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Spiritual Ecstasy: Israeli Spirituality in the Days of Jesus the Messiah, by Kevin Williams

Modern archeology and the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls demonstrates very clearly that “spirituality” was alive and well among the reclusive Jewish Essenes. Their texts refer to the armies of light warring with the armies of darkness; an almost fanatical commitment to fasting to attain enlightenment; and their obsessive devotion to ritual baths in order to maintain spiritual purity.

According to Josephus and Philo, the Essenes, who possessed books of mysteries and knew secrets which they did not dare to disclose … [their] scrupulous cleanliness in clothing and food, industry, systematic daily routine, homage to light, and particular veneration of the Sabbath, were the chief features (A History of Jewish Mysticism, Ernst Müller, ©1946, Barnes & Noble Books, New York, NY, p. 44).

Yet within Second Temple mainstream Jewish sects—most notably the Pharisees—there was not only an appreciation for, but an active pursuit of “spirituality” that rose above what we might read about in the New Testament. In fact, the Pharisees, as described in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, can easily lead one to believe that the P’rushim (as they were known in Israel) were void of any spiritual understanding or appreciation, and therefore, devoid of the work of the Holy Spirit.

On the surface, we may reach the same conclusion that many have: that the Pharisees were opposed to all things spiritual. However, as we investigate sources outside of the gospel accounts, we find vibrant spirituality.

In the Talmud we learn by name of certain possessors of a mystic tradition who came from the ranks of the Pharisees. These men exhibit for the most part a double character, since many of them are at the same time prominent representatives of the strict ritual-halachist point of view. It would seem that within the larger schools of scholars there were formed special circles for the cultivation of the secret doctrine, consisting of scholars who in other respects also were in close contact with each other” (A History of Jewish Mysticism, Ernst Müller, ©1946, Barnes & Nobel Books, New York, NY, p. 44).

Shekinah is not a biblical word, but its concept and application come from the Jewish mystical writings.

The list of names would be rather meaningless to most modern Christians, but a few may be familiar: rabbis such as Akiva of the Bar Kochbah revolt of 135 C.E., or Ben Zachkai of the Yavneh Council around 70 C.E. For those students of Jewish theology, the list of names is long, and well recognized, as their writings continue to be required study 2,000 years later. In fact, their texts live on as the foundation of much of Jewish mysticism.

The Sefer Yetzirah (Book of Creation), Sitre Torah (Mysteries of the Torah), and others form the basis for a collection known as the Zohar (The Book of Splendor), a study in Jewish Mysticism, portions of which date back to the Second Temple Period. The anonymous portions of Zohar are typically attributed to the Tannaitic period and more specifically, the disciples of Hillel and such teachers as Rabbi Heir, Rabbi Judah Ha-Nasi, and possibly Rabbi Gamliel, the Apostle Paul’s teacher.

Zohar is concerned with interpreting the Bible in mystical and allegorical terms and has had wide influence among Jewish and Christian scholars.

Christianity, too, was interested in Jewish mysticism and it used the teachings of Kabbalah for the interpretation of various Christian doctrines (The New Jewish Encyclopedia, David Bridger, ©1962, Behrman House, Inc., New York, NY, p. 258, 541).

That Jewish mysticism—Kabbalah—has had any role in Christian scholarship likely comes as a great surprise to many. But here are a few examples:

1. Shekinah (Hebrew: “indwelling”) is not a biblical word, but its concept and application come from the Jewish mystical writings.

2. Logos (Greek: Word) is a common enough word in Christian circles, lifted from the beginning of John’s gospel. John’s use of the Greek, however, likely had its foundation in Jewish mystical theology through a concept known in the Aramaic as, memra—“Word of God.” Memra indicates anything from God, but distinct from God, revealing God’s character. Therefore any miracle, any angel, a prophecy, the text of the Bible itself, and ultimately, the Messiah, were all manifestations of the memra, distinct from God,1 but revealing His character and will.

3. Chayot (holy beings in animal form) are the mysterious beings found in Ezekiel, Daniel, and in the New Testament, in John’s Revelation. They were often human in form, but with the head, or heads, of animals. John’s incorporation and appreciation of these “beings” would not be unusual to Jewish scholars of his day. Chayot fit well into their understanding of spirituality.

4. Sorath (666) is a demonic bearer of this number under the mystic system of Gematria (numerology) and was applied to Roman Emperor Nero, as done by many Christian preterists today. John’s vision of 666 may not have formed in a vacuum, being found consistent with Jewish spiritualism. Kabbalah is a term found often in modern society, as it seems to be the fad religion of America’s high society. We can see in the unredeemed human condition a yearning to fill an empty soul with spirituality and, “The Kabbalah prescribed methods for attaining the Holy Spirit …”2 These celebrities may have turned their backs on Jesus Christ as Savior, but still recognize and yearn for something that looks like the work of the Holy Spirit.

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Category: Church History, Fall 2005, Pneuma Review

About the Author: Kevin M. Williams, Litt.D., H.L.D. has served in Messianic ministries since 1987 and has written numerous articles and been a featured speaker at regional and international conferences on Messianic Judaism.

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