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A Resurrection for Tortured Jews (2 Maccabees)

I have pointed out that the notion of “resurrection” first appears in Jewish writings in the book of Daniel, and I am arguing that this notion is intrinsically connected with the apocalyptic view of the world that developed at the time.  In this view of the world, as I’ve laid it out on the blog before (e.g.: https://ehrmanblog.org/the-rise-of-apocalypticism/) the people of God suffer *not* necessarily because God is punishing them for their sins but because there are forces of evil in the world aligned against God and his people who are wreaking havoc among the faithful.  But after this life, God will raise his faithful from the dead and reward them for their fidelity to his law.

This view can be found in the apocalypses that began to be written around the time of Daniel and then for the next several centuries first among Jews and then among Christians, such books as 1 Enoch, 4 Ezra, 2 Baruch and the New Testament book of Revelation (see further: https://ehrmanblog.org/a-new-genre-in-jewish-antiquity-the-apocalypse/)

But aspects of this view could be found in books that did not share the literary form of the apocalypse.  People who held to apocalyptic views could write all kinds of books (letters, Gospels, historical narratives, and so on), just as Marxists can produce books other than economic treatises.

Among the books that came out of the Maccabean revolt, no historical works are as informative or interesting as 1 and 2 Maccabees (see https://ehrmanblog.org/the-books-of-1-and-2-maccabees/).  For this post I am principally interested in 2 Maccabees, because like Daniel it presents a Jewish understanding of the resurrection of the dead, where the righteous who have been persecuted, tortured, and martyred will be rewarded with new bodies in the life to come.

Recall: in 167 BCE Antiochus Epiphanes…

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[/private]Recall: in 167 BCE Antiochus Epiphanes ordered that Jews give up their Jewish ways and begin to live like Greeks.  No more were they allowed to abstain from making pagan sacrifices; no more could they keep the Sabbath or the Jewish festivals, or circumcise their baby boys, or observe kosher food laws.

2 Maccabees records the trials, tortures, and horrific executions of an elderly man, Eleazar, of seven brothers, and their mother (all in chs. 6-7).  The tortures are described in gruesome detail.   Antiochus, for example, uses whips and thongs to force the brothers to eat pork.  They refuse, and one of them bravely tells him they would rather die than “transgress the laws of our ancestors” (7:2).  This enrages the king and he orders the executioner to take the young man, scalp him, cut out his tongue, and cut off his hands and feet while his brothers and mother look on.  When he was then utterly helpless, but still breathing, the king orders him roasted on a giant metal pan placed atop a large fire.  And thus he died.

Each of the brothers saw what would happen to them if they continued to refuse.  But they remained stalwart, and one by one were tortured to death – while the surviving brothers, and their mother, encouraged them on to stay true to the law.

It is a powerful and moving narrative.  For my purposes here, what is especially interesting are the words spoken by the brothers before their deaths.   The second brother is tortured like the first, but while he could still talk he tells the king, “You accursed wretch, you dismiss us from this present life, but the King of the universe will raise us up to an everlasting renewal of life, because we have died for his laws” (7:9).  Note: a future resurrection will vindicate those who are faithful to death.

The third brother says, before his death, with respect to his tongue and hands that were about to be cut off, “I got these from Heaven, and because of his laws I disdain them, and from him I hope to get them back again” (7:11).  So the resurrection is not simply the revival of the soul in heaven at death.  It is the reconstitution of the body, tongue, hands, and all.

When the fourth dies he exclaims to the king: “One cannot but choose to die at the hands of mortals and to cherish the hope God gives of being raised again by him.  But for you there will be no resurrection to life” (7:14).   And so those faithful to God will be raised, but not those who deny God and oppose his people.

In the book of 2 Maccabees, the future resurrection is not the one and only explanation for why there can be such suffering.  Among other things, some of the brothers inform the king that God will torture him in the same way he is torturing them.  One might be tempted to think that this means he will go to hell after his death, but there is no discussion here of postmortem punishment or indication that the wicked will survive death.  The brothers are tortured in this life, here on earth, and Antiochus can look forward to the same fate himself.  But tor those who die for his laws there will be a resurrection.  The book never says that others Jews (who are not martyred) will be raised as well.  One might think so, but the book doesn’t say.

Recall: the book of Daniel too was written in the context of persecution (the same one in fact), and it too embraced a doctrine of resurrection.   My argument is that the idea that people would not simply die and go to Sheol, but that some of them at least would be given a joyful afterlife existence in a resurrected body, a real physical existence in a body with all its parts intact, came about within Judaism in the context of intense persecution, as Jews were being attacked not strictly for their political views or out of military necessity, but because they were practicing a religion that came to be proscribed.  Since, in the views of these Jews, what was being outlawed by authorities was precisely the law that God himself had given, God would vindicate those who suffered and died.  Thus, it appears that it was martyrdom for the sake of God that, in Jewish circles, led to the idea of a glorious afterlife in the hereafter.  I’ll expound on that further in the next post.[/private]


Physical Persecution and the Physical Resurrection of the Dead
Interpolations and Textual Corruptions: The Blurry Lines

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Comments

  1. Robert  August 17, 2017

    “In this view of the world, as I’ve laid it out on the blog before … the people of God suffer *not* necessarily because God is punishing them for their sins but because there are forces of evil in the world aligned against God and his people who are wreaking havoc among the faithful.”

    But the view expressed in 2 Maccabees is that it is indeed God who is mercifully punishing them for their sins:

    “2 Macc 6,12 Now I urge those who read this book not to be depressed by such calamities, but to recognize that these punishments were designed not to destroy but to discipline our people. 13 In fact, it is a sign of great kindness not to let the impious alone for long, but to punish them immediately. 14 For in the case of the other nations the Lord waits patiently to punish them until they have reached the full measure of their sins; but he does not deal in this way with us, 15 in order that he may not take vengeance on us afterward when our sins have reached their height. 16 Therefore he never withdraws his mercy from us. Although he disciplines us with calamities, he does not forsake his own people. 17 Let what we have said serve as a reminder …”

    Don’t let the philosophical problem of evil and an interest in the origins of the apocalyptic worldview and genre overly influence the exegesis of 2 Maccabees. Unlike the apocalyptic book of Daniel which was written in the context of persecution, I think the Sitz-im-Leben of the Maccabean literature was later, extolling the virtues of those who suffered but from the perspective of those who won in allegiance with Rome and other powerful city-states.

    • Bart
      Bart  August 18, 2017

      That’s right. 2 Maccabees has both views, at once.

      • Robert  August 18, 2017

        Except that the ‘forces of evil in the world aligned against God and his people who are wreaking havoc among the faithful’ are not presented in the Maccabean corpus as demonic or satanic spiritual forces, but merely a human Seleucid government, which will be defeated by the Maccabees, who will form alliances with other human governments, eg, Romans, Spartans, and eventually even the Seleucids will recognize some limited autonomy of the Hasmonean rule. That’s not really an apocalyptic worldview. In their contemporary worldview, God is the entire time in complete control, not Satan, and while God is mercifully and swiftly punishing Israel for their sins, he will also punish the other nations and their descendants, but not through some apocalyptic upheaval or end of a current age ruled by Satan.

  2. nbraith1975  August 17, 2017

    It looks like the NT teachings of “expected” persecution and suffering for followers of Jesus is an attempt to side-step the promise of God in the OT to protect and bless his followers. So no matter what happens to you as Christians – good, bad or indifferent – it’s all a blessing! It’s also a great cop-out to “unanswered” prayers and broken promises by god.

    Acts 5:41
    So they went on their way from the presence of the Council, rejoicing that they had been considered worthy to suffer shame for His name.
    Acts 9:16
    for I will show him how much he must suffer for My name’s sake.”
    Romans 8:17
    and if children, heirs also, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him so that we may also be glorified with Him.
    Romans 8:36
    Just as it is written, “FOR YOUR SAKE WE ARE BEING PUT TO DEATH ALL DAY LONG; WE WERE CONSIDERED AS SHEEP TO BE SLAUGHTERED.”
    2 Corinthians 1:7
    and our hope for you is firmly grounded, knowing that as you are sharers of our sufferings, so also you are sharers of our comfort.
    2 Corinthians 11:23
    Are they servants of Christ?–I speak as if insane–I more so; in far more labors, in far more imprisonments, beaten times without number, often in danger of death.
    Philippians 3:10
    that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death;
    2 Timothy 2:12
    If we endure, we will also reign with Him; If we deny Him, He also will deny us;
    Hebrews 11:25
    choosing rather to endure ill-treatment with the people of God than to enjoy the passing pleasures of sin,
    James 5:10
    As an example, brethren, of suffering and patience, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord.
    1 Peter 2:20
    For what credit is there if, when you sin and are harshly treated, you endure it with patience? But if when you do what is right and suffer for it you patiently endure it, this finds favor with God.
    1 Peter 3:14
    But even if you should suffer for the sake of righteousness, you are blessed AND DO NOT FEAR THEIR INTIMIDATION, AND DO NOT BE TROUBLED,
    1 Peter 4:16
    but if anyone suffers as a Christian, he is not to be ashamed, but is to glorify God in this name.
    1 Peter 5:10
    After you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who called you to His eternal glory in Christ, will Himself perfect, confirm, strengthen and establish you.
    Matthew 5:11
    “Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me.
    Matthew 10:22
    “You will be hated by all because of My name, but it is the one who has endured to the end who will be saved.
    Matthew 10:39
    “He who has found his life will lose it, and he who has lost his life for My sake will find it.
    Matthew 19:29
    “And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or farms for My name’s sake, will receive many times as much, and will inherit eternal life.
    1 Corinthians 4:10
    We are fools for Christ’s sake, but you are prudent in Christ; we are weak, but you are strong; you are distinguished, but we are without honor.
    2 Corinthians 4:5
    For we do not preach ourselves but Christ Jesus as Lord, and ourselves as your bond-servants for Jesus’ sake.
    2 Corinthians 4:11
    For we who live are constantly being delivered over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh.
    2 Corinthians 12:10
    Therefore I am well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ’s sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong.
    Philippians 1:29
    For to you it has been granted for Christ’s sake, not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for His sake,

  3. Alfred  August 17, 2017

    To this day I remember the illustration on the children’s bible my Catholic parents were nice enough to give me that illustrated the tortures you describe.

  4. Gabe_Grinstead  August 17, 2017

    You can see a clear progression of ideas. In the Torah, you have only this life, nothing about the after life, at all. Then eventually there is this place called Sheol a thousand years later. Around the Maccabees writings, it progresses to a physical resurrection, but only for those who had obeyed the law. At this point, Hell has not yet come into existence within Judaism as a whole. Jesus seems (debatable, as he often spoke to the public in parables) to start teaching about heaven and hell with Luke 16 (I strongly believe it was a parable, which are not meant to convey a literal truths) and Matthew 25:46. Fast forward to the Revelation of John and everyone gets physically resurrected, some to immortality (heaven) and others, well, depending on how you view it, immortality (debatable) as well, but in a bad (hell) way. You can see the progression clearly which I believe was a result of people opening their eyes and seeing how this world is not fair, despite what their ancestors seemed to believe. It should be noted, however, that many other religions had a concept of Hell before Judaism did. So I find it very probable that some of these ideas were already believed long before, but were maybe not the norm, or did not make it into their canonical literature.

  5. Seeker1952  August 17, 2017

    It strikes me that there might be a lot of continuity between the (successful) Maccabean revolt and the later (unsuccessful) Jewish revolts of the 70s and 130s CE that took place only two to three hundred years afterward. Did the former serve as inspiration for the latter to a significant extent? Were the issues leading to the revolts similar–though the demands of Antiochus Epiphanes were probably much more extreme than anything faced by the Jews in the later revolts? Did many/most of the participants in the later revolts have a belief in resurrection similar to that in 2 Maccabees?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 18, 2017

      Yes the Maccabean literature was seen as inspiration — and continues to be! The issues, though, were different in each case, though one could argue that at the heart of all the insurrections was the sense that Jews had the right to rule the land God had given them. As at all times, there were a variety of beliefs about afterlife among Jews in Palestine.

    • talmoore
      talmoore  August 18, 2017

      The irony is the men who wrote the apocalyptic literature didn’t see the Maccabean revolt as successful at all. They saw supposed messianic figures such as Simon and Jonathan as letting down the cause. And, eventually, leaders like John Hyrcanus and Alexander Jannaeus — who themselves were guilty of torturing the Jewish “saints” in ways similar to 2 Maccabees — those Jewish leaders came to embody the apocalypticists’ disappointment and feeling of betrayal. Both the Pharisees and the Essenes look to be splinter groups who emerged from those let down by the revolution — the Pharisees splintering from the so-called Hassidim (“The Pious”), laymen who backed the Maccabeans, and the Essenes splintering from the levites and priests, who were outraged that the non-Zadokite Hasmoneans would claim not only the high priesthood but kingship as well. So, yeah, not all Jews viewed the Maccabean revolt as successful. In fact, to quote Orwell and Pete Townshend, they saw it more like: “Four legs good; two legs better” or “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.”

  6. Seeker1952  August 17, 2017

    For a course in the New Testament I read part of what I think was either 3 or 4 Maccabees (though it could have been 2). Anyway I was struck by what seemed to me to be a celebration of classical Greek virtues in the Maccabee brothers in facing death, virtues like equanimity, courage, philosophy. That seemed inconsistent in that Greek values were precisely what they were fighting against. If I recall correctly the thought was that the origins of 3 and 4 Maccabees were very different (ie, possibly Christian) from 1 and 2 and may well have had a much more Greek perspective. I’m wondering if my intuitions about the presence of Greek values somewhere in Maccabees were at all accurate (ie, if I’ve given you enough to have any idea what I’m talking about)?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 18, 2017

      Yes that is 4 Maccabees, which wants to show that “reason” can and should triumph in a person’s life (a very Greek idea: see Plato!); the martyrs are given as examples of that happening.

      • Seeker1952  August 18, 2017

        Thanks. And right, I forgot the most important Greek virtue, reason.

  7. Carl  August 17, 2017

    How big was the Celtic community within Judea? Just wondering if the Maccabean Revolt could have been a catalyst for incorporating the ‘noble death’ theology at all.

    • Bart
      Bart  August 18, 2017

      I’m not sure there were any Celts in Judea, were there?

      • talmoore
        talmoore  August 18, 2017

        There were Celts in Anatolia (modern Turkey). The Galatians, for example, were descended from Celts.
        Incidentally, Herod Archelaus — the son of Herod the Great who originally ruled Judea from his father’s death until 6 CE — after being deposed by Augustus, he was exiled to Gaul.

        • Bart
          Bart  August 20, 2017

          Yes, I thought the question was about Judea.

          • godspell  August 23, 2017

            Well, I have heard theories regarding the Irish being one of the lost tribes. It would explain much. 😐

      • Carl  August 21, 2017

        The initial question was a bit of a stab in the dark (History and Geography were never my strong points). The story of Herod Archelaus’ exile brings another question to mind though. Is it *possible* that Paul could have traveled to Gaul from Rome? Perhaps even died there?
        It does seem like Paul ‘disappeared’ during his final years.

        • Bart
          Bart  August 21, 2017

          Most anything is possible — since we don’t have any historical record, only later legends (e.g., in the second-century apocryphal Acts of Paul)

  8. jhague  August 17, 2017

    ” the people of God suffer *not* necessarily because God is punishing them for their sins but because there are forces of evil in the world aligned against God and his people who are wreaking havoc among the faithful. But after this life, God will raise his faithful from the dead and reward them for their fidelity to his law.”

    Some Christians today seem to believe both of these ideas…God punishes people due to sin and people suffer due to the forces of evil in the world. Do you find this to be the case as well?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 18, 2017

      Me personally? No. But yes, both views are found in a number of ancient sources, held together in tension.

      • jhague  August 18, 2017

        Sorry. I did not mean you. I meant do you also find that many Christians today seem to believe both of these ideas at the same time?

  9. Adam0685  August 17, 2017

    There seems to be an underlying theme to your last few posts about the afterlife. “Vindicate,” “law,” “reward,” “punishment,” “kingdom (i.e. god’s rule), etc. are all related to the idea of justice. It seems like the ideas about the afterlife you have been discussing is closely related to the culmination and finality of god making things right–and that this won’t happen in its fullness here and now, but after this current existence/life. Even with the prophetic view, the concept of justice was prominent, but with the apocalyptic view you are describing the idea of justice and how/when it would be achieved started to change/develop.
    In March you had asked if the afterlife matters for other things (https://ehrmanblog.org/does-the-afterlife-matter-for-other-things). I wonder if the views of what the afterlife is like that you have been describing has mattered for the West’s views of justice, how we treat others, the law, etc,

    • Bart
      Bart  August 18, 2017

      I wonder too!

      • llamensdor  August 19, 2017

        As a lawyer, I can say that the concept of the afterlife has no “official” role in common or civil law. I am not familiar with Sharia(h) and know little of hinduism or buddhism, so I can’t presume to speak about the law outside of the Western world. However, that is not to say that, for example, trial lawyers don’t use vague ideas about an afterlife in their opening and/or closing arguments, sometimes to absolve a jury from responsibility for findings of guilt or innocence.

    • talmoore
      talmoore  August 18, 2017

      Nietzsche’s entire philosophy is built around this idea. He viewed Judeo-christian morality as a “slave” morality, and Greco-roman morality is a “master” morality. In Nietzsche’s mind, the Christian slave morality corrupted the system of justice we inherited from the Romans, so that it not only justified but glorified suffering. This caused people to live for justice in the afterlife rather than for justice now, which Nietzsche believed robbed humanity of justice and glory here on earth. We see this very idea — that we should only concern ourselves with justice in the afterlife, not here on earth — in the acts of extremist Muslim groups like Hamas and Hizbollah. For instance, a group like Hamas will not only ignore the many civilian deaths caused by their use of human shields, they celebrate it, believing that after death, when they go before God, who is truly just and Rachmani Rachim (“The Most Merciful”), these innocent souls will be greatly rewarded in heaven. It’s a perverse incentive that not only allows for but rationalizes suffering here on earth with the promise of eternal pleasure after death.

  10. godspell  August 17, 2017

    It’s surprising how few people realize what a contemporary book the Old Testament still is.

    And would be, even if only the most devout and erudite Jews had ever read it.

  11. stevenpounders  August 17, 2017

    That’s truly a gruesome tale of martyrdom. Is it likely that it is a true story, a truish story exaggerated for effect, or an invention for propaganda.

    • Bart
      Bart  August 18, 2017

      I don’t really know! We don’t have any other records of the events to compare them with.

      • jhague  August 18, 2017

        Are there any records of this type of event happening anywhere? Of a Jewish family being tortured one by one in front of the remaining family members?

        • Bart
          Bart  August 20, 2017

          Nothing comes to mind, but I imagine there were other instances throughout history. Maybe others know of some concretely?

      • llamensdor  August 19, 2017

        I know that the books of the Maccabees are not considered to be part of Jewish Scripture, and I have often been told that, historically, the “canon” was closed long before the second century, B.C.E., when the Maccabee’s revolt took place. Various Catholic confessions include these and other books,called Apocrypha, Pseudepigrapha, etc., etc.
        My personal belief is that while the Maccabees are considered Jewish heros by all Jewish persuasions (I attended a summer camp named “Maccabee” in my teens), and their martyrdom is deeply respected, martyrdom is not deemed a
        requirement in any version of Judaism, and in fact, Jews are told, better to convert than to die–life being the greatest gift of all.

    • talmoore
      talmoore  August 18, 2017

      Whether or not this particular story is historical, we know that such forms of gruesome execution did happen. Purportedly, the Roman emperor Valerian himself, upon being captured by the Parthians in battle, was said to be flayed alive and his skin stuffed like a taxidermied animal. Many of these tales are probably exaggerated for effect — whether to intimidate or inspire — including the story of Valerian. Regardless, we know enough about ancient forms of torture and punishment to know that gruesome executions like this did occur.

  12. dragonfly  August 18, 2017

    So the author thought, or wanted others to think, that those who oppose God’s laws might prosper now, but they will suffer before they die? And will they go to sheol when they die?

  13. hasankhan  August 18, 2017

    How can brothers certainly ‘develop’ the idea of resurrection and take persecution for it unless they have been raised up with that belief and thus it became strong enough for them to take persecution for it. There is no reason for anyone to take persecution for faith, if they don’t believe in afterlife. This is not something that people ‘come up’ with in last minute and have strong conviction in it as well.

    • deanegalbraith@yahoo.co.nz  August 20, 2017

      I think your’re exactly right, Hasan. The Maccabean crisis no doubt strengthened faith in a day of resurrection (yawm al-qiyama), but it can hardly be the original cause. Besides, the concept is already assumed in 1 Enoch 22, written before Daniel and the Maccabean crisis. As I commented on the immediately preceding thread, I suspect that a place for humans in a blessed afterlife is largely a result of the developments we see in Jewish “monotheism” at that time, where the lower gods were eliminated and exalted humans ‘took their place’.

  14. Machaon  August 19, 2017

    Thanks for another fascinating post.
    The apocalyptic Maccabean doctrine seems to be very much present in the canonical gospels.
    Consider one parallel:

    2 Maccabees 7:10-11 (stretching out his hands)
    “I received these from heaven, and because of His laws I disregard them, and from Him I hope to get them back again.”

    Matthew 5:30
    “And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and cast it from you; for it is more profitable that one of your members perish, than for your whole body to be cast into hell.”

  15. stevenpounders  August 28, 2017

    I found another biblical example of religious persecution. In 2 Kings 10, Jehu used deceit (a promise of a great offering to Baal) to lure all of the Baal worshippers from all over Israel to the temple of Baal. After making sure only Baal worshippers were inside the temple, he stationed guards at the doors and put everyone inside to the sword.

    “Thus Jehu wiped out Baal from Israel”.

  16. Jana  October 15, 2017

    I’m a little confused … so the interpretation is directed towards individuals and individual behavior rather than towards a collective (Jewish people). The brothers are not metaphors for the Jewish people in its entirety). While I’m reading this, I detect a shift from the collective (again Jewish people) to individuals and individual behavior. Wouldn’t this be a change in thought Dr. Ehrman? Again these are questions not statements.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 16, 2017

      Yes, I think the shift to the individual is part of it!

      • Jana  October 17, 2017

        Thank you. This is interesting .. then there was also individual accountability (sin) and not just collective accountability (sin) .. Wow!

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