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Did Paul Think Jesus’ Body Remained in the Grave? Mailbag July 14, 2017


I will address two very different questions in this edition of the Readers’ Mailbag.  If you have a question you would like me to address, ask away, and I’ll add it to the list.



I just finished reading scholar Gregory Riley’s Resurrection Reconsidered. He presents the position that people in the Greco-Roman world had a very different perception about spirits (ghosts) than we do today. Riley states that people living in the first century Roman Empire believed that dead people frequently came back to visit the living, appearing in “bodies” that looked exactly like their former fleshly bodies, and having the same capabilities of their former fleshly bodies: capable of eating food, drinking wine, and even engaging in sex…even sex with the living! The ONLY difference between a spirit body and a fleshly body was that USUALLY a spirit body was impalpable (could not be touched). Riley believes that Paul would have been shocked to hear about an empty tomb as he would have believed that Jesus’ fleshly body would OF COURSE still be in his grave! To Paul, Jesus had been resurrected as a spiritual body. His fleshly body remained in his grave. You seem to believe that Paul believed that the fleshly body of Jesus left the grave entirely and was transformed into an immortal body.



Yes I have just (re)read Riley’s book in connection with my next project on the development of the Christian understanding of the afterlife.  Riley provides a simple but very readable discussion of how ancient peoples (both Jewish and pagan/Greek/Roman) understood the nature of the body, the soul, and the spirit, and how they construed the nature of the afterlife.   I pretty much agree with his understanding of most of the Greek materials (where he puts his greatest focus).  But I think he is completely wrong about Paul.  In part that is because he thinks Paul was more influenced by Greeks like Plato than like apocalyptic Jews like his fellow Pharisees.

It is true that Paul thought that the resurrected Jesus had a spiritual body.  But …

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Apocalypticism in a Modern Idiom
The Origins of Apocalypticism



  1. hasankhan  July 14, 2017

    In Islam we believe the body decays in the grave and that we can scientifically verify also, we know it as a fact. On day of judgement, we’ll be given new bodies and soul will return to those bodies so we can experience the eternal hereafter, weather in heaven or hell. So yes in heaven, we’ll be not like how we are on earth, we’ll all be good looking and same age, etc.

    Is this concept in old testament?

    As for Paul’s comment about ‘glorified’, isn’t it possible to interpret it as, given a new body that is glorified? The word glorified is found in many places in Bible, is this interpretation consistent with all usages in the Bible?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 15, 2017

      Glorifying a body is different from replacing a body (for an example of a glorified body, see the traditions about Jesus’ Transfiguration)

    • godspell  July 15, 2017

      Why would it matter how we look in heaven?

      It sounds like a shallower emptier version of what we have now. Just a lot of vain silly people satisfying their appetites for all eternity. What’s the point? What did we learn?

      There’s a poem New Yorkers can read on the subway. I think this comes closest to what many people of many faiths would want. I don’t know that I believe it, but I can understand it.


      • Bart
        Bart  July 16, 2017

        Please be respectful (on the blog at least!) toward those who have a different set of beliefs from yours. They aren’t necessarily vain and silly!

    • Rick
      Rick  July 15, 2017

      Well, it appears Islam would have satisfied my Grandmothers concern that in heaven she would be a 75 year old woman with a 49 year old husband and a two year old baby!

      • Bart
        Bart  July 16, 2017

        Ha! And not just in Islam! My Christian mother has similar concerns!!

  2. DavidBeaman  July 14, 2017

    I re-read 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 and 1 Corinthians 15:35-57 in the NRSV. I see nothing conclusive there in the English that indicates clearly that Paul is talking about the dead body rising from the tomb. Paul talks about the dead being raised as imperishable, but that does not preclude a body like Riley describes rising from the dead corps, something like they show in movies to indicate that a person has died and become a ghost. I haven’t translated those passages into Greek. Are they more explicit in the Greek?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 15, 2017

      When Paul says “we shall all be changed” (1 Cor. 15:51) he does *not* say “we will all shed our bodies.” The body is transformed/changed, not abandoned.

      • DavidBeaman  July 15, 2017

        Well, I don’t think the fact that he does not say that constitutes proof. You may be right, but so might Riley.

  3. talmoore
    talmoore  July 14, 2017

    I notice that a lot of Mythicists are confused about what Paul means when he talks about being raised in a “spiritual” body. They seem to think Paul means that they will be like ghosts, immaterial beings without a true physical body. That’s not what Paul means by a “spiritual” body. He simply means that the body will be made of heavenly stuff rather than earthly stuff, that it will no longer be corruptible and mortal like earthly beings, but rather will be incorruptible and immortal like heavenly beings (or will be “glorified,” as Dr. Ehrman puts it). This is what he means by a “spiritual” body.

    • DavidBeaman  July 15, 2017

      That is your guess, but how do we know for sure what Paul means by a spiritual body.

    • Tony  July 15, 2017

      Ok, I’ll bite. Where do these mythical Mythicists, who seem so confused, come from? Is this one of the many straw man arguments originating from desperate Historicists? How does your argument relate to the historicity of Jesus anyway?

      Paul actually explains in 1 Corinthians 15 very forcefully what he meant – probably in response to sceptics who thought he made the whole thing up… His first, and main, argument is that whatever happened to Jesus (the first fruit) will happen to us. So, Paul was pretty sure what happened to Jesus – or was he? See what he wrote in 1 Cor 15:12-19 and ask yourself how sure Paul was about the resurrection of Jesus and why he argues the point:

      “Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified of God that he raised Christ—whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised. If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have died in Christ have perished. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.”

      Paul, long before Pascal, is practicing Pascal’s wager! Notice the “if’s”. The resurrection is not a proven fact for Paul. The real reason to believe in the resurrection is that the CONSEQUENCES of disbelief are unacceptable!

      Paul really gets exited when he tries to answer the very legitimate question on how exactly all this is going to work. He refers to those raising the question as “fools”. Next he goes into a rambling “explanation” on how the dead will be raised imperishable. Read it: 1Cor 15:35-57. I’ll wait for your full report.

  4. mwbaugh  July 14, 2017

    I’m curious why Riley says that Jews in Jesus’ time had similar beliefs about body, soul, and spirit to Greek pagans. The Jews in the Old Testament period didn’t seem (to my understanding) to have an idea of a separable soul or a rational soul anything like that described by the Greeks.

    Christians have come to a view of the physical body as a temporary vessel for the immortal soul. A poem I often hear at funerals expresses this as, “I am not my body, I am *in* my body…” I also hear Evangelical Christians talk a lot about about the idea that when you die, your soul leaves your body and goes either to Heaven or Hell.

    This sounds more Greek than Jewish and more Gnostic than biblical to me. How and when did this idea gain such a strong foothold in the Christian imagination?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 15, 2017

      Yes, he does deal with the Hebrew Bible and (a little bit) with apocalyptic Judaism. But he really does think more about Greek views than Jewish.

    • talmoore
      talmoore  July 15, 2017

      From what I’ve read it would probably be more accurate to say that there was some overlap between Greek and Jewish notions of body, soul and spirit, and that these points of contact were stronger amongst Greek speaking diaspora Jews and weaker amongst Aramaic speaking Palestinian Jews. For example, Philo’s notions of the spiritual tend to be more in like with the Greek philosophers than with, say, the Pharisees. Meanwhile, the Zealots’ notions of the soul and the afterlife was notably distinct from that of the Greeks.

  5. John Uzoigwe  July 14, 2017

    Dr. Bart in your post you said”Paul saw Jesus being raised bodily”… As I recalled what Paul had was a vision on his way to Damascus. Am I missing out something here

    • Bart
      Bart  July 15, 2017

      In 1 Corinthians 15:3-8, it is the same person, the bodily Jesus, who dies, is buried, is raised, and who appeared to others, including Paul.

  6. JoshuaJ  July 14, 2017

    Dr. Ehrman, in response to the first question, you write: “Paul would not have been shocked to find Jesus’ tomb empty. He knew it was empty, because he had seen Jesus bodily raised from the dead.”

    Is it really accurate to say that Paul knew the tomb was empty, especially when we consider that Paul never mentions anything about a tomb specifically? Paul says that Jesus was buried, but that wording seems rather ambiguous as it is just as compatible with burial in a trench grave in the ground as it is with burial in a tomb. You have even stated elsewhere your belief that the “empty tomb” and the rest of the burial narrative is a complete fabrication, a later tradition that was developed for the purpose of adding credibility to the earlier “appearance” claims of the apostles.

    Also, can we really say that Paul “had seen Jesus bodily raised from the dead”? That’s certainly not how the event reads in Acts, and the creed in 1 Corinthians 15 is again rather ambiguous regarding the manner in which Jesus “appeared” to each individual or group of witnesses. Did he “appear” to Paul in the same manner in which he appeared to the disciples in the Gospels? According to Acts, he absolutely did not.

    I think I understand your meaning in this post based on your previous writings, but I think some clarification might be in order. Your wording in this post, as it currently stands, could easily be misinterpreted by readers who may not be as familiar with your other works.

    • Bart
      Bart  July 15, 2017

      Yes, my answer is presupposing the fact that Paul does not mention the empty tomb. That (you’re right!) is a complete given. My point is that it is impossible to make sense of what Paul says (e.g., 1 Cor. 15:3-8) without assuming that he is talking about the bodily Jesus: the same body that died and was buried is the one that “appeared” to others, including Paul. (Note the continuity of what he says: died, buried, raised, appeared — it’s all the same entity, not different entities)

      • tomruda  July 15, 2017

        Ok , here is the question that keeps bothering me historically. When Jesus dies on a cross, would not the Romans have left him there for weeks for the birds and wild animals to consume? I have read that it was rare to have someone buried so quickly after such a public execution. Romans wanted to encourage fear among the people. Chances are that there was not much of a body left for burial and it was likely to be in a mass grave. Paul, in this case, could only have seen a vision he refers to as a glorified body. Help me understand this better. Thank You

        • Bart
          Bart  July 16, 2017

          Yes, I’ve been arguing that for several years now. On the blog, just google “Craig Evans.” I explain it as well in my book How Jesus Became God.

      • Tony  July 15, 2017

        It seems to me that many of your subscribers do not know that “Acts” is not historical. A review of current scholarship on that subject would make for a nice post.

        Here is where Luke got his gripping Damascus vision from: Gal 1:17, “Neither went I up to Jerusalem to them which were apostles before me; but I went into Arabia, and returned again to Damascus.”

        Paul does not say what happened in Damascus – if anything. But it is logical to see how Luke made the connection and fabricated the wonderful vision stories.

        On your other point: “Note the continuity of what he says: died, buried, raised, appeared — it’s all the same entity, not different entities”. But where does Paul state in his letters, where or when Jesus died, was buried, raised?

        • Bart
          Bart  July 16, 2017

          1 Corinthians 15:3-5. Doesn’t say where or when, except it was someplace, in the past, during Paul’s lifetime.

  7. Tony  July 14, 2017

    “Jesus would return”.

    Paul never wrote that Jesus would return. Paul’s Jesus had never been on earth. He is to come, to arrive, but Paul never wrote Jesus was to return, come again etc.

    It was Mark’s fertile mind that created the empty tomb story. He likely got his idea from the Book of Daniel.

    Mark’s resurrection idea came from Paul. Mark misappropriated Paul’s Gospel, where God the Father send his celestial Son down the heavens – who assumed human form (of the flesh) on the way down – and was killed by the Satanic demons (the rulers of this age) in the firmament. It was indeed a “human” Jesus who was killed.

    The Ascension of Isaiah 9:13-17 probably comes close to the beliefs of Paul and his followers:

    “The Lord will indeed descend into the world in the last days, (he) who is to be called Christ after he has descended and become like you in form, and they will think that he is flesh and a man. And the god of that world will stretch out [his hand against the Son], and they will lay their hands upon him and hang him upon a tree, not knowing who he is. And thus his descent, as you will see, will be concealed even from the heavens so that it will not be known who he is. And when he has plundered the angel of death, he will rise on the third day and will remain in that world for five hundred and forty-five days. And then many of the righteous will ascend with him, whose spirits do not receive (their) robes until the Lord Christ ascends and they ascend with him.”

    Here the resurrected spirits will acquire “robes” – their immortal bodies.

    • Pattycake1974
      Pattycake1974  July 15, 2017

      Tony has a point here. The Ascension shows there were those who viewed Jesus as a “form” of a person. Why would they write such things when they’re so much closer to the time of when Pontus Pilate would have put Jesus to death? There’s a disconnect and confusion surrounding the physical and spiritual nature of Jesus. No one said he didn’t exist, but spiritually existing was just as real to the ancient world as a physical existence. If they believed a spirit could have sex with a human being then why would they deny he ever lived?

      As far as Jesus’ bodily resurrection goes, Paul does not really come out and say Jesus’ body was earthly because in 1 Cor. 15, he describes heavenly bodies as a *kind* and earthly bodies as a *kind*. He said that Jesus made himself “weak” as in weak to the point of death and that the natural body will be raised spiritual. But then he goes on to relate Jesus as the spiritual Adam, the first Adam was a living being (the *human* being?). Just when you think Paul is going to connect Jesus as a human being, he circumvents. And I don’t recall Paul writing anything about a tomb.

      • Pattycake1974
        Pattycake1974  July 15, 2017

        Something else, in Orthodox Corruption, pg. 111, it says “Several witnesses have omitted the explicit reference to the first Adam as a “man”…perhaps because the contrast with the anti-type Christ might then suggest that he too was a (created) *man*” <–in Greek

        I'm lost on this section of the book. I don't understand what's being conveyed here.

        • Bart
          Bart  July 16, 2017

          I was arguing that some later Christians changed their texts in support of their claims that Christ was more than a man.

  8. crucker  July 14, 2017

    Aside from your own books, do you have a small list of “essential” books regarding the Bible, written by scholars that you would recommend for non-scholars (but may still assume some basic biblical knowledge on the part of the reader)? I was thinking maybe a top ten, but it doesn’t have to be a particular number so long as it’s short enough to be “manageable” for those of us without loads of free time. I’ve also tried to leave the topic(s) deliberately broad, so long as it describes scholarly views regarding the Bible or something within the Bible (it need not address the full text).

    • Bart
      Bart  July 15, 2017

      Interesting idea. I should think about devoting a post to this.

    • talmoore
      talmoore  July 15, 2017

      If I were create a Top Five list of books about the Bible that everyone should read it would probably be:
      1. The Bible Unearthed, by Finkelson and Silberman
      2. Who Wrote the Bible? by Friedman
      3. Jesus the Jew, by Vermas
      4. Jesus and Judaism, by Sanders
      5. From the Maccabees to the Mishnah, by Cohen

      And in deference to our illustrious blog host, I would add the works of Dr. Ehrman to that list.

  9. godspell  July 14, 2017

    I’ve always enjoyed that passage in Acts, where Paul, confronted by a group of Pharisees and Saducees, who are united in disliking Christian missionaries, finds a way to put them at odds with each other

    //Then Paul, knowing that some of them were Sadducees and the others Pharisees, called out in the Sanhedrin, “My brothers, I am a Pharisee, descended from Pharisees. I stand on trial because of the hope of the resurrection of the dead.”//

    In less time than it takes to tell it, he has them fighting each other over this internecine division over the afterlife. Not all Jews believed in bodily resurrection–some didn’t believe in any afterlife at all. It’s a trickster side of Paul we don’t see often, but always rings true for me. And that doesn’t mean he himself didn’t share this belief with his Pharisee brethren, but he was doing things with it they would not have approved.

    The pagan beliefs about spirits returning to sup with the living certainly could have influenced the gospels, written in Greek. But I agree with you–Paul was a Jew to the very last. As was Jesus. And never was there a people who took more pleasure in argument. Unless it’s the Irish. 😉

  10. cheito
    cheito  July 14, 2017

    DR Ehrman:

    Your Comment:

    …and, especially, in 1 Corinthians 15:35-57. Paul understood that at the end of the age (which for him was coming very soon), Jesus would return and his followers would be transformed in the body so that they could live eternally in deified bodies.

    My Comment:

    When Paul says, “Behold, I tell you a mystery; we shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed,” I understand that Paul is relating a mystery and a principle about the nature of the resurrection of those who would be alive when the LAST TRUMPET SOUNDS.

    I don’t believe Paul was saying that the mystery he’s revealing to the Corinthians was going to happen VERY SOON. He’s not asserting that the LAST TRUMPET will definitely SOUND in his, or their lifetime.

    Yes Paul does say “we shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed”.

    I understand the “we” in Paul’s statement to be generic, collective and inclusive, referring to all believers who would be alive when the LAST TRUMPET SOUNDS, whenever that would happen.

    1 Corinthians 15:51-52

    51-Behold, I tell you a mystery; we shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed,

    52-in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet; for the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed.

  11. turbopro  July 14, 2017

    Prof Ehrman, this is OT, but I saw a youtube clip with Dr N T Wright giving a short talk on Gnosticism, where he mentioned Elaine Pagels’ and your names, stating:
    “…scholars like Bart Ehrman, Elaine Pagels, several others, have said quite stridently: this [Gnosticism] was the real early Christianity; and Mathew, Mark, Luke and John tried to cover it up, muddle it up, and they told this very Jewish story about things going on on earth, and with, um, sacraments and all of these things, um, whereas this Gnosticism was the really exciting, subversive stuff, which the orthodox church then squelched…”

    I am curious please: given that I have read only a few of your popular books on early Christianity, and I have read none of your scholarly texts, did you posit in any of your work that which the learned scholar here claimed you did?

    I wish I could ask Ms Pagels the same also.

    clip is here –> https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wOzQnDRIp7s

    I just completed Dr David Brakke’s “Gnosticism: From Nag Hammadi to the Gospel of Judas,” one of The Great Courses, and I found it quite enlightening. There was so much stuff crammed into 24 lectures, that I need to listen again.

    • Bart
      Bart  July 16, 2017

      What an odd thing to say about me. That’s not my view at all, and never has been! I think I’ll ask him about it.

  12. Carl  July 14, 2017

    Why did Paul keep the ritual of water baptism? Did he see it serving a purpose other than a physical declaration of faith in Christ? Possibly as a way of showing unity with the other Apostles/Christian movements, or a way to emphasise alignment with Judaism? Surely he did not consider water baptism a necessary prerequisite for salvation. It seems like Paul’s message of ‘faith alone’ would be more compatible with a ‘baptism of the heart’ doctrine.

    • Bart
      Bart  July 16, 2017

      The key passage is Romans 6. Paul thought that at baptism a person was mystically united with Christ and “died” along with Christ to the evil powers of this world. I think maybe I’ll blog on that!

  13. Seeker1952  July 14, 2017

    I’m starting to wonder in what sense Christians believe Jesus died. It’s not a problem if Jesus was raised to (full) divine status after/as part of his Resurrection. But if he was God before he died how could God die? Was it only Jesus’s human nature that died? I think that, after the 4th century councils, the required orthodoxy was to say that he was a single being/person with two distinct natures. If so, how could just his human nature die? How did the Church Fathers deal with this question, eg, up to and during the 4th century councils?

    And if, as God, Jesus knew, prior to his death, that he would be resurrected, that seems to detract from (but not eliminate) the greatness of his sacrifice.

    • Bart
      Bart  July 16, 2017

      I would say they earliest Christians had not thought through their theological views that Christ was both God and human. They didn’t have the philosophical categories available to him (what was the relationship of divinity and humanity in Christ? Was he part God part human? Half of each? Two different natures, one divine one human? One nature — completely divine — but embodied in flesh? Etc. There were lots of options, but they don’t speculate on them at all.

  14. Jason  July 14, 2017

    My sister and all the STEM PhDs I used to work with said you should never pay a cent for your post grad education, letting instead the department, a research center/institute or lab cover graduate tuition. Does that apply in the humanities now or did it at all when you were in that phase?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 16, 2017

      No, not at all. Humanities don’t get grants the way the sciences, etc. do. It is much harder to fund an education. Most students end up with tens of thousands of dollars of debt.

  15. RonaldTaska  July 15, 2017

    1. Wow! What an incredible work schedule and what an incredible accomplishment to pay for those 12 years yourself.

    2. I awakened this week with a vivid dream about a deceased mentor of mine. The dream seemed incredibly real and I could understand how someone with such a dream could really feel that the deceased person had actually visited them after death.

  16. rgilmour1719  July 15, 2017

    What, if any, Christian apologetics arguments do you find most plausible/challenging?
    Thanks, Richard.

    • Bart
      Bart  July 16, 2017

      It depends which topic you have in mind (inerrancy of Bible? virgin birth? resurrection of Jesus? something else?)

  17. pueblo2  July 16, 2017

    [For your mailbag, or whenever appropriate.] I’m sure you are well aware of the disgusting actions of the Hobby Lobby involving the destruction of archaeological treasures that seem to flow from their zealous lying for Jesus world view. The media coverage of their recent $3 million civil fine for smuggling obviously looted antique artifacts from the Near and Middle East into the U.S.documents what is really just a “slap-on-the-wrist” for these deep pocket Christians. Perhaps you could provide some commentary on this news and an update on the status of the so-called 1st Century fragment of the gospel of Mark? Thanks in advance.




    • Bart
      Bart  July 16, 2017

      I haven’t heard any further news about the first-century Mark, except that it’s not what Dan Wallace claimed it was. But we will see. As to the Hobby Lobby itself, and the Green initiative, there is an important book coming out soon by Joel Baden and Candida Moss that apparently spills all the beans.

  18. Pattycake1974
    Pattycake1974  July 16, 2017

    I am trying to sort out what Paul meant by rulers of the age and the Jews who killed Jesus. In 1 Cor. 26, Paul states that rulers of this age did not understand the predestined mystery, but if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord. He also said they were coming to nothing, but in Thessalonians Paul said the Jews had already received their wrath. Stranger still, in Romans 13, Paul writes that the governing authorities are rulers and “they are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.”

    When I read these statements, they do not correlate with each other. In Paul’s mind, Jesus being crucified was pre-planned before time began, so it makes sense when Paul uses the words “handed over” on the night of Jesus’ death. But I can’t figure out why Paul seems angry with the Jews in one place but not anywhere else. Did the Jews even have the authority to crucify someone? He also says that the Jews killed Jesus AND the prophets as if he’s grouping it all together.

    The rulers of the age can’t both be governing authorities who are God’s servants AND coming to nothing. Governing authorities don’t rule an age, but spiritual rulers would. Paul did say that Satan prevented him from visiting the Thessalonians. I can’t help but think that Paul equates Satan with a ruler of the age. But if the Jews killed Jesus, what prophets is Paul talking about?

    I know you said in the debate with Price that 1 Thess. 2:14-16 is textually secure. But it is rather strange for that section because in several of the sentences before, Paul gushes how he came to them as a father encouraging them and he thanked God for them because they received the word as if it were from God and how they were imitators of God’s other churches then boom! He goes on a tirade about the Jews. Once his tirade is over, he’s all lovey dovey again.

    It just doesn’t seem to fit together unless I take out the Jews killing Jesus. I’m left with these governing authorities who are God’s servants and bring wrath to wrongdoers. Paul specifically says that Jesus was without sin, so a governing authority would have no reason to bring wrath upon Jesus. That leaves me with a ruler (like Satan who prevented Paul from visiting the Thessalonians) who killed Jesus.

    And then there’s the Gospels………

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