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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
    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..

  2. Avatar
    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.

      • Avatar
        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.

  3. Avatar
    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.

  4. Avatar
    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?

      • Avatar
        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.

        • Avatar
          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.

  5. Avatar
    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.

  6. Avatar
    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.

      • Avatar
        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.

  7. Avatar
    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.

    • Avatar
      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!)

  8. Avatar
    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!

      • Avatar
        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.)

  9. Avatar
    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.

  10. Avatar
    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)

  11. Avatar
    Nexus  January 1, 2019

    If the Book of Life is mentioned multiple times in the Hebrew bible before the advent of a differentiated afterlife, what was the function of the Book of Life?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 1, 2019

      It depends on the context. Which verse are you thinking of?

      • Avatar
        Nexus  January 2, 2019

        I’m only aware of the Book of Life through our culture, so no reference in particular. I understand it to be now understood as what “St. Peter” consults at the pearly gates. I would like to know how ancient Jews regarded the function of the Book of Life before the creation of the differentiated afterlife.

        • Bart
          Bart  January 3, 2019

          I haven’t looked up all the references, but I believe it’s already connected with Moses. Is it the book of all those who are righteous to whom God has provided life? All those living? Sorry — I don’t have a concordance handy to check it out. Great question though….

  12. Avatar
    Michele  June 9, 2019

    Dr Ehrman,
    Dag Øistein Endsjø in
    “Greek Resurrection Beliefs and the Success of Christianity” argues: “This book examines the relationship between the breakthrough of Christianity in antiquity and the belief in the resurrection of the flesh. Traditionally, Greek religion entailed a strong and enduring conviction that immortality always had to include both a body of flesh and a soul. Both mythical and historical persons were also believed to have been resurrected from the dead and become physically immortal. The Christian belief in the resurrection of the flesh evolved only gradually, beginning with Paul, who simply denied it. But the more popular Christianity became among the Greeks, the stronger the emphasis became on the resurrection of the flesh; and the more Christianity stressed physical incorruptibility, the more Greeks left their ancient beliefs for this new religion. As such, the traditional Greek longing for immortal flesh can be seen as an important catalyst for the success of Christianity”.
    What do you think about his statement?
    Thank you very much,

    Michele Fornelli

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