Mysticism is defined as "the experience of mystical union or direct communion with ultimate reality." See more on mysticism In other words, it is an experience in which an individual becomes one with God; that is to say, God is me and I am God. Such a concept carries such a great deal of baggage so that most modern folk will likely find the idea difficult to accept as logical or reasonable. That appears not to be true of the first-century human being Paul.
A few weeks ago in Baptist Bible study, the class was pondering 2 Cor 4:7-12 and we encountered a perplexing statement by the great apostle. Paul writes: We are "always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies" (2 Cor 4:10). How does one make sense of this statement? How can Christians carry in their physical bodies the literal death of Jesus? Nevertheless, that is what Paul said! Had he said something like "always retaining in our memories the death of Jesus, so that the new life given us through belief in Jesus' resurrection might be evident in our living," there would be little difficulty with understanding it. But how can living persons bear in the body the actual death of another person? And how can the life of the resurrected Christ be evident in believers' bodies, which are always in some state of aging and mortification?
Here are a few explanations by some biblical commentators chosen at random. J. H. Bernard1 claims that the statement is interpreted by 4:11: "we are always being given up to death, so that the life of Jesus may be manifested in our mortal flesh." But this interpretation creates further problems: how is the life of Jesus evident in a believer's mortal flesh? M. E. Thrall2 argues that Paul is possibly thinking that his own sufferings are like "a replica or image of Christ's death." In order for this explanation to work, however, one must assume that Paul thinks of his sufferings as being like Jesus' death, although experiencing suffering and being dead are quite different things. James Thompson3 explains 4:10 as indicating "that Paul…on his missionary journeys is following in his Lord's footsteps," which means that Paul suffered as Jesus suffered. But of course Paul could have said exactly that without creating such perplexity over what he did say. F. J. Matera. says, "By being afflicted, bewildered, persecuted, and struck down, [Paul] reflects in his person (his body) the kinds of sufferings that Jesus endured in his passion." This idea regards Paul's sufferings as similar to the sufferings of Jesus, but Paul did not refer to the "kinds of sufferings" Jesus endured, but rather he asserted that believers carry about in their bodies the dying of Jesus. Paul Barnett says: "The 'dying of Jesus' that takes place 'in [Paul's] body' is the bewilderment, persecution, and humiliation mentioned in 4:8-9." In other words the apostle's sufferings image the sufferings of Jesus. But that seems to be different from what Paul claimed. Paul said he was always carrying in his body Jesus' death (nekrōsis), which is something different than suffering in a similar way to Jesus. In fact all of these explanations seem to take Paul's suffering experiences as being something similar to what Jesus suffered.
Thrall provides a summary of views as to how the statement has been understood.5 In my view one explanation, rejected by Thrall, seems to make better sense of Paul's statement in 2 Cor 4:10; the statement seems easiest to understand from the perspective of Paul's mystical union with Christ in baptism: "Do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life" (Rom 6:3-4). Paul seems to hold that in baptism the believer is mystically united with Jesus in his death and as a result the believer comes to share his resurrection. In other words baptism is not a symbolical act but a mystical union, a direct communion with ultimate reality—in this case the death and resurrection of Jesus.6 Reading 2 Cor 4:10 in the light of Paul's statement about baptism gives the reader a context for understanding his statement as a mystical experience: believers carry in their bodies the dying of Jesus because they have shared his dying in baptism.
And that raises the following question: if Paul understands religious faith mystically, was early Pauline Christianity a type of mystery religion?
How do you read 2 Cor 4:10?
Charles W. Hedrick
Missouri State University
1Expositors Greek Testament (1956), vol. 3: 62-63.
2Commentary on Second Corinthians (ICC, 1994), 334.
3Second Letter to the Corinthians (1970), 66.
4II Corinthians. A Commentary (2003), 110.
5Thrall, II Corinthians, 332-35.
6Webster's Ninth Collegiate Dictionary (1990), s. v. "mysticism."