Afterlife and Resurrection Beliefs in the Second Temple Period

A comprehensive list and description of every resurrection and afterlife belief in the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha has been a much-lamented gap in contemporary scholarship. While death and the afterlife are popular topics among biblical scholars and students, given the enormous undertaking such a landmark study would be, it becomes understandable why it has not been done - until now.

See also Afterlife and Resurrection Beliefs in the Apocrypha and Apocalyptic Literature, Jewish and Christian Texts (29) (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2019)

Afterlife and Resurrection Beliefs in the Pseudepigrapha, Jewish and Christian Texts (30) (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2019).

By Jan A. Sigvartsen
Dozent of Old Testament
Theologische Hochschule Friedensau, Germany
January 2020

Introduction

The Hebrew Scriptures do not seem to convey a great deal regarding death and afterlife when compared to other ancient Near Eastern literature and archaeological remains. There was certainly an interest in and concern about the topic (see, e.g., Gen 5:24; Num 16:33; 1 Sam 2:6; 28:8–19; 2 Kgs 2:11; Isa 26:19; Ezek 37:1–14; Prov 12:28), but the books that became a part of the TaNaKh seem to emphasize that death was merely the end of this life, not the beginning of the next.  Sheol, too, was the destiny of both the righteous and the wicked (Eccl 9:1–10), a place of equality (Job 3:13–19; Ezek 32:18–32). Also, the lack of obvious religious burial rites in the Hebrew Bible may further suggest a lack of interest in the afterlife among religious leaders. The only detailed description of a funeral in the Hebrew Bible, according to P. Xella, is that of Abner in 2 Samuel 3:31–36.[1]  However, the TaNaKh regards proper burial with great importance (the patriarchs and matriarchs, with the exception of Rachel, were all buried in the family tomb at Machpelah [Gen 23; 49:29-33; 50:25-26], while inappropriate or lack of burial was considered a curse [e.g., Deut 28:26; Jer 22:19]). Delbert Roy Hillers notes that there was a great desire by the Israelites “to maintain some contact with the community even after death, through burial in one’s native land, and if possible with one’s ancestors.”[2] This desire is perhaps voiced the strongest by Jacob (Gen 49:29) and Joseph (50:24–25), who both requested that their bodies be brought back to the promised land (Gen 50:1–14 describes the fulfillment of Jacob’s request while the fulfillment of Joseph’s request envelops the Exodus narrative which refers to Joseph’s bones in Exod 13:19 and Josh 24:32). The practice of family burial gave rise to the Hebrew expressions: “to sleep with one’s fathers,” “buried with his fathers,” and “to be gathered to one’s kin” (e.g., Gen 25:8; 1 Kgs 11:43; 2 Kgs 8:24). Some maximalist scholars may view these Hebrew expressions and the importance placed on a burial in one’s native land with one’s ancestors as early evidence of resurrection beliefs, but be that as it may, the Second Temple period burial practices differed radically and reflect the strong resurrection hope held during this period.[3]

Writers of the Hebrew Bible seemed focused on the present life and the covenant relationship between humans and God.  Thus, the Hebrew Scriptures do not present a fully developed, or rather, a complete, comprehensive, and detailed description of the afterlife. N. T. Wright notes that “the Bible mostly denies or at least ignores the possibility of a future life, with only a few texts coming out strongly for a different view.”[4]

The most explicit resurrection statement in the Hebrew Scripture is Daniel 12:2-3, 13. John Collins suggests that “even if one takes a maximalist view of the evidence for resurrection in the Hebrew Bible, the hope expressed in Dan 12 was exceptional.”[5] This explicit resurrection passage draws on and alludes to several older biblical passages suggesting that the author must have understood them eschatologically and saw in them a resurrection hope. Another fertile source for ideas and images is the book of Isaiah, and importantly, some of the language used in Daniel is taken from Isaiah 26:19, which describes the dead coming back to life when commanded to “wake up and shout joyfully, you who live in the ground!” Alan Segal concludes that “it looks like the resurrection prophecy of Daniel 12:1–2 is based on a visionary understanding of Isaiah 66:14 . . . with the imagery of Ezekiel 37.”[6]

Second Temple Period Judaism and Theodicy

The issue of the afterlife among the Jews became much more prevalent at the close of the First Temple Period and after the return of the Jews from Babylonian exile. This could suggest that the Persian (538–331 BCE), and later the Greco-Roman Empire (331 BCE – 5th/6th century CE), made a significant impact on Second Temple Judaism, influencing Jewish culture and stimulating discussion within the belief system. Thus, some scholars suggest that the increased interest in angels, the battle between good and evil, and the interest in a future bodily resurrection and judgment, as seen in Second Temple Period Jewish writings, were due to the influence of the Zoroastrian religion of the Persians.[7] The belief in an immortal soul, which exists separately from the physical body after the moment of death, could be due to the Hellenization of Judaism. However, the reader should be cautioned that just because there are similarities between the beliefs of Judaism, Zoroastrianism, and Greek philosophers, it does not require dependency or blind adaptation by Jewish writers. On the resurrection topic, Casey Elledge writes: “In the face of theories that posit an ‘external’ influence, many scholars continued to insist upon a more “internal” emergence of resurrection from within Israel’s own theology.”[8] However, the Jewish interest in the resurrection did not emerge in a vacuum, Elledge concludes: “While certainty concerning its precise origins will remain elusive, the diverse portraits of resurrection reflect a variety of fascinating interactions between early Jewish theologians and their formative social environment within the Hellenistic age.”[9]

            Theodicy is a central theme in the Hebrew Scriptures (e.g., Gen 18:17–32; Lev 16; Job), with God rewarding the righteous, Torah observant Jews with a long and prosperous life and cutting short the life of the wicked.[10] However, during the Second Temple Period, the question of theodicy required adjustment as this was a period of foreign occupation and oppression, oppression of the righteous poor, religious persecution, and martyrdom. For Torah observant Jews, justice had been perverted: the righteous were receiving the curses of the wicked, while the wicked enjoyed the blessings promised the righteous. Only a belief in an afterlife could solve this acute problem because only in an afterlife, it was argued, could God set things straight and give the righteous and the wicked their proper reward or punishment.[11]

            Jewish scholars during the Second Temple period have synthesized and amalgamated religious and philosophical concepts from Persia and Greece into their own religious framework. Because of the diversity of their exposure to these other belief systems through diverse occupation and diaspora experiences, multiple afterlife beliefs developed among various Jewish sects/communities and are reflected in their literature, in an attempt to solve the problem of theodicy. By the end of this period, a belief in a bodily resurrection had become a mainstream belief in both surviving strands of Second Temple Judaism: Rabbinic Judaism and the early Christian Church, and a central tenet for both communities. For Christians, questioning this doctrine was equated with questioning the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection, which was the guarantee for the Christian salvation hope (e.g., Rom 6:3–6; 1 Cor 15; 1 Pet 1:3–4). For Rabbinic Judaism, questioning this faith would disqualify a person from any share in the world to come: “All Israelites have a share in the world to come . . . And these are the ones who have no portion in the world to come: (1) He who says, the resurrection of the dead is a teaching which does not derive from the Torah, (2) and the Torah does not come from Heaven; and (3) an Epicurean” (m. Sanh. 10:1).

Development of Afterlife and Resurrection Beliefs

The Second Temple Period saw the birth of multiple Jewish sects/communities and also multiple views of the afterlife that focused on the fate of the righteous and the wicked after the time of death.[12] The Hebrew Scriptures supported these views, but the different sects/ communities connected and interpreted the scriptural passages differently. Thus, the beliefs seem to have developed in isolation to one another, rather than latter beliefs building on previous beliefs.  Because of space constraints, the eighteen complete beliefs[13] and numerous partial beliefs identified in the Apocrypha and the Pseudepigrapha will not be individually discussed in this essay. However, a comprehensive discussion is available to interested readers in the monographs on which this article is based.[14]  Those publications also contain detailed diagrams of the eighteen complete beliefs for easy comprehension and comparison, as well as a comprehensive anthology of the resurrection and afterlife texts contained in these Second Temple Period writings. When visually considering these diagrams, it becomes apparent there is no progress from a basic to a more complex death and the resurrection view as multiple levels of complexity is attested throughout this period.

The Mortality or Immortality of the Soul

These emerging beliefs fall into two main categories based on whether the sect/community believed in the mortality of the soul or the immortality of the soul. The immortality of the soul view is by far the most prevalent view in the Apocrypha and the Pseudepigrapha.

Mortality of the Soul

If the soul was believed to be mortal (the minority view in the Apocrypha and the Pseudepigrapha), Second Temple Period literature[15] describes views ranging from:

  • Rejection of an afterlife. This view was held by the Sadducees, who belonged to the aristocracy and the priestly class.[16] They saw no need for a resurrection to solve the problem of theodicy since they strongly believed in the two-way theology/covenant theology appearing in the Pentateuch, which held that God rewards or punishes people for their behavior in the present life. Regarding their view on fate, Josephus writes: “they suppose that all our actions are in our own power so that we are ourselves the causes of what is good and receive what is evil from our own folly” (Ant. 13.5.9). Interestingly, this view closely resembles the Greek philosophy of the Epicureans. Segal suggests that although there are no texts which can be identified as penned by the Sadducean sect, there are several biblical and Second Temple period texts (e.g., Job, Ecclesiastes, Wisdom of Jesus Ben Sira) which harmonize well with the Sadducean philosophy. Segal concludes: “The Sadducees knew that when the Bible is interpreted literally, there is scant evidence for any afterlife worth having.” [17]
  • A future limited resurrection of all the righteous. Several New Testament passages seem to suggest that only believers in Jesus Christ will be resurrected and receive eternal life (e.g., Rom 14:10–12; 1 Cor 15:12–57; 1 Thess 4:13–18). The destiny of the wicked is either unknown, ignored, or of no interest to the author.
  • A future limited resurrection of the most righteous and the most wicked. George Nickelsburg observes that religious persecutions during the Second Temple period caused a problem of theodicy. The righteous, Torah observant Jews, were martyred without receiving the promised rewards for their pious lives. In fact, it was their adherence to the Torah that caused their deaths (2 Macc 7). However, the Hasidic Jews noticed that Hellenizing Jews, who disobeyed the Torah, prospered. The resurrection belief became the solution to this problem since God could reward the martyred righteous in the world to come.[18] It is important to note that the clearest resurrection text in the TaNaKh, Daniel 12:1–3, describes a double resurrection, one for the righteous and one for the wicked. However, this passage does not support a universal resurrection, but only a resurrection for some righteous and some wicked (Dan 12:2). Importantly, the most righteous and the most wicked are resurrected to receive God’s justice, the blessing or the curse, suggesting that everyone else has received their just reward.
  • A future universal resurrection. See e.g., Acts 24:15, 21; Rev 20:4–6, 12–15.

Immortality of the Soul

If, alternatively, the soul was believed to be immortal, a separate entity which could exist independently from the body (the majority view in the Apocrypha and the Pseudepigrapha), the literature describes views ranging from:

  • Some form of existence in Sheol.  The Hebrew word Sheol is used 66 times in the TaNaKh and describes the final resting place for the dead. The Septuagint translates this word with the Greek term Hades which is also the term used in the Pseudepigrapha (2 Esdras 4:7–8; 8:53; Sib. Or. 3:393, 458; 5:178; T. Reu. 4:5; T. Levi 4:1; T. Benj. 9:5; 3 Bar. 4:4–6; 5:3) and the New Testament writings (e.g., Luke 16:23; Acts 2:27, 31; Rev 1:18; 20:13–14). Segal notes that “like the Greek Hades, it was neither a place of reward nor of punishment inherently, merely the final destination where the dead go.”[19] Interestingly, Deuteronomy 26:14 suggests that some Israelites must have believed in some form of existence in Sheol and felt a need to provide food for the dead. This notion is further supported by ancient Jewish tomb inscriptions[20] and Saul’s use of a medium to request a prophetic message from the dead prophet Samuel (1 Sam 28:7–19).
  • A belief that the soul left the body to have an independent existence until the day of a universal judgment when it would return to its resurrected body. According to Josephus and the New Testament writings, the Pharisees were the dominant religious force of the late Second Temple period, which then evolved into Rabbinic Judaism after the destruction of the Jewish temple. They were strong believers in a bodily resurrection (Josephus, Ant. 18.1.3; J. W. 2.8.14; Acts 23:6–9; Hippolytus, Haer. 28), but they may also have been influenced by the Greek Platonist notion that the soul was immortal. They believed that the soul would leave the body at the time of death and exist independently from the body. However, they held that the soul would return to the body at the time of resurrection in order to be judged as one unified entity at the great judgment. This synthesized view appears in e.g., 2 Esdras 7:32–38; Apocr Ezek, frag. 1.
  • A belief that the soul left the body at the time of death and would live independently with no need for a future resurrection because the good or the bad soul would receive its just reward. This last view is similar to the Platonic immortality of the soul concept that strongly influenced Philo’s writings. According to Josephus (Ant. 18.1.5; J. W. 2.8.11), the Essenes believed in the immortality of the soul and was the Jewish religious group most closely related to the Platonic afterlife belief. [21]

Additional Observations

The resurrection passages appearing in the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha present very diverse views. Each literary work containing a “life-after-death” view seems to present a unique perspective, even compositions presenting scant details regarding the events following death and the eschatological time. Considering this literature, it becomes apparent that there is no progress from a basic to a more complex death and resurrection view as multiple levels of complexity are present throughout this period. Thus, there is no linear development of the resurrection belief; rather, multiple views co-existed, although an eschatological bodily resurrection belief became the central tenet for both Rabbinic Judaism and the Early Christian Church. Moreover, there seems to be a lack of evidence in this literature that supports a shift in focus from a bodily resurrection toward the immortality of the soul, as the fate of both the body and soul seem to be of great interest to the authors and the communities to which they belonged. Therefore, it could also be concluded that just because Jewish and/or Christian texts borrowed terms or concepts also present in Greek philosophical texts, it does not necessarily mean the whole philosophical framework was accepted. Rather, these terms and concepts were adapted to fit into the theological framework of the composition.

One of the primary elements impacting these diverse resurrection views is the understanding of human anthropology – if a person consists of just a body; or a body and soul; or a body, soul, and spirit. The bi- and tripartite view of human anthropology introduces several additional elements impacting the death and resurrection view. First, what is the nature of this soul, is it mortal or immortal? Second, where does it go when parting from the body? Third, does the soul of the righteous and the wicked face a different fate following the physical death? If it does, it would require a postmortem evaluation of the soul – a judgment of the soul. Fourth, will the soul be reunified with the body in the eschatological future? An option requiring a bodily resurrection. Fifth, will the soul be in a conscious or an unconscious state while awaiting this eschatological reunification? The literature belonging to the Apocrypha and the Pseudepigrapha provide a different answer to these questions, hence the diversity in resurrection views. It should be noted this reunification at the time of the eschatological resurrection and judgment presented in most of these resurrection passages of this period does not support the Platonic or Gnostic notion that the soul (“the spiritual”) is pure. At the same time, the body (“the physical or material”) is impure (the source of evil which has imprisoned the soul) because the righteous will spend eternity in their bi- or tripartite state.

The diverse resurrection views appearing in the Apocrypha and the Pseudepigrapha also differ in their scope, ranging from a universal resurrection to a more limited one. There is also variation in resurrection views when it comes to the function and the number of judgments. The final destiny of the righteous and the wicked also impact a death and resurrection view, as the wicked may be annihilated or punished for all eternity. The final destiny of the righteous also affects the type of body needed to live in that location.

A careful reading of all the resurrection passages appearing in the Apocrypha and the Pseudepigrapha reveal that most of the distinct views on life after death, regardless of their complexity, are often supported by several key passages from the books that later became a part of the TaNaKh or shared motifs with these books.

Conclusion

During the Second Temple Period, there were multiple views on life after death that developed independently within different faith communities. Thus, there was no obvious progression where earlier beliefs were expanded and built upon by later beliefs. The common factor between most of the eighteen complete beliefs and the numerous partial beliefs appearing in the Apocrypha and the Pseudepigrapha is an attempt to address the question of theodicy, where the righteous and the wicked, to varying degrees, will receive their proper reward and/or punishment based on their choices within this life. In these beliefs, the righteous are rewarded, and the wicked are punished, although they may have different views regarding some of the finer details of this afterlife.

By the end of the Second Temple Period, the resurrection belief had become the orthodox view among the two surviving branches of Judaism. In Rabbinic Judaism, resurrection was taken for granted, and it was argued that the resurrection belief is founded on the Hebrew Scripture.  In Early Christianity, the focus was placed on Jesus’ resurrection from the dead as the foundation for the belief that His followers will also experience an eschatological resurrection.

 

[1] P. Xella, “Death and the Afterlife in Canaanite and Hebrew Thought,” in Civilizations of the Ancient Near East, ed. J. Sasson, 4 vols. (New York: Hendrickson, 1995) 3:2068.

[2] D. Hillers, “Burial,” Encyclopaedia Judaica, 2nd edition, 4:291.

[3] See, e.g., Rachel Hachlili, “Burials: Ancient Jewish,” Anchor Bible Dictionary 1:789-794 and Jewish Funerary Customs, Practices and Rites in the Second Temple Period, in Supplements to the Journal for the Study of Judaism (Leiden: Brill, 2005), 94.

[4] N. T. Wright, “The Resurrection of the Son of God,” Christian Origins and the Question of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003), 3:129.

[5] John J. Collins, Daniel: A Commentary on the Book of Daniel (Hermeneia: A Critical & Historical Commentary on the Bible) (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1994), 395.

6 Alan Segal, Life After Death: A History of the Afterlife in Western Religion (New York: Doubleday, 2004), 264.

[7] See, e.g., James Barr, “The question of Religious Influence: The Case of Zoroastrianism, Judaism, and Christianity,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 53.2 (1985): 201; M. Boyce, “Zoroaster, Zoroastrianism,” The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary 6:1171-1172; A. Jackson, “Zoroastrianism,” The Jewish Encyclopedia 12:696-697.

[8] Cassey D. Elledge, Resurrection of the Dead in Early Judaism: 200 BCE – CE 200 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017), 56-57. This conclusion is also supported by Jon D. Levenson, Resurrection and the Restoration of Israel: The Ultimate Victory of the God of Life (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2006), xiii, 180.

[9] Elledge, Resurrection of the Dead in Early Judaism, 64.

[10] The question of theodicy did not only occupy the mind of the biblical writers, but it is also found in ancient Near Eastern texts as early as the second millennium BCE. For further reading into the question of theodicy in ancient Near Eastern text, Hebrew Scripture, New Testament, Second Temple period literature (including Qumran, Philo), and Rabbinic literature, see Antti Laato and Johannes C. de Moor, eds., Theodicy in the World of the Bible: The Goodness of God and the Problem of Evil (Leiden: Brill, 2003).

[11] George W. E. Nickelsburg, Resurrection, Immortality, and Eternal Life in Intertestamental Judaism and Early Christianity: Expanded Edition, Harvard Theological Studies (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007).

[12] J. Julius Scott, Jr., Jewish Backgrounds of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1995), 278–281. See also, Nickelsburg, Resurrection, Immortality, and Eternal Life.

[13] These eighteen distinct and complete views are found in: 2 Maccabees; Wisdom of Solomon; 4 Ezra; Book of Watchers; Book of the Epistle of Enoch; 2 Enoch; 3 Enoch; Apocalypse of Zephaniah; Greek Apocalypse of Ezra; Vision of Ezra; Question of Ezra; 2 Baruch; Testament of Abraham; Martyrdom and Ascension of Isaiah; Pseudo-Philo; 4 Maccabees; Pseudo-Phocylides; and Psalms of Solomon.

[14] See Jan A. Sigvartsen. Afterlife and Resurrection Beliefs in the Apocrypha and Apocalyptic Literature. Jewish and Christian Texts (29). (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2019).  See also Sigvartsen, Afterlife and Resurrection Beliefs in the Pseudepigrapha. Jewish and Christian Texts (30) (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2019).

[15] Second Temple Period Literature includes the Apocrypha and the Pseudepigrapha, Philo, Josephus, the Dead Sea Scrolls, New Testament, and Early Rabbinic writings.

[16] See Josephus, Ant. 13.5.9; 18.1.4 and J.W. 2.8.15 and the New Testament writings (Matt 22:23–33; Mark 12:18–37; Luke 20:27–40; Acts 23:6–9).

[17] Segal, Life After Death, 377.

[18] Nickelsburg, Resurrection, Immortality, and Eternal Life, 32.

[19] Segal, Life After Death, 136.

[20] Joseph S. Park, Conceptions of Afterlife in Jewish Inscriptions: With Special Reference to Pauline Literature, Wissenschaftliche Untersuchungen zum Neuen Testament (Tübingen: Mohr-Siebeck, 2000), 2:121.

[21] This is also supported by Philo in his description on the Alexandrian therapeutic sect, a branch of the Essenes [(J. T. Milik, Ten Years of Discovery in the Wilderness of Judea, Studies in Biblical Theology (26) (London: SCM, 1959); and Pierre Geoltrain, Le traité de la Vie Contemplativa de Philon d’Alexandrie, Semitica (10) (Paris: Adrien-Maisonneuve, 1960), 11–29)], who “thinking that their mortal life has already come to one end” and so believing that they were already partaking in the eschatological life, gave all their possessions away (Philo, Contempl. Life, 11–13). 

However, the Dead Sea Scrolls and Hippolytus of Rome (Elenchus 27.1) suggest that the Essenes did believe in a bodily resurrection. Josephus also notes that Eleazar ben Yair, the rebel leader at Masada, appealed to the belief in the immortality of the soul when promoting mass suicide instead of capture by the Romans (J. W. 7.8.7). It could be argued that Philo Judaeus was one of the strongest advocates of the immortality of the soul doctrine without mentioning a bodily resurrection. Segal suggests that Philo attempted to synthesize Greek and Hebrew thoughts by giving the TaNaKh an allegorical reading, believing that “the Hebrew Bible not only illustrates Greek philosophical views through allegory (as do the Iliad and Odyssey, according to the Greek commentators) but also morally surpasses them. For Philo, Greek philosophers, and the Hebrew Bible told the same philosophical truth” (Segal, Life After Death, 368).

Article Comments

Submitted by Jason M. Silverman on Tue, 01/14/2020 - 11:35

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Paragraph four: There is some considerably more recent work on Persian religion and its relations to Judaism than Barr 1985 or AVW Jackson (!)...

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