Back in April I was in the middle of a thread about the afterlife, and now, after this unusual hiatus, I am able and eager to return to it.  For those of you who were with us at the time, you may remember that this is the topic of the book I am working on now, that I have been reading massively about for most of the past year.  My views have developed, changed, and deepened since April.  I’ve had lots and lots of interesting ideas and thoughts, as I have pondered ancient sources (Greek, Roman, Jewish, and Christian) some of which I will be explaining over the course of this thread.

In the thread to this point I have discussed how the afterlife was conceptualized in the ancient Israelite sources found in the Hebrew Bible.  The basic story, for those of you who don’t recall or who are not inclined to reread the posts from earlier in the year, is that for most of the Hebrew Bible, the place of the dead was Sheol, a netherworld to which everyone (the righteous and unrighteous) went, a shadowy place of no joy, excitement, or even worship (or presence) of Yahweh.  It was not a desired fate, but there was no avoiding it.  There was no real punishment in Sheol, but no rewards either.

Some Hebrew Bible writers express skepticism that even this much afterlife exists.  For them, possibly death is literally the end of all conscious existence.

A new view developed within Judaism about 200 years before the ministry of Jesus.  When I broke off the thread, I was describing the historical context from which this view emerged.  I give here my final post in the thread to bring us all up to speed.


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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