Something Else in Common

If you want people to read your book, it never hurts to start with a bold claim—like that made by Harvard colleagues Kevin Madigan (a Christian) and Jon Levenson (a Jew) in the first sentence of Resurrection. They call the titular doctrine “a teaching central to both our traditions.”

Without doubt, resurrection is central to Christianity. “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless,” according to Paul. Christians will be raised as Christ was, according to various creeds and confessions. For most Christians, Easter is the apex of the church year. Even in traditions that de-emphasize the liturgical calendar, resurrection is no less important—every Sunday celebrates it. In some languages, like Russian, the very name for that day of the week is “Resurrection.” Resurrection is the sun of Christian existence: everything revolves around it and is affected by its light.

But central to Judaism? This is a bold claim. Granted, resurrection is included in the Amidah, the central prayer of Jewish liturgy, and in Maimonides’ “Thirteen Principles of Faith,” among other traditional prayers. But if I were to ask a hundred Jews to list some central tenets of their religion, how many would include resurrection? Five? Less? As for scholarly assessment of its importance, the twenty-two-volume Encyclopaedia Judaica contains an excellent but not copious entry. A popular primer on Judaism by Michael Fishbane mentions it only twice—once in a quotation of the “Thirteen Principles” and once when explaining how nineteenth-century Reform Jews obscured or removed the explicit resurrection language in the Amidah. (It has recently been reintroduced to the Reform prayer book, though not without controversy.) Is resurrection really central to Judaism?

This moment of cognitive dissonance is precisely the book’s raison d’être. In the Creed, Christians profess belief in the “resurrection of the dead.” In the Amidah, Jews invoke the Lord “who revives the dead.” But according to Madigan and Levenson, too many of us don’t know what we’re talking about. By the end of their cogent and accessible book, I was convinced they are right—at least about the ancient forms of the two religions. The expectation of the resurrection of the dead is, in their view, “widely misunderstood” by believers of both traditions, as well as by nonbelievers, and they write in order to “clear up some of the confusion.” Moreover, the authors portray resurrection as “a neglected continuity” between Christians and Jews. This too will pique interest, since most readers will consider faith in the Resurrection of Jesus to have catalyzed the divergence of the two religious identities in antiquity. Readers are advised to proceed with the attitude of Socrates—eager to be shown exactly how their perceptions are wrong. Through tight exegetical arguments, the authors endeavor to correct several common misunderstandings.

The first misunderstanding: Resurrection is the same thing as immortality of the soul. Correction: “Resurrection envisions the return of the whole person, body and soul together.” Drawing from diverse biblical texts, noncanonical Jewish writings, rabbinic literature, and the church fathers, the authors make this argument persuasively. Ancient Jews and Christians expected bodies at the end of time: Ezekiel’s reconstituted dry bones, Daniel’s transformed bodily existence, Paul’s spiritual body. The doctrine of the immortality of the soul is a Greco-Roman import, available since late antiquity but appropriated especially in the era of modern individualism. That is, individualism exacerbates our fear of death. Staring alone into the abyss, unmoored from ties to lineage and ethnicity, one clings to immortality.

The authors do not comment enough on the modern era, but their analysis sheds light on current Christian attitudes toward death. Over coffee and cake at a gathering following a funeral, we rarely talk like Ezekiel or Paul: “Don’t be sad, Mom. Aunt Cathy was in such pain, and now she’s asleep for a while. But just think how glorious it will be when the trumpet blast rouses her from the grave!” Even the most uncouth funeralgoer avoids eschatological prophecy. Instead, we rely on a vague concept of the immortality of her soul—of her, in some way—from the moment she died. “She’s in a better place now, with God and Uncle Bob, probably already criticizing the tenors in the heavenly choir!” I find myself saying things like this at funerals, even though I know the doctrine of the resurrection of the body. The notion of immortality can bridge the horrifying chasm between death and resurrection.

The second misunderstanding, related to the first: Resurrection is about ultimate individual salvation. Correction: Resurrection is “communal,” and more important, it is not so much about us as it is about “the incomparable power of God” and God’s faithfulness to promises. This correction reorders the individualistic emphasis of the doctrine. It teaches the power of God to raise us (not just you or me) from the dead. For Jews, this correction can be seen clearly through their texts. The prophets and rabbis linked resurrection with “ending foreign oppression and the reversal of national misfortune.... It was about God’s righteousness, the vindication of those loyal to him, and the establishment of justice.” Christians, having emphasized the individual aspect of resurrection, will have more difficulty accepting this correction. According to Christian faith, God’s power to resurrect has already been manifested. God raised an individual person from the dead—the “firstborn of a large family,” according to Paul, but a person nonetheless. This is reinforced by the ritual of baptism, in which Christians participate in Christ’s Resurrection and join the family of believers. Even communal baptisms, such as a large Easter Vigil or a Pentecostal firehose ceremony, are experienced individualistically. The authors should have done more to explain how the communal, God-centered doctrine of resurrection—successfully demonstrated by them as rooted in the ancient texts—has been trumped over time by an emphasis on individual salvation.

The third misunderstanding, the correction of which will surprise many readers and should persuade them all: Resurrection was a Christian innovation with no parallel in Judaism. Correction: Jews believed in resurrection before Christianity, and during the expansion of Christianity in antiquity, Jewish rabbis “made the belief in resurrection an obligatory aspect of Judaism.” Though the authors admit “a full-fledged doctrine of the resurrection of the dead” cannot be found in most of the Hebrew Bible, they argue compellingly that its “key features” had “long been part of the deep structure of the theology of Israel.” The authors draw heavily from Levenson’s previous book, Resurrection and the Restoration of Israel (2006), to tease out the precursors of resurrection belief. Among these: the coming back from Sheol, the return of David, resurrection of promised sons, eternal life in the Temple, and the return from exile. They also marshal the rabbinic teaching on resurrection, which is an “obligatory item of Jewish belief...reaffirmed in prayer every day.” According to the Mishnah, those who say that the resurrection of the dead is not in the Torah “do not have a share in the World-to-Come.”

Despite such evidence from ancient doctrine, Jewish belief in resurrection has come to be misunderstood or denied by Jews and Christians alike. The authors admit contemporary Jews are “overwhelmingly doubt or neglect the resurrection of the dead and, ultimately, to think that Judaism never taught such a thing.” They are chagrined by the contrast between ancient conviction and modern ambivalence, but their analysis of this matter is the thinnest part of the book. Underlying their perspective is the presupposition that the forms of Judaism and Christianity that existed in late antiquity, “the classical form of each tradition,” are the definitive forms of the two religions. Consequently, it was modernity, with its “widespread skepticism about the one who performs the expected resurrection—the personal, supernatural God...who intervenes in the course of human and natural events” that rendered the Jewish doctrine of resurrection obsolete. This is partially true, but modernity happened to Christians too. Something else must be going on.

The authors are on the right track when they mention how Jews and Christians have often defined themselves in relation to one another. The centrality of individual, future-oriented resurrection in Christianity has caused some Jews to ignore the whole idea and to focus on “this-worldly, socially responsible, and progressive Judaism.” The authors rightly dismiss this simplistic dichotomy, but they do not go far enough in exploring how the Christian-ness of resurrection language and imagery has made the doctrine tricky for Jews to espouse. As Christianity became the gentile religion over time—having established the Resurrection of Jesus as its center and participation in his Resurrection as its initiation ritual—the Jewish doctrine of resurrection moved, for some Jews, toward the periphery of their own tradition. So goes the interaction of competing cultural groups. Perhaps now, when Jewish-Christian scholarly cooperation has become the norm, the deft historical arguments of Resurrection will draw adherents of both religions to explore their “neglected continuity.” We can no longer claim to be without a resource.

Published in the 2008-05-09 issue: 

Michael Peppard is associate professor of theology at Fordham University and on the staff of its Curran Center for American Catholic Studies. He is the author of The World's Oldest Church and The Son of God in the Roman World, and on Twitter @MichaelPeppard. He is a contributing editor to Commonweal.

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