The Secret Tradition, Part 5: Judeo-Christian Apocalypses

By July 16, 2014

Morton Smith argued that secret Mark suggested an initiation ritual that was an ascent to heaven and that Jesus had undergone the same process.  Knowing exactly what secret things Jesus might have done is highly speculative, but there is evidence for some kind of secret teaching or ritual in early Christianity. Smith argued that the context for the ascent were the Enochian apocalypses particularly 1 and 2 Enoch in which Enoch ascends to heaven and in 2 Enoch he becomes an angel.[1]  1 and 2 Enoch also described Enoch undergoing a heavenly temple liturgy.  Says 2 Enoch,

And the Lord said to Michael: Go and take Enoch from out of his earthly garments, and anoint him with my sweet ointment, and put him into the garments of My glory. And Michael did thus, as the Lord told him. He anointed me, and dressed me, and the appearance of that ointment is more than the great light, and his ointment is like sweet dew, and its smell mild, shining like the sun?s ray, and I looked at myself, and I was like one of his glorious ones.

After this transformation, God then tells Enoch, ?Hear, Enoch, and take in these my words, for not to My angels have I told my secret, and I have not told them their rise, nor my endless realm, nor have they understood my creating, which I tell you today.? God then proceeds to show Enoch the creation.[2]

Descriptions of such rituals were common in apocalyptic literature like The Ascent of Isaiah, The Apocalypse of Abraham, and The Testament of Levi in the Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs.  In The Testament of Levi, Levi says, ?I saw the holy temple and the highest sitting on the throne of glory.?  Levi is given the priesthood, anointed, washed, ?clothed me with a glorious robe down to the ground,? given ?a silken garment like to an ephod,? and finally has ?the mitre of priesthood [placed] upon my head.?  The text also mentions a new name.[3]  Another common theme in the apocalypses was the visionary seeing the creation.[4]

Those who wrote the apocalypses, argues Martha Himmelfarb, believed that the earthly temple was corrupt and that they needed to perform the rites of the heavenly temple.[5]  Those at Qumran many have undergone such rites on earth.[6]  John Turner argues that the apocalypses came from communities that performed such rites.[7]  A number of the apocalypses had Christian elements (especially the Ascension of Isaiah), suggesting that Christians appropriated this genre.  Jean Danielou and Bogdan Bucur argue that Clement of Alexandria was heavily influenced by these apocalypses, and Danielou argues that there was a rite of ascent associated with the secret tradition.[8]  John Turner and Dylan Michael Burns argue that Gnostic rituals of ascent were based on these apocalyptic temple rituals.[9]

Thus when Scott Brown describes what he thinks Clement of Alexandria?s mystical ascent associated with the secret gospel of Mark may have been, and when his descriptions are fundamentally based on the notion of ascending through a heavenly temple, such may have been based on rites performed on earth.  Brown even argues that ?the mysteries of the origin of the universe (cosmogony)? were an important part of this higher teaching.[10]  Again, the Clement?s letter to Theodore, he said that secret Mark was read to those ?who are being initiated into the great mysteries.?

At the same time, mysteries had referred to initiation rituals performed in Greek cults.  More on that in my next post.


[1] Smith argued that Jesus believed that he became Christ during one of these ascents, perhaps his baptism.  Morton Smith, Clement of Alexandria and a Secret Gospel of Mark (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1973), 245-46. DC 93 says something similar.

[2] 2 Enoch chpt. 22, 24

[3] The Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs, the Sons of Jacob (Manchester, Ralph J. Bradshaw, 1843).

[4] Martha Himmelfarb, Ascent to Heaven in Jewish and Christian Apocalypses (New York: Oxford, 1993), 4, 65.

[5] Himmelfarb, Ascent to Heaven, 13.

[6] John D. Turner, ?To See the Light: A Gnostic Appropriation of Jewish Priestly Practice and Sapiential and Apocalyptic Visionary Lore,? in Mediators of the Divine: Horizons of Prophecy, Divination, Dreams, and Theurgy in Mediterranean Antiquity (Atlanta: Scholars, 1998), 104-5; Smith, Clement of Alexandria and a Secret Gospel of Mark, 239.

[7] Turner, ?To See the Light,? 65-66, 109.

[8] Jean Danielou, Gospel Message and Hellenistic Culture, trans. John Austin Baker (London: Darton, Logman and Todd, 1973), 445-63; Bogdan G. Bucur, ?The Other Clement of Alexandria: Cosmic Hierarchy and Interiorized Apocalypticism,? Vigiliae Christianae 60 (2006): 251-68.

[9] Turner, ?To See the Light,? 109;  Dylan Michael Burns, ?Out of Heaven: Myth, Eschatology, and Theurgy in the Sethian Gnostic Apocalypses of Nag Hammadi? (PhD. Diss. Yale University, 2011), 18, 360-62, 386.

[10] Scott G. Brown, Mark?s Other Gospel: Rethinking Morton Smith?s Controversial Discovery (Waterloo, Can.: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2005), 129.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. Very interesting – enjoying this series

    Comment by Mark Ashurst-McGee — July 16, 2014 @ 10:23 pm

  2. I too have been loving every post in this series.

    A question: I’m tempted to see these communities that wrote these apocalypses in terms of the splinter groups in the Mormon tradition that all teach and publish slight variations on various temple ceremonies. Is that a fair way of characterizing these groups?

    Comment by Jeff G — July 17, 2014 @ 7:01 pm

  3. Thanks guys. Jeff, that’s an interesting comparison. Again, I’m no expert on the topic, but as I understand it, the notion that the temple had become corrupt begins in Ezekiel as is an explanation for the Babylonian captivity. Says Himmelfarb, ?by the beginning of the sixth century Ezekiel had come to understand the temple as so defiled that it was no longer a fit resting place for the glory of God? (12). Himmelfarb then says, ?The Second Temple is never able to emerge from the shadow of the disengagement of the glory of God. The ark and cherubim are gone. In the period of the Second Temple, under the influence of Ezekiel, those who are unhappy with the behavior of the people and especially its priests come to see the temple not as God?s proper dwelling, the place where heaven and earth meet, but rather as a mere copy of the true temple located in heaven. It is this desacralization of the earthly temple in favor of the heavenly that opens the way for Enoch?s ascent in the Book of Watchers. The first ascent in the Jewish literature is thus a journey to the true temple” (13).

    This is interesting in the context of the Book of Mormon not only with Lehi and family fleeing Jerusalem at that time but also Lehi’s vision of the throne of God in 1 Ne 1:8 and the Nephites building their own temples.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — July 17, 2014 @ 10:31 pm

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  6. […] baptismal liturgy had a number of similarities to the temple liturgies of the apocalypses.  The baptismal initiate would remove his or her old clothes, be anointed, get baptized, and […]

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  7. […] late second-century Alexandria.  Such a rite likely had elements in common with rites described in Judeo-Christian apocalypses, mysteries (particularly Eleusis), and Platonism, and pieces of the rite may have had echoes in […]

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