The living God continually renews the very reality of life

At the General Audience on Wednesday, 18 November, in the Paul VI Hall, the Holy Father continued his catechetical series on the theology of the body, delivering the following address.

1.  "You are wrong, because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God" (Mt 22:29), Christ said to the Sadducees, who—rejecting faith in the future resurrection of the body—had proposed to him the following case: "Now there were seven brothers among us; the first married, and died, and having no children left his wife to his brother" (according to the Mosaic law of the "levirate"). "So too the second and third, down to the seventh. After them all, the woman died. In the resurrection, therefore, to which of the seven will she be wife?" (Mt 22:25-28).

Christ answers the Sadducees by stating, at the beginning and at the end of his reply, that they are greatly mistaken, not knowing either the Scriptures or the power of God (cf. Mk 12:24; Mt 22:29).  Since the conversation with the Sadducees is reported by all three synoptic Gospels, let us briefly compare the texts in question.

2. Matthew’s version (22:24-30), although it does not refer to the burning bush, agrees almost completely with that of Mark (12:18-25).  Both versions contain two essential elements: 1) the enunciation about the future resurrection of the body; 2) the enunciation about the state of the body of risen man (1). These two elements arc also found in Luke (20:27-36) (2). The first element, concerning the future resurrection of the body, is combined, especially in Matthew and Mark, with the words addressed to the Sadducees, according to which they "know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God". This statement deserves particular attention, because precisely in it Christ defines the very foundations of faith in the resurrection, to which he had referred in answering the question posed by the Sadducees with the concrete example of the Mosaic law of levirate.

Admitting the reality of life after death

3. Unquestionably, the Sadducees treat the question of resurrection as a type of theory or hypothesis which can be disproved (3).  Jesus first shows them an error of method: they do not know the Scriptures; and then an error of substance: they do not accept what is revealed by the Scriptures—they do not know the power of God—they do not believe in him who revealed himself to Moses in the burning bush. It is a very significant and very precise answer.  Here Christ encounters men who consider themselves experts and competent interpreters of the Scriptures. To these men—that is, to the Sadducees—Jesus replies that mere literal knowledge of Scripture is not sufficient.  The Scriptures, in fact, are above all a means to know the power of the living God who reveals himself in them, just as he revealed himself to Moses in the bush. In this revelation he called himself "the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob" (4), of those, therefore, who had been Moses' ancestors in the faith that springs from the revelation of the living God. They had all been dead for a long time.  Christ, however, completes the reference to them with the statement that God "is not God of the dead, but of the living''. This statement, in which Christ interprets the words addressed to Moses from the burning bush, can be understood only if one admits the reality of a life which death does not end. Moses' fathers in faith, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, are living persons for God (cf. Lk 20:38: "for all live for him"), although according to human criteria, they must be numbered among the dead. To reread the Scripture correctly, and in particular the aforementioned words of God, means to know and accept with faith the power of the Giver of life, who is not bound by the law of death, which rules man's earthly history.

Christ's answer

4. It seems that Christ's answer about the possibility of resurrection (5) given to the Sadducees, according to the version of all three synoptics, is to be interpreted in this way. The moment will come in which Christ will give the answer, in this matter, with his own resurrection.  For now, however, he refers to the testimony of the Old Testament, showing how to discover there the truth about immortality and resurrection. It is necessary to do so not by dwelling only on the sound of the words, but by going back also to the power of God which is revealed by those words.  The reference to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in that theophany granted to Moses, of which we read in the Book of Exodus (3:2-6), constitutes a testimony that the living God gives to those who live "for him":  to those who, thanks to his power, have life, even if, according to the dimensions of history, it would be necessary to include them among those who have been dead for a long time.

5. The full significance of this testimony, to which Jesus refers in his conversation with the Sadducees, could be grasped (still only in the light of the Old 'Testament) in the following way: He who is—he who lives and is Life—is the inexhaustible source of existence and of life, as was revealed at the ''beginning'', in Genesis (cf. Gen 1:3). Although, due to sin, physical death has become man's lot (cf. Gen 3:19) (6), and although he has been forbidden (cf. Gen 3:22) access to the tree of Life (the great symbol of the Book of Genesis), yet the living God, making his covenant with man (Abraham—the patriarchs, Moses, Israel), continually renews, in this covenant, the very reality of life, reveals its perspective again and in certain sense opens access again to the tree of Life.  Along with the covenant, this life, whose source is God himself, is communicated to those very men who, as a result of the breaking of the first covenant, had lost access to the tree of Life, and, in the dimensions of their earthly history, had been subject to death.

Power and testimony of the living God

6. Christ is God’s ultimate word on this subject; in fact the covenant, which with him and for him is established between God and mankind, opens an infinite perspective of Life: and access to the tree of Life—according to the original plan of the God of the Covenant—is revealed to every man in its definitive fullness. This will be the meaning of the death and resurrection of Christ; this will be the testimony of the paschal mystery. However, the conversation with the Sadducees takes place in the pre?paschal phase of Christ's messianic mission. The course of the conversation according to Matthew (22:24-30), Mark (12: 18-27), and Luke (20:27-36) manifests that Christ—who had spoken several times, particularly in talks with his disciples, of the future resurrection of the Son of Man (cf., e.g., Mt 17:9, 23; 20:19 and paral.) —does not refer to this matter in the conversation with the Sadducees.  The reasons are obvious and clear.  The discussion is with the Sadducees, "who say that there is no resurrection" (as the evangelist stresses), that is, they question its very possibility, and at the same time they consider themselves experts on the Old Testament Scriptures, and qualified interpreters of them. And that is why Jesus refers to the Old Testament and shows, on its basis, that they "do not know the  power of God" (7).

7. Regarding the possibility of  resurrection, Christ refers precisely to that power which goes hand in hand with the testimony of the living God, who is the God of Abraham, of Isaac, of Jacob—and the God of Moses. God, whom the Sadducees "deprive" of this power, is no longer the true God of their Fathers, but the  God of their hypotheses and interpretations.  Christ, on the contrary, has come to bear witness to the God of Life in the whole truth of his power which is unfolded upon man’s life. 


1)  Although the expression "the resurrection of the body" is not known in the New Testament (it will appear for the first time in St Clement:  2 Clem 9:1 and in Justin: Dial 80:5), which uses the expression "resurrection of the dead", intending thereby man in his integrity, it is possible, however, to find in many New Testament texts faith in the immortality of the soul and its existence also outside the body (cf., for example, Lk 23:43; Phil 1:23-24; 2 Cor 5:6-8).
2)  Luke’s text contains some new elements which are an object of discussion among exegetes.  
3)  As is known, in the Judaism of that period there was no clearly formulated doctrine concerning the resurrection; there existed only the various theories launched by the individual schools.
The Pharisees, who cultivated theological speculation, greatly developed the doctrine on the resurrection, seeing allusions to it in all the Old Testament books. They understood the future resurrection, however, in an earthly and primitive way, announcing, for example, an enormous increase of crops and of fertility in life after the resurrection.

The Sadducees, on the other hand,  polemicized with such a conception, starting from the premise that the Pentateuch does not speak of eschatology.  It must also be kept in mind that in the first century the canon of the Old Testament books had not yet been established.

The case presented by the Sadducees directly attacks the Pharisaic concept of the resurrection.  In fact, the Sadducees were of the opinion that Christ was one of their followers.    

Christ’s answer equally corrects the conceptions of the Pharisees and those of the Sadducees.  

4)  This expression does not mean: "God who was honoured by Abraham, Isaac and Jacob", but: "God who took care of the Patriarchs and liberated them".

This formula returns in the book of Exodus: 3:6; 3:15, 16; 4:5, always in the context of the promised liberation of Israel:  the name of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is a token and guarantee of this liberation. 

"The God of X is synonymous with help, support and shelter for Israel".  A similar sense is found in Genesis 49:24: "God of Jacob—the Shepherd and Rock of Israel, the God of your Fathers who will help you" (cf. Gen 49:24-25; cf. also: Gen 24:27; 26:24; 28:13; 32:10; 46:3).

Cf. F. Dreyfus, O.P., L'argument scripturaire de Jesus en faveur de la r¾surrection des morts (Mk 12:26-27).  Revue Biblique 66 (1959) 218.

The formula: "God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob" in which all three names of the Patriarchs are mentioned, indicated  in Judaic exegesis in Jesus' time God’s relationship with the People of the Covenant as a community. 

Cf. E. Ellis, "Jesus, The Sadducees and Qumran", New Testament Studies 10 (1963-64) 275.

5)  In our modern way of understanding this Gospel text, the reasoning of Jesus concerns only immortality; if in fact the patriarchs still now live after their death, before the eschatological resurrection of the body, then the statement of Jesus concerns the immortality of the soul and does not speak of the resurrection of the body.  
But the reasoning of Jesus was addressed to the Sadducees who did not know the dualism of body and soul, accepting only the biblical psycho-physical unity of man who is "the body and the breath of life".   Therefore, according to them the soul dies with the body.  The affirmation of Jesus according to which the Patriarchs are alive, could mean for the Sadducees only resurrection with the body.  
6) We will not dwell here on the concept of death in the purely Old Testament sense, but take into consideration theological anthropology as a whole. 

7) This is the determinant argument that proves the authenticity of the discussion with the Sadducees. 

If the passage were "a post-paschal addition of the Christian community" (as R. Bultmann thought, for example), faith in the resurrection of the body would be supported by the fact of the resurrection of Christ, which imposed itself as an irresistible force, as St Paul, for example, has us understand (cf. 1 Cor 15:12).

Cf. J. Jeremias, Neutestamentliche Theologie, I Teil, Gutersloh 1971 (Mohn): cf. besides I. H. Marshall.  "The Gospel of Luke",  Exeter 1978.  The Paternoster Press. P. 738.

The reference to the Pentateuch—while in the Old Testament there were texts which dealt directly with resurrection (as, for example, Is 26:19 or Deut 12:2)—bear witness that the conversation really took place with the Sadducees, who considered the Pentateuch the only decisive authority.  

The structure of the controversy shows that this was a rabbinic discussion, according to the classical models in use in the academics of that time.

Cf. J. Le Moyne, OSB, Les Sadduc¾ens,  Paris 1972 (Gabalda), p. 124 f.; E. Lohmeyer, Das Evangelium des Markus, GØttingen 195915 , p. 257; D. Daube, “New Testament and Rabbinic Judaism”, London 1956, pp.158-163; J. Radamakers, SJ, La bonne nouvelle de Jesus selon St. Marc, Bruxelles 1974, Institut d’Etudes Theologiques, p. 313.

L'Osservatore Romano November 23, 1981
Reprinted with permission