A Divine Comedy

Dante’s vision of the heavens

I confess that there have been weeks, even months in which I haven’t thought of a brief ancient text called the Apocalypse of Paul. As a matter of fact, until yesterday, I had not even heard of this treatise, which is one of the texts from Nag Hammadi.

But I am not going to start this blog post with an obscure treatise from the Egyptian desert; instead, I start with a better known piece of world literature: Dante’s Divine Comedy. Published between 1308 and 1321, it describes how the poet has a vision, in which he descends into Hell, climbs the Mount of Purgatory, and arrives in Heaven. His guide is the Roman poet Virgil, and it has been assumed that Dante based the structure of the Comedy on the Aeneid, in which the poet descends into the Underworld.

This is of course unsatisfactory. Dante’s poem is too optimistic to be modelled upon a descent into Hell. The Spanish scholar Miguel Asín Palacios discovered a far more plausible model: the Islamic story about Muhamad’s ascension to the seven heavens, the Mi’raj. The classic account of Muhamad’s vision can be found in Ibn Ishaq’s Life of the Prophet, but there are many legends about it. They have been collected in the eleventh-century Kitab al-Miraj (the “Book of the ladder”), which was in 1264 translated into Spanish as La Escala de Mahoma by Abrahim Alfaquim. Dante knew it through his teacher, Brunetto Latini.

In other words, a part of Muhamad’s biography has been embellished; these legends were translated; and Dante used this in his masterpiece. It is always interesting to see how literary themes can jump from one culture to another.

As a matter of fact, the Mi’raj story itself is also an example of this: the Prophet is negotiating with God about the number of prayers that the believers have to say, in a story that very closely resembles the Jewish account of Abraham negotiating with God about the number of righteous people in Sodom and Gomorrah.

Dante and Muhamad, however, are not the only visitors of Heaven. In the ancient Jewish world, there used to be a substantial literature about the patriarch Enoch, who is mentioned in Genesis 5.18-24 as one who “walked with God” and who was “taken by God”- in other words, he never died. Since the third century BCE, many stories were told about what Enoch had seen in Heaven, and how he witnessed the great battles between Good and Evil in the early days. This subject matter used to be extremely popular.

However, the rabbis who organized the Jewish Bible excluded the Enochite literature, because they were not convinced that it was Divinely inspired. The early Christians did sometimes quote from Enoch, but in the end also excluded the texts from their scriptures. The exception is the Ethiopian Church, and it is possible that the Mi’raj story is based on the Ethiopian Enoch. However, I think that the Apocalypse of Paul offers a much closer parallel.

It is a very short text – three pages in the translation I consulted – but that is enough to see that it refers to an ascension to heavens. The plural “heavens” is crucial. It is derived from the Pauline epistles, when the apostle says he ascended to the third heaven (2 Cor. 12.1-4). So, I would guess that the Apocalypse of Paul is the missing link between the Book of Enoch and the story of the Mi’raj. However, there are alternatives; Enochite literature was known to Jewish mystics, and they can also be a missing link.

In sum: a motif jumps from one religion to another. The author of the Apocalypse of Paul has combined Enochite and Pauline themes, and is the missing link between Enoch’s ascension to Heaven and the Mi’raj. It might be interesting to look at a connection to the myth of Etana, who was brought to heaven by an eagle.

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One Response to A Divine Comedy

  1. judithweingarten says:

    And all may owe something ultimately to the Mandaean belief in an ascent through multiple heavens, each one of which is more filled with Light than the one before. Warm good wishes, Judith

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