Debate Tactics

Matthew 22:29-33


Debate Tactics, Audio Version

Here Jesus is surprisingly sneaky. Jesus shows himself to be oh-so sly. 

His elite inquisitors, the Sadducees, had Jesus stereotyped. They esteemed themselves to be among the best and the brightest of the Jewish people. They had pegged Jesus as someone somewhat less cultured, less intelligent, and therefore, less worthy of repute than themselves. Given his lower-class upbringing, Jesus could not possibly see things the way they saw things, so doubtless, he must be a bit of a nitwit. In their educated, experienced estimation, Jesus had to be an unsophisticated simpleton, a Bible-banging bumpkin — an unordained, self-promoting preacher. They thought they could easily undermine Jesus’ credibility and popularity by putting his lack of intellectual prowess on public display. So they devised a clever question, a question intended to fully expose his theological sloppiness and general clumsiness. 

They presented Jesus with a sexually-tangled legal scenario: A certain woman had been married and widowed seven times. She married seven brothers, each in turn, one after the next. Whose wife then, would she be, come Resurrection Day, given that she and all seven of her late husbands would be physically resurrected? Which brother would be her husband?

His inquisitors, the Sadducees, did not believe in a final physical resurrection. Like many of the Greek philosophers, they dismissed it as a derisible doctrine. Only zombies rise from the dead, not the righteous departed: Something such was the thought. The Sadducees believed that the Torah, that is, the Law of Moses, did not require a resurrection. And the Torah must be given priority over other scripture, they insisted. Only the Law of Moses was their authoritative Bible.     

“You are wrong.” 

Jesus responded with a blunt retort — which surely came across as an insult. Jesus’ rebuke was aimed squarely at their intellectual smugness. “You are wrong.” And Jesus proceeded to tell them exactly why they are wrong. 

“You are wrong because you know neither the scriptures nor the power of God.”

Jesus turns the table on his self-satisfied inquisitors. So who is actually ignorant here? Jesus informs them that they are the ignorant, not him. They are the ones who do not know what they ought to know. They do not adequately know their own scriptures. And they have not begun to comprehend the extent of the creative power of God.  

Then Jesus tells them what will actually happen, come Resurrection Day. Marriage will not be an issue for the multipli-married woman, nor for her seven once-late husbands. Marriage won’t be an issue because no one, but no one, will be married then. After the resurrection human beings will be like angels, who do not reproduce nor procreate. Marriage is meant just for this lifetime, not the next.

Jesus isn’t done on the topic of the resurrection, though. He has one final argument to present. Jesus wants them to see that one of their own favorite scriptures implies a final resurrection.

Jesus takes them straight to the Book of Exodus, to a barefoot and awestruck Moses at the burning bush. When He introduced Himself to Moses, God assured him that, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” God did not say that He once was the God of Moses’ ancestors, but that He still is the God of Moses’ ancestors. God says, “I am” their God, not “I was” once their God. According to Jesus, the implication of God’s “I am” is that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob must live on. They are alive, even long after they died, even though their corpses decay in the grave. God is not the God of dead corpses, but of the living. The afterlife is therefore real. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, though dead and gone, are nonetheless alive and present with God.    

And because he infers the afterlife from God’s “I am,” Jesus further assumes the resurrection must follow. Jesus does not even feel the need to argue further or appeal to another scripture for the resurrection. If the afterlife is a reality, then the resurrection must be a reality, as well. This is what Jesus claimed. An afterlife essentially guarantees an eventual resurrection.           

But surprisingly, Jesus’ line of reasoning leaves something to be desired. Even if it is real, the afterlife, in and of itself, does not necessitate a final resurrection. It is conceivable that people have a spiritual afterlife, without any physical resurrection. After all, many of the Greeks believed in a spiritual afterlife — an afterlife without any final resurrection. And one of his Sadducee inquisitors could have easily pointed out that (non-biblical) belief. In fact, some, if not all, of the Sadducees may have believed exactly that. Having been schooled in pagan mythology and Greek philosophy, they may well have held a Greek conception of the afterlife. 

And this is why Jesus is sly. Jesus knew his inquisitors far better than they knew him. Whereas they had stereotyped Jesus, he accurately read them. He knew what they probably believed. And Jesus was daring them to reveal what they actually believe. But it could have been their own undoing. If the Sadducees had argued for a Greek perspective on the afterlife, rather than affirm what the Hebrew prophets had taught about the resurrection, they would have called their own legitimacy into question. The gathered Jewish crowd would have been shocked and scandalized. They might have accused the Sadducees of blasphemy. The Sadducees would have shown that they esteem a pagan philosophical tradition over their own biblical tradition.   

Thus, by first appealing to one of their own favorite, foundational scripture passages and then inferring its eschatological implications, Jesus’ argument had boxed in the Sadducees. They never anticipated his sly tactic. They did not see it coming. Jesus had outsmarted them. He had outplayed them. The Sadducees could question him no further without risking their own public embarrassment. They knew better than to dispute his affirmation of the resurrection — definitely not there, not in front of the under-educated, unsophisticated, prophecy-believing people. So, rather than argue with the Bible-banging backwater bumpkin any further, the Sadducees decided to just bide their valuable time and look for an opportune moment to somehow rid themselves of this nuisance, this Jesus of Nazareth. With his demise, the resurrection question would be forever settled, of that they were confident.

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