BIBLE HISTORY DAILY

What Does 1 Corinthians 15 Mean?

Exploring the earliest teachings of the apostle Paul on the resurrection of Jesus

Second Coming. This icon from Greece (c. 1700) depicts the Second Coming of Jesus and the bodily resurrection of believers. First Corinthians 15, the earliest passage on resurrection in the New Testament, shows the understandings of the apostle Paul on the resurrection of Jesus. Photo: Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

As the earliest passage on Jesus’s resurrection in the New Testament, 1 Corinthians 15 is significant. Yet it can also be confusing, as it talks of “physical” bodies and “spiritual” bodies. In the Spring 2022 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, Ben Witherington III of Asbury Theological Seminary delves into this biblical passage—and what it reveals about the understanding of the apostle Paul on the resurrection of Jesus and on the future resurrection of believers—in his article, “Paul on the Resurrection.”

What Does 1 Corinthians 15 Mean?

On the topic of resurrected bodies, 1 Corinthians 15:44 says, “It is sown a physical body [Greek: psychikon soma], it is raised a spiritual body [Greek: pneumatikon soma]. If there is a physical body [psychikon soma], there is also a spiritual body [pneumatikon soma].”

What is a “physical” body (psychikon soma), and what is a “spiritual” body (pneumatikon soma)?

Before answering that, Witherington provides a bit of background on the apostle Paul. He reminds readers that Paul was a Pharisee. The Pharisees were a Jewish sect, active from the second century B.C.E. through the first century C.E. They believed in a future afterlife with bodily resurrection—unlike the Sadducees, another Jewish sect that did not believe in resurrection. Witherington explains that the Pharisees’ belief was partially derived from “a certain understanding of Daniel 12:1–3 and the development of thought that ensued from reflection on that text in subsequent centuries.” Daniel 12 talks of a collective 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” (Daniel 12:2).

To the apostle Paul, Jesus was seen as the first one to experience that bodily resurrection—but not the last (1 Corinthians 15:20). At his second coming, the righteous would receive resurrected bodies like that of Jesus (1 Corinthians 15:22–23). The apostle Paul describes this resurrected body as a “spiritual” body (1 Corinthians 15:44). Witherington interprets this to mean a body fully empowered by God’s Spirit:

Paul is contrasting the making of the first human, Adam, by God breathing life into him, with the condition of the last Adam, Jesus, who was raised from the dead (the phrase in the Greek is even more graphic—“raised from out of the dead ones,” not merely “raised from death”). … Paul is saying that Adam’s body was animated by life-breath (psyche meaning “lifebreath,” the animating principle, not “soul”). He contrasts this with how the risen body of Jesus was animated by the Spirit. In other words, the phrase pneumatikon soma does not mean, and indeed cannot mean, a body made out of nonmaterial stuff (whatever that would be). No, he means a body totally energized, empowered, and given life by God’s Spirit. This is precisely why he says that the merely mortal body must be replaced by one that will endure forever, a body permanently alive and energized by God’s Spirit—immune to disease, decay, and death, so death can have no more victory over it.

So, according to Witherington’s investigations, what does 1 Corinthians 15 mean? The teachings of the apostle Paul on the resurrection of Jesus in this passage show that Paul believed Jesus had a Spirit-empowered, material, resurrected body. He further believed that one day every Christian would receive a resurrected Spirit-empowered body on earth—in the kingdom of God, established by Jesus at his second coming (1 Corinthians 15:22–24, 50).

Learn more about 1 Corinthians 15 in Ben Witherington III’s article “Paul on the Resurrection,” published in the Spring 2022 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.

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Subscribers: Read the full article “Paul on the Resurrection” by Ben Witherington III in the Spring 2022 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.


 

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Resurrecting Easter: Hunting for the Original Resurrection Image
 
Afterlife: Ancient Israel’s Changing Vision of the World Beyond
 
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6 Responses

  1. Tom Robinson says:

    The conclusion here is incorrect. Witherington without proof states: “In other words, the phrase pneumatikon soma does not mean, and indeed cannot mean, a body made out of nonmaterial stuff (whatever that would be).”
    In fact, Paul meant exactly this, as is clear from what he stated in verses 44-45: “It is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. There is a natural body, and there is a spiritual body. And so it is written, ‘The first man Adam became a living being.’ THE LAST ADAM BECAME A LIFE-GIVING SPIRIT.” Thus, natural body = physical living being, and spiritual body = A SPIRIT–that is, a spirit being consisting of spirit. Jesus at His resurrection became a spirit being with a spirit body–His fleshly body transmuted to spirit. And Paul follows in verse 49 stating that “as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly Man.” So we too will have a body of spirit when resurrected. Then follow the next verses, 50-53, where He states that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God and so we must undergo a change in our fundamental make-up. This goes far beyond mere Spirit-preserved physical flesh, as argued in the article.
    Part of the problem is assuming spirit to in all cases be formless like air–and that those in the spirit realm would only experience it as such. The reality is that spirit can evidently exist in different states like matter does, with some spirit in solid form, such as the structures of the New Jerusalem and corporeal spirit bodies of angels and resurrected people.
    The spirit realm is actually more real and substantive than the physical realm, which is subject to decay and ultimately dissipating away. Solids in the physical realm are actually mostly empty space, with atoms held together through electromagnetic forces. It is such forces that prevent us from passing through walls or other objects–not the matter itself. Spirit is invisible and intangible to us while we are physical, but that does not mean it remains that way if we become part of the spirit realm. (We could say the same about theorized dark matter–being intangible to us does not mean it has no structure or tangibility to other dark matter.)
    The risen Jesus appearing to His disciples in physical form and eating with them is possible because He as a spirit being is able to manifest Himself in the physical realm–and He did so to only a degree among them, not bringing the full weight of His glory into human perception, which Scripture several times says would be fatal. He did tell them that a spirit does not have flesh and bones as He did (Luke 24:39), but by spirit in this context He meant some ghostly demon, assuring them it was really Him. (And apparently demons are not permitted to manifest in physical form as Christ and righteous angels are.)
    Those who see the risen Jesus being physically touched by people and His eating with them as proof of that His resurrection body was actually physical flesh should recall that even before becoming human, the preincarnate Lord and two angels ate a meal with Abraham in Genesis 18. Were these fleshly beings? No, they were spirit beings manifested in physical flesh.
    This is not to say that the risen Jesus is incorporeal. He has an actual body, but that body consists of spirit. And so will it be for the dead in Christ when they are resurrected at Christ’s return. There will be a transmutation of the physical remains of Christians who’ve died and living believers into spirit bodies–perfect bodies shining in glory, unbounded by the limitations of the physical realm. This is in many ways beyond what we can now understand. But it is what Paul clearly states in 1 Corinthians 15.

  2. Phil Covington says:

    Strange, there is no reference to 1 Thess. 4 where this same Paul makes mention of an event well-known to most Christians…as the “Rapture”…??!!
    Christ’s Second Coming is NOT the Rapture, but the Rapture “event” is thought to occur around the period known as the “Tribulation” !
    The term “Rapture” does not appear in the Biblical text, but is alluded to, one time only, by the apostle Paul in his New Testament letter. He describes this event when Christ returns for His faithful and physically removes (raptures) all Christians, living and dead, from Earth to Heaven in a split second !
    The spirits of those deceased are re-united with their physical bodies, while those still alive are already ‘good to go’ ! Christ’s feet do not actually touch Earth, so technically, this is not classified as a ‘Second’ Coming !
    The Rapture event is apparent only to the Christian believers involved, while everyone else scratches their heads and wonder where some folks are…! The real Second Coming occurs on what most folks call “Judgement Day”…!
    There are several theories about the timing of the Rapture:
    Pre-tribulational rapture: When John ascends to heaven (Revelation 4:1-2). In this theory, Christians will be taken up before the Great Tribulation (Daniel 9:24-27, Revelation 7:14) and will be spared its suffering.
    Mid-tribulational rapture: When the two prophets ascend to heaven (Revelation 11:11-12)
    Post-tribulational rapture: At the end of the ‘seven bowls’ events (Revelation 16:17-21)

    Class Dismissed…!

  3. William Mayor says:

    The biggest problem with Witherington’s understanding is that ALL accounts of a physical resurrection were written or edited after 70 CE, when the unthinkable loss of the Jerusalem Temple occurred. Looking at the historic record, without assuming that the traditional account is accurate, strongly suggests that the traditional version has been written to conceal the truth, not reveal it. Resurrections were common in the 1st century, but one with objective evidence would have been unique. Now the choices are, for a unique resurrection, either a physical one, which requires numerous miracles, or what we know call the Shroud of Turin, which can be explained without miracles and merely requires people’s well-founded belief that it was not made by humans. The fall of the temple would encourage the early church to conceal and deny the existence of anything that the Romans might seize, thus encouraging the tale of a physical resurrection and ascension, leaving nothing to be grabbed by the Romans.

    1. HumbleOne says:

      Resurrections were common in the 1st century? Seriously? Please produce evidence of this outrageous claim.

      1. What Mr. Mayor probably meant was they were common because they were all done by Jesus and recorded in the Gospels. ; )

  4. Tom Troyano says:

    Ben Witherington’s thoughtful insights about 1Cor. 15 & Paul’s use of “pneumaticon soma” help me interpret Paul’s portrayal of resurrected body beginning with Jesus. I always look forward to the brief but very meaningful article by Witherington!

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6 Responses

  1. Tom Robinson says:

    The conclusion here is incorrect. Witherington without proof states: “In other words, the phrase pneumatikon soma does not mean, and indeed cannot mean, a body made out of nonmaterial stuff (whatever that would be).”
    In fact, Paul meant exactly this, as is clear from what he stated in verses 44-45: “It is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. There is a natural body, and there is a spiritual body. And so it is written, ‘The first man Adam became a living being.’ THE LAST ADAM BECAME A LIFE-GIVING SPIRIT.” Thus, natural body = physical living being, and spiritual body = A SPIRIT–that is, a spirit being consisting of spirit. Jesus at His resurrection became a spirit being with a spirit body–His fleshly body transmuted to spirit. And Paul follows in verse 49 stating that “as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly Man.” So we too will have a body of spirit when resurrected. Then follow the next verses, 50-53, where He states that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God and so we must undergo a change in our fundamental make-up. This goes far beyond mere Spirit-preserved physical flesh, as argued in the article.
    Part of the problem is assuming spirit to in all cases be formless like air–and that those in the spirit realm would only experience it as such. The reality is that spirit can evidently exist in different states like matter does, with some spirit in solid form, such as the structures of the New Jerusalem and corporeal spirit bodies of angels and resurrected people.
    The spirit realm is actually more real and substantive than the physical realm, which is subject to decay and ultimately dissipating away. Solids in the physical realm are actually mostly empty space, with atoms held together through electromagnetic forces. It is such forces that prevent us from passing through walls or other objects–not the matter itself. Spirit is invisible and intangible to us while we are physical, but that does not mean it remains that way if we become part of the spirit realm. (We could say the same about theorized dark matter–being intangible to us does not mean it has no structure or tangibility to other dark matter.)
    The risen Jesus appearing to His disciples in physical form and eating with them is possible because He as a spirit being is able to manifest Himself in the physical realm–and He did so to only a degree among them, not bringing the full weight of His glory into human perception, which Scripture several times says would be fatal. He did tell them that a spirit does not have flesh and bones as He did (Luke 24:39), but by spirit in this context He meant some ghostly demon, assuring them it was really Him. (And apparently demons are not permitted to manifest in physical form as Christ and righteous angels are.)
    Those who see the risen Jesus being physically touched by people and His eating with them as proof of that His resurrection body was actually physical flesh should recall that even before becoming human, the preincarnate Lord and two angels ate a meal with Abraham in Genesis 18. Were these fleshly beings? No, they were spirit beings manifested in physical flesh.
    This is not to say that the risen Jesus is incorporeal. He has an actual body, but that body consists of spirit. And so will it be for the dead in Christ when they are resurrected at Christ’s return. There will be a transmutation of the physical remains of Christians who’ve died and living believers into spirit bodies–perfect bodies shining in glory, unbounded by the limitations of the physical realm. This is in many ways beyond what we can now understand. But it is what Paul clearly states in 1 Corinthians 15.

  2. Phil Covington says:

    Strange, there is no reference to 1 Thess. 4 where this same Paul makes mention of an event well-known to most Christians…as the “Rapture”…??!!
    Christ’s Second Coming is NOT the Rapture, but the Rapture “event” is thought to occur around the period known as the “Tribulation” !
    The term “Rapture” does not appear in the Biblical text, but is alluded to, one time only, by the apostle Paul in his New Testament letter. He describes this event when Christ returns for His faithful and physically removes (raptures) all Christians, living and dead, from Earth to Heaven in a split second !
    The spirits of those deceased are re-united with their physical bodies, while those still alive are already ‘good to go’ ! Christ’s feet do not actually touch Earth, so technically, this is not classified as a ‘Second’ Coming !
    The Rapture event is apparent only to the Christian believers involved, while everyone else scratches their heads and wonder where some folks are…! The real Second Coming occurs on what most folks call “Judgement Day”…!
    There are several theories about the timing of the Rapture:
    Pre-tribulational rapture: When John ascends to heaven (Revelation 4:1-2). In this theory, Christians will be taken up before the Great Tribulation (Daniel 9:24-27, Revelation 7:14) and will be spared its suffering.
    Mid-tribulational rapture: When the two prophets ascend to heaven (Revelation 11:11-12)
    Post-tribulational rapture: At the end of the ‘seven bowls’ events (Revelation 16:17-21)

    Class Dismissed…!

  3. William Mayor says:

    The biggest problem with Witherington’s understanding is that ALL accounts of a physical resurrection were written or edited after 70 CE, when the unthinkable loss of the Jerusalem Temple occurred. Looking at the historic record, without assuming that the traditional account is accurate, strongly suggests that the traditional version has been written to conceal the truth, not reveal it. Resurrections were common in the 1st century, but one with objective evidence would have been unique. Now the choices are, for a unique resurrection, either a physical one, which requires numerous miracles, or what we know call the Shroud of Turin, which can be explained without miracles and merely requires people’s well-founded belief that it was not made by humans. The fall of the temple would encourage the early church to conceal and deny the existence of anything that the Romans might seize, thus encouraging the tale of a physical resurrection and ascension, leaving nothing to be grabbed by the Romans.

    1. HumbleOne says:

      Resurrections were common in the 1st century? Seriously? Please produce evidence of this outrageous claim.

      1. What Mr. Mayor probably meant was they were common because they were all done by Jesus and recorded in the Gospels. ; )

  4. Tom Troyano says:

    Ben Witherington’s thoughtful insights about 1Cor. 15 & Paul’s use of “pneumaticon soma” help me interpret Paul’s portrayal of resurrected body beginning with Jesus. I always look forward to the brief but very meaningful article by Witherington!

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