Some Sadducees, those who say there is no resurrection, came to him 28and asked him a question, ‘Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies, leaving a wife but no children, the man shall marry the widow and raise up children for his brother. 29Now there were seven brothers; the first married, and died childless; 30then the second 31and the third married her, and so in the same way all seven died childless. 32Finally the woman also died. 33In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had married her.’
Translation: Some of the Sadducees, the ones saying there is no resurrection, came to question him, saying, "Teacher, Moses wrote to us that, if a man's brother dies, having a woman and he without children, that his brother might take the woman and raise up seed to his brother. There were, therefore, seven brothers, and the first took a woman; he died without children--and the second and the third took her, and, in like manner, the seven also; and they left no children and they died, and afterward, the woman died. Therefore, in the resurrection, whose woman of them is she? For the seven had her a wife.
Background and situation: This event happens during the early part of passion week. Jesus has entered the city of Jerusalem on a wave of public support, and, at the same time, tweaked the nose of the Roman authorities by mocking their own triumphal (military) procession.
Jesus enters Jerusalem riding on a donkey as the crowds wave palm branches and shout "hosanna." This is in stark contrast to the Roman triumphal procession of soldiers, horses, military standards, the clank of metal swords, and the silence of a cowed and resentful people.
After entering Jerusalem, Jesus drives the moneychangers out of the temple. Some of Jerusalem's wealthy families had franchise agreements with their cronies in the Temple to provide moneychanging "services" for people who had to change their Roman money into Temple coin, a "service" they performed at exorbitant rates. Jesus' attack on the moneychangers was revolutionary. It struck at the economic power of the Temple elite and their wealthy supporters.
Controversy stories follow. First, the chief priests raise the issue of authority. Who are you to challenge us? In response, Jesus invokes John the Baptist, reminding his interrogators that they had opposed John, who continued to be a popular figure among the people. Then, he tells the parable of the tenants in the vineyard, a particularly violent story, and one of particular poignance in light of John the Baptist's death.
Jesus does two important things here: (1) He "allies" himself with the popular John in the public mind, and (2) he accuses the chief priests of having a hand in imperial violence. Jesus is ratcheting up the pressure.
The Temple elite has not been able to do much about any of this because of Jesus' overwhelming support among the people. They were helpless when he drove out the moneychangers because "all the people were spellbound by what they heard." They couldn't stop Jesus because "they feared the people." (20:19)
Next, they try to get him on taxes. "Should we pay taxes to Caesar or not?" If he says "yes," he loses public support. (People paid up to 50% of their meager income in taxes of one kind or another.) If he says "no, don't pay taxes" he could be arrested for treason.
Jesus dodges the question by asking for a coin, a coin with Caesar's picture plastered on it, along with designations such as "divi et rex"--"god and king." Jesus says, basically, "If Caesar is so insecure he needs to go around plastering his picture on things, then let him have the dumb coin," or words to that effect.
Enter the sadducees--the concentrated power, you might say, of the Temple elite. The sadducees represented both the heart of Temple power and Temple corruption. They lived high on the hog in the Temple complex. The Romans made sure this Temple elite had access to the "finer things of life" in exchange for their help in facilitating Roman power and control.
The sadducees were staunchly conservative in their theology. For the sadducees, the Torah consisted of only the written text of the pentateuch. The pharisees--the "liberals" of their day, in a certain manner of speaking--took a broader view of Torah. For them, Torah included the oral interpretation of the written text. Even though the pharisees and sadducees were both opponents of Jesus, they were also opponents of each other.
The sadducees would naturally have reacted against any idea which threatened the status quo, particularly a new-fangled idea like resurrection, a concept which had probably originally filtered into northern Israel from Persia in the period 200-300 BC, and one which, moreover, was associated with justice and righteousness. (During the Maccabean revolt, c. 160 BC, the question arose as to how God could allow good and righteous people who stood for God and God's law to die violent and horrible deaths. What would God do about such a clear case of injustice. Answer? God would raise them.)
In order to undermine the idea of resurrection, the sadducees pose the question of levirate marriage, the whole idea of which was to continue the name and lineage of a man who died childless. He could still have children after he was dead if his widow married his brother. Their children would be considered the legal and religious heirs of their mother's first husband.
Another "what if?" question: "What if," ask the sadducees, "a man dies and his widow marries his brother, but then he dies, then another, then another, and the woman never has children by any of them, who would she be married to in your supposed resurrection?" The issue is framed around children, with its relationship to lineage, and the woman as property--"whose woman will the woman be?"
In effect, the sadducees played the "family values" card. If we listen to you, they say, the whole structure of society would become absurd. You are undermining the traditional family!
Ironic aside: In this, the Temple was following the "family values" policy of the previous Roman government headed by Caesar Augustus, who was married three times, each one of them for political reasons. Augustus made adultery a public crime, although he himself had committed adultery with Livia, his third wife, during her previous marriage, and he continued to commit adultery with numerous other women after they were married. Hypocrisy on the question is not a new thing.
34 Jesus said to them, ‘Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; 35but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage. 36Indeed they cannot die any more, because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection.
Translation: Jesus said to them, "The children of this age marry and are given to marry, but the ones considered worthy to obtain that age, and the resurrection from the dead, neither marry nor are given in marriage; for they cannot die any more, for they are equal to angels and they are children of God, being the children of the resurrection.
Marriage is an institution of "this age." Marriage was instituted to deal with the problem of death. It was a way of providing offspring who would continue a man's name and lineage into the future.
In the resurrection from the dead, Jesus says, people will be "like angels," who do not die. There will be no need to try to extend one's self beyond their death because there will be no death. (Notice Jesus does not say that people will be angels. Rather, they will be equal to angels (isangeloi) in the sense that, like angels, we will no longer die.)
The important thing is not becoming parents, but rather children--"children of God" and therefore "children of the resurrection," which obviates the need for both offspring and marriage. Furthermore, in the resurrection, relationships will no longer need to be guarded by exclusive bonds.
Jesus includes both men and women in this--"those who marry and are given in marriage"--which was unusual in a time where marriage had to do with male property rights. Neither men nor women will need to marry to have an identity because their fundamental identity, which supercedes all others and casts all others into irrelevance, is the designation of "children of God, children of the resurrection." The owning of people will be over. All relationships will be transfigured and equalized.
37And the fact that the dead are raised Moses himself showed, in the story about the bush, where he speaks of the Lord as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. 38Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.’
Translation: Now that the dead are raised, and Moses showed at the bush, as he called the Lord God of Abraham and God of Isaac and God of Jacob, and he is God not of the dead, but of the living, for to him all of them are living."
Jesus invokes the story of Moses at the burning bush where God identifies himself to Moses as "the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob." By the time of Moses, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob had all been dead for a long time, yet the Lord God refers to these patriarchs as if they were alive. Therefore, Jesus reasons from the Torah, they are alive. If they were still dead, God would be God of the dead, which would mean he is the God of nothing at all. And he is not a God of the dead
But God is a God of life, "for to him all of them are alive." The NRSV inserts "of them," but this is missing in the Greek text, and, in my view, should not be included. "For to him, all are alive"--a striking note of universality.
The sadducees, however, couldn't really quibble since Jesus had made his argument on the basis of a creative use of sadducee-acknowledged Torah, Exodus 3. This is why "they no longer dared to ask him another question." (v. 40)
Image: Detail from Resurrection: The Hill of Zion. 1946, Stanley Spencer.