This is something of a long shot. I had a friend look at 1 Cor. 15 (and other parts of the Bible), and he formed the conclusion that 1 Cor. 15 was about a spiritual and not bodily resurrection—i.e., that Paul felt that the resurrection appearances of Jesus were visions.

Is there an argument that 1 Cor. 15 is not about physical resurrection?

(I don't see it in the passage, but I wanted to open my mind to how other people read it.)

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    The fact that you other question is on the heresy of Gnosticism shows you are 101% on the right track! Welcome to C.SE, I think we're going to like having you contribute! Commented Feb 26, 2012 at 13:44
  • Related: hermeneutics.stackexchange.com/q/1251/68 Commented Feb 27, 2012 at 4:27

3 Answers 3


If one chooses to explain away 1 Corinthians 15:4-7

that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. 6 Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the a

There is still the matter of 15:36-38

What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. 37 And what you sow is not the body that is to be, but a bare kernel, perhaps of wheat or of some other grain. 38 But God gives it a body as he has chosen, and to each kind of seed its own body.

The metaphor of the seed dying but coming back with a new tangible substance is made by both Jesus and Paul. It is a nonsensical metaphor if only a spiritual one

Likewise, if death is the same for all, how could death have been overcome, per verse 51?

Finally, the word raised has a very definite meaning of to come back to life. Egerow has a linguistic link to energizing, to rising up, like one does in the morning. It is as fully physical and it is without matter.

As pointed out in your question on Gnosticism, there were those who wanted to make Jesus out to be a spirit, rather than flesh. The difference is that historically, most of these heresies took an all or nothing approach.

Docetists believed that Jesus never was human at all - he only appeared to be. That Gonstics held this is clear:

The testimony of anti-gnostic writers like Irenaeus to the Docetism of the unholy succession of Gnostics and gnosticizing teachers in the second century (beginning for Irenaeus with Cerinthus and in this respect including Marcion and his followers) is broadly confirmed by the Nag Hammadi gnostic texts (Rudolph, 157–71, Tröger). Thus the Acts of John 97–104 portray Christ, already risen from his temporary body, watching the crucifixion of Jesus taking place

(Dictionary of the New Testament and Latter Developments, "Docetism")

The book of 2 John (7) clearly says this is to be rejected, saying:

For many deceivers have gone out into the world, those who do not confess the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh. Such a one is the deceiver and the antichrist.

(This isn't a rebuttal, just a rejection - otherwise you have seen it in the other question!)

With both Paul and John rejecting this "Jesus only looked like flesh" all along, it would be unreasonable to think that they wouldn't have mentioned something if they thought that after the cross, Jesus' substance was less than flesh.

Indeed, Thomas' touching of Christ, that he ate bread, and other things really make it seem that Jesus' resurrection was physical.

To make 1 Cor 15 merely a spiritual endeavour would be joining up with the Gnostics in the end, and is thus rejected elsewhere in Scripture and Christian practice.


I've answered the question on the Hermeneutics site, which can be summarized as spiritual resurrection was an oxymoron at that point in history. I won't repeat that argument, but I will make a related argument based on what the Corinthians probably expected from a messiah.

Who were the Corinthians?

Corinth was destroyed by the Romans in 146 BC and reestablished as a colony by Julius Caesar in 44 BC. During the late Republic and early Empire, colonies were established in order to provide land to pay off and settle veterans. A hundred or so years later, when Paul arrived, it was a much more cosmopolitan city with a mixture of Romans, Greeks and Jews. The city's twin ports and strategic location meant that received much Roman attention. While the original legionary colonists had died off, it seems quite likely that their decedents would have had strong affinities to the Imperial cult—especially Divus Julius.

What would they have thought of Jesus?

Most Corinthians, we can imagine, never heard of Jesus. Of those who had, probably many supposed he had been rightly executed as a Zealot. But the primary audience of Paul's letters were Christian. They must have seen Jesus as worth following, even perhaps to the death:

Why are we in danger every hour? I protest, brothers, by my pride in you, which I have in Christ Jesus our Lord, I die every day! What do I gain if, humanly speaking, I fought with beasts at Ephesus?—1st Corinthians 15:30-32a (ESV)

Perhaps they saw Jesus in the mold of a Greek demigod, like Hercules. But more likely, they thought Jesus had experienced apotheosis upon his death in the same way many believed Julius Caesar had become a god. Caesar was not resurrected as his body was cremated in the Forum; his soul was believed to have ascended into heaven in the form of a comet. So the Corinthians could have interpreted stories of Jesus' transfiguration and his ascension in the same incorporeal manner.

There seem to have been a division in the Corinthian church (see 1st Corinthians 1:10-16 and all of chapter 3, for instance) along ethnic and cultural lines. The Jewish Christians would have understood Jesus as Messiah and looked forward to a general Resurrection event, but might not have put the two concepts together. If so, they didn't believed that Jesus bodily rose from the grave either. (But more likely, they became Christians after believing that the Christ rose from the tomb on the third day.)

What was Paul's argument?

Paul's task is to bring both sides of the Corinthian church into unity. The letter tackles a huge number of issues: sexual immorality, lawsuits, idols, worship, and spiritual gifts. His driving goal is to find ways of unifying the body. So when he gets to the topic of Resurrection, he must make a series of complicated arguments. But this is his abstract:

Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain.—1st Corinthians 15:12-14 (ESV)

Paul's argument (and it carries throughout the chapter) was that what happened to Christ is fundamentally the same thing that we can expect to happen to us in the future. He leans hard on the word "resurrection" (x2 in these verses alone) and "raised" (x3). To his Jewish audience, the words would have clearly signaled an event that would look like:

Your dead shall live; their bodies shall rise.
  You who dwell in the dust, awake and sing for joy!
For your dew is a dew of light,
  and the earth will give birth to the dead.

—Isaiah 26:19 (ESV)

But notice that Paul directs his argument toward "some of you [who] say that there is no resurrection of the dead". Therefore, Paul basically sides with the Jewish Christians when it comes to resurrection theology. Thus, his argument must be opposed to the Greek and Roman views that Christ was a special case—an extraordinary man who was transported into heaven. So Paul stands on the side of the group who believes our bodies can somehow be transformed:

I tell you this, brothers: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written:

“Death is swallowed up in victory.”
“O death, where is your victory?
   O death, where is your sting?”

The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.—1st Corinthians 15:50-57 (ESV)


Paul's argument assumes the Corinthians already believed Jesus had experienced a "spiritual" ascendance into heaven, so it makes little sense that he would convince them, in a strident tone, that Jesus' ascendance was just spiritual. Paul clearly expects them to believe something beyond their current beliefs: namely bodily resurrection


In 1 Corinthians 15:35 poses the question of how the dead are raised up:

35 But some man will say, How are the dead raised up? and with what body do they come?

In 1 Corinthians 15:44 Paul answers that there is a natural body, and there is a spiritual body, and that it is sown a natural body and is raised a spiritual body:

15:44: It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. There is a natural body, and there is a spiritual body.

Paul's analogy in 15:40 explains for his readers that the spiritual body, which belongs in heaven, is far greater than the natural body:

15:40: There are also celestial bodies, and bodies terrestrial: but the glory of the celestial is one, and the glory of the terrestrial is another.

In verse 20, Paul sets out to prove to the Corinthians that resurrection of this spiritual body is a fact. Everyone will be raised, as evidenced by Jesus, who was the firstfruit of the resurrection:

15:20 But now is Christ risen from the dead, and become the firstfruits of them that slept.

Paul has developed a series of complicated arguments to make resurrection appear both feasible and palatable to the squeamish Corinthians, to whom a physical resurrection was somehow ghoulish. Now, in 1 Corinthians 15:4-8, Paul tells us about the resurrection of Jesus:

And that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures: And that he was seen of Cephas, then of the twelve: After that, he was seen of above five hundred brethren at once; of whom the greater part remain unto this present, but some are fallen asleep. After that, he was seen of James; then of all the apostles. And last of all he was seen of me also, as of one born out of due time.

We know that Paul did not see Jesus in the flesh, but spiritually, and we know from the above that he spoke at length of the resurrection of spiritual, not natural, bodies. In this passage, he talks of Cephas, the twelve (sic) and various others as seeing the risen Jesus as if these sightings were the same as his own sighting of Jesus. So, 1 Corinthians chapter 15 is about spiritual resurrection.

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