The Origin and Future of a Biblical Doctrine

By James H. Charlesworth

Edinburgh: T & T Clark/Continuum, 2006, 250 pages

Reviewed by Ben Witherington, III

If you go to the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem you will find a large Jewish cemetery. Near the top of the graveyard are above-ground tombs of various orthodox rabbis with memorial stones piled on top of the graves. If one asks why these rabbis wished to be buried in this locale, the answer may catch some by surprise—so they can be first up in the resurrection to greet the Messiah when he comes across the Mount of Olives following the old trek into the Holy City.

The belief in bodily resurrection has a long pedigree, and it is, intriguing enough, one belief that all three monotheistic religions—Judaism, Christianity and Islam—share in common. What is especially interesting about this fact is that very few texts of the Hebrew Scriptures even mention resurrection of the dead. Where then did such a fervent and persistent hope of all three monotheistic religions come from?

This is one of the questions James Charlesworth and his fellow essayists (Hendrikus Boers, James Crenshaw, C.D. Elledge and W. Waite Willis, Jr.) try to answer in this book. One may wonder why we need another detailed study of this subject when N.T. Wright’s definitive, exhaustive and exhausting Resurrection and the Son of God (Fortress, 2003) is still fresh in our memory. As it turns out, these essays differ from Bishop Wright’s conclusions.

One of the problems with collections of essays is that they often are of uneven quality and, unless the authors have consulted in advance, there is considerable overlap in the material. The latter problem emerges almost immediately here as Charlesworth’s opening essay plows a furrow that is largely replowed in the very next essay by Elledge. Here we have a review of some of the evidence from the Old Testament and early Judaism, with brief references to early Christian evidence, that the idea of the resurrection of the dead into a new bodily state was in circulation before and after the turn of the era.

Charlesworth offers a detailed taxonomy of some 16 different ways resurrection language could be used, but the bottom line is that there is ample evidence for a literal use of the language, not just a figurative use. It is the former that is the focus of his study. And like so many of these sorts of studies, it is better at the “archaeology” of texts (and so of dealing with the origins of the idea of resurrection) than it is at contemplating the future of this idea.

“Love is Stronger than Death” by James Crenshaw is itself worth the considerable price of the book. It is an elegantly written summary of beliefs about the afterlife during Old Testament times. As Crenshaw points out, Hebrew thinkers came to the realization that that an almighty and singular God’s “yes” to life must surely be more powerful than death’s “no,” since God is the creator of and ruler over all things. Thus, for instance, in Isaiah 25:8 we hear, “He has swallowed death forever: Lord Yahweh has wiped away every tear from their faces; the reproach of his people he has expunged from the earth, for Yahweh has spoken.” But as theodicy became more of a problem, as Israel lost wars, and then was carted off into exile and the number of martyrs piled up, a belief in life beyond death did not seem to be enough of an answer. Could an almighty God not bring life back from the clutches of death or help his people elude death altogether? Crenshaw points to the stories of Enoch and Elijah and the Hebrew verb la¯qah “to take” found in both of these stories (Genesis 5:24 and 2 Kings 2:3 [compare with verses 5-10]). God has power over death, to bring one back from death, and is able to circumvent death, it would appear. Crenshaw points to the affirmation in Deuteronomy 32:39 —”See now I myself am He. There is no God beside me; I kill and I enliven; I wound and I heal; No one can snatch from my grasp.”

What is most interesting about this affirmation is that monotheism is seen to be the wellspring of power over death. Since there is only one God, and that God is almighty, God has no rivals or equals. Dealing then with problems of life and death is entirely in the one God’s hands. Even if God allows a person to die, there is still a remedy. Hence Crenshaw points to Psalm 49:15–”Surely God will ransom me from Sheol’s grasp, for he will receive me.”

It is not in Wisdom literature, it would seem clear, that we are to find the origins of the notion of bodily resurrection, and this includes Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and later books such as Wisdom of Solomon (where we do have the Platonic notion of the immortality of the soul, but reserved only for the righteous—see Wisdom of Solomon 6-8) and Sirach (compare Sirach 10.11;30.17;38.21-23).
Isaiah 26:19, however, is another matter, however ill-suited it is to its context—”Your dead will live, their corpses will rise; Inhabitants of the dust, awake and exult! For your dew is radiant, and the earth will give birth to the shades.” Unlike Ezekiel 37, where national restoration is portrayed using the language of bodily resurrection, the passage in Isaiah refers to bodily resurrection. I personally am unconvinced by arguments that Isaiah 26:19 is a later gloss, since there is no textual warrant for such a claim, which in turn means that perhaps here we already have evidence in the sixth or seventh century B.C. for the Jewish notion of bodily resurrection. This could in part explain why it is that Isaiah (along with the Psalms) is the Old Testament book most quoted in the New Testament. Indeed, Isaiah came to be called the Fifth Gospel by some early Christians.

Crenshaw’s conclusion is worth quoting:

The powerful sense of communion with Yahweh and belief in the Deity’s creative might and justice provided the basis for the idea of an immortal soul and resurrection of the body. The catalyst that broke these ideas open and produced full-blown concepts of immortality and resurrection was apocalyptic theology, and its accompanying persecution of the righteous. The driving intellectual dynamic was the problem of theodicy [i.e. why do the righteous suffer injustice and even martyrdom, and where does evil come from if there is only one good God] Greek influence [is] hardly generative here.

This conclusion is important in two respects: 1) the Old Testament idea of resurrection comes directly out of Hebrew theology; it is not something borrowed from Egyptian or any other culture; 2) resurrection can be said to be the natural conclusion one should expect if there is one almighty and just God who cares about the eternal state of his people, especially when they have suffered injustices and even wrongful death. Justice, if it is to be done, according to the Hebrew way of thinking, must be seen to be done on the earth. Here we do not find the notion of heavenly compensation for earthly misery. The issue in apocalyptic literature is not compensation but justice. Will justice be done on the earth? This is as well the key issue bothering the saints in heaven in the Book of Revelation (see Revelation 7) and it is the issue John of Patmos, the author of Revelation, most seeks to provide an answer to for his beleaguered and persecuted converts in Asia Minor.

Elledge provides a second essay, this time on the resurrection passages found in the Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs (Testament of Simeon 6.7; Testament of Judah 25; Testament of Zebulon 10.1-4; Testament of Benjamin 10.6-10). The problem that bedevils the study of these texts is that while few doubt they were originally Jewish texts dating from sometime before the turn of the era (and hence are known to the Qumran community), in their present form they reflect later Christian amplification and editing. There can be little doubt, for example, that the amplification happens in the Testament of Benjamin, where resurrection is connected with messianic ideas, but what is remarkable is that we also find the idea of resurrection leading to the patriarchs ruling in the land with the Twelve Tribes of Israel. In other words, they do not reflect later Christian replacement theology (in which Israel is seen as replaced as the people of God by a largely Gentile Christian people of God). This shows the earliness of the texts, and I would suggest as well it reflects the fact that these documents in their present form come to us by way of Jewish Christianity of the sort we find in the Letters of James and Jude. There can be no doubt that some early Jewish Christians continued to hope for the restoration of Israel in the land, perhaps once they recognized Jesus as messiah.

The essay from Boers on Paul’s view of the resurrection is odd in one respect. Boers has gained something of a reputation for telling his seminary students openly in class that he does not believe in bodily resurrection (presumably Jesus’ and perhaps others). This has been reported to me and others over the years by various distressed Candler seminary students. It is an odd thing to teach at a Christian seminary. So at the outset of this essay it is strange that he tells readers that he does not intend to reveal his own views on this subject, but rather only Paul’s. One wonders why he has become shy. What we have in this essay is Boers’s exposition of several Pauline texts, but without interaction with other scholars or notes and references for further study, unlike the other essays in this collection. Nevertheless there is value in this exposition as Boers tries to probe the levels of meaning in the Pauline resurrection texts. Especially helpful is the conclusion that, for Paul, Christ’s death and resurrection are integral to each other, such that Christ’s death would have accomplished nothing positive without his being raised from the dead as well.

The second essay by Charlesworth gives something of a personal testimony of his own belief in resurrection beyond death, followed by an examination of some Qumran and some New Testament texts in which he finds the concept of resurrection. He notes that for many years, Dead Sea Scroll experts could find no trace of resurrection belief in the scrolls until two texts emerged from Cave 4, “On Resurrection” (4Q521) and Pseudo-Ezekiel (4Q385), refuted that conclusion. Charlesworth defines resurrection in the proper (and not merely metaphorical or figurative) sense as “the raising of the individual from death to life.”

Line eleven of 4Q521 mentions the coming of the Holy One who will “give life to those dead,” though there is no further explanation at this juncture in the text. 4Q385 fragment 2 is more explicit, however. The author is reflecting on Ezekiel 37 and speaks of the bones mentioned in that text as belonging to a larger group of people “who will rise and bless the Lord of Hosts who causes them to live.” What is especially important about this text is that it makes clear that the author is not referring to rising to life in some non-bodily state or, for that matter, in some other realm of existence. This is not a text about entering heaven or any other ethereal world. The belief in resurrection of the dead was not a belief isolated to the Pharisaic segment of early Judaism, as Charlesworth rightly notes. In fact, it would appear that the Sadducees, who did not believe in resurrection, may have been the exception to the rule of such belief in early Judaism. It was, as Charlesworth says, the mainstream belief about the afterlife in early Judaism.

When he turns to the New Testament evidence, Charlesworth rightly stresses from the start that there is a startling difference in these texts compared to what we have found in the Old Testament and in non-Christian early Jewish texts. In the latter resurrection is viewed as a hope and a promise, an article of faith. But in the New Testament it is viewed as a fact of history, something that has already occurred in the life of Jesus. As he goes on to stress, not a single New Testament writer denies or even implicitly undermines the claim that Jesus was raised from the dead. This is striking. There is no debate on this point among those of Jesus’ followers who wrote New Testament documents.

Charlesworth makes the helpful distinction that what the New Testament stresses is not that someone died and then simply rose up on his own; what the New Testament says is that God, the one who can create something out of nothing and life from death, raised Jesus up. We are not talking about a natural process that defies the laws of physics. Charlesworth further stresses that Paul himself separates the appearance of Jesus to him on the Damascus Road from his own mystical or apocalyptic visionary experiences of being caught up into the third heaven (compare 1 Corinthians 15 to 2 Corinthians 12).

Charlesworth is right to add that we are not dealing with a case of wish-projection here, for not one single New Testament text depicts the followers of Jesus, much less his enemy Saul of Tarsus, hoping for or expecting Jesus’ resurrection. Notice the careful use of language saying that “Jesus appeared” to people (the initiative being Jesus’ own), not “he was seen by people,” which could be interpreted as visionary in character.

Charlesworth also points to the restraint and reserved character of the resurrection narratives in the New Testament, which nowhere describe the event of the resurrection of Jesus itself (unlike in the later Gospel of Peter 9:35-10:42) but rather only his appearances to various people. About that Gospel of Peter text Charlesworth is rightly dismissive:

No stone moves by itself. No cross walks and talks. The elevated and unrealistic Christology has Jesus’ head protruding into the heavens. This historically absurd narrative is important for the way it helps us perceive the careful constraint of the canonical Gospels. As with Paul, they do not attempt to explain the inexplicable. In the New Testament we thus are not told how the resurrection of Jesus occurred. It is sufficient to know that the Lord raised him from the dead.

Charlesworth adds rightly that one must distinguish between a story such as the raising of Lazarus (John 11), where someone is brought back to life in his old body. This Charlesworth calls resuscitation (though he does not mean that Lazarus was not truly dead) and rightly distinguishes it from resurrection, which happened to Jesus alone.

The remainder of Charlesworth’s lengthy essay is devoted to critiquing Bishop John Shelby Spong’s belief that resurrection is part of an outdated and primitive world view that needs to be jettisoned by any modern thinking person. Charlesworth stresses that science does not comment on unrepeatable phenomena such as miracles precisely because they cannot be duplicated in a laboratory under controlled circumstances. However, Charlesworth makes the mistake of adding that Paul is after all referring to a spiritual body, not a fleshly body, when he talks about resurrection. This is a misunderstanding of 1 Corinthians 15 (see above and the study of N.T. Wright). Charlesworth goes on to demonstrate how Spong both misunderstands and misinterprets the resurrection texts in the New Testament and somehow associates resurrection not with a Hebrew context but rather with an Egyptian one. He is wrong in this, as we have seen above. He is also wrong that the resurrection of Jesus evolved as an idea over the course of the first century A.D. Events do not evolve, though the understanding of them can certainly do.

In the last portion of Charlesworth’s essay we have a reflection on the future of the concept of resurrection; Charlesworth believes the idea has a future because the event happened in the past and cannot be erased by later denials, but also because it should not be repudiated on the false basis that it is out of sync with what we know of the world from modern science.

The concluding essay in the volume, by Willis, points out that the belief in the resurrection of Jesus was and remains essential to Christian faith. One cannot be a Christian and not affirm this doctrine. He puts it this way:

Resurrection still stands as an essential element of the biblical and historical witness of the Christian community. Without the resurrection, Jesus is not the living Lord but a dead person held in memory. Without the resurrection God is not the God of the living, not the one who has the power to conquer death. Without the resurrection humankind has no ultimate hope for the ‘last enemy’ death, wins.

However, lest we think that this essay is just an encomium to orthodox belief, Waite goes on to argue that the traditions about the empty tomb may not stand up to close scrutiny, and so he concludes that it is possible to think of a resurrection without a empty tomb.

Unfortunately, Willis does not respond to the detailed work of Wright, who shows at length that the sequence died, was buried, was raised in 1 Corinthians 15 most certainly implies an empty tomb. Indeed the very phrase “resurrection from out of the dead ones” that we find in 1 Corinthians 15 implies such a belief. I must conclude that resurrection without an empty tomb is not something an early Jew would have suggested was possible for those who held to a belief in bodily resurrection. This is a modern rationalistic issue and a problem not based on ancient concepts of resurrection of the dead.

It is interesting how Willis then goes on to disagree with Charlesworth when he suggests that Paul’s experience of the risen Jesus was simply a vision. It is not really germane to point out that sometimes early Christians proclaimed the resurrection without mentioning the empty tomb. The idea was implicit in the concept of resurrection that they affirmed. Thus while it is true that an empty tomb does not alone imply or lead to resurrection faith, as it is subject to various other interpretations, it is not true that resurrection does not necessarily imply an empty tomb in the early Christian way of thinking about these things. What produced faith in a risen Lord was an encounter with a risen Lord, but that does not relegate the importance of the empty tombs stories to nil. This is especially so since the very first person to see the risen Lord, Mary Magdalene, and those women with her apparently, had encountered the empty tomb first and then the risen Lord. In other words, the former event helped make sense of the latter one.

Willis however takes the time to refute the old canard of Rudolph Bultmann that resurrection was something that happened in the subjective experience of the disciples, not objectively to Jesus. One of the odder suggestions by Willis is that according to the canons of historical research an anomaly, such as the resurrection of Jesus, cannot be verified since there is nothing analogous to it. This in fact is not one of the canons of historical research. There are anomalies of all sorts in human history, and historians still write about them as historical events if, and only if, the evidence for such events meets certain criteria that make them historically probable. One such canon is: does the factuality of this occurrence best explain all the other evidence surrounding it, including the rise of the Christian movement after the horrific and shameful death by crucifixion of Jesus? Inexplicably, Willis adds that the idea of resurrection is something Jews borrowed from Zoroastrianism, even though in fact we have no Zoroastrian texts from before the Middle Ages, whereas we have plenty of early Jewish ones from a much early period. Had Willis noted the earlier essay by Crenshaw, he could have saved himself this historical blunder.

Resurrection: The Origin and Future of a Biblical Doctrine is interesting and variegated in its views and reviews of the evidence. It shows the scope of opinion about resurrection as an early Jewish and early Christian belief. The book is strong on the issue of origins but weak on the issue of the future of the doctrine of the resurrection, which is only addressed in Charlesworth’s closing comments. It is not as in-depth a study as that by N.T. Wright, but it has the virtue of offering a wider range of opinion—the kind of book that best serves college and seminary students of religion.

Dr. Ben Witherington, III is professor of New Testament at Asbury Theological Seminary in Lexington, Kentucky.

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