Volume 15 (1977-1978)


Heavenly Ascent in Graeco-Roman Piety


Co-chairs: John Gager and Ross Kraemer


(15.1, October 17, 1977)

 John Gager and Ross Kraemer, Introductions


(15.2a, November 27, 1977)

Robert A. Kraft, Body/Soul Separation in Early Jewish Death/Ascent Accounts


(15.2b, November 27, 1977)

Michael E. Stone, Old Jewish Ascent Forms and Visions


(15.3, March 14, 1978)

William Adler, The Agon Motif in Graeco-Roman Mithraism


(15.4, May 2, 1978)

Janet Timbie, Heavenly Ascent and Visionary Experience in Coptic Literature




Topic for 1977-1978: Heavenly Ascent in Graeco-Roman Piety.

Meeting of October 18, 1977, 7 p.m., Williams Hall, University of Pennsylvania.


The initial session of the 1977-78 Seminar was convened by co-chairperson John Gager. After customary introductions and announcements the Seminar held introductory presentations by John Gager (Princeton University) and Ross Kraemer (University of Pennsylvania).


Introduction 1, John Gager


My hypothesis is that the theme or motif of the heavenly journey/ascent of the soul is the fundamental model of individual cultic piety and religious experience in the Graeco-Roman world. The motif is found not only in Judaism, Christianity, and “paganism,” but crosses those traditional lines and is central to all of them. If this hypothesis is even approximately correct, we will need to look again at certain religious beliefs and practices which are quite familiar to us, but which we have considered from different perspectives; e.g. the resurrection, ascension, and exaltation of Jesus. What follows is a preliminary substantiation from the different religious groupings.


A. In Judaism, the idea of the heavenly ascent is found most obviously in apocalyptic circles where the very definition of the apocalyptic vision and the apocalyptic seer is dependent on the notion of a journey to the heavens and a subsequent reporting to the broader community of what was experienced while there. The rabbis, too, were familiar with the phenomenon even though for various reasons they often treated it as an esoteric and highly dangerous affair. The late Jewish mystics had no such reservations, and considered a heavenly journey to be at the acme of their religious discipline. Philo, representative of a broad stream within hellenized Diaspora Judaism, saw the process of Biblical exegesis as involving not only possession by the divine spirit and submission to Moses as an exalted mystagogue, but even more fundamentally involving a perpetual flight from the realm of the physical into the realm of the spiritual.


B. On the Christian side, I would argue that from the very first followers of Jesus to the time of Origen, one of the most salient features of Christianity was the hope for an experience of the heavenly journey. The resurrection and ascension of Jesus is widely seen as Jesus’ heavenly journey, and in turn this journey is understood as his personal triumph over his enemies. Many followers understood their own salvation or redemption as taking the form of following the path which Jesus had already paved for them. Paul, for example, saw this hope for his own ascent in two basic forms: 1) In 2 Corinthians 12, Paul speaks of a certain man (himself?) in Christ who had been taken up to the 3d heaven and heard things that cannot be told. This ascent takes place before death in which the individual learns the mysteries of heaven. 2) In Phil 1:19 ff, a quite different image of ascent is used where Paul describes his own desire “to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better.” Paul is stating a religious goal which I take to be axiomatic for individual religious piety in our period: “It is better to depart and be with Christ.” Ignatius shared this same religious ideal when he spoke of “getting to God” (a journey). The final stage of Origen’s individualized eschatology in the Peri Archon has the soul ascending gradually through the heavenly regions, and finally transcending bodily reality altogether, enjoying the ultimate vision of God himself.


C. In pagan materials, the idea of the heavenly journey is commonplace. The Orphics were so convinced that their souls would journey to heaven that they buried heavenly roadmaps with the dead. In Book 11 of the Metamorphosis, Apuleius has Lucian initiated into the cult of Isis; at the center of that initiation was a journey through the heavens, from top to bottom. In neoplatonism (as we learn from Porphyry about Plotinus) the goal of all philosophical inquiry was to release the soul from the body and to ascend to the perfect union with the One. The so-called Mithraic Liturgy describes in elaborate detail the techniques guaranteeing not only a safe ascent to the highest heaven, but a safe return as well.


There are several observations which should be kept in mind in discussing heavenly ascents:


1) There is undoubtedly a close connection between what we are calling heavenly ascents and the very widespread phenomenon of shamanism in traditional societies. If the role of the shaman was to disassociate body and spirit, and in the spirit visit the realm of the gods in order to learn from them and report back, then we are dealing with a democratization of shamanism in our period. The individual holy person has become the ideal.


2) In suggesting this connection between shamanism and heavenly ascents, I am proposing that a basic and recurrent human experience is at hand. That is, the perilous journey of the soul to the heavenly regions is at some level a common concept of humankind.


3) I am convinced that the prominence of heavenly journeys in our period is a direct function of what E. R. Dodds (Pagan and Christian in an Age of Anxiety, Cambridge: Univ. Press, 1965) has called the progressive devaluation of life in the physical universe. One way in which this cosmic pessimism shows itself is in this idea of a heavenly journey, coupled with the widespread idea of the heavenly origin of the soul. This view, popular in our period allowed the contemplation of life on this earth as a temporary and tragic interception of a round-trip passage.


Introduction 2, Ross Kraemer,


Any attempt to categorize the phenomena of heavenly ascent raises some descriptive and hence definitional questions. It seems impossible to limit the discussion to journeys of the soul apart from the body, or to the locales of the heavens, since much of apocalyptic literature would be excluded. The time of the journey in the life-span of the individual also raises problems: whether before or after death, or even between the first and second death.


In spite of the problems of definition and variety, it may be possible to categorize these experiences for study. Journeys of the soul into realms not normally frequented by human beings in their everyday lives occur in virtually all the religious milieu of the Graeco-Roman world. Most of the examples I have used are from sources which may be considered Christian at some levels although not necessarily in their original forms. The features of such journeys are diverse, but certain questions emerged from all the texts:


1) The person to whom the experience occurs: Figures from Jewish and Christian scriptures predominate in the texts from those religious traditions, although some figures appear to have no clear cut scriptural traditions. Most of the participants are male. That such journeys occur primarily to legendary figures raises the problem of their historicity--where historicity refers not necessarily to the reality of such journeys but to the perceived reality of such journeys to specific human beings in the Graeco-Roman world. In spite of the stereotyped forms of revelation found in apocalyptic writers it would seem that such experiences were perceived by actual Jews and Christians as well. Note, for instance, Paul’s account in 2 Corinthians 12, as well as statements by Philo and Josephus that such things were possible. The prevalence of the story of the heavenly journey would seem to suggest a basis in actual human experience. The accounts of similar journeys in the Greek and Roman traditions, from Plato to Apuleius, would support this.


2) Instigation of the experience: I could find no pattern in the requesting of visionary or traveling experiences. There is to be no significant correlation between the type of religious tradition involved and the instigation of the experience.


3) Preparation undertaken in advance of psychic experiences: In the texts I sampled, various degrees of preparation were mentioned, from none at all to fasting, prayer, repentance, and even conversations. There appears to be no correlation between soliciting a journey and preparing for it. For the most part, Jewish and Christian encounters are brought on without the aid of magical or ritual performances designed specifically to that end. The Mithras Liturgy of course, is a startling exception, and probably not the only one.


4) Conditions under which the encounter commences (other than death): Heavenly journeys and visions occur both from the waking state and while asleep. There appears to be no consistency in this matter.


5) Whether the soul was separated from the body or not: This particular characteristic of the encounters is perhaps the most problematic, since it has definitional implications. Travels in the body would seem to be out of our discussion, yet Paul’s uncertainty as to the state of the man who traveled to the third heaven would suggest that we need to be open here. In fact, there are a surprising number of journeys explicitly undertaken in the body, as well as clear cases of the soul being separated from the body.


6) The content of the vision/revelation: Most frequently, visitors to unearthly realms are shown the torments awaiting the sinners and the rewards awaiting the righteous. The preponderance of the visions involved rewards and punishments, while the exact nature of the heavens varies in different accounts. Mostly, the preoccupation is with the heavenly futures but occasionally the earthly future as well is revealed.


There are several interesting issues which could emerge from a study of these phenomena:


a) There could be some clarification of the relationship between the phenomena at hand and revelation in the Graeco-Roman world. That is, revelation seems to be a key ingredient in these journeys, although clearly one can receive revelations in other manners. The problem of visions versus journeys arises, since in some cases it is most difficult to determine which is being described.


b) There are basically two modes of encounters here--those which benefit primarily the individual, as an anticipation of the life of the soul after death, and those which have import for the individual soul but whose primary focus is the community to whom the revelation will be imparted. From these latter revelations, as in the Jewish and Christian descriptions of the rewards and punishments that await souls, can be derived clear messages about the kinds of social behaviors which are acceptable, and which are not. A comparative study of these rewards and punishments might afford a basis for studying the different social concerns of different communities, and for determining social norms.


c) These texts also afford a means for studying ancient cosmologies, for the structure of the universe seems to vary from text to text, although with certain basic assumptions. The correlation between human activity in the body and the fate of the soul after death, and the relationship between the body and the soul, and even the fundamental nature of human beings, might also be considered on the basis of these texts. The paucity of women who experience these journeys/ visions could lead to a study of the various communities’ feelings about whether women could have souls.




During the discussion following the presentations, it became obvious that the Seminar questioned whether the category of heavenly ascent was capable of being fit into the analysis suggested. There seem to be far too many complicating factors, tending to render the whole study problematic. Some of these factors mentioned were:


What is the relationship between heavenly journeys and revelation? There seem to be some ascents without revelation, often considered of great significance. Or what of Hermas, who seems to get the same results with or without a journey, or with a journey which was not heavenly. Do dreams count in the analysis and how? So far, dreams have been discounted unless they were of heavenly journeys. Again, how do visions fit in? The question of possession was considered--must one be “grabbed up” by the spirit to make an ascent? The witness of the magical tradition would seem to indicate that such possession was not necessary. Complicating the whole discussion was the hypothesis of Alan Segal (PSCO 14.4) that heavenly ascents and descents were of identical significance.


The Seminar considered how the experience of heavenly ascent either influenced, or was influenced by the group model. In some communities, the heavenly ascent was desired by all; in others, only the revelatory results were important, and the journey itself was incidental. In some cases, the content of the information revealed was a pattern for the conduct of souls in this life; in others, it was simply an insight into the future and hopes of the community itself. Because of the force of group norms, it becomes difficult to determine whether the experience was felt as “genuine,” or as a literary reflection of group expectations and insights.


Particular attention was paid to the problems of the heavenly ascent as portrayed in Jewish materials. Almost all of the Jewish texts are pseudepigraphic, and thus quite difficult to evaluate. There are very few Jewish descriptions of religious experiences from our period, limited perhaps to Philo and Paul. Even in highly mystical texts, Jewish authors are extremely reticent to describe the highest experience, and seem to limit themselves to the preparatory stages only. Further, for most Jewish writers there can be no ascent of the soul, since the soul cannot be separated from the body; usually a vision is described instead.


The philosophical problems of perceived reality also intrude into this study. For the Platonists, “reality” as perceived by other philosophies may not exist. Whether there is a soul, whether it is separable, and whether it can travel are important aspects of Graeco/Roman anthropology/cosmology which do not seem to be at all constant. For some, all dreams were the soul in travel. In later Platonism, the soul was given a “body” of its own in order to get around the inherent difficulties of the lack of a sensate soul.


Respectfully submitted, Robert V. Hotchkiss, Recording Secretary





Topic for 1977-1978,. Heavenly Ascent in Graeco-Roman Piety.

Meeting of November 27, 1977, 7 p.m., Williams Hall, University of Pennsylvania


The second session of the 1977-78 Seminar was convened by co-chairperson Ross Kraemer. After customary introductions and announcements, the Seminar heard presentations by Robert A. Kraft (University of Pennsylvania) and Michael Stone (Hebrew University, Jerusalem).


Body/Soul Separation in Death/Ascent Accounts, Robert A. Kraft


This is the beginning of a study which developed from an inquiry into the phenomenon of ecstatic prophecy. I am seeking to determine what relationships, if any, exist between ideas of what happened (to the soul) at death and what took place in “ecstatic” trances/visions which resulted in “heavenly” journeys. The focus is on the mention of specific time periods (usually 3 or 7 days) after death in which “revelations” and journeys occur. Two specific kinds of texts seem to be involved: 1) those which tell the non-physical aspect of the experiences of those who seemed to the and came back, and 2) death accounts in many instances.


Most helpful in the study has been W. Bousset, “Die Himmlsreise der Seele,” ARW 4 (1901) 136-139, 229-273 (reprinted separately, e.g. by Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft of Darmstadt, 1960). This contains a survey of pertinent materials on the heavenly journey of the soul from 1) Judaism and Christianity, including Gnosticism, 2) Iranian religion in general, 3) Babylonian influences on ideas of 3 or 7 heavens, 4) Greek sources, and 5) “syncretistic” Greek-Oriental material such as in the Chaldean Oracles and the Hermetic Corpus. Less helpful is P. Volz, Judische Eschatologie von Daniel bis Akiba, Tubigen: Mohr/Siebeck, 1903, later revised and expanded as Die Eschatologie der judischen Gameinde im neutestamentlichen Zeitalter, nach den Quellen der rabbinischen, apokalyptischen und apokryphen Literatur dargestellt, 1934; repr. Hildescheim, 1966.


A. Selected texts of Jewish and/or Christian origin:


Ascension of Isaiah 6-11. Isaiah becomes as one dead (6.17b); his “mind” is taken up through the seven heavens to return and report the “vision.” The usual text, from Ethiopic (R. H. Charles) has no time span indicated, but a variant Greek tradition from a 12th century MS (O. von Gebhardt, ZWT 21 [1878] 330-353) gives a three day and three night time period for the travel.


Paraleipomena Jeremiou 9.7-26. Jeremiah becomes as dead, but after three days his soul comes back to his body and he reports privately the “mysteries he has seen” (9.23-26).


Testament of Abraham A.20 (see B.14). At death, Abraham’s soul is taken to heaven, while his body is tended for three days before burial. The revelations come before all this, so that this text may not be especially helpful.


4 Ezra 7.75-101. In answer to a question about death, it is said that the soul after death has seven days of freedom to survey the seven levels on each side, and then it goes to an intermediate state.


B. Similar texts from other traditions; Greek:


Plato, Republic 10.614B ff. Er, slain in battle, returns after twelve days to his undecayed body and reports on the fate of souls after death. Plutarch, De sera numinis vindicta. Aridaios Thespestos returns to life after three days, in which his soul journeyed through the heavenly regions (see Bousset 63, n. 3).


Plutarch, De ginio Socratis 22. Timarchus returns to life after two nights and one day of similar journeying.


C. Similar texts from other traditions; Iranian:


Yast 22 and 24.53-65. Souls of the righteous/pious remain in the body for three days after death, then proceed in four stages to the view of the divine throne. This may be a late text. For others, see Bousset 24-32.


Several questions for further attention:


To what extent did the idea of “heavenly ascent/journey” develop and/or originate in close connection with, or independently of “after death” beliefs? Is the relationship of “testament” form and “apocalyptic” content to be understood partly in this context?


Is there any direct relationship between burial customs and ideas of what happens to the soul immediately after death. Was there a time period (three days) before burial to give the soul time to leave, or time to come back?


Is there any relationship between traditions of three or seven day revelatory periods and concepts of three or seven heavens?


Old Jewish Ascent Forms and Visions, Michael E. Stone


Scholem showed, many years ago, a distinct connection in terminology between the earliest body of Jewish mystical ascent texts, the “Merkabah” texts of the Amoraitic period and earlier, and the description of Enoch’s ascent before the deity in 1 Enoch 14. With the publication of the Angelic Liturgy from Qumran, it is now possible to trace the same terminology among the sectaries.


The Qumran Enoch MS indicates that Enoch was written, at the latest, in the third century B.C.E. This means that by that time there had developed, partly based on Ezekiel, the central of the terminological tradition and linguistic formulations which later appear in the Qumran material, in pseudepigrapha such as the Life of Adam and the Apocalypse of Abraham, and in Tannaitic sources of the first and second centuries C.E. and later. This sort of “classical” ascent vision is strikingly absent from the Hebrew Bible. Does it follow, then, that the Biblical sources are selective as to what they transmit?


What role does the ascent play? This central question seems to depend on the role which visions play in the religious life of the community or individuals who are cultivating them. The Jewish apocalyptic material, being pseudepigraphic and unaccompanied by any external historical evidence about the life and activities of the community, seems to defy any such examination except through the visions themselves. When this is done, certain things become clear.


In the merkabah books, the purpose of the ascent is to “view the merkabah;” i.e. to see or experience the presence of God. In contrast, the ascents in the apocalypses, while permeated by a great sense of the awe-inspiring and terrible glory of the presence of God, appear to have a quite different function; that of revelation, The content of the revelation varies greatly between the works, and is not necessarily theosophic or salvific in character. The emphasis is not on the possible repetition of the experience by others, but on the content of the revelation itself. This would suggest that the ascent passages are not the response to some deeply felt need to overcome the alienation of the human sphere from the divine sphere in the depth of the spiritual experience. The world view of the apocalyptic writers and their circles seems quite different from that of the merkabah books or, for example, the Hermetic texts.


That all the Jewish apocalypses are pseudepigraphic raises all sorts of inquiries. My own view is that apocalyptic pseudepigraphy reflects a tradition of speculative thought which was associated with the particular patriarch or seer. They were not thought to be forgeries or plagiarisms, but were considered genuine crystallizations of teachings going back to the said ancient notable.


Does this involve an actual experience of the author, written out in former terminology of his own tradition of speculation, or is it a more literary device to give the message authenticity or suitability? D.S. Russell has suggested that visions must have been relatively common in that era, or else the vision form would not have added verisimilitude to the books, but would have detracted from it. Gunkel, discussing 4 Ezra, opined that from the style and vehemence of the expressions a real experience was involved; while Scholem has shown that certain psychological states found in the Apocalypse of Abraham are also known from other traditions. In all probability, we have both types. Pseudepigraphy may be partly the result of the visionary identification of the seer with the purported author, the tradition of whose wisdom he is privy to. This gives evidence of actual ecstatic activities of individuals or groups within Judaism during the last pre-Christian centuries and the first century or two of this era.




During the discussion following the presentations, the members suggested several matters which the canonical OT seems to “suppress,” but which seen to have appeared fully formed from the time of 1 Enoch on. The separation of body and soul, necessary for a “heavenly journey,” is totally contrary to the “Biblical psychology” of the OT. The Hebrew idea of no separable soul is quite distinctive, and not shared by most semitic cultures, nor by cultures of Egyptian or Babylonian origin. The same may be said about the cosmological speculation characteristic of much apocalyptic material, but seemingly proscribed in the canonical OT. The tradition about Solomon reflects this. He is called “wise” because of his deep knowledge about specific facts and specific things, yet every example given of his wisdom is of his judgment instead. Wisdom of Solomon 7, an apparent exception, shows its Egyptian origin rather clearly. The Book of Daniel is most unusual in that it stems from the same time as 1 Enoch deals with similar problems, but does not involve itself with mystical ascent or other cosmological speculation. It does no good to claim that Daniel is “Chasidean,” since we really know next to nothing about the Chasidim and their outlook.


Unfortunately, we have no extant Jewish religious literature before Enoch besides the Bible. What is in the Hebrew Bible seems to be what was acceptable to certain intellectuals in Jerusalem in the sixth century B.C.E. Beginning with 1 Enoch, we seem to have later evidence of material that was probably in existence earlier, and was either suppressed (successfully), or by some coincidence we cannot lay our hands on has dropped out of the scene. 1 Enoch 1-36 and 72-84 are the earliest extra-Biblical liturgical material. The Hebrews were not in cultural isolation, yet long before 1 Enoch there was a great deal going on in Mesopotamia and Egypt in terms of science, cosmology, and speculation regarding heaven. To compound the situation, the cosmological material in 1 Enoch is distinctively archaic, based on a Babylonian model which ceased to be innovative by 1000 B.C.E., and was not even copied any more by 500 B.C.E.


It was suggested that perhaps the techniques involved in finding NT “trajectories” could be useful in tracing this material back into the canonical OT. Unfortunately, this would be vastly more difficult, since the OT covers a thousand years of creativity and contains only one channel of tradition, ignoring its parallels. Pushing back to an earlier situation would be an immense project far more complex than with the NT.


Respectfully submitted, Robert V. Hotchkiss, Recording Secretary





Topic for 1977-1978: Heavenly Ascent in Graeco-Roman Piety.

Meeting of March 14, 1978, 7 p.m., Williams Hall, University of Pennsylvania.


The third session of the 1977-78 Seminar was convened by co-chairperson Ross Kraemer. After customary introductions and announcements, the Seminar heard a presentation by William Adler, doctoral candidate in Religious Studies at the University of Pennsylvania.


The Agon Motif in Graeco-Roman Mithraism, William Adler


Funerary art of the second and third centuries C.E. contains a great deal of athletic and military imagery, often using winged Victories in various poses. Two of the poses are especially significant to us: Victory slaying a bull and Victory crowning the returning triumphator. The question has been raised as to whether these scenes tell us anything about Graeco-Roman beliefs concerning death and the postmortem destiny of the soul. F.V.M. Cumont, in Recherches sur le sybolisme funeraire des Romains... (Paris: P. Geunther, 1942), suggests that those representations of strife and combat call attention to the central religious preoccupation of second and third century paganism--the striving of the soul to divest itself of mortality, partially in this life through courage and struggles (agones) and completely in the next with the triumphal ascent of the soul through the cosmos to final astral immortality.


A. D. Nock, reviewing Cumont (AJA 50 [946] 14O--l7O; JRS 38 [1948] -154-156), saw the funerary art, when not purely decorative, as looking backwards to the dead man’s life, with or without the gentle lies of propriety, rather than looking forward to whatever destiny might be his in the hereafter. Virtually every representation in funerary art had an analogy in secular or decorative art. Nock’s minimalist interpretation is shared by E. D. Francis in his study of the agon motif in Graeco-Roman Mithraism (“Bull Slaying at Manchester,” Contemporary Review 221 [1972] 290-298). Francis sees the scenes as reflecting very little concern for salvation and the conditions of souls after death and sees Mithraism as not so much a cult of salvation as a cult of survival.


In taking up the same question again about Graeco-Roman beliefs concerning deaths, I am seeking to discover ways in which themes which have a long history in popular and secular art could be transformed into religious symbolism by being set in a religious context. The themes of struggle and conflict fit this inquiry well, although I will concentrate on Mithraic iconography rather than funerary art, since the latter is more often influenced by the dictates of habit and convention.


The central scene of triumph in Mithraic iconography is the tauroctony, which has as its immediate source of inspiration the slaying of the bull by Victory. In fact, it is difficult in some scenes to determine whether the slayer is Victory or Mithras. In turn, Victory slaying the bull probably derives from scenes of a soldier subduing his adversary. Strangely, the secondary literature makes very little of this source for the Mithraic tauroctony, perhaps because of an assumption in Mithraic studies that the cult was transported wholesale from Persia, where all of its sources were located. This assumption seems rather astonishing, since Persian Mithra is nowhere represented as a bull slayer, either in text or in art.


It would seen profitable to at least grant the possibility that when a symbol migrates from one situation to another, it retains some of its former value, unless of course the scene is purely ornamental. I do not want to assume simple continuity in meaning, but only that the victory tauroctony belongs to a whole configuration of Victory themes, which constitute, broadly speaking, an ideology, and which help to explain certain features in Mithraic belief as well. The Victory tauroctony, depicted as early as the temple of Athena Nike, shows its significance best in the imperial cult and funerary art. Here, along with several other Victory poses, it appears to commemorate a military victory of some sort, and is secondary to a scene of Victory crowning the triumphator.


The crown of Victory in Roman and Hellenistic art is amply attested, probably having its origin in the crowning of the Olympic athlete by Nike. Victory crowning an emperor could symbolize not only earthly triumph, but divine pretense as well, and under the right circumstances could indicate divinity for more than the day of coronation. The ideal that death was the final triumph which secured for the deceased permanent victory and immortality is a conventional topos, especially in Philosophical writings of the period. It would be difficult to interpret Victory and garland sarcophagi as being only decorative, or referring only to the past life of the deceased. Tertullian was not alone in recognizing the religious significance of the custom of placing garlands on the deceased (De Corona). For those so inclined the crown of Victory could have a deeply religious, even mystical significance. Plutarch and Themistius both refer to the garland in strikingly purple prose referring to immortality, the latter comparing the crown of victory received at death to an initiation into a mystery cult, complete with the theme of struggle, agon.


The crown of Victory is an excellent example of a religious symbol that could function on several levels of signification: 1) to express the universal sovereignty of the deity who vanquishes the enemy; 2) to express the world sovereignty of the emperor, who in victory gains a share in divinity and immortality; and 3) to express the final victory of the deceased, the latter on various levels of possible meaning, depending on the interpreter. Crowns of Victory formed a vital part of ritual in the mysteries of the Graeco-Roman world. In Mithraism, however, it functioned in an unusual way. The adherent to Mithraism symbolically rejected a crown, claiming that Mithra was his only crown. Tertullian was much bothered by this practice because of its parallel with Christianity; i.e. as an image of the resurrection and of the purchasing for the initiate a crown under the dagger (De Cor. perhaps a reference to the sacrifice of the bull by Mithras, seen as a parallel to the sacrifice of Christ). Mithra thus becomes the agent who brought victory, whose exertions purchased for the faithful the crown of triumph and immortality.


Although Mithra himself seldom is seen wearing a crown, unusual for a sun god, he does place a crown on Helios, his companion. Next to the tauroctony itself, this coronation scene is probably the most important and frequently represented scene in Mithraic iconography, although the worship of two sun gods within Mithraism seems most peculiar and is yet without adequate explanation. In the sequence of scenes, the coronation of Helios by Mithra occurs at some time after Mithra has slain the bull. Other scenes often shown in parallel are those of the consignment of the thunderbolt to Jupiter by Saturn (an abdication), and thence sometimes to an emperor. The stories of Mithra, from birth to exploits to tauroctony to coronation of Helios, are shown as a new dispensation and a new abdication from the gods of Olympus to the invincible sun gods from the Orient.


The relationship between all this and Mithraic beliefs regarding the conditions of the soul after death remains problematic but some observations can be made. Tertullian seems to have interpreted the tauroctony as the purchase of a crown for the adherent, with the initiation of the adherent a mimicry of martyrdom. The simulated death of the initiate was of a series of] purgations and consecrations, which the initiate was to undergo at each stage in his journey through the graded hierarchy. These were small struggles, agones , which served to purify him at each successive stage along the way. Consecration and coronation had some part in this, but it is difficult to determine exactly what. Scholars seem to point to the final grade as that of Heliodrome, in which the mystes receives a solar crown. That this sojourn through the Mithraic hierarchy was meant to represent the course of the soul through the cosmos seems probable, although the soldier of Mithras may not have thought of it in such theological terms.


Although the sacrifice of the bull and the crown of Mithras form part of an ideology also associated with the goddess Victory, Mithra is not simply a male counterpart of Victory. By the end of the second century C.E., Victory was almost pure abstraction. The tauroctony and the crown, simple metaphors when associated with Victory, take on a deeper and richer significance when applied to Mithra and given a mythology.




The discussion following the presentation was mostly on the fine points raised, or on the slides shown as examples. Several new points were considered:


The question was raised as to just when the soldier expected to attain the victory proclaimed by the tauroctony. There is good evidence that the benefits were expected to be immediate over the small struggles of life, but the evidence also seems to intimate a reference to the final victory over death. Death is the model, but the adherent expected benefits immediately.


The sacrifice of the bull itself may have had several meanings: a sacrifice to ensure victory, a redemptive sacrifice, as well as a model to emulate of the heroism of Mithra. The symbolism would seem to appeal to soldiers from the farm, although a fertility aspect seems to be missing.


The sources used seemed to be relatively reliable. Iconography is a good primary witness. Tertullian, like other heresiologists, would seem to be reliable because he is obviously embarrassed by the parallels between Mithraism and Christianity, and would probably not fabricate them.


The question was asked as to what this paper had to do with the year’s topic, i.e. the heavenly ascent. The answer: nothing. Secondary sources had led us to believe that the funerary art and Mithraic iconography reflect a heavenly journey, and the paper was begun on this premise. However, the primary sources do not seem to back up this idea, except perhaps to see in the graded hierarchy of Mithraism a journey through cosmos, an abstraction beyond the interest of most adherents.


Respectfully submitted, Robert V. Hotchkiss, Recording Secretary





Topic for 1977-1978: Heavenly Ascent in Graeco-Roman Piety.

Meeting of May 2, 1978, 7 p.m., Williams Hall, University of Pennsylvania.


The final session of the 1977-78 Seminar was convened by co-chairperson John Gager. After customary introductions and announcements, the Seminar heard a presentation by Janet Timbie of the University of Pennsylvania.


Heavenly Ascent and Visionary Experience in Coptic Literature, Janet Timbie


This is a survey of the major categories of Coptic literature up to the 5th century, in terms of instances of heavenly ascent and other visionary experiences. Because the literature does not. always distinguish between an actual ascent and a vision about an ascent, it is necessary to take the two together. “Coptic literature” includes works originally written in Coptic and translation literature that is available only in the Coptic version. All of the passages studied can be examined on the basis of the criteria outlined in PSCO 15.1. In addition, original Coptic works can be examined for 1) traces of Egyptian religious ritual or myth, and 2) the possibility a characteristic approach to heavenly ascent and visionary experience in Coptic monastic thought.


A. The Nag Hammadi Documents


Of the 52 texts in the Nag Hammadi Library (including duplicates), 14 mention a heavenly ascent. About half concern the ascent and return of a living human believer, and the others are concerned mainly with the ascent of a savior who is returning home after completing his mission in the world, often using the ascent as a means of clearing the path for humans to follow. Seven other texts specifically describe the journey of a human soul after death.


Visionary experience that does not involve heavenly ascent is much less common in the NH sources. Two texts seem to describe such a vision: The Apocalypse of Peter (7.70-84), where the content of the. vision seems to be important and not the fact of the vision itself, and The Discourse on the Eighth and Ninth (6.48-51), where the accent is on sharing the highest degrees of knowledge found in the eighth and ninth spheres.


The Coptic Gnostic material from Nag Hammadi illustrates most of the problems involved in studying the theme of heavenly ascent. It is not always clear whether a journey to heaven or a vision of heaven is meant, whether the main actor is human or divine, or whether the main interest of the text lies in the fact of ascent or in the sights seen on the way. In The Apocryphon of John (2.1-32 et al.) and The Exegesis of the Soul (2.127-137), the fact of ascent is important, but in The Apocalypse of Paul (5.17-24) it is the description of each level of ascent and its accompanying ethical instruction which is stressed. In the literature, there seems to be a continuum between ascent depicted as an internal transformation of the self (e.g. Disc. 8-9) and a wholly physical, external journey by a human actor (e.g. Apoc. Paul), with other works falling into positions all along the way. Since, according to Gnostic thought, ascent is inevitable (Gos. Truth 1.2l), it is difficult to determine when ascent is meant to be metaphor and when it refers to a real anticipated journey. Here again, there seems to be a whole continuum of treatments from one pole to the other.


B. Other Non-monastic Literature


Other branches of Coptic literature seem to relate themselves to particular texts in the Nag Hammadi collection. The Manichean literature in Coptic includes homilies, psalms, and kephalaia. The homilies deal in part with the arrival of Mani in the realm of light, with a treatment much like The Second Treatise of Seth (NH 7.49-70), emphasizing the importance of the ascent itself, rather than the lessons learned from it. The NH text Zostrianos (8.1-132) is reminiscent of the Coptic magical papyri in its emphasis on using many divine names to secure entry into the heavens. In the papyri, the speaker recites a series of appeals to divine beings, arranged in ascending order.


Another important category in Coptic is Christian apocrypha, conveniently collected in E.A.W. Budge, Coptic Apocrypha in the Dialect of Upper Egypt (London: British Museum, 1913). These texts usually offer miscellaneous details of heavenly geography and moral instruction, resembling such NH works as Apoc. Paul. The apocrypha are probably modeled after older Jewish and Christian texts with a few details added from the Egyptian milieu.


The acts of the martyrs, collected In E. A. W. Budge, Coptic Martyrdoms in the Dialect of Upper Egypt (London: British Museum, 1914), contain both heavenly ascent and other visions. In The Martyrdom of St. Victor, the martyr’s soul ascends through the heavens while his body is being tortured . He, as others, also has visions. The ascent itself, however, has no significance. The main interest lies in the description of the life enjoyed by the saints in heaven.


C. Coptic Monastic Literature


The largest class of original Coptic material comes from the monasteries. In this literature, heavenly ascents and other visions are occasionally described, but are much less common than in the NH texts. Our sources are the writings of the Pachomians (fourth century cenobite monks in Upper Egypt) and the writings of Shenoute (cenobitic abbot in Upper Egypt between 380 and 450), and the Apophthegmata Patrum, a collection of sayings from the loosely organized eremitic solitary monks of Lower Egypt, ca. 300 to 500. Coptic was spoken in both areas, but the broad cultural context of Upper Egyptian monasticism, where the monks were mostly Coptic speaking and with little formal education, differed greatly from that of Lower Egypt, where the monastic communities had large minorities of Greek and Latin speakers, some with considerable formal education and training in philosophy.


The Life of Pachomius (in Sahidic and Boharic versions) contains only two short references to ascent, one a tour of hell briefly described, and the other a short visit to heaven before his death when it is decided he should have more time on earth. The Life also gives brief descriptions of several visions, used to show his spiritual excellence. The ascents and visions are directed toward the monastery, giving either practical or moral advice. They are not sought by Pachomius, and seem to be contrary to the usual monastic ideal of humility. Other Pachomian works appear to show the same attitude.


The works of Shenoute and his followers have a similar attitude toward visionary experience. Shenoute does not refer to an ascent; only to the visions enjoyed by the righteous dead in heaven. The Boharic Life of Shenoute (fifth century) contains no ascents and few visions. The latter, concerning the good of the monastery, come unasked to Shenoute as a reward for his spiritual excellence gained through asceticism. Usually, Shenoute shows his spiritual powers through combat with demons, rather than through visions.


The Apophthegmata Patrum, sayings from the early eremetic communities, gives evidence of a split within the movement over the question of the value of visionary experience. Ascent to heaven is briefly mentioned in a positive way in two sayings (H 193, 195), but is condemned in another (C 71). Visions not involving ascent are more common in the AP, are usually unsought, and do not involve separation from the body. Their purpose is ethical and instructive. Visions are also strongly criticized in the AP, along with warnings against false visions.


Non-Coptic Greek and Latin works describing Coptic monastic life in the late fourth and early fifth centuries describe these same conflicting views about visions. (See The Historia Monachorum 11.5-8, 25.2), Palladius’ Lausiac History, and the Greek version of the Life of Pachomius.)


It may be that the Greek based Originist monks of the eremitic community taught a form of asceticism that sought visionary or mystical experience, while the Coptic majority differed on this point, as on a number of others. Yet, even when visionary experience is treated positively in both cenobitic and eremetic literature, it is treated in a restrained way with limited enthusiasm, and only in very practical terms.




During the discussion following the presentation, the Seminar considered the criteria used to differentiate between “true” and “false” visions for the eremetic monks. The literature does not approach the question directly, but does apply two criteria: 1) Is the vision in agreement with scripture? and 2) Is it calming rather than exciting? (The demons excited!) There seems to be a certain challenge to the authority of scripture in visions, especially if they are made central to the life of the monks. Visions could also challenge the episcopal authorities, although in Egypt, local bishops were usually ignored anyway in favor of the archbishop (Athanasius). Most monastic communities seemed to have some way to keep charismatic visions under control, considering them dangerous to necessary social control.


It may be that visions were used as a point of confrontation between Gnostics and Christians, as they seem to have been between Greek and Coptic eremetic monks. For the Gnostics, ascent was a goal, while for the monks, it was incidental. This may have exercised a sort of self-censorship on the literature. A good understanding of the community’s feeling toward such ecstatic experiences could help us understand the relationship between the Nag Hammadi materials and the Pachomian monastery from which they came. There is no real contradiction between having visions/ascents and being in a communal situation, as long as the visionary material reinforces the norms of the community.


Respectfully submitted, Robert V. Hotchkiss, Recording Secretary