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Resurrection from the Dead: Were Jews Influenced by Zoroastrianism?

I often get asked if ancient Judaism was influenced by Zoroastrianism or other kinds of Persian thought – especially when it comes to the specific doctrine of the “resurrection of the dead” and, more generally, the whole category of “apocalyptic thought.”  I used to think so!  Now I’m not so sure.  At all.

I’ve talked about apocalypticism and resurrection on the blog before.  Here I’ll discuss where these ideas came from, before, explaining more fully what they ended up looking like.  This discussion is taken from an early draft of my forthcoming book Heaven and Hell: A History of the Afterlife.

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After the period of the classical prophets, Jewish thinkers came to imagine that in fact there would be life for the individual who had died.  For them, there was a possibility of life beyond the grave – real, full, and abundant life.  But in the original Jewish conception, unlike widespread Christian views today, the afterlife was not a glorious eternity lived in the soul in heaven or a tormented existence in hell, attained immediately at the point of death.  It was something else altogether.  It was the idea that at the end of time God would vindicate himself and his people.  When history and all its evil and suffering had run its course, God would reassert his sovereignty over this world and destroy everything and everyone who was opposed to him, bringing in the perfect, utopian world he had originally planned.   Inhabiting this world would be the righteous who had lived and suffered throughout all of history.  God would miraculously bring them back into their bodies, and they would live, bodily, without any pain, misery, or suffering, for all time, in his most glorious kingdom.

Those who were wicked would also …

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An Alternative View of Suffering and the Idea of Resurrection
How Views of the Afterlife Changed

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    L_C_Nielsen  August 19, 2019

    Well, Hultgård has at least studied Iranology (though he’s absolutely not a household name) but I would suggest a much better overview of the field’s thought is found in Almut Hintze’s 2019 paper “Defeating Death”: https://www.academia.edu/38669109/2019_Defeating_Death_Eschatology_in_Zoroastrianism_Judaism_and_Christianity._In_Irano-Judaica_VII._Studies_Relating_to_Jewish_Contacts_with_Persia_Ed._by_Julia_Rubanovich_and_Geoffrey_Herman._Jerusalem_The_Ben-Zvi_Institute_for_the_Study_of_Jewish_Communities_in_the_East_2019_pp._23_72?source=swp_share

    She argues for an early well-developed eschatology in Zoroastrianism but also provides a useful summary of the different perspectives.

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  2. Avatar
    AstaKask  August 19, 2019

    IIRC, the opinion that the Jews influenced the Persians rather than the other way around was rejected because it seemed unlikely that a victorious world-culture like Persia would pick up stuff from a large insignificant tribe from Palestine. But stranger things have happened – “Graecia capta ferum victorem cepit et artes intulit agresti Latio.”

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  3. Avatar
    L_C_Nielsen  August 19, 2019

    “Some experts have undercut the entire thesis by pointing out that we actually do not have any Zoroastrian texts that support the idea of resurrection prior to its appearance in early Jewish writings.”

    I also have to point out that this is simply false. The Zam Yasht (Hymn 19, or “Hymn to the Earth”) still exists, and is still rooted in a pre-Achaemenid oral/epic tradition. You can argue about doctrine (where I will take pains to point out that these are hymns that allude to familiar concepts, not exegesis), but it certainly does “support the idea of resurrection”.

    22. That belongs to the gods in the heavens and to those in the material world, and to the blessed ones, born or not yet born, who are to perform the restoration of the world.

    23. It is they who shall restore the world, which will (thenceforth) never grow old and never die, never decaying and never rotting, ever living and ever increasing, and master of its wish, when the dead will rise, when life and immortality will come, and the world will be restored at its wish;

    24. When the creation will grow deathless, – the prosperous creation of the Good Spirit, – and the Druj shall perish, though she may rush on every side to kill the holy beings; she and her hundredfold brood shall perish, as it is the will of the Lord.
    For its brightness and glory, I will offer it a sacrifice ….

    For analysis and dating of the Yasht, I recommend: Humbach’s Zamyād Yast: Yasht 19 of the Younger Avesta : Text, Translation, Commentary

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  4. Robert
    Robert  August 19, 2019

    Bart: “Even more significant, the timing does not make sense: Judah emerged from Persian rule in the fourth century BCE, when Alexander the Great (356-323 BCE) swept through the eastern Mediterranean and defeated the Persian Empire. But the idea of bodily resurrection does not appear in Jewish texts for well over a century after that.”

    This particular argument does not strike me as very strong. I would expect it take a while for dramatically new and foreign ideas to percolate within the Jewish tradition before the right circumstances (Antiochus IV Epiphanes) would provide the occasion for them to appear in literary expression and be embraced as authentic.

    • Bart
      Bart  August 20, 2019

      The issue is what evidence we have of Persian influence in Judea in the third century, *apart* from this. Nothing comes to mind! Though we see tons of Greek influence.

      • Robert
        Robert  August 21, 2019

        Bart: “The issue is what evidence we have of Persian influence in Judea in the third century, *apart* from this. Nothing comes to mind! Though we see tons of Greek influence.”

        I would think most of the Persian influence would have already occurred earlier. The question is how much of it was absorbed or continued to percolate until it eventually found enduring literary expression in the Maccabean or apocalyptic literature. Who are the best scholars to read on the influence of Persian culture on Israel between the time of Cyrus and that of Alexander?

        • Bart
          Bart  August 21, 2019

          Great question! I suppose any of the Hebrew Bible scholars who deal with post-exilic literature, from 1 and 2 Chronicles and Ezra-Nehemiah, to Ezekiel, 2 and 3 Isaiah, Zechariah, Haggai, Malachi, etc. I suppose to make the chronological case you’d have to argue for proto-apocalyptic materials leading up to something like Daniel 12?

        • Avatar
          L_C_Nielsen  August 23, 2019

          Hi, I don’t know what Bart’s opinion on him is, but speaking from my point of view as an amateur scholar of pre-Islamic Iran and Zoroastrianism, I would personally suggest reading Shaul Shaked: https://huji.academia.edu/Shaul_Shaked

          He’s one of few scholars who possess a genuine dual expertise in Iranian and Hebrew tradition. He’s noted for saying that it “does not seem at all likely that so many similarities [between post-exilic Jewish and Iranian tradition] could have been formed in parallel independently”.

          Yaakov Elman and Shai Secunda, who wrote the Judaism-Zoroastrianism intersection chapter in the “Wiley-Blackwell Companion to Zoroastrianism”, might also be interesting names to check out!

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      • Avatar
        cristianp  August 22, 2019

        My question is, do we have evidence of Persian influence in Greece?

      • Avatar
        mkahn1977  August 24, 2019

        Are there any particular scholars or works/books you’d recommend on the Greek influence in Jewish culture? I’ve never thought about it before other than negative reactions to Greek influence such as the Maccabees and related subjects.

        • Bart
          Bart  August 25, 2019

          It depends how deeply you want to get into it. The classic is Martin Hengel’s book Judaism and Hellenism; but it’s very scholarly. Or maybe ahy book on the Maccabean period, such as the opening bits of Shaye Cohen’s, From the Maccabees to the Mishnah?

          • Avatar
            mkahn1977  August 25, 2019

            Thanks- I’ll check them out!

  5. Avatar
    Brand3000  August 19, 2019

    Dr. Ehrman,

    Do you think Paul reasoned that since God originally created everything perfect, including the physical world and the bodies of people, that through Christ one day all of these things will be restored as they should be?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 20, 2019

      I don’t know for a fact that he reasoned that way, but I tend to *think* he did….

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  6. Avatar
    fishician  August 19, 2019

    Did the belief in Satan as a personal enemy of God and His people arise at the same time as these afterlife beliefs, or do they seem to be two independent developments?

  7. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  August 19, 2019

    For those new to the blog, I highly recommend Dr.Ehrman’s book on this theodicy (suffering) issue entitled “God’s Problem.”

  8. Avatar
    qditt  August 19, 2019

    Thank you for the post Dr. Ehrman,

    How much influence (if any) do you feel Zoroastrianism had on “dualing” Gods within Jewish thought? I do not see much evidence of a devil or demons, or one fighting God until the NT. I see lesser gods being defeated by the Jewish God, but not so much a Devil. Do you think the concept of a devil was influenced by that Persian religion?

    Thanks.

    • Bart
      Bart  August 20, 2019

      I think the idea of Satan arose precisely at the same time and in the same circles as the idea of resurrection, so if Persia influenced one it also influenced the other….

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  9. Avatar
    doug  August 19, 2019

    Sounds fascinating already. And it’s interesting how the problem of suffering/evil affected beliefs about the afterlife.

  10. Avatar
    cmdenton47  August 19, 2019

    The most amazing thing about the question of suffering is the people who think they’re providing you with an argument you’ve never heard before.

    • Bart
      Bart  August 20, 2019

      Yes indeed, it’s quite remarkable! (And often they think they came up with it!)

      1
  11. Avatar
    Pattylt  August 19, 2019

    I’m really interested in your thoughts on this and am excited you are addressing it. I’ve heard the ideas of Zoroastrianism were influential in Judaic dualism so often that I always assumed there was strong evidence of it.

    One comment however doesn’t convince me. You state, “But the idea of bodily resurrection does not appear in Jewish texts for well over a century after that.” Is there a time limit on how quickly a new idea takes to percolate into a new view? Would we expect dualism to become syncritized rapidly? Or bodily resurrection?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 20, 2019

      No, no time limit! Necessarily. My point is that by the early 3rd century we start seeing significant Greek influence on Judaism in a variety of ways. I don’t know of any evidence of *Persian* influence at the time. And so what’s the likelihood that in this one theological view Persia was dominantly influential, but nowhere else in Judean life and thought? (If someone does konw of Persian influence on Judean life and thought in the third century, I’d love to know about it!)

      2
      • Avatar
        L_C_Nielsen  August 26, 2019

        I don’t know what you would count as influence on thought, but Ecclesiastes has loanwords from Persian and is usually thought to date to the very early second century at the absolute latest, with AFAIK most arguing for an earlier date. I believe the same is true for Nehemiah.

        Loanwords from Persian are somwhat remarkable in themselves since it doesn’t seem like Persian was that widely used (for the wider empire, Aramaic was preferred; for the Persian heartlands, Elamite was dominant.) For comparison, among the known administrative Persepolis tablets, there’s exactly _one_ written in Old Persian, but thousands and thousands written in Elamite. There’s still some debate surrounding the nature and use of the recorded dialect of Old Persian, but it seems like the most prolific use of Persian was in royal inscriptions, which I’ve often seen argued were originally composed in Elamite anyway (at least in the case of the Behistun inscription, which contains the bulk of all known text in Old Persian).

        • Bart
          Bart  August 27, 2019

          Yup, good point. Correct me: wasn’t Aramaic the language used throughout Persia in the 5th-4th c BCE onward?

          • Avatar
            L_C_Nielsen  August 27, 2019

            It’s entirely possible, but AFAIK there are no substantial records beyond about the year 450, so off the top of my head I don’t know how we would know. We do know that Aramaic was widely used in the East as well though, since Parthian script (aka “Pahlavi script” in Middle Persian) is basically just Aramaic script complete with ideograms and all*, and Indic (sanskrit and prakrit) scripts are also based off Aramaic. The Fortification archive stretches to about 490 and consists of about 10,000 tablets in Elamite and 1,000 tablets in Aramaic. The Treasury archive stretches to about 450 and consists of about 200 tablets in Elamite and a handful in Akkadian.

            *so e.g. “Shahanshah is written something like MLKYNMLK. Unfortunately they’re not as funny as the use of Sumerograms in Akkadian, where you end up with the Akkadian “Shar Raba”, Great King, effectively being written as Sumerian LU.GAL.GAL – literally “Big Big Man”, since the Sumerian word for king is literally “big man”…

            Since the powerful estates of Persia used massive amounts of labour from other parts of the empire, it would almost have been necessary to use Aramaic to some extent. Plus, Persepolis itself is a very peculiar place since it was more like a massive palace complex than a proper “city”. Unfortunately we don’t have records from e.g. Susa, which would probably have been more representative.

  12. Avatar
    dankoh  August 19, 2019

    I can’t quite agree with your characterization of Jewish resurrection. In Second Temple times there was a shift from community focus to individual afterlife, but there was still no agreement. On the one hand, you have Sirach, which said that the dead inherit worms. On the other hand, in 2 Macc. the widow and her seven sons expected to be restored to life in perfect bodies – but the wicked king would have no afterlife, not even in hell. Then there is 1 Enoch, which thinks up lots of torments for the wicked, and Wisdom, which has the righteous looking forward to standing by God’s throne watching their persecutors approach in fear. Plus the Sadducees didn’t believe in any resurrection at all. So I wouldn’t say that resurrection, especially bodily resurrection, of the good and the wicked was commonly believed among Jews in the last two centuries BCE.

    Only gradually did the rabbis (successors to the Pharisees) impose their view in Talmudic times – which is that hell is temporary, 12 months at most (though it may seem longer to the sinner), and consists of being kept away from God (though even here there is not unanimity). The truly wicked are simply extinguished.

    On Zoroastrian influence, I do agree that we simply don’t have enough information. I’ve even seen arguments that the Greeks influenced the Zoroastrians, but the plain fact is that no one has been able to show precedence.

    1
    • Bart
      Bart  August 20, 2019

      I am definitely not saying there was any unanimity about understandings of resurrection or *anything else* in second-temple Judaism!!

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  13. Avatar
    quadell  August 19, 2019

    Regarding the different ways monotheists have tried to understand the problem of evil and suffering in the world, your readers might enjoy the free Yale lecture series Introduction to the Old Testament, as taught by Dr. Christine Hayes.
    https://oyc.yale.edu/religious-studies/rlst-145

    A consistent theme in her lectures is that the Hebrew Bible is a collection of different texts that explore wildly different ways of explaining the suffering of the righteous. She talks about the standard prophetic view you mention — that suffering is always a just punishment from an all-powerful God — and contrasts that with the ways the Job or Ecclesiastes or portions of the Torah deal with the question. I found it quite enjoyable, and I hope some of your readers do as well.

    (Of course your very personal and admirably candid “God’s Problem” deals with these same issues, but with the purpose of understanding what might be convincing or useful to a modern person today. I highly recommend it, but it serves a different purpose. Dr. Hayes’ lectures attempt merely to describe important understandings found in the Hebrew scriptures, rather than to evaluate their relevance today.)

    • Bart
      Bart  August 20, 2019

      Yes, she’s a fine scholar indeed, and I recommend her course as well. God’s Problem was not meant *only* to be about modern relevance of course; most of it was simply exegesis of biblical views, but at a lay-person’s level, not at a highly sophisticated one.

      1
  14. Avatar
    Bernice Templeman  August 19, 2019

    Probably need to give some credit to the Jews. They may have learned of some ideas from other cultures but then they put them into their stories and books.
    The opposite of Eternal life would be the Apocolypse?

    If eternal life is spiritual and universal, could you live on after the end of the world as the Universe continues to grow and change?

    It is kinda crazy that the Ancient Egyptians wanted eternal life, after all, they probably suffered more than us, or maybe not?
    Maybe they just prayed every day and were thankful for all that they had. Can prayer reduce suffering? Are we praying enough or do we let our minds focus on the suffering in the world?

    Do Christians really want eternal life?
    Do they believe in an Eternal God and good?

    Pascal’s wager: you would be better off if you believe in God and live as though you believe in God.

    • Avatar
      Bernice Templeman  August 19, 2019

      Note: I think we are all (including Jews and Ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans) born equal and connected to God. We learn to dislike others and to suffer and sin. We can change our beliefs. There are souls of different ethnicities and genders in heaven. It is best to like all people.

      I mostly read & listen to prayers that say I did not suffer. I am rewriting some to be gender-neutral and ethnicity neutral.

  15. Avatar
    Hngerhman  August 21, 2019

    Dr Ehrman –

    Pardon the naïveté of the question: Which are the key Jewish texts that were written during the period of Persian rule (as opposed to ones that just refer back to that period)?

    Cheers!

    • Bart
      Bart  August 21, 2019

      Certainly 1 and 2 Chronicles, Ezra-Nehemiah, parts of Ezekiel, and a number of the minor prophets, such as 2 and 3 Isaiah, Zechariah, Haggai, Malachi,

  16. fefferdan
    fefferdan  August 21, 2019

    Regarding Ezekiel, I think there’s a general misconception that he taught a doctrine of Resurrection during the exile period through his vision of the Valley of Dry Bones. But in fact that vision was intended to refer to the resurrection and future glory of Israel itself after the exile, not to life after death.

  17. Avatar
    Neurotheologian  August 21, 2019

    Bart, I think Isaiah 53 speaks unequivocably about life after death:
    Isa 53:9 And he made his grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death; because he had done no violence, neither was any deceit in his mouth.
    Isa 53:10 Yet it pleased the LORD to bruise him; he hath put him to grief: when thou shalt make his soul an offering for sin, he shall see his seed, he shall prolong his days, and the pleasure of the LORD shall prosper in his hand.
    Isa 53:11 He shall see of the travail of his soul, and shall be satisfied: by his knowledge shall my righteous servant justify many; for he shall bear their iniquities.
    Isa 53:12 Therefore will I divide him a portion with the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong; because he hath poured out his soul unto death: and he was numbered with the transgressors; and he bare the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.
    Even if one accepts the deutero-Isaiah hyopthesis, I gather the timing is till peri-exillic

    • Bart
      Bart  August 22, 2019

      Ah, see tomorrow’s post (which I made before seeing your comment!)

  18. Avatar
    rgriggs  August 21, 2019

    Great post, looking forward to part 2!
    Question: When Job says “[after my death] in my flesh shall I see God” (Job 19:26) would that be considered an earlier reference to bodily resurrection?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 22, 2019

      The problem with the Job passage is that it appears to be impossible to translate into English, and that’s because it’s impossible to understand Hebrew. The King James translators took a stab at it, but ended up making it coincide with their theological views. But Hebrew linguists generally admit that we don’t know what it’s saying, except it doesn’t seem to be saying that….

      • Avatar
        rgriggs  August 22, 2019

        Thanks so much for the response! I wasn’t aware of that.

  19. Avatar
    Brand3000  August 22, 2019

    Dr. Ehrman,

    In his book, John Barton offers these 3 examples as strong evidence that from the earliest years following the resurrection, Jesus was the Son of God. Do you agree? Do you think these are indeed solid examples?

    Rom. 1:1-4: “Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God— the gospel he promised beforehand through his prophets in the Holy Scriptures regarding his Son, who as to his earthly life was a descendant of David, and who through the Spirit of holiness was appointed the Son of God in power by his resurrection from the dead: Jesus Christ our Lord.”

    2 Cor. 8:9: “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.”

    Phil. 2:6-11: “Who, being in very nature God,
    did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
    rather, he made himself nothing
    by taking the very nature of a servant,
    being made in human likeness.
    And being found in appearance as a man,
    he humbled himself
    by becoming obedient to death—
    even death on a cross!
    Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
    and gave him the name that is above every name,
    that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
    in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
    and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
    to the glory of God the Father.”

    • Bart
      Bart  August 22, 2019

      Yup, I like his book very much. I give more evidence in my book How Jesus Became God (which is all about the question)

  20. Avatar
    Jon1  August 25, 2019

    Bart,

    Paul says the resurrection of the dead will be of those who are “in Christ” and who “belong to Christ” (1 Thess 4:16; 1 Cor 15:23). Does Paul think:

    A] *only Christians* who have died will be resurrected when Jesus returns

    OR

    B] a much larger general resurrection will occur when Jesus returns that also includes non-Christian people who died before Jesus’ ministry, so Paul uses the language he does in the passages above simply because he is addressing specifically Christian concerns.

    • Bart
      Bart  August 26, 2019

      Paul appears to have thought like Jesus, that the true followers would be raised for eternal life, and others (the vast majority of people) would be annihilated, never to live again. I’ll be talking about that in my book.

      • Avatar
        Jon1  August 26, 2019

        Bart,

        Your answer was not quite clear. Let me ask my question in a different way: Did Paul think *any* Jews who died before Jesus was even born would be resurrected from the dead when Jesus returned? If your answer is yes, how do you explain Paul saying the resurrection of the dead will be (only?) of those who are “in Christ” and who “belong to Christ” (1 Thess 4:16; 1 Cor 15:23)?

        • Bart
          Bart  August 27, 2019

          He appears to have thought that some faithful Jews were looking forward to the coming of Jesus, so it’s hard to imagine that he didn’t think they would be raised. Maybe he understood them in a sense to be “in Christ.”

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