Did Paul believe in a heavenly, visionary Jesus or an embodied, resurrected Jesus?

Every serious historian who studies Christian origins agrees that Paul is our earliest source for the resurrection of Jesus. Even atheistic scholars like Gerd Ludemann admit that the creed Paul quotes in 1 Corinthians 15 is dated within a short time after Jesus’ crucifixion, possibly even within the first year.

Here’s the rub: Many critics claim that since Paul is our earliest source, and his experience of Jesus was a visionary experience, that was likely the other apostles’ experience too. The gospels later embellished the story because Paul taught that Jesus rose spiritually, not bodily. Modern-day Christians don’t accept the visionary stories of Joseph Smith or Muhammed. So why believe the Christian story when it’s equally as outlandish? Does Paul contradict the gospel writers when it comes to the nature of the resurrection?

Well, no. Here are three strong reasons why Paul believed Jesus rose from the dead bodily.

The Jewishness of the Apostle Paul

The Pharisees believed in bodily resurrection. The gospel writers note that the Sadducees didn’t believe in angels, demons, souls, or the resurrection from the dead. Aside from their belief in Yahweh, they were the materialists of their day. The Pharisees, on the other hand, believed in all of these things – including the resurrection from the dead.

We see proof of this from the gospels, where Jesus sided with the Pharisees on the resurrection from the dead. (Mark 12:18-27) To escape from the Sanhedrin, Paul used this division to his advantage to start an uproar when he was on trial. (Acts 23:6-10) Not only that the Mishnah records that anyone who doesn’t believe in bodily resurrection was “apikoros” — that is to say a heretic. (Sanhedrin 10.1)

In Phillippians 3:5, Paul called himself a Pharisee. He counted his rank in the Pharisees camp as a loss so that he might attain the resurrection from the dead. He said this wasn’t something he achieved yet, but it was chief motivation. (Philippians 3:11-14) Regarding his old religious identity, Paul counted all things as loss. But he didn’t unhitch from his Jewish belief in bodily resurrection.

Where did the Jewish belief in the resurrection from the dead originate?

There are three prophecies on the resurrection from the dead found in the prophets:

  • Isaiah 26:19: “Your dead shall live; their bodies shall rise. You who dwell in the dust, awake and sing for joy! For your dew is a dew of light, and the earth will give birth to the dead.”
  • Daniel 12:2: “And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.”
  • Hosea 13:14, which Paul paraphrases in 1 Corinthians 15:55: “I shall ransom them from the power of Sheol; I shall redeem them from Death. O Death, where are your plagues? O Sheol, where is your sting?”

But why did Paul say that Jesus resurrected, according to the scriptures?

We don’t know for sure what scriptures Paul had in mind, as he doesn’t specify in any of his letters. Luke does have Paul referring to Psalm 16:10 in his sermon in Acts 13. The verse reads: “For You will not abandon my soul to Sheol; Nor will You allow Your Holy One to undergo decay.” The logic here is David is dead and buried. He’s the author of the Psalm so he can’t be referring to himself.

The skeptic might think that’s some poor exegesis. That’s another debate – my point is this shows the apostolic thought at the time. And that thought is that Jesus’ body didn’t remain in the grave. The common retort here is that Luke wrote Acts and he wasn’t a traveling companion of Paul. But there are masses of evidence that isn’t the case. For the details on the historical reliability of Acts, you’ll want to watch this video by Dr. Tim McGrew:

A second possibility is Paul is referencing the Suffering Servant passage of Isaiah 53. Paul draws a lot of his theology from the chapter, as Craig Evans argues. The table below provides a bit of an overview. If that’s the case, Isaiah references that a Servant who is a real person that dies and goes to the grave (v9). If he goes to the grave, given Paul’s background beliefs, he would believe he’d come up from the grave.

ISAIAH 52-53PAUL
Is. 52:15 Rom. 15:21; 1 Cor. 2:9
Is. 53:1 (+ 52:7) Rom. 10:16 (+ Rom. 10:15; 2 Cor. 5:20)
Is. 53:4–5 Rom. 4:25
Is. 53:7 1 Cor. 5:7
Is. 53:8–9 1 Cor. 15:3
Is. 53:11 Rom. 5:19

(Some might dispute the identity of the servant, for that see: 6 strong reasons why Isaiah 53 describes Jesus alone.)

Bodily Resurrection from Paul’s Letters.

Finally, we can see that Paul taught bodily resurrection. Now here skeptics love to cherry-pick and misconstrue 1 Corinthians 15:50, where Paul talks about flesh and blood not being able to inherit the kingdom of God. But I think when we read the other letters of Paul, not to mention the actual context of 1 Cor. 15, we see that can’t possibly be the case.

Romans 4:17-25: “as it is written, “I have made you the father of many nations”—in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist. In hope he believed against hope, that he should become the father of many nations, as he had been told, “So shall your offspring be.” He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was as good as dead (since he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb. No unbelief made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. That is why his faith was “counted to him as righteousness.” But the words “it was counted to him” were not written for his sake alone, but for ours also. It will be counted to us who believe in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord, who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification.”

The meaning is clear: God gave life to the deadness of Abraham and Sarah’s bodies and brought new life (Isaac) into existence. Because he believed in physical life coming to be from the dead, hope against hope, he was made righteous. We believe in the resurrection and by that are justified, according to Paul. Just as it looked physically impossible for Isaac to be born, Jesus physically rising looked impossible.

1 Corinthians 6:12-20: “…All things are lawful for me,” but not all things are helpful. “All things are lawful for me,” but I will not be dominated by anything. “Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food”—and God will destroy both one and the other. The body is not meant for sexual immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. And God raised the Lord and will also raise us up by his power. Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I then take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never! Or do you not know that he who is joined to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For, as it is written, “The two will become one flesh.” But he who is joined to the Lord becomes one spirit with him. Flee from sexual immorality. Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the sexually immoral person sins against his own body. Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body. “

Paul here is motivating the Corinthians against committing sexual immorality. Part of that is him pointing to the fact that God was going to raise their bodies to immortality. God bought our bodies, he lives in our bodies, and he’s going to resurrect our bodies. Therefore, don’t be immoral with your body. He didn’t say that sexual immorality is a sin against our soul, but the body.

Philippians 3:21: ” who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself. “

Paul says that God is going to transform our lowly body like Christ’s glorious body. Chapters before, Paul was talking about his inner debate about leaving his body or staying. (Philippians 1:21-24) Paul’s preference is to be with Christ, which would mean leaving his body. But the church needs him, so he stays. That he distinguishes living separately from his body and the resurrection is crucial to understanding Paul’s thought. That’s a good segway to my next couple of passages.

1 Thessalonians 4:16-18: ” For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. Therefore encourage one another with these words. “

Those who are with the Lord are those who died in Christ. God raises their bodies by rejoining their spirits with their bodies, and those who are alive when Jesus comes experience transformation of their bodies.

Romans 8:11, 18-23: ” If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you… For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.

Paul says God will make our bodies alive by the Spirit. Here Paul envisions the redemption of the material world. Paul says that creation “groans and suffers” for reconciliation with God. It’s to be “set free from its slavery.” Paul goes on to explicitly include our material bodies in that reconciliation in verse 23. He’s not talking about immaterial, ethereal existence. He’s talking about the physical world and our physical bodies.

So why does Paul say that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God?

1 Corinthians 15:45-50: “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. I tell you this, brothers: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable.

Here skeptics make mountains out of molehills and chuck the rest of the Pauline letters. When Paul refers to spiritual bodies, he’s not referring to non-physical bodies. He’s not referring to mortal bodies, but an embodied immorality. Here’s EP Sanders, who is not a particularly conservative scholar:

“The degree to which he thought of ‘transformation’, rather than either disembodiment or resuscitation, can be seen in his discussion of ‘putting on’ immortality. Thinking of those who would still be alive when the Lord returned, he wrote that the ‘perishable nature must put on the imperishable, and this mortal nature must put on immortality’. This would fulfill the Scripture, ‘Death is swallowed up in victory.’ (1 Cor. 15:53 f.). He used the same imagery in 2 Corinthians 5. The living are in an ‘earthly tent’, and they wish not to be ‘unclothed’, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life’ (1 Cor. 5:4). The metaphor changes from ‘tent’ to ‘clothing’, but the meaning is nevertheless clear. Immortality is ‘put on’ and replaces mortality. Paul was not thinking of an interior soul which escapes its mortal shell and floats free, nor of new life being breathed into the same body, but again of transformation, achieved by covering mortality with immortality, which then ‘swallows’ it.”

Paul, p 30.

Even Bart Ehrman gets the point of 1 Cor. 15. In his book “How Did Jesus Become God?”, he writes:

“Paul is emphatic: Jesus was bodily raised from the dead. Paul states this view vigorously in 1 Corinthians 15, and in some sense, the entire chapter is written to make the point—precisely because Paul’s opponents in Corinth had a different view. In their opposing view, Jesus was raised in the spirit, not in the body, such that Christians who enjoy the resurrection with him in their own lives are also spiritually raised—not in their bodies but in their inner beings…And that is the point of 1 Corinthians 15. The fact—Paul takes it as a fact—that the resurrected bodies of believers will be like the resurrected body of Jesus shows that the resurrection has not yet taken place. It is a bodily (not purely spiritual) event, and since it is a bodily event, it obviously has not happened yet because we are still living in our pathetic mortal bodies.”

How Jesus Became God pp 176-77

PAUL BELIEVED IN BODILY RESURRECTION

To say that Paul didn’t believe in bodily resurrection flies in the face of all the evidence that we have. It goes what we know about the Jewish context of his time, his background beliefs as a Pharisee and what he clearly taught. Skeptics who want to make the appearances of Jesus non-corporeal, therefore hallucinatory are just butchering the text.

Paul clearly believed in bodily resurrection. If he’s our earliest source and preached the same gospel as other apostles, then the gospels aren’t in contradiction to the earliest message of the church. The early church was fully persuaded of the bodily resurrection of Jesus, just like the Gospels and Acts record.

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