Thursday, March 29, 2012

Meier on the Sadducees

For my write-up today on volume 3 of John Meier's A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, I'll talk about some of what Meier says concerning the Sadducees.

1. Meier spends a lot of time dispelling or modifying certain ideas about the Sadducees. Did the Sadducees accept only the written Torah as Scripture, while rejecting the other parts of the Hebrew Bible and ancestral tradition? Did the Sadducees dismiss the concept of divine providence, as Josephus relates?

For the first question, Meier dispels and modifies some stuff. Meier sees no evidence that the Sadducees dismissed all of the Hebrew Bible except for the Torah. But, in Mark 12, did not the Sadducees appeal to the Torah to argue that there is no resurrection? And did not Jesus respond to them with his own appeal to the Torah, showing that he was meeting the Sadducees on their own grounds, rather than appealing to the prophets, whom they allegedly did not accept? And would not accepting the other parts of the Bible have compelled the Sadducees to believe in the resurrection, since Daniel 12 has such a concept?

Meier does not think that any of this demonstrates that the Sadducees rejected all of the Hebrew Bible except for the Torah. First of all, the Sadducees and Jesus appealed to the Torah because that was the most important document in Judaism. Second, elements of Judaism that accepted the resurrection usually did not refer to Daniel 12 for support, and they even appealed to the Torah (as did the rabbis). And third, Daniel 12 was written "only a decade or two before the Sadducees and Pharisees began to crystallize as parties" (page 406). The Sadducees accepted the older view----that people after death were shadows in Sheol (the underworld)----whereas the Pharisees embraced the newer doctrine of resurrection.

While Meier agrees that the Sadducees technically were Sola Scriptura, he does not think that they were literalistic and wooden in their interpretation of the Torah. After all, we know from the Mishnah that the Sadducees had halakhot, which do not coincide with a literal reading of the written Torah. For Meier, the Sadducees may have believed that they were faithful to the true sense of the Scripture, the same way that Christian fundamentalists think this about their own interaction with the Bible, even though their interpretations of Scripture are loose at times and tend to project their own ideologies onto the text. But the Sadducees had their own tradition of interpretation. And, as an aside, contrary to the stereotype that the Pharisees were more lenient than the Sadducees, there are instances in which the halakhot of the Sadducees are actually more lenient.

Regarding Josephus' claim that the Sadducees did not believe in divine providence, Meier does not buy this, for the Sadducees accepted the Torah, which told stories about divine providence, plus their very activity as priests in the Temple was predicated on the notion that God has an active interest and participation in the affairs of Israel. Why else would priests be trying to appease God, if not to get him to act on Israel's behalf? For Meier, Josephus was trying to fit different Jewish groups within neat philosophical schools, for the issue of fate and free will was prominent in Greek philosophy. Consequently, as Josephus exaggerated something about the Essenes to portray them as complete fatalists, he also exaggerated a tendency about the Sadducees. The Sadducees acknowledged "human initiative, actions, and obligations" (page 411), for they ran the Temple and Judean society when the Romans were ruling directly. According to Meier, Josephus exaggerated that tendency in order to present the Sadducees as people who believed primarily in human initiative, to the point that they excluded divine intervention.

2. I appreciated Meier's discussion of Mark 12, in which Jesus discusses the resurrection from the dead with Sadducees. Jesus in Mark 12 defends the resurrection through an appeal to Exodus 3:6, in which God claims to be the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. Jesus says that God is not the God of the dead but of the living, and so Exodus 3:6 indicates that the patriarchs had to have some existence beyond the grave. Moreover, in response to the Sadducees' question of whom a resurrected woman would marry if she had a bunch of husbands on account of Levirate marriage, Jesus denies that there will be marriage in the resurrection, for people will be like angels.

First of all, Meier's discussion of angels was interesting to me because I have heard people appeal to Jesus' discussion with the Sadducees to argue that the sons of God who slept with the daughters of men in Genesis 6 were human beings (i.e., the sons of Seth), not angels. After all, if angels cannot marry, presumably because they lack sexual capacity, doesn't that indicate that the sons of God in Genesis 6 could not have been angels? By appealing to I Enoch, however, Meier demonstrates that there was a belief that the angels did have sexual capability, but that God wanted for them to remain celibate. That strikes me as rather cruel, to tell you the truth, but if that was an ancient belief, then that was an ancient belief!

Second, Meier presents information indicating that Jesus had biblical support for his belief that God was not the God of the dead but of the living. On page 429, Meier states: "Apart from a few late apocalyptic passages, the Jewish Scriptures regularly assert that the one true God has no relationship with the dead, who are, by definition, unclean and defiling. It is a source of lament in the OT that death means the end of one's relationship with God (see, e.g., Isa 38:18-19; Pss 6:6; 30:8-10; 88:4-12)."

Third, Meier argues that Jesus historically had this interaction with the Sadducees. Meier thinks that it fits the criterion of dissimilarity, which states that things about Jesus that are discontinuous from his Jewish context and what the early church taught are probably from Jesus himself. For Meier, Jesus in Mark 12 is discontinuous from Second Temple Judaism because he appealed to Exodus 3:6 to defend the resurrection, something that Second Temple Judaism did not do. And Jesus is discontinuous with the early church because he justifies the resurrection with Exodus 3:6, whereas the early church appealed to Jesus' resurrection as the basis for the resurrection from the dead. Consequently, Meier does not believe that the early church invented the story in Mark 12 about Jesus' interaction with the Sadducees. Meier also appeals to the significant place of the resurrection in Jesus' teaching, as it appears in different sources. That means that Jesus' belief in a resurrection is supported by multiple attestation.

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