Part 5: Bodily resurrection and sematics

Chad has left an interesting comment on Part 2 of the resurrection posts, which I duplicate here in full. He brings to the discussion what I consider to be a very good and relevant question. What did first century Jews and Christians think that the Greek words for resurrection actually meant? One thing? A range of options? Are we imposing our modern definitions onto the past? Are we narrowing the historical nuances to fold into our own orthodoxy?

Chad says:
At the risk of reheating a now cooled debate and perhaps further riling your confessional Christian interlocutors, who continue to grasp at straws with appeals to philosophy of science, definitions of inductive reasoning, and the like (all, by the way, standard and now tiresome postmodern apologetic tactics) in their defense of bodily resurrection as a "unique" event, I wish to call attention to a more fundamental issue in any discussion of the “resurrection” of Jesus - the arguably problematic modern semantic range of this English word.

As the Greek readers in your audience should know, this word stems (via Latin resuscitāre and resurgere) from two Greek verbs: anistēmi and egeirō (cf. Hebrew qum). From these well-attested verbs in LXX and GNT, we derive the notions of “stand up,” “rise,” “raise up,” “rouse,” “restore,” “set up,” or even “awake” (each usually in the quite mundane sense of things). Of course, such prosaic usages would doubtless have also been imbued with other symbolic meanings. However, I doubt that many Christian commentators - both those with and those without control of ancient Greek - have really pondered these words and their import apart from the KJV-influenced semantic range or even from a non-Christian (modern and/or ancient) perspective. Moreover, I doubt that, in the case of, say, the Corinthians (i.e., “pagans”) and their disdain for a resuscitated corpse, many commentators even consider that folks in antiquity could misunderstand the meanings or semantic range of words (theologically tinged or not) – just as folks do today. This latter point in general is rarely mentioned in studies of Paul or Christian Origins. In fact, the notion of misunderstanding in this sense, it seems to me, must be taken into account in any responsible study (whether confessional or secular) of, say, the so-called “Gentile Mission” or really any first-century dissemination of the Christian “gospel” and its subtleties to those without a “Jewish” or “Christian” mindset. (Anecdotally, I cannot help but think – in a more trivial sense – of "The Life of Brian" with its “Blessed are the Cheesemakers.”) But seriously, it is likely that across the Greco-Roman world the Greek verbs anistēmi and egeirō (and their derivatives) were not wholly refined in the “Christian” sense, but were largely culturally refined. Perhaps, then, some of what we witness in Paul’s Corinthian correspondence, for example, is just as much a rhetorical struggle over the “meaning” of the word egeirō(cf. 1 Cor.15:4, 20) as a presentation and reiteration of Pauline “theology.”

Now I am not arguing that anistēmi and egeirō did not or could not signal bodily “resurrection” in the modern Christian sense in the first century. I simply call attention to an issue that is certainly under-discussed, and an issue that would fit well with your suggestion about rethinking the problem of “ante-eschaton” resurrection in first-century Judaism.

Finally I submit that, as much as it may pain some Christians and Christian scholars to do so, the polysemy of “resurrection” in ancient usage must be factored into any modern reconstruction of Jesus’ supposed postmortem appearances.