Here is my own transcription from a part of the Crackers & Grape Juice podcast by Jason Micheli “Episode 147 – David Bentley Hart: The Gloves Come Off” posted on April 13, 2018.
Hart: [N.T. Wright is] so hostile to the fact of the first century being Jewish and Greek at once (and Persian). I think, for me, the real proof of this is everywhere where he tries to deal with the issues of spirit and soul. And I think this is sad because that is actually a part of the New Testament that is too often obscured, and it really does grant us access to the way people thought at the time.
Micheli: Say more about that.
Hart: …In the first century, for a Hellenistic Jew, it would be normal to think that every kind of being, every kind of creature, has a body of some kind. All right, angels and demons. But what they possess is not what we have. What we have is a compound of flesh and blood which is animated by a life principle called psyche (soul). Therefore we have what Paul, in 1 Corinthians 15, calls the “sōma psychikon.” The angels, however, spirits, have a different kind of body, one that does not consist in flesh and blood, and that is not animated. I mean, one way that you can translate psychikon (because psyche is the same as the Greek anima, it’s a substitute) is to say animated or animal body. Well, what it means is a perishable body because it’s flesh and blood which has to be animated by a life principle, spirit. So it’s necessarily a composite. Whereas a spiritual body, according to Paul, is one that is not flesh and blood (he’s quite clear about this, people don’t like to hear it: “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God”), and it is spiritual rather than psychical.
Now, most translations hide the whole psyche / pneuma distinction, not only there but throughout the New Testament. It’s an absolutely crucial distinction for most of the New Testament writers. So Paul probably believed that in resurrection, the body of death to which we’re bond is a psychical body of flesh and blood, in the transformation of the cosmos will become like an angelic body, a spiritual body. Flesh and blood will pass away. Soul will pass away. But we’ll become all spirit, like the angels. And I think that, you know, certain church fathers, that’s how they would have read Jesus saying in the world to come we will become as the angels. And you find this in Acts as well. In Acts 23:8 it says that the Sadducees didn’t believe in resurrection: “mēte angelos mēte pneuma.” That probably means “neither as angel nor as spirit.” Spirit was often used of those creatures, spirit in the language of the time (Hellenistic usage) often just meant beings that don’t have animal bodies. So angels are pneumata [πνεύματα]; we are psychés [ψυχές].
Micheli: You’re grating against a very popular N.T. Wright induced trend in asserting the embodiedness of Paul’s vision of resurrection.
Hart: Yeah, but what does he mean by body? That’s the problem, is he gets it dead wrong. It’s this wildly anachronistic reading that is not Paul’s language. In Acts, for instance, what does Acts say. It’s says, “They don’t believe in resurrection, neither as angel or as spirit.” N.T. Wright in his translation, cavalierly, and to my mind criminally, inserts, you know, writes it this way: “They didn’t believe in resurrection. Neither did they believe in an intermediate state in the form of angel or spirit.” So he has inserted into the text the notion that that reference to angel or spirit is about some transient intermediate state between the body (and this life) and then when it’s raised again and then animated (and that’s how he talks about us). Well, to me, you don’t stick an interpretive phrase of that, well, let’s just say one that distorts the meaning of the text that much, but if nothing else, inflects the meaning without at least a footnote. I think to do that, that’s not even paraphrase. That’s just dishonest.
And the same thing is true in the way he translates 1 Corinthians 15. We have the difference the psychical body (the ensouled body, the animated body) and the spiritual body becomes: “the body animated in a natural way” (which is meaningless) and “the body animated in a spiritual way” (which is contradictory because “animated” is in fact a synonym for “psychikon” and that’s exactly what Paul’s not saying). What Paul’s pretty clearly saying—what anyone who would, say, read Origen would know (or Gregory of Nyssa or anyone else who is more proximate conceptually, culturally, historically, or read Philo), you know, is that he’s talking exactly about the transition from a psychical to a spiritual body.
I think this also explains, if your interested, 1 Peter 3:18-20 where I think the proper way to read that is that Jesus died in the flesh, was killed in the flesh and raised as spirit. That doesn’t mean that—I mean, we tend to think of spirit as disembodied, and that’s not what they mean. For them, spirits had bodies, angels had bodies. In the first century, it was unthinkable that anyone other than God would be bodiless because everything else has to be local. It’s a radically different kind of body. Some might say that it’s composed of the fifth element, that is ether. Others had different theories. But it was like the same matter—whatever that body was, it was like the bodies of the stars which were thought to spiritual intelligences. And many Christians thought that too. That’s way God is called the “Father of the luminaries” in James [1:17].
…Well what does that say, 1 Peter 3:18-20? “Christ died in the flesh, was signed in the flesh, raised as spirit, and thereby was able to visit the spirits in prison”—meaning the angels, and the fallen angels, and the nephilim probably from first Enoch. Now it doesn’t say he visited them in the interval. It says he was able to visit them because he had been raised in a way made him physically, so to speak, transcendent of the conditions that a mere mortal, animal body suffers, that is it can’t move between realms. Now, all of this sounds odd to us now.
Micheli: But it also sounds a lot more clear.
Hart: Yeah, and it’s also correct. So, again, N.T. Wright has produced a translation that, without footnotes, distorts every single one of those verses but also just gets it wrong. I mean, it’s just wrong: demonstrably, objectively wrong.
Micheli: …You’ve already reclaimed a more spiritual understanding of resurrection, away from N.T. Wright.
Hart: I mean. I just think that’s clearly the case, in the text. N.T. Wright is closer to what I think the received picture of the person in the pews might be, you know. But it’s funny. It’s not like Paul is obscure on these points. When he says that “flesh and blood cannot inherit the Kingdom of God.”
Micheli: [Chuckling.] It’s pretty clear.
Hart: It’s not like he’s being coy: “by flesh I mean sinful human nature, and by blood I mean violent propensities.”
Micheli: And to “put on imperishability” is just resuming the body.
Hart: Resuming the body you have but now animated by the, you know, I mean all of that, the whole. Yeah right. The N.T. Wright thing–a “naturally animated body” or a “spiritually animated body”–is his own weird invention. It’s obviously wrong. It doesn’t fit the text.
…The thing to do though, the thing you have to emphasize is that spirit in the first century is not an ethereal privation of body. It is a stronger, more living, more powerful, more indestructible body, a body capable of passing through walls, a body capable of moving between the realm of the terrestrial realm and the realm of spirits. It is fuller a kind of life. It more eminently, more virtually, to use a scholastic language, contains the kind of life we have in this world, but it’s fuller and indestructible. It’s not composite. It’s not made up of an adventitious or extrinsic composite of flesh, blood and soul.
Micheli: Does the New Testament require a more enchanted view of the world than Evangelicals are able to hold? Isn’t that the problem?
Hart: Well, I think a more enchanted view of the world than modern people, I mean, not just evangelicals. All of us who are modern, we recoil from the cosmology of the New Testament because we see only its morphology. That is, well we know that the heavens are not crystalline planetary spheres revolving around the earth, and God’s imperium is literally above it so that obviously, as in the Gospel of John, Jesus literally comes from above. That’s not just metaphorical language. He enters the whole and redeems the whole and conquers the whole cosmos, meaning the sphere of fixed stars (which are full of spiritual intelligences, probably), the planetary spheres, the powers on high, which are spirit, pneumata [πνεύματα], and angels, archons [ἄρχων]. He uses the words “the archon of this world.”
And yet, I think that you don’t need the morphology to believe in a spiritually living creation that is full of spiritual life. You know, I’m something of a panpsychist myself. Not in the modern way, in which, you know, you’re supposed to believe that every atom has a kind of quality called mind. But rather, that everything is founded upon spirit, is full of logos, is full of spiritual realities.
And I think that until, I think that because we can’t think like first century persons, we end up with, well, this whole issue of resurrection, say. How is N.T. Wright or any other evangelical of that sort thinking about resurrection? It’s weirdly dualistic, isn’t it? There’s this body thing that’s animated one way or another. You know, there’s matter; there’s spirit. Spirit would be more ethereal than matter. Matter is somehow more concrete and more living than disembodied or fleshless spirit. It’s just the opposite of the ancient view, which is that the mortal corruptible world is feeble, perishing, thin, ghostly by comparison to the fullness of spiritual reality that sufuses all things, that underlies all things, that transcends all things, into which we are ushered. Resurrection is to be lifted up out of the ghostly condition of being flesh and blood and soul into this vibrant, vivid, indestructible condition of being living spirits in the presence of God who is spirit. And because we don’t think in that way. Because we are condemned to a kind mechanical, bland, boring, dead-matter view of creation, you know, you end up with a need to create a theology that obviously isn’t there in the text. And of course it helps if you know the time, the issues. I wish that more Christians were immersed in the intertestamental literature, immersed in the larger Hellenistic world, realizing that Paul is a Greek too, I mean, in some sense. He’s a Jew, but he’s a Hellenistic Jew, in part of the pagan world that for three centuries had not only lived under pagan rule but had freely and happily, at times not so happily, but at times in the intellectual world, happily borrowed and used and integrated what it had found useful, just as it had done with Persian thought.
Micheli: That’s a good word, especially around Easter.