"Mysticism" in the Gospel of John: An Inquiry into Its Background

By Neufeld, Dietmar | Journal of Biblical Literature, Fall 2001 | Go to article overview

"Mysticism" in the Gospel of John: An Inquiry into Its Background


Neufeld, Dietmar, Journal of Biblical Literature


"Mysticism" in the Gospel of John: An Inquiry into Its Background, by Jey J. Kanagaraj. JSNTSup 158. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1998. Pp. 356. L55.00/$85.00.

This book is a revised Ph.D. dissertation written at the University of Durham in 1995 under the supervision of James D. G. Dunn. Kanagaraj begins his study with the assumption that the Gospel of John is best understood by placing it in its religio-historical context. The question, of course, is, Into which religio-historical context?

While one of the environments into which John has been placed is a so-called Johannine mysticism, a major deficiency of studies on Johannine mysticism is uncritical adoption of either of the unio mystics view or the communio mystics view. In part 1, therefore, Kanagaraj launches into a major investigation of the mystical currents prevalent in Hellenistic-Jewish circles during the time of John that may help inform the modern reader of possible influences on Johannine mysticism. He surveys the mystical attitudes prevalent in Hellenistic-Jewish circles in the late first century C.E. in the work of Philo of Alexandria and the Hermetica. While the mysticism of Philo represents a trend prevalent in the Hellenistic-Jewish circles of John's time, certain aspects of his mysticism, such as the human soul yearning to see God and to have union with him, have slender phraseological and conceptual links with John. The mysticism described in the Hermetica is concerned with the knowledge of God and union with God and, while striking, does not supply the conceptual milieu for the author of John either.

If the Hellenistic-Jewish mystical milieu does not give adequate answer to the mysticism present in John, then, according to Kanagaraj, it is to be found in Palestinian mysticism. Hence, in part 2 of the book, Kanagaraj engages in an elaborate exploration of Merkabah mysticism described in the later Hekhalot literature. After isolating the mystical features that emerge from the Hekhalot literature that inform the mystical experiences of certain Judeans from the second to the seventh centuries C.E., Kanagaraj turns his attention to finding evidence of Merkabah mysticism in such pre-Christian writings as the Wisdom of Ben Sira (Sir 49:8; 3:21-23) and the Qumran texts (4QShirShabb; 4Q403 1 ii 1-16; 4Q404 20 ii 21-22; 4QMessAr; or 4Q534). Next Kanagaraj looks for evidence of Merkabah mysticism in the Christian era and finds it in the heavenly ascents of Paul (1 Cor 12), Isaiah (Ascen. Isa. 6-11), and Moses (Memar Marqah; Liber Antiquitatum Biblicarum). Moreover, Kanagaraj isolates several apocalyptic books of the late first century that he argues yield additional evidence for a Merkabah mystical experience at the time of John (1 En. 37-71; 2 Enoch; 4 Ezra; Apocalypse of Abraham; Testament of Abraham; IOMelch; Revelation).

Given that Johanan ben Zakkai was a contemporary of John, Kanagaraj investigates four versions of Johanan's Merkabah experience as recounted by one of his disciples, Eleazar b. 'Arakh, and concludes that Johanan and his school did practice Merkabah mysticism by means of Merkabah exegesis. This investigation reveals that during the pre- and post-Christian periods there was increasing interest in Merkabah visionary experience and that such experience was also bound up with a series of biblical texts, particularly with Ezek 1; 8; Isa 6; and Dan 7. …

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