Reviews of

Temple Mysticism: An Introduction

In Margaret BARKER, Matthew Twigg, SPCK, Temple Mysticism on December 24, 2012 at 11:43 pm


2012.12.19 | Margaret Barker, Temple Mysticism: An Introduction. London: SPCK, 2011. 192 pp. ISBN: 978-0281064830.

Review by Matthew Twigg, University of Oxford.

Any review of Margaret Barker’s Temple Mysticism needs to take adequate account of its overall position in her wider corpus. Since the late 1980s, Barker has published a series of monographs developing what she calls “temple theology”; that is, the idea that the roots of early Christianity, and indeed the New Testament, are both indebted to and built upon forms of worship and theology stemming from the First Temple cult of Judaism. Temple Mysticism is therefore, only the latest instalment in what Barker treats as a lifelong vocation to establish the First Temple essence of early Christianity.

As in Barker’s other works, temple mysticism (i.e. seeing the Lord in a Temple setting) is presented as a hypothesis, as opposed to an overtly demonstrable brute fact of New Testament theology.

This approach must be understood if we are to give a balanced review: “Temple mysticism is a hypothesis. We outline what seems to be the case and see how much evidence fits the proposed picture, how many texts make more sense and cohere better if they are read in this way” (1). As such, very few of Barker’s assertions in this book are beyond dispute. However, as long as we are sympathetic to her trial-and-error approach, many of her claims can be seen as both provocative and plausible. Unfortunately, the plausible contentions in this book, such as that the Deuteronomistic tradition distorted and suppressed the temple-centred mysticism of the older cult (chapter 1), and that the temple-mystical Servant Songs in Isaiah were treated as prophetic of Christ by the New Testament authors and the first Christians (chapter 5), are overshadowed by a great deal of dubious reductionism and oversights concerning scholarly literature on Barker’s part.

That the book is presented as An Introduction designed for a popular audience does not excuse the unnerving lack of references to secondary sources. In fact, one of the great virtues of popular publications is that they introduce lay readers to a broader scholarly debate as well as the primary sources themselves. Yet the entire book cites only nineteen secondary sources, usually no more than once. Instead, Barker prefers to direct readers to other research from her own corpus. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that Barker is making herself something of a martyr, presenting her work as eternally valuable but perpetually ignored. The fact is that her work is original, but not that original; or at least, not as original as when she first published her thesis on Christian theological origins back in the 1980s. In seeking to promote her methodology of “temple theology” over this period, Barker has necessarily had occasion to repeat her arguments many times. While this is no doubt necessary if the enterprise is to succeed, the downside is that each new publication is destined to be less original than the last. As such, rather than setting herself up as a lone scholar in the promotion of temple theology, Barker would do well to recognize where her thesis has been acknowledged and engaged with. Even where her approach has not been directly dealt with, the general theme of the Temple in antiquity is currently a hot topic among academics, and this ought to be reflected in footnotes at least. For example, how a book entitled Temple Mysticism has failed to cite any publications of Rachel Elior or Christopher Morray-Jones, among many others, is beyond me. On the other hand, it is nonetheless true that her work has not been treated as seriously among scholars as it deserves, perhaps owing to some outdated and unscholarly prejudice towards the research of those outside the academy.

In her attempt to avoid such repetition, Barker has in this instance extended the scope of temple mysticism beyond its proper bounds. Chapter 2, “The One” (on the primordial unity of the Holy of Holies and the angels within the godhead), and chapter 3, “The Many” (on the problem of one or many Creators, or pre-existent divine beings, according to Genesis, Psalms, and various apocryphal texts), have the potential to be innovative and rigorous discussions of problematic philological details in a range of biblical and extra-biblical sources. However, in her determination to make the Jerusalem Temple the unique centre of virtually all early Christian religiosity, Barker makes the unwarranted claim that the most important elements in Greek religion and philosophy are actually derived from Jewish temple mysticism. Hence, any so-called “Christian-Platonism” is really only temple mysticism in disguise.

According to Barker, the highest state for an initiate of the Eleusinian mysteries was a state of “beholding”, while Psalm 17:15 reads, “I shall behold thy face in righteousness”. From little more than this, Barker concludes, “One of the identifying characteristics of a mystery religion, then, was established in the temple before 700 BCE” (42). Similarly, in a section entitled “Pythagoras” (48-53), Barker cites the late third to early fourth century CE report of Iamblichus which states that Pythagoras underwent some kind of initiation in “Syria”. According to Barker, since Syria would have included Judea, this means that Pythagoras would have become acquainted with Jewish temple mysticism. From this section onwards, Barker treats this report as historical fact. This is dubious to say the least as it is widely regarded that by the time of Iamblichus, Pythagoras had acquired a semi-divine mythological status, and very few “historical” accounts of his life are to be trusted. Nonetheless, Barker purports to identify numerous temple mystical themes in Pythagoras’s philosophy and cosmology, as well as in Plato’s Timaeus, in which Socrates’s interlocutor Timaeus is identified as Pythagorean. In reality, the examples Barker gives are of themes (e.g. fire, thrones, cubes, towers) that are of such a ubiquitous nature in ancient religion and cosmology that they can hardly be treated as evidence of historical connections.

The importance of highlighting this major flaw in Barker’s most recent effort to establish temple theology in the academy is not to deter potential readers, but rather to direct them to previous works by Barker, such as The Gate of Heaven (1991), and Temple Theology (2004), which are equally provocative, but not nearly as reductionistic. Temple Mysticism betrays a staggering lack of appreciation for the complex ways in which Judaism and Hellenism came to be combined by certain thinkers in milieus far removed in time and space from Isaiah’s temple setting. Hellenistic Jewish thinkers like Philo wished to understand and present Greek philosophy as the ultimate expression of the Torah in an attempt to embrace Hellenistic culture and learning without dispensing with a Jewish identity. Barker seems to construe such attempts as historical evidence that Greek philosophers were in fact the heirs to Jewish temple mysticism.

Nonetheless, there is still much that is good in Temple Mysticism: as usual with Barker’s research, the breadth of extra-biblical sources that she brings to bear on early Christianity is refreshing; there is also significant emphasis on the stages of translation of the Old Testament into Greek, but also into Hebrew, whereby the Masoretic Text from which we read the Old Testament is not the same Scripture that was read by Jesus, as the Qumran discoveries attest. This is an important historical point that I daresay many scholars, let alone lay readers, do not fully appreciate. But perhaps most impressive about Temple Mysticism, as with so many of Barker’s publications, is the results that present themselves when her hypothesis is put to the test on the New Testament.

To give just one example from many, Barker argues that the tradition found in the Life of Adam and Eve 12-17, in which Satan and his angels are thrown out of heaven for refusing to glorify Adam like the rest of the angels, is the background for Mark 1:13’s (and Luke 4:5-7’s) scene of Jesus in the wilderness after his baptism (137-138). In the first-century CE text, the Life of Adam and Eve, Adam asked God for the glory/throne that Satan had vacated, and he “persisted [for] forty days standing in repentance in the water of the Jordan” before his wish was granted. Likewise, in Mark 1, Jesus undergoes the “baptism of repentance” in the Jordan (1:4), has “the Spirit” descend on him (1:10), and is proclaimed the “Son” (1:11). Immediately afterwards in 1:13, Jesus spends forty days in the wilderness being tempted by Satan, “and he was with the wild beasts (θηρία); and the angels waited on him.” Barker suggests that these θηρία are after the type of the “living creatures” of the Merkabah, and hence the angelic host serve the mystically enthroned Jesus, the Second Adam, while Satan attempts to duplicitously win back his throne. There is no way to prove such interpretations, and some are rather more idiosyncratic than others, but it is this aspect of Barker’s project that deserves scholarly attention.

There are both very good things and very bad things about Temple Mysticism. Unfortunately, a lot of the good things are largely recapitulated from Barker’s earlier publications (chapter 4, “The Throne”, can substantially be found in The Gate of Heaven pp. 133-174), whereas many of the bad things are original to Temple Mysticism via Barker’s over-emphasis on the centrality of temple theology to New Testament thought at the expense of other historical and cultural factors.

Matthew Twigg
University of Oxford

  1. I agree with most of what has been said in this review. But one has to start with the ‘genre’ f this book – an introduction. I think someone on made a good remark that this is due to this shortcut nature of an introduction that many things are ‘self-refferential’ or taken for granted. I am not a biblical scholar (rather a student of patristics/Early christianity), but I find M. Barker’s work immensly edifying, illuminating and encouraging. I know very few works in other fields of theology that would manage to bring together so much intellectual courage, innovation, and creativity, with a lot of attention to details and noticing ‘small things’. Of course a large part of her theories will prove untenable or exagerrated, but this is natural when a person does such kind of research. She is one of very few authors who dare to offer ‘globale hypotheses’ (N.T. Right) instead of purposless hear-spliting studies with no real conclusions…

  2. And also, it is very difficult to assess this books alone. It certainly has to be treated as a part of her large corpus. In fact, this book would be the last one to deserve a review. I would instead love to read a good review on her other solid books such as ‘The Older Testament’, ‘The Great Angel’ or ‘The Great High Priest’. These are the ones in which she really lays out her ‘system’.

  3. Thanks for the comments xpictianos, I’m glad to see that we seem to agree on many points. I’d still emphasise that the book’s genre as a popular introduction is not really an excuse for the lack of references. There’s not even a bibliography! This is what I mean when I say that she is setting herself up as a martyr. What would a genuine layperson think if they read this book? They would probably be left believing that Barker is the only one expressing such views, or even talking about the topic of the Temple in antiquity. Introductory literature not only ought to, but has to, INTRODUCE students to the subject under discussion, and to have a discussion you need interlocutors, opponents, and like-minds. Barker leaves us with the impression that no such people exist, and this cannot be a good thing. Her suberp awareness of the great range of primary sources is matched only by her apparent ignorance of the great range of secondary sources. Again though, I would eagerly direct potential readers to earlier works by the same author. On this point, xpictianos and I once more find ourselves in agreement.

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