Today I came across a fascinating passage in the Apocrypha in the book of 2 Maccabees which talks of the Jewish hope of the resurrection of the dead. It uses some terminology that Paul, a Jewish man formerly known as Saul of Tarsus, later uses in some of his writings. We find such language most notably in Paul’s letter of 1 Corinthians, though it occurs elsewhere in the New Testament also, as I will point out briefly below. The passage in 2 Maccabees, which speaks of a particular occasion when Judas Maccabee was burying some fellow Jews who had been killed, reads as follows:
On the next day, as by that time it had become necessary, Judas and his men went to take up the bodies of the fallen and to bring them back to lie with their kinsmen in the sepulchres of their fathers. 40 Then under the tunic of every one of the dead they found sacred tokens of the idols of Jam′nia, which the law forbids the Jews to wear. And it became clear to all that this was why these men had fallen. 41 So they all blessed the ways of the Lord, the righteous Judge, who reveals the things that are hidden; 42 and they turned to prayer, beseeching that the sin which had been committed might be wholly blotted out. And the noble Judas exhorted the people to keep themselves free from sin, for they had seen with their own eyes what had happened because of the sin of those who had fallen. 43 He also took up a collection, man by man, to the amount of two thousand drachmas of silver, and sent it to Jerusalem to provide for a sin offering. In doing this he acted very well and honorably, taking account of the resurrection. 44 For if he were not expecting that those who had fallen would rise again, it would have been superfluous and foolish to pray for the dead. 45 But if he was looking to the splendid reward that is laid up for those who fall asleep in godliness, it was a holy and pious thought. Therefore he made atonement for the dead, that they might be delivered from their sin.
(2 Maccabees 12:39-45, RSV)
Although 2 Maccabees is not considered to be a part of the canonical Old Testament of the Bible by many Christians (though Catholic Bibles and the RSV/NRSV translations include it among the Apocrypha), its text is useful for understanding the development of ideas in Judaism which were very much still in effect at the time of the early Christian church; which in turn was rooted in Jewish faith before it (cf. Romans 10-11). Furthermore, there is an interesting story found in the New Testament in Acts 23:6-10, that took place around 200 years after 2 Maccabees was written, where it records a dissension between the Jewish groups of the Pharisees and Sadducees regarding the very issue of whether there would be a resurrection of the dead. The occasion of the dispute was when Paul had made the claim, in their presence, that God raised Jesus from the dead. That passage reads:
Now when Paul perceived that one part were Sadducees and the other Pharisees, he cried out in the council, “Brothers, I am a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees. It is with respect to the hope and the resurrection of the dead that I am on trial.” 7 And when he had said this, a dissension arose between the Pharisees and the Sadducees, and the assembly was divided. 8 For the Sadducees say that there is no resurrection, nor angel, nor spirit, but the Pharisees acknowledge them all. 9 Then a great clamor arose, and some of the scribes of the Pharisees’ party stood up and contended sharply, “We find nothing wrong in this man. What if a spirit or an angel spoke to him?” 10 And when the dissension became violent, the tribune, afraid that Paul would be torn to pieces by them, commanded the soldiers to go down and take him away from among them by force and bring him into the barracks.
It is not unlikely that Paul was familiar with the writings of what some call the Apocrypha, and in turn 2 Maccabees. Therefore I think it is worth taking a look at some terminological similarities between 2 Maccabees 12:39-45 and Paul’s writings to examine the Jewish belief in resurrection and how it came to be understood in the early Christian church.
Comparing 2 Maccabees and 1 Corinthians
Looking at some of the terminology of interest by the Jewish writer in 2 Maccabees 12, we can note three distinct terms of significance. At first we will look at just two (counting noun/verb pairs in the same word family as one), and the third one further below. As a prefatory note, 2 Maccabees was originally written in Greek and not in Hebrew (like 1 Maccabees), according to textual scholars.¹ It is in the ancient Greek versions of the Old Testament where we find the text of this book. The author of 2 Maccabees uses the Greek words ἀναστάσεως (vs. 43; “resurrection,” noun), ἀναστῆναι (vs. 44; “rise again,” verb), and κοιμωμένοις (vs. 45, “who fall asleep“) as connected ideas surrounding the dead being raised again in the future.
The most extensive place, by comparison, that Paul uses this kind of resurrection terminology is in 1 Corinthians 15. Paul uses same participle for those who fall asleep in 1 Corinthians 15:18 (κοιμηθέντες; “who have fallen asleep” ESV) and 15:20 (κεκοιμημένων; “who have fallen asleep” ESV), as well as the verb form in 15:51 (κοιμηθησόμεθα; “sleep” ESV). Also the word resurrection (ἀνάστασις) is found throughout the chapter in verses 12, 13, 21, and 42. Paul uses his discussion to say that if resurrection is not a reality that not only did Jesus not raise from the dead but that also we will not be raised from the dead either, and that we would have no basis for hoping that God will do so in the future.
Yet Paul goes on to make the counter assertion that it is precisely because we know that Jesus was resurrected that we too have that future hope. Thus the idea, which we see Judas Maccabee also express, is that death is temporary and thus can be described more as “sleep”. The Pharisee sect of Judaism, which Paul had had once been a member of, also accepted this kind of Jewish belief in resurrection — that death was merely a sleep preceding a final resurrection of the dead by God.
In terms of the theological point being made in each passage, if Paul is making a similar kind of point as the 2 Maccabees passage then the situation which he is addressing to his Corinthian audience shifts the idea from 2 Maccabees‘ wording that prayers would be “useless” (περισσὸν) and “silly/foolish” (ληρῶδες), to rather speaking of faith being “in vain” or pointless (ματαία; 1 Corinthians 15:17) if there is not a future resurrection. Of course, the basis of the hope for resurrection is much more specific and made explicit in Paul’s epistle: it is based on the fact of the resurrection of Jesus. Yet the basic point is the same between 2 Maccabees and 1 Corinthians: worrying or hoping for anything for those who are dead is pointless if there is no resurrection.
The passages are not really parallel, but there are enough theological/conceptual similarities and shared terminology to reveal the shared thought of a hope for future resurrection in both passages. It is no wonder then that Paul, who was formerly a Pharisee (cf. Philippians 3:5), actually appealed to his fellow Jews in the Pharisee party on the basis of a Jewish hope of resurrection (Acts 23:6-10), since 2 Maccabees no doubt shows an early example of that Jewish belief.
A Future Reward “Laid Up”
There is one further word in the Greek LXX version of 2 Maccabees that is worthy of note though, which led me to this passage in the first place. It is the word ἀποκείμενον (lexical form: ἀπόκειμαι) which means to reserve, store/lay up, or put aside. It is rendered thus in the NETS Septuagint translation (identical to the RSV here):
“But if he was looking to the splendid reward that is laid up for those who fall asleep in godliness, it was a holy and pious thought.” (2 Maccabees 12:45a)
This same Greek word appears in the New Testament as well but occurs only four times; twice in Paul’s epistles. Paul similarly speaks along the lines of a future reward and a future hope (compare προσεδόκα, “expecting”, in 2 Maccabees 12:44 as an expression of hope) being laid up for the godly:
“Because of the hope laid up (ἀποκειμένην) for you in heaven, of which you previously heard in the word of truth, the gospel.” (Colossians 1:5, NASB)
“Henceforth there is laid up (ἀπόκειταί) for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing.” (2 Timothy 4:8, ESV)
From all this we can see some clear precursors in Jewish thinking about the expectation of the resurrection of the dead and the laying up of reward for the righteous on the day of resurrection. All of which ultimately leads up to the great revelation in the New Testament of the Jewish messiah Jesus, who is the resurrection and the life (John 11:25) and will thus raise those who “fall asleep” in him (1 Thessalonians 4:14).
¹ Daniel R. Schwartz, ON SOMETHING BIBLICAL ABOUT 2 MACCABEES, In: Biblical Perspectives: Early Use and Interpretation of the Bible in Light of the Dead Sea Scrolls (1998). Available online here: http://orion.mscc.huji.ac.il/symposiums/1st/papers/Schwartz96.html