Jewish Mysticism and Heavenly Ascent Legends and the Context of Christian Origins

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by Neil Godfrey

Moses Comes Down from Mount Sinai (Ex. 19:25,2...
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Some of the most interesting work I read to help expand my understanding of early Christianity comes not from traditional biblical scholarship but from classical literature and Jewish studies. Here are a few new questions about the religious world from which Christianity emerged I would like to investigate. They came to mind as I read an old article (1971) in the Jewish Quarterly Review by Dr Joseph P. Schultz, Angelic Opposition to the Ascension of Moses and the Revelation of the Law. I really do need to read a lot more from specialist Jewish studies that do not directly attempt to address New Testament literature. I feel such publications are giving me an unfiltered view of the broader context of religious thought contemporaneous with our earliest Christian records.

So what on earth led me to read a 1971 article in the JQR? Blame April DeConick for that. I was following up some footnoted articles, and footnoted articles in those articles, from her Voices of the Mystics (in which she discusses the relationship of the Gospel of John to mystic forms of Christianity), and one of those led me to the 1971 article. It is all interesting stuff when read alongside some of the New Testament epistles and the Ascension of Isaiah, too. But this post confines itself to general questions arising.

Ascension themes in Mesopotamian literature

I had not been aware of the connection between Jewish mystical and ascent literature and early Mesopotamian writings till I read Schultz’s article. This would indicate the Jewish themes are not restricted to the period after the Roman destruction of the Temple, have a lineage dating back through the Second Temple period, and that what we think of as uniquely Jewish motifs may have a wider cultural heritage.

Before listing the motifs of the Babylonian literature I’ll look at some of the distinctive features of its Jewish cognate.

Schultz examines early Jewish legends (I’m particularly interested in those of the late first and second century) about the Ascent of Moses to heaven to receive the law, and being opposed by angels along the way. Perhaps the earliest instance we have of this idea of a heavenly ascent to God’s throne is found in the second century B.C.E. Jewish play, The Exodus, by Ezekiel. (i.e. Ezekiel the Tragedian — not the Ezekiel of the biblical book of Ezekiel, although that latter Ezekiel’s chapter 1 with its vision of God’s throne is also a significant actor in the later history of Jewish mystical beliefs about heavenly visions and ascents.) In this play God gives Moses a sceptre and crown and beckons him to sit upon his throne. From http://www.ccel.org/ccel/pearse/morefathers/files/eusebius_pe_09_book9.htm

‘Ezekiel also speaks of this in the Exodus, adding to the tradition the dream that was seen by Moses and interpreted by his father-in-law. And Moses himself talks with his father-in-law in alternate verses, as follows:

Methought upon Mount Sinai’s brow I saw

A mighty throne that reached to heaven’s high vault,

Whereon there sat a man of noblest mien

Wearing a royal crown; whose left hand held

A mighty sceptre; and his right to me

Made sign, and I stood forth before the throne.

He gave me then the sceptre and the crown,

And bade me sit upon the royal throne,

From which himself removed. Thence I looked forth

Upon the earth’s wide circle, and beneath

The earth itself, and high above the heaven.

Then at my feet, behold! a thousand stars

Began to fall, and I their number told,

As they passed by me like an armed host:

And I in terror started up from sleep.”

The various ascent legends in rabbinic literature, beginning from the late first century and through to the fourth century, come with a set of prominent motifs:

  • the righteous ascend to the heaven
  • they sit on thrones
  • the hero or the righteous are clothed in heavenly or royal garments
  • there is an anointing of the blessed righteous or hero
  • the righteous one is washed in pure water
  • he eats special food
  • is called by special honorific names
  • a vision or books (with special revealed wisdom) are received
  • the recipient of the vision or the books is sent to deliver the vision or message to either an elite or to the world.

Some examples:

The Book of Enoch 22:8-9

8And the Lord said to Michael: Go and take Enoch from out of his earthly garments, and anoint him with my sweet ointment, and put him into the garments of My glory.

9And Michael did thus, as the Lord told him. He anointed me, and dressed me, and the appearance of that ointment is more than the great light, and his ointment is like sweet dew, and its smell mild, shining like the sun’s ray, and I looked at myself, and I was like one of his glorious ones

3 Enoch X:1

All these things the Holy One, blessed be He, made for me:

He made me a Throne, similar to the Throne of Glory. And He spread over me a curtain of splendour and brilliant appearance, of angels . . .

Apocalypse of Abraham 13:14

For behold, the garment which is heaven was formerly yours has been set aside for him, and the corruption which was on him has gone over to you.

Revelation 3:5

He who overcomes will, like them, be dressed in white. I will never blot out his name from the book of life, but will acknowledge his name before my Father and his angels.

Here is how Schultz compares this sort of literature with the earlier Mesopotamian counterpart:

In reviewing the motifs of our legend, we find that a number of them fall into a pattern which can be traced to an ascension theme found in Mesopotamian literature. In the Mesopotamian texts, the heavenly ascent is made by the king who is both wise scribe and visionary seer and is described as “the Sent One”. The various aspects of this theme can be summarized as follows:

  1. Ascent to heaven
  2. Entering the heavenly place
  3. Reception by the highgod in his assembly
  4. Purification
  5. Anointing
  6. Robing in royal or heavenly garments
  7. Handing over the heavenly book or heavenly tablets to the bearer of revelation
  8. Calling with names of honour
  9. Initiation into heavenly secrets
  10. Enthronement on the god-father’s throne
  11. Sending forth with a commission or a message to instruct the generation

That last one, #11, starts an echo from our Gospels and Acts where after seeing the resurrected Jesus the inner circle is sent out to deliver the message of this “vision”(?).

But what is striking to me is how each of these motifs carries a vital import in our New Testament epistles and even in our Gospel narratives. I will elaborate at the end of this post.

Comparing Moses

Schultz compares these Mesopotamian themes with what we find in the stories of Moses.

Moses is “sent out” on his mission [Exod. 3:10-13]. He is both the wise judge and the visionary seer [Exod. 18:13; Num. 12:6-8]. On Mount Sinai he receives the tablets of stone, the Law and the commandments in order to instruct Israel [Exod. 24:12]. However, the succinct text of Scripture leaves out the other motifs enumerated in the Mesopotamian account of the heavenly ascent; but they reappear (though not necessarily in their entirety in any single source) in the rabbinic legend and in the cognate literature pre-dating it and post-dating it. In the Talmudic narrative the following motifs are present: ascent to heaven, enthronement [or in one case grasping God’s throne for protection from angels who would otherwise kill Moses], robing in heavenly garments. To these motifs the sources cognate to our legend add the following” purification, anointing, calling with names of honour, initiation into the heavenly secrets. (p. 295)

Moral laws or laws of impurity?

There were two competing wisdom “traditions” in early Judaism, as anyone familiar with Margaret Barker’s books will know. One view of wisdom was that wisdom was a set of practical precepts for daily living; the other was that wisdom was a secret mystery known only to God and to those especially chosen and prepared by God to receive it by revelation.

The former may well have originated as a wisdom-concept in order to rebut the esoteric notion of the latter.

Shultz compares three rabbinic versions of a story of Moses ascending to God’s throne to receive the law but being opposed by angels along the way. In one of these dated to the early third century the angels demand to know why Moses, a mere human, is ascending into the heavens, and they then proceed to demand of him to know what right he, a human, has to receive something from God (the law). After all, they cry, “What is man that Thou art mindful of him?” (Psalm 8:1-2).

God thinks the angels are offering a fair challenge so asks Moses to justify himself. Moses says he would love to explain, but fears that the angels will kill him when he does so. So God tells him to grasp onto his throne for protection. He does so and some of God’s glory wraps itself around him, thus offering him protection from the murderous angels.

Moses wins his case that he, and not the angels, should receive the law, by explaining that the angels are disqualified from receiving the law because their natures do not allow them to apply it. Angels, for example, have no parents, so they can’t honour their fathers and mothers, the fifth commandment; they can’t keep the sabbath because they don’t work or carry on businesses like humans, so the fourth commandment has no use for them, either. And so forth.

God thinks Moses is very clever and lets him have the commandments in preference to the angels. And even the angels are amazed at his wisdom, and just as in any good fairy tale (yes, the genre comparison is deliberate) they change their minds about killing him and become his best friends instead.

But there is another version of this tale (dated to the fourth century) where God himself justifies Moses to the angels. And when God argues the point he does not refer to the ten commandments at all. God justifies Moses’ claim to the law by citing the laws of impurity.

Schultz offers us two explanations of this seemingly unusual prominence for these laws over the ten commandments that are found in the literature:

  1. The laws of impurity dramatize the difference between earthly man and the angels;
  2. Emphasis on the laws of impurity may indicate a rift in the Jewish community with some rabbis critical of these laws.

Comparing New Testament motifs

I am reminded of the debates in the Gospels over the laws of impurity.

In the midst of a narrative about a Son of God and casting out demons and calling an inner privileged few to understand — and see in vision at the Transfiguration — the mysteries, there are debates and instructions about washing of hands and gifts for the temple. The two moral laws that get special attention in Mark are about marriage and children, and again that has struck me as incongruous. But obviously I don’t think the original author/audience considered it incongruous as I do. It alerts me to something I need to understand about the theological matrix of the day.

Does the discussion about Ascent and Visionary literature offer hints about what might be going on in the Gospels here, too?

I have wondered in the past if the focus in Mark on marriage, and this within the context of what things were like “in the beginning” — before Moses — and that the subtext here has to do with a spiritual return to a condition that was original to creation. The children motif seems to underscore this — stressing the importance of the pre-adult state of innocence.

Of course the impurity laws under debate in the Gospels are delivering the message of the superiority of the moral laws. At the same time the impurity laws are not themselves condemned as wrong. Is there something about the impurity laws that is important for leading the converted towards the more perfect angelic or divine nature? The narrative is about a Son of God who is in the flesh, after all, and who is dealing constantly with demons. If there is anything to this idea, does it bring us back to the function of baptism for Jesus in the beginning of the narratives? The purity ritual is necessary for all flesh on its way to divine sonship of God?

But that aside, the other ascent motifs are also strongly redolent of gospel and epistolary themes.

  1. Ascent to heaven
    • Compare Jesus’ ascent after the resurrection;
    • his ascent to the mountain at Caesarea Philippi (Mt Hermon) to be glorified as God’s Son with God present, and the disciples witnessing and hearing this vision.
    • Compare also the epistle speaking of the similar vision;
    • and Paul saying that he was carried up to the third heaven;
    • not forgetting the Revelation vision of John
    • and the message of the Book of Hebrews.
  2. Entering the heavenly place
    • The holy of holies in the temple was understood as an earthly counterpart of this, and the tearing of the temple veil in the Gospel is widely understood as the sign that the faithful can now enter the heavenly place
    • NT epistles also speak of the believers being citizens of heaven.
  3. Reception by the highgod in his assembly
    • This is a regular refrain throughout the NT, in particular in Hebrews and Revelation.
  4. Purification
    • Compare the centrality of baptism,
    • and moral commands to be pure as God is pure
  5. Anointing
    • Compare the anointing imagery and themes relating to healing
    • and receiving the holy spirit to become sons of God.
  6. Robing in royal or heavenly garments
    • Again this relates to baptism when white garments were worn;
    • note also the significance of clothing (of Jesus, John, Bartimaeus, the Legion demoniac, young man fleeing naked and sitting in the tomb) throughout the Gospel of Mark in particular.
    • Again Revelation, and the imagery in the NT epistles about being clothed with righteousness.
  7. Handing over the heavenly book or heavenly tablets to the bearer of revelation
    • Compare the discussions over the letter and spirit of the law, with the NT emphasizing a new law in the hearts instead of in letters. The new law has a greater glory.
  8. Calling with names of honour
    • This begins with the re-naming of disciples in the Gospel of Mark and continues through to Revelation and the messages to the seven churches where believers are promised a new name.
  9. Initiation into heavenly secrets
    • This is the theme of Mark’s and John’s gospels in particular;
    • It is the theme of Paul’s and other NT letters;
    • And of Revelation.
  10. Enthronement on the god-father’s throne
    • Jesus promises this to his disciples in the Gospels;
    • It is promised in the epistles and in Revelation.
  11. Sending forth with a commission or a message to instruct the generation
    • This is the beginning of the church, of course. The motif of being sent out by a spirit being who lived on the other side of flesh and blood to preach the message of that very vision or witness is derived, we may rightly think, from the literature of mysticism.

And that’s it. Just a mind game so far.

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Neil Godfrey

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