Friday, May 23, 2008

Defending the Sadducees

Professor McGrath has a very interesting post on his website about the Sadducees. He thinks they have gotten a bad rap:

We only know about the Sadducees from their critics (or at the very least those who disagreed with them): Josephus is probably the least negative source, then there are the New Testament and Rabbinic literature, both of which are polemical.

It is interesting to note that the Sadducees' views, as described by Josephus, are similar to those held by the more progressive Christians of our time: a denial of "fate" (i.e. determinism), of supernatural beings such as angels, and the afterlife. It may seem ironic that the most progressive voices today sound like the most conservative from Jesus' time. But being "progressive" doesn't mean adopting the newest ideas. If it did, fundamentalism is relatively new, and so we'd all be clamouring to hop on that bandwagon. But in fact, being progressive means being willing to change and listen, even though sometimes that means being willing to return to views one once dismissed out of hand.

Josephus also says that Sadducees viewed it as a virtue to dispute with one's teachers, to question authority, to not simply accept the answers given. Progressive Christians can say "Amen" to that. But do we have the courage to do something akin to what not only Reform but even traditional Rabbinic Judaism has done in arguing with God and with Moses? Do progressive Christians have the courage to point out clearly when they disagree with Jesus?

Then Profesor McGrath notes one conversation that Jesus had with the Sadducees, and suggests that they got less than an adequate response:

The Sadducees famously tried to stump Jesus with a question about levirate marriage and the resurrection. If a woman married all of seven brothers, but had no children, whose wife would she be in the resurrection? Although one may agree that the question presupposes a rather crude understanding of resurrection and the afterlife, popular piety has often held such views, and so the question is not an inappropriate one, even if there were surely people in that time who held to more sophisticated, less crassly physicalist sorts of views.

Jesus' reply is that the Sadducees have made a fundamental mistake in thinking that there will be marriage in the resurrection. Interpreters have long wrestled with this, probably because this answer potentially undermines the whole point of a doctrine of resurrection. The doctrine of resurrection affirms that there is a continuity between our bodily existence in the present and an afterlife. Our relationships make up a substantial part of our identity. If they are going to be essentially ignored, set aside or abolished in an afterlife, then that suggests significant discontinuity between our selves now and that which survives death.

Although the scenario posed by the Sadducees is somewhat farcical, it raises intelligent questions. Jesus' response cannot be regarded as entirely satisfactory, can it? Surely it simply raises the question of what the point is of this life if it contains so many aspects that will not be worth preserving for eternity, and the question of in what sense an eternally-existing "me" that does not share my relationships with others that I have now will in any sense be "me".

Jesus concludes his response with a clever reference to God as the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, which combined with the fact that God is the God of the living and not the dead (where does that idea come from?) is used to demonstrate from the Pentateuch (which the Sadducees accepted as authoritative) that Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are still around. But would anyone today find this sort of "exegetical trick" convincing?

I'm quite sure that there are plenty of places where I'd side with Jesus against the Sadducees. But at this particular moment, it doesn't seem like they received an entirely satisfactory answer to what was (and remains) a valid question. What do you think? Are we committed enough to the sort of self-critical learning and discipleship that Jesus challenged his followers to undertake, that we will even dare to question his statements and even critically analyse his arguments? Or does being a "follower" mean the religious equivalent of mindless nationalism: "My Lord, wrong or right"? Can one be a critical Christian? Why or why not?

Let me get the ball rolling by offering my own provocative answer to my own questions. Today there are only Christians who disagree at points with what Jesus thought and taught. It is inevitable. The only distinction is between Christians who acknowledge that this is the case, and Christians who pretend that it isn't.

Read it all here.


9comet said...

No matter who is right it would seem to create a paradoxical situation. Either: (a) Jesus is right, and we will have no memory of our earthly lives in which case it is difficult to imagine why we would have earthly lives in the first place. If God knows all our future actions in this life without our actually having to carry them out, why not cut to the chase and skip straight to the heaven/hell end result. There would be no need for us for us to have lives if we don't know why we're being rewarded/punished or if God doesn't need us to have them to determine who we are.

Or: (b) if we do remember our earthly lives, then many of us will have to spend eternity with the knowledge that, while we luxuriate in heaven, our child, parent, or spouse is instead spending eternity in torment in hell. Could heaven really be heaven then for such a person? It would seem only the most callous person could shrug that off with something like the thought “sucks to be you”. And would such a person belong in heaven?

Chuck Blanchard said...


Thanks for visiting. I agree that this part of the bible is a challenge, but I think you are over-reading what Jesus is saying. He is not saying that we won't have memory of our early lives--only that concepts like marriage may have no meaning in heaven. You are correct that it is hard to imagine a heaven without some of our close friends and family. This is a huge problem if you beleive that only those who beleive in christ in the early life will be saved. It is much less of a problem if you beleive that God's grace (through Christ) is broader.

In other words, this is much less of a problem for a liberal Christian than a more conservative one. I should note, however, that Catholic theology supports a broader saving grace than most fundamentalists.

s said...
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Anonymous said...

9comet here again,

With regard to the passages concerning the Sadducees, I'll concede I was reading too much into them. Reconsidering things, I agree it doesn't require those in heaven to lose their memories of their earthly lives in order that marriage won't carry over into or occur in heaven. I was most probably guilty of seeing what I wanted to in those scriptures so they could serve as a springboard for my own ideas.

But I have heard fundamentalist Christians speculate that those in heaven will have their memories expunged to spare them sadness over loved ones suffering in hell. I don't know which scriptures are referenced, to support this idea, but it seems problematic for the reasons I stated in my last post. And even a partial purge, just removing those memories concerning a single individual from a person, would sometimes gut that person's memories of the majority of his or her earthly existence (e.g. if the memories removed were of the person's child for instance). The leftovers would be fragmentary and disjointed. With regard to that whole idea I would ask, as Prof. McGrath did though in a different context, “what the point is of this life if it contains so many aspects that will not be worth preserving for eternity?”.

I would agree, to some extent, with what Prof. McGrath said in his article, but things may be not so problematic here. If marriage is for the purpose of mating, bearing offspring, familial responsibility etc., then it is difficult to see why that would be a relationship as such that would persist into the afterlife where there is no mating and there are no offspring and no need for familial responsibility. That doesn't mean that the bond of love between those married in life would be dissolved, just that the need for that particular covenant would be superseded. So, when Prof. McGrath speaks of a “me” that “...does not share my relationships with others that I have now...”, then I think a distinction can be made (in the case of marriage) between the relationship in terms of the love one feels for a spouse and the relationship in terms of the marriage covenant one has with their spouse. This might be a poor analogy, but maybe consider things in terms of a nanny and her charge. When the child grows up, the nanny is no longer the nanny. That relationship is superseded but is not obliterated. However the now grown child may very well still love and respect his/her nanny, and, in that sense, the nanny is still the nanny by the relationship retaining that quality.