Thoughts of a Living Christian

Musings of an amateur theologian and hopeful writer

The Resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15

Introduction

Paul’s discussion on the resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15 reveals an eschatological aspect to Paul’s Gospel, in which the resurrection is a fundamental aspect to the soteriological efforts of God. His argument is long and a logical progression is evident, evidencing his Pharisaic upbringing and rejection of many Hellenistic themes, particularly the immortal soul. His argument for a bodily, physical resurrection of the dead is not simply an exhaustive and impractical theology of the future, but impinges on ethical living; because we will resurrect bodily, we mustn’t be oblivious to the consequences of our actions before we die, as some Corinthians were. This essay analyses the resurrection in the Jewish tradition, to understand Paul’s approach and background; the resurrection in the Hellenic tradition, to understand what the major view of the Corinthians was; and unpacks the text in light of these analyses, attempting to accurately portray Paul’s understanding of the resurrection.

Part A: Jewish and Hellenistic Backgrounds

Resurrection in Jewish Tradition

The idea of a resurrection of the dead was a late theological development in Judaism.[1] Originally, there was no concept of heaven or hell; souls would simply sink into Sheol. Over time the concept of reward and punishment after death ebbed into Judaism, eventually forming the idea of resurrection, the event in which the righteous would be raised from the dead to live with God.[2] However, the oldest mention of the resurrection is unclear. Some suggest Isaiah 26:19, and others suggest Ezekiel 37. However, these two passages aren’t talking about a Messianic eschatology, and so Daniel 12:1-3 is recognized by the majority of scholars to be the first reference of the resurrection.[3] Second Temple Judaism generally recognized the resurrection as referring to the age to come, the idea of the soul referring to the body’s capacity of action.[4]

Apocryphal, pseudepigraphical and Qumran texts mention the resurrection also. 2 Macabees 7 mentions a man who professes that God will replace his body when he loses it; 1 Enoch 51 says “Sheol will return all the deposits which she had received and hell will give back all which it owes. And he shall choose the righteous and the holy ones from among the risen dead…and the faces of all the angels in heaven shall glow with joy, because on the day the Elect One has arisen.”[5] 2 Baruch 30:1 says “all who sleep in hope of him will rise,”[6] and the Dead Sea Scroll text 4Q521 says “He will heal the badly wounded and will make the dead live.”[7]

It is clear then, that by the first century, the concept of the resurrection was prevalent in Jewish thought, especially within the Pharisaic party, who believed that the righteous survive death.[8] And it was from this group of Jews that Paul inherited his understanding of the resurrection, and the Christian expectation of the future resurrection stems from this tradition.[9]

Resurrection in Greek and Roman Tradition

Where Judaism moved toward an understanding of the eschatological resurrection as a bodily resurrection, Greek tradition moved toward the concept of the immortal soul, after approximately 500BC.[10] However, it must be understood that there were many, often contradictory, views on the afterlife.[11] Homer believed that all, both good and evil, live eternally in Hades, though some divinely favored heroes would be granted access to the “Isles of the Beloved.” The immortal soul developed later, with the Orphism movement, and was championed by Plato. Plato provided a philosophical foundation,[12] arguing that the body is a prison for the soul.[13] His dualism emphasized a distinction between the body and the soul,[14] and idea was later taken up by Socrates, who said that death is a release.[15]

However, Epicureanism and Stoicism were both widespread. Epicureanism denied the afterlife, arguing that the body and soul are so intertwined that when the body dies, the soul inevitably dies also; the soul was entirely corporeal. Stoicism was something of a mediatory position between Epicureanism and Platonism, in that while it denied the incorporeality of the soul, it also denied its immortality. Stoicism likened the soul to a “warm breath” which would eventually return, after a temporary afterlife, to the soul of the world.[16]

The group Paul was addressing likely believed the idea of an immortal physical body to be absurd. The Greek understanding of a resurrection recognized the resurrected body as being the exact same substance and body as it was prior to death. [17] Hence, the concept that God will one day resurrect all believers, including those whose bodies have disintegrated would have conjured up images of reanimated corrupted corpses. This group also placed little stress on the afterlife, focusing on present blessings, seeing that only death was coming. They didn’t care about the future, only about the present.[18]

Part B: Paul’s Discussion on the Resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15

Paul’s understanding of the resurrection was absolutely vital for the Corinthians’ salvation.[19] The resurrection is the climax of grace as God’s gift, because God doesn’t just leave us in the ground, he raises us to life with and in him.[20] Though Paul elsewhere places great emphasis on the cross, here it is impossible to separate the death and resurrection in the soteriological purposes of God in Christ. The Gospel can’t exist unless both are present.[21]

He begins in verses 1-11 by establishing some common ground.[22] He presupposes Christ’s resurrection, rather than apologetically arguing for it, approaching the discussion as one who recognizes that the Corinthians haven’t rejected the resurrection, but rather have their theology somewhat confused. He comes as a teacher, to correct.[23] The reference to Jesus’ death rejects Docetism – a movement arguing that Jesus only seemed to be human – emphasizing that he was human and that he died a real death.[24] He then cites eyewitnesses to affirm the resurrection.[25]

In verses 12-20 and 29-34, he unpacks the implications if there were no resurrection. He begins by asking why, if they believed in Jesus’ resurrection, they would reject their own.[26] The implication of the rejection of the resurrection is expounded in the following verse; if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ was not raised, and if he was not raised, everything Paul has been proclaiming about the Gospel is invalid, and their faith is futile. In verses 29-34 he reveals how such an implication would invariably mean all his effort was for nothing. [27] The most serious implication of the rejection of the resurrection, which he picks up in following verses, is that if there is no resurrection, then death is unconquered and, hence, there would be no salvation.[28]

The reason for their rejection was likely due to the Hellenistic culture. As argued above, the concept of a corporeal resurrection was entirely foreign. It was not the resurrection they were rejecting, rather the physical bodily resurrection.[29] It is also likely, as evidenced from previous passages, such as their desire for spiritual gifts, their belief that all things are lawful and beneficial to them, etc. that the Corinthians already saw themselves as spiritual and “above” the physical. Therefore, they only had to rid themselves of the humiliation of humanity. [30] Furthermore, the belief that they could eat, drink and be merry was due to their rejection of the resurrection; they didn’t care about the body or the consequences, since only death was in store for them.[31]

In verses 21-28 Paul discusses the positive implications of the resurrection of the dead, which ultimately points toward the glory of God. He argues that Christ has risen from the dead, thus there is no reason to reject their own resurrection.[32] By labeling Jesus as the “first fruits” he connects Jesus’ resurrection with the future, general resurrection, the beginning of the eschatological resurrection, which comes through Jesus and for Jesus’ glorification.[33] The passive perfect “has been raised” signifies God the Father’s activity and the on-going effects of this resurrection.[34] God, through Jesus’ resurrection, has set in motion the final victory over death.[35] If the resurrection is real then there is real purpose and meaning to be found in life.[36] In Jesus, we rise, unified in Jesus; in Adam, we die, unified in Adam. This completes God’s purpose in creating humanity.[37]

The remainder of the chapter discusses how the dead are raised and what form they will be raised in. Paul mocks the idea that the resurrected body will be of the same substance, arguing it will not be subject to death and decay.[38] Here he is evidently influenced by his Pharisaic background, with his image of the perfected flesh.[39] He argues from nature that there are different sorts of bodies; the human body is different to the fish or the birds, so why can’t the spiritual body be different to the material body? They are still a physical body, yet entirely different. He continues this train of thought and uses an analogy of a seed, something which goes into the ground one thing and comes out an entirely different thing, emphasizing the new nature of the resurrected body.[40]

Semantically, he distinguishes between the material body and the spiritual body by using the words sōma psychikon and sōma pneumatikon, respectively. The former refers to creatures of body and spirit, the latter to an inherited spiritual, heavenly body. This new body is animated by the Holy Spirit when a divine transformation at the parousia occurs, causing bodies to be made fit for heavenly existence.[41] He ends on an ethical and moral exhortation to stand firm and to live in light of the resurrection that has come in Jesus and is still yet to come for all his followers.[42]

Conclusion

Paul’s understanding of the resurrection, heavily influenced by his Jewish background, was of a physical, bodily resurrection. This body, however, will be transformed and animated by the Holy Spirit, adapted to the new heavenly conditions. He rejects the Platonic understanding of the immortal soul and implores the Corinthians to do similarly. If there is no immortal soul or a physical resurrection, death is still victorious. Paul, however, doxologically declares the glory of God the Father in this passage, naming God as victor over everything, even death. The resurrection of the dead is the pinnacle event of this victory, and of our salvation.

Bibliography

Blomberg, Craig. 1 Corinthians. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994.

Boer, Martinus C. de. The Defeat of Death: Apocalyptic Eschatology in 1 Corinthians 15 and Romans 5. Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1988.

Croy, N Clayton. “Hellenistic Philosophies and the Preaching of the Resurrection (Acts 17:18, 32).” Novum Testamentum 39, no. 1 (1997): 21-39.

Dunn, James D. G. The Theology of Paul the Apostle. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1998.

Dunn, James D. G. “How Are the Dead Raised? With Body Do They Come? Reflections on 1 Corinthians 15.” Southwestern Journal of Theology 45, no. 1 (2002): 4-18.

Elledge, C. D. “Resurrection of the Dead: Exploring Our Earliest Evidence Today.” In Resurrection: The Origin and Future of a Biblical Doctrine, edited by James H. Charlesworth. New York: T & T Clark, 2006.

Endsjo, Dag Oistein. “Immortal Bodies, before Christ: Bodily Continuity in Ancient Greece and 1 Corinthians.” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 30, no. 4 (2008): 417-436.

Fee, Gordon D. The First Epistle to the Corinthians. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1988.

Garland, David E. 1 Corinthians. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2003.

Holleman, Joost. Resurrection & Parousia: A Traditio-Historical Study of Paul’s Eschatology in 1 Corinthians 15. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1996.

Isaac, E. “1 (Ethiopic Apocalypse of) Enoch.” In The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, edited by James H. Charlesworth. London: Darton Longman & Todd Ltd, 1983.

Klijn, A. F. J. “2 (Syriac Apocalypse of) Baruch.” In The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha edited by James H. Charlesworth. London: Darton Longman & Todd Ltd, 1983.

Kreitzer, L. J. “Resurrection.” In Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, edited by Gerald F. Hawthorne, Ralph P. Martin and Daniel G. Reid, 805-812. Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1993.

Murphy-O’Connor, Jerome. “1 and 2 Corinthians.” In The Cambridge Companion to St Paul, edited by James D. G. Dunn. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Nichols, Terence. Death and Afterlife: A Theological Introduction. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2010.

Novak, David. “Jewish Eschatology.” In The Oxford Handbook of Eschatology, edited by Jerry L. Walls. New York: Oxford University Press, Inc., 2008.

Prior, David. The Message of 1 Corinthians. Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 1985.

Rowland, Christopher. “The Eschatology of the New Testament Church.” In The Oxford Handbook of Eschatology, edited by Jerry L. Walls. New York: Oxford University Press, Inc., 2008.

Segal, Alan F. “Paul’s Jewish Presuppositions.” In The Cambridge Companion to St Paul, edited by James D. G. Dunn. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Sider, Ronald J. “St. Paul’s Understanding of the Nature and Significance of the Resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15:1-19.” Novum Testamentum 19, no. 2 (1977): 124-141.

Smith, Ben C., “Www.Textexcavation.Com/Qumran4q521″, Text Excavation  (accessed 15/05/2012).

Thiselton, Anthony C. The First Epistle to the Corinthians. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2000.

Witherington, Ben. Conflict & Community in Corinth: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary on 1 and 2 Corinthians. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1995.


[1] L. J. Kreitzer, “Resurrection,” in Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, ed. Gerald F. Hawthorne, Ralph P. Martin, and Daniel G. Reid(Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1993). 806.

[2] Terence Nichols, Death and Afterlife: A Theological Introduction (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2010). 19-23.

[3] C. D. Elledge, “Resurrection of the Dead: Exploring Our Earliest Evidence Today,” in Resurrection: The Origin and Future of a Biblical Doctrine, ed. James H. Charlesworth(New York: T & T Clark, 2006). 24-26. Cf. Nichols. 24-25; Kreitzer. 806; David Novak, “Jewish Eschatology,” in The Oxford Handbook of Eschatology, ed. Jerry L. Walls(New York: Oxford University Press, Inc., 2008). 123.

[4] Christopher Rowland, “The Eschatology of the New Testament Church,” in The Oxford Handbook of Eschatology, ed. Jerry L. Walls(New York: Oxford University Press, Inc., 2008). 57. Cf. Novak. 123.

[5] E. Isaac, “1 (Ethiopic Apocalypse of) Enoch,” in The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, ed. James H. Charlesworth(London: Darton Longman & Todd Ltd, 1983). 36-37.

[6] A. F. J. Klijn, “2 (Syriac Apocalypse of) Baruch,” in The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha ed. James H. Charlesworth(London: Darton Longman & Todd Ltd, 1983). 631.

[7] Ben C. Smith, “Www.Textexcavation.Com/Qumran4q521”, Text Excavation  (accessed 15/05/2012).

[8] Alan F. Segal, “Paul’s Jewish Presuppositions,” in The Cambridge Companion to St Paul, ed. James D. G. Dunn(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003).  165.

[9] Cf. Joost Holleman, Resurrection & Parousia: A Traditio-Historical Study of Paul’s Eschatology in 1 Corinthians 15 (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1996). 205.

[10] Nichols. 23.

[11] N Clayton Croy, “Hellenistic Philosophies and the Preaching of the Resurrection (Acts 17:18, 32),” Novum Testamentum 39, no. 1 (1997). 29.

[12] Ibid. 29.

[13] David Prior, The Message of 1 Corinthians (Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 1985). 256.

[14] Dag Oistein Endsjo, “Immortal Bodies, before Christ: Bodily Continuity in Ancient Greece and 1 Corinthians,” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 30, no. 4 (2008). 418.

[15] David E. Garland, 1 Corinthians (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2003). 700.

[16] Croy. 29-34.

[17] Endsjo. 418-34. Cf. Ben Witherington, Conflict & Community in Corinth: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary on 1 and 2 Corinthians (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1995). 302.

[18] Witherington. 292-93.

[19] James D. G. Dunn, “How Are the Dead Raised? With Body Do They Come? Reflections on 1 Corinthians 15,” Southwestern Journal of Theology 45, no. 1 (2002). 5.

[20] Anthony C. Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2000). 1169. Thiselton states, “It brings to a climax the theme of grace as God’s sovereign free gift through the cross to which “the dead” contribute no particular “knowledge” or “experience,” but do indeed undergo transformation of life and lifestyle through “God, who gives life to the dead” (Rom 4:17) on the basis of promise,” (p.1169).

[21] James D. G. Dunn, The Theology of Paul the Apostle (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1998). 235. Also, Prior. 256.

[22] Gordon D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1988). 714.

[23] Witherington. 291. Cf. Garland. 678.

[24] Craig Blomberg, 1 Corinthians (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994). 296. Also, Witherington. 299.

[25] Ronald J. Sider, “St. Paul’s Understanding of the Nature and Significance of the Resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15:1-19,” Novum Testamentum 19, no. 2 (1977). 140-41. Sider states, “When Paul learned that widespread opposition at Corinth to the notion of a bodily resurrection of believers had led to serious questioning or unacceptable reinterpretation of the nature of Jesus’ resurrection, he was very disturbed. In order to establish his fundamental belief in Jesus’ bodily resurrection he cited the eyewitnesses of the appearances. Apparently Paul thought that the question of whether Jesus rose from the dead was a factual question which could be settled by citing the historical evidence,” (pp.140-41).

[26] Fee. 713.

[27] Witherington. 302-303. Also, Fee. 714; Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, “1 and 2 Corinthians,” in The Cambridge Companion to St Paul, ed. James D. G. Dunn(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003). 82.

[28] Dunn, The Theology of Paul the Apostle. 488. Cf. Garland. 681. Cf. Boer, “Behind the human reality of dying and the promise of resurrection, there is an apocalyptic confrontation of cosmic proportions between God’s Messiah and the power of death which has subjugated and alienated all human beings from God,” (Martinus C. de Boer, The Defeat of Death: Apocalyptic Eschatology in 1 Corinthians 15 and Romans 5 (Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1988). 139).

[29] Fee. 715. Also, Blomberg. 295; Endsjo. 417-418; Garland. 699-670.

[30] Fee. 715. On this, Fee contends, “In their view, by the reception of the Spirit, and especially the gift of tongues, they had already entered the true “spirituality” that is to be (4:8); already they had begun a form of angelic existence (13:1; cf. 4:9; 7:1-7) in which the body was unnecessary and unwanted, and would finally be destroyed. Thus for them life in the Spirit meant a final ridding oneself of the body, not because it was evil but because it was inferior and beneath them; the idea that the body would be raised would have been anathema,” (p.715).

[31] Witherington. 292.

[32] Holleman. 205. Also, Fee. 714; Garland. 678; Murphy-O’Connor. 82.

[33] Holleman. 203. Cf. Witherington. 304.

[34] Witherington. 300.

[35] Fee. 717.

[36] Prior. 277. Cf. Rowland. 57.

[37] Holleman. 206. According to Holleman, “Jesus represents all those who are faithful to him. The latter will therefore join the risen Lord in that they will be raised with him. Jesus represents all those who will be raised just as Adam represents all who die. Those who are ‘in Christ’ will be raised as a result of their unity with Christ, the ones ‘in Adam’ will die because of their unity with Adam,” (p. 206).

[38] Dunn, “How Are the Dead Raised? With Body Do They Come? Reflections on 1 Corinthians 15.” 17-18.

[39] Segal. 167.

[40] Witherington. 307-311. Cf. Garland. 725; Murphy-O’Connor. 83

[41] Dunn, “How Are the Dead Raised? With Body Do They Come? Reflections on 1 Corinthians 15.” 17; Fee. 714-715; Witherington. 308-309; Segal. 168-169; Garland. 739-740.

[42] Witherington. 306, 311; Garland. 715.

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