Identities of the Dead in the New Testament

Essay, 2009
17 Pages, Grade: 72/100


1. Introduction

The New Testament (NT) is a collection of texts produced and received in a com­plex first century Near East and Mediterranean world linked with Jewish tradition and 'pagan' Hellenistic culture. In this world, as today, people died and were bur­ied and mourned. One of them, Jesus of Nazareth, was executed by authorities of the Roman province Iudaea ca. 30 AD in Jerusalem. His dying and death became the core events that threw their shadow – or light – on how death and dying was perceived of and described in the NT scriptures.

In texts, human identities can be construed, claimed, questioned, defended etc., but cannot be lived. This only happens in a world populated by living (and dying) human beings and shaped by its material, psychological, social, cultural and po­litical characteristics. Much of this Mediterranean world of the first century AD is lost and texts produced at this time may merely allow us to "see through a glass, darkly" (1 Cor 13:12)[1] – because what we "see" in the mirror depends on quite a lot of methodological preliminaries. And yet: a historical-critical reading of the NT still can provide us a glimpse of its manifold and fascinating environments.

The question I ask in this paper is what we can learn about the ways the identity of deceased people was conceived of in the NT world. I will look for answers by reading NT texts and comparing them with cultural and historical evidence. The question is not primarily what people 'believed' in NT times about death and after­life – a question that implies tricky methodological problems – but how what they wrote was (or could have been) linked with how they lived in their 'lifeworlds'.

I will begin with some methodological and epistemological considerations and then analyse relevant NT texts and compare the results with corresponding social and cultural data.

2. Preliminaries

In this essay, I will read NT texts not as sources of religious 'truth' but as docu­ments written by specific authors in a specific place at a specific time and for a specific audience. I assume that these authors based their texts on common human experiences as well as on interpretations using traditional cultural and religious concepts.

Two such concepts that are essential for my argumentation are marked by the terms 'death'/'dead' and 'rise'/'raise'/'resurrection'. All of them relate to both experi­ences (that may differ from the ones we commonly associate) and contextual tra­ditions articulated in spoken and written language.

This implies that 'death' is as well an experiential and interpretative category as 'resurrection' and is not bound to particular phenomena like the end of physiologic processes. "Literally, 'death' refers to the cessation of life; metaphorically, it also refers to a spiritual and moral condition" (Keck 1992:83) and, additionally, to so­cial conditions. Death in the NT, in accordance with ancient Near East and espe­cially Old Testament traditions, is seen as a power that is linked with various in­dividual and social experiences of deprivation and suffering (Barth 1997). As Desmond Alexander (1986:41) remarks, it can be difficult, therefore, to "be com­pletely certain when 'death' is being used in a symbolical or metaphorical sense".

Similarly, as we will see, the term 'resurrection' (and related terms) can – espe­cially in narratives – but need not and, as Paul's letters show, often obviously does not relate to the often associated notion of a reanimated corpse. Rather, it may be used to articulate a broad range of experiences and phenomena, since the term itself is linked to different biblical and 'pagan' traditions and contexts.

This 'metaphorical' use of central concepts regarding death and dying does not imply, however, that any notions of an 'afterlife' in the NT are 'merely symbolic' – on the contrary, they may be more realistic than their positivist interpreters may dream of. Likewise, a spiritual or social death may be a very 'real' death too.

The multi-faceted character of terms used around experiences of death and dying has a further aspect: the different NT texts focus on different meanings and even within the same text or paragraph this meaning may change. What the NT "says about the subject [sc. of death and afterlife] is found in a variety of contexts be­cause, characteristically, the NT deals with death and life when it talks about something else. Moreover, because the NT was written by many people [...] and over a period of a hundred years, it says different things." (Keck 1992:83)

This is also true regarding the mentioning and conceiving of dead people. They 'appear' in the NT in various contexts, intentionally and rather incidentally, as main characters or as extras of narratives, literally and metaphorically, as general­ised types or as individuals. Thus, it will be important to carefully assess the ref­erences made in specific texts as well contextually as intertextually and with re­gard to their "Sitz im Leben"[2]. It is – historically and methodologically – the latter that allows a connection to evidences found in archaeology or social history (Ger-stenberger 2008).

3. A world of words: Death, dying and disposal in New Testament texts

The NT is a text, a collection of words expressing thoughts and experiences. Which one of these was first – if the material world and its individual awareness shaped thoughts and ideologies or vice versa – is a matter for debate that may especially be relevant for cultural and socio-historical studies of death (Davies 1999:xi). Words, however, mediate the (material, collective) outer and the (men­tal, individual) inner world and so are expressions of both.

I will first have a look, therefore, at the ways experiences, thoughts and material objects linked with death are represented in the NT text. The following table shows relevant terms and their frequency of occurrence:

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Table 1: Terminology in relation to death and dying in the NT with Greek terms and frequency

This overview points to some interesting features of the NT perspectives on death, dying and disposal, so I will go into each of the issues in turn. First, however, it may be worthwhile to have a closer look at the table as a whole:

- Clearly, the NT focus lies on rather general topics, comprehensive terms for "death", "dead" or "die" being the most frequent. Details about bodily phenomena related to dying (like illnesses) or about burial activities are comparatively rare.
- The violent act of killing is less represented than dying as a process or its result (being dead) respectively. This implies that moral questions about the legitimacy of killing are not central, though the primordial event for all NT texts is an act of extreme violence. This actually is reflected in the fact that a third of all occurrences of the term "apokteino" (kill) refer to Jesus' execution. Its implications, though, seem to be rather existential than moral. As we will see, moral aspects are important in connection with death and dying, but they are mediated by existential insights.
- The language used to talk about death is partly metaphorical. Especially the association with sleep is widespread. Metaphors open up alternative fields of experience that in many NT texts are purposely used to link death experiences and notions to the everyday world of the living, espe­cially in John's Gospel and Paul's letters.


[1] Biblical texts are quoted from "The Holy Bible containing the Old and New Testaments", King James Version. Abbreviations follow the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th ed., 2003, sections 15.50­54 (cf.

[2] The expression "Sitz im Leben" (setting in life) was introduced by German theologian Hermann Gunkel (1913[1906]) to describe the constitutive relationship between literary genres and the so­cial settings in which they emerge and are used. In a broader sense, it refers to the historical author or audience of a text as well as to any social and cultural condition of its production.

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Identities of the Dead in the New Testament
University of Bath
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Identities, Dead, Testament
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Hans Ulrich Hauenstein (Author), 2009, Identities of the Dead in the New Testament, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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