Various scholars have raised questions about what resurrection meant in the early Christian community. Some have contended that resurrection might not have been a physical resurrection as has been so long believed, but that it might refer to something more like survival or revival of the spirit without the body. While the New Testament documents as a whole are repeatedly explicit that the resurrection being referred to is bodily, those making the case often dismiss all but the earliest-written of the New Testament documents, namely the Gospel of Mark and the earliest letters of Paul. This removes most of the records we have of Jesus’ life and removes most of the New Testament textual material which is explicit about the physical nature of the resurrection. On this basis, some claim that therefore we cannot be certain what the earliest church understood in the concept of resurrection, and that it may well not have meant a bodily resurrection to the earliest Christians.
However, an a priori disqualification of all but the earliest few texts in the Christian canon does not leave us without information about what someone raised as a Jew of that era understood when discussing resurrection. All of the earliest Christians were born and raised in Jewish families and in the Jewish culture of the era, and all of the earliest Christian writings under consideration were written by those born and raised in Jewish families and Jewish culture. We have already seen that, along with many other of the early Christian writings, the Gospel of Mark is deeply saturated with Jewish concepts and culture. The point of this article is to show how resurrection was understood in the Judaism of that era and the specifically bodily nature of resurrection in the Judaism of that day. Establishing what resurrection meant in that culture in that era, and establishing that the early Christians understood resurrection in terms of the ongoing Jewish discussion of resurrection, thereby establishes what the earliest Christians meant when they referred to resurrection.
Jesus and the Sadducees: the Jewish resurrection controversy in the New Testament
First we must ask: Can we establish that the earliest New Testament documents discussed resurrection in terms of the pre-existing Jewish concept of resurrection? We will review a conversation recorded in what many scholars believe to be the earliest of the canonical gospels, the Gospel of Mark:
Then the Sadducees, who say there is no resurrection, came to him with a question. "Teacher," they said, "Moses wrote for us that if a man's brother dies and leaves a wife but no children, the man must marry the widow and have children for his brother. Now there were seven brothers. The first one married and died without leaving any children. The second one married the widow, but he also died, leaving no child. It was the same with the third. In fact, none of the seven left any children. Last of all, the woman died too. At the resurrection whose wife will she be, since the seven were married to her?"
Jesus replied, "Are you not in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God? When the dead rise, they will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven. Now about the dead rising—have you not read in the book of Moses, in the account of the bush, how God said to him, 'I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob'? He is not the God of the dead, but of the living. You are badly mistaken!" (Mark 12:18-26)
Here we see the earliest Christians viewing Jesus’ teaching on resurrection against the background of the Jewish conversation on resurrection. We see Jesus addressing this pre-existing controversy, coming out on the side of resurrection. The Jewish view of resurrection, particularly as held by those who believed in a resurrection, then becomes the relevant background and context for understanding what the earliest Christians, who were without exception Jewish, understood when they thought of resurrection and meant to communicate when they discussed resurrection.
To be continued ...