Human Personhood and Jesus’s Encounter with the Sadducees: A Test Case for Dualism

Co-Authored with Mihretu Guta

What sorts of beings are human beings? Are they purely material beings with no soul or are they a union of body and soul? Those who embrace a physicalist ontology claim that humans have various complex capacities but have no nonphysical aspect to their nature. By contrast, those who embrace a dualist ontology claim that the nature of human beings is not exhausted in their physicality; human beings are essentially ensouled creatures.

Though physicalism predominates in the broader academic world in one or the other of its many forms, until recently, it has not been regarded as compatible with Christian faith. Now, however, these debates have entered into Christian theological and philosophical discourse, prompting some Christians to revisit the question of what the Scriptures teach regarding human personhood. Nancey Murphy, for example, argues that the dualist notion of human personhood has been imported into the Bible. As she sees it, a dualist conception of human personhood was read into the Scriptures at an early stage of the Church’s history under the influence of external philosophical forces (Murphy, 2006). As a result, she asserts the need to recover the original monism of the biblical authors.

In this paper, we will argue for a dualist understanding of human personhood, using Jesus’s encounter with the Sadducees as a test case. Unlike the Sadducees, Christian anthropological monists do not deny bodily resurrection. However, like the Sadducees, they deny the intermediate state, that is, the traditional claim that the soul consciously exists in disembodied form until reunited with the body in resurrection. We will argue that although the Sadducees present to Jesus what they frame as a test about the resurrection, Jesus’s response addresses only their underlying denial of the intermediate state. Jesus makes no direct argument for the resurrection. Instead, he makes an argument for the intermediate state and treats the resurrection as its necessary implication. Both parts of his response demonstrate that individuals “live by God” after bodily death and treat the resurrection of the body as an implication of this ongoing life.

That Jesus regards bodily resurrection as an implication of the continuation of life after bodily death provides not only a basis for evaluating Christian anthropological monism but also for examining common assumptions about the nature of embodied life in the resurrection. Though some have understood this text as evidence that resurrected humanity “will no longer be divided between men and women” (François Bovon, 2022: 7), Jesus claims only that the marital status of those who have died will not be altered during the intermediate state. For Jesus, resurrection life is given not through procreation within a marital covenant between a man and a woman. All such covenants end at death. Rather, it is life given through a marital covenant between God and his people – a covenant that cannot end in death, formed as it is between God and a people who “live by God.”

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