- Flora Tells a Story: The Apocalypse of Paul and Its Contexts
If the chapter entitled 'Flora Tells a Story: A Fictional Account of the Creation of the Apocalypse of Paul' were absent, Flora Tells a Story would lose the basis of its title, but it would still stand as an erudite, well-reasoned, and well-written reappraisal of a largely neglected visionary text from the ancient world. As the work stands, it is an uncommon hybrid of innovation and tradition, inserting a short work of fiction into a historical-critical and literary analysis of an ancient document.
First, the Apocalypse of Paul: relatively few UTQ readers will be acquainted with the short elaboration of the journey that the Apostle Paul narrates very briefly in 1 Corinthians 12:2-4, 'to the third heaven . . . into paradise.' The Apocalypse of Paul, written according to Kaler in the late second century, elaborates this journey all the way to a tenth heaven, with major stops along the way for the judgment of a soul in the fourth heaven, and for a dialogue with an old man, a shining white-haired version of the creator God in the seventh heaven. Guided by the spirit, Paul transcends all of these to rise to the tenth heaven where he 'greet[s] his fellow spirits.' This text survives in Coptic translation as part of the library of 'gnostic' literature discovered at Nag Hammadi, Egypt, in 1945. This Apocalypse of Paul is to be distinguished from the fourth-century Greek Apocalypse of Paul, a tour of Hell that may have influenced Dante.
The bulk of Kaler's book is dedicated to arguing for the significance of the Apocalypse of Paul as an instance of second-century understandings of Paul as a 'gnostic' and apocalyptic hero, rather than a purveyor of theological and doctrinal insight written by a Valentinian author in order to present an authoritative model of the cosmos and with implications for Christian life and communal practice. While specialists may take issue with one conclusion or another, or with his use of the term gnostic, Kaler pursues his argument well and works on a text on which there is such a paucity of scholarship. He can pursue questions through the literature and to completion, whether they are dead ends or not (e.g., the question of whether the Apocalypse of Paul is a literary dead end, to which the answer is yes, and 'the scholarly consensus . . . should remain unchanged'). This pursuit is largely and helpfully balanced with sober 'big picture' reflections on second-century Christianity.
All of this makes Flora Tells a Story an important milestone in scholarship on the Apocalypse of Paul and an important contribution to the ways [End Page 353] Christians understood Paul in late antiquity. But what about Flora? Kaler goes out on a limb in providing a fictionalized short story of the composition of the Apocalypse of Paul, using a character, Flora, from the extant letter of Ptolemy to Flora, and a young Victor imagined by Kaler as a heresy-hunting deacon before he became pope at the end of the second century. On the one hand, the story is a gallant attempt to engage a wider set of readers than a monograph on the Apocalypse of Paul normally would. Kaler, not fully abandoning the academic mode, has footnoted the short story extensively, justifying the choices that undergird his fiction; these footnotes are a treasure of erudition applied in the narrative they support. On the other hand, it might be best to characterize Kaler's story with the words he uses to describe the literary character of the Apocalypse of Paul: 'workmanlike.' Alison Munroe need not quake.
Kaler himself characterizes the rest of his book as 'properly academic and dry,' but that is no criticism. It is incisive and learned as well. Leavening the dust of academia with a little story is welcome and Kaler has been careful to leaven rather than compromise.
John W. Marshall, Department for the Study of Religion, University...