Hellenism and the Jewish Afterlife
By Katie Maguire
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. 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...” 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
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.” 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.” Not only do we see the belief in justice after death, but we
also see the idea of stellar immortality. 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.” 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.” 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.
Martin. Jews, Greeks
and Barbarians. Philadelphia:
Fortress Press, 1980. pg.110.
Elias. The Jews in the Greek
Harvard University Press, 1988.
S., Rayor, D., and Carne-Rose, D.S. Callimachus:
Hymns, Epigrams, Select
The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1988. pg. 79.
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