1. "You are wrong,
because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God"
(Mt 22:29), Christ said to the Sadducees, who—rejecting faith in
the future resurrection of the body—had proposed to him the
following case: "Now there were seven brothers among us. The
first married and died, and having no children left his wife to
his brother" (according to the Mosaic law of the "levirate").
"So too the second and third, down to the seventh. After them
all, the woman died. In the resurrection, therefore, to which of
the seven will she be wife?" (Mt 22:25-28)
Christ answers the Sadducees by stating, at the beginning and at
the end of his reply, that they were greatly mistaken, not
knowing either the Scriptures or the power of God (cf. Mk 12:24;
Mt 22:29). Since the conversation with the Sadducees is reported
by all three synoptic Gospels, let us briefly compare the texts
2. Matthew's version (22:24-30), although it does not refer to
the burning bush, agrees almost completely with that of Mark
(12:18-25). Both versions contain two essential elements: 1) the
enunciation about the future resurrection of the body; 2) the
enunciation about the state of the body of risen man.(1) These
two elements are also found in Luke (20:27-36).(2) Especially in
Matthew and Mark, the first element, concerning the future
resurrection of the body, is combined with the words addressed
to the Sadducees, according to which they "know neither the
Scriptures nor the power of God." This statement deserves
particular attention, because in it Christ defined the
foundations of faith in the resurrection, to which he had
referred in answering the question posed by the Sadducees with
the concrete example of the Mosaic levirate law.
Admitting the reality of life after death
3. Unquestionably, the Sadducees treated the question of
resurrection as a type of theory or hypothesis which can be
disproved.(3) Jesus first shows them an error of method, that
they do not know the Scriptures. Then he showed them an error of
substance, that they do not accept what is revealed by the
Scriptures—they do not know the power of God—they do not believe
in him who revealed himself to Moses in the burning bush. It is
a significant and very precise answer. Here Christ encounters
men who consider themselves experts and competent interpreters
of the Scriptures. To these men—that is, to the Sadducees—Jesus
replies that mere literal knowledge of Scripture is not
sufficient. The Scriptures are above all a means to know the
power of the living God who reveals himself in them, just as he
revealed himself to Moses in the bush. In this revelation he
called himself "the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God
of Jacob"(4) of those, therefore, who had been Moses' ancestors
in the faith that springs from the revelation of the living God.
They had all been dead for a long time. However, Christ
completed the reference to them with the statement that God "is
not God of the dead, but of the living." This statement, in
which Christ interprets the words addressed to Moses from the
burning bush, can be understood only if one admits the reality
of a life which death did not end. Moses' fathers in faith,
Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, are living persons for God (cf. Lk
20:38, "for all live for him"), although according to human
criteria, they must be numbered among the dead. To reread the
Scriptures correctly, and in particular the aforementioned words
of God, means to know and accept with faith the power of the
Giver of life, who is not bound by the law of death which rules
man's earthly history.
4. It seems that Christ's answer to the Sadducees about the
possibility of resurrection,(5) according to the version of all
three synoptics, is to be interpreted in this way. The moment
would come in which Christ would give the answer on this matter
with his own resurrection. However, for now he referred to the
testimony of the Old Testament, showing how to discover there
the truth about immortality and resurrection. It is necessary to
do so not by dwelling only on the sound of the words, but by
going back to the power of God which is revealed by those words.
The reference to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in that theophany
granted to Moses, of which we read in the Book of Exodus
(3:2-6), constitutes a testimony that the living God gives to
those who live "for him"—to those who, thanks to his power, have
life, even if according to the dimensions of history, it would
be necessary to include them among those who have been dead for
a long time.
5. The full significance of this testimony, which Jesus referred
to in his conversation with the Sadducees, could be grasped
(still only in the light of the Old Testament) in the following
way: He who is—he who lives and is Life—is the inexhaustible
source of existence and of life, as is revealed at the
"beginning," in Genesis (cf. Gn 1:3). Due to sin, physical death
has become man's lot (cf. Gn 3:19),(83) and he has been
forbidden (cf. Gn 3:22) access to the Tree of Life (the great
symbol of the book of Genesis). Yet the living God, making his
covenant with man (Abraham, the patriarchs, Moses, Israel),
continually renews, in this covenant, the reality of life. He
reveals its perspective again and in a certain sense opens
access again to the Tree of Life. Along with the covenant, this
life, whose source is God himself, is communicated to those men
who, as a result of breaking the first covenant, had lost access
to the Tree of Life, and, in the dimensions of their earthly
history, had been subject to death.
Power and testimony of the living God
6. Christ is God's ultimate word on this subject. The covenant,
which with him and for him is established between God and
mankind, opens an infinite perspective of life. Access to the
Tree of Life—according to the original plan of the God of the
covenant—is revealed to every man in its definitive fullness.
This will be the meaning of the death and resurrection of
Christ. This will be the testimony of the paschal mystery.
However, the conversation with the Sadducees took place in the
pre-paschal phase of Christ's messianic mission. The course of
the conversation according to Matthew (22:24-30), Mark
(12:18-27), and Luke (20:27-36) manifests that Christ—who had
spoken several times, especially in talks with his disciples, of
the future resurrection of the Son of Man (cf., e.g., Mt 17:9,
23; 20:19 and parallels)—did not refer to this matter in the
conversation with the Sadducees. The reasons are obvious and
clear. The discussion was with the Sadducees, "who say that
there is no resurrection" (as the evangelist stresses). That is,
they questioned its very possibility. At the same time they
considered themselves experts on the Old Testament Scriptures,
and qualified interpreters of them. That is why Jesus referred
to the Old Testament and showed, on its basis, that they did
"not know the power of God."(7)
7. Regarding the possibility of resurrection, Christ referred
precisely to that power which goes hand in hand with the
testimony of the living God, who is the God of Abraham, of
Isaac, of Jacob—and the God of Moses. God, whom the Sadducees
"deprived" of this power, was no longer the true God of their
fathers, but the God of their hypotheses and interpretations.
Christ, on the contrary, had come to bear witness to the God of
life in the whole truth of his power which is unfolded upon
1. Although the expression "the resurrection of the body" is not
known in the New Testament. (It will appear for the first time
in St. Clement: 2 Clem 9:1; and in Justin: Dial 80:5.) which
uses the expression "resurrection of the dead," intending
thereby man in his integrity, it is possible, however, to find
in many New Testament texts faith in the immortality of the soul
and its existence also outside the body (cf., for example, Lk
23:43; Phil 1:23-24; 2 Cor 5:6-8).
2. Luke's text contains some new elements which are an object of
discussion among exegetes.
3. As is known, in the Judaism of that period there was no
clearly formulated doctrine concerning the resurrection; there
existed only the various theories launched by the individual
The Pharisees, who cultivated theological speculation, greatly
developed the doctrine on the resurrection, seeing allusions to
it in all the Old Testament books. They understood the future
resurrection, however, in an earthly and primitive way,
announcing, for example, an enormous increase of crops and of
fertility in life after the resurrection.
The Sadducees, on the other hand, polemicized with such a
conception, starting from the premise that the Pentateuch does
not speak of eschatology. It must also be kept in mind that in
the first century the canon of the Old Testament books had not
yet been established.
The case presented by the Sadducees directly attacks the
Pharisaic concept of the resurrection. In fact, the Sadducees
were of the opinion that Christ was one of their followers.
Christ's answer equally corrects the conceptions of the
Pharisees and those of the Sadducees.
4. This expression does not mean: "God who was honored by
Abraham, Isaac and Jacob," but: "God who took care of the
patriarchs and liberated them."
This formula returns in Ex 3:6; 3:15, 16; 4:5, always in the
context of the promised liberation of Israel. The name of the
God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is a token and guarantee of this
The God of X is synonymous with help, support and shelter for
Israel. A similar sense is found in Gn 49:24: "God of Jacob—the
Shepherd and Rock of Israel, the God of your Fathers who will
help you" (cf. Gn 49:24-25; cf. also Gn 24:27; 26:24; 28:13;
Cf. F. Dreyfus, O.P., "L'argument scripturaire de Jesus en
faveur de la résurrection des morts (Mk 12:26-27)," Revue
Biblique, Vol. 66 (1959), p. 218.
In Judaic exegesis in Jesus' time, the formula: "God of Abraham,
Isaac and Jacob," in which all three names of the patriarchs are
mentioned, indicated God's relationship with the people of the
covenant as a community.
Cf. E. Ellis, "Jesus, the Sadducees and Qumran," New Testament
Studies, Vol. 10 (1963-64), p. 275.
5. In our modern way of understanding this Gospel text, the
reasoning of Jesus concerns only immortality; if in fact the
patriarchs still now live after their death, before the
eschatological resurrection of the body, then the statement of
Jesus concerns the immortality of the soul and does not speak of
the resurrection of the body.
But the reasoning of Jesus was addressed to the Sadducees who
did not know the dualism of body and soul, accepting only the
biblical psycho-physical unity of man who is "the body and the
breath of life." Therefore, according to them the soul dies with
the body. The affirmation of Jesus, according to which the
patriarchs are alive, could mean for the Sadducees only
resurrection with the body.
6. We will not dwell here on the concept of death in the purely
Old Testament sense, but consider theological anthropology as a
7. This is the determinant argument that proves the authenticity
of the discussion with the Sadducees.
If the passage were "a post-paschal addition of the Christian
community" (as R. Bultmann thought, for example), faith in the
resurrection of the body would be supported by the fact of the
resurrection of Christ, which imposed itself as an irresistible
force, as St. Paul, for example, has us understand (cf. 1 Cor
Cf. J. Jeremias, Neutestamentliche Theologie, I Teil (Gutersloh:
Mohn, 1971); cf. besides I. H. Marshall, The Gospel of Luke
(Exeter: The Paternoster Press, 1978), p. 738.
The reference to the Pentateuch—while in the Old Testament there
were texts which dealt directly with resurrection (as, for
example, Is 26:19 or Dt 12:2)—bears witness that the
conversation really took place with the Sadducees, who
considered the Pentateuch the only decisive authority.
The structure of the controversy shows that this was a rabbinic
discussion, according to the classical models in use in the
academies of that time.
Cf. J. Le Moyne, OSB, Les Sadducéens (Paris: Gabalda, 1972), pp.
124f.; E. Lohmeyer, Das Evangelium des Markus (Göttingen: 1959),
p. 257; D. Daube, New Testament and Rabbinic Judaism (London:
1956), pp. 158-163; J. Radamakers, SJ, La bonne nouvelle de
Jésus selon St. Marc (Bruxelles: Institut d'Etudes Théologiques,
1974), p. 313.
Taken from: L'Osservatore Romano Weekly Edition in English 23
November 1981, page 3
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