Judaism in the first century was not a monolithic movement. Certainly, beliefs such as monotheism united the Jews, but there was a diversity of Jewish sects, each having its own emphases. Politically, one might be a Zealot and advocate the overthrow of Rome’s rule over the Holy Land by any means necessary, or one might be a Herodian and support Herod’s dynasty, which Rome set over the Jews as their nominal head. Theologically, a Jewish person could join the Essenes, a monastic sect that advocated withdrawal from society to a life of purity in the wilderness. Or, a Jew could follow the Pharisees, who kept the oral traditions of the rabbis, stressed divine sovereignty, and affirmed the resurrection of the dead.
Today, as we return to our study of Mark’s gospel, we find the Sadducees, a first-century Jewish sect that stressed the power of our free will and who believed theology could be based only on the five books of Moses (Genesis–Deuteronomy). As a consequence of this belief, the Sadducees did not believe in the resurrection of the dead, for we do not find resurrection taught explicitly in the first five books of the Bible. Yet, we do find it there implicitly, or by good and necessary consequence, as Jesus will show us in due course (Mark 12:25–27).
Christ showed that the five books of Moses teach the resurrection when the Sadducees asked Him a question while He ministered in Jerusalem toward the end of His earthly ministry. The Sadducees hoped to prove that the resurrection of the dead was impossible. Their question about which of the seven brothers would keep the one wife that all of them had married was based on Levirate marriage customs (vv. 18–23). According to the Mosaic law, a man was to marry his brother’s wife if his brother were to die without siring an heir. The child born to the living brother and the dead brother’s widow would be counted as the dead brother’s child (Deut. 25:5–10; Ruth 4).
The scenario the Sadducees presented in which seven brothers all marry the same woman because none of them produced an heir was implausible, but it was an effective way to question the doctrine of the resurrection. If the doctrine of the resurrection might lead to the problem of determining which of the brothers got to have the wife they had all married for all eternity—a problem apparently impossible to solve—it could be a teaching worth rethinking. But as Jesus notes, the purported problem and denial of the resurrection was based on the Sadducees’ failure to know the Scriptures (v. 24).