In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Mysticism in Ancient Judaism and Early Christianity

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Gnostic Texts
  • Hekhalot Literature

Biblical Studies Mysticism in Ancient Judaism and Early Christianity
Hwankyu Kim
  • LAST REVIEWED: 23 March 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 March 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393361-0305


The term “mysticism” is a modern scholarly category, not an ancient concept. Although the etymology of the term “mysticism” (from the Greek word myeo [“to be initiated”]) has roots in Greek mystery cults, ancient people did not use the term to describe their religious experiences. “Mysticism” is rather an etic term, a modern analytic tool for investigating a cluster of religious phenomena in ancient literature. In early Jewish and Christian literatures, mysticism refers to religious experiences which embody the act of revelation itself, an encounter with God. Since only written records are available to us, the modern reader has no direct access to ancient religious experiences. Nevertheless, the value of these mystical texts is that they contain diverse projections and reflections of ancient authors’ beliefs and of their desire to understand a reality beyond the human realm and to experience a direct connection with a transcendent God. This connection is accessed either through ecstatic experiences or particular praxes, often resulting in the transformation of the mystics and the attainment of esoteric knowledge. Scriptural interpretation plays a pivotal role in the development of early Jewish and Christian mystical texts. On the basis of foundational scriptures, especially Genesis 1–3; Exodus 24 and 33; Ezekiel 1, 8, 10, and 40–48; Isaiah 6; and Daniel 7, ancient Jewish and Christian writers competed to explain certain biblical motifs and reinterpret them within particular sociocultural situations. The common mystical themes shared in both early Jewish and Christian literature include visions of an anthropomorphic God, stories about heavenly ascent, revelations of hidden secrets, angelic adjurations and liturgies, and transformative divine encounters. The range of materials brought to bear on early Jewish and Christian mysticism include Jewish apocalyptic and pseudepigraphic texts, Hellenistic Jewish Texts, the Dead Sea Scrolls, the New Testament, early Christian literature, Gnostic Texts, and Hekhalot Literature. This chronological order does not indicate a linear progression toward a discrete tradition; rather, the varied application of similar themes and literary forms represents the diverse nature of Jewish and Christian mystical traditions.

General Overviews

Scholarship on early Jewish and Christian mysticism is notorious for inspiring confusion due to definitional issues and its delineation of the phenomenon and its sources. Of the following introductory surveys, Scholem 1941 remains the starting point for most scholarly discussions. In particular, the book’s hypothesis about the notion of a single mystical tradition from the Second Temple era through the late rabbinic period continues to cause controversy among leading scholars. One line of study focuses on the shared mystical elements among mystical texts and pursues the notion of a single mystical tradition from Second Temple texts, through New Testament and early Christian texts, to Hekhalot literature (e.g., Alexander 2010, DeConick 2006, and Rowland and Morray-Jones 2009). The other line of study emphasizes the philological, hermeneutical, and conceptual discontinuities surrounding Ezekiel’s vision (e.g., Schäfer 2009). For this issue of the fragmented nature of scholarship and maximalist versus minimalist approaches, De Villiers 2018 and Lieber 2020 provide excellent overviews of the scholarship and of the complicated history of interpretation of early Jewish and Christian apocalyptic and mystical texts.

  • Alexander, Philip S. “Qumran and the Genealogy of Western Mysticism.” In New Perspectives on Old Texts: Proceedings of the Tenth International Symposium of the Orion Center for the Study of the Dead Sea Scrolls and Associated Literature, 9–11 January 2005. Edited by Esther G. Chazon and Betsy Halpern-Amaru, 215–235. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2010.

    DOI: 10.1163/ej.9789004183070.i-257.62

    A significant study on the question of mysticism in the Dead Sea Scrolls. In this essay, the author strongly argues that “there was mysticism at Qumran” and that the Qumran mystical corpus should be integrated into the history of western mysticism. The contents of this essay consist of identifying the Qumran mystical corpus, examining the nature of the unio mystica at Qumran, and making a claim for the inclusion of Qumran mysticism into the genealogy of western mysticism.

  • 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, Pieter G. R. de Villiers, and Adela Yarbro Collins, 7–59. Berlin: De Gruyter, 2018.

    DOI: 10.1515/9783110597264-002

    A recent learned and useful introduction to apocalypticism and mysticism in ancient Judaism and Early Christianity. The essay consists of two parts: (1) a history of scholarship, largely of apocalypses and apocalypticism (pp. 7–35); and (2) a review of recent research on the interface of apocalyptic and mystical texts, mostly addressing research on early Jewish mysticism (pp. 35–59).

  • DeConick, April D., ed. Paradise Now: Essays on Early Jewish and Christian Mysticism. Atlanta: SBL Press, 2006.

    This comprehensive research project by an SBL group on Jewish and Christian mysticism reviews various mystical traditions and themes in the apocalypses, Philo, Qumran, the New Testament, early Christian texts, and the Hekhalot texts. The brief and accessible entry essay discusses the definition of early Jewish and Christian mysticism in light of the belief in and religious experience of the divine.

  • Lieber, Andrea. “Early Judaism and Mysticism.” In Early Judaism and Its Modern Interpreters. Edited by Matthias Henze and Rodney A. Werline, 519–540. Atlanta: SBL Press, 2020.

    DOI: 10.2307/j.ctv1bd4n9z.27

    A good introduction to the history of scholarship on mysticism and early Judaism. This essay also discusses the intersections of Jewish mystical traditions with the study of rabbinic Judaism, the Dead Sea Scrolls, early Christianity, and Gnosticism.

  • Rowland, Christoper, and Christopher R. A. Morray-Jones. The Mystery of God: Early Jewish Mysticism and the New Testament. CRINT 12. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2009.

    DOI: 10.1163/ej.9789004175327.i-688

    The entire volume provides a helpful overview of how elements of apocalyptic and early Jewish mystical tradition shed new light on various aspects of New Testament theology. The book is divided into three parts. The first part is written by Rowland who surveys apocalyptic elements in the New Testament. The other two parts are written by Morray-Jones who deals with Hekhalot literature in relation to the New Testament.

  • Schäfer, Peter. The Origins of Jewish Mysticism. Tübingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck, 2009.

    This volume offers detailed and extensive exegetical work on individual texts, including the Book of Ezekiel, the Old Testament pseudepigrapha, the Dead Sea Scrolls, the works of Philo of Alexandria, rabbinic texts, and Hekhalot literature. Although common themes exist among these texts, the author finds no linear progression from Ezekiel to the Merkabah mystics. Instead, the author argues that early Jewish mysticism denotes the varied application of similar themes and literary forms within particular historical situations.

  • Scholem, Gershom. Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism. New York: Schocken Books, 1941.

    A core and indispensable resource for the study of Jewish mysticism. Against older scholarship which often regarded mysticism as a universal phenomenon, the author objects to such an abstract notion and instead argues that there is only the mysticism of a particular religious system. Moreover, the author considers Jewish apocalyptic literature as the forerunner of the Hekhalot or Merkabah mysticism.

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