The Exegesis of the Sadducees

23 The same day Sadducees came to him, who say that there is no resurrection; and they asked him a question, 24 saying, "Teacher, Moses said, 'If a man dies, having no children, his brother must marry the widow, and raise up children for his brother.' 25 Now there were seven brothers among us; the first married, and died, and having no children left his wife to his brother. 26 So too the second and third, down to the seventh. 27 After them all, the woman died. 28 In the resurrection, therefore, to which of the seven will she be wife? For they all had her." 29 But Jesus answered them, "You are wrong, because you know neither the scriptures nor the power of God. 30 For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven. 31 And as for the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was said to you by God, 32 'I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob? He is not God of the dead, but of the living." 33 And when the crowd heard it, they were astonished at his teaching. (Mt 22:23-33)

Sometimes I quote from professional exegetes to show us how it’s really done. Today I bring in the King of the exegetes: Jesus. In this passage, Jesus answers the Sadducees who tried to trick him with a question. First we want to learn about these Sadducees. Joseph ben Mathias, better known by his Roman name of Flavius Josephus, was a Jewish historian born in 37 AD and died sometime after 100 AD. He was a contemporary of the Apostles and he wrote the history of his own day. In one of his books, he described the three prominent Jewish sects of his day, the Essenes, the Pharisees, and the Sadducees; of the Sadducees he says:

But the Sadducees are those that compose the second order, and take away fate entirely, and suppose that God is not concerned in our doing or not doing what is evil; and they say, that to act what is good, or what is evil, is at men's own choice, and that the one or the other belongs so to every one, that they may act as they please. They also take away the belief of the immortal duration of the soul, and the punishments and rewards in Hades. Moreover, the Pharisees are friendly to one another, and are for the exercise of concord, and regard for the public; but the behavior of the Sadducees one towards another is in some degree wild, and their conversation with those that are of their own party is as barbarous as if they were strangers to them. (“War of the Jews”, Flavius Josephus, Bk 2, Ch 8, 14; trans. Wm Whiston)

Not a very flattering description. The key point here is that they did not believe in the immortality of the soul; when you’re dead, you simply cease to exist. As such, they rejected any idea of a resurrection of the dead, which was otherwise believed by most Jews. In our bible text, a group from this sect tried to trick Jesus with a clever question: if the soul lives on to a resurrection, then what becomes of a soul who was married seven times over? Jesus explains simply that they are wrong and they don’t know scripture. He then answers them from authority as He Himself knows that in the resurrection there will be no marriage; that was something only He would know.

But then He teaches them; he proved their error based on Scripture. His basis is an obscure fact about Sadducees: they only held Torah to be valid Scripture. The Sadducees rejected all of the books of the prophets and all of the wisdom books and all of the other books not in Torah. There’s sufficient evidence for the immortality of soul and of resurrection in general (e.g., Ez 37) outside of Torah, but such evidence meant little to the Sadducees. So Jesus refuted their belief based on Torah alone:

1 Now Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law, Jethro, the priest of Midian; and he led his flock to the west side of the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. 2 And the angel of the LORD appeared to him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush; and he looked, and lo, the bush was burning, yet it was not consumed. 3 And Moses said, "I will turn aside and see this great sight, why the bush is not burnt." 4 When the LORD saw that he turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, "Moses, Moses!" And he said, "Here am I." 5 Then he said, "Do not come near; put off your shoes from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground." 6 And he said, "I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob." (Ex 3:1-6)

Abraham, Isaac and Jacob had died long ago. Per the Sadducees, they were no more. But God did not say to Moses, “I was the God of Abraham,…,” which He would have were they no more. Instead, He said, “I am the God of…,” using present tense; this implied they still existed, He was still their God. They were still alive, somewhere, somehow. Ergo, Torah speaks to the immortality of the soul.

Let’s look at two elements of Jesus’ exegesis. First, He employed meaning in the exact language of Scripture. The ‘was’ vs ‘is’ word comparison seems trivial, but is actually packed with meaning. We too should pay close attention to and derive meaning from even little things. That’s because, there are no little things in Scripture. As an example, consider a single word in Luke’s Gospel:

28 And he came to her and said, "Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with you!" (Lk 1:28)

The underlined word in the original Greek was Kecharitomene, a word which reformed and traditional Christians have argued for centuries. For traditional Christians, the exact meaning of this word is literally ‘full of grace,’ implying Mary was a person who was full of grace, which opens up a lot of meaning about her (see this post). For the reformed, this word was an idiom and should not be taken literally.

Second, the passage from Moses had nothing to do with the resurrection or the immortality of the soul, Yet Jesus employed this text to speak to those topics. We too should note that Scripture is packed with many meanings in few words and we should open our minds to learn as much meaning as we can. As an example, refer again to the previous paragraph about Kecharitomene. If you have time, read the linked post which concludes all of our Marian beliefs just from that word, plus Paul’s theology of grace.

This second aspect also leads us to a third. Jesus did some great exegesis and it astonished the crowds listening. Why was His exegesis great? Easy: because He is God. No one can explain Scripture better than God, right? So it is with us. The world is full of exegetes who have something to say about Scripture; you’re reading from one right now. But Christians believe Scripture is inspired by God, so any exegesis worth its name must derive from God. We need a way to identify which exegetical works are from God and which are not. For reformed Christians, that way is the personal inspiration of the Holy Spirit to each believer. I reject that way, based on what I see: different believers drawing different conclusions. For the Catholic, that way is the collective inspiration of the Holy Spirit in the Church. What I see there is 2,000 years of a dynamic exegetical tradition, which has never strayed from the original Faith. Our discovery of the depths of Scripture grows continuously and provides us with new insights every day, yet never adds or detracts from the Faith. This is remarkable in itself and is part of why I choose Catholicism.