Essay: Apocalypses and Mystical Texts: Investigating Prolegomena and the State of Affairs, by Pieter G. R. de Villiers

In this essay which introduces a volume of essays exploring the nature and origin of Jewish mysticism and its relation to Christian mysticism, Pieter de Villiers describes modern developments in the study of Jewish and Christian apocalyptic and mystical texts.  Here is his summary of the essay:

Early Jewish and Christian apocalyptic and mystical texts have a complicated history of interpretation. Eventually, many were discarded or neglected by faith communities, only to resurface and, ironically, to become a central theme of research in Jewish and Early Christian studies in modern times. The contemporary interest in both these collections of texts is the outcome of scholarly research of many centuries. Initially this research responded to the rediscovery of texts, but gradually it intensified as scholars came to appreciate their importance for the interpretation of biblical times. Of the two collections, apocalypses received more attention than mystical texts because faith communities had to account for the inclusion of Daniel and Revelation in the Hebrew and the Christian Scriptures while other apocalypses were excluded. This was not easy, given the large number of apocalypses that were in circulation. Over time, research on them became complex, not only because of new manuscript finds, but also because of the many debates about their nature, contents and function.

Mystical texts received less attention in biblical scholarship. It was only from the second half of the twentieth century that mystical texts were researched in more depth and explored as significant phenomena in the religious discourse of antiquity, especially in apocalypses. Research into mysticism resulted from the discovery of mystical texts and the realisation that they offered vital clues for the interpretation of apocalypses.

This essay also illuminates how apocalyptic research offers a significant hermeneutical key to the interpretation of Judaism and Christianity. This selective overview of a complicated history of reception will focus on how apocalyptic research, once it became a discipline within the academic discourse in late modernity, overcame its initial ignorance of mystical texts to embrace them as vital clues for its understanding of apocalypses. It analyzes the hurdles that apocalyptic research had to overcome to determine its relevant sources and, also, the process that ultimately led to its discovery of the intricate interaction with mystical texts.

The article then analyses the history of mystical research in modern times, with attention to the work of Gershom Scholem, who noted how the mystical experience was expressed primarily and uniquely through the notions of a heavenly ascent motif, supported by other motifs like the throne, angels in attendance and the seven heavens. It then discusses the contribution of Ithamar Gruenwald who accepted Scholem’s thesis of a shared mystical experience and tradition that stretched from apocalyptic texts to Hekhalot traditions. Unlike Scholem he traces the earliest post-biblical traces of Merkabah mysticism to apocalyptic literature and biblical texts. It then investigates how scholars reacted against this research by pointing out the many differences between mystical texts in the various historical periods, thereby challenging the claim that they reflect a unified development. Attention is then given to various readings within Jewish scholarship of mystical texts. There is, firstly, the interpretation of Idel, who, unlike Scholem and many other scholars, specifically embraced the notion of unio mystica as unitive factor and regarded it as central in mystical texts. Mysticism, he states, “seeks contact, and even unification, with God, in an experiential and subjective manner.” Idel’s work was criticized by Schäfer, who regarded it as an attempt to theologize mystical experience by interpreting mystical texts in terms of their shared spiritual contents. The essay then analyses religious practices as a key characteristic of mystical texts before focusing on the role and nature of experience in mystical thought. The article is concluded with a discussion of the common ground between all the different mystical texts.

Here is the essay’s citation:

De Villiers, Pieter, G. R. “Apocalypses and Mystical Texts: Investigating Prolegomena and the State of Affairs.” In Apocalypticism and Mysticism in Ancient Judaism and Early Christianity, edited by John J. Collins and Pieter G.R. de Villiers, 7 ff. Berlin: De Gruyter, 2018.

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