There’s an element in the current discussion of Jesus’ family tomb, so-called, that needs more scrutiny, it seems to me. I have in mind the agreement or disagreement between the earliest oral and literary traditions of what happened to Jesus’ corpse, on the one hand, and the interpretation of an ossuary found at Talpiot as having contained the secondarily buried bones of Jesus of Nazareth, on the other hand. If I understand Professor James Tabor correctly, he believes:
- that the said ossuary probably did contain Jesus’ bones;
- that Jesus’ brother James revived and carried forward a messianic movement started by John the Baptist and taken over by Jesus;
- that because of the removal of Jesus’ corpse from the tomb into which Joseph of Arimathea had put it, and because of a secondary burial of Jesus’ bones about a year later, James and others in the revived messianic movement knew that Jesus hadn’t physically risen from the dead, nor did they proclaim that he had;
- that because of visions Paul claimed for himself, he proclaimed that Jesus had risen from the dead;
- that Paul presented Jesus’ resurrection (and ours to come) as spiritual rather than physical; and
- that in the Pauline offshoot from the messianic movement then headed by James, the notion of a spiritual resurrection morphed into legendary stories of a physical resurrection, such as we have in the canonical Gospels (The Jesus Dynasty [New York: Simon & Schuster, 2006]; idem, jesusdynasty.com/blog/).
It would be problematic, though, if the earliest oral and literary versions of Jesus’ resurrection presented it as physical. For the earlier the notion of a physical resurrection of Jesus, the greater the tension between that notion and the knowledge of Jesus’ original followers that his bones lay in an ossuary of nearby, known location, especially if those who held the notion of a physical resurrection and those who had contrary knowledge of Jesus’ ossuary-interred bones were in conversation with each other. On so fundamental a point we should expect some literary evidence of disagreement among them. And the tension becomes even more severe if the original followers of Jesus knew about his bones and some of these followers had themselves interred those bones yet proclaimed him as physically resurrected.
Professor Tabor affirms correctly that Paul and Jesus’ original followers were in conversation with each other: “There is little doubt that the apostle Paul was accepted into the inner circles of Jesus’ original followers,” and they “publicly endorsed his missionary preaching to the Gentile Roman world (Galatians 2:9). It was what he preached and taught that began to create problems” (The Jesus Dynasty, 262). But Tabor immediately goes on to discuss Paul’s view of “a heavenly Christ,” including a nonphysically resurrected one, as though that view of him created problems for Jesus’ original followers. Not so! As Paul clearly points out in Galatians 2, the problems had to do with issues of circumcision, law-keeping in general, and table fellowship. There’s nothing about a problem of disagreement over whether Jesus was physically resurrected.
To support a Pauline presentation of a nonphysically resurrected Jesus, though, Professor Tabor states that Paul “claimed to hear a disembodied ‘voice’ that he identified as ‘words’ of Jesus” (The Jesus Dynasty, 262). But the texts Tabor cites in note 4 on page 262—that is, 2 Corinthians 12:9; 1 Thessalonians 4:15; 1 Corinthians 11:23—say nothing about a disembodied voice. (Nor, for that matter, does the word voice appear in those texts despite Tabor’s putting quotation marks around it.)
Professor Tabor’s view that Paul presented a nonphysically resurrected Jesus rests above all, however, on Paul’s statements in 1 Corinthians 15:44, 46, 50, about which Tabor states, “Paul, our earliest witness to the resurrection, speaks of a ‘physical body’ and a ‘spiritual body,’ and though it is a body, he clearly presents both the resurrection of Jesus and the future resurrection of the dead at the end of the age, as putting off the flesh like a garment and being transformed into a higher spirit life.” Likewise, Tabor writes that according to Paul, at the second coming the Christian dead will be resurrected “in gloriously transformed spiritual bodies” (The Jesus Dynasty, 264), that Christians still living at the time “will likewise be instantaneously changed from flesh to spirit” (ibid.), and that “Paul seems to be willing to use the term ‘resurrection’ to refer to something akin to an apparition or vision. And when he does mention Jesus’ body he says it was a ‘spiritual’ body. But a ‘spiritual body' and an ‘embodied spirit’ could be seen as very much the same phenomenon” (ibid., 232). (Actually, Paul talks about a spiritual body only in connection with Christians’ resurrection, but the parallel with Jesus’ resurrection, which Tabor draws, is to be accepted.)
Has Professor Tabor understood Paul’s discussion of resurrection correctly? I think not. In the first place, Paul contrasts “a spiritual body” with “a soulish body,” not with a “physical body” (1 Cor 15:44, 46). But what do these expressions mean? Take first the adjective “spiritual.” When Paul describes some Christians in Corinth as “spiritual” rather than “fleshly” or “carnal,” he doesn’t mean that some Christians in Corinth are floating around its streets in a ghostly form as opposed to others who are pounding the pavement with their feet. No, he’s describing some Christians as taught, filled, and led by the Holy Spirit, whose temple is their present physical bodies, as opposed to others dominated by their sinful proclivities despite the indwelling Spirit (1 Cor 2:10–16; 3:1; 6:19; 14:37; Gal 6:1). When Paul speaks of “spiritual gifts,” he means gifts given by the Holy Spirit (Rom 1:11; 1 Cor 12:1; 14:1). The manna, the water-supplying rock, and the Mosaic law—all in the Old Testament—are “spiritual” in that the Holy Spirit gave them to the Israelites (Rom 7:14; 1 Cor 10:3–4). And the gospel is “spiritual” as given by the Holy Spirit (Rom 15:27; 1 Cor 9:11). So we should capitalize the adjective Spiritual and dismiss the notion that it indicates nonphysicality. In Paul’s view, that is to say, the resurrected body is Spiritual not in the sense of nonphysicality (he even switches back and forth between “body” and “flesh” in 1 Cor 15:35–41) but in the sense of its having been raised by God’s Spirit, which is none other than Christ’s Spirit, rather than procreated, as in the case of our present bodies, animated as they are by the soul—hence the contrast with “soulish bodies.” But let Paul speak for himself to the effect that in resurrection a Spiritual body is a body raised by the Holy Spirit: “The last Adam [Christ] became a life-making Spirit” (1 Cor 15:45); “But if the Spirit of the one who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, the one who raised Christ from the dead will make alive also your mortal bodies through his Spirit that dwells in you” (Rom 8:11).
Ah, but what about 1 Corinthians15:50, “Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God”? Professor Tabor appeals also to this text for a nonphysical understanding of resurrection on Paul’s part (The Jesus Dynasty, 264). Well, the immediately following statement reads, “Nor does perishability inherit imperishability.” These two statements parallel each other, so that the phrase “flesh and blood” corresponds to “perishability.” Together, the terms refer to the present body in respect to the perishability of its flesh and blood, not in respect to the physicality of its flesh and blood. For Paul proceeds to say that it is “this perishable body” that will put on imperishability and “this mortal body” that will put on immortality (1 Cor 15:51–55, especially verse 53). And since for Paul the resurrection of Christians will follow the pattern of Christ’s resurrection, as Tabor recognizes, Paul must have thought that when Christ was raised, it was the perishable, mortal body of his earthly lifetime that put on imperishability and immortality, not that he was raised and exalted to heaven in some nonphysical form.
According to 1 Corinthians 15:1–7 Paul “received” information about Jesus’ death, burial, resurrection, and appearances as resurrected to Cephas (Peter) and others, including James. On the basis of Galatians 1:10–23 Professor Tabor interprets this reception as a direct revelation from heaven rather than as the passing on of tradition by one or more earlier followers of Jesus. But in Galatians Paul is talking about the gospel he preached before going to Jerusalem and conversing with Cephas three years after that direct revelation, whereas in 1 Corinthians he’s talking about the sort of information he’d get from one or more earlier believers. So contrary to Tabor’s earlier cited identification of Paul as “our earliest witness to the resurrection,” our earliest witnesses to it are the ones or one (probably Cephas) who passed this information on to Paul. Or, rather, our earliest witnesses are those who claimed to have seen Jesus as resurrected before Paul did, as admitted by Paul in his phrases, “And last of all . . . also to me” (1 Cor 15:8). Therefore we have to investigate not only Paul’s understanding of Jesus’ resurrection, whether it was physical or nonphysical, but also what was the understanding of it by the earlier witnesses and traditioner(s). “Cephas,” the Aramaic form of “Peter,” and the two instances of “according to the Scriptures” in 1 Corinthians 15:3–7 favor that the tradition stemmed from Jesus’ original followers, Jews still closely tied to their ancestral faith, Judaism. Now Tabor correctly writes, “In Judaism to claim that someone has been ‘raised from the dead’ is not the same as to claim that one has died and exists as a spirit or soul in the heavenly world. What the gospels [here we might substitute the witnesses and traditioners behind 1 Cor 15:3–7] claim about Jesus is that the tomb [in which he ‘was buried,’ according to the pre-Pauline tradition] was empty, and that his dead body was revived to life [‘raised,’ according to that same tradition]—wounds and all. He was not a phantom or a ghost . . .” (The Jesus Dynasty, 232). So it looks as though those witnesses and traditioners, given their Judaistic upbringing, would have understood Jesus’ resurrection as physical just as Paul did and just as we should expect in that by definition “resurrection” means the “standing up” of a formerly a supine corpse.
We’re left with this question: If Jesus’ bones were known to be lying in an ossuary near Jerusalem, how is it that the earliest literary tradition in 1 Corinthian 15:1–7, the even earlier oral tradition stemming from Jesus’ original disciples, and Paul’s properly exegeted understanding—how is it that all of them presented Jesus’ resurrection as physical? This question seems to me hard to answer.