Thursday, March 6, 2014

Resurrection belief in pre-Christian Judaism

On p. 152 of John Drane's Introducing the New Testament, he says that "The disciples themselves had no expectation at all that a dead person might be resurrected." Similarly, on p. 156, he says "at the time of Jesus…most Jews would have had no concept of resurrection."

Both of these statements are questionable because both the Bible and scholarship do indeed support that there was resurrection belief in Judaism prior to the life of Jesus. For example, John 11:24 says "Martha said, 'I know that he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.'" Clearly, this quote suggests that at least Martha had an expectation of a general resurrection of the Jews. It's unlikely she thought of this herself, especially in light of additional passages on the subject.

Matthew 22:30 records Jesus responding to the Sadducees that "in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage but are like angels in heaven." In verse 29, Jesus qualifies his statement by adding that what he is saying is supported by "the Scriptures." This would most certainly indicate that he is referring to a belief that should be considered authoritative by any orthodox Jew.

Jesus says that "you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous” in Luke 14:14. It is possible that he is referring to a belief that is not shared by all. His comments about being repaid seem to be made in the context of common conversation, not something theologically erudite, such as in cryptic parables. His resurrection comment is couched in these terms which makes it more likely to be something easily recognizable by his listeners. Moreover, he provides no additional commentary either to the guests or to the disciples further suggesting something not exclusive to himself.

In addition to these scriptures, N. T. Wright surveys resurrection belief in biblical era cultures, including Judaism, on pp. 85-207 of The Resurrection of the Son of God. He contextualizes early Christian resurrection belief by stating that "'Resurrection' is not part of the pagan hope. If the idea belongs anywhere, it is within the world of Judaism." (p. 85)

The importance of this realization is that the Christian belief in resurrection wasn't illicitly imported from foreign cultures. There was an expectation of the general resurrection of the dead in Judaism in which all of God's people would arise with resurrection bodies. On this point, Wright traces through the Old Testament and later Jewish writings a nationalistic new hope that arose after particular challenges and the common theme of restoration for God's people. This hope was based on Yahweh's providence, justice and mercy. There was no force, whether earthly or supernatural, that could prevent God's people, including those who had passed, from partaking in that new hope.

Thus, Drane goes astray when he attempts to bolster the reliability of the resurrection stories by arguing that the unique perspectives offered by the Gospel authors is evidence of their historicity. He is responding to the criticism that the resurrection of Jesus was a later invention to rescue the movement from the ignominious death of its luminary. The line of argumentation is superfluous since it is based on a faulty premise. This is unfortunately exacerbated when he makes the comments that "the various accounts are not easy to reconcile with one another" and "that the disciples did not tell a logical and coherent story." (p. 152) Much of Christian scholarship has had little trouble with these perceived issues. In fact, it's hard to imagine that Christianity could survive if the resurrection accounts were as problematic as he suggests, especially in light of Paul's statement in 1 Corinthians 15:14. Paul states unambiguously that the resurrection is the central fact to Christian belief. If that is the case and the accounts are incoherent, Christianity would seemingly crumble or fracture beyond recognition. Furthermore, the fact that there was sharp polemical dispute between Sadducees and others on the matter shows that Drane is mistaken. If he were right, there would be no reason for anyone to disagree with the Sadducees, much less as vehemently as they did. (mBerekoth 9.5)

Drane makes an intriguing point that the instances when resurrection was mentioned in the New Testament are not done so in the context of scriptural quotations, as had happened in conversations on other topics. However, this is not a conclusive point for a couple of reasons. First, scriptural quotation is not solely indicative of religious belief. It is possible, even likely, that resurrection belief incubated among the people apart from scripture yet, was no less orthodox than legal beliefs. In fact, messianic belief could be said to have developed similarly. Neither the temple nor the Holy Land were scriptural yet, both are further examples of things the Jews would have considered absolutely indispensible to their religious gestalt. Concordantly, Drane's response to the reliability challenge cuts both ways. As opposed to his perspective that the accounts are abrupt and disjointed, the fact that early Christians had no problem incorporating the resurrection into their praxis suggests that perhaps it wasn't so alien to begin with. This dovetails nicely with the idea that Jesus saw himself as a course correction for Judaism in and through his person; they had lost their way in turning to legal compliance and obligation. In the same way, Jesus' resurrection can serve to clarify the knowledge of resurrection latent within Judaism based on his exemplar. Second, Jesus is the person typically quoting scripture in the Gospels, not others. Thus, it is not entirely out of place that Martha comments on the subject without reference to scripture. Additionally, Jesus saw himself as equally authoritative to the scriptures and on multiple occasions makes statements that are derived from himself, not scripture. Therefore, him not quoting scripture on the matter is not conclusive that the belief didn't exist in Judaism.

Drane's citation of Mark 9:9, 10 is especially weak given that the disciples weren't necessarily referring to the general resurrection of the dead but, to the particular death of Jesus since he had just commented on it.

The one statement on the matter that Drane does get correct is that there was no conception among Jews that the messiah was to suffer physical death, much less need resurrection. This was certainly a point of confusion for those of "the way" after Jesus' death and prior to his resurrection.


Perhaps a better response to the challenge of the historicity of the accounts is in the reliability of the Gospel accounts in general, which has been well established by New Testament scholarship, and by the advent of the Christian movement. Something has to account for the sudden and profound transformation of Jesus' disciples. Their zeal and passion for their cause can best be explained by the reality of the resurrection. In writing a historical survey of the New Testament, Drane would probably prefer to not appeal to a more polemical response as these last two points yet, they possess inimitable explanatory power.

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