First Century Jewish Thought
NCW 75, April-June 2002
Q. Is there any evidence that a doctrine of pre-existence was common in Jewish thought in the first century? And was their belief identical to that of the modern New Covenant Church?
A. Traditional rabbinical Judaism believed that all souls had an existence before they were born, evidence for which is found in the story of the man born blind, the reasons the disciples ascribed to it, and (in this instance) the actual reason given by Yah'shua (Jesus) (Jn.9). However, one rather odd belief of the Jews at this time is that the pre-existent soul was unconscious - a kind of "reverse soul-sleeping" - a teaching which is not accepted by New Covenant Christians. By the time of Christ and the apostles, Talmudic Jewish thought had embraced many unbiblical notions which found their way into Roman Catholicism, which is rather ironic in view of that Church's anti-Semitism. The Rabbis believed that at death souls entered Gehenna (a kind of Purgatory) to be punished for their sins and purified (an idea which was also adopted by Mohammed), though they believed no-one spent more than one year there. As a result of this, the Talmudic kaddishim, or prayers for the dead, are only said for twelve months ... or sometimes less to 'prove' that their relatives "really weren't that bad". They believed that only a small select group were doomed to remain behind forever in Gehenna (hell), an idea which encouraged liberality in all but the worst kinds of sin.
So, yes, there was a doctrine of pre-existence amongst the first century Jews which Yah'shua (Jesus) never attempted to correct, implying that it was a true doctrine, even if the details might have been wrong. (For a recent discussion, see Did We Have a Premortal Existence? in NCW 74:50-53).
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