Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2007.01.36

Leif Carlsson, Round Trips to Heaven: Otherworldly Travelers in Early Judaism and Christianity. Lund Studies in History of Religions, 19.   Stockholm:  Almqvist & Wiksell International, 2004.  Pp. 398.  ISBN 91-22-02106-X.  $99.50.  

Reviewed by Thomas J. Kraus, Hilpoltstein (
Word count: 1686 words

This is the printed version of Leif Carlsson's dissertation prepared under the auspices of his adviser, Tord Olsson (Professor of Comparative Religion), at Lund University, Sweden. Carlsson (C.) addresses a common topic for the period between 200 B.C.E. to 200 C.E., one which is only partly correctly expressed by 'Round Trips to Heaven', because he also deals with other kinds of 'otherworldly' trips to locations that are often everything but heavenly. Basically, this monograph consists of two books in one volume: the first comprises heavenly journey texts that may be denominated as 'Old Testament Pseudepigraphy' (with the exception of 2Corinthians 12:1-5) according to the title of the classical two volumes edited by James H. Charlesworth and published in 1983, while the second is exclusively dedicated to 3Baruch ('A Journey into Death's Waiting Room') and could have formed a book on its own. Everybody who is interested in apocalyptic literature in general and in the specific motif of 'heavenly journeys' in particular will get a sound introduction to the most relevant texts. Profound knowledge in this field of research is not required, because the texts are presented in English only (except 2Corinthians and 3Baruch) and supplemented with introductory sections. Be that as it may and apart from some methodological inconsistencies, Carlsson's study is a significant contribution to the discussion of otherworldly trips in the Jewish and Christian literature of the period of time addressed.

There are several texts from the beginning of the Common Era proving that the motif of 'heavenly journeys' was very popular with the people of that period of time. Above all, Jewish and Christian texts deal with that topos, the former often integrated into the latter or being 'Christianized' by Christian writers and circles. With respect to genre, most of these texts are now regarded as belonging to apocalyptic literature, though they differ from each other in two main features: first, the descriptions of heaven (and hell) consist of various and varied details, so that they also differ in what the main character sees and experiences during his trip. Second, some of the texts provide humankind with knowledge of what will come after death, while others focus on the traveler's individual identity.

C.'s aim is to shed light on the 'heavenly journeys' as they are presented in some selected texts as their central paradigm. Further, he aims to establish the status of the 'travelers' in relation to their 'Tradition Group', which he regards as being of quintessential importance (28). In addition, in his first chapter C. writes about the situation of "serious research in the area of heavenly journeys" starting "in the early 1900's" (13) and supplies his readers with a brief research report (13-20). Then C. tackles the most crucial problem -- how to limit the scope of research, that is, the number of texts that form a representative sample for his approach -- by referring to previous, often pioneering, works in the field.1 Consequently, he puts up two criteria by which to include texts in his literary corpus (20): (1) C. studies "[t]exts which depict actual heavenly journeys" and (2) "[t]exts which present several heavens." It is problematic, as C. admits from the very beginning of his study, to try to distinguish between 'actual journeys' and visions or dreams. Surprisingly, C. does not reflect upon the significance and the background of visions and dreams in (late) antiquity,2 so that he fails to discuss the literary functions of narrative perspectives perhaps deliberately chosen by a writer to convey a certain content or even message. Also, the intermingling of Jewish and Christian traditions in many of the texts treated should have been a matter of discussion prior to the study of the texts themselves.3 Moreover, the restriction to texts mentioning 'several' heavens would need further justification, because that way other texts that would have been interesting are excluded from the very beginning, such as the relevant passages of the (Ethiopic and Greek) Apocalypse of Peter. However, his criteria leave C. with the following journeys and travelers: Enoch in the Book of the Watchers (1Enoch 14:8-16:3), the Book of Similitudes (1Enoch 70:1-71:17), and 2Enoch; Levi in the Testament of Levi 2-5; Zephaniah in the Apocalypse of Zephaniah; Abraham in the Apocalypse of Abraham; Isaiah in the Martyrdom and Ascension of Isaiah; Paul in 2Corinthians 12:1-5; Adam in the Latin and Greek versions of the Life of Adam and Eve; Baruch in 3Baruch. With those C. hopes to find out more about the function and the purpose(s) of the heavenly journeys and, from this, to learn more about the social and religious contexts on the one hand and the later modifications and interpretations of the texts on the other. C. calls his method an "idea-analytical textual study", in which he studies "the overall structure of the text as well as the individual details" (20). The rest of the introductory chapter is dedicated to defining the terms 'identity', 'legitimacy', 'tradition', and 'Tradition Group' (21-30) in order to explain the model of interpretation applied.

The second main part of the book is divided into nine subchapters which are arranged according to the texts and travelers; the first two subchapters deal with Enoch (1Enoch and 2Enoch), the next with Abraham's, Levi's, Zephaniah's, Paul's, Isaiah's, and Adam's heavenly journeys, and the final subchapter presents 'A Comparative Compilation' about 'The Function of the Heavenly Journeys' (252-74). Each of the subchapters dedicated to a specific textual passage and traveler is arranged analogously. The readers get basic information about the text under discussion and the major problems relevant for the heavenly journey contained in it. Then the heavenly journey is presented in a summarizing retelling accompanied by an English translation of the most significant passages. Cosmology and the function of the heavenly journey form the heart of each subchapter. Occasionally, these sections bear 'Tradition Group' or 'identity' in their titles to stress what C. is actually focusing on with each individual text and traveler. This is a wise choice, as the texts differ from each other considerably, and by this device C. is really able to point out the most relevant aspects for his aims. Although the insights and conclusions a reader gets from the individual subchapters are very interesting and essential for the success of the study as a whole, C.'s conclusions often appear overdone (see, for instance, his idea that the heavenly journey narrated in the Apocalypse of Abraham might have served "as a substitute for a lost temple" [148]). In addition, the socio-cultural perspective taken by C. to identify the tradition group and even their opponents reminds one of days in which it was absolutely compulsory to reconstruct such a setting from a text (cf. C.'s well-done attempt on the Martyrdom and Ascension of Isaiah, pp. 208-15). Further, the integration of Paul's heavenly journey in 2Corinthians 12:1-5 (163-91) depends on the willingness to take these verses as being initiated and provoked by opponents, in other words, to accept that Paul was forced to take this measure to legitimize his apostleship. C. ends this subchapter with his own hypothesis of an apocalyptic background in 2Corinthians 12:1-5 that correctly opposes the basic conception that these verses are strongly linked with the merkabah mysticism (186-91).

With the ninth subchapter of the second main part, C. returns to the two pivotal aspects of his treatment of heavenly journeys, namely 'identity-providing' and 'death-informing'. A table (254) provides a swift overview of the most prominent and important features (number of heavens, [fallen] angels, [un]righteous persons, divine encounter, heavenly throne, transformation into an angel, and intermediate state). Then C. groups the texts according to the two criteria, so that Enoch's, Levi's, Abraham's, Isaiah's, Paul's, and Adam's travels are treated under the heading 'Identity-Providing Heavenly Journeys' (visualized by diagrams on pp. 263-9). Then 1Enoch, the Apocalypse of Zephaniah, the Life of Adam and Eve (the Greek version), and 3Baruch are discussed as 'Death-Informing Heavenly Journeys' (270-4). The attentive reader might be at least a little bit frustrated by this fairly self-evident result reached after more than 250 pages of research. However, it will be up to other scholars to challenge C.'s observations and to work on his conclusions in the future.

The final main part of the volume is a full book in its own right, and it is very rewarding for the informed reader (see C.'s justification for treating the text this way on page 21). The in-depth investigation into 3Baruch under the title 'A Journey into Death's Waiting Room' (275-355) supplemented by an appendix with the Greek text and an English translation of 3Baruch (356-72)4 may stand as an independent motif-centered textual commentary. C.'s conclusion is reasonable. He identifies 3Baruch as (354) "a heavenly journey text which constitutes a paradigm for what occurs following death. The initial question in the prologue ('Where is their God?') is answered through the heavenly journey. God is in the heavenly world. Thus, it is not until after death that man will meet Him." For C. this journey is a reflection of religious developments and changes that had taken place due to certain experiences and not due to interpretation and the application of other texts.

The book includes a list of abbreviations (373-4) and a bibliography separated into 'ancient works' (374-9) and 'modern works' (379-92), the latter not being complete but providing the most relevant studies for the approach put forward here. Unfortunately, there is only a short index of modern authors (393-5), which makes navigation in this interesting book rather difficult.

Leaving aside some of the minor methodological inconsistencies that could only be briefly touched in this review, C.'s study manifests a great step forward in the overall and topical investigation into the 'Pseudepigrapha' (2Corinthians 12:1-5 included), no matter if their representative texts may be regarded as Jewish or Christian or both. In the future, further research in the field cannot do without taking C.'s work into account, although it might be interesting to see what happens if the corpus of texts under discussion is enlarged and the distinction between 'actual' heavenly journeys and visions and dreams is considered less exclusive than it has been in the present volume.


1.   On page 20 he refers to the works of John J. Collins, Martha Himmelfarb, and Adela Yarbro Collins, and to the specification of 'heavenly journey texts' found in them.
2.   See, for instance, the collection of texts in Träume in der Antike. Griechisch/Deutsch, Lateinisch/Deutsch (Ed. M. Giebel; Stuttgart: Philipp Reclam jun., 2006), and, especially, N. Lewis, The Interpretation of Dreams and Portents in Antiquity (Wauconda: Bolchazy-Carducci, 1996 [reprinted from the original edition published in 1976]), P.C. Miller, Dreams in Late Antiquity: Studies in the Imagination of a Culture (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994), and B. Näf, Traum und Traumdeutung im Altertum (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 2004). A very helpful research tool for literature about dreams and visions in antiquity is Gregor Weber's bibliography Dreams of Antiquity.
3.   The excellent online tool Arbeitshilfen für das Studium der Pseudepigraphen by T. Knittel, C. Böttrich, and J. Herzer (University of Leipzig) provides fundamental information about the Pseudepigrapha and their individual texts. For critical texts see the project (in progress) OCP The Online Critical Pseudepigrapha by D.M. Miller, K.M. Penner, and I.W. Scott (an electronic publication of the Society of Biblical Literature).
4.   The Greek text is taken from J.-C. Picard (ed.), Apocalypsis Baruchi Graece (PVTG 3; Leiden: Brill, 1966), the English translation from H. Gaylord, '3 (Greek Apocalypse of) Baruch. A New Translation and Introduction', in: OTP (Old Testament Pseudepigrapha) 1 (1983) 653-79.

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