Beyond Tradition

"Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men." Colossians 2:8

Gospel Date: The Silent Texts

Part V of VI (click here for Part I):

 

"We have sent along with him the brother whose fame in the things of the gospel has spread through all the churches" - Paul (2 Corinthians 8:18).

Paul stated this in his second Corinthian letter. Jerome not only believed that "the brother" Paul was referring to here was his companion Luke, but that Paul was specifically referring to Luke's gospel composition as his notable "fame in things of the gospel." Jerome was apparently citing a much earlier tradition from Tertullian who also cited a tradition about "a certain presbyter in Asia" and adherent of Paul who wrote his gospel "for the love of Paul."[1] Jerome also believed that Paul was referring to Luke's gospel when Paul made the personalized statement "my gospel" in his Romans letter (Romans 16:25).

Jerome's claim isn't that easy to just dismiss, especially his latter belief. It is indeed a strange statement made by Paul that he not only makes nowhere else in his letters, but inexplicable that he would personalize a general gospel message as his gospel, unless Paul was referring to a specific written work he had in his possession (scholars indeed remain puzzled by Paul's statement and has left a bevy of opinions and views). Moreover, Paul's Greek word "fame" (epainos, literally "praise") from the previous passage above was a rather unusual choice of words that Paul frequently bestowed only onto Christ or God himself, and never onto another man. Thus, this nondescript figure's notable accomplishment or praise "in things of the gospel" that "has spread through all churches" leaves a mysterious void as to who this was and what this might have been, unless we consider Jerome's belief to be correct -- it was the gospel of Luke and possible copies being distributed throughout "all the churches."

Another interesting thing to note which dovetails this is the similarity between Paul's citation of the Lord's Communion (1 Corinthians 11:23-26) in relation to Luke's description of the Last Supper (Luke 22:19-20). Paul's citation is remarkably similar to Luke's gospel illustration which is dissimilar to the Last Supper illustrated in the gospel of Mark and Matthew (see discussion here: The Q Conundrum; Problem #4).

Of course, I would understand scholars vehemently disagreeing with Jerome's and Tertullian's conclusion. Not only does it clearly imply a pre-70 date for the gospel of Luke/Acts if we are to believe Paul possessed an actual copy of Luke's gospel, but since Paul's Corinthian letter might even date to the early 50s, such an implication would fling Luke's gospel into the stratosphere of early conception! Needless to say, this would be considered outright blasphemy to those who believe Luke's gospel was written sometime around the 80s or later. 

Such scholars also highlight the great mystery of Paul's ignorance of the written gospels, which would appear as the most significant problem to a pre-70 date argument. Though the gospel dates are in dispute, there is no dispute that Paul and his writings predate the 70 CE period. Paul, however, does not directly mention the gospels, does not quote them (or rarely), nor does he seem to cite or describe anything specific found in the gospels at all. Post-70 proponents use the virtual silence of Paul in regards to the written gospel stories as a key crux to support the post-70 date position. In other words, they suppose, if the written gospels were in circulation, why wouldn't Paul either directly acknowledge them or cite specific scripture from the works to support his theology about the Savior?

The problem with this argument, however, is that Paul hardly says anything at all about the personal life of Jesus. If we were to use the same criterion or argument from silence and apply it consistently with Paul, it would have to be assumed that Paul had absolutely no knowledge of even the oral traditions and stories about Jesus that the gospels were based on. This would be rendered as improbable being that this was a culture immersed in oral tradition, thus we know logically that some sort of Jesus-tradition would have been circulating well before Paul's time even if we assume the gospel writers greatly embellished such traditions themselves.

From one of my previous articles (here: The Jesus-myth Myth), we know that a Jewish man named Jesus was a historical figure who was crucified and was the founder of the Judeo-Christian movement, which is simply beyond dispute. So, by historical default, there was obviously facts about this figure, in addition to certain things he did and certain revered teachings and sayings he had put fourth during his life. However, Paul doesn't acknowledge any of this information in his letters in any great detail.

Assuming a post-70 date for the gospels, Paul is our earliest record of Jesus. We know Paul certainly wasn't just espousing a purely mythical figure. Though Paul's Christology in his letters is extremely rich, bestowing some rather deep theology onto this figure he worshiped and honored as a deity (discussed in Part IV), he indeed recognized the human Jesus, such as:

 

 

Since this shows that Paul believed this man existed as the predecessor of the church he served, the argument from silence is just as much a problem about the details of this man he left out as it is for his virtual silence about the written gospels themselves.

Another example here is the passage in Paul's first Corinthian letter (1 Corinthians 15:3-8). Paul mentions that Jesus was killed and buried, followed by post-death claims that he was seen by a number of eyewitnesses that Paul lists, some of whom Paul also identified as his contemporaries and even associates elsewhere in his letters. What's exceptionally noteworthy about this passage is what Paul doesn't tell us. Paul doesn't mention specifics like how he was killed, where he was killed, who killed him, why and what location he was seen after he had risen.

Aside from Paul's silence about the stories specifically contained in the gospels about Jesus, there are obvious details Paul left out that we know would have been based on facts about Christ -- i.e. what he said, what he taught, what he did, where he was born and raised, where he lived, where he was killed, by whom and for what reason. Post-70 proponents using the argument from silence with Paul to support their view of the gospel dates find themselves in a bit of a quandary to explain why Paul gave little detail about this man at all. In other words, if Paul was completely ignorant of the traditions specifically contained in the gospels about Jesus because they presumably didn't exist yet, what sort of traditions about Jesus was Paul establishing his deep Christology on -- what was its foundation, where did it come from, where did it go, and if it was totally foreign to the same traditions illustrated in the gospels, how did it manage to elude the written gospels as well as Paul's letters? 

As you can see, the argument from silence in the case of Paul about the gospels becomes nonsensical. This obviously doesn't support a pre-70 date for the gospels, but that the argument from silence clearly does not support a post-70 date. It's not tenable to presume that the reason Paul doesn't directly acknowledge the written works was because they came after his time. It's just as logical to assume that the same reason Paul gives no specific details or information about the historical Jesus he believed preceded him in any sort of detail is the same reason he does not give any specific detail about the written works about Jesus and the content therein.

In light of this, we are forced to look for possible reasons of Paul's silence about specific details of Jesus' personal life and history, and whether they are oral or written accounts of Jesus, the same explanation must be applied to both:

 

  1. Many of Paul's letters were written "on-the-fly" specifically to address current and immediate issues he couldn't address at the time in person (see 1 Corinthians 11:34). Jesus never really addressed any of these issues that arose such as communion etiquette, church policy, specific instructions on church functions and leadership, divorce of non-Christian spouses, women in the ministry, eating meats offered to idols, Jewish-Gentile unity, and of course circumcision; thus Paul had little to no authority he could cite outside of his own authority.
  2. In light of #1, Paul didn't deem it necessary to repeat known tradition or Jesus' "old history" (the accounts of Jesus were already circulating orally by the other apostles and elders a decade or two prior to Paul's letters). Instead, he used these known traditions to build advanced theology and faith on in support of Jesus as Lord and Savior. Had Paul not been confident these traditions were broadly known, particularly since the whole issue of redemption and faith was based solely on the existence of Jesus, his birth, crucifixion and resurrection, there would have been a confusing void with his Greco-Roman readers without the history behind it or its traditional foundation supporting it.
  3. Judeo-Christianity was spawned in an oral culture, and when the traditions were recorded into written form, they were revered no more or less or treated any special than the oral traditions about Jesus themselves that were circulating within the pre-70 church era. The greatest misconception is that the gospels must be treated by the early apostles as sacredly as they are treated by us today. Any written works about Jesus circulating at that time wouldn't have been officially canonized or regarded as holy scripture for decades to come. Thus, Jewish texts (Old Testament) that were far more ancient and considered sacred to them was still preferred as holy written authority, and this were the primary written support of Jesus' messianic and redemptive purpose, particularly among those who had strong rabbinic influences as Paul did (this is indeed evident with even some of the later church fathers in the second to the third century who quote from the Old Testament either exclusively or extensively more than the New, such as the Epistle of Barnabas, Justin Martyr, Jerome and Origen).

 

Any of these options or all the above serve as explanations for Paul's silence than to suppose his silence proves he knew nothing about written works of Christ or any traditions about Christ. The fact that Paul, after his conversion, knew at least some of the eyewitnesses who had followed Jesus (1 Corinthians 15:3-7) and had spent time with Peter (Galatians 1:18), hearing the experiences the disciples would have had with the historical Jesus firsthand, yet chose not to record this information in any great detail within his letters renders the argument from silence in regards to the gospels a moot point.

Not only was there no isolation of tradition between the churches of this era, but Paul certainly wasn't isolated from the traditions he received directly from the eyewitnesses themselves. The fundamental tenets of Jesus, his life and teachings that were certainly circulating before and during Paul's ministry career would have been the foundation by which this theology of the early apostles rested on, and what the gospel writers would eventually transcribe to written texts. James D. G. Dunn makes this fact even clearer...

 

"If Paul’s letters (and Acts) are any guide, the first churches consisted rather of ‘a network of communities in constant communication,’ linked by messengers, letters, and visits by leading figures in the new movement. This ties in with what was noted above: that church founding included the initial communication of foundation tradition and that Paul could assume common tradition, including knowledge of Jesus tradition, even in a church which he had never previously visited (Rome). And though there were severe tensions between Paul and the Jerusalem leadership, Paul still regarded the lines of continuity between the churches in Judea and those of the Gentile mission as a matter of first importance. In short, the suggestion that there were churches who knew only one stream of tradition – Jesus only as a miracle, or only as a wisdom teacher, etc. – has been given far too much uncritical credence in scholarly discussions on the Gospels and ought to have been dismissed a lot sooner."[2]

 

The silent tomb

Even though it is clear on further analysis why the argument from silence fails for logical reasons, we'll examine what specific issues the proponents of this argument use to support their case. Paul's silence about Jesus' empty tomb is one such example used to support the argument that Paul knew nothing about the burial that is described in the written gospels, hence the "empty tomb" scenario was actually a legend that was concocted decades subsequent to Paul's writings, which found it's way into the "post-70 written gospels" later on. Surely, if the empty tomb had been a known tradition from the beginning, they argue, Paul would have at least mentioned it once in his letters, especially in his rare apologetic defense of the resurrection in his first letter to the Corinthian church. There he is arguing against those who may have been questioning the physical reality of the resurrection (1 Corinthians chap. 15). In this case, they argue, Paul mentioned that Jesus was indeed buried, but used a generic word for buried instead of specifics -- i.e. "he was placed in an empty tomb, which was discovered empty by the women after three days, and was seen by eyewitnesses shortly after" -- which we read in the written gospel stories.

It should be noted that since this is the only case of any sort of apologetic related to the subject of the resurrection found in any first century epistle, proponents essentially have only one situation to argue from silence in this case. On historical analysis, however, a tomb burial is practically a historical certainty just based on external data and evidence of this time period, with or without Paul (which I discussed in detail here: Legend of the Empty Tomb). Nonetheless, even from Paul's work alone we can infer reasons why this would not have been much of a defense for any resurrection apologetic:

 

  1. Paul was not specifically defending the resurrection of Jesus, but the physical reality of resurrections of Christian believers in general (doctrine that was consistent throughout Paul's letters -- see 1 Thessalonians 4:15-17; 1 Corinthians 6:14, 15:17-23; 2 Corinthians 4:14). In conclusion of his argument, he included a description of what these physical resurrected bodies of Christians would be like (Corinthians 15:50-58). It's no wonder that Paul had to go through great efforts to explain this complicated theory (what there bodies are made of, if they look the same, if they are made of flesh or some other heavenly substance, etc.), especially to a Greco-Roman church of the first century.
  2. Even if we assume for a moment he was specifically defending the resurrection of Jesus, there would have been no point using an empty tomb as an apologetic after many years had already passed and anyone doubting the resurrection of Jesus could have simply used any myriad of natural explanations to explain the tomb's emptiness (i.e. such as grave robbery).
  3. Notice that in the same passage where the resurrection apologetic resides, Paul also excludes extensive detail that the gospel stories also illustrated about this event -- 1 Corinthians 15:3-4 -- such as how Jesus died (crucifixion), when (during Passover), why (for sedition), and by whom (Sanhedrin and the Roman imperial government). We can assume that the same reason he leaves out these specifics is the same reason he leaves out tomb specifics -- i.e. the subject was a Christian one, and all Paul needed to do was briefly recap a tradition they were already familiar with; traditions that had been established decades prior.  
  4. An empty tomb used as "evidence" would have had no significance at all in comparison to the evidence Paul did in fact highlight as the driving force behind the main point of his argument -- a list of the names of all the eyewitnesses who actually saw a risen Lord after his resurrection, and some of whom he claimed were still alive and could attest to this fact.

Virgin birth

Another missing element from Paul's writings often brought up is the Nativity story of Jesus found in Matthew (chap 1-2) and Luke (chap 1-2). Some argue Paul's silence was either due to his ignorance of the Nativity story or his silent protest of it, which is why he did not bring up the story per se. At the moment, the former is much more tenable than the latter because had Paul heard about some concocted tradition about the supernatural birth of Christ being peddled while he was around, being the most fiery, ballsy, and outspoken of all the other apostles, he definitely would have had a whole lot to say about it (and for those who think he did in fact address this issue in his Timothy letter, calling it a "myth," this was not the case at all; discussed here: Vain Genealogies).

The problem is, we know pretty much for a fact from another article that the virgin birth tradition of both Matthew and Luke was drawn independently from a source or sources undoubtedly circulating as early as the 60s, if not earlier (discussed here: Jesus Christmas, Church collusion). Since an argument from silence used to explain Paul's silence of the tradition based on a tradition that postdated Paul is not plausible, we must assume another reason for this. A virgin born Christ was undoubtedly a touchy subject with ancients in a world surrounded by pagan God-men. Thus, a plausible reason for Paul's silence about the tradition is there was no occasion to discuss it any great detail. Paul indeed makes two references of Jesus' birth, and in the context of both instances a virgin birth would not have served any specific purpose for the main point Paul was conveying at the time, thus would have been just a distraction from his main purpose. The first reference to Jesus' birth mentioned by Paul is found in his Galatians letter…


Galatians 4:4 "But when the fullness of the time came, God sent forth his Son, born of a woman, born under the Law."


Paul used "Son" a total of seventeen times in regards to Jesus in direct relation to God
the Father, and it's particular to note here that Paul states "of a woman." It's interesting in the sense of it not only being an obvious and unnecessary declaration (there are no human beings born of men), but being that Jewish parental entitlement was always expressed through the father -- i.e. Jesus was actually ben David (born of the son of David). The fact Paul put unnecessary emphasis on his birth to a woman implies unusual birth circumstances with this particular son of David.

Something I also pointed out in Part 4 of this article is that the word "born" Paul used in both cases is the Greek word ginomai which simply means "made." This was in contrast to Greek alternatives like gennao or tikto that denoted "begotten" or "humanly reproduced" more explicitly. Ginomai is the same word John used (1:14) to dress up his preexistent Logos ("the Word") motif in the beginning of his gospel.

Paul does in fact use the Greek word gyne for "woman" and totally excludes the Greek word parthenos (virgin); the latter word that is used by Matthew and Luke in relation to Jesus' birth to Mary (Matthew 1:23; Luke 1:27). However, it's not as unusual when we understand the main point of Paul's argument here. We can reasonably assume that "woman" served the purpose of his theological point of being set free from bondage of the law he was specifically arguing in this chapter (click here to read his whole argument). A word specifying a virgin would have distracted from this point that was irrelevant specifically to a virgin birth situation. Does this support a virgin birth? No. However, it's certainly not out of the question Paul had no knowledge of it considering the word he used for "born" and the fact he made the redundant acknowledgment that Jesus was born of a woman. The other Pauline passage of Jesus' birth is from his Romans letter...

 

Romans 1:3 "Concerning his Son, who was born of a descendant of David according to the flesh…"

 

Some critics use this passage as an argument for Paul's disbelief in a virgin birth because of his use of the word "flesh." However, this argument is either intentional misrepresentation or, once again, just gross ignorance of the subject of the expected Messiah and David's ancestral line, predictably the lineage Messiah would come from (see Psalm 89:1-4; Isaiah 9:6-7, 11:1-10; Jeremiah 30:8-9; Ezekiel 34:22-25; 37:24-25; Hosea 3:4-5). I should first note here that born of the flesh obviously was not contrary to Jesus' virgin birth. Christian virgin birth theology certainly did not sponsor any heretical ideas of Gnosticism or Docetism, where Jesus was of a non-materialistic form or an illusionary spirit. To the contrary, the virgin birth illustrates that he was born according to the flesh like any other child, just without the aid of a human male to fertilize the female egg. As was previously stated, on common sense alone, the fact Paul even bothers to confirm that he was born "according to the flesh" was a redundancy, since Paul's preceding words "born of a descendant of David" goes without saying he was born human, thus implying once again he was fishing for a deeper theological truth about Christ.

Also note that the word for "born" Paul uses here is once again ginomai ("come into being"), which might also explain why Paul distinguished the fact he was of the flesh. In this particular case, had Paul believed Jesus was naturally conceived through normal sexual reproduction, he undoubtedly would have used gennao ("natural birth") instead, the alternative to ginomai. This would have further emphasized Jesus' rightful Davidic entitlement according to the law through natural birth, which, once again, implies Paul was conscious of a special theology behind Jesus' origins.

Nonetheless, let's look at this further. In another passage (Romans 8:3-4), Paul claims that God sent "his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh." In Paul's Philippians letter (Philippians 2:7), he states Jesus was "in the form of God… and was made in the likeness of men." Interestingly, Paul used the Greek word anthropos for the word "men" here. Anthropos was a more generalized word for "human being" rather than a man specifically. So on top of the fact that Paul was indicating Jesus was "in the form of God," he was also implying that Jesus was unique in his previous state before he had been sent in human likeness. In his Corinthian letter, Paul states…

1 Corinthians 15:47-48 "The first man (Adam) was of the dust of the earth, the second man (Jesus) from heaven. As was the earthly man, so are those who are of the earth; and as is the man from heaven, so also are those who are of heaven."

 
We also pointed out Paul's argument about Jesus' preexistence with God in Part IV. It's more than obvious that not only did Paul believe and understand Jesus' origins were unusual, oftentimes revealing this in very subtle ways as I have pointed out, but took it for granted that it was familiar to his readers as well (why shouldn't he… they were Christians!). Had his audience not been familiar with the virgin birth story about Jesus, an audience undoubtedly familiar with other pagan legends about God-men in their culture, they would have wondered how this particular God-man who was "made in the likeness of flesh" or "the likeness of a human being" came into existence. This can similarly be said about his topics concerning the crucifixion, the resurrection, and the ascension. Paul's passages about Christians "rising" to meet the Lord in the air (1 Thessalonians 4:14-17), or Jesus "ascending on high" and seated at the right hand of God "in heavenly places" (Ephesians 1:20, 4:8-10) was compatible to the ascension of Christ doctrine described in Luke's gospel. In case after case where Paul mentions Christ crucified (examples: Romans 6:6; 1 Corinthians 1:12-13; Galatians 2:20, etc.), he obviously did not have to go into detail about how Jesus was arrested by the Sanhedrin, why he was arrested, how he was tried before Pilate, why he was crucified, and where he was finally executed, yet mentions the crucifixion in verse after verse taking for granted that the Passion tradition (arrest, trial, and crucifixion) found in the gospels had already been known to his readers.

Otherwise, there is left an unusual missing void of what led to these events or what particular foundational tradition clarified these events and tied them together if this foundation had not been established prior. The gospel traditions provide the continuity of Paul's theology.

A spiritual resurrection?

The issue of Paul's spiritual (disembodied or immaterial) resurrection versus bodily resurrection has also been exploited from this topic, and the empty tomb is the catalyst to this theory. The argument goes like this: Paul never mentions an empty tomb, hence, from this, we can conclude that there was no empty tomb Paul knew of otherwise he would have mentioned it at some pint in his letters (particularly 1 Corinthians 15). Thus if there was no empty tomb, then there must be an explanation why Paul believed this individual, Jesus, had resurrected. But if we assume Paul believed in a non-material resurrection -- non-material resurrected Christ -- then the problem is solved. No physical resurrection = no need of an empty tomb where the body exists, which then can be used as a reason to explain why Paul did not specifically mention an empty tomb since there apparently was no empty tomb. See the circular reasoning here?

This theory is typically based on selective and isolated Pauline passages for support, such as Paul's use of the word "spiritual." Paul often associated many divine or heavenly things with the "spirit" or identified it as a "spiritual" happening, and even called the post-resurrection body a "spiritual body" (1 Corinthians 15:44) -- Greek word pneumatikos. However, this is not unusual as they make it out to be. Indeed, the resurrected body technically was spiritually induced (by God), as opposed to something naturally induced (by nature). However, this doesn't mean it was a non-material or non-physical event. The proponents of this theory insist that "spiritual" means non-material, but the Greek word pneumatikos was a very general word used by Paul in many tenses including the present tense, as well as to describe many different things, including, in many cases, something that was also presently experienced or something that was still in the physical realm. Examples...

 

1 Corinthians 10:1-4: "For I do not want you to be unaware, brethren, that our fathers were all under the cloud and all passed through the sea; and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea; and all ate the same spiritual food; and all drank the same spiritual drink, for they were drinking from a spiritual rock which followed them; and the rock was Christ."

 

Galatians 6:1: "Brethren, even if anyone is caught in any trespass, you who are spiritual, restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness; each one looking to yourself, so that you too will not be tempted."

 

In Corinthian passage, Paul is obviously not describing food that is not of a physical (or in this case, even natural) substance even though he calls it "spiritual food." Paul's use of spiritual is in the sense of how the food is obtained -- via a miracle from God than by natural means. In the Galatians passage, the spiritual brethren are obviously still physical in nature. Paul basically used the word "spiritual" to distinguish something supernatural from something natural, or something that was induced or influenced by supernatural means or in a supernatural way, not always something that was meant as non-physical from something physical. Paul's "spiritual body" was not an immaterial body, but a body resurrected via a miraculous event.

We should note here that the very Greek word for "resurrection" (anastasis) is the word that Paul used to describe the resurrection in every case he used the word. Bodies were buried lying down, thus the word anastasis specifically denoted the body in a supine position, hence a physical event that involved the corpse "standing up." Paul was also an admitted Pharisee (Philippians 3:4-7), which in and of itself is evident that Paul taught a bodily resurrection, as this was the very theology the Pharisees held.[3]

These factors alone already put the immaterial body theory in question, but with these aside, let's explore this further. Not only did I give logical reasons earlier for Paul's supposed unusual silence specifically about the tomb burial (also discussed here: Legend of the Empty Tomb, The silent tomb) -- an argument from silence that has no logical merit or even historical merit -- but Paul’s stark belief in resurrection of the mortal body that would eventually be a future event for all believers is simply uncontested from the context of his theological discussions about resurrection throughout his letters (examples: Romans 8:11; 1 Corinthians 15:50-54; Philippians 3:20-21; 1 Thessalonians 4:14-17).

If you notice in the last passage in his Thessalonians letter, Paul states that on the appointed day of Christ's return to resurrect all believers, the "dead will rise" first followed by those still alive to meet the Lord in the air. However, Paul stated elsewhere that the Christian would be in the Lord's presence immediately after death (2 Corinthians 5:6-8), thus the resurrection expressed in the Thessalonians passage where all believers would be gathered to meet the Lord was obviously unique than just being in the Lord's presence after death. This is further evidence that Paul's resurrection constituted a physical body event. Moreover, Paul's belief in a bodily resurrection is also affirmed from the "Resurrection Creed" tradition itself...

 
1 Corinthians 15:3-4 "For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures..."

 
If Paul had not been teaching a bodily resurrection, the fact Paul already confirmed that Jesus had died in the same sentence made it unnecessary for him to mention that Jesus was buried, as this would have been a redundancy -- we already know Jesus died as he stated and as a Jew would have been buried, thus what happened to the corpse is not relevant in the case of an immaterial resurrection. As I described earlier, Paul excludes much detail in that passage, thus Paul's specific "buried" detail was not a redundancy but was apparently a necessity to mention because it emphasized the idea that the same buried corpse was raised (anastasis) on the third day.

Moreover, as I noted, Paul's resurrection theology was something that he declared didn't just happen to Christ, but would eventually happen to all believers at a unique appointed future time of Christ's return. In this context, there is also another key element Paul pointed out that would happen that was associated with this event -- a transformation from mortal to immortal...

 

1 Corinthians 15:50-54 "Now I say this, brethren, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. Behold, I tell you a mystery; we will not all sleep, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet; for the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For this perishable must put on the imperishable, and this mortal must put on immortality. But when this perishable will have put on the imperishable, and this mortal will have put on immortality, then will come about the saying that is written, 'Death is swallowed up in victory.'"

 

Paul states that the body would change, and that this would happen not just to those who were still alive, but those who had died ("fallen asleep") in a cumulative event on that appointed day. This makes little sense as a non-material event or even as some sort of "replacement body" or "exchange to a different body" teaching. In other words, Paul taught that in a future time every believer would be transformed from mortal to immortal, both those who had died and would resurrect simultaneously with those who were still alive who needed no resurrection at the same appointed time.

So, the logic here completely shatters the non-physical resurrection theory. How will those who are still alive transform into a non-physical body, and why would the dead need to transform if they are already non-physical spirits who are "with the Lord" as Paul taught elsewhere (2 Corinthians 5:6-8)? If those who have already died and are with the Lord need to resurrect, then they obviously resurrect with physical bodies since they are already disembodied spirits thus would need no transformation or even resurrection. A "two-body" hypothesis is also shattered in this case because it would be quite baffling to wonder what would happen to the original body of those still alive if they had to abandon it and switch into a new body.

Paul was expressing a physical event, a transformation of not only a physical body, but the same body that would raise up from mortal to immortal -- those still alive would not put off mortality but "put on" immortality (1 Corinthians 15:53) and those who had died would rise up (anastasis) and transform into immortality, which is why Paul previously included Christ's resurrection creed in the same context. Those who SAW Jesus alive (1 Corinthians 15:3-8) he used as evidence to the Corinthians that it was not only a visible body, thus physical, but that the same resurrection and metamorphosis from mortal to immortal that occurred with Jesus would eventually happen to the believer.

The Greek repudiation

Another important thing to note is that we know Paul had close connections with the Jerusalem church, including Peter and James, which is where the first Christian church was established and where the Christian movement would have first sparked according to Acts and Paul's Galatians letter (2:1-10). If we assume there was no actual tomb burial and no physical resurrection that Paul understood and had taught, this is unquestionably what Jesus' followers and the first apostles taught. Therefore, there was obviously a rather radical switch from Paul's belief from Jerusalem to the belief expressed in the gospels a decade if not just years later.

Had Paul and the early apostles taught a resurrection that excluded the physical body at first, which then switched to a bodily resurrection that required a fabled empty tomb story, this would have been no smooth or casual transition in the first century historical church, to say the least, particularly to a Greek audience. A body coming back to life in physical form was an extremely notable declaration because it was something completely and totally contrary to Greco-Roman culture.

Scholar Pheme Perkins argues that Christianity's earliest pagan critics considered bodily resurrection as a ridiculous notion that they attributed to Christian's misunderstanding of the philosophical process of metempsychosis (transmigration of the soul from life to death). [4] Likewise, N. T Wright argues that the way in which Platonic thought dramatically reshaped the Greco-Roman world in regards to body and soul, contrary to Christian resurrection theology, cannot be overestimated and states...

 

"And - this is, after all, the point for present enquiry - neither in Plato nor in the major alternatives just mentioned do we find any suggestion that resurrection, the return to bodily life of the dead person, was either desirable or possible."[5]

 

Ramsay MacMullen concurs...

 

"Resurrection of the flesh appeared a startling, distasteful idea, at odds with everything that passed for wisdom among the educated."[6]

 

The Greek skeptic and philosopher Celsus argued that though the soul could reasonably attain everlasting life, the body was "more worthless than dung."[7] Plutarch stated that it was a violation of nature to believe that bodies were sent to heaven instead of freeing themselves completely of morality after death.[8] Seneca, the Stoic tutor of Nero, and Paul's contemporary, spoke about the condition of human beings being "the detestable habitation of the body, and vain flesh in which the soul is imprisoned."[9] Aeschylus succinctly captured this message in his Homeric drama when he stated: "But when the thirsty dust sucks up man's blood once shed in death, he shall arise no more."[10]

The main problem with this argument in general is two-fold. The fact some Greeks at Corinth had issues is easily understood in light of what the Greeks believed. They had no issue with the concept of life after death existence but repudiated belief in bodily resurrection, thus the consternation of "some among them" to this idea only makes sense in the context of a bodily resurrection tradition that was being taught by Paul that they took issue with than just a nonphysical resurrection or vision. This is why Paul went out of his way to carefully distinguish bodies mortal and bodies immortal (1 Corinthians 15:50-54), painstakingly pointing out that there were different types of fleshly composites of this body makeup between this transformation (1 Corinthians 15:39-44), one body type that was induced naturally (earthly) and one that induced supernaturally (spiritual or heavenly).

Once again, it cannot be overstated that such a switch of theology from non-body to body occurring in the early church in such a short amount of time would have been a very notable conflict in the church. Because of the inevitable confusion, contention and schisms we would expect from such a switch in philosophies between Paul and the gospels (and the communities the gospels were written to), it would have undoubtedly been a conflict addressed by other writers, including Luke in Acts, the NT epistles, Clement I, Ignatius, Polycarp, or the subsequent church fathers and historians who were not at all shy about addressing such confusions and conflicts that arose in the early church.

I should also note that an immaterial body belief did in fact eventually infiltrate Christianity in forms of Gnosticism and Docetism that denied the physicality of Jesus in general, and is an issue that indeed was addressed by the church fathers and historians. Though this is a different issue in the sense that this belief extended beyond just the resurrection body of Jesus, or what Jesus was from the very beginning of his ministry on earth to his ascension back to heaven -- I'm pointing it out as an example of how a progression of such theology logically forms.

Though it was once an argument proposed by some, most current scholars have abandoned the idea that there was a "proto-Gnosticism" forming in early Judeo-Christianity, or that Gnosticism had its roots in the early church.[11] This is simply antithetical to what the gospels and Paul clearly understood and taught. The earliest reference to the controversy of docetism is found in John's epistles (1 John 4:2; 2 John 7), which date to the late first century (though some who assume the works are pseudonymous date it later), as well as Ignatius,[12] both of whom sternly warn against such "non-physical body" teaching.

We then see this progression continue on a predictable course with much more distinct apocryphal sources from the second and third century showing an explosion of influence that reflects a non-physical body doctrine as well as attacks by church fathers of the second and third centuries against it. In other words, a non-physical controversy does in fact happen but in reverse of what the initial non-physical resurrection theory proposes. The former happens in a progressive pattern, from physical to non-physical, which is what we would expect to see of a later evolution of legend and theology from the historical norm.

To assume that Paul taught a non-physical resurrected body doctrine which then morphed into a physical body resurrection that required a tomb burial found in the gospel narratives later is in complete reverse of the patterns we expect to find. The development we see from the historical data is physical first and then an evolution into a highly controversial non-physical theology later; a controversy that cannot be ignored -- which we would have to assume happened with an abrupt change of resurrection views -- and was inevitably addressed as such by the second and third century.  

 

Conclusion

I should also add here, though a rather obvious point, that Paul was writing letters, meaning he was not writing thesis' on Christian history or trying to evangelize to an unbelieving audience. He was addressing immediate or current Christian issues or advancing Christology and had limited time and space to do this. Suppose your writing an email to a coworker at work. You're describing a current situation you're in with the boss at work. You're not going to go into extensive detail about the history of your boss's life outside of things that impact immediate issues, especially if you're scribing this on papyrus.

The traditional Jesus canvas already existed for Paul, which is what he used to paint his theological Christ portrait. It becomes clear then that there is simply no mystery to any "silence" about Jesus traditions and history because Paul's teachings expounded on these traditions -- Jesus' unique and supernatural origins (virgin birth), the crucifixion (tried by the Sanhedrin and Pilate), the burial (in a tomb), the resurrection (the empty tomb), seen by eyewitnesses afterward (his appearances), placed on high at the right hand of God (the ascension), etc. -- things that would have caused great confusion if these traditions had not been laid out as a foundation to his readers prior.

Moreover, the celebration of Christ in Paul's letters was not necessarily his first life, but his second -- his post-resurrection and ascension -- his ultimate conquest of death, and the ensuing salvation provided to the world as a result. Instead of wasting time and space in his letters engaging in amateur Christian semantics and old history that was already familiar to his readers, Paul was interested in taking the knowledge of his Christian audience, particularly a Greek audience, to an advanced Christological level, like an astrophysics professor taking for granted that his college students are already introduced to basic quantum mechanics they had previously acquired about a decade or two as high school graduates.

This also follows the methodology of later Christian writers, such as Clement I, Polycarp, and Ignatius, who preferred predominantly citing verses from Paul's letters as a teaching device in regards to higher Christology post-resurrection within their own epistles as opposed to citing the gospel works about the history of Jesus pre-resurrection.

Does this prove that the gospels are pre-70 CE works? Not necessarily, but it leaves impotent the post-70 premise that tries to use this argument from silence as a criterion of support.

 
Click here for Part VI, or here to go home 

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Source References

1. Jerome, On Illustrious Men, chap. 7 (www.newadvent.org).

2. James D. G. Dunn, Jesus Remembered, pp.252-253; 2003.

3. William L. Craig, Gerd Lüdemann, Paul Copan, Ronald K. Tacelli, Jesus' resurrection: fact or figment?, p.118; 2000.

    Gary R. Habermas, Memories of Jesus, p.263; 2010.

    Robert H. Gundry, Soma in Biblical Theology, p.177; 2005.   

4. Pheme Perkins, Resurrection: New Testament Witness and Contemporary Reflection, p.61; 1994.

5. N.T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, pp.52-53; 2003.

6. Ramsay MacMullen, Christianizing the Roman Empire, p.12; 1984.

7. Origen, Contra Celsus, book 5, chap. 14 (www.newadvent.org). 

9. Plutarch, The Life of Romulus, section 28:8 (http://penelope.uchicago.edu). 

9. Seneca, cited by Edwin M. Yamauchi, C. Ancient Concepts of the Afterlife (www.leaderu.com/everystudent/easter/articles/yama.html ).

10. Aeschylus, Eumenides (http://classics.mit.edu).

11. John M. G. Barclay, Colossians and Philemon, p.65-67; 2004.

     Dunn, ibid., p.163.

     Philip Francis Esler, The early Christian world, Volume 2, p.188; 2000.

     Gerard van Groningen, First century gnosticism: Its origin and motifs, p.103-104; 1967.

12. Ignatius, Epistle to the Smyrnaeans, chap.3-5 (www.newadvent.org).