Jon D. Levinson: The Case for What ‘Comes as a Shock to Most Jews and Christians Alike’





n classical Judaism, resurrection of the dead was a central belief, essential to defining oneself as a Jew. “Today,” writes Jon D. Levenson, professor of Jewish studies at Harvard, that fact “comes as a shock to most Jews and Christians alike.”

Apart from the Orthodox minority, most Jews, including those who acknowledge belief in the resurrection as a part of Judaism’s historical legacy, seem to rush by the idea as quickly as possible, rendering it perhaps as a metaphor for how one’s good works live on, but in any case ushering it to the margins of their tradition, a minor and dispensable theme in a Judaism that focuses on life.

Resurrection of the dead, it is argued, is a Johnny-come-lately notion, not found in the ancient texts of the Hebrew Bible, which treated mortality matter-of-factly. Instead, the doctrine was an innovation of the Maccabean period, found in the Book of Daniel, written between 167 and 164 B.C.E, when faithful Jews were being persecuted by the Hellenistic monarch Antiochus IV. With ideas borrowed from Zoroastrianism and other foreign sources, resurrection solved the puzzle of understanding divine justice when fidelity to the Law brought about not prosperity and length of years but martyrdom.

Professor Levenson’s new book, “Resurrection and the Restoration of Israel: The Ultimate Victory of the God of Life” (Yale University Press), is a frontal challenge to this account. But the reasons that it has become a staple of modern Jewish apologetics, he allows, “are not hard to find.”

On the one hand, the rejection or marginalization of resurrection offered a clear distinction between Judaism and a Christianity that celebrated the Resurrection of Jesus as the ground for human hope. On the other hand, it simultaneously aligned Judaism with the naturalistic and scientific outlook of modernity “of the sort that dismisses resurrection as an embarrassing relic of the childhood of humanity.”

Professor Levenson does not deny that an unambiguous belief in resurrection of the dead makes a late appearance in Judaism, or that some groups, like the Sadducees, mentioned in the Gospels and by the historian Josephus, never accepted it.

He argues, however, that this late appearance was “both an innovation and a restatement of a tension that had pervaded the religion of Israel from the beginning.” The full-fledged doctrine of resurrection was not primarily a response to the needs of the moment or the challenge of martyrdom. It flowed from “deeper and long-established currents in the religion of Israel.”....



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