Resurrection and the History of Jewish Hope – Part 1

This is the first lesson of an 8 week series on resurrection.


The first three lessons will contend with the Jewish view of resurrection before Jesus.

  • Did they have developed view of resurrection?
  • What was resurrection for them?
  • Did they have a developed view of life after death?
  • How would they have made sense of Jesus’ resurrection?


The answers to these questions describe for us the state of mind of Jesus’ followers.

  • Why did Mary think the body was taken? (John 20)
  • Why were they perplexed? (Luke 24)
  • Why was the possibility that Jesus resurrected not on their radar? (John 11)


The final five lessons will focus squarely on the NT view of resurrection.

  • What did resurrection mean after Jesus?
  • How was it different from resurrection before Jesus?
  • Why was it Paul’s greatest hope?
  • Why is resurrection both not the same as, and better than heaven?


Before we go any further, we need to define our terms.

  • What is resurrection?

“Resurrection means bodily life after ‘life after death’, or, if you prefer, bodily life after the state of ‘death’” – Wright.

  • Resurrection is what happens only to people who are “at present dead” – Wright.


Resurrection is the physical restoration or recreation of the body in the physical world.

  • It is not and never a metaphor for a spiritual “life after death” such as heaven.
  • As Wright says, it is “bodily life after ‘life after death’”.
  • Resurrection, “physical life after ‘life after death'” is what happens after heaven, “spiritual life after death”.





To get us started, I want to get our feet wet with a quick contrast and comparison between pagan views and Jewish views of the afterlife.

  • This will give us something to hold on to when we start diving deeper.


Greek Paganism:

Judaism was surrounded by a myriad of pagan views of the afterlife.

  • And during the 400 years before Jesus, the pagan views that were competing with Judaism were predominately Greek.
    • These were also the views that Paul was contending with in his ministry.
    • Greek culture had given a lot of thought to the afterlife.
    • They had developed fairly detailed views about it.
    • The content of their views were informed by some of the most famous people in history – Homer, Socrates, Plato – and all the characters in Greek mythology.


Generally speaking the pagan view of the afterlife was:

  • Dead people existed in the afterlife as “souls, shades or eidola” – Wright.
  • They resided, “Most likely in Hades; possibly in the Isles of the Blessed, or Tartarus…” – Wright.
  • There were concepts of transmigration (reincarnation), appearing to the living, or hanging around their grave.
  • And remarkably, the soul welcomed death; “the soul was well rid of its body” – Wright.


Was resurrection an option?

  • “Resurrection in the flesh appeared a startling, distasteful idea, at odds with everything that passed for wisdom among the educated” – Wright.
  • In fact, the flesh and body were something to be shed.
  • Nowhere in paganism is “a sustained claim advanced that resurrection has actually happened to a particular individual” – Wright.
  •  And “Lots of things could happen to the dead in the beliefs of pagan antiquity, but resurrection was not among the available options “– Wright.



Curiously, unlike paganism, OT Judaism was less concerned with the afterlife – Wright.

  • “In fact…an interest in ‘life after death’ for its own sake was characteristic of various pagan worldviews (that of Egypt, for instance), not of ancient Israel” – Wright.
    • The Jew, we will see, was much more concerned with Israel, its land, and its people.
  • And, in contrast with the pagan, “death for the Jew was not an improvement or an escape ‘from the prison-house of the body’” – Wright.
    • Indeed, we will see that for the Jew, the longer the life the better.
    • Why the difference?


Was resurrection an option?

  • Interestingly, like the pagan, early Judaism had no overt belief in resurrection.
  • At best, it is something that is “deeply asleep, only to be woken by echoes from later times and texts” – Wright.
  • This is why it is said that the OT itself, “is not particularly concerned with life after death at all, still less with resurrection”  – Wright


So having seen, quite strangely I think, that Judaism’s view of the afterlife was not nearly as robust as its competitors, we need to see how we got from the OT’s “deeply asleep” to Martha’s “resurrection on the last day” (John 11).


Essentially, there were two positions on death in Jewish thought.

  • (1) One-stage view of death.
  • (2) Two-stage view of death.
  • These views did not develop linearly in succession.
    • Though I might give this impression.
  • They are intimately related and often existed in tension and relationship with each other.


The one-stage view consisted of the following:

  • Either it was as simple as the fact that “the dead are ‘asleep with the ancestors’” – Wright.
  • The “martyrs go, immediately upon death, into the blissful immortality already enjoyed by Abraham, Isaac and Jacob” – Wright.
  • Or, “the dead may be ‘received’ by YHWH into some continuing life” – Wright.
  • As we just mentioned, this continuing life was not nearly as developed as the pagans.
  • On this one-stage view, “death is a one-way street, on which those behind can follow but those ahead cannot turn back” – Wright.


The two-stage view consisted of the following view:

  • Some at least of the dead can hope for resurrection after any such ‘life after death’” – Wright.
  • The “any such ‘life after death’” refers to the options under the one-stage view.


We will explore each view in more detail.





This view is found in numerous texts of the Old Testament.

  • Psalm 6:5 (ESV) — 5 For in death there is no remembrance of you; in Sheol who will give you praise?
  • Genesis 3:19 (ESV) — 19 By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
  • Psalm 88:3–7 (ESV) — 3 For my soul is full of troubles, and my life draws near to Sheol. 4 I am counted among those who go down to the pit; I am a man who has no strength, 5 like one set loose among the dead, like the slain that lie in the grave, like those whom you remember no more, for they are cut off from your hand. 6 You have put me in the depths of the pit, in the regions dark and deep. 7 Your wrath lies heavy upon me, and you overwhelm me with all your waves.
  • Isaiah 38:10 (ESV) — 10 I said, In the middle of my days I must depart; I am consigned to the gates of Sheol for the rest of my years.
  • Ecclesiastes 9:5 (ESV) — 5 For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing, and they have no more reward, for the memory of them is forgotten.
  • Job 3:13 (ESV) — 13 For then I would have lain down and been quiet; I would have slept; then I would have been at rest,
  • Isaiah 14:9–11 (ESV) — 9 Sheol beneath is stirred up to meet you when you come; it rouses the shades to greet you, all who were leaders of the earth; it raises from their thrones all who were kings of the nations. 10 All of them will answer and say to you: ‘You too have become as weak as we! You have become like us!’ 11 Your pomp is brought down to Sheol, the sound of your harps; maggots are laid as a bed beneath you, and worms are your covers.
  • Job 7:7–10 (ESV) — 7 “Remember that my life is a breath; my eye will never again see good. 8 The eye of him who sees me will behold me no more; while your eyes are on me, I shall be gone. 9 As the cloud fades and vanishes, so he who goes down to Sheol does not come up; 10 he returns no more to his house, nor does his place know him anymore.


Wright says of these texts and of the views they express:

“Sheol, Abaddon, the Pit, the grave. The dark, deep regions, the land of forgetfulness. These almost interchangeable terms denote a place of gloom and despair, a place where one can no longer enjoy life, and where the presence of YHWH himself is withdrawn. It is a wilderness: a place of dust to which creatures made of dust have returned. Those who have gone there are ‘the dead’; they are ‘shades’, and they are ‘asleep’. As in Homer, there is no suggestion that they are enjoying themselves; it is a dark and gloomy world.”


But, lest we despair, within some of these texts there is a suggestion that some activity is going on.

  • “They might be momentarily aroused from their comatose state by an especially distinguished newcomer, as in Isaiah 14…” – Wright.
    • “All of them will answer and say to you: ‘You too have become as weak as we! You have become like us!’” – Isaiah 14:10.
  • So, the dead were “not completely non-existent…” – Wright.
  • “But their normal condition was to be asleep” – Wright.


BTW – At Jesus’ death, it is likely that Jesus’ disciples and loyal family thought that He was received as a “distinguished newcomer” in Sheol.


All of this seems a long way from what the Jews’ believed in the first century.

  • And indeed it is.
  • But, there was a latent hope present in this one-stage view of death.
  • It is very hard for us to see, but for the Jew it was there.
  • And this seed of hope grew and expanded as history drew closer to Jesus.


The Root of Israel’s Hope:

What was their hope?

  • If they did not find their hope in the afterlife, where did they find it?


Just because they had no great hope for afterlife did not mean that, “they were without a living and vibrant hope. At the heart of that hope was the knowledge that YHWH, the God of Israel, was the creator of the world; that he was faithful to the covenant with Israel, and beyond that with the whole world; and that, as such, he would be true to his word both to Israel and to the whole creation” – Wright.


Their hope was a national hope.

  • “The hope of the nation was thus first and foremost that the people, the seed of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, would multiply and flourish.”
  • “Children, and then grand-children, are God’s great blessing, and to live long enough to see them is one of the finest things to hope for” – Wright.


Wright gets at it as follows:

“To the devout Israelite, the continuance of the family line was not simply a matter of keeping a name alive. It was part of the way in which God’s promises, for Israel and perhaps even for the whole world, would be fulfilled. Hence the importance, particularly in the post-exilic period when the nation was gathering itself together again, of those genealogies which seem so bafflingly unreligious to late modernity, and of the prophetic insistence on the ‘holy seed’” – Wright.


This hope is something we cannot begin to fully understand.

  • In some ways, it is just to “collective” and not “individual” enough for us.
  • For the Jew, “The nation and land of the present world were far more important than what happened to an individual beyond the grave” – Wright.
  • I can’t begin to grasp this.
  • But, joyfully, this gloomy hope began to give rise to something more optimistic.


Some OT examples of this:

  • 2 Samuel 14:14 (ESV) — 14 We must all die; we are like water spilled on the ground, which cannot be gathered up again. But God will not take away life, and he devises means so that the banished one will not remain an outcast.
  • Psalm 49:14–15 (ESV) — 14 Like sheep they are appointed for Sheol; death shall be their shepherd, and the upright shall rule over them in the morning. Their form shall be consumed in Sheol, with no place to dwell. 15 But God will ransom my soul from the power of Sheol, for he will receive me. Selah
  • Psalm 73:23–26 (ESV) — 23 Nevertheless, I am continually with you; you hold my right hand. 24 You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will receive me to glory. 25 Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you. 26 My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.


Importantly, “Where we find a glimmer of hope like this, it is based not on anything in the human make-up (e.g. an ‘immortal soul’), but on YHWH and him alone” – Wright.

  • The Jew saw all power over creation (the dust), and all prerogatives for action with YHWH.
  • He was the God of history and any hope that existed was to found in His actions.
  • The developing hope was to be found in the “But God” and not in creation itself.


And this “But God” hope is foundational to the view of resurrection – the two-stage view – that we will explore momentarily.

  • In fact, this hope (which has never left Judaism) began to grow and manifest itself in ways we might find more comfortable.
  • As we suggested at the beginning, this hope was making its way toward Christ.


The Root of Hope Began to Blossom:

So as this hope in the action of God on Israel’s behalf grew, the idea of resurrection began to blossom.

“This explicit link of life with the land and death with exile, coupled with the promise of restoration the other side of exile, is one of the forgotten roots of the fully developed hope of ancient Israel. The dead might be asleep; they might be almost nothing at all; but hope lived on within the covenant and promise of YHWH” –Wright.

  • And these “roots of the fully developed hope” easily accommodated a developing view of bodily resurrection.


In fact, allusions to a bodily resurrection found their home in the language of “return” and “restoration”.

  • Restoration – the restoration of Israel as a nation.
  • Return – the return of the people to their promised land.
  • Ezekiel 37:12 (ESV) — 12 Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: Behold, I will open your graves and raise you from your graves, O my people. And I will bring you into the land of Israel.
  • Texts like this, clearly exilic texts, “could well have been read within post-biblical Judaism” as having undertones of a bodily resurrection – Wright.
  • And, as we will see, they were begun to be read this way.
  • But never in place of their exilic content, but on top of it.


Wright puts it like this:

“The point of the resurrection, within the Jewish worldview, was (as we shall see) that it would be in line with, though going significantly beyond, the great liberating acts of God on behalf of Israel in the past.”


God brought them out of exile from Egypt and brought them into the promise land.

  • So God could also bring the Jew out of the exile of death and into a new life after “life after death”.
  • The connection is not a hard one to see.
  • And the Jewish two-stage view of death is where this connection begins to take off.



One thought on “Resurrection and the History of Jewish Hope – Part 1

  1. “He was the God of history and any hope that existed was to found in His actions”
    “He was the God of history and any hope that He existed was to be found in His actions”

Comments are closed.