The Resurrection according to 1 Corinthians 15:35–55 as Understood and Debated in Ancient Christianity


How did the early Christians understand the New Testament? Here is a brief discussion about how one passage from 1 Corinthians was understood and debated from the 2nd to the 4th centuries. In 1 Corinthians 15 Paul addresses the theme of the resurrection of Christ and of the Christians at the end of times. This presentation concentrates on the second half of this chapter, which deals with the resurrection of the Christians.
First, Paul's view of a spiritual resurrection body was hijacked by the Valentinians, to whom the Marcionites may be added, which caused a great difficulty to the Church. It is presented how several Fathers wrestled with it.
Second, our passage is ambiguous with regard to the question whether Paul had also intended non-Christians. In our passage their destination seemed forgotten. For this difficulty the Church Fathers offered several solutions. Tertullian, Origen, Didymus, John Chrysostom and Jerome gave allegorical interpretations of the different kinds of flesh and bodies mentioned in verses 39-41, in which they saw different kinds of people, including non-Christians. Tertullian held that people who are submitted to the carnal lusts of “flesh and blood” will have part in the general resurrection, but not in God’s subsequent kingdom which is destined for Christians.
Furthermore, in variant readings verse 51 was used with regard to Christians and non­ Christians. The text preferred in Nestle-Aland’s 28th edition o f the New Testament is used by Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, and John Chrysostom: “we will not all die, but we will all be transformed”. To Gregory o f Nyssa this means that in the resurrection people, whether dead or alive, will receive angelic bodies. Likewise, Chrysostom says that those who will be alive at the moment o f the resurrection, will then be transformed with those who have died already; this applies to all people. In Didymus’ reading the negation in verse 51 has shifted to the second part o f the sentence: “we will all die, but we will not all be transformed”. This implies that after the resurrection non-Christians will first have to be purified before their bodies will be transformed.
A third reading of 1 Cor 15:51 is found with Tertullian (and in the Vulgate): “we will all rise, but we will not all be transformed”. This means that all people, Christians and non­ Christians, will be raised up, whereas only the Christians will be transformed to imperishability. This reading is an adaptation to the Church’s doctrine as formulated in the Rule of Faith, which says that all human beings will be raised, either unto salvation or unto punishment.

Bibliographic reference

Roukema Riemer: The Resurrection according to 1 Corinthians 15:35–55 as Understood and Debated in Ancient Christianity. In: Református Szemle 108.5 (2015), 477--487