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A Resurrection of the Dead in the Prophet Ezekiel?

In this thread I have started to argue that a new view of the afterlife began to emerge within ancient Israel around the time of the Maccabean revolt.  For some Jewish thinkers it was no longer satisfying to imagine that God rewards the righteous and punishes the wicked in this life.  That clearly was not happening.

The oppressive policies of the Syrian monarch Antiochus Epiphanes showed that the people of God suffer precisely when they followed the law of God, not when they broke it.  So, if God is sovereign over all, and completely just, his justice must not be manifest in this life.  For that reason there arose the idea that it would come after this life.

Within the apocalyptic tradition that emerged at this time, there developed the idea of a future resurrection of the dead.   The people who died because of their righteousness – or, in a later version of the idea, anyone who happened to be righteous who died – would be raised from the dead and given an eternal reward.

Like so many other apocalyptic ideas, this one …

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Daniel and a New Doctrine of Resurrection from the Dead
Charges and Anti-Supernatural Biases! Readers Mailbag August 6, 2017

49

Comments

  1. John Uzoigwe  August 7, 2017

    As I understand from the scriptures not all the Jews share the same idea of what comes after life. The Sadducees seem to have a different view on this. Can you shed more light on there perspective of afterlife?
    Thank you

  2. stokerslodge  August 7, 2017

    Bart, was a belief in the resurrection of the body unique to the Jewish tradition or did other ancient religions share that belief also?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 9, 2017

      The big question is whether it could be found in Persian religion (Zoroastrianism) before Judaism or not. Most experts today seem to be saying that the answer is no, or at least that it’s impossible to tell.

  3. hoshor  August 7, 2017

    This is a broad question in regards to this specific post and possibly too general for you to address in this forum. I have only just began to read your works, so I apologize if this is something that I should have come across. I understand that your main reason for losing your faith in God and therefore an afterlife is the issue with suffering. I know it all too well personally, so I definitely share many of your viewpoints that scripture just not address the issue significantly. As you pointed out in this post, these people were not satisfied of the reasons either, as those reasons were being proven wrong. So they decided there must be an afterlife to settle the justice.

    Since you were a believer in God for a long time and suffering was the main reason you are no longer believing (from my understanding), did you ever believe that suffering could or would be reconciled in the life to come? If so, what made you decide that this was no longer possible? If you never had, is that because of scripture, your previous religion, or just your own thought process?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 9, 2017

      I spent a couple of months on the blog explaining how my views shifted over time. Have you read these? I try to cover the water front there! (Short story: if a little girl goes through the horrible and prolonged agony of starving to death, I don’t see how eternal life explains why the suffering was necessary in the first place; it seems simply as an attempt to “make up for it.”)

      • hoshor  August 9, 2017

        A possible explanation could be that the tables are turned giving the sufferers a chance to have a “good” life and the well-to-dos to have a little suffering. I have a very hard time with the current teachings of an afterlife believing that they were basically made up as history probably mostly supports. I guess anything is possible, which is a bit scary.

  4. RonaldTaska  August 7, 2017

    It’s still surprising to me that the Old Testament is not filled with references to heaven and how to get there. I always assumed that was the main goal of religion.

  5. nbraith1975  August 7, 2017

    I also find it interesting that the prophesy is finalized with a promise from Yahweh that is unequivocally called “everlasting” and “forever more.”

    24 My servant David shall be king over them; and they all shall have one shepherd: they shall also walk in my ordinances, and observe my statutes, and do them. 25 They shall dwell in the land that I have given to Jacob my servant, in which your fathers lived; and they shall dwell therein, they, and their children, and their children’s children, forever: and David my servant shall be their prince for ever. 26 Moreover I will make a covenant of peace with them; it shall be an everlasting covenant with them; and I will place them, and multiply them, and will set my sanctuary among them forever more. 27 My tent also shall be with them; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 28 The nations shall know that I am Yahweh who sanctifies Israel, when my sanctuary shall be among them forever more.

    What is taught in Christian churches today about the “end times” from the NT doesn’t seem to fit very well with this promise by Yahweh, or the many other “everlasting” promises he made specifically to the people of Israel. It all seems quite confusing when this passage specifically says that David will be the everlasting “king” and “shepherd” of Israel – not Jesus.

    Bart – Who today has the greater apocalyptic teaching – Christians or Jews?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 9, 2017

      I’m not sure what you mean by “greater.” Do you mean better? I wouldn’t be able to say!

      • nbraith1975  August 9, 2017

        Sorry for the confusion. Maybe asking which religion is based more in apocalyptic teachings today? It seems to me Christianity was founded on it but Judaism evolved into it. Is that how you see it?

      • SidDhartha1953  August 9, 2017

        About the tent: I just recently noticed that references to the Tent (I presume it means the tent the Israelites used for worship in the wilderness) persist after the building of the 1st and 2nd temples in Jerusalem. Is there any evidence that the tent was preserved and, maybe, even used after the temples were built? Or is the tent a metaphor for the presence of God wherever his people are in the diaspora?

        • Bart
          Bart  August 10, 2017

          You’re referring to the Tabernacle, I believe. No, it didn’t survive after the Temple was constructed.

          • SidDhartha1953  August 10, 2017

            Yes. NRSV translates it as tent (in some places, at least)

    • dragonfly  August 9, 2017

      I think there was a common view that Israel would always have a descendant of David as king.

  6. caesar  August 7, 2017

    At one point I belonged to a church that held a dispensational view of prophecy. They would say that this passage (and others like it, such as Isaiah 11) are not referring to the prophets’ own times, but are referring to the return that happened in 1948; and parts of those prophecies were only partially fulfilled, and will be fulfilled later (like the northern kingdom reuniting with the southern kingdom.) Seems like a stretch to me–can we say definitively that these prophets were concerned with their own times?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 9, 2017

      Most definitely. Of course Hal Lindsay said otherwise, and made millions off his books as a result!

    • llamensdor  August 13, 2017

      In 1948, while I was working on a playwriting fellowship at UCLA, I wrote and directed a musical/minstrel show for the Fraternity Sing. It was not in blackface and was intended as a form of memorial salute to the genius of African-Americans. The audience of 3000 in Royce Hall loved it, but the judges found it to be racist. I still remember the lines and the melody of this magnificent Negro Spiritual:

      “Ezekial saw the wheel, way up in the middle of the air,
      The big wheel run by faith, and the little wheel run by the grace of God,
      A wheel in a wheel, way up in the middle of the air…”

      Decades later, I’ve still had to explain to folks (yes, there are some still alive) who saw the show, that grace belonged not to me but the anonymous slaves who created this masterpiece.

  7. James Chalmers  August 7, 2017

    Till the the time of Daniel, (a) the Jewish religion taught that the individual after they died had at best a dreary existence, if any at all and (b) the religion was concerned with the corporate, national future of the Jewish people and how they, more or less collectively, behaved–conformed to God’s law.

    But after that time, (a) Jewish religion taught that when the individual dies, their life wasn’t over–they would be raised, and (b) they’d be judged as to how they had lived before their resurrection, and it’s be bad for them if they’d lived badly and great if they’d lived good lives, and (c) the fate of the individual thus mattered in a new and important way.

    Am I overreaching to see this as a sort of shift from “corporatism” to “individualism”?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 9, 2017

      I think it would be better to say “some Jews” taught this, not that “Jewish religion” did. There was a lot of variety.

  8. Wilusa  August 7, 2017

    Just out of curiosity: What would “captivity” have meant for someone like Ezekiel (one of a specific, small group)? Do you think it would have involved something like house arrest? Or could they have moved around freely, but always aware someone might be watching them?

    And later, what did the Babylonian “captivity” mean for *masses* of people? Anything like concentration camps? Or were they just being forced to stay in a land they’d been taken to against their will – because they couldn’t have found their way back to where they’d come from, in any case?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 9, 2017

      They appear to have had some freedom of movement, but were not allowed to return home.

    • talmoore
      talmoore  August 9, 2017

      Think house arrest.

  9. talmoore
    talmoore  August 7, 2017

    Dr. Erhman, one of the ironies I have noticed in the evolution of the interpretation of the Prophets is that ancient prophets purposely spoke in metaphors for two reasons: 1) They were either remembering or emulating the highly fanciful and inscrutable nature of dreams, which were themselves seen as the means by which the divine communicated to human beings, and 2) the metaphorical nature of prophecies allowed the prophets to speak in vague and ambiguous terms, which allowed for a highly convenient plausible deniability when a certain “interpretation” of a prophecy’s symbolism turned out to be wrong when events eventually worked out (thus avoiding the potentially lethal accusation of being a false prophet). For both of these reasons, ancient prophecy became something of a process that allowed for a lot of flexibility.

    Anyway, that’s why the prophecies we find in the Bible — from Amos to Daniel — follow this formula: wierd vision –> interpretation of vision –> later re-interpretation of vision to suit current situation –> eventual reification of vision. That is, the prophet starts out with an intentionally symbolic description of his vision. He then interprets the vision to suit the purpose of his patron (king, priest, populace, etc.) Then, down the road, others begin to re-interpret the vision, like trying to squeeze more juice out of the an orange peel. Conveniently, these people re-interpret the prophecies for their own time and their own situations. It’s at this point that the prophecies can start being taken literally rather than metaphorically. They think: When Ezekiel was talking about dry bones in a valley coming back to life, he wasn’t talking metaphorically about the nation of Israel; he was talking about the bones literally being resurrected into flesh and blood bodies. And the prophecy has now come full circle. It has been re-purposed from its original, intentionally vague utterance meant to shield the prophet from accusations of false prophesy into a literal description of hoped-for, future events.

  10. godspell  August 7, 2017

    Ezekiel looms large in a number of early spirituals–written, in many cases, by black slaves in America, who identified strongly with the uprooted downtrodden Jews, and saw hope for themselves in the prophecies. Their own people could rise from the grave, perhaps return to their homeland–or find a new home in the land of their captivity.

    The great thing about prophecy is that when you don’t take it literally, it can turn out to be, quite literally, liberating. A source of strength that keeps you going in the face of unimaginable adversity.

    And it was, in many cases, the descendants of Ezekiel standing with the descendants of American slaves, who faced down Jim Crow.

    Reality can be the greatest myth of all.

  11. Seeker1952  August 7, 2017

    Assuming that individual resurrection is an extreme view (ie, extremely different from our normal experience), do you think its extremism is due in part to the extreme disconfirmation of the Jewish expectation of divinely supported justice in this world, ie, the extreme disconfrmation leads to an extreme solution? I only a know a little about cognitive dissonance theory, but I’m thinking that this may be part of what it would predict.

    Or maybe it’s just that individual resurrection is not disconfirmable because the date can for resurrection can always be pushed back. The solution need not be extreme, just not disconfirmable.

  12. Seeker1952  August 7, 2017

    Is there any hint in Ezechiel that the future resurrection of Israel is supposed to be consolation/hope to individuals for their own individual deaths rather than consolation/hope for the death of the nation? In other words, individuals somehow live on in the survival of the nation? It’s just hard to believe that theists had no hope, other than Sheol, for a happy afterlife. They must have had a completely different outlook than 21st Century Christians, ie, at best a weak sense of themselves as individuals rather than as members of a nation.

    • Bart
      Bart  August 9, 2017

      I think it’s hard to imagine someone with such radically different religious views from those that are “common sense” today.

  13. anthonygale  August 7, 2017

    Did people in the ancient world tend to question when/where books were written? If so, did they have useful means of figuring that out and were they any good at it? The reason I ask is because I wonder how much those have been factors in allowing new developments and reinterpretation of writings. Were new movements like apocslypticism things that just developed when honest people reinterpreted old ideas in light of what they knew and experienced? Was there some element of an informed elite knowing full well they were deceiving the masses, pushing their agenda using a writing thought to be sacred? If the latter, it might even have a well meaning intention (e.g. comforting those who suffer).

    • Bart
      Bart  August 9, 2017

      Yes, I have an extensive discussion of this in my book Forgery and Counterforgery (and less extensive in my popular book Forged)

  14. DestinationReign
    DestinationReign  August 8, 2017

    Great topic.

    It certainly seems correct that the “dry bones prophecy” has a truer application in metaphorical terms than with a literalistic, “Night of the Living Dead” interpretation of a resurrection. As such, even further insights can be gained when applying a metaphorical perspective to Biblical Israel (God’s people), as a representation of Christianity (God’s people at a higher prophetic level). While this is not to be confused with Christianity’s “Replacement Theology,” if we replace “house of Israel” with “Christ’s Church” in the prophetic narrative, we can understand that the Body of Christ has been asleep/entombed in darkness for 2,000 years, even as Jesus’ body slept in the darkness for 2 days before resurrecting and coming out of the tomb. (In John 9:4-5, Christ forecasted a time of darkness that would overtake the world after His departure; a time when “no man can work.”) This necessitates a (spiritual) awakening as we enter the dawn of the third millennium/third day from the time that Christ left the world. (As went Christ’s body, so has gone the Body of Christ.)

    This interpretation is substantiated in the multiple references by Jesus to a sleeping state that would need to be awoken from in order to be prepared for the coming of the Kingdom; refer to Matthew 13:24-25 (the parable of the weeds), Matthew 25:5-7 (the parable of the ten virgins), Mark 13:35-37, etc.

    Looking forward to the next post.

  15. ask21771  August 8, 2017

    Dr. Ehrman, can you please answer yes or no about wether or not eternal conscious torment is biblical

    • Bart
      Bart  August 9, 2017

      Are you asking whether it is “the” biblical view or one among many? You can find it in Matthew 25:31-46 (esp. v. 46), but no where else clearly (not even Revelation, probably).

  16. hasankhan  August 8, 2017

    Why would you say it was metaphorical? How does open the grave mean anything about liberation and exile?

    This story is similar to what we have in the Quran.

    Or, (do you not know) the example of the one who passed through a town that had collapsed on its roofs. He said: “How shall Allah revive this after it is dead?” So, Allah made him dead for a hundred years, then raised him saying: “How long did you remain (in this state)?” He said: “I remained for a day or part of a day”. Said He: “Rather, you remained (dead) for a hundred years. Just look at your food and your drink; it has not spoiled. Now look at your donkey. (We did) this to make you a sign for people! Look at the bones, how We raise them, then dress them with flesh.” So, when it was clear to him, he said: “I know that Allah is Powerful over everything.”

    -Sura Al-Baqarah, Ayah 259

  17. Stephen  August 8, 2017

    Interesting discussion.
    Unrelated question: I noticed that the second edition of your BIBLE textbook is coming out next month. Are there substantial revisions?

    thanks

    • Bart
      Bart  August 9, 2017

      Ah, I think I’ll devote a blog post to this! Thanks for raising it.

  18. hasankhan  August 8, 2017

    The reference to story of Ezekiel is also in the Qur’an in the following verse:

    Qur’an (2:243) Have you not considered those who left their homes in many thousands, fearing death? Allah said to them, “Die”; then He restored them to life. And Allah is full of bounty to the people, but most of the people do not show gratitude.

    It is said that these people had fled from their land to escape from an epidemic that had broken out. And Prophet Ezekiel happened to come to the place where they had died and they were brought back to life thus proving resurrection and as a favor to those people.

  19. dankoh  August 8, 2017

    I agree that Ezekiel was speaking of a national resurrection, not an individual one, and used a dramatic metaphor to make his point. (Side note: It is an extreme irony that what the prophets and the seers clearly intended as metaphor has ended up being taken as literal by so many, with such consequences.) I also agree that the concept of individual resurrection – and also individual as opposed to communal responsibility for sin – is something that arose in the Second Temple times. I am still not certain if this is a Maccabean period development or earlier; we do not have a lot of literature between Ezra and Daniel (and 1 Enoch, and thank you for pointing that one out).

    So I wanted to ask you if there is any evidence that Hellenistic ideas about the individual can be shown to have had some influence here.

    • Bart
      Bart  August 9, 2017

      Yes, I think so. I hope to be getting to that in this thread eventually.

  20. cheito
    cheito  August 8, 2017

    DR Ehrman:

    Your Comments:

    It’s a great miracle, and somewhat naturally, I suppose, people often think that the passage is talking about what is going to happen at the end of time, when the dead are raised up from the dead and given new, eternal life.

    The future resurrection here is not dead people individually brought back to life to enter into the kingdom of God; it is a metaphor for what will now happen to the exiles in Babylon.

    Their national life will revive and they will be allowed to return to the Promised Land. That is the message Ezekiel preaches time and again in his writings, in the 6th century BCE.

    _______________________________________

    My Comment:

    My interpretation of Ezekiel 37:21-28

    The future resurrection Ezekiel is prophesying about, is exactly what you assert, he is not prophesying about.

    God will cause individuals that are presently dead to come back to life, and live FOREVER.( e.g., David)

    God will also resurrect from the dead the “whole house of Israel” who have been slain, and simultaneously, bring with them, to the land where Jacob and his father’s dwelt, those from Israel who are alive in that generation when God resurrects them from the dead. God will gather from every side all the house of Israel who are scattered among ALL THE NATIONS to which they have gone, (not just from Babylon, as you’ve stated)

    It’s clear TO ME, that Ezekiel is prophesying of the end time, when God himself will make Israel into one nation in the land that He gave to their forefathers, and as a result, Israel will no longer defile themselves with their idols, nor with their transgressions. God Himself will deliver Israel from all the dwelling places in which they have sinned. God will also cleanse them, and they will be his people and He will be their God.

    It’s crystal clear TO ME, that God is prophesying through Ezekiel about the end time, because God states that the Jews that will be gathered at that time from among all the nations, shall live in the land that their fathers lived; they and their son’s sons, FOREVER. (Note the word FOREVER!) This hasn’t happened yet. Certainly the exiles from Babylon did not return to Israel and lived there with their son’s sons FOREVER.

    Ezekiel also prophecies that David will be a prince among them FOREVER. David is dead, The only way David could live in the land of Israel FOREVER, is, if God resurrects him from the dead. THIS IS YET IN THE FUTURE!

    Also at that time God Himself, His sanctuary, the place of the soles of his feet, His dwelling place, will be among them, Israel, FOREVER. That most assuredly has NOT happened yet!

    All The nations too, will at that time know that it is God, the Lord, who sanctifies Israel, because like in the days of Moses God will make Himself known to all the surrounding nations, and eventually to all the nations of earth.

    It’s crystal clear TO ME then, That Ezekiel 37 is indeed specifically prophesying about the resurrection from the dead of the “whole house of Israel”, and about their future within the land of Israel where their forefather’s lived, and Ezekiel 37 is also prophesying about God’s Kingdom here on earth, when God will dwell among us, forever, from that time on.

    Conclusion:

    To assert that Ezekiel is only speaking about the Jews in Babylon, is a misinterpretation of Ezekiel 37.

    ____________________________

  21. cheito
    cheito  August 8, 2017

    Your Comment:

    It’s a great miracle, and somewhat naturally, I suppose, people often think that the passage is talking about what is going to happen at the end of time, when the dead are raised up from the dead and given new, eternal life.

    But as it turns out, that’s not what the passage is talking about. We know that because, as often happens in these prophetic texts, the prophet is told what it all means – and what it means is highly symbolic, not literal.

    God tells Ezekiel what the bones are: “These bones are the whole house of Israel, who say ‘Our bones are dried up and our hope is lost’” (37:11). Remember: Ezekiel is writing this for Israelites who have been cut off from their land and are in exile in another country. They feel their life as a nation is over. The nation has wasted away and died. They no longer have any hope of a future. They are a valley of bones baking in the hot sun.

    _____________________________

    My Comment:

    My interpretation of Ezekiel 37:3-11

    In V:3, the bones that God is referring to are the bones of the SLAIN, that’s why He asks Ezekiel, “Can these bones live?” Perhaps the bones are those of the dead kings and all their troops; that Nebuchadnezzar killed.

    In V:9, God refers to the bones, as these SLAIN, and commands Ezekiel to prophesy to the breath, and to command the breath to breathe on the SLAIN so that they may come back to life. Bones can’t come back to life, so obviously God is talking about people who have been SLAIN and who he intends to bring back to life in the future.

    In V:10, Ezekiel obeys God and prophesies as God commanded him to do. As Ezekiel prophesies, he sees the dry bones of those that were SLAIN come back to life. Ezekiel says that they were like an exceedingly great army. Again, perhaps these bones were the bones of the armies of Israel who had been SLAIN by Nebuchadnezzar’s armies.

    In V:11, God is saying that Israel is like the dry bones of those who had been SLAIN, because ISRAEL was in despair, had lost all hope and thought that they also would be completely cut off.

    In V:12, God therefore, prophesies through Ezekiel to the people WHO ARE ALIVE, (not to the dry bones), that He Himself, will open up their graves and cause them to come up from their graves; and that He will also bring them back to their land, which at this point they have lost all hope of ever going back there.

    I think God is telling the Israelites WHO ARE ALIVE, that he will open up THEIR GRAVES, because God knows, that they will indeed die and not see this prophecy fulfilled in their lifetime. God will bring them back to life from their graves and bring them back to their land at a later day in the future.

    In V:13, God again speaks directly to those who are alive, (and not to the bones of the SLAIN.) He tells them, that on the day He, God, opens their graves, (for they will be dead by then) on that day they will surely know for sure, that God is the Lord, because they will witness God’s power when He resurrects them from the dead, and ALSO brings them back to their own land.

    In V:14, God is more specific as to exactly how he’s going to cause them to come back to life; He will do it by his spirit. And note, that He again reiterates the promise, that He, Himself, will place them in their own land, so that they will no longer have any doubts, that He, God Himself, has spoken it and done it.

    Conclusion:

    The vision of the resurrection of the bones of those who had been SLAIN, and the prophecy of the future resurrection of those who were alive, is literal, not symbolic.

    _____________________________

  22. SidDhartha1953  August 9, 2017

    You refer to Nebuchadnezzar as a general. Did he later become the ruler of Babylon, as indicated in Daniel? Is that a historical error in Daniel? Or were there two Nebuchadnezzars, one a general, the other a king? I’ve also noticed variations in the spelling in some places (Nebuchadrezzar).

  23. SidDhartha1953  August 9, 2017

    I think you have written that Jesus predicted that he and some of his disciples would still be alive when the Son of Man appeared (Mark 9:1, for instance) and was obviously wrong. But 2 Esdras 6:26 refers to “those who have been taken up and who never tasted death from the time they were born.” Was 2 Esdras an important part of Jewish apocalyptic thought in Jesus’ time? Might he and his followers have thought that some of them would be “taken up,” like Enoch and Elijah, to await the ultimate end of the age?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 10, 2017

      It is usually dated to around 100 CE (definitely after the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE)

  24. tompicard
    tompicard  August 9, 2017

    In numerous cases the Bible symbolizes being distant from God as ‘death’
    So being loved by God is symbolized by ‘life’.
    And so the ‘resurrection’ described in this chapter of the book of Ezekiel is the transformation from being cursed by God to being loved by Him.

    here are a few further instances you may consider [you can easily find many other examples]

    So on the day Adam & Eve ate the fruit did they physically die?
    No.
    Did they become distant from God?
    Yes.

    When Jesus’ disciple asked what he must do to gain eternal life, was he querying how to become immortal?
    No.
    Did he want to know how to be eternally loved by God?
    Yes.

    Why do so most Christians, as well as many scholars, not understand this, and continue to invariably believe that ‘resurrection’ means the reanimation of corpses?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 10, 2017

      I’m not sure how you’re getting to that interpretation of, say, the Rich Young Ruler. One needs to be careful not to read one’s own views *into* a text.

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