A great many Qabalistic works, even today, make the claim that the Qabalah was a body of esoteric knowledge given to Moses on Mount Sinai, thus linking it to the very inception of Jewish Law. The suggestion is that God dictated the five books of the Bible to Moses, and then provided a secret key for their interpretation.
Another tradition (popularized in the fifteenth century) and the one taught by the Golden Dawn to its members, stated that the Qabalah was first provided by angels to Adam, as the means of return after the Fall. MacGregor Mathers quoted from Christian Ginsburg in his introduction to The Kabbalah Unveiled:
The Kabbaah was first taught by God himself to a select company of angels, who formed a theosophic school in Paradise. After the Fall the angels most graciously communicated this heavenly doctrine to the disobedient child of earth, to furnish the protoplasts with the means of returning to their pristine nobility and felicity. From Adam it passed over to Noah, and then to Abraham, the friend of God, who emigrated with it to Egypt, where the patriarch allowed a portion of this mysterious doctrine to ooze out. It was in this way that the Egyptians obtained some knowledge of it, and the other Eastern nations could introduce it into their philosophical systems. Moses, who was learned in all the wisdom of Egypt, was first initiated into the Qabalah in the land of his birth, but became most proficient in it during his wanderings in the wilderness when he not only devoted to it the leisure hours of the whole forty years, but received lessons in it from one of the angels. By the aid of this mysterious science the law-giver was enabled to solve the difficulties which arose during his management of the Israelites, in spite of the pilgrimages, wars, and frequent miseries of the nation. He covertly laid down the principles of this secret doctrine in the first four books of the Pentateuch, but withheld them from Deuteronomy.23
It is perhaps sad, but this charming story bears no relationship to historical fact, the Qabalah having emerged as the result of a long and complex developmental sequence beginning with Merkabah Mysticism.
Merkabah, meaning "chariot," was the earliest form of Jewish mysticism, preceding the Qabalah.24 The Chariot was that which carried the Throne of God as described by the Prophet Ezekiel, the Throne World, to which the Jewish Mystic aspired being the counterpart of the early Mysteries of Hermeticism and Christian Gnosticism.25 The second century witnessed the merger of a great many trends, and Scholem states flatly that: "The Kabbalah in its historical significance, can be defined as the product of the interpénétration of Jewish Gnosticism and neoplatonism."26
In the late-Roman/early-Christian period were found Christian Gnosticism, Jewish Gnosticism, Neo-Platonism, Neo-Pythagoreanism, Hermeticism (pseudo-Egyptian religion) and many obscure cults, all interpenetrating in subtle ways. Jewish mysticism of this time is discussed by Scholem in his pioneering study, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, while the Christian developments have been chronicled, in a readable way, by Elaine Pagels in The Gnostic Gospels.
These scholars trace the actual sources of ideas, disputed for generations, which are the basis of the modern Hermetic Qabalah. What is important to recognize is that one need not invoke the smoke screen of "secret oral tradition" in most aspects of the Mysteries. The majority of those who have contributed to the Qabalah have been very explicit about their work and its sources. There is very little in any modern system for which historical precedent cannot be found.
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