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Luke 20:27 Then some of the Sadducees, who say there is no resurrection, came to question Him. 28“Teacher,” they said, “Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies and leaves a wife but no children, the man is to marry his brother’s widow and raise up offspring for him.d 29Now there were seven brothers. The first one married a wife, but died childless. 30Then the seconde 31and the third married the widow, and in the same way all seven died, leaving no children. 32And last of all, the woman died. 33So then, in the resurrection, whose wife will she be? For all seven were married to her.”

The Sadducees could have made this argument with only 2 brothers. What is the point of elongating the argument with 7 brothers?

  • Partly because it has a significance in Judaism, and partly because it exaggerates to make a point. – Lucian Aug 1 at 18:31
  • The Sumerians avoid the number seven, in addition to others, because these numbers not worked in the sexagesimal system, were numbers that represented the need for patience for "change", it was necessary to skip them, avoid them, to be able to work with a new situation – Betho's Aug 3 at 17:04
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The seven brothers argument is a classic piece of both Hebrew and Greek logic - if the understanding of something works at the extremes then it will work all the way through the middle as well.

The point of the Sadducee's question is to prove that the afterlife is inconsistent with the Torah laws and so does not exist. It is inconsistent, so the Sadducee suggested, because it leads to an absurd and intolerable situation.

The Pulpit commentary observes:

The question here put to the Master was a well-known materialistic objection to the resurrection, and had on several occasions been asked by these shallow Epicureans - as the Talmud calls them - to the great rabbis of the schools of the Pharisees. Their usual answer was that the woman in question would be the wife of the first husband.

The usual answer of the Pharisees was unsatisfying and the Sadducees supposed their question was unanswerable, and thus, they had irrefutable proof that the afterlife, as taught by the Pharisees did not exist. (They were partly correct!) Thus, they hoped to trap Jesus.

However, Jesus exposed the gap in their logic by pointing out the faulty assumption on which their argument was based - that heaven is the same as earth. Jesus told them plainly that in heaven there is no marriage, but we will all be like the angels (at least in that respect).

The number seven was important to the Hebrew way of thinking because in the Hebrew, the number for seven and the word for complete or perfect are almost identical. Thus, we see this in a number of settings of Hebrew literature. In the Sadducee's question, if he had to choose a number of brothers, it would need to be more than three so seven is an obvious "literary" choice.

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Two issues: levirate laws and popular Jewish writings.

This issue is really addressing the Levirate laws from Deuteronomy 25. The idea of the Levirate laws is that the memory of the 1st husband lives beyond the grave which is very similar to the idea of resurrection.

The second issue has to do with popular Jewish writings:

So much of the thoughts on the Resurrection are being sorted out in the period between the two testaments - the intertestamental period (around 450 years).

Two very popular writings that address the idea of resurrection are Tobit and 2 Maccabees. Both of these writings are found in the Apocrypha which can be found in the Catholic bible. Both of these writing address the issue of resurrection in the face of injustice.

There was a very popular story within Tobit (Tobit 3:7-17) about a woman named Sarah who had seven husbands. They all died. In order to keep their names alive beyond the grave, Tobias is commanded to marry her. Tobias is the only son of Tobit. Tobit, therefore, is risking losing his only son to save someone else. Tobias becomes a "kinsman-redeemer."

Peter G. Bolt sees Tobit as the background for this question. He writes:

"the book of Tobit most probably provided the Sadducees with their story. Both they and Tobit talk of the death of 7 husbands and Levirate marriage in the context of an interest in the resurrection.

He goes on to say:

"the hope of the resurrection of Israel that is under discussion. The Sadducees, as the politically advantaged, perhaps had no need of such hopes, especially if they were drawn from non-Mosaic teaching and reinforced by such contradictory case studies as that of Tobit. For the Pharisees, however, such hopes were a crucial part of their prophetic heritage and any rejection of them would deserve the kind of sharp rebuke that Jesus serves his opponents."

The second story is more directly related to resurrection. It is from 2 Maccabees and involves the persecution of Antiochus IV Epiphanies, the Seleucid Greek king. The holiday of Hanukkah stems from this time period.

A woman has seven sons. Each is put to death for their righteousness. The fourth son says this (2 Macc. 7:14):

I am glad to die at your hands because we have the assurance that God will raise us from death. But there will be no resurrection to life for you, Antiochus!

The reason they use a story with "seven brothers" is because it would have been a familiar story to the audience. They are drawing on their cultural and literary context.

Hope this helps.

Bolt, Peter G. What Were the Sadducees Reading? An Enquiry Into the Literary Background of Mark 12:18-23, Tyndale Bulletin 45.2 (1994)

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