“In the resurrection, therefore,” the Sadducees ask, “whose wife will the woman be?” She won’t be anyone’s wife in the resurrection, Jesus replies. That’s a revolutionary statement. In the first-century Mediterranean, a woman was usually defined by her relationship to a man. She started out life as a man’s daughter. She got married and became a man’s wife. If she bore sons, she would become a man’s mother. Her identity as a person was derived from her connection to a man.
It’s not that there were no “independent” women in the ancient world. We know about Lydia in the book of Acts, the dealer in fine purple cloth. While the text is mum about her marital status, there is no mention of a man in her life. A number of women, as we read in Luke 8, underwrite the costs of Jesus’ preaching tour in Galilee. One is married. At least some of the others are not.
Widows in the ancient world occupied a liminal space. Widows had once been married and now are not. I can tell you, from experience as a widower, that this in-between experience of the formerly married is not limited to the ancient world. Widows were stereotypically regarded as in need of male protection and resourcing. They were often portrayed as economically and socially vulnerable. They were viewed as living on the edges of “normal” male/female relationships.
Childless widows would be particularly vulnerable. They were probably beyond the protection and care of a father. They had lost the connection to and identity with a husband. They did not have the “social security” of children duty-bound to provide for them in old age. Thus, the system of levirate marriage (assumed in the thought experiment proposed by the Sadducees) was intended to provide both some measure of security for the widow and a way for the name of the deceased husband to continue in Israel.
All that being said, we need to also remember that in ancient Israelite legal theory, marriage was first and foremost a property relationship. Therefore, for example, adultery was a property crime. It was the theft of one man’s “property” (the sexual function of the wife) by another man. The property of the family was owned and controlled by the husband and his family. Of course, that is familiar to some of us as well. I can clearly remember the days when my mom couldn’t have a checking account or credit card without the co-signature of her husband.
Whose wife will the woman be? The socially conservative Sadducees presume a property understanding of marriage. “Whose” is a possessive pronoun. And the wife, in this question, is a possession of each of the seven brothers. More than that, she derives her position, status, and identity from that connection to a man. If there’s no man, whose is that woman? And who is that woman? In the resurrection she is, Jesus declares, isaggeloi – “like the angels.”
“This story, properly understood,” Anna Beresford writes, “emphasizes the equality of men and women in God’s sight, the love of God, the power of the kingdom, and the qualities of the resurrection life” (page 6). The woman will be a child of God and of the resurrection without the need for a male anchor in the scheme of existence. She will not require the validation of connection to another human being for that status. She will be seen and valued for herself and not for the sake of another.
Beresford notes that the Lukan author portrays an ambiguous picture of women in the gospel account. She suggests that this treatment of women is part of the Lukan strategy to subvert existing social relationship for the sake of the Kin(g)dom without posing a radical threat to the established authorities who might cause trouble for the Lukan community. “Rather than silencing or sidelining women,” Beresford writes, “Luke used them and their plight to highlight the historical inequalities of the time and make a theological point” (page 7).
Beresford argues that the Lukan author tells the story of the nameless widow in our text to demonstrate “the disconnect between the worldview of the Sadducees and the economy of God’s kingdom” (page 7). The Sadducees, as the representatives and guarantors of the established order, were not interested in any doctrine or practice that might threaten to upset that order.
It’s clear as we read Luke 20, that many folks saw Jesus as a threat to that established order. The questions Jesus fields in this section try to show him as a problem for the Temple system, the economic system, and the political system. Beresford notes that our text immediately follows the question about paying taxes to the Emperor. “To whom does this coin belong?” is the previous question. “To whom does the woman belong?” is the current question.
According to Beresford, Jesus’ answer is the same in each case: “just as the coin is imprinted with the emperor’s image and so belongs to the emperor, men and women both reflect the maker’s mark. They are made in God’s image and likeness (Gen. 1:26-27) and belong to God alone.” This identifying mark, for the woman, is not dependent on a property relationship to a man. “The reason they shall neither marry nor be given in marriage in the resurrection,” Beresford argues, “is that, in the resurrection, women, make in God’s image, shall cease to be property” (page 10).
Instead, the woman (like the men) shall become “like the angels.” This doesn’t mean that dead people “become” angels. I write that with a certain amount of trepidation, no matter how much I know it’s true. In our time, many people are quite certain that their dead loved ones have become their “guardian angels” who watch over them from heaven. That’s not what our text says. “Like” the angels in immortality and ceasing to marry is not the same as being angels.
I want to digress for a moment in this regard. I am not saying that I think our deceased loved ones cease to have a relationship with us who are still in this life. I take great comfort from the image in the book of Hebrews of the “great cloud of witnesses” cheering us on from the heavenly bleachers in the stadium of the New Creation. I have experienced connections with deceased loved ones at important moments of my life. I believe in the communion of saints, and I think that communion transcends the boundaries of space and time. It’s just that this doesn’t make my deceased loved ones into “guardian angels.” That job, in Christian tradition is already taken by, well, the guardian angels.
The angels live in the presence of God and have their life from God. So, too, Jesus argues later in the text, do those patriarchs (and matriarchs) upon which he bases his exegetical argument. “God’s relationship with people does not end when they die,” Beresford writes, instead, the relationship is everlasting and personal. And, as Jesus’ words implied,” she continues, “that relationship is not limited by a person’s gender. Both men and women are made in God’s image, so all have equal standing before God” (page 11).
As Beresford notes, the Sadduceean thought experiment portrays numerous features of their worldview. The ownership of women by men is assumed. Women have no choice but to acquiesce to the needs and directives of those men. The age to come would differ little from the present age (if there was any age to come at all). Things might be a bit different but not much. And death seems to be more powerful than God.
Jesus’ reply describes a different worldview, as Beresford summarizes. Death cannot destroy God’s relationship with God’s creatures. Men and women are equal participants in the age to come. That age has come near in Jesus and is beginning to unfold in the here and now.
I would add that Jesus reverses our frame of reference. This age is not the standard by which we judge the age to come. That is the Sadduceean perspective. Instead, the fulfillment of God’s creative intent in the age to come is the standard by which we are called to evaluate and change this age.
For example, how we do marriage now does not tell us what relationships in the age to come should be like. Instead, what we can discern of the age to come should tell us how our relationships in this age are to be – at least for Jesus followers. If the fulfillment of creation is that we should be like the angels, then we are called to start acting more “angelic” in the here and now.
Marriage should not be defined as property and power but rather as partnership. Human status and position don’t confer identity. God does. Marriage can be a sign, instrument, and foretaste of the quality of relationships among all people in the age to come. But that can only be the case if marriage reflects the quality of relationship we can discern in the age to come. The current status quo cannot be used to judge the nature of the age to come. Rather, the age to come provides the standards by which to judge the current status quo.
References and Resources
Beresford, Anna. “Whose Wife Will She Be? A Feminist Interpretation of Luke 20:27-38.” Priscilla Papers, 35:4, pages 6-13, 2021. https://www.academia.edu/69656828/Whose_Wife_Will_She_Be_A_Feminist_Interpretation_of_Luke_20_27_38?auto=citations&from=cover_page.
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.