The Resurrection of Resurrection

by N.T. Wright, Bible Review, August 2000

Christianity was born into a world where one of its central tenets, the resurrection of the dead, was widely recognized as false – except, of course, by Judaism.

N.T. Wright

Jews believed in resurrection, Greeks believed in immortality.  So I was taught many years ago.  But like so many generalizations, this one isn’t even half true.  There was a spectrum of beliefs about the afterlife in first-century Judaism, just as there was in the Greco-Roman world.  The differences between these two sets of views and those that developed among the early Christians are startling.  Let’s begin with the Greeks.  Some Greeks (and Romans) thought death the complete end; most, however, envisaged a continuing, shadowy existence in Hades.  Homer, for example, tells of a murky world full of witless, gibbering shadows that must drink sacrificial blood before they can think straight, let alone talk.  For Homer, Hades was no fun[1].  The “soul” in Homer, though, was not the “real person,” the immortal element hidden inside a body, but rather the evanescent breath that escaped.  The true self remained lifeless on the ground.

But there are happier variations on the theme.  For Platonists, death’s release of the soul from its prison was cause for rejoicing.  And even within Homer’s scheme, some heroes might conceivably make their way to the Elysian fields, to the Isles of the Blessed, or, in some very rare cases, to the abode of the gods themselves.  Hercules, then the Hellenistic rulers and finally the Roman emperors were believed to follow this route.  Mystery cults enabled initiates to enjoy a blessed state in the present, which would, it was hoped, continue after death.

All, however, were agreed: There was no resurrection.  Death could not be reversed.  Homer said it; Aeschylus and Sophocles seconded it.  “What’s it like down there?” asks a man of his departed friend, in a third-century B.C.E. epigram.  “Very dark,” comes the reply. “Any way back up?”  “It’s a lie!”

In Greek thought, the living could establish contact with the dead through various forms of necromancy; they might even receive ghostly visitations.  But neither experience amounts to what pagan writers themselves referred to as “resurrection,” or the return to life, which they all denied.  Thus, Christianity was born into a world where one of its central tenets, resurrection, was universally recognized as false.

Except, of course, in Judaism.  Resurrection was a late arrival on the scene in classic biblical writing, however.  Much of the Hebrew Bible assumes that the dead are in Sheol, which sometimes looks uncomfortably like Hades: “The dead do not praise the Lord, nor do any that go down into silence” (Psalm 115:17). Clear statements of resurrection are extremely rare[2].  Daniel 12 is the most blatant, and remembered as such for centuries afterwards: “Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt” (Daniel 12:2).  Daniel is, however, the latest book of the Hebrew Bible.

In the postbiblical period, the Jewish group known as the Sadducees famously denied the future life altogether.  The Sadducees, according to the first-century C.E. Jewish historian Josephus, held that “the soul perishes along with the body” (18.16).  Other Jews spoke, platonically, of a disembodied immortality; according to the Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria, at death the philosopher’s soul would assume “a higher existence, immortal and uncreated.”[3]  Still others appear to display some kind of resurrection belief, as in Josephus and the Wisdom of Solomon.  “In the time of their visitation they will shine forth, and will run like sparks through the stubble.  They will govern nations and rule over people, and the Lord will reign over them for ever” (Wisdom of Solomon 3:7-8)[4].  The clearest statements of resurrection after Daniel 12, however, are found in 2 Maccabees, the Mishnah and the later rabbinic writings.  In 2 Maccabees, a martyr on the verge of death puts out his tongue, stretches out his arms and declares: “I got these from Heaven, and because of his Laws I disdain them, and from him I hope to get them back again” (2 Maccabees 7:11).  According to Mishnah 10.1, “All Israelites have a share in the world to come; … and these are they that have no share in the world to come: he that says that there is no resurrection of the dead prescribed in the Law.”

Remember, resurrection does not mean being “raised to heaven” or “taken up in glory.”  Neither Elijah nor Enoch had been resurrected in the sense that Daniel, 2 Maccabees and the rabbis meant it; nor, for that matter, had anyone else.  Resurrection will happen only to people who are already dead.  To speak of the destruction of the body and the continuing existence, however blessed, of something else (call it a “soul” for the sake of argument) is not to speak of resurrection, but simply of death itself.  Resurrection” is not simply death from another viewpoint; it is the reversal of death, its cancellation, the destruction of its power.  That is what pagans denied, and what Daniel, 2 Maccabees, the Pharisees and arguably most first-century C.E. Jews affirmed, justifying their belief by reference to the creator God and this God’s passion for eventual justice[5].

The doctrine remained, however, quite imprecise and unfocused.  Josephus describes it, confusingly, in various incompatible ways.  The rabbis discuss what, precisely, it will mean and how God will do it.  Furthermore, the idea could be used metaphorically, particularly for the restoration of Israel after the Exile, as in Ezekiel 37, where the revived dry bones represent the House of Israel.

The early Christian hope for bodily resurrection is clearly Jewish in origin, there being no possible pagan antecedent.  Here, however, there is no spectrum of opinion: Earliest Christianity simply believed in resurrection, that is, the overcoming of death by the justice bringing power of the creator God.

For early Christians, resurrection was seen to consist of passing death and out the other side into a new sort of bodily life.  As Romans 8 shows, Paul clearly believed that God would give new life to the mortal bodies of Christians and indeed to the entire created world: “If the Spirit of the God who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised the Messiah Jesus from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit who lives in you” (Romans 8:11). This is a radical mutation from within Jewish belief.

Resurrection hope (as one would expect from its Jewish roots) turned those who believed it into a counter-empire, an alternative society that knew the worst that tyrants could do and knew that the true God had the answer.  But the Christians had an extra reason for this hope, a reason which, they would have said, explained their otherwise extraordinary focus on, and sharpening of, this particular Jewish belief.  For the Christians believed that the Messiah had already been raised from the dead.

Originally at

[1] In more relaxed mode, however, some ancient Greek burial customs provided not only basic necessities for the hereafter, but also toys and games, and in some special cases, slaves and even wives.
[2] Passages such as Job 19:25-27, which in the King James Version seems to predict bodily resurrection more solidly than the Hebrew warrants, may have gained this meaning when read in the Septuagint.
[3] Philo, On the Giants, 14.
[4] Wisdom of Solomon 3:1-3, often quoted as supporting “immortality,” must be read in the context of 1:16-3:9.  The speech of “the wicked” (2:1-20) is intended as a classic statement of the pagan denial of resurrection; 3:7-9 is the answer.  At the moment, the righteous souls are in God’s hand, but a new day is coming in which they will rule the world.
[5] (It is thus misleading to describe this view as “a resolute view of death as resurrection,” as does Jon Davies, in Death, Burial and Rebirth in the Religions of Antiquity (London: Routledge, 1999), p. 122.

Author: Father Silouan Thompson

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