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I was going over some old lecture notes from Christine Hayes - Introduction to the Old Testament recently. I noticed in Lecture 2 she makes this claim:

No life after death in the Bible either [referring to the Old Testament]. Did you know that? Have to wait a few centuries for that idea to come along, but certainly not in the Hebrew Bible: people live 70 years and that's it

[From the Lecture 2 transcript]

I would think even from a secular critical perspective that is a bold claim. So then...

How do those who argue the Hebrew Bible does not have a concept of the afterlife support that claim?

Texts in question:

In the New Testament one of the key differences between the Sadducees and the Pharisees is that the former do not believe in the resurrection of the dead (Mark 12:18). To suggest that the Pharisees arrived at their understanding of the resurrection of the dead without the Old Testament seems unlikely. So to me this is the first clue that the Hebrews had a concept of the afterlife in the OT scriptures.

Secondly a surface level reading of the following tests seems to indicate there was a conception of life after death in the Old Testament such as Isaiah 26:19, Dan 12:1-3, Psalm 49 and more.

Psalm 49 for example seems to express the idea that the wicked will not live on after death but the righteous will:

But God will redeem me from the realm of the dead; he will surely take me to himself.

Do not be overawed when others grow rich, when the splendor of their houses increases;

for they will take nothing with them when they die, their splendor will not descend with them.

Isaiah 26:19

But your dead will live, Lord; their bodies will rise— let those who dwell in the dust wake up and shout for joy— your dew is like the dew of the morning; the earth will give birth to her dead.

Daniel 12:1-3

[...] Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt [...]

[More passages can be found in this article]

A surface level reading of those texts would seem to show that the Jewish people had at least some conception and expectation of life after death, even if it isn't the same as the New Testament constructs. I'm very interested to know what proponents of "no afterlife in the OT" would make of them.

I have to assume at this point that Christine Hayes simply made a mistake in this instance. But I would be interested to know if an argument could be mounted to support her claim.

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Introduction

I take it this is a question about the nature of the evidence relating to "life after death" in the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament; hereafter "HB"), and the scholarly interpretation of that evidence. OP is looking for arguments in support of Christine Hayes' claim in the online lecture as cited:

[Hayes:] No life after death in the Bible either ... Have to wait a few centuries for that idea to come along, but certainly not in the Hebrew Bible... [@ 24:53 of the lecture]

Aside: It's worth noting that Hayes at this point is explaining Yehezkel Kaufmann's perception of the God of the Hebrew Bible: that is, this is not a discussion of "anthropology", but of "theology". As such, there is a bit of polemical edge in Hayes's discussion, intended (it seems to me) to distance the HB's presentation of deity from other competitors, whether from the ANE or the Greco-Roman world. Thus she goes on to remark: "So there's no process by which humans become gods and certainly no process of the reverse as well."

There may well be "positive" evidence for this "negative" claim -- that is, texts which demonstrate that the HB portrays human life as finite, and that death is the end, i.e., texts showing (+) that there is no (-) "life after death". Such may well be found in passages such as Psalm 115:17 -

The dead do not praise the LORD,
Nor do any who go down into silence; [NASB]

with the statement that cessation of life is cessation of praise meaning that there is no consciousness (i.e., no trace of "life") beyond death. The prayer of Hezekiah -- after being on the brink of death and begging to be healed -- brings together the same combination (see Isaiah 38:18; cf. also Psalm 6:6, and others...).

But to address the negative position comprehensively would mean not only bringing forward evidence to show that "death is the end", but also exclude any possible evidence pointing to the opposite, that there is a conception of "life after death" in the HB. This answer (somewhat perversely, given OP's phrasing) will argue that Hayes is mistaken, and that the HB does contain traces of a belief in life after death.

Nota bene. What follows below will draw heavily on the important article by John Day, “The Development of Belief in Life after Death in Ancient Israel”, in After the Exile: Essays in Honour of Rex Mason, ed. by John Barton and D.J. Reimer (Mercer University Press, 1996), pp. 231-257. Unfortunately, it seems not to be available in any online version; those interested should track it down in a local academic library.

Defining Terms

Although it may seem odd, it is important to clarify just what is meant by "life after death" (on these distinctions, see in particular Wright, Resurrection, in the "Further Reading" at the end of this answer):

  1. some ongoing, "conscious" post-mortem existence (i.e., physically "dead", but in some ?ethereal? state, still aware);
  2. coming back to bodily life after being dead, but to complete a natural life, again to die (e.g. as in the story of Elisha and the Shunammite’s son in 2 Kings 4:34-37);
  3. some embodied, conscious existence = "life", but after having physically died -- so "life after death after life", in Wright's fuller phrasing.
  4. (Bonus!) Related to these in some sense is "immortality", but it's the odd one out, since no death at all is involved.

These may be glossed as "post-mortem consciousness" (#1), "resuscitation" (#2), and "resurrection" (#3). And I take it that Hayes has in mind something like a combination of ## 1 and 3, with the emphasis falling on #3.

Given different understandings of the nature of human existence (body, spirit, soul, etc.), these concepts may exist in different combinations.

Sheol

Given that discussion of terminology, some lines of discussion recede. For example, the HB seems to have two different conceptions of "Sheol", the place of the dead. (1) Those in Sheol have simply ceased: their "existence" (they are in Sheol, after all!) is a non-existence, as in Ecclesiastes 9:5 -

For the living know they will die; but the dead do not know anything, nor have they any longer a reward, for their memory is forgotten.

Cf. also Eccl. 9:6 and v. 10; also Ps 103:15-16, and Job 7:7-10, and ch. 14 which reflects on the condition of the dead in Sheol.

(2) Other passages, however, seem to suggest that the dead in Sheol have some awareness, or perhaps even enhanced powers of knowledge beyond the grave. Such is the logic that lies behind the practice of necromancy, the most prominent example in the HB being Saul's consultation with a medium at Endor, immediately preceding his death in battle (see 1 Samuel 28 for the story). Cf. also the macabre survey of Sheol in Ezekiel's Egypt oracles, Ezekiel 32:17-32, noting v. 21.

It is largely texts of category (1) that would provide "positive" evidence for the "no afterlife" view of the HB. On the other hand, one could argue that the presence of texts in the second category, and others like them, suggest at least that the HB knows of a post-mortem existence in line with "definition #1" as described above. This still stops well short of the main "life after death after life" definition (#3, above), and we go on to consider that theme now.

Main Biblical Evidence

There are only a few texts that are regarded as central evidence for the presence of a belief in the afterlife in the HB (now understood in terms akin to definition #3, above). A couple were noted by OP in the question posed. The three noted below are often linked by scholars discussing this question, and typically in this sort of fashion (this is not a comprehensive discussion, but is sufficiently inclusive for the purposes of this Q&A):

  1. Daniel 12:2 is certainly the most important of these texts:

    Many of those who sleep in the dust of the ground will awake, these to everlasting life, but the others to disgrace and everlasting contempt.

    In spite of minor differences over translation, John Day ("Development", p. 240) writes:

    So far as the Old Testament is concerned, the one passage that everyone is agreed reflects a literal belief in bodily resurrection after death is Dan 12:2...

    Two issues regarding Daniel 12:2 need comment. One is dating. Most biblical scholars date the passage to the period of the persecution of the Jews by Antiochus IV Epiphanes, "ca. 165 B.C.E.", as Day does. This places it firmly in the Hellenistic period. Traditional dating puts the book of Daniel much earlier, in the 6th C BCE, in the Persian period. Clearly there is scope for disagreement, then, about the chronology of the development of this belief. What remains unassailable, however, is that we have here a "smoking gun" in terms of the presence in the Hebrew Bible of a text articulating belief in life after death (i.e., contrary to the quote from Christine Hayes which prompted this Q&A).

    The other issue Dan 12:2 raises is the one that concerns us here. If we (and "everyone" else, as Day has it) are correct in regarding it as evidence for belief in bodily resurrection, then ... where did it come from? Are there other texts in the HB which might participate in a trajectory towards Daniel 12:2?

  2. Isaiah 26:19. In reflecting on this question, John Day writes ("Development", p. 242):

    Everything suggests that Daniel's use of the [resurrection] imagery shows dependence on the book of Isaiah, which it reinterprets.

    There is a network of Isaianic texts involved, but the clearest one is Isa 26:19 -

    Your dead will live;
    Their corpses will rise.
    You who lie in the dust, awake and shout for joy,
    For your dew is as the dew of the dawn,
    And the earth will give birth to the departed spirits.

    Here the situation is the obverse from that of Daniel 12:2, that is, the dating is agreed as Persian (5th C. BCE) (although, again, there is a traditional date which precedes this scholarly consensus by a couple centuries or so), but consensus is lacking as to whether this is actually about a "literal afterlife or whether it simply employs a metaphor for restoration after exile, as in Ezekiel 37" (Day, "Development", p. 243).

  3. Hosea 13:14 This is the final text that I will note. Many see this as having a literary relationship with Isaiah 26:19 -

    Shall I ransom them from the power of Sheol?
    Shall I redeem them from death?
    O Death, where are your thorns?
    O Sheol, where is your sting?
    Compassion will be hidden from My sight.

    It will be familiar to some readers as the text quoted by the apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:55. Day has argued at length elsewhere ("A Case of Inner Scriptural Interpretation...", Journal of Theological Studies 31.2 (1980): 309-19) that Isaiah 26:19 is dependent on the Hosea 13:14 text. Although several English versions imply that Hos 13:14 represents God's denial of restoration to Israel ("Shall I...?", implying, "No, I won't!"), Day notes that all ancient versions understood it positively ("I shall ransom...", as do a few modern versions; cf. the NET Bible translation note on the options here), so there's no reason why it should not have been understood this way in antiquity (and good reason why it would have been so understood), thus in keeping with the sense of Isaiah 26:19.

Summary

Day continues to probe back behind the imagery of Hosea in the 8th C., towards Canaanite Baal cult imagery. Here, he is in territory which Mitchell Dahood explored in his (somewhat idiosyncratic) 3-volume Psalms commentary for the Anchor Bible. (Cf. the critique by Bruce Vawter, "Intimations of Immortality and the Old Testament", Journal of Biblical Literature 91 (1972): 158-171.)

Nevertheless, in answer to OP's question, it would seem that Christine Hayes is mistaken in the claim that "life after death" is "absent" from the Hebrew Bible. It is, to be fair, on the late margins of its development, as restoration imagery used metaphorically of exile came to be used literally of the human person -- but it is not "absent".


Further Reading (select!)

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  • Thanks for the answer. I can certainly now begin to see how someone like Hayes or whoever she is referencing could arrive at the conclusion. I will check out some of those references too. – L0ckz0r Sep 18 '16 at 23:14
  • Ezekiel 37 would sort of sum up your description in the summary, would it not? The initial vision is certainly allegorical imagery(1-11), but then the promises become more concrete (v12-14). And finally a definite prophecy in reality for Israel is given (v15-28). – Joshua Sep 19 '16 at 14:08
  • @Joshua - Yes, Ezekiel 37 is definitely in this matrix (it gets a very brief mention in passing above). As I understand it, Ezek 37 doesn't participate in the literary lineage of Dan 12:2, though, which is the main reason why I omitted it from the passages discussed in the "Main Biblical Evidence" section. If you were inclined to add some discussion of it as an additional answer, I'm sure that would add value to the Q&A. – Dɑvïd Sep 19 '16 at 14:40

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