Saturday, September 13, 2008

Merkabah Mysticism in the First Century

Merkabah mysticism was a Jewish Hellentistic movement that got its name from its concern with visions of the heavenly chariot (מרכבה) that was with God during Ezekiel’s glorious vision (Ezek. 1.4-28). Visions of God’s throne and angelic worship were granted to those who understook rigorous adherence to the Mosaic law with periods of asceticism and purification as a form of preparation for such visions. Although much of this form of Jewish mysticism is known only from later rabbinic sources, I have wondered how much Merkabah mysticism is traceable to the first century. Visions of ascents to heaven were common enough in the first century as a cursory glance of 1 Enoch 14 and 2 Corinthians 12 indicates, but the Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice (4Q405) from Qumran describe the praise of angels in the heavenly sanctuary where the angels are assembled in military formation and provide anthems of divine blessing to God. Reference to the throne-chariots is also made:

The [Cheru]bim fall before Him and bless Him; as they arise, the quiet voice of God [is heard], followed by a tumult of joyous praise. As they unfold their wings, God’s q[uiet] voice is heard again. The Cherubim bless the image of the chariot-throne that appears above the firmament, [then] they joyously acclaim the [splend]or of the luminous firmament that spreads beneath His glorious seat. As the wheel-beings advance, holy angels come and go. Between His chariot-throne’s glorious [w]heels appears something like an uttelry holy spiritual fire. All around are what appear to be streams of fire, resembling electrum, and [sh]ining handiwork comprising wondrous colors embroidered together, pure and glorious. The spirits of the living [go]dlike beings move to and fro perpetually, following the glory of the two [wo]ndrous chariots. A quiet voice of blessing accompanies the tumult of their movement, and they bless the Holy One each time they retrace their steps. When they rise up, they do so wondrously, and when they settle down, they [sta]nd still. the sound of joyous rejoicing falls silent, and the qui[et] blessing of God spreads through all the camps of the divine beigns. The sound of prais[es] ... coming out of each of their divisions on [both] sides, and each of the mustered troops rejoices, one by one in order of rank ... (4Q405 frags. xxi-xxii, 6-14 [trans. Wise, Abegg, & Cook])

For links between Merkabah mysticism and the NT see further, Timo Eskola. Messiah and the Throne: Jewish Merkabah Mysticism and Early Exaltation Discourse. Tubingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2001.


andrewbourne said...

Alan Segal in his Paul the Convert suggests Paul was involved in Merkabah mysticism

jvonehr said...

What do you mean by Jewish "Hellenistic" movement? That this was a phenomenon that originated in the diaspora (i.e. so-called Hellenistic Judaism) over against Palestinian Judaism?

Ian Smith said...

I think there is a whole lot more mystical background in the NT than what we have traditionally seen. In a world that was dominated by cosmic forces - it is not surprising that there should be mention on this.

Do you think there is a link between Merkabah mysticism of the first century and later Gnosticism. I think if we can resolve the former (i.e that Merkabah Mysticism was a force in the first century) then it becomes an obvious antecedent to later Gnosticism.
What are you thinking about the relationship of Merkabah mysticism to Colossians? From your last few entries, you appear to be moving in that direction.

Ian Smith (Sydney)

Michael F. Bird said...

jvonehr: ideas of mystical ascents certainly were known in Palestine hence DSS and Rabbinic Lit. But alot of the development seems to have occured in Greek-speaking circles as well. See F.F. Bruce BSac 1984 on that one.

Ian: I'm cautious about reading MM into the first century, although the basic ingredients of it are there. With Sumney I think maybe Jewish apocalypticism with heavenly ascents might be a better fit. Of course the two overlap on a number of points. On MM and Gnosticism, not sure, I tend to link Gnosticism with hyper-platonism appropriated in a Jewish context that was dealing with theodicy.

Geoff Hudson said...

You've done it again. How do you know 4Q405 "came from Qumran"? What makes you think it didn't come from Jerusalem, the product of the priests? The language is that of war: God on his chariot of fire; angels in military formation or divisions; the tumult of their movement; the mustered troops rejoice - one troop followed by another in order of rank.

Who else but the messianists of the period would have written and preserved such vitriolic stuff? The prophet was not one of them.