“…widespread awareness of Hebrew Qabalah in the West has often led to the mistaken belief that the Jews were the original founders of the literal Qabalah, and even that it was the Jews who first used letters as numbers… It was, in fact, the Greeks who, as early as the eighth century B.C.E., invented alphabetic numerals, the very essence of Qabalistic numerology” (preface p.xiii).
Such is Kieren Barry’s thesis and what follows is a very careful historical study of the origins of alphabetic symbolism [Note that the *literal Qabalah* discussed here is a technique – it doesn’t refer to the entirety of Qabalistic philosophy]. The book is “necessarily academic in style” but gives much of the relevant background history for those readers who are not familiar with the ancient world or the early Christian era. Even so, it is no book to start with if you know next to nothing about these things.
He is also aware of the New Age interest in these matters and has included extensive appendices for those who might wish to make practical use of the Greek techniques.
Those, like myself, whose main introduction to Hebrew mysticism was through the works of Gershom Scholem, might recall that Scholem argued that the literal Qabalah may have come from within Judaism. Kieren Barry has the historical evidence to show us how unlikely that is. Scholem, to be fair, was free to speculate as he did not have access to all the same evidence that Barry does. Firstly, he did not seem to be aware of the works of Marcus and secondly, Marsanes’ Nag Hammadi text was only translated one year before Scholem’s death.
Finally, there’s something of interest here for you 666-ers who like to find meaning in the book of Revelation. Its dualism makes it more Zoroastrian than Christian and Barry even argues that it should not have been incorporated into the New Testament. This is all in Chapter ten, which shows how the Christians used alphabetic and numerical symbols.
The Greek Qabalah is a great book but is heavy going at times (my knowledge of Greek letters being paltry) but its bibliography will no doubt lead me – and you – elsewhere: the ancient world always invites us to study it further.