Posted by: mattcolvin | April 10, 2017

On the Form of Jesus’ Answer to the Sadducees

Harvard professor Jon Levenson includes in his book Resurrection and the Restoration of Israel a chapter entitled “Resurrection in the Torah?” In it, he discusses the various clever exegetical and eisegetical maneuvers by which the rabbis of the Mishnah and Talmud attempted to prove that the Torah taught the doctrine of bodily resurrection. 

One passage relates the response of Rabbi Simai to the Sadducees’ position:

Rabbi Simai says: How do we know that the resurrection of the dead can be derived from the Torah? From the verse, ‘‘I also established My covenant with them [that is, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob], to give them the land of Canaan’’ (Exod 6:4). ‘‘To you’’ is not written but ‘‘to them.’’ Hence, resurrection of the dead can be derived from the Torah. (b. Sanh. 90b)

The form of the argument is identical to that used by Jesus in Matthew 22:31-32, where he appeals to Exodus 3:6’s statement, “I am the God of thy father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob” to argue (elliptically)  that the patriarchs must live (or must be resurrected), since God is the god of the living, not of the dead. Whether this argument depended on the tense of the verb, or merely on the patriarchs’ being the stated covenant-partners of the LORD is disputed in the scholarship. 

Rabbi Simai appeals to the pronoun: “not ‘to you’, but ‘to them’. A similar grammatical precision is employed by Paul in Galatians 3:16’s parsing of the promise to Abraham: “Now to Abraham and his seed were the promises made. He saith not, And to seeds (τοῖς σπέρμασιν) as of many; but as of one, And to thy seed (τῷ σπέρματι), which is Christ.”

The rabbis were also capable of suspending an entire argument from a minor grammatical detail, such as the tense of a verb — or even tendentiously misinterpreting the tense of a verb, as Rabbi Judah haNasi does regarding the verse introducing Moses’ song of the Sea in Exodus 15:1:

‘‘Then Moses sang (šār)’’ is not written here, but rather ‘‘Then Moses will sing (yāšîr).’’ Thus we are instructed that the resurrection of the dead can be derived from the Torah. (Mek., Shirta 1)

Levenson’s verdict on early rabbinic attempts to prove resurrection from the Torah is wry:

This interpretation makes for exceedingly bad philology, to be sure, but also for rich and powerful theology.

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