Defining Jewish Preexistence – part 4

I have received a lot of good feedback regarding my previous three installments (here, here, and here) of this inquiry into how Jews articulated the concept of ‘preexistence’ in written form.

Today’s post will look at a passage in the Babylonian Talmud. The Talmud is the rabbinic commentaries of the Mishnah collected into written form. The Hebrew word talmud means “teaching, study, and learning.” This collection is the embodiment of rabbinic Judaism’s concern to study the Torah in meticulous detail. In some ways, the Talmud has had a considerably stronger influence on Jewish life and practice than even the Hebrew Bible.

Within the Babylonian Talmud is a passage of noteworthy interest for our study. In the tractate Pesahim (which means “Passover”) we find this statement:

 “Seven things were created before the world was made, and these are they: Torah, repentance, the Garden of Eden, Gehenna, the throne of glory, and house of the sanctuary, and the name of the Messiah.” (b.Pes. 54a)

It would be prudent for us to examine the specifics of this passage closely. Seven particular concepts are mentioned as having been created prior to the creation of the world. However, a discernible difference can be observed when we attempt to categorize these seven concepts. The Garden of Eden, Gehenna, the throne of glory, and the house of the sanctuary are all tangible things, either objects or locations. The remaining three concepts (Torah, repentance, the name of the Messiah) are intangible (I mean, how can God create an act of repentance apart from it existing as a concept?). A almost identical statement regarding these ‘preexistent’ concepts appears latter in the Talmud (b.Ned. 39b), suggesting that this line of thinking was not isolated with one particular sage.

talmudRegarding “the name of the Messiah,” one of the concepts within our ‘intangible’ pile, it is prudent for our study to speculate how this relates to Jewish understandings of a preexistent Messiah. Is the tractate Pesahim saying that the human Messiah physically existed in space and time prior to the creation of the world? Sadly, it would see that this is not the best reading of this passage. Rather, the manner of preexistence ascribed to the name of the Messiah, strictly speaking, is notional and conceptual preexistence. I have already demonstrated in a previous post that the Targum on Zechariah speaks of the preexistence of the Messiah’s name within God’s plans and purposes. It would seem that something similar is occurring within our current passage.

How might this passage illumine, say, John 6:62: “What if you see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before?” In other words, if Jews could speak rather freely about the Messiah’s preexistence in a way which was notional (rather than literal), would the Jewish Christian author of the Fourth Gospel have necessarily meant that the Messiah literally preexisted his birth?

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One thought on “Defining Jewish Preexistence – part 4

  1. Hi Dustin,

    This particular passage from the Talmud makes me wonder how these Jews were using the term “world.” For example, it doesn’t seem reasonable to think that they would have considered the Garden Of Eden to have been “created” before it was actually said to be created in Genesis 2.

    Sometimes the apostolic writers seemed to speak of “heavens and earth” and “creation” within the specific context of what was established through circumcision and the Law of Moses (which did not originate historically until the time of Abraham). Perhaps they understood that a creation of their own people began when God regenerated the womb of Sarah (Romans 4:17-19).

    With regard to John 6:62, I’m not sure that the idea of a “notional preexistence” is sufficient. For example, Jesus speaks of “ascending” (i.e. changing location) to where he was “before” (i.e. presumably in another location at a previous time). How can the concept of “notional preexistence” account for the implication of “location”?

    Rivers 🙂

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