“I Shall be Reckoned with the Gods”

On Redescribing Jesus as a First-Century Jewish Mystic

In: Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus
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The categorical identification of the historical Jesus continues to be a central challenge in Jesus Research yet the identification of the historical Jesus as a first-century Jewish mystic has long been a popular topic among Western esotericists, Christian mystics, contemporary New Age authors, and some biblical scholars. Taking a critical look at the category and study of mysticism in Jesus Research in light of the ancient etymological origins of modern mysticism, the concept of ‘religious experience,’ and the epistemological problems associated with perennialism as a religionist discourse, this article argues that the comparative study of mysticism still proves to be an explanatorily powerful analytical, theoretical, and interpretative lens in Jesus Research.


The categorical identification of the historical Jesus continues to be a central challenge in Jesus Research yet the identification of the historical Jesus as a first-century Jewish mystic has long been a popular topic among Western esotericists, Christian mystics, contemporary New Age authors, and some biblical scholars. Taking a critical look at the category and study of mysticism in Jesus Research in light of the ancient etymological origins of modern mysticism, the concept of ‘religious experience,’ and the epistemological problems associated with perennialism as a religionist discourse, this article argues that the comparative study of mysticism still proves to be an explanatorily powerful analytical, theoretical, and interpretative lens in Jesus Research.

1 On ‘Religious Experience’

Since the publication of William James’s Varieties of Religious Experience, the concept of ‘religious experience’ has often been associated with the theoretical origins of religion.1 On one hand, of course, there is no doubt that people have (what they deem to be) ‘religious’ experiences.2 On the other hand, this does not mean that ‘religious experience’ should serve as a nebulous, sui generis category in and through which any and all ‘religious’ truth-claims can take cover.3 A distinction, however, can be made between ‘religious experience’, referring to that which is ultimately unknowable and unverifiable, and ‘religiously interpreted experience’, a socially interpreted and textually inscribed account of experience.4 In Revelatory Events, Ann Taves explores ‘what is perhaps the bedrock of all religious belief—the claim that otherworldly powers are active in human affairs’.5 Building on her previous work which distinguished between ‘religious experience’ and experiences deemed religious, that is, between religion as an independent domain and religion as ‘attribution’, Taves studies several ‘new religious movements’, including Helen Schucman’s ‘scribing’ of A Course in Miracles, Mormonism, and Alcoholics Anonymous, noting how each group ‘had a founding figure who had unusual experiences of a presence or reality that…guided the emergence of a new spiritual path with associated scripture-like texts’.6 Each of these ‘paths’ was characterized by ‘social-legitimation’, ‘suggestibility’, and ‘collective anxieties’ that ‘fuel[ed]’ the appearance of ‘suprahuman’ ‘presences’ or ‘guides’. Applying recent findings from the cognitive and social sciences, Taves suggests that certain individuals can become ‘vehicle(s)’ for alleged ‘presence(s)’ that then ‘manifest’ to an emergent group.7 Such presences can be seen as guiding the emergence of the group, giving ‘voice to the presence’. Insofar, then, that the emergence of new religious movements involves such dynamics, a natural, and perhaps unavoidable, question and conclusion can be inferred: Was the historical Jesus himself such a figure?

Unfortunately, we have very little biographical information on Jesus’ psychological or ‘religious’ development. Like a number of his contemporaries, Jesus seems to have offered his ‘freelance expertise’ as both healer and teacher.8 He seems to have implemented a program of ascetic instruction including voluntary homelessness, celibacy, and fictive kinship membership in a new family of God.9 His Galilean background also places him ‘in the venerable company of the Devout, the ancient Hasidim.’10 Like Jesus, Hanina ben Dosa is also said to have healed from a distance through prayer,11 possessed power over demons,12 called God Abba,13 and lived a life of renunciation.14 Charismatic powers were also attributed to Honi (Onias) via prayer.15 Nonetheless, assessing Jesus as an historical figure is complicated insofar as all of our sources represent the (post-resurrection) impact Jesus had on his followers.16 I am not so much concerned here, however, with adjudicating between competing Christological conceptualizations of Jesus,17 but rather with exploring the possibility that Jesus’ ‘religious experience’ convinced him that he had direct experiential knowledge of God and decided to share that knowledge, and how to attain it, with others.18

Re-examining a number of methodological issues associated with the use of the term mysticism in Jesus research—namely, the pagan, Greek, and Platonic genealogy of mysticism, the interpretive ambiguities associated with identifying the chronological origin(s) of Jewish and Christian mysticism, ongoing debates about the definition of the term, and the metaphysical problems associated with perennialism as a religionist discourse—this article suggests that the academic study of mysticism is a useful analytical lens through which the study of the historical Jesus can be re-viewed. Challenging ideological and theological construct(s) in which Jesus’ ‘uniqueness’ renders him incomparable by relegating him to a special category somehow outside or beyond the history and boundaries of both Jewish and Christian mysticism,19 this article seeks to take a different approach to the problem of Jesus’ religious formation and vocation by suggesting that the study of Jewish mysticism include the Jewish Jesus of history.

In Jesus and the Spirit, James D.G. Dunn provides what is perhaps the most extensive discussion of Jesus’ ‘religious experience’ in New Testament scholarship.20 Dunn argues not only that we can ‘see something of the experiential basis of Jesus’ faith in God’, but that Jesus’ experience of God was ‘a fundamental element in his self-consciousness out of which his other basic convictions about himself and his mission arose’.21 Eschewing any attempt to ‘trace the development in his [Jesus’] experience and self-consciousness’,22 and challenging liberal Protestant traditions which value Jesus as an ‘exemplar for faith’,23 Dunn concludes that Jesus ‘experienced’ God in prayer and ‘experienced’ the power of the Spirit in exorcism and healing. These ‘experiences’ led Jesus to the realization that he was God’s ‘son,’ that the power of the ‘Spirit’ was working in and through him, and that the end-time was both present and imminent. Jesus was thus both a ‘prophet’ and a ‘charismatic’, but not an ‘ecstatic’.24 While there is no mistaking the ‘strong pietistic leaning’ in Dunn’s portrait of Jesus,25 he does make a compelling case that Jesus had ‘religious experiences’. The difficulty, which runs throughout Dunn’s discussion, is determining whether Jesus’ experience was ‘unique or exemplary’.26 Sometimes Dunn opines that Jesus may have ‘thought or sensed this relationship with God to be something distinctive—not unique, but distinctive’.27 At other times, he concludes that ‘the evidence has forced us to recognize an element of distinctiveness, at times even uniqueness, in Jesus’ experience of God’.28 Yet, apart from the fact that our sources were composed to give the reader this impression (that Jesus was the unique Son of God), Dunn’s appeal to ‘religious experience’ is largely in the service of theological and Christological claims about Jesus’ ‘mission’ and ‘sonship’, not the comparative study of religion.

Larry W. Hurtado and others have also argued that ‘religious experience’ should play a role in the study of Christian origins.29 Since Jesus ‘may have had such experiences’, pursuing such a ‘line of inquiry and argumentation’ is ‘perfectly reasonable’.30 If it is ‘perfectly reasonable’ to conclude that Jesus had ‘religious experiences’, then we should also consider the reasonable possibility that the Jesus movement inherited the idea that ‘access to God is direct and unmediated by any formal structures, such as temple, holy text, or even purity considerations’31 from the ‘religious experience(s)’ of Jesus himself.

2 Into the Mystic: The Ancient Origins of Modern Mysticism

The modern category of mystic(ism) is a contested term in the study of religion.32 Etymologically related to the Greek words μυστήριον33 (‘mystery’), μύω (‘I close/conceal’), and μύςτης (‘initiate’), referring to the hidden rituals, initiations, and mysteries of the Greco-Roman world,34 the category is linked to a number of ancient and modern discursive contexts. The Catholic theological tradition, for example, developed a ‘mystical theology’,35 with the adjective ‘mystical’ referring to scriptural interpretation, liturgy, and the experiential knowledge of God.36 Subsequently, the word came to be used by Enlightenment philosophers as a noun (la mystique) in a polemical discourse on what constituted ‘true’ religion.37 Mysticism represented the excesses of emotional piety as opposed to true religion which was allegedly rational.38 By the nineteenth century, ‘mysticism’ was being (re)conceived as ‘the fountainhead of all genuine spirituality’ and served in polemical rhetoric countering Enlightenment rationalism.39 Later, ‘mysticism’ came to be used as a cross-cultural category in the comparative study of religion. Identifying individual agents—that is, ‘mystics’—who have (un)solicited ‘religious experiences’, produce bodies of unverifiable knowledge that do not rely on, and sometimes reinterpret, traditional religious knowledge, mysticism came to represent potentially dangerous and socially destabilizing forces subverting traditional sources of authority.40

In The Varieties of Religious Experience, William James suggested that mystical states of consciousness are marked by four characteristics: ‘ineffability’, ‘noetic quality’, ‘transiency’, and ‘passivity’.41 The mystical experience is ineffable because it ‘defies expression’. The experience is one of direct knowing. These experiences are temporary and rarely last long enough to be stabilized as one’s ordinary state of awareness. Finally, they tend to produce the feeling of transcendent selflessness: ‘the mystic feels as if his own will were in abeyance…grasped and held by a superior power’.42 The keynote in these experiences is ‘reconciliation. It is as if the opposites of the world…were melted into unity’.43 For James, then, mysticism is ‘monistic insight, in which the other in its various forms appears absorbed into the One’. Such states may come ‘sporadically’, but they are also cultivated in Hindu, Buddhist, and Christian traditions.44 James did not suggest that mystical states or their recipients had any inherently authoritative claim.45 James recognized that ‘the mystical feeling of enlargement, union, and emancipation has no specific intellectual content whatever of its own. It is capable of forming matrimonial alliances with material furnished by the most diverse philosophies and theologies, provided only they can find a place in their framework for its peculiar emotional mood’.46 Yet the ‘optimism to which they would persuade us may, interpreted in one way or another, be after all the truest of insights into the meaning of this life’.47 Identifying an aspect of religion – in this case, mysticism – as religion’s universal, timeless essence, this discourse obscured the constructed nature of the category of ‘mysticism’.48 It also erred in defining mysticism as opposed to or uninterested in ritual, sacraments, and theology, seeing Advaita Vedanta, Buddhism, Jainism, (Neo-)Platonism, and the mystical traditions in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam as different facets of the One God.49 In the West, this is a view that has come to be associated with the ‘perennial philosophy’ (philosophia perennis),50 first popularized in the 1940s by Aldous Huxley.51

The perennialist position is not, however, that the mystical traditions of the world’s religions are the same. Rather, perennialism proposes that there is one ultimate reality underlying the different religions,52 and that that one reality can be experienced. That is, religious doctrines are different, but religious experiences are rooted in our physiology and so can be compared.53 So it is not that Jewish or Christian mystical experiences are the same as Buddhist mystical experiences.54 After all, Christians would tend to have theistic mystical experiences whereas Buddhists would tend to have non-theistic mystical experiences.55 These experiences would not be the same.56 Nor should we categorize theistic experiences as superior to non-theistic mystical experiences. The perennialist perspective suggests that cultural forms may be different and particular, but since we all share similar biological, neurological, and physiological structures, we necessarily also have similar experiences.57 Consequently, we also share the same tendencies to ‘mystical’ experience(s) of our particular, culturally perceived realities.58 As a result, structural similarities can be seen and posited between different religious systems.59

Unfortunately, the popularity of the perennialist paradigm has over-determined the critical discussion of mysticism insofar as the term is now generally thought to refer primarily to individuals who claim to (or are claimed to) have had direct experience(s) of the divine, often described as union with God.60 Defining mysticism as ‘the art of union with Reality’,61 or ‘religious experiences corresponding to the direct cognition of a transcendent reality beyond the division of subject and object’,62 mysticism is now mostly associated with philosophical systems like Advaita Vedanta, Buddhism, Neo-Platonic philosophy, and (some) Western Christian traditions.63 Unitary states of being and awareness have thus become both indicative and characteristic of mysticism, even within neuroscientific research.64 The problem with this conflation of mysticism and perennialism, however, is its confusion of many religious traditions into a universal human spirituality that disregards the particularities and local variations of social, historical, and political difference.65 A grand narrative of popular perennialism also overlooks the fact that all experience is interpreted within specific cultural matrices,66 mediated by socio-cultural concepts.67

For the social constructivist, mysticism is not a ‘single phenomenon’.68 The specific religious traditions within which mystics live provide constituent elements, and perhaps even the ‘essence’ of their mystical experience.69 Cultural factors certainly play a central role in the interpretation of all experience. But while our experiences may be culturally and contextually specific, does that mean that ‘all dimensions of human experience’ are socially constructed?70 Are all of our personal experiences completely determined by these contexts?71

The history of religion contains many cases in which individuals experienced sudden transformations of their cultural and religious orientation, introducing unexpected innovations. There are also many instances in which cross-fertilization(s) between ‘religious’ traditions led to unanticipated religious developments. After all, Christianity emerged within Early Judaism and the Buddhist doctrine of Nirvāna developed in contradistinction to Hindu metaphysics. The question, therefore, of whether our experiences and traditions are culturally and hermetically sealed from others’ experiences and traditions requires the answer of an emphatic negative at both the cultural and physio-neurological levels.72 Is there ‘a realm of human experience…devoid of conceptualization, linguistic forms and socially constructed forms of apprehension?’73 Is there such a thing as a state of pure consciousness?74 Do we have an ‘innate capacity’ for mysticism?75 Many researchers think so.76

That there are generic similarities across cultures makes it possible to classify and categorize types of experience under analytical rubrics. Moreover, similar experiences may occur in different situations because the physio-neurological basis for experience and perception itself is commonly shared. One might wish to distinguish between occasional, spontaneous (in)voluntary experiences and the pursuit of a more permanent or sustained state of awareness. One might also wish to develop taxonomical approaches to classify and categorize a range of theistic, monistic, and natural mysticism(s).77 One might also note that textual representations of mystical experience do not necessarily correspond to actual experiences nor do literarily-inscribed accounts of mystical experience need be taken at face value. Nonetheless, adopting a relatively inclusive working definition of mysticism—as beliefs and practices associated with eliciting experiential contact with the divine—may prove useful in reconsidering Jesus’ eligibility and qualifications for inclusion.

3 A First-Century Jewish Mystic

The history of Judaism represents a rich and complex tapestry of ‘mystical’ traditions.78 The discursive construct of ‘Jewish mysticism’ allows for the exploration and study of individual agents, texts, and traditions reflecting experiential practice(s) associated with attaining intimacy with, proximity to, and perhaps even union with, a divine reality, whether or not that reality is conceptualized as ‘God’.79 The modern study of Jewish mysticism is widely attributed to Gershom Scholem.80 In Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, Scholem distinguished between the beliefs and practices associated with Merkavah (‘throne/chariot’) mysticism, in which seers envisioned a series of ascents to seven heavens and hekhalot (‘palaces’) before approaching the Merkavah of God, and later Kabbalistic mysticism emerging in thirteenth-century Spain, through the composition of the Zohar, the Kabbalah of Isaac Luria, the messianic movement of Sabbatai Sevi, and the rise of Hasidism in the eighteenth century. Scholem’s use of the term ‘trends’ suggested trajectories of development and subsequent studies have extended the chronological range of Jewish mystical traditions from the book of Ezekiel through the Second Temple period.81 The origins of Jewish mysticism have even been traced in part back to various sociological and political dynamics at play in priestly and scribal disaffiliation from the Temple cult,82 leading to alternative modalities of access to the deity and sanctuary via visionary journeys, encounters with divine/angelic intermediaries, and esoteric disclosures of divine mysteries and the hidden wisdom of God.

The study of Jewish mysticism, therefore, is properly extended prior to the rabbinical period and beyond the canonical boundaries of both Judaism and Christianity.83 Our modern categories of wisdom, prophecy, and apocalypticism co-existed and overlapped in Early Jewish textual productions, complementing and illustrating the emergence of ‘mysticism’ in this period.84 But while the study of Jewish mysticism generally refers to non-Christian forms of ancient, medieval, and modern Jewish thought, especially in the hekhalot and Merkavah literature, many assumptions about Jewish mysticism continue to betray Christian presuppositions, especially the concept of union with God.85 The problem is that most ancient Jewish sources do not refer to union with God,86 but rather with the acquisition of divine knowledge and the pre-mortem ‘angelification’ of the body.87 In the Self-Glorification Hymn from Qumran (4Q491), for example, a human figure claims to have ascended to the heavens:

[El Elyon gave me a seat among] those perfect forever,

a mighty throne in the congregation of the gods…

For I have taken my seat in the [congregation] in the heavens…

I shall be reckoned with the gods (אלִים)

and established in the holy congregation.88

Whatever we make of the author’s apparent self-representation in attaining divine status, this textual claim to heavenly enthronement is suggestive of a kind of ‘angelification’.89 Similar themes emerge in the Enochic literature.90

The origin and use of the concept of mystery-language in Early Jewish texts can also be associated with the emergence of Jewish mysticism.91 Ancient Judaism had a well-developed lexicon of mystery-language.92 A variety of ‘secret groups’ cultivated ‘esoteric knowledge and transmitted it secretly’.93 The Essenes practiced secret rites and kept secret books.94 The book of Daniel seems to have inspired a number of subsequent compositions using mystery-language.95 Daniel’s references to divine mystery (רז), always translated as μυστήριον in the Septuagint,96 refer to ‘wisdom that was previously hidden but has been revealed’, that is, to divine revelation.97 Philo was a Jewish mystic who even taught that mystical union (unio mystica) with God was possible.98

Early Christians adopted mystery-language to refer to Jesus’ secret teachings about the kingdom of God and the hidden meanings of the Scriptures.99 The word μυστήριον appears multiple times in the New Testament,100 referring to things unknown, hidden, or kept secret. Paul especially uses mystery-language to proclaim the revelation of a new—but ancient—mystery: the crucified Messiah as the μυστήριον of God.101 Paul deploys μυστήριον as a rhetorical term in the face of competition, apostolic rivalry, and community-division.102 Paul also provides us with a first-person account of what seems to be a ‘mystical’ and ‘apocalyptic’ ascent to the heavenly realm.103 The Gospel of Thomas further develops these themes as a form of ‘early Christian mysticism’,104 re-presenting Jesus as a revealer of ‘mysteries’.105 There is also no question that the Catholic conceptualization of the sacrament of the Eucharist as a Mystery—via the transubstantiation of the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ—suggests a kind of institutionalized mysticism.

Gershom Scholem viewed ‘[a]ll mysticism’ as possessing ‘two contradictory or complementary aspects: the one conservative, the other revolutionary’.106 Mystics ‘seem to rediscover the sources of traditional authority’, but also stand ‘in a direct, productive relationship to the object’ of their experience, and so transform their tradition: ‘the old values acquire a new meaning’.107 The mystic may not only question previously held religious authority, but may also ‘substitute his own opinion for that prescribed by authority, precisely because his opinion seems to stem from that very same authority’. Revolutionary mystics, in other words, establish new authority.108 If mystics are indeed revolutionary challengers of the status quo and visionaries envisioning new horizons of transcendence within their respective traditions, then Scholem’s insight helps explain ancient and contemporary Jewish resistance to identifying Jesus as a legitimate religious authority: mystical approaches to Jewish law are not easily reconciled with ‘normative’ Jewish legal observance.109

To be sure, a number of scholars, including Marcus J. Borg, Alan F. Segal, Jeffrey J. Kripal, and April D. DeConick, have suggested that the historical Jesus was a mystic.110 Nonetheless, the identification is not particularly popular. Walter T. Stace could not find ‘any real evidence’ supporting the identification, although one might think that ‘The Father and I are one’ (John 10:30) would suffice.111 According to Stace, however, Jesus did not possess ‘the mystical consciousness’ since he would have ‘set it at the centre of his teaching’. In any case, ‘mysticism is only a minor strand in the religion which he founded’. Alternatively, Bernard McGinn describes Jesus simply as a ‘pious Jew’ whose followers found the ‘invisible God’ present in him ‘in a final and unsurpassable way’.112 Yet McGinn does not identify Jesus as a mystic because Jesus is the means of direct access to the Father.113 For McGinn, Christian mysticism is not about following Jesus’ example as a Jewish mystic, but rather following an ‘exegetical’ practice involving the ‘reading, meditation, preaching, and teaching’ of the biblical text.114 Jesus seems to be in a category all by himself (sui generis) as the divine revelation of the ‘presence’ of God.115

It is difficult not to suspect that confessional-theological claims about Jesus’ ‘uniqueness’ and incomparability—not to mention intimations that ‘the quest for the historical Jesus’ itself is a ‘misguided’ enterprise116—may lie behind at least some scholarly reluctance to embrace the category of mysticism in relationship to Jesus. To identify Jesus as a mystic implies that he is comparable to other religious figures who have had similar ‘religious experience(s)’. Scholarly proposals that Jesus was a mystic have thus gained little traction despite the fact that many Second Temple Jews developed and participated in ascetic practices and revelatory discourses about hidden ‘mysteries’.

Nonetheless, the identification of Jesus as a mystic has long been a popular topic among Western esotericists.117 Eckhart Tolle, for example, quotes from the teachings of Jesus and Buddha, not to compare them, but rather to assert ‘the fact that in essence there is and always has been only one spiritual teaching, although it comes in many forms’.118 It is also not surprising that Christian mystics are inclined to see Jesus as a mystic. Bernadette Roberts, for example, sees ‘Christ first and foremost as a mystic who had the continuous vision of God and whose mission was to share it, give it to others’.119 For Roberts, ‘the man Jesus’ was ‘the mystic of mystics’, and Christianity was ‘founded on Jesus’ mystical experiences of oneness with God’,120 although Christianity eventually ‘buried’ Jesus under centuries of Christian theology.121 Like Roberts, Willigis Jäger finds what he calls ‘the essential significance of Jesus’ not in his atoning death, but in ‘showing us a way to an experience of unity with the original divine principle’.122 Similarly, Howard Thurman theorized an ‘affirmative mysticism’ as ‘the response of the individual to a personal encounter with God within his own soul…effecting the inner quality of the life and its outward expression as its manifestation’.123 For Thurman, Jesus was a first-century Jewish mystic whose ‘religious experience’ (the religion of Jesus) represented the very essence of Christianity,124 inspiring Martin Luther King, Jr. with visions of Jesus’ nonviolent resistance and solidarity with the ‘disinherited’. Considering, then, that numerous Western esotericists, Christian mystics, and biblical scholars have identified Jesus as a mystic, and that many Jesus-sayings and ‘Christian’ narrative traditions fit well within a broad definition of ‘mystical’ literature, it would seem that a re-assessment of ‘mystical’ tradents in the Jesus tradition is in order.

In the Gospel of Mark, for example, Jesus initiates disciples into the ‘mystery’ (μυστήριον) of the kingdom of God.125 This Markan theme of mystery has, of course, long been identified as a ‘messianic secret’,126 but it also alludes to at least two levels of interpretative meaning in Jesus’ ministry: one for his disciples and another, in ‘parables’, for those ‘outside’. The ‘mystery’ of discipleship and Jesus’ ‘secret instruction’ of revelatory/apocalyptic knowledge emerges, therefore, as a central theme of Mark’s Gospel.127

In a number of Markan sayings, Jesus appeals to an authoritative ‘order of creation’ as described in the book of Genesis,128 subordinating Mosaic ordinances in light of the renewal of creation. This hermeneutic seems to have allowed him to both intensify the demands of marital law and relax the halakhic restrictions of Sabbath law.129 In what has been described as the ‘best attested tradition’ in the Gospels,130 Jesus states that ‘Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce’ his wife because of Israel’s ‘hardness of heart’.131 Jesus justifies his position by arguing that the allowance for divorce was due to an inability to uphold the original intention of creation.132 The Markan Jesus appeals to Gen. 1.27 and Gen. 2.24. This appeal to Genesis is ‘more than citing one scripture against another. It is an appeal to origins… God’s original purpose has priority’.133 Lifelong marriage was God’s intention ‘from the beginning’. The Mosaic Law was a temporary concession and eschatologically inadequate.134

There is still considerable room for debate regarding whether the Markan Jesus corresponds to the historical Jesus in this particular instance, but there seems to be little reason to doubt that the historical Jesus proscribed divorce in an eschatological context. Moreover, Jesus’ attitude toward divorce, Sabbath law, and violence may all be best understood in light of his interpretation of Torah,135 an interpretation derived from a creation-hermeneutic.136 Jesus assumed the authority to re-interpret Mosaic Law because he claimed to be a contemporary spokesperson for God’s will. This unmediated authority was derived not from recognizable cultural channels, but from his own direct ‘religious experience’ of the divine, experience which gave rise to the evangelists’ identification of Jesus as a man ‘gifted with certain paranormal abilities’.137 It is this posited experience of the divine, the authority derived from it, the popularity and following it inspired, and the religious conflicts it produced, that constitute the explanatory power around the identification of Jesus as a first-century Jewish mystic.

The historical Jesus does not seem to have belonged to any particular school of halakhic (legal) interpretation. He does not seem to have been particularly concerned with maintaining ritual purity.138 He does not even seem to have developed a systematic approach to legal disputes, but he does seem to have had at least one overriding priority: discerning and following the will and vision of God.139 Jesus’ distinctive approach to the Torah is thus arguably derived from his personal inclination toward ‘mystical’ and ‘religious experience’. This ‘religious experience’—as elusive as it may seem to us today—can still be theoretically posited in light of the admittedly fragmentary evidence pointing to Jesus’ pedagogical (parabolic, aphoristic, and instructional) focus on the ‘kingdom’ as an ineffable reality co-existent with the Roman Empire. We may not be able to re-create or verify that ‘experience’, but we can at least see some of its after-effects in the biographical data that we do have: a radical dissociation from cultural norms of family, marriage, and employment; a transgressive orientation to socio-cultural boundaries; a compassionate concern for the economic and social welfare of others; a confident conviction in challenging traditional religious norms and conceptualizations of deity; creative and innovative legal and scriptural interpretations; and an extraordinary claim to an experiential intimacy, if not union, with God conceptualized as Father.

Biblical scholars may be reluctant to identify Jesus as a first-century Jewish mystic for a variety of reasons—namely, the association of mysticism with its pagan, Greek, and Platonic antecedents (raising the spectre of the Mysteries’ influence on early Christianity) and the confessional conviction that Jesus is not simply a ‘mystic’ comparable to other mystics—and contemporary scholars of Jewish and Christian mysticism may tend to date the origins of their respective fields to the post-70 ce era, effectively bracketing the historical Jesus from consideration. However, there is no reason to think that the sociological dynamics capable of giving rise to new religious movements and facilitating ‘religious experience(s)’ among a variety of individual agents was not as present in the pre-70 ce era as it was in the post-70 ce period. In other words, there is no compelling reason why the etic category of ‘mystic’ does not provide as much, if not more, explanatory power in (re)constructing Jesus than any emic category inscribed in the Gospels. To identify Jesus as a mystic, then, is not to impose a modern category onto an ancient figure, but rather to situate this historical figure in a ‘perfectly reasonable’ historical and cultural milieu within the wider discursive context of the comparative and naturalistic study of religion.140

4 Conclusion

The challenge of categorizing the historical Jesus is one of the central concerns and major problems in Jesus research. The early Jesus tradition gave rise to a number of competing and complementary categorizations, although Christological conceptualization(s) of the figure of Jesus rapidly transformed how the pre-crucifixion Jesus was ‘remembered’. Jesus research is hard-pressed to find a single category that renders justice to this multi-faceted characterization of Jesus in the Gospels. Fortunately, critical readings of the Gospels within their Jewish context(s) allows us to recognize that interpretative categories are not mutually exclusive and can be profitably combined, just as sapiential, prophetic, and apocalyptic literary traditions were incorporated by the evangelists.

It is Jesus’ ‘religious experience’, however, that represents a key component of Jesus’ ‘religious’ formation, vocation, charisma, authority, ethics, and teaching. We may not be able to reconstruct or verify the specific process(es) that led to this ‘experience’, but it is ‘perfectly reasonable’ to conclude that Jesus claimed to have had ‘religious experience’ and that this claim of direct experience of God led him to challenge certain social and religious customs of his people.141 Like most Jews, Jesus’ experiences were shaped by Jewish conceptualizations of God,142 namely, that there was ‘more to reality than the physical world’, and that God created the world and made a covenant with humanity and Israel. Our ability to recognize Jesus as a first-century Jewish mystic, however, has been compromised by and confused with a popularizing perennialist discourse that combines multiple streams of evidence into a central thesis that human beings have direct access to a transcendent Reality interpreted differently in different cultural systems. Indulging in over-exaggeration and facile declarations of sameness, this discourse’s transgressive orientation in making metaphysical claims about reality makes it both offensive and threatening to the status quo of a postmodern Academy. It is one thing, after all, to suggest that the academic category of mysticism is, theoretically, explanatorily powerful. It is quite another to claim that mystics actually experience a transcendent Reality.

Redescribing Jesus as a first-century Jewish mystic does not, however, require positing a metaphysically transcendent source of divine agency or authority. The emergence of the early Jesus movement can be viewed as a ‘revelatory event’ guided and facilitated by the rhetorical, scribal, sociological, and theological claim(s) of an unseen divine presence in Jesus’ life. But if mystical experiences also involve the claim(s) of directly perceiving the nature of reality and the attainment of unitary knowledge of the divine—and these experiences are based on our common physiological-neurological structures interpreted and filtered differently within particular cultural contexts—then we have very good reasons to identify Jesus as a man who claimed to have had such experiences and tried to share them, inspiring a new socio-religious formation by attracting followers who believed (in) him, and who discovered, in their own religious experiences, the direct confirmation of their beliefs.

To identify the historical Jesus as a first-century Jewish mystic is not to dissociate him from his original cultural context with an anachronistic category. On the contrary, this identification serves to illuminate his distinctive role within the history of Judaism set within wider discussions of the academic study of religion. There may still be challenges involved with using a modern category for an ancient person, but the modern category of mysticism, despite its Western genealogy, definitional imprecisions, and interpretative difficulties, not only has ancient etymological, cultural, and religious roots, it also helps us better understand the Jesus of history, that is, it makes Jesus comparable—and thus more explanatorily comprehensible—within a contemporary discursive context.


William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature (Oxford World’s Classics; ed. M. Bradley; New York: Oxford University Press, 2012 [1902]); Ninian Smart, The Religious Experience (New York: Macmillan, 4th edn, 1991 [1969]). For a survey of this field, see Ann Taves, ‘Religious Experience’, in Lindsay Jones (ed.), Encyclopedia of Religion, vol. 11 (Detroit, MI: Thomson Gale, 2005), pp. 7736–50. On religious experience in cognitive science, see Jensine Andresen (ed.), Religion in Mind: Cognitive Perspectives on Religious Belief, Ritual, and Experience (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001). On ‘religious experience’ in early Judaism and Christianity, see Frances Flannery, Colleen Shantz and Rodney A. Werline (eds.), Experientia, Vol. 1: Inquiry into Religious Experience in Early Judaism and Christianity (Symposium Series, 40; Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2008).


On ‘attribution theory’, see Wayne Proudfoot, Religious Experience (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1985). Proudfoot critiques the conceptualization of ‘religious experience’ as independent of prior thoughts and concepts.


The study of ‘religious experience’ grew out of a desire to protect religion from natural(istic) science: if religion could be said to originate in an ontologically real world, then it would be safe from scientific critique and the essence of religion could be preserved intact as experience. See Martin Jay, Songs of Experience: Modern American and European Variations on a Universal Theme (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2005), pp. 78–130.


April D. DeConick, ‘Mysticism before Mysticism: Teaching Christian Mysticism as a Historian of Religion’, in William Barclay Parsons (ed.), Teaching Mysticism (Teaching Religious Studies; New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), pp. 26–45, here p. 33. See also Alan F. Segal, ‘Religious Experience and the Construction of the Transcendent Self’, in April D. DeConick (ed.), Paradise Now: Essays on Early Jewish and Christian Mysticism (Symposium, 1; Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2006), pp. 27–40.


Ann Taves, Revelatory Events: Three Case Studies of the Emergence of New Spiritual Paths (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017), p. xiii. Cf. April D. DeConick, ‘Naturally Supernatural’, Religion, Brain, and Behavior 9 no. 3 (2019), pp. 276–284, here p. 281, affirming Taves’s ‘cognitive solution to revelation’ as the ‘natural cognition of people with unusual mental abilities’.


Taves, Revelatory Events, p. xiii. On attribution, see also Ann Taves, Religious Experience Reconsidered (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009).


Taves, Revelatory Events, p. 223.


Heidi Wendt, At the Temple Gates: The Religion of Freelance Experts in the Roman Empire (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), p. 223. On Jesus as a healer, see Steven L. Davies, Jesus the Healer: Possession, Trance, and the Origins of Christianity (New York: Continuum, 1995); Geza Vermes, Jesus the Jew: A Historian’s Reading of the Gospels (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1973), pp. 58–82.


Dale C. Allison, Jesus of Nazareth: Millenarian Prophet (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1999), pp. 207, 216; J. Duncan M. Derrett, ‘Primitive Christianity as an Ascetic Movement’, in V.L. Wimbush and R. Valantasis (eds.), Asceticism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), pp. 89, 93; Helmut Koester, Introduction to the New Testament: History and Literature in Early Christianity (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1982), 2:148–49; Joseph Klausner, Jesus of Nazareth: His Life, Times, and Teaching (New York: Menorah, 1925), p. 405; Simon J. Joseph, ‘The Ascetic Jesus’, jshj 8 (2010), pp. 146–81.


Vermes, Jesus the Jew, p. 223.


bBer 34b.


bPes 112b.


bTaan 23a.


bTaan 24b, 25a.


Josephus, Ant. 14, 22–24.


Bart D. Ehrman, How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee (New York: HarperOne, 2014).


Cf. Simon J. Joseph, The Nonviolent Messiah: Jesus, Q, and the Enochic Tradition (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014).


István Czachesz, ‘Jesus’ Religious Experience in the Gospels: Toward a Cognitive Neuroscience Approach’, in P. von Gemünden, D. G. Horrell and M. Küchler (eds.), Jesus—­Gestalt und Gestaltungen: Rezeption des Galiläers in Wissenschaft, Kirche und Gesellschaft. FS Gerd Theißen (ntoa/sunt, 100; Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2013), pp. 569–96; B. van Os, Psychological Analyses and the Historical Jesus: New Ways to Explore Christian Origins (New York: T&T Clark, 2011). Davies, Jesus the Healer, p. 115, suggests that Jesus’ healings and exorcisms represent spirit ‘possession’ (i.e., a state of psychological dissociation) and that ‘the kingdom of God is a form of experience, an altered state of consciousness’.


Cf. Jonathan Z. Smith, Drudgery Divine: On the Comparison of Early Christianities and the Religions of Late Antiquity (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990).


James D.G. Dunn, Jesus and the Spirit: A Study of the Religious and Charismatic Experience of Jesus and the First Christians as Reflected in the New Testament (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1975), pp. 11–92.


Dunn, Jesus and the Spirit, pp. 13, 39. Dunn focuses on Jesus’ use of abba, his exorcisms, self-proclaimed fulfillment of Isaianic prophecy, and strong sense of authority.


Dunn, Jesus and the Spirit, pp. 87–88 (emphasis in original), claims that a characteristic feature of Jesus’ ‘experience’ was its ‘givenness’, since his ‘power’ was ‘neither achieved nor conjured up’, but ‘given him’. On one hand, then, Dunn denies that it is possible to trace any ‘development’ in Jesus’ self-consciousness; on the other hand, Dunn implies that there was no ‘development’ in Jesus’ ‘self-consciousness’: it was simply ‘given’.


Dunn, Jesus and the Spirit, p. 13.


Dunn, Jesus and the Spirit, p. 87.


Morton Smith, review of Dunn, Jesus and the Spirit, in jaar 44.4 (1976), p. 726.


Dunn, Jesus and the Spirit, p. 2.


Dunn, Jesus and the Spirit, p. 26 (emphasis in original), qualifying ‘distinctive’ as ‘both characteristic of Jesus and sufficiently unusual among his contemporaries, to mark him out, but not necessarily set him in a class apart’ (p. 366 n. 71).


Dunn, Jesus and the Spirit, p. 90 (emphasis added).


Larry W. Hurtado, Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity (Grand ­Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), p. 64; idem, ‘Religious Experience and Religious Innovation in the New Testament’, JR 80 (2000), pp. 183–205; Luke T. Johnson, Religious Experience in Earliest Christianity: A Missing Dimension in New Testament Studies (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1998); Philip C. Almond, Mystical Experience and Religious Doctrine: An Investigation of the Study of Mysticism in World Religions (Berlin: Mouton, 1982).


Hurtado, Lord Jesus Christ, pp. 70–71. Hurtado does not pursue this line of inquiry for both ‘practical’ reasons and because he is more interested in explaining the emergence of ‘Christ devotion’, that is, the ‘reformulation of the faith of his followers’ after Jesus’ death’.


William E. Arnal, Jesus and the Village Scribes: Galilean Conflicts and the Setting of Q (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001), p. 198.


Leigh Eric Schmidt, ‘The Making of Modern “Mysticism”’, jaar 71.2 (2003), pp. 273–302.


Louis Bouyer, ‘Mysticism: An Essay on the History of the Word’, in Richard Woods (ed.), Understanding Mysticism (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1980), pp. 42–45.


Walter Burkert, Ancient Mystery Cults (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1987); Hugh Bowden, Mystery Cults of the Ancient World (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010); Jan Bremmer, Initiation into the Mysteries of the Ancient World (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2014). Older authorities discounted any connection of relationship between Paul’s Jewish heritage and Paul’s Hellenistic environment. See H.A.A. Kennedy, St. Paul and the Mystery Religions (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1913), p. x; Arthur Darby Nock, ‘Early Gentile Christianity and its Hellenistic Background’, in A.E.J. Rawlinson (ed.), Essays on the Trinity and the Incarnation by Members of the Anglican Communion (London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1928), pp. 53–156.


Cf. Pseudo-Dionysius, The Complete Works (trans. Colm Luibbéid; New York: Paulist Press, 1987).


Richard King, Orientalism and Religion: Post-colonial Theory, India and ‘The Mystic East’ (New York and London: Routledge, 1999), p. 17.


Jeffrey R. Kripal, Roads of Excess, Palaces of Wisdom: Eroticism and Reflexivity in the Study of Mysticism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001), pp. 33–34.


Schmidt, ‘The Making of Modern “Mysticism”’, p. 276.


Schmidt, ‘The Making of Modern “Mysticism”’, p. 281.


Chad J. Pevateaux, ‘Mysticism Emergent: The Beginning of the Study of Mysticism in the Academy’, in April D. DeConick (ed.), Secret Religion (Farmington Hills, MI: Macmillan, 2016), pp. 265–294 (270), notes how the mystic as a ‘distinct social type’ emerges in the seventeenth century as a marginal figure characterized by ‘enigmatic speaking and extraordinary experiencing’. The comparative study of mysticism was then differentiated from the Christian tradition as a result of la mystique becoming a substantive. Cf. Michel de Certeau, The Mystic Fable: The Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992).


James, Varieties of Religious Experience, pp. 290–91.


James, Varieties of Religious Experience, p. 291.


James, Varieties of Religious Experience, p. 297.


James, Varieties of Religious Experience, p. 305.


James, Varieties of Religious Experience, p. 322.


James, Varieties of Religious Experience, p. 324.


James, Varieties of Religious Experience, p. 327.


Schmidt, ‘The Making of Modern “Mysticism”’, p. 288.


Huston Smith, Forgotten Truth: The Primordial Tradition (New York: Harper & Row, 1976).


The term was coined by Agostino Steuco (1497–1548) and popularized by Gottfried Leibniz, René Guénon, and Frithjof Schuon. Cf. Huston Smith, ‘Is There a Perennial Philosophy?’, jaar 55.3 (1987), pp. 553–66 (553 n. 2).


Aldous Huxley, The Perennial Philosophy (London: Harper & Row, 1944): ‘The metaphysic which recognizes a divine Reality substantial to the world of things and lives and minds; the psychology that finds in the soul something similar to, or even identical with, divine Reality; the ethic that places man’s final end in the knowledge of the immanent and transcendent Ground of all being’. See also Rudolf Otto, The Idea of the Holy (trans. John W. Harvey; New York: Oxford University Press, 1923); Mysticism East and West (trans. Bertha Bracey and Richenda C. Payne; New York: Macmillan, 1932); John Holman, The Return of the Perennial Philosophy: The Supreme Vision of Western Esotericism (London: Robert Ellwood Watkins Publishing, 2008).


Arthur Versluis, Perennial Philosophy (Minneapolis: New Cultures Press, 2015), p. 2.


Frances Flannery, ‘The Body and Ritual Reconsidered, Imagined, and Experienced’, in Flannery, Shantz and Werline (eds.), Experientia, Vol. 1, pp. 13–18, here p. 16: ‘although we live in a completely different environment than the authors of the sacred texts of early Judaism and early Christianity, we share one thing, namely, a basic biological make-up. We share embodiment as humans. Thus, though minimal, there is in fact something we can know about religious experience in antiquity’.


Robert M. Gimello, ‘Mysticism in its Contexts’, in Steven T. Katz (ed.), Mysticism and Religious Traditions (New York: Oxford University Press, 1983), p. 63.


While Buddhism is generally regarded as ‘non-theistic’, many Buddhist texts refer to ­other-worldly beings such as ghosts, demi-gods, deities, celestial buddhas, and bodhisattvas. See further Robert E. Florida, ‘Theism and Atheism in the Work of W. C. Smith: A Buddhist Case Study’, Buddhist-Christian Studies 10 (1990), pp. 255–62.


For criticism of the idea that ‘mystical’ experiences are the same, see R.C. Zaehner, Mysticism Sacred and Profane: An Inquiry into Some Varieties of Praeternatural Experience (New York: Oxford University Press, 1961 [1957]); Concordant Discord: The Interdependence of Faiths (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1970).


Andrew Newberg, Why We Believe What We Believe: Uncovering Our Biological Need for Meaning, Spirituality and Truth (New York and London: The Free Press, 2006).


John Hick, An Interpretation of Religion: Human Responses to the Transcendent (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2nd edn, 2004 [1989]), p. 380, characterizes religion as ‘part of a universal soteriological process’.


Philip C. Almond, Mystical Experience and Religious Doctrine: An Investigation of the Study of Mysticism in World Religions (Religion and Reason, 26; Berlin/New York: Mouton, 1982), analyzes the problem of conflicting religious truth-claims by appealing to ‘mystical experience’, concluding that ‘There are as many different types of mystical experience as there are incorporated interpretations’ (p. 128). This model acknowledges the cultural contextualization of such ‘experience’, but maintains that ‘this does not entail that the mystic cannot experientially go beyond the received tradition… A mystical experience may lead too to the creative transformation of a religious tradition’ (pp. 167–68).


See, e.g., Jacob A. Belzen and Antoon Geels, Mysticism: A Variety of Psychological Perspectives (Rodopi, 2003); Robert K. Forman, Mysticism (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1999); Ralph W. Hood, ‘Mysticism’, in idem (ed.), The Psychology of Religion: An Empirical Approach (New York: Guilford Press, 2003), pp. 290–340; Richard H. Jones, Mysticism Examined (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1983); J. H. Leuba, The Psychology of Religious Mysticism (Harcourt, Brace, 1925); Bernard McGinn, The Foundations of Mysticism, vol. I of The Presence of God: A History of Western Christian Mysticism (New York: Crossroad, 1992); Christopher Rowland and Christopher R. A. Morray-Jones, The Mystery of God: Early Jewish Mysticism and the New Testament (crint, 12; Leiden: Brill, 2009).


Evelyn Underhill, Practical Mysticism: A Study in the Nature and Development of Man’s Spiritual Consciousness (New York: E.P. Dutton and Company, 1961), p. 3.


Arthur Versluis, Platonic Mysticism: Contemplative Science, Philosophy, Literature, and Art (swet; Albany: suny Press, 2017), p. 3.


Richard King, Early Advaita Vedanta and Buddhism: The Mahayana Context of the Gaudapadiya-Karika (Albany: suny, 1995); David Loy, Nonduality: A Study in Comparative Philosophy (Amherst, MA: Humanity, 1998).


Andrew Newberg and Eugene d’Aquili, The Mystical Mind: Probing the Biology of Religious Experience (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1999), p. 188, describe ‘absolute unitary being’ as ‘[A] state of pure awareness without the perception of discrete reality, without the sense of the passage of time, without the sense of the extension of space, and without the self-other dichotomy’.


R.C. Zaehner, Mysticism Sacred and Profane (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1957). For criticism, see Robert D. Baird, Category Formation and the History of Religions (New York: Mouton de Gruyter, 1991); Guilford Dudley, ‘Mircea Eliade: Anti-Historian of Religions’, jaar 44 (1976), pp. 345–59. Cf. Guy G. Stroumsa, Hidden Wisdom: Esoteric Traditions and the Roots of Christian Mysticism (Studies in the History of Religions, 70; Leiden: Brill, 2005), p. xii.


Steven Katz, ‘Language, Epistemology, and Mysticism’, in idem (ed.), Mysticism and Philosophical Analysis (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978), pp. 22–74; S. Katz (ed.), Mysticism and Religious Traditions (New York: Oxford University Press, 1983).


Grace Jantzen, Power, Gender and Christian Mysticism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995); Robert Gimello, ‘Mysticism and Meditation’, in Katz (ed.), Mysticism and Philosophical Analysis, pp. 170–99; Hans Penner, ‘The Mystical Illusion’, in Steven T. Katz (ed.), Mysticism and Religious Traditions, pp. 89–116; Proudfoot, Religious Experience; Bruce Garside, ‘Language and the Interpretation of Mystical Experiences’, ijpr 3 (1972), pp. 91–94; R.C. Zaehner, Hindu and Muslim Mysticism (New York: Schocken, 1961); H.P. Owen, ‘Experience and Dogma in the English Mystics’, in Katz (ed.), Mysticism and Religious Traditions, pp. 148–62.


Richard K. Payne, ‘Traditionalist Representations of Buddhism’, Pacific World: Journal of the Institute of Buddhist Studies third series, no. 10 (2008), pp. 177–223 (200).


Gimello, ‘Mysticism in its Contexts’, in Katz (ed.), Mysticism and Religious Traditions, pp. 61–88.


King, Orientalism and Religion, p. 172.


Donald Rothberg, ‘Contemporary Epistemology and the Study of Mysticism’, in Robert K.C. Forman (ed.), The Problem of Pure Consciousness: Mysticism and Philosophy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990), pp. 163–210; Donald Evans, ‘Can Philosophers Limit What Mystics Can Do? A Critique of Steven Katz’, RS 25 (1989), pp. 53–60; Jonathan Shear, The Inner Dimension: Philosophy and the Experience of Consciousness (New York: Peter Lang, 1990); James Robertson Price, ‘The Objectivity of Mystical Truth Claims’, The Thomist 49.1 (1985), pp. 81–98.


Jonathan Shear, ‘On Mystical Experiences as Support for the Perennial Philosophy’, jaar 62.2 (1994), pp. 319–42.


King, Orientalism and Religion, p. 172.


Robert K.C. Forman (ed.), The Problem of Pure Consciousness: Mysticism and Philosophy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990).


Robert K.C. Forman, ‘Introduction: Mystical Consciousness, the Innate Capacity, and the Perennial Psychology’, in idem (ed.), The Innate Capacity: Mysticism, Psychology, and Philosophy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), p. 27.


Anthony N. Perovich, ‘Innate Mystical Capacities and the Nature of the Self’, in Forman (ed.), The Innate Capacity, pp. 213–30; R.L. Franklin, ‘Postconstructivist Approaches to Mysticism’, in The Innate Capacity, p. 240. For the concept of an ‘incomplete ­constructivism’, see Forman (ed.), The Problem of Pure Consciousness (op. cit.); The Innate Capacity (op. cit.); Mysticism, Mind, Consciousness (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1999).


Walter T. Stace, Mysticism and Philosophy (London: Macmillan, 1960), for example, suggests that ‘extrovertive mysticism’ refers to perceiving unity in the material world whereas ‘introvertive mysticism’ refers to perceiving unity or nonduality within oneself. Stace’s taxonomy privileges Upanishadic mysticism, however, and is too narrowly focused to provide a reliably cross-cultural classification system, let alone a model applicable to the historical Jesus. For criticism, see Katz, ‘Language, Epistemology, and Mysticism’, p. 50.


On the role of experience in merkavah and hekhalot mysticism, see Daphna Arbel, Beholders of Divine Secrets: Mysticism and Myth in the Hekhalot and Merkavah Literature (Albany: suny, 2003), pp. 1–24.


Cf. John E. Collins, Mysticism and New Paradigm Psychology (Savage, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1991), pp. xix–xx; Joseph Dan, ‘In Quest of a Historical Definition of Mysticism’, Studies in Spirituality 3 (1993), pp. 58–90.


Gershom Scholem, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism (New York: Schocken, 1995 [1941]); Jewish Gnosticism, Merkabah Mysticism, and Talmudic Tradition (New York: Jewish ­Theological Seminary of America, 1960); Peter Schäfer, The Origins of Jewish Mysticism ­(Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009); The Hidden and the Manifest God: Some Major Themes in Early Jewish Mysticism (Albany: suny, 1992); Rachel Elior, Jewish Mysticism: The Infinite Expression of Freedom (trans. Y. Nave and A.B. Millman; Portland: Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2007); The Three Temples: On the Emergence of Jewish Mysticism (Portland: Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2004); Moshe Idel, Ascensions on High in Jewish Mysticism: Pillars, Lines, Ladders (New York: Central European University Press, 2005); Kabbalah: New Perspectives (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988).


Joseph Dan, Jewish Mysticism, vol. 1: Late Antiquity (Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson, 1998), p. xiv; Scholem, Major Trends, p. 18.


Elior, The Three Temples.


Andrei A. Orlov, The Enoch-Metatron Tradition (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2005), p. 5.


On the relationship between mysticism and apocalypticism, see Alan F. Segal, Two Powers in Heaven: Early Rabbinic Reports about Christianity and Gnosticism (Leiden: Brill, 1977); Ithamar Gruenwald, Apocalyptic and Merkabah Mysticism (Leiden: Brill, 1979); Christopher Rowland, The Open Heaven: A Study of Apocalyptic in Judaism and Early Christianity (New York: Crossroad, 1982).


Idel, Kabbalah, p. 35: ‘If mysticism is the quintessence of religion, the quintessence of mysticism is the sense of union with God. The intensification of religious life that ­characterizes most forms of mysticism culminates at times in paranormal experiences, whose literary expressions appear in descriptions of unitive relations with supermundane beings and sometimes ultimately with God himself’.


Nicholas De Lange, An Introduction to Judaism (New York and Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), p. 163.


Elliot Wolfson, ‘Mysticism and the Poetic-Liturgical Compositions from Qumran: A Response to Bilhah Nitzan’, jqr 85 (1994), pp. 185–202, here p. 186.


Cited in Morton Smith, ‘Two Ascended to Heaven—Jesus and the Author of 4Q491’, in James H. Charlesworth (ed.), Jesus and the Dead Sea Scrolls (New York: Doubleday, 1992), p. 296. On the translation of אלִים as ‘angels,’ see Esther Eshel, ‘4Q471b: 4QSelf-­Glorification Hymn (=4QHe frg. 1?),’ in Bilhah Nitzan (ed., et al.), Discoveries in the Judean Desert xxix, Qumran Cave 4 xx: Poetical and Liturgical Works, Part 2 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1999), pp. 421–432.


Crispin Fletcher-Louis, All the Glory of Adam: Liturgical Anthropology in the Dead Sea Scrolls (Leiden: Brill, 2002), p. 130. Wolfson (‘Mysticism’, pp. 186–87) suggests that 4Q491 may describe the ‘angelification’ of a human being.


Cf. 1 En. 62.5; 69.27, 29; 45.3; 47.3; 51.3; 55.4; 60.2. In 1 En. 17.36, Enoch is described as ‘a fit companion for angels’. In 1 En. 71.14, Enoch is portrayed as an angelic being. Similarly, in 2 and 3 Enoch, Enoch is transformed into an exalted angel. Cf. Dan. 12.3; 1 En. 104.2.


April D. DeConick, ‘What is Early Jewish and Christian Mysticism’, in DeConick (ed.) Paradise Now: Essays on Early Jewish and Christian Mysticism (SS, 11; Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2006), pp. 1–26.


Samuel I. Thomas, The ‘Mysteries’ of Qumran: Mystery, Secrecy, and Esotericism in the Dead Sea Scrolls (ejl, 25; Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2009).


Michael E. Stone, Secret Groups in Ancient Judaism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018).


Josephus, War 2.137–42; 2.150–53.


So too Greg K. Beale, The Use of Daniel in Jewish Apocalyptic Literature and in the Revelation of St. John (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1984).


Dan. 2.18, 19, 27–30, 47; 4.9 [4.6 MT].


Cf. Benjamin L. Gladd, Revealing the Mysterion: The Use of Mystery in Daniel and Second Temple Judaism with Its Bearing on First Corinthians (bznw 160; Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2008), pp. 32, 39, 50.


Adam Afterman, ‘From Philo to Plotinus: The Emergence of Mystical Union’, JR 93.2 (2013), pp. 177–96.


Raymond E. Brown and John Reumann, The Semitic Background of the Term ‘Mystery’ in the New Testament (BS, 21; Philadelphia: Fortress, 1968); ‘The Pre-Christian Semitic Concept of “Mystery”’, cbq 20.4 (1958), pp. 417–43.


Mark 4.11; Rom. 11.25; 1 Cor. 2.7, 13.2, 15.51; Eph. 3.3, 9; Col. 1.26, 4.3; Rev. 10.7.


For Paul, the crucifixion of the Messiah (Χριστός) (1 Cor. 1.17, 23, 30; 2.2), ‘the cross of Christ’ (ὁ σταυρὸς τοῦ Χριστοῦ) (1.17), ‘Christ crucified’ (Χριστὸν ἐσταυρωμένον) (1.23), is the Mystery of God. See Gladd, Revealing the Mysterion, p. 263: ‘the technical term μυστήριον originates from the book of Daniel’ and ‘is thoroughly apocalyptic (cf. Dan 2:18, 19, 27–30, 47; 4:9)’.


For example, in 1 Cor. 2.6–7, Paul contrasts the ‘wisdom of this age’ with ‘God’s wisdom’: ‘Yet among the mature we do speak God’s wisdom, though it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to perish. But we speak God’s wisdom, secret and hidden which God decreed before the ages for our glory’. Paul contrasts the wisdom of God with the wisdom of this world (1 Cor. 3.18–23), juxtaposing μυστήριον and σοφία: the mystery is the wisdom of God. It is the ‘mystery’ of the cross, not the ‘wisdom’ of the world (1 Cor. 1.17–28; 2.1–7). It is a wisdom accessible to the ‘mature’ (1 Cor. 2.6), but not to the ‘rulers of this age’. In Rom. 11.25, Paul again uses mystery-discourse to explain why Israel has not converted to Christ. In 1 Corinthians, Paul uses mystery-language to describe the resurrection of the dead: ‘I tell you a mystery (μυστήριον ὑμῖν λέγω) … we will all be changed (ἀλλαγησόμεθα)’ (1 Cor. 15.51).


Gershom Scholem, ‘Religious Authority and Mysticism’, in idem, On the Kabbalah and its Symbolism (New York: Schocken Books, 1965), p. 14, identifies Paul as ‘the most outstanding example known to us of a revolutionary Jewish mystic’. Paul had ‘a mystical experience which he interpreted in such a way that it shattered the traditional authority’. See also April D. DeConick, ‘Jesus Revealed: The Dynamics of Early Christian Mysticism’, in Daphna V. Arbel and Andrei A. Orlov (eds.), With Letters of Light: Studies in the Dead Sea Scrolls, Early Jewish Apocalypticism, Magic, and Mysticism: In Honor of Rachel Elior (Ekstasis: reama, 2; Berlin: De Gruyter, 2010), pp. 299–324 (301, 305–306). On Paul’s mysticism, see Albert Schweitzer, The Mysticism of Paul the Apostle (London: A&C Black, 1931); James Tabor, Things Unutterable: Paul’s Ascent to Paradise in its Greco-Roman, Judaic and Early Christian Contexts (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1986); Alan F. Segal, ‘The Afterlife as Mirror of the Self’, in Flannery, Shantz and Werline (eds.), Experientia, Vol. 1, pp. 19–40. In 2 Cor. 12.2, the apostle states: ‘I know a person in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows’.


April D. DeConick, Seek to See Him: Ascent and Vision Mysticism in the Gospel of Thomas (Leiden: Brill, 1996), p. 38; DeConick, ‘Mysticism and the Gospel of Thomas’, in J. Frey, E.E. Popkes and J. Schröter (eds.), Das Thomasevangelium, Entstehung, Rezeption, Theologie (bznw, 157; Berlin and New York: Walter de Gruyter, 2008), pp. 206–21 (221); DeConick, ‘The Gospel of Thomas’, ExpT 118.10 (2007), pp. 469–79 (476).


Logion 62. According to Thomas, mystical union with Jesus is not only possible, but the very goal of the successful seeker (Logion 108).


Scholem, ‘Religious Authority and Mysticism’, pp. 5–31 (7), defining the mystic as ‘a man who has been favored with an immediate, and to him real, experience of the divine, of ultimate reality, or who at least strives to attain such experience’ (p. 5).


Scholem, ‘Religious Authority and Mysticism’, p. 7, 9.


Scholem, ‘Religious Authority and Mysticism’, p. 11: ‘The most radical of the revolutionary mystics are those who not only reinterpret and transform the religious authority, but aspire to establish a new authority based on their own experience. In extreme cases, they may even claim to be above all authority, a law unto themselves’.


The ‘mystical messianism’ of Sabbatai Sevi and the philosophical pantheism of Benedict (Baruch) Spinoza also come to mind. On Sabbatai Sevi, see Gershom Scholem, Sabbatai Sevi: The Mystical Messiah, 1626–1676 (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1973). On Spinoza, see Steven Nadler, Spinoza: A Life (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), p. 229.


Marcus J. Borg, ‘Portraits of Jesus in Contemporary North American Scholarship’, htr 84.1 (1991), p. 15; Conflict, Holiness and Politics in the Teachings of Jesus (sbec, 5; New York: Edwin Mellen, 1984), pp. 230–47, 261; Alan F. Segal, ‘Jesus and First-Century Judaism’, in M.J. Borg (ed.), Jesus at 2000 (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, Harper Collins, 1997), p. 68; Jeffrey J. Kripal, ‘Mysticism Disputed: Major Debates in the Field’, in April D. DeConick (ed.), Religion: Secret Religion (Macmillan Interdisciplinary Handbooks; Farmington Hills: Macmillan Reference usa, 2016), pp. 295–314, esp. 297; DeConick, ‘Jesus Revealed’, p. 322. Margaret Barker, The Risen Lord: The Jesus of History as the Christ of Faith (Valley Forge, PA: Trinity Press International, 1997), p. 8, suggests that Jesus’ ‘resurrection’ was ‘a mystical experience and that Jesus was a mystic who ascended and experienced transformation into the angelic state’.


Stace, Mysticism and Philosophy, pp. 342–43.


McGinn, Foundations of Mysticism, pp. 62–83 (63, 62).


McGinn, Foundations of Mysticism, p. 63.


McGinn, Foundations of Mysticism, p. 64.


McGinn, Foundations of Mysticism, pp. xv–xvi: mysticism is ‘an attempt to express a direct consciousness of the presence of God’.


Cf. Luke Timothy Johnson, The Real Jesus: The Misguided Quest for the Historical Jesus and the Truth of the Traditional Gospels (San Francisco: HarperSanFranscisco, 1996).


It is not uncommon to find Jesus described as a mystic in popular religion trade books. See, for example, Sylvia Browne, The Mystical Life of Jesus: An Uncommon Perspective on the Life of Christ (New York: Dutton, 2006); Kim Michaels, The Mystical Teachings of Jesus (Horsens, Denmark: More To Life Publishing, 2013); H. Spencer Lewis, The Mystical Life of Jesus (San Jose: Rosicrucian Press, amorc, 1929); Edouard Schuré, Jesus: The Last Great Initiate (Chicago: Yogi Publication Co., 1917); Levi Dowling, The Aquarian Gospel of Jesus the Christ (Marina del Rey, CA: DeVorss, 1972 [1907]); Adyashanti, Resurrecting Jesus: Embodying the Spirit of a Revolutionary Mystic (Boulder, CO: Sounds True, 2014); Deepak Chopra, The Third Jesus: The Christ We Cannot Ignore (New York: Three Rivers, 2008); Andrew Harvey, Son of Man: The Mystical Path to Christ (New York: Tarcher, 1999), pp. xii, 4, 7, 14, 78.


Eckhart Tolle, The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment (Novato, CA: Namaster Publishing and New World Library, 2004 [1999]), p. 10.


Bernadette Roberts, The Path of No-Self: Life at the Center (Albany: suny, 1991), p. 124.


Bernadette Roberts, The Real Christ (Austin, TX:, 2017), pp. 99–100 (emphasis in original).


Roberts, The Real Christ, p. 86.


Willigis Jäger and Christoph Quarch, Mysticism for Modern Times: Conversations with Willigis Jäger (ed. Christoph Quarch; trans. Paul Shepherd; Liguori, MO: Liguori/Triumph, 2006), p. xxii.


Howard Thurman, Mysticism and Social Action: Lawrence Lectures and Discussions with Dr. Howard Thurman (London: International Association for Religious Freedom, 2014), pp. 177–79. See also Thurman, Jesus and the Disinherited (New York: Abingdon-Cokesbury Press, 1949). On Thurman, see Luther E. Smith, Howard Thurman: The Mystic as Prophet (Richmond, IN: Friends United Press, 2007 [1991]), p. 15: ‘He was a mystic who recognized the necessity of social activism for enabling and responding to religious experience’.


Howard Thurman, ‘Mysticism and Jesus’, Lecture V, University of the Redlands, May 1973.


Mark 4:11.


Wilhelm Wrede, Das Messiasgeheimnis in den Evangelien: zugleich ein Beitrag zum Verständnis des Markusevangelium (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1901); Albert Schweitzer, The Mystery of the Kingdom of God: The Secret of Jesus’ Messiahship and Passion (trans. Walter Lowrie; New York: Schocken, 1964); Peter H. Igarashi, ‘The Mystery of the Kingdom (Mark 4:10–12)’, jbr 24.2 (1956), pp. 83–89. See also Joel Marcus, The Mystery of the Kingdom of God (sblds, 90; Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1986); Adela Yarbro Collins, ‘Mysteries in the Gospel of Mark’, ST 49.1 (1995), pp. 11–23.


Schuyler Brown, ‘The Secret of the Kingdom of God’ (Mark 4:11)’, jbl 92.1 (1973), pp. 60–74 (74).


Thomas A. Kazen, Scripture, Interpretation, or Authority? Motives and Arguments in Jesus’ Halakic Conflicts (wunt, 320; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2013), p. 6. Cf. Andrea J. Mayer-Haas, ‘Geschenk aus Gottes Schatzkammer’ (bShab 10b): Jesus und der Sabbat im Spiegel der neutestamentlichen Schriften (NTAbh NS, 43; Münster: Aschendorff, 2003).


Ari Mermelstein, Creation, Covenant, and the Beginnings of Judaism: Reconceiving Historical Time in the Second Temple Period (JSJSup, 168; Leiden: Brill, 2014), p. 181.


E.P. Sanders, The Historical Figure of Jesus (London: Allen Lane, 1993), p. 198.


Mark 10.2. Cf. M. Hooker, The Gospel according to St. Mark (bntc, 2; Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1991), p. 236.


John P. Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, vol. 4, Law and Love (abrl; New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), pp. 4:123–24; Amy-Jill Levine, ‘Jesus, Divorce, and Sexuality: A Jewish Critique’, in B.F. le Beau (ed.), The Historical Jesus through Catholic and Jewish Eyes (Harrisburg, Pa: T & T Clark, 2000), p. 121; Lutz Doering, ‘Marriage and Creation in Mark 10 and CD 4–5’, in García Martínez (ed.), Echoes from the Caves: Qumran and the New Testament (stdj, 85; Leiden: Brill, 2009), pp. 133–63, here 160–63; H. Stegemann, ‘Der lehrende Jesus: Der sogenannte biblische Christus und die geschichtliche Botschaft Jesu von der Gottesherrschaft’, NZSTh 24 (1982), pp. 3–20.


William R.G. Loader, Jesus’ Attitude towards the Law: A Study of the Gospels (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), p. 89.


E.P. Sanders, Jesus and Judaism (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985), p. 260.


Donald A. Hagner, ‘Jesus and the Synoptic Sabbath Controversies’, in R. L. Webb and D. L. Bock (eds.), Key Events in the Life of the Historical Jesus (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2009), pp. 287–88: ‘Jesus penetrates to the essence of the Sabbath, by going back to its foundation in Genesis’ (p. 283). Yong-Eui Yang, Jesus and the Sabbath in Matthew’s Gospel (JSNTSup, 139; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1997), p. 225: Jesus is ‘the recoverer and fulfiller of God’s original and ultimate will for the Sabbath’.


Kazen, Scripture, Interpretation, or Authority, p. 300, suggests that Jesus’ halakhah can be understood as ‘an Urzeit-Endzeit schema’. See also Lutz Doering, ‘Urzeit–Endzeit Correlation in the Dead Sea Scrolls and Pseudepigrapha’, in J. Eckstein, C. Landmesser and H. Lichtenberger (eds.), Eschatologie: Eschatology (wunt, 272; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2011), pp. 19–58.


Dale Allison Jr., ‘The Paranormal Jesus’, in Jeffrey J. Kripal (ed.), Religion: Super Religion (Farmington Hills, MI: Gale/Macmillan, 2017), pp. 75–88 (77), proposes that ‘mysterious capacities [e.g., clairvoyance, telepathy] sometimes congregate in certain individuals’ and that Jesus was such a man ‘gifted with certain paranormal abilities’.


Thomas A. Kazen, Jesus and Purity Halakhah: Was Jesus Indifferent to Impurity? (ConBNT, 38; Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2010 [2002]), p. 344.


Cf. Stephen Westerholm, Jesus and Scribal Authority (ConBNT, 10; Lund: cwk Gleerup, 1978), pp. 59, 91, 103, 112, 123.


Hurtado, Lord Jesus Christ, pp. 70–71.


Hurtado, Lord Jesus Christ, pp. 70–71.


Katz, ‘Language, Epistemology, and Mysticism’, p. 33.

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