The Cultural and Historical Development and Decline of Immortality in Judaism
by Jason David Gray
Unlike Christianity or Islam, the afterlife concept in Judaism does not arise from the word of God directly, but from historical, social, exegetical, and dialectical developments which occurred after the writing of the Torah (traditionally thought of as God’s direct oral transmission of His law to Moses) and the rest of what is known as the Hebrew bible. Yet, belief in an afterlife, not widely held among present day Jews, did develop within the Jewish faith. The best way to understand how this happened is to trace some of the cultural and historical developments within Judaism.
The first five books of the bible, the Torah, clearly imply that death is final and there is no afterlife. Especially telling is God’s curse on Adam [mankind] upon Adam’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden for eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (which God had forbade). Genesis 3:19 reads, “You shall eat bread till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” According to early Jewish theology reward and punishment, as meted out by God, are to be expected in this life and not an eternal afterlife. George Mendenhall claims this interpretation encompasses more than just the Torah. Mendenhall writes, “Most of the scholarly world agrees that there is no concept of immortality or life after death in the Old Testament.” (Obayashi, p.68)
A destination for the dead is mentioned in the Hebrew Bible; the place is called Sheol. However, Sheol was not a place of punishment, nor does it seem to be a place where individual existence persisted. Elizear Segal writes, “When we examine actual passages in which the word she’ol appears, we find few, if any, that cannot plausibly be understood simply as “pit” or (by extension) “grave,” which became a figurative equivalent of death.” (Coward, p.14) This understanding of how to translate Sheol is supported by its use in Psalm 6:5. Addressing God the Psalmist asks, “For in death there is no remembrance of thee; in Sheol who can give thee praise?”
But, the Hebrew Bible is not utterly devoid of evidence of life after death. In the Book of I Samuel 28:15-20, Israelite King Saul, on the verge of battle with the Philistines, sought to communicate through a medium with the prophet Samuel, who had died. His effort appears to succeed, and the passages imply no trickery on the part of the medium. Other passages also are suggestive of life after death. Ecclesiastes 12:7 seems to suggest a sort of dualism, “The dust returns to the earth as it was and the spirit returns to God who gave it.”
However, the major impetus for the beginning of Jewish belief in life after death did not come from the strained interpretation of scant evidence in the Hebrew Bible. Rather the advancement of Jewish belief in an afterlife came as a result of the suffering caused by the invasion of the Babylonian empire in the early part of the 6th century B.C.E., the destruction of the Jewish Holy Temple (i.e., the Temple of Solomon), the resulting exile of the Jewish people, and then their eventual return to the land of Israel. Prior to these events it was thought that God provided justice on earth, punishing the wicked and rewarding the righteous. But as George Mendenhall points out, the Babylonian exile raised a difficult theological question, “If God could not be relied on to render blessings and curses within the framework of mortal existence, how, then, could God be regarded as a source of justice and righteousness?…The paradox ultimately was resolved by projecting the realization of the divine rewards and punishments to a dimension other than that of normal earthly experience and history.” (Obayashi, p.78) There was by no means unanimity among the Jewish population about an afterlife, but the wellspring for afterlife ideology and theology seems to largely have gotten its start from the Babylonian exile. During the 2nd century B.C.E the Book of Daniel was written, set during the time of the Babylonian captivity of the Jews. The Book of Daniel contains a clear affirmation of post-apocalyptic resurrection. Daniel 12:1-2, “And there shall be a time of trouble, such as never has been since there was a nation…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.”
According to Mendenhall there were two stages leading to this development. First, a view which even predates the Jewish exile and is advanced by early Jewish prophets: God will bring justice and peace to the world. As a result of ongoing violence and oppression another view arose among the Jewish people. This was an eschatological view which proposed that God’s justice would take place outside of traditional time and space. As Mendenhall writes, “In the second, eschatological stage the scene shifts to one that is entirely trans-historical: It takes place in the unseen world of eternity –of heaven and hell, as it eventually became in postbiblical thought.” (Obayashi p.80)
The writing in the Book of Daniel was a beginning. By the time of Jesus Christ there were three different sects of Judaism with differing views of the afterlife. The Sadducees, the social and religious elite at the start of the Common Era, denied an afterlife and did not recognize any authority outside of the Hebrew Bible. However, according to the historian Josephus Flavius, the socially and economically less privileged members of Jewish society known as the Pharisees believed in the resurrection of the body. Josephus claims that the Pharisees believed that the righteous would be resurrected in bodily form while the wicked would not be resurrected, and instead would suffer eternal imprisonment. Josephus also discusses a third movement, that of the Essenes. He claims that the Essenes had an essentially Greek dualistic notion that the soul was the prisoner of the body and was released upon death and the virtuous souls would dwell in paradise. However, Eliezer Segal points out that, “[t]here do not appear to be any texts among the Qumran documents (the “Dead Sea Scrolls” commonly attributed to the Essenes) that reflect such a view of the afterlife.” (Coward, p.19)
The ancient Greek notion of a soul separable from the body also appeared in Jewish religious thought (controversies over the Essenes notwithstanding) as early as late antiquity, with the writings of the Jewish philosopher Philo. Robert Goldenberg writes, ”By the period of the Talmud (300-500 C.E.) others conceived of the World to Come as one in which there would be no eating or drinking or urge to reproduce the species…this is really an opportunity for our souls to escape their fleshy jailhouses.” (Obayashi, p.104)
Proliferation of Jewish thought about the afterlife continued. The next stage came from Rabbinic or postbiblical Judaism, and the debates among rabbis that brought about the Talmud (composed of the Mishnah and Gemara). Goldenberg writes, “By the time of the Mishnah…the hope for resurrection had become one of the few dogmatic requirements of the Jewish religion; the Mishnah appropriately warns that those who deny resurrection will indeed be excluded from the joys of the World to Come.” (Obayashi p.101) On this conception of resurrection the old body never entirely disappears and a new one is to be formed around the luz, a small bone at the base of the spine. This is why, according to Goldenberg, Jews did not practice cremation, and adhered to strict burial practices.
Belief in physical resurrection and dualistic spiritual release are obviously in tension, but by the middle ages the canonical view held by the rabbinic tradition was that of bodily resurrection. The great Jewish philosopher Maimonides tried to reconcile this apparent antinomy by recognizing resurrection, but by describing the greatness of the World to Come in terms that did not depend upon resurrection of the body. Maimonides believed that, “[t]he experience of the World to Come was one of disembodied union with the Active Intellect, which, in rather crude shorthand, can be identified with the mind of God.” (Obayashi, p.104) Maimonides was accused of having subtly dropped resurrection from his picture of the afterlife, although he defended himself against this in his Essay on Resurrection. However, Segal notes that Maimonides seemed to make immortality more focused on the intellect, rather than on the observance of the laws of the Torah.
Whatever the particular view of the afterlife, one predominate feature of rabbinical Judaism, as with Christianity and Islam, is the idea that there will be a day of judgment, after the end of time. Although among the rabbis there was some controversy; some rabbis believed all will be judged but that only the righteous will be resurrected. Others believed that all the dead will be resurrected to stand judgment. Jewish tradition recognizes the insolubility of this problem.
Indeed, there is compelling evidence in the Mishnah that postbiblical or rabbinic Judaism had incorporated the concept of the afterlife and a final judgment into the Jewish faith. One tractate of the Mishnah, commonly translated as Ethics of the Fathers (Mishnah Pirkei Avot), claims that Rabbi Eleazar haKappar is said to have preached:
He also used to say: They who have been born are destined to die. They that are dead are destined to be made alive. They who live are destined to be judged, that men may know and make known and understand that He is G-d, He is the maker, He is the creator, He is the discerner, He is the judge….And let not your evil nature assure you that the grave will be your refuge: for despite yourself you were fashioned, and despite yourself you were born, and despite yourself you live, and despite yourself you die, and despite yourself shall you [be] destined to give account and reckoning before the supreme King of kings, the Holy One, blessed be He. (Ethics of the Fathers 4:29)
However, as Goldenberg points out, “The Jewish tradition never reduced its conceptions of death, resurrection, and the afterlife to an authoritative dogmatic scheme.”(Obayashi, p.98) By the time of the enlightenment and Jewish emancipation from the ghettos in which they had been forced to dwell, the concept of an afterlife once again began to fade from the Jewish faith. Writing about modern devoted Jews Goldenberg observes, “People who belong to their local temple and attend it regularly…will react with astonishment that contemporary conceptions of Heaven and Hell have their origin in ancient Judaism. They will insist that Christianity believes in Heaven and Hell, whereas Judaism does not…In fact, classic Jewish sources are full of references to the fate that awaits us after we die.” (Obayashi, p.98)
Among the modern manifestations of the Jewish faith there is still diversity in belief about an afterlife. According to Segal Orthodox Jews continue to affirm a belief in the physical resurrection, “reinforced by avowals in the daily liturgy. The Talmudic doctrine is usually interpreted through its classic medieval formulations.” (Coward, p.27) During the 18th and 19th centuries the Jewish Reform movement developed in Europe. It tended to reject rabbinic authority and conform to the social and cultural climate of Europe. Segal writes, “From both these perspectives, literal belief in resurrection was generally considered unacceptable.” (Coward, p.27) Despite this some liberal Jews continued to share the Christian belief in the immortality of the soul. Conservative Judaism, a third major strain of Judaism whose roots can be found in Europe and the United States, tends to steer a path between Orthodox Jews, whom they consider too inflexible on rabbinic and Talmudic tradition, and Reform Judaism. Most conservative Jews seem to reject the notion of an afterlife, although there are different interpretations of God’s nature within the movement. As an example, some conservative Jews hold Maimonidean views of God, which are consistent with an afterlife.
That being noted, Segal points out that, “[d]iscussions of the afterlife are almost entirely absent from non-Orthodox twentieth-century religious discourse, which has focused on the absolute commitment to this world as the setting for the encounter with the divine, the covenant between God and Israel, and the obligation to serve humanity.” (Coward p.27) It seems that, with the exception of Orthodox Jews, the Jewish faith has come full circle with respect to immortality and the afterlife. Social injustice seems to have stimulated early Jewish belief in an afterlife, while postbiblical rabbinic tradition and philosophy expanded the view. However, further advancements in Judaism have largely returned the faith to its roots with respect to belief in an afterlife.
Coward, Harold (ed.). Life after Death in World Religions Maryknoll; NY: Orbis Books, 1997.
Goldenberg, Robert. “Bound Up in the Bond of Life: Death and Afterlife in the Jewish Tradition.” in Obayashi, Hiroshi (ed.). Death and Afterlife: Perspectives of World Religions. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992.
May, Herbert G., and Metzger, Bruce M (eds.). The Oxford Annotated Bible with the Apocrypha (Revised Standard Version). New York: Oxford University Press, 1965.
Mendenhall, George E. “From Witchcraft to Justice: Death and Afterlife in the Old Testament.” in Obayashi, Hiroshi (ed.). Death and Afterlife: Perspectives of World Religions. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992.
Mishnah Pirkei Avot. Translation provided by Tsel Harim –Free Torah Library: ttp://www.shechem.org/torah/avot.html
Obayashi, Hiroshi (ed.). Death and Afterlife: Perspectives of World Religions. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992.
Segal, Eliezer. “Judaism.” in Coward, Harold (ed.). Life after Death in World Religions, Maryknoll; NY: Orbis Books, 1997.
 The Torah includes: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. The Hebrew Bible is not necessarily identical to the Old Testament as it is identified by Christians (although the two closely coincide). The Hebrew Bible includes the Torah, the books of the prophets, and the writings (or the hagiography). The books of the prophets are Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Isaiah, and the Twelve (the Minor Prophets). The books of the writings consist of Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon, Lamentations, Daniel, Esther, Ezra-Nehemiah, and Chronicles.↩
 This translation is taken from the Oxford Annotated Bible, revised standard version, 1965.↩
 The Israelites were comprised of twelve tribes. Saul was the first King of these twelve tribes of Israel.↩
 The author is believed to have been a pious Jew living under the harsh rule of Antiochus Epiphanes, nee Mithradates, who ruled the Seleucid (or Greek/Macedonian) Empire. It was during his reign that the war with the Maccabees began which ultimately resulted in the miracle of Hanukkah.↩
 By “postbiblical” Mendenhall is referring to the period after the writing of the New Testament (i.e., after the foundation of Christianity).↩
 Josephus was a first century C.E. Jewish historian who wrote The Jewish War and Antiquities of the Jews. For our purposes the latter is the more important work. There is apparently some controversy here about exactly how Josephus is to be interpreted (on one reading it seems he may be referring to reincarnation). However, Eliezer Segal says that most scholars do not put too much weight on this detail because Josephus, “frequently introduces formulations of this sort in order to conform to categories familiar to his Greek readership.” (Coward, p.18)↩
 At first glance Josephus seems to imply that the Pharisees had some sort of dualistic view, upon which the righteous would resurrected in bodily form and rewarded, whereas the wicked would not be resurrected in bodily form but would face imprisonment (punishment) in some other form. However, imprisonment might just mean a lack of resurrection for the wicked, which would not require a dualistic view.↩
 The Mishnah (written c. 200 C.E.) is the result of oral debates that took place among the scholars and teachers of the Hebrew Bible, especially the Torah (i.e., rabbis). The Gemara (c. 500 C.E.) is primarily written commentary on the Mishnah.↩
 See Maimonides Guide for the Perplexed for the source material concerning his views on resurrection and the World to Come.↩
 In many European cities, prior to the enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries, ghettos were set up to keep the Jewish population separate from the Christian population.↩