BMCR 2005.12.18

Heavenly Realms and Earthly Realities in Late Antique Religions

, , Heavenly realms and earthly realities in late antique religions. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004. 1 online resource (xiii, 335 pages). ISBN 9780511211751 $80.00.

The present volume is the result of a Colloquium on the images of Heaven in Late Antiquity held at Princeton on January 14-15, 2001, where both graduate students and professors presented the results of their ongoing research on “Images of Heaven.” This book contains reworked versions of some of those papers together with six contributions solicited especially for this publication. The editors contextualize the papers with a brief introduction (pp. 1-15) where they describe the temporal and geographical axes that define the field of research; they offer a short history of research on Late Antique Religion that stresses the importance of dialogue among the specialists that study different aspects of Late Antiquity. The present work is a magnificent example of such cooperation.

The book is divided in three parts: the first is named “Between Earth and Heaven,” and focuses on the different attitudes toward the entities that traverse this boundary. In the first paper of this section, “The Bridge and the Ladder: Narrow Passages in Late Antique Religions” (pp. 19-33), Fritz Graf studies the use of the bridge and the ladder images to describe the passage from earth to heaven and shows the basic difference between them, against previous opinions (Eliade, Cumont, Dinzelbacher) that saw them as much the same. The bridge image functions on an horizontal axis and appears for the first time in the sixth century used by Gregory of Tours in book IX of his History of the Franks and by Gregory the Great in his Dialogues. In both texts the bridge is a testing instrument and the fiery river beneath is seen as the boundary between the upper world and the underworld. The main difference with the classical narratives is that the bridge is located in a kind of no-world, since “our world and the world beyond are much too different to share simply contiguity” (p. 27). The ladder image works in a different spatial orientation and it is very popular in eschatological, ascetic and hagiographic texts. Graf studies, among others, its most conspicuous manifestation, Perpetua’s ladder, understood by many writers as the starting point of the ladder image in the Christian symbolism. In this text the ladder is transformed into a symbol of martyrdom, although in this meaning it found no following. Graf concludes by stating that Christian imagery stresses verticality both in the bridge and the ladder images. In the first case, a fall into the fiery river represents not an entry into the other world but a test for sinners.

In the second paper, “‘Heavenly Steps’: Manilius 4.119-121 and its Background” (pp. 34-46), Katharina Volk dedicates her attention to this fragment of Manilius’s Astronomica, which was bracketed by A. E. Housman in his edition. Volk uses literary criticism to contest this exclusion rather than pure textual criticism. Thus by studying the diction of the passage as well as the traditions from which the writer is drawing, she concludes that the fragment is authentic. According to her, these three lines accord with the use of heavenly journey imagery in the poem and “serve to underline the poet’s mission as a mediator between heaven and earth” (p. 45).

In the third paper, “Heavenly Ascent, Angelic Descent, and the Transmission of Knowledge in 1 Enoch 6-16” (pp. 47-66), Anette Yoshiko Reed explores the transgression of the boundaries between heaven and earth by doing a detailed study of the text-history and the literary structure of the Book of the Watchers (BW). She shows how in BW there are two different approaches toward knowledge that are embodied in the illicit angelic instruction of the fallen angels and the divine wisdom attained by Enoch after his ascent to heaven. Thus, Reed suggests that 1 Enoch 6-16 reflects an “anti-speculative” approach that emphasizes the corrupting power of knowledge, whereas 1 Enoch 12-16 shows a less radical approach that confronts the ways of the fallen angels and those of the ascended Enoch and examines the relationship between heavenly secrets and earthly knowledge. Their combination results in “a poignant reflection on the power of knowledge, both to corrupt humankind and to save it” (p. 50).

In the fourth paper, “‘Connecting Heaven and Earth’: The function of the Hymns in Revelation 4-5” (pp. 67-84), Gottfried Schimanowski shows how the hymns in Revelations constitute a literary mechanism that unite earthly and heavenly communities in praise. By analyzing the text, Schimanowski makes clear that it has a coherent structure divided in seven units; he focuses in the role that the five hymns play in eschatological salvation. Thus the hymns function as bridges that draw nearer earth and heaven, blurring the boundaries between past, present and future. According to Shimanowski, “the author aims […] to depict a proleptic experience of heavenly worship sung in unison by angels and humans” (p. 83); the community is thus invited to take up this liturgy so that, through this action, it is strengthened in the face of the challenges and struggles that await it.

In the fifth and last paper of the section, “Working Overtime in the Afterlife; or, No Rest for the Virtuous” (pp. 85-100), Sarah Iles Johnston studies several passages from the Chaldean Oracles and other theurgic texts in which the souls of the virtuous dead are rewarded by becoming angels who must help other souls as teachers and guardians. According to Johnston, given the influence of Jewish and Christian ideas in theurgic angelology, it is quite likely that the Jewish and Christian stories about the ascension of righteous people, such as Enoch, Isaiah and Zephaniah, could have had some part in the promotion of the soul to angelic status. The “working” character of those souls promoted to angelic status has parallels in the Hekhalot tradition, but they leave untouched the aspect of the reincarnation that is required in order to help the living. In this, Johnston sees that there are clear reinterpretation of Platonic ideas, namely the transformation of the concept of the “city-state” which is now understood to be the cosmos itself, and the application of the Socrates’ theories “of how to live a good life to the afterlife” (p. 98). This Platonic influence challenges the classical dichotomy of locative vs. utopian worldviews, since theurgy, whose worldview is clearly locative, emerges in a Mediterranean oikoumene where utopian religions were raging. The theurgist was “locative” in struggling to keep the cosmos properly organized, and utopian in thinking that the nonmaterial realms were more desirable.

In the second section (“Institutionalizing Heaven”) the authors turn to traditions about the structure of heaven that draw on earthly models: the temple, the court, the city, the garden and the school. In the first paper “Earthly sacrifice and Heavenly Incense: The Law of the Priesthood in Aramaic Levi and Jubilees” (pp. 103-122), Martha Himmelfarb studies the ambivalent attitude of Early Judaism towards the Second Temple, which oscillated between accepting the earthly reality and rejecting it and longing for the heavenly ideal. Thus, at the positive extreme of such ambivalence, the Aramaic Levi stands sometimes in a certain tension with the Torah directions regarding washing, blood on the garments of the priests, the wood for the altar, the order of sacrifice, the minhah accompanying animal sacrifices, and the weights and measures of the different things needed for sacrifice. Himmelfarb affirms that Aramaic Levi is not, strictly speaking, sectarian in its general character, except for its adherence to a solar calendar. On the other hand, Jubilees‘ adaptation of Aramaic Levi‘s law of the priesthood, while being very similar, introduces some changes especially by placing great emphasis on the aroma of the offerings; thus, the Jubilees‘ version adds frankincense to all but one of the sacrifices. According to Himmelfarb, this last preference of aroma over blood reflects how the heavenly Temple is depicted following the rituals of the earthly Temple and how the earthly rituals are transformed according to the heavenly rituals.

In the next paper, “Who’s on the Throne? Revelation in the Long Year?” (pp. 123-141), John W. Marshall suggests that Revelation should be interpreted as a Jewish document responding on one side to the questions of Diaspora Jews during the Judaean War, and, on the other side, to the new situation posed by the imperial succession of Nero. Marshal argues for an appropriation and reinterpretation of the imperial ideology by juxtaposing fragments of certain Graeco-Roman historians (mainly, Suetonius, Josephus, Dio Cassius and Tacitus) beside John “as both scrutinize the heavens” (p. 125) to answer the question “Who is really on the throne?” (p. 125). Although John does answer that question very differently from his Graeco-Roman counterparts, he does refer to the same means and does look into signs and marvels and does interpret them. Marshall has interwoven narrative literary data quite different in origin but related in historical context, that of the cults of Roman rulers. This “enables us to see him and his form of first-century Asian Judaism as standing in continuity with the environment that is also a source of such vehement tension” (p. 141).

In “The Earthly Monastery and the Transformation of the Heavenly city in Late Antique Egypt” (pp. 142-173), Kirsti Copeland studies the development of Early Christian ideas about the heavenly city from biblical and early Jewish texts on the heavenly Temple and the heavenly Jerusalem, which appeared in almost every ascent narrative of the apocalyptic tradition. According to her, Christians gradually separated the notions of the heavenly Jerusalem from its earthly reality and transferred the images associated with it to the idea of a heavenly monastery. This was a very gradual change, as Iraeneus and Tertullianus in the second century kept cherishing the connection between the earthly and the heavenly Jerusalems, and there was a strong Gentile Christian belief in an earthly reign of Christ in Jerusalem. However, Origen dissolved the connection between heavenly and earthly Jerusalems; his influence slowly changed the double conception, and the third-fourth century Egyptian Christians gradually did separate both Jerusalems and hoped only for the heavenly one. Thus, for Athanasius Jerusalem is “a spiritual concept”, and in his second Letter to Virgins“foreshadows what is to become the earthly counterpart of the heavenly Jerusalem for many late antique Egyptian Christians” (p. 151). In the next centuries, the monks become the earthly counterpart of the angels, and in the same way the monastery becomes the terrestrial complement of the heavenly city. This is most evident in the Apocalypse of Paul, where the City of Christ shows more clearly that dichotomy.

In the next paper, “Contextualizing Heaven in Third-Century North Africa” (pp. 159-173), Jan N. Bremmer points out how little evidence about notions of heaven we have in Early Christian texts, although the concept seems to have been accepted without much discussion, supplemented with “personalized” twists. Bremmer studies the North African Passio Sanctorum Mariani et Iacobi one of those “personalized” accounts of heaven, written in the middle of the third century. He adduces several parallels from other visions ( Passion of Perpetua, Life of Cyprian, Acts of Paul, Acts of Peter, Apocalypse of Peter, among others) and focuses in the scenes that appear repeated in them (the court scene, the heavenly landscape, the fountain and the cup). Marian’s vision of heaven is characterized by a vertical symbolism (the heaven is above us) and appears depicted somehow as a garden, which points to the Garden of Eden; finally in this vision, martyrdom and heaven are closely connected. Bremmer concludes by emphasizing that “traditions must always be appropriated, and this process is conditioned by the context in which we find ourselves: be it on earth or, as in Marian’s case, in heaven” (p. 173).

In the last paper of the second section, “Bringing the Heavenly Academy Down to Earth: Approaches to the Imagery of Divine Pedagogy in the East Syrian Tradition” (pp. 174-194), Adam H. Becker addresses the Cause of the Foundation of the Schools and suggests new approaches to understanding the origin of the image of heaven as classroom in the development of East Syrian Christian scholasticism. Becker focuses his analysis on the passage that describes the heavenly classroom at the time of creation. After translating this passage and summarizing other parts of the Cause, Becker discusses the evident influence of Theodore of Mopsuestia’s Commentary of Genesis on the passage, but he also notes that “rich and detailed imagery that we find in the Cause has no parallel in Theodore’s works” (179). Another influence to be taken into account is that of Ephraem the Syrian who saw God as an instructor. The instruction model is well known in Early Christianity and is particularly important in the Syriac milieu. After studying several examples of pedagogical terminology, Becker concludes that the image of God as pedagogue and the understanding of Christianity as learning predate in the Syriac milieu the translation of Theodore’s works. In addition, Becker underlines the importance of the actual historical setting of the Cause, i.e., the scholastic world of the East Syrian church. Authors such as Narsai show how both “institutionalizations”, the heavenly and the earthly, evolved together. Finally, the classroom imagery is explored in the Babylonian Jewish ambiance with respect to its relationship with the neighboring Christian Syrian milieu.

The last section (“Tradition and Innovation”) focuses on how tradition is changed in Late Antiquity. Thus, in the first paper, “Angels in the Architecture: Temple Art and the Poetics of Praise in the Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice” (pp. 195-212), Ra’anan S. Boustan offers a new approach to the Songs, that differs from the traditional interpretative framework about the “numinous” character of the composition. On the contrary Boutan affirms that the literary form of the Songs pursues the “angelification” of the architecture of the Temple which becomes animated in the descriptive process and therefore is assimilated to the angelic host. According to him, “the rich architectural and graphic detail found in the Songs grows out of an ekphrastic tradition in which angelological speculation was articulated through the language of the material cult” (p. 203); in addition, it is clear that the relationship between Jewish angelology and the ekphrastic tradition of the Hebrew Bible “may challenge long-cherished notions concerning the aniconism of early Judaism” (p. 212).

In the next paper, “The Collapse of Celestial and Chthonic Realms in a Late Antique ‘Apollonian Invocation’ [ PGM I 262-347]” (pp. 213-232), Christopher A. Faraone discusses several invocations to Apollo in the PGM (III 282-409, III 187-262, II 64-184, I 262-347); after analyzing the texts in detail, he tackles the last invocation, which seems to combine two different realms, the celestial and the chthonic, departing therefore from the traditional view in Greek cult and mythology. This came about in several steps, perhaps the identification of Apollo-Helios with Re and Shamash being the first of them, since both deities are closely involved with the underworld. Besides, one of the compositions borrows the language of traditional Greek necromantic ritual, which confirms the syncretistic tendencies of late imperial pagan religion.

In the third paper, “In Heaven as It is in Hell; The Cosmology of Seder Rabbah di-Bereshit” (233-274), Peter Schäfer studies this little known post-Talmud / early Geonic period text. Most of this text is not exegetical; it is composed of several “microforms” that can exist as independent units as well. What seems to be a Midrash to Ge 1:1 becomes a description of the seven heavens and the worlds and underworlds beneath them. This cosmology differs from the earlier Jewish cosmologies in its interest in what is beneath the heavens. The different manuscripts that preserve it describe the unity of the cosmos and the delicate equilibrium between the different spheres of creation. Thus, to each heaven corresponds a certain earth that mirrors it. Schäfer shows this equivalence by means of fourteen concentric semicircles which meet each other at a central horizontal axis. Schäfer states that the description constitutes a list, where “the lowest earth and the highest heaven contain precisely the same inventory: God himself and his immediate entourage” (p. 242). In fact, the main message of the text seems to be “just as his Shekhinah is above, so too is Shekhinah below” (p. 243). This constitutes the first case in the Jewish tradition in which a cosmological structure maintains a perfect balance between heaven and earth. After analyzing the composition of the Seder, Schäfer takes into consideration the history of the heaven / earth motifs in Jewish tradition and studies Jewish and Christian apocalypses and their heavenly focus as well as the main rabbinic texts that are “conspicuously colorless” (p. 270), since they do not furnish any details about the earths or the netherworlds and seem to stick to the old view of a pile of heavens and earths “like a multistory building”. Finally Schäfer takes a look at the Hekhalot literature, and he concludes that “the Hekhalot literature seems to combine the old biblical model with its seven-story heaven and the new Ptolemaic model” (p. 274).

In the next paper (“The Faces of the Moon: Cosmology, Genesis and the Mithras Liturgy” (pp. 275-295) Radcliffe G. Edmonds III locates the different faces of the moon and the cosmology of the Mithras Liturgy within the array of the different cosmological stances of the first centuries C.E. He argues that the warning about the face of the Moon and the avoidance of the moon in the Liturgy originate in a concrete cosmology whereas the positive attitude that can be observed in Julian and Plutarch stem from a different cosmological choice. He analyzes several elements such as the role of the moon in the cosmological divisions, the soul’s descent from the higher realms into matter, and finally, the nature of the feminine intermediary powers that rule over the boundaries between the cosmic divisions. Edmonds proposes that the ambivalent character of the moon has to do with the conception of the genesis and incarnation of souls as well as with the actual experience of living in the world, since different cosmological perspectives permitted different vital attitudes. The Mithras Liturgy and the magical spells incarnate a rather pessimistic view of the nature of the moon, and by extension, of the world.

In the last contribution,”‘Oh Paradoxical fusion!’: Gregory of Nazianzus on Baptism and Cosmology [ Orations 38-40]” (pp. 296-315), Susana Elm studies the innovative conception of baptism as a fusion between human and divine; according to her, Gregory avoided the traditional view of “conversion” considered as a sudden change and adopted a more gradual approach that envisioned religious change as a process. To show this, Elm studies the relationship between conversion and inscription, the idea of incarnation as appears in Gregory’s exegesis of Genesis, and the “terminology of light” that is crucial to the understanding of Gregory’s cosmological construct. All these concepts are subsumed in his theology of baptism. Finally, Elm addresses the reasons why Gregrory felt compelled to elaborate his ideas on baptism; Elm points out that Gregory’s conception was not dominant in his time and was competing with other visions that were very popular among the elite of the period, as the vision of the Novatians who preferred baptism late in life, that of the so called “Poor” who thought of baptism as almost superfluous, or the Eunomians who defended different ideas on the Incarnation. However, Gregory’s forceful preaching had success in confronting some of those positions, and several of them were condemned by Theodosius in 381.

This book is a superb example of both editorship and scholarship. It does not suffer from having originated in a conference, for the common focus holds the different contributions together, with the exception perhaps of the otherwise brilliant contribution of Elm. However there are some problems that could have been avoided: the final index includes at the same time authors and subject themes, which I find not very useful; besides, several small slips have crept into it (e.g., on p. 324 the heading “bridges” has the sub-heading “shamanistic ascension ritual” referring to pp. 23 and 176 where there are no such references). Regarding the Bibliography, the editors or perhaps the Press seem to have followed British rules instead of sticking to the SBL Handbook of Style; thus, in most cases the quotations in this volume provide only initials and place of publication, which makes life difficult for the scholar who simply wants to cite a work of this volume without going to the source itself. The book is virtually free of typos, with the exception of a few that I have spotted in bibliographical quotations (e.g., p. 298 Congreso Internacional La Hispania di Teodosio, instead of La Hispania de Teodosio).

Regarding the scholarship, each and every contribution provides new insights and useful information. The authors show a great command of the sources at their disposal and introduce the reader to new ways of analysis. This does not mean that the present reviewer agrees with every conclusion; e.g., I find a bit problematic Schäfer’s use of Second Enoch in his contribution; in the same way, I am not so confident as Johnston about the origin of the new role of the virtuous’ soul, neither do I find absolutely convincing Faraone’s hypothesis of the influence of Eastern sun deities on the chthonic characterization of Apollo as it appears in the invocations. However, no scholar ever agrees in every aspect with his colleagues, so these minor details should not deter any reader of tackling such a sound and serious book.