Harry Whittaker
Studies in the Gospels

165. Confutation of the Sadducees (Matt. 22:23-33; Mark 12:18-27; Luke 20:27-39)*

The party of the Sadducees, led by the chief priests (Acts 4:1; 5:17), was now as bitter against Jesus as the Pharisees were. Their representatives now came to him with a problem behind which was a double intention—to make Jesus look foolish, and also to deride the doctrine of the resurrection which they aggressively rejected. The memory of what had happened out at Bethany only a few weeks ago was still painfully clear in their memory. So just now they were out to discredit Christ's teaching on the resurrection, and by that means to throw doubt on his resurrection miracle and also discredit him in the eyes of the people.

Resurrection of a sort

The problem, so obviously made up for the occasion, was presented with a coarseness and scorn which well reflected their character. First, they quoted the Levirate Law from Deuteronomy (25 :5,6) (levir is Latin for brother-in-law) that if a man die childless, his brother shall take his widow and thus "raise up seed" to the dead man. It was an established custom long before the time of Moses, as the Judah-Tamar incident plainly shows. Indeed, that key phrase: "raise up seed" (Gen. 38 :8), was particularly useful to the Sadducees because it uses the same word (in LXX) as is commonly used for resurrection, How well it supported their contention that the only resurrection a man may look for is in the continuance of his family.

From this springboard the problem took its vigour. "There were with us seven brothers" (Mt.), that is, they were Sadducees too, disbelieving in the doctrine of resurrection. The first married and died childless, so, according to Deuteronomy 25, the second brother married his widow, He too died childless, and so also in turn did all seven. Then, last, the woman herself died, still childless. This last point is important, because of course the brother begetting a son would seem to have precedence.

With curling lip, these Sadducees put their problem: 'You believe there will be a resurrection, even for these who did not believe in such a destiny! Then, in the resurrection you talk about, which of these seven brothers will the woman belong to ?'

Even if Jesus had refused to answer (and the bad tone of their approach thoroughly justified such a reaction) they had made their point—a coarse jibe at what they deemed an utterly irrational belief.

Biblical riposte

Jesus could have argued that the Deuteronomy passage (25 :5) applied only to "brethren dwelling together", and was it likely that seven brothers and one wife would all live in the same house? But the Sadducees could have wangled round this, so Jesus, easily equal to coping more decisively with a challenge of this character, tried a different kind of response.

In Lk.20:35-38, his five steps of argument are dearly discernible. It is useful also to note that Jesus used "the resurrection of the dead" to describe not the process of resurrection (Lk. 20:35), but the end result of it (as in Phil. 3:11; Heb.11:35; 1 Cor.15:21 and also 15:42).

"You keep on going astray," he answered in blunt reproof, "because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God." Today mere familiarity with Bible phrases often deceives regular Bible readers into a sublime confidence that what is familiar is understood. So also, very truly, it was with these Sadducees, whose prejudices also hindered their appreciation of the power of God. But "resurrection of the dead rests on the power of God, and belief in the resurrection rests on Scripture" (Bengel).

What folly to believe that the God whose power has made men cannot remake them! So of course resurrection is possible. But marriage belongs to this mortality. Without it there would be no continuation of the race. In the immortality of the kingdom of God, the begetting of children would be incongruous. Instead, life in that age will be suited to its eternity—"equal to the angels", but with a status higher than that of angels (Heb.l :14; 1 Cor.6 :3). The Lord was careful to say not that they are angels, but are "as angels" (Mk.). By his mention of angels, Jesus settled another item of Sadducee unbelief; for they "say that there is no resurrection, neither angel nor spirit" (Acts 23 :8). He also made it clear that the resurrection life is not for all: "those that are accounted worthy to attain to that age" (Lk.). "When they rise out of the dead'—the phrase in Mark clearly implies that others "rest in the congregation of the dead" (Pr.21:16cp,Mt.22:14).

The answer traditionally supplied by the Pharisees to this standard Sadducee problem was: "The first of the seven brothers." Christ's answer was: "None of them;" and he made it very plain that only spiritual immaturity would ask such a question. "Now that the dead are raised even Moses shewed at "The Bush." The Greek word for "shewed" is interesting. It means: "to lay information" (Jn.ll :57; Acts 23 :30), or even "turn traitor." So Jesus was implying: "Moses, your great authority, has let you down."

The Bush

Jesus was alluding to the section in Exodus which tells of God's revelation to Moses from the burning bush. It was customary to give various portions of the Old Testament concise titles in this way. "Wot ye not what the scripture saith in 'Elijah'?" writes Paul (Rom.11 :2). And Ezekiel's chapter describing the Cherubim was commonly alluded to as 'The Chariot'.

Jesus could have chosen to base his argument on categorical declarations about the resurrection in other parts of the Old Testament (e.g. Dan.12 :2; ls.26 :U,19; Ps.16:10; 17:15). But since the Sadducees accorded higher authority to the Pentateuch, admitting the other books only for pious opinion and not for dogma (so say all the commentators), he met them with a Scripture about which there could be no quibble: "Have ye not read (ye who know not the Scriptures) that which was spoken unto you by God, saying, I am the God of Abraham and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob?" (Mt.).

The Lord had a double argument based on these words: "God is not a God of dead people, but of living." But the Fathers are dead. Therefore they must live again. Therefore resurrection (cp. Heb.ll :16).

Soul immortality?

It has been argued, especially on the basis of the words: "for all live unto him," that the Lord's reasoning just as readily establishes the immortality of the soul. Indeed, the commentators are almost unanimous in this conclusion. The error here has been admirably exposed in "The Gospel of the Son of God," by L.G.S. This passage from Exodus insists that everlasting life depends on a personal relationship to God (note this in Ps.16 :8-ll; 49 :13-15; 73 :23-26), so immortality cannot be common to all the race. It was with reference to the faith of Abraham that Paul wrote: "God quickeneth the dead, and calleth those things which be not as though they were" (Rom.4:17). It is in this sense that the Fathers "all live unto him"(cp.Rom.14:8).

But Jesus was arguing not just from the words of Exodus 3, but also from the context. No less than six times in "The Bush" (Ex.3:6, 15, 16; 4 :5; 6:3-4,8) does the Almighty associate Himself with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. The last two of these involve emphatic promises of resurrection for these men of faith: "And I have also established my covenant with them, to give them the Land of Canaan, the land of their pilgrimage, wherein they were strangers." And: "I will bring you into the Land concerning which I did swear to give it to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob." The words quoted by Jesus involve these words also.

The Sadducees might have argued back on these lines: 'The words spoken at the bush declared God's intention to raise the nation of Israel out of their Egyptian "grave"; this figurative resurrection, yes, but a literal bodily resurrection, no!' The fact that they didn't shows that Jesus had also directed their attention to these explicit Exodus passages just quoted.

It is interesting to observe that Rabbi Gamaliel, who had strong pro-Christian leanings (see "Acts of the Apostles", HAW. ch.23) used exactly the same argument against the Sadducees, only basing it on Deuteronomy 1:8; 11:9 (Edersheim). Did he learn it from Jesus? There is a fair probability that he was present on this occasion.


The multitude in the temple court heard Jesus with astonishment. Rabbis and chief priests were men of learning, not to be argued with but given humble deference, even when they talked foolishness, as they not infrequently did. Yet here was Jesus, the carpenter from Galilee, rebuking their clumsy conclusions as though they were so many schoolboys.

Even some of the scribes had to concede the force and authority of his words: "Teacher," they said, "thou hast spoken well" (Lk.). It was their way of saying: "We couldn't have coped with that problem so decisively."

But the reaction of those whom Jesus confuted was different. Neither Pharisees nor Sadducees dared join issue with him on any other controverted topic. These men were the masters of the nation in theological polemic, but Jesus had proved himself master of them all.

Notes on Lk. 20:27-38

Wrote unto us. "Us" emphasizes Sadducee acceptance of the Pentateuch above the rest of the Old Testament. Note the Lord's scornful comment on this when he quotes back at them the witness of Exodus: "that which was spoken unto you" (Mt.22 :31).

Raise up Gk. ex-anistemi, whence ex-anastasis, the N T. word for resurrection.
The seven also The manifest artificiality of the story comes out here. After the second or the third, would not the rest avoid the woman like the plague?
Accounted worthy. There is a plain implication here that these Sadducees (whose name means The Righteous) were unworthy. Similarly the repetition (v.37) of "the God of . . ." underlines that eternal life depends on a - personal relationship with God.
Neither die anymore. This continuation of the race by the begetting of children will then be on absurdity.

Equal to the angels. It is scarcely credible that some great names in the world of N .T. exposition actually read the slightly different phrase in Mt.: "but like the angels they are in heaven." Contrast Gen.25 :8; Josh.24:2.

The children of God, all belonging to His family and not needing any human family.

Previous Index Next