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Another Gory Account of the Afterlife: The Apocalypse of Paul

Yesterday I discussed the first surviving Christian account of a tour of heaven and hell, an apocalypse allegedly, but not really, written by Jesus’ disciple Peter.   Here is one other, this time allegedly, but not really, written by the Apostle Paul.   I have taken this description from my book Forgery and Counterforgery (which I have revised a bit to get rid of some of the scholarly jargon).


Far more influential on the history of Christian thought than the Apocalypse of Peter, though clearly dependent on it for many of its traditions, the Apocalypse of Paul was originally composed in Greek but came to be translated into a number of languages: Latin, Syriac, Coptic, Armenian, Slavonic, and Ethiopic.  The text as we have it is dated at the outset:  “In the consulate of Theodosius Augustus the Younger and of Cynegius, a certain respected man was living in Tarsus….”  Commonly this is taken to indicate that the book was composed, in its final form, around 388 CE, but scholars today think that it may derive from the fifth century, with parts of it going back at least a century and a half earlier.

Despite its widespread popularity – down at least to Dante – the work was roundly condemned in orthodox circles, including in the Gelasian Decree.   Augustine had nothing good to say about it:

There have been some vain individuals, who, with a presumption that betrays the grossest folly, have forged a Revelation of Paul, crammed with all manner of fables, which has been rejected by the orthodox Church; affirming it to be that whereof he had said that he was caught up into the third heavens, and there heard unspeakable words which it is not lawful for a man to utter. Nevertheless, the audacity of such might be tolerable, had he said that he heard words which it is not as yet lawful for a man to utter; but when he said, which it is not lawful for a man to utter, who are they that dare to utter them with such impudence and non-success.

The account itself begins with …

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Questions on the Resurrection and My Personal Spiritual Experiences: Readers’ Mailbag
Touring Hell: The Apocalypse of Peter



  1. webo112
    webo112  March 22, 2017

    Dr. Ehrman,
    Just a suggestion on your blog site format, the links at the bottom of your blog post that take you to the previous blog, and the one after the current one – shouldn’t you have them the other way around? right now the right one links to the previous post, and left side links to the next one – but that’s counter to the way we read and move forward in books etc. I think the link to the next post should be on the right side of the page, etc….I realized this after trying to navigate to next post but didn’t know I was going backwards in your posting history.


    • Bart
      Bart  March 24, 2017

      Thanks. We’ll look into it.

      • Avatar
        SidDhartha1953  March 25, 2017

        For what it’s worth, I like it the way it is. The vertical index has the most recent post at the top, so it seems logical to have the most recent to the left horizontally. Left is to top as right is to bottom when reading English.

  2. webo112
    webo112  March 22, 2017

    Also, if I post a comment on a older thread (i.e 2014-2015) do you typically still reply?


    • Bart
      Bart  March 24, 2017

      Yes, when I get comments, I get them all together, regardless of what post they are responding to — so I respond simply as I get them.

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    RonaldTaska  March 22, 2017

    If I understand it correctly, unlike the “Apocalypse of Peter,” the Apocalypse of Paul seems to emphasize the importance of “beliefs” about Jesus rather just emphasizing the importance of “righteousness.” Is my understanding correct? The importance of having the “correct beliefs” is emphasized so much in churches today that I am just curious about when and how that emphasis got started and how it evolved.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 24, 2017

      Yes, that too is a point I’m intrigued by, and have been for some time. I was thinking about making the next post about it, and hoping I get some inspiration to have something to say about it other than simply pointing it out….

      • Avatar
        dragonfly  March 25, 2017

        I’m very interested in this too. I don’t think it was a simple linear progression. Jesus believed (and taught) salvation comes by what you do. Our earliest Christian author taught salvation comes by faith. I think a lot of people today misinterpret this as “belief”. I don’t think Paul meant what a lot of people think he meant, and that has probably always been the case. I think this has played a big part in people thinking salvation comes by what you believe.

      • Avatar
        Robby  March 25, 2017

        The importance of correct beliefs was fundamental when I used to teach apologetics. I taught how my particular “brand” of Christianity was correct and all others (Catholic, LDS, JW, Word of Faith) were incorrect. But that’s what apologetics really is… defending one’s particular “brand” of Christianity.

  4. talmoore
    talmoore  March 22, 2017

    It’s funny how, as a movement grows and gains power over outsiders, it starts to turn on its own. We see this in both religious and secular movements. Communists and fascists of the 20th century were quick to turn on their own when they came to power. The Jews of Hasmonean Judea were quick to turn on each other. The Inquisition and Reformation shows how much Christians were anxious to weed out heretics in their midst. The Muslim civil wars following the death of Muhammad are the source of the current divisions in Islam, 1400 years later. It’s a human universal.

    • Avatar
      turbopro  March 24, 2017

      Might/could there be a sociological basis for these behaviours? At least they look like sociological behaviours.

      • talmoore
        talmoore  March 27, 2017

        There are theories. A Marxist might suggest that this is a sympton of an internal “class” struggle within in the movement. A sociologist such as Durkeheim, however, might suggest that it has something to do with members having varying understandings about what should be separated as holy from what is secular. One faction sees certain actions as sacred and thus requisite, while another faction may find the very same action profane and thus optional, if not outright irreverant.

        For my part, I see something in between happening. A good analogy, to me, is George Orwell’s allegory Animal Farm. In Animal Farm all the animals unite under the common cause of pushing out the humans, with the motto “Four Legs Good, Two Legs Bad.” Then the pigs gradually take over the leadership position, dictating to all the other animals what is proper behavior and proper belief. Eventually, the pigs manage to stand up and walk on two legs, subsequently changing the movement’s motto to “Four Legs Good, Two Legs Better.” To quote The Who, “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.”

        In other words, there’s a part of the human psyche that needs to dominate and control. And even after the old guard are removed, and freedom is restored, a new “class” of leaders arises who proceeds to exert the exact same domination and control over the movement as the previous leaders. This creates a perpetual cycle of schism-reformation-establishment-schism-reformation-establishment, and so and so forth, which we see throughout human history. In other words, it’s all power dynamics, with each sect jockeying for power and control of the movement.

  5. Avatar
    jdub3125  March 22, 2017

    These apocalypses of Peter and Paul and also the gruesome sermons of Jonathan Edwards and others are total garbage and not consistent with the servant lifestyle of the humble Jesus. Indeed the 180 opposite. No wonder it’s been 2000 years and sin has not yet been taken from the world.

  6. Avatar
    Vatikan  March 22, 2017

    In your new book about the afterlife will you go in depth about the evolution of eternal heaven/damnation in Christianity? It seems in later books like the Apocalypse of Peter and Paul this idea is more solidified than in books such as the Gospels.

  7. Avatar
    Wilusa  March 22, 2017

    Well, I’m glad at least that this stuff didn’t make it into the Bible! I suppose there’s no way of knowing how many people held these outrageous beliefs…

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    tcasto  March 22, 2017

    What does it mean to be “in a state of fornication”?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 24, 2017

      Ha! Good question! I think it means carrying on a sexual relation outside of marriage without repenting and stopping it.

      • Avatar
        Monty  March 25, 2017

        Of course some of our more “outspoken” evangelical politicians would simply say you’re in California….

      • Avatar
        tcasto  March 25, 2017

        I thought maybe it was something Viagra might induce….

      • Avatar
        heronewb  May 27, 2017

        That would depend on what “fornication” meant by the time of the author. In the NT, “porneos” (translated as “fornication”) means “forbidden/illicit sex”, not “sex before marriage”. To answer, “well, what is “unlawful sex” in the context of the NT? The answer is adultery, incest, beastiality, homosexuality, etc (the types of sexual activity outlawed by the OT law). Coincidentally, the OT never listed “sex before marriage” as a sin, and yet “porneos” (sex acts banned by OT) went on to become to mean “sex before marriage” when Christianity later banned sex before marriage (among other things the bible never banned, such as polygamy). So the question is, “by the time this letter was written, had Christianity already begun lying by stating that “porneos/ fornication” meant “sex before marriage”?

        • Bart
          Bart  May 28, 2017

          I don’t understand why you are calling this a “lie.” Words change their meaning over time, but that doesn’t mean that someone who uses a word with the meaning in his own day is lying about what it means. (Lots of examples, for example, from the King James English to today’s).

          • Avatar
            heronewb  June 1, 2017

            if the church wanted to argue “nowadays, fornication includes any sex outside of marriage”, they can argue that. However, it is factually a lie when they say “the bible in such and such verse says that pre-marital sex is a sin”.

          • Bart
            Bart  June 2, 2017

            That’s right (but it’s a different issue).

  9. Avatar
    James Chalmers  March 22, 2017

    Good liberal that I am, I am much enamored of the harm principle. Looking about for wrongs that are wrong for sure and that should elicit our greatest concern, that call for action, I assume the worst of it is doing harm, and the worst harm is the taking life and inflicting physical pain. That in my book is as immoral as it gets.

    Then I read what the authors of the apocalypses you describe. Yesterday it was blasphemy, braiding, and fornication. Utterance of words disrespectful of the divine, seeking to make one’s hair (sexually) attractive, experience sexual pleasure outside the bounds of marriage (with an admixture of pollution of religious ceremony). Today, above all heresy, in particular, denying the bodily reality that underlies the spiritual elements of our experience.

    So the moral structure of hell has two central features. One, the infliction of severe physical pain. Two, the pain’s continuance for all eternity. And the occasion for the infliction of pain in every case not intrinsically harmful, except on a construction of harm that’s the antithesis of what Mill had in mind.

    It brings to mind Jonathan Edwards delighting in witnessing the deserved torment of the damned. The notion that a benevolent god, who’s assumed to have unlimited authority to determine what’s right and what’s wrong and how they should be responded to–the notion a just, good God would construct such a place as hell and consign a large fraction of his creatures spend eternity there–these notions strike me as being utterly indefensible and extremely reprehensible from a reasonable moral standpoint.

  10. Avatar
    Jarred McCleese  March 22, 2017

    This is not exactly on topic but have you ever thought of doing your own Bible commentary for the New Testament? I for one would be very interested in buying that.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 24, 2017

      I’ve decided (firmly) not to do one. WAY too much work for one human being!

  11. Avatar
    rivercrowman  March 22, 2017

    Both The Apocalypse of Peter and The Apocalypse of Paul are among the numerous texts found in Bart’s book “After The New Testament — A Reader in Early Christianity,” Oxford University Press, 1999. I acquired a copy Christmas Eve and still have a dozen or so selections to read.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 24, 2017

      Also in my book The Lost Scriptures (that collection focuses exclusively on apocryphal texts; After the New Testament, as you know, covers lots of topics)

  12. Avatar
    Jason  March 22, 2017

    Two (I hope) quick and easy ones tonight:
    A) Did early Christians really believe Paul lived to the age of nearly 200 years if he claimed that time and place in the text and Pauline authorship?
    B) Is the evolution of the idea of levels of heaven/hell a topic worth exploring in the afterlife book?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 24, 2017

      A) I’m not sure I understand the question. Who would have thought he lived to be 200?
      B) Yup, that’s what the book will be about!

      • Avatar
        Jason  March 24, 2017

        A) Early christians who argued for its inclusion in the canon on the basis of Pauline authorship.
        B) The book will focus on levels (like rings of Hell or the levels of Angel choirs?)

        • Bart
          Bart  March 26, 2017

          Anyone who thought the book was by Paul dated it to his lifetime. (They didn’t know when it was actually written)

          The only place it will deal wiht levels is in visions of the seven heavens.

  13. Avatar
    BrianUlrich  March 22, 2017

    This isn’t on this post, but memory is enough of a running issue on this blog I am hoping no one will mind. In preparing to teach a class introducing oral history in a gateway class for history majors, I perused Recording Oral History, 3rd Edition, by Valerie Raleigh Yow. It had a chapter on the reliability of human memory the tone of which was completely opposite to your own. It cited studies, such as one by Lee Robins about people correctly remembering experiences in a child guidance clinic 40 years ago and two Dutch psychologists (Wagenaar and Groeneweg) finding people’s testimony about a concentration camp was largely similar in the 1940’s and 1980’s, though with variations such as which guard committed which atrocity. The author’s conclusion in the chapter suggests that people’s memories are generally accurate, though there is variation across time and people’s memories can influence each other.

    This might just be a “glass half full/half empty” thing, but it seems different from what you present on the blog, where you focus on cases where memory as proven unreliable, such as the Dutch researchers who got a wrong answer when they asked a leading question about an airplane film. Do you believe there is a contradiction on the reliability between your views and these other studies, or is a just a case of you pointing out that eyewitness testimony does not automatically mean accuracy?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 26, 2017

      Interesting. Oral history, of course, is very different from oral tradition. But if you want to read up on the latter, I’d suggest starting with Jan Vansina, Oral Tradition: A Study of Historical Methodology.

      • Avatar
        brandon284  April 1, 2017

        I realize my ignorance on the topic is showing, could you explain the differences between oral history and oral tradition?

        • Bart
          Bart  April 2, 2017

          No, it’s not a distinction *most* people are familiar with. Oral history refers to the memory of living persons about the past as they experienced it that has been handed down orally; oral tradition refers to memories circulated among those who did not experience it and often long after the people involved are dead.

  14. Avatar
    Hume  March 22, 2017

    What’s your biggest regret?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 26, 2017

      Well, among the ones I’m willing to admit publicly, one professional one is not being well trained in Classics.

  15. Avatar
    Hume  March 22, 2017

    Would you agree that Satan represented as a goat is an almagamation from the Greek god Pan and Satyrs?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 26, 2017

      Good quesiton — I don’t know! I’ve never thought about it.

    • Avatar
      heronewb  May 27, 2017

      The look of Satan derives to some extent from the Christians’ misunderstanding of Cherubs. In the OT, some beings (that only exist in visions, i.e are never reported to actually exist) are described as having hooved legs and horned animal heads. Christians, when they were playing connect-the-dots to create their Satan character out of thin air, decided to incorporate the accounts of “cherubs”. Hence, we have the story, that Satan is an angel named Lucifer that has hooves and horns, because cherubs have hooves and horns and are angels. This, despite the fact that the bible never says cherubs are angels, never says that “Lucifer” referred to anything other than a human king that was to be brought low, and only once seems to refer to “Satan” as a “fallen angel” (in rev). Christians had to do this in order to avoid the cognitive dissonance they would surely experience if they admitted that Satan, demons, hell, Tartarus, etc are all ideas that were absent from the OT and then magically appeared without explanation (as though none were required) when Christianity was created for a Greek speaking gentile audience familiar with these Greek concepts.

  16. Avatar
    James.levell  March 23, 2017

    With reference to :
    “And they roused the soul saying: Soul take knowledge of your body which you have left, for in the day of resurrection you must return to that same body to receive what is promised to all the righteous”
    Listen to BBC Radio 4 – The Philosopher’s Arms, Series 2, Theseus’ Ship – http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01lhgw8

  17. Avatar
    godspell  March 23, 2017

    How much of this is new? The pagan Greeks lavished many a story on the horrors of the Underworld, the punishments of the guilty in Tartarus. I believe we have much more about Tartarus than we have about Sheol (due to the conflicts in Jewish thinking about what happens after death).

    We shouldn’t for one minute deceive ourselves that paradise and damnation were inventions of Christianity. They would be powerful and well-established ideas in world culture if Jesus had never been born.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 26, 2017

      Yes, one of the questions is always: Where did this idea come from?

  18. Avatar
    Jana  March 23, 2017

    Dr. Ehrman what I find fascinating is sin coupled with sex and the eucharist (presbyter who is punished severely for not fasting and for offering communion while in a state of fornication) and “who took the eucharist but then committed fornication (ch. 31)” So my question … when did Christianity begin to think of sex as sinful? Was it these words and connections? And also the introduction of FEAR rather Terror … Wow.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 26, 2017

      I suppose they *always* thought of some kinds of sex as sinful (e.g., adultery). Only later did some Christians begin to spurn sex of every kind. (Starts being attested esp. in the fourth century)

      • Avatar
        heronewb  May 27, 2017

        My belief is that the origins of “sex under any circumstance is bad” from the church came about this way. You have Jesus, who was apparently a virgin / unmarried etc, then you have people like Paul teaching that it was ideal/prefreable to be unmarried. The obvious reason why a person like Jesus, Paul was sex-less is that they thought the end was nigh. Having children is for the long-haul. The church obviously couldn’t think that since it would mean Jesus and Paul were incorrect in their beliefs about the world ending soon, so they discard that obvious explanation, and then think “they must have done it because ITS HOLY”, despite the fact that biblically speaking, purposefully abstaining from sex and reproduction is most certainly sinful and contrary to God’s plan. It’s similar to when people praise “pacifism” as a very holy and impressive thing (“wow, it’s impressive that Jesus, Ghandi, and MLK chose pacifism when they could have used their powers to violently overthrow their opponents), when in reality, these people were “pacifist” because they had no choice (they would have been squashed instantaneously if they were anything other than “pacifist”), but of course the church can’t see that Jesus was a “pacifist” because he had no other option, no, it must be because it is very holy to allow yourself to get steam rolled (which would also most certainly be a biblical sin, i.e. to allow some injustice to occur when you have the power and agency to prevent it or stop it). That’s my understanding on how chastity became a “good” thing in Christianity. It was a misunderstanding of why the few people that were virgins in the bible, were virgins.

  19. Avatar
    Tempo1936  March 23, 2017

    Visions/physical appearance of Jesus after resurrection grow and embellished over time as books are written
    Mark, Luke, Matthew, John, acts .

    The stories are different as the authors try to make the resurrection more believable by adding details and claims which can’t be refuted as all the eyewitness have died long ago.

  20. Avatar
    jerseyflight  March 24, 2017

    “There have been some vain individuals, who, with a presumption that betrays the grossest folly, have forged a Revelation of Paul…” Poor Augustine, his “audacity might be tolerable, had he said that” the only time forgery matters is when it’s not confirmed by the “orthodox church.” Rejected forgery is heretical, confirmed forgery is canonical!

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