Secret Groups in Ancient Judaism

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Michael Stone
  • New York, NY: 
    Oxford University Press
    , October
     192 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In Secret Groups in Ancient Judaism, Michael E. Stone offers a new approach to a well-known phenomenon in ancient Judaism: the cultivation and transmission of esoteric knowledge within closed groups. Stone argues that such groups, including the Essenes and Therapeutae, should be categorized as secret societies, and that this designation offers new insight into the groups’ social structures and behavior. The hierarchical structure, initiation practices, and limited membership of groups like the Essenes are direct byproducts of their attempt to control access to esoteric knowledge. By locating the practices of esotericism within social reality, Stone opens the possibility of identifying the traces of secret societies in written sources, leading him to propose that secret groups may have been more common in ancient Judaism than generally believed. 

Stone begins by defining some of the key terms of his study. To define “secret society,” he turns to scholarship on contemporary secret groups, especially the work of Georg Simmel and Lawrence Hazelrigg. He concludes that a secret society is a group that limits its membership, adds new members through a gradual initiation process, and organizes its members into a strict hierarchy to limit access to the group’s secret teachings (1). 

For Stone, “esoteric” is synonymous with “hidden” and “secret,” encompassing “knowledge or practice whose transmission is limited to socially distinct and self-delimited groups” (20). In other words, no information or practice is inherently esoteric. Rather, these things become esoteric when they are made secret and access to them is limited to certain individuals and groups. Stone argues that the social structure of secret societies reflects their esotericism. The desire to limit access to secret information—or, as Hazelrigg puts it, to maintain a specific ratio of knowledge to ignorance—leads groups like the Essenes to form strict hierarchies, limit membership, and experience tension with the outside world.

In chapter 4, “The Social Organization of Secrecy,” Stone analyzes the hierarchies and social structures of Greco-Roman mystery cults, which he then compares to those of the Essenes and Therapeutae. Stone argues that the mystery cults display a tripartite social structure consisting of a seer or founder, an inner group of disciples, and an outer group of adherents (49). Those occupying the top tiers of the pyramid enjoy greater authority and access to secret teachings, while those at the bottom remain loyal to the group because of their desire to learn more secrets. Turning to the Essenes, Stone considers whether the different organizational systems presented by the main rule scrolls from Qumran—the Community Rule and the Damascus Documents—suggest that their respective communities—the Yahadand the ‘Edah—handled the cultivation and transmission of secret knowledge in different ways. Stone investigates this comparison briefly, but it is clear that such a compelling question could produce a monograph of its own. Readers interested in the Dead Sea Scrolls will find this chapter rich with topics and questions for future study.

Having established this picture of secret societies, Stone turns to Jewish literature from the Second Temple Period to search for evidence of secret groups. Here, he makes a key observation: many Jewish texts from the Second Temple Period, particularly apocalyptic texts, refer to secret knowledge acquired through revelation—for example, Ezra’s heavenly ascent in 4 Ezra—but do not actually disclose the contents of these revelations. Thus, these texts are exoteric rather than esoteric; they invoke the theme of secret knowledge as a rhetorical strategy instead of actually conveying that knowledge. This observation leads Stone to argue that the circles that produced apocalyptic texts were likely familiar with secret traditions of knowledge, and that the cultivation of secret knowledge among secret societies was a more common feature of Second Temple Judaism than generally believed. Stone’s observations about the rhetorical power of esotericism make this section a profitable conversation partner to Eva Mroczek’s 2016 The Literary Imagination in Jewish Antiquity (Oxford University Press), particularly Mroczek’s argument that Jubilees functioned as a bibliography of heavenly revelations.

Secret Groups in Ancient Judaism offers considerable food for thought for those interested in ancient Judaism and the Dead Sea Scrolls, as well as early Christianity and Greco-Roman mystery cults. The book’s greatest strength—its comprehensiveness—is at some points its weakness. Stone’s analysis covers considerable topical and temporal ground, often leaving the reader wishing for more in-depth discussion. For example, Stone’s comparison of the social structures of Greco-Roman mystery cults and the Essenes could form the basis of a full-length study, as could his exploration of secret knowledge as a theme in apocalyptic literature. Additionally, Stone sometimes treats ancient texts, especially the Dead Sea Scrolls, as trustworthy descriptions of group behavior. However, if a text like the Community Rule contains an idealized set of rules rather than a description of actual practices on the ground, can we still use it to reconstruct the social structure of the Essenes? Stone’s work offers a new avenue to discuss this fundamental question.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jocelyn K. Burney is a doctoral student in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

Date of Review: 
July 18, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Michael Stone is the Gail Levin de Nur Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies and Professor Emeritus of Armenian Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He is the author or editor of nearly 60 books, including Adamgirk`: The Adam book of Arak`el of Siwnik` (Oxford University Press, 2007).


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