Last Week I published the first of three guest posts by blog member Daniel Kohanski, based on a book that he recently published that will be of interest to many blog readers.  Here now is the second post.


            Apocryphile Press has just published my latest book, A God of Our Invention: How Religion Shaped the Western World ( The book first examines how the western world’s idea of God developed, from the Israelite worship of many gods, Yahweh included, through the first centuries of Christianity. It then looks at how that idea of God has impacted the way we deal with sex, war, and death, and how the belief that Jesus is coming back has interfered with our ability to handle crises.

Here is an edited excerpt from the first part of the book, exploring how the Jews first came to believe in judgment after death. (I’ve relied on some of Bart’s books, and other scholars, for some of this material, but omitted the references for space reasons.)


In the days of the First Temple, the Yahwist sect’s idea of sin seems to have been generally religious in nature and national in scope. While the elders, the judges, and the kings dealt with issues of individual wrongdoing—murder, theft, fraud, land grabs, adultery—the priesthood preached that worshiping Yahweh and only Yahweh was the responsibility of the people as a whole. If enough of them committed the sin of idolatry, the whole nation would suffer drought, famine, flood, plague, defeat in war­­—all brought on, wrote the authors of Judges, Samuel, and Kings, by Yahweh in his anger at Israelite unfaithfulness to him. It fell to the individual prophets to warn that Yahweh was equally angry with the people over their mistreatment of widows and orphans and for exploiting the poor. The entire nation, they threatened, would suffer for it if they didn’t deal with these injustices.

However, the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BCE was so extreme that it gave even prophets pause. Early on in the exile,

Jeremiah and Ezekiel each announced that Yahweh had decreed that from now on everyone was responsible for their own sins. Reversing a popular proverb, they declared that children’s teeth would no longer be on edge because their fathers had eaten sour grapes (Jer. 31:28–29; Ezek. 18:5). Ezekiel compiled a list of secular sins ranging from fraud and adultery to refusing to feed the hungry and clothe the naked, to go along with the cultic sins of idolatry. Those who were righteous and avoided these sins would live a full life, while the wicked, unless they repented, would die early. “Each according to his ways will I judge you, O house of Israel” (Ezek. 18:30). Even if the nation as a whole was guilty, the righteous would still be spared.

Even so, far too often the righteous suffered and died while the wicked prospered and lived long lives. The book of Job, possibly written in the Persian years, offered an answer of sorts: mortal creations have no right to question their creator. This was clearly less than satisfactory for many Jews, who continued to explore other ways to deal with this conundrum. By the time of the Maccabean revolt, some were saying that God would render judgment on the righteous and the wicked alike after they had died.

In order for the righteous and the wicked to face judgment after death, they have to survive the death of the body. Starting around 200 BCE, we see texts that assume the immortality of the individual. It is possible, though still undetermined, that these texts benefited from exposure to Persian Zoroastrian beliefs. There is more evidence for Hellenistic influence. Here is just one example: Around 400 BCE, the Greek philosopher Plato described his idea of immortality: “He who lived well during his appointed time was to return and dwell in his native star, and there would have a blessed and congenial existence” (Plato, Timaeus 42b). Two centuries later, Plato’s “astral immortality” would be closely reflected in the book of Daniel: “And the discerning shall shine like the splendor of the sky, and those who guide the many to be righteous, like the stars, forever and ever” (Dan. 12:3).

Daniel’s is the only explicit declaration of individual immortality in the entire Hebrew Scripture, and shows that a shift had indeed taken place in Jewish ideas about judgment after death. The author of Daniel was specific about who would face this judgment. Selected individuals—“many of the sleepers in the deep dust”—will awaken to face a destiny determined by how they had responded in life to the existential crisis facing the nation. But he was vague about the details. He didn’t explain how or when this resurrection will occur, nor what he meant by the “everlasting contempt” awaiting the evildoers—whether it was eternal torment or a final oblivion. And would this judgment take place right after death, or upon the resurrection? Daniel’s author was likely writing for an audience that was familiar with these questions from other writings of the time, and probably left these details as an exercise for the reader, as it were.

Among those other writings was The First Apocalypse of Enoch, some parts of which may date back before Daniel. First Enoch was popular for a long time: the New Testament quotes from it (Jude 1:14-15), almost all of the book has been found among the Qumran scrolls, and it is still part of the canon of the Ethiopian Church. The book taunts sinners—“whither will you flee on the day of judgment”—and warns that those who “have died now in prosperity and wealth” will go down to Sheol where “they shall experience evil and great tribulation—in darkness, nets, and burning flame.” The objects of the book’s wrath are “the governors, kings, high officials, and landlords” who have oppressed the righteous. Even if they should die full of years and wealth, “vengeance shall be executed on them—oppressors of his children and his elect ones. It shall become quite a scene for [his] righteous and elect ones. They shall rejoice . . . because the wrath of the Lord of the Spirits shall rest upon them” (1 Enoch 97:3; 103:6, 7; 62:11–12).[1]

The Wisdom of Solomon, another popular book from this time, expresses a similar sentiment. The wicked who say “let us oppress the righteous poor man; let us not spare the widow or regard the gray hairs of the aged,” will find themselves on the day of judgment trembling before God, while “the righteous will stand with great confidence in the presence of those who have oppressed them” (Wisdom 2:10, 5:1).

Daniel’s author was mainly interested in reassuring the faithful at a moment of existential crisis for the nation. First Enoch and Wisdom had a different agenda: the promise of posthumous revenge for righteous individuals who had suffered at the hands of the wicked. But they all offered the same solace: whatever happens here on earth, God will put it right in heaven, rewarding the righteous and punishing the sinners after they arrive in the world to come.

Other texts of the Second Temple period predict that only the righteous will be resurrected, while the wicked will stay dead forever. In Second Maccabees, a woman and her seven sons who were martyred for refusing to eat swine flesh all expected God to “raise us up to an everlasting renewal of life, because we have died for his laws.” Not only that, their tortured bodies would be restored to perfect condition. The evil king Antiochus, however, would not live on in the hereafter, not even to face punishment. “But for you there will be no resurrection to life!” said one of the sons to the king (2 Macc. 7). On the other hand, the Fourth Book of the Maccabees, possibly written in the first century CE, was sure that judgment for both the wicked and the righteous will occur when they die: “The tyrant Antiochus was both punished on earth and is being chastised after his death” (4 Macc. 18:5). Finally, a few centuries into the Common Era, the rabbis of the Talmud would settle on a doctrine of t’ḥiyat maytim—(almost) all the dead would one day be revived to life. In a backhanded admission that resurrection had come late to Jewish thinking, they decreed that anyone who denied it was found in the Torah would be denied his share in the world to come (M. Sanh. 10:1).

[1] See also, e.g., 1 Enoch 103:14–104:7.

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2023-02-27T20:08:14-05:00February 25th, 2023|Afterlife, Hebrew Bible/Old Testament|

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  1. jsgleeson February 25, 2023 at 10:01 am

    It occurs to me that theology was the original science, putting forward theories to explain the cosmos, then evolving and combining theories to create new theories when objective observation exposed flaws in the old theories. It’s still going on today. Perhaps science and theology will merge someday.

  2. jscheller February 25, 2023 at 10:46 am

    Good article Dan. I wonder why it is that there isn’t more stock in the idea that resurrection was introduced to Israel via the Persians, given the timing of Israel’s turn to life after death. It seems pretty clear that it was something new to them in comparing Daniel and Enoch to the other Hebrew scriptures, while the significant change for Israel that would suggest an origin of new ideas was the Babylonian exile period, which was immediately supplanted by the Persian influence, which included the unique concept of bodily resurrection. From where I sit, it is seems naturally deductive.

    • dankoh March 7, 2023 at 6:15 am

      (Sorry for the late response; your comment was posted immediately and not held over for approval.)

      The problem with assigning Zoroastrian influence is that we don’t have provenance; the latest reading I’ve done on this topic is still unable to clarify the degree to which Zoroastrian thinking influenced Jewish beliefs as opposed to the other way around. (It has to do with the difficulty in fixing a date certain for Zoroaster.)

      As for bodily resurrections, I would hesitate to ascribe it to Daniel or other Second Temple period writings. It appears (from my currently distant vantage point of Queensland) to be a later development, such that the Jesus Movement was also uncertain what it might mean.

  3. R_Gerl February 25, 2023 at 4:59 pm

    Excellent article Dan, thank you for it. If I understand your thesis correctly, it seems that Judaism adopts the old pagan ideas of a future punishment and reward for bad and good behavior (respectively) in the form of an afterlife and/or future resurrection of the body. It seems to me that this is inevitable given the fact that moral issues, and their rewards and punishments, are inevitably something that people have to deal with. If I’m not mistaken, the idea of a bodily resurrection of all people was first postulated by Zoroaster and his followers. But the idea of an afterlife goes all the way back into prehistory. The ancient Egyptians believed in an afterlife thousands of years before the time of Abraham. What puzzles me is why this didn’t take place in “Judaism” sooner. Are there any ideas as to why “Judaism” persisted for about 1,100 years before this kind of thinking was adopted.

    • dankoh February 25, 2023 at 9:30 pm

      The Israelite religion (which eventually became Judaism) shows no evidence of being influenced by Egyptian thinking (Freud notwithstanding), as the Israelites were never in Egypt. They were, however, heavily influenced by Mesopotamian beliefs, and by those of Semites generally, which originally believed in a dismal afterlife (if any); check out the Akkadian “city of the dead,” for example, and also the ancient Greek idea of Hades. (Also, Egyptian judgment in the afterlife was originally reserved for the pharaoh, who was a god on Earth, and only later became “democratized.”)

      By around 200 BCE or so, there is definite evidence that Israelites (the Jews, by this time) had developed some ideas about an afterlife. They may have picked up some of it from the Zoroastrians; the problem with that argument is that scholars have not yet been able to establish provenance – that is, whether the Zoroastrians got it from the Greeks (and maybe the Jews) or the other way around. We are on more solid ground in seeing Hellenistic influence on the Jews, as for example in Plato.

      • fragmentp52 February 27, 2023 at 11:37 pm

        I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts on Dr Kara Cooney. She is a Professor of Egyptology at UCLA, and I watched a YT video of her recently. If I understood the video properly, she seems to suggest real connections and influences on the Levant from Egypt.

        • dankoh February 28, 2023 at 6:30 am

          Egypt did influence the Levant as a whole, no question. There is also considerable speculation that Egypt’s centuries-long garrisoning of Canaan may have been one of the precursors of the Exodus story. But as far as Egyptian ideas about the afterlife having an impact on Israelite ideas, it doesn’t look like there is much there there.

          • fragmentp52 February 28, 2023 at 10:52 pm

            Thank you Dan.

  4. tom.hennell February 25, 2023 at 8:30 pm

    Fascinating article Dan.

    But I am not convinced by your title; Why Would Evolving Beliefs about Sin Lead to the Idea of an Afterlife? ”

    As you say, the idea of an afterlife appears in the Hebrew scriptures only in the supplement to the Book of Daniel. But that idea is not at first primarily directed towards delivering justice in the afterlife to those who have been sinful in this life, but gone unpunished. Rather the revisers of the Book of Daniel appear to have been motivated by the oppposite injustice; where there appeared no vindication in this life for martyrs to the faith.

    The folk-tales that were repurposed into the Aramaic Book of Daniel, tend to narrate a hero figure who is delivered from peril by God, and so vidicated. But what of the martyred victims of the Antiochene persecution who were not delivered, but died under torture? Were they then then not vindicated?

    So far as we can see; martyrdom -Jews in considerable numbers facing a choice between death and renouncing key elements of religious practice – was then a new phenomenon in Israelite religion. But all too prophetic for the Jewish future.

    • dankoh February 25, 2023 at 9:20 pm

      It was in Daniel, not in the supplement to Daniel (which exists in the Septuagint and Catholic Bibles, but not in the Jewish Bible). And I don’t believe there is evidence Daniel was edited later, as a later editor would have edited out the prophecies that didn’t come true, or at least put in prophecies about Judah Maccabee recapturing the temple. The book of Daniel was specifically written to give hope and comfort to the people in danger of martyrdom by Antiochus – it reassured them that Michael was coming to rescue them, and that even if they were killed before he could save then, God would resurrect them to eternal life.

      But for purposes of this essay, my point in introducing Daniel was as evidence that by this time (c. 165 BE), Jews had developed some ideas about an afterlife, sufficiently so that the author of Daniel didn’t feel the need to go into details about it.

      • tom.hennell February 27, 2023 at 1:03 pm

        Apologies Dan; did not make myself clear.

        By the ‘supplement’ to Daniel, I mean the passages that are now read in Hebrew (hence chapters 1, and 8 – 12); rather than in Aramiac. There is no consensus whether these parts are translations into Hebrew, or Hebrew compositions by an Aramiac speaker; but they are commonly accepted as secondary additions. In particular, the references to Antiochus IV in Hebrew chapter 11 appear to show a few year’s later knowledge of his misdeeds than do those in Aramiac chapter 7.

        But for our purposes, it is interesting that vindication in the afterlife makes no appearance in Aramiac Daniel. Rather faithful Isreal – “the Holy people of the Most High” – will be collectively vindicated through the triumph of a personified representation, ‘”the one like a human being”. Which does not necessarily imply that the author was unaware of ideas of an afterlife; only that such ideas played no part yet in their national salvation history. Whereas the author of Hebrew Daniel now also saw the necessity for individual vindication of those who had died for the faith.

        Maybe responding to the brute fact of martyrdom?

  5. MattBrandon February 26, 2023 at 3:34 am

    Hi Bart,

    Firstly, thank you for your scholarship and thank you for forcing me to think critically about why I believe what I believe.

    My question is about the death of James the Just and the Book of Acts.

    Firstly, if you have already spoken on this topic then please forgive me and send me to where I need to go.

    My question is: William Lane Craig suggests that since the book of Acts makes no mention of James the Just’s death, it mustn’t have been written before his death in 62CE. It also makes no mention of Paul’s death, and therefore this could imply that it (and Luke’s gospel) was written earlier than the 70’s.
    What is your opinion on this matter?

    Thank you,

    • dankoh February 26, 2023 at 4:34 am

      If you’re asking Bart, you should post this question on a blog entry that he wrote; he sees all those questions. If you were asking me, you should still post it to Bart, as he is much better able to answer your question.


  6. fishician February 27, 2023 at 10:55 am

    Some years ago I had a Christian friend tell me there has to be an afterlife, otherwise many evil doers would go unpunished. Unfortunately, wishing and wanting doesn’t make it so; one needs to have a more definitive reason for stating that there is an afterlife. This is one reason Marx called religion the opiate of the masses: it can lull one into a state of complacency, as everything will be fixed in the afterlife, rather than being motivated to fix injustice and suffering now in this life.

    • sLiu March 3, 2023 at 8:32 am

      I am troubled that we were taught to believe [my sister also from elementary school] & live according to a dude in USA Civil WAr [JN Darby]. [TaiwaneseAmerican denomination]
      Exactly how I thought then as now. So all others before us were condemned.
      Does that make sense?

  7. OmarRobb February 27, 2023 at 11:34 am

    Interesting topic. The post here (as I understood it) represents the correlation between the development of the thought of sin and the thought of afterlife. My comment here is just about the afterlife as an abstract idea, and actually I am following the comment of R_Gerl above.

    Egypt has been one of the superpowers of the old time. Even when Egypt lost its political dominance about 700BC, it still was an economical center and a famous center for knowledge. Furthermore, Egypt did rule Palestine and a large part of the Levant for many centuries. So, the Israelites (Jews and Samaritans) should have been well aware of the Egyptian culture.

    I would assume that Egypt was one the most civilizations that the rich really prepared for the afterlife even if this preparation was for showing off. They have books about life after death and we all know about the famous balancing between the heart and feather.

    So, the Israelites didn’t really need the Persians or the Greeks for the thought of afterlife, it should have been clearly known (as a thought) from the Egyptians.


    • OmarRobb February 27, 2023 at 11:36 am


      So, the surprising thing is that the Torah didn’t have a position about this thought. It doesn’t mean that the Israelites believed in it or they didn’t. It just means that the position about this thought is absent from the Torah, and it is surprising because the question: “what happens after death” is almost instinctive for all humans.

      Although I don’t have the data to support the following claim, but I assume that the idea of afterlife is a definite outcome from the psychology of humans, and it is probably evident in most ancient civilizations. It could have started as a balancing agent the same as dreaming: dreaming (and specially day dreaming) does balance the hardship of the day, so the poor will sleep while dreaming that one day he will become rich. This could be the same as the origin thought of afterlife: the oppressed would probably sleep a bit better if he believed that there is life after death and there will be justice there against the oppressors.

      Just to highlight this thought: It is highly unlikely that the Vikings were influenced by the Greeks or other Mediterraneans and they did have clear vivid beliefs about the afterlife.

      • dankoh March 6, 2023 at 5:38 am

        Egypt originally (probably) was only concerned with the Pharaoh’s afterlife, as the Pharaoh was “god on earth” and his deeds on earth were measured to see if he was worthy to join the gods. Over time, the afterlife extended to include the wealthy and powerful, and gradually to everyone – what one Egyptian scholar calls the “democratization of the afterlife.” The Israelites OTOH followed the general Semitic and Mesopotamian belief in a dull existence after death; see the Akkadian “City of the Dead,” for example, or the early Greek Hades (not the later versions). In the Torah, as in most of Scripture, death was pretty much the end – “He slept with his fathers.”

        The point of my essay is that sin, in the sense of disobedience to Yahweh, originally meant failure to worship Yahweh and only Yahweh, and that punishment for sin fell on the whole nation. After the Babylonians destroyed the Temple, the prophets began to make responsibility for sin an individual matter rather than national. That forced them to explain the prosperity of the wicked, which eventually led to the claim that the wicked would get their comeuppance in the afterlife.

  8. mrccs March 5, 2023 at 11:20 pm

    Reading this post pushes me to focus on the various ways institutions like the Church and Western Governments justified behaviors and actions that were condemned by the prophets and punishment and the afterlife.

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