Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Paul and the Merkabah

Paul's vision on the road to Damascus has often been puzzling to me. The standard telling of the story consists of a devout Pharisee persecuting the Christians who is converted through a vision of the resurrected Jesus Christ. The question that always accompanied my reading of Acts 9 was in regards to the catalyst of Paul's vision. My previous assessment drew comparisons to the experience of Alma the Younger: an angelic appearance or theophany brought about by the prayers and suffering of others. While this may very well be the case when it comes to Paul, I am convinced that the vision rests comfortably within the context of merkabah mysticism; a reference to Ezekiel's vision of the anthropomorphic God upon His chariot-throne.[1] As Rice University's April DeConick explains,

The centerpiece of this [priestly] cosmology is the belief that God has a "body," called the "Glory" or Kavod of YHWH. This idea grew out of the study of certain Jewish scriptures, particularly sections of Ezekiel that describe his visions of an enthroned "likeness as the appearance of a Man ('adam)," a Man who looked like "fire" with "brightness around him." This is "the appearance of the likeness of the Glory (kavod) of YHWH" (Ezek 1:28). This figure is the very manifestation of the hidden YHWH, depicted in the scriptures as an anthropomorphic figure of fire or light (see Ezek 1:27-28; 8:2; Isa 6:1-4). He presides over the created order, oftentimes seated up his merkabah, a special throne consisting of two cherubim with wings spread over the kapporet, the lid of the ark of the covenant in the temple.[2]



In some forms of the interpretation of Ezek 1 the meaning of the text may have come about as the result of "seeing again" what Ezekiel saw. The visionary's own experience of what had appeared to Ezekiel becomes itself the context for a creative interpretation of the text...In some circles this led to renewed visionary experience as expounders saw again what had appeared to the prophet, but in their own way and appropriate for their own time.[3]

This not only demonstrates the power and importance of prayer in receiving revelation, but also the power and importance of the scriptures.[4]


1. See William Hamblin's lecture on the merkabah tradition in Ezekiel and its connection to the temple at David Larsen's blog.

2. April D. DeConick, "What Is Early Jewish and Christian Mysticism?" in Paradise Now: Essays on Early Jewish and Christian Mysticism, ed. April D. DeConick (Atlanta, GA: SBL, 2006), 11-12.

3. Christopher Rowland, with Patricia Gibbons and Vicente Dobroruka, "Visionary Experience in Ancient Judaism and Christianity," in Paradise Now: Essays on Early Jewish and Christian Mysticism, ed. April D. DeConick (Atlanta, GA: SBL, 2006), 56.

4. For more on Paul and his conversion, see Alan F. Segal, Paul the Convert: The Apostolate and Apostasy of Saul the Pharisee (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1990).

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