Saturday, March 03, 2007

Did The Apostle Paul Believe In A Physical Resurrection Of Christ?

Does Paul express belief in a physical resurrection of Christ in his writings? Yes, he does. However, even if we were to accept for a moment the common skeptical assertion that the evidence from Paul's letters is unclear, we would still have good reason to think that Paul probably held the physical view. That view was the mainstream Jewish view, it was the view of the Pharisees, a group Paul had been associated with, and it was the view of companions of Paul, like Mark and Luke, and early Pauline churches, as reflected in the writings of Ignatius of Antioch, for example.

Ignatius was bishop of a church that had recently been in contact with Paul, and he wrote to multiple other churches that had recently been in contact with the apostle. He seems to have thought highly of Paul, as did the churches he wrote to:

"His [Ignatius'] letters are replete with Pauline ideas and letter structure. The most obvious example of this may be found in a comparison of the bishop's letter to the Ephesians with the Pauline letter of Ephesians, which I assume to be a product of the Pauline school and not of Paul himself. The elaborate greeting that Ignatius offers to the Ephesians, which is typical of his other letters as well, undoubtedly has been modeled upon similar Pauline forms. Numerous terms and phrases that Ignatius has employed in this greeting bear striking similarity to those that appear in the Pauline salutation (Eph 1:3-14). The themes and movement of ideas that follow throughout the bishop's letter show further parallels....we discover here a certain acknowledgment by the bishop that the church at Ephesus knew and revered Paul as well....The fact that Ignatius had modeled his own letter to the Ephesians so closely upon the pseudo-Pauline letter to Ephesus suggests that this form would have gained a happy reception by the Christians there....To some extent, he [Ignatius] specifically patterned his letter [to Rome] upon Paul's own letter to Rome....Ignatius borrows constantly from Pauline literary style....Ignatius makes special mention of Paul as a faith link between his own journey and that of the apostle (Ign. Eph. 12.2)." (Clayton N. Jefford, The Apostolic Fathers And The New Testament [Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 2006], pp. 41-42, 138-139)

Ignatius refers to Jesus' resurrection as physical (Letter To The Smyrnaeans, 3), and he seems to expect the Pauline churches to which he's writing to accept the same view. He repeatedly draws material from documents that refer to the resurrection as physical, such as the gospels of Matthew and John, and many other early sources do the same:

"[Matthew was] widely recognized among the numerous churches of the early second century...A careful reading of the Ignatian correspondence reveals that the bishop is very familiar with this particular gospel in comparison with remaining texts. Though he makes only rare reference to passages from the text of Matthew itself, he uses the work as the springboard for a variety of comments, thus to reveal a close familiarity with Matthean concerns and the ideas that are characteristic of the Matthean mindset. We can easily find a number of these usages....Ignatius makes use of phrases that appear to be unique to the text of Matthew...The potential parallels between Ignatius and the Gospel of Matthew would seem to be is clear that the Gospel of Matthew, both as a literary source and as a foundation for faith, gained an early status as the most widely known and utilized of our gospel texts through the churches of the early Christian world. The apostolic fathers attest to this fact on a wide scale. Connections to Matthew are evident in the Didache, the Epistle of Barnabas, throughout the letters of Ignatius, in 1-2 Clement, and in the Martyrdom of Polycarp. This suggests that the text of Matthew circulated quickly around the Mediterranean and gained an authoritative status quite readily among disparate churches in different locations." (ibid., pp. 110, 140-143)

Bruce Metzger, whose book on the canon Bart Ehrman calls "the standard authoritative scholarly account" (Misquoting Jesus [San Francisco, California: HarperSanFrancisco, 2005], n. 10 on p. 220), comments that "It is probable that he [Ignatius] knew the Gospels according to Matthew and John, and perhaps also Luke." (The Canon Of The New Testament [New York: Oxford University Press, 1997], p. 49)

Clement of Rome probably was a disciple of Paul, and he was part of a Pauline church that had recently been in contact with Paul. Near the end of the first century, he wrote a letter to another Pauline church that had recently been in contact with the apostle, and in that letter he affirms the physicality of the resurrection (First Clement, 26, 50). Much the same can be said of other early sources close to Paul.

If critics want to claim that it's unclear whether Paul expresses belief in a physical resurrection in his writings, they should be willing to acknowledge that Paul's Jewish and Pharisaic background and the beliefs of his companions and churches are clear on the subject. They're clear in the opposite direction than what critics would like.

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