Afterlife and Immortality

Stephen L. Cook

in Biblical Studies

ISBN: 9780195393361
Published online September 2010 | | DOI:
Afterlife and Immortality

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Biblical understandings of death and the afterlife have proved of enduring fascination to scholars, and have been the subject of an intriguing history of interpretation. Few modern biblical scholars continue to associate the Hebrew Bible with an otherworldly heaven, an immaterial soul ensnared in a physical prison, or death as an experience of liberation. The biblical world simply did not oppose spirit and matter, mind and body, in these sorts of ways. This fact, however, generally comes as a surprise to large segments of the general public, who continue to assume that the Bible depicts salvation as something disembodied and ethereal. In reality, the Scriptures bear witness to an increasingly explicit hope in a general, corporeal, bodily resurrection. What scholars are currently debating is whether belief in a soul and belief in corporeal resurrection are incompatible and whether the idea of resurrection was a very late (Maccabean?) and possibly foreign (Zoroastrian?) phenomenon in Israel, or whether it had much deeper, indigenous roots. Scholars also now hotly debate the older, commonplace position that the idea of a soul, separable from the body, played little or no role in preexilic Israel. Is it really true that the Israelites believed in little more than the perpetuation of the name and memory of the family dead? Recent approaches to Israelite religion that are increasingly informed by archaeological artifacts are defending the view that Israel’s beliefs in an afterlife were much more vibrant than many scholars have been willing to admit. Certainly, a variety of Ugaritic and Aramaic texts reveal a lively fascination with disembodied shades and the practice of cults of the dead. This milieu must have affected Israelites and their experience of death in substantial ways. What is more, newer studies drawing on cross-cultural parallels are emphasizing the crucial role that deceased (“living-dead”) ancestors generally play in traditional societies such as old Israel, where ties of lineage, tenure on ancestral land, and burial at the homestead form core building blocks of societal organization. Scholarship is raising different sets of questions about views of afterlife and resurrection in early Judaism and early Christianity, but the research here has been no less energized in recent years. The approaches to death and afterlife of early Judaism(s) are looking increasingly rich and varied. Scholars are mining new insights about the variety of perspectives at issue from sources such as Josephus, the Qumran texts, the apocalypses, and Jewish epitaph inscriptions. At the same time, scholars recognize how, from the Second Temple era on, an interaction with the cultures of Greece and Rome is discernible in the late biblical writers. A number of significant up-to-date studies are now available illuminating Greek and Roman eschatology and burial practice. Students of the New Testament will be interested in these studies as well as in recent work outlining the multiple perspectives on afterlife within differing New Testament texts. They will also be drawn to focused exegetical studies of such fascinating texts on afterlife and resurrection as Luke’s story of the Rich Man and Lazarus and Paul’s reference to “baptism on account of the dead.” Some exegetical studies now available draw specific comparisons and contrasts between the New Testament presentations of afterlife and the notions and practices of their wider cultural milieu. Finally, many readers will be interested in engaging works of biblical theology that continue to find the topic of afterlife of utmost interest and import. Fresh critical and theological work is recovering the spirit of biblical responses to death, reemphasizing the resurrection of the dead in both Christianity and Judaism, and rethinking modern tendencies to personalize, domesticate, and sanitize death.

Article.  10378 words. 

Subjects: Biblical Studies

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