Friday, October 20, 2006

Some Social Dimensions of Life After Death

I'd like to begin my contribution by raising a series of questions about resurrection and life after death, which summarize some of my chapters in Life After Death: A History of the Afterlife in the Religions of the West. This seems to be a perennial question. But I am also fascinated by the fact that the same symbols that governed life after death in New Testament times are still very understandable today and still operate in similar ways. For example, I found that resurrection was born in apocalyptic sects (like that which produced the book of Daniel about 165 BCE). This therefore is the biblical doctrine, though it arises fairly late in OT history and but a blink before the rise of Christianity. It promises bodily resurrection to those who have been martyrs, which helps explain the expectations surrounding Jesus’ death. And it promises that martyrs, who have sacrificed their bodies for the faith, will get them back when God brings about the coming kingdom. It is not only a solace to martyrs but also to freedom fighters. And this doctrine later becomes the expectation of all. But it is not the only doctrine available in NT times.

On the other side of the social spectrum, there is the doctrine of immortality of the soul. It is characteristic of the upper classes, but only those who interact significantly with the Greco-Roman aristocracy. This is because the doctrine’s origin is to be found in Platonic thought, though Jewish intellectuals like Philo show us that it could be tailored to fit Jewish sensibilities—especially Jewish notions of God’s ethical behavior. This doctrine essentially says that we will discorporate on death and that our souls, which contain our thinking and memory, will survive us. I said that this is characteristic of a class of people that valorizes the life of the mind. It says our thoughts and experience survives us. The body, in contradistinction to resurrection, is unimportant and carries no personal identity.

We have to realize, as well, that many Jews, especially in the aristocracy of Judea—those called Sadducees—did not believe in any form of afterlife at all. That means that a belief in the afterlife is not automatically important in Judaism. Furthermore, that means that the Sadducees must have interpreted their Bible tradition as having no evidence of an afterlife. For sure, this means that their “Bible” would have contained no book of Daniel. It also means that they interpreted every other book in the Bible to say that there was no afterlife. That means they took a naturalistic interpretation of Ezekiel 37 and Isaiah 24-27. It is inconceivable, however, that their Bible didn’t have these important books in it.

The problem is the Pharisees, as I have said before. The Pharisees believed in tehiat hametim, a term taken from Isaiah 26:19. But they are not apocalyptic sectarians. However, I point out that they thrive some century and a half after the sectarians who produce Daniel. They “borrow” the notion, as it were, from an earlier sect. Nevertheless, they are in the power game politically in first century Judea. To resolve the issue, I have partly to rely on Paul, who talks about the transformation from body to body, a very ambiguous and incompletely understood doctrine in 1 Corinthians 15. Also, I try to point out that the term tehiat hametim” does not actually mean resurrection in the sense of the re-animation of the corpse. If the Pharisees had wanted that term, they would have developed it from the parallel verse in Isaiah 26:19 where the technical term hakamat haneveilot is available. That term explicitly means that the corpses will get up. By using the less explicit term, I contend, the Pharisees and later the rabbis were fudging the afterlife. They did not want to be more explicit.

This makes our job in understanding Paul more difficult, rather than less difficult. The canonical Gospels all explicitly or implicitly accept a literal resurrection of the corpse. The story of the empty tomb makes this explicit. It tells us what the canonical position is on Jesus, even though, as is clear, it cannot any longer be thought to be the exact story of the believer. But that is the point. The Gospels are written after it is clear that the end of the world is not coming immediately after the resurrection of Jesus. One or two generations had passed and their corpses had all deteriorated to bones or even to dust.

Paul, who wrote before the Gospels, never mentions the empty tomb, though he certainly goes out of his way to tell us that Jesus was buried. I suspect that he saw this as a victory over the Roman oppressors because they rarely granted permission for crucified criminals to be buried with honors. It is also clear that the resurrection body is a spiritual body. But it is nowhere clear that it is the physical body of the Gospels. It may be the same body transformed but that is far from clear in Paul’s 1 Corinthians 15 essay on the subject. It seems out of the question that it is merely the flesh revivified as he says that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom (1 Cor. 15:50). But what it is positively is ambiguous. The metaphor of the grain of wheat suggests two bodies because the ancient world thought that the seed disappeared and was reborn. Other parts of the passage suggest a single body transformed. What is clear to me is that it does not automatically cohere with the Gospel story. And why should it? He did not know the finished Gospel tradition. The real question is: “Why do the Gospels ignore Paul?”

To return to the contemporary world for a moment: Fundamentalist and evangelical varieties of Jews, Christians, and Muslims (I’m restricting myself to those who have a developed biblical notion of resurrection) are knowledgeable about their scriptural tradition and affirm resurrection. They also know that martyrdom is a cost which may be asked of them personally. The majority of Americans however are the equivalent of mainline and normative. Whether Jew Christian Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu or nothing at all, most Americans affirm a form of immortality of the soul, though some call that immortality of the soul resurrection because they know that is the core of Christianity. In fact, more Americans believe in an afterlife than actually believe in God. And when they do believe, they believe in a form of immortality that is consonant with immortality of the soul. So the same social and ideological connection that was established in the Hellenistic world is influencing our religious lives today, though there is no theoretical reason why we could not have changed metaphors completely. The differences between immortality of the soul and resurrection are still informing our religious life today.

22 Comments:

Blogger Loren Rosson III said...

Thank you very much, Alan, for a fine debut.

Regarding Paul's view of the resurrection, you write:

It may be the same body transformed but that is far from clear in Paul’s 1 Corinthians 15 essay on the subject. It seems out of the question that it is merely the flesh revivified as he says that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom (1 Cor. 15:50). But what it is positively is ambiguous. The metaphor of the grain of wheat suggests two bodies because the ancient world thought that the seed disappeared and was reborn. Other parts of the passage suggest a single body transformed. What is clear to me is that it does not automatically cohere with the Gospel story.

That's probably one of the best and most careful ways I've seen Paul’s view represented. I'll have to think more about the seed; I’d always thought this metaphor suggested the same body transformed, but perhaps not (and perhaps I should have been taking Steven Carr more seriously here). But other parts indeed suggest the single body transformed, such as I Cor 15:53.

Whether Jew Christian Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu or nothing at all, most Americans affirm a form of immortality of the soul, though some call that immortality of the soul resurrection

Yes, that's interesting. I've run into plenty of Christians who affirm resurrection but don't think it involves the flesh coming back to life. There was a movie not long ago -- called The Body -- that involved a discovery of an ancient skeleton in Jerusalem, of someone who had been crucified, and Christians were concerned that this might be Jesus' skeleton and would thus undermine the foundations of Christianity. A Catholic co-worker saw the film and was puzzled by its premise, because he was under the impression that his own orthodox creed did not preach the transformation of Jesus' dead flesh-and-bones upon resurrection, and that Jesus' bones would have indeed been left behind. (I don't recommend the film, BTW; it was awful.)

10/20/2006  
Blogger James Crossley said...

Thanks for that. Just some thoughts questions...

On the origins of resurrection thought (e.g. Daniel), presumably the Maccabean crisis plays a significant part and the logical problem of a basic reward theology, i.e. observe the commandments and live a wonderful life on earth. The Maccabean crisis would show that the very opposite: those observing the commandments were actually dying for doing so. This would presumably provide the impetus for a more developed belief in the afterlife (presumably through a reading of Ezekiel and the bones to get resurrection?).

Does that make any sense?

10/20/2006  
Blogger Alan F. Segal said...

There is something liberating about saying "I'm not sure." or "The text can be read either way." Not that one shouldn't try as hard as possible to resolve all the ambiguities. But not all historical problems are resolvable and not all ambiguities are resolvable. In fact, some authors actually try to create ambiguity for deliberate reasons.

It is important for me to know that the Pauline and gospel notions of resurrection do not necessarily agree in every respect. This raises the interesting issue that the gospel writers not only saw the resurrection differently but may have disagreed with Paul's formulation. One does not necessarily have to affirm that this is so, just note that human beings differ on these weighty issues.

10/20/2006  
Blogger Chris Petersen said...

Very well done, Dr. Segal. I have only one qualm. You wrote:

"The metaphor of the grain of wheat suggests two bodies because the ancient world thought that the seed disappeared and was reborn"

Even if we arrive at the conclusion that most of the ancient world would have interpreted the wheat metaphor as such (which is itself ambiguous to interpret) the immediate context still suggests a transformation of the body, even if via the "giving" of another body. Here's the passage:

"But someone may ask, "How are the dead raised? With what kind of body will they come?" How foolish! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. When you sow, you do not plant the body that will be, but just a seed, perhaps of wheat or of something else. But God gives it a body as he has determined, and to each kind of seed he gives its own body." 1 Cor (15:35-37, emphasis added)

The antecedent of "it" is clearly the seed. Paul is still affirming something happening to the seed. It, i.e., the seed is given a body. Thus even if one could interpret this passage as suggesting two distinct bodies, the important point for Paul is emphasizing some kind of continuity between the seed and the body given to it.

It seems that a reoccuring problem with any exegesis is pressing metaphors far beyond the simple meaning they often intend. But you are certainly right, Dr. Segal, that on the whole Paul's description of the resurrection state would not quite cohere with the rather crass interpretations in the Gospel accounts of Jesus' resurrection.

10/20/2006  
Blogger Alan F. Segal said...

to James Crossley: I think that you are generally right. The emergence of the belief in resurrection is closely associated with martyrdom. It would be foolish to deny it. But it's not necessarily the only reason. One has to know, as well, that the people who produced the first resurrection visions were searching for an answer to these issues and reading the texts of Isaiah and Ezekiel carefully, as you say. So they receive these innovations as visions but they are also training for them and quite learned in the previous biblical imagery. If you're bothered during the day, you can dream about the same issues at night. So the value of religiously altered states of consciousness innovation has to be factored into the mix. In my book, Life After Death, I devote several chapters to showing how literary imagery, altered states of consciousness, and individual talents interract under a social crisis like foreign domination. Hope this helps.

10/20/2006  
Blogger Alan F. Segal said...

Very interesting point, Chris.

I will think about it some more. Philosophically, there has to be some identity between the old and the new. It has to be the body but the body is quite different before and after. Otherwise the issue of resurrection is moot. But is that what Paul was trying to express? I'm not sure he was thinking about this at all. Rather he seems to be offering comfort to those whose faith is faltering about the resurrection in general. But it's a very complicated question.

10/20/2006  
Blogger David Wilkerson said...

Loren and/or Alan,

Outside of 1 COR 15, 1 COR 6:12-20 and 2 COR 5:1-10 seem relevant. Many of the same formulations and ambiguities.

Particularly interesting I think is 1 COR 6:13-15. Paul begins making "food and stomach" sound like something of the past to be destroyed, bodily concerns not relevant to the spirit life. But he immediately cuts this off and says "Yet the body....is for the Lord, and Lord is for the body".
His reasoning for the importance of the body is apparent in v.14 "God has not only raised the Lord but will raise us up." Then says shockingly "your bodies are members of Christ."

I'm not saying he is being unambiguous because he goes on to say Adam and Eve were one flesh (v.16) but the Lord and we are one "spirit". Paul's allergy to the 'flesh' of that first Adam keeps screwing up all analogies between our present body and any body we might have with the spiritual Adam.

10/20/2006  
Blogger Mark Goodacre said...

Thanks for the very interesting post, Alan.

What is clear to me is that it does not automatically cohere with the Gospel story. And why should it? He did not know the finished Gospel tradition. The real question is: “Why do the Gospels ignore Paul?”

The question is even starker when one considers that those earlier verses in 1 Cor. are tradition that predates Paul -- he is relating it as of first importance / what he also received etc. The impression one gets from 1 Cor. 15 is that Paul is attempting to deal with the problems in Corinth by telling them what key early Christians think -- Paul is lining himself up here behind Peter, the apostles, James and co. (something he'd later avoid). Given that attempt to lay out what the key figures think, the Gospels' ignoring of that tradition seems even stranger.

Thanks again, Mark.

10/20/2006  
Blogger Whit said...

Following up on the body thread, Jesus' resurrected body can do some interesting things. For example, he is unrecoginized on the road to Emmaus and at the beach in the morning in John. He is made known (in breaking of bread) and he disappears. He eats too! Certainly an interesting body.

10/20/2006  
Blogger Ken Olson said...

Dear Dr. Segal,

I find it fascinating that the ancient world thought that the seed disappeared and was reborn. It seems to me that this is a key concept in interpreting Paul's seed analogy. Could you tell me in what ancient writers this concept is discussed?

Best Wishes,

Ken

10/21/2006  
Blogger Ben C. Smith said...

For what it may be worth, Pliny says the following in the Natural History, book 17, chapter 10: Ac pleraque ex his natura ipsa docuit et in primis semen serere, cum decidens exceptumque terra vivesceret (but most of these things nature herself has taught, and especially to sow seed, since when it falls and has been received by the earth it begins to live).

This suggests to me that Pliny regards the seed itself as coming to life at germination; it does not suggest to me that the seed disappears.

But I am not familiar with the whole Natural History; Pliny may describe germination differently elsewhere.

Ben.

10/21/2006  
Blogger Steven Carr said...

'The metaphor of the grain of wheat suggests two bodies because the ancient world thought that the seed disappeared and was reborn. Other parts of the passage suggest a single body transformed.'

Fascinating!

Paul is not at all ambiguous.

He says 'the last Adam became a life-giving spirit'.

And he is even more explicit in his follow up letter to the Corinthians where he says that the earthly body will be destroyed, and there will be a heavenly body.

Paul often uses a clothing metaphor for the resurrection.

What did he think would be clothed in what?

And why did the Corinthians convert to Christianity , yet scoff at the idea that God would choose to raise a corpse?

What sort of resurrection of Jesus had they been taught?

One theory which seems highly probable is that they thought Jesus was god. A god can take human form and revert to being a god after death, leaving his body behind.

But how could we mortals be resurrected, when all we had was a body?

Paul takes it for granted that they believed that God *could* breathe life into dead matter. He quotes the story of Adam, without any attempt at justifying it as true, or explaining that because God could breathe life into dead matter in the case of Adam, he could do so in the case of Jesus.

On the contrary, he seems to contrast the process of creating Adam from dead matter with what happened to Jesus.

Indeed, Paul seems to think the Corinthians are idiots for imagining that the resurrection of people other than Jesus involves the raising of a corpse, and so rejecting resurrection.

He seems to be saying that it is stupid to worry about what happened to the natural body, because we are like Jesus, and also have a spiritual body.

The fact that Jesus left his body behind was no hindrance to our resurrection, because we too will leave our body behind. The Corinthians were idiots for not realising that.

Why else would he have written the way he did?

Why else would he regard the Corinthians as foolish?

10/21/2006  
Blogger Steven Carr said...

Surely Paul is saying that the seed is just a marker to tell God what to create.

If there is a wheat seed, God will create wheat.

If there is a corpse, God will create the resurrected person.

Isn't the important thing that Paul says this immediately after chastising the Corinthians for wondering what a corpse would look like when (or if) it was reformed?

He is telling them that the corpse is dead.

But the Corinthians already knew that a corpse is dead.

So Paul must be emphasising that it really is dead, and will stay dead.

What is raised is not the corpse. 'You do not plant the body that will be'.

10/21/2006  
Blogger Alan F. Segal said...

Wow, take the sabbath off and this is what you get waiting for you when you come back.

I'm not sure I can answer everything in detail right now, though I'm fascinated by the discussion. I'm not sure where I read about the seed disappearing. Was it the TDNT? It's hard to remember. In any event the issue is complex for resurrection. You'd think that there has to be something left or there's no identity, as I said before. Philosophically, that would seem to be necessary. Otherwise there's no person resurrected. I agree. But, now that I think of it, consider what the mother of the seven martyrs says in 2 Macc 7--namely that if God can make the world from nothing he can certainly resurrect you from nothing.

The key for me is to understand Paul's visions as being in the spirit. For him that was real and visionary at once. He thought they would be fulfilled very soon. This makes him entirely different from the Gospels. What he sees as visionary and in religiously altered states of consciousness is presented in ordinary consciousness by the Gospels a generation later. I believe that they needed or wanted more surety than Paul could provide, especially as Paul himself was no longer with them, and especially as the parousia had not happened.

My point is only that there is far more ambiguity in Paul's writing than most people suggest. And it is too easy to try to make Paul consistent by quoting some other letter of passage. But it's not clear how interested in philosophical consistency he is. Instead, I see him as a visionary (and I think visionaries are religious innovators). He didn't need proof in the way the next generation did. What he wanted to know was how to make community work in these end-times.

I would suggest that could momentarily step back and take a much wider view. Look at how the ancient world attacked the problem of afterlife. Take a look at my book and not just the Christianity chapters. It's a difficult and perennial question in human life and you need to look at how everyone dealt with it. Even if you adhere to Christianity in the end, in a way it doesn't matter. You still have to appreciate the incredibly different ways in which humanity tried to resolve the issue of aging, illness, mortality, and finitude. Can we take a broader perspective?

Be back tomorrow. Thanks for all your very probing and interesting questions.

10/21/2006  
Blogger Steven Carr said...

Didn't many early Christian converts believe that the dead were lost?

Paul has to tell the Thessalonians not to grieve like those who believed the dead were lost.

And some Corinthians refused to take part in baptism for the dead, implying that they believed that there was no reward for the dead.

Alan writes :-
'But, now that I think of it, consider what the mother of the seven martyrs says in 2 Macc 7--namely that if God can make the world from nothing he can certainly resurrect you from nothing.'

But is that a transformation?

Can God transform water into wine, when there is no water left, and would the wine still be continuous with the water?

2 Maccabees 7:22-23

"I do not know how you came into existence in my womb; it was not I who gave you the breath of life, nor was it I who set in order the elements of which each of you is composed.

Therefore, since it is the Creator of the universe who shapes each man's beginning, as he brings about the origin of everything, he, in his mercy, will give you back both breath and life, because you now disregard yourselves for the sake of his law."

I don't think there had to be a corpse to provide continuity of material before there was a resurrection.

10/22/2006  
Blogger Loren Rosson III said...

Alan wrote:

I would suggest that we could momentarily step back and take a much wider view...Take a look at my book and not just the Christianity chapters. It's a difficult and perennial question in human life and you need to look at how everyone dealt with it...Can we take a broader perspective?

A great book it is, and I hope more people will now be moved to read it. At the end you say that the afterlife is invariably "the mirror of our souls" (p 711), projections of our cultural and social needs (p 710). Could we go further, Alan, and say that it's the greatest human self-deception? On p 698 you write:

"To those who think the afterlife to be a simple delusion, the Western tradition offers an enormously complicated and socially determined answer to to the question of what lies after death: It may be a delusion but there’s nothing simple about it."

I appreciate the caution. Speaking personally, I tend to be like a Sadducee in denying an afterlife, but that owes to my skepticism and certainly not because I have attained any paradise on earth; I make a conscious effort to resist ideas which are self-deceptive. If I didn't do that, I suppose some version of immortality of the soul would be attractive to me, because, as you say, as a fairly well-to-do intellectual I don't particularly want my body back, and would be content to just have my ideas and consciousness live forever. On the other hand, I sympathize with the millenarian demand for justice (resurrection). I also have a place in my heart for the ambiguous position of the Pharisees, since my political leanings are rather moderate and centrist (if slightly left), at times just as ambiguous as the Pharisaic position on the afterlife. (No wonder I'm a Unitarian.)

But ultimately, I think the afterlife is a self-deception, if a healthy and necessary one which keeps us sane and comforted by the simple fact that we're going to die, with issues of justice left unresolved. But if we need our self-deceptions, then it's important, as you state, "to behave as if we are minorities needing toleration" (p 710) -- since any afterlife idea is as much a mirror of socio-cultural needs as the next.

10/22/2006  
Blogger Steven Carr said...

Alan 21/10/2006 'Be back tomorrow. Thanks for all your very probing and interesting questions.'

CARR
It is now later than tomorrow. Is Alan OK?

10/29/2006  
Blogger Loren Rosson III said...

Is Alan OK?

Yes, but he's busy with other projects too. I suspect this thread has run its course and he may be preparing for his next guest-post.

10/29/2006  
Blogger Layman said...

Loren and Dr. Segal,

I too have not found ancient references to a seed "disappearing," though there are some to the seed "rotting away" or "dissolving." But in those references, ancient Jewish and Christian authors use the seed analogy to describe resurrection of the dead body, stressing continuity and transformation. They did so even while stressing that the seed rotted away and dissolved. Thus this language is no barrier to bodily resurrection. Indeed, the evidence suggests that the use of the seed analogy in the context of resurrection precisely intended to communicate God's miraculous power in transforming the old body, no matter how decayed, into the new glorified body.

I discuss the evidence in more detail on my own blog, here .

10/30/2006  
Blogger Steven Carr said...

Layman has come up with some interesting quotes.

It is interesting to compare how Jews write when they believe in the resurrection of bodies.


Here is one who does not, one who scoffs at the idea that God will raise the dust of the earth.

'So it is written: "The first man Adam became a living being"[ the last Adam, a life-giving spirit.
... The first man was of the dust of the earth, the second man from heaven. As was the earthly man, so are those who are of the earth; and as is the man from heaven, so also are those who are of heaven.'


Here is one who does , one who mbraces the idea that God will raise the dust of the earth.

'All the bodies crumble into the dust of the earth until nothing remains of the body except a spoonful of earthly matter.

In the future life when the Holy One, blessed be He, calls to the earth to return all the bodies deposited with it, that which had become mixed with the dust of the earth, like the yeast which is mixed with dough, improves and increases and it raises up all the body.

When the Holy One, blessed be He, calls to the earth to return all the bodies deposited with it, that which has become mixed with the dust of the earth improves and increases and raises up all the body without water.'

Can you see the difference?

If the Christians in Corinth scoffed at the idea that God would restore corpses from dust, wouldn't Paul have written just like Layman's chosen quote when Layman wants to show how people thought dust would be transformed?

10/30/2006  
Blogger Layman said...

If anyone retains interest in Carr's opinions on these matters, I'll be responding to his comments (which he repeated verbatim on my blog plus more) at CADRE Comments.

10/30/2006  
Blogger Edward T. Babinski said...

"The ancient world thought that the seed disappeared and was reborn."

Speaking strictly observationally, and as a point of fact that ancient farming people's might also have noticed, the outer husk of the seed remains and decays after the core of the plant has broken forth and starts to grow.

5/25/2009  

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