Having completed our investigation of Scriptural allusions to pre-existence, we now turn our attention to the beliefs of the people in the ancient world. First of all, and quite naturally so, we must look at what the Jewish people believed. Their writings include the Babylonian and the Jerusalem Talmuds, the Mishna, the Zohar, and the Kabbalah. In my early days as a believer, I was warned that these writings were not for us, in fact I was told they were all tainted. I got the impression that they were false, lock, stock and barrel. In more recent years, having obtained a copy of a book containing selections from the Talmud, I read with great interest what ancient Jewish sages said about their Scriptures. O.K., there are items that might be classified as false, ridiculous, legendary, or imaginative, but so also are many Christian commentaries on the Bible. One has to be willing to read with discernment, and ask that the Holy Spirit will help in selecting what is good from what is poor, useless, or even false. Let’s see what they had to say about pre-existence.
- The following entry was found in the Jewish Encyclopaedia.
“PRE-EXISTENCE. The theory that certain objects, in particular human souls, exist before coming into being on earth, or even before the creation of the world. No such belief has been proved to exist in the Bible, but it is firmly established in Apocryphal literature and among the Essenes who held that souls before birth existed in “the finest ether.” It was held also by the Rabbis of the Talmud who believed that all souls pre-existed in an abode called GUPH, that the Torah, Messiah the King, the Throne of Glory, ideal Israel, Repentance, and Gehenna, existed before creation, (Midrash on Psalm 8:9) and that ten or more objects, including the staff of Aaron, and the Tablets of the Law, were pre-created at the very end of the days of Creation. Among philosophers, Philo and Ibn Gabirol accepted pre-existence. And it forms an essential belief of the Kabbalah.”
- We now turn to “Everyman’s Talmud” by A. Cohen. In the chapter on the Doctrine of Man, we find the following entry.
“All creatures which are formed from heaven, both their soul and their body are from heaven; and all creatures which are formed from earth, both their soul and body are from earth, with the exception of man, whose soul is from heaven and his body from earth. Therefore if a man obeys the Torah and does the will of his Father in heaven, behold he is like the creatures above; as it is written, ‘I said, ye are gods, and all of you sons of the Most High.’ (Psalm.82:6) but if he obey not the Torah and perform not the will of his Father in heaven, he is like the creatures below, as it is said, nevertheless ye shall die like men.’ (v.7) [quoted from Sifre Deut. #3O6;132a]
And a paragraph from page 78 in the same book reads as follows.
The Talmud teaches the pre-existence of souls. “In the seventh heaven, ARABOTH, are stored the spirits and souls which have still to be created” [Chagigah 12b], i.e. the unborn souls which have yet to be united to bodies. There was a common belief that the Messianic era will not dawn until all these unborn souls have had their term of existence on earth. “The son of David [i.e. the Messiah] will not come until all the souls in the GUPH come to an end.” [eb.62a] The GUPH being the celestial store-house where these souls await their time to inhabit a human body.”
In the Talmud, as in the Midrash, the word GUPH is constantly found, as also another word, OTZAR. On turning these up in the Hebrew Lexicon we found that GUPH means “to be hollow”, or “to be hidden away in the midst of something.” It occurs in the O.T. only once, and that in Neh.7:3“LET THEM SHUT the doors and bar them.” The word OTZAR is more commonly found in the O.T., being translated “Treasury“, and is used of a corn store, a food magazine, a treasury of valuable things, and so on. Hence the Jews used it to describe the “treasury of souls” in heavenly places, awaiting their dispatch to earth.
- Reference was made in the Bible Dictionaries to the Essenes, and the information comes from Josephus, “Wars of the Jews” 2.viii.11.
For their [i.e. the Essenes] doctrine is this:- “That bodies are corruptible, and that the matter they are made of is not permanent; but that the souls are immortal, and continue for ever; and that they come out of the most subtle ether, and are united to their bodies as in prisons, into which they are drawn by a certain natural enticement; but that when they are set free from the bonds of the flesh, they then, as released from a long bondage, rejoice and mount upward.”
Josephus is correct in asserting a parallelism between Platonic philosophy and the Essenes, but for our part we very much doubt that the Israelite-based Essenes would have taken their doctrines from the Greeks, whom they despised. However, we shall see later what Plato said in his writings.
- If the Dead Sea Scrolls are indeed the writings of the Essenes (and there is at present some scholarly debate on this issue,) then we can quote from a couple of the hymns, as translated by Geza Vermes in his “Dead Sea Scrolls in English”.
“By Thy wisdom [all things exist from] eternity, and before creating them Thou knewest their works for ever and ever. – – Thou hast created all the spirits [and hast established a statute] and law for all their works. – – In the wisdom of Thy knowledge Thou didst establish their destiny before ever they were. All things [exist] according to [Thy will] and without Thee nothing is done.” (Hymn 1)
“All these things [Thou didst establish in Thy wisdom. Thou didst appoint] all Thy works before ever creating them: and the host of Thy spirits and the Congregation [of Thy Holy Ones, the heavens and all] their hosts and the earth and all it brings forth. – – Thou hast established them from before eternity.” (Hymn 13)
- Next we come to Philo of Alexandria, before mentioned. Philo was a Jew of the 1st century B.C. and 1st century A.D. He was known as“the Jewish Plato”, seeking to harmonise the doctrines of the Pentateuch with those of Plato, Aristotle, and others. Hence he was anathema to the more strict Jewish community, which would have despised any such attempt at harmonisation. But Alexandria was a cosmopolitan city whence came the Septuagint Greek version of the O.T., and where the Greek influence predominated. Philo believed in a
“realm of incorporeal souls, which may be arranged in two ranks; some have descended into mortal bodies and been released after a time; others have maintained their purity, and kept aloft close to the ether itself.” [Philo Judaeus, i,336]
- Finally we refer to a section of the Jewish writing known as the ZOHAR, which dates from the 13th century, and although anonymous, is believed to be the work of Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai. It contains many commentaries on the Hebrew text of the O.T., and is a mine of information on ancient Jewish thought. In the section to be quoted, the question arises about the “Angel of Death.” Can the words “And behold, it was very good,” include the meaning of the angel of death? Rabbi Simeon gives the following explanation.
“And behold it was good,” refers to the Angel of Life; “very” to the Angel of Death, for he is of greater importance. And why? When the Holy One, blessed be He, created the world, all was prepared for the coming of man, who is the king of this world. Man was fashioned to walk in the straight way, as it is written, “God made man upright, but they have sought out many inventions.” [EccI.7:29] He made man upright, but he gave himself over to corruption and was therefore driven out of the Garden of Eden. This Garden was planted by the Holy One, blessed be He, on the earth, and made an exact likeness of its prototype, the Paradise above, and all supernal forms were fashioned and shaped in it, and the cherubim were there – not those carved in gold or any material that could be fashioned by human hands, but of supernal light, fashioned and broidered through the agency of the Perfect Name of the Holy One.
“All the images and forms of all things in this world were there fashioned, all having the similitude of the things in this world. And this place is the abode of holy spirits, both of those that have come into this world, and also of those who have not yet come into this world. Those who are about to come are invested with garments and faces and bodies like those in this world, and they gaze upon the glory of their Lord until the time comes for them to appear in the world. When they leave the Garden for that purpose, these spirits put off their celestial bodies and garments and take on the bodies and garments of this world; they henceforth make their abode in this world in the garments and bodies fashioned from the seed of procreation.
“So when the time comes for the spirit to leave this world again, it cannot do so until the Angel of Death has taken off the garment of this body. When that has been done, he again puts on that other garment in the Garden of Eden of which he had had to divest himself when he entered this world. And the whole joy of the spirit is in that celestial body. In it he rests and moves, and contemplates continually the supernatural mysteries which, when he was in the earthly body, he could neither grasp nor understand. When the soul clothes herself with the garments of that world, what delights, what joys, she experiences! [N.B. the word “she” is used here, because the Hebrew word for soul, NEPHESH, is feminine.] And who caused the body to be inhabited by the spirit? Why, he who took off the garment of flesh, the Angel of Death!”
Here then is the written evidence from ancient documents, all of which indicates that the Jews were quite at home with the concept of pre-existence, and I believe this is the reason why the question was posited by the disciples about the man born blind, which we dealt with in Part 1 of this series.
We may be amused at some of the ideas, but there is also much food for thought in these writings. However, our only concern at the moment is to establish the fact that ancient Jews believed in pre-existence, and therefore it helps us to eliminate the attitude of holding the concept “at arm’s length” for fear of being contaminated by falsehood.
“To affirm that Jews in Christ’s time did not believe in pre-existence is simply incorrect.” (Quote from the Hastings-Scribner “Dictionary of the Bible”, (New York, 1903. Book 4, page 63)