Vision Mysticism among first and second century Jews and Christians

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by Neil Godfrey

April DeConick in Voices of the Mystics seeks to expand her readers’ knowledge of vision mysticism in early first-century Christianity, in particular arguing that the Gospel of John was written to oppose the practice as it appears to be endorsed in the Gospel of Thomas. In a recent post I discussed its apparent place in Paul’s experience. DeConick comments on the distinguishing feature of this experience among Jews:

Although the notion that the vision of a god makes one divine was Greek in origin, early Jewish mystics seemed to have welded this idea into their traditions about celestial journeys. Thus, in the Second Temple period, they taught that when one ascended into heaven and gazed on God or his enthroned bodily manifestation, the kabod or ‘Glory’, one was transformed. (p. 49)

Exceptionally righteous individuals like Moses, Ezekiel and Enoch had been transformed or glorified by their visions of God, and in the world to come all righteous were expected to be so transformed.

DeConick informs us that the evidence for a Jewish culture of such mystical experiences is found in

  • the Jewish and Christian apocalyptic literature,
  • Philo of Alexandria,
  • the Qumran literature,
  • and possibly the Palestinian school of Yohanan ben Zakkai.

Thus, there is a growing number of scholars, myself included, who contend that there was some precursor in the first century to later Merkavah and Hekhalot mysticism. Subsequently, these mystical traditions were absorbed into the Pharisaic and Tannaitic trajectory, some forms of Christianity, Gnostic schools, and later Kabbalistic materials. (p. 51)

This mysticism, it is understood, was grounded in an exegetical tradition concerning Exodus 24, Exodus 33, Ezekiel 1, Ezekiel 40-48, Daniel 7 and Isaiah 6 and the creation stories.

DeConick offers us a fourfold description of these early mystical traditions.

  1. A goal of the mystical experience was to achieve a vision of the throne of God and accordingly be transformed or glorified.
  2. The vision involved ascending through various heavenly storeys, the higher the holier, until one arrived at the celestial Holy of Holies.
    • This means that the worship of God had been elevated to the celestial realms in place of the earthly Temple which was known in these circles to have been corrupted or destroyed.” (p. 52)
  3. The ascent and vision journey were believed to be very dangerous, so the mystic was required to prepare himself (were many women included? I don’t know) with ascetic rituals such as fasting.
  4. Study of Scripture was important, so their interpretations of their journeys were filled with references to the sorts of passages listed above.

The Visionary Experience

DeConick begins with an account of a vision in the second century BCE work of Ezekiel the Tragedian. I won’t repeat the details here since I have quoted some of this in my previous post. (The source for passages by this Ezekiel has been made available online by Roger Pearse here.)

DeConick discusses the vision recorded in “pre-Maccabean” 1 Enoch 14:

8  A vision thus appeared to me.

9 Behold, in that vision clouds and a mist invited me; agitated stars and flashes of lightning impelled and pressed me forwards, while winds in the vision assisted my flight, accelerating my progress.

10 They elevated me aloft to heaven. I proceeded, until I arrived at a wall built with stones of crystal. A vibrating flame  surrounded it, which began to strike me with terror.

11 Into this vibrating flame I entered;

12 And drew nigh to a spacious habitation built also with stones of crystal. Its walls too, as well as pavement, were formed with stones of crystal, and crystal likewise was the ground. Its roof had the appearance of agitated stars and flashes of lightning; and among them were cherubim of fire in a stormy sky. A flame burned around its walls; and its portal blazed with fire. When I entered into this dwelling, it was hot as fire and cold as ice. No trace of delight or of life was there. Terror overwhelmed me, and a fearful shaking seized me.

13 Violently agitated and trembling, I fell upon my face. In the vision I looked.

14 And behold there was another habitation more spacious than the former, every entrance to which was open before me, erected in the midst of a vibrating flame.

15 So greatly did it excel in all points, in glory, in magnificence, and in magnitude, that it is impossible to describe to you either the splendour or the extent of it.

16 Its floor was on fire; above were lightnings and agitated stars, while its roof exhibited a blazing fire.

17 Attentively I surveyed it, and saw that it contained an exalted throne;

18 The appearance of which was like that of frost; while its circumference resembled the orb of the brilliant sun; and there was the voice of the cherubim.

19 From underneath this mighty throne rivers of flaming fire issued.

20 To look upon it was impossible.

21 One great in glory sat upon it:

22 Whose robe was brighter than the sun, and whiter than snow.

23 No angel was capable of penetrating to view the face of Him, the Glorious and the Effulgent; nor could any mortal behold Him. A fire was flaming around Him.

24 A fire also of great extent continued to rise up before Him; so that not one of those who surrounded Him was capable of approaching Him, among the myriads of myriads who were before Him. To Him holy consultation was needless. Yet did not the sanctified, who were near Him, depart far from Him either by night or by day; nor were they removed from Him. I also was so far advanced, with a veil on my face, and trembling. Then the Lord with his own mouth called me, saying, Approach hither, Enoch, at my holy word.

25 And He raised me up, making me draw near even to the entrance. My eye was directed to the ground.

A later passage, one thought to be composed in the first century BCE, describes the transformation of Enoch into the Son of Man when he sees this vision.

10And I beheld angels innumerable, thousands of thousands, and myriads and myriads, who surrounded that habitation.

11 Michael, Raphael, Gabriel, Phanuel and the holy angels who were in the heavens above, went in and out of it. Michael, Raphael, and Gabriel went out of that habitation, and holy angels innumerable.

12 With them was the Ancient of days, whose head was white as wool, and pure, and his robe was indescribable.

13 Then I fell upon my face, while all my flesh was dissolved, and my spirit became changed.

14 I cried out with a loud voice, with a powerful spirit, blessing, glorifying, and exalting.

15 And those blessings, which proceeded from my mouth, became acceptable in the presence of the Ancient of days.

16 The Ancient of days came with Michael and Gabriel, Raphael and Phanuel, with thousands of thousands, and myriads and myriads, which could not be numbered.

17 Then that angel came to me, and with his voice saluted me, saying, You are the Son of man, who art born for righteousness, and righteousness has rested upon you.

In the first century CE we see this transformation motif more developed in 2 Enoch 22:

ON the tenth Heaven, Aravoth, I saw the appearance of the Lord’s face, like iron made to glow in fire, and brought out, emitting sparks, and it burns.

2 Thus I saw the Lord’s face, but the Lord’s face is ineffable, marvellous and very awful, and very, very terrible.

3 And who am I to tell of the Lord’s unspeakable being, and of his very wonderful face? And I cannot tell the quantity of his many instructions, and various voices, the Lord’s throne very great and not made with hands, nor the quantity of those standing round him, troops of cherubim and seraphim, nor their incessant singing, nor his immutable beauty, and who shall tell of the ineffable greatness of his glory?

4 And I fell prone and bowed down to the Lord, and the Lord with his lips said to me:

5 ‘Have courage, Enoch, do not fear, arise and stand before my face into eternity.’

6 And the archistratege Michael lifted me up, and led me to before the Lord’s face.

7 And the Lord said to his servants tempting them: ‘Let Enoch stand before my face into eternity,’ and the glorious ones bowed down to the Lord, and said: ‘Let Enoch go according to Thy word.’

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

9 And 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 was like one of his glorious ones.

Philo, in recasting Jewish traditions in the shape of Hellenistic mysteriosophy (possibly influenced by Hermeticism), wrote of humanity’s goal being to abandon the body, ascend into the heavens, and see God. (pp. 55 f.)

Sight was the most excellent and divine of the sense for Philo because it alone was able to “raise its head” and “look up” to the heavens and God (Abr. 164). Thus the name “Israel” was extraordinary, designating the special race of humans who see God (cf. Rer. Div. Her. 35-36, 76; Plan. 46; Leg. Gai. 4-5; Migr. Abr. 18; Fug. 140). Philo states: “This race is called in the Hebrew tongue Israel, but expressed in our tongue, the word is ‘he that sees God . . .’ and to seem him seems to me of all possessions, public or private, the most precious’ (Leg. Gai. 4). This special race which has the ‘faculty of seeing’ strives ‘to press upwards to heaven . . .'”.

Once there, this race of visionaries “may banquet on incorruption and remain unscathed forever . . .” (Rer. Div. Her. 35-36). “The good man alone sees . . .” (Rer. Div. Her. 78). Advancing to God, the good man sees him and partakes of the divine manna, the “heavenly, incorruptible food of the soul — the soul which is fond of the visionary experience . . . ” (Rer. Div. Her. 78-79). Those people who have arrived at such a state of knowledge “have passed over to the immortal and most perfect race of beings . . .” (Sacr. 7). Philo emphasizes that the immortality of the mind is proven by the fact that “there are some persons whom God . . . has enabled to soar above all species and genera” and has brought before him to stand next to him in heaven (Sacr. 8). They have become angels! (p. 56)

For Philo the outstanding exemplar of this person was Moses. Moses saw God (Poster C. 13). He entered the thick darkness where God was (Poster C. 14). And this darkness is figurative of “the invisible and incorporeal essence” (Mut. Nom. 7), so Moses “achieved vision and union with God.” Moses only saw God’s rear, of course. But Moses is also said to have asked God to reveal himself, thereby confessing his own humility and inability to understand and learn about God on his own efforts.

Philo spoke of the Therapeutae as an ideal race who learned to achieve this vision and unity with God. I have some suspicions that these people are a parable, a noble “Platonic lie”, like the myth of Atlantis. But it matters little either way.

Journey through the Celestial Temple

This is the most interesting part of DeConick’s discussion in this section of her book, I think, but will have to complete this at a later date.

But already one can detect in the Gospels undercurrents of themes in common with these mystic visions. A central theme of the gospels is the authority of the disciples on the grounds that they have seen Jesus, in particular after his resurrection. Much of the early Christian literature carries this theme, with many texts asserting authority for this or that apostle or apostolic group on the basis of the visions or revelations they had from the divine Jesus. Does the transfiguration scene have more to do with a rival claim against heavenly visions of the Christ than with variants of resurrection “traditions”? Do we find here some clues for a motive to establish a narrative of an earthly Jesus?

The epistles also speak of becoming transformed into the image of God, of being changed into his glory.

But real life beckons for now.

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Neil Godfrey

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8 thoughts on “Vision Mysticism among first and second century Jews and Christians”

  1. Was there a difference in St Stephen’s case? I did get the impression that the last events in his life left him a little more divine than the rest of us.. The thing is, we tend to read things into passages.

    1. Interesting thought: http://www.elea.org/Parmenides/

      1The mares, which carry me as far as my heart desires, were escorting me. They brought and placed me upon the well-spoken path of the Goddess, which carries everywhere unscathed the mortal who knows. Thereon was I carried, for thereon the wise mares did carry me, straining to pull the chariot, with maidens guiding the way. The axle, glowing in its naves, gave forth the shrill sound of a musical pipe, urged on by two rounded wheels on either end, even whilst maidens, Daughters of the Sun, were hastening to escort me, after leaving the House of Night for the light, having pushed back the veils from their heads with their hands.

      Ahead are the gates of the paths of Night and Day. A lintel and stone threshold surround them. The aetherial gates themselves are filled with great doors, for which much-avenging Justice holds the keys of retribution. Coaxing her with gentle words, the maidens did cunningly persuade her to push back the bolted bar for them swiftly from the gates. These made of the doors a yawning gap as they were opened wide, swinging in turn the bronze posts in their sockets, fastened with rivets and pins. Straight through them at that point did the maidens drive the chariot and mares along the broad way.

      The Goddess received me kindly, took my right hand in Hers, uttered speech and thus addressed me: “Youth, attended by immortal charioteers, who come to our House by these mares that carry you, welcome. For it was no ill fortune that sent you forth to travel this road (lying far indeed from the beaten path of humans), but Right and Justice. And it is right that you should learn all things, both the persuasive, unshaken heart of Objective Truth, and the subjective beliefs of mortals, in which there is no true trust. But you shall learn these too: how, for the mortals passing through them, the things-that-seem must ‘really exist’, being, for them, all there is.

      It is surely part of the tradition. DeConick points to Walter Burkert’s observation that Plato’s Phaedrus, 250 was the most influential text about visionary experience

      but it is not easy for all souls to gain from earthly things a recollection of those realities, either for those which had but a brief view of them at that earlier time, or for those which, after falling to earth, were so unfortunate as to be turned toward unrighteousness through some evil communications and to have forgotten the holy sights they once saw. Few then are left which retain an adequate recollection of them; but these when they see here any likeness of the things of that other world, are stricken with amazement and can no longer control themselves; but they do not understand their condition, because they do not clearly perceive.

      [250b] Now in the earthly copies of justice and temperance and the other ideas which are precious to souls there is no light, but only a few, approaching the images through the darkling organs of sense, behold in them the nature of that which they imitate, and these few do this with difficulty. But at that former time they saw beauty shining in brightness, when, with a blessed company—we following in the train of Zeus, and others in that of some other god—they saw the blessed sight and vision and were initiated into that which is rightly called

      [250c] the most blessed of mysteries, which we celebrated in a state of perfection, when we were without experience of the evils which awaited us in the time to come, being permitted as initiates to the sight of perfect and simple and calm and happy apparitions, which we saw in the pure light, being ourselves pure and not entombed in this which we carry about with us and call the body, in which we are imprisoned like an oyster in its shell. So much, then, in honor of memory, on account of which I have now spoken at some length, through yearning for the joys of that other time.

      There is also the Homeric Hymn to Demeter which states that the ultimate blessedness is seeing the divinity — and that with this vision is given eternal life:

      [Blessed] among earth-bound mortals is he who has seen these things. But whoever is uninitiated in the rites, whoever takes no part in them, will never get a share of those sorts of things [that the initiated get], once they die, down below in the dank realms of mist.

      And the moment Lucius is transformed from mortal to immortal he experiences the vision (Apuleius, Metamorphoses, 11):

      I came to the boundary of death and after treading Proserpine’s threshold I returned having traversed all the elements; at midnight I saw the sun shining with brilliant light; I approached the gods below and the gods above face to face and worshipped them in their actual presence.

  2. They elevated me aloft to heaven. I proceeded, until I arrived at a wall built with stones of crystal. … I entered … and drew nigh to a spacious habitation built also with stones of crystal. Its walls too, as well as pavement, were formed with stones of crystal, and crystal likewise was the ground.

    An essential feature of the Firmament is that it is translucent. That is why the Firmament’s ground and structures are made of crystal, which is translucent.

    From the perspective of the Earth, the Firmament is the blue top of our sky. When we look up, we see the bottom surface of the Firmament. The top surface is the ground for beings and items on the Firmament.

    We can see celestial lights that are above the Firmament, because the light rays pass through the Firmament’s translucent, crystal structures and ground.

    When beings that inhabit the Firmament look down at their own translucent, crystal ground, it looks like a placid pool of blue water or blue ice. So, when those beings walk around on their own ground, it seems (it would seem to us) that they are walking on water or blue ice.

    Maybe the story about Jesus Christ walking on water and Simon Peter trying to walk on water unsuccessfully originated as a story that took place on the Firmament while Simon Peter was visting there.

    In some situations, the Firmament’s crystal can liquify and turn into water, and then the Firmament can open gates in its ground, and the water spills out and floods the Earth. This is a method that God (and other celestial beings?) can and do use occassionally to punish human beings on Earth.

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