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Paul in Hell. The Apocryphal Apocalypse of Paul.

You may have not noticed, since so much else has been happening on the blog lately (guest posts, a debate, etc.), but I have a very loose thread  going on my book on the guided tours of heaven and hell, a scholarly monograph that deals with the Christian versions of “katabasis” (the technical term for “going down” — that is, someone going down into the underworld and then reporting what he saw) in relation to Greek, Roman, and Jewish versions.  The clear focus will be on the Christian texts, but to make sense of them it helps do see how they are similar to and different from those found in the surrounding cultures.

My first chapter will provide a set of comparisons of several earlier narratives (Odysseus’s encounter with the dead in the Odyssey book 11, Aeneas’s  descent to Hades in Aeneid book 6, and the vision of Enoch in 1 Enoch 21-22) with the most famous and popular Christian account, the Apocalypse of Paul, which probably dates from the early fifth century but may be based on an account already from the third.  This account was influential on Dante himself.

I’ve already described the three other accounts in earlier posts.  Now I’ll summarize the Apocalypse of Paul’s narrative, so that, when I pick up the thread again a bit later, I can do a comparison of the four.   I’ve simply lifted my summary from my book Forgery and Counterforgery (where I obviously focus on the question of authorship: why does the author claim to be Paul?)

(Apologies to those of you with amazing memories: I posted this summary already on the blog, a couple of years ago)


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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Death and the Meaning of Life
Enoch’s Vision of the Realms of the Dead



  1. Avatar
    Hon Wai  April 26, 2019

    Do we have reliable knowledge, as opposed to conjectures, concerning the motivations of ancient people writing lucid accounts of katabasis? Were they consciously writing literary fiction, akin to Dante’s Inferno, and expect their readers to understand their works in this way? Or they expected and wanted their readers to take the accounts literally and seriously? I would ask similar questions concerning ancient authors of apocalpses – explicit literary fiction, sincere visionary experiences, or deceptions.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 28, 2019

      I think it’s almost always assumed they were writing fictions, though in the cses of the Christain apocalypses it’s a bit hard to say.

  2. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  April 26, 2019

    There is a good 8-minute video of Dr.Ehrman explaining why he is no longer a Christian after having been an evangelical. It was posted by Rick Snedeker on the “Godzooks (patheos) website on 4/25/19..

  3. fefferdan
    fefferdan  April 26, 2019


    So many pseudonymous writers in the ancient Christian world show great concern for right doctrine and seemingly so little concern for what we today consider serious crimes such as fraud and forgery. Do you have a sense for how they thought of what they were doing? Did they think of themselves as authentic channels for the person in whose name they wrote [as many do today]? Or did they merely justify the means [forgery] by the ends [promulgation of right doctrine].

    • Bart
      Bart  April 28, 2019

      I have a discussion of this in my book Forged, and a longer and deeper one in my book Forgery and Counterforgery. I think maybe I’ll post a bit on this, since its such an interesting question.

  4. Lee Ring
    Lee Ring  April 26, 2019

    Concerning “katabasis,” don’t forget to consider Dave’s decent into HAL in 2001, a Space Odyssey. 🙂

  5. Avatar
    fishician  April 26, 2019

    Was he speaking of Christians “who say that Christ did not rise from the dead” or unbelievers? And did he mean they were saying Christ did not rise at all, or just that they were denying a bodily/physical resurrection? If not at all, was there a branch of Christianity that did not believe in the resurrection, like the Sadducees? (And as for marital chastity, apparently the Catholics and the Mormons did not get that memo!)

    • Bart
      Bart  April 28, 2019

      Only the Catholic priests got it…. But I’m not sure what the first question you’re asking is referring to. Anyone who didn’t believe Christ was raised from the dead (in some sense) would be an “unbeliever” from a Christian point of view.

      • Avatar
        fishician  April 29, 2019

        I thought maybe he was taking a swipe at docetism. those who deny Jesus’ bodily form and resurrection, but was wondering if we have record of any early “Christians” who advocated Jesus’ teachings on being part of the Kingdom which were not necessarily tied to his death and resurrection which eventually became orthodox Christian doctrine.

  6. Avatar
    AstaKask  April 26, 2019

    What were the ‘fables’ that Augustine referred to?

  7. Avatar
    forthfading  April 26, 2019

    Dr. Ehrman,

    Do you know if your new book with be available in audio book format? If so, any chance you will narrate it? I have many of your books on CD because it is a great way to spend a long commute to work. I have looked all over for CD versions of Misquoting Jesus and Jesus, Interrupted, but no one has it (not even the great and powerful Amazon). Do you know if CD versions were made for those?

    Thanks, Jay

    • Bart
      Bart  April 28, 2019

      It almost certainly will be; most of them have been. But no, I won’t be reading it. I did that with one of my books (on the Da Vinci Code) and hated it. So monotonous and rather grueling!

  8. Avatar
    wostraub  April 27, 2019

    The Apocalypse of Paul and other later Christian writings were rejected by Augustine and the Church itself, but I wonder why the canonical books of the New Testament were not also criticized for similar fabulous stories. Were 1st Century AD writers considered more honest in their accounts, or were they simply credited with unquestioned divine authority?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 28, 2019

      These books had been accepted as Scripture for so long that they simply were not subject to the same kinds of criticism.

  9. Avatar
    Phil  April 27, 2019

    Dear Bart, I would like to ask a question, I hope this is the right place…

    Was Peter a historical figure, and what can we know about his character?
    In my evangelical youth, Peter was one of everyone’s favourite apostles – impulsive, clumsy, heart in the right place, panicked of course at the time of Jesus’ trial, but later was always giving vigorous leadership, after the resurrection and in Acts.
    Did Peter exist for sure, and was he really like that?

    Many thanks,
    Phil Price (London, UK)

    • Bart
      Bart  April 28, 2019

      Yup, he was definitely a historical figure. I talk about what we can know about him historically, and how he is portrayed in later legends, in the first six chapters of my book “Peter, Paul, and Mary Magdalene”

  10. Avatar
    mkahn1977  April 27, 2019

    Not really related to this but what was the bible you recommended using for the best translation? The real critical inquiry one that isn’t for apologetics.

  11. Avatar
    Jim Cherry  April 28, 2019

    Very interesting/ enlightening post.
    A slightly related question – are there any suspected examples of a scribe changing the Aramaic “Saul” to the Greek “Paul” ?
    Thank you for your continuing enlightenment.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 28, 2019

      In the NT? There are fifteen occurrences of “Saul” in the book of Acts. I don’t find any textual variants indicating a change to “Paul.” But in 12:25 one Greek and one Latin scribe and a couple of versions added a phrase “Saul, who is called Paul”

  12. Avatar
    LesBarrett  May 1, 2019

    With advances in neuroscience, I think it fair to say most physical pain gets to the brain through the senses. Some people have phantom pain; some people feel a burning on skin when there is no actual burning; some feel purely mental pain, etc. One would not need a hellish scenario such as a lake of fire or a vat of boiling oil to experience the worst levels of pain. Stimulation of the nervous system would be more efficient. So why the drama in so many versions of hell? Pain evidently requires a body and senses. Would a creator keep the brains of all his creations alive forever with the portals of the senses permanently turned up to maximum negative input? This seems absurd to me, and has nothing to do with a belief in a creator, whatever that means. Perhaps it is more about punishment and fear, powerful tools where education is weak.

    If a simple transgression could lead to eternal damnation, would it not be simpler to relegate the sinner to Hell after the first act? Why would death be the logical point beyond which redemption/salvation is no longer possible? I can’t believe that this would be explained by God’s inability to control the Devil.

    Another consideration is what happens when one is suddenly put in a situation of extreme pain, such as a crash, a gunshot, a traumatic amputation, or an extreme blow to the body. I have experienced several forms of such things in my lifetime. I have also heard of many stories of others who experienced similar things. One commonality of such events is that I have no recollection of the actual event. Apparently my mind shut down inputs to protect me from unnecessary horror. When I woke or just recovered a few moments later, the actual pain arrived.

    When I have tried to understand why God would let so many creatures die violently, or in great pain, I came to the conclusion that turning off the pain switch at the time of the trauma was “programmed” into living creatures to avoid that final insult to the body and the mind. Perhaps only the hand of God would explain such programming, since I can’t imagine any evolutionary reason for the mind to blank out traumatic pain at the time it is inflicted. But maybe someone else has that figured out.

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