Seventh Heaven

Ever wonder where the term “Seventh Heaven” came from? Well, it’s not just a meaningless phrase and a sorry ass TV show. Heaven (literally, “the sky” in the Bible), was once thought to be a multi-layered domain. And it was all based on real honest to goodness astronomy … mixed with a whole lot of misunderstanding, pre-science ignorance, and superstition, of course.

The Babylonians were the first to develop an organized astronomical method in the 8th century BCE. (Or earlier. Their records of the motion of Venus may go back another thousand years). They tracked the motions of the heavenly bodies, figured out that they moved in predicable patterns, and developed a table of omens they thought the stars predicted. Though almost none of their original records survive, they were famous enough in the ancient world to make the Babylonian astronomers legendary, as well as very mystical sounding.

In the 4rth century BCE, Aristotle theorized that the upper most reaches of the sky must be the domain of god himself, since the lowest parts of the heavens, the planets, appeared to move all over the place in little loopty loos, and the outer parts appeared to stay very still. So, since the highest part of the heavens was motionless (unchanging, therefore eternal), and god is eternal, god must reside there:

“… all who believe in the existence of gods at all, whether barbarian or Greek, agree in allotting the highest place to the deity, surely because they suppose that immortal is linked with immortal and regard any other supposition as inconceivable … For in the whole range of time past, so far as our inherited records reach, no change appears to have taken place either in the whole scheme of the outermost heaven or in any of its proper parts.”
– Aristotle, On The Heavens, Chap 1, Section 3

All this was explained by the idea of a bunch of interlocking spheres of exact circular orbits, the Earth being in the center. The further out the spheres went, the more perfect and uniform things became. Which leads to us.

In the 2nd century BCE, a Greek named Hipparchus took what the Babylonians started and ran with it. He even invented Trigonometry to develop a better model of the motion of the sun moon and stars. Even though modern astronomy was being born, there were still loads of mythical and superstitious beliefs tied to the heavenly observations.

The observations of the heavens, coupled with the superstitions of the times, lead to a theory that the heavens were layered; in successive domes. The inner most layers would be the earth and the sublunary realm, a place of impermanence and imperfection;  The next layers would be the planets. They where believed to have an intelligence of their own and garner an effect on earthly affair.

This theory was well accepted in the first century CE, when Paul of Tarsus, who mentions a traveler to the “third heaven” in his letter his second letter to the Corinthians.

I know a man in Christ, fourteen years ago (whether in the body, I know not; or whether out of the body, I know not; God knoweth), such a one caught up even to the third heaven. And I know such a man (whether in the body, or apart from the body, I know not; God knoweth), how that he was caught up into Paradise, and heard unspeakable words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter.
-2 Corinthians 12:2 (ASV)

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Flavius Josephus mentions the belief system in his history the Antiquities of the Jews (93-94 CE) :

Over against this table, near the southern wall, was set a candlestick of cast gold, hollow within, being of the weight of one hundred pounds, which the Hebrews call Chinchares, if it be turned into the Greek language, it denotes a talent. It was made with its knops, and lilies, and pomegranates, and bowls (which ornaments amounted to seventy in all); by which means the shaft elevated itself on high from a single base, and spread itself into as many branches as there are planets, including the sun among them. It terminated in seven heads, in one row, all standing parallel to one another; and these branches carried seven lamps, one by one, in imitation of the number of the planets. These lamps looked to the east and to the south, the candlestick being situate obliquely.
-Flavuis Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, Book 3, chapter 6, section 7

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Flammarion Woodcut

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In the 1st century Christian apocryphal work, The Ascension of Isaiah, Jesus descends from the 7th heaven down to Earch, disguising himself at each level so no one recognize him.

Following is a Synopsis of Isaiah’s climb through the heavens (Chap 7 to 9)

… he caused me to ascend (to that which is) above the firmament: which is the (first) heaven.

14. And there I saw a throne in the midst, and on his right and on his left were angels.

…18. And again, he made me to ascend to the second heaven. now the height of that heaven is the same as from the haven to the earth [and to the firmament].

19. And (I saw there, as) in the first heaven, angels on the right and on the left, and a throne in the midst

24. And he raise me to the third heaven, and in like manner I saw those upon the right and upon the left, and there was a throne there in the midst; but the memorial of this world is there unheard of.

…28. And again he raised me to the fourth heaven, and the height from the third to the height from the third to the forth heaven was greater than from the earth to the firmament.

29. And there again I saw those who were on the right hand and those who were on the left, and him who sat on the throne was in the midst, and there also they were praising.

…32. And he raised me to the fifth heaven.

33. And again I saw those upon the right hand and on the left, and him who sat on the throne possessing greater glory that those of the forth heaven.

…CHAPTER 8

16. And he raised me up into the sixth heaven, and there were no (angels) on the left, nor a throne in the midst, but all had one appearance and their (power of) praise was equal.

CHAPTER 9

AND he took me into the air of the seventh heaven, and moreover I heard a voice saying: “How far will he ascend that dwelleth in the flesh?” And I feared and trembled.

The Ascension of Isaiah is not a terribly exciting book, true. It is very interesting, though. Ancient works such as these do give us a good insight into the understanding the ancients had of the world around them. Which in turns gives us insight into their belief systems, myths, superstitions, and religions.

Explore posts in the same categories: Ancient Superstition

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3 Comments on “Seventh Heaven”

  1. Greg Says:

    I don’t remember the exact words or book and verse, but somewhere in the bible it says that when you are in Heaven you will be prostrate before god worshiping for all eternity. When you ask most christians they’ll talk about being with previously deceased family and friends and pets, etc, etc, etc. Any thoughts on that?

  2. Victor Says:

    There’s a line in Deuteronomy (9:18) about prostration. It’s not a prediction about heaven, though. It’s written from the viewpoint of Moses. He’s made to be praying before god after smashing the tablets on account of the golden calf ordeal. It’s a good story.

  3. Victor Says:

    The early Christian view on the afterlife seems to involved getting a “new body” (to replace these imperfect bodies of the earth).

    In gJohn, the apostles ask about a blind man if he was born blind because of something his parents did. That would be sin, inherited through the blood, as the cause of human imperfection.

    According to the Plato, and mentioned in the Ascension of Isaiah, hinted at in other Christian works, there is a mirror copy of everything on earth in the lower heavens; only a perfect copy. So, when Revelations mentions the New Jerusalem descending from the sky and Paul mentions new bodies, I think they do in-vision living in the sub-lunar realm, just like on Earth, only the buildings and the human bodies will be free from blemishes.


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