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!