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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)



  1. Avatar
    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.

    • Avatar
      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. Avatar
    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. Avatar
    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?

      • Avatar
        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)

          • Avatar
            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.

          • Avatar
            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. Avatar
    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.

      • Avatar
        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.

    • Avatar
      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.

    • Avatar
      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.

    • Avatar
      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. Avatar
    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.

      • Avatar
        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.

          • Avatar
            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. Avatar
    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. Avatar
    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. Avatar
    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?

    • Avatar
      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. Avatar
    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)

    • Avatar
      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. Avatar
    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. Avatar
    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. Avatar
    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. Avatar
    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?


    • Bart
      Bart  August 20, 2017

      Interesting point.

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

  16. Avatar
    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. Avatar
    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. Avatar
    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. Avatar
    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. Avatar
    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?

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