Theology of the New Testament, Essay 6


How far is Paul's teaching on the Resurrection in First Corinthians compatible with that of the Gospels?

The teaching on the resurrection in First Corinthians comprises the factual record of the resurrection appearances and Paul's interpretation thereof. The gospel teaching consists of the record of the empty tomb and the accounts of the resurrection appearances, which are themselves - in the manner of the gospel narratives - interpretative. The question therefore analyses into whether the factual accounts amount to the same basic data, and whether the interpretation is the same. We will deal first with Paul's account and afterwards with that of the gospels.

The account of the resurrection appearances in First Corinthians is in fact taken over by Paul from a traditional account. He quotes the tradition he has received, using the technical rabbinic terms paredoka and parelabon (as in 11.24-28 about the eucharist). In fact there are features of 15.3-4 which are un-Pauline and show that he has inherited the formula: amartia (sin) is used in the singular; Paul uses it 50/56 times in the plural, and all the other singular occurrences are in a kerygmatic or Christological formula. kata tas graphas is used only here in Paul for 'according to the scriptures', whereas elsewhere he uses kathos gegraptai. In the formula for 'on the third day' only here is the ordinal 'third' at the end: te emera te trite. Only here does Paul use oi dodeka for the Twelve. These traits refer to the first two verses, leaving open the question how far the formula extends. In v.6 occurs ephapax, the only occasion when Paul uses it to mean 'simultaneously'; otherwise he uses it only once, in the same sense as it is used in Hebrews, 'once and for all' (Rm 6.10) of Christ's atoning death. If this verse also is pre-Pauline, it extends the witness of the resurrection-appearances to the 500 brothers.

The earliest testimony to the resurrection is, therefore, exclusively to the appearances of the risen Lord. These are bodily appearances, as is indicated by the verb ophthe, which can only mean 'was seen', not merely 'experienced'. What this 'seeing' was remains unclear, particularly because the same verb is used of the appearance to Paul himself. The description given of this appearance on the road to Damascus is, of course, Luke's rather than Paul's, and it is notorious that Luke himself composes many of his little dramatic scenes as a vehicle for his theology; we may not simply from reading between the lines of Luke's account conclude that Paul's experience of the risen Christ was merely a spiritual experience, rather than a bodily sight of a risen body. Paul himself puts it on a level (ophthe) with those visual experiences of Peter and the Twelve and the 500 others. Again, if we take Luke seriously, we must argue that the bodily appearances of the risen Lord came to an end at the Ascension; but this may be to take the Ascension (occurring only in the Lukan writings) too seriously: did Luke intend the implication that there must be a qualitative difference between the appearances to Peter and the Twelve and the appearance to Paul?


Not all the teaching on the resurrection in 1 Cor 15 is relevant to a comparison with the gospel teaching. Paul is concerned primarily to teach about the resurrection of Christians rather than about the resurrection of Christ. But since he is convinced that Christ is the first-fruits of the resurrection and the second Adam in whom all are made alive (15.20-23), we may read backwards from what he says about the resurrection of Christians to that of Christ. The chief point of interest is the quality which he attributes to the risen person, and so of the risen Christ; it will be important to compare this to the data and implications of the gospels.

Paul is well aware that he can use only imagery on this matter. It seems to me that he begins the discussion in vv.39-41 with a tentative groping towards the statement that the language used must be analogical, suggesting that, when used of different objects, the terms 'flesh', 'body' and 'splendour' are analogical (or at least 'family concept' terms) rather than literal terms. This is preparing for the explanation of the transformation of the risen person. There is continuity, for 'for each kind of seed its own body' (v.38); this makes continuity between every seed in its kind and the grain it produces. But 'body' when used of the natural body does not have the same sense as when it is used of the risen body.

The crucial passage is in verses 42-44. Here three contrasts are made, summed up in a fourth. In each of these the message is that the risen body has passed out of the natural into the divine sphere. It has passed from perishability to imperishability, from contemptibility to glory, from weakness to power. In each case the latter is a divine condition. These are summed up in the change from psychikos to pneumatikos; the body is informed no longer by the psyche, the natural soul, but by the Spirit. Explained here to the Corinthians to allay their worries about the afterlife and to fill out their hope for themselves and for those who have died, this must also in Paul's mind apply to the body of the risen Christ. The last Adam has become a life-giving spirit, the heavenly man who is a pattern for heavenly people (vv. 45, 49).


At first sight there seems to be little relationship between this teaching and that of the gospels. The basic account is that of Mark, from whom the other accounts of the empty tomb are derived (in some details by reaction), and who presumably considered that the account with which he ended his gospel was in some sense complete.

In his article 'Empty Tomb and Absent Lord' in Kelber's Passion Accounts in Mark, JD Crossan maintains that Mark's story was created precisely to oppose the tradition of appearances to Peter and the Twelve attested in First Corinthians. It is based on a historicising re-interpretation or misunderstanding of 'on the third day', which was originally intended as eschatological symbolism. The form is 'derived directly and deliberately from that of Mark 6.45-51' (p. 150). This story of Jesus walking on the waters is a creedal story, intended to show that Jesus has conquered the waters of death and comes to save his followers from danger and despair. 'It is from or around such stories that the Apparition tradition developed' (p. 152). It testifies to the absence of the Lord, and is a challenge from the Markan community in Galilee to the recalcitrant Jerusalem community to prepare for his return by suffering and mission. But, whatever may have been the intention of the story of Jesus walking on the waters, it is utterly inadequate to maintain the derivation of the empty tomb story from it, simply on the grounds that there is the same sequence of events: situation - apparition - greeting - response - command (in fact absent in 6.51) - result. This sequence is the inevitable sequence present in a thousand stories of meeting, and there is far too much diversity within the empty tomb story to leave the matter there.

A more attractive theory of the origin of the account has been proposed by L Schenke in the Stuttgarter Bibel Studien (1965). Schenke deduces the Sitz im Leben of the story to be the aetiology of a liturgy at the site of the tomb on a Sunday morning, thus accounting for the unusual stress on the details of time and place. The story is, however, clearly characterised by Markan style: the persistent kai, the duality of the double time-datum of v. 2 and of tois mathetais kai to Petro in v. 7, the delayed explanatory clauses introduced by gar (v. 4, 8b, 8d, cf. CH Turner in JTS 26 [1925], 145-156), the double negative of v. 8. Kathos eipen is also perhaps a Markan favourite phrase (also 11.6; 14.16, avoided by Mt and Lk). The remarkable feature of the story is the lack of apologetic motif: the women make no attempt to confirm the witness of the angelic messenger. This has been explained by the invalidity of the witness of women; but this is a later ruling of Pharisaic Judaism, and women played far too important a part in the early Christian community for this to be acceptable. The story is a classic example of the angelus interpres interpreting a datum already accepted; the angelus interpres does not establish a fact, but rather interprets facts which are puzzling to the onlookers, and are normally divine interventions. The dominant feature of the story is the amazement of the women, attested with all the richness of Mark's vocabulary of amazement (thambeo, tromos, ekstasis, phobos - Matthew is less rich, and monotonously uses phobos in vv. 4, 5, 8 [he prefers this sedate word also in 9.8 and 14.26]. Above all, this gives rise to the muddle of a report of a message which was never given. Throughout Mark these words represent the reaction to the divine (ekstasis 5.42, at the healing of Jairus' daughter, thambeo at his teaching and miracles in 1.27; 10.24, 32, etc) so that the dominant motif of his story is to show that the divine dimension is present in the emptiness of the tomb. So far there is continuity with the Pauline message of First Corinthians: the resurrection indicates the inruption of the divine dimension into the sphere of human life. Even the strange ending contributes to this impression, leaving the fear, so to speak, tingling with ephobounto gar; a similar effect is obtained by two other works which end with this same inconclusive particle: gnorimon gar (Musonius Rufus 12) to stress that everyone knew, and teleioteron gar (Plotinus 32) to stress very much more complete.


An element in the Markan story which of course is absent from Paul, since he gives no geographical indications, is the reference to Galilee. It has been widely and variously interpreted as a polemical element in favour of the Christian communities in Galilee. It is picked up by Matthew to provide his important theological addition, the final charge to the Eleven.

There is striking overlap in this Matthean passage with the Pauline teaching of 1 Cor 15. The burden of the final charge in Matthew is the continued presence of the risen Christ in his power as the Danielic Son of Man on whom was conferred rule, honour and kingship over all peoples Dn 7.14). Only to the risen Christ all authority in heaven and on earth has been given (Mt 28.18). The sense of power and mission recurs again and again in the accounts of the resurrection appearances. According to Luke repentance is to be preached to all nations in his name, and the account closes with a high priestly blessing before the Ascension (Lk 24.47-52). In John the risen Christ confers on them the power of the Holy Spirit and sends them as the Father had sent him (Jn 20.21-23), and in the Johannine Appendix he charges Peter to feed his sheep (Jn 21.15-17). This overlaps and to some extent coincides with the Pauline passage in which the risen Christ is eventually to hand over the kingdom to God the Father, having abolished every principality, every ruling force and power (1 Cor 15.24). In both versions he is constituted in power over the universe by the resurrection. Only each version has its own way of stating this.


There is a final element in the gospel stories of the resurrection appearances to which Paul's teaching in First Corinthians corresponds less closely. In the resurrection appearances there is a persistent trait that some bodily change has taken place. In Luke, the disciples on the way to emmaus fail to recognise him (Lk 24.16). In John, Mary at the tomb does not at first recognise Jesus but supposes him to be the gardener (20.15). Similarly, the disciples in the boat did not realise that it was Jesus on the shore (21.4). Unexciting explanations in terms of grief, distance and dim light can be given of these facts, but there may also be a theological meaning to them. In Matthew's final scene some such intention must be behind the fact that some of the Eleven hesitated to reverence him. This may be brought into relation with Paul's insistence that a transformation takes place at the resurrection. Such may also be the explanation of why the risen Christ is able to appear inside a room after it has been stressed that the doors are closed (Jn 20. 19, 26).

One final element has no correspondent in Paul's message. In several of the accounts there is an apologetic element, stressing that the risen Christ retained properties of ordinary life, particularly in the insistence in Luke that he could be touched and could eat (at Emmaus) and in the gathering at Jerusalem (24.39-43). Similarly in John Mary has to be told not to cling to him - which implies that it is possible - (20.17), and the risen Christ invites Thomas to touch and probe him (20.27). It might be said that this corresponds to the Pauline teaching that there is continuity between the seed and the grain, but more likely it is at variance with the Pauline teaching on the risen Christian and the risen Christ. It could be that Paul, Mark and Matthew and their communities were not concerned to stress the corporate nature of the risen Christ's being, because to their Judaic frame of mind a person must be a bodily person (a person is an animated body, rather than a soul incorporated into a body). However when the message of the resurrection came into contact with Hellenistic ideas of the soul, separable from the body, it was necessary to stress that Christ's continued existence was not simply as a ghostly or incorporeal being. This would therefore be an important supplement to the Pauline teaching.


HW Risen from the Dead, and bibliography there

JD Crossan 'Empty Tomb and Absent Lord' in Kelber Passion Narratives

F Neirynck 'Les Femmes au Tombeau', NTS 15 (1969),168-90

Bruce Malina 'Structure and Form of Mt 28.16-20' NTS 17 (1971)

L Schenke Auferstehungsverkuendigung (1965) [in German]