Resurrection as Salvation: Development and Conflict in Pre-Nicene Paulinism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018.
Resurrection in early Christianity is already a well-studied field. As it should be: from Paul onwards, early Christian authors wrestled over the resurrection. Often, these debates focused on the relationship between resurrection and embodiment. Does “resurrection” imply renewed embodiment? If so, what kind of continuity exists between the body of this life and the body of the resurrection? And how, if at all, is the latter a transformed version of the former?
Scholars have worked to track, sort, and explain the various positions on these questions in early Christianity. Reflecting the ancient debates themselves, then, much scholarship on resurrection in early Christianity focuses on the relationship between resurrection and embodiment. Such studies often proceed by establishing “what the New Testament really says about resurrection” (in practice, often “what Paul really meant by ‘spiritual body’ in 1 Corinthians 15:44”) and then using that as a yardstick for all later positions, seeking explanations for deviations from the “true” Pauline teaching along the way. Unfortunately, an approach of this kind can suffer from reliance on exegesis of the ambiguous discussion of bodily continuity and transformation in 1 Corinthians 15:35-49. The resulting assessments of later authors’ views on these same questions are also often overly dependent on a scholar’s initial judgment of Paul’s teaching.
Nevertheless, these risks do not negate the validity or importance of the overall endeavor. This approach to resurrection in early Christianity is valuable insofar as it takes seriously what many of the protagonists in the debates said they were doing: contesting the correct interpretation of Paul’s teaching on resurrection. Careful attention to what early Christian authors thought about the relationship between resurrection and embodiment, along with how they positioned themselves vis-à-vis the contested Pauline texts, remains necessary.
Some scholars have come to suspect that more was at stake in these debates than the explicit points of disagreement might suggest. Elaine Pagels, John Gager, Caroline Walker Bynum, Claudia Setzer, and, most recently, Ouhti Lehtipuu have all offered important analyses that seek to read “behind” the ancient polemics to uncover the deeper issues at play. By continuing to focus on disagreements over the nature of resurrection and its relationship to embodiment, however, they remain wedded to the question of what resurrection is.
My new book, Resurrection as Salvation: Development and Conflict in Pre-Nicene Paulinism (Cambridge, 2018), combines and expands on these two scholarly approaches. By focusing on early Christian theological exegesis as such, it shares with the first approach a concern for what the theological texts under discussion claim to be doing: drawing on received authoritative texts to articulate coherent theologies. Resurrection as Salvation shares with the second approach the assumption that much more was going on under the surface, and that studies that attempt to get behind the explicit theological arguments about embodiment are valuable for the hidden tensions and seams they can reveal. By shifting away from the relationship between resurrection and embodiment, I read “behind” or at least “around” the flashpoints surrounding the nature of the resurrected body.
In this adjusted focus, Resurrection as Salvation breaks new ground by asking a new question of second- and third-century texts on resurrection. How did different understandings of the purpose of resurrection, inherited from Second Temple Judaism and the New Testament, shape early Christian accounts of resurrection—not just what it is, but why it happens, and relatedly how and to whom?
Why this new question? Put simply, there is clear evidence for at least two understandings of the purpose of resurrection in Second Temple Judaism and the New Testament. Despite this, the reception of these two understandings in early Christianity has gone unstudied, overlooked in prior scholarship due to attention to the fierce debates over the “old” question of the relationship between resurrection and embodiment. According to the first understanding, resurrection is a prerequisite for judgment. It happens to the righteous and the wicked indiscriminately and is a preliminary step on the way to the reward of the former or punishment of the latter. This view appears in Daniel, 4 Ezra, 2 Baruch, and, in the New Testament, most clearly in John and Revelation. According to the second understanding, resurrection is God’s reward for the righteous. Correspondingly, resurrection is tightly linked to salvation, and the resurrection of the damned is either denied or not mentioned. This view, found in 2 Maccabees and Josephus’ descriptions of the Pharisees, receives its fullest development in the Pauline epistles.
Paul filled out the connection between resurrection and righteousness by linking both to Spirit-driven conformity to the resurrected Christ. In so doing, he embedded resurrection not only in the doctrines of creation and divine justice (as a focus on resurrection as a prerequisite for judgment did), but also in Christology, pneumatology, and anthropology. If, to take an example drawn from the argument of Romans 8:2-11, both resurrection and righteousness come from the indwelling Spirit of the resurrected Christ, then what does this imply about how the Holy Spirit’s life relates to Christ’s life, how the Spirit gives life to humans, and how humans are structured to receive such life from the Spirit (both new moral life and new bodily life)? These Pauline innovations also increased the challenge of integrating the two understandings of resurrection. If both the righteous and the wicked will be raised to face judgment, then how can resurrection itself be considered Spirit-driven conformity to the resurrected Christ? The alternative to grappling with these questions was to ignore or deemphasize these Pauline links. A whole new dimension of the place of resurrection within early Christian theology thus emerges when attention shifts from the what question to the why question.
Resurrection as Salvation argues that the juxtaposition of these two views—resurrection as prerequisite for judgment or resurrection as aspect of salvation—profoundly shaped early Christian understandings of resurrection in two ways. First, Paul’s innovative connections between resurrection and theological loci like Christology, pneumatology, and anthropology prompted some writers to explore and further develop those connections. But, second, this juxtaposition forced others, whose starting point was that resurrection is first and foremost a prerequisite for judgment, to find ways to redirect or avoid the force of the Pauline connections. Tracing this process opens new windows into early Christian thought on resurrection and complicates the conventional narrative built around “fleshly” versus “spiritual” understandings of resurrection.
The argument proceeds through a series of detailed case studies on key second- and third-century Christian authors and texts. Each case study traces how the author or text grapples, whether explicitly or implicitly, with the Pauline links between resurrection and Spirit-driven conformity to the resurrected Christ, and how the two views of the purpose of resurrection might relate to each other. In the process, a redrawn map of resurrection in early Christianity emerges.
The conventional map, drawn according to views on resurrection and embodiment, shows Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Methodius of Olympus, authors committed to the goodness of the material creation and therefore to the resurrection of the flesh, as a pro-flesh bloc. These authors are typically arrayed against Origen, who coupled an understanding of the material creation as good but perhaps ultimately dispensable with an ambiguous commitment to the resurrection of the flesh, and the Valentinians, who unambiguously rejected the goodness of the material creation and the resurrection of the flesh (if not the resurrection tout court, if understood in some spiritual sense).
On reconsideration in terms of the purpose of resurrection, Irenaeus and Tertullian, supposedly staunchly sharing a similar position, turn out to have based their fundamental understandings of resurrection on different views, with correspondingly different pneumatologies, anthropologies, and exegesis of key Pauline texts. Two Valentinian texts, the Treatise on the Resurrection and the Gospel of Philip, actually join Irenaeus in making the Pauline connection between resurrection and salvation their starting point (over against Tertullian)—despite disagreeing strongly with both Irenaeus and Tertullian on the fleshliness of the resurrected body! Origen formulated a brilliant but perhaps unstable synthesis of both views by embedding the resurrection of all into God’s pedagogical engagement with free rational creatures aimed at salvation, and Methodius, Origen’s first major critic, formulated an ingenious synthesis of his own. Not only is this map far more complex than the conventional one, but it also reveals surprising neighbors.
In the end, these case studies uncover the powerful, if hidden, force exerted on early Christian understandings of resurrection by Paul’s soteriology. Although Paul’s language of “spiritual body” became an important flashpoint, there would still have been debates about the nature of the resurrection body without 1 Corinthians 15. But in passages like Romans 6 and 8, Paul articulated an account of resurrection tied tightly to Christ and the Spirit. The authors examined in Resurrection as Salvation, for all their differences, were seeking to articulate and develop this distinctive aspect of Paul’s thought. Few of them saw their differences in these terms, instead focusing on embodiment in resurrection. Yet, under the surface, the Pauline innovations were raising questions and suggesting directions for development. The reception of Pauline soteriology—no less than Pauline understandings of embodiment—must be taken into account in order to understand not just early Christian conclusions about resurrection, but early Christian arguments for those conclusions.
 Robert M. Grant, “The Resurrection of the Body,” Journal of Religion 28 (1948): 120-30, 188-208; James M. Robinson, “Jesus from Easter to Valentinus (Or to the Apostles’ Creed),” Journal of Biblical Literature 101 (1982): 5-37; N. T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, Christian Origins and the Question of God 3 (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2003).
 Elaine Pagels, “The Controversy over Christ’s Resurrection: Historical Event or Symbol?,” in The Gnostic Gospels (New York: Random House, 1979).
 John Gager, “Body Symbols and Social Reality: Resurrection, Incarnation, and Asceticism in Early Christianity,” Religion 12 (1982): 345-64.
 Caroline Walker Bynum, The Resurrection of the Body in Western Christianity, 200-1336, ACLS Lectures on the History of Religions, n.s., 15 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1995).
 Claudia Setzer, Resurrection of the Body in Early Judaism and Early Christianity: Doctrine, Community, and Self-Definition (Boston: Brill Academic, 2004).
 Outi Lehtipuu, Debates over the Resurrection of the Dead: Constructing Early Christian Identity, Oxford Early Christian Studies (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015).
 Daniel 12:2-3; 4 Ezra 7.31-33, 36-38; 2 Baruch 50.2-4, 51.1-3; John 5:25-29; Revelation 20:4-6, 13-15.
 2 Maccabees 7, 14; Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 18.14, Jewish War 2.163; Romans 6, 8; Philippians 3:8-12.
Thomas D. McGlothlin (Ph.D., Duke University) teaches at the Christian Academy in Japan. This post was adapted from his new book, Resurrection as Salvation: Development and Conflict in Pre-Nicene Paulinism (Cambridge University Press, 2018).