Many people believe Jesus says current marriages will cease in the new creation, and in my previous post I explained why I don’t think Mark 12/Matt. 22/Luke 20 can be read this way. In a nutshell: Jesus never actually says that.
There is more to this passage than just what Jesus does and does not explicitly say, however. In fact, there are a number of important facets to this conversation that might not be readily apparent. It takes further investigation to understand just how much is being implied by both the Jesus and the Sadducees, and it is then that the ambiguity of this passage overcomes the confident traditional interpretation once and for all. In other words, if you weren’t convinced by my saying that “Jesus doesn’t tell us,” I hope this post will force you to admit that a proper understanding of marriage and the resurrection is quite unclear, indeed.
The reason why this passage is so complicated is simple: It is multilayered. Your small group might focus on what seems to be the central question: The Sadducees ask Jesus how to deal with a seemingly unsolvable problem which makes a belief in the resurrection look naïve. Again, Jesus does not answer this question. He does, however, come closer to answering some of the Sadducee’s other questions.
Other questions? Yes, there are other questions implicit in the text. First, there is the question of how one extends one’s life. Traditionally, levirate marriage (a widow marrying the brother of her dead husband) was used to continue family lines and, in a sense, continue the life of the deceased. Of course, the idea of a bodily resurrection also allowed for the continuation of life in a more literal sense, so someone might wonder how the newer idea of resurrection and the older idea of levirate marriage could coexist. According to Joel Green, the Sadducees are not just interested in who this theoretical woman will be married to but also, in effect challenging Jesus about “two competing notions of ‘life after death'” (Green, 719).
Connected to this question is the question of the authority of Moses—in fact, Joel Green focuses on Mosaic authority in his title for this pericope (Green, 717). The Sadducees only accepted the Torah (Jewish law, traditionally attributed to Moses), and they rejected the idea of resurrection because it was developed in later parts of the Hebrew Bible (Witherington, 416; Green, 720-721). The aforementioned conflict between resurrection and “Torah-approved” levirate marriage and the apparent absence of resurrection from the Torah lead to a second question for Jesus: “Do you follow Moses?” Jesus essentially answers these two questions with, “Yes, I’m a good Jew who follows Moses. And actually, I think you’ve misunderstood him. Even the Torah has some evidence for resurrection, see?”
Lastly, we can notice a third element of the passage that we originally passed over: Jesus’s joke. Jesus says that at the resurrection, people will be like angels, which is highly ironic because the Sadducees doubted the existence of angels, along with the resurrection. The idea of angels had become more developed over time in Judaism, and so the Sadducees, being Torah-only, rejected them, as well (Witherington, 414). For Jesus to answer a question about the resurrection with angels as an explanatory aid clearly smacks of attitude and humor. That is not to say that the reference to the angels is only a joke, but this dimension of the dialogue should not be lost.
Given these three additional layers—two new questions and a snarky comment from Jesus—we should not reject the idea that this passage might answer the more obvious question about the woman’s husbands. This multilayered understanding, however, makes it much harder to be sure which questions actually receive a straight answer. With that in mind, one should be cautious in making too many assumptions from this text. This is anything but a simple and transparent conversation about the literal question of who is married to whom after the resurrection.
Green, Joel. The Gospel of Luke. New International Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997.
Witherington, Ben, III. Matthew. Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary. Macon, Georgia: Smyth & Helwys, 2006.