Was the Messiah expected to raise the dead?

There is an interesting episode in the life and ministry of Jesus where John the Baptist, languishing in prison for his preaching, sends some disciples to Jesus to question for sure whether Jesus really is the promised Messiah or not. Jesus points to His miraculous works and His teaching as the fulfillment of Messianic prophecy in answer to their question:

"Now when John, while imprisoned, heard of the works of Christ, he sent word by his disciples and said to Him, 'Are You the Expected One, or shall we look for someone else?' Jesus answered and said to them, 'Go and report to John what you hear and see: the blind receive sight and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the gospel preached to them. And blessed is he who does not take offense at Me,” (Matthew 11:2-6, see also Luke 7:20-23).

Here, Jesus is specifically drawing attention to the words of Isaiah:

"Say to those with anxious heart, 'Take courage, fear not. Behold, your God will come with vengeance; The recompense of God will come, But He will save you.' Then the eyes of the blind will be opened And the ears of the deaf will be unstopped. Then the lame will leap like a deer, And the tongue of the mute will shout for joy. For waters will break forth in the wilderness And streams in the Arabah," (Isaiah 35:4-6).

With the final clause drawn elsewhere from the same prophet:

"The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, Because the Lord has anointed me To bring good news to the afflicted," Isaiah 61:1

But Jesus adds something not found in either of these texts. He mentions that "the dead are raised." Was this also a prophetic expectation? Interestingly, Justin Martyr, an early Christian living in Samaria, also cites the passage in Isaiah as if it contains this clause:

"And that it was predicted that our Christ should heal all diseases and raise the dead, hear what was said. There are these words: 'At His coming the lame shall leap as a deer, and the tongue of the stammerer shall be clear speaking: the blind shall see, and the lepers shall be cleansed; and the dead shall rise, and walk about,'" (Justin Martyr, First Apology, Chapter 48).

One might argue that Justin was merely copying Jesus as presented in the gospels, but this is not necessarily the case. Before the time of Jesus, we find an interesting text in the Dead Sea Scrolls which reads:

"the heavens and the earth will listen to His Messiah, and none therein will stray from the commandments of the holy ones. Seekers of the Lord, strengthen yourselves in His service! All you hopeful in (your) heart, will you not find the Lord in this? For the Lord will consider the pious and call the righteous by name. Over the poor His spirit will hover and will renew the faithful with His power. And he will glorify the pious on the throne of the eternal kingdom. He who liberates the captives. restores sight to the blind, straightens the bent, and forever I will cleave to the hopeful and in His mercy...and the fruit...will not be delayed for anyone. And the Lord will accomplish glorious things which have never been as...For He will heal the wounded, and revive the dead and bring good news to the poor...He will lead the uprooted and make the hungry rich..." (A Messianic Apocalypse, 4Q521).1

Notice that, just like Jesus, the author of this text combines the miraculous list of Isaiah 35 with the preaching of good news to the poor in Isaiah 61, connects them with the coming of Messiah, and adds to them the raising of the dead! We have very old and very complete ancient copies and translations of Isaiah. There is no reason to think that either of these verses originally contained a now-lost prediction about the raising of the dead. It seems, however, that Jews of this era had an established (though certainly not universal) tradition of reading these texts as Messianic and attaching to them the idea of raising the dead. Perhaps they did so by drawing on a third text from Isaiah: 

"Your dead will live; Their corpses will rise. You who lie in the dust, awake and shout for joy, For your dew is as the dew of the dawn, And the earth will give birth to the departed spirits," (Isaiah 26:19).

However, this is not certain since, unlike the other two passages, this passage is not quoted directly but only, at best, alluded to in paraphrase. At any rate, it seems clear that there was a known tradition that the miracles of Isaiah 35 and the preaching of Isaiah 61 would also coincide with the raising of some who were dead and would all point to the coming of the Messiah. Jesus drew on this tradition and pointed to His healing the blind, lame, and sick, raising the dead, and preaching good news to the poor as a demonstration to John and to the crowd that He was, indeed, the promised one.

  • 1. Geza Vermes, The Complete Dead Sea Scrolls in English (Penguin Books, 2004) 412-413