Marriage and Celibacy in the Light of the Resurrection of the Body

Author: Pope John Paul II

Marriage and Celibacy in the Light of the Resurrection of the Body

Pope John Paul II


On Wednesday, 11 November, at the General Audience held in the Paul VI Hall, the Holy Father resumed his catechesis on the theology of the body, basing his talk on the discussion between Our Lord and the Sadducees. Following is the text of the Pope's message.

1. After a rather long pause, today we will resume the meditations which have been going on for some time, which we have called reflections on the theology of the body.

In continuing, it is opportune to go back to the words of the Gospel in which Christ referred to the resurrection. These words are of fundamental importance for understanding marriage in the Christian sense and also the renunciation of conjugal life for the kingdom of heaven.

The complex casuistry of the Old Testament in the field of marriage not only drove the Pharisees to go to Christ to pose to him the problem of the indissolubility of marriage (cf. Mt 19:3-9; Mk 10:2-12). Another time, it also drove the Sadducees to question him about the so-called levirate law.(1) This conversation is harmoniously reported by the synoptic Gospels (cf. Mt 22:24-30; Mk 12:18-27; Lk 20:27-40). Although all three accounts are almost identical, we note some differences, slight, but at the same time significant. Since the conversation is reported in three versions, those of Matthew, Mark and Luke, a deeper analysis is necessary, since it contains elements which have an essential significance for the theology of the body.

Alongside the other two important conversations, namely, the one in which Christ refers to the "beginning" (cf. Mt 19:3-9; Mk 10:2-12), and the other in which an appeal was made to man's inner self (to the heart), indicating desire and the lust of the flesh as a source of sin (cf. Mt 5:27-32), the conversation which we now propose to analyze constitutes, I would say, the third element of the triptych of the enunciations of Christ himself: a triptych of words that are essential and constitutive for the theology of the body. In this conversation Jesus referred to the resurrection, thus revealing a completely new dimension of the mystery of man.

Christ refutes belief of Sadducees

2. The revelation of this dimension of the body, stupendous in its content—and yet connected with the Gospel reread as a whole and in depth—emerges in the conversation with the Sadducees, "who say that there is no resurrection" (Mt 22:23).(2) They had come to Christ to set before him an argument which in their judgment confirmed the soundness of their position. This argument was to contradict "the hypothesis of the resurrection." The Sadducees' argument is the following: "Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man's brother dies and leaves a wife, but leaves no child, the man must take the wife, and raise up children for his brother" (Mk 12:19). The Sadducees were referring here to the so-called levirate law (cf. Dt 25:5-10). Drawing upon the prescription of this ancient law, they presented the following case: "There were seven brothers. The first took a wife, and when he died, he left no children. The second took her, and died, leaving no children, and the third likewise, and the seven left no children. Last of all the woman also died. In the resurrection whose wife will she be? For the seven had her as wife" (Mk 12:20-23).(3)

Wisdom and power of God himself

3. Christ's answer is one of the answer-keys of the Gospel, in which there is revealed—precisely starting from purely human arguments and in contrast with them—another dimension of the question, that is, the one that corresponds to the wisdom and power of God himself. Similarly, the case had arisen of the tax coin with Caesar's image and of the correct relationship between what is divine and what is human (Caesar's) in the sphere of authority (cf. Mt 22:15-22). This time Jesus replied as follows: "Is not this why you are wrong, that you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God? For when they rise from the dead, they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven" (Mk 12:24-25). This is the fundamental reply to the case, that is, to the problem it contains. Knowing the thoughts of the Sadducees, and realizing their real intentions, Christ subsequently took up again the problem of the possibility of resurrection, denied by the Sadducees themselves: "As for the dead being raised, have you not read in the book of Moses, in the passage about the bush, how God said to him, 'I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob'? He is not a God of the dead, but of the living" (Mk 12:26-27). As we can see, Christ quoted the same Moses to whom the Sadducees had referred, and ended with the affirmation: "You are quite wrong" (Mk 12:27).

Another affirmation

4. Christ repeats this conclusive affirmation even a second time. In fact, he said it the first time at the beginning of his explanation. Then he said: "You are wrong, because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God" (Mt 22:29). We read in Mark: "Is not this why you are wrong, that you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God?" (12:24). In Luke's version (20:27-36), on the contrary, Christ's same answer is without polemical tones, without that, "You are quite wrong." On the other hand, he proclaimed the same thing since in his answer he introduced some elements which are not found either in Matthew or in Mark. Here is the text: "Jesus said to them, 'The sons of this age marry and are given in marriage. But those who are accounted worthy to attain to that age and to the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage, for they cannot die any more, because they are equal to angels and are sons of God, being sons of the resurrection'" (Lk 20:34-36). With regard to the possibility of resurrection, Luke—like the other two synoptics—refers to Moses, that is, to the passage in Exodus 3:2-6. This passage narrates that the great legislator of the old covenant had heard from the bush, which "was burning, yet not consumed," the following words: "I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob" (Ex 3:6). In the same place, when Moses had asked God's name, he had heard the answer: "I am who am" (Ex 3:14).

In this way, therefore, speaking of the future resurrection of the body, Christ refers to the power of the living God. We will have to consider this subject in greater detail later.


1. This law, contained in Dt 25:7-10, concerns brothers who lived under the same roof. If one of them died without leaving children, the dead man's brother had to marry his brother's widow. The child born of this marriage was recognized as the son of the deceased, so that his stock would not be extinguished and the inheritance would be kept in the family (cf. 3:9-4:12).

2. In the time of Christ, the Sadducees formed, within Judaism, a sect bound to the circle of the priestly aristocracy. In opposition to the oral tradition and theology elaborated by the Pharisees, they proposed the literal interpretation of the Pentateuch, which they considered the main source of the Jahwist religion. Since there was no mention of life after death in the most ancient books of the Bible, the Sadducees rejected the eschatology proclaimed by the Pharisees, affirming that "souls die together with the body" (cf. Joseph, Antiquitates Judaicae, XVII, 1.4, 16).
The conceptions of the Sadducees are not directly known to us, however, since all their writings were lost after the destruction of Jerusalem in the year 70, when the sect itself disappeared. We get what little information there is about the Sadducees from the writings of their ideological opponents.

3. The Sadducees, turning to Jesus for a purely theoretical "case," at the same time attacked the primitive conception of the Pharisees on life after the resurrection of the body. They insinuated, in fact, that faith in the resurrection of the body leads to admitting polyandry, which is contrary to God's law.

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
16 November 1981, page 3

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