Juvenile Instructor » Dissertation Introduction, Part 2: Kabbalah
 


Dissertation Introduction, Part 2: Kabbalah

By: Steve Fleming - September 02, 2014

Christian Platonism is simply the thought and practices of Christians who drew on Plato either deliberately or who drew upon the long tradition of those who had done so.  Christian Platonists believed in philosophia perennis, the perennial philosophy of God’s wisdom that was found in many sources including Plato, that often manifested itself as prisca theologia or ancient truth that originated with the patriarchs and had spread through many civilizations.  They viewed Jesus as the ultimate locus of Wisdom but believed that Christ’s truth had many precursors and that Jesus had manifested himself many generations prior to his coming.  Plato and others could be a reservoir of the Word in the same way the Old Testament was.[1]  Christian Platonism had a number of tenets including pre-existence of the soul, deification, utopianism, marriage in heaven, universal or near-universal salvation, post-mortal progression, and marital experimentation.  Christian Platonists tended to believe in an animated universe with powers of an unseen world and in the superiority of that unseen world which was usually immaterial.  There were many varieties of Christian Platonism, and, as there was no Christian-Platonist church, the varieties differed from person to person.  Christian Platonists could embrace some of these tenets while seeing others as heretical or impractical.  Early Mormonism embraced all of these tenets except for the notion of spirit over matter, but even the importance of matter gained ascendency in a number of Platonic traditions including Kabbalah.

In the Book of Mormon, the prophet Nephi (c. 600 BCE) has a vision of the history of Christianity where he sees an important book (the Bible) and an angel tells him, “When it proceeded forth from the mouth of a Jew it contained the fulness of the gospel of the Lord.”  But Nephi then sees a “great and abominable church” take “away from the gospel of the Lamb many parts which are plain and most precious; and also many covenants of the Lord have they taken away”; that is, because of the removal of these truths, the Bible no longer contained “the fulness of the gospel.”   Nephi then sees the Book of Mormon and “other books” coming forth that “shall make known the plain and precious things which have been taken away.”[2]

The Book of Mormon does not say specifically what the plain and precious truths were that it restored, but it does address a few Platonic themes that were not explicit in the Bible.  The fact that the Christian-Platonic ideas in the Book of Mormon can be found in John Allen’s Modern Judaism (1816), a topic that interested Smith, indicates that Smith believed that the Jews had much of this lost truth; again, the Book of Mormon said that the ancient Jews had the truth that the Gentiles removed from the Bible.  In Modern Judaism, Allen described the Jewish notion of the oral tradition, or the belief that God gave additional instruction at Sinai that was not written down until much later.[3]  The ideas in Modern Judaism that particularly aligned with Mormonism were Allen’s descriptions of Kabbalah, a mystical Jewish tradition heavily influenced by Platonism that Kabbalists also claimed that God gave Moses at Sinai.  Ideas that appear in Modern Judaism that also appear in the Book of Mormon include pre-existence, fortunate fall, the importance of the body, humans achieving great power (like gods), special knowledge to be revealed only to a select few, the rejection of sola scriptura, and the importance of the Jews in that rejection (Chapter Three).  Ideas from Modern Judaism that appear in Smith’s biblical revision include the importance of Enoch, God being in human form, and God weeping (Chapters Four and Six).  Ideas that appear in Smith’s early revelations include hell being temporary and post-mortal purgation (Chapter Four).  Ideas found in Smith’s book of Abraham include Abraham writing a book, a pre-mortal council, and a description of souls being sent to earth in ways similar to Plato’s Timaeus (Chapter Six).  Ideas found in Smith’s later speeches include equating spirit and matter, souls being uncreated, and the rejection of creation ex nihilo.  Indeed, all of the similarities that Bloom noticed between Mormonism and Kabbalah can be found in Modern Judaism.  These similarities lead me to conclude that Smith was actually trying to do what Bloom suggested: Smith wanted to recover “the archaic or original Jewish religion.”  Or, put another way, Smith believed that truth was missing from the Bible and he felt that the Jews’ wisdom was one source of this missing truth.

Allen, however, not only denounced the Jewish notion of the oral tradition and but he also claimed that Kabbalah was “of heathen origin: and the agreement of their leading tenets with the dogmas of Alexandrian philosophy, has with high probability been thought by many learned men to justify the conclusion, that they were derived from that compound of Pythagorean, Platonic, and Oriental notions, which prevailed at Alexandria about the commencement of the Christian era.”[4]  This statement not only suggested that Smith was happy to ignore denunciations of ideas that he thought were true (the Book of Mormon even seems to condemn Allen’s assertions, see below) but it also pointed to an additional source of wisdom that likely influenced Smith.

 

[1] Wouter J. Hanegraaff, Esotericism and the Academy: Rejected Knowledge in Western Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 9-10.

[2] 1 Nephi 13:24, 26, 39-40.

[3] John Allen, Modern Judaism: Or, a Brief Account of the Opinions, Traditions, Rites, and Ceremonies, of the Jews in Modern Times (London, 1816), 22-27.  Michael Quinn referred to the similarities between certain Mormon doctrines and Allen’s description of Kabbalah in his Early Mormonism and the Magic World View (297-305), but there also were a number of other similar ideas in Modern Judaism.

[4] Allen, Modern Judaism, vi-vii, 93-94.



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