Elizabeth McNamer

Elizabeth McNamer

Belief in the resurrection of the dead among the Israelites stems to the time of the exile, in fifth century B.C.

Jews had been deported to Babylon in 597, under Nebuchadnezzar. But in 536, the Persians, under King Cyrus, overcame the Babylonians. The religion of the Persians was Zoroastrianism and the writings ascribed to Zoroaster are permeated with belief in resurrection.

Cyrus encouraged the Jews to return to their homeland and to practice their religion. Over the next 150 years, Judea flourished as the Jews under Persian authority rebuilt the temple in Jerusalem and reinvigorated their religion.

The first clear hint of expectation of everlasting happiness or everlasting rejection is in the book of Daniel.

Daniel 12: 1-2 says: "At that time Michael, the great prince, the protector of your people, shall arise. There shall be a time of anguish, such as has never occurred since nations first came into existence. But at that time your people shall be delivered, everyone who is found written in the book. Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt."

Resurrection also appears in Isaiah: Your dead shall live, their corpses shall rise. O dwellers in the dust, awake and sing for joy! For your dew is a radiant dew, and the earth will give birth to those long dead. (26:19)

Stories of resurrections of the dead are found in Elijah and in Elisha and in Job. It is alluded to in more detail in the extra-canonical books of Enoch, Jubilees, Apocalypse of Baruch, Esdras, the Maccabees and Wisdom. It was taught that only the righteous would attain Paradise.

At the time of Jesus, resurrection was a dispute between the Pharisees and Sadducees. The historian Josephus writes:

"The Pharisees believe that souls have an immortal vigor in them, and under the earth there will be reward or punishment according as they have lived virtuously or viciously in this life."

Gamaliel, the teacher of St. Paul promoted belief in the resurrection. When questioned on this by the Sadducees that it is not taught in the Torah, Paul quoted from the Pentateuch: “Behold thou shall sleep with thy fathers and rise up.”

Resurrection is a major theme in the theology of Paul who was a pupil of Gamaliel.

Josephus tells us that the Essences taught the immortality of the soul. The Rev. Emile Peuch, who is an authority on the Essences, argues that bodily resurrection is to be found explicitly in many of the Dead Sea Scrolls

Resurrection is found in the teaching of the Talmud in the next centuries. The Rabbis accepted that this life is only a preliminary to a higher life. They approved the saying: "This world is like a vestibule before the world to come. Prepare your self in the vestibule that you may enter into the hall." Aboth iv 21

Later it became an article of faith: “Since a person repudiated belief in the resurrection of the dead, he shall have no share in the Resurrection” Sanh.90a

Burial was done on the day of death. The deceased’s body was laid out on bare ground, washed, anointed, placed in a linen shroud with a smaller linen cloth about the face. Mourners began their lamentations in the house of the deceased and the corpse was carried in procession to the place of burial with wailing all along the route.

Archaeologists have unearthed numerous graves dating to the first century. Most are with their heads north and their feet south, facing Jerusalem. Jerusalem was to be the place of resurrection when the Messiah appeared. Scholars have suggested that they were placed thus so that at the time of the resurrection, the deceased would rise up and start walking in the right direction.

Another way of burial, used only between 120 B.C. and 70 A.D. was the placing of the bones in a box (ossuary). After the usual preparation, of the body, it was placed on a stone slab in a tomb. After three days, the tomb was entered to make sure that the person was actually dead.

The body was left until the flesh had disintegrated, then the bones were collected and preserved in the ossuary. About 120 ossuaries have been found to date, including the ossuary of Caiphas, the high priest who condemned Jesus. His name was clearly written. Another ossuary has the inscription "James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus." The usual inscription is just "the son of". The fact that the "brother of' is added suggests that the brother was an important person.

The Kidron Valley outside the city of Jerusalem is filled with cemeteries, the headstones facing toward the Temple Mount. Most are ossuary burials. Jews who died in the Diaspora (living outside of Israel) could have second burials in ossuaries in Jerusalem with their names engraved on the ossuary box. They would then be right there to resurrect and greet the Messiah.

The graves in other towns and villages follow the direction of Jerusalem, with heads north but feet pointing south. If they were expecting to march to Jerusalem, they must have been righteous.

Righteousness implied that the person had obeyed the moral code as laid out in the Mosaic Law, and had led a life pleasing to God. Such would resurrect at the coming of the Messiah. They would have to journey to Jerusalem, but at least they were pointed in the right direction.


Dr. Elizabeth McNamer is assistant professor and Zerek chair, religious thought, at Rocky Mountain College. She will speak at Town and Gown this Wednesday on the topic of "Digging up daily life in Bethsaida at the time of Jesus."

The Faith & Values column appears Saturdays in The Billings Gazette.

Pastors, ethicists, educators or others who would like to write a column about faith, ethics or values for the section, should contact: Susan Olp; Billings Gazette; 401 N. Broadway; Billings, MT 59101. Or call her at 657-1281; fax to her attention at 657-1208; or email to solp@billingsgazette.com.

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