Resurrection, Hell and the Afterlife

Body and Soul in Antiquity, Judaism and Early Christianity

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Mark Finney
  • New York, NY: 
    , March
     212 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In Resurrection, Hell and the Afterlife: Body and Soul in Antiquity, Judaism and Early Christianity, Mark T. Finney aims to reevaluate several prominent scholarly views on the development of conceptions of the afterlife in early Judaism and Christianity. He argues that most ancient Israelites and Second Temple Jews believed in the eternal existence of a nonmaterial soul, whereas most Greeks believed in the possibility of a bodily resurrection. The early Jesus movement (in particular, Paul and Mark) was concerned with the postmortem continuation of the soul, independent of the body. It was later writers (beginning in earnest with Luke) who instituted the Christian doctrine of bodily resurrection.

After an introduction, chapter 1 discusses conceptions of the afterlife in Greco-Roman antiquity. Finney provides a helpful survey of ancient sources, including Homer, Plato, Virgil, Plutarch, and the stoics, making the case that despite the influence of Platonism in Western intellectual history, many ancient Greco-Roman writings articulate belief in the possibility of bodily resurrection and place a higher value on the flesh than is often assumed. A significant portion of the chapter details the work of Dag Øistein Endsjø.

In chapter 2, Finney argues that the Hebrew Bible affirms belief in the postmortem persistence of a non-physical “soul” (ψυχή), what he calls “the essence of man” (25). He explains that the language of [bodily] resurrection was “conceptually inconceivable” (37) for ancient Israelites, who believed that all souls descended to Sheol as shades after death. Finney discusses several texts that are often seen as anticipating later Jewish and Christian beliefs in bodily resurrection, including 1 Samuel 2 and 28, Isaiah 26, Daniel 1, and Ezekiel 37. There are several confusing points in these sections, which are complicated by the fact that Finney’s preferred language for engaging with the Hebrew Bible is Greek—a decision that is never explained. This chapter (as well as chapters 3 and 4) would have benefited greatly from engagement with a wider range of scholars who disagree with Finney, including those who articulate gradual and evolving models for resurrection belief in early Judaism (for example, Jon D. Levenson).

Chapter 3 argues that Second Temple Jewish texts maintain a consistent belief in the immortal soul as articulated in the Hebrew Bible, in contrast to many scholars who see this as the period when resurrection belief becomes clearer. Finney detects a growing belief in the just separation of souls—the wicked to torment and the righteous to paradise. Finney rightfully recognizes that some commentators have overstated the prevalence of belief in bodily resurrection in this period, and thus sometimes overstep in their efforts to find Jewish texts that describe it. Still, Finney may go too far himself when he states that there are “no texts up to and beyond the first Jewish war which speak unambiguously of the resurrection of the physical body” (69).

Chapter 4 discusses the Dead Sea Scrolls and early Rabbinic literature. Finney argues that the scrolls affirm the Second Temple Jewish belief in different destinations for righteous and wicked souls, whereas early rabbinic literature (including texts from the Mishnah, Talmud, Targum Jonathan, and others) shows “differing emphases of a number of afterlife scenarios” (86). This chapter is less detailed than the others, and contains some errors regarding the historical framing of its sources—for instance, “the writings of the great rabbis, Hillel and Shammai” (92).

In chapters 5, 6, and 7 Finney seeks to show how the influences of the previous literature played out in the New Testament and early Christianity. It begins with Paul, who, Finney argues, believed in the immortal soul but was insufficiently intelligent to make this point clearly to his Greek audience (100–101). Because early Christian communities were concerned with visionary experiences, the focus was on Christ’s raised soul and not on his body. Luke-Acts and other later parts of the New Testament rerouted Paul’s confusing message into a belief in bodily resurrection. The first six centuries of Christianity saw diversifying beliefs in the afterlife, as well as further development of the idea of eternal punishment for the wicked. For brevity’s sake, these chapters focus on texts that explicitly concern the metaphysics of postmortem existence, but this sometimes adds confusion, as Finney does not always take into account the wider eschatological systems of which these beliefs are a part. Additionally, Finney’s most conspicuous interlocutor here and throughout is N. T. Wright, with whom he sharply contrasts himself but with whom, nevertheless, he falls into some of the same conceptual traps (see below).

Chapter 8 is a reprise of previously discussed literature, concentrating on the evolution of Christian belief in hell. The conclusion calls for a reassessment of the social and emotional damage that such beliefs have caused in history.

Overall, Finney’s work is to be praised for its scope and ambition. It is refreshing to encounter a biblical studies monograph that attempts to do­ so much with such brevity and accessibility to non-specialists. Unfortunately, Finney’s argument is hobbled by insufficient attention to recent and more nuanced scholarship that disagrees with his thesis, particularly on texts originally written in Hebrew or Aramaic. Additionally, Finney’s criteria for what constitutes a description of bodily resurrection versus that of an eternal soul are often exceedingly strict and, at times, he must flatten the ambiguity or complexity of his sources in order to make them fit into the categories he (and others) have constructed.

Similar to Jewish and Christian communities today, beliefs about the afterlife in antiquity were likely diverse, evolving, and inconsistent. Finney’s tendency is to territorialize these ideas—sorting each text into one of just two models, each accessible only to one culture or another. Statements such as “For the Greeks, the gods had physical attributes to the extent that they could have sex with humans, or be hurt or wounded; for the Jews however this was anathema: God was spirit” (179) needlessly essentialize and create artificial boundaries of authenticity around national and cultural identities that may have been more fluid in antiquity than modern scholars might like to believe.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Reed Carlson is a doctoral candidate in Religious Studies at Harvard University.

Date of Review: 
September 6, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Mark Finney is Lecturer in Religion in the Department of History at the University of Sheffield. My recent publications include, Honour and Conflict in the Ancient World (T&T Clark, 2012). My research interests include: concepts of afterlife in Jewish and Christian traditions and conflict and violence in the Abrahamic faiths.


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