“It is the Pharisees who present us with a paradox. The Sadducees needed no notion of the afterlife. The millenialists needed a strong notion of resurrection, which gives justice to those who suffer and heavenly transformation to some of those who fall as martyrs. The Pharisees had religious beliefs which are harder to understand if set parallel to their social position.” (Alan Segal, Life After Death: A History of the Afterlife in Western Religion, p 379)
In a previous post we saw that Sadducees had paradise on earth, millenials just the opposite, while intellectual elites just wanted their ideas to live forever. These beliefs arose naturally out of a respective social class. But the Pharisees, at first glance, are a puzzle. Why did legal experts who sometimes shared the reins of government believe in something that was characteristic of revolutionary sectarians? Segal’s answer is that they actually didn’t, or at least not to the extent we’ve been led to believe:
“The Pharisees do not tie themselves down to the specificity of the millenarian position. They pick a term [resurrection] and a pastoral vision of the end [kingdom of God] that is deliberately ambiguous. Like Paul, resurrection of the body might not mean the fleshy body, at least in its corpselike form, but the metamorphosis of the corporeal body into a heavenly and spiritual body — like the angels, a sexually resolved and completed body.” (p 608)
As an ex-Pharisee Paul is one of our best sources on this point, and in Segal’s view he bridged Jewish apocalypticism with pagan spirituality — unlike the gospel writers who were apocalyptic to the core (p 439). This is what Segal says about I Cor 15:44, “It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body”:
“The physical body is the ordinary body (flesh and soul); the spiritual body — soma pneumatikon — is the ordinary body subsumed and transformed by the spirit… Instead of leaving the body entirely behind as in the case of the Greek soul, the body of glory or pneumatic body is the natural body augmented. It becomes properly androgynous, an added spiritual nature, as it was when God created it in Genesis. It regains its divine likeness, its angelic completeness, the primal combination of maleness and femaleness that is lost at the beginning.” (pp 430-431)
Segal wisely eschews the two-body hypothesis advocated by Richard Carrier, as if the resurrected body is to be completely distinguished from the old, as if the biological body and the spiritual body are wholly antithetical. That’s just wrong, as I explained in my review of Robert Price’s The Empty Tomb. Paul’s metaphor of a seed sprouting (I Cor 15:38ff) obviously supports the idea of an old body transforming into a new one. And if Paul said that “flesh and blood” cannot inherit the kingdom of God (I Cor 15:50), he also went on to say that the very same flesh and blood must “put on imperishability” (I Cor 15:53) so that it finally can.
But Segal also insists that for Paul the old body is so transformed that there’s not much physical and fleshy about it anymore:
“The [gospel] notion of resurrection is deeply affected by contrasts with Paul. Even the plain description of the events in Jesus’ life came out altered from Paul’s description. What Paul described in visionary terms, the evangelists describe literally. It is as if Paul represents the mystical dimension of Christian experience while the gospels represent the apocalyptic dimension. In flat contradiction to Paul, the gospels (when they discuss the process of resurrection at all) strongly assert a physical, fleshy notion of Jesus’ bodily resurrection.” (p 442)
Segal overplays this contrast a bit (Paul, after all, was apocalyptic as much as he was mystical), but I think his essential point is valid. The apostle is uncomfortable with fleshy aspects of the resurrection, even while insisting on continuity between the old body and the new. He minimizes the role of flesh and blood in the new body, underscoring the heavenly transformation it has undergone.
It turns out that the rabbis — our post-70 Pharisees — take the same view as Paul. The rabbinic view of the resurrection is based on Isaiah: “Your dead shall live, their corpses shall rise” (Isa 26:19). Segal notes the favoring of the first half over the second:
“The rabbis ignore the term ‘corpses’ and instead use the first clause, which contains much less definite terms. They are not actually interested in defining the afterlife with the notion of the resurrection of the fleshy body. They would rather describe something a bit more ambiguously, not specifying exactly how God plans to bring the final consummation.
“This observation helps resolve the paradox… If the Pharisees are best able to govern the remaining state of Judah after the war and share power before the war, then why should they believe in resurrection of the flesh, which is characteristic of the sectarian life of Judea? The answer to that vexing question is that they do not necessarily believe in resurrection of the dead corpses, and certainly do not believe in anything like the gospels’ view of the matter. On the other hand, they cannot risk overtly contradicting Isaiah either, instead exegeting Isaiah in such a way that Isaiah seems to say what they have in mind. They build a paradise based on the land of Israel, which the living and dead share. They are content with the ambiguity whose resolution dominates Christian thinking.” (p 607)
This ambiguity, of course, is exactly what characterizes Paul’s view in I Cor 15, and perhaps accounts for why orthodox critics like Wright and infidels like Carrier continue talking past each other. The Pharisees and Paul were deliberately ambiguous. They believed in the resurrection of the old body but weren’t wild about “clinging to the flesh”. They grounded the resurrection in terms of Jewish apocalyptic, but not to the extent that angry millenarians did. They didn’t seem to care how much role the flesh would play in the new body, no doubt because they already had a happier fleshy existence than revolutionaries and martyrs.
So the answer to our original question is clear:
“The Pharisees’ belief in life after death was entirely congruent with their Roman client status. The rabbis, the Pharisees’ intellectual descendants, believed in an afterlife that could be figured flexibly in either Greek or more native apocalyptic terms, or even other terms, depending on the circumstances. This hypothesis preserves the symmetry between the Pharisees’ middle social position and their afterlife beliefs.” (pp 381-382)
That makes sense to me, and it makes complete sense of the Pauline and rabbinic texts. I used to think that Paul just expressed himself badly in I Cor 15:50 — saying that “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God” — but Segal has persuaded me that he was speaking like any Pharisee, registering discomfort with hard-core millenarian ideas that would associate him with sedition.