A Hebrew Bible/Old Testament scholar looks at the Bible and culture…

Resurrection in the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible

It’s almost a consensus among scholars (if such a thing is possible) that the concept of resurrection is absent from most of the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible (OT/HB).  The consensus goes something like this:

1.  In Hebrew culture, the human being was not considered a body with a separate soul but rather a nefesh, a being infused with life breath.  At death, when a person’s breath expires, whatever remains goes to Sheol, a watery underworld.  The OT/HB writings that apparently know the quite different Greek concept of the immortality of the soul reject such a notion (such as Ecclesiastes 3:19ff and Job 14:7ff).

2.  Israelite/Jewish thinking about the afterlife radically changed during the Persian and Hellenistic periods (550 BCE-100 BCE).  Some attribute the change to the influence of Persian thought, particularly Zoroastrianism. Others point to the theological crisis caused by the death of Jewish martyrs during the persecutions of the Hellenistic king Antiochus Epiphanes.  If God rewards the faithful, how can they die an unrighteous death?  The book of Daniel seems to fit such a scenario.

3.  By the Roman period, some Jews had come to believe in a future restoration, either associated with the coming of the Messiah or with another of God’s great acts.  Different from the idea of the immortality of the soul, resurrection refers to the resuscitation of the body itself, on this earth.   Numerous sources, including the New Testament, describe the Pharisees as believing in the resurrection of all faithful Jews; and the idea had become a doctrine by the rabbinic period (70-500 CE).  The Christian claim of Jesus resurrection was not scandalous because it assumed people could be raised from death but because it claimed one person already had been.

Of course, scholars have argued about the details of this consensus, but what I’ve offered is a decent description of what most biblical scholars have believed and taught for a long time.

Jon Levenson’s book, Resurrection and the Restoration of Israel: The Ultimate Victory of the God of Life (New Haven/London: Yale University Press, 2006) challenges this consensus.  He argues that resurrection wasn’t a new idea that suddenly cropped up late in biblical history.  Rather, he argues that the idea had its origins within the biblical tradition itself.   His argument and long and complex, but its basic thesis is that the doctrine of resurrection rose from the pervasive biblical idea that God is always more powerful than death, that God is faithful enough to promises of life to act in miraculous ways.  

His study argues that much contemporary Jewish thinking about resurrection doesn’t fit with the claims of the OT/HB.  There, God’s promises are not primarily to the individual; they are not primarily meted out as reward for proper behavior; and they are not “normal” but rather acts of God’s choosing.

Although Levenson’s remarks focus primarily on the Jewish understanding of resurrection, I believe his comments can spur Christians to think about what they mean when they speak of Jesus’ resurrection and their own.  Of course, Christian thinking has to include the crucial claims of the New Testament, but the themes of individuality, “naturalness,” and reward that Levenson discerns in Judaism run through contemporary Christian beliefs as well and deserve further reflection.

2 Responses to Resurrection in the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible

  • Just like the days Jesus walked this earth, there were those who hear from God and those who choose not to hear. Those who choose to listen carefully to the Scriptures will find the same truth Job found.

    Job 19:23 “Oh, that my words were written! Oh, that they were inscribed in a book!

    24 That they were engraved on a rock With an iron pen and lead, forever!

    25 For I know [that] my Redeemer lives, And He shall stand at last on the earth;

    26 And after my skin is destroyed, this [I know], That in my flesh I shall see God,

    27 Whom I shall see for myself, And my eyes shall behold, and not another. [How] my heart yearns within me!

    The Holy One of Israel is our High Priest Melchizedek.

  • I think resurrection, resuscitation, immortality, restoration, the life of the world to come, ‘afterlife’ and probably a few other things too are things that are different.

    The prior commenter is reading in English and reading into a verse that is not quoted in the NT – why not! Because it doesn’t say what he wants it to say.

    Apart from that, it’s a good verse. Job is itself a parable of restoration and recovery putting a simplified reading of Deuteronomy 28 on trial and reframing it into a whole new perspective. SusannahTicciati has a very good book on it – Job and the disruption of Identity. It is a promise and parable that teaches what Nicodemus didn’t know about. Resurrection is a promise also – but recovery and restoration are aspects of the present reality that we are invited into whether through the Anointing of the Old or the New. The work is hard – like death, our death. It is present. It makes one glad as Eliot notes in his Journey of the Magi.

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