What is a Spiritual Body?

Is Jesus’ Resurrection just a later legend invented by the Gospel writers some thirty to sixty years after His death when they first put pen to papyrus?  That’s a great question I recently received and in last week’s blog I took time to unpack the very compelling way it was framed.  It’s also a great question because this is, by far, the most popular explanation those scholars who don’t believe in the Resurrection put forward to explain it.  It’s the best alternative explanation they’ve come up with.

The answer to this question hinges on what those earliest disciples believed.  Did they think and then claim that Jesus appeared to them merely as an immaterial Spirit?  Or did they think and then claim that Jesus appeared bodily resurrected?  If they thought and preached that he appeared physically, His Resurrection can’t be a legend developed by the later church and/or Gospel writers long after His death.  The Resurrection would be a claim that was made right away, and, therefore, something that would have to be explained some way else by those who don’t believe it happened.

As everyone who studies this question agrees, Paul holds the key.  Not only does he author the earliest New Testament texts, which are basically the only writings from the period when those first disciples were still living, he also knew many of those first witnesses to the Resurrection and what they were claiming about Jesus’ appearances to them.  Most importantly, he claims that Jesus also appeared to him, giving us a first-hand, eyewitness account of the nature of Jesus’ appearances.  Scholars generally agree that Paul’s writings accurately reflect what those earliest Christians believed.

So, what does Paul say about the way Jesus appeared to him and the other disciples? 

Scholars have focused on a passage in I Corinthians 15 where Paul is describing what the believer’s resurrected life will be like.  The reason this passage is so important is that what he describes about the nature of this new existence is based on the manner in which he thought Jesus had appeared to him and the other witnesses to the Resurrection.   

But, unfortunately, in this passage Paul uses an unusual and, in the Greek, quite ambiguous term to describe what this transformation entails—he says that believers will have a “spiritual body”, as opposed to the “natural body” they now inhabit.  For decades, scholars have argued over exactly what Paul meant by this term.  Is he referring to an ethereal body—simply an immaterial form—or an actual, physical one? 

In the last decade or so, however, more and more scholars have come to conclude that Paul is talking about a real, material body.  Even the most prominent, skeptical Biblical scholar of our day, Bart Ehrman, has concluded that it is abundantly clear Paul believed Jesus had appeared to him with a physical, albeit glorified, body.

Even if what Paul meant by a “spiritual body” weren’t clear, there are several other places where he talks about the resurrected life of believers that are.  Perhaps the most unambiguous example is Romans 8:11: “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.”

From this verse—not to mention the entire context of Chapter 8—it couldn’t be any clearer that Paul believes the mortal body of believers will be transformed in resurrection, just as Jesus’ body was transformed.  Here, according to Paul, the mortal, earthly, natural body isn’t discarded for a spiritual one but transformed into a glorified existence.  That’s the unequivocally clear sense in which he understands how the natural body becomes a spiritual body.

So, it couldn’t be any clearer that Paul thought Jesus was bodily resurrected.  It couldn’t be any clearer that those earliest disciples claimed Jesus was physically raised from the dead.  And, it couldn’t be any clearer that the Resurrection isn’t a later legend invented by the Gospel writers—it is a claim that was made right from the beginning.

As if this isn’t enough, there are a number of other definitive reasons the Resurrection couldn’t be a later legend.  Next week, I’ll explain why the later Gospel writers would never have invented Jesus’ bodily Resurrection.  Instead, they would have had every reason to avoid it.  They would have had every reason to claim that Jesus appeared from the dead as a pure, immaterial spirit.

What do you think Paul meant by a “spiritual body”?  Do you think this verse in Romans 8 makes it clear?  I’d love to hear what you think!  You can go to the “Contact E.J.” page of the Raising Jesus website and leave your comments there.  I look forward to hearing from you.      

About Me

E.J. Sweeney is a true skeptic. He needs to see to believe. Hard Evidence. Compelling Proof. Solid Logic. This is what he believes in. In college, he encountered questions that the superficial faith he was raised on couldn’t handle. So he began a quest for Truth, a quest for the answers to life’s ultimate questions.

EJ Sweeney

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