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Resurrections of the dead, some first-century Palestinian Jews affirmed, were one key sign of the Messiah’s imminent appearance, a belief based on mounting hopes within the Hebrew Scriptures.

Vincent van Gogh. The Raising of Lazarus

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.

  • Dr. Stephen L. Cook has served as the Catherine N. McBurney Professor of Old Testament Language and Literature at Virginia Theological Seminary since 1996. He is the author of several books, including Ezekiel 38–48 in the Anchor Yale Bible series (Yale University Press, 2018), Reading Deuteronomy: A Literary and Theological Commentary (Smyth & Helwys, 2015); and The Apocalyptic Literature (Abingdon, 2003). Stephen has served in several capacities for the Society of Biblical Literature, the Catholic Biblical Association, and the American Society for Overseas Research.