It sounds a bit grotesque. But more than the Old Testament characters–Elijah, Ezekiel–who’ve been claimed by the blogosphere as UFO abductees, the great preacher and ideologue of first-century Christianity has a solid claim to the title.
Was Elijah an abductee? “And as they [Elijah and Elisha] still went on and talked, behold, a chariot of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them. And Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven. And Elisha saw it and he cried, ‘My father, my father! the chariots of Israel and its horsemen!’ And he saw him no more” (2 Kings 2:11-12).
But that’s no evidence, and that’s no UFO. For the ancient Israelites, fiery flying chariots and horses were identified flying objects, perfectly intelligible within their world construct. The Lord had thousands of these chariots on hand when He visited Mount Sinai (Psalm 68:17). No great problem for Him to send one of them, pick up His prophet and carry him heavenward. The story of Elijah’s departure is a legend constructed around that premise.
Was Ezekiel an abductee? The Book of Ezekiel records some pretty amazing experiences, apparently in Ezekiel’s own words. Most scholars regard at least the nucleus of these words as being authentically Ezekiel’s, although many think that nucleus has been added to and expanded during centuries of transmission. Here I think we can speak of a UFO, not meaning “spaceship”–that’s not what UFOs are, for me–but rather something genuinely anomalous and undefined, that resists assimilation into the conventional categories of Ezekiel’s culture (and our own).
But abduction? True, “the spirit lifted me up and took me away, and I went in bitterness in the heat of my spirit, the hand of the Lord being strong upon me; and I came to the exiles at Tel-abib, who dwelt by the river Chebar” (Ezekiel 3:14-15). On another occasion, some 20 years after the first, “the hand of the Lord was upon me, and brought me in the visions of God into the land of Israel, and set me down upon a very high mountain” (40:1-2). But none of this sounds much like the modern abduction reports. If you read the first passage carefully, it sounds like Ezekiel is actually walking, but in a state of intense visionary exaltation, the “spirit” that lifted him being his own.
Paul is a different case, possibly unique.
Like Ezekiel, he tells the story in his own words–although, very strangely, he talks about it as if it happened to somebody else. The authenticity of his experience practically cries out from his disjointed narrative.
“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 Corinthians 12:1-5).
You’ll understand in a minute why I put the words “caught up” in bold. But first let’s talk about the context of this passage, chapters 10-13 of Paul’s Second Epistle to the Corinthians.
Many scholars believe these chapters were originally a different letter from 2 Corinthians 1-9, the two having been glued together by some editor or scribe. The tone of chapters 1-9, addressed to the community of believers in Jesus at Corinth, is calm and affectionate. At the beginning of chapter 10 it changes–drastically.
It’s almost a different Paul. The voice has turned shrill, accusatory, sarcastic. It’s the voice of a man who’s been badly hurt, and is lashing out, not quite coherently, at those who’ve stung him.
Paul is excited, and upset, and furious. He knows he’s out of control; he can’t help himself. (“I am talking like a madman”–11:23.) The men and women he’s taught and nurtured, taking nothing from them in return (11:7-9), have turned against him. Now, it seems, they trust and listen to people whom he refers to sarcastically as “these superlative apostles” (11:5).
Just who these “apostles” are, we don’t know. Apparently they’re Jewish, like Paul, and claim that as a confirmation for their authority. (“Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they descendants of Abraham? So am I”–11:22.) He vehemently disapproves of them: they preach another Jesus from his, dispense a different spirit, promote a different gospel (11:4). They don’t like him much either.
More to the point, they disrespect him. They mock him as a wimp, mighty with his pen but not much else. “His letters are weighty and strong,” Paul quotes them as saying, “but his bodily presence is weak, and his speech of no account” (10:10).
No wonder he’s not his usual calm and lucid self.
Again and again Paul defends himself against this barrage of sneers and ridicule. With heavy irony he calls himself a “fool,” sarcastically contrasting his “folly” with the “wisdom” of the ungrateful Corinthians (11:16-19). He reels off (“boasts of”) his accomplishments, that in his view warrant the community’s respect. The hazards and sufferings he’s endured:
“Three times I have been beaten with rods; once I was stoned. Three times I have been shipwrecked; a night and a day I have been adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brethren …” (11:25-26).
Having “boasted” of this, Paul goes on to “boast” of his “visions and revelations of the Lord.”
Which brings us back to the passage from which we began, to the “man in Christ” who was “caught up” to the third heaven, or, alternatively (?), into Paradise.
Caught up. The Greek words that are (twice) thus translated are harpagenta and herpage. Both are passive forms of the verb harpazein. Which means, according to Liddell and Scott’s Greek-English Lexicon:
“Snatch away, carry off … to be a robber … seize hastily, snatch up … seize, overpower, overmaster … captivate, ravish … plunder …”
Or according to Arndt and Gingrich, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature:
“Snatch, seize … steal, carry off, drag away … something[,] … snatch or take away … someone …”
In other words, to abduct.
So Paul–or the “man in Christ” of whom he speaks–was an abductee, into unearthly (might we say “alien”?) realms referred to variously as “the third heaven” and “Paradise.”
But what do these terms mean? What did they mean for Paul, and the people to whom he wrote? What light might they shed on the experiences of modern UFO abductees?
I’ll explore these questions in next week’s post.
by David Halperin
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