An interesting chapter from Greek Influence in Jewish Eschatology by T. Francis Glasson (1961). Make of it what you will . . . .
. . . . The system of belief which gathered around his name [Orpheus] included transmigration, regarded the body as the prison or tomb of the soul, and attempted to show how men could find deliverance from bodily life and the circle of re-birth, and so return to their original divinity.
A myth described how Dionysus, the child of Zeus, was slain and devoured by the Titans. In his anger Zeus destroyed them with a thunderbolt; from their ashes sprang the race of men. Mankind thus consists partly of an evil element (Titanic) and partly of a good element (Dionysiac). The problem was how to get rid of the former so that the latter could be restored to its true home in the divine sphere. Man was, in Empedocles’ words, a wanderer and a fugitive from the gods. Orphism by its purificatory rites and its way of life offered the true mode of salvation.
. . . . while the final goal was a purely spiritual life freed from all bodily complications, much was said of the long process, consisting of alternating experiences on earth and in the underworld, which for most people would intervene before they were ready for final emancipation. It is a great mistake to associate Greek eschatology only with the doctrine of the immortality of the soul. The Greeks had a lot to say about punishment in the underworld, and it was the Orphics who were their teachers.Enoch 21: 4 Then I said: “For what sin have they been bound, and why have they been thrown here?” 5 And Uriel, one of the Holy Angels, who was with me and led me, spoke to me and said: “Enoch, about whom do you ask? About whom do you inquire, ask, and care? 6 These are some of the stars which transgressed the command of the Lord Most High, and they have been bound here until ten thousand ages are completed; the number of days of their sin.”
For most people there would be . . . at least ten earthly lives; each one would begin a thousand years later than the preceding, and the intervals would all be taken up by retribution in the beyond. The whole process would thus take 10,000 years. Those who chose the life of a philosopher three times in succession would escape further re-incarnations and would be ready for complete deliverance from earthly life, final release for the soul from its prison. Plato’s Phaedrus puts it in this way:
But among all these, whosoever passes his life justly afterwards obtains a better lot, but who unjustly, a worse one. For to the same place, whence each soul comes, it does not return till the expiration of 10,000 years; for it does not recover its wings for so long a period, except it is the soul of a sincere lover of wisdom, or of one who has made philosophy his favourite. But these in the third period of a thousand years, if they have chosen this life thrice in succession, thereupon depart, with their wings restored in the three thousandth year. Others are tried, sentenced some to places of punishment beneath the earth . . . others to some region in heaven . . . in the thousandth year they choose their next life.
Empedocles in one of his fragments says that the fallen daemon must wander thrice ten thousand seasons from the abodes of the blessed. According to Dieterich three seasons per year were recognized at that time, so that the same period of 10,000 years is meant.Pindar, Olympian Ode 2: . . . those who gladly kept their oaths enjoy a life without tears, while the others undergo a toil that is unbearable to look at. Those who have persevered three times, on either side, to keep their souls free from all wrongdoing,  follow Zeus’ road to the end, to the tower of Cronus, where ocean breezes blow around the island of the blessed, and flowers of gold are blazing, some from splendid trees on land, while water nurtures others.
There are traces of Orphism in Pindar and he too says that those who have thrice led a blameless life will be sent to the islands of the blessed in the kingdom of Cronus (Olympian Odes ii. 68). There are of course numerous other references to the main outline of this scheme in ancient literature. Two of the fullest and best known are the myth of Er in Plato’s Republic (book 10) and Virgil’s Aeneid (book 6). The famous gold plates will be referred to later . . . .
When we consider the possible bearing of all this upon Jewish teaching, we notice that too often recent writers have been inclined to restrict the Greek influence on Jewish eschatology to the immortality of the soul. For other aspects of the future life they have looked elsewhere, especially to Persia. May not the case have been rather as follows? The Jews did not accept the doctrine of repeated re-incarnations and a succession of earthly lives, nor did they regard the body as a prison-house. But some of them accepted the doctrine of punishments and rewards under the ground; while others held to the immortality of the soul. One is as Greek as the other.
The Orphic scheme should be looked at in its entirety. It included:
A. Recompense in the underworld, with different treatment for good and evil, and
B. The final return of the soul to the divine realm.
Now, some Jewish developments reflect more particularly the influence of A—as in Enoch 22 with its conception of different lots for good and evil in the future. We might add for consideration the idea of a return to earthly life, which the Jews called resurrection, though Josephus expresses it as a kind of reincarnation.
Other Jewish developments, particularly in the Diaspora, reflect the influence of B — Philo, Wisdom of Solomon, 4 Maccabees.
We make a mistake in recognizing Greek influence only in the latter case. What happened was virtually a separation of the two parts of Orphic teaching. The Jews already had a doctrine of the Day of the Lord, and this and other beliefs made it impossible for them to accept anything like the entire Greek scheme.
As mentioned in an earlier chapter, life in the Messianic kingdom is not described in Enoch 1-36 as going on for ever. It is patriarchal in its duration, but the clear implication is that it will close with old age.
But for the elect there shall be light and grace and peace, And they shall inherit the earth.
And then there shall be bestowed upon the elect wisdom.
And they shall all live and never again sin . . .
And they shall not again transgress.
Nor shall they sin all the days of their life.
Nor shall they die of (the divine) anger or wrath,
But they shall complete the number of the days of their life.
And their lives shall be increased in peace.
And the years of their joy shall be multiplied,
In eternal gladness and peace,
All the days of their life (5. 7-9).
So also in 25. 6:
And they shall live a long life on earth,
Such as thy fathers lived:
And in their days shall no sorrow or plague
Or torment or calamity touch them.
If this is the life to which the righteous are raised, it is clear that it is not strictly everlasting life; it is more like a reincarnation.
It is sometimes affirmed that nothing could be further from Greek thought than Jewish teaching on resurrection, that the Greeks thought of deliverance from the body as the desirable goal. Yet it should be pointed out that the Platonic-Orphic eschatology, while certainly envisaging deliverance from bodily life as the final goal, nevertheless taught quite definitely that for most people there would be a return to bodily life on the earth. Whether we call this “resurrection” or not is mainly a matter of terms.5 R. H. Charles, writing on the eschatology of Enoch 1-36, says: “There is no hint as to what becomes of the righteous after the second death” (Hastings’ Dictionary ot the Bible, i. p. 742)
There are admittedly great differences between Jewish eschatology and Greek. It is perfectly true that the Jews did not accept such a doctrine as transmigration (except in later periods, when it was taught in the Kabbala), nor was the resurrection-life presented as a further probation or disciplinary experience. But the question at the moment is: Is there a possibility that Greek teaching suggested to the Jews, or to some of them, that the dead would be raised from Sheol to live again on the earth, which is what resurrection implied at that time ? It is curious that they seem to have left quite open the further and ultimate fate of those who, as in the Greek scheme, lived again on earth for a limited period.5 They did not follow the Greeks in envisaging successive lives on earth alternating with periods in Hades, but they appear to have had nothing at first to substitute.
It is usual to point to Iranian parallels in connection with the resurrection and this may after all prove to be correct. But it is worthy of consideration that the view of a return to bodily life was taught by the Greeks and may possibly have played a part (even if a subsidiary one) in the early stages of the Jewish doctrine of resurrection. In limiting the term of this further earthly experience, as seems to be the case in Enoch 1-36, the Jew appears to stand with the Greek rather than the Persian.
Josephus explains the Pharisaic belief in resurrection in terms of re-incarnation: “the souls of good men only are removed into other bodies”. There is also the phrase in Antiquities xviii. 1. 3; “revive and live again”. I do not press this as Josephus may have been expressing himself in ways intelligible to his Roman readers who of course were familiar with ideas of re-incarnation.
The possibility of a connection between the Jewish doctrine of resurrection and the Greek view of re-incarnation occurred to me independently some time ago, but I have subsequently noticed that I. Levy claims quite confidently that the former found its origin in the latter:
The first of the two stages distinguished by the Pharisaic doctrine, that of punishments and rewards in Hades, is indisputably a borrowing from Hellenism on the part of the Diaspora. The second stage, re-entry of the soul in a body, is also exactly parallel to the re-incarnation which brings the soul of the dead into the world of the living. Thus we meet again . . . the whole round of the doctrine of metempsychosis, the sequence of (1) sojourn in Hades and (2) palingenesis. We thus see the true origin of the idea of resurrection. [p. 255]
For my own part I do not wish to speak with the same degree of definiteness as this but the possibility can certainly not be denied and should be taken into consideration in accounting for the emergence of the resurrection doctrine.
Another important aspect of the question should be mentioned before we pass on. The inquiry into the origin of the Jewish doctrine of resurrection is interlocked with the date of Isaiah 24-7, since these chapters contain the first mention of the subject in Jewish writings:
Thy dead shall live; my dead bodies shall arise (26. 19).
Some authorities date the whole section in the Maccabean period (Duhm, Marti). Bousset-Gressmann say that these four chapters possibly arose at the end of the third century or later. W. Rudolph also places this whole section in the Greek period, and while he thinks that the bulk of it comes from the period 330-300 b.c. soon after the conquests of Alexander, he excepts three small sections including the verses which deal with the resurrection. He inclines to the view that the doctrine did not emerge as early as the fourth century and that the verses which deal with it may be a later insertion. It is therefore most likely that the doctrine of resurrection emerged at a time when Greek thoughts were circulating in Palestine, so that the possibility mentioned above is not to be ruled out on the score of dates.
Glasson, T. Francis. 1961. Greek Influence in Jewish Eschatology: With Special Reference to the Apocalypses and Pseudepigraphs. S. P. C. K.
Latest posts by Neil Godfrey (see all)
- Varieties of Atheism #2 - 2023-05-21 02:18:55 GMT+0000
- Varieties of Atheism - 2023-05-20 07:10:56 GMT+0000
- The Troubled “Quiet” before the Jewish Diaspora’s Revolt against Rome: 116-117 C.E. - 2023-05-10 07:58:29 GMT+0000
If you enjoyed this post, please consider donating to Vridar. Thanks!
17 thoughts on “The Idea of the Resurrection: From Greek Influence?”
Looks pretty good to me. Though by just a few years later, legions of believing scholar /apologists had discovered such books, and were assiduously attacking them. Eventually winning, temporarily, by sheer number.
Speaking of which? Larry Hurtado just passed away, at age 75. Though I read his very last post, very last comment, as a slight, indirect concession to ahistoricality, and mythicism.
Apparently, not all scholars think Jews had only one concept of resurrection. There seems to have been different types, some involving the original mortal body being transformed into an immortal body, some getting a new immortal body while leaving the old body behind, and some just the raising of the “spirit” or “soul”.
Debates Over the Resurrection of the Dead: Constructing Early Christian Identity(Oxford University Press, 2015), Outi Lehtipuu
A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible(Fortress Press, 2007), John J. Collins
Same goes for Paul. Not all scholars think Paul believed the original mortal body would be brought back to life. Some think Paul believed the original mortal body would stay dead and you would receive a new spiritual/immortal body.
Paul’s teachings also shares some similarities with the “Orphics”. Things he says about the body/flesh contrasted with the spirit is very similar to Orphic beliefs. The Orphics said “I am a child of earth and starry sky”, the earth representing the body/flesh and the starry sky the spiritual. Paul believed Jesus released you from this “tension” while the Orphics believed Dionysus did.
“The anthropology of the Orphic gold tablets”, Hans Dieter Betz, in The “Orphic” Gold Tablets and Greek Religion(Cambridge University Press, 2010), edited by Radcliffe G. Edmonds III
And we should always keep in mind that to devotees and the general public, the fact that the gods could resurrect a dead man was institutionalized dogma. Perhaps the only questions being asked was in what sense? i.e.: “the original mortal body being transformed into an immortal body, some getting a new immortal body while leaving the old body behind, and some just the raising of the “spirit” or “soul”.”
• Per Carrier (30 March 2018). “Dying-and-Rising Gods: It’s Pagan, Guys. Get Over It”. Richard Carrier Blogs.
Simple liberation of the soul from the underworld to return to the heavenly abode will have been the soteriology of the original Vision of Isaiah as well, before the Pauline (?) doctrine of a ‘sacrifice for sin’ having taken root.
I am fascinated with the fixation on the number 10,000 as a stand-in for “unthinkably many.” I believe it came from our own ten fingers, which could be used for counting, which led us to tens of tens or hundreds (Centurions, etc.). A thousand is ten tens of ten (my head is starting to ache) and to one up that there is ten tens of tens of ten which is clearly not something one can hold in one’s mind, so it represents the really, really many. This number shows up in Asian philosophies frequently, too.
Please forgive me for asking a naive question. I have only a superficial knowledge of ancient society and culture of the Mediterranean and Mid East.
Is it possible that a useful question might be whether is there any place in the area at that time where frequently accepted stories of resurrection were not prevalent? Is it possible that resurrection was the default concept, just needing the details to be added? In other words, is it possible that a question to be asked might be more where did the details of this or that resurrection story come from rather than the general idea of resurrection?
Is it possible that the general idea of resurrection was to the population like water to fish, everywhere–maybe just different molecular compositions depending here vs there?
Also, I have wondered about whether the same sort of thing might be true for the idea of deity becoming human.
Many mythologies of the Greco-Roman era and region feature myths of a god who dies and returns to life. Richard Carrier gives the following as germane examples that were extant prior to the origin of Christianity: Osiris, Adonis, Romulus, Zalmoxis, Inanna. And Carrier notes that Mithras is not a dying-and-rising god, but like those gods, Mithras is associated with a suffering or struggle that results in a triumphant victory over death.
Carrier, Richard (2014). “Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt: Should We Still Be Looking for a Historical Jesus?”. The Bible and Interpretation
NB: Greco-Roman era and region. Not China, not the Americas, etc..
Some other important Greco-Roman era parallels when it comes to Jesus that aren’t on your list are Dionysus, Asclepius, Heracles/Melqart, and Horus.
And when it comes to Mithras, the bull seems to share similarities with Jesus. The bull is associated with the moon which was associated with rebirth. Mithras was associated with the sun which was also associated with rebirth. The bull also has grains growing out of it’s body and grapes from it’s blood. This is a theme you also find in the Osiris, Dionysus, and Jesus cults.
The Roman Cult of Mithras: The God and His Mysteries(Routledge, 1990), Manfred Clauss
N.G. “It is usual to point to Iranian parallels in connection with the resurrection and this may after all prove to be correct.”
Again, I admit to being so naive in these topics that I am not sure I should comment, and even if I should, perhaps my comments mainly serve as whimsical jokes. Nevertheless, it almost seems to me as if the authors of Luke and Matthew took what is apparently the conventional view here.
The magi. Aren’t they generally thought to be probably supposed to have been Zoroastrians, at least approximately? Weren’t Luke/Matthew perhaps trying to convert those of the ambient culture who had been exposed to Zoroastrianism by telling them that Jesus was Z-endorsed from the very start since the magi sought Jesus out? Perhaps they were preparing the reader for the idea that the Z-resurrection was actually the Jesus story. (Mark, as L/M read Mark, indicated that Jesus was the Jewish messiah coming in a fashion perhaps not universally expected — L/M were also indicating that he was actually also the Zoroastrian messiah, also in unexpected fashion.)
I don’t know much about Zoroastrianism, but in Wikipedia I read, “According to legend, the final savior of the world, known as the Saoshyant, will be born to a virgin impregnated by the seed of Zoroaster while bathing in a lake. The Saoshyant will raise the dead—including those in all afterworlds—for final judgment, returning the wicked to hell to be purged of bodily sin.”
I wonder therefore whether L/M weren’t claiming Jesus as the agent of Zoroatrian salvation, as if many of their audience might know about that.
To me, the very casual reader, it seems as if Luke/Matthew themselves are coming down on saying, or at least vaguely suggesting, that the resurrection story may come from Persia (though this notion does not exclude that it is not coming from all over the place, including Greece and Rome).
At the beginning of my comment above I incorrectly ascribed a quotation to Neil that was actually from T. Francis Glasson.
OP Glasson quote: “It is usual to point to Iranian parallels in connection with the resurrection…”
• Carrier, Richard (2009). Not the Impossible Faith. Lulu. p. 93. ISBN 978-0-557-04464-1.
As indicated out below, I erred in having magi in Luke. Only in Matthew. Apologies. Should have looked more carefully.
I wonder why the author of (or and editor of) Matthew would make the effort to bring in magi when the others hadn’t.
• Carrier (23 January 2017). “Could Simcha Jacobovici Just Go Away Already?”. Richard Carrier Blogs.
The Jewish idea of the resurrection seems to most closely resemble the Zoroastrian concept of resurrection. Although, as seen in some of the quotes I provided above, it may have been that Jews didn’t have one concept of resurrection.
Another culture that had a concept of some form of a bodily resurrection were the Egyptians, although scholars don’t seem to think Jews were influenced by the Egyptians when it comes to resurrection. Egyptians were individually resurrected after they died and were judged right after dying while in Zoroastrianism and Judaism the resurrection and judgement is a future event that happens to everybody at the same time.
Resurrection of the Dead in Early Judaism, 200 BCE-CE 200(Oxford University Press, 2017), Casey Deryl Elledge
And John Granger Cook in “Empty Tomb, Apotheosis, Resurrection”(Mohr Siebeck, 2018) on Zoroastrianism:
The bare idea of resurrecting from the dead was part of popular culture:
Bodily Resurrection in Ancient Fiction
The Popularity of Resurrection
As a religious doctrine, however, that is something different, and it was in that different realm that my post was focused: the possibility that as a religious doctrine the Jewish idea was adapted from Greek thought.
Please allow me to formulate my original comment, less sloppily, I hope. Two somewhat different if related topics — resurrection, and (I am afraid, slightly off-topic) magi/Persians/Zoroastrians
Is it possible that ideas of resurrection so thoroughly permeated the region in that era — all sorts of different blends here and there — that it comes close to being a meaningless question where the Christian idea of resurrection came from (unless one means to reach back centuries before)? Perhaps the idea of resurrection was so common in so many different variants everywhere that it was a matter of just adding new elements to a permeative idea, so common that perhaps people took it for granted. I do not know. I am just wondering.
The magi and Matthew: Why did someone responsible for the final version of Matthew (author or editor) insert the magi? It’s almost as if this person is doing some early Biblical criticism, trying to assert a Zoroastrian influence. Perhaps this person is trying to convert Zoroastrians by suggesting, “You were essentially right about the savior, just not about the details. It’s analogous to the way some of our fellow Jews were surprised about the exact details about who the Messiah would be, or when and how he would appear, and what he would be like. Reality hits hard the way it surprises sometimes — this gospel tells you the way it turned out to be.” However it is a bit odd that an appeal to Zoroastrians would appear in Matthew, the gospel said to be the most Jewish of the 4 canonical gospels. Maybe an editor inserted the section. The traditional interpretation, where hot-shot Persians are impressed by an otherwise unknown Jewish baby, is ambivalent in the way it treats Jews. On the one hand the outside Persian experts are making huge displays of reverence to the Jewish Messiah. On the other hand, this Messiah and his family are unrecognized by their fellow Jews. The magi are endorsing the enlightened Jewish Christians I suppose, while the passage disparages ignorant Jews who are not Christians.
In any case, it’s hard for me not to believe that this section of Matthew isn’t alluding to the association of Zoroastrianism with the concept of a savior involved with resurrection, probably consciously and deliberately.
Some food for thought on Matthew’s use of the Magi.
Goulder, M. D. Midrash and Lection in Matthew. Wipf & Stock,, 2004. p. 236
Powell, Mark Allan. “The Magi as Kings: An Adventure in Reader-Response Criticism.” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 62, no. 3 (2000): 459–80.
And Bruns, J. Edgar. “The Magi Episode in Matthew 2.” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 23, no. 1 (1961): 51–54.