It is not uncommon for skeptics to allege that Paul believed in a spiritual resurrected body, according to scholar Wallace: “Some people have pointed to Paul’s emphasis on a spiritual body in 1 Corinthians 15 as implying that the resurrection is strictly spiritual, lacking any physical element. But this appeal ignores the Jewish background on resurrection that Christianity inherited” (1).
It also ignores the fact that Paul was, prior to his conversion, a Pharisee. Pharisees held to a physical resurrection (see: Jewish War 3.374, 2.163; 4Q521; 1QH 14.34; 4Q 385-391; Genesis Rabbah 14.5; Leviticus Rabbah 14.9). For instance, one leading scholar by the name of NT Wright, in his 700 page volume, argues that the resurrection in pagan, Jewish, and Christian cultures meant a physical and bodily resurrection (2). Paul held the same view (cf. 1 Corinthians 6:14; Romans 8:11; Philippians 3:20-21).
The challenge forwarded by skeptics comes down to Paul’s use of the word ἀνάστασις (anastasis) which is the word used to designate a physical resurrection. The skeptic will say that Paul did not use this word to refer to Jesus’ post-mortem appearances to him and to others, especially in the early creedal formula of 1 Corinthians 15: 1-11, as one atheist has argued (3). However, Paul does use this word in Romans 1:4 (4), yet in 1 Corinthians 15 he uses the Greek word ἐγείρω (egeiro) and ἀνάστασις (anastasis) synonymously to refer to resurrection all throughout the creed.
So, in 1 Corinthians 15, when Paul writes that Christ had been raised from the dead he is referring to a physical body being raised to new life, leaving an empty tomb behind it (5). Thus, whenever a pagan or Jew heard the story of Jesus’ resurrection they would have known that it meant a physical and bodily resurrection (6). As Wright articulates: “Until second century Christianity, the language of ‘resurrection’ had been thought by pagan, Jew, and Christian as some kind of return to bodily and this-worldly life” (7). In agreement Professor Keener writes that “…bodily resurrection was a Palestinian Jewish idea” (8). This is significant because it would imply the empty tomb (see my article on the empty tomb). According to exegete William Craig:
“The vast majority of contemporary Pauline scholars therefore conclude that Paul believed in a physical resurrection body (and therefore by implication the empty tomb). In his recent doctoral dissertation “The Historicity of the Resurrection of Jesus” (2008) Michael Licona lists Ackerman, Barnett, Barrett, Bostock, Brodeur, Collins, Conzelman, Fee, Gundry, Harris, Hayes, Hèring, Hurtado, Johnson, Kistemaker, Lockwood, Martin, Segal, Snyder, Thiselton, Witherington, and Wright” (9).
What about 1 Corinthians 15:50?
Before concluding I wish to note a few challenges to the scholarly consensus that Paul mentions a physically resurrected Jesus.
First, what about Paul’s message in 1 Corinthians 15:50? The important text reads: “Now I say this, brethren, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God.” Well, is Paul denying a physical resurrected body? Is he stating that the resurrected body is an immaterial reality? No.
Rather Paul is using an idiom, so when he says “flesh and blood” he is making use of a “typical Semitic idiom indicating our frail human nature. Elsewhere Paul uses the expression to mean “mortal creatures” (Ephesians 6.12) or even just “people” (Galatians 1.16). Thus, the second half of the verse parallels the first: “neither is the corruptible able to inherit incorruption.” The present body must be freed of its corruptibility, not its materiality, in order for it to be fit for God’s eternal dominion” (10).
Natural vs. Spiritual:
What does Paul mean by the words translated as “natural/spiritual” (Corinthians 2:14-15)? The word translated “natural” (psychikos) literally means “soul-ish.” When Paul wrote this he does not mean that our present body is made out of soul. Instead, when he uses the word natural he means “dominated by or pertaining to human nature.” On the other hand when he says the resurrection body will be “spiritual” (pneumatikos), he does not mean “made out of spirit.” Instead, he means “dominated by or oriented toward the Spirit.” In fact, note the way Paul uses those same words in 1 Corinthians 2:14-15:
“But a natural man (anthropos psychikos) does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised. But he who is spiritual (pneumatikos) appraises all things, yet he himself is appraised by no one.”
Accordingly, natural man does not mean “physical man,” but “man oriented toward human nature.” And spiritual man does not mean “intangible, immaterial man” but “man oriented toward the Spirit.” The contrast is the same in 1 Corinthians 15. The present, earthly body will be freed from its slavery to sinful human nature and become instead fully empowered and directed by God’s Spirit. (11)
Paul does believe in a physically resurrected body, as most historians believe. Physical resurrection was a Palestinian Jewish conception, and Paul himself was a Palestinian Jew. His use of the word anastasis (Romans 1:4 & 1 Corinthians 15) refers to a physically resurrected body even though he uses egeiro and anastasis synonymously in his creed in 1 Corinthians 15. Wright’s research has also demonstrated that the Jews, pagans, and Christians within the 1st century (and up until the 2nd century) believed resurrection to be some kind of return to bodily and this-worldly life. Philosopher and exegete Tim McGrew ends off for us:
“Paul’s reference is clearly to a physical resurrection. We can see this not only from the interpretation of Paul’s own writings — from an analysis of what he means by “spiritual,” for example — but also from the broader historical context. Paul was a Pharisee, and he makes use of the notion of the resurrection at the end of the age that the Pharisees endorsed, which was unquestionably physical” (12).
1. Wallace, D. & Bock, D. 2010. Dethroning Jesus.
2. Wright, N. 2003. The Resurrection of the Son of God. Conclusion: Resurrection in Paul.
3. Barker, D. 2009. Godless. p. 294.
4. Wallace, D. 2015. Fact Checking Dan Barker. Available.
5. Wright, N. 2003. Ibid. p. 321.
6. Habermas, G. Resurrection Research from 1975 to the Present: What are Critical Scholars Saying? Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus, 3.2 (2005), 135-153
7. Wright, N. 2003. ibid. p. 83.
8. Keener, C. 2012. The Historical Jesus of the Gospels. p. 333.
9. Craig, W. 2009. Jesus’ Body. Available.
10. Craig, W. 2009. Ibid.
11. Craig, W. 2009. Ibid.
12. Personal correspondence with Tim McGrew.