The Mystical Texts: Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice and Related Manuscripts by Philip S. Alexander(Library of Second Temple Studies:
T&T Clark) QUMRAN AND THE GENEALOGY OF WESTERN MYSTICISM by Philip S. Alexander
Mysticism at Qumran: The State of the Question
This essay provides an overview of a position I have worked out at greater length in The Mystical Texts: Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice and Related Manuscripts (Companion to the Qumran Scrolls 7; London: T&T Clark International, 2005), to which the reader is referred for detailed documentation. The present article, however, is not just a summary of the book. The necessity of compressing and simplifying the case has led me, to some extent, to rethink and clarify my argument. A number of points (e.g., the anthropology behind Qumran mysticism, and the doctrine of predestination, which seems to be all over the relevant texts) now strike me as more important than I realised when I wrote the book. My purpose is to open a debate on what happens if we take certain Scrolls seriously as mysticism, and read them into the western mystical tradition.
Scholars have shown a marked reluctance to recognize the existence of mysticism at Qumran.' This reluctance extends both to Scrolls experts and to historians of Jewish mysticism. Almost as soon as the first reports of the Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice appeared, the possibility of links between this work and the later Hekhalot literature was raised.2 Since then a number of more detailed studies by Schiffman, Baumgarten, Davila and others have vastly multiplied the parallels with the Hekhalot texts,' but there are still few accounts of Jewish mysticism which take serious note of this parallelism or attempt to integrate the Scrolls into the history of the Jewish mystical tradition. The attitude of Scholem set the tone. When he first wrote his agenda-setting monograph Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism the Scrolls had not, of course, been discovered, but his scholarly career continued long after many texts had become widely known, including the passages from the Sabbath Songs first published by John Strugnell in 1960. His response to these ground-breaking finds was surprisingly muted. In Jewish Gnosticism, Merkabah Mysticism, and Talmudic Tradition he makes some passing remarks about the "gnostic" colouring of some of the Dead Sea texts. This comment is highly significant, since it hints that the Scrolls possibly should be included in the genealogy of Jewish mysticism, which Scholem construed as fundamentally a form of Jewish Gnosticism. And in the additional notes to the second edition of this work he drew attention to the stylistic parallels between the numinous hymnology of the Hekhalot treatises and the Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice.' But he never followed up these insights, possibly with good reason; for if he had, they would arguably have problematised, if not subverted, his grand paradigm of Jewish mysticism. It is interesting to note that at the Berlin conference which convened to assess Major Trends fifty years after its publication, and to discover where it needed to be supplemented and corrected, no one, apparently, mentioned the Dead Sea Scrolls.'
There have, indeed, been some notable exceptions to this neglect of the Scrolls in the history of Jewish mysticism. Here one should single out Johann Maier's pioneering 1964 monograph Vom Kultus zur Gno sis: Studien zur Vor- and Frühgeschichte der jüdischen Gnosis; Ithamar Gruenwald's Apocalyptic and Merkabah Mysticism (1980); and the essays Gruenwald collected in the volume From Apocalypticism to Gnosticism (1988), though he put greater stress on the apocalyptic antecedents of Hekhalot mysticism than on texts like Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice. More recently Rachel Elior has argued for the beginnings of Jewish mysticism in the Second Temple period and drawn on the Scrolls and on apocalyptic to make her case.9 But these are the exceptions that prove the rule, and they have by no means said the last word on this matter, nor met with widespread agreement.
A similar picture emerges when we turn specifically to the world of Dead Sea Scrolls studies. When Bilhah Nitzan published her seminal article on "Harmonic and Mystical Characteristics in Poetic and Liturgical Writings from Qumran" in 1994, she was immediately criticised for her use of the term "mystical" by Eliot Wolfson, a noted authority on later Jewish mysticism, in an article in the same volume.'' Wolf-son's criticisms seem to have had an effect, and to have made other Scrolls experts wary of talking about mysticism at Qumran. Thus Esther Chazon, in a valuable essay on "Human and Angelic Prayer in the Light of the Dead Sea Scrolls," published in 2003, in which she developes Nitzan's ideas, still feels it necessary to issue a caveat about using the term "mysticism" in relation to Qumran, with a reference to Wolfson's strictures." The fact is that the category of mysticism does not come readily to the minds of most scholars of the Dead Sea Scrolls. The study of the Scrolls has been dominated by philological and literary approaches, and mysticism is a term that belongs essentially to the phenomenology or history of religion. It is noticeable that philologists and literary historians tend to be more suspicious of the term than do historians of religion. Yet there is much to be gained in understanding and contextualizing various aspects of the spiritual life of the Dead Sea community if we can identify mysticism there. A range of analogies and parallels is at once opened up, and a body of highly sophisticated theory and analysis can be invoked, to enhance our perceptions of what may be happening at Qumran. Philology and literary history are the bedrock of any analysis of the Scrolls, but they will only take us so far. There comes a point beyond which we can advance only by adopting a more history-of-religions approach.
The Qumran Mystical Corpus
In this short paper I will set out two linked theses. The first is that the evidence that has accumulated for the existence of mysticism in the Qumran community is now substantial and compelling. The second is that the type of mysticism attested at Qumran, for which one could cautiously borrow the later Christian term angelikos bios," somehow fed into not only later Jewish but also later Christian mysticism, and this puts Qumran firmly into the genealogy of the western mystical tradition. If I am correct, then Qumran has to be integrated into the history of western mysticism.
On the concept of the angelikos bios see K. S. Frank, ANGELIKOS BIOS: Begriffsanalytische and begriffsgeschichtliche Untersuchung zum "angelgleichen Leben" im frühen Mönchtum (Munster: Aschendorff, 1964); D. E. Linge, "Leading the Life of Angels: Ascetic Practice and Reflection in the Writings of Evagrius of Pontus,"JAAR 68 (2000): 537-68; N. Ricklefs, "An Angelic Community: The Significance of Beliefs about Angels in the First Four Centuries of Christianity" (Ph.D. diss., Macquarie University [Sydney], 2002). By the angelikos bios type of mysticism I mean a mysticism in which the angels are seen as exemplars of the supreme relationship to God to which a creature can attain. The mystic's aim is, through a process of elevation and transformation known in some later Christian texts as theosis, to join the choirs of angels, and so to share in their nearness to God.
There are two ways in which we can identify mysticism at Qumran. The first is indicatively. We can attempt to show that certain Dead Sea texts contain such close parallels in thought, terminology and praxis to other texts universally deemed mystical as to be plausibly placed in the same category. This approach works very well, since, as we have noted, it has been shown that there are quite remarkable parallels between Dead Sea texts like the Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice and the later Hekhalot literature, which, along with the Sefer Yetzirah, was identified by Scholem as the foundation of the Jewish mystical tradition. If the Hekhalot texts are mystical, then why should we deny that Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice is mystical as well? This argument is in itself quite strong but it leaves hanging in the air what we mean by mysticism. This brings us to our second way of identifying mysticism at Qumran. Can we find anything at Qumran which would conform to an acceptable abstract definition of mysticism? The definition of mysticism is, of course, hugely contested, and it is this that has frightened many scholars off from using it as a descriptive or analytical category. This is neither the time nor the place to get involved in the deep philosophical debates on this question, and for our present purposes, I would suggest, it is actually quite unnecessary. It is perfectly possible for us to come up with a working definition of mysticism that is relatively uncontroversial and that is adequate to serve our immediate needs.
Three elements are essential to that definition. (a) The first is that mysticism arises from religious experience, the experience of a transcendent divine presence which stands behind the visible, material world. It is the experience that is important. Mysticism is simply a convenient label by which the phenomenon is known. This transcendent presence will be named and described in various ways in the different concrete traditions (in the great monotheisms it is identified with God). The sense that this presence is there is very widespread in human experience, and is not confined to the conventionally religious. One of the most subtle analyses of this experience remains Rudolf Otto's Idea of the Holy. (b) Second, the mystic, having become aware of a transcendent presence, is filled with a desire for a closer relationship with it. He or she feels acutely a sense of alienation or separation from this ultimate reality. This desire is commonly described in intensely emotional language, such as "longing," or "yearning," or "love." It is sometimes said that the nature of the theological culture to which the mystic belongs will determine exactly how they conceive of this relationship being consummated. In theistic systems, which are conscious of an unbridgeable ontological gap between the Creator and the created, this consummation will be described as communion; in pantheistic systems, it will be described as union. However, in actual fact the language of union in the strictest sense is common also in the theisms. (c) Third, mysticism always demands a via mystica, a way by which the mystic sets out to attempt union/communion with the divine. Praxis lies at the heart of mysticism: without it there is no mysticism in any strict sense of the term, only theosophy, or mystical theology, a point often missed by historians of mysticism. This mystical praxis involves a bewildering variety of ways and means, ranging from the magical and theurgical at one end of the spectrum, with a stress largely on mechanistic practices, to the purely noetic and contemplative at the other, with an emphasis on the exercise of the intellect. There is, however, a broad agreement within the various traditions that there is no instant gratification, no shortcut to the ultimate reality (in this respect drug-induced ecstasy is the antithesis of real mysticism): the via mystica demands perseverance and discipline; it is long and hard, and there are many stages along the way."
If we apply both our indicative and abstract criteria it is not difficult to isolate a corpus of texts at Qumran that seem to point to the existence of mysticism within the Dead Sea sect. These texts fall into two groups. The first consists of descriptions of the heavenly Temple and the angelic liturgies. The most important work here, and indeed the key document of the whole Qumran mystical corpus, is the Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice (4Q400-407; 11Q17; Mas1k). But many of the central themes of the Sabbath Songs are found in other Scrolls as well: 4QBlessings (4Q286-290); 4QWords of the Luminaries (4Q504-506); 4QDaily Prayers (4Q503); 4QApocryphon of Moses`? (4Q408); 4QPseudo-Ezekiel (4Q385); 4QMysteries (4Q301); 4QSongs of the Sage (4Q510-511); 11QMelchizedek (11Q13); the Hodayot (1QHa); the Community Rule (1QS); the Rule of the Congregation (1QSa); the Rule of Blessings (1QSb); and the War Rule (1QM). The second group consists of texts which describe ascents to heaven. The most important work here is the so-called Self-Glorification Hymn (4Q491c; 4Q471b; 4Q427 7 i 6-18; 1QHa 26:6-14),'5 in which someone, apparently within the community (possibly the Maskil), boasts of having ascended to heaven, and exhorts his congregation to join with the angels in the performance of the celestial liturgy. The inspiration for this ascent appears to lie in ascents performed by great heroes in the past, notably Enoch and Levi; so the Qumran accounts of these can also be added to the mystical corpus (for Enoch, see 4Q202 6:1-4; 4Q204 6:1-30; cf. 1 En. 14:8-23; and for Levi, 4Q213a 1 ii 15-18; 4Q213b 1-6; cf. Cairo Testament of Levi, Bodleian col. a 11-13; T. Levi 2:5-5:7; 8:1-19).16 The range of texts is impressive: it includes both sectarian and nonsectarian compositions, from almost every stage of the Qumran community's history. The ideas with which we are dealing here were clearly widespread and deeply ingrained in the community's belief and practice.
The Nature of the Unio Mystica at Qumran
If we try to read these texts from the standpoint of mysticism, what emerges? The transcendent reality towards which Qumran mysticism is directed is, not surprisingly, identified as the God of Israel, but the closest relationship to God which the texts envisage the mystic attaining is that enjoyed by the angels in heaven, who perpetually offer to him worship and adoration in the celestial Temple. In terms of mysticism the descriptions of the celestial Temple and the angelic liturgies function as metaphors for the supreme relationship to God which humans can achieve. The Qumran mystics long to join the angels in their liturgy, to form with them one worshipping community (yahad). The following are three of the many passages where this thought is expressed or implied:
(a) 1QHa 11:22-24: "The depraved spirit you have purified from great offence so that he can take up a position with the host of the holy ones, and can enter into union with the congregation of the sons of heaven. You cast eternal destiny for man with the spirits of knowledge, so that he praises your name in the community of jubilation."
(b) 1QHa 19:13-17: "For the sake of your glory, you have purified man from offence, so that he can make himself holy for you from every impure abomination and guilt of unfaithfulness, to be in union wi[th] the sons of your truth in the lot of your holy ones, to raise the worms of the dead from the dust, to an everlasting community, and from a depraved spirit, to knowledge (WD) [of you], so that he can take up a position in your presence with the perpetual host and the spirits [...], to renew him with everything that exists, and with those who know (127r), in a community of jubilation
(c) 4Q427 7 i 13-18: The speaker in the Self-Glorification Hymn (possibly the Maskil) exhorts his community: "Make melody, beloved ones, sing to the King of [glory, rejoice in the assembly of God, exult in the tent of salvation, praise in the [holy] residence, [e]xalt together (In") in the eternal host, ascribe greatness to our God and glory to our King; [sanc]tify his name with strong lips and powerful tongue, raise your voices in unison [at alit times, cause the shout to be heard, rejoice with everlasting happiness, and unceasingly bow down in the united assembly.
The constant reappearance of the term yahad in this context is striking. It points to reflection and theorizing about the nature of the experience involved. The mystics strive for yihud ("union") with a transcendent reality; in this case, however, the union is not with God, but with the angels who worship God in purity and perfection. From a comparative perspective this is highly suggestive. The yihud with the angels cannot be an end in itself. The human mystic desires this union only so that he can enjoy the same close and privileged relationship to God that the angels enjoy. The angels represent the ultimate perfection in nearness to God. Union with the angels is the mystic's way of achieving the supreme communion with God. The implication of this is clear. There is no absorption into God in Qumran mysticism: the gulf between the Creator and his creatures is not crossed. A superficial reading of the texts might suggest that there is a constant blurring of the boundaries between God and the highest angels. For example, one of the ubiquitous titles of the angels is "Gods" ('Elohim), but closer analysis shows that there is no real confusion in the minds of the writers. They explicitly stress that the angels are God's creatures, and they are constantly shown in a relationship of worship, adoration and total submission to God the King (4Q402 4 12; Mas1k 1:2; 4Q403 1 i 35; 4Q402 3 ii 12; 11Q17 19-20 6-7; Mas1k 1:9). What the angels know they know only because God graciously grants them illumination. Thinking of this relationship in ontological terms did not come as readily to the Qumran writers as it would to us, or, possibly, to the ancient Greek philosophers, but they make it perfectly clear that they hold to an absolute qualitative difference between God and the angels, a difference that cannot under any circumstances be erased. Indeed it is arguable that it is because they espouse this view so completely that they sense no problem in speaking of angels as "Gods." It would never have crossed their minds that anyone could have been misled by such language, which in any case has an exegetical basis (see, e.g., Ps 82:1), into blurring the distinction between the Creator and his creatures.
This qualitative difference comes out in the reluctance of the texts to describe God. In Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice much time is spent envisioning in the most vivid and concrete terms the angels and the celestial Temple, but the climactic vision of the King on his throne seems to have been extremely brief. The passage is missing from the surviving manuscripts, but reconstruction suggests that it cannot have been long, and may have contained no more than a fleeting reference to "the Great Glory," as in 1 En. 14:20 and T. Levi 5:1.18 This refusal to dwell on the appearance of God is certainly deliberate: the ultimate mystery is beyond words; the adoration of the highest angels takes place in silence (4Q405 20 ii to 21-22 8, 12). The Songs seem to have concluded with a description, not of God but of the robes of the celestial high priests (11Q17 21-22 6-9; 4Q405 23 ii 1-11). A strategy of displacement or substitution may be involved here. If the supreme mystery is ineffable, then it is hard to focus on it: the mind finds it difficult to dwell on a void. Instead it is directed to an enumeration of the garments and accoutrements of the beings closest to the supreme mystery, the heavenly high priests. From a contemplative point of view this description may have functioned like the enumeration of the limbs of God in the later Shi`ur Qomah, as a way of holding the mind at the climax of the ecstasy. This would be particularly appropriate if the high priestly garments were seen as containing symbols of the ultimate mystery!'
It is probable that the yihud with the angels involves some sort of transformation, but the nature of this transformation is unclear because the anthropology that lies behind it is not fully spelled out. The texts presuppose that humans possess both a material body and a spirit. It is very tempting to read this on the analogy of later gnostic and neoplatonic thinking as implying that the ascent involves the pure spirit escaping from the shackles of the evil body into an immaterial world. But such a starkly dualist interpretation should probably be resisted as not doing justice to the subtlety of the texts. It is true that the material body is spoken of in derogatory language as "formed from the dust" (1QHa 11:22); as "dust" and "worms of the dead" (1QHa 19:15); as "the assembly of unfaithful flesh" and "the assembly of worms" (1QS 11:9-10); as "a creature of clay" (1QHa 11:24-25); but the spirit is also spoken of negatively as "depraved" and "sinful" (1QHa 11:22; 19:15; 1QS 11:9). The language of "raising" and "transformation" and "purification" (1QHa 11:22; 19:13-17) seems to be applied to both. The texts are filled with a sense of unworthiness, of the continuing burden imposed upon the mystic by the world, the flesh and the devil. The final transformation will only be achieved at the eschaton, but it clearly can be anticipated in moments of ecstasy now. The final transformation seems to envisage transformed humanity as still embodied, though the eschatological body will be purified and no longer, presumably, subject to the ills which our bodies suffer now, and will no longer act as a drag on our union with the spiritual world (see, e.g., 1QSb 3:25-26; 4:24-26; 1QM 12:1-2, 7-9). Though we share the element of "spirit" with the angels, they at the eschaton will remain pure spirits, while we will remain embodied spirits. Angels and humans will, therefore, still constitute two distinct orders in the hierarchy of being. If this is the case, then we should be somewhat careful how we apply to Qumran mysticism the later Christian concepts of angelification or theosis. The yihud with the angels involves sharing in their closeness to God, but it does not necessarily involve the obliteration of the ontological distinction between angels and humanity.
The most pervasive term in our texts that seems to describe the condition resulting from the union with the angels is "knowledge" (da' at). The angels are constantly designated as "spirits of knowledge" (ruhot da'at: 1QHa 11:23-24), "those who know" (yode`im: 1QHa 7:17; 19:17), and the like, and the union of the mystic with the angels means participation in their "knowledge." But what is the object of this knowledge? It is tempting to jump to the conclusion that this must be God, but that would probably be a mistake. Nowhere is God specified as the object of this knowledge; and, if we are correct in arguing that the Qumran mystics regarded God as ultimately ineffable, then it is highly unlikely that he would be that object. The problem is not solved by noting that the Hebrew verb yada' does not have the same exclusively intellectual focus as its Greek counterpart , but can also be used to cover more personal interrelationships. The fact is, the word does seem to be used in our texts in an intellectual sense. The knowledge referred to appears to be knowledge of the ultimate purposes of God and of one's part in them, of what 1Q27 (Mysteries) 1 i 3 calls the raz nihyeh, "the mystery that is coming to pass." It is knowledge of personal election, of being predestined to stand among God's holy ones before his face.22 Da'at is, therefore, somewhat analogous to the gnostic concept of gnosis, which denotes not knowledge of God in himself, but of the true nature of the world and of one's place in it, and of one's destiny to return to the world of the pleroma. The Qumranic vision of heaven as a place of "knowledge" implies, as in Gnosticism, the converse idea that this world, or this age, is characterised by ignorance or lack of knowledge.
I am not sure that in Mystical Texts I have done justice to the nuances of the language on this point, and I may have spoken too simplistically of transformation into angels (see especially pp. 107-8).
HALOT (2001) 1:390-92; and TDOT 5:448-81. It would be a mistake, however, to restrict the Greek to purely intellectual forms of knowing. Its range is actually very similar to yada'.
It is possible that binah was used for knowledge of God: see 4Q400 1 i 6; 4Q405 23 ii 13; 1QHa 19:15.
How was the union with the angels attained at Qumran? The Qumran mystical texts have little to say on the surface about mystical praxis. This is not as surprising as might at first sight appear because the primary mechanism of the ascent seems to have been quite simply incantation—the recitation of texts. We have the texts, but as with other ancient prayers and liturgies few rubrics survive to explain how they should be performed. Information on this was held in the collective memory of the worshipping community and passed on orally. The key text is the Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice. The communal chanting of these numinous hymns on successive Sabbaths was apparently deemed sufficient to carry the earthly worshippers up to the courts of the celestial Temple, through the nave and into the sanctuary, and to set them before the throne of God. Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice implies a communal "ascent." The community on earth aligns its worship with the worship of the angels in heaven. In solemn, highly charged, rhythmic and repetitive speech it pictures to itself the angels performing the celestial liturgy, and finds itself transported into heaven to join them. The Songs, as has often been noted, are descriptive, but it is a fundamental mistake to see them as purely literary. Unlike the similar descriptions of the heavenly world in apocalyptic, they are liturgical. That is to say they are meant to be performed, and it is this performance that makes them active and transformative. Through communal chanting the descriptions are appropriated and internalized, engendering an altered state of consciousness in which the worshippers on earth feel they have become one with the angels in heaven. The Qumran community was logocentric, and had a strong belief in the power of speech. For them speech was highly performative: note their frequent use of blessing and cursing. There is surely no problem in accepting that in such a community a suitable text in the right setting would on its own have been sufficient to induce such powerful effects.
Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice implies a communal ascent: if one makes the ascent then one does so in a group. Group dynamics could, of course, make it easier to alter individual states of consciousness. The Self-Glorification Hymn, however, seems to imply that some individuals within the community, like Enoch and Levi and other great spiritual heroes of the past, had made the ascent on their own. Such individual ascent was probably the exception, rather than the rule; and, as I have suggested, the subject of the Self-Glorification Hymn is not just anyone, but the Maskil. Individual ascent could only be achieved by exceptional people. It is very tempting to integrate the Self-Glorification Hymn with the Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice. It is reasonable to assume that the liturgy of the Songs would have been led by the Maskil, and his leadership would be all the more meaningful, and persuasive, if he himself had already made the ascent: he would then be supremely qualified to act as a mystagogue to bring his congregation into the heavenly courts. Indeed it would be easy to see the Self-Glorification Hymn as a sort of introit to the Sabbath Songs in which the Maskil, having recited his credentials to lead the congregation, then exhorts them to follow his example of uniting with the angels in their worship of God.
The texts do not employ the language of "ascent," but this is probably less significant than some have supposed. I use ascent here in connection with the mystical yihud at Qumran as a useful shorthand. I am fully aware that the term does not actually occur. From a mystical perspective this is not really an issue, for although the tradition often speaks of the unio mystica in terms of ascent, such language is by no means universal, and where it does occur it is always metaphorical. It does not imply a crude, spatial "up" and "down." See further Alexander, Mystical Texts, 118-19.
Qumran and the Genealogy of Western Mysticism
If there was genuine mysticism in the Qumran community in the late Second Temple period, what significance, if any, does this have for the history of western mysticism? First, let us consider the question from the standpoint of Jewish mysticism. The importance here is at once obvious. It means that we can antedate the origins of Jewish mysticism by around three hundred years.
There seems to be a growing tendency to go back to a late dating for the Hekhalot literature: see, e.g., R. S. Boustan, From Martyr to Mystic: Rabbinic Martyrology and the Making of Merkavah Mysticism (TSAJ 112; Tubingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2005). A late amoraic or even early gaonic dating for the treatises as we now have them is perfectly possible (long ago I argued this strongly for 3 Enoch), but it would be a mistake to swing all the way back to Graetz's view that the ideas contained in these texts only arose in the early Middle Ages. Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice proves conclusively that they did not.
Scholem, as I remarked earlier, initially took some notice of the Qumran evidence, and even of the Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice, but he effectively ignored it when shaping his great paradigm of Jewish mysticism—and with some reason, because arguably it severely challenges his views. For Scholem, mysticism within Judaism stands in dialectical tension with halakhah; it was partly for this reason that he traced the origins of Jewish mysticism back to around 200 CE, when, he believed, the earliest forms of the Hekhalot tradition emerged. The date is highly significant: it corresponds, of course, to the publication of the Mishnah. Mysticism, for Scholem, emerged as a kind of protest against the rigidities imposed by halakhic Judaism. But what if, in fact, Jewish mysticism originated three hundred years earlier, and not, as Scholem maintained, in a rabbinic milieu? The short answer might seem to be that the dialectical tension which Scholem posited between law and mysticism can still apply, except that we move the "mystical revolt" back to Second Temple times; but this answer is not as easy as it first seems. We actually know very little about Jewish law in the Second Temple period, and whether or not there was anything equivalent then to rabbinic halakhah, with which specifically Scholem set up the tension, remains a moot point. Unease about ma` aseh merkabah is clearly expressed in rabbinic halakhic texts, but is hard to document in Second Temple legal literature. Moreover, a whole new way of construing the tension emerges, which does not depend on the highly dubious essentialising of a fundamental opposition between "Law" and "Mysticism.""
It seems eminently reasonable to postulate with Johann Maier" that the Qumranic type of Jewish mysticism did not actually originate at Qumran, but in priestly circles in Jerusalem. It was part of a movement in late Second Temple Judaism to "spiritualize" the cult by seeing it as efficacious, not in and of itself, but as a sacramental reenactment of the celestial liturgy performed by the angels. That doctrine, of course, would have been particularly relevant at Qumran: having cut themselves off from the Jerusalem cult, on the grounds that it was hopelessly flawed and corrupt, they were thus not totally bereft of a Temple. They could still join the angels in the heavenly sanctuary. But the doctrine itself did not evolve at Qumran specifically to meet the liturgical needs of a community with no earthly Temple. The Qumranites adapted it for that purpose. In other words this form of mysticism in Judaism was an invention of Temple-based priests.
This tradition must have been carried forward by priests in the post-70 period. There has been a great deal of discussion in recent years as to what happened to the priests after 70. The view that as a class they probably maintained some coherence for centuries after the destruction of the Temple, and passed on their distinctive traditions, has much to commend it.27 Their power base within the community became the synagogue, which does not seem to have been in any sense a rabbinic institution in late antiquity. The priesthood, in various ways, probably continued to contest the rabbis' claims to the leadership of Jewish life right down to the early Middle Ages. The priestly orientation of Qaraite groups, such as the Avelei Tziyyon, and their strong antirabbinism, is very striking." For these priestly circles the doctrine of the celestial Temple and its angelic liturgy could have functioned in much the same way as it functioned for the Qumran community: as, to borrow Carol Newsom's useful phrase, "a virtual Temple." Rabbinic uneasiness about this doctrine could, therefore, be construed as related to the fact that it was priestly; that is to say, that it emanated from a structure of power and personal authority that was not rabbinic. We do not need to postulate, as Scholem did, a kind of dialectical or self-correcting movement within the rabbinic tradition.
When we compare Qumran mysticism with later Hekhalot mysticism, a number of very interesting points emerge. There can be little doubt that these two systems are broadly of the same type: there are too many correspondences in thought and language for this not to be the case. But there are also some striking differences: the theurgy and magic of the Hekhalot literature are much more pronounced. In comparison with Qumran, the Hekhalot texts have a plethora of angelic names (I mean here proper names, not generic names for classes of angels such as 'Elohim and 'Elim). Further, the Qumran texts, as Dale Allison observed, do not actually give us the texts of the hymns and blessings which the angels recite in the celestial sanctuary.
D. C. Allison, "The Silence of the Angels: Reflections on the Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice," RevQ 13 (1988): 189-97. All sorts of suggestions have been made as to why the texts of the angelic songs are missing: they are too holy to record or sing; they are in an unintelligible angelic language; the angelic hymns were recorded in other texts now lost; and so forth. One possibility, that the angels' "singing" is wordless and silent (see above), would have appealed to Dionysius the Areopagite! See P. S. Alexander, "The Qumran Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice and the Celestial Hierarchy of Dionysius the Areopagite: A Comparative Approach," RevQ 22 (2006): 349-72.
But most significant, in my view, is the fact that, read against Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice, an antipriestly tendency emerges in the later Hekhalot texts. This suggests that what we have in our extant Hekhalot literature is a rabbinic reworking of the priestly doctrine. This comes out in the astonishing democratisation of the celestial Temple in the Hekhalot literature. No restrictions in principle seem to be placed on who can enter the celestial Holy of Holies: the vision of the merkabah, the celestial Ark of the Covenant, can be enjoyed, apparently, by anyone who knows how to make the ascent. As Hekhalot Rabbati puts it, knowing the secret of the ascent is like "having a ladder in one's house: one can go up and down it at will" (Hekhalot Rabbati 13:2, Synopse 4199)!
The rabbinic redaction of the priestly doctrine may also have been responsible for introducing into the tradition the so-called Sar Torah motif. This discordant element in the Hekhalot literature has long puzzled scholars. Its generally rabbinic complexion is obvious: instead of ascending to heaven to contemplate the Throne of Glory, the adept conjures down from heaven the angelic guardian of the Torah, who helps him master halakhah and initiates him into the secrets of Torah. This tradition is missing from Qumran, and its absence confirms, as some had already suspected, that it is late. It is part of a rabbinic redaction of the priestly doctrine. Scholem, therefore, may have been right that the Hekhalot texts are rabbinic, at least to the extent that the Hekhalot traditions as we now have them have undergone a rabbinic editing. That alternative forms of the Hekhalot traditions were known in late antique Judaism may be indirectly inferred from Nag Hammadi treatises such as The Hypostasis of the Archons and the Untitled Work on the Origin of the World, which contain some remarkable parallels to Hekhalot literature, but do not seem to presuppose the Hekhalot tradition in precisely the form in which we now have it. The tendency of the rabbis to rabbinize early Jewish traditions which they found problematic is well-documented. It is manifested, for example, in their handling of messianism, magic, and certain types of divination such as dream interpretation: A similar strategy could, I would suggest, have been applied to priestly mysticism.
There is one other point at issue in the study of Hekhalot mysticism to which the Scrolls make a contribution. Scholem revolutionized the study of the Hekhalot literature by rejecting Graetz's gaonic dating and carrying it back, in part, to the tannaitic era. This meant that the growth of Hekhalot literature overlapped with that of the Talmud; it was, therefore, logical to look to this literature to fill out the merkabah teachings alluded to in the Mishnah, the Tosefta, the Yerushalmi and the Bavli. Urbach, in a famous essay, challenged this view: he argued that the Hekhalot literature is indeed post-Talmudic, and originated in attempts by post-Talmudic scholars to make sense of the cryptic references in the Talmud. David Halperin developed the argument further in his doctoral dissertation." This position is not only intrinsically problematic, since it seems to demand an implausibly absolute caesura in the tradition, but also, in my view, decisively disproved by the Qumran evidence, which shows that the central tenets of Hekhalot mysticism were known much earlier. Scholem was right to carry the tradition back: the problem was that he did not go back far enough.
I would suggest, then, that when the Qumran evidence is integrated into the history of Jewish mysticism it forces a major revision of the Scholemian paradigm. But I would go further. There are good grounds for arguing that the Qumranic type of mysticism belongs not only to the genealogy of Jewish mysticism, but to that of Christian mysticism as well. The standard histories of early Christian mysticism say little about any Jewish background. In his influential monograph, The Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition, Andrew Louth, undeniably a leading authority on the subject, nowhere seems to mention Judaism. To be sure, he has a chapter on Philo, but Philo gets into the act as a Middle Platonist. not as a Jew!" Bernard McGinn in his magisterial history of Christian mysticism protests about this, and significantly has an opening chapter entitled "The Jewish Matrix," but there he deals largely with Second Temple period Jewish apocalyptic." He misses the crucial significance of Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice.
The fact is, however, that the old Jewish priestly doctrine of the celestial liturgy, which we have discovered flourishing already in the Second Temple period, was taken up in Christian tradition, and there contributed powerfully to the development of an influential angelikos bios strand of Christian mysticism. The doctrine seems to have entered Christianity at its very inception. This is shown by the polemical use of it in Hebrews 8 and 9, and by the throne vision in Revelation 4-5, which lights up when we read it intertextually specifically with Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice Some New Testament scholars have argued that in the phrase Col 2:18 the genitive should be construed as subjective rather than objective. In other words the reference is not to humans worshipping angels, but to the worship which the angels offer to God." And a case has been made that the verb there alludes to entry into the celestial Temple." In other words, the old Jewish priestly doctrine of the angelic liturgies had already passed into Christianity in the first century.
Over the next few centuries this doctrine served a number of purposes. The angels became the exemplars of the way of life to which the Christian mystic should aspire: their constant praise of God, their asceticism and celibacy (Matt 22:20, "neither marrying nor giving in marriage"), their closeness to God, represented the redeemed state into which righteous humans would be transformed at the eschaton, but which they could anticipate in moments of ecstasy even now." There is constant reference in early Christian texts to individuals or congregations of worshippers on earth joining the angels in heaven in the worship of God—just as at Qumran. We find the idea used polemically in an interesting way. Early Christians deployed the doctrine of the celestial Temple to delegitimize the terrestrial cult, by arguing that, if one could enter the true Temple in heaven, why bother with its pale shadow on earth? This argument would not have been countenanced for one moment by Second Temple Jewish priests, who saw the idea, rather, as validating the terrestrial cult in terms of an imitatio angelorum. However, later in the history of the Church when the notion of a separate, ordained "Levitical" priesthood came to the fore, the concept of the celestial liturgy was once again invoked to justify it. It may have been at this time that the Sanctus was introduced into the Eucharist. But this clerical argument was, intriguingly, turned on its head by reviving once again the early Christian anti-Jewish use of the doctrine: why, protested the monks and solitaries, should we have to go to Church to receive the sacrament from ordained priests, when we can commune with the angels in our monasteries and cells in the desert!
This early Christian angelic mysticism was gathered up, in many ways, and powerfully unified in the Angelic Hierarchy of Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite—one of the pivotal works of Christian mysticism. Because of his pseudepigraphic stance Denys is very careful to conceal his indebtedness to writers who lived after the first century CE. However, his dependence on Neoplatonism, and perhaps specifically on Proclus, is clear, and antecedents to his doctrine of the celestial hierarchy in patristic thought have long been recognized. For important antecedents in Cyril of Jerusalem, John Chrysostom, and Gregory of Nyssa, see Louth, Denys the Areopagite, 36-37.
What he might ultimately have owed to Jewish sources has not been properly considered; but the hypothesis that in his Angelic Hierarchy he Neoplatonized an angelikos bios tradition which early Christianity inherited from Judaism, in much the same way as Philo Middle-Platonized preexisting Jewish tradition, is surely worth exploring." Denys's mystical theology is notoriously opaque, but it seems perfectly clear that he holds that the contemplation of the angels in their nine orders, grouped into three triads, is an essential stage in the lifting up of the soul to union with God. Denys's near contemporary Gregory the Great had similar thoughts, and in Homily 34 of his Forty Homilies on the Gospels, it is even more clear that the angelic hierarchy represents a "ladder of ascent," stations on the via mystica of the soul's journey into God. Text: Patrologia Latina (ed. J.-P. Migne; 221 vols.; Paris: Garniere, 1844-1864), 76:1246-59; partial English translation in: S. Chase, Angelic Spirituality: Mediaeval Perspectives on the Ways of Angels (Classics of Western Spirituality; New York: Paulist Press, 2002), 95-106.
On the surface, the language of these sixth-century Christian writers is a world away from that of Second Temple Palestinian Judaism, but the underlying ideas I would strongly counsel against essentializing Judaism and Hellenism in this context, or attempting to set Hebraic and Greek modes of thinking in diametrical opposition to one another. Two points should be borne in mind: (1) The Platonic, and especially the late Platonic, interest in daimones makes it actually rather easy to Platonize the old Jewish doctrine of angels. It should be remembered that both the Second Temple period Jewish angels and the Platonic daimones may already have shared a common background in Persian thought. (2) The possibility of Christian, or even Jewish, influence on late Neoplatonism should not be ruled out. The philosophical programme of Neoplatonists like Amelius and Iamblichus was clearly to create a synthesis of Plato and oriental wisdom, as contained in writings such as the Chaldean Oracles. Note how Polymnia Athanassiadi, in passing, describes this process as interpreting Plato along the lines of the Oracles and not vice versa (P. Athanassiadi and M. Frede [eds.], Pagan Monotheism in Late Antiquity [Oxford: Clarendon, 1999], 156)! By the time Denys was writing, late paganism, Christianity, and Judaism had converged remarkably at many points. Anyone reading the following passage without any attribution might be at a loss to decide whether its author was Jewish, Christian or pagan: "This oracle gives knowledge of the three orders of angels: those who perpetually stand before God; those who are separated from him and who are sent forth with a view to certain messages and ministrations; those who perpetually bear his throne ... and perpetually sing." It was, in fact, written by the Neoplatonist Porphyry (Louth, Denys the Areopagite, 37). they expound are demonstrably not so remote from those we find in Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice at Qumran.
For example, Denys's description of God's relationship to the world in terms of "procession" and "return," and his analysis of the act of ascent into the three stages of "purification, illumination and union," have clear Neoplatonic antecedents, but the underlying ideas here surely cannot be claimed as exclusively Neoplatonic. I would suggest that they can be found, dressed up in somewhat different language, in the Sabbath Songs. See Alexander, "The Qumran Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice and the Celestial Hierarchy of Dionysius the Areopagite," for a detailed comparison of the similarities and differences between these two compositions.
Under the constraints of space, this essay has had, perforce, to be programmatic and to summarize complex arguments, which are addressed somewhat more fully in my Mystical Texts, but I hope that, short though it is, I have been able to say enough to make at least a prima facie case that there was indeed mysticism at Qumran, and that the Qumran evidence now needs to be integrated into the history of western mysticism.
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