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 (https://apocryphilepress.com/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).
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).
 See also, e.g., 1 Enoch 103:14–104:7.
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