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By the first century CE the fate of human beings after death had become an important concern for many Jews, including the earliest followers of Jesus, whose views were shaped to a considerable extent by ideas current among contemporary Jews. As Jewish and Christian views of the afterlife developed in the centuries that followed, interchange between the two traditions continued. Yet despite the many shared elements in their pictures of the afterlife, Jews and Christians also found ways to use the afterlife to condemn the other tradition.
The works included in the Tanakh do not have much to say about the fate of human beings after death. A place called Sheol appears as the destination of the dead in both narrative and poetry; it is described as a pit (e.g., Isa 14:15,19; Ezek 31:14,16) where the dead live in silence (e.g., Ps 94:17, 115:17). The Torah’s narratives may hint at the possibility of a happier fate in their descriptions of the deaths of the patriarchs, Aaron, and Moses, as being “gathered to his people” (Gen 25:8,17; 35:29; 49:33; Num 20:24; Deut 32:50). But the texts do not provide further details, and there is nothing in the Tanakh to suggest that Sheol is reserved for the wicked while the righteous dead enjoy a more appealing environment. The Tanakh’s apparent lack of interest in the fate of the dead may reflect opposition to the cult of dead ancestors found elsewhere in the ancient near east, an opposition expressed in prohibitions against consulting the dead (Lev 19:31, 20:6,27; Deut 18:11) and the confession for the tithe for the poor, in which the donor asserts that none of it was left as food for the dead (Deut 26:14).
The works that make up the Tanakh, with very few exceptions, are committed to a view of God as just, but the focus of their efforts at theodicy is the fate of Israel as a people rather than of individual Israelites. If Israel fulfills the obligations of its covenant with God, God will ensure its safety and prosperity. National disaster is thus necessarily an indication that the obligations have not been fulfilled, that is, that Israel has sinned, or, in a rare dissent, that previous generations have sinned (Jer 15:4, Lam 5:7). The same texts give much less attention to the suffering of righteous individuals, perhaps because such suffering poses so profound a challenge to theodicy. A few passages hint that one may suffer for one’s parents’ sins (e.g., Exod 20:5, 34:7; Jer 31:29-30), though the prophet Ezekiel rejects this solution as impossible in light of God’s righteousness (esp. chap. 18). Only Job and Ecclesiastes question these basic assumptions.
The Jewish ideas about the afterlife to which early Christians were indebted began to develop in the middle of the Second Temple period, starting in perhaps the 3rd cent. BCE. The encounter with Greek culture, with its idea of the immortality of the soul and accounts of reward and punishment after death, may have contributed to the new developments. One of the first places the new ideas are attested is in Enoch’s tour of hidden places on earth in the Book of the Watchers (1 En. 1-36), from perhaps the end of the 3rd cent. BCE. Among the sights Enoch sees are the hollows where souls await the last judgment; two or three of the hollows are dark and house wicked souls while the righteous occupy a single hollow that is illuminated and contains a fountain (1 En. 22). A little further on in the tour Enoch is shown the places where reward and punishment will be meted out to souls at the last judgment; the hollows are thus temporary resting places, although one group of sinful souls will not be judged at the end of time but rather will remain in its hollow forever (1 En. 22:13). At the last judgment, Enoch learns from his angelic guides, the righteous will be resurrected to enjoy the fruit of the tree of life, which will have been transplanted to Jerusalem (1 En. 25). The wicked will be transferred to a bleak valley to suffer punishment (1 En. 27); this valley is presumably the valley of Hinnom (Hebrew: ge Hinnom; Greek: Gehenna) in Jerusalem, according to the prophet Jeremiah, the site of idolatrous worship involving child sacrifice (Jer 7:30-31, 19:2).
Not long after, in the midst of the Maccabean Revolt (167-163 BCE), the book of Daniel offers a brief but complex picture of reward and punishment after death: “Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. Those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky, and those who lead many to righteousness, like stars forever and ever” (Dan 12:2-3).
The limitation of post-mortem reward and punishment to some of the dead (“many of those who sleep in the dust”) is perhaps a reflection of the circumstances under which this part of Daniel was composed, a time when the martyrdoms occasioned by the persecution of Antiochus posed the problem of the suffering of the righteous in a particularly acute manner. The passage perhaps reflects the view that those who receive their just deserts in this world, the righteous who flourish and the wicked who come to a bad end, have no need of the afterlife. It can thus be reserved for the righteous who suffered in this world and the wicked who flourished, both categories brought into high relief by the events of the time. The limitation of post-mortem reward and punishment to these two groups may also reflect the novelty of the concept and an indication that it is not yet taken for granted.
It is also noteworthy that the passage quoted above contains two different pictures of reward and punishment. The language of waking from sleep presumably means resurrection, to take place at the time of the end described in the previous verse (Dan 12:1), a time the author of Daniel expected imminently. But the wise and those who lead many to righteousness, a pious elite with which the author himself clearly identifies, are promised something quite different, shining like the stars, which should probably be understood to reflect the association of stars and angels implicit in the language of heavenly host. The book of Daniel says nothing more about post-mortem reward and punishment, and the two possibilities it suggests—resurrection for the purpose of reward or punishment on the one hand and a form of immortality that presumably does not involve the body on the other—continue to stand in a certain tension through centuries of Jewish and Christian thought about the afterlife. The picture of the Book of the Watchers provides the basis for an approach to resolving the tension that later Jews and Christians will continue to develop: souls experience reward and punishment immediately after death in paradise and hell; at the eschaton, they are resurrected to participate in the last judgment.
The tension is also evident in the famous accounts of the three Jewish philosophies or sects by the 1st-cent. CE Jewish historian Josephus (J. W. 2.119-166, Ant. 18.11-22), which report that the sects differed on the nature of the afterlife: the Pharisees believed in bodily resurrection while the Essenes believed in the immortality of the soul. The Sadducees are said to have rejected the idea of afterlife altogether, further evidence that the idea was not yet universally held.
The earliest followers of Jesus were Jews, who would likely have been exposed to the range of ideas about the afterlife current in 1st-cent. CE Galilee and Judea. The letters of Paul and the gospels share the conviction that Jesus was resurrected and that his resurrection had profound implications for his followers. Their emphases are somewhat different, however (Segal 2004, 399-477). For Paul, Christ’s resurrection is intimately linked to the future resurrection of his followers (1 Cor 15:12-23), but the resurrection bodies will be spiritual bodies, vastly superior to the old fleshly bodies (1 Cor 15:35-50), like the glorious body of the resurrected Christ (Phil 3:21). The gospels, on the other hand, despite differences of detail, emphasize the continuity between the body of Jesus before and after the resurrection through accounts of the empty tomb (Mt 28:6, Mk 16:5-6, Lk 24:2-3, Jn 20:1-10) and the physicality of Jesus’s post-resurrection appearances (Mt 28:9, Lk 24:39-43, Jn 20:26-29). The gospels and other early books of the New Testament occasionally mention hell (e.g., Mt 5:22,29; Mk 9:43,45,47; Lk 12:5, Jas 3:6), and, even less frequently, paradise (Lk 23:43; 2 Cor 12:3; Rev 2:7), but they do not discuss the relationship between resurrection and these post-mortem destinations.
One notable expression of early Christian interest in reward and punishment in the afterlife is the rich tradition of apocalypses describing paradise and hell that begins in antiquity and flourishes into the Middle Ages (Himmelfarb 1983). In the earliest of these works, the 2nd-cent. Apocalypse of Peter, the apostle sees a detailed and vivid vision of gruesome punishments in hell, some clearly designed to fit the sin they punish, and a briefer vision of the bliss of paradise. But the punishments and bliss are still in the future, to begin only after the last judgment. For the apocalypses that followed the Apocalypse of Peter, paradise and hell are described as present realities, perhaps because the period between death and the last judgment seemed likely to last much longer than the earliest Christians had believed. The late 4th-cent. Apocalypse of Paul, the next surviving work in this tradition, takes the form of a tour in which Paul sees souls already enjoying paradise or suffering in hell, and later apocalypses in this tradition, attributed to figures such as Ezra and the Virgin Mary, share the tour form and the assumptions embedded in it.
These apocalypses share many elements with Greek and Latin nekyiai, accounts of visits to the realm of the dead such as those in the Odyssey (Book 11) and Aeneid (Book 6), but the characteristic dialogue between the visionary and the angelic guide demonstrates their debt to Enoch’s tour to the ends of the earth in the Book of the Watchers (Himmelfarb 1983, 41-67). No ancient Jewish apocalypse devoted primarily to paradise and hell has come down to us, but medieval Jewish literature contains some brief tours of hell and paradise similar in form and content to the Christian works and likely inspired by them, one to be discussed below.
The expectation of reward and punishment in the afterlife is central to rabbinic thought, but the rabbis never provide a systematic picture. Some texts emphasize the hope of resurrection. The Amidah, the central prayer of the rabbinic liturgy, which would have been widely known beyond elite circles, praises God for restoring the dead to life no fewer than five times. Other texts emphasize the promise of paradise and the threat of hell. MAv, for example, offers this pithy exhortation: “This world is like an antechamber before the world to come. Prepare yourself in the antechamber so that you may enter the banquet hall” (4:16). Beginning in the 9th cent. a practice of reciting mAv on Shabbat afternoons came into favor, so the contents of this tractate too were likely to be known beyond a learned elite.
As mAv appears in the prayerbooks from which it would have been recited, each chapter is prefaced by the opening lines of mSan 10:1: “All Israel has a portion in the world to come....” As it appears in mSan the mishnah goes on to list three exceptions: one who denies that the resurrection of the dead is a teaching of the Torah, one who denies that the Torah is from heaven, and an Epicurean. To this list R. Akiba adds two categories, one who reads from external books and one who whispers over a wound, and Abba Saul adds another one, one who pronounces God's name as it is written. The categories attributed to these two rabbis appear to reflect practices associated with Jewish followers of Jesus (Yuval 2008, 117-19).
It should also be noted that the positive formulation “All Israel has a portion in the world to come” is absent from mSan 10:1 in two of the three medieval manuscripts of the Mishnah. It thus appears that the earliest form of this mishnah was strictly negative: these are they who do not have a share in the world to come, followed by the beliefs and practices enumerated above. The more forceful positive formulation can be read as a response to the Christian claim that salvation is limited to the Church. The mishnah’s location following several chapters listing and discussing those liable to capital punishment (mSan chaps. 7-9) lends further emphasis to its inclusivity: even those Jews who committed crimes punishable by death are assured of a happy afterlife (Yuval 2008, 114-20). This passage stands in considerable tension with the saying in mAv likening this world to a vestibule and indeed with many other passages in rabbinic literature that appeal to hopes and fears for the afterlife to motivate piety in this world.
The view that all Jews can look forward to a happy afterlife finds a negative counterpart in the Apocalypse of the Virgin, a tour of hell composed in Greek sometime from the 9th to the 11th cent. (Baun 2007). It was clearly a popular work, as can be seen from the large number of manuscripts in which it is preserved and the several languages into which it was translated. In the Apocalypse of Paul, Christ grants sinners in hell respite from their torment once a week on the Lord’s Day in response to Paul’s prayers (43-44), and a similar motif appears in many of the later tours of hell, although the precise form of relief varies. But in the Apocalypse of the Virgin, the Virgin’s prayers do not extend to all the sinners she sees (Neil 2017). One group of sinners, those submerged in a river of boiling pitch, is apparently beyond the reach of God’s mercy. The group consists of murders, fornicators, women who committed infanticide, and the Jews (23), and the Virgin later emphasizes that her prayers are on behalf of Christians and not Jews (26). The expectation that Jews would suffer in hell is by no means unusual in Christian teaching, but the Apocalypse of the Virgin offers a particularly vivid expression of the hopelessness of their fate.
In 1096, crusaders on the way to liberate the Holy Land inflicted terrible losses on several of the Jewish communities of Ashkenaz, slaughtering Jews who refused to convert to Christianity and inspiring some of the members of these communities to slaughter themselves and their families to avoid death at the hands of the crusaders. Recent scholarship has suggested that these events had a major impact on Jewish ideas about the afterlife in the 12th and 13th centuries. Hebrew chronicles written in response to the events celebrated the Jews who died, at the hands of the crusaders or at their own hands, as martyrs who entered paradise immediately at the moment of their deaths to receive the reward due them. It was certainly not a new idea for medieval Jews that the righteous did not have to wait for the last judgment to enter paradise, but the emphasis in these chronicles on entering paradise immediately upon death is noteworthy. Wishes for the immediate entrance into paradise of the soul of the deceased or its binding in the bundle of life are newly prominent on Jewish tombstones from 12th- and 13th-cent. Ashkenaz, which suggests that the reward ascribed to the martyrs had an impact on expectations for those who died in ordinary circumstances (Reiner 2011). It is surely significant that contemporary Latin chronicles present Christians who died in the course of the crusade, whether in battle or in less glorious circumstances, as martyrs guaranteed immediate entrance into paradise (Shepkaru 2002).
A brief account of paradise and hell attributed to R. Joshua b. Levi, composed in Ashkenaz and first attested in the middle of the 12th cent., probably also represents a response to the events of 1096 (Perry 2017). The point of departure for the account is the Babylonian Talmud’s story of R. Joshua b. Levi’s entrance into paradise alive (bKet 77b), a story that gave rise to several later compositions in which R. Joshua reveals information about the afterlife. In the work under discussion, R. Gamaliel asks R. Joshua to ascertain whether there are any Jews in hell or gentiles in paradise. R. Joshua tours paradise and hell and learns that paradise is reserved for Jews while all gentiles are destined for hell. To make sure there is no mistaking the message, R. Joshua asks explicitly whether the sons of Abraham’s concubines or the sons of Esau, the traditional designation for Christians, share the fate of other non-Jews. The answer is yes. Jews, R. Joshua is told, suffer for their sins in this world so as to be spared punishment in the afterlife, while gentiles receive the reward for their good deeds in this world so as to suffer punishment for their wrongdoing in the next. For Jews, then, suffering in this world performs the function that by the end of the 12th cent. Christians would attribute to purgatory, guaranteeing Jews immediate access to paradise. It is worth noting that that later versions of the story stepped back from its radical conclusions in an effort to restore the power of hell and paradise to inspire pious behavior in this world.
We have seen a variety of modes of exchange between Jews and Christians on the subject of the afterlife. The earliest Christians took over Jewish ideas and reshaped them. Later Jews and Christians used the afterlife to define themselves against each other, and as a minority living under Christian rule, Jews were clearly aware of developments in Christian thought as they sometimes rejected and sometimes adapted and attempted to outdo the ideas of their rivals.
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