Philosophy Magazine

Did the First Christians Believe in the Physical Resurrection Of Jesus?

By Stuart_gray @stuartg__uk

Did the first Christians actually believe that Jesus physically rose from the dead? Or was his resurrection an idea that evolved over time? We all love a good conspiracy theory…but does this one have a ring of truth about it or not?

Richard Carrier identifies the earliest written record about post-resurrection Jesus in Paul’s letters. He goes full blown conspiracy – deciding that Paul’s idea of resurrection was “spiritual” rather than physical. To Carrier, the idea “Jesus actually walked out of the grave with the same body that went into it, leaving an empty tomb to astonish all, was probably a legend that developed.”[1] The New Testament Gospels, written after Paul’s death, therefore contain these legends. There was no empty tomb, just an idea in Paul’s mind that got blown up out of all proportion.

But is Carrier right that Paul was talking about ephemeral spiritual resurrections and spiritual bodies?

No – the first Christians believed in an empty tomb and Jesus’ physical resurrection. The explanation gets a bit technical tho…

Paul’s Teaching on the Empowerment of Resurrection Bodies

Paul contrasts natural and spiritual bodies in 1 Corinthians 15. To western minds, we might jump to the assumption he’s contrasting a physical body with a ghostly…spiritual body. We would be wrong. Why?

Paul’s original Greek contrasts soma psychikon (translated natural) and soma pneumatikon (translated spiritual). The word psychikon refers to something as soulish, while the word pneumatikon refers to something as spiritual. Paul’s not talking about physical bodies at all. He’s contrasting soulish and spirit empowered bodies.

This distinction has nothing to do with the composition of the bodies. Adjectives with the ending -ikos have ethical meanings, they don’t refer to material composition.[2] So Paul’s not talking about the composition of a soulish or spiritual body and he’s not thinking about the resurrection body’s composition. He’s talking about its power source.

Paul’s argument about resurrection bodies hinges on our power source – are we naturally driven, or driven by God’s power in our lives?

Carrier’s misunderstanding of Paul is probably enough to end the discussion here. But to show that the first Christians (like Paul) did indeed believe in an empty tomb and a physically resurrected Jesus, I’ll look now at Paul’s subsequent argument about the resurrection body.

Paul’s Teaching on the Nature of Resurrection Bodies

1 – Bodies are Physical

Paul teaches a right understanding of the physical body to those who despised the physical, and therefore expected resurrection to be somehow different. He appeals to God’s original creative work of the physical Adam.

“The first man, Adam, became a living person. But the last Adam – that is Christ – is a life-giving Spirit. What comes first is the natural body, then the spiritual body comes later.”[3] He’s saying, we all know soulish bodies exist (soma psychikon), but bodies animated by God’s spirit are also real (soma pneumatikon). Jesus’ resurrection body is an example of pneumatikon.[4]

If Paul didn’t think Jesus’ resurrection body was physical, why would he link the resurrected Christ with Adam? No – he tacitly assumes Jesus was really, physically raised.

2 – Jesus Resurrection Body is Like What Our Future Resurrection Body Will Be Like

He goes on to say that, “Just as we are now like the earthly man, we will someday be like the heavenly man.”[5] Our own resurrection bodies will be like Christ’s.

Jesus’ resurrection body was physical, so ours will be too.

3 – Our Soulish Lives Will Be Swallowed Up in Spirit Empowered Lives

The aim isn’t to leave our bodies for spiritual existence, the aim is “to let the present ‘heavenly’ life change the present earthy reality”[6] and look for a future where God’s intended “pneumatikos state…swallow(s) up and replace(s) [a] merely psychikos life.”[7]

Our current, corruptible soulish bodies can’t inherit God’s kingdom, but our future non-corruptible spirit empowered bodies will.

Conclusion

Carrier thinks Paul taught a non-physical resurrection body to his readers in Corinth. Yet Paul’s not writing about the nature of the body at all. Rather, he’s talking about what empowers the body – is it just soul, or spirit? In his argument, Paul assumes Christians will have a future body that will be “animated by, enlivened by, the Spirit of the true God.”[8]

Carrier misrepresents Paul’s argument, claiming he didn’t believe in physical resurrection bodies. No, Paul assumed Jesus’ physical resurrection and likened it to the Christian’s future, Spirit empowered body.

Conspiracy theories about the evolution of Jesus’ resurrection accounts therefore are not grounded; the earliest Christians (like Paul) did believe both that Christ was physically raised, and in the future, we will be too.

[1] Richard C. Carrier, “The Spiritual Body of Christ and the Legend of the Empty Tomb,” in The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave, eds. Robert M. Price, and Jeffery Jay Lowder (New York: Prometheus Books, 2005), Loc. 1259, Kindle.

[2] N. T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, (London:Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2003), 350.

[3] 1 Cor 15:45, NLT.

[4] Wright, 354.

[5] Wright, 355.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Wright, 354.


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