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Apocalypse of Paul

An apocryphal account of the apostle's journey in heavenly and infernal regions (cf. 2 Cor. 12:2ff.). Originally in Greek (not preserved in that form), it is best represented in the Latin tradition, and also known in Coptic, Syriac, Armenian, Georgian, and Slavonic versions, differing somewhat one from another. It evidently draws upon earlier works, such as the Apocalypse of Peter; consequently it is probably of fairly late composition. The document declares itself to have been hidden until 388, when its hiding-place was made known in a dream. Paul receives the divine commission and hears the complaint of creation against man, whose deeds are reported by angels. He sees the fate of righteous and wicked, and makes two visits to Paradise, meeting patriarchs and prophets on the first visit, and others on the second (doublet accounts), while Hell is visited and torments described in detail. The work is attested by Augustine, is used by some Latin poets, and influenced medieval imagery, including Dante's.

PAUL, APOCALYPSE OF. Paul wrote of being caught up into Paradise in the third heaven, and hearing “things that cannot be told” (2 Cor 12:1-4). Such passages offered a clear opportunity for the writing of apocrypha, in this case to narrate Paul’s vision; in due course the opportunity was taken. Augustine mentions an Apocalypse of Paul, and a book of that name is condemned by the Decretum Gelasianum. It was prob. the first of the two works now known under this title.

1. A document extant in abridged form in Gr. and more completely in other VSS, of which the Latin and Coptic are the most important. It purports to have been discovered in Paul’s house in Tarsus, in consequence of a vision given to the tenant in the reign of Theodosius. This puts its date at the end of the 4th cent. or the beginning of the fifth. It begins with the complaint of creation against the sins of men, and goes on to describe the reports of the angels, night and morning, about the actions of mankind. Then Paul is caught up to the third heaven and witnesses the judgment of two souls as they depart this life, the one righteous, the other wicked. He is led through Paradise, where he meets Enoch, crosses the Acherusian Lake, and visits the city of Christ, girt about with twelve walls, with twelve towers and twelve gates of great beauty; then through Hell, where he sees the tortures of the wicked and obtains for them relief for the day and night of the Lord’s Day. A further visit to Paradise follows, during which Paul meets and is greeted by Mary; Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and the patriarchs; Moses and the major prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel); other OT figures ending with Zacharias and John the Baptist; and last of all, Adam. Several of these already had been met on the first visit.

The ending varies with the different VSS. The Lat., Gr. and Syr. break off after the meeting with Elijah and Elisha (omitting Zacharias, John, and Adam), although the Syr. transfers the story of the discovery to this point, relating how Paul wrote down his vision and hid it (for which he was to be rebuked by the Lord on his release from this life: “Have I shown you everything that you should put it under the wall of a house?”). The Coptic continues with a fresh visit to the third heaven, with many doublets. James (ANT 555) thinks that nothing after the appearance of Adam is original, and indeed raises the question whether the original text did not end with the granting of the Sabbath day of rest. “Everything after ch. 44 is an otiose appendix.” Duensing, however, notes the possibility that Paul’s return to his fellow apostles on the Mt. of Olives contains the original conclusion, which would lead one to assume that the rapture also took place on the Mount (NTAp. II. 795f.).

At all events the work is carelessly compiled, and the numerous doublets show the author’s use of older material. He knew the Apocalypse of Peter, and has also borrowed from the Apocalypses of Elijah and of Zephaniah. This again points to a fairly late date. In his description of Paradise he drew upon Revelation 21 and Genesis 2, but also on Gr. mythology (Acherusia, Tartarus, the boat journey). The importance of the book lies in the fact that through it these ideas were transmitted to the later church, and influenced medieval descriptions of the world beyond. There is a clear allusion in Dante’s Inferno (ANT 525ff.; NTAp. II. 755ff.).

2. The first of four apocalypses in Codex V of the Nag Hammadi library begins on the way to Jericho. On “the mountain of Jericho” (a purely artificial setting) Paul sees and is greeted by the twelve apostles. Then he is raised to the third heaven and passes immediately into the fourth, where a soul is under examination. Convicted at the mouth of three witnesses (Deut 19:15), it is cast down into a body. In the seventh heaven Paul meets an old man, who allows him to proceed only on the presentation of a sign. The ascent continues as far as the tenth heaven, but in most cases there is little description.

This document is not connected with the first, although there are links: the old man (in the first document identified as Enoch, but here apparently a “guardian”), and the fact that Paul in the fourth heaven is told to look down on the earth. There are also the judgment scenes, here only briefly sketched, but in the other text more fully elaborated. Any attempt to trace a connection or development must be highly speculative.


Böhlig-Labib, Koptisch-gnostische Apokalypsen aus Codex V von Nag Hammadi (1963).