BMCR 2019.12.17

Divine Bodies: Resurrecting Perfection in the New Testament and Early Christianity

, Divine Bodies: Resurrecting Perfection in the New Testament and Early Christianity. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2019. 208. ISBN 9780300179767. $45.00.


“[F]at people and thin people have no need to fear that at the resurrection they will be the kind of people they would not have chosen to be in this life, if they had the chance. For all physical beauty depends on a harmony between the parts of the body, combined with an attractive complexion.” So Augustine speculates in The City of God 22.19, in an extended discussion of the perfection of the resurrected body (22.15-22). Divine Bodies is a study of early (first to third century) Christian beliefs such as this concerning the resurrection of the body and their place in ancient cultural discourses of bodily perfection. The book originated in large part as Moss’s 2017 Cadbury Lectures at the University of Birmingham, where she is the Edward Cadbury Professor of Theology in the Department of Theology and Religion. Those familiar with her work will recognize in this study the same elements of scholarship and style that mark her scholarship more generally: readability, clarity, technical more specialist matters assigned to footnotes with an encyclopedic span of scholarship in multiple languages, creativity, thoughtfulness, an interest in the links of ancient ideas with contemporary notions, and wit.1 As with her other books, this combination makes this study accessible to both experts and non-specialists. This is due in part to the book’s origins as a set of public lectures, but she also has a more pressing existential concern, as can be adduced from her many publications that relate to contemporary attitudes toward disability. She wants to show that modern beliefs about disability have their roots in ancient Greco-Roman and Christian discourses of the abled body, in this case the transmission of ancient ideas through teachings about the perfected resurrection body. Many early Christian writers in their speculations about the resurrection of the dead transported elite Greco-Roman ideals of the beautiful, abled body into heaven, notions that, albeit under secular disguise, continue to haunt contemporary ideas about dis/ability. “This book,” she writes, “is about the intersection of identity and the body” (p. 17).

The introduction (pp. 1-21) challenges as reductive scholarly explanations of the rise of Jewish and Christian belief in the resurrection as the outcome of Jewish apocalyptic ideas; a form of political resistance by a marginalized, persecuted group; irrational beliefs in the afterlife under conditions of imperial, socio-political decay; and the sign of Christianity’s triumph over a pagan empire (pp. 3-9). She seeks instead (p. 10) a thicker account that attends to a multifaceted set of cultural influences that include philosophical speculation, medical ideas and practices, Greek and Roman beliefs about the deceased, aesthetic ideals, and exegesis of sacred texts. She also seeks to litigate distorting cultural effects of what she calls “the Pauline script” (pp. 11-14), a way of interpreting the variety of early Christian ideas about the bodily resurrection with reference to Paul’s idea of the glorified, spiritual body of 1 Cor. 15.42,44, but giving that body an anatomy Paul nowhere describes. Paul speaks of a glorified resurrected body, she succinctly summarizes, not a glorious one. Following Troels Engberg-Pedersen’s analysis of Stoic influences on Paul’s ideas, Moss agrees that Paul is talking of the (transformed) stuff of what resurrected bodies are made, not their qualities (p. 13). The script risks taking leave of the teachings of the apostle upon which it purports to rest: “Onto Paul’s assertion that the resurrected body will be heavenly, two thousand years of interpreters have mapped their own culturally informed values about bodily perfection” (p. 14). They have largely ignored what the New Testament sometimes does say about Jesus’ resurrected body as touchable, scarred, and perhaps hungry and thirsty. Moss seeks a complicated and non-systematic early Christian view of the resurrected body that attends to the hypothetical nature of early Christian speculation on the topic and its debt to larger currents of its cultural world.

Chapter One, “Identity” (pp. 22-40), investigates Gospel and extracanonical depictions of Jesus’ resurrected body, a strikingly under-researched topic in scholarly treatments. Here she investigates ancient worries about the continuation of an identifiable self in the afterlife. How will one know who one is in the resurrection? To answer she takes up the Johannine narrative of the resurrected Jesus’ invitation to Thomas (Jn. 20.24,27) to touch the marks on Jesus’ hands and his side, as well as the Lukan Jesus’ showing his “hands and feet” to the disciples (Lk. 24.39-40) to prove he is not a ghost (pp. 26-31). Moss insists that the Johannine reference to the “marks [ typoi ]) on Jesus’ body should be interpreted as scars not wounds, a point that moves beyond traditional explanations that the Johannine Thomas pericope is anti-docetic, or that, as with the Lukan account, it functions as simple proof of resurrection. Moss by contrast argues that when we recognize the ancient valorization of scars on the male body as evidence of manliness, these marks take on a new meaning. Jesus “bears the marks of virtue” (p. 33). Thus “scars do the rhetorical work that scholars have erroneously thought open wounds do. Scars add texture and depth to our reading of the [Johannine] scene” (p. 38). Further, the point of the marks is not to show that Jesus’ resurrection body was physical, but rather to demonstrate “stability” of identity (pp. 38-39), that the selfsame Jesus who died is the one who was raised, and that his body has begun the process of post-crucifixion healing (p. 36). The critical point from the perspective of disability is that John’s and Luke’s resurrection stories “establishes a precedent that that few have tended to follow—that bodily anomalies and imperfections can be transfigured without being obliterated” (p. 38). This contrasts with other accounts of Jesus’ resurrected form, where he is “polymorphic” (p. 39), sometimes in altered form (Mk 9.2; Mt 17.2) and in the apocryphal Gospels sometimes young, other times old, and so on.

The second chapter, “Integrity” (pp. 41-65), carries forward the scarred body as heroic into a discussion of the advice of the Markan Jesus in Mk. 9.47-48, to pluck out an eye or amputate a limb if it causes one to stumble, rather than enter hell able-bodied. In contrast to commentators who almost without exception argue that the saying is an example of hyperbolic figurative speech or a reference to punitive consequences for sin, Moss experiments with the idea that it should be read literally (53-64). In support, she notes that there is no evidence among Mark’s contemporaries that amputation was used punitively; she takes up medical practices of amputation as therapeutic and the loss of limbs as exemplary of valor in combat (pp. 49-52). This leads to the paradox that the able-bodied sinner goes to Hell, while those disabled by amputation go to heaven—that the mutilated ugly body of the repentant (according to ancient canons of beauty) is preferable to the symmetrical beautiful one of the impious, and indeed that Mark’s heaven may be populated by disfigured resurrected bodies. As for gouged eyes, Moss notes (aware that she may be pressing Mark’s poor Greek into too precise meanings [pp. 61-64]) that the typical translation of monophthalmos in Mk. 9.47 as “one-eyed” does not capture the nuance of the text, since in ancient usage the term refers to someone born with one eye in contrast to someone who has lost an eye, heterophthalmos (“differently eyed”). Thus, to describe someone entering heaven with deformity “he uses robust and naturalizing language to describe these impairments” (p. 63). I agree with Moss that here she is requiring a linguistic sophistication on the part of Mark he elsewhere shows he lacks. The main point nevertheless stands, that the overall result in Mark is that the eschatological resurrected body preserves impairment in the afterlife and thereby reverses ancient canons of beauty and dis/ability as well as associations of virtue and beauty. “Mark subverts the idea that able bodies are virtuous bodies” (p. 64). Trained as the theological tradition has been eisegetically to read Paul’s picture of a glorified resurrected body as a glorious one, Moss shows how subtly scholarly exegesis of the Markan passage misrepresents what the text says and imports meanings in the service of cultural beliefs about abled and disabled bodies.

“Functionality,” the third chapter (pp. 66-88), considers second and third century Christian commentary on a topic usually ignored by contemporary scholars, namely teaching concerning the function of heavenly parts of the (gendered) resurrected body where earthly practices no longer continue (i.e. procreation, digestion, defecation). Why would the resurrected body have teeth if there will be no eating in heaven, Tertullian asked (p. 78). (For aesthetic reasons, as well as to hold the tongue in check, he answered). Consideration of such topics were occasioned by anti-Gnostic polemic as well as a need to answer Greek and Roman detractors, but also by the question of identity of the pre-resurrection body with the one after, Jesus’ teachings that the resurrected will neither marry or be given in marriage (Mk. 12.24-25), his blessing of those who make themselves eunuchs as “for the kingdom of heaven” (Mt. 19.12), Aristotelian notions of the function of bodies as means by which humans achieve their proper end, and idealized celibacy. For Irenaeus (pp. 73-5), a full bodily resurrection enables eschatological healing. Pseudo-Justin’s, On the Resurrection (pp. 75-78) polemicizes against those who taught that resurrected bodies will be those of angels, and who, drawing on Aristotelian philosophy, contended that it would be absurd for raised bodies to possess intact earthly bodily functions without any further need for them. His answer drew on the Epicurean distinction of necessary and unnecessary desires, in order to argue that while possession of parts implies use, it does not necessitate it (as in the case of sexual reproduction and the celibate, for example). Tertullian (pp. 78-82,85,87) furnished a different answer to the Aristotelian anatomy/telos association by appeal to the continuity of the earthly with the resurrected body, the signifier of virtue that although one could have used genitals for procreation on earth, virtuous celibates did not, and because an omnipotent God planned it that way for transfiguration. For Athenagoras (pp. 82-85), the resurrected body must contain all of its earthly parts, even if there is no use for them in heaven, because God will judge the whole self in all of its particles and hence divine justice demands it.

If teeth are resurrected in heaven for aesthetic reasons, then this raises the relation of aesthetics to the resurrected body, the topic of the fourth chapter (pp. 89-113). Ancients ideals shared among ancient philosophers that related beauty to virtue (pp. 90-95) were already challenged by the Markan idea of a body remaining maimed in the kingdom, but nevertheless survive in modern theological accounts of the afterlife as filled with beautiful, young, healthy, wealthy-looking resurrected bodies. Moss takes up transposition of Greek and Roman social meanings attached to dress, cosmetics, and adornment in treatments of the resurrected body, specifically those of the white-robed martyrs of the Book of Revelation (pp. 95-109). She argues that while exegetes are right to understand the references to white clothing as depictions of purity, they too quickly pass over the other aspects connected with it, such as the high cost of creating white clothes and the social status that was necessary to keep them free from dirt, as well as the economic associations of white garments and beauty with the pale skin of leisured elites free from the tans and dirt of the working bodies of the majority of the imperial population. In Revelation the path to white clothing, however, is not through economics, but through washing garments in the blood of the lamb (Rev. 7.14). “The imagery harnesses the traditional association between virtue and wealth in a way that short-circuits the conceptual hierarchy of wealth and power but does not dismantle the lived social hierarchy” (p. 108). Nevertheless, by importing white clothing into heaven, the distinction between rich and poor is reinscribed by a vivid depiction of white dress. Next (pp. 109-12) comes the malodorous smell of Revelation’s poor and rich alike who have received the mark of the beast on their hands and foreheads (Rev. 13.16-17; 16.2), which Moss argues refers to open wounds resulting from their branding. The poor were pilloried for their smelliness, but now the rich also reek: “The author of Revelation here harnesses the traditional and elitist association of odor, health, and social disgust as a damning indictment about the disreputable fate of those engaged in trade and commerce” (p. 111). The result is an inscription of cultural values of beauty and virtue even as Revelation criticizes wealth and depicts opponents as ugly. “The resurrected body continues to be constructed using notions of beauty that cannot be divorced from their socioeconomic roots” (113).

A brief conclusion (pp. 114-21) foregrounds the issue that the book as a whole takes up, namely the way ancient ideals of beauty, beliefs about virtue and the heroic life, as well as ancient anxieties about identity fed into early Christian beliefs about the resurrection body. While some texts like Mark’s advice about entering into heaven mutilated served to contest ideals of the able body, most of early Christian theology anticipated the continuation of cultural ideals even if under varied forms. Modern exegetes and theologians are similarly formed by their own cultural ideals in equally as unconscious ways, thereby importing ideas about the able into texts where they can otherwise not be found. “What I hope to have shown is that cultural expectations about the perfect resurrected body have normalized the otherwise thought-provoking uncanniness of the resurrection of the dead” (p. 121).

Moss’s book remains through to its end more popular than scholarly. This is in part because it is motivated by an existential consideration of the cultural value placed on being able-bodied. With some exceptions (notably the scarred body of the Johannine Jesus as well as Jesus’ advice to enter the kingdom of heaven maimed if necessary, ideas that exegesis tends to erase rather than illuminate) early Christians also imagined an afterlife either free from scars and bodily flaws, or at least glorified ones. The risk in a book like this is that it will either be too popular or too technical. Experts will see the main text erring on the side of popularity, but the thorough discussion in footnotes will resolve any doubts as to whether this is a book worth repaying scholarly attention.


1. There are a few errors in foreign citations and language: p. 136 n. 6 “innerhalbder Lieblingsjühertexte” for “innerhalb der Lieblingsjüngertexte”; p. 140 n. 17 “se non tocco con man oil duo fianco” for “se non tocco con mano il fianco”; p. 151 n. 17 Zeitschrift für Alte geschichte for Zeitschrift für Alte Geschichte; p. 154 n. 29 lex talonis for lex talionis.