Next Sunday’s Gospel (Lk 20:27-38), which you can find here, gives Jesus’ reply to the question posed by Sadducees about the resurrection of the dead, a passage that N.T. Wright, in his huge book The Resurrection of the Son of God, calls “far and away the most important passage about resurrection in the whole gospel tradition.” Wright felt obliged to preface his treatment of this pericope with a warning against anachronism, in particular the danger that it will be read in the light of common modern notions of the afterlife. He writes:
For many centuries it has been assumed in western Christendom that the ultimate point of being a Christian was to ‘go to heaven when you die.’ … [there was] a place called ‘heaven,’ where god and the angels lived, into which god’s people would be admitted either immediately upon death or at some point thereafter…
… since Jesus, after his resurrection, was believed to have ‘gone to heaven’ anyway, the purpose of Christian life, spirituality and hope was obviously to follow him there. That belief, expressed in a thousand hymns, ten thousand prayers and uncountable sermons, remains the staple diet of most Christians today. Within this context, the word ‘resurrection’ could be heard, as many still hear it today, simply as a vivid way of saying ‘life after death’ or ‘going to heaven’. And since (a) heaven has always been assumed, within Jewish and Christian tradition, to be populated by angels, and (b) within popular folk-religion there has always been a tendency to suppose that the beloved dead have now become angels, the two can easily be combined, and can serve as an interpretative grid for ‘understanding’ the present passage. ‘Resurrection’ thus comes to mean ‘life after death’, which (on an optimist view at least) means ‘living in heaven’, quite possibly ‘becoming an angel’. That, many readers think, is what Jesus is then affirming in his discussion with the Sadducees.
… We cannot stress too strongly that his whole complex of ideas, developed so massively and many-sidedly over the years, was simply not in the head or hearts of either Jesus or the Sadducees, or indeed the Pharisees, or indeed ordinary Jews or pagans in the first century. One might as well assume that when Herod wanted music playing in his court he had to choose between Haydn, Mozant and Beethoven.
In his reply to the Sadducees’ invoking of the levirite law of marriage for their argumentum ex absurdo against the resurrection of the dead, Jesus replies by invoking a passage from the Torah: “But that the dead are raised, Moses also mentions in the passage about the bush, when he speaks of the Lord as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. God is not God of the dead but of the living, for all live to him” (Lk 20:37-38). Here is where the modern notion of the afterlife is imposed on the words of Jesus, as Wright argyes again:
Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are long since dead; but Moses writes of god speaking of them as still alive; therefore this is what is meant by ‘resurrection’. Put this reading together with a too-hasty reading of ‘like angels’ in the earlier part of the passage, and we end up, as many scholars have done, with the view that this is ‘a spiritual resurrection, not a bodily one such as the Sadducees, or Herod, are thinking of’ [Pheme Perkins]; or that ‘resurrection, which is here not argued but simply assumed, involves the creative power of god to transform human life into a non-physical form like that of the angels’ [C.F. Evans].
In Wright’s view, this fails to recognize that at the time of Jesus the debate about the resurrection concerned the future: that is, whether there would be a resurrection. Jesus argues from the text of Exodus that the dead are still alive in some way, and this is the ground for saying that they will be raised at a later stage. To stay only with the first statement would be to avoid the question posed to Jesus and to give to “resurrection” a sense it never had at the time. Wright’s summary:
Jesus’ answer to the Sadducees, in fact, does point towards the refocusing of the resurrection hope which was to take place later, not least through the work of Paul. It speaks of a different quality of life, a life which death can no longer touch, and hence a life in which the normal parameters of mortal (i.e. deathbound) life, including procreative marriage, are no longer relevant. It speaks of an intermediate state in which all the righteous dead are held in some kind of ongoing life while waiting for the resurrection which everyone, Pharisees and Sadducee alike, knew perfectly well had not happened yet. It speaks about YHWH’s past word to Moses, in order to indicate a present reality (the patriarchs are still alive), in order thereby to affirm the future hope (they will be raised to a newly embodied life).
It is interesting to compare Wright’s interpretation to two medieval views. The first comes from Theophylact (ca. 1055-1107), a Byzantine bishop and theologian, apparently unknown in the West before Aquinas quoted him in the Catena aurea. Commenting on this passage in Mark’s Gospel, Theophylact wrote:
“Perhaps someone will say that God said this only about the soul of Abraham and not about his body. To which we respond that ‘Abraham’ implies both, that is, body and soul, so that He is also the God of his body and his body lives with God, that is, in God’s plan.”
Aquinas also quotes Theophylact with reference to Luke’s version of the words of Jesus:
“If the patriarchs had returned to nothing so as not to live with God in the hope of a resurrection, He would not have said, ‘I am,” but “I was,” which is the way we usually speak of things dead and gone, e.g., ‘I was the lord or master of that thing.’ But since he said, “I am,” He shows that He is the God and Lord of the living. This is what follows: ‘But he is not a God of the dad, but of the living, for all live unto him.’ For although they have departed from life, yet they live with Him in the hope of a resurrection.”
In turn, Aquinas considered a similar objection: “When those words [at the burning bush] were spoken, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were not living in their bodies but only in their souls. The resurrection, therefore, will be only of souls, not of bodies.” To which Aquinas replied:
Properly speaking, Abraham’s soul is not Abraham himself [anima Abrahae non est ipse Abraham], but a part of him, and the same is true of the others. The life of Abraham’s soul, therefore, would not suffice for Abraham to be alive or for the God of Abraham to be the God of one living. The life of the whole united thing, that is, of body and of soul, is required, and that life, although it was not in act when those words were pronounced, was nonetheless ordered in both parts toward resurrection. Thus did the Lord by those words provide a very subtle and effective proof of the resurrection.
In his commentary on 1 Cor 15, Aquinas makes a similar point. After citing the Apostle: “If it is only for this life that we have hoped in Christ, we are the most miserable of all men,” he considers the objection that this is not universally true, “because people could say that even though their bodies have good things only in this mortal life, in their souls they have many good things in the other life.” Aquinas answers:
Two answers may be given. First, if the resurrection of the body is denied, it is not easy, in fact it is difficult, to maintain the immortality of the soul. For the soul is naturally united to the body, and for it to be separated from it is against its nature and per accidens; soul stripped of its body is imperfect for as long as it is without its body. Now it is impossible that what is natural and per se be finite and almost nothing, while what is against nature and per accidens is infinite, [which is what would be the case] if the soul were to perdure without its body. That is why Platonists, positing immortality, also posited reincarnation, even though this is heretical. Therefore, if the dead do not rise, it is only in this life that we have hope.
Second, man naturally desires the salvation of himself. But the soul, although it is a part of the human body, is not the whole man, and my soul is not me [anima mea non est ego]. Hence, although the soul attains salvation in another life, I do not, or anyone else. Besides, since man naturally desires salvation of his body also, that natural desire would be frustrated [without the resurrection of the body].
(A couple of years ago I sent the texts from Aquinas to Bishop Wright, who replied that he wished he had known them when he wrote his book and that he was happy to know the Angelic Doctor was on his side.)
When Aquinas says that without the resurrection of the body, it is difficult to prove the immortality of the soul, he was reflecting the biblical and Aristotelian anthropology and not the Platonic idea of the soul as like a driver in a car who can be separated from his vehicle without substantial loss. I wonder if the modern assumption is not opposite to that of Aquinas: with most people finding no difficulty in the immortality of the soul, but not regarding the resurrection of the body as important at all.
It might be interesting to see how preachers deal with this text next Sunday.