So, everyone from left to right accepts the early creed in 1 Corinthians 15:3-7 being dated to 1-3 years after the death of Jesus, even atheists like Crossley, Ludemann and Crossan. The thing is, some people are not sure that the appearances of Jesus to individuals, groups, and skeptics really were physical appearances. They say “well, Paul’s appearance was non-physical, so the other ones must have been, too”.
Let’s take a look.
Here’s a paragraph from my friend Eric Chabot, from his blog Think Apologetics. He explains why Paul’s use of the word “resurrection” to describe what the other witnesses saw means bodily resurrection.
If Paul did have a vision then the term “vision” is vague and must be defined. As Licona points out, visions are either objective (i.e., something that is seen without the use of our natural senses) or subjective (i.e., a product of our minds). The real problem is with the vision hypothesis is that it doesn’t explain Paul’s use of resurrection to explain what had happened to Jesus. The two words are used for resurrection in the New Testament “anastasis” (rising up) and “egersis” (waking up), both imply a physical body. Furthermore, the use of the word “opethe” (the Greek word for appeared) shows the Gospel writers did believe that Jesus appeared physically. “There you will see (opethe) him” (Matt. 28:7); “The Lord has risen and has appeared (opethe) to Simon” (Luke 24:24). When they used “opethe” here, it means that He appeared physically to them.
So when Paul gives his list of appearances in 1 Cor. 15, the issues becomes whether the appearance to him is the same as it was to the disciples. There is no doubt the post resurrection body of Jesus (after the ascension) had to be somewhat different than the body the disciples saw. Also, whenever the New Testament mentions the word body, in the context of referring to an individual human being, the Greek word “soma” always refers to a literal, physical body.Greek specialist Robert Gundry says “the consistent and exclusive use of soma for the physical body in anthropological contexts resists dematerialization of the resurrection, whether by idealism or by existentialism.”  Furthermore, in N.T. Wright’s The Resurrection of the Son of God shows that the Greek word for resurrection which is “anastasis” was used by ancient Jews, pagans, and Christians as bodily in nature.
Now, I think my view on this, and I’m not sure if Eric would correct me, is that Paul got an objective but non-physical vision of Jesus. There was something there that everyone else could see and hear, in my view. But in my view Paul’s “veridical” vision was post-ascension, and so non-physical. Paul uses the word resurrection to describe what the other eyewitnesses saw (and he met them at least twice, according to Gal 1 and Gal 2), and that means physical resurrected body.
Eric Chabot writes this in another place:
Acts 9- Paul’s Damascus Road Experience
Here we see whatever happened, this was after the ascension. Hence, to say Paul saw the exact same Jesus before he ascended is hard to infer from the text. There simply isn’t enough information here. The Bible says, “they heard” the same voice Paul did ” (Acts 9: 7). But they “did not see anyone ” (Acts 9: 7). Notice Paul was physically blinded by the brightness of the light. One way or the other, the experience involved something that was external to Paul. It wasn’t something that was the same thing as a vision that Paul talks about in 2 Cor. 12:1. Furthermore, the phrase “he let himself be seen’” (ōphthē , aorist passive, ), is the word Paul uses in 1 Cor. 15:7 to describe of his own resurrection appearance as the other ones in the creed. As Paul Barnett says:
“It is sometimes claimed that the word appeared (ōphthē) means a mystical seeing, as of a vision, and that since this was what Paul “saw” it was what the other apostles “saw.” In other words, after death, Jesus was taken directly to heaven whence he “appeared” to various people, mystically, as it were. This however, is not all the meaning of Paul’s words. First, the word ōphthē, “appeared” is not limited to visionary seeing it is also used for physical seeing. Moreover, the verb raise used in the phrase ‘raised on the third day” is used elsewhere in combination with the words “from the dead” which literally means “from among the corpses.” Thus raised preceding appeared gives the latter a physical not a mystical meaning. Christ, as “raised from the dead” ….appeared.” Furthermore, when Paul asks “ Am I not free? Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord?”(1 Cor. 9: 1), he is using the ordinary word horan, “to see” for physical sight. If “seeing” the Lord “raised from the dead” qualified others to be apostles, then Paul is, indeed, an apostle. It was no mere subjective vision that arrested Paul en route to Damascus. (8) .
In the end, word studies can’t entirely resolve this issue. We need to remember the etymological fallacy as well. We would have to look at all the texts that speak of resurrection (including the entire 1 Cor. 15 chapter in their entire context as well as the anthropology of the New Testament. We also need to study the resurrection in light of the Second Temple Jewish period. See our reading list here for some resources that may help.
But conservative ancient historian Gary Habermas seems to think that Paul got the physical body as well.
Now, I said before in 1 Corinthians 15, Paul could have chosen to only use the word pneuma. He doesn’t. He does say “spiritual,” but he’s got an adjective there. He also says, soma, “body.” What did Paul mean?
- Philippians Chapter 3. It’s a short chapter. There are 21 verses, but Paul says three things in one chapter that indicate he’s talking about a physical resurrection. In the opening verses he says, “I was a Hebrew of the Hebrews” and “as touching the law,” he says, “I was a Pharisee.” Now, it’s very well known that the Pharisee believed in a bodily resurrection. In fact, according to Acts 23, as Paul was being taken captive by the Romans to prevent his being killed, he shouted out to the group of people and said, “Why are you taking me? Because I believe in the resurrection of the dead?” He meant a literal resurrection.
- When the Pharisees heard that, they said there’s nothing wrong with this guy. But the Sadducees [who didn’t believe in the Resurrection] didn’t like it. So as a Pharisee, he’s agreeing with the Pharisees.
- So, the first evidence is from Philippians 3. As a Pharisee, Paul believes in a physical resurrection.
- Secondly, in verse 11 he says, “That I may attain the resurrection of the dead.” Now, the normal Greek word for resurrection is anastasis, but in this passage, Philippians 3:11, he puts a prefix on there, ek anastasis. Ekanastasis, according to all Greek scholars that I know of, is translated in this passage: “The out resurrection from among the dead.” Paul said, “I want to attain the out resurrection.”
- Now, to a Jew, “out resurrection” means “what goes down is what comes up.” You come out from death. And then just a few verses later, Philippians 3:20,21, he said, “From Heaven, we look for Jesus who will change our vile soma (body) to be like unto His glorious soma (or body),” when he should have said pneuma, according to this other view.
- So he’s a Pharisee who believes in a physical resurrection. Ek anastasis—“resurrection from out among the dead ones.”
- Thirdly, Paul says, “He Jesus will change my body to be like His body.”
So right there in Philippians 3 alone, I think the picture of Jesus being some wispy spirit that appeared to him on the road to Damascus doesn’t fit Paul’s own data.
Yes, that’s why Philippians is my favorite book. You can get so much useful theology out of it. Something about the resurrection in Phil 3, something about Jesus’ divinity in Phil 2, and loads of practical advice on stewardship, charity, fellowship, endurance and practical love for others throughout. Some of it takes a little digging, but that’s what commentaries are for, am I right? But I digress.
If you want to read something a little more challenging, I found a paper from the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS) from their journal, where it talks more about soma and anastasis. If you want a bit of a challenge, download the PDF and read it. It’s by Kirk R. MacGregor and the title is “1 Corinthians 15:3B–6A, 7 And The Bodily Resurrection Of Jesus”.