Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Rowland, "Things into Which Angels Long to Look"

Christopher Rowland, “Things into Which Angels Long to Look: Approaching Mysticism from the Perspective of the New Testament and the Jewish Apocalypses,” in Christopher Rowland and Christopher R. A. Morray-Jones, The Mystery of God: Early Jewish Mysticism and the New Testament (CRINT, vol. 12; Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2009), pp. 1-216.

In this study Christopher Rowland provides an outstanding survey of apocalypticism in the New Testament (NT). Rowland is to be commended for presenting a thorough argument in favor of the permeation of apocalypticism in New Testament theology. Instead of a limited focus on apocalyptic eschatology, Rowland capitalizes on the theme of the volume by analyzing apocalypticism in its “mystical” aspects. Following Hengel’s definition of apocalypticism as the search for “higher wisdom through revelation,” Rowland is keen to highlight visionary experience(s) and developed angelological and merkavah themes. Thus Rowland seeks to establish the apocalyptic origins of Christianity (á là Schweitzer) by conceptualizing apocalypticism along its (Jewish) mystical axis.

After outlining this basic goal of the study in the first chapter, chapter two discusses the nature of apocalypticism in terms of “the disclosure of heavenly knowledge.” Questioning the widely received distinction between apocalypticism and the genre apocalypse, Rowland would prefer to speak of a ‘transcendent eschatology,’ “thus reserving ‘apocalyptic’ to describe the distinctive religious outlook of the apocalypses themselves, with their distinctive ‘mystical’ concern to offer the apprehension of divine mysteries by means of revelation, whether through dream, vision, audition or inspired utterance.” The distinctiveness of this kind of revelation is that it comes “direct from God through vision or through divine emissary” (18). Rowland further adumbrates the relationship of apocalyptic both to wisdom and to Torah, as well as to the two strands of early Jewish mysticism (ma’aseh bereshit and ma’aseh merkavah) and their antecedents in the Pseudepigrapha.

The next six chapters are dedicated to a particular body of literature, in which Rowland traces apocalyptic and mystical themes. Rowland begins in chapter three with Enoch and the place of Enochic traditions in early Christianity. Rowland highlights Enoch’s place on the “boundary between angels and humans” as heavenly scribe and intercessory. This status provides Enoch’s “authentic perspective on the world and God’s perspective on it” (48). Rowland next offers a concise survey of resonance with traditions of Enoch’s exaltation in Jude, Luke-Acts (Jesus’ Ascension), 1 Peter, Revelation, and 2 Corinthians. Thus, these mystical and apocalyptic Enoch traditions enjoyed a certain prominence in the NT and early Christianity.

In chapter four Rowland addresses the book of Revelation. The placement of Revelation so close to the beginning of his discussion of NT apocalypticism is important and is a welcome structural choice. As Revelation is the only apocalypse in the NT, Rowland rightly examines this book before turning to the rest of the NT. Turning back to the question of mysticism, Rowland begins the chapter by hinting that the idea of mystical union, or “communion with the divine” (63), is already a concern of Revelation. Even more, the themes of angelology, heavenly audition, and hidden matters are characteristic of contemporary Jewish mystical literature. The most important aspect of Revelation, however, is its visionary dimension. One of the most interesting, albeit flawed (see below), discussions in the whole chapter is Rowland’s discussion of the literary representation of the visionary experiences. Revelation is “prime testimony to the existence of a lively visionary, experiential engagement with Scripture in the first century CE” (99).

After securing Revelation’s mystical strain by appeal to other Jewish apocalyptic texts, Rowland moves on to “the mystical element in the Gospels and Acts” in chapter five. Rowland again focuses on the angelological and the visionary elements of these books. In short, Rowland analyzes those passages “in which heaven impinges on earth” (99). Again, angelophanies (e.g. in the Lucan infancy narratives), the angelic themes in John the Baptist, and the angelomorphic qualities of Jesus’ transfiguration play an important role in Rowland exposition. Finally, Rowland unpacks John Ashton’s remark that John is an “apocalypse in reverse”: In John, the ascent of a human (mystic/apocalyptist) to God to receive divine wisdom is reversed in the descent of God to humans.

Chapter six argues for the apocalyptic themes in Paul’s writings, following the lead of Schweitzer, Bockmuehl and Segal (among others). The ascent to Paradise in 2 Corinthians 12 receives due attention, but he also traces the remainder of Paul’s letters for themes of mystery and hidden wisdom. In chapter seven, Rowland primarily examines the evidence of Hebrews, Ephesians, and 1 John. Hebrews and Ephesians, he argues represent a spatialization of temporal apocalyptic hope. The so-called delay of the parousia disappointed apocalyptic expectations, but these expectations were projected onto a spatial dimension. Thus, in Hebrews we find a comparison between the heavenly sacrifice of Jesus and the earthly sacrificial cult. Likewise, Ephesians does not evince interest in secrets of the future, but it does describe the cosmic battle of the church, through which it looks for protection from the (present) glory of heaven. This interest in spatial-cosmological speculation reveals two apocalyptic themes: 1. interest in what is beyond human comprehension, and 2. communion with the Divine.

Chapter eight takes its starting point from the Ascension of Isaiah to discuss the relationship between apocalypticism and Gnosticism. The descent of the Beloved from heaven reveals hostile angelic powers in the lowest heaven. Combined with the Ascension’s lack of interest in the future of the earthly realm, it may evince an early analogy to the same process whereby Gnosticism came to denigrate the material world.

Finally, Rowland concludes with a final discussion on the nature of apocalypticism and mysticism. Apocalypticism has two basic functions in the literature surveyed. First, it prescribes a certain ethic in the face of the ephemeral trials; second, it maintains religious identity in adverse circumstances (203). Latching onto this idea of identity and the subversive potential of both mysticism and apocalypticism, Rowland produces an interesting theory: “Interest in the mystical is not of itself subversive. Yet part of the story which has been told in this part of the book has been about the way in which mysticism has provided not only a ‘background’ but also a dynamic which has helped propel ideas and form new social movements. Apocalyptic imagery provides a framework for theology and the foundation for the central features of the Christian theological system” (205).

Rowland is to be congratulated for filling an important lacuna in research on NT theology and Christian origins. On the whole the study succeeds in establishing a core apocalyptic sentiment in the writings of the NT. To my knowledge, this is the most comprehensive exploration of apocalypticism in the NT, and for that reason it will surely be an invaluable study for years to come. Nevertheless, the study does suffer from some difficulties and shortcomings. I will elucidate three.

First, the question of definition: Rowland fails to adequately define either apocalypticism or mysticism. Rowland follows Hengel’s definition for apocalyptic as “higher wisdom through revelation,” although Hengel used this designation for intellectual currents broader than, though including, apocalypticism. Rowland also notes the distinctiveness of this concept of revelation is in its divine source (either direct from God or divine intermediary). But how much utility does this definition carry? One could certainly say that Gnosticism is beholden to the same concerns. This definition practically encompasses the whole of revelatory literature of the period, although similar Hellenistic works do not seem to be included here. Nowhere do we find a definition that tells us angelological speculation or visionary experience are distinctively apocalyptic (or mystical) themes, and yet these are the two themes Rowland is most concerned to foreground. Rowland is wary of making a clean separation between the literary genre apocalypse and apocalypticism, and rightly so. Nevertheless, the vacuum of scholarly definition is hardly filled by a better alternative.

If Rowland’s definition of apocalyptic is broad, his definition of mysticism is practically non-existent. It seems that Rowland relies on more of an intuitional sense of what constitutes mysticism. His is certainly an educated intuition, as I think many would agree that heavenly visions or auditions may best be labeled as mystical phenomena. Nevertheless, Rowland offers no definition of mysticism from which we might get a sense of what does and does not constitute mysticism. He leaves us with the truism that mysticism is hard to define (11), and hints that it has something to do with communion with the divine (6-7).

There are gains and losses to Rowland’s skeletal definitions. The main loss is a clear sense of the relationship between apocalyptic and mystical phenomena, writings, or experiences. Is apocalyptic a type of mysticism, is mysticism a type of apocalypticism, are they parallel phenomena, or are they equivocal? These are important questions that unfortunately Rowland has left largely unexamined, and that is a pity given that the book is about “Early Jewish Mysticism and the New Testament.” But there is another side to this coin. By leaving the connections largely unspoken, Rowland has not confined his analysis to one particular model of mysticism. Considering that mysticism is indeed difficult to define, there is some wisdom here. In eliding the question of precise connection between apocalypticism and mysticism, Rowland has been able to survey the NT corpus with reference to a number of works that are typically labeled (at least since Scholem) as Jewish mystical works. More importantly, the lack of clarity in the connection is made up for in the specificity of topoi surveyed. Rowland primarily traces three subjects: visions and visionary experiences; angelological speculations; and Merkavah themes. All of these are major components of later strands of so-called Jewish mysticism.

This discussion brings us to the next difficulty with Rowland’s study, the question of parallels. One of the great strengths of Rowland’s study which shows his remarkable learning, is his ability to draw on a broad swath of Second Temple and Rabbinic parallels for the material in the NT under discussion. This may be the most valuable aspect of Rowland’s study. Not only does he draw in a wide variety and large number of texts, but it is clear that he knows them well, and he is able to discuss them with accuracy (an example being the fine use he makes of the Apocalypse of Abraham). That said, there is a noticeable lack of Hellenistic materials. In part, this is no doubt due to the subject and size of the volume. The lack is all the more noticeable when one reads the pages of Hengel from whence Rowland derives his definition of apocalyptic. Hengel argues that apocalyptic was a reaction to Hellenistic preoccupation with similar divine disclosure. Of course, to consider the Hellenistic question would be to add a great bulk to the volume, and it would no longer be about “Early Jewish Mysticism,” although a similar consideration of the relationship of Hellenistic mysticism to Jewish mysticism could certainly enrich our understanding of early Jewish mysticism and apocalypticism.

On perhaps a more pedantic note, one may ask what work the parallels are doing. Rowland writes: “A study of mysticism in the New Testament involves not just the demonstration of this or that parallel with the apocalyptic tradition of Judaism but involves the identity of Christianity itself” (206). The demonstration of a parallel is not the demonstration of a relationship. The relationship between mysticism and apocalypticism remains obscure. While parallels exist between early Christian texts and Jewish apocalyptic texts, the parallels remain without demonstrative force. Thus, there is no definite argument achieved regarding the mystical nature of these NT texts simply from parallels in the contemporary Jewish literature. Nevertheless, the corroborating evidence and suggestiveness of the parallels are very striking, and to this reviewer convincing.

Finally, the question of experience. The attempt to track “experiences,” religious or otherwise, in literary remains is extraordinarily difficult and fraught with snares. Rowland utilizes the idea of mystical experience throughout the study, but especially with reference to visionary experience. In fact, in some ways Rowland’s attempt to draw together apocalypticism and mysticism depends on this very question. Is apocalypticism best described as a mystical phenomenon, a social phenomenon, or a literary phenomenon? As early as the introduction, Rowland builds an apology for understanding reports of visions as just that and not as a literary mechanism:

"The early Christian texts relate…visionary experiences in a matter-of-fact way, with a minimum of detail or fuss. It is now impossible to be certain whether they record the visionary experiences of these key figures of early Christian life. Nevertheless, given the widespread existence of the visionary and mystical in the Christian material of the first century or so, not to mention its profound importance for the growth of the movement, it would be an excessively suspicious person who would deny that some authentic visions lie behind some or all of these brief literary records. When John the visionary on Patmos speaks of ‘being in the spirit on the Lord’s day’, he beckons interpreters to consider what is written in a way different from the work of the ordinary collector of traditional material or visionary scribe. A ‘principle of credulity’ rather than of scepticism infuses the following pages, therefore, accepting the possibility that visions have prompted the words we now read rather than literary artifice alone, unless there are strong reasons for supposing the contrary" (7, emphasis mine).

I have emphasized a few choice phrases here. In the first place, I am not sure that it takes an excessively suspicious person so much as simply a rationalist to deny authentic visions lying behind the reports of such visions in the NT. This is especially true given that by ‘authentic vision’ Rowland seems to posit some spiritual power as an agent (see next quote). Second, a ‘principle of credulity’ is not a historical principle. In fact, it is the opposite of the principle of criticism, and betrays the fundamentally theological perspective of the author here. Third, it is not clear to me how a principle of credulity jumps from the ‘possibility’ of an authentic vision prompting apocalyptic texts, to the plausibility of the same.

This problem is only amplified in Rowland’s discussion of Revelation:

"A peculiar book requires a hermeneutic peculiar to itself. If, as is assumed in this study, John’s apocalypse is largely the report of a visionary experience, we need to take care not to approach its interpretation as if what confronts us represents in its minute details the intention of the seer, therefore. A vision, like a dream, is something which is given not created, a product of psychological and spiritual forces which often defy analysis of the ingenuity of their recipient. ….For the seer apocalypse is not an intellectual project in any conventional sense, therefore, nor can one approach it as if one is interpreting and epistle or even a narrative text, in which authors are seeking to present traditions or communicate their points of view. Intertextual connections one can find in a text like Revelation are less deliberate allusions than the manifestation of a visionary culture, in which key scriptural texts, like Ezekiel and Daniel, provide the necessary components for apprehension and comprehension of divine truth" (64).

It is hard to underestimate the value of this judgment. The assumption is that there is an actual vision behind the text of Revelation. Moreover, the text itself is an attempt merely to capture what is given. But this is almost an impossible tension to maintain, except from a theological perspective. It is my view that an actual divine revelation cannot be posited by a historical model of analysis, but that is precisely what Rowland’s study asks us to posit. At the very least we must say that the psychological perception of a vision overrides what we actually have—a highly worked over and deliberately constructed text of some sophistication. Is there not sufficient reason to suppose that literary artifice is sufficient to explain this text? In spite of my theological sympathies with Rowland’s argument, Revelation is most obviously a work of some literary art.

These problems notwithstanding, Rowland has provided an immensely valuable study of the apocalyptic matrix of NT theology and Christian origins, and it should long be a standard work to consult.


Mark James said...

"A peculiar book requires a hermeneutic peculiar to itself."

This, at least, strikes me as sage advice. Perhaps the problem is that, while Rowland is clear that Revelation is the 'report' of a vision or a dream, he immediately abandons this insight when he applies the claim 'a vision, like a dream, is something given not created' to the text of Revelation. As you say (and even on a fairly credulous reading!) Revelation is clearly also a literary creation. So why do we have to choose -- mystical, social, literary, whatever? Wouldn't the most fruitful historical methodology consider how experience and context and intertext and literary craft interact in complex ways?

Andy said...

I think the question is apt, and I myself and trying to figure out how visionaries came to craft such intricate texts. The easiest explanation is that the visions are the texts--that is the scribal production is a kind of surrogate vision. That's being generous. The easiest explanation is that the texts are literary works of some ingenuity. That we have access to. The psyche of the author, we do not.

If we wish to be less skeptical I think we must proceed on theological not historical grounds. History does not have access to the experience of the author. What concerns me about Rowland's claim is that potentially takes the text out of a common community of interpreters. It is not far from "a peculiar hermeneutic" to "this/our hermeneutic". And this paradigm has dominated the interpretation of Revelation for centuries. That's one reason the sciences were developed. Common ground. The claim to peculiarity is the claim to uniqueness, which is a denial of the criterion of analogy, to a degree.

It seems to me that Rowland's claim re: Revelation does the work of trying to get around our ignorance of the social location of John and his craft. I could probably blab further, but I should get back to other things for now.