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Background to The Christian Afterlife: The Maccabean Revolt: A Blast from the (Recent) Past!

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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The Books of 1 and 2 Maccabees
Lecture at Washington & Jefferson College



  1. Avatar
    godspell  July 27, 2017

    Bart, I realize that what we call The Old Testament is a Christian compilation of Jewish religious/historical texts. It ends where it does because Christians believed they had picked up where their Jewish predecessors had left off.

    But why would the Hebrew Bible end with the Book of Daniel (or at least why would that be the last book written that is included)? Jewish history did not end there, and still hasn’t. There continued to be a tradition of chronicling that history.

    The period in which the New Testament was written is quite brief. The Old was written over a much longer period of time. In general, I’m curious about why religions reach a point where new texts stop being perceived as ‘received’, pardon the rhyme.

    • Bart
      Bart  July 28, 2017

      Christians did not determine the contents of the Hebrew/Jewish Bible. They adopted the Bible that was already in use by Jews. It was thought that Daniel was actually a prophet from the 6th century BCE, so they didn’t end with him. The Bible ended with Malachi, because that was thought to be the time at which “prophecy had ceased.” Later books were written, of course (see today’s post), but they weren’t considered scriptural authorities.

      • Avatar
        godspell  July 28, 2017

        My question still stands, though there may be no answer to it available–why would a religion decide prophecy had ceased? Clearly it hadn’t, as evinced by John the Baptist, Jesus, and others within the Jewish tradition. But anyone can claim to be a prophet, or have that claim made on his/her behalf. Jesus was apparently unwilling to come out and say if he was a prophet or not, though he was clearly making prophetic statements.

        My answer would be that living prophets are dangerous to the stability of an established institution. They are safer when left in the past. Hence Islam deciding that Mohammad was the final prophet, and there could never be any others for the rest of history. Hence the Inquisition spending much of its time trying ‘heretics’–mainly hyper-religious people–even some now recognized as saints, like Teresa of Avila. After they were safely dead. That’s how it tends to work. Unlikely that any of the prophets were universally revered in their lifetimes. Quite the opposite, at times.

        • Avatar
          SidDhartha1953  August 2, 2017

          Some prophets claim final status for themselves. Muhammad may have done so and Baha’u’llah (the founder of the Baha’i faith) definitely did — for 1,000 years, at least. I suppose Jesus (according to Bart and others’ interpretation) as a prophet of the coming Son of Man, thought there would be no more prophets after him. Why would there be?

          • Bart
            Bart  August 3, 2017

            I guess if you think the end is coming very soon, there would be no more need of a prophet. But I don’t think we have any words of Jesus indicating that he is the last prophet.

  2. Avatar
    Pattycake1974  July 27, 2017

    I’ve been wondering if there’s any scholarship about the role of hallucinogens playing into the development of ideas for the afterlife, whether it be accidental or on purpose.

    • Bart
      Bart  July 28, 2017

      None that I’m aware of. If someone else knows of any, I’d love to know.

      • Avatar
        Pattycake1974  July 28, 2017

        I sent a couple of links for climate change and apocalyptic thinking/evangelical Christianity the other day

      • Avatar
        SidDhartha1953  August 2, 2017

        Not related to the afterlife, but I’ve read some opinions about the Apocalypse of John, that he may have been tripping on something when he had his visions.

      • Avatar
        dankoh  August 9, 2017

        While this is not precisely on point, Dr. Sharon Packer claimed in a study that many of the apocalyptic visions in the Scripture may be the result of accidental LSD poisoning, since rye was a common grain in the ANE and rye fungus is the raw version of LSD. I saw this study once, back in the 1980s.

    • Avatar
      TheologyMaven  July 28, 2017

      Pattycake- you can draw a link between “access to other worlds” found by shamans’ use of psychedelics in papers like this http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/02791072.1998.10399709 with the idea of the afterlife or lives being one of those places (other worlds) and dealing with spirits of the dead (some of the spirits they deal with).

      But perhaps what you’re getting at is “how did peoples’ own experiences of speaking with the dead, whether induced by hallucinogens or not, affect the development of ideas for the afterlife?” Which I think is an interesting question. .

      When we look at the HB, we could see that the the famous medium of Endor was practicing despite being outlawed, so we can assume that the reason they were outlawed was because it was a popular practice among at least some residents of the Levant at that time . We don’t see Saul asking her theological questions about the afterlife, though, unfortunately. Apparently Saul had more pressing concerns on his mind 😉 …still we don’t know whether others asked mediums those kinds of questions nor to what extent those people had contacts with dead folks themselves..

    • Avatar
      godspell  July 29, 2017

      You’d have to go back a whole lot further than the Judaeo-Christian tradition. Tens of thousands of years, at least.

      And Timothy Leary wasn’t what I’d call a religious man, though perhaps he’d disagree. He’s dead, you say? What’s your point? 😉

  3. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  July 27, 2017

    The concept of heaven seems to me to be a very topic that should interest all of us. I look forward to learning more about the development of this concept.

  4. Avatar
    hasankhan  July 27, 2017

    Jews stopped writing? Or religious scripture that is considered as inspired by God to prophets stopped because no one claimed to be prophet until Jesus?

    From Qur’an we know that there have always been people who don’t believe in hereafter.

    Quran (23:37) There is nothing but our worldly life. We die and we live, and we are not to be raised again.

    • Bart
      Bart  July 28, 2017

      I’m not sure what you’re asking about Jews writing. Of course there is a continuous stream of Jewish writing from the 8th c. BCE till today. And there were certainly people who considered themselves prophets in the two centuries before Jesus.

  5. Avatar
    John Uzoigwe  July 27, 2017

    Dr Bart, I would like to know if the immaculate conception of jesus in Matthew and Luke gospels were part of the earliest manuscripts or were they later interpolation

    • Bart
      Bart  July 28, 2017

      Do you mean his virginal conception? (The term “immaculate conception” refers to the birth of his *mother* Mary, who miraculously was not born with a sin nature, since otherwise she would pass it along to him.) And yes, all of our manuscripts of Matthew and Luke have the story of his birth, though there are reasons for suspecting that Luke may have first been published without it.

      • Avatar
        John Uzoigwe  July 28, 2017

        Yes! Virginal conception. Thank you. That answered the question.

  6. Avatar
    hasankhan  July 27, 2017

    Sheol may be referring to a placed called ‘barzakh’ in Islam (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Barzakh)

    This is the place where the soul goes to after our death. It is neither heaven nor hell and it stays there until day of judgement. So yes every soul does go to Sheol but not forever. After the judgement has been passed, they go to their respective eternal destination.

    Qur’an (68:35-36) Then will We treat the Muslims like the criminals? What is [the matter] with you? How do you judge?

    The concept that sinners and saints are going to be treated same by a Just God, doesn’t make sense.

  7. Avatar
    Tempo1936  July 27, 2017

    One of the interesting aspects of the Maccabean revolt creating the first sovereign Jewish state in over four centuries is the origin of baptism.
    Once the Jewish state was established ambassadors were sent to nearby countries.
    The citizens in the nearby countries heard about the All powerful God of Israel winning the battle over israel’s enemies. Many wanted to convert to Judaism. As part of the conversion the Gentiles were to be baptized which washed all of their past sins away. So the origin of baptism was a ritual of converting gentiles to Judaism.

  8. Avatar
    seahawk41  July 27, 2017

    This doesn’t relate directly to the above post, so think of it as something I’d like to hear your thoughts on when it is convenient. I am reading The Complete Gospels, just about through Luke, and am finding it fascinating. I particularly like the effort the editors went to to use everyday English in translating the koine Greek, rather than the formal English of typical translations. I grew up in a conservative evangelical denomination, so I’ve read these gospels many times, but I have not read them through back to back in ages. I’ve been struck, slapped in the face you might say, at the way the miraculous seems to be the warp and woof of these works. Miraculous healings, casting out of demons, controlling nature, etc. My question is “Where did this come from?” Did people just make up these stories? Were they suggestible people who found it easy to believe? Or what? I’ve heard that such stories were told of Apollonius of Tyana; was it just characteristic of the age that people who made a strong impression on others were seen as miracle workers? Thanks for any enlightenment (heh, heh) you might shed on this.

    • Bart
      Bart  July 28, 2017

      Ah — that would require a book, not a comment on the blog! I’ve written a lot about these issues, most recently in my book Jesus Before the Gospels. That might be a place to turn.

      • Avatar
        seahawk41  July 28, 2017

        OK. I’ll have to read that one again. I was not thinking about this specific issue when I read it (March of last year). Thanks

  9. Avatar
    The Agnostic Christian  July 27, 2017

    Off topic, but someone left this review on your book Did Jesus Exist and I wondered if you had a reply?

    “Mr Ehrman’s final conclusion seems to be that even when we delete all the supernatural baggage of the gospels there must have been an itinerant rabbi wandering around Galilee saying interesting things. However, none of those sayings have survived because all of Jesus’ accepted sayings can be traced to earlier sources like Talmud, Buddhism, Confucianism and Greek Philosophy. So exactly what did this Jesus say? We have deleted the miracles, the passion, the narrative, and retained only the sayings. If the sayings do not survive scrutiny, what do we have left?
    There are also some serious problems with the name of Jesus’ father. Matthew gives us Joseph ben Jacob, but Luke names him Joseph ben Eli. Here are two different candidates. Paul names him “son of David” about 4 times, that is usually considered to be a statement of ancestry rather than family. But Paul names no other family other than the questionable reference to “brother of the Lord” which might apply. Early non-Biblical sources name Cleopas (Epiphanias, fragments of Papias and the first century Apostolic Constitutions) or Alpheus (Eusibius, Hippolytus, Hegesippus) as the father of Jesus or his brothers. Josephus names Jesus’ father Demneus in Antiquities book XX, chapter 9.
    So the question now becomes, was there a Jesus, son of an unknown father, who did absolutely nothing that we know about?
    Sure. Between 100 BC and AD 100 Josephus names some 23 Jesii, each with a different father, or none named at all, each of which did something or other, but we aren’t sure what. Pick one.”

    • Bart
      Bart  July 28, 2017

      It’s not clear this person has actually read my book — or my other work on the historical Jesus (e.g., Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium). I supposed it’s easier to critique a book sight unseen!

      • Avatar
        The Agnostic Christian  July 28, 2017

        I’d say he probably did read it. He’s fairly knowldgable on the early Church. Perhaps he misunderstood you.

        • Bart
          Bart  July 30, 2017

          Knowing about the early church doesn’t mean he read my book! Maybe he didn’t get to the last chapter. 🙂

          • Avatar
            The Agnostic Christian  July 30, 2017

            That’s true. Though I have found to my own frustration that in debates on Facebook people misunderstand me even when I go to great pains to make myself as clear as possible. People misunderstand my words and my intentions because of their own preconceived ideas about me and what I believe.

    • Avatar
      godspell  July 28, 2017

      I doubt this person has ever sat down and read a serous work of scholarship in his/her life.

      As evidenced by him/her clinging to the discredited nonsense that everything Jesus said is cribbed from earlier texts that in most cases the gospel authors couldn’t have possibly had access to. Seriously–Confucianism?

      There are only so many original ideas out there. People stumble across them independently all the time. Or, if you want to get all mystic about it, you can say that something out there is talking to us, and only a few of us are listening. And never more than half-understanding.

      • Avatar
        SidDhartha1953  August 2, 2017

        “There are only so many original ideas out there. People stumble across them independently all the time.” So true! I’ve tried googling things I think are original to me and, quite often, maybe more often than not, I find them word for word. I like to think those people must have been very smart. 😉

  10. Avatar
    SidDhartha1953  August 2, 2017

    Certainly not wanting to open a discussion of contemporary (now, not then) politics, but it is interesting that Syria is now the focus of more turmoil. I suppose, if I were to look hard enough, I could find many places in the ancient world that are having problems today.

  11. Avatar
    Jana  August 11, 2017

    Very interesting and catching up. Difficulties with Cyclone/Hurricane Franklin.

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