Did early Jews believe in reincarnation?

Luke Wayne
6/17/17

No, the early Jews did not teach reincarnation. This accusation generally comes out of a misreading of ancient Jewish sources. Of course, it would not prove anything if some Jews did once believe in reincarnation. Some Jews also once worshiped Baal. God's people have often wandered into all kinds of false and even idolatrous beliefs for which God frequently chastised them. There is no evidence, however, that there was any meaningful presence of the idea of reincarnation in ancient Jewish communities. While this idea sometimes arises from misunderstandings or willful abuse of scriptural passages (see our articles HERE and HERE), most often it stems from an honest misreading of non-biblical Jewish sources.

Josephus and the Pharisees

For example, in describing the beliefs of the Pharisees, Josephus explains that:

"They also believe that souls have an immortal vigor in them, and that under the earth there will be rewards or punishments, according as they have lived virtuously or viciously in this life. The latter are to be detained in an everlasting prison, but the former shall have the power to revive and live again," (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews: Book 18, Chapter 1, Section 2).

And elsewhere:

"They say that all souls are incorruptible; but that only the souls of good men are returned into bodies. The souls of bad are subject to eternal punishment," (Josephus, Wars of the Jews, Book 2, Chapter 8, Section 14).

If this were referring to reincarnation, it would be a rather odd form of it. Reincarnation is normally understood to be a bad thing. It is a perpetuation of suffering which one hopes to escape. In the passages above, however, returning to life in the body is a reward given only to the good and virtuous. Bad men aren't punished with bad future lives. They are denied future lives and punished in eternal hell. So, even if one interpreted this as a passage about reincarnation, it would be a doctrine extremely counter to all other religions on the matter. The truth is, however, that it is not talking about reincarnation at all. It is talking about future resurrection, which is not even remotely the same thing.

This promise was clearly articulated in the book of Daniel:

"At that time your people, everyone who is found written in the book, will be rescued. Many of those who sleep in the dust of the ground will awake, these to everlasting life, but the others to disgrace and everlasting contempt," (Daniel 12:1b-2).

The parallels between this and what Josephus describes are obvious. Other Old Testament saints spoke in hope of this as well, such as where Job said:

"Even after my skin is destroyed, Yet in my flesh I shall see God," (Job 19:26).

The hope is not for a constant succession of mortal lives. The hope is for a singular return from death to life in the presence of God. Similarly, several early Jewish interpreters understood the vision of the dry bones in Ezekiel 37 to point forward to a day when the bodies of God's people would literally return to life.1 Other apocryphal Jewish texts, such as 2 Maccabees and the Book of Enoch, describe this future hope. None of these sources mention an ongoing cycle of death and rebirth. Instead, they look forward to a single, triumphant future day where their bodies will return to life.

What's more, in both of the passages cited above, Josephus goes on to contrast the belief of the Pharisees with that of the Sadducees, who he explains reject this teaching. The New Testament specifically discusses this divide:

"For the Sadducees say that there is no resurrection, nor an angel, nor a spirit, but the Pharisees acknowledge them all," (Acts 3:8).

The Gospels also define the Sadducees as those "who say there is no resurrection," (Matthew 22:23). Clearly, Josephus is talking about resurrection, not reincarnation.

Philo of Alexandria and Souls Before Bodies

Educated Jews living in Greco-Roman culture outside of Jewish majority lands often found themselves engaged in philosophical dialogue with pagan streams of thought. They attempted to offer defenses of the rationality of Jewish belief, but in terms and categories that Greek thinkers would understand and respect. Sometimes they even went as far as to try and synthesize the philosophical speculations of the Greeks with their Jewish beliefs. Perhaps none of these figures is more controversial than a Jewish Philosopher named Philo of Alexandria, and it is unsurprising that many turn to Philo's words to look for reincarnation. Many believe they find it when he writes:

"Some souls, therefore, have descended into bodies...and they, having descended into the body as into a river, at one time are carried away and swallowed up by the voracity of a most violent whirlpool; and, at another time, striving with all their power to resist its impetuosity, they at first swim on the top of it, and afterwards fly back to the place from which they started. These, then, are the souls of those who have been taught some kind of sublime philosophy, meditating, from beginning to end, on dying as to the life of the body, in order to obtain an inheritance of the incorporeal and imperishable life, which is to be enjoyed in the presence of the uncreated and everlasting God. But those, which are swallowed up in the whirlpool, are the souls of those other men who have disregarded wisdom, giving themselves up to the pursuit of unstable things regulated by fortune alone, not one of which is referred to the most excellent portion of us, the soul or the mind; but all rather to the dead corpse connected with us, that is to the body," (Philo of Alexandria, "On the Giants," Chapter 3).

This passage is from Philo's work, "On the Giants," in which he attempts to deal with the difficult subject of the Nephilim in Genesis 6:

"Now it came about, when men began to multiply on the face of the land, and daughters were born to them, that the sons of God saw that the daughters of men were beautiful; and they took wives for themselves, whomever they chose. Then the Lord said, 'My Spirit shall not strive with man forever, because he also is flesh; nevertheless his days shall be one hundred and twenty years.' The Nephilim were on the earth in those days, and also afterward, when the sons of God came in to the daughters of men, and they bore children to them. Those were the mighty men who were of old, men of renown.

Like many ancient Jewish commentators, Philo understands the "sons of God" to be angelic beings who commit sin by seducing human women. In this writing, he is attempting to show that it is rational to believe that a heavenly spirit like an angel could have come down and copulated with physical beings. He does so by appealing to the Greco-Roman philosophical idea that the atmosphere is full of living spirits and that these spirits often come down and take bodies. Indeed, on some Philosophers' thinking, this is where all human souls come from. To what extent Philo embraced this idea himself and to what extent he was merely utilizing its language to try to accommodate his readers while dealing with a difficult matter is a subject of great debate. What is clear, however, is that Philo still argued that life ended one of two ways. There were disciplined souls that escaped to a heavenly hope, and there were worldly souls who died with their bodies and were drug down into death. There is no consideration here of the soul returning to more bodies with future chances to get it right. Some escape, some die, none remain. Philo was controversial even in his own time and by no means represents mainstream Jewish thought, but even he did not go so far as reincarnation.

The Wisdom of Solomon

Another popular example is to appeal to the apocryphal book, "the Wisdom of Solomon." In describing his quest for wisdom, the author explains:

"I was a naturally clever child and I obtained a good soul as my lot, or rather, being good, I entered an undefiled body. But I perceived that I would not possess wisdom unless God gave her to me— and it was a mark of insight to know whose gift she was— so I appealed to the Lord and besought him," (Wisdom of Solomon 8:19-21).

We must note up front that this is a poetical passage that also personifies wisdom as a living, female figure whom the author is perusing. The intent of the author is not to claim that there is an actual personal goddess or spirit named "wisdom." He is talking about the quality of wisdom and using a literary device to describe his pursuit of it. This is hardly the kind of context to which one should look for a literal, straightforward description of the nature of the human soul and its relation to the body.

Further, the idea of a "good" soul here is not a soul that has done morally good deeds or acquired good karma by previous actions. It is a soul that possess high rational faculties and abilities to think and learn. In other words, the author is claiming to have been blessed with a highly functional and useful mind, and yet to realize that even the best of human minds cannot obtain wisdom by its own rational ability. True wisdom comes only as a gift or revelation from God. So the passage uses the imagery of an intelligent mind being blessed with an undefiled body and that undefiled body being blessed with a highly functional mind, none of this even hints at previous lives. Wisdom of Solomon is written in skillful Greek and was almost certainly composed by an educated Jew living in gentile lands. Like Philo, the author uses the familiar language of contemporary Greek philosophical thinkers, and yet does so to put forward the claim that mere philosophy is not sufficient to obtain wisdom. This is the point the author makes in a poetical fashion through the imagery he chooses. It has nothing to do with reincarnation.

Finally, even if one interprets the verse as a claim that conscious human souls exist before their physical bodies, that doesn't come anywhere close to implying that such souls take bodies again and again. At most, it would be a sign that there was an early form of Jewish Gnosticism that borrowed from Greek pagan philosophy. There is no concept here of a continued cycle of human births for the same soul no matter how poorly you misread the text.

The Essenes

Josephus attributes to the Essences a theory that bodies are temporary and souls immortal, and thus that souls live on beyond the corruption of their bodies. Indeed, he even claims that the Essenes saw the spirit as trapped in a body as in a prison.2 The ancient Christian scholar Hippolytus of Rome, while affirming many of the same details that Josephus gives, is equally clear, however, that the Essenes believed in the Jewish hope of a future, one-time, bodily resurrection.3 If the Dead Sea Scrolls indeed reflect the Essene community, as most scholars believe, then they also demonstrate that the Essene hope was in a physical resurrection of the righteous and judgment of the wicked.4 Josephus was writing for a Greco-Roman audience and tended to express things in ways that they would better understand, but it seems that the doctrine he was describing was, perhaps, far less ethereal that it appears to us from Josephus' choice of words. If this is true of the Essenes, it seems also likely to be true of Philo and the author of the Wisdom of Solomon as well. Behind the language chosen to appeal to Hellenistic readers may well be something closer to a mainstream Jewish doctrine of human souls who await punishment or reward on the day when physical bodies return to life. At any rate, even if the Essenes or some Greek Jewish writers did come to assert that humans were pre-existent spirits temporarily trapped in human bodies and seeking release from the prison of physical existence (ideas which they would be deriving from pagan philosophy in complete contradiction to Old Testament revelation) there is nothing in any of these passages that suggests that souls go through multiple human lives or anything at all akin to reincarnation.

Conclusion

Biblically based forms of Jewish thought clearly asserted that, while human spirits or souls continue existing after death, they are not repeatedly reborn but rather await the hope of future resurrection in the body in which they died. Though Josephus description of the Essenes sounds somewhat Greek and Gnostic, the bulk of the evidence points to the Essenes holding to this same biblical notion of death and resurrection. There are a few Jewish documents from those living in the Greek world and using Greek concepts and imagery in their writings who may have bought into the pagan ideas of the pre-existence of the soul and the repudiation of all things physical. Even these, however, may represent only the use of accommodating language and literary device rather than an actual adoption of Greek beliefs as a literal description of reality. At any rate, even in someone like Philo (the most likely candidate for a Jew that really did adopt a pagan Greek philosophical view of the world), there is no evidence at all for a cycle of rebirths or anything that resembles reincarnation. In short, even in the wildest offshoots of Judaism, there are no known examples of ancient Jewish sects or individuals who advocated reincarnation.

  • 1. James VanderKam, The Dead Sea Scrolls Today: Second Edition (Eerdmans Publishing, 2010) 107
  • 2. Josephus, Wars of the Jews, Book 2, Chapter 8, Section 11
  • 3. Hippolytus, Refutation of all Heresies, Book 9, Chapter 22
  • 4. James VanderKam, The Dead Sea Scrolls Today: Second Edition (Eerdmans Publishing, 2010) 107, 146.