The Bodily Resurrection

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AN ESCHATOLOGY FROM PAUL IN FIRST CENTURY CORINTH

What awaits humanity after death is a question that has haunted imaginations for ages past, but for Paul of Tarsus the haunting question was how to communicate the answer. The apostle of early Christianity found himself urged to define his eschatology, the field of theology concerning death and the afterlife, by the first century Corinthian church, one under moral decay and division from misconceptions of the resurrection.[1] As the majority attributed author to much of the New Testament, Pauline theology carries a significant weight in Christian doctrine. Paul’s perspective of the human self, where body and spirit intersect, and the afterlife is arguably a fundamental Christian perspective. Through examining this Corinthian situation and Paul’s response in his respective epistles, the resurrection is definable and two-fold: it’s both an ongoing process of renewal before death and a final destination in postmortem existence; it’s spiritual, but the physical is of great importance.[2]

In order to properly approach the Pauline perspective, and even to understand the Greco-Roman world in which early Christianity is rooted, one must understand René Descartes. While modern notions of dualism may be traced to the seventeenth century philosopher, such a worldview was nothing like that of what ancient minds thought. Cartesian dualism is the conceptual division of seemingly opposite things: e.g. materiality versus spirituality, the natural versus the supernatural, whatever is corporeal versus whatever is psychological. The idea of being in the Greco-Roman world varied and was inconsistent in comparison to modern ontological range, and while thinkers such as Plato presented a prototype dualism, the most popular conception was the “one-world” model.[3]

This model, instead of dualism, argues that seemingly opposite things are indeed inseparable though distinct. Ancients were far unlikely to regard parts independent from the whole. According to Dale Martin in The Corinthian Body (1995), one-world calls for a “hierarchy of essence” where “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.”[4] In other words, the spiritual realm exists remotely from the physical, yet the two interact in the self and form a whole. Furthermore, the body is in a transformation within a cosmic, or spiritual, context. The fog obscuring the meaning of “body” by Paul dissipates, and we now see it as a precarious part of the surrounding environment and affected by cosmological forces, as if the spiritual realm were like pervading radio waves, to paraphrase Martin (1995).[5] The body wasn’t thought of as separate but as holistically interlinked to the spiritual component of man ages ago, and neither was the resurrection bodiless nor solely a spiritual matter to Paul.

When arguing the resurrection is a bodily phenomenon, a common counterpoint comes from Paul’s own words in his first epistle: “I declare to you, brothers and sisters, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable.”[6] First, simply to speak of a resurrection of the dead implies physicality.[7] “Resurrection” as a term is categorically materialistic. Second, what Paul seems to be referring to is an “old self,” the flesh prior to when the resurrection process began. The Christian’s retained body may appear the same as it was, but according to Paul it is different: it’s in a new state of spiritual renewal. The natural body transitions to a spiritual body while remaining physical.[8] When Paul revisits Corinth in his second attributed epistle, he declares anyone in Christ a “new creation” saying “The old has gone, the new is here!”[9] How might a new creation be new if not in renewal, and how might it be creation if not material?

Again, resurrection implies physicality. As historian and scholar Caroline Bynum explains, Paul’s image of a seed being sown in 1 Corinthians 15 “asserts (perhaps without any intention on Paul’s part) some kind of continuity, although it does not explicitly lodge identity in either a material or a formal principle.”[10] It is not clear that this new spiritual body after death is made of the same stuff, but “something accounts for identity,” as if to say materiality must persist in some manner.[11]

Returning to Martin’s (1995) hierarchy of essence, the concept resembles that in 1 Corinthians 15:46: the natural body came before the spiritual body. What is difficult for moderns disagreeing with a bodily resurrection is the concept of retaining a physical vessel in the afterlife, let alone their worldviews are generally shaped by dualism, not the one-world model, taking them out of proper understanding. The focus in recent centuries has been more on the eschatological, futurist event of the Parousia (Greek: the second coming of Christ). Paul does claim such (cf. 1 Cor 15:51-52), yet less of an emphasis has been placed upon the figurative somatic process prior to death that precedes what comes after.[12] The resurrection begins before death, when followers of the faith are made “alive in Christ,” though they weren’t literally dead prior.[13]

Paul then sees the Christian body as a malleable vessel subject to the forces of the cosmos and in transition to a constant, resurrected state after judgment, or rather when the Christian God determines one’s placement in afterlife. Judgment is a suitable topic for an entirely separate paper. Returning to the cause of Paul’s need to define this difficult-to-grasp theology, the first century Corinthian church prompts his wordsmithing. The Corinthian situation was one of moral collapse due to false teaching surrounding what the resurrection implied for the faithful’s pre-mortem lives. Biblical scholars Dr. Bart Ehrman (2012) and Dale Martin (1995) both explain the ancient church as divided along socioeconomic lines, thus the far different classes and their worldviews resulted in conflicts over Christian morality where the resurrection was central.[14] Perhaps, and this is purely speculation, opposing positions on whether orthodox morality was a necessity led to the infamous divisions created within the Corinthian church.

In brief, the poor and destitute characterized the lower class of Corinth’s church, the majority of the population. Not many of the Corinthians were wise, nor powerful, nor of noble birth; they were the laborers of the upper class and elites.[15] They would essentially agree with Pauline teachings of the resurrection because, quite simply, their acquaintance with a subservient life defined by suffering and poverty would lead them to embrace a soteriology that promised an afterlife devoid of their woes. They were more likely to conform to Paul’s ideal morality in light of their hopes of a resurrected future in the afterlife.[16]

Inversely, the “well-educated, powerful, and well born” with their “formal knowledge” perceived things differently, meeting Paul with conflict.[17] False teachers led the Corinthian upper class astray, according to Paul in 2 Corinthians 11. Thus, they interpreted Jesus’ resurrection in an orthodox manner as a victory they could immediately share in, yet they digressed and morality wasn’t perceived as a concern. They viewed themselves as “already raised up in glory,” already saved, and therefore having no need to follow a code of conduct—they could go on sinning while retaining the benefits of salvation.[18] The moral scene of these Corinthians were appalling to Paul.

The city of Corinth as a whole, not just the well-off of the church, had such a sexually immoral reputation to the greater Mediterranean world, or at least to Greece, that an Athenian comic poet coined the verb Corinthianize, or to “engage in sexually promiscuous activities.”[19] Beyond the reaches of the city’s sexual endeavors, among the congregation itself there was quarreling, marital issues, lawsuits, prideful boasting in one’s self, idol worship and sacrifice, and heretical teaching, and Paul addressed every “unholy” instance throughout his epistles to Corinth. More broadly, a “godly life” is detailed throughout the New Testament, and Paul, whether in his accepted or disputed letters, frequently orders global church members to live up to such standards while awaiting the Parousia.[20] Pauline moral ideals then act as a sign of one’s participation in the resurrection, if it is indeed a two-fold act: scene I being a rebirth, so to speak, and renewal before death, and scene II being the completion of the resurrection in the afterlife. This renewal in scene I is a renewal of one’s mind and body, of spirit and conduct. The matter of Corinth’s upper class already enjoying an exalted status while living like their “old selves” couldn’t be farther from what Paul had commanded.

The ancient apostle, having previously invested in the Corinthian community, felt his work threatened by the newcomers derailing the church. In the first Corinthian epistle, he had begun to make the case that he is not inferior when it comes to his knowledge of Christian doctrines.[21] Concerning spiritual gifts, he is not inferior.[22] Concerning spiritual wisdom, he is not inferior again.[23] Concerning his eloquence in language, he can “demonstrate a still more excellent way” through his famous prose on love in chapter 13.[24]  Additionally, there’s no doubt he is learned in Jewish Scriptures (of which he holds authoritative in Christianity)—he riddles his writing with allusions to and citations of Old Testament texts, and was a Jewish leader in high esteem himself before his apparent conversion. In some ways, the Corinthian epistles are a form of defense for his weakening authority.[25]

The ill reputation of Corinth was not the only cause of the misinterpretation of Paul’s “orthodox” eschatology. The church, especially those of the upper class, found themselves listening to the “super-apostles,” as Paul sarcastically identifies false teachers.[26] It is indeed they that Paul contrasts his aforementioned superiority against. These false teachers arrived in Corinth after Paul’s second visit and during the time of the earliest extant Corinthian epistle, so it is reasonable to assume certain members of the community had already begun living as though their afterlives were secure while remaining in immorality.[27] Corinth, a major city in the Mediterranean world positioned on the Greek coast, was a strategic point on the map for evangelizing pagan society and was crucial to Paul’s ministry. The opposition signaled that he was losing a stronghold. Those “ministers of Satan,” the super-apostles, only encouraged the false teaching to spread rampant.[28]

If the Corinthians accepted Paul’s opponents, his gospel would be compromised. Already they were in conflict with him: they viewed him as “unimpressive” and his speaking “amounted to nothing.”[29] Apparently, over some undisclosed issue, Paul was also publicly humiliated; the Corinthian situation now not only affected his mission, but it became personal.[30] The apostle was certainly on the defensive: 2 Corinthians 10-13 is essentially that, a defense. Yet, his purpose in writing so heavily and traveling to Corinth on occasion is primarily, at least in his words, to evangelize to the Gentiles and increase his moral ideals.[31]

In order to remain trustworthy and being unable to compromise, Paul couldn’t change his ideals concerning the afterlife and individuals’ potential resurrection, though he knew the moral implications he imposed weren’t accepted by the Corinthian following at large. To alter his positions would be heresy in his line of logic, for he believed he was taught what he knew by the Spirit of God and that the resurrected Jesus had appeared to him as well, the event that prompted his conversion and on which he claims his authority. He regarded anything good coming from his ministry as being a blessing from God.[32] What Paul could and did do was change his tone to heighten his rhetoric with the disobedient Corinthian community. Before, Paul had presented himself as weak and in humility, a highly dishonorable display of one’s self in this ancient context. According to Dr. Ehrman (2012), he had done so to benefit Corinth, his investment, and the rest of the global church:

“When I came to you, brothers, I did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom … I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling … in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.”[33]

But after, realizing he could change his appearance while remaining steadfast in his doctrine, Paul wrote more severely:

“Did I commit a sin in humbling myself so that you might be exalted? … I robbed other churches by accepting support from them in order to serve you… And what I am doing I will continue to do, in order to undermine the claim of those who would like to claim that in their boasted mission they work on the same terms as we do. For such men are false apostles… disguising themselves as apostles of Christ. And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. So it is no surprise if his servants, also, disguise themselves as servants of righteousness. Their end will correspond to their deeds.”[34]

The wording here is, of course, deriding while serious. Paul is “bitter and incensed,” as Dr. Ehrman (2012) explains, that Corinth would listen to teachers of fallacy, and elsewhere in 2 Corinthians he threatens to visit the community in personal judgment.[35] Fortunately for Paul and his mission, the congregation returned to his instruction and amends were made between teacher and student after his second correspondence. There are no records from Paul or the church concerning the Corinthian situation’s end result, but Paul’s companion Titus delivered the second epistle, reportedly having the desired effect.[36] The community punished the one who had publicly humiliated Paul, and he had repented of the entire conflict.[37]

Nonetheless, the church and its upper class in particular had met Paul’s eschatology and its accompanying morality with fierce opposition. The bodily resurrection stood central to his message. The upper class and some lower citizens they influenced were misled by “ministers of Satan” to believe their resurrection was complete, not a process beginning prior to death. Thus Paul condemned them for relishing in their presumed security, enjoying a false exaltation with Christ and continuing in sinful lifestyles. The major theme of the Corinthian epistles, according to Dr. Ehrman (2012), is as following:

“Pauls’ 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 [cosmic] forces greater than themselves [as if their bodies were part of a whole; see Martin referenced on p. 3], until the end comes and Christ’s followers are raised into immortal bodies to be exalted with him.”[38]

The resurrection was two-fold: the finale would come with the Parousia, followers in a physical yet spiritually new body, but for now they would reform day by day, “coming to life” in Paul’s words. Just as ancients’ ontological perspective was based on a one-world model, holding that spiritual things and material things are different yet holistic, so it was and is in Christian doctrine that the resurrection is a two-part whole taking place on both sides of death. Moral guidelines for this side of death litter both epistles to Corinth, and elsewhere in Pauline writing, chiefly concerning the body and edifying it, for it is central to the resurrection. For those willing to listen and accept the promises of an afterlife with a resurrected, renewed body declared by Paul, the mission was easy. Yet for those unable to hear, so to speak, Paul had to define the bodily resurrection while defending his post in Corinth against falsehood.


[1] Caroline W. Bynum, “Resurrection and Martyrdom: The Decades Around 200” in The Resurrection of the Body in Western Christianity, 200-1336, 21-2.
[2] Frederick S. Tappenden, Resurrection in Paul: Cognition, Metaphor, and Transformation, 2; compare 2 Cor 3:18 with vv. 5:1-5.
[3] Dale B. Martin, The Corinthian Body, 15; supported by Bart D. Ehrman, “Paul and the Crises of His Churches” in The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings, 346.
[4] Martin, The Corinthian Body, 15 and 25.
[5] Ibid., 15.
[6] 1 Cor 15:50 (NIV).
[7] 1 Cor 15:35 and 52; 1 Thess 4:16.
[8] 1 Cor 15:46.
[9] 2 Cor 5:17.
[10] Bynum, “Resurrection and Martyrdom,” 6.
[11] Ibid.
[12] Tappenden, Resurrection in Paul, 2-3.
[13] 1 Cor 15:22; Col 2:13; Eph 2:4-5; latter two referenced for variety of Pauline sources.
[14] Ehrman, “Paul and the Crises of His Churches,” 341; Martin, The Corinthian Body, xvii; 1 Cor 1:10 and 11:18-9.
[15] 1 Cor 1:26-8.
[16] Ehrman, “Paul and the Crises of His Churches,” 341-2.
[17] Ibid., 341.
[18] Ibid., 343; 1 Cor 6:12-13 and 15:43.
[19] Ehrman, “Paul and the Crises of His Churches,” 340.
[20] Eph 4:1; Phil 1:27; Col 1:10; 1 Thess 2:12.
[21] Mark D. Given, Paul’s True Rhetoric: Ambiguity, Cunning, and Deception in Greece and Rome, 7.
[22] 1 Cor 14:18.
[23] 1 Cor 7:40.
[24] 1 Cor 12:31.
[25] Ehrman, “Paul and the Crises of His Churches,” 249-50.
[26] 2 Cor 11:5.
[27] Ehrman, “Paul and the Crises of His Churches,” 351.
[28] 2 Cor 11:13-15.
[29] 2 Cor 10:10
[30] Ehrman, “Paul and the Crises of His Churches,” 350.
[31] 2 Cor 11:2.
[32] Ehrman, “Paul and the Crises of His Churches,” 353; 1 Cor 2:13.
[33] 1 Cor 2:1-5 (ESV).
[34] 2 Cor 11:7-8, 12-5 (ESV), emphases added for clarity of tone.
[35] Ehrman, “Paul and the Crises of His Churches,” 350; 2 Cor 13:10.
[36] 2 Cor 12:18.
[37] 2 Cor 2:5-11, 7:5-12.
[38] Ehrman, “Paul and the Crises of His Churches,” 353, notes added for clarification of theme.


Bibliography and Purpose

Bynum, Caroline W. “Chapter 1: Resurrection and Martyrdom: The Decades Around 200.” The Resurrection of the Body in Western Christianity, 200-1336. New York: Columbia University Press, 1995.

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.

Free to distribute for educational purposes. Originally written for UNC-Chapel Hill RELI 209: Varieties in Early Christianity, Fall 2017. Revised for RELI 617: Death and the Afterlife in the Ancient World, Fall 2018. Both courses instructed by Zlatko Pleše.