Reincarnation in Judaism and the Bible
The Path, February, 1894
The lost chord of Christianity is the doctrine of Reincarnation. It was beyond doubt taught in the early days of the cult, for it was well known to the Jews who produced the men who founded Christianity. The greatest of all the Fathers of the Church—Origen—no doubt believed in the doctrine. He taught pre-existence and the wandering of the soul. This could hardly have been believed without also giving currency to reincarnation, as the soul could scarcely wander in any place save the earth. She was in exile from Paradise, and for sins committed had to revolve and wander. Wander where? would be the next question. Certainly away from Paradise, and the short span of human life would not meet the requirements of the case. But a series of reincarnations will meet all the problems of life as well as the necessities of the doctrines of exile, of wanderings for purification, of being known to God and being judged by him before birth, and of other dogmas given out among the Jews and of course well known to Jesus and whoever of the seventy-odd disciples were not in the deepest ignorance. Some of the disciples were presumably ignorant men, such as the fishermen, who had depended on their elders for instruction, but not all were of that sort, as the wonderful works of the period were sufficiently exciting to come to the ears of even Herod. Paul cannot be accused of ignorance, but was with Peter and James one of several who not only knew the new ideas but were well versed in the old ones. And those old ones are to be found in the Old Testament and in the Commentaries, in the Zohar, the Talmud, and the other works and sayings of the Jews, all of which built up a body of dogmas accepted by the people and the Rabbis. Hence sayings of Jesus, of Paul, and others have to be viewed with the well-known and never-disputed doctrines of the day held down to the present time, borne well in mind so as to make passages clear and show what was tacitly accepted. Jesus himself said that he intended to uphold and buttress the law, and that law was not only the matter found in the book the Christian theologians saw fit to accept, but also in the other authorities of which all except the grossly unlearned were cognizant. So when we find Herod listening to assertions that John or Jesus was this, that, or the other prophet or great man of olden time, we know that he was with the people speculating on the doctrine of reincarnation or “coming back,” and as to who a present famous person may have been in a former life. Given as it is in the Gospels as a mere incident, it is very plain that the matter was court gossip in which long philosophical arguments were not indulged in, but the doctrine was accepted and then personal facts gone into for amusement as well as for warning to the king. To an Eastern potentate such a warning would be of moment, as he, unlike a Western man, would think that a returning great personage would of necessity have not only knowledge but also power, and that if the people had their minds attracted to a new aspirant for the leadership they would be inflamed beyond control with the idea that an old prophet or former king had come back to dwell in another body with them. The Christians have no right, then, to excise the doctrine of reincarnation from their system if it was known to Jesus, if it was brought to his attention and was not condemned at all but tacitly accepted, and further, finally, if in any single case it was declared by Jesus as true in respect to any person. And that all this was the case can, I think, be clearly shown.
First for the Jews, from whom Jesus was born, and to whom he said unequivocally he came as a missionary or reformer. The Zohar is a work of great weight and authority among the Jews. In II, 199 b, it says that “all souls are subject to revolutions.” This is metempsychosis or a’leen b’gilgoola; but it declares that “men do not know the way they have been judged in all time.” That is, in their “revolutions” they lose a complete memory of the acts that have led to judgment. This is precisely the Theosophical doctrine. The Kether Malkuth says, “If she, the soul, be pure, then she shall obtain favor . . . but if she hath been defiled, then she shall wander for a time in pain and despair . . . until the days of her purification.” If the soul be pure and if she comes at once from God at birth, how could she be defiled? And where is she to wander if not on this or some other world until the days of her purification? The Rabbis always explained it as meaning she wandered down from Paradise through many revolutions or births until purity was regained.
Under the name of “Din Gilgol Neshomes” the doctrine of reincarnation is constantly spoken of in the Talmud. The term means “the judgment of the revolutions of the souls.” And Rabbi Manassa, son of Israel, one of the most revered, says in his book Nishmath Hayem: “The belief or the doctrine of the transmigration of souls is a firm and infallible dogma accepted by the whole assemblage of our church with one accord, so that there is none to be found who would dare to deny it. . . . Indeed, there is a great number of sages in Israel who hold firm to this doctrine so that they made it a dogma, a fundamental point of our religion. We are therefore in duty bound to obey and to accept this dogma with acclamation . . . as the truth of it has been incontestably demonstrated by the Zohar, and all books of the Kabalists.”
These demonstrations hold, as do the traditions of the old Jews, that the soul of Adam reincarnated in David, and that on account of the sin of David against Uriah it will have to come again in the expected Messiah. And out of the three letters ADM, being the name of the first man, the Talmudists always made the names Adam, David and Messiah. Hence this in the Old Testament: “And they will serve Jhvh their God and David their king whom I shall reawaken for them.” That is, David reincarnates again for the people. Taking the judgment of God on Adam “for dust thou art and unto dust thou shalt return,” the Hebrew interpreters said that since Adam had sinned it was necessary for him to reincarnate on earth in order to make good the evil committed in his first existence; so he comes as David, and later is to come as Messiah. The same doctrine was always applied by the Jews to Moses, Seth, and Abel, the latter spelt Habel. Habel was killed by Cain, and then to supply the loss the Lord gave Seth to Adam; he died, and later on Moses is his reincarnation as the guide of the people, and Seth was said by Adam to be the reincarnation of Habel. Cain died and reincarnated as Yethrokorah, who died, the soul waiting till the time when Habel came back as Moses and then incarnated as the Egyptian who was killed by Moses; so in this case Habel comes back as Moses, meets Cain in the person of the Egyptian, and kills the latter. Similarly it was held that Bileam, Laban, and Nabal were reincarnations of the one soul or individuality. And of Job it was said that he was the same person once known as Thara, the father of Abraham; by which they explained the verse of Job (ix, 21), “Though I were perfect, yet would I not know my own soul,” to mean that he would not recognize himself as Thara.
All this is to be had in mind in reading Jeremiah, “Before I formed thee in the belly I knew thee; and before thou camest out of the womb I sanctified thee”; or in Romans ix, v, 11, 13, after telling that Jacob and Esau being not yet born, “Jacob have I loved and Esau have I hated”; or the ideas of the people that “Elias was yet to first come”; or that some of the prophets were there in Jesus or John; or when Jesus asked the disciples “Whom do men think that I am?” There cannot be the slightest doubt, then, that among the Jews for ages and down to the time of Jesus the ideas above outlined prevailed universally. Let us now come to the New Testament.
St. Matthew relates in the eleventh chapter the talk of Jesus on the subject of John, who is declared by him to be the greatest of all, ending in the 14th verse, thus:
And if ye will receive it, this is Elias which was for to come.
Here he took the doctrine for granted, and the “if” referred not to any possible doubts on that, but simply as to whether they would accept his designation of John as Elias. In the 17th chapter he once more takes up the subject thus:
10. And his disciples asked him saying, Why, then, say the scribes that Elias must first come? And Jesus answered and said unto them; Elias truly shall first come and restore all things. But I say unto you that Elias is come already, and they knew him not but have done to him whatsoever they listed. Likewise shall also the Son of Man suffer of them. Then the disciples understood that he spake unto them of John the Baptist.
The statement is repeated in Mark, chapter ix, v. 13, omitting the name of John. It is nowhere denied. It is not among any of the cases in which the different Gospels contradict each other; it is in no way doubtful. It is not only a reference to the doctrine of reincarnation, but is also a clear enunciation of it. It goes much further than the case of the man who was born blind, when Jesus heard the doctrine referred to, but did not deny it nor condemn it in any way, merely saying that the cause in that case was not for sin formerly committed, but for some extraordinary purpose, such as the case of the supposed dead man when he said that the man was not dead but was to be used to show his power over disease. In the latter one he perceived there was one so far gone to death that no ordinary person could cure him, and in the blind man’s case the incident was like it. If he thought the doctrine pernicious, as it must be if untrue, he would have condemned it at the first coming up, but not only did he fail to do so, he distinctly himself brought it up in the case of John, and again when asking what were the popular notions as to himself under the prevailing doctrines as above shown. Matthew xvi, v. 13, will do as an example, as the different writers do not disagree, thus:
When Jesus came into the coasts of Caesarea Philippi he asked his disciples, Whom do men say that I am? And they said, Some say that thou art John the Baptist, some Elias, and others Jeremias or one of the prophets.
This was a deliberate bringing-up of the old doctrine, to which the disciples replied, as all Jews would, without any dispute of the matter of reincarnation; and the reply of Jesus was not a confutation of the notion, but a distinguishing of himself from the common lot of sages and prophets by showing himself to be an incarnation of God and not a reincarnation of any saint or sage. He did not bring it up to dispute and condemn as he would and did do in other matters; but to the very contrary he evidently referred to it so as to use it for showing himself as an incarnate God. And following his example the disciples never disputed on that; they were all aware of it; St. Paul must have held it when speaking of Esau and Jacob; St. John could have meant nothing but that in Revelations, chap. iii, v. 12.
Him that overcometh will I make a pillar in the temple of my God and he shall go no more out.
Evidently he had gone out before or the words “no more” could have no place or meaning. It was the old idea of the exile of the soul and the need for it to be purified by long wandering before it could be admitted as a “pillar in the temple of God.” And until the ignorant ambitious monks after the death of Origen had gotten hold of Christianity, the doctrine must have ennobled the new movement. Later the Council of Constantinople condemned all such notions directly in the face of the very words of Jesus, so that at last it ceased to vibrate as one of the chords, until finally the prophecy of Jesus that he came to bring a sword and division and not peace was fulfilled by the warring nations of Christian lands who profess him in words but by their acts constantly deny him whom they call “the meek and lowly.”