Mysticism, Esotericism, and Gnosticism in AntiquityIn the event, neither Professor Stone nor I are able to make it to San Diego this year. Our contributions have been read in absentia. The session has just ended. As promised, I am now happy to share my review with you, my readers. Past PaleoJudaica posts on the book are here and links.
9:00 AM to 11:30 AM
Room: Sapphire 400B (Fourth Level) - Hilton Bayfront
Theme: Esoteric Religious Groups in Antiquity
Joint session with the AAR Traditions of Eastern Late Antiquity.
April DeConick, Rice University, Presiding
Book Review: Michael Stone, Secret Groups in Ancient Judaism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017)
Kelley Coblentz Bautch, St. Edward's University, Panelist (10 min)
James Davila, University of St. Andrews, Panelist (10 min)
Written Reflections from Michael Stone
Discussion (15 min)
Michael Stone’s book, Secret Groups in Ancient Judaism (OUP, 2018), takes the study of religious groups in Judaism of the Second Temple era in a new and fruitful direction. Based on the anthropological study of secret societies, the book develops the insight that the foundational concept in such groups is that there is knowledge that must be kept hidden. This leads them to create organizations with a pyramidal hierarchy, each level of which controls a larger group of followers. With this understanding in mind, Stone finds that secret groups leave a social-structural “footprint” that points to their existence. This book sets out to follow the trail left by secret societies in the ancient Jewish world. Time constraints preclude a full survey of the book’s arguments and conclusions. I will limit myself to noting some points of special interest and some directions for further research.
The showpiece for an ancient Jewish secret society is the Qumran covenanters, who Stone, following the scholarly consensus, identifies more or less with the Essenes. The Therapeutae are another likely example. These are the two decisively identified such societies, but there are many other possible cases. Notably, there are hints at secret knowledge and the existence of secret organizations in the ancient Jewish apocalypses, which Stone regards as themselves probably exoteric literature.
Stone notes that the theological terminology found in the Qumran sectarian texts does not appear in antiquity or later (with the possible exception of Karaite literature) in other Jewish texts. The implication is that the Qumran covenanters were a secret group. They kept their secrets and we only have them now due to an extraordinary chance discovery. The use of cryptic scripts in some Qumran sectarian texts likewise implies that the sectarians reserved some knowledge to be revealed in graded stages. One of these texts is an address by the Maskil, the “Sage” — the apparent leader of the group, to some of his followers.
Stone tentatively reconstructs at least three or four graded ranks in the hierarchy of the Qumran community. The fundamental division was between the community and the rest of Israel. Within that community were gradations, notably between those who had full access to the pure food of the group and those who were transitioning toward such access. Above such gradations there may have been a leadership group, the council of the community, which consisted of three priests and twelve laymen. And over them all was the Maskil.
Alas, no ancient literature of the Therapeutae has come down to us! We have only the brief account of them by Philo of Alexandria. They are similar in many ways to the Essenes, but they included women in the group. They had secret books that used allegorical exegesis. They had dream revelations. And the group had a hierarchy that ranked a member according to his or her admission seniority to the group. In Stone’s judgment, both the Qumran covenanters/Essenes and the Therapeutae were secret societies.
The ancient Jewish apocalypses may also provide us with information about ancient Jewish secret societies. But Stone takes the evidence in them to be of an indirect nature. The apocalypses do claim to reveal esoteric knowledge. It is possibly that the original authors intended them as esoteric works, but they seem to have circulated fairly widely. Stone argues that they are "pseudo-esoteric" literature and that their explicit teachings were never intended to be secret.
Nevertheless, some of the revelations mentioned in the apocalypses are not part of their content. These may well be references to actual secret teachings that were found in esoteric documents (or perhaps oral traditions) which no longer survive. A prominent example is the lists of revealed things in the apocalypses, which notably refer to cosmological and cosmic secrets that contained temporal and eschatological elements. It is unclear whether or not some of these were also of a salvific nature. Another intriguing example is the reference in 4 Ezra 14 to the seventy esoteric books to which only the wise should have access. And then the story of the watchers involves angels instructing humans and their own giant offspring in culture-hero teachings and unspecified divinatory and magical techniques.
There is evidence in the apocalypses for groups with the tripartite social structure that is typical of secret societies. At the top is a single seer (Ezra in 4 Ezra, Baruch in 2 Baruch, Isaiah in the Ascension of Isaiah). Below the seer is an inner circle: the wise who receive the esoteric books from Ezra; Baruch’s core group of five followers whom he teaches in private; and Isaiah’s inner circle who witness his visionary trance. Below the inner circle are the people, followers who do not have access to the secret teachings. They receive only the exoteric books from Ezra; Baruch addresses them only in public; and they are sent away from Isaiah’s visionary séance. This hierarchical structure is also reminiscent of the structure of the Qumran community.
Stone argues that these apocalypses also function as “authentication machinery.” They give us indirect evidence of actual practices and such in Jewish secret societies. Notable is the reference in the Testament of Moses to the hiding of the teachings of Moses in a scroll jar, an obvious parallel to the scroll jars found at Qumran. And the Similitudes of Enoch, the Book of the Luminaries, and the Book of Daniel present their pseudo-esoteric teachings as sealed away and only to be unsealed to future generations.
I have learned a lot from this book. It has helped me to look at the ancient evidence in new ways. The analysis of the texts in terms of the structure and worldview of secret societies provides a valuable new filter for understanding aspects of ancient Judaism.
The book is also agenda setting. In addition to the points of special interest that I have noted above, Stone has assembled a great many leads in the ancient texts that may produce additional information on secret societies in ancient Judaism and later. He has also flagged a vast amount of both primary and secondary literature that may be relevant to the subject. His primary sources range from Mesopotamian cuneiform literature, to literary and archaeological sources for the Mystery Religions, to rabbinic and extra-rabbinic traditions.
I close by pointing to some of the leads noted in the book that may produce fruitful future research on secret groups in ancient and later Judaism.
In sum, Michael Stone’s book, Secret Groups in Ancient Judaism, is an important contribution to our understanding of groups in antiquity who valued, hoarded, and transmitted esoteric knowledge.
- Magicians and exorcists have left behind written spells and practical manuals for their crafts. To what degree did their transmission of their trade secrets amount to membership in secret societies?
- Were the teachings of the watchers alluded to in the Enochic literature entirely imaginary, or does their mention testify to an underground magical and divinatory tradition with ancient real practitioners?
- We might infer from first principles that the priesthood of the Jerusalem Temple had its own body of secret teachings relating to service in the Temple. Have any of these survived? The rabbinic sources claim to transmit some of this material. Likewise, Aramaic Levi claims to give regulations for sacrificial rites undertaken by its Levitical priesthood. Is it possible to reconstruct some of the teachings and social structures of the ancient Jewish priesthood?
- I have already mentioned that some of the sectarian terminology and ideas found in the Qumran scrolls also appear in the medieval Karaite literature. Are these similarities due to chance finds of scrolls in the Qumran caves, whose ideas were adopted by the Karaites? This seems plausible. But is it also possible that some sectarian ideas survived in post-destruction secret societies and only resurfaced in our Karaite sources?
- Considerable Hebrew and Aramaic literature survives from the rabbinic period outside the rabbinic canon. These include astrological, magical, medical, and liturgical materials. In many cases, elements of these may point in the direction of their being secret knowledge. These await clarification.
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