Resurrection: Rabbinic Judaism, Hebrew Scripture and the New Testament
All who have fallen asleep in hope of Him shall rise again. — Apocrypha: II Baruch, 30.2
New Agers have popularized the idea of afterlife, out of body experiences and reincarnation. There is a plethora of material for those who want to know more about what happens on the other side of the grave. A significant number of people dabble in spiritism with seances and others resort to crystals to commune with the spirit world.
Yet our 20th century conditioning dictates that we approach such things with a kind of reasoning which says: the sum of a person’s being is no more than its physical parts, and when the body ceases to live the person no longer exists outside of the memory of those still alive.” Modern science or as some call the belief, scientism, can only come to that kind of conclusion based on ruling out all but empirical evidence.
At the same time, we do wrestle with the mysteries of life and death. What is true about life after death? Is reincarnation a bunch of superstitious nonsense? Was resurrection of the dead just an empty hope for our ancestors? Can anyone really know? All religions teach something about an afterlife and the Jewish tradition is no exception. While most modern Jews have not really grappled with the issue of life after death and much of contemporary Jewish preaching would lead us to believe in the conclusions of scientism, there is a well established Jewish doctrine of Afterlife and the World to Come.
Resurrection in Jewish Tradition
Historically, Jewish belief in a bodily resurrection from the dead has received a split decision. Even Jews who agree that resurrection is real disagree on such details as, “Who will bring about the resurrection?” “From what material will the new bodies be constructed?” “Which people will return from their graves?” “What condition will they be in when they return?” and “Will they come back naked or clothed?” Questions and more questions, and some of the answers are just as fanciful. Among the more poetic ancient Jewish theories on resurrection is the idea that “drops of perspiration from God’s head will come down to earth, and when they fall, the dead will rise from the dust.”1
One of the earliest extra-biblical writings which mentions belief in reesurrection is found in II Maccabees (150 B.C.E.). In the midst of torture a Jew tells his captors:
“Tis meet for those who perish at men’s hands to cherish hope divine that they shall be raised up by God again but thou…shalt have no resurrection to life.” (II Maccabees vii 14)2
Belief in a bodily resurrection inspired the Jewish guerrilla fighters in their revolt against the Persian king, Antiochus. They viewed the resurrection as a reward which would certainly be granted to those who sacrificed their lives to regain the Temple for God.
The Maccabees were not the only Jews who saw resurrection as a reward. Midrash Rabbah LVI.2 tells of Rabbi Isaac who taught that Torah was given as a reward for worship, as was the return of the exiles, and the building of the Temple. Therefore, he reasoned, “The dead will come to life again only as a reward for worshiping.”
Other rabbis taught that everyone would be resurrected, whether good or bad, and that God would pronounce judgment on each one at that time:
The righteous and wicked alike will be resurrected, not only that the faithful Jews who died in exile amidst suffering and martyrdom may now enjoy the glory of Redemption, but also that the wicked who persecuted Israel during the years of exile may now receive punishment.3
The doctrine of resurrection of the dead was a highly debated issue in the first century, when the two prominent sects of Jews were the Pharisees, who believed in a bodily resurrection, and the Sadducees, who did not. Rabbi Gamaliel set forth the Pharisaic arguments by quoting sources his opponents could respect.4 Gamaliel cited the Torah, “And the Lord said unto Moses, ‘Behold, thou shalt sleep with thy fathers; and this people will rise up’.” (Deut. 31:16) He also quoted the Prophets, “Thy dead shall live, thy dead bodies shall arise. Awake and sing, ye that dwell in dust: for thy dew is as the dew of herbs and the earth shall cast forth the dead.” (Isaiah 26:19) And he quoted from the Hagiographa (Greek for the Hebrew Ketuvim or Writings). Finally, he selected Song of Songs 7:9, “And thy palate like the best wine, that goeth down smoothly for my beloved, causing the lips of those who are asleep to speak.”
The Midrash Rabbah5 is replete with reference to the resurrection. One needs to look no further than the Midrash on Genesis. The commentary on Genesis 14:7 tells about R. Isaac who taught that if a potter could fix an earthen vessel he made, the Creator of the universe could repair (i.e. bring to life again) a human vessel he had formed. Commenting on the Genesis 3:19 passage “For dust thou art and unto dust shalt thou return,” Rabbi Simeon B. Yohai said, “Here the Scripture hints at resurrection, for it does not say ‘For dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou go’, but ‘shalt thou return’.”
Moses Maimonides believed so strongly in the doctrine of resurrection that he wrote a supplement to the Mishnah called Treatise on Ressurection. But one need not be an expert on the Mishnah to know that the last of Maimonides’ Thirteen Articles of Faith is: “I believe with perfect faith that there will be a revival of the dead at the time when it shall please the Creator, blessed be his Name and exalted be his Name for ever and ever.”6
The late Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, Dr. Joseph H. Hertz, said: “Many people find Resurrection incredible; yet it is not more of a mystery than birth, or the stupendous miracle of the annual resurrection of plant-life after winter.”7
Biblical Examples of Resurrection
The Hebrew Scriptures report three separate instances of physical resurrection. Elijah had enjoyed the hospitality of a widow who was commanded by God to provide for the prophet’s needs. When her son died, Elijah prayed, stretched himself upon the child three times and life returned to the boy. (I Kings 17:17-22)
Then Elisha had a similar encounter recorded in II Kings 4:32-35, where God used him to bring another boy back to life.
Even more amazing is the resurrection in which Elisha played a part…after he (the prophet) was dead! While a man was being buried, marauders from Moab came. Fearing they had no time to finish, those in charge of the burial threw the body into the grave of Elisha. When the corpse touched the bones of Elisha, the man was brought back to life. (II Kings 13:21)
What do these three Bible accounts of resurrection have in common? Each lacks an explanation as to what occurred after the resurrection. There is no description of the people who came back to life, nor are there any clues that they had “earned” their resurrection. In the first two instances the prophets had prayed to the Lord to bring the children back to life. Neither Elisha nor Elijah claimed any credit or power except the power of God. In the third account, there was no prayer or petition from anyone.
These examples point out that the Creator of the universe has power over death. It is his power, to exercise as he chooses, and sometimes the witnesses are left without the benefit of an explanation. But then, God has not deigned to explain everything to those involved in a miracle.
It also seems that the second chance at life in these cases was not earned or awarded, but freely given. Why? The Scriptures do not say. In the cases of the two boys, it seems as though the resurrection was as much for the parents’ sake as for the children. In the last case the Bible story does not even hint at a reason.
Because Jews were to look to Scripture as authoritative, and because the Jewish Scriptures do speak of resurrection, the Mishna gives a stern warning: “He who maintains that the resurrection is not a biblical doctrine has no share in the world to come.” (Sanhedrin 10.1.)
Yeshua and Resurrection
The portion of the Bible called “the New Testament” also refers to resurrection. In the book of Hebrews (11:17-19) there is an interesting midrash on the binding of Isaac. The author of Hebrews points out that Abraham had the faith to believe that God could raise the dead. That faith empowered Abraham to take Isaac up Mount Moriah fully ready to offer him as a sacrifice. Isaac, his beloved son, the one through whom God’s promise that Abraham would become the father of many nations would be fulfilled, was freely offered because Abraham had faith that God could and would raise him from the dead.8
It is in the New Testament that the Jewish idea of the raising of the dead becomes more fully developed. The first example of resurrection in the ministry of Yeshua (Jesus) took place in the city of Nain. As Yeshua entered the city, he saw a funeral procession. A widow’s son had died and Yeshua felt compassion for her. “He came up and touched the coffin; and the bearers came to a halt. And he (Yeshua) said, ‘Young man, I say to you, arise!'” The boy arose and the people reacted by glorifying God. They knew that Yeshua was a great prophet and that God had visited his people. (Luke 7:11-17)
A resurrection is also recorded in Matthew 9:18-26, and chronicled as well in the gospel accounts of Mark and Luke. Yeshua was on his way to the home of a man named Jairus to heal his daughter. He stopped to heal a sick woman, and while he was still on his way, Jarius’ daughter died. The servants told Jairus not to bother Yeshua, but undaunted Jairus continued to lead the teacher to his home, confident of Yeshua’s authority. When Yeshua came to the little girl, he took her by the hand and simply told her to, “get up.” Mark records that she immediately stood up and walked.
The miracle of raising Lazarus from the dead is set down in John 11:1-46. Yeshua knew that his friend was dying, yet he didn’t rush to his side to heal him. He allowed that tragedy to run its course in order to exhibit the power of God: “Lazarus is dead, and I am glad for your sakes that I was not there, so that you may believe.…” (John 11:14,15) When Yeshua finally arrived at Bethany, Lazarus had been dead four days. Yeshua told the dead man’s sister Martha, “Your brother shall rise again.”(v.23) Martha replied that she knew Lazarus would rise again in the resurrection at the last day. Yeshua’s next comments are very telling:
“I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in Me shall live even if he dies, and everyone who lives and believes in Me shall never die.”(v.25,26)
Unlike any other prophet, Yeshua presented himself as the power behind the miracle. Yeshua commanded that the stone be removed and the tomb opened. Then “He cried out with a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come forth.'”(v.43) Without any physical contact with him, the dead man was revived in full strength and came out of the crypt.
The next occurrence of resurrection reported in the New Testament took place at the moment of Yeshua’s own death. “And the tombs were opened; and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised; and coming out of the tombs after His resurrection they entered the holy city and appeared to many.” (Matthew 27:52, 53)
Yeshua and Elisha, even in their own deaths, were used to raise others from the dead. But unlike Elisha, Yeshua’s body had no contact with the bodies of those who were raised. Yeshua’s own resurrection was unique because he was not only seen afterwards by many witnessess, but the events following his resurrection are recorded.
In The Resurrection of Jesus: A Jewish Perspective, Rabbi Pincas Lapide views Yeshua’s resurrection as an historical fact.9 Lapide wrote that the resurrection was important because it inspired the followers of Yeshua in a way his martyrdom alone could not have done.10 It is Lapide’s opinion that God intended the resurrection to build a following that would bring monotheism to the gentile world.11
Yet, Dr. Lapide does not see a need for Jewish people to accept the resurrection of Yeshua as anything more than an historical fact. He seems to believe that while gentiles need the work of Yeshua in order to be right with God, Jewish people do not. This is a curious stance. It is like saying that although we are to be a light to the goyim (nations), God intended for us to turn away from the very light he shone through us.
Every one of Maimonides’ 13 principles of faith begins with the phrase, “I believe with perfect faith.…” 12 Those of us who believe in the redemption bought by Yeshua’s death and resurrection know that because of that resurrection we have perfected faith. Humanity in its flawed state is not capable of perfection except through divine intervention. Yet the New Testament teaches that we can be made as perfect as our Messiah. By his touch, he heals us and cleanses us. Just as the two who were dead received the power of God through contact with Elisha’s body, those today who have contact with Yeshua receive the power of God to be raised from the dead at the time that he calls.
Yeshua said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who hears My word and believes Him who sent Me, has eternal life, and does not come into judgment, but has passed out of death into life.” (John 5:24)
- Raphael Patai, The Messiah Texts, Wayne State University Press, Detroit, 1979, p. 207.
- Ephraim Elimelech Urbach, The Sages: Their Concepts and Beliefs, translated by Israel Abrahams, Magnes Press, Jerusalem, l975.
- Abba Hillel Silver, Messianic Speculations in Israel, Maccimilian Co, New York 1927, p.123.
- A. Cohen, Everyman’s Talmud, Schocken Books, New York, l975, p. 357.
- Midrash Rabbah: in Ten Volumes, translated and edited by Rabbi Dr. H. Freedman and Maurice Simon, Soncino Press, London, l961, p. 115.
- Joseph H. Hertz, The Authorized Daily Prayerbook, Bloch Publishing Company, New York, l985 (18th Printing), p. 255.
- Mitch and Zhava Glaser, The Fall Feasts of Israel, Moody Press, Chicago, 1987, p. 72.
- Pincas Lapide, The Resurrection of Jesus: A Jewish Perspective, Augsburg Publishing House, Minneapolis, 1983. p. 15.
- Op. Cit., p. 16.
- Op. Cit., p. 18.
- Joseph H. Hertz, Op. Cit., p. 249.
This content was adapted from an earlier Jews for Jesus article.