Mark 12:18-27

Jesus Rejects Sadducees – God of the Living

Mark 12:18-27 – Resurrection: Yes or No?

18 Some Sadducees came up to him,
people who say there is no resurrection,
and they questioned him,

The Sadducees were not a clearly defined and tightly organised group within Judaism. They were people who, to greater or lesser degree, tended to adhere to a particular ideology. They were generally chief priests and members of the Jerusalem aristocracy.

Who were Sadducees?

The origins of the movement are not clear. They began to take shape during the time of the Hasmonean Kingdom, about a century and a half before Jesus. They objected to the appointment of an illegitimate high priest drawn from the royal family. The name probably derived from the name of the high priest Zadok, legitimately appointed by David centuries before (2 Samuel 8:17. Note also Ezekiel 44:15).

Over time they had come to accept the status quo, and by the time of Jesus, had accommodated generally even to the Roman occupation. Being from the powerful, wealthy class, it was in their interests to do so.  For this they incurred the strong opposition of Pharisees.

What distinguished them was their reluctance to accept the many books of the Hebrew canon that dated after the time of David.  Effectively they accepted only the five books of the Pentateuch, rejecting the works of the prophets and of the later wisdom literature. They particularly dissociated themselves from “the tradition of the elders” so fervently espoused by Pharisees.

Given their rejection of the developing insights into God and God’s dealings with his people over the intervening centuries, and expressed so beautifully in the prophets and much of the wisdom literature, they did not accept any possibility of life after death. Persons lived on through descendants. The centrality of descendants was the reason also for their obsession with property rights and inheritance. The consequences of human behaviour did not echo into eternity. Their horizons were firmly limited to the here and now.  Such beliefs sat well with the ethos of wealth creation and political stability. Restricting their vision to this life only, they also denied all talk of angels and of spirits.

19Moses wrote for us
that if a man’s brother dies and leaves a wife but no child,
the brother takes the wife and raises up an heir for his brother.
20 Now there were seven brothers.
The first one took a wife,
but died and left no descendant.
21 The second took her,
and died leaving no descendant.
The same for the third.
22 The seven of them left no descendant.
Last of all the woman died.
23 In the resurrection when they all rise,
whose will the woman be?
for all seven had her.”

Their case involved what was called “Levirate Law”, mentioned in the Pentateuch but no longer commonly practised in Jesus’ day. The book of Deuteronomy had declared the following:

When brothers reside together, and one of them dies and has no son, the wife of the deceased shall not be married outside the family to a stranger. Her husband’s brother shall go in to her, taking her in marriage, and performing the duty of a husband’s brother to her, and the firstborn whom she bears shall succeed to the name of the deceased brother, so that his name may not be blotted out of Israel. (Deuteronomy 25.5-6)

Given the regular disputes between Sadducees and Pharisees, cases like this were no doubt frequently thrown around.  Apparently neither party had succeeded in persuading the other.  

The Sadducees were attempting to lessen Jesus’ moral authority by means of ridicule. Their efforts probably would not have achieved much, given that the people generally had little time for them, objecting to their privileged position and their accommodation to the Romans.

24 Jesus said to them, “Is this not why you are wrong,
because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God
25 When people rise from the dead,
they neither take in marriage nor are they given in marriage.
Rather, they are like angels in heaven.

Jesus’ response was quite strong: they were wrong. On this, as on many other matters, Jesus’ views sat comfortably with those of the Pharisees. Pharisees believed in life after death.  

Jesus accused the Sadducees of not knowing the power of God.

Jesus’ view of resurrection was of unbelievable qualitative difference, beyond the capacity of people to imagine or understand. It would be the power of God at work: pure gift.  Given the once-for-all character of risen life, issues such as the provision for descendants and the continuation of the family line would be totally irrelevant. There would be no need for procreation, and so no need for marriage.  (Jesus did not rule out the continuation, indeed, the perfection, of mutual love; that was simply not his focus.)

To emphasise even more their wrongness, he added that in this the dead were like the angels (whose existence the Sadducees denied).

26 But about the dead when they are raised...
Have you not read in the book of Moses
about the burning bush
that God said to him,
‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob?’
27 He is not God of dead people but of living ones.
You are very much mistaken.

Jesus continued his attack, claiming that they did not know even their own Scriptures, and he proceeded to argue from the book of Exodus, one of the books they accepted.

The force of Jesus’ argument may sound hardly convincing to the modern ear. It did reflect, however, the method of argumentation in vogue among the rabbis of his time.

Jesus was not claiming that, because God identified himself to Moses as the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, that the patriarchs must necessarily have already shared in the resurrection of the dead. In stating that God was God not of dead people but of living ones, Jesus was probably saying something more pertinent. The fact that Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (the men whose God he was) were living, referred to their attitudes during their time on earth. They were men whose horizons had not been confined to the limits of the here and now. They were men who had believed in the promise, reached out to what seemed impossible, and staked their lives on the word of God. They were men who had trusted in the future, who had dreamed of something better - they were living men.

This interpretation fits with the view of author of the epistle to the Hebrews, who wrote some years later than Mark, in reference to Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham and Sarah:

These all died in faith, not having received what was promised, 
but having seen it and greeted it from afar, 
and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. 
For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. 
If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, 
they would have had opportunity to return. 
But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. 
Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God ... (Hebrews 11.13-16)

Jesus criticised their whole ethos because it lay at the base of their stance towards life as a whole, their concentration on “this world” and on wealth accumulation and power, all of which were so often the cause of the injustice suffered by those working as tenants and day-labourers on their estates in Galilee.

They were indeed “much mistaken”, not only on what was to them an academic exercise regarding resurrection, but on the matter of what was paramount to Jesus: their exploitation of the poor and powerless in the name of religion and of God.

Next >> Mark 12:28-34