Jewish Resurrection Gets New Life

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

Print this page Print this page

         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.

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

Dr. Neil Gillman

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