How Do We Define The Resurrection? Pt.1 Jewish Tradition

When investigating the Resurrection of Jesus Christ what often goes without being said is the very definition of what we’re investigating. How are we to define the Resurrection of Jesus?

Imagine you’re building the case for the Resurrection of Jesus Christ to your friend. You have the historical facts written down and you believe you’re offering a convincing argument as to why the differing theories on the Resurrection appearances fail. But as you’re about to conclude your case your friend speaks up and says, “What if the Resurrection was meant to be a spiritual metaphor of some kind? What if the authors never intended it to be taken literally because it’s nothing but an inspiring story?”

I’ve come across this objection quite a few times and I believe its importance cannot be understated. If the Resurrection was intended to be an inspiring metaphor and not a physical, bodily resurrection then the historical facts become meaningless. In fact, we could go as far as to conclude that they aren’t facts at all. They could be legendary fabrications created long after the fact. Before we can investigate the minimal facts we need to make sure we have our terminology correct. We cannot merely assume that the Resurrection in the New Testament is a literal, bodily resurrection from the dead.

Perhaps the best way to show that a bodily definition is not a later invention or legend is to search the Old Testament. Then we’ll look at a couple of examples that explore the nature of resurrection in Jewish thought.

And many of them that sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. And they that be wise shall shine as the brightness of the firmament; and they that turn many to righteousness as the stars for ever and ever (Daniel 12:2-3)

The hand of the Lord was upon me, and carried me out in the spirit of the Lord, and set me down in the midst of the valley which was full of bones, And caused me to pass by them round about: and, behold, there were very many in the open valley; and, lo, they were very dry. And he said unto me, Son of man, can these bones live? And I answered, O Lord God, thou knowest. Again he said unto me, Prophesy upon these bones, and say unto them, O ye dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus saith the Lord God unto these bones; Behold, I will cause breath to enter into you, and ye shall live: And I will lay sinews upon you, and will bring up flesh upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and ye shall live; and ye shall know that I am the Lord. So I prophesied as I was commanded: and as I prophesied, there was a noise, and behold a shaking, and the bones came together, bone to his bone. And when I beheld, lo, the sinews and the flesh came up upon them, and the skin covered them above: but there was no breath in them. Then said he unto me, Prophesy unto the wind, prophesy, son of man, and say to the wind, Thus saith the Lord God; Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live. So I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood up upon their feet, an exceeding great army (Ezekiel 37:1-10).

Thy dead men shall live, together with my dead body shall they arise. Awake and sing, ye that dwell in dust: for thy dew is as the dew of herbs, and the earth shall cast out the dead (Isaiah 26:19).
For I know that my redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth: And though after my skin worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God (Job 19:25-26)

Come, and let us return unto the Lord: for he hath torn, and he will heal us; he hath smitten, and he will bind us up. After two days will he revive us: in the third day he will raise us up, and we shall live in his sight (Hosea 6:1-2).

Here are a few examples in Jewish literature.

The earth shall give up those who are asleep in it, and the dust those who rest there in silence; and the chambers shall give up the souls that have been committed to them (4 Ezra 7:32).

And in those days the Earth will return that which has been entrusted to it, and Sheol will return that which has been entrusted to it and that which it has received. And destruction will return what it owes. (1 Enoch 51:1)

….God Himself will refashion the bones and ashes of humans and raise mortals as they were before (Sib. Or. IV).

For the earth will surely give back the dead at that time; it receives them now in order to keep them, not changing anything in their form. But as it has received them so it will give them back. And as I have delivered them to it so it will raise them (2 Baruch 50:2).

These verses clearly suggest that there is something material and explicitly physical going on here. Based on these examples we may be able to confidently assert that physical resurrection is, by no means, an unfamiliar, legendary construct but a belief that has been present in Jewish thought for centuries. Jewish resurrection belief does not entail a vision or something spiritual and immaterial in nature. Of course, this does not mean that the resurrection we read in the New Testament was strictly physical. All we are establishing here is that the belief of a physical resurrection pre-dates the New Testament and was not a legendary development that began much later.

There have been various attempts to deny this by noting that there is a diverse view of the nature of resurrection in Jewish literature, but each one fails for the simple reason that these peculiars aren’t talking about the nature of resurrection at all. Some note that the Sadduccees deny a physical resurrection. Indeed so, but this is not a variation of the nature of resurrection belief but a denial of it. They are two separate bodies of thought. Jewish thought also varies to the New Testament by pointing to an eschatological time, however, we note again that this is not a variation of the nature of resurrection but of the time it was expected to occur.

Finally, to argue that there were diversions of views on the nature of resurrection in Jewish tradition is erroneous from the start, for the Jews believed that a complete human person was a combination of the body and spirit.” A spirit, without a physical body, would “live in a more ethereal existence that did not permit a great deal of awareness or action” [1]. This is a concept known as “Semitic Totality.”

In part two we’ll investigate some of the arguments for a spiritual resurrection made from the words of Paul.

References: Holding, James Patrick (2010). Defending the Resurrection p.16