This is the thirty-sixth installment, comprising Act 5, Scene 7, chapter 12:18-27, in the online commentary on the Gospel of Mark, which I am blogging on throughout the liturgical year. Please see the thirty-fifth installment here. Links to the entire series are available in one spot at The Complete Gospel of Mark Online Commentary.
This is my division of the Gospel:
Act 1, 1:14-3:6;
Act 2, 3:7-6:6;
Act 3, 6:7-8:26;
Act 4, 8:27-10:52;
Act 5, 11:1-13:37;
Act 6, 14:1-16:8(20).
Scene 7: 12:18-27
18 Some Sadducees, who say there is no resurrection, came to him and asked him a question, saying, 19 "Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man's brother dies, leaving a wife but no child, the man shall marry the widow and raise up children for his brother. 20 There were seven brothers; the first married and, when he died, left no children; 21 and the second married the widow and died, leaving no children; and the third likewise; 22 none of the seven left children. Last of all the woman herself died. 23 In the resurrection whose wife will she be? For the seven had married her." 24 Jesus said to them, "Is not this the reason you are wrong, that you know neither the scriptures nor the power of God? 25 For when they rise from the dead, they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven. 26 And as for the dead being raised, have you not read in the book of Moses, in the story about the bush, how God said to him, "I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob'? 27 He is God not of the dead, but of the living; you are quite wrong." (NRSV)
After the Pharisees and Herodians have made their attempt to trap Jesus in Act 5, Scene 6, the Sadducees take the challenge upon themselves. Mark allows no gap or period of transition between the end of one attack and the beginning of another. In this case, the High Priestly party attempt to trap Jesus on a religious belief that would have been shared not just by Jesus and the Pharisees, but by the majority of Jews at the time. It is not clear that the Sadducees would have gained much traction from anyone else, that is, had they been able to score points against Jesus on the issue of resurrection. It is not clear, therefore, whether they could have turned any of the crowd against him if he could not show decisively why the belief in the resurrection was a reasonable belief that arose from revelation. It might have been enough for them just to knock Jesus down a peg, though that goal does not fit with the overall movement of the Gospel towards bringing Jesus to his death. Perhaps the intent is just to wear Jesus down and show the inadequacy of his teaching and thus create doubt amongst the crowds and his disciples.
It is known from both Jewish (Josephus, Jewish War 2.162-166) and Christian (Acts of the Apostles 23:6) sources that Sadducees did not believe in the resurrection, so this challenge to Jesus is one for which they were noted. The belief in the resurrection does not permeate the Tanach (Old Testament), but had become a part of common Jewish belief in the Hellenistic era. The Sadducees represent this older, more conservative stream of Jewish thought. Mark’s introduction to this scene, introducing the “Sadducees, who say there is no resurrection” (12:18), fits with all we know of them on the question of life after death.
The Sadducees approach Jesus without any transition in the text, giving the sense of one test after another, saying,
“Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man's brother dies, leaving a wife but no child, the man shall marry the widow and raise up children for his brother. There were seven brothers; the first married and, when he died, left no children; and the second married the widow and died, leaving no children; and the third likewise; none of the seven left children. Last of all the woman herself died. In the resurrection whose wife will she be? For the seven had married her.” (12:19-23)
The reality which the Sadducees describe, however absurd the manner in which they situate it, is based upon the ancient Israelite practice of levirate marriage, as described in Deuteronomy 25:5-10:
5 When brothers reside together, and one of them dies and has no son, the wife of the deceased shall not be married outside the family to a stranger. Her husband's brother shall go in to her, taking her in marriage, and performing the duty of a husband's brother to her, 6 and the firstborn whom she bears shall succeed to the name of the deceased brother, so that his name may not be blotted out of Israel.
The reasoning behind the law is to maintain both the family name and the family’s property. The Sadducees present what for them is a reductio ad absurdum meant to disprove the resurrection: given the legal force of levirate marriage, how could a woman marry seven brothers and be a “wife” to all of them in the resurrection?
Jesus does not dispute the Mosaic Law, not even their absurdest rendering of it, but the Sadducean understanding of the resurrection. His response to them indicates that the gloves are off in his disputes with the Temple authorities; there is no attempt to couch his answer in the gentlemanly terms of academic disputes, but to push them either to acknowledge who he is or to reject him completely. Enough with the verbal niceties: “Jesus said to them, ‘Is not this the reason you are wrong, that you know neither the scriptures nor the power of God?’” (12:24). Jesus flatly rejects their knowledge of Torah and God. This is generally not the way to win friends and influence people, but Jesus’ verbal parry indicates he is has left that hope behind or he believes that only provocation can lead them to consider his claims.
Jesus does not attempt initially to prove the resurrection, he just asserts its reality: not if but when they rise from the dead. “For when they rise from the dead, they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven” (12:25). He brushes away the Sadducean proof of the absurdity of resurrection by explaining that the resurrected person, male or female, does not marry. The heavenly life is a life beyond sex and marriage – it is a life of the angels. It is only after this proof that Jesus responds to the reality of the resurrection itself and he does this with a passage which on first consideration is not a "go to" passage for proof of the resurrection. This is Jesus’ full answer:
“And as for the dead being raised, have you not read in the book of Moses, in the story about the bush, how God said to him, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is God not of the dead, but of the living; you are quite wrong.” (12:26-27)
The passage to which Jesus is referring is in Exodus 3 when God appears to Moses in the burning bush and reveals himself as “I am who I am” and, more importantly for Jesus’ proof, “the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” Jesus utilizes a passage to prove the resurrection that on first glance simply identifies God as the God of their ancestors, but Jesus interprets this to mean that he is still the God of these ancestors. If God remains the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, then Abraham, Isaac and Jacob also still remain! It is an interesting argument and an interesting passage to choose. That is, why not choose Daniel 12: 1-4? Because the Sadducees do not accept the authority of Daniel; they accept the authority of the Torah. If the Torah is what the Sadducees accept, then Jesus will use the Torah to prove his case. Mark ends the conflict with Jesus’ proof. Either the Sadducees are not given a chance to answer or they have no answer. It would be strange to think, though, that they will not have something else to say later. Most religious scholars hate to be told they know neither the Scriptures nor God. It rankles.
John W. Martens
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