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.

On the one hand, the risen Christ seems to be as we have so far seen described for the resurrected individual. The Gospel of Luke, for example, understands that the risen Christ could change his form and remain unidentifiable even to those who previously knew him – he could even vanish suddenly without a trace (24:15-16; 31). According to the Gospel of John, Mary Magdalene experienced the same phenomenon: she was prevented from recognizing the risen Jesus who took on the form of the gardener (20:14-16). Once Jesus becomes identifiable, Mary wants to touch him but is ordered not to try because Jesus had not yet “ascended to the Father” (20:17). Elsewhere in the Gospel of John, Jesus twice materializes in a locked room (implied by the note that the doors were shut; 20:19, 26). Also in John, Jesus changes his form in such a way that his own disciples do not recognize him standing on the shore of the Sea of Galilee (21:1). And, in a curious but highly significant admission by the author of the Gospel of Matthew, though the eleven disciples (less Judas) were present to experience the risen Jesus in Galilee, “some doubted” (28:17). How is this possible unless they did not recognize him or were unable to touch him in order to dispel their doubt?

In Luke’s account of the two disciples who were prevented from recognizing the risen Jesus while he walked beside them, the disciples only become aware of their companion’s identity when he “took the bread and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to them” (24: 30-31). It is uncertain whether this manipulation of physical items is meant to be evidence of a Jesus risen in the flesh. For just as suddenly as Jesus takes a form they recognize, he vanishes into thin air.

In the last appearance by the risen Jesus as narrated in the Gospel of John, Jesus sits on the shore of the Sea of Galilee with his disciples (who, remember, initially could not recognize him). As in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus “took the bread and gave it to them.” He also gave them some fish. He handles the food in the same manner as he did in Luke’s story (convoking a kind of post-Easter Eucharist) which, as we saw there, was not used to demonstrate that Jesus had risen in the flesh, for afterward he instantly vanished.

The so-called First Letter of Peter, likely a text from the later first century, reflects Paul’s earlier opinion regarding the nature of the resurrected form. The author, probably not the apostle Peter, affirms that Christ “suffered once for sins…being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit” (1 Peter 3:18).

The second-century Gospel of Peter, the earliest Christian text to actually describe the resurrection event itself, understands the form of Jesus to be non-physical. In that apocryphal text, Jesus is helped out of the tomb by two angels whose forms rise to incredible heights. Jesus, whose form outdoes them all, rises in size to a height surpassing even the sky (Gospel of Peter 40).

By the mid-second century, a highly successful Christian preacher by the name of Marcion taught that Christ was never a human being at all, either before or after the resurrection. According to Marcion, Jesus only took on the appearance of being human but was never anything but divine spirit. This one-sided view of the nature of Christ was adamantly opposed by other Christians throughout the second century and beyond despite Marcion’s successful missionary work founding numerous churches that subscribed to his belief. Christian Gnosticism, a blend of Jewish, Christian, and neo-Platonic ideas, generally either subscribed to the Marcionite view of the nature of Christ or presumed that “Christ” was a divine spirit that temporarily inhabited and empowered the human “Jesus”. According to many Gnostics, “Christ” returned to heaven immediately before the crucifixion, leaving the human Jesus to suffer alone (“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me” – Mark 15:34).

Marcion and the Gnostics were responding in part to the view of some Christians that Jesus had been raised in the flesh. Examples of this corporeal belief are also found in the New Testament. According to the Gospel of Matthew, Mary Magdalene, one of two women said to have visited the tomb on Easter morning, took hold of Jesus’s feet “and worshiped him” (28:9). This action by Mary is rewarded by Jesus with an unnecessarily redundant command to “tell my brothers to go to Galilee, and there they will see me,” instructions just given to the women by an angel three verses earlier. The doublet suggests that these verses were added later by the author to an earlier tradition in order to correct any doctrinal misconceptions.

There is also no question of the intent of Luke’s final story of the appearance of the risen Jesus, an episode radically different from the gospel’s previous appearance story and highly polemical. The author highlights the (mis-)understanding of the disciples in that they “supposed they saw a spirit.” Jesus corrects their doctrinal insufficiency by ordering them to “handle me and see: for a spirit has not flesh and bones as you see that I have.” To give further proof, Jesus eats a piece of broiled fish in front of them (24:33-34). Why does Jesus have to tell his disciples that he is not a spirit? Couldn’t they tell? This entire episode appears intentionally designed to forestall any presumption by later Christians that Jesus rose only in spirit.

In the Gospel of John, too, there is a similar attempt to “correct” any misunderstanding that Jesus’s flesh did not rise from the tomb. The author narrates the famous story in which the apostle Thomas was inexplicably absent when the risen Christ first appeared to the eleven in a locked room. When Thomas returns and hears about Jesus’s appearance to the others, he refuses to believe them unless he can actually probe the crucifixion wounds in Christ’s body. Jesus then reappears and offers Thomas the opportunity to do so (the text does not say that Thomas took the opportunity, however). The response from Thomas is christologically determinative: “My Lord and my God!” (John 20-26-28). There can be no missing the author’s intention here: post-apostolic Christians should not doubt Christ’s fleshly resurrection just because they didn’t witness it. To deny it, is tantamount to denying that Jesus is Lord and God.

In this doctrinal battle over the form of the risen Jesus, some scholars suggest that the empty tomb story was created to demonstrate that it was, indeed, the flesh of Jesus that rose, not just the spirit. Paul never mentions the empty tomb or Mary Magdalene who should have otherwise been included among the list Paul provides of witnesses to the appearance of Christ. The empty tomb story is first told in the Gospel of Mark, the earliest of the four New Testament gospels to be written, probably sometime around 70 CE, forty years after Easter and enough time for debates over the issue to have arisen.

Christ-believing Jews were doubtless embroiled in debates with their non-believing compatriots about the resurrection of their so-called messiah. How did they know Jesus had risen from the dead? Ghosts were seen by many people – it did not make them messiahs. We have already seen that in Paul’s day (50s CE), Gentile Christian converts were challenging the notion of fleshly resurrection altogether. Paul assures them there is no such thing. However, this was not decisive for Christians going forward. Perhaps, in an effort to stem accusations that the earliest resurrection witnesses had merely seen an apparition, hallucinated, or dreamed the whole thing up, the fleshly resurrection of Jesus was invented or began to be emphasized (recounted in tales nestling uneasily alongside stories of non-fleshly appearances). One of the earliest champions of this latter view is Ignatius (ca. 50 – ca. 117 CE), the Christian bishop of Antioch in Syria. Ignatius insisted that “I know and believe that [Jesus] was in the flesh even after the resurrection” (Letter to the Smyrneans 3.1). Soon, Christians would not only have to defend the dual nature of the resurrected Christ (flesh and spirit) but, in opposition to Marcion and others, the dual nature of his earthly existence (divine and human). These contradictory propositions were not, and could never be, wholly worked out – they remain irresolvable paradoxes. They are “mysteries” that one can only take on faith.

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