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Jewish and Greek Afterlife – No Great Difference

Posted by NT Wrong on December 10, 2008

Is immortality exclusively a Greek concept and bodily resurrection exclusively a Jewish concept? No. There’s not such a great separation between Jewish and Greek conceptions of the afterlife according to an article by Stephen J. Bedard in the latest issue of the Journal of Greco-Roman Christianity and Judaism.

“Traditionally Greek thought has been put in the category of the immortal soul and Jewish thought in the category of a bodily resurrection. However, this oversimplification disguises the true picture. In reality, both Greek and Jewish writings express both an immortal soul and some kind of transformation of the body or at least a second stage of afterlife.”
– Stephen J. Bedard, ‘Hellenistic Influence on the Idea of Resurrection in Jewish Apocalyptic Literature.’ Journal of Greco-Roman Christianity and Judaism 5 (2008): 174-189, 188.

Bedard discusses Greek ideas of a two-stage afterlife in the Platonic Myth of Er, or what N. T. Wright refers to as “life after life after death”. He then discusses the Egyptian myth of the bodily resurrection of Osiris, opposing those who would reject its description as bodily resurrection. Bedard then discusses Greek concept of apotheosis, relating them to angelic transformation in Daniel. Lastly, he provides a couple of examples where Greek concepts influenced Jewish literature.

The article thus contains some good counterexamples to the oversimplification of the concept of Jewish/Christian “resurrection” that appears in many apologetic works of New Testament scholarship. So why has there been such a concerted effort to pretend that the early Christian conceptions of resurrection were unique? Bedard provided his own answer towards the end of his article:

“Despite the best effort of scholars such as N. T. Wright, foreign influence on Jewish theological development cannot be denied… The only reason to deny Greek influence, as Wright attempts to do, is the mistaken notion that Jewish equals truth and Greek equals falsehood.”
– Stephen J. Bedard, ‘Hellenistic Influence on the Idea of Resurrection in Jewish Apocalyptic Literature.’ Journal of Greco-Roman Christianity and Judaism 5 (2008): 174-189, 189.

Spotted on Ekaterini’s informative blog.

4 Responses to “Jewish and Greek Afterlife – No Great Difference”

  1. rey said

    Is the difference that the Greeks basically saw you as receiving a new body in hades rather than literally being resurrected into your old body?

  2. ntwrong said

    There is also a Greek view, discussed in the article, that some especially heroic people will receive transformed bodies and dwell in the heavens with the gods. The view is also taken up in Daniel and Enoch, involving only a partial resurrection (of the especially righteous), and the same astral transformation.

    Jewish existence in Hades/Sheol seemed to involve a different existence than earthly bodies, not the “old body”. And Jewish resurrection did not necessarily involve the old body, but like a seed which died to reveal a different, improved plant, it involved a new embodiment. So, the differences are complex and interwoven.

  3. I think that we have a great difference linked to the PLACE were the body will be rebuilted [“transformed”]. Mainly the ressurrection concept is linked to a reborn in Earth [a new existence in a new transformed Earth – a kingdom here] – not in Hades.

    We can see some similarities between the SHEOL and HADES, but I can´t find the main meaning of the ressurrection christian/jewish concept in the greek texts that I know.

  4. NT Wrong? said

    Flávio – I don’t know how much significance you can read into this change in place, given that Earth must first be transformed as the seat of God, which of course transforms Earth into Heaven. In both the Greek and Jewish apotheosis traditions, an elect few get to receive divine bodies and dwell in the divine realm.

    The article does a good job of introducing a few Greek concepts that involve bodily resurrection.

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