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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….

  2. 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. 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. 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. 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.

  6. 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. 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. 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!

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