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;
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, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the Twelve.6 Then he appeared to over five hundred brothers and sisters at one time; most of them are still alive, but some have fallen asleep. 7 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 15:53-55: For 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.