Our discussion has transferred from "Biblical Studies" to here and
has several components. I'll try to summarize them all here with
significant clarification of my "position". Hopefully, I've captured
the discussion well enough that we can use this post as a sort
of "new" reference point. Also, let me say that I do not wish to
engage in a win/loose debate. I'd rather hear vigorous viewpoints
that I can learn from, and I think that is exactly what we are doing,
and I appreciate it.
OK. Let's go back to the Midrash that I want to apply to the first
century. Here they are:
A. Midrash Genesis Rabbah 100.7 - "Bar Kappara taught: Until three
days [after death] the soul keeps on returning to the grave, thinking
that it will go back [into the body]; but when it sees that the
facial features have become disfigured, it departs and abandons it
[the body]. Thus it says, `But his flesh grieveth for him, and his
soul mourneth over him' (Job 14:22)"
B. Mishnah Yebamot 16:3 - "They derive testimony [concerning the
identity of a corpse] only from the appearance of the whole face with
only during a period of three days [after death]."
C. Midrash Leviticus Rabbah 18:1 - "For three days [after death] the
soul hovers over the body, intending to re-enter it, but as soon as
it sees its appearance change, it departs, as it is written, `When
his flesh that is on him is distorted, his soul will mourn over him.'
(Job 14:22) "
On closer examination, the references above actually do not express
the belief that I thought - "that the soul did not leave the corpse,
and the corpse did not start to decay, until AFTER three days from
death". More accurately, they express the belief that it took UP
THROUGH the end of the third day for the soul to leave the corpse and
for the flesh to DISFIGURE. In other words, the action of the soul
and DISFIGURATION of the flesh didn't always happen as soon as the
third day ended, it could have happened during the third day, or
during day 2, or day 1. But in any case, by the first microsecond of
the fourth day, the soul was gone and the flesh was disfigured -
ALWAYS. That's the belief I'm suggesting is present in the midrash
This clarification also makes better sense with what the Jews must
have seen in personal experience. Surely they must have noticed that
the flesh on corpses did not disfigure in all cases the moment that
the third day ended. Some probably disfigured during the third day,
on the second day, or on the first day after death. However, the
Palestinian climate probably capped the number of days that flesh
could remain undisfigured at three days, and this practical matter
helped create the belief mentioned in the previous paragraph.
The following describes the initial decay process of a human body
and, amazingly, it puts the time frame for initial decay in the first
three days after death, the same time frame expressed in Gen Rabbah!
yourself for the pictures):
Decomposition can be simplified in two stages: In the first stage,
human decomposition is limited to the production of vapors. In the
second stage of human decomposition, fluidic materials form and the
flesh begins to decompose
Decomposition begins at the moment of
death. At this stage it is caused by two factors: autolysis, the
breaking down of tissues by the body's own internal chemicals and
enzymes; and putrefaction, the breakdown of tissues by bacteria.
These processes release gases that are the chief source of the
characteristic odour of dead bodies. These gases swell the body
following sequence of events represents in considerable detail the
process of decomposition.
Time Frame: 0-3 days after death
36-48 Hours - The face and trunk begin to swell noticeably, taking on
the characteristic "bloated" appearance. The eyelids, lips, scrotum,
and other sites where skin is loosely attached may become
dramatically swollen and bloated.
60-72 Hours - The entire body has now changed color, and facial
features may become unrecognizable.
(End of decay reference)
First century Jews could not have missed observing these properties
of decaying corpses just mentioned. They would have concluded that
the facial features become disfigured (changed) no later than day 3
after death. They also would have noticed that the corpse always
started to stink before, or at the latest in conjunction with, the
flesh becoming disfigured. Note that the odor never starts AFTER the
flesh becomes disfigured. Additionally, because the odor of a corpse
increases as the flesh continues to disfigure (not noted above but if
not intuitivly obvious, it is noted in other references I looked at),
first century Jews probably put two and two together and concluded
that the odor from a corpse was the first indication of decay of the
First century Jews would also have observed the rare occurance of a
resuscitation after an incorrrectly presumed death. Resusciatations
are significant because if they occurred up through the third day
after death, this would be a case where the corpse did not disfigure
OR stink for three days. That resuscitations did occur up to three
days after death seems to be expressed in the concept of the "soul"
reentering the body up through day three (as in Gen Rab 100.7 and
Midrash Leviticus Rabbah 18:1).
So to capture where we are: My position is that these midrash
references reflect a belief that it took up through the end of the
third day after death for the soul to leave the corpse and for the
flesh to start decay. I'm guessing we can agree on that. Where I
think we disagree is that I think it's plausible to extrapolate these
midrash references to first century Jews, but you do not. I will now
address several areas of our discussion in this regard:
1. WRT your request that I show "acceptance by 1st century
Palestinian Jews of the Platonic anthropology presumed in Bar
Kappara's view [Genesis Rabbah 100.7] wherein a human being is
composed of a mortal body and a naturally immortal "soul" that is the
seat of personality, knowledge, and volition, and which inhabits a
body until it is released at death?"
From Tom Wright's "Resurrection of the Son of God" (Pg. 140 &
by the time of the first century AD all the many varieties
of Judaism were to a lesser or greater extent Hellenistic, including
those anchored firmly in the soil and cult of Palestine
The idea of a
soul separable from the body, with different theories as to what
might happen to it thereafter, was wide-spread in the varied Judaisms
of the turn of the eras".
I'll leave it to others much smarter than I to show that first
century Palestinian Jews (or even Bar Kappara) did or did not hold
the multiplicity of views about the soul down to every detail that
you require. But the words of N.T Wright are good enough for me to
conclude that 1] anybody who says that they know all the varied forms
of Jewish belief about the soul that existed in the first century is
either joking or kidding themselves, and 2] first century Jews were
wrestling with concepts of "soul" (however you want to define it),
and I don't see anything that would have kept them from saying the
same thing that Bar Kappara said 180 years later.
I don't see how you so easily dismiss the idea that first century
Palestine Jews believed in various concepts of the soul when even
N.T. Wright cannot dismiss this.
2. WRT the Hebrew term for "disfigure" in Genesis Rabbah 100.7:
The best I have been able to do thus far comes from Rabbi Scheinerman
of jewsforjudaism.org. He says:
"The word `disfigured': The root of the word is shin-nun-hey, but
not all those letters appear in the text in the grammatical form of
the word. It simply means `change.'"
The point of Gen Rab 100.7 is that it is when the flesh on the face
changes (disfigures, distorts, bloats, whatever you want to call it) -
that is when the soul leaves.
BTW, when I told him the reason for my query was "to help establish
the plausibility that some first century Jews believed that the soul
departed and the flesh decayed by the end of the third day after
death", Rabbi Scheinerman replied, "You are correct that they
believed that the soul departed shortly after death.
3. WRT your comment that "The statement in Gen. Rab. -- attributed
to one Bar Kappara -- is late, and we don't know if the attestation
is reliable. Something similar appears in Lev. Rab but curiously
there's no aligning of it with Bar Kappara."
I agree, we cannot know if the attestation is reliable. We don't
that it is unreliable either. We just don't know. Not sure the
significance of your Lev. Rab comment. Seems like the fact that Lev
Rab doesn't mention Bar Kappara makes it an independent source
confirmation that this belief existed.
4. WRT your comment that, "Even if the attribution is reliable,
the view expressed is still late: late second/ early third cent.
Let's call it 180 years after Jesus' death just to be the most
accurate (Bar Kappara 180-220CE). You are correct, it is late. My
point is not that Gen Rab 100.7 (and Lev Rab 18.1, and Mishnah
Yebamot 16:3) is DIRECT evidence of a first century Jewish belief.
My point is that is seems reasonable to conclude from this INDIRECT
evidence that such beliefs existed in the first century amongst
Jews. As mentioned before, this is not a new or radical idea as
evidenced in the study note of at least two bibles, which presumably
received extensive review and editing by scholars:
In the NIV (1995) notes for Jn 11:17 it says, "Many Jews believed
that the soul remained near the body for three days after death in
the hope of returning to it."
In the NRSV (1991) notes for Jn 11:39 it says, "popular belief
imagined that the soul lingered near the body for three days, then
What do you say to the scholars that made these notes?
5. WRT your comment that, "Bar Kappara was an advocate of Greek
language, philosophy, and the natural
sciences. So his views on the soul may be more influenced by Greek
thought than something which he inherited from Judaism and/or his
You are correct, Bar Kappara's comments MAY come from Greek thought
rather than something which he inherited from Judaism and/or his
earlier co-religionists. But it seems like it could just as well be
the other way around. First century Jews were using the Greek
language and were exposed to Greek philosophy and natural sciences.
They also had their own natural science observations of corpses. We
do not know where Bar Kappara got his information.
6. WRT your comment, "In all of the discussions about, or depictions
of, death and the afterlife in extant 1st century Palestinian Jewish
texts, there's not only nothing that even remotely approximates the
view of Bar Kappara (see J.R.Michaels, _John, 109), there's much that
I'm glad you clarified this and said in your next post, "Let's be
clear that I did not say Michaels contradicts the belief expressed in
GenRab. 100. I adduced Michaels as a Johannine commentator who noted
that such a belief is not attested in 1st century Palestinian
Judaism." I agree with your clarification and also want to note that
there is a HUGE difference between simply the absence of evidence,
and evidence that is contradictory.
There may indeed be no attestation in extant first century
Palestinian Jewish texts that expresses the Gen Rab 100.7 belief.
The only exception may be Jn 11:39 which I'll address below, but I
could be wrong. So if there are no extant first century texts that
support the Gen Rab belief, but none that contradict it, is it proper
methodology to conclude that it did not exist in the first century?
I'm not a biblical scholar, so this was one of the core questions I
was trying to ask folks (but few seem to want to take a stab at
answering). Seems to me it could have existed. Seems to me that
many scholars think it reasonable that it did (as noted by the NIV
and NRVS study notes mentioned above).
7. WRT to John 11:39:
First, you said that the Lazarus story is the story of a corpse that
has been PRESERVED from decay. You are in good company with N.T.
Wright in suggesting this. But I simply do not see how you or Wright
can conclude this at all. Wright outlines what to me seems the only
way he can reach his conclusion. He says with regard to Jesus'
thanks to God in Jn 11:41, "Presumably John wants us to understand
that there was no smell; Jesus knows his prayer, for Lazarus to
remain uncorrupt, has been answered." (The Resurrection of the Son of
God, pg. 443). But Wright has isolated a small part of a thankful
prayer of Jesus to arrive at the conclusion that Lazarus had never
started to decay. If you look at the whole quote by Jesus after the
stone to Lazarus' tomb is removed (Jn 11:41-42), and not just a
snippet (11:41) as Wright appears to have done, one notes that Jesus
concludes his verbal thanks to God with the words, "...I have said
this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may
believe THAT YOU SENT ME." (Jn 11:41-42). Jesus is giving thanks out
loud so that the crowd will know he is acting with the power of God,
not Satan, or as
some magician. He is not smelling the air, noting its freshness, and
therefore saying thanks. It is generous to say that whether or not
Lazarus' body decayed simply cannot be determined from the story.
One can assume it (as Wright has done), but there is no indication
that this is any more likely than the conclusion that the story of
Lazarus shows the power of God to raise even a corpse that has
decayed. (This point is actually inconsequential to our discussion
about applying midrash beliefs to the first century. It does however
affect how I apply corruption of the flesh to the origin of "on the
third day" in 1Cor 15:4.)
Second, you said that Martha's expectation of odor on the forth day
(Jn 11:39) does not support the belief expressed in Gen Rab 100.7.
You may be correct in this. But it certainly is CONSISTENT with the
beliefs in Gen Rab 100.7, and it is worth noting that the choice of
days (the fourth day) fits very nicely with the window of three days
expressed in the Gen Rab. That is, if she had said, "it is day three
(or day two, or day one) and there is an odor", it would mean that
she was not allowing the full three days for decay of the corpse to
begin, and this would go against the first century beliefs I'm
suggesting. If Martha had said, ""it is day five (or six, or seven,
etc) and there is an odor", then the midrash beliefs could still be
present, but the coincidental "closeness" to day three is not there.
It's an interesting "coincidence" that day four was chosen in the
Lazarus story. Even more so if the intent of the Lazarus story is to
show that God can raise someone past the point that their flesh has
Being a non-scholar, I ask the question again, is it unreasonable to
conclude that some first century Jews believed that it took up
through the end of the third day after death for the soul to leave
the corpse and for the flesh to start decay? And if it is
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