Scribal Kingdom

Living in the light of the Kingdom of God

Menu Close

Category: Biblical Studies (page 2 of 2)

2 Maccabees & Paul on Resurrection

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).

Endnotes

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

True And False Gospel In Proverbs 9

I love it when new realizations leap out at you from a devotional reading of Scripture. I never noticed until recently that Proverbs 9 (which has a chiastic structure by means of two stories, which depict opposites that form bookends to the chapter) presents a foreshadowed picture of sorts of the gospel and also an anti-gospel at work in the earth (i.e. the work of God and the devil, respectively). In it both Wisdom and Folly are personified as women who beckon to simple people, with drastically different repercussions and results for those who accept.

Wisdom has built and prepared a large and strong house for herself (with seven pillars supporting it) and she has prepared a magnificent banquet at her own expense, and then takes an initiative to send out her own servant messengers to those in the city who are simple and who “lack sense” (vs. 4) to invite them to dine in her home as her guests so that they may become wise. This is almost unheard of: the wise seeking out the those who lack any wisdom, the simple, and freely offering an opportunity to them to become wise at their own expense. This is an altruistic hospitality, and a proactive one at that. If the people accept this generous invitation they will receive life, and will no longer be simple and can “walk in the way of insight”.

This is a beautiful parallel picture to the gospel. God in His benevolence and love has prepared something great and magnificent for an undeserving, sinful, and foolish people, and upon His own initiative (Wisdom sought out the simple, not the simple Wisdom) has offered freely His own Son Jesus at the greatest expense to Himself. And if anyone accepts Jesus through faith they will receive eternal life, and will “walk in the way of insight” (i.e. in the light as He is in the light, and be wise as He is wise, and is in fact Wisdom itself). And God in fact sent forerunners to point people to this ultimate offer through Jesus through servant messengers, the prophets, just like in Proverbs 9:3. In fact we see this picture used in one of the parables of Jesus about the kingdom wedding banquet in Matthew 22:

The kingdom of heaven is like a king who prepared a wedding banquet for his son. He sent his servants to those who had been invited to the banquet to tell them to come, but they refused to come… So the servants went out into the streets and gathered all the people they could find, the bad as well as the good, and the wedding hall was filled with guests.” (vss. 2-3, 10)

Perhaps Jesus is even deliberately drawing upon that passage in Proverbs in his parable here. Elsewhere Jesus also says that God sent his “servants” the prophets to Israel repeatedly but they wouldn’t listen. With all these observations it is amazing how Proverbs presents this picture which almost exactly mirrors the gospel proclamation and offer through Jesus.

Yet in Proverbs 9 we also see a counter-gospel, a false gospel and false hope that is offered. There is another woman and her name is Folly, and she too has a dwelling place and a banquet which she wants to invite the simple to partake of. But this is a great counterfeit. She offers a feast obtained by ill gotten means (vs. 17) instead of providing it of her own means and expense, and has stolen the food that she offers (note how this exactly describes that phony, cheapskate counterfeiter the devil!). Yet the simple that listen to her don’t realize that what they actually will get for dining with her is death!

They don’t realize that she has buried the bodies of all who dined with her in her basement: “little do they know that the dead are there, that her guests are deep in the realm of the dead”. She has thousands upon thousands of skeletons buried in her basement. While Wisdom’s house is built upon seven pillars and is full of life, Folly’s house is built upon the corpses of her guests and is full of death. This is Satan’s ‘appealing’ offer! He says: “Stolen water is sweet” (Proverbs 9:17) come and partake of it. The offer is to take what you desire by any means you see fit and to enjoy the perverse pleasures thereof, and no change is necessary. The simple remain simple! This is the counter-gospel.

The gospel is benevolent and offers great benefit to the guests, giving them life and a call and opportunity to change. The counter-gospel calls for a satisfaction of lusts by means of injustice that require no personal change whatsoever and leads to death.

It is amazing how much is packed into that one little chapter in Proverbs, and how much there is to dwell upon in it!