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In 1st Corinthians 15, the apostle Paul records the eyewitness accounts of the Lord Jesus Christ's resurrection:

For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.—1st Corinthians 15:3-9 (ESV)

I had a friend read that passage and ask if the apostle Paul leaves room for a non-physical (perhaps visionary) resurrection. What did the apostle Paul think?

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Paul can't be read to support a non-physical resurrection, in this passage or any other, unless you take his words out of context.

N. T. Wright is certainly the person to ask on the topic and he neatly summarizes the argument in an article addressing four reviews of his The Resurrection of the Son of God:

[Michael] Goulder, by contrast, proposes that the Jerusalem leadership held the view that Jesus’ resurrection was a matter of ‘spiritual’ transformation, rather than the ‘bodily resurrection’ which he ascribes to Paul. This is remarkable in itself; Goulder, never one to shirk controversial proposals, has stood on its head a more usual position, which is that Paul held a ‘spiritual’ view of the resurrection (based on the common misreading of the soma pneumatikon in 1 Corinthians 15) while some other, less Hellenized and more Jewish, early Christians stuck to a view of bodily resurrection.

What Wright calls "the common misreading", comes from 1st Corinthians 15:42-49 (ESV):

So is it with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable; what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor; it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness; it is raised in power. It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body. Thus it is written, “The first man Adam became a living being”; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit. But it is not the spiritual that is first but the natural, and then the spiritual. The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven. As was the man of dust, so also are those who are of the dust, and as is the man of heaven, so also are those who are of heaven. Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven.

The word spiritual throughout the passage is pneumatikos <4152>, which can mean:

1) relating to the human spirit, or rational soul, as part of the man which is akin to God and serves as his instrument or organ
1a) that which possesses the nature of the rational soul
2) belonging to a spirit, or a being higher than man but inferior to God
3) belonging to the Divine Spirit
3a) of God the Holy Spirit
3b) one who is filled with and governed by the Spirit of God
4) pertaining to the wind or breath; windy, exposed to the wind, blowing

While the idea of "spiritual renewal" seems possible to modern readers, in the context of resurrection, which meant a bodily coming back to life, it doesn't work. Paul uses the word "spiritual" because he is struggling to describe the sort of body that will be raised. In verses 35-49, he compares the process to the process of burying a seed. What is planted in the ground does not look like what eventually grows up, but both are of the same kind. In the Resurrection, we don't get an identical copy of our bodies, but something better. "Spiritual", in this case, is of the second definition: "belonging to a spirit, or a being higher than man but inferior to God". (It also might include the third meaning: "belonging to the Divine Spirit".)

Wright's book goes into great detail about what might and what might not be meant by resurrection in the New Testament. Here's a summary from another of his articles:

The first point to make here is vital. I have argued that the early Christians looked forward to a resurrection which was not a mere resuscitation, nor yet the abandonment of the body and the liberation of the soul, but a transformation, a new type of body living within a new type of world. This belief is embroidered with biblical motifs, articulated in rich theology. Yet in the gospel narratives we find a story, told from different angles of course, without such embroidering and theology—told indeed in restrained, largely unadorned prose. Yet the story is precisely of a single body neither abandoned, nor merely resuscitated, but transformed; and this, though itself totally unexpected, could give rise to exactly that developed view of which I have spoken. The Easter narratives, in other words, appear to offer an answer to why the early Christian hope and life took the form and shape they did.

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A non-physical resurrection was unheard of in Jewish thinking. To them, a person wasn't just a body, nor was it just a soul/spirit. Just a body would have been an animal. Just a spirit would have been like an angel. A complete person in Jewish thought was a unification of spirit and body--neither an animal nor an angel. (A spiritual resurrection is impossible to disprove. Even if you have a body, you can still say "But Jesus was raised spiritually.")

In 1 Cor. 15, Paul presupposes an empty tomb, and an empty tomb means the body is raised.

(3) For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, (4) and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, (5) and that He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. [NASB]

(The phrase "I delivered to you... what I also received" is a rabbinic phrase meaning "the tradition I pass on to you is exactly as I received it.")

Paul has a 4 part formula here.

  1. Christ died for our sins
  2. He was buried
  3. He was raised on the third day
  4. He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve (William Lane Craig on his website and debates often points out this formula when challenged with the question of a spiritual resurrection).

Even though Paul doesn't say "the tomb was empty," that wouldn't fit in the formula. The formula involves Christ's actions and "by the way, that tomb was empty" doesn't fit. However, each of these lines matches up to the events in the Gospels.

  1. Christ died for our sins (Matt 27:50; Mark 15:37; Luke 24:36; John 19:30)
  2. He was buried (Matt 27:60; Mark 15:46; Luke 23:53; John 19:40)
  3. He was raised on the third day (Matt 28:6; Mark 16:6; Luke 24:3; John 20:2)
  4. He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve (Matt 28:16-17; Mark 16:7; Luke 24:36; John 20:19)

(Each of those references are often the starting places of full accounts.)

Luke is very clear in his account (Luke 24:36ff) that Jesus is not merely spiritual. Jesus even says, "I have flesh and bones which spirit does not." He eats, which a spirit cannot do. This is relatedto the question because Luke was the companion of Paul, and it is unlikely that Luke would believe in a physical resurrection when his teacher in the faith did not.

I hope this helps.

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+1 Thank you for filling in the details about the empty tomb. I very nearly made the mistake of asserting that Paul mentioned it. He implies it when he talks of Jesus being raised. – Jon Ericson Feb 27 '12 at 19:29

Paul only speaks of having "visions" and "revelations" of the Lord - 2 Cor 12:1, Gal. 1:12-16. He uses the word ὤφθη (Greek - ōphthē) to equate all the appearances in 1 Cor 15:5-8. This word was used almost exclusively to denote supernatural/spiritual apparitions and the appearance to Paul was a "vision" of some sort. This indicates that Paul was using ὤφθη in the spiritual sense and not in the literal sense.

Accordingly, the second definition in Thayers Greek Lexicon defines ὤφθη as

to see with the mind

These would not be the words Paul would use if he knew about an empty tomb and the touching of a physically resurrected corpse like Luke and John later describe. Paul's testimony in no way supports these later accounts and the "appearances" in 1 Cor 15:5-8 cannot be used to corroborate the gospel appearance reports due to their obvious inconsistency and legendary growth.

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Welcome to Biblical Hermeneutics SE, thanks for contributing! Be sure to take our site tour to learn more about us. We're a little different from other SEs. Our community looks for answers to reflect a good degree of research and references. Typically, we like answers that cite scholarly references. Don't just tell us what you know, tell us how you know it. As an example, I have edited your answer to cite Thayer's Greek Lexicon. – James Shewey Jul 7 at 19:41

There are several examples of clear cut resurrection that certainly involve the body being reanimated:

Act_9:40 But Peter put them all forth, and kneeled down, and prayed; and turning him to the body said, Tabitha, arise. And she opened her eyes: and when she saw Peter, she sat up.

In other cases there is some ambiguity as to where the body comes from, such as Matthew's "zombie invasion":

Mat 27:52 And the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints which slept arose, Mat 27:53 And came out of the graves after his resurrection, and went into the holy city, and appeared unto many.

Presumably many of these had decomposed.

But the passage in which Paul describes "resurrection" actually is technically "reincarnation":

1Co 15:35 But some man will say, How are the dead raised up? and with what body do they come? 1Co 15:36 Thou fool, that which thou sowest is not quickened, except it die: 1Co 15:37 And that which thou sowest, thou sowest not that body that shall be, but bare grain, it may chance of wheat, or of some other grain: 1Co 15:38 But God giveth it a body as it hath pleased him, and to every seed his own body.

So Paul is clearly saying that the idea of resurrection is a bit idiotic. In typical Pauline hubris he calls those who have insufficient imagination and biology training "fools":

Mat 5:22 ISV But I say to you, anyone who is angry with his brother without a cause will be subject to punishment. And whoever says to his brother 'Raka!' will be subject to the Council. And whoever says 'You fool!' will be subject to hell fire.

Paul says that any idiot with half a brain in their head realizes that:

  • only a dead seed produces a plant (which of course is false)
  • you don't reap what you sow (also false in the case of seeds)
  • the body that comes from a seed might be another wheat plant or, if God chooses, a moon

Wben a body is reanimated that is properly called a "resurrection" but in Paul's paradigm where the old body dies, the body to be is not the body that was and the the body that God will choose to give can be can be unrelated to the body that was, that's "reincarnation".

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Paul actually equates the appearance to him (which was a vision) with that of the others in 1 Cor 15:5-8. No distinction is made in the nature of appearances so the best supported inference is that these were the same type of spiritual visionary encounters. This is further supported by Paul's evident lack of knowledge of any physical encounters with Jesus despite his 15 day long visit with Peter and James - Gal. 1. The gospel narratives are clearly later legends due to their inconsistency with the earliest report and amazing detail that gets increasingly more stupendous over time. Paul's view of resurrection did not involve the resuscitation of the physical earthly corpse. He believed in a "spiritual" body/entity that resided in heaven, not on earth.

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Welcome to Biblical Hermeneutics SE, thanks for contributing! Be sure to take our site tour to learn more about us. We're a little different from other SEs. Our community looks for answers to reflect a good degree of research and references. Typically, we like answers that cite scholarly references. Don't just tell us what you know, tell us how you know it. – James Shewey Jul 7 at 19:31

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