Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Mysticism in the Christian New Testament

The two most fundamental branches of any worldview are its metaphysics and its epistemology. The third branch, ethics, is the payoff branch; it develops a code of behavior telling us how to act. In religious worldviews, the moral code comes from the supernatural world. To get that message and other items from the supernatural world to us requires special, supernatural means: mysticism.

Christianity, with more than two billion followers, is the largest religion. Its holy scripture is the New Testament. What elements of mysticism does it present to readers? The following notes, drawn from a ten-week reading of the N.T. for Study Groups for Objectivists, sketch an answer. As a beginning student of the Bible, I welcome corrections.

GENERAL NATURE OF THE N.T.. Jesus lived on earth c. 4 BCE to c. 30 CE. Christians believe he is the son of God.[1] The N.T. describes mainly the "good news" (gospel) of his model life and the message he brought to man: Believe in God and your soul will be saved after death of the body. The N.T. also records the doctrines, practices, and aspirations of Jesus's followers in the two generations after his execution.[2]

The Catholic version of the N. T. includes twenty-seven "books" written c. 50-110 CE by various authors, some anonymous. In sharp contrast to the actual author of the Qur'an, the N.T. writers generally do not claim that God revealed the content as it is worded; instead, Christians -- as men, but perhaps inspired by God -- wrote about God and about their own worries as leaders of a movement. (For mysticism in the Qur'an, see here first and then here.)

AN ANTHOLOGY, NOT A TREATISE. The N.T., considered as a whole, is an anthology of disparate documents. In some, the authors write as if the documents were eyewitness accounts; others are reports of the testimony of earlier Christians; and still others are letters purportedly written by famous Christians to other Christians. The later organizers of the Bible sorted the books in groups. Examples are: the four gospels together at the beginning of the Bible; fourteen letters written by Paul or writers posing as Paul; and, alone, the unusually sophisticated Letter to the Hebrews from an anonymous, perhaps philosophically trained writer living c. 100 CE.

ORDER. The arrangement of the "books" is very loosely from longest to shortest. However, the last, "The Revelation to John," is half as long (at 16 pages of small, two-column print) as the longest book, the third, "The Gospel According to Luke" (34 pages). The general order makes some sense. Jesus is the focus. So, the N.T. begins with the four gospel writers describing the life of Jesus; each writer provides somewhat different information. Then come a variety of letters by Jesus's followers, those spreading the doctrines of Jesus in a hostile pagan world. Last comes "Revelations," an account of visions that God presented to one man, visions presaging the end of the world and the beginning of the everlasting monarchy of Jesus.

A SOURCE OF POPULAR SAYINGS. Of special interest in evaluating the influence of the N.T. today is the high number of N.T. statements that circulate in our modern culture, even among non-Christians. Examples from Matthew are: "You are the salt of the earth" (Chapter 5, Verse 13), "No one can serve two masters" (6:24), and "[D]o not throw your pearls before swine" (7:6).

CHRISTIANITY'S SUPERNATURALISM. The metaphysical foundation of the Christian worldview is supernaturalism, that is, the belief (-ism) that there are two realms: the natural world we know through our senses, and another, higher (super-) world not knowable through our senses. The gap between the supernatural world, which is man's source of ethics, and the natural world, where man lives, requires mysticism, that is, "knowledge" gained through some form other than reason (which is limited to this world, if anywhere).

Consider the first book of the N.T., the 31-page "Gospel According to Matthew." Here supernaturalism is either quietly stated or assumed. The writer makes no effort to convince his readers (presumably already Christians) of the existence of God, his son Jesus Christ, and the otherwise unidentified Holy Spirit. (See, for example, 1:20.)

The writer simply reports supernatural events, that is, events in the natural world that cannot happen without intervention from the supernatural world. An illustration is the impregnation of the mother of Jesus, Mary, by the Holy Spirit (Matthew 1:20).

The importance of the supernatural world relative to the natural world is clear in passages such as Matthew 5:34-35, where the writer says "heaven ... is the throne of God" and "earth ... is his footstool." A few other examples of supernaturalism are: (1) Almost the whole book of "The Revelation to John," who is a Christian living and writing in Asia Minor (modern Turkey) c. 96 CE, including visions of Heaven's war against evil people on earth, at the end of time; (2) Paul (sometimes called the "second founder of Christianity") exorcizing a spirit from a soothsayer (Acts 16:16); and (3) God as "the builder of all things" (Hebrews 3:4).

OBJECTS TO BE "KNOWN" MYSTICALLY. What sorts of things do Christians learn through the various forms of mysticism identified below? First, Christians learn "facts" through mysticism. Angels who rebelled against God were punished by God by being confined "in the nether gloom until" the final day, the day of Judgment, as Jude reports in Verse 6 of his brief "The Letter of Jude." He does not cite a source. He simply speaks authoritatively. His mentions of faith, both a little earlier in the letter and a little later, set a mystical context.

Through mysticism, Christians also learn values -- evaluations, ethical rules, and so forth. One form is through the words and example of Jesus (the supernatural incarnation of God on earth), reported authoritatively by his chosen apostles. For example, from the Biblical accounts of Jesus using a whip to drive sheep, oxen, and moneychangers from the Jews' temple in Jerusalem (in "The Gospel According to John," 2:14-15), Christians learn the superiority of the religious over the mundane.

Sometimes mysticism conveys specific instructions to a single Christian, as when, at Acts, 10:1-9, an "angel of God" appears before Cornelius, a Roman centurion and Christian, to tell him to fetch the apostle Peter from the nearby town of Joppa. At other times, mysticism -- in the form of words from the God incarnate in Jesus -- conveys the defining ethical principles of Christianity, as at "The Gospel According to Luke," 6:27, "Love your enemies."

(1) FAITH. The New Testament is not a collection of philosophical essays. It is an anthology of articles whose authors either describe the divine actions and sayings of Jesus or give their own advice, as an application of divine (that is, mystically known) principles to particular situations.

Faith is one of the forms of mysticism displayed in the Bible. The anonymous author of "The Letter to the Hebrews," writing c. 90 CE, defines faith succinctly. In Hebrews, 11:1, he says that "faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen." Faith is based on emotion (wishful thinking); and it is a belief in objects not evident to the senses. "By faith we understand that the world was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was made out of things which do not appear" (Hebrews, 11:3).

The key point is that faith is an acceptance of ideas without or even contrary to proof based logically on the evidence of the senses. Ideas are motivators; they cause human actions. Faith in God means accepting two ideas as a starting point: God exists and his words are reliable guides to action.

Much of the N.T. is less sophisticated than "Letter to the Hebrews." Most of the various writers merely beseech their readers to "believe" or "have faith." As at Acts, 5:14, followers of the way of life that Jesus had advocated a generation earlier are called "believers." Paul, writing, in part ironically, in "The First Letter to the [Christian] Corinthians," 1:21, reminds his readers that "it pleases God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe." Belief (faith) is required for eternal salvation of one's soul, which is the main point of being a Christian.

(2) REVELATION. Compared to the Qur'an, which is almost wholly a series of revelations passed directly to the reader by the person who said he received them, Muhammad, the N.T. contains little direct revelation from God to man. Two major exceptions in the N.T. are passages quoting Jesus in the four gospels (at the beginning of the N.T.) and "The Revelation to John" (at the end of the Bible).

The gospel accounts were written by men living a generation or two after Jesus. Jesus's statements are thus, to these writers, an indirect or traditional ("handed down") form of revelation. An example is the Sermon on the Mount. Matthew quotes Jesus throughout Chapters 5-7.

"The Revelation to John" begins with a note from an anonymous writer, c. 95 CE. The note tells readers that God gave a message to Jesus (who has been dead for sixty years and presumably resides in Heaven), and Jesus, in turn, has sent "his angel" (in Greek, angelos means "messenger") to carry the message to John of Patmos (Revelation, 1:1). John himself then writes a greeting "to the seven churches that are in Asia" (Turkey, today). The remainder of the letter from John is a statement of what he heard one day while living on the Mediterranean island of Patmos, to which he had been exiled for preaching Christianity (Revelation, 1:9, and Perkins, p. 8). John of Patmos writes:

I was in the Spirit of the Lord's day and heard behind me a loud voice saying, "Write what you see in a book and send it to the seven churches ...." Then I turned to see the voice that was speaking to me, and on turning I saw seven gold lampstands, and in the midst of the lampstands [I saw] one like a son of man, clothed with a long robe ..." (Revelation, 1:10-13).

John continues reporting the actions and words of Jesus and other figures John sees in his serial vision of mankind's fate at the end of the world. The peculiarity of this account, the most mystical in the N.T., is that the author and narrator is human, but quoting Jesus or describing visions which God has sent directly to this writer. "The Revelation to John" is thus a human account of a divine revelation to one man.

(3) SIGNS. The N.T. speaks of signs. An example is the star of Bethlehem. In Matthew, 2:9-10, "wise men from the East" follow a star -- first to Jerusalem and then to Bethlehem -- to see and adore the newborn Christ. The message of this form of mysticism -- "Follow me to the child you seek" -- is implied, that is, not stated in words in the text. The wise men somehow "just know" the star that moves above them is a guide. Perhaps, as usual, this passage of holy scripture was accompanied by an oral tradition that further described the star if any doubter asked questions.

John, 2:1-11, relates the story of Jesus turning water into wine at a marriage festival. This miracle -- that is, a supernatural intervention into the natural world -- is a "sign" of the power of Jesus.

"The Acts of the Apostles" (at 2:43, 4:16, and 5:1-12) speaks of the apostles as performing "signs and wonders." (The Apostles were individuals Jesus had named, during his life on earth, to be evangelists of his message after his death.) One example was an act of the Apostle Peter. He, through his words, struck dead a married couple who, apparently in preparation for Christian communal living, had sold their property but had given only part of the proceeds to the Christians. Their deaths were signs of the power of God.

(4-7) HEARTS, INSPIRATIONS, VISIONS, AND DREAMS. In the N.T., Christian writers mention a variety of other forms of mysticism, again without elaboration or argumentation.

THE HEART. Some of the N.T. writers speak of the heart as a source of ideas that guide our actions. "For man believes with his heart ...," says Apostle Paul, at "Letter to the Romans," 10:10.

INSPIRATION. In one scene, the Spirit of God in the form of a dove alights on Jesus and "a voice from heaven" speaks, says Matthew, 3:16. Matthew does not further describe this spirit. However, in the "First Letter to the Corinthians," 2:10-14, the apostle Paul says:

... what God has prepared for those who love him, God has revealed to us through the Spirit. For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. ... So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. ... The unspiritual man does not receive the gifts of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.

Thus, Paul seems to be saying that a Spirit of God is separate from God, perhaps in the same mysterious manner that Jesus is the son of God. Paul further notes that mystical knowledge -- at least in the form of knowing God's thoughts as delivered by the Holy Spirit -- is available only to the spiritual man.

VISIONS. Another way in which God communicates from the supernatural to the natural realm is through visions. The most vivid and large-scale are the visions John the exile saw and then describes in "Revelations." For example:

Then God's temple in heaven was opened, and the ark of his covenant was seen within his temple; and there were flashes of lightning, loud noises, peals of thunder, an earthquake, and heavy hail. (Revelations, 11:19)

Such a vision conveys "knowledge" in that it confirms through sight the existence of items in the supernatural realm, such as the ark of the covenant described in the Old Testament.

DREAMS. After they have adored the Christ child in Bethlehem, a dream warns the wise men from the East not to return to King Herod in Jerusalem as the king had ordered. They obey the dream and depart back to the East (Matthew, 2:12). Likewise, a dream orders Joseph, the husband of Mary, the mother of Jesus, to take his family to Egypt as a refuge from the wrath of King Herod in Israel; and when King Herod dies, another dream informs Joseph, living in Egypt, that he should return to Israel (Matthew, 2:19). Dreams seem to generally convey specific knowledge to particular individuals, not broad principles that would be applicable to all men, at all times, and everywhere.

CONCLUSIONS. Like the Qur'an, the N.T. is saturated with mysticism. Despite the variety of types of text included in this anthology seemingly selected by a committee, the N.T. beats a steady cadence of mentions of mysticism: praise for "believers"; directions for travelers via dreams or moving stars; a voice from heaven; and foremost the sermons or aphorisms of a prophet who is the Son of God in human form, a prophet who delivers a divine message to sinful man.

Also like the Qur'an, the N.T. offers no intellectualizing -- no explicit, principled identification of the nature of mysticism in any of its forms, no argued defense of mysticism, and no advocacy of mysticism. Those tasks would go to theologians, religious philosophers, and religious intellectuals in the following generations.

Burgess Laughlin
Author, The Power and the Glory: The Key Ideas and Crusading Lives of Eight Debaters of Reason vs. Faith, at

[1] For this post, which is only a collection of notes, my guide to the N.T. is: Pheme Perkins, Reading the New Testament: An Introduction, sec. ed., New York, Paulist Press, 1988 (a revision of the original, 1978 ed.). I chose Perkins, a Catholic scholar, as my guide because I wanted a source that many Christians would support. Secular scholars may offer different details. Many particulars and interpretations of particulars in the Bible are controversial, even among Christians. Perkins's work is sufficient for my initial study.

[2] The Holy Bible, Revised Standard Version, New York, Penguin Books, 1962.


  1. Today I received a comment from someone who chose to ignore the rules of etiquette (in this case, he failed to use his real name). His comment, however, provides an example of a mystical statement:

    "Drawing upon the invisible forces of Christian Mysticism, the Christian Mystic can feel the oneness and see that responsibility, decision-making and optimism all flow together in one universal consciousness, where God is an obvious reality."

    The contents of the statement are "floating," that is, not tied logically sense-perceptible facts of reality. Instead, the floating abstractions are connected to the "reality" of a non-existent "being," God.

  2. Mr. Laughlin, I enjoyed reading your notes on mysticism in the New Testament. The only aspect that I think should be expanded is the context in which these writings were made, i.e. principally in a Jewish culture. Thus the Old Testament (actually, the Septuagint translation) is the wellspring from which the Christians drink, heavily...


I welcome all pertinent comments and questions from readers who follow my strict rules of etiquette. I will not publish improper comments. If your screen name is not your first and last real name, be sure to include your name -- first and last -- in the body of your comment. Example acceptable forms of a name are: Burgess Laughlin; B. Laughlin; and Burgess L. or something similar that would be recognizable. The burden is on you to identify yourself.