Many seeds of both the Messiah and the future understanding of resurrection are planted in the Old Testament
“In so far as the ancient, non-Jewish world had a Bible, its Old Testament was Homer. And in so far as Homer has anything to say about resurrection, he is quite blunt: it doesn’t happen.”1 This statement sets the table for the fundamental challenge faced by early Christians on this topic.
Christianity was born into a world in which its central claim was “known” to be false. (Recall the mocking response of many of the Greek philosophers on Mars Hill when Paul brought up the resurrection of Jesus in Acts 17:31 and 32.) Outside Judaism, nobody believed in resurrection, at least not in the way that the Bible defines it.
This is not to say that the ancient world had no concept of life after death. If Homer functioned like the Old Testament for the Hellenistic world, its New Testament was Plato. Plato had no need for resurrection because he understood the human person to be divided into two distinct parts; a mortal, material body and an immortal, immaterial soul that lives on after death. So for Plato, death affected only the body, not the soul.
Resurrection is not a general term for life after death in all its forms; it refers specifically to the belief that the present state of those who have died will be replaced by a future state in which they are alive bodily once more. This is not a redefinition of death, but the reversal or defeat of death, restoring bodily life to those in which it has ceased. Though the resurrected body may be different in many ways, it is as material as the first body, usually arising at the very place of death, wearing clothes, and arising with recognizable, physical characteristics of the former life. Resurrection in the fullest sense requires the belief that human beings are whole persons, with unified body, soul, and spirit. This means that, in the Seventh-day Adventist view, resurrection is absolutely necessary to experience life beyond the grave.
According to the ancients, a lot of things happened after death, but bodily resurrection was not one of them. Bodily resurrection was not a part of the pagan’s hope for the future. Death was like a one-way street: You can travel down that street leading to death, but once at your destination, you can’t come back. The ancient Greeks did allow that resurrection could possibly occur as an isolated miracle, but such are either fictional or are more like resuscitations than genuine resurrections.
The idea of a true resurrection, particularly a general resurrection at the end of the world, was alien to the Greeks. This means that something happened to Jesus that had happened to no one else in the ancient world. What is particularly striking is a sudden proliferation of apparent deaths and reversals of deaths in the ancient pagan world beginning with the mid to late first century A.D. and for centuries afterward. It is quite likely that these were influenced by the New Testament stories of the resurrection of Jesus.
Resurrection in the Old Testament—the General Picture
To those accustomed to reading the Old Testament through the lens of the New, it may come as a surprise that much of the Old Testament reads like Homer. In the words of Job himself, “‘Life is but a breath; . . . one who goes down to the grave does not return. He will never come to his house again’” (Job 7:7, 9, 10).2 “‘At least there is hope for a tree: if it is cut down, it will sprout again. . . . So he lies down and does not rise; till the heavens are no more, people will not awake or be roused from their sleep’” (14:7, 12). Words like these sound like a one-way street.
Writers of the Old Testament were not deeply disturbed about this. Old Testament Israelites were attached to life; they did not invest much energy in dreaming of a life hereafter. As with Job, they were interested in the outcome of God’s judgment in the here and now. They did not believe that human beings have innate immortality. Rather, they believed that life comes from God (Gen. 2:7), returns to Him (Eccl. 12:7), and the dead lose consciousness and never again have a part in what happens under the sun (Eccl. 9:5, 6). Sheol, or the grave, was a place where the whole person goes at death. It is not a place of consciousness or purpose.
So, for most of the Old Testament, the idea of resurrection was, at best, dormant. The two or three relatively clear texts (Dan. 12:2, 3; Isa. 26:19; Job 19:25-27) are accompanied by numerous hints that would eventually blossom into the full-blown confidence in the resurrection expressed by most of first-century Judaism. What is the evidence for resurrection in the Old Testament, and how did people come to believe in it?
Explicit Old Testament Texts
The clearest expression of bodily resurrection in the Old Testament is found in an apocalyptic context in Daniel 12:2: “Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake” (ESV). The text goes on to make reference to two resurrections, one “to everlasting life” and the other “to shame and everlasting contempt.” Then in verse 3, referring to the first of the two resurrections, the “wise” shine like the brightness of the heavens, and those who bring many to righteousness like the stars forever and ever. This prediction of the resurrection is the last in a long line of promises to the people of God in Daniel, promises of a divine kingdom (2:35, 44, 45), stories of vindication in the face of death (Daniel 3 and 6), the vindication of the Son of man (7:13, 14), and a Messiah to come (9:24-27). So deliverance of bodies from death is connected to the vindication of the whole people of God.
It is not immediately clear if the word many foresees only a partial resurrection or whether the word is used as an idiom for “all.” But what will prove particularly significant for this paper is the fact that Daniel 12:2 and 3 alludes to earlier passages in the Old Testament (such as Isa. 26:19; 53:10-12; 65:20-22; 66:24), putting an inner-biblical, bodily resurrection spin on passages that could be read in other ways.
The second clearest expression of bodily resurrection in the Old Testament can be found in Isaiah 26:19. Isaiah 24 through 27 exhibits a more apocalyptic style than is generally found in the pre-exilic prophets, envisioning the renewal of the whole cosmos. The section is a mixture of doom and lament, on the one hand, and expressions of trust and praise on the other. The hope expressed in 26:19 is anticipated first in Isaiah 25:7, 8, where the Lord Almighty “will destroy the shroud that enfolds all peoples, the sheet that covers all nations; he will swallow up death forever.” The context of 26:19 is set in verses 13 to 15, where the enemies of God’s people are now dead in the complete and endless sense. But in contrast to these, “‘Your dead will live; their bodies will rise. You who dwell in the dust, wake up and shout for joy’” (26:19). A resurrection of the body is clearly in view here, but there is no reference to a resurrection of the wicked. Also significant is that Isaiah 26:19 evokes the language of earlier, more ambiguous Old Testament texts like Hosea 6:1 to 3.
The third Old Testament text widely considered an explicit description of bodily resurrection is also the most controversial of the three: Job 19:25-27. Though there are difficulties in this passage, John C. Brunt believes that the conviction of life after death is clear. Job expresses confidence that God will be his “Redeemer” in the last days (vs. 25). What this means is expressed in verse 26, the challenging Hebrew of which is translated by the ESV: “After my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God.” In the context, Job can find no justice, and all his friends and family have deserted him. But in verse 25, the mood changes, and Job expresses confidence that his Redeemer will one day vindicate him. Such a vindication requires a judgment and a bodily resurrection, so in spite of translational challenges, it seems likely that bodily resurrection is in view in Job 19, although the word explicit is probably a stretch when applied to this passage.
Harbingers of the Resurrection in the Old Testament
In addition to the more explicit texts on bodily resurrection in the Old Testament, a number offer intriguing hints of what would become the standard understanding within early Judaism and Christianity. The two most intriguing of these are found in Isaiah 53 and Ezekiel 37.
In Ezekiel 37, God’s ability to restore life is applied to the nation as a whole, in keeping with the community-oriented worldview of the Old Testament. The prophet sees a valley full of dry bones. He prophesies to the bones and they come together, life is breathed into them, and they live again (Eze. 37:1-10). In verse 11, the vision is interpreted as a metaphor of Israel’s restoration after the Exile. But the repeated use of the word translated as “grave” in verses 12 and 13 suggests to some that the text goes beyond return from exile to the resurrection of individuals within the nation who have died. At the least, this text shows that the idea of resurrection was not unfamiliar to Israel, even if it was rarely expressed in explicit terms.
Isaiah 53 is one of several “Servant Songs” in the latter part of Isaiah. It is not always clear whether these songs are a metaphor of the suffering of Israel as a community in the future or a reference to one who suffers in their behalf. As with Ezekiel 37, the language of death and bodily resurrection can be used as a metaphor for the exile and return of the whole nation. But Isaiah 53:7 to 12 seems to imply more than that. Though there is no explicit mention of resurrection itself, verses 7 to 9 indicate that the servant dies and is buried and verses 10 to 12 indicate that he afterward emerges in triumph. So the early Christian application of Isaiah 53 to the death and resurrection of Jesus was exegetically defensible. But more than this, numerous allusions to Isaiah 53 in Daniel 12:2, 3 provide evidence that long before the time of Jesus, some Jews at least saw in Isaiah 53 a forecast of resurrection. In Isaiah 53, belief that Israel’s God will restore the nation after the exile becomes belief that He will restore the nation’s representative after death. So Isaiah 53 seems to provide a transition between national and bodily restoration.
Hosea, one of the two earliest writing prophets, has a couple of intriguing hints of resurrection. Hosea 13:14, speaking of Ephraim (northern Israel) asks, “Shall I ransom them from the power of Sheol? Shall I redeem them from Death? O Death, where are your plagues? O Sheol, where is your sting?” (ESV). The thrust of the Hebrew is actually a denial that God will raise the northern kingdom of Israel from death, but the LXX and the New Testament (1 Cor. 15:54, 55) take the passage in a positive sense. John Day has persuasively demonstrated that Isaiah 26:19, a fairly plain resurrection text, clearly alludes to Hosea 13:14.
The second hint is in Hosea 6:1 to 3. The idea of bringing to life on the third day is echoed in later passages, such as 1 Corinthians 15:4. It may also have been in the mind of Daniel when he wrote his resurrection passage in Daniel 12. That the bringing to life is preceded by a “striking down” is resurrection language. Though in its original context, Hosea 6:1 to 3 is probably mocking an inadequate prayer based on Canaanite religious expectations, both Hosea 6 and 13 demonstrate that the idea of resurrection was clearly present in Israel as early as the eighth century.
There are other intimations of resurrection in the Old Testament. There are several accounts of bodily resurrection in the stories related to Elijah and Elisha. Perhaps these incidents inspired the language found in Hosea, written to the same area less than a hundred years later. There are also the unusual stories of Enoch and Elijah, who took a different route to immortality than by death. There are frequent expressions of hope that there might be a deliverance from Sheol. And the Torah itself was later understood to offer a number of harbingers of the resurrection. So from our perspective, at least, the Old Testament picture was not as bleak as it may seem at first glance.
The Path to Resurrection
This survey of the Old Testament data raises the historical question of where resurrection came from within Israel. Explicit references to resurrection are rare, and most of the implicit ones can be understood as metaphors of the community’s return from exile and disgrace. When and why did God begin to turn Israel’s eyes from the hope of national resurrection to an individual hope in the resurrection of the body?
The consensus among scholars who take a naturalistic, developmental approach to the Old Testament is to see this shift as fairly late. They understand Job 19 to be written not by Moses, but during or after the Exile. They consider Job, in any case, to be ambiguous at best regarding bodily resurrection. They also date Daniel and the Isaiah Apocalypse (Isaiah 24 through 27) as second- and third-century B.C. insertions into the canon of the Old Testament. So in the critical consensus, belief in bodily resurrection was a late development in Israel, clearly witnessed only centuries after the Exile.
Given these critical assumptions, it is often assumed that the belief in bodily resurrection arose among Israelites around or after their exposure to Zoroastrianism in the Persian court. But the popularity of this view has waned considerably among scholars. First of all, as mentioned before, the language of resurrection is echoed not only in Ezekiel 37, but all the way back to Hosea, in the eighth century B.C. And Ezekiel’s story of the dead rising from their graves cannot be related to Zoroastrianism, since the Persians exposed their dead rather than burying them. And the emerging Israelite belief in resurrection is anything but dualistic, a core characteristic of Zoroastrianism.
More recently it has become fashionable to see the emerging Israelite belief in resurrection as grounded in the dying and rising Baal of Canaanite mythology. Though this approach is more plausible in terms of its historical progression, it is also unlikely to be the primary explanation of Israel’s emerging belief in the resurrection. For one thing, there is no reason to believe the Canaanites ever applied the resurrection of their god to themselves. And it is also questionable in light of the larger picture of the Exile. If Israel’s exile was a consequence of its compromise with pagan gods and their nature religions, why would the prophets who promised a return borrow their central imagery from those same religions?
If one accepts the biblical chronology of Daniel and Isaiah at face value, a different trajectory begins to emerge. With Hosea, the seeds of resurrection, buried long before in the Pentateuch, begin to emerge as metaphors of Israel’s rebirth as a people. With the Isaiah Apocalypse (Isaiah 24 through 27), bodily resurrection, hinted at also in Isaiah 53, takes explicit form. During the Exile itself, Daniel and Ezekiel apply resurrection language not only to the return of the nation but also to the return from the grave of at least some of those who have died in the past. In such a trajectory, it is more likely that Zoroaster picked up the idea of resurrection from Daniel than the other way around.
If bodily resurrection is a plausible development within the evidence of the Old Testament itself, what were the factors that led to that development? There are several. First, is the belief in creation. If God is the ultimate source of physical life, it is perhaps inevitable that people would come to believe that the same God is powerful enough to both end life and restore it (Deut. 32:39; 1 Sam. 2:6). He created, and thus He can re-create. And indeed, some of the resurrection texts explored earlier contain strong echoes of the Genesis creation narratives. In those narratives, Yahweh created the first human from the dust, breathing into Adam His own breath (Gen. 2:7). This language is then echoed in relation to death in Genesis 3:19; when God takes His breath away, humanity returns to the dust once more. Furthermore, Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the garden, is a first intimation of Israel’s future exile. So the fate of the nation and the body are linked together in the original narrative of creation.
A second root of resurrection belief lay in the promises of God’s love and faithfulness to Israel. If God’s love and faithfulness are only for this life, they are truly steadfast in only a limited sense. Victory over death provided Israel’s God the ultimate way to demonstrate His faithfulness and love toward His own people. A personal experience with the steadfast love of Israel’s God led to the conviction that His faithfulness would be known, not only in the present, but also beyond the grave. There Israel’s relationship with God would continue.
Resurrection belief within Israel is also rooted in the justice of God combined with His sovereign power. As the almighty Judge, God rewards the faithful and punishes those who rebel against His covenant commandments. A God of justice would not forever leave Israel to suffer oppression from the pagans.
But that kind of justice was less and less seen as Israel’s history went on. It became clear that if there is no resurrection and no judgment, there is no justice in this world; therefore, a future bodily resurrection is required for justice to occur. It is precisely the resurrection that allows God fully to demonstrate His faithfulness toward His people. God’s justice is seen first in the national resurrection of the people, and ultimately in the bodily resurrection of the individuals who made up that people.
The fourth root of resurrection belief lay in Israel’s belief in the wholeness of human beings, the idea that body and soul are a single, indivisible unit. This wholistic perspective is revealed in Genesis 2:7, where the living soul represents the whole being, including the body. According to Brunt, the Old Testament view of death grows out of this wholistic understanding.3 If it is the whole person that dies, then any hope for an afterlife must include a restoration of the physical body.
The final root of resurrection belief lay, of course, in the promise of national restoration on the other side of the Exile. In passages such as Isaiah 53 and Ezekiel 37, the two restorations are so completely mingled that it is hard to tell them apart. As hope for Israel’s national restoration began to fade with the Persian and Greek occupations after the Exile, bodily resurrection became more and more the focus of the remnant of ancient Israel.
Why is the Old Testament so implicit about the resurrection? Brunt argues that the Old Testament writers could not point back to the resurrection of Jesus Christ as the foundation of their hope for the future.4 Their thought world was oriented to the community rather than to the individual. So it is to the social unit and its survival that the emphasis of God’s revelation to them is placed. But individual and national restoration are not an either/or in the Old Testament. Many seeds of both the Messiah and the future understanding of resurrection are planted in the Old Testament, to bear fruit once the messianic promises of God were fulfilled.
Jon Paulien, Ph.D., is Professor of Religion and Dean of the School of Religion at Loma Linda University in Loma Linda, California.