The Bible and Ancient Philosophy in Greek Synagogal Prayers
The most fascinating aspect of these prayers, however, is that they testify to the existence of a vibrant Graeco-Jewish culture in the centuries after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE. Although we cannot strictly prove that the philosophical elements were already present in the Jewish original (and were not from the hand of the Christian compiler), it is highly probable that these elements belonged to the Jewish Grundschrift. In that case we witness here a form of Jewish Hellenism, a culture that combines intense Jewish piety with openness towards Greek culture, especially its philosophical aspects.
See Also: Studies in Ancient Judaism and Early Christianity (Brill Academic Publishers; Lam edition, 2014).
By Pieter W. van der Horst
Utrecht University, The Netherlands
An intriguing set of ancient prayer texts is to be found in the 7th book of the Apostolic Constitutions (hereinafter: AC), a late-fourth-century church order, most probably compiled in Syrian Antioch in the 80s of that century (Van der Horst 2008: 3-93). In AC 7:33-38 we find six prayers in Greek that are now generally regarded as christianized versions of six originally Jewish prayer texts, namely, the first six of the Seven Benedictions for the Sabbath morning service. The existence of these benedictions is attested already in the earliest rabbinic literature (Mishnah, Rosh ha-Shana 4.5; early third century CE) and they consist of the first three and the last three benedictions of the Shemoneh Esreh (the Eighteen [Benedictions]), also called the Tefillah (= the Prayer par excellence), plus a middle benediction for the sanctification of the day. So the first prayer (§33) corresponds to the first benediction of the Eighteen Benedictions (Avoth); the second prayer (§34) to the second benediction (Gevuroth); the third prayer (§35) to the third benediction (Qedushat ha-Shem); the fourth (§36) to the extra middle benediction for the sanctification of the day (Qedushat ha-Yom); the fifth (§37) to the seventeenth benediction (Avodah); the sixth (§38) to the eighteenth benediction, (Hoda’ah); the seventh prayer is lacking for unknown reasons.
Scholars are unanimous that these now Christian prayers were originally the Jewish Seven Benedictions for the Sabbath and this conviction is based on the fact that not only every single one of these Greek prayers has some verbal correspondence with its Hebrew counterpart, but also that their order corresponds exactly. To give just one clear instance: the second prayer, in AC 7:34, ends with a clause in which God is called “the reviver of the dead” (ho zôopoios tôn nekrôn) just as the corresponding Hebrew benediction (also the second one, Gevuroth) ends with praise of God as “the reviver of the dead” (mechayyeh ha-metim). These striking verbal similarities and equivalents, coming as they do in a prayer collection and appearing for the most part in their proper order, constitute a convincing corpus of evidence to suggest that AC 7.33–38 is a Greek version of the Hebrew Seven Benedictions (Fiensy 1985: 134). It is unknown when the Greek translation and Christian revision of these benedictions was undertaken, but according to most scholars that must have taken place between 150 and 350 CE, most probably in the third century CE.
There is no consensus, however, regarding the degree of christianization of these prayers: Some advocate a maximalist position and see the hand of the Christian compiler only in the few patently Christian passages; others advocate a minimalist position and believe that only a few scraps of the Jewish original have been left unaltered by the Christian compiler; and again others steer a middle course. Since for the purposes of this article it is not necessary to distinguish between the Jewish Vorlage and the Christian redaction, we will leave this problem at that. After all, in some cases to be discussed it is almost impossible to make this distinction.
2. Bible and Philosophy
In some of these prayers we find a fascinating blend of biblical ideas and phraseology on the one hand (Newman 1999) and elements and concepts that have their origin in the Greek philosophical tradition on the other (Van der Horst 2014). Let us take, for instance, AC 7.34.6 which says: ‘You [God] presented him [man] as an ornament of the world, you shaped a body for him from the four bodies, you created for him a soul out of nothing, you bestowed upon him fivefold sense perception, but over the senses you placed the charioteer of the soul, the spirit.’ In this brief account of the creation of the human being we find several Greek philosophical motifs. In the phrase ‘a body from the four bodies’ we see the use of the word ‘bodies’ (sômata) in the sense of ‘elements’ which is typically philosophical; see, e.g., Pseudo-Philolaus, fragment 44B12; Aetius, Placita 1.3.22; Julian, Oratio 4, 132c. The theory of the four elements (earth, water, air, and fire) has a Greek philosophical origin as well. The concept of four elements (or ‘roots’) as the constituant parts of all that exists was probably developed first by Empedocles, see fragments 31B6, 17, and 18 (Guthrie 1965: 140-43). The phrase “You created for him a soul out of nothing” is most probably a reference to both Gen 2:7 and the (Christian?) doctrine of creatio ex nihilo. In a typically Greek philosophical way the author draws a contrast between the material origin of the body and the immaterial origin of the soul. This we also find in the Jewish philosopher-exegete Philo of Alexandria, e.g., in his On the Creation of the Cosmos 135: ‘He [Moses] says that the sense-perceptible and individual human being has a structure which is composed of earthly substance and divine spirit, for the body came into being when the creator took clay and moulded a human shape out of it (Genesis 2:7), whereas the soul obtained its origin from nothing which has come into existence at all but from the Father and Director of all things.’ Note that in both Philo and our prayer the soul is said to have been created out of nothing, stressing its incorporeality or immateriality. “You bestowed upon him fivefold sense perception,” namely sight, hearing, smell, taste, touch. The idea of the five senses, too, has a Greek philosophical origin, but it was well-known to Jewish and Christian intellectuals as well. “But over the senses you placed the charioteer of the soul, the spirit”: The image of the charioteer of the soul derives from a famous passage in Plato, Phaedrus 246a-b: ‘Let [the soul] be likened to the union of powers in a team of winged steeds and their winged charioteer. Now all the gods’ steeds and all their charioteers are good, and of good stock, but with other beings this is not wholly so. With us men, in the first place, it is a pair of steeds that the charioteer controls; moreover one of them is noble and good, and of good stock, while the other has the opposite character, and his stock is opposite. Hence the task of our charioteer is difficult and troublesome.’ Philo, too, refers frequently to this Platonic image (e.g., in Sacr. 45, Agr. 72-73, Migr. 67, Leg. 1.73; 3.118, 128, 134, 136, and elsewhere). The idea here is that the rational part of the soul, namely the spirit, enables humankind to take control over its irrational parts, the senses and their perceptions, that might otherwise lead them to sin. So here we see a whole cluster of motifs that had a Greek philosophical origin.
Another interesting case is the third benediction in AC 7.35, the Greek version of the Qedushah, because there we find a smooth transition from Greek philosophical terminology to an almost mystical language of biblical signature and flavor. In §1, it is stated that God ‘is good by nature.’ God’s goodness is mentioned frequently in the Bible and often in Jewish prayers (Daniel 3:89 LXX; Psalms of Solomon 5.2; Prayer of Manasseh 11). But there it is not an inherent or essential quality of God; evil, too, may come from God. That it is God’s very nature (physis) to be good is, however, a typically Greek idea. A belief in the inherent goodness of god or the gods was widely shared by the Greek philosophers; see, e.g., Plato, Republic 379b1, Timaeus 29e1-2. This Greek idea was also adopted by Jewish and Christian philosophers such as Philo, Clement of Alexandria, and Origen, but the rabbis and other Jews retained the biblical idea that both good and evil come from God’s hand.
In §2, the text says, ‘Your power is proclaimed by the heavens and your steadfastness by the earth, even though it is shaken because it is hanging upon nothing’ (or perhaps, ‘Your power is proclaimed by the heavens and your steadfastness by the earth, even though it is hanging upon nothing’ [on this textual problem see Van der Horst 2008: 63-4]). The idea that the earth is hanging upon nothing has a Greek cosmological background (Wright 1995: 39-41). See, for instance, the Presocratic philosopher Anaximander, fragment 12A11: “The earth stays aloft, not supported by anything but staying where it is because it is at the same distance from anything.” And Anaximenes, fragment 13A7, says that the earth is a flat body riding upon the air. Cf. also Plato, Phaedo 108e-109a; Aristotle, De caelo 294b13-21. The idea is that of a disk-shaped or drum-shaped earth held in place by free suspension in the air. In biblical cosmology, however, the idea is rather that the earth is a round disk floating upon a vast extent of water or resting upon pillars. After this passage, philosophy recedes into the background and biblical motifs come to the fore.
In §3 he angels are called a ‘fiery army’ because in early Judaism angels were often thought to have a body of fire on the basis of Ps 103:4 ‘who makes spirits his messengers and flaming fire his ministers’ (see Olyan 1993: 71-73). Then it is said about these angels: ‘The holy seraphim, who together with the six-winged cherubim sing for you the song of victory, cry out with never-silent voices: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Sabaoth, heaven and earth are full of your glory!”’ That seraphim and cherubim are mentioned here in combination has to do with the fact that seraphim are mentioned in Isaiah 6 as the six-winged angels who sing the Trishagion (‘Holy, holy, holy’) quoted here, and that the angels who are mentioned in the context of Ezekiel 3:12, quoted immediately hereafter, are identified as cherubim in Ezekiel 10. The quote of Isaiah 6:3 is not exact, for the Hebrew and also the Greek versions of the biblical text have only ‘the earth is full of your glory’ (not: ‘heaven and earth’), but most early Christian liturgies have the formula with ‘heaven and earth are full of your glory’ (Werner 1959: 282-287) So ‘heaven and’ may be an addition by the Christian compiler. Yet it can certainly not be excluded that the formula ‘heaven and earth’ does derive from a Jewish source since one of the Thanksgiving Hymns (Hodayot) from Qumran clearly alludes to Isaiah 6:3 with the words, ‘Your holy spirit (…) the fullness of heaven and earth (…) your glory, the fullness of …’ (1QH VIII 12).
Then the text goes on: ‘And the multitudes of the other orders - angels, archangels, thrones, dominions, principalities, authorities, and powers - say with a loud voice: “Blessed be the glory of the Lord from his place”’ (Ezekiel 3:12). It is precisely this combination of quotes from Isaiah 6:3 and Ezekiel 3:12 (and their distribution over two different groups of angels) that is the characteristic core of the Qedushah (the Hebrew counterpart of this prayer) and is to be found as early as the rabbinic treatise Tosefta, Berakhot 1.9, and also in later Jewish mystical texts, the so-called Hekhalot treatises, such as 3 Enoch (Sefer Hekhalot) §2, Hekhalot Rabbati §197, and Ma‘aseh Merkavah §555 (Swartz 1992: 129). Further, there is the striking fact that, whereas the biblical text of Ezekiel 3:12 does not explicitly state that it is the angelic beings who recite the blessing, this is made explicit in the Aramaic translation (Targum) of this verse by adding ‘and they say’, exactly as is done here in our text. The concept of an angelic liturgy has ancient roots and is attested in many early Jewish sources, especially in a wide variety of Jewish apocalyptic and mystical documents (2 Enoch 8.8, 17.1, 20.3; 4QShirot ‘Olat ha-Shabbat; 11Q5 xxvi [Hymn to the Creator]; and frequently in the Hekhalot literature).
In §4, the text says: ‘Israel, your earthly assembly that was taken out of the nations, emulates the powers in heaven day and night when it sings with an overflowing heart and a willing soul: “The chariot of the Lord is ten thousand-fold thousands of thriving ones; the Lord is among them at Sinai, at the holy place (Psalm 67:18).”’ The epithet ‘earthly’ is added here in order to stress that the people of Israel forms the earthly counterpart of the heavenly powers (= the angelic orders) in their common liturgy which is conducted in unison by angels above and the people of Israel below. The phrase ‘emulating the powers in heaven’ refers to the idea that Israel strives to join in and keep in harmony with the angelic choirs in their heavenly liturgy. This motif of the coordination of heavenly and earthly liturgy, of the united praise between the earthly and heavenly communities, is well-known in the early history of Jewish worship. It occurs already in the Qumran Hodayoth and the Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice (4QShirot ‘Olat ha-Shabbat). See, e.g., 1QH XI 21-23 “He [a purified human being] can take a place with the host of the holy ones [=angels] and can enter in communion with the congregation of the sons of heaven [=angels]. You cast eternal destiny for man with the spirits of knowledge [=angels], so that he praises your name in the community of jubilation.” From the Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice, e.g., 4Q400 2 1-7 “… to praise your glory wondrously with the gods of of knowledge [=angels] and the praiseworthiness of your kingship with the holiest of the holy ones [=angels]” (Chazon 2003: 42-3). The quote from Psalm 67:18 (“The chariot of the Lord is ten thousand-fold thousands of thriving ones; the Lord is among them at Sinai, at the holy place”) also plays an important role in early Jewish angelological and mystical speculations, if only because God’s chariot (= throne) is prominent in this verse, which was a central motif in these speculations. All this makes abundantly clear to what degree we are dealing here with a thoroughly Jewish text.
By way of conclusion I wish to address briefly the question of whether what we have here is a mystical prayer. There can be little doubt after the previous paragraphs that several of the motifs found in this synagogal prayer play a prominent role in the mystical texts of late antique Judaism. But otherwise our prayer does not give us any cause to think that this Greek form of the Qedushah had its Sitz im Leben in mystical circles. Not only the fact that the other Jewish prayers in AC 7.33-38 do not display any mystical elements militates against this conclusion, the prayer itself seems to give indications that the ‘mystical motifs’ did not function in a mystical Sitz im Leben. The most important indication is that §4 says, “Israel, your earthly assembly, emulates the powers in heaven day and night when it sings.” The fact that the text so emphatically states that it is Israel on earth that coordinates its praise with the liturgy of the angels in heaven seems to preclude any notion of a mystical ascent to heaven where the believers join the angels in their heavenly liturgy. Our prayer is devoid of any mystical form, content, or function. The ‘mystical’ elements in our prayer are of a literary nature: They take up motifs from a biblical and postbiblical prayer tradition that in some of its phases may have had a mystical ring. But in the synagogues of Syrian Antioch, where these prayers functioned on the Sabbath in the period when the compiler of the Apostolic Constitions adopted and adapted them in order to obviate the needs of his judaizing Christian parishioners (Van der Horst 2000), these ‘mystical’ phrases were probably no more than literary remnants or echoes of a mystical tradition that had its earliest attestations in the Dead Sea Scrolls and later resurfaced with new potential in mystical Merkavah circles.
The most fascinating aspect of these prayers, however, is that they testify to the existence of a vibrant Graeco-Jewish culture in the centuries after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE. Although we cannot strictly prove that the philosophical elements were already present in the Jewish original (and were not from the hand of the Christian compiler), it is highly probable that these elements belonged to the Jewish Grundschrift. In that case we witness here a form of Jewish Hellenism, a culture that combines intense Jewish piety with openness towards Greek culture, especially its philosophical aspects. It is one of the testimonies to the effect that the synthesis of Greek wisdom and Jewish faith that we see in Philo and other Jewish authors of the Second Temple period (Sterling 2005) did not disappear after the rise of rabbinism (note that another important testimony to the continuity of Judaeo-Greek culture after 70 CE can be found in the ca. 3.000 Graeco-Jewish inscriptions from the 2nd – 6th centuries CE, on which see Van der Horst 2014b).
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