Easter Expectations (Part 1)

Fresco depicting the Resurrection in Notre Dame de Bayeux cathedral, Bayeux, Normandy, France, Europe

           In this 4 Part series, we will explore the question of resurrection expectations held by ancient Jews and the historical Jesus. The primary question of this study is, “What did the historical Jesus expect of his resurrection in relation to the general resurrection?” In other words, did the historical Jesus expect his resurrection to be a unique event in history detached from the future general resurrection or did he expect it to be at the general resurrection? Before we can answer this question, we must first answer another: “What did ancient Jews expect of the resurrection of the dead and was there any connection with it to the Messiah?”

So, here in Part 1, I will begin by exploring ancient Jewish expectations of the resurrection before the time of Jesus and Paul within Intertestamental Judaism, also known as Second Temple Judaism – the time period between the Old and New Testaments.

In Part 2, I will continue exploring the ancient Jewish expectations of resurrection, but during and after the time of Jesus and Paul. This part will also provide a summary and conclusions about resurrection expectations in ancient Jewish thought.

In Part 3, I will move to an exploration of the historical Jesus’ expectations of his own resurrection by looking primarily at the three passion “predictions” in the Synoptic Gospels.

In Part 4, I will move to an exploration of the historical Jesus’ expectations of the general resurrection by looking at his teaching on the resurrection prior to his death in the Synoptic Gospels.

Overall, I will argue that the historical Jesus expected his resurrection to be a unique and individual resurrection with no relationship to the general resurrection.


            With regard to method, I will use only the Synoptic Gospels and refrain from using John, which is quite common in historical Jesus studies. Next, I will not consider the Greco-Roman literature on the afterlife, resurrection, or the dying-rising deities. Furthermore, since there is very little secondary literature exploring this topic, I will interact mainly with the primary sources.[1] In addition, I will approach this study with methodical neutrality, that is, with hypotheses needing to bear the burden of proof. Also, since this is a study on the expectations of the historical Jesus, I will examine neither the empty tomb narratives and beyond nor Matthew’s interesting statement in Matt 27:52-53 concerning the resurrection of some saints after Jesus’ death, primarily because the focus of this study is on the teachings and sayings of Jesus prior to his death regarding his expectations of resurrection.


            So to begin, the question that we will seek to answer here in Part 1 is “What did the ancient Jews before the time of Jesus and Paul expect about the resurrection of the dead and was there a connection between the Messiah and resurrection?”

Resurrection in Intertestamental Judaism

1. Before Jesus and Paul

As we proceed, we will examine a number of texts from Intertestamental Judaism on resurrection in chronological order. Furthermore, we will address how each text understands the nature (bodily, spiritually, immortality), scope (the righteous and the wicked, only the righteous), number (corporate or individual), and agent (God, wisdom, or unidentified) of resurrection. In addition, we will note whether there is a connection with the Messiah.

First, the Sibylline Oracles are dated around the third or fourth centuries B.C.[3] In Sib. Or. 4:179-192, the nature of resurrection seems to be bodily. It says, “God himself will again fashion the bones and ashes of men and he will raise up mortals again as they were before.”[4] Furthermore, its scope is that of all people with the impious sinners contrasted to the pious and gehenna to life on earth.[5] Thus, it is a corporate resurrection though it has individual elements as well.[6] With regard to the agent of resurrection it is most certainly God. Sibylline Oracles 4:181 asserts strongly that “God himself” will do this. Lastly, there is no reference to the Messiah or any messianic figure here.

Secondly, the Testament of Benjamin is dated around the second century B.C.[7] In T. Benj. 10:6-11, the nature of resurrection is bodily and refers to restoration of the nation Israel. The scope similar to Sib. Or. is a resurrection of both the righteous and the wicked, “some destined for glory, others for dishonor.”[8] What is more, it makes explicit that Jews and Gentiles alike will be raised, the Jews first and then the Gentiles.[9] Furthermore, it is depicted as both corporate and individual. Concerning the individual aspect, it says “you will see Enoch and Seth and Abraham and Isaac and Jacob being raised up at the right hand in great joy.”[10] Regarding the corporate part, it says “Then shall we also be raised…then all shall be changed…and then he shall do the same for all the nations.”[11] Also, the Lord is explicitly stated to be the agent of resurrection in v. 8. Lastly, there is no reference to the Messiah with regard to the resurrection.

Third, Sirach is dated to about 180 B.C. Here there seems to be no understanding of afterlife or resurrection, but only death or the grave. In Sir 46:19, it speaks of “eternal sleep.” Also, it speaks of the memory of people lasting forever while theirs bodies being “buried in peace.”[12] Thus, the scope refers to all – both the righteous and the wicked – as does the number – both corporate and individual. Further, there is no agent and no mention of the Messiah.

Fourthly, 1 Enoch is dated somewhere between the second century B.C. and the first century A.D.[13] In 1 En. 22:13, the author emphasizes that the wicked will not share in the resurrection. Assumedly speaking of bodily resurrection, this means that only the righteous will be raised. This then means that the event will be corporate and does not make mention of an individual element. Moreover, no agent is specified and there is no trace of messianic language.

In 1 En. 46:6, the writer again focuses upon how there will be no resurrection for the wicked, only punishment and judgment. Thus, again the nature is bodily, the scope is limited to the righteous, the number is corporate, and no agent is identified. Also, while there is no mention of the Messiah, “the Son of Man” comes up twice in 46:3-4. Here he is depicted as a righteous judge and king who removes and deposes “the kings from their thrones and kingdoms.”[14] This may perhaps be a messianic figure, though this is not certain. Nevertheless, this “Son of Man” is neither connected with nor the agent of resurrection, simply spoken of prior to the mention of no resurrection for the wicked.

In 1 En. 51:1-5, the focus is on the resurrection of “the righteous and the holy ones,” excluding the wicked.[15] Also, v. 5 specifies the corporeal nature of this resurrection by speaking of the righteous dwelling and walking upon the earth. What is more, it mentions both corporate and individual aspects. With regard to the individual, it remarks in v. 5 that “on that day the Elect One has arisen.” This could possibly be a messianic reference since v. 3 says he “shall sit on my throne, and from the conscience of his mouth shall come out all the secrets of wisdom, for the Lord of the Spirits has given them to him and glorified him.” However, it remains tentative whether or not this is the Messiah. Lastly, God is identified as the agent of resurrection in v. 2.

In 1 En. 92:3-5, the author tells of an individual resurrection of “the Righteous One.” This righteous one may be a reference to the Messiah, though this is again not clear. The nature of his resurrection seems to be bodily and the scope is limited to only one righteous person. Lastly, God – “the Holy and Great One” – is the one who raises this “Righteous One” from death.[16]

In 1 En. 103:4, there is a shift in the nature of resurrection; here the writer indicates that resurrection is spiritual: “The spirits of those who died in righteousness shall live and rejoice; their spirits shall not perish.” Nonetheless, the scope and number stay persistent, that is, it is only a righteous and corporate resurrection. The agent is unspecified, though God “the Great One” may possibly be an implied agent. Finally, there is no mention of Christ here.

Fifth, the Psalms of Solomon are dated anywhere from about 125 B.C. to the first century A.D.[17] In Pss. Sol. 3:11-12, the psalmist depicts a bodily resurrection to “eternal life” for the righteous and destruction for the sinner.[18] So, resurrection is limited to the righteous and this is corporate. However, v. 11 speaks of the sinner in the singular – “the sinner” – and this constitutes for an individual component. Thus, it is corporate and individual. Also, he identifies no agent and mentions no Messiah here.

In Pss. Sol. 13:11, there is actually no mention of resurrection here, just the strong emphasis on eternal life for the righteous. This is in contrast to sinners who will be eternally destroyed. Thus, we will categorized the nature of resurrection here as “everlasting life” and this is only corporately for the righteous. Moreover, there is neither an identified agent nor Messiah.

In Pss. Sol. 14:6-10, the language is that of inheritance. “The devout” are said to “inherit life in happiness,”[19] while “sinners and criminals” inherit “Hades, and darkness and destruction.”[20] This seems to indicate the nature as “everlasting life” which is limited corporately to the righteous. Also, an agent is unidentified without messianic claims.

In Pss. Sol. 15:10-13, the view of resurrection is similar to the previous psalms. On the one hand, the righteous “who fear the Lord” will “live” by God’s mercy.[21] On the other hand, the sinners “shall perish forever” and “for all time.”[22] Thus, this life is corporate and exclusively for the righteous. However, God and his mercy are identified as the agent of life for the righteous. Nevertheless, there is no messianic language here.

Sixth, the Wisdom of Solomon is dated around the late first century B.C.[23] In Wis 2:23-3:4, the nature of resurrection is the Hellenistic idea of the immortality of the soul.[24] Thus, it is not truly an anastasiological view, rather a competing idea on the afterlife. Furthermore, this immortality is corporate with no individual elements mentioned and restricted to the righteous, while the wicked experience only death.[25] Also, God is clearly the agent of determining who will receive immortal souls.[26] Lastly, there is no mention of the Messiah here.

In Wis 5:15-16, it says, “the righteous will live forever and their reward is with the Lord.” Concerning the nature of resurrection, this seems indeterminate. To “live forever” could mean resurrection but could also mean immortality or even something else. Though given the broader context of the book, immortality is probably the intended meaning. In addition, the scope is limited to the righteous and it is corporate with no hint of individuality. God – “the Lord…the most High” – is the agent of this everlasting life and once again there is no mention of the Christ.

Similar to Wis 2:23-3:4, Wis 6:17-20 portrays the idea of the immortality of the soul rather than resurrection.[27] Also, this immortality is exclusively available to the wise and is explicitly individual in its statement that “immortality brings one near to God” in v. 19. In light of this, wisdom is therefore the agent of this immortal bliss and there is again no reference to the Christ.

Seventh, the book of 2 Maccabees is dated somewhere around the first century B.C. to the first century A.D. In 2 Macc 7, it interprets resurrection to be bodily.[28] Also, this chapter speaks of resurrection in corporate and individual terms.[29] However, it is somewhat unclear as to whether being raised is only for the righteous or for the wicked as well. In responding to King Antiochus who is killing these Jewish brothers, one brother says to him in 7:14, “But for you there will be no resurrection to life!” At first glance, this may seem to mean that this wicked king will not share in resurrection. However, he says there will be no resurrection “to life.” Perhaps, then he means that the king will be raised to eternal death or judgment as we have already encountered in Sib. Or. and T. Benj . This difficulty in interpretation leads me to leave the fate of the wicked indeterminate, though I think the former choice may be the better one. Furthermore, God is the agent of resurrection and the author describes him as “the King of the universe” and “the Creator of the world.”[30] Yet, there is again no statement concerning the Messiah here.

In 2 Macc 14:37-46, the authors tells the story of a Jewish elder named Razis who denounced Nicanor and committed suicide due to impending persecution from him. At the end of his fiery and bloody suicide, he throws his entrails at the on-looking crowd and prays for “the Lord of life and spirit to give them back to him again.”[31] Such an entreaty displays his belief in bodily and individual resurrection. It further indicates a conviction that he will be raised based upon his righteousness.[32] Also, God, “the Lord of life and spirit,” Razis trusts is the agent of resurrection. Nevertheless, no allusion to the Messiah is made here.

                [1] Part of the reasoning behind this is that not much has been done on this specific topic asking these specific questions. While much has been written on resurrection and the historical reliability of the Synoptic texts, I have not found any historical Jesus scholar who has asked what the historical Jesus expected of his resurrection in relation to the general resurrection.

                [2] While I do not agree with Elledge’s method in limiting our purview of OT texts on resurrection to Daniel 12, and while I think that a better investigation of early resurrection theology in Judaism should examine all OT texts, I have nonetheless limited my scope to intertestamental Judaism for two reasons. First and foremost, I have time and space restraints on this study. Second, the purpose of this study is to determine what the historical Jesus believed about resurrection in relation to the general resurrection. Thus, we want to examine the ancient beliefs about resurrection that are immediately prior to the time of Jesus (and Paul), contemporary with Jesus (and Paul), and immediately after Jesus (and Paul). This will set the historical context and help us determine whether Jesus held similar or not so similar beliefs regarding resurrection.

Furthermore, I concur with Elledge, Wright, and Keener that there is no warrant for concerning ourselves with the dying and rising deities in ancient Greco-Roman literature.

Also, pertinent OT texts include Deut 32:39; 1 Sam 2:6-8; Job 14:14; 19:25-27; Ps 16:10; 49:15; Hos 6:2; 13:14; Ezek 37:1-14; and Dan 12:1-3, 13.

See C. D. Elledge, “Resurrection of the Dead: Exploring Our Earliest Evidence Today,” 23-26 on his reasoning for restraints; and N.T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2003), 81-84 for his reasons for restraining the scope of study.

                [3] Charlesworth, 381.

                [4] Sib. Or. 4:181-182.

                [5] Sib. Or. 4:184-189.

                [6] Regarding the corporate, it uses the plural often. For example, see “bones,” “ashes of men,” “mortals,” “they will live,” and “these pious ones,” in vv. 181-190. Regarding the individual, in v. 192 it says, “Oh most blessed, whatever man will live to that time.” Thus, it speaks of the resurrection as both corporate and individual.

                [7] Charlesworth, 775, 777-778.

                [8] T. Benj. 10:8.

                [9] T. Benj. 10:6-9. Compare this with Paul’s emphasis in Rom 1:16 where he says that the gospel is the power of God for salvation to the Jew first and also to the Greek. Also, in Rom 2:9-10 judgment and/or glory is first for the Jew and then for the Greek.

                [10] T. Benj. 10:6. The author names five individuals from the OT. These ones he seems to think will be raised first. Compare this with 1 Thess 4:16 where Paul says that “the dead in Christ will rise first.”

                [11] T. Benj. 10:7-9. Also, Paul seems to play off of this “all shall be changed” language in 1 Cor 15:51-52.

                [12] Sir 44:14. In Sir 37:26, it says, “and his name will live forever.” Also, Sir 39:9 says, “his memory will not disappear, and his name will live through all generations.” Similarly Sir 44:14 says, “and their names live to all generations.”

                [13] Charlseworth, 5.

                [14] 1 En. 46:5.

                [15] 1 En. 51:2.

                [16] 1 En. 92:2-3.

                [17] Charlesworth, 641. Vol 2.

                [18] This is the only passage in Pss. Sol. that uses the verb “to rise up.” Verse 12 says, “those who fear the Lord shall rise up to eternal life.” In addition, the destruction of the sinner here seems somewhat annihilistic. Verse 11 says, “The destruction of the sinner is forever, and he will not be remembered when (God) looks after the righteous.” The other three passages from Pss. Sol. all seem to share this same view.

                [19] Pss. Sol. 14:10.

                [20] Pss. Sol. 14:6, 9.

                [21] Pss. Sol. 15:13.

                [22] Pss. Sol. 15:12, 13.

                [23] Oxford Apocrypha, 102.

                [24] It says, “the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God,” and, “their hope is full of immortality,” in 3:1 and 3:4.

                [25] See Wis 2:24-3:1 which says, “through the devil’s envy death entered the world, and those who belong to his party experience it. But the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, and no torment will ever touch them.”

                [26] Wis 3:1.

                [27] See Wis 6:18b-19 which says, “Giving heed to [wisdom’s] laws is assurance of immortality and immortality brings one near to God.”

                [28] Second Maccabees 7:9 says, “the King of the universe will raise us up to an everlasting renewal of life.” Furthermore, 2 Macc 7:14 states that one must “cherish the hope that God gives of being raised again by him.” Also, 2 Macc 7:23 says, “the Creator of the world…will in his mercy give life and breath back to you again.” Lastly, “Accept death, so that in God’s mercy I may get you back again with your brothers” is in 7:29. Thus far, 2 Macc 7 has been the most explicit in describing the details of bodily resurrection.

                [29] With regard to the corporate aspect, v. 9 uses the plural pronouns saying “God will raise us up…because we have died for his laws.” Also, v. 23 uses a second person plural reflexive pronoun “yourselves” referring to resurrection. With regard to the individual aspect, v. 29 says, “so that in God’s mercy I may get you back again with your brothers.” This verse expresses both individual (you – singular) and corporate (your brothers – plural) resurrection.

                [30] 2 Macc 7:9, 23.

                [31] 2 Macc 14:46.

                [32] Second Maccabees 14:37-38 describe Razis as an exceptional Jew “who loved his fellow citizens and was very well thought of and for his good will was called father of the Jews.” This seems to be enough evidence to consider him “righteous.”

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