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2 Cor 12:1-5: Is Paul Just Taking The Mickey?

Glenn expends considerable energy arguing that Paul's vision in 2 Cor 12 is not an "out-of-body" experience.  He makes some good points.  However, revisiting this chapter while reading a stimulating article by Jorunn Økland, (you can see it here) I had an idea that maybe Paul's tortured Greek and almost incoherent ramblings here may not infact be him giving in to boasting out of necesity but might in fact be him taking the mickey out of the super apostles by sarcastically imitating the way they describe their visions.  Now I haven't read much on 2 Cor so I don't know if anyone has suggested this before, but here is my suggested reading.

12:1  Paul appears to concede the need to boast in order to show that he is as good as the super apostles, despite his sustained, impassioned and coherent defence of his ministry in the previous two chapters.  He says that now "I will go on to visions and revelations in the Lord."  After his impresive list of sufferings in the previous chapter we might well expect a similar list of spiritual experiences described in detail to impress us.

12:2  Instead Paul writes "I know a person in Christ who fourteen years ago. . ."  While this has often been attributed to Paul's modesty such sudden self effacement makes little sense in the context where he is in the act of defending his ministry and has just been extolling his virtues for the previous two chapters.  As Glenn points out the rather vague, "whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows" actually appears next in the Greek text, breaking up the sentence which ends with "was caught up into the third heaven."  Now the phrase "whether in or out" makes such a mess of the sentence that most translators rearrange the sentence to force it to make some sort of sense.  You have to do that if Paul is talking about himself, but if he is actually talking about the false teachers and then interupts his sentence to insert one of their standard catchphrases, then suddenly this makes sense as a caricature of a reported vision by a visionary false teacher.  In other words this is Pauline comedy as he "takes off" his opponents.  This would be a big leap if it was only used once, but appearing twice in short succession (12:3) it seems reasonable to argue that Paul is giving a clear signal of some sort to his readers.  There seems no other good reason for him to repeat such an unhelpful and vague sentence.

12:4  Contains another enigma that cannot be explained if Paul describing his own vision.  If Paul is really claiming to be the recipient of a unique vision that cannot be shared with others and is using that to argue for his own apostolic status he 1) sounds more like a proto-gnostic superapostle than the apostle Paul who never seemed to be shy about using words to explain anything (see Romans or 1 Cor 15 for example), and 2) plays right into the hands of the super apostles who would have had many more and more impressive visions than that which Paul describes.  (for an example of an impressive vision check out Revelation!) If however Paul is ridiculing the superapostles, the very fact that they cannot describe the content of their revelation shows how vaccuous and silly their revelations really are.  For Paul the Gospel is something that can be shared and proclaimed, not a mystical secret that only the visionaries get let in on. 

12:5 "On behalf of such a one I will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses."  This sentence confirms to the reader that Paul has been "boasting" on the behalf of the super apostles, but what he has really done is shown how silly and incoherent and useless their visions and revelations really are. His boasting on their behalf is purely sarcastic. They don't really know what has happened (in the body or out) and they cannot explain their meaning or relevance (not to be told or repeated).

12:6 In 12:6 Paul switches back to the first person.  Speaking now  for himself he suggests that he could truthfully boast but that he does not.  So if 12:2-5 does describe his own vision he is now lying by suggesting that he didn't boast.  Under this reading of course Paul is no liar, but was caricaturing another person, or people, and their claims of revelatory visions.  Instead Paul admits that he could legitimately boast about revelations but chooses not to because he does not want to be judged by his revelations (which may well trump those of his opponents) but by the quality of his service among them (12:6).

12:7-10  Paul wants the Corinthians to learn to judge apostles based on the evidence of their words and deeds not their ability to recount extraordinary spiritual experiences.  Instead Paul boasts how, rather than an out of body "spiritual" experience, he has been blessed by God with an in-the-flesh physical experience that has kept him humbled and reliant on God's grace (12:7-9), not his own spiritual acheivements.  Paul's conclusion is that if he will be forced to boast, which he does through chapters 10-12 then it will be of the things that show how weak he is and how in need of God grace.  Even this boasting is almost too much for Paul's humility, as he expresses in 13:1 "I have been a fool, you forced me to it!"  They forced him to commend himself, but they could not force him to commend himself on the basis of his revelations or visions, only on his willingness to serve and to suffer for their sake and for the sake of Christ. That is the case, if we accept that in 12:2-5 Paul is presenting a sarcastic caricature and not an account of his own experience.

Let me know what you think :-)


  1. I just had a quick look at the NRSV translation of the first few verses, and once you suggest the idea it looks "obvious" to me, but then I have been known to use sarcasm myself on occasion... It's a hoot!

  2. Some (admittedly quick) comments: It seems to me that the conventional understanding of this passage works quite well. The switch to the third person seems strange to us, but I wonder if it would have been strange to first century ears. Josephus refers to himself in the third person, and I would argue that Luke does too.

    12:5 seems problematic for your interpretation. You propose that Paul is taking the mickey in 12:2-4 and that in 12:6 he is being straight forward. The difficulty is that 12:5 links 12:2-4 with 12:6. How was the reader to know when Paul switches out of mickey mode? The switch doesn't really correspond to the switch back to the first person, since you require that 'boast' in 12:5 is used ironically. People do sometimes use sarcasm, but there is never a gradual transition between sarcasm mode and normal mode. That would create intolerable ambiguity.

    12:2 is also problematic, I think. Why, on your reading, would Paul mention that the revelation was 14 years ago AND say that the man was caught up to the third heaven? 14 years is a long time and could, on your understanding, be Paul's way of saying how infrequently his opponents had visions. However, the mention of 'third heaven' does not seem to be a put-down. Why would Paul express the greatness of his opponents' revelation with the phrase 'third heaven' but also express the infrequency of the revelations? Wouldn't you need to suppose that Paul switches modes mid-sentence?

    The '14 years' makes perfect sense with the conventional understanding of the passage. Paul here makes is clear that he had had this great vision before the 18 months that he had spent with the Corinthians. He makes them realize that he had been with them for the 18 months without breathing a word about this vision, unlike the opponents who had boasted about their revelations upon arrival in Corinth.

    I haven't given your hypothesis the time it deserves, but I hope these initial thoughts are helpful.

  3. Richard, a warm welcome to the blog :-)

    Thanks Tim and Richard, both comments greatly appreciated.

    Tim, you are absolutley correct about the problems, of course, but I think the problems with it being Paul's own vision are even greater. I think this idea might deserve a more substantial attempt to argue it... watch this space :-)


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