By Ethan Johnson, PhD candidate in New Testament at the University of St. Andrews
Moss, Candida R. Divine Bodies: Resurrecting Perfection in the New Testament and Early Christianity. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2019.
Although the resurrection of the dead is a central doctrine in Christianity, there remain numerous questions about the nature of the resurrected body and how it will relate to one’s earthly body. What moment of life will be chosen as the template for the resurrected body? Do identity markers such as gender, race, or disability carry over into the resurrected body? Will the various, individual parts of the resurrected body retain their earthly functions? While Christians have generally engaged Scripture when discussing these questions, there has been less attention given to the ways in which one’s own social and cultural location affects the reading of biblical texts about the resurrection. As a result, Christians can develop images of the resurrected body that are “neither Paul’s nor Luke’s, but wholly and unmistakably our own” (14). In Divine Bodies, Candida Moss invites her readers to take a fresh look at select New Testament passages and explore the ways in which New Testament writers addressed their anxieties about identity, integrity, functionality, and aesthetics in the resurrection.
In the first chapter, Moss considers the relationship between the body and identity, with particular attention to the resurrected body of Jesus in John 20. She contends that Jesus’ wounds should be not be read as open lesions, but as partially healed scars. Her argument relies on the grammar of the Greek eis, the range of meanings available for typos, and Greco-Roman medical writings. After establishing the plausibility of reading Jesus’s wounds as scars, she notes that this reading could help us to see how John’s presentation of Jesus’s body serves to highlight his identification, his honour, and the reality of his resurrection. Moreover, John’s use of scars demonstrates how “imperfections” in the body can be transfigured without being obliterated.
In chapter 2, Moss argues that Mark 9:47–48 insists on “resurrecting deformity” (45). Many scholars have read this passage as a metaphor for the seriousness of sin and have argued that amputation served as a punishment in the ancient world. Challenging punitive readings of this text, Moss argues, based on interaction with a sizable cross-section of Greco-Roman literature, that amputation in the ancient world would more probably be viewed as heroic or therapeutic rather than punitive. Mark may have drawn on this therapeutic sense in order to subvert the notion that able bodies were virtuous bodies.
In chapter 3, Moss tackles questions of functionality in the resurrected body. She begins with Mark 12:19–23 and the assertion that there will be no marriage in heaven, and then examines the ways in which 2nd and 3rd century theologians resolved tensions related to non-functioning genitals. Her study reveals how 2nd and 3rd century philosophical concerns about the suitability of a non-functioning body part in an ideal, resurrected body, affected readings of those texts. While her points are well-taken, I did find it odd to devote so much time to the 2nd century and so little time to the social world of the New Testament writers themselves.
In the fourth chapter, Moss explores the aesthetics of the resurrected body, and highlights ways in which discussions of the idealized heavenly body can reinforce culturally conditioned views of beauty and support social hierarchies. More specifically, Moss examines the white robes of Rev 7 and notes that, while white robes can signify group membership or carry religious meanings, in the ancient world they could also display wealth and privilege. The blood of the Lamb in Rev 7:14 democratizes access to the privileged group by allowing the downtrodden to acquire white robes of status and wealth, but, at the same time, this passage continues to propagate social markers even as it makes them available to a disenfranchised group.
In her conclusion, Moss turns her attention to her modern audience and points out that we also have culturally conditioned concepts of the body, which shape our interpretation of biblical texts. Although modern, western societies have recently shifted towards a more self-consciously “diverse” view of the ideal body, Moss rightly notes how “In our clean, shiny world some forms of embodiment are pushed to the side” (116). In modern visions of resurrection, we find particularly that disability and poverty tend to be excluded. Moss does not attempt to resolve this tension, but by raising it clearly into our view, she helpfully exposes a blind spot in our own thinking.
Moss’s book raises valuable questions and provides insightful interpretations of well-known biblical passages. Her learning is clearly wide and her study is self-reflective. There were, of course, several places where I had minor quibbles with the argument. For example, while I can accept that Mark 9:47–48 presents amputation as therapeutic rather than punitive, it was never quite clear how such a reading would also necessitate it being “literal.” In chapter 4, I was sometimes unsure whether Moss was pointing out how white robes function in Revelation, or making an evaluative statement about whether the author accomplished his rhetorical goal by using that image. At the same time, I appreciated Moss’s work to read against the grain and her commitment to bringing her insights to life for her modern readers. Her warning that we too, for our all our attempts to be inclusive, have our own blind spots and prejudices related to the body, is timely and welcome.