Historical Cultural Context
Challenge and Riposte
The Middle-Eastern culture of Jesus was a rough-and-tumble world. Modern-day “negative campaigning” and sharp political debates are tame in contrast.
Challenge and Riposte
In today’s story, the conflict is between a Sadducee and Jesus. It is one of a cluster of arguments in this section of Luke. Since Jesus gives a basically Pharisaic answer to the Sadducee challenge, the story reflects typical Sadducee and Pharisee conflict.
The Sadducees did not believe in the resurrection because they believed only what was revealed in the written Torah. They totally rejected the oral Torah, or traditions held by the Pharisees. Since Sadducees claim that there is no reference to resurrection in the written Torah, they didn’t believe in it.
The hypothetical question about the woman with seven successive husbands is rooted in the Law of Moses, Dt 25:5-10. This Law seeks to guarantee family continuity. All kinds of disastrous consequences result if a man dies with no heir or his wife is widowed without a son.
Since the ideal marriage partner is a first cousin, the brothers of the deceased man are the ideal new partners (= first cousins) for the widow. The entire pattern of thinking is family centered and this-worldly.
Those who believe in the resurrection must explain how the woman in this hypothetical case will manage seven husbands simultaneously in the age to come, a silly situation on its face.
The challenge to Jesus is clear: do you believe in the written Torah, or do you side with the Pharisees, accept their belief in the resurrection based on oral traditions and interpretations, and subject Moses to ridicule?
Remember that Jesus routinely replies to opponents with an insult (e.g., “hypocrites!” or “can’t you read?”). Insult follows insult in what follows.
First, Jesus explains the facts of life and reproduction to mature, grown men (Lk 20: 34-35). Immortal beings don’t need to reproduce; only humans do that to ensure the continuity of the race.
The next insult is double-barreled. He tells the Sadducees that those whom God considers worthy of the age to come and worthy of resurrection are immortal, like angels. The Sadducees did not believe in angels, or spirits either (Acts 23:8)!
The shot from the second barrel is that Jesus identifies these immortals as “children [literally, sons] of God,” a favorite Old Testament name for angels (Gen 6:2; Job 1:6), since they share in the resurrection, a life-giving act of God.
Finally, the crowning insult. Jesus quotes the Torah against its champions, who are so committed to its literal interpretation.
He argues that Moses himself proves the resurrection when he describes the Lord as “God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” (Lk 20:38).These patriarchs were long deceased by Moses’ time.
Since only the living can have a God, and God claims to be God of the patriarchs, God somehow sustains the patriarchs in life in the “age to come.”
Luke concludes Jesus’ argument with an allusion to 4 Maccabees 7:19 (dated between AD 18 and 55). Luke’s phrase “for to God all of them are alive” reflects the belief of the pious recorded in Maccabees “that to God they do not die, as our patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob died not, but live to God.”
We don’t know how the Sadducees responded, but some of the scribes (who are very likely Pharisees) publicly honor Jesus for winning yet another round against formidable opponents. “Teacher, you have put it well!”
Jesus won all arguments in his life and ministry and built an honorable reputation. But his success at insult also contributed to his death.
Americans tempted to exchange their culture’s preference for civility for Jesus’ Mediterranean hostility and offensiveness should consider all the potentially lethal consequences.
John J. Pilch
John J. Pilch is a biblical scholar and facilitator of parish renewals.
Liturgical Press has published fourteen books by Pilch exploring the cultural world” of the Bible.
Go to http://www.litpress.org/ to find out more.
**From Saint Louis University