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Life After Death: A History of the Afterlife in Western Religion Hardcover – July 13, 2004

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

This monumental study combines history, geography, mythology, archaeology and anthropology with biblical text analysis. Segal, a professor of Jewish studies at Barnard College, spent 10 years on this project, but the erudition he displays is undoubtedly the result of a lifetime of scholarship. In every culture, people ask the same fundamental questions about their existence, including "what happens after we die?" Although Segal maintains that answers to that question lie "beyond confirmation or disconfirmation in the scientific sense," he offers a comprehensive overview of how the afterlife is understood in the three main Western religions. He thoroughly examines early influences from Egypt, Mesopotamia, Canaan, Iran and Greece, then analyzes Jewish views as expressed in the first and second temple periods, the book of Daniel, the Dead Sea scrolls and writings from and about New Testament times, the early rabbis, mysticism and fundamentalism. For Christianity, systematic attention is given to Paul, the Gospels, the pseudepigraphic literature and the Church Fathers. Segal also scans Muslim beliefs as they appear in the Qur'an and the writings of Shi'a mystics and modern fundamentalists. The introductory and concluding chapters provide the essence of the presentation, enlivened by quotations from Shakespeare. Impatient readers may begin with these two chapters as a guide to determining which other sections of the book warrant further scrutiny. Careful readers, however, will take the trouble and the time to pore over this impressive contribution to our understanding of human belief and behavior.
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Praise for Alan F. Segal’s Paul the Convert

“Bold and imaginative.” —Paula Fredriksen, Books & Religion

“Alan Segal’s new book challenges Jewish and Christian scholars alike to take a fresh look at this well-educated man, arguing not only that it is impossible to understand Paul’s Christian writings without understanding first-century Judaism but that early Hellenistic Judaism is itself illuminated by Paul, since he was one of only two Pharisees to have left any personal writings at all.” —The Washington Post Book World

“This is a thoughtful, demanding book that the serious student of Paul will find well worth the effort.” —Bible Today

“Segal’s work abounds in fresh insights for students of Paul.” —F. F. Bruce, American Historical Review

“A brilliantly argued book. . . . Paul is neither hero nor villain for Segal but a fascinating historical and religious character, from whom we can learn much about both Judaism and Christianity. . . . I found myself thoroughly sympathetic to Segal’s portrayal of Paul. More than that, I found myself convinced.” —J. Christian Wilson, The Christian Century

“Elegantly produced. . . . Segal considers Paul’s Pharisaic education and training as well as the Jewish context of his religious struggle after he became a Christian. He treats Paul as a Jew, a convert, and an apostle, and places his conversion from Pharisaism to Christianity in the context of his society and his mission to the Gentiles.” —America

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 880 pages
  • Publisher: Doubleday Religion; First Edition edition (July 13, 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0385422997
  • ISBN-13: 978-0385422994
  • Product Dimensions: 6.7 x 2 x 9.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 3 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (17 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #139,816 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

31 of 31 people found the following review helpful By Brian Bear on September 21, 2005
Format: Hardcover
Alan F. Segal's book "Life After Death" is my first read of his work, and certainly the most massive book I have read in some time. Considering the sheer scope of the topic Segal has attempted to cover, the size of the book should come as no surprise. However, the physical weight is where the "weightiness" ends.

Now, before you freak out about over 700 pages of text on life after death, it should be emphasised that Segal writes in a very accessible and easy going manner. A few of the words he uses require a dictionary, (at least, I needed one), but the incidence of this was not a burden. Segal keeps you moving and presents a great level of quotation from ancient sources to highlight his points. His manner and style of presentation and discussion are absolutely fantastic.

Segal presents the beliefs of different cultures from a more social viewpoint than anything, and deals with how these beliefs can illustrate what the people thought of about themselves and the world about them. What you end up with is a very interesting discussion not just on life after death, but also some of the political, cultural and social concerns that went into them. This makes for a very well-rounded discussion.

Segal takes you through various cultures and civilisations, and throughout he inter-connects various ideas between them to show how they illustrate each other by contrast or simularity. These cultures include chapters on Ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia and Canaan, Israelite, (broken into various chapters), and much more, including detailed chapters on Christian views and their development through the centuries.

This book is really a great overview of the topic, and it is relatively easy to find from Segal's referencing further material for more specific reading.
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15 of 16 people found the following review helpful By John Matlock on November 9, 2004
Format: Hardcover
Humans are, so far as we know, the only animal that concerns itself with what happens to us after we die. We don't even like to use the word die, we say passed away, crossed the river Jordan, or other terms. ==A major aspect of western religion is defining life after death. And in this monumental work, the origin and evolution of afterlife thoughts are traced. He begins with the Egyptions, where a life after death theology began to be developed. He thoroughly examines other early cultures such as Mesopotamia, Canaan, Greece, etc.

Finally he gets into the big three of western religions, first he covers Jewish views (Dr. Segal is a professor of Jewish studies at Columbia). Christian views come largely from Paul (Dr. Segal wrote a definitive book on Paul.) and the Gospels. For Islam, of course the Qur'an and some of the more modern writings are used.

In spite of the books large size (about 730 pages of text plus 150 pages of notes) it is fascinating enough and well written enough that it is relatively easy reading.
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31 of 39 people found the following review helpful By Norman F. Birnberg on July 16, 2004
Format: Hardcover
Alan Segal's tour de force is in the French tradition of the "longue duree" approach to social history. "Life After Death" follows the late Phillippe Aries's magisterial "The Hour Of Our Death" back in the 1980s but where it differs from its predecessor is its not concerned so much with the "ars moriendi," the so called art of dying as it is with how Western religions and philosophies have dealt with the hereafter down through the ages. At nearly 800 pages its an exhaustive treatment on a subject people have speculated on since the dawn of civilization and when you finish it, its clear most of mankind will never be reconciled to the notion this life is all there is. Highly recommended reading.
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful By D. Gebhard on May 31, 2008
Format: Hardcover
For many Christians, recitation of the Apostles' Creed is a rote part of Sunday morning's liturgy. And most worshipers more than likely routinely repeat phrases they've repeated Sunday after Sunday without giving much or any thought to what they're saying. "Resurrection of the dead" I suspect is one of those affirmations that roll politely off the tongue while conveniently by-passing the gray matter. My hunch is that people assume they're making a belief statement about the resurrection of Jesus not their own physical, corporeal resurrection.

Segal's book picks up where Oscar Cullman left off and goes into exhaustive and fascinating detail as to how the idea of an afterlife came to be in the Western world. Cullman's little book (Immortality of the Soul or Resurrection of the Dead) is must reading. In less than a hundred pages, Cullman details the differences between the pagan notion of an immortal soul and the Jewish/Christian belief in the resurrection of the dead--real bodies being raised in the last days. Life After Death begins with those same pagans and then offers an extremely well-documented history of various religion's views of the afterlife. This is not an afternoon read.

What I found most fascinating about Segal's book was the way he demonstrated the connection between the different philosophical ideas and the religious belief system(s) that inherited or appropriated its predecessor. One must make a leap of faith at times with his connections (no proof can be made that an early Christian said, "Plato's Phaedra makes sense to me!"), but the bridges he makes are convincing and cited with care. Gnosticism is but one compelling example of such a connection.

Apart from the historical aspect, one may ask, "So what? What difference does it make?
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