Mystic or Sarcastic? Visions and Revelations in 2 Corinthians 12:1-10. Part 4
We arrive now at Paul's recounting of the vision, which is accomplished in a few short verses, 2 Cor 12:2-4. "Due to it's brevity the text is a rather unusual representative of the
"heavenly travel" genre." (Okland, p96) It fits the rhetorical form of Aretalogy, a tribute to great man or deity, a form which could also lend itself equally well to ironic mockery.
Paul starts the account of the vision by moving into the third person and introducing a "man in Christ" whom he knew fourteen years ago, or who had a vision fourteen years ago. The scholarly consensus is that Paul switches to the third person in order to talk about himself. There is no consensus as to why he did this. Perhaps it was out of humility or a desire to distance himself from the grandeur of the vision. Bultmann suggests that "Paul's responsible "I" did not participate [in the vision], that something occurred to him of which he was an observer, or which in retrospect
happened to him as an alien." (Bultmann, Second Letter 219). If it is a
turn to rabbinic modes of speech (not unlike a certain Rabbi capable of
referring to himself as the “son of man” why does he not do it in 11:22
when he is actually defending his Jewishness? It is entirely possible that he would talk about himself in the third person as his contemporaries did so in similar situations. However, Paul does so nowhere else that we know of and so this oddity needs explaining. Perhaps the best explanation is that he is indeed talking about someone else?
Ockland writes, “Although some scholars have considered the possibility that he is
indeed speaking of someone else, most scholars regard this possibility
unlikely . . . how would this story serve him, if it were not his own
experience?" (Ockland p102) If the only objection to this story being about someone else is its purpose, then reading this story as mockery rather than tribute resolves the problem as the story serves to undermine and ridicule Paul's opponents and then allows him to contrast his own concrete experiences of suffering for Christ.
This detail is often used to argue that it is Paul speaking. In many
commentaries there are surveys of all of Paul’s visions recounted in Acts and references to visions in his letter, at the end of such
sections they conclude, in the representative words of Ralph Martin “there nothing we
know of the apostle with which we can identify this experience” (Word, p400).
There has even been speculation that this describes Paul's experience of
Jewish Mysticism prior to conversion. (J Bowker ”Merkabah Visions and
the Visions of Paul” JSS 16 (1971) 157-73; cited in Dunn, TOPTA, p47)
Yet the fourteen year interval between vision and recounting in 2 Cor is in fact a
hindrance to the idea this is Paul’s vision at all as such an extraordinary and powerful experience
seems to have left no discernible mark on his theology elsewhere in his letters.
In the body or out of the body?
This repeated phrase, which is unmatched in it complete failure to convey any information whatsoever is vague even to the point of not having a clear referent, does it describe Paul's knowledge of the man or the experience of the vision? It is decidedly un-Pauline, how can someone whose theology is so rooted in the soma show so little consideration for it here? Earlier in the letter in 2 Cor 5:6-10 Paul talks about being away from the body as the a cipher for death. Within the pericope this
expression is literally out of place, and has been shuffled around in
most modern translations to force it to make sense.
So what options do we have for understanding the significance of the phrase? With its
unusual wording and sentiment, repetition, syntactic dislocation, and
parallel structures, it satisfies many of the criteria of a Corinthian slogan. It may not be a classic slogan in
the sense that Paul does not seek to rebut or redefine it, but if we see it as a slogan it would explain its nonsensical nature and its repetition. If it was intended to convey information on a purely locutionary level then it is hard to see why Paul would repeat himself here. However if it had an illocutionary intention, e.g. as a catchphrase to alert the listener of his intended target of mockery then repetition serves a valid purpose. The verbal clue of the catch phrase would alert the listener to Paul’s
intended target and thus to the presence of irony. The imitation would
suffice to set the tone of ridicule, but the subsequent account only
adds insult to injury. They would have been able to set aside the
surface meaning of the discourse and to recognise that Paul was using
the established rhetorical technique of censuring with counterfeit
praise. While the passage can be read as a straightforward boast about a
vision of a super apostle, an ironic reading of the text results in a
discrediting of the visionary it appears to commend. The only other way to explain the repetition of the phrase is that Paul wanted to reinforce the extent of his ignorance about his bodily state during the vision - but why should he want to emphasize that aspect of the vision.
As Okland observes "In so many stories belonging to this genre, the
narrator or protagonist is given a particular message to communicate. .
. this is unusual also compared to the other texts authored by Paul."
(Okland, p96) Paul describes here a vision in which nothing is seen that is recounted and nothing sensible is heard. It must be said that the third heaven/Paradise (they may or may not be the same place) is/are a long way to go for not very much. If you have spent any time reading Paul's letters you will realise that there are not many things he will not try to explain or put words to. He is certainly never short of a message to bring. So how is it here that this vision which he allegedly recounts as the apex of his spiritual experience is so utterly pointless? I would suggest that it only makes sense if it is intended to be meaningless as a parody of the sort of visions the "super apostles" boast about, and therefore is not intended to be understood as Paul's vision at all but as the vision of someone else.