Tag Archives: body

RLST 201: Week 4 Discussion Summary: Body and Soul, (No) Birth Narratives, and Interpreting the Interpreters

There were several threads this week that piqued the interest of several students as well as my own interest. Since I can’t cover everything, I’ll pick three matters on which to focus for this post.

Body and Soul

There was some interesting discussion among students about the relationship of the body and soul. It’s important here to note that Christians through the centuries have borrowed the idea of the soul from Plato’s philosophy. In Plato’s thought, psyche (soul) is invisible and immaterial. It pre-exists the body, temporarily inhabits the body, and then leaves the body after death. In Christian theology, this usually is expressed in terms of the soul coming into the body (at conception or later), the soul inhabiting the body, and then the soul leaving the body and going to heaven or hell.

What Christians through the centuries have not recognized (or perhaps not wanted to recognize) is that this view of the soul is not based on the Bible, but instead on Plato. If you scan some translations of the Hebrew Bible / TaNaKh / Old Testament, you can find the terms “soul” and “spirit.” But nefesh (usually translated soul) means “life.” It is not an invisible thing that pre-exists the body or lives on after the body. It is the life-force that courses through the body. Similarly, ruach (usually translated spirit) means “breath” or “wind.” It is not an invisible object or ghostly version of ourselves. It is the breath we breathe, from the moment we are born until the moment we die. (Incidentally, these different understandings of soul and spirit are crucial to why Judaism has a very different ethical assessment of abortion than do most Christian traditions today.)

The New Testament does show hints of being influenced by Platonic thought about the soul, but its anthropology is customarily holistic, in keeping with Hebrew tradition, or focused on the resurrection of the body, in keeping with Zoroastrian tradition.

No Birth Narrative!?!

Several students found in their ancient lenses that there were few if any connections with Luke 1-2. This might have felt like a failure to find connections, but I see it far more as a success to see and be honest about the differences among these texts. Yes, Q did not have a birth narrative. Yes, the Gospel of Phillip did not have a birth narrative. This was also the case for the majority of Gospels written in the 2nd century. In the broader sweep of the earliest Christian literature, Matthew and Luke were strange for their focus on Jesus’ birth. Some roughly contemporaneous texts followed their lead and expanded their themes, especially the Infancy Gospel of Thomas (IGT) and the Protoevangelium of James (PJ).

So then the question is why. Why did Matthew and Luke and IGT and PJ have birth narratives, but most other Gospels did not? Why did Mark, the earliest Gospel written, not say anything about Jesus’ birth or childhood except (maybe) that his mother’s name was Mary (Mark 16:1)? For that matter, why did Paul, the earliest author represented in the texts of the New Testament, say almost nothing about Jesus’ birth and childhood except that he was “descended from David” (Rom 1:3)? Why did John, which speaks so emphatically about Jesus being the incarnate Word of God, ignore his birth and childhood?

When one steps back and looks at these texts with the critical eye of an historian, it leads to a healthy scepticism about the historicity of the birth traditions in Matthew, Luke, IGT and PJ. The earliest Christian texts didn’t say anything about Jesus’ birth and childhood likely because they simply didn’t have much information or interest in them. As time went on, Christians became more curious about the birth and childhood of Jesus, and as their curiosity grew, so did the texts and traditions treating of Jesus’ birth. Matthew’s birth narratives, written between 80 and 120 CE, started down this path of curiosity. Luke’s birth narratives, written between 120 and 150 CE, expanded it. By the late 2nd century, IGT and PJ expanded these traditions even more.

Interpreting the Interpreters

As students read later interpretations of Luke (Later Lenses), a skill that I want everyone to cultivate is to think critically about later interpretations and how they differ from the original meanings of the texts. Interpreters throughout history have their own cultures, biases, prejudices, priorities, and perspectives. If we look carefully at later interpretations of Luke, we can see their self-reflections embedded in their interpretations.

One potentially instructive example of this during week 4 was an interpretation by Ambrose of Milan. Regarding the story in Luke 1 about the elderly Elizabeth finally becoming pregant, Ambrose says, “But once a person has reached a more advanced age, an age more apt for instructing children than for giving them birth, there is a sense of shame in presenting the outward signs of a marriage that has been consummated – however honourable and legitimate that union may have been” (Luke, trans. Tomkinson, p. 24).

Critical scholarly commentaries on the books of the Bible where stories of barren or elderly women become pregnant (e.g., Sarah in Genesis, Hannah in 1 Samuel, and Elizabeth in Luke) give a very different take. (Feel free to check!) In ancient Semitic patrilineal cultures, having a child—especially a male—was seen as a tremendous blessing for a woman. Any prior barrenness would likely have been seen as a curse, and thus an unexpected pregnancy and birth would be a reversal of the curse. Such a woman’s social status and economic security, tied to the son who would take over control of the household, would be elevated greatly.

Ambrose, therefore, is likely not reflecting the original context of this passage. What is he reflecting then? Himself, his time, culture, and context!

Ambrose was an aristocrat and politically connected bishop in late 4th century northern Italy. His claim that Elizabeth’s late-aged pregnancy brings shame reflects his own aristocratic Roman cultural context.

This is the exact kind of gap or dissonance that I want to train you all to see with every passage in the New Testament. These texts had ancient contexts and meanings (revealed by the use of Ancient Lenses), but later interpreters had different contexts and thus transformed these meanings.

Every week, every assignment in this class is a chance to find and explore examples of this ancient vs. later dissonance. The research bibliography, discussion forums, topic paper, and even the creative project.