The “Christian Qabbalah

Since the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem (70 AD) and the consequent anti-Roman revolt of Bar Kokhba (132-135 AD), Jewish esotericism had remained alive in the communities of the Diaspora. Gnosticism and Neoplatonism1 had exerted an influence only on the community of Alexandria in Egypt which, after the Arab invasion of the mid-seventh century, moved largely to Byzantium. On the other hand, the destruction of the centre of the Israelite religion and the passage of ritual duties from the priesthood to the doctors of the law or rabbis had reduced the scope of esotericism, all the more inclined to assimilate Theurgy, as well as, the science of production of amulets and talismans. Moreover, despite the bitter controversy with the newly born Christianity, which had been suffered as a schism with heretical tendencies, Judaism could not exempt itself from assuming certain messianic doctrines. In fact, in the Talmudic period (4th-6th century AD) the ancient conception concerning the Messiah (Heb. Mašīaḥ) had changed with respect to the Old Testament view. Particularly, from the Babylonian captivity to the destruction of the Temple, the term Messiah designated the figure of an anointed King2 who by divine will had redeemed and set the people of Israel free from servitude, defeating and subjugating all other nations. In the vulgar era, however, the term Messiah took on a new apocalyptic and eschatological meaning. The Messiah would thus descend from the heights of heaven to destroy the enemies of Judaism and to end the history of man by establishing the kingdom of Yehovah in a new cycle of peace and justice3. These beliefs spread within rabbinic Judaism until the early Middle Ages, without being sensitively received by esotericism.

Differently, in the medieval theurgic Qabbalah, the term ‘Messiah’ indicated the attainment of a high spiritual degree corresponding to the knowledge of the angel of the face, Meṭaṭron, the Demiurge who conveyed the dictates of God on the creation. However, the achievement of such level of initiatic wisdom did not extend beyond the sphere of the inner and personal experience. Those who achieved the degree of Messiah were therefore released from any exterior royal, priestly or prophetic functions awaited in the exoteric environment in order to affirm the sovereignty of Judaism over the world.

At the end of the Middle Ages, a new current, apparently antithetical to the initiatic-theurgic one, separated from the Qabbalah4. Avraham ben Šemu’el Abulafia (Zaragoza 1240- Comino 1291) was the first to break the barrier that distinguished the initiatic concept of the Messiah from the popular one. He was a savant with a remarkable personality who changed and upset the traditional initiatic parameters of Qabbalah. In his youth, he had gone to Palestine to make contact with the ten lost tribes of Israel who were said to have founded a mighty Empire in Asia. His purpose was to request their armed intervention to free the Jews of Europe, avenge them for their marginalization, severely punish Christians, and subject them to the Jewish world empire. Abulafia had to withdraw from his “mission” in the face of the spread of Mongol hordes across the Near East5. This episode testifies to the secular or even political interest behind the application of his messianic idea. He, for the first time in history, argued that anyone who had attained the spiritual level of Messiah by initiatic practice should also publicly declare himself as such and take the lead of the Jewish communities for their liberation. Of course, he declared himself a Messiah6 and embarked on a mysterious and thoughtless mission to Rome to seek the recognition from the pope7.

Interest in the assimilation of Christians was a constant in the worldly action of Abulafia. He did not wish to convert them, but to assimilate them to Judaism like the ancient ger tošab8, making himself recognized as the Messiah of the second coming. This is the first late medieval expression of a Jewish grafting project on Christianity. A fervent admirer of the anti-Qabbalistic philosophy of Maimonides, Abulafia tried in every way to bring together the philosopher’s thinking with the traditional teachings. To achieve, he inserted a hitherto unknown mystical and visionary component9 into the Qabbalah. He also altered the method (sskrt. prakriyā), adopting a new practice of visualization of the Hebrew letters that allegedly was received by direct revelation10. From the doctrinal point of view, he adopted Maimonides’ perspective, according to which the possible intellect (sskrt. buddhi) is of a superindividual nature and, as such, has the possibility to identify itself with the active Intellect (sskrt. mahan ātman), being of the same nature11. Abulafia did not give great importance to the use of Theurgy and magic, as previous Qabbalists had done. However, he maintained that, through the experience of ecstatic mysticism, the human being could enjoy divine qualities, including that of creator12.

The characteristics of this mystical reform of Qabbalah will give birth to the visionary Jewish Messianism whose developments will prove increasingly disturbing. Referring to a knowledge of ancient origin, apocalyptic Messianism produced two figures: that of the prophet announcing the coming of the Messiah and the Messiah himself. Prophets include Avraham Eli’ezer ha-Lewi (1460-1529), Dawid Re’uveni (1490 ~ 1541) and Nathan of Gaza. Among the self-proclaimed Messiahs we find Šelomoh Molko, Šabbetay Ṣewi (1626-1676) and Jacob Frank (1726-1791).

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        At the same time of Abulafia we also find Ramón Llull (1232-1315), a figure who stood out for the originality of his writings. Majorcan baron and squire to King James II of the Balearics13, at the age of forty he had various visions of Christ that inspired his commitment to converting Jews and Moors. To this end, he embarked on numerous journeys between both shores of the Mediterranean. Although he had the opportunity to frequent the Knights of the Temple in Rhodes, thanks to his highborn birth, he ended up becoming an admirer of Philip the Fair of France and actively participated in the Council of Vienne in 131114. Close to the spirit of chivalry, but eager to fight it in favour of absolute sovereigns, he always pledged his loyalty to the Franciscans and their missionary propaganda, without however taking on even the Third Order.

Llull studied theology in Paris and assembled an impressive library of religious and classical manuscripts. He also wanted to learn more about Islam and Judaism. He, therefore, studied Arabic and attended Qabbalist circles, numerous at that time in Palma de Mallorca15. In addition to sharing monotheism, he noted that the three Semitic religions recognized that the gross world was composed of four elements and that these determined four conditions of the bodily existence: cold, hot, moist and dry16. The four elements extended their domain in an ascending direction to the planetary spheres and fixed stars, also affecting with their influences life on earth17. Therefore, for missionary purposes, he decided to put aside the theological discussions that were fuelling the disagreement and start over from the physical grounds shared by Christians, Jews and Muslims18. On that basis he founded a system that today would be called ‘interreligious’, which he called ‘art’, capable of interpreting the fate of an individual and intervening to modify it. To this end – evidently influenced by Abulafia’s ‘way of names’ – using the letters of the Latin alphabet instead of the Hebrew ones, Llull conceived a mental mechanism capable of explaining all reality, theology, logic, science and art19.

The four-element based communion found among the three exterior religions – different and usually hostile to each other – represents the first emergence of the scientistic mentality that will proliferate in the Renaissance period, ultimately to become dominant20. In fact, the scientific method does not really differ from the empiricism of practical magic21. The fact that at least until the early 19th century scientists were also occultists testifies to this concomitance22. At the same time, finding a common ground for overcoming the doctrinal differences between religions began to undermine the concept according to which civilization and tradition were identified. Llull’s theories brought science and faith, profanity and sacredness, analysis23 and synthesis into conflict for the first time, evidently siding in favour of the former at the expense of the latter. Even his fervent religiosity, akin to that of the paupers’ orders, actually harboured anti-ecclesiastical feelings24.

Lullism had a great success throughout Latin Christianity and was accepted as an alternative philosophy to Scholastic theology. During the 14th century, the practitioners of alchemy and magic often made reference to his writings, and works allegedly attributed to him began to circulate. In the following century, Cardinal Nicolas of Cusa (1401-1464), one of the first humanists25, transmitted the magic-scientistic tendency of Lullian theories from the very heart of the Catholic Church to the Renaissance26. In line with Llull’s plan, he hoped to unite Christianity, Judaism and Islam by demonstrating the logical truth of the Trinity27.

However, it was necessary to wait for the Medici family28 to take power in Florence in order to inaugurate the Renaissance. Following the fall of Constantinople (1453) to the Ottoman Turks and the loss of that centre of wisdom, in 1462 Cosimo the Elder entrusted Marsilio Ficino and Gemistus Pletho with the foundation of the Neoplatonic Academy for the recovery of any cultural documents saved from the collapse of the Eastern Empire. We will deal with Marsilio Ficino soon. What interests us in this context is the figure and work of his closest collaborator, Giovanni Pico marquis della Mirandola (1463-1494)29. In the Academy, he represented the current that was directly related to the thought of Ramón Llull. Unlike the Majorcan thinker, Pico studied Hebrew and eventually mastered that language30. According to him the name of Jesus, in Hebrew Yehošu‘a, interpreted according to the values and meanings of the Hebrew letters, meant ‘Messiah’. Furthermore, he interpreted this name as the tetragrammaton, the unpronounceable name of God, in whose centre was inserted the letter šin, which added the idea of action to that of being.

With this interpretation Pico hoped to convert the Jews to Catholicism and, at the same time, to convince the Church of the sacredness of the Hebrew language, as well as, of the mysticism of Qabbalistic origin. This initiative failed to achieve the aim of converting the Jewish people, but it yielded two results: the birth of a syncretism called Christian Qabbalah, and the plan for a reform of Catholicism based on the Old Testament31. The Pichian philosophy refers to the interpretative method of the rotating alphabetic letters founded by Abulafia and handed down by Llull. Pico applied this method to the astrology of neo-Platonic origin, to which he added the cosmography of the ten sefirot. From an operational point of view, everything was translated into the evocation of angels and Qabbalistic magic, which he distinguished from practical magic. In his opinion, the practice of the latter was dangerous because it entailed the manipulation of demoniac influences32.

“And one aspect of this story that does not seem to have been sufficiently highlighted is the fact that through Pico’s introduction of the Christian Qabbalah, a modern and contemporary Jewish movement flooded and permeated the evolving of European mentality and spirituality. This certainly represented a novelty, a significant emergence from the Middle Ages.”33

It, therefore, appears evident that between the end of the Middle Ages and the beginning of the Renaissance, its reparation work had been undertaken to fill the void left behind the disappearance of an authentic Christian esotericism, which consisted in its replacement with magic or with spontaneous mysticism. The only esoteric legacy that survived was unquestionably that of the craft initiations, which, however, remained excluded from the mystical and magical-scientific circles of the new bourgeoisie. It was precisely the Renaissance that deconsecrated art and removed it from the guilds, only to entrust it to the genius of “brilliant” individuals deemed to be superior34. Even the Church, having absorbed the Renaissance mentality, renounced to entrust the construction of places of worship and the production of sacral sculptures and paintings to the guilds, resulting in a fracture that would later become irreparable.

Gian Giuseppe Filippi

  1. This tendency remained somewhat indelible over the centuries both in the Jewish esotericism of the Iberian Peninsula (Ibn Gabirol, 1020 ~ 1070) and in that of the Aškenazi German speaking area (Efrayyim ben Šimšon, 13th century).
  2. Notwithstanding this term referred also to the anointed High Priest of the Temple.
  3. Not only do we recognize in this interpretation the apocalyptic influence of the “millennial reign of the second coming of Christ”, which must be established at the end of time, but also of oriental cyclical conceptions, especially of Persian origin, which circulated in the Gnostic circles of the Hellenistic era.
  4. Qabbalah simply means tradition and, in the specific case, initiatic transmission. It is an academic convention to bring this denomination back to the period in which this split occurred, almost as if earlier Jewish esotericism was not Qabbalistic.
  5. Marco Giardini, Figure del regno nascosto, Firenze, S. Olschki, 2016. The author suggests a symbolic and all-spiritual interpretation of Abulafia’s journey to the mythical Sambatyon river, beyond which the spiritual Empire of the ten lost tribes of Israel would have extended, as well as of his conversation with the pope. In such a case, however, both attempts should be admitted to fail. Following a widespread inclination currently in vogue, this book, although of great interest and rich in information, is unbalanced in constantly denouncing Christian anti-Judaism and always justifying Jewish anti-Christianity.
  6. Šelomoh Avraham ibn Adret, the highest Jewish authority in Spain and traditional Qabbalist, bitterly refuted Abulafia’s self-proclamation as Messiah. Moshe Idel, Mistici Messianici, Milano, Adelphi, 2004, pp. 89-90.
  7. The audience eventually never took place. On his arrived in Rome, Abulafia was immediately imprisoned. He was released after a few weeks, following the passing of pope Nicholas III. He himself spread the rumour that the pope had died thanks to his magical operations. He took refuge in Sicily and then in Comino (Malta) where his tracks are lost. Further on, also the false Messiah Šelomoh Molko (1500-1532) and Natan of Gaza (1643-1680), prophet of the false Messiah Šabbetay Ṣewi, performed magical ceremonies in Rome to curse the papal see. Moshe Idel, cit., P. 195; p. 267.
  8. Cfr. Auctores Varii, From Cosmos to Chaos, Milano, Ekatos Ed. Pr., 2019, ch. 22;
  9. Mysticism is a phenomenon that manifests itself in the context of monotheistic religions following the decline and disappearance of initiation. This tendency arose in Catholicism with the pauperistic orders and preceded the mystical deviation imprinted on Qabbalah by Abulafia. In Islam mysticism was manifested above all in the Shi’ite sphere.
  10. Traditional Qabbalah used the method of the ‘way of the ten sefirot’, which consisted of invoking ten divine names to replace the supreme name of God, whose pronunciation had been lost. The sefirot corresponded to the virtues of the ten cosmic spheres and to those of the human being. Abulafia invented a new ‘way of names’ with the use of a rotating mechanism to create indefinite combinations of the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Each combination indicated one of the innumerable divine names, corresponding to an angel who could thus be evoked. Gershom Scholem, Major trends in Jewish mysticism, New York, Knopf Doubleday Publ. Gr., 2011 (I Ed. Jerusalem, 1941), pp. 202-203; 122-124.
  11. This theory, which we will return to in later articles, found many followers during the Renaissance.
  12. It is known that this possibility in Hinduism is explicitly denied even for the “liberated souls” (GG Filippi, The post-mortem of the sādhaka according to the doctrine of Śaṃkarācārya, Milan, Ekatos Ed. Pr., 2019, p. 109; 131 -132). From this one can easily deduce that vulgar magic always lies concealed under the name ‘Theurgy’ in deviated or degenerate initiatic ways. In fact, in the deviated Qabbalah the achievement of this “divine quality”found a worldly application with the magical practice of “creating” the golem, an artificially animated human being. Abulafia never used the term golem. However, he described a ceremony to “create a creature” (livro beri ah; M. Idel, Il golem, Torino, Einaudi, 2006, pp. 116-126). In light of these considerations, the current obsessive search for “artificial consciousness” in order to activate the “intelligence” of computing machines to make them autonomous is truly suspicious.
  13. It is lamentable to note that, on the wave of micro-nationalisms now in fashion, even academic historians tend to consider Llull a Catalan.
  14. It was following this council that Clement V dissolved the Order of Templars. Removere, cassare, tollere, i.e. to suppress, are the Latin verbs used in papal bulls. The verb ‘to suspend’ never appears in these official documents, disproving Barbara Frale’s claims in her unsuccessful attempt to absolve pope Clement of his crimes. See Umberto Bartocci, A Templar route to the origins of the modern world, Roma, Andromeda, 2006, pp. 200-214. This last book, flawless for what the sources are concerned, is highly questionable in terms of her interpretations, often prejudicial.
  15. However, it does not appear that he acquired any knowledge of the Hebrew language.
  16. As a matter of fact, this belief, widespread in the Middle Ages and used for magical purposes, involved only two of the four elements: cold and wet are, indeed, effects of water; whereas, heat and dry are of fire. The attribution of hot-moist to the air and cold-dry to the earth is completely arbitrary; in the Hindū tradition, their respective characteristics are mobility and immobility. Note, however, the absence of the fifth element in this Lullian conception.
  17. Once can recognize here the principle of sympathetic magic, which Llull defined astronomy to distinguish it from the judicial astrology used earlier to prepare horoscopes.
  18. In his complicated system of mechanically combined alphabetic letters, Llull also inserted their corresponding numerical and geometric elements. Thus, he associated the idea of the One and Three God to the triangle. He thought that in this way he could convince Jews and Muslims to accept the Christian trinity, which represented the main obstacle for a common understanding.
  19. He was the first to manifest the occult tendency to translate the universe and the supernatural world into a mechanistic system, whose secret keys of interpretation could be revealed through the imagination of a device or artifice (the ‘Lullian art’). It was a mechanism based on concentric circles featuring alphabetic characters and their meanings that by rotating composed unlimited combinations, similar to safe locks. Last but not least, in the circles of modern occultists, we remember the utopian and unusable device called ‘archaeometer’, designed by Alexandre Saint-Yves d’Alveidre. See A. Saint-Yves d’Alveidre, L’Archéomètre. Clef de toutes les Religions & de toutes les sciences de l’antiquité, Paris, La Tour du Dragon, 1910.
  20. Frances A. Yates, L’arte della memoria, Torino, Einaudi (I ed. London 1966), 1972, pp. 160-182.
  21. Lynn Thorndike, History of Magic and Experimental Science, New York and London, Columbia University Press, 1923-1958, (8 vols) II vol., p. 865.
  22. For example, Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz, Isaac Newton, Carl Linnaeus and Franz Mesmer.
  23. To understand the meaning of abstract concepts, the ars lulliana used the breakdown of the alphabetic letters of the words that expressed them, then converted the letters into numbers to be interpreted by means of the method of rotating combinations. Although in an imaginative form, becomes evident here the analytical and purely quantitative tendency that characterizes modern and contemporary science.
  24. Some academic scholars and even certain esotericists have seen in Llull an influence of the doctrines of Joachim of Fiore, the Cistercian monk ‘with a gifted prophetic spirit’ (Divine Comedy, Paradise, XII. 141). In reality Joachim described the advent of the kingdom of the Holy Spirit in full agreement with the Gospels. It was his Franciscan admirers, the so-called “spiritual” ones, who transformed these doctrines into a heretical millennial Messianism. Joachim wanted to name “Flower” the coenobium he had founded, in line with his troubadouric inspiration.
  25. In his De docta ignorantia, Nicholas of Cusa propounded the idea of a universe without a centre, thus surpassing in modernity even the proponents of the heliocentric system. For the first time, the description of creation contradicted the sensory and deductive experience, entrusting it to calculations of the abstract numerical quantity. In the same book he advocated a “monotheistic” world government led by the pope.
  26. Also the chameleonic Enea Silvio Piccolomini (1405-1464) belonged to this proto-humanistic environment. Initially contrary to papal primacy and being pro-imperial – just until he himself was made pope under the name of Pius II – he embraced Lullism, the teachings of the Nicholas of Cusa and the advice of Jewish scholars, giving thus impetus to astronomy and cartography. Undoubtedly these studies paved the way for the great geographical discoveries of the following period. As a further proof of the heavy presence of this neo-Platonic and Judaizing occultist current within the same ecclesiastical hierarchy, we will quote the Christian Qabbalist cardinal Egidio of Viterbo, second in importance only to the Marquis of Mirandola. Egidio da Viterbo (1469-1532), Scechina and Libellus de Litteris Hebraicis, (edited by François Secret), Rome, International Center for Humanistic Studies, 1959, pp. 9-20.
  27. From the 13th to the 16th century the legend of the “Three impostors”, Moses, Jesus and Muhammad, circulated in pre-humanistic and Renaissance circles, which greatly influenced the characters we have mentioned here. It is, therefore, evident that overcoming the divisions between the three monotheisms, the advocacy of a scientific-mechanistic mentality and of magic is the most evident proof that these occult circles had nothing to do with authentic esotericism.
  28. Family of bankers whose origins have been carefully concealed. Since interest-based moneylending was prohibited by the Catholic Church during the Middle Ages, society had delegated this “sinful” exercise to the Jewish community. Similarly, at that time the medical profession was considered unclean because of its contiguity with blood and death. Therefore, also this unpopular profession was left to the Jews. Furthermore, non-aristocratic families often derived their surnames from the profession exercised by the householders. Is that perhaps the reason why this family of bankers that carried this surname tried to conceal their ancestry? It should also be considered that starting from the beginning of the 14th century, this very rich family had begun to weave marriage alliances with the main crowned families of Europe. Umberto (Moshe David) Cassuto, Gli Ebrei a Firenze nell’età del Rinascimento, Firenze, Olschki, 1965 (I ed. 1918).
  29. Francis A. Yates, Giordano Bruno y la tradición hermética, Barcelona, Ed. Ariel, 1983 (I ed. London 1964),pp. 104-141.
  30. His Hebrew language teacher was Yōḥānān ben Yitshaq Alemanno, friend and confidant of Lorenzo de’ Medici. Alemanno argued that the ancient Jewish initiatic wisdom had merged into the Neoplatonic philosophy. Therefore, it had to be revived by reading the Bible in the light of the Greek-Latin classics, especially from an astrological-theurgic perspective. Clearly, he was not a traditional Qabbalist. Pico also befriended two Jewish scholars who attended the Academy, the Averroist Elia del Medigo and the convert Flavius Mithridates. Both of them provided him with several Jewish esoteric texts.
  31. The reform of Catholicism from within found its main representative in Erasmus of Rotterdam (1466-1536). The design of this reform had the main purpose of erasing Scholasticism, and in particular Thomism, considered as an outdated or, as we would say today, an obscurantist form of thought. As we will see later, this reform did not take place from within, but with the appearance of Protestantism which, in fact, halved the extension of medieval Christianity, putting the Catholic Church in serious danger. We will write on Johan Reuchlin, Judaizing disciple of Pico della Mirandola, when we examine the origin of Protestantism.
  32. He supported this notion to avoid attracting the attention of the Inquisition. However, the mystic’s appearances and the magician’s evocations are both of a doubtful and dangerous nature.
  33. Frances A. Yates, Cabbala e occultismo nell’età elisabettiana, Torino, Einaudi, 1982 (I ed. London 1979), p. 29. (Unfortunately, we could not consult this book in the original version.)
  34. Michelangelo always disdained the idea of becoming part of a craft guild. Thus originated the modern dichotomy between craftsman and artist.