What is Jesus’ argument here? Let’s look at his interpretive conclusion in Luke 20:38. This is going to be a bit nerdy and grammatical. But bear with me. I always want to read the text as it is written rather than how I think it’s written. I think Jesus roots his conclusion in the character of God. And I think a focused reading of the text produces this understanding.
A literal translation of that verse goes something like this. “But [God] is not God of the dead but rather of the living, for all are living to him.” The final prepositional phrase is a dative and can be translated in a variety of ways. I want to argue that it is a “dative of means.”
“The dative substantive is used to indicate the means or instrument by which the verbal action is accomplished,” Daniel Wallace writes. “Before the noun in the dative, supply the words by means of, or simply with” (page 162). As the NRSV renders the phrase, we get the sense that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are all “in the presence of God’ as living.
But I think Jesus says more than that. He wants to show that God raises the dead (verse 37). “If they are still alive in the future,” N. T. Wright argues, “they will be raised in the future. Nobody supposed, after all,” Wright continues, “that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob had already been raised from the dead…The patriarchs are still alive,” Jesus argues, “and therefore will be raised in the future. Prove the first,” Wright concludes, “and (within the worldview assumed by both parties in the debate, and any listening Pharisees) you have proved the second” (page 425).
Life comes from and belongs to God, the Creator. It is in the Creator’s character to create and sustain the living. Jesus argues that we find that character of God in the very texts which the Sadducees would argue preclude such an understanding.
So, Jesus’ conclusion goes something like this. “But even Moses showed, based upon the [burning] bush that the dead are raised, as he says, ‘the Lord, the God of Abraham and the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob;’ [God] is not the God of the dead but rather of the living, for all are living by means of [God]” (Luke 20:37-38, my translation).
It’s easy to write off this argument as an example of arcane rabbinic exegesis which no longer means anything to us in the twenty-first century. I’m not persuaded by that dismissal. Levine and Witherington spend some time on these verses and this exegesis. I think it’s worth discussing their work here.
They quote John Nolland in summarizing Jesus’ argument. “God will not have continued to advertise himself as God of the Patriarchs,” Nolland writes, “if he had finished with them and abandoned them to the grave” (Levine and Witherington, page 555). What is at stake here is God’s faithfulness, not merely the postmortem continuation of human lives and institutions. Does death derail God’s promises?
This is the foundation of Jewish and Christian theologizing about the resurrection of the dead. While I think it’s a wonderful idea that I will continue in a better way after I die, that’s not God’s goal in the resurrection. My individual continuation (whatever that actually means) is an outcome of God’s goal, a fringe benefit to me of God’s faithfulness to all of Creation.
The question that resurrection answers, Levine and Witherington argue, “is not, ‘Will I have life after death?’ but rather, ‘Has God given up on his promises to his people?” (page 555). They suggest that Jesus stands in line with some of the Jewish thinking of his time – that the patriarchs and others from the past are alive in the present, awaiting the general resurrection of the dead.
Levine and Witherington refer to the imagery of the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus at this point as well. They suggest “that Jesus believed that God preserves the righteous dead in a place of glory, where they await the resurrection” (page 555). I think that may be a theological bridge too far. It appears to me that the parable relies on the imagery of Sheol from the Hebrew bible more than it does to any conception of a resurrection from the dead. Be that as it may, Jesus is concerned about the restoration of divine justice after life in this world is over.
“The evidence suggests,” N. T. Wright argues, “that by the time of Jesus…most Jews either believed in some form of resurrection or at least knew it was standard teaching (Son of God, page 129). The Sadducees were among the minority who held to the view that a general resurrection of the dead from the dead was not a valid teaching based on authoritative Jewish scripture. However, Wright continues, it is not accurate to see the Sadducees as theological radicals. Instead, they were the conservatives (page 131).
Josephus reports, in The Jewish War, that the Sadducees reject the idea of “the persistence of the soul after death, penalties in the underworld, and rewards” (see Wright, page 134). For the Sadducees, when you’re dead, you’re dead. And that’s that. They are at least accused of believing that there is no “age to come” when God’s faithfulness would set all things right. The way things are is the way things will be.
Of course, that’s an excellent theology for those who see themselves in charge and who don’t wish for things to change. “The real problem was that resurrection was,” Wright notes, “from the beginning a revolutionary doctrine. For Daniel 12,” for example, “resurrection belief went with dogged resistance and martyrdom” (page 138). If God intends to turn everything right-side up in the end, then those who are on “God’s side” can and should be in the business of turning things right-side up in the here and now.
The Sadduceean problem with resurrection “was that they realized that such beliefs threatened their own position. People who believe that their god is about to make a new world, and that those who die in loyalty to him in the meantime will rise again to share gloriously in it,” Wright continues, “are far more likely to lose respect for a wealthy aristocracy than people who think that this life, this world, and this age are the only ones there will ever be” (page 138).
It is, therefore, no accident that the synoptic writers put this exchange in the “challenge the authorities” section of the narrative. Our text is, as Wright puts it, “in a highly polemical and adversarial context, where the issue is emphatically not abstract debates about the finer points of theology or belief about a future life, but the immediate political meaning of what Jesus has just done in the Temple” (page 419). The debate here is about politics, not metaphysics.
The resurrection of the dead, in the New Testament, is not pie in the sky in the sweet by and by. It is not the opiate of the masses, designed to calm down the dissatisfied with promises of a final reward. “Resurrection is precisely concerned with the present world and its renewal,” Wright argues, “not with escaping the present world and going somewhere else; and in its early Jewish forms right through to its developed Christian forms, it was always concerned with divine judgment, with the creator god acting within history to put right that which is wrong” (page 138).
Therefore, Jesus argues to the Sadducees, from the beginning it is the character of God to give and to sustain the living. God makes promises of life to the living. God will not allow death to derail such promises, because God is faithful. That faithfulness to the promise of life will always be a threat to forces that depend on the power of death. “Resurrection,” N. T. Wright observes, “depending as it did on a strong belief in justice and the sovereign power of the good creator god, was always bound to be a revolutionary doctrine” (page 139).
At the time of Jesus’ earthly ministry, this revolutionary doctrine meant two things to the majority of Jews. It referred to the restoration of Israel. We can see that expectation in the question of the disciples in Acts 1:6 – “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” And it also referred to the general resurrection of the dead for God’s people at the end of the present age.
“But nobody imagined that any individuals had already been raised,” Wright reminds us, “or would be raised in advance of the great last day” (page 205). That reality would have to wait until the first Easter morning. “Jesus’ answer to the Sadducees, in fact, does point towards the refocusing of the resurrection hope which was to take place later,” Wright concludes, “not the least through the work of Paul” (page 426). But we aren’t there yet – at least not in the Lukan narrative.
References and Resources
Levine, Amy-Jill, and Witherington, Ben III. The Gospel of Luke. Cambridge University Press, 2018.
Wallace, Daniel. Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament. Zondervan, 1996.
Wright, N. T. The Resurrection of the Son of God. Fortress Press, 2003.