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The Dovekeepers and the World to Come

February 2, 2013

This is from another negative review of The Dovekeepers which got me thinking,

I had several issues with the book, but probably the biggest was this–the tragedy at Masada is one of the most dramatic tales in all of history. There was no need to add witchcraft and fantastic elements. It’s clear that Ms. Hoffman did a ton of research, and I don’t expect that ancient Jews were just like contemporary ones, but I didn’t even recognize the people she was writing about as Jews. They were like some kind of weird, superstitious pagans. And this is coming from a woman with absolutely no religious faith–but apparently I have strong feelings of connection to my Jewish history. And I felt she took tremendous liberties with a story that shouldn’t have been altered out of respect. I was kind of offended.

For instance, the Jewish faith doesn’t tend to dwell on any kind of afterlife. It’s a vague concept at best. We focus on this life. However, Hoffman uses the phrase “world-to-come” 44 times in this novel! These people are obsessed with the afterlife. And there are plentiful references to ghosts, demons, magic, spells, witches, etc. I realize there is mysticism in Judaism–real Kabbalah, not the nonsense practiced by Christian celebrities–but it’s a tiny part of the religion. And yet it seems to be all Alice Hoffman is able to write about.

I have already suggested that one read Gideon Bohak on Ancient Jewish Magic, if you have the same reaction as this reviewer to the element of magic in the novel. Regarding the “world-to-come,” there is so much written about the afterlife in Judaism that it is hard to know where to begin.

So, instead, I offer a passage which was one of the first that I ever read in Hellenistic Greek. I was still in my teens, and had no awareness that there were English translations of the Septuagint. I didn’t even know that these books existed. Under Pietersma, we read through the Maccabees and many other texts, and he had the delight of knowing that we were coming with minds untrammelled by any English translation. That, of course, is hardly possible today, with the NETS online.

But I still remember vividly, as if it were yesterday, reading and slowly comprehending this horrendous story from 2 Maccabees 7,

and he ordered that the tongue of their spokesman be cut out and that they scalp him and cut off his hands and feet, while the rest of the brothers and the mother looked on. 5When he was utterly helpless, the king ordered them to take him to the fire, still breathing, and to fry him in a pan. The smoke from the frying-pan spread widely,

I had been somewhat sheltered, and up to this point, had possibly seen one or two movies and no TV, read Victorian novels only, and so on, when this story of torture and annihilation unfolded in my mind as I read it in Greek.

And a few verses lower down, here are the texts, in Greek, and in English, which still stand among the first Jewish references to the afterlife. Surely, after this, one could hardly imagine the inhabitants of Masada not focusing on an afterlife.

7 μεταλλάξαντος δὲ τοῦ πρώτου τὸν τρόπον τοῦτον, τὸν δεύτερον ἦγον ἐπὶ τὸν ἐμπαιγμὸν καὶ τὸ τῆς κεφαλῆς δέρμα σὺν ταῖς θριξὶ περισύραντες ἐπηρώτων· εἰ φάγεσαι πρὸ τοῦ τιμωρηθῆναι τὸ σῶμα κατὰ μέλος; 8 ὁ δὲ ἀποκριθεὶς τῇ πατρίῳ φωνῇ εἶπεν· οὐχί· διόπερ καὶ οὗτος τὴν ἑξῆς ἔλαβε βάσανον ὡς ὁ πρῶτος. 9 ἐν ἐσχάτῃ δὲ πνοῇ γενόμενος εἶπε· σὺ μὲν ἀλάστωρ ἐκ τοῦ παρόντος ἡμᾶς ζῆν ἀπολύεις, ὁ δὲ τοῦ κόσμου βασιλεὺς ἀποθανόντας ἡμᾶς ὑπὲρ τῶν αὐτοῦ νόμων εἰς αἰώνιον ἀναβίωσιν ζωῆς ἡμᾶς ἀναστήσει.

After the first brother had died in this way, they brought forward the second for their sport. They tore off the skin of his head with the hair and asked him, “Will you eat rather than have your body punished limb by limb?” 8He replied in his ancestral language and said to them, “No.” There- fore he in turn underwent tortures as the first had done. 9And when he was at his last breath, he said, “You accursed wretch, you dismiss us from this present life, but the King of the universe will raise us up to an everlasting renewal of life, because we have died for his laws.”

13 καὶ τούτου δὲ μεταλλάξαντος, τὸν τέταρτον ὡσαύτως ἐβασάνιζον αἰκιζόμενοι. 14 καὶ γενόμενος πρὸς τὸ τελευτᾶν οὕτως ἔφη· αἱρετὸν μεταλλάσσοντα ὑπ᾿ ἀνθρώπων τὰς ὑπὸ τοῦ Θεοῦ προσδοκᾶν ἐλπίδας πάλιν ἀναστήσεσθαι ὑπ᾿ αὐτοῦ· σοὶ μὲν γὰρ ἀνάστασις εἰς ζωὴν οὐκ ἔσται.

After he too had died, they maltreated and tortured the fourth in the same way. 14When he was near death, he said, “It is desirable that those who die at the hands of human beings should cherish the hope God gives of being raised again by him. But for you there will be no resurrection to life!”

20 ὑπεραγόντως δὲ ἡ μήτηρ θαυμαστὴ καὶ μνήμης ἀγαθῆς ἀξία, ἥτις ἀπολλυμένους υἱοὺς ἑπτὰ συνορῶσα μιᾶς ὑπὸ καιρὸν ἡμέρας εὐψύχως ἔφερε διὰ τὰς ἐπὶ Κύριον ἐλπίδας. 21 ἕκαστον δὲ αὐτῶν παρεκάλει τῇ πατρίῳ φωνῇ γενναίῳ πεπληρωμένη φρονήματι καὶ τὸν θῆλυν λογισμὸν ἄρσενι θυμῷ διεγείρασα, λέγουσα πρὸς αὐτούς· 22 οὐκ οἶδ᾿ ὅπως εἰς τὴν ἐμὴν ἐφάνητε κοιλίαν, οὐδὲ ἐγὼ τὸ πνεῦμα καὶ τὴν ζωὴν ὑμῖν ἐχαρισάμην, καὶ τὴν ἑκάστου στοιχείωσιν οὐκ ἐγὼ διερρύθμισα. 23 τοιγαροῦν ὁ τοῦ κόσμου κτίστης, ὁ πλάσας ἀνθρώπου γένεσιν καὶ πάντων ἐξευρὼν γένεσιν καὶ τὸ πνεῦμα καὶ τὴν ζωὴν ὑμῖν πάλιν ἀποδώσει μετ᾿ ἐλέους, ὡς νῦν ὑπερορᾶται ἑαυτοὺς διὰ τοὺς αὐτοῦ νόμους.

20 The mother was especially admirable and worthy of honorable memory. Although she saw her seven sons perish within the course of a single day, she bore it with good courage because of her hope in the Lord. 21She encouraged each of them in their ancestral language. Filled with a noble spirit, she reinforced her woman’s reasoning with a man’s courage and said to them, 22“I do not know how you came into being in my womb. It was not I who gave you life and breath, nor I who set in order the elements within each of you. 23Therefore the Creator of the world, who shaped the origin of man and devised the origin of all things, will in his mercy give life and breath back to you again, since you now forget yourselves for the sake of his laws.”

While this was written in Greek, and is not the origin of the expression “world-to-come”, it does establish that a belief in the afterlife existed among at least some Jews, in the 2nd century BCE. The Hebrew expression Olam Ha-Ba, “world-to-come” dates back to the Mishnah, texts collected and recorded not long after Masada.

So often we imagine the belief in eternal life to be exclusively Christian. We don’t know the history of ideas, because we stay in one track. We think that “all Christians believe” such and such, and “all Jews believe” some other such and such. In fact, all Christians do believe in an afterlife, but this was a belief inherited from an early Jewish belief. And the reason why we think of it as an exclusively Christian belief is because Jewish belief is not so univalent, so one-tracked, but multiple views on the afterlife have come in and out of popularity in different Jewish communities at different times.

10 Comments leave one →
  1. February 2, 2013 10:51 pm

    Well, it is also more complicated to relate to Jews in Roman Palestine because at the time, there were many more types of Judaism. In the wake of the destruction of the Temple (and the defeat of Bar Kochba revolt), Rabbinic Judaism took over. Rabbinic literature labeled many types of magical beliefs as heterodox (which was exactly the point you were making in your previous post.) During the medieval period (especially under the influence of Maimonides), there was even a greater attempt to repress these magical beliefs. Finally, in the aftermath of the Sabbatai Zevi (a false messiah who propounded a magical-mystical system), these beliefs were viewed not only as heterodox, but as dangerous heresy.

    However, anyone who says “Gesundheit” (the custom of saying it was largely transmitted through Yiddish) or wears a red string on the wrist (Hi Madonna — I mean “Esther”!) or who worries about “the evil eye” is arguably influenced by magical beliefs related to Judaism.

    However, you are absolutely correct in your statement about the diversity of beliefs within Judaism, and your example is an excellent one — arguably beliefs in an “afterlife” or “world to come” are much more diverse in Judaism than one might suspect.

  2. Suzanne McCarthy permalink*
    February 3, 2013 1:27 am

    I hadn’t thought of it that way. So not only Christianity but also Judaism lost its diversity in the first few centuries CE. However, judaism retained its dialectic, more so than Christianity. But here is Rushkoff’s comments,

    “In your book you talk about “Open Source” Judaism. Could you define that and explain how it would work?”

    “Well, Judaism used to work this way. That’s what made it so modern. But I’m talking about the religion of the 1st and 2nd century Greece, which was so much more enlightened and modern than our current form of Judaism. Non-Jews used to line up around the block to get into the Beit Midrash, house of study, because religion was debated into existence in real life.

    Open Source software, like Linux, is software that is developed by a community of users. Its codes are kept open and accessible, so that anyone can make changes to improve it. Then we all can benefit from these improvements. It stands in stark contrast to the software of, say, Microsoft, which is delivered and must be used as it is.

    Judaism was intended as an open-source religion, to which all practitioners could have access. The texts themselves are amended and improved. Even the opinions of people who are ‘rejected’ are kept in the record. Judaism is a religion negotiated, not a religion “believed.” It is a process. This could occur around a table, as it did in the old days — where anyone who had a bar mitzvah and proved they could read the text was allowed to participate in the discussion. We remake the religion, constantly. Religion is a process of evolution. This was the essential Jewish difference. They left behind the dead, sacred religion of Egypt, and built a religion dedicated to life — not just staying alive, but keeping the religion alive rather than stuck in one moment.”

  3. February 3, 2013 12:29 pm

    It is my amateur impression that the diversity of Judaism today may be greater than the diversity of Christianity. (What does that mean? Consider the following thought experiment: collect 100 “random” Jews and 100 “random” Christians, and see how diverse their religious beliefs are.)

    But setting that aside, it seems that many believe that Christianity requires explicit belief in a large amount of metaphysical assertions — thus the complicated systematic theologies that many Christians (not just Protestants!) cling too. Deviating too far from the prescribed forms of thought may be heresy — a thought crime.

    That may exist in some types of Judaism, but by and large, I think Judaism’s sense of right and wrong revolves around actions in this world. Thus, for example, Nachmanides made a famous statement during the Barcelona Disputation that he was not required to believe in the aggadah of stories in Talmud at all — his only obligation was to keep the commandments.

    I sometimes hear Evangelicals referring negatively to legalism (which I sometimes understand as a veiled insult to Catholicism or Judaism). But it seems to me that in the case of Judaism, at least, that if Evangelicalism has few commandments, it has complicated systems of policing thought.

    As an example of what I mean, I’d like to point to the instance of Michael Pahl, who was dismissed from his teaching job because although he believed in a historical Adam and Eve, he did so for “theological” rather than “exegetical” grounds. From the news report:

    Less than a year after Cedarville University hired theologian Michael Pahl, administrators relieved the associate professor of his teaching duties.

    The issue at stake? A historical Adam and Eve, a debate that dates back to Augustine and has recently cropped up at evangelical schools such as Calvin College and Reformed Theological Seminary. But what appears new in Cedarville’s situation is the trustees’ requirement that faculty hold particular beliefs for particular reasons.

    Pahl affirms the Ohio school’s doctrinal statement (recently augmented by trustees via theological white papers) regarding human origins, but his beliefs are based on a literary reading of Genesis 1 and 2.

    “I hold to a historical Adam and Eve, though not on exegetical grounds,” Pahl wrote in his defense to trustees, which CT obtained. “My reasons are more theological in nature….” Later, when explaining his take on Paul’s use of Adam and Genesis, Pahl stated, “Once again we are in an area of academic freedom as the doctrinal statement does not mandate specific exegesis of specific biblical passages.”

    Yet Cedarville administrators concluded that the theologian “is unable to concur fully with each and every position” of its doctrinal stance, according to an official statement they released with Pahl.

    “It doesn’t make sense,” said Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga. “It does damage to a college atmosphere to pretend there’s no sensible diversity of opinion among Christians.”

  4. Suzanne McCarthy permalink*
    February 3, 2013 2:56 pm

    Yes, this case was very disturbing for me. It took me right back to where I came from. So cruel!

    So – yes, I do believe that there is more diversity in Judaism than in Christianity. However, there are still times and circumstances, as you mention, in which diversity is shut down or reduced – for both Judaism and Christianity. There is still the potential for restriction and silencing in Judaism, as in Christianity. How else to explain what happened to Spinoza?

    But the difference is not that there is a lack of breadth of different positions in Christianity – there is quite a spectrum – but rather the quality of argument. And here is where Judaism has more to offer intellectually.

    For example, in Jacob Neusner’s Modes of Thought of Rabbinic Judaism vol. 2 page 80 (or thereabouts) on he outlines the difference between dialectic and non-dialectic argument. He demonstrates both from the Talmud. Non-dialectic may have thesis, antithesis and synthesis; but in dialectic thought, the antithesis becomes the new thesis and the argument moves in a spiral direction or out in many directions at once.

    So, if one is discussing something that can be solved by direct observation, then non-dialectic argument leads to conclusions. It works for that. But in the realm of social and religious argumentation, the dialectic, the thinking itself is the argument. This is what I always missed in Christianity. Where is the room to move? And, of course, what happened to Michael Pahl demonstrates the inherent cruelty of this kind of belief.

    As Neusner points out there are both dialectic and non-dialectic arguments in the Talmud. And I would add that dialectic does not seem to exist within the Christian tradition. Please correct me if I am wrong but Christianity seems to be confined to proposition, evidence, analysis and conclusion. Deadly.

  5. February 3, 2013 3:19 pm

    Spinoza’s case is a complicated one, in that it is hard to know whether he was looking for a way out or was pushed out against his will. Some biographers say he was looking for a way out of his dead-end family business responsibilities.

    Note that he could have joined any other synagogue if he had wished (the excommunication is only particular to the Amsterdam Sephardic synagogue.)

    It was also back in 1656. How many prominent excommunications (or Protestant equivalents) have happened among Christians since 1656?

  6. Suzanne McCarthy permalink*
    February 3, 2013 3:37 pm

    Good points about Spinoza. There are excommunications and letters of reproof all the time in evangelical protestantism. In the liberal Anglican church, however, excommunication is unknown.

    At the same time, I do know that in some Jewish communities there can be unbearable pressures to conform, either for profession or marriage, or women’s gender roles or whatever. Basic human nature means that these kinds of constraints are universal.

    Nonetheless, there is a different quality to argumentation in Judaism, and I am wondering how Christianity missed out on this.

    PS Neusner is in google books.

  7. February 4, 2013 2:17 pm

    I’m enjoying the conversation between you two, Suzanne and Theophrastus. Probably others reading here are too.

    Mainly because of time constraints, I’ll resist offering my opinions about the sharp general essentializations you’re finding between christianities (i.e., more focused on thought / belief / dogma / doctrine / theology / and more homogenized) and judaisms (i.e., tending to value action / behavior / practice / culture / exegesis / and more diverse).

    What I’d like to comment on now more are your respective statements here: (1) “among the first Jewish references to the afterlife” / “While this was written in Greek, and is not the origin of the expression ‘world-to-come’, it does establish that a belief in the afterlife existed among at least some Jews, in the 2nd century BCE.” and (2) “about the diversity of beliefs within Judaism, and your example is an excellent one — arguably beliefs in an ‘afterlife’ or ‘world to come’ are much more diverse in Judaism than one might suspect.”

    This notion of the afterlife, in Greek, in Greece, among all of the mythologies there seems not very coherent or well-constructed either. What I find fascinating in Μακκαβαίων Β’ is the emphasis on a physical body coming back to life from death; there is the grand notion of αἰώνιον ἀναβίωσιν ζωῆς ἡμᾶς ἀναστήσει (or life eternal), but there’s the hope, very practical and immediate, of the earthy and earthly bodily physical resurrection: ἐλπίδας πάλιν ἀναστήσεσθαι ὑπ᾿ αὐτοῦ· σοὶ μὲν γὰρ ἀνάστασις εἰς ζωὴν. But how consistently Greek is that sort of thing?

    One little piece of evidence of this sort of thing seeming just fantastic to Greeks comes from the pseudo-Aristotle, writing the treatise that came to be known as “De mirabilibus auscultationibus” and in English “On Marvellous Things Heard.” This “Aristotle” tells the tale of the cave where a drunk person supposedly dead (ὡς νεκρὸν) was buried in a tomb for 3 or 4 days before he suddenly resurrected (ἐξαίφνης ἀναστῆναι). The writer explains it as an apparent legend (φαίνεται μυθωδέστερον). So his general readership is not at all expecting the story really to be believable. And the story gives as fact the very natural explanation of why this fellow was taken for dead in the first place. I guess I’m wondering whether the first readers of 2 Maccabees were reading it as all fact and as believable, credible history that was to impact theological doctrines. // Here’s where you can find this legend of supposed resurrection in the Loeb Classical Library online:

  8. Suzanne McCarthy permalink*
    February 7, 2013 12:56 am

    Thanks, Kurk. I don’t know enough about the early development of a belief in resurrection but this is an interesting passage that you link to.


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