Some skeptics of Christianity claim the doctrine of Christ’s physical resurrection from the dead was a later development, not something believed and proclaimed from the inception of Christianity. Others will admit that the doctrine was part of Christianity from its inception, but both groups claim the resurrection appearance pericopes that overtly stress the physicality of Jesus’ resurrection body were later inventions of the church. As evidence for this claim, they assert that our earliest gospels—Matthew and Mark—lack overt references to the physical nature of Christ’s resurrection. It is not until we come to the gospels of Luke and John that we find such pericopes. They hypothesize that in the latter half of the first century some Christians began proclaiming a non-physical resurrection of Christ, so Luke and John invented material to counter this teaching.
While it’s true that we find more overt references to the physicality of Christ’s resurrection in Luke and John, by no means are they absent from Mark and Matthew. Mark 16:9-20 records Jesus’ resurrection appearances. Admittedly there are no overt references to a physical resurrection in this passage, and many scholars are convinced that they are not original to Mark’s gospel anyway. Even if we grant this, however, there is at least one clear indication in Mark’s gospel that Jesus’ resurrection was physical in nature. In Mark 16:6 we read of a young man who tells the women who came to visit Jesus’ tomb that “he is risen; he is not here. Look at the place where they laid him.” Such a comment only makes sense if “risen” is understood to include a physical, bodily resurrection from the dead. If anything else was meant by “risen,” the body would have remained in the grave.
Matthew also includes pericopes that make it clear he understood Jesus’ resurrection to be physical in nature. As in Mark’s gospel, Matthew records an angel telling the women who came to Jesus’ tomb that “he is not here, for he is risen as he said. … Come, see the place where the Lord lay” (Matthew 28:6). Both the angel’s words and the historical context make it clear that a bodily resurrection is in view. Additionally, in Matthew 28:9 we read that the women “held” Jesus “by the feet,” a clear indication that Jesus possessed a physical body.
Finally, Jesus is said to have predicted that He would be killed and “rise again,” or “rise again from the dead” numerous times in Matthew’s gospel (Matthew 16:21; 17:9, 23; 20:19; 26:32; See also Mark 8:31; 9:9; 9:31; 10:34; 14:28). That such talk of “rising” was understood to refer to a bodily resurrection is clear from Matthew 27:63-64. After Jesus was crucified, the chief priests and Pharisees requested that Pilate dispatch soldiers to Jesus’ tomb to guard it for three days because Jesus had predicted He would “rise” again after three days. The Pharisees feared that Jesus’ disciples would steal His body from the tomb to fake fulfillment of this prophecy. The Jewish response makes it clear that they understood Jesus’ prediction to refer to a literal, physical resurrection of the body from the dead. Matthew’s inclusion of the story, and his failure to note any misunderstanding on the part of the Pharisees makes it evident that Matthew understood Jesus in the same manner.
When we come to Luke’s and John’s gospels, indeed, we find a number of overt references to the physicality of Christ’s resurrection—more than in Matthew and Mark. For example, Jesus tells the disciples to handle His hands and feet, noting that spirits do not have flesh and bones (Luke 24:40; John 20:20, 25-27). Jesus is even portrayed as possessing the ability to eat (Luke 24:41-43; John 21:13-15). But the evangelists also portray the risen Christ as appearing out of nowhere (Luke 24:36; John 20:19, 26), vanishing out of sight (Luke 24:31), and being unrecognizable to His disciples (Luke 24:13-31; John 20:14-15; 21:4). As N.T. Wright has pointed out, the latter descriptions are so incongruent with a normal physical existence that they have caused many believers to question the physicality of Jesus’ resurrection. If the evangelists were making up stories to correct the idea that Jesus’ resurrection body was not a physical body, surely they would not have invented stories that call this into question!
We also have to consider the testimony of Paul since most of his writings predate Luke and John’s gospels, and probably Matthew and Mark as well. In Romans 8:10-11 and 23 he wrote, “But if Christ is in you, your body is dead because of sin, but the Spirit is your life because of righteousness. 11 Moreover if the Spirit of the one who raised Jesus from the dead lives in you, the one who raised Christ from the dead will also make your mortal bodies alive through his Spirit who lives in you. … 23 [W] ourselves also, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we eagerly await our adoption, the redemption of our bodies.” (NET) According to Paul, the Spirit presently gives life to our spirit, but our body remains spiritually dead. In the future, however, God will also give spiritual life to our bodies through resurrection, just as He did for Christ. If God will do for us what He did for Christ, and what He will do for us is resurrect our physical bodies, then He must have done the same for Christ.
In Philippians 3:21 Paul affirmed that Jesus “will transform these humble bodies of ours into the likeness of his glorious body by means of that power by which he is able to subject all things to himself.” (NET) For Paul, the object of resurrection is the body. Jesus will transform our bodies into glorious bodies, just like His own. Since Paul understood our resurrection body to be physical in nature, he must have understood Jesus’ resurrection body to be physical in nature as well. Paul was writing 15 years after the death of Jesus. If he believed in a physical resurrection of Jesus, the doctrine must have originated very early in the history of Christianity.
One final reason for doubting the thesis that the doctrine of Christ’s bodily resurrection evolved in the latter half of the first century (or the thesis that while this doctrine was part of Christianity from its inception, the appearance stories that stress the physicality of Jesus’ resurrection body were later inventions) is that it makes no sense of the religious and historical context in which the Gospel was preached. Christianity was born in Judea, and its message was confined largely to Jews in the region of Judea for approximately a decade. Most Jews believed in a bodily resurrection from the dead. Gentiles, on the other hand, thought the notion of a bodily resurrection to be absurd. Why would the first Christians abandon a doctrine they inherited from Judaism—a doctrine that would make their message more palatable to their target audience—only to incorporate it into their message 10-15 years later during the Gentile expansion of the church? If you hoped to spread Christianity throughout the Gentile world, it would be counter-productive to your efforts to invent a doctrine that is considered outlandish to them. It makes much more sense to understand the doctrine as having developed early in Christian history, when Christianity was still confined to Jews who accepted the notion of a bodily resurrection from the dead.
If the doctrine of Christ’s bodily resurrection was invented, we would expect for it to have appeared during the Jewish phase of the church, and then disappear (or at least be de-emphasized) in the latter half of the first century during the Gentiles expansion of the church. It makes no sense to believe that the doctrine would develop only after the Gentile expansion, or that Luke and John—who were writing for a Gentile audience—would invent material to emphasize the physical nature of Christ’s resurrection. If anything, we would expect just the opposite. This argues strongly for the historicity of the resurrection appearance pericopes they narrate.
When Jesus was raised from the dead He appeared to the guards, who ran off in fear. They reported the incident to the Jewish elders. That they believed they had seen Jesus’ physical body is evident by the Jewish leaders’ response: They promised to protect the guards from a Roman inquisition if the guards would say Jesus’ body was stolen by His disciples (Matthew 28:11-15). Why invent such a lie unless they knew Jesus’ body was no longer dead, and His tomb was really empty? If Jesus’ resurrection was not physical in nature, the tomb would have remained occupied, and the story concocted by the elders would have been counter-productive.