Ancient beliefs about heavenly realms, demons and the end of the world

Creative Commons License

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

The Flammarion woodcut portrays the cosmos as ...
Image via Wikipedia

When reading the New Testament I like being able to relate its thoughts and images with thoughts and images in the contemporary literature of the non-biblical world. It gives the text I’m reading a bit of “body”, helping me see it as part of a culture now lost to us. Establishing relationships like that has the power to enable bible texts to stand on their own feet and tell me where they are coming from. This is a healthy turn around from my reading them as if they are ‘my mystery’ that I must find a way to interpret. It’s as if the books have found courage in numbers to speak up and push me back along with my idiosyncratic manipulations of them.

End of the world

So when we read 2 Peter 3:7-14

[7] But the heavens and the earth, which are now, by the same word are kept in store, reserved unto fire against the day of judgment and perdition of ungodly men.
[8] But, beloved, be not ignorant of this one thing, that one day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day.
[9] The Lord is not slack concerning his promise, as some men count slackness; but is longsuffering to us-ward, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.
[10] But the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night; in the which the heavens shall pass away with a great noise, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat, the earth also and the works that are therein shall be burned up.
[11] Seeing then that all these things shall be dissolved, what manner of persons ought ye to be in all holy conversation and godliness,
[12] Looking for and hasting unto the coming of the day of God, wherein the heavens being on fire shall be dissolved, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat?
[13] Nevertheless we, according to his promise, look for new heavens and a new earth, wherein dwelleth righteousness.
[14] Wherefore, beloved, seeing that ye look for such things, be diligent that ye may be found of him in peace, without spot, and blameless.

and then read Seneca‘s To Marcia on Consolation, xxvi, 5-6

For, if the common fate can be a solace for your yearning, know that nothing will abide where it is now placed, that time will lay all things low and take all things with it. And not simply men will be its sport for how small a part are they of Fortune’s domain! – but places, countries, and the great parts of the universe.  It will level whole mountains, and in another place will pile new rocks on high; it will drink up seas, turn rivers from their courses, and, sundering the communication of nations, break up the association and intercourse of the human race; in other places it will swallow up cities in yawning chasms, will shatter them with earthquakes, and from deep below send forth a pestilential vapour; it will cover with floods the face of the inhabited world, and, deluging the earth, will kill every living creature, and in huge conflagration it will scorch and burn all mortal things. And when the time shall come for the world to be blotted out in order that it may begin its life anew, these things will destroy themselves by their own power, and stars will clash with stars, and all the fiery matter of the world that now shines in orderly array will blaze up in a common conflagration.Then also the souls of the blest, who have partaken of immortality, when it shall seem best to God to create the universe anew – we, too, amid the falling universe, shall be added as a tiny fraction to this mighty destruction, and shall be changed again into our former elements.” Happy, Marcia, is your son, who already knows these mysteries!

does it not immediately strike us how alike the biblical passage is to the nonbiblical ideas of the day?

Seneca died just before the Jewish war of 66-70 ce. He was expressing here a basic teaching of Stoic philosophy, and using the end of the world in a fiery conflagration to give some comfort and peace to “the righteous” or pious. (His reference to this doctrine is also interestingly described as a mystery, and how can one avoid comparing similar usage of the term in Paul?)

The lower heaven beneath the moon

The New Testament also speaks of princes of the power of the air, of demons and angels who are intermediaries between the human and the divine realm.

Here is Philo (died 50 ce) in his discussion of the Genesis passage about the Giants being born from humans and “sons of God” before the Flood, from http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/yonge/book9.html :

II. (6) “And when the angels of God saw the daughters of men that they were beautiful, they took unto themselves wives of all of them whom they Chose.”{2}{#ge 6:2.} Those beings, whom other philosophers call demons, Moses usually calls angels; and they are souls hovering in the air. (7) And let no one suppose, that what is here stated is a fable, for it is necessarily true that the universe must be filled with living things in all its parts, since every one of its primary and elementary portions contains its appropriate animals and such as are consistent with its nature; –the earth containing terrestrial animals, the sea and the rivers containing aquatic animals, and the fire such as are born in the fire (but it is said, that such as these last are found chiefly in Macedonia), and the heaven containing the stars: (8) for these also are entire souls pervading the universe, being unadulterated and divine, inasmuch as they move in a circle, which is the kind of motion most akin to the mind, for every one of them is the parent mind. It is therefore necessary that the air also should be full of living beings. And these beings are invisible to us, inasmuch as the air itself is not visible to mortal sight. (9) But it does not follow, because our sight is incapable of perceiving the forms of souls, that for that reason there are no souls in the air; but it follows of necessity that they must be comprehended by the mind, in order that like may be contemplated by like.

And from Plutarch (born around the time Philo died), On the Obsolescence of Oracles (http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/R … orum*.html) — Plutarch describes the area between the moon and earth as the place of “demons” (these are intermediaries between the divine and mankind — without them humans and gods would have no way of communicating. Demons are subject to passions. Some go bad, some grow in moral excellence. Those that go bad are sent down to possess human bodies; those that reach exceptional goodness rise to become one of, and live among, the divinities.)

Nature has placed within our ken perceptible images and visible likenesses, the sun and the stars for the gods, and for mortal men beams of light, comets, and meteors, . . . .

But there is a body with complex characteristics which actually parallels the demigods, namely the moon; and when men see that she, by her being consistently in accord with the cycles through which those beings pass, is subject to apparent wanings and waxings and transformations, some call her an earth-like star, others a star-like earth, and others the domain of Hecatê, who belongs both to the earth and to the heavens.

Now if the air that is between the earth and the moon were to be removed and withdrawn, the unity and consociation of the universe would be destroyed, since there would be an empty and unconnected space in the middle; and in just the same way those who refuse to leave us the race of demigods make the relations of gods and men remote and alien by doing away with the ‘interpretative and ministering nature,’ as Plato has called it; or else they force us to a disorderly confusion of all things, in which we bring the god into men’s emotions and activities, drawing him down to our needs, as the women of Thessaly are said to draw down the moon.


“Others postulate a transmutation for bodies and souls alike; . . . . from men into heroes and from heroes into demigods the better souls obtain their transmutation. But from the demigods a few souls still, in the long reach of time, because of supreme excellence, come, after being purified, to share completely in divine qualities. But with some of these souls it comes to pass that they do not maintain control over themselves, but yield to temptation and are again clothed with mortal bodies and have a dim and darkened life, like mist or vapour.

So mortals can attain to nature of “demons” or demigods and live in the “sublunar realm” and some of these can go further to become divine and live in the highest plane. (Dillon in The Middle Platonists cites Heracles and Dionysus in traditional mythology as examples of the latter.)

From On the Face of the Moon (http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/R … on*/D.html ), Plutarch again:

Yet not forever do the Spirits tarry upon the moon; they descend hither to take charge of oracles, they attend and participate in the highest of the mystic rituals, they act as warders against misdeeds and chastisers of them, and they flash forth as saviour a manifest in war and on the sea. For any act that they perform in these matters not fairly but inspired by wrath or for an unjust end or out of envy they are penalized, for they are cast out upon earth again confined in human bodies.
for that part of the world which undergoes reproduction and destruction is contained underneath the orb of the moon, and all things in it are subjected to motion and to change through the four elements: fire, earth, water, and air.

There is much more obviously, but these two came my way again recently and I find them interesting glimmers into the minds of that generation from which the New Testament emerged.

Added late on March 10th

I am adding the following after 36 comments have already been made in relation to the content above. The following, I personally think, helps clarify what is meant by what is sometimes called the “sub-lunar realm”. Below we see that the whole universe beneath the unchangeable sun, all that is subject to change, from the moon to the earth, is considered a discrete entity in the cosmology of Plutarch. Plutarch himself disagrees with the allegorical views of the Egyptian beliefs he describes here, but he nonetheless describes the setting of their allegory in the “terrestrial universe” that includes the entire area from the moon to the earth.

Some more detail from Plutarch’s Isis and Osiris (http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Plutarch/Moralia/Isis_and_Osiris*/C.html) In discussing beliefs of some Egyptians, Plutarch remarks that the “terrestrial universe” includes all the territory from the moon to earth. Osiris and Isis are believed by some Egyptians to be trapped in the moon, and from the moon, and the moon governs the whole “terrestrial universe” that is subject to change. This terrestrial universe, the totality of all that is changeable, subject to decay and regeneration, is symbolized by Horus.

Moreover, at the time of the new moon in the month of Phamenoth they celebrate a festival to which they give the name of “Osiris’s coming to the Moon,” and this marks the beginning of the spring. Thus they make the power of Osiris [earlier described as a “demigod” or “demon”] to be fixed in the Moon, and say that Isis, since she is generation, is associated with him. For this reason they also call the Moon the mother of the world, and they think that she has a nature both male and female, as she is receptive and made pregnant by the Sun, but she herself in turn emits and disseminates into the air generative principles. For, as they believe, the destructive activity of Typhon does not always prevail, but oftentimes is overpowered by such generation and put in bonds, and then at a later time is again released and contends against Horus, who is the terrestrial universe; and this is never completely exempt either from dissolution or from generation.

and a few lines later the moon is explicitly said to be part of this “terrestrial universe”.

. . . our life is complex, and so also is the universe; and if this is not true of the whole of it, yet it is true that this terrestrial universe, including its moon as well, is irregular and variable and subject to all manner of changes.

And another from http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Plutarch/Moralia/Isis_and_Osiris*/D.html

. . . . the destructive force . . . is weak and inactive here, and combines with the susceptible and changeable elements and attaches itself to them, becoming the artificer of quakes and tremblings in the earth, and of droughts and tempestuous winds in the air, and of lightning-flashes and thunderbolts. Moreover, it taints waters and winds with pestilence, and it runs forth wanton even as far as the moon, oftentimes confounding and darkening the moon’s brightness; according to the belief and account of the Egyptians, Typhon at one time smites the eye of Horus, and at another time snatches it out and swallows it, and then later gives it back again to the Sun. By the smiting, they refer allegorically to the monthly waning of the moon, and by the crippling, to its eclipse . . . .

The following two tabs change content below.

Neil Godfrey

Neil is the author of this post. To read more about Neil, see our About page.

Latest posts by Neil Godfrey (see all)

If you enjoyed this post, please consider donating to Vridar. Thanks!

52 thoughts on “Ancient beliefs about heavenly realms, demons and the end of the world”

  1. Thanks for sharing these quotes. Isn’t the “sub-lunar realm” in this Ptolemaic worldview the realm in which we humans dwell? The area below the moon is the realm of humanity, of change and decay, and the heavenly realms above the moon were thought to be of a different nature. That view, as articulated by Aristotle and Ptolemy, seems to prevailed until it was overturned by the Copernican revolution.

    If Doherty used the terminology of the “sub-lunar realm” correctly, I I wouldn’t disagree with him saying that this was where Christians believed Jesus had lived! 🙂

  2. According to more than one of the quotes above the answer must be ‘no’. They speak of the “air” between the moon and the earth as what must necessarily be inhabited, and that by nonhumans or humans in transition.

  3. That is the same air that we inhabit, isn’t it? It is important not to miss the Aristotelian-Ptolemaic background to the language, which is the distinction between the area above the moon and the area below it. Certainly ancient people did not think the sub-lunar realm was inhabited only by humans, but Doherty seems to think that the sub-lunar realm is, as it were, yet another level of the celestial realm, rather than our own, including the sky but not a “heaven.”

  4. Aren’t you reading our own (or other) distinctions into it? (Besides, these are not talking about sky here, but the substance between earth and the moon, which is translated for us as “air” and appears to be what these writers are saying fills this entire space. There’s no discussion here of firmament or sky as such.)

    Philo in speaking of the air from whence came the demons down to earth:

    for it is necessarily true that the universe must be filled with living things in all its parts,


    Now if the air that is between the earth and the moon were to be removed and withdrawn, the unity and consociation of the universe would be destroyed, since there would be an empty and unconnected space in the middle;

    If you wish to debate Doherty that is another issue and one I’m not in a position to engage with for a while, so is probably best done directly with him. His email address is available online. Besides, he’s far better able to answer for himself than I am.

  5. I’m not reading my own distinctions into it – personally I think that Galileo, Kepler, Newton and others decisively dealt a death-blow to the idea that the way things work in the sub-lunar realm and the celestial realm are different. I’m reading these texts against the background of the thought world of their time. Surely that’s the appropriate background against which to interpret them, isn’t it?

  6. I’ve quoted the sections of the passages again in my previous post (I may have been re-editing it at the time you were composing your comment.) The architecture of the universe is defined by philosophical concepts of “nature abhorring a vacuum” etc. and speaks of the whole area between moon and earth as filled with air and life-forms.

    There are other concepts of the universe — but from what time period and culture? And do they relate to the philosophies and era from which Philo and Plutarch appear?

  7. Dr. McGrath I have a weird disconnect between what you are saying and the Philo quote above.

    Philo clearly states that there are beings living in the air above us that are invisible. I suppose he could say directly above us to make it more clear, but if they are far above, why would he need to describe them as invisible and only able to be contacted with minds?

    Is someone so far away you can’t see them invisible?

  8. Isn’t Philo there talking about spiritual beings of a changeable sort – lower ranks of angels and demons and the like – which inhabit this same sub-lunar realm as we do, just not anchored to the ground by our bodies, as it were. The sort of thing referred to in Ephesians 2:2. Is that your meaning? I was focusing on the cosmological thinking of the time as background to the quotes, and I may not have been very clear. But from what you asked, it may be that we are once again not on the same wavelength, perhaps because we do not both have the same degree of familiarity with texts from this time period?

  9. Does Doherty quote these passages from Philo and Plutarch?

    Galatians 4
    Now Hagar stands for Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present city of Jerusalem, because she is in slavery with her children. But the Jerusalem that is above is free, and she is our mother

    Hebrews 9
    When Christ came as high priest of the good things that are already here, he went through the greater and more perfect tabernacle that is not man-made, that is to say, not a part of this creation.

    And, of course, Revelation also has a Jerusalem above us, but that is not such a clear case of believing that there is a real ‘world’ (? is that the best word) above us, containing a Jerusalem and a tabernacle

  10. Dr. McGrath, it appears that Philo is talking about exactly that sort of thing, Paul was, yes.

    Ephesians 2:1-6:

    “As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature objects of wrath. But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus.”

    And the same he was talking about here in 1 Corinthians 2:6-8:

    “We do, however, speak a message of wisdom among the mature, but not the wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are coming to nothing. No, we speak of God’s secret wisdom, a wisdom that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began. None of the rulers of this age understood it, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.”

    Is he here talking about the Sanhedrin and Pilate? If so, were they also invisible?

  11. No, you seem to have missed this part: “the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient.” Your dichotomy between spiritual beings and humans subject to their influence doesn’t reflect the worldview of the time as we have evidence of it from this and other ancient literature.

  12. Emphasizing different parts of a sentence seems to be the key difference between us, but I fail to see how “ruler of the kingdom of the air” isn’t plain enough speech, and also clearly identifies the 1 Cor “rulers of this age”.

    The same things he is talking about later in Ephesian 6:2:

    “For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places. ”

    Weren’t Pilate and the Sanhedrin made of flesh and blood? Or were the rulers of darkness of this world different than the rulers of this world, and different also than the rulers of the kingdom of the air. They all strike the casual reader as the same type of thing. Perhaps you can explain the difference since clearly it seems to be the same thing, but not all of us have your experience with the texts of the period.

    Is it your suggestion that Paul had a complex set of enemies located in hugely different locations that his correspondents understood fully?

  13. The use of ou…alla constructions to indicate “not…so much as” is well documented, and so the grammatical point isn’t enough to make clear that the author is saying “heavenly powers in complete abstraction from the earthly powers that I’ve said earlier they work through.”

    Nijay Gupta actually read a helpful paper on this topic at the Midwest SBL meeting last month.

  14. So are you saying that the speech particles distinguish between the ruler of the kingdom of air, the rulers of this age, and the rulers of darkness of this world? They are all different things? I don’t speak, read or write Greek. In English, speech particles rarely modify the physical structure of nouns they modify In fact, I can’t think of any language I’m conversant with in which that is the case.

  15. Again, not being a Greek speaker, I will need your expertise to explain to me how it is possible that these three references are to different things, when to the reader having only seen them in translation they appear to be the same type of thing.

    So how does the ou alla (great name for a rock ‘n roll band by the way) construction denote that these three things are different?

  16. Please do not change the subject. Your point earlier seemed to be to make a contrast between the “flesh and blood” powers and spiritual ones. I already quoted a place from the same epistle where it is said that such spiritual realities are at work in disobedient humans. And so my point in the more recent comment was that “not against flesh and blood, but against…” is not intended to deny this earlier point, but to indicate that the author (who may or may not have been Paul, I should add) believes that the “real enemies” are spiritual beings at work behind the scenes and through such humans.

    Does that clarify things enough? Or did I misunderstand your point earlier?

  17. Dr. McGrath, I’m sorry if I’m changing the subject. I am genuinely trying to understand your explanation of our current discussion and I am not a Greek expert in any way so I failed to see how your explanation of the prepositional construction denoted that the rulers of this age, the lords of darkness, and the rulers of the kingdom of the air were three different things.

    I think an English speaker can understand what a ruler of the kingdom of the air is. I also think that if Paul refers to similar concepts in other areas, he is probably referring to the same type of thing. So it strikes me that those three references (which again, not knowing Greek, only look the same to me in translation) which you first referred to in your discussion of Ephesians 2:2, are referring to the same thing. You seem to be saying that Paul is saying the rulers of this age worked through the flesh and blood of the Sanhedrin and Pilate. Is this correct? If so, why would the English translation be such a direct one?

    “None of the rulers of this age understood it, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.”

    Should it not read,” … for if they had, they would not have caused the crucifixion of the Lord of glory by fomenting the Roman and Jewish authorities against him?”

    In what way can we read this as anything other than a direct responsibility for the crucifixion being ascribed to those rulers?

  18. Evan, I genuinely think you’re reading this ancient text, which comes from a world in which people believed in demon possession, in spirits of light and darkness affecting what everyone did (as evidenced in the literature from Qumran, for instance), with cultural expectations for distinctions to be made that ancient authors do not seem to have consistently made.

    Be that as it may, I’m not sure why, if you are trying to figure out what Paul thought, you are focusing on an epistle which may well not have been written by him. If you are going to focus on early sources rather than late ones, shouldn’t that mean focusing on those epistles that are generally accepted as genuine?

  19. Nice post! I love going through the literature of the time as well, working out their cosmology. I cover a similar topic about Plutarch (and how he is used by Carrier and Doherty) here in this thread: “Plutarch, Doherty, Carrier and the world of myth” http://www.freeratio.org/thearchives/showthread.php?t=175903

    One thing: Your final quote from Plutarch in your “lower heaven beneath the moon” section is “that part of the world which undergoes reproduction and destruction is contained underneath the orb of the moon”. It’s probably worth mentioning that Plutarch includes the earth there as being “underneath the orb of the moon”, so it isn’t just the sublunar heaven being referred to.

    Anyway: I hope you post more on this interesting topic. It is fascinating in itself, beyond any ramifications around historicism and mythicism.

  20. Yes, Dr. McGrath, I am. I come from a world where stories of demon possession, rulers of the kingdom of Air, spirits of light and darkness, men who walk on water, men who raise from the dead, men who can heal someone’s menorrhagia, and men who are posited by the Apostle Paul in 1 Cor to have been a rock in the desert in the exilic Sinai desert and by another epistle writer to have pre-existed the world are myths.

    I come from a world where, if someone saw Star Wars, they wouldn’t search for the historical core.

    Granting that Ephesians is deuteropauline (my college course in NT was taught by a fundamentalist and they didn’t make the distinction, my apologies), is the theology of the writer of Ephesians so distinct from Paul’s that the author of Ephesians means something different by ruler of the Kingdom of the Air and ruler of the lords of darkness than Paul means by the rulers of this age?

  21. GakuseiDon, if you can locate an ancient source that speaks of a sublunar heaven, I’d love to hear about it. My impression is that Doherty reads it into texts, perhaps because of a lack of broad familiarity with ancient cosmology. But I’m open to being corrected – it isn’t my area of expertise by any means.

    Evan, I love Star Wars, but unless you make an extended case for its relevance, I’d prefer to discuss ancient texts against the background of ancient literature and culture rather than modern cinema. 🙂

  22. The distinction between the sub-lunar realm in which humans dwell and the realm beyond it is well attested, going back into Greek philosophy in the centuries BC, getting its most systematic treatment by Ptolemy in the second century AD, and prevailing through the Middle Ages.

    Why not start with Wikipedia? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Geocentric_model

    Then here’s a page connected with a course on the history of science:
    ….homepage.mac.com/kvmagruder/hsci/04-Pyth-Plato-Aristotle/aristotle/aristotle-earth.html [Link broken, 20th August 2015 — Neil. Try http://kvmagruder.net/hsci/04-Pyth-Plato-Aristotle/aristotle/aristotle-earth.html ]

    None of these was hard to find. I just searched on Google for “Aristotle sublunar.” This is pretty much a matter of common knowledge about the worldview from ancient Greek times until the Middle Ages, and so pretty much any encyclopedia should have this information.

  23. James, in reference to your citation of Aristotle:

    Aristotle was not a Middle Platonist and we are talking here about the inhabitation of the area from the moon down to the earth by living things. It is all filled up space — or the whole system collapses, we read above.

    Demons came down to earth but also lived on the moon, and are found traversing the dimension in between. The earth and the whole area from the moon down was the sphere of change and corruption. Are you denying that this is what we read here?

    I purposely chose authors from the time period of the NT creation, with the theme of where demons and other beings in transition live. If I read in the NT about a prince of the power of the air in the context of the above I would think of a domain far more extensive than that of earth.

    This reminds me of a time I saw an academic insisting the John Rylands fragment was to be dated at X. When shown an authoritative report that said the fragment was to be dated anywhere between X and Z, his response was that he was vindicated, and that it was to be dated at X. Can’t argue with that sort of reasoning.

  24. @James McGrath:
    GakuseiDon, if you can locate an ancient source that speaks of a sublunar heaven, I’d love to hear about it. My impression is that Doherty reads it into texts, perhaps because of a lack of broad familiarity with ancient cosmology.

    James, I agree with you. Doherty is clearly reading it into the text. In fact, this is an issue that I pointed out to him 5 years ago, in this thread:

    I had written:

    There was the earth, the air and the heavens. Demons lived in the air, with Satan in charge at the firmament, which separated the heavens from the earth. The air really was “an intermediate world” (or level), but it didn’t form a separate “fleshy realm” where crucifixion (for example) could be done. AFAIK you could view it by simply looking up. This at least is my understanding.

    Doherty responded:

    Don seems to claim that the sublunary realm was essentially continuous with that of the material earth, with no distinction made or possible. One could see it “simply by looking up”? Well, I don’t think the evidence we do have bears that out. Consider chapter 7 of the Ascension of Isaiah. The angel is embarking on a journey with Isaiah through the heavens. His first stop is the air or firmament:

    “And we went up into the firmament, I and he, and there I saw Sammael and his hosts; and there was a great struggle in it, and the words of Satan, and they were envying one another. And as above, so also on earth, for the likeness of what is in the firmament is here on earth…”

    The movement up into the firmament is the first step in the ascent. They are not still on earth. In fact, the angel makes a clear distinction between the firmament and earth, referring to them as essentially two different areas which can be compared, which have things in common… I hardly think that Don, standing on earth and “by simply looking up”, even with a telescope, could see this great struggle going on among the evil angels of the aer.

    To which I responded:

    The sublunary realm is that under the firmament. Heck, you don’t even need to use a telescope to see the firmament. If it is daylight where you are, look outside – it is that big blue band that forms a dome overhead. If it is night, it is where you see the stars embedded…

    Everything below the firmament (the sub-lunar) is subject to change and decay, and included the earth. So that is evidence that it formed one continuous realm.

    So, the air isn’t its own world. Demons lived in the air because that was their nature, not because they existed in some separate ‘spiritual realm’.

    The discussion went on for a few more pages, with Doherty accusing me of appealing to “21st century scientifically-oriented minds” and “literalism” and me accusing Doherty of reading his own unsupported interpretation into ancient thinking. There was some weird disconnect there between Doherty and myself (and Muller) about whether the air constituted a separate locale or a separate sphere. I offered to Doherty that perhaps it was a question of semantics — which I still suspect is largely the case — but Doherty confuses things by talking about different “dimensions of reality”, an idea that simply didn’t appear to exist in those days about the sublunar realm (from under the moon down to earth). As Doherty responded to me in that thread:

    Don is still stymied by his obsession with literalism, while I think Vorkosigan has put it best and most succinctly:

    “…the key point is to realize that Paul does not know these events as historical events but understands them as events that have occurred in some other reality that is near or overlaps our own.”

  25. I don’t see the appropriateness of bringing in past or ongoing disagreements and discussions with other parties (who as far as I know are not aware of this discussion) in detail here. Especially dragging out 2005 debates when there have been so many more since then! It looks like you are using this as an opportunity to attack Doherty and salve old wounds. (I feared something like this was a possibility before posting but I took the chance trusting the better nature of most people.)

    In the past when I have declined to respond to GakuseiDon’s attempts to involve me in certain discussions I have found it adequate to point to links where interested readers can go to check out details of GDon’s treatment of the topics for themselves.

  26. On the one hand, Aristotle was certainly influential in Paul’s time, and Paul sided with Aristotle on the matter of whether thinking took place in the heart or the head.

    But on the other hand, my point was simply illustrative. This is Greek thought, and then European thought as the Greek heritage becomes part of that wider tradition. This is the worldview from well before Paul’s time until well after it. It has nothing to do specifically with Aristotle – he is just a famous and influential instance of the worldview that he, Paul, and everyone else who was heir to Greek thought down until the time of the Copernican revolution shared.

  27. On this blog I have been going through a study by Engberg-Pedersen on the Stoic model he sees within Paul’s thought, and that involves Aristotelian influence.

    But we need to be careful not to use the umbrella argument and assume that a very influential thinker was the defining word in all scenarios from his time to the Middle Ages. Aristotle’s real tyranny begins then. Plato and many others were also influential and mutated along the way.

    The passages I have brought out seem relevant to me for such passages as princes of power of the air, the sphere of corruption and inhabitations of demons.

  28. Neil, apologies for my digression on Doherty’s view, esp since your post wasn’t on that. A lot of my discussions with Doherty are on the topic of your post so I think are relevant, but I promise to not bring Doherty up again unless you yourself have already done so.

    My own thoughts on 2 Peter and Seneca: One difference I see is that 2 Peter is referring to a final conflagration, while Seneca uses the Stoic notion of a repeating cycle of destruction, from order to disorder back to order.

    I suspect that both views were influenced by the belief that fire was a ‘spiritual’ element that naturally rises into the heavens. One of the ironies is that, while for later Christians Hell was a fiery abode, in earlier times it was the heavens that were thought to have been filled with fire.

    In 2 Peter, we see the same view that was shared by early Christians, including Paul: God will remove the firmament, and the fiery purity of Heaven will cause the earth and the elements to melt and dissolve. And that’s the end of the old earth and heaven.

    For Seneca, it is all part of a repeating cycle: mountains will rise, floods will occur, flames will obliterate… and then God will create the universe anew.

  29. Yes, I find it interesting that both speak of a new heavens and earth after the ‘end time’ conflagration, but the difference is that one sees it as a neverending cyclic process (a series of expanding and collapsing universes) and the other as a “steady state” resolution. I wonder if the difference is to be related to the Jewish-Christian notion of “creation” with a definitive starting point. The corollary is to have a definitive end, even if it is back at the beginning (as it was for many early Christians).

  30. I think that is so. The idea that the world was created at a specific point in the past was not generally accepted by the Greeks it seems, whom believed that the world has existed eternally. And that God had to take **six days** to do the deed was regarded as faintly ridiculous. Some of the claims and counter claims can be seen in Origen’s “Contra Celsus”:

    After these statements, Celsus, from a secret desire to cast discredit upon the Mosaic account of the creation, which teaches that the world is not yet ten thousand years old, but very much under that, while concealing his wish, intimates his agreement with those who hold that the world is uncreated. For, maintaining that there have been, from all eternity, many conflagrations and many deluges, and that the flood which lately took place in the time of Deucalion is comparatively modern, he clearly demonstrates to those who are able to understand him, that, in his opinion, the world was uncreated… And if he demands of us our reasons for such a belief, let him first give grounds for his own unsupported assertions, and then we shall show that this view of ours is the correct one.

    As for the end of the world, Origen writes: http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/origen164.html

    Celsus, however, says that it is only “the course of mortal things which, according to the appointed cycles, must always be the same in the past, present, and future;” whereas the majority of the Stoics maintain that this is the case not only with the course of mortal, but also with that of immortal things, and of those whom they regard as gods. For after the conflagration of the world, which has taken place countless times in the past, and will happen countless times in the future, there has been, and will be, the same arrangement of all things from the beginning to the end. The Stoics, indeed, in endeavouring to parry, I don’t know how, the objections raised to their views, allege that as cycle after cycle returns, all men will be altogether unchanged from those who lived in former cycles; so that Socrates will not live again, but one altogether like to Socrates, who will marry a wife exactly like Xanthippe, and will be accused by men exactly like Anytus and Melitus.

    Celsus also makes the humorous claim that, according to Christians, the end will come when “God introduces the fire (which is to destroy the world), as if He were a cook.” 🙂

  31. And the Creator God idea was distinct from (possibly a reaction against?) the notion of gods being progenitors of life, the universe and everything else.

    The Jewish god was desexualized and so had no alternative but to bring things into existence by his creative word (creation) — apart from the never-ending cycle of birth and death.

    Interesting to think that the biblical end of the world idea might be related to the Hebrew (Persian inspired?) reaction against the sexuality of the Canaanite deities. Kind of adds a new dimension to the time-honoured link between sex and death.

  32. And from a much later period, here is Geoffrey de Monmouth’s story of the birth of Merlin:

    Book VI, chapter 17- Vortigern , after consultation with magicians, orders a youth to be brought that never had a father.
    At last he had recourse to magicians for their advice, and commanded them to tell him what course to take. They advised him to build a very strong tower for his own safety, since he had lost all his other fortified places. Accordingly he made a progress about the country, to find out a convenient situation, and came at last to Mount Erir, where he assembled workmen from several countries, and ordered them to build the tower. The builders, therefore, began to lay the foundation; but whatever they did one day the earth swallowed up the next, so as to leave no appearance of their work. Vortigern being informed of this again consulted with his magicians concerning the cause of it, who told him that he must find out a youth that never had a father, and kill him, and then sprinkle the stones and cement with his blood; for by those means, they said, he would have a firm foundation. Hereupon messengers were despatched away over all the provinces, to inquire out such a man. In their travels they came to a city, called afterwards Kaermerdin, where they saw some young men, playing before the gate, and went up to them; but being weary with their journey, they sat down in the ring, to see if they could meet with what they were in quest of. Towards evening, there happened on a sudden quarrel between two of the young men, whose names were Merlin and Dabutius. In the dispute, Dabutius said to Merlin: “You fool, do you presume to quarrel with me? Is their any equality in our birth? I am descended of royal race, both by my father and mother’s side. As for you, nobody knows what you are, for you never had a father.” At that word the messengers looked earnestly upon Merlin, and asked the by-standers who he was. They told him, it was not known who was his father; but that his mother was daughter to the king of Dimetia, and that she lived in St. Peter’s church among the nuns of that city.

    Book VI, chapter 18 – Vortigern inquires of Merlin’s mother concerning her conception of him.
    Upon this the messengers hastened to the governor of the city, and ordered him, in the king’s name, to send Merlin and his mother to the king. As soon as the governor understood the occasion of their message, he readily obeyed the order, and sent them to Vortigern to complete his design. When they were introduced into the king’s presence, he received the mother in a very respectful manner, on account of her noble birth; and began to inquire of her by what man she had conceived. “My sovereign lord,” said she, “by the life of your soul and mine, I know nobody that begot him of me. Only this I know, that as I was once with my companions in our chambers, there appeared to me a person in the shape of a most beautiful young man, who often embraced me eagerly in his arms, and kissed me; and when he had stayed a little time, he suddenly vanished out of my sight. But many times after this he would talk with me when I sat alone, without making any visible appearance. When he had a long time haunted me in this manner, he at last lay with me several times in the shape of a man, and left me with child. And I do affirm to you, my sovereign lord, that excepting that young man, I know no body that begot him of me.” The king full of admiration at this account, ordered Maugantius to be called, that he might satisfy him as to the possibility of what the woman had related. Maugantius, being introduced, and having the whole matter repeated to him, said to Vortigern : “In the books of our philosophers, and in a great many histories, I have found that several men have had the like original. For, as Apuleius informs us in his book concerning the Demon of Socrates, between the moon and the earth inhabit those spirits, which we will call incubuses. These are of the nature partly of men, and partly of angels, and whenever they please assume human shapes, and lie with women. Perhaps one of them appeared to this woman, and begot that young man of her.”

    I suspect that in studying how Geoffrey and such writers as Saxo make up their histories, where we know where some of the names and stories came from (not always the same place) we could learn much about how biblical pseudohistorians might have done their work.

  33. The builders, therefore, began to lay the foundation; but whatever they did one day the earth swallowed up the next, so as to leave no appearance of their work.

    Damn the Enlightenment! This excuse worked so well in them good olden days!

    I don’t know what other stories Geoffrey knew of, but several tropes in the above story do echo common ones from ancient times and well-aged folk tales. And of course we have the interesting image of demons living between the moon and earth, the immediate topic of interest here, that seems to me the clear meaning of Plutarch’s description. (If someone can use the claim that Aristotle’s views were well known from ancient to medieval times as evidence, then we surely have more explicit evidence here that it was also widely believed demons inhabited the whole area from the moon to earth from ancient to medieval times?)

    We are generally reluctant to assume historicity to this Merlin tale, but there are some who do not like to lose the possibility of such a good story being based in some reality. Some of us today do like to think there really probably was a Merlin of some kind. Albright was not a particularly devout Christian, I understand, but his work laid the foundations for some of the most conservative interpretations of the Old Testament as “history”. I’m trying to recall the scholar’s name who suggested that the reason was an affection for the cultural narratives that make us and our homes what they are, and a related desire to find some truth behind them. How much more powerful is such a tendency in the case of the stories attached to our Christian religion?

  34. Paul says the ceremonial law of the OT comes from “principalities and powers” in Colossians 2:14-15 which are also described as “angels” in 2:18 and as “elemental spirits of the world” in 2:20. The “principalities and powers” are the enemies of Christians according to Ephesians 6:12 where they are termed “spiritual forces of wickedness in heavenly places.”

    BTW, McGrath, you aren’t making any sense.

    1. Surely it’s just a matter of straightforward reading of the texts. Reading Aristotle is all very fine, and I like to find references to Aristotle wherever I can, but does any reference to him deny what we read in these texts about the demons etc occupying the whole area between the moon and earth?

  35. I apologize if I sounded like I was denying that. My point was simply that the ‘sub-lunar realm’ is, in the context of this cosmology, more than anything else the human, terrestrial realm. But it was of course thought to stretch all the way up to the moon (hence the name).

    My point was aimed mainly at readers of Doherty who might have the impression that ‘on Earth’ and ‘in the sub-lunar realm’ were non-overlapping categories.

    I apologize – I may have developed a tendency to assume that you are making a point related to mythicism even when you are not!

    1. Of course ‘in the sub-lunar realm’ and ‘on Earth’ overlap, but when you refer to ‘spiritual forces of wickedness in heavenly places’ you aren’t talking about ‘on Earth.’

    2. Okay, I gained the impression you were saying the “sublunar realm” is confined to earth. My reading of these nonbiblical texts (but close to contemporary with the biblical texts) is that we have a cosmological view (at least among a certain literate elite) that the whole area between earth and the moon was the sphere of corruptibility and necessarily occupied in some sense by changeable demigods/demons.

      That no doubt has relevance for our reading of the New Testament, regardless of Doherty’s specific arguments.

      (But anyone who reads Doherty surely knows he says the sublunar sphere extends to earth, and earth is subject to the influences of its demons etc.)

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Discover more from Vridar

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading