The Bodily Resurrection: Paul and First Century Corinth

Roughly half of the New Testament attributes the Apostle Paul of Tarsus as its author. Being the wordsmith of fourteen canonized epistles, whether academically disputed or not, the name of Paul carries a weight unlike any other in Christian doctrine. His theology—more appropriately, his ideals—of the human body are therefore the perspective of mainline Christianity, and is a matter of importance to any historian as much as it is to any believer. Particularly in the epistles to the Corinthians, Paul is urged to define his eschatology (the field of theology concerning death and the afterlife) of the bodily resurrection to morally edify and instruct a decaying church. Nonetheless, he finds the people of first century Corinth a challenge in understanding his corporeally oriented ideals.

The resurrection, according to Paul, is both an ongoing process of transformation in this lifetime and a final destination in postmortem existence (Tappenden 2016, 2; compare 2 Cor 3:18 with 5:1-5). Additionally, the phrase “resurrection of the dead” in 1 Corinthians 15 implies believers will retain the same body if they’re to be “made alive” (v. 22) just as Christ retained his body after his resurrection (John 20:25-27). It is Paul’s belief that God is transforming, or bringing to life, Christ-devotees’ bodies and this process will be complete after death. However, 1 Corinthians 15:50 poses a peculiar problem to the resurrection of the body, if the same body is retained. If “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God,” then how may this at all be possible?

Modern notions of dualism—physical versus spiritual, natural versus supernatural, corporeal versus psychological—stem from seventeenth century philosopher René Descartes. Cartesian dualism is nothing like that of what ancient minds thought. Though Greco-Roman ontological ideas were more various and inconsistent compared to ours, and thinkers such as Plato presented a pre-dualism, the most popular conception was the “one-world” model (Martin 1995, 15, supported by Ehrman 2012, 346). This model, instead of dualism, argues for a “hierarchy of essence” where the body is in temporary renewal: “…the body is perceived as a location in a continuum of cosmic movement. The body—or the ‘self’—is an unstable point of transition, not a discrete, permanent, solid entity” (Martin 1995, 15 and 25). The fog obscuring the meaning of “body” by Paul dissipates, and we now see it as a precarious part of the surrounding environment and even affected by “cosmological forces,” as if the spiritual realm were like pervading radio waves, to paraphrase Martin.

Paul’s thought in his First Epistle to the Corinthians that flesh cannot inherit the kingdom refers to a different sort of flesh—the old flesh, before the body began its resurrection process. This retained body may appear the same, but it is different. Transformation of the body is crucial here, for the process of the bodily resurrection is a transition from the natural body to the spiritual body (1 Cor 15:46), awaiting the final day of the resurrection where renewal will be complete and the believer is given a finished body void of decay and sin (Ehrman 346). Thus, that “hierarchy of essence” resembles 1 Corinthians 15:46: the natural body came before the spiritual body. What is difficult for moderns is the concept of retaining this physical vessel throughout the resurrection. The focus in recent centuries has been more on the eschatological, futurist event (which Paul does claim, 1 Cor 15:51-52) and less on the metaphorical somatic process that occurs before death, making believers “alive in Christ,” as if they were dead in a different sense before (Tappenden 2016, 2-3; Col 2:13; Eph 2:4-5).

The body is then a malleable vessel subject to the forces of the cosmos and in transition to a more constant, resurrected state after judgment. It is the church of first century Corinth that prompts Paul to put into words this difficult-to-grasp ideology. Biblical scholars Dr. Bart Ehrman and Dale Martin both explain the Corinthian church as divided along socioeconomic lines (Ehrman 2012, 341; Martin 1995, xvii). Conflicts over Christian ideology, where the resurrection is central, stemmed from the different world views among church members by class.

Few from the church are thought to have been Roman elites; the church fell into an upper-class that benefitted from the labor of others or into a lower-class of the poor and destitute, the latter of which is the majority (1 Cor 1:26). The lower-class would essentially agree verbatim with Paul’s teachings about the resurrection. While it was a future event awaiting death or the Parousia (Greek: arrival, or return of the Christ), it was also a process already occurring that encouraged and shaped a familiar Christian morality among adherents. Simply put, because of their low socioeconomic status, many of them were well acquainted with the roughness of subservient life, suffering, and poverty, and were thus more willing to conform to an ideology that promises salvation from their woes. Inversely, the upper-class was comprised of the “well-educated, powerful, and well born,” and because they had formal “knowledge” they saw things differently (Ehrman 2012, 341). The well-off in Corinth interpreted Jesus’ resurrection as a victory they could immediately share in; to them, they were already benefiting from salvation (Ehrman 2012, 343). If they were already “raised up in glory,” they had no need to follow the morality Paul was preaching: they were saved. Those corporeally oriented ideals mentioned earlier and this morality are the same, but what did it look like? Or rather, what was the upper-class reverse?

Quite plainly a “godly” life is described throughout the New Testament, and throughout the universal church members have been ordered by Paul to live up to these standards (Eph 4:1; Phil 1:27; Col 1:10; 1 Thess 2:12) while awaiting Christ’s return. Paul’s ideals (or morality, which should be distinguished as a set lifestyle as well as religious regulations, not just the latter) act as a sign of one’s participation in the resurrection. The notion of Corinth’s upper-class already enjoying an exalted status couldn’t be farther from Pauline teaching. The city as whole, not just the well-off of the church, had such a sexually immoral reputation that an Athenian comic poet coined the verb “Corinthianize,” or to “engage in sexually promiscuous activities” (Ehrman 2012, 340). Among the congregation there was quarreling, marital issues, lawsuits, prideful boasting, idol worship and sacrifice, and heretical teaching, and Paul addressed every unholy instance.

In the first epistle, Paul had begun to make the case that he is not inferior when it comes to his preaching and his knowledge of the truth (Given 2001, 7). Concerning gifts: he is not inferior (14:18). Concerning spiritual wisdom: he is not inferior (7:40). Concerning his eloquence: he can “demonstrate a still more excellent way” (12:31) through his famous prose on love in chapter 13. Finally, no doubt he is learned in the Scriptures: he riddles his writing with allusions to and citations of Old Testament text. Yet, Paul still has to argue for his teaching after newcomers threaten his work. Misinterpretation of the eschatology was not the only cause for the Corinthian misdirection. They found themselves listening instead to the “super-apostles,” as Paul sarcastically identifies them.

These super-apostles arrive in Corinth after Paul’s second visit and the time of our earliest extant Corinthian epistle (Ehrman 2012, 351), so it is reasonable to assume certain members of the community had already begun living as if they were already exalted prior to the newcomers. The “ministers of Satan” only encouraged the false teaching to spread rampant (2 Cor 11:13-15). Paul’s ministry was on the line in Corinth, a major city in the Mediterranean and a strategic point on the map for the gospel to infiltrate pagan society. If the Corinthians accepted Paul’s opponents, his gospel message would be compromised. Already they were in conflict with the ancient apostle: they viewed him as “unimpressive” and his speaking “amounted to nothing” (2 Cor 10:10). Apparently, over some undisclosed issue, Paul was publicly humiliated as well (Ehrman 2012, 350). The situation at Corinth had not only affected his mission, but it was now personal.

Paul certainly went on the defensive against his opponents: the 2 Corinthians 10-13 is essentially that. Yet, his purpose of writing so heavily and traveling to Corinth on occasion is to win over Gentiles to the gospel message (2 Cor 11:2), i.e. Paul’s ideals. In his belief, Paul could not change his ideals concerning life and individuals’ potential resurrection, for they were taught to him by the Spirit (1 Cor 2:13). To change them would be heresy according to his line of logic. What Paul could and did do was change his tone to heighten his rhetoric with the disobedient community. Before, Paul had presented himself as weak and in humility, which carried no positive connotations in the ancient world. He did so to benefit Corinth (and the rest of the world church), as anything good from his ministry would thus be from God and a blessing (Ehrman 2012, 353).

“For if someone comes to you and preaches … a different gospel from the one you accepted, you put up with it easily enough. I do not think I am in the least inferior to those ‘super-apostles.’ I may indeed be untrained as a speaker, but I do have knowledge… Was it a sin for me to lower myself in order to elevate you by preaching the gospel of God to you free of charge?” (2 Cor 11:4-7 NIV, emphasis added)

The wording here is, of course, rhetorical and sarcastic. Paul is “bitter and incensed” that they would listen to teachers of fallacy, and elsewhere in Second Corinthians he threatens to visit the community in judgment (Ehrman 2012, 350). Fortunately, for Paul and the mission, the congregation returned to his instruction and amends were made between teacher and student after the second correspondence. There are no records of Paul’s concerning the end result of the Corinthian church, but his companion Titus delivered that second epistle and it presumably had the desired effect. The one that had publicly humiliated Paul was punished (2 Cor 2:5-11), repented for the entire conflict (2 Cor 7:5-12).

Nonetheless, Paul’s ideals were met with fierce opposition in Corinth. The bodily resurrection stood central to the gospel message he had been preaching while roaming the Greco-Roman world. Upper-class Corinthians and the lower citizens that were influenced by them were all misled to understand that they were already resurrected, enjoying exaltation with Christ. It did not help Paul’s mission to have those false apostles encouraging disobedience. From analysis of the epistles to the Corinthians, the major theme is this:

“Paul’s apocalyptic [or eschatological] message stresses in the strongest terms that believers are not yet glorified with Christ. They live in a world of sin and evil and must contend with forces greater than themselves [as if their bodies were a part of the environment; see page 2], until the end comes and Christ’s followers are raised into immortal bodies to be exalted with him.” (Ehrman 2012, 353; notes added)

The resurrection was two-fold: the finale would come with the Parousia, but for now believers would reform, “coming to life,” according to Paul’s ideals. Both epistles litter with moral guidelines for life, chiefly concerned with the body and edifying it as it was so central to the resurrection. For those willing to listen and accept the promises for something better, i.e. the lower-class, Paul’s mission was easy. For the hard-headed, i.e. the upper-class, Paul had to explain his eschatology, and then defend it against falsehood.


Bibliography

Ehrman, Bart D. “Chapter 22: Paul and the Crises of His Churches.” The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings. 5th ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.

Given, Mark D. Paul’s True Rhetoric: Ambiguity, Cunning, and Deception in Greece and Rome. Atlanta, GA: Trinity Press International, 2001.

Martin, Dale B. The Corinthian Body. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995.

Tappenden, Frederick S. Resurrection in Paul: Cognition, Metaphor, and Transformation. Atlanta, GA: SBL Press, 2016.

Written for UNC-Chapel Hill RELI 209: Varieties in Early Christianity, Fall 2017

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