Jesus’s Resurrection and ours According to Paul the Apostle

Jesus’s Resurrection and ours According to Paul the Apostle

By James P. Ware

The resurrection narratives in the Gospels portray Jesus as raised to life on the third day in his crucified body, leaving behind him an empty tomb. In Luke’s Gospel, for example, the resurrection narrative beg ins with the disciples’ discover y of the empty tomb (24:1–12; cf. 24:23–24). At the climax of the narrative, Jesus shows himself alive to the Twelve and the other disciples, inviting them to “touch me and see, because a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have” (Luke 24:39). In John’s Gospel, Jesus invites doubting Thomas to probe the scars in his hands and side ( John 20:24–29). The speeches of the apostles in Acts similarly assert that the flesh of Jesus was raised without undergoing decay (2:25–31; 13:34–37), and that the risen Jesus ate and drank with his disciples (10:40–42; cf. 1:3-4). In both the Gospels and Acts, Jesus’s resurrection is portrayed as a concrete, physical e vent involving Jesus’s flesh and bones. And the Easter e vent is understood as the fulfillment of the creator God’s promised conquest of death, bringing the hope of bodily resurrection for all who believe (John 5:24–29; 6:39, 40, 44, 54; Acts 4:1–2; 23:7–10; 24:14–15; 26:6–8; 26:22–23; cf. Matt 27:52–53). The bodily, flesh-and-bones character of this hope of future resurrection is emphatic in the historic Christian creeds, such as the Apostles’ Creed (6th century AD): credo in . . . carnis resurrectionem (“I believe in . . . the resurrection of the flesh”), and its direct ancestor the Old Roman Creed (c. 175 AD): pisteuoeis . . . sarkos anastasin (“I believe in . . . the resurrection of the flesh”).

The Contemporary Debate Regarding 1 Corinthians 15

1 Corinthians  15 is by far the fullest treatment of the Christian hope  of  resurrection within  the  entire  Bible. However,   many contemporary readers  of this chapter, on both popular and scholarly levels, believe the y find there a form of resurrection hope radically different from the hope we find in the Gospels, the book of Acts, and the historic Christian creeds. To be sure, a number of scholars, such as Richard Hays, N. T. Wright, and Anthony Thiselton, argue that Paul’s  conception of the resurrection in 1 Corinthians  15, in continuity  with the  Gospels and  Acts,  involves the  resurrection (and glorious transformation  to imperishability) of the once-dead body of flesh and bones from the tomb. But the mainstream view in contemporary New Testament scholarship is represented by scholars such  as Dale Martin, Troels Engberg -Pedersen, and Marcus  Borg , who argue that Paul in 1 Corinthians  15 envisions an heavenly or “spiritual” body which excludes participation of the earthly, mortal body in final salvation.

This reading of 1 Corinthians 15 is the basis in turn for a widespread scholarly view of Christian orig ins in which belief in the resurrection of Jesus’s  crucified body from the tomb, such  as we see reflected in the gospel accounts, was a later development, unknown to Paul and the  earliest Christ  followers.  As Rudolf Bultmann famously remarked, “ The accounts of an empty  tomb are leg ends, of which Paul as yet knew nothing .”1  From this perspective, the good news of the resurrection proclaimed in 1 Corinthians 15, and the good news narrated by Matthew,  Mark,  Luke, and John, are different gospels indeed.  For (on this reading ) the y  are fundamentally at variance regarding the meaning of the affirmation that Jesus has been raised from the dead on the third day, and the nature of the hope which Jesus’s resurrection  offers those who believe.

This debate also has  extraordinarily  important implications  for Paul’s thought. The expectation of the resurrection of the flesh is a hope for the redemption of this world and this body ; an expectation of resurrection to a disembodied or ethereally embodied existence is a hope, much like that of Plato, that this body and this world will be transcended in  a  world above. These contrasting  claims regarding the apostle’s  vision of humanity ’s  ultimate future entail radically different construals  of Pauline soteriology, Christology, anthropology, and ethics. There is thus no area of Pauline theology that the debate concerning the nature of resurrection in Paul does not touch.

The Structure of Paul’s Argument in 1 Corinthians 15:36-54

I  believe  the  exegetical  key to Paul’s  understanding   of  the resurrection in  1 Corinthians 15  is the  structure  of Paul’s  own argument in that chapter ’s central portion, 15:36–54. I wish to offer an analysis and proposal regarding the ( hitherto neglected) literary and rhetorical structure  of Paul’s  argument. I will argue, against the grain of much contemporary  interpretation of 1 Corinthians 15, that the resurrection Paul envisions in this chapter involves the eschatological restoration to life of the mortal body of flesh and bones, and its transformation to be imperishable. The structure of 1 Cor 15:36–54 may be set out as follows :

 Subject Verb Predicate Complements
 36 that which you sow dies ______________________
is made alive ______________________
42 (the body) is sown in decay
is raised in incorruption
43 is sown in dishonor
is raised in glory
is sown in weakness
is raised in power
44 is sown a body given life by the soul
is raised a body given life by the Spirit
49 we were clothed with the image of the man of dust



Subject Verb Predicate Complements
will be clothed with the image of the Man from heaven
 51 we all will be changed ______________________
52 the dead will be raised imperishable
we will be changed  


 53 this perishable must  be clothed with   imperishability
 this mortal body must be clothed with
54 this perishable body is clothed with imperishability
this mortal body is clothed with immortality


For many  interpreters, Paul’s  series of oppositions  bet ween the present and risen body, with their reference to what is sown being x and what is raised being y (15:42–44; cf. 15:52–54), point to a radical discontinuity bet ween the mortal body and the risen body in Paul’s  thou ht,  precluding  the  possibility  that  Paul conceived of resurrection in straightforward bodily terms. However, I would propose that this assumption fails to g rasp the actual function of this series of contrasts within the structure of Paul’s exposition. Four observations are crucial:

  1. Within 15:36–49, which is structured by twelve antithetically paired verbs (that is, six pairs of verbs) denoting death (or the mortal state)  and resurrection (or  the  risen state),  the  subject of these antithetical verbal pairs is one  and the  same  both for verbs denoting death, and those denoting resurrection (see the diagram). The subject throughout is the perishable body, which “dies” but “is made alive” again by God (15:36), which is “sown” (speiretai)  in  mortality and death, but “raised”  (egeiretai)  to imperishable life (15:42–44). This basic observation, which is nonetheless  commonly ignored  by  interpreters, has  profound exegetical implications. Paul does not describe resurrection as an event in which x (the present body) is sown, but y (a body distinct from the present body) is raised,  but in which a sing le x (the present body) is sown a perishable x, but raised an imperishable x. Paul’s sequence of paired verbs in 1 Cor 15:36–49 indicates that in Paul’s thought it is precisely that which perishes—the mortal body—that in the resurrection is given new, imperishable life.
  2.  In 15:50–58, which is structured by  seven  verbs denoting resurrection or transformation (see the diagram), it is again the present  perishable  body which is the subject of this resurrection and transformation (15:51, 15:52, 15:53–54). In 15:53–54, the subject  which clothes itself with  imperishability  is  explicitly “this perishable body ” (to pharton  touto)  and “this mortal body ” (to thneton  touto). Paul’s  fourfold repetition of  “this”  (touto) emphasizes  that  it is this mortal, perishable body—corruptible human flesh—which is the subject of the transformation.
  3. In addition to the verb egeiro  (which will be discussed below), Paul in 1 Corinthians  15 employs a variety  of additional verbs to denote the resurrection e vent : zoopoieo (“make alive”; 15:36, 45; cf. 15:22), phoreo  (“ be clothed”; 15:49), alasso  (“chang e”; 15:51, 52), and enduo  (“clothe”; 15:53, 54). These additional verbs are significant, for the y  each express,  in  different ways, not the annihilation or replacement of the fleshly body,  but its revival (zoopoieo), investiture (phoreo, enduo), and transformation (alasso). Paul’s affirmation that the present body will be “changed” (15:51, 52) and “clothed”  (15:53, 54) of necessity  implies its revivification and enhancement.
  4. As we saw, the series of contrasts within 15:36–54 bet ween the ante-mortem and risen body do not occur in the subject of these periods, but in their predicates  (verbs and verbal complements). And  these  predicate  complements   (see  the  diagram  above) invariably describe a change of quality rather than of substance, in which what was once perishable, dishonored, weak, and mortal is endowed with imperishability,  glory, power,  and immortality (15:42–43;  15:52–54). Paul’s   series of  oppositions  does not describe two different bodies, distinct  in  substance,  but  two contrasting modes of existence of the same body, one prior to and the other subsequent to the resurrection.

The “Spiritual Body” in Corinthians 15

Central to the readings  of Martin, Eng berg -Pedersen, and Borg is the assumption that the “spiritual body ” (soma pneumatikon)   in 15:44–46 refers to a body composed of spirit or pneuma, distinct from the body of flesh laid in the tomb. Howe ver, this claim reflects an utter misunderstanding of the actual lexical meaning  of the ke y terms  in question.  The  adjective which Paul here contrasts  with pneumatikos  (“spiritual”)  is not  sarkinos  (“fleshly ”), cognate with sarx (“flesh”), and thus referring to the flesh, but psychikos ( literally “soulish”), cognate with psyche  (“soul”), thus  referring to the soul. This adjective outside the New Testament is used, without exception, with reference to the properties or activities of the soul (e.g ., 4 Macc1:32; Aristotle, Eth. nic. 3.10.2; Epictetus, Diatr. 3.7.5–7; Plutarch, Plac. philos. 1.8). Modifying soma (“ body ”) as here, with reference to the present body, the adjective describes this body as given life or activity by the soul. The adjective has nothing  to do with the body ’s composition, but denotes the source of the body ’s life  and activity.

The meaning of the paired adjective  psychikos in 1 Cor 15:44–46 is extremely  significant, for it reveals that  the common scholarly understanding of Paul’s term “spiritual body ” involves a fundamental misreading of the passage. For if the soma pneumatikon in this context describes the composition of the future body,  as a body composed solely of spirit, its correlate soma psychikon would perforce describe the composition of the present body, as a body composed only of soul. Paul would assert  the absence of flesh and bones, not  only from the risen body, but also from the present mortal body as well! The impossibility  that  psychikos  here refers to the body ’s  composition rules out the notion that its correlated adjective pneumatikos refers to the body ’s  composition. Contrasted with psychikos, the adjective pneumatikos must similarly refer to the source of the body ’s life and activity, describing   the risen body as  given  life  by the  Spirit.  The mode of existence described by the adjective pneumatikos is further clarified  by the larger context of the letter, in which the adjective is uniformly used with reference to  persons  or thing s  enlivened, empowered, or transformed  by the Spirit of God : flesh and blood human being s (2:15; 3:1; 14:37), palpable manna and water (10:3–4), and a very  tangible rock (10:4). Used with soma in 15:44, the adjective pneumatikos indicates that the risen body will be given life and empowered  by God’s Spirit.

Both contextual and lexical evidence thus indicate that the phrase soma pneumatikon  or “spiritual body ” in 1 Cor 15:44–46 does not refer to a body composed of spirit or pneuma, but to the fleshly body endowed with imperishable  life by the power of the Spirit. Although the expression soma pneumatikon  is unique here in Paul, the concept of the Spirit as the agent of resurrection life is a major theme within Paul’s theology (Rom 8:9–11; 8:23; 2 Cor 5:4–5; Gal 5:25; 6:7–8). Within this theology, the work of the Spirit in those who belong to Christ will culminate in the resurrection, when “the one who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal  bodies through his Spirit who indwells you” (Rom 8:11).

The Central Verb for the Resurrection Event in 1 Corinthians 15

The main verb that Paul employs for the resurrection event in 1 Corinthians  15 is egeiro (15:4, 12–17, 20, 29, 32, 35, 42–44, 52). A number of scholars hold that  the verb egeiro  is an elastic  one, denoting some form of ascension to heavenly life after death, but not necessarily a revival of the earthly, mortal body. Scholars who take this approach generally interpret Paul’s affirmation in the chapter that Jesus has been “raised” (1 Cor 15:4, 12–17, 20) to mean that Jesus has been taken up into heaven in a celestial form or body discontinuous with his earthly, flesh and bones body. On this understanding of the verb, Paul’s  affirmation that Jesus is “raised” is entirely consistent with the crucified body of Jesus either (on Borg ’s  view) moldering in the g rave, or (on Eng berg -Pedersen’s view) ceasing to exist, being replaced by a body of ethereal substance.

Surprisingly, given its central place in early Christian language for the resurrection, the verb egeiro has  received  little detailed study. However,  the verb was  a common term of  everyday  ancient life, and its  specialized function as  resurrection language grew out of that wider usage. That  wider non-resurrection usage provides the key  to understanding  the meaning of egeiro when used to denote resurrection.

Although it  is usually  translated by  the  English verbs raise  or rise, the semantic rang e of egeiro is crucially different. Like egeiro, these English verbs can be used of rising to stand from a reclining position or from the posture of sleep. However, the English verbs also frequently express the wider concept of ascension or elevation. We speak, for instance, of a spark that rises from the flames, of the moon rising into the night sky, or of a balloon that rises  into the air. The Greek verb egeiro, however, has a more restricted semantic rang e, and cannot mean raise or rise in this wider sense of elevation or ascension. Rather, the Greek verb means to get  up or stand  up, that is, to raise from a supine to a standing position. Thus the verb is regularly used to denote the raising or rising up of one who has fallen (Matt 12:11; Mark 9:27; Acts 9:8), or of one kneeling or prostrate being raised back to a standing position (Matt 17:7; Luke 11:8; Acts 10:26), or of one sitting who rises to stand (Matt 26:46; Mark 3:3; 10:49; 14:42; Luke 6:8; John 11:29; 13:4; 14:31). The verb is also frequently used of one lying down, very often of one lying  sick, who is restored  to a standing  posture  (Matt 8:15; 9:5, 6, 7; Mark 1:31; 2:9, 11, 12; Luke 5:23-24; John 5:8; Acts 3:6–7; James 5:15). In no instance within ancient Greek literature does egeiro denote the concept of ascension, elevation, or assumption. Rather, it denotes the action whereby  one who is prone, sitting ,  prostrate, or lying down is restored to a standing position.

The use of egeiro as resurrection language g rows out of the semantic map of the verb sketched above. In resurrection contexts, the verb does not denote that the dead ascend or are assumed somewhere ; rather, the verb signifies that the corpse, lying supine in the g rave, gets up or arises to stand from the tomb. An inscription from Rome (IGUR III.1406 [date uncertain]) provides striking confirmatory evidence of this. The final line of this burial inscription reads enteuthen out his apothanein  eg[e]iret[ai] (“no one who has died arises from here”). In this inscription, the use of the verb egeiro tog ether with the adverb enteuthen  (“from here”) unambiguously  indicates the  concept of getting up or arising from the tomb.

In  view of the  evidence discussed  above, the  assumption  that egeiro can mean “raise” in the sense of elevation or assumption into heaven is excluded. Indeed,  such  an interpretation is profoundly unhistorical, for it is founded upon associations arising from English or other modern language translations, not the actual language of 1 Corinthians 15 itself. The ver y semantics of this ancient Greek verb involves the concept of the mortal body ’s restoration to life. Within 1 Corinthians 15, this restoration to life is accompanied  by a glorious transformation, from weakness and mortality to glory, power,  and imperishability  (cf. 15:42–44, 52–54). But, as  our brief synopsis of the semantics of egeiro has  shown, the subject  of this  glorious transformation is the once-dead body, which in being “raised” does not ascend to heaven, but gets up from the tomb.


Many  scholars today  profess  to  find in  1  Corinthians  15 a conception of the  resurrection at  variance with the  Easter  faith evident in the Gospels, the book of Acts, and the historic Christian creeds.  However,  there is no scholarly  or exegetical basis for this conclusion.  The specific  way  in which Paul shapes his argument, the structure of the syntax in which his thought is given expression, and the lexical meaning  of his key terms, re veal that he conceived of resurrection as a tangible, physical e vent involving the body of flesh and bones. In affirming that Jesus has been “raised” (15:4), Paul affirmed the resurrection of Jesus’s  crucified body from the tomb. And in affirming that the faithful will be “raised” (15:42–44, 52), Paul affirmed that our present perishable bodies will be endowed, through the power of Jesus’s  resurrection, with imperishable life. In 1 Corinthians 15, as in the Gospels and Acts, the resurrection is understood as the miraculous revivification  of the mortal body of flesh and bones, and its transformation so as to be imperishable.


About the Author



JAMES P.  WARE, PhD,  is  Professor of  New Testament and Ancient Christianity at the University of Evansville in Evansville, Indiana. He is the author of books and articles on Paul’s letters and theology, including a new tool for the study of and heartbreak intrinsic to human existence in this vale of tears.

1Rudolf Bultmann, Theologie des Neuen Testaments (9th ed.; Tübingen: Mohr/Siebeck, 1984), 48.

[Editor’s Note: Resurrection image from Luca Giordano’s Resurrection, c. 1665, found at Wikipedia Commons.]