Hellenism and the Jewish Afterlife

                         By Katie Maguire                           

 Magen David

              The apocalyptic genre had been present in Judaism for centuries before the Hellenistic period. Within the traditional apocalyptic stories, the enemies of the Jewish people had always been the Babylonians, Persians, and Assyrians.  Greeks, however, took their place as the  “eschatological enemies of the people of God ” in the Jewish writings of the Hellenistic period.[1]  The unfavorable notion of Greeks in apocalyptic literature can be primarily attributed to the suffering they caused the Israelites during the Greek expansions of the Hellenistic era.  Much Jewish apocalyptic literature conveys a picture in which the Jews violently opposed the imposition of Hellenistic culture.  It is ironic that a positive Greek influence is seen in the changing Jewish religious beliefs.  Prior to the Hellenistic period the Jewish concept of the afterlife had been drastically different from what it became during that time.  Through the Jewish apocalyptic literature written during that period, we see the introduction of the concepts of the immortality of the soul, stellar immortality, and resurrection after death.  It was the Greek influence of the Hellenistic age that gave impetus to the emergence of the Jewish eschatological salvation.

                “After two thousand years of belief in the doctrine of immortality, it is somewhat difficult to realize that no hope of heavenly bliss ever cheered either Ben Sira or the Maccabees...”[2]  Before the Hellenistic period, the Jewish concept of the afterlife was a dark shadowy existence called Sheol.  When people died, that was the end of their spiritual life, as well as the end of their relationship with God.  In Psalm 6, it reads, “Turn, O Lord, save my life...For in death there is no remembrance of you; in Sheol who can give you praise?”[3]  The psalmist is praying for prolonged life, so that his relationship with God may also be prolonged, which implies that there is no relationship with God after death.  This is quite contrary to the modern Jewish belief  in the concepts of Heaven and Hell (eternal salvation or damnation), to which a relationship with God after death is central.  Psalm 6 makes it clear that eternal salvation was not an idea present in Judaism prior to Greek influence. 

                Eternal salvation is impossible without an immortal soul, thus the concept of an immortal soul is central to a belief in eternal salvation.  As previously mentioned, the apocalyptic genre was not new to the Jewish literature of the Hellenistic era, but even though the style remained the same, the religion behind it changed slightly during this time.  The new surge of apocalyptic thought was prompted by the more politically powerful cultures that were asserting power over the Jewish people, namely the Greeks and later on, the Romans.  During the Hellenistic era, the Jews of Judea were politically and militarily subordinate to the massive armies of the Ptolemies and the Seleucids.  In the middle of a battle ground between these two powers, the Jews were overcome with a sense of hopelessness that there was no justice in the world.  It would have been possible, however, to regain hope in the idea of judgment after death;  the idea that God would punish the evil with eternal damnation and reward the good with everlasting salvation.  This is the exact idea that emerges in the Biblical apocalyptic Book of Daniel, written during the Maccabean revolt.  During this period Antiochus IV, had issued a decree ordering his soldiers to “...force the Jews to forsake the laws of their forefathers and cease to live according to the laws of God.”[4]  As a result, the Jews of Judea were persecuted and oppressed if they failed to comply with Antiochus’ orders.  Because the Jewish people had no control over their surroundings, they began to take comfort in the assumption that there would be justice in the afterlife.  The Book of Daniel, though written during the Maccabean revolt, was set in the time of the Babylonian exile.  It exhibited the signs that the people of Judea desperately hoped for: “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 the stars forever and ever.”[5]  Not only do we see the belief in justice after death, but we also see the idea of stellar immortality.[6]  Judaism harbored no notion of immortality prior to the Hellenistic period (as evidenced above), whereas Greek culture nurtured the idea that the dead existed as celestial bodies (see below).  Belief in stellar immortality, therefore, provides further indication of the Hellenistic influence on the Jewish religion.

                It is clear that the Jewish belief in the afterlife changed during the Hellenistic era, but what aspects of Hellenistic society shaped their ideas about the immortal soul, resurrection, and stellar immortality?  During the Hellenistic era, an interest in astrology emerged, but the Greek religions reflected the idea of stellar immortality prior to that.  Callimachus’ “The Lock of Bernice” states, “...I too...should illumine the precincts divine, installing me as a new constellation midst the old.”[7]  This indicates that the sky is the domain of the gods and that the constellations are the divinities themselves.  Even if this belief was not universally held throughout the Greek world, this poem exhibits that the concepts of the immortal soul and stellar immortality were at least present in Greek culture.

                Also important during the Hellenistic period was a focus on the individual.  The Greek philosophies during this period, for instance, displayed a distinct interest in personal happiness, which placed emphasis on the individual.  Stoic philosophy taught that personal happiness could only be achieved through virtue, and it additionally allowed for  the worship of gods/nature, which would have made it attractive to any religion.  This is the same philosophy that became popular with the Christians later on.  Christianity is, in effect, a branch of Judaism, so the two religions share several of the same beliefs and interests.  It is, therefore, not difficult to see how Judaism could be attracted to the same qualities in Stoic philosophy that Christianity later found appealing.  It is reasonable to assume that Judaism could have used the Stoic personal emphasis to shape its concept of the immortal soul.  

                Before the Hellenistic period, Judaic afterlife was defined as follows:  “All go to one place; all are from the dust, and all turn to dust again.”[8]  This phrase is indicative of  the pre-Hellenistic Jewish idea that a person’s essence dies with his body.  The Hellenistic emphasis on the individual changed this belief within Judaism.  Inherent in the concept of a soul, is a personal survival after physical death.  The personal emphasis present in Hellenistic culture, particularly Greek philosophy, probably affected the Jewish belief in the soul, as evidenced in Daniel 12 (above).

                As evidenced by the Maccabean revolt, Judaism was an ancient and sacred institution which the Jews protected with their lives.  To have altered their hallowed religion in favor of Greek characteristics shows increasingly positive reception of Hellenistic culture, though explicitly it seems otherwise.  While the Jews were expressly writing against the oppressive actions of the Hellenistic people, they exhibited Greek characteristics within their own belief system, such as, immortality of the soul, stellar immortality and eternal salvation.  Though the Israelites were undoubtedly afraid the Hellenistic people who threatened Jewish political and religious autonomy, they found parts of Hellenistic culture appealing enough to adopt into Judaism.  As a result of the Jewish-Hellenistic contact, three ideas emerged that are paramount to not only Judaism, but to Christianity and Islam as well.  It is amazing to imagine that Judaism fostered no concept of Heaven and Hell, two ideas that seem so central to the religion today, prior to the Hellenistic period.  Since Christianity and Islam both have a Judaic base, their development was greatly effected by the concepts of eternal salvation and damnation.  The history and belief systems of the three major western religions could have been very different today, if Hellenistic culture had not effected Judaism in the ways that it did.             


[1]Hengel,  Martin.  Jews, Greeks and Barbarians.  Philadelphia:  Fortress Press, 1980. pg.110.

[2]Bickerman, Elias.  The Jews in the Greek Age.  Cambridge:  Harvard University Press, 1988.  pg.273.

[3]Psalms 6:4-5.

[4]II Maccabees 6:1                                                   

[5]Daniel 12:2-3

[6]Bickerman, pg. 275.

[7]Lombardo, S., Rayor, D., and Carne-Rose, D.S.  Callimachus:  Hymns, Epigrams, Select                 Fragments.  Baltimore:  The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1988. pg. 79.

[8]Ecclesiastes 3:20.

Back to other brilliant essays

Thought that was interesting?  Check out Boris Milgrom's essay on:

    The Jewish Diaspora in the Hellenistic Period