An allegorical interpretation, such as that proposed by Joseph Malik, does not reflect attested first-century Jewish (particularly apocalyptic and Pharisee Jewish) cosmological and eschatological traditions but a literal interpretation certainly does, as my post above demonstrates. There are a few other things to consider. In 2 Corinthians 12:2, 4, Paul uses the verb harpazó "to seize, catch" to describe the manner of the ascent to heaven and this is the same verb Paul uses in 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17 to refer to the rapture of saints to heaven:
"The Lord himself will descend from heaven (ouranou) with a shout....Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up (harpagésometha) together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air (aera), and thus we shall always be with the Lord".
There are also parallels to such heavenly ascensions to Paradise in the pseudepigrapha (cf. 2 Enoch, Apocalypse of Moses, Testament of Abraham, Testament of Isaac, Testament of Jacob, Assumption of Moses) and in rabbinical literature. The most famous story is that of four rabbis who were temporarily taken up into the heavenly Paradise, and the experience of Eden was so awesome and indescribable that only one, Rabbi Akiva (c. AD 60-135), returned unharmed. The others either died or returned deranged (Babylonian Talmud, Hagigah 14b). In 2 Corinthians, Paul was laying claim to a rather similar experience, and the Talmud legend shows that Paul's Jewish contemporaries would have understood the allusion to Paradise and third heaven in ch. 12 as a similarly literal visit to heaven. Moreover, the experience of being taken to third heaven would place the apostle on a par with the great heroes of the faith, such as Enoch, Elijah, Isaiah, and the first century rabbis mentioned in the Talmud. By claiming such an experience in defending his claims to authority, Paul would completely outflank his rivals, but all he does is disclose this bare fact and then quickly diverts attention away from it to his weakness as the only legitimate basis for boasting. In so doing, Paul is able to have his cake and eat it too.
As mentioned previously, third heaven is specifically associated with Paradise (the Garden of Eden) in 2 Enoch 8:1-3 (quoted above) and the Apocalypse of Moses 37:5: "Lift him up into Paradise and into third heaven, and leave him there until that fearful day of my reckoning, which I will make in the world". 3 Baruch 4:6-8 also locates the Garden of Eden in third heaven. The heavenly realm in late Jewish cosmology was multistratal and we come across numerous allusions to multiple heavens in apocalyptic and rabbinical sources. The Testament of Levi (second century BC) seems to assume three heavens with the third heaven being the highest:
"Listen, therefore, concerning the heavens which have been shown to you. The lowest is dark and this reason: It sees the injustices of humankind and contains fire, snow, and ice, ready for the day determined by God's righteous judgment. In it are all the spirits of those dispatched to achieve the punishment of mankind. In the second are all the armies arrayed for the Day of Judgment to work vengeance on the spirits of error and Beliar. Above them are the holy ones. In the uppermost heaven of all dwells the Great Glory in the Holy of Holies (i.e. Paradise). There with him are the archangels, who serve and offer propitiatory sacrifices to the Lord in behalf of all the sins of ignorance of the righteous ones" (Testament of Levi 3:1-5).
However, it is not clear whether there were other heavens omitted and other texts assume seven heavens. This is the case with the first-century Ascension of Isaiah, which relates a temporary ascension to heaven quite reminiscent of that claimed by Paul: "And as he was speaking in the Holy Spirit in the hearing of all, he became silent and his mind was taken up from him and he saw not the men that stood before him though his eyes indeed were open. Moreover his lips were silent and the mind in his body was taken up from him. But his breath was in him; for he was seeing a vision. And the angel who was sent to make him see was not of this firmament, nor was he of the angels of glory of this world, but he had come from the seventh heaven. And the people who stood near did not realize, except for the circle of the prophets, that the holy Isaiah had been taken up" (Ascension of Isaiah 6:10-14). Note the allusion to an out-of-body journey by claiming that Isaiah's mind was "taken up from him," and the language is also similarly rapturous. The text then describes Isaiah's journey through the seven heavens:
"He caused me to ascend above the firmament: which is the first heaven. And there I saw a throne in the midst, and on his right and on his left were angels. And (the angels on the left were) not like unto the angels who stood on the right, but those who stood on the right had the greater glory, and they all praised with one voice, and there was a throne in the midst, and those who were out he left gave praise after them...And again, he made me to ascend to the second heaven. Now the height of that heaven is the same as from the heaven to the earth....And I saw there, as in the first heaven, angels on the right and on the left, and a throne in the midst, and the praise of the angels in the second heaven; and he who sat on the throne in the second heaven was more glorious than all (the rest). And there was great glory in the second heaven, and the praise also was not like the praise of those who were in the first heaven...And he raised me to the third heaven, and in like manner I saw those upon the right and upon the left, and there was a throne there in the midst; but the memorial of this world is there unheard of. And I said to the angel who was with me; for the glory of my appearance was undergoing transformation as I ascended to each heaven in turn: 'Nothing of the vanity of that world is here named.' And he answered me, and said unto me: 'Nothing is named on account of its weakness, and nothing is hidden there of what is done'....And again he raised me to the fourth heaven, and the height from the third to the height from the third to the fourth heaven was greater than from the earth to the firmament....And the praise and glory of the angels on the right was greater than that of those on the left. And again the glory of him who sat on the throne was greater than that of the angels on the right, and their glory was beyond that of those who were below. And he raised me to the fifth heaven. And again I saw those upon the right hand and on the left, and him who sat on the throne possessing greater glory that those of the fourth heaven. And the glory of those on the right hand was greater than that of those on the left [from the third to the fourth]. And the glory of him who was on the throne was greater than that of the angels on the right hand. And their praise was more glorious than that of the fourth heaven...And again he raised me into the air of the sixth heaven, and I saw such glory as I had not seen in the five heavens. For I saw angels possessing great glory. And the praise there was holy and wonderful....And again I asked him, and I said unto him: 'Why are there not angelic fellow servants (on the left)?' And he said: 'From the sixth heaven there are no longer angels on the left, nor a throne set in the midst, but (they are directed) by the power of the seventh heaven, where he who is not named dwells and the Chosen One, whose name has not been made known, and none of the heavens can learn His name. For it is he alone to whose voice all the heavens and thrones give answer. I have therefore been empowered and sent to raise you here that you may see this glory....I indeed say to you, Isaiah; No man about to return into a body of that world has ascended or seen what you see or perceived what you have perceived and what you will see. For it has been permitted to you to come into the Lord's presence.' And I magnified my Lord with praise, that I should come into his presence. And he said: 'Hear, furthermore, therefore, this also from thy fellow servant: when from the body you have ascended here by the will of God, then you shall receive the garment which you are looking at, and likewise other numbered garments laid up there you will see. And then you will become equal to the angels of the seventh heaven. And he raised me up into the sixth heaven, and there were none on the left, nor a throne in the midst, but all had one appearance and their power of praise was equal" (Ascension of Isaiah 7:13-14, 18-20, 24-26, 28, 30-36; 8:1-4, 6-8, 11-16).
This journey through the seven heavens is somewhat similar to that in 2 Enoch. The narrator is similarly taken by an angel through the heavens and describes what he sees, and when he approaches the "seventh heaven" he similarly has to be clothed in heavenly garments so he could approach God like one of the angels. The difference though is that Enoch was taken bodily into heaven while Isaiah journeyed through heaven out of the body:
"The ascension of Enoch to the first heaven. And it came about when I had spoken to my sons, those men called me. And they took me up onto their wings, and carried me up to the first heaven, and placed me on the clouds...They showed me a vast ocean, much bigger than the earthly ocean. They led me to face the angels who govern the stars, the rulers of the steller orders. And they showed me their movements and their aberrations from year to year. And they showed me the light the angels who govern the stars, the heavenly combinations. And they fly with their wings, as do the rounds of all the planets. And they showed me there the treasuries of the snow and the cold, terrible angels are guarding the treasuries....And they showed me the treasuries of the dew, like olive oil...And those men took me up to the second heaven. And they showed me and I saw a darkness greater than the earthly darkness. And there I perceived prisoners under guard, hanging up, waiting for the measureless judgment. And those angels have the appearance of darkness itself, more than earthly darkness. And unceasingly they wept, all day long. And I said to the men who were with me, 'Why are they tormented?' The men answered me, 'They are the evil rebels against the Lord, who did not listen to the voice of the Lord, but they consulted their own will.' And I felt sorry for them...And the men took me from there. They brought me up to the third heaven. And they placed me in the midst of Paradise. And that place has an appearance of pleasantness that has never been seen. Every tree was in full flower. Every fruit was ripe...And the four rivers were flowing past with gentle movement, with every kind of garden producing every kind of good food. And the tree of life is in that place, under which the Lord takes a rest when the Lord takes a walk in Paradise....And those men carried me to the northern region; and they showed me a very frightful place; and all kinds of torture and torment are in that place, cruel darkness and lightless gloom. And there is no light there, and a black fire blazes up perpetually, with a river of fire...And those men said to me, 'This place, Enoch, has been prepared for those who do not glorify God, who practice on the earth the sin which is against nature, which is child corruption in the anus in the manner of Sodom, of witchcraft, enchantments, divinations, trafficking with demons, who boast of their evil deeds, fornication, murder...' And the men lifted me from there and they carried me up to the fourth heaven. And they showed me there all the movements and sequences of the sun and moon and their rays of light. The sun has a light seven times greater than the moon. And I saw his circle and his wheels on which he always goes, going past always like wind with quite marvelous speed. And his coming and going give him no rest, day and night. And I saw the four great stars and angels going in front of the sun's chariot...And they showed me the gates through which the sun goes out according to the appointed seasons and according to the cycle of the months...And the men picked me up from there and carried me to the fifth heaven. And I saw there many armies and the Watchers. And their appearance was like the appearance of a human being, and their size was larger than that of large giants...And the men said to me, 'These are the Watchers, two hundred princes of whom turned aside and descended to earth and broke the promise on the shoulder of Mount Hermon to defile themselves with human wives.' ... And the men took me away from there and they brought me up to the sixth heaven. And I saw there seven angels, grouped together, brilliant and very glorious. And their radiance was like the radiance of the sun when it shines. They are the leaders of the angels and of celestial speech. And they make all celestial life peaceful, and they perserve the commandments and instructions, and sweet voices and singing every kind of praise and glory. And there are angels over seasons and years, and there are also angels over rivers and oceans, angels over fruit and grass, and of everything that breeds. And in the midst of them are seven phoenixes and seven cherubim, six-winged beings, having but one voice and singing in themselves...And the men lifted me up from there and they carried me up to the seventh heaven. And I saw a great light, and all the fiery armies of the incorporeal ones, archangels, angels, and the shining stations...And they do not leave nor depart, standing in front of the face of the Lord, and carrying out his will -- cherubim and seraphim standing all around his throne, six-winged and many-eyed, and they cover his entire throne, singing with gentle voice in front of the face of the Lord...And the Lord said to Michael, 'Go, and extract Enoch from his earthly clothing. And anoint him with my delightful oil and put him into the clothes of my glory.' And so Michael did, just as the Lord had said to him. He anointed and clothed me, and I looked at myself and I had become like one of the glorious ones, and there was no observable difference" (2 Enoch 3:1-22:10).
Note that in sixth heaven there was an emphasis on "celestial speech" and the singing of the angels, which seems related to the concept found in 2 Corinthians 12:4 of "inexpressible words". A final example of such a journey through the heavens is found in 3 Baruch which also appears to place both Gehenna and Paradise in third heaven (cf. 2 Enoch quoted above, Testament of Abraham 11:1-10, the Parable of Rich Man and Lazarus in Luke 16 which places the two abodes in the same plane but separated by a "wide gulf," and especially 4 Ezra 7:36 which states that at the final judgment: "The pit of torment shall appear, and opposite it shall be the place of rest; and the furnace of Gehenna shall be disclosed, and opposite it the Paradise of delight"). Thus we read:
"And the angel of hosts took me and carried me where the firmament of heaven is. And it was the first heaven, and in that heaven he showed me very large doors....There were men living there whose faces were those of cattle, with the horns of deer, the feet of goats, and the loins of rams...I said to the angel, 'Lord, who are these strangely shaped creature?' And the angel said to me, 'These are those who built the tower of the war against God. The Lord threw them out.' And the angel took me and led me to the second heaven and showed me large open doors and the angel said to me, 'Let us pass through them.' And he showed me a great prison, and there were strangely shaped creatures living in it, with the faces of dogs, the horns of deer, and the feet of goats. And I asked the angel of the Lord, 'Who are these?' And he said to me, 'These are the ones who planned to build the tower.' ...And I, Baruch, said, 'The Lord has shown me great things.' And the angel said, 'Come, and let us pass through these doors [of third heaven], you will see the glory of God.' And I passed through with the angel like the passing of 187 days....And he showed me Hades, and its apperance was gloomy and unclean...And, I, Baruch, said to the angel, 'Show me the tree which deceived Adam.' And the angel said to me, 'When God made the garden and commanded Michael to gather two hundred thousand and three angels so that they could plant the garden, Michael planted the olive and Gabriel, the apple; Uriel, the nut; Raphael, the melon; and Satanel, the vine. For at first his name in former times was Satanel, and similarly all the angels planted various trees.' And again I, Baruch, said to the angel: 'Show me the tree through which the sepent deceived Eve and Adam.'...And the angel said, 'Beware, Baruch, the tree still possesses its evil'...And taking me, he led me [to fourth heaven], where the sun goes forth. And he showed me a chariot drawn by four horses and fire underneath it. And upon the chariot sat a man wearing a fiery crown. The chariot was drawn by forty angels. And behold, a phoenix runs along before the sun, as large as nine mountains...And the angel of power took me and led me to the fifth heaven. And he showed me large gates, and the names of men were written on them, and they were closed...And the angel said to me, 'It is not possible to enter through them until Michael, the holder of the keys of the kingdom, comes. And the angel said to me, 'Wait, and you will see the glory of God.' And while we were waiting, there was a noise from the highest heaven like triple thunder" (3 Baruch 2:1-11:3).
The descriptions are different but there are some similarities; the first heaven typically is the sky itself, the second heaven is the prison for the wicked demons, third heaven has both Gehenna and Paradise, fourth heaven is the abode of the sun and moon, and then eventually there is the "highest heaven" where God himself dwells. The Babylonian Talmud, Hagigah 12a, b also goes into detail about the nature of the seven heavens.
Paul's statement about being raptured "out of the body" (khóris tou sómatos) in 2 Corinthians 12:3 is also explained to some extent by the writings of Philo of Alexandria (first century AD) who believed that heavenly experiences require being out of the body because the strains of heavenly music would have such a quivering, body-shattering effect that the vistor to heaven, once returned to earth, would yearn for and crave the music and neglect such terrestial and fleshly yearnings like hunger and thirst and eventually would die from starvation. Thus, in his dicussion of Exodus 24:18, he claimed that Moses was in fact listening to heavenly music and "having laid aside his body, for forty days and as many nights he touched neither bread nor water at all" (On Dreams 1:35-36). The accounts in 2 Enoch and the Ascension of Isaiah also presume that one must attain heavenly glory in order to enter into the presence of God in the seventh heaven. Paul however is not certain whether he was still in the flesh when he went on his heavenly journey and this ambivalence also helps to distance Paul from the experience itself.
As for Paul referring to himself in the third person, it is possible that was reflective of the vision itself -- if it was an out-of-body experience and Paul observed himself ascending to heaven. There is a parallel in the Mithras Liturgy: "You will see yourself being lifted up and ascending to the height" (Meyer 1976:7). The end of the heavenly journey in 3 Baruch describes a similar situation: "And having come back to myself, I gave glory to God" (3 Baruch 17:3). I mentioned above that within the context of ch. 11-12, the use of the third person had the effect of sabotaging an accusation of boasting, and I just found evidence that this was a rhetorical device in classical Greek. Plutarch (first century AD) expounds on this in his essay On Praising Oneself Inoffensively:
"But since for the most part men are exceedingly displeased with those who are the trumpeters of their own fame, but if they sound forth another's, are delighted and give them cheerful acclamations; it is hence grown a frequent custom amongst orators, by a seasonable extolling those who have like purposes, actions, and manner of life with theirs, to assuredly speechify about themselves." (Plutarch, Moralia, On Praising, 10)
Quintilian (Institutio Oratoria, 11.21) also described the tendency for Cicero to boast about himself in the third person by placing "the remarks in question in the mouth of some other character," those this is slightly different.