The Earliest Christians Believed in a Spiritual Resurrection, not a Physical Resurrection. A Review of Gregory Riley’s “Resurrection Reconsidered”, Part 6

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


2 thoughts on “The Earliest Christians Believed in a Spiritual Resurrection, not a Physical Resurrection. A Review of Gregory Riley’s “Resurrection Reconsidered”, Part 6

  1. Gary, have you heard the stories about Jesus meeting with the apostles past the 40th day Ascension in Acts?
    Irenaeus writes: “”From the 40th and 50th year a man begins to decline towards old age, which our Lord possessed while He still fulfilled the office of a Teacher, even as the Gospel and all the elders testify”.​

    One thing that is confusing is that the Gospel we have today does not testify that Jesus was possessing more than 50 years while a teacher on earth. The four gospels say only that Jesus got killed at c.33 years old, reenlived, and then Ascended. Acts says that Jesus only stayed on earth 40 days after the resurrection, not 17 years or more. The only way I can think to explain this is that Irenaeus thought that Jesus was still around fulfilling the office of a teacher 17 years or more after the resurrection. How so?

    Irenaeus elsewhere says Jesus stayed on earth 18 months after the resurrection

    Apocryphon of James – Wikipedia notes:
    “Some have felt that this [550 days of Jesus staying on earth after the resurrection reference in Apocryphon of James] implies that the relationship of the Apocryphon of James with the canon is through oral tradition, and that the community which wrote it rejected or else did not know Luke-Acts. (On the other hand, Irenaeus in Against Heresies gave a time span of eighteen months, and Irenaeus was certainly familiar with the work.)”

    18 X 30 = 540, so it looks like Ireneaus had the same information about that as the Apocryphon of James.

    Here is what Maathew 28 has Jesus tell the apostles:
    “Lo, I am with You all the Days, Even unto the End of the Age” (Matt. xxviii. 20).
    My normal reading of this verse was that Jesus was with them invisibly or in spirit.

    Decades later, according to Revelation, John was living on Patmos, and Jesus visited him and touched him with his hand:
    “His head and hair were white like wool, as white as snow,”
    Now this could be a reference to the Transfiguration where Jesus looked white with his hair, or it could be old age changing hair color. Anyway, it’s a case where decades later after he reenlivened, Jesus was still teaching the apostle(s) personally.

    Another case where this comes up about Jesus teaching apostles past the 40 days mentioned in the Bible’s Book of Acts is the apocryphal “Acts of Thomas”. In that story, Thomas goes to India, and Jesus looks enough like Thomas the Twin the apostle that when Jesus shows up and they switch places, people in the audience don’t notice it’s a different person than Thomas. In the story, Jesus accompanies Thomas.
    It’s not clear how early the Acts of Thomas were written. Some guesses are the second century AD and 200 AD. The fact that it was not accepted as canonical alone doesn’t mean it was rejected, but centuries later the Church eventually came to somewhat ignore or forget about any “Acts” or “Epistles” or “gospels” not in the Bible. Also, there was a problem of fraudulent early Christian writings belonging to sects, and I heard Acts of Thomas has deviant teachings. So Acts of Thomas is not reliable for Church Tradition. But all these references put together that I cited suggest how maybe in Ireneaus’ mind Jesus was still around teaching the disciples in “old age”, even if in a much more supernatural state.

    What I am getting at is that the apostles were telling major stories about interactions with Jesus long after the resurrection, and after about 250 AD, there were no more seriously traceable stories passed down about this. We are stuck with a few short references and John’s Revelation,


  2. It’s kind of a rabbit hole. There were teachings about Jesus personally interacting with the apostles long after the 40 day Ascension mentioned in the Bible, and these teachings were heard by Bp. Papias and his elders, and stayed in the official mainstream Christian community at least through the 2nd century AD when Bishop Ireneaus talked about them.

    For Paul, Jesus was “appearing” to him after the Ascension. Paul never describes Jesus “touching” him or eating with him like the gospels do or the Book of Revelation does.

    In the Book of Acts, Stephen saw Jesus up in the clouds after the Resurrection. Irenaeus is saying that even after the Ascension, Jesus was still undergoing human aging and went into old age.

    There is also Shepherd of Hermas, in which apparently it is Pope Clement’s brother Hermas who meets with the Shepherd angel, goes to a tower, interacts with virgins, and sees Jesus. Shepherd of Hermas was a book that was very disputed in the 2nd century, with some accepting it as Biblical and others “despising” it according to Jerome.

    I came across this reference to Irenaus’ “50 years old” comment because one modern writer talked about the possibility that Jesus lived out his natural life on earth after resuscitating and went to India. The problem with that skeptical theory is that all the church references I know to Jesus’ meetings after the Ascension refer to him being in or visiting them under supernatural conditions.

    In this thread, I referred to Paul’s visions, Stephen’s, the Apocryphon of James, Irenaeus, Shepherd of Hermas, Revelation, and Acts of Thomas for independent support. No others from the 1st to 2nd c. come to mind, but I wouldn’t be surprised if gnostic writings included them.

    Unfortunately, those meetings in Jesus’ “old age” are limited to those by John and maybe Thomas(and anyway Acts of Thomas is not respected as reliable by the church). The traditions about this were known in the 1st and 2nd c. But we don’t have Church authorities’ writings passed down talking about them from the 1st-2nd c.


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