The very word “Apocrypha” causes the minds of many believers to seize up. Immediately they think they are being asked to look at something as bad as a volume of Black Magic Curses. This has all come about because of bad advertisement over the years by evangelicals in “high places”, who have made us believe everything outside Holy Scripture is as poisonous as toadstools.
This, however, is far from the truth. Apocryphal writings are very valuable, insofar as they tell us a great deal about the thoughts and beliefs of those who wrote the books. From these works we find out what was currently believed in the era of their writing. Furthermore, there are many good, wholesome things to be found there, which if we put a veto on them, prevent them from serving a useful purpose in our studies.
The word “Apocrypha” means “hidden”, and the ancients were prone to class these writings as “hidden works”, containing valuable material “not for general consumption.” Today, the word is often used colloquially. We say about a certain news item, “Oh, that’s an apocryphal tale!” meaning we can take it with a pinch of salt! There’s no likelihood of truth in it. The word has therefore become quite the opposite of its former meaning.
Having said all that as a preamble, let’s have a look at what the Apocryphal works have to say about the subject of pre-existence.
2 Esdras 4:36-42. “The righteous in the storehouse of souls [i.e. the GUPH or the OTZAR, before mentioned] asked, ‘How long must we stay here? When will the harvest begin, the time when we get our reward?’ And the Archangel Jeremiel answered, ‘As soon as the number of those like yourselves is complete. For the Lord has weighed the world in a balance, and He has measured and numbered the ages; He will move nothing, alter nothing, until the appointed number is achieved.’ – – – “The storehouses of souls in the world below are like the womb. As a woman in travail is impatient to see the end of her labour, so they are impatient to give back all the souls committed to them since time began.” [Doesn’t this remind you of the “souls under the altar” in Revelation?]
2 Esdras 7:12-15.“The Lord answered Ezra, saying, ‘The entrances to this world were made narrow, painful and arduous, few and evil, full of perils and grinding hardship. But the entrances to the greater world are broad and safe, and lead to immortality. All men must therefore enter this narrow and futile existence, otherwise they can never attain the blessings in store. Why then, Ezra, are you so deeply disturbed at the thought that you are mortal and must die? Why have you not turned your mind to the future instead of the present?'”
A casual reading of the above passage may lead some to cast it on one side, supposing it to contradict the words of our Lord in the sermon on the mount, where He spoke about the narrow gate that leads to life, compared with the broad way that leads to destruction. But the symbolism in Esdras speaks of a different setting to that in the Gospels. Jesus spoke to those who were ALREADY in the world. In Esdras, the narrow entrances were made thus by Adam’s transgression, whereby the souls in the GUPH might tremble at the thought of entering a world of evil. The theme is taken up again in our next reference.
Ecclus.40:1-2 “Hard work is the lot of every man, and a heavy yoke is laid on the sons of Adam, from the day when they come from their mother’s womb until the day of their RETURN TO THE MOTHER OF ALL, troubled thoughts and fears are theirs, and anxious expectation of the day of their death.”
This is parallel to the statement of Job, which must be presented here to provide the connection, rather than leaving it to the next part of this series.
Job.1:21 Job stood up and rent his cloak; then he shaved his head and fell down on the ground, and worshipped, saying, “Naked came I out of my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return thither.”
Commentators have tried to explain Job’s words, knowing that at death no one actually returns to his mother’s womb. The understanding is clear enough in Ecclesiasticus, and may be parallel to Paul’s words in Galatians, where he speaks of the “Jerusalem which is above, the mother of us all.” The mother’s womb from which we are born is not, in these references, that of a single woman on earth, but that of the Great Mother of all human souls, the GUPH, or OTZAR.
Wisdom 8:17-21. [Solomon writes] “When I considered these things in myself, and took thought in my heart how that in kinship unto wisdom is immortality, and in her friendship is good delight, and in the labours of her hands is wealth that fails not, and in assiduous communing with her is understanding, and great renown in having fellowship with her words, I went about seeking how to take her unto myself. Now I was a goodly child, and a good soul fell to my lot; (nay rather, being good, I came into a body undefiled.) But perceiving that I could not otherwise possess wisdom except God gave her to me, – – I pleaded with the Lord – – “[and Solomon then tells how he asked the Lord for the gift of wisdom, as related in the O.T. text.]
Notice here that Solomon speaks of “goodness” prior to birth, but that he realises the need of God’s wisdom to cope with mortal life. Sad indeed was the outcome in his later years.
Baruch 23:4-5 “When Adam sinned and death was decreed against those who were to be born from him, then the number of those to be born was fixed, and for that number a place was prepared where the living might live out their lives, and the dead might be kept in security. Thus until that number is reached; no creature will live again (since my Spirit is the Creator of Life) and Sheol will receive the dead.”
Baruch 29:3 “[when all those spirits have been born into the world] then the Messiah shall begin to be revealed.”
Apocalypse of Abraham 19. Abraham is taken up into heaven and shown various wonders at different levels. In this chapter he says,“And I saw upon the seventh firmament [i.e. the region referred to elsewhere as ARABOTH] upon which I stood a fire widely extended, and light, and DEW, and a multitude of angels, and a power of invisible glory over the Living Ones [i.e. the Cherubim].”
In R.H.Charles’ footnotes on this section, he mentions the parallel with the Ascension of Isaiah, who spoke about “a wonderful light and angels innumerable.” [Asc.ls.7:7f] These angels are then identified as pre-existent spirits according to the Haggadah, (12b) where in the seventh heaven (ARABOTH) are judgment and righteousness, the treasures of life, peace and blessing, the souls of the departed righteous, the spirits and souls of the yet unborn, the DEW with which God will awaken the dead, the Seraphim, the Ophannim [wheels], and Cherubim and other angels of service, and God Himself, seated upon the throne of His glory.
The two mentions of DEW excite some interest here, apart from any other considerations, because the same message comes through in Psalm 110:3“Thy people [shall offer themselves] willingly in the day of Thy power, in the beauties of holiness from the womb of the morning, thou hast the DEW OF THY YOUTH.” [Maybe BIRTH rather than YOUTH, because the Hebrew is YALAD, normally speaking of birth.] Although in the first instance the words are used of the Lord Himself, at resurrection, they take on a more corporate significance at a later time, when the rest of God’s people are raised. [It should be pointed out that the interpretation of the Hebrew of Psalm 110:3 is a little uncertain,]
Assumption of Moses 1:14 “Accordingly He chose me [Moses] and appointed me [lit. He thought out and invented me] and prepared me from the foundation of the world to be the mediator of His covenant.”
We now come to the Gospel of Thomas, a work that was found at Nag Hammadi in Upper Egypt in 1945, amongst other Gnostic texts. It purports to be dictated by Jesus to His brother Judas Thomas the Twin, founder of the churches of the East, and reveals a Jesus who merges with the wisdom of the Sophists, and with Diogenes, Plato, and Socrates. We suppose this would be enough to turn most Christians away! But our purpose is to bring forward anything and everything that betrays early thinking and understanding connected with our theme – that of pre-existence of the soul. In §50 we read these puzzling words –
Jesus said, “If they say to you, ‘Where have you come from?’ say to them, ‘We have come from the light, from the place where the light came into being by itself, established itself and appeared in their image.’ “
According to the notes accompanying this text, (in the edition by Marvin Meyer which we possess) the language employed is similar to that found in another gnostic work, called The Acts of Thomas, in which there is “The Hymn of the Pearl” [1 08-1 3] but I am afraid we do not have this to quote from. However, another book, called “The Secret Book of John” is quoted by Irenæus [Against Heresies 1.21.5], and refers to another similar text. The question is asked, and answers given, concerning the interrogation of the soul as it passes through the various spheres of heaven. Apparently the soul is to respond,
“I am a child of the father, the father who is pre-existent, a child moreover in the one who is pre-existent – – I trace my origin from the one who is pre-existent and back to what is my own, from whence I have come.”
Another quote from “The Gospel of Thomas” is in §83-84 Jesus said,
“Images are visible to people, but the light within them is hidden in the image of the father’s light. He will be disclosed, but his image is hidden by his light. When you see your likeness, you are happy. But when you see your images that came into being before you, and that neither die nor become visible, how much you will bear!”
We confess that many of the supposed sayings of the “Jesus” quoted in this work are paradoxical, and difficult of interpretation. That doesn’t make them spurious as such, but it does tend towards scepticism. We are not advocating the adoption of these texts for devotional use, but adducing them for purposes of study only.
By this time, it will have become apparent that pre-existence was a concept well-developed in the inter-testamental period, and because of this, it becomes necessary to ask why. The Jews were not in the habit of taking on board highly lurid and imaginative interpretations of their sacred Scriptures. Anyone who reads the Talmud will see that it is full of minor speculation, and interpretation, but not in the direction of matters of such great import as pre-existence, UNLESS of course they had sufficient reason for so doing.