Bring out your dead!December 14, 2009 — Deacon Duncan
I’m glad to see Jayman returning to our comments section once again, and he comes back bearing gifts: a commentary from Professor John P. Meier, of the Notre Dame Department of Theology, on the subject of Jesus’ use of Exodus 3. Besides being a Catholic priest, Meier is also an established Biblical scholar, with 9 books and 60-some scholarly articles to his credit. We should find much to learn from his contribution.
The quotes from Meier come from his book A Marginal Jew, part of Meier’s attempt to discover the actual, historical Jesus, as distinct from the Jesus of Christian myth and tradition. It’s a tall task, and one that Meier himself would be the first to classify as claiming only what is probable, not what is certain. His goal is to discover what Jesus meant, not whether Jesus was correct. As such, he brings in much helpful historical context, but leaves open the question of how we are to judge Jesus’ meaning once we know it. Never fear, we’ll pick up where Meier left off!
According to Jayman, here is how Meier summarizes Jesus’ use of Exodus 3:
1. Major Premise: According to God’s self-chosen definition, the very being of God involves being the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. This is his permanent self-definition.
2. Minor Premise: But, as the whole of the OT proclaims, God is God only of the living, not of the defiling, unclean dead, with whom he has no relation.
3. Unspoken Conclusion: Therefore, if God’s being is truly defined by his permanent relationship to the three patriarchs, the three patriarchs must be (now or in the future) living and in living relationship to God.
Of course, what Jesus actually said was, “But about the resurrection of the dead—have you not read what God said to you, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not the God of the dead but of the living.” Meier was able to read those two short sentences and to know that Jesus was thinking about all that extra stuff about “permanent self-definition” and so on. Cool, huh?
His second premise seems a bit strange to me: it sounds like he’s taking Levitical prohibitions against touching corpses and conflating them with some kind of presumed divine revulsion for the immaterial souls of the dead. The former is indeed part of the Old Testament, but it strikes me as odd that Meier—or Jesus, for that matter—would identify “the dead” with mere corpses. The Pentateuch contains numerous references to Sheol as the abode of departed souls, so it seems a bit unlikely that the Sadducees would have rejected the idea of immaterial souls in Sheol. But if “the dead” refers to the “surviving” people and not just their lifeless corpses, whence this notion that “God is not the God of the defiling, unclean dead”?
But now let’s go back to that first premise, that God’s “self-chosen definition” requires a “permanent” relationship to the three patriarchs. That’s kind of a lot of extra information to pull out of the words, “I am the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.” If He had said, “I am the God of the Ten Plagues of Egypt,” would that require that from now on and forever more His identity would depend on Egypt existing under a cloud of darkness, gnats, frogs, dead babies and so on? And if not, why not? Would it be wrong to call God the God of the Ten Plagues, and not intend to claim a perpetual curse on Egypt?
According to Jayman, all this extra information comes from the arguments Pharisaic rabbis were using, in their commentaries, to try and promote the idea of (Zoroastrian-style) resurrection and judgment as being valid Judaism.
We see these shared presuppositions at work in b. Sanhedrin 90b-91a. There the later rabbis make arguments for the resurrection that, at first glance to us moderns, appear as strange as Jesus’ reference to Exodus 3:6. We need to place ourselves in the ancient Jewish community if we are going to understand Jesus or the rabbis. The fact that the average modern person is ignorant of ancient Jewish culture does not mean the ancient Jews were making poor arguments.
The problem, of course, is that Exodus 3 was not written in the context of the post-Exilic presuppositions that Jesus and the Pharisees shared many centuries later. To say that Jesus proved the Sadducees wrong by appealing to the latter-day arguments of the Pharisees is to concede the main point that I was trying to make: that Jesus is citing Exodus 3 in order to prove a point that Exodus 3 does not make. The commentaries are the source of the doctrine, not the Scripture itself.
If Exodus 3 declared that the dead were to be raised, then we could read about it in Exodus 3, and would not need to look up the opinions of the Pharisees. But it doesn’t, and therefore the doctrine is dependent on the Pharisees’ opinions rather than on the Scripture. But Jesus deceptively makes it sound like Exodus 3 is the source of the doctrine (thus setting an example for generations of Christian expositors to come, sad to say).
But the biggest problem is that even granting that Jesus was trying to use this Scripture to make the point that the patriarchs were still living, and even assuming that Exodus 3 itself were trying to make the point that Abraham and offspring were living, we still haven’t addressed the inherent and inescapable contradiction that makes it impossible for Jesus’ argument to be valid. These are:
- That we’re supposed to be proving the resurrection of the dead.
- That God is the God of the patriarchs,
- That God is not the God of the dead.
Are the patriarchs members of that group, “the dead,” whose resurrection is the question at hand and whose God is not God? By Meier’s analysis, they cannot be, since God is their God. According to Meier, the patriarchs are living, and not dead, which is how things must be in order for God to exist according to His own permanent self-definition.
Since the patriarchs do not belong to “the dead” whose resurrection is at issue, however, then their relationship with God is entirely irrelevant to the question of whether or not the dead are raised. Indeed, since they are “living” (according to Meier), then even if the patriarchs were to be resurrected, it would still not be a resurrection of the dead, but only a resurrection of the living!
What’s more, as Exodus 13 tells us, the patriarchs, and specifically Jacob, were as dead as it is possible for a person to be. As Jacob made them swear in Genesis 50, the Hebrews still kept Jacob’s lifeless remains with them, so that they could return them to Palestine and not leave them in Egypt. These bones had not been knit back together and given fresh sinews and flesh, as in Ezekiel’s vision. These were unresurrected bones, and the Hebrews still had them, ten chapters after the burning bush passage Jesus was referring to. So if Jacob was not among “the dead,” then it’s a fair bet no one else is either, and where there are no dead, there is no resurrection of the dead.
Notice how Meier tiptoes around this problem with some vague hand-waving about how “life beyond death in God’s presence” must be understood “in terms of resurrection” (whatever that means).
In the concrete arena set up by the Sadducees and accepted by Jesus, this life beyond death in God’s presence is understood in terms of resurrection. Moreover, since the formula “I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob” has as its precise purpose in Exodus 3 the proclamation of the continuation of God’s saving action to the patriarchs’ descendants, this hope of resurrection is held out to all their faithful offspring. Jesus thus grounds the hope of resurrection firmly in the primordial revelation of God to Moses and the chosen people — and ultimately in the very being of the God who, by definition, is related to the people he saves. To understand the God of Israel correctly is to accept the resurrection. To reject resurrection is to misunderstand God’s primordial revelation to Israel and ultimately God himself.
Seems to me I was just reading somewhere that someone said, “I don’t know about you, but for me, red flags go up whenever I see anybody attributing motives to people still living, let alone people thousands of years dead.” No doubt the author of that particular post will be along shortly to tell us how outrageous it is for Meier to think he knows what God‘s motives were! But I digress.
My original point was twofold: first to show that Jesus did indeed misuse Exodus 3 by claiming it proved something it did not say, and second to show that even under the most charitable interpretation, Jesus’ argument has serious logical flaws that are inconsistent with Jesus being God the Son Incarnate. Meier’s remarks, while informative, only reinforce the points I’ve been making all along.