Resurrection in Early Judaism
While it remained popular within sectors of early Judaism, some writings clearly prefer the immortality of the soul, without particular regard for resurrection (Wisdom of Solomon, 4 Maccabees, Philo of Alexandria). Resurrection was also opposed or ignored by a significant proportion of the Jewish populace.
See Also: Resurrection of the Dead in Early Judaism, 200 BCE-CE 200 (Oxford University Press, 2017).
By C.D. Elledge
Gustavus Adolphus College
From a later historical perspective, one of the most important concepts among Western Religions to have taken shape among early Jewish theologies was a confident hope in a literal resurrection from the dead. In Judaism, the hope accentuates the Second Benediction (Gevurot) of the Amidah, which glorifies the God of mighty deeds, whose unrivalled power can even revive the dead, keeping faith beyond death with all who sleep in the dust. Authors of the New Testament confided heavily in a future resurrection, one that was already assured by Christ’s own exaltation as the first of the resurrection of the dead (Acts 26:23; Rom 6:5; 1 Cor 15:12-28; 2 Tim 2:11). Islam, too, reinterpreted and reaffirmed resurrection. In the Quran, the “day of resurrection” (al-Qiyama) is anticipated as the moment of judgment, and it is as certain as Allah’s original creation of the human (Quran 75:38-40).
Each in its own way, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam continued to emphasize what had originally developed as one of the more controversial eschatological beliefs of early Judaism. While its precise forms vary greatly, resurrection commonly envisions God’s restoration of life to the dead. The imagery of revivification from death was already extant in earlier Israelite prophecy (Isa 24–27, 65–66; Ezek 37:1–14). Yet by the Hellenistic era, resurrection became more than a metaphor for the history of the nation. God would literally bring life to the dead. Moreover, resurrection would not merely restore life as it had been. It would inaugurate a glorious, new mode of human existence.
Amid these common features, early Jewish beliefs about resurrection remained diverse. They differ concerning what resurrected embodiment might be like. Expectations about the spatial locale where the resurrection life would be lived out range considerably (Wright 2000), as do understandings about who would participate (a select group? or all humans?). These variations reveal that resurrection found a home in a variety of diverse movements that had different ways of imagining and valuing it. As they gave expression to resurrection, they interpreted it in keeping with their own theologies, and they contoured it to play important roles within the literary works they composed.
Scholars attempting to identify the precise origins of resurrection in Zoroastrian, Canaanite, or Israelite thought have more frequently unveiled a remarkably more complex range of attitudes toward death in which resurrection took shape. For post-exilic Judaism, in particular, resurrection emerged as it intensively reinterpreted Israel’s earlier theologies (Levenson 2006). Yet the specialized theodicy posed by resurrection was ultimately only one of many other alternatives. While it remained popular within sectors of early Judaism, some writings clearly prefer the immortality of the soul, without particular regard for resurrection (Wisdom of Solomon, 4 Maccabees, Philo of Alexandria). Resurrection was also opposed or ignored by a significant proportion of the Jewish populace. Thus, the predominance of resurrection among later normative traditions in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam comes as something of a surprise when compared with its status in early Judaism. One of the most controversial and radical eschatological beliefs became preeminent.
Resurrection emerges most clearly and consistently among the literary apocalypses of the Hellenistic and Roman eras. All the major early Jewish apocalypses attest resurrection (portions of 1 Enoch, Daniel, 4 Ezra, 2 Baruch), with the Book of Watchers registering the earliest evidence (1 En. 1–36). In the Book of Watchers, Enoch’s cosmic tour of chs. 20–36 transports him to a western mountain at the ends of the earth, where the spirits of all the dead will be confined “until the great judgment.” The vision indicates that some spirits will be raised from this interim cosmic domain for further punishments and rewards, while others must remain imprisoned here (22:13). It is possible that the ensuing vision of chs. 24–25 further describes the eschatological life that awaits the righteous on earth “at the great judgment” itself. The righteous will inhabit a renewed holy city, where the tree of life has been transplanted near the sanctuary. Fragrances from the tree will fill the bones of the righteous, granting them a long life upon the earth, like the ancestors who lived before the flood. These visions establish a literal belief in resurrection within the late third-century BCE and prior to the martyrdoms of the Maccabean Revolt. This early expression of resurrection, thus, depends less upon the particular political crisis of the Revolt and more upon a larger “cultural trauma” (Collins 1999) that Near Eastern cultures experienced in the expansion of Hellenistic Empire.
Resurrection remained significant within subsequent Enochic literature, including the Epistle of Enoch and the Similitudes, each of which exhibits its own moderate variations. The Epistle of Enoch (1 En. 91-105) emphasizes the importance of eschatological life by highlighting the false view of reality maintained by the wicked “rich,” who deny a blessed afterlife and ridicule the suffering righteous as doomed to oblivion (102:6-8). In contrast to their immoral interpretation of death, Enoch testifies of how the spirits of the righteous will be raised out of Sheol and given an exalted position among the angelic hosts (103:1-4, 104:1-3). The Epistle models resurrection upon earlier visions found in the Book of Watchers (ch. 22, 25), reinterpreting them into a hope of everlasting spiritual life among the angels. Meanwhile, the wicked rich would be slain within Sheol forever (99:11, 103:7-8). It is interesting to note that while the Book of Watchers ultimately emphasized a very terrestrial life in the presence of the sanctuary, the Epistle prefers an exalted heavenly existence for the “spirits” of the righteous, one that is more discontinuous with the structures of the present world. Thus, even within the early Enoch literature, one encounters differing perspectives on what resurrection might be like. The later Similitudes or Parables of Enoch offer yet another variation, which guarantees the righteous a glorious new mode of physical existence in which they will be clothed in “garments of glory,” “garments of life” (62:15-16; see also 51:1-5, 58:2-3; 61:5, 12).
Since the Book of Watchers (and perhaps also the Epistle) antedates Daniel 7-12, Daniel’s resurrection prophecy was no sudden anomaly, but rather expresses a hope that had already gained currency within apocalyptic circles. Daniel’s prophecy exalts a group of “wise” teachers from “the land of dust” into an existence in which they “shall shine like the brightness of the sky … like the stars forever and ever” (12:3; NRSV). The prophecy may anticipate a literal astral existence, but more likely it metaphorically depicts the restored heavenly / angelic status that awaits the resurrected “wise.” A group of the wicked would also be raised for a judgment of “shame and everlasting contempt” (12:2; NRSV). Resurrection appears to have motivated “the wise” of Daniel’s community to their resistance against the Hellenistic Reform (11:33-35), which ended in their death by sword and flame. The prophecy depends heavily upon the language of oracles from Isaiah (26:19, 53:11, and 66:24). Thus, while the Enoch literature looked to its own earlier traditions for models as to what resurrection would be like, Daniel looked especially to Israel’s prophets, which the author has reinterpreted as foretelling a literal hope in resurrection.
Resurrection remained crucial to the sophisticated explorations of theodicy undertaken after the temple destruction in 4 Ezra (ch. 7) and 2 Baruch (chs. 49–51). These post-70 CE apocalypses both deliberate concerning God’s will for Israel in light of the recent Roman destruction of Jerusalem and the temple. Not only is the fate of the nation a crucial concern, but the more universal destiny of human beings is also frequently at stake. As both works ultimately insist on the importance of resurrection, they provide interesting evidence for the significance of resurrection in a crucial moment of Jewish history – after the revolt and prior to the formation of Rabbinic Judaism.
In 4 Ezra, the troubled scribe repeatedly questions God’s justice amid the overwhelming Roman destruction of Jerusalem. The angel Uriel repeatedly dialogues with Ezra regarding this problem, yet to little avail. Ezra accepts no easy answers; and in fact, no matter how brilliant the angelic answer, each round of dialogue leads only to an even deeper conundrum. One of Ezra’s questions explicitly concerns the afterlife. Will humans immediately be punished in the afterlife? Or will this happen at the end of the age when God will renew the creation (7:75)? The angelic answer offers one of the more elaborate descriptions of the afterlife in early Jewish literature, entitled as a teaching “on death” (7:78). The angel explains the immediate afterlife of “the spirit” or “soul” (anima, 7:78) after death. At the apex of the soul’s sevenfold path beyond life is its ultimate transformation, so that its “countenance shall begin to shine like the sun” and “they shall begin to resemble the light of the stars” (7:97). Elsewhere, 4 Ezra combines this immediate concern for punishment and reward with the eventual and final eschatological resurrection (4:42, 7:32, 14:34-35). While the angel’s description is awe inspiring, this drives Ezra only to deeper despair: How can hope in the resurrection offer consolation, when mass humanity is plagued by sin and the afterlife will be available only to few? Despite Ezra’s incisive questions, the book ends with an exhortation in which Ezra, renewed beyond his earlier despair, now encourages the survivors of the destruction how to live in the future. He reiterates the importance of law-observance in the present and hope in the future resurrection (14:34-35).
The apocalypse of 2 Baruch also deals repeatedly with the afterlife and resurrection. In an excursus between two of the book’s major visions, Baruch questions what “form” or “shape” humans will have in the resurrection (2 Bar. 49-52). Thus, like 4 Ezra, Baruch inquires concerning the technicalities of the afterlife, yet his question concerns the kind of embodied form that the resurrection will take. The book insists that the earth will first restore the dead to the same physical form they enjoyed among the living (50:2-3). Restoration to the same embodiment expresses the precision of divine justice in resurrection. Yet this resurrection is only a preliminary step to their ultimate destiny of transformation (Lehtipuu 2010). For the wicked, the dead will be immediately changed into grotesque shapes that embody their sinful conduct. The righteous, however, will take on the luminous form of angelic embodiment (51:5), they will become “equal to the stars” (51:10), excelling even the angels themselves (15:12). Here, 2 Baruch’s astral imagery for resurrection may be compared with that of Daniel; yet it is clear that the author applies such astral and angelic imagery in a more literalizing way.
The two post-70 CE apocalypses both emphasize that the afterlife must involve a total qualitative transformation from the circumstances of the present life. Yet they also have different ways of explaining the relationships between an interim state and resurrection. For 4 Ezra, the soul will undergo immediate transformations, followed by an eschatological resurrection. For 2 Baruch that order is stated differently, as the dead are raised into a precise reflection of their earlier life, then transformed into a final eschatological embodiment.
DEAD SEA SCROLLS
As a vast literary collection from the Hellenistic and early Roman eras, the Dead Sea Scrolls offer valuable insights for assessing the profile of resurrection within early Jewish thought. Many of the early Jewish texts featuring resurrection found a strong reception among the Dead Sea Scrolls, including Daniel, the Book of Watchers, and the Epistle of Enoch. The community of the Scrolls, often called the yaḥad (e.g., union, community), valued these writings deeply in multiple copies. It is all the more surprising, that the writings composed by the yaḥad preserve few apparent references to resurrection. These works, often termed “sectarian literature,” include the Rule of the Community, Pesharim, War Scroll, Thanksgiving Hymns, Damascus Document, Temple Scroll, and other writings (Dimant 1984).
Rather than resurrection, for example, the Rule of the Community, the quintessential “sectarian” writing, envisions eschatological life as an act of purification, rather than transcendence of death (IV 20-22). Moreover, the Rule concludes with a hymn that emphasizes the present experience of eschatological life within the community, as it is linked in purity with the worship of the angelic hosts (XI 7-9). The Thanksgiving Hymns offer some of the closest approximations to literal belief in resurrection, yet its authors utilize the discourse of resurrection as language for enlightenment in heavenly wisdom or for sanctification from impurity (X 22-32, XI 20-23, XII 6 – XIII 6, XIX 13-17). Such language shows that the authors of the Hymns were familiar with the discourse of resurrection, even if they utilized such language in non-literal ways to express their concerns with epistemology and purification.
Beyond the narrower class of “sectarian literature,” the Scrolls preserve a much larger and more diverse collection. Resurrection is clearly referenced in two “non-sectarian” writings, the Messianic Apocalypse and Pseudo-Ezekiel. The two writings confirm that resurrection did feature among the larger range of traditions that the community preserved. As these writings appear to have emerged within the latter half of the second century BCE, they offer valuable evidence for how resurrection continued to flourish in the generations after its earliest surviving attestations in the Book of Watchers, the Epistle of Enoch, and Daniel.
The Messianic Apocalypse concerns the glorious works that God will do for the suffering righteous at the dawn of the eschatological age: “wondrous things which have not existed, the Lord will do, even as he s[aid. For he will heal the slain, and the dead he will cause to live, to the poor he will bring glad tidings, and the [low]ly he will satis[fy], he will lead forth the exiles, and the hungry he will enrich” (frgs. 2 II + 4 lines 11-13; Puech 1998). This presentation of resurrection draws heavily upon the promises of Isa 51:14, 61:1-2 (cf. Ps 146:5-9); yet it interweaves within the fabric of these earlier scriptural promises the hope of a future revivification for the righteous. Since resurrection is promised in the context of several other “this-worldly” promises (e.g., healing the slain, restoring exiles, feeding the hungry), there is nothing to exclude the possibility that the dead will be raised into a new form of embodied existence to enjoy the fulfillment of God’s promises on earth. The presence of of resurrection within the Messianic Apocalypse further illustrates its significance within consolatory literature that encourages one to persevere in a particular way of religious life, even when faced with the adversities of unrealized hope.
In a different way, Pseudo-Ezekiel also provides an insight into the scriptural basis of Jewish thought on resurrection, as well as its consolatory rhetorical functions. Pseudo-Ezekiel offers a rewriting of select portions of Ezekiel, including the prophet’s masterful vision of the valley of dry bones (Ezek 37:1-14). As Israel is divided into conflict over the Torah and covenant (4Q387 frg. 3, lines 7-8), Pseudo-Ezekiel questions the timing of the deity’s justice within this dismal context. He further prays for comfort and questions how the deity will reward the righteous. The answer to these questions emerges within the author’s rewriting of Ezekiel 37:1-14, which has been reinterpreted as a literal prophecy of resurrection for the righteous dead. In fact, Pseudo-Ezekiel diverges from Ezekiel by offering no symbolic interpretation of the vision. Instead, a literal “host of men came to life and blessed the Lord of Hosts, wh[o caused them to live … ]” (4Q385 frg. 2, lines 8-9; Dimant 2001). Given its heavy reliance upon Ezekiel 37:1-14, Pseudo-Ezekiel envisions a very physical restoration of human remains back to life upon earth. Ezekiel 37:1-14 remained an important precedent for resurrection within later Rabbinic (Talmud Sanhedrin 90b; Midrash Gen. Rab. 14:5; Lev. Rab. 14:9) and early Christian thought (Justin Martyr, First Apology 52; Tertullian, Res. 31-32; 1 Clement 50:3-4; Apocalypse of Peter); and Pseudo-Ezekiel represents one of the earliest instances of this reinterpretation of the prophetic text (Dimant 2000).
Thus, while resurrection is infrequent in proportion to the vast content of the Scrolls, it did number somewhere on the periphery of the eschatological hopes featured within the larger collection. Since the yaḥad perceived itself at odds with other movements in Judaism, including the Pharisees, the Scrolls help us appreciate how resurrection found affirmation even among groups who were otherwise opposed.
Resurrection also appears in varied forms within historical narratives. Thus, its distribution in varied literary genres attests to its broader reception beyond the apocalypses. The history of 2 Maccabees, for example, includes resurrection as an integral feature within the faith of the Jewish martyrs who resisted the Hellenistic Reform. With resurrection, it adds a new element that was lacking in its earlier literary predecessor, 1 Maccabees. This development indicates that for 2 Maccabees the martyrs’ faith in resurrection, and even that of Judas himself (12:43-45), played an important conceptual role within the book. Since 2 Maccabees represents an epitome or abridgment of an originally larger history composed by Jason of Cyrene (2:23), it is possible that the book’s emphasis on resurrection emerged through the arts of the later epitomist. The Jewish martyrs who die for the law repeatedly declare their faith in resurrection (7:7, 9-11, 23; 14:46). More than this, 2 Maccabees advances a particular theology of resurrection that is unusually explicit in its insistence that God will raise the very human remains of the martyrs back to a physical existence upon the earth. The book communicates this awareness through dramatic scenes of physical mutilation, as the martyrs are scalped, dismembered, vaporized, and exsanguinated for their fidelity to the law. These gruesome deaths amount to a virtual un-creation. Yet the martyrs repeatedly entrust themselves to the “king of the universe,” “the master of breath and life” (7:23, 30) to restore even their mutilated physical remains “back again” in the resurrection. Thus, the resurrection will amount to a kind of second creation. The relationship between creation and resurrection can also be identified in the Messianic Apocalypse and Pseudo-Ezekiel.
Josephus also references resurrection within most of his major writings, including the Jewish War, the Jewish Antiquities, and his apology Against Apion. In many cases, Josephus’ allusions to resurrection have been translated into Hellenistic categories. His Pharisees, for example, believe that “While all souls are incorruptible, only the soul(s) of the good migrate into a different body, and those of the wicked are punished with everlasting retribution” (War 2.163). The migration of souls out of one body and into a different one would have struck a clear Pythagorean tone among many ancient readers (e.g., Diodorus Siculus, Libr. 5:28.5-6; Lucian, Gall. 4). Yet even so, resurrection probably underlies Josephus’ description, especially since he refers to this new embodiment as a final state and a positive reward for the righteous, not as a repeated cycle as noted among Pythagorean beliefs. Josephus’ apologetic translation strategy appears to represent Jewish eschatological beliefs, like resurrection, in categories familiar to Hellenistic-Roman audiences. Other important details about resurrection may be gleaned from Josephus’ writings. He claims that revivification from death was part of the ancestral faith of Judaism even from the time of Moses (Apion 2:118-119; cf. War 7:343). While historically anachronistic by today’s standards, his comment may reveal that for some Jews it was important to find resurrection explicitly located within the Torah, an important concern in later Judaism (Talmud Sanhedrin 90a). Josephus further locates a strong belief in the afterlife, and perhaps resurrection as well, among revolutionary groups, including the Masada Sicarii (War 7:343-359). This portrait of revolutionary ideology may indicate that resurrection infused the theologies of revolutionary factions in early Judaism (cf. Tacitus, Hist. 5:5).
Early Jewish thought on resurrection was, therefore, conceptually diverse, since it was positively received and reinterpreted within many different sectors of Judaism. One could, for example, expand this awareness even further by recognizing its presence within early Jewish poems, psalms, and oracles (Psalms of Solomon 3:11-12; Pseudo-Phocylides, Sentences 99-115; Sibylline Oracles 4:178-183). As scholars continue to study resurrection today, its sociological features have been an important concern. N.T. Wright emphasizes the anti-imperialist, revolutionist character of resurrection (Wright 2003), a view that may be supported by some pieces of the evidence (1 En. 24-25, Dan 12:1-3; 2 Macc 7; cf. also Josephus). Yet the diversity of the literary evidence demands some moderation of this claim. Alan Segal and Claudia Setzer, for example, advise that the political position of the Pharisees required that they utilize resurrection in less radical ways that mediated between present imperial rule and the ultimate fulfillment of Jewish eschatological hopes (Segal 2004; Setzer 2004). Perhaps this tendency may also be found in 4 Ezra, where resurrection offers a more quiescent, long-term hope for Judaism, even as it focuses on the present need to keep the law peacefully within the present world (Esler 1994). Resurrection appears to have been adaptable to different social needs within early Judaism. Both the conceptual and social diversity of early Jewish discourse about resurrection, thus, resists harmonization into standardized categories or functions. Even so, one should resist the temptation to dismiss such diversity as confused, vague, or indecipherable. Instead, the different forms and functions of resurrection offer a revealing window into the prolific creativity of early Jewish theologies, a creativity that forever impacted the imagination of Western religions.
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