Twenty-fifth Sunday after Pentecost

Resurrection and afterlife judgment were theological solutions to an historical problem

Figure standing amid rubble after earthquake
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November 14, 2021

First Reading
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Commentary on Daniel 12:1-3

Daniel 12:1–3 has become one of the touchstones of the Christian doctrine of the resurrection. To begin on any other note would probably ignore the interests of readers of a Christian lectionary commentary. In some ways the early Christian authors’ appropriation of its theology was consistent with its worldview; but in other ways it has been removed from its context, and the brief lectionary selection encourages this. Daniel’s promise of eschatological resurrection emerges out of its apocalyptic worldview, which in turn was closely connected with its historical context. Preachers would benefit from reflecting on this context as they prepare a sermon.

Daniel 12:1 is not the start of a thought or section. It begins, “At that time…”, so one should ask: What time? Looking back to 11:40, it is “at the time of the end.” Why did it seem that way? Daniel 12:1–3 is at the end of a lengthy (albeit also rapid) survey of Persian and Hellenistic history. It is particularly interested in the rulers from the time of Alexander the Great to the battles between the Ptolemies and Seleucids over Alexander’s kingdom after his death. Although none of these figures is named, the level of detail has made it easy to correlate the events with historical events.

The reign of Antiochus IV is both a focal point and a turning point in the narrative. The narrative accurately follows historical events up to his 167 BCE persecution of the Jews in Judah, which precipitated the Jewish revolt described in the deuterocanonical books of Maccabees. The text describes Antiochus IV’s cultic and theological wrongdoings in great detail in 11:31–39, but then offers a very vague prediction of Antiochus’ demise (11:45: “he shall come to his end, with no one to help him”). It does not show awareness of the actual circumstances of Antiochus’ death in 164 BCE, nor of the Maccabean purification and rededication of the Jerusalem temple in 165 BCE (still celebrated as Hanukkah). Therefore it is generally thought to have been written in the midst of Antiochus’ reign.

That period of persecution provides the context for 12:1’s reference to the “time of anguish, such as has never occurred since nations first came into existence”: the Jewish community that produced Daniel was suffering under imperial rule. In this regard, the New Testament authors found themselves in an analogous position.

In such times, God’s justice was not apparent within human history; so resurrection and afterlife judgment were theological solutions to an historical problem. It appeared that the just suffered and the wicked prospered, and this was inconsistent with the notion of divine justice. The wrongs of the community’s life could be rectified only outside of history. (This contrasted with the view of divine justice in, for example, Deuteronomy through 2 Kings, which repeatedly argued for a correlation between actions and historical outcomes.)

Daniel portrays the Lord as the true ruler, in a way that only a visionary prophet can perceive. Like a human emperor, the Lord delegates his activity to others. The reader has already met Michael, a divine figure “who contends against these [earthly] princes,” in other words, the imperial powers (10:12, 20). He appears again in a similar role in Jude 9 and Revelation 12:7, and is called an archangel (a “ruling messenger”). 

Revivification of the dead was not a new idea in the second century BCE; it was a common image in the ancient Near East and had a long history in ancient Israel and Judah. But it was used in different ways in earlier texts such as Hosea 6:1–3 or Ezekiel 37:1–15. There, the dead who rose represented a whole people or nation. 

But now Daniel is told that only the wise will be glorified in this new order; others will face shame and contempt (12:2). “Daniel’s people” are only the Jews who are deemed faithful, so there is a sectarian division here. Daniel 11:32-35 distinguishes between “those who violate the covenant,” having been seduced by Antiochus and/or the lures of Hellenistic culture, and “the people that knows its God (and) will stand firm,” which presumably refers to those in the community or communities that produced and read the text that resisted Antiochus. The authors’ favored people are repeatedly called “holy ones” (Daniel 7:18-27; 8:24; see also Isaiah 65:8-15). The earliest Christians were also a Jewish sectarian movement.

Daniel’s image of resurrection was highly influential for the New Testament authors (for example, John 5:29; Revelation 20:12). In other ways, however, its message is also different from the New Testament message of resurrection. For one thing, Daniel’s resurrection is not as comprehensive as Paul’s: many but not all will be raised (Daniel 12:2 verses Romans 14:10–11: “For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God…”). Furthermore, Daniel is told to “keep the words secret and the book sealed until the time of the end,” (12:4). By contrast, generally in the New Testament the book is unsealed (Revelation 22:10) and the goal is to share the Gospel of resurrection (although secrecy is a theme especially in Mark). 

This understanding of Daniel 12:1–3 within its historical context brings into focus aspects other than the affirmation of a dualistic afterlife. One sees that ideas about divine justice have shifted and been reinterpreted over time. Was justice dealt out in this life or the next? Then as now, multiple views coexisted within the same communities and even within individuals.

This text might also serve as a corrective to contemporary strains of Christianity that are focused overwhelmingly on “sharing the good news.” Daniel 12’s secrecy was meant to be intriguing to hearers: they were let in on a secret that not everyone understood. Voltaire said that “the secret to being a bore is to tell everything”; similarly, the secret to being a fundamentalist is to know everything.

Another reason to err on the side of reticence about divine judgment in some cases is that the book of the holy ones is sealed (12:1, 4). Like the authors of Daniel, we survey as much history as we can, and make the best inferences we can about the future. But even John Calvin, the best-known standard-bearer for a dualistic afterlife, wrote that “as we do not know who belongs to the number of the predestined or who does not, we ought to be so minded as to wish that all be saved” (Inst. III.xxiii.14). The afterlife may or may not be dualisticwe do not know in full (1 Corinthians 13:9–12)but in the meantime humility should teach us to live as if God’s salvation is universal (Ephesians 1:10).

This is framed by Daniel’s critique of empire, and its words of comfort to a people who were under imperial hegemony: those who are given to understand the word are those who are disempowered and suffering. In this regard its message is still the same as that of the Exodus story or the eighth-century prophets. This should be disquieting to readers in positions of power, including the structural privilege that comes from simply living in economically imperialistic nations like the United States. The Church might think more pragmatically about what it needs to do to combat human suffering from entrenched inequalities. This is particularly important since the end times foreseen by Daniel and Revelation (22:10-12) were not as near as they once seemed.