Yesterday evening I attended a lecture by Candida R. Moss, Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at Notre Dame. She spoke at the University of the Incarnate Word, San Antonio, Texas, on the subject, “Heavenly Bodies: What does it Mean to be Resurrected from the Dead?” I had high expectations, because I have heard nothing but positive reviews of her scholarship, but this talk proved to be more insightful and challenging than I had imagined. My wife attended with me, and while she has a general interest in something like hypothetical ideas about doctrines like the resurrection, she has connected her Christianity closer to the earthy implications of the Gospel for social action and relationships. Afterward, she mentioned to me how she was both impressed by Moss’ lecture as well as challenged by it. I felt the same way. Moss was able to address the ethereal and the earthy making both angles relevant.
Moss began by noting that while the Creeds, the writings of the early Church, and the Jesus tradition talk about resurrection, there is little exploration into the nature of resurrected bodies. The assertion that we will have resurrected bodies, combined with the lack of details about those bodies, opened the door for much speculation. Often Christian ideas about the resurrected body have been influenced by the immediate cultural context of the writer. For example, the Gospel of Thomas 114 reads, “Simon Peter said to them, ‘Make Mary leave us, for females don’t deserve life.’ Jesus said, ‘Look, I will guide her to make her male, so that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males. For every female who makes herself male will enter the kingdom of Heaven.’” Moss emphasized that this isn’t pure, baseless misogyny, but rather it is based on the Graeco-Roman “science” of the day, where the body of a woman is seen as a necessary deformation. The perfect body is that of a man. A woman’s body is inferior. When some early Christians talked about the resurrected body it didn’t make sense to depict it as feminine. How could a perfect, resurrected body be feminine? It must be that women who are resurrected are made whole, given masculine bodies.
Moss addressed how there was a Greek idea that the shape of a person existed after their body decayed. In some literature characteristics of the body remained true to this shape. So if someone was born blind, their shape in the afterlife would be blind, or if someone had been hacked to pieced in war, well, their afterlife will be problematic. Even some early thinkers feared things like being cremated. The body needed to be buried intact, with the bones in place, lest this impact the body of the person in the afterlife.
Where a shift occurs is places like 2 Maccabees 7:10-11, a passage about Jewish martyrs under the the Seleucid ruler Antiochus IV Epiphanes where one martyr is remembered as dying defiantly, “After him, they tortured the third, who on being asked for his tongue promptly thrust it out and boldly held out his hands, courageously saying, ‘Heaven gave me these limbs; for the sake of his laws I have no concern for them; from him I hope to receive them again.’” The idea here is that even if tortured, dismembered, or torn apart, God was powerful enough to reconstitute the human body. God could restore perfection.
This marked a major change since the Hebrew Scripture seem to foreshadow concepts about resurrection, but there isn’t as much said about the idea as what we find from later interpreters. We have passages such as Isaiah 24-27, Ezekiel 37, and others. Then we see views of the resurrection like that expressed in 2 Maccabees. Christianity comes along, and we see in places like 1 Corinthians 15, written by Paul, the basic Christian understanding of resurrection: resurrected bodies will be like Christ’s, the first to resurrect; resurrected bodies will not be “flesh and blood”, i.e., sustained naturally as present bodies; resurrected bodies will have continuation with the old body and discontinuation, like a seed to a plant; resurrected bodies will be imperishable, immoratal, spiritual. Moss noted that Paul is not describing a “soul”. Embodiment is present here. When Paul speaks of the body being spiritual this doesn’t deny physicality, but it does tell us that the future body is different from the present body. We cannot know the “material” of a spiritual body.
Since Paul was vague, many throughout the history of Christianity have provided their ideal images of the body. Dr. Moss showed us this picture from San Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna, Italy, where resurrected women are presented in this sixth century mosaic as equestrian women, all very light skinned.
As you can see, all the women are the same. All share the clothing of the upper class. All are light skinned because upper class women were afforded the opportunity to lounge inside rather than work outside. The idea here is that this is the pinnacle of beauty in this life, so it must foreshadow beauty in the afterlife.
Where Moss made it most interesting is when she shifted the discussion to disabilities. She emphasized that in the Jesus tradition part of the coming Kingdom of God was the removal of blindness, lame limbs, and other infirmities. Moss asked if our modern understanding of resurrected bodies without infirmities is similar to ideas like the Gospel of Thomas where a perfect resurrected body must be male, or that of the creator(s) of this mosaic where if feminine, it is upper class, light skinned, equestrian bodies. While the Gospels and the Book of Acts show healing as part of the Kingdom, sometimes we make the mistake of telling people with infirmities that their bodies are somehow further from resurrected bodies than our own. We perpetuate the idea that some bodies on earth are more like resurrected bodies than other bodies on earth. How do we know this though? Might resurrected bodies be something quite unique?
Moss postulated that infirmities may be part of our identity. Christians have worried about the height, the skin color, the shape, the age, and other features of the resurrected body. Some images of the resurrected body are very muscular, very fit, but are our ideals of the body true representations of the resurrected body? If not, is it possible that someone blind on earth, or someone with a mental health issue on earth, might take that with them into their resurrected body, but because the nature of bodies has changed something like blindness doesn’t prevent true sight, and what was seen as a mental health defect in this age is proven to be something unique and beautiful in the age to come?
At the end Moss asked four questions for our consideration:
(1) What is disability? She noted that impairment isn’t the same as disability. Disability is caused by exterior circumstances. Someone may be impaired in their ability to walk, but the disability comes when buildings are accessible only for the able bodied. Another example she gave is that height is generally considered good, but it becomes a disability of sort in a commercial flight. Could it be that in the age to come an infirmity like blindness isn’t a negative, because the circumstances in the age to come prevent blind eyes from being disabled, and there is a “sight” that goes beyond what is provided by the eyes?
(2) What is the context for disability in heaven (or the age to come)?
(3) How does heaven work (or the new creation)? Do we need all our faculties from this age to function in that age?
(4) Would we be ourselves without our impairments?
Moss closed her lecture by noting how the Gospel of Luke 24:38-39 and the Gospel of John 20:26-27 depict Jesus as retaining his wounds. In fact, he is identified by things like breaking the bread, and showing his wounds, lest he wouldn’t have been recognized. Maybe impairments are part of our identity, even in resurrected bodies, but impairments don’t “disable” us in the age to come?
For friends and readers in Berkeley and San Francisco, California, or Washington, D.C., these are some upcoming lectures you may want to attend:
3/12 “The Myth of Persecution,” 7:30pm, Berkeley Arts and Letters@First Congregational Church of Berkeley, Calif.
3/13 “The Myth of Persecution,” 6pm, Commonwealth Club Gold Room, San Francisco.
3/21 “You’re Such a Martyr!”: The History and Controversy of Persecution in the Early Church, Washington National Cathedral, 7:30pm.
Also, for those interested in further reading on disabilities and Christian theology, Moss edited a book with Jeremy Schipper titled Disability Studies and Biblical Literature. Also, Amos Yong’s The Bible, Disability, and the Church: A New Vision of the People of God was on sale at the event (my wife purchased a copy), so I presume this is an endorsement of the work!