This week’s readings are here.
The Gospel reading this week is one of the most interesting pericopes in any of the gospels. It offers a view into the world of first-century Judaism and the lively debates that were occurring over the nature of scripture, of scriptural authority, and of the doctrine of the resurrection.
First, a little background. Jesus has come to the end of his lengthy journey to Jerusalem (it began back in chapter 9 of Luke’s gospel; for us it began back in June). We’ve jumped over the Triumphal Entry and the Cleansing of the Temple. Luke has returned to Mark’s chronology here and like Mark, he has Jesus teaching in the Temple. As he teaches, he is confronted by various groups of his opponents–Pharisees, for example. They pose questions to him, they are seeking to trap him in some way so they can bring him up on charges.
In this week’s gospel, the group challenging Jesus are the Sadducees. They are aristocratic, well-connected, conservative. It’s likely that they are among the chief beneficiaries of Roman rule. As leaders of the Temple cult, they are also in position to benefit economically from their position. We know relatively little about them; in fact, much of our knowledge derives from what the gospel writers tell us in this incident. They reject the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead. It’s also the case that they believe only the Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible are authoritative. That narrow understanding of scripture helps to explain why they reject the doctrine of the resurrection. It’s very hard to find evidence for that doctrine in the Pentateuch.
They come to Jesus trying to force him to take sides on the resurrection (it’s common belief among the Pharisees, for example). So they use the example of Levirate marriage; the custom that if a man dies without an heir, his brother is obligated to marry the widow and provide an heir.
Jesus doesn’t take the bait (he never does in these confrontations). He points out that life in the age to come is qualitatively different than life in this age–that there is no marriage, or taking in marriage. It’s interesting, though, how he argues against the Sadducees. He quotes from Exodus (one of the books of Torah), to make the case that “God is the God of the living and not the dead.” He appeals to Exodus because the Sadducees consider it authoritative. Had he quoted this week’s reading from Job, or any of the other texts in the Hebrew Bible that seem to imply resurrection, the Sadducees would not have considered it valid because they didn’t think those texts were authoritative.
What makes this text so interesting is that it opens up the internal debate within first-century Judaism over the nature of scripture, of scriptural authority, and over the resurrection. It’s easy for Christians to read the Hebrew Bible and Jewish history through the lens of 2000 years of Christian history and theology and to assume that ideas that are now considered central doctrines were contested in earlier centuries. The resurrection of the dead was a topic of much debate in first-century Judaism for one simple reason. It was an innovation. We can see its origins in Daniel and Ezekiel (remember the dry bones?) but even centuries later, in Jesus’ day, it remained a controversial doctrine.
And so it remains today. I wonder how many “good” Christians really believe that one day their physical body will be raised and reunited with their souls.