Did Paul Believe that the Fleshly Body Would be Resurrected

Did Paul Believe that the Fleshly Body Would be Resurrected May 9, 2019

Editor’s Note:  Number 2 in the Bart Ehrman series. /Linda LaScola, Editor

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By Bart Ehrman

Browsing through posts I made (exactly) six years ago, I came across this one (which deals with a subject I’ll be addressing in my new book) about Paul’s view of the future resurrection.  What I thought I thought about that issue *before* I started doing the hard core research for my book on the afterlife is very similar to how I still think now.  I hope that doesn’t just mean I’m stubborn!  Here is the perceptive question and my response:

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QUESTION:

What is a BODILY resurrection without the flesh?  Don’t the early Christians (and Paul) think the flesh (the corpse) didn’t matter anymore and could be left behind, rotting and decomposing? Isn’t it all about the spirit finally getting this new, better, perfect, divine ‘body’?

Addendum: The Greek for ‘spiritual’ (like in spiritual body) is pneumatikos, right? According to Strong’s that means: pertaining to wind or breath, windy, exposed to the wind, blowing. Now those wouldn’t be obvious words to describe something physical or made out of matter, would it? They seems to rather define something ‘intangible’

RESPONSE:

OK, I’ve been getting a lot of questions along these lines (some on the blog itself). So I need to try to clarify the whole matter. It’s not easy, for a variety of reasons. But I’ll do my best.

First thing to stress: the ancient apocalyptic view of the human that Paul had is not the view of the human that WE have.   This is one instance where it becomes crystal clear that we have to try to think in a way that we are decidedly not accustomed to if we want to understand Paul.  For US, the body is made of flesh, so when we speak of flesh, we speak of the body.  For Paul, the flesh and the body were two different things.  That’s because, for him, “flesh” does not refer to what WE refer to when we refer to flesh.  That is, we think of it as the meat that is hanging on our bones; but that is not what Paul is referring to.  He does, of course, know that there is meat hanging on our bones, but that is what he thinks of as our body.  It is not our flesh.  “Flesh” is a technical term for Paul.  It is the bad side of being human.  It is that part of the human that has been corrupted by sin and is alienated from God.  The flesh is the reason we cannot please God even by keeping the Law.  Because sin, using the flesh, forces us to do things in opposition to God.  The flesh needs to be destroyed.  But since the flesh is not the same thing as the body, that does *not* mean that the body has to be destroyed.  The body has to be redeemed, not destroyed. (See how Paul talks about “flesh” in Romans 6-8)

Second point.  In ancient ways of thinking, the body was not the ONLY material part of a human.  Humans also have souls and spirits.  And for ancient people, souls and spirits were MATERIAL entities, not IMMATERIAL entities (as they are for us).  For *us* the difference between soul and body is visible/invisible or material/immaterial or substantial/insubstantial.   That’s not how the ancients saw it.  For the ancients, soul and spirit were made up of *stuff*.  They were material entities.  But their material was much finer, more refined, than the clunky shell of our body.

And so, if an ancient apocalypticist like Paul talked about a spiritual body, he meant a body that is no longer made up of just this clunky meat, it is a body of a more refined substance; it is still matter, but it is a different kind of matter.   When Paul thought Jesus was physically raised from the dead, that was NOT a contradiction to his claim that Jesus had a spiritual body at the resurrection.   Spiritual bodies *were* physical.   We too will be raised (for Paul) into spiritual bodies.  At that time we will not have “flesh,” because sin will no longer have any role to play in our existence.  But when he says this, he means it in the ancient, not the modern, sense.

If you want to read up on ancient understandings of body, flesh, spirit, soul (especially as these are physical entities, not immaterial), I’d suggest you read the book by my friend Dale Martin, professor of NT at Yale, The Corinthian Body.

Later Christian theologians who were NOT raised in Jewish apocalyptic thinking did not make this distinction that Paul made between body and flesh, leading to all sorts of confusions.  They stressed the “resurrection of the flesh,” which for Paul would have been nonsense.   For Paul, flesh and blood do not inherit the kingdom of God.  They are done away with, because people are raised in spiritual bodies, just as Christ was.  But later theologians (for example, Tertullian) did not make this distinction and stressed that it is precisely the “flesh” that comes to be raised.  By that, he meant what Paul meant when he talked about “body.”

One of the ironies that was created is that later theologians stressed the resurrection of the flesh thinking that they were advocating Paul’s view, e.g., against Gnostics.   In fact, they were not advocating Paul’s view at all, since Paul did not think the flesh would be raised.

One text where this is particularly interesting is the pseudepigraphic (i.e., forged) 3 Corinthians, where, as my student Benjamin White has shown, in an important article recently, the author, claiming to be Paul, tries to wrest Paul away from the Gnostics precisely by stressing that the flesh is all-important before God and will be raised.  Woops.  That’s not Paul’s view.  But this later second century author was not trained in Jewish apocalyptic thinking, and so simply didn’t know that.

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Bio: Bart D. Ehrman is the James A. Gray Distinguished Professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He came to UNC in 1988, after four years of teaching at Rutgers University. At UNC he has served as both the Director of Graduate Studies and the Chair of the Department of Religious Studies.

A graduate of Wheaton College (Illinois), Bart received both his Masters of Divinity and Ph.D. from Princeton Theological Seminary, where his 1985 doctoral dissertation was awarded magna cum laude. Since then he has published extensively in the fields of New Testament and Early Christianity, having written or edited twenty-six books, numerous scholarly articles, and dozens of book reviews. For more detail, read here.  Bart is also an original member of The Clergy Project.  He has given The Rational Doubt Blog permission to repost public blogs from The Bart Ehrman Blog, including this one.

>>>>Photo Credits: By Dan Sears UNC-Chapel Hill, CC BY 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=41276400 ; Noël Coypel – http://www.1st-art-gallery.com/Noel-Coypel/The-Resurrection-Of-Christ,-1700.html, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8811059

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  • … tries to wrest Paul away from the Gnostics …

    How much scholarship sees Paul as Gnostic? My understanding of ancient Gnosticism is that matter is evil and needs to be escaped. I don’t know what the mapping is between ‘matter’ and:

         (1) σάρξ (sarx, ‘flesh’)
         (2) σῶμα πνευματικός (sōma pnematikos, ‘spiritual body’)
         (3) ψυχή (psychē, ‘life’ / ‘soul’)
         (4) πνεῦμα (pneuma, ‘spirit’)
         (5) more?

    The very rough understanding I have of ancient Gnosticism is that it saw matter as evil. Matter is a prison. The answer is not to somehow sanctify, rescue, or reform matter—the answer was to escape it! I don’t recall any sort of organic move from matter to whatever comes next. In contrast:

    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. (1 Corinthians 15:42–49)

    Paul seems to think that who and what we are while in the ‘natural body’ is rather important. Compare this to Plotinus’ criticism of the Gnostics:

    Their doctrine, even bolder than the one of Epicurus (who only denied Providence), by blaming the Lord of providence and providence itself, despises all earthly laws and the virtue that arose among men from the beginning of time, and ridicules temperance, so that nothing good can be found in this world. So, their doctrine annuls temperance and justice, innate to the human character and perfected by reason and practice, and in general all that can make man worthy and noble … Because for them nothing is noble among earthly things, except for something “different” that they will reach “in the future life.” But, should not those who have gained “knowledge” [gnosis] look for the Good already in this world and, searching for it first, set things in order here, precisely since they [the Gnostics] claim to derive from the divine essence? It is, in fact, proper to the nature of that essence to consider what is noble … But those who do not participate in virtue have nothing to carry them from this world to the one beyond.[15]

    [15, TN] Second Ennead, 9th Tractate, Sec. 15. I translated into English Del Noce’s Italian version in order to try to perserve some of his choices of words (especially those he emphasized by using italics).
    (The Crisis of Modernity, 23–24)

    One way to capture this difference is to consider what happens if a computer is too virus-ridden: you hope that your last backup was good enough and then you wipe the hard drive clean, reinstalling everything from scratch. It is known as “flatten & reinstall”. The Gnostics seem to have believed in something like “flatten & reinstall”, while Paul seems to believe something rather different: what exists now is corrupted and will be redeemed.

  • theos13

    An interesting thing to contemplate in this realm:

    Why doesn’t Paul say anything about “hell” in his corpus (i.e. sheol, hades, gehenna, tartarus)? I first encountered this point in John Shelby Spong’s book Eternal Life: A New Vision (2009).

    Hell figures so prominently in much of the Fundamentalist/ Evangelical preaching and blogging today, and such circles are so fond of using Paul as an authority. How do they account for Paul’s “Great Omission”?

  • Jim Jones

    > According to Strong’s that means: pertaining to wind or breath, windy, exposed to the wind, blowing. Now those wouldn’t be obvious words to describe something physical or made out of matter, would it?

    Isn’t that the Holy Ghost or Holy Breath? Meaning (ISTM) the Iife force? Without which the flesh is dead?