Paul and the Early Jewish Christians’ Mystical Resurrection “in” Christ

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.

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.)

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8 thoughts on “Paul and the Early Jewish Christians’ Mystical Resurrection “in” Christ

  1. Bryce, I had an experience in 1997 where I saw a falling star 5 days in a row immediately after I finished praying. The 5th day, I said quite innocently, “If you show me a falling star right now, I promise I will seek to know you”. The result was immediate. SOMETHING orchestrated that. There is an inner world, my soul, consciousness, spirit – whatever, that needs to be known and understood. Of that I am quite convinced. But I am equally convinced that there are cognizant beings that transcend the bound of time, space, and form. Beings who are aware of me, and you, and who desire to interact with us, to be known by us, to love us, teach us, lift us up. I believe that this process is revelatory in that the divinity is within us and needs to be revealed, but somehow the result of that complete revelation is a state of existence that, as I said, transcends time, space, and form. Is that a physical resurrection? No clue? but I know what I experienced on those days in November, 1997. I know how immediate that 5th falling star was. There is an explanation, I know, and I hope to find it some day, somehow. Until then, Christ is a beautiful, kind, loving, trustworthy, honest, everything type of being that I continue to seek to reveal within myself, and share with the world. If I do this, all else will come. At least, that is the principle that I base my life upon.

    1. Thank you, Scott. Yes, there is an inner soul, consciousness, or spirit that needs to be known. I think that inner consciousness or spirit is who and what we truly are, and it is One with all things, all beings who have ever lived, are now living, or who will live in the future, including the entire cosmos. I think it is me, it is we, who are those “beings.” It is Being itself. I don’t think they are separate from us, but are aspects of our own Self. Our true Self transcends time, space, and form, and is One with all things. There is no division there, no separation, no differentiation, no subject/object, but pure Loving union. We are at-One. We are that Christ. In my view, this is the resurrection, the one that Paul knew, realizing within ourselves the eternal unity or nonduality of all spirit and matter (yes, physical!), the formless and formed, unmanifest and manifest, uncreated and created, throughout all history, and throughout all space (Einstein helped us realize spacetime is One, not two), and that we are That. Perhaps that falling star was not separate from you, some distinct “other,” but at a deeper level was your Self manifesting. Synchronicities happen. I’ve experienced them myself. I think they may be showing us how deeply interconnected the cosmos is, how deeply interconnected we are, and our consciousness becomes aware of these connections. We are not separate from the cosmos, but rather we are the cosmos manifesting.

  2. love your work but this has me going in an opposite direction. BTW you ssite scholars and I might be interested in who they are but now I don’t have the time. This is quickie, off the top of my head, relatively random flow of thoughts without going back to the original texts. I can understand why all of Paul’s writings are in the mystical realm because his experience of the Christ was after the “Ascension.” He admits that he never new the man, Jesus. He can only speak from his own experience and becomes the Apostle, par excellence to those who never new the man, Jesus, but his mission was to preach the Christ, the Risen One. Paul was well aware of Jesus reappearing to the Apostles after the resurrection. “For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born. (1 Cor. 15:3–8).” So this was Not a later interpretation influenced by Greek. This is already a credal formula which Paul had approbation of from Peter and James to pass on.
    It says he was buried (You do not bury a spirit but body.) and raised (same subject, a body) . My gut says that you do not raise a spirit. He, his body was buried, and his body was raised. That is the earliest tradition already reported in Paul as a hallowed formula. So I would contend that even though the descriptions in the gospels are written later, they are already well attested to by Peter and James to Paul. Those descriptions are quite physical as well.
    “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.” Hmmm. Natural Law is usually used referring to moral theory, not what can be deduced through the study of science, though it has been used that way. This statement does not sound like you at all. His body was indeed changed. If “God” is Love, whatever that power might be, me thinks we have no clue what it is capable of. Love is even deeper that consciousness, or self consciousness. It is the ineffable of the ineffable. Even on the natural crass level, the experience of the look of love can change a person on the spot, and no words have to be spoken, no physical touch need be. I am still of the opinion the realm of the ineffable cannot be reduced to a scientific.
    Peace, Brother Bryce.

    1. Al, thank you so much for your comment. I appreciate that you took the time to share your thoughts. They are great thoughts, and helps generate some discussion and conversation. It’s in that interaction where I think we can all grow.

      Most of the information I was reading came from the Wikipedia article linked below, which has the citations if you want to review them:

      Yes, I think Paul’s experiences were much more in the mystical realm than we may have considered. I think he knew Christ, and preached Christ, but not necessarily Jesus, and I think there is a subtle but distinct difference there that we are not often clear about. I think the “appearances” after the crucifixion were perhaps of Christ, and not per se of the historical Jesus (although I think Jesus may have really exemplified the Christ during his life, and was truly at-one in Christ). I think the early Christians were coming to realize Christ, even as Jesus had realized Christ while he lived, and this was a mystical experience in a nondual state of consciousness, Christ being at-one within them, not by seeing a physical embodied person with the natural eyes in an external sense.

      If we read 1 Corinthians 15:3-8 closely we note that it says “Christ,” not “Jesus.” And notably it also doesn’t explicitly mention a body at all. It says “Christ died for our sins… that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day.” There is no mention of a body, nor that it was physical. It seems to me that all of this could be symbolically pointing to what Carl Jung called a “psychic death,” also called an “ego death,” followed by a “rebirth,” or what Joseph Campbell called a “wilderness passage,” wherein the “false self” is surrendered, dies, and the “true self” later emerges. It seems to be a common theme or archetype in world mythology, perhaps because it is a common human experience in the human condition, one that I think I have also experienced myself.

      I think the false “spirit,” or ego-self (with its “sins”), very much can “die,” be “buried,” and then be “raised up” or “born again” to life. That could be the same process that Jesus said needs to happen in each one of us if we are to become aware or conscious of the “kingdom” within us: “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again (or, from above)… Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit” (John 3:3, 5-6). In other words, this “rebirth” is not the physical kind, as when we were born from our mother’s womb, rather the “spirit” is reborn in the inner “Spirit,” Christ consciousness, the spirit being perhaps “raised up” again to life. I see resurrection and rebirth as quite similar, if not synonymous (as do some scholars such as Margaret Barker).

      I think many of the early Christians experienced this, which is why Paul said they had been “raised” up in Christ (a synonym for resurrection):
      “having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through your faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead. When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive with Christ” (Colossians 2:12-13).
      “Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God” (Colossians 3:1).
      “But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 2:4-6).

      Even the much later First Epistle of John notes how those Christians then living had passed from death to life: “We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love each other. Anyone who does not love remains in death” (1 John 3:14). In other words, they had “died” and been “resurrected” while living their mortal lives.

      I love mysticism and all things spiritual, but I also recognize the importance of scientific study and our modern-day understanding of nature, biology, and the cosmos. I think God works through the natural laws of the universe, not against them. That doesn’t mean science has all the answers; no, I think science is limited in many ways. However, when Christian tradition says that a body that is dead for three days can come back to life, I’m very doubtful that can literally happen. Life and death don’t seem to work that way. When the physical body dies, systems shut down, they decompose, the body returns to dust. It never reanimates back to life, and there is no explanation for how that could ever occur. It also seems to be quite contrary to the natural order. I don’t think God works contrary to nature, but in harmony with it. So then we are forced to ask, “well, if the resurrection is not of the personal physical body after biological death, then what could it really mean?” And that is the question that I think all of Christianity needs to face. It compels us to look deeper, perhaps within, for a better answer. And a much better answer I think we can, indeed, discover!

      Yes, I agree that bodies are changed through Love. We see them in a whole new light. Our perception of bodies, physicality, incarnation, the entire material universe can shift forever in radical new ways. But it is our perception that changes, our consciousness, our understanding of the ways of God. I do think this shift in consciousness can influence the body, can heal it in extraordinary ways, but I don’t think it can literally bring a person’s body back to life. I think God’s Love is referring to something else, something far better, something that we may glimpse in our deepest mystical moments, when we fall headlong into the depths of that purest Love. We may come to realize that it is God’s Spirit, energy, consciousness, that comes to life in new bodies, new creations, new diverse forms, and we are that Spirit. We may recognize ourself as that at-One “Christ” Life-giving Spirit that always has been, is now, and always will be, “reincarnating” or “resurrecting” in the whole of cosmic creation. We (ego-self) don’t resurrect; rather, we (Christ) resurrects.

      May you have Peace, my brother, Al.

      1. As I said, Love your thoughts. Short comment here though our topic is worthy of much more deep thought and reflection on my part. This is something, I think that requires of me to deal and discuss in bite-size pieces. I do not see the time separation of the original credal formula handed on directly to Paul from the Apostles and proffered by Paul in his letters as separate in time from the formulation of the written Gospel credal formulas in their oral tradition form. Therefore, I would dispute the opinion that the tradition of a physical resurrection of Jesus in the Gospels is dependent upon the writers of the new testament adopting a Greek concept to authenticate Jesus’ divinity in the eyes of their followers. It is in fact a thoroughly Jewish belief in the resurrection of the body at that time within the Jewish tradition(Daniel, Essenses etc.) I guess I object that the physical resurrection is contrived by the Gospel writers to give proof of Jesus’ divine character.
        It is obvious to me that this is not just an ordinary body, with no constraints regarding space and time. Maybe like the quantum world can be in 2 “places” (“states”?) at the same time DEPENDING UPON THE NEEDS AND FAITH OF THE PERSON TO WHOM THE CHRIST IS APPEARING. Paul does not need a physical Christ. He never knew Jesus in the flesh. Those on the road to Emmaus have lost their hope, so The Christ physically breaks bread with them. Thomas has to physically put his hands in the wounds. The Christ physically gets in the boat to go fishing with Peter. To me their is a whole spirituality/sacredness around the physicality of matter that is some how being prefigured/hinted at/exposed ever so darkly as in a mirror. Cynthia Bourgeault in Wisdom Jesus, Chapter 11. Talks about these resurrection appearances and there physicality dependent upon the needs of the person appeared to. But Maybe the difference in our points of view are part of the beauty of our lives ever seeking answers that will only be known when we are face to face. For me God’s got a lot of splainin’ to do and I hope ???? is up to the task when I move on from this physical existence to whatever. Peace, Brother.

        1. Great thoughts, Al! I’m not terribly knowledgeable in the dating of these texts, but from what I understand they were written down at least several decades apart, between Paul and the gospels, during which ideas may have shifted. Unfortunately we don’t really know what was in the original oral traditions, since all we have is the texts.

          It seems that while there may have been some Jews who believed in bodily resurrection at the time, this cannot be said to have been a universal or thoroughly Jewish belief at the time. As one academic notes, “In the end, though, the Jewish literature does not provide strong evidence for the view that many Jews believed in a bodily resurrection after death.”

          I do think there is a very real physical component to the resurrection, but I don’t think it is a literal bodily reanimation of the historical Jesus. I think the truth is deeper, and the texts are likely mythologies that are symbolically pointing to that deeper reality. For me, that is the Christ Spirit of Life, the Incarnation of God, the Manifestation of Reality, the Emanation of the One, Consciousness itself, that we really are in our depths, and that Jesus was likewise in his depths, emerging in an infinite array of new forms, creations, physicalities, materialities, bodies eternally.

          Peace to you.

          1. “I do think there is a very real physical component to the resurrection, but I don’t think it is a literal bodily reanimation of the historical Jesus.” I do not think we disagree on that point. It was not a reanimation. What it was is actually unknowable other than it somehow was that person and was IMHO capable of physical animation as needed. But the origin of that belief is not Hellenistic but Jewish.
            This is the point of disagreement, me thinks: “In the end, though, the Jewish literature does not provide strong evidence for the view that many Jews believed in a bodily resurrection after death.” It may be true that in Jewish literature there may not be strong evidence that many Jews….. BUT
            The Pharisees, but not all Jews of the 2nd Temple period, expected bodily resurrection. Here is an article on that point.
            “that every soul is imperishable, but that only those of the righteous pass into another body, while those of the wicked are, on the contrary, punished with eternal torment” -Josephus Wars 2.8.14 This was not a belief that one special person becomes divinized after death to make him into a god of sorts.
            “Pass into another body” Pharisees strongly believed that justice would reign in the afterlife and there was some bodily identification that emerged after death so that that that person could experience vindication. The Pharisees did believe in bodily resurrection and there influence was largely in Galilee. They were opposed to Hellenization. Whereas the Sadducees had their influence in Jerusalem and were the “Upper Crust” and favored Hellenization.
            Paul was a Pharisee and Jesus, even though he took them on, some believe, was more in sympathy towards some Pharisaical beliefs. Notice that the Jews who seek out Jesus in secret are all Pharisees. They were people in the middle class. They believed in the sanctity of oral tradition. They believed in the existence of angels and spirits. Sadducees believed that souls died with the body.
            Here is wiki on the Pharisees
            Bryce, thanks for the excursion back into research for me, trying to sort out distinctions between our (scholarly?) pts of view. In the end it is all about the seeking, the journey, the ultimate desire to put together a coherent understanding of how and why we all are really one, me thinks. Let us enjoy the ride.

          2. Yes, I agree that there were Jews who believed in resurrection. As the previous academic I quoted also noted:

            “To be sure, there were Jews who believed in bodily resurrection. Josephus indicates that he believes in resurrection (Ap. 2.217-18), and he attributes the same to the Pharisees, despite describing their position in Greek philosophical language (J.W. 2.163; Ant.18.14). Texts like 2 Macc 7 also give the impression that resurrection was a popular position.”

            And yet, that doesn’t necessarily mean that bodily resurrection was a popular belief in Judaism as a whole. This doesn’t seem to have been a prominent idea in Paul, for example, or it seems he would have said more about it. But I don’t think we can find him saying much about such transference of soul from one body to another.

            Paul seems to have thought the body was associated with the flesh, carnality, sins, depravity, suffering, evil, dead, vile, and something to be sacrificed and left behind for the Spirit, and to live in that Spirit. One of the only “good” things that I can find that he says about the body is in Philippians 3:20-21 where he says, “But our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. He will transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory, by the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself.”

            What does that “transformation” mean and entail? Is the body literally changed? Or is our perception of it changed? Perhaps it is a transfiguration of consciousness. Maybe this change of consciousness unveils the divine beauty of the body as it already really is, and of all bodies as they really are. Maybe it is not about us (ego) getting another body when we biologically die, but our true Self (Christ) being incarnated in new bodies eternally.

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