In the first century, did Judaism promote reincarnation?


(Tim Ramey) #1

In Matthew 16:13-16, Jesus asks who men say that I am? The answers given: Elijah, John the Baptist, Jeremiah or the prophets, who were all dead. In Matthew 14:1-2, Herod hears of Jesus and thinks that it John the Baptist whom he had already beheaded. Then in John 9, the disciples asked Jesus, “Who sinned, this man or his parents that he was born blind?” Here a man is possibly accused of sinning before being born.

I have a brother and sister who believe in reincarnation. They don’t adhere to a Hindu version where you could return as a snake but they believe that you were someone else in your former life. It’s involved as it is more psychic based but they use these scriptures as underscoring their belief. Why would there be these instances of the Jews seeming to believe in reincarnation? I’ve heard the explanation of John 9 being that the man sinned in the womb, but even if that could be, how about the other instances where it seemed that someone had lived earlier? Did Judaism promote it at all? It seems odd as the Sadducees didn’t even believe in a resurrection much less a return to life on earth.

Christians, of course, don’t believe in reincarnation but how would you explain especially the chapters in Matthew? Have the responses ever struck you as being odd?


(Jimmy Sellers) #2

I pretty sure that reincarnation was a foreign practice to the ancient Hebrews and 2nd temple Jews. This is an example of looking at scripture through western filters.


(Tim Ramey) #3

@Jimmy_Sellers
Thanks for your reply. The article that you sent does not mention anything about the 3 scriptures that I listed. So if Judaism and obviously Christians don’t believe in reincarnation, how would you answer someone who would ask why a live person was said to be someone who had died or wasn’t alive yet?


(Jimmy Sellers) #4

Sorry about that I just thought because there is no evidence of reincarnation as a belief in Judaism I figured that would explain away the need to address the verses.
Matt 16:13-16: I have always looked at this as 2 separate question. The one question was about who the people thought the Son of man would if and when he returned. The second question was who did the people think that he was.
Matt 14:1-2. Herod was paranoid and there were rumors in the market place that claimed that John the Baptist had risen (see Mark 6:14-17). Verse 17 shows his shock.
On a personal note I think Herod knew that he had stepped in his mess kit by being intimate with his brother’s wife. We know that Herod was was "afraid of John, because he* knew him to be a righteous and holy man and protected him. And when he* listened to him, he was greatly perplexed, and yet he listened to him gladly.(mk 6:20)

John 9: It was not uncommon for people to equate there personal plight, health, wealth, happiness with the sins of the fathers.

I had a friend how believed that he was a reincarnated Civil war soldier. We talked about it a number of time but he never changed his stand. That was many years ago and the discussions were never really in depth. To my knowledge he when to his grave believing this and as an aside he was raised in a Christian home.


(Tim Ramey) #5

@Jimmy_Sellers
Thanks for your patience with me. I don’t think that I articulate things well. What still is a question that I have is why were all of these answers involving dead people or ones not born yet? If you asked me who people thought you were, I would never consider saying, "Some think you are Abe Lincoln, others Caesar and others Hezekiah. If I did, you would look at me like what are you talking about? Why would there be mostly dead people given as the answer to who the live person was? To be clear, I’m never tempted to entertain reincarnation but wonder how you answer a believer in reincarnation when they point out these passages as more ammunition to defend their point?


(Jimmy Sellers) #6

If I understand reincarnation it is the belief that you are a recycled spirit or soul. You are born, live, die and comeback by the same process to what end depends on what you believe.

This is different than just suddenly appearing which is the way I understand all the biblical inquiries to be. Elijah is a good example.


I think that it would be good for contrast to remind your friends that Christians believe that Jesus was incarnate (born. lived. died) and then resurrected and we believe that He will suddenly return to rule and to reign in that great day.
Hope this helps.


(Katherine A Hooks) #7

Hello Tim,

As far as John 9, I’m sure that Jesus’ hearers since they were Jews, remembered God’s statement about Himself in Exodus 20:5, 6, which states, “You shall not bow down to them (idols) or worship them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on their children to the third and fourth generations of those who hate Me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.”

In other words, Jews believed and perhaps many still believe that those who violate the Law of Moses will bring God’s punishment down not only on themselves but also on their children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. (Also, please note that at times Jewish writers used the terms “father” or “fathers” to also mean grandfather or ancestor.)

As far as Herod’s superstition about Jesus being John the Baptist risen from the grave, Jews of the Pharisee sect believed in the resurrection of the dead. Herod, therefore, probably believed that John had been resurrected and was back to preaching as before.

Regarding Matthew 16:13-16, once again, the disciples told Jesus some other people believed that Elijah, John the Baptist, Jeremiah, or one of the prophets had been resurrected, not reincarnated.

My husband, who is an Old Testament scholar, would firmly agree that the Jews did not believe in reincarnation, though many do and did believe in bodily resurrection from the dead.

I hope this helps.

Blessings…


(Tim Ramey) #8

@khooks03
Katherine, thanks for your reply.

I do think that I should not have entitled the post that Judaism espoused reincarnation as it takes away from my actual question. Even if the Jews believed in bodily resurrection, why would they always assume that the person in question was someone who had died?

Why would John 9 have the disciples asking Jesus if the unborn child actually already sinned, which my siblings would say that shows that the disciples believed in reincarnation?

Then to have not only Herod believe that Jesus was a raised John the Baptist but also the disciples to answer that many people believed that Jesus was a raised dead person seems like an unusual rash of people wondering if the referred to person was raised from the dead. What confuses me is why so many people came to the conclusions that the dead had been raised, or in the case of the unborn child, my siblings would say that he was born blind because he previously sinned in his earlier life. I don’t have a problem with the Biblical responses but I cannot explain why so many instances of living people that they were looking at, were explained to be someone who had lived formerly.

Again, my difficulty lies in explaining why all of the mention of the unborn living prior to being born or how the living person is explained away as a former person who had died. Why weren’t the latter explained as someone who is living? For example, the responses could have been that some think you (Jesus) are a mystic that lived in a cave or an Essene? If someone asked me who you were, I’d never venture that you were my great grandmother of that you were Cleopatra. I would say that you could be an American that is a nurse or maybe is a mother.

My problem is not the possibility to interpret these verses as insinuating reincarnation, but for someone who thinks that way, what is a good reply?

Thanks and hope I didn’t throw you for a loop!


(Andrew Bulin) #9

Prenatal sin was not especially common, but a real belief in that day. (Isis and Osiris apparently copulated in the womb!) God is perfect and man is not, so to them someone must have sinned. This is not about reincarnation but somehow sin in the womb, or his parents (in the opinion of the masses). [1]

According to the Bible, Elijah is not dead.

2 Ki. 2:11 NASB
As they were going along and talking, behold, there appeared a chariot of fire and horses of fire which separated the two of them. And Elijah went up by a whirlwind to heaven.

He even shows up in person at the transfiguration of Jesus (Mat. 17:13).

The ancient people believed these prophets (including the actually dead ones) were in God’s rest and that He could send them back. The Jews (and the Pharisees) particularly believed their lives go on and on, receiving whatever punishments or rewards due them. Herod would have been familiar with this view, but probably mixed with other pagan beliefs. We obviously cannot use Heord’s beliefs to further Christian doctrine of resurrection. Jesus’ main point is not merely the resurrection of the dead, but from the dead into righteousness on this side of heaven.[2]. That is the primary point you miss by looking into reincarnation.

The topic of the return of prophets is especially true from the prophecy in Mal. 4:5. No one knew what these prophets looked like, so it was more of not seeing the truth rather than someone being incarnated in another human form. It took a moment for the disciples to recognize Jesus (Lk. 24:13-27).

The irony of the man born blind is the Jesus just got done revealing His deity at the end of John 8, and disappeared right in from of them. Then He follows this up with the spiritually blind asking questions about who sinned, and the elite spiritually blind more concerned with putting Jesus down for healing. The theme continues if we tried to read reincarnation into these biblical passages.

Hope that helps some. These were fun passages to dig into! :slight_smile:

[1] Craig S. Keener, The Gospel of John, vol. 1 (Gramd Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003), 777-778.
[2] Leon Morris, Luke in Tyndale New Testament Commentaries revised ed. (Grand Rapids: Inter-Varsity, 1989), 317-318.


(Katherine A Hooks) #10

Which words in the passages you mentioned are suggest that a baby has been born that was a different person in a previous life? That might clear up the confusion. Thanks so much!


(Tim Ramey) #11

@khooks03
Katherine, I am referring to John 9:2 where the disciples ask Jesus if the parents sinned or the man that he was born blind. The issue is the if the man was the one who sinned who was born blind, how could he have sinned if he hadn’t been born yet? The only answer, except for reincarnation, which we don’t believe was that he sinned in the womb. I guess I doubt that almost as much as reincarnation so I don’t have a good reply to anyone who asks.
Thanks Katherine.


(Tim Ramey) #12

@andrew.bulin
I have to underscore that I am never suggesting reincarnation. But to say that a baby being formed in the womb seems like a stretch. So I’m left without a good reply to those who believe in reincarnation, though I am never tempted to believe in reincarnation. I did like your connection to the end of that chapter where Jesus says that the Pharisees are blind because they say that they are not. But back to sinning in the womb, would you think that it is credible?

I’m no scholar but I also don’t believe that Elijah is alive in the same way that he was on earth. He was taken in a whirlwind as was Enoch taken by God at 365 years old but I don’t believe either of them will drop back to earth and carry on. Elijah was to come back but it was obvious that they were referring to an Elijah-type who was John the Baptist. This is what Jesus tells His disciples in Matt 17:11-13. Moses also showed up at the Transfiguration but Genesis tells us that God buried him.

Though it is mentioned that the ancients believed in the dead coming back to life or resurrected, I don’t understand why people are in awe when Jesus raises the widow of Nain’s son or Lazarus if that was the case.

I agree with you that because Herod believed something, we can’t subscribe to it but yet, I did feel that it could have been a prevalent thought.

I so appreciated what you wrote but facing my siblings who believe in reincarnation and refer to these verses, I still can’t say that I feel that I have a good answer. We can’t always understand God’s way because otherwise we’d have to be God though I can freely admit that to them, it seems like I’m side-stepping their question.

Thanks for digging into these passages, Andrew!


(Andrew Bulin) #13

What I’m trying to say is that the writer of the passage, the audience that passage was written for, the people in the story, and the Jewish belief system lent itself to believing in prenatal sin of the baby or inherited sin. To someone that wants to say that is reincarnation, I would have to directly reply, “No. That’s not what the passage, people, writer or audience would have had in mind.” This is a difference between an exegesis and an eisegesis of the text.

I agree. My point is that he did not die as the rest. This is a special honor and why it’s singled out. God’s power allows Him the ability to bring back who and how He pleases (or make men of dry bones), so Moses and Elijah appearing together does not change how they left. What state they exist in now would have to be whatever state we exist in when Jesus says we are in paradise regardless of how they left this broken world. But I guess that’s whole other topic.

Many Jewish people believed the power of God to raise, and as Christians we should believe in the resurrection. But I’d humbly have to say the event would leave me awestruck if I happened to witness it. Wouldn’t you? :blush: This was not a daily event and it was still miraculous. And an eisegesis that reads reincarnation is just incorrect.

Even if we try to say that the disciples may have been thinking of reincarnation (Mat. 16:14, Mark 8:27), Peter answers correctly He is the Messiah as opposed to anyone else, as affirmed by Jesus. The others were wrong not simply because Jesus just happened to not be reincarnated, but there is not support in the Bible for reincarnation so someone thinking as such would be supporting a pagan belief. Each person gets one chance to live this life and after they leave, their fate is sealed. You cannot even come back to warn your family (see the story of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16:19-32).


(Katherine A Hooks) #14

Hi Tim,

Thanks for clarifying.

I talked with my husband for some time about your question. (He went to a Jewish university for his PhD in Biblical studies and Hebrew and has taught the Old Testament and Hebrew at the college and seminary level for over thirty years.)

He says reincarnation was totally alien to Jewish thought. Nowhere do they write or speak about a human being reincarnated. Animals were created separately. Only human beings were created in the image of God. No person could ever become an animal nor could an animal become a person.

As far as punishment for sin, Jews believed that God would bring punishment for sin in this life.

There were only two views about what happened after death. Pharisees believed in the resurrection from the dead. Saducees believed that life ended at death. Those were the only beliefs about the afterlife but both groups thought that God punished a person or else punished a person’s child or grandchild if a person sinned.

My husband says that in the passage about the man born blind, some of the people who questioned Jesus were unaware that the blind man was born blind even though the writer knew it and some others may have known it. There was an argument going on that they wanted Jesus to settle. To them, there were only two options—either the man sinned or his parents. That’s the only explanation they could imagine since this was the normal viewpoint.

I hope that helps.


(SeanO) #15

@Tim_Ramey I think you have received lots of great responses. I just wanted to add a passage of Scripture that may help clarify the supernatural view of the Pharisees by contrasting it with that of the Sadducees. The three specific aspects mentioned are:

  1. resurrection
  2. spirits
  3. angels

There is no mention of anything like reincarnation, in keeping with what has already been said.

Acts 23:6-9 - Then Paul, knowing that some of them were Sadducees and the others Pharisees, called out in the Sanhedrin, “My brothers, I am a Pharisee, descended from Pharisees. I stand on trial because of the hope of the resurrection of the dead.” 7 When he said this, a dispute broke out between the Pharisees and the Sadducees, and the assembly was divided. 8 (The Sadducees say that there is no resurrection, and that there are neither angels nor spirits, but the Pharisees believe all these things.) 9 There was a great uproar, and some of the teachers of the law who were Pharisees stood up and argued vigorously. “We find nothing wrong with this man,” they said. “What if a spirit or an angel has spoken to him?”


(Joshua Spare) #16

Hey @Tim_Ramey, I want to see if I can parse your question, and then maybe provide a thought about how we might best understand the John 9:2 passage. As has been referenced many times now, John 9:1-2 reads:

As he passed by, he saw a man blind from birth. And his disciples asked him,“Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”

As we read the disciples question, they present two possible causes for the man’s blindness: (A) that the man sinned or (B) that the parents sinned.

The difficulty here, as I understand your question, is how to understand (A) because the man’s affliction came at, or prior to, birth, and the cause must have come prior to the effect. Better yet, your question is, how would the Jews have understood possibility A, as there only seem two rather strange possible explanations for this cause:

A1: the man somehow sinned in utero causing him to be born blind
or A2: the man sinned in a previous life and was reincarnated into this blind person’s body

And you, as do I, are hesitant to admit to a Jewish belief in either reincarnation or in utero sin. Hopefully, I have charted out your question sufficiently! If not, please do correct me, but if so, I’m now going to give my thoughts on how we might go about better understanding this question.

In short, I believe that we have two false dichotomies.

The first dichotomy comes in choosing between A1 and A2; I don’t believe that either is correct, and so I want to posit A3 (or perhaps ~A) which is that it is not the case the man’s sin caused his blindness. Now, this resolves, I believe your qualms with the Jews believing in A1 or A2. Quite simply, the Jews didn’t have to believe in either; they did not believe it to be a live option that the man’s sin could have caused the blindness prior to his birth. However, this presents us with another difficulty, because if ~A, then B; or rather, if the man’s sin didn’t cause the blindness, then the parent’s sin caused the blindness. But this too doesn’t seem right!

And this leads me to the second false dichotomy: I believe that our options between A, the man’s sin causing his blindness, and B, the parent’s sin causing the man’s blindness are a false dichotomy. Now, it isn’t any fancy logic that gets us to that conclusion, it is in reading verse 3:

Jesus answered, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him.

We see that Jesus has replied that the question presented a false dichotomy, and there was some other cause for the man’s blindness. This does open up some more questions as we try to understand what it means that the man’s blindness shows the works of God, but that is for another conversation topic. I simply wanted to show that I think that the disciples, in asking this question of A or B, did not believe that either A or B were live options, but they couldn’t conceive of any alternative cause. And if they didn’t believe that A was a live option, that gives you an answer on why this passage wouldn’t be any manner of justification for support in a Jewish belief in reincarnation.

Does that make sense? I hope I haven’t jumbled things too much in my attempt at an explanation! I also apologize if I didn’t address all the parts of your question, but I think it at least starts us down the right track! What do you think? Do you think your brother and sister would see this as undermining a scriptural proof of reincarnation?


(C Rhodes) #17

@Tim_Ramey. If I understand your dilemma correctly, your siblings reference Matthew and John to scripturally legitimize their belief in a western-styled reincarnation belief. Primarily, Matthew 14:1-2 and John 9. Those same scriptures provide some light on their error.

So, I would probably say, in Matthew 14:3 Herod’s fear is identified. See Mark 6:13-27. His fear is clearly identified in verse 20. He had killed a man whom many claimed was a prophet, for the pleasure of his wife’s daughter. At the behest of the woman, he had stolen from his brother Phillip.

Herod’s reasoning did not support the claims of a reincarnated life. Herod feared the return of a man he hoped was permanently silenced but feared he might not be. Like any other person who had done wrong and expected to be held accountable at any time.

John 9 calls into play. Psalms 139:1-15. This scripture leads us to understand that even in our mother’s womb we are known by GOD. If we make our bed in hell GOD is there. Why did the disciples ask if the man had sinned in his mother womb? Most likely to the thinking of anyone raised under mosaic law, sin was the only answer for maladies? It is what Job’s friend’s thought about his affliction. But, in John 9 JESUS gives the reason. It was to show forth the might of GOD. Just as the virgin birth did. Just as the birth of John the Baptist to a barren old woman. Just as GOD did with a 99 years old woman named Sarah.

Unless your siblings are prone to injecting a great deal of ‘jux-ta-supposing’ into the picture, then they can not logically conclude that the man born blind was indeed someone who lived before. If illogic is the order of belief, then there are numerous scriptures that appear to support any number of things that we would still consider wrong. The Word of GOD was not meant to tailor explanations to support our desire for legitimacy. And if approached without submission to the complete authority of GOD’s Word, its meaning is hidden due to unbelief. 2 Corinthians 4:2-4.

Another thing to remember is that in the many scriptures that speak of the dead returning, no one ever came back looking like someone else. Their return was attested because they returned as themselves. Even JESUS returned and was recognizable. The reincarnation claim is thwarted by the reality that our returning does not involve a new identity. A glorified body yes. But not a new identity. We are told that now we see as if through a glass darkly, but when next we are seen we shall be known as we truly are. 1 Corinthians 13:12. That isn’t reincarnation that’s resurrection.


(Tim Ramey) #18

@khooks03 @SeanO @jspare @cer7
Thanks for all of your input. It gives me a lot to think about.

If I could respond to a few points. I agree with the consensus in Matt 14 regarding Herod. I only included him because here was another one writing about someone rising from the dead.

I still want to ask why the responses to Jesus in Matt 16 were all people who lived formerly?

As for John 9, I liked what were mentioned in your posts. Katherine, I do have a question for your husband because I don’t think I understood you correctly. It seems as if he is saying that though the writers knew that the man was born blind but not the disciples. I think I didn’t get it right because John says that the disciples asked which of the 2 sinned so that they know. So I don’t think I fully caught his comeback.

Joshua, I really appreciated your thought in this quote below and I think that @cer7, you might have been saying the same thing. This was an option that I never considered.

Thanks again everyone. I do know that the Pharisees believed in the resurrection but Matt 16 still seems odd to me that the only answers that the disciples give Him ave all died, unless they meant one of the prophets as a new prophet but in saying next to Jeremiah, they seem to imply one who has died. Why weren’t any answers except Peter’s right answer, a person or profession that was alive?

Thanks again for some great remarks…


(C Rhodes) #19

@Tim_Ramey. I think it follows that they would name individuals who lived in the written and oral history of their day. However, the question answered was about what others were saying who JESUS is. Sometimes I believe people link identity to the past if, for no other reason than the past is known, the future is uncertain.

Maybe the thinking might be that the names of the dead are invoked because there is an expectation that an identity could be assumed only if one had been vacated. That might seem to be reincarnation if those prophets had actually returned at least in the form of the ministry that they had previously. But what JESUS did exceeded all prophets before Him. Those who thought he might be a resurrected prophet would soon discover, there was none like Him. Previously, presently, or in the future.

People say the same thing about me. When they see me, they call me by my Grandmother’s name. Even when looking in the mirror, I can see my Grandmother in my features. We have similar qualities both natural and spiritual. But I am not my Grandmother. Also, when I look in the mirror, I do not ponder if a contemporary or younger person is mirrored in my features. By reason of my age, they can look like me, or like our parents; but, I can not look like them and neither one of us is the other. We draw our identity from the past. Only in JESUS are we able to achieve identity divorced from our past. It is a promise. All that we should have been but were not GOD discards into the sea of forgetfulness. Living for CHRIST could easily be characterized as an evolving resurrection.

Likewise, we possess the qualities of the Lord, but not one of us is JESUS. Yet, all our living is about becoming more like Him. To be living testaments to a fallen world. To reflect the image of GOD in all we do. But, we are not the reincarnation of JESUS, neither are we GOD.

I think their answers were reasonable and hid no dual meaning or reference to reincarnation.


(Carson Weitnauer) #20

Hi Tim,

Here’s another way to approach this question:

What clear, plain evidence is there that first century Palestinian Jews believed in reincarnation?

That is, not what comments could we possibly read as meaning reincarnation. But rather, from this time period, geography, and religious context, what statements can be found in the historical record that specifically speak about reincarnation?

For instance, what if someone suggested to you that when Jesus said in John 17, “that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you” that he was predicting the internet? You can see a kind of connection between this statement and the internet, but it isn’t reasonable to think that is what Jesus meant. The internet just wasn’t a topic of conversation for Jesus and his disciples.

Likewise, neither was reincarnation. So, it is reading our understanding of reincarnation into the text when this idea was foreign to the theological and sociopolitical environment of this time.