Life After Death
A History of the Afterlife in Western Religion
Alan F. Segal
(New York: Doubleday, 2004) 866 pp., $37.50 (hardcover)
The grand narrative of universal human experience unfolds with an eye toward that mysterious veil through which we all must pass. Cultures that experience time as recurring describe the interplay between life and death as a kind of eclipse in which certain aspects of reality are temporarily hidden. For cultures that sense time as something forward-moving and linear, the veil looms ahead like the curtained entrance to a mysterious carnival ride. But for both, the degree to which the veil is viewed as heavy or opaque—and the place beyond as terrible or beautiful—arises at the level of society, as one community interacts with others, and generates for itself a unique vision of the afterlife that in turn reflects and reinforces its self-identity. It is this social process, and the myriad projections of the afterlife that it has produced, that Professor Alan F. Segal effectively captures in Life After Death: A History of the Afterlife in Western Religion.
Segal is Professor of Religion and Ingeborg Rennert Professor of Jewish Studies at Barnard College of Columbia University, and one of the most prolific scholars of our time in the domain of early Judaism and Christianity. He is eminently qualified to take on this comprehensive study of the afterlife, based as it is on decades of research into the social and literary worlds of the Second Temple period (515 B.C.E. to 70 C.E.), the era when ancient images of the afterlife hybridized into the varieties familiar in the West today.
The earliest written conceptions of the afterlife find their roots in the ancient Near East, where they were fertilized by the great civilizations of Egypt and Mesopotamia. Egypt monumentalized its fascination for the life beyond, which was regarded as a rewarding journey through the heavens. In Mesopotamia, which peripherally includes Canaanite culture, and thus the early Israelites, death was the threshold to a shadowy netherworld, where one led a numbing existence.
Segal notes that while archaeological evidence suggests this latter view of the netherworld continued in Israel throughout the First Temple period (c. 958 to 586 B.C.E.), it is all but absent from the Bible. Segal suggests that the biblical writers deliberately refrained from mentioning the netherworld for fear that any explicit mention would encourage the adoption of the religious beliefs and practices of surrounding peoples. The biblical writers were so frightened of promoting idolatrous worship, they refused even to condemn the Canaanite cult of the dead, which they surely knew about. Segal admits that his is an argument from silence, but one would be hard put to come up with a more reasonable explanation for the paucity of First Temple period references to the afterlife.
All this changed in the Second Temple period, when a wealth of afterlife speculation arose, including Greek notions of the immortality of the soul and Persian convictions of a bodily resurrection. As the Greeks and Persians struggled for power, and the Israelites and other groups struggled to survive, the afterlife became a symbol of national revival. From this period come our first clear biblical references to an afterlife. These include Ezekiel’s vision of the dry bones, in which God tells the prophet that he will open the graves of the house of Israel, and bring the bones “up from [their] graves and back to the land of Israel” (Ezekiel 37:12) and Isaiah 24–27 (called the Isaianic Apocalypse), which 44concludes with a promise of return to Israel: “On that day a great trumpet will be blown, and those who were lost in the land of Assyria and those who were driven out to the land of Egypt will come and worship the Lord on the holy mountain at Jerusalem” (Isaiah 27:13). These beatific visions of an afterlife meaningfully mirrored contemporary life and helped reinforce one’s place in a tumultuous world. Each offered the assurance that God would intervene to vindicate the oppressed faithful. For, as Segal observes, “It is the afterlife that provides the answer to every unbalanced question. Every injustice can be righted there, every disability can be made whole, every individual, rich or poor, can find solace from personal trials and tribulations.”
According to Segal, nothing is more crucial to understanding Second Temple period visions of the afterlife than the background of Daniel 12: “At that time, Michael, the great prince, the protector of your people, shall arise. There shall be a time of anguish, such as has never occurred since nations first came into existence. But at that time, your people shall be delivered, everyone who is found written in the book. Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. Those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever” (Daniel 12:1–3).
The community that produced this material was likely a zealous but persecuted minority; Segal suggests it may have been the Hasidim (literally, “pious ones”) of 1 Maccabees 2, who were willing to endure martyrdom in light of their conviction that God would restore the faithful to a new and shining life. Segal also suggests a possible relationship between the community that produced Daniel 12 and the splinter community that produced and preserved the Dead Sea Scrolls. Like the Qumran community, the Daniel 12 group may have had some priestly influence, and they ran into conflict with the Maccabean dynasty. The possibility of a connection is intriguing, although one wishes for a bit more evidence.
Segal argues that the Qumran community “was founded as a rebellion of priests to the Maccabees’ usurpation of the high priesthood.” The literature produced at Qumran, including most notably the unique pesher model of biblical interpretation (which takes prophecy and applies it to the writer’s own time), reflects a community on the defensive, for the pesher method seeks to make sense of what the interpretive community often determines to be a senseless situation. One example of this is found in their correlation of apocalypticism and “angelomorphism”: Deprived by the Hasmoneans of their share in the Temple cult, the Qumran group established an alternative social world of meaning in which they could attain to angelic status and be vindicated by resurrection at the end of time.
The community that centered itself around the death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth was also an apocalyptic group that affirmed the promise of bodily resurrection. As this movement developed and ascended in status, it began to appropriate Greek notions of immortality of the soul, as seen in the Gospel of John (for example, John 17:2, in which Jesus speaks of having the authority to give 46eternal life), the letters of Paul (for example, 1 Corinthians 9:25, which speaks of “imperishable” rewards) and the pastoral epistles (for example, 2 Timothy 1:10; 1 Peter 1:4). According to Segal, this allowed the religion to adapt and further expand, but contributed to “competing trajectories” over the meaning of Jesus’ life; that is, it offered more options for thinking about the nature of Christ and his death and resurrection. All subsequent Christian discussion would seek to affirm bodily resurrection but do so in an inherently Hellenistic conceptual terminology.
Meanwhile, rabbinic Judaism was deriving its views of the afterlife from both its midrashic and mystical traditions. The descriptions of the afterlife welling up from these two traditions are rich and varied—ranging from bodily resurrection to heavenly assent; nowhere in Judaism does one find a dogmatic description of the afterlife.
Equally diverse in speculation about the afterlife, Islam processed the ideas it had inherited from Judaism and Christianity and applied them to their own understanding of Mohammed’s prophetic discourse. (The complexity that resulted should caution anyone who has yet to study Islam from assuming that he or she knows anything at all about its views on the afterlife, especially in light of our current preoccupation with Islamist extremism.)
Segal’s book will surely appeal to an educated general readership interested in the social history of ideas. Scholars, too, will appreciate his dense—nearly exhaustive—treatment, which will surely find no rival for many years to come. Others will find more than a few issues over which to quibble. The grand sweep of the work comes at an expense; a work of this scope leaves little opportunity to entertain other ideas in any detail. However, any criticism in this area would seem paltry in light of this extraordinary literary achievement.
In the end, Segal invites thoughtful reflection on the social processes that give rise to distinct but shared religious ideals, such as the astoundingly rich diversity in human speculation about the afterlife over the miles and millennia. He writes: “Either we must view the beliefs selectively, taking seriously only the one that appeals most to us, convert, and become true believers of that religion—any religion—or we must face the surety that all are, at best, but approximations of what may await us. Or, maybe nothingness awaits all of us.”
Life After DeathA History of the Afterlife in Western Religion