Reviews of

An Apostle in Battle

In 2 Corinthians, Christopher de Stigter, Early Christianity, Himmelreise, Lisa M. BOWENS, New Testament, Paul on October 11, 2021 at 4:14 pm

2021.10.16 | Lisa M. Bowens. An Apostle in Battle: Paul and Spiritual Warfare in 2 Corinthians 12:1–10. WUNT II 433; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2017.

Review by Christopher de Stigter, Durham University.

Lisa Bowens’s published dissertation, An Apostle in Battle, is an ambitious work in conceptual integration. She argues for a mutual dependency of Paul’s cosmology, epistemology, and anthropology in his ascent to the third heaven in 2 Corinthians 12:1–10 (see especially pp. 46 & 129). It is in Paul’s Himmelsreise, she argues, that we see the Apostle within a greater cosmic battle: the human pursuit of divine knowledge is under threat from satanic attacks. For Bowens, therefore, a unifying center of all three conceptual spheres—cosmology, epistemology, and anthropology—is their bellicose construal. Her reading emphasizes Paul’s pastoral intentions, for his response to this cosmic battle, boasting in weakness, indicates his hopes for the “problems in Corinth” (p. 1). Against the tide of recent scholarship, Bowens convincingly locates a theological and practical significance in Paul’s disclosure of his ascent to the Corinthians even if this reviewer found certain points less persuasive.

Bowens’s book comprises four chapters with clear demarcations in focus: introduction, cultural and exegetical contextualizing, argument proper, and conclusion. Chapter one introduces the history of interpretation as well as summarizes her argument and method. She starts by traversing the modern interpretations of Paul’s Himmelsreise. Most interpreters dating back to Schweitzer view the ascent as Paul’s defense of his apostolate in the face of opponents (p. 10), and “has no real value to Paul’s overall theological argument” (p. 16). In contrast, ancient interpreters “viewed Paul’s ascent as a significant event with deep theological implications” (p. 33). Bowens, likewise, sees a central Pauline conviction in 2 Corinthians 10–13: humans share a “social space” with suprahuman powers that renders their minds vulnerable to the attacks of Satan (p. 35). Bowens’s method adopts Umberto Eco’s notion of “cultural encyclopedia,” whereby she examines the web of “correlative connections” that Paul shares with other “complex understandings of the world” (p. 40–41).

In chapter two, Bowens sets the table for her treatment of 2 Corinthians 12:1–10. She locates Paul’s use of martial language in the broader Corinthian material and the cultural encyclopedia that surrounds it. Bowens examines the dense collection of military terms scattered throughout 2 Corinthians (3:14; 4:4; 5:15–16;10:1–6; 11:8;12; 12:14; 13:9;11). In these contexts, martial language frequently exists alongside epistemological language (mind, understanding, etc.). From this coordination of terms, Bowens concludes, “the mind has become a battleground between God and the god of this age” (p. 76). After looking at 2 Corinthians itself, Bowens moves to relevant texts beyond the Pauline corpus: Greek Life of Adam and Eve, War Scroll, Treatise of the Two Spirits, 1QH, the Aramaic Levi Document, and the Teacher Hymns. These documents elaborate on the cultural encyclopedia that informs Paul’s own militaristic, cosmic, and cognitive language. Amidst the diversity in these texts, Bowens observes some trends, such as the portrayal of Satan as a deceptive agent (pp. 81–83), the vulnerability of human knowledge to suprahuman beings (p. 97), the oracle as an “agent of revelation” (p. 112), and the divine realm as the source of knowledge (p. 121).

Chapter three is Bowens’s longest and most detailed chapter, totaling nearly half the book (p. 123–220). Here she cashes out on the contextual work in chapter two through a close reading of 2 Corinthians 12:1–10. She spends most exegetical effort on verse 7 and Paul’s nebulous “thorn in the flesh” (pp. 148–91). Interpreters have often taken it metaphorically as spiritual torment, human opponents, or illness (p. 149, see also p. 154). Bowens rejects these hypotheses because they fail to attend to Paul’s conceptual unity and leave unexplained the connection between the ascent and the thorn itself (pp. 150–151). Why bring up a ‘thorn’ in an ascent narrative at all? To answer this, Bowens draws out the connection through the epistemological and militaristic aspects in other ancient ascent narratives (pp. 181–189). From this, she argues that the satanic angel strikes Paul with this ‘thorn’ to impede further ascents and so limit his knowledge of God (p. 191).

To maintain this, four claims prove critical for Bowens: (1) The Greek word σκόλοψ, often translated as “thorn,” invokes a military context. The term often refers to a military “stake” used for torture or traps. Paul remarking that he is ‘struck’ (κολαφίζῃ) by the thorn further shows the invocation of militaristic motifs (pp. 157–58). (2) The σκόλοψ is not metaphorical (as an opponent or illness), but “literal” as the angel of Satan itself striking Paul (p. 154). (3) The passive ἐδόθη is not a divine passive but refers to Satan giving the thorn in the form of the satanic angel (p. 164). Bowens contends that Paul portrays God and Satan in an unmixed and oppositional “dichotomy” (p. 175). Because of this, she finds it unlikely that the thorn is given by God for some positive result (p. 175; see also p. 164). (4) The verb ὑπεραίρωμαι, typically translated “become conceited,” should instead be translated as “lifted up” (p. 179). Bowens traces similar cognate verbs in other ascent narratives and finds that it can describe being “lifted up” in revelatory ascents (pp. 176–79). From this, she concludes that the “thorn serves as a means to hinder Paul from attaining knowledge of God through revelations” not for spiritual growth (p. 179). These four points, taken together, serve as the exegetical scaffolding for her reading of the ascent as a whole. Bowens emphasizes the practical significance of vv. 8–10, rather than the establishment of Paul’s own authority or moral character. He occupies a “revelatory role” for the Corinthians showing them how to boast in the weaknesses that come from the cosmic battle over divine knowledge (pp. 216–220; see also p. 147).

Bowens’s final chapter brings together the key conclusions of the study. Chiefly, Paul’s ascent reveals far more than a self-defense (p. 224). Instead, Bowens identifies how this passage makes plain a central Pauline commitment: “Although forces of evil are at work in the world seeking to hurt, harm and deceive, God is at work also” (p. 227). To Bowens, Paul’s “demonological framework” should be brought into ongoing integration with anthropology, cosmology, and epistemology (p. 228).

Having sketched Bowens’s overall argument, this reviewer found some unresolved questions that hinder its overall cogency. First, Bowens’s reading fails to explain the lasting significance of Paul’s “thorn.” Crucial for her, the angel of Satan is trying to prevent Paul from attaining knowledge in future ascents (p. 179), yet she concludes that the angel was unsuccessful (pp. 191; 226). Paul did, in fact, have more revelation, even though he says the thorn was not removed. This results in an exegetical aporia: Why does Paul suggest that the satanic oppressor remains (12:8–9), if the angel’s primary purpose—obstructing knowledge—was ultimately ineffective? If Paul goes on to have more revelations, even embattled ones (p. 226), why does he plead three times for God to remove the thorn? If impeded knowledge was a key effect of the thorn, why is it not listed as one of the “weaknesses” Paul boasts about in verse 10? Under Bowens’s interpretation we are still left to wonder: what is the primary and lasting effect of the Satanic messenger? If the lasting effects are the weaknesses listed in verse 10 (hardship, insults, etc.), why would this not simply be the meaning of the thorn all along? These unanswered questions make it difficult for this reviewer to see how epistemology is clearly invoked in Paul’s “thorn.”

Second, Bowens’s exegesis of the thorn could gain from a more precise assessment of divine, satanic, and human agency. She argues for a sharp dichotomy between God and Satan (p. 210; see also p. 175), and that the thorn had no favorable result because it was given by Satan (p. 179). Yet Bowens concedes that Paul may have believed that “God allowed it to afflict him” (p. 210). This leads naturally to the question: Why would God have allowed it to afflict him? Could it be for Paul’s maturation? Elsewhere, Paul suggests that God can turn what appear to be “victories” for Satan into “victories” for God. This is most clear in 1 Corinthians 5:1–5. Though Bowens discusses this passage (p. 173), she conspicuously omits Paul’s claim that the handing over of the immoral one to Satan might result in the salvation of the spirit (ἵνα τὸ πνεῦμα σωθῇ, 1 Cor 5:5). Given Bowens’s own admission and Paul’s complex understanding of evil spirits, it seems possible that Paul could view the thorn as having spiritually positive results. Her argument would, thus, benefit from a more thorough treatment of how human, divine, and satanic agency relate in Paul.

These concerns notwithstanding, Bowens’s monograph offers a unique and fresh perspective on an oft misunderstood passage. Rather than minimizing it to an ancient mystical novelty or a bit of rhetorical self-justification, Bowens succeeds by taking the passage as a serious piece of Paul’s thought. She weaves together Paul’s epistemology, cosmology, and anthropology into a compelling whole. Even more commendable is her insistence on the militant nature of Paul’s theology broadly construed. In a post-Bultmannian, and so demythologized, scholarly environment, Bowens returns Paul’s demonology and spiritual cosmology to a place of prominence in his overall thought. Though there is still work to be done on how to best conceptualize Paul’s demonology today, Bowens has helped that “battle” move forward.

Christopher de Stigter
Durham University
christopher.de-stigter@durham.ac.uk

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