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Tuesday, April 18, 2006 

Et Resurrexit: Initial Implications Part 1

Within Second Temple Judaism you find the common hope for a future general resurrection of the dead. This belief was held by most Jews with the exception of the Sadduccean sect (whose ambitions were more political and this worldly). Though there was disagreement among the Jews as to specifics concerning the resurrection (would all be resurrected, or only the righteous? would each and every individual ethnic Jew be raised to everlasting life, or only those who obeyed the covenant? Will the Gentiles partake in the resurrection? Will there be a two stage resurrection? etc) of the dead, it was unanimously agreed that the event would take place at the "end" of the present age.

All the more striking then that the primitive believers would have begun to proclaim that the resurrection had happened to their leader who had just been condemned and crucified as a criminal. What then would it have meant initially to say that Jesus of Nazareth had been raised from the dead? It would have meant that the general resurrection of the dead had begun. If one man had been raised from the dead, then it was certainly about to occur for everyone else.

There are several indiciations of this in the New Testament that point to this initial belief. First, is Paul's description of the Risen Jesus as "the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep" (1 Cor 15:20). The first fruits were considered the best or main part of the crop in the OT. Dunn explains the significance of referring to Jesus' resurrection in this manner:

"The metaphor of first fruits dentoes the beginning of the harvest, more or less the first swing of the sickle. No interval is envisaged between the first fruits and the rest of the harvest. With the first fruits dedicated the harvest proceeds. The application of this metaphor to the resurrection of Jesus and the gift of the Spirit expresses the belief that with these events the eschatological harvest has begun; the resurrection of the dead has started..." (Dunn, Jesus and the Spirit, p 159.)

Jesus' resurrection by Paul was understood as the beginning of the harvest. And as Dunn points out, there was not understood to be an interval between the time of the first fruits and the subsequent harvest. Thus Paul's metaphor of the "first fruits" is best understood with the belief that Jesus' resurrection was thought to be part of the beginning of the general resurrection of the dead.

Secondly, the pre-Pauline formula embeded in Romans 1:1-4 when speaking of Jesus' resurrection says ex anastaseos nekron which literally translated is "from resurrection of the dead (ones)" instead of "his resurrection from the dead" which is how some scholars translate this phrase (e.g. Fitzmyer and Cranfield). But this is not what the Greek denotes and so I am inclined to agree with Kasemann, Dunn, Bultmann and others who translate the phrase literally. As Kasemann says this "hymnic tradition does not isolate Christ's resurrection, but views it in its cosmic function as the beginning of general resurrection" (p. 12). Thus in an early pre-Pauline formula we witness the same initial belief, namely, that Christ's resurrection from the dead means the beginning of the general resurrection of the dead and so the beginning of the end.

Finally, there is the strange account of the resurrection of some hoi hagioi (the holy ones) unique only to Matthew's gospel. The passage reads as follows:

"the earth shook, and the rocks were split; the tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised, and coming out of the tombs after his resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many." (Mt. 27:51b-53)

This passage has puzzled scholars for decades. But the best explanation for it is that it expresses that same initial belief that Jesus' resurrection was the beginning of the general resurrection of the dead. Therefore, Matthew (or a pre-Matthean tradition) added this account to the Passion narrative in order to emphasize this point. Moreover, Dale Allison in his book The End of the Ages Has Come has convincingly shown the obvious literary parallels this passage has with Zech. 14:4-5 (LXX version) which was read as a prophecy of the general resurrection of the dead (p. 44). Allison concludes concerning this passage:

"The pre-Matthean and indeed primitive character of Matt. 27:51b-53 is suggested by the following consideration: the account falls in with what we otherwise know of primitve Christian eschatology. As the church moved away from its beginnings, Jesus' resurrection came to be viewed as an isolated event in history...in the earliest period his resurrection was more closely joined to thought of the general resurrection." (ibid)

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Very insightful comments here! Also a great quote from Kasemann.


"This belief was held by most Jews with the exception of the Sadduccean sect"

I'm not so sure. The Pharisees and zealotesque Jews held to resurrection to be sure, but I'm not convinced that it was mainstream or even the majority Jewish view. Belief in the immortality of the soul might have been more common in Diaspora (where most Jews lived), Sirach said that all that endured was a good memory, Josephus argues for something akin to reincarnation at one point. I think there was more variety and more agnosticism on the topic that you mention.

Otherwise, good stuff! I think Rom 1.4 is a key phrase. Why translators put in the personal pronoun continues to baffle me. I've argued elsewhere that Paul employs a genitival plural to emphasize the corporate nature of the resurrection here.

Your explanation of Mt. 27.51-53 was interesting - I wonder what Tom Wright thinks about it?


"I think there was more variety and more agnosticism on the topic that you mention."

You're probably correct on this one. I was perhaps being a bit too general. On the other hand we know so little about Diaspora beliefs that it's hard to judge exactly what they may have believed on certain things. This is why I'm so eager to read John Barclay's "The Jews of the Mediterranean Diaspora." It's been sitting on my bookshelf for a while but I plan to get around to it soon. With Josephus we have to be careful concerning interpretations of things he says because of his tendancy to "Hellinize" certain Jewish aspects for his Greek readers.

At any rate if Jesus believed in a future resurrection (which I think he did) it probably follows that his followers did so as well. So this initial interpretation of the resurrection could still stand. But you're probably correct in your criticism of my generalization of Second Temple Judaism(s).

As far as Wright's interpretation of Mt. 27.51-53, after dismissing various understandings of the texts he comes to this conclusion:

"It is impossible, and for our purposes unnecessary, to adjudicate on the question of historicity. Things that are told by one source only, when in other respects the sources are parallel, may be suspect, especially when events like earthquakes were (as 24.7 makes clear) part of the stock trade in apcalyptic expectation. But it remains the case that the events Matthew describes in 27.51-3, as well as being without parallel in other early Christian sources, are without precedent in second-Temple expectation, and we may doubt whether stories such as this would have been invented simply to 'fulfil' prophecies that nobody had understood this way before. This is hardly a satisfactory conclusion, but it is better to remain puzzled than to settle for either a difficult argument for probable historicity or a cheap and cheerful rationalistic dismissal of the possibility. Some stories are so odd that they may have just happened. This may be one of them, but in historical terms there is no way of finding out." Wright, "Resurrection of the Son of God", p. 636.

Thanks Daniel and Michael for the comments.

'But the best explanation for it is that it expresses that same initial belief that Jesus' resurrection was the beginning of the general resurrection of the dead.'

Did the author of Matthew intend his readers to think that these people were resurrected? I though Wright had shown that early Christians maintained a rigid, never broken distinction between resurrection and non-resurrection. Guess I was wrong again.


I think the author of Matthew did intend for his readers believe this. In his zeal to emphasize the "escahtological" dimension of Jesus' resurrection he created this episode of other saints being resurrected.

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