Browsing through posts I made (exactly) six years ago, I came across this one (which deals with a subject I’ll be addressing in my new book) about Paul’s view of the future resurrection. What I thought I thought about that issue *before* I started doing the hardcore research for my book on the afterlife is very similar to how I still think now. I hope that doesn’t just mean I’m stubborn! Here is the perceptive question and my response:
What is a BODILY resurrection without the flesh? Don’t the early Christians (and Paul) think the flesh (the corpse) didn’t matter anymore and could be left behind, rotting and decomposing? Isn’t it all about the spirit finally getting this new, better, perfect, divine ‘body’?
Addendum: The Greek for ‘spiritual’ (like in spiritual body) is pneumatikos, right? According to Strong’s that means: pertaining to wind or breath, windy, exposed to the wind, blowing. Now those wouldn’t be obvious words to describe something physical or made out of matter, would it? They seems to rather define something ‘intangible’
OK, I’ve been getting a lot of questions along these lines (some on the blog itself). So I need to try to clarify the whole matter. It’s not easy, for a variety of reasons. But I’ll do my best.
First thing to stress: the ancient apocalyptic view of the human that Paul had is not the view of the human that WE have. This is one instance where it becomes crystal clear that we have to try to think in a way that we are decidedly not accustomed to if we want to understand Paul. For US, the body is made of flesh, so when we speak of flesh, we speak of the body. For Paul, the flesh and the body were two different things. That’s because, for him, “flesh” does not refer to what WE refer to when we refer to flesh. That is, we think of it as the meat that is hanging on our bones; but that is not what Paul is referring to. He does, of course, know that there is meat hanging on our bones, but that is what he thinks of as our body. It is not our flesh. “Flesh” is a technical term for Paul. It is the bad side of being human. It is that part of the human that has been corrupted by sin and is alienated from God. The flesh is the reason we cannot please God even by keeping the Law. Because sin, using the flesh, forces us to do things in opposition to God. The flesh needs to be destroyed. But since the flesh is not the same thing as the body, that does *not* mean that the body has to be destroyed. The body has to be redeemed, not destroyed. (See how Paul talks about “flesh” in Romans 6-8)
Second point. In ancient ways of thinking, the body was not the ONLY material part of a human. Humans also have souls and spirits. And for ancient people, souls and spirits were MATERIAL entities, not IMMATERIAL entities (as they are for us). For *us* the difference between soul and body is visible/invisible or material/immaterial or substantial/insubstantial. That’s not how the ancients saw it. For the ancients, soul and spirit were made up of *stuff*. They were material entities. But their material was much finer, more refined, than the clunky shell of our body.
And so, if an ancient apocalypticist like Paul talked about a spiritual body, he meant a body that is no longer made up of just this clunky meat, it is a body of a more refined substance; it is still matter, but it is a different kind of matter. When Paul thought Jesus was physically raised from the dead, that was NOT a contradiction to his claim that Jesus had a spiritual body at the resurrection. Spiritual bodies *were* physical. We too will be raised (for Paul) into spiritual bodies. At that time we will not have “flesh,” because sin will no longer have any role to play in our existence. But when he says this, he means it in the ancient, not the modern, sense.
If you want to read up on ancient understandings of body, flesh, spirit, soul (especially as these are physical entities, not immaterial), I’d suggest you read the book by my friend Dale Martin, professor of NT at Yale, The Corinthian Body.
Later Christian theologians who were NOT raised in Jewish apocalyptic thinking did not make this distinction that Paul made between body and flesh, leading to all sorts of confusions. They stressed the “resurrection of the flesh,” which for Paul would have been nonsense. For Paul, flesh and blood do not inherit the kingdom of God. They are done away with, because people are raised in spiritual bodies, just as Christ was. But later theologians (for example, Tertullian) did not make this distinction and stressed that it is precisely the “flesh” that comes to be raised. By that, he meant what Paul meant when he talked about “body.”
One of the ironies that was created is that later theologians stressed the resurrection of the flesh thinking that they were advocating Paul’s view, e.g., against Gnostics. In fact, they were not advocating Paul’s view at all, since Paul did not think the flesh would be raised.
One text where this is particularly interesting is the pseudepigraphic (i.e., forged) 3 Corinthians, where, as my student Benjamin White has shown, in an important article recently, the author, claiming to be Paul, tries to wrest Paul away from the Gnostics precisely by stressing that the flesh is all important before God and will be raised. Whoops. That’s not Paul’s view. But this later second century author was not trained in Jewish apocalyptic thinking, and so simply didn’t know that.