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 begins with the disciples’ discovery 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 event involving Jesus’s flesh and bones. And the Easter event 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 they 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 origins 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 legends, 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) they 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:
|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|
|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 body||must be clothed with||imperishability|
|this mortal body||must be clothed with||immortality|
|54 this perishable body||is clothed with||imperishability|
|this mortal body||is clothed with||immortality|
For many interpreters, Paul’s series of oppositions between 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 between the mortal body and the risen body in Paul’s thought, precluding the possibility that Paul conceived of resurrection in straightforward bodily terms. However, I would propose that this assumption fails to grasp the actual function of this series of contrasts within the structure of Paul’s exposition. Four observations are crucial:
- 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 single 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.
- 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.
- 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 event: zoopoieo (“make alive”; 15:36, 45; cf. 15:22), phoreo (“be clothed”; 15:49), alasso (“change”; 15:51, 52), and enduo (“clothe”; 15:53, 54). These additional verbs are significant, for they 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.
- As we saw, the series of contrasts within 15:36–54 between 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 1 Corinthians 15
Central to the readings of Martin, Engberg-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. However, this claim reflects an utter misunderstanding of the actual lexical meaning of the key 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 things enlivened, empowered, or transformed by the Spirit of God: flesh and blood human beings (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 grave, or (on Engberg-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 range 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 range, 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 grows 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 grave, 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 together 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 very 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, reveal that he conceived of resurrection as a tangible, physical event 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.]