This is part of a continuing series started as an answer to the Discovery Channel documentary, “The Lost Tomb of Jesus.” If you have not already, click on the “Jesus-Tomb” category to the right and start reading at the bottom to read compelling criticisms of the documentary. This post is part of my summary of a much better hypothesis: that the bodily resurrection of Yeshua is the truth. I am following the case made by N.T. Wright in The Resurrection of the Son of God.
Last time we looked at views of afterlife and resurrection in the Hebrew Bible. This time, we are considering views of afterlife and resurrection from the time of Yeshua in the Jewish world.
For starters, it is important to distinguish between two separate issues: afterlife and resurrection. Afterlife means existence after death in any form. Resurrection specifically means a return to bodily existence after a period of being dead. It is possible — in fact it is what Christians, Jews, and Messianic Jews believe — that both afterlife and resurrection are true.
The afterlife, according to New Testament doctrine, begins at death. The faithful are taken into God’s presence and live a disembodied existence waiting for the resurrection. The resurrection happens at the return of Yeshua (some think it happens seven years prior to his return).
When it comes to understanding Jewish views of afterlife and resurrection in the time of Yeshua, the first thing to know is that there were multiple views. Most famously, the Sadducees did not believe in afterlife or resurrection, while the Pharisees believed in both. I won’t go on and on with this point, but I will simply point you to two New Testament passages in which the Sadducees are at odds with the Yeshua-movement and the Pharisees over afterlife and resurrection: Matthew 22:23-33 and Acts 23:7-9.
The Sadducean denial of afterlife was hardly unusual. Other Jewish writings from the 2nd Temple period evidence the same view. N.T. Wright quotes Sirach (Ecclesiasticus) as saying things like, “Do not forget, there is no coming back,” “In Hades one cannot look for luxury,” and “From the dead, thanksgiving has ceased” (Sirach 38:21-23, 14:16, 17:27).
How could Jewish groups deny the afterlife and the resurrection at this late date? Hadn’t they read Isaiah 26:19 and Daniel 12:2? Yes, but they had also read Ecclesiastes and Job and other writings. They were aware of the teaching that death is the end, that no one returns. They did not see that this is not the final word on the subject, that death appears to be final but is not. They did not integrate Isaiah 26:19 or Daniel 12:2 into their theology.
But many Jewish groups, probably the majority, did believe in afterlife and resurrection in Yeshua’s time. In addition to the evidence from the New Testament (Matt. 22 and Acts 23, cited earlier) that afterlife and resurrection were common views, there are other writings from the period that affirm them. Here are a few samples:
Let us not fear him who thinks he is killing us, for great is the struggle of the soul and the danger of eternal torment lying before those who transgress the commandment of God. Therefore, let us put on the full armor of self-control, which is divine reason. For if we so die, Abraham and Isaac and Jacob will welcome us, and all the fathers will praise us. (4 Maccabees 13:13-17, see also 18:23f.)
The Lord of the Spirits will abide over them; they shall eat and rest and rise with that Son of Man forever and ever. The righteous and elect ones shall rise from the earth and shall cease being of downcast face. They shall wear garments of glory. (1 Enoch 62:13-15).
I told you that to dust you shall return. Now I promise you the resurrection; I shall raise you on the last day in the resurrection with every man of your seed. (Life of Adam and Eve 41:3).
Those who died in sorrow shall be raised in joy; and those who died in poverty for the Lord’s sake shall be made rich; those who died on account of the Lord shall be wakened to life. (Testament of Judah 25:4).
I could go on with more quotes. But the clear evidence from Jewish literature of the time is that both afterlife and resurrection were common Jewish views.
What is the importance of establishing that resurrection is a Jewish doctrine and one that comes from the Hebrew Bible? It is important to know that the resurrection of Yeshua had a meaning in the life and context of Israel. Yeshua’s resurrection was not, as some have charged, a Greek myth inserted into a Jewish story. Also, as we consider the reality and meaning of Yeshua’s resurrection, we will see that it had meaning for his Jewish contemporaries. Yeshua’s resurrection was not a Christian event, but a Jewish one. It meant something: the inbreaking of the Kingdom of Heaven, the inauguration of the Age to Come.
Next time: A Survey of Early Christian Writings on the Resurrection (i.e. the New Testament).