The Glossary of Terms



Harper’s Bible Dictionary

edited by Paul J. Achtemier (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1985)

You are strongly recommended to add to your library the excellent revised edition of Harper's Bible Dictionary titled, The Harper Collins Bible Dictionary, Revised Edition [book review], edited by Paul J. Achtemeier, with the Society of Biblical Literature (NY: Harper Collins, 1996). It is currently the best one-volume Bible dictionary in English, and it is available at Border's Books, Christian Science Reading Rooms,, or

death, the end of physical and/or spiritual life. Ancient Israel’s official response to mortality was, first, to accept it as God’s original design and, second, to forbid worship that was concerned with the dead (Lev. 19:28; 20:1-11). Neighboring cultures believed that the dead lived on in the underworld in a communicative state (Deut. 18:9-14), but Israel’s theologians taught that they were, for practical purposes, nonexistent (Eccles. 9:5-6). Nonetheless, foreign ideas and practices continued (1 Sam. 28; Isa. 8:19).

Mortality must be distinguished from other concepts of death. Biologically, death is the end of every creature’s existence; God alone is immortal (Ps. 90:1-6). Metaphorically, ‘death’ is a value judgment upon those things that detract from life as the Creator intended it (1 Sam. 2:6-7). Mythologically, death is a power that acts independently (Job 18:13; Jer. 9:21).

The last usage is a rare vestige of polytheism, since orthodox religion denied the existence of more than one divine force. Thus death was reduced to a natural process and no Devil was acknowledged to exist. The second usage (metaphorical), contrasts ‘life’ with psychological, sociological, and spiritual ‘death,’ which holds the world in its grip. ‘Life’ was mediated through Israel’s sociology, ethics, and worship.

The first usage (biological) consists of narrative observations that so-and-so died. This reality did not lead to the belief that life was therefore meaningless. Nonetheless, a death that was premature (Isa. 38:1-12), or violent (1 Sam. 15:32), or that left no heir (2 Sam. 18:18) produced anxiety.

Death and the Divine Plan: Mortality, within the divine plan, is outlined in Gen. 2-3. The first humans rebelled against their Creator and were denied further access to the Tree of Life. Their status as creatures thus proceeded to its natural conclusion. This is the understanding of human destiny in the OT and Jewish literature. However, another reading of the text was to become evident in the intertestamental literature and the NT.Since death might have been delayed indefinitely through obedience, perhaps the intent was that the couple live forever! Death could then be understood as an evil intrusion into the divine plan.

This new understanding was suggested by several realities. First, internal conflict within the religious group and external persecution led to a new religious outlook (Apocalypticism). God’s assumed desire for a world like that at creation must produce a sudden transformation of the earth (Daniel)—perhaps a return to the paradise of Eden. Second, Greek culture introduced a new view of humans. In traditional biblical thought, death was total (there is no distinction between body and soul). In Greek thought, a ‘soul’ was thought to exist and to be detachable from the corpse. Thus the dead live on, somewhere, and to a Semite (though not to a Greek) they would be available for bodily reconstruction (resurrection). Bodily death, then, came to be seen a temporary evil. Third, if one’s lifespan could be shortened by sin (Prov. 10:21; 11:19; Job 36:13-14), could that also be the cause of mortality?

Therefore, in some of the intertestamental literature, mortality is decried as the creation of a ‘devil’ rather than as the Creator’s design (Wisd. of Sol. 1:12-13; 2:23-24).

In the NT : The NT writers accept this new perspective. Paul thus depicts death as an unintended fate unleashed as a consequence of primeval disobedience (Rom. 5:18-19). However, since death came about within history (rather than from the Creator’s design), it is subject to a historical solution: if sin can be overcome, mortality can be countered. This has been done through the appearance of a new ‘Adam’ (Christ) who empowers his followers, just as the old ‘Adam’ affected those who came after him (1 Cor. 15:45-49). His resurrection demonstrated that death has lost its power.

In the synoptic Gospels, little attention is given to mortality. It serves primarily as an incentive to obey Jesus while there is yet time (Matt. 3:1-10; Luke 12:16-20). In the Gospel of John, mortality is even less an issue. Rather, it is ‘death’ and ‘life’ in the metaphoric sense that are crucial. It is not so much that Jesus will return and the dead will be resurrected (as in Apocalypticism) as it is that Jesus is already present, mediating ‘eternal life’ (1:4; 3:36; 5:24).

The Bible’s final word on the matter is that of Apocalypticism: mortality and martyrdom, as the goal of Satan and his instrument Rome, will shortly come to an end. The paradise the Creator intended will then be restored and ‘death will be no more’ (Rev. 21:4).


All glossary terms
Edited for by Robert Nguyen Cramer
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