Paul on Jesus’ Resurrection: A New Study
Scholars commonly see in 1 Corinthians 15:1-7 material of an early “pre-Pauline” confession that focuses on Jesus’ death, burial, resurrection and appearances to select witnesses. But there are continuing disagreements over what kind of event is referred to in vv. 3-5 where Jesus is described as “raised on the third day,” specifically whether this refers to a resurrection/transformation of Jesus’ mortal body or some other kind of event, e.g., a “spiritual” one that left his mortal body in the grave. I’ve just read a new study of the matter that seems to me pretty effective in guiding exegetes to the correct answer: James Ware, “The Resurrection of Jesus in the Pre-Pauline Formula of 1 Cor 15.3-5.” New Testament Studies 60 (2014): 475-98.
Ware reviews a wide range of previous scholarly views, carefully assessing their merits, noting the limited force of some and the dubious force of others. His own particular contribution is a more in-depth analysis of the use of the Greek verb translated here “raised”: εγειρω. Essentially, Ware contends that all other uses of the verb describe one or another kind of action involving the raising up, rising up, or setting up of something or someone from a prone or seated position to an upright, standing position.
This, he argues, means that proposals that the verb here refers to an ascension of Jesus, a transportation of him in some “spiritual” mode to heavenly glory, is ruled out. Instead, Paul refers to a raising up or restoration to life of the executed body of Jesus.
To be sure, as Ware notes, later in 1 Cor 15, Paul engages the question of “in what kind of body” are the dead to be raised (vv. 35-49), and Paul here posits a dramatic and profound transformation, those raised being “changed” powerfully. In vv. 42-44, in particular, Paul makes a series of contrasts between the mortal body and the resurrection body: corruption/incorruption, dishonour/glory, weakness/power, “soulish”/spiritual. And Paul also makes the claim that the resurrection of believers will be modelled on Jesus’ resurrection.
So, Paul posits a profound change involved in the resurrection. But, as Ware so deftly points out, all through the passage Paul refers to the body of believers as changed. That is, Paul insists that the resurrection is an event that changes the nature of the embodied existence of those raised. The “spiritual” body, Ware persuasively argues, has to be in context a description of the animating force of the resurrection body, for the contrast is not with a “fleshly” body but with a “soulish” (ψυχικος) one, i.e., the mortal body animated by “soul” (ψυχη), which here appears to be Paul’s reference to what we might call mortal, “biological” life.
I think that Ware’s case must now be considered by anyone concerned with the confessional statement in 1 Cor 15:3-5. I think he’s mounted a pretty impressive argument. The issue isn’t what one’s personal preferences or inclinations are on the matter of resurrection, but what Paul presumed and asserts in these verses.