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, http://www.borders.com, or http://www.christianbook.com.
immortality, immunity to death, endless existence. Two Greek words express the idea of immortality. One (athanasia) is translated literally as deathlessness (1 Cor. 15:53); the other (aphtharsia) as imperishability (Rom. 2:7). It is significant that the only passages in the Greek version of the Jewish Bible that contain these words are in writings originally composed in Greek, the Wisdom of Solomon and the fourth book of the Maccabees. The notion of immortality is a Hellenistic idea. The Hebrews accepted death as a limit ordained by God (Gen. 3:19). Blessedness consisted in a peaceful death at an old age and in having posterity to carry on in ones place (Gen. 15).
Certain elements, however, in the Jewish Bible press beyond the notion of death as a limit. For example, the song of Hannah proclaims, The Lord kills and brings to life; he brings down to Sheol and raises up (1 Sam. 2:6). Bringing to life probably refers to conception and birth rather than to raising from the dead. Bringing down to Sheol and raising up are probably not meant literally. These phrases are images for experiences of catastrophe and well being, respectively. The vivid language of overcoming death in such ot passages, however, may have played a role in the later development of the idea of resurrection (see also Pss. 16:10-11; 49:15; 73:24).
The people of Israel and the Jews at a later time were familiar with myths in neighboring cultures of dying and rising gods, such as Baal and Osiris. These myths reflect the rhythms of night and day, summer and winter, dormancy and fertility. The Israelites did not conceive of God as dying and rising but apparently made use of these myths to understand their own destiny as a people (Hos. 6:1-3; Ezek. 37:1-14). This language about the people rising from death to life as a nation may have influenced the emergence of the notion of individual resurrection.
The idea of individual resurrection appears first in Dan. 12:2-3, written about 167 b.c. According to Daniel, many, but not all, people will rise from the dead. The wise will rise, not to bodily existence on earth, but to a new form of life, like the stars. Many ancients believed that the stars were divine beings. Resurrection in Daniel for the wise means a kind of angelic existence. The wicked will rise to shame and everlasting contempt.
In the Hellenistic and early Roman periods (325 b.c.-a.d. 325) some Jews held to the old idea of death as a limit (Ecclus. 30:4-6; 1 Macc. 2:49-70). Some looked forward to the resurrection (Pss. Sol. 3:16; 2 Macc. 7:9). Others believed in the immortality of the soul (Jub. 23:31; Wisd. of Sol. 3:1-4).
As Jesus is pictured in the Gospels, he shares the Hebrew notion of resurrection, rather than the notion of an immortal soul (e.g., John 11:23-25; cf. Mark 12:18-27). Indeed, the word immortal does not appear in the Gospels. In the Fourth Gospel, eternal life also describes the quality of life in the new age, rather than exclusively a future, unending life, since such eternal life can be enjoyed prior to death (e.g., 3:16).
In a few passages Paul appears to speak of a personal afterlife apart from and prior to resurrection (2 Cor. 5:1-15; Phil. 1:23). Resurrection is a more common image in his letters, however. Immortality for Paul is not the continuing existence of the soul apart from the body, but is rather the new heavenly existence of those who, clothed in spiritual bodies, share in Jesus resurrection in the new age (1 Cor. 15:42-50, 53-54).
Edited for BibleTexts.com by Robert Nguyen Cramer