Resurrection: The Power of God for Christians and Jews
by Kevin J. Madigan and Jon D. Levenson
Yale University Press, 304 pages, $30
The idea of the resurrection of the dead is basic to both rabbinic Judaism and early Christianity. As Paul wrote, “If Christ has not been raised then our proclamation has been in vain.” Meanwhile, rabbinic Jews affirmed in prayer three times a day that the God of Israel is one “who revives the dead.”
Yet the affirmation was not an easy sell. It was deeply contested in Second Temple Judaism. One of the major Jewish sects in Jesus' day, the Sadducees, denied it. And even Christianity, a religion founded on the notion, had its deniers as well—most notably the Gnostics.
The difficulties with the doctrine of resurrection did not disappear after the victories of the Pharisaic party in Judaism and the orthodox in early Christianity. In the modern era, all these problems have returned.
Their presence is most obvious in the Reform branch of modern Judaism, which altered the traditional prayer book to soften or even erase the affirmation that God will raise the body from the dead at the end of time. Abraham Geiger, a major thinker in the nineteenth-century Reform movement, declared that the idea of a postmortem existence “should not be expressed in terms which suggest a future revival, a resurrection of the body; rather they must stress the immortality of the soul.”
Christians have been a bit more immune to this temptation but not completely. Elaine Pagels, among others, has argued that the success of the affirmation of a bodily resurrection was due to the way it functioned in the early Church, as it served to legitimate the authority of a narrow circle of bishops. Absent that political function, she avers, Christianity would have turned out differently.
What animates Kevin Madigan and Jon Levenson in their new book, Resurrection, however, is the traction this modern view has had on the historical-critical study of the Bible. Scholarship has correctly emphasized the difference between the Pharisaic support for resurrection and the Hebrew Bible's apparent lack of support. Not until the last-written book in the Hebrew Bible—the Book of Daniel, from the second century b.c.—do we find a biblical affirmation that God will raise the dead to eternal life. Some scholars have even suggested that the notion of resurrection comes from Zoroastrian sources and is thus wholly foreign to the religion of the Torah.
There is no doubt that the evidence from the ancient Near East is clear: All those who die descend to the netherworld, from which they shall never return. Indeed, one of the names of the netherworld in ancient Mesopotamia is “the land of no return.” The entire plot of the Gilgamesh epic turns on the notion that all the dead are doomed to an ignoble existence. The Bible has a similar description of Sheol. When the Psalmist asks, in Psalm 30, whether the dust can praise God, the answer he expects is a resounding no.
And yet this is not the full story. Madigan and Levenson note a striking asymmetry in the Bible. It is not the case that everyone descends to Sheol. Surprisingly, those who live long lives and survive to see their children and grandchildren are exempted from such a fate. Sheol, it seems, is limited to those who die prematurely, bereft of children or in some other tragic circumstance. This is not to say that the blessed enjoy the beatific vision—that idea still waits its time. But, in the biblical world, which constructed the notion of personal identity in deeply familial terms, the righteous did not descend to Sheol; they were gathered to their fathers while their memory was preserved among their offspring. Sheol, as a destination, is almost never used to describe their end.
This unique feature of biblical religion has often gone unnoticed. And one can say more. Death in the Hebrew Bible was not imagined in medical terms, as in the absence of vital signs. Death was a dynamic category that the ill, the barren, and the exile could enter even in this life. When Hannah in 1 Samuel says that the Lord “kills and brings to life; he brings down to Sheol and raises up,” she means that God can supernaturally intervene and alter the conditions of the downtrodden. As a wife who could not bear children, she was, as it were, numbered among the dead; as a jubilant mother, she was raised anew.
In Genesis, Jacob also described himself as one bound for Sheol when he lost his beloved son Joseph, but his spirit came back to life upon Joseph's miraculous return. When Jacob finally sees Joseph face to face, he declares that he is now ready to die, but strikingly no mention is made of descending to Sheol. The contrast to his earlier lamentation could not be clearer: God is stronger than death; Sheol could not contain the man so deeply favored by God.
The same could be said for Tobit when his sight was restored and his son returns home as a married man ready to embark on a family. In all these instances, we see God intervene in the natural order of things to restore to life those who had considered themselves among the dead. (Indeed, Tobit had given himself up for dead and had already given his last will and testament in chapter 4.) These instances of resurrection were felt to be just as supernatural and divinely ordered as their latter counterpart would be.
Resurrection in a form close to what we have come to recognize makes its appearance in the prophet Ezekiel. This prophet was led into a valley that was filled with dry bones. God asked the prophet, “Mortal, can these bones live?” In spite of the terrible odds against such a thing, the prophet responded adroitly, “O Lord God, you know.” God then ordered the prophet to address the bones in prophecy. When he does, they knit themselves back to life.
Though the text clearly identifies this miracle as a parable of Israel's restoration from exile, one cannot dismiss this act of reanimation as simply a literary figure. As Levenson and Madigan argue, “If resurrection were thought ludicrous, or impossible, even for God, then it would be a singularly inappropriate metaphor for the national renewal and restoration that Ezekiel predicts.” Just as Hannah had asserted, God's power extends even to Sheol. His claim to be able to raise the physically dead is of a piece with his claim to save the downtrodden, the ill, and the barren through equally supernatural means.
The crucial point to be attended to here is that, when the idea of a physical resurrection finally appears (incipiently in Ezekiel and fully in Daniel), it builds on a biblical foundation. This Second Temple notion is organically related to First Temple literature; it is not a foreign intrusion. It finds a ready home in the biblical text that curiously—even in its most archaic past—chose not to consign all the righteous to the underworld. For centuries, biblical writers had celebrated the myriad ways in which God altered the course of nature so as to restore his chosen ones from the various forms of death in which they found themselves: illness, barrenness, exile, and captivity, to name the most important. When God intervened to raise Jesus from the dead, the categories for understanding this event were already well situated in contemporary Judaism.
It is truly surprising then that contemporary “pluralists” like Pagels are so positive in their assessments of ancient Gnosticism. Had the Gnostics won the day, the Church's ties to the synagogue would have been greatly impoverished. What is desirable about that? Moreover, the rich connections that Paul established between the sacrament of baptism and the resurrected Christ would never have come to full flower. The Eucharist as well would be nearly unintelligible apart from the eschatological chords it strikes so profoundly.
In Resurrection, Madigan and Levenson provide a unique and groundbreaking entry into the concept of resurrection. As such, the book is truly a landmark work. I could imagine developing a course that would begin with this Resurrection, continue to N.T. Wright's volume on the historicity of New Testament accounts, and conclude with Carolyn Walker Bynum's treatment of the idea in patristic and medieval sources. Armed with these materials, one could mark out an intelligent path from the earliest materials in the Hebrew Bible to Dante's portrayal of the final end of humanity in the beatific vision.
Gary A. Anderson is professor of Old Testament at the University of Notre Dame.