Divine Bodies, by Candida R. Moss

17 April 2020

John Saxbee reviews a study of what St Paul might have had in mind

“WE BELIEVE in . . . the resurrection of the body” is a clause of the Creed recited week in and week out. But what kind of body? Our bodies change dramatically over time; so will our resurrected body be as at the time of death, or in the full flush of youth? Will our prosthetic limb be resurrected with us, or will we be resurrected with bodies whole and entire?

In this informed, witty, and provocative study, Candida Moss, Professor of Theology at Birmingham University, guides us through answers to such questions ancient and modern; and it all begins with a medieval relic, the Holy Prepuce, or foreskin of Jesus, which appeared in monasteries and cathedrals around Europe. After his bodily resurrection and ascension, was this the only part of his earthly body still present on earth? If so, it was ripe for commercial exploitation — and also raises questions about whether his cut hair and finger nails, let alone flakes of his skin, which we now know would have been sloughed off during his earthly life, might also be awaiting recovery.

This apparently risible scenario in fact leads her into an intriguingly forensic analysis of Gospel references to Jesus’s resurrected body and Paul’s account in 1 Corinthians 15 of our resurrected state, all in the context of Old Testament and Graeco-Roman accounts of the body and its significance for “the me-ness of me”, both pre- and post-mortem.

Indeed, it is to this question, what extent our body is determinative of our identity, that Moss addresses herself in chapter one. In a detailed analysis of the resurrection appearances — especially to Thomas — the interrelation of the marks of the nails as scars rather than wounds is especially significant. She concludes that scholarly examination of such texts reveals biases regarding embodied identity which owe little to what would have been intended at the time.

That issue of post-Enlightenment bias in relation to our embodied existence is to the fore in the remaining chapters dealing with “Integrity”, “Function”, and “Aesthetics”.

Drawing on Jesus’s recommendation to self-amputate limbs in Mark 9, Moss argues that it was originally understood to be meant literally, and would be a mark of virtue. Consequently, it would be carried over to the afterlife, and this counters oft-repeated assertions that physical defects must be negated at death if heaven is to be populated by those restored to physical perfection as an indicator of their moral virtue. Perhaps it is our own anxieties about physical so-called imperfections which have led us astray here.

While integrity of form raises questions of identity and continuity, persistence of function introduces ethically orientated philosophical conundrums. What, even in heaven, is the purpose of a non-functioning body part, particularly our reproductive organs? Again, do modern sensitivities about sexuality and celibacy undermine our appreciation of such issues in the distant past?

Finally, using the images of the white robes in Revelation, she explores ways in which “we have divested notions of perfection and beauty from their gritty socio-economic roots.”

She concludes that reflections on the resurrection of the body tell us more about prevailing attitudes to human identity — who we are, here and now — than they do about bodies in the afterlife, which must remain strange and mysterious. Questions such as whether our resurrected bodies will be recognisable as us, and at what age, and with or without the marks of injury, ageing, or cosmetic surgery, remain as challenging and, probably, as unanswerable as ever.

Meanwhile, be prepared for such answers as we do attempt to be more indications of our current cultural, biological, and socio-economic prejudices and patterns of remembrance than pointers to actual post-mortem reality.

The very copious endnotes provide evidence of prodigiously wide reading across a comprehensive range of disciplines, and, while this study raises more questions than answers, by questioning the answers that are usually provided with regard to post-mortem perfection, Professor Moss presents a timely challenge to modern sense and sensibilities.

The Rt Revd Dr John Saxbee is a former Bishop of Lincoln.


Divine Bodies: Resurrecting perfection in the New Testament and early Christianity
Candida R. Moss
Yale £35
Church Times Bookshop £31.50

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