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The Esoteric New Testament, Part II: Paul and the ‘Mysteries’

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We explore Paul of Tarsus, the Jesus-hating Pharisee who was converted by a visionary encounter with the post-mortem Jesus into the super-apostle who then devoted his life to travelling around the eastern Roman world preaching the word. He is a very, very peculiar character, and his work – the Epistles or letters to various early churches of the eastern Mediterranean – among the strongest loci for the esoteric in the Christian canon.

Works Cited in this Episode:


Parable of the Sower passage in the synoptic gospels: Mk. 4:10-12; Mt 13:10-15; Lk 8:9-10.

Acts of the Apostles: The Spirit descends upon the Apostles: 2:2-4. Paul a Pharisee: 26:5. Paul a Roman: 16:37.

Clement of Alexandria on the ineffable in Paul: Strom. V.12.79.

Dead Sea Scrolls: dualist suffering to be followed by God’s triumphant balancing of the books: 1QS 3.20-3; 4.18, cited at Brown 1958, p. 435.

Hippolytus: the Naasenes claim to have the Pauline ‘unutterable sayings’: Refutation 5.8.25. So does Basilides: Ibid. 7.26.7.

Paul on the mysteria: 2 Thessalonians 2:7; 1 Corinthians 1:10–4:21, 15, cf. 1 Thessalonians 4:15–17 (not a mysterion, but by the word of the Lord (ἐν λόγῳ κυρίου); Romans 11; Colossians 1:26-27 and 4:3; Ephesians (some deny its Pauline authorship) 1:9, 3. Ephesians 3 is probably the most complete treatment of mysterion in the epistles. Paul elsewhere on the spiritual resurrection-body: ‘waiting for the adoption, to wit, the redemption of our body’ (Romans 8:23). ‘We look for the Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ: Who shall change our vile body, that it may be fashioned like unto His glorious body . . .’. (Philippians 3:20, 21). ‘But some man will say, How are the dead raised up? and with what body do they come?’ (1 Corinthians 15:35). ‘It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body’ (1 Corinthians 15:44).

Philo of Alexandria’s cosmic ascent account: see Episode 56.


The actual John Lennon quote about Jesus is as follows: ‘Christianity will go. It will vanish and shrink. I needn’t argue about that; I’m right and I’ll be proved right. We’re more popular than Jesus now; I don’t know which will go first – rock ‘n’ roll or Christianity. Jesus was all right but his disciples were thick and ordinary.’ In The Evening Standard, 4 March 1966.

Richard Reitzenstein. Hellenistic Mystery-Religions: Their Basic Ideas and Significance. Pickwick Press, Pittsburgh, 1979, we quote p. 84.

J. Z. Smith. Drudgery Divine: on the Comparison of Early Christianities and the Religions of Late Antiquity. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL, 1990.

Tabor 1986: see below.

Recommended Reading:

M.N.A. Bockmühl. Revelation and Mystery in Ancient Judaism and Pauline Christianity. Mohr Siebeck, Tübingen, 1990.

Ron Cameron and Merrill P. Miller. Redescribing Paul and the Corinthians, volume 5 of Early Christianity and Its Literature. Society of Biblical Literature, Atlanta, 2011.

Guy Stroumsa. Hidden Wisdom: Esoteric Traditions and the Roots of Christian Mysticism. Brill, Leiden, 1996

The Pauline ‘Mysteries’

B. M. Metzger. Methodology in the Study of Mystery Religions and Early Christianity. Harvard Theological Review, 48:1–20, 1955.

Birger Pearson. Mystery and Secrecy in Paul. In Christian H. Bull, Liv Ingeborg Lied, and John D. Turner, editors, Mystery and Secrecy in the Nag Hammadi Collection and Other Ancient Literature: Ideas and Practices: Studies for Einar Thomassen at Sixty, volume 76, pages 287–302. Brill, Leiden, 2012., we quote p. 288.

Benjamin Gladd. Revealing the Mysterion: The Use of Mystery in Daniel and Second Temple Judaism with Its Bearing on First Corinthians. De Gruyter, Berlin, 2008.

Raymond E. Brown. The Semitic Background of the New Testament Mysterion (I). Biblica, 39(4):426–48, 1958 and Idem. The Semitic Background of the New Testament Mysterion (II). Biblica, 20(1):70–87, 1959.

Pauline Ascent

J. D. Tabor. Things Unutterable: Paul’s Ascent to Paradise in its Greco-Roman, Judaic, and Early Christian Contexts. University Press of America, Lanham, MD/New York, NY/London, 1986.

The Third Epistle to the Corinthians

An English translation of the Acts of Paul, including the Third Letter, by M.R. James (yes, he who wrote all those amazing ghost stories) is available online.