Ministry Resources

Paul Explains the Resurrection to the Corinthians

Author: Dr. Craig Keener

These background notes are for 1 Corinthians 15: 1-19.

Introduction to Paul’s argument: Resurrection by definition involved the body. Many Judeans connected belief in an end-time resurrection (Daniel 12:2) and judgment with moral behavior (Pharisees sometimes attacked the resurrection-denying Sadducees on this count). The notion, however, seemed absurd to Gentiles. Many Gentiles denied an afterlife; believed that it involved a shadowy existence in the netherworld; or, commonly in this period, that one’s soul was immortal, but the body was earthly and had to be relinquished for the soul to ascend back to the heavens from which it originated. Even many Diaspora Jews did not affirm the resurrection. Paul accommodates their language where possible (even more in 2 Corinthians 4:16 to 5:10), but maintains the goodness of God’s physical creation hence a future hope for the body.

Verses 1-2: One often softened an audience by appealing to beliefs they shared; Paul appeals to the common ground of what converted them (cf. 2:1-5; Galatians: 3:2-5).

3: Jewish teachers would “pass on” or “deliver” their teachings to their disciples, who “received” them. Students could take notes, but especially memorized the traditions and sought to pass them on to others. Some think that 15:3-5 or 15:3-7 might be even a verbatim citation; the “Scriptures” believed to involve Jesus’ death here probably include Isaiah 53:4-6, 8, 11-12.

4: By its Jewish definition, resurrection was bodily, like the burial. Scriptures for the resurrection may have included Psalm 16 and Isaiah 53:12; if Paul thinks of Scripture also for “the third day,” he might think of texts like Hosea 6:2 or Jonah 1:17 (but may simply mean that Jesus was raised soon, before he could “see corruption,” Psalm 16:10).

5: “Appeared” was used for visions, but also for real appearances (often of God or angels). Visions of ghosts were common and not controversial; Paul’s list of witnesses in 15:5-8 instead attests assurance of a resurrection, which was by definition bodily. “Cephas” is Aramaic for “Peter.”

6: Ancients liked to appeal to public knowledge; the implication here is that such witnesses remained available to consult. No precedent supports the possibility of so many people having a mass hallucination simultaneously.

7: Paul uses “Apostles” more broadly than just for the Twelve (15:5).

8: Paul compares his out-of-season experience with that of a stillbirth (an image the Septuagint employs only for comparisons; Numbers 12:12; Ecclesiastes 6:3; Job 3:16), but instead of being born prematurely Paul is postmature. There may also be irony in a stillbirth’s acceptance of resurrection.

12: They probably affirm Christ’s resurrection, while wishing to deny that of believers. But resurrection was a corporate, eschatological experience of God’s people (Daniel 12:2), of which Jesus’ resurrection was only the first installment (cf. 15:12-28). In the following verses, Paul offers a logical chain by way of reductio ad absurdum: they cannot deny the future resurrection without denying the very message that had converted them to faith.

19: Some other Jews felt that life was miserable if there was no future vindication and justice.

These background notes are for 1 Corinthians 15:20-34.

Verse 20: “First fruits” represented the beginning of the harvest (Exodus 23:19; Leviticus 23:10; Jeremiah 2:3), a first installment (cf. Romans 8:23).

21-22: In 15:21-22, Paul introduces the concept between Adam and Christ that he will take up again in 15:45-49; Jewish people often affirmed that the end-time would parallel what God had done at the beginning (envisioning paradise as a new Eden).

23-25: Paul envisions the sequence of events based on Psalm 110:1 (as becomes explicit in 15:25): Christ must reign at God’s right hand until his enemies are subdued (for his reign, cf. also Isaiah 9:6-7; Daniel 7:14).

26: All enemies must be subdued (Psalm 110:1); no other enemy can possibly outlast death itself, so the resurrection coincides with Christ’s final victory.

27: Paul shows that the only exemption from what is subdued under him is God himself, as is clear from the verse (Psalm 8:5) immediately preceding his citation (Psalm 8:6). If the ruling “human one” in Psalm 8:4 alludes to humanity’s commission to rule in Genesis 1:26-28, Paul is preparing for his contrast with Adam in 1 Corinthians 15:45-49.

28: “All in all” was a rhetorical way to emphasize everything significant. (Although Stoic philosophers used such expressions pantheistically, Jews who used the language did not mean it this way.)

29: There is no consensus what this baptism means. Perhaps Paul alludes to the analogy of 2 Maccabees 12:43-45, where prayer for the dead is unreasonable unless the dead are raised. Perhaps he refers to baptism before they died in hope of the future resurrection; or baptism on behalf of a converted friend who failed to be baptized first. There is no evidence for vicarious baptism for others who are dead in this period, but perhaps it was a local Corinthian idea.

30-31: Danger every hour and dying every day are probably both hyperbole (for very real danger and suffering; cf. Psalm 44:22; 119:109).

32: Corinthians would readily understand the image, since Corinth had recently (A.D. 54) instituted annual imperial festivals that included wild beast “shows.” Ephesus also had gladiatorial shows. Nevertheless, the sentence of battling wild beasts in the arena was a death sentence, so those who did it did not normally live to tell about it. Paul thus undoubtedly applies the image figuratively. Philosophers spoke of the irrational as beasts, and Scripture compared human enemies with hostile beasts (e.g., Psalm 22:16; 74:19).

Paul cites the words of the wicked in Isaiah 22:13, who will face judgment (Isaiah 22:14). Similar depictions applied to those who denied an afterlife, such as Epicureans (cf. also Wisdom of Solomon 2:1-20)

33: Sages emphasized companionship with the morally edifying (e.g., Proverbs 13:20), and Paul here cites a Greek proverb (first known to us in Menander’s comedy “Thais”).

34: The educated and philosophically astute prided themselves on their knowledge (cf. 8:1), especially about eternal matters.

These background notes are for 1 Corinthians 15:35-58.

Verse 35: Paul advances the case by answering an imaginary objector, raising the sort of objection often raised to the resurrection belief. For example, some asked what happened if the body was destroyed by fire. (Later rabbis implausibly declared that the body would be resurrected from an indestructible bone in the back of the neck.)

36: “Fool!” was a common response to rhetorical adversaries, including imaginary ones.

37-38: Paul argues that the present body provides the pattern for the future one, regardless of how much remains. Later rabbis also used the seed analogy.

39: Paul argues in 15:39-41 that God can create various kinds of bodies, analogies that allow for a body of glory rather than of flesh (15:43, 50). In these verses Paul lingers on the point rhetorically, developing it by the rhetorical devices of antithesis (contrasts) and various cases of anaphora (x…/x… repetition).

40-41: Most pagans considered stars divine, and Jews saw them as angels. Many believed that stars consisted of fire, as Jews often believed about angels. Many Gentiles considered the heavens pure, the place where souls released from their bodies would ascend. Even some Judeans compared resurrection bodies to angels; given the link between stars and angels in Jewish thought, Paul may compare “angelic” bodies here. He also knows of end-time glory for God’s people (e.g., Isaiah 60:1-2, 19; 61:3; 62:2).

42-43: In 15:42-44, Paul rouses emotion with the ancient rhetorical devices of antithesis and anaphora (x…/x… repetition), in four parallel contrasts. Greeks cherished immortality, but only for the soul. Some Jewish views of the resurrection involved being raised initially in precisely the form in which one died (whether maimed or anything else); Paul seems to envision it differently.

44: Paul contrasts not a “physical” body with a “spiritual” body (though Stoics believed that even “spirit” was material), but rather bodily existence dominated by human life versus the future bodily existence fitted for life by God’s Spirit .

45-47: The first Adam became “a living soul,” or person (Genesis 2:7), a quality in some respects shared with animals (Genesis 2:19). Perhaps since the Holy Spirit characterizes the end-time and resurrects bodies, Paul can associate the new Adam with the Spirit (perhaps like the very breath God breathed into Adam in Genesis 2:7). Some think that Paul is challenging an idea in Corinth (documented in the Jewish philosopher Philo) where Genesis 1:26-27 depicts a “heavenly man” and Genesis 2 a later, earthly “living soul.”

48: Paul returns to his rhetorical contrasts in 15:47-48. Ancients emphasized the principle of like begetting like; what was heavenly produced what was heavenly, and what was earthly, what was earthly. Adam was made from dust (Genesis 2:7).

49: Jewish people believed that God created Adam in his image, but also believed that God stamped his image on people or creation through his Wisdom, his perfect image.

50: “Flesh and blood” was a common figure of speech for mortal humans. In much Greek thought (and Jewish thought influenced by it), whatever was heavenly was eternal, but whatever was earthly was perishable.

51: For examples of end-time “ mysteries” see Daniel 2:28-30, 47. “Sleep” was a frequent euphemism for death.

52: Trumpets were used for gathering and for battle; Jewish prayers spoke of a trumpet gathering God’s people at the time of the end (perhaps based on Isaiah 27:13). Paul may borrow the image from Jesus (Matthew 24:31).

53: In 15:53-54 Paul returns to the rhetorical antithesis, here between mortal and immortal.

54: Paul adapts Isaiah 25:8, “He will swallow death forever,” changing “forever” to “in victory” to correspond with his next citation (it was common to link texts based on common key terms; Jewish teachers also selected textual traditions that worked best, and evidence suggests that some others had already translated “in victory” in the Greek of this verse). (The change also alludes back to 1 Corinthians 15:25-26.) The context could support resurrection (Isaiah 26:19).

55: One could construe Hosea 13:14 negatively, but Paul may reverse that reading in light of the destined positive restoration of God’s people (Hos 14:4-7). Paul changes “hades” to “death” (fitting the meaning and parallel), but more surprisingly changes “punishment” to “victory”; midrash sometimes changed words slightly to play on them. In this way he can link Isaiah 25:8 (in v. 54) with Hosea 13:14, as he builds toward a rhetorical crescendo (1 Corinthians 15:57).

57-58: Speakers and writers often closed a section by summarizing. Ancients often connected belief in the afterlife or, in Judaism, the resurrection, with moral behavior.

(Adapted from Dr. Keener’s personal research. Used with permission from InterVarsity Press, which published similar research by Dr. Keener in The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament. Buy the book here.)

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