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Background to a Different View of the Afterlife: The Maccabean Revolt

The views about the afterlife found in the Hebrew Bible are not, by and large, replicated in the New Testament.  A new view had developed in Judaism by that time, rooted in the ideology known as “apocalypticism,” which I have talked about before on the blog.  Ideologies do not arise in a vacuum of course, but are responses to concrete historical, social, and cultural forces, events, and situations.   To make sense of the Jewish notion of “resurrection” (the dominant view of what the afterlife would involve in the New Testament — in contrast to the Old Testament) it is important to know what socio-political events led to it.

And so here is a very brief sketch of the history of Judea over the four hundred years from approximately 540 BCE, when the Persians were in control, up to 63 BCE, when the Romans came in and took over.  I’ve taken the sketch from my textbook, The Bible: A Historical and Literary Introduction.


The Later History of Judea

In the Persian period (starting in the late 6th century BCE), the land of Judah came be a province called Judea.  This will be its name in the time of the New Testament.  So too, as we have seen, inhabitants of this land, and descendants of former inhabitants who maintained their ancestral religious and cultural traditions, were called Judeans, or Jews.

The Persian empire was to last for about two hundred years.  In the mid- to late-fourth century Greece,  to the west, rose to prominence, especially under the leadership of Alexander of Macedonia, otherwise known to history as Alexander the Great.  We will learn more about Alexander in chapter 9, as, somewhat ironically, his conquests proved to be more important for early Christianity than they were for the Hebrew Bible.  Here suffice it to say that Alexander and his armies went on a massive campaign to the east, conquering Egypt and the Levant, and eventually the entire Persian empire, by 330 CE.  Eventually they got as far east as modern day India, before turning back.

Because Alexander was himself, culturally, Greek – he actually had the great Greek philosopher Aristotle (disciple of Plato, disciple of Socrates) as his private tutor when he was young – he considered Greek culture to be superior to all others.  One of his goals was not simply…

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  1. talmoore
    talmoore  April 21, 2017

    Dr. Ehrman, something that I’ve come to learn from my study of Israeli history (and being an Israeli, I’ve been steeped this history my entire life), is something that I’ve yet to read about or hear about from any Biblical scholars or Near East historians, namely, that Israeli history — and with it the development of Judaism and the Bible — is what I call a “geographical accident”.

    What I mean by this is that it’s nearly impossible to fully understand the history of that patch of land and the history of its people and culture without understanding how it fits into its geography. What I’m essentially saying is that history of Israel, or Judea, or Palestine, or whatever name you want to give that piece of real estate, is a product of the powerful empires between which it is perennially sandwiched, as if it is the Alsace-Lorraine of the Near East. For pretty much its entire history this piece of ground has been, more or less, the borderlands between two great military powers, always being fought over and sought after as a buffer between one and the another.

    Sometimes the Egyptians have control over it, sometimes the Assyrians. Sometimes the Chaldeans, sometimes, again, the Egyptians. Sometimes the Persians, sometimes the Greeks. Sometimes the Ptolemies, sometimes the Seleucids. Sometimes the Romans, sometimes the Parthians. Sometimes the Byzantines, sometimes the Muslims. Back and forth, back and forth. It’s this seemingly perpetual tug-of-war over this land that has made it what it is. It is what has created its people and its culture. The apocalyptic eschatology of Judaism formed, in essence, around this no-man’s-land DMZ crossroads of the western world.

    I don’t see any scholars or academics talking about this fact at all. It could be for my lack of really looking, or it could be because this is something that scholars have seriously overlooked. But the fact remains that until scholars really study and understand how Judea and, with it, Judaism are accidents of geography, I foresee that they will continue to be flummoxed by the histories of both.

    • talmoore
      talmoore  April 22, 2017

      Dr. Ehrman, I should add that if you know of any research or book that does go into detail on this topic of the Levant being a continually fought over buffer between empires, I would very much appreciate a recommendation.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 23, 2017

      Interesting question — I don’t know if anyone discusses that in print. I’ve heard it all along, since I was seventeen, and when I teach Hebrew Bible, it’s always a point of emphasis. Given where it was located, it’s no surprise that tiny Israel was constantly being overthrown: Assyrians; Babylonians; Persians; Greeks; Egyptians; Syrians; Romans….

    • Avatar
      dragonfly  April 23, 2017

      Prof Christine Hayes from Yale has put a series of her lectures on the Hebrew Bible online for all to see (I highly recommend). That’s one of the first things she talks about and is a continual theme throughout the lectures.

      • talmoore
        talmoore  April 25, 2017

        Thanks for the tip.

      • Avatar
        turbopro  April 25, 2017

        Her Yale course, “Introduction To The Old Testament (Hebrew Bible)” is here –> http://oyc.yale.edu/religious-studies/rlst-145
        Highly recommended. So great that I watched it twice!

        Her book related to the course –> http://preview.tinyurl.com/lx8yhvh
        A just as great reference to the course.

        Dale Martin’s and Shelly Kagan’s courses are fantastic also.

        • talmoore
          talmoore  April 26, 2017

          Yeah, I’ve watched it. I’ve also watched Dale Martin’s NT course. Excellent courses both. In fact, I’ve gone through at least a dozen of the Yale online courses (on topics ranging from affective science to game theory to physics to Roman architecture) and I have since moved onto the Stanford online courses and the MIT online courses. In fact, as I’m writing this I’m watching the MIT course on multi-variable calculus (lecture 28 on setting up triple integrals for flux through a vector field, to be exact) to brush up on my math.

  2. Avatar
    godspell  April 21, 2017

    “Unfortunately Alexander died at the very young age of 33,”

    Well, how unfortunate it was depends a great deal on one’s perspective, clearly.

    Alexander’s life, as later recounted, was easily as improbable as most of what we read in scripture, or see in the latest Hollywood action movie. And yet everything he had built was gone within a few centuries of his death. At around the same age Jesus was when he was crucified.

    And Alexander made Jesus’ far more lasting posthumous achievements possible, as you point out, through Hellenization–Greek becoming the shared language of much of the known world. A means of transmission for a religion I don’t think Alexander would have appreciated. That has, nonetheless, changed the world more than he ever did.

  3. Avatar
    Hume  April 21, 2017

    The Book of Enoch, Jubilees, Jasher, Enuma Elish, and Gilgamesh seemed to have influenced the Old Testament A LOT. Would you agree?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 23, 2017

      Enoch and Jubilees were after the OT period; Jasher, possibly, though we don’t have it and so can’t reallysay. E.E. and Gilgamesh certainly contain important parallels to the accounts in Genesis. Whether there is a direct *literary* (borrowing) is harder to say. THey may simply contain stories with comparable genealogies.

  4. Avatar
    mjt  April 21, 2017

    Do scholars generally think the court tales were in existence prior to the Antiochene crisis…that ‘Daniel’ incorporated these stories into his book?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 23, 2017

      I’m not sure if there is a consensus on that or not, I’m sorry to say.

  5. Avatar
    jcutler79  April 21, 2017

    So, why the change to a belief in the resurrection? I’ve heard that it may have come via contact with Zoroastrianism during the Persian period from 540 to 330 BC.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 23, 2017

      THat’s the common line. The problem with it is that we don’t have evidence of the belief until around the mid-second-century BCE, long after Persian rule.

      • Avatar
        jcutler79  April 23, 2017

        Oh that’s interesting; I didn’t know that. I suppose it would be much worse of a problem for that theory, however, if evidence of the belief had turned up too early to be accounted for by any conceivable cultural diffusion process as opposed to showing up a little late, right? Is there any evidence of a Greek source of a belief in a resurrection and judgment, or any other more likely source for the belief?

        • Bart
          Bart  April 25, 2017

          No, so far as we can tell Greeks were uniformly opposed to the idea of the body surviving death.

      • Avatar
        llamensdor  April 25, 2017

        I’ve heard Reza Aslan say (over C-Span) that the belief that the Jews “invented” monotheism is absurd — that actually it was the invention of Zoroaster. Have you any thoughts on this?

        • Bart
          Bart  April 26, 2017

          He thinks Israelites got it from the Persians? How strange.

        • talmoore
          talmoore  April 26, 2017

          The Zoroastrians were never proper monotheists. It would be more accurate to describe them as henotheists, meaning that they still believed other gods existed, but that the supreme god Ahura Mazda was the only one worthy of worship. Incidentally, the pre-Exilic Israelites most likely believed the same thing; Yahweh was only one god out of many that also existed, but Yahweh, being the almighty creator of the universe was the only one worthy of worship. The very strict monotheism of the Jews probably developed hand-in-hand with their iconoclasm, so as they systematically criticized the gods of other peoples as merely idols of “wood and stone” covered in precious metals, they also eventually began to deny that those gods even existed in any real sense at all! By the time of the Maccabean revolt, the Jews’ ideological denial of the existence of other gods besides Yahweh was pretty much firmly part of the faith.

    • talmoore
      talmoore  April 23, 2017

      One trend one often sees in history is when what starts out as metaphor and symbolism essentially becomes reified over time. For example, in the Qur’an, Muhammed describes how in the eschaton, that God will mix the sea water and the fresh water. Within the context of the text, it’s clear that Muhammed is using this as a metaphor for how the world will become topsy-turby, that all differences will be fundamentally flattened out upon Judgment Day. It’s obviously a metaphor. But over the centuries Muslim scholars came to see the text is literal, that brine and fresh water will be *able* to be mixed, and so, therefore, brine and fresh water cannot currently be mixed. And you will still find, today, devout Muslims who believe that salt water and fresh water cannot be mixed.

      A similar process likely occured for the Resurrection. Jewish scholars of the 4th and 3rd centuries BCE read texts such as Ezekiel 37:1-14, which started out merely as a metaphor for the restoration of the nation of Israel, and eventually they came to see it as a literal prophecy of dead remains returning to life. This type of metaphor-to-literal process is so common, in fact, that there is actually a term for it, the one I used above: reification. Reification is when is an abstract concept or idea is objectified or materialized, as if it’s no longer abstract but, rather, a “real” thing.

      This is a very, very common thing for human beings to do. In today’s world we often reify concepts — such as, for example, when a politician talks about “jobs”. They talk about creating jobs, or destroying jobs, or sending jobs overseas, or bringing jobs back home — as if jobs are real, tangible, material objects rather than merely an abstract word for engaging in productive activity.

      • Avatar
        johnbutleruk  April 28, 2017

        Interesting post, thank you.

  6. Avatar
    ask21771  April 22, 2017

    Is there any actual evidence Jesus was resurrected, if not what is the closest we have

    • Bart
      Bart  April 23, 2017

      The best evidence is that some of his disciples claimed they saw him alive afterward. In fact, I would say that’s the only actual evidence. I myself do not believe in the resurrection, so I explain the visions on other grounds.

  7. Avatar
    Seeker1952  April 23, 2017

    Did the Jews up to Jesus’s time ever see the world as a true war, in which they participated on God’s side, between good and evil, where neither side was all-powerful–as compared to a world in which God was all-powerful but, for mysterious reasons, allowed the forces of evil quite a bit of free play until he, God, would ultimately prevail without need of much help even from faithful Jews (other than their obedience to his law)?

    One reason I ask is because, if one assumes that personal/supernatural forces are in control of reality, the first paradigm in the above paragraph seems to fit the facts much better than the second. And, if that’s the case, why wasn’t a religion consistent with the first much more popular than the second? Though my knowledge of them are limited, I’m thinking that Manicheanism and maybe Zoroastrianism (perhaps even Gnosticism) are much more consistent with the first paradigm.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 23, 2017

      I’m not aware of any group of Jews who did not think of God as ultimately more powerful than any other cosmic force and, in fact, as Sovereign over all.

  8. Avatar
    FadyRiad  April 23, 2017

    Off topic:
    I often read mythicists argue that Jesus was a mythological figure because he (allegedly) has many parallels in pagan gods. One of the parallels, of course, is him being born to a virgin. My question is: do these guys even realize that the concept of the virgin birth is a much later development in Christianity? What do you think, Dr Ehrman?
    The Gospel of Lie: A Grieving Christian Searches the Bible for a New Jesus amzn.to/2pjfno6

    • Bart
      Bart  April 23, 2017

      Ah, that’s a great question. I’ll add it to the mailbag!

  9. Avatar
    John Uzoigwe  April 23, 2017

    Dr Bart ehrman, I understand there were many sects already existing before the time of Jesus such as the Pharisees and saducess…my question is: in the book of act early christains were called “The Way”. Could this be a new sect started by Jesus?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 25, 2017

      I think that’s how they understood themselves, though they would not probably have said they were a sect of Judaism, but “true” Judaism.

      • Avatar
        dankoh  April 26, 2017

        I don’t think there is any question that the Jesus movement saw itself as “true” Judaism, and they got increasing annoyed when other Jews did not agree with them. And they were certainly in competition with all the other sects ot the time for the title.

        Rabbinic Judaism and Christianity are best described as sisters, not mother and daughter.

        But this brings me to a question: Do we have a date for Acts? I am now seeing scholarly arguments (NIrenberg) for a date in the early second century.

  10. Avatar
    Tempo1936  April 23, 2017

    I read that baptism was a result of the Maccabean war.

    As Israel was reestablished as a nation they send out ambassadors to nearby countries.
    Some Pagens in other countries heard about this all powerful God who rescued the Jewish nation. They wanted to convert to Judaism.
    converts to be baptized which meant all their sins were forgiven.
    So baptism was a practice established 150 years before John the Baptist and was a means of converting pagans to Judaism.
    So John the Baptist modified the message and he indicated that jews would have sins forgiven when they were baptized and repented .
    People would claim Jesus was sinless because he had been baptized meaning all past sins were forgiven by God.

    the temples Paul visited on his missionary trips were previously established by these ambassadors . They preached about how Israel became A nation after thousands of years by an all powerful God intervened on the side of the Jews.
    Is any of this historical?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 25, 2017

      I’d never heard that theory before, to my knowledge. Do you know who propounds it, and on what grounds?

      • Avatar
        Tempo1936  April 25, 2017

        The source is from a series produced by Aaron Budjen, living God ministries.
        He is a Jew who was studying to become a rabbi, who then converted to Christianity.
        The website has free radio archives. Included is a four (hour) part series on the “miracle of Hanukkah
        Very convincing documentation for the origination of baptism as a Jewish not Christian ritual .
        Might be a good graduate study paper

        • Bart
          Bart  April 26, 2017

          Certainly Jews practiced ritual cleansings. But to my knowledge we have no instance of a one-time baptism for the remission of sins in any Jewish sect or source.

  11. Avatar
    mwbaugh  April 24, 2017

    One of my favorite takeaways from the Christ Myth folks is that a lot of other heroes had virgin births.

    Horus-Is it really a virgin birth if your mom had sex with your resurrected father via a magic golden penis?
    Heracles-is it really a virgin birth if your mom slept with both Zeus and her husband and had twins, one from each lover?
    Krishna-is it really a virgin birth if your mom and dad had already had 7 kids the regular way?
    Mithras-is it really a virgin birth when there is no account of your conception or birth other than pictures of you emerging, fully-grown, from a cave?
    …and so on.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 25, 2017

      I actually don’t know that any other divine beings were born of women who were virgins.

      • Avatar
        dankoh  April 26, 2017

        Was Mary’s own virgin birth an early idea or did it come along later, say in the II Century?

        • Bart
          Bart  April 28, 2017

          She was never htought to have been born of a virgin. Her mother Anna miraculously conceived, but she’d been having sex for years. The later “immaculate conception” idea was that when she did conceive Mary, the child did not inherit a sin nature. She was born without sin. But not without sex.

      • Rick
        Rick  April 27, 2017

        Is not the better reading of the Koine Greek “young woman” or “woman who has reached child bearing age” rather than virgin?

        • Bart
          Bart  April 28, 2017

          Parthenos *could* simply mean a young woman, but it took on the connotation of “young woman who had never had sex” which is what it means in both Matthew and Luke (see, e.g., the Annunciation in Luke where Mary points out that she had never had sex with a man)

  12. Avatar
    Wilusa  April 24, 2017

    OK, I’ll risk posting a Comment. To let you know that at least in the browser I’m using, Safari, I’m not being given a choice of whether I want to receive replies to only my Comments, all, or none.

    Plus, I assume you know the site was inaccessible for most of yesterday, and today, all parts of it are slow to load.

  13. Avatar
    brandon284  April 25, 2017

    Dr. Ehrman could you explain a bit more on how apocalypticism specifically arose out of this revolt? If the Jews drove the Syrians out, thus taking back their homeland and once again regaining a position of power, why was there the need for doomsday thought like apocalypticism?

  14. Avatar
    dankoh  April 26, 2017

    There is another consequence of Persian rule. As I read the history, prior to Ezra the idea of there being only one God, Yahweh, seems to have been a minority view among Israelites. Probably many of them were monolatrists (worshipping only one god while acknowledging that others existed), but there is also a lot of archeological evidence that many Israelites worshipped Yahweh in public and had household gods in private. This may be one reason why reformers such as Josiah were never able to make monotheism stick.

    Ezra was different; he came to Jerusalem with a mandate from the Persian king and with soldiers to back him up; see Ezra 9. Among other things, he forced people to divorce their non-Jewish wives, very hard to do without force of arms. And because the Persian Empire lasted over a hundred years – ie, more than 3 generations – after Ezra’s decrees, they came to be the norm. We do not hear much about Jewish relapse into monolatry after that. (The Hellenists’ accomodationism was rejected. I believe, because it had now become a minority view.)

  15. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  April 26, 2017

    For those new to the blog, Dr. Ehrman’s textbook of the Bible and his textbook of the New Testament are terrific books.

  16. Avatar
    Aage  July 29, 2017

    Could you comment on Jennifer Michael Hecht’s claim (Doubt. A History) that Antiochus imposed Syrian law on Judea at the request of the Jewish Hellenists and that the Maccabean revolt was as much a civil war as a war of liberation.

    • Bart
      Bart  July 30, 2017

      I haven’t read her book, but the Maccabean text itself is pretty clear that a major reason Antiochus’s Hellenizing policies were so troubling is that many Jews were enthusiastic about them.

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