Tertullian on Ezekiel’s Vision of the Dry Bones
Posted by Dim Bulb on April 1, 2017
CHAP. XXIX.—EZEKIEL’S VISION OF THE DRY BONES QUOTED
Inasmuch, then, as even the figurative portions of Scripture, and the arguments of facts, and some plain statements of Holy Writ, throw light upon the resurrection of the flesh (although without specially naming the very substance), how much more effectual for determining the question will not those passages be which indicate the actual substance of the body by expressly mentioning it! Take Ezekiel: “And the hand of the Lord,” says he, “was upon me; and the Lord brought me forth in the Spirit, and set me in the midst of a plain which was full of bones; and He led me round about them in a circuit: and, behold, there were many on the face of the plain; and, lo, they were very dry. And He said unto me, Son of man, will these bones live? And I said, O Lord God, Thou knowest. And He said unto me, Prophesy upon these bones; and thou shalt say, Ye dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus saith the Lord God to these bones, Behold, I bring upon you the breath of life, and ye shall live: and I will give unto you the spirit, and I will place muscles over you, and I will spread skin upon you; and ye shall live, and shall know that I am the Lord. And I prophesied as the Lord commanded me: and while I prophesy, behold there is a voice, behold also a movement, and bones approached bones. And I saw, and behold sinews and flesh came up over them, and muscles were placed around them; but there was no breath in them. And He said unto me, Prophesy to the wind, son of man, prophesy and say, Thus saith the Lord God, Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe in these dead men, and let them live. So I prophesied to the wind, as He commanded me, and the spirit entered into the bones, and they lived, and stood upon their feet, strong and exceeding many. And the Lord said unto me, Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say themselves, Our bones are become dry, and our hope is perished, and we in them have been violently destroyed. Therefore prophesy unto them, (and say), Behold, even I will open your sepulchres, and will bring you out of your sepulchres, O my people, and will bring you into the land of Israel: and ye shall know how that I the Lord opened your sepulchres, and brought you, O my people, out of your sepulchres; and I will give my Spirit unto you, and ye shall live, and shall rest in your own land: and ye shall know how that I the Lord have spoken and done these things, saith the Lord.”1
CHAP. XXX.—THIS VISION INTERPRETED BY TERTULLIAN OF THE RESURRECTION OF THE BODIES OF THE DEAD. A CHRONOLOGICAL ERROR OF OUR AUTHOR, WHO SUPPOSES THAT EZEKIEL IN HIS CH. XXXI. PROPHESIED BEFORE THE CAPTIVITY
I am well aware how they torture even this prophecy into a proof of the allegorical sense, on the ground that by saying, “These bones are the whole house of Israel,” He made them a figure of Israel, and removed them from their proper literal condition; and therefore (they contend) that there is here a figurative, not a true prediction of the resurrection, for (they say) the state of the Jews is one of humiliation, in a certain sense dead, and very dry, and dispersed over the plain of the world. Therefore the image of a resurrection is allegorically applied to their state, since it has to be gathered together, and recompacted bone to bone (in other words, tribe to tribe, and people to people), and to be reincorporated by the sinews of power and the nerves of royalty, and to be brought out as it were from sepulchres, that is to say, from the most miserable and degraded abodes of captivity, and to breathe afresh in the way of a restoration, and to live thenceforward in their own land of Judæa. And what is to happen after all this? They will die, no doubt. And what will there be after death? No resurrection from the dead, of course, since there is nothing of the sort here revealed to Ezekiel. Well, but the resurrection is elsewhere foretold: so that there will be one even in this case, and they are rash in applying this passage to the state of Jewish affairs; or even if it do indicate a different recovery from the resurrection which we are maintaining, what matters it to me, provided there be also a resurrection of the body, just as there is a restoration of the Jewish state? In fact, by the very circumstance that the recovery of the Jewish state is prefigured by the reincorporation and reunion of bones, proof is offered that this event will also happen to the bones themselves; for the metaphor could not have been formed from bones, if the same thing exactly were not to be realized in them also. Now, although there is a sketch of the true thing in its image, the image itself still possesses a truth of its own: it must needs be, therefore, that that must have a prior existence for itself, which is used figuratively to express some other thing. Vacuity is not a consistent basis for a similitude, nor does nonentity form a suitable foundation for a parable. It will therefore be right to believe that the bones are destined to have a rehabiliment of flesh and breath, such as it is here said they will have, by reason indeed of which their renewed state could alone express the reformed condition of Jewish affairs, which is pretended to be the meaning of this passage. It is however, more characteristic of a religious spirit to maintain the truth on the authority of a literal interpretation, such as is required by the sense of the inspired passage. Now, if this vision had reference to the condition of the Jews, as soon as He had revealed to him the position of the bones, He would at once have added, “These bones are the whole house of Israel,” and so forth. But immediately on showing the bones, He interrupts the scene by saying somewhat of the prospect which is most suited to bones; without yet naming Israel, He tries the prophet’s own faith: “Son of man, can these bones ever live?” so that he makes answer: “O Lord, Thou knowest.” Now God would not, you may be sure, have tried the prophet’s faith on a point which was never to be a real one, of which Israel should never hear, and in which it was not proper to repose belief. Since, however, the resurrection of the dead was indeed foretold, but Israel, in the distrust of his great unbelief, was offended at it; and, whilst gazing on the condition of the crumbling grave, despaired of a resurrection; or rather, did not direct his mind mainly to it, but to his own harassing circumstances,—therefore God first instructed the prophet (since he, too, was not free from doubt), by revealing to him the process of the resurrection, with a view to his earnest setting forth of the same. He then charged the people to believe what He had revealed to the prophet, telling them that they were themselves, though refusing to believe their resurrection, the very bones which were destined to rise again. Then in the concluding sentence He says, “And ye shall know how that I the Lord have spoken and done these things,” intending of course to do that of which He had spoken; but certainly not meaning to do that which He had spoken of, if His design had been to do something different from what He had said.