| |

SIDIC Periodical XVIII - 1985/3
Apocalyptic (Pages 12 - 17)

Other articles from this issue | Version in English | Version in French

Apocalyptic in Judaism: Its Eclipse
M. Joseph Stiassny


The text we publish here is only part of Father Joseph Stiassny's contribution to a Congress of the Association Catholique Francaise pour l'Etude de la Bible, which was held at the Institut Catholique of Toulouse in 1975. All the contributions were published by Editions du Cerf, Paris, under the title: Apocalypse et Theologic de l'Esperance (coll. Lectio Divina, 1977).

Joseph Stiassny's text begins with a historical overview, a study of the concrete historical conditions which, between 70 and 135 CE (from Titus to Hadrian) determined certain religious changes and bad a "traumatic effect" on the soul of Israel. We are omitting this chapter and going directly to the blowing.

The Prophetic Theme and the Fascination of Apocalyptic
At the end of the first century both 2 Baruch and 4 Ezra think that the time is ripe for the coming of the Messiah. In particular, 2 Baruch:
"For truly my redemption has drawn nigh, and is not far distant as aforetime" (23:7).

Or again:
"For the youth of the world is past,
And the strength of the creation already exhausted, And the advent of the times is very short.
Yea, they have passed by;
And the pitcher is near to the cistern,
And the ship to the port,
And the course of the journey to the city,
And life to (its) consummation" (85:10).
4 Ezra also sees redemption as something in the immediate future:
"If thou survive thou shalt see, and if thou livest long thou shalt marvel; for the age is hastening fast to its end" (4:26).

At the end of the book, the author dates his work:
"In the seventh year of the sixth week, after five thousand years of the creation and three months and twelve days" (14:48).

Rabbinical scholars at the end of the first century and the beginning of the second thought the messianic age was close at hand. Notice that this generation thought of the deliverance in terms of politics: the role of the Messiah is not a spiritual one and the messianic age is not confused with the world to come. It is question of a deliverance along the same lines as the deliverance from Egypt, that is to say, a liberation from the yoke of the foreigner to allow Israel to live freely under the freedom of the Law. It is enough to mention Rabban Johanan b. Zakkai (TB Berakoth 28b) who does not hesitate to say:
"If you are planting and you are suddenly told that the Messiah has come, finish your work and then go to welcome him!" (Aboth de R. Nathan, Text II, 31,(1) also Nasi Rabban Gamaliel II (TB Shabbat 30b) R. Eliezer b. Hyrcanus and R. Joshua b. Hanania (TB Sanhedrin 97b, 98a, 99a: TB Rosh Hashanah 1lb, etc.).

The discussion between these last two is extremely interesting because it shows how the rabbis at this time sought to bend the apocalyptic concept. In fact, the latter presupposes a plan, established by a God who is mathematician or architect, a plan which must work out in the end, even if it meets with unexpected obstacles, arising from the freedom of the human race. The rabbis stress above all that it is the intention of God which is carried out in time with the co-operation of those associated with it(2)

"It. Eliezer has said: If Israel repent, they will be redeemed; if not, they will not be redeemed; R. Joshua said to him: If they do not repent, will they not be redeemed! But the Holy One, blessed be He, will set up a king over them, whose decrees shall be as cruel as Haman's, whereby Israel shall engage in repentance and He will thus bring them back to the right path° (TB Sanhedrin 97b).

R. Joshua, who has an apocalyptic mentality, claims that the deliverance of God is unconditional. When the objective conditions for deliverance are fulfilled, when the time is ripe, deliverance will come: the subjective dispositions of Israel count for nothing. It. Eliezer gives the answer of the scholars to the absolute apocalyptic vision, and thus rejoins the prophetic point of view. Certainly there are objective conditions for deliverance, but they are suspended when the subjective conditions are fulfilled. God is Meld back° if Israel does not repent...

The Apocalypses Discarded and Retrieved
When the Sanhedrin met at Javneh in 90 CE, in a famous session which talmudic literature calls bo-bayom ("that day"), in order to establish definitively the Canon of Scripture, the discussion was more academic than anything else and ended by ratifying an already existing consensus. The technical talmudic term for a non-canonical writing is: "it does not make the hands impure". Ben Sirach is declared non-canonical because it was written after the time of Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi, who are considered to be the last inspired prophets. The canonicity of Qoheleth was an object of controversy between the followers of Hillel and those of Shammai, because it contained affirmations which could be given a heretical interpretation; it was accepted in the end, probably because of the important patronage to which it laid claim.(3)

Two books of an apocalyptic character were admitted to the canon of Scripture: they were Ezekiel and Daniel. The rabbis scarcely hid their contempt for the bizarre visionary on the banks of the Chebar. We read in TB Hagigah 13b:
"All that Ezekiel saw Isaiah saw. What does Ezekiel resemble? A village who saw the king. And what does Isaiah resemble? A townsman who saw the king."

As for Daniel, he is not placed among the prophets but rather in the collection of Writings (ketuvim), that is to say, among the texts which had less authority than those of the prophets, probably because by the time this book appeared, the prophetic writings already formed a section on their own, definitively constituted.

The other writings were treated as sefarim hizonim "outside books"; they were hidden (nignezu) and became the apocryphal books, the Greek word apocryphos being the translation of the technical Hebrew expression ganuz. Flavius Josephus declared proudly:
"The facts show with what respect we approach our own books. After all these centuries, no-one is allowed to make any addition, subtraction or change (Translated from the French).(4)

The fourth Book of Ezra, which goes back to the same period as the Contra Apion of Josephus, tells us dearly that after the sacred books had been destroyed when the first Temple was burned, Ezra the scribe reconstructed them by divine inspiration, dictating ninety-four books destined to become public (these are the books of the Palestinian canon) and seventy others which must only be communicated to the rabbinical scholars (14:44-46). An ingenious attempt to accredit the apocalyptic literature, but an unsuccessful one...

Thus apocryphal-apocalyptic literature was withdrawn from the rabbinical libraries. But we must not forget that the whole of rabbinic Judaism is based on the distinction between written and oral Torah. If the books which are "outsiders" were excluded from the written Torah, the ideas they contained entered into the oral law, to such a degree that talmudic literature could be characterised as having apocalyptic inspiration, if not in form then certainly in content.

Rabbinic Judaism made the doctrine of retribution its own, as it is found expressed in apocalyptic. It adhered to apocalyptic faith in the resurrection, abandoning the old biblical concept of sheol. The rabbis developed the apocalyptic concept of two worlds, this world and "the world to come° (for the first time in I Henoch 71:15; then Hillel in M. Aboth 2:7 and 4 Ezra 7:50) an idea not found in the Bible. The messianic doctrine of the rabbis follows the lines laid down in apocalyptic (5) as do their reflections on angelology. The haggadic developments on heaven and hell, on the fate of the soul after death, on the time of the coming of the Messiah, as well as considerations concerning the two famous companions, Behemoth and Leviathan,(6) all go back to apocalyptic.

When we try to explore the rabbinic teaching on eschatology and to trace the elements in its composition, we are forced to have recourse to the apocryphal-apocalyptic literature. It is the only way to find the origins of a great number of ideas and to identify the concepts which can be considered a heritage from the past arising from a reaction to certain events and phenomena, or an opposition to certain Jewish-Christian or gnostic doctrines. This is what we will now try to see.

The Struggle against the Jewish-Christians
One of the motives, and probably not the least, for the rejection of apocalyptic literature by the rabbis was its adoption by the Jewish-Christians (the minim). The beginning of Acts (1:7) is anti-apocalyptic:
"It is not for you to know times or seasons which the Father has fixed by his own authority" (cf Mk. 13:32: "But of that day and that hour no-one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father").

The Christian, who elsewhere is invited to recognize the signs of the times (cf Mt 24:32), must not allow himself to calculate the times. But with the delay in the parousia, apocalyptic came to occupy a more and more important place in apostolic Christianity (Mk. 13) and still more so in sub-apostolic times (2P:3), with evident apologetic reasons.

Jewish apocalypses were considered by Christians to be their property and were interpolated and Christianized. This was the case with the Ascension of Isaiah, of Henoch slave, the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs. Other apocalypses were Christian adaptations of Jewish works or Christian compositions directly inspired by the Jewish prototypes. Thus, for the Sybilline Oracles, Books III and IV are Jewish, Book V is a Christian adaptation of a Jewish text, while Books VI and VII are Christian works.(7) Christians also composed apocalypses of their own, like the Apocalypse of Peter, the little apocalypse at the end of the Didache (ch. 16) and the Shepherd of Hermas, which is apocalyptic in form if not in content.

We have just said that Jewish apocalypses were considered by Christians to be their property. This must be understood to mean Jewish-Christians in the strictest sense, that is to say, Jews who became Christians. These Jewish-Christians either introduced or accepted Christianity in Syria, especially at Antioch, and it was doubtless the church of Antioch which was responsible in the first place for the diffusion of Jewish apocalyptic literature among the other churches. This was particularly the case with the Ethiopian church, founded by the Syrian Frumentius of Tyre (a contemporary of St. Athanasius), the Syriac characteristics of which are due above all to the Syrian Monophysites, especially the famous "nine saints". After the Council of Chalcedon (451) these latter took refuge in Abyssinia and founded monasteries there, where they translated religious literature into Ethiopian. The Ethiopian Church did not show much discernment in establishing the Canon of Scripture: as well as the deutero-canonical books, they also included such apocryphal writings as the Book of Henoch, the Book of Jubilees, the Ascension of Isaiah, Fourth Ezra as well as the Shepherd of Hermas (8).

To return to Syria. The importance of the city of Antioch for the Jews is well-known(9) In the first century, if Flavius Josephus is to be believed, a large part of the Greek population went over to Judaism (Jewish War 7,3,3). The rabbis lorded it there, and doubtless the struggle against Christianity was carried on from the beginning, a struggle which lasted until the end of the fourth century, a fact witnessed to by the eight homilies of St John Chrysostom, Against the Jews.(10) J. Danìelou has stressed "the Syrian, Antiochan character of Jewish-Christianity".(11) There is no risk of making a mistake when one affirms that Jewish opposition to Jewish-Christians was at its most intense in Syria and this was precisely because the Jewish-Christians made so much of the apocrypha which Judaism had rejected. Every good general knows that when one is on the offensive, lines have to be consolidated and a second front avoided at all costs. But Judaism was on the offensive; one only has to read Pseudo-Barnabas or Justin to know this. Christians had appropriated the holy books of the Bible, Barnabas having the impudence to assert that they were never meant for the Jews, and Justin making use of them with virtuosity to show, in the light of Paul moreover, that the Hebrews had never understood them. The Jews were infuriated, not without reason. We read in the Midrash Bereshit Rabba VIII:8:
"R. Samuel b. Nahman said in R. Jonathan's name: When Moses was engaged in writing the Torah, he had to write the work of each day. When he came to the verse, AND GOD SAID: LET US MAKE MAN, etc., he said: 'Sovereign of the Universe! why dost Thou furnish an excuse to heretics?' `Waite', replied He, 'whoever wishes to err may err'.(12)

If Jewish-Christians adopted, and later adapted the apocrypha, it was because they contained a veritable arsenal of arms and ammunition to use in the struggle against the Jews. The latter had every opportunity to reply: the apocrypha, we do not know them! And thus, without a fight, the battle, at least on this front, was won.

Jewish Gnosticism and the Anti-Gnostic Reaction
In fact, a second front had already started: that of gnosticism. From the end of the first century, but more particularly in the second, an esoteric mystical movement developed in both Palestine and Syria, and a new attitude arose which has been happily entitled "the dogmatic koiné of the end of antiquity";(13) it was an intense desire to "know" God experientially and this knowledge was seen as the royal road of salvation. Why follow the course of history on a horizontal plane when a cross-route existed, no doubt arduous and dangerous, but which gave the possibility of attaining the eternal in a vertical manner? Gnosticism and related systems are certainly incompatible with the biblical vision. Schematically one could say that the valorization of time and history constitutes the dividing line between prophetic thought, apocalyptic and gnosticism. Prophetic thought is essentially historical; apocalyptic exalts time but ignores history; for gnosis, history does not exist, time is without substance, because salvation is achieved in the present, in the privileged moment when the nofts finds itself alone with the Alone and the initiate discovers himself to be a bearer of the divine nature (théia physis).Judaism did not escape the gnostic temptation but it should be noted that Jewish gnosis is neither dualist nor anticosmic, because the God of the Fathers is always considered to be creator as well as master of life and of history...

Jewish gnosis is concerned above all with the study of three great realities; the Work of Creation (ma'aseh Bereshit), the World of the Divine Throne (ma'aseh merkabah) and eschatology. The contemplative Jew, arriving in the celestial Palace (Hekhal) realises that before the divine Throne a curtain makes a screen between the Glory of God and the celestial hosts, a cosmic curtain on which is embroidered the entire history of the world, including the events of the last days.
"Here cosmogony and eschatology go hand in hand, and the cosmic curtain which has an important place in the Pistis Sophia, gives the Jewish visionary the secret of the Messiah's coming: the messianic preoccupation brings us back to the heart of traditional Judaism" (Translated from the French).(14)

If the rabbis were not able to forbid this kind of speculation completely, nor prescribe mystical exercises, they did all they could to moderate the enthusiasm of those who allowed themselves to be carried away by these dangerous ploys. One has the impression that ecclesiastical authority, whatever religion it belongs to, has for motto “Legem pone nihi, Domine, viam justificationum tuarum":
"Teach me, 0 Lord, the way of thy statutes; and I will keep it to the end" Ps. 119:33.

Nothing illustrates better the attitude of the rabbis in this area than the treatment which they meted out to Henoch, the father of esoteric knowledge: "He was an example of repentance to all generations", according to Ben Sirach (44:16). The patriarch whom the mystical tradition considers es becoming the angel Metatron after his ascension to heaven, that same Metatron who like YHWII is designated ha-qatan,(15) is described by Bereshit Rabba XXV:1 (16) as a hypocrite whose name is among the wicked in the heavenly register...

It must be understood that all these references find their starting point in Scripture and its mystical interpretation. Origen, who like Jerome after him, was attentive to things Jewish, points out that:
"according to Jewish custom, no-one who has not yet achieved full maturity has the right to take the Canticle of Canticles in his hands. Moreover, rabbis and teachers who are so anxious to teach the Scriptures and their oral traditions (deuteroses) to young children, leave to the end (ad ultimum reservari) these four texts: the beginning of Genesis where the creation of the world is described; the beginning of the prophet Ezekiel where it speaks of the Cherubim; the end of the same book which describes the future temple; and the book of the Canticle" (Translated from the French).(17)

We must be careful not to think that study of the Canticle was forbidden for reasons of modesty; the reason for the ban — as the context shows — is something quite different: it is a reaction against speculations on the proportions of the body (shiur qomah) of the divinity, starting from an allegorical interpretation of Cant. 5:11-16.

Jewish mysticism is practical as well as speculative. It consists in the ascension of the soul to heaven in order to contemplate the Throne of Glory. "Many have explained the merkabah without having experienced it"." Some privileged souls take the risk; see what has happened to them.(19)

In a passage which has become famous (TB Hagigah 14b;(20) Tos Hagigah 2, 3; Shit Rabba on Cant. 1:4) we read:
'Four men entered the 'Garden', namely Ben Azzai and Ben Zomer, Aher and R. Akiba... Ben Azzai cast a look and died... Ben Zomer looked and became demented... Aher mutilated the shoots (he became a heretic); FL Akiba departed unhurt." (TB Hagigah 14b).

Even the latter risked being repulsed by the serving angels, but God said to them:
"Let this elder be, for he is worthy to avail himself of My glory" (TB Hagigah 15b).
The celestial paradise, Pardes, is situated in the third heaven which Paul was able to reach: was it in his body, one does not know; was it out of his body, one knows still less (2 Cor. 12:2-4)...

It must be noted that Ben Azzai and Ben Zoma belonged to a pious association called 'cash qedoshah' (aram. qahala qaddisha de-birushelem), an association which rejoiced in the patronage of R. Akiba. Ch. Rabin" has shown that this association, whose members led a life of asceticism and prayer and which could date back to the days of Javneh, continued to exist after Hadrian's time and exercised such authority that its opinions are quoted in the Talmud, not under the name of one particular scholar but in the name of the group as a whole. As the word 'edah suggests, the members of the association formed a community. Taking into account the mystical leanings of the personalities that have already been mentioned, it is permissible to presume that they kept the esoteric traditions alive in their hearts, while at the same time being very faithful to the study and observance of the Law. The orthodox Jewish mystic has never in fact seen any contradiction between halakhah and gnosis, both one and the other deriving from the Torah by differing but convergent hermeneutical ways.(22)

The existence of these more or less clandestine mystical groups is known to us through the literature of the Hekhaloth, dating from the third century, where details are given about the conditions for admission to esoteric teaching: not only must the novice present all sorts of moral guarantees, but he must also possess certain physical qualities, the absence or presence of which are verified by certain procedures pertaining to cast of countenance and chemistry.

According to Scholem however(23)
"It is safe to say that what might he termed apocalyptic nostalgia was among the most powerful motive-forces of the whole Merkabah mysticism?
It is within initiatory associations that the apocryphal writings were transmitted with all the proper precautions to ensure that the secret would not be betrayed.

* Fr. Joseph Stiassny is a Priest of Notre Dame de Sion who has lived in Jerusalem for many years. He teaches Biblical Studies and Jewish Studies and is active in ecumenical and inter-faith dialogues.
1. Cf. the text in Schechter's edition, p. 67.
2. Cf. J. Lacroix: Histoire et Mystére, Tournai, Paris 1962, p. 125.
3. Cf. S. Zeitlin: "An Historical Study of the Canonization of the Hebrew Scripture" Proceedings of the American Academy for Jewish Reserch, vol. 2 (1932), pp. 81-121.
4. Fl. Josephe, Contre Apion 1, 42; ad. Th. Reinach - L. Blum, coll. "Guillaume Bude", Paris 1930, p. 10.
5. K. Hruby: "Messianisme et eschatologie dans la tradition rabbinique° in the collection: Noel-Epiphanie: Retour du Christ, Lex orandi 40, Paris 1967, pp. 43-63.
6. L. Ginzberg: The Legends of the Jews, Philadelphia 1947, vol. 5, pp. 43f.
7. Cf. J. Danielou: Theologic du Judeo-christianisme, Tournai, Paris 1958, p. 28.
8. E. Ullendorf: The Ethiopians, London 1967, pp. 101f; D. Buxton: The Abyssinians, London 1970, p. 40.
9. Kraeling: "The Jewish Community at Antioch up to 600°, JBL, 1932, pp. 130-160.
10. M. Simon: Recherches d'histoire judeo-chretienne, Paris 1962, pp. 140-153: "La polemique anti-juive de saint Jean Chrysostome et le mouvement judaisant d'Antioche", R.M. Grant: "Jewish Christianity in Antioch" in Judeo-Christianisme, Volume offert au cardinal Daniélou, Paris 1972, pp. 97-108; A.F. Klijn: "The Influence of Jewish Theology on the Odes of Salomon and the Acts of Thomas" in Aspects du judeochristianisme, Paris 1965, pp. 167-179.
11. J. Danielou: Théologic du juao-christianisme, p. 52.
12. Soncino, London 1961; cf. J. TerveII, Imago Dei (Get 1:261) im Spdtjudentunr, in der Gnosis and in den paulinischen Braden, FRLANT, no. 58, Gottingen 1960.
13. H. Rahner: Mythes grecs et mystere ehrétien, tr. fr., Paris 1954, p. 31.
14. G Vajda, in his report on G.G. Scholem, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism: REJ 7 (1946-47) p. 169.
15. Cf. Encyclopaedia Judaica, vol. 11 (1971) col. 144, art. "Metatron".
16. On Gen. 5:24: Soncino. Cf. also note 15.
17. Prol. In Canticum, PG 13, 63; Cf. G.G. Scholem: Jewish Mysticism, Merkabah Mysticism and Talmudic Tradition, New York 1960, p. 38. On the influence of Jewish traditions on Origen, cf. J. Danielou, Origene, Paris 1948, pp. 175ff.
18. Tos Megilla, 4, 28, ed. Zuckermandel, p. 228.
19. H. Bietenhard: Die himmlische Welt im Urchristentum and Spatjudentum, Tilbingen 1951, pp. 91ff.
20. Ed. Soncino.
21. Ch. Rabin: Qumran Studies, Oxford 1957, pp. 46ff.
22. G.G. Scholem: La Kabbale et sa symboligue, tr. fr., Paris 1975 (ch. 1: "L'autorite religieuse et la mystique").
23. G.G. Scholem: Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, Jerusalem 1942, p. 72.


Home | Who we are | What we do | Resources | Join us | News | Contact us | Site map

Copyright Sisters of Our Lady of Sion - General House, Rome - 2011