Jon D. Levenson, Professor of Jewish studies at Harvard University, has written a new book on the concept of resurrection in Judaism.
According to Levenson, with the exception of a minority of Orthodox Jews, most Jews believe that the idea of resurrection is “a metaphor for how one’s good works live on.” Those Jews who reject the idea of resurrection believe that resurrection is “a minor and dispensable theme in Judaism.”
In a review of Levenson’s book written by Peter Steinfels and published on September 30, 2006 in The New York Times, Steinfels wrote:
Resurrection of the dead, it is argued, is a Johnny-come-lately notion, not found in the ancient texts of the Hebrew Bible, which treated mortality matter-of-factly. Instead, the doctrine was an innovation of the Maccabean period, found in the Book of Daniel, written between 167 and 164 B.C.E, when faithful Jews were being persecuted by the Hellenistic monarch Antiochus IV. With ideas borrowed from Zoroastrianism and other foreign sources, resurrection solved the puzzle of understanding divine justice when fidelity to the Law brought about not prosperity and length of years but martyrdom.
Professor Levenson’s new book, “Resurrection and the Restoration of Israel: The Ultimate Victory of the God of Life” (Yale University Press), is a frontal challenge to this account. But the reasons that it has become a staple of modern Jewish apologetics, he allows, “are not hard to find.”
On the one hand, the rejection or marginalization of resurrection offered a clear distinction between Judaism and a Christianity that celebrated the Resurrection of Jesus as the ground for human hope. On the other hand, it simultaneously aligned Judaism with the naturalistic and scientific outlook of modernity “of the sort that dismisses resurrection as an embarrassing relic of the childhood of humanity.”
Steinfels also discussed Levenson’s view about the concept of resurrection in Judaism and Christianity. He wrote:
Professor Levenson has written for an audience well beyond his fellow biblical scholars. He understands those who cannot accept this belief, he said in a recent telephone conversation, but he still feels that it is a “truncated Judaism that does not reckon with resurrection.”
And if a modern Jewish apologetic has contrasted a this-worldly and ethically minded Judaism against an otherworldly and superstitious Christianity, he said, many Christians have misunderstood Judaism because of their assumption that belief in resurrection is exclusively associated with Jesus.
“The stereotypes on both sides are destructive,” he said, “and destroy an important bond between Judaism and Christianity.” For all the differences between the two faiths — and Professor Levenson is not known for minimizing them — “early Christianity and rabbinic Judaism had no division on belief in eschatological resurrection,” he said.
To read the article on its entirety, click here.
There are several passages in the Old Testament that teach or intimate that a belief in resurrection existed in Israel. Even though this belief may not have been widely taught, these passages seem to indicate that the concept of resurrection developed late in the faith of Israel. The following are the most important passages that convey a hope, if not a belief, in the idea of resurrection:
As for me, I shall behold your face in righteousness; when I awake, I shall be satisfied with your likeness (Psalm 17:15).
But God will ransom my soul from the power of Sheol, for he will receive me (Psalm 49:15).
You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will receive me to glory (Psalm 73:24).
Another text that has been cited to prove the concept of resurrection is Job 19:25-26: For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God. However, the textual problems with this passage have raised some questions about what the words mean.
Another text that may allude to the belief in resurrection in the Old Testament is found in the book of Isaiah, who compares the restoration of Israel to a resurrection from the dead:
Your dead shall live; their bodies shall rise. You who dwell in the dust, awake and sing for joy! For your dew is a dew of light, and the earth will give birth to the dead. (Isaiah 26:19).
The same idea is also present in the book of Ezekiel, who, at the time of the exile, wrote about the restoration of Israel (Ezekiel 37).
The clearest reference to the concept of resurrection is found in Daniel 12:2:
And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.
Here the writer of Daniel affirms that those who have died will awake, some to eternal life, and others to everlasting shame and contempt.
In the New Testament, the belief in the resurrection and the idea of a future retribution was accepted by the Pharisees and the majority of the Jewish people. The Sadducees, however, did not believe in the idea of resurrection.
I have not read Levenson’s book yet, but if he desires to convince people about the reality of the resurrection, Paul’s words on the subject should convince them that a belief in the resurrection is important for people who believe in God:
If there is no resurrection of the dead . . . then . . . your faith has been in vain (1 Corinthians 15:13-14).
If there is no resurrection of the dead . . . then . . . your faith is futile and you are still in your sins (1 Corinthians 15:17).
If for this life only we have hoped Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied (1 Corinthians 15:19).
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
Tags: Peter Steinfels, Jon D. Levenson, Resurrection, Restoration , Israel