ, Jew or gentile alike, will join his heavenly body.

First Corinthians 15

PAUL’S MAIN discussion of resurrection is in 1 Corinthians 15. In that letter, he began by showing that those who understand real wisdom are truly initiated into the revelations of the Holy Spirit. The language sounds something like what may be imagined to have taken place in mystery cults, as many scholars have pointed out. But why guess as to its possible relationship to a hypothetical piety in this period when it is demonstrably close to the language of Jewish apocalyptic mysticism that we find at Qumran, for instance, 1 Corinthians 2:6-10:44

Yet among the mature we do impart wisdom, although it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to pass away. But we impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glorification. None of the rulers of this age understood this; for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.

But, as it is written,

      “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard,

      nor the heart of man conceived,

      what God has prepared for those who love him,”

[from Isa 64:4; 65:17]

God has revealed to us through the Spirit. For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. (1 Cor 2:6-10)

Paul wrote in the context of considerable communal argumentation and factional dispute. His interpretation of the Gospel was called into question by his opponents. He avered that his only source was the risen Christ; his only proof was his success, which is supplied by the Spirit.45

In this context, Paul spoke of those who were qualified, the mature ones who evidently shared his perspective and, perhaps, to some extent his experience. This is a plausible extrapolation when the term refers so often to the initiated in the mystery religions. But quite close to home, at Qumran, knowledge and “perfection” were expected of the membership and only “the perfected ones” had access to the full secrets of the sect (1QS 1:8; 2:2; 3:3, 9; 5:24; 8:20ff.; 9:2, 8ff., 19).46

Mystery was one of the central tenets of Qumran. Paul also described the revelation of the crucified Messiah as a mystery (1 Cor 2:8). Even so, it also contrasts with mystery at Qumran. Paul’s mystery was not secret in the way that mystery at Qumran was. Although it needed to be taught and it was not universally accepted, it did not itself need to be secret. Paul’s mystery found its particular adherents. Unlike the Qumran community, Paul evidently thought all Christians will be transformed, whereas the issue was moot at Qumran but it looks like the transformation was restricted to the priests.

In I Corinthians, Paul discussed the issue of the final disposition of the body before he discussed the issue of resurrection and transformation itself. In this passage he may also have been responding to the Greek notion that the body decays while the soul lives on. A. J. Wedderburn has astutely observed that the issue in I Corinthians 6 is the normal conception of the afterlife in a Greek environment.47 It is in this context that Paul took up the issue of the body:

“All things are lawful for me,” but not all things are beneficial. “All things are lawful for me,” but I will not be dominated by anything. “Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food,” and God will destroy both one and the other. The body is meant not for fornication but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. And God raised the Lord and will also raise us by his power. (1 Cor 6:12-14)

The Greeks believed that the body was destined for destruction. But Paul did not follow through with a Platonic analysis of the immortality of the soul.48 Instead, he stayed in the apocalyptic-mystical world of Judaism, defending and sharpening that notion in view of the Greek assumptions about the continuity of life after death. Paul immediately suggested that the body will survive death, for it belongs to the Lord. God will raise it in glory and perfection by means of the spirit, just as he raised up the body of Jesus, who is even now in his spiritual state.

This kind of talk will demand a clarification in a Greco-Roman context. But, as Paul was still discussing various moral issues within the community, he postponed his discussion until later in the letter, to 1 Corinthians 15. There Paul summed up his entire religious experience in an apocalyptic vision of the resurrection of believers. Paul began with a description of his previous preaching and suggested that if his listeners gave up belief in the resurrection then they believed in Christ in vain:

Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified of God that he raised Christ-whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised. If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have died in Christ have perished. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. (1 Cor 15:12-19)

Paul claimed to have given them, indeed emphasized as the first importance, the true teaching, as he had himself received it. And that teaching was simply that Christ died for sins in accordance with Scripture, that he was entombed and rose three days later, all in accordance with Scripture. There is no doubt that this is the earliest Christian teaching with regard to the resurrection: It is part of the primitive kerygma or proclamation of the church.


For Paul the identification with Jesus mystically made everyone a martyr and, logically, made everyone qualified for the resurrection rewards of a martyr. Those who believe in Christ are worthy of the same rewards as the martyrs, who can expect not just a bodily existence at the final end of history, but who can also expect the further reward of the martyred few (“those who lead many to knowledge”) as heavenly angels (stars) for having enlightened the world:

We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. (2 Cor 4:8-10)

Even more so for those who actually suffer for their faith. These spiritual experiences of transformation into the Christ form analogies to the life and death of Jesus. Those who suffer as the Christ suffered can expect identification with the exalted Christ (symmorphosis). And more concretely it means that the believer must be ready to accept suffering as part of Christian discipleship.49

For Paul there was not much explicit recognition that a resurrection without the end was very strange. Paul apparently felt that the time was peculiarly out of joint because the first resurrection had happened but the end had not yet come about. Clearly, he thought the last stage would shortly arrive. And, as we know, the demonstration that the age had begun was the actual appearance of Jesus to him.

Paul-in contradistinction to some later Gnostic traditions-began from the supposition that the death and burial was real and hence the resurrection was actual and in accordance with Scripture (1 Cor 15:3). Paul then listed those to whom the postresurrection Jesus appeared. In Paul’s understanding the postresurrection appearances rather than the physical presence of Jesus was primary. He included himself modestly in the list of those to whom Jesus had appeared. But if the list had been made up of those who knew Jesus in the flesh, Paul would have been left out and James would have been preeminent. The corruptible flesh of the earthly Jesus is not the point for Paul. He deliberately widened the concept of apostleship to include persons like himself who had a spiritual relationship with the Christ. For him, it is Jesus the heavenly redeemer who reveals himself to his chosen, who is the proof of faith, not merely those who may have heard Jesus’s preaching.

In verses 12-19, Paul claimed that the deniers of the resurrection of the dead were denying the Gospel which they had received and initially believed. He began a series of arguments which ended in the reductio ad absurdum that “if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain.” The rhetoric depended on the hearers’ understanding that the premise was wrong. This argument only made sense to believers; no one else would have seen the absurdity of the conclusion. A great number of scholars have speculated on what the Corinthians had been misled into believing. They could have been pre-Gnostics or proto-Gnostics, who denied that the body is raised.

But, in fact, they need not have been either; they could merely have been following ordinary Greek popular thought in a Platonic vein, thinking that the soul is immortal but that the body cannot be raised from the dead (nor would anyone want to be embodied, given the choice). That is to say, they may only have been ordinary Greeks for whom the Christian message of the resurrection of Jesus might naturally have been interpreted in a different context than the apocalyptic one out of which Paul originally spoke. A person might survive death through the immortality of the soul in Greek thought but a bodily resurrection was never any significant part in Greek thinking.50

It is not necessarily true, as Paul argued, that all those who died in Christ would have been thought by his listeners to have perished. They may merely receive their divine reward on the basis of their deeds, or knowledge, or the soul’s natural inclination.51 But, as Paul suggested, this notion, whoever the author is, denies the salvific nature of Christ’s death in totality. It is the bodily resurrection of Jesus that guarantees that God’s plan for the final destruction of the evil ones of the world is already set in place. For if the soul is immortal by nature and that is the highest form of immortality to be achieved, then the sacrifice of Christ is unnecessary.

In verses 20-28 Paul stopped arguing against enemies and began articulating his own notions. He showed that the resurrection of Christ entails the future resurrection of all the righteous dead as Christ is the “firstfruit of them who have fallen asleep” (vs 20), yet again using the term that is clearly dependent upon Daniel 12 and, in turn, Isaiah 26 (also see, e.g., LXX Ps 87:6). Probably then, the scriptural passage that Paul had in mind earlier (1 Cor 15:3) is none other than Daniel 12:2: “And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. And those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the firmament; and those who turn many to righteousness, like the stars for ever and ever” (Dan 12:1-3).

Paul’s argument was made on the basis of analogy from Adam. Just as death came from Adam, so eternal life comes from Christ. But Christ is the first, then those who belong to Christ. At the end, Christ will hand over the kingdom of God to the father, after he has destroyed every power. Paul was making clear reference to the “Son of Man” passage in Daniel 7:13 when he said that Christ must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. There are other enthronement passages in the Hebrew Bible but none others in which the reign of justice is made dependent upon the enthroned figure. Together with the transformation, Paul posited an apocalyptic end; the two are deeply connected.

Why Paul never actually used the term “Son of Man” is something of a mystery. It may be because he knew Hebrew and Aramaic too well. “Son of Man” is not a proper title or even a good translation for the original phrase. Whereas Mark 10:45 writes “The Son of Man came … to give his life as a ransom for many,” Galatians 2:20 paraphrases the saying with “Son of God.” Similar, possible paraphrases in the later Deutero-Pauline literature are translated with Greek word anthropos (human being), Jesus Christ (1 Tim 2:5-6) or “the Son of the Man” (Eph 5:2, Titus 2:13-14). This is important evidence suggesting that Paul intended to refer to the vision in Daniel 7:13-14 in his own writing, but that he did not recognize the phrase “Son of Man” as a title for the figure in heaven in Daniel. Although Paul never used the term “Son of Man” he clearly identified the Christ with the “Son of Man” figure on the throne in Daniel 7:13. Paul showed the antiquity of that position, without affirming to us that “Son of Man” was a title. In this, he seems rather to have been working in a Jewish context in which any Scripture can be read as prophecy, without relying on any preexistent titles for Jesus.

Heavenly man traditions are crucial to the development of the Christian meaning of Jesus’ earthly mission.52 They inform all the New Testament discussions of the “Son of Man” in ways that have been infrequently discussed by the leading scholars studying the term.53 While it is quite likely that some of Jesus’ followers thought of him as a messiah or a messianic candidate during his own lifetime, they were disabused of that idea by his arrest, trial, and death on the cross as “The King of the Jews,” for no pre-Christian view of the messiah conceived of the possibility of the failure of the Messianic mission and his demise at the hands of the Romans.54

Instead, the disciples’ experience of Jesus’ resurrection and ascension to the right hand of God confirmed the originally discarded Messianic title retrospectively in a new, dynamic, and ironic way. Resurrection and ascension had already entered Jewish thought in the century previous to Jesus, as a reward for the righteous martyrs of the Maccabean wars. Thus, while Christianity represents a purely Jewish reaction to a tragic series of events in Jesus’ life, the reaction was at the same time absolutely novel. The process should be of special interest to Jewish scholars as well as students of Christology, because it is the clearest evidence we have from the first century on as to how new religious groups were founded on historical events understood as fulfillment of Scripture. It shows how Jewish expectations derived from Biblical texts intersected with historical events, even quite anomalous historical events. The events were given meaning by creative interplay between the facts and a hermeneutic process of reading any passage in the Bible as prophecy that could be fulfilled in a new and surprising way. Given Paul’s mysticism, it also links personal transformation with the end of the evil, unredeemed world.

The Christian innovation is to have identified the angelic or divine figure who brought judgment, the Son of Man of Daniel 7:13 and who could also be called “the Lord,” with Jesus the Messiah or Christos. No other movement so far has shown any interest in conflating “Lord” with “the Messiah,” though the Qumran community had already identified divine terms like ’El, with the principal angels of God (11QMelch). On the basis of Daniel 7:9-14 and Daniel 12, together with Psalms 8 and 110, the Christian community found the Scriptural support that clarified what God had in mind for the end of history.

We can now see this in better detail. Since Jesus died as a martyr, expectations of his resurrection would have been normal in some Jewish sects.55 But the idea of a crucified messiah was unique. In such a situation, the Christians only did what other believing Jews did in similar circumstances: They turned to Biblical prophecy for elucidation. No Messianic text suggested itself as appropriate to the situation. But Psalm 110:1 was exactly apposite: The LORD says to my lord: “Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies your footstool.”56

Here was a description of the enthronement of a Davidic descendant, now understood as a heavenly enthronement after death and resurrection. Yet nothing in the Bible text makes the death or resurrection part of the narrative inevitable. It must have come from the historical experience of the events of Jesus’ life, not the other way around. The early Christian community, after they experienced these events, found the Scripture that explained the meaning of the events. Thereafter, Psalm 110:1 could be combined easily with Daniel 7:9-13, the description of the enthronement of the “Son of Man.” Daniel 7:9-13 seemed to prophesy Christ’s exaltation and ascension because Jesus could be identified with the Son of Man, an angelic figure, who is, in turn, identified with the second “Lord” in the quotation from Psalm 110. Daniel 12:2 had promised astral, angelic immortality to those who taught wisdom, confirming the entire set of expectations. The combination of Psalm 110 with Daniel 7:13 (possibly together with Psalm 8) gives us a good explanation for the difficult “spiritual body” phrase in Paul’s writing. In short, the combination of these two passages, seen together with the martyrdom of Jesus as the Messiah of Israel, produced the kerygma of the Early Church. It was this as well that allowed Paul to come to the conclusions he did, though he also received revelations and visions which confirmed the teaching.


First Corinthians 15:35-50 is one of the most systematic expositions of the Jewish mystical and apocalyptic tradition, which seems central to Paul’s message of the meaning of Christ’s resurrection. The coming end means transformation and resurrection for all who believe in him:

But someone will ask, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?” Fool! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. And as for what you sow, you do not sow the body that is to be, but a bare seed, perhaps of wheat or of some other grain. But God gives it a body as he has chosen, and to each kind of seed its own body. Not all flesh is alike, but there is one flesh for human beings, another for animals, another for birds, and another for fish. There are both heavenly bodies and earthly bodies, but the glory of the heavenly is one thing, and that of the earthly is another. There is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars; indeed, star differs from star in glory. So it is with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body. Thus it is written, “The first man, Adam, became a living being”; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit. But it is not the spiritual that is first, but the physical, and then the spiritual. The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven. As was the man of dust, so are those who are of the dust; and as is the man of heaven, so are those who are of heaven. Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we will also bear the image of the man of heaven. What I am saying, brothers and sisters, is this: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. (1 Cor 15:37-50)

In 1 Corinthians 15:35 Paul began a brief exposition of the nature of the resurrection body. He was, in this passage, outlining a notion of afterlife which had nothing to do with immortality of the soul; it is an offshoot of Jewish apocalypticism, out of which the Christian kerygma grows. But he was also cognizant of the beliefs of the audience so he merely ignored and did not argue against the immortality of the soul. Instead, he fastened again on the notion of spirit to explicate how the physical body of believers would be transformed by the resurrection. His argument had nothing to do with what happened to Christ during the passion nor did he mention any empty tomb. His argument is by analogy with his own experience and, by expressing it this way, he was trying to keep faith with his own experience of the Spirit of God. His use of language of the body is entirely unique.

The term for “physical body” is not exactly what one might expect but this is due to an unfortunate English translation. Neither the term soma sarkikon (fleshly body) nor the term soma physikon (physical body) occurs; rather the term which occurs is soma psychikon, “ensouled body,” a word which can mean “natural body” but is not the most obvious term for it. Since it combines the word for soul with the term for body, it is in a sense the totality of the Platonic ensouled-body as the Hellenistic world understood it. In a Platonic system that would only mean human bodies as we know them, with matter and soul both, therefore corruptible bodies. Because “psyche” could be taken to mean life in the physical sense in a non-Platonic setting, it is not necessarily a problem, strange though it may look; soma psychikon does occur in Hellenistic literature with that meaning.57

But the contrasting term, soma pneumatikon is a complete contradiction in terms for anyone in a Platonic system, especially when contrasted with the psychic body just mentioned: “It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body” (1 Cor 15:41).

There is no easy way to subsume this pair of statements into Platonism. What Paul was doing, however, was contrasting the Platonic view of humanity (the unredeemed body composed of soul and flesh) with his own view of the redeemed body, one that now had been transformed by the Spirit of God. One might say that Paul was trying to characterize his apocalyptic vision in a Hellenistic context, something like Josephus did for the speech of Eleazar ben Yair. But Paul’s message only really makes sense within its Jewish, apocalyptic context. For Paul, life in its most basic sense, psychic life, was also bodily life. “Pneumatic,” spiritual life is bodily as well, though Paul immediately reiterated that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God (1 Cor 15:50). The psychic body is the ordinary body (flesh and soul); the soma pneumatikon is the ordinary body subsumed and transformed by the spirit.

This new, spiritual, glorious body, which is the redeemed, resurrected body, is equivalent to Christ’s body. And so the new body that God gives His faithful in the resurrection will be a “pneumatic” or “spiritual” body augmented by the “Spirit” of God. Indeed, Paul had been given a foretaste of the redeemed body because the Spirit of God already lived in him. As the end approaches, the working of the Spirit will grow stronger and stronger until the final transformation, when we will share the image of the heavenly body.

This completely coheres with Paul’s notion that the fleshly way to salvation is not through observances of times and rituals, not through Jewish or gentile rituals, for that matter. Fleshly rituals are not a spiritual, transforming way to salvation. He argued that the nature of the resurrection body is different from anything we know, just as the nature of various fleshly creatures is different. Paul, in fact, left the issue of the nature of immortality in a peculiarly intermediate position. He affirmed that those who believe will have an imperishable bodily nature but he suggested that the faithful will receive it by bodily resurrection. The body of the resurrection will not be flesh and blood. It will be a body created in a sudden change, by symmorphosis. He knew from his visions that the process of transformation into a glorified, spiritual body had already begun. The process will be completed at the last trumpet.

The eschaton and destiny of all believers will be a transformation that does not necessarily do away with the body but “transforms” it to a spiritual substance. Paul made an explicit analogy with the stars, which are both spiritual and bodies at the same time. And that analogy is not merely adventitious. It links the transformation process with the passage in Daniel 12 yet again, since Daniel 12 described the wise as transformed into stars. The transformed in Christ will have, in short, the same substance as the stars, which are luminous and spiritual in nature. This was, for Paul, the very fulfillment of the end of time, as promised by Daniel 12.

In 1 Corinthians 15:45, Paul turned his attention to the relationship between transformation within the believer and the coming end. When speaking of the resurrection, Paul described a reciprocal relationship between Adam and Christ: Just as Adam brought death into the world so Christ, the second Adam, would bring resurrection.

Paul, however, was not so much talking about the man Jesus as he was talking about Christ’s exalted nature as anthropos. Since the imagery is so dependent upon the contrast between fallen and raised states, this passage may also imply a baptismal setting. It is also interesting that the alternation is conceived in bodily terms, not as a transmigration of souls.

But the image of man is also part of the process of inward transformation for Paul. A great many of his uses of anthropos (man) suggest that a transformation of “all” believers was his objective. For instance, Romans 6:6 reads: “We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the sinful body might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin.” Or in another, equally provocative place, Paul said: “So we do not lose heart. Though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed every day” (2 Cor 4:16). In both cases, the translation has obscured that the underlying Pauline word was anthropos, “human,” used to designate the internal state of transformation within us. But this is likely the very term that Paul used to designate the “Son of Man” in Daniel 7:13. Paul was, in fact, giving us a new vocabulary of inwardness, a new mysticism, built on the apocalyptic vision of the end of time.58 He connected the inward state with the outward state. The inward state is not necessarily causing the outward condition of the world, nor is the outward condition of the world causing the inward state. But both are being transformed by God’s plan.


Instead of leaving the body entirely behind as in the case of the Greek soul, the body of glory or pneumatic body is the natural body augmented. It becomes properly androgynous, an added spiritual nature, as it was when God created it in Genesis. It regains its divine likeness, its angelic completeness, the primal combination of maleness and femaleness that it lost at the beginning. This appears to be a consequence of attaining angelic status:

Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.” (Gen 1:26)

Notice that the Bible uses the same vocabulary of image and likeness as does the Ezekiel theophany, when speaking of God’s glory:

Like the appearance of the bow that is in the cloud on the day of rain, so was the appearance of the brightness round about. Such was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the LORD. And when I saw it, I fell upon my face, and I heard the voice of one speaking. (Ezek 1:28)

Paul explicitly says that the body of Christ is arsenothelous, androgenous, bisexual (genetically), hermaphrodite:

for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Gal 3:26-28)

The term “son of God” is without sexual implication, a common gender, and it has throughout Jewish tradition denoted angels. Through baptism, this passage says explicitly, the Christian overcomes the antinomies of ordinary life, including the gender distinction, to become children of God-angels. To be an angel in this context means to have transcended flesh and gender. This means for Paul that the transformation that is effected through faith in Christ is begun in the act of baptism. It will end at the eschaton with the transformation of the faithful, just as Matthew will later say: “For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels59 in heaven” (Matt 22:30).


From this follows the apocalyptic end:

Listen, I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die [Gk: fall asleep], but we will all be changed in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will be fulfilled. (1 Cor 15:51-54)

Here is a full accounting of the apocalyptic end. It does not have the bizarre imagery of some of the apocalypses but the crucial issue of the disposition of the dead is handled fully. The mortal body will not be destroyed, to be left behind by the soul. Instead, it will put on immortality as a garment and be transformed by it. This is clearly another baptismal image and it suggests that what the natural body puts on to be transformed is the Spirit of God. For Paul, the self that sees the resurrection is the same as the old self but transformed, leaving behind sexuality and gender and becoming a new creation. The new creation is, in fact, a recovery of the original innocence of the primal human. This is the principle of identity for the Christian in the resurrection. It is not just what we are now but what we can be with God’s Spirit. It is a transformed body.

In an effort to understand the relationship between transformation and justification, we must turn briefly to a later part of the Corinthian correspondence, where Paul discussed the effect of the spiritual transformation. The relationship between transformation and community is clarified there, so we will have to ignore momentarily the differing social context between the two letters. In 2 Corinthians 5:15-6:1, Paul spoke of the Christian as a new creation.

The “human point of view” is literally “according to the flesh” (kata sarka), whereas the believer is “a new creation” of spirit (pneuma). Again it is hard for us to imagine a spiritual body. But that is what Paul was suggesting. The reformulation experience changes the believer from a physical body to a new spiritual creation. It makes him become the righteousness of God, although the final consummation has not yet occurred. Paul could refer to himself even as an ambassador and fellow worker with Christ before the final transformation, participating in his body with him as he works.

Because the verb is implied, the passage can also be understood as implying that “there is a new creation,” giving the event a cosmic as well as an individual significance. Paul connected the inner process of salvation with the outer process of world redemption. Now he also clarifies the social world: The process takes place in community. Like many visionaries, Paul meant to suggest not just a personal transformation but a transformation of community, indeed the cosmos as well, since all this took place in a radically apocalyptic framework.

Apocalyptic End in Romans 8

IN ROMANS 8, Paul returned to his previous metaphor that the resurrection of Christ is the firstfruits of the coming end (Rom 8:23). Now, he brings personal transformation and the apocalyptic end of the world into the saving action of the Spirit, synthesizing them into a unity:

I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of him who subjected it in hope; because the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in travail together until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. 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 with patience. (Rom 8:18-25)

Creation itself is on the verge of a gigantic transformation into the perfected earth under the effects of the Spirit. And humans too are being transformed by the Spirit into a new creation. Paul has already described how those who believe have suffered with Christ to become adopted as sons (Rom 8:14-17). Paul speaks of adoption, becoming heirs of God and coheirs with Christ, a legal metaphor of adoption in Roman law. But son-ship also has the implication of angelic status in the Jewish world. Paul parallels the groaning of the universe to bring forth a new birth with the redemption of the body, the personal transformation of believers into the image of the Son:

We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brethren. And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified. (Rom 8:28-30)

Now the eschatological implications of personal transformations are fully exposed. The material world and the persons will all be transformed together at the end of time. Creation will achieve its perfected state. This is truly an apocalyptic vision, even though it is not expressed with all the accoutrements of other apocalyptic thinkers. Together with the perfected world, the believers will achieve a new perfection too, not as souls but as fully embodied humanity. Under the Spirit they will be transformed into the Christ and achieve a new divine humanity in Christ. They will essentially become angels, retaining their bodies but leaving fleshly existence behind.

Paul spoke of the transformation being partly experienced by believers already in their pre-parousia existence. His use of the present tense in Romans 12:2 and 2 Corinthians 3:18 underscored that transformation is an ongoing event. In 1 Corinthians 15:49 and Romans 8 it culminates at Christ’s return, the parousia. This suggests that for Paul transformation was both a single, definitive event yet also a process that continues until the second coming. Indeed it is parallel to the consummation. The redemptive and transformative processes appear to correspond exactly with the turning of the ages. This age is passing away, though it certainly remains a present evil reality (1 Cor 3:19; 5:9; 2 Cor 4:4; Gal 1:4; Rom 12:2). The Gospel, which is the power of God for salvation (Rom 1:16), was progressing through the world (Phil 1:12; also Rom 9-11). It would have been hard not to see the success of the mission as a sign that the end was growing closer and the efforts of the faithful were helping to bring it. Paul’s mission was, by all accounts, more successful than anyone imagined, including himself. The mystical vision of Christ was combined with a new and quite innovative missionary force in history.

The Presence of Christ in the Liturgy

PAUL’S COMMUNITIES must have had access to the presence of Jesus. That access was in the liturgical life of the community. The way that ordinary converts participated in the process of historical culmination was through the liturgical life of the community-through baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Larry Hurtado has just finished an exciting new study of Christ devotion in early Christianity which makes this point quite effectively.60 As several generations of scholars have now clarified, Paul understood that the name of Jesus and the term “Lord” not only referred to Jesus in his newly achieved divine dimension but used the name devotionally within the newly converted Christian community.

Given our lack of information, it is hard to know exactly how. One obvious place, where we do have evidence, is in baptism. Christian baptism was at first a full body immersion, as in Judaism, and that practice continued into earliest Christianity. Many sources attest that baptism was performed in the name of Jesus: “And Peter said to them, ‘Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit’” (Acts 2:38; see also 8:16 and 10:48). In the Corinthian correspondence, Paul explained that the recipients of his letter had not been baptized into his (Paul’s) name (1 Cor 1:15), rather into the name of Jesus. As he said later: “And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God” (1 Cor 6:11). Just as is implied here, Acts says in several places that the reception of the Holy Spirit followed immediately upon baptism, giving us a social context for the Gospels’ depiction of Jesus’ own baptism being followed immediately by the descent of the spirit. The narrative parallel reflects the Early Church’s understanding of the meaning of the ritual.

This parallel strongly suggests a liturgical basis for the reception of the Spirit in the baptismal ceremony in the early Palestinian, Christian community. It also suggests that the emergence of baptism in Pauline Christianity comes not from any presumed and unprovable links with Hellenistic mystery cults but easily and directly out of the use of this rite apocalyptically by Jewish millennialist groups. We now have considerable evidence that the rite was used at Qumran to prepare the community for their contact with the holy angels and the heavenly temple. Hence, the most obvious connection between Christianity and ritual immersion in an apocalyptic community is surely from the story of Jesus’ own baptism “of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” at the hands of the apocalypticist John the Baptist (Mark 1:4).

All this demonstrates what Paul meant when he stated that the name of Jesus was used liturgically in baptism. Hurtado says: “The ritual invocation of Jesus in baptism helps explain why Paul described those baptized as having ‘put on Christ’ (Gal 3:27), and as having been ‘buried with him [Christ] into his death’ through the rite (Romans 6:4).”61 Baptism was one way in which the believer came to be “in Christ” and therefore became mystically heir to the reward of the martyr-resurrection.

The other obvious liturgical rite of the Early Church was “the Lord’s Supper.” Paul himself used this title when describing the rite (1 Cor 11:20). The title itself establishes the relationship of the rite with the name of Christ, as we already know that the designation of kyrios is part of the church’s primitive proclamation of the risen Christ’s divinity through association with Daniel 7:13, Daniel 12:3, Psalm 110, and probably Psalm 8. Likewise, in 1 Cor 11:27 and 10:21 Paul referred to the “cup of the Lord” and the “table of the Lord,” which only underlines the same liturgical use of the name Lord in early Christianity.

When Paul described the tradition he knew about the eucharistie words of Jesus, he stated that the ritual was to be done in remembrance of the Lord until He returns: “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Cor 11:26). The presence of the Lord in community was assumed by Paul to be liturgical.

At the Jewish passover, the Rabbis of the Mishnah instituted the practice that “each generation should think of itself as if it too was brought out of Egypt, as if it too stood at the sea, as if it too stood as Sinai.” This involved an act of imagination, and an act of telling, “and you shall tell …” which turns the ritual from being merely a remembrance to being an reenactment, a liturgical act of remembrance.

For Paul, the purpose of the Lord’s Supper liturgy is, quite similarly, an imaginative reenactment, through the wine and bread, an anamnesis for the Lord until he comes. Indeed, in 1 Corinthians 5:7, Paul alluded directly to Jesus’ death as a Passover sacrifice. Again, it is the proclamation of the death of Christ in the Lord’s Supper which Paul connected with remembrance of Him. So this rite confirmed the believer’s coming to be “in Christ.” This is a strikingly different view from that of the Synoptic Gospels.

The Transformation of All Believers in Suffering

OF COURSE, the mystical experience of conversion is not only with the risen Christ in liturgy but with the crucified Christ, as well. The most obvious relationship between the believer and Christ is suffering and death (Rom 7:24; 8:10, 13). By being transformed by Christ, one is not simply made immortal, given the power to remain deathless. Rather one still experiences death as the Christ did, and like him survives death for heavenly enthronement. This is a consequence of the Christian’s divided state. Although part of the last Adam, living through Spirit, the Christian also belongs to the world of the flesh. As James Dunn has noted: “Suffering was something all believers experienced-an unavoidable part of the believer’s lot-an aspect of experience as Christians which his converts shared with Paul: Rom 5:3 (‘we’); 8:17 (‘we’), 2 Cor. 1:16 (‘you endure the same sufferings that we suffer’); 8:2; Phil. 1:29ff. (‘the same conflict which you saw and now hear to be mine’); 1 Thess. 1:6 (‘imitators of us and of the Lord’); 2:14 (’imitators of the churches of God in Judea: for you suffered the same things’); 3:3 (‘our lot’); 2 Thess. 1:4-6.”62 And if the suffering were not actual, it was vicarious in the liturgy of baptism and the Lord’s supper. If it was real, it was the price of bringing the end. The believers fully participate in the coming end, through their missionary efforts, through their personal transformation, and finally through their suffering.

Thus, the persecution and suffering of the believers were a sign that the transformation process had begun; it is the way to come to be “in Christ.” Paul was convinced that being united with Christ’s crucifixion meant not only immediate glorification but suffering for the believers in this interim period (2 Cor 4:8-10 again). The glorification follows upon the consummation of history. The connection between suffering and resurrection was clear in Jewish martyrology; indeed the connection between death and rebirth was even a prominent part of the mystery religions as well. But the particular way in which Paul made these connections was explicitly Christian.


PAUL’S OWN conversion experience and his mystical ascension form the basis of his theology. His language shows the marks of a man who has learned the vocabulary of the day for expressing a theophany when he was a Pharisee and then received several theophanies as he became a Christian. First and foremost, Paul’s visionary life allowed him to develop a concept of the divinity of the Christ or Messiah in a way that was both a unique development within the Jewish mystical tradition, and at the same time, characteristically Christian. Second, he also used this Jewish mystical vocabulary to express the transformation that happens to believers. They warrant immortality because they have been transformed by becoming formed like (symmorphous) the savior. Next, he used the language of transformation, gained through contact with Jewish mysticalapocalypticism and presumably through ecstatic conversion, to discuss the ultimate salvation and fulfillment of the apocalypse, raising believers to immortality in a parallel process of redemption. Last, this tandem process was visible in the new community through it liturgical life, its missionary efforts, and its brave endurance of suffering.

Resurrection, especially in parenetic contexts, refers to the future life in which the believer will share the image that Christ now possesses.63 Thus, Paul’s resurrection language allowed the community of believers to describe their present experience. They were the community of those who would experience the resurrection which Jesus had already attained. Further, Paul believed that he was not only part of the community to achieve eternal life, as Daniel 12 predicted, but one of those who made others wise and who would shine as the stars in heaven. He and the community of the faithful would soon become angels in heaven at the last trumpet, perhaps even to share in the final judgment as angels, which was what the Qumran community thought.

For Paul the reward was not based on the empty tomb nor was it a belief in a proposition. It is the experience of transformation from mortality to immortality in the real presence of the Spirit of the risen Lord, which in turn, guaranteed his intercession in heaven and the coming transformation of those who believed in him. This is quite different from the narration that the Gospels offer us. In Paul’s writings, we have a record of the Church’s experience illuminated by his personal experience and continuing relationship with his savior. He was clear about the distinction between what was already evident inwardly although it was not yet evident outwardly, and why the inward and the outward processes are the same. The Gospels have no such distinction. His writing on this subject was close to that of mystic visionaries. The Gospels present no such separations. They rather present the story of Jesus’ life from the point of view of an outside observer, though they are imbued with the perspective of a believer. They rather resemble apocalyptic writings.

This is an extraordinary picture of one man’s religious affirmation of the transcendent nature of human life. It is also an enormous engine for conversion in the Hellenistic world. By connecting the internal process of transformation with the world’s redemption Paul was able to suggest that faith had a material and spiritual effect upon the world. Paul was also able successfully to bridge and fuse the world of Jewish mysticism/apocalypticism with the world of pagan spirituality. To do so, he developed a notion of a self in transformation which attained transcendent status at the end of time but was continuously realizing it in the present. So while it was the body that is resurrected it was not merely the body; it was the body which included a divine consciousness, the Spirit, which was redeeming the world. It was a picture of the self that said one could remake the world from what it is into what it should be, all by perfecting the self.

Previously we have seen that religious myth provides an analogy between the self and divinity. In Paul’s writing we have for the first time a record of the experience of mystic transformation of a limited human self into a transcendent divinity. But the question is: Could a personal transformation actually change the world? That answer is worked out by the Gospels.

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