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The Early History of Heaven.

The Early History of Heaven. By J. Edward Wright. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000. Pp. xi, 318. $35.00.)

The title of this book is rather misleading. Unlike other works, such as Russell's A History of Heaven or McDannell and Lang's Heaven: A History, J. Edward Wright does not set out to analyze ancient concepts of heaven per se. Rather, his is a history of the "alternate" views of heaven in the ancient world, as distinguished from the "traditionalist" and "elitist" [sic] constructs that emerged in Hebraic, Judaic, Christian, and Islamic systems. Though mislabeled, the work remains quite useful in understanding the variety of perspectives from Egypt, the ancient Near East, as well as the Greco-Roman world, which influenced these systems. Wright's personal bias in favor of the "alternate" perspectives is obvious and at times leads to an awkward use of the evidence. Nevertheless, the breadth of the book is refreshing and his discussion informative.

The early chapters of the work focus on ancient Egypt and the Near East. Despite the lack of consistency within these complex polytheistic cultures, Wright successfully establishes general concepts of a flat earth with a heavenly canopy (divine or otherwise) as well as a general Near Eastern concept of a heavenly court that excludes a human presence. Having accomplished this, Wright then proceeds to analyze the evidence pertaining to various Israelite constructs of heaven. This he does emphasizing the non-"Yahweh-alone" perspective, asserting that a common view of heaven among the Israelites was one of Yahweh as divine king surrounded, in his heavenly court, by a variety of attending divinities such as Asherah and Baal. Humans had no place in this realm. Wright suggests that such a perspective was consistent with ancient Near Eastern ideas of heaven and at odds with the "Yahweh-alone" view that he argues emerged only in the eighth century B.C.E. On this point, he agrees with T. Thomson (Historicity of the Patriarchal Narratives) and others who posit that the Israelites should be understood as a community arising out of Canaanite culture, instead of as newcomers to the region or as a group theologically at odds with its polytheistic surroundings. Although this fits with some of the literary and archaeological evidence, it does not take into account pre-eighth-century "Yahweh-alone" evidence such as the structure of the covenants in Genesis (pre-1200 B.C.E.), or the evidence found within the Exodus account (J. Hoffmeier, Israel in Egypt). Although the dating of the Enoch and Elijah accounts is also a matter of debate, as is the dating of Daniel, of greater import is the fact that a constant struggle against polytheistic influences on Israel is a central theme in the Hebrew texts. Such an emphasis could just as well reflect historical tensions among the Israelites as a series of redactions by eighth-century Yahwists.

The Persian and Greek influences on the Jews and, later, the Christians, are discussed in later chapters with similar results. Wright demonstrates that Judaic sources contain impressions of Persian and Greek views of heaven, particularly the multilayered heaven of Hellenistic constructs. Similarly, Christian perspectives show Greek influences such as Paul's allusion to a multilayered heaven in 2 Corinthians. However, because orthodox descriptions of heaven are relatively infrequent and ill defined in both the Christian and Judaic traditions, Wright again turns to alternate perspectives found in apocryphal writings and heretical texts. Here, descriptions are more frequent and useful to his study. In the end, he acknowledges that, though the idea has great import among Jewish and Christian thinkers, a fixed picture of heaven cannot be found within these traditions. This must be so because in these systems, more often than not, the Divine comes to a chosen people or, in Christian thought, heaven comes to earth. Wright does not pursue this last construct, of heaven coming to earth, to any great length. This is a horizontal perspective that generally defies the vertical models described in this book. Hence, the importance of this work lies in its broader description of the early models of heaven and should serve as a necessary foil for any serious, future studies on the topic.

Kenneth R. Calvert

Hillsdale College
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Author:Calvert, Kenneth R.
Publication:The Historian
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 2002
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