Testimony of Paul
In the previous section, it was argued that the silence of several writers to mention the empty tomb constitutes an inductive argument against the historicity of the empty tomb. The absence of evidence for tomb veneration was also taken as evidence against the empty tomb. In this section, the evidence of Paul’s letters will be examined in particular. The nature of the earliest resurrection belief will also be discussed as it relates to the historicity of the empty tomb.
Paul’s letters are recognized as the earliest known Christian writings, which were written decades before the Gospel of Mark and the other gospels. Paul is usually credited with writing four to nine of the thirteen Pauline epistles in the New Testament. First Corinthians is one of the four not usually questioned. In chapter 15 of that epistle, the apostle Paul is concerned with assuring the Corinthians of faith in the resurrection as well as expounding upon the nature of the resurrection body. For this purpose, Paul provides a list of those who have been provided appearances of the risen Christ. If the tomb were discovered empty, then Paul would have some reason to mention this, especially if this discovery were verified by Peter or by Paul himself.
Norman Perrin comments on the silence of Paul concerning the empty tomb:
What makes this liturgical statement particularly important to us is not only that it is the earliest statement concerning the resurrection which we possess, although it is that by some twenty years, but also that, in the first place, it lists appearances of the risen Jesus to various individuals and groups, and that in the second place, Paul includes himself among those to whom the risen Lord has appeared. Then, thirdly, there is here – and for that matter elsewhere in Paul’s letters – no mention of the empty tomb.
All this has given scholars most furiously to think, and the upshot of their thinking may be expressed as follows: First of all, the empty tomb tradition is comparatively late. There is no evidence for any such tradition earlier than the Gospel of Mark, itself written some forty years after the event. Scholars are increasingly coming to the conclusion that the empty tomb tradition is an interpretation of the event – a way of saying “Jesus is risen!” – rather than a description of an aspect of the event itself.
Craig would argue that Paul’s statements imply that he had a belief in the empty tomb of Jesus, and I will address Craig’s arguments below. At this point, let it be assumed that these arguments are unsuccessful and that Paul does not presuppose or imply the empty tomb story. If this is the case, the silence of Paul does provide a degree of evidence in support of the theory that the empty tomb story is a later development. The silence of Paul is by no means a conclusive consideration, but it should certainly not be thrown out of consideration simply because it is inconclusive. The silence of Paul is inconclusive evidence that may serve as part of a larger case to establish that the empty tomb story is probably not historical.
Uta Ranke-Heinemann has written the following:
The empty tomb on Easter Sunday morning is a legend. This is shown by the simple fact that the apostle Paul, the most crucial preacher of Christ’s resurrection, and the earliest New Testament writer besides, says nothing about it. As far as Paul is concerned, it doesn’t exist. Thus it means nothing to him, that is, an empty tomb has no significance for the truth of the resurrection, which he so emphatically proclaims. Granted, for Paul all Christianity depends upon the resurrection of Christ – “If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain” (1Cor 15:14). But in Paul’s view, that has nothing to do with an empty tomb. He manifestly has no idea of any such thing. If Paul had ever heard of the empty tomb, he would have never passed over it in silence. Since he gathers together and cites all evidence for Jesus’ resurrection that has been handed down to him (1 Corinthians 15), he certainly would have found the empty tomb worth mentioning. That he doesn’t proves that it never existed and hence the accounts of it must not have arisen until later.
D.H. van Daalen mentions this reason in these words: “First of all that Paul did not refer to it. That does not necessarily mean that he did not know it. He may have known it and not regarded it as relevant. His not mentioning it proves neither one thing nor the other.” However, there is a way in which Paul would have been likely to consider it relevant, in the way of providing evidence for the resurrection. I would not go so far as Ranke-Heinemann in declaring this one consideration to settle the matter decisively, but this consideration does raise the probability that Paul didn’t know of an empty tomb story.
It might be objected that Paul did not mention the empty tomb story because it would not be useful if Paul understood the resurrection to be of a spiritual rather than physical type. However, it is unlikely that Paul and other early Christians would have believed the resurrection to be of a spiritual type if they knew that Jesus’ body was missing from the tomb after the resurrection. Thus, while it is possible that Paul believed in a spiritual sort of resurrection, this possibility itself discounts the empty tomb story. Either Paul believed in a physical resurrection but didn’t mention the empty tomb story, or Paul believed in a spiritual resurrection, but either way Paul provides evidence against the empty tomb story.
Although the topic is a complex one, I will provide a brief excursus on nature of the resurrection, with the provisional conclusion that Paul and early Christians believed in the physical resurrection of Jesus. In this essay, I grant that Paul believed in a physical resurrection because it is the more difficult hypothesis under which to dispute the historicity of the empty tomb. If my essay succeeds under this hypothesis, it should certainly succeed on the opposite spiritual resurrection hypothesis.
The argument that the earliest Christians such as Paul believed in a spiritual type of resurrection may be the one most commonly advanced objection against the historicity of the empty tomb story. Arguments presented for such a view can be found from Dan Barker, Richard Carrier, and David Friedman. Ryan Renn offers his own analysis of the Pauline epistles in support of different conclusions. Craig has published his own article defending the view that the apostle Paul held to a doctrine of bodily resurrection. Craig writes in response principally to Ostergeschehen and Osterberichte by Hans Grass, but unfortunately I have not been able to find this work in English translation.
There are at least four possible understandings of the resurrection doctrine that may be proposed.
- The first understanding is that resurrection will leave the body of flesh unstirred, that resurrection involves the creation of a new and different spiritual body, leaving the physical body in the dust. This is the view that Hans Grass attributes to Paul.
- The second understanding is that resurrection will not leave the body of flesh unstirred but that resurrection will transform the current body entirely into a spiritual, non-material body that is not located in space and time. This is the view that is suggested by Raymond Brown and Wolfhart Pannenburg among others.
- The third understanding is that resurrection will transform the body into a supernatural, exalted flesh-and-bones body that retains material form. This is the view that Craig holds.
- The fourth understanding is that resurrection will bring the body back into the same form of living on Earth as previously. This is a view that is not actually held as a good description for Paul’s doctrine.
I submit that most discussions of the issue have incorrectly presupposed that the only alternatives are (1) and (3). That is, when writing in defense of (1), the typical author argues against the idea that the resurrected body is physical flesh according to Paul. But the person who holds to (2) would agree. Or, when writing in defense of (3), the typical author argues against the idea that Paul understood resurrection as leaving the body of flesh rotting in the grave. But the person who holds to (2) would agree.
It is not difficult to accept the arguments of both sides in this debate and to draw the conclusion that the view in (2) is a plausible description. I have not found any arguments that address themselves specifically to rebutting the view of Paul’s doctrine proposed in (2).
Here is a brief summary of the principal arguments that have been brought to bear against a view like (3) as well as the responses of Craig. It has been stated that Paul emphasizes his apostolic status on equal grounds with Peter and others because of his vision of Christ (cf. 1Cor 9:1, 1Cor 15:5-9), which would have been untenable if Paul’s vision were different in kind from the physical encounters of the others. Craig states that this argument is faulty on two counts. Craig maintains that Paul’s vision as described in Acts was physical in some sense; further, Paul may have been “special pleading” so that his vision might “level up” to the reality of the experiences of the other apostles. In this way, the argument is shown to be inconclusive. The other argument concerns the resurrection body being spiritual, not physical. This idea is primarily based on an interpretation of Paul’s discourse in 1Cor 15:36-57. This passage speaks of a transformation of the physical body into the spiritual body. Thus, Craig analyzes the Greek terms to suggest that the dichotomy could be better translated as natural/supernatural in English.
Craig does indeed show a possible understanding of the term for spiritual that is meant to hold the connotations of supernatural or glorified. But is this the only possible understanding? It remains entirely plausible that Paul intended the term for spiritual not only to suggest that the resurrected body is glorified but also to suggest that it is no longer material. I do know of one statement that could easily suggest a view contrary to Craig, and that is the statement that “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God” in 1Cor 15:50. This is compelling if not completely decisive. There is evidence that the phrase “flesh and blood” was commonly used to represent sinful, weak, or transient human nature. This still might be stated to favor if not prove this theory rather than Craig’s theory, for then it would be no accident that Paul uses the phrase “flesh and blood” with this connotation, and then the mystery that Paul goes on to reveal would be that the resurrection body is not weak precisely because it is no longer of flesh and blood. In the biblical cases of the semitic idiom “flesh and blood,” it is not applied to beings that are not of “flesh and blood” literally as well as figuratively; the idiom is applied to those that truly are of flesh and blood in order to emphasize their weakness. In other words, Craig’s theory allows for only the connotation, while the other theory explains both the connotation and the use of “flesh and blood” to represent it; the statement would be true both literally and figuratively in Paul’s mind. Against the other theory, I know of no specific passages in Paul that suggest that the resurrected body is material or composed of flesh. But let it be stated again that I do not consider the evidence to be completely decisive.
There are two types of argument that are typically advanced against view (1). Made by Ryan Renn, the first argument concerns the passages in which Paul suggests the continuity of this body with such language as the redemption of the body (Rom 8:23), the transformation of the body (Phil 3:21), the dead being raised up at the eschaton (1Thes 4:13-18), the analogy of the seed (1Cor 15:47), and the mortal being “swallowed up” by life (2Cor 5:4). This kind of language gives the suggestion that the current body is not left to rot in the grave in the resurrection but rather that the current body is changed in the resurrection. The other argument concerns the general understanding of what resurrection means. This argument is not simply that Jews believed in a resurrection of the physical body and thus that the early Christians did too. This argument further concerns the language that early Christians would have used for their belief, supposing that they did not believe that the physical body was raised. As Bode writes, “A changed body is not a different body. Jewish mentality would never have accepted a division of two bodies, one in the tomb and another in a risen life.” Would Peter or Paul have preached a resurrection of the spirit alone when such terms could only provide confusion and doubt for their converts, whether Jewish or Gentile? For the Jews awaited the resurrection of the body, and the Gentiles scoffed at the idea of a resurrection, usually speaking only of the persistence of the soul. A plausible explanation should be given as to why the early Christians would have rejected the Jewish concept of resurrection of the body and also how they successfully taught a resurrection of the spirit. Without such an explanation, and without evidence that the early Christians believed that the resurrection left the physical body in the grave, it would be reasonable to disagree with such an idea.
However, the same type of argument does not apply against the view proposed in (2). This is because the spiritual body is the result of a transformation of the physical body on this view, and thus the continuity is preserved, although the result is not physical or made of flesh. Such a view would not be foreign to first century Judaism. Indeed, Pauline thought in passages such as 1Cor 15:35-55 closely parallels the thought found in the Syriac Apocalypse of Baruch 49-51. In this passage, the question is asked:
“In what shape will those live who live in Thy day? Or how will the splendour of those who (are) after that time continue? Will they then resume this form of the present, and put on these entrammelling members, which are now involved in evils, and in which evils are consummated, or wilt Thou perchance change these things which have been in the world, as also the world?”
Note that the flesh itself is closely associated with evil, and thus it is a radical change of the body into a non-physical form that allows the resurrected body to be a truly glorified body. The analogy of the change of the body to the change of the world is that, in both cases, the body or the world would be utterly purged and thus transformed anew.
In chapter 50, the author states that, at first, the dead will be raised back into the form of a body of flesh. But then when the day of judgment comes, both the living and the dead who had been raised (who are the saved ones) are transformed into a non-physical body. The author describes this state as follows:
Also (as for) the glory of those who have now been justified in My law, who have had understanding in their life, and who have planted in their heart the root of wisdom, then their splendour shall be glorified in changes, and the form of their face shall be turned into the light of their beauty, that they may be able to acquire and receive the world which does not die, which is then promised to them. For over this above all shall those who come then lament, that they rejected My law, and stopped their ears that they might not hear wisdom or receive understanding. When therefore they see those, over whom they are now exalted, (but) who shall then be exalted and glorified more than they, they shall respectively be transformed, the latter into the splendour of angels, and the former shall yet more waste away in wonder at the visions and in the beholding of the forms. For they shall first behold and afterwards depart to be tormented. But those who have been saved by their works, and to whom the law has been now a hope, and understanding an expectation, and wisdom a confidence, shall wonders appear in their time. For they shall behold the world which is now invisible to them, and they shall behold the time which is now hidden from them: And time shall no longer age them. For in the heights of that world shall they dwell, and they shall be made like unto the angels, and be made equal to the stars, and they shall be changed into every form they desire, from beauty into loveliness, and from light into the splendour of glory.
Thus, the transformation effected allows the resurrected a limitless existence in the invisible world, like unto angels, in the form of light and of beauty, a difference in kind from existence in the flesh.
If such a theory is correct, then Paul would not have accepted physicalistic resurrection appearances of the type narrated in the Gospels. However, let it be stated that, with either (2) or (3), Paul’s concept of the resurrection does not allow physical bodies to remain rotting in the grave. That is the important issue for the discussion of the historicity of the empty tomb.
Because I do not believe the evidence to be sufficient to justify the view of Paul’s doctrine proposed by theory (1), I do not consider this argument to be a good one against the historicity of the empty tomb. For the rest of this essay, the assumption will be granted that Paul believed in a physical type of resurrection. As stated before, the conclusion that the empty tomb is unhistorical would remain intact if this assumption were not granted.
 Dan Barker and Michael Horner, “Did Jesus Really Rise From the Dead?” (<URL:https://infidels.org/library/modern/dan_barker/barker_horner.html>, 1996), accessed 14 Dec 00.
 Richard C. Carrier, “Could the Original Gospel Have Been of a Spiritual Rather Than a Physical Resurrection?” (<URL:https://infidels.org/library/modern/richard_carrier/resurrection/3d.html>, 2000), accessed 14 Dec 00.
 Raymond Brown is quoted by Ryan Renn (“The Empty Tomb Revisited” <URL:http://members.nbci.com/ragu1997/ETrevis.htm>, 1998): “Our earliest ancestors in the faith proclaimed a bodily resurrection in the sense that they did not think that Jesus’ body had corrupted in the tomb. However, and this is equally important, Jesus’ risen body was no longer a body as we know bodies, bound in the dimensions of space and time. It is best to follow Paul’s description of risen bodies as spiritual, not natural or physical (psychikos–see n. 147 above); he can even imply that these bodies are no longer flesh and blood (15:50). [REB.VCBR 127-28]” Wolfhart Pannenburg is quoted by Norman Geisler (“I Believe…in the Resurrection of the Flesh” <URL:http://www.iclnet.org/pub/resources/text/cri/cri-jrnl/crj0056a.txt>, 1994): “the future body will be a different one from the present body, not a fleshly body — as he says — a ‘spiritual body.'” in “Wolfhart Pannenburg, _Jesus — God and Man,_ 2d ed., trans. Lewis L. Wilkins and Duane A. Priebe, (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1977), 75.”
 Syriac Apocalypse of Baruch 49:2-3. Quoted from the translation of R.H. Charles (<URL:http://goodnewsinc.org/othbooks/baruch2.html>, n.d.), accessed 14 Dec 00.
 Syriac Apocalypse of Baruch 51:3-10. Quoted from the translation of R.H. Charles (<URL:http://goodnewsinc.org/othbooks/baruch2.html>, n.d.), accessed 14 Dec 00.