Resurrection: bodily ambiguities (response to Wright 3)

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by Neil Godfrey

Darn it. I mixed up the numbering of my response to Wright series and left out “3”. So let this one be #3, even if it’s only an indirect response.

The gospels failed to settle the argument

The mere fact that John’s gospel presents Jesus as a palpable body, one that could be felt by Thomas, did not necessarily “prove” to ancient readers that Jesus was physical flesh and blood. I listed some of the different accounts of spirits in my previous (#5 response) post that showed they could in several cases eat and drink, wear clothes, touch and be touched, etc.

In the gospel of Luke the author chose to have Jesus explain to his disciples that a spirit does not have flesh and bones, “as you see that I have”. Yet the Greek word for “have” can also have the sense of “be” or “am”. Accordingly Marcionite Christians read this passage to mean that Jesus was telling his disciples to touch him and see that he really was a spirit body, without physical flesh and bones. Riley (1995) p.65 citing Tertullian, Adv. Marc. 4.43.7

The different meanings of “body”

Yet it is also true that many ancients found the idea absolutely repulsive that very same flesh and blood which one had inhabited before death would be reinhabited after death. Many of us today are probably more sheltered from the reality of death than were many who lived in earlier days, and the ugly reality that this idea suggested probably sprang to mind more naturally than it does for some of us. So how did the early Christians interpret the gospel narratives of Jesus appearing in a recognizable “body“?

Before looking at different Christian views, a look at how pagans among whom they lived used the word:

Virgil used the word “corpora” (the equivalent of the Greek σωμα), what we would take for a corporeal body, to refer to dead souls in the Aeneid VI, 303-308. Describing the people in or entering into Hades (and Latin specialists kindly excuse my schoolboy level attempts at translation):

[Charon] . . . ferruginea subvectat corpora cymba,
matres atque viri, defunctaque corpora vita
magnanimum heroum, pueri innuptaeque puellae
impositique rogis iuvenes ante ora parentum:

[Charon] carries over the bodies in his reddish-dark boat
mothers and men, deceased (yet) living bodies
great hearted heroes, boys and unmarried girls
youths placed on funeral pyres before their parents’ eyes

Of course it would be preferable for us to translate ‘corpora’ as ‘souls’ in this context given our cultural understanding of what is meant. The point is the word for “body” (Latin corpora or Greek soma) can be understood in ancient parlance as a synonym for “soul” or “spirit” or “ghost”.

Wright (p.43) dismisses Virgil’s use of “corpora” to describe the dead as “occasional”, and in fact irrelevant to his argument because to Virgil these bodies were without their former power and strength, and are elsewhere described as mere shadowy forms. He misses the point. Even “mere shadowy forms” were still “bodies” in the ancient schema.

Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 15:44 of our bodies:

It is sown a soulish body, it is raised a spiritual body. There is a soulish body, and there is a spiritual body.

σπειρεται σωμα ψυχικον, εγειρεται σωμα πνευματικον ει εστιν σωμα ψυχικον και πνευματικον

English Bibles usually translate the word ψυχικον “natural” or “physical”. The Latin equivalent would be “animale”. It refers to the essence that “animates” the body, “the animating life sustaining force in man and animals”. It is the root of our word “psychic”. Paul here contrasts it with the “spiritual” or “pneumatic” body. Stong’s Concordance contrasts it with “spiritual/pneumatic” above and “physical/phusikos” below, which pertained to the animals.

Gregory Riley, Resurrection Reconsidered, p.62f, writes that unless the original passage is translated “soulish body” readers will miss the focus of the ancient arguments over the verse’s interpretation. Tertullian debated with other Christians who interpreted 1 Cor.15:44 to mean that it was the “soul” that was called the “soulish body” and that it was this soul (soulish body) that was resurrected, while the flesh remained behind in decay. The soulish body (soul) was said to be changed to a spiritual body when it was filled with the spirit at the resurrection.

Unfortunately for Tertullian he had one arm tied behind his back in his debate. Both he and his opponents accepted the belief that the soul was itself a corporeal substance. Otherwise it could not be tormented with physical pain in hell. (Riley, p.62)

We know from Paul, Polycarp, Justin, Tertullian and Origen that many Christians did indeed believe that the physical body was not resurrected, or that the resurrection pertained to “the soulish body”. To counter this widespread “heresy” church fathers like Irenaeus and Athenagoras put themselves through intellectual contortions to explain how a physical body could simultaneously be a spiritual body when resurrected. Irenaeus “explained” that the fleshly body was a spiritual body by virtue of being possessed by the Spirit. Athenagoras was even “clearer”: while we have flesh, it will not seem as if we have flesh, because we shall be heavenly spirits. (Adv. Haer. 5.7.2 and Legatio 31 in Riley, p.64)


That the word “body” and the term “resurrection of the body” ramained ambiguous into the fifth century, capable of being interpreted either as “flesh” or “spirit-soul”, we have the complaint of Jerome:

We believe, say they, in the resurrection of the body. This confession, if only it be sincere, is free from objection. But as there are bodies celestial and bodies terrestrial and as thin air and the æther are both according to their natures called bodies, they use the word body instead of the word flesh in order that an orthodox person hearing them say body may take them to mean flesh while a heretic will understand that they mean spirit.

He wanted them to use the unambiguous expression “resurrection of the flesh”.

The resurrection of the body, bodily resurrection, was not so black and white a concept when Christianity was born and established itself as it is to many Christians today.

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Neil Godfrey

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6 thoughts on “Resurrection: bodily ambiguities (response to Wright 3)”

  1. neilgodfrey,

    You are mistaken that 1 Corinthians 15:44 means only a spiritual (non-material) body will be raised at the resurrection. The whole point of 1 Corinthians 15, Paul making a very specific point in that Jesus was, in fact, raised bodily/physically (not ghostly or spiritual in the sense of non-physical) from the dead. Read 1 Cor 15:12-20 and you’ll see clearly what Paul was saying about Jesus and his resurrection and the importance of it.

    In the last paragraph before your conclusion above you say “We know from Paul, Polycarp, Justin, Tertullian and Origen that many Christians did indeed believe that the physical body was not resurrected, or that the resurrection pertained to “the soulish body.” When you say Paul do you mean Paul the apostle and author of 1 Corinthians? If so, Paul the apostle did not believe in a non-physical or completely spiritual resurrection of Jesus or of the dead for that matter at the end when all will be raised (1 Cor 15:52). Also, back to that sentence I quoted from you. It does not matter if early Christians believed this or that. I’m sure many early Church fathers believed other things we now know to be false with the help of archeology findings and modern science. I’m sure they all thought the earth was flat. Doesn’t make it true. So, it makes no difference what they believed with something being a truth or not. Unless, again you think Paul the apostle believed what you are saying. Though, he clearly did not.

    See, you do no understand what is being meant by a natural body and a spiritual body. The natural body is sinful, weak, perishable, and dishonorable (1 Cor 15:42-43). The spiritual body does not mean a non-material body but, from the analogies Paul uses in 1 Cor 15, means a physical one similar to the natural body organizationally, but radically different in that it will be imperishable, glorious and powerful (1 Cor 15:42-43).

    The greek word ‘soma’ means the body (as a sound whole), used in a very wide application, literally or figuratively — bodily, body, slave.

    You are just wrong when you say, “The point is the word for “body” (Latin corpora or Greek soma) can be understood in ancient parlance as a synonym for “soul” or “spirit” or “ghost.” You are just wrong about that. It means the opposite. It means the physical body of a being. Not a ghost, spirit, or soul. Now, with this understood, soma may represent the whole person b/c it lives in union with the soul/spirit, but it doesn’t mean the ‘whole person,’ because its use is designed to call attention to the physical object which is the body of the person rather than the whole personality. So, when Paul talks about soma of the resurrection, he is talking about the body itself.

    So, back to 1 Cor 15:44, it is sown a swma yucikon, but it is raised a swma pneumatikon. By a swma yucikon Paul clearly does not mean a body made out of yuch. Rather just as Paul frequently uses sarkikoV to indicate, not the physical composition of a thing, but its orientation, its dominating principle, so yucikoV also indicates, not a composition, but an orientation. In the New Testament yucikoV always has a negative connotation (I Cor 2.14; Jas 3.15; Jude 19); that which is yucikoV partakes of the character and direction of natural human nature. Hence, the emphasis in swma yucikon is not that the body is physical, but that is natural. Accordingly, swma yucikon ought rightly to be translated ‘natural body;’ it means our present human body. This is the body that will be sown. But it is raised a swma pneumatikon. And just as swma yucikon does not mean a body made out of yuch, neither does swma pneumatikon mean a body made out of pneuma. If swma pneumatikon indicated a body made out of spirit, then its opposite would not be a swma yucikon, but a swma sarkinon. For Paul, yuch and pneuma are not substances out of which bodies are made, but dominating principles by which bodies are directed. Paul is not talking about a rarefied body made out of spirit or ether; he means a body under the lordship and direction of God’s Spirit. The present body is yucikon insofar as the yuch is its dominating principle (cf. anJrwpoV yucikoV I Cor 2.14). The body which is to be will be pneumatikon, not in the sense of a spiritual substance, but insofar as the pneuma will be its dominating principle (cf. anJrwpoV pneumatikoV– I Cor 2.15). They do not differ qua swma; rather they differ qua orientation. The contrast is not between physical body/non-physical body, but between naturally oriented body/spiritually oriented body. Hence, I think it very unfortunate that the term swma pneumatikon has been usually translated ‘spiritual body,’ for this tends to be very misleading, as Héring explains:

    Therefore, it is better to translate swma pneumatikon as the opposite of natural body (swma yucikon) as supernatural body. Although, this has the disadvantage of ignoring the connotation of pneumatikoV as ‘Spirit-dominated,’ it avoids the inevitable misunderstandings engendered by ‘spiritual body.’ As Héring rightly comments, this latter term, understood substantively, is practically a self-contradiction. By the same token, ‘physical body’ is really a tautology. Thus, it is sown a natural body, and it is raised a supernatural body, is a better rendering of Paul’s meaning here in 1 Cor 15:44.

    Sorry for the long post. I hope it helps.

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