Who/ What Shaped Jesus’ Understanding of Salvation? – Salvation Pt. 3

Masada, Israel

Second Temple Judaism and Salvation

Within the time of Second Temple Judaism the understanding of “salvation” did not change wholesale per se. There is however an important shifting that does in fact take place. During this era, the areas surrounding all areas of Palestine and were being heavily influenced by various streams of apocalyptic thinking which found their way into mainstream Judaism. Pertinent to our study is to focus on the imported theme of “resurrection” which is obviously an important part of salvation as well as the ministry and life of Jesus. To understand this more we will engage a few key scriptures from this era to help us see how salvation and at times resurrection were understood. We will draw our texts from the Apocrypha, Pseudepigrapha, and Dead Sea Scrolls. 

In the Apocrypha we find a terrifying story of seven brothers tortured for their loyalty and allegiance to God. Within this story we discover the central hope or core emphasis which comes forth when they are pushed to their breaking point. In 2 Maccabees 7:9, one of the brothers who is being tortured communicates with his final breath, “You accursed wretch, you dismiss us from this present life, but the King of the universe will raise us up to an everlasting renewal of life, because we have died for his laws.” As is obvious, there is a focus on salvation not coming in the present moment but rather in the life to come. This understanding that the “King of the universe” is going to raise the brothers up speaks to an understanding of salvation that was present in the form of resurrection. Statements this blunt are not found in the OT, but they are in here. 

George W. E. Nickelsburg defines resurrection as the “eschatological act in which God brings the dead to life in order to recompense them for the righteous or sinful deeds that they committed during their lives.”[1] He continues to explain that, “In addition to a resurrection of the body, biblical and Jewish texts also speak of the ascent of the spirit or of one’s (immortal) soul to heaven and of exaltation among the angelic host.”[2] The question of how this understanding of salvation is taking on tones of resurrection and being “raised up” as seen in 2 Maccabees (among others) is important for our appreciation and study for both our own salvation and resurrection but also the resurrection of Jesus. 

And so, how did Judaism get to this progression? E.P. Sanders, in his monumental work appropriately titled “Judaism,” explains the origin for not only a salvific view of salvation but also of other widely held beliefs during the era Maccabees and other Apocryphal books were written—including Daniel. He writes 

A lot of unfortunate and evil things happen in the world, and all philosophies and religions face the problem of explaining them. In our period, Jews were torn between a straight monotheistic explanation of evil—God intends it—and a dualistic explanation—there is another power (Satan) or a congeries of other powers (demons).[3]

This crossroads that Judaism found itself in paved the way for differing cultural ideologies to creep in as well as religious imports in an effort to make sense of what was happening during this trying time of Israel’s history. Sanders goes on to credit Persian influence in areas of demonology and angelology as well as a belief in resurrection.[4] This importing of belief in the resurrection continued to influence the ways in which Israel viewed its own salvation. Though for centuries previous, salvation was sought out in the present by the intervention of Yahweh because of their covenantal faithfulness in keeping Torah, it was now taking on an additional depth involving the life to come at the resurrection. 

The Sadducees

The religious group who stood in the way of this were the Sadducees. This group of religious elites maintained their denial of resurrection in the afterlife because, as purists, they maintained a strict adherence to the biblical text alone. They did not entertain further traditions as other groups would, such as the Pharisees. Sanders, in explaining why the Sadducees were this way, states

Possibly Sadducees, like modern biblical critics, distinguished dates and recognized metaphors. Or, more plausibly, perhaps they accepted only what was in the Pentateuch. In any case, scholars usually connect their literalism with their rejection of life after death.[5]

This rejection of life after death and its application to salvation was somewhat rare. With the surge in apocalyptic literature surrounding early Judaism there were many diverse voices who began to focus heavily on the ultimate victory of God in the life to come with vivid imagery and language. 

Author Łukasz Bergel in his paper “God’s Victory and Salvation: A Soteriological Approach to the Subject in Apocalyptic Literature” rolls out an impressive schema in comparing the soteriological theme and language of literature found in John’s apocalypse and the apocalypses found in Judaism near the time preceding Jesus. The desired outcome of the paper is to ascertain what exactly are the consequences of salvation in both bodies of writing and the avenue of how God’s victory is achieved as perceived during this time frame.[6] Interestingly, his work brings to light how many of the writings during this era were intertwined with “victory” language. One could almost say apocalyptic writers during this time were enthralled with war and battle overtones throughout. He writes

Soteriology in apocalyptic literature is often presented in two aspects: the salvation and the judgement. These two issues are characteristic of the apocalyptic genre and are mutually connected. In their essence, they seem to stand in opposition, but in apocalyptic reality, they are complementary. Salvation concerns the salvific process – the events and actions that must be done – and the results of this process. The judgement is showed as a consequence of the refusal of salvation. The terminology and imagery of God’s victory can be related to both aspects. However, it is usually applied to the salvific aspect and even identified with it. Salvation is a victory.[7]

These complementary aspects of salvation and judgment comprise much of the eschatology we find leading into the time the NT was written. There is continuation with a subtle divergence as Bergel says above. Where the OT understanding of salvation is Israel clinging to the intervention of Yahweh; this is now moving into language describing a cataclysmic militaristic event involving the victory of Yahweh in which salvation is achieved for those loyal to Him. It is important for our brief study to investigate some of these writings before learning how Jesus understood and communicated this in His ministry.  

In the following texts we see God’s victory taking center stage. What is evident in each text is a theme revolving around a “chosen one” or the mediation of a messianic figure of some sort. This is beginning to take shape with the emergence of the “Kingdom of God” motif.

The Pseudepigrapha

The pseudepigraphal text 1 Enoch opens with a vision describing the victory of God with the imagery of a parade on display. In it we see God himself marching to bring salvation to His people after achieving victory. In verses 3 and 4 it states, 

3 Concerning the elect I said, and took up ‹my› parable concerning them: The Holy Great One will come forth from His dwelling,

4 And the eternal God will tread upon the earth, (even) on Mount Sinai,

[And appear from His camp] And appear in the strength of His might from the heaven ‹of heavens›.[8]

Down a little further in the same chapter the jubilation and praise shifts from focusing on God’s victorious entrance to the results of His arrival:

5 And all shall be smitten with fear,

  And the Watchers shall quake,

  And great fear and trembling shall seize them unto the ends of the earth.

6 And the high mountains shall be shaken,

  And the high hills shall be made low,

  And shall melt like wax before the flame.

7 And the earth shall be ‹wholly› rent in sunder,

  And all that is upon the earth shall perish,

  And there shall be a judgement upon all (men).

8 But with the righteous He will make peace,

  And will protect the elect,

  And mercy shall be upon them.[9]

The focus of Enoch is the establishment of an everlasting Kingdom of God where victory for God and His righteous ones, with salvation and judgment following. As can already be seen, this is different from the more one-dimensional understanding of salvation in the OT where the children of God are waiting for Him to intervene. Moving through Enoch we find that the prime antagonist is Azazel who “taught the people the art of making swords and knives, and shields, and breastplates” (1 En 8:1). This antagonist along what was brought with him is dealt with by a “Son of Man” later in the book when in 46:3-4 the author writes

3 And he answered and said unto me:

  This is the Son of Man who hath righteousness,

  With whom dwelleth righteousness,

  And who revealeth all the treasures of that which is hidden,

  Because the Lord of Spirits hath chosen him,

  And whose lot hath the pre-eminence before the Lord of Spirits in uprightness forever.

4 And this Son of Man whom thou hast seen

  Shall raise up the kings and the mighty from their seats,

  [And the strong from their thrones]

  And shall loosen the reins of the strong,

  And break the teeth of the sinners.

5 [And he shall put down the kings from their thrones and kingdoms]

   Because they do not extol and praise Him,

  Nor humbly acknowledge whence the kingdom was bestowed upon them.

This reference of the Son of Man recalls Daniel 7:13 where in the vision Daniel has, he says, “One like a Son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven” in reference to the coming salvation of God breaking in. Salvation during this time as seen in Enoch as well as Daniel is taking on a different nuance. It does not mean there is a new understanding replacing the OT view but rather coming into a sharper focus. Now, a messianic figure is taking the baton from Yahweh and bringing judgment and salvation here through the impending Kingdom of God while still establishing an everlasting reign in the life to come.

Before looking at how those who wrote the DSS view salvation, one more piece of writing that comes from this same era is found will help highlight this development. The Sibylline Oracles, like Enoch, also speaks of salvation as being preceded by a war where God reigns victorious in defeating sin and its corruption. Babylon and Egypt are the symbolic forces of evil against Israel and the main enemy of God is Beliar. He will deceive and lead many astray. In 3:71-74 we are told that God will destroy him and render his influence defeated. Salvation will then come for the elect people of God’s choosing and they will enjoy peace living around the temple. Bringing back a theme from Eden we see that God himself will guard them and fight for them so that there will be no war; much less evil. This is found in 3:702-709.[10]                                                                          

The Essenes

The Essenes (who were around Qumran where the DSS were written) were passionate and zealous lovers of Yahweh and Torah. They possessed views on the salvation of God’s people that were similar to what can be observed in Enoch, the Sibylline Oracles, and many other writings not named here. While there is not an abundance of literature on salvation from this group, there are three key texts which illustrate a belief in the resurrection in the life to come as it pertains to salvation. These are found in 4Q521, 1QH 14, and 4Q385. 

In 4Q521 there is a direct reference to resurrection when the author exclaims in the Messianic Apocalypse: “For He will heal the wounded and revive the dead and bring good news to the poor…” (italics mine). It is clear that for this group who also comprised the famous War Scroll with its focus on apocalyptic warfare between the sons of light and the darkness—they saw that the impending salvation coming from Yahweh was to come in the form of a messianic figure. The Essenes of Qumran may provide Christians the closest understanding of Jesus’ own messianic aspirations and beliefs. N.T. Wright makes a clear point that the apocalyptic fervor and messianic hopes found in the DSS are not necessarily another form of Judaism. These are common themes and writings found in apocalyptic literature at large.[11] We can then surmise that in the same way the Kingdom of God was a common theme leading up to the times of Jesus, so too the understanding of how one or Israel is saved was also a theme taking on many rich nuances from surrounding areas and streams within Judaism. 

In 1QH 14 the reference is similar to what has already been explored. In 1QH14 the quotation we will focus on is “…and to all those volunteering to join the chosen of God, carrying out the law in the council of the Community, those who will be saved on the day of judgment…” Like Enoch, there is an emphasis that in the life to come there will be a resurrection in which judgment will take place for the wicked. But those who are the elect, or the chosen ones of the community will evade the impending judgment that is surely to come. At this point in our study on a few texts from the DSS, a few references relating to salvation, ought to come to mind. Scriptures like Acts 4:12 where Peter boldly declares that “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved.” What this shows us is that the salvation we know of today and often speak of stems from a rich tapestry of influences and cultures within Judaism surrounding Jesus. 

Before moving on to looking at how Jesus viewed and communicated salvation let us look at one more example in 4Q385. In this portion of the DSS the rising from the dead through the prophecy given to the dry bones from Ezekiel 37 is written out twice. Each is written to illustrate the work of Yahweh who says, “…they will live, and a large crowd of men will rise and bless YHWH Sabaoth who caused them to live.”[12] This along with the other two references illustrate that in a region close to Jesus at a time preceding Jesus there were expectations of the coming Kingdom of God which would both usher in and deliver salvation and judgment upon the righteous and wicked respectively. Prophetic expectation preceding this group finds their crescendo in the Essenes in terms of apocalyptic fervor and expectation. In fact, if we followed a line of development around salvation, we could say that the expectations of future salvation took on the form of apocalyptic hopes for the resurrection of the dead and a new life with God in transformed world.[13] A world where justice would be meted out and the blessing of salvation would be given. Would Jesus fall in line with all of the above? Where would he diverge? Jesus own view on salvation will be explored next in part 4.


[1] John J. Collins and Daniel C. Harlow, eds., The Eerdmans Dictionary of Early Judaism (Grand Rapids, Mich: William B. Eerdmans, 2010), 1142.

[2] Collins and Harlow, 1142.

[3] E. P Sanders, Judaism: Practice and Belief, 63 BCE-66 CE, 2016, 410, http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.2307/j.ctt17mcs1x.

[4] Sanders, 411.

[5] Sanders, 522.

[6] Łukasz Bergel, “God’s Victory and Salvation: A Soteriological Approach to the Subject in Apocalyptic Literature,” Hervormde Teologiese Studies 75, no. 3 (2019): 1, https://doi.org/10.4102/hts.v75i3.5443.

[7] Bergel, “God’s Victory and Salvation”, 2.

[8] Robert Henry Charles, ed., Pseudepigrapha of the Old Testament (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1913), 188.

[9] Robert Henry Charles, ed., Pseudepigrapha of the Old Testament (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1913), 188–189.

[10] Bergel, “God’s Victory and Salvation,” 3.

[11] N. T. Wright, Christian Origins and the Question of God, 1st North American ed (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992), 208.

[12] Florentino García Martínez, ed., The Dead Sea Scrolls Translated: The Qumran Texts in English, 2nd ed (Leiden ; New York : Grand Rapids: E.J. Brill ; W.B. Eerdmans, 1996), 287.

[13] Freedman, The Anchor Bible Dictionary, 1992, 5:908–9.

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