Among the religious concepts of the Second Temple era that remained alive within Rabbinic Judaism and Christianity was the hope of an eschatological restoration of life for the dead. The hope is expressed in a variety of terms and metaphors: “raising” of the dead; “revivification”; “renewal” of life; “awakening” from death; “shining” forth in newness of life; “restoring” life to the dead or “receiving” it back again from God. Amid the varied images stands the conviction of an eschatological reckoning in which divine agency will restore life to the dead. Since literal belief in a bodily resurrection makes its first appearances in Jewish literature of the Hellenistic era, it stands as an instructive example of how the theologies of Rabbinic Judaism and nascent Christianity were both deeply impacted by the vibrant theological developments that transpired in the Second Temple period. Islam, too, would later receive the hope, making resurrection a classical eschatological belief shared in different ways among major Western religions.
Significant scholarly attention has been devoted to whether the origins of resurrection in Judaism may be explained by external influences or internal developments. An important issue at stake is how “Jewish” resurrection actually was. Zoroastrianism has presented appealing external antecedents, as have Canaanite mythological sources (Segal 2004). Yet the very attempt to explain the origins of resurrection in such ways equally highlights the distinctiveness of Jewish reinterpretation of any putative external influences. Internal developments are, thus, also necessarily at play (Levenson 2006). Early expressions for resurrection frequently illustrate the attempt to recast earlier Israelite prophecies (esp. Isa 24-27, 65-66; Ezek 37:1-14) as fulfilled in a literal eschatological awakening (Elledge 2017). In the end, perhaps the discussion is more complementary than contradictory: Precedents within its larger Near Eastern context may gradually have emboldened ancient Judaism to reinterpret its own scriptural traditions as foretelling an eschatological resurrection.
Second Temple Era
A few examples illustrate the conceptual variety ascribed to resurrection within the Second Temple era. Resurrection was envisioned with differing assumptions regarding the forms of embodiment it could take, the cosmic locations where it would be experienced, and who would participate. Among the earliest Jewish writings to offer clear evidence for a literal belief in resurrection is the Book of Watchers, an apocalyptic composition found within chapters 1-36 of 1 Enoch. The Book of Watchers appears to have been composed incrementally during the 3rd cent. BCE. Enoch’s apocalyptic tour (chs. 20-36) reveals the mountainous abode where the spirits of the dead now dwell (1 En. 22). As an angel interprets the landscape, it becomes apparent that some spirits “shall not be raised from there” (22:13), while others will be transferred elsewhere for the great judgment (22:11-12). The language assumes a transference of the spirits of the dead from this interim abode to other locales. Later, the righteous are restored to the holy city, as the fragrances from a tree of life infuse their bones, so that “they live a long life on the earth, like your ancestors lived” (25:6). Other units within 1 Enoch, frequently inspired by the Book of Watchers, offer their own variant reinterpretations upon this presentation (51:1, 58:1-5, 61:5-12; 103-104). In particular, the Epistle of Enoch (chs. 91-104) envisions a resurrection of the spirits of the righteous out of Sheol and directly into a heavenly existence among the angelic hosts.
The presence of resurrection within the early Enoch literature indicates that the hope had already been developing within apocalyptic circles prior to the composition of Daniel 7-12 (167-164 BCE), where resurrection makes its first clear appearance in the Hebrew Bible. Daniel’s portrait envisions an “awakening” of the dead within the context of a larger judgment scene (12:1-3). The righteous leaders of Daniel’s own community, “the wise,” “who lead the multitudes to righteousness,” shall awaken from the land of dust into eschatological life. They “shall shine like the shining of the firmament [...] like the stars forever and ever” (12:3). “Many” of the wicked, on the other hand, will also be raised for a judgment of “reproach and everlasting shame” (12:3). Daniel’s language is rich in intertextual imagery derived from the prophecies of Isaiah (Isa 26:19, 53:11, 66:24; cf. 4:3), which find definitive fulfillment in resurrection.
Historical narratives also attest resurrection. In the Maccabean literature, 1 Maccabees is silent concerning any hope of afterlife; yet 2 Maccabees exhibits perhaps the most physically graphic portrait of resurrection in ancient Judaism, as even the mutilated physical remains of the martyrs are reconstituted into “an everlasting renewal of life” (2 Macc 7:9). Such explicit hopes of physical restoration rest upon the paradigm of creation, as the “Creator” physically re-creates the martyrs (2 Macc 7:23). Pseudo-Philo’s Biblical Antiquities interweaves resurrection into its rewriting of scriptural history (3:10). Resurrection probably also underlies Josephus’ Hellenizing interpretation of Jewish eschatology (War 2:153-54, 163; 3:374; Ant. 18:14). His descriptions of the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes depict variant interpretations of death and afterlife among the factors that distinguished their respective theologies.
Resurrection remained crucial to the sophisticated explorations of theodicy undertaken after the Temple destruction in the apocalypses of 4 Ezra and 2 Baruch (ca. 100 CE). 4 Ezra describes resurrection on a vast, cosmic scale as “The earth shall give up those who sleep within it” (4 Ezra 7:32; cf. 2 Bar 50:2, Pseudo-Philo 3:10, 1 En. 51:1). This universal resurrection will apply to all the dead, who then face eschatological judgment (7:33-44). 2 Baruch emphasizes the transformative embodiment that will begin with resurrection. After an initial resurrection restores the dead to their earlier physical embodiment (2 Bar 50:2), a transcendent transformation ensues. Those who have kept the law will be transformed even “into the splendor of angels” (51:5). The wicked “will take on horrible shapes; and they will waste away even more” (51:5).
The literary evidence for resurrection in early Judaism is strong, illustrating diverse conceptualizations of what eschatological life would be like. The evidence also likely derived from different movements, even those that were otherwise opposed to one another. At the same time, it remains important to acknowledge that resurrection was also a controversial, insurgent belief that was far from universal. The Wisdom of Ben Sira 38:21-23 emphasizes the finality of death apart from any hope of an afterlife. Philo of Alexandria (e.g., Giants 13-14, Life of Moses 2:288, Sacrifices 5-9), the Wisdom of Solomon (2:23-3:4), and 4 Maccabees (7:11-12, 9:22, 16:13) emphasize the immortality of righteous souls, rather than resurrection. Resurrection, thus, emerged in a more diverse conceptual environment in which variant interpretations of death proliferated.
New Testament: The ubiquitous presence of resurrection within New Testament literature indicates that the nascent church arose from within circles of ancient Judaism where resurrection held a prominent reception. Resurrection appears as an explicit concern of Jesus’ teaching within the controversy stories of the Synoptic tradition (Mk 12:18-27, Mt 22:23-33, Lk 20:27-40). Jesus’ Sadducean opponents argue hypothetically from the Torah that levirate marriage (Deut 25:5-10) obviates the possibility of resurrection (Mk 12:23). Jesus’ response also rests upon the Torah. “The Book of Moses” (12:26) demonstrates the validity of resurrection in the saying, “I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob” (Ex 3:6). Since the deity speaks of the deceased ancestors as though presently living, the scripture assumes their future revivification, for “God is not the God of the dead, but of the living” (Mk 12:26-27). The exegetical duel foreshadows how conflicts over resurrection also became intra-sectarian disputes over scriptural interpretation, culminating in the Talmudic insistence that resurrection was indeed to be derived “from the Torah” itself (bSan 90a).
The gospel literature further reveals varied treatments of the empty tomb and post-Easter appearances of the risen Jesus. The most sustained narratives are those of Luke and John. Both stories artfully tell an epistemological tale in which the disciples gradually come to recognize Jesus embodied in a new way beyond death. Luke insists upon the physical-corporeal features of resurrection, so much so that Jesus proves he is not a ghost by eating a piece of broiled fish before his disciples (Lk 24:39). John is more ambiguous. While Jesus invites Thomas to touch his wounded hands and side, the narrative never describes this. Instead, seeing them is enough for Thomas to recognize the risen Jesus (Jn 20:28). Moreover, Jesus sternly warns Mary not to touch him, since “I have not yet ascended to the Father” (20:17). On the one hand, Jesus’ body could presumably be touched and exhibits visible continuity with his sufferings; yet on the other, he now progresses into a sacred, transcendent state, as he returns to God.
Although Paul claims to have been an eyewitness of the risen Jesus, he never tells the story of the empty tomb or describes his body directly (1 Cor 15:1-8), raising the possibility that such narratives arose later in the church’s thought. Nevertheless, Paul’s letters reveal the prominence of resurrection within the theology of the most significant thinker in the early church. At the conclusion of 1 Corinthians, Paul brings the letter to a close by addressing local questions about resurrection. He seeks to clarify two specific problems: Some Corinthians “say that there is no resurrection of the dead” (15:12); others may have asked, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?” (15:35). In his ensuing response, Paul reveals the central, non-negotiable character of resurrection within his theology, as well as his own preferred ways of interpreting it.
Paul typically emphasizes the transformative, transcendent characteristics of resurrected existence (1 Cor 15:50-52). For Paul, “Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God” (15:50); eschatological realities can only be experienced in a transformed “spiritual body” (15:44). Resurrection is also heavily integrated with Paul’s “Christ mysticism”: Through baptism, the Lord’s supper, and the witness of the Spirit, believers take on a new existence, united “in Christ.” This spiritual unity, unbreakable even by death, destines believers for a resurrection in which they will be conformed to the image of the risen Christ himself (Rom 8:29, Phil 3:20-21). Paul’s treatment is his own, yet exhibits continuities with perspectives on resurrection within his formative Jewish context, especially those that envisioned resurrection as transformation into transcendent, spiritualized embodiment (cf., 1 En. 104:1-3; 2 Bar. 50-51; cf. Josephus, War 2:163).
From New Testament sources, it becomes clear that the early church both inherited much and radically reinterpreted assumptions regarding resurrection from its early Jewish context (Vermes 2008). In subsequent centuries, Christian apologists defended the controversial belief against skeptics. Moreover, Christian theology often became invested in intense internal disputes over the precise features of Christ’s own resurrection body (Bynum 1995).
Mishnah, Talmud, Liturgy
Analogous dynamics characterize Rabbinic treatment of resurrection. The Mishnah and Talmud insist upon the necessity of resurrection, thoroughly arguing for its legitimacy and its continuity with the broader scriptural revelation. At the same time, a broad conceptual latitude prevails among Rabbinic treatments. In the very centuries that the Christian tradition became increasingly invested in internal dispute over Christ’s resurrection body, early Rabbinic sages appear to have taken a broad, minimalist approach that simply emphasized “revivification of the dead” (mSan 10:1).
Mishnah Sanhedrin concludes with a section devoted to eschatological justice and those who will and will not have “a share in the world to come” (10:1). The passage begins with the inclusive declaration that “all Israel” will have a share in the age to come, a promise that rests upon Isaiah 60:21. Yet Sanhedrin then delineates special cases in which even an Israelite may fail to inherit the world to come. “The one who says that there is no resurrection of the dead derived from the Torah” is the very first instance. As interpreted in the Talmud, the logic of the passage suggests that one who publicly repudiates resurrection denies the very basis of the world to come and, thus, has no share within it (e.g., bSan 90a).
Alongside this insistence, however, the conceptual minimalism of the Mishnah’s logic is striking. There is no stipulation regarding precisely how one must understand revivification; there is simply the demand that one must not publicly speak against it. The wisdom of such minimalism can be appreciated in light of the conceptual diversity of earlier Judaism, as well as the diverse conceptions featured among the Rabbinical traditions themselves. For the Mishnah, resurrection is not a speculative eschatological interest, but rather serves the more immediate function of affirming justice, ensuring the integrity of “all Israel,” and motivating a just life of legal observance.
Talmudic expositions attest further developments. Foremost is the insistence that resurrection must be derived “from the Torah” (bSan 90a), a claim that is as hermeneutical as it is eschatological (Setzer 2004). In the Babylonian Talmud, resurrection is legitimated through scriptural proofs from Ex 6:4, 15:1; Num 15:31, 18:28; Deut 4:4, 11:21, 31:16, 33:6. In the case of Ex 6:4, the scriptural promise to give Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob the land of Canaan could only be literally fulfilled in an eschatological resurrection, in which God would restore the ancestors, personally, to life in the promised land (“I also have established my covenant with them, to give them the land of Canaan”). Since the precise language of the passage emphasizes “them” (the ancestors), not “you” (later descendants), Rabbi Simai argues that hope in resurrection must underlie the scriptural promise (bSanh 90b). Through such arguments, the Rabbinic sages identified resurrection implicitly within the Torah, even if it was not so explicitly attested (cf. Mk 12:26-27). The hermeneutical quest to identify resurrection within the Torah also appears in early Midrash compilations (Sifre Deut. 47, 306, 329, 357) and the Palestinian Targums (Gen 3:19, 19:26, 25:29-34, 30:22; Ex 13:17, 15:12, 20:18; Num 11:26; Deut 28:12, 31:16, 32:29, 33:9). So intertwined had the two become, that repudiation of resurrection could be viewed as denial of the Torah itself (Avot de Rabbi Nathan, rec. A, ch. 5).
Liturgical sources also feature resurrection. The Second Benediction of the Amidah prayer (Gevurot) extols the might and faithfulness of the deity in resurrecting the dead: “You resurrect the dead, You are mighty to save.” Accompanying this declaration is the deity’s faithful care of sustaining the living each day, comforting their afflictions, healing sickness, and “keeping faith with all those who sleep in the dust.” In this way, the divine faithfulness in mercifully raising the dead is extolled in daily prayer. Morning prayers have also featured resurrection, as one gives thanks for the divine gift of awakening from sleep each day, as though it were a kind of revivification from death (mBer 60b, Elohai Neshama).
Beyond the era of classical Judaism, resurrection featured in variant forms among Mediaeval enumerations of the “principles” of Jewish thought. In Maimonides’ “Thirteen Principles of Faith,” revivification of the dead appears as the concluding eschatological principle. Other attempts to forge theological principles, such as those of Crescas and Albo, mention resurrection as secondary supportive beliefs. In his own philosophical writings, Maimonides treats bodily resurrection itself as but a transitional prelude to an entirely spiritual existence (Treatise on Resurrection). The view distinguishes his treatment from that of his counterpart Nachmanides, for whom the immortal soul would purify the physical body itself into transformed, everlasting existence (Torat ha-Adam). The variant enumerations of principles, as well as philosophical treatments, reveal the ongoing struggle to understand resurrection itself and to chart precisely where the classical hope stood within the greater Jewish tradition, a problem resolved in different ways among modern Jewish denominations.
In their mutual encounters with modernity, both Christians and Jews have expressed a variety of responses to resurrection. Even in antiquity, resurrection was a controversial belief that required continuous legitimation. The encounter with modernity all the more provoked interpretive revisions, reinterpretations, and reassertions.
Christians in the modern era have often been preoccupied with the distinct problem of Christ’s own resurrection. While some have reasserted a physical, bodily resurrection of Jesus as a unique historical event, others have interpreted the mystery of the Easter faith differently. Some thinkers have advanced naturalist explanations of the empty tomb narratives. Others have emphasized the church’s subjective religious experiences after Jesus’ death, an internal phenomenal experience that convinced the church that he was alive. Others have sought to demythologize the eschatological beliefs of early Christianity, liberating the timeless truths of the church’s proclamation from the ancient mythological world view in which they emerged. Others have redirected emphasis to the life of Jesus and his teachings, rather than to the mysterious aftermath of this death (Novakovic 2016). Still others have remained unsatisfied with any of these approaches, pursuing a deeper theological, philosophical, and scientific dialogue concerning how to interpret eschatological claims today (Peters, Russell, Welker 2002).
For the Jewish community, the problem has frequently concerned how to interpret eschatological features of classical Rabbinic theology and liturgy. The issue has been addressed in different ways within the formation of modern Jewish denominations (Levenson 2006). Orthodox movements maintain the language of classical eschatological hopes, like resurrection. Reform principles (1885) have asserted “immortality of the soul,” explicitly rejecting bodily resurrection as foreign to Judaism (cf. revised 1999, “the spirit within us is eternal”). Mordechai Kaplan, a formative influence upon the Reconstructionist movement, explained that while “... belief in resurrection saved the Jewish religion” in antiquity, Judaism need not remain limited by its assumptions (Kaplan 2010: 368). Reform and Reconstructionist movements have further revised classical eschatological expressions, like resurrection, from their liturgies. For example, many Reform prayer books amend the Second Benediction of the Amidah prayer, so that God restores “life for all,” rather than “life to the dead.” Thus, many Jews have come to regard resurrection as a far more Christian than Jewish belief. The Conservative movement mediates amid such tensions, affirming broad compatibility between the classical hope of resurrection and the spirit’s immortality (Gillman 2000). Such ideas, whether interpreted literally or metaphorically, emphasize the value of human existence, the power of the creator, and the hope of a peaceful world (Emet ve’Emunah).
Beyond their encounters with modernity, there is increasing awareness that resurrection comprised an adaptive eschatological discourse that has bequeathed a variety of functional, metaphorical, symbolic values to both the Jewish and Christian communities (Elledge 2017, Gillman 2000, Levenson 2006, Wright 2003). The hope further remains a continual reminder of the common legacy that both traditions may trace to their shared historical origins in the Second Temple era.
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