Ascents to the Celestial Temple and Heavenly Descents, and what any of this has to do with early Christianity

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by Neil Godfrey

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One of the reasons I am interested in this topic of visionary experiences is that they help flesh out a tangible environment, on the basis of concrete evidence, from which Christianity emerged. This is in contrast to the model of “oral traditions” being the roots of the canonical gospel narratives. The gospel narratives stand at an opposing polarity from the idea of salvation through a heavenly vision of the divine. April DeConick’s book, Voices of the Mystics, around which this and my previous posts are put together, argues that in the Gospel of John we find strong indications of a debate with Thomasine Christians who did uphold a central importance of the visionary experience. (Note, for example, the criticism of Thomas for believing only because he has seen.)

Enochian traditions in the Synoptic Gospels

But there is a somewhat different story and approach to visions in the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke).  In earlier posts I looked at the recognition and confrontation between Jesus and Peter at Caesarea Philippi, and the ensuing transfiguration of Jesus on Mount Hermon, in the context of the visions and legends recorded in the Book of Enoch and the Testament of Levi. This was the region for visions. It was the gateway between heaven and earth, at least for those Jews who found authoritative value in the Book of Enoch. As such it was recognized as a spiritual centre among those who found fault with the practices and cultic personnel associated with the Jerusalem Temple.

DeConick follows Rachel Elior in placing a strong interest in heavenly visions among Jews who could not accept the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE. But Enoch is evidence that there were also visionary Jews who could not accept the Temple as it was before 70 CE, and who for that reason appear to have found compensation in looking to the heavenly Temple — which was according to legend accessed via Mount Hermon near Caesarea Philippi. And as noted in a couple of my earlier posts, a case can be made for the Twelve disciples being “types” of the fallen watchers who left the presence of God’s throne to follow the way of all flesh on earth.

There are no heavenly ascents in the gospels. Only heavenly descents. There is a heavenly descent at the baptism of Jesus and another at the transfiguration. The glory of God is already on earth in the body of Jesus, having descended and making his missionary appearance through the waters of baptism. It does all the things the glory of God should do: it heals the blind, raises the dead, subdues demonic powers, utters words incomprehensible to all but the chosen few, etc.

In past posts I have discussed Mount Hermon’s sanctity as it is portrayed in Enoch and the Testament of Levi. Another text, the Apocalypse of Abraham, with the relevant section quoted below, also refers to this place so prominent in the synoptic gospel narrative.

Where all four gospels agree

But the epitome of God’s glory is the Temple itself, and his presence in it. And in all four gospels the climactic ending makes no secret that Jesus is himself the real temple of God that is greater than the physical Temple. Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem spells doom for the physical Temple (c.f. his “cleansing” of it and related cursing of the fig tree), and at his trial before the high priest the authors obliquely inform readers that Jesus is the temple that will be destroyed and raised in three days. (John’s gospel makes this explicit.) Jesus is the glory of God (in the flesh rather than in heaven), and the alternative temple itself, whose body is the veil that, once sacrificed, opens the way for the believers to enter the Holy of Holies. Mark’s gospel even alludes to Isaiah 22:16’s description of the doomed Jerusalem temple as a sepulchre hewn out of a rock when it describes Jesus’ burial in the tomb.

Another point where all four gospels agree with respect to traditional associations with divine visions, and that is in their introductory scenes where John the Baptist is stationed beside the Jordan River. It is here that Jesus receives the vision from God (in Matthew and Mark), and where John himself declares he saw a divine vision identifying the coming Messiah. Again, among the earlier posts I discussed the traditional significance of divine revelations occurring beside rivers like this.

What’s it all mean?

So I’m not sure exactly what all this means yet, but it does appear that the gospel narratives and messages are closely entwined in some sort of dialogue with a culture of transforming and saving visions (something also found among Greeks and the mystery religions, not only among Jewish mystics).

Does not the canonical gospel narrative dramatize for believers an alternative way to the same hope as found among the visionaries, or among anyone who for one reason or another felt a need to look for a higher Temple than the one associated with Jerusalem?

Backtracking: Journeys to the Celestial Temple

All the above was added after I had written what follows, so this post is a bit all over the shop. Anyway, here is some info on what some Jewish parties understood about the heavenly temple and the experience of “seeing” it.

It has been shown by Rachel Elior that, in the aftermath of the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, Jews within mystical circles were perpetuating Temple worship by fostering the idea of a surrogate heavenly Temple, developed largely from the visions of Ezekiel that were written following the destruction of the first Temple. Refusing to accept the end of their religious worship in the wake of the destruction of their cult center, they focused on the notion of a spiritual world whose cultic practices now operated on a mystical-ritual praxis. (DeConick, April D. (2001) Voices of the Mystics. Sheffield Academic Press. 58. My emphasis)

The structures of the earthly temple were elevated to the heavens, with angels acting out the role of priests and being responsible for sacrifices, prayers, music, and the pronunciation of the divine name.

One of the earliest accounts of a Jewish vision is Enoch’s vision (Enoch 14:8-25) — based on Ezekiel 1. DeConick returns to the Morray-Jones article of my recent post where it is suggested that the three stages of this vision “reflect a cosmology of three heavens”:

  1. The outer wall (the rear wall of the Temple, or porch, through which the priest entered the outer sanctuary?)
  2. The inner shrine
  3. The innermost shrine, the holy of holies.

8. And the vision was shown to me thus: Behold, in the vision clouds invited me and a mist summoned me, and the course of the stars and the lightnings sped and hastened me, and the winds in the vision caused me to fly and lifted me upward, and bore me into heaven.

9. And I went in till I drew nigh to a wall which is built of crystals and surrounded by tongues of fire: and it began to affright me.

10. And I went into the tongues of fire and drew nigh to a large house [hekhalot, dwelling, palace, shrine] which was built of crystals: and the walls of the house were like a tesselated floor (made) of crystals, and its groundwork was of crystal.

11. Its ceiling was like the path of the stars and the lightnings, and between them were fiery cherubim, and their heaven was (clear as) water.

12. A flaming fire surrounded the walls, and its portals blazed with fire.

13. And I entered into that house, and it was hot as fire and cold as ice: there were no delights of life therein: fear covered me, and trembling got hold upon me.

14. And as I quaked and trembled, I fell upon my face.

15. And I beheld a vision, And lo! there was a second house, greater than the former, and the entire portal stood open before me, and it was built of flames of fire.

16. And in every respect it so excelled in splendour and magnificence and extent that I cannot describe to you its splendour and its extent.

17. And its floor was of fire, and above it were lightnings and the path of the stars, and its ceiling also was flaming fire.

18. And I looked and saw therein a lofty throne: its appearance was as crystal, and the wheels thereof as the shining sun, and there was the vision of cherubim.

19. And from underneath the throne came streams of flaming fire so that I could not look thereon.

20. And the Great Glory sat thereon, and His raiment shone more brightly than the sun and was whiter than any snow.

21. None of the angels could enter and could behold His face by reason of the magnificence and glory and no flesh could behold Him.

22. The flaming fire was round about Him, and a great fire stood before Him, and none around could draw nigh Him: ten thousand times ten thousand (stood) before Him, yet He needed no counselor.

23. And the most holy ones who were nigh to Him did not leave by night nor depart from Him.

24. And until then I had been prostrate on my face, trembling: and the Lord called me with His own mouth, and said to me: ‘Come hither, Enoch, and hear my word.’

25. And one of the holy ones came to me and waked me, and He made me rise up and approach the door: and I bowed my face downwards.

Compare what Philo wrote in Special Laws 1.66. The Holy of Holies is the highest heaven where angels serve as priests in a temple.

We ought to look upon the universal world as the highest and truest temple of God, having for its most holy place that most sacred part of the essence of all existing things, namely, the heaven; and for ornaments, the stars; and for priests, the subordinate ministers of his power, namely, the angels, incorporeal souls, not beings compounded of irrational and rational natures, such as our bodies are, but such as have the irrational parts wholly cut out, being absolutely and wholly intellectual, pure reasonings, resembling the unit.

The Testament of Levi describes seven heavens, but Morray-Jones and DeConick cite other studies that indicate the original Testament knew only three.

Hear, then, concerning the seven heavens. The lowest is for this cause more gloomy, in that it is near all the iniquities of men. The second hath fire, snow, ice, ready for the day of the ordinance of the Lord, in the righteous judgment of God: in it are all the spirits of the retributions for vengeance on the wicked. In the third are the hosts of the armies which are ordained for the day of judgment, to work vengeance on the spirits of deceit and of Beliar. And the heavens up to the fourth above these are holy, for in the highest of all dwelleth the Great Glory, in the holy of holies, far above all holiness. In the heaven next to it are the angels of the presence of the Lord, who minister and make propitiation to the Lord for all the ignorances of the righteous; and they offer to the Lord a reasonable sweet-smelling savour, and a bloodless offering. And in the heaven below this are the angels who bear the answers to the angels of the presence of the Lord. And in the heaven next to this are thrones, dominions, in which hymns are ever offered to God.

Levi has a second vision in which he is consecrated a priest by the angels, given food and wine by the angels, and dressed in priestly garments, thus, as DeConick points out, indicating his transformation. (Note, also, the way Levi is instructed to “put on the robe . . . the crown of righteousness, the breastplate of understanding . . .” etc. — to put on seven things in all. We recognize the same literary style and thought patterns in the New Testament epistles.)

And there I saw a thing again even as the former, after we had passed seventy days. And I saw seven men in white raiment saying to me, Arise, put on the robe of the priesthood, and the crown of righteousness, and the breastplate of understanding, and the garment of truth, and the diadem of faith, and the tiara of miracle, and the ephod of prophecy.

And each one of them bearing each of these things put them on me, and said, From henceforth become a priest of the Lord, thou and thy seed for ever. And the first anointed me with holy oil, and gave to me the rod of judgment. The second washed me with pure water, and fed me with bread and wine, the most holy things,and clad me with a holy and glorious robe. The third clothed me with a linen vestment like to an ephod. The fourth put round me a girdle like unto purple. The fifth gave to me a branch of rich olive. The sixth placed a crown on my head. The seventh placed on my head a diadem of priesthood, and filled my hands with incense, so that I served as a priest to the Lord.

The second century 2 Enoch has a similar tale to tell:

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 when they see evildoing they make commandments and instruction, and sweet and loud singing, and all (songs) of praise.

These are the archangels who are above angels, measure all life in heaven and on earth, and the angels who are (appointed) over seasons and years, the angels who are over rivers and sea, and who are over the fruits of the earth, and the angels who are over every grass, giving food to all, to every living thing, and the angels who write all the souls of men, and all their deeds, and their lives before the Lord’s face; in their midst are six Phoenixes and six Cherubim and six six-winged ones continually with one voice singing one voice, and it is not possible to describe their singing, and they rejoice before the Lord at his footstool.

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, the Ioanit stations of light, and I became afraid, and began to tremble with great terror, and those men took me, and led me after them, and said to me:

Have courage, Enoch, do not fear, and showed me the Lord from afar, sitting on His very high throne. . . . . .

And the Cherubim and seraphim standing about the throne, the six-winged and many-eyed ones do not depart, standing before the Lord’s face doing his will, and cover his whole throne, singing with gentle voice before the Lord’s face: Holy, holy, holy, Lord Ruler of Sabaoth, heavens and earth are full of Your glory. . . . .

And I remained alone at the end of the seventh heaven and became afraid, and fell on my face and said to myself: Woe is me, what has befallen me?

And the Lord sent one of his glorious ones, the archangel Gabriel, and (he) said to me: Have courage, Enoch, do not fear, arise before the Lord’s face into eternity, arise, come with me.

And I answered him, and said in myself: My Lord, my soul is departed from me, from terror and trembling, . . . .

And Gabriel caught me up, as a leaf caught up by the wind, and placed me before the Lord’s face. . . . .

On the tenth heaven, (which is called) 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.

Thus (in a moment of eternity) I saw the Lord’s face, but the Lord’s face is ineffable, marvellous and very awful, and very, very terrible.

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 (is) 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.

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

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

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

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 Your word.

And 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.

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 (I) was like (transfigured) one of his glorious ones.

The Apocalypse of Abraham, composed some time between 70 and 150 CE. This passage illustrates the rituals of special ascetic rituals that were required before embarking on the visionary ascent, the repetitious chanting or singing, the danger to the mystic that comes with vision in the highest heavens, including that from Satan, the study of the related passages in Ezekiel — all of which were discussed in earlier post(s).

Interestingly, as with the Book of Enoch and Testament of Levi, we also find Mount Hermon referenced again as the place where heaven and earth meet, and where angels and humans pass from one locale to the other.

Chapter 9

1.(2.) Then a voice came speaking to me twice: “Abraham, Abraham!” And I said, 1. Then a voice came to me speaking twice, “Abraham! Abraham!” and I said, “Here I am!” And He said, “Behold it is I, fear not for I am with you, for I AM before the ages, even the Mighty God who created the first light of the world. I am your shield and your helper.” . . .

6. . . . . make me a pure sacrifice. And in this sacrifice I will place the ages. I will announce to you guarded things and you will see great things which you have not

7. seen, because you desired to search for me, and I called you my beloved. But for forty days abstain from every kind of food cooked by fire, and from drinking

8. of wine and from anointing (yourself) with oil. And then you shall set out for me the sacrifice, which I have commanded you, in the place which I will show you

9. on a high mountain. And there I will show you the things which were made by

10. the ages and by my word, and affirmed, created, and renewed. And I will announce to you in them what will come upon those who have done evil and just things in the race of man.”

Chapter 10

1. And it came to pass when I heard the voice pronouncing such words to me

2. that I looked this way and that. And behold there was no breath of man. And my spirit was amazed, and my soul fled from me. And I became like a stone, and fell face down upon the earth, for there was no longer strength in me to stand up on

3. the earth. . . . .

The angel he sent to me in the likeness of a man came, and he took me by my right

5. hand and stood me on my feet. And he said to me, “Stand up, Abraham, friend

6. of God who has loved you, let human trembling not enfold you! For lo! I am sent to you to strengthen you and to bless you in the name of God, creator of heavenly

7.(8.) and earthly things, who has loved you. Be bold and hasten to him. I am Iaoel and I was called so by him who causes those with me on the seventh expanse, on the firmament, to shake, . . . . .

I am the one who ordered you father’s house

13. to be burned with him, for he honored the dead. I am sent to you now to bless you . . . .

Stand up, Abraham, go boldly, be very joyful and rejoice. And I (also rejoice) with you, for a venerable

16. honor has been prepared for you by the Eternal One. Go, complete the sacrifice of the command,  . . . .

Chapter 11

1. And I stood up and saw him who had taken my right hand and set me on my

2. feet. The appearance of his body was like sapphire, and the aspect of his face

3. was like chrysolite, and the hair of his head like snow.  . . . . .

Chapter 12

1.(2.) And we went, the two of us alone together, forty days and nights. And I ate no bread and drank no water, because (my) food was to see the angel who was

3. with me, and his discourse with me was my drink. We came to God’s mountain,

4. glorious Horeb. And I said to the angel, “Singer of the Eternal One, behold I have no sacrifice with me, nor do I know a place for an altar on the mountain, so how

5.(6.) shall I make the sacrifice?” And he said, “Look behind you.” . . . . .

And the angel said to me;

8. “Abraham.” And I said, “Here I am.” And he said to me, “Slaughter all these . . . .

10. . . . .  The turtledove and the pigeon you will give to me for I will ascend on the wings of the birds to show you (what) is in the heavens, on the earth and in the sea, in the abyss, and in the lower depths, in the garden of Eden and in its rivers, in the fullness of the universe. And you will see its circles in all.”

Chapter 13

1. And I did everything according to the angel’s command. . . . .

2.(3.) . . . . And an unclean bird flew down

4. on the carcasses, and I drove it away. And the unclean bird spoke to me and said, “What are you doing, Abraham, on the holy heights where no one eats or drinks, nor is there upon them food for men. But these all will be consumed by fire and

5. they will burn you up. Leave the man who is with you and flee! For if you

6. ascend to the height, they will destroy you.

And it came to pass when I saw the bird speaking I said this to the angel: “What is this, my lord?” And he said,

7. “This is disgrace, this is Azazel!” And he said to him, “Shame on you,

8. Azazel! For Abraham’s portion is in heaven, and yours is on the earth, for you have selected here, (and) become enamored of the swelling place of your blemish. Therefore the Eternal Ruler, the Mighty One, has given you a dwelling on earth.

9. Through you the all-evil spirit (is) a liar, and through you (are) wrath and trials

10. on the generations of men who live impiously. For the Eternal, Mighty One did not allow the bodies of the righteous to be in your hand, so through them the

11. righteous life is affirmed and the destruction of ungodliness. Hear, counselor, be

12. shamed by me! You have no permission to tempt all the righteous. Depart from

13. this man! You cannot deceive him, because he is the enemy of you and of those

14. who follow you and who love what you wish. 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.”

. . . . . .

Chapter 15

1. . . . . And the angel took me with his right hand and set me upon the right wing of the pigeon, and set himself on the left wing of the turtle dove, neither of which birds had been slaughtered, and he bore me to the borders of the flaming fire, and we ascended upon many winds to the heavens which were above the firmament. And I saw in the air on the heights to which we ascended, a strong light impossible to describe, and within the light a fiercely burning fire of people, many people, of male appearance, all constantly changing in aspect and form, running and being transformed, and worshipping and crying with a sound of words that I could not recognise. . . .

Chapter 16

1. And I said to the angel, “Why is it you now brought me here? For now I can

2. no longer see, because I am weakened and my spirit is departing from me.” And

3. he said to me, “Remain with me, do not fear. He whom you will see coming directly toward us in a great sound of sanctification is the Eternal One who has

4. loved you. You will not look at him himself. But let your spirit not weaken, for I am with you, strengthening you.”

Chapter 17

1. And while he was still speaking, behold the fire coming toward us round about, and a voice was in the fire like a voice of many waters, like voice of the

2.(3) sea in its uproar. And the angel knelt down with me and worshipped. And I wanted to fall face down on the earth. And the place of highness on which we

4. were standing now stopped on high, now rolled down low.

And he said, “Only

5. worship, Abraham, and recite the song which I taught you.” Since there was no ground to which I could fall prostrate, I only bowed down, and I recited the song

6.(7.) which he had taught me. And he said, “Recite without ceasing.” And I recited, and he himself recited the song . . . . .

Chapter 18

1. And as I was still reciting the song, the mouth of the fire which was on the

2. firmament was rising up on high. And I heard a voice like the roaring of the sea,

3. and it did not cease from the plentitude of the fire. And as the fire rose up, soaring to the highest point, I saw under the fire a throne of fire and the many-eyed ones round about, reciting the song, under the throne four fiery living creatures, singing.

4. ,5And the appearance of each of them was the same, each having four faces, And this (was) the aspect of their faces: of a lion, of a man, of an ox, and of an eagle.

Each one had four heads on its body so that the four living creatures had sixteen

6. faces. . . . . .

And while I was still standing and watching, I saw behind the living creatures a chariot with fiery wheels.

The Apocalypse of Zephaniah — again the vision of the heavenly Temple with angels acting as priests.

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.)

Dead Sea Scrolls

The above passages are imaginative stories, although they point to real practices and beliefs. DeConick writes that the “first certain reference to a Merkavah vision occurs in the Qumran literature”, and that the community responsible for this may have liturgically built the heavenly Temple each sabbath.

I will quote those passages in the next post on this topic.

I will also conclude with many passages from the New Testament epistles that echo this understanding of salvation and transformation by the visionary experience of the divine.

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Neil Godfrey

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2 thoughts on “Ascents to the Celestial Temple and Heavenly Descents, and what any of this has to do with early Christianity”

  1. I have often thought that the mystical traditions were being ignored when writing the “history” of 2nd Temple Judaism and the transition into normative Judaism and gnosticism. Are you aware of any bibliography that focuses on this topic, aside from DeConick and Elior?

    1. Only what I pick up by serendipity and following through footnoted articles in those. DeConick and Morray-Jones in their discussions have plenty of other references that I would love to have time to follow though.

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