A Layman’s Review of NT Wright’s, The Resurrection…, Part 29, Did Paul see a Body…or just a Light?

NT Wright, page 398:

Conclusion to Part II of The Resurrection of the Son of God:

There is much more to be said about the conversion of Paul and its relation to his wider theology.  Some of that will emerge briefly later on.  But we have said enough to round off our treatment of Paul with the clear understanding that he believed he had seen the risen Jesus in person, and that his understanding of who this Jesus was included the firm belief that he possessed a transformed but still physical body.  Attempts to undermine this conclusion by appeal to ‘what really happened’ at Paul’s conversion, on the basis either of Acts or other passages in Paul, carry no conviction.

Gary:  I don’t doubt for a second that Paul believed that he had seen Jesus.  But the question is, “What did Paul see exactly?”  Did Paul see the resurrected but transformed body of the formerly deceased Jesus of Nazareth, with nail-prints in his hands and feet, a sword wound in his side, and marks on his scalp and forehead from the crown of thorns?  Or did Paul simply and only see a bright light and heard a voice coming out of that bright light, as “Luke” states in his three accounts in the Book of Acts?

As I stated in another post, if I were traveling on the freeway/interstate one day and a bright light (as bright as the sun) appeared in front of my car, addressed me by name, told me that it/he was Jesus Christ, and told me that I was going to be a missionary to the Gentiles for him, …when recounting this event in later years…I would state that Jesus Christ had appeared to me, even though I had never seen a human form standing or levitating in front of me!  The bright light and the voice would be enough to convince me that I had “seen” Jesus.

But even if this is what Paul meant when he said in I Corinthians 15 that he had “seen” Jesus, how can we be certain that Paul did not experience this event only in a vision, which to Paul, felt as if he were actually/literally experiencing it in real life?  Many people who have visions are willing to swear on a stack of Bibles that their experience really did happen; that it was not a dream.  And, as I have pointed out before, why if Paul believed that this event was real did he call it a “vision” in Acts chapter 26??  If Jesus Christ appeared in a body to you while traveling on Interstate 5 and spoke to you, would you call this experience a “vision” if you believed it to have been real??

Let’s look at a Bible passage that discusses another of Paul’s visions:

II Corinthians 12

It is necessary to boast; nothing is to be gained by it, but I will go on to visions and revelations of the Lord. I know a person in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows. And I know that such a person—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows— was caught up into Paradise and heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat. On behalf of such a one I will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses. But if I wish to boast, I will not be a fool, for I will be speaking the truth. But I refrain from it, so that no one may think better of me than what is seen in me or heard from me, even considering the exceptional character of the revelations. Therefore, to keep[a] me from being too elated, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated.[b] Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power[c] is made perfect in weakness.” So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. 10 Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.

So, Paul states in this passage that he has had several “visions” of the Lord.  In the first “vision” Jesus came down to earth to meet him on the road to Damascus, and in the second vision, Paul is taken up into the highest heaven to presumably meet Jesus and to hear things which he cannot repeat.  Do we really believe that the mortal body of Paul ascended up into space to enter the “third heaven” and that he heard things that “no mortal is permitted to repeat”??

It sounds more to me that Paul, a Pharisee who already believed in resurrections and spirits, was  a very devout, religious man whose intense beliefs sometimes triggered spectacular visions, including seeing resurrected dead men on dusty roads and travel through space.  How do we know that when Paul says that he has “seen” Jesus, he wasn’t talking about having seen Jesus on his space flight to heaven mentioned in II Corinthians above?  There is nothing in Paul’s writings that state that Paul saw Jesus on the road to Damascus as told by Luke.

Rev. Wright may be correct when he says,he  (Paul) believed he had seen the risen Jesus in person, and that his understanding of who this Jesus was included the firm belief that he possessed a transformed but still physical body”, but that does not mean that Paul actually saw a body with his own two eyes.  No one can say for sure why he believed he had “seen” Jesus.  Paul, in his own writings, gives us no details regarding what he saw, and “Luke” only tells us that Paul saw a light…and was then blinded.

If this is the evidence upon which Rev. Wright believes in the bodily resurrection of Jesus and the veracity of the Christian story, it is very weak.  Unless he is going to do better in the upcoming chapters, he had better start appealing to blind faith, because his “evidence” would only convince someone who has already made the decision that he wants to believe, even if not one shred of evidence exists to support this 2,000 year old story.

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4 thoughts on “A Layman’s Review of NT Wright’s, The Resurrection…, Part 29, Did Paul see a Body…or just a Light?

  1. The apostle Paul evidently did not describe all that he saw on the road to Damascus when Luke, a close literary companion, was recording the Acts events. The emphasis is on the voice he heard, the blinding light, and the words mandating him for mission. We thus cannot say whether Paul thought he had seen a physical, if transformed, form. Firstly, to describe the appearance as a “vision” puts it into a different empirical category from, say, Thomas’ confession in John 20. Secondly, as you rightly say, when Paul says he has “seen Jesus” (1 Cor 9:1), he may well be referring to being caught up into Paradise (2 Cor 12:4). Heaven is where Jesus is, and Paul believed in both. I tend to believe Paul did *not* see the scarred risen body of Jesus. It may be argued that bodily scars no longer belong to a perfect body in a perfect place, anyway. Thus, it was a “vision,” which you say cannot be described as a “real event.” Would you likewise say that having a vivid dream is not a “real event.”? The only difference between vision and dream is the former happens to a person whilst awake, and the latter during sleep. A believer in God may believe a dream or vision is from God. An atheist does not have that option.

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  2. Due to the fact that the accounts in the Gospels have so many discrepancies, and if examined in chronological order appear to be simply embellishments of Mark, all Christianity really has to point to as evidence for the supernatural resurrection of Jesus is one word: Paul's use of the word “seen”.

    The question is: “Seen” what?

    That is pretty shaky “evidence”.

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  3. I think that the big question that Christians must answer is this: If Paul saw Jesus on the Damascus Road in the same manner that you and I would meet and see each other on the street, why did he describe this event as a “vision”? Did Paul ever describe his interactions with other “human bodies” as a vision? Answer: no.

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  4. You say:
    “If Paul saw Jesus on the Damascus Road in the same manner that you and I would meet and see each other on the street . . . “
    What if Paul saw the Risen,Jesus in heaven, on the occasion when he was purportedly “caught up” there? (2 Cor 12: 4) Would not this qualify as fulfilling the statement “Have I not seen Jesus Christ our Lord?” (1 Cor. 9:1). Where in the text of Acts does Paul say or imply he saw the risen Lord on the road to Damascus? The focus is on what he heard, and all he said he saw was a “great light.” If this reasoning is correct, the focus then shifts to the question: Is it meaningful for Paul to say he was “caught up into Paradise (whether in the body, I cannot tell; or whether out of the body, I cannot tell: God knoweth)” ? If you are atheistic and maybe materialist with it, then 2 Cor 12: 2 is meaningless. If however, you believe in a spiritual world parallel to the material one, then it takes on meaning. In this sense the historical claim (“Jesus rose from the dead”) is dependant on the
    philosophical one (“the material and the spiritual happily mingle and coexist”). It seems to me that's why the secular historian has to say the Resurrection account of Jesus is a non-historical event. He thinks It describes an event outside of the accepted categories of normal historical investigation. Paul would not agree, being so close to the event, timewise.

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