Thursday, November 18, 2010

Why Did the Sadducees Deny the Idea of Resurrection?

New York City
I'm preaching this Sunday on Acts 4:1-12. Peter and John are thrown in prison for teaching "in Jesus the resurrection." This "disturbed" the Temple leaders, among whom were Sadducees. It was the teaching of "resurrection" that disturbed them. Why? The best answer to this I have found is in N.T. Wright's gigantic The Resurrection of the Son of God. Here is Wright's answer as to why the Sadducees denied the idea of resurrection from the dead.
  • The OT "mostly denies or at least ignores the possibility of a future life. (129) Only a few texts come out strongly for a different view.
  • During the period of second-Temple Judaism the position re. resurrection "is more or less reversed." (Ib.)
  • "By the time of Jesus... most Jews either believed in some form of resurrection or at least knew that it was standard teaching. Comparatively few remained sceptical." (Ib.)
  • During second-Temple Judaism the Daniel 12 idea "burst into full flower... That text, indeed, seems to stand behind a good deaql of the later development." (130) Daniel 12:1-4 says: "1 “At that time Michael, the great prince who protects your people, will arise. There will be a time of distress such as has not happened from the beginning of nations until then. But at that time your people—everyone whose name is found written in the book—will be delivered. 2 Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt. 3 Those who are wise[a] will shine like the brightness of the heavens, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars for ever and ever. 4 But you, Daniel, roll up and seal the words of the scroll until the time of the end. Many will go here and there to increase knowledge.”
  • "Those who [now] believed in resurrection believed also that the dead, who would be raised in the future but had not been yet, were alive somewhere, somehow, in an interim state." (130) So what happens when a person dies? They continue to exist, in some sense, after death. They have, in this way, life "after death." But it's not yet resurrection life. Here Wright says: "Resurrection, we must again insist, meant life after 'life after death': a two-stage future hope, as opposed to the single-stage expectation of those who believed in a non-bodily future life." (130)
  • Such were the expectations if second-Temple Jews. It is those expectations that form "the grid of meaning within which the early Christians' use of resurrection-language must be plotted." (130)
  • The Sadducees, however, denied that there would be a future life. In doing this Wright says they were "conservatives." That is, they held on to a pre-second-Temple view that did not teach the idea of a future life after death. "They followed a quite strict interpretation of the Old Testament, and denied any significant future life at all." (131)
  • What information do we have about the Sadducees? "The three best sources for the beliefs, positive and negative, of the Sadducees are the New Testament, Josephus, and the rabbis." (131)
  • We see the differences between the strictly conservative Sadducees and the more modernist Pharisees in the conflict of Acts 23:7-9: "When he [Paul] said this, a dispute broke out between the Pharisees and the Sadducees, and the assembly was divided. 8 (The Sadducees say that there is no resurrection, and that there are neither angels nor spirits, but the Pharisees believe all these things.) 9 There was a great uproar, and some of the teachers of the law who were Pharisees stood up and argued vigorously. “We find nothing wrong with this man,” they said. “What if a spirit or an angel has spoken to him?”"
  • So why did the Sadducees not believe in resurrection? After looking at alternative answers to this question, Wright settles here. 
  • 1) The real problem was that "resurrection from the beginning was a revolutionary doctrine." (138)
  • 2) "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 had to do with the coming new age, when the life-giving God would act once more to turn everything upside down... 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 was they had experienced." (Ib.)
  • To the Sadducees, belief in the resurrection-as-revolutionary-doctrine "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." (138)
  • The doctrine of "resurrection" is not some "pie-in-the-sky" idea of a fully future hope. "Resurrection," Daniel-style, has implications for present living. It concerns "the creator God acting within history to put right what is wrong." This is subversive and revolutionary and, therefore, threatening to people like the Sadducees, who held much power.
  • So we see that Wright gives us a much richer idea of the meaning of "resurrection" than simply "life after death" or even, as he clarifies, "life after life after death."