The God of the Living: The Master on the Resurrection

The Master and His disciples had much more in common with the Pharisees than the Sadducees.


GospelsNov 15, 2016

GospelsNov 15, 2016


Plaque with three saints rising from the dead, Limoges artwork, circa 1250, Victoria and Albert Museum, 1945: purchased from Sir Montgomerie Fairfax-Lucy. (Image: Wikimedia Commons, public domain).

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In the days of the Second Temple Period there were many different sects and groups in Judaism, yet the Master seems to primarily deal with only two of them: the Pharisees and the Sadducees.

Although there were many differences between these two prominent groups, the issue that seems to come up the most is that of the resurrection.

The Sadducees did not believe in a resurrection, while the Pharisees did. Josephus who claims to have spent time with the Sadducees records these beliefs for us in his writings. He states that their doctrine concerning death is “that souls die with the body” and that they do not believe in the “immortal duration of the soul, and the punishments and rewards in Hades.”[1] It was the issue of the resurrection of the dead that irritated the Sadducees about the followers of Yeshua:

As [the disciples] were speaking to the people, the priests and the captain of the temple guard and the Sadducees came up to them, being greatly disturbed because they were teaching the people and proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection from the dead. (Acts 4:1-2)

Due to the constant bickering and dissention between the two groups over this topic, Paul was able to distract the Sanhedrin by saying that the disputes with him are merely about his belief in the resurrection of the dead. [2]

One of the reasons that the Sadducees did not believe in the resurrection is that it is difficult to see it in the literal exegesis of the Hebrew Scriptures. Whereas the Pharisees were skilled in the area of midrash, which often probed beyond the literal meaning within the Scriptures, the Sadducees were strict literalists. Orthodox Jewish scholar Pinchas Lapide sums it up nicely:

Since the resurrection of the dead is mentioned nowhere in the Hebrew Bible explicitly, it was rejected by the Sadducees. [3]

Because it is not easy to derive explicitly the resurrection from the Torah, this caused the Pharisees and their predecessors to come under scrutiny for this belief. In the accounts we have recorded in rabbinic literature it is the non-believers who are on the offense attacking the sages. It often begins with what is called a divrei borut (foolish question), which were “mocking questions, designed to ridicule a belief of a Rabbi.” [4] It often appears that the antagonists are not looking for answers but rather attempting to poke fun. For example:

Will the dead in the hereafter require to be sprinkled upon on the third and the seventh or will they not require it? He replied: When they will be resurrected we shall go into the matter. Others say: When our Master Moses will come with them. (b.Niddah 70b)

The question is based on the laws of corpse purity found in Numbers 19. The questioners here are Alexandrians and they are trying to point out how silly the resurrection is by asking if the dead will have to be purified because they come in contact with themselves. The sages respond tongue in cheek by saying we’ll worry about it when the resurrection happens.

Paul the Pharisee joins in this dialogue as well. In 1 Corinthians 15, he dedicates an entire chapter to the resurrection. It appears from his writings that there were believers in Messiah who did not believe in the resurrection. As was the case in the sages’ above discussion with the Alexandrians, many Gentiles coming from a Greek background must have had a difficult time believing in the resurrection.

One entire section of the Talmud records disputes that the rabbis were having with sectarians (which most definitely included Sadducees) trying to prove the resurrection from Scripture. Here’s one example of the dialogue:

How is resurrection derived from the Torah? ... It has been taught: Rabbi Simai said: “Whence do we learn resurrection from the Torah?—From the verse, ‘And I also have established my covenant with them [the Patriarchs], to give them the land of Canaan’ (Exodus 6:4), “[to give] you” is not said, but “to give them” [personally]’; thus resurrection is proved from the Torah.” (b.Sanhedrin 90b)

The proof is that God promises to give the land of Canaan to the patriarchs in the future, and at the time He is saying this they have already died. Therefore, there must be a resurrection in the future so that these words can literally be fulfilled beyond their simple semantic meaning. This type of interpretation relies heavily on midrash and we could almost say it is hanging by a thread: one word in Hebrew [lahem, “to them”] to be exact. Does this method of exegesis sound familiar? It should, because this is exactly what the Master uses when He is discussing the resurrection with the Sadducees. The discussion is found in all three Synoptic Gospels and, as with many of the rabbinic debates, it opens with a divrei borut (foolish question):

Some Sadducees (who say that there is no resurrection) came to Jesus, and began questioning Him, saying, “Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies and leaves behind a wife and leaves no child, his brother should marry the wife and raise up children to his brother. There were seven brothers; and the first took a wife, and died leaving no children. The second one married her, and died leaving behind no children; and the third likewise; and so all seven left no children. Last of all the woman died also. In the resurrection, when they rise again, which one's wife will she be? For all seven had married her.” (Mark 12:18-23)

The question surrounds the regulations of the Yibbum [Levirate marriage] where if a man dies childless it is his brother's responsibility to marry his widow and give the deceased brother offspring. [5] Yet, most likely the Sadducees were not looking for an answer to their question but rather set out to ridicule Yeshua. [6] His answer is sharp and to the point:

Yeshua said to them, “Is this not the reason you are mistaken, that you do not understand the Scriptures or the power of God? For when they rise from the dead, they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven. But regarding the fact that the dead rise again, have you not read in the book of Moses, in the passage about the burning bush, how God spoke to him, saying, ‘I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob?’ He is not the God of the dead, but of the living; you are greatly mistaken.” (Mark 12:24-27)

Yeshua opens His rebuttal by telling the Sadducees that they do not know the Scriptures or the power of God. It is possible that by saying “you do not understand the Scriptures,” He was taking a jab at their wooden interpretations. Add to that the fact that in Hebrew thought God’s ultimate power was displayed in the resurrection of the dead and the Sadducees are limiting that. Some scholars believe that when Yeshua says, “You do not understand … the power of God,” He is referring to the Second Benediction of the Amidah, a prayer entitled Gevurot, which means “powers.” It speaks about God’s ability to resurrect the dead: [7]

You are powerful, humbling the proud; strong and judging the violent; alive forever, raising the dead; making the wind blow and dew fall; sustaining the living, reviving the dead. Like a fluttering of an eye, make our salvation sprout. Blessed are you, LORD, reviving the dead. [8]

The Amidah was a prayer that was said several times daily by observant Jews and it was the nucleus of all liturgical services. If the Amidah was being prayed in a similar form in the first century, the Sadducees obviously would not have recited this benediction and would have been very uncomfortable with it.

Then the Master proceeds to show proof for the resurrection from the words of Torah. He cites Exodus 3:6 where HaShem states that He is the God of the Patriarchs. [9] Just as rabbinic arguments often hinge on single words or points of grammar, so Yeshua's interpretation hangs on the present tense of the Hebrew sentence. God did not say “I was the God of Abraham” but “I am.”

Yeshua then argues that if God is the God of the living and not of the dead, the patriarchs must still be alive and therefore there will be a resurrection. [10] He appeals to God’s covenant-keeping nature, which permeates this section of the book of Exodus. God will always be faithful to fulfill His promises and one of them is the resurrection. The book of Maccabees has a similar logic:.

They knew also that those who die for the sake of God live in God, as do Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the patriarchs. (4 Maccabees 16:25) [11]

The Master, like the sages, is using a midrashic method. [12] Notice as well how He impresses the scribes with His exegesis style when they respond, “Teacher, You have spoken well.” [13]

After these events we read in Luke’s gospel, “They did not have courage to question Him any longer about anything.” [14] Yeshua had silenced His opposition with a swift and poignant defense from Scripture and the character of His Father in heaven.

The Master was well at home within the world of rabbinic exegesis, and the more we study the more we find that He and His disciples had much more in common with the Pharisees than the Sadducees. Nowhere else do we see this so vividly than in the area of the resurrection of the dead, which includes the resurrection of the Master. Lapide sums it up nicely:

If the apostles had been Sadducees, then Good Friday would have meant for them the extinction of all hope and the final breakdown of the Jesus movement. [15]

Footnotes:
  1. Antiquities of the Jews 18.1.4 §16 and Wars of the Jews. 2.8.14 §165.
  2. Acts 23:6-8.
  3. Pinchas Lapide, The Resurrection of Jesus: A Jewish Perspective (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2002), 59.
  4. David Daube, The New Testament and Rabbinic Judaism (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1998), 159.
  5. Deuteronomy 25:5-10.
  6. Another clue that this is not a reasonable question is the ruling by the sages that if a woman was married several times (the argument is over whether it is two or three times) and her husbands die she should not be wed again. See t.Shabbat 15:8.
  7. David Instone-Brewer, Traditions of the Rabbis form the Era of the New Testament: Volume 1 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2004), 115-116.
  8. This ancient version was found in the Genizah of the Ben Ezra Synagogue in Cairo and may date back to the tenth century. Instone-Brewer, Traditions of the Rabbis form the Era of the New Testament: Volume 1, 97-98.
  9. Yeshua introduces this quote with the Greek term de, “but.” We find equivalents in Hebrew to this being used in rabbinic exegesis in order to correct, qualify, or underscore a particular understanding of a verse, for example m.Rosh HaShanah 3:2, 8. See E. Earle Ellis, The Old Testament in Early Christianity (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1991), 84-86.
  10. Lapide has suggested that here Yeshua is citing Jeremiah 10:10 where it is stated, “He is the living God,” which could be translated “He is the God of the Living.” See Lapide, The Resurrection of Jesus, 60.
  11. See also 4 Maccabees 7:18-19.
  12. Kimball suggests that He is using Hillel’s third rule of interpretation banyan ‘ab mikatub ‘ehad where a general principle is derived from one verse. See Charles A. Kimball, Jesus’ Exposition of the Old Testament in Luke’s Gospel (Sheffield, England: Sheffield Academic, 1994), 119-174.
  13. Luke 20:39.
  14. Luke 20:40. This phrase is found in different locations in the other two Synoptic Gospels. David Bivin suggests it fits well here in Luke because in Luke chapter 20 this is the fourth interchange with the priestly authorities (Sadducees) and the Master has finally silenced them. David Bivin, “Evidence of an Editor’s Hand” in Jesus’ Last Week: Jerusalem Studies in the Synoptic Gospels - Volume 1 (Boston, MA: Brill, 2006), 221-223.
  15. Lapide, The Resurrection of Jesus, 65.
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About the Author: Toby Janicki is a teacher, writer, and project manager for First Fruits of Zion and Vine of David. He contributes regularly to Messiah Journal and has written several books including God-Fearers: Gentiles and the God of Israel. More articles by Toby Janicki

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