I Corinthians 15:35-36: O Foolish Corinthians!

In I Corinthians 15, Paul addresses Gentile Christians who had problems with the resurrection. In v 35, he mentions two questions that a Corinthian Christian might ask: “How are the dead raised?” and “With what kind of body do they come?” (NRSV). In v 36, Paul replies that the hypothetical questioner is a “fool.”

What was the motive behind the questions, and why does Paul respond so harshly?

I Corinthians 15:35-36 is an important part of Steven Carr’s case against the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection. According to Carr, the Corinthians saw “resurrection” as a corpse coming out of the grave, whereas Paul did not accept that particular definition. Carr states in the Resurrection Debate:

“He regards them as idiots for having a model of a resurrection that involved a corpse rising. Paul writes ‘You do not plant the body that will be, but just a seed.’ Just as a farmer sees dead seeds even after the wheat has risen, so Christians should expect to see corpses, even after the resurrection.”

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, let me say that this is a crucial issue in the resurrection debate, for the pro and the anti sides. Christian scholar N.T. Wright has argued that “resurrection” in the ancient world entailed an empty tomb, since the ancients defined it as a corpse coming out of its grave. And Christian apologists regard the empty tomb as an important piece of evidence for Jesus’ resurrection, since it is more objective than any “vision” a person may have of the risen Jesus. Wright maintains that Paul implies an empty tomb even though he does not explicitly mention it, for the concept of “resurrection” includes the grave being empty. Consequently, as far as Wright is concerned, the empty tomb is part of the earliest traditions of Christianity, which Paul contains.

Carr contends, by contrast, that Paul did not view resurrection as a corpse coming out of its grave. For Carr, Paul called the Corinthians “fools” precisely because that was how they understood it: they saw resurrection as physical and bodily, whereas Paul claimed that it was spiritual, meaning that the soul leaves the corpse and enters a new, heavenly body. In Paul’s version, Carr argues, resurrection was perfectly consistent with corpses remaining in the ground, which indicates that the empty tomb was not a part of Christianity’s earliest traditions. Therefore, Carr dismisses the empty tomb as evidence for Jesus’ resurrection, since he denies that it even existed.

Is Carr’s interpretation of I Corinthians 15:35-36 the only reasonable way to understand the passage? To see other approaches, I consulted my trusty E-Sword commentaries. Granted, these are old, but they do comment on every single phrase in the Bible. I wanted to see why they thought Paul called the Corinthians “fools.”

For the Corinthians’ first question, “How are the dead raised?,” John Gill offers a succinct explanation of what they were asking:

“[For the Corinthians,] it was a thing incredible that those dead bodies which have been laid in the earth for so many hundred, and some, thousands of years, and have been long ago reduced to dust, and this dust has undergone a thousand forms; that such whose bodies have been burnt to ashes, or destroyed by wild beasts, and digested by them, should ever be raised again. Such a doctrine must be past all belief[.]”

And Carr basically overlaps with Gill on this. Under my post, “The Resurrection Debate: Silence, Converts”, he writes that the Corinthians “scoff at the idea that a corpse could be resurrected after dissolving into dust,” and that they wondered “how a corpse can be transformed when it has lost its head or been eaten by fish.”

And what is Paul’s answer to Question Number 1? Paul states in vv 36-38:

“What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. And as for what you sow, you do not sow the body that is to be, but a bare seed, perhaps of wheat or of some other grain. But God gives it a body as he has chosen, and to each kind of seed its own body.”

According to Paul, we see in nature that God can take a dead seed and bring life out of it. Why, then, should we assume that he’s unable to do this with a dead body? And God is not limited by the body being decomposed or decapitated, for he is able to make it into something new.

Carr says, “Just as a farmer sees dead seeds even after the wheat has risen, so Christians should expect to see corpses, even after the resurrection.”

But I wonder how far we should stretch the analogy. Does resurrection have to be like farming in every single detail? Or is Paul just referring to seeds because that’s a good natural example of God bringing forth life out of death?

In addition, I wonder how Carr thinks that Paul envisioned resurrection. Did Paul believe that the soul left its earthly body, went to heaven, and there received a new spiritual body? That’s not what happens with seeds and plants, for the plant rises out of the same ground in which the seed was placed. And Paul says in vv 43-44: “It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body.” That’s consistent with Jesus going into his tomb as a corpse and coming out of it as a glorious being, with a new body. And if Jesus came out of his tomb, doesn’t that imply that the tomb was empty?

Let’s turn now to the Corinthians’ second question, “With what kind of body do they come?” Albert Barnes paraphrases:

“What will be the form, the shape, the size, the organization of the new body? Are we to suppose that all the matter which at any time entered into its composition here is to be recollected, and to constitute a colossal frame? Are we to suppose that it will be the same as it is here, with the same organization, the same necessities, the same needs? Are we to suppose that the aged will be raised as aged, and the young as young, and that infancy will be raised in the same state, and remain such for ever? Are we to suppose that the bodies will be gross, material, and needing support and nourishment, or, that there will be a new organization?”

From what I read in N.T. Wright’s The Resurrection of the Son of God, I get the impression that many Gentiles viewed resurrection primarily as resuscitation: a person would come back to life with the same decaying physical body, with all of its limitations and needs. But Paul was telling them in vv 38-54 to look outside of the box. There are different kinds of bodies, which means that a person can rise from the dead with a body that is glorious and incorruptible. Resurrection does not mean that the body that goes into the grave is the exact same one that will come out of it, for God can transform the corruptible human body into something that’s glorious.

That leads us to another issue: For Paul, does resurrection involve the transformation of the body? Or, as Carr argues, does it mean the soul abandoning the physical body and going into a spiritual one? More on that next time!

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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6 Responses to I Corinthians 15:35-36: O Foolish Corinthians!

  1. Steven Carr says:

    Paul write to the Corinthian assuming that they believe that God created Adam from dead matter.

    He quotes Genesis without a word of proof or explanation. He takes it for granted that the Corinthian accept it.

    He never quotes one word about how God can reform dead things.

    If that was his doctrine that God would reform bodies from smoke and ash and Christians were scoffing at that, then he would have had to defend it explicitly.

    Instead, even on your reckoning, Paul lays himself wide open to charge that God can only transform thing which exist.

    Many Christian believe God can turn water into wine.

    But many of them would scoff at the idea that you could boil away the water and still tranform it into wine.

    How does God do that? How do you empty out a jug of water and still have a jug of wine after the transformation?

    If you can turn water into wine, don’t you need some water? Can God turn water into wine, without any water present?

    If you can transform a body, don’t you need a body?

    If God can make Adam out of clay, doesn’t he need some clay first?

    How can a corpse be transformed when it no longer exists?

    Why are such questions idiotic?

    Many Christians throughout history have taken them very seriously and tried to answer them.

    And they did that in ways entirely differently to Paul.

    If you have to have a seed, how can God resurrect a corpse that vanished 2000 years ago?

    If that was the objection of the Christians, then how does Paul’s reply answer the problem?

    The Christians were scoffing at the idea that God would resurrect the dust that corpes dissolve into.

    How does Paul reinforce the idea that God will reform the dust that a corpse becomes?

    ‘The first man was of the dust of the earth, the second man from heaven. As was the earthly man, so are those who are of the earth; and as is the man from heaven, so also are those who are of heaven. And just as we have borne the likeness of the earthly man, so shall we bear the likeness of the man from heaven.

    I declare to you, brothers, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God…’

    That is the most bizarre way of defending the idea that God will reform the dust of the earth that I have ever heard.

    ‘And God is not limited by the body being decomposed or decapitated, for he is able to make it into something new.’

    A good answer but it never occurs to Paul to say that.

    I guess Paul wasn’t that clever. Certainly not as clever as you.

    You think of all these good arguments that escaped Paul.

    Why, Paul even says that if our earthly body is destroyed, we will get a heavenly body.

    And Paul pours scorn on the idea that God will make our second bodies out of the dust of the earth, quite forgetting that that is what he believes.

    He really was a dumb guy, wasn’t he?

    ‘”It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body.’

    Sadly, all those its are pure invention not preent in the Greek.

    Paul just never ever ties the body that is sown with the body that is raised.

    It is little use quoting English translations which make Paul use grammar that he never did use.

    That is the point. Paul could easily have said what your translation makes him say.

    But he did not.

    By the way, ‘fool’ implies a moral connotation.

    Paul would have been furious with people who wanted to get Adam’s body back.

    Adam’s body was a natural body, which died.

    Who wants that to be reformed from smoke , ash and dust, so they could get it back?

    Only fools.

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  2. Steven Carr says:

    How come later Christians are so much cleverer than Paul at defending a resurrection?

    3 Corinthians is a forged letter by Paul saying that the resurrection is a resurrection of the flesh.

    Justin say ‘the resurrection is a resurrection of the flesh which died.’

    How come Athengaoras can write ‘the bodies that rise again are reconstitued from the parts which properly belong to them’?

    Paul never says anything of the kind, although you have him defending the idea that God will reconstitue bodies from dust.

    Why does Paul say ‘You do not plant the body that will be’ to people scoffing at the idea that the planted body will be put back together again?

    Because Paul just didn’t believe that the natural body would be carefully brought back from the element it dissolved into, just so that God could change the material anyway.

    Why does God need to put back all the dust particles to reform the corpse when he is going to change it all anyway?

    What a waste of time, if nothing else.

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  3. James Pate says:

    Hi Steven,

    “How can a corpse be transformed when it no longer exists?”

    Why can’t he take the dust and create it into the new body–when the corpse is dust, that is?

    You say:

    ‘”It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body.’ Sadly, all those its are pure invention not preent in the Greek. Paul just never ever ties the body that is sown with the body that is raised.
    It is little use quoting English translations which make Paul use grammar that he never did use.”

    You make that same point in the debate–in one of the side interactions. You say it should be translated “a physical body is sown, a spiritual body is raised.” That may work there, but it doesn’t in the other parts: it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power, etc. There’s no other subject there in the Greek, so the subject must be “it.”

    Also, I’m wondering if you would clarify something for me: do you think Paul’s definition of resurrection is that a person dies, his soul goes to heaven, and in heaven he receives his new spiritual body?

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  4. Steven Carr says:

    An anlogy for how Paul writes.

    It is like writing to Christians tioday who believe Jesus flew to Madrid, but are baffled about how they can fly to Madrid.

    Gods can fly , but how can we fly to Madrid? How can we fit wings on our cars? How can we put enough gas in the tank?

    How would the wheels work in the air?

    You would call these people ‘idiots’. You would tell them that you do not fly in the machine that you drive. (You do not plant the body that will be)

    You would tell them that there are two types of machine, ground machines and flying machines, just like there are ground animals and animals of the air.

    You would never bother answering questions of how a car can be transformed into a plane.

    It is just totally irrelevant. Instead you say that they must ‘put on flight’. You would even explain what that meant, if you yourself had ever seen a plane.

    But Paul couldn’t explain what was meant by ‘put on imperishability’

    All he knew was that it was dumb to think that corpses ghot to Heaven, as dumb as thinking that cars can fly.

    Yes, God can turn a car into a plane, but that isn’t the point.

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  5. Steven Carr says:

    ‘ it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power, etc. There’s no other subject there in the Greek, so the subject must be “it.”‘

    There is no subject.

    If you want a subject, the noun before those lines is ‘the dead’.

    So you can say ‘The dead are sown in dishonour. The dead are raised in power. etc.’

    ‘It’ would only be the subject of those Greek translations, in the same way that we could write ‘It is raining. It is sunny.’

    The ‘it’ does not refer to anything.

    If you do want it to refer to something, the nearest noun is ‘the dead’ (NOT the dead bodies)

    (Actually, one of the dead, as the verbs are singular)

    ‘Why can’t he take the dust and create it into the new body–when the corpse is dust, that is?’

    Paul goes out of his way to trash the idea that resurrected beings are made from the dust of the earth.

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  6. James Pate says:

    Hi Steven,

    1. Why can’t the analogy work like this:

    I wonder how I can fly to Madrid, since I don’t have wings.

    Paul calls me a fool, since me not having wings is not the only possibility out there. God can give me wings.

    I think that’s what was going on with the Corinthians. For one, they thought that the dead couldn’t come back to life. N.T. Wright discusses this when he refers to Homer. Gentiles may have believed in the immortality of the soul, but, as far as this life is concerned, when it’s over, it’s over.

    But Paul calls them fools because they’re being limited. They should realize that, in nature, God brings life out of death. And they should also realize that God is able to give them a new, imperishable body.

    2. Maybe “dead” can be the subject. I don’t know. Nekron there is plural, and the verb says “it is sown” (singular). We know that Paul equates the seed with the corpse (even you make that equation in the debate), and the seed is what gets sown. So why can’t “it” be the corpse?

    3. Your point about dust is hard to answer. I haven’t yet checked what N.T. Wright has to say about it. But you’re right: Paul says that our bodies now are choikos–made of earth or dust, whereas the resurrection bodies are heavenly.

    Paul is obviously trying to distinguish the old bodies from the new ones. The old ones are perishable and limited, whereas the new ones are incorruptible and unlimited. “Dust” exemplifies our human limitations (Genesis 3:19), which will be gone in our heavenly body.

    Dust may very well not be a part of our future composition. But why can’t God change that dust into new material? We both agree that Paul thinks God will give people new bodies. The question is how he does that.

    That’s what my post will be about today.

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