Did Jesus Have A Body?

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by Neil Godfrey

atheisteyesFrank Zindler’s Through Atheist Eyes: Scenes From a World That Won’t Reason is a treasure chest of reflections on religion, Christianity in particular. I’m sure he won’t mind if I share a few of them here from time to time.

In chapter 15 of volume 1 he captures the essence of a curiosity in the New Testament that seems to generally fly right over the heads of anyone prone to take reputed Holy Writ far too seriously. How often do we hear even professors of religion declaring that the Christ Myth is patently false because the apostle Paul wrote that Jesus had a body! They are usually more specific than that. They’ll say Paul wrote that Jesus was born to a woman! And that Jesus had flesh and blood. There it is! In plain print! Jesus was no myth!

The sorts of passages they’ll usually quote are:

Galatians 4:4-5   But when the set time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law,to redeem those under the law

Romans 1:3   concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh

Romans 8:3  For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh,

Colossians 1:21-22  Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because ofyour evil behavior. But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death

1 Timothy 3:16  Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of godliness: He was manifested in the flesh, vindicated by the Spirit, seen by angels, proclaimed among the nations, believed on in the world, taken up in glory.

1 Peter 3:18   For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit,

1 Peter 4:1   Since therefore Christ suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves with the same way of thinking, for whoever has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin,

1 John 4:1-3   Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming and even now is already in the world.

2 John 1:7  For many deceivers have gone out into the world who do not confess Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh. This is a deceiver and an antichrist.

Frank Zindler delves a little into the consensus dates for these texts and other extra-biblical writings expressing similar thoughts. I’m in the mood for a much simpler post for now so here’s the pertinent point:

It should be noted that in all of the verses I have quoted the writers seem to have gone out of their way to stress that Jesus had a body — something one might think would be a given. Why would these sacred authors bother to mention such a fact?

If I were writing about my childhood and talking about the exciting times I had with my grandfather, wouldn’t it seem more than odd if I mentioned even once, “By the way, my grandfather had a body”? What if I told you, “My grandfather had a mother”?

Clearly the verses quoted were written to contradict rival Christians who were claiming that Jesus only seemed to have a body. (p. 218, my bolding and formatting)

These rival Christians, Zindler notes, are known to us today as Docestists.

There is more to Zindler’s chapter as I noted. One additional point asks the reader to stop and think through the situation understood by the dates of the above scriptures: they were written as early as 25 years after the supposed death of Jesus.

But the main point I have brought out here stands on its own. Anyone who tries to build a case for the historicity of Jesus on verses like Galatians 4:4 that say Jesus was born of a woman has to have a very strong poker face in order to conceal just how weird it is to say someone had a woman for a mother!

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44 thoughts on “Did Jesus Have A Body?”

  1. It seems to me that even the supposition that Paul was responding to docetists concedes too much to orthodoxy. As I understand it, docetisim was a response to the presumed historicity of the stories told in the canonical gospels. Isn’t Zindler assuming that those narratives were circulating in Paul’s time?

    1. “Isn’t Zindler assuming that those narratives were circulating in Paul’s time?”

      Yes, but his larger point is that the docetists must have pre-dated, or been current to, Pauline and Orthodox Christianity. Not the other way around, as the NT writers labor hard to try to convince us. So from the Docetists’ point of view, it was Paul and the Catholics who were “false teachers.” This is not a situation one would expect had a historical Jesus been executed just a few years before.

    2. The letters cited by Zindler are generally acknowledged as being earlier than the gospel narratives. They are evidence that some sort of docetic-like belief was already in existence and that our canonical literature was written in response to this.

      It is very difficult to imagine how a belief that Jesus was not a real human could have arisen “so soon” or at all out of a movement founded upon an historical figure and his followers. On the other hand, one can more easily imagine the reverse process. And the NT epistles are evidence that some sort of docetism pre-dated them.

      1. I think you are right that the reverse process makes more sense. But if that is the way it happened, the winners at the end of that process (i.e., the proto-orthodox) would have needed to go back and insert their winning “real flesh” doctrine into the earlier Christian literature that did not have it. Needed, that is, in order to make it look like the proto-orthodox “real flesh” doctrine was part of Christianity all along.

        So, as I see it, the “real flesh” expressions in the Pauline and deutero-Pauline letters are likely subsequent proto-orthodox correctives. But those in the later epistles (the Pastorals, Petrines and Johannines) were part of them from the time they were written (mid-second-century).

  2. Since Marcion was the first to come up with epistles of “Paul” and since Marcion was docetist in his doctrine, it seems highly unlikely that those original versions presented by Marcion would contain any of the passages indicating that Jesus had a body.

  3. Accepting two small things is appearing to me now as perhaps being marvelously adequate to help solve a big puzzle for atheists (and similar unbelievers) about Christianity’s origin: #1) That Josephus was reliable with only normal biases—being a Jew while writing history for Roman consumption—and that the one small capsule known as the TF is most likely the only part of his works that didn’t actually come from him (unless an expert on Josephus can show me something else in his works that looks to have certainly been redacted also [since I was told Wednesday in a comment under one of my posts that in Josephus’ autobiography—in whichever work his autobiography is found—that the word “Christ” was inserted by a Jesus who was said to have been killed by his brother in a dispute in the temple, which information I doubt to be correct at this point]) then #2) That some atheists give up trying to claim Paul was a completely fictitious character made by some Romans trying to create the Christian Religion… accept instead that Paul must have fabricated his conversion story to inject himself as a leader into that nascent religion within that conventional 1st Century chronology. For atheists who want to say that everything in the New Testament is fabricated end up shooting themselves in the foot even though that’s struck a positive nerve in some wishing to quickly dismiss it as entirely false while explaining this properly takes a mountain of work coupled with uncommon familiarity with the topic.

    1. There’s nothing odd or obscure about the argument that the James the brother of Jesus (“who is called Christ”) passage in Josephus was a nonChristian story of how one high priest (Ananus) fell from grace and was replaced by another (Jesus son of Damnaeus) over a murder of the latter’s brother, James. One post with the details is here: http://vridar.wordpress.com/2009/05/16/josephus-james-jesus-hegesippus-and-eusebius/ It is also a key point in Richard Carrier’s recent article.

      But I don’t know what to make of your general point about “a big puzzle for atheists”. What is the puzzle? I wonder if you are extrapolating a reading of one person’s view into the views of “atheists” as a whole — I don’t know of very many (only one person, actually — sorry, two authors only) who argue that Christianity was somehow a fabrication “of Rome” or that “some Romans” were fabricating Paul. Indeed, the view that Paul was not historical at all is a minority one — and those arguments with which I am more acquainted do not by any means put him down to being a “Roman fabrication”.

      I think you have a narrow view of what “atheists” think about the New Testament. I’m an atheist but I would never say that “everything in the NT is fabricated”. That sounds like a polemic rather than a serious argument to me.

  4. “Anyone who tries to build a case for the historicity of Jesus on verses like Galatians 4:4 that say Jesus was born of a woman has to have a very strong poker face in order to conceal just how weird it is to say someone had a woman for a mother!”

    Sure – if it was just a regular ‘someone’; but would it really be all that weird a point to make in relation to God’s son?

    1. Even hostile anti-mythicists like Ehrman and Hoffmann have argued (at least when not engaged with an anti-mythicist vendetta) that “born of a woman” in the Galatians context adds nothing to the larger argument and has all the signs of being a tendentious interpolation.

      I think if we imagine a historical person who became the centre of worship and place ourselves in that environment, I think we’d be expecting to focus very much on that person, understanding and learning all we could about him. I could understand, in that context, that we’d write with astonishment that the one we now view as the Son of God was born of Mary — we’d identify his mother. But we take for granted he’s a real person. It would be silly to say he was “born of a woman”.

      But once we go down that path we open up a raft of other problems. Did Paul mean that God, like Zeus, copulated with Mary?

      1. One might indeed expect a different emphasis and direction (‘this guy who walked among us recently was actually the son of God!’ rather than ‘God’s son was actually born of a woman!’) – but would making a big deal of God sending his son to be ‘born of a woman’, be necessarily incompatible with taking for granted that he was real?

        The main thrust seems to be God adopting the Galatians as his male heirs (somehow facilitated by God sending his son), and the mother reference might in context appear to be apropos of nothing in particular – but it could lend emphasis to these rather odd inter-species (divine-human) familial connections that Paul’s touting to the Galatians (so they can have what’s his, specifically eternal life). It could be considered an inconcinnity, but if so is it really an obvious one?

        1. We already know from Tertullian that the Marcionites thought Jesus descended straight from Heaven to Galilee to begin his ministry. (In fact, Tertullian didn’t directly dispute this notion.) That this phrase would be an anti-Marcionite interpolation seems the most plausible reason for its existence.

  5. Yes, I’ve often thought that feeling compelled to say ‘this guy really was born of woman, no – really! I’m not lying!’ at least communicates the idea that this was a controversial idea at the time.

    You’d never say such a thing about someone who was a known person of recent memory – we have no one protesting Julius Caesar was ‘born of woman’ or any such nonsense – it’s assumed as part of being a human being.

    1. Whatever Paul (or an interpolater) may have meant by born (or made) of a woman, it is used in the OT to describe a mortal (Job 14:1, 15:4 and 25:4).

      The similar expression “born of women” is also used in Matthew 11:11 and Luke 7:28 to describe John the Baptist, a person of recent memory.

      1. These are poetic cirmlocutions for “human being”. Zindler’s point stands. It would indeed be odd if anyone were to incidentally mention in a narrative about a normal occasion that one’s grandfather was a human being . . . .

        1. “These are poetic cirmlocutions for “human being”.”

          This is how I’m seeing Paul’s use of it as well, since the context it is used in is about how at a set time God had sent his son to redeem those under the law.

          Now, I’m open to the possibilty that these kinds of “body” references could be anti-Marcionite interpolations, but at the same time I see nothing odd about the use of born/made of a woman in Gal. 4:4.

          1. I have heard probably thousands of reports of sufferings of people on the news and elsewhere and I don’t think any of them said something like, “So and so suffered in the flesh”. Just telling us someone was injured or suffered is enough. Or maybe suffered injuries to his arm or leg. “In the flesh” is ostensibly a doctrinal addition — a polemic of some sort. Yes, it applies to someone who is from the outset considered primarily not human. That’s the point of Zindler’s argument and the point that strikes many readers as odd if it were generally understood that Jesus was a historical person.

            Even Hoffmann and Ehrman have pointed out the oddity of the phrase “born of a woman” in Galatians 4:4. You may disagree, but it sure sounds to me a bizarre way of referring to Jesus if he were understood to have lived historically. God sent his son (in) Jesus, yes. The rest smacks of anti-docetic interpolation to me.

      2. By ‘similar expression’, you mean ‘very different wording’.

        Paul uses ‘ginomai’ to describe how Adam and Jesus were both ‘born’…. Wait a minute, who was Adam’s mother?

        While Matthew 11:11 and Luke 7:28 use ‘gennao’, which is the normal word.

        In Galatians 4, Paul uses the normal word ‘gennao’ to describe how people were born (but naturally he uses a different word to describe how Jesus was made’)

        So your ‘similar expressions’ merely means that you wish to hide the fact that the expressions are not similar.

        1. I do think the Greek words for “born” and “made” are similar, and that the expressions “born of a woman” in the OT and “born of women” in the NT are similar to Paul’s “made of a woman” in Gal. 4:4.

          The reason for the difference in the latter expression is something I think we both can agree on, that Paul thinks Jesus is a heavenly being.

          I think the only thing you and I are in disagreement about is the question of whether or not his heavenly being was ever a human being.

          1. Another way to put it is that we disagree on what God’s son was “made” into (whether it is an interpolation or not).

            Since you mention Adam, it’s worth pointing out that in his case he was (at least supposedly) made into a human being.

  6. Not to mention that the phrase usually translated as “born of a woman” in the original reads “γενόμενον ἐκ γυναικός”, could also mean “made of a woman”, which is a strange way of putting it. IIANM this is the only time that Paul uses “γίνομαι” in that sense.

    IIRC, Doherty mades this point in his book(s).

    1. It may be unusual for Paul, but in Philippians 2:7 he uses γενόμενος to mean ‘made in the likeness of men’.

      And in Romans 1.3 he refers to Christ having come (γενομένου) from the seed of David kata sarka.

  7. Neil: Thank you for helping me with that James the brother of Jesus (“who is called the Christ”) passage in the Antiquities of the Jews, Book 20. I couldn’t grasp too much of what was there before, yet I did think it was about Jesus (called Christ) and his brother James (the James which church tradition says was a Christian martyr).

    But it seems quite clear now that the Josephus location was redacted by someone (probably Eusebius) with what in English are those five words, “who was called the Christ,” at least in every extant altered version by calling a different Jesus “the Christ,” while the passage was actually about a different Jesus and a different James from that Christian pair… if I properly understood what’s written at the page link you gave me for that.

    It’s a very tedious matter to sort out, but you handled it marvelously on that page of your blog, I think, and I accept now that Josephus was also redacted in his Book 20, not just by the insertion of the TF capsule, even though my realizing that will now make it a little more difficult perhaps, or make it a bit more complicated that is, when I argue with a certain number of atheists about the existence of a real Jesus since many that I come into contact with these days seem to want to dismiss Josephus’ works first as being unreliable, and upon that basis then contend that the Romans created Jesus from other ancient religious ideas (not what were more purely Hebrew ones)—that the Christian story is 100% plagiarism—and so essentially that there was no real man named Jesus behind what became the Christian story (with such atheists approaching this whole topic from that angle).

    1. The reliance upon Josephus as evidence for Jesus is a post-World War 2 development. There was a time when few would have called upon it in support for Jesus’ historicity. For evidence of this claim see my earlier post, What they used to say about Josephus as evidence for Jesus. As I have suggested in several places now, the change in scholarly treatment of Judas, Josephus and other Jewish topics can be distinctly divided between pre and post World War 2 periods. After the war there appears to have been a very pro-Jewish bias in studies of early Christianity. That should alert us to the possibility that our views are not necessarily as “objective” or “evidence based” as we like to think. Ideology and cultural biases do affect the way we interpret evidence.

      I would not bother spending too much time arguing with anyone who attributes Christianity to a “Roman creation”, by the way.

  8. Regarding Galatians 4:4-5 (this is the sort of thing I’m perhaps good for), I would like to offer this: For many years, as a Christian who studied on my own, I used to think Genesis 3:15 was the first messianic prophecy ever written—about the woman’s seed bruising Satan’s head… and that every reference in the NT to the phrase “son of man” was actually an allusion to Genesis 3:15 (son of man synonymously substituted for seed [or son] of woman [or man]) as a fulfilled messianic prophecy via Jesus, which is why Paul mentioned it this way in Galatians, I think. I see no reason to suspect that anything attributed to Paul was ever redacted in any way whatsoever. No one ever told me to see it that way, but it occurred to me that was what some Bible authors were thinking.

  9. I think “born of a woman, born under the law” makes a lot of sense into the context of Gal 3:6-4:7, as I explained here:


    Actually, “come of woman, come under Law” is the keystone holding together a long argument: without Jesus known to be born as an earthly human, the whole argumentation would collapse …

    Cordially, Bernard

    1. Spoken like a true believer in his own point of view who cannot comprehend any contrary argument. Your article actually only makes the prolem worse. You infer that “born of a woman” is used to inform readers that Jesus was “a human” and that this was necessary to explain that he was really “a son of Abraham” — as if saying someone was descended from Abraham might leave readers wondering if such a person might be an angel or a unicorn or if he was really a human being.

      1. Yes, as was pointed out: the very fact that it must be stated that Jesus was a human must be a response to claims that he was not a human. How could that even be a question? Why not just say, Look! Here’s his mom, Mary! Here are his brothers! These people walked the dusty trails of Galilee with this man! It seems odd to have to make the statement that he was “born (made) of a (nameless, generic) woman.” In the case of Matthew 11, the context is different. The point of the statement is not that John is human, but that he is the greatest of humans.

        1. Geoff, it is a chiasmus, which was common in ancient writings like the Old and New Testaments, i.e.


          -> B

          -> B


          Gal 4:4 But when the fulness of the time was come, [A] God sent forth his Son, made of a woman, [B] made under the law,

          5 [B] To redeem them that were under the law, [A] that we might receive the adoption of sons

          It’s part of Paul’s theology, whereby Christ is the legal heir (as direct descendent via flesh, i.e. “made of woman”, “seed of Abraham”), while Christians are adopted. So Paul’s point here is that Christians were not “made of a woman”.

          1. On the other hand if the phrase is not original then the chiasmus was not original, either. I have seen chiasmus used to justify many textual emendations and more. The first difficulty is that interpreting what phrases match others is often so very subjective that the whole exercise become suspect in the extreme. Circularity is always lurking there in the arguments, one soon begins to see. Chiasmus might as a rule be introduced as an interesting confirmation IF the textual integrity is first established on other grounds.

            Meawhile, Chiasmus can in fact work more succinctly without the “made of woman” phrase that both Ehrman and Hoffmann have argued is an interpolation.

            The passage is a continuation of the argument over the status of Sons and how Sons before the due time are as much under bondage as are slaves. When the fullness of time comes then those sons are liberated from bondage and become free Sons no longer under the law.

            A] God sent forth his Son

            B] made under the law

            B] To redeem those under the law,

            A] we might receive the sonship [adoption].

            “Made of a woman” adds nothing to the argument that is about (at the right time) sending a son to receive sons, and lifting sons (who up to that time had been in the same condition as servants) above the status of servants.

            There is no reference to ‘flesh’ or ‘women’ anywhere in the thread of this argument that begins back half-way through the 3rd chapter. Ehrmann and Hoffmann are not alone in recognizing that the “born of woman” passage does not add to the argument.

            1. I think it is a fair point about the subjective nature of chiasmic structures. I’ve seen all of Gal 4:1 thru 4:9 represented as a chiasmus. But I was thinking of Geoff’s comment that we might expect the author to point out that Jesus was born from Mary rather than “born (made) of a (nameless, generic) woman.”

              If “born of woman” was an insert, most writers I’ve seen suggest it was inserted by proto-orthodox Christians, with probably some awareness of Jesus being the son of Mary. If so, then whatever the reason, they DID choose to reference a nameless, generic woman over using “Mary”. Possibly, maintaining the chiasmic structure of the passage might have been a consideration. “Born of a woman” matches “adoption as sons” as generic descriptions, in a way that “born of Mary” does not.

              1. My argument about the preferable chiasmus stands, I believe. “Born of a woman” breaks the balance by setting two phrases against one. Besides, I think you are relying upon the English wording rather than the Greek. There is no word for “adoption” as a counter to “born” (and there is no word “born”, either — the word is “made”, not “born”). The word translated “adoption” is “sonship”, albeit a technical term for adoption.

                Commentaries opining that the redactors knew “Mary” but chose not to use the name are irrelevant. They are expressing idle speculation with no evidence whatsoever.

                A God Sends Son (made of woman)

                B Made under Law

                B Redeeming those under the Law

                A God Receives them As Sons

          2. How might the Galatian congregation have understood the idea that Christ was ‘made of a woman’ but they were weren’t?

            If the phrase were intended literally (i.e. Paul is pointing out that Christ was physically born on earth, out of a woman) then surely they would know that they, the chosen folk of Galatia, had actually been likewise ‘made of a woman’?

            Or is the phrase not literal?

            Does this ‘woman’ fit with the Sarah/Hagar allegory – is she linked with Hagar and the son she had kata sarka? The mother of Paul and his followers is the Jerusalem above, and they are likened to Sarah’s son Isaac, thereby inheriting Abraham’s promise. If living kata pneuma is superior to living kata sarka, what is Christ’s status in relation to that of his followers?

    2. I’m not sure I follow your explanation in the context of Galatians. Paul is displeased with his Galatian faithful because they feel the need to live under the Law. Pointing out that the son of God was begotten under the Law may be of the same ilk as telling them that they are Abraham’s seed and heirs by promise (ἐπαγγελίαν); but how does pointing out that he was begotten out of a woman contribute to what he’s saying?

      He sets up a dichotomy between Abraham’s slave and free wives (with Hagar linked to Jerusalem and Sarah to ‘the Jerusalem above’); but as the ‘woman’ is not identified with or compared to either, what is the significance of the son of God having this ‘woman’ as a parent?

  10. In response to suggestions that the Greek phrases “born of a woman” and “made from a woman” are similar terms — it is worth keeping in mind that the difference was critical in early Christian theological debates. Gnostics could speak of Jesus being born to Mary, but by that they meant that Jesus passed through her like a hermetically sealed pellet through a chute so that he did not take on any human nature.

    The orthodox rebutted this by insisting that Jesus was “made from” the human — that is, that he took on human nature.

    See the extract quoted from Ehrman’s Orthodox Corruption explaining this at http://vridar.wordpress.com/2012/07/07/hoffmanns-mamzer-jesus-solution-to-pauls-born-of-a-woman/

  11. If “made of a woman” is an anti-Docetist interpolation, I feel like I’m missing something. What does Docetism (however early it may have been) have to do with the argument for a mythical origin of Jesus?

    My understanding is Docetists believed Jesus was a spirit who only “seemed” to be a human being, but he looked like one and appeared on earth.

    While verses in the NT epistles can be interpreted to mean that Jesus was a spirit being who was crucified by demons in the sub-lunar realm (and I don’t say that mockingly), this doesn’t appear to be (pun intended) a Docetist belief.

    1. While there may be a score of variant hypotheses to explain what is meant by a “historical Jesus”, there seem to me to be about four different Christ Myth views:

      1. The Christ Myth was based on a real figure in the distant (probably BCE) past;

      2. The Christ Myth was entirely crafted from Scriptures (or other literature and philosophy/theology) and was

      — a. entirely a heavenly being, or

      — b. for most part a heavenly being who only appeared on earth briefly (a few hours) to die

      3. The Christ Myth was a phantom appearing like a human

      4. The Christ Myth is the orthodox teaching of the Church, the Jesus found in the Gospels. This originally grew from a historical Jesus who has long since been lost from view. Most believers today believe their mythical Jesus was the historical Jesus.

  12. Supposing the NT epistles originally contained less “flesh” language, doesn’t this mean that, even without this kind of language, the Docetists believed that Jesus looked like a human and came to earth?

      1. And that’s the impression I get from Paul’s letters, based on some of the reasons listed in your link and a few others not listed.

        I’m thinking if it were otherwise it would have been spelled out more clearly, or we would at least see more unambiguous evidence of a sect or person -besides the one which supposedly wrote the NT epistles- that believed otherwise.

        1. I think the main difficulty the Christ myth in Paul’s letters has is our lack of familiarity with ancient thought and over-familiarity with the Gospels. Once we grasp the Stoic (and other theo-philosophical — e.g. Philo) concepts of the day and how they are fed into Paul’s account of Christ and conversion, Paul’s letters never look the same again.

        2. Have you read the detailed Christ myth arguments about Paul’s letters? I sometimes take it for granted most of us have but need to be reminded that many of us rely upon the summaries often found in internet discussions.

          1. Not sure what you mean by the detailed Christ myth arguments about Paul’s letters.

            But in any event, pretty much everything I’ve learned about “mythicism” has been from this and other blogs, websites and discussion boards.

            1. Another key concept to grasp is what the epistles state is the source of their gospel. These passages are generally glossed over (again through familiarity with the gospel narrative) and their import all too rarely registered.

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