In November 1990, workers cutting a new road in Jerusalem’s southern suburbs unintentionally intruded into a first-century family burial chamber. One of the ornately carved ossuaries contained the skeletal remains of six individuals: two infants, a young child under age 5, a boy in his early teens, an adult woman, and a 60- year-old male. The name “Yehoseph bar Qafa,” which was inscribed on that ossuary, suggested the burial chamber belonged to none other than the High Priest Caiaphas, who brought Jesus before Pilate.
Caiaphas claimed both his priestly authority as the high priest and his judicial authority as the president of the Sanhedrin through means of Roman appointment. The Sanhedrin was the Jewish supreme court, and its members allied themselves with one of the two predominant sects during the time of Jesus’ ministry: the Sadducees (including the priestly aristocracy, such as Caiaphas and his family) or the Pharisees (including rabbis such as Nicodemus, Gamaliel, and Saul of Tarsus, later known as the apostle Paul).
Debate within the supreme court focused on the messianic hope and the physical resurrection of the body after death (Acts 23:6–8). Pharisees believed in the promised Messiah, the physical resurrection of the body, a world to come, the Torah (the first five books of the Old Testament), the Prophets, the Writings (such as Psalms, Proverbs, Ruth, and Esther), angels, demons, heaven, hell, and a personal God. The Sadducees, on the other hand, adopted a Greco-Roman world view. They acknowledged the authority of the Torah but rejected most other views of the Pharisees. The Sadducees considered rewards and punishments to be limited to this world. Therefore, they saw no need for a Messiah, bodily resurrection from the dead, or a world to come. Because of their rejection of these views, they saw no reason not to seek to control the temple by any means possible so as to gain wealth, religious authority, and political power.
Within Caiaphas’ family burial chamber lay another ossuary inscribed “Miriam, daughter of Simon.” Inside the skull of an adult woman, archaeologists discovered a bronze coin depicting Herod Agrippa I. Given the perspective of the Sadducees, it probably should be no surprise that the corrupt, illegitimate, Greco-Roman priestly aristocracy had adopted the pagan Greek custom of placing money on the bodies of the dead in order to pay their passage across the River Styx. No wonder John the Baptizer rebuked the sect, declaring it to be a “brood of vipers” (Matt. 3:7).
Corruption was everywhere, and observant Jews had had all they could take. They believed Greco-Roman philosophy polluted their minds; Greco-Roman culture decayed their morality; and the Greco-Roman military controlled their political and religious institutions. Yet their teachers gave a message of hope: The resurrection of the body and world to come were the final answers to the corruption brought about by human mutiny against God.
Jewish oral law says, “All Israelites have a share in the world to come, for it is written, Thy people also shall be all righteous, they shall inherit the land forever; the branch of my planting, the work of my hands that I may be glorified (Isa. 60:21). And these are they that have no share in the world to come: he that says that there is no resurrection of the dead … and [he that says] that the Law is not from Heaven …” (Mishnah Sanhedrin 10:1a).
It appears that the rabbinic perspective of bodily resurrection may have been influenced by the ancient Israelite concept of death as being “gathered to the fathers” (Judg. 2:10; 2 Chron. 34:28). Archaeological evidence from fifth- and sixth-century b.c. burial chambers in Jerusalem indicates this concept was practiced literally. These Israelite burial chambers were hewn out of rock. A platform or bench was cut within the chamber on which to place the bodies. Individual contours, including head rests for about eight decomposing bodies, were carved on the bench in each chamber. Underneath the bench, a depression was hewn to hold the bones of the deceased after the flesh had decomposed. Thus, the gathering of bones was a reminder of God’s promises of restoration, healing, and life—not only for the nation of Israel (Ezek. 37:1–14) but for individuals who put their trust in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
By contrast, the acts of burning and scattering bones were viewed as the ultimate symbols of idolatry, abhorrence, desecration, and corruption (2 Kings 23:4–20; 2 Chron. 34:1–5) Positively, they believed in a real resurrection. This is clear from passages such as Daniel 12:1b–2 (niv), “ ‘But at that time, your people— everyone whose name is found written in the book—will be delivered. Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt,’ ” and Isaiah 26:19 (niv), “But your dead will live; their bodies will rise. You who dwell in the dust, wake up and shout for joy.”
As observant Jews in Palestine recognized outside influences were corrupting their society, burial customs changed to project the hope of a new beginning through physical resurrection. Between the first century b.c. and the first century a.d., burial chambers were cut with benches that had nearby niches, known in Hebrew as kokhim, in which the bodies decomposed. The skeletal remains no longer were placed in a family repository after decomposition but were kept separate by placement in ossuaries. This second burial emphasized their expectation of the imminent arrival of the Messiah, the resurrection of the dead, and the new world to come.
With the reality of the death and burial of Jesus, the disciples had to re-evaluate their position of messianic hope. They were sure of humanity’s mutiny against God and the resulting repercussions as they observed the brokenness of creation and the human condition. But they also understood that God had made a series of promises involving the Jewish people. Those promises included the covenants made with their forefathers Abraham, Moses, and David, covenants that ultimately would be fulfilled through their Messiah. He would overthrow the evil one and his kingdom. Their Messiah was the Prophet who would accurately represent God, yet in such a way that the people who saw Him would not be consumed with fire (Deut. 18:15–18). He was to instigate true worship in the temple and rule from David’s throne forever (2 Sam. 7:13) as judge of the world (Dan. 7:14).
The disciples had said they would die for such a Messiah. But with the death of Jesus, all hope was gone. Their dream of a righteous world under His rule had vanished. Now they had to concede that the bad guys had won—the corrupt political and religious system was still intact.
Then they met the resurrected Messiah. In that surrealistic moment, two of their greatest questions were answered. First, they saw that the Pharisees were correct; there was a supernatural world beyond this one, for this physical resurrection was proof of it. Thus, the Sadducees were completely wrong in their rejection of the resurrection. Second, and more personal, it was apparent that everything Jesus had said was true.
But an oft-overlooked cultural question was resolved as well: How would God deal with corruption in society? In their temple? They were looking for Jesus to overthrow and destroy evil, to clean up the corruption. They had seen demons cast out, the sick healed, and the tables of the moneychangers in the temple turned over. They were awaiting a cataclysmic judgment on the wicked, yet it appeared that nothing had changed. Jesus was alive, but the world was the same.
The new system could not be corrupted, no more than their risen Messiah could be corrupted (Ps. 16:10). The kingdom that Jesus would bring into existence would consume and purify the temple, the priesthood, and the very earth itself, but it would occur on God’s schedule, not theirs.
This subtle cultural impact of the Resurrection can lead to a deeper comprehension of its significance. It shows that God’s intention was not to destroy faithless humanity, the Empire, or the corrupted temple, but to remake them incorruptibly. Rather than destroy His Son and have Him return completely new, He glorified His Son. Instead of bringing vengeful destruction, Jesus’ rule would renew creation, removing the punishment, power, and eventually the very presence of sin from His church, and eventually the entire creation. “For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it in hope; because the creation itself also will be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God” (Rom. 8:20–21). That Jesus came back to direct His followers in re-creating, not destroying, His enemies may have been the most surprising thing of all about the Resurrection.