RESPONDblogs: Did the First Followers of Jesus Believe in an Empty Tomb?

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People sometimes look sceptically at the New Testament account of Jesus’ resurrection, suggesting the original Christians didn’t claim Jesus tomb was empty. Rather, the idea of Jesus’ physical resurrection evolved over time.

Richard Carrier says the earliest Christian thinking on post-crucifixion Jesus is in Paul’s letters, but Paul doesn’t talk physical resurrection, instead he says Jesus returned to heaven as a spirit. This portrays the empty tomb as a legend from Christians who misunderstood Paul’s teaching. The story “that Jesus actually walked out of the grave with the same body that went into it, leaving an empty tomb to astonish all, was probably a legend that developed over the course of the first century.”[1] The Gospels, written after Paul’s death, contain these legends.

Everybody LOVES a good conspiracy theory. But what does Carrier base his proposed conspiracy theory on? Is his foundation secure? If not, then his theory won’t be any good.

Carrier’s foundation is the idea the earliest Christians didn’t believe Jesus was raised physically, but spiritually. There was no empty tomb; resurrection was just a clever idea to build a movement on. Let’s look at Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians to see whether Carrier’s right.

Paul’s Argument for Resurrection

“They are buried as natural human bodies, but they will be raised as spiritual bodies. For just as there are natural bodies, there are also spiritual bodies.”[2] Paul’s talking about two types of body, contrasting natural and spiritual bodies. So, is he contrasting a physical body with a ghost-like spirit? Or are our western minds reading this into the text?

Paul’s original greek contrasts soma psychikon (translated natural) and soma pneumatikon (translated spiritual). The word psychikon refers to something as soulish, while the word pneumatikon refers to something as spiritual. Paul’s contrasting soulish and spiritual bodies.

There’s no reference to physical body here. The ancients had ways of contrasting physical and non-physical things, but they didn’t use these words. Ironically, if a 1st century reader saw the phrase soma psychikon and was looking for a physical/non-physical contrast, they would think soma psychikon referred to the non-physical side![3]

If Paul’s not talking in terms of physical vs ghostly non-physical resurrection body, what is he doing? He’s contrasting soulish and spirit empowered bodies.

Here’s another interesting point about Paul’s choice of language. Adjectives with the ending -ikos have ethical meanings, they don’t refer to material composition.[4] So Paul’s not thinking about the resurrection body’s composition, rather he’s talking about its power source.

Carrier thinks Paul’s speaking about a “ship made of steel or wood,” but actually Paul’s talking about a ship “driven by steam or wind.”[5]

Let’s look at Paul’s argument for the resurrection body.

1 –Bodies are Physical

Some Corinthians believed the body was unspiritual and something to escape from. The idea of a physical resurrection body wouldn’t be good news.

Paul responds by teaching a right understanding of the resurrection from the dead, and he appeals to God’s original creative work. Adam and the garden were physical things, and Adam relates to Christ. “The first man, Adam, became a living person. But the last Adam – that is Christ – is a life-giving Spirit. What comes first is the natural body, then the spiritual body comes later.”[6] He’s saying, we all know soulish bodies exist (soma psychikon), but bodies animated by God’s spirit are also real (soma pneumatikon). Jesus’ resurrection body is an example of pneumatikon.[7]

If Paul didn’t think Jesus’ resurrection body was a physical thing, then why would he bother to link Christ with his original physical creation?

2 – Jesus’ Resurrection Body is Like Our Future Body

He goes on to say that, “Just as we are now like the earthly man, we will someday be like the heavenly man.”[8] Our own resurrection bodies will be like Christ’s. Jesus’ resurrection body was physical, so ours will be too.

3 – Our Soulish Lives will be Swallowed Up in Spirit Empowered Lives

The aim isn’t to leave our bodies for spiritual existence, the aim is “to let the present ‘heavenly’ life change the present earthy reality”[9] and look for a future where God’s intended “pneumatikos state…swallow(s) up and replace(s) [a] merely psychikos life.”[10]

Our current, corruptible soulish bodies can’t inherit God’s kingdom, but our future non-corruptible spirit empowered bodies will.

 

Conclusion

Carrier thinks Paul taught a non-physical resurrection body, and his letter to Corinth “discourses on metaphysical minutiae…resolving some misunderstanding about the nature of the resurrection body.”[11] Yes, but Paul’s not discoursing on the body’s nature, but on what empowers it; soul or spirit? Based on Christ’s resurrection, Paul assumes Christians will have a future body that will be “animated by, enlivened by, the Spirit of the true God.”[12]

Carrier misrepresents Paul’s argument, claiming he didn’t believe in physical resurrection bodies. No, Paul assumed Jesus’ physical resurrection and likened it to the Christian’s future, Spirit empowered body.

Carrier’s conspiracy theory about the evolution of Jesus’ resurrection accounts isn’t therefore grounded; the earliest Christians did believe both that Christ was physically raised, and in the future, we will be too.

[1] Richard C. Carrier, “The Spiritual Body of Christ and the Legend of the Empty Tomb,” in The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave, eds. Robert M. Price, and Jeffery Jay Lowder (New York: Prometheus Books, 2005), Loc. 1259, Kindle.

[2] 1 Corinthians 15:44, NLT.

[3] N. T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, (London:Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2003), 350.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] 1 Cor 15:45, NLT.

[7] Wright, 354.

[8] 1 Cor 15:49, NLT.

[9] Wright, 355.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Carrier, Loc., 1486.

[12] Wright, 354.

 

Image courtesy of Pexels.

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Respond

I live in the UK, I'm married to Janet and I'm passionate about proposing a case for the historic Christian faith. You can find me on Twitter at @stuhgray.

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