Was Paul’s Vision on the Damascus Road Consistent with Other Visions in Ancient Jewish Mysticism?

Travelling to Damascus on Horseback


Reposted fromBad Theologians 

Mark Edward, author


 In the historically critical suggestion that the evidence for Jesus’ resurrection is vastly underwhelming and cannot be taken as a historical fact, I have seen how the response from Christians typically follows a common pattern. This pattern invariably concludes with appeal to Paul’s conversion experience.

First, there is a defense for the reliability of the four narratives of the resurrection: Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John. When it is pressed that these four texts are not historically reliable (they frequently contradict on both the major and minor details regarding Jesus’ resurrection), the next step is usually to firmly claim that Jesus’ original disciples all suffered martyrdom for their belief in Jesus’ resurrection. Yet the evidence for the martyrdom of the apostles is scant. The only clear evidence we have for any of their murders that is certainly from the first century is the death of Jesus’ brother James, sentenced in a kangaroo court in AD 62, described by Josephus in Judean Antiquities 20.9.1. Josephus never explained why James was targeted, but later legends greatly embellished his account to turn it into an anti-Christian assault by Jerusalem’s priesthood.

Aside from Jesus’ brother James’ death, just three other disciples are, at most, implied by the New Testament to have been killed: James and John, the two sons of Zebedee (Mark 10.35–40), and Peter (John 21.18–19). The death of Paul, despite popular assumption, is not described or implied anywhere in the New Testament. The deaths of Peter and Paul, often thought to have occurred in Rome during Nero’s persecution of Christians (as scapegoats for the Great Fire of AD 64), are not found in any first century text. First Clement 5.3–6 (probably predating the reference to Peter’s death in John 21.18–19 by a few years) says that Peter and Paul passed away as devout heroes who endured ‘labors’, but does not say they were killed. In fact, 1 Clement suggests Paul left Rome and evangelized in Spain (‘the farthest bounds of the West’), as he had intended (Rom 15.22–29). The killing of James son of Zebedee is found in Acts 12, but no reason is given for his execution. In addition, Acts may come from the early second century, sixty or more years after James’ is alleged to have been killed. All other claims of martyrdom are found in later legends about the apostles.

This leaves one large question for Jesus’ resurrection. Even if Paul was not martyred, he did list his many sufferings (2 Cor 11.23–7). Certainly he wouldn’t willingly endure persecution multiple times for something he knew was false. If the historical evidence for Jesus’ resurrection is so thin, why did Paul ‘convert’? What happened to him that made him stop trying to destroy the early Christian sect and become its most famous champion?


At the outset, I want to address a key issue. There are several narrative problems in Luke-Acts, especially the latter book. Acts functioned as a hagiography, not a history, for the origin of the Christian movement, and hagiographies routinely revised, exaggerated, or invented the events they describe. For our topic, Acts whitewashes the deep tensions that existed between Paul and Jesus’ original apostles. Acts 15 (especially 15.7–21) shows Paul as submissive to Peter’s and James’ leadership, while the latter two completely support Paul’s arguments. This contradicts Paul’s own version of events, openly writing that Peter’s and James’ authority meant nothing to him (Gal 2.1–6), and recounting his public rebuke of Peter for disagreeing with him after the meeting that Acts 15 purported to describe (2.11–14).

Important for our question, Acts actually describes Paul’s experience of the risen Jesus three times. However, all three accounts contradict on some basic detail. In the first account, Paul fell to the ground when he saw a flash of light and heard the voice of Jesus (9.3–5). Paul’s traveling companions, who stood nearby, also heard Jesus’ voice, but saw nothing (9.7). The second account says Paul saw the light and heard the voice (22.6–7), while his companions saw the light, but heard nothing (22.9). The third account, Paul and his companions fall to the ground when the light appears (26.13–14).

Did Paul’s companions see the light (22.9) or not (9.7)? Did they hear the voice (9.7) or not (22.9)? Did they remain standing (9.7) or did they fall to the ground with Paul (26.14)?

Because of this unreliability, Acts must be held at a distance, set aside except for cursory information about Paul.


Paul says very little about his ‘conversion’ experience. He tells us about the event in Gal 1.12 and 15–17, but he doesn’t describe what actually happened.

I did not receive [the gospel] from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ. […] But when God […] was pleased to reveal his son to me, so that I might proclaim him among the nations, I did not confer with any human being, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were already apostles before me, but I went away at once into Arabia, and afterwards I returned to Damascus.

Paul writes that he received a ‘revelation’, ἀποκάλυψις, and that God was the one ‘to reveal’, ἀποκαλύψαι. When Paul talks about such ‘revelations’, he sometimes associates them with secrets made known through ‘the spirit’ or by spiritual gifts (e.g. Gal 2.2; 1 Cor 1.7; 2.10; 14.30). In these cases, he is not thinking of things that humans can physically interact with and show to others, but something metaphysical that can only be understood in the mind.

The only other time Paul mentions having a personal ‘revelation’ is in 2 Cor 12.

It is necessary to boast; nothing is to be gained by it, but I will go on to visions and revelations of the Lord. 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—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows— was caught up into Paradise and heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat.

The vast majority of scholars understand Paul to be talking about himself here, an interpretation known as far back as the second century. In 2 Cor 11–12, Paul is making his case to the Corinthian church for why he is a credible leader, a true apostle. Within this context, there is no reason for Paul to inform his readers about some unknown person who has had visions. Rather, Paul is continuing to not-brag about his own achievements, putting on an air of humility by speaking about himself in the third-person.

Although Paul is short on words, there is a lot to be drawn from them. As before, he calls this event a ‘vision’, ὀπτασία, and ‘revelation’, ἀποκάλυψις. Initially, it may be tempting to conflate the vision/revelation from 2 Cor 12 with the revelation from Gal 1, but this is not necessary. Beside the chronological difficulty in identifying the two events, Paul implies the ineffable vision/revelation from 2 Cor 12 was one of multiple he’s had: ‘visions and revelations’. This is supported by Paul’s statement that he has asked ‘the Lord’ multiple times for relief from an affliction, and received a clear response about it (12.8–9).

Paul’s admission that he has spoken to Christ about his infirmity three times in itself implies a communication greater than petitionary prayer. Although the passage can be understood in other ways, Paul reveals modestly that he has had several ecstatic meetings with Christ over the previous fourteen years.1

Recognizing the common language between Gal 1 and 2 Cor 12, and that Paul suggests he had multiple ‘revelations’, we can reasonably infer that the event mentioned in Gal 1 was of a similar nature to the one described in 2 Cor 12. This makes 2 Cor 12 extremely important for interpreting Paul’s ‘conversion’ through a historically critical lens. So, what do we learn about Paul’s experience in 2 Cor 12?

  • Paul was taken to ‘the third heaven’, which is, or contains, ‘paradise’
  • Paul was unsure if his vision/revelation was an out-of-body experience
  • Paul heard and saw things he feels forbidden to describe in detail
  • Paul suffers from a ‘thorn’ in his ‘flesh’ because of his visions

At first glance it seems as if the first item is the only one that really tell us anything clear. The second item shows Paul’s own uncertainty, the third is intentionally held back from us, and the fourth is not very specific. Yet, all four items will help us.


The concept of a multi-layered heaven is not unique to 2 Cor 12.

A ‘folk etiology’ among Christians today is that the Bible regularly mentions three heavens: the sky where birds fly and clouds float (e.g. Gen 7.23), outer space where the sun, moon, and stars are found (Deut 4.19), and the actual metaphysical domain where God and his angels dwell (Mark 12.25). Hence, when Paul says he was taken to ‘the third heaven’, he means only that he did not simply stop in the sky or in space, but altogether shifted into a divine plane of reality.

The Hebrew Bible’s cosmography is not so concordant with modern science as this explanation assumes. Ancient people had virtually no understanding of ‘space’ as something distinct from the ‘sky’, and most cultures literally identify ‘heaven’ as a place above the surface of the earth. Rather, Paul’s understanding of a ‘third heaven’ comes from an existing tradition of the divine realm having separate regions or layers. These ideas were common in apocalyptic Judaism in the Second Temple period.

One of the earliest expressions of this idea is found in 1 Enoch 17–36 (written circa 300 BC). Here the titular patriarch is taken on a journey by angels to see the hidden parts of creation, including paradise and punishment, far beyond the boundaries of the mortal world. The Book of Jubilees, dependent on 1 Enoch, briefly implies the garden of Eden was hidden beyond the natural world (8.19), though it was created in conjunction with Mount Sinai and Mount Zion.

Apocalyptic literature near the end of the first century AD shows a huge development on this theme. Second Baruch says that paradise (the garden) is hidden in heaven (4.1–6), to be revealed in the end-times (51.8). Allusions to this idea of paradise as currently hidden in heaven are also found in 4 Ezra 4.7–8 and 7.26, as well as Rev 21–22. Third Baruch describes multiple layers of heaven; a dragon named Hades is found in the third heaven. Second Enoch 8.1 describes ten heavens, with ‘paradise’ found in the ‘third heaven’, though it also contains punishment for evildoers. Apocalypse of Moses 37.5 and 40.1–2 also mentions paradise as being in ‘the third heaven’. Dead Sea Scroll 4Q403 mentions the ‘seven domains of the Holy of holies’, with God’s throne-chariot in the center. Other texts from the time mention or allude to a ‘heavenly ascent’ of the protagonist, without elaborating on heaven’s layers.2

Despite Paul’s brevity in telling us what was in his vision, we are able to find him as belonging to a much larger stream of apocalyptic Judaism. Knowing this vastly helps us gain a firm understanding of Paul’s mystical experiences.

Jewish mysticism must occupy a more central place than has previously been the case in any reconstruction of the matrices of Paul’s experience and thought.3

In a range of these apocalyptic-mystical traditions, a mediator between the Creator and his creation is sometimes distinguished, a visible figure who represents God’s invisible rule. In 1 Enoch’s Book of Parables it is the messianic son of man, chosen from among humanity to sit on the ‘throne of glory’ and execute God’s judgment on the world; the final chapter of this section of 1 Enoch appears to identify the messiah as Enoch himself. In several other texts, the exalted human representing God’s rule is Adam, Melchizedek, or Moses. Other texts speak of a principal angel, identified by names like Eremiel, Michael, or Yahoel. At least one text fragment, preserved by Origen, blurs the line between these two traditions: the exalted figure is the patriarch Jacob, who is the human incarnation of the principal angel named Israel.4 Philo’s elaborate synthesis of Judean theology and Hellenistic philosophy identified the mediator as God’s word/wisdom, a divine creation he identified as the Angel of the Lord.

Not every Judean thought of the messiah in these terms, but Paul identifies Jesus with language normally associated with this mediator figure, drawing from both the exalted human tropes and the principal angel or divine wisdom tropes. This is somewhat tangential to the ‘third heaven’ issue, but it is closely related and helps us figure out how to categorize Paul’s visions.


Paul says that he is not sure if his visions happened ‘in the body’ or ‘out of the body’, either as a physical transportation to unseen realms, or as a spiritual ‘download’ of information from God straight to his mind.

Judean literature varies in the manner by which prophets and seers received their ‘revelations’. An early antecedent to this genre is the pre-exilic Isa 6, where the prophet enters the temple and sees a vision of God on his throne, attended by the seraphim. In the exilic Ezek 40.2, the prophet says he was taken ‘in visions of God to the land of Israel’. It is ambiguous whether Ezekiel thought he was literally taken to Israel (since he describes being ‘brought’ and ‘set’ there), or if it was all just a visionary experience (‘in visions of God’). Dan 7 has the prophet receive a ‘dream’, while chapter 8 grants him a ‘vision’. In both cases, ambiguity is introduced when Daniel receives interpretations of his dream/vision by angels, who seem to approach him from within the visions themselves (7.15–16; 8.15). However, Dan 10–12 is directly portrayed as a ‘bodily’ experience, since people around Daniel become aware that something unnatural is happening, even though they cannot see what Daniel sees (10.7).

First Enoch’s Book of Watchers has the patriarch physically travel in his otherworldly journey (17.1ff), but the Book of Parables shows him experience the visions in a spiritual state (71.1). Philo of Alexandria describes his own mystical experiences as visions in ‘the eye of [his] mind’ and ‘the eyes of [his] soul’ (Special Laws 3.1–4). These visions, common in his youth, have decreased with age and are now ‘unexpected’ and ‘brief’ (3.5).

Philo even associates the benefits of the experience with his current potential for expounding the writings of Moses to others (3.5–6). Since he has risen to the world above, he returns with insight and thus can “reveal what is not known to the multitude” (3.6).5

Philo likely finds himself able to elaborate on Moses’ teachings because, Philo believed, Moses himself had undergone a similar journey at Mount Sinai (Life of Moses 1.158). Philo says that Moses saw ‘formless conceptions’ in the darkness where God is found, which some scholars interpret to mean that Philo likewise understood Moses’ experience as visionary (in his mind), not bodily (physical transportation).6

Rev 1.10 says John was ‘in the spirit’ when he first heard and saw the ‘son of man’. The text borrows from Dan 10, which initially implies John may have thought he experienced this vision ‘bodily’, but he later says he traveled ‘in the spirit’ to witness God’s throne in heaven (4.2) which instead suggests he understood his visions to be ‘out of the body’. The Ascension of Isaiah, a Judean apocalypse that has been heavily redacted by a later Christian, states that Isaiah’s body suddenly fell silent while ‘his mind’ was ‘taken up from him’ to witness visions of the many levels of heaven (6.10-15).


An ancient Jewish legend stretching back to the first century describes how four rabbis visited pardes, the Hebrew cognate to Greek παράδεισος, ‘paradise’, the word Paul uses in 2 Cor 12. Several versions of this legend survive, but they are all very similar in form and wording.

The legend comes from a genre of literature, hekhalot (palaces), concerned with visions of God’s temple in heaven and its many layers or chambers leading into the most holy place where God himself dwelled. It was also closely related to merkavah (chariot) literature, concerning visions of God’s throne-chariot. These were ultimately rooted in texts like Isa 6 (a vision of God’s throne in the temple) and Ezek 1 (a vision of God’s chariot in the sky). There were written and oral instructions on how to seek out visions like these, such as repeating prayers or creeds dozens of times. These show seeking visions of God was part of an established practice, so that visions were not (always) wholly random, spontaneous events, unexpected by the seer.7 Such instructions included prohibitions on describing the vision8 unless one was a ḥakam, ‘mantic sage’, trained in the practice to prevent heretical descriptions of God from creeping in.9

Of the four rabbis who visited pardes, only one was a ḥakam, Rabbi Aqiba, and he stresses that there is nothing about himself that he has to brag for why he received his vision. (Consequently, Aqiba is the only one not to suffer in some way from his vision.) This overlaps with Paul’s boasting of his weaknesses, rather than of his strengths, as if being an incredible person caused him to receive his vision.10 Second Cor 11–12 is Paul’s scathing response to so-called ‘superapostles’ bragging about their many gifts and privileges. Paul retaliates, seeking to demonstrate the legitimacy of his apostleship by pointing to the things he could brag about, yet rarely brings up except in self-deprecation. This is why, when he arrives at his visions in chapter 12, Paul distances himself from them by talking about himself in the third-person, just some ‘man in Christ’.

[This] may represent an attempt to observe the pseudepigraphic convention of the apocalyptic-mystical tradition, even though to do so completely would of course defeat his purpose.11


While describing the contents of hekhalot visions was commonly restricted in those traditions, it was encouraged for the seer to praise God instead. And just as Paul explains he will not brag about himself for having received his visions and revelations, he says he will instead brag about his weaknesses (2 Cor 12.5), since it is through his weaknesses that Jesus’ power is made known (12.9b). While the ‘thorn’ that Paul says was given to him is usually considered to be a generic ailment (poor eyesight is a common suggestion), it must instead be understood as something directly related to his visions and revelations, since Paul says as much.

Therefore, to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given to me in the flesh, an angel of satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated.

The specificity that the ‘thorn’, some kind of torment that he attributes to an angel, should be read as a direct consequence of Paul’s visions is intriguing. There are examples in the Bible of ailments attributed to angels, demons, or spirits which otherwise resemble known physical and mental illnesses. Mark 9.14–29 tells of Jesus freeing a boy from an ‘unclean spirit’. The spirit would cause the boy to suffer seizures and foam at the mouth (9.17–18), usually when around fire or water (9.22). These are basic symptoms of epilepsy, and many modern interpreters recognize it so.12

The Pythia, the office of high priestess and oracle of the Temple of Apollo in Delphi, functioned for nearly eighteen centuries. Plutarch, a man who served as a priest in the temple, opined that the Pythia’s prophetic abilities came from a vapor emerging from under the temple. This led scholars to speculate that some kind of natural gas was seeping into the temple, which brought the oracle into an ecstatic state, mistakenly thought to be divine in nature. While archaeological and geological studies in the 19th and early 20th centuries found no evidence of such gases, casting doubt on the theory, newer studies in the late 20th and early 21st centuries appear to have given more credibility to Plutarch’s observation.

De Boer conducted an analysis of these hydrocarbon gases in spring water near the site of the Delphi temple. He found that one is ethylene, which has a sweet smell and produces a narcotic effect described as a floating or disembodied euphoria. […] According to traditional explanations, the Pythia derived her prophecies in a small, enclosed chamber in the basement of the temple. De Boer said that if the Pythia went to the chamber once a month, as tradition says, she could have been exposed to concentrations of the narcotic gas that were strong enough to induce a trance-like state.13

De Boer’s theory was met with opposition not long after.

A simple cocktail of carbon dioxide mixed with methane could have induced the psychic trances that the Pythia used to channel the gods and dish out their advice, according to the latest, Italian-led study.

“It is possible that the toxicity problems [were] due just to a deficit of oxygen in the Temple room, where air ventilation was weak and the gas release from the soil was strong,” said study leader Giuseppe Etiope of the National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology in Rome.14

Other suggestions include something ingested, or a type of incense, throwing the oracle into a trance-like state. While these theories contend against each other, they do demonstrate that an ancient prophet’s alleged interactions with the divine world conceivably had a much more mundane explanation, something environmental rather than supernatural. And many people, Christians included, are more than willing to grant something like these is where the oracle’s alleged prophetic abilities came from, even if we don’t yet know the precise cause of her trances.

Some commentators, rightly perceiving that the “thorn” is closely associated in Paul’s mind with his “exceptional” revelations, have suggested a nervous complaint (for example, epilepsy, hysteria, or migraine) caused by, or associated with, his ecstatic and visionary experience. According to this view, the parallel expression ἄγγελος Σατανᾶ indicates that Paul believed that a demonic assault had caused his illness. […] Robert M. Price has pointed out […] the close connection that exists in Paul’s mind between the “thorn” and the visionary experience and suggested that the reference is to an angelic opponent similar to the gatekeepers of the hekhalot tradition, who attack and punish those deemed unworthy to ascend to the merkabah.15

The pardes story mentions how angels antagonized Rabbi Aqiba, intending to ‘drive him away’ from the holy of holies in heaven. Aqiba only passes beyond them when God orders them to stand down and ‘leave this elder alone’. This is readily parallel to Paul suffering ‘torment’ from an ‘angel’ because of his revelations. In contrast, however, Paul must ask multiple times for ‘the Lord’ (God? Jesus?) to make the antagonistic angel ‘leave’ him. Against this request, the Lord tells Paul he must endure the tormenting angel as a ‘weakness’, since this weakness makes a place for Jesus to demonstrate his power.

This interpretation is by no means inconsistent with the theory of a nervous illness or reaction to ecstatic experience, which Paul believed to be caused by the angel’s blows.16


Despite the brevity of Paul’s description of his vision in 2 Cor 12, the four key points we come away with are immensely helpful for framing him within the world around him.

Many apocalyptic writers mention or describe the layers of heaven or of God’s temple in heaven. Paul’s reference to ‘the third heaven’ as consisting of, or containing, ‘paradise’, is well at home within the diversity of those apocalypses and visions. While Paul is unsure whether he experienced his visions bodily or noetically, we find plenty of examples of both in the apocalyptic stream, as well as ambiguous cases. We also have found that some traditions contained oral and written instructions on how to seek out visions of heaven, of the heavenly temple, and of God’s throne, which included restrictions on what the seer was permitted to discuss afterward, just as Paul finds himself forbidden to elaborate on his vision.

All these literary parallels, whether in terminology, concepts or the experience of being caught up, show three things. First, what Paul spoke of was understandable to his contemporaries. Second, the experience of being caught up into Paradise was awe-inspiring, and this explains in part Paul’s great reticence in describing it. Third, the experience of being caught up to the third heaven would place the apostle on a level with the great heroes of faith, and by claiming such an experience, Paul would completely outflank his opponents.17

The visions and revelations found in 1 Enoch, Daniel, 4 Ezra, 2 Baruch, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and the hekhalot and merkavah visions originated within the imaginations of their authors and seers, building off existing traditions about God, angels, and heaven. When every component of Paul’s vision in 2 Cor 12 has parallels in those other texts and stories, his vision of ‘the third heaven’ does not stand out as unique. To be blunt: Paul’s vision in 2 Cor 12 could well have come from his own mind, even if he didn’t recognize its human origin. This brings us to the mystical revelation that caused Paul to reevaluate his persecution of the early Christian sect (Gal 1.13–16). It was evidently something that alarmed him enough that he ‘went away at once into Arabia’ (Gal 1.17a), only returning to his life in Damascus sometime later (1.17b). He experienced something which suddenly rocked his understanding of God’s plans for the world. A gradual change of heart doesn’t fit that so much, but a vision does.

Paul references multiple ‘visions’ and ‘revelations’ in 2 Cor 12.1. He wrote about his experience in 2 Cor 12 in identical terms to his experience in Gal 1, calling them each a ‘revelation’, ἀποκάλυψις, of Jesus. He brings them up in identical contexts: to defend the validity of his own apostleship.18 This makes it compelling to identify Paul’s original revelation of Jesus as belonging to a similar category as his later vision in 2 Cor 12, as suggested in the first place.

Christian scholar N.T. Wright imagines that Paul’s original revelation of Jesus may have been him seeking a merkavah vision after meditating upon Ezek 1.

In his mind’s eye, then, he has the four-faced creatures and the wheels. He focuses on them. He sees them. He ponders them. Will he dare to go further? Upward, with prayer and quickening pulse, to the chariot itself. Was it his imagination? Was he actually seeing it? Were his eyes open, or was it just his heart’s eyes opened to realities normally invisible? […] Upward again, then, to the lower parts of what seems like a figure on the throne, some kind of human form. Saul of Tarsus, head full of scripture, heart full of zeal, raises his eyes slowly upward once more. He is seeing now, eyes wide open, conscious of being wide awake but conscious also that there seems to be a rift in reality, a fissure in the fabric of the cosmos, and that his waking eyes are seeing things so dangerous that if he were not so prepared, so purified, so carefully devout, he would never have dared to come this far. Upward again, from the chest to the face. He raises his eyes to see the one who he has worshipped and served all his life . . . And he comes face-to-face with Jesus of Nazareth.19

Wright’s dramatization is meant to justify a supernatural interpretation of Paul’s experience, but in my opinion it succeeds in the opposite: Wright grounds Paul’s mysticism as a product of his culture, picking up tropes found across the spectrum of relevant literature.

Paul describes his own spiritual experiences in terms appropriate to a Jewish apocalyptic-mystagogue of the first century.20

Wright’s dramatization also highlights Paul’s own uncertainty whether his visions took place ‘in the body’ or ‘out of the body’. The ambiguity inherent to this uncertainty is spelled out in 2 Cor 12, but is also present in Paul’s choice of language in Gal 1.

The phrase, en emoi, can be translated “to me” or “in me.” While the former suggestions a more external revelation such as that described Acts 9, 22, 26, the latter denotes an interior experience, e.g., 2 Cor 4:6 (“For it is God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ”).21

There are not just three options for understanding Paul’s conversion experience, the famous trilemma of lielunacy, or legitimate. Life is not so simple that we can reduce all the complexities of subjective human experience into just these three clearly-defined, non-overlapping circles. Which brings me to the hypothesis of this piece.

Paul was an apocalyptic Judean, part of a tradition that actively sought visions of God’s throne or heavenly temple. After the emergence of the Christian sect, Paul also became their zealous persecutor. Sometime during this period, Paul turned ‘the eye of his mind’ to seek a vision like those found in the hekhalot and merkavah traditions. And, while engaged in this practice, he unwittingly envisioned Jesus in the role of the mediator who stands between Creator and creation.

Although we cannot identify Paul’s ‘thorn’ in any certain terms, it is curious that he believed it was a direct consequence of his visions. In Mark 9, the boy’s epilepsy was attributed to a supernatural origin. Could Paul’s ‘thorn’ have been an ailment with a more natural cause than ‘an angel from satan’, a cause that also manifested to Paul with visual sensations (lights, people), audible ones (voices), and disorientation (unaware of his bodily state), which he found credible due to his vision-seeking mysticism? We have no way of knowing for sure, but it’s not a far-fetched concept, and would go a ways in filling in the gaps that Paul himself leaves open.

Paul fully believed his ἀποκάλυψις was divine in origin. Yet, after surveying comparable literature, we have reasons to suspect it may well have come about through a combination of his deliberate invocation of mystical practices, the stresses of ‘violently persecuting the church of God’ and ‘trying to destroy it’, and, perhaps, an ailment that both lent weight to his experiences while also inflicting ‘torment’ after each event.

This is not, of course, meant to function as a final answer to the question asked from the start, ‘why did Paul “convert”?’ It merely illustrates that there are plausible explanations for Paul’s conversion that do not assume or depend on a supernatural explanation which cannot otherwise be demonstrated.

1 Alan Segal, Paul the Convert, 36.

2 Paula Gooder, Only the Third Heaven?: 2 Corinthians 12.1–10 and Heavenly Ascent, 32.

3 C.R.A. Morray-Jones, ‘Paradise Revisited (2 Cor 12:1–12): The Jewish Mystical Background of Paul’s Apostolate. Part 1: The Jewish Sources’, Harvard Theological Review 86.2, 178.

4 Camilla Hélena von Heijne, The Messenger of the Lord in Early Jewish Interpretations of Genesis, 183.

5 James Buchanan, Snatched Into Paradise, 147.

6 Ibid., 107–108.

7 Morray-Jones, ‘Part 1’, 181–182; Segal, 36.

8 Ibid., 185

9 C.R.A. Morray-Jones, ‘Paradise Revisited (2 Cor 12:1–12): The Jewish Mystical Background of Paul’s Apostolate. Part 2: Paul’s Heavenly Ascent and Its Significance’, Harvard Theological Review 86.3, 266–267, 278–281.

10 Ibid., 268–271.

11 Ibid., 273. I maintain that this convention in apocalyptic literature of pretending to be an ancient patriarch (Enoch, Abraham), prophet (Moses, Isaiah), or scribe (Ezra, Baruch) was an ‘open secret’. Since everyone was writing apocalyptic literature under a pseudonym, it seems evident that, at least for a time, everyone must have been aware such pseudonyms were literary devices, and were not meant to deceive readers. (Otherwise, how did everyone know to follow this convention?) If Morray-Jones is correct that Paul was leaning into it somewhat here, this further substantiates it was probably known to people at the time that the pseudonymity was just a device, not a deceit.

12 Cf. J.K. Howard, ‘Epilepsy’, The Oxford Companion to the Bible (ed. Bruce Metzger, Michael Coogan), 190–191.

13 ‘Delphic Oracle’s Lips May Have Been Loosened by Gas Vapors’, National Geographic, August 14, 2001 (retrieved April 4, 2019).

14 Heather Whipps, ‘New Theory on What Got the Oracle of Delphi High’, Live Science, October 31, 2006 (retrieved April 4, 2019).

15 Morray-Jones, ‘Part 2’, 282.

16 Ibid., 283.

17 Colin Kruse, 2 Corinthians, 262.

18 Cf. 2 Cor 11.5; 12.11; Gal 1.11–12, 19–20; 2.2,5–6.

19 N.T. Wright, Paul: A Biography, 52.

20 Segal, 35.

21 Frank Matera, Galatians, 60.

(emphasis, Gary’s)

7 thoughts on “Was Paul’s Vision on the Damascus Road Consistent with Other Visions in Ancient Jewish Mysticism?

  1. Very interesting post, Mr. Heath. Thank you for the suggestion.

    If anyone today claims he has seen a talking bright light we lock him up in a mental asylum. And when he starts claiming that he has just taken an intergalactic voyage to a “third heaven”, we start sedating him with very strong medication.

    Yet, many Christians base their entire worldview on this one (crazy) man’s testimony.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Gary –

    As you suggested in the previous thread, I’ve read this lengthy diatribe, including the conclusion:

    The hypothesis of this diatribe is “And, while engaged in this practice, he unwittingly envisioned Jesus in the role of the mediator who stands between Creator and creation”.

    However, this does not in any way address what I had asked in the previous thread:

    “And, if that’s all it was – a VISION – then there was really no reason to claim “resurrection”, was there?

    After all, if they KNEW they had just had “visions”, then even they couldn’t know whether Jesus were resurrected, or, just assumed into heaven – OR – if his body had been stolen. His body could have been stolen, yet, in this “vision”, Jesus is speaking to them “from beyond the grave” (spooky music in background).

    Bottom line – if THEY knew they had just seen a “vision”, then, dang, there’s nothing to base a resurrection on….”

    In fact, not only does this diatribe not address what I said.

    I’d go so far as to say it raises more questions than it answers: Paul is clearly aware when he’s had (what he considers) a “supernatural vision”, yet, when he says in 1 Cor 9 “have I not seen our Lord”, there is nothing in that context that tells us that his “seeing” was “visionary”. He doesn’t say “did not the Lord appear to me in a vision?” or even “did not the Lord appear to me”? (both cases in which he would almost assuredly have used the verb “opthe”, I would strongly suggest – but, of course, that would be debatable, I’m sure).

    The REAL bottom line is that this author is suggesting that there might have been a “naturalistic explanation” for Paul’s “conversion”. And, of course that would be the assertion that any skeptic or non-Christian historian/scholar would make.

    But – at the heart of it, remains the question: If Paul did simply have Yet Another Vision (and, he seems to be quite aware of when he’s had one), then what on earth is the basis for claiming Jesus was resurrected? It is just as well to say that Jesus was “assumed into heaven”. And, probably more fitting, if we’re just talking about “visions”.

    And – BTW – if and when you respond, don’t bother responding as if I’m “just a believer” who is just going to defend the notion of a resurrection. What I’ve written above could be argued by a good skeptic as well.

    SOMEHOW – the fact that “resurrection” – and not merely Jesus’ “assumption into heaven” (as Elijah, Melchizadek, and Moses) – must be accounted for. It would have been far easier to just claim Jesus had been assumed into heaven, which would have explained the empty tomb. But for SOME reason, the claim was resurrection.

    So, my original question still stands.


    1. “And, if that’s all it was – a VISION – then there was really no reason to claim “resurrection”, was there?

      And as I have told you multiple times, many people who have visions of dead people do not remember them as “visions” but as reality. Can you provide good evidence that this was not the case with Paul? No. You cannot.

      But – at the heart of it, remains the question: If Paul did simply have Yet Another Vision (and, he seems to be quite aware of when he’s had one), then what on earth is the basis for claiming Jesus was resurrected?

      Because that is the story about Jesus for which Paul had been persecuting the early Christians! When Paul looked up to see the face of “the mediator”, instead of seeing the face of Elijah or someone else, he saw the face of Jesus. And since the central claim about Jesus, circulated by Peter and the other disciples was that Jesus had been resurrected, Paul assumed that the Jesus he was seeing was the resurrected Jesus.

      And I have already told you my theory as to how the disciples arrived at the resurrection of Jesus belief:

      Empty tomb–>gives glimmer of hope/ignites cognitive dissonance–>resuscitation hypothesis proposed–>Peter (or another disciple) has a vivid dream–>reinforces resuscitation hypothesis–>other disciples experience vivid dreams, trances, false sightings, illusions of a resuscitated Jesus–>resuscitated Jesus hypothesis further reinforced–>but Jesus never shows up–>impending return of hopelessness and despair stimulates more attempts to reconcile reality with their dreams–>What if…the resurrection of the righteous dead has begun, with Jesus as the first fruits. God took Jesus to heaven temporarily, but he is coming back at any moment to reestablish David’s throne as the Messiah–>cognitive dissonance resolved!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes, you’ve already given me your theory on how the disciples arrived at the resurrection belief.

        And, I’ve already spelled out my reasons why I don’t buy into it.

        re: “And as I have told you multiple times, many people who have visions of dead people do not remember them as “visions” but as reality.”

        Yeh, you keep saying that, and, you keep ignoring my response: While people believe what they experienced was real, that does not mean they believe they say a bodily-living person. In fact, the vast majority do not believe that to be the case at all. They believe they have had a very real – but “spiritual” – encounter.

        Now, if you can show me some documentation that shows that people who claim to have had experiences with a deceased person are claiming that the experience was with a corporeal being, then I’d like to see it.


  3. jesus said “after i am risen , i will go before you to galilee”
    Some see a vision in galille and think it is jesus, why wouldnt they connect it to the prophecy ? so why couldnt vision have been understood as “aha he is risen” ?

    dont give your subjective feeling, tell me about the FEELINGS of these first century disciples. i want to see documents about the emotions peter and james expressed in the first person.

    not the feelings of ftbond.


  4. An ideal compliment to earlier posts Gary. Well done Sir!

    Paul turned ‘the eye of his mind’ to seek a vision like those found in the hekhalot and merkavah traditions. And, while engaged in this practice, he unwittingly envisioned Jesus in the role of the mediator who stands between Creator and creation.


    We have no way of knowing for sure, but it’s not a far-fetched concept, and would go a ways in filling in the gaps that Paul himself leaves open.

    As I’ve mentioned earlier, I too have done an extensive examination into Saul’s light-blinding vision on the Road to Damascus when everything did a 180 for him. The World Health Organization states approximately 50-million people worldwide have one of the many forms of epilepsy. It is the most common neurological disease on the planet and has been since it was first recognized in about 4500 BCE by ancient Indian Vedic medicine described as ‘apasmara’ which means ‘loss of consciousness’.

    On exhibit in the British Museum in London are Babylonian tablets that detail accounts of epilepsy (over 40 tablets total) of Babylonian medicine going back as far as 1067 BCE. It records many of the various forms of epilepsy we recognize today. Depending on the ancient culture, these seizures were regarded either as divine visions and revelations from god(s) or from demonic/evil possessions. In the ancient world this condition was widely known as the Sacred Disease or Holy Disease for its bizarre supernatural spectacle of manifestations from its victims. Throughout most of history we have account after account after account, in all cultures and places on Earth, of people, often labeled Mystics, with the exact same symptoms and behaviors of any one of the forms of epilepsy. Benedetta Carlini (1591–1661) a Catholic nun, the Norwegian Wise-Knut (1792–1876), and many modern accounts dating from the 18th and 19th centuries to the present day. NPR’s show All Things Considered did a series on the Sacred Disease reporting that based now on modern neurology asks the question Are Spiritual Encounters All In Your Head?

    What has become more clear is that epileptic divine hallucinations were simply a commonplace neurological disorder in the Late-Stone, Bronze, and Iron Age and still occurs today around the world. They all stem from various causes (traumas?) in the (diseased? malformed?) temporal lobes of the human brain called TLE.

    In your previous post “The Resurrection Belief Probably Originated from One of Simon Peter’s Trances, Part 2” I shared the video of what a Simple Focal Epileptic Seizure looked like from the eyes/ears of the victim. With that video in mind, we read in Acts 9:3-9:

    As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”

    “Who are you, Lord?” Saul asked.

    “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” he replied. “Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.”

    The men traveling with Saul stood there speechless; they heard the sound but did not see anyone. Saul got up from the ground, but when he opened his eyes he could see nothing. So they led him by the hand into Damascus. For three days he was blind, and did not eat or drink anything.

    Paul clearly shrank from his Judaic duties in the present Earthly life for defeat to it, to the pleasures and “evils” of which he begged relief. This state of mind and physical disease is preserved in The Acts of Paul and Thecla:

    “A man of moderate stature, with crisp [scanty] hair, crooked legs, blue eyes, large knit brows, and long nose, at times looking like a man, at times like an angel, Paul came forward and preached to the men of Iconium: ‘Blessed are they that keep themselves chaste [unmarried]; for they shall be called the temple of God. Blessed are they that mortify their bodies and souls; for unto them speaketh God. Blessed are they that despise the world; for they shall be pleasing to God. Blessed be the souls and bodies of virgins; for they shall receive the reward of their chastity.’”

    From his letters to the Galatians and Corinthians we can glean that untreated these “visions” persisted throughout his life. What is generally unknown about Saul of Tarsus and must not be ignored when considering his “new mystical Covenant” are his familial and cultural background and education. Many modern Christians do not fully realize that Saul never met Jesus face-to-face. He never spoke with Jesus in person outside of his own epileptic seizures.

    But this major problem for Saul’s/Paul’s veracity is not the only problem present from all cumulative literature of the Bronze and Iron Age into the post-Classical Era. Paul was most likely NOT a Rabbinical-Israelite scholar as his Greco-Roman historians and New Testament authors portrayed, but instead a Hellenist and with Herodian lineage and family.

    Saul claims he was born of Jewish parents in the Roman Province of Cilicia in its capital Tarsus. Since 333 BCE with Alexander the Great’s conquest of Anatolia, Cilicia became deeply absorbed in Greek culture. By the early 1st-century CE the province was heavily Hellenistic. In Romans 11:1 and Philippians 3:5, assuming these verses are genuinely Saul’s/Paul’s words, nowhere in Jewish Rabbinical history is there a tribal list or ancestry of Benjamin in existence at that time, not even rumors. Though it is claimed in Acts 22:3 that his rabbinic studies were under Gamaliel in Jerusalem, none of his ascribed writings and arguments in the Christian New Testament are Gamaliel or rabbinic in nature. However, with regard to his education and exposure in the Hillel school, Saul/Paul would have learned classic Hellenistic literature, ethics, and philosophy (Stoicism) and these influences do indeed reveal themselves in all his ascribed letters, especially from the Hellenistic Book of Wisdom and other Apocrypha, as well as Philo of Alexandria who is the father of harmonizing Greek philosophy with the Jewish Torah; both are transparent in Saul’s writings. And Saul’s infatuation with mysteries and the Spirit of God through tongues, supernatural powers, sacraments, and fatalism can be directly traced to the Gnostic lore of Alexandria and the Corpus Hermeticum, specifically the Poimandres.

    The shocking point here to be understood in correlation to his ascribed epistles in the New Testament is that Saul (the Apostle Paul) was a Greco-Roman educated epileptic, not a rabbinical Jew from the tribe of Benjamin.

    And as Mark Edward points out correctly in his outstanding blog-post, Saul the Apostate’s mysticism thoroughly distorts Jesus’ teachings and intentions for Israel’s Kingdom of God on Earth, he further widens the growing gulf between Judaism and Hellenism and ultimately with Rome, his gnosis revives Persian dualism in his Christology, or Neo-Zoroastrianism if you like, and eventually with most Palestinian Jews wiped out or forced out by 74 CE (Masada) Saul/Paul was able to enamor the naive Hellenist Gentiles (about authentic Second Temple Judaism/Messianism) over to his new-fangled “die in order to live” spiritual mysticism—the hekhalot and merkavah literature/teachings that Mark Edward lays out—perceived during his epileptic seizures.

    In specific schools/sects of 2nd Temple Judaism there were practices by Bronze Age Jewish Mystics (later Kabbalah) using two techniques: Merkavah (moderate, safe) and Heikhalat (intensive, more dangerous). During 2nd Temple Judaism, particularly the Pharisaic sects and their sub-sects, Merkavah mysticism was mainstream because of the high-risks of extreme ecstasy or depressive paranoia of Heikhalat followed by being generally labeled a heretic and/or possessed by demons by colleagues and the public. There was a lot less control over Heikhalat types of visions or revelations, naturally too in the cases of “fall down” epileptic seizures. One of the “visions” or non-bodily states Heikhalat mystics would try to achieve and experience by chanting, reciting divine names, and with magical hymns was ‘ascending to a system of heavens or paradise (ecstasy) and antechambers surrounding the divine.’ This is in all likelihood what Saul/Paul refers to in verses 2 and 4 of 2 Corinthians 12:1-4. No other possible references of extant literature of the period explains it otherwise.

    It’s perfectly reasonable to say that Saul, having suffered his epilepsy for much of his life, most likely including in Tarsus and Jerusalem during his educational youth, would have felt much more “accepted” in Heikhalat Jewish mysticism and of the school of Bet Shammai, as opposed to Bet Hillel or the moderates and Merkavah mystics.

    There are many other problematic issues, incongruencies, and fallacies in the (7) seven authentically ascribed epistles of Paul, but without any wide-ranging, cumulative, verified historical context of Saul, Jesus, 2nd Temple Sectarian Judaism/Messianism, and extensive knowledge of the provincial ruling/daily-life of Hellenic Romans and her Legions, a modern American “Christian™” today knows very, very little about their Paul/Saul of Cilicia, much less their actual historical Yeshua bar Yosef the Nazirite/Nasoraean, the rural ascetic sect similar to the Essenes.

    Great stuff Gary! Thank you for sharing Mark Edward’s excellent blog-post! It is great to see others digging deep and wide into Second Temple Judaism. 🙂


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s