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«« Contextualizing the Apocalypse of Paul » Michael Kaler Laval théologique et philosophique, vol. 61, n° 2, 2005, p. 233-246. Pour citer cet ...»

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« Contextualizing the Apocalypse of Paul »

Michael Kaler

Laval théologique et philosophique, vol. 61, n° 2, 2005, p. 233-246.

Pour citer cet article, utiliser l'information suivante :

URI: http://id.erudit.org/iderudit/011815ar

DOI: 10.7202/011815ar

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Michael Kaler Faculté de théologie et de sciences religieuses Université Laval, Québec RÉSUMÉ : Dans l’article suivant, je donne une introduction à mes travaux sur un des textes de la fameuse « bibliothèque » copte de Nag Hammadi, à savoir l’Apocalypse de Paul, un court texte gnostique qui raconte l’ascension de l’apôtre Paul jusqu’au dixième ciel. En plus d’une description du texte et aussi un résumé de l’histoire de la recherche sur ce texte, je discute comment il pourrait être vu comme le point de rencontre de trois « courants de pensée » dans le christianisme ancien, c’est-à-dire l’apocalyptique, le paulinisme, et le gnosticisme.


: In this article, I present an introduction to my work on one of the texts from the Nag Hammadi library, the Apocalypse of Paul, a short gnostic work which tells of the apostle Paul’s ascension to the tenth heaven. Along with a description of the text and the history of research on it, I discuss the advantages of viewing it in its literary and intellectual context as the meeting-ground of three currents of early Christian thought, namely apocalypticism, Paulinism, and Valentinian gnosticism.



I n this paper, I will be looking at three currents of Christian thought in late antiquity, namely apocalypticism, Valentinianism, and Paulinism, and discussing how these currents converge in one gnostic text, the Apocalypse of Paul, by presenting a partial analysis of the way in which they were received and adapted by the author of the Apocalypse of Paul. I will start by defining these three currents, and then proceed to introduce the Apocalypse of Paul itself, as well as its goals and Sitz im Leben. After that I will discuss the applicability of these currents to the text, and examine the way in which they are manipulated so as to further the goals of the work.

The ideas, and the understanding of the Apocalypse of Paul, which I will present in this paper essentially furnish the basis, shall we say the conceptual underpinning, for my dissertation, which will explore, nuance and contextualize them, in the hopes of eventually producing a three-dimensional analysis of the Apocalypse of Paul’s literary and religious context.


–  –  –

The three currents of which I spoke above are not, perhaps, household terms, and thus some discussion of them would be useful. I should stress as well that they are modern and ideal constructs. No early Christian speaks of “Paulinism”, “apocalypticism”, or “Valentinianism.”1 To put it briefly, these terms are heuristic markers, which speak as much of our modern scholarly preoccupations as they do of the texts to which they are applied.

Furthermore, the bases upon which each of the three categories is constituted varies. A text’s “Paulinism” is determined by its reception and use of the figure or thought of Paul, while “apocalypticism” has to do with certain narrative aspects of the text in question, as well as a pool of common motifs and concerns, and “Valentinianism” serves to describe works whose theology and cosmology can be linked to what we think we know of the systems of Valentinus and his disciples — thus it is, ultimately, a label which attempts to describe a work’s socio-historical position as much as anything else. My analysis of these currents and how they interact in the Apocalypse of Paul will reflect their different natures, discussing how a given figure (Paul) is integrated into a narrative context with certain generic motives (apocalypticism), and how the details of this integration reflect the concerns of a member of the Valentinian movement in a given historical context.

1. Apocalypticism

Apocalypticism is a literary genre, and potentially a very loose one. It has connotations of the end of the world for us, thanks largely to the influence of the canonical Apocalypse of John, the Book of Revelation. But our word apocalypse comes from a Greek verb, apokalupto, meaning simply “to reveal” or “to uncover” — literally, to bring out (apo-) from hiding (kalupto). So while many apocalyptic texts did feature Hollywood-style explosions and special effects, culminating in the destruction of our sinful world and the establishment of a new, pure one, not all of them did. To speak generally, one can say that all that is strictly necessary in an apocalyptic text is that it contain the revelation of secret information by a celestial being to a human recipient.2

1. Ancient writers did refer to “Valentinians”, but this was a label applied by heresiologists to a number of different thinkers and groups. It was intended to be derogatory, implying that while “real” Christians could trace their traditions back to Jesus, or at least to the apostles, the “Valentinians” had no such grounding, and were the followers of a mere man, Valentinus, who did not start teaching until well after the apostolic period. It is significant to note that although the Nag Hammadi collection contains numerous works which modern researchers identify as being Valentinian, the names “Valentinus” or “Valentinian” never occur in these works : the only appearance of “Valentinus” takes place in the context of a criticism of him and his followers (Testimony of Truth [NHC IX] 56,1 ff.).

2. Apocalypticism as a category is — like gnosticism itself — a modern construct. It is therefore easy to give it a general, rough definition, and easy as well to propose heuristic definitions which serve primarily to limit an unworkably large corpus of material, such as I do in my discussion of ascension apocalypses.

However, it is extremely difficult to provide an adequate, inclusive yet nuanced definition of the genre as a whole — probably at least partly because the genre does not exist, it is a useful scholarly fiction. (In this respect, it reminds me of the apocryphal remark said to have been made by the American judge who ruled


There is a sub-genre of apocalypticism that is made up of texts that feature the ascension of a visionary (guided by an angelic or semi-divine figure) through the various heavens, usually with descriptions of the contents of these heavens, and often ending up with an interview with God or a great Angel. These texts were very popular in late antiquity, and it is with them that my work is mainly concerned. In what follows, I will refer to texts of this genre as “ascension apocalypses.” In terms of the ancient understanding of works of this genre, pages 47 to 63 of the Cologne Mani Codex3 are of particular interest. In this section, which is concerned with establishing Mani’s prophetic lineage, Adam, Sethel (Seth), Enosh, Shem and Paul are all identified as the recipients of apocalyptic revelations involving heavenly ascensions, which legitimated them and gave their teachings divine sanction. The sequential and unified way in which these ascensions are presented indicates that for Baraies, the author of this section of the Cologne Mani Codex, the apocalyptic tales were at least to some degree harmonized, so that (for instance) Adam’s apocalypse does not invalidate Enoch’s, and also that these visionary experiences provided the basis for the visionary’s spiritual authority : thus the claim for Mani’s spiritual authority that Baries is making is bolstered by his association with the apocalyptic lineage presented here.

The revelation ascribed to the pioneering second century theologian Valentinus, as recounted by Hippolytus4, is yet another example.

2. Valentinianism

Valentinus’ name became associated with a variety of heterodox Christian teachers and groups of the second and succeeding centuries. Many innovative thinkers, such as Ptolemy, Theodotus, and Marcus, were designated by their proto-orthodox opponents as “Valentinians.” This was clearly done with polemical intent, so as to denigrate their teachings in two ways. First of all, it implied that these teachings were derived not from Christ or the apostles, but rather from Valentinus, obviously a much that Lady Chatterly’s Lover was a work of pornography, and thus should be censored. When asked how he defined pornography, the judge is said to have replied, “I can’t tell you what it is — but I know it when I see it !”.) In attempting to resolve this question in a more definite way than will be necessary in this paper, very different approaches are taken in such foundational studies as issue number 14 (1978) of Semeia (Apocalypse : The Morphology of a Genre) and Philip VIELHAUER’s Geschichte der urchristlichen Literatur (Berlin, de Gruyter, 1975, p. 485-493). In fact, it was the goal of the organizers of the 1979 Uppsala Colloquium on Apocalypticism to emerge from the colloquium with a generally acceptable definition of apocalypticism, much in the way that the delegates to the Messina conference on gnosticism in 1968 had produced a definition of gnosticism. But, significantly, this ambition was thwarted, as they were unable to reach a consensus. Ultimately, one’s definition will vary according to one’s perspective, as is always the case.

3. The Cologne Mani Codex [R. CAMERON and A. DEWEY, The Cologne Mani Codex (P. colon. inv. nr. 4780) :

Concerning the origin of his body, Missoula, Scholars Press (coll. “Texts and Translations”, early Christian literature series, 15), 1979] is a description of episodes from the early life of Mani, the prophet and founder of Manichaeism. The section in question deals with Mani’s own revelation, putting it into context with the revelations undergone by various other legendary figures and thus legitimating it.

4. “For Valentinus says that he saw a newborn babe, and questioned it to find out who it was. And the babe answered him, saying that it was the Word. Thereupon, he [Valentinus] adds to this a certain pompous tale, intending to derive from this his attempt at a sect.” Translation Layton, The Gnostic Scriptures (New York, Doubleday, 1987) p. 231. Whether or not this revelation involved an ascension is unknown. However, the possibility cannot be ruled out.


less authoritative figure to early Christians. Secondly, in a culture where antiquity was highly regarded, it stigmatized these ideas as being of relatively recent vintage.

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