Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Was resurrection originally a Jewish idea?

The Akedah, the story of the death and 'resurrection' of Isaac was, at least by the first century CE fairly easily taken over into Christianity from that source.
The suggestion is that ancient Jews believed that Isaac was killed at the Akeida, and then resurrected by God, and that this idea was co-opted by Christians who saw the whole of the Old Testament as a foreshadowing of Jesus's life. Certainly, the Church fathers understood the Akeida as a prefiguring of the crucifiction. Here's one example from St. Ephraem: c300s
In the ram, which was hanging from the tree and was sacrificed in place of Abraham's son was prefigured the time of Jesus, who was hung from a tree llike the ram and tasted death for the sake of the whole world.
And here's another from the Epistle to the Hebrews, a much earlier work (c60s, but possibly much later) which establishes the idea that Isaac was brought back from the dead:
By faith Abraham, when God tested him, offered Isaac as a sacrifice. He who had embraced the promises was about to sacrifice his one and only son,  even though God had said to him, “It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.” Abraham reasoned that God could even raise the dead, and so in a manner of speaking he did receive Isaac back from death.
Was this idea of Isaac's resurrection an original Christian idea, or was it borrowed from older Jewish sources? Did we also once think Isaac has been killed at the Akeida, and then restored to life?  At least one Jewish source says, "yes".

 Here's Pirqe de Rabbi Elazer:
Rabbi Jehudah said : When the blade  touched his neck, the soul of Isaac fled and departed, (but) when he heard His voice from between the two Cherubim, saying (to Abraham)," Lay not thine hand upon the lad " (Gen. xxii. 12), his soul returned to liis body, and (Abraham) set him free, and Isaac stood upon his feet. And Isaac knew « that in this manner the dead in the future will be quickened. He opened (his mouth), and said : Blessed art thou, O Lord, who quickeneth the dead
Dating this material is notoriously difficult. Though some of Pirqe de Rabbi Elazar is beleived to have been written in the 8th century, parts of it are much older. Traditionally the entire work is ascribed to the Tanna Rabbi Elazer ben Hyrkanus. (c 100) but some of the ideas contained in Pirqe de Rabbi Elazar echo ideas found in Jubilees, a much older work. As such, dating the reference to Isaac's resurrection found in Pirqe de Rabbi Elazar might be younger or older than the reference found in Hebrews. Determining which of the two came first is not in my skill set.

Aside from the hint in Pirqe de Rabbi Elazer, another clue that suggests Jews once saw the Akeida as a story of resurrection is the choice of Haftarah for Parsha Vayerah. The reading is from 2 Kings 4:1-36 which tells of Elisha's resurrection of the Shunamite's son. Though it is not known when this chapter was chosen as the Haftarah for Vayerah, Jewish tradition says the practice of reading Haftarahs was established c200 BCE in response to the banning of public Torah readings by Antioches. Several references to Haftarah-reading in the New Testament tell us the practice was well established by the end of the Second Temple period.

On the basis of the Haftarah, I'd guess Jews were linking the story of the Shunamite's son with the story of the Akeida before Christianity came into existence, and before the Church fathers started pointing to the story of the Akeida as a typology of the Jesus's resurrection. However, it can't be ruled out that the Haftrah was chosen because it contains other themes that link it with Vayerah, for instance the hospitality shown to Elisha, and the promise he gave the Shunamite that she would bear a son.

Find out where the resurrection idea came from at 4torah.com

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