Christian Kabbalah

Christian Kabbalah Timeline

Christian Kabbalah was in many respects a sideshow to much larger social changes taking place during the Renaissance. One change, easy to miss, was the deployment of moveable type printing and the publication of the Gutenberg Bible in the 1450s. This was the first information age, and mass-produced books created economic opportunities for previously marginal scholarly activites outside of the straightjacket of the Church. An increasingly wealthy and literate middle class created a new market. The economic wealth generated by banking and trade produced massive surplus value, and patrons such as Lorenzo the Magnificent of the Florentine Medici dynasty invested in art, public works, and in translation.

An important translation project funded by Lorenzo was the translation of Platonic and Hermetic literature by Marcilio Ficino. These translations created a belief (similar to what Blavatsky promoted in the 19th century - see below) that all the religious traditions of antiquity were "saying the same thing", and that there were previously unsuspected "deep roots" to Christianity. It was not apparent at that time that Christianity was an ingenious synthesis of older beliefs combined during Late Antiquity and the Early Medieval period, or that the Hermetic corpus was written much later than it was believed to be. Into the orbit of this project was drawn the highly precocious Giovanni Pico, count of Mirandola. Pico had been influenced by some very talented and knowlegable Jewish (or converted) tutors and translators including Flavius Mithridates, Elijah del Medigo, and Yohanan Alemanno, and proclaimed that Kabbalah, the ancient oral tradition of the Jews, was also "saying the same thing".

Johann Reuchlin, an acquaintance of Pico and an important Hebraist, published two works on Kabbalah, De Verbo Mirifico, and De Arte Cabbalistica. In a letter to the Pope Leo X, Reuchlin justified the importance of Kabbalah by claiming that Pythagoras, well-spring of the Platonic tradition, was instructed by Hebrews. As the Pope was the second son of the same Lorenzo the Magnificent funding the translation of the Platonic and Hermetic corpus, Reuchlin obviously felt this to be a powerful argument!

In an analysis of the content of De Arte Cabbalistica, Joseph Dan concludes that the sources at Reuchlin's disposal were eclectic, and light on the Zoharic influence that tended to dominate contemporary Jewish Kabbalah. Much that was thought to be Kabbalah, such as textual interpretation using the numeric association of Hebrew letters, letter permutations, and acrostics, were in fact quite pervasive in Jewish hermeneutics, and had no special association with Kabbalah. There was an emphasis on the mysticism of divine names more characteristic of the Ashkenazi Chassidim, and much less so of classic Spanish Kabbalah. This well-intended but scattergun characterisation of Kabbalah by non-Jewish writers is more or less pervasive to the present day.

Christian Kabbalah evinced no special sympathy for Judaism. On the contrary, by reinforcing the time-hallowed truths of Christianity it was used as another argument against Judaism: "you see, even your own traditions declare the doctrine of the Trinity!" Jewish communities, deeply concerned with the Talmud, were accused of losing contact with their own secret oral tradition which confirmed the truth of Christianity. This kind of thinking reinforced an existing and pervasive anti-Semitism which had reached a level where much of Europe was being stripped of Jewish communities. One of the key events of Jewish history in Europe, the expulsions and forced conversions in Spain and Portugal (see Alhambra Decree) occured in 1492 during the lifetimes of Ficino, Pico, and Reuchlin.

Another characteristic of Christian Kabbalah was that it was very much an intellectual tradition, and lacked the ecstatic traditions of Jewish Kabbalah, or an integration with traditional religious practices. Where it was integrated with practical traditions, it headed off in a different direction - in his massive three-volume summation of occult philosophy, Cornelius Agrippa places Kabbalah in the third book ... on ceremonial magic.

With the Spanish expulsion the impetus for the development of Kabbalah moved to the Middle East. The transition from classic Spanish Kabbalah to a new phase initiated by R. Isaac Luria was marked by the completion in 1548 of R. Moses Cordovero's integration and summation of various threads of tradition, the Pardes Rimonim. It would take many decades for the theosophy of Isaac Luria to filter back into Christian Kabbalah.

Kabbalah influenced an important circle of intellectuals in the 17th century. At the centre of this circle was Christan Knorr von Rosenroth who translated some of the most enigmatic parts of the Zohar and several other Kabbalistic documents, and published them as Kabbalah Denudata (Kabbalah Unveiled). At one or two degrees of separation one can name the mathematician and philosopher Gottfreid Leibniz, Isaac Newton (who owned a copy of Kabbalah Denudata), the Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza (who some thought a crypto-kabbalist), Lady Anne Conway, the Platonist Henry More, Menasseh ben Israel, Moses Germanus and Franciscus Mercurius van Helmont.

Kabbalah was popularised during the 19th. century by the French occult writer Eliphas Levi (Alphonse Louis Constant). His writings are fanciful and romantic, thus ensuring their undying popularity. He was a source for the equally fanciful and romantic Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, whose publication of the massive Isis Unveiled and The Secret Doctrine brought underground occult traditions to the masses at the tail end of the Spiritualist movement. The was followed by the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, secretive during the first few years of its life, but spectacularly non-secretive as it unravelled in high-profile court cases.

Members of the Golden Dawn had a major influence on the perception of Kabbalah in the English-speaking world. William Wynn Wescott published an edition of the Sepher Yetzirah. Samuel Liddel "MacGregor" Mathers published The Kabbalah Unveiled, an edition of the Idrot from the Zohar, using the Latin translation of Knorr von Rosenroth's Kabbalah Denudata. Until recently it was the only accessible version. Arthur Edward Waite published The Holy Kabbalah, written in an impenetrable style but praised by the great scholar of Kabbalah Gershom Scholem as one of the few books on the subject with a basis in fact. Aleister Crowley had a relatively superifical understanding of Kabbalah but it occurs throughout his writing, and he was fascinated by the techniques of gematria and made extensive use of it. Members of various Golden Dawn offshoots continued to publish influential works on Kabbalah into the 20th. century, for example, Israel Regardie and Dion Fortune.

Whether this latter phase centered on the 19th. century could be termed 'Christian Kabbalah' is debatable. Kabbalah was no longer viewed as an adjunct to Christian non-conformism. Although Eliphas Levi entered a seminary for training as a Catholic priest, he fell in love with a woman, and was not ordained. A. E. Waite and Dion Fortune were both influenced by esoteric Christianity, but in Fortune's case this had more in common with Theosophy than any normative Christian religion. Crowley reacted to his Plymouth Brethren upbringing so violently that his occult writing could almost be considered to embody an anti-Christian Kabbalah. Until the 20th century it was difficult to ignore the pervasive atmosphere of Christian belief, and even writers as adventurous and hermetic in outlook as Cornelius Agrippa oscillated wildely in a climate where the appearance of heresy could be deadly. One senses that Agrippa's allegiance to Christianity was slight, or at best, highly unorthodox. In the late 19th and early 20th. century, with the waning of Christianity as a social force, Hermetic and Neoplatonic influences began to reassert themselves.

See Also:

Knots and Spirals: Notes on the Emergence of Christian Cabala by Don Karr (PDF)

The Study of Christian Cabala in English by Don Karr (PDF)

The Study of Christian Cabala in English - Addenda  by Don Karr (PDF)

Giovanni Pico della Mirandola and the Kabbalah translated into Latin

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