This story line would make some sense in a variety of cultures. Levirate marriage (Deut 25:5-6; compare Gen 38:8-26) and widow inheritance (see Belkin 1970; as in Ruth 3:12-13) perpetuate the name of the deceased and serve to provide for widows in many traditional societies where women cannot earn sufficient wages for sustenance (for example, Mbiti 1970:188-89). Yet many ancient hearers would assume a woman who had outlived seven husbands was dangerous (Mart. Epig. 9.15; t. Sabbat 15:8). The Sadducees borrow the story line of a woman with seven husbands from the popular Jewish folktale in Tobit 3:8; they want to illustrate the impossible dilemmas they believe the doctrine of resurrection creates.
The Sadducees were known for their opposition to the doctrine of the resurrection (Acts 23:6-8; perhaps Jos. Ant. 18.16; War 2.164-65). When Jesus declares that they deny the power of God (compare 2 Thess 3:5), he may evoke the traditional Jewish view that God expresses his power most visibly in the resurrection of the dead, a view attested in the second of the regularly prayed Eighteen Benedictions (abbreviated as "Power"; compare m. Ros Hassana 4:5; see also Rom 1:4).
Most Jewish people agreed that angels did not eat, drink or propagate (1 Enoch 15:6-7; Test. Ab. 4, 6A; ARN 1, 37A). Some Jewish traditions also compared the righteous after death with angels (1 Enoch 39:5; 104:2-4; 2 Baruch 51:10-11). Since angels did not die (unless God destroyed them), they had no need to procreate. Jesus' statement about lack of marriage and procreation in heaven (Mt 22:30) follows largely from the logic of the resurrection, to which he now turns (vv. 31-32).
Early Jewish teachers regularly argued apart from the Bible with Gentiles or scoffers, but from Scripture for those who knew Scripture (Moore 1971:2:381). When debating the views of Sadducees who doubted the resurrection and demanded proof from the law of Moses, later rabbis found ample proof for this doctrine in the Bible's first five books (Sipre Deut. 329.2.1; b. Sanhedrin 90b). One later rabbi went so far as to say that all texts implied the resurrection if one simply had the ingenuity to find it (Moore 1971:2:383; Sipre Deut. 306.28.3); however, this often meant reading it into the text! As an expert Scripture interpreter, Jesus here exposes his opponents' lack of Scripture knowledge with his standard formula, have you not read . . . ? (v. 31; see 12:3; 19:4; 21:42, 46).
Jesus may be arguing for God's continuing purposes with an individual after death, which for many Palestinian Jews would imply ultimate resurrection. He implies that God would not claim to be the God of someone who no longer existed (compare Doeve 1954:106; Longenecker 1975:68-69); he also evokes God's covenant faithfulness to his people, which Palestinian Jewish prayers regularly associated with the "God of the fathers," Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (Jeremias 1971:187). If God was still God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and if his power was unlimited, then he would ultimately fulfill his promise to them-not only corporately through their descendants, but personally to them. The crowds are again astounded by Jesus' quick wit (compare 7:28; 22:22), just as they are by his signs (8:27; 9:8; 12:23).
IVP New Testament Commentaries are made available by the generosity of InterVarsity Press.
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