Possible Jewish Influences on Joachim

This piece will consider whether the Abbot Joachim might have taken some of his inspiration from twelfth-century Jewish speculations on the Biblical past and the immediate future.  Medieval Jewish scholars were often interested, as Joachim was, in the close analysis of scriptural numbers, such as the historical correspondences for the different numbers of days mentioned in the Book of Daniel,[1] or the calculations, based on Biblical prophecy, of the date when the Messiah could be expected.[2]  This study will look at four Jewish thinkers of the twelfth century, all from Spain, who had contacts with Jews and Christians in Latin Europe, and who had studied scriptural dates and numbers, in order to find the keys that might unlock the secret pattern of future religious developments.

1. Abraham bar Hayya

The first and most important is Abraham bar Hayya,[3] who seems to have fled from Islamic Spain to Christian Catalonia, where he helped in the work of translating Arabic works of science into Hebrew and Latin.[4]  He was particularly interested in astronomy/astrology, geometry and mathematics.[5]  Very few dates are certain in his career, but he is known to have worked with Plato Tibertinus (Plato of Tivoli) and other translators in the first half of the twelfth century.  The historian, Leon Stitskin, thinks his death may be dated after 1143, as he may have been the Magister Abraham who helped with the De Astrolabio of 1143.[6]

Abraham bar Hayya wrote a book in Hebrew called The Scroll of the Revealer[7] (probably at some time between 1120 and 1129, according to the historian Julius Guttmann’s calculations[8]), in which he listed four methods for attempting to compute an approximate date for the messianic redemption:

  1. By making the days of creation, in Genesis chapter 1, correspond to periods in world history;
  2. By taking the indications that can be found scattered in the Torah (the first 5 books of the Bible, the books of the Law);
  3. By using other prophecies in the Bible, notably those in the Book of Daniel;
  4. By using astrology, – for the benefit of pagans who could not accept the scriptures.[9]

Abraham bar Hayya’s seven ‘days’ of universal history

Here is an example of the first method.  There must be 7 periods of world history to correspond to the 7 days of creation.  God made the waters on the second Day and made dry land appear on the third Day (Gen.1:7-9): therefore Noah’s Flood must have happened at the end of the second / beginning of the third ‘day’ of world history.[10]  The all-important enlightenment of the people of Israel occurred, when Moses received the 10 Commandments on Mount Sinai.  This must have happened at the start of the 4th ‘day’ of history, because God put lights in the sky to give light to the world at the beginning of the fourth Day of creation (Gen.1:15).[11]  The moral enlightenment of Moses and his people was thus neatly placed at the mid-point of man’s 6-stage development.  The 7th stage would not involve development, but would be a Sabbath state of rest at the end. 

Thus, for the first three ages of the world, primitive men struggled without the light of the Law; for the next three, they had the Law to light their way.[12]  But the date of the giving of the law to Moses was known to Jews to be in the year 2448 after the creation.  If the start of the 4th ‘day’ of history was in approximately 2448, then the end of the 6th ‘day’, and the beginning of the 7th or Sabbath ‘day’ would be in approximately 4896 (or 1136 C.E.).[13]  Abraham bar Hayya was aware that these were very approximate dates, because the 4th ‘day’ might have started, not on Mount Sinai, but with the conquest of the Promised Land.  That happened in 2495, which would make the end of the 6th ‘day’ in 4990 (C.E.1230).[14]

An example of his use of the Torah

An example of the second method would be his use of the passage from the Book of Deuteronomy, which talks about the fate that the Jews will suffer, if they do not keep to the Law (how they will be scattered among the nations), stating that, for as long as the Lord had favoured them, for so long would he punish them (Deut.28:63).  Therefore the period of suffering equals the period of rejoicing.  But the period of rejoicing is known: 1380 years from the giving of the Law on Mount Sinai (2448) to the destruction of the second Temple (3828).  Therefore the period of suffering will last 1380 years from 3828, and will end in 5208 (C.E.1448).[15]

His use of the Book of Daniel

There is, not surprisingly, a lot of discussion of the prophecies of Daniel.  Abraham bar Hayya took Daniel’s 2300 days until the sanctuary was cleansed (Dan.8:14) to mean 2300 years from the construction of the first Temple in the year 2928, which gives the year 5228 (C.E.1468).[16]  He took the 1290 days, from the time the daily sacrifice was taken away and the setting up of “the abomination that makes desolate” (Dan.12:11), and the 1335 days that the blessed had to wait, according to the next verse (Dan.12:12), to refer to the number of years after the destruction of the second Temple in 3828, which would give a period for redemptive activity from 5118-5163 (C.E.1358-1403);[17] and so on.  He did not settle on any one date for the final age of redemption; he was just trying to study all the options.

Abraham bar Hayya’s use of astrology

The fourth method, using the weaker, profane wisdom of the Gentiles, was necessary to convince non-Jews of the importance of looking to the future.  An example would be his study of the conjunctions of Jupiter and Saturn in certain parts of the sky, which were always followed by major events on earth, for which one example out of many would be the major conjunction in Virgo in 3794, the year after the crucifixion of Jesus, warning of the destruction of the second Temple.[18]  He then tried to calculate the next major conjunctions.

His calculation by generation

Although Abraham bar Hayya did not make great use of it, he did also consider making calculations by the counting of generations.  From Adam to Abraham there were 20 generations, and from Abraham to David 13, making 33 generations.  Since the Book of Chronicles I: chap.3 counts 62 generations between David’s son, Solomon, and Anani, and since some Talmudic interpreters[19] had seen Anani as a name for the Messiah, the Messiah should appear in 95 (33 + 62) generations after Adam.[20]

His expectation of the Messianic age

More important for Abraham bar Hayya’s possible influence on Christian developments was his expectation of a messianic golden age at the end of time.  If history was to be seen in seven stages, then this would be the seventh stage, to correspond with the seventh Day of Creation (Gen.2:2-3), the Sabbath day of rest:

“so that throughout that seventh day there will be the full radiance of light; during that time there will be no envy, hatred or other passions, no war, diseases or death.  There will be only love, peace, friendship, prosperity, rest, abundance, knowledge and life: this is the time of the Messiah, of the Redemption and of the resurrection of the dead.”[21]

It will be a transformation of this world, but outside time.  It is not Joachim’s Sabbath age of the spirit, but it could have helped towards its development.

Abraham bar Hayya’s contacts

Abraham bar Hayya was very openly engaged with the intellectual movements of his time, and so his ideas could easily have been spread.  He gave as his reason for writing his best-known book, a summary in Hebrew of Arabic science and philosophy:

“Many of my distinguished contemporaries – whose advice I must accept – have persuaded me to do so because, in all the land of Tzarefat, there is not a single book on these subjects in Hebrew.”[22]

Tzarefat was France, probably in its wide sense of the original kingdom, which included Catalonia.  He also mentioned, in the Scroll of the Revealer, how he had had discussions (about Saadia’s views on resurrection) with Jews in Spain and France.[23]  Not only was he important to French Jews; he also helped some Christians who were trying to translate Arabic knowledge into Latin.

2. Judah ben Barzillai

Some may consider Judah not worth mentioning, as any predictions that he calculated from scripture may have been copied from Abraham bar Hayya,[24] but his calculations were much less precise.  For instance, he also thought that the Ark of the Covenant (made to protect the Law as revealed to Moses) was built at the mid-point of history.  This occurred not far off the year 2500.  If that was the mid-point of history, the end would come in about the year 5000 (C.E.1240).[25]  This confirmed his belief that the “year of the jubilee” of the Book of Leviticus, when everyone would return “every man unto his possession” (Lev.25:13), referred to 50 (the jubilee number) centuries, i.e. the end would come in about the year 5000.[26]

Judah was another Jewish Avicennist working in Barcelona in the first half of the twelfth century, who popularised the use of scriptural analysis for historical prophecy, and who was in contact with Christians as well as Jews.[27]  He and Bar Hayya were among the first to present Arabic science and philosophy in Hebrew to a wider Jewish community in Europe, while making a detailed study of Biblical patterns in history.[28]

3. Abraham ibn Ezra

Another scholar who was very important in the spread of new Avicennist knowledge to the Jews of Latin Europe was Abraham ibn Ezra.  As a leading Biblical exegete, he had to deal with the prophecies in the Book of Daniel.  He took the 4 beasts, representing the 4 world empires of Daniel chapter 7, to be: Babylon (north), Persia (east), Greece and Rome (west) and Islam (south).  Edom (Christian Europe) was part of the third empire.  The end would be heralded by mortal combat between the third and fourth empires.[29]  The Crusades of his own time could therefore be read as a sign of the approaching end.  He was not keen to predict dates, and he tried to suggest historical explanations for most of Daniel’s numbers.  For instance, he suggested that Daniel’s mention of 2300 evenings and mornings could mean: (a) 2300 half-days: the 3 years during which the temple sacrifices were discontinued in the reign of Antiochus; (b) 2300 days: the 6 years of Antiochus’ reign; or (c) 2300 months: the 186 year Syrian domination of Palestine.[30]

More importantly, in his commentary on Isaiah, which he wrote in Lucca in the 1140s,[31] he had to deal with expectations of a future state of perfection.  In commenting on the new heaven and new earth of Isaiah 65:17-25, he rejected the suggestion that it was about life after death:

“The right explanation, however, is that, by ‘heavens’, the atmosphere over the earth is meant, and the meaning of the whole sentence is: God will create a new good atmosphere, that people will be healthy and enjoy a long life; He will likewise so increase the productive power of the earth, that it will be as though it were new. Those that refer the passage to the future life of man are wrong; for it cannot thus agree with the context of the chapter, since in the future life there is neither eating nor drinking, as our sages have taught us.”[32]

It was a prophecy for the future of this temporal world.  (It might, however, only refer to Palestine, because verse 25 says that it will take place “in all my holy mountain”).[33]  In this future time of peace, people would return to their primal innocence:

“the world will at last be again as it was at the beginning.”[34]

Abraham ibn Ezra was certainly in contact with many Jewish, and some Christian, scholars on his constant wanderings through Europe.  He lived in a number of Italian cities in the 1140s, and stayed in France and England in the 1150s.[35]

4. Abraham ibn Daūd

The fourth figure is a Jewish philosopher who was educated in Córdoba and probably fled north to Toledo in about 1148.  He was expert in Arabic and very familiar with the work of Ibn Sīnā (Avicenna), and in Toledo he came into close contact with Christian Avicennists.  He helped Dominicus Gundissalinus when he was translating Ibn Sīnā’s De Anima.[36]  He also wrote two books in 1160-61, defending Jewish faith and practice.[37]

Abraham ibn Daūd and the search for Biblical patterns

Abraham ibn Daūd, as a good Biblical scholar, was fascinated by patterns of sevens.  For instance, the first Temple was built in 7 years and destroyed after a siege of 7 years.  The period of destruction of the first Temple began 21 (3 x 7) years before its actual end; this is balanced by the 21 years needed to build the second Temple.[38]

He was also interested in patterns of history.  He found a neat recurrence of periods of 500 years emerging from his study of important Biblical dates: Abraham was born in 1949, the Law of Moses dated from 2449 and the end of prophecy (the last of the Old Testament prophets) came in 3449.  This was followed by 500 years of the compilation of the commentaries known as the Talmud (up to 3949), and 500 years of mishnaic instruction (up to 4449).[39]  Abraham ibn Daūd therefore wondered whether the recent period (of the geonim and the rabbis) would also end after 500 years in the year 4949 (A.D.1188/9).  This date was clearly an exceptional number: 49/49 (7 x 7 / 7 x 7, or 7 x 707).[40]

Counting the generations

Ibn Daūd also did a lot of counting of generations.[41]   From the end of the Jewish Bible (i.e. what Christians call the Old Testament), he counted 38 generations to Joseph ha-Levi.  That presumably made his own generation the 39th.  The year 4949, only 28 years in the future, could well begin the 40th generation; and 40 is a messianic number.  This inference is not made by the author, but seems to be where his calculations are leading.[42]

Summing up

All four of these writers were in contact with Christians as well as Jews; all four were influential in spreading new knowledge from Islamic Spain to Western Europe in the middle of the 12th-century.  None of them gave Joachim his particular system; but all of them point to a Jewish preoccupation with the detailed analysis of Biblical history, for the purpose of elucidating God’s plans for the future.  They may not have given him his ideas, but they may have helped to give him his methods.



[1] e.g. Rabbi Hananeel, discussed in J.Guttmann’s introduction to J.M.Millás Vallicrosa: Llibre revelador (B.99) pp.xv-xvi, as a probable source for Abraham bar Hayya’s use of Daniel.  
[2] e.g. the 11th -century Book of Zerubbabel: see J.H.Greenstone (B.96) p.137.
[3] G.Wigoder (B.99) p.3 n.1, on why Abraham’s patronymic should be spelt as Hayya.
[4] ibid. p.3; L.D.Stitskin (B.99) p.16.
[5] J.M.Millás Vallicrosa: Corriente… (B.70) p.414; L.D.Stitskin (B.99) p.24.
[6] L.D.Stitskin (B.99) p.26.
[7] This has been translated into Catalan by J.M.Millás Vallicrosa as the Llibre Revelador (B.99).
[8] ibid: J.Guttmann’s introduction p.xiii.
[9] Abraham bar Hayya: Scroll of the Revealer, translated into Catalan by J.M.Millás Vallicrosa in ibid. preface, pp.7-8.
[10] ibid. chap.2, pp.40-41.
[11] ibid. chap.2, pp.44-46.
[12] ibid. chap.2, pp.47-48.
[13] ibid. chap.2, pp.58-61.
[14] ibid. chap.2, p.61.
[15] ibid. chap.2, pp.61-62; see J.Sarachek (B.96) pp.320-1.
[16] ibid. chap.4, p.146; see J.Guttmann’s introduction p.xv-xvi.
[17] ibid. chap.4, pp.174-5.
[18] ibid. chap.5, pp.220-3; see J.Sarachek (B.96) pp.324-6.
[19] Jewish scholars from the time of the Talmud, after the close of the Old Testament.
[20] ibid. chap.3, pp.131-2.
[21] ibid. chap.2, p.33: “de manera que tot el dia setè serà llum i resplendor i en el seu temps no hi haurà ni enveges, ni odis, ni passions, ni guerres, ni malalties, ni mort, ans solament hi haurà amor, pau, amistat, prosperitat, repòs, riquesa, ciència i vida: certament aquest temps és el del Messias, el de la Redempció i de la resurrecció dels morts.”  He goes on to quote Isaiah on nations not learning war any more (Isaiah 2:4), and the earth being full of the knowledge of the Lord (Isaiah 11:9).
[22] Abraham bar Hayya: Foundations of Understanding… introduction, translated by G.Wigoder (B.99) p.4.
[23] L.D.Stitskin (B.99) pp.21-24.  Saadia (882-942 C.E.) was a Jewish philosopher and theologian, living in the Near East; he wrote The Book of Beliefs and Opinions.
[24] Georges Vajda: Le système… (B.99) pp.60-65, demonstrates how numerous are his borrowings from Abraham bar Hayya’s The Foundations of Understanding and the Tower of Faith.
[25] J.Guttmann’s introduction to J.M.Millás Vallicrosa: Llibre Revelador (B.99) pp.xvi-xvii, referring to Judah ben Barzillai’s commentary on the Sefer Yezirah.
[26] ibid. p.xvii, referring to the same commentary.
[27] W.Bacher: Matériaux… (B.99) p.280; G.Vajda: Introduction à la pensée juive… (B.95) pp.102-103.  His work was aware of Christian exegesis, sometimes to counter it and sometimes to use it.  He was keen to reclaim the term Holy Spirit from the Christians who had, in his view, anthropomorphised it.  He used it to explain the Shekhinah, the indwelling Presence of God: G.Vajda: Idées théologiques… (B.99) pp,200-201; Colette Sirat (B.96) p.95.
[28] G.Wigoder (B.99) p.27.
[29] G.D.Cohen (B.96) pp.238-9.
[30] J.Sarachek (B.96) pp.119-120.
[31] M.Waxman (B.94) vol.1, p.196.
[32] Abraham ibn Ezra: Commentary on Isaiah chap.65:17, translated by M.Friedländer: The Commentary of Ibn Ezra on Isaiah (B.100) p.297.
[33] ibid. chap.65:25, p.299.
[34] ibid. chap.65:20, p.298.
[35] R.Levy: Astrological works… (B.100) pp.7-8;  M.Friedländer: Ibn Ezra in … (B.100) p.48;  W.Bacher: Abraham… (B.100) pp.300-3;  M.Waxman (B.94) vol.1, pp.195-6.  There is more information on Abraham ibn Ezra in the study of Jewish Avicennism in the section entitled THE LADDER OF ASCENSION.
[36] M.T. d’Alverny: Avendauth (B.70) pp.32-35.
[37] G.D.Cohen (B.96) pp.xvi-xxxii.
[38] ibid. p.197.
[39] ibid. pp.210-212.  Instruction using the Bible and the Talmud was called the Mishnah.
[40] ibid. pp.212-216.
[41] ibid. pp.91; 209; 217.
[42] ibid. pp.217-221.

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