Seven Heavens 

The unlettered Arabian prophet, Mohammed ibn Abdallah, enumerates seven heavens:

Concentric Circles

  • “He it is who created for you all that is on Earth, then proceeded to the Heaven, and into seven Heavens did He fashion it: and He knoweth all things.” (Sura 2:27).

  • “See ye not how God hath created the seven heavens one over the other? And He hath placed therein the moon as a light, and hath placed there the sun as a torch...” (Sura 71:14-15)

  • “And He made them seven heavens in two days, and in each heaven made known its office: And we furnished the lower heaven with lights and guardian angels.” (Sura 41:11).

  • “And we have created over you seven heavens: -- and we are not careless of the creation.” (Sura 23:17).

  • “SAY: Who is the Lord of the seven heavens, and the Lord of the glorious throne?” (Sura 23:88).

  • “"The seven heavens praise him, and the earth, and all who are therein; neither is there aught which doth not celebrate his praise; but their utterances of praise ye understand not. He is kind, indulgent.” (Sura 17:46).

  • “It is God who hath created seven heavens and as many earths.” (Sura 65:12).

Count 'em, seven. Where do the seven heavens come from? Who can claim first publication?:

Ptolemy's Astronomy
Rabbinic Adoption
Night Journey
Ezekiel Saw the Wheel


So where do the seven heavens come from? Many of the stories told in the Koran are vaguely familiar to Christian readers. They deploy a cast that includes Biblical characters, but the details are strange and unfamiliar. But some readers will find them familiar, down to the last detail. These are not Bible stories told to Mohammed which he modified in accordance with his own agenda; he did not modify them at all. Often their first publication was in Rabbinic lore. Muslims will sometimes claim that the Rabbis stole these stories from Mohammed, but that is not very likely, given the chronology. If Mohammed was not even a gleam in his daddy's eye when these tales were first told, then nobody stole them from him. Any borrowing was likely to run in the other direction:

Fiery Furnace In the Cradle
They are All Dead Abraham's Apologetic
Hatchet Job Falling Rocks
Seven Portals of Hell Moses in the Bulrushes
Satan's Fall Solomon's Throne
Air Mail Quoth the Raven
Seven Sleepers In the Sanctuary
Life-Giving Rain God Prays
Seven Heavens

Could that be the case here? The "seven heavens" do turn up in Rabbinic literature, such as in the Talmud:

"The distance from the earth to the firmament is five hundred years' journey, and so it is from each successive firmament to the next, throughout the series of the seven heavens. P'sachim, fol. 94, col. 2."

(Various. Hebraic Literature; Translations from the Talmud, Midrashim and Kabbala (Kindle Locations 3514-3515). Talmud)
"Reish Lakish said: There are seven firmaments, and they are as follows: Vilon, Rakia, Shehakim, Zevul, Ma’on, Makhon, and Aravot. The Gemara proceeds to explain the role of each firmament: Vilon, curtain, is the firmament that does not contain anything, but enters at morning and departs in the evening, and renews the act of Creation daily, as it is stated: “Who stretches out the heavens as a curtain [Vilon], and spreads them out as a tent to dwell in” (Isaiah 40:22). Rakia, firmament, the one in which the sun, moon, stars, and zodiac signs are fixed, as it is stated: “And God set them in the firmament [Rakia] of the heaven” (Genesis 1:17). Shehakim, heights, is the one in which mills stand and grind manna for the righteous, as it is stated: “And He commanded the heights [Shehakim] above, and opened the doors of heaven; and He caused manna to rain upon them for food, and gave them of the corn of heaven” (Psalms 78:23–24).

"Zevul, abode, is the location of the heavenly Jerusalem and the heavenly Temple, and there the heavenly altar is built, and the angel Michael, the great minister, stands and sacrifices an offering upon it, as it is stated: “I have surely built a house of Zevul for You, a place for You to dwell forever” (IáKings 8:13). . .Ma’on, habitation, is where there are groups of ministering angels who recite song at night and are silent during the day out of respect for Israel, in order not to compete with their songs, as it is stated: “By day the Lord will command His kindness, and in the night His song is with me” (Psalms 42:9), indicating that the song of the angels is with God only at night. . .Makhon, dwelling place, is where there are storehouses of snow and storehouses of hail, and the upper chamber of harmful dews, and the upper chamber of drops, and the room of tempests and storms, and the cave of mist. And the doors of all these are made of fire. . .Aravot, skies, is the firmament that contains righteousness; justice; righteousness, i.e., charity; the treasuries of life; the treasuries of peace; the treasuries of blessing; the souls of the righteous; the spirits and souls that are to be created; and the dew that the Holy One, Blessed be He, will use to revive the dead." (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Chagigah, 12b).

This only pushes the problem back, however, rather than solving it. Where did the Rabbis get the idea that there are precisely seven heavens? The Bible nowhere enumerates any such number, yet those who count seven never seem to express any uncertainty about the matter, though some add an eighth or a ninth. It's a familiar theme in Jewish apocrypha, like the Ascension of Isaiah: "And the angel who was sent to show him (the vision) was not of this firmament, nor was he from the angels of glory of this world, but he came from the seventh heaven." (Ascension of Isaiah, 6.13); "But there was one glory, and from it he was not transformed. And I saw when he ascended into the sixth heaven, that they worshiped him and praised him; but in all the heavens the praise grew louder. And I saw how he ascended into the seventh heaven, and all the righteous and all the angels praised him." (Ascension of Isaiah, 11.29-31). "But as for you, be in the Holy Spirit that you may receive your robes, and the thrones and crown of glory, which are placed in the seventh heaven." (Ascension of Isaiah, 11.40). These ascensions and descents are mind-numbingly familiar to readers of gnostic literature as well. They are travelogues that run along a well-worn path.

Where did Philo Judaeus, the first century Jewish philosopher of Alexandria, get his idea of seven, or eight, 'divisions' or 'portions' in the heavens?: "The planets too, and the corresponding host of fixed stars, are arrayed in seven divisions, displaying a very great sympathy with the air and the earth." (Philo Judaeus, On The Creation, Chapter XXXVIII, Section 113). At their point of origin, the seven heavens come from Ptolemaic astronomy:

  • "Very appropriately, therefore, in the case of sacrifices also, the tenth part of the measure of fine wheat flour will be brought upon the altar, together with the victims. But the number of nine, which is what is left of the number ten, will remain among us. And the daily sacrifice of the priests corresponds also to these facts. For it is expressly commanded to them to offer every day the tenth part of an Ephah of fine wheat flour. For, passing over the ninth number, the god who was only discernible by the outward senses and by opinion, they learnt to worship the tenth, who is the only living and true God.  For the world had nine portions assigned to it, eight in heaven, namely the portion of the fixed stars and the seven planets which are all borne forward in the same arrangement, and the ninth being the earth in conjunction with the air and water. For of these things there is only one bond and connection, though they admit all kinds of various changes and alterations. Therefore men in general have paid honours to these nine portions, and to the world which is compounded of them. But the perfect man honours only that being who is above the nine, and who is their creator, being the tenth portion, namely God."

  • (Philo Judaeus of Alexandria, Delphi Complete Works of Philo of Alexandria, Chapter XIX, On Mating, (Delphi Ancient Classics Book 77) (Kindle Locations 12255-12256).)

Ptolemy's Astronomy

Ptolemaic astronomy involves a series of nested concentric spheres, the sublunary sphere being the lowest, and the sphere which conveys motion to the fixed stars the furthest. The system is geocentric. The spheres are variously conceived by different authors; some consider them nearly as astronomical abstractions, orbits basically; to others they are solid crystalline objects, vehicles serving to convey momentum to the planets they carry about. The earth is round under this system of astronomy, as opposed to what you are always hearing from the atheists.

Living after Newton, we are inclined to say that gravity makes the system go. They thought that gravity makes things stop. Could they resort to the pusher angels of Johannes Kepler? No, they were naturalists! So they considered that circular motion was 'natural' and thus tended to be self-perpetuating and self-propagating. Thus, to account for the fact the orbits are not perfect circles but rather slightly eccentric ellipses, they popped epicycles, small rotating circles, onto the planetary orbits. Thus they 'saved the hypothesis' of uniform circular motion. Though this seven-tiered cosmology originated in astronomy, it proved readily adaptable to religious systems as well, including pagan gnosticism as well as, ultimately, Christianity: think of the poet Dante. The spheres pertaining to the various planets are Philo's 'divisions.'

Jumping all the way to the Copernican-Newtonian universe, do we still talk about "seven heavens?" No, it makes no sense. We still have the sun, the moon, and the planets,— even more, in fact, counting Neptune and Uranus, not visible to the naked eye nor known to the ancients, not to mention the unlucky, recently demoted Pluto,— but what is missing to make seven "heavens" is any sense of compartmentalization. In Ptolemaic astronomy, the inter-sphere compartments are enclosed spaces, suited for a variety of imaginative uses including habitation, filled with stopping-places for the weary traveller. You could write up a travel guide, and many imaginative souls did so. In the Copernican-Newtonian world, there is no such thing, just planets hurtling through empty space. However they were defined, whatever they were thought to be made of, whatever is the 'quintessence,' the Ptolemaic spheres were thought to be real structures, out there in the universe. They have definable boundaries, an 'in' and an 'out.' Alas, they are not real. So is it a problem that Mohammed ibn Abdallah committed himself to their existence, probably not even understanding that he was doing so, but simply borrowing from his informants, as he commonly did?

Ptolemaic astronomy is scientific astronomy; it has high predictive value. If you want to know when the next eclipse will be, or where Saturn will be in the night sky next month, Ptolemy is your man. It is not, in the end, however, a matter-of-fact description of structures actually found in nature, whose existence could be empirically validated. In fact the whole whizzing contraption doesn't actually exist. We have made do without it since Copernicus. Copernicus, as some people don't know, still had epicycles. They've been gone since Kepler brought in ellipses. Newton gave the whole celestial machine a plausible engine in gravity.

Cosmas Indicopleustes, a merchant those voyages of exploration convinced him of flat-earthism, is confident that the seven heavens come from the pagan astronomers. They certainly don't come from the Christian scriptures; he is indeed correct that they are not found there:

"Since therefore according to the great cosmographer Moses, and according to Paul, that most divine teacher of the Church, in whom the Lord Christ speaks, two heavens, and two only, were created by God, and not seven or eight, or nine, how is it possible to listen to the pagans advocating views based on conjecture, sophistries, and arrogant assumptions, and inventing fables. . . " (Cosmas Indicopleustes, Christian Topography, Book III, p. 114).

The Bible in fact enumerates three heavens. Expositors sometimes enumerate them as the sky, the starry heavens, and the throne of God. Cosmas, though his flat-earthism is unfortunate, is correct in noting that the Bible doesn't enumerate the seven heavens of the Ptolemaic system. That was not invented here. All you really find, even in intertestamental Jewish speculation, is free-range planets spinning about, not randomly, but answering to law: "For sun, moon, and stars, being bright and sent to do their offices, are obedient." (Baruch 6:6). This is not so different from Newton's conception of  planetary orbits answerable to law, namely the law of gravitation.

Moreover, as Cosmas realized, the Ptolemaic system was tied into pagan divination from the outset. Claudio Ptolemy was himself not only an astronomer but an astrologer as well. To which of the seven heavens did Jesus ascend, wondered Cosmas?:

"In the second place, since their sphere is solid, let them tell us whether, along with the moon, He cleaves His way, like a fish in the water, through the body of heaven, going in the opposite direction to that which it pursues, or whether, along with the universe, He is violently whirled round in its direction -- which is all the most ridiculous nonsense. In the third place, it is in agreement with your error, that above Him are the other planets which are gods of yours, namely, Mercury, Venus, the Sun, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, the father of your gods — gods to whom ye have been seen offering sacrifice — then also those fixed houses of the twelve signs of the Zodiac, and the six-and-thirty decani. . .But if they shall say that He is in the second sphere, they will be confronted again with the same difficulties, and so will they be if they say that He who is above all is in the third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth, and ninth. . ." (Cosmas Indicopleustes, Christian Topography, Book VII, p. 300).

What might have seemed a weakness when the Ptolemaic system was still going strong has turned out to be a strength, though. The more modern Islam was saddled with an obsolete astronomy, though I suspect most Muslims are unaware of the problem. As to the difficulty with the solid spheres, if indeed they were ever so understood, that was easily resolved by the pagan imagination: poke little doors in them, with a door-keeper seated near-by, to whom the traveller must give the secret password! The seven heavens proved popular in the Christian apocrypha as in the Jewish:

"And the angel answered and said unto me: Because Christ the Son of God sits at the right hand of His Father, and this David sings psalms before him in the seventh heaven, and as is done in the heavens so also below, because the host may not be offered to God without David, but it is necessary that David should sing psalms in the hour of the oblation of the body and blood of Christ: as it is performed in heaven so also on earth." (Vision of Paul, Section 29, p. 237, Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume 10).

Once Christianity and the Ptolemaic system were stitched together, they stuck together tightly throughout the Middle Ages, though their joining was never seamless:

Rabbinic Adoption

One must suspect the Rabbis were originally skeptical of Ptolemaic astronomy, given the connection between that scientific field and the system of pagan divination known as astrology. But during the period of the New Testament, they were more open to Greek learning than might be expected:

"Did not Rab Judah say that Samuel stated in the name of R. Simeon b. Gamaliel: '[The words] Mine eye affected my soul because of all the daughters of my city [could very well be applied to the] thousand youths who were in my father's house; five hundred of them learned Torah and the other five hundred learned Grecian Wisdom, and out of all of them there remain only I here and the son of my father's brother in Asia'?" (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Baba Kamma, 83a.)

By the time of the Koran, the Rabbis had adopted the seven spheres and made them their own. The Rabbis came up with names for their seven heavens: "Said R. Meir: There are seven heavens: Curtain, firmament, welkin, dwelling-house, habitation, settled place, nebulŠ." (The Babylonian Talmud (Annotated). Michael L. Rodkinson, Tract Aboth, Chapter V. Kindle location 39135). This seems to me to be a later embellishment of a framework originally borrowed from secular astronomy. It would have been problematic for the Rabbis that planets inhabited these spheres, because the heathen worshipped the planets. However, the success of Ptolemy's astronomy in predicting transits and eclipses may have convinced them that the system was basically valid. This medieval Hebrew text spells them out:

"These Seven Double Letters He designed, produced, and combined, and formed with them the Planets of this World, the Days of the Week, and the Gates of the soul (the orifices of perception) in Man. From these Seven He hath produced the Seven Heavens, the Seven Earths, the Seven Sabbaths: for this cause He has loved and blessed the number Seven more than all things under Heaven (His Throne). . .So now, behold the Stars of our World, the Planets which are Seven; the Sun, Venus, Mercury, Moon, Saturn, Jupiter and Mars." (Sepher Yetzirah, Chapter IV, Section 3-4, Kindle location 299).

It seems likelier that this is where Mohammed got his "seven heavens" from,— the Rabbis,— not directly from secular astronomy of which he could have known very little.

Night Journey

Ptolemy's nested spheres almost beckon the traveller to begin his peregrinations, helped along perhaps by a flying animal, if you happen to have one in your stable:

  • “Narrated Abbas bin Malik:

  • "Malik bin Sasaa said that Allah's Apostle described to them his Night Journey saying, "While I was lying in Al-Hatim or Al-Hijr, suddenly someone came to me and cut my body open from here to here." I asked Al-Jarud who was by my side, "What does he mean?" He said, "It means from his throat to his pubic area," or said, "From the top of the chest." The Prophet further said, "He then took out my heart. Then a gold tray of Belief was brought to me and my heart was washed and was filled (with Belief) and then returned to its original place. Then a white animal which was smaller than a mule and bigger than a donkey was brought to me." (On this Al-Jarud asked, "Was it the Buraq, O Abu Hamza?" I (i.e. Anas) replied in the affirmative). The Prophet said, "The animal's step (was so wide that it) reached the farthest point within the reach of the animal's sight. I was carried on it, and Gabriel set out with me till we reached the nearest heaven.

  • "When he asked for the gate to be opened, it was asked, 'Who is it?' Gabriel answered, 'Gabriel.' It was asked, 'Who is accompanying you?' Gabriel replied, 'Muhammad.' It was asked, 'Has Muhammad been called?' Gabriel replied in the affirmative. Then it was said, 'He is welcomed. What an excellent visit his is!' The gate was opened, and when I went over the first heaven, I saw Adam there. Gabriel said (to me). 'This is your father, Adam; pay him your greetings.' So I greeted him and he returned the greeting to me and said, 'You are welcomed, O pious son and pious Prophet.' Then Gabriel ascended with me till we reached the second heaven. Gabriel asked for the gate to be opened. It was asked, 'Who is it?' Gabriel answered, 'Gabriel.' It was asked, 'Who is accompanying you?' Gabriel replied, 'Muhammad.' It was asked, 'Has he been called?' Gabriel answered in the affirmative. Then it was said, 'He is welcomed. What an excellent visit his is!' The gate was opened.

  • "When I went over the second heaven, there I saw Yahya (i.e. John) and 'Isa (i.e. Jesus) who were cousins of each other. Gabriel said (to me), 'These are John and Jesus; pay them your greetings.' So I greeted them and both of them returned my greetings to me and said, 'You are welcomed, O pious brother and pious Prophet.' Then Gabriel ascended with me to the third heaven and asked for its gate to be opened. It was asked, 'Who is it?' Gabriel replied, 'Gabriel.' It was asked, 'Who is accompanying you?' Gabriel replied, 'Muhammad.' It was asked, 'Has he been called?' Gabriel replied in the affirmative. Then it was said, 'He is welcomed, what an excellent visit his is!' The gate was opened, and when I went over the third heaven there I saw Joseph. Gabriel said (to me), 'This is Joseph; pay him your greetings.' So I greeted him and he returned the greeting to me and said, 'You are welcomed, O pious brother and pious Prophet.' Then Gabriel ascended with me to the fourth heaven and asked for its gate to be opened. It was asked, 'Who is it?' Gabriel replied, 'Gabriel' It was asked, 'Who is accompanying you?' Gabriel replied, 'Muhammad.' It was asked, 'Has he been called?' Gabriel replied in the affirmative. Then it was said, 'He is welcomed, what an excel lent visit his is!'

  • "The gate was opened, and when I went over the fourth heaven, there I saw Idris. Gabriel said (to me), 'This is Idris; pay him your greetings.' So I greeted him and he returned the greeting to me and said, 'You are welcomed, O pious brother and pious Prophet.' Then Gabriel ascended with me to the fifth heaven and asked for its gate to be opened. It was asked, 'Who is it?' Gabriel replied, 'Gabriel.' It was asked. 'Who is accompanying you?' Gabriel replied, 'Muhammad.' It was asked, 'Has he been called?' Gabriel replied in the affirmative. Then it was said He is welcomed, what an excellent visit his is! So when I went over the fifth heaven, there I saw Harun (i.e. Aaron), Gabriel said, (to me). This is Aaron; pay him your greetings.' I greeted him and he returned the greeting to me and said, 'You are welcomed, O pious brother and pious Prophet.' Then Gabriel ascended with me to the sixth heaven and asked for its gate to be opened. It was asked. 'Who is it?' Gabriel replied, 'Gabriel.' It was asked, 'Who is accompanying you?' Gabriel replied, 'Muhammad.' It was asked, 'Has he been called?' Gabriel replied in the affirmative. It was said, 'He is welcomed. What an excellent visit his is!'

  • "When I went (over the sixth heaven), there I saw Moses. Gabriel said (to me),' This is Moses; pay him your greeting. So I greeted him and he returned the greetings to me and said, 'You are welcomed, O pious brother and pious Prophet.' When I left him (i.e. Moses) he wept. Someone asked him, 'What makes you weep?' Moses said, 'I weep because after me there has been sent (as Prophet) a young man whose followers will enter Paradise in greater numbers than my followers.' Then Gabriel ascended with me to the seventh heaven and asked for its gate to be opened. It was asked, 'Who is it?' Gabriel replied, 'Gabriel.' It was asked,' Who is accompanying you?' Gabriel replied, 'Muhammad.' It was asked, 'Has he been called?' Gabriel replied in the affirmative. Then it was said, 'He is welcomed. What an excellent visit his is!'

  • "So when I went (over the seventh heaven), there I saw Abraham. Gabriel said (to me), 'This is your father; pay your greetings to him.' So I greeted him and he returned the greetings to me and said, 'You are welcomed, O pious son and pious Prophet.' Then I was made to ascend to Sidrat-ul-Muntaha (i.e. the Lote Tree of the utmost boundary) Behold! Its fruits were like the jars of Hajr (i.e. a place near Medina) and its leaves were as big as the ears of elephants. Gabriel said, 'This is the Lote Tree of the utmost boundary). Behold ! There ran four rivers, two were hidden and two were visible, I asked, 'What are these two kinds of rivers, O Gabriel?' He replied,' As for the hidden rivers, they are two rivers in Paradise and the visible rivers are the Nile and the Euphrates.'”

  • (Hadith, Sahih al Bukhari, Volume 5, Book 58, Number 227).

The heavenly ascension of a wonder-struck pilgrim used to be a popular genre of literature. Baruch made the journey, as did Moses and Enoch. The reader will note that, as this literature develops, the spheres no longer have any association with astronomy, as indeed they cannot under monotheism. I would suspect this genre of literature originally flourished under pagan auspices, and the name on the mail-box was the same as the name of the occupant: one stopped by to visit the Moon, then had a cup of tea with Venus. These were the gods of the pagans; here was where they lived. Under monotheism, occupancy is assigned fairly arbitrarily; Mohammed wants it understood that Abraham, who he imagines to be a Muslim, outranks Jesus, and so he inhabits a higher sphere. Sometimes, however, you will notice the old occupants peeking out their doors, wondering why no one comes to visit them any more: Hapless 'Baruch,' managed to run into the sun, complete with chariot and four horses, during his peregrination: "And he took me and led me where the sun goes forth; and he showed me a chariot and four, under which burnt a fire, and in the chariot was sitting a man, wearing a crown of fire, (and) the chariot (was) drawn by forty angels." (Apocalypse of Baruch, 3 Baruch, Chapter 6).

Miry Fount
Like a Carpet
Level Earth
Solid Heavens
Tent Stakes
The Sky is Falling

Ptolemiac astronomy, of course, features a round earth, not a flat earth. How Mohammed envisioned his borrowed "heavens" in relation to the earth is hard to say. How the seven spheres could revolve around a flat earth, I can't say. Here, at least, is an original contribution from the unlettered Arabian prophet, his own signature. The seven planets visible to the naked eye are Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, and the Sun and the Moon. We ourselves name the days of the week after these luminaries, and so it is conceivable the seven days of the week do have some connection with them. Twirl the candelabrum, and you can see Philo's idea; the planets, the outer lights, will revolve around the central stem:

  • "This much alone we must remind our readers of at this moment, that the sacred candlestick and the seven lights upon it are an imitation of the wandering of the seven planets through the heaven. How so? some one will say. Because, we will reply, in the same manner as the lights, so also does every one of the planets shed its rays. They therefore, being more brilliant, do transmit more brilliant beams to the earth, and brilliant beyond them all is he who is the centre one of the seven, the sun. And I call him the centre, not merely because he has the central position, as some have thought, but also because he has on many other accounts a right to be ministered unto and attended by the others accompanying him as bodyguards on each side, by reason of his dignity and his magnitude, and the great benefits which he pours upon all earthly things. But men, being unable completely to comprehend the arrangement of the planets (and in fact what other of the heavenly bodies can they understand with certainty and clearness?) speak according to their conjectures. And these persons appear to me to form the best conjectures on such subjects, who, having assigned the central position to the sun, say that there is an equal number of planets, namely, those above him and below him. Those above him being Saturn, Jupiter, and Mars; then comes the Sun himself, and next to him Mercury, Venus, and the Moon, which last is close to the air. The Creator, therefore, wishing that there should be a model upon earth among us of the seven-lighted sphere as it exists in heaven, explained this exquisite work to be made, namely, this candlestick."

  • (Philo Judaeus of Alexandria, Who is the Heir of Divine Things, Chapter XLV. Delphi Complete Works of Philo of Alexandria (Delphi Ancient Classics Book 77) (Kindle Locations 11525-11537).)

Thriceholy Radio

Philo gives us, not 'heavens,' but divisions or portions:

"For in this, also, there is a report that the outermost sphere, which is destitute of motion, is preserved without being divided, but that the inner one is divided into six portions, and thus completes the seven circles of what are called the planets; for I imagine the heaven is in the world the same thing that the soul is in the human being." (Philo Judaeus of Alexandria, Who is the Heir of Divine Things? Chapter XLVIII, Delphi Complete Works of Philo of Alexandria (Delphi Ancient Classics Book 77) (Kindle Locations 11568-11570).)

It does seem, however, that in Philo's divisions we have the germ of the idea. Do we encounter the "seven heavens" in the canonical scriptures? Not in the least! No more than three heavens can be counted out from scripture: the aerial heavens where the birds fly and the clouds scud across, the starry heavens, and the 'heaven of heavens,' specifically mentioned as a fit dwelling place for God, who is also however understood to be omnipresent. That's three, count 'em. Thus one often finds in Biblically-based commentary, “To him that by wisdom made the heavens.” Not only the firmament, but the third heavens, too, where all is felicity, where is the throne of glory." (Andrew A. Bonar, quoted in Spurgeon, Charles. The Treasury of David (Kindle Locations 82857-82858). Psalm 136, GLH Publishing.) Is he missing four, or is this the correct enumeration? The only way to 'correct' the Biblical three is with outside information, and I suspect when people realize where this information originally came from, they will drop it.

Where do the "seven" come from, which the Rabbis count? They come from Ptolemaic astronomy. They are enumerated as follows: the then-known planets, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn, plus the Sun and the Moon. A diagram of this system draws a series of concentric spheres clustered about the earth, freighted down with epicycles, which carry these heavenly bodies along on their periodic rounds. The outermost sphere whirls the entire structure completely around within the span of one day, with incredible rapidity, because the earth is as a point by contrast with the heavens. Is it really possible for such a massive sphere to spin round that fast? Won't it tear itself apart? Not to worry, it's made of the 'quintessence,' the fifth element; things up there are not as fragile and short-lived as things down here.

When Mohammed says, "and as many earths," (Sura 65:12), we understand these seven heavens are not vacant, but are populated by astronomical actors similar in nature to the earth, as is indeed characteristic of the Ptolemaic system. Consider a 'heavenly journey,' such as are found recounted in gnostic literature, and which Mohammed's followers believe he himself accomplished in the 'Night Journey.' In the version of the story found in the Hadith, Abraham is discovered to be inhabiting the 'seventh heaven.' The 'eighth' and the 'ninth,' sometimes found in gnostic literature, associated with the throne of God, go unmentioned. This is really the same system of enumeration, elaborated a little bit differently.

How are these heavenly peregrinations accomplished? You knock on the door and are admitted to each new level by a porter, after you've given him the watch-word. Look up at the sky, at the planets; do you see any structure which could be identified as a gate, or multiple concentric levels? No; but look at a model of the Ptolemaic system; there they are! The 'seven heavens' are concentric spheres centered about the earth. In theory, a traveller could make just such a procession, if oxygen deprivation weren't an issue, with a little help from a flying burro like Buraq. There are not any "seven heavens" in the Bible, and from the time of Copernicus and his followers, there have not been any in astronomy either. They never were in the Bible; they came over from scientific astronomy. But they aren't there any more. Is that a problem? Is it a problem that, if we are going to count planetary orbits as 'heavens,' we have omitted to count two of 'em, Neptune and Uranus, which were not known to the ancients? Poor little Pluto has been recently demoted, but these two remain.

When did this concept, which originated with secular astronomy, get naturalized in Judaism, as it had by the time of the Rabbis? I can't isolate a 'first use,' but certainly Philo, as quoted above, seems to have the set-up in mind, if not the phrase. In some versions, the Testament of Levi, in the Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs, speaks of the seven heavens: "Hear, then, concerning the seven heavens. The lowest is for this cause more gloomy, in that it is near all the iniquities of men. The second hath fire, snow, ice, ready for the day of the ordinance of the Lord, in the righteous judgment of God: in it are all the spirits of the retributions for vengeance on the wicked." (Testament of Levi, Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs, ECF_0_08, p. 15, Chapter 3). This however may not be the original form of the text (The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, James H. Charlesworth, Footnote d, p. 788). Philo Judaeus, a first century Jewish author from Alexandria, Egypt, offers a tantalizing window into a pre-Rabbinic Judaism, before the schism with Christianity, and before the destruction of the temple. As noted, he does not use the phrase 'seven heavens' that I am aware of. He does however stand with the book of scripture open in one hand and the book of nature in the other, realizing that both books are of the self-same authorship. Unfortunately, the book of nature is not self-published; there's no vanity publishing in the great cosmos, and so what is substituted is the book of science, in this case Ptolemaic astronomy. That substitution can cause trouble, just ask Thomas Aquinas. As quoted above, speaking of the seven-branched candelabrum in the temple, Philo explains that this represents the seven planets, with the sun in the middle. Does he mean that the sun is in the middle of the seven spheres, which conforms with normal practice; or is it in the middle of the whole system?

Heliocentrism was not the dominant view of the day, mostly because of unsolved physical problems with the premise, but Philo seems to want to go there if he could, just for reasons of religious typology, to get the sun to be the central branch! Does he settle, perhaps, on a composite theory similar to Tycho Brahe's? Heliocentric theories were proposed in antiquity, but were mostly rejected, for reasons of physics not religion. Riding on a cart bumping down the road, we know we are moving. Hold onto your hat, or it will fly off! Is it really possible this whole massive earth is hurtling through space, and we don't feel even a slight vibration? Copernicus came up with 'the ship,' a closed system, as a demonstration, and Galileo solved the problems in physics using that as an instrument. Once heliocentrism became possible, physically, it also became preferable, because of its simplicity. Elsewhere in his voluminous writings, Philo returns to geocentrist orthodoxy, speaking of: ". . .the earth which is the centre of the whole universe, universe, by which, also, they are kept apart from one another. But the only one of all the parts of the world that stands firmly was most appropriately named Vesta  by the ancients, in order that there might be an excellently arranged revolution of the two hemispheres around some object firmly fixed in the middle." (Philo Judaeus of Alexandria, Delphi Complete Works of Philo of Alexandria (Delphi Ancient Classics Book 77) (Kindle Locations 3261-3263). On the Cherubim, Chapter VIII.)

After numerous comparisons of things which are counted by 'sevens,' Philo gives us seven divisions, not 'heavens.' So below the outermost sphere of the fixed stars, we have six divisions. That, dear reader, is where your 'seven heavens' come from: Ptolemaic astronomy! Alas, there ain't  no spheres; this astronomy has been disconfirmed. Mohammed got it from the Rabbis, as he got so much of his material; the Rabbis got it from pagan astronomy, from Ptolemy and his colleagues. Those who adopted the Ptolemaic system, while it was still viable scientific astronomy, in no way deserve scorn or contempt. Thomas Aquinas, Moses Maimonides, and Philo Judaeus, were not stupid or ill-intentioned in looking to science to tell them how the heavens were configured. Ptolemaic astronomy was serious science, offering high predictive value; if you wanted to predict when the next eclipse would occur, Ptolemy could do that for you. Alas, this beautiful system has become outmoded and obsolete; no one of sound mind promotes it any more. Mohammed ibn Abdallah believes the heavens are "solid:"  "And built above you seven solid heavens, and placed therein a burning lamp..." (Sura 78:12-13). This is consistent with some implementations of Ptolemaic astronomy. However, it seems unlikely in the extreme that the unlettered Arabian prophet would have understood the system; he did not have the mathematical background, and who amongst his informants could have instructed him? Rather, he counts seven heavens because the Rabbis counted seven heavens; he imitates them, without knowing why they counted just that number.

While it is no special problem that uninspired authors like Thomas Aquinas believed in it, as did for that matter John Calvin and Martin Luther, it would be a problem were it found in pages of holy writ. There are no such structures out there. Didn't God know that? There is no mention of any such structures in the Bible. The Old Testament authors knew nothing of it. This might be because the system had not been perfected at the time the canonical Old Testament texts were written, although God's realization that there ain't no spheres may also have been helpful! The New Testament authors didn't care, the system not being controversial in their day. It does turn up in the Koran though. Oddly enough, it doesn't seem that Mohammed ibn Abdallah was even a round-earther, much less an enthusiast for the Ptolemaic system (which incorporates a round earth):

  • “. . .And a route he followed, until when he reached the setting of the sun, he found it to set in a miry fount; and hard by he found a people...Then followed he a route until when he reached the rising of the sun he found it to rise on a people to whom we had given no shelter from it.”

  • (Koran, Sura 18:83-89).

When somebody thinks that the sun sets itself down on a particular spot on the earth, he is probably thinking of a huge flat earth and small sun, neither of which is characteristic of Ptolemy's astronomy. Can a flat-earther go on one of these heavenly ascent package tours? It would seem so; 'Baruch' and 'Enoch' give substantial evidence of flat-earthism, with their 'gates' through which the sun enters onto its diurnal procession through the sky, returning at night, no doubt exhausted, back to rest for the night in its hangar-barn. These authors seems to have picked up on the popular theme of a heavenly journey without quite understanding the landscape through which the traveller progressed.

The learned Philo did not lack understanding. The whole concept doesn't really make sense without the system of concentric spheres, which are quite beside the point for flat-earth astronomy. This is a frequent theme with the unlettered Arabian prophet, Mohammed ibn Abdallah. He picks up that Jesus is the Messiah, but does not really understand what that means; he picks up that Jesus is the Word, but does not really understand what that means. He may have picked up the 'seven heavens' without really understanding where they came from, at least if I am not mistaken as to where that actually is:

In the case of the folk-tale about Jesus talking in the cradle, the material was not 'history' when Mohammed found it, but neither was it revelation. It was just a story somebody made up. Could he have promoted it to the status of revelation just by copying and repeating it? Can you do that? In the case of the 'seven heavens,' there was no revelation on this point; it was science, not revelation. It  was the astronomical science which was popular in the first century A.D., and remained popular right up until the sixteenth century. Astronomy has since been improved upon. Did the 'seven heavens' skip categories from science to revelation just by getting picked up by Mohammed?

  • "Now, those who have applied themselves to mathematical studies, fully explain the precedence and pre-eminence to which the number seven is entitled among all existing things, tracing it out with great care and exceeding minuteness and accuracy;. . .the idea of the planets, just as the unit is of the immovable sphere; for of the unit and the number seven consists the incorporeal heaven, the model of the visible heaven, and the heaven is made up of indivisible and divisible nature. Now, indivisible nature has assigned to it the first, and highest, and immovable circumference, which the unit inspects and overlooks; but the divisible nature has received that circumference which is inferior both in power and in arrangement, which the number seven inspects, which, being divided into six parts, has produced what are called the seven planets; not indeed that any of the heavenly bodies do really wander, inasmuch as they all enjoy a divine, and happy, and blessed nature, to all of which characteristics a freedom from wandering is most closely akin: at all events, they always preserve a kind of identity in a constantly similar motion, and pass a long eternity without ever admitting any change or variation whatever. But because they revolve in a manner contrary to the indivisible and outermost sphere, they have been named planets, though without any strict propriety, by men speaking at random, who have by such language attributed their own propensity to wander to the heavenly bodies, which, in fact, never quit that position in the divine lamp in which they have been originally placed."

  • (Philo Judaeus of Alexandria, Delphi Complete Works of Philo of Alexandria.  On the Decalogue, Chapter XXI, 102-104 (Delphi Ancient Classics Book 77) (Kindle Locations 20601-20614)).

Ezekiel Saw the Wheel

Having explained that the Ptolemaic system of astronomy is found nowhere in the Bible, nor in consequence any 'seven heavens,' perhaps I should point out that some interpreters think otherwise. The pagan philosopher Porphyry, in his 'Philosophy from Oracles,' quotes Apollo as pointing out that the Hebrews used the word 'heavens' in the plural:

"'And being asked again, for what reason men speak of many heavens, he gave the following response:
"One circle girds the world on every side,
In seven zones rising to the starlit paths:
Chaldees and far-famed Hebrews 'heavens' surnamed.'" (Porphyry, quoted in Eusebius of Caesara, Preparation for the Gospel, Kindle location 6541, Book IX, Chapter X).

It is possible Porphyry's 'Apollo' is addressing the obvious question, if there really are all those spheres up there, how come the gods who inhabit those regions never mentioned them in their oracles, leaving their discovery to the astronomers? If Muslims hope to excuse Mohammed his outmoded belief in the celestial spheres by pointing to Christians who believed the same thing, such adherents are admittedly to be found. The Christians, who betrayed little interest in the Ptolemaic universe during the patristic era, ultimately warmed to that road-map and became enthusiastic partisans. The Italian poet Dante took the same tour as did Mohammed; he ascended upward through the seven spheres, looking back and marvelling at the round earth far beneath his feet (Mohammed seems not to have noticed that detail):

"And therefore, ere thou enter farther in,
Look down once more, and see how vast a world
Thou hast already put beneath thy feet;

"So that thy heart, as jocund as it may,
Present itself to the triumphant throng
That comes rejoicing through this rounded ether."

"I with my sight returned thorough one and all
The sevenfold spheres, and I beheld this globe
Such that I smiled at its ignoble semblance. . ."
(Dante Alighieri, Paradise, Canto XXII, The Divine Comedy).

Same seven heavens, but with this difference: no one considers Dante a canonical author! Nobody really believes he took the tour either. The fact remains, it's not in the Bible. Moses Maimonides, the medieval Jewish philosopher, a formidable if willful commentator, imagined that he found the spheres and their epicycles in Ezekiel's wheels within wheels:

Seeing God Danger Zone
Moses Maimonides Baggage
Cosmogram The Illuminati

  • "But we must now consider what the figurative allusions are which are enigmatically expressed in the mention of the cherubim and of the flaming sword which turned every way. May we not say that Moses here introduces under a figure an intimation of the revolutions of the whole heaven? For the spheres in heaven received a motion in opposite directions to one another, the one sphere receiving a fixed motion towards the right hand, but the sphere of the other side receiving a wandering motion towards the left. But that outermost circle of what are called the fixed stars is one sphere, which also proceeds in a fixed periodical revolution from east to west. But the interior circle of the seven planets, whose course is at the same time compulsory and voluntary, has two motions, which are to a certain degree contrary to one another. And one of these motions is involuntary, like that of the planets. For they appear every day proceeding onwards from the east to the west. But their peculiar and voluntary motion is from west to east, according to which last motion we find that the periods of the seven planets have received their exact measure of time, moving on in an equal course, as the Sun, and Lucifer, and what is called Stilbon. For these three planets are of equal speed; but some of the others are unequal in point of time, but preserve a certain sort of relative proportion to one another and to the other three which have been mentioned.  Accordingly, by one of the cherubim is understood the extreme outermost circumference of the entire heaven, in which the fixed stars celebrate their truly divine dance, which always proceeds on similar principles and is always the same, without ever leaving the order which the Father, who created them, appointed for them in the world. But the other of the cherubim is the inner sphere which is contained within that previously mentioned, which God originally divided in two parts, and created seven orbits, bearing a certain definite proportion to one another, and he adapted each of the planets to one of these; and then, having placed each of these stars in its proper orbit, like a driver in a chariot, he did not entrust the reins to any one of them, fearing that some inharmonious sort of management might be the result, but he made them all to depend upon himself, thinking that, by that arrangement, the character of their motion would be rendered most harmonious."

  • (Philo Judaeus of Alexandria, Delphi Complete Works of Philo of Alexandria. On the Cherubim, Chapter VII. (Delphi Ancient Classics Book 77) (Kindle Locations 3238-3255).)


Where Thomas Aquinas currently resides I couldn't say. But if he found his way to heaven, I imagine he was mightily disappointed to discover, there ain't no spheres. Perhaps they haven't had the heart to tell him. Perhaps they handed him some rusty old lever lying around and said, 'Here Thomas, you can work the spheres.' How to break it to him that, 'There's nothing out there! It's clear sky from here to Betelgeuse!' He would break down and weep. Ptolemaic astronomy held the field for more than a thousand years. It brought some baggage with it; the pseudo-scientific clap-trap known as astrology received a certain prestige by association, and people who should have known to stay away from a pagan system of divination got sucked in. Whether Philo as an individual was instrumental in normalizing this system of astronomy for Judaism is unclear; according to Josephus, Philo was highly regarded by the Jewish community in his day. The reader of Philo discovers, however, that he was part of a whole world of discourse, most of which has disappeared as if it never existed. He was no lone ranger in his day, and if he looks like one now it is only because the crowd surrounding him has dissipated into dust. The Rabbis certainly did not need Philo to tell them about the Ptolemaic system, it was all around them; it was the standard scientific astronomy of the day. It's not like they wouldn't have been aware of it before; but perhaps he showed the way to how it could be made to work for them. Looking further afield to secular and pagan authors, one finds the scheme in a variety of places. All tricked out for the convenience of the journeying public, it's in the Republic: "Now the whorl is in form like the whorl used on earth; and the description of it implied that there is one large hollow whorl which is quite scooped out, and into this is fitted another lesser one, and another, and another, and four others, making eight in all, like vessels which fit into one another; the whorls show their edges on the upper side, and on their lower side all together form one continuous whorl. This is pierced by the spindle, which is driven home through the centre of the eighth." (Plato, Republic, Book X). The reader unfamiliar with Ptolemy's system may enjoy taking the guided tour:

 Scipio's Dream 

As mentioned above, the Ptolemaic road-map was very popular with gnostic authors; some orthodox Christian authors, like Clement of Alexandria, also show an awareness of it: "And they purify themselves seven days, the period in which Creation was consummated. . .Whether, then, the time be that which through the seven periods enumerated returns to the chiefest rest, or the seven heavens, which some reckon one above the other; or whether also the fixed sphere which borders on the intellectual world be called the eighth, the expression denotes that the Gnostic ought to rise out of the sphere of creation and of sin. After these seven days, sacrifices are offered for sins." (Clement of Alexandria, Stromata or Miscellanies, Book 4, Chapter 25, pp. 877-878). Origen is familiar with the concept, "Finally, they summon the book of Baruch the prophet to bear witness to this assertion, because in it the seven worlds or heavens are more clearly pointed out." (Origen, De Principiis, Book 2, Chapter 3, Section 6, ANF 4, p. 527). John of Damascus thinks there is "no injury done" in the seven-count, with which this late writer is quite familiar, though he is aware the Biblical heavens-count is three:

"They say also that there are seven zones of the heaven, one higher than the other. And its nature, they say, is of extreme fineness, like that of smoke, and each zone contains one of the planets. For there are said to be seven planets: Sol, Luna, Jupiter, Mercury, Mars, Venus and Saturn. . .The heaven of heaven, then, is the first heaven which is above the firmament. So here we have two heavens, for God called the firmament also Heaven. And it is customary in the divine Scripture to speak of the air also as heavens, because we see it above us. Bless Him, it says, all ye birds of the heaven, meaning of the air. For it is the air and not the heaven that is the region in which birds fly. So here we have three heavens, as the divine Apostle said. But if you should wish to look upon the seven zones as seven heavens there is no injury done to the word of truth. For it is usual in the Hebrew tongue to speak of heaven in the plural, that is, as heavens, and when a Hebrew wishes to say heaven of heaven, he usually says heavens of heavens, and this clearly means heaven of heaven, which is above the firmament, and the waters which are above the heavens, whether it is the air and the firmament, or the seven zones of the firmament, or the firmament itself which are spoken of in the plural as heavens according to the Hebrew custom." (John of Damascus, An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, Book 2, Chapter 6).

Nowadays, Ptolemaic astronomy is not so much poised to make a comeback, as that people keep trying to slip things by, like gnosticism, which have its thumb-prints all over them. When contemporary readers encounter the 'seven heavens,' since they don't offhand know where they are, they are prone to situate them in never-never land, someplace far, far away, or very, very deep, profound and mysterious. They are just the planetary orbits, which are however no longer commonly conceptualized as solid spheres. If people could recognize Ptolemy's astronomy when they see it, they could nod and wave as to an old friend, and also it might have some prophylactic effect against adoption of old errors like gnosticism and the Kabbalah, which are hugely indebted, as 'fundamentalist' Christianity and Judaism are not, to a false cosmological map.