Who came up with the idea of bodily resurrection after death? Like many people – Christian and Jewish alike – for most of my life I made the assumption that this was a distinctly Christian idea.
It makes sense that people would have this assumption. Christianity is so singularly focused on the resurrection of Jesus – and Jews have developed such a knee-jerk reaction against anything remotely resembling this concept – equating human resurrection with Christianity is a pretty natural thing to do. It was only as I got deeper into my Jewish learning that I began catching hints that maybe, this idea wasn’t entirely born out of Christianity at all!
In Hebrew, the word for "resurrection" is "gilgul"
Background: Jewish Biblical and Rabbinic Views
The Jewish belief in resurrection finds its origins in the Bible, but the only explicit references to human resurrection after death – two of them – are fleeting and appear in the later-written portions of Tanakh. (The first is in Daniel 12:2-3, and second is in Isaiah 26:19.)
It’s obvious that later exegesis would find allusions to resurrection in other biblical texts: For example, Deuteronomy 32:39 says of God: “I slay and revive; I wounded and I will heal.” Passages from Psalms, Job and Isaiah speak of misery and dire peril as death-like states, where the victim descends to Sheol and God “restores to life.”
Despite these later interpretations, however, such passages are not explicit statements of a bodily resurrection after death. To interpret them as such is actually a contradiction of other biblical statements that clearly argue against after-death resurrection. One clear example is in Job 7:7-9 when Job says: “Remember that my life is a breath; My eye will not again see good … A cloud dissolves and it is gone; So is one who descends to sheol; He will not ascend.”
This then leaves an unanswerable question: Did Jews living in the biblical era really believe in resurrection? It could be argued either way. I would suggest that given the relative dearth of clear statements in its favor, the concept was a later idea that was retrojected into the biblical era by late-era writers, or even rabbinic-era editors.
By the rabbinic time period, the Pharisees clearly did have an evolving belief in physical resurrection – and this was one of the most significant points of dispute between them and the competing Sadducees. After the destruction and the ascension of the Pharisaic viewpoint, this belief made its way into many rabbinic-era texts. Two examples from the Talmud include: Ketubot 111b, which states the dead will resurrect wearing their clothes; and Sanhedrin 72a, which says the righteous, whom God will resurrect, will not return to dust. The rabbis also canonized this belief in liturgy, such as the second half of the 18 benedictions of the Amidah.
How exactly such resurrection was viewed in the rabbinic era is up for debate. Louis Finkelstein, in his book Mavo le-Massekhtot Avot ve-Avot de-Rabbi Natan, offers two schools of thought on the matter, which he believes go back to the schools of Hillel and Shammai. In Shammai, the soul descends to Sheol upon death and inactively awaits physical resurrection of the righteous. In Hillel, souls arise to be judged immediately after death. The rabbis’ later use of the term “the world to come” is meant to be deliberately vague, so as not to side with one school or another, he says.
While Finkelstein’s view is not the only theory regarding rabbinic views on resurrection, it is a very intriguing one to me from the perspective of Jewish vs. Christian origins of the resurrection belief. If Finkelstein is right – there really were two major competing schools of thought coming from two major Jewish groups in the early 1st century – then that indicates that “resurrection ideas” were very much swarming in the cultural milieu out of which Christianity emerged. [Hillel’s lifespan is dated to around 60 BCE – 20 CE; Jesus is dated to around 5 BCE – 30 CE]. And the Christian view was firmly rooted in the Pharisaic, rather than the Sadduceean, tradition.
Mormon scholar James Edward Talmage indirectly echoes this idea when he points out that, in the Acts of the Apostles, the Sadducees are often depicted as opposing the early Christian communities “doubtless due to the prominence given the resurrection of the dead among the themes of apostolic preaching,” he writes. [Jesus the Christ: The Messiah and His Mission According to Holy Scriptures, p. 73]
Resurrection in the Middle Ages
What we have established so far is that the idea of bodily resurrection found its origins in Judaism, not Christianity. It was perhaps in a nascent state of formation in the biblical era, and by the rabbinic era, it had been embraced and was being expanded on by one of the leading powerful sects of the day; and it was this sect whose ideas ultimately won out after the Roman invasion.
Resurrection was an idea that quickly became a part of early Christian communities, but there can be little doubt that it was Judaism, and not Christianity, that invented the concept. (In fact, to be clear, the oldest foundation of an individualized resurrection theology would best be attributed to the Greeks, but here I am merely trying to address the Jewish vs. Christian origins.)
It was not, however, until the Middle Ages, that we see the notion of resurrection becoming a popular topic of conversation and a cornerstone of belief – for both Christians and Jews – although there were clear differences in how, exactly, resurrection would work. Even within the Christian and Jewish worlds, beliefs were extremely fractured, to the point that it is quite difficult to generalize what the “medieval view” really was.
“Among the medieval Jewish philosophers there were many differences of opinion with regard to the resurrection,” explains the Encyclopedia Judaica. “These controversies depend for the most part on the fact that it was not clear, or certainly not explicit, that there had been controversy in the talmudic period. Consequently some thinkers accepted one of the talmudic opinions, and others contested their views, without realizing that they were simply following different sides of an old argument.”
Here are some highlights of how key medieval Jewish theologians viewed resurrection:
• Saadiah Gaon said dead souls remain in a treasury until the resurrection, but does not endorse a physical resurrection. This is in line with the Beit Shammai point of view.
• Maimonides lists belief in resurrection as the 13th of his 13 principles of faith in his commentary on Mishnah Sanhedrin. However, the little writing he did on the topic left him open to complaint that perhaps his views were not genuine. Toward the end of his life, he wrote a defense of his view, in Essay on the Resurrection. His explanation of resurrection was, however, somewhat unorthodox. He believed God, and not a human messiah, would bring about resurrection. The resurrection would also be temporary; a second “death” would occur and at that point, the human soul would be what is everlasting.
• Nahmanides challenges the view that the resurrected dead will eventually die. He believes resurrected bodies will be somewhat ethereal compared to truly corporeal bodies, and he does not believe that they will eventually die. This can be seen as a synthesis between the two rabbinic opinions.
• Hasdai Crescas is the first medieval writer to note that there appears to be a contradiction in rabbinic resurrection views. He maintained that everyone but the greatest sinners will be resurrected, that there will be a court of judgment, and that the righteous will live forever in refined bodies.
What all of these views do have in common – apart, perhaps, from Maimonides – is that body and soul are seen as important. The body is not merely a vessel for housing the soul, but rather is used as a way of ensuring accountability for human actions. “Whether it is understood that all people are resurrected for judgment, body and soul together, or whether only the bodies of the righteous are resurrected to enjoy the redemption, the central stress is the same,” the EJ explains. The human being is one essence, a unit, not merely a soul housed in a body which itself is of no worth.”
Over on the Christian side of the aisle, we see, at the meta-level, the same fundamental belief: human bodies do resurrect, and this resurrection is based on some kind of divine judgment.
In what is deemed the preeminent scholarly investigation into Christian views of resurrection, Caroline Walker Bynum traces, in meticulous detail, the evolution of the idea – and the impassioned debates around it – in Christian communities between 200 and 1336. In doing so, she demonstrates that “Christians clung to a very literal notion of resurrection despite repeated attempts by theologians and philosophers to spiritualize the idea.”
Her book then goes on to analyze in detail all of the major Christian works to address this theology during this time period; suffice it to say, the sheer number of works produced, and the focus they took on the tiniest of details, far exceed any hope for summary! (Peter Lombard is captivated by such issues as what age, gender and height a resurrected body might be; Albert, Thomas and Giles debated endlessly over risen fingernails and embryos, not to mention the fate of genitals and intestines in heaven. These are just to name a few.)