Not Made with Hands: Gregory of Nyssa's Doctrine of the Celestial Tabernacle in Its Jewish and Christian Contexts

  • Ann Conway-Jones

Student thesis: Phd


The aim of this thesis is to explore Gregory of Nyssa's tabernacle imagery, as presented in Life of Moses 2.170-201. This part of Life of Moses has suffered from relative neglect compared to the scholarly attention conferred on Gregory's apophatic darkness imagery. For the purposes of this study, Life of Moses 2.162-201 has been divided into nine consecutive sections, given the following headings: Darkness; The tabernacle 'not made with hands'; Christological interpretation; Divine names; Heavenly powers; The earthly tabernacle; Heavenly and earthly worship; The holy of holies; The priestly vestments. Each section is analysed in the same way. Firstly, Gregory's text is examined, and his biblical sources identified. Secondly, there is a presentation of relevant passages in the work of his Alexandrian predecessors - Philo, Clement and Origen. Thirdly, there is a discussion of the ways in which Gregory's fourth century theological context has influenced his interpretation, often causing him to differ from his predecessors. It is under this heading of 'theological context' that contemporary scholarly discussions about Gregory are most in evidence. Fourthly, a heuristic comparison with a range of heavenly ascent texts from the Hellenistic and Late Antique worlds is undertaken. It is this methodology of heuristic comparison which is the experimental aspect of the thesis. The aim is not to prove influence, but to use heavenly ascent texts as a foil, in order to shed new light on Gregory's imagery. Does Gregory's interpretation of the tabernacle come into focus when viewed through the lens of heavenly ascent? In order to answer this question, the scholarship on heavenly ascent texts is mined for new ways of looking at Life of Moses.The conclusions begin by reviewing the methodology. It is argued that although many of the themes explored stem from the biblical text, and occur in Gregory's Alexandrian predecessors, the richness of possibilities they provide, and therefore the choices made by Gregory, only become apparent when his work is compared and contrasted with a wide range of other heavenly ascent texts. Even in the case of a fourth century Christian work heavily influenced by Platonism, attending to the Jewish matrix of Christian mysticism pays dividends. The conclusions continue by listing the key ideas discovered in Life of Moses 2.170-201. They end by discussing the relationships between mysticism, theology and politics in Gregory's tabernacle imagery. It is argued that Gregory holds all three together. This is typical of heavenly ascent texts, which combine descriptions of religious experience with claims to authoritative knowledge. For Gregory, the high point of Moses' ascent into the darkness of Mount Sinai is the mystery of Christian doctrine. The heavenly tabernacle is a type of the heavenly Christ. This mystery is beyond intellectual comprehension, it can only be grasped by faith; and only the select few, destined for positions of responsibility, should even attempt to do so. But its benefits are available to all through the community's worship in the earthly tabernacle. Anyone can aspire to wear an airy, angelic robe by living a life of virtue, in which faith and practice go hand in hand.
Date of Award1 Aug 2012
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Manchester
SupervisorTodd Klutz (Supervisor) & Philip Alexander (Supervisor)


  • Moses
  • heavenly ascent
  • christology
  • tabernacle
  • Gregory of Nyssa
  • mysticism

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