In the Flesh? In Spirit Only? The Nature of the Risen Christ

It may be surprising to learn that early Christians did not initially agree as to the form in which Christ was raised from the dead. Possibly this is because relatively few claimed to have seen him and even fewer left any details about the experience. Ultimately, the church had to decide if Christ’s fleshly body was raised or just his soul or spirit. There were disagreements for a long time.

Resurrection itself was a distinctively Jewish belief. It was tied to the events of the Day of the Lord, that time when God, perhaps in conjunction with his representative or messiah, would reclaim the world which had gone astray through sin and disobedience. God would not only destroy the forces of evil (both divine and human) but refashion the world anew as it was in the mythical time of Eden. Not all Jews were apocalypticists but those who were generally agreed that during this time of future renewal the righteous dead would be raised to new life to be able to enjoy the reclaimed world. Some held that even sinners would be resurrected so that they could instead be punished.

What form would these resurrected individuals take? Not everyone agreed. If the words of Jesus quoted in the Gospel of Matthew are historically representative of Jesus’s thoughts on the matter, he believed that resurrected people would be “like angels in heaven” (Matthew 22:30), meaning that they would be divinized in some way (i.e., no longer flesh and blood). Whether or not this was Jesus’s view, it was not an uncommon belief among Jewish apocalypticists (which Jesus was). The Second Apocalypse of Baruch, a Jewish text from the late first or early second century, says that resurrected people “shall be made like angels” (51.10). Within the collection of Jewish sectarian texts known as the Dead Sea Scrolls, is written the hope that each member of the sect “abide forever as an Angel of the Presence in the holy habitation” (1Q28b 4.25). And, in a much-overlooked passage by Paul, the apostle considers the risen Christ to be an angel (Galatians 4:14), probably the Angel of the Lord (Genesis 16, 22; Exodus 3:2, 10; etc.).

It is Paul and Paul alone who gives us firsthand information about his experience of the risen Christ. He also lists a number of appearances afforded other believers prior to his (1 Corinthians 15:5-8). In every case he uses the Greek ōpthē, emphasizing the experience’s visual quality (not audible, not tangible). Paul does not distinguish the manner of the appearance of Christ to him from that made manifest to the earlier recipients.

Later within the same letter, Paul apparently responds to a question about the nature of the resurrected person. This question was raised by his Gentile (non-Jewish) readers who considered the Jewish notion of resurrection, by which they understood that their corpses should rise from the grave, to be disgusting. Paul is quite clear in his explanation: the human body, sown as flesh, will rise in spirit; “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Corinthians 15:35-54).

Does this view of the resurrected individual reflect the earliest views of the nature of the risen Christ? If we turn to the evidence presented in the New Testament about how other authors besides Paul, none of them eyewitnesses and all writing in the late first or early second century, understood the resurrected form of Jesus, we find conflict and contradiction.

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