Mystics know and experience God in a very different way than the ordinary believer. Whereas the ordinary believer knows God in an objective, concrete manner as embodied in nature or via sacred scriptures, the mystic knows God by personal, one to one contact between their own spirit (soul) and the spirit of God; heart to heart, or as Augustine called it, “cor ad cor loquitur.” Because of the one to one, highly individualized nature of this experience, one might think the mystic would exist outside of the domain of the major religions of the world. That, in fact, is not the case. Mystics are most often allied with one of the major world religions, including (but not limited to) the Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Islam and Christianity. The mystic’s conceptions of God do not only come from the small voice speaking to him in the silence of his soul. Instead, the mystic combines these esoteric experiences with the teachings and traditions of their religion.
Much has been written on the comparability between the mystics of the differing world religions, noting that the only differences between them stem from the underlying religion itself. The overarching practice of seeking to actually experience what philosophers call the “Absolute truth”, (what theologians refer to as God), seems to know no theological boundaries. A Christian mystic seeks the same “beyond human” communion with the Trinity as the Jewish mystic does with YWEH, and the Muslim mystic does with Allah.
The theology of Christianity differs from the llm al-Kalam of Islam and the theology of Judaism in the same ways, whether the believer is a mystic or not. Hence, the principal differences that separate the mystics of the world are the same as the differences that separate all believers. My research seeks not to explain, compare, or contrast the mystics of the differing religions, as I mentioned that much has been written on that subject already, but rather to examine how the mystics of one religion (Judaism) influenced the foundation and theoretical framework of another religion (Christianity). 1. Authority
Mysticism is not a term that an ancient mystic himself would use to describe his realm of religiosity. In that regard, mysticism as we have come to understand and know it through most primary sources is not emic (or in their own words), and therefore very difficult to accurately investigate using a hermeneutic approach. The Essenes, for example, did not label themselves “mystics” in ancient Jerusalem. Our account of them as mystics comes from a purely etic (outside observers) viewpoint. In addition, the literature on early Jewish and Christian mysticism is not the possession of a single religious community, or maintained by a single religious community. While there is mounting evidence that the main origins of mystic tradition were in Jewish priestly circles, most of the literature on the subject of mysticism is from a variety of esoteric Jews and Christians over the course of several centuries. Making the matter more difficult is the amount of pseudepigrapha in “primary” Jewish sources.
While this problem also exists in Christian sources, is seems to be more of a roadblock to the student of Jewish mysticism, as most scholars agree that the predominant primary source on the topic, The Zohar, is pseudepigraphical. The Zohar is the primary piece of reference for a sect of Jewish mystics called Kabbalaists, refers to historical events of the post-Talmudic period while purporting to be from an earlier time. Because of the difficulty, then f obtaining a primary source detailing what has come to be known as Jewish mysticism, sacred texts such as the Tanakh and the Bible themselves are used frequently as a main source of information. Therefore, primary sources used for my research in the area of Jewish mysticism include The Talmud, including portions of the Midrash and the Tanakh (The Hebrew Bible).
Contained within the Talmud is the Torah. Very helpful to my understanding of these texts were writings by Josepus , a first century Jewish hagiographer, theologian and scholar. Christian primary sources include an Interlinear Greek-English New Testament of the Bible with a parallel column in the New Revised Standard Version, as well as excerpts by Origen, and Gregory of Nyssa, both Fathers of the Early Christian Church. A basic framework for my understanding of Jewish and Christian mysticism includes secondary sources by Joshua Abelson and Evelyn Underhill. The Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic and Mysticism was helpful in clarifying Jewish terms that I was unfamiliar with.
2. Jewish Mysticism History
The beginning of Jewish mysticism is usually linked to the Essenes, a sect of the Second Temple Jews. Known by the Greeks as the “Holy Ones”, these
mysterious Jews are now assumed to be the original keepers of the Dead Sea Scroll library. The sect was closed to society, and was dominated by hereditary priests who had to go through multiple rites of purification before being accepted into the sect. According to Josephus, the Essenes were one of three sects among the Jews at the time of Christ who “ …Had different opinions concerning human actions; the one was called the sect of the Pharisees, another the sect of the Sadducees, and the other the sect of the Essenes.
Now for the Pharisees, they say that some actions, but not all, are the work of fate, and that some of them are in our own power, and that they are liable to fate, but are not caused by fate. But the sect of the Essenes affirms that fate governs all things, and that nothing befalls men but what is according to its determination. And for the Sadducees, they take away fate, and they say there is no such thing, and that the events of human affairs are not at it’s disposal; but they suppose that all of our actions are in our power, so that we ourselves are the cause of what is good, and receive evil from our own folly.”
This clearly illustrates marked difference between the three sects. Josephus later stated that the Essenes were interpreters of dreams, and were very diligent in the reading of the sacred books. Philo of Alexandria, who often tried to reconcile Jewish exegesis with Stoic philosophy, wrote this of the Essenes:
“Of natural philosophy, the Essenes only study that which pertains to the existence of God and the beginning of all things, otherwise they devote all their attention to ethics, using as instructors the laws of their fathers, which, without the outpouring of the Divine Spirit, the human mind could not have devised…for, following their ancient traditions, they obtain their philosophy by means of allegorical interpretations…
Of the love of God they exhibit myriads of examples, inasmuch as they strive for a continued uninterrupted life of purity and holiness; they avoid swearing and falsehood, and they declare God causes only good and no evil whatsoever…no one possesses a house absolutely as his own, one which does not at the same time belong to all; for, in addition to living together in companies, their houses are open also to their adherents coming from other quarters. They have a storehouse for all, and the same diet; their garments belong to all in common, and their meals are taken in common.”
Clearly, this sect of Judaism combined mystical speculation with an ascetic mode of life. Merkabah (chariot) mysticism came into being in the early second century. Merkabah mysticism used as its framework a vision of God experienced by Ezekiel, and told in great detail in Ezekiel Chapters 1-5. “In my thirtieth year, in the fourth month on the fifth day, while I was among the exiles by the Kebar River, the heavens were opened and I saw visions of God. 2 On the fifth of the month—it was the fifth year of the exile of King Jehoiachin— 3 the word of the LORD came to Ezekiel the priest, the son of Buzi, by the Kebar River in the land of the Babylonians. There the hand of the LORD was on him. 4 I looked, and I saw a windstorm coming out of the north—an immense cloud with flashing lightning and surrounded by brilliant light.
The center of the fire looked like glowing metal, 5 and in the fire was what looked like four living creatures. In appearance their form was human, 6 but each of them had four faces and four wings. 7 Their legs were straight; their feet were like those of a calf and gleamed like burnished bronze. 8 Under their wings on their four sides they had human hands. All four of them had faces and wings, 9 and the wings of one touched the wings of another. Each one went straight ahead; they did not turn as they moved. 10 Their faces looked like this: Each of the four had the face of a human being, and on the right side each had the face of a lion, and on the left the face of an ox; each also had the face of an eagle. 11 Such were their faces. They each had two wings spreading out upward, each wing touching that of the creature on either side; and each had two other wings covering its body. 12 Each one went straight ahead. Wherever the spirit would go, they would go, without turning as they went.
13 The appearance of the living creatures was like burning coals of fire or like torches. Fire moved back and forth among the creatures; it was bright, and lightning flashed out of it. 14 The creatures sped back and forth like flashes of lightning. 15 As I looked at the living creatures, I saw a wheel on the ground beside each creature with its four faces. 16 This was the appearance and structure of the wheels: They sparkled like topaz, and all four looked alike. Each appeared to be made like a wheel intersecting a wheel. 17 As they moved, they would go in any one of the four directions the creatures faced; the wheels did not change direction as the creatures went. 18 Their rims were high and awesome, and all four rims were full of eyes all around. 19 When the living creatures moved, the wheels beside them moved; and when the living creatures rose from the ground, the wheels also rose.
20 Wherever the spirit would go, they would go, and the wheels would rise along with them, because the spirit of the living creatures was in the wheels. 21 When the creatures moved, they also moved; when the creatures stood still, they also stood still; and when the creatures rose from the ground, the wheels rose along with them, because the spirit of the living creatures was in the wheels. 22 Spread out above the heads of the living creatures was what looked something like a vault, sparkling like crystal, and awesome. 23 Under the vault their wings were stretched out one toward the other, and each had two wings covering its body.
24 When the creatures moved, I heard the sound of their wings, like the roar of rushing waters, like the voice of the Almighty, like the tumult of an army. When they stood still, they lowered their wings. 25 Then there came a voice from above the vault over their heads as they stood with lowered wings. 26 Above the vault over their heads was what looked like a throne of lapis lazuli, and high above on the throne was a figure like that of a man. 27 I saw that from what appeared to be his waist up he looked like glowing metal, as if full of fire, and that from there down he looked like fire; and brilliant light surrounded him. 28 Like the appearance of a rainbow in the clouds on a rainy day, so was the radiance around him. This was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the LORD.”
For the Jewish mystics of the 1st and 2nd centuries, Ezekiel’s image of YWEH riding upon a chariot of the “living creatures” was outside the range of the deepest esoteric experiences of all of the other Old Testament personages. The chariot was interpreted as an invitation from the Divine to man to come and experience the secret which he so desperately seeks: the experience of the Absolute, the being of God himself. The idea that God is the first one to initiate a union of man and God, or has “called” one’s soul to unite with the divine, is important to all mystics. The chariot, then, is a allegorical vehicle to carry one to the unseen. Every mystic wants to be the chariot rider, to be carried to his ultimate union with the divine.
However, as Joshua Ableson points out in his commentary on the Merkavah mystics “it was believed that he could only undertake this Merkavah-ride, who was in possession of all religious knowledge, observed all the commandments and precepts and was almost superhuman in the purity of his life.” While these roots of Merkavah mysticism were planted firmly in the 2nd and 3rd centuries, they did not bloom and flourish until the 7th- 11th centuries. Since that time, much has been speculated about the meaning of the chariot. Was it a true vision or an experiential event? Does the text hold hidden meaning with each description holding significance for the future? Is the text eschatological? Some modern day occult claim the Merkavah was not a chariot but an alien spaceship! It is understandable why this passage, in the midst of literature that is otherwise devoid of dramatic and colorful descriptions would attract such attention and speculation.
Although it is outside the scope of the time period this article seeks to examine, a mention must be made to the ultimate expression of Jewish mysticism: Kabbalah. Kabbalah is an esoteric gnostic occult that emerged in medieval Spain in the 12th century. Kabbalistic teachings look to The Zohar as their primary source of inspiration. The Zohar is a commentary of the Torah, (the first five books of the Old Testament). A Spanish Jew by the name of Moses de Leon attributed the book to a 2nd century Rabbi by the name of Shimon bar Yochai, but scholars are now in general agreement that de Leon penned the work himself.
The practices and beliefs of 15th century Kabbalists had much influence on Christian mystics and the Humanist movement (as well modern day New-Age Hollywood!) The Kabbalah school of thought attempts to explain the relationship between an unchanging external, mysterious YWEH (known as Ein Sof) and the mortal, finite universe, by seeking to define the nature of the universe and the human being, the nature and purpose of existence, and various other ontological questions. Given, however that this article seeks to examine the influence of the Jewish mystics on the early Christian Church, I will stick to sects of Jewish mysticism that took place between 500 BCE and 400 CE, that is, the Essenes and the Merkavah. 3. Connections
It is easy to find the similarities between the three Abrahamic religions. The mere fact that they are categorized together under the same heading within world religions indicates enough of a resemblance to one another, even beyond their homogeneous beginnings. It would not be new or even controversial for me to suggest a sequential, linear progression from Judaism to Christianity to Islam. My research does not aim to reinforce these arguments, but rather to look deeper. What specific aspects of Judaism continue on into the Christian faith?
It is here where I draw a distinction in that there are, as mentioned above, fundamental differences between the sects of Judaism at the time of Christ. I argue that the mystic sects of Judaism, (the Essenes and the Merkavah’s), are the factions of Judaism that influenced the formation and practices of early Christianity the most. Specifically, there are three principal dimensions of early Jewish mysticism that are also primary in early Christianity. These dimensions are an incorporation of the speculative, the experiential and the practical.
3a. The Speculative
The first dimension of the two religions is speculation, that is, the search for the absolute truth and revealed nature of the identity of God. This speculation also includes a quest for both the cosmogony (origins) and the cosmology (organization) of the universe. This dimension is most realized in the esoteric followers of both religions.
The centerpiece of the cosmogony of the identity of God in mystic Judaism is that God has a “body.” This body is known as the Kavod of YHWH. The esoteric interpretation of the Kavod is that of a vision of a divine form created by the invisible, formless God that is actually visible to the human eye. This body of God can take the forms of light, clouds, angles, or be felt in just its presence, known as the Shekhinah (the Holy Spirit.)
The Essenes believed that complete devotion to the sacred texts, abstinence from sex and certain foods, and communal prayer might bring the believer to the ultimate experience of the Kavod (which literally means “glory.”) The Kavod must be “experienced” or perceived, as it was believed at the time that no one could look directly at the face of God and live. This is illustrated in Moses’ encounter with God: “So the Lord said to Moses, “While my Glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by; then I will take away my hand and you shall see my back. But my face shall not be seen.”
The concept of Kavod had a profound impact on the formation of the Christologies of the early Christian Church. John was the most prolific of writers in his belief that Jesus was the revealed Kavod descended here on earth. John wrote in Chapter One,
14 The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.
and again in Chapter 11, directly quoting Christ immediately following the resurrection of Lazarus, 38 Jesus, once more deeply moved, came to the tomb. It was a cave with a stone laid across the entrance. 39 “Take away the stone,” he said.“ But, Lord,” said Martha, the sister of the dead man, “by this time there is a bad odor, for he has been there four days.” 40 Then Jesus said, “Did I not tell you that if you believe, you will see the glory of God?”
In total, John refers to the glory or Kavad of God revealed through Christ seven times in the Book of John. Paul also mentions Christ as the glorified image of God in II Corinthians: 4 The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel that displays the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.
And even in a more powerful way in Colossians:
15 The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation.
Clearly, the concept of Kavod was a theologically fundamental principal of the esoteric Essenes that became a foundational key factor in the overall Christian understanding of the nature and identity of Christ. Thereby, the speculation about the identity and nature of God and the search for absolute cosmogony and cosmology of God was carried from the mystics to the early Christians. 3b. The Experiential
The quest for a direct encounter with a deity is the experiential dimension of both the mystic Jews and the early Christians. The Jewish mystics sought not only knowledge of God, but also an esoteric experience with him. This is clear in the apocalyptic literature of both religions. Second Temple eschatology relates that the mystical, the belief in the immediate and direct experience of God, is an important part of the last days. This religious experience, an encounter with God that is an act of revelation itself, results in the devotee’s immediate personal transformation and the uncovering of God’s mysteries. According to War of the Sons of Light against the Sons of Darkness, (one of the scrolls found of the Dead Sea Scrolls, or Qumran Scrolls), the Essenes were awaiting the cataclysmic struggle between the Sons of Light (themselves) and the Sons of Darkness (everybody else).
This battle was to occur not only between the earthly beings, but also joining them would be the cosmic forces of good and evil, and would signal the end of days. Paul wrote in detail of the faithful who experienced Christ’s spirit. He felt these Christians could start their transformation into the image of God while still on earth but that the complete transformation would only occur after death. Paul states in Romans: 10 But if Christ is in you, then even though your body is subject to death because of sin, the Spirit gives life because of righteousness. This is but one example of many (thousands) of references to the Holy Spirit altering or affecting of the Early Christians. For these mystical Jews and Christians, experiencing a vision of the Kavod, (the Image of the Glory of God), stamped God’s image on the soul.
Words used to describe these experiences included “glorified,” “exalted,” or “angelic.” The apocalyptic literatures describe believers clothed in shining white garments, as angels worshiping God before his throne, transformed into beings of fire or light, and enthroned with God’s name or image. This is but one example of many shared concepts between the apocalyptic literatures of the mystics of Judaism (such as The Apocalypse of Abraham and The Testament of Levi) and the book of Revelation in the Christian Canon. Comparisons could also be made between cosmic revelations such as descriptions of heaven, hell and events at the end of time, as well as several symbolic symbols such as hands, bowls, scrolls, angels, or dragons.
Once again, we see an important concept of the mystics carried into the essential framework of early Christianity. It is important to note, that in the cases of both religions, this shift of thought to experiencing God in the present may have been due to failed eschatological expectations. Hopes for the long awaited battle between the forces of light and the forces of dark for the mystics, and the imminent return of Christ for the Christians had not gone as previously thought. Moving these hope for the future to actual experiences of the present made the reward of Kavod available to all believers, and a possible reality.
3c. The Practical
The most obvious shared dimension between the Jewish mystics and the Early Christians was that of their shared practical application of their experiences in order to effect change. This was illustrated in their communal practices, which served as an avenue for mystical transformation. Examples of these practices include asceticism (denying oneself of worldly pleasures), initiation rites (such as Circumcision for the Jews and Baptism for the Christians), washing (such as foot washing for Christians and purification rituals for the Jews), the anointing of the body and hair with sacramental oil, spirit possession, sexual asceticism, and sacramental ritual behavior, (such as the Passover meal and the Eucharist.)
The transformation of the mystical ideals into the sacramental rituals of the early Christian Church and the “Gnostic” schools is fascinating. The sacraments seem to normalize the mystical, making the presence of God regularly available to believers. Baptism, anointing, and the Eucharist all involve the integration of the Holy Spirit and the Christ into the soul. These rituals were understood as the vehicle that elevates and transports the person into the sacred realm so that he or she can come into the very presence of God. This is the ultimate combination of the speculative theology experienced through the practical; and once again illustrates how the mystics of Judaism influenced the early Christians.
While it is clear to me that many practices and beliefs Christians are directly taken from the practices and beliefs of the Jewish mystics, it remains unclear to me if Christianity was a continuum of the Jewish mystic sect of the Essenes, (with the addition of the long-awaited Messiah), or a completely new religion that merely borrowed a few key dimensions from the Essenes. What, if anything did the other non-mystic Jewish sects contribute? How many of the Essenes converted to Christianity in comparison to the other Jewish sects? Was Jesus himself an Essene? All of these remain topics for further research. However, there is arguably no question that the Jewish faith and specifically the mystics of Judaism influenced the theology, framework and Christology of the Christian Church.
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