Judaism and Ancient Mystery Religions

Beneath the surface of Judaism there has always existed a strong element of mystery. For most Jews, however, the zeal for studying the Torah in search of any relationship to the ancient tantalizing mystery religion ingredients are sufficiently gratified by the body of the Mosaic Law, not to mention the redoubtable commentaries that accompany them.  Thus their esoteric heritage has simply faded into the dim corners of Orthodoxy.

Canonical Judaism shows the influence of ancient mystery religions most closely in the so-called wisdom literature that gained prominence in the 2nd and 1st centuries BCE—a timeframe coinciding with the Hasmoneans, a family of Jewish patriots better known as Maccabees.  This also happened to be the timeframe in which the Pentateuch, the Septuagint translation, was being written in Alexandria.  The texts that hint most closely at divine mystery elements are found in Koheleth (Ecclesiastes), Sirach (Ecclesiasticus), Chokmah (Wisdom of Solomon), Proverbs, and the Book of Job.  These examples of wisdom literature are most notable for the perspective that is expressed, for the viewpoint does not arrogantly segregate mankind into Jews and Gentiles as is typical of priest-composed texts.  Instead, man’s worth is seen in the wisdom literature to be determined as either wise or foolish.  The Lord that is addressed in these wisdom texts is correctly understood as acknowledgment of the unified principles of Creation that produced and approved all that exists.

The Book of Job was a direct restructuring of an 1870-1830 BCE  Babylonian account, and is the most consistently theological work in the Hebrew Bible, focusing on an extensive dialogue on one theological issue—the purpose of suffering.  Its superiority stems from the lack of priestly philosophy and religiosity, and being rich in mythopoeic knowledge of reality.  That reality rests in the story of an innocent man not accusing himself as being deserving of the afflictions he suffered and placing the blame squarely where it belongs (on god).  This, of course, was an unacceptable premise for the priests of Yahweh, and so they fitted the superior Babylonian story with an anticlimax to serve their priestly purpose. 

The book of Proverbs consists primarily of short sayings that express terse insights into human affairs, especially of a social and religious nature such as wisdom, wickedness, violence, concern for others, greed, etc.  Authorship is  popularly credited to Solomon, but indications are that these treasures of wisdom were collected well after the time in which Solomon is alleged to have ruled (c. 960 BCE)—like about three centuries after.

The deuterocanonical book Sirach, written c. 180-130 BCE, was a collection of ethical teachings, and has much in common with Proverbs.  The book closes with the assessment that the wisdom and greatness of God is revealed in all his works, not just in the history and people of Israel, and this is what is presented as justifying belief in God. 

Cholomah is a Hebrew word meaning “wisdom,” and is defined in Cabala (Ha Qabalah, Kabala, Kabbala) as the second of ten sefirot (divine emanations), and regarded as the first power of conscious intellect within Creation.  When Cabalists analyzed the Pentateuch (first five book of the Old Testament) they believed that they had found metaphysical and cosmological doctrines to be concealed in the words broken down into their numerical equivalents.  This would seem to indicate that whoever the authors of those opening four book* may have been, they were proficient at understanding and concealing from the masses profound  knowledge of the Creation processes.  (*The book of Leviticus does not fit comfortably or logically into the book lineup of the Israelite’s alleged history; it is all about priestly authority propaganda and nothing more.)

In the text known as Koheleth, which translates something like “speaker of the assembly,” the main speaker claims to be the “son of David and king in Jerusalem,” and reflects often on the meaning of life.  The author’s assessment is that all of man’s actions are “transitory, “temporary,” “empty,” “vain,” “futile,” and “meaningless.”  The stoic flavored text focuses on mortality and the struggle that permeates life, and does not labor over the yearned for reward of Paradise.  The author’s rather cynical outlook is that the lives of the wise and the lives of the foolish both end in death, but he sees wisdom as being the best way to achieve a more self satisfying and well-lived life.  Even so, he could not credit an eternal reward for having cherished wisdom.  This is not typical priestly party-line material. 

Among the mystery items in Jewish observation to this day is the Menorah, the seven-branched candlestick that became the idolized feature of Judaism.  The ceremonial candelabrum allegedly symbolizes the seven days of Creation (Exodus 37:17-24), but it was not a feature in the earliest worship of Yahweh even though the priest-written history composed in 7th century BCE claims that it had always been an item used in veneration of Yahweh, its use having been suggested to Moses by God.  The object was used in Babylonia (and Egypt) and was absorbed into Jewish tradition during the days of  “Captivity” there.  The seven-branched candlestick in Babylonian observances represented the Sun surrounded by the six then-known planets, and it therefore symbolized for them the journey that the soul made after death.  This association of the soul’s journey was a feature in all ancient mystery religions.

The rabbinical explanations of the menorah as representative of the seven days of Creation is perceptibly faulty, for the central light being ascribed to the Sabbath does not correspond with the “Let there be light” command of the fourth day of Creation.  There is a more ancient tradition than the rabbinical one which is echoed in the Zohar (from Cabala, metaphoric discourses on the Torah), which says, “These lamps, like the seven planets above, receive their light from the sun.”  In ancient sun cult observances, such as in Egypt, the central branch of the candlestick properly represented Wednesday.  Thus the rabbinical view that it represented the Sabbath was neither poetically nor historically accurate.  (Incidentally, Moses is portrayed as having been a priest of the Sun god when in Egypt: in that timeframe in which the story is presented the menorah was indeed in use in the sanctuary, and had to face W. S. W.   So, in a manner of speaking, one could say that Moses had been counseled by God to continue in use of the seven-branched candlestick.)  The first cosmic association with the menorah is in Zechariah, who is alleged to have learned in a vision that the seven lamps were “…the eyes of Yahweh that run to and fro through the universe.”  In other words, the seven planets.  Thus the annual lighting of the Temple candelabra at the autumn festival actually commemorates the creation of stars on the fourth “day.”

These few examples drawn from ancient literature and symbolism still exert influence in today’s faith systems.

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