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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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But we can specify the inspiration for the text even more precisely. In his second letter to the Corinthians, Saint Paul wrote of an ascension to heaven that he had undergone. His account of it (2 Cor 12:2-4) is short : “I know a person15 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 such a person — whether in the body or out of the body, I do not know ; God knows — was caught up into Paradise16 and heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat.”17 Naturally enough, this brief passage was extremely interesting to later generations of Christians, who were speculated about what had actually happened to Paul during his ascension. The Apocalypse of Paul is one of several later texts that resulted from such speculations.18 The Apocalypse of Paul is a short, laconic, lacunous, and inelegant text, so one is not surprised to find that little scholarly attention has been devoted to it. Its editio princeps and first German translation was in A. Böhlig’s Koptisch-gnostische Apokalypsen aus Codex V von Nag Hammadi im Koptischen Museum zu Alt-Kairo ; its first English translation was made by William Murdock (see immediately below) in 1968 ; its first French translation was made in 1969 by Rudolph Kasser (“Bibliothèque gnostique VII : L’Apocalypse de Paul” in Revue de Théologie et de Philosophie, 19, p. 259-263). To date there have been only one major study of it, the dissertation of William Murdock in 1968, and two presentations of the text (including translations and some commentary), in Spanish19 and German.20 Mention should be made as well of an article by J. Stevenson, “Ascent Through the Heavens From Egypt to Ireland” (Cambridge Medieval Celtic Studies, 5 [1983], p. 21-36), which examined the possible relationship between an unattested apocalyptic apocryphon whose exisAll commentators, ancient and modern, are agreed that Paul is speaking of himself here, although there is disagreement over his reason for using the third person.

16. Are the third heaven and Paradise the same place ? The material preceding each of the two place names has a formal similarity which has led many to argue that Paul is repeating, while slightly changing, his account, and thus that Paradise is to be found in the third heaven. Others, ancient and modern, have argued that they are two separate places, and thus that Paul is saying that he first went up to the third heaven, and then to Paradise. One cannot be sure which explanation was accepted by the author of the Apocalypse of Paul.

17. New Revised Standard Version.

18. There are references to “Apocalypse[s] of Paul” and/or speculations on Paul’s ascent in many old canon lists and heresiological works, although it is extremely unlikely that any of them refer to our text. They are probably references to the Visio sancti Pauli, also known as the Apocalypse of Paul, an extremely popular and influential work which helped to inspire Dante’s Divine Comedy.

19. R. ETCHEVERRIA, “El Apocalipsis de Pablo (NHC V2 : 17,19-24,9) : Traducion y commentario,” in R. BLASQUEZ, ed., Quaere Paulum : Miscelanea homenaje a Monseñor Doctor Lorenzo Turrado Salamanca, Universidad Pontifica (coll. “Biblioteca Salmanticensis”, Estudios, 39), 1981, p. 217-236.

20. H.J. KLAUCK, “Die Himmelfahrt des Paulus (2 Kor 12:2-4) in der koptischen Paulusapokalypse aus Nag Hammadi (NHC V/2)”, Studien zum Neuen Testament und seiner Umwelt, 10 (1985), p. 151-190.


tence can be surmised from a family of Irish, English and Latin apocalypses, and the Apocalypse of Paul.

The Bibliothèque copte de Nag Hammadi series, section “Textes”, published by the BCNH project at Université Laval, is preparing to issue a book-length treatment of the text, co-authored by Jean-Marc Rosenstiehl and myself, and it was the subject of a paper by Louis Painchaud, Marie-Pierre Bussières and myself presented at the Society for Biblical Literature meeting in Toronto Nov. 200221, as well as a paper presented at the AAR/EIR conference in Ottawa in April of 2002.22



Now, over the years that I have worked on this strange little text, I think I’ve managed to develop a fairly in-depth understanding of how the text works with and uses the apocalyptic tradition. The simple fact that the Apocalypse of Paul is an apocalyptic work has never been seriously put in question : despite Rudolph’s odd desire to establish its genre as being that of “gnostic dialogue”23, all the other research on the work has been unanimous in considering it to be most closely linked to the Judeo-Christian ascension apocalypses.

As regards Paulinism, Schenke’s article, referred to above, was liberatory in this regard, enabling me to see the Apocalypse of Paul as a completely valid exemplar of Paulinism, even though it does not deal with Paul’s theology at all, but rather treats him as a purely legendary figure, a mystical warrior rather than a thinker. This understanding is in contrast to the general scholarly consensus : there has to date been little discussion of the Apocalypse of Paul as a Paulinist work, and what little discussion there has been has tended to denigrate its importance24.

21. “The Apocalypse of Paul, Adversus Haereses and the second century battle for Paul’s legacy,” which in revised form will be published in a forthcoming edition of the Journal for Early Christian Studies.

22. “De 2 Co 12,2 à Codex V de Nag Hammadi : La trajectoire de l’Apocalypse de Paul”.

23. K. RUDOLPH, “Der gnostische ‘Dialog’ als literarisches Genus”, in P. NAGEL, ed., Probleme der koptischen Literatur, Halle, Institut für Byzantinistik der Martin-Luther-Universität Halle-Wittenberg, 1968, p. 99.

24. KOSCHORKE argues (“Paulus in den Nag Hammadi Texten : Ein Betrage zur Geschichte der Paulusrezeption im frühen Christentum,” Zeitschrift für Theologie und Kirche, 78 [1979], p. 191) : “Diese Schrift hat mit Paulus nur insofern zu tun, als der Verfasser die Nachricht von die Entrückung des Apostles […] als Einsteig für die Schilderung einer Reise durch die zehn Himmel nutzt ; ansonsten findet sich hier nichts Paulinisches”. Similarly, LINDEMANN writes (Paulus im ältesten Christentum : Das Bild des Apostels und die Rezeption der paulinischen Theologie in der frühchristlichen Literatur bis Marcion, Tübingen, J.C.B. Mohr, 1979, p. 99) : “[…] fehlt dem Paulus der ApcPl jede Individualität”. Lindemann does expand his point somewhat later on in his book (p. 333 — the Apocalypse of Paul “ist insofern durchaus ein Beleg für die Wertschätzungdes Pauluszumindest in bestimmten gnostischen Kreisen”) but concludes (p. 333that “diese Wertschätzung stützt sich nicht auf konkrete Kenntnis der paulinischen Theologie und besteht schon gar nicht in einer inhaltlichen Übernahme paulinischen Denkens”. And he gives (p. 98) a more explicit, but otherwise similar, dismissal of Epiphanius’ reference to an Ascension of Paul (Panarion 38,2.5) : “[…] mit inhaltlichen Aussagen derpaulinischen Theologie scheint, sofern das Referat des Epiphanius zuverlässig sein sollte, dieses Buch nichts zutun gehabt zu haben”. This is of course literally true — there is no hint from Epiphanius’ description that the Ascension of Paul dealt with Paul’s theology.

But is it therefore to be excluded from consideration of early Christian Paulinism ? I would argue that, like


And finally, working in collaboration with Prof. Louis Painchaud and MariePierre Bussières, a post-doctoral student and lecturer at Université Laval, I was also fortunate enough to be granted the opportunity to demonstrate that the text is indeed Valentinian, something that William Murdock had assumed but did not convincingly prove25, as well as establishing a plausible reconstruction of the socio-historical context to which it responds, which I will discuss further below.

So, now that the basic three currents of thought which the author of the Apocalypse of Paul received and incorporated into the text have been identified and to some degree discussed, let us move into the next phase of this paper, namely the investigation of how these currents interact, and how they are manipulated in order to achieve the goal of the work.


My current hypothesis26 as regards this goal is the following : The Apocalypse of Paul was written in a situation of discussion and argument between Valentinian and non-Valentinian Christians. Both sides wished to claim the authority of Paul for their respective points of view, and thus sought to interpret his writings to show that he agreed with them, rather than with their opponents.27 Now, Valentinians and nonValentinians had very different ideas about the composition and extent of the heavenly realms and the natures of their inhabitants. As noted above, the Apocalypse of Paul claims to be telling the story of the ascension which Paul describes in 2 Cor 12,2-4.

In presenting a Valentinian understanding of the heavens through which Paul rises, the Apocalypse of Paul uses this ascension to legitimate the Valentinian view of things, by attaching it to the apostle Paul. This was an important thing to do, because there was a great deal of conflict and debate within the early church between those who had different views of what true Christianity was, and what it meant. In order to the Apocalypse of Paul, it is a clearly Paulinist text, witness of a reception of Paul, but a non-theological reception.

25. Cf. W. MURDOCK, “The Apocalypse of Paul,” Ph.D. diss., The Claremont Graduate School, 1968 ;

G. MACRAE and W. MURDOCK, “The Apocalypse of Paul (V,2),” in J. ROBINSON, ed., The Nag Hammadi Library in English, revised edition, New York, HarperCollins, 1988, p. 239-241. Interestingly enough, Murdock’s assertion of the text’s Valentinian background derived from his belief that a certain attested aspect of Valentinian theology explained a problematic motif in the Apocalypse of Paul. In my opinion, however, this motif is not indebted to Valentinian theology. Thus while I agree with his conclusion, I disagree with the means by which he reached it. My argument for the text’s Valentinian status is based instead on its similarities with Adversus Haereses II,30.7. I should note as well that these similarities were not originally noted by myself, Painchaud and Bussières : they have been mentioned by many others.

However, prior to our SBL paper they had not been dealt with in depth, or convincingly explained. In his Spanish translation of and commentary on the Apocalypse of Paul, Etcheverria also advanced the possibility that it could be a work of Valentinian propaganda, arguing that the paucity of mythological development would indicate either that it was composed at an early stage of Valentinianism, or that the work is a piece of propaganda aimed at the catholic Church.

26. More fully discussed in KALER, PAINCHAUD, BUSSIÈRES, “The Apocalypse of Paul and Irenaeus”, paper presented at the Nov. 2002 SBL meeting in Toronto ; and in ROSENSTIEHL, KALER, L’Apocalypse de Paul (forthcoming).

27. The real, historical Paul would probably not have approved of either group. But that’s a side point.


support their claims, people would refer back to the first generation of Christians, who were seen as uniquely authoritative, being the founders of Christianity and the associates of Christ. The author of the Apocalypse of Paul wants to strengthen the Valentinian cause by associating it with Paul, the prestigious apostle to the Gentiles and the recipient of a revelation of the Lord himself.28 The Apocalypse of Paul is thus what one could call an “exoteric” document. In contrast to esoteric works, which are meant to be used only by an in-group and are kept secret from outsiders, exoteric documents are specifically aimed at outsiders.

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