In 2 Corinthians 12:2, Paul wrote (apparently about himself)
I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven–whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows.
Who was that man?
The context of the battle Paul is engaged in with the Jewish-Christian false teachers plaguing Corinth makes it clear that the man Paul is talking about is himself. Almost no Christian commentator in any era has attempted to suggest that it was someone else.
So what did the Third Heaven mean to Jews?
To understand what Paul meant, we need to know that “heaven” is used in three ways in Jewish cosmology.
- Heaven=atmosphere (“where the birds fly”).
- Heaven=outer space (“where the stars are”).
- Heaven=spiritual realm (“where God lives”)
These three uses can be seen throughout the Old and New Testaments. Usually the context – birds, stars, or God himself – tells us which heaven is meant. In modern English Bible versions the word ‘heaven’ for the heaven of birds is usually rendered ‘sky’ in modern translations.
Many commentators believe that Paul is referring to the “third heaven” in Jewish cosmology. i.e., where God lives. In any case it is only a vision as he makes clear in v 1 and v 7. So it may not have been a physical thing at all. If so then it is similar to the visions of Ezekiel (ch1 and 10) and Isaiah (ch6) where they had a vision of God’s dwelling place in heaven.
Jewish mysticism, and Seven Heavens
Beyond this Bible use above of three heavens is a less common use in Jewish cosmology – the concept of “Third Heaven” as one of “Seven Heavens”, not three:
Refuting the “Super-apostles”
Another complication with this reference is that Paul may be giving not his own teaching but reply to the claims to the Judaist so-called “Super-Apostles” of 2 Corinthians 11:5. This section of Paul’s rebuttal 2 Corinthians 11:14 includes references to Second Temple period early rabbinical traditions known today as the “Life of Adam literature”. See the answer to How does Satan disguise himself as an angel of light? for more information on that. A trip to the “third heaven” and “paradise” occurs in that material to in the legendary context of the burial of Adam. So it is possible that 12:2 is partly Paul throwing back the Superapostles’ own teaching at them, rather than it being Paul’s own teaching. It is notable Paul never returns to the subject of “Third Heaven” or any of the other fanciful Life of Adam rabbinical traditions except here in 2 Corinthians ch.11-12 where his is rebutting the Superapostles’ claims.