Scripture and Our Selves: Reflections on the Bible and the body

From the risk of creation in Genesis through the startling visions of Revelation, the physical human body commands the Bible’s narrative. God makes the earth creature (adama) in the divine image and likeness, makes them male and female, animates the body with divine breath and deems the body—and all creation—very good (Gn 1:26–27, 31; 2:7). Thus, the essential corporeality of human existence emerges in the very act of creation. The divine affirmation of matter, of flesh, contradicts any assertion that the body might be inferior to spirit or soul, that flesh is so much dross or an impediment. The body is God’s gracious gift and delight; it must never be treated with contempt or disrespect. We humans are body-persons: we do not possess bodies, we are bodies, and as body-persons we encounter, express and engage the world, others and God. Indeed, the divine affirmation of flesh invests the body with honor, exuberance and grace.

The Hebrew Bible or Old Testament bursts with sheer astonishment and gratitude at the physical body (Ps 139:14–16), records its attractiveness (1 Sm 16:12), observes physical differences (Gn 27: 22–24) and relishes its prowess and skill (1 Sm 17: 48–49). Chosen, protected and redeemed from the cruelty of bodily enslavement, the ancient Israelite people were instructed to circumcise the male body as a sign of communal fidelity to the Covenant (Gn 17:9–14; Lv 12:3). Further, the men of the community were enjoined to wear bodily reminders (phylacteries) of the discipline and law of monotheistic worship (Dt 6:8, 11:18; Ex 13: 9, 16). During the 40-year sojourn in the desert, God fed the Israelites with manna until they reached Canaan (Jos 5:13). What food the people might eat was strictly regulated and categorized either as clean or unclean: fish with fins and scales were designated clean but shellfish unclean; lamb was clean but rabbit unclean (Lv 11:46, 20:25). Leviticus and Deuteronomy regulated and organized much more than the consumption of food. The laws and codes of these books governed ritual, dispensed tribal responsibilities, delineated marriage and sexual intercourse, and regulated male and female roles in the community. Finally, minute rules required close attention to the appearance of skin diseases, bodily defects, disfigurement or mutilation that rendered the body unclean. These rules, Mary Douglas observes, “stem from a concern for wholeness,” for purity in Israelite worship.

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The Body of Jesus

The incarnation crowns God’s affirmation of the physical body (Mt 1:20–25; Lk 1:26–35; Jn 1:14; Rom 1:3). The body of Jesus, as Tertullian suggests, is the “hinge of salvation”; without the enfleshing of the Word, divine redemptive activity in the world would be precluded. Through disobedience, Adam and Eve had disrupted the harmonious relationship among transcendent, personal, interpersonal and cosmic orders. The friendship between God and humans was broken; the unity of spiritual and physical being left us out of sync with our bodies, ourselves and one another and disturbed the order of nature. Redemption, then, must encompass the reclamation and reconciliation of the entire created order—the redemption of matter, of flesh, of the body (Col 1: 19; Eph 1:10).

The Jewish body of Jesus of Nazareth presents a crucial entry point in both ancient and postmodern understandings of particularity and universality. His body is marked with particularities of race, sex, sexuality, gender and cultural mores. It is open to and turned toward radically different others to the point of self-transcending love (Mt 15: 26–27) and teaches the universal meaning of being a body-person. In Christian theology, the body of Jesus functions as temple, sacrifice and pledge (Mk 14:22; Lk 22:19; John; Rom 3:24–25). The enfleshed Word manifests the shining glory of his God and Father; his crucified body constitutes an exacting wisdom for living and a sacrifice that heals the breach between God and creation. Jesus Christ is “the firstborn” of the dead; his raised and exalted body betokens a pledge of resurrection life to come for all believers (Col 15: 20–23; 1 Cor 15:20).

Writing to believers scattered around the Mediterranean world, Paul deploys the metaphor of the body to elucidate the meaning of “new life” in Christ. His usage is neither theoretical nor systematic; rather he grapples to sketch out the difference the life, death and resurrection of Jesus the Christ and the presence of the Spirit makes. Only through the power of the Spirit may women and men confess Jesus as Lord. The Spirit creates those believers as a living body whose life, individually and corporately, witnesses to the mercy and loving kindness of God (Rom 12:4; 1 Cor 12). Christ is the head of this body; believers individually are members of it (Gal 2:20; 1 Cor 12:27). Thus, the individual body is a temple of the Spirit, and members are to glorify God in their bodies (1 Cor 6:19–20). For as Paul insists, we body-persons are made for God and life with God.

For all the accounts of miracles, marvels and mercies, the Bible—both Old and New Testaments—inspires caution as well as confidence. Lust, incest and murder damage a father and his sons, devastate a married woman and traumatize a virgin (2 Sm 11–13); a warrior’s reckless vow sends his daughter to death (Jgs 11:1–11, 29–33); and those who would cheat the common good or blackmail and extort come to no good end (Acts 5:1–11; Daniel 13). These stories teach important if obvious lessons: there is no necessity to carry out every bodily impulse, every sexual urge; rash promises can miscarry; and cheating and extortion may prove fatal. Yet, reversals and surprise also shape the biblical narrative. Hospitality to unexpected travelers results in great joy (Gn 18: 1–9); the lowly and foreign-born become great (Ruth); and those who flaut the law against others get their comeuppance (Jn 8: 1–11).

Jewish and Christian Views

The religious and theological reflection of Judaism, unlike that of its daughter, Christianity, exhibits little, if any, negativity toward the body. The body is not intrinsically impure or unclean; sex is a natural act celebrated in erotic lyricism in the Song of Songs. The Jewish rabbinical scholar and philosopher Maimonides declared proper nourishment, care and appropriate adornment of the body a religious duty. Decades later, St. Thomas Aquinas would write encouragingly: “We ought to cherish the body. Our body’s substance is not from an evil principle, as the Manicheans imagine, but from God. And therefore we ought to cherish the body by the friendship of love, by which we love God.”

Yet Christian reflection continues to wrestle to comprehend and speak meaningfully about the body. On the one hand, theology, catechism and sermon are eager to honor the body’s goodness and grace, yet just as eager to discredit bodily pleasures like food or drink or sex. Further, Christian discourse has constructed a gendered binary between a masculine God and a feminine creation, thus influencing religious, cultural and social roles of male dominance and female subservience. Yet, at its best, Christian discourse about the body insists that body-persons have a unique capacity for communion with God—the imago Dei; indeed,thebody constitutes a site of divine revelation. Thus the body is a basic human sacrament.

What follows is one way of expressing theologically a few lessons the Bible teaches us about the body:

1. The body shapes human existence as relational and social. Whether the reader of Genesis gives primacy to the first (Gn 1:27) or the second (Gn 2:21–23) account of the creation of humankind, the need for relationship with God, with other body-persons and with creation is obvious. Only as body-persons can human creatures praise and worship, sing and dance friendship with God. Only as body-persons can we fulfill the divine commands to care for creation and to reproduce. Only as body-persons can we befriend one another, build and organize towns and cities, invent tools and transport, pursue agriculture and commerce.

2. Divine creativity manifests love for body-persons through manifold created particularity. As an embattled minority, the ancient Israelite people placed great emphasis on bodily and genealogical integrity; exogamy or marriage outside the community was forbidden. The ancient people were often at odds with foreigners and waged war to establish and defend the borders of the land that, although promised and entrusted to them, belonged only to God (Lv 25:23). Certainly, the people were to deal with other Israelites fairly, justly and compassionately; at the same time, covenantal stipulations directed them not to oppress strangers, to treat these “others” with respect, even to show regard for endangered animals belonging to an enemy (Ex 22: 21–27). Through adherence to these and similar provisions, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks argues, the people were to realize tzedekah, or “social justice” in the concrete. “The Israelites were charged with creating [a society] in which everyone has a basic right to a dignified life and to be equal citizens in the covenantal community under the sovereignty of God.”

3. Solidarity and loyalty to God emerge in body practices. Love of God and love of neighbor formed the key covenantal demand, one that the prophets and Jesus after them reiterated frequently. Like the prophets, Jesus read the “signs of the times,” critiquing hypocritical piety (Lk 6:6–11;18: 9–14) and challenging abuse of the poor and outcast (Mic 3:1–3; Amos 5:6–15; 6:1, 3–6; Lk 6:20–26). With acts of healing, stories, parables and sermons, Jesus advanced a distinctive prophetic praxis on behalf of the reign of God. He concretized body practices of solidarity: feeding hungry bodies, clothing naked ones, tending sick bodies and visiting imprisoned ones (Mt 25:31–46). In this way, he upended the usual ways of thinking and acting toward others, urging followers to open their hearts and minds, to give without expectation of reciprocity (Lk 10:29–37), to commit themselves to genuine conversion of life. Moreover, Jesus took the poor and vulnerable as priorities. These included not only children, women and men who were materially impoverished but also people who were socially outcast and physically disabled (those afflicted with blindness, paralysis, deafness and leprosy), those who were oppressed or displaced through political occupation or religious corruption, those who were broken in spirit from isolation and persecution (Lk 7:22, 14:13, 21; Mt 5:3–6, 11). These body practices of solidarity urge us in the here-and-now to active recognition and regard for exploited, despised and vulnerable body-persons. Solidarity costs, but it affirms the universality of divine love without compromising its preference for those in greatest need. Thus, the Creator is worshiped, bodies are honored and particularity engaged and valued.

4. The Eucharist orders and transforms our bodies as the body of Christ. “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you...for my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed” (Jn 6:53, 54). Jesus’ assertion scandalized his first-century hearers; it ought, at least, to startle us. This is his promise of the nourishing sacrificial gift of his own body. His gracious, gratuitous, unmerited gift is of immeasurable value. Jean-Luc Marion captures its most concentrated power: “The Eucharistic gift consists in the fact that in it love forms one body with our body.”

Through the compassionate love of the Father and the power of the Holy Spirit, the body is made present with us and to us. In sacramental reception, Jesus’ self-gift of his own body nourishes, strengthens and orders us as we make his body visible through our body practices of solidarity. The Eucharist signifies and makes visible the body raised up by Christ for himself within the body of humanity, the “mystical body” through which the body of Jesus is extended through time and space as a countersign to the reign of sin. In the fullness of time this body will restore the original image of creation, where there are no longer Gentile and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free, but “Christ is all and in all” (Col 3:10–11).

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William Rydberg
2 years 3 months ago
This article seems to fail to acknowledge the ladder of creation discussed by Church Fathers and Tradition. Simply the concept that the spiritual is superior to the corporeal by Nature. Most certainly, the Incarnation most certainly has had the affect of changing this view at least in Catholic Theology. But the fact is that the Father and Holy Spirit are understood to be spirit and even Christ has two Natures doesn't suggest superiority of the corporeal over spiritual. You mention the Hebrews of the Old Testament. It's unfair to suggest that they did not understand that there are ascending degrees of perfection in "all things, seen and unseen". A typical example within the Scriptures are the "messengers", which we call Angels. In my opinion it would be contrary to Catholic Scripture as well as Tradition to say that by Nature, the Corporeal is superior to the Spiritual. By Grace, this is possible. God bless....B
Richard Murray
2 years 3 months ago
Mr. Rydberg, you reference the Church Fathers, hierarchies, and ladders. These things are good in themselves. (Although some difficulties in the Church Fathers’ writings have to be dealt with. Do you know that there are some surface-level misogynistic passages in their writing?) A long conversation about that cannot be taken up in this reply; I’ll just say that the Fathers were very much in Spiritual trajectory, and made it a point to ignore some physical and communal things. (By the way, St. Benedict turns their ladders upside down in Chapter 7 of the Rule.) We moderns can appreciate them, while striving to achieve an appropriately modern balance. Dr. Copeland’s article is leading us to an appropriation of this balance. Human beings were tough as nails 1700 years ago. They had less psychological space than we do today, less-stocked imaginations, and fewer worldly allurements to say “No” to. Asceticism was less of a psychological battle for them than for us. And they had new spiritual realms to explore. Their powerful cleaving to the heavens is like a space shuttle with its thrusters accelerating through the atmosphere to escape gravity. Astronauts are zealous. They did and discovered great things, but we need not cling to the boosters; in fact, we cannot. Recall also that the great desert Ammas and Abbas of Egypt, the prototypes of Christian monks, were both female and male, and they were highly integrated, mature, charitable human beings. Professor Copeland’s article emphasizes something that is vital for the world and Church today. We need to treasure the earth, and the person. We remember that persons are precious because each person is a created body, each person is walking enSpirited Earth, sculpted by God. One spiritual teacher said that in heaven we’re all going to be a bunch of glorified peasants. Our bodies, us, are cosmic vessels, spaceships. We are made of earth, which is also stardust, science tells us. Ancient ascetics focused on Spirit. Let’s not forgot our bodies and our community. They’re the only cosmic vessels we have.
Richard Murray
2 years 3 months ago
Professor Copeland reminds us that we are "adama." We are earthlings, made of earth. (And we have something of a divine spark, God’s Spirit, in us too. The New Testament and Christian Tradition teach us more about the Holy Spirit, and a greater participation in that Holy Spirit, as we so desire. And this Spirit is in the Body of Christ, which the article speaks of.) The first word of the Bible is a form of the Hebrew word “head,” and is feminine. This stresses the beauty of the human person, the human face, the human body, and human thought, all at once. (This interwoven multiplicity occurs also in John 1:1.) “In the beginning of God’s creating the heavens and the earth.” The verse’s last word is also feminine, “earth.” The strong feminine contains, holds reality together. The first word of the second verse is again the feminine “earth.” Biblical emphasis on "earth" and "body". But the last word is masculine, like a young couple supporting and nurturing a young family. The feminine teaches the masculine how to do this. Many verses later a window opens to us a heavenly dialogue that takes place in heaven or in God. Apparently plural speakers are speaking, and they lovingly create humanity in God’s image, which is both “male and female.” If there are plural people in heaven/ in God, and if their image is “male and female,” what does this say about God? Chapters later, humanity is tossed from the Garden. Maybe this is just a metaphor for birth. “Original sin” does not exist in the Bible, and Professor Copeland notes that the Hebrew Scriptures don’t complain about the human body (probably the New Testament doesn’t either; Paul’s “sarx” is about soul comportment in a growing, multifaceted world, with more potent human agents, who now have the Holy Spirit, or can have). The Paradise of the Garden is not lost in the past behind us; no, it’s the future, it’s before our faces, and we can see it. John speaks of “spirit and truth,” and the truth, the reality, is that we have a lot to learn about our amazing bodies, and how to make friends in community. We’re a young humanity. Better love and understanding of our bodies and community will lead us to a garden.
Bruce Snowden
2 years 2 months ago
This may not be what Professor Copeland had in mind in "Scripture And Our Selves" as it's just about Scripture and mostly me, but I think it's so terrific I have to offer it. Jesus said not even one sparrow falls to the ground without the Father knowing it. One evening a friend with my wife and I were having dinner in a Southern New Jersey restaurant when suddenly squadrons of sparrows swooped down settling on the electric wires nearby, probably one thousand sparrows lined up like soldiers at attention, all facing the same direction, excepting one here, one there, perched in the opposite direction, occasionally one sparrow pushing another off its perch, grabbing the spot and relegating the pushed bird to a lower level. I had never before seen so many sparrows gathered together - it seemed that every sparrow from miles around decided to come together for an evening chat. What a lovely display of God's creative genius, every sparrow underlining Jesus' remark quoted earlier. For a moment as the sparrows were gathering, I thought of Alfred Hitchcock's harrowing movie, "The Birds." But I soon realized there was nothing harrowing, but plenty of God-inspired SPARROWING about it and how special we all felt to have been allowed to view close-up and personally a scripture-mentioned work of God in grand display!
Bruce Snowden
2 years 2 months ago
This may not be what Professor Copeland had in mind in "Scripture And Our Selves" as it's just about Scripture and mostly me, but I think it's so terrific I have to offer it. Jesus said not even one sparrow falls to the ground without the Father knowing it. One evening a friend with my wife and I were having dinner in a Southern New Jersey restaurant when suddenly squadrons of sparrows swooped down settling on the electric wires nearby, probably one thousand sparrows lined up like soldiers at attention, all facing the same direction, excepting one here, one there, perched in the opposite direction, occasionally one sparrow pushing another off its perch, grabbing the spot and relegating the pushed bird to a lower level. I had never before seen so many sparrows gathered together - it seemed that every sparrow from miles around decided to come together for an evening chat. What a lovely display of God's creative genius, every sparrow underlining Jesus' remark quoted earlier. For a moment as the sparrows were gathering, I thought of Alfred Hitchcock's harrowing movie, "The Birds." But I soon realized there was nothing harrowing, but plenty of God-inspired SPARROWING about it and how special we all felt to have been allowed to view close-up and personally a scripture-mentioned work of God in grand display!

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