Stone, Michael E. Secret Groups in Ancient Judaism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018. Pp. ix + 192. Hardback $74.00. ISBN 9780190842383
In this study, Michael Stone examines the function of secrecy and esotericism in various societies of ancient Judaism. A society is determined to have been secret or esoteric when its membership was regulated by secret teachings, practices, and initiation processes (p. 1). Stone elaborates on this thesis by establishing what evidence can substantiate his claim regarding secret societies (chapter 1), by articulating how secrecy and esotericism were related ideas in ancient Judaism (chapters 2 and 3), and by analyzing how secrecy and esotericism shaped societies in the Hellenistic-Roman world in the Second Temple era (chapters 4–8).
Chapter 1 provides important information about how Stone conceptualizes ancient sources. Stone conceives of his sources in three ways. The first is what he dubs “outsider sources,” which “reveal how the group appeared to nonmembers…” (p. 1). The central outsider sources used in the study are Philo and Josephus. The second are “insider sources,” which can consist of “…descriptions, laws, documents, rules, prayers, and the like written by members of the secret group…” (p. 1). The third is “archaeological remains, such as buildings, inscriptions, and other material evidence left by the group under discussion” (p. 2). By drawing on the outsider, insider, and archaeological sources, Stone identifies the Qumran group as Essenes; in which case, some of the Dead Sea Scrolls are interpreted as insider evidence. These three categories help clarify how and why the author prioritizes the Essenes in his study, insofar as the archaeological discovery helps unveil the controlled processes of membership into, and hierarchical organization of, the Jewish community of Qumran. Such insider information, however, is lacking for other ancient Jewish groups, such as the Pharisees, Sadducees, Temple Priests, Zealots, or Therapeutae. Consequently, the study entertains outsider descriptions of these groups, yet the author is careful not to mistreat outsider sources as insider evidence when discussing other secret groups apart from the Essenes. This conceptual model of the ancient sources creates an effective way to engage the primary sources apart from “sectarian-normative” categorization.
In chapters 2 and 3, Stone elucidates his view regarding the relationship between secrecy and esotericism. In chapter two, “‘Esoteric,’ Mysteries, and Secrecy,” he describes his take on esotericism and situates his own contribution in relationship to previous and current scholarship. Esotericism refers “to (1) written or oral teaching, knowledge, and practice that are available only to a strictly delimited group in society, or (2) a social group in which such secret knowledge or practice is inculcated and cultivated” (p. 8). Thus, knowledge or practice is not self-referential of esotericism, but rather esotericism is understood by a group’s attitude towards knowledge and behavior. This take on esotericism differs from scholarship of ‘Western Esotericism,’ as discussed by Antoine Faivre and Kocku von Stuckrad. A departure from Western Esotericism is motivated by the author’s desire to formulate an understanding of esotericism in connection to ancient Jewish sources. In this vein, the author finds Wouter Hanegraaf’s characterization of esotericism closer to his own, because “…secrecy [was] … a central, constitutive element of secret, esoteric groups in Hellenistic-Roman antiquity.” Hence, the biggest difference between Stone’s approach and scholars of Western Esotericism is the role secrecy played in the social fabric of ancient Jewish communities. This understanding of esotericism and secrecy differs from Ithamar Gruenwald’s understanding, insofar as esotericism and secrecy are not restricted to acts of inner exegesis of scripture alone. A group’s posture towards secrecy—evidenced by issues of the transmission of knowledge and/or practice—leads Stone to disagree with Samuel Thomas’ view of ‘mystery’ (רז; raz), for Thomas unnecessarily conjoins esoteric notions with salvific notions. Thomas’ approach is considered to be engendered by notions of ‘Mystery’ (μυστήριον; musterion) from the New Testament, especially from a Pauline usage of the term. Stone states his own view clearly by reasoning, “My understanding of esoteric is firmly anchored in social context, and I hold that neither knowledge nor practice is inherently esoteric. It is only their transmission by secret groups that makes them so” (p. 21).
In the second half of chapter 2, Stone provides further dimensions to his argument by taking a closer look at the social issues related to secrecy and transmission. By turning his attention to the insider sources of the Essenes (here called Qumranians, p. 26), Stone explores how the insider sources shed light on issues such as the zeal for secrecy, development of special knowledge, and otherworldly source of knowledge or experiential revelation. The author draws on various texts such as The Rule of the Community (1QS), Pesher of Habakkuk (1QpHab), and the Thanksgiving Hymns (Hodayot) to make his arguments clear regarding the social dynamics between secrecy/esotericism, experience, and claims of authority. By way of contrast, Jewish apocalypses and other types of literature, such as 1 Enoch, 4 Ezra, or Apocalypse of Abraham seem to have exploited ideas of secrecy and esotericism, for they “… claim to be esoteric or to have been transmitted secretly…” but “were circulated quite widely.” On this basis, Stone considers these works as “pseudo-esoteric,” (p. 31) an idea he returns to later in the study.
The point of chapter 3, “Esoteric as a Social Category,” is to showcase how ancient Jewish groups practiced secrecy in the transmission and circulation of ideas. At the outset of the chapter, Stone begins with Josephus’ description of the Essene oath regarding “the names of the angels” (Josephus, J.W. 2:142). Although Josephus described the Essenes as taking an oath to hide these names, “… numerous extant non-sectarian texts from the same time period record angelic names, including some texts that are found in the Qumran library” (p. 32). Stone reckons this difference in Josephus’ description to a complex dialectic “…between the content of knowledge and the attitudes to it” (p. 33). This encompasses both the esoteric and exoteric transmission of ideas. The author, however, is cautious and acknowledges the pitfall of creating a one-to-one correspondence between things that constitute secret and public knowledge and their social functions. This point dovetails into a discussion about the control of knowledge, so as to advance the focus of the chapter: “…the social context in which documents or teachings were transmitted and circulated is the point at which actual secrecy enters the picture” (p. 33). Stone engages the social analysis of Lawrence Hazelrigg to assess Essene views of secrecy, initiation, the function of hierarchy, access to knowledge, and scribal culture. As the chapter begins with detailing the dialectic between transmission of secret and public knowledge, so also the chapter concludes by examining how the ideas oral and written culminate in the development of pseudepigraphic writings.
In chapter 4, “The Social Organization of Secrecy,” Stone begins by examining the Hellenistic religions and cults, “whose teachings were secret and revealed only to initiates” (p. 44). He delimits the study by focusing primarily on mystery cults—e.g., Eleusinian cult, Mithras, and Isis—because of the gradual initiation process of its adherents and gradual revelation of knowledge. The evidence of these cults, especially insider sources, is non-existent to meagre, which Stone therefore interprets as a marker to their disposition towards secrecy (p. 45). A consideration of these sources, however, leads to the point that ancient groups “exhibit a tripartite social structure: the seer or founder, an inner group of disciples, and an outer group of adherents” (p. 49). Other Hellenistic-Roman groups, such as the Manichaeans, were more predisposed to share their knowledge and their teachings, evidenced by the abundance of insider sources and outsider reports. As such, the first part of the chapter serves to strengthen the view regarding the attitudes toward secrecy and esotericism. The second half of the chapter returns to the Essenes and Therapeutae, though insider sources are lacking for a comprehensive assessment of the latter. As for the former, the reader encounters Stone’s rationale as to why he identifies the inhabitants of Qumran as Essenes (pp. 55–57). By invoking differences and similarities between insider and outsider sources, Stone does not envision the Essenes as a monolithic group, but rather envisions that they were chronologically and geographically dispersed entities, who were responsible for writing some of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Interestingly, Stone utilizes language of insider and outsider sources to compare and contrast the differences between the social organization envisioned by the insider sources, the Community Rule (1QS) and Damascus Document (D). The remainder of the chapter explores the evidence of secrecy and esotericism in the social dynamics of the Essenes, apropos the secret status of sectarian documents, the absence of transmitted sectarian ideals (apart from the Cairo Genizah copies of the Damascus Document), the Cryptic Script used at Qumran, and finally the inspired, interpreting figure known as the Maskil.
In chapter 5, “Initiation and Graded Revelation,” Stone examines how secrecy was guarded and regulated by the Essenes with respect to initiation, graded revelation, and hierarchical structure. As for the process of initiation and graded levels of knowledge, he considers similarities and differences reported by Josephus (J.W. 2.139–142), the Community Rule, and the Damascus Document. The chapter concludes by analyzing the hierarchal structure of the Essenes by considering the role secrecy and knowledge had had in stratifying the community structures and governance.
Thus far, the study has sought to establish and explain the role that secrecy/esotericism played in the social dynamics of ancient Jewish groups and Hellenistic-Roman cults. While some outsider sources name additional secret groups, there is insufficient insider evidence—apart from the Essenes—to analyze how secrecy influenced the social dynamics of other ancient Jewish groups. With that said, it is the purpose of chapter 6, “Other Secret Jewish Groups and Traditions,” to reconsider what groups were named by outsider sources, with the hope to gain further insights as to the social functions of secrecy and esotericism (p. 98). Regarding what can be surmised from outsider sources, other social categories, such as Magicians, Exorcists, Temple-Related Skills, and other social groups, such as the school of Judas the Essene, other sects in Rabbinic literature, Ḥāburôt, and Karaism share some similarities with secret societies. A scarcity of insider sources, however, impede any further insight on the matter. In the second section of the chapter, Stone directs his attention to whether “…‘footprints’ of secret knowledge or practice may be discerned, which may point to their transmission and study in secret groups” (p. 99). This line of investigation returns to the above proposed idea of pseudo-esoteric in apocalypses. A summary of the author’s previous research is provided, so as to introduce the reader to a tension (i.e., disagreement) between the introductory formulaic lists of ascent apocalypses to their literary content. The author reasons that, “The most likely explanation of this tension is that the apocalypses themselves were not truly esoteric, but their proclaimed esoteric transmission is actually a literary stratagem engaged in for various reasons, such as to explain how the book survived or to enhance the book’s authority” (p. 100). For this argument to stand, Stone seeks to demonstrate his view that 4 Ezra and I Enoch show a familiarity with and perhaps exploited secret knowledge (p. 101–108; 116) and examines how ben Sira (3:21–22) could be interpreted as a reaction to the ideas of secrecy and esotericism.
Chapter 7, “The Social Setting of Esoteric Tradition,” begins with a restatement of the authors thesis: “Secret societies or groups cultivated traditions of learning and practice that they regarded as esoteric and they forbade their free circulation” (p. 119). Following this restatement, the author outlines some additional textual sources apropos the organizing patterns of secret groups, attitudes toward secret knowledge, and secret transmission. In texts such as the Ascension of Isaiah 8, 4 Ezra 14:45–46, and 2 ApBar 5:5–7, Stone finds a three-fold organizing pattern. While this three-fold pattern (or perhaps four-fold in the case of Qumran) was an organizing pattern of esoteric groups, it is not an indicative social pattern of attitudes towards secrecy. Stone reminds his readers of the similar three-fold organizing pattern of non-esoteric Manichaeism. A threefold social structure is a common pattern for groups who structured themselves around a charismatic leader. The leader disseminated secret teachings to an inner circle in a context of revelation. Examples of this structure in apocalypses “… underlies the narrative instances … and is instantiated in various groups…” (p. 123–24). In addition to the texts related to organizing patterns, Stone returns to a brief discussion about additional teachings that may have been considered secret. Under this rubric, the author discusses the Yaḥad’s usage of רז (raz), דעת, (da‘at), נגלות (niglot), and נסתרות (nistarot), Mishnah Ḥaggigah 2.1, the Book of Watchers (I Enoch 7; 8:1–3), Abraham’s learning Hebrew in Jubilees 12:25–27. To conclude the chapter, Stone considers further cases where transmission of secrets were revealed to ancient seers. This includes texts like Testament of Moses 1:16–17, Similitudes of Enoch (I Enoch 37:4–5), Book of Luminaries (I Enoch 82:1–2), 4 Ezra, and Daniel 12:4. Stone considers these as prime examples of pseudo-esotericism, as he defined in the chapter above.
To conclude his study, Stone includes a brief discussion about the groups behind the texts. Stone takes neither a positivistic nor a hard-skeptical position about the correlation between documentary evidence and social groups. Rather, he reminds his readers of the reasonable posture to “assume that a substantial number of groups existed contemporaneously” (p. 137) and the role sources have in furnishing types of evidence for historical inquiry. This view is made apparent when Stone reasons, “Secret groups, by their nature, usually present specific sociological and structure features that increase the plausibility of positing their existence from the footsteps they leave” (p. 138).
An analysis of the insider and outsider sources can illuminate how secrecy and esotericism were realized apropos the social practices of initiation, graded revelation, and hierarchical structure. This is Stone’s claim, and indeed the study provides a strong argument to demonstrate its utility. The study is an excellent example that engages the methods of sociological sciences and biblical studies in a constant discourse with ancient sources. Stone’s expertise and erudition is on display throughout the study, and the footnotes are packed with excellent corollary discussion topics. There are some points, however, that could have made Stone’s argument even stronger. I will entertain one interesting example here. In the discussion of Josephus’ Jewish War 2.142, only one interpretation is discussed with respect to the description, “πρὸς τούτοις ὄμνυσιν μηδενὶ μὲν μεταδοῦναι τῶν δογμάτων ἑτέρως ἢ ὡς αὐτὸς μετέλαβεν, ἀφέξεσθαι δὲ λῃστείας καὶ συντηρήσειν ὁμοίως τά τε τῆς αἱρέσεως αὐτῶν βιβλία καὶ τὰ τῶν ἀγγέλων ὁνόματα.” Stone accepts the translation of Albert I. Baumgarten, who rendered it as, “[He] swears, moreover, to transmit their rules exactly as he himself received them; to abstain from robbery; and in like manner carefully to preserve the books of the sect and the names of the angels.” The phrase, “τά τε τῆς αἱρέσεως αὐτῶν βιβλία καὶ τὰ τῶν ἀγγέλων” could likewise be translated as, “both the books [containing] their instruction and the names of their emissaries” (τὰ τῶν ἀγγέλων ὁνόματα). The idea of the “names of their emissaries” would be interesting to consider in conjunction with Stone’s discussion regarding the use of cryptic script, issues of textual plurality, and transmission of sectarian scrolls. Again, this does not detract from the author’s thesis, but in fact would serve to strengthen the argument of the book. Stone has delivered yet again with a stimulating book which pushes scholarship forward.
James M. Tucker is a Research Fellow at Georg-August-Universität in Göttingen, Germany and Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations at the University of Toronto.