In a recent discussion with a moderate Christian I mentioned my frustration regarding the difficulty of pinning down moderate Christians regarding the definition of terms related to the Bible (such as what constitutes a contradiction) and in particular, on what they expect us to take literally in the Bible and what they expect us to take non-literally. For instance, I see a problem with the fact that one Gospel author states that one young man was inside the tomb when the women arrived to find the tomb of Jesus empty, another Gospel says that one angel was outside the tomb sitting on the stone, and another Gospel says that two angels were inside the tomb. To me these are contradictions. Not so according to this moderate Christian. As he explained, these variations in the story were very acceptable in the form of Greek biography used by the four Gospel authors in retelling the same historical event. A first century reader would not have seen these variations as contradictions. NT Wright has stated that variations in the facts of this type in Greek biographies served to keep the reader’s interest.
Ok…so maybe that’s true…but isn’t it then also possible that the entire Empty Tomb pericope is a literary invention of the author of the Gospel of Mark, picked up and embellished even more by the authors of the subsequent Gospels, all meant to increase the reader’s interest in the resurrection story??? A resurrection from a rich man’s rock tomb with angels and earthquakes is much more exciting reading than a resurrection from an unmarked dirt grave (the most common type of grave for executed Roman criminals). And if that is the case, isn’t it possible that the early Christian Resurrection belief was NOT based on the physical evidence of an Empty Tomb but solely on alleged post-death appearance claims?
My moderate Christian friend could not deny that possibility but then made the statement that there is one term whose definition is set: Resurrection. It only means one thing: The resurrection of a body. A body that could be seen with the eyes and touched with the hands.
Based on reading NT Wright, I had assumed this was correct. I had assumed that this is what Paul and the earliest Christians believed. But scholar Gregory Riley says that this is an oversimplification. He believes that there were a variety of beliefs regarding Jesus’ resurrection in early Christianity. He believes that Paul, for instance, believed in a bodily resurrection, for sure, but that this body, to Paul, was a spiritual body, not a body of flesh and blood. Riley presents a great deal of evidence in his book, Resurrection Reconsidered, to support this claim.
According to Riley, it was very common for spirits to appear to the living in the Greco-Roman world. These spirits had the appearance, the outer form, of their former physical bodies. They could also eat food. In fact, they could do most activities that humans could do. The only difference being, they were, in almost all cases, impalpable (untouchable). No where in the writings of Paul nor in his statements in the Book of Acts do we get the impression that Paul believed that the resurrected Jesus was touchable. Riley presents very good evidence that the Apostle Paul believed that Jesus had been resurrected in a spiritual body, not a body of flesh. Riley believes that it was the author of John and the Johannine community of Christians who in the late first century fought hard for the concept of a resurrection of the flesh primarily to combat the claim by some pagans and even some Christians that Jesus had never existed as a real flesh and blood human being. This is why, in Riley’s view, the author of John invented the pericope of a Doubting Thomas probing the fleshy wounds of Jesus, a scene not found in any other Gospel. The author of John was intent on proving to his late first century Greco-Roman audience that Jesus was no ghost and the only way to do that in the Greco-Roman world was by having someone touch the body. Ghosts in Greco-Roman culture could eat food, so Luke’s demonstration of Jesus eating broiled fish would not have convinved a first century Greco-Roman audience that he was not a ghost. Poking your finger into his nail wounds would have!
I would strongly recommend that anyone who believes that Paul taught a physical resurrection read this book. If Riley is correct, and he seems to have a lot of evidence to support his position, my moderate Christian friend is wrong. There was not just one definition of “resurrection” in early Christianity. There were many. And the belief of Christianity’s greatest missionary, Paul, seems to have been a resurrection of a visible, spiritual body, not a body of flesh.
Here is the conclusion to Riley’s book:
Riley: “Early Christianity proclaimed the resurrection of Jesus, yet it inherited a variety of conceptions of the afterlife, a few of which included the doctrine of the resurrection of the flesh. The early views of the afterlife were in the main of a spiritual nature, that the soul survived death and enjoyed its reward or suffered its punishment apart from the body. So it was that the early idea of the resurrection of Jesus and the postmortem state of his followers was spiritual, represented in various ways by Paul, the Hellenistic Church to a large extent, and Thomas Christianity. In the controversies over the resurrection in the later first and second centuries there developed the doctrine of the resurrection of the flesh in defense of the real humanity of Jesus, that Jesus was a man of flesh, not only before the crucifixion, but always, even after rising from the dead. Such a doctrine was new to the Greco-Roman world and stridently argued by the second and third century apologists against critics both pagan and Christian. Yet many Christians held for centuries to the earlier conception, that Jesus had risen alive as a spiritual being, in a spiritual body of light. So they too hoped in the promise of a heavenly afterlife, to be free from the body and its sufferings as spiritual beings, or to be like angels and themselves to wear the “body of his glory”. So they too doubted the truth of the new proclamation, as had their spiritual predecessor among Jesus own disciples, Doubting Thomas.” p. 179