Old Testament

You may have been taught that the Hebrew Bible, Old Testament, and Jewish Bible are all the same thing, but there are two important ways in which distinctions can be drawn. The more objective distinction is the number and versions of books included. The Hebrew Bible, Jewish Bible, and Protestant Old Testament refer to the same basic books (not necessarily in the same order). The Catholic Old Testament has more books (and some longer versions of books) going back to the early Church using a collection of books in Greek that was more inclusive than the books revered in Rabbinic Judaism. The Ethiopic Old Testament has even more books, including 1 Enoch and Jubilees.

The subtle distinction is that each term implies a way of reading the books. The term "Hebrew Bible" was invented by modern scholars in an effort to signal religious neutrality and objectivity in approaching the collection. The term "Old Testament" implies a Christian perspective, in relationship to the New Testament. For purposes of dividing the readings into two parts we will separate the books included in the Hebrew Bible and Jewish Bible from the books preserved only by Christians as the Old Testament.

Sirach 39:9-11 and 41:3-13

Chapter 39 is fascinating on many levels, but the part relevant to eschatology is what it says about the fate of the righteous sage:

Many will praise his understanding;
    his name can never be blotted out;
Unfading will be his memory,
    through all generations his name will live;
Peoples will speak of his wisdom,
    and the assembly will declare his praise.
While he lives he is one out of a thousand,
    and when he dies he leaves a good name.

We’re pretty sure Ben Sira wrote between 198 and 175 BCE. By then an informed person was surely aware of the idea that the afterlife might be more than just your reputation living on. Even for the most special people, Ben Sira excludes such a possibility.

The theme resumes for everyone else in chapter 41. Ben Sira continues the traditional view of Sheol as the great equalizer (Whether one has lived a thousand years, a hundred, or ten, in Sheol there are no arguments about life). He is clearly aware of arguments about the afterlife, and bolsters the idea of a reputation as being comparable to the aftelife in functioning as retribution. He doesn’t assert that the wicked dead are conscious to know about it, but they die a miserable death knowing that their reputation and family will continue in disgrace (on their offspring will be perpetual disgrace... when you die, you become a curse). Though not exactly torment in the sense of hell, that is not a pleasant thought. Conversely, the righteous die a happy death surrounded by loved ones, knowing that their legacy will continue (The good things of life last a number of days, but a good name, for days without number). I think this is about as developed a non-supernatural view of the afterlife can get. In modern times there are parallels in the story of Alfred Nobel, monuments, and naming buildings after people.

Wisdom of Solomon 1-5

Chapter 2 claims that those who do not believe in the afterlife have no reason to be moral and therefore are immoral. I find this argument troubling, not just because it is unfair to the Epicureans whom the author was criticizing, but because I hear the same argument made today, and no more fairly, against atheists. Like most of the Hebrew Bible, Epicureans and most atheists believe one should be good for its own sake, for the common good, and for consequences in this life. I believe good theology must proceed without mischaracterizing the beliefs of others.

While the author clearly rejects Epicurean philosophy, he clearly loves Platonic and Stoic philosophy. The problem is that those ideas, or any real idea of an afterlife, it not really found in the Jewish scriptures. Enter biblical interpretation... the art of making scriptures say more than they say. There are a couple of arguments here based on interpretation of Genesis 1 and 3.

These were their [the Epicureans’] thoughts [there is no afterlife], but they erred;
    for their wickedness blinded them,
And they did not know the hidden counsels of God;
    neither did they count on a recompense for holiness
    nor discern the innocent souls’ reward.
For God formed us to be imperishable;
    the image of his own nature he made us.
But by the envy of the devil, death entered the world,
    and they who are allied with him experience it.

First, notice the claim that there are hidden counsels in scripture, to be unhidden by biblical interpretation. For the original authors of Genesis, humans were not created immortal. Perhaps we had the choice between immortality (life) and wisdom, and chose wisdom, but that is not to say we were created immortal. According to the Wisdom of Solomon, humans were created in the image of God (Gen 1:26) means we were created in the nature of God (not physical form because God has no physical form, human or otherwise). The nature of God is immortality, so we were created as immortal souls. Death was unintended by God but a consequence of the devil’s meddling (usually interpreted as the serpent in the Garden of Eden). Souls only die if they are allied with the devil. The souls of the righteous do not die. (And bodies are irrelevant.)

Chapter 3-5 will sound like familiar, especially if you have been to a Catholic funeral, but look for the differences.

The Wisdom of Solomon is slightly earlier than the New Testament. The parallels are significant.

Martyrdom in 1 Maccabees 2:27-42 and 2 Maccabees 6:12—7:42

Theology of martyrdom really begins in the days of Antiochus Epiphanes and develops extensively in early Christianity. Martyrdom explores the boundary of what is more sacred than life. Martyrdom relates to the present course in that martyrs are held as authorities on the afterlife. Sometimes their convictions are simply asserted. Sometimes it is suggested that on the eve or moment of death martyrs see into the next life and report back to the living. Few people experience death and report back to the living, but martyrs essentially do. What fascinates me most about these passages is how diverse understandings stand side by side.

1 Maccabees 2:27-42

The narrator and Mattathias take the “no-martyrdom” position that self-preservation is more important than pious observance. The pro-martyrdom position is not fully explained. The “heaven and earth are our witnesses” argument could simply mean “everyone will know what a bunch of jerks you are.” It could also mean that God will respond to the injustice with divine intervention. Thus, the martyrs might have seen themselves as catalysts for divine action. Elsewhere at least, this view of human agency becomes popular.

2 Maccabees 6:12—7:42

Eleazar’s logic is remarkably non-supernatural. He places the common good over his own life, and prefers an honorable death to a shameful life, but does not imagine supernatural reward for himself (6:26 vaguely suggests the possibility of punishment of the dead).

There is some variation in the claims of the mother and seven sons. One clear articulation is the resurrection of the body in physical form and eternal life in the body. The punishment of the wicked is variously articulated as the absence of resurrection, and torment for oneself and descendents (presumably in life). 7:38 is also an example of vicarious suffering (which is central to the reflection of Jesus’ followers on the significance of his death). It also seems indirectly relevant to the idea of intercession—the idea that the righteous dead can ask God to be merciful to the living (or later dead).