Eternal Hope – Part 34

Eternal Hope – Part 34

July 2008

Dear Co-Laborer,

Eternal Hope
Part 34


Before embarking on a study of the New Testament teaching regarding an eternal hope, I want to briefly look at the Jewish Talmud. Probably the works of rabbinical scholars like Hillel and Gamaliel (of New Testament fame) formed the foundation for what evolved, over the next eight or so centuries, into what we today know as the Talmud. Then I will quote from two rabbinical scholars: Saadia Ben Joseph and Maimonides. In all of this, you will be reading direct quotes of the salient points, as these authors say more clearly and succinctly than can I.


“Hillel, the most respected of the teachers of the Law, the highly-honored ideal in times to come, had given to Judaism a special garb and form, or rather had given it the character of the Law, which had always been peculiar to it. He was the first to develop and confirm a special theory, a sort of Jewish theology or nomology (science of religious laws). He was the founder of Talmudic Judaism…The written Law (that of the Pentateuch) and the oral Law (the Sopheric) from his time ceased to be two widely sundered branches, but were brought into close relations with each other, although the new rendering certainly did violence to the words of Scripture. But as the text was explained, not on a philological (the study of language in texts) basis, but in order to elucidated the laws, it was not possible to keep simply to the written words; it was necessary to interpret them so as to render them suited to the new conditions of life. Under the term Oral Law was included everything which had been handed down from the Fathers, and it formed to a certain extent a hereditary law. The various restrictions which the Sopheric teachers had placed around the Law, the legal decisions which had been introduced by the Synedrion[1], the customs which had been observed from generation to generation, the extensions deduced from meager verses of the Pentateuch, all these elements were not written down, but were committed to memory. They were put into the form of short sentences, called ‘Halacha’… Jochanan ben Zakkai was the man who best knew these laws. He handed them down to his pupils, and printed out to them their connection with the written law; he showed them how to draw deductions therefrom, the laws handed down being the material, and their mode of treatment the form. These deductions were obtained by two methods, the one showing how the ordinances of the Law were to be obtained from the words of Scripture (Midrash), and the other served to apply the oral Law to new questions as they arose (Talmud).”[2]

Jewish Eschatology and the Talmud

“At a very early time the Synagogue disavowed the pseudepigraphic literature, which was the favorite reading matter of the sectaries and the Christians. Nevertheless the inner relation between them is of the closest kind. The only essential difference is that the Midrashic form prevails in the Haggadah[3]…Folklore, fairy tales, legends, and all forms of story telling akin to these are comprehended, in the terminology of the post-Biblical literature of the Jews, under the inclusive description Haggadah, a name that…cannot be translated. Whatever it is applied to is thereby characterized first as being derived from the Holy Scriptures, and then as being of the nature of a story. And, in point of fact, this dualism sums up the distinguishing features of Jewish Legend. More than eighteen centuries ago the Jewish historian Josephus observed that ‘though we be deprived of our wealth, of our cities, or of the other advances we have, our law continues immortal.’ The word he meant to use was not law, but Torah, only he could not find an equivalent for it in Greek… But what is spontaneously brought forth by the people is often preserved only in the form impressed upon it by the feeling and the thought of the poet, or by the speculations of the learned. Also Jewish legends have rarely been transmitted in their original shape. They have been perpetuated in the form of Midrash, that is Scriptural exegesis. The teachers of Haggradah, called Rabban d’Aggradta in the Talmud, were no forklorists, from whom a faithful reproduction of legendary material may be expected. Primarily they were homilists (people who gave lectures on this material), who used legends for didactic purposes, and their main object was to establish a close connection between the Scripture and the creations of the popular fancy, to give the latter a firm basis and secure a long term of life for them… The works of the Talmudic-Midrashic literature are of the first importance. Covering the period from the second to the fourteenth century, they contain the major part of the Jewish legendary material. Akin to this in content if not always in form is that derived from the Targumim, of which the oldest versions were produced not earlier than the fourth century, and most recent not later than the tenth. The Midrashic literature has been preserved only in fragmentary form. Many Haggadot not found in our existing collections are quoted by the authors of the Middle Ages… The works of the older Kabbalah[4] are likewise treasuries of quotations from lost Midrashim, and it was among then Kabbalists and later among the Hasidim[5], that new legends arose… Furthermore, Jewish legends can be culled not from the writings of the Synagogue alone; they appear also in those of the Church. Certain Jewish works repudiated by the Synagogue were accepted and mothered by the Church. This is the literature usually denominated apocryphal-pseudepigraphic. From the point of view of legends, the apocryphal books are of subordinate importance, while the pseudepigrapha are of fundamental value… Nearly all of them are embellished with Christian interpolations, and in some cases the inserted portions have choked the original form so completely that it is impossible to determine at first sight whether a Jewish or a Christian legend is under examination… If the Synagogue cast out the pseudepigrapha and the Church adopted them with a great show of favor, these respective attitudes were not determined arbitrarily or by chance. The pseudepigrapha originated in circles that harbored the germs from which Christianity developed later on. The Church could thus appropriate them as her own with just reason.”[6]

Jewish Thought during Christian era

Saadia Ben Joseph, a celebrated Babylonian Talmud scholar, was born 882 A.D. in Egypt. I will quote him at great length because of the influence he had among Rabbinic scholars: “Our Master… has made it known to us that, when the instances of obedience on the part of His servants predominate, they are accounted unto them as merits, whereas when those of disobedience are predominant, they are accounted as demerits. Furthermore, a record is kept by Him of all this in regard to all of his servants. This is borne out by the statement of Scripture: Great in counsel, and mighty in work; whose eyes are open upon all the ways of the sons of men (Jer. 32:19). Scripture says also: For His eyes are upon the ways of man, etc. (Job 34:21). Moreover, these activities of men leave their traces upon the latter’s souls, rendering them pure or sullied. Thus Scripture says, apropos of [the effect of] sin: Then he shall bear his iniquity (Lev. 5:1), And he shall bear his sin (Lev. 24:15), And they set their soul on the iniquity (Hos. 4:8), and Its iniquity shall rest on that soul (Num. 15:31). Now even though these facts be hidden from the views of men, and not evident to them, they are perfectly clear to God…”[7] Saadia evidently understands that the Old Testament is vague regarding eternal accountability; it may not be readily apparent to the average interpreter, but it is “perfectly clear to God.”

“He has appointed a period during which the soul and body remain united and at the conclusion of which He separates them again. In this latter state they remain until the number of the souls which His wisdom has deemed necessary to create has been fulfilled. When this has taken place, He will again unite these souls with their bodies and requite them for their conduct… Who knoweth the spirit of man whether it goeth upward, and the spirit of the beast whether it goes downward to the earth? (Eccles. 3:21)… Who knoweth – might be construed as an expression of admiration and praise on noting how two types of soul are attached to two similar bodies. Consequently what he says is: ‘We find that these two bodies are perceptibly alike in their physical constitution and their accidents. Yet we have no doubt, on the other hand, that there exists a difference between the two spirits. Now who is capable of fathoming and understanding this?’ That is indeed the import of his statement preceding this one: For that which befalleth the sons of men befalleth beasts; even one thing befalleth them; as the one dieth, so dieth the other; yea, they have all one breath (Eccles. 3:19)… Now the sage could not possibly have meant to imply hereby that the soul of man had no preeminence above a beast… What he meant by this statement was, then, rather merely that the body of man is in no way superior to that of the beast, since it is composed, like that of the latter, of four elements, as he says subsequently: All go unto one place; all are of the dust, and all return to dust (Eccles. 3:20). Nevertheless man has spiritual preeminence.” [8]

“The angel who is dispatched by the Creator for the purpose of separating the soul and the body appears to man in the form of a figure of yellowish fire filled with eyes composed of bluish fire and holding in his hand a drawn sword aimed at him. Upon seeing him thus, the person shudders and his spirit separates from his body… For Scripture remarks, apropos of the time of the plague: And David lifted up his eyes, and saw the angel of the Lord standing between the earth and the heaven, having a sword drawn in his hand stretched out over Jerusalem (I Chron. 21:16)… the (soul) is stored up until the time of retribution, as is stated in Scripture: And He that keepeth thy soul, doth not He know it? And shall not He render to every man according to his work? (Prov. 24:12). The place, however, where the pure souls are kept is up on height, while that of the turbid is down below… During the first period after its separation from the body, however, the soul exists for a while without a fixed abode until the body has decomposed; that is to say, until its parts have disintegrated. It consequently experiences during this period much misery, occasioned by its knowledge of the worms and the vermin and the like that pass trough the body, just as a person would be pained by the knowledge that a house in which he use to live is in ruins and that thorns and thistles grow in it. Now this painful experience comes to the soul in varying degrees according to its desert, just as does its rank in the world below.”[9]


We will take a break from the thoughts of Saadia Ben Joseph until the next issue. It appears that in at least rabbinical circles there existed a strong belief in the after-life. However, in reading this material, it becomes obvious where reason and imagination can take a person if he does not maintain a clear distinction between Scripture and all other sources of authority. Christ rebuked the religious leaders of His day for this same propensity.[10]

In the bonds of Christ,


[1] The great Jewish council where important issues were deliberated, and decisions made.
[2] Graetz, Heinrich, History of the Jews, Jewish Publication Society, Philadelphia, 1956, vol. 2, pp. 327-328
[3] Rabbinical literature on biblical stories.
[4] Kabbalah claims a divine authorship, though it probably originated in the 12th century A.D. Allegedly, the truth of Kabbalah was first given to the angels before God created the world. Mankind then received it on three separate occasions through three different men. Adam was the first to receive the teaching through the Archangel Raziel as Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden of Eden. But, because people were more interested in the ways of the world than the things of God, the truth of Kabbalah was eventually lost. It is said that Kabbalah is derived from ancient Hebraic priesthood practices that has the goal of human transformation.
[5] Members of a Jewish mystical movement, the word means “pious, religious.”
[6] Ginzberg, Louis, The Legends of the Jews, Jewish Publication Society, Philadelphia, 1968, vol. 1, pp. viii – xiii
[7] Rosenblatt, Samuel, Saadia Gaon The Book of Beliefs and Opinions, Yale University Press, New Haven, 1948, p. 205
[8] Ibid, pp. 235-240
[9] Ibid, pp. 255-257
[10] Cf., e.g., Mark 7:1-13