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Sadducees and the Afterlife

January 6th, 2009 · Posted by Hugo · 17 Comments

In my previous post on Hope, I talked about what I consider to be arrogance, when people think they know what’s best for others whose context they have no experience of (in the section “Thoughts about Destroyers”), in an attempt to promote understanding of the fact that where humans find hope, and how much they need, is very much dependent on the situation they find themselves in.

Related to that line of thinking, below is an extract from Marcus J. Borg and John Dominic Crossan’s The Last Week. This extract discusses how the contexts of the Sadducees influenced their beliefs with regards to an afterlife.

Mark tells us in 12:18–27 that some Sadducees come to Jesus. The Sadducees were part of the aristocracy. Wealthy and powerful, they included high-priestly families as well as lay nobility. As a group, they overlap but are not identical to the “chief priests, elders, and scribes” who have been central to Tuesday’s stories thus far.

Their religious convictions differed in two significant ways from those of most of their Jewish Contemporaries. First, they accepted only the “law” (“the five books of Moses,” also called the Torah or Pentateuch) as sacred scripture, whereas most Jews also saw “the prophets” as sacred. Their nonacceptance of the prophets reflected their position in society, for the books of the prophets emphasize God’s justice over against the human injustice of social systems dominated by the wealthy and powerful.

Second, as Mark’s story tells us, the Sadducees did not believe in an afterlife. That is, in Jewish terms, they did not believe there would be a resurrection of the dead. Within Judaism, the belief in a life after death was a relatively recent development. It emerged some two centuries earlier with the martyrdom of faithful Jews who resisted the Hellenistic emperor Antiochus Epiphanes IV. Its purpose was to redress human injustice: Jews who were faithful to God were being executed, and Jews who were willing to collaborate with Antiochus were being spared. Thus belief in a resurrection was a way of defending God’s justice: the martyrs would receive a blessed afterlife. By the time of Jesus, a majority of Jews (including deeply committed groups like the Pharisees and Essenes) affirmed a life after death. So apparently did Jesus, even though life after death was not the focus of his message.

But the Sadducees did not. Their privileged place in society meant that they had little or no awareness of any serious injustice that needed to be rectified. As one of our graduate school professors put it, “If you’re rich and powerful, who needs an afterlife?”

This extract comes from a section discussing a question posed by the Sadducees, and Jesus’ response to it. It’s context in the book is to provide context to help understand the Sadducees’ motivations with their question (in particular “their purpose is obviously not a desire for information about what the afterlife will be like”). I’m obviously sharing it in a slightly different context. ;-) For now I’ll let the extract speak for itself, I’ll share my thoughts on the matter in the third post of this little three-post series.

Categories: Worldviews
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17 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Hugo // Jan 6, 2009 at 1:20 am

    I typed out this extract while writing the previous post, as a part of the previous post, but pulled it out to keep the posts shorter. And it wasn’t so directly relevant, so splitting things up a bit makes sense to me.

    Similarly I’ve cut a commentary paragraph I was writing out of this post, and am keeping it for inclusion in the next post I’ve planned. Sometimes it’s interesting to see some discussions before sharing all of my own thoughts. ;) And it keeps posts shorter, which I think is good?

  • 2 Die piesangverkoper // Jan 7, 2009 at 6:57 am

    Inderdaad fassinerende geskiedenis. Maar vertel nou die gemiddelde Bybelleser dat die Jode voor die tyd van Antiogus Epifanus nie in die hiernamaals geglo het nie, dan kry jy net ‘n blank stare. Interessant genoeg is daar in baie Psalms, wat vroeër geskryf is, ook die idee dat die dood iets verskriklik is en dat die Sjeol net verveling en misery inhou, selfs vir die regverdiges. ‘n Paar eeue later skryf die Jood Paulus egter “om te sterwe is vir my wins”. So iets drasties het obviously verander in die interrum. Soos jy reg uitwys, is dit die Makkabese opstand.

  • 3 miller // Jan 7, 2009 at 7:31 am

    Incidentally, Greta Christina independently started talking about the exact same topic! Hope, that is, not so much about the Sadduccees. :)

    My comment: a social explanation of why first century Jews did or didn’t believe in the afterlife is not quite the same as a logical justification, or a moral justification. But it is still thought-worthy.

  • 4 Hugo // Jan 7, 2009 at 11:23 pm

    @miller: Oh wow! A synchronicity! Clearly it *means* something! (Yea, like, that humans love marvelling over patterns they are able to recognise/create in otherwise random daily things. ;) )

    Nice post by Greta Christina. The thought that posts like that brings to my mind, is “what do you call a religion without a belief in an afterlife?” Because yea, in contemporary culture, that seems to be so much about what it is about. But yea, with religion and politics separated, where goes the political message of Jesus? (But yes, with the “religious beliefs” that come with it, the separation is surely “for the best”.) Babbling. I’m babbling again.

    Some thoughts, “more on the point” maybe, maybe not:

    Written by Die piesangverkoper (dude, gee jy om as ek bietjie jou naam rondmeng? ek noem jou soms stuff soos die piesangvanger in my kop):

    Fascinating history. But tell the average Bible reader that the Jews, prior to … , didn’t believe in the here-after, and you just get blank stares. He goes on to describe how much has changed between some psalms, and Paul (“to die, for me, is gain”).

    What’s useful about this knowledge, for me: an understanding of the history and something to talk about, another way of understanding the Bible while “taking it very seriously”, and provides material for more “objective, factual” (as factual as history gets) things to share on it.

    A theme on this blog: I certainly err on the side of caution. Another theme on this blog: I practise what I preach… Or rather, I practise, and don’t mean to preach, if what I practise is good, so be it. Meaning: this blog isn’t about preaching “apologetics” — this post isn’t about justifying morally or logically. While this blog targets a diverse audience, it most certainly has a significant focus in targeting fundamentalists. Of all sorts, but picture a post like this read by a particular kind of fundamentalist. I nearly always picture that while I write my posts, a fundamentalist sitting in the audience.

    What might seem at first glance to some atheists to be apologetics on my blog, seems like something very, very different to the Biblical literalist-fundamentalist. Always keep that in mind. Especially this upcoming year.

    Just thought I’d mention that somewhere. Though I do realise it is likely that I’ll be accused of illogical justifications, or incorrect moral justifications.

    BTW, miller, thanks for the kinds words over on the friendly atheist. ;) What I love about your comments e.g. here, is that they warn about directions that might be taken, i.e. with an explicit awareness that while that would be bad, that’s not where we’re at. Currently. Thanks for that! I hope you continue to find the blog interesting through the new adventures we’ll hopefully be having here.

  • 5 Hugo // Jan 8, 2009 at 1:40 am

    Ah, I forgot! Die Piesangverkoper, what would you recommend, where can I find more juicy bits of information like this?

    As if I don’t have more than enough to keep me too busy to do anything useful. So maybe it’s best that I stop collecting more info and start building something interesting myself.

    Tick tock, tick tock. My blog’s second anniversary is just around the corner.

  • 6 Die piesangverkoper // Jan 8, 2009 at 7:01 am

    Karen Armstrong is die eerste stop – maar ek vermoed jy was al daar. Bart Ehrman. Die standaardwerk is egter Collins se Introduction to the Hebrew Bible – as jy daar deur is, weet jy alles.

  • 7 Hugo // Jan 9, 2009 at 1:45 am

    Thanks! Nope, haven’t actually checked Karen Armstrong yet, but it is “high on my list”. Sigh. Bart Ehrman has appeared on my radar enough times.

    Now I know you like Spong, and he’s also someone I’d like to read, but I’ve also heard him described as “a little too angry”. (Yea, that’s good, but also limits usefulness in certain cases.) Is Bart Ehrman anything like that? A Bart interview Ben’Jammin recently shared with me gave me quite some respect for the way Bart thinks.

  • 8 Hugo // Jan 9, 2009 at 1:49 am

    Eh, my Word-Fu is weak! “Appeared on my radar enough times” -> to have significant upward mobility on my list. ;) (Though I’m hoping it was clear enough in the comment, that unexplained sentence just looked terrible, i.e. too easily mistaken with “I’ve had enough, not interested.”)

  • 9 Hugo // Jan 9, 2009 at 2:19 am

    Ah, um, I shouldn’t talk about Spong and Bart Ehrman in the same sentence, methinks. Spong is still a theologian / retired Bishop. Bart is a deconvert, an agnostic. I’ve miniblogged this in the past:

    Bart Ehrman’s God’s Problem « de-conversion with the eyebrow raising comment: A review of a Bart Ehrman book about suffering. Sounds like something I could add to my wishlist, even though Bart doesn’t fall into my currently preferred genre of authors (those that could be called “liberal Christian Bible scholars”).

    Hrmph. Gives me the creeps when I read myself expressing it like that. I don’t want to have “a preferred genre”! Grrr. And what’s the point of prioritising “next book”‘s when I have “current books” to read, piling about 7 deep…

  • 10 Die piesangverkoper // Jan 9, 2009 at 10:23 am

    Ehrman is baie rustig.

    Ek trek my hare uit as mense Spong “angry” noem. Dis daai narrow mindedness – hier is ‘n ou wat anders dink, so hy moet seker kwaad wees, daar moet ‘n emosionele knak wees want niemand kan tog rasioneel by sulke blasfemiese gevolgtrekkings uitkom nie.

  • 11 Hugo // Jan 9, 2009 at 11:41 am

    ;-) As ek reg onthou, was dit was iemand met ‘n teologiese inslag. Hy was nie aan die stry met Spong nie, dink ek, klink my net mense hou daarvan as ander minder reguit praat… Ja, dis asof mense nie van eerlikheid hou nie, te brutal, te “angry”? :-P Die stelling wat ek onthou was dan meer van ‘n “ek hou van my teoloeë baie sag en versigtig” as wat dit ‘n “kwaai teoloeë werk nie vir my so goed nie”.

  • 12 Heidi // Jan 21, 2009 at 12:03 pm

    What is your take on Matthew Parris and his opinion that what Africa needs most, is Christianity? (Yes, even more than money).

    His article is here: http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/columnists/matthew_parris/article5400568.ece

    (Miskien meer relevant tot jou Hope post…)

  • 13 Hugo // Jan 22, 2009 at 12:53 am

    That’s been really high up on my to-blog list, it has featured in my miniblog. Let me throw it out now, also to break this long silence on my blog. Though Friday I have to write a specific time-bound post anyway.

    I’ll turn it into two posts though, I first want some discussion before I dig into some of the criticisms I’ve picked up elsewhere.

  • 14 Hugo // Jan 22, 2009 at 2:39 am

    FYI: too late now. Received another page, I’m exhausted. I’ll postpone the Parris post until later. Planned schedule: Friday, friday’s post. Next two, uncertain of order: either a third in the “hope series” or the Parris one. Then another on the Parris article. Not sure how long it will take to get these published, hopefully relatively quick.

    Then back to The List, interleaving with this year’s “chapter” as possible. etc etc. Lemme fall silent now and go to bed.

  • 15 More on the Afterlife Belief // Feb 1, 2009 at 3:51 am

    [...] post was promised as a follow-up to Sadducees and the Afterlife. That makes this the third post in a series of three, the first was [...]

  • 16 Jesus Christ // Mar 26, 2013 at 8:36 pm

    http://thesop.org/story/letters/2009/07/30/the-real-story-about-the-bible-and-evolution.php

  • 17 Jesus Christ // Mar 26, 2013 at 8:45 pm

    There is no life after death and there is no heaven or hell for us. When you die you will sleep for eternity and your body will eventually go back to the dust. So you are better off if you get cremated like I am. It’s cheaper. From ashes to ashes and dust to dust your body goes back to the earth from which it came. Jesus told people that death was nothing but sleep. That’s why it’s called the eternal resting place. RIP

    Please don’t bury me down in the cold cold ground,
    I’d rather have them cut me up and pass me all around,
    Throw my brain in a hurrican and the blind can have my eyes,
    Send my mouth way down south and kiss my ass good bye.

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