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Did Early Christians Believe in Reincarnation?

In my previous post I talked about how Origen’s view that souls existed before being born as humans related to his view that in the end, all things — including the most wicked beings in the universe — will convert and return to God: salvation for all!   Also connected to this idea was Origen’s notion that after death people would be reborn to, in a sense, “give it another go.”  Origen is our most famous Christian proponent of the idea of reincarnation.

The idea of reincarnation had been floated for centuries before Origen.   In ancient Greece the great philosopher Pythagoras was widely believed to have been the first to perpetrate, or at least to popularize, the idea.    Later it was allegedly held by such figures as Parmenides and Empedocles, the latter of whom had allegedly said “Before now I was a boy, and a maid, a bush and a bird, and a dumb fish leaping out of the sea.”

So too we find it in the Roman tradition, as when Virgil’s Aeneas visits the underworld and sees innumerable souls gathered around the River Lethe (Forgetfulness) before being sent back to earth in a “second body.”   He doesn’t understand why anyone would want to leave paradise for the miseries of life, but he is told that “the wretches are not completely purged of all the taints, nor are they wholly freed of all the body’s plagues” and so that need to be “drilled in punishments” in order to “pay for their old offenses.”  Only then can they “revisit the overarching world once more” by returning to bodies, to try again (Aeneid 6. 865-96).

It is often said today that reincarnation was a widespread teaching in early Christianity as well.  In fact, the evidence for it is ….

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The Happy News! No One Stays In Hell!
Did We Exist Before We Were Born?

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Comments

  1. Robert
    Robert  January 9, 2019

    The idea of Jesus possubly being Elijah should not be considered support for Jewish belief in reincarnation since it was believed on the basis of the Hebrew scriptures that Elijah was taken up bodily into heaven and that he would return. Hence his re-appearance would not imply the reincarnation of a dead person’s soul into a new body.

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    • Bart
      Bart  January 11, 2019

      Good point. But I think the idea is that he has a different body now — not quite the same as coming back after dying, you’re right.

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      lraym613  May 23, 2019

      On the premise that Elijah was taken up ALIVE…let’s bring him back as John the Baptist and show how it is so. Elijah is famed for having killed 400 of the prophets of Baal with “the edge of the sword”. 1 KI 18:40. John is beheaded by Herod…before the incidents in Mark 9:12 and Matthew 17:12-13… and as it is written in Matthew 26:52…Gen 9:6.
      Elijah also appears with Moses on the Mount of Transfiguration. Moses is dead. We know this from Joshua 1:2. How is it that a “living” Elijah and dead Moses is conversing with Jesus. Even the disciples understood that Elijah was dead at the point of Mat 17:13, and so was John the Baptist; Luke 9:7-8 &18-19, Mat 14:2,

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        lraym613  May 23, 2019

        Let’s also examine Jesus response to the disciple when they tried to ascribe to him the possibility of being the (spiritual) return of John The Baptist, Elijah or Jeremiah in a physical body in Mat 14:16.
        In other instances of faulty belief, e,g, the Pharisees, Apostles (Peter in particular), even his mother (twice), Jesus was quick to rebuke the error. In the case of Mat 14;16 and the other witness verses (and context thereof) Jesus does not say to them…”Bozos…there is no such thing as reincarnation!! That is a Satanic concept of that heretic Buddha”…as we hear today.

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    AstaKask  January 9, 2019

    This “ascetic lifestyle, moving up along a chain of being” sounds very much like ideas from Hinduism and Buddhism. We know that there was contact between India and the Roman Empire – what’s your gut feeling, was Origen influenced by ideas from the East?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 11, 2019

      It seems unlikely; his associations principally involved Greek and Roman philosophical and Christian theological traditions (based on his extensive references and the “biography” about him by Eusebius)

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    Leovigild  January 9, 2019

    What influence, if any, did Buddhism have on these beliefs?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 11, 2019

      It seems unlikely; his associations principally involved Greek and Roman philosophical and Christian theological traditions (based on his extensive references and the “biography” about him by Eusebius)

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    gwayersdds  January 9, 2019

    Is this idea of existing before being born similar to the Mormon beliefs?

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    saavoss  January 9, 2019

    Professor Ehrman, of all the various blogs I follow, yours is the one I most enjoy reading! I hope you continue for a long long time! Thank you.

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    rivercrowman  January 9, 2019

    Off-topic: Bart, is it safe to say Paul had no idea what the Trinity was? … He does mention Spirit in 2 Cor 3:6, but wasn’t it Tertullian who was first to conjure up the idea of the Trinity?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 11, 2019

      The doctrine of the Trinity developed long after Paul. Not sure what he would make of it, but my sense is that he would find it completely unacceptable. What he would propose as an alternative is hard to say. But he seems to have had a subordinationist view, that Christ was not fully equal, let alone of the same substance, as the Father.

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      • dschmidt01
        dschmidt01  January 14, 2019

        Hi Dr. Ehrman. We start with gospels that dont agree with each other. Next we have Paul who seems to make up a lot of new ideas and doesnt seem to always agree with what Jesus says in the gospels. Next we have early church fathers making up even more stuff like the trinity and purgatory. I know you are not a theologian but as a historian do you know when christianity became stable and no more new beliefs were added to the doctrine? Maybe never? Thanks!!!

        • Bart
          Bart  January 15, 2019

          Every religion develops and evolves and has different points of view represented. It’s kind of like asking when did the Democratic party finally decide on what all its members would think for all time without variation.

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          • dschmidt01
            dschmidt01  January 16, 2019

            great analogy. thanx

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            lraym613  May 24, 2019

            Answer to the question…..Never…………………………

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        lraym613  May 23, 2019

        While the Doctrine of the Trinity was “developed” some time after the codifications, it always lingered in the wording, waiting to be defined…as with many other “missing” words…”divinity”, “rapture”, “atheist”…etc

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    Bewilderbeast  January 9, 2019

    Um, where does join the Carpocratians? A friend wants to know . . .

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    fishician  January 9, 2019

    Are you familiar with the 1991 Albert Brooks film, Defending Your Life? After death he has to defend how he lived his life to avoid being sent back for another go-around, instead of advancing on to the next plane of existence. I like Brooks’ work and thought this one was humorous and insightful.

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    ddorner  January 9, 2019

    I’ve always thought that if there were an afterlife that reincarnation would be among the more plausible possibilities. Honestly, it’s a bit disappointing that it didn’t make it into the Orthodox Christian view.

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    JohnKesler  January 9, 2019

    “When Jesus asks his disciples, ‘Who do people say that I am,’ they tell him that some say he is John the Baptist come back from the dead, or Elijah, or one of the prophets (Mark 8:27-28). This may not indicate that everyone has had a previous life, but it certainly shows that some people thought Jesus did.”

    Since Elijah was taken to heaven and did not die, why would believing that someone was Elijah express a belief in a “previous life”? (2 Kings 2:11, Malachi 4:5, Sirach 48:9-11, Matthew 17)

    “And even more interesting, if less obvious, later in the same Gospel, Jesus passes by a man who was born blind, and his disciples ask him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this person or his parents, that he should be born blind?” (John 9:2). It’s a revealing question: if the man was born blind because of his own sin, obviously he had to have committed the sin before his birth. Voila. Reincarnation.”

    Rather than demonstrating a belief in reincarnation, why could not the Jewish belief that infants could sin in utero underlie the disciples’ question? See https://tinyurl.com/TalmudandHebraica.

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    D-men  January 9, 2019

    Isn´t John 1 21 not refering to Malachi 3 that the Elijah(whom not has died) will come.

    • Bart
      Bart  January 11, 2019

      Yes, the idea would be not that he came back from the dead, but that he’s reappeared in a different body. Not quite the same as reincarnation.

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    Apocryphile  January 9, 2019

    Fascinating. The concept of reincarnation in one form or another or one degree or another is such a trans-cultural phenomenon that it’s hard to dismiss out of hand. Behind the specifics of various religions’ interpretations of the concept seems to be the idea that the individual souls, spirits, sparks of the divine, entities, or whatever constitutes our core being has a purpose or mission or desire that can only be fulfilled by “taking on” successive individual material forms. Some philosophers today see consciousness as fundamental, and the material world (including our brains) as a “precipitate” or “condensate” of it rather than the other way around. Worth thinking about, I think, especially considering that at the fundamental level, “matter” has no substance, and disappears into mathematics (information).

    • Bart
      Bart  January 11, 2019

      I’m not sure I would argue that any view about ultimate reality is more likely right if it’s held among people in various cultures… (How many cultures, prior to the past century, have held to the idea of a Big Bang, e.g.?!)

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        Apocryphile  January 11, 2019

        Good point – ultimately, Science doesn’t care what we believe (or don’t believe). However, it does make one wonder. To my mind, cross-cultural beliefs, especially among ancient peoples who are very likely never to have had contact, is suggestive that something is going on, if “only” psychological or sociological (based on the fact that we are all human, e.g.?) My point is simply that, firstly, we have no idea what consciousness is or where our subjective mental experiences come from. If they are simply epiphenomena generated by brain chemistry, can it be said that they have any existence at all? Secondly, whatever constitutes ultimate reality isn’t physical or material stuff – science at least tells us this much. So I keep an open mind, and a sense of humility in the face of the unknown.

        (The Big Bang and world creation mythologies are a whole ‘nother topic best left for a future thread, I think!)

        *Thanks for your response!

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    Silver  January 9, 2019

    Pre Christmas we had a thread which questioned and debated the stories of Jesus’ birth. In Luke 2, of course, we have the only other story about the young Jesus in the canonical gospels although there are numerous childhood legends in the apochryphal gospels. Do you have any opinion, please, as to why this story of Jesus at 12 made it into Luke?

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    • Bart
      Bart  January 11, 2019

      Ah, good question. Maybe I”ll blog on this. Short answer: Luke is modeling his story on Greco-Roman biographies of great men who are always shown as Wunderkinden to reflect their characteristic traits that will be manifest even more strikingly when they are older.

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    Spiral  January 9, 2019

    I’m an agnostic-atheist, not a Christian. But I could probably sign up for a Christianity that espoused universal salvation. Whenever I tried to get interested in Christianity, one of the big stumbling blocks was always the idea that a Buddhist physician who spends 80 hours a week tending to the needs of children with serious illnesses would go to hell.

    Dr. Ehrman, I just found this video on You Tube titled, “What advice would you give to Students taking Dr. Ehman’s class?” It’s produced by the Ehrman Project, which I assume is designed to counter your influence on the planet. At some time in the future, would you like to do a point by point response to this? Something tells me that you have already responded in the sense that you have covered these issues in your books and lectures.

    • Bart
      Bart  January 11, 2019

      There were lots of videos done for that project, and I”ve only seen a couple. The ones I”ve seen struck as really bizarre — especially since they were made by otherwise good scholars. Amazing what they’d be willing to claim on video!

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    godspell  January 9, 2019

    It’s easy to see how the story of Origen castrating himself got started. Whether he actually did it or not (I’m guessing not), it’s sort of consistent with his valuing spirit over flesh.

    Flann O’Brien wrote a novel called The Dalkey Archive, in which the hero meets a man who by arcane means, conjures up the spirit of St. Augustine, who speaks disparagingly of this earlier Father of the Church:

    (O’Brien, like James Joyce, didn’t believe in quote marks)

    –How could Origen be the Father of Anything, and he with no knackers on him? Answer me that one.

    –Yes. We must assume his spiritual testicles remained intact.

    It’s philosophy, more than theology–that is to say, theology for intellectuals, and therefore not likely to catch on outside very learned circles.

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    RonaldTaska  January 10, 2019

    I wonder if Origen was influenced by Buddhism?

    The variety of stuff you know truly amazes me.

    • Bart
      Bart  January 11, 2019

      Probably not, at least based on what he says about his influences in all his writings and what is said in Eusebius’s “biography” of him. BUt there are some intriguing parallels.

      What I know: not really very amazing. It’s what I do for a living!

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      godspell  January 11, 2019

      Buddha didn’t invent reincarnation. He merely refined the earlier ideas in Hinduism, which refined still earlier ideas, and so on. We can assume many basic religious ideas occurred independently to people all over the world.

      The Indo-European Celts also had a concept of reincarnation, but it was much less systematic, more free form. Souls can migrate from form to form, but it doesn’t necessarily have to mean you were good or bad. The Celts saw the beauty in nature, and were not repelled by the notion of rejoining it.

      It is, when you think about it, hopelessly anthropocentric for us to assume that we are the highest physical form of existence, and only a disembodied spirit would be more advanced. If you ever saw a hawk soaring in the sky, or a horse galloping in a meadow and thought “That’s a lower form” I don’t know what to tell you. Jonathan Swift would find that very funny.

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    TheologyMaven  January 10, 2019

    It seems like it’s always difficult to reconstruct the spiritual beliefs and practices of a group from the writings of their enemies. Do we have any writings by Carpocratians or someone else not quite as biased as Irenaeus

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    Matt2239  January 11, 2019

    Who you say I am is a big and recurring question. Ultimately, the charge that Jesus claimed to be king got him crucified. I always thought that a claim to be the reincarnation of John the Baptist or Elijah would be heretical if not criminal, and so the question of who Jesus was was another trick question.

    • Bart
      Bart  January 13, 2019

      It wouldn’t be criminal, and not technically heretical — but probably offensive, as seemingly unacceptably arrogant and a bit off-balanced.

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    TheologyMaven  January 11, 2019

    While this blog isn’t about what Christians think now, I think that the parallels are interesting, in terms of there being a belief that seems to go on regardless of dominant worldviews and authorities, be they Church or Science..

    Here we have the delightfully abstruse theological arguments for why Christians really shouldn’t believe in reincarnation (even though 25% of us do) https://www.americamagazine.org/faith/2015/10/21/25-percent-us-christians-believe-reincarnation-whats-wrong-picture.. and yet mine coexist with my version of Christianity just fine, thank you. I think it matters if you are theologically big picture or theologically into the details.

    Take this paper https://notendur.hi.is/erlendur/english/Nordic_Psychology_erlhar06.pdf

    “This shows independence from scientific as well as religious authorities. Is it a remnant of pre-Christian beliefs, due to exposure to Buddhist and Hindu concepts, or a sign of original independent thinking? Half a century of anti-religious regimes in Eastern Europe seems to have had no major effect on beliefs about personal survival, and the European Values Survey shows a widespread belief in reincarnation.”

    So I wonder if there are spiritual sensors in human beings and it doesn’t matter what they are told to believe or not believe.. those sensors are part of the human organism whether in early Christianity or now.

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    jrhislb  January 11, 2019

    I once read that Martin Luther was also seen as the returned Elijah so that idea was alive in Christianity for a long time.

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