The Greatest Mirror

Heavenly Counterparts in the Jewish Pseudepigrapha

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Andrei A. Orlov
  • Albany, NY: 
    State University of New York Press
    , November
     318 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The idea that every person has a counterpart in heaven appears in many guises throughout history. But where does it originate? Did the notion develop in one culture and spread outward? Was it catalyzed by the confluence of many cultures, as when classical, Christian, Jewish, Manichaean, Gnostic, neo-Platonic, Iranian, and other traditions met and mingled across the Roman Empire during late antiquity? Or do most religious and philosophical systems eventually come to speculate about the possibility of personal heavenly counterparts in the course of their historical development?

The answer, according to Andrei Orlov in his fascinating and rewarding new book, is clear: “Christian, Manichaean, and even Kabbalistic specimens of doppelganger lore might stem, not from the Greco-Roman traditions, but from the early Second Temple developments reflected in the Jewish pseudepigrapha” (2). “Pseudepigrapha” (literally: “falsely attributed writings”) is the name that modern scholars have given to a set of Jewish texts that were composed from approximately 200 BCE to 100 CE, but, with exceptions, were not included in ancient Jewish Bibles, which Christians later came to call the “Old Testament.” For this reason, the pseudepigrapha are sometimes labeled “extra-biblical” or “para-biblical” writings or, in older scholarship, “intertestamental” texts.

This book draws from some material that has been previously published, but Orlov brings it all together with a new focus and sense of purpose. He has command over the full range of the sources, which is no mean feat: despite their ancient Jewish origins, most of the pseudepigrapha were preserved solely in medieval Christian milieus and thus survive in many diverse languages such as Byzantine Greek and Old Church Slavonic. The end result is a highly readable book that discusses the roots of the idea of the heavenly counterpart and, to some extent, its fruit in the Jewish and Christian writings of later centuries. The learned endnotes comprise half the total length of the book and are a real data mine for specialists.

The book is divided into four chapters, the first three of which discuss the possible origins of the heavenly counterpart tradition in pseudepigraphic writings attributed to the biblical figures of Enoch, Moses, and Jacob. Enoch is very much the odd man out. Unlike the patriarchs Moses and Jacob, who became central to both Judaism and Christianity, Enoch is a shadowy, pre-Flood figure chiefly known from the brief biblical note that states that he lived for 365 years before being taken up by God without experiencing death (Gen 5:18-23). In the Second Temple period, Enoch’s apparent immortality, ascent to Heaven, and connection with the calendar and celestial bodies (think 365 days in a year) prompted the composition of a half-dozen writings pseudonymously ascribed to him. Most important is the Book of Watchers. It expands the equally brief biblical note about the mating of the sons of God and human females (Gen 6:1-4) into a story about rebellion among the angels and their murderous, rampaging offspring, the Giants. The Watchers thus suggests an alternate explanation for the origin of evil in the world in contrast to the supposition that it was result of the disobedience of Adam and/or Eve in the Garden of Eden.

The fourth chapter of Orlov’s book zeroes in on Joseph and Aseneth, a romance (or novel, perhaps) that tells the story of the biblical patriarch Joseph, son of Jacob (Genesis 37, 39-50), whom his brothers had sold into slavery in Egypt, and his Egyptian wife Aseneth, daughter of a priest (Gen 41:45, 50-52). Most contemporary scholars understand the work to be the product of a Second Temple Jew, although it survives in a bewildering number of languages courtesy of its subsequent transmission in Christian circles. 

Whether Orlov makes his case for the Second Temple origins of the idea of the personal heavenly counterpart can be debated. Phrases such as “traces of” and idioms of play, reminiscence, and detection are asked to shoulder the burden of proof rather than vocabulary that points to concrete evidence, leaving the impression that some arguments may be a bit too speculative. Many centuries separate the ancient Book of Watchersfrom the medieval macro-text known as 3 Enoch, an important repository of Jewish mystical speculation, and the late medieval Slavonic manuscripts of 2 Enoch, which together preserve virtually our only record of this early Jewish apocalypse. Likewise, Joseph and Aseneth might be a product of the 2nd century CE, at the dawn of the late antique era, and if so was likely informed by the new currents and ideas that were sweeping around centers of literacy and learning throughout the Mediterranean basin.

It is the case too that many of the early Jewish pseudepigraphic writings are relatively unimportant, or remained so until they were repurposed in later Christian contexts. Only a few texts (4 Ezra, because it was bound up in Christian Bibles as 2 Esdras chaps. 3-14) or traditions (the Enochic legend of the rebellion of the angels) had any serious cultural traction through the medieval centuries. Consider, by way of contrast, the conviction, mentioned above, that evil entered the world as a result of Adam’s disobedience and sin. This is so copiously preserved in the early Jewish and early Christian literature that one can sketch a fairly well-defined map of its tradents and trajectories.

That being said, I highly recommend Andrei Orlov’s book for anyone who is interested in religion and/or enjoys broad, cross-cultural tropes. The book is extremely well-written, the topic is endlessly interesting, the evidence is exhaustively covered, and its author has put forward his thesis in the best manner possible. Readers will learn much from this book.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Lorenzo DiTommaso is Professor of Religions and Cultures at Concordia University in Montréal, Canada.

Date of Review: 
August 21, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Andrei A. Orlov is professor of Judaism and Christianity in Antiquity at Marquette University. He is the author of Dark Mirrors: Azazel and Satanael in Early Jewish Demonology and Divine Scapegoats: Demonic Mimesis in Early Jewish Mysticism, both also published by SUNY Press.


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