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 in the Old Testament?
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.
Third Heaven in Jewish myths, 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:
And elsewhere: “Rabbi Me’ir says: ‘There are seven heavens’;”” “Resh Lavish said: There are seven heavens, named Wilon, Rakia’, Shehakim, Zebul, Ma’ on, Makon and ‘Arabot.”” “Every seventh is loved by God. In the heavens, the seventh
… (Abraham Isaac Katsch Judaism in Islam. 1980 p.24)
Refuting the “Super-apostles” and the ‘Life of Adam and Eve’ myths.
Another complication with this reference to Third Heaven in 2 Co 11 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 of those super-apostles in 2 Corinthians 11 and 12 includes references to Second Temple period early rabbinical traditions known today as the Life of Adam literature. The clearest reference is 2 Corinthians 11:14 with the very obvious reference to the myth of Satan disguising himself as an angel to deceive Eve as found in the Life of Adam legends. (See the answer to How does Satan disguise himself as an angel of light? for more information on that myth). It is too much of a coincidence to say that two references to the ‘Life of Adam and Eve’ – Third Heaven and Satan disguising himself as an angel of light – occur in such close proximity in one extended rebuttal of the Jewish super-apostles.
Life of Adam and Eve is not just one text but a family of texts surviving in different versions with some core and overlapping textual material. The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha scholar James Charlesworth summarises:
“Of the many books attributed to Adam, the most important are the Vita Adae et Evae and a different recension of the same book, the misnamed Apocalypsis Mosis; …. There is wide agreement that the original dates from the first century A.D. and was composed in a Semitic language. This haggadic midrash on Genesis 1-4 relates in 51 chapters (according to LAE) the life of Adam and Eve, concentrating upon the problems encountered after the expulsion from Eden and the cause of their rejection.” (James Charlesworth in The Pseudepigrapha and Modern Research, p. 74)
There are various old and modern translations of the Life of Adam and Eve, some of them misnamed as the Apocalypse of Moses.
A trip to the “third heaven” and “paradise” occurs in that Life of Adam literature in the legendary context of the burial of Adam. So it is possible that 12:2 is partly Paul throwing back the Super-apostles’ own teaching at them, rather than it being Paul’s own teaching. He is mocking it, but we don’t have the letters from Corinth to Paul to give us the full context. What is certain is that Third Heaven is linked to Corinth. Paul never returns to the subject of “Third Heaven” or any of the other fanciful Life of Adam rabbinical traditions again in any of his letters. Allusions to the Life of Adam texts are found only in 2 Corinthians ch.11-12 where Paul is rebutting the Super apostles’ claims. The reasonable conclusion is that they, not Paul, had been the ones introducing these teachings in Corinth in Paul’s absence.