The Mystery of God: Early Jewish Mysticism and the New Testament by Christopher Rowl, Christopher R.A. Morray-Jones (Compendia Rerum Iudaicarum ad Novum Testamentum, Volume 12: Brill Academic)excerpt: During the past hundred years, attempts to explore the Jewish back-ground of New Testament theology in the light of ancient Jewish sources have tended to concentrate on the legal and ethical sections of rabbinic literature. At the same time, the importance of Jewish apocalyptic literature has increasingly been recognised, though this recognition has largely been confined to the eschatological dimension of that literature. Moreover, it has generally been assumed that these two different streams of Jewish tradition were either unrelated or opposed.
The modern study of Jewish mysticism has been dominated by the work of Gershom G. Scholem, who proposed that a continuous tradi-tion of mystical teaching and practice extended from the period of the Second Temple to that of the medieval kabbalah. That view has been subjected to severe scrutiny. The authors of the present work are persuaded that in general outline Scholem is still to be believed though they have attempted to take full account of the perspective of those who have argued an alternative, non-mystical interpretation of some of the texts which we consider important.
The ancient apocalypses seek to reveal hidden truths about God, heaven and the created world. In these attempts they come close to one understanding of the nature of mysticism: the perception of truths beyond the range of ordinary human knowledge in a direct experience of divine revelation. The Jewish mystical traditions encountered in the rabbinic and Hekhalot ('heavenly palaces') literature have many affinities with the revelations vouchsafed to the apocalyptic seers. The origins of the Jewish mystical tradition remain tantalisingly obscure, but it seems to have emerged during the early Second Temple period, if not the Exile. One of its principal concerns is meditation on Ezekiel's visions of God's manifest glory, seated on the heavenly merkava or chariot-throne, upheld by cherubim. That these visions were a continuing source of wonder and fascination is evident in the apocalyptic writings, in related texts among the Dead Sea Scrolls, in rabbinic sources, and in the Hekhalot writings which have been made accessible to us by Scholem and his successors.
Underlying this study is the conviction on the part of both authors that the Jewish mystical writings have much to offer the interpretation of the New Testament. As will be apparent in the pages that follow, the perspective of the authors on the material is different, though, we hope, complementary, and that has contributed to the approach taken in the book. One has more of an interest in New Testament theology and the relationship with apocalypses concerned with the revelation of divine mysteries which were written round about the beginning of the Common Era. The other has worked extensively on the later collection known as the Hekhalot literature which in its written form is much later than the New Testament. One of the tasks of this study is to indicate that traditions within these texts are as ancient as the earliest Christian writings and so might be expected to contribute to the understanding of the New Testament.
Throughout the book there is a basic assumption that mysticism and apocalypticism are ways of speaking about phemomena which are closely related. The esoteric character of the apocalyptic texts of Second Temple Judaism is now widely recognised, whatever weight may be given to their eschatological content. Mysticism is one of those words which is difficult to define, but, if we may follow the Oxford English Dictionary, the concern with 'the hidden or inexplicable' or 'a religious truth directly revealed' has obvious connections with apocalypticism. As this description implies, such texts have to do with that which is hidden and has now been unveiled or revealed. In the first part of the book it is the apocalypses which form the major point of comparison with the New Testament. The approach taken here is intended to offer a general overview of the earliest Christian texts viewed from the perspective of the apocalypses and their concerns. Major New Testament texts are considered, and 'mystery' and revelation are suggested as ways of illuminating some of the major themes of the New Testament.
In the last twenty years there has been a growing recognition that the form and contents of the book of Revelation offer more to the exegesis of the New Testament than has usually been thought. Of course, apocalypticism has for a century and a half or so featured in discussion of the New Testament. It has been considered an essential ingredient in any explanation of the origins of Christianity, but it has been understood almost exclusively as heralding the end of the world. Early Christianity has thus been characterised as a movement eagerly awaiting the Parousia and the winding up of history. More recently there has been a long overdue questioning of this consensus which has so pervaded the interpretation of the New Testament, and serious doubts have been raised about the understanding of apocalypticism which undergirds it. Ancient apocalypses (of which Revelation is the prime example) can no longer be seen simply as collections of predic-tions about the end of the world. First and foremost, apocalypses unveil heavenly secrets, some of which relate to the future. They are not, therefore, solely concerned with the end of the world. Their chief task is to reveal truths about God and the universe, and in these attempts they come close to one understanding of mysticism: the perception of truths which exceed the capacity of human reason and are mediated by means of divine revelation. It is that kind of religious outlook we find in an apocalypse.
In an apocalypse what happens in heaven corresponds to what hap-pens, or will happen, on earth. The alternative perspective may in some cases offer a literal representation of reality, past, present or future, but in other cases (and the Book of Revelation is a good example) the understanding of reality is offered in imagery which is less literal prediction and more evocative portrayal in highly symbolic language. So, apocalypticism is neither solely about the end of the world, nor is it mere prediction. Of course, it includes the secrets about future, but it is a future--as well as a present--viewed in the light of the God who now reigns and will be seen to reign on earth. John on Patmos is commissioned to write 'what is now, and what is to take place hereafter' (Rev 1:19). Apocalyptic dualism encourages a split level perspective in which the 'higher' level is offered as the starting place for interpretation of what takes place on the 'lower', earthly, level. Thereby, that which takes place in heaven, or is reported as having its origin in heaven, offers an insight into the perplexing story of the world. By this means an understanding of the mystery of existence is given a new dimension. Events on the earthly stage are enigmatic. One who looks at them from the 'lower' level can nevertheless be offered another perspective on reality through the eye of vision, albeit requiring insight into the import of the mysteries for earthly events (as the visions of the second half of the Book of Daniel indicate). This is the heart of apocalypticism. It is not that the 'higher' level determines the way in which events below work out. Human beings are not puppets at the end of the divine strings. They can be confronted with the reality of God and the coming kingdom, with inexorable truths which demand understanding and action, but they possess freewill and can make choices about the way they will respond. The vision of the apocalyptic writers enables the reader with eyes to see and ears to hear to make sense of events and interactions which without that added perspective would seem utterly enigmatic. It is such a perspective which can transform understanding so that what appears to be confusion and folly may be apprehended as the wisdom of God.
This applies also to the Jewish mystical tradition with which the revelations vouchsafed to apocalyptic seers have several affinities. The practice which lies behind the Jewish mystical texts is obscure, but it is generally thought to have had its origins early in the Second Temple period and to have owed much to the exile. One of its principal subjects is the meditation on the chariot, the merkava, of Ezekiel. The vision of the glorious God enthroned on the cherubim-chariot was a source of wonder and fascination, as is evident from the early rabbinic literature which much scholarly work in recent years has made available to us together with the discovery of related texts among the Dead Sea Scrolls. In the mystical account the vision of the divine throne-chariot in heaven was the goal of a heavenly ascent.
Eschatology is firmly established as a key factor in the understanding of Christian origins, and indeed of the development of Christian theology throughout history. The mode in which the eschatological convictions originated and were endorsed came through vision or audition, through revelation. This is the thesis of this book. It does not pretend to offer a complete explanation of the origins of Christian theology and the dynamics of what distinguished Christianity as a religion, but without it any account would be incomplete. The claim to definitive revelation from God is endemic to religion and the peculiarity of that understanding of revelation is an important ingredient of Christian theology.
There has been a greater appreciation of the rich potential offered New Testament theology by the apocalyptic and mystical texts of Juda-ism when these have been viewed not merely as a means of elucidating eschatological themes but also of shedding light on a range of texts less obviously related to such themes, including the transformation of the believer into the divine image, christology and cosmology. Thus, the occasional hint in Paul's letters about a transformation of the believer in the midst of the present life, anticipating the eschatological change at the Parousia, may well be the background to the references to bodily transformation of the apocalyptic seer to passages like 2 Cor 3. Concerning the development of Christology, the existence of exalted mediatorial figures in the heavenly world has been the subject of fierce debate: was early Christianity merely taking over a theology in which the existence of divine beings wielding divine authority was part of the fabric of Jewish belief? Or were early Christians responsible for a significant mutation of the beliefs of Second Temple Judaism about angels in which their convictions concerning Jesus as Messiah acted as a catalyst?
In the past, the exploration of the relationship of the New Testament to the world of Jewish mysticism has concentrated on theological themes in the more obviously theological writings of the New Testament. On the whole the narrative texts have not seemed so susceptible to this kind of treatment. But examination of the relationship between the Fourth Gospel and the apocalyptic and mystical tradition suggests that the narrative texts of the New Testament may also repay careful study in the light of this material.
A typical feature of apocalypses is the way they divide heaven into various levels, the highest being occupied by God and the most exalted angels, and the lowest by lesser angelic powers and demons. The ascent of Christ into the heavens, his conquest of the powers, and the relation-ship of all these to his death 'outside the gate' in a text like Hebrews, have all been illuminated by the thought world of the apocalypses of the Second Temple period, or just after, and emerging Jewish mysticism.
The approach to this subject in the present book naturally starts with the context in the parent religion, Judaism, and the importance of visions and revelations within it. The key revelatory text among the early Christian documents, the Book of Revelation, is the gateway to the consideration of apocalyptic and mystical themes in the rest of the New Testament. The approach taken in Part I is to examine the claims to visionary experience and their role in the various New Testament books, while complementing discussion of the examples of revelatory moments with exploration of apocalyptic themes, some often neglected. What underlies all this is the basic thesis that claims to the access of divine mysteries are a motor for the development of distinctive early Christian theologoumena and are the foundation of the eschatological convictions of early Christianity. The shape that these beliefs took is determined by context, but the basis of their importance lies in an understanding of the divine which does not rely primarily on the rational reflection on received wisdom but on the intuitive apprehension which is typical of the dream, vision, and audition.
There is a deliberate contrast between the various parts of the book; nor could some overlaps be eliminated. Part I is largely a descriptive survey of the scope of the project, setting the context in Jewish apocalypticism and surveying apocalyptic elements in the New Testament. The task is here less minute textual examination of all the passages and more to stake out the terrain and to accumulate the evidence for apocalyptic motifs and themes in the New Testament.
Furthermore, the approach taken in the first part of the book mixes the descriptive and the analytical. This is in keeping with the aim of the series, which is to offer a varied survey of the ways in which the New Testament may be illuminated by Jewish material. In certain instances the nature of the material requires more detailed examination of the sources in order to make sense of brief, and allusive, passages (as is the case with the discussion of the Enoch material). No attempt is made to offer an exhaustive exploration of all aspects of Christian origins, nor to a comprehensive survey of research. The survey is intended to indicate that, without attention to the mystical element in Jewish religion, emerging Christianity cannot be adequately explained. In addition, by surveying this New Testament material it is hoped that a contribution might be made to the elucidation of the setting and significance of apocalypticism at the end of the Second Temple period and indicate why there may also be a mutually illuminating interpretative process, whereby the New Testament might be a means of understanding better the varied character of the Judaism from which it arose. The process involved in this series, therefore, might be truly dialectical.' The exclusion of the New Testament writings from the task of illuminating Judaism impoverishes the interpretation of both Judaism and risks misunderstanding emerging Christianity: Novum Testamentum ad explicandum rerum judaicarum!
In Parts II and III of this book the starting point is the Hekhalot literature rather than the apocalypses. Detailed examination of this unfamiliar literature leads us into themes which are more familiar to New Testament interpreters. The method here is different: less survey, more in depth analysis. The reason for this is that it is an attempt to demonstrate the antiquity of the traditions and the relevance of this material for New Testament study. The days of citing parallels to the New Testament from a later age and hoping that this will itself be suf-ficient to illuminate the relevant New Testament passage have long passed. When the purpose of exploring the mystical texts is to illustrate earliest Christian texts, attention to the propriety of using this material as illustration requires a method which justifies their use.
This is a contested area. On the one hand, Scholem and those who have followed him (which includes both authors of this book) have argued that the Hekhalot writings preserve ideas of the Tannaim and are rooted in Second Temple apocalypticism. Others, including E. Urbach, P. Schafer, and D. Halperin, have argued that mystical elements are a development within, or a departure from, mainstream rabbinic Juda-ism, and therefore date from post-New Testament times. So, if merkava mysticism is part of the story of the development of rabbinic Judaism rather than a significant part of its antecedents, its relevance for the study of the New Testament is at best marginal. In this situation mere citation of parallels from Jewish sources which are manifestly much later than the New Testament itself is inadequate. The consequence of this, however, is that the attempt to demonstrate the relevance of the material and the explanation of why it should be included in a series entitled Compendia Rerum Judaicarum ad Novum Testamentum requires detailed traditio-historical study which characterises the second part of this book.
Parts II and III of the volume take further the method adopted by C. Morray-Jones in A Transparent Illusion. Those unfamiliar with the Hekhalot literature have the opportunity of reading it for themselves in the translation of Hekhalot Zutarti in Chapter Eleven of this book. The major case studies focus on the Pauline corpus and the task of bridging the gap between the Second Temple Dead Sea Scrolls texts and the liturgical and cultic elements of the later Hekhalot sources.
The present book complements The Jewish Apocalyptic Heritage in Early Christianity (Compendia Rerum Iudaicarum Ad Novum Testamentum) edited by J.C. VanderKam and J. Adler. The consideration of Enochic motifs in the earlier book overlaps in part with material in Chapter Three below. David Frankfurter's discussion of Christian apocalypticism is concerned with the pervasiveness of what might be called a non-eschatological apocalypticism in early Christianity. The major aim in the earlier volume was to trace apocalyptic traditions in early Christianity, whereas the concern in this volume is more thematic and theological, as well as methodological, in that it offers an attempt to justify the propriety of the use of later material and seeks to demonstrate the relevance for New Testament theological themes.