30 Sep 2022

Spiritual Bodies: Cultural History and Bible Reading

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: 1 Corinthians, Christian hope, Easter, eschatology, Exegesis, Gnosticism, Heaven, Hebrew Bible, resurrection
Casper is not the destiny of God’s People. Resurrection and “spiritual” bodies are not composed of spirit.

Being immersed in the story, idiom and theology of the Hebrew Bible is essential to properly understanding the apostolic writings we call the “New Testament.” Reading those Scriptures, and the Apocrypha as the bridge to the New Testament, gives us the right set of cultural eyes to read Paul (especially) correctly. The “worldview” of the Hebrew Bible is shaped differently than the Greek of our Western Enlightenment heritage.

I believe most of us, myself included, are unaware of how deeply modern cultural history impacts the way we understand the Bible. We, westerners, read the Bible as children of the Enlightenment, through which everything is filtered into extreme individualism, Epicureanism, and hefty dose of Platonic dualism. A person does not have to be able to define these terms to live them out nearly every second of their lives (like a fish has no idea what water is).

But those three cultural trends have transformed our modern western world and are embedded in it at every level. These ideas fill our modern world like oxygen atoms fill the air we breathe. How we understand the words “spirit” or “soul” and “spiritual” are cases in point.

These terms, in our modern setting, typically refer to “nonmateriality” even the opposite of materiality. It is further simply assumed this “nonmateriality” is inherently superior to the “physical/material” (which is the antithesis of “spiritual”). These assumptions have dreadful implications when reading the Bible. Since we just finished Paul, when we moderns read the in the English Bible about “spiritual bodies” as in 1 Corinthians 15.44f that this must mean a non-material, non-flesh, non-physical body.

Yet that is not what the phrase means at all. Interestingly enough the church fathers, whose native language is the same Greek as the New Testament, never understood the phrase as modern western folks do. The reason for this is Paul is a Jew. Paul’s point of reference is the Bible of Israel.  Much to his credit, Alexander Campbell understood this truth very clearly. He wrote a long time ago,

Every one, then, who would accurately understand the Christian institution must approach it through the Mosaic; and that he would be a proficient the Jewish must make Paul his commentator … The language of the new institution is therefore explained by that of the old. No one can understand the dialect of the kingdom of heaven who has not studied the dialect of the antecedent administrations of heaven … All the leading words and phrases of the New Testament are to be explained and understood by the history of the Jewish nation and God’s government of them” (Christian System, pp. 117, 118-119).

Paul was a Hebrew, and spoke in the Hebrew style. We must learn that style before we fully understand the apostle’s style. In other words, we must studiously read the Old Testament before we can accurately understand the New” (Christian System, p.231).

Campbell would go on to say that though the NT is written in Greek “it has the soul of Hebrew” (I like that nice play on words by Uncle Alex).

Therefore, to quote Campbell one last time, “it is not the doctrine of Plato that the resurrection is a proof and pledge.” Thus Paul never speaks of the immortality of the spirit but of the body.

All of that to say this, Paul is not a Greek (Platonic) dualist. In Hebrew thought (inspired by the same God that inspired Paul) a human is not split into inferior flesh and superior “spirit/soul” (philosophically termed “anthropological dualism”).

But in the Bible, in Hebraic eyes, a human is a complete integrated being. In Hebrew the word “soul” (נֶ֫פֶשׁ nephesh) simply refers to the individual as a whole. A “self.” A person. It can be a way of saying “I.” So, for example, the famous line,

as the deer pants for the water
so my SOUL longs for you” (Ps 42.1)

This does not mean there is an unseen part of the psalmist that wants God while another visible part (the body) does not. The text can be justly, and more accurately, translated,

as the deer pants for the water,
so I long for you” (Ps 42.1, NEB, REB, TEB, GNB, Bible, An American Translation, CEV, etc).

A human being is a psycho-somatic unity in the Bible (or anthropological monism). This is the direct opposite of Platonic dualism. In Platonism the material world is inherently inferior than the “spirit” world. Materiality will be cast aside and done away with in the Platonic doctrine of salvation.

But in the Hebrew Bible, the physical creation is the loving handiwork of the Creator God and is filled with God’s own Presence, filled with God’s hesed and God’s justice. It is Gooooooooooood. In fact it is very GOOOOOOOOD. There is nothing bad about Creation. The NT even extends the goodness of creation because it is the work of Christ himself. The physical is “spiritual” in the Bible.

This includes everything about a human being. This is why for Paul, the dyed in the wool Jew, our physical material body is (as throughout the Hebrew Bible) the vehicle of worship to God. In fact, it is “spiritual.” “Therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your BODIES as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship” (Romans 12.1). This is a classic Jewish view expressed from a lifetime of very physical pilgimages to Jerusalem, a lifetime of very physical lifting hands, shaving heads, placing hands on animals, of eating very physical sacrifices in joyous communion with Yahweh.  We can only worship through our body. Even our “mind” is in our body. The material body is spiritual and the spiritual is physical and material just as God created it.

When we unconsciously read the Bible through those Platonic eyes (even when we have never heard of Plato or his disciple Plutarch) however we can split creation apart by misunderstanding because “soul” in Greek thought refers to that interior hidden part of us that is superior to materiality. This is Plato, not the Bible. The material world in Plato is not good but it is Moses and God’s great ‘Yes’ to the material world is when the Word became “FLESH” (emphasis not shouting).

So, returning to “spiritual bodies.”

The Greek in 1 Corinthians 15.44f (πνευματικόν) does not refer to the substance of the body. That is, it does not refer to what that body is composed/made out of. In fact, most scholars recognize that even the English translation of “spiritual bodies” is exceedingly problematic. (see N. T. Wright’s extensive discussion in Resurrection of the Son of God, pp. 348-356; Ben Witherington III’s Conflict and Community: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary on 1-2 Corinthians, pp. 307-309).

The adjective means something quite different. An illustration may help. If we say “there goes the steam locomotive,” no one imagines that an immaterial ghostly train is passing by. The train is not composed of steam. My dad is a diesel mechanic. The Snap-On or Mac tool dealer comes by and my dad says, “I want to buy a new pneumatic drill.” The Snap-On dealer does not imagine that dad wants a drill made of air. Rather the train is powered by steam. The drill is powered by air. And pneumatic body is powered by the Spirit – not made of it. So, in the Kingdom New Testament: A Contemporary Translation we read,

But you don’t get the spirit-animated body first; you get the nature animated one, and you get the spirit-animated one later.”

God redeems whole humans in the resurrection. Jesus’s resurrection is the NT definition of resurrection (that is the meaning of the phrase “first fruits” in 1 Cor 15). Jesus’s resurrected body was the same Jewish body that was hung upon the cross composed of flesh and bones as Jesus states himself (Luke 24.39). That same Jewish body ascended to the Father as the Model for what the Creator God promises to do with you and me (that is the very meaning of “first fruits.” Humans are not spirit creatures we are materially, creationally, embodied souls (living beings).

The “soul” normally refers to the whole human being not an invisible part. Paul does not teach that God redeems some of us, but all of us. Paul for example never says God redeems our spirit. Such a statement never occurs in the Bible. He says God redeems our “mortal body” (Rom 8.11, 23). Because our body cannot be separated from who we are. Our resurrection, redeemed from the grave, body will be empowered by the Spirit not made of spirit (like a pneumatic wrench is powered by the pneuma not made out of it). God does not intend to surrender an ounce, not even a hair, of us the curse Sin brought into God’s good creation.

Reading the New Testament from the point of view of Genesis, Deuteronomy, Psalms, Isaiah (i.e. the Hebrew Bible), etc makes a huge difference than when we read it from the pov of Greek dualism. It is the difference between biblical creation and Gnosticsim. These misunderstandings, because we read the Bible through Platonic eyes, also divorce Paul’s saying about “flesh and blood” from its Hebraic context (and it is explicitly a Jewish idiom) but I will say more on that later perhaps.

Let’s do the work to read the NT correctly, as Campbell called us, with Hebraic eyes. We look forward to the resurrection, the redemption, of our mortal bodies from power of sin and death. 


Related Interest

Soul … Moses vs Plato: The Biblical Worldview

What Cannot Inherit the Kingdom of God? 1 Cor 15.50-51?

Alexander Campbell & the Regeneration of Creation

2 Responses to “Spiritual Bodies: Cultural History and Bible Reading”

  1. Laurie Says:

    Romans 12. ( not to be picky).

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