SO FAR WE have investigated a very important social aspect of the concept of afterlife: It coheres with the class structure of Hellenistic Israel. It is absent from the very traditional Sadducean classes, the old-guard agricultural aristocracy. The urban, Greek-literate aristocracy (I am thinking of Roman clients like Josephus and classically educated but longtime aristocrats like Philo) had the opportunity to adopt Platonic thought and synthesize it with Hebrew notions to come up with an immortality of the soul that suits Biblical ethics. Jewish intellectuals, like Greek ones, presumably found continuity of consciousness an attractive value, self-confirming of the value of their intellectual lives. So they were motivated to combine it with a more personal afterlife explicitly based on Biblical ethics.
Earliest Christianity, being an apocalyptic, charismatic, Jewish, nativist movement, strongly favored resurrection over immortality of the soul at its inception but was divided on whether the resurrection body is material or spiritual. Without resurrection it could not maintain that Jesus’ death was unique, special, and redemptive. Very quickly though it became something quite a bit more, due to the missionary activities of Jewishly and Hellenistically educated people like Paul.
Paul had a very good Pharisaic education as well as a good command of Koine (Greek). Paul explained the ultimate Christian reward as resurrection but also affirmed that resurrection would take place in a spiritual body. The Gospels, by contrast, strongly affirmed that the resurrection body is our actual, physical, real body, as Jesus was really, actually, and physically present in the postresurrection appearances. He even ate and drank after his resurrection.
The contrast between them goes deep; it even shows up in their notions of the Eucharist. Whether the Gospels’ point of view represents an anti-Pauline polemic or simply another “trajectory” in early Christianity is obscure. But the earliest varieties of Christianity can be classified as easily by the resurrection they preached as any other variable. For Paul, resurrection had started: It was a spiritual experience of transformation to a spiritual body that was in the process of becoming actual as he spoke. The Gospel writers, writing a generation later, also thought that the end-time had begun. But they stressed the physicality of that resurrection body at the end of time, soon to arrive. In the interim they preached themselves as the physical, actual, successors of Jesus. The apostolic succession was built on the faith that what Jesus taught his disciples was being physically and actually relayed through his apostles and successors, while Paul’s notion of faith, rooted in his own visionary experience, meant trust that the visions he experienced were becoming actual.
The later hermits and Gnostics sought vision as well, stressing gnōsis (knowledge) over Pauline pistis (faith) because it was through meditative states that one came to a vision of the Savior and realization of the spiritual nature of resurrection, while the church leadership could only offer faith in its teachings with a promise of later redemption. The Gnostics experienced the process of transformation as did Paul, seeing their resurrection as immortality of the soul. Like Philo, however, they did not see the immortality of the soul as an entitlement. The soul’s immortality had to be awakened by the realization or knowledge (gnōsis) of its ultimate reward. The realization could only come about through asceticism and meditation, which imitated the angelic life and sacrificed the body in a kind of personally supervised self-martyrdom. After the birth of Christianity, the dichotomy between resurrection of the dead and immortality of the soul is more easily discussed in other varieties of Judaism than it is in Christianity.
For Paul, the reward of the martyrs came to be the reward of all Christians, who are united with the Christ and martyred with him. Furthermore, in all Christianity, life on this earth was supposed to be patterned on the life of the angels, a life in heavenly community, cleansed of sexuality. Especially those Christians, who could avoid sexual life and live purely like angels, were anticipating the state they would achieve at the expected end. The others were, in some sense, living a normal life in expectation of their later end. Given what Paul said about marriage and sexual fulfillment, it is hard to believe that his resurrection included any sexuality at all.
Martyrdom and Afterlife in Acts
THE ISSUE OF martyrdom was joined in the Gospels first, because Jesus was a martyr, but then in the various early Christian responses to persecution; the doctrine of resurrection itself was born out of persecution and martyrdom. In reflecting on martyrdom, Christians are also reflecting on the value of their earthly body through the mirror of their religious life. The converse-that in reflecting on the body, Christians are reflecting on the value of martyrdom-is also true. For the “orthodox,” the endurance of the martyrs is often connected with the reality of the resurrection and, conversely, the unwillingness to undergo martyrdom is often connected with spiritual resurrection. One of the most frequent criticisms of the “Gnostics” was that they were unwilling to suffer martyrdom.
Stephen, the first Christian martyr, saw a vision of Daniel 7:13, the Son of Man, in the agony of his martyrdom. For Luke, Stephen’s martyrdom took place in the second phase of church history, after the risen Jesus had ascended to heaven. Stephen and Paul saw the risen Jesus in visions as he existed in his heavenly, Son of Man, or “Glory of God” form. In this vision, contrary to New Testament and early Rabbinic tradition, the Glory of God is taken to refer to God himself, while Jesus is standing at the right hand of God and is identified quite explicitly with the Son of Man.
Stephen dies, forgiving his enemies, in imitation of Jesus and in stark contrast to the mad rabble who stoned him (Acts 7:54). But the term “martyr” had not yet acquired its technical meaning in Christianity. The bystanders, not Stephen himself, were called “martyres” (witnesses) in Acts 7:58. What Stephen witnessed is important; as readers, we see his vision of heaven with him. Equally important is the ironic way in which Paul was a “witness” at this protomartyrium.1 According to the narrative, at the pre-conversion Paul was an accessory at the scene (“the young man Saul,” Acts 7:58; “approved of their killing him,” 8:1), which ironically presaged his own martyrdom by the sword according to later church tradition, as well as providing the transition into the story of Paul’s conversion and mission which begin in earnest in Acts, chapter 9.
What made the crowd so angry was Stephen’s scathing indictment of the stiffneckedness of the Israelites, again and again choosing idolatry over the worship of the one, true God. Stephen’s subsequent martyrdom confirms his indictment of Israel, for we see the true throneroom of God, with both figures present, as in Daniel, and demonstrating the accuracy of Isaiah 66, which Stephen actually quoted to the effect that the Lord is truly enthroned in heaven; hence worldly temples are but idolatry. The Christian position that the true body is the body of Christ, to which Stephen ascended, and which is also the church of the faithful, is implicit in the passage. As a result of the martyrdom, Stephen “falls asleep,” a reference not only to his death but to the prophecy of the end-time (i.e., Isa 26:19 and Dan 12:3).
Instead of merely resting in the earth until the eschaton, Stephen’s spirit enters heaven and is welcomed by the enthroned Son of Man. It is not possible to know exactly what is implied by this simple declarative narration. It does suggest that the martyrs will spend the time before the last trumpet in heaven; Stephen’s martyrdom is meant to be a depiction of the fulfillment of the second part of the Daniel 12 prophecy, this time identifying the martyr with “those who are wise,” who will “shine like the brightness of the heaven, like the stars forever.” While the text does not tell us that Stephen became a star or an angel at this crucial point, it has previously said that “his face shone like the face of an angel” in Acts 6:15, before he began his polemical discourse. Evidently, the angelification process could begin even before the martyrdom proper. This further suggests that Stephen was engaged in the teaching that made people wise (hammaskîlîm, Dan 12:3b) before he was martyred, suggesting that the phrase was taken by Christians to mean that Stephen was engaging in missionary sermons, in which his indictment of the people of Israel is prominent. In Christianity, as in Judaism before it, the martyrs quintessentially received early transport to heaven before the end. Many later Jewish and Christian apocalypses follow this pattern, extending the reward of the martyr to all the faithful dead. These notions also form the basis of the Islamic belief that martyrs wait for the day of judgment in a garden of delights.
The Apocalypse of John
THE NEW TESTAMENT book of Revelation lent its name to the whole genre of literature (it is the Apocalypse of John in Greek) but it is not itself typical of the apocalyptic art. For one thing, it is the only totally apocalyptic book accepted as canonical in the Bible, though we have already seen that parts of Daniel, Isaiah, and Zechariah might also qualify as “canonical” apocalypses. Canonicity is an early vote of confidence, but only from the point of view of one particular, politically powerful interpretation of the Christian message.
The Apocalypse of John is not typical of apocalyptic literature. It is not pseudonymous, as it records the visions of one identifiable person, John the Apocalypticist (Rev 1:1), who was only later wrongly assumed to be John the Evangelist of the Fourth Gospel. The book differs greatly from the style of the Fourth Gospel and is not likely to have been written by John the Evangelist. The author clearly states that the visions were received on the island of Patmos (Rev 1:9). The book describes a time after the Fourth Evangelist and in an area of the world about which John the Evangelist seemed unconcerned-Anatolia, the Western part of modern Turkey, which was a bustling center of Hellenistic city life. All this suggests strongly that the Apocalypse testifies to a later time than the evangelist’s lifetime and at least a generation after Paul, in an area of the world where Paul preached. The Apocalypse evidences considerably larger Christian communities than Paul knew, including many well-established, albeit small and struggling churches. The Apocalypse reports that Christians were being persecuted, praying for help, and looking for the end to come to save them, which the apocalypticist prophesied would soon come to pass, which will rescue the embattled community of the faithful. The revelations were entirely by visions; no dreams are mentioned. John’s visions took him to the heavenly throneroom where he meets “the first and the last” (Rev 1:17), the risen Christ who dictates prophecies and revelations to him in angelic form.
There are other differences between this apocalypse and the Jewish apocalypses on which it is based. This is not just apocalypse, it is apocalypse on steroids. It does not, for example, contain the astronomical wisdom of the majority of the earlier Jewish apocalypses. On the other hand, it does prominently include divine throne visions and other elaborate visionary imagery reminiscent of Daniel. Unlike Daniel, these symbols have obvious Christian meanings, though there may also be Jewish meanings as the two terms were not yet mutually exclusive. This suggest that Revelation does not represent the interests of the priests who transmitted their astronomical science in their writings. But it does represent a tradition that was heavily influenced by reading Daniel 7 and 12, as one would expect of an early Christian community. It represents a different kind of disadvantaged group, a Christian group fighting for recognition among Jews and gentiles. And it is an important document for the study of the apocalyptic Christian environment, which was the seedbed of the church.2
The book begins with a circular letter to seven churches: “John to the seven churches that are in Asia: Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne” (Rev 1:4). The standard epistolatory opening is followed by the direct claim to speak for the divine throne and seven spirits (pneumatōn) who are present there. It soon becomes evident that these seven spirits are the “guardian” angels of the seven churches; the message they bring from the throne is an exhortation to steadfastness: “As for the mystery of the seven stars which you saw in my right hand, and the seven golden lampstands, the seven stars are the angels of the seven churches and the seven lampstands are the seven churches” (Rev 1:20). This confirms that Revelation interprets angels and stars as equivalent.
There is good reason for the angels to appear before the divine throne: As we may already suspect, their churches were in crisis and danger. The danger can be understood as persecution and tribulation, which was also experienced by John while he was imprisoned on the island of Patmos (Rev 1:9-11).
“Patient endurance” had already become part of the martyrological tradition, as a description of the determined attitude of the martyr in the face of tribulation, as early as the Hellenistic treatments of the sacrifice of Isaac in 4 Maccabees.3 But after a century of tribulation, patient endurance had become an art-form. The result of the crisis was the reception of visions of encouragement.
The revelation began as a prophecy from the risen Christ. The first and most important message of the Seer was simply that the Son of Man’s resurrection is the promise that those who have been persecuted and martyred will not have died in vain:
When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. But he laid his right hand upon me, saying, “Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living one; I died, and behold I am alive for evermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades. Now write what you see, what is and what is to take place hereafter. (Rev 1:17-19)
Martyrdom was one important cause of the crisis of faith and confidence, as well as the principal reason for the need for ferocious revenge against the persecutors. Persecution is expressly mentioned in Rev 2:13 and martyrdom is strongly suggested. It is directly stated in Rev 20:4. The standard terms of the martyrdom tradition, developed in Judaism but perfected in Christian literature, appear with important emphasis: thlipsis, for the tribulation, and hypomonē for the steadfastness necessary to survive it (1:9; 2:3; 2:10,13,19,25, 3:8; 10-11) or to gain the courage to face martyrdom.
As solace, the revelation simply and directly confirmed that the crucified messiah is still alive and so all who suffer death for his sake will also be resurrected. He will return and he will show his anger at the persecutors. The promise of resurrection and the defeat of death was a sure exhortation to steadfastness for those who witnessed the suffering and death of martyrs and who might be called upon themselves to suffer and die. The dynamic of the writing is very close to that of Daniel itself, though the Biblical sources contributing to the content of the revelation derived equally from church tradition.
Adela Yarbro Collins sums up the many reasons to adopt a political perspective in understanding this document, while John Collins concentrates on the significance of the fascinating imagery within it.4 The letters to the churches make clear that there is a crisis of persecution in these communities. Although the opponents are sometimes called false Jews (“synagogue of Satan,” Rev 2:9), the visions more often designate Rome as the persecutor and the major target for the coming divine vengeance, perhaps with Jews informing for the Roman overlords.
Even the number of the beast (666) is only the most famous among many indications that Rome was the major persecutor. Since numerological speculation is amazingly versatile and popular in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew (in all three languages letters can serve as numbers) and can be put to almost any purpose, any person might fit this puzzling description with a little arithmetic dexterity. But the most likely conjecture is that 666 refered to Nero, whose name can easily be written in Hebrew in such a way as to yield the number 666. If the emperor of the persecution was Domitian (90-96 CE) rather than Nero, the seer was understanding Domitian as the evil emperor Nero redivivus, a persistent popular belief at the time.
However difficult the situation, the faithful will eventually triumph because God is soon to wreak vengeance on the earth. The returning Christ brought fierce retribution to the persecutors, reward and consolation for the victims. Like the book of Daniel and the Jesus movement, the book of Revelation’s basic model is nonviolent resistance for the community enforced with militant rhetoric of the punishments waiting for the enemies of God through the intervention of the Christ.5 The Christ who returns is the agent of punishment. He will, for example, bring fearful conditions of disease, famine, war, and plague (“the four horsemen” of Rev 6), which the persecutors so richly deserved. In Revelation, the Christ appears as both the lamb, the gentle sacrificial animal identified with the martyrs, and the lion, the avenging fury against those who have opposed God’s word.
One of the most intriguing aspects of the martyr visions is found in chapter 6, following the opening of the fifth seal:
When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne; they cried out with a loud voice, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before thou wilt judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell upon the earth?” Then they were each given a white robe and told to rest a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brethren should be complete, who were to be killed as they themselves had been. (Rev 6:9-11)
As in Acts, the afterlife is depicted with naive narrative simplicity; and it is all the more effective because of it. There is an implicit ambiguity in the word “soul.” Though the “soul” terminology may suggest to us the Greek notion of immortal souls, it is more likely that the Hebrew word nefesh alone is understood here as the principle of identity for the martyrs in the intermediary state between their deaths and their resurrection. It seems no different from the word “spirit” used in Acts 7, referring to angels and exalted martyrs in heaven. It is however important that the “soul” language was developed to help serve the purpose of justifying the martyrs, explaining where they reside until the consummation.
The apocalyptic framework suggests an intermediate state and the final return of the righteous to the earth. The use of the word “soul” at this place may also have a social implication in that it refers to a specific group of Christians, those who had suffered and died and whose return will signal that God’s justice is accomplished. One might also suggest that Hellenistic popular notions were being synthesized with the Hebrew ones to help combine notions of resurrection with immortality of the soul. The setting itself describes a much more Hellenized environment than the Gospels. Furthermore, the literature is a narrative rather than philosophical tractate, which facilitates the synthesis.
Christian resistance at this period, like Jewish martyr resistance before it, was predominantly passive resistance. That was what produced martyrs in this period and not political revolutionaries. We think that the group that produced Daniel was also politically passive in opposition to Syrian Greek rule; if the group was the “Hasideans” it was not militarily sophisticated. We cannot totally rule out active military action for all who revered the Dead Sea Scrolls, as some of the documents are extraordinarily militant, and who may have taken part in the First Jewish revolt against Rome (66-70 CE).
But, even they considered themselves the allies of the angels. It was God, not the human community, who was going to correct the situation. As in most religious millenarian movements, the role of the faithful is passive; they will wait while God and his divine agencies clear away the sinners. The faithful will even undergo martyrdom for their faith, suffering every torture with patient endurance. A number of scholars of millenarian movements point out that, in general, were there a reasonable chance of political or military action, the millenarian movement would likely have become a political revolutionary movement. In the early period, Christians followed the example of Jesus and were content to let God avenge the righteous because no one could militarily oppose Roman order and expect to win.
Apocalyptic Attempts to Handle Immortality of the Soul
BUT AN APOCALYPTIC expectation of the end of time could not be maintained forever without the arrival of the end. Eventually, Christianity would have to come to terms with the delay of the parousia or it would be abandoned as disconfirmed. Even Paul’s notion of inward transformation depended on the arrival of the eschaton. As Christianity came to terms with the continued existence of the world, it incorporated two conceptions that were quite foreign to its original formulation-the immortality of the soul and an interim state in which the soul exists until the Savior arrives to judge the world. It also took an assumption of the corrupted, apocalyptic worldview and turned it into the doctrine of Original Sin, which builds human imperfectibility into the universe. In turn, it demands the rite of infant baptism to counteract it.6
We can find the attempt to come to terms with the delay of the parousia (the arrival of Jesus) in two primary literatures: the Church Fathers and the Apocrypha. As John Gager has cogently pointed out, Christianity had to deal with an enormous change in its religious life. In the first century, Christians were praying for the arrival of the apocalypse: “Thy Kingdom, come” (Matt 6:10). By the end of the second century, Tertullian tells us that Christians prayed “for the emperors, for their deputies, and all in authority, for the welfare of the world, and for the delay of the consummation.”7 The millenarian aspects of Christianity need to be jettisoned while keeping the motivations and energy of Christianity’s proselytizing mission intact.
A similar problem existed within Judaism, in that the destruction of the Second Temple raised enormous apocalyptic expectations, which were first expressed, then disconfirmed, then explained further. But only a few Jews were millenarians, while the majority wanted to be good citizens of the Roman order. Both Judaism and Christianity needed to understand why God had not yet intervened to save the righteous and punish the sinners. In both traditions, the delay of the apocalypse meant a turn to immortality of the soul and an interim “waiting period” in which the souls were punished and rewarded in heaven before the end. For Christianity, being a heavily missionary movement, it also meant developing more articulate reasons for becoming Christian even if the end were not coming tomorrow.
This literature is vast so we will need to seek all the help we can. We will have to adopt a selective, topical approach. Richard Bauckham, who has analyzed many heavenly journey texts, developed his description of the genre of the “tour of hell.” Some of his conclusions are so important as to be best presented by direct quotation:
(1) Cosmic tours, like those in 1 Enoch, displayed from an early date an interest in the fate of the dead, among other cosmic secrets. With the emergence of belief in the punishment of the wicked after death, a tour of the punishments in hell was included in such apocalypses. The Apocalypse of Elijah was evidently an example of this development. It may even have been the earliest.
2)Within the genre of tours of the seven heavens, there may have been apocalypses which included a tour of hell located (as in 2 Enoch) within one of the heavens, but no such apocalypse has survived. Instead, we have apocalypses in which an ascent through the seven heavens is followed by a visits (sic!) to paradise and hell: 3 Baruch (Slavonic) and Gedulat Moshe. (Since this pattern is also followed in the apocalypse in the Syriac Transitus Mariae, where hell, as in 2 Enoch, is only reserved for the wicked in the future, the pattern probably predated its use in apocalypses which included a tour of hell.)
3)Some cosmic tour apocalypses developed a particularly strong emphasis on the fate of the dead. Thus the Gedulat Moshe, while retaining a tour of the seven heavens with cosmological and angelological concerns independent of the fate of the dead, gives most space to the visits to hell and paradise, while even within the tour of the heavens Moses encounters the angel of death in the sixth heaven. The transition is then not great to apocalypses exclusively concerned with the fate of the dead, such as the Apocalypse of Zephaniah and the Apocalypse of Paul, which while they range quite widely over the heavens and the underworld and even the extremities of the earth, are interested only in matters concerned with the fate of the dead. In fact, the Apocalypse of Paul may well have developed from basically the same pattern as that of 3 Baruch and the Gedulat Moshe: ascent through the heavens, visit to paradise, visit to hell…. With the belief that the souls of the dead are first taken up to the throne of God for judgment before being taken to paradise or hell (ApPaul 14-18), this pattern became the way the seer could follow the path of souls after death and observe their fate.8
Bauckham looks at a series of later works, which we are not going to study in detail, because he has so aptly summed up their import. Even after Bauckham’s detailed study, some interesting larger questions yet remain: Why, for instance, does the tradition ramify in the direction of postmortem judgment? Why do stories of the horrors of hell increase as time goes on? Answers to these questions must be somewhat general and speculative. But there is a certain, inescapable logic, which can be identified by meditating on Bauckham’s observations.
One might begin with the observation that the purpose of these angelically guided tours of hell is basically to confirm the moral nature of the universe, in contrast to the obvious and undeserved rewards that too many sinners and oppressors receive on earth. If the end is not just around the corner, if the end has not arrived in centuries, then it is no longer enough to think that God will punish the sinners at the end and reward the righteous there. Reward and punishment needs to be closer to the events of earthly existence. In short, there needs to be a heaven and hell.
The predisposition of apocalyptic literature to imagine in horribly literal terms the just deserts of the sinners and enemies of the group compensates for the injustice on earth. But history tells us that life became easier for Christians as they progressed up the social ladder of the Roman Empire. Why then did they design even more ferocious punishments against the sinners?
It was the delay of the parousia. The more time that passed without the good being rewarded by the end of the world, the more vindictive the faithful became against the sinners. With no quickly arriving apocalypse, there would be no reason to convert to Christianity except to avoid more and more horrendous punishments for sinning. Hell was a convenient stick with which to whip the sinner and a great cautionary tale to encourage the faithful.9 Under such circumstances, the details of hell depended on the writer’s inventiveness against the persecutors of the faithful.
Yet there is one more, even stronger reason why hell became so important in apocalyptic literature. It is deeply connected to the process of synthesizing resurrection of the dead with immortality of the soul: The more clear the depiction of the immortal soul, the more terrible hell had to be. An immortal soul is not destructible at death. Once the soul’s immortality is admitted (and therefore its universal and natural eternity acknowledged, as Plato taught), the more horrible must be the punishments for the badly behaved souls in hell. In the Daniel vision, the great sinners were resurrected for punishment. Most persons just remain dead, along with the ordinary righteous. But once the soul was immortal and all souls survived forever, then punishment had to be eternal as well, otherwise sinners would appear to get away with their dastardly deeds.
We already know that apocalyptic communities defined themselves (to a greater or lesser degree) as self-imposed pariahs, to avoid contamination ritually and morally from the surrounding society. They maintained their own ritual and moral purity, to their own specific and sectarian definition, and thus they constantly reminded themselves of their elect status: They will be the only persons to inherit God’s coming kingdom. There was an inherent social dimension to resurrection of the body, a polemic against those who would not get it and a very clear definition of the saved. When the notion of resurrection was combined with immortality of the soul in a Jewish or Christian context, a number of adjustments needed to be made, one of which was that the role of hell had to be more fully emphasized; and the other is that the judgment needed logically to be relocated to the time of death so that the final disposition of the immortal soul could be made clear. The third is that compensatory doctrines like Original Sin would become more explicit to enforce the dualism.
Souls in the Apocalyptic End
SOULS IN an apocalyptic work might mean only the “personality” of the departed and not precisely what the Greek “immortal soul” implied. After all, nefesh was available as a word for “soul” from Genesis onwards. It is very hard to know when the implications of the Platonic notion began to be felt. Especially when there is a resurrection at the end of time, the issue is moot because the end settles all the scores. When souls achieve an intermediate state, it is only until the resurrection at the end of time when the virtuous regain the earth in one form or another. This is a stable feature of Christian understanding of the end-of-time. Yet, at a certain point, we note that no one expected the end immediately, so that the immortal soul began to have a place in thinking about the afterlife. Life in heaven became more than an intermediary state. Logically, this happened as apocalyptic notions diminished but the soul’s intermediate state became more clearly defined. In other words, when the apocalyptic end receded, the intermediate state in heaven became more and more important. In this case, the doctrine of Original Sin began to function more strongly, and it was reinforced by the development of infant baptism.10 It provided an additional reason to be among the faithful. Otherwise, mission fails and the church is not motivated to keep up the good works.
This is not the only logical way to combine the two traditions, not an inevitable outcome, but it does describe how the traditions were, in fact, combined in Christianity. We shall later note the interesting dissenting position that Origen and Gregory took in this dialogue.11 But in the apocalypses there is little philosophical argumentation. Instead, the narrative developments pick obvious ways to cope with the idea of the immortality of the soul.
The result was a very powerful notion of hell, to cover great sinners and (mostly) infidels and which in turn eventually generated the need for less stringent places of punishment, purgatory and limbo, for the culpable within the church, since such horrendous punishments to innocent souls seemed to disconfirm statements of God’s mercy. This theme, the generosity of communities imagining their victory in their imaginations, became quite common in later apocalyptic writing as well, especially as the notion of our ability to affect the status of the damned by our prayers and offerings gained popularity in Christian European life. Richard Bauckham also devoted considerable space to the conflict between justice and mercy. He noted the continuing theme of the earth giving back the dead.12
The Testament of Moses
MEANWHILE, the Jewish community was producing apocalypses as well. Like so many apocalyptic and pseudepigraphical documents, the Testament of Moses cannot be dated exactly. It has been credibly placed in Maccabean times by some scholars. The crisis narrated in it is likely to be later, the destruction of the Temple (70 CE) or perhaps even the second revolt against Rome (132-135 CE). Martyrdom also figures in this document, as well as a tacit agreement that Jews can be buried anywhere: “The whole world is your sepulcher” (T. Mos 11:8). This is more than a cynical statement, rather a statement that the diaspora is of long duration already. The Levite Taxo is described as a martyr, along with his seven sons, as a sign that will bring on the final vengeance from the LORD:
There let us die rather than transgress the commandments of the LORD of LORDS, the God of our fathers. For if we do this, and do die, our blood will be avenged before the Lord. (T. Mos 9:7)
The LORD’S vengeance begins with Him leaving his throne and bringing chaos to the earth, in the same way that the warrior Ba’al or YHWH punished his enemies of old. But, as in the previous adaptation of these images for martyrdom, the righteous will be taken into heaven. The terminology for “raising” expresses a clear ascension, which as in earlier passages, probably assumed resurrection. In this case, it certainly promises astral immortality.
THE BOOK OF 4 Ezra (also known as 2 Esdras in LXX nomenclature) is a first century CE book, with a great deal of Jewish material in it, resembling nothing so much as a primer about life after death. The central portion of the book (beginning with chap. 3) comprises the discussions and visions of the writer, living close to the destruction of the Second Jewish Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE. It is, however, a typical pseudonymous book. It purports to be the religious discussions between an angel and Ezra, who is disconsolate about the destruction of the First Temple, in 587/586 BCE. The dominant English commentaries take the book to be a unity. Furthermore, the important commentary by Michael Stone in the Hermeneia series,13 presupposes that the book contains the special visions of one person, whose religious questions are answered through RASC described throughout the book. This commentary is noteworthy for many felicities, not the least of which is that Stone faces the implications of the claimed revelatory quality of the narrative on the writer and reader. The material is somehow related to Baruch and the Pseudo-Philo literature.14
Regardless of the exact nature of the book’s composition or its exact qualities as literature, the central issue of the book is theodicy, justifying God’s ways to humanity. As such, the issue of life after death comes up significantly throughout, both in apocalyptic terms of a world to come and the disposition of the soul after death.
The book begins in chapter 3, the first two chapters being a Christian addition usually designated as 5 Ezra.15 Ezra begins by telling his spiritual difficulties. His spirit was greatly anxious and he prays for help in great agitation. Thus begins the dialogue which precedes the first of seven visions. Each vision is preceded by a strict regimen of fasting but visions three and six are also preceded by “eating of flowers,” an obscure detail which reflects either asceticism or the ingestion of psychotropic substances. Either way, we can expect RISC will result. The first three visions are explicitly experienced at night while attempting to sleep (3:1; 6:17; cf. 6:30; 6:36; 9:27). Dream visions, we already know, are a distinct characteristic of Jewish RISC, especially in Daniel but also in 1 Enoch 14:2; 85:1; T. Levi 2:5; 8:1, 18 and Aramaic Levi 7-8. The visions in the book are meant to be understood as received in an altered state of consciousness.
In chapter 4 a dialogue begins between Ezra and the angel Uriel, who appears quite suddenly. But theophany per se is not the purpose of the meeting. The angel challenges Ezra to understand various of God’s great unanswerable mysteries. In this respect, the meeting resembles the answer given to Job. But, unlike the book of Job where the appearance of God is enough to silence questions of theodicy, Ezra received the outlines of a longer answer from one of God’s assistants. For example, in 4 Ezra, death is entirely the result of Adam’s sin, rather like orthodox Christian doctrine of Original Sin, except that the sin is due to Adam alone. This answer enshrines the fallen state of humanity and makes salvation necessary for human perfection. It also preserves a kind of apocalyptic sociology, once the prediction of a coming end fades, because it suggests that only those within the group know how to escape Original Sin and attain salvation.
In probably the most famous vision, chapter 7, we see evidence of exegesis. But behind it is RISC, as the vision itself is repeatedly said to be a gift from God. In it, we have a reference to the entrances to the coming world, which are broad and safe and yield the fruit of immortality. Then the vision itself begins, in which Daniel 7 is one of the controlling texts. It is understood in an unusual way.
For my son the Messiah shall be revealed with those are with him, and those who remain shall rejoice four hundred years. And after these years my son the Messiah shall die, and all who draw human breath. And the world shall be turned back to primeval silence for seven days, as it was at the first beginnings; so that no one shall be left. And after seven days the world, which is not yet awake, shall be roused, and that which is corruptible shall perish. And the earth shall give up those who are asleep in it; and the chambers shall give up the souls which have been committed to them. And the Most High shall be revealed upon the seat of judgment, and compassion shall pass away, and patience shall be withdrawn; but judgment alone shall remain. Truth shall stand, and faithfulness shall grow strong. And recompense shall follow, and the reward shall be manifested; righteous deeds shall awake, and unrighteous deeds shall not sleep. Then the pit of torment shall appear, and opposite it the Paradise of delight. (4 Ezra 7:26-44)
This vision of the Messianic end is so different from Christianity’s version that it bears special emphasis; it points out how fluid Messianic ideas were in the first century. Each vision of the end was closely correlated with each group’s social position, ideals, and historical experiences. In this case, a group of people was trying to understand the suffering of the first revolt against Rome and the destruction of the Temple. Even so, the language is directly reminiscent of Daniel 12: “The earth shall give back those who are asleep in it, and the dust those who rest in it.” This is the recompense that God owes to the righteous. These themes will become crucial to Islam.
The disposition of the nations is emphasized. They (obviously those who have oppressed Israel) will be resurrected to be shown the instruments of their final torture and then cast into perdition, though the text politely passes over the gruesome details with the phrase: “All shall see what has been determined for them” (v 43). Death is conceived of the body’s separation from spirit, or soul (7:78,100). As in most apocalyptic material, whether “the soul” means anything like the Greek immortal soul or merely the personality in a post-body existence is moot. The final consummation is a resurrection in refined bodily form (7:32).
After the description of the Messianic future, come a number of questions about the final disposition of souls, or spirits (7:75fr.). The classification of the condemned need not detain us, though it too is based on Daniel. But the categorization of the saved souls (7:91fr.) is based on the passage in Daniel 12, which prophesies that some will be given a special role as stars in the heaven.
The characterization is an interpretation of the passage in Daniel. The seer has introduced some new material which goes far beyond Daniel 12. The moral separation between the good and the evil has gotten more strict. There is to be no intercession by the righteous for the ungodly any more (v 102). In Daniel, the leaders ascend to stardom, most people are not resurrected and the very evil are resurrected for further punishment. Here, the resurrection of the good is still for the saved remnant but it is far more general, while the punishment of hell is reserved for most everyone else. In 4 Ezra 7:125, the faces of the abstinent are said to shine above the stars, confirming that the ascetic life leads to the angelic life, that cleanliness is next to godliness.
The Ezra apocalypticist inserted a higher category still, those who look upon God himself (Exod 24; 33:20-21, etc). Perhaps that was his understanding of the Danielic phrase “shine like the stars forever.” In Revelation 1:16, we also see: “His face was like the sun, shining in full strength.”
This vision, though based on Daniel, is not merely an exegesis of Daniel but is an interpretation of it, different and contradictory to it in many ways. This method of interpretation is quite unlike exegesis in that it can with impunity maintain as actual details that are inconsistent with the original vision. Pure exegesis would have had to explain any change of that magnitude. But it is quite like a visionary meditation. Abnormal states of consciousness, including prophetic dreams, are the easiest ways to explain the innovations and the seemingly contradictory information. These seers are prophetic dreamers, who study texts like Daniel during the day and seek interpretive dreams at night. The dreams are, as is natural, a combination of the texts and the contemporary problems of the seers, who are trying to come to terms with the destruction of Jerusalem.
The Baruch Literature
THE BARUCH literature is a treasure trove of interesting apocalyptic imagery and ascension traditions. This literature is based upon the figure of Jeremiah’s amanuensis or secretary Baruch at the destruction of the First Temple. This historical character, already well known as the recorder and writer of Jeremiah’s prophecies, became an important figure in his own right at the time of the destruction of the Second Temple. First Baruch (1 Bar. 1:1-38) may be dated as early as the second century BCE. After the destruction of the Second Temple, many different groups evidently speculated on the meaning of history through the person of Baruch, as the literature manifests many differing characteristics and cannot be attributed to a single person or school. During this period, 2 and 4 Baruch were written. Third Baruch is a vision of a heavenly journey like The Apocalypse and Testament of Abraham, 1 and 2 Enoch, the Testament of Levi, the Martyrdom of Isaiah, and the Merkabah literature. So the genre is very unusual and wide-ranging.
In 2 Baruch (Syriac), the theme of angelic transformation receives enormous emphasis. It is set in the period of the destruction of the First Temple, though it is the destruction of the Second Temple that occasioned the text. This book has been influenced by Christianity and can be dated variously from the first to the third century CE. So it is hard to assess its exact social location. Besides the ascent and translation story, the book serves as a primer for the final disposition of the just and unjust in God’s grand scheme, protected by the imprimatur of Baruch’s revelatory experience.
Baruch follows several well-known techniques for achieving RASC, including fasting and lamentation, which are known to alter consciousness. First Baruch explicitly asks why one should remain righteous. The answer is clear: righteousness is God’s goal for humans, therefore no person should indulge in self-destructive enterprises (12:5-20:4). After Baruch repeats the preparatory rites, he receives revelations of disasters that will shortly overtake the world, followed by the apocalypse, including the coming of the Messiah, the resurrection of the dead, and the final judgment (20:5-30:5).
In the final “balancing of the books,” the righteous and the sinners both survived death so that the wicked could be punished. Not only was Baruch familiar with the texts in Daniel 12, which explicitly say that the evil and the good will be resurrected for the final judgment, he was also familiar with the visions in Ezra and relied on them to amplify his vision of the end (see particularly, 1 Enoch 22 and 4 Ezra 7:28ff.). Naturally, the details of the visionary literature itself were picked up in future visions. This is not necessarily the result of exegesis or literary allusion; it may just as easily be explained as the natural incorporation of known details into later visions because they appear in the visions of the apocalypticists after they have been studied.16 The novel details may have come from visions or they might not. Further study is necessary in each case.
After a few more visions, which are also explained, Baruch repeats his preparation procedure yet again to ask specifically about the nature of the resurrection (49:1-52:7):
Listen, Baruch, to this word and write down in the memory of your heart all that you shall learn. For the earth will surely give back the dead at that time; it receives them now in order to keep them, not changing anything in their form. But as it has received them so it will give them back. And as I have delivered them to it so it will raise them. For then it will be necessary to show those who live that the dead are living again, and that those who went away have come back. And it will be that when they have recognized each other, those who know each other at this moment, then my judgment will be strong, and those things which have been spoken of before will come. (50:1-4, end of chapter)
The dead must be raised in their exact form so that God’s justice will be evident to all. But then the righteous will be changed into a much more glorious form, as in 2 Baruch 51:3. This transformation conveniently solves the problem of identity in the afterlife before it goes on to the final consummation. In this further developed vision of the end, all the righteous share the rewards given by Daniel to “those who are wise.” This represents a significantly different view of the meaning of that expectation.
Second Baruch 51:3-5 portrays a gradual transformation of all believers into angelic creatures, as the process of redemption is fulfilled:
Also, as for the glory of those who proved to be righteous on account of my law, those who possessed intelligence in their life, and those who planted the root of wisdom in their heart-their splendor will then be glorified by transformations, and the shape of their face will be changed into the light of their beauty so that they may acquire and receive the undying world which is promised to them…. When they therefore will see that those over whom they are exalted now will then be more exalted and glorified than they, then both these and those will be changed, these into the splendor of angels and those into startling visions and horrible shapes; …For they will live in the heights of that world and they will be like the angels and be equal to the stars. And they will be changed into any shape which they wished, for beauty to loveliness, and from light to the splendor of glory And the excellence of the righteous will then be greater than that of the angels.17
Here is an innovative interpretation of the visions of Daniel. The evil ones are transformed into the terrible beasts of the Daniel vision while the righteous are explicitly transformed into stars.
Cavallin points out that we may profitably compare this vision with Paul’s discussion in 1 Corinthians 15.18 He lists four important similarities between the two: (1) the general background of apology for the belief in resurrection; (2) reflection on the nature of the resurrection body; (3) the survival of some at the end; and (4) the idea of transformation and heavenly glorification of the righteous. This does not necessarily imply direct dependence, only a reworking of traditional material to answer similar questions. Since this is a revelation achieved in RASC, it does hint at the way in which texts inspire further visions.
Third Baruch is also relevant to our story. The work survives in two different forms-Slavonic and Greek-though there are good reasons for supposing that the Slavonic version represents a more original version of the text than the Greek, which shows considerable Christian reworking. In particular, the references to the disposition of the dead in the Slavonic version seem to be the more original. But, the Greek version retains the more common Jewish name of Samael for Satan while the Slavonic version has a more elaborate story of the fall of Satan-El,19 who loses his angelic suffix El (like Michael, Gabriel, Raphael, Uriel, etc.) and becomes Satan after the fall. So both versions have undergone independent later development. But this and other characteristics make even the Slavonic version often seem more like a summary than the original narrative.20
Third Baruch is revelatory literature. As Baruch is crying over the destruction of the Temple, an angel appears to him. What happens thereafter is supposed to be a description of simple events yet the setting is one in which prophets often enter RASC. Lamentation is a regular occasion for the reception of altered states of consciousness in Jewish tradition, right into the modern period.
The Baruch literature ignores the Enoch tradition, although it resumes much of the information contained in Genesis 2-11. This inevitably leads to scholarly speculation that Baruch literature is polemical against Enochic material.21 At any rate, it contains much expanded and sometimes bizarre notions of the punishment of sinners. The builders of the Tower of Babel are accorded special attention, as does punishment in hell. In the Greek version, Hades is placed in the third heaven (4:3, 4:6, 5:3), which seems to be an independent development. The Greek version interprets the birds that Baruch sees in the fourth heaven as the “souls of the righteous” (10:5), a motif which may reach back to Canaanite practice and which occasionally comes back in Islamic tradition. The notion of the immortality of the soul is well represented in the received version of this document, whatever the complicated origins of the tradition may have been.
Apocalyptic literature represents heavenly journeys as straight and ordinary narrative when, during this period at least, we know that they were achieved through RASC. There are documents that prefer to represent altered states in a dream context and others that prefer to ignore the issue of consciousness entirely. Many texts follow the same contrast we saw in the Gospels and Paul: Mystical texts describe RASC while apocalyptic ones describe the events as if they were happening in ordinary consciousness.
SECOND ENOCH, extant in two Slavonic versions, is a further extension of the Enoch legend, most probably through a Christian recension, since the importance of Torah does not figure in the story. Yet, the possibility of a Semitic language, possibly even a Jewish Vorlage (original edition), especially in the shorter version, cannot be ruled out. Many Christians wrote in the Aramaic language as well, and there were Jewish Christians who claimed both Jewish and Christian identities at once, whatever their Christian and Jewish brothers may have thought of them. In 2 Enoch 22:7, Enoch is transformed during a face-to-face encounter with the LORD into “one of his glorious ones”-in short, an angel and a star. Note, however, the use of glorification language to characterize angelic status. God decrees: “Let Enoch join in and stand in front of My face forever,” thus explaining for us the Rabbinic term “Prince of the Presence,” which is normally applied to Metatron. It is the highest category of angel in 4 Ezra, and in this book it has become an official, titled position. Then, on the basis of this promotion, Enoch is transformed into his new angelic status:
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 me and he clothed me. And the appearance of that oil is greater than the greatest light, and its ointment is like sweet dew, and its fragrance myrrh; and it is like the rays of the glittering sun. And I looked at myself, and I had become like one of his glorious ones, and there was no observable difference. (2 En 22:8-10, recension A)
Here, the transformation is effected through a change of “clothing.” The clothing represents Enoch’s new transformed, immortal flesh as it is immortal clothing. This is a significant parallel with Paul’s future glorification of the mortal body in 2 Cor 5:1-10.22 Enoch has been put “in” the body of an angel, or he is “in” the manlike figure in 1 Enoch 71. This may all be a further explanation of Paul’s use of the peculiar terminology “in Christ.”
The Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs and Daniel
THE ORIGIN and date of the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs have been much debated in recent years. It may either be a Jewish work composed as early as the second century BCE but to which a Christian editor later added material, or it may instead be a Jewish Christian work dating from the second century CE. The older notion that the text was composed in Greek must now be reevaluated because of the Hebrew and Aramaic fragments found at Qumran. These suggest that at least two of the testaments, the Testaments of Naphtali and Levi, were originally written in Semitic languages. Even if others are later Christian compositions, the traditions inherent in the testaments have so many affinities to 1 Enoch, Jubilees, and the Dead Sea Scrolls that the non-Christian material may be assumed also to be pre-Christian.23
Like Jubilees and the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Testaments emphasize the struggle between cosmological forces, which are typical of apocalypticism and at the same time reflections on cataclysmic events in Judea during the first centuries. The Testaments are particularly emphatic in their notion that the patriarchs were resurrected. They use the word “raised,” typical for Hellenistic Judaism and Christianity, to express it in T Jud 25:1; T. Sim 6:7; T. Zeb 10:1-4; and T. Ben 10:6-10. In T. Ben 10, the patriarchs’ resurrection, is combined with a universal resurrection: “All shall rise, some to glory and some to shame” (10:8), just as in the general resurrection prophesied in Daniel 12. In T. Simeon 6:7, the patriarch prophesies his own resurrection: “Then I shall rise in joy and I shall bless the Most High for His wonders.” Testament of Judah 25:1 records a promise of resurrection “to life” for all the patriarchs, which evokes Daniel 12:2. In the Testament of Judah 25:4, the pattern of compensation for the faithful becomes clear: “And those who have finished in sorrow will rise, some for glory, others for dishonor, and the Lord will judge Israel, first of all, for their unrighteousness.” Testament of Benjamin 10:6 includes Enoch among the patriarchs.
Like the ascent vision in 1 Enoch, the ascent in Testament of Levi interrupts the narrative.24 It begins in a prophetic dream while Levi, the ancestor of the priestly line, is tending his flocks. An angelic guide brings him through the heavens, pointing out the cosmological features that most people of that time assumed to be there: the treasuries of rain, snow, fire, ice, and the brightness, placing the superior moral machinery higher than the merely meteorological machinery. At the beginning of chapter 5 the angel shows Levi God sitting on the throne and this exquisite sight is the sign that he will be given “the blessing of the priesthood until I shall come and dwell in the midst of Israel.” It was the priests’ job to see God. Theophany and priesthood go together because it was the priest who entered the holy of holies on the Day of Atonement.
The angel gives him a shield and sword to execute vengeance on Shechem, a key issue that may help understand the social location of the Testament. It seems to rely on the story of the destruction of Shechem and the sons of Hamor (Genesis 34) as a typology for some contemporary event (see also Josh 24:32, Judg 9:28, and Acts 7:16).
In chapter 8, we resume the vision narrative, suggesting that the story of Shechem was meant to have special import. When the vision continues, Levi is enthroned with all the honors of the high priesthood. But the writer is also seeking to legitimate his own community in his own day:
“Levi, your posterity shall be divided into three offices as a sign of the glory of the Lord who is coming. The first lot shall be great; no other shall be greater than it. The second shall be the priestly role. But the third shall be granted a new name, because from Judah a king will arise and shall found a new priesthood in accord with the gentile model and for all nations. His presence is beloved, as a prophet of the Most High, a descendant of Abraham your father. To you and your posterity will be everything desired in Israel, and you shall eat everything attractive to behold, and your posterity will share among themselves the Lord’s table. From among them will be priests, judges, and scribes, and by their word the sanctuary will be controlled.” When I awoke, I understood that this was like the first dream. And I hid this in my heart as well, and I did not report it to any human being on the earth. (T. Levi 8:11-12)
Few have suggested how much this prophecy helped the gentile Christian church understand itself in contradistinction to the Jewish (and perhaps some in the Jewish-Christian) community. If the passage is using the story of Shechem as a typology, the vengeance taken against the circumcised might be a the result of a deliberate Biblical typology (symbolic reading of the Bible with a later incident in mind) predicting the lack of acceptance among the Jews of the Judaized Christians who thought to join the new Israel by circumcision through the story of Shechem. The narrator’s point is that this replicates the pattern set in the Old Testament when the Israelites on one occasion unjustly attacked Canaan. Obviously, this was not the original interpretation of that story. The innovation emphasizes that one need not keep the special rules of Jewish diet. So this seems to be an explicitly gentile Christian revelation.
Daniel 5:11ff. was originally an independent apocalypse. The preserved are called “the souls of the saints.”25 The life to come is described as “rest” and “eternal peace” (v 11), probably attesting to contact with the book of Hebrews in the New Testament and as the definite liberation of Jerusalem and Israel. None of this allows any definite conclusion about the nature of souls or the bodies of those glorified in the rest. Eden is reestablished for the saints, along with a new Jerusalem and a new Israel. The Lord will himself reign together with humans.
In the Testament of Asher, the soul’s continued existence rather than resurrection is emphasized. Nickelsburg has already pointed out the importance of 6:4-6 as a combination of the Greek and Jewish conceptions of afterlife, which we have previously seen:26
For the ultimate end of human beings displays their righteousness, since they are made known to the angels of the Lord and of Beliar. For when the evil soul departs, it is harassed by the evil spirit which it served through its desires and evil works. But if anyone is peaceful with joy he comes to know the angel of peace and enters eternal life.
Nickelsburg sees in this text an example of “two-way-theology” as at Qumran, as well as many early Christian documents. “Two-way-theology” outlines the choice between a wicked and a righteous life as a clear and unambiguous choice, then demands that the reader choose righteously. This dualism is as much an indicator of the social position of the groups that produced the testament. We should not assume that the same group produced the entire Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs, as Testament of Asher, with its notion of separable souls and no resurrection, is quite different from the other material, where resurrection is the dominant metaphor for the afterlife.27
The Ascension of Isaiah
THE ASCENSION OF ISAIAH also focuses on ascent and heavenly transformation. We must not forget that the prophet Isaiah was assumed to be a martyr in later tradition, though the prophetic book gives us no definite evidence of it. In chapters 6 through 11, usually attributed to a Christian hand, the famous theophany of Biblical Isaiah 6 is understood as a heavenly journey where the prophet sees God. The prophet was taken through each of the seven heavens, stopping to view the glorious figure seated on the throne of each heaven.
Isaiah is told that his throne, garments, and crown await him in heaven (Asc. Isa 7:22). All those who love the Most High will at their end ascend by the angel of the Holy Spirit (7:23). In each heaven, Isaiah is glorified the more, emphasizing the transformation that occurs as a human travels closer and closer to God (7:24); effectively he becomes one of the angels. According to the other angels, Isaiah’s vision is unprecedented; no one else who is to return to fleshly and bodily existence has been vouchsafed such a complete vision of the reward awaiting the good (8:11-13). But Isaiah must return to earth to complete his prophetic commission before he can enjoy the rest that awaits him in heaven.28 The birth of the Messiah in Bethlehem through Joseph and Mary is related in some detail (11:1-21). The righteous dead and the martyrs and patriarchs are in the seventh heaven, including Abel (now the first martyr as well as the first murder victim) and Shem, while the damned are either no longer to be found or living in Sheol (11:22-24).
The climax of the story can be angelic transformation but the stated purpose of the journey in these early apocalyptic texts is usually theodicy-to understand God’s justice. The journeys begin after a crisis of human confidence about God’s intention to bring justice to the world, while the result of the journey is the discovery that the universe is indeed following God’s moral plan. Thus the ancient Scriptures about God’s providence are true and the evil ones who predominate on earth, even oppressing God’s saints, will soon receive the punishment that they richly deserve.
The ascension story, especially if it was performed by an earthly hero before his death, also functions as justification for the suffering of the righteous, because it verifies what the community would like to believe-namely, that seeming injustices will be recompensed by their ascension to heavenly immortality after death, and that the evil ones will be condemned to hell. Although its narration describes exotic and amazing events, the purpose is pragmatic, to explain the structure of heaven and to provide an “eschatological verification” that God’s plan will come to fruition. Immortalization is the explicit purpose of the text in the pagan ascensions. But in some of the Jewish material, where immortality is “automatically guaranteed” by moral living, more specific purposes are promulgated. Besides confirming God’s plan in the face of the seeming victory of the ungodly or the slaughter of the righteous, the stories probably describe the mechanism by which immortality is achieved. Transformation to one’s immortal state is pictured as becoming one with an angelic figure, perhaps illustrating the person’s identification with a preexistent guardian angel.
The Apocalypse of Abraham and the Testament of Abraham
THE APOCALYPSE OF ABRAHAM narrates a heavenly journey placed at the covenant between the pieces in the life of Abraham (Gen. 15) and does not speak directly about the final disposition of the righteous and sinners at the last judgment. But the vestiture of Abraham and his glorification as an angel implies his and the righteous’s final state of immortality. The imagery is, at the same time, baptismal. In chapter 21, paradise is depicted as on earth and, in chapter 31 the future rewards of the righteous and the destruction of the unclean are described. The use of Abraham as the role model for proselytes, a major theme in Jewish and Christian literature, is already clear in this document.
The Testament of Abraham is certainly Christian in several of its versions, but a Jewish version underlies it. It is difficult to know for sure what the original text would have been since the versions differ considerably from each other and certainly have had different histories.29 The story concerns the events immediately preceding the death of the patriarch Abraham. In this regard, it is similar to a number of Midrashim that exist in Rabbinic literature. The archangel Michael is told by God to inform Abraham that the time of his death has arrived. He should put his affairs in order and make a will. The expectation is that the patriarch will voluntarily surrender his soul. Abraham, now reacting like any ordinary person, is loathe to do it. He tells Michael that he wants to see all the wonders of earth before he moves on to the next stage of existence. After consulting with God, who agrees to the plan, the archangel Michael takes Abraham on a tour that includes observing many people sinning and only a few acting morally. Since Abraham is saintly, he is given a tour of the heaven as well, so he is assumed bodily to heaven, while alive, but only for the period of the revelation, and we are the beneficiaries of his special privilege, since the entire voyage is reported in his testament.
Abraham sees many souls going to destruction but only a few being brought to heaven. We note possible Egyptian and Greek influences-at any rate, Hellenistic influence-as the souls are weighed by their deeds and judged against their “permanent records” in the divine hierarchy. There are three different ordeals-by fire, by record, and by balance, presided over in three stages by Abel, the twelve patriarchs, and by God himself. In this context, Abel was the first martyr as well as the first murder victim. Thus, the final synthesis of the two visions of the end is immortality of the soul immediately upon death, disposition of righteous and sinners by judgment, and an apocalypse at the end of time.
Abraham then intercedes on behalf of a soul that is judged neither wicked nor righteous. This provides an etiology for the Jewish doctrine of the zekhut avoth, the merit of the patriarchs, which allows them to intervene for sinners. The text both accepts the doctrine of the “merit of the patriarchs” and warns against abusing the privilege, since Abraham only intervenes in a very close case. On the other hand, Daniel 12 had promised a resurrection for only some, not all. The doctrine of the immortal soul makes clear that everyone gets an afterlife, though only some will enjoy it.
PRESERVED IN Latin under the name of Philo, the Liber Antiquitatum Biblicarum (abbreviated as LAB) is actually much closer to the Rabbinic genre of Midrash, a retelling of selected Biblical history from creation to the death of Saul. Its original language is probably Hebrew, though the traditions found in it have some relationship also to 4 Ezra and 2 Baruch. At the covenant given to Noah, the editor places a prophecy of the final resurrection:
But when the years appointed for the world have been fulfilled, then the light will cease and the darkness will fade away. And I will bring the dead to life and raise up those who are sleeping in the earth. And hell will pay back its debt, and the place of perdition will return its deposit so that I may render to each according to his works and according to the fruits of his own devices, until I judge between soul and flesh. And the world will cease, and death will be abolished, and hell will shut its mouth. And the earth will not be without progeny or sterile for those inhabiting it; and no one who has been pardoned by me will be tainted. And there will be another earth and another heaven, an everlasting dwelling place. (LAB 3:10)
The passage speaks of a universal resurrection of the righteous and wicked dead. The raising of those who “sleep in the earth” demonstrates that this is to be a resurrection of the body, though the mature Christian view of the judgment of the soul and the flesh (iudicem inter animam et carnem) also implies that the immortality of the soul has made a strong impression. Hell and the harrowing of hell are noted. Light and darkness cease and new heavens and earth are created. The righteous are also to be glorified in heaven, as Abraham “shall set his dwelling on high” (super excelsa, 4:11).
Even more striking is the prophecy inserted in the Song of Deborah, where the Bible equates angels and stars. Israel is now exalted in the same way: “He led you unto the height of the clouds and subdued angels under your feet” (Sg. Deb. 30:5). There, the people are told to imitate their forefathers: “Then your likeness shall be seen as the stars of the heaven, which have been manifested unto you at this time” (33:5). The soul also maintains an imprint of the physical: “Even though death may separate us, I know that our souls will recognize each other” (62:9), says Jonathan to David. The description of death and the afterlife is a bit more elaborated at the death of Moses: “You shall rest in that place until I visit the world (saeculum). And I shall wake you and your fathers from the land where you sleep, and you shall find at the same time also an immortal habitation which is not occupied (tenetur) in time” (19:12).
Joseph and Aseneth
THE ROMANCE of Joseph and Aseneth is a Hellenistic Greek work which, in spite of its charm, has failed to garner a large audience over the centuries. It relates the story of the Biblical Joseph and his romance with Aseneth, the daughter of an Egyptian priest. Though there is little or no eschatology in the piece, Aseneth’s conversion received a great deal of attention, including a prominent mystical transformation, with immortality as the result of conversion. In an important way, Joseph and Aseneth is meant to valorize conversion. The question is: “conversion to what?” Though on a simple narrative level, the conversion must be to Judaism, there are some reasons to believe that there may be typological layers of tradition in the book. Christianity may be the final goal of the typological drama in the final version of the work.30
The basic plot involves Aseneth’s conversion from Egyptian religion to marry Joseph. On her journey, she receives a great many supernatural aids. Significant among them is the theophany of the angel Michael, introduced as “the chief captain of the Angel of the Lord” but also “the morning star,” and “messenger of the light.” After his departure by fiery chariot, Aseneth realizes that He is God but He also resembles Joseph exactly except that his entire being sparkles as brightly as fire, lightning, torches, and molten iron. Themes of heavenly doubles, angels who participate in the divinity of God, and the use of RISC aid the conversion process. In place of eschatology, the parable uses the distinction between Jew and gentile to enforce community boundaries. Inside of the group, symbols like the bread of life, the cup of immortality, and the oil of incorruptibility express the privileged status of those who have found religion acceptable to God.31
Outside the group, the bread of strangulation (non-kosher food?), the cup of apostasy, and the oil of corruption predominate. Aseneth receives an interesting revelation about a honeycomb and bees. The book is unusual in that it does not use the normal rhetoric of mission but rather celebrates the spiritual and mystic journey to the true faith. It could be an allegory for any Hellenistic faith but Christianity seems like the most obvious interpretation. It provides a very interesting intermediary case between apocalypticism and the later Jewish mysticism, but in a distinctly Hellenistic context
These apocalypses served to demonstrate the truth of the Christian message and also vividly dramatized what the faithful could expect. The steady progress of depictions of the immortality of the soul is evident. When immortality of the soul occurs, the judgment scene tends to center on the soul immediately after death, and the horrors of hell tend to be exaggerated. Frequently, the apocalyptic end can be left unemphasized and even dropped from consideration. Although Christianity and Judaism still maintain an apocalyptic end and lack of mention does not negate that belief, the emphasis on immortality of the soul certainly bespeaks a later time period when the apocalypse no longer occupies the Christian religious imagination. That seems to indicate that Christianity is no longer a sect and, perhaps, that Christianity is no longer as greatly concerned with fire-and-brimstone conversion sermons as it is in governing large numbers of Roman citizens in a peaceful and reliable manner.
But there are several other groups of literature which may profitably be compared with the Jewish and Christian apocalypses. Consider, first of all, the Jewish mystical literature as well as the pagan theosophical literature and magic. For all these literatures explicitly rely on notions of afterlife to increase their effectiveness and holiness. They all develop notions of apprenticeship to a heavenly power, who imparts secrets, and to whom it is sometimes necessary to journey. The heavenly secrets normally have to do directly with immortality and the moral, ethical, and ritual steps necessary to achieve it.32
Merkabah: Early Jewish Mysticism
THAT JEWISH mysticism has a history is due to Gershom Scholem. When many modern Jews were saying that Judaism was a religion of reason, more reasonable than Christianity, they thought, hence more able to deal with the modern world, Scholem pointed out that they were forgetting-trying desperately to forget-a lively tradition of Jewish mysticism. That history included Merkabah, Kabbalah, and Hasidism. The notion that mysticism is an analytic, cross-cultural concept itself is a modern phenomenon. Based on a Christian term, it has come to designate the knowledge of God by direct experience. From this point of view, prophecy may be thought of as a kind of mysticism. In the modern period, however, we tend to think of mysticism as quiet contemplation and the use of specific techniques of meditation, contemplation, and consciousness alteration. But it is important to note that if “mysticism” is an appropriate modern term to describe anything in the first century, it is mostly not quiet contemplation. Rather the apocalyptic mystics relied on the truth of ecstatic states, trances, dreams, visions, apocalypses, and other non-normal experiences to enrich their millenarian religious life.
Merkabah or “chariot vision literature,” named after the vision of Ezekiel 1 of his prophetic book, was the first great movement in Jewish mysticism. What we shall call Jewish mysticism, for lack of a more descriptive term, especially that part of it which is concerned with resurrection and life after death, clearly grew out of apocalypticism, the tail end of the prophetic movement, which claimed the world is going to end abruptly.
Jewish mysticism, indeed even the doctrine of resurrection itself, depends on that very peculiar passage in Daniel 12:1-3, the only apocalyptic work accepted into the Hebrew Bible. This vision served as the basis for the doctrine of resurrection in Judaism. In the much later Jewish prayer for the dead, ’El Malay Rahamim, it is directly quoted. In that prayer, a regular part of Jewish interment and memorial services, the dead are said to be in heaven, shining with the brightness of the heavens, “under the wings of the Shekhina.” The term “brightness” or “splendor” is zohar and is likely the basis for the title of the most famous book of Jewish mysticism, The Zohar, written in Spain in the High Middle Ages. So there is no question that this passage in Daniel was crucial to the later Jewish mystical tradition.
But this is only the prologue. Apocalypticism and Merkabah mysticism were not quiet contemplation. Instead they both witness to the active desire to journey to heaven and not merely out of curiosity about what was there. It was to verify that God’s promises to the apocalypticists were true and reliable: Not only could one go to heaven at the end of one’s life, some people actually went while alive, as Paul’s report in 2 Corinthians 12 shows. The importance of going during life was to demonstrate to the community by eyewitness that humans go to heaven and receive their just reward after death. It was a kind of eschatological verificationism (pace Hick).33
But that is only part of the story. Ecstatic experience was self-validating and socially valuable because of its power in confirming the society’s worldview. Since it was also RISC, it was also pleasurable, at least potentially, as an ecstatic experience. And going to heaven also conferred a number of other powers, as will be evident later. All this lies behind the mystic vocabulary for the goal of the journey: “to gaze on the King in His Beauty.” This figure on the throne, already well known to us, was a sophisticated blending of all the notions of the Glory of the Lord, the Shekhina, and the Angel of the Lord.
This enigmatic human appearance of God, discussed with appropriate self-consciousness in the Bible, is related to the so-called “Son of Man.” The preeminence of this angel is due primarily to the description of the angel of the Lord in Exodus. Exodus 23:20-21 states: “Behold, I send an angel before you, to guard you on the way and to bring you to the place which I have prepared. Give heed to him and hearken to his voice, do not rebel against him, for he will not pardon your transgression; for my name is in him.” The Bible expresses the unique status of this angel by means of its participation in the divine name.34 Thereafter in Exodus 33:18-23, Moses asks to see the Glory of God. In answer, God makes “his goodness” pass in front of him but He cautions, “You cannot see my face; for man shall not see me and live…. Behold, there is a place by me where you shall stand upon the rock; and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by; then I will take away my hand and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen.” Yahweh himself, the angel of God, and his Glory are melded together in a peculiar way, which suggested to its readers a deep secret about the ways God manifested himself to humanity.
The heavenly “Son of Man” appears in the vision in Daniel 7:13 in which an Ancient of Days appoints a human figure (“one like a Son of Man”) to execute justice in the destruction of the evil ones. This human figure is best understood as an angel, though it is an unusual angel in that it can participate in divinity, as we will see.35 Later on in Daniel, resurrection is promised both for the faithful dead and for the most heinous villains, who will be resurrected so that they may be sentenced to eternal perdition. Hamaskilim, or “those who are wise,” apparently the elite of the apocalyptic group, will then shine as the stars in heaven (Daniel 12:3). This Scripture essentially states that the leaders will be transformed into angels, since the stars were identified with angels in Biblical tradition (e.g. Job 38:7).
In the Hellenistic period many new interpretations of Exodus 23-24, Ezekiel 1, and Daniel 7 grew up. The various descriptions of the angels were all melded into a single principal angelic mediator. The name “Yahoel” in the Apocalypse of Abraham, illustrates one interpretation of carrying the divine name, since it is a combination of the tetragrammaton and a suffix denoting angelic stature. Yahoel is described as the one: “in whom God’s ineffable name dwells.” Other titles for this figure included “Melchizedek,” “Metatron,” “Adoil,” “Taxo,” “Eremiel” and, preeminently in Christianity but also perhaps elsewhere, “the Son of Man,” or “the manlike figure.”
For instance, Melchizedek appears at Qumran, in the document called 11QMelch, where he is identified with the “Elohim” of Psalm 82:1, thus giving us yet another variation on the theme of carrying the name of God. This same exegesis is applied to Christ in Hebrews 1. Metatron is called YHWH haqqāôn, or YHWH junior, and sits on a throne equal to God’s in 3 Enoch 10:1.36 Typically, the name of the angel varies from tradition to tradition. Michael is God’s “mediator” and general (archistrategos, 2 Enoch 33:10, T. Dan 6:1-5, T. Abr 1:4, cf. The Life of Adam and Eve 14.1-2). Eremiel appears in the Apocalypse of Zephaniah 6:1-15, where he is mistaken for God. In The Ascension of Isaiah 7:2-4, an angel appears whose name cannot be given.
Chief angelic mediators appear throughout the Jewish literature of the first several centuries.37 The chief angelic mediator, which we may call by a number of terms-God’s vice-regent, His Vezir, His regent, or other terms expressing his status as principal angel-is easily distinguished from the plethora of divine creatures, for the principal angel is not only head of the heavenly hosts but sometimes participates in God’s own being or divinity: “My name is in him” (Exod 23:21). In dualistic contexts he is the angel who opposes Satan as “Prince of the World” (see e.g. Apocalypse of Abraham 13-14; 20; 22; 23; 29).
Alongside these traditions lies the stranger but more relevant notion in Christianity, in some apocalyptic-mystical groups, that certain heroes can be transformed into angels as part of their ascension. This may easily be the most puzzling part of the mystic traditions but, in view of Paul’s mysticism and Christian notions of angelic transformation, it is the most important to summarize.38 Amazingly, some patriarchs are also exalted as angels. In the Testament of Abraham 11 (Recension A), Adam is pictured with a terrifying appearance and adorned with Glory upon a golden throne. In chapters 12-13 Abel is similarly glorified, acting as judge over creation until the final judgment. Second Enoch 30:8-11 also states that Adam was an angel: “And on earth I assigned him to be a second angel, honored and great and glorious.”39 In the Prayer of Joseph, found in Origen’s Commentary on John 2:31, with a further fragment in Philocalia 23:15, Jacob describes himself as “an angel of God and a ruling spirit,” and claims to be the “firstborn of every living thing,” “the first minister before the face of God,” “the archangel of the power of the Lord,” and “the chief captain among the sons of God.”40
Enoch and Moses, however, are the most important non-Christian figures of divinization or angelic transformation. Philo describes Moses as divine, based upon the word God used of him in Exodus 4:16 and 7:1. Thus, Sirach 45:1-5 compares Moses to God in the Hebrew or “equal in glory to the holy ones,” in the Greek version of the text. Philo and the Samaritans also expressed Moses’ preeminence in Jewish tradition essentially by all but deifying him.41 In the Testament of Moses, Moses is described as the mediator or “arbiter of his covenant” (T. Mos 1:14) and celebrated as “that sacred spirit, worthy of the Lord … the Lord of the Word … the divine prophet throughout the earth, the most perfect teacher in the world,” the “advocate,” and “the great messenger” (T. Mos11:16-19). Indeed, Wayne Meeks concluded that “Moses was the most important figure in all Hellenistic Jewish apologetic.”42
Another important and rarely mentioned piece of evidence of the antiquity of mystical speculation about the Kabod is from the fragment of the tragedy Moses written by Ezekiel the Tragedian.43 There, in a document of the second century BCE or earlier, Moses is depicted as seeing a vision of the throne of God with a figure seated upon it. The figure on the throne is called (phōs gennaios), “a venerable man” which is a double entendre in Greek, since phōs can mean either “light” or “man” depending on the gender of the noun.44
The surviving text of Ezekiel the Tragedian also hints at a transformation of an earthly hero into a divine figure when he relates that the venerable man (phōs gennaios) handed Moses his sceptre and summoned him to sit upon the throne, placing a diadem on his head. Although there is no explicit proof that Ezekiel meant this to be a starry or angelic existence, both notions are consonant with his description. The stars bow to Moses and parade for his inspection, suggesting that he is to be their ruler. Since throughout the Biblical period the stars are thought to be angels (Job 38:7), there is little doubt that Moses is here depicted as being leader of the angels, and hence above the angels. This enthronement scene with a human figure being exalted as a monarch or divinity in heaven resembles the enthronement of the “Son of Man”; the enthronement helps understand some of the traditions that later appeared in Jewish mysticism and may have informed Paul’s ecstatic ascent. The identification of Jesus with the manlike appearance of God is both the central characteristic of Christianity and understandable within the context of Jewish mysticism and apocalypticism.45
Enoch is similarly esteemed as a heavenly voyager. According to Jubilees, Enoch undertakes a night vision in which he sees the entire future until the judgment day (Jub. 4:18-19). He spends six jubilees of years with the angels of God, learning everything about the earth and heavens, from their composition and motion to the locations of hell and heaven (4:21). When he finally ascends, he takes up residence in the garden of Eden “in majesty and honor,” recording the deeds of humanity and serving in the sanctuary as priest (4:23-26); he writes many books (21:20), and there are indeed references to his writings in many other pseudepigrapha.46
The Hekhalot Literature
IN THE NINTH century, Ḥai Gaon recounts that a journey to view the divine figure was undertaken by mystics who put their heads between their knees (the posture Elijah assumed when praying for rain in 1 Kgs 18:42),47 reciting repetitious psalms, glossolalic incantations, and mantralike prayers, which are recorded in abundance in the Hekhalot literature:48
When he seeks to behold the Merkabah and the palaces of the angels on high, he must follow a certain procedure. He must fast a number of days and place his head between his knees and whisper many hymns and songs whose texts are known from tradition. Then he perceives the chambers as if he saw the seven palaces with his own eyes, and it is as though he entered one palace after another and saw what is there. And there are two mishnayoth which the tannaim taught regarding this topic, called Hekhaloth Rabbati and Hekhaloth Zutreti.
The Gaon is aware of the mystical techniques for heavenly ascent and describes them as “out-of-body” experiences or “soul flight” where the adept ascends to heaven while his body stays on earth. Phrases like “as if he saw …” and “as though he entered …” suggest that he understands the entire journey as a RASC. The Hekhaloth texts themselves sometimes mention the transformation of the adept into a heavenly being, whose body becomes fire and whose eyes flash lightening, a theme which is repeated in the Paris Magical Papyrus.49
No one can prove that this kind of heavenly journey, which Ḥai Gaon describes, depicts pre-Christian Judea. But there is no harm in seeing what exactly happens to the tradition in a later time, in order to investigate what was happening in the first century. There is nothing unusual about claims to religiously interpreted states of consciousness (RISC) or religiously altered states of consciousness (RASC), and there are good reasons for thinking that the heavenly journey is itself a metaphor to express it. There are grounds for thinking that this particular variety of RISC was already vibrant in early Hellenistic times and may actually go back to the earliest myths in the ancient Near East.
The vision of the throne chariot of God in Ezekiel 1, along with the attendant vocabulary of glory or kabod for the human figure described there as God’s glory or form, has also been recognized as one of the central themes of Jewish mysticism, which is closely related to the apocalyptic tradition.50
There is no doubt that this was an actual vision, received as a RISC. We have already seen how important the tradition of the heavenly journey is for verifying the truth of life after death. The very name “Merkabah”- that is, Throne-chariot mysticism, which is the usual Jewish designation for these mystical traditions even as early as the Mishnah (ca. 220 CE: See Mishnah Hagigah 2:1)-is the Rabbinic term for the heavenly conveyance described in Ezekiel 1.51 The truly groundbreaking work of Hugo Odeberg, Gershom Scholem, Morton Smith, and Alexander Altmann,52showing the Greco-Roman context for these texts in Jewish mysticism, has been followed up by a few scholars who have shown the relevance of these passages to the study of early Rabbinic literature,53 as well as of apocalypticism, Samaritanism, and Christianity.54
The entire collection of Hekhaloth texts has been published by Peter Schaefer55 and translations of several of the works have appeared.56 Nevertheless, the results of this research have not yet been broadly discussed, nor are they well known.57 The Rabbis most often call God’s principal angel Metatron. The term “Metatron” in Rabbinic literature and Jewish mysticism is probably not a proper name but a title adapted from the Greek word Metathronos, meaning “one who stands after or behind the throne.” If so, it represents a Rabbinic softening of the more normal Hellenistic term, synthronos, meaning “one who is with the throne,” sharing enthronement or acting for the properly throned authority. The Rabbis would have changed the preposition from one connoting equality (syn-, “with”) to one connoting inferiority (meta-, “after or behind”) in order to reduce the heretical implications of calling God’s principal helping angel his synthronos.58
In 3 Enoch, a Hebrew work that actually calls itself “The Book of Palaces,” we enter immediately into an ascension discourse. It is introduced explicitly as a commentary on Genesis 5:24: “Enoch walked with God and he was no more for God took him.” Rabbi Ishmael is introduced as the speaker and he explains the peculiar text. He reports his ascension through the six palaces and into the seventh, evidently the lower spheres, but depicted as fortified palaces with doors or gates.59 Rabbi Ishmael has qualified for this honor because of his great piety and because he is high priest, though this tradition may in fact be conflating the Ishmael who was a contemporary of Rabbi Akiba in the second century with a previous first century Ishmael who was a priest. In any event this Rabbi Ishmael is the narrator of a number of other Merkabah texts, including Hekhaloth Rabbati and Ma’aseh Merkabah.
Essentially Ishmael becomes an ascender, a heavenly journeyer, who narrates his experience in the heavens and, at the same time, speaks from within the Rabbinic tradition. The heavens are divided into seven “palaces” or hekhaloth, which Scholem thought were all to be found in the last sphere of the heavens. They are stacked, one outside the other, like a heavily fortified city with fierce gatekeepers at each of the seven concentric defense walls. The adept shows a charm at each guardhouse, answers a question, and is conveyed into the next inner court until he reaches the throne room, just as he might be conveyed through a high-security fortress. There is some evidence that Arsacid Persian capital cities were laid out in this concentric form, with seven sets of walls. The Arsacid throne room was also based on a celestial model, containing in the center a fixed throne with depictions of heavenly bodies actually revolving around the it, some at relatively great distances, powered by animals treading on machinery hidden on the floor below.60
Scholem suggested that the palaces were all to be found in the highest sphere of the heavens because he could not find enough evidence to identify them with the later sepherot of Kabbalah. While this is an ingenious suggestion, more considered judgment suggests that the seven palaces are, indeed, the heavenly spheres themselves,61 and the sepherot of Kabbalah are a later development, even though the name already exists in the early text Sefer Ha-yetzirah. The angel Metatron, The Prince of the Presence, becomes his angelic guide to the very throne of The Holy One. We have just seen that angels in the seventh heaven see the face of God in 4 Ezra 7. When Rabbi Ishmael recovers enough strength, he opens his mouth and sings the Kedushah, which is exactly the appropriate prayer to say in the presence of the divine throne. The text is obviously making a point about the origin of Jewish liturgy in the heavenly throne room, and conversely the attempt of the synagogue service (and the Temple service before it, no doubt) to pattern itself on the supposed heavenly service. The Dead Sea Scroll texts, particularly the Song of the Sabbath Sacrifice, make the same claim.
Sometimes the throne is empty and sometimes Metatron himself sits on it as God’s regent. There are places in the text when the divine voice emanates from behind the pargod, the embroidered curtain in back of the throne. Other times the text states that God sits on the throne, though His presence is not described in any detail. Metatron or Zoharariel is God’s regent, standing in for God himself, who is beyond figuration.
Metatron explains why he is called “Youth” or Na’ar. Though Metatron has seventy different names, the King of the King of Kings calls him “youth” because he is actually Enoch, the son of Jared and hence young in their eternal company (3 En 4:10). Here, a link with the Merkabah mystics and Enoch is established, a relationship that is furthered by the story of Enoch in the Bible: Enoch’s father’s name, Jared, means “he goes down,” and is exactly the same verb used for the mystical ascent into the heavens, yeridah Lamerkabah. So when Enoch is listed as “ben Yarad,” he is both “the son of Jared” and “a person who descends.” At first blush, this seems a peculiar epithet for an exemplar of heavenly ascent. But this paradox is typical of the Merkabah mystics, who often said that they “went down” into the Merkabah.
This peculiar Rabbinic terminology has been the subject of a great deal of controversy. The best explanation for why an ascent to heaven should be called a “descent to the chariot” is to be found in the Biblical story of Elijah. In 1 Kings 18:42, Elijah prays by putting his head between his legs, the same posture which Merkabah mystics assume when they ascend to heaven.62 Moreover, this body position is known to aid in achieving RASC, especially when combined with repetitious prayers and meditation, exactly as in the Hekhaloth literature. So whatever its origin, the parentage of Enoch (Jared) becomes a clue to the mystical techniques of ascent.
The “divinization” or “angelification” of Enoch serves as a human prototype for the ascenders who practice these techniques. The angels object to Enoch’s elevation to no avail, as Enoch’s new status meets with God’s approval. The narrative of the angels’ objection may easily be a mythological or literary attempt to handle objections to the notion of “angelification.” Anyone who thought that these Jews ought not to be teaching that humans can be turned to angels would be defeated by the argument that the angels had already voiced this objection only to be silenced by God.
The same kind of story exists about the creation of man in Midrash and also in the pseudepigraphical book the Vita Adae. In chapter 14 of the Vita Adae, we find a very interesting tradition of the fall of Satan:
And Michael went out and called all the angels, saying, “Worship the image of the Lord God, as the Lord God has instructed.” And Michael himself worshiped first, and called me and said, “Worship the image of God, Yahweh.” And I answered, “I do not worship Adam.” And when Michael kept forcing me to worship, I said to him, “Why do you compel me? I will not worship one inferior and subsequent to me. I am prior to him in creation; before he was made, I was already made. He ought to worship me.”
Satan refuses to worship Adam even though he is described as the “image of God.” The “image of God” is one of the attributes of God’s principal angel. Afterwards, Satan actually says the lines of “Day-Star, Son of Dawn” in Isaiah 14, the personage whom the Vulgate calls “Lucifer”: “I will set my throne above the stars and I will be like the Most High” (Vita Adae 15). This passage is structurally parallel to the Merkabah story of Aḥer (Elisha b. Abuya) in front of Metatron in the heavenly throne room. Aḥer looks upon Metatron enthroned in heaven and concludes that there are “two powers in heaven,” suggesting that the heresy he has in mind is Christianity or any other tradition with strong mediatorial figures. As a result, Metatron is punished with fiery whips. The Quran (Suras 2, 7, 15, 17, 18, 20, 38) also relates this legend of the fall of Satan, with a particularly strong parallel in Sura 7. Later Muslim tradition interprets Satan as God’s most loyal subject because he refuses to bow down before anyone other than God. Different scriptural communities saw this heavenly scene in ways consistent with their understanding of God’s relationship to his principal angelic mediator.
In this story, God (not the angel Michael as in Vita Adae) asks all the angels to bow down to the newly created Adam and they all agree except Satan (The Quran calls him Tblis), who refuses because no one but God deserves worship. This story makes Satan the most loyal rather than the least loyal of God’s angels, thus tacitly giving approval to some kinds of seeming evil as really the greatest good, a very subversive doctrine which then justifies some antinomianism in Sufism and the extreme Shi’ite wing of Islam. ’Iblis is apparently an Arabicization of the Greek word diabolos.
Third Enoch handled these objections and returned to the narration. Rabbi Ishmael tells the story of Enoch’s glorification and enlargement into Metatron, a parallel phenomenon to the transformation of Enoch into the “Son of Man” in 1 Enoch.
Metatron also receives the heavenly secrets and gets a special robe, crown and name-YHWH Hakaton-all of which have special meaning within this mystic discipline, not only as the rewards for the righteous but as names for special spells and theurgic techniques. The term YHWH Hakaton (“the Lord, Jr.”) suggests that transformed humans even become part of the divinity. Enoch receives the homage of the divine retinue and is finally transformed into a fiery being, the angel Metatron.63
Having witnessed the birth of a new angel, if not a new star, readers are now treated to a tour of the heavenly family, complete with ranks and officers. All the angels known in the Bible are described and fit into the master plan, with special attention to the angels described in Daniel, Isaiah, and Ezekiel. For example, a group of angels called “the Watchers” of Daniel 4 are singled out for special attention in chapter 28. They are also significant characters in the Enoch literature.
Next follows a description of the disposition of the good and the evil. The good souls (neshamot) of the righteous, both created and as yet uncreated, fly around the Throne of Glory. The basic scheme of Daniel is kept intact, however, even though we have some attention to immortal souls in the document, as souls in the intermediate state (after death but before resurrection) are also described, followed by the souls of those who are damned forever. These are probably the oppressors of the righteous community in the book of Daniel, reinterpreted as sinners generally. They are described as permanently stained black, like the bottom of a pot, while the intermediate souls only go down for a temporary cleansing, from which they emerge unstained.
In this passage, the immortality of the soul has been absorbed enough to compel the writer to describe judgment as an eternal process. But note that the enterprise of cleansing souls and reincarnating them mediates the stern judgment of the unrighteous that we find in the more apocalyptic texts. In Jewish mystical texts, the process of combining immortality of the soul with the resurrection of the body has yielded to a more merciful heavenly economy than was evident in Christian apocalypses.
Metatron also becomes the leader of innocent little souls who died studying Torah, as Jesus is described as the special Lord of little children in the Gospels (Mark 10:14). Here, the children play under the Throne of Glory, the same place that the souls of the martyred saints are stored in the book of Revelation.
Those who have died early must be accommodated in the divine hierarchy, so morning daycare has been arranged for the innocent souls who have been taken from life before they have had the opportunity to study the law and live their full span. Their education must be completed in heaven. Because they died in innocence they are treated in ways that were reserved for martyrs.
Hekhaloth, Iranian Religion, RASC, Magic, and Hermetism
MERKABAH MYSTICISM is later than some of the apocalypses we have studied, though the two corpora must certainly overlap and influence each other for a long time. At the same time, there are many facets of the literature which are undoubtedly from the early levels of Jewish tradition and which could, in fact, inform us about the mystical practices of the communities that produced apocalyptic literature. From the apocalyptic literature we can assume that many of the themes are early-including the notion of secrets and even the theurgy, the ascensions, angelic worship both as an object of speculation and an object of adoration. Indeed, the Dead Sea Scrolls contain an explicit angelic sabbath liturgy. All of these things, we see amply evidenced in the Dead Sea Scrolls and the New Testament.
The heavenly ascents of Kartir and Arda Viraf, reviewed in chapter 4, “Iran,” are set in the third century CE. While the Arda Viraf Nameh is likely to be an early Islamic document in Zoroastrianism, the inscription of Kartir is much earlier. In Iranian religion, the use of psychedelic drugs has been firmly established and so the heavenly journey is also clearly a journey inwards into the psyche, replete with all the details of Zoroastrian heaven and hell.
The connection between these heavenly journeys and ecstatic experience is quite a bit earlier than the Arsacid period. The stories of Enmeduranki (equivalent with Enoch), Adapa, Etana, and others were cherished foundational stories among the divinatory priesthoods of ancient Mesopotamia. So the possibility exists that all these mystical techniques were already being practiced in the ancient prophetic and divinatory arts of ancient Mesopotamian culture.
If so, we should see their existence in the Hellenistic world as a secondary development to an entrepreneurial culture that developed under Greek rule. All over the world of late Antiquity traditional priesthoods were in decline and religious entrepreneurs of all types learned priestly traditions for personal spiritual and material benefit. In the process, they spread these ancient traditions far and wide.
There is little evidence for the use of drugs in Jewish and Christian texts, but there is considerable evidence of meditative techniques used to stimulate RASC, which are then understood as heavenly journeys. There are many hints that apocalyptic writings (which usually narrate the ascents as literal fact) and mystical writings (which specify the means for ascent in trance) are but choosing different literary conventions to describe the same phenomnea. By the same token, the techniques of Merkabah Mysticism were likely to be in use considerably earlier than the extant evidence shows. In particular, there is the well-known evidence of the New Testament: (1) Paul’s report of a heavenly journey in 2 Corinthians 12; (2) The book of Revelation which contains similar notions of revealed secrets, apocalypses of “honor,” “glory,” “might,” “power,” and “wealth”; (3) God’s heavenly retinue or house; and (4) the Colossians’ heresy, which stressed the role of mediators between God and man.
It is crucial to define exactly how the two literatures, Hekhaloth texts and apocalyptic texts, relate; but that kind of exactitude is still impossible to achieve. Hekhaloth literature contains within it a great many apocalypses but it has much less-in fact, almost no-interest in spelling out the end of all oppressors. Rather like the later Christian apocalypses, the major emphasis of the texts is in explaining how God has balanced good and evil in the universe. This leads to the suspicion that its proponents were not especially subjected to persecution. They were rather secret esoteric groups of students within Rabbinic literature.64 They were interested in all the goals of the Rabbinic movement including remembering as much of the holy law as they could. The difference between them and other Rabbis is that they used theurgy (special practices which look like magic) to achieve their goals where others may not have done so. This suggests that the Hekhalot literature was meant as a specific way of ensuring good citizenship and success within the Rabbinic movement. When the literature was transmitted and transformed by the medieval mystics known as Haside-Ashkenaz, it became even more obvious. But it is also evident from the reports of Ḥai Gaon at the end of the Talmudic period.65
Mystery Religions in Late Antiquity
WE HAVE ALREADY looked at the most famous mystery religion, the Mystery of Demeter at Eleusis or the Eleusinian Mysteries, based on the story told in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter.66 In that religion, the story of Demeter and Persephone was explicitly interpreted in a way that spoke to issues of life and rebirth, this world and afterworld. During the Hellenistic and Roman periods, this cult grew enormously in wealth and international fame, so much so that a number of other religions explicitly remade themselves on the model of the Eleusinian Mysteries. The first and most famous of these is the Mysteries of Isis. Egyptian priests deliberately remade this cult of ancient Egypt, which was based on the myth of Isis and Osiris and was keyed to the level of the Nile. In the “diaspora” form of the religion, the Isis mystery centered in temples called Isea (plural of Iseum). Isis became a goddess of salvation for humanity. Her rituals were celebrated in parades and processions and were very well known throughout the Roman Empire. As a result, the mystery religion of Isis became a very popular religion within the Roman hegemony.
We know practically nothing about what exactly went on in the mystery religions because its initiated members were forbidden to reveal their secrets. And they mostly complied. They differed from each other but there must have been some uniformities. In his picaresque novel, The Golden Ass, Apuleius (second century CE) combines comedy with a very serious account of his hero Lucius’ salvation through the intervention of Isis. Hapless Lucius has been turned into an ass as a result of his careless experimentation with magic with one of his amorous partners, the nimble Photis, who happens to be the servant of a witch as well as a sexual athlete. He is saved from this comic and very distressing condition by the intervention of Isis. The story resembles the story of “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.” But the moral is wider than “a little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing.”
Apuleius conveys something about the behavior of young men by turning Lucius into an ass, as a result of his unbridled libido. The remedy to this condition is a very real religious conversion to the cult of the goddess Isis. In chapter 11 of the novella, a priest of Isis explains that the goddess has special care of her devotees, changing them from stupid creatures at the mercy of blind fate to mature people whose destiny is ruled by the goddess’s providence. “For hostile fate has no power over those whose lives have been claimed by the majesty of our goddess…. Now you have been received into the protection of a Fortune who is not blind, but sees, and who illumines the other gods too with the radiance of her light.”67 The goddess promises her personal protection to the character Lucius as a remedy against blind fate. Initiation into her mysteries, described in only the most general way, eventually brings him across the threshold between life and death. The author Apuleius apparently underwent a similar experience of maturation as the character Lucius. Lucius says that he crossed the threshold of Proserpina and saw the sun at night (so he must be in the underworld). Some kind of immortalization ritual was part of his religious transformation. Exactly what, we do not know. But the original myth of Isis and Osiris was concerned with the immortality of the Pharaoh, linked with the flooding of the Nile, effected by means of the priesthood of Osiris.68 The salvation of the goddess starts in this life because she saves Lucius from being blindly buffeted by fortune into a man with a destiny and significance as a devotee.
Another important mystery religion among the many was the religion of Mithras. It was named for the Persian god Mithra, the god of contracts. In its Roman form, however, Mithras was far more than that. In this secret underground cult, Mithras became a god who offered solar salvation. According to the myth, Mithras was born from a rock in a cave. His most famous feat was killing Taurus the bull in a famous taurobolium (bull-throwing) scene found in almost every Mithraeum. In the scene Mithras is shown quite realistically above the back of the bull, with a starry cape (depicting the milky way) billowing out behind him. He slays a bull with a dagger in the back of the neck while he turns away from the bull’s head, normally with sheaves of wheat emerging where the bull’s blood ought to be. The iconography is still somewhat mysterious to us, as it is rarely explained by any contemporary documents.
The mystery religion of Mithras was very widespread indeed, found in almost all of the major cities of the Roman Empire. It was very popular among the Roman legions for Mithraic speleia (caves, another name for the Temple) are found all along the borders of the Roman Empire and near major encampments of the army. Along with the taurobolium we often find representations of Mithras and Helios shaking hands, which allowed Dieterich to identify a famous Paris Magical Papyrus as a Mithras Liturgy. That identification was due, in the first instance, to the appearance of both divinities in the story of the heavenly journey found in a papyrus and the attempt of the ritual to produce an immortalization. But the identification has proven extremely controversial. On the other hand, the emperor was often identified with Sol Invictus or Helios, the sun. The clasped hands showing greeting and agreement between Mithras and Helios may well depict the importance of the army to the survival of the emperor; it would certainly explain the imperial patronage and the popularity in the army. Depictions from Mithraea also suggest the ranks of the initiates and the felicities that they found in the cult-transformation, heavenly journey, immortalization. The imagery of the taurobolium seems to have calendrical, astrological implications, just as the story of Isis and Osiris does in the Isis Mysteries.
David Ulansey, in his original and ingenious book, has shown that another famous depiction in the cult has implications for heavenly journeys. The lion-faced god is often shown with a snake entwining around him like a barber-pole stripe. The god somehow represents the power of the pole to turn the zodiac, as if the entire cosmos rotates around the polestar. In his hand, one often finds the orb of the cosmos, with the lines of the ecliptic and the equator crossed on the face of the globe. Both these lines and the signs of the zodiac are depicted backwards on the orb, showing that we are observing the cosmos from the outside looking in, from the view of someone who has transcended it, rather than from the inside out where we normally live. No doubt, this indicates a similar transcendence of fate and the zodiac that Lucius achieved in his salvation by the goddess Isis. But because there are no documents to explain the symbols for us, we do not know exactly how gaining the power to turn the pole brought about transcendence of earthly fate.
Late Antiquity relied on the originally agrarian and local religions of the past to depict a new kind of salvation, in which individual adepts could find immmortality through initiation and transformation, especially into stars. The famous early twentieth-century scholar Franz Cumont called this new form of religion “celestial immortality” or “sidereal eschatology.” It can be found in Plato’s Timaeus 41 d, which connects each soul with its own star. The soul of each person begins as the intelligence of the star whence it returns after death. The Empedotimus of Heraclides Ponticus works out the story in detail, even identifying the Milky Way as the path on which souls ascend and descend and explaining its thick concentration of stars.69
The Magical Papyri and Theurgy
IN THE HELLENISTIC Greek and Coptic magical papyri there is a similar relationship between the stars and souls, the same relationship outlined by Plato. In a direct way, they approximate the stories of the angels that we find in the Christian and Jewish Apocalyptic literature and Merkabah mysticism. This time, however, the purpose was to achieve some material benefit for the adept through “magical” means. For instance, in the following magical papyrus, there is a rite for acquiring a “familiar” or assistant—in Greek, a parhedros:
At once there will be a sign for you like this: [A blazing star] will descend and come to stop in the middle / of the housetop, and when the star [has dissolved] before your eyes, you will behold the angel whom you have summoned and who has been sent [to you] and you will quickly learn the decisions of the gods. But do not be afraid: [approach] the god and, taking his right hand, kiss him and say these words to the angel, for he will quickly respond to you about whatever you want. But you / adjure him with this [oath] that he meet you and remain inseparable and that he not [keep silent or] disobey in any way. But when he has with certainty accepted this oath of yours, take the god by the hand, leap down, [and] after bringing him [into] the narrow room where you reside, [sit him] down. After first preparing the house / in a fitting manner and providing all types of foods and Mendesian wine, set these before the god, with an uncorrupted boy serving and maintaining silence until the [angel] departs. And you address preliminary (?) words to the god: “I shall have you as a friendly assistant, a beneficent god who serves me whenever I say, ‘Quickly, by your / power now appear on earth to me, yea verily god!’” (Cirado)
Once the star descends, he becomes an angel, who is quickly bound by a spell to become an assistant (parhedros) to do the bidding of the adept. There are similar notions within some of the Hekhaloth tractates, in which an angel is sworn to do the bidding of the adept with an oath. Even in 3 Enoch, Metatron and Enoch are said to be sworn to each other, or in one version “yoked together” (the word is: nizdaweg, which can even suggest the sex act).70 Angels can be bound to do the bidding of the adept and then exorcised when that bidding is accomplished in Hekhaloth literature, just as the heavenly bodies can be charmed to earth in pagan magical papyri. There are many examples of charming down a star (or, alternatively, the moon, as they were all thought to be intermediary divine creatures) in the magical papyri.71 The terms “angel,” “daimon,” and “god” change in particular contexts but may all be considered functional equivalents, subject to the special pleadings and vocabularies of each community.
The Mithras Liturgy is the record of a magical journey by a magician to visit the god, asking him to become a supporter.72 It is the equivalent of an audience with an earthly ruler. It cannot be completely parallel to the process of appointing a parhedros because the divinity visited in The Mithras Liturgy is greater than an angel so the adept must go to heaven to visit him. Indeed, the boon he asks for is greater than that of the parhedros. He asks the god Helios Mithras to make him immortal and to give a prophecy. The request is granted, as the divinity takes up residence in the adept.
O Lord, while being born again (palingenomenos), I am passing away; while growing and having grown, I am dying; while being born from a life-generating birth, I am passing on, released to death-as you have founded, as you have decreed and have established the mystery. I am PHEROYRA MIOURI (lines 693-721)73
Though clearly not Jewish or Christian, these magical papyri stories have many, many formal similarities with the journeys that the Hekhaloth mystics made: trance (RISC), “magical” procedures, presentation of charms, strange and sometimes garbled and magical formulas, explanations or prophecies for the future. The pagans were reborn (palingenomenos) and then immortalized (apanathanatismos) by the procedure, just as Christians are “born again” by their faith. Jews already expected immortality so they concentrated on other benefits, like the ability to memorize more law or to receive material benefits, which were also asked for in the magical papyrus.
The Hermetic Corpus
SOMEWHAT similar notions can be seen in the Hermetic literature. In the Poimandres, the first tractate of the Corpus Hermeticum, the narrator, ostensibly Hermes (who is also identified with the Egyptian god Tat or Thoth), falls into a trance and sees a vision of a huge almost unlimited person, whose body seems to melt into light.74 After a dialogue with this savior and an ascent to heaven, he learns that the secret of immortality is the knowledge of one’s true nature:
let him (who) is mindful recognize that he is immortal, that desire is the cause of death, and let him recognize all that exists.
“Those who lack knowledge, what great wrong have they done,” I asked, “that they should be deprived of immortality.”75
There is a clear message to realize the immortality that rests within us, normally discovered through ascent and heavenly revelation. The heavenly journey is coterminous with the RASC. In the Jewish and Hermetic literature there is also an ethical context. The magical papyri promise rewards only for the person who pays the magician for the rewards, though the magical papyri seem to be a grimoire, a magician’s spell-book, which assumes that the possessor will at least observe the professional ethics of a member in good standing in the magical guild. One supposes, at the very least, that would entail not revealing the mysteries in the book.
Under the guise of theurgy these “magical” ascent procedures and many rites like them (which have been lost) gain a degree of respectability in the Late Antique world. To understand this we must investigate the entire phenomenon of theurgy-which means “working the gods” and is to be contrasted with theology, which means “studying the gods.” As a phenomenon it is attributed to Julian the Chaldean and his son, also called Julian. Indeed, ergon, the second stem in the word “theurgy,” is as good way to designate “ritual” in Greek, as there otherwise is no general, more universal term for “ritual” in Greek. So we should understand “theurgy” as working the gods by ritual means, something we usually call “magic.” Theurgy would include bringing down angels, or “the moon,” to do one’s bidding. And the ritual that defined the theurgist more than any other was the systasis, a rite in which the soul of the theurgist was identified with the divine for various profane and holy purposes.76
The Pagan Revival and Theurgy
THE “SCIENCE” OF theurgy came into its own in the pagan revival of the mid-fourth century. After Constantine’s vision of the cross at the battle for the Milvian Bridge, the process by which Christianity replaced the public, civic religion of the Empire continued apace-that is, until the short reign of Julian (later called “Julian the Apostate”), which began in 361 CE. Although many public sacrifices had already been abandoned in the progressive Christianization of the Empire, Julian the Apostate tried to restore them. He also turned to Iamblichus, the head of the Platonic academy, to help find an intellectual basis for paganism, which was refurbished to compete with, and hence, to parallel Christian practice.77
Iamblichus described theurgy in Platonic, intellectual terms, evidently also providing a number of religious rituals that paralleled those of the Christian church. This newly revitalized paganism, based as much on its rival Christianity as anything else, became a religion of personal piety and of salvation. With the foothold that Christianity had already made, it could hardly promise less. Under Julian’s tutelage, pagan philosophy developed into a religion like Christianity. In the center of the new religion was a new ritual component, never before part of philosophical discourse. This ritual was called “theurgy.”
In his essay, On the Mysteries, Iamblichus defends theurgy against Porphyry’s more strictly philosophical skepticism. In the Phaedo (66b-c), Plato had outlined an immortal soul in such a way as to suggest that the body and the soul’s moral journey through life affects its future rebirths or bliss in Elysium. But how anything corporeal could affect the soul is not completely clear in Plato’s writing, and the question remained unsolved throughout antiquity, though many philosophers offered their own solutions. (In fact, lack of solution to this vexing problem remains today as one very significant reason not to accept the Cartesian formulation of the mind-body problem.)78
To see the importance of this topic for the religious life of the pagan philosophers, one has to return at least briefly to the most important ancient interpreter of Plato in Christian times, Plotinus. Plotinus interpreted the world of ideas of Plato in an even more determinedly intellectualist way than Plato had because Plotinus had read the works of Aristotle and the later Stoics. He also knew the terminology of kosmos noetos, the intelligible world, which is first witnessed in Philo and which referred to the logos, hence to the divine mind as an external force in the universe. Plotinus tried to bridge the gap between the body and soul from the other side-with human intellectual activities and meditations leading the way upward. Because intellect can turn inward and contemplate itself, he valorized the experience of self-consciousness in a way that was not discussed before.
Plotinus believed that the way to ascend was through self-conscious meditation and even suggested that nondiscursive thinking or an altered state of consciousness (ASC) was the way to overcome our materiality.79 Plotinus was especially attuned to the feeling of living and experiencing in our mind. In the Enneads 188.8.131.52-3, Plotinus presents us with a thought-experiment by asking the reader to visualize a sphere. This, in turn, becomes the creative visualization to understand how “The One” can be formed of “the Many.” What the experiment was for is not as important as the process of internal visualization to resolve issues.
In her recent book, Sara Rappe shows that this move begins what can only be called a meditation.80 The visualization uses the active but directed powers of the imagination and the sustained presence of imaginative meditation as a way to change human self-awareness. By emphasizing this inwardness in a new, more dramatic form, Plotinus begins to fix on inward experience as the path to the ascent. He did not invent the notion that altered states of consciousness are a path to God. He systematically tried to incorporate ecstasy into his philosophical experience while Plato and Philo among others merely assumed that these experiences were part of their intellectual and religious lives. He tried to offer an adequate philosophical account of the flight of the soul toward God. Plotinus and his students, the pagan Neoplatonists, may not have been either Jewish or Christians but they were deeply religious people and their religion adhered to their philosophical praxis, especially with askesis or asceticism used to trigger these RISC states.
If Plotinus was the theorist of the soul’s ascent, Iamblichus was the engineer and technician of the soul. According to Iamblichus, theurgic rituals and prayer were essential for the well-being of the soul and could even affect the disposition of the soul after death, as Plato himself had stated:
No operation, however, in sacred concerns, can succeed without the intervention of prayer. Lastly, the continual exercise of prayer nourishes the vigour of our intellect, and renders the receptacles of the soul far more capacious for the communications of the gods. It likewise is the divine key, which opens to men the penetralia of the Gods; accustoms us to the splendid rivers of supernatural light; in a short time perfects our inmost recesses, and disposes them for the ineffable embrace and contact of the Gods; and it does not desist till it raises us to the summit of all. It also gradually and silently draws upward the manners of our soul, by divesting them of every thing foreign to a divine nature, and clothes us with the perfections of the gods. (On the Mysteries, 272)81
Iamblichus explicitly contradicts Plotinus on this point for Plotinus explained the suffering of the soul as a product of its incomplete descent to the material world. Because the soul had descended, it could suffer but because it had not descended fully into matter, it could not totally be subsumed within materiality and destroyed. Iamblichus finds this doctrine of the soul to be both illogical and insufficiently spiritual. Instead, he posits the efficacy of specific rituals in effecting the soul’s immortality, though they are done in material reality. The ritual is theurgy and the systasis is the primary example.
The Vehicle of the Soul
IN SO DOING, Iamblichus follows Porphyry in positing an entity known as the vehicle of the soul or the spirit-cart (ochema-pneuma), which partakes of both matter and soul without being essentially part of one or the other.82 In the Timaeus (41e 1-2), Plato says that “the demiurge distributed each [soul] to each [star], and having mounted them [i.e., human souls] as if on a vehicle (ochema), he [i.e., the demiurge] showed them the nature of the universe.” For the Neoplatonist the ochema or vehicle is not the star nor made of the star itself but the vehicle in which the star can subsist. It is the meeting ground of the spiritual and material. So once a star is situated in its own vehicle it may travel downward to become a human soul in our sublunar world of generation. Conversely, theurgy only has power over the vehicle, not the soul itself, but it has power to help the soul’s reascension to the astral, immortal level because it can affect the soul’s vehicle.
In this latter Neoplatonist philosophy, a star and a soul are two parts of an identical essence but in two different states of being. Further, each soul in some way has its own equivalent guardian star which governs its role on earth and in turn can reveal its earthly fortunes. The connection is made a unity on death. A knowledgeable person can therefore predict the future through pronoia (pre-knowledge or prophecy).
This is a further illustration of the Neoplatonic notion that the whole universe is a single, huge creature governed by its own “world-soul,” within which each piece is related to another in regular ways. The material part of the universe, however, is subject to constant generation and degeneration while the pneumatic or spiritual aspect of the universe is, by nature, immortal and unchangeable. The Greek philosophic tradition tended to connect mental processes with the soul but not necessarily with consciousness itself because consciousness was merely the soul’s recognition or feeling of having a body. All serious intellectual functions required a reflective and self-conscious soul, developed through training and theurgy.
The important thing to remember is not precisely how the Neoplatonists connected intellectual processes with the soul but that they did so in such a way as to develop a religious, sacramental life for philosophers. Whether this actually overcame the problem of the inability of matter to affect the soul is another question. Instead they developed a communal, religious life that centered around meditation and altered states of consciousness, the askesis for the salvation of the soul from material existence.
In opposition to Porphyry and Proclus, Iamblichus believed that the vehicle of the soul is immortal with the soul and that the rational soul is always attached to the vehicle, even in its astral state.83 For him, this was the best description of the soul allowing for the efficacy of theurgy. The purpose of theurgy is to lead the soul upward to its rightful divine state, while magic, which deals with demons instead of gods, only sullies the soul further in its corporal body.84 So, while Iamblichus believed in the efficacy of both theurgy and magic, he distinguished between them in terms of their purposes. Magic is secondary to theurgy because it deals with demons and egotistical, material betterment, making the soul impure, while theurgy, which deals with the gods, actually affects the salvation of the soul by tapping into the intellectual processes of the cosmos. The purpose of the soul’s descent into the world is truly a religious one: It is to display the gods through our souls’ lives here. In this way the soul’s descent is the completion of the universe:85
Iamblichus synthesized the Chaldean, Hermetic, and Orphic writings into a consistent theory of occult ritual for immortalization. This was also meant to aggrandize theurgists so much from the common morality as to make them divinely powered and their ritual enactions divinely higher sacraments. He made them priests of an intellectual religion. Under Iamblichus’ description, theurgists become pure souls, something like the Bodhisattvas of Mahayana Buddhism, special heroic beings who have been able to escape from the cycle of births and yet retain their purity (even in our impure realm) and use that enlightenment to help the rest of humanity rise out of imprisoned existence. Even more, theurgists provide a living example to counter the claims that Christians were making for the martyrs and saints.86 It also means that with the help of the theurgists any mortal could rise above the material realm, escape from the body, and be united with the gods, through the sacraments of theurgy. Iamblichus was the intellectual who most clearly succeeded in inventing and justifying a ritual and religious side to late Neoplatonism, which was otherwise most inhospitable to such popular religious sentiments. The purpose of this philosophical inquiry was to arm pagan philosophy in every way for its last battle with Christianity.
The Last Battle between Christianity and Paganism
CHRISTIANITY HAD offered the Empire something that the previous religious and philosophical systems of paganism had been uninterested or unable to accomplish. It provided everyone with a religious goal of moral commitment and personal transcendence wrapped up in a tight package available to all through ritual actions. Neoplatonic philosophy offered a similar dispensation through abstruse philosophical contemplation, available only to those who had the disposition and wherewithal to follow a philosophical life of study. Hermetism, on the other hand, provided a more popular way to achieve the goals of the philosophers and existed in theosophic circles. Hermetism was the model for the pagan revival. Theurgy relied on the insights found in its predecessor. But it did not truly succeed in making itself a popular religion.
A second look at the Hekhalot literature suggests a similar function to that of Hermetism, the Mystery religions, and theurgy. The Hekhaloth literature demonstrates that the same kind of mystical ascent with the same small esoteric circles existed in Jewish culture, whether independently or part of the Zeitgeist (“Spirit of the Age”) of late Antiquity. It may be that ascent theurgy was widely perceived as an antidote to the popularity of Christian ritual. Christianity ritualized the goals of immortal existence, bringing it to all, democratically through the sacraments. If paganism was going to compete with the popularity of Christianity, it was going to need the same appeal and it had to develop the same sacramental structure and martyrologies. This was provided by Iamblichus, who became, in effect, the intellectual theorist and architect of the pagan revival by justifying the necessity and efficaciousness of salvation, distinguishing it from simple and scurrilous magic.
But it was the Roman Emperor Julian who had the resources to put the theories of ascent and descent into wide practice. Julian the Apostate was the purveyor of this spiritual product as he himself was deeply involved in the discussions of late Neoplatonism and devoted to its promulgation. He was interested in these issues for their own sake but not just for his own intellectual development. He was personally averse to Christianity, and he was looking for a way to replace the hold that Christianity had achieved in the Roman Empire after Constantine. He wanted Iamblichus to design a religion that would substitute for Christianity and communicate the greater truths of Neoplatonism to the Empire.
To justify his return to paganism, Julian relied not merely on Plotinus but also on a number of Iamblichus’ successors, including not only the famous Rhetor Libanius and the aging scholar Aedesius but also Maximus, who was forthrightly interested in developing a religious synthesis with Neoplatonism. Whatever Julian’s personal dispositions religiously, he was an indefatigable worker for the Empire and its well-being. He lived an abstemious life and kept to a strict work regime, relieved mostly by soldierly training.
He must have realized that it was not enough merely to reinstate pagan sacrifices. Christianity was widespread within the Empire and had taught its inhabitants both the inefficacy of sacrifices and to expect transformative rites of personal salvation as one’s spiritual fare. To compete with Christianity, paganism would need to reform itself into a similar religion. Julian practiced Christianity during his youth when he lived in the shadow of Constantine. But he was more taken by Neoplatonism. Julian himself apparently experienced the transformative rituals of Neoplatonism as he excelled in pagan sciences. With Maximus as his guide, he was anxious to make paganism more popular in his imperium. He did so by reforming paganism on a Christian model. As a result, he created a philosophical religion of the ascent of the soul.
Julian’s early death campaigning against the Persians was met with unbridled rejoicing in the whole Christian community, the abandonment of Julian’s scheme to rebuild the Jewish Temple (if it had not been abandoned earlier), the end of the pagan Neoplatonic revival, and the vilification of his person by a victorious and vengeful Church. The polemics of Christianity triumphant should not blind us to the sincerity of Julian’s attempt to unify the Empire with a sophisticated religion forged out of Neoplatonism. He failed to do so, leaving the Christian religion as religious heir to his Empire, and positioning pagan magic everafter as the demonic, subversive underground to Christianity.
It is to the Church Fathers in the orthodox succession whom we must now turn to see the philosophical battle to unite resurrection with the immortality of the soul. If Christianity was to take hold in the intellectual corners of the Roman Empire, it was going to have to face the contradiction between the apocalyptic dispensation that Jesus brought within its Jewish context and the natural right of the philosophically defined soul to immortality.