The Apostle Paul and Theosophy – Part two

Leslie Price – England

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

Theosophy Apostle 4 Paul and Theosophy PART 2
The Apostle Paul painted by Dutch painter Rembrandt van Rijn, around 1630

In 1990, John Ashton, in his book The Religion of Paul the Apostle, made a thorough comparison of Paul’s experiences with those of shamanism. Here is an extract: “Paul’s reversal of all his values, his radical change of mind and heart, coincided with his call and conversion. It was at that very moment that he died to his old life and Christ began to live in him. What endured at that time was, though he nowhere describes it in this way, the equivalent of the shaman’s traumatic sense of being torn apart and reconstituted at the moment of his vocation. But Paul’s new spirit guide was different. Christ had attained his own new status, through an actual death and, so Paul believed, an actual rising from the dead” (p. 126).

There is another celebrated experience, probably different from that on the Damascus road, which Paul shared with the Corinthian Christians in his second letter to them (chapter 12): “I knew a man in Christ above fourteen years ago, (whether in the body, I cannot tell; or whether out of the body, I cannot tell: God knoweth); such an one caught up to the third heaven . And I knew such a man (whether in the body, or out of the body, I cannot tell: God knoweth), how that he was caught up into paradise, and heard unspeakable words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter.”

In those apocalypses or revelations which I mentioned earlier, journeys to the heavens were not uncommon. Adela Yarbro Collins examined them in an essay, “The Seven Heavens in Jewish and Christian Apocalypses” [included her in her book Cosmology and Eschatology in Jewish and Christian Apocalypticism” (Brill)]. She concluded that the motif of seven heavens probably came from Babylonia, where the Jews had been exiled in the time of Ezekiel.

A question may arise: “All these Jewish references are very well, but what about those places where Paul clearly uses language from the pagan mysteries?” An example is a passage in the letter to the Colossians, in which the author, Paul or a follower, wrote of the church:“Whereof I am made a minister, according to the dispensation of God which is given to me for you, to fulfil the word of God; Even the mystery which hath been hid from ages and from generations, but now is made manifest to his saints: To whom God would make known what is the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles; which is Christ in you, the hope of glory: Whom we preach, warning every man, and teaching every man in all wisdom; that we may present every man perfect in Christ Jesus.”

In that passage, Paul writes like the chief officiant in the mysteries, who shows holy things, but he calls himself just the minister, who passes on what God had declared to him, which fulfilled the scriptures. And what was this secret? Christ in the heart, Christ in you the hope of glory. That is true wisdom.

Theosophists have rejoiced in the statement “Christ in you the hope of glory” and have noted that Paul even uses a technical term from the mysteries, for it is the novice in those mysteries who eventually became “perfect.” But when we look at the letter to the Colossians as whole we can be left in no doubt that the divine wisdom in question is closely linked with the crucifixion and resurrection of the Lord Jesus as a historical event.

Take this passage early in the letter: “Giving thanks unto the Father , which hath made us meet to be partakers of the inheritance of the saints in light: Who hath delivered us from the power of darkness, and hath translated us into the kingdom of his dear Son: In whom we have redemption through his blood, even the forgiveness of sins : Who is the image of the invisible God , the firstborn of every creature : For by him were all things created, that are in heaven , and that are in earth, visible and invisible, whether they be thrones, or dominions, or principalities, or powers: all things were created by him, and for him: And he is before all things, and by him all things consist. And he is the head of the body, the church: who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead ; that in all things he might have the pre-eminence. For it pleased the Father that in him should all fullness dwell; And, having made peace through the blood of his cross, by him to reconcile all things unto himself; by him, I say, whether they be things in earth, or things in heaven .”

Another important discussion of Theosophy or divine wisdom is in the opening pages of the first letter to the Corinthians. Paul criticises the wisdom of the world: “Where is the wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the lawyer of this world? Hasn’t God made foolish the wisdom of this world? For seeing that in the wisdom of God, the world through its wisdom didn’t know God, it was God’s good pleasure through the foolishness of the preaching to save those who believe. For Jews ask for signs, Greeks seek after wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified; a stumbling block to Jews, and foolishness to Greeks, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God. Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men. For you see your calling, brothers, that not many are wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, and not many noble; but God chose the foolish things of the world that he might put to shame those who are wise. God chose the weak things of the world, that he might put to shame the things that are strong; and God chose the lowly things of the world, and the things that are despised, and the things that are not, that he might bring to nothing the things that are: that no flesh should boast before God. But of him, you are in Christ Jesus, who was made to us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification, and redemption: that, according as it is written, ‘He who boasts, let him boast in the Lord.’ When I came to you, brothers, I didn’t come with excellence of speech or of wisdom, proclaiming to you the testimony of God. For I determined not to know anything among you, except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.”

Madame Blavatsky quotes from this letter but she avoids the teaching that true wisdom came through the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus. Now it may be argued that Paul is speaking about an inner change, expressed in Christian language it is true, but nevertheless basically the same as what was taught in other language by mystical schools. One may be sceptical or about that. Nevertheless, in Paul’s world many religious rites and gods were worshipped. One might venerate gods in the home, in the city, or in another city if traveling. It was always prudent to worship the Roman emperor when invited. One might join a mystery group, venerating Isis for example. But doing so was not exclusive. If you had the time and the money, especially to pay for the dinners, you could be initiated in a variety of groups.

The Jews, however, would often not participate in such activities. They gave no recognition to other gods. And Christians adopted that exclusiveness, which was to cause them serious inconvenience because idol worship, as they saw it, was deeply enmeshed in everyday life, in all social occasions, for example. Christian refusal to worship the emperor would later bring martyrdom.

A century ago, there was a widespread view that Paul’s mysticism could be explained by reference to the mystery religions of his time, such as Mithraism. William Kingsland, an old pupil of HPB, in his book Gnosis (1937) speaks thus of the Christian communion service: “The eucharist, for example, was originally a Mithraic rite, whilst sacramental meals were common in many of the mystery cults” (p. 56).

Kingsland quotes from Professor Samuel Angus, The Mystery Religions and Christianity (1925) . Angus was a Presbyterian scholar who was deeply impressed by the new findings about mystery religions (and narrowly escaped heresy proceedings in Australia). He in turn accepted the view of Franz Cumont, which reconstructed Mithraism in a way that emphasised similarities with Christianity, resemblances that indeed had alarmed Justin Martyr and Tertullian, Christian fathers. Thus Justin Martyr wrote: “For the apostles, in the memoirs composed by them, which are called Gospels, have thus delivered unto us what was enjoined upon them; that Jesus took bread, and when He had given thanks, said, ‘This do ye in remembrance of Me, this is My body’; and that, after the same manner, having taken the cup and given thanks, He said, ‘This is My blood’ and gave it to them alone. Which the wicked devils have imitated in the mysteries of Mithras, commanding the same thing to be done. For, that bread and a cup of water are placed with certain incantations in the mystic rites of one who is being initiated, you either know or can learn.”

Justin Martyr wrote this in about the year 150 in our era, a century after Paul. It is by no means certain he had accurate knowledge of Mithraism, but even if he did, we encounter some problems. The first is one of chronology. It is no use arguing that Paul borrowed from a mystery cult, if the cult rites developed later and elsewhere. Here is a comment from the Christian scholar, Larry Hurtado’s At the Origins of Christian Worship (1999): “Mithraism as we know it from Roman sites and sources is not evidenced at all in the eastern areas where it was once supposed to have originated, and seems more likely to have been a Roman innovation, probably in the West. Although of some popularity among military and low to middle-ranking governmental workers, it was never really propagated among the general populace” (p. 17).

When I was young I subscribed to the short-lived Journal of Mithraic Studies (later revived in electronic form). Two international conferences were held in Manchester (1971) and Tehran (1975), supported by the Shah’s regime. It was already apparent that the old theories about Roman Mithraism, such as the supposed links with Asia, were being doubted. In 1989, David Ulansey’s book The Origin of the Mithraic Mysteries presented an astronomical theory of Mithraism which has been widely accepted.

If one wishes to postulate a Christian borrowing from Mithraism, by Paul or anyone else, one must also recognise that the early Christians were often pacifists rather than soldiers, and that Mithraic initiates appear to have been men only!

Perhaps we can now sum up our investigation of the apostle Paul and Theosophy. We readily accept that Paul had visions and revelations; indeed they were the source of some of his distinctive teaching. Different students call these experiences psychic, shamanistic, prophetic, mystical, or even Theosophical.

The background to these experiences is the Jewish tradition, expressed in the Jewish scriptures. When we analyse the accounts of Paul’s experiences, either by Paul himself, or by the author of Acts, we find that they have their background in Jewish sources. That there is some overlap with other traditions is not to be denied. For example, Paul experienced “things unutterable,” as have mystics everywhere.

It is possible that Paul had belonged to a group, in Jerusalem, for example, who engaged in esoteric attempts to understand the Jewish scriptures. There are puzzles in his background, and it has been suggested that he linked to the Herodian regime installed in the region by the Romans.

Paul devoted much attention to divine wisdom, for which the word theosophy was later coined. But his wisdom is different from that commonly found in his time, and in our time, for that matter. He gives a central importance to the crucifixion, death, and resurrection of a person: Jesus. How much Paul knew about the life of Jesus has been much debated. Professor George Wells has written much suggesting that Paul and other New Testament writers had very limited knowledge about Jesus. But attention needs to be paid to what Paul wrote in the letter to the Galatians quoted above: “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.” I have no doubt he heard on that occasion something of the last days of Jesus, how in the words of the Creed, he had suffered under Pontius Pilate.

If anyone believes I have not done justice to Paul as an initiate, here is a suggested course of action. Reread the letters of Paul and the Acts of the Apostles. Follow up the background in Jewish holy books, by means of commentaries. Familiarise yourself with the current debate about early Jewish and Christian mysticism and esotericism. That, I suggest, is what HPB would have done! She was always aware of recent scholarship. One of the first of the apocalyptic (“revelatory”) writings to be rediscovered, the Book of Enoch, interested her greatly. When the egregious survey by Kersey Graves, “The World’s Sixteen Crucified Saviours,” appeared, she at once responded in Isis Unveiled (1877), pointing out that at least Buddha and Apollonius, to name but two, were not crucified.

But finally a word of counsel. On one occasion, Paul was explaining himself to a Roman procurator: “And as he thus spake for himself, Festus said with a loud voice, Paul, thou art beside thyself; much learning doth make thee mad.” Paul’s message, however, was not actually about learning, exoteric or esoteric. It was about grace. Paul had sought by his own efforts to advance in religion, but his life had been transformed by divine intervention, something that cannot be brought about by techniques. Some time after his conversion, he became a missionary to the non-Jews, the Gentiles. This was rather different from, say, a modern guru, moving comfortably from California to London by jet. As Paul recalled in a second letter to the Corinthian church (chapter 11): “in labours more abundant, in stripes above measure, in prisons more frequent, in deaths oft. Of the Jews five times received I forty stripes save one. Thrice was I beaten with rods, once was I stoned, thrice I suffered shipwreck, a night and a day I have been in the deep; in journeyings often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils by mine own countrymen, in perils by the heathen, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren;in weariness and painfulness, in watchings often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness. Beside those things that are without, that which cometh upon me daily, the care of all the churches.

To follow the path of Paul then is not easy. As to whether it is Theosophical, all must judge for themselves.

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