Do People Have Spirits? What Do the Early Texts Say?
For years adventist sects, including the JWs, have believed that the dead sleep at death and remain non-existent until the resurrection. Its strongest argument seems to be text in the non-escchatological book of Ecclesiastes in the Old Testament. Although a part of the canon of scripture, the book is not written by a prophet, nor is there any prophecy or recognizable doctrine contained therein. Solomon, the Son of David, had spent the last part of his life sinning against God. He was old, tired and most likely not positively disposed towards a rosey afterlife. In fact, he seems to have a poor disposition towards life and the purpose thereof. Theologians within these adventist sects argue against the rest of Christianity that Ecclesiastes teaches a doctrine that the rest of the scriptures don't seem consistent with. Instead, they argue, it was the encroachment of heretical Greek thought on a susceptible church that was opening its preaching to increasingly large numbers of gentiles.
But what of the pseudopigraphical works produced by the Jews? Or the libraries of rival Christians who were even further removed from Greek thought, such as the Nag Hammadi library, discovered in 1947 at about the same time as the Dead Sea Scrolls? Of particular interest is the Apocalypse of Abraham, a Hebrew work written from 75-150 A.D. and later translated into Slavonic. This was originally a Hebrew writing that is not produced by the Greeks, but by the Jews. Yet it not only teaches men live on after death (like most near death experiences from all cultures around the earth), but that men had pre-mortal lives:
And while [Yahweh] was yet speaking, the expanses opened, and there below me were the heavens, and I saw upon the seventh firmament upon which I stood a fire widely extended, and the light which is the treasury of life, and the dew with which God will awaken the dead, and the spirits of the departed righteous, and the spirits of those souls who have yet to be born, and judgment and righteousness, peace and blessing, and an innumerable company of angels, and the Living Ones, and the Power of the Invisible Glory that sat above the Living Ones.The Christians who wrote and kept the Egyptian library also believed in the spirits of mankind and the separation of the spirits of the just and unjust. These are considered the oldest Christian documents known -- significantly earlier than any of the scriptures in the present canon. Yet they teach man has an immortal spirit, and a number teach premortal life.
In other words, far from being Greek heresy, the doctrine that man has an eternal spirit appears to be a well-entrenched Jewish/Christian doctrine. But why doesn't the WTBTS change?
But what of the dog, camel or friendly finch? Ah you say, they have no soul, yet do they not breathe? If you cut them, do they not bleed?
If you believe the Bible, the Genesis account says that God told Adam that if he ate of the wrong tree he would die. It does not say that he would live for ever somewhere else.
You'd likely need something which predates Alexander the Great/the Ptolemies/the Seleucids to really make the point that Greek thought hadn't influenced elements of Judaism. Add another 100 years to pre-date Plato to really mark it out. Apocalypse of Abraham is nearly 400 years after Hellenistic empires controlled Palestine, so ample time for Greek ideas on the soul to have influenced things.
JW doctrine is a confused mess, but then so was early christianity's! In that at least they're copying it well.
The interpolation of Greek thought into Christian doctrine was supposed to have happened well after the second century A.D. But the first century Christians clearly believed that people had spirits. Peter wrote:
For Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh, but quickened by the Spirit: by which also he went and preached unto the spirits in prison; which sometime were disobedient, when once the longsuffering of God waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was a preparing, wherein few, that is, eight souls were saved by water. (1 Peter 3:18-21)Who were these spirits in prison? A few verses later, he writes:
For the time past of our life may suffice us to have wrought the will of the Gentiles, when we walked in lasciviousness, lusts, excess of wine, revellings, banquetings, and abominable idolatries: wherein they think it strange that ye run not with them to the same excess of riot, speaking evil of you who shall give account to him that is ready to judge the quick and the dead. For for this cause was the gospel preached also to them that are dead, that they might be judged according to men in the flesh, but live according to God in the spirit. (1 Peter 4:4-6)Here Peter talks about the wickedness and lasciviousness of the gentiles, but points out that they, as Christians, are expected to live a higher law in that they know that they'll one day stand before Christ, the judge of the living and the dead. And because of this, the gospel was preached to the spirits of the dead, that they might be judged like those in the flesh (the living), yet exist as those in the spirit (the dead).
In the third century A.D., the great Christian scholar Origen, trying to recall what the apostles taught concerning life after death, said:
After death, I think the saints go to Paradise, a place of teaching, a school of the spirits in which everything they saw on earth will be made clear to them. Those who were pure in heart will progress more rapidly, reaching the kingdom of heaven by definite steps or degrees."Interestingly, Origen believed that 1) much of the knowledge that was lost by the first century Christians would remain lost until the times of the "restoration of all things;" 2) that all humans have a pre-mortal existence (a belief that was subsequently condemned by the church as a heresy); and 3) that there are "three celestial levels like the sun, the moon and the stars." (See 1 Corinthians 15). The Greeks believed in reicarnation -- a doctrine conspicuously missing from the Christian church.
Not only does the pseudopigrapghical Apocalypse of Abraham teach that man has a spirit, so does the apocryphal Book of Enoch and the book of 2 Maccabees. The significance of all this is that we have pre-Christian Jewish references, orthodox Christian references, apocryphal Christian references and numerous statements by early church fathers, all teaching that there is a spirit in man. Not one of these teach reincarnation or contained a single reference to Ecclesiastes 9:5 (a book which in my view shouldn't even be in the Bible; neither should the Song of Solomon). My point is that we have so many writings available that if the first century saints had believed in the soul sleeping doctrine, we'd know about it!
Josephus tells us that the Sadducees had no belief in the immortality of the soul. And that tends to support a view that the Torah (which the Sadducees followed) is sufficiently ambiguous to allow both that belief and the beliefs of the Essenes and the Pharisees to all be permissible readings.
Wouldn't a fundamental problem be, and apologies if this is overly secular as a reading, that there's no real set belief in Judaism which is then transmitted into Christianity? If you're trying to hammer together one narrative from texts written over a period of 700 years, with oral history traditions adding a few more centuries to that, then you're inevitably going to get texts at odds with each other as there was no single unchanging truth being transmitted. Just a series of texts reflecting the beliefs of individual writers from various points within that time frame.
eg Saul went and spoke to Samuel's spirit. Samuel talked back. At one point Judaism may have had some concept of life after death which wasn't a result of Greek thought. Perhaps an Egyptian conception of soul/body? But that was clearly not something which the person who wrote that story down wanted to write about.
You get to the time of the Hellenistic apocrypha and you really start seeing the Greek influences in it. You can push that further on to things like Philo's writings a bit later on too.
Definitely agree that the early non-canonical christian writings I've read have some element which at least strongly implies an immortal soul of some type. Just not sure how far one can then push that onto some form of proto-orthodoxy in 1st century christianity. Broad church was broad.
Wouldn't a fundamental problem be, and apologies if this is overly secular as a reading, that there's no real set belief in Judaism which is then transmitted into Christianity?
I don't see Christianity being merely a byproduct of Judaism. If Jesus did not introduce a new understanding of God and true eschatology, then it would not be very useful. At the time Zechariah (father of John the Baptist) saw the angel in the temple, there had not been a living prophet in more than four hundred years. John is considered one of the greatest prophets who ever lived, but we don't have any of his writings or teachings. Jesus, if he was who he claimed to be, would certainly know about the state of the dead and the redemption of the dead.
Because we know so much more about early Christianity today, thanks to the wealth of early texts, we know beyond any doubt that the Christians believed that man has a spirit. I also think it's inescapable that animals have spirits. Add to that the wealth of information in the field of near death studies.
The old adventist view that the soul sleeps comes from but a single verse from a book that teaches no doctrine nor contains any prophecy. And though it's likely authentic, just because it was written by a biblical character doesn't mean it's divinely inspired.
Do People Have Spirits? What Do the Early Texts Say?Does an undemonstrable supernatural thing happen? Let's consult some superstitious primitives.
I also think it's inescapable that animals have spirits.
I think the adjective you're looking for is implausible.
Add to that the wealth of information in the field of near death studies.
Nothing at all about 'spirits' has been 'demonstrated' by 'near death studies'. People who are near death have an uncontrolled release of neurotransmitters, resulting in 'experiences' not unlike a vivid dream or a drug-induced hallucination. There is zero evidence that people 'have' 'spirits'.
For years adventist sects, including the JWs, have believed that the dead sleep at death and remain non-existent until the resurrection.
This is really just ad hominem. The notion that 'spirits' exist is not 'bolstered' by assigning the 'alternative' view to 'Adventists'. There is no evidence at all that 'spirits' exist, and no known mechanism by which they even could. Belief in 'spirits' arose from primitive people who were basically scared of their own shadows (sometimes literally). The fact that Adventists have one notion in their range of beliefs that is slightly less irrational than some other belief systems (until they ruin it with the bit about 'resurrection') is not particularly relevant.