I finished Robert Grant’s Miracle and Natural Law in Graeco-Roman and Early Christian Thought. In this post, I’ll focus on the interpretation of I Corinthians 15:50 by Irenaeus and Tertullian, and also the interpretation of Luke 24:39 by Marcion and Origen. The issue is the nature of Jesus’ resurrection body: Was it physical or spiritual?
1. I Corinthians 15:50 states (in the KJV): “Now this I say, brethren, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; neither doth corruption inherit incorruption.” In I Corinthians 15, Paul says that people rise from the dead with spiritual bodies, and there were many who argued that Christ’s resurrection body had no human flesh, for the risen Christ was a spirit. But there were also many Christians who held that Christ’s body was physical and had flesh. How did they interpret I Corinthians 15:50, which affirms that flesh and blood cannot inherit the Kingdom of God?
The approach of Irenaeus was to regard the “flesh and blood” of I Corinthians 15:50 as allegorical for carnal, sinful actions, since Paul often associates the flesh with sin. The idea of I Corinthians 15:50, for Irenaeus, was not that our resurrection bodies would lack flesh, but rather that we would not sin after our resurrection. And Tertullian essentially goes the same route.
I am not convinced by this interpretation of I Corinthians 15:50, for a significant topic of I Corinthians 15 is the nature of the resurrection body, not sin. At the same time, I am open to the argument that Paul in I Corinthians 15:50 was not excluding all flesh and blood from the Kingdom, but rather was saying that our current, corruptible flesh would not be part of our resurrection bodies. But what about incorruptible flesh?
2. Luke 24:39 states: “Behold my hands and my feet, that it is I myself: handle me, and see; for a spirit hath not flesh and bones, as ye see me have.” In this passage, the risen Jesus denies that he is a spirit and points to his flesh and bones as proof for that.
Marcion rejected the notion that Jesus rose with a body of human flesh for two reasons. First, like a lot of Gnostics, Marcion maintained that the material world was evil and was created by a lower-being, and so he disassociated the body of the risen Jesus from materiality. Second, Jesus in Luke 20:36 likens the resurrected to angels, and Marcion believes that means that the resurrected will have spirit bodies, like angels do.
How, then, does Marcion interpret Luke 24:39? Essentially, he rewrites it to say: “See my hands and feet, that it is I; for a spirit does not have bones such as you see me having.” Tertullian interprets Marcion to be saying that the risen Jesus in Luke 24:39 is affirming that he was a spirit (even though it seems to me that Marcion is saying that the risen Jesus had bones, which spirits do not have). Tertullian finds that to be nonsensical. Grant notes something else that’s interesting: Although Marcion thought that Jesus’ resurrection body was spiritual, later Marcionites still believed that the risen Jesus ate, for they justified their eating of fish and not flesh by appealing to the risen Jesus eating fish in Luke 24:42-43.
Origen also leaned in the direction of the risen Christ having a spiritual body. Grant states on page 259: “[Origen’s] position is rendered precarious by his insistence that the risen Jesus had a body which could eat. He believes, however, that had the Lord appeared with his glorified body he could not have been seen. It was necessary for him to give at least the appearance of his wounds.” Origen’s position is essentially that of the Armstrongites, who believed that Jesus’ resurrection was spiritual and not physical: that Jesus in Luke 24 was merely appearing to his disciples in a fleshly form, since they would not be able to see the risen Jesus in his full glory, for that would kill them, plus Jesus wanted to show them that it was really him whom they were seeing. Sometimes, though, Origen said that Jesus’ resurrection body was somewhere between body and soul, according to Grant.
Origen tended to interpret passages that imply a physical resurrection in an allegorical sense. Ezekiel 37 presents the resurrection of bones, but Origen views those bones in reference to sin, for Jesus in Matthew 23:27 calls sinners “tombs full of bones and all uncleanness.” Jesus in Matthew 8:12 says that there will be gnashing of teeth in Gehenna, but Origen does not take this literally because he feels that to do so would be absurd: teeth are for eating, and why would people eat in Gehenna? Origen, like Irenaeus and Tertullian on the other side, employs an allegorical, spiritual interpretation for passages that appear to contradict his position.