Licona: What Did Paul Believe about Jesus’ Resurrection?

Continuing the discussion of some of the issues Michael Licona raises in his book, The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach, we turn to the question of what Paul believed about Jesus’ resurrection. Was it “material” or “immaterial”? Did something happen to Jesus’ body? Did Paul think that the risen Jesus even had a body? To address these questions, Licona examines the six passages from Paul’s letters that are most informative: Rom 8:11; 1 Cor 15:42-54; Phil 3:21; Col 2:9; 2 Cor 4:16-5:8; and Gal 1:11-19.

Romans 8:11 – In discussing this verse, reference is also made to Rom 8:20-23. Licona concludes that “in Romans 8:11 Paul says the mortal bodies of believers will be raised even as the mortal body of Jesus was raised” (402-3). For me, this is one of the clearest expressions Paul makes about Jesus’ resurrection. It is clear that here Paul expresses the belief that something happened to Jesus’ body when Jesus was “raised from the dead.” What happened to Jesus and his body is the pattern for what will happen to believers and their bodies.

1 Corinthians 15:42-54 – Licona devotes 20 pages to this passage and is thorough in addressing what he considers to be the four main exegetical questions that are present in it. First, what does Paul mean by contrasting ψυχικόν (“natural”) and πνευματικόν (“spiritual”) in verses 44-46? Second, what is meant by the reference in verse 45 to Jesus as a “life-giving spirit” (πνεῦμα ζῳοποιοῦν)? Third, is Paul denying a physical resurrection in verse 50’s statement that “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable”? And fourth, does Paul refer to a transformation or to an exchange of the bodies of Christians in the future (verses 51-52)? After discussing these and other exegetical questions, Licona concludes that “it is highly likely that Paul held to a transforming resurrection of Jesus’ corpse” (423).

Philippians 3:21 – The main issue Licona explores in this verse is whether it should be rendered “Christ will transform our humble body…” or “Christ will exchange our humble body…” He opts for the former since it makes far better sense of the second half of Paul’s statement that the Christian’s body will “be in similar form” to the glorious body of Jesus. Again, a key point for me with this verse is that Paul was convinced that the post-resurrection Jesus had a body.

Colossians 2:9 – Because many question whether Paul wrote this letter, Licona devotes only a single paragraph to it and does not count it as part of the evidence for understanding Paul’s beliefs about Jesus’ resurrection.

2 Corinthians 4:16-5:8 – Acknowledging the difficulty of this passage and the lack of any kind of consensus among scholars, Licona proceeds to offer his own exegesis. Paul sees two possibilities for Christians: 1) some will die before the parousia and will exist in a disembodied state until the general resurrection, at which time they will take on their resurrection bodies; and 2) some Christians will be alive at the parousia and will have their earthly bodies clothed with their new resurrection bodies at that time.

Galatians 1:11-19 – Licona judges that this account “is too ambiguous to obtain details pertaining to the nature of his conversion experience,” at least as it relates to understanding Paul’s beliefs about Jesus’ resurrection (436).

In conclusion, I think that Paul is extremely important on this issue because 1) he is the earliest author to refer to Jesus’ resurrection; 2) at the time of his own experience of the risen Jesus he was not sympathetic to the Christian movement; and 3) his belief that Jesus had been raised from the dead was the cause of his conversion from being an opponent of the Christian movement to becoming one of its biggest proponents. And Paul’s belief that Jesus had been raised included the conviction that something had happened to Jesus’ corpse.

9 thoughts on “Licona: What Did Paul Believe about Jesus’ Resurrection?

  1. Good for Licona.

    It seems strange to me that some scholars think Paul — with his Pharisaic background — would place at the heart of the gospel anything less than a literal resurrection.


    1) “Resurrection” of what? Many people have died and their corpses have been digested by mold, fungi, worms, insects or large carnivores–and those animals have also lived and died. In such cases what exactly is left of the original body to “resurrect?”

    2) The “Identity Question” in philosophy concerns how we retain our identity while our bodies, cells, atoms, and memories undergo continuous change over time from birth till death. There is no single “body” that makes us up. The cells in our body are part of a constant process of growth and change, nearly all the cells of our body are replaced over time, except perhaps some cells in the brain, and even those have their contents replaced by new atoms/enzymes/lipids over time, and many brain cells die over our lifetime and new brain cells continue arising even in old age though new brain cell growth slows over time. Still, recent experiments indicate that regular aerobic exercise can halt brain shrinkage in the elderly because such exercise promotes the growth of new stem cells in the brain.

    3) Does the NT agree in a systematic fashion concerning where we go when we die? What does it mean to be “absent from the body/present with the Lord?” 2 Cor. 5:8. Do you need a body to be present with the Lord? And will we go to “heaven” or to a “reborn” earth? Note these passages in Paul:

    1Th 4:13-18, “We who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever.”

    Paul seems to indicate not just in that verse but in others that the Kingdom of God will be in heaven:

    2 Co 5:1 “… we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven…”

    Php 3:20a “But our citizenship is in heaven…”

    Gal 4:26a “… the Jerusalem which is above is free…”

    Also paradise is in the third heaven (2 Cor 12:2-4).

    That’s where the Christian elect will wind up in their “spiritual bodies,” to be in the company of Christ (1 Th 5:9-10).

    Also, in ‘Hebrews’, the Christians are expected to be raptured in the heavenly Jerusalem where they will meet Christ and God.

    Philo of Alexandria also put heaven as the destination of the righteous after death: “And the proselyte … has received as a most appropriate reward a firm and sure habitation in heaven” (On reward and punishment”, ch. XXVI, 152)“… looking upon the heavenly country in which they have the rights of citizens …” (On the confusion of tongues, ch. XVII).

    And note these observations (one theologian’s “assessment” of a debate held between Jake Harris O’Connell and Richard Carrier over the nature of the “spiritual body” in Paul’s letters):


    Further discussion of passages in the NT related to the resurrection, and a discussion of something N.T. Wright wrote about Paul’s view of the resurrection, all of which raise questions. Licona is naive if he believes he has engaged all the probabilities and smoothed over all the conflicting statements in the N.T. Licona has yet to demonstrate that he has a mind as full of questions as he boasted having in one of his videos.

    See also this Licona-related piece:

    • Ed – You touch on a number of issues in your replies, but none of them seem to address the main topic of my original post – what did Paul believe about the resurrection of Jesus? Feel free to share your thoughts on that particular matter if you’d like.

      Also, I don’t recall anywhere in the book where Licona claims that he “has engaged all the probabilities and smoothed over all the conflicting statements in the N.T.” Perhaps you can point us to where he makes such a claim. Or perhaps you know of a person or source that has done such a thing, in which case I’d love to know about it.

  4. Those who want to read the New Testament “critically” — which ought to mean using good judgment in assessing the content of these documents — often loose their way.

    It is historically absurd to suggest that Paul would put forth a “spiritual” resurrection that does not involve the restoration and transformation of the body.

    He was a Pharisee. Belief in the ultimate resurrection of the body was fundamental to him.

    This belief is never compromised — even in passages that involve some explanation, because of Paul’s unusual wording.

    As to the ultimate destiny of believers, the Christian faith is a resurrection faith. While we anticipate a time with Christ in heaven upon our death (in a disembodied form), we look forward to the ultimate redemption of the body and life in a renewed heaven and earth.

    Having citizenship in heaven, and a body that originates, in some sense, from there — and going to meet him as he descends from heaven — are all fully compatible with the expectation of a final resurrection.

  5. I completely missed Romans 8:11 when I wrote about this for class. So it seems that Paul envisions the physical body being transformed into a spirit one? Theri are questions to the logic of this, but Paul need not have examined all the possibilities and implications for resurection. On his views and Phariseeism, while our other sources on that movement can inform Paul, I’m not sure we can assume that Paul must of held all the views that other sources claim for pharisees.

  6. In seeking to be historical, “critical studies” often step far away from historical considerations.

    When Jesus, the Gospel writers, Paul, and other early Christian writers spoke of “resurrection,” there is only one way to understand them from a historical perspective. They rejected the doctrine of the Sadducees and the philosophies of the time.

    The body of Jesus was entombed, and the bodies of believers will be buried — followed by resurrection of that which was buried, leaving empty graves behind.

    If we’re going to be historical, that’s the only way to understand what they were talking about.

    Everything Paul wrote about the matter can be read in a way that is fully compatible with this conception.

  7. Pingback: Biblioblog Carnival February 2012 « Cheese-Wearing Theology

  8. Pingback: Biblioblog Carnival February 2012 | Cheesewearing Theology


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