Mesopotamian Roots for the Belief in the Resurrection of the Dead

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Abstract

The belief in the resurrection of the dead, a defining element of the Christian faith, did not begin with Christianity. At the time of the earliest Christians, several factions of Judaism held some form of the belief, disagreeing on whether it was physical or spiritual in nature. For the physical resurrection, evidence already appears in later writings of the Hebrew Bible; as a result, many scholars place the origin of the belief in the post-exilic period, attributing it to foreign influence, generally from Canaan or Persia. But there is earlier evidence, both in and outside the Hebrew Bible, in those cases where a corpse returns to life, even temporarily. As argued here, it is this phenomenon, above all, that forms the basis of the belief in the physical resurrection in the Judeo-Christian tradition, and, where it is concerned, a stronger cross-cultural parallel is ancient Mesopotamia. In ancient Mesopotamia, there was clearly a belief that the dead could return from the netherworld to the land of the living, and it was part of a conceptual framework that integrated death, disease, medicine, and healing – as it was in the Hebrew Bible. For the history of religion, this dates the early roots of the belief in the physical resurrection of the dead centuries earlier than scholars have recognized.

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