Alexanders Hellenism, encouraged Greek language, an open, tolerant polytheistic system offering to absorb the Jewish God as part of the pantheon. Historically the Hellenistic kingdoms that resulted after Alexander’s death promoted Hellenism by rewarding Greek speaking and Hellenized local officials. Thus Judaism was threatened both religiously and culturally.
During the rule of Antiochus Epiphanies, the temple was converted to a place of worship for Zeus, resulting in the Maccabean revolt and the rededication of the Temple remembered in the celebration of Hanukkah. In 63 BCE, the Roman general Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus (106-48 B.C.E.), made Palestine a part of the Roman Republic to be governed through a system of prefects.
How could they best observe Torah and obey God? Jews both in Palestine and in the Diaspora displayed a variety of ways of maintaining fidelity to the covenant while negotiating with the prevailing cultural influence of Greece and the political dominance of Rome.
Some Jews thought assimilation possible, especially in the Diaspora while others who had political, as well as religious, convictions divided into sects. The Saducees, strongly associated with the Priesthood and temple, were more likely to go with the flow, whereas the Pharisees, removed from political influence, promoted a separate identity based primarily on observance of the Torah’s principles applied in the new social circumstances.
Although not directly mentioned in the Christian Bible, the Essenes were a third group that formed a quasi monastic tradition.
A violent reaction to Roman rule was found amongst the Zealots. This group fermented the Jewish rebellion of 66 – 70 C.E. and a later outburst in the Bar Kokhba Revolt of 132 -135 C.E. which temporarily restored the Jewish state for two and a half years. The first rebellion resulted in the Jewish temple being destroyed and the latter rebellion resulted in the total decimation of the city of Jerusalem which had been renamed Aelia Capitolina by Emperor Hadrian.
Hence, Judaism was threatened from without and divided from within.
Twice as many Jews lived outside of the province of Judea, and this diaspora was affected by the dominant Hellenistic culture. By 250 B.C.E. they had translated the TaNaK into the Greek, Septuagint Bible (abbreviated LXX because there were traditionally 70 translators) and had began to interpret the TaNaK allegorically in the same way that the Stoic philosophers interpreted the texts of Homer, who used allegoric interpretation to explain the stories of the often scandalous behavior of the gods of mount Olympus. Whereas a diasporic Jew experienced his community differently to a Jew in Palestine.
A Hellenistic Jew may have seen no need to identify his loyalty to the politics and institutions of Judea. He may go to the gymnasium, read homer and then go off to the synagogue. Whereas in Palestine Judaism was associated with questions of whether you have the temple or you don’t, or whether the land is Holy Land or it is not.
Literary evidence points to a powerful religious spirit among Jews both in Palestine and the Diaspora. As a religion Judaism was growing. In Palestine, crowds made the pilgrimage to Jerusalem and gathered at great feasts, such as the Passover. Both in Palestine and in the Diaspora, synagogues were centers for community, the study of Torah and prayer. A large body of non Jews, some estimates as high as 10% of the population, were fascinated with this religion and the Jewish Temple was seen by Roman’s as a type of tourist attraction.
"Esotericism was apparrently first taught in ancient times" writes Talmus scholar and Kabbalist Rabbi Adin Steinaltz (The Essential Talmud, p212, 213).
"The schools established by the prophets ("sons of the prophets") certainly discussed ways of preparing indiciduals to recieve the gift of prophesy aND DEAL WITH THE INCULCAtion od specific intellectual methods od comprehendinf these matters."
Secular scholarship argues that prophesy was recorded after the event and that in Palestinian Judaism, at least two manifestations of mysticism appear during this period.
Apocalyptic literature, such as the book of Daniel, with its coded symbolism, use of symbolic numbers, beasts and astronomical phenomenon, depicts history teleologically, where which God is in charge, will intervene, and will save his people so that they will be triumphant in the future. The religious message is that adherents must endure and God will prove faithful to the people.
One of the earliest examples of apocalyptic writing is the book of I Enoch. Usually dated to the 2nd century B.C.E. with later additions into the 1st century C.E., this pseudonymous work is ascribed to the prophet Enoch who is reported on in Genesis chapter 5. Originally composed in Hebrew or Aramaic, it is extant in Ethiopic, and Aramaic fragments have been found among the Dead Sea Scrolls at Qumran.
It is an extraordinarily complex work, but at its heart are a series of visions experienced by Enoch. The biblical account of Enoch in Genesis 5 claims that Enoch “was not; for God took him”. In 1 Enoch, the prophet is shown ascending into the presence of God and being shown a vision. In the first of these (I Enoch 4:8–25), we find many elements drawn from the prophetic visions in the Bible.
“Behold, and I saw the clouds: And they were calling me in a vision: and the fogs were calling me and the course of the stars and the lightning’s were rushing me, and causing me to desire; and in the vision the winds were causing me to fly and rushing me high up into heaven” (1 Enoch 4:8, 9).
Enoch comes to a wall “which is built of crystals and surrounded by tongues of fire” “And I went into the tongues of fire and drew nigh to a large house” or Hekal, the word for palace that was used in the vision of Isaiah chapter 6, “which was built of crystals”.
The “walls of the house were like a tessellated floor (made) of crystals, and its groundwork was of crystal” (1 Enoch 4:10-12). This reminds us of the pavement of sapphire in the vision of god seen by Moses and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and the seventy elder men at Exodus 24:8-11.
Its ceiling was like the path of the stars and the lightnings, and between them were fiery cherubim, and their heaven was (clear as) water. A flaming fire surrounded the walls, and its 13 portals blazed with fire. And I entered into that house, and it was hot as fire and cold as ice: there 14 were no delights of life therein: fear covered me, and trembling got hold upon me. And as I quaked 15 and trembled, I fell upon my face.
Inside the Hekal is a second more majestic house, suggestive of the temple for inside is enthroned The Lord “And I beheld a vision, And lo! there was a second house, greater than the former, and the entire portal stood open before me, and it was built of flames of fire. And in every respect it so excelled in splendour and magnificence and extent that I cannot describe” (1 Enoch 4:15-16) “And its floor was of fire, and above it were lightnings and the path of the stars, and its ceiling also was flaming fire. And I looked and saw therein a lofty throne: its appearance was as crystal, and the wheels thereof as the shining sun.” Here we see a reference to the Throne chariot or merkabah of Ezekiel 1 and Daniel 7:9.10 that were used as symbols of the presence of God. The merkabah is again described with cherubim and fire: “and there was the vision of cherubim. And from underneath the throne came streams of flaming fire so that I could not look thereon.”
Like the vision of Ezekiel 1:24-28 god is described with great glory, however the Enoch account describes the glory as being so intense that angels cannot enter into The Lord. “And the Great Glory sat thereon, and His raiment shone more brightly than the sun and was whiter than any snow. None of the angels could enter and could behold His face by reason of the magnificence and glory and no flesh could behold Him. The flaming fire was round about Him, and a great fire stood before Him, and none around could draw nigh Him: ten thousand times ten thousand (stood) before Him". This figure of 10,000 times 10,000 is used of angelic figures before the ancient of Days in Daniel 7:10.
No doubt these writings served to teach, comfort and exhort, however, in mystical experience it is difficult to distinguish the literature and experiential life of the initiate. Hence, it has been suggested that the symbolic literature may have been used to induce mystical experiences in the initiates reading these texts.
The sectarian community at Qumran at the Dead Sea, possibly the Essenes, reveals a Jewish commitment to God that anticipates many later features of Christian Monasticism: a community separate from the world, living a common life that was dedicated to study and prayer, following a strict rule, and practicing strict ritual purity. The Dead Sea community saw the Jewish Temple system as corrupted, its sacrifices unlawful, and refused to associate with the gentile world or with those, like the Pharisees, who associated with the Hellenized world.
Teacher of Righteousness, the community’s founder, describes in hymn (Hodayoth) form his loneliness before God, yet hopes to stand among the holy ones.. Unlike 1 Enoch, these intense Hodayoth do not seem to be visionary, nor do they describe going to the Hekal, or Heavenly Palace, however in Hodayoth 5 we read of an intense yearning to be in the heavenly realm and a deep personal piety and sense of mans mortal unworthiness before God:
“I thank thee, O Lord,
For thee has redeemed me from the Pit,
and from the Hell of Abaddon,
Thou hast raised me up to everlasting height.
“I walk on limitless level ground,
And I know there is hope for him
Whom thou hast shaped from dust,
for the Everlasting Council.
Thou hast cleansed a perverse spirit of great sin
That it may stand in the host of the holy Ones,
And that it may enter into community
with the congregation of the Sons of Heaven.
Thou hast allotted to Man an everlasting destiny,
Amidst the spirits of knowledge,
That he may praise Thy Name in a common rejoicing
And recount Thy marvels before Thy works.
And yet I, a creature of clay,
What am I?
Kneaded with water,
What is my worth and my might?”
In the Songs of Sabbath Sacrifice, (also known as Angelic Liturgy) portrays community worship as participating in the heavenly worship of the angels. During a thirteen-week cycle, the community that recites the compositions is brought through a lengthy preparation and is gradually led through the spiritually animate heavenly Temple until the worshippers experience the holiness of the Merkabah and the Sabbath sacrifice as it is conducted by the high priests of the angels" (James M. Scott, "Throne-Chariot Mysticism in Qumran and in Paul" in Eschatology, Messianism, and the Dead Sea Scrolls (1997), p. 104). this theme of the earthly activities also happening in the divine realm will be taken up by later esoteric traditions.
"[Praise the God of...] [...] Exalt Him, [...] the glory in the tabernacl[e of the God of] knowledge. 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 utterly holy spiritual fire. All around are what appear to be streams of fire, resembling electrum and [sh]ining handiwork comprising wondrous color embroidered together, pure and glorious. The spirits of the living [godlike beings move to and fro perpetually, following the glory of the [wo]ndrous chariots." (Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice 4Q405 Frags. 21-22:10-11).
Just as it was suggested that Enoch may have been used to induce mystical experience,
James M. Scott writes of the angelic liturgy, “"The worshipper who hears the songs has the sense of being in the Heavenly sanctuary and in the presence of the angelic priests. The large number of manuscripts of the Angelic Liturgy found at Qumran (4Q400-407) makes it probable that the recitation of these songs was a major vehicle for the experience of communion with the angels as it is alluded to in the Thanksgiving Hymns (1QH 3:21-23; 11:13) and in the Rule of the Community (1QS 11:7-8). Carol Newsom [Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice: A Critical Edition] suggests that the purpose of these Sabbath Songs may have been communal mysticism” (ibid, p. 104).
By worshipping in prayer and offering spiritual sacrifices the community unites in worshipping with God in heaven. What happens on earth is but a pale reflection of that greater, ultimate heavenly reality.The community envisions a mystical reconstruction of reality, seeing itself as a replacement temple, a pure people in the desert, offering the true esoteric inner sacrifices to God replacing what they the claimed to be the corrupted exoteric, outer, practices and polluted sacrifices in Jerusalem. By devoting oneself to a quasi-monastic life of prayer and meditation the initiate becomes a spiritual sacrifice to God and it follows they enter into Gods presence. Many of these themes will be developed by Christianity.
Divine hierarchies are referred too as are the seven heavens inside one another, borrowing 1 Enoch and Ezekiel chapter 1. The later Christian Saul of Tarsus, or Paul, would also write of a vision of a man ‘caught away’ to the third heaven. Ezekiels imagery of the Throne Chariot, the merkabah, is found a number of times (4Q404,1,2:1-16 and 4Q405,20-21-22) and described in ways of later Merkabah mysticism.
Perhaps the closest to visionary literature directly attributable to the Qumran is a fragmentary vision of the divine Throne Chariot. Professor Luke Timothy Johnson suggests that this may be a reference to actual visionary experiences within the Qumran community:
"...The cherubim bless the image of the Throne-Chariot above the firmament, and they praise the majesty of the fiery firmament beneath the seat of his glory. And between the turning wheels, angels of holiness come and go, as it were a fiery vision of most holy spirits"
As Geze Vermes wrote (The Dead Sea Scrolls, Penguin books, 1962 (1970 Ed) p. 210, 211) “The Divine Throne-Chariot draws its inspiration from Ezekiel (1:10) and is related to the Book of Revelation (4). It depicts the appearance and movement of the Merkabah, the divine Chariot supported and drawn by the cherubim, which is at the same time a throne and a vehicle. … The Throne-Chariot was a central subject of meditation in ancient as well as in medieval Jewish esotericism and mysticism, but the guardians of Rabbinic orthodoxy tended to discourage such speculation. The liturgical use of Ezekiel's chapter on the Chariot is expressly forbidden in the Mishnah; it even lays down that no wise man is to share his understanding of the Merkabah with a person less enlightened than himself. As a result, there is very little ancient literary material extant on the subject, and the Qumran text is therefore of great importance to the study of the origins of Jewish mysticism.”
The extent of Philo’s influence is unsure. Views range from Philo’s ideas being unique to himself, or to the other extreme that states that Hellenistic Judaism was as a whole a mystical religion contrasting with Palestinian Judaism. However, some contemporary literature such as Pseudo-Orpheus suggest that there was at least a few that held similar views to Philo.
In Philo’s writings we find references to mystical symbolism. For example, Philo describes Moses as undertaking a mystical ascent that can be followed by others
“Has he not also enjoyed an even greater communion with the Father and Creator of the universe, being thought unworthy of being called by the same appellation? For he also was called the god and king of the whole nation, and he is said to have entered into the darkness where God was; that is to say, into the invisible, and shapeless, and incorporeal world, the essence, which is the model of all existing things, where he beheld things invisible to mortal nature.”
Here we see Moses being described as crossing from the phenomenal to noumenal realm. Moses is then described as a model for others to imitate:
“for, having brought himself and his own life into the middle, as an excellently wrought picture, he established himself as a most beautiful and Godlike work, to be a model for all those who were inclined to imitate him. And happy are they who have been able to take, or have even diligently laboured to take, a faithful copy of this excellence in their own souls” (Life of Moses 1.158–159).
Philo describes his own life and religious experience in mystical terms. For example Philo describes his mind as “seized with a sort of sober intoxication like the zealots engaged in the Corybantian festivals, and yields to enthusiasm, becoming filled with another desire, and a more excellent longing, by which it is conducted onwards to the very summit of such things as are perceptible only to the intellect, till it appears to be reaching the great King himself. And while it is eagerly longing to behold him pure and unmingled, rays of divine light are poured forth upon it like a torrent, so as to bewilder the eyes of its intelligence by their splendour” (On the Creation 71).
Here we see that Philo describes ecstasy as intoxication, he points to the supremacy of the mind, and highlights the issuing forth of shining rays of light, a symbolism that are important in later Jewish and Islamic mysticism. Also note that it is the eye of understanding and intelligence that is illumined.
Philo claims that although, he is lowly he is given sufficient wisdom to “venture not only to study the sacred commands of Moses, but also with an ardent love of knowledge to investigate each separate one of them, and to endeavour to reveal and to explain to those who wish to understand them, things concerning them which are not known to the multitude”.( On the Special Laws 3.6). Here Philo examplifies a major theme in Jewish mysticism, that is, the importance of the study and explanation of a deeper, esoteric understanding that must be explained by the mystic to the literal minded.
Philo also praises Jewish monastic’s, perhaps the Essenes, and an Egyptian based Jewish monastic group he calls the Therapeutae (Every Good Man is Free; Hypothetica; On the Contemplative Life).
Of their devotion Philo writes “they always retain an imperishable recollection of God, so that not even in their dreams is any other object ever presented to their eyes except the beauty of the divine virtues and of the divine powers. Therefore many persons speak in their sleep, divulging and publishing the celebrated doctrines of the sacred philosophy. And they are accustomed to pray twice every day, at morning and at evening; when the sun is rising entreating God that the happiness of the coming day may be real happiness, so that their minds may be filled with heavenly light, and when the sun is setting they pray that their soul, being entirely lightened and relieved of the burden of the outward senses, and of the appropriate object of these outward senses, may be able to trace out truth existing in its own consistory and council chamber” (On the Contemplative Life 3:26).
In any case, Philo seeks to reveal a deeper reality within the Torah about god and the divine and this seeking of a deeper reality is developed in later Jewish Mysticism.