Rise of Belief in Resurrection within Biblical Religion by Stephen L. Cook

Modern readers of both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament are often surprised that most biblical intimations of everlasting life and resurrection are earthy and embodied rather than ethereal. To offset the forlornness of death, the Scriptures counterpose promises of sumptuous, embodied, and tangible life. Death’s cold, dark menace is opposed by such blessings as lush trees growing in the temple (Ps 52:8), streams of life flowing (Ps 46), and the showering down of new life by God manifest as the thunderstorm (Ps 29). With death defeated, living, breathing, communal, and familial experience flourishes. The rise of belief in physical, bodily resurrection fits and confirms these earlier biblical symbols and ideals.

The various miracles of raising the dead in the Gospels (see Mark 5:38-43, Luke 7:11-17, John 11:38-44, Matt 27:52) did not embarrass the earliest Jesus followers as they do many modern people. An imminent, end-time rising of the dead was a known expectation within some apocalyptic Jewish quarters around the time of Jesus. We have only a handful of texts relevant to resurrection that were produced during Jesus’ era, but those that we do have show that some first-century Jews believed that history was rushing toward a messianic climax, including the dead rising.

At least some Jews believed that the Messiah’s appearance was at hand, heralded by “signs” (Isa 61:1, Luke 4:18) and especially by resurrections. Textual evidence for this view includes Isa 26:19 (especially in the Septuagint), 4Q521 from the Dead Sea Scrolls, and a text in Q (see Luke 7:22-23, Matt 11:4-5) that quotes the very same signs of the Messiah, including resurrections, that 4Q521 does. We do not know how representative these texts are, but the appearance of resurrection in Q shows that it was considered a portent of the Messiah’s arrival even outside of strictly apocalyptic groups.

Some scholars have identified two strands of thought within early Judaism, separating Jews stressing resurrection from Jews emphasizing wisdom for living. The latter group included itinerant sages teaching a way of life. The intermingling of both types of Jewish thought in texts such as Wis 2:1-3:9 shows that Judaism was not so polarized. Scholars who claim that Q lacks resurrection err as well. Their view runs aground on Q 13:28-30 , with its banquet of the resurrected, and on Q 11:29-32, where the dead rise up to speak on judgment day.

Daniel 12:2 declares God will defeat death (see also Isa 25:7, Isa 26:19) and resurrect “many.” This captivating passage became a key text in some Jews’ anticipation of messianic resurrection. Some scholars say “many” means only some will be raised, but as in this word’s use in Isa 2:3, it likely refers to all (see Isa 2:2). Despite the appearance of many in Isa 53:11-12, God’s servant acts on behalf of all (see Isa 53:6); Mark 10:45 and Mark 14:24 also use the term many, but elsewhere Jesus gives his life for all (see 1Tim 2:6).

Daniel 12:2, a text written in the second century B.C.E., is not the earliest Jewish text about the dead rising. 1 Enoch 27:1-4 reflects even earlier Jewish ideas about resurrection. Texts such as Isa 26:19, Isa 53:11 (see NIV), and Ps 22:29 (see NAB) all show that some in Israel likely already believed in bodily resurrection by the Babylonian exile. Still earlier, more than one ancient Near Eastern deity claimed power over death, and the biblical God jealously reserved the same power to himself (Deut 32:39, 1Sam 2:6, 1Kgs 17:17-24, 2Kgs 4:18-36, 2Kgs 13:20-21). God even raises one dead individual in Sidonian territory, that is, in the god Baals backyard (1Kgs 17:8-24).

Biblical scholar Jon D. Levenson has researched in detail how an explicit hope for a general resurrection at history’s end arose organically from deep roots in Scripture. Long-established hopes and dreams within Scripture—symbols and mythic images such as Eden’s rivers of life and tree of life—converge and pour forth in resurrection faith, according to Levenson. His work has not won over all biblical scholars, but it is powerfully argued. Far from imposing an alien “theological” reading, Levenson traces how ideals and urgings native to Israel’s Scriptures grew and developed over time, resulting in an overt resurrection faith.

Stephen L. Cook, "Rise of Belief in Resurrection", n.p. [cited 5 Dec 2022]. Online: https://www.bibleodyssey.org:443/en/people/related-articles/rise-of-belief-in-resurrection-within-biblical-religion


Stephen L. Cook

Stephen L. Cook
Professor, Virginia Theological Seminary

Stephen L. Cook serves as the Catherine N. McBurney Professor of Old Testament Language and Literature at Virginia Theological Seminary. He is the author of several books, including Reading Deuteronomy: A Literary and Theological Commentary (Smyth & Helwys, 2015); Conversations with Scripture: 2 Isaiah (Morehouse, 2008); and The Apocalyptic Literature (Abingdon, 2003).

The supreme male divinity of Mesopotamia and Canaan.

Of or relating to ancient lower Mesopotamia and its empire centered in Babylon.

Common Era; a notation used in place of A.D. ("Anno Domini") for years in the current calendar era, about the last 2,000 years.

A collection of Jewish texts (biblical, apocryphal, and sectarian) from around the time of Christ that were preserved near the Dead Sea and rediscovered in the 20th century.

The historical era of Judaism spanning the periods of Persian and Roman rule, from the 6th century BCE to the 3rd century CE.

A period of time that appears most often in apocalyptic texts and refers to a future time marked by radical change, at the end of human history.

general condition of living away from ones homeland or specifically the Babylonian captivity

A West Semitic language, in which most of the Hebrew Bible is written except for parts of Daniel and Ezra. Hebrew is regarded as the spoken language of ancient Israel but is largely replaced by Aramaic in the Persian period.

Moving from place to place; lacking a permanent location.

The religion and culture of Jews. It emerged as the descendant of ancient Israelite Religion, and is characterized by monotheism and an adherence to the laws present in the Written Torah (the Bible) and the Oral Torah (Talmudic/Rabbinic tradition).

A collection of first-century Jewish and early Christian writings that, along with the Old Testament, makes up the Christian Bible.

A hypothetical source of sayings about Jesus conceived to explain common materials in Matthew and Luke.

Relating to thought about the nature and behavior of God.

Ps 52:8

8But I am like a green olive tree
in the house of God.
I trust in the steadfast love of God
forever and ever.

Ps 46

God's Defense of His City and People
To the leader. Of the Korahites. According to Alamoth. A Song.
1God is our refuge and strength,
a very present help in trou ... View more

Ps 29

The Voice of God in a Great Storm
A Psalm of David.
1Ascribe to the Lord, O heavenly beings,
ascribe to the Lord glory and strength.2Ascribe to the Lord the glo ... View more

Mark 5:38-43

38When they came to the house of the leader of the synagogue, he saw a commotion, people weeping and wailing loudly.39When he had entered, he said to them, “Why ... View more

Luke 7:11-17

Jesus Raises the Widow's Son at Nain
11Soon afterwards he went to a town called Nain, and his disciples and a large crowd went with him.12As he approached the g ... View more

John 11:38-44

Jesus Raises Lazarus to Life
38Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it.39Jesus said, “Take away t ... View more

Matt 27:52

52The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised.

Isa 61:1

The Good News of Deliverance
1The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bi ... View more

Luke 4:18

18“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery ... View more

Isa 26:19

19Your dead shall live, their corpses shall rise.
O dwellers in the dust, awake and sing for joy!
For your dew is a radiant dew,
and the earth will give birth t ... View more

Luke 7:22-23

22And he answered them, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, th ... View more

Matt 11:4-5

4Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see:5the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead ar ... View more

Wis 2:1-3:9

1For they reasoned unsoundly, saying to themselves,
“Short and sorrowful is our life,
and there is no remedy when a life comes to its end,
and no one has been k ... View more

Isa 25:7

7And he will destroy on this mountain
the shroud that is cast over all peoples,
the sheet that is spread over all nations;
he will swallow up death forever.

Isa 26:19

19Your dead shall live, their corpses shall rise.
O dwellers in the dust, awake and sing for joy!
For your dew is a radiant dew,
and the earth will give birth t ... View more

Isa 2:3

3Many peoples shall come and say,
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
to the house of the God of Jacob;
that he may teach us his ways
and that we m ... View more

Isa 2:2

2In days to come
the mountain of the Lord's house
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
and shall be raised above the hills;
all the nations sha ... View more

Isa 53:11-12

11Out of his anguish he shall see light;
he shall find satisfaction through his knowledge.
The righteous one, my servant, shall make many righteous,
and he shal ... View more

Isa 53:6

6All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have all turned to our own way,
and the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.

Mark 10:45

45For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

Mark 14:24

24He said to them, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many.

1Tim 2:6

6who gave himself a ransom for all
—this was attested at the right time.

Isa 26:19

19Your dead shall live, their corpses shall rise.
O dwellers in the dust, awake and sing for joy!
For your dew is a radiant dew,
and the earth will give birth t ... View more

Isa 53:11

11Out of his anguish he shall see light;
he shall find satisfaction through his knowledge.
The righteous one, my servant, shall make many righteous,
and he shal ... View more

Ps 22:29

29To him, indeed, shall all who sleep in the earth bow down;
before him shall bow all who go down to the dust,
and I shall live for him.

Deut 32:39

39See now that I, even I, am he;
there is no god besides me.
I kill and I make alive;
I wound and I heal;
and no one can deliver from my hand.

1Sam 2:6

6The Lord kills and brings to life;
he brings down to Sheol and raises up.

1Kgs 17:17-24

Elijah Revives the Widow's Son
17After this the son of the woman, the mistress of the house, became ill; his illness was so severe that there was no breath left ... View more

2Kgs 4:18-36

18When the child was older, he went out one day to his father among the reapers.19He complained to his father, “Oh, my head, my head!” The father said to his se ... View more

2Kgs 13:20-21

20So Elisha died, and they buried him. Now bands of Moabites used to invade the land in the spring of the year.21As a man was being buried, a marauding band was ... View more

1Kgs 17:8-24

The Widow of Zarephath
8Then the word of the Lord came to him, saying,9“Go now to Zarephath, which belongs to Sidon, and live there; for I have commanded a wido ... View more

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