Heavenly Worship in Second Temple Judaism, Early Christianity, and Gnostic Sects: Part 1

By guest blogger, Stephen L. Huebscher

This series was originally written as an academic paper for presentation at a conference. At the time, we were doing research on the divine council for what ended up in Mike’s book The Unseen Realm. I had told Mike I was interested in worship. He helped me design a topic that was more likely to be included in the program, and this was the result! At the conference, I was assigned a time slot late in the day in a tiny room that was hard to find. Only a handful of people came. Nevertheless, there are some really interesting conclusions here (to me at least) that say, in the simplest terms: worshiping God with other believers in a church is important. There is more to worship than what is here, but there is not less. Someday, I hope to write a book on worship, and this will be part of it, somehow.

Ancient peoples often believed that heavenly (celestial) worship provided a normative or authoritative pattern for earthly worship. They also commonly believed in some kind of divine transformation (e.g., glorification) in the presence of the god or God. The biblical texts tended to belong to one stream (though not exclusively), while the texts with a platonic-like cosmology tended to belong to another stream (again, with exceptions).  Over time the divergence between the two became greater, and shows up most obviously later in the mystical Jewish hekhalot texts (which are not covered here). One of the difficulties of this study is that non-biblical texts, such as the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Nag Hammadi Gnostic manuscripts, are often highly fragmented and with little context, so most conclusions are tentative, whether explicitly stated or not.

STEP ONE: DEVELOPING A VOCABULARY

Here is a brief overview of some of the key words and concepts relating to worship, some of which are not obviously connected with worship at a first glance. Obvious worship words are the easy ones, words like “sing,” “worship,” “priest,” “sacrifice,” “incense,” and “pray,” especially when several of these are used together in phrases such as “sing the praise of x.”  Subtle worship words are a bit more tricky, like “congregation,” “assembly,” “stand before,” “serve,” “bow,” “remember.”  These words are more dependent on the context for their liturgical meaning.  For this study, I have coined or at least adopted terms to identify kinds of language that I did not otherwise have language for. There are several groups of this. For instance, what I will call exaltation words are not directly about worship, but often give the context where worship is implied. This includes phrases like “exalted above every name,” “exalted in the heavenlies,” etc.  There can be overlap with cosmological words.  Cosmological words are also not directly about worship, but often give the context where worship is implied.  This would include such things as “the highest heaven,” “the heaven of heaven,” “ascending,” etc. Architectural words include things like “temple,” “palace,” “tabernacle,” “house,” and “tent.”  All of these words can be used for the dwelling place of a god/God, and therefore also for the place of worship.

STEP TWO: RECOGNIZING THE BIBLICAL, HEAVENLY PARADIGM

Many of the key texts from the earlier part of the Old Testament continued to be influential. Contrary to what mainstream scholars hold, I believe that much of the Pentateuch is from the time of Moses. Look at the emphasis on the heavenly source for worship that we find in Exodus 25:9,40. (Actually, this idea of a heavenly pattern was fairly common throughout in the ANE.)

 Exodus 25:9, 40. Exactly as I show you concerning the pattern of the tabernacle, and of all its furniture, so you shall make it. (v. 9 ESV) And see that you make them after the pattern for them, which is being shown you on the mountain. (v. 40 ESV)

One of the last books written in the Old Testament was the book of Chronicles, along with others such as Ezra and Nehemiah. In Chronicles, at the end of the Old Testament period in the Persian times, we find that the biblical author repeated this same idea about the importance of the heavenly source and paradigm for Israel’s worship. Notice this text, which refers to the plans for Solomon’s temple:

 1 Chron. 28:19. All of this the LORD made clear to David directly in a document, including the plan for all of the work. (1 Chr. 28:19 CEB)

Later on, early Christian writers (both biblical and post-biblical) also used terminology that points to this kind of understanding, both in Scripture and in the first few centuries following.

 Luke 20:4. The baptism of John—was it from heaven or men? [The implication is that if it was based on a heavenly paradigm, then it should  be recognized as authoritative.]

 Hebrews 9:24. Christ has entered, not copies, but heaven. [The assumption is that earthly temples are copies of the heavenly sanctuary.]

 Ignatius Trall 3.1. Similarly, let everyone respect the deacons as Jesus Christ, just as they should respect the bishop, who is a model of the Father, and the presbyters as God’s council and as the band of the apostles.  Without these no group can be called a church. [This implies that the local church reflects in a physical way the heavenly council paradigm.]

 Ignatius, Magn 6.1. Be eager to do everything in godly harmony, the bishop presiding in the place of God and the presbyters in the place [= Greek topos; variant, Greek typos = “after the model”] of the council of the apostles and the deacons . . . .  [Again, Ignatius is drawing a parallel between the local church as the visible representation of the celestial divine council.]

 Passion Perpetua & Felicitas 4. This was the vision I had.  I saw a ladder of tremendous height made of bronze, reaching all the way to the heavens, but it was so narrow that only one person could climb up at a time. . . .  At the foot of the ladder lay a dragon of enormous size. . . .  I trod on his head and went up.  Then I saw an immense garden, and in it a grey-haired man sat in shepherd’s garb; tall he was, and milking sheep.  And standing around him were many thousands of people clad in white garments.  He raised his head, looked at me, and said: ‘I am glad you have come, my child.’  He called me over to him and gave me, as it were, a mouthful of the milk he was drawing; and I took it into my cupped hands and consumed it.  And all those who stood around said:  ‘Amen!’  At the sound of this word I came to, with the taste of something sweet still in my mouth. [In this important text, Perpetua, who was an early Christian martyr, reports a vision given to her in which God is pictured as an old man and the martyrs in heaven celebrate the Eucharist.  The implication is that these early Christians who recorded and handed this story on believed that they were worshiping the same way that those in heaven were worshiping.]

 Origen, Commentary on John 13.99. For just as the angels (as even the Jews would agree) do not worship the Father in Jerusalem because they worship the Father in a better way than those in Jerusalem, so those who can already be like the angels in their attitude will not worship the Father in Jerusalem but in a better way than those in Jerusalem . . . . [boldface added; Origen claims Jewish support for the idea that heavenly worship is superior to earthly worship, and then adds that Christians who are already like the angels in their attitude will worship God in a superior, i.e., a heavenly, way.  Thus, Origen holds that Christian worship is on par with the heavenly worship, and seems to reflect a belief in a heavenly paradigm.]

 Origen, Commentary on John 13.146. We want to honor God in truth and no longer in types, shadows, and examples, even as the angels do not serve God in examples and the shadow of heavenly realities, but in realities that belong to the spiritual and heavenly order, having a high priest of the order of Melchisedech as leader of the saving worship for those who need both the mystical and secret contemplation. [Origen believes that Christian worship, unlike Gnostic worship, participates currently in a real way in the celestial worship, thus reflecting belief in a heavenly liturgy of which Jewish worship was a shadow.]

 In the coming posts, we’ll look at OT texts, Second Temple non-biblical Jewish texts, NT and early Christian texts, and then drawing some general conclusions.

 

NOTES/BIBLIOGRAPHY

All quotations from the Apostolic Fathers are from the translation of Lightfoot, Harner, Holmes, 2nd edition.

All quotations of Origen’s Commentary on John 13-32 are from Ronald E. Heine, trans., FOTC, Origen: Commentary on the Gospel According to John Books 13—32 (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1993).  Thanks to Peter Martens for pointing out this passage to me.

“The Martyrdom of Saints Perpetua and Felicitas,” in Acts of the Christian Martyrs, trans. Herbert Musurillo (London, UK: Oxford University Press, 1972), 111-13.

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