Paul and Mysticism
A seminar presented by Dr Paula Gooder on August 12, 2010
Note: Dr Gooder delivered this talk to the ISS without a full written text, so no comprehensive record of her material is available. However, she gave a similar talk to The Severn Forum at the University of Gloucestershire, Cheltenham, in February 2008. On that occasion the talk was recorded and later transcribed. Since the content of the University of Gloucestershire talk was similar to that of the presentation to the ISS in 2010, Dr Gooder has generously made the transcription of the Cheltenham talk available to the ISS. This transcription comes with the disclaimer that it has not been proofread by Paula. Also, some parts of the recording were lost and, while every effort was made to correct transcription errors, some may have escaped notice. Some additional editing, to improve readability, has been done on behalf of the ISS.
As Nick Bury has said in his very kind introduction, my research area is 'Paul and Mysticism', but when I tell people that I am expert in 'Paul and Mysticism', the vast majority of people look at me very strangely, because Paul is normally associated with something very different from mysticism. Paul is most often associated with what you might call rational theology, with systematic theology, and most people who are accustomed to Paul and theology would assume that Paul is a systematic theologian. So to have someone like me suggest that actually Paul was a mystical theologian is just coming from an entirely different point of view, and it causes a lot of people some consternation. A very few people however — those who don't look at me as though I have gone mad — will say to me, "Ah, Albert Schweitzer", and I will say, "Absolutely, Albert Schweitzer". You may or may not be aware of Albert Schweitzer, who is most famous for his book 'The Quest of the Historical Jesus' which was published in the early 20th century. You may be less aware of the fact that the year before he published that book, he published another book that he called 'The Mysticism of Paul the Apostle'. Now, due to various factors which I will tell you about, The Quest of the Historical Jesus became one of the most celebrated books of the early 20th century, while The Mysticism of Paul the Apostle rather fell like a lead balloon, and people haven't heard about it.
Now, there is a combination of factors about why that happened. One of them, and it is a very crucial factor, is that The Quest of the Historical Jesus was very well translated into English. In contrast, The Mysticism of Paul the Apostle was very badly translated into English, and, as is often the case, a bad translation often implies the book itself is not very good. However, it is a spectacular book and hugely important, and it is one of the reasons why I believe that there is still a lot of mileage to be explored in this whole area of Paul and Mysticism. Before I get on to the area of Paul and Mysticism, let me just explain a little bit about the difference between rational theology, systematic theology, and mystical theology. It is in fact very, very difficult to tie down the differences, and the problem in trying to define them is that you will find people who will disagree with any one of the definitions. But if we can go with a general understanding of a definition, systematic theology is more concerned with the construction of rational ideas, whereas mystical theology is more concerned with the construction or the understanding of affective ideas — ideas which affect experience: that transform the person. And so one of the key differences between looking at systematic theology, as opposed to mystical theology, is that we are exploring, not so much the rational systems of Paul's thought, as the reasons why he thought them — the reason why he was transformed in the first place. For me, understanding Paul from that perspective sheds a lot of light. I think it is very important to recognise that, while I am arguing for Paul as a mystical theologian, it doesn't mean that I am saying that he is not a systematic theologian. I am simply saying that if we add that into our picture of Paul as a theologian, we get something very much more interesting. And so what I am going to be arguing for tonight is an understanding of Paul as a mystical theologian; but a mystical theologian with a difference, as will become clear as we go through the evening.
So let me return now right to the start of the whole question of the relationship of mysticism in Paul's writing in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. There was a moment in Pauline scholarship — which lasted for around forty or fifty years — when saying that you were interested in the mysticism of Paul the Apostle was an entirely normal and natural thing to do, rather than the odd thing that it is today. The reason why this is so is that there was a school, in particular of German scholars, who focussed their study of Paul around the area of mysticism. I've put a couple of quotes down on your handout to give you a flavour of the kind of arguments that they were looking at. (I realised as I was looking at the handout that, whilst I had carefully proofread the whole of the handout, I had forgotten to proofread the little text box; and there is, of course, a typographical error in it. I will draw your attention to it in a moment.) However, the first quotation comes from someone called Adolf Deissmann, who was writing in 1912. This has to be my favourite quotation about understanding Paul from the perspective of mysticism. Adolf Deissmann is talking about the nature of being 'in Christ' — what does Paul mean when he talks about being 'in Christ' when he says this? Just as the air of life that we breathe is in us and fills us, and yet we at the same time live in this air and breathe it, so it is also with the Christ intimacy of the apostle Paul — Christ in him and he in Christ. What Deissmann is talking about there is Paul's very, very strong strand of talking about being in Christ. If you know your Paul, you will know that en Christo (in Christ) comes over and over again in Paul's language. Deissmann understands it as the key for understanding the whole of the rest of Paul. Schweitzer understands it in a slightly different way, but nevertheless still connected to that understanding, and that's where you see the typographical errors: I not only forgot to put in the title of his book, which is 'The Mysticism of Paul the Apostle' — which you will find on the back of the handout — but I also misspelt his name, which is a terrible crime! The Schweitzer quote goes like this:
"Dying and rising with Christ is for him, that is Paul, not something merely metaphorical which could be expressed also in a different metaphor, but a simple reality. For him, the believer experiences the dying and rising again of Christ in actual fact, not in imitative representation".
It is a very interesting thought that, for Paul, it is that essence of dying and rising with Christ that forms the heart, the core, of Pauline theology. So for Deissmann this might be 'existing in Christ', but for Schweitzer a very similar idea but slightly differently expressed — it's about 'dying and rising with Christ'.
That said, what happened in the beginning of the 20th century is that the concern of Pauline theology went off in a different direction, and those of you who know anything about the development of Pauline theology in the 20th century will know that one of the important strands of the 20th century became very much focussed around 'justification by faith', and how it is that we enter into the covenant of God.
There is no doubt at all that that exploration of justification by faith has been vastly important and hugely significant, but the problem, I think, is that it leaves you with only just one half of an understanding of Pauline theology. What has happened is that now Pauline theology has focussed almost exclusively on how you enter into the covenant with Christ, but then it does not attend to what happens subsequently. What does it mean subsequently when you have entered the covenant? So what this particular type of theology allows you to do is to explore a little bit more that very important strand of what does it mean to be 'in Christ', and how does that affect us as Christians once we have entered the covenant through justification. For years and years, throughout the 20th century, the whole theme of mysticism in Paul really disappeared. There were a very few scholars who would pick it up, but for the majority of scholars it was ignored entirely until we got to the end of the 20th century — until about the late 70s and early 80s, when another strand of 'Paul and Mysticism' began to emerge in Pauline scholarship.
Now it is far from being mainstream by any stretch of the imagination, but it is beginning to bubble up, and it has become really quite interesting. However, it is mysticism in a completely different perspective than Deissmann and Schweitzer had in mind, because Deissmann and Schweitzer were hugely influenced by Greek philosophy. Their understanding of mysticism was vastly influenced and imprinted by Greek philosophical understandings, whereas you are probably aware that with New Testament scholarship, one of the great revivals of the late 20th century has been an interest in Judaism.
All sorts of factors coincided to enable people to begin to explore Judaism more: the discovering of the Dead Sea scrolls, the growth of Jewish departments in universities in Israel and elsewhere. All sorts of new ideas began to mean that we would know a lot more about Judaism. One of the very important strands of Jewish scholarship that began to grow up with the writings of Gershom Shalom in the early 20th century, who become very influential in subsequent Jewish theology, was an understanding of a certain type of mysticism within Judaism that is known as Matoba mysticism. Matoba mysticism is now widely regarded as becoming important in the period around the time of Paul. When I say 'widely regarded', it is mostly regarded as being very important, with a few notable exceptions that I will tell you about in a moment. That, in its turn, began to have an impact on New Testament scholarship, and so we discovered some influential scholars — people like Alan Seagull who was an interesting New Testament writer because he is one of the rare breed of Jewish New Testament writers, which makes his writing very intriguing, and also John Bowker from Cambridge — beginning to explore what it might mean to understand Paul as a Merkava mystic, as a Jewish mystic. So that confluence of my interest in Albert Schweitzer and the late 19th, early 20th century of mysticism, with this growth in the late 20th century into an interest in Jewish mysticism, got my academic juices going, and I began to think, well may be there is something to explore in Pauline theology which includes Christian mysticism and Jewish mysticism. So what I am going to present this evening really comes out of my initial research. I have already published a book on a small bit of 2 Corinthians 12, which I will talk about later. I managed to produce a book of one hundred and ten thousand words on ten verses of the New Testament, which tells you something about the nature of the book, but I intend to work that material into a much less esoteric book eventually, one which explores the whole strand of Paul and mysticism in more general areas.
So that is what I am going to be doing this evening: explaining to you something about the nature of Paul. Let me just give you briefly the conclusion that I am going to arrive at, and then I will un-package it and you will be able to see how I get to that conclusion subsequently.
My brief conclusion is that Paul stands as a very important pivot between Jewish and Christian mysticism, and that we misunderstand Jewish and Christian mysticism if we don't place Paul in his proper place as the pivot between Jewish and Christian mysticism. So that is my argument this evening — I shall go on and tell you why I think that it is important.
In order to be able to do that, I need to tell you a little bit about Jewish mysticism because there may be some people here who go, 'Ah yes, Merkava mysticism', but I suspect that there will be a number of other people who have never heard of it, so allow me to speak to those of you who have never heard of it. As I indicated before, there is in fact a discussion — which is the high scholarly description for a scholarly dust up — the discussion in scholarship being about where Merkava mysticism fits in as a strand of mysticism. The great Gershom Shalom, who is probably the greatest Jewish scholar on mysticism ever, argued strongly that there was a continuing strand of Jewish mysticism; which began with Jewish apocalyptic in texts like Daniel, developed into extra-biblical texts like 1 Enoch, 4 Ezra, and, in the New Testament, in texts like Revelation, and then developed onwards. It developed into something called Merkava mysticism that I will explain more about in a moment. It eventually became located in the 12th century, in the medieval period, in Kabbalah, which you may be familiar with, if not through reading Macmadona — you may read about it in other areas as well. This strand of Jewish mysticism develops from the early Jewish apocalyptic, Shalom argues, through Merkava into Kabbalah mysticism. There are other scholars who disagree, as they believe the Jewish apocalyptic, Merkava mysticism, and the later Kabbalah, are in fact three entirely separate mysticisms. Personally, I disagree, and would argue, with Shalom, that there is a continuous strand. You can ask me questions about it if you want to explore that further. So Shalom would place Merkava mysticism in this strand that runs from about the 4th century before Christ all the way through into the medieval period, and of course onwards into today, because Jewish mysticism is alive and very important within Judaism today. Merkava mysticism derives its name very simply from the Hebrew name for chariot. The chariot is called the Merkava, and so Merkava mysticism is mysticism which is interested in the chariot of God.
[The next part of the lecture was not recorded.]
So this is 2 Corinthians 12 vv 1-10. "It is necessary to boast, nothing is to be gained by it, but I will go on to visions and revelations of the Lord." Those two words are hugely important, particularly the revelations, because the Greek word, as you probably know, for revelations is apocalupsis, and you begin to get this verbal resonance already with the apocalyptic tradition.
"I know a person 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 was caught up to paradise — whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows — and heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat. On behalf of such a one I will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses. But if I wish to boast, I will not be a fool, for I will be speaking the truth. But I refrain from it, so that no one may think better of me than what is seen in me or heard from me — even considering the exceptional character of the Revelations. Therefore, to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me; but he said to me, 'My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.' So I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong."
It's a great passage. But there will be all sorts of things that I am sure you are already wondering in your mind. The first one is how do I know this is about Paul? How do I know it is not just about somebody else? There are long and complex arguments about this, but let me just tell you briefly two points. The first is that out of the many scholars who write about this, only two have ever suggested that it is not about Paul himself, which gives you some kind of weight of scholarly opinion on this matter. The reason for this is actually in verse 7, which is one of the occasions where Paul slips up. Paul is immensely acute in his argument most of time, but every now and again he makes a slight slip up (accidentally or on purpose one might ask). When he is saying, "I know this thing happened to this person", and then he says, "to make sure that I do not think better of me than I should, even considering the exceptional character of the Revelations"; and you think, 'well hang on a minute, I thought those Revelations didn't happen to you.' It is at that point you begin to realise that he set up this anonymous character, which he then collapses, and it becomes clear that it is in fact him speaking.
The other thing that you will be probably wondering about is, what precisely is the thorn in the flesh? It is a thing that everybody always wants to talk about. What is the thorn in the flesh? Now we can talk about this more in the questions if you like. I counted up when I was doing my research how many different theories there are. I got to 26 different theories about precisely what the thorn in the flesh is. You can accuse me of getting off the hook if you like, but personally I think if Paul wanted us to know, he would have told us. Therefore, it is not something that is important: it is one of those features that we focus on and forget the other really important stuff in the passage, which is about weakness and strength. The really important stuff in the passage is not about what twenty-six different varieties of thorns in the flesh he might possibly have had. So, personally, I much prefer to focus on the other material and not on the thorn in the flesh; but if you want to press me, I will tell you some of them later if you are interested.
What we now need to do is to go back to the beginning of the passage and begin to explore a little bit — that beginning bit. I don't know if you are somebody who has ever had to read this passage aloud. In my experience, whenever I have heard anybody read this passage out you can always see they get a little bit embarrassed half way through. It starts off boldly: this is great, going on to visions and revelations of the Lord, then you get being caught up in the third heaven, and then talk about whether it is in the body — Paul's not sure — and then you get paradise. You can see people when they are reading it thinking, "What on earth is going on in this passage?" You may have been one of those people at one point.
The answer is that the best explanation of what's going on this passage is the background that I laid out at the beginning of the lecture — Jewish apocalyptic and Merkava mystical experience — because within that tradition there is a strong tradition of people who ascend into the heavenly realms, who encounter God seated on the throne, who receive a revelation, and then come back to earth and reveal the revelation. This passage makes most sense within that tradition. There is not another tradition, even in Greek thought, that makes sense of this passage in a way that this material does. There are various hints in this passage that begin to alert us to the fact that Paul is functioning within this particular tradition. Then there is the 'but' which you will have probably noticed already. The 'but' is that it is quite like this tradition, and then not like this tradition, all at the same time. So there are some obvious things that make it clearly a part of this tradition: talking about the third heaven, talking about ascent, talking about angels, paradise — those are all features that mark out Jewish apocalyptic/mystical tradition. But there is a whole load of material that is missing. If you have looked at texts like Revelation, 1 Enoch and the Ascension of Isaiah (there are all sorts of texts we could look at), you will notice that there are various characteristics that are always there. For example, there is always an angel guide. So the person goes up into the heavenly realms, and as they go through the heavenly realms you have this angelic tour guide that says, "on the right you will see .... and on the left you will see ....."; and the person ascending says, "What is that?", and the angel explains it. So an angel guide is always there. God is always seen. A revelation is always given. The revelation is nearly always revealed to people after they come back to earth. If you know that, and you look back at this text again, you begin to realise that something fishy is going on because Paul starts in this tradition with the third heaven, paradise and the angel, and then he diverts from it very quickly — he has no angel guide, it's not expressed.
The other thing that I ought to have said is that nearly all of the other texts about ascent into heaven are many chapters long. Revelation is quite short for a Jewish apocalyptic. 1 Enoch is 72 chapters long. The Ascension of Isaiah is, I can't remember exactly now, but in the twenties long. These are long texts that talk about ascent into heaven. Paul gives us a sum total of three verses about his ascent into heaven. That is the other feature that tells us that something is not quite right. The most important feature that tells us that something isn't quite right is that he has exceptional revelations that he is not allowed to tell you, which completely takes the ground away from the point of Jewish apocalyptic. As you will remember, I said the most important strand of this tradition is a revelation which you then reveal. Paul says, "I had a revelation but I can't tell you what it is." That begins to undermine this particular tradition. So it begins to raise questions in our minds about precisely what is going on for Paul in Jewish mysticism — his encounter with mysticism — it is almost like he is teasing us with it. It's here — here is an account of mysticism, but it is not quite right. It is not quite there. And so one of the things we then have to ask ourselves is, what is going on in Paul's mind? Why is it that he refers to this kind of tradition and then shies away from it so entirely?
This is where I get into entirely my own thoughts. So far, what I have been doing is presenting to you a strand of scholarship. Now I am going to tell you — kind of free flying into my own thoughts — about what I think is going on in Paul's writing at this particular point. I think there is something very important going on in Paul's writing, which is that he is saying that there is something important about the mystical tradition. After all, if you count Paul's conversion experience as in any way connected to this apocalyptic tradition, then you will recognise that this is the reason why Paul is who he is. It is because of religious experience — a dynamic encounter with God, which he uses the language of Jewish apocalyptic to describe. It is vastly important for Paul; therefore he wants to set up a connection with it. But, I would argue, there are things for Paul that are not right about the Jewish apocalyptic tradition now that he is in Christ. There are features that don't quite work. Let me tell you what I think is not quite right about them. You will find them in the box at the bottom of the third page of your handout.
One of the important strands that is different within Pauline 'in Christ' theology, as opposed to Jewish apocalyptic/Merkava mysticism, is the exchange between the transcendent and the immanent God, a God who is present. For Paul, God is not just transcendent. I think probably we sometimes underestimate quite how important transcendence is for Paul, because I do think that transcendence is still a strand which is very, very important. But equally important for Paul is the fact that Christ is present — that the Spirit is on earth — and therefore transcendence and immanence are equally important strands. So Paul moves away from God being entirely transcendent, entirely out there, into an experience of a God who is present, immanent, and intimate with the Christian believer.
Another feature which I think Paul shies away from is the aim to see God, because, again, seeing God is something which is out there and transcendent, as opposed to an experience of the risen and ascended Christ, which is intimate, close and internal — Paul begins to move away from the one into the other. However, if you ask me to say what was the one thing that Paul changes in his mystical theology from his Jewish forbears into his concurrent theology, it is to do with the secrets of God. As I have said already all the way through this lecture, one of the most important strands of apocalyptic theology is the belief that there are divine secrets out there that are very special — in fact, that is something I should have mentioned which I haven't yet.
The other very important strand in Jewish apocalyptic and Merkava mysticism is that the only people who are able to engage in this kind of mysticism are men, elite men. These men are important, they are leaders, they are significant in some kind of way, and it is those elite men who are allowed to ascend and encounter something about God. What Paul shies away from in his theology is any kind of element of a divine secret that is kept for the privileged few. Right at the heart of Paul's theology is a very strong belief that, actually, the divine secrets are already revealed. You could go through any one of Pauline epistles and pull out many verses that talk about the way in which the secrets of God are now available for everyone. The nature of God, the understanding of God, how we are in the world, are now available freely for everybody who is in Christ. Paul no longer believes that it is just a single person who can encounter the divine secrets. Let me just explain this very briefly by having a look at one particular passage in 2 Corinthians and then I will conclude.
The passage which I think is hugely important for understanding how Paul shifts in his understanding is 2 Corinthians 3, which you may know; but again, let me read the important bit of it, which begins to sum up something that goes on in Paul's writings. 2 Corinthians 3 vv 3-18 — if we had the time we would do the whole passage because it is a remarkable passage, but we don't, so we shall just have the final verse at the end of the particular passage. 2 Corinthians 3 v 18 reads like this:
"And we all, with faces that have been unveiled, gaze at the glory of God as though in a mirror. We are being transfigured into the same image, from glory into glory, just as from the Lord, the Spirit."
What he is talking about in this particular passage — the reason why it is a great passage — is that it is an extended antitype of Exodus 34. That passage tells of Moses going up Mount Sinai to receive the Law and coming back down again, with his face shining, so when he comes down again he puts a veil back over his face after he has revealed what he has heard from the Lord, lest the people see the glory fading. And so Paul says, "Now, not Moses, but we all gaze with unveiled faces at the glory of the Lord." But where do we do it? On the top of a mountain? In the seventh heaven? We do it as though in a mirror. So what happens now within Paul's 'in Christ' language is that everything that could previously have been revealed on the top of the mountain, in the seventh heaven, before the throne of God, can now be revealed when looking as though in a mirror. So it is actually in the heart of everybody who is in Christ that you begin to encounter that overwhelming glory of God that was previously privatised within the heavenly realms for those who were special enough to encounter God there. And so, for me, the really important element in Paul's mystical theology which he changes, and completely changes, is this belief about secret and revelation. For Paul, revelation is now the essence of being in Christ. Revelation is available for everybody: it is part of what being 'in Christ' means.
And so what I think is going on in Paul's mysticism is that you have a very significant shift. He still believes, and I still think all the way through his writing he has a very passionate understanding about how you understand theological truth. And for me, Paul understands theological truth through an encounter with the risen, ascended and glorified Christ — that gives an entrance into this type of mystical theology. But the way in which he changes this understanding of mystical theology is that he moves away from God being transcendent into God being close and intimate within the heart of the person who is in Christ. That movement then becomes the pivot from Jewish mysticism into the Christian mysticism that we recognise more easily with our tradition about the importance of union with Christ. You can see that happening before your very eyes within the Pauline writings, and that is why I would therefore argue quite strongly that Paul is, in fact, that pivot between Jewish and Christian mysticism.
Question and Answer Session:
Note: These questions and answers come from the University of Gloucestershire talk. Some of the questions asked at the ISS seminar were similar, and Paula's answers are, in any case, of interest in themselves, so this question and answer session is included here as it was presented in the transcript of the earlier talk.