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It's easy to assume that questions about resurrection and life after death are modern concerns. Surely only the Enlightenment's empiricist tendencies led to such doubts. Weren't the ancients all very open and malleable when it came to the supernatural? The theological controversy presented to Jesus next shows how wrong such thinking about the ancient world is.
The Sadducees, who ask Jesus about the wife of seven men through levirate marriage, did not believe in resurrection or in the existence of angels (Josephus Jewish Wars 2.8.14 163-65; Antiquities 13.10.6 297-98; 18.1.4 16-17; Meyer 1971). For these priestly and lay aristocrats, who controlled much of the religious and political situation in first-century Israel and whose rich heritage stemmed back to Zadok, the natural world and the Torah were the only religious authorities (Ezek 40:46; 43:19; Josephus Antiquities 18.1.1 4; Fitzmyer 1985:1302-3). The Sadducees were ideological rivals to the Pharisees. Their movement collapsed in A.D. 70, and the Pharisees took control from them. So all our descriptions of them come from those of the prevailing party, the Pharisees. They reacted strongly against the oral Torah of the Pharisees and were theologically conservative in their commitment to the Torah alone, yet they were very pragmatic in their relations with Rome, possibly because of their high social status. In the sense that modernist religion abandons any supernatural belief and keeps only moralism, then the Sadducees were modernists. Thus the controversy is important not only among the ancient Jewish camps but also for modern times. This is the Sadducees' only appearance in Luke's Gospel, but their effort here means that most of the major Jewish groups have taken their swing at Jesus.
The law of levirate marriage was designed to perpetuate the line of descent for a man who had died childless (Deut 25:5; Ruth 4:1-12; m. Yebamot). If a man died without progeny, his brother would take his widow as his own wife and raise their children in the name of the deceased brother. Preserving the line of descent also kept land in the family, so numerous social consequences resulted from the practice.
Hoping to embarrass Jesus theologically, the Sadducees use the practice of levirate marriage to pose a question with a satirical edge. They are trying to show how foolish resurrection teaching is. Their question seeks to discredit resurrection much like another text, t. Niddah 70b, which asks whether the dead need to be ritually cleansed after resurrection since their contact with the dead and the grave renders them unclean. The question shows how carefully such issues were considered. This was no trivial matter for them.
So a man's brother dies married and childless, and the brother takes up his familial duty, marrying the widow. The only problem is that this man also dies childless. In fact, a total of seven brothers come and go as the woman's husbands, yet no children are produced. The superstitious person might wonder whether marriage to this woman was hazardous to one's health! Finally the woman dies. On the premise that resurrection follows, "whose wife will she be, since the seven were married to her?" The dilemma is clear. This woman has too many men to be responsible to and for in heaven! The Sadducees have fired their best theological shot, and it looks pretty damaging.
Numerous premises stand behind the question: (1) Relationships in the afterlife will be like those in this life. (2) The absurdity of the woman's dilemma reveals the absurdity of resurrection. (3) With the possible exception of levirate responsibility, monogamy was recommended—a key point since this woman has been committed in marriage seven times!
Jesus' reply undercuts the basic premise before stating emphatic support for resurrection: "Those who are considered worthy of taking part in that age and in the resurrection from the dead will neither marry nor be given in marriage, and they can no longer die, for they are like the angels. They are God's children, since they are children of the resurrection." After the resurrection relationships change. "Putting on immortality" means there is no more need to create new mortals (1 Cor 15:50-54). With God as Father, families are no longer necessary. There is no more death, nor is there any need to worry about continuing one's family line. This makes the afterlife a new paradigm of existence to which the problem the Sadducees have posed is irrelevant. People do not marry in the afterlife, and the issue of whose spouse the woman is becomes vacuous.
By mentioning the angels, Jesus has made a second dig at the ancient modernists. The Sadducees also denied the existence of the spirit world (Acts 23:8). Jesus' point is that resurrection life takes on the qualities of eternity and sheds the limitations of mortality. The Sadducees' lack of appreciation for the new dimensions of resurrection existence, not to mention their hesitation to embrace alternate forms of existence at all, has caused them to frame a question that exposes their ignorance. Their denial of the spirit world is significant, since God himself is spirit. This is why Jesus says being like an angel means being a child of God in resurrection. The transformation of resurrection is what makes eternal life possible.
In fact, Jesus goes on, to deny resurrection is to deny the teaching of Scripture, such as that revealed at the burning bush. When Moses, years after the patriarchs died, called the Lord the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, he was asserting the continued existence of the patriarchs. Here Jesus exploits an absent verb in the Old Testament passage. God is the God of the patriarchs. That conclusion follows on another premise: "He is not the God of the dead, but of the living." For Moses to speak about God's relationship to the patriarchs means that they must be alive—and raised. The beauty of this allusion to Exodus 3:2-6 is that Jesus argues for resurrection from within the Torah, the only portion of Scripture that counted for a Sadducee. God's promises live on for the patriarchs because they still live. In fact, life is in his sovereign hands, and all live for him.
Luke notes that some of the Jews—Pharisees in all likelihood—commend his reply. And having failed to trap Jesus politically and theologically, his opponents stop asking Jesus questions. Jesus has passed his oral exams too well. They will have to find another way to trap him.
This passage is important because it shows again that Jesus' understanding of God's way and will is superior to his opponents' perception. In addition it shows Jesus' affirmation of a resurrection and an afterlife that is different from life now in certain particulars. There is no reincarnation, nor is this life all there is. In the face of modern doubts about resurrection and rising belief in reincarnation and other theories of cosmic recirculation, this text makes it clear that this life is our one mortal moment and that after it we are accountable to God for how we have spent it. Death is not the end, only a beginning. The question is, the beginning of what? Only one's response to Jesus determines the answer to that question. Childless levirate wives need not worry which man is their husband. All should worry whether they are a child of God.