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Physical Persecution and the Physical Resurrection of the Dead

In this post I’m thinking out loud rather than making a definitive statement.   A question occurred to me a week or so ago that, since I am on the road and rather unsettled just now, I have not had a chance to look into.  Maybe someone on the blog knows the answer.  Prior to the persecution of Jews by Antiochus Epiphanes in 167 BCE, do we have a record of *any* group of people in the entire Mediterranean world being violently opposed precisely for their religious practices?

I can’t think of any, with the (partial) exception of the Roman suppression of the Bacchanals in 186 BCE (it was a partial exception because they were suppressed for their illegal and dangerous social activities that allegedly involved ritual sexual violence and murder).

There was, of course, lots and lots and lots of violence in the ancient world.  Most (all?) of the “world empires” – Assyria, Babylonia, (Persia?), Greece, Rome – throve on violence.  Powerful dominance was the accepted, promoted, and assumed ideology; it was not (as for most of us) an offensive aberration to the social order of things.  But violence was directed against others – either as social groups (cities, nations) or individuals – for what we ourselves would call “social,” “political” or “military” reasons.  When was a group of people ever attacked because of their specific religious practices?

One could argue that …

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Do Later Manuscript Discoveries Ever Support Proposed Interpolations?
A Resurrection for Tortured Jews (2 Maccabees)

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Comments

  1. fishician  August 18, 2017

    Am I correct that Paul taught that Jesus was the first of the righteous to experience bodily resurrection? Even though he never mentions a tomb did he contribute to the open tomb stories? I mean, if His body was raised then it must have been somewhere and then been absent. Or did other early believers already believe in the bodily resurrection and Paul was just following suit?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 20, 2017

      Yes, that’s how I see it.

    • Petter Häggholm  August 20, 2017

      Paul may have believed in the Empty Unmarked Criminal’s Grave, or the Criminal’s Mass Grave Short One Body… After all, Paul just says he was buried (never mentioning a tomb specifically), and for a crucifixion victim, such less dignified fates were a priori more likely.

      Alternatively, maybe he believed that the “glorified body” emerged from the mundane one without consuming it, leaving the remains behind? I’m not up on this, but it seems like a possibility.

  2. Schmitty422  August 18, 2017

    The only group I can think of that could be considered somewhat similar in regards to persecution at an earlier period would be Confucianians under Qin Shi Huang, but that’s not exactly comparable.

  3. godspell  August 18, 2017

    “They were probably just as ethical.”

    Based on what? I’m not saying you’re wrong, but I don’t see any data to back that up. I’m not sure how there could be. Obviously educated pagans had philosophy, which includes ethics (notoriously flexible self-serving ethics, but that’s hardly unique to pagans). But most pagans were uneducated, never read Plato or anybody else. While most Jews were also uneducated, they did have religious leaders to teach them ethics. A different kind of ethics. Better? In some ways, maybe.

    Who was teaching ethics to the pagan illiterate? What ethics were they being taught other than “Obey orders, don’t make trouble, serve Rome and you will be rewarded, disobey Rome and die.”? Pagan clerics would tell them to make offerings to the gods, particularly those gods that symbolized obedience to Rome. Their own personal deities would be mainly implored for things like more rain, a good harvest, good health, good fortune, etc. I know there’s been work done on this, but I haven’t had a chance to read much of it. And I tend to doubt the educated Romans wrote much about it. Because to them, the illiterate masses were there only to serve their betters.

    Judaism has been a mixed blessing to the world, I grant you. But a blessing, all the same. It was the Jews who began to say that right and wrong were more than just relative pragmatic concepts. That some things (like slavery) are wrong, no matter what.

    In many ways, it’s a good thing to believe that there are many gods, and yours are just yours. I believe that in my own way. But the thing about that is, it also encourages tribalism. Your own personal gods are always more important, and you can’t really believe all men are brothers, all women sisters, if they don’t have the same father/mother.

    • Bart
      Bart  August 20, 2017

      What data are you looking at?

      • godspell  August 21, 2017

        That’s answering a question with a question. A lot of questions, in fact.

        I’m no expert on this era, never claimed to be, but I have read a fair bit, and books about paganism cross my desk on a regular basis, and I do know there’s a movement among scholars to better understand the religion(s) Christianity supplanted. I know paganism had ethics.

        But to what extent did pagan ethics ever impact the lives of ordinary people in Roman society? My impression is that pagan gods existed mainly to be propitiated (an idea you can find in Judaism in its earlier stages, but Judaism was clearly changing, evolving, in ways that paganism was not, under the stress of multiple defeats and setbacks).

        I’ve read that Christians gained support among the poor precisely because they served the poor, ministered to them–would that be the case if paganism did so just as well? What holes was Christianity filling that paganism largely ignored, because its primary purpose became to shore up the state? (A threat that all religions must beware.)

        You’ve said many times most people then were illiterate. Illiterate people didn’t know about Plato, were not conversant with the ideas of Epicureans, or Stoics. How would such ideas have served them in their lives, if they had known about them?

        Christianity was founded by poor people, for poor people. Judaism, before it, was mainly a religion for poor people as well–a religion in which kings were portrayed as subordinate to God’s authority, humbled by prophets. But this was, in part, because the Jewish state had been destroyed, while the religion itself had survived–with no secular authority it recognized to bow before. Part of Jesus’ mission was to question the way the temple authorities bowed to Rome, wasn’t it? That would have been one of the primary reasons he was crucified.

        Paganism was the state religion–Christianity, before Constantine, was not. That’s a pretty important distinction. Christianity, unlike paganism, became an independent base of power in most of the Christian states (ie, the king is not the head of the church). There was no pagan pope. That’s also an important distinction.

        How do we get where we are today–all the important changes to the way power is distributed, that we’re fighting to preserve now, atheists and theists alike–if not for Christianity?

        • Bart
          Bart  August 21, 2017

          My point is that based on a careful reading of masses of ancient sources, there is nothing to suggest that people in antiquity were “less ethical” than people today. When you said the data indicated otherwise, I was simply wondering what data those were. (People don’t need to have been able to read Plato in order for them to know that they had to be ethical, any more than people today have to have read Hans Kung in order to know what it means for them to be a Christian)

          • godspell  August 21, 2017

            So what are the Ten Commandments of Paganism? What is the pagan equivalent of the Sermon on the Mount?

            “Less ethical” amounts to weaselwords, in this context. People back then mainly believed slavery was ethical. (Spartacus, for all we know, believed that, and simply didn’t intend to be among the enslaved). They believed wiping out entire rebellious populations was ethical (even democratic Athens did this, though there were those among them who questioned it).

            They were not ethical by our standards, nor are we ethical by theirs (or, quite often, ours, but hypocrisy existed before the dawn of civilization, and I don’t need ‘data’ to know that). The past is a foreign country. Question is, would we willingly trade their ethics for ours, poor a job as we often do in living up to ours? I, for one, would not.

            There is much we can admire in pagan ethics–but as we all know, educated Christians, in Europe and America, read about those ethics, and incorporated relevant portions of them into their own, for long centuries.

            If we’re going to say the pagan poor had ethics, which seems reasonable, we still need to know where those ethics came from, who was teaching them, and what was being taught. And we don’t know enough about daily life back then to know whether people were as ethical then as now.

          • Bart
            Bart  August 22, 2017

            I’d suggest you read some pagan moralists.

          • godspell  August 22, 2017

            I took philosophy in college, Bart, and quite enjoyed it. It’s more or less mandatory, even today. I’ve done a fair bit of reading on Greek and Roman history. My graduate studies covered the impact of pagan ethics on early and late modern Europe. I’ve also studied the religious beliefs of my pagan Irish ancestors–who were non-forcibly converted to Christianity, and not just by that semi-mythical gent who gets a parade on March 17th. Different brand of paganism, that.

            No ethical system is perfect, but I’d argue it was the tension between the old pagan ideas, that never really went away (they are still with us now), with the new Christian ideas, that have yet to be fully absorbed and implemented, that helped create new questions about right and wrong.

            Pagans in Jesus’ time accepted slavery as a natural immutable fact of life. I don’t know offhand of any pagan ethicist who questioned that people had the right to own other people. Zoroaster, possibly. I don’t consider him a pagan.

            While many Christians practiced slavery in relatively modern times, they did so, history tells us (see The Ruling Race, by James Oakes), with guilty consciences that the Greeks and Romans never possessed. Why? Because they knew they were violating their most sacred beliefs for the sake of greed and cupidity.

            Christianity created conflicts, and those conflicts led, across time, to many changes we now take for granted.

            And we really shouldn’t.

  4. RonaldTaska  August 18, 2017

    Didn’t the Israelites with “God’s” help persecute and kill others in the Promised Land because these other groups had religious beliefs pertaining to worshiping too many gods? Hence, these others would have been killed because of their religion and that would have been before 167 BCE unless one dismisses this as all legend and no history.

    I do think that is fascinating that there are no beliefs about Resurrections until the Jews came up with it.

    • Bart
      Bart  August 20, 2017

      Interesting point.

      • stevenpounders  August 28, 2017

        I was going to make the same point. 2 Kings 23 seems to me a description of Josiah persecuting those who sacrificed to other gods in the “high places”. He destroyed their places of worship and slaughtered their priests.

        I’ve read that one of Josiah’s ultimate purposes might have been to centralize worship (and thus power) in Jerusalem, by destroying polytheistic worship places and persecuting the worshipers.

    • Seeker1952  August 20, 2017

      That seems right on point–provided, as you say, it’s not all unhistorical. And it’s consistent with the idea that monotheists tend to be much more religiously intolerant than polytheists.

    • godspell  August 21, 2017

      They fought with other tribes, but remember, you’re reading a very slanted view of what they were fighting about when you read the Old Testament.

      They were fighting over land and water, for the most part. As is still the case today.

    • dankoh  August 28, 2017

      There is good reason to doubt that the persecutions of Joshua ever took place, and that the book of Joshua is fictional; in addition, it could be argued that even if they did, it was more for ethnic than religious reasons – that is, one tribe moving in and pushing another tribe out, something which happened a lot in those days.

  5. Seeker1952  August 18, 2017

    I don’t disagree but were Jews persecuted “because” they were Jews, i.e., because Antiochus Epiphanes found their region false and offensive? Or were they persecuted because they wouldn’t adopt Greek culture, i.e., AE would have left their religion alone if the Jews could “also” accept or at least compromise with Greek culture.

    I’m thinking of something similar to Christian’s under Rome. For the most part they were not persecuted for being Christians per se but for being unwilling to honor the state gods and thus seditious.

    • Bart
      Bart  August 20, 2017

      The two went hand in hand. Following Jewish law — circumcision, refusing to eat pork — was punishable by death. So it wasn’t just that they had to follow Greek religion; they had to stop following their own.

      • Seeker1952  August 20, 2017

        I’m wondering if AE would have made circumcision and eating pork punishable by death if the Jews had been more accepting of Greek culture in the first place. Circumcision and abstaining from pork had not previously been prohibited by Greek culture, had they? Were Judaism and Greek culture pretty much mutually exclusive or were there significant areas where Judaism could have accommodated important aspects of Greek culture?

        • Bart
          Bart  August 21, 2017

          A number of Jews did accept Greek culture — enthusiastically. That was the problem for other Jews who refused. So yes, this was absolutely a clash of cultures.

          • godspell  August 23, 2017

            Which is probably the most creative force in all of human history.

            Without such clashes, we’d still be living in caves.

  6. Seeker1952  August 18, 2017

    i don’t know if it’s considered current or correct, but at least at one time wasn’t it a basic theory in the Sociology of Religion that religion and belief in an afterlife tends to correlate with groups who are oppressed, poor, and suffering? On the other hand, groups that are free and affluent enough to enjoy this life tend not to be religious or believe in afterlife.

  7. talmoore
    talmoore  August 18, 2017

    “Plato in the Apology (our only source for the event)”

    Actually, Xenophon also has a version of Socrates’ apology.

  8. sladesg  August 18, 2017

    A very good set of questions to ponder, and ones I hope you’ll expand on in the new book!

  9. talmoore
    talmoore  August 18, 2017

    Dr. Ehrman, I have to say that by wording your question this way you’re already expressing a bias. To use the contemporary world as illustrative, one man’s pluralism and multiculturalism is another man’s “persecution”. For instance, American Evangelical Christians feel “persecuted” because businesses have their employees say a more inclusive (and business friendly) “happy holidays” instead of “merry christmas”.

    Were there other instances of ancient sovereigns forcing novel or diverse religious practices throughout their empires? Of course. Two significant examples come to my mind: Akhenaten and Nabonidus.

    • Bart
      Bart  August 20, 2017

      Do we know of persecutions under Akhenaten or Nabonidus?

      • talmoore
        talmoore  August 20, 2017

        Again, it depends on what you mean by “persecution”. One man’s persecution is another man’s “religious reform”. If, for example, Antiochus was executing Jews who themselves were murdering Jews who violated or abandoned the Torah (something we see the Zealots and Sicarii doing later during the Roman period), then, ironically, wouldn’t Antiochus be administering justice in the name of reform, tolerance and pluralism?

        Of course, the received sources are going to be biased against Anitochus and in favor of the zealous Jews, so it’s difficult to know if this was the case. Our Judeo-christian tradition has also biased us, making us assume that Antiochus was “the bad guy,” while the pious Jews were “the good guys”. Alas, history is rarely so clear-cut. I’m sure there was plenty of good and bad to go around on both sides. The impression I get from reading the primary sources is that Antiochus was in an untenable position. Some Jews — especially the Jerusalem elite — sought greater Hellenization (similar to how, today, many in the ruling class in other nations seek to become more Americanized), but many Jews — especially the country elites, such as the Hasmoneans of Modi’in — were more traditionalists who were zealousy protective of tradition and national identity (similar to countless nationalist, popular uprisings of the past, such as the Boxers of China, the Mau Mau of Kenya, and the Tamil of India).

        Anyway, as far as Akhenaten, it does appear that he forced the priests and the peoples of Egypt to reject the old gods — in some cases even destroying idols of the old gods — and mandated the worship of Aten only. He even attempted to force those with theophoric names of the old gods to adopt new theophoric names with Aten. Though Akhenaten was ultimately unsuccessful, one could say that his attempt at religious reformation was a “persecution” of worshippers of the traditional Egyptian religion.

        • Bart
          Bart  August 21, 2017

          I’m applying a pretty basic meaning to persecution. According to the Maccabean literature, Jews were tortured to death if they chose to continue following their religious practices (circumcision, refusal to eat pork), and I was just wondering if that were true in other ancient contexts for followers of other religious traditions.

          • talmoore
            talmoore  August 22, 2017

            That I don’t know. If by persecution you mean literal torture and execution, then it’s hard to say how much of that occured in the ancient world specifically for what we would call religious purposes, because the ancients didn’t draw a hard distinction between religion and, say, politics and other institutions, like we do in the modern world. If we’re speaking broadly, and we think of religion in the ancient world as only one of many institutions of the state, then absolutely, yes, people were regularly presecuted (tortured and executed) for failing to swear fealty and allegiance to institutions of the state, especially the institutions of the ruling class, including emperors and kings. Furthermore, we can reasonably conflate human terrestrial kings with divine heavenly kings (i.e. gods), making religion an extension of earthly loyalties and allegiances. So when ancient folks denied the emperor’s state religion it was like they were denying the emperor himself, thus making it an act of sedition. So in that sense men like the Maccabees and Jesus were specific cases within the general framework of acting against state institutions. To put it more simply, the Jews who were persecuted for their religious beliefs were, in essence, committing a political crime in the eyes of the “powers that be”. So, yeah, they were particular cases of a very common practice of persecuting rebels and traitors.

  10. hasankhan  August 18, 2017

    Didn’t righteous followers of law ever get sick? get diseases? get killed? raped? Did they not expect God to help them even if the persecution or injustice was ‘not because of following the law’? Why would they only expect justice for ‘religious persecution’ and not for other crimes? Bad things must have happened since the time of Moses and there must have been good people since the beginning. Even during the persecution there must be sinful non-law abiding jews also. Just because one family took the torture, doesn’t mean everyone took it. There must have been hypocrites also.

    Also there must have always been disobedient people and disbelievers in God, who never faced any punishment on earth and probably were kings and had all the pleasures of the world.

    Point being, good and bad people may have existed since the beginning, there must have been all sorts of evil since the beginning, there must have always been an expectation for justice and belief in afterlife.

    It is common sense. Doesn’t need to be ‘developed’ in the face of religious persecution.

    Qur’an (38:28) Or should we treat those who believe and do righteous deeds like corrupters in the land? Or should We treat those who fear Allah like the wicked?

    • godspell  August 23, 2017

      One thing that is true of all humans, of all races and religions, in all parts of the world.

      “Common Sense” is rarely as common as one would like. And never, ever, universal.

      And you know what I’m talking about.

      No belief system solves all problems. No belief system is perfect. All belief systems were created by humans. And then blamed on God. Or, in some cases, Darwin.

  11. flshrP  August 18, 2017

    Persecution of Samaritans
    The Samaritan Temple at Mount Gerizim was destroyed by John Hyrcanus in about 128 BC, partly because it was attracting some northern Jews as a place of worship. In 107 BC, Hyrcanus destroyed Schechem

    Persecutions of atheists
    Atheism was punishable by death in ancient Greece (Socrates?) and in ancient Israel (Deuteronomy 13:6-11)
    See: Battling the Gods: Atheism in the Ancient World Hardcover – Deckle Edge, November 10, 2015
    by Tim Whitmarsh (Author)
    https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/mar/09/battling-the-gods-atheism-ancient-world-review

    • Wilusa  August 20, 2017

      How would anyone *know* someone was an atheist, if the person had the good sense not to talk about it? If his or her life was at stake, an atheist should have been willing to “go through the motions” of practicing whatever religion was required. Unlike believers in a proscribed religion, who’d fear punishment by *their* gods if they disavowed them.

  12. deanegalbraith@yahoo.co.nz  August 18, 2017

    Interesting thoughts. Yet there’s already Alexander’s persecution of the Zoroastrians to consider. And the mix of politics (suspected conspiracy against the state) and Roman religious-moral horror at the Bacchanalians isn’t too different from the mixed political-religious threat that rebelling religious Jews provided to the Seleucids, is it? Further, reward and punishment in the afterlife comes already in the Book of Watchers, which is pre-Maccabean.

    Also – I wonder about the significance of such developments as the disappearance of the sons of god at this time (e.g. Greek-language reinterpretation of Gen 6.1-4), and the development from a Yahweh-as-head-of-pantheon belief to Yahweh as superior to angels and exalted humans and hypostases, etc (ca 400-200 BCE). This precisely coincides with the period in which Judaism (or part of Judaism) introduces the afterlife of reward and punishment for humans. Does this new form of ‘monotheistic’ belief simply open up the heavens for humans? Isn’t this the major development in Yahweh-worshiping religion at the time of the introduction of an afterlife of reward?

    Just thinking aloud too.

  13. DavidBeaman  August 18, 2017

    I hadn’t thought about it before so this was very interesting to me. I couldn’t find any contradictory evidence. It seems like Judaism and Christianity were not only persecuted, but they were persecutors as well. If the OT can be believed, when the Jews came into the promised land they were not tolerant of polytheism; and later on in history, Christians became the great persecutors both within and without Christianity.

  14. Phil  August 18, 2017

    I was interested in your comment that most ancient religions did not concern themselves with how a person should live their lives – that was for the worlds of Ethics and Philosophy, both very active spheres in the ancient world.
    So is one possible reason for the resilience and cross-cultural appeal of Christianity (and possibly in part of Judaism) that it combined these two separate things? It became a combination of a very real religion with a full ethics prescription and a pretty comprehensive philosophical construct.

    • Bart
      Bart  August 20, 2017

      Yes, I deal with that very issue in my forthcoming book The Triumph of Christianity

  15. Stephen  August 18, 2017

    Deuternonmy 20:16-18 apply? The idea of ‘Herem’ seems to have been religiously motivated even if it does turn out that the conquest was non-historical.

    Question: Wouldn’t a people who had a shadowy, perhaps even ill defined concept of the afterlife be more likely to speculate towards a bodily resurrection for just that reason? They had no real concept of a full, much less better life outside the body?

    thanks

    • Bart
      Bart  August 20, 2017

      Interesting point.

      Possibly: but Greeks didn’t head that direction at all.

  16. Judith  August 18, 2017

    Now that was interesting! You invited us in and carried us along with your exploration of an idea, ending with a question as to whether or not we agreed with the way you had come to see it. (Little mind trip:-)

  17. James Chalmers  August 18, 2017

    If I’m getting this correctly. Christianity owes a lot to Antiochus. He had an extraordinary concern for cultural uniformity. Not an unreasonable idea. If you want political control, stable rule, it helps if people think alike, if the basis of disagreement and conflict is narrowed. And religion was important especially, among the various peoples Antiochus had to herd, to the Jews. So in what to us moderns looks like an anticipation of totalitarianism, he seeks to extirpate religious deviancy. And he’s pretty successful, if not in getting Jews to drop their religious convictions and practices, in raising the price of their clinging to them–making their earthly lives barely tolerable.

    In response, innovative religious leaders come up with two new ideas. One, there’ll be an afterlife where the righteous receive their just reward and the oppressor is punished. Two, to make this just (after)world workable, the concept of a sheol where the dead have a low-grade and uniform existence that’s no life at all is dropped, and replaced by the idea that instead of foreseeing this worldly life ending in sheol, we should look forward to the world’s end, where a great divide will open, setting apart a horrid place of recondite punishment for the wrongdoers (importantly, the oppressors and exploiters) from a new world, a paradisiacal one, where the righteous are rewarded in abundance.

    The mechanism, the piston-cylinder arrangement, that makes this new scheme work, is the (the very un-Greek) notion or doctrine that we shall all be raised–that our dead bodies will be restored to a new post-mortem condition where they are capable either for eternity of suffering the torment earned in the previous life or enjoying the compensatory relief due those situated in lowly positions in the old world.

    This, your bookless ruminations suggest, is a radically new conception of the afterlife, without precedent.

    And it’s a conception, though it preceded the life of Jesus, indispensable to a proper history of Christianity. Jesus was a proponent of this new idea of a general resurrection–it was what he preached, it was the religion he proclaimed and the religion to which his followers (twenty or so them firm and stalwart) subscribed.

    Then came the catastrophe of the sudden loss of the preacher at the moment when the kingdom was felt to be most nearly at hand.

    In this setting, two, three, four of the stalwart followers of Jesus devised another great innovation in resurrectionist thought, and thus founded the religion of Christianity

    Sorry for the length of this. But I’d love to hear whereI am I going too far off the rails.

  18. James Chalmers  August 18, 2017

    I should add I’ve already found out that there was more support for Antiochus among Hellenized Jews than I allow. But I take to the traditionalists, what I say does apply.

  19. SidDhartha1953  August 19, 2017

    I remember from school days learning that ancient Egyptian embalming/burial practices were motivated by a belief that (at least some) of their dead would need their bodies and their possessions in the afterlife. Has more recent study borne that out?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 20, 2017

      That just applied to the Pharaohs, at least originally.

  20. Wilusa  August 19, 2017

    Remember, that isn’t the view of “virtually everyone living in the West” *now*. I don’t think believers in “Heaven” expect to have actual, physical bodies. At least as I imagine it, most of them expect to have what *look like* physical bodies – “improved” versions of their former selves at an “ideal” age – but are really, somehow, insubstantial.

    If I’m right about that, when and why did the view change?

  21. TheologyMaven  August 19, 2017

    Other folks on this blog are more familiar with these writings, but according to Wikipedia “The earliest layers of Vedic text incorporate the concept of life, followed by an afterlife in heaven and hell based on cumulative virtues (merit) or vices (demerit).” .https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reincarnation#Origins
    The Vedic period was 1500-500 BCE, apparently with a differentiated afterlife.

    You said “what I’m wondering is if a persecuted religious groups might be more inclined to start thinking of a differentiated afterlife in which they come to be vindicated by God when it becomes all too clear that they are not going to be vindicated in this life?” It may be a more general thing across cultures, that life is tough and the good don’t always win, so the idea of justice, albeit post-death, is attractive.
    I also wonder about this “Moreover, since the suffering people experience is very physical in nature – torture, mutilation, hideously painful execution – then the vindication must be physical in nature. ” Certainly the suffering of a great many people in antiquity tended to be physical (starvation, illness, injury) and other religions did not come up with the “resurrection of the body.”

    There were many strains of Christianity floating around without “resurrection of the body.” So maybe it was an idea that arose (that didn’t matter much to most people- whether it is bodily, or spiritual, or spiritual bodies, the key thins is differentiation) somewhere in Judaism, and we might be interested in why some Christianities adopted it and not others, and how that idea seemed to “win out” and why, and what happened to the idea among different strains of Judaism and why..

  22. Machaon  August 19, 2017

    Thanks for this most thought-provoking post!

    A couple of points come to mind, both of which might be obvious:

    (1) I’m not convinced that the ancient Greek polytheistic religion was disinterested in ethical conduct. Consider the old man Cephalus in Plato’s Republic [330d-331c], for example, who cites the main benefit of wealth as the ability to make sacrifice in order to repay the debts of one’s injustices.
    “It’s then that the stories we are told about Hades, about how people who’ve been unjust here must pay the penalty there…”
    This idea of one’s injustices as a debt that must be repaid aligns well with Jesus’ own prayer, “And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.”

    (2) (This is no doubt the point of your post) The relation between the conceptual evolution of resurrection and torturous execution of the Maccabee revolutionaries must have been relatively “modern” history for the earliest Christians, without the prior 200 years. If they never expected their Messiah, Jesus, to be publicly tortured and executed, their shock and horror in the first days after his crucifixion by Romans must have turned their minds to analogous sufferings of the Maccabees at the hands of the (also foreign) Seleucids.
    Perhaps, then, this is the seed of the expectation that Jesus, too, should anticipate resurrection at a future time in compensation for his torture and death.
    That would be a reasonable expectation on the basis of Macabees.
    The question then becomes, how did the very first Christians come to believe that the resurrection occurred almost immediately, within those very first days, rather than in the distant future?
    Why did they come to think that their future expectations had been fulfilled immediately?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 20, 2017

      1) Yes, that pretty much makes my point: ethics is a matter of *philosophy*. It is not an issue for polytheistic cultic practices (= “religion”) 2) yes, I think that may well be the connection with Jesus’ resurrection: but it is a connection that could be made only by someone who had the *category* of resurrection in mind. As to Jesus’ resurrection: they appear to have believed this because some of them had visions of him as alive.

      • Machaon  August 20, 2017

        I think the point about ancient Greek religion was in the cultic practice: Cephalus was wealthy enough to sacrifice at the temple regularly in expiation of his own injustices.
        It wouldn’t be possible for him to repay the debts of his injustice before the gods if ancient Greek ethics were purely a matter of philosophy. Plato includes the character Cephalus as an archetypal wealthy lay person who is not a philosopher, but who is pious in observing his religious cult.
        It is true the model of injustice explored in the remainder of the work is very much philosophical, but it is directly opposed to the contemporary religious model of expiating debts or injustice through cultic sacrifice.

  23. Homer  August 19, 2017

    Off hand, I can’t think of a historical event that would support your hypothesis. However, it fits well with Cognitive Dissonance Theory, as found in “When Prophecy Fails.” That “I have obeyed God and have done His or Her bidding,” and “I am being punished for doing such” are incompatible thoughts. These would cause cognitive dissonance, and the person would need to resolve the dissonance.

    One resolution would be to convince oneself that the rewards for obedience will be delayed. It is hard to deny that I am being obedient, and hard to deny that I am being punished severely for being obedient. But if I convince myself that God will bestow a much greater reward for obedience down the line, e.g., heaven, either on earth or in another sphere, then the dissonance is resolved. “I obey God, and thus God will reward me.”

    But to make this cognitive system complete, something has to happen to the persons who refuse to obey God’s commands (including the people who deal out the punishment)? It is dissonant to think that nothing will happen to those who disobey. So, “I believe that God will dispense justice and those who disobey will somehow be punished.” The elements of the cognitive system are now completely compatible with one another.system. The obedient are rewarded, and the disobedient are punished, eventually.

    I am sure we will never know exactly went through the minds of the “originators” of resurrection idea, however, it is interesting to speculate (I emphasize that this is pure speculation) on what might have been occurring.

  24. Tempo1936  August 20, 2017

    In the recent movie, “the case for Christ”, Lee Strobel places great weight on 500 unnamed witnesses referenced in I Corinthian 15 as the reason he believes in the resurrection.
    Why do scholars seem to dismiss This claim by over 500 witnesses?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 20, 2017

      Most Christian scholars probably *don’t* dismiss Paul’s statement. Those who do point out that we precisely do *not* have a claim made by 500 people. We have Paul’s claim that 500 people saw him. The question is whether Paul had solid grounds for making this claim or not. If in fact there were 500 who claimed this, why isn’t it, for example, mentioned in the Gospels?

      • Tempo1936  August 20, 2017

        Acts has claims of witnesses who saw and ate with the risen Jesus (acts 10:41, 13:31).
        The scholars can’t disprove these claims and maybe they are true.

        • flcombs  August 22, 2017

          “maybe” is the key word. It’s the problem with ancient literature. Scholars can’t disprove that gods lived on Mount Olympus or many other ancient stories either. But we don’t hear Christians pushing other stories as assumed true and relevant to us. Besides, many would find issue with claims that a God that loves you and wants you to believe the right things requires you to rely on 2000 year old literature to figure it out.

  25. Apocryphile  August 20, 2017

    I would argue that the idea of a physical resurrection of the body predates the Jews, and that it didn’t require experiencing physical torment to be ‘thought up’. The ancient Egyptians believed that a human being, besides having a physical body, had a soul – ‘ba’, and a spirit – ‘khu’, as well as equally amorphous parts known as ‘power’, ‘shade’, ‘double’, as well as their given name (which had an almost physical existence and power in its own right). The reason the Egyptians took such care to embalm and preserve the body was because they believed it was necessary to the reintegration of all these parts into a perfected heavenly body (called the ‘sahu’), which could then enjoy heavenly food and drink alongside the gods. The physical body was seen as necessary because the sahu was believed to ‘grow out of’ the dead body when the priests performed the correct magic ceremonies and spoke the correct incantations of power from The Book of the Dead at the burial service. It was also incumbent on the deceased person him/herself to remember the correct words, and which gods to recite them to at which gates in the underworld. The final part of the journey was the famous weighing of the deceased’s heart against the feather of truth (hopefully the heart wouldn’t be heavier on the scale!), before they were even allowed to enter into the realm of the gods and receive their perfected, heavenly body.

    Bottom line, death for the Egyptians was not to be taken lightly, which is why they spent a good portion of their lives preparing for it. The Jews in antiquity could conceivably have gotten their ideas about resurrection from Egyptian sources(?) In any case, I think it would be hard to argue that these ancient Egyptian ideas about the hereafter did not influence early Christian communities in Egypt, and from there eventually to Christian communities in the rest of the Roman world. The Catholic Church, though it has now given its sanction to cremation, I think still ‘prefers’ that bodies be interred intact. I would argue that many of these ancient Egyptian beliefs and practices about death and the afterlife, especially the idea of a glorified physical body in heaven, are still alive and well all these centuries later.

  26. Pattycake1974
    Pattycake1974  August 20, 2017

    “Jews came up with the idea of a resurrection of the body”
    Why would a bodily resurrection be appealing to the Jews if everyone else thought it was repulsive? I believe you’ve explained (as well as Lambert when he posted on repentance) before that anything spiritual or symbolic was done through a physical act. Why were they so attached to physical acts when it seems everyone else had moved on?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 20, 2017

      It’s kinda like asking why Jews would practice circumcision if everyone else thought it was repulsive. *That* they did is pretty clear. As to resurrection, there was a unique logic. God had created this material world, and what he created is both good and eternal. So the body has to be eternal. Polytheists simply didn’t see it this way.

      • Apocryphile  August 21, 2017

        Of course, you’re not saying that the Jews were the only people in the ancient Mediterranean world to practice circumcision (are you?) Regarding the Resurrection idea, I think the physical/non-physical distinction was not necessarily as clear cut in the ancient mind as it is to us in the modern world. I think TheologyMaven’s comment above bears re-reading. Cultural ideas and practices are rarely totally unique, especially when people live in relatively close geographical proximity to each other. Even the polytheism/monotheism distinction was (and still is) more nebulous than we (perhaps like to?) think.

  27. Eric  August 21, 2017

    Just as background you might mention in the book, cultures all over the world buried “grave goods” with the dead (sometimes only the elites, sometimes everybody). I think I recall even the Neanderthals may have had a form of this.

    This suggests to me a primitive sense of a physical afterlife.

    • Apocryphile  August 22, 2017

      You’re correct about the Neanderthals – at the Sima de los Huesos cave site in northern Spain, there is even evidence that the hominins who probably gave rise to the Neanderthals were caching the bodies of their dead companions 400,000 years ago. The latest discoveries in the Rising Star cave system in South Africa point to Homo Naledi (who had a brain one-third the size of ours) caching its dead 300,000 years ago. Since the Rising Star caves are extremely difficult to access, this points to a cultural practice beyond simply disposing of dead bodies. Placing grave goods with the dead came later, but the concept of care for the dead is probably at least half a million years old. The placement of grave goods, especially tools and food stuffs, is direct evidence that people (homo sapiens and other human species) had a concept of an afterlife, and thought that these items would be useful or essential to the deceased in the next world. This afterlife must in some sense have been seen as a continuation of a physical existence, or at least an existence where physical items would have been useful/needed. So in this sense it *was* a physical resurrection, even though the dead didn’t resurrect into this world. Ergo….perhaps it isn’t even useful to talk about physical resurrection as opposed to some other variety(?) Fascinating stuff – (at least to me!)

  28. dankoh  August 28, 2017

    A couple of observations: From my own research, it seems clear to me that the Mesopotamian religions were most likely to intermingle worship and ethics (I include the Hittites in this group), while Greek and Roman religions saw the gods as maintaining the state. I do note some other comments that there were ethical elements in Greek religion, but I don’t think they were as dominant. And they were certainly not as interested in every aspect of daily life – though one has to add the caution that at the time of the Maccabeean revolt, purity was still mainly a concern for the priesthood, as the Pharisees had not yet come on the scene.

    My second thought is that the idea of resurrection had previously been used as a metaphor for the Israelites as a whole (nation, tribe, ethnicity, religion, whatever) surviving or being restored – the valley of dry bones in particular. There is some argument that Daniel’s us of resurrection was along the same lines; I believe Porphyry had tried to make this point.

    Also, as I think you’ve pointed out yourself before, we are sure there was some Zoroastrian influence on Jewish thinking, though we don’t know what or when.

    • Bart
      Bart  August 28, 2017

      I’m no longer convinced about Zorastrian influence, but I’m open to persuasion!

      • dankoh  August 29, 2017

        You may be interested in this article: “Hellenistic Influence on the Idea of Resurrection in Jewish Apocalyptic Literature” by Stephen J. Bedard, which I found in JGRChJ 5 (2008) 174-89.

        (Not about Zoroatrianism, sorry. I haven’t found anything yet, either.)

  29. stevenpounders  August 28, 2017

    Have you considered the book “Greek Resurrection Beliefs and the Success of Christianity” by DAG ØISTEIN ENDSJØ? (Had to copy and paste the name to get the special characters.) He is an Associate Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Bergen, Norway, specializing in Greek religion and early Christianity.

    ENDSJØ argues (if I understand him correctly) that the beliefs of Greek philosophers like Plato (such as the division of soul and body in the afterlife) were the philosophies of the Greek elite, but not necessarily representative of polytheistic beliefs around the Mediterranean. He uses quite a number of examples to argue that physical resurrections were embedded in common Greek mythology and belief systems, though not a universal resurrection of the dead.

    I mentioned Josiah’s persecution of polytheistic worshippers in another comment. I know that the historicity of the much earlier Exodus is unlikely, but if it were to be believed, Moses carried out a massive and torturous persecution against those who worshipped a golden calf.

    • Bart
      Bart  August 28, 2017

      Yup! I haven’t found him convincing, but I haven’t worked through all the exx. yet.

  30. Jana  October 17, 2017

    This is very interesting question on a broader scale. How does a view and formation of a “Deity” evolve? presupposing that the type or characteristics of the Jewish God developed from a people persecuted. I’ve wondered why the Jews and later Christians formulated this particular image of Higher Consciousnesses. (by contrast most of the Hindu deities developed or were established from direct visions by rishis and then are reverified personally by individual advanced practitioners)

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