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Mystical Elements in Early Christianity

Tom Hickey

If one digs into the scholarship, one will find that early Christian mystical teaching was more Kabbalistic (Mystical Jewish) than Gnostic, as is sometime thought. As a matter of historical record, early Christianity  was an exclusively Jewish phenomenon since this was the sole context in which Master Yeshuvah appeared and taught. It was adapted to similar Gentile teachings, such as Gnosticism from the Zoroastrian East and Platonism from the Hellenized West, only after Paul.

Paul never met Jesus while he was teaching, and although Paul claimed to be a student of Gameliel (which some scholars question), he was apparently quite Hellinized and may even have moved in Gnostic circles.  (According to his successor, Valentinus, a chief Gnostic teacher, was initiated into wisdom by Paul. See Elaine Pagels, The Gnostic Paul). It seems clear that Paul was quite aware of the Kabbalah of the time also. Moreover, he explicitly states that he is willing to assume whatever was required for the situation, and he seems to have switched them with facility.

The Alexandrian church added further richness to the development of Christianity since it was a center of world trade where there was some knowledge of Hindu, Buddhist, Magian and Egyptian sources. A lot went into the historical mix that is now difficult to unravel, especially since there were many in depth rewrites in the developmental years and much of the original material has been lost. Fortunately, theexternal link Qumran andexternal link Nag Hammadi finds are shedding fresh light through recovered documents, and contemporary scholars are armed with powerful research tools.

The kernel of early Christian teaching is found in the Logos doctrine of the Gospel of John, which has been mistaken by some as a Gentile import. Contemporary Jewish scholars, such as Robert Eisenman, have shown how this was actually a mystical Jewish influence that was later eradicated from Jewish tradition under the aegis of the Rabbinical Judaism following upon the destruction of the Temple and the great Diaspora, largely in reaction to Christian doctrine and persecution of the Jews. Similarly, only Gentile Christians were left shortly after the destruction of the early Jerusalem church and they were ignorant of the mystical Jewish roots of the Trinitarian teaching, so they adapted non-Jewish theological models to what was originally a Jewish teaching. See, for instance, Robert Eisenman, James, the Brother of Jesus.

In addition, the Christian notion of the Holy Spirit is a clear reflection of the traditional concept of God's Presence (Shekhinah), often referred to as feminine in both Faiths. In fact, it could be maintained that there is no difference in the Kabbalistic view of the Holy Spirit and the Mystical Christian, at least in their purest sense, that is, devoid of perfunctory bows to traditional expression. (Perhaps this would be an interesting topic to develop.)

The problem arose later in Christian theology due to the influence of Greek thought, in which substance played a major theoretical role. When the Christian theologians attempted to explain what they admitted to be the mystery of the Trinity, they got themselves into a logical conundrum due to the substance terminology inherited from Greek philosophy. It is a conundrum from which they have not been able to escape to the present day due to the inertia of tradition become convention.

Another difficulty in the conventional Christian Trinitarian doctrine grows out of confusing the physical aspect of the advent of Jesus with the Son (Logos) and maintaining that the body of Jesus is the exclusive "Son of God." This interpretation of the "Son of God" terminology seems to have arisen out of the imperial claim that the emperor was the "Son of God" (just as the Chinese emperor was called the "Son of Heaven," where "Heaven" is fairly equivalent to the Western concept of God). Christians responded by maintaining that Jesus as the only Son of God, and so a particular theological interpretation was raised into dogma by hierarchical fiat. While this may have been an accident of time, so to speak, it has continued to make Christians blind-sided to another interpretation of "Trinity" that fits on all fours with all the world's mystical traditions and can be called the Universal Teaching.

home pageTom Hickey

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content by Tom Hickey
page uploaded 19 April 1999