(This is the continuation of last week’s post.)
Says Paul, in 2 Corinthians 12:1-5:
“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.”
At first it sounds like Paul has to be talking about someone else’s experience, not his own. But the context rules that out. In 2 Corinthians chapters 10-13, as I pointed out last week: Paul is hotly, almost frantically defending his credentials as the spokesperson for the true faith. He’s got to be “boasting” of his own “visions and revelations” and nobody else’s.
Besides which, he goes on to say (12:7-9):
“And to keep me from being too elated by the abundance of revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan, to harass me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I besought the Lord about this, that it should leave me; but he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.'”
That “thorn in the flesh” is an age-old puzzle. I’ll come back to it. It’s clear, though, that Paul and the “man in Christ” are the same person, split into two aspects. His “man-in-Christ” aspect experiences the revelations. His ordinary “Paul” aspect is left with the thorn.
What does Paul mean by “third heaven” and “Paradise”? Are they the same place?
The Jews of Paul’s time often imagined multiple heavens arching, dome-like, over the flat disk of the earth. Commonly they gave the number as seven. There’s probably an echo here of the Greek theory of seven planetary spheres enclosing a spherical earth, but it’s distant and muted. The ancient Jews tended not to keep up with the latest scientific thinking.
These heavens sometimes figure in the strange old visionary books that are preserved in the loosely defined collection called the “Pseudepigrapha.” One of these, the “Testament of Levi,” describes a first heaven and a second, with “a sea hanging between the one and the other.” Beyond them, “a third heaven far brighter and more brilliant than these two.”
Another “pseudepigraphic” text–so called, because nobody now believes they were really written by the Biblical patriarchs whose names they bear–relates the following:
“And the two men … carried me up on to the third heaven and set me down in the midst of Paradise, and a place unknown in goodness of appearance. Every tree sweet-flowering, every fruit ripe, all manner of food perpetually bubbling with all pleasant smells … and the tree of life is at that place, at which God rests when he goes up into Paradise.”
This is from “The Book of the Secrets of Enoch.” The third-heaven Paradise sounds like a marvelous place to live. But it’s in a bad neighborhood. Enoch soon discovers, to his dismay, that the northern sector of that same heaven is a place of gloom and torture for the wicked. Paradise and hell–both in the third heaven.
The date of the Book of the Secrets of Enoch is anybody’s guess, and we’re not even sure its author was Jewish. It could easily be later than Paul, and quite possibly influenced by him. Still, if the writer had 2 Corinthians 12:1-5 in mind, surely he’d have alluded to it more explicitly? I’m prepared to say that “Enoch’s” experience is probably not copied from Paul’s, but rather gives a valuable hint to its background.
What, actually, is “Paradise”? Originally it’s a Persian word meaning “enclosure.” The ancient Greek writers borrowed it into their language as paradeisos, using it to speak of the parks and pleasure-gardens of the Persian kings and nobles. When the Jews translated their Bible into Greek, they used paradeisos to translate “garden,” most particularly the Garden of Eden.
That’s how the New Testament comes to use paradeisos to mean a place for the blessed dead, and Jesus can promise one of his companions in crucifixion that he’ll be with him there “this very day” (Luke 23:43).
Hebrew-speaking Jews also borrowed the Persian word into their language, pronouncing it pardes. They kept it, though, to its original terrestrial meaning. In the writings of the ancient rabbis, pardes is simply a “garden” or “orchard,” nothing heavenly about it.
Except maybe one passage …
“Four entered Pardes. One looked and died; one looked and went mad; one mutilated the young plants; one entered safely and came out safely.”
Last spring I posted a three-part series which I entitled “Lost Horizon, Deadly Paradise – Quaternity Tales.” I discussed this puzzling narrative, and its odd, possibly archetypal resemblances to James Hilton’s novel Lost Horizon, the book (and movie) that made “Shangri-La” a household word. (And in which the four travelers, like Paul, are abducted into Paradise, rather than entering of their own volition.) What does pardes mean in the rabbinic story? An ordinary (or extraordinary) “garden,” as the reference to “young plants” might suggest? Or something more like “Paradise”?
The 20th century’s greatest scholar of Jewish mysticism, Gershom Scholem, suggested that both meanings come into play. And he noticed the parallel with 2 Corinthians.
“[I]t is clear from the context,” Scholem wrote, “that this orchard is a heavenly abode. … Even R[abbi] Akiba, upon entering this pardes, encountered ministering angels who wanted to eject him or bar him from continuing on his way. This proves, in my opinion, that the Baraitha [Talmudic story] uses the same terminology as Paul. … It is obvious that Paul … was speaking of an idea with which his readers were familiar, a Jewish conception that he, as well as his readers in Corinth, had brought over into the new Christian community. … The familiar idea that the ecstatic sees in his lifetime what other people see only after death recurs, therefore, in Paul’s as well as the rabbis’ journey to heaven. There is, however, a significant difference. Whereas Paul is ‘caught up’ to Paradise, the rabbis ‘enter’ it.”
The four rabbis, in other words, weren’t abductees. Paul was.
What does Paul see in the course of his “abduction”? He doesn’t say, and it’s possible to suppose he saw nothing at all. He speaks instead of hearing: “things that cannot be told, which man may not utter.” The Greek that’s translated “things that cannot be told” is arrheta rhemata, literally “un-speakable words.” This powerfully evocative oxymoron–for what is a word, but a thing that is spoken?–reminds me a bit of the book that Betty Hill was shown during her abduction in 1961, written in strange symbols, which she was initially told she could bring back home with her.
Did Paul understand those words that were un-speakable, incapable of being spoken? Or did they baffle him even as he heard them, like the writing in Betty Hill’s book? Again, he doesn’t tell us.
And he’s left with a “thorn” in his flesh.
Which is to say, an alien implant in his body?
(You saw this coming, didn’t you?)
I need to be absolutely clear. I am not, not, NOT suggesting that Paul was kidnapped by space creatures. If you’ve been following this blog, you know I don’t believe that’s what the UFOs are. But suppose UFO abductions are a contemporary manifestation of some transcendent human experience, and that experience was known to the ancients as well as to us. (Which would make sense, if it’s part of what we are as human beings.) Why shouldn’t we consider the possibility that the feeling of something alien being intruded into the body may have been a recurring feature?
Betty Andreasson, hypnotized in 1977, “remembered” an abduction 27 years earlier in which “the beings took out her right eye, then implanted a tiny device into her head with a luminous needle. Other objects were put into her spine and heels” (Jerome Clark, The UFO Encyclopedia, volume 3.) Since then, scores (hundreds?) of abductees have lived with the sense of alien matter lodged within the intimate space enclosed and supposedly protected by their skin. That the implants, when retrieved and analyzed, invariably turn out to be totally mundane earthly substances, is beside the point. It’s the subjective experience of alienness that counts.
Albert Bender, in his 1962 book Flying Saucers and the Three Men, described something similar. Not an implant, exactly, but an “impulse” produced in his body by his extraterrestrial captors. “No matter where you may be or what you may do, this impulse will not leave you until we decide to remove it by means we have at our disposal. We have found it necessary to do this in order to keep you under our constant surveillance. If at any time you reveal our secret we need only press a button in our laboratory and your body will be destroyed. It will disintegrate and very little will be left of it.”
Bender never revealed the secret, until he was signaled that the “impulse” had been removed, and so he never disintegrated. He did, however, suffer from recurrent, excruciating headaches. I can’t help thinking that he–or the persona he created for himself in Flying Saucers and the Three Men–would have understood very well what it meant for Paul to have a “thorn” embedded in his flesh, a “messenger of Satan” whose function was to harass him.
Speculation. Of course. It’s perhaps a little less speculative that some sense of inner alienness, or perhaps I should say self-alienation, was a key aspect of Paul’s experience. Otherwise, why insist it happened to someone else, knowing full well that it really happened to him? This alien (“other”) self was snatched into the alien sphere of the “third heaven,” there to hear the uncanny syllables of the arrheta rhemata, words so unearthly they hardly even count as speech.
I’ve thought at times that the entire Pauline proclamation, with its sublime paradoxes that call forth faith even as they elude rational definition, is a heroic but hopeless attempt to render the arrheta rhemata into human language. If this is true, the “abduction” of Paul must rank as one of the defining events in the history of the world.
by David Halperin
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