As I announced here on the blog, the Cadre has devoted a section on its web page to responding to the new skeptical assault on the resurrection, The Empty Tomb. Several responses to several of the chapters in the book are already posted, including the Introduction authored by me and my article responding to Dr. Robert M. Price's Chapter 4 (Apocryphal Apparitions: 1 Corinathians 15:3-11 as a Post-Pauline Interpolation). I have also been working my way through Richard Carrier’s own contribution, Chapter 5 (The Spiritual Body of Christ and the Legend of the Empty Tomb). The first thing that occurred to me is that Carrier appears to write with much the same vitriol and bias that pervades Robert M. Price’s contributions in that he accuses those who think it unlikely that a Jewish sect would have adopted his particular theory of early resurrection belief as “inherently racist.” Furthermore, as Dr. Price does, Carrier also uses the term “apologist” much too broadly. For example, he labels J.A.T. Robinson an “apologist.” Though a Christian, Robinson was quite liberal in his theology and was castigated by the evangelicals of his day. More important, he was a provocative and well regarded New Testament scholar. Though Robinson no doubt saw the New Testament as more reliable than Carrier does, that is hardly grounds for labeling someone an apologist.
In any event, when reading a section where Carrier purports to represent the beliefs of the Sadducees, I noticed he stated that the Sadducees denied “even the existence of spirits, angels, or souls.” Page 108. I too once believed this after reading Acts 23:7-9:
When he said this, a dissension began between the Pharisees and the Sadducees, and the assembly was divided. (The Sadducees say that there is no resurrection, or angel, or spirit; but the Pharisees acknowledge all three.) Then a great clamor arose, and certain scribes of the Pharisees' group stood up and contended, "We find nothing wrong with this man. What if a spirit or an angel has spoken to him?"
Having reflected on the issue more and researched more the beliefs of various Jewish sects, it now seems clear that the Sadducees did not deny the existence of angels. After all, they accept the first five books of the Bible, which are replete with references to angels acting as God’s servants. (see e.g., Gen. 16:7-11; 19:1, 15; 21:17; 24:40; 28:12; 32:1; Ex. 23:20, 23; Num. 20:16). Moreover, the only evidence for the Sadducees’ supposed denial of the existence of angels is this passage from Acts. Though I have a high regard for the historicity of Acts, I began to suspect I misunderstood the passage or, less likely, that Luke’s information was flawed. As it turns out, after a quick check of the many at-hand resources on the issue, none of them conclude – except Carrier – that the Sadducees denied the existence of angels and spirits altogether. Acts is not saying that the Sadducees denied the existence of angels and spirits per se, but either that they denied 1) the resurrection whether as angels or spirits, with these viewed as two different kinds of resurrection, 2) the highly developed eschatological paradigm of good and evil spirits adopted by the Pharisees (as distinguished from simple belief in angels), or 3) the intermediate state between death and resurrection, with these terms used to represent the condition of the dead within that state.
Joseph Fitzmyer leans towards the latter, believing that the terms refer to “the two modes of resurrection, as angel or as spirit.” The Acts of the Apostles, page 719. Thus, perhaps the old King James Version has it correct by translating it thus, “For the Sadducees say that there is no resurrection, neither angel, nor spirit: but the Pharisees confess both.” F. F. Bruce leans towards the second, noting that “this developed angelology and demonology, like the belief in the resurrection, they would reject as a late accretion to the original faith of Israel. The Acts of the Apostles, page 466. See also Polhill, The Acts of the Apostles, page 470 (“He may have meant that the Sadducees rejected the eschatology of the Pharisees, which involved an elaborate hierarchy of good and evil angels.”).
As for me, I lean towards the third option – the Sadducees denied the intermediate state which was often described as being like angels or spirits. As N.T. Wright explains, in a book that Carrier cites to in his chapter:
There are three problems with this. First, if that was what Luke intended to say, he went about it a very strange way, using ‘neither . . . nor’ with ‘angel’ and ‘spirit’, followed by a word which means ‘both’, as of two, not ‘all three’. The Pharisees’ response, interestingly confirmed this, and helps to elucidate matters, by highlighting not the resurrection itself but the either/or of angel and spirit. Second, there is no one other evidence that the Sadducees denied the existence of angels and spirits; since they claimed to base their views on the Pentateuch, in which angels make frequent appearances and spirits are far from unknown…, it is very unlikely that they did in fact deny their existence. Third, Luke is very clear both in his gospel and in Acts that the resurrection of Jesus himself did not involve Jesus becoming, or even becoming like, an angel or a spirit. Thus, though attempts have been made to say that ‘neither angel nor spirit’ refers to different interpretations of the resurrection – resurrection life seen as angelic or spiritual – it is far more likely that Luke meant something else.
The most likely interpretation – and a very revealing one it is – is that those who held to belief in resurrection in this period, that is, the Pharisees, had also developed regular ways of describing an intermediate state. In that world, nobody supposed the dead were already raised; resurrection , as we have seen, describes new bodily life after a present mode of ‘life after death’. So: where and what are the dead now? To this, we may surmise, the Pharisees gave the answer: they are at present like angels, or spirits. They are presently disembodies; in the future, they will receive their new embodiment. What the Sadducees denied, then, was on the one hand the resurrection, and on the other hand the two current accounts of the intermediate state. They did not deny the existence of angels or spirits, but they denied that the dead were in a state that could be so described.
Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, pages 132-34.
Wright finds support for this understanding in Acts 12:15, where Peter has been released from prison by miraculous intervention but when he appears to other Christians they think he is dead and so proclaim that it was not Peter, but “It is his angel.”
Ben Witherington adds additional support for this understanding:
Notice how Luke 24:36-43, when Jesus appears to his disciples, he is mistaken for “a spirit.” Notice further how in Acts 12:15 the Christians at the mother of John Mark’s house conclude that it is only Peter’s angel at the gate (the Greek reads literally ‘is it he angel of him”). Finally, notice how in what immediately follows in our text in 23:9 the Pharisaic scribes speak of the appearance of Jesus to Paul as the case of an angel or a spirit speaking to Paul. If we put all this together, it is reasonable to conclude that the term “angel” (cf. 1 Enoch 22:3, 7; 103:3-4) or “spirit” was sometimes used to refer to a deceased person, perhaps especially in circles affected by Pharisaic speculations about angels and the like. The point, then, of the explanation in v. 8 is that the Sadducees believe in no positive form of afterlife, either in the interim before the resurrection or at the resurrection.
The Acts of the Apostles, page 692.
Accordingly, whichever of the three proposed understandings are correct, it appears that Carrier’s discussion of Sadducee belief is oversimplistic, underinformed and, as a result, likely erroneous.