Turning the Tables, Resurrection as Revolution
The following are some insights gleaned from N.T. Wright’s recent book, The Resurrection of the Son of God (Fortress Press, 2003). This is a comprehensive study—about 750 pages—and Wright’s understanding of resurrection as a politically charged doctrine is only one dimension of the book. His primary objective is to establish that the physical resurrection of Jesus was an authentic historical event. However, resurrection as “turning the tables” is peppered throughout the whole work and as it is obviously such an important insight I have tried to briefly summarize his thoughts.
Most Old Testament scholars agree that there is no clearly defined doctrine of the afterlife in the Old Testament. Sheol was the abode of the dead and that is all they knew about it. And if the after life was not clearly defined in the Old Testament, the doctrine of the resurrection was even less so. The primary verses where we do find resurrection are Isaiah 26:9, Ezekiel 37, the valley of dried bones, which was first seen as metaphorical resurrection, the return of the nation from the death of exile, Daniel 12 and Hosea 13. And this is an astonishing limited number of texts for a doctrine that will shape the whole of the New Testament. The reason for this porcity of texts, according to Wright, is because its primary development took place after the close of the Old Testament canon in the second temple period. And we know, even in our Lord’s day it was denied by the Sadducees, who rejected it because they did not believe it was taught in the Five Books of Moses.
From the third century B.C., personal physical resurrection came to the forefront, as a real and tangible hope of re-embodiment for the righteous after death. However, what is interesting is that resurrection in the non-canonical writings of the second temple period are set not in the context of an abstract discussion of personal immortality, but in the context of suffering, torture, and oppression and this climaxed in the Maccabean period. Many of the Maccabeean martyrs died with a confident hope a physical resurrection. They were convinced they would be vindicated by God through resurrection much to the dismay of their persecutors.
Resurrection was, therefore, from the beginning, seen as a doctrine of reversal. The wicked, rich, and powerful, who oppress the poor and persecute the righteous, will not only have to stand before God (frightening enough in and of itself) but also stand before those they had butchered and abused. The righteous martyrs, who are now elevated to the stature of rulers, stand with honor and power over the created order while their tormentors stand in ignominy and shame. This, by the way, is the probable meaning of Daniel 12:3 where the righteous are spoken of as shining like stars. The phrase is used of kingly authority; it does not necessarily imply personal luminosity. This, of course, is why totalitarian cowards like Hitler commit suicide in the (vain) hope of escaping having to face those they have brutalized and murdered. Resurrection therefore is ultimate justice: it is God’s way of setting wrongs right.
While we believe in an interim period after death before the Lord returns—when we will be in a disembodied state—most of us also affirm the truth of resurrection as future embodiment at the end of the age. However, even though we believe in bodily resurrection, Wright contends that we have unyoked it from its original context of reversal and revolution. In doing this, we have lost
some of its original force as a doctrine of social reversal and diluted the powerful hope it presents for the oppressed and downtrodden of the earth.
The Sadducees, as we have said, denied it because they did not believe it was taught in the Five Books of Moses. However, the deeper reason was that by denying it they protected their own position of wealth, privilege, and power.
Wright believes that resurrection was a threat to the Sadducees. They hoped that by denying any anticipation of an afterlife (in any form) would add leverage against the most extreme teaching on the afterlife: resurrection. It was safer to deny all hope of an afterlife than to open the door to a possibility of resurrection, a teaching that the God of justice is going to right every wrong and turn the established order upside down. They knew resurrection was not a doctrine in which the afterlife was seen as “an opiate to mollify the poor and the powerless,” a teaching to make them content with their suffering in this world by giving them a promise of some alleviation in the next. Resurrection, according to Wright, while it was to happen at the end of the age, “was to happen in this world, not another one.”
The Sadducees denied it, therefore, because they wanted to maintain the status quo and their position within it. A belief in a divine in breaking that could take place at any time and turn everything upside down was a huge threat to their position of power and wealth.
By way of contrast, a promise of “heaven” offered by the powerful to the poor was no threat, it was indeed an opiate. However, the doctrine of resurrection, rather than being an opiate, was social dynamite—and everyone knew it. Wright says, “Resurrection has to do with this present world, not with escaping and going somewhere else. It was God acting within history to put right what was wrong.” He points out that it is interesting that even Herod demonstrated that such an understanding was commonly understood by the Jews. In Mark 6 Herod is terrified when he hears of the supernatural works that Jesus is doing. He understood that resurrection was social reversal, and for this reason came to the conclusion that John the Baptist, who he had put to death, had been raised. And if so, he, Herod the king, was in big trouble! He feared that the great turn-around of the eras had already begun. And while this was not in fact true of John very soon it was indeed going to be true of Jesus.
Our Lord’s most vigorous defense of resurrection comes in the Gospels in a very revealing context. It is in Jerusalem, during Passover week, just a few days before his death. The Sadducees raise the hypothetical situation of a woman who is married to seven different brothers, all of whom die. In seeking to make the resurrection an absurd doctrine, they ask Jesus whose wife she will be in the resurrection age. Our Lord’s reply is that in that age the institution of marriage will have become obsolete (as procreation will no longer be necessary).
Wright points out a number of extraordinary dimensions in this passage. They did not ask their question in a vacuum. The previous day he had overturned the tables of the money- changers in the temple, after which the lame, the blind, and the children came to him and were healed and blessed (21:12-17). It was an obvious prophetic act of the tables being turned on the wealthy and powerful. In fact, immediately following it (and because of it), both Mark (11:18) and Luke (19:47) record that a conspiracy to kill Jesus was set in place by the chief priests and scribes.
They knew that his act was symbolic of what would happen at the resurrection (which, according to the Pharisees, would take place in the Messianic age—and many believed this was imminent). For this reason, because the Sadducees knew the symbolism of what Jesus had done, they came to him the very next day with their question that was an attempt to ridicule the theology of resurrection.
To answer their question Jesus uses the passage from Exodus 3 where the Lord appeared to Moses at the burning bush and declared that he was the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Our Lord’s first application of the passage is that he is the God of the living and not of the dead—the Patriarchs, although not yet resurrected, were not “dead” as the Sadducees claimed. However, there was also a second application that they would not have missed. Exodus 3 is all about God having heard the cry of the oppressed and that he was about to liberate them from bondage. The present order in Egypt was about to be overthrown and dignity and freedom restored to those who were slaves. In other words, the truth of resurrection as a “turning upside down of the tables” is reinforced by Jesus as he uses a passage set in the context of the Exodus.
As if this were not enough, the day after he had overturned the tables of the money-changers, Jesus taught the parable of the wicked tenant farmers who kill the son but are then confronted by his father, the owner. The prophetic action of the previous day, turning over the tables is now reinforced by a parable of dramatic reversal (22:33–46). The Jewish authorities completely understood what he was saying and right then and there, according to the text, they sought to seize him.
Later in the day, in response to a question concerning paying the poll tax to Caesar (which was deliberately framed to expose him as a threat to the present imperial social order), he declares that we should indeed render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s (22:15–22). As we know, while our Lord would indeed inaugurate the kingdom, it would not be by force of arms.
Wright sums up by saying that “the synoptics [purposely] place this major discussion of resurrection in this explosive mix of politics and theology” that forms the climax of the gospels. Both his actions and his teaching in the days leading up to the Passover—and we must not forget that the Passover was the great feast of liberation—all hint at an overthrowing of the social order, which would be inaugurated (but not, of course, consummated) by his own resurrection, which would usher in the kingdom of God.
For all the above reasons, Wright believes that today resurrection must be re-embedded in its original context. It is not a vague doctrine of an “afterlife”—it is very much about this life. As Wright says, it is life after the afterlife; the reversal and cancellation of death, along with God’s justice vindicating the poor and the oppressed. Such a message is one of hope for the multitudes in our day who suffer humiliation, poverty, and early death because of the policies of the rich and powerful. In addition, it is a proclamation that should boldly warn those who devalue and oppress the powerless that a turning of the tables is on the way. They will have to stand not only before God, but also before those whose lives they now devalue and abuse.
As I have said, rather than being the opiate of the people, resurrection life after the afterlife now becomes the hope of the people. It is only an opiate when we allow a vague doctrine of the afterlife to replace the robust biblical hope of resurrection. This life is the domain of the powerful. Resurrection threatens them as it invades what they believe to be their turf. That such an in-breaking could happen at anytime is a therefore a threat to the powerful and hope for the poor. Wright believes it must become once again a vital ingredient of our proclamation of the Gospel.