Saturday, June 21, 2008

Memento Mori-- Part Two

Grave steles, sarcophagi, and grave art teach us a great deal about what ancient peoples believed about the afterlife. In cultures where the spirits of the ancestors (called genius (singular, and genii plural-- from which we get the word genie) were believed to be alive and could inspire and affect the lives of their descendants, the dead were honored, often in lavish fashion. Christians are of course used to thinking in binary categories of people either going to heaven or hell, but in fact in earliest OT times there was the simple belief in Sheol, the land of the dead, and this belief still existed in some forms in the first century A.D. world. Hades was the land of the dead, and unless you were an immortal, or a demi-god like Herakles (Hercules) or perhaps an Alexander, you were simply going to the land of the dead, where your spirit existed in some sort of shadowy condition. Of course if you were a heroic figure you might make it to the beautiful Elysian fields, but not many were believed to make it there. The saying of Jesus about few entering the Kingdom and narrow the way, suits this belief system as well. And furthermore, in the Greco-Roman world, since there was no great hope of a positive afterlife (remembering the famous grave epitaph 'I was, I am not, I care not'), salvation was all about what happened to you in this life, and 'saved' meant materially blessed, or blessed with good health, or rescued from danger or slavery, or the like (see the Appendix to my Acts commentary). We see a form of this belief when Jesus says "your faith has saved you" by which is meant "your faith has healed you". Jesus was not suggesting the woman in question had either been converted or had accepted the four spiritual laws. In this post, you will see what was the initial impetus for the building of the Istanbul museum, namely they had obtained some remarkable, and remarkably huge sarcophagi, including the famous Sidonian sarcophagus of Alexander the Great. As it turns out, it is probably a very early copy of Alexander's which would have been in Alexandria, not Sidon, but still it gives us a clear picture of the lavish sarcophagi of the elite in that period. The first picture here is of the doors into the sarcophagi, meant to resemble the 'gates of Hades' (see Mt. 16). This is followed by two pictures of the Alexander sarcophagus in different lighting, and then detailed pictures of various of the panels. I have included a picture of a temple replica, because these sarcophagi with their elaborate story telling friezes were meant to be like mini-temples or shrines. The friezes on the Parthenon are of the same character, though they largely tell mythological tales. Alexander's friezes recount his mighty victories of various sorts, as the attempt is made to portray him as a god upon the earth. This was surely part of the background to the rise of the Emperor cult, since Alexander was indeed a real person who conquered most of the known world.

A bit further down you can see that originally these friezes were painted with a riot of colors of various sorts. This would have been true on the Parthenon as well. It would not have just been all white marble. The color sample replica frieze on the left depicts the famous scene of blond Alexander slaying his foes. More normal on sarcophagi on those who were just ordinary Romans or Greeks were scenes of mourning, such as the scenes below of the women. Normally mourning periods for someone who died with honor could last up to a week or more, and the Romans would have a plaster cast mold made of the face of the deceased, which would be put in a cabinet in the home, and when the Roman wanted to consult their ancestors, or venerate and honor them, they would open the cabinet and interact with the genii or spirits represented by the masks. They most certainly believed their ancestors were still alive, and when they were inspired they called it the affect of genius, that is inspiration by one's ancestor. So much was the honoring of the ancestors crucial, that it was a regular practice to celebrate the deceased's birthday by going to the sarcophagus, and pouring wine in a pour spout into the tomb so they could celebrate with you. And this brings us to the 'baptism for the dead' practice of the Corinthians. Paul acknowledges this is going on in Corinth, though he does not endorse it in 1 Cor. 15. Proxy baptism is not a Christian practice, since early Christians when they were thinking right, realized that as the parable in Lk. 18 suggest
once a person is dead and gone from this world, their fate cannot be changed. This life is the place deciding one's eternal destiny, as Paul makes clear. I have also included the grave art of a woman playing the lyre. Music was a regular part of ancient burial practices, and in fact the elite hired women to cry (I call them town criers) and musicians to play mournful music (see the story of Jairus's daughter. The one's who laugh at Jesus cannot be family surely). I have also included the interesting Roman relief of a woman with wings, presumably one of the gods, but a belief in angels and demons was not solely something those in the Judaeo-Christian tradition embraced.

Towards the bottom here I have included the statues of one goddess, and two Emperors who were being viewed as gods. Full marks if you can identify them on this blog. When one examines all of this, it becomes clearer in various ways how Christian practice both differed from, and in some respects seemed similar to ancient near eastern, Greek, and Roman practices. But what really distinguished Judeao-Christian religion was not only a robust belief in a positive afterlife, but a strong belief in life back from the dead-- resurrection.


mafutha said...

Just a off comment....have you ever thought of putting some of you comment in a podcast form? Personally I've been reading more of you books and would love to get a weekly podcast on issues and other things you have talked about on you blog.

Ben Witherington said...

Hi Mafutha: I have done any number of podcasts. If you want to find a couple of them, checkout the podcasts at


Ben W.