Is it really clear that the first Christians believed in the empty tomb of Jesus and in the resurrection of the body, leaving all the graves empty?
The resurrection of Jesus is the turning point
When we view history through Christian eyes, the resurrection of Jesus is the turning point. Without it, St Paul assured his readers, we are wasting our time with this whole Christianity thing. There is no salvation, no life beyond death, nothing, so let us eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die. The resurrection of Jesus is also vital to understanding conditional immortality. Because we don’t just naturally survive death in disembodied form, we need the resurrection in order to have eternal life (this is why St Paul’s comments, alluded to above, resonate so strongly with us). Without the resurrection, through which we receive immortality as a gift, there’s no other way that we could live forever. But do we need to think of the resurrection of Jesus as a bodily, physical, tangible event? Although this is what Christianity has historically taught, not everybody is convinced that this is really what the earliest Christians believed.
One of the arguments for the authenticity of the New Testament accounts of the empty tomb of Jesus of Nazareth is this: The Christian movement began in Jerusalem, very shortly after the crucifixion of Jesus. However, Jesus was crucified and buried in Jerusalem. His tomb – or rather, the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea, a member of the ruling council, was right there in the same city. If anybody wanted to pour cold water on this resurrection nonsense, it would have been relatively easy. Go to the tomb, produce the body, Jesus is still dead, end of story. Unless the tomb was really empty, the fledgling Christian faith, starting out in Jerusalem, would not have stood a chance.
Outspoken sceptic Richard Carrier rejects this argument. Carrier doesn’t believe that Jesus rose from the dead at all, and he thinks that Jesus’ body remained in the tomb. But the empty tomb, he claims, would have been quite unnecessary in order for the early Christians to believe that Jesus had been raised from the dead. This, he says, is because the first Christians never believed that the body of Jesus came back to life. They believed, he says, that the resurrection of Jesus left the old body dead in the tomb, while Jesus was raised in a spiritual or heavenly body, by which Carrier means a body that isn’t made of what we would think of as matter, but rather of some other-worldly stuff.
Obviously the Gospels describe the resurrection of Jesus as the coming to life of his dead body. The disciples inspect the empty tomb, their opponents invent a story about why the tomb was empty (instructing the guards to say that the disciples stole the body), and when they see Jesus again he is undeniably physical – eating food just to show his disciples that he was real and not an apparition or a spirit. But, Carrier claims, since the Gospels were written some decades after the fact, this just goes to show that these descriptions of the risen Jesus were myths that very quickly developed in the Christian community. In the earliest Christian community and in the letters of Paul, Carrier maintains, this was not what Christians thought.1 It isn’t just Richard Carrier who thinks this. There is a relatively small number of Christians (although we are now using that term fairly loosely when it comes to doctrine) who maintain that in the resurrection of the dead our bodies do not rise, but instead our soul is transferred into a completely different, heavenly, spiritual body that goes, unseen, to its reward in the immaterial afterlife, and that this is the view we find expressed by the first Christians in the New Testament era.
What merit does this line of argument have? In short, virtually none. There are at least three serious objections to it and in favour of the view that resurrection in early Christian theology cannot be thought of without the resurrection of the dead body.
Judaism and the Concept of the Resurrection of the body
The resurrection of the dead became a widely accepted Jewish teaching in the Second-Temple period, even though not everybody believed it. The very concept of resurrection is that something that was dead is now alive again, and although the Old Testament premonitions of a fully-fledged doctrine of resurrection are few, what they say suggests that this was – the idea that what was once dead is now alive – was the central pillar of that belief.
Probably the most familiar Old Testament passage that refers to resurrection is Daniel 12:2. “Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake; Some to everlasting life, some to shame and everlasting contempt.” The thing that will wake up is the thing that is, when the person is dead, “sleeping” in the dust of the earth.
Isaiah 26:19 is very similar in its description of resurrection: “Your dead shall live; their bodies shall rise. You who dwell in the dust, awake and sing for joy! For your dew is a dew of light, and the earth will give birth to the dead.” The dead are said to now be in the dust, and from there they shall rise. The bodies that are now dead will rise, and the earth will give up the dead that are in it.
This was the consistent view of those Jews who believed in resurrection. Throughout the Jewish literature on the resurrection up to and including the early to mid-first century AD, the resurrection was the resurrection of a dead body. In Sanhedrin 90b, Rabbi Gamaliel – Paul’s own teacher – explained how he knew that the dead would rise as follows:
From the Torah: for it is written: ‘And the Lord said to Moses, Behold you shall sleep with your fathers; and this people will rise up’ [Deuteronomy 31:16]. From the Prophets: as it is written: ‘Your dead men shall live, together with my dead bodies shall they arise. Awake and sing, you that dwell in the dust; for your dew is as the dew of herbs, and the earth shall cast out its dead.’ [Isaiah 26:19]; from the Writings: as it is written, ‘And the roof of your mouth, like the best wine of my beloved, like the best wine, that goes down sweetly, causing the lips of those who are asleep to speak’ [Song of Songs 7:9].
The metaphor of going to sleep and then rising up suggests that the same thing that dies will “wake up” in the future, which would indicate that Gamaliel thought the body would come back to life. The reference to Isaiah is fairly obvious in meaning, showing that Gamaliel thought of the reference to dead bodies rising up as a depiction of resurrection, and in the unusual reference to the Song of Songs, we see that Gamaliel thought that the lips of the dead would one day open and speak, giving us a clear insight into his view of the resurrection: The bodies that are now dead will one day be alive. It is true, of course, that Paul turned his back on much of his background in Pharisaism, so not everything that Gamaliel taught him would have continued to be his own view. What is clear enough, however, is that belief in the resurrection was not one of those beliefs that Paul gave up. In fact in order to rather mischievously stir up a fight between Pharisees and Sadducees (in an effort to take the heat off himself!), Paul publicly proclaimed that his belief in the resurrection is something that he held in common with the Pharisees (Acts 23:6-10).
Passages from the Jewish literature that was current in the first century affirm this view of the resurrection. In a well-known story in 2 Maccabes chapter 7 (written in the late second century BC), a mother and her seven sons are tortured and killed because they would not break the law of God. The words of the third son reveal the way that the writer (as presumably his community) thought about the world to come:
When it was demanded, he quickly put out his tongue and courageously stretched forth his hands [to be cut off], and said nobly, “I got these from heaven, and because of his laws I disdain them, and from him I hope to get them back again.
Or in 2 Baruch chapter 50, likely written towards the close of the first century AD:
For the earth will certainly then restore the dead it now receives so as to preserve them: it will make no changes in their form, but as it has received them, so it will restore them, and as I delivered them to it, so also will it raise them. For those who are then alive must be shown that the dead have come to life again, and that those who had departed have returned.
Belief in resurrection was not universal in first century Judaism. There were three ways of thinking about the future life. At one extreme were the Sadducees, who did not believe in any sort of future life. Then there were those who believed in disembodied existence without a body. Then there were the Pharisees, many of whom believed in the immortality of the soul, a prevalent view in many of the cultures existing alongside Judaism, but they also affirmed the resurrection of the dead. Those who held the third view had no trouble recognising that those who held the second view – that the spirit lived on without a body forever – did not believe in resurrection. In fact there is no record of anyone at the time referring to the second view as resurrection, a term that was always used to refer to the view of the Pharisees that the graves would be emptied and the bodies of the dead would live again.
If the early Christian movement did not believe that Jesus had been bodily raised back to life so that the body that died was now alive again, but they still claimed that he had been resurrected, then one obvious question would have been put to them: What exactly was resurrected? His body that died? No, that body is still dead, in the tomb. His new, spiritual, ethereal body then? No, because that body had never been dead to begin with. It was newly created when his old body died. His immaterial mind or soul that once lived in the old body and now lives in the new body – assuming of course that they believed in any such thing? No, for that never died in the first place! It just moved from one body to the next. In this scenario, there is nothing that was dead and is now alive. To tell a first century Jew that Jesus had been raised from the dead but that they could still see his body if they went to the tomb would have made the resurrection look like a ludicrous and implausible ruse, one that no Jew could have taken seriously, and would have made a laughing stock of the new (and soon to be ended) Christian movement.
Resurrection of the body in the Early Christian Writings
But what about the earliest Christian writings that we have – the letters of Paul? Do they, as Carrier suggested, refer to a second, replacement body that is ethereal, heavenly and discontinuous with the body that died? A “spiritual” body?
”Spiritual” vs “natural”
Here is where some people get thrown off track by the fact that actually St Paul does use the term “spiritual body” to refer to the body that will rise in the resurrection. Does this make Carrier’s description of the resurrection of Jesus in Paul’s theology correct? Carrier is not alone in thinking that he word “spiritual” must have the implication of non-physical or ethereal. When I was at Bible College I was giving a presentation on a paper I had written on the resurrection of the dead, and in the Q and A session that followed I was asked – by a senior student – “But doesn’t Paul contrast this body, a physical body, with the resurrection body, which is spiritual?” The assumption here was that “spiritual” is the opposite of “physical.” But Paul never made this contrast at all. Paul’s contrast was between the “natural” (psuchikon – ψυχικόν) body and the spiritual (pneumatikos – πνευματικὸς) body. This is not the only place where Paul contrasted the natural and the spiritual, and it is quite clear that in his mind, the contrast is not between something that is physical and something that is not.
1 Corinthians 2:14-15
The natural (ψυχικὸς) person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. The spiritual (πνευματικὸς) person judges all things, but is himself judged by no one.
It is obvious that the contrast Paul is making between two types of people is not based on one sort of person being ethereal while the other is made of flesh. Rather, one person is under the control of influence of the Spirit of God while the other person is centred on themselves.
Although Paul did not use the term psuchikon or its related words often, it does appear in Jude 1:19, alongside the word usually translated “spirit,” pneuma (πνεῦμα), where Jude refers to “the ones who cause divisions, wordly-minded (ψυχικοί), not having the Spirit (πνεῦμα).” Lastly, James 3:15 uses a similar term, psuchike (ψυχική), referring to human wisdom that does not come from above, which is “earthly, natural (ψυχική), devilish.” In both of these examples outside of Paul, the writers use these words to refer, not to the sort of stuff a thing is made of, but rather the moral qualities of a person, oriented towards themselves rather than God.
Paul on the resurrected body
It would be a mistake, then, to assume that Paul’s reference to a natural body and a spiritual body is the same as a reference to a physical, material or tangible body on the one hand and a non-physical, immaterial, heavenly body on the other. Certainly something being “spiritual” is compatible with it being ethereal and other-worldly, but it certainly does not require it. What’s more, any time that Paul writes about the resurrection body in 1 Corinthians and elsewhere, it is clear that he is not talking about one body being scrapped and forgotten, with a brand new body, discontinuous with the old body, being created from scratch. Paul is always clear that the resurrection body is continuous with the current mortal body, albeit transformed. In 1 Corinthians 15 he made this point using the analogy of a seed and the plant that grows from it. The mortal body is like a seed that goes into the ground and “dies,” and the resurrected body is like the plant that the seed will become (1 Corinthians 15:35-38). And so “It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body” (v. 44). The same thing that is “sown” will also be raised. There is no doubt that in 1 Corinthians 15 Paul is speaking of a transformed body, rather than a replaced body, as he claims that “this perishable must put on the imperishable, and this mortal must put on immortality” (v. 53). The picture Paul paints is one where this current mortal body takes on new, better qualities. This is why NT Wright likens Paul’s thought to the idea that the resurrection body is “like a new and larger suit of clothes to be put on over the existing ones.”2
Paul also wrote, this time to the Philippians (3:21), that Jesus “will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body.” But of course, if our soul will simply move from a physical body to an ethereal body, then nothing needs to happen to our “lowly” body. It can simply be left in the dust. Carrier has pointed out that the verb for “transform” here is sometimes used of a “disguise” by which people transform their appearance (e.g. 2 Corinthians 11:13 where people disguise themselves as apostles of Christ), suggesting that the imagery of changing clothes really supports the idea that the old body is left behind. But this is to overlook the context, because Paul is describing the changing of the appearance, not of the person (as though the person can exist without their body), but rather the changing of the appearance of the lowly body itself. The literal wording (ὃς μετασχηματίσει τὸ σῶμα τῆς ταπεινώσεως ἡμῶν) is “who will transform (or if Carrier prefers, change the appearance of) the body of humiliation of us.” It is thus the body that is changed. What is more, the body will be literally conformed (σύμμορφον – summorphon, literally formed or “morphed”) to “the body of his glory.” Why would a body need to be conformed to a new form when the body is brand new, a replacement for the old body? No amount of bending over backwards can avoid the conclusion that Paul is talking a body that has a lowly form being transformed so that it conforms to a new glorious form. This is not a replacement but a metamorphosis.
In a well-known passage where Paul is – wrongly, I think – often thought of as expressing his hope of disembodied bliss in heaven, he expresses his hopeful anticipation of the future state of glory, a transformed body. Even if this body – our current physical form – is killed or destroyed, he wrote in 1 Corinthians 5, we look forward to an eternal house with which we will be clothed.
True, all of this makes it hard to see how the body of someone who died five-thousand years ago could be resurrected today when they may simply be nothing left of them. That is another problem, however, which has been discussed by others elsewhere.3 The point here is that Paul’s view of the resurrected body, like that of his Jewish forebears and contemporaries, is that it has continuity with the body that died, and it is not simply a replacement. What is more, this problem did not exist in the case of Jesus, whose dead body was obviously still available on the third day after his death.
Setting aside Paul’s reference to the resurrection body itself, there is a brief but interesting piece of evidence in 1 Corinthians for the empty tomb, in 15:3-5.
For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.
Recall that Paul’s conversion took place apart from the ministry of the Apostles, who wouldn’t have wanted to be within a mile of him at the time. While on the road to Damascus in search of Christians to have arrested, he was struck down, as Mick Jagger sang, “St Paul the persecutor was a cruel and sinful man. Jesus hit him with a blinding light and then his life began.”4 But after that he went to Jerusalem and met up with the other disciples, which is likely what he is referring to here, where the teachings of the other Apostles were passed on to him, and he is now passing it on to the church in Corinth. But why does he say that Jesus rose on the third day? How did that part of the resurrection tradition become adopted by the disciples in the first place? The most likely explanation is that the third day is when the disciples went to the tomb of Jesus and found it empty, just as the Gospels record. But if the body that died is not the body that was raised, there would be no reason for the tomb to be empty.
The redemption of the body
Lastly, apart from the concept of resurrection itself and the way that St Paul described his hope, there is a very important feature of Christology (our understanding of the person of Christ) that is relevant here.
In the early centuries of the Christian faith there were two major disputes about Jesus of Nazareth. Firstly, was he really divine? Secondly, was he really human? In regard to the latter question, it became clear to Christians that it was very important that Jesus was really, truly, fully human. Why? Because as the fourth-century theologian Gregory of Naziunzus put it, “What has not been assumed has not been healed.”5 The Son of God took human nature to himself – all of human nature – in order to redeem it, restoring it, raising it up and glorifying it. And there is no real doubt that the Christian movement always understood that Jesus was a real, physical, earthly person, and not an illusion (in fact the challenge that his humanity was merely an illusion, a view called Docetism, was quickly rejected as heresy when it arose).
If God never intended to redeem the human body, then why would Christ have come in the flesh at all? As no more than a moral teacher? The belief that in Christ, God took humanity to himself, assures us that everything that was in Jesus of Nazareth: Body, heart, mind, will, anything else you care to think of, is part of the humanity that through Christ was transformed. That the redemption of these bodies was part of the whole process of salvation was so clear to St Paul that he could not even think of our adoption as God’s children without it, a thought he expressed in Romans 8:23, “we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.” Belief that Jesus slipped away unseen in an undetectable body, leaving his old one in the tomb, makes mockery of the very reason that Jesus had that body in the first place, in Christian thought.
So rather than serving as an earlier and less tangible concept of the resurrection that was later developed into the mythological history that we find in the Gospel (as Carrier would have it) or into a crassly material version later advanced by the church (as though there is anything crass about the material world!), what we find in the New Testament epistles is an affirmation of the resurrection of the body in a very real, physical sense. The notion of a resurrection that left a corpse behind would have been nonsense to St Paul and the early Christian community, and the whole package of salvation through God in Christ, as proclaimed from the beginning, only makes sense with its crowning glory, the resurrection of the dead.
- In fact Carrier has since gone even further, falling into what is commonly called the “Jesus myth” point of view, an extraordinary fringe movement that denies even the historical existence of Jesus of Nazareth around whom the group of disciples formed. The number of serious adherents of this point of view among biblical scholars – none of whom could be considered mainstream – can likely be counted on the fingers and toes, and even the most liberal of scholars like John Dominic Crossan, the late Robert Funk, Gerd Lüdemann and Bart Ehrman have no time for it.
- N. T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, Christian Origins and the Question of God, Vol. 3 (Augsburg: Fortress Press, 2003), 368.
- For example, these three articles by Christian philosopher Trenton Merricks: “How to Live Forever Without Saving your Soul,” in Kevin Corcoran (ed.) Soul, Body, and Survival: Essays on the Metaphysics of Human Persons (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2001), 183-200, “There Are No Criteria of Identity Over Time,” Noûs 32:1 (1998), 106-124 and “The Resurrection of the Body and the Life Everlasting” in Michael J. Murray (ed.), Reason for the Hope Within (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), 261-286.
- The Rolling Stones, “Saint of Me.”
- “What has not been assumed has not been healed; it is what is united to his divinity that is saved…” Gregory of Nazianzus, Epistle 101.