Image: this is a detail from a traditional transfiguration icon. See full image and info at bottom of post.
“In reality only the Deity is immaterial and incorporeal.” —St. John of Damascus
- Summary and Critique of Dale Martin’s Book (as an Aside)
- Martin’s Key Points on Paul’s Model of the Cosmos and its Bodies
- Glorified and Angelic Bodies in Paul (Was Hart Right and Wright Wrong?)
- Spiritual Bodies in my Life and in the Work of George MacDonald and C.S. Lewis
- Why Moderns Can’t See What is Most Real
- Further Reading
This is not so much a review of The Corinthian Body (Yale UP, 1995) as it is my own reappropriation of Dale Martin’s work. I want to understand the metaphysical world that was inhabited by Paul and his beloved congregation in Corinth so that I can better grasp what is real and what I am blind to because of my own impoverished cosmological models and metaphysical categories of thought. Martin is a veteran New Testament scholar who has held academic chairs at Duke and Yale over the course of a long and distinguished career, and his book unpacks Paul’s world of thought with exquisite care. This takes place through an examination of all the beliefs current in Paul’s day within the areas of folk culture, medicine and metaphysics. In standard scholarly fashion, Martin does not generally share his own thoughts as he analyzes Paul’s beliefs about metaphysics, medicine and the nature of bodies other than as the basis for explaining Paul’s reasoning and thought processes within his letters. There is one notable exception to this when Martin hopes that not all women in Paul’s day believed what Martin says that Paul taught about the inferiority of the female body (251). I’ll return to this later, but for now, let me reiterate that my own reason for reading this book was to subject myself to a rigorous scholarly analysis of Paul’s profoundly pre-modern thought world.
I first heard of Martin’s book when it was recommended by David Bentley Hart as he defended himself against published criticism from N.T. Wright (and some others backing Wright) over Hart’s translation of “spirit”, “soul” and “flesh” as these were used by Paul in his discussion of the resurrection body. When two of the most preeminent living scholars of the New Testament thought world (who have both published translations of the entire New Testament) engaged in public debates over the nature of our resurrection bodies, I followed every word (with repeat readings). In response to Hart’s most developed essay on the topic (“The Spiritual Was More Substantial Than the Material for the Ancients”), James Ware offered a defence of N.T. Wright’s position. Hart, in his very terse response to Ware, recommended reading “Dale Martin’s treatment of the matter in his book The Corinthian Body, which simply places Paul’s words in the context of his age.” [You can find all three articles here, here and here from Church Life Journal with the University of Notre Dame from July 26, 2018 to July 04, 2019. The original sally by N.T. Wright is here at The Christian Century from January 15, 2018. Hart’s initial response to Wright is here from January 16, 2018 on Eclectic Orthodoxy, a blog that Hart frequents. Finally, Christianity Today published an account of the “tussle” here on January 24, 2018.]
Dale Martin is recognized as being unorthodox with regard to some basic tenants of the Christian faith. David Bently Hart, on the other hand, defends Christian orthodoxy vigorously and takes the Christian creeds with all seriousness. Addison Hart recently wrote (in an social media discussion forum) that his brother David “reads Dale Martin, John Dominic Crossan, and others that many wouldn’t for doctrinal reasons” because “if you’re going to engage scholarship at all, that’s what you do” even if “you won’t always like what you read or even what you learn from it.”
Despite critical differences with some of Martin’s conclusions, I appreciated his rigorous examination of the world of thought and belief out of which Paul lived and taught and composed his letters. Paul’s pre-modern beliefs about the cosmos, angelic bodies, social bodies and our own human bodies (both current and glorified) point us toward realities that we have lost the capacity to see. This does not imply, of course, that Paul’s specific medical or metaphysical models should be maintained today. David Bentley Hart would doubtless extol most aspects of Paul’s metaphysics while pointing out that there is no necessary conflict with modern medical practices or physiology. This perceived conflict, however, leaves us benighted moderns with emaciated and collapsed cosmologies. We need fresh models of the universe and ourselves (along with revived stories of our shared travels through time and place) so that we can regain access to all of the layered realms that were opened up by the ancient cosmologies and social imaginaries that we have discarded as primitive. Tragically, our modern models provide no meaningful space for the realms of reality that were taken most seriously within all of the ancient maps of nature and of the human body. As a result, during the past five centuries, modern and Western humans (which, in another ghastly aspect of our current story, increasingly means all humans) have grown profoundly and increasingly blind to the most substantial elements of our own bodies and of the world that we inhabit.
Summary and Critique of Dale Martin’s Book (as an Aside)
Before leaving Martin largely aside and plundring his scholarship for my own purposes, I will pay his work the well-earned respect of my poor efforts at a summary and a critique. This portion of my post has drifted back and forth between this second section, the third section and even an appendix. This drifting had two reasons. First, I am not even faintly qualified to summarize let alone criticise Martin’s scholarship. Second, to understand even the basic outlines of Martin’s points requires a substantial and counterintuitive understanding—for us as moderns—of what bodies are for Paul and his congregation in Corinth. This requires that I repeat a lot of the basic metaphysics of human and social bodies in order to simply summarize Martin’s book. Both of these serious issues notwithstanding, I have opted to plunge in with a survey and response to Martin at the outset. (Please feel free to second guess my judgement or abilities in this and to skip ahead to later sections.)
In The Corinthian Body, Martin argues that virtually all of the directives and the guidance that Paul gave to the Corinthian church were motivated at some basic level by Paul’s concern for the purity and harmony of Christ’s body as the church. In chapter 1 (“The Body in Greco-Rioman Culture”), Martin makes it clear why Paul’s understanding of the “the body of Christ” is so literal, substantial and central to his entire vision for Christian life in this world. Throughout the book, Martin examines a comprehensive range of popular and scientific physiologies and etiologies from the ancient world—looking at what all bodies (human, social and heavenly) were thought to be composed of as well as what caused their diseases. In this effort, Martin’s survey of the realms of folklore, philosophy and medicine are impressive and fruitful.
In chapter 2 (“The Rhetoric of the Body Politic”), Martin looks closely at homonoia (“concord”) speeches as a standard category of deliberative rhetoric in which the speaker encouraged an entire population to maintain the health and unity of their social body. At one point, Martin argues that Paul likely had a standard rhetorical education in keeping with this background of higher social standing. Interestingly, Martin notes that every Hellenistic education had a basic rhetorical component that was separated from the more widely recognized later training of those who would go on to use rhetoric formally within their social calling (44, 48 and 51-52). In Martin’s analysis, regardless of the technical details of Paul’s education, he was clearly familiar with this standard rhetorical type concord speeches and used it to remarkable effect as he addressed the two primary threats that faced Christ’s body in Corinth. Both of these perils were understood by Paul in palpable terms as means by which cosmic powers—still struggling at some level to pollute and disrupt the body of Christ—might be allowed entry through disharmony or negligence. Although Martin does not provide this context, it does not conflict with Martin to point out that—while Christ had conquered all cosmic powers—many were still seeking to damage Christ’s body the church and that the reality of Christ’s conquest of them was still being played out in some sense by Christ through the church as his body. Martin focuses on Paul’s concern with this cosmic battle between the worldly realm (dominated by rebellious powers) and the church which is the pure body of Christ (demonstrating Christ’s power and victory over all of this world’s old authorities).
Two points of vulnerability for the church body form the two main parts of Martin’s book. He first deals with the threat to Christ’s body posed by “the Strong” in Corinth (Martin’s category name and capitalization). The second part of the book considers the dangers posed by female bodies. The strong in Corinth threatened the harmony of the church through their failure to understand and live by the reversed hierarchical order of social glory that had been established under Christ. Women, through no fault of their own, possessed bodies that were made up (in this fallen world) of a higher concentration of elements that allowed for the easy passage of powerful substances from one realm into the other. Martin notes that modern readers will generally appreciate the first aspect of Paul’s message (directed at the strong) but will be confused and offended by Paul’s ideas about the female body.
To unpack each threat to Christ’s body a little further, first in this pair of weak points was the refusal of the strong within the Corinthian church to give up their false idea of social eminence within the body of Christ. This failure by the strong to subserviate themselves within the church threatened the harmony of Christ’s body as a place where the categories of glory had been restructured in reverse order to the hierarchy that all human societies had previously followed (including those of the Greco-Roman world). For Martin, the strong were a group of especially responsible and empowered Christians (within the life of their city) who formed a vocal minority in the church at Corinth. These Christians understood their functions within the church to reflect their noble functions within the social body of their city, but Paul made it clear to them that Christ’s body is constituted with a reversal of the social hierarchies of the fallen world (although not by a reversal of the bodily elements associated with these categories, as will become apparent below). A powerful revolution—an upending of social status categories—had been accomplished by Christ’s bodily death on a cross (at the very bottom of the Roman social order) and subsequent resurrection and ascension to the throne of God (from which Christ appeared to Paul and demanded Paul’s allegiance).
According to Martin, Paul was calling out the strong despite the fact that Paul had more in common socially with the strong at Corinth than with the other Christians of the city (who have been servants or slaves of the strong in many cases). At the same time, Martin claims that certain areas of Paul’s folk beliefs (especially regarding the causes of disease) reflected ideas much closer to the weak in Corinth than to the more sophisticated medical and philosophical theories of the strong (122, 135, 136 and 168). With these several nuances, Paul’s relationship with the strong at Corinth was complex and dynamic. This adds subtlety and delight to Martin’s analysis of Paul’s rhetorical appeals to the strong in Corinth to give up their high status within the church and to imitate Christ’s humiliation for the sake of concord within Christ’s body. [This is a good place to note that—in this first portion of the book—Martin was clearly drawing on some of the concepts from his earlier book Slavery as Salvation: The Metaphor of Slavery in Pauline Christianity (Yale UP, 1990). This no doubt added depth to Martin’s arguments in the first section of The Corinthian Body. Also, this idea of “slavery as salvaiton” corelates powerfuly in several ways with some of David Bentley Hart’s key points in Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies, particularly in chapter 13 (“The Face of the Faceless”).]
The second of Martin’s two main points within The Corinthian Body was the danger posed to Christ’s body by the physical makeup of the female body in this fallen world. Martin argues that female bodies were universally understood to be made of a greater percentage of elements that would allow for invasive substances and powers to more easily enter and threaten the entire body of Christ through them. He gives extensive evidence for the pervasive ancient belief that weaker and more porous substances made up female bodies and that these substances rendered female bodies more susceptible to invasion and pollution (199). This required different types and measures of care for females. This should not be misunderstood as saying that males and females were made of different elements. Genders simply contained different proportions of the same elements. “The human body—whether of a man or a woman—was understood to comprise male and female aspects. …Sexualtiy …was constructed less in terms of a dichotomy between male and female and more as a spectrum in which masculinity occupied one pole, femininity the other.” (32)
To understand Martin’s case regarding Paul’s thought here, it must also be clear that Paul would not have had any concept of an autonomous individual. All human bodies, regardless of gender or class, were understood as a part of their environment (in the broadest possible sense). In other words, human bodies were simply shifting and porous parts of their larger physical or elemental environments as well as of the larger social body (understood to be a very real entity). This surrounding elemental environment included powerful spiritual substances (a contradiction in terms for any modern mind) that could enter and cause disease in the entire social body (the household, city or church) through the body of any one individual. This basic line of thinking was taken as a matter of fact by anyone in Paul’s world, irrespective of their social status or gender. More sophisticated members of the Hellenistic world tended to emphasize the imbalance etiologies of Greek medicine over the invasion etiologies of folk culture, but both would have seen some individual bodies within any social body as more susceptible to a variety of dangerous influences (imbalancing or invading) than other bodies. Martin argues that Paul had such concepts in mind as he made what would have been understood as rather sensible recommendations for women, such as veiling themselves during corporate worship.
Martin notes that, in Paul’s world, a veil was not effective unless put in place by the woman of her own accord (245-246). While Martin explains this primarily in terms of power and dominance (which were of course fundamentally involved), he also notes that this was understood by everyone as essential to the welfare of the woman and to the entire collective body of which she was understood as a literal member (along with all males). This need for veiling was not understood as affected by the character of any women but was a product of the physiological constituents of every female body. Martin ultimately makes the case that Paul’s comment “because of the angels” in 1 Corinthians 11:10 refers to Paul’s concern that women might be dangerously exposed to the gaze of angelic powers during worship. Martin cites Terrtullian extensively regarding this concern “that lustful angels would be tempted by unveiled women” (246). Summarizing his case regarding what Paul believed, Martin says: “The veiling of women in church, especially when they were in an extra exposed state of inspiration, functioned as prophylaxis against external penetration and pollution for …both the female body and the communal body [or Christ] through the female” (248).
As Martin suggests, this portion of his book is the most bizzare to modern ears, but I also found it to be the most incomplete. While I don’t fundamentally disagree with Martin’s points about how the female body was understood in the Hellenistic world, I do not think that Martin fully develops Paul’s Christian vision of the female into a complete (and therefore an accurate) picture. To illustrate this, it will be helpful to develop another claim that Martin makes regarding the female body in Paul’s thought.
Martin says that Paul’s statement about there being “no male or female in Christ” was based on Paul’s idea that all resurrected female bodies would have to be reconstituted out of ingredients typical of males:
Women’s bodies are different from men’s—not just in the way we today think of them as different, in that they have different “parts,” but in that the very substance, the matter that makes up their bodies, is constitutionally different. Until the resurrection, women’s bodies will be different from men’s, more porous, penetrable, weak, and defenseless. …In Paul’s language, …in the kingdom of God[,] people who are now women will then be equal to people who are now men. Those who were formerly female will be equal, however, because their femininity will be swallowed up by masculinity. The inferior nature of their female stuff will be transcended as their bodies are raised to a higher level on the spectrum extending from higher male to lower female. (249)
According to Martin, Paul had no other way to conceive of what it would mean for a female body to be transformed into the incorruptible, immortale and glorified body of the resurrection.
Several questions came to mind at this point in my reading. Martin made it clear earlier in the book that Paul believed that glorified bodies would be transformed into the most substantial and potent of all elements: pure spirit (not immaterial as we will consider below but also not intermixed with elements of soul, flesh or blood). However, this body of pure spirit does not describe bodies that “are raised to a higher level on the spectrum extending from higher male to lower female.” For Paul, according to Martin, all fallen female bodies contained some spirit, and no fallen male bodies were made of anything close to pure spirit. Paul’s glorified spiritual bodies radically transcended both male and female bodies. It makes sense that Paul had this literal sense in mind (among other meanings) when he said that there is no male or female in Christ. However, neither Paul nor any women in the church were likely to have considered this demeaning toward the female body.
Martin does not say anything further about what New Testament authors might have thought regarding the shape or form of female resurrection bodies other than his brief reference (quoted above) to different “parts” not being the primary distinction between male and female. It seems entirely consistent with everything Martin says about Paul to believe that females would have been thought by Paul to receive a purely spiritual body with a feminine form. With this detail included, there seems to be even less reason to think that Paul’s teachings about the resurrection body would have been understood by himself or his audience as an elevation of all females to males—instead both would be substantially elevated.
Leaving Martin aside briefly, it is worth noting the early oral tradition in the church that had a female receiving what was something like the second glorified body after Christ as the Lord took his mother to be with him in heaven (setting aside potential body counts involving other figures taken up to heaven by God in earlier scriptural accounts). Of course the dating of the oral tradition about Mary being taken bodily into heaven to be with Christ is impossible to determine, and most scholars assign it a relatively late date. However, at whatever point there were any earlier Christians who began to believe this account of Mary being taken to heaven by Christ, there was a specific conception of a female body reigning with the glorified and enthroned Christ—typically seated on a throne of her own close beside Christ in a similar arrangement to that in ancient Israel with the Gebirah (a formal court title ascribed in the scriptures to several queen mothers of Israel and Judah). This image of an eternally glorified female figure clearly indicates that early Christians did not have any issue with the concept of the feminine form being present in heaven enthroned beside God. This corroborates with the idea that—while Paul would have assumed that the glorified female body would have to be made up of imperishable substances—he also would have assumed that it would still maintain its familiar feminine form. Moreover, the popular beliefs of all the common people in Paul’s day (which Martin says that Paul essentially shared with regard to the differences in male and female physiology as well as heavenly and earthly bodies) would have been that the bodies of goddesses were made of a pure imperishable substance while still retaining their female forms and even procreative abilities.
I’ll note one final detail regarding the incomplete idea that Martin develops regarding Paul’s concept of the female body. In several places throughout the book, Martin suggests that the bodies of the ruling class were made up differently than the bodies of the socially weak. However, when focusing in on Paul’s denigration of the female body, Martin makes the opposite claim: “Paul does not seem to think that a slave’s body is a different kind of body from that of a free person” but that “he believes, unquestionably, that women’s bodies are different from men’s bodies” (199). This simply does not line up with other portions of the book where Martin clearly indicates that Paul also understood bodily differences to have existed between different social classes.
For example, Martin sets this out in his opening chapter regarding the wider context for Paul’s own ideas:
Upper-class ideology of the body was not altogether consistent. On the one hand, it insisted that a person’s character was set from birth. …On the other hand, documents written by and for the upper class show much concern with the procedures whereby the young body may be formed. (25) …The real task of shaping the aristocratic body …began at birth. (26) …All aspects of the body and the self are malleable and susceptible to formation by the nurse, midwife, or whoever is standing in for society at the time. …The shape of the body and its inner constitution are thus subject to the molding of civilization. (27)
All the various aspects of the self were hierarchically arranged. A firm social hierarchy existed within the body of the ancient person. …Each individual body, moreover, could be placed confidently as some location in the physiological hierarchy of nature. In other words, each body held its hierarchy within itself. …In popular Greco-Roman culture, bodies were direct expressions of status, usually pictured as a vertical spectrum. (34)
In a later place, Martin argues that Paul would have understood gnosis as “a substance” (186). Martin goes on: “Paul’s view of gnosis makes is much less transferable; it is linked securely to the status or state of the possessor. The Weak simply do not have it, and no means for acquiring it are entertained.” (188-189)
In a similar way, Martin portrays Paul as agreeing with the strong at Corinth regarding the fact that self-control was more feasible for those with bodies composed of stronger elements:
Paul calls the ability to control oneself sexually a charisma, “a gift” (7:7); but the issue of control and a hierarchy of strong and weak constitute the frame in which possession of this gift is understood. Indeed, in versies 6-9 we see Paul using the same strategy as elsewhere in 1 Corinthians: he claims for himself the position of greater strength then notes that he is willing to be more flexible for the sake of weaker members. The construction assumes that celibacy is the practice of higher status and greater strength. (210)
Martin’s examples here of Paul’s own thinking line up with the idea that the bodies of “nobles” differed from the bodies of “commoners” in at least their form if not also their substance.
While the bodily differences between classes seems to have been understood as more dependent on formation than birth, it still seems clear that Paul and his contemporaries would have believed that different classes as well as different genders were grounded in real (although internal and constitutional) bodily differences. This makes the reversal of social status and power categories that Martin identifies within Paul’s letter all the more remarkable. The fact that gender categories were not unique in their direct connection to physiology also weakens Martin’s case that Paul had a uniquely degrading understanding of the female body (undermining key claims by Martin quoted above from 199).
Moreover, as Martin makes clear with regard to the strong in Corinth, these different physiologies in each person would have required different roles and needs within the social body. When speaking of the strong seeking to exercise their authority within the church, Martin notes that they were not functioning as selfish individuals in the way that we moderns would conceive of this (208). Nobility was a type of body that was received from and formed by others. It was also a body that required the noble person to submit to his or her role and function within the social body (for the good of the social body and not for the person’s own gratification). Not to follow the requirements of nobility would have been perceived as deeply impious and threatening to the entire social body. This is why Paul’s instructions to the strong in Corinth to imitate Christ upon his cross (by their submission and service to the weak) was so counterintuitive. This is also why early Christian teaching was labeled by many educated outsiders as the teachings of atheists and anarchists that threatened to destroy the entire social body of Rome.
Martin takes extended time to explore these nuanced dynamics between the socially strong and weak in Corinth—including considerations of Hellenistic traditions of noble self-abdication (41-43) and democracy (44). However, Martin does not do the same for the relationships between males and females in Corinth. He does not explore any equivalent ways in which men and women would have both been expected to function in keeping with the proportionally different ingredients of their bodies in order to secure the flourishing of the entire communal body. Nor does Martin explore any nuances with regard to status between male and female in the Hellenistic world.
The radical reversal by Paul within the status dynamics of Christ’s body (between the socially strong and the socially weak) within the first half of Martin’s book is contrasted repeatedly by Martin in his second half with the lack of evidence for any such status reversal (or even corrective) within the body of Christ along gender lines. Instead, Martin clearly sees Paul as teaching a degradation of the female body. Because of this, Martin openly hopes that Paul may have failed to fully carry out several of his instructions regarding women (251). While there are some clear differences to consider between Paul’s treatment of the socially weak and his treatment of women, my own sense is that Martin is missing several explanations that could move us well beyond a simplistic demeaning of female bodies in stark contrast to the elevation of slaves. It is possible that Paul and the women in Corinth saw both male and female bodies as being capable of a profound transformation through a future resurrection and glorification. This vision would allow for real differences in male and female physiology in this current world (along with the different types of responsibilities that would attend these different bodies) without there being any ultimate sense of inferiority on the part of females. Also, it is possible that the status of the socially weak in Corinth was at risk while the status of women in that church was not generally understood by Paul or any of the women there to be threatened to an equivalent level.
In principle, I have no issue with the idea that Paul had substantial class and gender blindnesses or that he personally struggled to respect women (not that Martin suggests this or that this necessarily lines up with the little that we know about any specific sins dealt with by this “chief of sinners”). After all, Paul was a proud member of an elite religious class in Roman Palestine, and he even had the coveted status of a Roman Citizen in addition to this. If Paul was an elitist and a misogynist (personally and/ or as a part of his broader cultural setting), he could easily have experienced a revolution with regard to social status without having any equivalent revolution with regard to gender statuses. This is what Martin strongly suggests. However, it is also possible that Paul and the women of Corinth did not perceive serious gender status problems to be addressed within their particular church at that time.
Either way, Martin seriously overplayed the idea that female bodies would become male (in their internal makeup) at the time of their resurrection and glorification. Paul clearly believed that male and female would both be transcended through an internal glorification of the bodily substances. For my own part—living within a culture that is saturated in images and obsessions with regard to the external female form—I found the focus of the Hellenistic world upon internal constitution and correlating social responsibilities to be refreshing and potentially insightful. After all, the modern world’s extreme externalizing of what it means to be female or male has hardly been a blessing to either gender. As Martin notes, male and female were not understood in Paul’s world primarily as opposites but as each containing the other or as each being different forms of the other. There was a spectrum on which all male and female bodies were located and it moved, in certain respects from weak to strong. Certainly, this hierarchy was easily connected to abusive power structures and disparaging status rankings. Power and abuse were real and wide-spread moral horrors between genders as well as social classes.
However, these structures were not necessarily abused, and they did not necessarily imply status differences. Moreover, these hierarchical structures and the literal understandings of every person as a part of the whole social body also provided a powerful positive sense of place and purpose that could be real blessings within each human life. It is far beyond the scope of this review to explore early Christian ideas of male and female and the implications of the good news and saving work of Jesus Christ for the social dynamics between genders. To do so would no doubt require a difficult attempt to re-inhabit an extraordinary strange world of thought and relationships. It would need to place the devastating vulnerability of orphans and widows at center stage—as Jesus Christ did in keeping with many prophets of Israel. It would also need to account for the profound reverence that depicted the mother of God prominently among the earliest images within places of worship and that elevated the myrrh-bearing women with the title of “Apostles to the Apostles.” These first apostles cared for the dead body of Christ at great personal risk and with no reward in view and therefore became the first to witness Christ’s resurrection and to carry this news to the men in hiding (who initially dismissed the account as womanly foolishness). Any effort to re-inhabit this premodern world of thought and relationships with regard to men and women would need to reconcile these high-status elements within early Chrisitian life and worship to the virtual invisibility of females within most of the early narratives. Whatever status and roles that females held during the apolstolic and patristic periods of the church, it was simultaneously visible and hidden. There is a strong sense in Mary’s life of something treasured and potent—something that is shown respect and acknowledged but yet intentionally hiding itself and working from within the new reality of Christ’s veiled kingdom.
With all of this, Martin misses some vital aspects of the full picture with regard to Paul’s beliefs about the female body and Paul’s teachings about the ultimately dignity and coequal status of females alongside of males in Christ’s kingdom. At the same time, I must also acknowledge that I learned a lot about Hellenistic beliefs regarding the female body that I am not capable of processing. I hope to keep reading. My confidence in the love of Jesus Christ for humanity is not diminished, but I can easily imagine that there is more to human degradation throughout our history than I have in any way comprehended.
At this point, however, I have wandered absurdly far off topic. These matters are not what drew me to this book nor were they my focus while reading it. Setting debates over class and gender aside, then, I will return to my own focus on the metaphysics of our resurrection bodies as understood by Paul.
Martin’s Key Points on Paul’s Model of the Cosmos and its Bodies
Two essential insights from Martin strike me as the most helpful lenses to use when seeking to gain a vision of the cosmos that Paul and his early converts saw in their own day. These lenses need to be fitted and tried out repeatedly in order to start seeing just how different Paul’s world was from our own. Therefore, I will intentionally cycle through both of them twice (with a summary and then with passages from Martin) before looking more closely at several details regarding specific terms and the minor differences that did exist between different social classes or schools of philosophy and medicine in Paul’s own day.
The first lense to try out erases any concept of the autonomous individual. Human bodies related to the world around them in three ways:
- As reflections of greater social bodies and of the cosmos as a whole with corresponding internal substances and regions that responded to the movements of these same substances and regions in the larger surrounding bodies.
- As derivatives and parts of these several larger social bodies as well as of the entire cosmos.
- As porous and mailable arrangements of every kind of substance that would continually take in and respond to the full array of surrounding elements and movements.
Human bodies were both reflections of and pieces of multiple larger entities. Bodies had their own internal weather systems that were continually responding to and joining together with the activity of the greater weather systems of which they were microcosms (17). “The human body was not like a microcosm; it was a microcosm—a small version of the universe at large” (16). This microcosmic human body was arranged of the same essential substances and even in similar proportions and alignments as the larger bodies (both political and cosmic) of which each human was therefore a small reflection. For example, specifically heavenly elements predominated in the makeup of the human head as well as in the bodies of the ruling classes within human societies. (Even parallel shapes were sometimes noted between the human head and the heavenly bodies.) In turn, these heavenly elements within human heads and chests responded to the actual movements of these same elements as they moved within the stately dancing of the sun, moon and stars in the upper realms. All of these corresponding elements needed to be maintained in a harmonious hierarchy between the heavens, the social body of the local community and, finally, the body of each human. At times, however, these larger bodies would be in conflict, and human bodies were then at risk because they were continually open to being filled up by multiple types of stronger elements that could empower them or throw them into disarray.
Amid all of this, no one in the ancient world could have imagined the human body as something that any one person could control or claim as their own private concern. Today, we think of our bodies as having fairly well defined physical boundaries, and we also think of ourselves as essentially independent and morally autonomous individuals. We each have human dignity and rights attached to ourselves and consider our free wills, our reason and our consciences all to be an essential part of how we make decisions and function within the many choices available to us in our democratic and free market society. We also have personal or private opinions and feel entitled to our feelings as things that cannot be dictated, trained or criticized. We are concerned about our physical and our psychological health, but both are intensely private. Many legal and bureaucratic codes exist to ensure that our privacy is not violated. In turn, we also expect to be able to exercise various freedoms such as the freedom of speech which is our own ability to say what we believe or wish to express without any limitations from our community.
In Paul’s world, any idea of an independent and autonomous individual who was in control of their own destiny would have been extremely difficult to understand. Human bodies belonged to multiple larger bodies and were literally reciprocating, mixed up with and continually interacting with several powerful and layered realities. Our contemporary talk of private lives, personal freedoms, and autonomous wills would have sounded profoundly inadequate to the complex and powerful relationships at work in reality. Ancients who could begin to understand our modern mindsets would have felt sadness for our tragic self-delusion and our blindness to the profound connectedness that we had with each other and with all of nature.
Seeing this ancient world, however, depends on a second lense as well. Putting this lense in place before our twenty-first century eyes, will erase our modern dualism between the material and the immaterial, between the natural and the supernatural and between the physical and the mental. We moderns have dug massive moats of separation between the physical or natural realm (that we instinctively take as real and important) and any possible mental, psychological or supernatural realms (that we typically view as products of the physical realm and that we automatically subject to careful critical analysis before granting any level of reality or importance).
This is actually a remarkable reversal of the ancient mindset. Anyone in Paul’s day would have assumed the greater potency and reality of substances such as mind and spirit over the impotent and less consequential substances of earth and body. Spirit or mind were not conceived of (even by the neoplatonists) as immaterial. Understanding spirit and mind as substantive elements that filled and directed all of the lower materials was essential to appreciating the profound connectedness and interdependence that existed for all types and levels of bodies throughout the entire cosmos. Our benighted modern minds can conceptually grant the ideas of microcosm and connectedness at some level, but it is profoundly difficult for us to truly inhabit a world where spirit is the most substantive and powerful element. This, however, is the second lense: to insist that entities such as spirit, mind and knowledge are all material substances that fill, guide and direct all of the lower elements such as earth and water.
At this point, we will circle back and look at what Martin has to say about each of these two topics: the absence of the autonomous individual and the breakdown of Cartesian dualism. To be clear, in my rhetorical gimmick of prescribing two lenses, I’m identifying these two concepts as “most important.” Martin, of course, does not do this. He does, however, make it clear that all of these basic ideas were held in common by Paul and everyone of his Hellenistic society regardless of their ethinc background or social status (15). “Greeks and Romans could see as ‘natural’ what seems to us bizarre: the nonexistence of the ‘individual,’ the fluidity of the elements that make up the ‘self,’ and the essential continuity of the human body with its surroundings” (21).
Regarding the first lense, Martin makes the case repeatedly that no concept of an autonomous human individual or body would have been conceivable for Paul or any of his contemporaries:
In most of Greco-Roman culture the human being was a confused commingling of substances. …For most people of Greco-Roman culture the human body was of a piece with its environment. The self was a precarious, temporary state of affairs, constituted by forces surrounding and pervading the body, like the radio waves that bounce around and through the bodies of modern urbanites. In such a maelstrom of cosmological forces, the individualism of modern conceptions disappears, and the body is perceived as a location in a continuum of cosmic movement. (25)
The workings of the internal body are not just an imitation of the mechanics of the universe; rather, they are part of it, constantly influenced by it. (17)
The concept of poroi in medical theory is one expression of the ancient assumption that the human body is of a piece with the elements surrounding and pervading it and that the surface of the body is not a sealed boundary. (18)
No ontological dichotomy between the individual and the social can be located in Paul’s logic in 1 Corinthians 5. One may argue that the modern concept of the individual is simply unavailable to Paul. In any case, the logic underlying 1 Corinthians 5 depends on the breaking down of any possible boundary between the individual body and the social body. (173)
Martin argues that moderns tend to conflate Platonic vs. Cartesian dualism. He describes an ancient dualism in some schools of philosophy between the body and the soul, but Martin argues that this should not be conflated with our modern dualism between the material and the immaterial. Martin states explicitly that no person in Paul’s day would have shared our modern distinctions between the natural and the supernatural or between the material and the immaterial. Even the Platonists believed that soul and spirit were substances and conceived of them in ways that we moderns would think of as material (12 and 14-15). (Note that, in drawing this sharp distinction between Platonic and Cartesian dualisms, it should be understood that neither of these helpful labels are representative of Plato or Descrtes in their own original thinking.) Here are a few illustrative passages from Martin on these points:
Plato maintains that quite a few ailments that we would think of as psychological, ethical, or spiritual are actually physiological at base. …All kinds of pains can alter the mind. “Acid and saline phlegm and bitter bilious humours roam about the body, and if they are trapped inside and can get no outlet the vapour that rises from them mixes with the movement of the soul, and the resultant confusion causes a great variety of disorders of different intensity and extend, which attach the three areas where the soul is located with different effects, producing various types of irritability and depression, of rashness and timidity of forgetfulness and dullness” (86D). An Epicurean or Stoic could not have put it more “materialistically.” Even in Plato, therefore, the most dualistic of ancient philosophers, we find something quite different from the radical ontological dualism between mind and body, matter and nonmatter, familiar from Descartes. We are still dealing with something more like a spectrum of essences than a dichotomy of realms. (11-12)
[Martin quotes Ruth Padel at length related to these ideas:] When I speak of innards, I mean all this equipment of feeling and thinking. The poets treat words fluidly as organs, vessels, liquid, breath. But I am not suggesting that tragedians “blurred” distinctions we make between mind and body, or that this words were ambiguous, or that the psychological “overlapped” the physical in Greek thought. These metaphors of blur and overlap would imply that the Greeks perceived two different things to blur, two meanings to slip between. If the distinctions and meanings are ours, not theirs, then there were no two things for them to blur or be ambiguous about. It is not useful to project semantic fields of our own words, like heart, soul, mind, or spirit, or to talk in terms of slippage. (20)
In the ancient world, all eating (and practically all activity) was construed as an aspect of interaction with unseen powers. (183)
A few philosophers, Platonists perhaps, may have emphasized a dualism between the body and the soul. But such theorists represented a small minority. (25)
For most ancient philosophers, to say that something was incorporeal was not to say that it was immaterial. Furthermore, to say that something was not composed of hyle [often translated matter but really meaning something like heavy and inactive matter] did not mean it was immaterial in the modern sense of the word. Air, water, and especially ether could all be described as substances not included in the category of hyle, yet we moderns would be hard pressed to think of them as “immaterial substances.” In other words, all the Cartesian oppositions—matter versus nonmatter, physical versus spiritual, corporeal (or physical) versus psychological, nature versus supernature—are misleading when retrojected into ancient language. A “one world” model is much closer to the ancient conception, and, instead of an ontological dualism, we should think of a hierarchy of essence. (15, italics from the original text)
Critical to this understanding is that the higher elements (such as spirit) would literally propel the lower ellements (such as earth and flesh): “According to Lucretius, the mind strikes the spirit, the spirit strikes the body, and so the body walks or moves” (9). This is counter-intuitive to our modern thinking for two reasons. First, we don’t think of mind or spirit in material terms. Second, when the ancients spoke of mind and spirit as being light weight and filling up other substances, we do not associate these qualities with the ability to physically push other substances around. However, despite their ethereal qualities, substances such as spirit were actually far more permanent and powerful than the heavy weight substances known as hyle.
In summary, these two charts (my own and therefore all problems are mine) present the basic concepts of modern Cartesian dualism vs. the spectrum (or hierarchy) of substances in the Hellenistic world (which contains and properly contextualizes the Platonic dualism between soul and body).
Modern Cartesian Dualism
Fields of Study
spirit, soul, heaven, immaterial, mental, intangible, supernatural
religion, theology and psychology
body, earth, material, physical, tangible, natural
science and economics
Spectrum of Substances in the Hellenistic World
Three Types of Bodies
Substances that Predominate in Each Region
Social Bodies (City or Church)
sun and stars
nobles and priests
region under the moon
earth and regions under the earth
slaves and servants
stomach and genitals
To be clear, charts such as these easily misrepresent actual realities. For example, this chart aligns human heads as well as the cosmic heavens with spirit and mind as if these things were all parallel, but substances such as mind or spirit were not found only in the heavens or in human heads. Spirit and mind just predominated in more concentrated forms within the heads of a wide variety of intersecting human and social bodies that each reflected the cosmos as a whole.
The basic concepts covered so far in this section (and outlined in the above chart) were widely shared by all those in Paul’s world regardless of their cultural heritage or education. (Although time and space to not allow for a more complete review, Martin’s survey, especially in the first chapter, of the common ground between Platonic, Aristitelian, Epicurean and Stoic thought, among other categories, is persuasive and fascinating.) Within this shared framework, however, there were many specific debates between different schools of thought in medicine and philosophy as well as some distinguishing features between popular or folk beliefs and the those of more educated people. As I mentioned in the last section, folk medicine tended to favor invasion etiologies (where corrupt or incorrect elements caused disease by entering the body) while Greek doctors tended to favor imbalance etiologies (where disease was the result of disturbances to the proper proportions or movements of elements within the body). Between these two positions, Paul tended to favor the common people and their folk ideas of invasion by corrupt elements as the source of disease:
Paul, …along with …the majority of early Christians, presupposes an invasion etiology of disease. The body, rather than being a balance ecosystem or microcosm of an equilibrated nature, is a permeable entity susceptible to attack by daimonic agents. Protection from attack is possible only by means of the powerful action of God. Cures are obtained by appeals to God that the hostile, alien attacker be expelled or by recourse to the charismatically endowed healers who function as conduits for the purifying power of God (see 1 Cor. 12:28). …This logic of the body underwrites Paul’s ethical arguments against the Strong at Corinth, educated believers who appear to subscribe to the other etiology of disease [i.e. the etiology of balance and imbalance that dominated Greek medical theory (see 152)]. (168)
Although identifying Paul with “the strong” at Corinth in terms of Paul’s overall social status, Martin also aligns Paul with some of the more folksy or popular ideas about the causes of disease and pollution (see 136 as well).
In addition to these differences over the causes of disease, we see a divide over the way in which language about dead bodies and resurrected bodies could be understood differently by different classes in the Hellensitic world. Here again, Paul tends to use language is, on its surface, more comfortable for the socially weak in Corinth. Teaching on the resurrection, Paul follows a narrow path that insists on a bodily resurrection but that must also make it clear that he is not talking about the zombies of Greek magic and folklore or that he is not insisting on the eternal incorruptibility of any substances that an educated Greek would have understood as mutable and impermanent in its very nature:
[The strong in Corinth] do believe in the resurrection and glorification of Christ, and …some kind of afterlife. What they question is the idea that human bodies can survive after death and be raised to immortality. …The strong …misunderstand Paul partly because …of the vocabulary he has used to describe resurrection. …Paul’s use of egeirein nekron would probably be heard as a crude form of “wake the dead,” also referring to a corpse, as in an example from the magical papyri. Thus when Paul uses the phrase anastasis nekrōn or the like (15:21, 42), it would be natural for the Corinthians to imagine a bringing to life of human corpses along lines familiar from popular myth and folklore. …The bodies raised out of graveyards by magicians are called by Lucian “corpses,” …as are the emaciated, unfed dead bodies the credulous people believe occupy the regions below the earth. …The most natural way in which a Greek speaker would have heard Paul’s langue in 1 Corintihans 15 would have been as a reference to what we would call resuscitation of corpses. As we will see, Paul himself rejects such an interpretation; but it is easy to see how his Greek audience might take his language in this way. For lower-class Chrisitans, not educated in the assumptions of philosophers, such language would perhaps not be off-putting. …But for the educated such beliefs would have appeared vulgar and naive at best and ridiculous at worst. It is against such skepticism that Paul must show his position to be more sophisticated than would appear on the surface, and do so without giving up his apocalyptic belief in the resurrection of the body. (122-123)
In loyalty to that apocalypticism, [Paul] insists on the future resurrection of the body, thereby denying the lowly status attributed to the body by Greco-Roman elite culture. At the same time he admits that the resurrection body will have to be thoroughly reconstituted so as to be able to rise from the earth to a new luminous home in the heavens. The eschatologial body must be one without earth, flesh, blood, or even psyche (soul). The tendency towards cosmic revolution inherent in Paul’s apocalypticism must bow to some aspects of cosmological hierarchy. Paul’s theology is constrained by his physiology. (135)
Paul is so far identified with the social weak in Corinth by some of his language choices and his ideas about the dangers of pollution to human and social bodies, that the strong in Corinth would have suspected Paul of foolish superstitions at points. First, however, Martin clarifies what was meant by superstition in the ancient world (as distinct from our modern meaning):
The philosophically educated referred to the beliefs they despised as “superstitious” (deisidaimonia). …In ancient texts “superstition” does not refer to a belief in supernatural beings or supernatural causation; it means simply “an unreasonable fear of the gods,” a “dread of divinities.” …Women and the masses (ochlos, hoi polloi) are assumed to be especially superstitious. (156, see also 114)
Alongside certain beliefs of Paul’s that would have made some philosophers turn away, some of Paul’s common language may have been intentional. He certainly shows an awareness of what the socially strong in Corinth believed and how they would have taken his language. Paul had a strong grasp of educated Greeco-Roman categories of thought. Specifically, however, “the kind of popular philosophy that seems to have influenced early Christians, Paul in particular, was of a general moral sort and much more related to Stoic than Platonic concepts” (15).
Although the details of Martin’s assessments across ancient Hellenistic thought continue to alure me, I must leave off this overview at this point. I will make a couple notes, in closing out this section, about how Dale Martin and David Bentley Hart do (or might) relate any of this to our own world and day. While Martin maintains a fairly standard “scholarly detachment” from the pre-modern science, medicine, metaphysics and popular physiology of the New Testament era, he does interject a thought or two of his own very occasionally. For example, he says within parentheses that “whatever we [moderns] do mean by the term [matter], it is not clear in the latter twentieth century” (106-107). Later, he criticizes contemporary medicine and the way that “much modern drug therapy operates through a certain ‘cowboy philosophy’ of American populism” whereby “the hero singlehandedly blasts out the desperadoes who were running rampant through the settlement” (145, quoting René Dubos). Finally, Martin mentions the “modern medicalization of the self” (211).
In contrast to Dale Martin, David Bentley Hart doubtless takes much of the pre-modern metaphysics of Paul’s world rather seriously on its own merits. I’m far out of my technical depth with these speculations about Hart (based on readings of his that I’ve only imperfectly grasped), but Hart probably would not hold on to much of the ancient medicine or popular physiology (while he would not consider these essential to the ancient metaphysical framework). Interestingly, in Martin’s construction, this dismissal of some ancient folk ideas by Hart might put him on the side of “the strong” over against Paul in a few instances. (However, Hart does have a track record of boldly defending folk stories (see “The Secret Commonwealth” in First Things October 20, 2009 for example), so I don’t want to overstate this conjecture on my part or be influenced by my own recent disappointment with Hart’s rather sweeping dismissal of a favorite folk story of my own from the life of Abba Macarius of Egypt (in the opening lines of That All Shall Be Saved). In summary, while I doubt that Hart would say that Martin fully represented Paul in his ideas of the feminine, Hart would no doubt join Martin in dismissing some of Paul’s specific beliefs regarding the physiology of male and female bodies as well as some of the specifics of Paul’s disease etiology.
Overall, however, the extent to which Martin’s scholarship supports Hart’s thinking is substantial. At its core, they both have the same understanding of the pre-modern that Paul saw. Another essay by David Bentley Hart, “Everything you know about the Gospel of Paul is likely wrong” (from Aeon January 8, 2018), is echoed in passages from Martin. Here is how Hart summarizes the main ideas in the good news that Paul preached:
The story of salvation concerns the entire cosmos; and it is a story of invasion, conquest, spoliation and triumph. For Paul, the cosmos has been enslaved to death, both by our sin and by the malign governance of those ‘angelic’ or ‘daemonian’ agencies who reign over the earth from the heavens, and who hold spirits in thrall below the earth. These angelic beings, these Archons, whom Paul calls Thrones and Powers and Dominations and Spiritual Forces of Evil in the High Places, are the gods of the nations. In the Letter to the Galatians, he even hints that the angel of the Lord who rules over Israel might be one of their number. Whether fallen, or mutinous, or merely incompetent, these beings stand intractably between us and God. But Christ has conquered them all.
In descending to Hades and ascending again through the heavens, Christ has vanquished all the Powers below and above that separate us from the love of God, taking them captive in a kind of triumphal procession. All that now remains is the final consummation of the present age, when Christ will appear in his full glory as cosmic conqueror, having ‘subordinated’ (hypetaxen) all the cosmic powers to himself – literally, having properly ‘ordered’ them ‘under’ himself – and will then return this whole reclaimed empire to his Father. God himself, rather than wicked or inept spiritual intermediaries, will rule the cosmos directly.
Backing up much of this, Martin says:
Paul’s views are informed by a myth that encompasses the entire cosmos within its explanatory frame. Christians are not free selves exercising their wills in their individual bodies; they are pieces in a cosmic conflict, who occupy places on a cosmic map of battle. …Paul apocalypticism perceives enemy agents everywhere in the cosmos as presently constituted. Death and sin are not abstract states but demonized beings. Even the Law is not an abstract concept or a list of rules but an agent of a dangerous nature, good in its basic intent but responsible for a disastrous state of affairs. Because humans are enslaved to sin, the Law is functionally an enemy of humanity. (134-135)
Within such a common framework, it is easy to see how Dale Martin supports David Bentley Hart’s reading of Paul over against N.T. Wright.
Glorified and Angelic Bodies in Paul (Was Hart Right and Wright Wrong?)
Obviously, all of the proceeding material has significance for how we understand resurrection and angelic bodies as well as for the debate between David Bentley Hart and N.T. Wright over Paul’s conception of resurrection bodies. Hart clearly knew what he was doing when he cited Dale Martin in defence of his essay “The Spiritual Was More Substantial Than the Material for the Ancients.” A full survey of the idea landscape in which Paul lived lends powerful support to Hart’s assessment of Paul’s teachings about glorified bodies. My two previous sections will have made this clear in multiple explicit ways. However, I have intentionally not cited extensively from Martin chapter 5 on “The Resurrected Body.” In this section, I will briefly set out some of the specifics from Martin on this point.
Martin starts out by insisting that we should be careful not to introduce “a matter/nonmatter dichotomy” into our reading of Paul (106), and points out that “the problem for the Corinthians lies in the resurrection of the body, not in the existence, in the present or the future, of matter” (107). As I set out in the last section, Martin goes on to say that Paul was eager to affirm the bodily resurrection in ways that would have been reassuring to the socially weak in Corinth while also being offensive and vulgar to the socially strong. Both the weak and the strong in Corinth might have mistaken the bodily resurrection that Paul spoke of to be similar to the resuscitation of corpses practiced in Greek folklore and magic. The more educated in Corinth would have wanted to push Paul in the direction of simply recognizing a spiritual element in each human person that would continue on after death and could participate in eternal life with God.
Paul, however, insisted on using words that connected directly to the deceased body or corpse and claimed that this body would be raised up and glorified as a spiritual body. In this, Paul was acknowledging the sensibilities of educated Greeks regarding the impossibility of soma and hyle (substances that were impotent, malleable and transitory) being part of any conception of eternal and incorruptible life. Paul goes so far in his defense of this idea of a spiritual body as to say explicitly that our flesh, blood and even soul will all be transformed into pure spirit. Here is where Wright took issue publically with Hart’s translations and where Hart struck back in defense of his translations so forcefully. Everything that Martin sets out about the ideas of Paul and of all parties at Corinth, makes it clear that Hart is correct in every respect with regard to what Paul said to the Corinthians about the glorified body of the resurrection.
To be clear, this does not mean that there was unanimity among the early followers of Christ on the exact metaphysics of the resurrection body. Martin says that “in the first century there was no general agreement among early Christians about the nature of the resurrected body” (123). He goes on: “In John, Jesus’ death and resurrection are emphasized as physical, but the nature of Jesus’ resurrection body is not at all clear” (124). Martin says his “guess” is that most Chistians “seldom thought about the resurrection systematically but simply assumed that the resurrection of the body meant the resurrection, completely, wholly, and crassly, of the flesh-and-blood body” while some others recognized (like Paul) “that some change will affect the body ‘…for the better of what still remains in existence at that time’” [quoting Athenagoras with reference to the glorification of dissolute remains that will clearly be in need of improvement] (124). Responding to some who were pushing in more incorporeal and sophisticated directions, Tertullian insisted that the resurrected body is “none other than all that structure of the flesh, of whatever sort of materials it is composed and diversified, that which is seen, is handled, that hin short which is slain by men” (124).
Paul’s written teaching to the Corinthians starts with and maintains an insistence on the bodily nature of the resurrection but ends up clearly saying that the constitution of this sōma (“body”) will be transformed from any ingredients of sarx kai haima (“flesh and blood”) or psychē (soul) into a sōma of pure pneuma (“spirit”). This “spirit body” would take the original earthly body and transform or glorify it into a “heavenly body” (like the bodies possessed by the stars). This heavenly body would be grounded (via its origin) in the earthly body and—even in its spiritual makeup—would not have been understood as immaterial but as “supermaterial” (my term seeking to capture Martin’s points succinctly from 125-131).
Another aspect of the resurrection body that Martin points out form Paul, is that Paul assumes “that individual bodies have reality only in so far as they are identified with some greater cosmic reality.” Martin goes on:
Christian bodies have no integral individuality about them. Due to their existence “in Christ,” they must experience the resurrection. To deny the resurrection of their bodies is to deny the resurrection of Christ; to deny the resurrection of Christ is to render any future hope void. The Christian body has no meaning apart from its participation in the body of Christ.
Paul so firmly assumes that identity is constructed upon participation that he can refer without demurral to the practice of baptism for the dead. [As Dan Doriani at The Gospel Coalition (a large reformed evangelical blog) says: “the simplest reading of the text is that some Corinthian Christians were baptized vicariously on behalf of some who’d already died, seeking a spiritual benefit.” Doriani goes on to argue that this could not have possibly been the case and that we simply can’t know what Paul was talking about. Martin, however, takes the verse (1 Cor. 15:29) at its face value as describing a practice that Paul does not recommend but that Paul was aware of among his church in Corinth and uses as an example demonstrating the truth of the resurrection. Incidentally, the lives of several Orthodox Christian saints—in particular of several holy fools—were lived “on behalf” of another person who had died outside of the faith. See St. Xenia for example who wore the military coat of her deceased husband and seems to have devoted her entire holy life to him.] …Some scholars try to distance Paul’s theology from it. …But their attempts to explain away this bizarre belief—that actions performed on the bodies of the living can affect the bodies of the dead— are only special pleadings. Paul mentions the practice as proof of an afterlife for the dead, and his argument depends on certain assumptions: that the baptism of a human body incorporates it into the body of Christ, thus demonstrating a connection between the Christian’s body and Christ’s body, and that the baptism of a living body can affect the state of a dead body, incorporating the dead body into Christ, thus demonstration the connection between a person’s body and the bodies of his or her dead loved ones. The sensibility of the logic underwriting baptism for the dead is thoroughly consistent with Paul’s assumption that identity is established by participation in a larger entity. Existence in the body of Christ is not, however, the only reality Indeed, insofar as human bodies are subject to death at all, it is due to their incorporation in the body of Adam (15:21-22). (131-132)
To be clear, Martin’s case in all of this in no way depends on his reading of what “baptism for the dead” was talking about. Martin’s argument is taken from all across Paul’s writing and this example of how Paul uses baptism for the dead simply lines up with the way that Paul thought.
Such ideas about human identity as “established by participation in a larger entity” should sound familiar to anyone who has David Bentley Hart’s most recent book and his exposition of what Gregory of Nyssa taught about how the whole human race holds together as one insoluble body in both Adam and Christ (see here for excerpts from this remarkable exposition of Gregory by Hart). Paul clearly took this same idea very literally for all of those baptised into Jesus Christ. Moreover, we can see many other simple implications (not drawn out by Paul or Martin) such as the fact that, in some sense, every baptised Christian already participates in Christ’s resurrection. All of this points to the idea that the Christian’s glorified body is a revelation of their true body, not unlike the clear indication that Jesus Christ revealed his true nature to only his closest disciples on top of Mount Tabor during his transfiguration (as he show like the sun and communed with Moses and Elijah). There are also clear implications from all of this for Paul’s idea of communion with the body and blood of Christ in the eucharistic meal. We find life and mature as we eat and drink that which God created us (and then recreated us) to be.
As I will point out briefly in the last two sections, our contemporary ideas about the nature of our bodies as well as all other bodies have been wandering far away from these ideas common to everyone in the days of Jesus and Paul. We assume (in fact, we really cannot possibly help but assume even if we would rather not) that this is all a matter of increasing knowledge and scientific accuracy about extremely basic truths. Martin would likely largely agree that Paul’s ideas are simply wrong on virtually all fronts, but Hart would not. I’m not suggesting that Hart would defend Paul on every particular, but Hart has consistently defended—over his entire career to date—a metaphysics of the cosmos and of the human person that is remarkably consistent with the whole system of Paul’s thought. Of course, I could point out some critical distinctions between the metaphysics of Paul and Hart, and a trained philosopher (such as Hart) could point out far more. However, in the context of the contemporary intellectual landscape, Hart’s metaphysical common ground with Paul is far more remarkable than the differences. This is no small achievement for a professional scholar at the highest levels of the contemporary intellectual profession (holding a chair at Notre Dame and routinely publishing with Yale UP). This has required Hart to continually astound, challenge, offend and baffle his opponents time and again while seeking to communicate as clearly and precisely as he can regarding the nature of reality in both the cosmos and the human person.
Martin’s meticulous scholarship solidly backs up Hart’s recent self-defense against the criticism that N.T. Wright first leveled (and that some of Wright’s students continued) regarding Paul and the idea of spiritual bodies. It is clear that Hart has done some reading and plundering of Martin as well, although Hart’s own reading in the literature of the New Testament and patristic periods reaches far beyond Martin’s in its scope (as well as demonstrating an incredible depth of integration across multiple fields of study). Given this track record from David Bentley Hart, I do not feel quite as pathetic about my own poor attempt here to follow this trail and to mine the riches of Dale Martin in my own small way as I peer into his insights regarding the world of Paul’s ancient beliefs.
Spiritual Bodies in my Life and in the Work of George MacDonald and C.S. Lewis
This section title is more than a little misleading because I don’t have much experience with spiritual bodies in my own life. As a baptised and chrismated member of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church, I consider myself to be a member of Christ’s body and to eat and drink Christ’s body and blood which is truely and spiritually present in the bread and wine of the eucharist. However, Paul’s famous description of his own experience with his “old man” fits mine as well: my old man hardly acknowledges my new man. Unlike Paul (who could speak of being brought through multiple heavens to witness things of which he was forbidden to speak), I have almost no knowledge or experience of my spiritual body (in so far as it is currently developed), and I expect that this is why I do not see, converse or commune to any remarkable degree with the spiritual bodies of those around me (human or otherwise).
Coming at this from another direction, however, I have started to know a little something of spiritual life. Paul’s reasoning in many passages makes it clear that heavy material realities (such as flesh or earth) are our blessed means of receiving the spiritual realities that they communicate (as the bread and wine are necessary for me to receive Christ’s body and blood). More recent sacramental theologians such as Alexander Schmemann have expressed this as the bread of the eucharist or the water of baptism being “revealed” as what all bread or all water actually are as gifts from God out of the endless bounty of God’s own Being for our life and benefit. (Hart’s work, of course, is filled with such language and insight as well, although Martin would not be other than in so far as he is expounding Paul’s thought.) It is at this level—of simple experiences of God’s grace carried by those most tangible realities of this world—that I am able to perceive in my current condition. If you are interested, here is something personal that I have written that does share one very modest example of this.
This concept—of the spiritual hidden within the lower elements and making them present to us and allowing participation without the full ability to perceive—may be slightly easier for us modern people to grasp than any concept of spirit as matter. Still it is potentially in line with the idea of spirit or mind as the most substantial of elements that push and direct the heavier and less substantial stuff of earth or flesh from within. Regardless, it is critical to grasp this internality and hiddenness that characterizes the most substantial realities. In this concept, we have the truth that holds together the ideas of the kingdom of God as both within us and above us. All things contain internal depths that touch the mystery of Being itself and therefore all things throughout the cosmos can be said to circle around the throne of God. In this sense, the heaven and the stars themselves—properly or fully apprehended within the microcosm of each human heart—are not distant or high above our heads as much as they are deep within our hearts. (Regarding this idea of internality, Naming the Powers by Walter Wink has some thoughtful points to offer, see my review of Wink’s book here.)
At this point, however, I’m wandering far out of my depths and I should turn back to some real help. In summary, I have next to nothing to offer from my own experience of angelic or glorified bodies other than some growing sense of my own current poverty and need (which truly is a rich gift and lesson). Therefore, in a final consideration of how to find our place within the reality of the world that Paul apprehended, I will point briefly toward two more recent masters.
Any such attempt to return to Paul, however, should acknowledge the gap that has formed between our thinking and his for many centuries. Even going back as far as Aquinas, we see that he taught about fully incorporeal angels as if they were a given when in fact, that was far from what Paul believed. In the Hellenistic world of the New Testament, angels certainly had bodies just as stars had bodies. C.S. Lewis did not get the idea for Ramandu (the star who is the father of Prince Caspian’s queen) out of nowhere, and Origen was far from alone in writing extensively about the life of stars (see Origen and the Life of the Stars: A History of an Idea by lan Scott (Oxford Early Christian Studies, 1994).
Like a good many American Evangelical boys, I had read The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis more than once before college. So I knew the glorious image well from an early age of those vivid bodies striding down from the high country of the heavenly foothills toward the passengers who had just disembarked from their terrestrial bus. These newly-arrived earthlings were so feeble that their feet did not even disturb the dew upon the grass. They could not lift a beech-leaf or pluck a daisy without losing most of the skin off their hands in the effort. Lewis finally calls them “man-shaped stains on the brightness of that air.” Meanwhile, here is how Lewis describes the citizens of heaven as they come to welcome the passengers from earth:
Mile after mile they drew nearer. The earth shook under their tread as their strong feet sank into the wet turf. A tiny haze and a sweet smell went up where they had crushed the grass and scattered the dew. Some were naked, some robed. But the naked ones did not seem less adorned, and the robes did not disguise in those who wore them the massive grandeur of muscle and the radian smoothness of flesh. …They came on steadily. I did not entirely like it. Two of the ghosts screamed and ran for the bus. The rest of us huddled closer to one another.
This contrast between earthly and heavenly bodies is exactly what David Bentley Hart expounded in his article “The Spiritual Was More Substantial Than the Material for the Ancients.” Just as Lewis does in this story, Hart’s title challenges our modern way of equating material with substantial and spiritual with insubstantial. In trying to explain how ancients understood the relationships between the words matter, body, soul and spirit, Hart says: “Neither ‘spirit’ nor ‘soul’ was anything quite like a Cartesian ‘mental substance.’ Each, no less than ‘flesh and blood,’ was thought of as a kind of element.” Hart concludes that “spirit was something subtler but also stronger, more vital, more glorious than the worldly elements.” In further pointing out what was thought about creatures with purely spiritual bodies, Hart notes “that angels had actually sired children” within the stories most current at the time of Jesus and Paul and that “there really appears to have been nothing similar to the fully incorporeal angels of later scholastic tradition.” [Although many older Christian sources describe angels as incorporeal, John of Damascus says that “in reality only the Deity is immaterial and incorporeal.” See this passage from his Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith (book II, chapter 3, “Concerning angels”).] C.S. Lewis loved these same ancient categories of understanding reality, and his description of the citizens of heaven within The Great Divorce clearly also sought to demonstrate the substantiality of spiritual bodies. There are many other examples from Lewis, but perhaps the most striking is from Till We Have Faces. Here is one example:
She was the old Psyche still; a thousand times more her very self than she had been before the Offering. For all that had then but flashed out in a glance or a gesture, all that one meant most when one spoke her name, was now wholly present, not to be gathered up from hints nor in shreds, not some of it in one moment and some in another. Goddess? I had never seen a real woman before.
Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature has a passage by C.S. Lewis that attempts to sketch the whole of the cosmic picture:
In every sphere there is a rational creature called an Intelligence which is compelled to move, and therefore to keep his sphere moving, by his incessant desire for God. …The motions of the universe are to be conceived not as those of a machine or even an army, but rather as a dance, a festival, a symphony, a ritual, a carnival, or all these in one. They are the unimpeded movement of the most perfect impulse towards the most perfect object.
Both Hart and Lewis take much from Plato. While Plato and his later followers are often accused of promoting a dualistic system that exalts the spirit or soul at the expense of the body, what Hart and Lewis maintain is that spirits have bodies too and that these bodies are fully present within and expressive of everything within our current bodies of flesh—but only at their most substantive and potent when able to be encountered directly.
Lewis, or course, was a devout student of George MacDonald who also provides many examples of stories and descriptive passages that sought to express this interior and participatory nature of reality. His story Lilith contains some of the most fully developed of these passages:
A wondrous change had passed upon the world—or was it not rather that a change more marvellous had taken place in us? Without light enough in the sky or the air to reveal anything, every heather-bush, every small shrub, every blade of grass was perfectly visible—either by light that went out from it, as fire from the bush Moses saw in the desert, or by light that went out of our eyes. Nothing cast a shadow; all things interchanged a little light. Every growing thing showed me, by its shape and colour, its indwelling idea—the informing thought, that is, which was its being, and sent it out. My bare feet seemed to love every plant they trod upon. The world and my being, its life and mine, were one. The microcosm and macrocosm were at length atoned, at length in harmony! I lived in everything; everything entered and lived in me. To be aware of a thing, was to know its life at once and mine, to know whence we came, and where we were at home—was to know that we are all what we are, because Another is what he is! Sense after sense, hitherto asleep, awoke in me—sense after sense indescribable, because no correspondent words, no likenesses or imaginations exist, wherewithal to describe them. Full indeed—yet ever expanding, ever making room to receive—was the conscious being where things kept entering by so many open doors! When a little breeze brushing a bush of heather set its purple bells a ringing, I was myself in the joy of the bells, myself in the joy of the breeze to which responded their sweet TIN-TINNING, myself in the joy of the sense, and of the soul that received all the joys together. To everything glad I lent the hall of my being wherein to revel. I was a peaceful ocean upon which the ground-swell of a living joy was continually lifting new waves; yet was the joy ever the same joy, the eternal joy, with tens of thousands of changing forms. Life was a cosmic holiday.
…I walked on the new earth, under the new heaven, and found them the same as the old, save that now they opened their minds to me, and I saw into them. Now, the soul of everything I met came out to greet me and make friends with me, telling me we came from the same, and meant the same. I was going to him, they said, with whom they always were, and whom they always meant; they were, they said, lightnings that took shape as they flashed from him to his. The dark rocks drank like sponges the rays that showered upon them; the great world soaked up the light, and sent out the living. Two joy-fires were Lona and I. Earth breathed heavenward her sweet-savoured smoke; we breathed homeward our longing desires. For thanksgiving, our very consciousness was that.
Why Moderns Can’t See What is Most Real
As we progress today in so many exciting ways (across impressive fields of study such as economics, medicine and technology), I believe that we are actually more and more deaf and blind to our world, to each other and to critical realities within our own hearts. I suspect these regressions because of things that I have observed in my cross-cultural experiences (growing up trilingual overseas for my entire childhood as well as some time spent in other countries at several points in my adulthood), my formal studies in history (with both undergraduate and graduate degrees) and my teaching of ancient literature to a wide range of contemporary American young people over several years. While my concerns are based on my observations, I am not primarily concerned about the blindness of others. It is my own blindness that is my chief concern. For myself or others, however, I am not thinking of abilities that can be regained easily (or even at all) by any one person. These are profound and collective blindness that have been deepening over many generations. Among other problems, we’ve lost any conceptual or experiential categories with which to recognize or think about the things that we can’t see.
So what am I talking about exactly? One fun example of what I suspect is expressed by C.S. Lewis in this letter to Arthur Greeves (from June 22, 1930):
Tolkien once remarked to me that the feeling about home must have been quite different in the days when a family had fed on the produce of the same few miles of country for six generations, and that perhaps this was why they saw nymphs in the fountains and dryads in the woods – they were not mistaken for there was in a sense a real (not metaphorical) connection between them and the countryside. What had been earth and air & later corn, and later still bread, really was in them.
We of course who live on a standardised international diet (you may have had Canadian flour, English meat, Scotch oatmeal, African oranges, & Australian wine to day) are really artificial beings and have no connection (save in sentiment) with any place on earth. We are synthetic men, uprooted. The strength of the hills is not ours.
David Bentley Hart has made similar points in many places with many different words. Here is just one of many examples (from Atheist Delusions):
I know three African priests—one Ugandan and two Nigerian—who are immensely educated and sophisticated scholars (linguists, philosophers, and historians all) and who are also unshakably convinced that miracles, magic, and spiritual war- fare are manifestly real aspects of daily life, of which they themselves have had direct and incontrovertible experience on a number of occasions. All three are, of course, creatures of their cultures, no less than we are of ours; but I am not disposed to believe that their cultures are somehow more primitive or unreasoning than ours. It is true they come from nations that enjoy nothing like our economic and technological advantages; but, since these advantages are as likely to distract us from reality as to grant us any special insight into it, that fact scarcely rises to the level of irrelevance. Truth be told, there is no remotely plausible reason—apart from a preference for our own presuppositions over those of other peoples—why the convictions and experiences of an African polyglot and philosopher, whose pastoral and social labors oblige him to be engaged immediately in the concrete realities of hundreds of lives, should command less rational assent from us than the small, unproven, doctrinaire certitudes of persons who spend their lives in supermarkets and before television screens and immured in the sterile, hallucinatory seclusion of their private studies.
Finally, turning to a more mundane illustration, consider carefully how Wendel Berry describes, Nick, an older man who worked for his father on their Kentucky farm and who Wendel Berry loved and imitated throughout his childhood. In Berry’s description (from The Hidden Wound), Nick knew the world in a life-long and constant way that an Emerson, Thoreau or Dillard could only dreamed about:
He was a man rich in pleasures. They were not large pleasures, they cost little or nothing, often they could not be anticipated, and yet they surrounded him. …They were pleasures to which a man had to be acutely and intricately attentive, or he could not have them at all.
With a similar affection and simplicity, Berry describes Aunt Georgie, an old woman who lived with Nick and who also cared for Berry through much of his childhood—telling him many wild and terrible stories from a forgotten oral tradition that mixed Christian scriptures with a variety of folklore. Berry describes what Aunt Georgie taught him:
I wanted desperately to share the smug assumptions of my race and class and time that all questions have answers, all problems solutions, all sad stories happy endings. It was good that I should have been tried, that I should have had to contend with Aunt Georgie’s unshakable—and accurate—view that life is perilous, surrounded by mystery, acted upon by powerful forces unknown to us. Much as she troubled me and disturbed my sleep, I cannot regret that she told me, bluntly as it needs to be told, that men and events come to strange and painful ends, not foreseen. …And no doubt because of this very darkness of cosmic horror in her mind, everything in the world that she touched became luminous with its own life. She was always showing you something: a plant, a bloom, a tomato, an egg, an herb, a sprig of spring greens. Suddenly you saw it as she saw it—vivid, useful, free of all the chances against it, a blessing—and it entered shadowless into your mind. I still keep the deepest sense of delight in the memory of the world’s good things held out to me in her black crooked floriferous hands.
My point with all of this is simply that Paul had more in common with the daily experiences of Aunt Georgie than with my own. While humans have never enjoyed a golden age of “spiritual awareness,” I do think that we have lost ground. I’d identify three fundamental reasons for this:
- Our loss of local oral culture and folk traditions (see Ancient Futures by Helena Norberg-Hodge for example)
- Our loss of intergenerational connection to place (see Landmarks by Robert Macfarlane for example)
- Our loss of contemplative habits (see Leisure: the Basis of Culture by Josef Pieper for example)
Any statistical analysis of such alleged losses would of course involve a complex task of definition and consideration of variables (not to mention the actual data collection). If the losses could be quantified, assessing the historical reasons for such losses would be even more complex. For my part, I suspect the rise of the nation state as this process was accelerated by the Protestant Reformation. Hope in the power of the state to deliver on the dreams of the Enlightenment have led to many powerful, idealistic and extraordinarily lethal revolutions and conquests. David Bentley Hart calls modernism a “Christian heresy” because it fed on the ideas and assumptions made possible by Christianity but applied them in idealistic and deadly ways. Nations states have also provided the legal framework for capitalism and corporatism to establish the powerful and global consumer economy of today that thrives on short-lived novelties in media, entertainment and time-saving tools as well as the even more potent and hidden mechanics of the attention economy (see Stand out of our Light: Freedom and Resistance in the Attention Economy by James Williams for example). If you’re interested, I’ve written a little more about these things in two pieces at the Front Porch Republic: Building Folklore Wealth and Reading Reality (and Watching for Bric-à-Brac on Our Windowsill).
In my understanding, human history does not evidence fundamental progressions or regressions but rather many long examples of both on multiple scales. I’m not advocating either a return to any “glorious past” or any fear of some “doomsday predictions.” However, in so far as we each are able, I’m advocating a pursuit of the freedom to connect back to local communities and places with some stability across generations (recognizing our existence within social bodies as Martin called this concept within Paul’s thought) and also to slow down so that our lives might be able to enjoy more oral traditions and contemplative habits. These pursuits can provide some way back, I believe, to whatever level of awareness this lifetime might have to offer with regard to what is real and what we are made to enjoy as humans.
- Lilith by George MacDonald is a profound fantasy novel by an author who deeply influenced C.S. Lewis.
- Till We Have Faces and The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis.
- “The Weight of Glory” by C.S. Lewis includes his famous point: “It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare.”
- The Discarded Image by C. S. Lewis is among the best introductions to ancient cosmology that I have read—especially the chapters on THE HEAVENS, THE LONGAEVI, and EARTH AND HER INHABITANTS.
- Naming the Powers by Walter Wink. (I first heard of this book from Fr. Stephen Freeman who recommended it when he commented here during a conversation about some of Hart’s ideas regarding the Powers in Paul. I linked above to a review of it that I posted on my blog.)
- The Unseen Realm: Recovering the Supernatural Worldview of the Bible by Michael Heiser. This scholar takes Christian orthodoxy and scriptures seriously while expounding fully and rigorously on this topic. This book is much stronger in the Old Testament world than in the New Testament (or patristic) world. As an American evangelical, this author also has some introductory comments placing historic creeds at odds with scripture while proclaiming scriptural inerrancy.
- Origen and the Life of the Stars: A History of an Idea by lan Scott (Oxford Early Christian Studies, 1994).
- “When Did Angels Become Demons?” by Dale Basil Martin in Journal of Biblical Literature Vol. 129, No. 4 (WINTER 2010), pp. 657-677 (21 pages). This journal article gives a lot of technical information about the various names given to various types of creatures in Hebrew and how these various creatures names were translated into Greek by Jewish scholars (providing the context of the thought world in which the New Testament was written) and then eventually developed into the later Christian cosmology that tended to place all such creatures into just two categories of angels and demons (as fallen angels).
- The Great Angel: A Study of Israel’s Second God by Margaret Barker is more speculative (and unorthodox in several basic ways). Several of her books have fairly sensational titles, but she is widely recommended as a scholar of ancient Israelite religion.
- Niels Peter Lemche, Mark S. Smith and Nahum Sarna (commentaries on Genesis and Exodus) are other scholars of Israel’s history that has been recommended to me but that I have not yet been able to read at all.
“Transfiguration” (traditional icon) by Feofan Grek from Spaso-Preobrazhensky Cathedral in Pereslavl-Zalessky, 15th c., Tretyakov gallery.