Monday, October 14, 2013

Sadducees believed in angels (Acts 22b-23a)

1. In the latter part of Acts 22, we learn that Paul was born a Roman citizen. This implies a certain status in the Roman world. It fits with the idea that, back home, he was more the boss of the company than a skilled worker.

2. Paul appears before the Sanhedrin in Acts 23, the Jewish ruling council. He says his conscience is clear. The high priest has him smacked. He says, "The Lord will strike you, you whitewashed wall." Then he realizes it's the high priest and he apologizes, quotes Scripture. I always found that sequence a little funny.

He realizes it's a divided house between Pharisees and Sadducees. He says that he's only in trouble because he believes in the resurrection. That divides the house. The Pharisees start arguing with the Sadducees and Paul just sits back and enjoys.

23:8, however, is a very significant verse, even though hard to understand. It says that the Sadducees do not believe in resurrection, neither angel nor spirit, but the Pharisees confess both. This verse has sometimes been taken to mean that Sadducees did not believe in angels (and, anachronistically, people used to associate them with modern liberals who didn't believe in the supernatural--a good example of how easy it is to infect our interpretation with our own context).

But this would be the only evidence anywhere to suggest Sadducees didn't believe in angels. (the idea that Sadducees only followed the Law and not the other parts of the OT is similarly based on the contested interpretation of a single statement in Josephus. By the way, there are angels in the Law). And what is worse, the "no angels" interpretation of this verse seems wrong.

If you look at the structure of this verse, it seems to go something like the following:
  • Sadducees do not believe in resurrection...
  • Neither in the angel form nor the spirit form...
  • But Pharisees confess both types of resurrection
So the question becomes, what is angel resurrection and what is spirit resurrection? This is a good example of how we read our categories into the biblical texts and say we have a biblical worldview. The distinction between material and immaterial, that we generally apply to these issues, comes from Descartes in the 1500s and not from the Bible. The lines they drew around reality were different in biblical times.

So the difference between embodied/corporeal and disembodied/incorporeal for them was not the same as the Cartesian difference between material/immaterial. Spirits were thinner material for them but still material. Spirit was breath and wind. To be embodied might mean a different material or a thicker material but still material.

So what is the difference between angels and spirits? Some thought of angels as spirits (e.g., Heb. 1:14). But it's possible that Luke thought of angels as more embodied than spirits. NT Wright (Resurrection of the Son of God) has suggested that Acts 23:8 is talking about the intermediate state of the dead. When the house church thinks Peter is dead, they wonder if it is his angel at the door (12:15).

After years of pondering this one, I remain puzzled. Do only special people become angels at death in Luke's thinking?  After years of us telling the people in our churches that you don't become angels at death and that angels aren't good people who died, we see that there was actually a biblical basis for this idea! An angel serves as a messenger of God.

But Luke seems to have another intermediate category for spirits. And neither of these seem to be the same as our resurrection body, for Jesus has flesh and bones in Luke 24:39. In that verse, Jesus contrasts a spirit with his resurrection body, which had flesh and bones.

An important take-away here is to remember that the books of the Bible were revealed in the categories of their day. Just as the universe is not three stories (Phil. 2:10) and the stars aren't in between the waters above and the waters beneath (Gen. 1), we should not confuse the form in which the revelation comes for the substance of the revelation. Biblical cosmologies came in ancient clothing and rarely if ever were the revealed point being made, only the envelope in which it came.

2 comments:

Brian Small said...

I've always taken Paul's reply, "I was not aware, brethren, that he was high priest" as ironic - that Paul was implying that he was not truly the high priest or the ruler of God's people as evidenced by the way he treats Paul.

Jenny Brien said...

This is just a guess, but it seems to me that "angel resurrection" is the appearance of a person, at or shortly after death, to deliver a message to someone known to them. The 'angel' appears real, but vanishes when the message has been delivered. Perhaps the accounts of Jesus's appearance to Mary Magdalene (in John) and at Emmaus were to be understood in that context.
"Spirit resurrection" may perhaps be understood as how people thought that perhaps Jesus was Moses or Elijah or John the Baptist. This seems to only be possible for those who, like Elijah, ascended bodily to heaven or, like Moses and John,had no known resting place on earth.