In what sense was Jesus’ resurrection ‘bodily’?

There was some brouhaha last week when it was announced that Dr John Shepherd, retired Dean of St. George’s Cathedral, Perth, Western Australia, was appointed interim director of the Anglican Centre in Rome. The role includes being the Envoy of the Archbishop of Canterbury to the See of Rome, but it was pointed out that Dr Shepherd is on record as urging Christians to move beyond belief in the bodily resurrection of Jesus, in order to see it as a spiritual reality.

The Resurrection of Jesus ought not to be seen in physical terms, but as a new spiritual reality. It is important for Christians to be set free from the idea that the Resurrection was an extraordinary physical event which restored to life Jesus’ original earthly body…

Jesus’ early followers felt His presence after His death as strongly as if it were a physical presence and incorporated this sense of a resurrection experience into their gospel accounts. But they’re not historical records as we understand them. They are symbolic images of the breaking through of the resurrection spirit into human lives…

Jesus lived … as a transformed spiritual reality.

(You can watch the actual video that was broadcast, and is still online, here). I don’t think that this was news to anyone who knew him in Australia; as far as I can tell, his views were well known, and (as has been pointed out) he was ‘in good standing’ in his diocese as an Anglican minister. (In fact, if you read carefully between the lines, it looks as though the Archbishop of Wales holds very similar views—at least that’s what the Daily Mail thinks.) After some protests, Dr Shepherd issued a further statement:

It is my faith that Jesus rose from the dead, and I have never denied the reality of the empty tomb. The risen Christ was not a ghost — he ate and could be touched — but at the same time he appeared in a locked room (John 20.26), and vanished from sight (Luke 24.31), and he was often not immediately recognised.

I don’t really know how to read that, since his earlier statement does appear to ‘deny the reality of the empty tomb’, and he does not renounce his earlier statement. We do all need to bear in mind that the Anglican Centre in Rome was in a difficult position: the previous director, Archbishop Bernard Ntahoturi, stepped down very suddenly after an allegation of sexual misconduct, and an experienced ‘safe pair of hands’ was needed whilst a new permanent director was found.

For critics, a primary question is how someone can represent the Archbishop of Canterbury to Rome if they do not hold to what is set out in formularies of the Church of England, and in particular the 39 Articles of Religion.


CHRIST did truly rise again from death, and took again his body, with flesh, bones, and all things appertaining to the perfection of Man’s nature; wherewith he ascended into Heaven, and there sitteth, until he return to judge all Men at the last day.

What I found interesting about Dr Shepherd’s remarks was that they too me back to my theology degree, and the module on historical theology which explored the rise of Liberal Protestantism in the 18th and 19th centuries, when a desire to make the Christian faith accessible to the intelligentsia of the day demanded that we strip the New Testament of its miraculous claims and (eventually) focus on its existential or ‘spiritual’ claims without demanding that readers take the supernatural claims of the gospel accounts ‘literally’. Although Dr Shepherd’s comments might look like they are attending to the literary forms of the gospels, I think the only way to make sense of them is to locate them within this kind of philosophical outlook.

A couple of years ago, Andrew Davison did an excellent job of tracing these kinds of moves in his summary article on the theological debates around the resurrection.

A survey of theological approaches to the resurrection might start from Friedrich Schleiermacher’s (1768-1834) thunderclap launch of liberal Protestant thought, The Christian Faith (1831). He could not see how the resurrection relates to redemption at all. Indeed, the link is “impossible” to see, and we could understand Christ perfectly well without even knowing about his resurrection. Schleiermacher did not dispense with the resurrection in his scheme; it simply does not play a prominent part.

In contrast, the resurrection was excised by the 19th century’s more thoroughgoing radicals, such as David Strauss (1808-1874), who rejected it as part of their general rejection of all that is supernatural in the Gospel stories.

That period of Gospel research, or Gospel dissection, came to an end with the work of Albert Schweitzer (1874-1965). In the era after the First World War there was a decisive turn away from this rather corrosive attenuation of the story about Jesus. As William Lane Craig has pointed out, however, the physical resurrection hardly gained a prominent place in what followed, either in the existentialist theology of Rudolf Bultmann (1884-1976), or in the neo-orthodoxy of Karl Barth (1886-1968).

Bultmann emphasised the effect of the resurrection message on the believer. He thought that our emphasis should be on the proclamation of the resurrection, and its claim on us, not on anything that did or did not happen in the tomb. The resurrection is “a definitely not historical event” (Kerygma and Myth, English translation by SPCK, 1953).

Bultmann was right to emphasise that the resurrection is not some neutral fact: it is transformatory, or it is nothing. Less convincing was his sense that this proclamation could stand on its own two feet: an effect without a cause, we might say.

Davison goes on briefly to reject this kind of separation between fact and meaning, or rather between the bodily and the spiritual understanding of resurrection.

The message of resurrection has invariably been of influence because of a literal belief in a risen body, not in spite of it. Bultmann was right to ascribe more to the resurrection than the resuscitation of a corpse, but the early Christians clearly saw that already. Any wider significance was grounded, for them, in what the Greek word for resurrection, anastasis, means: Jesus “sat up”.

This matters for us in space and time, because something happened in space and time. Often in 20th-century Anglican circles, even those who accepted the physical resurrection, such as the Doctrine Commission in its 1938 report, typically sought to distance themselves from anything that looked like naïvety.

For my part, I would say that the resurrection is true in wider senses only because it is first of all true in this “naïve” way.

It is striking that this kind of debate is nothing new in academic theology—but neither is it new in debates within the Anglican Communion. In 1998, the ‘radical’ John Spong, then Bishop of Newark in New Hampshire, issued a call for a ‘new Reformation’ in Christian belief, away from traditional theism. This new faith was in fact rather old, reaching back to Schleiermacher and Strauss, and rejecting the notion of the miraculous within the physical world. A certain Bishop of Monmouth, one Rowan Williams, found his proposals both unpersuasive and uninteresting.

Bishop Spong describes the resurrection as an act of God. I am not clear how an immanent deity such as I think he believes in is supposed to act; but if such a God does act, I don’t see why it should be easier for God to act in people’s mind than their bodies. ‘Jesus was raised into the meaning of God’; yes, but meanings are constructed by material, historical beings, with cerebral cortices and larynxes. How does God (or ‘God’) make a difference to what people mean?

Spong clearly has no time for the empty-tomb tradition; so it is no surprise that he also dismisses the virginal conception (though why on earth this makes Jesus’s divinity ‘impossible’ I fail to understand). I am aware that there are critical historical grounds for questioning both narrative clusters and I don’t want to dismiss them. But I am very wary of setting aside the stories on the ground of a broad-brush denial of the miraculous.

For the record: I have never quite managed to see how we can make sense of the sacramental life of the Church without a theology of the risen body; and I have never managed to see how to put together such a theology without belief in the empty tomb. If a corpse clearly marked ‘Jesus of Nazareth’ turned up, I should save myself a lot of trouble and become a Quaker. (Church Times, 17th July 1998)

My friend Frederik Mulder gives a brief overview of both the historical debate and the way it has cropped up amongst Anglican leaders in his short YouTube video here. (See also Martin Davie’s critique of Shepherd’s view, linking non-bodily views of the resurrection to changes in sexual ethics.) It is clear that some hold strongly to the theological views Dr Shepherd espouses, which dominated the academic world in the 1960s. Canon Anthony Phillips was the chaplain at my college in Oxford when I was an undergraduate, and was consistently antagonistic towards evangelicals; he responded to Andrew Davison’s observation of the current situation with lament:

Sir, – Am I alone in feeling utterly depressed by the comment in the Revd Dr Andrew Davison’s article “What’s the latest on the resurrection?” when, speaking of his work with the Cambridge Theological Federation, he notes: “I would have difficulty in finding a single ordinand who would not subscribe to the physical resurrection of Christ”? Another reason for lamenting the passing of the 1960s.

But Davison sees the current prevailing mood, expressed in the recent writing of Rowan Williams, much more positively.

The former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Williams was clearly influenced by this tradition of interpreting the resurrection with an eye to tragedy when he wrote that it makes God present “in all suffering, at the heart of suffering and even in death” (Open to Judgement, DLT, 1994).

Here, and in later writing, the emptiness of the tomb is his central image. The tomb is empty because Jesus has been “freed” to be “with us”. That freedom, however, is more prominently the freedom to be with us in pain than it is freedom from the pains of death, and exhalation to reign in glory.

How theologians approach history is central. For Lord Williams, the emptiness of the tomb is an event in history. It must therefore remain both historical and empty. Too much historical reconstruction, in what he calls an “apologetic” vein, has us filling the emptiness, but neither will it do for us to entertain “a theologically dictated indifference to history” (On Christian Theology, Blackwell, 2000), where Lord Williams names Bultmann, although Barth would equally stand.

In locating this discussion within the biblical texts, there are some important things to note. The first is the way that bodily resurrection has developed in the New Testament from antecedents in the Old. Although there are some hints of an expectation of a form of embodied life after death (for example, in Ps 16.10, ‘you will not abandon me to the realm of the dead, nor will you let your faithful one see decay’, and Ps 27.13, ‘I remain confident of this: I will see the goodness of the LORD in the land of the living’) for much of the OT death meant descending to a shadowy world of semi-existence, ‘Sheol’. The clearest idea of physical, bodily resurrection begins with Ezek 37 with its vivid metaphor for the new life God will bring his people as a whole after the national ‘death’ of exile. By the time of the (much later, second century BC) Daniel, this has become an understanding of bodily resurrection of both the good and wicked, which is followed by universal judgement.

The idea that this is both bodily and spiritual is consistent throughout the New Testament. The resuscitation of others by Jesus (the son of the widow of Nain in Luke 7, and most notably of Lazarus in John 11) are described using the same language (‘resurrection’ in NT Greek is the word anastatis, which ‘literally’ means ‘standing up again’) but it is clear that they are only signs of Jesus’ resurrection, since these people will physically die again. In Paul’s writing, he is equally clear that Jesus’ resurrection was bodily—and so (in 1 Cor 6.14) he can appeal to our resurrection destiny, predicated on Jesus’ own bodily resurrection.

It is unfortunate that Peter Carnley, who was John Shepherd’s bishop in Perth, interprets Paul’s language of ‘spiritual body’ in 1 Cor 15 as suggesting the resurrection was not bodily. (It is also unhelpful that he describes orthodox historical understandings as ‘mere resuscitation in the tomb’). In the last part of that chapter, Paul moves from the content (logos) and credibility (ethos) to the emotional and pastoral appeal (pathos) of his teaching. He does so by drawing a series of contrasts between life in this age and the resurrection life in the age to come—but it is important to note that his contrast between the ‘natural’ and the ‘spiritual’ or between the ‘earthly’ and the ‘heavenly’ is always between two different kinds of bodies. At no point does Paul follow Greek philosophical ideas that death or resurrection involve the escape of the spirit from the body to join God ‘in heaven’.

The reason for the contrast between our present bodies and the bodies we shall be ‘clothed with’ in the resurrection is rooted in the contrast between (the first) Adam and Jesus, the second ‘Adam’—each the progenitor of a kind of humanity. Adam was created to be in the image of God and to live in relationship with God, a destiny destroyed by his disobedience and sin. (It is worth noting here that Paul sees Adam and Jesus as kinds of human, not (male) men; English translations add the noun ‘man’ where Paul simply has adjectives ‘earthly’ and ‘heavenly’.) Without the redemption that is in Jesus, we live in the image of Adam and experience the same frailty and mortality because of our sin, and so will perish. By contrast Jesus, the image of the invisible God (Col 1.15), was obedient to the point of death (Phil 2.8) thereby defeating the power of both sin and death. When we are ‘in Christ’, bearing his image, we live his risen life by the power of his life-giving Spirit, poured out at Pentecost—this is what Paul means whenever he talks of the ‘spiritual’.

We therefore no longer live under the condemnation of law, since we ‘walk by the Spirit’ (Gal 5.16); sin has lost its power over us, and death has lost its terror. When Jesus returns and this age finally passes away, the dead will be raised and whoever of us are alive at the time will also be transformed. The victory won in the cross and resurrection will finally be fulfilled, ushering in the promised new age of God’s reign (Is 25.8). What an inspiring hope to live by!

The best exposition of all this is, of course, Tom Wright’s The Resurrection of the Son of God, in which he not only locates NT understandings of resurrection in the contrasting context of Greco-Roman ideas about the afterlife, but also tackles the problems of ‘radical’ liberal understandings rooted in Liberal Protestantism. (This earlier writing has, I think, been more influential and less contested than his later, longer writings on Paul.) And he is always able to connect this with pastoral reality and personal hope, as this video from some years ago illustrates.

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28 thoughts on “In what sense was Jesus’ resurrection ‘bodily’?”

  1. People tend to forget that the first two-thirds of Wright’s RSG are not explicitly about Christ’s Resurrection at all, but a lengthy engagement with ancient understandings of the afterlife in more general terms, and the age-old question of what happens when you die, or where you go as viewed from multiple classical perspectives. It’s only the latter section that deals with the Gospel accounts, and it’s the briefest of the sections..

    Wright’s book principally argues that the word ‘resurrection’ had only one meaning in the ancient world, and that was ‘bodily’ resurrection. Most of the ancient world knew this, and were quite sensible about it to, in that they rejected it outright as foolishness; an impossibility. I can’t remember and don’t have the book to hand for reference, but Wright may have claimed it to be a uniquely Jewish hope…. In any case, his point is that the ancient world wasn’t populated by fools, and they knew the dead don’t come to life just as readily as we do.

    I think that’s the crux of my issue with the argument of Shepherd, Crossan and others. I’m not intrinsically hostile to their understanding/interpretation of the resurrection in ‘spiriutalised’ terms (although I do think it mistaken) but I don’t think it adequately deals with the otherwise glaring disconnect between what people thought would happen, and what actually did.

    I have no strong feelings about the placement of John Shepherd in this position, given that it seems you can be a Bishop in the CofE without knowing very much about the 39 articles, let alone be expected to defend them and teach them to others.

    • I do have the book to hand Mat. Wright speaks of the resurrection under the term “transphysicality”, a rather unfortunate term in the light of subsequent cultural developments some may think. And I think it gives him some problems within his wider theological project too. He has claimed throughout his Christian Origins and the Question of God project that apocalyptic language, which resurrection most certainly is, is metaphorical. It is, according to Wright, nothing to do with the physical universe physically changing. In fact, Wright has been quite scathing about those who think such a thing.

      But what then is “transphysicality”? Wright has caught himself in his own trap. He will, of course, insist it is physical because he wants a new body and not a ghost or a figment or a splinter in the mind. But if its physical then apocalyptic is no longer metaphor, its language about the changing of very physical reality. Wright cannot have it both ways.

      • You misunderstand Wright, I think.

        Wright defines “Transphysicality” (a term I also dislike, for the same reason) as something like moving from one type of physicality to another. It is not that the second type is any less physical, rather that it is a different, more potent if you will, form of physicality….

        As an aside, I recall being at a Q&A where wright was speaking and someone asked his if ‘Superphysical’ or ‘Hyperphysical’ might have been a better word. I am inclined to agree.

        In terms of Apocalyptic genre, I think you are making a real mess of what Wright argues for. But then again, I’ll concede he makes a bit of mess himself, which is why Paul and the Faithfulness of God (in spite of it’s own massiveness) still required another book, Paul and his recent interpreters, to address the issue of ‘Apocalyptic’; what it is and why it matters. I hold no theology degree, and so am hesitant to be too dogmatic in conversation among by betters in the comments, but even I am aware that sticking the genre of apocalyptic into the box labelled ‘exclusively metaphorical’ is a grave mistake of scholarship.

        That is much more Ian’s area.

      • I wasn’t happy with my paraphrase of Wright RE ‘Transphysical’, so I’ve gone back to find the actual passage so we can be clear. Regarding his initial suggestion of the term, Wright says ‘transphysical’;

        “…… merely, but I hope usefully, puts a label on the demonstrable fact that the early Christians envisaged a body which was still robustly physical but also significantly different from the present one. If anything -since the main difference they seem to have envisaged is that the new body will not be corruptable- we might say not that it will be less physical, as though it were some sort of ghost or apparition, but more.”
        RSG, page 477/478

        • Perhaps I do misunderstand Wright who, I agree, seems to make a mess of both transphysicality and apocalyptic, in my opinion. Yet I have read the first three of the four books of Christian Origins and the Question of God in full (and baulked at the idea of trudging through hundreds of pages about Paul) so I think I have passing acquaintance with his arguments. To deal with transphysicality first, I think it is simply the case that Wright himself has no real clue what he means by this except to say that he imagines a kind of physicality that is no longer subject to corruption. That, I think, is his essential point and it is what distinguishes the resurrection of Jesus from that of Lazarus in John, who will die again naturally, and Jairus’ daughter in the synoptics, who will also die again naturally.

          And so to apocalyptic. I quote Wright directly from p. 282 of “The New Testament and the People of God”: “Apocalyptic language uses complex and highly coloured metaphors in order to describe one event in terms of another, thus bringing out the perceived ‘meaning’ of the first”. On p.284 he writes: “The metaphorical language of apocalyptic invests history with theological meaning”. On p.285 he writes: ” The ‘kingdom of god’ has nothing to do with the world itself coming to an end”. On p.299 he describes “apocalyptic literature” as “a complex metaphor-system which invests space-time reality with its full, that is, its theological, significance”.

          You will note that Wright uses the word “metaphor”, or versions thereof, over and over again. If I had time I could locate similar statements in numerous other examples of Wright’s scholarship and his equal denigration of those who interpret apocalyptic in a “crassly literal” (his phrase in NTPG) way. This is why I made the point I did in my first response to you. If apocalyptic is metaphor, and Wright can hardly escape the charge he makes that point because he makes it here, there and everywhere, then does that mean resurrection, which is apocalyptic language found in apocalyptic Christian literature, is metaphorical? No, it appears it doesn’t, because in RSG it is “transphysical” or that kind of physical Wright conceives of as incorruptible. So Wright wants apocalyptic to be metaphor but he doesn’t want resurrection to be metaphor. He wants resurrection to be a kind of physicality but he doesn’t want apocalyptic to be about physicality for a “metaphor” is not physical. That is why I think Wright wants his cake and to eat it and that is why I think he must choose which it is.

          • I agree with your first paragraph.

            On the second though, I still think you are collapsing Wright’s notion of apocalyptic into a false polarisation that he, admittedly, struggles to avoid himself. Apocalyptic as a genre contains a wealth of metaphorical and symbolic language, indeed, this is what defines it. I am not trying to escape from that conclusion. But;

            1. Not all scripture that makes reference to the Resurrection is part of that Genre. What of Exodus, or the Psalms? Are the Pauline Epistles apocalyptic? What about some? Would you at least be willing to concede that as debatable? There is plenty of referent outside the genre for something called ‘resurrection’, and in every case it seems to reference the same thing…

            2. Even if we could say authoritatively that all references to the resurrection are part of the ‘genre apocalyptic’, which we can’t, this doesn’t change the historical fact that seemingly in spite of the metaphorical nature of the language, people in the first century and in the church were interpreting that into expecting a physical, literal, event; the former looking forward to it, the latter looking backwards to Jesus.

            It is not about what Wright wants, but about trying to tie together two ideas that have often stood apart, and which in his view shouldn’t. Whatever my other criticisms of his work, I don’t think I can accuse Wright of having it both ways simply because the task of tieing Theology to History (the purpose of the Christian Origins project..) is complex.

            I don’t think that makes him unreasonable. 😉

          • Mat, in response to your specific points:

            1. Exodus and Psalms make reference to resurrection? I think you are being deceived by a perspective the writers of the texts I assume you identify as doing so did not have – in much the same way the New Testament itself claims some Hebrew texts are “about Jesus”. This is a claim not a demonstration. Even where references to later ideas seem apparent how can we as readers be sure they are not later additions or alterations to a text rather than original to an earlier writing? We must be careful.

            Are the Pauline epistles apocalyptic? Absolutely. Paul is the most consistently apocalyptic thinker in the New Testament. His entire conception of Jesus as Christ and Lord is from WITHIN an apocalyptic scheme. Hence passages such as 1 Thess 4:13-18 and 1 Cor 15:12-56.

            Resurrection is a specifically apocalyptic ideal which fits within an apocalyptic worldview and that is found most often in apocalyptic literature is my claim. Do you dispute that? Can you find references to resurrection that are not simply found in non-apocalyptic literature but that neither spring from apocalyptic thought nor assume or require it either?

            2. You are here arguing against Wright more than me. It is Wright who insists apocalyptic is not literal. That’s why I diagnose him with a problem. Here it is important that Wright himself knows very well from his hundreds of pages of research in RSG that resurrection is a very apocalyptic thing indeed. But here is the problem: Wright’s task and method in Christian Origins and the Question of God has been to do theological history (not my insight but that of Professor Clive Marsh who taught the historical Jesus class I took in the mid 90s). Wright proceeds by telling theological stories and calls it history. It is synthetic and creative and is, in fact, an apocalyptic story of his own as the video Ian Paul posted in his blog also shows. No one should imagine that is how Jesus would have explained himself. Now the gospels themselves are apocalyptic martyrologies. In them Jesus plays a martyr who dies within a salvific scheme but within the context of God completely reordering creation. This is, in Wright’s terms, “investing history with theological significance” and is, thus, “apocalyptic”. But it is exactly the issue what resurrection then is. That, indeed, is the point of this blog: was this something physical or was it (merely) a way of describing events theologically? At the very least Wright hedges his bets and perhaps understandable when he is describing something neither he nor us could possibly imagine.

          • Sorry for the brief pause in responses, weekends tend to do that..

            “I have read the first three of the four books of Christian Origins and the Question of God in full (and baulked at the idea of trudging through hundreds of pages about Paul) so I think I have passing acquaintance with his arguments.”

            As have I, although I did make it through PFG as well. 😉 Surely all this goes to prove is that we both brought our own presuppositions to his argument, much like any piece of literature? I am not sure either of us should argue from the position of “I know Wright better than you”, which is not what I think you meant, but certainly what it sounds like….

            “You will note that Wright uses the word “metaphor”, or versions thereof, over and over again. If I had time I could locate similar statements in numerous other examples of Wright’s scholarship and his equal denigration of those who interpret apocalyptic in a “crassly literal” (his phrase in NTPG) way.”

            Again, I am not denying this. I am simply pointing out two things:

            1. That while apocalyptic thought is primarily expressed though metaphorical language, it is not exclusively so. Paul is absolutely a thinker well-versed in the apocalyptic and this pervades the entirely of his eschatology, no argument there, but not every aspect of Paul’s letters fits that scheme or can be neatly dismissed as metaphorical. What of his pastoral advice for Timothy, or his guidance for church governance? Are those metaphorical? In which apcolyptic scheme do those fit? In what way are they prophetic, or future-orientated?

            You label the gospels apocalyptic too, as “apocalyptic martyrologies”. Though they undoubtedly contain material that fits the accepted definitions, are you seriously suggesting the entire gospel accounts are apocalyptic literature? I wouldn’t say so, nor would any scholar I’m familiar with. Unless of course you’re using apocalyptic as a synonym for ‘untrue’? I know you;re not, but your definition seems exceptionally broad, to the point where I am actually a a little lost as to how to continue this argument….

            Wright himself may indeed define apocalyptic in metaphorical terms, but he never describes the entirety of Paul that way, only particular sections, and he is consistent when dealing with the Gospels too. Revelation is an apocalyptic text, by definition, but even that contains material that properly fits in a different genre, as Ian’s commentary on said book points out.

            Nor does Wright define every instance of metaphor as apocalyptic. . We cannot place entire books, or categories neatly into a single box, which is why your demand for an answer of specific passage doesn’t really have one…

            I think we are just using two wildly-opposed definitions, which removes any chance of agreement. By all means respond to this comment, that wasn’t a ‘shut-down’, but without a full discussion of how and where we define our understandings of apocalyptic we’re probably just going to go round in circles…

            I would reiterate my other point though, which is;

            2. That even if we could write-off all eschatological hope, within the NT specifically, as metaphorical, this utterly fails to deal with the fact people in the first century (and before) interpreted said language in undeniably literal ways.

            This was my point about the Psalms, hence my inclusion of them as an example. In ancient Jewish literature any meaningful reflection (framed as apocalyptic or otherwise) on hope for the future must have a physical real-world referent. I think, in fairness, this is one of the examples Wright does argue well; apocalyptic hope is pointless, and even actively unhelpful, unless it has a ‘this world’ application.

          • Mat, thanks for your further reply. On your first point, that apocalyptic is not EXCLUSIVELY metaphorical, you, as I, disagree with Wright and so we agree with each other. No need for further disagreement here then! Where you then go onto Paul you seem to me to confuse literary genre with worldview. I am arguing that Paul’s entire worldview is apocalyptic rather than the text of genre of his writings and that it is this which motivates and contextualises any of his writing or testimony. The entirety of Paul is thus apocalyptic in this sense because it is from an apocalyptic mind that it springs. Whether that makes Paul metaphorical, as Wright would seem to need to have it, I am not so sure. Did he expect real, physical angels on the clouds of heaven? An open question.

            You stray into the same error with the gospels as you do with Paul although that may be my fault in not giving all my working out. My description of the gospels as “apocalyptic martyrologies” is half-inched from Stephen Patterson who, in a hugely insightful essay on the Gospel of Thomas, points out that in the likely Syrian provenance for that non-canonical gospel we can see its interests outside the Roman empire hugely distinguished with those from the canonical gospels inside it where the Roman empire, and its persecution of Christians, was exactly the problem. This motivates apocalypse within the gospels, for example, Mark 13 and parallels, and literary apocalypse texts without them, see Revelation. We might also note things like transfiguration, heavenly voices, visions, and the resurrection. At the very least these are apocalyptic trappings to garnish the gospel feast! It is also surely not hard to see that in MMLJ Jesus plays a martyr who is, thus, the example to follow for all the Christians actually being martyred. It would, further, seem to me that the whole point of the gospels and the New Testament generally is that this is not the end? “Behold, I make all things new”? A classic apocalyptic theme – this time in terms of literary genre!

  2. I find it interesting that so far there has been only one comment on this article. The differences between ‘traditionalists’ and ‘progressives’ on the resurrection are as deep as those on matters of sex and sexuality, have been around longer, and are more serious as it relates to creedal matters.

    Perhaps evangelicals are at fault in that with their ‘crucicentrism,’ which has relegated the resurrection from the centre. One might add that “he ascended into heaven” is even more sidelined, whereas the whole pattern of incarnation, crucifixion, resurrection and ascension together undergird the Gospel. How often do we consider the risen Jesus with his new physical body (with his “wounds yet visible above”) at the right hand of the Father? How does that fit into our cosmology?

    As Tom Wright points out, the NT has not very much to say about what happens to Christians when they die. It is more interested in what Wright calls “life after life after death.” Given this, I am sometimes surprised by even senior evangelicals who seem to go along with “going to be with Jesus in heaven” when we die, and “so-and-so is looking down on us now.” (Cue Milton Jones’ quip about one of his many grandfathers, who used drill holes in the floor of his flat and spy on the people below. He died, but Milton likes to think of him looking down on us…)

    How often do we teach about the future physical existance, in the new heaven and earth, to which Jesus’ resurrection points, and for which he is the pioneer?

  3. When I hear ‘It was not a physical resurrection, it was a spiritual resurrection’, the following thoughts come to mind:

    1. We use the indefinite article ‘a’ for things that are common currency. There is not a thing called ‘spiritual resurrection’ that is common currency.

    2. And the speakers know this, yet fail to acknowledge it.

    3. We use the indefinite article ‘a’ for things that are instantiated more than once. It is not clear that ‘spiritual resurrection’ fits that category either.

    4. And the speakers know this, yet fail to acknowledge it.

    5. ‘Spiritual’ needs defining but has not been defined.

    6. And the speakers know this, but fail to acknowledge it.

    7. The writings do not speak of 2 *kinds* of resurrection. On the other hand, they do speak of 1 kind, which is resurrection tout simple.

    8. The speakers know this, but fail to acknowledge it.

    9. Replacing physical resurrection with spiritual resurrection takes away the central miracle of Christianity without which Christianity cannot stand.

    10. The speakers know this, but fail to acknowledge it.

    11. Something momentous is being said, since the 2 options are stratospherically amazing on the one hand and either mundane or ill-defined on the other: quite a comedown, to say the least.

    12. The speakers know this, but fail to acknowledge it. They speak as though two roughly equal options were on the table: they know that is nonsense.

    In a broader sense, their perspective is inevitable. Liberal Christianity (unlike the real world) has only one perspective: namely, factual things held by Christians to be true are almost *always* not true (they think this generalisation holds in all of a wide variety of cases, by a remarkable coincidence) and also happen (by a far greater second coincidence, as though the first coincidence were not large enough) *always* to be ‘true metaphorically’ (whatever that means, if anything). This is the only type of answer they know how to give in areas like this.

    (All this leaves aside whether ‘physical’ etc are meaningful terms given that all matter is energy and so on. We can leave this aside because Greek does broadly use terms corresponding to ‘physical’ and ‘spiritual’.)

    The death of Christ was physical and his resurrection spiritual – yes, very much so. See 1 Cor 15.44 (sown a natural body, raised a spiritual body), 1 Ptr 3.18 (put to death in the flesh, made alive in the spirit). These same documents speak of:
    -the magnificence of the resurrection (1 Ptr 1.3),
    -how it engenders hope, which nothing non-evidential can do (1 Ptr 1.3),
    -how it happened at a point in time (1 Cor 15.4),
    -how appearances are centrally relevant to knowing it is true (1 Cor 15.5-8),
    -how eyewitness testimony is centrally relevant to knowing it is true (1 Cor 15.6).

    So we have here an *event*, and the thing or non-thing that was preached by Carnley and Shepherd was a non-event. The exact opposite.

    Do they then wonder why we fail to get excited about a non-event? Do they really?

    A non-event would have left Jesus’s body in the tomb.

    The Resurrection of Jesus is not even remotely the same thing as extremely general things like resilience in general, or hope in general, or a new start in general.

    • On point 7, Christopher, what the writings do speak of is a GENERAL resurrection. This, of course, is what the Pharisees, like Paul, believed in in contradistinction to the Sadducees who didn’t believe in resurrection AT ALL. So multiple Jewish views were possible historically at the time of Jesus. Yet an individual, one person, resurrection seems not to have been in view. However, John’s gospel knows of the resurrection of Lazarus and the synoptics know of the raising of Jairus’ daughter. And then there is Jesus himself. Paul, of course, tries to argue that this IS all one general resurrection, Jesus is “the first fruits” as he has it, and it is, on this scheme, presumably being dragged out over millennia.

      Call me a skeptic, but it smacks of making it up as you go along. Do any of these people really know what is going on? Somebody convince me.

      • But they are in agreement about what resurrection IS! The Pharisees and Sadducees disagreed, but they were disagreeing about something they mutually understood as the same conceptually. The Sadducees denied a physical resurrection, just as the pharisees affirmed it.

        What the early writers don’t always agree on is the eschatological ordering, but that is a second question, building on the first.

        Call me a skeptic, but this smacks of arguing for the sake of it ;).

        • Mat, I do not consider it to be “arguing for the sake of it” to point out that there were defined groups of Jews in the First Century who didn’t believe in resurrection at all. Indeed, I find it mightily to the point! So what if they agreed about what they didn’t believe in? That they didn’t believe is the more pertinent point!

          • “So what if they agreed about what they didn’t believe in? That they didn’t believe is the more pertinent point!

            Except that it isn’t….. Your assertion in the comment above is that this difference (between the Pharisess and Saducees) illustrates there were different positions in regards Resurrection and what it meant in the first century. My retort is that the position is the same in both cases, Resurrection means physical bodies, what differs is the groups’ response to it. However metaphorically you want to treat old testament apocalyptic, you can’t get away from the simple historical fact that Jewish people, notable exceptions aside, expected a literal resolution to said hope.

            To go further, I think you once distort scholarship on the issue of other raising-to-life accounts in the gospels as well. To use Wrights language, as we’ve commented on that above, there is no sense in any of the gospels that Lazarus or Jairus’ daughter gained a new transphysical body in the style and type that Jesus did. There are a separate issue, not to be confused as Resurrection, which the gospels never refer to them as… Paul is not combining the accounts and saying ‘look at all these instances of ‘X’.

  4. The cross and resurrection, bodily, are, as it were, the same side of the same Christian coin. Remove bodily resurrection and there is counterfeit Christian Coin, of no value, a sect.
    There is so much apologetics on the reality of the bodily resurrection. Can recall Who moved the stone, by Frank Morrison, as the first I read., but there is far more that deal with the usual objections.
    David Wilson rightly points out the deafening silence on this blog post.
    Of course the answer does not depend on 39 Articles. The resurrection, bodily, is based on scripture, and accepted as part of Christianity of all mainstream denominations.
    The foundational faultlines are being exposed.

    • “David Wilson rightly points out the deafening silence on this blog post.”

      I put this down to the fact a question of this type elicits the sort of response among Evangelicals as “Is the Pope Catholic?”. The real question here, that we are all sort-of avoiding, is what to make of Anglicans in positions of authority openly espousing such a view? I’m inclined to think locking them away in Vatican City is probably a good idea….

  5. It has always struck me as curious that the site of the resurrection, the place where someone claimed to be the most consequent person in the history of the universe is claimed to have risen from… is somewhere that no one knows exactly where it was! Do you not think that someone might have remembered? We live in a world where weeping statues attract millions yet the place from which Jesus rose remains strictly unknown to this day. I don’t say this proves anything but I do factor it into my thinking, especially when the gospels claim that someone DID know where it was. Did they inexplicably forget?

    Of course, not all scholars agree there even was a tomb or that, if there was, anyone knew where it was. Here I quote the now sadly deceased British New Testament scholar, Maurice Casey, in his 2010 book, “Jesus of Nazareth”: “I conclude that we do not know exactly where Jesus was buried. It is probable that he was buried in a common criminals’ tomb in the general area of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.” Such a tomb, however, would not be the new tomb of which Mark speaks and, perhaps, the other three evangelists employ as a consequence. Casey offers an explanation here too: “Mark’s story of [Jesus’] burial… has been affected by early Christian belief in his resurrection.” Here I find it strange that scholars of the believing variety quote Paul quote so often. What does any of this have to do with Paul, a man who never knew Jesus, never met him and who openly admits he is only believing what he has been told – such as in places like 1 Cor 15. There in his things passed on “of first importance” there is no mention of a tomb although those of the bodily resurrection variety argue that it has been assumed. Here Casey again has something to say when he remarks that “neither the earliest kerygmatic formulation, nor Paul himself, mentions the empty tomb” and he hints strongly that his view is that believers, including believing scholars, infer an empty from stories written only after Paul has completely ignored it throughout any of his known thought. In essence, Casey is claiming that Christians harmonise whatever has gotten itself into the New Testament and make that the history. Is this a legitimate procedure and, more to the point, is this an authentic record of the past?

    • There are times when people do remember, but because later on (as inevitably happens, sometimes for profit motives) a second or third site came into contention, people count that as disagreement and say we cannot know the truth. It’s not disagreement, only disagreement at a secondary stage far from the events, when it is the time near to the events that is relevant. The only reason on such occasions we cannot know the truth has nothing necessarily to do with there being no remembered site (though that may also be the case): the scenario where there is more than one is an accretion upon, not a contradiction of, the scenario where there is one.

      I don’t know whether the resurrection is such a case, though it may be. The logic holds in any case.

      • History is not a matter of “logic” Christopher: it is a matter of fact. This is why Allison’s belief that the most common historical judgment we can have is “we don’t know” is so powerful and strictly correct.

        Here I am reminded that the New Testament proselytises for faith not knowledge. No one, on entering the heavenly gates, will be required to lay out a chronology of what happened and when. Perhaps this is why Allison, at the end of Constructing Jesus, pronounces himself finally unconcerned about ever knowing the details and it is why Philip Davies has criticised those Christians who seem fixated on proving a historical knowledge their faith never required, seemingly understanding faith better than its adherents in so doing.

        • Andrew, you did not read what I wrote. It is a cliche and actually a true one that history is not logical but contingent. I have written material based on that very premise, in which I strongly believe. You are preaching to the converted.

          The point I am making is distant from that. it is that you cannot say ‘There is more than one theory ergo there is disagreement ergo we cannot know the truth.’. That is a common misconception (and also a dodge of the unscrupulous). The number of available theories does not in the least prejudice the likelihood of one of them being true. (And even where there is one theory only, that may be false.) If that were the case, then, faced with the theory of electricity, I could simply invent an alternative theory that a little luminous man pops into being every time I open the fridge, and then say – ‘Oh look, there’s more than one theory – therefore how can we know which one (if any) is true?’. Illogical.

  6. The idea that the ancients, including Israelites, had next to no belief in the resurrection strikes me as somewhat solipsistic on the part of modern theology. Beginning with Moses’ reference to the book of life (Ex 32:32f), there are more than forty OT references to the afterlife, and it was a core belief of the Pharisees. One could go back further, for what is atonement if not God’s forgiveness of the mortal consequence of sin? Indeed, we find Abel sacrificing the firstborn lamb of his flock within a few generations of the Creation.

    Outside the Bible there is, additionally, the testimony of almost the entire archaeological record. See for example
    There is a limit to what you can say about belief systems before the development of writing, but the inclusion of grave goods in tombs implies belief in a bodily resurrection, a belief supported by inscriptions and imagery in later tombs containing grave goods.

    The significance of Jesus’ resurrection was not primarily to validate the notion of resurrection per se, but (1) to bring the future resurrection and judgement into the here and now, (2) to show that Jesus was the one appointed to judge the world, and (3) to persuade us on that basis that we should repent and believe in the efficacy of his atonement (Acts 17:30-31).

    • Equating Moses with the Pharisees is, to say the least, one mighty huge leap as is quoting Exodus without reference to any theory of when it was written since views change over time and this is relevant. Perhaps you could explain Sheol in this scheme you have devised which gets a reference or two in the Hebrew Bible? As to atonement, why is it anything to do with resurrection, let alone of a bodily kind? Atonement is “making restitution for harm done” to quote the American rabbi, Danya Ruttenberg. You will recall that up to and slightly after the time of Jesus Judaism was in possession of a sacrificial cult system. Hence why they needed a steady supply of animals and birds. Atonement is, thus, more to do with a life for a life than coming back to life.

    • Hi Steven,
      I must agree with Andrew (!), I think going from Exodus to a first century idea of resurrection is a leap too far. Ian does mention hints in the OT, especially Daniel where the idea of resurrection is found, but this is generally agreed to be late. I understand that the idea developed further in the inter-testamental period.

      Resurrection is not the same as belief in an afterlife, and belief in an afterlife is not the same as belief that there will be some future judgement. The key point about resurrection is that it not about what happens when you die (the ‘afterlife’) but what happens at some point in the future, life after life after death, as Wright puts it.

      The surprise is that the first Christians saw Jesus’ anastasis not as a resuscitation but the pioneer of the general resurrection of the future. That these “unschooled, ordinary men” should do so requires some explanation. Their belief seems rooted in two things:
      – Jesus was not a ghost, but had a proper body.
      – But that body was clearly different in some way from ‘normal’ bodies.
      This reflects the understanding of the resurrection. You can see this in Jesus’ response to the Sadducees in Luke 20:34-36. There is a change in physical nature.

  7. Hi David

    I am not referring to a ‘first century idea of resurrection’. Obviously it’s illogical to cite Exodus in support of an idea which is defined a priori as 1st-century. My whole point was that it did not originate in the 1st century, and Ex 32:32f and the Mosaic system of sacrifice, itself a renewal and elaboration of what was instituted after sin entered the world (Gen 3-4), are implicit or explicit evidence of this. Jesus himself affirmed that the idea is to be found in the Scriptures (by those who know the Scriptures) (Matt 22:29-32). Paul similarly says that if anyone obeyed the commandments of the Law he would ‘live’ by them, referring to the life to come, not this mortal life (Rom 10:5). As I have said, more than forty other places in the OT refer to the life to come. But this is not a numbers game – you have already conceded Ps 16:10, Ps 27:13 and Dan 12:2. They are more than ‘hints’ and they are sufficient in themselves to show that the idea long predates the 1st century. The archaeological record bears ample extra-biblical testimony to it.

    You have not shown why belief in a bodily afterlife is not tantamount to belief in a resurrection.

    Regarding Sheol, I had supposed it was common knowledge that this was the Hebrew equivalent of Hades, and that resurrection was from Hades, the resting place of the dead, to the land of the living. There could be no other route.

    I am puzzled by your last para, which does not seem a propos. That Jesus rose bodily from the dead I readily affirm.


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