According to New Testament scholar Daniel B. 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” (1).
But does this, which one might refer to as the “spiritual body hypothesis”, adequately account for important factors concerning the person and writings of Paul? Many, in fact most scholars, will argue that it does not because Paul held to the idea of a physical resurrected body (the “physical body hypothesis”). There are a few important reasons why.
The spiritual body hypothesis needs to account for the fact that Paul was, prior to his conversion, a Pharisee, and that Pharisees held to a physical resurrection of all believers at the end of the world (cf. Daniel 12:1-3, Jewish War 3.374, 2.163; 4Q521; 1QH 14.34; 4Q 385-391; Genesis Rabbah 14.5; Leviticus Rabbah 14.9). Biblical scholar N. T. Wright argues that the resurrection in pagan, Jewish, and Christian cultures meant a physical and bodily resurrection, and that Paul held the same view (cf. 1 Corinthians 6:14; Romans 8:11; Philippians 3:20-21) (2).
Debates between the physical and spiritual body hypotheses often come down to some of Paul’s terminology, particularly his use of the word ἀνάστασις (anastasis), which is the term used to refer to a physical resurrection. The proponent of the spiritual body hypothesis will contend that Paul did not, for example, use this word to refer to Christ’s resurrection appearances to himself and to others. If so, Paul only received spiritual visions of Christ, never encountering him physically. This is of interest to proponents of the spiritual body hypothesis because it is one step away from claiming that the many appearances of Christ, after his death by crucifixion, to Paul and others were hallucinations, not tangible historical events that need to be deemed historical. However, these implications aside, it is clear that Paul did use this term in his letters (see Romans 1:4), and also employed it interchangeably with another Greek term ἐγείρω (meaning to ‘wake up’) referring to the resurrection. Paul uses the term anastasis no less than three times in the 15th chapter of 1 Corinthians. It is clear then that Paul’s view of the resurrection body was physical.
That Paul held this view is accepted by numerous authorities in New Testament and Pauline scholarship including M. Licona, D. Ackerman, P. Barnett, C. K. Barrett, G. Bostock, S. Brodeur, R. F. Collins, H. Conzelman, G. D. Fee, R. H. Gundry, M. J. Harris, M. A. Hayes, L. W. Hurtado, A. F. Johnson, S. J. Kistemaker, G. J. Lockwood, D. M. Martin, A. F. Segal, G. F. Snyder, A. C. Thiselton, B. Witherington, and N. T. Wright.
Moreover, what about Paul’s text which interpreters claim supports the spiritual body hypothesis, such as a statement in 1 Corinthians 15:50: “Now I say this, brethren, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God.” (emph. added)?
Is Paul here denying a physical resurrection body in support a what some interpreters claim is a spiritual/immaterial one? Very unlikely. Not only would it make little sense for Paul to teach both a resurrection of a physical and an immaterial body (one cannot ignore his physical views of the resurrection body in Romans and 1 Corinthians), but Paul is also making use of an idiom: when he says “flesh and blood” he refers specifically to frail human nature. In other words, he does not mean flesh and blood in the atomic, tangible sense not being able to enter heaven, but rather a flesh and blood of a weak, sinful nature not being able to. It is an idiom Paul used elsewhere when referring to some sense of weakness in “mortal creatures” (Ephesians 6:12) or in “people” (Galatians 1:16).
In closing then, it should not be doubted that Paul held to a physical view of the resurrection, thus strongly challenging claims made by proponents of the spiritual body hypothesis. The physical body hypothesis, rather, is consistent with what historians know of resurrection belief within a 1st century Palestinian-Jewish context, and, most importantly, with Paul’s own understanding from a Pharisaic perspective, and from his own writings which denote the physicality of Christ’s resurrection body.
1. Wallace, D. & Bock, D. 2010. Dethroning Jesus. p. 209.
2. Wright, N. 2003. The Resurrection of the Son of God. Conclusion: Resurrection in Paul. p. 83.