Jewish Resurrection Gets New Life

By the second century at the latest, belief in resurrection had entered Jewish liturgy and legal writing.

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Reprinted with permission of The Continuum International Publishing Group from The Encyclopedia of Judaism, edited by Jacob Neusner, Alan Avery-Peck, and William Scott Green.

By some time in the early Talmudic period, the doctrine of an afterlife for the individual had become quasi‑canonical. This is established by two texts. 

The Mishnah Canonized Belief in Resurrection

Mishnah Sanhedrin 10:1, first, stipulates that only three sorts of Israelites do not have a share in the age to come: "the one who says that the resurrection of the dead is a teaching that does not derive from the Torah, [the one who says that] the Torah is not from heaven; and the Epicurean [Hebrew: apikores]."

sky with sun beams

Some (probably earlier) versions of this text read the first category to be simply one who denies the resurrection of the dead. The Talmudic phrase for the eschaton (last things, or afterlife), olam haba, is typically translated as either "world to come" or "age to come," with olam having either a spatial or temporal reference. This author prefers the temporal designation: the eschaton can sometimes signify a new "world," but it always signifies a new "age."

The Amidah Already Proclaims Belief

The second text is the Gevurot (God's "mighty acts" from Heb. gibbor, "mighty") benediction of the Eighteen Benedictions, the second of the introductory three benedictions that are used in every single version of the Amidah, that, to this day is recited at least thrice daily by the worshipping Jew.

The benediction celebrates God's mighty acts. In its current form, it reads:

       You are eternally mighty, O Lord.

       You revive the dead: great is your power to

         save.

       (You make the wind to blow and the rain to

         fall.)

       You sustain the living with compassion: you

         revive the dead with abundant mercy.

       You support the falling, heal the ailing, free

         the captive: and maintain the faith with those

         who sleep in the dust.

       Whose power can compare with yours, who

         is comparable to you O king who brings

         death and restores life and causes salvation

         to sprout?

       You are faithful to restore life to the dead

       Praised are you, Lord, who restores life to

         the dead.

Dating the Official Belief

These two texts mark the canonization of the doctrine of the afterlife, because the Mishnah (ca. 200 C.E.) is the first authoritative sum­mation of the body of Jewish law after the Bible, the inclusion of these three theological claims [i.e. the three people who are excluded from a share in the age to come] in what is otherwise a legal code is striking. The liturgy, for its part, is the primary device used to introduce authoritative Jewish belief into the daily consciousness of the Jew; thus, in time, when the doctrine of resurrection came to be questioned by modem Jews, one of the typical responses was to change the wording of this text.

Dating the Amidahpassage is a complex issue, but a version of this text, if not the one we have before us today, probably dates from the first half of the first century B.C.E. The very fact that this doctrine is mentioned six times in this short passage probably reflects an age when it was still hotly disputed, which again suggests an early first century B.C.E. date.

Ambiguities of the Proof Texts

The key Hebrew phrases in these two texts, tehiyat hametim ("the resurrection of the dead") and mehaye hametim (God "resur­rects," "revives," or "gives life to the dead"), are taken from Isaiah 26:19, and the reference to "those who sleep in the dust" is from Daniel 12:2. The text is a reworking of Psalm 146, but now God's power to reverse the normal state of affairs includes God's power to bring the dead to life. But the more difficult question concerns just what this concise formula meant to its author(s).

It could refer to bod­ily resurrection alone, or it could mean the broader scenario that incorporates a notion of the rejoining of the resurrected body with the immortal soul. It clearly does convey this latter meaning in some later (post‑Mishnaic) Talmudic texts, but it may also be implied here.

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Dr. Neil Gillman

Dr. Neil Gillman is Aaron Rabinowitz and Simon H. Rifkind Professor of Jewish Philosophy at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.