Looking Awry at Resurrection Bodies

James Ware has taken exception in these “pages” (or however one describes a web-journal) to an earlier article of mine on Paul’s metaphysics of the resurrection body in 1 Corinthians 15. Now, everything I said in that original piece was—let me brash up front—both entirely correct and entirely uncontroversial among serious scholars of late antiquity, as well as among good New Testament scholars who have a deep training in Graeco-Roman intellectual history. In a sense, I feel no need to defend myself in that regard. I do feel compelled, however, to point out that Ware in fact did not attack me for what I said so much as for what he imagined I was saying; and that, moreover, his misunderstanding regarding the import of my argument is a splendid example of precisely the kind of habitual misreading of Christian scripture I originally set out to expose. Because, as I said there, the principal difficulty we have today in understanding the exquisitely abstruse spiritual and speculative language of the earliest Christian writers is the result of our (almost inevitable) tendency tacitly to superimpose our modern categories on texts from an age that thought in very different forms.

Ware, let me be clear, is to be commended for the seriousness of his concerns, but not for the care with which he read my article. His remarks are testament, chiefly, to how thoroughly the Cartesian concept of body, soul, and (presumably) spirit continue to dictate the modern understanding of scripture among scholars with a limited knowledge of late antique beliefs. None of my points about the late antique language of “soul” and “spirit” (which are quite indisputable for anyone who knows the Graeco-Roman world) seems to have registered with him, with the result that he read my words without for a moment relinquishing his “ghost in the machine” understanding of the terms under discussion. And I am not sure what more I could have done to penetrate that remarkably redoubtable wall of prior conceptions with which he was clearly working. But I evidently failed to make so much as a mark on it. As a result, he seems to be laboring under the impression that I was claiming that Paul believed resurrection to be an escape from—rather than a transfiguration of—the conditions of incarnation, and that a “spiritual body” is somehow a “bodiless spirit.”

Ware might, of course, have taken the time to notice that nowhere did I suggest that Paul imagined resurrection as resulting in a “bodiless spirit,” much less an impalpable one that simply supersedes the body of soul and flesh, like a vapor escaping a cracked bottle. My point—which was correct in every particular and is explicitly supported by 1 Corinthians 15—was that “spirit” in Paul’s metaphysical lexicon was not a “bodiless” thing at all, but rather a kind of glorious heavenly substance in its own right, from which the bodies of angels, stars, “spirits” of every kind, and the glorified body of the resurrection are all naturally constituted. I also made it quite clear that a “spiritual body” in this sense is not less—but ever so much more—physically substantial than a perishable “psychical body.” And all of this, to be honest, is only to say that Paul was a quite ordinary educated Jewish thinker of the Graeco-Roman period, educated in what was regarded as one of the impeccably orthodox schools of Jewish thought.

As I say, though, I suppose the Cartesian habits of our modern modes of thought are chiefly to be blamed for the misunderstanding. We cannot help, it seems, but think of “soul” and “spirit” as utterly incorporeal, lacking all extension and physical presence, pure instances of res cogitans. In the 1st century, however, in the Graeco-Roman world, the words πνεῦμα and ψυχή were far, far more ambiguous, at least as regards our modern understanding of the physical and spiritual orders. In general, and most definitely in the system of usage Paul presumes in 1 Corinthians, ψυχή was chiefly the life-principle proper to the realm of generation and decay, strictly limited to the aerial and terrestrial spheres, granting “psychical” or “animal” substances the power of self-movement and growth, but also condemning them to mutability and transience.

By contrast, πνεῦμα was a higher “physical” principle in the scale of things. It too was life: life, arguably, in its purest essence, ontologically beyond corruption or death, free from the constraints of the mere perishable composite of flesh and blood and ψυχή that constitutes sublunary existence. Thus it was common (as we see at numerous places in the New Testament) to use the word “spirit” for living creatures who did not exist in bodies of flesh and blood: lesser celestial gods, daemons, angels, nefilim, devils, and so on. These beings enjoyed a life not limited by the conditions of the lower elements (the στοιχεῖα) or of any of the intrinsically dissoluble combinations thereof. But, again, none of these beings was thought to be “incorporeal” in our modern sense. Not even the angels. Even when they were spoken of in incorporeal terms, it was always as relative to earthly bodies. Only God was beyond all embodiment by nature, and therefore omnipresent. All spiritual creatures possessed bodies, albeit of an especially aetherial nature, and all of them were therefore bound to some kind of local existence. Many, for instance, lived in the heavens above, divine or angelic “glories” (James 1:17, 2 Peter 2:10-11), or the astral bodies of the glorified righteous (Daniel 12:3, Wisdom 3:7).

In any event, I invite readers to visit or revisit my original article. I also recommend Dale Martin’s treatment of the matter in his book The Corinthian Body, which simply places Paul’s words in the context of his age. If I seem a bit peremptory, incidentally, in making my reply to Ware, that is probably the result of a defect of temper on my part. I confess, I do not mind being criticized, but I do object to being accused of making an “egregious” error that in fact I never made, and for simply stating facts about the text of scripture that are beyond dispute among scholars who truly know the period in question.

Featured Image: Fra Angelico, Resurrection of Christ and Women at the Tomb (Cell 8), 1442; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100.


David Bentley Hart

David Bentley Hart is author of a dozen books and roughly 750 articles. His translation of the New Testament was released in 2017 by Yale University Press. He is exceedingly fond of dogs.

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