This entry consists of two articles on views of life after death within the historical communities of Ancient Israel and Second Temple Judaism and Early Christianity. For related discussion, see Death; Israel, Religion of.
Israelite views of the afterlife underwent substantial changes during the first millennium BCE, as concepts popular during the preexilic period eventually came to be rejected by the religious leadership of the exilic and postexilic communities, and new theological stances replaced them. Because many elements of preexilic beliefs and practices concerning the dead were eventually repudiated, the Hebrew Bible hardly discusses preexilic concepts at all; only scant and disconnected references to afterlife and the condition of the dead appear in the texts. A few passages from late‐eighth through sixth‐century sources are illuminating, however, because they attack various aspects of the popular notions about the dead during that period. With these data, a general though sketchy picture of Israelite views can be proposed.
Like all cultures in the ancient Near East, the Israelites believed that persons continued to exist after death. It was thought that following death, one's spirit went down to a land below the earth, most often called Sheol, but sometimes merely “Earth,” or “the Pit” (See Hell). In the preexilic period, there was no notion of a judgment of the dead based on their actions during life, nor is there any evidence for a belief that the righteous dead go to live in God's presence. The two persons in the Hebrew Bible who are taken to heaven to live with God, Enoch (Gen. 5.24) and Elijah (2 Kings 2.11), do not die. All who die, righteous or wicked, go to Sheol (see Gen. 42:38; Num. 16.30–33).
The exact relationship between the body of a dead person and the spirit that lived on in Sheol is unclear, since the Bible does not discuss this issue. Many scholars assume that the Israelites did not fully distinguish between the body and the spirit, and thus believed that the deceased continued to have many of the same basic needs they had when they were alive, especially for food and drink. Unless these needs were met, the dead would find existence in Sheol to be unending misery. Such a close connection between feeding the dead through funerary offerings and their happiness in the afterlife is well attested in Mesopotamia and Egypt. It is assumed that Israelite funerary practices were similar and included long‐term, regular provision of food and drink offerings for the dead.
Other scholars have pointed out the lack of evidence in the Bible for such funerary offerings. Two passages often quoted in reference to such offerings, Deuteronomy 26.14 and Psalm 106.28, are ambiguous and can be interpreted in different ways. Archaeological evidence from Iron Age tombs suggests that food and drink were provided at the tomb only when the burial took place. There is no evidence for regular post‐funeral offerings of food at tombs in Israel. It is possible that the Israelites assumed that Sheol had its own food supply, and that the food placed in the tomb was conceived as provisions for the journey of the deceased to Sheol, but this is speculative.
Virtually no discussion of what existence in Sheol was thought to be like is preserved in preexilic literature. The few datable texts in the Bible that describe Sheol tend to be late and belong to authors who opposed important aspects of the popular view. They present Sheol in negative terms, as a place of darkness and gloom, where the dead exist without thought, strength, or even consciousness (Ps. 88.3–12; Isa. 38.18–19; Job 10.21–22; Eccles. 9.10).
These texts appear to be reactions against a considerably more positive view of existence in Sheol that was held in the preexilic period. There is evidence that many Israelites thought that the dead continued to play an active role in the world of the living, possessing the power to grant blessings to their relatives and to reveal the future. This was done through the process of necromancy, the consultation of the dead by a medium, and related practices, which appear to have been quite popular in Israel. Evidence for this is found in the substantial number of vehement denunciations of necromancy in the prophetic and legal literature of the eighth through sixth centuries BCE (e.g., Lev. 19.31; 20.6, 27; Deut. 18.10–14; Isa 8.19–20). Only one narrative account of a necromantic session has been preserved in the Bible—the story of Samuel's ghostly consultation with Saul at Endor (1 Sam. 28), and Saul is roundly criticized by the seventh‐century editor of the books of Samuel for having resorted to this practice (See Witch).
Necromancy was particularly opposed by the religious group that supported the worship of Yahweh alone. This group argued that blessings and the telling of the future were prerogatives of Yahweh, not of the dead, and that consultation with the dead for such purposes was an abomination against Yahweh. The popular views of afterlife and the dead came under increasing attack during the late eighth and seventh centuries. The laws against necromancy date to this period, and a number of outright attacks and satires on the older ideas about the nature of existence in Sheol appear in the literature of the time (e.g., Isa. 8.19–22; 14:9–11). It is interesting to note, however, that the laws against necromancy in Deuteronomy and Leviticus still assume not that it was impossible to summon the dead from Sheol but that it was inappropriate.
These laws apparently did not have the desired effect on the Judean population. During the exile, when the “Yahweh alone” party finally came to control the religious leadership of Judah, a further step was taken. Several texts appearing to date from the exilic and postexilic periods suggest that it is not only improper to consult the dead but actually impossible to do so. A new theology developed that argued there is no conscious existence in Sheol at all. At death all contact with the world, and even with God, comes to an end. This notion explicitly appears in several late Psalms (6.5; 30.8–10; 88.3–12; etc.), Job (3.11–19; 14.10–14; 21.19–21), and Ecclesiastes (9.3–10). This startling idea was not new in the Near East. Skepticism about the afterlife is found in some Egyptian texts as early as the Middle Kingdom (ca. 2000–1750 BCE), but such notions were never adopted as an official doctrine there. In postexilic Judah, however, this became the authoritative stance of the religious leadership, though it was probably not widely held by most Judeans.
Wayne T. Pitard
Second Temple Judaism and Early Christianity
In the postexilic period, and particularly in the Hellenistic period following the conquest of Alexander the Great in 332 BCE, Jewish thought concerning death and afterlife underwent a major change, owing to the widespread influence of the Platonic idea of the immortality of the soul (See Human Person). Whereas prior to the period of the Hellenistic empires the official religious stance of Israel acknowledged some form of shadowy existence in Sheol for the person after death (see Hell; also the previous article in this entry), beginning in the third century we find a flowering of literature describing the fate of the human soul after death, often in vivid and moving terms. This change is best illustrated by two passages from the wisdom literature. The book of Ecclesiastes (ca. third century BCE) illustrates the dominant view at the end of the exile: “Whoever is joined with all the living has hope, for a living dog is better than a dead lion. The living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing; they have no more reward, and even the memory of them is lost.… Whatever your hand finds to do, do with your might; for there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, to which you are going” (Eccles. 9.4–5, 10). The Wisdom of Solomon, written during the Hellenistic period, shows strong influence of Greek, especially Stoic, thought: “God created us for incorruption, and made us in the image of his own eternity, but through the devil's envy death entered the world, and those who belong to his company experience it. But the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, and no torment will ever touch them. In the sight of the foolish they seemed to have died, and their departure was thought to be a disaster, and their going from us to be their destruction; but they are at peace. For though in the sight of others they were punished, their hope is full of immortality” (Wisd. of Sol. 2.23–3.4).
Two ideas concerning the fate of the soul after death were held in tension during the Hellenistic and Roman periods. The first was that of resurrection, that is, that at the end of time the soul would be rejoined with the body and each person would then receive reward or punishment. The concept is found in the Hebrew Bible only at Daniel 12.2: “And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.” A modification of this idea was that only the righteous dead would be resurrected to share in the messianic age.
The second idea was that the immortal soul lived on after the death of the body, and immediately received its reward or punishment. This idea is vividly illustrated in the Testament of Abraham (ca. 100 CE), which depicts the judgment of souls after death. Each soul is brought before Abel, son of Adam, for judgment. The deeds of the soul are weighed in the balance; the righteous receive salvation, but the wicked are given over to fiery torments (Test. Abr. 12–13).
The tension between these two ideas continued in rabbinic Judaism and early Christianity. References to the rabbis' views of the afterlife are scattered, but may be summarized thus: at death, the soul leaves the body, but may return from time to time until the body disintegrates. The righteous souls go to paradise, but the wicked to hell. Finally, in the messianic age there will be a bodily resurrection.
In early Christianity, the tension of the “already” of immortality and the “not yet” of resurrection continued to exist, but was transformed by the death and resurrection of Jesus. This is best illustrated by the teaching of Paul: “But if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the spirit is life because of righteousness. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you” (Rom. 8.10–12). In certain groups, such as the community of John, the notion of the bodily resurrection was overridden by the spiritual life of the believer in Christ: “Very truly, I tell you, anyone who hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life, and does not come under judgment, but has passed from death to life” (John 5.24). Neither view has become dominant, and both continue to exist in tension in Judaism and Christianity until the present.
See also Heaven.
Sidnie Ann White