Is Doherty’s view that earliest Christian belief that Christ was crucified in some heavenly realm even conceivable? Could any ancient mind plausibly think of a divinity taking on a bodily form and suffering and being exalted again — all quite apart from a literal location on earth? This post does not address such specifics. The topic is too vast for that. But it does have a more modest goal of illustrating the sorts of things that we know ancient minds certainly did think about the sorts of things that might go on “up there”.
Earlier this year I posted Ancient beliefs about heavenly realms, demons and the end of the world. A couple of responses were interesting. One or two commenters immediately took exception to plain statements that some ancients believed that the entire space between the earth and the moon is inhabited by spirits or demons of some sort. It did not seem to matter what certain ancient authors actually said. The real fear seemed to be that quoting such passages might lend some credence to Earl Doherty’s arguments that earliest Christian thinking held that Christ was a heavenly entity who was crucified in a heavenly realm.
Well, this time I’m just going to list the highlights from a small section of Doherty’s Jesus, Neither God Nor Man, one headed with the same title as this post, pp. 149-152.
His intent in this section is to “look at some examples of pictures that were presented of goings-on in the spiritual realm.” None of the following can be said to be allegory. They are written to encourage beliefs about certain realities of “what is up there”.
Ascension of Isaiah
Doherty does not repeat his detailed discussion of the Ascension of Isaiah here. But it is essential reading for anyone looking to understand ancient thought about the various stages and inhabitants between heaven and earth. R. Joseph Hoffmann also discusses the Ascension in relation to Paul’s understanding of Christ, and I quoted some of his discussion in Weaknesses of traditional anti-mythicist arguments.
In the pre-Christian 1 Enoch chapter 21 we learn of a belief that certain angels are confined to fearful realms outside heaven and certainly not on earth:
And I proceeded to where things were chaotic. And I saw there something horrible: I saw neither a heaven above nor a firmly founded earth, but a place chaotic and horrible. And there I saw seven stars of the heaven bound together in it, like great mountains and burning with fire. Then I said: ‘For what sin are they bound, and on what account have they been cast in hither?’ Then said Uriel, one of the holy angels, who was with me, and was chief over them, and said: ‘Enoch, why dost thou ask, and why art thou eager for the truth? These are of the number of the stars of heaven, which have transgressed the commandment of the Lord, and are bound here till ten thousand years, the time entailed by their sins, are consummated.’ And from thence I went to another place, which was still more horrible than the former, and I saw a horrible thing: a great fire there which burnt and blazed, and the place was cleft as far as the abyss, being full of great descending columns of fire: neither its extent or magnitude could I see, nor could I conjecture. Then I said: ‘How fearful is the place and how terrible to look upon!’ Then Uriel answered me, one of the holy angels who was with me, and said unto me: ‘Enoch, why hast thou such fear and affright?’ And I answered: ‘Because of this fearful place, and because of the spectacle of the pain.’ And he said unto me: ‘This place is the prison of the angels, and here they will be imprisoned for ever.’
2 Enoch (late first century ce?)
And in 2 Enoch 7 and 8 we read
And those men took me and led me up on to the second heaven, and showed me darkness, greater than earthly darkness, and there I saw prisoners hanging, watched, awaiting the great and boundless judgment, and these angels were dark-looking, more than earthly darkness, and incessantly making weeping through all hours. . . .
And those men took me thence, and led me up on to the third heaven, and placed me there; and I looked downwards, and saw the produce of these places, such as has never been known for goodness. And I saw all the sweet-flowering trees and beheld their fruits, which were sweet-smelling, and all the foods borne by them bubbling with fragrant exhalation.
And then there is the fourth heaven:
to the fourth heaven, and showed me all the successive goings, and all the rays of the light of sun and moon.
And the fifth heaven:
The men took me on to the fifth heaven and placed me, and there I saw many and countless soldiers, called Grigori, of human appearance, and their size (was) greater than that of great giants and their faces withered
And the sixth and seventh heavens:
And thence those men took me and bore me up on to the sixth heaven, and there I saw seven bands of angels, very bright and very glorious, and their faces shining more than the sun’s shining, glistening, and there is no difference in their faces, or behaviour, or manner of dress; and these make the orders, and learn the goings of the stars, and the alteration of the moon, or revolution of the sun, and the good government of the world. . . .
And those two men lifted me up thence on to the seventh heaven, and I saw there a very great light, and fiery troops of great archangels, incorporeal forces, and dominions, orders and governments, Cherubim and seraphim, thrones and many-eyed ones, nine regiments
Apocalypse of Zephaniah (100 bce – 70 ce)
The remnants of this can be found online here.
And a spirit took me and brought me up into the fifth heaven. And I saw angels who are called “lords.” And the diadem was set upon them in the Holy Spirit, and the throne of each of them was sevenfold more (brilliant) than the light of the rising sun. (And they were dwelling in the temples of salvation and singing hymns to the ineffable God.) . . . .
I saw a soul which five thousand angels punished and guarded. They took it to the East and they brought it to the West. They beat its … they gave it a hundred … lashes for each one daily.
Similar visions are, of course, found in the Book of Revelation. Heavenly places are clearly believed to have paraphernalia like whips, thrones, chains, and landscaping with trees, mountains, rivers, fire.
Plutarch, On the Delay of Divine Justice (c46 – 120 ce)
He saw nothing that he had ever seen before; but he beheld immensely large stars, at vast distances from one another, emitting a lustre marvellous in tint, and shooting forth rays, on which the soul was borne on the light as in a chariot, in perfect quietness, easily and swiftly. But — omitting the greater part of what he saw — he said that the souls of the dying rose from beneath like fiery bubbles through the parted air. . . .
some had their bodies streaked with what looked like scales and flabby scourge-marks; some were very much discolored, and disgusting to the sight, like snakes branded all over with black spots ; and others, still, had slight scars. . . .
When the friend of Thespesius had thus spoken, he led him rapidly to a certain place that appeared immense, toward which he moved directly and easily, transported on light-beams as on wings, until, coming to a large and deep cavern, he was deserted by the force that had borne him, and he saw other souls there in a like condition. Clustering together like birds, they flew round the chasm in a circle, but did not dare to cross it. Within, it resembled the caves of Bacchus, like them diversified with boughs of trees, and living green, and flowers of every hue ; and it exhaled a soft and mild breeze, wafting up odors of wonderful sweetness, and producing an effect similar to that which wine has on those who drink it freely.
Of Plutarch’s description of the punishment of the souls with bodies, Doherty comments, the souls “are judged and subjected to punishments according to their guilt, mainly scourgings. These are meted out to ‘bodies’ which the arriving souls still bear, for only a body could feel pain and punishment, not the soul. It is not clear if this body is the same material one the soul had lived in on earth, or a spiritual substitute for the purposes of judgment . . . ”
Asclepius (Nag Hammadi collection)
“Listen, Asclepius! There is a great demon. The great God has appointed him to be overseer or judge over the souls of men. And God has placed him in the middle of the air, between earth and heaven. Now when the soul comes forth from (the) body, it is necessary that it meet this daimon. Immediately, he (the daimon) will surround this one (masc.), and he will examine him in regard to the character that he has developed in his life. And if he finds that he piously performed all of his actions for which he came into the world, this (daimon) will allow him … (1 line missing) … turn him […]. But if he sees […] in this one […] he brought his life into evil deeds, he grasps him, as he flees upward, and throws him down, so that he is suspended between heaven and earth, and is punished with a great punishment. And he will be deprived of his hope, and will be in great pain.
“And that soul has been put neither on the earth nor in heaven, but it has come into the open sea of the air of the world, the place where there is a great fire, and crystal water, and furrows of fire, and a great upheaval. The bodies are tormented (in) various (ways). Sometimes they are cast down into the fire, . . .
Epistle to the Hebrews
This is another discussion. Doherty sides with the view that the epistle describes Christ’s sacrifice in a heavenly realm. A part of his justification for this interpretation is that the ancients are known to have understood the heavens, indeed the various heavens and places between the highest heaven and earth, as landscaped, occupied, and scenes of activity involving a range of anthropomorphic entities and forms.