Is it possible that some archaeologist one day might turn up a bone-box discovery containing the bones of Jesus of Nazareth? As always in matters of religion, the answer depends on who you ask. True Believers, who trust that the Bible always speaks Truth in matters related to faith and doctrine, will dismiss my question as ignorance of the nature and meaning of Jesus' resurrection.
The witness of all four canonical gospels is that the tomb of Jesus was found empty by the first visitors on that first Easter morning (Mark 16:4-6; Matt 28:5-6; Luke 24:2-6; John 20:3-9). The body of Jesus was gone! This is the basis for the argument that the body of Jesus was physically resuscitated and transformed, or as the writer we call Luke has it: the flesh of Jesus did not suffer corruption (Acts 2:24-32; 13:32-35).
The gospel writers double down on the physicality of the resurrection. John adds that Jesus cautions Mary not to cling to him (John 20:17)—a spirit is hardly substantial; there is nothing to cling to. Hence the caution to Mary only makes sense if Jesus' body is physical. And Jesus invites Thomas to "put out your hand and place it in my side"; spirits do not have sides (John 20:27; where the soldier had pierced his side on the cross, John 19:34)—another clue that the body of Jesus was physical and not spirit. In Matthew the women who had come to the tomb "took hold of his feet" (Matt 28:9); spirits don't have feet, but physical bodies do. Luke notes that the resurrected Jesus was given a piece of broiled fish "and he took it and ate before them" (Luke 24:39-42); spirits do not need food but bodies do.
According to true believers, however, why would one doubt the resurrection? God can, and has done, many things more marvelous than raising Jesus from among the dead. For example, the Bible reports that God transported Elijah bodily into heaven in a chariot of fire by means of a whirlwind—body, blood, bones, calloused bunions, and all (2 Kgs 2:9-12).
Paul, on the other hand, in discussing the concept of resurrection (1 Cor 15:35) specifically rules out a physical resurrection: the body is destined for corruption; it is only in the spirit that one may inherit eternal life (Gal 6:8). It is foolishness, Paul says, to conceive of resurrection in terms of a physical body (1 Cor 15:36-42). In short, "flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable" (1 Cor 15:50). What can inherit the kingdom of God is the "spiritual body" (1 Cor 15:44), Paul argues, and that must include Jesus as well (1 Cor 15:45).
Paul's idea of a spiritual resurrection does seem to make more sense than what is found in the gospels, but if we are transformed what happens to the old body? Paul argues that it will be changed (allagēsometha), like one changes a suit of clothes (1 Cor 15:52), and "puts on" the imperishable and immortal spirit (1 Cor 15:53-54). Nevertheless, there seems to be a continuum between the mortal and the immortal; the physical body is not divested but "further clothed" (2 Cor 5:1-4).
One of Paul's disciples, however, did not follow this last idea of the great apostle, and argued instead that "at death, the Elect are 'drawn' to heaven by the Savior (Treatise on the Resurrection, 45.34-39). The inner, spiritual self 'departs' and experiences a blessed 'absence' from the fleshly body" (Treatise on the Resurrection, 27.19-24, 35-38).1 In other words, the resurrection is a completely spiritual event. If the writer of this treatise on the resurrection is correct, it would seem that we might yet find the bones of Jesus buried somewhere in Israel.
Charles W. Hedrick
Missouri State University
1Malcolm Peel, "The Treatise on the Resurrection," in Harold Attridge, ed., Nag Hammadi Codex I (Leiden: Brill, 1985), 142.