Gospel Disproof #38: The guards at the tomb »« Who said it?

Follow-up on Lazarus

This is way overdue, but I hate to leave a loose end dangling. I wanted to go back and spend a little more time with Jayman’s comment on the Gospel Disproof about Jesus and Lazarus. There were a couple of points where I think he misunderstood me, plus a few difficulties he doesn’t really resolve, so if you’ll forgive me for digging this up again (groan), I’ll go into detail below the fold.

Jayman writes:

The Gospels are full of stories [about Jesus' resurrection] that are plainly ghost stories…

If it was so plain then why did everyone misinterpret the accounts? Seems more likely that 21st century atheists are misreading the stories. [The gospel writers] explicitly deny that Jesus’ appearances were the appearances of a ghost.

I agree completely: by the time the post-Markan gospels were written, believers had indeed decided that the resurrection had to be physical, and so they wrote the gospels specifically to counter the belief that Jesus was raised in a mere “spiritual” body. Notice that there would be no need to make such an explicit correction if the resurrection story had been about a physical resurrection all along. The Lazarus story, for example, includes no such language to prove that Lazarus was physically real. It’s taken for granted. But at the time Matthew, Luke, and John wrote their gospels, the issue of physical body vs. spiritual body was still one that needed to be addressed, and corrected in favor of a physical resurrection. (There is no physical resurrection in Mark, the earliest gospel. Go figure.)

In the earliest epistles, the Apostle Paul explains that this is because Jesus was raised in a spiritual body, and goes on to argue, at some length, that the body you bury is not the body that gets resurrected. “Flesh and blood,” he tells us, “cannot inherit the kingdom of God.”

If Jewish belief at the time was that a resurrected body was a physical body then why does Paul use that terminology to describe Jesus’ resurrection? Why does he refer to a body at all?

Jayman seems to recognize that the physical vs spiritual discrepancy is a problem, but for some reason he seems to think it’s my problem. The question he should be asking is why, if Jesus were raised physically, would Paul insist that Jesus was raised in a spiritual body as explicitly opposed to a physical one. The answer, clearly, is that Paul did not believe that the body that was raised was a physical body, and furthermore that the resurrection body specifically was not the physical body that was buried. It’s the whole point of the passage!

As to why he refers to a body at all, you have to read the passage in context. Paul is having an argument with somebody, an argument about resurrection. The problem is that a bodiless resurrection is like an unmarried spouse: you have to have a body in order to have a resurrection, otherwise the term is meaningless. What if there is no physical body though? Can you still have a genuine resurrection? And thus, we come to the question Paul addresses in I Cor. 15:35: “How are the dead raised? And with what kind of body do they come?” And notice, his answer is not that resurrection brings the physical body back to life. If he’d argued that, then there’s nobody to contradict him: Paul’s doctrine would agree with what the Jews (and Greeks) already believed about the resurrected body.

Instead, though, he tries to make a case that we ought to expect resurrection to produce an entirely different kind of body from the physical body that is buried. He doesn’t agree that resurrection ought to reanimate the body that died (with or without supernatural powers), he emphatically opposes the idea. Each point of his argument emphasizes contrast: the seed you plant is not the plant that grows, the flesh of man is not the flesh of beasts, the raised body has traits that are the exact opposite of the buried body, i.e. imperishable vs. perishable, earthly vs. heavenly, etc.

In other words, Paul is trying to overcome the idea that you need a physical body in order to have a real resurrection. And it’s hard work. He can’t just say, “You know how at the Last Judgment all the dead are going to be raised in non-physical bodies? Jesus’ resurrection was like that.” If the Jews, or even the earliest Christians, had had a tradition like that, Corinthians could have been a lot shorter. Unfortunately, most of what Jesus said about the Last Judgment tended to emphasize the physical sufferings of the damned. If your body isn’t physical, then worms can’t eat you, and flames can’t burn you.

So Paul has to build a new doctrine from scratch, and he tries to argue for a “spiritual” resurrection body. But his attempt fails. People just won’t buy the idea that a spiritual body is a genuine resurrection. Even Paul’s own arguments are ultimately turned on their heads, and when Christians today read “spiritual body” they think “physical body with supernatural powers.” For example, Jayman says:

Both a resuscitation and a resurrection involve a physical body being raised from the dead. A resuscitated person will die again. A resurrected person will not die again. In the first-century Jewish context, a resurrection was (nearly?) always conceived as the raising of a physical body.

Notice, what Jayman is arguing here is the same thing he objected to in the first comment quoted above: that first-century Jews conceived of resurrection as the raising of a physical body. The difference is that Jayman is thinking of resurrection as being the raising of a physical body with supernatural powers. That’s what Christians believe now, because Paul failed to sell the idea that you could genuinely resurrect a spiritual body. But if Paul had believed what Jayman believes, and if the Jews had also believed it, then there would have been no such debate for Paul to address in I Cor. 15:35-57. The whole reason there’s a debate is because Paul is trying to sell a new definition of resurrection that conflicts with how everyone else is using the term.

(As an aside, can you imagine how pointless it would be to consign someone to the flames of Hell if they’d been resurrected in a “spiritual” body like Jesus allegedly had? “Ouch, I’m outa here” *poof*)

It isn’t splitting hairs to note that Lazarus was raised only to die again while Christ was raised to eternal life. This difference is relevant for the differences between the account of Lazarus and the account of Jesus. Merely noting the difference is not sufficient to conclude that Jesus’ body was not physical.

The “splitting hairs” we’re talking about here refers to the semantic difference between the synonyms “resurrection” and “resuscitation,” which Jayman tries to use as technical terms referring to different types of reanimation. But as I noted, this is pure misdirection. There’s nothing about living forever that implies you should have the ability to walk through walls, or spontaneously change your appearance so that your closest friends don’t recognize you, or vanish like a ghost. These are the traits that spiritual/ghostly bodies have that physical bodies do not, and they’re also the traits that Jesus’ resurrection body allegedly had that Lazarus’ body allegedly did not. The distinction between “die again” and “live forever” is entirely beside the point.

Merely claiming that Jesus would never die is not enough to account for the distinctly non-physical characteristics he allegedly manifests in so many of the stories (notwithstanding later embellishments that attribute physical substance to him). To call Jesus’ resurrection “physical” is to deprive ourselves of the vocabulary we need to even discuss the difference between a physical resurrection and a spiritual one. It makes you wonder whether that, after all, might not have been the original goal.

I realize I’m not going to convince Jayman. The apostle Paul couldn’t do it, even by explicitly declaring that the resurrection body was spiritual and was not the “earthly” body that gets buried. Still, it’s an interesting peek behind the scenes, as it were, of the evolution of the Gospel.