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Unearthing Of St. Paul's Tomb Brings Up A Mystery: Did He Write Of Afterlife Vision?

The recent unearthing of a white-marble sarcophagus thought to be the tomb of St. Paul brings to mind another ancient mystery: is there really an authentic Greek text of a "Vision" or "Apocalypse" that details his glimpse into the afterlife? If so, where is it? Might it even be linked in some fashion to the tomb?

Almost certainly, the answer is no. To start with, the sarcophagus, which was unveiled to the public earlier this week, and was found under the altar at St. Paul Outside-the-Walls Basilica in Rome, may have nothing in it. Workers are in the process of chipping it free from mortar, plaster, and other debris, after which they will install a glass plate for viewing.

The basilica stands at the site of two fourth-century churches -- including one ruined by a fire in the 1820s that had left the tomb visible, first above ground and later in a crypt. After the fire, say reports, the crypt was filled with earth and covered by a new altar. A slab of cracked marble with the words "PAULO APOSTOLO MART" or "Paul Apostle Martyr" in Latin was also found embedded in the floor above the tomb.

Might there also be written on the sarcophagus or inside anything linked to what has been known for centuries as "The Vision of St. Paul"?

The legend of such a text starts with the famous passage in which St. Paul mentioned that he knew a man who "was caught up into Paradise," where he "heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter" (2 Corinthians 12:1-4).

As early as the third century -- midway between his death and when the first church with his tomb was built -- a text was circulating that purported to tell the whole story of his adventures in the other world, according to Carol Zaleski, a professor of religion at Smith College. Not only is it unlikely that such will be associated with the tomb, but there are great doubts that any such "apocryphal" text ever existed.

Still the myth lingers, and it is a fascinating one.

"Eventually the text acquired a preface claiming that the narrative had been discovered along with a pair of shoes in a sealed marble box left behind, like a time capsule, by the Apostle himself," writes Zaleski, in Otherworld Journeys (Oxford Press).

"Translated into Latin and vernacular languages, this Vision of St. Paul enjoyed immense influence, dampened only slightly by St. Augustine's refusal to believe that the Apostle would have disclosed the very secrets that he himself had deemed 'unlawful to utter.'"

The text casts Paul as a seer in the tradition of Elijah and Enoch and details his "description" of three souls departing from their bodies for various spots in the afterlife.

One good man was accompanied to Heaven by a retinue of shining angels who defended him against hostile demonic forces, according to the Vision, while a wicked man was dragged from his body "by angels without mercy" and consigned to the "outer darkness." Another wicked man was forced to tour the universe and bring forth a record of his transgression.

Was it all just part of the often dreary medieval depictions of judgment? Or a fascinating glimpse into how things may transpire?

In the Vision, reported Zaleski, "the severity of this postmortem judgment is balanced by the weight given to repentance. God overlooks the youthful sins of a certain man, asking to see a record covering only the past five years."

But along with a tour of paradise, the texts claiming to represent St. Paul's putative experience include a tour of the regions of torment.

In one, sinners swing by their ears from flaming trees or stand immersed in an infernal river, where their bodies are nibbled by hideous beings. There are, Paul was allegedly told, "144,000 pains" in hell.

Unlikely or not, the Apocalypse of St. Paul was the foremost source of otherworld imagery for the Middle Ages. The Apostle's legacy will not be a new vision of the afterlife, but his testimony to the strength of faith -- blind faith, and faith that comes from a trauma like blindness.

According to tradition, St. Paul, also known as the apostle of the Gentiles, was beheaded in Rome in the first century during the persecution of early Christians by Roman emperors. Popular belief holds that bone fragments from his head are in another Rome basilica, St. John Lateran, with his other remains inside the sarcophagus.

"Our purpose was not to find out what was inside, but to confirm that it was the original sarcophagus," said one worker.


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