Context is Crucial – A Commentary on Mark 12 (part 4)

This is the forth part of my commentary on Mark 12 as we look at this chapter in its original context.  We are asking the question, “what did this passage of scripture mean to its original hearers?” and it is transformative to our understanding for certain.  Be sure to see the other parts of this commentary too as each builds on the previous.

Part 1 – Setting the Stage: The Sadducees

Part 2 – The New Tenants

Part 3 – Give to Caesar…

A Silly Question

Next the Sadducees step back up to the plate for another swing.  This time they come to Jesus with an absolutely preposterous question.

“Teacher,” they said, “Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies and leaves a wife but no children, the man must marry the widow and have children for his brother. Now there were seven brothers. The first one married and died without leaving any children. The second one married the widow, but he also died, leaving no child. It was the same with the third. In fact, none of the seven left any children. Last of all, the woman died too. At the resurrection whose wife will she be, since the seven were married to her?”

–Mark 12:18-23

First, what is this question based on?  According to the Torah, in what is known as Levirate Marriage (you yibbum in Hebrew), the widow is required to marry the brother of her deceased childless husband.  The first child she has will then carry on the family name of the dead brother.[7] There is a way out of it known as halizah, but in the first century this not commonly practiced.

Second, for the longest time when I would speak of this question, I’d put in “Heaven” instead of “the resurrection”.  Do not make the same mistake.  The resurrection is very different from Heaven.  If the end of this question is placed in Heaven (e.g. all 7 brothers and the one woman are in heaven as disembodied spirits) then the question doesn’t even make sense.  But if the end of the question is placed at the resurrection (e.g. all 7 brothers and the one woman are on earth and have risen back to life with real physical bodies at the end of time), then this question suddenly makes much more sense.

So why do I call this a silly question?  The Sadducees did not believe in the resurrection and so they were trying to pose an unanswerable question to Jesus to make him look foolish.  But don’t make the Sadducees out to be stupid; the question was very intelligent.  They very brilliantly constructed a legitimate scenario from the Torah and then tied it together with the idea of the resurrection to point out the resurrection’s absurdity.  And truth be told, if the resurrection is like that, where people have to physically marry like they do in this life, then it would indeed be silly.  But Jesus proceeds to answer the question anyway, and then puts them in their place regarding the afterlife.

Jesus replied, “Are you not in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God? When the dead rise, they will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven.”

–Mark 12:24-25

To understand why he says what he says in the next few verses, we need to understand Sadducean theology on the afterlife.  The Sadducees only held that the Torah was inspired, and rejected the prophets and the writings as God-breathed inspired scripture (the Pharisees held that it was all inspired, as do Christians today. And yes, I know that’s an oversimplification, but there’s no need to get into the canonical debate of the first century in this post).  One major sticking point of the Pharisees’ (and later the rabbis) theology on the afterlife was the physical resurrection of the dead and they derived this from the prophets and the writings.  But because the Sadducees did not hold the prophets or the writings as inspired, they rejected the idea of a physical resurrection and the rest of the complex afterlife theology of the Pharisees because it’s not explicitly stated in the Torah.  (It can be assumed, however, that they believed in something since Sheol (the place of the dead) is mentioned multiple times in the Torah.)  And so in order to discuss topics such as the resurrection with the Sadducees, the Pharisees tried to prove the concept from the Torah itself.  And so many rabbis around the time of Jesus attempted to prove specifically from the Torah that there would be a resurrection of the dead. [see update at bottom of page]

Rabbi Meir said: Where can we see that resurrection is derived from the Torah? In the passage: “Then will Moses and the children of Israel sing this song to the Lord [Exodus 15:1]. It does not say “sang” but rather “will sing”. Therefore, resurrection is deducible from the Torah.  Again, Rabbi Joshua b. Levi asked: “Where can we see that resurrection is derived from the Torah? In the passage Happy are those who dwell in Your house, they will be still praising you [Psalm 84:5]; it is not stated “they have praised You” but rather “will be praising You”; therefore, resurrection is derived from the Torah [i.e. Psalms].

–Babylonian Talmud, tractate Sanhedrin 91b

For the record, I don’t know how Rabbi Joshua b. Levi’s answer is from the Torah, but that’s the quote.  There are many more such attempts recorded by the rabbis.  Although these rabbis quoted above lived about 50-80 years after the time of Jesus, it’s easy to see that trying to prove that the resurrection of the dead is deducible from the Torah was a heated debate of the day.  Jesus too leaps into the fray with his own answer:

“Now about the dead rising—have you not read in the book of Moses, in the account of the bush, how God said to him, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not the God of the dead, but of the living. You are badly mistaken!”

–Mark 12:26-27

Having read the rabbinic attempts to prove the resurrection, I happen to be partial to the elegance and simplicity of Jesus’, but perhaps I’m biased.

Continue on with the commentary with Part 5: The Big Question.

Peace to you,


Update (Nov. 8, 2009): After someone quoted me on their blog (see below) I realized I had made an error in the way I wrote this post.  I had said that the Sadducees did not believe in the afterlife.  What I meant to say was that the Sadducees did not believe in the afterlife as taught by the Pharisees.  We do know, however, that their “afterlife motto” was, “no reward in the future world”.  It’s very likely they believed in Sheol, the place of the dead, but that you were neither punished nor pleasured in the afterlife.

Footnotes (footnotes are labeled from the start of the commentary, not for individual pages):
7. Deuteronomy 25:5-6


5 thoughts on “Context is Crucial – A Commentary on Mark 12 (part 4)

  1. Pingback: » Life after death, as the Sadducees saw it. Evangelical Realism

  2. I’m not going to get anything else done tonight am I? I found my way to your blog preparing my study notes for a bible study small group I lead-we are in Mark this year and I was looking for answers to questions that apparently no one else has except me. I’m big into context both in text and historically, want to know what word Jesus ACTUALLY used, and trying to hear what He said the way the people He was talking to heard Him. What an amazing resource you are! I’ve just sent a link to my study gals and at least one of them I KNOW will be doing just like me and staying up way too late tonight working her way through all your posts. Just wanted to take the time to let you know how much I appreciate the time and effort I know you must put into this. I’m only going to be able to finish my preparation by promising myself I can come back and read some more when I’m finished!

  3. My understanding is the word “Sheol” simply means grave, to say that the dead are in Sheol does not imply an afterlife existence. it is no different than saying that the dead are in the ground.

    • It does mean “grave,” and perhaps it did just mean that the dead are in the ground at one point in time. However, the expression of “Sheol” continued to evolve over time. By the time of Jesus, the concept of Sheol had been heavily influenced by the Greeks and their concept of Hades. From the way certain writers of the time use the word “Sheol,” the Greek influence is almost certain.

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