The Resurrection Body in the Synoptics

In my post, N.T. Wright on the Risen John, Steven Carr and I have a brief discussion about Jesus’ resurrection in the Gospels. Like a lot of Christians, I said that the risen Christ of the Gospels has a glorified body with spiritual characteristics, since it can morph and vanish into thin air. Steven responded as follows:

“The body of Jesus does not morph. It was the eyes of his onlookers which were changed. First they were kept from recognising him and then their eyes were opened. No suggestion that the body had changed. Indeed, the Gospels have the traditional Jewish view that resurrected people were unchanged from how they died. The Jesus of the Gospels knew that people expected to recognise him by his wounds, which obviously would still be present after resurrection. Everybody knew that the wounds would still be there. That is how Jesus could prove he was not an imposter. The face could be faked, but the wounds would be the sure sign of a resurrected being. Entirely different from Paul’s idea of moving into a transformed, glorious body” (emphasis mine).

I’m sure Steven was speaking primarily about the Gospels’ accounts of Jesus’ resurrection, as in the stories that appear at the end of the books. But he got me thinking about their presentations of the resurrection in general. Actually, they are quite nuanced about the types of bodies that we will have. Come to think of it, they have various pictures of Jesus’ resurrection body as well!

In Matthew 13:43, Jesus says that the righteous will one day “shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father” (NRSV). The sounds like how Daniel 12:3-4 envisions the resurrection: “Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. Those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever.” In this specific passage of Matthew, Jesus seems to believe in a resurrection that entails astral glorification, not receiving the same type of physical body that went into the ground.

And there are passages in which Jesus’ body shines like the sun. When Jesus appeared to Saul in Luke/Acts, for example, he blinded him with a bright light (Acts 9:3, 8, 17; 22:6-7, 14; 26:13-16).

Or take Jesus’ transfiguration. Mark 9:1-3 states:

“And he said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the kingdom of God has come with power.’
Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them,
and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them.”

Matthew adds the detail that Jesus’ face shown like the sun (17:2), and he expresses “the kingdom of God has come with power” as “the Son of Man coming in his kingdom” (16:28). Many Christians associate Jesus’ statement that some disciples will see his glorious return with the transfiguration scene, and for good reason, since the text itself provides the temporal connection of “six days later.” When Peter, James, and John saw the transfigured Christ, could they have been looking at the way that Christ will appear at his second advent? And, if so, doesn’t that imply that Jesus’ resurrection body (the one he’ll come back with) shines like the sun?

Steven is correct to note that many Jews expected the resurrection bodies to be roughly the same as the bodies that went into the ground. When I was at Harvard, I went to a symposium that had Paula Fredericksen, a New Testament scholar from Boston University, and she said that some rabbis believed there would be sex after the resurrection. I guess they thought our risen bodies would have some of the same functions that they have now! And the Gospels indicate that many Jews held that sort of belief, for the Sadduccees asked Jesus, “In the resurrection whose wife will she be? For the seven had married her” (Mark 12:23). In their view, the doctrine of the resurrection assumed that people would still be getting married after they rose from the dead.

But Jesus did not agree. He said, “[W]hen they rise from the dead, they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven” (Mark 12:25). Luke 20:36 adds, “Indeed they cannot die anymore, because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection.” Jesus may be saying that resurrected bodies are spirit, like the bodies of angels. In any case, he maintains that there will be discontinuity between our present bodies and the ones we will receive in the resurrection.

And yet, there are some bumps even in that interpretation, for Jesus also says that people in the resurrection will eat and drink. Look at the following passages:

Matthew 8:11: “I tell you, many will come from east and west and will eat with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven[.]”

Matthew 26:26: “I tell you, I will never again drink of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.”

Mark 14:25: “Truly I tell you, I will never again drink of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.”

Luke 13:29: “Then people will come from east and west, from north and south, and will eat in the kingdom of God.”

These passages say that the risen Christ will eat in the kingdom of God, as will lots of other people (who are presumably resurrected). How does that mesh with what Paul says in I Corinthians 11:13: “‘Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food,’ and God will destroy both one and the other”?

Liberal scholars will probably say that the Gospels simply have different traditions about the resurrection. For a lot of them, the Gospels are a cut-and-paste job, and the books that emerge are not always internally consistent.

Is there a way to reconcile these differences? One possible approach is to take the sequential track, which we see in the first century C.E. Jewish apocalyptic work, II Baruch. George Nicklesburg says the following about II Baruch in his article on “Resurrection” in the Anchor Bible Dictionary:

“The souls of the dead, presently gathered in the ‘treasuries’ of Sheol (21:23; 30:2–5), will be raised in their original form so that the living may recognize them. Thereafter, the righteous will be freed from the limitations of this age and transformed into glory like the stars and the angels, with whom they will inhabit paradise in the age to come.

In this model, we are initially raised with physical bodies, but our bodies transform into spiritual bodies somewhere along the way. So maybe we will be able to eat after our resurrection–until God decides to destroy our stomach and food, that is. My problem with this approach is that I Corinthians 15 seems to indicate that we’ll receive our spiritual bodies right when we’re resurrected, not some time afterwards (see vv 44, 52-54).

Another approach is to say that our resurrected bodies can morph. That means the risen Jesus could appear to his disciples as a flesh-and-blood human being, but he could also morph into a more glorious figure–one who shines like the sun. His wounds are still important when he appears to his disciples in his risen state, for they show that he’s come back from the dead. He’s not just some disembodied spirit floating around, but he has conquered death through his bodily resurrection (see Luke 24:39). And yet that body can appear in different forms.

I’m not sure if that solves the problem of whether or not our risen bodies will eat. Within my Armstrongite heritage, I was taught that we will eat for pleasure in our new, spirit bodies, but not out of necessity for survival. And yet, Paul in I Corinthians 11:13 seems to be criticizing the Corinthians because they eat for pleasure a little too much. “You say you eat to live and live to eat,” Paul appears to be saying. “Well, you won’t always be eating, since God will destroy the body and food. So shouldn’t you be setting your mind on higher things, and not just on something temporary, like eating?”

But maybe the sequential model actually works here: our spiritual bodies will eat for a while, until God destroys the stomach. I don’t know.

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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2 Responses to The Resurrection Body in the Synoptics

  1. Steven Carr says:

    As you point out, the transfigured body of Jesus is the one that morphs, not the resurrected one.

    Acts also never has a bodily Jesus appear to Paul.

    As for eating and drinking, Paul tells the Corinthians that God will destroy both stomach and food.

    The New Testament is literally all over the place on what resurrected bodies were like.

    As it never happened, people felt free to make things up.

    This is a sure sign that it was all just made up, as the accounts of resurrected bodies vary so much,with non-resurrected bodies being transformed, Paul saying Jesus became a spirit, Jesus denying that he had become a spirit etc.

    Mark 14
    Finally, some men stood up and gave this false testimony: 58 “We heard him say, ‘I will destroy this Temple made with human hands, and in three days I will build another, made without human hands.’” 59 But even then they didn’t get their stories straight!

    Perhaps if the New Testament could actually get its story straight about whether God will destroy stomach and food, or whether Jesus had an indestrucible stomach, whether all flesh is grass, or whether the flesh of Jesus did not see corruption.

    The New Testament can no more get its story straight than the witnesses who all claimed Jesus would destroy the Temple.


  2. James Pate says:

    Hi Steven,

    1. My point about the transfiguration was that Jesus was appearing to the disciples as he will appear at the parousia–and we know he’ll be coming back at the parousia with his risen body. It’s not my strongest example of Jesus’ resurrected body being spirit or luminous, but the Gospel authors do seem to link the parousia and the transfiguration with a temporal referent (six days later, or Luke specifies more days than that).

    2. “Acts also never has a bodily Jesus appear to Paul.”

    This is important because you’ve brought it up in some way, shape, or form on other occasions, as when you said that Paul didn’t see Jesus’ resurrection body (or something like that). If a bodily Jesus is not what appears to Paul, then what does Paul see? A non-bodily Jesus?

    3. “The New Testament is literally all over the place on what resurrected bodies were like. As it never happened, people felt free to make things up.”

    The first point was pretty much the thesis of my post, although you and I differ in that I try to see if there are ways for these things to fit together.

    But do the differences mean that people were making something up? Maybe something mysterious happened, and they were trying to understand and express what it was.
    And maybe there’s some truth in all of the different understandings, in some way.


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