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    Question 90: In 2 Cor. 12:2, St Paul speaks of “the third heaven.” How are we to understand this passage? How many heavens are there?

 

    Answer: There is no further explanation for this passage in the Scriptures. Genesis 1:1 tells us that “God created the heavens and the earth” but the author does not stipulate the number of heavens. As a result, there has been much confusion and many different explanations postulated.

    In order to understand this passage, it is necessary to examine the historical context and the author’s background. Most biblical scholars agree that St. Paul was modestly referring to himself when he wrote: “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.”

    We must remember that St Paul was a Jewish convert to Christianity. Prior to his conversion he was trained as a Pharisee[i] under Rabbi Gamaliel[ii] (Acts, 22:3). In the Talmud, Gamaliel bears the surname of "the Elder", and is the first to whom the title "Rabban", "our master", was given. He appears therein, as in the book of the Acts, as a prominent member of the highest tribunal of the Jews and is considered to have been one of the greatest Rabbis who ever lived. As Paul was raised and trained as a devote Jew, it is necessary to return to the time of Jesus and determine Jewish belief at that time in order to understand 2 Cor. 12:2.

    Years ago, “He’s/She’s in seventh heaven” was a common expression. It was not until I began a study of Jewish belief and doctrine that I understood the expression’s origin. You see, Jews in Jesus’ time believed in seven levels of heaven. The throne of God was situated in the seventh, or highest level of Heaven, hence, the expression: "He's in seventh heaven" indicating someone who was joyously happy. Biblically speaking the number 7 suggests either a considerable number or designates a complete series. 

    Jewish legend tells us that on the first day of creation God produced ten things: the heavens and the earth, Tohu and Bohu (formlessness and emptiness), light and darkness, wind and water, the duration of the day and the duration of the night.

 

“Several heavens were created, seven in fact, each to serve a distinct purpose. The first, the one visible to us, has no function except that of covering up the light during the nighttime; therefore it disappears every morning. The planets are fastened to the second of the heavens; in the third the manna is made for the pious in the hereafter; the fourth contains the celestial Jerusalem together with the Temple, in which Michael ministers as high priest, and offers the souls of the pious as sacrifices. In the fifth heaven, the angel hosts reside, and sing the praise of God, though only during the night, for by day it is the task of Israel on earth to give glory to God on high. The sixth heaven is an uncanny spot; there originate most of the trials and visitations ordained for the earth and its inhabitants. Snow lies heaped up there and hail; there are lofts full of noxious dew, magazines stocked with storms, and cellars holding reserves of smoke. Doors of fire separate these celestial chambers, which are under the supervision of the archangel Metatron. Their pernicious contents defiled the heavens until David’s time. The pious king prayed to God to purge His exalted dwelling of whatever was pregnant with evil; it was not becoming that such things should exist near the Merciful One. Only then were they removed to the earth.

“The seventh heaven, on the other hand, contains only what is good and beautiful; right, justice, and mercy, the storehouses of life, peace, and blessing, the souls of the pious, the souls and spirits of unborn generations, the dew with which God will revive the dead on the resurrection day, and, above all, the Divine Throne, surrounded by the seraphim and ofanim, the holy Hayyot (the highest angelic beings), and the ministering angels.” (The Legends of the Jews, Louis Ginzberg, Vol. 1, p. 8-9, 1937, Jewish Publication Society)

 

    As the New Testament does not provide a clear explanation on the number of heavens, it is only necessary to remember that there is a heaven where God dwells in majesty and endeavor to live a life that will eventually gain us access to the Divine Throne.


[i] Member of a conservative Jewish sect that arose in Roman-occupied Palestine in the 2nd century BC in protest against all movements favouring compromise with Hellenistic culture. The Pharisees were devout adherents of the law, both as found in the Torah and in the oral tradition known as the Mishnah.

[ii] At an early date, ecclesiastical tradition has supposed that Gamaliel embraced the Christian Faith, and remained a member of the Sanhedrin for the purpose of helping secretly his fellow-Christians (cf. Recognitions of Clement, I, lxv, lxvi). According to Photius, he was baptized by St. Peter and St. John, together with his son and with Nicodemus. His body, miraculously discovered in the fifth century, is said to be preserved at Pisa, in Italy.

 

 

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