Book Review: Marvin Sweeney, Jewish Mysticism: From Ancient Times through Today

Sweeney, Marvin A. Jewish Mysticism: From Ancient Times through Today. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2020. 432 pp. Hc; $60.   Link to Eerdmans    Link to EerdWorld to read a twenty-six page excerpt

In his preface Marvin Sweeny explains the need for a new textbook on Jewish mysticism. Since he began teaching both undergraduate and graduate courses, his only choices for textbooks were Gershom Scholem’s Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism (1941) and William Kaufman’s Journeys: An Introductory Guide to Jewish Mysticism (1980). Both volumes begin their survey with rabbinic literature. Sweeney could find nothing which included mysticism from the Ancient Near East, the Hebrew Bible, Qumran and Jewish apocalyptic texts. In addition, Sweeney gives a greater place in his volume to Jewish liturgical and theurgical practices, as well as textual interpretations of earlier mystical works. As he says in his introduction, later mystics built on their predecessors in order to “resolve ongoing problems left open by earlier movements and texts” (7).

Sweeney, Jewish MysticismThe first chapter describes visionary experiences in the Ancient Near East. By surveying Egyptian, Canaanite and Babylonian texts which depict “seeing and hearing the gods” Sweeney argues Ancient Near Eastern had a wide variety of ways of expressing human experience of the gods through dreams, visionary experience, and divine interaction. These were powerful experiences, but ultimately “undependable, self-interested, and frequently amoral.”

Chapters 2-4 survey visionary and dream experiences in the Pentateuch, Former Prophets and Psalms, and Latter Prophets (pp. 50-166). He collects every example of someone “seeing and hearing G-d” through visions and dreams in the canonical Hebrew Bible. Although these experiences often have tangible elements, “YHWH is experienced in the world by divine acts of mercy and justice the stand as the basis of the covenant between YHWH and Israel” (p. 81). For example, the Pentateuch describes YHWH’s enthronement in the tabernacle though the pillar of cloud and fire, but more importantly the Pentateuch “presents a creation narrative modeled on those of the Ancient Near East in which YHWH puts his creation in order, and establishes YHWH’s own people, Israel, in the midst of that creation, and establishes a sanctuary to honor YHWH as the creator” (p. 85).  Isaiah’s temple vision (Isa 6:1-13) and Ezekiel’s throne room vision (Ezek 1-3) are foundational for Heikhalot literature (temple visions) and Merkavah literature (throne visions).

Jewish apocalyptic literature serves as the transition from the Hebrew Bible to the Heikhalot literature. (ch. 5).  He begins with a survey of “proto-apocalyptic” such as Isaiah 24-27, 34-35, 56-66, Ezekiel 1; 8-11, 37, 38-39; 40-48; Joel and Zechariah 9-14. Wisdom literature is important for the development of Jewish mysticism, especially Job, Proverbs, and Song of Solomon. He then briefly discusses two major Second Temple apocalyptic texts 1 Enoch and Daniel (which uses “the setting the Babylonian exile to address issues relevant to the outbreak of the Hasmonean revolt against Seleucid Syria” (p. 189). In his brief survey of the Judean Wilderness Scrolls, Sweeny highlights the Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice as “anticipating later heikhalot compositions” (p. 194). Finally, he briefly introduces three late first century C.E. texts, Revelation, 4 Ezra and 2 Baruch. Although a Christian text, Revelation includes a heavenly ascent, throne room visions, and abundant allusions to the Exodus narrative. Both 4 Ezra and 2 Baruch call on Jews to “observe divine Torah” in response to the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple. This, Sweeny suggests, “constitutes the foundational viewpoint of rabbinic Judaism: to sanctify Jewish life and the world of creation by adhering to the divine Torah in preparation for the time when God would bring about the restoration” as promised in Ezekiel 40-48, Isaiah 40-66, Jeremiah 30-33, and Zechariah 9-14 (p. 206).

Chapter 6 introduces the Heikhalot and Merkavah literature. After the failure of the Bar-Khokba revolt and the development of Oral Torah, rabbis sought to place limits on study of mysticism.  Sweeney cites a parable which illustrates the dangers of mystical study (b.Hag. 14b). Four rabbis entered the Garden (Pardes, paradise), but only Akiva left unhurt. “Entering Pardes” refers to the proper study of the Torah. Only Akiva understood his own knowledge and succeeded in mystical study (p. 216). These experiences of these four are developed in the Heikhalot and Merkavah literature.

Sweeney surveys four texts in this chapter. First, Ma’aseh Merkavah is the most basic account of the four rabbis who ascended to Pardes. The book focuses on the hymns and prayers a mystic must employ in order to undertake ascent the seventh level of heaven. Second, Heikhalot Rabbati describes the ascent of R. Nehunyah ben Haqanah to the throne of G-d in the seventh heaven narrated by R. Ishmael ben Elisha. R. Ishmael was one of the key Tannaitic sages, one of the most prominent rabbis of his day and one the Ten Martyrs. The book anticipates a time when the Torah will be “fully understood and applied to the sanctification of the world of creation” (p. 222). Third, one of the oldest heikhalot texts, Heikhalot Zutari (Lesser Places) begins with the parable of the four rabbis attempting to enter Pardes in order to “specify the experience of the prospective mystics” (p. 231).  The book refers to Metatron, the powerful angel of the presence who sits on the throne of G-d in the seventh heaven when Go-d is not present. The name may be derived from the Greek meta, with, and thronos, throne, but Sweeny suggests it is related to the Aramaic mattara’, “keeper of the watch” (p. 238). Finally, in this chapter, Sweeney introduces Sefer Heikhalot (Third Enoch). The book seems to be a response to the story of the four who entered Pardes but focuses on the visualizations of Metatron.

Chapter 7 surveys the transition from Heikhalot to early Kabbalistic literature. Kabbalah means tradition or “that which is received” and the study of this literature became a major Jewish mystical movement in the mid-twelfth century. Since Heikhalot literature assumes the transcendent nature of G-d who is approached by the mystic through liturgical prayer and theurgic practice, and Torah study, the Kabbalistic literature began to consider the immanent presence of G-d in the world of creation. After an introduction to the development of Jewish life in the Middle Ages, Sweeney introduces several early Kabbalistic texts.

First, Shiur Qomah “is easily one of the most problematic, controversial, and misunderstood writings in all of Jewish tradition” (p. 255). The name of the books means “The Measure of G-d’s Body,” a fair description of the contents of the book G-d’s height is given and 2,300,000,000 parasangs and the crown on his head is an additional 600,000 parasangs. A parasang is 30 stadia, or about 3.5 miles. G-d’s height is therefore more than 80 billion miles and an additional 2.1 million miles for his crown. The point here is that “the divine presence is beyond human capacity to comprehend in any meaningful way” (p. 263). Second, Sefer Yetzirah, the “Book of Formation,” focuses on language has the means by which G-d manifests himself in creation and the creative power of human speech. The book observes that G-d spoke ten times in Genesis 1 and then uses several other numerical observations to outline the Ten Sefirot and describes their role in creation. Third, Sefer Habahir, the “Book of Brilliance” is the first major Kabbalistic work (p. 271). The name derives from Job 37:21, the sun is “brilliant (bahir) in the clouds.” Sweeney suggests the development of the Ten Sefirot in the book is dependent on gnosticism and is highly intertextual. The book is a synthesis of earlier Jewish texts with gnostic ideas to explain how an ultimately transcendent being can be fully present in a finite earthly world. He concludes the chapter with a brief survey of other key movements and figures in the period (The Hasidei Ashkenaz, Isaac the Blind, and Abraham Abulafia).

Chapter 8 focuses on the most well-known kabalistic texts, The Zohar. The name Zohar means splendor or brilliance and is likely drawn from Ezekiel’s description of a human-like figure show lifted the prophet up and transported him to Jerusalem to witness the fall of the city (Ezek 8:2). The book is a mystical comment on the Torah revealing the hidden meaning of the text. Like earlier kabalistic texts, the primary concern of the text is how the infinite character of God is manifested as a divine presence in a finite world (p. 289). The book therefore discussed the Sefirot, God’s shekhinah, his glory dwelling in the world (using sexual language), the nature of creation and the origin of evil and demons.

The final two chapters treat more recent forms of Jewish mysticism. In Chapter 9 Sweeney discusses Lurianic Kabbalah, a popular movement prompting Jews to adopt kabalistic spiritual practices and study in anticipation of the messianic age when the Messiah would appear, the temple would be reestablished, and the world of creation would be completed” (p. 325). After a short review of the Spanish expulsion of Jews in 1492, Sweeny describes the activity of Jewish mystics who gathered in in Safed, a small town in the upper Galilean hills. R. Luria (1534-1572) studied under kabbalist Moses Cordovero (1522-1570) and became the principle kabbalist teacher in Safed after Cordovero’s death. Luranic kabbalah has three basic principles. First, the Tzimtzym is the contraction of the infinite God into the finite world. Second, Luria’s idea of the Abba (father) and Imma (mother), two aspects of God. When they are united, they form the third basic principle, the Zeir Anin, the “Impatient One.” Each of these three principles are tied to aspects of the Ten Sefirot. Luria also believed in the transmigration of the soul: a tzaddik (righteous person) could embody a past tzaddik. Luria thought he was the embodiment of R. Shimon bar Yohai, for example. This form of mysticism had an influence on Shabbetai Zevi (1626-1676), a failed messiah who converted to Islam in 1666. Many of his followers continued to believe he was the messiah long after his death (the Dönmeh).

Chapter 10 concludes with an introduction to Hasidism, the modern manifestation of Jewish mysticism. He is quick to point out modern Hasidism as nothing to do with the earlier movement. In this chapter, Sweeney describes the earlier mystical and pietistic movement led by Baal Shem Tov (1700-1760) in the early eighteenth century and his follower Shneur Zalman (1745-1831). Zalman was the founder of the Schneersohn family line and the founder of Habad Hasidism (p. 379). Habad theology is rooted in the idea God is the only reality in the universe and all other realities are illusions. The chapter traces several movements which developed from this eighteenth century origin, including Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook (1865-1935) and the Lubavitcher Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson (1902-1994).

Conclusion. For each mystical text surveyed in chapter 6-10 Sweeney provides a footnote to sources for reading the text and key studies. He only rarely uses long quotations from the texts, preferring to summarize the esoteric content for the reader. Although I would usually prefer to read selections from the original texts, the esoteric nature of this literature makes me appreciate his careful summaries. Still, a second volume collecting example readings for each chapter would be useful, especially when this book is used in a classroom setting.

NB: Spelling and use of YHWH and G-d conforms to Sweeney’s text. Thanks to Eerdmans for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

What was the Problem in Colossians?

One of the main issues we need to sort out for understanding the letter to the Colossians is the nature of the false teaching which was causing problems in the church.  Paul clearing thinks that it is important enough to write a letter to a church which he did not found in order to correct the problem.  Paul says that members of the church are being help captive to this inadequate theology, which he calls a philosophy and an empty deceit (Col 2:8).

Burn the HereticJames D. G. Dunn suggested that the problem in Colossae was the same as in Galatians and other early Pauline epistles – Jews were arguing that the gentile Christians were not really “saved” since they did not keep the ceremonial law of the Jews, especially Sabbaths and food laws.  This is the “normal” Jewish critique of Gentile Christianity.  While this adequately accounts for the Jewish aspect of the Colossian heresy, there is nothing in Galatians which leads to the conclusion that worship of angels or visions were part of the Judaizer’s agenda.

Fred Francis has argued that the Colossian church was influenced by the merkabah mysticism of early Judaism.  This mystical form of Judaism stressed visions of heaven and the throne room of God.  This sort of vision is found in the Enoch literature and likely does date to the pre-Christian era.  A potential problem for this view is that most of the merkabah-type literature we know about is found in Judea, not Asia Minor.

In his presidential address at the 2011 ETS conference, Clint Arnold suggested that the false teaching in Colossae was related to the type of Jewish exorcisms we find in the sons of Sceva (Acts 19).  In that passage these Jewish exorcists attempt to cast out a demon in the name of Jesus, but are soundly beaten by the demon possessed man.  Arnold discussed parallels in the Testament of Solomon, which is more or less a manual on how to diagnose a demon possession.  If the demon’s name could be discovered, then the appropriate angel may be invoked to bind that demon and free the person from oppression.

I thought that Arnold did a good job supporting his claims, and it is a connection which ought to be obvious for anyone who reads the Testament of Solomon.  He illustrated his point with several images of magical amulets found in Asia Minor which invoke angelic names as magic charms and occasionally depict Solomon as conquering demonic powers.   While Arnold did not take it this far, it is possible that a Jewish mystic / exorcist came to faith in Jesus as savior, but failed to move away from his esoteric practices to deal with demon possession or other illness.  Like the Corinthians, some  individuals in the Corinthian church were continuing to believe and practice in ways which were not compatible with their new faith.  Instead if visits to the Temples, as in Corinth, these believers were clinging to their esoteric knowledge which they believed controlled demons and illness.  For Paul, this is an inadequate view since Jesus created these spiritual powers (Col 1:15-20) and has already rendered them powerless.

Thinking of the Colossian heresy in these terms provides another level of application which may be overlooked.  For new believers in the non-western world, it is difficult to leave certain culturally accepted folk beliefs because they seem to “work.”  But there are ways in which believers in the west fail to “take every thought captive” to Jesus (2 Cor 10:5)


J. D. G. Dunn, “The Colossian Philosophy:  A Confident Jewish Apologia,”  Biblica 76 (1995): 153-81.
Fred Francis, “Humility and Angel Worship in Col 2:18”, in Conflict at Colossae, 163-95.