New Testament in Context
Jewish Views of Resurrection
The doctrine of resurrection can provide us with hope for the future as well as an incentive to live righteously in the present.
Resurrection refers to God’s raising the dead to life “to become immortal, with a body of flesh and bone.”1 Understanding different ancient beliefs about resurrection can help us to better appreciate the power of ancient Christian teachings on this topic as well as how they were both unique and built upon previously accepted ideas.
Varying Ideas about the Afterlife
Many in Jesus’s time did not subscribe to the notion of an afterlife but believed that the dead merely cease to exist. Of those who did believe in life after death, some thought that only the spirit survived and viewed the afterlife as a shadowy realm to which all people would go regardless of their mortal deeds. This realm was referred to by various names, including Sheol, Gehenna, and Hades.2
Resurrection in Jewish Writings
Ancient sources indicate that the Jews of Jesus’s day held varying assumptions about the destiny of the physical body after death. As the Jewish historian Josephus records, the Pharisees taught that the righteous “shall have power to revive and live again,”3 whereas the Sadducees believed that “souls die with the bodies.”4 Jesus and His earliest disciples encountered such beliefs. In fact, Paul describes himself as “a Pharisee, the son of a Pharisee,” and Acts 23:6–7 records how a shared belief in resurrection made Paul’s preaching of Christ more persuasive to Pharisees.
Jewish views about resurrection were informed by literature that Jews valued, including what is now the Old Testament. The book of Daniel, for instance, speaks of a time when “many of them that sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt” (Daniel 12:2). Such explicit references to resurrection, although rare in the Old Testament, were often written during times of distress, exile, and persecution, demonstrating the doctrine’s potential to give hope and comfort to those suffering affliction.5
Another popular Jewish text tells of seven Jewish brothers who were martyred for their faith. Before the last brother was executed, his mother encouraged him to remain faithful “so that in God’s mercy I may get you back again along with your brothers” (2 Maccabees 7:29, New Revised Standard Version). In this passage, faith in a resurrection enabled a mother and her son to faithfully face their trials. Their faith also gave them confidence that bodily damage and impairments will not persist in the afterlife.
Resurrection in Christian and Later Jewish Writings
New Testament teachings on resurrection similarly promote hope and provide comfort. Paul emphasized that through resurrection, we can overcome death, pain, and loss. He wrote to the Saints in Corinth: “Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?” (1 Corinthians 15:54–55).
What distinguished Christian teaching about resurrection was the belief that resurrection is made possible through Jesus Christ and that He is the first of many to be resurrected, the “firstfruits of them that slept” (1 Corinthians 15:20).6
In Jewish literature written after Jesus, belief in resurrection was considered an essential tenet of faith7, but differences of opinion arose regarding where resurrected beings would dwell, how long after death one would be resurrected, and how much the afterlife would resemble mortal life—that is, eating, drinking, and so on.8 Apart from Christians and Jews, the only other ancient people to believe in a bodily resurrection were the Zoroastrians of Persia.9
As it did anciently, the doctrine of resurrection can provide modern followers of Jesus Christ with hope for the future as well as with comfort, courage, and an incentive to live righteously in the present. It is a testament that we have a Savior who lives and loves His people.