from Temples of the Ancient World (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1994) p.440-477.
By William J. Hamblin
When a temple is the center of the spiritual life of a people, what do they do if it is destroyed? Jews and Christians faced this dilemma in A.D. 70 when Titus sacked Jerusalem and destroyed the Second Temple. 1 Thereafter, despite two abortive attempts to rebuild their temple, 2 Jews were left without a central focus for their ritual worship. Indeed, without a temple, they could not fulfill all of the requirements of the Mosaic law of sacrifice. 3 They thus became a people eternally condemned to fail to keep the commandments of God that were connected to the temple.
Three possible solutions developed in response to this intolerable situation. The Pharisees created an ideology focusing on the minute obedience to all of God's nontemple-related commandments as expounded in the Bible, Talmud, and other Rabbinic literature. 4 When God was ready, he would send his Messiah and the temple could be rebuilt. 5 Until then, the Jews had to be content with fulfilling those portions of the law that could be obeyed without a temple. This response became normative for Rabbinic Judaism.
For the Christians, on the other hand, the destruction of the temple at Jerusalem was seen as a fulfillment of Christ's prophecy (found in Matthew 24:1-2 Mark 13:1-2 Luke 21:5-6). With the spread of the authority of the Imperial Church following the conversion of Constantine (A.D. 312), teachings concerning the temple were increasingly allegorized. Inasmuch as Christ's atonement had fulfilled the requirement of Mosaic temple sacrifices, such sacrifices were no longer necessary. 6 Nonetheless, as Hugh Nibley has pointed out, medieval Christians retained an ambivalent attitude toward the Jewish temple, claiming that it was no longer important, but still recognizing its vast spiritual power. 7
Finally, there was a third response, that righteous humans could ascend into heaven and worship at the celestial temple. This paper will focus on the nature of the ascent to the celestial temple in Jewish thought during and after the Second Temple period. 8
The idea of the celestial ascent is one of the most widespread and long-lasting religious concepts in history. 9 Archaic, nonbiblical ascension myths from Mesopotamia and Egypt date back to the early third millennium B.C. 10 Within the Jewish tradition, this idea can be seen in the writings of Isaiah (eighth century B.C.) and Ezekiel (sixth century B.C.). Related and expanded versions of the ascent to the celestial temple are found in pseudepigraphic Enoch materials dating in their current form to at least the second century B.C., Qumran documents (second century B.C. to first century A.D.), Philo (c. 20 B.C. to A.D. 50), 11 and in numerous other Jewish and Christian apocalyptic and pseudepigraphic writings.
I would argue, following James Tabor and others, 12 that the heavenly ascent of the Jewish mystics cannot be under stood in isolation. The parallels between Jewish, early Christian, Hellenistic, Gnostic, and Egyptian ascension texts and rituals are too numerous and exact to be explained by random chance.
Tabor has developed a typology for ascension into heaven in the eastern Mediterranean world during the first centuries before and after Christ. Although there are many variations in detail, there nonetheless emerges a basic common pattern. Most ascension texts include most of the following elements:
1. A mortal is taken up to the highest heaven.
2. The ascent is an extraordinary privilege.
3. The way is fraught with danger and can be successfully undertaken only through divine permission and power.
4. There is great distance between the earthly and heavenly realms, with increasing beauty and splendor (or danger for the uninvited) as one moves up, and an increasing sense of alienation from the world below.
5. The ascent itself is a transforming experience in which the candidate is progressively glorified.
6. The climax of the journey is an encounter with the highest god.
7. One is given secret revelations, or shown mysteries.
8. The ascent is followed by a return to the world below to continue life as a mortal.
9. What is seen and heard can be selectively passed on by the recipient of the celestial ascension.
10. The one who has ascended faces the opposition of lower spiritual powers upon his return. 13
Although many characteristics of the Judeo-Christian ascent literature parallel these broader characteristics of the ancient Near East, there are also other elements unique to the Judeo-Christian versions of the celestial ascent and vision of God. Ithamar Gruenwald, one of the leading figures in the study of these ascension visions, adds six additional specific elements that are characteristic of the celestial vision of God in biblical accounts. 14
1. God is sitting on a throne, often called a merkavah (Eng. "chariot").
2. God possesses anthropomorphic qualities and features.
3. God's throne is in the Holy of Holies in the celestial temple (Heb. hekhal). 15
4. The temple is filled with fire, light, gold, crystal, and gems, symbolizing the brilliant glory of God.
5. God is surrounded by angels who minister to him. (These angels fulfill the role of priests in the heavenly temple, paralleling the Levite priests in the earthly temple.) 16
6. The angels are singing hymns, paralleling the earthly temple hymns, rituals, and liturgies. 17
Thus, for many Jews and Christians in the early Christian period, the heavenly residence of God was conceived of as a vast celestial temple. 18 Martha Himmelfarb, a leading scholar of this subject, informs us that "with thesingle exception of the Testament of Abraham, all the later ascent apocalypses . . . understand heaven as a temple either explicitly or implicitly." 19 Thus, many ascents into heaven contain an important element of the entry into the celestial temple; indeed, in many ways the two are essentially synonymous.
The earthly temple was simply a pale shadow and imitation of the glories of its celestial prototype. 20 Although the earthly temple had been destroyed because of the sins of Israel, the original celestial prototype continued to exist in heaven. Following the example of the ascents and visions of ancient prophets such as Enoch, Abraham, Moses, Isaiah, and Ezekiel, 21 many Jews came to believe that they too could ascend to the celestial temple. If properly prepared, a person could ascend into heaven, visit the celestial temple, perform the proper rituals there, and even enter into the presence of God and receive a revelation of the celestial mysteries. The Jewish practices and literature related to these ideas are known to modern scholars as Merkavah and Hekhalot mysticism.
Gruenwald summarizes the historical origins of the post-Second Temple Jewish ascension literature (first through the seventh centuries A.D.) as follows:
The very rise of Merkavah mysticism was connected with the name of Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai, who was himself an eyewitness to the events that led to the destruction of Jerusalem. Thus, in a sense, the preoccupation with mystical problems could well be interpreted as being one of the ways in which people reacted to the disasters which befell them. When the cultic centre of the nation was no longer available, some people adapted beliefs and cultivated experiences which in some sense could replace experiences which had once been connected with the now destroyed Temple. 22
Merkavah and Hekhalot literature focuses on three fundamental themes: the celestial hekhalot, meaning "temples or palaces"; the divine merkavah, or "chariot/throne" of God; and be-reshit, meaning literally "in the beginning," but referring to esoteric interpretations of the creation. All of these concepts form interrelated parts of the secret revelation obtained during the ascent to the celestial temple.
In a general sense the term hekhal means "palace or mansion," but in its technical usage it refers to the Temple of Solomon. 23 Within the context of the Hekhalot mysticism, it seems best conceived of as a series of concentric courts, palaces, halls, chambers, shrines, or levels of the great celestial temple of God. Generally speaking, God himself dwells within the highest, most sacred, and innermost sanctuary—the Holy of Holies of the celestial temple.
An interesting possible parallel to this concept can be found in the Gospel of John. "In the House of my Father oikia tou patros mou ," Jesus tells us, "there are many dwelling places monai " ( John 14:2 ). 24 The use of the phrase "House of my Father" occurs only twice in John's Gospel: here, referring to heaven, and in John 2:16 which states, "Do not make the House of my Father a house of trade." In John 2:16 the Father's House is clearly the Temple of Jerusalem, which was frequently called the "House of God" or the "House of Yahweh." 25 By extension, then, the use of the phrase "Father's House" in John 14:2 could be seen as describing heaven as a celestial temple. The "many rooms" in God's heavenly temple might therefore refer to the conceptual equivalent of the hekhalot of the celestial temple in the Jewish ascension texts. Indeed, this is precisely how the term was interpreted by some of the earliest Christian exegetes such as Origen, Clement of Alexandria, and Irenaeus. 26 As will be noted later, each of the hekhalot in the ascension texts represents a different degree of glory, increasing as one nears the throne of God in the highest hekhal.
Ezekiel's experience following the destruction of Solomon's temple served as an important prototype for the ascent to the celestial temple of the later Merkavah mystics. Merkavah in Jewish mysticism refers to the celestial chariot of fire that Ezekiel saw in vision (see Ezekiel 1, 10 ). This celestial chariot has two roles in Merkavah mysticism: it can be both the mechanism by which the visionary ascends into heaven (this is based on Elijah's ascent into heaven in a chariot of fire—2 Kings 2:11), and it is the divine throne in the celestial Holy of Holies from which God rules the universe. "The mystical tradition of the Jews during the talmudic period is called Ma'aseh Merkavah the work of the divine chariot and together with the so-called Ma'aseh Bereshit the work of the creation of the world it forms the two branches of the so-called esoteric teachings in Judaism at that period." 27 Ma'aseh be-reshit, the "work of the creation" has reference to a wide range of Jewish esoteric speculations on the meaning of creation and the nature of the universe.
These three aspects of esoteric Jewish speculation—hekhalot/temples, merkavah/chariot-throne, and be-reshit/creation—are closely connected, and can be seen as representing different phases or elements of the celestial ascent. The mystic ascends into heaven by means of the celestial chariot or merkavah. In the heavens, the initiate passes through a series of hekhalot—palaces, temples, or levels—until he enters into the presence of God. God is seated on a throne, which is also described as a merkavah, in the highest level of heaven. There, the mysteries of God are revealed to the visionary, centered around the secrets of Creation, called the ma'aseh be-reshit. These mysteries include cosmogony (the creation of the universe), cosmology (description of the universe), and eschatology (the last days and ultimate destiny of mankind).
What were the actual experiences, if any, behind these ascension texts? There are at least five possible interpretations. First, the Hekhalot visionaries may simply have been charlatans who falsely claimed to ascend into heaven in order to gain power and influence over their followers. Second, accounts of the visions may be allegorical, designed to teach moral principles and spiritual truths along the lines of Dante's Divine Comedy. Third, the visionary experiences may have been a type of ritual initiation where the mysteries of heaven were revealed to the initiate through ritual, drama, or secret teachings. 28 Fourth, the visions may have derived from some type of psychologically altered state of consciousness—trances, dreams, hallucinations, psychosis, hypnosis, or intoxication—which were interpreted by the visionary as representing an actual ascent into heaven. Finally, the visions may represent real experiences of visionaries who did indeed actually ascend into heaven.
The fact that many visionaries may have been charlatans or psychotics does not necessarily imply that all of them were. Some may have seen actual visions of heaven. 29 Others may have used accounts of the experiences of real visionaries as literary motifs. Be that as it may, it is remarkable that nearly all of the visionary ascents to the celestial temple—whether from Jewish, pagan, or Christian sources—exhibit many parallels, indicating that all of these ideas and documents were somehow conceptually and historically linked together. 30
I would now like to present a typology of some of the basic elements of the celestial ascent as found in the Hekhalot, Merkavah, and related ascension literature. 31 This typology draws from a large number of texts that differ in date, author, and place of origin. But whatever differences may be found in detail, Peter Schaffer's synopsis has demonstrated that the parallels between these texts are numerous and often quite exact. 32 Thus, whatever the historical relationships between these texts, it is quite clear that they all shared a related view of the celestial ascent. 33
Initiates into the celestial mysteries had to be of the highest moral and intellectual character, leading sinless lives. 34 The Hekhalot Rabbati tells us that "only those can go down to the vision of the Merkabah who fulfill two qualifications: ‘. . . he who reads the Bible and studies Mishnah, Midrash, Halakhoth, and Aggadoth . . . and he who fulfills all which is written in the Torah and keeps all the prohibitions of statutes and judgments and laws which were declared to Moses on Sinai.'" 35 According to Hekhalot Rabbati 13, the initiate must be "pure of idolatry, sexual offenses, bloodshed, slander, vain oaths, profanation of the Name of God , impertinence, and unjustified enmity, and who keeps every positive and negative commandment." 36 Thus, intellectual maturity, knowledge of scripture, and personal righteousness were the major qualifying factors for those wishing to be initiated into the ritual ascent into heaven.
Candidates possessing these moral characteristics were often required to further prepare for their ascent through fasting and ritual purifications. 37 "Even the slightest possible suspicion of impurity, defined according to the strictest rabbinic law, is enough to have the ecstatic dismissed from before the celestial throne of God ." 38
As will be discussed below, a major purpose of the ascent was to gain a revelation of the celestial mysteries. Because of the extreme importance of this revelation, both the mechanism of the ascent, and the teachings and revela tions learned during the ascent were kept strictly secret. 39 This information was generally transmitted only orally, and then to no more than three students at a time. 40 Indeed, "the Mishnah . . . forbids the study of the Ma'aseh Merkavah in public." 41 As with other mystery religions found in the classical Mediterranean world, 42 the secrets of the Jewish and Christian celestial mysteries were well kept, making it often difficult to know exactly what the texts are discussing. It was usually assumed that the student would have a teacher present to explain the obscure meaning of the texts. This makes it "very difficult to guess what the Merkavah speculations of the circle of Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai one of the founders of Merkavah mysticism were like." 43
According to the most important Hekhalot document, the Hekhalot Rabbati, an important mechanism for making the ascent into heaven was trances, which were taught and practiced at the earthly temple in Jerusalem. The document tells us that "R. Nehunya ordered an assembly of all the leading scholars, that he might declare to them the secrets of the ascent. R. Ishmael assembled every Sanhedrin council , great or small, at the third gate of the temple and R. Nehunya sat and instructed the chosen few who sat before him, while the rest of the scholars stood at a distance separated from them by globes of fire and torches of light." 44 Thereafter Rabbi Nehunya entered into a trance, describing his visionary ascent to his followers.
The actual process of the ascent into heaven is described in a number of different ways. 45 Some climb ladders or stairways into heaven (based on Jacob's vision at Beth-el near Beer-sheba of a ladder or stairway into heaven—Genesis 28:10-22). For others a great wind carries them away; for instance, a whirlwind is mentioned in the ascent of Elijah (see 2 Kings 2:11 ). Some are enveloped by a cloud; 46 while others are carried to heaven by a bird. 47 The ascent into heaven is frequently associated with the ascent of a sacred mountain. 48 For instance, on Mount Sinai Moses sees God (see Exodus 24:9-11 33:11, 20-23), receives the law (see Exodus 20-23 ), and has a vision of the heavenly tabernacle/
temple (see Exodus 25:9 , 40; 26:30; 27:8). Abraham is said to have ascended Mount Horeb to offer sacrifice preliminary to his ascent into Heaven. 49 The transfiguration of Christ also occurs on a "high mountain" ( Matthew 17:1-2 Mark 9:2 Luke 9:28 ). At the top of the mountain might be a temple, 50 throne, a paradisiacal garden, 51 or the Tree of Life 52 .
Based on the stories of Elijah and Ezekiel in the Bible (for Elijah, see 2 Kings 2:11 forEzekiel see Ezekiel 1, 10 cf. Psalm 104:3 Isaiah 66:15 Jeremiah 4:13 ), ascension into heaven by means of a celestial chariot became a common metaphor. Indeed, in Jewish mystical circles the phrase "entering or descending into the chariot" ultimately became synonymous with ascending into heaven. Jewish ascension mysticism as a whole became known as ma'aseh merkavah, meaning "the work of the celestial chariot."
By whatever mechanism our initiate entered into the celestial realm, he usually passed through a number of different "heavens," often called hekhalot in the Jewish ascension literature. 53 The exact number of heavens differs in the texts, varying from one to ten. 54 However, there are generally seven heavens, each associated with one of the seven moving celestial bodies seen in the visible sky. 55
It is worth noting that in ascension literature heaven is not the equivalent of "paradise." Rather, the celestial par adise is simply one place or hekhal within the various levels of the celestial realm. Paradise, as a specific location within the celestial realm, is most frequently located in the third heaven. 56 The highest heaven, or "heaven of heavens"—the conceptual equivalent of the Holy of Holies in the earthly temple—is where God resides on his throne. 57
The nearly universal belief that there were multiple heavens concentrically surrounding the celestial Holy of Holies and throne of God was naturally linked to a belief in gradations of glory in each level or hekhal. The higher the heaven and the closer to the residence of God, the greater the glory. 58 Each of the levels or hekhalot of Heaven were inhabited by angels possessing different degrees of glory. 59 Some of the earliest Christian fathers saw this as reflecting the degrees of glory for the righteous dead. 60
These heavens are inhabited by both the righteous dead and by endless concourses of angels who are sometimes called the "holy sons of God." 61 It is a common notion that these heavenly angels are constantly singing praises to God. This is not just pleasant music making, however. The angels are in fact performing the celestial prototype of the earthly temple liturgy, as partially preserved in the book of Psalms in the Bible. According to Himmelfarb, "certain liturgical formulae taken from the earthly temple service were introduced into these doxologies of the angels in heaven ." 62
The angels are the priests of the celestial temple. 63 Since the visionary is permitted, and even required, to participate in the singing of this celestial liturgy to God, there is a strong implication that the visionary is also given some type of priesthood authority as part of his heavenly ascent. 64 Indeed, in the Testament of Levi, Levi is given his priesthood during his ascent to the heavenly temple. 65 This authority—the Levitical or Aaronic priesthood—is then eventually passed to Levi's descendants, who form the exclusive Jewish temple priesthood for the earthly temple.
As noted above, the heavens were conceived of as a vast palatial temple-complex, composed of a series of concentric courts, halls, chambers, and shrines. The heavens are enclosed by "a wall which was built of white marble (or crystal) and surrounded by tongues of fire." 66 To move between the various sections or hekhalot of the celestial temple, the visionary initiate must pass through a series of doors or gates, each guarded by angels. 67
As the visionary ascends into heaven, he is often paralyzed with terror and confusion. 68 He is able to progress from level to level only through the assistance of angelic guides who protect the visitor and explain what he is seeing. 69 The assistance of the angels is not guaranteed, however. Some of the angels encountered in the ascent to the celestial temple oppose the admission of a mortal into the heavenly sanctuary. 70 They will allow the visionary to pass only if he knows the proper passwords—often secret names of the angels 71 —and has the proper tokens or seals. "All the different versions of the Hekhaloth lay great emphasis upon the knowledge of various seals (khotemoth) described as magical names either of the angels or of aspects of the godhead, that must be shown as passports to the gate-keepers at the entrances to the seven palaces." 72 In summary, the visionary can enter into the celestial temple only if he has authorization from an archangel or God himself.
The dangers for the unworthy in the celestial ascent are well illustrated by the famous Rabbinic story of the "four who entered paradise." 73
Four men entered a garden (pardes = paradise) . Ben Azzai, Ben Zoma, Aher and R. Akiba. One looked and died; One looked and was struck mad ; One looked and cut the plants. One went up in peace and came down in peace. Ben Azzai looked and died. . . . Ben Zoma looked and was stuck mad . . . . Elisha Aher looked and cut the plants. . . . R. Akiba went up in peace and came down in peace. The TB version adds: The ministering angels attempted to push R. Akiba away also. The Holy One, blessed be He, said to them, Leave this elder alone, for he is worthy to avail himself of my glory. 74
This cautionary tale demonstrates the dangers for the unprepared or unworthy who attempt the celestial ascent.
As the visionary approaches closer to the celestial Holy of Holies and the throne of God, he undergoes a process of ritual initiation and transformation into a being of celestial glory, becoming a member of the heavenly angelic host. Since the angels are frequently described as forming the celestial temple priesthood, initiation into their ranks is closely connected with the reception of priesthood authority, authorizing the visionary to participate in the celestial liturgy and sacrifices. Two main elements are involved in this transformation: anointing and receiving a celestial robe or garment.
Purification and anointing are the preliminary parts of the initiation. For example, during the ascension of Enoch—a fundamental prototype of all later Hekhalot visionaries—God said to his angels, "extract Enoch from his earthly clothing, and anoint him with my delightful oil, and put him into the clothes of my glory." 75 This passage indicates that before entering the celestial temple, the initiate is required to shed his earthly clothes and don celestial robes. 76 These robes are similar to those worn by the angels and God himself. 77 Morton Smith has argued convincingly that the donning of such new garments is symbolic of ritual initiation throughout the Ancient Near East. 78
Likewise, Isaiah is allowed to enter into the presence of God in the innermost sanctuary of the seventh Heaven only because he has the proper celestial robe or garment: "The Holy Isaiah is permitted to come up here to the throne of God , for his robe is here." 79
Gruenwald believes there are two types of celestial garments. There "are the white garments of the righteous . . . which are eschatological garments; but we do have another type of heavenly garments: . . . mystical garments. These garments most likely are to protect the mystical visionary from all kinds of dangers during the ascent ." 80 This suggests that there may have been an actual physical garment that the visionaries wore as part of their ascension rituals, as well as a celestial garment reserved for the righteous in heaven. This interpretation is partially confirmed by the story of Rabbi Yohanan b. Zakkai wrapping himself in his tallith garment when studying the mysteries of the chariot, 81 and by the robe used when Christ taught an unnamed initiate the "Mysteries of the Kingdom" according to the Secret Gospel of Mark. 82
The need for secrecy concerning the celestial ascent is in part because a key concept of the celestial mystery is the revelation of the most secret and sacred names of God and the angels. 83 Pronouncing the tetragrammaton Yod-He-Waw-He (often vocalized today as Yahweh or Jehovah) was restricted to the High Priest in the Holy of Holies in the earthly temple on Yom Kippur, the most sacred day of the Jewish year. 84 "The secret name, or names, of God played a great role in some of the ancient Jewish concepts of creation," which "might be connected with certain speculations concerning the uttering of the tetragrammaton during the earthly temple service." 85 Likewise, the rituals and mysteries of the celestial temple are closely associated with the knowledge of the tetragrammaton. Since the visionary often learned the secrets of the Holy Name, which could be pronounced only by the High Priest, the celestial ascent seems to imply an initiation into the highest Israelite priesthood.
The ritual use of names is widespread in the celestial ascent. When Abraham is called to ascend into heaven, God sends to him the angel Yahweh-el (Iaoel) "through the mediation of my God's ineffable name." 86 Likewise, Rashi's commentary on the famous ascent of the four Rabbis into paradise 87 claims that "they ascended to heaven by means of a Name." 88 Those who misuse their knowledge of these sacred names receive eternal condemnation. 89 Thus, the sacred names of the angels and God are to be kept secret and only revealed to those who are worthy to ascend to the celestial temple. 90
As the visionary approaches the inner sections of the celestial temple, he frequently passes by the celestial altar, where one of the leading angels—often Michael or Metatron—is offering the daily sacrifices in heaven paralleling the daily sacrifices in the earthly temple. 91
Paralleling the curtain or veil in front of the Ark of the Covenant in the Holy of Holies of the earthly temple (described in Exodus 26:31-33 30:6; Numbers 18:7 Leviticus 16:2 2 Chronicles 3:14 Matthew 27:51 Mark 15:38 Luke 23:45 ) 92 is a veil or curtain (Heb. pargod) separating the throne of God in the Holy of Holies of the celestial temple from the rest of heaven. 93 Whereas most of the angels are not allowed to pass through the veil and view the face of God, 94 some visionary initiates, such as Enoch, who "enjoys a qualitative superiority over the angels," are permitted to do so. 95
Having learned the secret names of God and the angels and having been purified, anointed, and clothed in a celestial robe, the initiate is now prepared for the ultimate goal of his ascent to the celestial temple—the vision and revelation of God. He is introduced into the celestial Holy of Holies 96 by one of the archangels, who sometimes takes him by the right hand, and guides him into God's presence. 97 Metatron/Enoch shows R. Ismael "the Right Hand of MAQOM the Omnipresent One , laid behind (Him) because of the destruction of the Holy Temple. . . . And I Ismael went by his side and he took me by his hand and showed me (the Right Hand of MAQOM)." 98 Likewise, Enoch claims that "Michael, one of the archangels, seizing me by my right hand and lifting me up, led me out into all the secrets of mercy." 99
Having passed through the veil, the visionary is now allowed to see God seated upon his throne in the innermost Holy of Holies of the celestial temple. 100 The throne is frequently described as being made of crystal, 101 having wheels, and being surrounded by cherubim and other hayyot—strange celestial creatures such as those found in the books of Ezekiel and Revelation (see Ezekiel 1 10; Revelation 4-5 ). Descriptions of the celestial throne in the Hekhalot literature are frequently dependent upon Ezekiel's vision of the merkavah, the chariot-throne of God (see Ezekiel 1:16 10). 102
One of the fundamental purposes of the ascent to the heavenly temple is to learn the secret mysteries of God. These mysteries are described by the Rabbis as "what is above the earth , what is beneath the earth , what was before time, and what will be hereafter." 103 The mysteries that are revealed center on the mystery of the creation of the universe (cosmogony), the nature of the universe (cosmography), and the ultimate destiny of mankind (eschatology). "Where a revelation of the ways of God with man is given," Gruenwald informs us, "it is simultaneous with a revelation of the secrets of nature." 104
According to the Hekhalot Rabbati, creation was brought about by a "wondrous and strange and great secret; the name through which the heaven and the earth were created, and all the orders of creation of the world (sedrei bereshit) . . . were sealed by it." 105 All creation is also bound together by an great cosmic oath formulated at the foundation of the world. 106
When these mysteries are revealed to the visionary, he is frequently ordered to write and preserve the secrets. "The secrets of God had been disclosed to the legendary sages of antiquity such as Enoch who in turn put them into books which were sealed away, and in that condition they were preserved till the eschatological time came to open them." 107
The mysteries of heaven are not revealed to the visionary merely to satisfy his idle curiosity. Rather, "apocalyptic revelation is one of the first, and necessary, stages in the process of salvation." 108 The secret knowledge revealed to humans during their ascent to the celestial temple is fundamental to their salvation. 109 An intregal part of the knowledge learned through the celestial mysteries was often a revelation of the correct principles of scriptural interpretation. "They the sectaries at Qumran claimed that among the revelations given them were the correct explications of Scripture. Some of their writings in fact were eschatological commentaries to Scripture, and in them they believed to have uncovered the exclusive inner meaning and terms of reference of the biblical text." 110
The importance of maintaining the secrecy of the revelations received in the celestial ascent is reflected in the legends concerning the unauthorized revelation of celestial secrets by the rebellious angels. 111 Rebellious angels were said to have overheard some of the celestial mysteries, and thereafter they taught mankind the secrets of heaven, which were passed down to wizards and magicians in an apostate version of the authentic revelations from God. 112 Thus, occult sciences such as astrology and magic, as well as many elements of pagan mystery religions and philosophy, were often seen as unauthorized forms of the true celestial mysteries. 113
The culminating event of the celestial ascent is the exaltation of the visionary. The vision of God and the revela-tion of the mysteries of heaven are frequently equated with the glorification and exaltation of the visionary. The visionary is clothed in the "clothes of God's glory," 114 he is crowned, 115 seated on a throne beside God. 116 The visionary is raised in glory and authority above the angels of heaven, having received a revelation of the celestial mysteries and secret knowledge of God.
An interesting example of this idea comes from a Christian ascension text known as the Ascension of Isaiah: "But they the righteous dead were not sitting on their thrones, nor were their crowns of glory on them. And I asked the angel who (was) with me, ‘How is it that they have received these robes, but are not on thrones nor in crowns?' And he said to me, . . . ‘They will receive their robes and their thrones and their crowns when he Christ has ascended into the seventh heaven.'" 117 In other words, in Christian versions of the celestial ascent, the full exaltation of the righteous dead can only be obtained through the atonement, resurrection, and ascension of Christ.
The visionary has now become immortal, glorified, and privy to the secret knowledge of God. He is given authority over the angels and power over the forces of nature. Is it legitimate to say that the visionary has become deified? 118 In fact, there are a number of elements in Jewish and Christian Ascension literature indicating that in some traditions the ultimate purpose of the ascent is the divinization of the visionary.
The prototype of all visionary ascents into heaven in the Hekhalot literature is Enoch. Enoch is said to have put on the robes of the glory of God, which transformed him into a celestial being: "I Enoch had become like one of his God's glorious ones, there was no observable difference." 119 But this is not all, for Enoch also received a secret celestial name, Metatron, and was enthroned in Heaven. As a glorified celestial being, Enoch/Metatron figures prominently throughout all Hekhalot and later Kabbalistic (late medieval Jewish mystical) literature as the most important celestial personage after God himself, superior even to the archangel Michael. 120
Indeed, Enoch/Metatron is referred to by a number of titles and descriptions that point to his deification. Most importantly, he is called "lesser YHWH (Yahweh qatan)." 121 He is said to be "little less than God," whose "name is like the name of his master (God)"; indeed, he is specifically called "elohim" and "shadday," two of the names of God in the Old Testament. 122 Enoch/Metatron is "seated on a Throne like the Throne of Glory," and "all keys powers of God are committed to Metatron." Because of the vast celestial authority he holds, "it was Metatron (rather than God) who showed himself to Moses and to the prophets." 123
Although Metatron is the most well-known example of divinization, other mortals are also said to have become deified through their celestial ascent, including Moses, 124 Melchizedek, 125 and an unknown visionary from Qumran, who claimed that
El Elyon gave me a seat among those perfect forever a mighty throne in the congregation of the gods . . . I shall be reckoned with gods and established in the holy congregation. 126
The idea that the visionary ascent conferred divine powers upon the Merkavah mystic is manifest in later Kabbalistic texts. The celestial ascent was said to give the visionary incredible powers. "If the righteous wished, they could create a world . . . For Rava created a man (golem)." 127 This refers to the Kabbalistic legend of the Golem, or artificial man, which the Kabbalistic masters were said to be able to create because of their mastery of the secrets of creation. 128
Thus, when the Merkavah visionaries ascend into heaven, they are provided with robes, crowns, and thrones, given the secret knowledge of God, the power to create worlds, human beings, and the title of "Lesser Yahweh." A reasonable conclusion from this is that they have become gods. The implication is that divinization was sometimes seen as the ultimate goal of the visionary ascent to the celestial temple.
The practice of the Hekhalot and Merkavah ascension rites seems to have declined after the seventh century. Jewish mystical impulses became increasingly dominated by neoplatonic emanationism and obsessed with gematria. Although the actual practice of the ascension rituals and visions seems to have declined, many of the ideas, texts, and practices of the Hekhalot and Merkavah visionaries were transmitted to later medieval Jewish mystics. The most important late medieval manifestation of ascension mysticism is found in Kabbalism. Though the subject of the transmission of ascension motifs from antiquity through the Middle Ages requires a full study, the developments of motifs can only be briefly summarized here. The following comments represent a preliminary analysis.
Kabbalism—a form of late medieval Jewish mysticism—developed in southern France in the twelfth century. 129 The most important center of Kabbalism emerged in Spain, where the greatest Kabbalistic text, the Zohar, or Book of Splendor, was compiled. 130 Although some elements of the earlier Hekhalot ascent were discarded or reinterpreted by the Kabbalists, much of the ancient ascent tradition survived. 131
Beginning in the late fifteenth century, Christian Renaissance sages, in their endless quest to recover the lost secrets of antiquity, began the serious study of Hebrew, not only to help them understand the Old Testament in the original language, but also to gain access to the "secret knowledge" of the Jewish Kabbalists. 132 Many Kabbalistic works were translated from Hebrew into Latin and in the process were reinterpreted to fit the Renaissance magical Christian worldviews. 133
One of the most important early figures in the historyof the transmission of Kabbalistic lore from Rabbinic to Christian circles was the famous Renaissance philosopher Pico della Mirandola. He believed that Kabbala contained one of the most important proofs of the divinity of Christ. 134 Other important Renaissance works on Christian Kabbalism include the Kabbala Denudata of Knorr von Rosenroth and De Arte Cabalistica of Johann Reuchlin, which exerted a tremendous influence on later European esoteric thought. 135 Thus many esoteric concepts about the celestial ascents and temples were transmitted from Jewish Kabbalistic circles of the twelfth through sixteenth centuries A.D. to Western European Christian esoteric speculation in the fifteenth through nineteenth centuries. 136
A final phase in the history of these ideas came in the late sixteenth century and early seventeenth centuries with the origins of Speculative Freemasonry in Scotland. 137 Freemasonry served as an esoteric sponge, absorbing and synthesizing a wide array of religious and occult ideas. 138
Christian Kabbalism thus also came to play a role in the development of the esoteric ideas and practices of Freemasonry.
In summary, the discovery of new evidence from Qumran and the reevaluation of the long-ignored pseudepigrapha and Jewish Hekhalot and Merkavah ascension lore has revealed a forgotten aspect of Judaism and Christianity at the time of the destruction of Herod's temple. An emerging consensus among many scholars is that during the first two centuries before and after Christ, a wide range of Jews, Christians, Gnostics, and pagans practiced a group of interrelated visionary ascension rituals. These rituals included the following concepts, ideas, or practices: limitation of the ascension to the elect; the necessity of ritual and moral purity; secrecy concerning the nature of the ascent and the knowledge learned during the ascent; ascension into various levels of heaven representing different degrees of celestial glory; encounters with a priestly angelic host, guardians, and guides; a heavenly initiation including anointing and receiving celestial robes; the knowledge and use of the secret names and tokens of God and angels; participation in celestial priesthood sacrifices and other rituals; passing through the veil of the celestial temple into the presence of God; a revelation of the secrets of creation; and the exaltation and even deification of the visionary.
These ritual practices and ideas were transmitted secretly among both Jewish and Christian esoteric elites but were finally rejected and condemned as heretical by the emerging orthodoxies of both Rabbinic Judaism and the imperial Christian church. Thereafter, these mysteries were suppressed, with elements surviving in the metaphysical speculations of the Jewish Kabbalists, Christian Hermeists, and medieval magicians. Although the full range of these rituals does not seem to have been preserved, late medieval Jewish Kabbalists did retain a wide array of ideas and practices that derived from these archaic mysteries. Ultimately, in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, these Kabbalistic speculations were adopted by Renaissance scholars and magicians in the form of Christian Kabbalism. By the seventeenth century, vague reflections of these archaic mysteries were making their way into the ideology and practices of early Speculative Freemasonry.
(= OTP, 1:550); 14:23-26, 45-48 (= OTP,
Daniel 12 . Note the parallel to the
breaking of the seals in
Revelation 10 22:10.