Belief in an afterlife is basically absent from the Old Testament. The Qur’an suggests a reason why.

Marcus J. Borg, an American New Testament scholar and theologian, in his last book ponders the strange absence of the afterlife in the Jewish Bible: 

‘In the Old Testament, which is more than two-thirds of the Christian Bible, belief in an afterlife is basically absent. Not until the final chapter of its last book to be written (Daniel, around 165 BCE) is there an unambiguously clear reference to a blessed afterlife.  And even there, it’s not about eternal punishment of the wicked and rewards for believers, but specially about the resurrection of the martyrs – of Jews who were killed because of their loyalty to God by the power that ruled their world.’

‘In all the centuries before that, the great figures of the Old Testament – Abraham and Sarah and their descendants, Moses in the time of the exodus from Egypt, the prophets in the time of the monarchy and its failure and fall, the authors of the Psalms and the wisdom literature – did not believe in life after death. And yet they were passionate about God and salvation. But the afterlife was not the main motivation for this passion.’

‘Though the words “heaven” and “Sheol” frequently occur in the Old Testament, they are not the same as Christian understandings of heaven and hell. The former (singular or plural) sometimes means “sky,” as in “the heavens declare the glory of God.” Sometimes it means the abode of God and other spiritual beings. Even Satan, according to the book of Job (1,6), lives in heaven. But “heaven” is not a blessed after-death destination of the faithful.’

‘So also the word “Sheol” (Hebrew) or “Hades” (Greek) do not refer to a place of punishment like the common Christian understanding of “hell” does. Rather, they refer to the land of the dead, the grave, where everyone goes – not because they’ve been bad, but because they’re dead.’  

Marcus J. Borg Convictions: A Manifesto for Progressive Christians published 2014, pp. 60-61

(Marcus J. Borg (1942–2015) was an American New Testament scholar and theologian and a major figure in historical Jesus scholarship. He retired as Distinguished Professor of Religion and Culture at Oregon State University in 2007).

***

Interestingly, the Qur’an states:

Prosperous are those who purify themselves, remember the name of their Lord, and pray. Yet you people prefer the life of this world, even though the Hereafter is better and more lasting. All this is in the earlier scriptures, the scriptures of Abraham and Moses. 

Surah 87: 14-18

God speaks about two earlier revelations to Abraham and Moses.  No Book of Abraham has come down to us. The present Pentateuch is a surviving recension of the original revelation of Moses. Where is the teaching about the Hereafter to be found in today’s Torah? Nowhere. This means it was either removed or lost or forgotten – thus indicating textual corruption. That is why belief in an afterlife is basically absent from the Old Testament.



Categories: Bible, Biblical Hebrew, Books, Death, History, Judaism, New Testament scholarship, Qur'an, Recommended reading, Scholars, Tanakh

38 replies

  1. That’s a distortion if ever there was one.

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  2. Great point Paul.

    Yes, this would confuse me as to why there is not much mention at all of hereafter.

    Do you think it was removed accidentally or purposely or both?

    Do you think the ancient Hebrews found the idea absurd and that’s why they removed it?

    …in Prophet’s time, Arab pagans thought the idea of decayed corpses coming back to life seemed absurd.

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    • Surah 87: 14-18 quoted above says: “Yet you people prefer the life of this world” suggesting they either ignored or suppressed the revelation given to them because of their attachment to the dunya.

      Allahu alam.

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      • Thanks….there is also verse in Qur’an…I forgot where that says something to the effect that many Children of Israel are greedy to live a long life but that even if they live for 1000 years, they cannot escape death….I am paraphrasing liberally since I forgot the verse itself.

        Liked by 1 person

      • I is much more reasonable to go with scholarship on history of religion – the belief in a hereafter heaven or paradise vs hell are late developments.

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      • Not necessarily….even cave people buried their dead with some belongings thinking that there was a hereafter.

        Ancient peoples like Egyptians believed in hereafter…that’s why pyramids were made.

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      • “Not necessarily….even cave people buried their dead with some belongings thinking that there was a hereafter.”

        interesting verse in the quran says.that wealth will not mediate on day of judgement ( i dont know maybe i am misquoting the verse) does this mean rich ppl used to get buried with their cash thinking they will bargain with ALmighty?

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      • Brother Omer, This is the verse you’re referring to

        Surah Al Baraqah: Verse 96

        (Yusuf Ali’s translation)
        Thou wilt indeed find them, of all people, most greedy of life,-even more than the idolaters: Each one of them wishes He could be given a life of a thousand years: But the grant of such life will not save him from (due) punishment. For Allah sees well all that they do.

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    • in the gospel of paul (dying and rising god gospel) he has to address his apostate audience which believed their was no resurrection of the dead. he comes out with these seed and plant analogies and not once references the claims from the gospels that jesus himself eat fish and had wounds.

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    • I think it unlikely that all such references could be deliberately removed. Not only would they have to remove all alleged references from all the various texts from Genesis – 2 Chronicles, but they would also have to remove or distort such references from extra biblical writings of the time, for example what later became known as apocrypha, pseudepigrapha not to mention the works of historiographers. Time span of these texts would be 1000-500 years. In practice that would be an impossible task, but they also failed, for example, in the cases of the books of Daniel, Jubilees and Enoch that have a more “developed” view of afterlife.

      One would also expect the idea of paradise and hell to show up in the archaeological record, for example in burial practices of the time, though this is not the case. There were ideas of an afterlife, but it was not the concept of paradise and hell as we know it.

      The concept of paradise and hell, as we have come to know, is not attested in the historical texts of the ancient cultures of the Near East, such as the Hittites, Assyrians and Egyptians (though they did have other conceptions of afterlife as is evident in the archaeological record).

      On the historical level, the simplest explanation, for the silence of paradise and hell, as we have come to know, is that it was a later development in history.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Thank you for taking the time to engage in serious discussion about my article.

        I would like to clarify a few points.

        Today’s Torah which I take to mean the first five books (Pentateuch or five books of Moses) of the 24 books of the Tanakh, is not the same as today’s Christian Old Testament.

        I am not 100% clear what the Qur’an refers to when it speaks of the revelation given to Moses. Is it just the commandments of the Law (613?), or the original pentateuch, or some other book.

        The Quran simply states:

        ‘Yet you people prefer the life of this world, even though the Hereafter is better and more lasting. All this is in the earlier scriptures, the scriptures of Abraham and Moses.’ Surah 87: 14-18.

        The original book may have suffered various fates: deliberate textual corruption; the book may have been lost in part or whole; forgotten; or suppressed. Whatever the case key teaching regarding the Hereafter was lost. This is the testimony of the Qur’an.

        The earliest extant copies of the Jewish bible are found in the Dead Sea Scrolls which date to about the 3rd century BCE. Moses is traditionally thought to have died in 1273 BCE. So we have nearly a millennium without any textual evidence.

        The final Torah (as we use today) is widely seen as a product of the Persian period (539–333 BCE), again up to a thousand years after Moses.

        So there is a vast track of historical time for texts to be lost, changed, corrupted, added to, forgotten, lost, etc.

        You say:

        ‘One would also expect the idea of paradise and hell to show up in the archaeological record, for example in burial practices of the time, though this is not the case.’

        But would one find such evidence if the teaching had been forgotten or lost or suppressed? Possibly not.

        Liked by 3 people

      • And thank you too for your equally friendly reply.

        From a historical-scientific perspective, the hypothesis that such a teaching had been forgotten, lost or suppressed, accounting for our not being able to find it, cannot be falsified and so is not a scientific hypothesis. In particular when the available, historical, archaeological and textual evidence points in the opposite direction. It may make eminently good sense from a religious point of view, much less so from a scientific.

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      • A historical-scientific perspective is far from being the whole story.

        There is zero historical evidence for the life of Abraham, Moses and the Exodus but people of faith usually believe in their historical reality as revelation reliably informs us of their past existence.

        Scientists too often believe in phenomena they cannot prove. The existence of the alleged Multiverse has zero evidence to its credit but is nonetheless considered a scientific hypothesis by many.

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      • No problem. But your argument from faith (and silence) will only work for those who already accept the Quran.

        Liked by 2 people

      • I don’t see it as an argument from mere ‘faith’. I see God has having disclosed information about the past we no longer have access to. We know Moses existed because God has told us this in his multiple revelations to the Jews, Christians and Muslims. The archaeological record alone fails to tell us that.

        Western secular science deliberately narrows down its epistemological parameters to the material realm alone, excluding all reference to information from other dimensions it has no access to.

        People in general are not restricted by this materialist methodology. We can think outside of the materialist box.

        We can know a great deal more..

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Matthew 22:23
    The same day came to him the Sadducees, which say that there is no resurrection, and asked him

    Matthew 22:28
    Therefore in the resurrection whose wife shall she be of the seven? for they all had her

    John 11:24
    Martha saith unto him, I know that he shall rise again in the resurrection at the last day.

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  4. Psalm 16 v10 For thou wilt not leave my soul in hell; neither wilt thou suffer thine Holy One to see corruption. 11Thou wilt shew me the path of life: in thy presence is fulness of joy; at thy right hand there are pleasures for evermore.

    Psalms 49:9
    That he should still live for ever, and not see corruption.

    Jonah 2:6
    I went down to the bottoms of the mountains; the earth with her bars was about me for ever: yet hast thou brought up my life from corruption, O LORD my God.

    Job 19:23
    Oh that my words were now written! oh that they were printed in a book! 24That they were graven with an iron pen and lead in the rock for ever! 25For I know that my redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth: 26And though after my skin worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God: 27Whom I shall see for myself, and mine eyes shall behold, and not another; though my reins be consumed within me.

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    • @Erasmus

      “Not until the final chapter of its last book to be written (Daniel, around 165 BCE) is there an unambiguously clear reference to a blessed afterlife. And even there, it’s not about eternal punishment of the wicked and rewards for believers, but specially about the resurrection of the martyrs – of Jews who were killed because of their loyalty to God by the power that ruled their world.’

      So also the word “Sheol” (Hebrew) or “Hades” (Greek) do not refer to a place of punishment like the common Christian understanding of “hell” does. Rather, they refer to the land of the dead, the grave, where everyone goes – not because they’ve been bad, but because they’re dead.’

      Also the “hell” psalms 16 10 in the original Hebrew and most other translations is sheol

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  5. Psalm 9 v 17:

    King James Bible
    The wicked shall be turned into hell, and all the nations that forget God.

    If Sheol is a neutral place to which all go after death why is it a place reserved for the wicked?

    So it looks as if Sheol can sometimes be neutral but sometimes not. The translation has to take account of this.

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    • “If Sheol is a neutral place to which all go after death why is it a place reserved for the wicked?”

      It’s…not. the reason the wicked are singled out here is because the context is taking about their destruction hence entering the realm of the dead i.e sheol.

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      • Ellicott’s Commentary for English Readers
        (17) The wicked.–This is a most unfortunate rendering. The true translation is, the wicked shall return, as in LXX. and Vulg. (not “be turned”) to the grave, i.e., to dust, according to the doom in Genesis 3:19, or to the unseen world, as in Job 30:23; Psalm 90:1-3; or the verbs may be imperative, as in LXX. and Vulg., let them return. The verse is closely connected with the previous one. The wicked are bringing about their own destruction, and so witnessing to the righteous judgment of Jehovah. There is an intensity about the original word, lisheolah, with its double sign of direction, “right down to the world of death.” And all.–Better, the heathen all, forgetters of God.

        Pulpit Commentary
        Verse 17. – The wicked shall be tamed into hell; literally, shall be turned backwards to Sheol, or Hades; i.e. shall be removed from earth to the place of departed spirits. There is no direct threat of retribution or punishment, beyond the peens damni, or loss of all that is pleasing and delightful in this life. And all the nations that forget God; rather, even all the people (Kay). “The wicked” and “the people that forget God” are identical.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. Psalm 9 v 17:
    King James Bible

    The wicked shall be turned into hell, and all the nations that forget God.

    The text says what it says, i.e. that there is a special placement of the wicked in to sheol. Not the common destiny.

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    • Except that’s literally not what the text says or what it means.

      Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges
      17. R.V. rightly:

      The wicked shall return to Sheol,

      Even all the nations that forget God.

      Sheol is not hell as the place of torment. What is meant is that the career of the wicked in this world will be cut short by the judgement of God. Cp. Psalm 55:15, Psalm 63:9. But why ‘return?’ Man must ‘return’ unto the ground from which he was taken, to the dust of which he was made, to his elementary atoms (Genesis 3:19; Psalm 104:29; Psalm 90:3). A still closer parallel is to be found in the words of Job (Job 30:23) ‘unto death wilt thou make me return.’ Cp. too Job 1:21. The shadowy existence in Sheol to which man passes at death is comparable to the state of non-existence out of which he was called at birth. “From the great deep to the great deep he goes.” There Job will have no more enjoyment of life, there ‘the wicked’ will have no more power for evil.

      that forget God] Cp. Psalm 50:22; Job 8:13, for the phrase, and Psalm 10:4 for the thought. Observe that it is God, not Jehovah; the nations could not know Him in His character of the God of revelation, but even to them “he left not himself without witness” (Acts 14:17), but manifested to them what they could know concerning Himself (Romans 1:18-23). Deliberate wickedness, especially as shewn in antagonism to God’s chosen people, implied a culpable forgetfulness of God.

      17, 18. Stanza of Yod. Confident anticipation for the future, arising naturally out of the contemplation of Jehovah’s recent judgement.

      If you want to interpret the the word sheol like that fine. whatever makes you feel better. But using it to support your arguments is ignorant at best and deceitful at worst.

      Liked by 2 people

  7. That’s what the text says as it stands without your twisting of it.

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    • @Erasmus

      The KJV is a Christianised spin on the Hebrew Bible. It is a very poor translation by modern academic standards.

      The fact is the word “Sheol” (Hebrew) does not refer to a place of punishment like the common Christian understanding of “hell” does. Rather, it refers to the land of the dead, the grave, where everyone goes – not because they’ve been bad, but because they’re dead.

      As Vaqas Rehman said:

      If you want to interpret the the word sheol like that fine. whatever makes you feel better. But using it to support your arguments is ignorant at best and deceitful at worst.

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      • This is a rather odd line of argument. There was no description of heaven and hell as known today because this idea developed at a later stage in history. Rallying scholars who use the historical critical method under your banner, does not help your position. Such scholars would claim that the Quran had no independent information on the matter.

        https://ehrmanblog.org/more-on-the-discovery-of-ancient-quran-fragments/

        The fact that later scribes accurately copied the Qur’an has no bearing on the question of whether the author(s) of the Qur’an had accurate information when they composed the book. With respect to Jesus, they would have had no independent information – only what they had learned from earlier Christians and Christian sources. (He/They were writing over 450 years after the Gospels of the New Testament!)

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      • I’m not a Christian, but the KJV is a very good translation. It is more literal than almost all modern translations,excluding the ASV and maybe 1 or 2 others. It definitely has its faults, but it’s certainly not ‘poor’..

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      • In my view it was good in its day, but is one of very worst Bible translations available by modern standards. We have much earlier manuscripts today and a good translation like the NRSV tries not to Christianise the Jewish Bible. The KJV is best avoided by serious students.

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  8. ‘Where is the teaching about the Hereafter to be found in today’s Torah? Nowhere. This means it was either removed or lost or forgotten –’ Or it was never there.

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  9. Not sure I’m replying to the right post. I have to figure this out… Paul, you’re wrong about the KJV…Even Alter thinks the KJV is a very good. Btw, NRSV is a ‘Christian’ translation… National Council of the Churches of Christ was the publisher! I don’t wanna spend too much time on this, as Eric Kisam has written the worst articles on here..by far! it’s great how there’s no moderation here. I have to get to Speakers Corner sometime and see everyone…..

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