In olden times it was not unknown for gods to pass by their devotees, showing their awesome power in some limited way, and eliciting the awed responses one would expect from those privileged to see them.
But at that time of day when heavenly light has not yet come, nor is there utter darkness, but the faint glimmer that we call twilight spreads over the night and wakes us, they [=Jason and his Argonauts] ran into the harbour of the lonely isle of Thynias and went ashore exhausted by their labours. Here they had a vision of Apollo on his way from Lycia to visit the remote and teeming peoples of the North. The golden locks streamed down his cheeks in clusters as he moved; he had a silver bow in his left hand and a quiver slung on his back; the island quaked beneath his feet and the sea ran high on the shore. They were awe-struck at the sight and no one dared to face the god and meet his lovely eyes. They stood there with bowed heads while he, aloof, passed through the air on his way across the sea.
Apollonius of Rhodes. 1959. The Voyage of Argo: The Argonautica. Translated by E. V. Rieu. 2nd ed. Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Classics. (91f)
. . .
Then Moses said, “Now show me your glory.” And the Lord said, “I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim my name, the Lord, in your presence. . . . But,” he said, “you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live.” Then the Lord said, “There is a place near me where you may stand on a rock. When my glory passes by, I will put you in a cleft in the rock and cover you with my hand until I have passed by. Then I will remove my hand and you will see my back; but my face must not be seen.” . . . . .
So Moses . . . went up Mount Sinai early in the morning. . . . Then the Lord came down in the cloud and stood there with him and proclaimed his name, the Lord. And he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, “The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, . . . Moses bowed to the ground at once and worshiped.
. . .
Later that night, the boat was in the middle of the lake, and [Jesus] was alone on land. He saw the disciples straining at the oars, because the wind was against them. Shortly before dawn he went out to them, walking on the lake. He was about to pass by them, but when they saw him walking on the lake, they thought he was a ghost. They cried out, because they all saw him and were terrified.
Couchoud thought that John the Baptist epitomized and popularized the Jewish hopes for a coming Judge from Heaven — as shown in my previous post in this series (the entire series is archived here).
Christianity was born of the travail of the days of John. The Baptist gave it two talismans with which to bind souls:
the advent of the Heavenly Man in a universal cataclysm,
and the rite of baptism which allowed the initiates to await, without apprehension, the Coming of the Judge.
(p. 31, my formatting)
At first the teaching spread like wildfire but without John’s name attached to it as its IP owner.
Before long the teaching became enriched with various kinds of additions. First among these additions were new names for the Heavenly Man: Lord, Christ, Jesus.
Lord as a title was derived from Psalm 110:1
The Lord said unto my Lord,
Sit thou at my right hand,
Until I make thine enemies thy footstool.
To whom could this have been addressed? Surely not to the Messiah, the Son of David, waited for by the Pharisees. David would not have called his son “my Lord.” It must have been to the Son of Man who, according to the Revelation of Enoch, was placed on the throne of his glory by God Himself. (p. 31)
Since David as an inspired prophet makes it clear that the Son of Man is enthroned at the right hand of God and calls him Lord. So believers could also call the Son of Man their Lord.
(Note that the title “Son of Man” was used as a Greek expression, too. Think of Christianity as moulded very largely by Greek speakers.)
The New Testament epistles inform us that the original Gospel was a revelation from God. That means it did not originate by means of spoken tradition relayed from historical events, by word of mouth, from eyewitness or preacher to others. Rather, one might almost say that the medium itself was the message: the revelation or vision was, in a significant sense, the Gospel and conversion experience.
Thus Paul — thought by some scholars to be the real founder of Christianity — says that he was not taught the Gospel by men. “In Galatians 1, Paul claims that he did not receive the gospel from a human source. . . . In Galatians Paul speaks of his conversion as a revelation (apocalypse [1:12])” (Segal, 1990: 35, 36)
I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ. . . . But when God, who set me apart from my mother’s womb and called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son in me so that I might preach him among the Gentiles, my immediate response was not to consult any human being. (Galatians 1:12, 16) Continue reading “Heavenly Visions: the foundation of Paul’s Christianity”
For he received from God the Father honour and glory when such a voice came to him from the Excellent Glory: “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.”
The author is describing a visionary experience. While most of us familiar with the Bible have probably assumed the author is referring to the Transfiguration scene in the synoptic gospels, a more attentive reading suggests that this passage is independent of the synoptic scene, and that the synoptic authors more likely created their transfiguration scenes from a tradition of visions such as we read here in 2 Peter. (My point is not to argue that particular case here, but one argument for it is available online here.)
A little while ago I was discussing Paul’s visionary experiences and comparing them with the sorts of vision we also find described in the Ascension of Isaiah. I have since created a special archive for my posts discussing visions, and this post about the vision in 2 Peter will join that archive.
In my posts last month addressing mystical visionary ascents into heaven among Second Temple Jews and early Christians, I made passing references to April DeConick’s Voices of the Mystics. In this book DeConick argues a case that the school responsible for the Fourth Gospel was writing in some form of dialogue with those following the ideology behind the Gospel of Thomas. Recall among the closing scenes in the Gospel of John that Thomas is singled out as the arch-sceptic who will not believe unless he sees. Jesus allows him to see, but then commends all Christians who believe without seeing.
This post continues a series I have been doing on the Ascension of Isaiah: the full set of posts are archived here.
The Ascension of Isaiah describes a vision in which Isaiah
is taken up through the firmament above the earth
and then through seven heavens until he sees the Great Glory on his throne,
and from where he sees the Beloved of God descending through those heavens
to be crucified by Satan,
plummeting further down to Sheol, before
returning glorified to his former place in the highest heaven,
having rescued the souls of the righteous in the process.
This vision or ascent belongs to chapters 6 to 11 of the longer text; the first five chapters are sometimes referred to as the Martyrdom of Isaiah, and are widely considered to have had an independent existence before various later Christian or “proto-Christian” additions.
Earl Doherty has brought this text of the Ascension (chapters 6 to 11) to some prominence with his argument that early Christianity (or even “proto-Christianity”) began with the idea of Christ as an entirely heavenly entity, with the idea of him living a life as a human on earth being a later development of the myth. Whether one accepts Doherty’s arguments or not, the text is nonetheless of interest as an indicator of ideas among early Christians and their Jewish thought-world. The idea of a visionary ascent through the heavens to see the glory of God, and thereby be transformed and be graced with salvation, was, as I have shown in recent posts, known among certain Jewish and Christian groups around the time (and either side) of the first and second centuries. I compare the details of this vision with those others in this post. Continue reading “Ascension of Isaiah as a mystic-visionary salvation myth”
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. Continue reading “Qumran and Paul: Echoes of Mystical-Vision Salvation”
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.)
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)
Following the publication of Alan F. Segal’s recent book, it is clear that Jewish mysticism must occupy a more central place than has previously been the case in any construction of the matrices of Paul’s experience and thought. (Morray-Jones, C. R. A. 1993, “Paradise Revisited (2 Cor 12:1-12): The Jewish Mystical Background of Paul’s Apostolate. Part 1: The Jewish Sources”, The Harvard Theological Review, vol. 86, no. 2, p. 178.)
A number of scholars have suggested that mystical visionary experiences appear to have played a foundational role in the emergence of the Christian religion. (Recently I mentioned Larry Hurtado’s proposal that visionary experiences were at the heart of early Christians coming to exalt Jesus to a divine status.) If the visionary experiences initiated Paul’s missionary work, and we find indications that there were other early apostles basing their authority on similar visions, are we really very far from suggesting that Christianity itself originated in such experiences? Continue reading “Visions that laid a foundation for Christianity?”
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.
Earl Doherty has argued that the New Testament epistles, unlike the Gospels, portray Jesus as a heavenly being who was crucified by demons in heavenly places, and that it was this event that was revealed to early Christian apostles such as Paul by visionary or mystical spiritual experiences or insights into their readings of Jewish scriptures. They described the gospel that they preached as a “mystery” that had been revealed to them by the Spirit of God in what they believed were “the last days”. The crucifixion of Jesus was not an earthly event enacted by human agencies. The New Testament books and other extra-canonical writings give ample evidence for their being a wide variety of “Christianities” in the two or three centuries, but the canonical Gospel narratives and the book of Acts have so completely dominated our understanding of Christian origins that we have failed to see just how “riotously diverse” Christianity was before and even after the Gospels were written. Our canonical gospels — the orthodox narrative of Jesus — and the book of Acts were not widely known among Christian communities until the mid to later half of the second century. We know this from the testimonies of various ancient texts.
Doherty’s arguments are extensive and founded on a wide spectrum of evidence both within the New Testament writings and beyond. But there is one ancient document that appears to describe the very scenario that Doherty believes is found in writings such as the epistles of Paul and other New Testament letter-writers, in particular the Epistle to the Hebrews. This apocryphal text is The Ascension of Isaiah, which in its present form is a relatively late second-century Christian document. I will discuss some details of the dating of this document in a future post, but can make it clear now that scholarly introductions to translations of this text generally acknowledge that the current complete text was made up by stitching together at least two originally separate texts, and that along the way various Christian copyists or editors have added their own Christian messages into the original.
The original layer may not have been Christian at all, but Jewish sectarian. It is not impossible that the author of the New Testament’s Epistle to the Hebrews knew of one of the original Jewish documents that became the basis of the later Ascension. Hebrews speaks of a prophet being sawn in half, and the Ascension of Isaiah is the only other text we know of that testifies to this happening to a prophet. Even apart from that possibility, the earlier (quite likely) pre-Christian text was composed in the latter part of the first century.
But to cut to the chase. Here are the highlights of one of the pre-orthodox-Christian passages of what became known as The Ascension of Isaiah. (Many of us I know have read this in full from the online versions or in other books. This is for those who find ploughing through the lengthy compressed text and rambling details, especially with scholarly commentaries, hard going.)
How do we account for Christianity growing out of Judaism yet being so unlike Judaism? Part of one possible answer lies in the recognition that there was no normative Judaism as we understand it prior to the destruction of the Temple in the year 70. Noncanonical Second Temple writings such as the Book of Enoch point to the existence of Jewish sectarians who had radically different ideas about contemporary Temple practices and priesthood, cosmology, the law, wisdom, even the angelic world and Godhead prior to the rise of rabbinic Judaism following the destruction of the Temple. Margaret Barker and others have noticed quite a few distinctively Christian ideas resonating in some of these early books such as the Book of Enoch and that came to be sidelined by later Jewish rabbis. We know, of course, that the Book of Enoch is even quoted in New Testament writings.
This post continues earlier ones taken from a 1981 Journal of Biblical Literature article by George W. E. Nickelsburg, “Enoch, Levi, and Peter: Recipients of Revelation in Upper Galilee”. (Note, though, that I am not reproducing many of N’s details. This post is only a selection of the points he makes.)
It considers the details of Peter’s commissioning as the Rock of the Church in the context of narratives found in Enoch and their adaptations again later in the Testament of Levi (pre-Christian version). Peter emerges as a possible replacement to the High Priest of the Temple, which was, of course, doomed to destruction. The story of Peter and his role in the Gospel of Matthew, at least, grew out of that branch of Jewish religion that opposed the Temple practices and drew upon writings such as the Book of Enoch that did not make it into the rabbinic and later Christian orthodox canon.
I suspect the narrative was composed long after the temple’s destruction, and is an etiological tale to explain how the Church is now the new Temple and Kingdom of God with the Jews having been punished be destruction, slavery and scattering.
In both 1 Enoch and the Gospel of Mark the location of God’s revelation is in Galilee, and especially upper Galilee in the Tel Dan region extending through Caesarea Philippi to Mount Hermon. It was outside Caesarea Philippi that Jesus was acknowledged as the Christ, and at a nearby mountain where he was transfigured.
In both books, this northern location that has long been associated with sacred sites of Jewish and pagan origin is set in opposition to the earthly and corrupt priesthood and Temple system based at Jerusalem.
It may not be insignificant that in the Hebrew scriptures, Dan (part of this region), is regularly associated with apostasy from the faith centred at the Jerusalem Temple and priesthood.
(I would not normally have thought of this region as strictly “Galilee” but I am using the term as used by George W. E. Nickelsburg in his 1981 JBL 100/4 article, “Enoch, Levi, and Peter: Recipients of Revelation in Upper Galilee”, on which this post is based.)
The Galilean setting of Enoch’s vision and the fallen angels
1 Enoch 13:7-9
7. And I went off and sat down at the waters of Dan, in the land of Dan, to the south of the west of Hermon: I read their petition till I fell asleep. 8. And behold a dream came to me, and visions fell down upon me, and I saw visions of chastisement, and a voice came bidding (me) I to tell it to the sons of heaven, and reprimand them. 9. And when I awaked, I came unto them, and they were all sitting gathered together, weeping in ’Abelsjâîl [Abel-Maîn], which is between Lebanon and Sênêsêr [Senir], with their faces covered.