Rabbi Marc Gellman writes about religion for Newsday.
QUESTION: I've always thought that in the last few hundred years of the Old Testament, those of the Jewish faith recognized the resurrection and afterlife of the soul. I can't refer to any passage in the Bible indicating this is so, though. Could you comment on the beliefs of Judaism in this regard? I just wonder if this is another point of commonality between Jews and Christians.
-- J., Neenah, Wisconsin
ANSWER: One of the great misunderstandings about Judaism is that it has believed the same things since the time of Abraham (roughly 1,800 years before the Common Era). This is not true, and you can blame the big change on Aristotle.
After Alexander the Great conquered the Middle East in about 333 Before the Common Era, with his tutor, Aristotle, in tow, a new period of theology entered Judaism. It was called Hellenism, and its principal contributions to Jewish theology were the Aristotelian ideas of matter and form.
Matter was the principle of potentiality, and form was the principle of actuality. God was pure form (immaterial) and we humans, like all created beings, were imagined to be combinations of matter and form. The immaterial formal divine part within us was called our soul (Hebrew: neshama).
The pre-greek Bible had Hebrew names that are translated as soul (nefesh), but the nefesh was not an immaterial essence that survived death. The nefesh was more like the life within us that ended with death. In the Bible, death is considered to be the end of us. There is a biblical idea of the resurrection of the dead at the end of time, but it's not a developed doctrine.
After Aristotle, however, Judaism became a religion that taught the existence of bodies that die and souls that live on after death in the World to Come (what Christians came to call Heaven). Evil souls are extinguished in Hell (Hebrew: gehenom).
Christianity emerged out of this post-Greek rabbinic Judaism that had already absorbed Aristotle's teachings. The life of the soul after death had a profound effect on Judaism and Christianity.
The suffering of the righteous in this world could now be corrected by an eternity of blessedness in Heaven/The World to Come. No longer was God's providence limited by our earthly lives. A divine soul within us also makes sense as the spiritual balance to the animal nature of the body.
No single theological change even approaches the significance of the Jewish/Christian adaptation of the Greek philosophical notions of matter and form into body and soul. Thank you, Aristotle. You taught the world how to think and you taught us how to believe.
QUESTION: Among the various Bible translations, God says some form of "Let us make man in our image" on the sixth day of creation. This is the first mention of these pronouns. God has not made man yet, so who is "us"? Who is God's co-creator? Our church Bible study group had some ideas about this terminology, such as it being a simple use of the royal "we." What do you think?
-- Anonymous, via email
ANSWER: The royal "we" works for me, or maybe it was the angels and God. Whatever the meaning of Genesis 1:26 that's confused you, the next verse (Genesis 1:27) makes it all clear that God and God alone is the one and only God who created us and all things: "So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them." (KJV)