Continued from Chapter 36b

Could Jesus have risen in either a completely different material body or in an immaterial body possessing the properties of an angelic being which could metamorphose itself from a “spirit” into a solid material form that could be touched (Genesis 32:24-26) or partake of food (Genesis 18:1-18)?

These related theories contain respectively inherent problems. If Jesus’ body ceased to be material and later became material again, then it was not the identical body that was crucified. Unless Jesus rose in the same physical body in which he died it is not the unique resurrection described as exclusive to him. It would not matter if the pre-resurrection and post-resurrection bodies show continuity of person and personality but discontinuity in the relationship of the resurrected body to the pre-death physical body. That is understandable and expected for ordinary human beings whose bodies undergo decay and disintegration into the environment.

The New Testament also declares that God did not permit Jesus’ fleshly body to undergo decay. The author of Acts, in Acts 2:26-27, applies the Septuagint rendering of Psalms 16:9-10 [verses 8-11 in some versions] to Jesus. This author claims that Jesus is saying that his “flesh” has hope because God will not leave his soul in Hades nor allow him to undergo decay. The author’s meaning is that Jesus’ body and spirit would not remain separated, but, through the resurrection, “he was neither abandoned to Hades, nor did his flesh suffer decay” (Acts 2:31). If Jesus arose in an immortal spiritual body, but not with the identical form and the actual substance of his mortal body, it renders his resurrection as outside the New Testament understanding that Jesus’ body would not decay or disintegrate in any way. There would be no empirical proof of continuity, as there is no actual total physical identity, between the pre-resurrection and post-resurrection Jesus. In sum, continuity of physical likeness, of itself, without continuity of physical substance, is no basis for establishing that the resurrection of Jesus occurred since his body was not supposed to decay or disintegrate. For the same reason, a claim of resurrection in an invisible, immaterial body is unverifiable and is not, in actuality, a resurrection of a dead body.


Christian denominations and sects have always differed on whether Jesus rose from the grave in the same physical body that died on the cross. Some hold that the post-resurrection Jesus was in a different mode of existence, which involved one or more different bodies being utilized. According to this view, there was a discontinuity in the relationship of the physical body to the resurrection body. It is maintained that the continuity between the pre- and post-resurrection state of Jesus was person and personality and not material. Others argue that it is necessary for the very same physical, material body that died to have been raised from the dead. They maintain that if Jesus’ body changed into an invisible, immaterial one then what occurred was annihilation, not resurrection. It is also claimed that if there is no numerical identity between the pre- and post-resurrection body, then what occurred is not a resurrection of the same body, but rather a reincarnation into another body. In general, the problem stems from the unclear and divergent views already found in the early church and reflected in the New Testament. However, all these speculations are in vain since Jesus was never resurrected to begin with and therefore never appeared to anyone after his death.

The New Testament does not provide any proof for the allegation that either a physical or spiritual resurrection of Jesus ever took place. Although Peter states: “This Jesus God resurrected, of which we are all witnesses” (Acts 2:32), absolutely no one saw the alleged resurrection take place, in any form whatsoever. At best, the only statement that can be made is that the body was missing. Nothing definite can be said concerning its final disposition at the time of the supposed resurrection. All the information concerning this nonevent is derived from the New Testament. The New Testament, while not consisting of contemporary documents, is the earliest and only source of information on the subject of the resurrection of Jesus.

However, it lacks the necessary factual information to allow one to learn about the final disposition of the physical remains of Jesus. Paul, the earliest New Testament author, not only has a list and sequence of resurrection stories that differ from the Gospels, but also does not even mention the claim of the empty tomb. If true, the empty tomb would be the only public, visible evidence by which to claim that resurrection took place. All alleged sightings of a risen being were said to be appearances to select followers of Jesus. Moreover, the New Testament authors often explicitly indicate that the alleged post-resurrection appearances were sightings of individuals who did not look or sound like Jesus. Jesus’ disciples and the early Christian community simply did not really know what had happened to the remains of their crucified leader.

The tomb

To be blunt, an empty tomb does not prove that a resurrection occurred. Moreover, materialization in an unrecognizable form does not prove a bodily resurrection occurred. The original body could have disappeared in any number of ways and the appearances could have been of someone else. There is no way to verify empirically that Jesus was resurrected unless he was materially resurrected in the same physical body in which he died and was buried. Yet, as we have seen above, this was impossible according to the New Testament theology by which Jesus’ fleshly body is offered as a permanent sin offering. The psalmist’s words can only make sense if they are a poetic reference to David’s gratitude to God for watching over him throughout his life, rather than to a resurrected body of a divine being. There was nothing in Jewish Scripture or tradition about a resurrected Messiah, only the resurrection of all men for the last judgment (Daniel 12:2, Isaiah 26:19) and certain individuals on occasion (2 Kings 4:32-37, 13:21). Resurrection, which is a restoration of physical life, relates only to human beings; it cannot apply to spirit immortals. Jesus’ alleged resurrection would be relevant only if he was wholly human to begin with. Resurrection, being a phenomenon relating to restoration of physical existence to a dead human being, can only be claimed if Jesus was and remained no more than a man. Of what miraculous significance does resurrection have to one already possessing a divine eternal nature in the first place? Springing back to life, if death can be inflicted on such a one, is to be expected. What was the state of the returned Jesus? The early church could not agree to his post-resurrection nature: Did he undergo a “physical” or a “spiritual” resurrection, or none at all?

© Gerald Sigal