Apocalypse Then


The Jews returned from Babylon in the year 539 before the Common Era, or rather they began to do so then, since many remained in Babylon, and those who came back to Jerusalem and Judea did not arrive all at once. But they flourished, their numbers grew, and they were not much disturbed at first by the Hellenistic kingdoms that were established all around them after the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BCE. Their upper classes were Hellenized, yet for more than a century most of them held fast to their traditions. From 200 BCE on, they were ruled by a Hellenized Syria, which sought total control over them. In 175 BCE, Antiochus Epiphanes, king of Syria, declaring that he was the manifestation of Zeus, set up an altar to Zeus in the Temple at Jerusalem. Confronted by this “abomination that desolates” (as it is called in the Book of Daniel), the Jews inevitably rebelled.

From 167 BCE onward, Judas Maccabeus and his brothers fought the series of wars that were to make the Jews independent again until the Romans under Pompey invaded them in 63 BCE. Until the year 66 of the Common Era, the Jews uneasily tolerated Roman dominance, but the inevitable and catastrophic rebellion then broke forth, culminating in the fall of Jerusalem and destruction of the Temple in 70 CE. The ultimate catastrophe came with the last Jewish war against Rome, led by Simeon bar Kochba, who perhaps was proclaimed as the Messiah by the aged Rabbi Akiba, the greatest spiritual leader in the long history of Judaism. With the second fall of Jerusalem to the Romans in 135 CE, the Jews became stateless again, and were not to repossess the site of the Temple until 1967, nearly two decades after the rebirth of Israel.

I sketch this familiar history as a prelude to reviewing the new edition of the Pseudepigrapha, or those Jewish writings (circa 200 BCE to 200 CE) falsely, but as a matter of convention, attributed by their authors to crucial personages in the Hebrew Bible. Necessarily, I choose to void the long but bad tradition that speaks of the “Old Testament,” since truly it was and is the “Original Testament,” while the “New Testament” more accurately was and is, shall we not say, the “Belated Testament.” But that condition of belatedness, of an anxious sense that one lacks originality, is as much the peculiar mark of nearly all the Pseudepigrapha as it is of the supposedly New Testament. The four centuries of torment, first under Syria and then under Rome, with the troubled reigns of the Maccabeans in between, brought forth both the Pseudepigrapha and the Christian Testament, each scored by the political and religious disasters suffered by the Jews in that age.

This welcome new edition of the Jewish Pseudepigrapha, ably edited by James H. Charlesworth but abominably printed by Doubleday (try reading the footnotes without incurring eyestrain and headache), reopens endless questions about the precise relations between Judaism and the origins of Christianity. I shall evade those questions here in favor of analyzing two of the most important Pseudepigrapha, so as to venture some judgment about their spiritual and literary value (if any) in comparison with the Hebrew Bible and even with rabbinic writing, and also to speculate upon why they were rejected by the tradition that (following the Harvard scholar G.F. Moore) we have learned to call “normative Judaism,” by which we mean religion prescribing for all Jews an ethical way of life based on sacred texts as they are interpreted by rabbinical authorities.

Normative Judaism is still the religion of the Jews, and presumably it always will be, but it came into existence quite late in Jewish history, though it always has proclaimed itself as the religion of the patriarchs, and of Moses, and of David the King, and of Ezra the Scribe who helped lead the Return, and of his followers down to the death of the High Priest Simeon the Just around 270 BCE. The actual origins of normative Judaism cannot be traced precisely, but there was an undoubtable movement from priest to rabbi long before the Maccabees rose against the Hellenizers. Before the Temple was defiled, let alone destroyed, the center of Judaism had been moved from priestly worship to the study of the Bible. While the Temple could never have prevailed against Hellenism, Torah hardly could fail to win out, whether one wishes to give the credit to God or to the absolute devotion of the normatively religious. Perhaps the credit should be given to Ezra, the sixth-century BCE scribe or interpreter, whom nowadays we would call a critic rather than a historical scholar. Ezra’s followers—the scribes, called “the men of the Great Synagogue” and “the men of the Book”—were the teachers who developed his mode of interpretation, midrash, and who strengthened the tradition so as to fight off Hellenism, an achievement made possible by a later, ironic conversion to Jewish purposes of the Platonic idea that a people could be made holy through organized study.

For nearly a century after 270 BCE or so, we have no clear information about the continuity of Ezra’s tradition. In 196 BCE, the Sanhedrin or rabbinical senate was instituted, and it probably included a group strongly opposed to Hellenization. This group may have had some link with the Hasidim, those zealous adherents of Torah who joined the Maccabean revolt; and perhaps they also were connected later on to the rise of the Pharisees under the Hasmonean kings descended from the brothers of Judas Maccabeus. The Pharisees, the “separated,” became prominent well before 100 BCE, and clearly were the precursors of the great rabbis of the first two centuries of the Common Era with whom we most centrally associate normative Judaism: Hillel, Shammai, Gamaliel, Johanan ben Zakkai, Akiba, Ishmael, Tarphon, Meir, Judah the Prince. My thumbnail sketch slights crucial distinctions, since the Judaism of 200 BCE to 200 CE underwent enormous changes, had astonishing diversity, and perhaps displayed more discontinuity than any retrospective view as yet knows how to admit. What seems beyond dispute is that the rabbis of the second century CE, and Akiba in particular, represented the culmination of the processes that brought forth the normative Judaism that still exists today.

What we call the Pseudepigrapha was rejected by normative Judaism, just as the now better-known writings we call the Apocrypha were rejected. The Apocrypha or “hidden” books were regarded not necessarily as heretical but rather as inappropriate for group religious services. In an almost unique ancient act of translation, the Hebrew Bible was rendered into Greek for Alexandrian Jewry, and this version, the Septuagint, included what now is called the Apocrypha—a naming that follows the usage of St. Jerome in his great Latin Bible, the Vulgate. Among the Apocrypha are works far superior, in a literary sense, to any of the Pseudepigrapha. Especially remarkable are the books of Tobit and of Judith, the story of Susanna, the Wisdom of Solomon, and in particular Ecclesiasticus or the Wisdom of Jesus ben Sirach, which certainly should have found an appropriate place in the canon of the Bible. Indeed, it is a considerable puzzle why Jesus ben Sirach was not included by the rabbis since the book is eminently in the normative current, surpassingly eloquent, and profoundly within the chain of tradition passing from Ezra on through the Pharisees. The Apocrypha is of course not under review here, and I mention its exclusion because it raises sharply the issue of the canonical principles upon which the rabbis worked.

Canon” is a Christian term, first used in the fourth century CE; the word itself appears to refer to a reed used as a measuring rod. The Hebrew notion of canonicity was far more vivid, being conveyed by the metaphor that sacred texts were those that “defiled the hands.” This great rabbinical paradox, “defile” where we might expect “purify,” presumably meant that the holiness of the book would defile hands not sufficiently sanctified. Since we have not lost the idea of canonicity, even in our secular academies, we can measure our estrangement from religious traditions by reflecting how odd the Hebraic metaphor would sound if we employed it now: “The poems of John Ashbery, unlike, say, those of—(fill in whom you will: the Imamu Baraka? Sylvia Plath? Allen Ginsberg?) truly defile the hands.” Yet the curious power of the metaphor still abides, and it seems very clear why none among the Pseudepigrapha defiles the reader’s hands. We cannot imagine Rabbi Akiba saying of the pseudepigrapha called 1 Enoch—with its frenzied vision of apocalypse and resurrection—or of the Sibylline Oracles what he beautifully said of the Song of Solomon, when he triumphantly fought for its entrance into the canon:

God forbid that any men of Israel should deny that the Song of Songs defiles the hands; for all the ages are not worth the day on which the Song of Songs was given to Israel. For all the scriptures are holy: but the Song of Songs is holiest of all.


The subtitle of this new version of the Pseudepigrapha is “Apocalyptic Literature and Testaments.” The promised second volume will be more miscellaneous, comprising wisdom literature, fragments of lost Judeo-Hellenic works, prayers, psalms, and expansions of books in the canon of the Hebrew Bible. Compared to that grouping, the volume under review is almost monotonously unified, since the “testaments” are more apocalyptic than not; nor would it be wholly unfair to say that when you have read one ancient apocalypse you have read them all. Apocalypse as a form has taken surprising turns in Romantic and modern literature, from Blake and Shelley to Gravity’s Rainbow, but the form’s early history, from the Book of Daniel on to the Revelation of John and the later Pseudepigrapha, shows relatively little development or variety. It is even something of a puzzle why the Book of Daniel got into the Hebrew canon, but that is matter for speculation later.

The word “apocalypse” derives from the Greek apocalypsis, “uncovering,” and represents a final unveiling or, to change the figure, a last taking-off of the lid. A traditional apothegm holds that failed prophecy becomes apocalyptic, while failed apocalyptic becomes Gnosticism—a permanent resigning of nature, time, and history to the powers of darkness. The middle place of apocalyptic in that saying positions it between prophetic hope and Gnostic despair, but however transcendent the apocalyptic hope, a despair over the here and now is always an apocalyptic stigma.

Beyond question, the most impressive of ancient apocalypses is the first, the canonical Book of Daniel—canonized by the rabbis of the second century, however, among “the Writings” rather than among “the Prophets,” where it is to be found in the Christian Bible. Daniel, composed probably during the Maccabean revolt, is in a clear sense a work of patriotic purpose, a kind of war poem intended to inspire the Jews to the valor their difficult situation demanded. In the book’s crucial seventh chapter, the author of Daniel has a vision in which four rough beasts rise out of the sea:

Daniel spake and said, I saw in my vision by night, and, behold, the four winds of the heaven strove upon the great sea.

And four great beasts came up from the sea, diverse one from another.

The first was like a lion, and had eagle’s wings: I beheld till the wings thereof were plucked, and it was lifted up from the earth, and made stand upon the feet as a man, and a man’s heart was given to it.

And behold another beast, a second, like to a bear, and it raised up itself on one side, and it had three ribs in the mouth of it between the teeth of it: and they said thus unto it, Arise, devour much flesh.

After this I beheld, and lo another, like a leopard, which had upon the back of it four wings of a fowl: the beast had also four heads; and dominion was given to it.

After this I saw in the night visions, and behold a fourth beast, dreadful and terrible, and strong exceedingly; and it had great iron teeth; it devoured and brake in pieces, and stamped the residue with the feet of it: and it was diverse from all the beasts that were before it; and it had ten horns.1

Tradition has it that the lion with eagle’s wings was Babylonia, the bear was Media, the winged leopard was Persia, and the terrible horned beast Macedonia-Greece, particularly the Hellenized Syria against whom the Maccabeans rebelled. However arcane we find this symbolism, it probably was instantly clear to the Jews of the second century CE, and its effect upon them intense. How original would it have seemed to them?

I do not intend the secondary senses of originality by this question, but rather its primary sense, one akin to Plato’s aphorism: “The beginning is like a god which as long as it lives among men saves all things” (Laws 775). There is a feeling of freedom in felt originality that perhaps allies all major cultural strands in our traditions, even the largely antithetical Hebraism and Hellenism. The Jews battling against Hellenism in the days of Judas Maccabeus must have heard echoes in the Book of Daniel, echoes of moments in the prophets Ezekiel and Zechariah in particular, and also in Joel and Isaiah 24-27. Yet the apocalyptic form and its promise to tell secrets was essentially new to them.

The Pharisees and the rabbis of the normative tradition after them rejected every other apocalypse, leaving them to the Pseudepigrapha, and yet they canonized Daniel among the Writings. Originality, odd as it seems, may have won Daniel its place. Patriotism perhaps was a motive, since the book might have reminded the rabbis of a heroic age in the life of their people. What seems likelier is that the Pharisees stressed right action above all, and Daniel is an apocalypse that has not yet despaired of the effects of right action among the living. It is with the movement from Daniel to Enoch that apocalypse forsakes all traces of what the normative rabbis considered the Way we ought to follow, and that a spirit moved among the Jews difficult to reconcile with what was most central in their traditions.


Reading through this new edition has sent me back to the earlier edition of R.H. Charles, The Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha of the Old Testament in English, and to the same scholar’s once-standard study, Eschatology.2 Refreshingly missing in the new edition is the strong bias Charles manifests against rabbinic Judaism and in favor of the apocalyptic writers. Though this movement from Charles to Charlesworth is surely a scholarly advance, it perhaps obscures the crucial contrast between Talmud and Apocrypha, or between Pharisaism and apocalyptic, which had its own critical value. Charlesworth and his colleagues are responding not only to more general improvements in historical scholarship but to the highly specific discovery of the scrolls from the Dead Sea, which provide overwhelming evidence that Judaism before the first fall of Jerusalem was spiritually and intellectually more diverse than anyone had realized. Another factor working against too strict a distinction between early phases of the normative tradition in Judaism and the development of apocalyptic speculations is that our earlier information about the Judaic process of the formation of the canon has now been questioned by much recent scholarship.

Most scholars once believed that a rabbinical council meeting, with Roman permission, at Jamnia, Palestine, established the final canon of the Hebrew Bible in 90 CE. It appears now that the books of the Law had been established long before the second century BCE, and the Prophets perhaps just as the second century BCE began. After 90 CE, rabbinical debates continued on the canonical worthiness of the Book of Esther, Koheleth or Ecclesiastes, and Akiba’s well-beloved Song of Solomon or Song of Songs. The apocalyptic pseudepigrapha were thus composed and disseminated during an era in which the canon was by no means fixed, whether for Jews or (from about 50 CE on) for Jewish or Gentile Christians. Indeed, for Christians the New Testament canon remained open until 367 CE. (The Revelation of St. John the Divine evidently was not accepted by the Greek Church until the tenth century, and Syrian Christians today still exclude it.)

Canonicity remains a troublesome category, both within the religions and in the literary culture of our secular universities and schools. Thus 1 Enoch and some other pseudepigrapha are still, I believe, canonical for the Falashas or Ethiopian Jews, who finally are being helped to come into the state of Israel, after long and shameful delays for which some elements in the normative rabbinate must be held partly responsible. Clearly, and sadly, the issue of canonicity, even among Jews, remains a matter of some pragmatic consequence, and of course it forever will divide Jews from Christians, since religious Jews would lose their authentic identity if they were to grant even a shred of canonical status to the belated or New Testament. There is, for believing Jews, simply no spiritually honest way to reconcile the Hebrew Bible with the Gospels, and each time I have attended an academic conference on Jewish-Christian “dialogue” I have witnessed a futile exercise in humane self-deception.

My earlier formula “from Charles to Charlesworth” therefore has a dialectical undersong to it, because though there is scholarly and social gain in the differences between editions of the Pseudepigrapha, there is also polemical and even spiritual loss. A scholar like Charles, once representative of Christian opinion, overvalued the apocalyptic literature because he believed it to be the true child of prophecy, in contrast to the rabbinic writings:

It is now clear, I think, that from Nehemiah’s time onward prophecy could not gain a hearing, whether the prophecy was genuine—that is, appeared under the name of its actual author—or was anonymous, unless it were acceptable in the eyes of the Law. From the class of genuine and anonymous works we pass on to the third division, the pseudonymous…. How are we to explain the pseudonymity of Daniel and the other apocalyptic works of the second century BC, such as Enoch, Jubilees, and the testaments of the XII Patriarchs?… These apocalyptists do not merely repeat the old truths, which in so many cases had become the mere shibboleths of a petrified orthodoxy, they not only challenged many of the orthodox views of the time and condemned them, but they also carried forward the revelation of God in the provinces of religion, ethics, and eschatology. Against the reception of such fresh faith and truth the Law stood in the way, unless the books containing them came under the aegis of certain great names in the past.3

This rather extraordinary view of “the Law” is merely a repetition of the parody of Pharisaism that dominates the New Testament, and is particularly virulent in the Gospel of John. But at least Charles, with all his prejudices, renewed the traditional polemic against normative Judaism, a polemic which is, after all, the essence of Christianity, inexpedient though it be to say so. The proper corrective to Charles was given by the English Unitarian Robert Travers Herford, in his splendid book The Pharisees.4 Herford’s argument is admirably illuminated by Glatzer’s observation that the Talmudic, Pharisaic, rabbinic “system” was “an ethical discipline, a guide to the application of ethics in active, private, and communal life, while the apocryphal books were books in the modern sense: expressions of the thinking of solitary individuals.” This contrast touches upon something of the modern appeal of apocalyptic literature, quite aside from its affinities either to the Essene community of Qumran or to the early Christians. Against this appeal, Glatzer empathizes instead with Herford’s preference for the Pharisees. Few moments in religious polemic seem to me as effective as Herford’s crushing response to Charles:

It is no doubt true that the “Law” did acquire a supreme place in the Judaism of the centuries since Ezra. But, if there had been, during those centuries, any real prophets who felt that they had a word of the Lord to declare, they would have declared it. Who would have prevented them? Certainly not the “Law,” nor those who expounded it. Rather, who could have prevented them? Amos said what he had to say in spite of the priest and the king; and, if there had been an Amos in the centuries now in question, he would have spoken his word regardless of Pharisee or Scribe, in the very unlikely case of their wishing to prevent him.

Also, if there had been a second-century Amos, there would have been some trace of him. But there is no trace. The Pharisees recognized the fact that prophecy had come to an end, and drew their own conclusion from that fact. And the Apocalyptic writings are a witness, not to “the tyranny of the Law,” but to the feebleness of those who aspired to wear the mantle of Elijah. If their writings had appeared under their own names, it is quite conceivable that no attention would have been paid to them; their device of introducing their works under the shelter of great names—Enoch, Moses, Solomon, Ezra—was one which men of original genius would not have needed nor condescended to use. Did John the Baptist fear “the tyranny of the Law,” or let it prevent him from delivering his message? Yet he spoke without concealment of his own identity, and there was never any doubt about his gaining a hearing. The Apocryphal writers included neither an Amos nor a John the Baptist, else they would not have written anonymously. Their works bear out this opinion, for their want of original power is conspicuous. They are obviously based on the prophetic writings; and, what is more, the peculiar type of Apocalyptic writing is repeated in its main features over and over again.5

Strong as this is, and wholly convincing to me, it is made still more severe by Herford’s closing defense of the Pharisees against the visionaries: “Apocalyptic is full of promises, but it has never kept one of them.” Even the great Akiba, leader of the Hillelite group among the Pharisees, was rightly reproved by another sage when the ninety-year-old scholar yielded to apocalyptic yearning and proclaimed Simeon bar Kochba the Messianic king: “Akiba, grass will grow out of your jaw and the Messiah will not yet have come!”6

Herford, in the tradition of British Protestant dissent, which has roots in normative rabbinicism, was defending the Talmudic insistence upon right action and deep study. The defense was against the ancient apocalyptics’ belief in salvation by faith alone, and so ultimately against the Essenes of Qumran (discovered only after Herford’s death) and St. Paul, who put forth what, from the Jewish point of view, is an absurd but permanently influential parody of the Law in his Epistle to the Romans. The wilder texts of salvation by faith are precisely those the volume under review makes more available than ever before, and so I turn now to them, starting with Enoch, of whom Genesis 5:24 so mysteriously had said: “And Enoch walked with God: and he was not, for God took him.”


The oldest of the three pseudepigrapha attributed to Enoch is the Ethiopic Apocalypse of Enoch, translated in this new edition by E. Isaac. Generally called 1 Enoch, this violent and gaudy book had an influence upon the New Testament that is out of all proportion with its intrinsic value. Indeed, it is a weird jumble, at least as we have it, having been composed by several different writers over a span extending throughout the last two centuries before the Common Era, and possibly well on into the first century CE.

Like Daniel, the original of the Ethiopic Enoch probably was a mixture of Hebrew and Aramaic. Fragments of 1 Enoch were found among the Dead Sea Scrolls, and the apocalyptic Qumran Covenanters may have included the book in their own esoteric canon. The reader coming to 1 Enoch now may be as receptive to apocalypses as the Essenes and early Christians were then, but it will be difficult for him to share in any of the ancient enthusiasm for this curious, composite vision of the end of all things. The authors, whoever they were, took as their starting point one laconic bit of the greatest of Biblical writers, the first major storyteller whom scholars call J or the Jahwist:

And it came to pass, when men began to multiply on the face of the earth, and daughters were born unto them,

That the sons of God saw the daughters of men that they were fair; and they took them wives of all which they chose.

And the Lord said, My Spirit shall not always strive with man, for that he also is flesh: yet his days shall be a hundred and twenty years.

There were giants in the earth in those days; and also after that, when the sons of God came in unto the daughters of men, and they bare children to them, the same became mighty men, which were of old, men of renown.7

The eloquence of the King James Version here is worthy of the original. But something of the J writer’s uncanny irony is lost: these mismatches between divine beings and earthly beauties brought forth the Nephilim, the giants who were the heroes of old, the men with a name. That is all the J writer cared to say about them; they did not interest him in comparison with his heroes, true men with a name, Abram who became Abraham, and Jacob who became Israel. But the apocalyptists who wrote Enoch were considerably more interested in this passage than J ever was. J lived probably during Solomon’s reign or just after; they lived in a Judea always threatened by a Hellenized Syria. J’s elliptical anecdote becomes in them a fall of the angels, and so the point of origin for an enormous demonology, appropriate to a time of troubles like their own, which was probably pre-Maccabean. The fallen angels presumably are the Macedonian princes of the Hellenistic world, and the vision of their punishment manifests the element of angry wish-fulfillment that is an unpleasant feature of all apocalypses whatsoever.

Yet 1 Enoch shows traces of the Hellenistic universe it opposes, so that the doom of the evil angels is associated also with an ascent of Enoch into the other world—almost as though only angelic sin yields a revelation to us. The heavens and hells Enoch describes are not very inventive, but all demonology, both ancient and modern, remains much indebted to them, since this book is our source for most of the demonic crew. More interesting, then and now, is the apocalyptic figure of the Son of Man, enigmatic in Enoch as he was in Daniel, where presumably he originated.

Chapter 7 of Daniel is a vivid fantasia in which the martyred Hasidim who died in the Maccabean revolt become associated with a younger demigod, the Son of Man, who is given dominion by an older deity, the Ancient of Days. In itself, this baffling mythopoeic projection presumably would not have so strongly affected Christians, except for its claboration in 1 Enoch, where Enoch himself becomes the Son of Man and is celebrated as a divine redeemer. Though this part of 1 Enoch is still considered to be pre-Christian, and was not taken up by the Essenes, it has nothing left in it of the normative Judaism of the Pharisees. Talmudic rabbinicism was and is monistic, committed to an absolutely powerful God; a cosmos of fallen angels and a heavenly redeemer is already as dualistic as early Christianity was to be.

E. Isaac, introducing his translation of 1 Enoch in this volume, remarks upon its theological importance for clarifying “the rich complexities of both intertestamental Jewish thought and early Christian theology,” but wisely makes no assertions about its intrinsic value. To a lay reader like myself, as opposed to a scholar of these matters, it is difficult to see how 1 Enoch could clarify anything. The book (or books) is not complex but merely complicated, and its authors lacked not only originality but also any theological coherence. Nearly all ancient apocalypses, the Revelation of St. John the Divine decidedly included, manifest a considerable incoherence that seems to belong to the nature of the genre, and perhaps also the psychology of hysterical repression that informs it.

Apocalypse as a literary genre, I would grant, has to be distinguished from apocalypticism as a mode of feeling, thinking, acting—that is, as a system of belief. Yet the distinction, which is clearly valid for Blake and Shelley, or for the Yeats of “The Second Coming” or the later D.H. Lawrence, is difficult to justify for works like Daniel, Enoch, and the Revelation of John. The literary form of ancient apocalypse, as analyzed by an authority like P.D. Hanson in The Dawn of the Apocalyptic (1975), shows a fairly tight structure involving a divine revelation mediated by an angel or even a redeemer, and communicated to a visionary so as to foretell an inevitable future, catastrophic and yet at the last salvational. But apocalypticism transcends any pattern, and diffuses into a cosmos of torment that reflects a psychology of the tormented self. Jewish history from the Hellenic oppression under Antiochus Epiphanes through the Roman destructions of Jerusalem and on through the centuries would seem to be an inevitable spur to apocalypticism. The late Gershom Scholem magnificently researched and reconceived the later fortunes of Jewish apocalypticism, as part of his life’s work of demonstrating that the counternormative tradition of the Jews and Judaism was as important a continuity as the rabbinical tradition, and indeed that the two frequently could not be distinguished from each other.

Scholem was fascinated by 3 Enoch, a Hebrew Apocalypse of Enoch which probably was composed as late as the fifth or sixth century CE, but which purports to be the work of the great rabbi Ishmael, who was martyred by the Romans just before the rebellion of Bar Kochba and Akiba in 132 CE. The book is translated and introduced with great learning by P. Alexander in this new edition, and despite the prolixity and redundancy that marks this work, it seems to me that making it available is the largest single contribution of the volume under review. Though 3 Enoch is traditionally called “a Hebrew Apocalypse,” its genre is not an apocalypse at all, but rather a vision of the Merkabah, the heavenly chariot that opens Ezekiel’s prophecy, and that established not only a tradition of mysticism based on this vision but also one of Kabbalistic speculation that Scholem urges us to consider as “Jewish Gnosticism.” This is a strange oxymoron, and one not acceptable to the normative tradition because it would deny that God is the author of this world.

Daniel, chapters 7-12; 1 Enoch, chapters 14-15; 3 Ezra, chapters 9-13; 2 Baruch: all these are as clearly apocalypses as are the Revelation of John or Night the Ninth of Blake’s The Four Zoas, but 3 Enoch is something quite different, and for all its speculative wildness, it does not violate the fundamental ethos of the rabbinical tradition, at least not in Scholem’s formidable judgment. This is also the informed conclusion of its current translator, Alexander, who observes that “The Merkabah texts concentrate overwhelmingly on the mysteries of heaven and on the description of God’s throne: they show little interest in eschatological themes such as the last judgment, the resurrection of the dead, the messianic kingdom, and the world to come, all of which figure in classic apocalyptic.”

With 3 Enoch the common reader, guided by Alexander’s commentary and by his minutely careful translation, will have access for the very first time, in English, to a work absolutely central for the study of all Jewish esotericism. Mystical speculation was practiced in private by the Talmudic rabbis, was then handed on to medieval German-Jewish mystics, and culminated in the Zohar, the central text of late-thirteenth-century Spanish-Jewish Kabbalah. In itself, 3 Enoch shows remarkable invention, though it is sometimes difficult to apprehend because of its heavily repetitive style. Nevertheless, the reader who persists will make an extraordinary journey into the heavenly regions, moving through seven heavens until she or he stands in God’s own series of seven concentric palaces or temples.

At the center is the Merkabah, the chariot that carries the throne of glory, surrounded by vast orders of angels, who are shielded from the divine glory by a curtain, lest the terrible otherness or transcendence of the Jewish God destroy them. Visions of the Shekinah, the luminous cloud that is the divine presence, alternate with those of Metatron, chief of the angelic hosts, and probably an esoteric version of the archangel Michael as well as a transmogrified Enoch. There are detailed descriptions of the heavenly law court and of the fate of the righteous, the intermediate, and the wicked after death. The reader is thus enabled to approximate at least part of the fabled experience of the four sages who entered Pardes, the garden or park that is Paradise, as told in the Talmudic tractate Hagigah 14b:

Four entered Pardes, and these are they: Ben Azzai, Ben Zoma, Akiba said to them: “When you reach the stones of pure marble, do not say ‘Water! Water!’ for it is written, ‘He that speaks falsehood shall not be established before my eyes’ ” (Psalms 101:7). Ben Azzai looked and died: Scripture says of him, “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints” (Psalms 116:5). Ben Zoma looked and went mad: Scripture says of him: “Have you found honey? Eat so much as is sufficient for you lest you be sated with it and vomit it up” (Proverbs 25:16). Acher cut down the young plants. Rabbi Akiba saw, and then went out of Pardes in peace.

Acher is the tragic apostate and Gnostic, the rabbi Elisha ben Abuyah, a scholar who was the jealous rival of Akiba. We have only hostile Talmudic reports of Elisha ben Abuyah’s beliefs and career, but the angry Talmudic name for him, “Acher”—“the other”—indicates a fury that makes me doubt the tradition that reports him to have been a traitor, a quisling who became a Roman lackey and informer. Yet the Talmudic parable of the four sages who entered Pardes is sufficient indication of why Acher outraged the normative rabbis. Cutting down the young plants of Paradise signifies the destructive effect of Gnostic dualism, of Acher’s belief in two principles—presumably principles of God and of a Demiurge—rather than a monistic belief in the absolute power of God. Today many readers, schooled by the insights of Scholem, may reflect with some melancholy that they are more in the mode of Acher than in that of the great Akiba.


The other texts in this new edition, though of immense interest to scholars, will seem to most general readers largely bewildering repetitions of the apocalyptic mode. Rather than comment on any more of these texts, I will conclude with a general comparison of the Pseudepigrapha and the normative tradition, by way of contrasting both 1 and 3 Enoch with the most moving and accessible of the Talmudic tractates, the Pirke Aboth, the ethical sayings or Wisdom of the Fathers.8

Doubtless the pressures of Jewish history had to result in the apocalyptic Pseudepigrapha, as they resulted also in the Essenes and the Qumran Covenanters, and presumably in early Christianity as well. But apocalypse then certainly is not apocalypse now, and despite all current slogans, the Age of Andropov and Reagan is not yet the Age of Antiochus Epiphanes. I return to Travers Herford’s remark in The Pharisees: “Apocalyptic is full of promises, but it has never kept one of them. Its immediate effect may have been exhilaration, but it has left despair behind it.” There are a number of ancient works to set against apocalyptic, but the Sayings of the Fathers seems to me the inevitable counterpoint to such yearnings for finality, such wish-fulfillments carried to the outer edge of history.

Aboth begins with the maxim of the Men of the Great Synagogue or Academy of Ezra: “These said three things; Be deliberate in judging, and raise up many disciples, and make a hedge for the Torah.”9 Throughout the tractate, the great rabbis speak their apothegms, each in the authority of his own name, and not in the name of Daniel, or Enoch, or Ezra, or whoever. Against the apocalyptics, though with all gratitude for this new edition, I wish to set two famous sayings, one of Akiba’s, and one by Tarphon, his genial contemporary. Akiba said: “All is foreseen, and free will is given, and the world is judged by goodness; and all is according to the amount of work” (Aboth III, 19). That is immense and definitive, but I add the fine pathos of Rabbi Tarphon, which opposes all apocalyptic yearnings: “You are not required to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it” (Aboth II, 21).

  1. 1

    Daniel 7:2-7, King James Version.

  2. 2

    Charles, The Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha of the Old Testament (Oxford University Press, 1913); Eschatology (Oxford, 1899; Schocken, 1963).

  3. 3

    Charles, The Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha, vol. 2, pp. viii-ix.

  4. 4

    1924; reprinted with a foreword by Nahum N. Glatzer, Beacon, 1962.

  5. 5

    The Pharisees, pp. 180-181.

  6. 6

    Louis Finkelstein, Akiba: Scholar, Saint and Martyr (Atheneum, 1970), p.269.

  7. 7

    Genesis 6:1-4.

  8. 8

    These are most readily available to American readers in two superb versions, The Ethics of the Talmud: Sayings of the Fathers, edited by R. Travers Herford (Schocken, 1962), and The Living Talmud: The Wisdom of the Fathers, edited by Judah Goldin (New American Library, 1957).

  9. 9

    Herford, The Ethics of the Talmud, p. 20.