One of the reasons I have been looking at the visionary ascent experiences of Jewish and Christian devotees is to expand my understanding of the nature and place of the vision of Isaiah’s ascent and all that he saw and heard in the Ascension of Isaiah. I began to look at the Ascension of Isaiah in some detail a little while back because of the use made of it by Earl Doherty in his own case for the idea of a pre-gospel Christ being entirely a spirit entity whose saving act occurred within the spirit realm and not on earth. (Paul-Louis Couchoud argued for a similar conclusion.)
Before returning to the Ascension — which describes another ascent, transformation and vision, as well as a descent of a Beloved of God to be crucified by Satan — I complete here the texts I have been looking at that help flesh out the context of such visionary ideas. I conclude with similar thoughts expressed in Paul’s letters, indicating that some of the teachings found there owe something to this form of religious experience as a way to salvation. Both the Qumran and Pauline references are from April DeConick‘s Voices of the Mystics.
The Qumran scrolls are important evidence that the beliefs and practices associated with the visionary mysticism I have been discussing in recent posts are as old as the first century BCE. The same images of God in the highest heaven in his celestial Temple, and with angels about him performing the priestly duties that were far more pure than anything practiced on earth, are the theme of a collection of scrolls known as the Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice. I have copied a few of the relevant references from these scrolls (4Q400 – 4Q407) below. They are from the translation by Géza Vermès.
I have highlighted those features that are found in similar literature and that demonstrate a belief in a Heavenly Temple with angels performing priestly duties, the transformation of the visionary, etc.
Praise the God of . . . the ‘gods’ (=elohim) of supreme holiness. . . . For he has established supreme holiness among the everlastingly holy, to be for him the priests of the inner Temple in his royal sanctuary, ministers of the Presence in his glorious innermost Temple chamber. . . . In his zealous vengeance . . . he has established for himself as priests of the inner Temple, the most holy . . . of gods, the priests of the highest heights who are near to . . . .
extol Thy glory among the divine beings of knowledge, and the praises of Thy kingship among the most holy. . . . In all the highest heights they shall sing marvellous psalms according to all their understanding, and the glorious splendour of the King of the “gods” they shall recount on their stations . . . for what shall we be counted among them? For what shall our priesthood be counted in their dwellings? How shall our holiness compare with their supreme holiness? How does the offering of our tongue of dust compare with the knowledge of the divine beings . . .
Praise the God of gods, you inhabitants of the highest heights. . . holy of holies and exalt his glory . . . knowledge of the everlasting gods . . .
He shall bless all the gods close to true knowledge with seven righteous words . . . .
Praise the most high God, O you high among all the gods of knowledge.
Let the holy ones of the gods sanctify the King of glory, who sanctifies by his holiness all his holy ones. . . . .
Praise Him, O divine spirits, praising for ever and ever the firmament of the highest heavens, all . . . its walls, all its structure, its shape . . .
The divine spirits surround the dwelling of the King of truth and righteousness; all its walls . . . .
Praise the God of all the highest heights, all the holy ones for ever and ever,
they who are second among the priests of the inner Temple, . . . .
Extol Him, O sovereign Princes, in his marvellous portion, praise the God of gods, O you seven priesthoods of His inner Temple
their wonderful praise is for the God of gods . . . their many coloured . . . and they sing . . . the vestibules by which they enter, the spirits of the most holy inner Temple which the King enters, luminous spiritual figures . . . in the glorious innermost Temple chambers, the structure of the most holy sanctuary in the innermost chambers of the King, designs of gods . . . .
The cherubim bless the image of the throne-chariot above the firmament, and they praise the majesty of the luminous firmament beneath His seat of glory. When the wheels advance, angels of holiness come and go. From between His glorious wheels, there is as it were a fiery vision of most holy spirits. . . . The spirits of the living gods move perpetually with the glory of the marvellous chariots . . .
The Thanksgiving Hymns
And the closer I approach, the more am I filled with zeal against all workers of iniquity and the men of deceit.
Thou has revealed Thyself to me in Thy power as perfect Light
The Community Rule
My eyes have gazed on that which is eternal, on wisdom concealed from men, of knowledge and wise design, hidden from the sons of men.
Echoes in Paul
Visions of the Christ seem to have been one of the guarantees of salvation among such mystics. It was “seeing Christ” that transformed one’s nature into Christ’s nature. I doubt that Paul expected all Christians to have a visionary experience, but DeConick does point to several passages by Paul “that should probably be understood as echoes of this type of mystical soteriology” (p. 66).
My dear children, for whom I am again in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you
For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters.
be transformed by the renewing of your mind.
have the same mindset as Christ Jesus
But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.
1 Corinthians 15:49
And just as we have borne the image of the earthly man, so shall we [let us] bear the image of the heavenly man.
2 Corinthians 5:17
Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new.
Do not lie to one another, since you have put off the old man with his deeds, and have put on the new man who is renewed in knowledge according to the image of Him who created him,
Compare the non-Pauline passage 1 John 3:2
Beloved, now we are children of God; and it has not yet been revealed what we shall be, but we know that when He is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is.
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17 thoughts on “Qumran and Paul: Echoes of Mystical-Vision Salvation”
It would be hard, after reading that, to argue that the Qumran community was monotheist.
I’m taking “gods” (elohim) here to mean angels or similar heavenly rulers/beings. I’ve never had the impression that the Qumran community was not monotheist.
That’s correct. Many of the “gods” references are translations of “elohim” or similar. This is generally explained as a “plural of majesty” or “judge” or some angelic subordinate to The Only God, but I have also read scholarly views that it means literally Gods (plural) as it would appear to mean. In this context I’m happy to take it as angelic subordinates to God, but I’m also open to the arguments that even some Jews prior to the post 70 ce rabbinic Judaism did entertain views that are at variance with our notions of monotheism.
I also find some scholarly arguments (e.g. McGrath’s “The Only True God”) that “monotheism” meant something different to ancient Jews from what it means to us little more than semantic quibbling, especially when such arguments are justified in terms of what modern Christians need to understand for their modern theological religious purposes.
John, if there is a king of kings, this means there is one king over multiple other kings. There really is only one way to read that phrase. So how would “god of gods” be semantically different?
I’m not a philologist, and while elohim can refer to pagan gods (e.g., Dt. 6:14), it “seems” unlikely to me that it means that here based on the context. It’s been ten years since I studied Judaism with any intensity, but I can’t recall any biblical laws that prohibit acknowledging the existence of other elohim (whether “pagan” or Hebraic), only laws against worshipping them. This is a kind of monotheism called Henotheism, and it is the normal state of affairs in the Old Testament and perhaps in the Qumran community as well (though not that I’m aware of), if not among all ancients in general. If you are correct, there wouldn’t be anything unusual about it.
Those are interesting Dead Sea Scroll examples you give that go along with the visions in Christian origins theme of your latest series of posts. Another thing I like about the Song of the Sabbath Sacrifice is that it shows a connection between Qumran and Masada, both of which are significant places in the first century. The type of thinking in the DSS, regardless of when they were written, was surely “in the air” that pre-70 Essenes and Zealots were breathing -like Homer was a part of Mark’s climate.
The Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice makes me think of the twelve man/three priest “Council of the Community” in the Community Rule (col. 8 Vermes): “It shall be an Everlasting Plantation, a House of Holiness for Israel, an Assembly of Supreme Holiness for Aaron … who shall atone for the land … a Most Holy Dwelling for Aaron.”
Is this their “lowly” earthly counterpart to the incomparable heavenly one in the Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice?
This is exactly what April DeConick says of the Qumran community, that the evidence indicates they saw their own efforts as attempting to imitate the heavenly realities.
I think this line of inquiry is important. I’m a keen amateur student of comparative religion and mysticism, and to me, mysticism is by far the most important factor in the origin of religion. Doctrine, ritual, dogma, etc., all come after.
Essentially, someone, or a group of people, has either visionary (lucid dreaming, but awake – grand “trips” where people seem, to themselves, to be meeting and talking to “gods”, “spirits”, etc., etc.) or mystical (“zero experience”, absence of the ordinary sense of self and concomitant presence of a sense of being the Universe, God, etc.) – both of these quite clear and distinct classes of brainstorm. They develop or accrete around them a school of followers who want to get the same goodies. Their system develops a jargon. The jargon is then reified and turned into metaphysics that people who haven’t had those experiences (either through lack of ability or too much distance from the original founder’s, and his close pupils’, energy and inspiration). Then, all the sociological stuff kicks in (it becomes a “social glue”, with the metaphysics and ethics getting “spun” by those in power, etc.). Much as I love Dennett, I thought his book had a gaping whole where something like this kind of theory should be. It might replace some of the hand-waving.
The type of origin story above might have happened with a human Christ, it just so happens there’s little evidence to lead one to suppose it happened that way, and seemingly lots of evidence to suggest it happened with a bunch of enthusiasts, probably in Jerusalem, and a guy who was loosely affiliated with them, one “Paul”, who then subsequently went on to spread the nascent religion beyond its original circle.
Without going into details, the basic idea you address here reminds me of the start of the Methodist Church with John Wesley. I grew up in the Methodist church and know that we strongly disapproved of Pentecostal tongue speaking. And I still recall both myself and another member of the Methodist church not quite knowing what to say after we discovered that John Wesley and his earliest followers were glossolalists.
I think one thing rationalists often miss is that, while it’s quite possible to make stuff up, it’s quite another thing to believe that made-up stuff is real.
The quality of testimony from someone who has had an experience they believe real (whether erroneously or not) is more confidence-inducing than the testimony of someone who’s made something up and is pretending it’s real. The former is infectious (memes). The latter is unlikely to carry a religion through the tough early years (although it may be possible as the religion gets established).
It’s charisma that has to be looked into. There are con artists in religion for sure, but quite often religious leaders are simply genuine and charismatic, they attract followers by conviction. Charisma, inspiration, like that, is almost a quantifiable sign that the person has had an experience that, to them, is convincingly real.
Well, we have scientifically verified experiences that match the criteria “seems to be but isn’t” – we have hallucinations, we have “astral” vision, lucid dreaming, etc. States in which the brain produces semi-coherent “stories” laden with symbolism, sometimes experienced as lived-through. When someone says “I talked to God”, there’s no actual reason to automatically go for “vague tosh” or “tendentious sock-puppetry” as one’s default explanations. It’s quite possible they just had a subjectively very strong experience, where it sure seemed to them like they were talking to God.
And that type of thing is the root of it all. Without that, ancient man would have been purely rationalist like the Hindu Carvaka school, and attempted naturalistic explanations for everything. It’s only the strength of conviction of people who had experiences of “gods” and “spirits” controlling things, that leads civilisation away from the rationalistic path (with partly good and partly bad consequences).
P.G. Stewart: “…and attempted naturalistic explanations for everything.”
The very distinction between natural and supernatural can only arise in societies that have discovered the scientific method. The focus on “how” versus “why” (and “whodunit”) in explaining the world is a relatively modern phenomenon.
When the ancients explained rain as being caused by fresh water leaking in through windows in the firmament, they weren’t offering a supernatural explanation. It was simply their understanding of how the universe worked.
Similarly, when people in pre-scientific times said that gods sometimes appeared on earth and performed acts that humans couldn’t begin to understand, I doubt they would have thought of it as “outside of nature.” Gods, angels, monsters, demons, humans, and animals all lived in the same universe.
In fact, it would be difficult to imagine people really starting to think the way we do — with a stark dichotomy between the natural and supernatural realms — until after Newton, when a clockwork world (and the implied clockmaker god) becomes possible. Before that, continual divine intervention must have seemed the only “natural” way for the universe to work.
It’s a minor point, Tim, but Newton himself believed that God had to occasionally adjust the orbits of the planets.
That’s true. He also spent untold hours trying to crack Bible codes and turn base metals into gold. What the fluxion?
Even today there are still educated people who believe in deities guiding evolution and mysterious “resurrections in some form” and personal relationships with deities who love mortal earthlings and in their being some substratum of truth to tales of the fantastic told in religious books.
The main distinction is simply between things that happen in the course of nature, and things that happen by the agency of an entity that can’t normally be seen, but is assumed to be functional.
I believe that the latter type of theory would never have entered into human discourse (or at least not been taken as seriously as it has been), were it not for the capacity of our brain which produces semi-coherent visions. The same goes for concepts of “soul” and the like. cf. the work of Thomas Metzinger.
I think investigation into ancient religion needs to start from this, because its manifestly at the origin and practice of many, many religions, from simple shamanism all the way through to Christianity, Daoism, Islam, Buddhism, etc., etc. To take one example from Daoism: Celestial Masters Daoism was started by a rich old lady who had visionary experiences and wrote down what certain “spirits” were telling her. Islam was started by someone hearing the voice of an angel. Even Buddhism, in its later forms, had “tantric” practices that involved “congressus cum daimone” (as a similar type of experience was later dubbed by Christianity 🙂 ).
wrt Christianity, Paul was a self-avowed visionary. By his own words, it looks like what went on in his churches on a day-to-day basis was mostly this sort of stuff. It’s not something you can just gloss over as an adjunct, or some sort of later rationalisation, it’s the very source of the most committed religious peoples’ belief in their imaginary friends. They’re not mad, they’re not deluded, they’re honestly reporting their experience. We scientifically-informed moderns can put that in the right context, and we know their imaginary friends don’t exist, but if you’ve ever experienced anything like it yourself (and rationalists should do so more – it’s fun!), it’s easy to forgive them and to understand the source of their conviction.
There’s far too much contempt for religion coming from rationalists, and I think it hinders investigation into the truth. What deserves contempt is persisting in propositional error; but people innocently going by their actual experience does not deserve contempt, even if that experience is ultimately mistaken.