MATTHEW 22:23-33
Pp Mark 12:18-27, Luke 20:27-38

The Question
The Answer
   1. Confusing His opponents
   2. Teaching His followers

On the last web page, we saw that Luke 20:20’s statement that the religious leaders

‘...sent spies who pretended to be sincere, that they might take hold of what He said so as to deliver Him up to the authority and jurisdiction of the governor’

was really only a description of the incident concerning the need to pay tribute into the Imperial treasury. The implication of such a question - if answered that no Jew should pay the poll tax to Caesar - would have been to bring Jesus into conflict with the existing authorities and to open Himself up to the charge of treason which would have speedily been brought against Him.

These next two questions put to Jesus, however, concerning the resurrection of the dead and the Mosaic Law don’t appear to have been able to have been used for such a purpose and we are forced to understand that all three Gospel writers have, at this point, chosen to record just the one approach by the disciples of the Pharisees and the Herodians which would have fallen into such a category.

We now turn, therefore, to religious questions designed to undermine the consistency of Jesus’ teaching and to cause His proclamations to become confused. But there’s also a number of possibilities as to how the Sadducees envisaged their question as stumbling Jesus and the commentators are divided as to what their perception of the conclusion of the incident would have achieved. Mathag, for instance, comments that

‘...if Jesus could be made to side with the Sadducees against the Pharisees on the question of the resurrection, Jesus would lose face, they would be vindicated and their position with the people might be strengthened’

but this appears to be going too far for nowhere do we find even the remotest indication that they were attempting to have Jesus elevate their own sect by His association and agreement with it and yet, at the same time, lose face by such a comment. Mattask’s comment is better which sees their aim as being

‘ discredit Jesus as a theologian by showing the logical absurdity of the orthodox Pharisaic doctrine of the resurrection which they assumed that Jesus accepted’

if we forgive Mattask the use of the description ‘theologian’! He speaks of the Sadducees’ ‘assumption’ that Jesus believed in the resurrection but there would have been ample time to have listened to His teaching on successive visits to the city in previous years and it would seem that this point would already have been firmly established in their own minds.

But, whatever we read into their question, it’s probably best simply to follow Matcar’s statement that

‘The questioners’ intent is as malicious as in the last pericope’

and leave it there. After all, it’s Jesus that they have set their sights on to discredit and anything else would have been entirely superfluous to their cause.

It’s only Matthew who records that the question was asked

‘The same day...’

as the previous question had been and represents the regathering of Sadducean believers after being opposed in Mtw 21:23-22:14 as part-members of the Sanhedrin. Their hope of confusing Jesus’ teaching is to present Him with a scenario which could easily be argued one way or the other and to which, no doubt, they had various answers. It may be that such a question was one which had been unsuccessfully resolved by their own teachers but it’s unlikely that they had approached Jesus because they desired to know His opinion on the matter - there was opportunity for controversy and to undermine Jesus’ teaching through His answer and it was this which they were attempting to achieve.

I’ve dealt with the doctrines of the Sadducees on my previous web page and initially noted that it’s difficult to be sure where they stood on a wide range of issues simply because the records we have of their beliefs is that which occurs in their enemies’ records - either in the Mishnah (a product of Pharisaic Judaism) or in Josephus’ writings (who was also of the Pharisaic school of thought). While the New Testament mentions certain beliefs in passing where they’re necessary to the interpretation of the text, there’s little detail as to what colouring of the statements we should accept. For instance, Mtw 22:23’s statement that the Sadducees

‘...say that there is no resurrection...’

gives the reader just enough to understand where their question was coming from but it doesn’t answer questions which we might have about how they understood the afterlife - if they did at all believe in such a thing - and how they understood some of the OT Scriptures which seemed to speak directly about such an event being a certain event in future world history. It’s only by referring to sources outside the NT that such questions can be answered and see that disbelief in a resurrection seems to have prompted them to disbelieve the existence of any afterlife as well (Antiquities 18.1.4).

So, although we have enough to interpret the text with, we don’t have any depth given to us to understand fully what they believed if we base our interpretation solely on the NT.

However, the previous web page mentioned should give the reader sufficient background for them to understand some of my statements here for, as we will go on to see, Jesus spoke not just against their unbelief in the resurrection from the dead but against at least five of their major doctrines which have been recorded as their main points of dissensions with the Pharisees.

If one was a Sadducee standing before Jesus in the Temple as He uttered the answer, one would have been totally confused as to where one could begin to object for it was built upon fundamental principles which they didn’t believe in and to which they could never subscribe. Not only does Jesus answer their question with truth, therefore, but He also neatly prevents them from following up their question with a summary of the afterlife and the character of God which annihilates their doctrinal position.

The Question
Mtw 22:23-28

The reader is directed to my previous web page for the doctrinal background to the Sadducees’ question concerning their unbelief in the resurrection of the dead. Initially, however, their approach opens with a purely natural and earthly scenario based upon Deut 25:5-6 (which they quote in Mtw 22:24 with, perhaps, some words from Gen 38:8 tacked on for good measure) where it’s written that

‘If brothers dwell together and one of them dies and has no son, the wife of the dead shall not be married outside the family to a stranger; her husband’s brother shall go in to her and take her as his wife and perform the duty of a husband's brother to her. And the first son whom she bears shall succeed to the name of his brother who is dead that his name may not be blotted out of Israel’

It was considered to be such a great sin that a man’s genealogical line was ended within the nation of Israel that this Mosaic command was designed to safeguard the perpetuation of each and every man’s name through the production of offspring, the first born son, after his death through the sexual union between his remaining wife and the deceased man’s natural brother - it would also have provided for the welfare of the deceased man’s wife in a society where widows would often have been left destitute and tempted into a life of prostitution if other means of support weren’t available to them.

That the descendants of Abraham prior to the giving of the Mosaic Law practised levirate marriage is clear from Gen 38:1-11 - what the Law did, however, as it did in a great many situations for which we have no prior evidence within the Scriptures, was to reform Israelite culture to bring it in line with acceptability before God.

It can be immediately seen, therefore, that God was content not only to give the nation categorical Law such as the ten commandments (Ex 20:1-17) but to place restrictions upon the outworking of their own culture that it might not degenerate into practices which were opposed to the principle of loving one’s neighbour.

It would appear that the legislation very quickly became interpreted for different situations once the nation was settled in the land of Canaan for the Book of Ruth details a similar scenario occurring (Ruth 3:12-13, 4:1-6) but here we’re not speaking of a blood brother raising up children in the deceased’s name but of a male who was ‘close’ (Ruth 3:12) and the proximity of genetic descent being the criteria for who was obligated to produce children. Such a person (and we appear to be talking of close relatives but not necessarily blood brothers - the original husband of Ruth had only one brother and he’d also died outside the land of Israel - Ruth 1:2,5) had the right of refusal based upon their own circumstances (Ruth 4:5-6).

The Mosaic Law stipulated that a refusal on the part of a blood brother was to be to the brother’s shame and would have caused the recalcitrant to be marked within Israelite society (Deut 25:7-10) but, in the story in Ruth, the transfer of the right of redemption is done in an almost jovial and certainly amiable fashion (Ruth 4:7-10).

The first born son was then to be taken as being the offspring of the deceased brother (Deut 25:6) and would, presumably, have borne his family name and lineage. In Ruth, however, presuming that Obed is the first born son of the union between Boaz and Ruth (Ruth 4:17) - which is the way the text reads - it’s somewhat surprising that the child is spoken of as being the direct descendant of Boaz and not of either Chilion (the brother who I’ve presumed was Ruth’s first husband) or Elimelech, the name of the father of the two sons (Ruth 4:2).

Indeed, in the genealogical tree of Matthew’s Gospel (Mtw 1:5), the line through Obed is traced back via Boaz. Obviously, either this had become common practice by the time of the days of Boaz or else Obed mustn’t have been the first born from the marriage even though we’re left to plainly infer this from the text.

Just how the Mosaic regulations had been developed by the time of Boaz is impossible to determine but the Sadducees are relying upon the original command of the Law as they put their question to Jesus in the Temple precincts. The Pharisees appear to have taken the OT regulation in Deut 25:5-10 and applied it literally (see, for instance, the tractate Yebamoth) but, as is usual amongst the Rabbis, a great many explanations and additional ordinances had to be drawn up for all the possible situations that might have arisen.

Only Oholoth 1:6 seems worthy of mention here in passing for it stipulates that a dying son had the right to release his soon-to-be widowed mother from the obligation of levirate marriage (as Danby’s footnote where the text doesn’t appear to plainly state such a position) and, if he was married to his deceased brother’s wife who had not yet borne any children, was able to obligate her to be remarried to another of his brothers. This latter stipulation is interesting simply because it infers that, had he died without giving such an order, she may have been free to marry whoever she chose and that the obligation to bear a child in the name of the original husband would be waived. Matthew’s comment that the first son (Mtw 22:25-26)

‘...left his wife to his brother. So too the second...’

reads as if there were choice in the matter and there may be an inference here concerning this practice. If this is the case - and that this was what was in practice at the time of the story which the Sadducees bring to Jesus’ attention (most commentators are probably right in seeing the Mishnaic ordinances as being the ideal practice rather than what was being observed throughout Israel in the first century) - the marriage of each of the last five of the seven brothers to the original widowed woman appears to have been performed solely as a result of her willingness to bear a child in remembrance of her first husband.

Matfran notes similarities between the Sadducean story presented here and that which occurs in Tobit 3:7-15 but, in that latter passage, Sara, the woman mentioned who had been married to seven different husbands had produced no offspring simply because, although she had been married, she had had no sexual intercourse with any of them.

The willingness of the widow in the question brought by the Pharisees, however, may not be the case and it hardly helps us to understand the question brought at all. What the religious leaders are concerned with here, however, is to offer a confusing situation which provides a puzzle to the holders of the belief in the resurrection of the dead if they also believe that marital relationships continue beyond the grave.

This is the real point of the question for the woman who’s had sexual intercourse with all seven brothers who has produced no offspring and, by inference, has failed in proving herself to be the partner of any of them because of her barrenness. In the society of that day, such a position must have been one of great offence for the woman as barrenness sometimes could be thought of as being a curse of God upon the disobedient (Is 66:9, Hosea 9:14) but not always (I Sam 1:6 mentions it as an act of God without inferring any sin on the part of Hannah).

The woman, then, seems to have been viewed in the light of the story as having no assured husband on earth because of her failure to produce offspring for any one of the seven brothers and, therefore, whose wife she would be in the resurrection of the dead (which, incidentally, they didn’t believe in - see my previous web page) was a matter of pure conjecture which confused the authenticity of such an event taking place.

The Answer
Mtw 22:29-33

The first thing we need to note in Jesus’ words is the differing teaching which they’re able to give to different types of hearers. To the Sadducees, there’s only confusion and an undermining of their entire theological position (as we will go on to see) but, to those who believe in the resurrection of the dead, there are tantalising hints as to what sort of afterlife they can expect.

This may sound a crazy statement to make but it is, nevertheless, a true one. Jesus has the ability to so confute His critics that positive teaching is also imparted to those who have the ears to hear.

1. Confusing His opponents

The problem of the interpretation of Jesus’ reply is often shrouded by commentators because they fail to dig any deeper than the stated unbelief of the Sadducees in Mtw 22:23 concerning the resurrection of the dead and see His words solely aimed at both contradicting their position and taking care not to answer their question on their own grounds and with their own criteria.

Actually, what Jesus does is to totally annihilate at least five of their theological foundations so as to undermine their entire position from which their question is asked. To best understand this, the reader is directed to my treatment of the doctrine of the Sadducees where I’ve commented on what we can know about the sect from the records of their enemies (and from snippets in the NT) where their conflicting beliefs are contrasted. I will only summarise the points made there in this section where necessary.

That no book of doctrine written by the Sadducees has come down to us which reliably states their theological position is, in my opinion, a loss which the commentator could have used to better understand why they believed some of the things they did - but there’s certainly enough in the scant resources we have available to us to see how Jesus takes not one of their doctrines and teaches against it but several.

Jesus’ simple statement that they were ‘wrong’ (Mtw 22:29) is significant because it opens with a summation of what He’s about to declare before he gives any flesh to his bare statement. It also shows the reader that Jesus wasn’t concerned to always gently guide questioners into Truth when it was obvious to Him that they were asking from insincere motives. I remember hearing a speaker once pointing out that Jesus didn’t say

‘I can appreciate the theological perspective you have on that but...’


‘I can understand where you’re coming from but...’

and uses the much more simple and infinitely more offensive statement

‘You are wrong...’

To His followers, Jesus was gentle in His teaching and encouragements (though He could be equally firm in His pronouncements - Mtw 16:23) but, to His enemies, He refused to give one piece of ground that was being fought over in order that the Gospel might not be hindered in its effects.

But, to return to Sadducean doctrine which underpins Jesus’ response, we should first notice Jesus’ statement (Mtw 22:29) that

‘ know [not] the Scriptures...’

and the words I noted from Josephus (Antiquities 18.1.4) in the previously cited web page that the sect didn’t regard

‘...the observation of any thing besides what the law enjoins them; for they think it an instance of virtue to dispute with those teachers of philosophy whom they frequent’

thus rejecting any body of oral interpretation and tradition which the Rabbis were imposing upon the people as legitimate service of God. Even though they were contrary to the Pharisees who elevated their own interpretations over and above the statements of the Mosaic Law (Sanhedrin 11:3) and were people who held fast to the absolute authority of the Torah (Genesis to Deuteronomy), they were still some way out in their interpretations of certain things - but Jesus’ statement that they didn’t know the Scriptures is simply insulting their position.

Jesus doesn’t accept the tradition of the elders now embodied in the Mishnah (Mtw 15:3) but neither does He simply accept dependency upon Scripture when it throws up erroneous belief and immoral behaviour directed towards God’s servants (John 11:53).

As if this wasn’t enough, Jesus then states immediately following on (Mtw 22:29) that

‘ know [not] the power of God...’

which imparts a note concerning the importance of the Sovereignty and Omnipotence of God into the proceedings. The belief of the Sadducees is in clear contrast to the position of both the Pharisees and Essenes, Zondervans summarising all three positions succinctly by stating that

‘...whereas the Pharisees tried to synthesise the two [freewill and predestination], the Essenes were at the one extreme of attributing all to Fate [predestination] while the Sadducees were at the other extreme of attributing all to freewill’

while Josephus (War 2.8.14) comments that the Sadducees

‘...take away fate [predestination] 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’

and, in Antiquities 13.5.9, he notes that they

‘...take away fate [predestination], and say there is no such thing, and that the events of human affairs are not at its disposal; but they suppose that all our actions are in our own power, so that we are ourselves the causes of what is good, and receive what is evil from our own folly’

The Sovereignty of God, then, would have been subservient to their position on man’s own determination of his destiny and, as such, would have been one of the principle problems which had propelled them to refute the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead as being a supreme act of God at some future point in earth history.

Leaving the mention of the resurrection to one side for a moment, Jesus goes on to speak of (Mtw 22:30)

‘...angels in Heaven...’

where Acts 23:8 notes that

‘...the Sadducees say that there is no...angel...’

a belief which would seem to be a logical inference from a denial of the Sovereignty of God and of His ‘interference’ in the lives of men and women on earth. Of course, Jesus didn’t need to add such a statement to His answer here for the sentence reads perfectly well without it, but it appears that they’re mentioned solely to add to His full assault on their doctrinal position and to confuse their own stance in the eyes of the people

Fourthly, Jesus states plainly that the resurrection of the dead is a logical necessity from the Scriptures which they regard as authoritative and, in so doing, actually undermines a fifth belief of theirs that there’s no afterlife.

His quote from Ex 3:6 is a reference to what God said to Moses in the incident of the burning bush, Jesus stating the words (my italics) as

‘I am the God of Abraham and the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob’

where Josephus is recorded as observing (War 2.8.14) that

‘[The Sadducees] also take away the belief of the immortal duration of the soul and the punishments and rewards in Hades’

and, in Antiquities 18.1.4, that they believe

‘...that souls die with the bodies...’

Jesus’ quote, however, primarily shows His questioners that, if God speaks of Himself in the present tense as being the three dead patriarchs’ God, then they must still have some sort of existence otherwise His words would have been something like

‘I was the God of Abraham...’

denoting annihilationism upon death. Jesus is recorded in Luke 20:38 as stating (my italics) that

‘...all live to Him’

where no distinction is being made between believers and enemies. It isn’t simply that Jesus is saying that God’s righteous will be looked after with an afterlife but that death of the physical body isn’t the end of a person’s existence no matter what their relationship to Him.

Such a fact of continued existence beyond the grave should necessarily lead on to, at the very least, a realisation that the soul must continue after the body has ceased to function and, ultimately, that there was a likelihood that such departed souls must be reunited with new bodies in a new world.

Jesus’ reasoning doesn’t prove the resurrection from the dead but it does destroy the doctrine of the Sadducees which naturally concluded that there wasn’t a need for a resurrection. Mattask rightly notes that

‘...Jesus, as a Jew, regards it as axiomatic that immortality implies the resurrection of the body’

Far from answering their question concerning the resurrection from the dead with their own criteria of interpretation, Jesus has seriously undermined their doctrinal position in at least five major areas and brought a confusion into their own beliefs that they’d been attempting to impart to His. Where they could have taken up on His reply to them is far from certain and they appear to have given up any response seeing as they had been shown to be labouring under false premises from the writings which they regarded as being authoritative. Had Jesus not shown that their belief in an afterlife was disproved by their own authority, they may have attempted such a response, but YHWH’s statement to Moses was so plain that they would have needed to have regrouped and discussed how they might argue the Scripture away before returning to take up the challenge of confusing Jesus’ reply - something which they never appear to have done. They certainly are ‘silenced’ (Mtw 22:34) while the crowds become (Mtw 22:33)

‘...astonished at His teaching’

It would appear that Jesus’ exposition of Ex 3:6 was entirely unique and met with the approval of some of the Pharisees who would have been present (Luke 20:39)

2. Teaching His followers

Here, we’ll look very briefly at what a believer might be able to extract from Jesus’ reply seeing as there’s truth here which should underpin their experience. Sometimes, opposition to the Kingdom of God causes the follower of Christ to focus more carefully on what they believe and, in this respect, such arguments may have a beneficial effect in bringing one into line with the many facets of the character of God.

Firstly, Jesus teaches that a belief in the resurrection of the dead is necessarily a belief in the OT Scriptures and a correct interpretation of them (Is 25:8, 26:19, Dan 12:2,13, Hosea 13:14 [NASB]) and also a belief in the power and Sovereignty of God (II Cor 13:4, Phil 3:10). To say anything less would be to seriously undermine Jesus’ subsequent personal resurrection from the grave on the first Sunday after this question and answer had taken place in the Temple.

It would be impossible for a Sadducee to ultimately have believed in Jesus had they wanted to maintain their position of no afterlife simply because the event is foundational to His work in the cross and through to the ascension.

The existence of the souls of those who have already died infers that a bodily resurrection must take place for man was created with both a body and soul and not a soul only (Ex 3:6, Gen 2:7). It would seem unlikely that there wouldn’t be a return of the soul into some sort of bodily containment and so a resurrection is a necessity to bring such a position about.

Finally, Mtw 22:20 needs careful exposition seeing as it’s possible to make it yield some strange doctrines - especially since many believers still hold to the view that, upon death, they will become ‘angels’, existing on some ethereal cloud playing harps all day (God’s a bit more interesting than all that). This passage says nothing about the conversion of dead believers into angels but that they become like angels in one single respect, in the context of the married state of the resurrected believers which seems to be mentioned to emphasise the sexlessness of those raised. But even this may be going too far for it would be probably better to simply say that, like the angels, the resurrected are unable to reproduce because they have no need of such a process.

As there’s no longer death in that final future world (Rev 21:4, I Cor 15:23), there can be no need for the procreation of mankind to repopulate areas where men and women die (Luke 20:36) and as a fulfilment of the original commission to mankind (Gen 1:28). As Matfran points out

‘In this new deathless life there will be no place for procreation and the exclusive relationship within which this takes place on earth will therefore not apply’

Therefore, the resurrection of the dead is a creation of a new body and not a resuscitation of the old (I Cor 15:35-44) even though the Sadducean position was assuming a restoration of the old to confuse the Truth of the future act of God. It may be going too far to say that believers will be sexless but more accurate to say that they appear not to be able to produce offspring. That would leave the existence and experience of sex in the afterlife still shady but Jesus’ statement that

‘...they neither marry nor are given in marriage...’

may be an indication that sexual intercourse ceases upon death and will not be restored in the new world. Matfran seems to deny this, however, commenting that only procreation through marriage is under consideration

‘...rather than any suggestion that loving relationships [sexual intercourse? friendships?] have no place there’

Matcar’s statement that

‘...there will be a change in sexual relationships...’

is vague enough for it to mean a great deal or very little. At the end of all the considerations of Jesus’ statement, it seems best simply to note that marriage is not entered into rather than to attempt a statement which interprets present marriage relationships and sexual intercourse in the context of the afterlife.