Paul and the physical resurrection of Christ

In Christianity, a major tenet of our worldview holds that Jesus bodily, not spiritually, rose from the dead, as is reflected in the Gospels and other early Christian literature. This is in contrast to the belief some people (mostly non-Christians) have today that the earliest Christians believed Jesus spiritually rose from the dead, not bodily. Two days ago, I came across someone going by the pseudonym taterskank who commented the following on my recent post about the Greek Bible (New Testament);

Interesting tidbit, the Greek word Paul uses for the Resurrection “appearances” in 1 Cor 15:5-8 is ὤφθη (Greek – ōphthē). This word didn’t necessarily mean something was physically seen with the eyes but could just mean that someone just “spiritually” saw or experienced something. Well, the appearance to Paul was a spiritual vision (not a physical interaction with a revived corpse) and he makes no distinction in nature, quality, or type with regards to the “appearances” to the others. Therefore, Paul could be saying they all had the same or similar spiritual experiences. This is important because Paul is the earliest and only firsthand source therefore he’s more likely to preserve history better than the later secondhand or worse gospels.

Some specific notes need to be made here before it’s shown Paul held to a bodily resurrection just like every other Christian. Firstly, the people who make this claim don’t believe that the Gospels purport a spiritual resurrection, they only believe that the letters of Paul (which were written before the Gospels) hold to the idea of a spiritual resurrection, and thus claim that this was the earliest view of Christians which only later evolved into the notion of a physical resurrection represented in New Testament works post-dating Paul’s letters. This is argued for in a few ways, including arguing that some terminology Paul uses when discussing the resurrection of Jesus is compatible with a spiritual interpretation of the resurrection.

The terminology Paul uses to describe the resurrection only refers to someone physically coming back to life and isn’t compatible with spiritual resurrection. The Greel word Paul uses for ‘resurrection’ is ἀνάστασις (anastasis), which can only mean someone physically coming back to life according to Strong’s Greek Dictionary;

386 anástasis (from 303 /aná, “up, again” and 2476/hístēmi, “to stand”) – literally, “stand up” (or “stand again”), referring to physical resurrection (of the body).

Interestingly, the Greek word ἀνάστασις is cognate (derives) from ανά, which means ‘to stand’, otherwise referring to a body actually getting up (in the case of ἀνάστασις, that is, their body getting up back in life after having been dead). Secondly, the Greek word Paul uses for ‘raised’ is ἐγείρω (egeirō) which means someone physically waking up from sleep, or in this context, waking up from death. Both these terms imply a physical movement upwards when describing resurrection, hence, Paul believed Jesus bodily rose from the dead according to basic Greek terminology, and there is no evidence that the range of these Greek terms could include the possibility of spiritual resurrection.

There is more, however. If Paul believed in the empty tomb, he must have believed in a physical resurrection, since there is no way that Jesus’ tomb could become empty unless Jesus’ body actually left the tomb. In January of 2017, the Cambridge journal New Testament Studies published a paper titled Resurrection in Paganism and the Question of an Empty Tomb in 1 Corinthians 15 by John Granger Cook, a prominent historian and Professor of Religion and Philosophy at LaGrange College. In this paper, Cook demonstrates that in the context of Jewish and pagan belief in the centuries revolving the life of Jesus, resurrection was only viewed as a bodily phenomenon, and therefore demonstrating that in the context of the time of Jesus, His followers would have simply assumed physical resurrection and an empty tomb and would have not had any thoughts or even understanding of ‘spiritual resurrection’, that is to say, that Jesus would be ‘spiritually ascend to heaven’ despite a rotting corpse around Jerusalem. Therefore, the cultural context of when Christianity came on the scene is quite demonstrative that the followers of Jesus could only have believed in a physical resurrection and their appearance experiences were only physical in nature, and that the tomb had to be empty.

Secondly, it can be argued that the early creed Paul quotes in 1 Corinthians 15 implies very strictly that the tomb of Jesus became empty after the resurrection. Here is the entire creed;

1 Corinthians 15:3-7: For I passed on to you as most important what I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the Twelve.Then he appeared to over five hundred brothers and sisters at one time; most of them are still alive, but some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles.

In this early creed Paul cites in 1 Corinthians 15 that dates to within a few years if not months after Jesus’ death, Paul writes of Jesus “that he was buried, that he was raised” in a formulaic pattern where one action is transitive to the next, that is to say, when Jesus is “buried” he is then, from this burial, “raised”. This seems to imply that Jesus’ body was entered into the tomb during the burial and then came out of the tomb after the burial when Jesus rose, implying an empty tomb (as argued here in another paper published to the journal New Testament Studies by another prominent historian W.L. Craig). This, of course, also goes to show that Paul clearly makes his belief in the bodily resurrection. Furthermore, importantly, Paul was a Pharisee before converting to Christianity, and Pharisaic Jews strictly believed in bodily resurrection. As John Dominic Crossan writes in a paper titled A Vision of Divine Justice: The Resurrection of Jesus in Eastern Christian Iconography, “Is Eastern Christianity’s communal Anastasis of Jesus or Western Christianity’s individual Resurrection of Jesus in closer continuity—even granted its radical paradigm-shift—with pre-Christian Jewish tradition about bodily resurrection in, for example, Pharisaic circles?” (pg. 6).

To conclude my argument, I’ll also refer to another section of 1 Corinthians 15 regarding the resurrection that I find to directly reference the physical aspect of the future resurrection at the end of the world.

1 Corinthians 15:53-55For this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality. 54 When this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will be fulfilled: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.” 55 “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?”

According to Paul, our physical bodies will be taken and changed to become incorruptible. In other words, the resurrection must necessarily involve our actual bodies, and what will happen is that these bodies of ours, in the end of the world, will be taken and transformed so they are no longer perishable and corruptible and last eternally in heaven, the kingdom of God coming to our world. Paul’s belief in the bodily resurrection of the righteous in the end of the world must imply Paul also believed in the bodily resurrection of Jesus, since, of course, Paul tells us Jesus is the “fruit fruits” (1 Corinthians 15:23) of the final resurrection.


Was Jesus’ Body Stolen from the Tomb?

Jesus Christ was crucified by the Romans, under the reign of the Pontius Pilate, the fifth prefect of Judea. Shortly thereafter, Joseph of Arimathea acquired permission from Pilate that he would be able to take down the dead body of Jesus from the cross, and bury it. And so Joseph did. Several days later, the tomb of Jesus was discovered to be empty by a group of Jesus’ women followers, including well-known women in the New Testament such as Mary Magdalene, a women whom Jesus cast out seven demons from. Indeed, nowadays, a substantial majority of historians accept the historicity of the empty tomb. Indeed, after conducting an analysis on the recent trends of New Testament scholarship in Resurrection research, the eminent scholar Gary Habermas notes the following;

…while far from being unanimously held by critical scholars, it may surprise some that those who embrace the empty tomb as a historical fact still comprise a fairly strong majority.

This is not surprising, of course. There is overwhelming historical evidence for the empty tomb. So, we shall now go in and refute a rather popular hypothesis, the hypothesis that the body of Jesus was stolen from the its burial tomb, or purposefully removed from its burial place by some person. This claim is put forth in order to explain away the historicity of the empty tomb without invoking the historical Resurrection of Jesus.

Indeed, what can we say about this claim? Aside from there being zero explicit historical evidence to support such a notion, there is strong evidence from history to show that this would not have possibly happened, and that comes from an artifact known as the Nazareth Inscription. It likely dates to either the reign of Julius Caesar, or perhaps Augustus — at about 30 BC – 30 AD. This is what it says:


It is my decision [concerning] graves and tombs—whoever has made them for the religious observances of parents, or children, or household members—that these remain undisturbed forever. But if anyone legally charges that another person has destroyed, or has in any manner extracted those who have been buried, or has moved with wicked intent those who have been buried to other places, committing a crime against them, or has moved sepulcher-sealing stones, against such a person I order that a judicial tribunal be created, just as [is done] concerning the gods in human religious observances, even more so will it be obligatory to treat with honor those who have been entombed. You are absolutely not to allow anyone to move [those who have been entombed]. But if [someone does], I wish that [violator] to suffer capital punishment under the title of tomb-breaker.

Image result for caesar augustus nazareth inscription

According to the Nazareth Inscription, not only did 1) destroying the body in a tomb 2) removing a body from a tomb or 3) moving a body from a tomb to another location become illegal, but if someone is charged with doing such a thing, they would face capital punishment, i.e. execution. Indeed, this means that in the time of the death of Jesus, it was illegal to steal the body of Jesus and doing so would result in a sentencing of death. This highly removes the probability that anyone would even think of intentionally ceasing Jesus’ dead body from its tomb, especially the disciples themselves. The last thing a disciple of Jesus would do after being devastated by Jesus’ crucifixion, is steal His body and risk death.

Secondly, we must also consider that there is also no motivation for any person to actually steal the body in the first place, and so historically speaking, there is absolutely no warrant for suggesting this hypothesis in the first place. Thirdly, no scholar actually thinks that the body of Jesus was stolen from the tomb, and fourthly, the Gospel of Matthew entails that there existed a guard at the tomb of Jesus in the morning after the burial specifically so it would not be stolen (Matthew 27:62). So it seems to me that the historical evidence is quite overall weighty to establish that indeed, the body of Jesus was not stolen from the tomb. Therefore, Christians can be very happy and comfortable in taking up the position that the empty tomb is not due to some tomb-breaker or grave-bandit, but rather due to the physical Resurrection of Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior. Amen.