What Ancient Jews Really Believed About the Afterlife

As the centuries progressed, the afterlife came into clearer focus, manifesting in a belief in bodily resurrection on the last day.

Alsace, Bas-Rhin, Église protestante de Notre Seigneur Jésus-Christ de Bischheim. Peinture "Le Christ aux limbes" (XXe).
Alsace, Bas-Rhin, Église protestante de Notre Seigneur Jésus-Christ de Bischheim. Peinture "Le Christ aux limbes" (XXe). (photo: Source: Ralph Hammann, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Every so often I’ve encountered people claiming that the Jewish historian Josephus (A.D. 37-c. 100) said that Jews believe in reincarnation.

Sometimes this claim is made by New Agers, who want to bolster the antiquity of the idea in Judeo-Christian circles, but I’ve also seen it made by others.

It has always struck me as very implausible that Josephus would say this, but the people making the claim never gave references to where in his writings he was supposed to have said this, making it very hard to check out.

Web searches didn’t turn up anything useful, either.

Recently, however, I hit pay dirt.

We’ll look at what Josephus did say in my next blog post, but first, some context about Jewish views on the afterlife in this period.


1) The afterlife in the Old Testament

The earlier books of the Old Testament—as well as the archaeological evidence we have—indicate that the Israelites believed in an afterlife. That’s not surprising, because belief in an afterlife is a human universal—something that appears in all cultures.

However, the nature of this afterlife is not fully clear. It appears that they believed most people had a shadowy kind of existence in the next world, about which not much was known.

As the centuries progressed, however, the afterlife came into clearer focus, manifesting in a belief in bodily resurrection on the last day.

The clearest passages referring to this are found in Daniel and 2 Maccabees. In the former, we read:

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 (Dan. 12:2).

This attests to a resurrection of both the righteous (those who gain everlasting life) and the wicked (those who gain shame and everlasting contempt).

The passage does not indicate that all people will be raised. In Hebrew idiom, the word “many” can mean either “all” or “many but not all,” so the matter is ambiguous.

In 2 Maccabees, we read the account of seven brothers who were tortured and killed for their faith, along with their mother:

And when he [one of the sons] was at his last breath, he said, “You accursed wretch, you dismiss us from this present life, but the King of the universe will raise us up to an everlasting renewal of life, because we have died for his laws.”

After him, the third was the victim of their sport. When it was demanded, he quickly put out his tongue and courageously stretched forth his hands,  and said nobly, “I got these from Heaven, and because of his laws I disdain them, and from him I hope to get them back again.” As a result the king [i.e., Antiochus IV Epiphanes] himself and those with him were astonished at the young man’s spirit, for he regarded his sufferings as nothing.

When he too had died, they maltreated and tortured the fourth in the same way. And when he was near death, he said, “One cannot but choose to die at the hands of men and to cherish the hope that God gives of being raised again by him. But for you there will be no resurrection to life!” (2 Macc. 7:9-14).

As her sons are being killed, the mother also said:

Therefore the Creator of the world, who shaped the beginning of man and devised the origin of all things, will in his mercy give life and breath back to you again, since you now forget yourselves for the sake of his laws.”

Do not fear this butcher, but prove worthy of your brothers. Accept death, so that in God’s mercy I may get you back again with your brothers” (2 Macc. 7:23, 29).

Later in the book, we read about an incident in which Judah Maccabee and his men found some of their colleagues who had fallen in battle because of their sins:

He [Judah] also took up a collection, man by man, to the amount of two thousand drachmas of silver, and sent it to Jerusalem to provide for a sin offering. In doing this he acted very well and honorably, taking account of the resurrection. For if he were not expecting that those who had fallen would rise again, it would have been superfluous and foolish to pray for the dead. But if he was looking to the splendid reward that is laid up for those who fall asleep in godliness, it was a holy and pious thought. Therefore he made atonement for the dead, that they might be delivered from their sin (2 Macc. 12:43-45).

In 2 Maccabees, the picture is much like in Daniel: God will raise the righteous back to “an everlasting renewal of life,” which will involve receiving back from God the bodily members that have been lost.

However, unlike in Daniel, it is not clear that the wicked will rise again, for the persecuting king is told “for you there will be no resurrection to life.”

This doesn’t mean that the wicked won’t be raised. There may be an implied contrast—as in Daniel—between a resurrection to “everlasting life” and one to “everlasting contempt.”

However, the passage may also indicate that the matter was not yet clear in Jewish thought.

It is also worth noting that the author of 2 Maccabees frames his account of Judah’s sin offering in apologetic terms. He considers two viewpoints: (1) belief in the resurrection and (2) the position of a person who is “not expecting that those who had fallen would rise again.” The author concludes that Judah’s collection for the sin offering for the dead shows that he was a believer in the resurrection.

The second position, which rejects the resurrection, seems to reject belief in the afterlife altogether, since if people continued to live on in any form, it would not be useless to pray for them. It would only be “superfluous and foolish to pray for the dead” if there was no afterlife at all.

The fact the author frames the matter in this way indicates that there were likely some in his audience who did not believe in the resurrection and he wants to win them over by showing that the great, national hero Judah did believe in it.

This sets us up for the conflict between the Sadducees and the Pharisees in the New Testament.


2) The resurrection in the New Testament

At the time of Jesus, the two most influential Jewish groups in Palestine were the Sadducees and the Pharisees.

These groups were developing around the time 2 Maccabees was written, and they were divided on the question of whether there is no afterlife.

Thus the smaller group—the Sadducees—challenge Jesus with an argument against the resurrection of the dead (Matt. 22:23-33, Mark 12:18-27, Luke 20:27-40). In all three of the Synoptic Gospels, they are identified as those “who say there is no resurrection.”

The more popular group—the Pharisees—did believe in the resurrection, and we see the two groups in open debate with each other over this question in Acts 23:6-10, when Paul divides the two factions against each other over this question.

On that occasion, Luke explains: “the Sadducees say that there is no resurrection, nor angel, nor spirit; but the Pharisees acknowledge them all” (Acts 23:8).

This makes it clear that the Sadducees did not believe in any afterlife at all, for not only did they not acknowledge the resurrection of the dead, they didn’t even acknowledge the existence of angels or human spirits.

The Pharisees, however, believed that human spirits existed after death and would, on the last day, be bodily resurrected.

This view was not only shared by the Pharisees but by the majority of Jews, generally. Thus, Martha says of her brother Lazarus:

I know that he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day” (John 11:24).

The New Testament is clear that both the righteous and the wicked will be raised to life. Thus Jesus says:

Do not marvel at this; for the hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come forth, those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of judgment (John 5:28-29; cf. Acts 24:14-15, Rev. 20:12-15).

Here again we encounter a contrast between a resurrection of/to “life” and one of/to “judgment/contempt.”

Although the authors of the New Testament unambiguously believed in the resurrection of both the righteous and the wicked, the mode of language they use to express their beliefs may reflect a popular usage that was shaped by the fact that not all Jews believed the wicked would be raised.

This may be why the fate of the righteous is described as being raised to new “life,” even though both the righteous and the wicked will both be alive again.

It may also be why Paul on one occasion speaks in a way that identifies resurrection itself with the fate of the righteous, saying that he wants to know Christ “and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that if possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead” (Phil. 3:10-11).


3) Other Jewish sources

Our knowledge of Jewish views of the afterlife in this period is not limited to the Old Testament, the New Testament, and Josephus. It is widely discussed in other Jewish writings.

For a general overview of Jewish views regarding the resurrection see the Jewish Encyclopedia’s article on the subject.

We know, in particular, of the conflict between the Sadducees and the Pharisees on the subject:

The Sadducees denied the resurrection (Josephus, “Ant.” xviii. 1, § 4; idem, “B. J.” ii. 8, § 14; Acts 23:8; Sanh. 90b; Ab. R. N. v.). All the more emphatically did the Pharisees enunciate in the liturgy (Shemoneh ‘Esreh, 2d benediction; Ber. v. 2) their belief in resurrection as one of their fundamental convictions (Sanh. x. 1; comp. Abot iv. 22; Soṭah ix. 15) (Jewish Encyclopedia, s.v. “Resurrection”).

While the Pharisees clearly believed in resurrection, there were different positions on precisely who would be resurrected:

As to the question, Who will be raised from death? the answers given vary greatly in rabbinical literature. According to R. Simai (Sifre, Deut. 306) and R. Ḥiyya bar Abba (Gen. R. xiii. 4; comp. Lev. R. xiii. 3), resurrection awaits only the Israelites; according to R. Abbahu, only the just (Ta‘an. 7a); some mention especially the martyrs (Yalḳ. ii. 431, after Tanḥuma). R. Abbahu and R. Eleazar confine resurrection to those that die in the Holy Land; others extend it to such as die outside of Palestine (Ket. 111a). According to R. Jonathan (Pirḳe R. El. 34), the resurrection will be universal, but after judgment the wicked will die a second death and forever, whereas the just will be granted life everlasting (comp. Yalḳ. ii. 428, 499). . . .

At first, it seems, resurrection was regarded as a miraculous boon granted only to the righteous (see Test. Patr., Simeon, 6; Levi, 18; Judah, 25; Zebulun, 10; Vita Adæ et Evæ, 13; comp. Luke 14:14, 20:36). Afterward it came to be regarded as an act of God connected with the last judgment, and therefore universal resurrection of the dead became a doctrine, as expressed in the second benediction of the Shemoneh ‘Esreh (tḥyyt hmtym; Sifre, Deut. 329; Sanh. 92b) (Jewish Encyclopedia, s.v. “Resurrection”).

However, reincarnation—also known as metempsychosis or the transmigration of souls—was not taught in this period. That only happened in Jewish circles centuries later:

This doctrine was foreign to Judaism until about the eighth century, when, under the influence of the Mohammedan mystics, it was adopted by the Karaites and other Jewish dissenters (Jewish Encyclopedia, s.v., “Transmigration of Souls”).

So, what did Josephus have to say about Jews in the first century?

That’s the subject of our next blog post.