Future Resurrection of the Dead in Early Judaism: Social Dynamics, Contested Evidence

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    http://cbi.sagepub.com/content/9/3/394The online version of this article can be found at:

    DOI: 10.1177/1476993X11400180 2011 9: 394Currents in Biblical Research

    C.D. ElledgeContested Evidence

    Future Resurrection of the Dead in Early Judaism: Social Dynamics,

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  • Currents in Biblical Research9(3) 394421

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    Corresponding author:C.D. Elledge, Gustavus Adolphus College, 800 West College Avenue, Saint Peter, MN 56082 USA. Email: celledge@gustavus.edu


    Future Resurrection of the Dead in Early Judaism: Social Dynamics, Contested Evidence

    C.D. ElledgeGustavus Adolphus College

    AbstractIn its significance to both Jewish and Christian studies, resurrection of the dead remains a vital subject of biblical research; and it is now widely recognized that the religious culture of early Judaism (ca. 200 bcece 200) played a crucial role in both its origination and early reception. In the present landscape of study, perhaps the most recent methodological advances arise from sociological studies, which attempt to contextualize resurrection within the social dynamics of the religious movements that advanced this hope. Moreover, at the exegetical level, many vexing pieces of evidence have produced conflicting readings of precisely what individual traditions may say about resurrection. The present article treats these topics, including (1) the application of social-scientific methods to the study of resurrection, and (2) readings of contested literary and epigraphic evidence that remains crucial to the scholarly study of the resurrection hope in early Jewish culture.

    Keywords1 Enoch, afterlife, Dead Sea Scrolls, Essenes, Hazon Gabriel, immortality, Josephus, Pharisees, resurrection

    As a classic feature of western religions, the hope of a future resurrection of the dead rightly remains a vital topic of biblical research, one that integrally relates to other interdisciplinary fields in Jewish, early Christian, Classical, Near Eastern, and archaeological studies. Virtually every generation in the modern criticism of the Bible has intermittently attended to this topic; and yet the challenges posed by the complex, interrelated data that pertain to resurrection have bequeathed many unresolved problems to present scholarship. Such problems have ranged from how one understands the origins of the resurrection hope to how one

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  • Elledge: Future Resurrection of the Dead in Early Judaism 395

    addresses unresolved exegetical problems among crucial pieces of the literary evidence. In the present critical landscape, newer methodological approaches, more recently available literary evidence from Qumran, and specialized studies of particular pieces of the literary evidence have significantly advanced scholar-ship in this area. In particular, the newest methodological developments include the application of sociological theory to the study of resurrection; specialized studies of Apocrypha, Pseudepigrapha, Dead Sea Scrolls, Gospels, Pauline litera-ture, Josephus, rabbinic, and inscriptional evidence have further illustrated both the expanding popularity and increasing diversity of conceptual expression in which the resurrection hope flourished during the Hellenistic and Roman eras.

    While many studies have advanced this agenda through specialized treat-ments of particular pieces of the evidence (e.g., Puech 2003, 2004, 2005, 2008; Elledge 2006; Hengel 2001; Nickelsburg 2001a; Dimant 2000, 2001; Meier 2000; Kraemer 2000; Park 2000), more general treatments have explored a broader array of evidence through the use of particular methods of research. Among the latter, one may call special attention to more recently published stud-ies in the last decade by Levenson (2006) (with Madigan [2008]), Setzer (2004), Segal (2004), Wright (2003), and Nickelsburgs revised and expanded edition (2006) of his classic study of Resurrection, Immortality, and Eternal Life (1972). Published articles of symposia and specialized volumes dedicated to the topic have also flourished (Charlesworth et al. 2011; Peters, Russell and Welker 2002; Avemarie and Lichtenberger 2001; Avery-Peck, Neusner and Chilton 2001; Davis, Kendall and OCollins 1997).

    The Social Dynamics of Resurrection Hope

    In keeping with the larger contributions of sociological methods to biblical research, a number of studies have attempted to locate relationships between resurrection hope and the political behaviors, social dynamics, and identity- formation of those movements within early Judaism and Christianity that cher-ished resurrection. Among these, Wrights approach highlights the anti-imperialist political context for resurrection hope, Segal examines the social context of reli-giously altered states of consciousness among other social factors that shaped ancient beliefs about the resurrection, and Setzer has concentrated on the sociol-ogy of identity-formation as applied to ancient beliefs about resurrection. These studies continue to build upon earlier sociological approaches to Judaism and Christianity (Elliott 1994; Cameron 1991; Horsley 1976, 1978).

    N.T. Wright

    Certainly, when a work is written that is as fast-paced, voluminous, and magiste-rial as Wrights Resurrection of the Son of God (2003), it inevitably advances both

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  • 396 Currents in Biblical Research 9(3)

    virtues and shortcomings that will require that subsequent scholarship carry out a more prolonged course of critical review to appreciate fully. Pursuant to that goal, it is important here to call attention to several interrelated features that character-ize the socio-political dynamics of early Jewish and Christian discourse about the resurrection in Wrights book. Central to his treatment of the Jewish social setting of resurrection hope in the two centuries prior to the Common Era is its political orientation. While this is not always explicitly declared from the start, a political and counter-imperialist orientation to the resurrection hope runs with surprising continuity from Wrights description of the Second Temple setting to the early churchs proclamation that Jesus was raised by God. When addressing, for example, why Sadducees denied resurrection, Wright insists that in some measure it must have threatened their aristocratic social position and temple authority:

    The real problem was that resurrection was from the beginning a revolutionary doctrine. For Daniel 12, resurrection belief went with dogged resistance and martyrdom. For Isaiah and Ezekiel, it was about YHWH restoring the fortunes of his people It was the sort of belief that encouraged young hotheads to attack Roman symbols placed on the Temple, and that, indeed, led the first-century Jews into the most disastrous war they had experienced. It was not simply, even, that they thought such beliefs might lead the nation into a clash with Rome, though that will certainly have been the case. It was that they realized that such beliefs threatened their own position. People who believe that their god is about to make a new world, and that those who die in loyalty to him in the meantime will rise again to share gloriously in it, are far more likely to lose respect for a wealthy aristocracy than people who think that this life, this world and this age are the only ones there will ever be (Wright 2003: 138; cf. 139).

    One even observes here the insinuation that resurrection was among the religious beliefs that contributed to the Great Jewish Revolt. In this portrait, Wright is clearly front-loading into his treatment of the more general early Jewish context a political dimension to the resurrection hope that will emerge with prominence in his treatment of New Testament literature.

    Wright, for example, reads the churchs stories of Jesus resurrection as narra-tives that overturn the prevailing imperial ideology of Roman rule:

    But if Jesus had been raised from the dead, if the new creation had begun, if they were themselves the citizens of the creator gods new kingdom, then the claims of Jesus to Lordship on earth as well as heaven would ultimately come into conflict with those of Caesar Jesus resurrection vindicated or validated his Messiahship; and if he was Messiah, he was the worlds true lord. Resurrection was every bit as radical a belief for the early Christians as it had been for the Pharisees, in fact more so (Wright 2003: 538).

    Implicit within his treatment of earlier Judaism, then, is also a particular, politi-cally-oriented reading of resurrection that sets the stage for Wrights

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    counter-imperial treatment of Jesus resurrection in the early church. Ultimately, this political dynamite (2003: 730) has important ideological repercussions for the churchs social teaching in the present:

    Death is the ultimate weapon of the tyrant; resurrection does not make a covenant with death, it overthrows it. The resurrection, in the full Jewish and early Christian sense, is the ultimate affirmation that creation matters, that embodied human beings matter. That is why resurrection has always had an inescapable political meaning; that is why the Sadducees in the first century, and the Enlightenment in our own day, have opposed it so strongly. No tyrant is threatened by Jesus going to heaven, leaving his body in a tomb. No governments face the authentic Christian challenge when the churchs social preaching tries to base itself on Jesus teaching, detached from the central and energizing fact of his resurrection (2003: 737).

    While Wrights reading does not declare itself a new, politically-oriented approach to resurrection, it is clear that his methods of interpretation stand in line with other recent pieces of biblical criticism that insist upon the anti-imperialist nature of early Jewish and Christian discourse (Horsley 2003; Elliott 1994). Moreover, Wright seems to have distilled the anti-imperialist political essence of Jewish apocalypticism into the resurrection hope itself, transferring its ideologi-cal spirit to the interpretation of early Christianity: Resurrection, thus, presents a vital link between the political impetus of earlier Jewish apocalypticism and the messianic claims of the early church.

    Alan F. Segal

    In the work of Segal, one finds a more clearly conceptualized and comprehen-sive method of interpretation that explores the relationships between the resur-rection hope and the social worlds in which it originally took shape. Calling his method a comparative, social-historical technique, Segal documents the pos-sible connections between a cultures myths about the afterlife and the social institutions that shaped their surroundings (Segal 2004: 285). Such an approach seems especially well suited to the vast diversity among the materials treated in this ambitious study, which spans Egyptian, Zoroastrian, Classical, Near Eastern, Israelite-Jewish, Christian, and Muslim conceptions. For ancients as well as moderns, afterlife beliefs like resurrection have functioned both existentially and socially to affirm an orderly reality to human life:

    Because notions of life after death help us conquer our ultimate fears of mortality in important ways, they also help society or culture organize and maintain itself We all know that notions of life after death differ widely from culture to culture and from major religion to major religion But the fact that these views differ radically does not mean that they are invalid or ridiculous. Behind these notions lie a limited number

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    of functions and structures. Beneath the visions of paradise expressed in countless different cultural idioms, there are a certain number of universal functions: Primary among them are the reification and legitimation of a societys moral and social system; but one could just as easily argue that there is something fundamental to human life in them and that without them we would be totally lost in the world (Segal 2004: 19).

    The individual units of Segals chronological treatment apply this method to a vast survey of the evidence. The ubiquitous beliefs in the afterlife in Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Canaan arose in continuous relationship to the agricultural-climatic features of life in these regions, the myths that rationalized such natural surroundings, and the socio-political structures that ordered communal life in changing historical envi-ronments (2004: 54-55, 63-64, 104-109, 697-99): As Segal methodically executes his analysis, the reader observes the many ways in which, Watching the afterlife change is watching a societys hopes and fears change, with the attendant change in social institutions and values (2004: 698-99).

    Israels own standing on the afterlife in pre-exilic times is characterized by an ambivalent relationship to the mythological and political structures of this regional environment. Segal observes that the world of the dead and the afterlife, in particular, play a markedly diminutive role in ancient Israelite religion in com-parison with its ancient neighborsat least as the literary evidence in the Hebrew Bible presents the matter. The explanation for this disjunction is ultimately to be found, it seems, in the ways in which the exilic authors/editors of Israels religious traditions described their earlier history as separated from the cultic practices of their regional neighbors; the actual historical situation of Israels pre-exilic religion may, of course, have shared much more freely in the volumi-nous interest in the afterlife and cult of the dead that characterized its surround-ings (2004: 122-24). Later Judaism, in fact, would gradually relax this purist concern, borrowing more freely from the Hellenized forms of Egyptian, Persian, Mesopotamian, and Canaanite wisdom on the afterlife (2004: 65-68).

    In fact, it is within the Hellenistic era that Segal traces the origins of Jewish thought on the a...


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