I’ve been reading about the post-resurrection appearances of Christ, and the description of the earliest written records and development of the early Christian resurrection narrative is quite intriguing. It seems to show that there was a significant change of the meaning of resurrection beginning in the very first few decades of Christianity, between the time of Paul and when the gospels were written.
Some scholars consider that the earliest written Christian sources (between 50-57 CE) about the resurrection from the Apostle Paul, and his references to the early Jewish Christians in his community, are primarily visionary, ecstatic, rapturous, mystical experiences of the immortal life of the soul, the soul being the “Spirit of Christ.” But these do not mention a physical body as being part of this immortal soul; bodies were thought to return to dust. The “resurrection” was the realization of the immortal Spirit of Christ as what gives life to mortal bodies during mortality, many early Christians being so “raised” or “resurrected” while they lived their mortal lives (see Romans 8:9-11; Colossians 2:12-13, 3:1; Ephesians 2:5-6). This understanding of the immortal life of the soul was also apparently a belief in Second Temple Judaism at the time, so Paul’s teachings were generally in keeping with Jewish belief, Paul himself being a Jew.
These scholars say that it was only several decades later when the gospels were written (Matthew/Luke/Acts ~80-90 CE, John after 90 CE) in an overwhelmingly Greco-Roman Christian church, that the pagan Greek and Roman influences of belief in the apotheosis of heroes or emperors that are deified in an immortal physical body, was worked into the Christian narrative, making it sound as if Jesus had risen from death in such a physical immortal body too. Interestingly, the first gospel to be written, Mark (around ~70 CE), in its original version that ended with Mark 16:8 did not contain any physical appearances of Jesus after the crucifixion.
So this scholarship says that there was an early shift in the narrative between the time of Jewish Paul, from Paul’s focus on the immortality of the soul and being witnesses of this reality, and the later Greco-Roman gospel writers, who added the immortality of a deified physical body and the embodied personal appearances of Jesus. This immortal physicality of a body did not originally exist in Paul’s earlier writings.
This suggests that Paul’s experiences of the resurrected Christ, and the experiences of the early Jewish Christians, was not of a physically embodied Jesus, which was likely later Greco-Roman embellishments or interpolations, but were rather visionary mystical experiences of the immortality of Christ in the soul, the realization that the soul was the eternal Christ. They had no expectation of having an immortal physical body, or that Jesus had such a body. This would seem to make better sense of Paul’s many statements of Christ being “in” people, including himself, or of the early Christians being “in” Christ. When Paul spoke of “Christ,” he was not talking about a separate embodied person called Jesus, per se, but rather a mystical visionary state of consciousness and being where they could see and perceive Christ in their own souls. Their souls were at-one “in” Christ, this spiritual oneness, unity, or nonduality of the soul that exists deep within all, and it was the conscious perception of this oneness that made them One:
I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.Galatians 2:20
But when God, who set me apart from my mother’s womb and called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son in me so that I might preach him among the Gentiles, my immediate response was not to consult any human being.Galatians 1:15-16
But if Christ is in you, then even though your body is subject to death because of sin, the Spirit gives life because of righteousness. And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies because of his Spirit who lives in you.Romans 8:10-11
But whoever is united with the Lord is one with him in spirit.1 Corinthians 6:17
As surely as the truth of Christ is in me, nobody in the regions of Achaia will stop this boasting of mine.2 Corinthians 11:10
Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ?1 Corinthians 6:15
Now you are the body of Christ, and each of you is a member of it.1 Corinthians 12:27
so in Christ we who are many are one body, and each member belongs to one another.Romans 12:5
I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven.2 Corinthians 12:2
Greet Andronicus and Junias, my fellow countrymen and fellow prisoners. They are distinguished among the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was.Romans 16:7
And there are many similar scriptures from Paul. It seems that you wouldn’t be able to be “in” Christ, or Christ “in” you, if “Christ” means the reanimated embodied physical person of Jesus. His body would not be able to be “in” your body, or vice versa.
This interpretation of the resurrection narrative seems to me to be better, especially since I don’t think it is physically possible for biologically dead humans to come back to life in their bodies, not even Jesus. That seems like it would be a supernatural event that is incompatible with natural law. It seems Paul was referring to a personal witness of the immortal Spirit of Life, the Spirit of Christ, the Spirit of God, the Spirit of the Kosmos, and a state of mystical nondual consciousness that could perceive this unifying Spirit within one’s self and all beings, which “raised” people up from a life that was essentially “dead,” bound by the finite mortal body, to an infinite Life in that divine christic Spirit of Oneness, at-one with all things.
What do you think? Do you believe Paul thought Jesus had a physical resurrected body? Or do you think this interpretation of the early Christian records makes better sense of the problems surrounding resurrection? Please share your thoughts.
(The painting at the top of this post is “La conversion de Saint Paul” by Luca Giordano (1690), Museum of Fine Arts of Nancy.)