Neusner’s Theology of the Oral Torah, Chapter 13

Please forgive my tardiness in posting this installment of my notes on Jacob Neusner’s The Theology of the Oral Torah: Revealing the Justice of God (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1999). Over the past two weeks, various distractions made it difficult for me to find the time and effect the concentration necessary to continue properly, but continue we now do, with, Part IV, Restoring World Order, Chapter 13, Restoring Private Lives: Resurrection. The former installments are: Introduction and Chapter 1, Chapters 2 and 3, Chapters 4 and 5, Chapter 6, Chapter 7, Chapter 8, Chapter 9, Chapter 10, Chapter 11, and Chapter 12. After this installment, there are still two chapters left.

Neusner begins:

Throughout the Oral Torah the main point of the theological eschatology–the theory of last things–registers both negatively and affirmatively. Death does not mark the end of the individual human life, nor exile the last stop in the journey of holy Israel. Israelites will live in the age or the world to come, all Israel in the Land of Israel; and Israel will comprehend all who know the one true God. The restoration of world order that completes the demonstration of God’s justice encompasses both private life and the domain of all Israel. For both, restorationist theology provides eternal life; to be Israel means to live. So far as the individual is concerned, beyond the grave, at a determinate moment, man rises from the grave in resurrection, is judged, and enjoys the world to come. For the entirety of Israel, congruently: all Israel participates in the resurrection, which takes place in the Land of Israel, and enters the world to come. (p. 554)

When Neusner says “the main point . . . registers both negatively and affirmatively,” he describes the eschatology of the Oral Torah as found in the complexity of the documents themselves, which describe both a temporary and disordered present world (“…negatively…”) and an eternal, changeless, ordered world to come (“…affirmatively…”). Like the commandments themselves, negative and positive, which together describe a way of life for Israel, so the congerie of negative and affirmative expositions of the Oral Torah’s theological eschatology presents a coherent whole.

With Neusner’s writing, “…to be Israel means to live…,” we are reminded of the Two Ways, the way of life and the way of death (Deuteronomy 30.15,19; Jeremiah 21.8; Didache 1.1). The difference between the two is as stark as can be. A life lived full of live-giving acts in God’s mercy leads only to eternal life. A life of idolatry, the rejection of God and His life-giving ways and His mercy, leads only to eternal death. Israel lives because God has given Israel the secret to life: Torah.

The restoration of all things benefits only Israel because Israel is comprised of those who know God, and knowledge of God was part of that original, perfect world. Those who live are Israel because only Israel knows God.

This restorationist eschatology is only to be expected, having read the previous chapters of this book and seeing there explication of the worldview of the sages embodied in the Oral Torah: man was meant to live in a changeless Eden in the perfection of God’s justice, and Israel’s Eden is the Land, which they will inhabit forever. Man’s will and God’s will will have been reconciled, and God’s original plan realized. As Neusner says, “The simple, global logic of the system, with its focus on the world order of justice established by God but disrupted by man, leads inexorably to this eschatology of restoration, the restoration of balance, order, proportion–eternity” (pp 554-555).

The two essential components of the Oral Torah’s eschatology are 1.) resurrection and judgment, and 2.) the world to come and eternal life. Neusner notes that they “do not fit together seamlessly” (p. 555). The former relates to the individual, who is resurrected (from atoning death) and judged. The latter relates to those who’ve been judged and will live forever, a more communal perspective. The two components are complementary, but seldom appear in a single treatment.

The absolute given, a logical necessity of a theology revealing God’s justice, maintains that individual life goes forward from this world, past the grave, to the world to come, and people are both judged and promised eternal life. That is a necessary doctrine for a system that insists upon the rationality and order of the universe under God’s rule. Chapter 5 has already adumbrated the urgency of resurrection; without judgment and eternal life for the righteous, this world’s imbalance cannot be righted, nor can God’s justice be revealed. Monotheism without an eschatology of judgment and the world to come leaves unresolved the tensions inherent in the starting point: God is one, God is just. That is why the starting point of the theology dictates its conclusion: the deeds one does in this world bear consequences for his situation in the world to come, and the merit attained through this-worldly-deeds, for example, of generosity, persists; individuals retain their status as such through all time to come (p. 555).

This paragraph is key, Without the world to come, Israel would have no reward, and all its sufferings would not point toward their eventual vindication, but only to injustice. Without a resurrection, judgment, and the world to come, God is not revealed as just. That is something that those so-called theologians denying a resurrection never realize is required–a justice that is apparent from a more than temporal viewpoint, and a more than terrestrial one, as well. However irrational it may seem to one mired in simplistic thinking, this “is a necessary doctrine for a system that insists upon the rationality and order of the universe under God’s rule” (p. 555). The seemingly anomalous injustices of this world, in the theology of the Oral Torah, require a personal resurrection precisely for the continuation of a righteous life in this world on into eternity (pp 555-556).

As in earlier chapters, Israel can be understood as representing an individual (one other than the patriarch Jacob), an Israelite, or as a corporate representation of all Israelites. Particularly through the discussion of Ordering the Ultimate Anomaly: Private Lives, Chapter Five above, we see personal resurrection as the key component of the theology of reward and punishment in a human life lived in obedience to or in rebellion against God. Each obedient person is Israel in himself. Israel, the holy people, never dies, as it is that part of humanity that has submitted to God’s will in the Torah. Holy Israel is eternal. As Neusner says, “This Israel, integral to the perfection of creation, cannot die any more than God can. Thus, to Israel the people, resurrection categorically does not pertain” (p. 558). Judgment, for holy Israel, certainly does pertain. But as we have seen earlier, this Israel, according to Torah, suffers judgment in this world, so a judgment in the end of time does not pertain. The resurreciton to judgment is experienced by Israel the individual, the Israelite. And this, to him, is “the beginning of the restoration to Eden, now meaning the restoration of Israel to the Land of Israel” (p. 558).

We now proceed to the resurrection of the dead itself.

Genesis Rabbah LXXVII:I.1–All that God will do in the age to come has been done by the righteous in this world. For instance, we know that God can and will resurrect the dead because Elijah raised the dead.

Bavli Sanhedrin 11.1-2 I.22-25/91B–The passage discusses the condition of the body at resurrection: people are raised as they were when they died, and are then healed. Gentiles will have a role only in relation to Israel, demonstrated by drawing on Isaiah 61.5, that they will be essentially servants. Proof of the Torah discussing resurrection is found in Deuteronomy 32.39: “Said the Holy One, blessed be He, ‘What I kill I bring to life,’ and ‘What I have wounded I heal.'”

Mishnah Sotah 9:15–Various this-worldly habits and character traits lead to encounter with the Holy Spirit, which leads to resurrection.

Yerushalmi Shabbat 1:3 V:3–(Expands on m.Sotah 9:15) The steps toward resurrection are elaborated through reference to Scripture.

Neusner interestingly comments on this (pp 562-563):

The ladder of virtue reaches the perfection of man, who, perfect in form in life (“in our image, after our likeness”), will be resurrected in the same form beyond the grave. That seems to me to form the restorationist logive of the composition. That explains why there are stages in the road to resurrection, leading through the varieties of cultic cleanness to holiness to the fear of sin to piety, and then the Holy Spirit and the resurrection of the dead, a straight path for those who take it.

The first component of the sages’ doctrine of the resurrection of the dead is twofold: belief that the resurrection will take place, and that the resurrection is revealed in Torah. The principle of justice, measure for measure, will deny resurrection to those who deny it, and some others. The second component is that it is Israel, the holy people, who will be resurrected and enter the world to come. The third component is that those excluded from the resurrection and world to come are so excluded because of their own sins: those denying Torah teaches of the world to come, those who deny the Torah comes from God, hedonists, various people named in Scripture (the kings Jeroboam, Ahab and Manasseh; the commoners Balaam, Doeg, Ahitophel and Gehazi), the generations of the Flood, of the Dispersion, and of the Wilderness, the party of Korah, and the Ten Tribes (though with a dissenting opinion noted on the last) (p. 563; Mishnah Sanhedrin 10.1-5).

Sifré to Deuteronomy CCCVI:XXVIII.3–Resurrection is described in every passage of Scripture, only the exegesis that yields is needs to be discovered for the non-apparent passages.

Bavli Sanhedrin 11:1 I.2-14/91A–Examples of some non-apparent passages’ reference to resurrection, in response to heretics/sectarians. Deuteronomy 31.16 is adduced to indicate both resurrection and God’s knowledge of the future. Numbers 15.31 is used in response to sectarian claims that the Torah doesn’t teach resurrection: if they are cut off in this world, then their impurity can only come upon them in the world to come. Psalme 72.16 is quoted, by no less than Queen Cleopatra, as proof for resurrection, in a passage describing how, like wheat, the resurrected will be raised clothed. Then come analogies of a potter, a glassblower, and a king, showing that if humans can do such work and repair, much moreso can God.

Bavli Sanhedrin 11:1 1.27-34/91B-92B–Focusing on the use of the future tense in Scripture, proof of the resurrection is drawn from numerous passages: Exodus 15.1; Joshua 8.30; 1 Kings 11.7; Psalm 84.5; Isaiah 52.8; Deuteronomy 33.6; Daniel 12.2 and 12.13. The grave and womb in Proverbs 30.16 are likewise used as proof for resurrection. When the dead are restored to life, they will be perfec and undying, which idea is supported by Isaiah 4.3 and 2.11, Psalm 44.3 and Isaiah 40.31, though what precisely they will be doing is unclear.

As Neusner states:

The details of what happens in the age or world to come trail off; there we have the notion that the world will be renewed, yielding the question asked at D. When, earlier, I referred to the somewhat unclear account of eschatological matters, it is a detail such as this one that I had in mind; we can generalize only out of the main beams of the structure at hand: the dead will rise; God will do it; the dead then are judged; those who are justified will inherit the age or world to come; and the Messiah will come to mark the advent of the final drama, though his exact role and tasks beyond that basic function as signifier do not attain much clarity, or, at least, do not coalesce as a consensus I can identify (p. 574).

Tractate Abot 4:21–Complementary logic is applied to yield an argument based in Nature rather than Scripture, attributed to R. Eliezer Haqqappar: “Those who are born are destined to die, and those who die are destined for resurrection.” And those are then to be judged. (As Neusner notes, though it is not explicit here as it is elsewhere, the inclusion of this argument in Abot indicates Israel as the subject, supporting the explicit restriction of resurrection to Israel found elsewhere.)

Pesiqta Rabbati I:VI.4–Here, explicitly, Gentiles both in the Land and outside it are not resurrected.

As touched on in earlier chapter, it is no surprise that is it the case that Israel benefits from their relationship with God in their reception and keeping (however imperfectly) of Torah. Israel comprises all those who come to obey God through His Torah. The Gentiles are everyone else who rejects God and His Torah, preferring idolatry. And what is idolatry but the making of a no-god in one’s own image, and a kind of personal pseudo-Torah based in one’s own morals, ideals, and imagination? Again, it is clear: Israel has the way of life; the Gentiles have the way of death.

Tosefta Sotah 7:10–“Said the Holy One blessed be He to them, ‘Just as you have made me the only object of your love in all the world, so I shall make you the only object of my love in the world to come.'”

Yerushalmi Ketubot 12:3 1:8–Burial in the Land is a blessing that contains the promise of resurrection, for all Israel will be gathered there for it.

Bavli Ketubot 13:11 III.17-19/111A–Again, the resurrection is explicitly stated to occur in the Land, and nowhere else. The righteous ousdies the Land will have their bodies miraculously transported to the Land, where they’ll be raised with the rest of Israel.

Abot de Rabbi Nathan XXVI:III.1–Is is best to be buried in the Land of Israel: “Whoever is buried in the Land of Israel is as if he were buried under the altar.”

Only a framework description of the post-resurrection judgment occurs in the Oral Torah, as Neusner describes (p. 578):

The details of judgment that follow resurrection prove less ample. The basic account stresses that God will judge with great mercy. But the Oral Torah presents no fully articulated story of judgment. Within the documents of the Oral Torah, we have little narrative to tell us how the judgment will be carried on. Even the detail that through repentance and death man has already atoned, which is stated in so many words in the context of repentance and atonement, plays no role that I can discern in the discussions of the last judgment. What we do know concerns two matters. When does the judgment take place? And by what criteria does God decide who inherits the world to come?

Bavli Rosh Hashanah VIII.3/10B-11A–Judgment will take place either on the first of Tishri or the fifteenth of Nisan.

Mishnah Eduyyot 2:10–The judgment will last either twelve or six months. Those who do not pass judgment do not proceed to eternal life.

Leviticus Rabbah XXXV:VI:1-3–Proper conduct and Torah study lead to resurrection and the age to come, which is the return to Eden.

Yerushalmi Sanhedrin 10:1 1:2–God’s judgment is merciful. If a man’s life is balanced in deeds of good and sin, then God removes one sin, so that the good deeds predominate. This framework applies:
H. If the greater part of his record consisted of honourable deeds, and the smaller part, transgressions, they exact punishment from him [in this world].
I. If the smaller part of the transgressions which he has done are of the lesser character, [he is punished] in this world so as to pay him his full and complete reward in the world to come.
J. If the greater part of his record consisted of transgressions and the lesser part of honourable deeds, they pay him off with the reward of the religious deeds which he has done entirely in this world, so as to exact punishment from him in a whole and complete way in the world to come.
K. If the greater part of his record consisted of honourable deeds, he will inherit the Garden of Eden. If the greater part consisted of transgressions, he will inherit Gehenna.

As Neusner puts it (p. 582):

Here is a further statement of the systemic realization of the future: the righteous will ultimately triumph, the wicked will ultimately suffer, in the age to come, if not in this age. This age is the time in which the righteous atone for their sines, and in which the wicked do not. Then, in the world to come, the wicked will be punished, not having prepared and atoned. The systemic variable now allows God to intervene and help the righteous to attain the merit that they require.

Yerushalmi Shebiit 4:10 IX–Regarding the age from which a person will be resurrected, specifically, how old an Israelite child must be before having died to be considered worthy of resurrection. The rabbis say even the unbord qualify.

Yerushalmi Berakhot 9:1 III:8–One who walks through an Israelite cemetery recites a benediction remembering God as the one who will resurrect the dead. It is not said when passing amongst Gentile graves, but rather Jeremiah 50.12 is recited, emphasizing the finality of the death of Gentiles.

What of the Messiah? In contrast to other subject topics in the Oral Torah, the Messiah does not emerge as a discrete category of discussion. The Messiah-theme remains a subcategory or subtheme of various topics, instead. As Neusner writes (p. 586): “To make the point in the simplest possible way: we cannot imagine a Christianity without Christology. Here we have a Judaism in which the Messiah-theme in the eschatological framework takes on significance only in contexts defined by other categories altogether. That he comes and goes, appears and then passes from the scene, is not a single figure but two (or more) marks his systemic subordination, the Messiah-theme’s categorical inadequacy.”

In the eschatological theology of the Oral Torah, two characteristics of the Messiah-theme stand out: multiplicity and transience. Only God is a full-time player in the events of this eschatology. The Messiah is a forerunner of the age to come, but this is a temporary role. Thus the transience. on the multiplicity front, there are a number of Messiahs: a Messiah son of Joseph, a Messiah son of David, a Messiah as high priest over the army (Deuteronomy 20.2-7; m. Sotah 8). Note that this same multiplicity of Messiahs is found in the various documents of the Qumran sectarians. All these Messiahs are human and mortal, and fight, and sometimes lose, against the inclination to evil. The Messiah will initiate the eschatological drama, but God will bring it to a conclusion.

Bavli Sukkah 5:1-4 II.3-5/52A-B–The Messiah son of Joseph is killed, in some relation to the evil inclination, but the Messiah son of David is granted life, eternal life through the resurrection. It si this Messiah son of David who has a role in the eschaton. In this terse treatment, numerous categories are touched upon: present and future, private and public, sin and defense against it through Torah study. The Messiah-theme is seen here as subordinate to the compiler’s intention to link overcoming the evil inclination with the advent of the world to come.

One standard component of the Messiah-theme is that of troubles at the time of the Messiah’s appearance, including (with some) the war with Gog and Magog of Ezekiel 37-38, which may (with some) be intended to induce repentance in Israel and thus bring about the resurrection. The sages are unclear on the matter of Gog and Magog’s war, and are only clear that God will support Israel through it (see Sifra CCLXIX:II.12).

Tosefta Berakhot 1:11–The war of Gog and Magog will be so bad as to make Israel forget all prior troubles.

Pesiqta Rabbati XV:XV:1 (=Pesiqta de Rab Kahana V:X.13)–Immediately preceding the advent of the Messiah are famines, storms, and war, the collapse of Torah academies, and the complete decay of civilization: “The Son of David will come only to a generation which is liable to be subject to total extermination.”

The tribulations of the end time thus may or may not involve the war of God and Magog, precipitated at the coming of the Messiah. A variety of troubles will mark that same event. But these motivate Israel to repent, and that repentance will bring the Messiah. Still, that is not consistently alledged in the main statements on the subject. The Messiah need not do more than signal a variety of events, political and social, that he neither brings about nor calls to a conclusion (p. 592).

Indeed, in sharp contrast to Christian eschatology’s central, causative, and eternal role for the Messiah, the Oral Torah’s eschatology presents us with a Messiah whose reign is somewhat marginal and limited in length, whether to three generations (Sifré to Deuteronomy CCCX:V.1), forty years, four hundred years, or even 365,000 years (Pesiqta Rabbati I:VII.1). After the reign of the Messiah comes the resurrection, but his is nowhere said to be accomplished by the Messiah himself, but rather by God (Pesiqta Rabbati I:VII.2). Is is Israel’s repentance which moves God to respons. As Neusner says, “[T]he Messiah only responds to Israel’s decision on when he should make his appearance to signal the change in the condition of manking, and the Messiah responds to God’s decision, taking a part within that sequence that comes to an end with Elijah” (p. 595).

The Oral Torah’s eschatology in a nutshell is the following (p. 596):

The time of the Messiah is compared to the period of redemption, and it is held to serve as a preparatory period leading to the resurrection of the dead (systemic equivalent to the entry into the Land/Eden, which, by rights, ought to have marked the end of time). That inquiry into the correct analogy explains the definition that are given, forty years, as with the Generation of the Wilderness, of four hundred years, as in the torment prior to redemption from Egypt, and so on down. The divisions in time do not come to an end with the end of history as written by the pagan kingdoms. From the time that their rule comes to an end, with the coming of the Messiah and the restoration of Israelite government, a sequence of further, differentiated periods commences; the time of the Messiah is only the first of these. Then comes the resurrection of the dead, along with the last judgment. Only at that point does the world to come get under way and time is no longer differentiated.

Bavli Abodah Zarah 1:1 II.5/9A–The Messiah plays a role as an important marker in the periodization of history by the sages: 2000 years of sin and chaos; 2000 years of repentance and Torah; 2000 year of restoration and Messiah. Then follows the world to come: eternal life in “an age beyond time and change” (p. 597).

What of the Gentiles in relation to the Messiah? They will be honoured with the permission to bring gifts to him!

Bavli Pesahim 10:7 II.22/118B–The gifts of Egypt and Ethiopia will be accepted (Psalm 68.32). BUt the gift of Rome, calling on its descent from Edom, Israel’s brother, a wild beast, is rejected (Psalm 68.30 and 80.14). Rome is to fall at the coming of the Messiah.

Neusner concludes this chapter thus:

The Messiah plays a part in the resurrection of the dead, on the one side, and the restoration of Israel, on the other. But the Messiah-doctrine clearly encompasses the view that the Messiah will not endure for the world to come but himself carries out the task assigned to him and then passes from the scene, a doctrine clearly indicated by the specification of the period of time assigned to the Messiah. How the Messiah figures in discussion of the age of world to come remains to be seen (p. 598).

We will continue this series with chapter 14, Restoring the Public Order: The World to Come. Thank you for reading.


  1. Richard, the Oral Torah is the body of rabbinic post-biblical writings beginning with the Mishnah (ca 200 AD), followed by the Tosefta (ca 300), the Jerusalem Talmud (ca 400), and the Babylonian Talmud (ca 500), along with numerous various midrashic works (Genesis Rabbah, etc) having been produced throughout. It is called Oral Torah, although it is actually written, because it is considered to have been transmitted orally from Moses down through the ages until it was finally written down. The Written Torah is comprised of, more restrictedly, the Pentateuch, or, more permissively, the entire Hebrew Bible. Basically, Oral Torah is the written legacy of the rabbis of late antiquity. It is the foundation of Judaism as known today.

    Professor Neusner is Jewish, and also a rabbi.

  2. Kevin, thanks for that. To what extent does it embody genuine pre-AD70 Judaism, i.e. the second Temple Judaism, if indeed we can speak of it as a monolithic entity?

  3. Richard, that’s a really difficult question to answer. It’s not a monolithic entity, certainly. Even the Mishnah includes materials from various sources, it seems, but the precise dating is difficult because the nature of the texts are non-historical. At best, all that can be said is that the sayings attributed to the various personalities in the writings are likely to originate in the same generation as the named personage. This is demonstrable when known later generations of named personages refer back to those names. But there is no clear and fast line, because the texts are not focused on presenting a history of discussions, so we lack all the indicators for history within the documents. In fact, we have very little history at all regarding these rabbis. If it weren’t for a question about the origins of the Mishnah and Talmud sent from Kairouan in Tunisia to Rab Sherira Gaon in Mesopotamia, and his detailed response giving what was known of that history, we’d be even more in the dark.

    On the other hand, looking at the texts for the tactics and systematization in use, we can certainly say that some of those methods of systematization, interpretation, exegesis, and hermeneutics were all in use prior to AD 70, as some of them are documented in the OT, the apocrypha, Pauls’ letters, the Gospel of Matthew (if you’re an early dater), the letters of James and Jude and Peter, and most especially in the Qumran documents of the Essenes.

    You’ll get much more on this stuff, and better explanation of the issues, once you read Neusner’s INtroduction to Rabbinic Literature and Stemberger’s Introduction to the Talmud and Midrash. (I saw at Phil Sumpter’s blog that you have them ordered on ILL.) I hope that helps.

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