Tours of Hell: Apocalyptic Form in Jewish and Christian Literature

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9780800618452: Tours of Hell: Apocalyptic Form in Jewish and Christian Literature

From the ancient Book of the Dead to Dante's Divine Comedy, the living have attempted to describe the world of the dead. Tours of Hell focuses on one form of that attempt: the tours of hell found in Jewish and Christian apocalypses of late antiquity and the early Middle Ages.

Himmelfarb examines seventeen texts, preserved in five languages and spanning a thousand years of human history. These include Hebrew texts and Christian texts in Greek, Latin, Ethiopic, and Coptic, such as the Apocalypse of Peter and the Apocalypse of Paul family. Muslim texts, medieval visions, and other related literatures are also discussed. Himmelfarb details the common elements of the tour tradition, including such features as a hero or heroine figure, a heavenly revealer, and descriptions of the punishments awaiting those who arrive in hell. She convincingly refutes the accepted nineteenth-century critical view of the earliest of these tours, the Apocalypse of Peter, as a Christian form of an "Orphic-Pythagorean" descent to Hades. She place the work instead on the family tree of the tour apocalypse, a genre she traces back to the third century B.C.E. Book of the Watchers (1 Enoch 1-36). Linking the Apocalypse of Peter with later Jewish tours of hell, Himmelfarb reveals significant sin-and-punishment combinations that seem to point to a common source, which she theorizes to be a lost Jewish Tour work of the late Second Temple period.

Rich and fascinating texts seldom before brought to light are treated in detail in this pioneering study. A comprehensive work on the apocalyptic tradition, Tours of Hell will be of great interest to scholars and students of religion, history, ancient and medieval literature, and Dante studies.

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About the Author:

Martha Himmelfarb is Professor of Religion at Princeton University. She is the author of Ascent to Heaven in Jewish and Christian Apocalypses and Kingdom of Priests: Ancestry and Merit in Ancient Judaism, the latter also published by the University of Pennsylvania Press.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:


This book takes its title from God's promise to the children of Israel as they stand before Mt. Sinai: "If you will obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my own possession among all people . . . you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation" (Exod 19:5-6). While the phrase itself does not receive a great deal of attention in the literature of the Second Temple, I hope to show that the idea it expresses and the tensions it hints at are of central importance to Jews during that period.

The promise that Israel will be "a kingdom of priests" reflects a milieu in which priests hold an honored position. The Israelites, like other peoples of the ancient Near East, entrusted priests with the delicate task of mediating between humanity and the divine through the sacrifices they offered in the temple. The rituals priests performed were understood to keep the cosmos functioning properly; if the priests failed at their duties, the consequences would be dire. Priests are by definition a minority; indeed the Torah limits priesthood to a single family or tribe. Clearly "a kingdom of priests" was not meant to advocate that all Israelites serve as priests in the temple, sacrificing and eating consecrated food. Rather, as the context suggests, the phrase serves to emphasize the holiness of all Israelites.

The idea of Israel as a holy people is of course a central biblical theme. But the notion that all Israelites are equally holy, as "a kingdom of priests" implies, is more problematic. After all, if all Israelites are equally holy, why bother with priests in the first place? The tension between the holiness of the whole people and the existence of priests receives dramatic expression in the story of the rebellion of Korah during the Israelites' wandering in the wilderness (Numbers 16-17). Korah is a Levite, a member of the tribe that had been singled out for a special role in the cult. His rebellion grows out of his unwillingness to accept the more exalted priestly status that one particular family of Levites, Aaron and his sons, has claimed. Korah rejects not the institution of priesthood but particular arrangements for it that exclude him and most of the rest of the tribe of Levi. Thus, as the narrative now stands, its main point is to counter an assault by other Levites on the prerogatives of the sons of Aaron. But one argument the rebels bring against Moses and Aaron hints at an earlier story in which the rebels demanded an end to any form of hierarchy among the people of Israel: "All the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the Lord is among them; why then do you exalt yourselves above the assembly of the Lord?" (Num 16:3).

The Torah rejects both types of criticism in no uncertain terms: the earth swallows up all of the protesters together with their families. And it is not only the Torah, a document written in part by priests, that believes in priests and their prerogatives. The prophets denounce their listeners' belief that enthusiasm for the cult will make up for lack of kindness to one's fellows (e.g., Amos 5:21-26), but they do not reject the institution of the cult itself. Indeed, Isaiah of Jerusalem, who condemns the sacrifices of the wicked in the first chapter of his book (Isa 1:11-15), understands God to be present in the temple, as his vision of the Lord enthroned among the seraphim (Isaiah 6) indicates. Two of the great prophets who came after him in the kingdom of Judah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel, were themselves priests (Jer 1:1; Ezek 1:3). Yet despite the embrace of the institution of priesthood by all strands of biblical thought, the tension inherent in the idea of a "kingdom of priests" remained unresolved.

A different way to read "a kingdom of priests" that at first appears to offer a solution to the problem formulated by Korah's companions is to emphasize the role of Israel in relation to other nations: "You shall be my own possession among all people . . . a kingdom of priests and a holy nation." Thus a prophet active in Jerusalem after the return from Babylonia imagines Israel fulfilling its destiny as a nation that serves the other nations as priest:

Aliens shall stand and feed your flocks,
foreigners shall be your plowmen and vinedressers;
but you shall be called the priests of the Lord,
men shall speak of you as the ministers of our God;
you shall eat the wealth of the nations,
and in their riches you shall glory. (Isa 61:5-6)
Here the whole people is to enjoy the benefits that Israelite society conferred on priests. Recognizing the special status of the people of Israel, other nations will provide its needs in exchange for its role of mediating between God and humanity. Yet the emphasis on Israel's special status in relation to other nations can also undercut the status of Israelite priests: the more Israel is differentiated from other nations, the less place there is for hierarchical distinctions within the holy people.

Further, the idea of a holy nation is inherently unstable. Whether one chooses to emphasize the inner-directed or the outer-directed aspects of the phrase, the desire that God's special people be holy inevitably runs up against a less elevated reality, as the prophets tell us in considerable detail. The nature of that reality should come as no surprise since the criterion for membership in the people of Israel is ancestry, a criterion that does little to promote holiness. Yet the Torah imagines both the rewards and the punishments of the covenant in collective terms: the Israelites will together suffer exile for their sins, and they will together be restored to their land after they repent (Leviticus 26; Deuteronomy 28-30). The tension inherent in collective responsibility for the covenant was intolerable for the great prophet Isaiah, who has God warn Jerusalem, "I will turn my hand against you / And will smelt away your dross as with lye, / and remove all your alloy" (Isa 1:25); after this purification, "you shall be called the city of righteousness, / the faithful city" (Isa 1:26). Thus only a small portion of the people would enjoy restoration, as Isaiah indicates with the name he gives his son, Se'ar yasub, "a remnant shall return" (Isa 7:3).

Implicit in Isaiah's vision of the purified remnant is a new criterion for membership in the people of Israel: piety rather than birth. Yet before the exile, it did not occur to anyone to apply that criterion to the present. As long as the land of Judah was ruled by a king from the house of David, the people of Israel was more or less coextensive with those living in the land. After the return from the Babylonian exile, however, with the land no longer under Israelite rule, the extent of the people became a subject of concern and controversy. In the face of widespread intermarriage with neighboring peoples, both Ezra and Nehemiah demand that the members of their community divorce their foreign wives and send away their offspring (Ezra 9-10; Neh 13). But despite their zeal for endogamy, the authors of Ezra and Nehemiah, living after the exile, could not help but be aware of the problems of defining Israel on the basis of ancestry alone. Their remarkable term for the community of the return, zera' haqqodes, "the holy race" or, more literally, "the holy seed" (Ezra 9:2), offers a striking, if troubling, conflation of ancestry and merit.

The concern for merit is evident also in the Book of Ruth, which rejects Ezra and Nehemiah's definition of the boundaries of the community. It tells the story of a marriage that not only Ezra and Nehemiah but even the Book of Deuteronomy (23:4) would have condemned: the marriage of an Israelite man to a Moabite woman. The Book of Ruth, however, suggests that this marriage is not only acceptable but praiseworthy, because ancestry is not as important as merit. Its heroine's sacrifices for her beloved mother-in-law win her the admiration of all who encounter her and finally the benefits of marriage to a wealthy man. The connection to King David (Ruth 4:17) may be a later addition to the work, but even without it the birth of Ruth's son removes any question about her place in the community. Still, though it was written in the Persian period, the Book of Ruth is set in the days of the judges and presents its case in pre-exilic terms: the willing non-Israelite spouse is assimilated into the people of Israel without fuss or ceremony. Only later in the Second Temple period does a notion of conversion emerge, and even then there is no unanimity about the rituals required for it.

The possibility of conversion develops out of the Jews' encounter with the Greeks, which marks a new stage in thinking about the definition of the people of Israel. The Greeks understood their culture to be available without regard to ancestry; even a barbarian could become "Greek in soul." This phrase comes from Clearchus of Soli's report of Aristotle's account of his encounter in Asia Minor with a learned Jew. Although the passage does not say so explicitly, it is possible for a barbarian to become Greek in soul because Greek culture is acquired through education; thus it is potentially available not only to Greeks but to others as well. In the aftermath of the Maccabean Revolt some Jews come to understand their culture in similar terms, as the very term "Judaism" suggests, modeled as it is on "Hellenism." Like Hellenism, Judaism could be learned, and thus gentiles could now become Jewish in soul.

The aftermath of the Maccabean Revolt also sees the emergence of sectarian definitions of the people of Israel that develop Isaiah's idea of the righteous remnant, leaving the rest of the people irrevocably behind. The Qumran sectarians understand themselves as children of light, fighting on the side of the angels in the eschatological battle, while the rest of the Jewish people belongs to the other side, the children of darkness. For these sectarians, Jewish ancestry is necessary, but far from sufficient, for membership in the holy community.

Both before and after the revolt it did not escape the notice of some Jews that the priesthood was subject to the same problem as was the people of Israel as a whole. The fact that priestly status was inherited meant that Jewish priests often fell short of serving as the models of holiness enshrined in the phrase "a kingdom of priests." Indeed, the difficulties posed by the hereditary priesthood are even more acute since priests should constitute an elite of holiness within the holy people, enjoying certain privileges even as they are held to higher standards than ordinary Jews. Thus it was more than a little troubling when priests failed to live up to the standards and did nothing to deserve the privileges. Recognition of this problem goes back as far as the Torah itself, which attempts to defuse it by telling two stories about how early occupants of the priestly office earned the right to it through their zeal for the Lord. Although the stories come from different strands of the Torah and reflect different views of who is qualified to serve as priest, both recount their heroes' killing of idolatrous Israelites. The epic strand of Exodus reports that the Levites "ordained [themselves] for the service of the Lord" by rallying in response to Moses' cry and slaughtering worshipers of the golden calf among their fellow Israelites (Exod 32:25-29). The language of ordination, used by the P source only a few chapters earlier (Exodus 29) of Aaron and his sons, suggests that through this slaughter the Levites became priests. According to the priestly source, as the Israelites mingled with the Midianite women at Baal Peor (Num 25:1-9), Phinehas, the grandson of Aaron, killed an Israelite man caught in flagrante delicto with a Midianite woman. This act wins its perpetrator and his descendants a "covenant of perpetual priesthood" (Num 25:13), and the story provides one priestly line with an origin in pious zeal like that the epic sources gave the Levites.

Still, even if these stories claim that the priestly line was originally chosen on the basis of merit, nowhere does the Bible suggest merit as an ongoing criterion for priesthood. Throughout the Bible there is widespread agreement that priesthood is hereditary and that it is connected to the tribe of Levi, although there is disagreement about the identity of the ancestor required for priestly status and about the types of personnel needed to staff the temple. Outside of the priestly sources, the Torah suggests a system in which all male descendants of Levi were priests. This understanding is implicit in the J and E narratives of the Torah; it becomes explicit in the Book of Deuteronomy with its expressions "the Levitical priests" (Deut 17:9, 18; 24:8; 27:9) and "the priests, the sons of Levi" (Deut 21:5, 31:9). On the other hand, P and H, the priestly sources, grant the priesthood only to descendants of Aaron, Levi's great-grandson. Through the Books of Exodus and Leviticus these sources are silent on the subject of the nonpriestly descendants of Levi, referring to priests as sons of Aaron and ignoring their more distant ancestor. Thus a first-time reader of the Torah would be somewhat surprised on reaching the Book of Numbers to discover the existence of the Levites as a group with a role to play in the Israelite cult (Numbers 3-18). Like the priestly sources in Exodus and Leviticus, the priestly material in Numbers understands priests as descendants of Aaron, but it departs from Exodus and Leviticus in treating the other descendants of Levi as a distinct group with cultic responsibilities of its own: the preparation of the tabernacle for breaking camp and its transportation (Numbers 4).

The historical developments reflected in the Book of Numbers' view of the Levites are unfortunately lost to us, but its picture of Levites as a distinct group standing in a subordinate relationship to priests became standard during the Second Temple period. Nehemiah's efforts at reform on the Levites' behalf reflect Numbers' picture (Neh 13:10-13), as does, somewhat later, the Book of Chronicles' depiction of a well-defined priestly hierarchy with a high priest at the head, priests descended from Aaron officiating at the altar, and Levites serving as musicians, singers, and gatekeepers (1 Chronicles 23-26). The preference in post-exilic sources for the picture of the Book of Numbers is perhaps not surprising. A reader who wished to reconcile the conflicting points of view he found in the Torah might understand the Levitical priests of Deuteronomy as descended not only from Levi but also, as P and H require, from Aaron, while the existence of the Levites as a distinct group would satisfy the expectations raised by the prominence of the Levites in the other strands of the Torah. It is striking, however, that Numbers' picture of priests as a subgroup of Levites is at odds with the evidence for the actual situation during the period of the return. According to the picture in Numbers, one would expect the number of nonpriestly Levites to be considerably larger than the number of priests, yet the census of those who returned to Judea with Zerubbabel lists more than twelve times as many priests as Levites (Ezra 2:36-42).

The Torah says rather little explicitly about the apex of the priestly hierarchy, the high priest...

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Himmelfarb, Martha
Published by Augsburg Fortress Publishing (1985)
ISBN 10: 0800618459 ISBN 13: 9780800618452
New Paperback Quantity Available: 1
Murray Media
(North Miami Beach, FL, U.S.A.)

Book Description Augsburg Fortress Publishing, 1985. Paperback. Book Condition: New. Never used!. Bookseller Inventory # P110800618459

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