Review of George W. E. Nickelsburg, Resurrection, Immortality, and Eternal Life in Intertestamental Judaism and Early Christianity
Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 8 (2008) - Review

George W. E. Nickelsburg, Resurrection, Immortality, and Eternal Life in Intertestamental Judaism and Early Christianity (Harvard Theological Studies, 56; Expanded Edition; Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006).  Pp. xxi + 366.  Paper, US $27.95.  ISBN 0-674-02378-1.


As a collector of classical and jazz recordings, I am always a bit wary when an important recording is re-released.  Usually, the “new” version is only a slight improvement on the original, e.g., a new track or maybe a new essay in the liner notes.  Most of the time, new editions of classic works simply do not surpass the original.  In the field of biblical studies, we usually do not have to broach this problem.  Most of our “classics” have gracefully gone out of print, or now exist only as summaries in reference works.  This being the case, it is both a curiosity and a cause for celebration that this seminal work is not only back in print, but has been generously augmented with three recent studies that carry the author’s analysis forward into early Christian literature.

The work is divided into two main parts.  Part One (pp. 19-223) consists of Nickelsburg’s 1972 Harvard dissertation with minor revisions (listed on p. 2).  Part Two (pp. 227-314) is composed of three related studies published subsequent to the original dissertation, all of which build upon it.  In Part One, Nickelsburg uses both form and tradition-history criticism to examine texts from the Second Temple Period that speak of/to resurrection.  In our age of methodological suspicion, it is enlightening to see such a profitable application of these approaches.  In Chapters 1-3, Nickelsburg focuses on texts whose views stem from settings of religious persecution, beginning in Chapter One (pp. 23-66) with apocalyptic texts like Daniel 12.  The understanding of resurrection in Dan 12:1-3 uses and adapts older texts like Isaiah 26-27 to describe a judgment scene in which a “twofold resurrection” takes place (p. 33).  The resurrection here will be a bodily one, but it is not a general one; rather it is a specific resurrection for “those particular people whose unjust treatment in this life presents a problem for the writer” (p. 37).  As such, this understanding of resurrection was not formulated in a theological void, but was based on a real crisis experienced by the community that produced and transmitted Daniel.  Chapter One also examines texts related to Daniel in this regard, such as T. Mos. 10; Jub. 23; and T. Jud. 25.  Along with Daniel, these texts are “independent witnesses to a tradition that is older than and fuller than any of the texts in which it is has been preserved” (p. 55).

Chapter Two (pp. 67-118) focuses similarly on a setting of persecution, but in the case of the community that composed the Wisdom of Solomon (especially Chapters 1-6 therein), the solution to this real problem was not a judgment and a subsequent bodily, specific resurrection.  Rather—building on other “wisdom” stories like the Joseph novella; Esther; Daniel 3 and 6; and Susanna—here the righteous who has suffered will be exalted “into the ranks of ‘the sons of God,’ the angelic attendants in the court of the heavenly king” (p. 81).  Nickelsburg argues that this scheme has been influenced by the Servant Songs in Isaiah 40-55, especially 52-53, which has also influenced 1 Enoch 62-63. In fact, Nickelsburg views Wisdom 1-6 and 1 Enoch 62-63 as “two occurrences of a single traditional interpretation and rewriting of the servant poem” (p. 99) which involve a “scene of the post-mortem exaltation of the persecuted ones and the (impending) judgment of their persecutors” (p. 107). 

Nickelsburg continues his examination of texts with their origin in religious persecution in Chapter Three (pp. 119-40).  Here, through an analysis of 2 Maccabees 7, we see texts that posit a future, bodily resurrection as a vindication of suffering for the righteous.  Like Daniel, the judgment and resurrection are not universal, but specific to the situation that occasioned them within the experience of the writer’s community (p. 122).  Interestingly, Nickelsburg connects 2 Maccabees 6-7 with “the same Isaianic exaltation tradition witnessed to in Wisdom and 1 Enoch” (p. 132).  Since he finds no evidence for “literary interdependence,” Nickelsburg posits that all three of these texts represent independent attestations to a common interpretation of the final Servant Song in Isaiah 52-53.

Switching his focus to the oppression of the righteous poor, in Chapter Four (141-62) Nickelsburg examines 1 Enoch 94-104.[1]  In these chapters, we do not see a punishment of the righteous simply because of their piety; rather, the author is disconsolate that the pious within his community have not been properly rewarded during their lives.  As a result, in texts like 103:3-4 we hear that “the righteous will receive what they did not have in life: joy, honor, and goodness in the place of misery and suffering” (p. 148).  There is a resurrection in these chapters, but it is not a bodily one, and again, it is an event that is specific to the experience of the author’s community, not a general resurrection.  In contrast to this finding, in his fifth chapter (pp. 163-78), Nickelsburg tackles a cornucopia of texts that discuss resurrection, but that do not do so in contexts related to persecution, oppression, or injustice.  Like the texts discussed in previous chapters, these also place resurrection in the context of a judgment, but all of these texts do so in a broader setting.  That is, in Psalms of Solomon and 1 Enoch 22, “all of the righteous will receive eternal life,” not just the righteous in the author’s own community (p. 177).  Furthermore, a majority of the texts he discusses here, including 4 Ezra 7; Sib. Or. 4; and T. Benj. 10 “posit a universal resurrection and judgment” (p. 177).

Chapter Six (pp. 179-209) examines select Qumran material, particularly the Hodayot literature and the Community Rule (1QS).  In the former, Nickelsburg finds an author who speaks of his own personal experience of having been saved from persecution, and as such he finds no evidence for discourse about resurrection.  Concomitantly, there is an emphasis on present exaltation, i.e., by dint of joining the community the author is already exalted into the company of angels (pp. 190 and 193).  In his discussion of 1QS, though, Nickelsburg argues for the presence of Two Ways theology, which is so generalized that resurrection is not mentioned.  As Nickelsburg notes, documents that employ this theology simply state that the righteous will live and prosper; they rarely offer anything more specific (p. 204).

In his conclusion to Part One, Nickelsburg notes that beliefs centering on resurrection in the Second Temple Period usually stem from three main forms, viz., (1) The Story of the Righteous Man and the Isaianic Exaltation Tradition; (2) The Judgment Scene; and (3) Two Ways Theology.  He also claims that over time the historic specificity of resurrection and judgment we have seen in texts like Daniel 12; 2 Maccabees 7; and 1 Enoch 94-104 gives way to a more general scheme of reward and punishment for everyone, which will usually include a bodily resurrection.

In Chapter Seven (pp. 227-47) the author carries his analysis of discourse dealing with resurrection in the Second Temple Period into the thought of the various Jesus movements.  He argues for the use of the “paradigm of the persecuted and vindicated righteous one” in the earliest level of creeds and hymns about the resurrected Jesus (p. 228).  Vindication of Jesus here is usually understood as his exaltation (p. 229).  As time passes, Jesus’ resurrection is variously viewed as non-corporeal and almost angelic to a near exclusive focus on his exaltation and possible function as Son of Man.  In all these texts, Nickelsburg notes, we see an engagement of the main interpretations of Isaiah 52-53 he outlines in Part One (pp. 245-46). As such, the groups that posited a resurrection for Jesus were within the spectrum of Jewish cogitation on resurrection during this period, but were also distinct due to the overriding hermeneutical importance placed on the significance and exegetical determinacy of Jesus’ resurrection.

Chapter Eight (p. 249-79) discusses a possible genre for the passion narrative in Mark.  Nickelsburg posits a “generic model” based on the stories like those he discusses in Chapters Two and Three, i.e., “stories characterized by a common theme: the rescue and vindication of a persecuted innocent person or persons” (p. 252).  As to the function of this passion narrative, Nickelsburg contends that Mark connects the destruction of the Temple with Jesus’ death and resurrection, noting “that the death and resurrection of Jesus mean the end of the old order and the Messiah’s building of a new, spiritual temple—the church, in which God’s ancient promises to the nations will be fulfilled” (p. 272). 

In his final chapter (pp. 281-314), Nickelsburg provides a very useful and thorough survey of the use and understanding of the term “Son of Man” in texts from the Tanakh, Second Temple Period, and New Testament.  Initially, the term was used as a generic designation for “mortal” or “human being.”  Eventually though, probably beginning with its usage in Daniel 7, the term takes on more eschatological and judicial connotations.  This is the usage of the term that prevails in New Testament texts, except that therein one finds a “consistent ascription of judicial functions to the exalted Jesus” (p. 312).  As such, these writers applied a general term to a specific figure within their community in light of their own interpretation of Torah and historical experiences.

In sum, Part One of this book is simply one of the most important monographs on the subject.  Perhaps its greatest contribution is to demonstrate the variety and vitality of Jewish thought on this subject in the Second Temple Period.  As Nickelsburg notes in his Appendix (pp. 219-23), critiquing Oscar Cullmann’s 1955 essay on resurrection and the immortality of the soul in Intertestamental Judaism, during this period “there was no single Jewish orthodoxy on the time, mode, and place of resurrection, immortality, and eternal life” (p. 222).  As such, Nickelsburg helped to alter the perceptions of scholars, especially New Testament scholars, of Judaism in the time of Jesus.  Subsequently, scholars were forced to reevaluate their understandings of Jesus’ own Judaism so as to make him a product of his time, and not anomalous. 

However, Nickelsburg’s work is not above criticism, as he himself so humbly notes in an enlightening section titled “Some Reflections on What I Wrote” (pp. 5-13) in which he raises important critiques of his own work.  One criticism that he does not raise is his treatment of Paul on 231-35, which stems from an “Old Perspective” view of the apostle.[2]  Given Nickelsburg’s interest in and seminal contributions to seeing the continuity between Judaism and Christianity, I found this approach a tad confusing.  Had Nickelsburg treated Paul as a Jewish writer addressing a Gentile audience, I believe he would have strengthened his argument, given that Paul then could have served as an example of how Jewish ideas on resurrection and vindication were altered to fit into the ideology of the Jesus movements.  Another issue is the collapsing of the distance between what is written in Mark’s Gospel and the actual events of Jesus’ life in Chapter Eight.  That is, at times Nickelsburg does not adequately distinguish between the events narrated in Mark and the real history of Jesus.  Granted, the latter is only recoverable using evidence like Mark, but we have come far enough in scholarship that we ought to maintain a healthy skepticism about a given writer’s rhetoric when reconstructing history based upon it. 

To be sure, the conclusions in this book have been augmented by decades of research (especially on Qumran).[3]  However, Nickelsburg himself admits on p. 14: “even with clear methodology and its careful execution, our work will not be the last word—which should be a cause for celebration about the future of our discipline.”  Even so, Nickelsburg’s thoroughgoing examination of these texts remains, in my opinion, the starting point for questions surrounding resurrection in the Second Temple Period.  It should serve as a model for scholars today in terms of how we approach biblical and especially non-canonical materials in a responsible and detailed fashion. 

Dan Clanton
Englewood, CO



[1] As he notes, this chapter served to pique his interest in 1 Enoch so much that he eventually published his massive commentary, 1 Enoch 1: A Commentary on the Book of 1 Enoch, Chapters 1-36; 81-108 (Hermeneia; Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001).

[2] Two accessible, and decidedly “New Perspective” approaches to Paul can be found in E. P. Sanders, Paul (Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press, 1991); and John G. Gager, Reinventing Paul (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000).

[3] Since this work was originally published, Nickelsburg himself has published what I consider to be two standard works in this field, viz., his Ancient Judaism and Christian Origins: Diversity, Continuity, and Transformation (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003), and Jewish Literature between the Bible and the Mishnah (2nd ed.  Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2005).