Review of K.L. Madigan and J.D. Levenson, Resurrection

Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 9 (2009) - Review

Madigan, Kevin L. and Jon D. Levenson, Resurrection: The Power of God for Christians and Jews (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2008) Pp. xviii + 284. Cloth, US$30.00. ISBN 978-0-300-12277-0.

This collaborative effort by a Christian and a Jewish scholar challenges long-held assumptions and points the way to a renewal of interest in a significant point of contact in Jewish-Christian dialogue. Aimed at a general audience, Madigan and Levenson's goal is to render intelligible the complexity of writings, both ancient and modern, on the subject of resurrection, while at the same time demonstrating the intricate relationships between Jewish and Christian views on the subject.

The authors begin with a focus on resurrection in Christianity in chapter one (pp. 1-23). They rightly note that this core belief in resurrection is deeply rooted in Jewish texts and beliefs, particularly in “restoration eschatology” (pp. 5-9). Belief in resurrection was linked to this expectation, and as such is at its core a belief in the power and willingness of God to overturn unjust situations as well as death (p. 7). Following this, Madigan and Levenson turn their attention to Jesus in what, in my opinion, is a problematic assessment of the evidence. First, there is often a too-uncritical acceptance of claims in New Testament literature as factually accurate. The authors should tread more carefully here with regards to the nature of historicity in the texts and recognize that the Gospel authors should be seen less as historians and more as creative scriptural interpreters. Second, in order to buttress their claims that Jesus thought the Temple would be replaced in the new era, the authors quote 1 Enoch 90:28-29 and Tobit 14:5. Neither text is on-point.[1] Even with these minor critiques, the chapter ends with a helpful distinction, drawn from John 20:19, i.e., that Jesus' risen body should not be seen as a “resuscitated corpse” but rather as a “transformed body,” what N. T. Wright has called a “transphysical” body (p. 22).

In their second chapter (pp. 24-41), the authors focus on Paul and his understanding(s) of resurrection. They note correctly the centrality of Jesus' resurrection for Paul's mission and self-identity (p. 25) before turning to a useful examination of 1 Thessalonians (pp. 27-29). In their section titled “The Church as Israel” (pp. 29-36), Madigan and Levenson argue based on Acts – in my view not the best source for obtaining a sense of the beliefs of the “earliest Christian community”– that this community thought of themselves as the “true Israel,” as God's “elect community” (p. 30). Because of this self-understanding, the early Church did not understand itself to be a community offering “universal salvation,” as many scholars have argued (p. 30). Rather, in a view that seems informed by the “New Perspective” on Paul, the authors claim that for Paul at least, Gentiles had to become part of Abraham's kin group in order to affect salvation. Jews were safe, as were followers of Christ who had been baptized, but unless pagans were baptized, they would not be safe from the coming judgment. In this sense the early Christian community was an exclusive community or at the least a “particularist” one (p. 34). In addition to this argument, the authors also dismiss the commonly-held claim that in Gal 3:28 Paul abolishes all distinctions between believers. Instead, they argue, these distinctions will remain, and in so arguing, the authors charge later interpreters of Paul with deliberately misreading the text in order to “shore up current ideological and political agendas” (p. 36). This charge ignores much recent scholarship on postmodernist and New Historicist thought. By comparison, the rest of the chapter is quite useful. The authors argue for an emphasis on “participation” in understanding Paul's thought on resurrection, i.e., they claim that the “goal of the Christian life is not . . . righteousness . . . [but] rather, resurrection, and Christians share in Christ's resurrection by first participating in their Lord's suffering and death” (p. 36). This participation involves a “change in lordships” from sin/death to Christ and, via baptism, believers can be assimilated/incorporated into the body of Christ. As a result, they will be resurrected as he was, but their body will be different than the fleshy one they had prior to resurrection. As such, the risen body will indeed be a spiritual one.

Following this chapter, the authors turn their attention to the Hebrew Bible (HB), and in chapter three (pp. 42-68) focus on Sheol. They begin by exploring the various metaphors used by writers for Sheol, including “pit,” “land,” and “earth.” Next, they survey what texts purport to report “from people who claim to have returned from [Sheol] or who pray that God will enable them to do so,” including the psalm from the book of Jonah and Psalm 107 (p. 48). All of these metaphors and reports center around people who are not physically dead but rather in a state of despair and disconsolation. Madigan and Levenson write that those who enter Sheol “were thought to be cut off from the land of the living, from the intimacy of kith and kin, and from the life-giving participation in the worship of the Lord, whom (as many a psalm tells us) the dead do not praise” (p. 65). The authors note two important ironies about Sheol, viz., the HB in general displays a remarkable disinterest in Sheol, and more importantly, for all the talk of Sheol as being a “land of no return, it is often mentioned in the context of praising God precisely for bringing people back from there or asking that he do so” (p. 67).

The significance of this last claim is developed in chapter four (pp. 69-80), i.e., if the usual claims about Sheol are correct, then the power and justice of God are in doubt. Put differently, if Sheol is “the abode of the wicked and righteous alike,” then obvious qualms about God's justice would be raised as the righteous would seem to be punished. In light of this claim, Madigan and Levenson examine the occurrences of the term “Sheol” in the HB, and conclude that Sheol “very often has to do with punishment,” but that those who reach the end of their lives and are still in God's favor do not need to fear winding up in Sheol (p. 71). This view contrasts with the older notion of Sheol as a sort of self-storage for the dead, and the authors claim that these two views represent a “tension between two competing theologies” in the HB (p. 73). Even though the HB says virtually nothing about where the wicked dead might go if not Sheol, Madigan and Levenson note those favored by God who die survive via their lineage. The corollary to the former claim is that Sheol is not a pejorative place, i.e., it is not Hell; rather it is “the prolongation of the unfulfilled life” (p. 77). The question implied in noting the “tension” between these two ideas of Sheol is, what happened to the older view of Sheol to occasion a new understanding? The authors answer that question by asking, does God have the power to overcome death? That is, the commonly held view of death collided with the assertion of God, the creator and sustainer of life, and “what gave was death” (p. 79). In this view, death was still present, but not everyone who died would encounter death negatively, as in Sheol. Over time, as Madigan and Levenson explore in their next chapters, two “antipodes” would emerge against Sheol: the Temple and the twin ideas of covenant and religious identity.

In their fifth chapter (pp. 81-106), Madigan and Levenson elaborate on the idea of the Temple as not only a renewed or restored Eden, but also as a “locus or source of immortality” (p. 89). As such, the reality that ancient worshippers found in the Temple was the exact opposite of the values they assigned to Sheol. Even so, the authors take pains to note that those who find refuge in the Temple still die physically and their souls do not survive. To buttress this point, they examine several narratives which describe persons whose lives end without dying, such as Elijah and Enoch. What these texts point to, they argue, is closer to resurrection than immortality of the soul, even though there seems to be an “aspiration to immortality” in the shape of the hope for “eternal life” (p. 106). In order to understand this aspiration, Madigan and Levenson turn to a more anthropological approach in chapter six (pp. 107-120). They write, “The self in ancient Israel is not only embodied. It is also embedded within the family” (p. 109). As such, a person's identity can survive death through the survival of a person's “name” in the form of descendents or offspring. Functionally the opposite is true as well; if one has no descendents, one's identity would cease to be. Because of this, one's family is central to one's hope for a continuing identity after death. What is important to remember in this, as in chapter five, is summarized nicely on p. 119: “death was not always thought to be God's last word.”

This emphasis on family and lineage as one of the main ways of conceptualizing a continuation of personal identity after death is elaborated in chapter seven (pp. 121-131), in which Madigan and Levenson discuss the stories of Elisha in 2 Kings 4. All of these tales share a similar theme (“menacing shortage followed by miraculous provision,” p. 129) as well as a similar theology (“God's power to reverse life-threatening adversity is uncanny and absolute, and some of it has been committed into the keeping of a wonder-working prophet,” p. 130). The examinations of 2 Kings 4 are commendable for their depth and succinctness, and the exegetical observations that close the chapter (pp. 130-131) are quite different from the uncritical comments I noted in chapter one.

The theme of restoration sets the tone for chapter eight (pp. 132-155), in which Madigan and Levenson explore “Revival in Two Modes,” viz., procreation and resurrection (see pp. 148 and 153). Focusing on exilic and post-exilic literature such as Second Isaiah, the authors highlight the theme of the homecoming of family as well as themes of fertility and birth to connect the understanding of restoration with the emphasis on lineage and birth from the previous chapter. The authors explore prophetic texts in which Israel is metaphorically imagined as a suffering or barren woman. These images of widowhood, sterility, and exile can functionally stand in for death since the ancient Israelites did not think of life and death so much as bodily states of being, but rather as social ones (p. 145). Given their earlier discussions, it makes sense that Madigan and Levenson claim here that biblical writers see life as a gift from God, and that the “well-being” of Israel is related to its relationship to God (p. 145). Because God is seen as the source of life and God is the one who restores life via family and Temple to those who had endured exile, it is not a stretch to claim, as the authors do, that the “restorative action of God opposes the natural order of things” (p. 146). Perhaps the best known text from the exilic period that exemplifies this point is the vision of the valley of dry bones in Ezek 37:1-14. Viewing this text as specifically dealing with resurrection, Madigan and Levenson see it as a depiction of a “regenerate people” in the sense that they have been both “restored” in a physical sense and “re-created” into “a spiritually and morally transformed Israel” (p. 150).[2] However, the vision is important both for what it says and for what it does not say: there is no judgment here, nor is there an indication that Ezekiel thinks those who were raised are now immortal. They can still die, but the point Madigan and Levenson make is, “Israelite people die, like anyone else; the people Israel survives and revives because of God's promise, despite the most lethal defeats” (p. 153). This point makes clear that the biblical authors had no interest in the question, “‘Will I have life after death?’ but rather a more profound and encompassing one, ‘Will God honor his promises to his people?’” (p. 155). Ezekiel's answer, like the other texts the authors examine, is, yes.

In chapter nine (pp. 156-170), the authors turn to the issue of how the HB understands the terms “life” and “death” within the understanding of their relationship to God. First, there seems to be a tension between life and death in that the predominant way of understanding life is bound up with Two-Ways theology, i.e., those who observe God's commandments will receive life. How can this idea be reconciled with the cold truth that all humans die? Madigan and Levenson argue that in the HB, life does not imply “deathlessness, but a healthy, blessed existence” (p. 159). And if this is life, then its opposite “includes not only weakness, disease, depression, and the like, but also a humiliating death, especially one that is violent or premature” (p. 159). Given this social understanding of life and death, God can offer those within the covenant community life at the same time that physical death is a component of God's creation.

All the material in chapters three through nine establishes the basis for what is the central chapter in the book, chapter ten (pp. 171-200). It is in this chapter that Madigan and Levenson finally examine Dan 12:1-3, the first text in the HB to mention resurrection of the dead unambiguously. Their analysis of 12:1-3 is not only superb, but also challenges the long-held assumption by scholars that resurrection only emerges in the 2nd century as a response to the issue of martyrdom.[3] Taking these scholars to task, Madigan and Levenson reiterate their earlier claims and emphases by positing, “the language and symbolism of resurrection were present and available, perhaps even abundant, long before the literal expectation” (p. 174). This expectation in Daniel includes a recapitulation of many of the themes the authors explore in their earlier chapters, alongside the fresh notion of “eternal life” in 12:2. That is, Daniel imagines no second death for those who are raised, and this “eternal life” correlates to the establishment of a divine kingdom (Dan 2:44). Even so, the point of Dan 12:1-3 is not the afterlife per se; rather, as we have seen above, “it is vindication through the power of God” (p. 179). This more general concern links Daniel to the texts explored in the previous chapter; specific texts such as Isaiah 24-27, Isa 52:13-53:12, and Hosea 13-14; and the complex of ideas surrounding the understanding of God as the “Divine Warrior.” Even though Madigan and Levenson fail to include a discussion of the “Day of the Lord” in their discussion of the “Divine Warrior,” their central claim still stands, viz., that when we finally encounter the mention of resurrection in Dan 12:1-3 it is “both an innovation and a restatement of a tension that had pervaded the religion of Israel from the beginning–the tension between the Lord's promise of life, on the one hand, and the reality of death, on the other” (p. 200). The resolution of this tension lies not with death, but rather with the power of God.

In many ways, the book seems to end with chapter ten. After all, their survey of biblical evidence dealing with resurrection has run its course. However, Madigan and Levenson's concerns encompass the larger history and significance of resurrection in the Jewish and Christian traditions. So, in chapter eleven (pp. 201-200), they explore how the legacy of the biblical tradition fared in Judaism in the first few centuries of the Common Era and note the centrality of resurrection in Rabbinic Judaism. Despite this, in the remainder of the chapter Madigan and Levenson show that this tenet has fallen by the wayside in much of modern Jewish thought, because “in the modern world, the idea of a God who does things has become highly problematic” (p. 215).[4]

In a similar vein, in chapter twelve (pp. 221-234) the authors explore early Christian views of resurrection. They begin by offering a too-brief survey of those Christians who doubted the physical aspect of Jesus' resurrection, viz., Gnostics, before discussing pagan skeptics and responses from Christians like Tertullian and Irenaeus. Madigan and Levenson spend a good deal of time examining Tertullian's work on Ezekiel 38, his arguments in favor of resurrection based on “reason” and “nature,” and his claims that a resurrected body includes both soul and body. Finally, the authors note the importance of resurrection for these early Christian thinkers. Like Paul, they assumed that if resurrection was somehow not possible, then Jesus would never have been raised, which, in turn, meant that their faith was baseless.

In the final chapter (pp. 235-257), Madigan and Levenson claim that both rabbis and early Christian thinkers inherited the same textual and theological repository of thought about resurrection from the Second Temple period, and they both had to attend to similar charges against this belief. More telling, though, the authors argue that in spite of their shared belief that resurrection was an eschatological event, both the rabbis and early Church fathers “insisted that the redeemed life began in the here and now, with the life of discipleship (Christians) or the life of Torah (Jews), and would come to its spiritual fulfillment with the general resurrection and the eternal life that resurrection would inaugurate” (pp. 236-7). In order to substantiate this claim, the authors first examine baptism, exorcism, the Eucharist, and the Lord's Prayer and find that all of these ritual practices anticipate the resurrected life in important ways (pp. 237-246). Similarly, Madigan and Levenson discuss the role of Torah observance and study as a remedy to the yetzer hara, or the evil impulse in humans, so that humans can be re-created in preparation for the World-to-Come (pp. 246-254). Both of these discussions underscore the commonality shared by classical Judaism and Christianity, viz., that through ritual, observance, and prayerful devotion, adherents can glimpse a bit of the reality that waits for them after the resurrection that both of their traditions believe is coming.

While the analyses of Madigan and Levenson are often masterful and their goal is laudable, there are some problems with the final product. First, the way in which the notes were formatted was not user-friendly in that there were no specific citations. Rather, notes for specific chapters were listed in a somewhat narrative fashion, which would make it difficult for the book's general audience to follow up on sources or quotations. Second, at times there is a conflation between what a text reports and what the authors assume actually happened. We need to be honest enough to embrace a critical uncertainty regarding the difference between a writer's narrative and rhetoric, and what may or may not have happened historically. Third, the book as a whole feels somewhat disjointed in that after chapter ten, the focus shifts from an extended analysis of the idea of resurrection in the HB and some of the New Testament to a very brief survey of the idea in Judaism and Christianity in the first centuries of the Common Era. While I found these surveys informative, they lacked the depth of the foregoing analysis, and as such they felt tacked on. Finally, I felt that Madigan and Levenson could have done more to achieve their goal of establishing a long-unacknowledged point of contact between Judaism and Christianity, given the brevity of the analyses in chapters eleven and twelve and the lack of an overarching conclusion in chapter thirteen. Even with these criticisms, Madigan and Levenson offer one of the most important treatments on the topic of resurrection to appear in recent memory. Their treatment of the biblical materials demonstrates deep insight and a breadth of engagement that is often sorely lacking in our field.

Dan Clanton Jr., Doane College

[1] It is far from clear if the text from 1 Enoch refers to a temple, and Tobit's speech in chapter 14 ends with the construction of the second Temple and the conversion of all the nations in the world, not with the Temple's replacement. For the ambiguity surrounding the text in 1 Enoch, see George W. E. Nickelsburg, 1 Enoch 1: A Commentary on the Book of 1 Enoch, Chapters 1-36; 81-108 (Hermeneia; Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001), 404-405. reference

[2] The view that this text deals with resurrection seems to be at odds with the well-known textbook of John J. Collins, in which he writes, “There was no tradition in Israel of the resurrection of the dead. . . . Ezekiel uses the vision of resurrection only metaphorically.” See A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007), 194. reference

[3] The authors single out George W. E. Nickelsburg's important monograph Resurrection, Immortality, and Eternal Life in Intertestamental Judaism and Early Christianity (HTS 56; Expanded Edition; Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006) as an example of the line of reasoning against which they are arguing. However, Nickelsburg himself points out the antecedents to Daniel's understanding of resurrection, including Isaiah 26 and Third Isaiah (pp. 31-32). reference

[4] The situation in modern Judaism is a bit more nuanced than this chapter implies. Dan Cohn-Sherbok writes that in many forms of modern Judaism, the rabbinic emphasis on resurrection has been replaced by the idea of the immortality of the soul (see his Judaism: History, Belief and Practice [London & New York: Routledge, 2003], 458), a claim buttressed by the work of Rabbi Elie Kaplan Spitz, Does the Soul Survive? A Jewish Journey to Belief in Afterlife, Past Lives & Living with Purpose (Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights Publishing, 2000). Finally, Rifat Sonsino and Daniel B. Syme note that some modern Reform and Orthodox thinkers still accept the idea of resurrection. See their What Happens After I Die? Jewish Views of Life After Death (New York: UAHC Press, 1990), 32-34. reference