Wednesday, October 11, 2006

The Afterlife (or Lack Thereof) in Ancient Judaism

Alan Segal, in Life After Death: A History of the Afterlife in Western Tradition, sees strong correlations between social class and ancient Jewish views of the afterlife. First considering the Sadducees, he claims they were the ones most true to biblical tradition in denying an afterlife:
"Although the Sadducees were Hellenists, they knew and understood what the biblical tradition is and they honored it in their own priestly way. The Pharisees characterized the Sadducees as heretics but they were not... The Sadducees knew that when the bible is interpreted literally there is scant evidence for any afterlife worth having." (p 377)
Jon Levenson evidently disagrees, but regardless of how faithful they were to the Hebrew Scriptures, the reason the Sadducees had no use for an afterlife is because they already had paradise on earth. Segal points out that the wealthy called their pleasure gardens -- with ordered bowers, pools and walks -- paradises (paradeisoi):
"Access to a paradise was strictly confined to the wealthy and their guests. This lends an important social connotation to the use of the term 'paradise' to designate an afterlife... The Sadducees needed no paradise after death because they found paradise in their backyards." (p 378)
At the bottom of the social heap were the revolutionary groups led by apocalyptic prophets and royal pretenders, who looked for a future paradise because life on earth was anything but:
"The lower classes envisioned their lives after death in the form that the wealthiest enjoyed in this life and, to complete God's justice, usually denied the aristocrats access to it... Resurrection of the body gave transcendent worth to the death of the martyrs by stating that God would make good on his covenantal promises to reward the righteous and punish the iniquitous. It also shows us what the young martyrs wanted and needed most: They deserved to get their bodies back and to live again on earth. And they deserved to become God's avenging army of angels who would scourge the earth of oppressors and evildoers." (pp 378, 394)
Resurrection was a millenial belief, pointing to an afterlife for the dispossessed.

But resurrection wasn't the only afterlife idea in ancient Judaism, even if it was the most common. Some of the Jewish elite (aside from the Sadducees) favored the doctrine of immortality of the soul, borrowed from Greek Platonism, particularly intellectual thinkers like Philo. The reason isn't hard to see:
"Scholars and intellectuals do not need or even want their old bodies back. What they want is a continuation of their well-schooled and well-studied consciousness... It was an 'intellectual's immortality', one in which the result of continuous study would never be lost. Immortality of the soul appealed to the intellectual elite because it valorized their intellectual pursuits... [It] was the ideology of the rich." (pp 395, 367)
But what about the Pharisees, those who shared power with the Sadducees but ranked below them in a "middle" social position? They believed in the resurrection of the dead -- but were hardly revolutionary; they were neither oppressed nor "peasant" in outlook. We'll look at Segal's ideas about this in a future post, but in the meantime, any takers? What made Pharisees (like Paul) tick and why?

As a relatively well-to-do intellectual, I suppose I like certain aspects of immortality of the soul, though on most days I tend to be rather Sadducean in my outlook -- though for more skeptical reasons than because of that [cough] paradise right in my backyard. Hell, I don't even have a backyard.


Blogger James Crossley said...

There's also the issue of martyrdom and coming to terms with the Maccabean revolt where Jews were being killed for observing the law rather than having a long a prosperous life for observing the law (as in much of biblical tradition). They maybe worth looking at in more detail in relation to what you say and record (by someone who is not me).

Incidenally, I imagined Busybody Towers to be a modern day Hanging Gardens of Babylon. Seems like I was wrong.

Blogger TrailerTrash said...

Interesting post. I have to say that the whole connection of particular beleifs as being a function of social class seems to me a bit wrong headed. We need a more robust sociology.
As you point out, the Pharisees aren't by definition "lower-class". Additionally, the idea that resurrection is a product of martyrdom also seems mistaken. 4 Macc couldn't be a better example of someone who accepts martyrdom, but rejects the resurrection of the body. Many of the Nag Hammadi texts take a similar view.

Blogger Steven Carr said...

It is interesting that many people converted to Christianity in the earliest days , yet still believed that the dead were lost, and scoffed at the idea that God would choose to resurrect a corpse.


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