With the historical context of the crucifixion fresh in our minds, we turn to the context surrounding resurrection. Hope for resurrection always occurred in the face of imperial dominance. The Hebrew Bible contains many figurative uses of people being raised from the dead (i.e. Ezekiel 37.1-14; Hosea 6.2, 13.14), yet in context, they all refer to national restoration of Israel. Hence, even the figurative language surrounding resurrection involves people oppressed under imperial might (e.g. Babylon and Assyria). Still, explicit affirmations of human resurrection occur in two exceedingly different Jewish books, and it is important for our purposes to examine each and how Jesus relates to both.
The first example comes out of the (Protestant) apocryphal book 2 Maccabees. 2 Maccabees recounts the story of the violent revolt against the Greek ruler Antiochus IV Epiphanes by the Judean leader Judas Maccabeus. The eldest son of an influential family,
Judas, along with his brothers, successfully overthrows the imperial rulers. While telling this story, 2 Maccabees 7 narrates a gruesome execution of seven brothers whose mother stands by and watches as the Greek emperor skins and cooks her sons on a giant frying pan. As the fourth son approaches death, he boldly proclaims, “’One cannot but choose to die at the hands of mortals and to cherish the hope G-d gives of being raised again by him. But for you there will be no resurrection to life!’” (2 Macc. 7.14bc). Unlike the prophetic texts, this son in the story quite clearly understands resurrection to be a return to life after death instead of national restoration. The invasive, evil conquerors will not receive such a gift. Spoken of directly again in 2 Maccabees 12, Judas Maccabeus and his soldiers discover contraband idols on the persons of defeated Judean soldiers. Judas collects money from all his living soldiers and sends it to Jerusalem as a “sin offering”. 2 Maccabees states, “In doing this he acted very well and honorably, taking account of the resurrection. For if he were not expecting that those who had fallen would rise again, it would have been superfluous and foolish to pray for the dead” (2 Macc. 12.43c-44). This notion of resurrection arises in the face of a repressive empire, but both of these direct references to resurrection sit in the larger context of the message of the Maccabees: violent revolution against the empire is righteous and necessary. More importantly, those who embark in this violent activity while maintaining ritual purity according to the rules of the Mosaic law will be resurrected by Israel’s god. Our other example from Jewish scriptures could not be more different.
Written about the same crisis as the Maccabees, the Book of Daniel uses apocalyptic imagery to speak of the oppressive rule by the Greeks. Casting stories about Judah’s exile in Babylon, Daniel proposes a radically different alternative to the Maccabean rebels, and
more precisely, one without violence. Unlike in the Maccabees, in Daniel no powerful military leader arises to defeat the emperor. Instead, a group of young men in exile keep close to Hebrew purity laws, suffer immense persecution for it, receive deliverance from certain death by the hand of G-d, and in the meantime, allow the empire to fall on its own as G-d so wished. At the climax in chapter 7, G-d judges the haughty empires, who resemble animals, and deems them guilty. “The one like a son of humanity”, on the other hand receives vindication from the “Ancient of Days” who grants this person dominion over everyone on earth. Of course, no one fights for this dominion. It is simply granted. Placed in this context, we read Daniel 12.2, “many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.” Again, in the face of imperial reign, Daniel, it seems, affirms the resurrection as the Maccabees do, but these verses carry different criteria for the resurrection than 2 Maccabees. In 2 Maccabees, only the faithful Jews receive new life after death. In Daniel, an unspecified group resurrects, and some receive “life” and some “contempt”. When we fast-forward to the time of Jesus’ ministry almost 200 years later, we find Jesus interpreting his own mission directly in light of Daniel and in opposition to the Maccabees.