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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