The Apostle Paul and Theosophy – Part one

Leslie Price – England

Second draft (November 5, 2012) of an October 24, 2012 talk to Camberley Theosophical Lodge.

Theosophy Apostle 2 Paul and Theosophy

Two thousand years ago, Europe and the Mediterranean world were ruled by the Roman Empire. Different provinces, cities and communities of the empire had varying rights and responsibilities. Those who followed the Jewish religion enjoyed some religious freedom, and a few even obtained Roman citizenship

There was a substantial Jewish community in Egypt and in modern Iraq, but the religious authorities around the Temple in Jerusalem were pre-eminent, and in their own sphere, they were backed by the Romans. But the development of the Way, a sect within Judaism which venerated a man crucified by the Romans as an agitator, was perceived a danger by the Jewish authorities. They took steps to suppress it, especially among the Greek-speaking Jews, who soon came to recognise the man Jesus as Lord and Saviour, as well as the Messiah or Christ.

Another person, whose Greek name was Paul, helped in the counter-measures against the new sect. He set out to Damascus to seize adherents there- for the harassment of believers in Jerusalem had caused them to spread far and wide.

As it well known, Paul was intercepted on the road to Damascus. We will look at that experience shortly, but what do we mean when we connect Paul with Theosophy?

In 1833, William Whewell (pronounced Hugh-ell) coined the word scientist to describe those who engage in science. Were there no scientists before the word was invented? Of course — Isaac Newton for example.

In the late classical world, in the second century of our era, the word Theosophia (meaning “divine wisdom”) was first employed in Greek. Were there no Theosophists before that? Of course — Plato, Pythagoras and many more. Among them we find an immensely influential and unusual Jew — the Apostle Paul. An apostle was a person in the early Christian community who claimed to be divinely sent to spread their teachings. Yet the divine wisdom of Paul was different from previous wisdom.

There are two main sources of information about Paul. First, his letters in the Bible, mostly to local churches like the one in Corinth, preserved in the Christian New Testament, In a later book, the Acts of the Apostles, Paul as the main character. Paul in Acts takes the teachings into Europe and to Rome, the capital of the Roman Empire. Acts has many vivid scenes. Paul’s letters are memorably passionate. Reading the full books will reveal the context of quotations made by later authors.

Many scholars believe there are problems with these sources. Though the letters give us more insight into Paul than into any other Jew of his time, they may have been changed in transmission, reorganised or edited, and it is not always clear for example, who his opponents are. There have even been suggestions of forgery of some letters. As for the Acts, they have no information about most Apostles; only sketchy knowledge of the Holy Land; and an account of Paul, his journeys and teachings, which differs from that in the Letters attributed to Paul.

When people read the Letters and Acts, they naturally bring their own perspective. Paul himself wrote in First Corinthians: “I am made all things to all men, that I might by all means save some.” So there are passages where he emphasises his Jewish training; others where he displays knowledge of contemporary Greek culture, including the mystery cults.

A Theosophist may come to Paul’s work with an eye for the common truth found in all major religions, and for evidence of initiation in esoteric traditions. And indeed Madame Blavatsky (1831-1891), the chief teacher of the Theosophical Society, founded in 1875 in New York, often referred to Paul, whom she called an initiate. A Dutch scholar, Dr H. J. Spierenburg, collected all her statements in an excellent book, The New Testament Commentaries of H. P. Blavatsky (1987).

She was, for example, impressed when Paul called himself a “master builder.” It was, she said, “A term absolutely theurgic, Masonic, and occult. Paul, by using it, declares himself an initiate having the right to initiate others.” However the word in question architekton, “master builder,” (from which we get our term architect) features in the Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures, as Dr Spierenburg noted. In particular, master builders constructed the Tabernacle in the wilderness, after the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt. That Paul was versed in esotericism, we may readily agree, but it was based on the Jewish scriptures.

Again, HPB claims in her book Isis Unveiled: “proof that Paul belonged to the circle of the ‘Initiates’ lies in the following fact. The Apostle had his head shaved in Cenchrea (where Lucius Apuleius was initiated) because he had a vow. The Nazars — or set apart — as we can see in the Jewish scriptures, had to cut their hair which they wore long, and which ‘no razor touched’ at any other time, and sacrifice it on the altar of initiation.” She adds boldly “And the Nazars were a class of Chaldean theurgists…. Jesus belonged to this class.”

But if the Nazars (or Nazarenes) were a group recognised as early as the biblical Book of Numbers, chapter 6, which describes the Israelite journeys in the wilderness between Egypt and the promised land, they were scarcely esoteric. A cleansing ritual is described in that chapter involving a priest. In Acts 21, Paul pays for four other persons, also Nazars, to have animal sacrifices in the Jerusalem Temple. These rituals are part of exoteric religion.

So Paul’s Theosophy begins in the framework of the Jewish Bible, the Christian Old Testament, though sometimes it is the Greek translation of the Jewish Bible, called the Septuagint, which Paul has in mind, and not the Hebrew original.

In the Bible, for example, we find the Book of Proverbs attributed to King Solomon, son of King David. Some proverbs are short, such as 1:7: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge: but fools despise wisdom and instruction.” There is a famous longer passage: (9.1)“Wisdom hath builded her house, she hath hewn out her seven pillars: She hath killed her beasts; she hath mingled her wine; she hath also furnished her table. She hath sent forth her maidens: she crieth upon the highest places of the city . . . . Whoso is simple, let him turn in hither: as for him that wanteth understanding, she saith to him, Come, eat of my bread, and drink of the wine which I have mingled . . . . Forsake the foolish, and live; and go in the way of understanding.”

And also on wisdom, in the same Book of Proverbs (chapter 8): “The Lord possessed me in the beginning of his way, before his works of old. I was set up from everlasting, from the beginning, or ever the earth was. When there were no depths, I was brought forth; when there were no fountains abounding with water. Before the mountains were settled, before the hills, was I brought forth, while as yet he had not made the earth, nor the fields, nor the highest part of the dust of the world. When he prepared the heavens, I was there: when he set a compass upon the face of the depth: When he established the clouds above: when he strengthened the fountains of the deep: When he gave to the sea his decree, that the waters should not pass his commandment: when he appointed the foundations of the earth: Then I was by him, as one brought up with him: and I was daily his delight, rejoicing always before him; rejoicing in the habitable part of his earth; and my delights were with the sons of men. Now therefore hearken unto me, O ye children: for blessed are they that keep my ways.”

In the Apocrypha — books after the Old Testament era (sometimes called “intertestamental”), which are included in the Roman Catholic Bible, but not the Protestant ones, we have the Book of Wisdom, which includes such passages as “For wisdom, which is the worker of all things, taught me” (7:22). For wisdom, which is the worker of all things, taught me: for in her is an understanding spirit holy, one only, manifold, subtil, lively, clear, undefiled, plain, not subject to hurt, loving the thing that is good quick, which cannot be letted, ready to do good, Kind to man, steadfast, sure, free from care, having all power, overseeing all things, and going through all understanding, pure, and most subtil, spirits. For wisdom is more moving than any motion: she passeth and goeth through all things by reason of her pureness. For she is the breath of the power of God, and a pure influence flowing from the glory of the Almighty: therefore can no defiled thing fall into her. For she is the brightness of the everlasting light, the unspotted mirror of the power of God, and the image of his goodness. And being but one, she can do all things: and remaining in herself, she maketh all things new: and in all ages entering into holy souls, she maketh them friends of God, and prophets.

These Jewish books and others of the Wisdom literature were known to Paul and other early Christians. We clearly see titles and work previously attributed to Wisdom being attributed to the Lord Jesus instead.

The Dead Sea Scrolls, found in caves near Qumran about 1948, included sections from the Old Testament or Jewish Bible that are a thousand years older than any previously known; they include guidance for religious community life and other material from the time of Paul. Most striking is the Angelic Liturgy, also known as Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice. They are thirteen songs, one for each of the first thirteen sabbaths of the year, describing worship by angels around the throne of heaven. They may have been chanted or sung by members of one or more groups and have been intended to induce visionary experience. They are rooted in the Jewish Bible. Paul may have known of these songs.

Before turning to the major issues in Paul’s experience, here is an example of how some of the esoteric overtones may flow over us, unsuspected. This example is from Alan Segal’s book Paul the Convert (1990), which includes a chapter on “Paul’s Ecstasy.” Segal also contributed a later essay, “The Afterlife as Mirror of the Self,” to the first volume in 2008 of Experientia, a book series exploring religious experience in early Judaism and the origins of early Christianity. Paul wrote: “But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as by the Spirit of the Lord” (2 Corinthians 3.18).

Segal suggests (Experientia, p. 26): “The use of the mirror here is also a magic-mystical theme.” He calls attention to the vision of the prophet Ezekiel. In the first chapter of the Book of Ezekiel, the prophet has a remarkable vision of wheels and faces. Meditation on this vision led to the school of Merkabah mysticism. Segal recalls a tradition that Ezekiel’s vision was triggered by looking into the waters of the river Chebar (a river in the “land of the Chaldeans” [Ezekiel 1:3; 3:15, 23]). It is commonly regarded as identical with the Habor. He adds: “The mystic bowls of the magical papyri and Talmudic times were filled with water and oil to reflect light and stimulate trance.”

Merkabah mysticism developed using Ezekiel’s vision of wheels, faces, chariots, and thrones; similarly, the later Kabbalistic tree was used in meditation exercises by students. In 1971 John Bowker suggested that on the road to Damascus, Paul was meditating on Ezekiel’s vision, and on Ezekiel’s call as a prophet, and that this might have triggered Paul’s own vision and call.

Other influential descriptions of transcendental experience came to prophets such as Isaiah, especially at the time of their calling. Many later books were also called apocalypses or “revelations,” which described how the secrets of heaven were revealed to heroes such as Enoch.

Christopher Rowland is the leading British scholar of apocalyptic literature from Scriptural times. He is the principal author of a paper “Visionary Experience in Ancient Judaism and Christianity” in the 2006 anthology Paradise Now: Essays on Early Jewish and Christian Mysticism. In Rowland’s paper, the possibility is raised that when an ancient writer wrote about another revelation from a heroic figure of the past, like Enoch, the seer may have believed he was temporarily possessed by the hero, or was being conducted round heaven by the hero in an actual vision. Rowland and other scholars challenge the long dominant materialistic approach, in which these ancient writings were seen as merely literary documents rather than records of actual experiences.

The Society of Biblical Literature has a unit, now called “Esotericism and Mysticism in Antiquity,” which each year invites papers for the SBL conferencedevoted to the topic of angelology and demonology in religious currents of esotericism or their revelation through praxis (mysticism) in the formative period of Judaism and Christianity (ca. 500 BCE-500 CE). The November 2012 SBL meeting was in Chicago.

In one of the letters to a Christian fellowship, the Galatians, Paul wrote of his early days: “But I certify you, brethren, that the gospel which was preached of me is not after man. For I neither received it of man, neither was I taught it, but by the revelation of Jesus Christ. For ye have heard of my conversation in time past in the Jews’ religion, how that beyond measure I persecuted the church of God , and wasted it: And profited in the Jews’ religion above many my equals in mine own nation, being more exceedingly zealous of the traditions of my fathers . But when it pleased God , who separated me from my mother’s womb, and called me by his grace, to reveal his Son in me, that I might preach him among the heathen; immediately I conferred not with flesh and blood: Neither went I up to Jerusalem to them which were apostles before me; but I went into Arabia, and returned again unto Damascus . Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to see Peter, and abode with him fifteen days . But other of the apostles saw I none, save James the Lord’s brother.”

Another account is given of this experience in Acts — in fact it is narrated three times with minor variations. Here is the third one, the account given by Paul to King Agrippa: “Whereupon as I went to Damascus with authority and commission from the chief priests, At midday, O king, I saw in the way a light from heaven, above the brightness of the sun, shining round about me and them which journeyed with me. And when we were all fallen to the earth, I heard a voice speaking unto me, and saying in the Hebrew tongue, Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me? it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks. And I said, Who art thou, Lord? And he said, I am Jesus whom thou persecutest. But rise, and stand upon thy feet: for I have appeared unto thee for this purpose, to make thee a minister and a witness both of these things which thou hast seen, and of those things in the which I will appear unto thee; Delivering thee from the people, and from the Gentiles, unto whom now I send thee, To open their eyes, and to turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan unto God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins, and inheritance among them which are sanctified by faith that is in me. Whereupon, O king Agrippa, I was not disobedient unto the heavenly vision: But shewed first unto them of Damascus, and at Jerusalem, and throughout all the coasts of Judaea, and then to the Gentiles, that they should repent and turn to God, and do works meet for repentance.”

The accounts given in Acts are more literary; indeed they may well have been shaped by a concept of how a prophet is supposed to be called. But other overtones are in the way Paul is blinded by the light and takes refuge in Damascus in a shattered state, until a Christian called Ananias is sent to revive him. These details echo how a shaman, a traditional practitioner founded in Siberia and elsewhere, may experience a crisis, a grave illness, a revelation before being commissioned to return to the world, and carry out his work.

To be continued

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