Friday, October 9, 2009

Jewish Afterlife, Antiochene School

1. Robert M. Seltzer, Jewish People, Jewish Thought: The Jewish Experience in History (New York: MacMillan, 1980) 308-309.

Here are some rabbinic thoughts on the afterlife, particularly who goes to Paradise and who goes to Gehinna (hell).

According to Rava, a man led in for judgment is interrogated thus: Was he honest, did he fulfill the duty of procreation, did he study Torah regularly and search carefully for wisdom, did he continue to hope for the messianic salvation of his people—or, at the least, was his life infused by proper fear of God? (B.T. Shabbat 31a). One must face God with awe, humility, and apprehension: All one’s deeds will be weighed in the balance. But God will be compassionate. The Talmud ascribes the following prayer to God himself: “May it be my will that my mercy may suppress my anger, that my mercy will prevail over my [other] attributes, so that I may deal with my children according to the attribute of mercy, and, on their behalf, stop short of the limit of strict justice” (…B.T. Berakhot 7a). According to Mishnah Sanhedrin 10:1, “All Israel has a share in the World to Come,” some Jewish sinners being excluded and the righteous Gentiles being included. (In Tosefta San XIII:2, R. Joshua holds that there are gentiles who merit paradise, a position that becomes the norm in Jewish theology.)

…The thoroughly righteous will go immediately to Paradise and the thoroughly wicked to Gehinnom. What of the “intermediate?” According to an aggadah, the School of Shammai taught that they will be sent to Gehinnom to be punished and then rise to Paradise; the School of Hillel taught that God will incline the scales toward mercy and at once inscribe them for eternal life (B.T. Rosh Hoshanah 16b-17a). Almost no one is assigned to the fires of Gehinnom forever (only those who had completely repudiated their loyalty to the faith of Israel, according to one view). Most of the wicked are punished for twelve months and then annihilated (B.T. Rosh Hoshanah 19a). One midrash taught that the inhabitants of Gehinnom are relieved of suffering on the Sabbath (Gen. R. 11:5). Another opinion is that there is no real Gehinnom because sinners will be immediately destroyed on Judgment Day by unshielded radiation of the sun or by a fire breaking out on their bodies (Gen. R. VI:6).

In rabbinic Judaism, Paradise is known by the same name as the earthly Eden where Adam and Eve first lived. It is said to be a “topsy-turvy” world where the lower class enjoys higher status than the upper class and where martyrs have a special place of honor (B.T. Baba Batra 10b, Pesahim 50a). Talmudic folklore describes the wondrous banquet to be held from the meat of the Leviathan and from wine preserved since the six days of creation (B.T. Baba Batra 74a-75a and Berakhot Berakhot “>34b). But it was a favorite saying of Rav’s: “Not like This World is the World to Come. In the World to Come there is neither eating nor drinking, no procreation of children nor business transactions, no envy or hatred or rivalry. The righteous sit enthroned, their crowns on their heads, and enjoy the radiance of the Shekhinah” (B.T. Berakhot 17a). In the perpetual Sabbath of that spiritual existence, everyone will enjoy the highest pleasure imaginable to the rabbis: to study the mysteries of Torah with God himself (B.T. Hagigah 14a).

The salvation by procreation part somewhat scares me, but there are many aspects of this picture that I like: God praying that he might lean in the direction of mercy, implying perhaps that he wrestles with anger like many of us (only his anger is consistently righteous); annihilation of the wicked rather than eternal torment; a hell that’s temporary; God easing the pain of those in hell (a concept I also encountered in George MacDonald); basking in the light of God’s glory in the World to Come; the World to Come being a time of continuous learning and Bible study, of uncovering the numerous layers that are within the Bible.

At the same time, the picture is not as inclusive at it may initially appear. The Gentiles who will enter the good afterlife are those who remember God and obey the command against idolatry (Tosefta Sanhedrin 13:2 on Psalm 9:17; B.T. Megillah 13a). That excludes most Gentiles in the time of the rabbis. Nowadays, some Reform rabbis claim that righteous Gentiles are those who do good, regardless of what they might believe. Maybe their assumption is that simply being righteous is remembering God on some level, whether or not one understands everything about God.

Those who repudiate the faith of Israel are also excluded from the World to Come. This may be why there are Orthodox Jews who argue that Jews who convert to Christianity or Messianic Judaism are on their way to hell.

2. Sten Hidal, “Exegesis of the Old Testament in the Antiochene School with its Prevalent Literal and Historical Method,” Hebrew Bible, Old Testament: The History of Interpretation I/1: Antiquity, ed. Magne Saebo (1996) 552.

The School of Antioch believed in a literal method of biblical interpretation. Rather than interpreting the Hebrew Bible solely in light of Christ, it sought to root the biblical writings in their historical-contexts, or what they claimed to be such. And so they interpreted Psalms in light of David, Hezekiah, or the Maccabees. If a Psalm about Hezekiah was said to be by David, that didn’t trouble the Antiochenes, for they affirmed that David was looking into the future, saw the time of Hezekiah, and wrote a Psalm that would be appropriate for his (Hezekiah’s) situation. Psalm 22, which Jesus actually applies to himself on the cross, was said by some Antiochenes to relate both to David and to Jesus, since not all of the Psalm fits Jesus that well. They believed that David was a type of Christ in that (like Christ) David suffered before God exalted him, but they tried to respect the Psalm’s status within the history of David, since that was its original context and frame of reference. Antiochenes applied a few writings specifically to Christ, however, since one of them relates Psalm 44(45) to Christ rather than to Solomon (the Jewish interpretation), for this Psalm calls the king “God” and affirms that he rules forever (v 7a). So the Antiochenes tended to emphasize a historical-literal-contextual approach to Scripture rather than one that ignored, downplayed, or was unaware of that level of meaning because of a desire to favor a Christological interpretation.

Here’s a quote about Theodore of Mopsuestia, an Antiochene who lived in the fourth century C.E.:

…In the case of Zechariah 9, one can observe how Theodore by no means is opposed to a Messianic interpretation, provided that the [historical sense] first is duly recognized. Some interpreters, he says, will have the first part of the passage apply to Zerubbabel and the second part to Christ, but this is utmost folly…The Scripture, however, often speaks hyperbolically of such things as will be fulfilled by Christ, who is the truth in his person.

For some reason, my computer isn’t pasting Zechariah 9:9-10, but the passage basically states that the king will humbly enter Jerusalem riding on a donkey, and that he will rule the earth. Some interpreters applied the first part to Zerubbabel, who was a leader of post-exilic Israel for a while, while they related the part about ruling the world to Christ, since Zerubabbel didn’t do that. Theodore doesn’t go with that interpretation, for he asserts that the part about ruling the world was hyperbole about Zerubbabel, yet Christ fulfilled it.

I’ve struggled with this issue before: the prophets often talk as if Paradise is right around the corner, in their own historical context. Yet, we know that was not to be, for Paradise is still non-existent over a thousand years after the prophets wrote. I can sympathize with Theodore’s desire to root the prophecy in its historical context, since that is when God gave it: he was speaking to the people who lived in that time. But I’m not entirely clear what Theodore does with the prophecies that describe a king ruling over a world of righteousness and peace. Was God getting their hopes up, only not to deliver?

Could God have been telling them about the far-off future to give them insight into his long-range plans? That would have given them hope that their nation would survive whatever dangers they were enduring at the time, and that God’s purposes would ultimately prevail. Perhaps that’s one theological approach. But the “end-time” nations that the prophets mention are nations from their own time and place: Assyria, Babylon, etc. Subsequent generations would see those nations as codes for other nations that would later come on the scene.

When I read the prophets, I often wonder if their prophecies were ever fulfilled in history. Many of the Christian commentators I read on E-Sword (John Gill, Matthew Henry, Keil-Delitzsch, Adam Clarke) follow the footsteps of the Antiochenes and apply certain prophecies to the Maccabbean era: the prophets say that Israel will subdue Edom, and that happened when the Maccabbees defeated the Idumeans and converted them to Judaism. There was a time when I took that sort of historicizing approach: Various chapters of Isaiah (e.g., Isaiah 19) describe the Assyrians worshipping God, and Ezra 6:22 states that God moved the King of Assyria to assist Israel in the reconstruction of the temple. Can we find the fulfillment of the prophecies in the past? And perhaps God doesn’t fulfill everything all at once but spreads his fulfillments out throughout history, allowing prophecies to have a future fulfillment. Hidal says that the Antiochenes had a good grasp of history. Maybe they’d be a good source to consult to see if God fulfilled certain prophecies in the past.

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