How The Ancients Heard Resurrection: A Reply to David Bentley Hart

Ancient Christian readers and interpreters of Paul did not share David Bentley Hart’s understanding

Hart leaves us to wonder how he himself is able to “listen with antique ears” and to divine what the interpretive minds of Paul’s contemporaries “would have” understood. He provides no evidence for it. Missing is any exploration of “the implications, physical and metaphysical, that such words had in the age of the early church.”

 

Eastern Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart has written an essay on the Pauline terms “spirit,” (πνευμα) “soul,” (ψυχη), and “flesh” (σαρξ), maintaining that modern readers are greatly (or perhaps completely) hindered in their understanding of them. He lays blame on a kind of “Protestant biblical scholarship” that is allegedly weighed down with all sorts of wrong-headed theological predispositions—presuppositions that preclude any genuine understanding of the “intellectual and spiritual environment of the apostolic church.” He is indicting an entire tradition of biblical interpretation, so his lone example (N.T. Wright) is but an incidental detail, a mere straw placeholder for what turns out to be a much more sweeping agenda.

Hart is here to enlighten us, to lift us out of the lower depths, to scrape off the encrusted barnacles of received-yet-misguided tradition, and to give unique insight into how ancient people certainly “would have” understood Paul. If all that sounds rather gnostic, that is because it is. More on that anon. For the present, he claims there is one main source for our darkened intellectual confusion.

Modern scholarship assumes that Judaism and paganism in late antiquity are essentially distinguishable. That is, as he puts it, that there is an “impermeable cultural partition between them—that is, between the ‘philosophy’ of the Greeks and the ‘pure’ covenantal piety of the Jews.” The results of this kind of predisposition are “sometimes comic,” he writes, but at other times they are “positively disastrous”—nowhere more disastrous than in our reception of Paul’s terms πνευμα, ψυχη, and σαρξ—spirit, soul, and flesh, respectively.

What he means is that “Protestant” biblical scholarship wrongly sets the Hebrew Bible as the background interpretive context for the New Testament. Instead, we should understand the proper backdrop to include the great, wide, dizzying world of intertestamental apocalyptic literature with its “shining hierarchies of spirits and powers and morally ambiguous angels and demi-angelic nefilim.” In other words, the fusion of Jewish apocalyptic speculation and Platonism so amply evidenced in the intertestamental literature is, in fact, the real context for the New Testament’s conceptual world. He writes,

[For] us today, even such words as ‘heavenly’ (ἐπουράνιος) and ‘earthly’ (χοϊκός) convey practically nothing of the exquisite cosmology—at once concretely physical and vibrantly spiritual—in which the authors of the New Testament lived. And inevitably when we read of ‘spirit,’ ‘soul,’ and ‘flesh’ in the New Testament, the specter of Descartes (even if unnoticed by us) imposes itself between us and the conceptual world those terms reflect: we have next to no sense of the implications, physical and metaphysical, that such words had in the age of the early church.

His repeated use of the first person plural shouldn’t be taken literally: in no way does he intend to include himself in these critiques. What he really means is that everyone other than David Bentley Hart is doubly hampered in their interpretations: not only do they exclude the real conceptual world in which these terms are to be understood, but they are also apparently burdened by an invisible allegiance to 17th century philosopher Rene Descartes, with his “ghost in the machine” dualism. It is this, apparently, that serves to explain the tenacious belief that resurrection involves the reanimation of fleshly bodies.

He explains the dynamics by which “we” misunderstand:

Even ‘flesh’ becomes an almost imperfect cipher for us, not only because of the drastic oversimplifications of Christian tradition with which we have been burdened; we think we know—just know in our bones—that the early Christians unambiguously affirmed the inherent goodness of the material body, and that surely, then, Christian scripture could never have meant to employ the word ‘flesh’ with its literal acceptation in order to designate something bad. Thus, as we read along, either we convince ourselves not to notice that almost every use of the word is openly opprobrious, and that the very few that are not are still for the most part merely neutral in intonation, or we acknowledge this fact but nevertheless still insist to ourselves that the word is being used metaphorically or as a lexical synecdoche for some larger conceptual construct like ‘the mortal life in the flesh, stained with sin and lying under divine judgment.’

He holds up as the “cartoonish climax” of this latter strategy the New International Version of the Bible, which translated (over many editions) σαρξ (flesh) as “sinful nature.” Hart adds a dash of snark: “I would check the exact wording, but that would involve picking up a copy of the NIV.” This translation is, he declares, “utter twaddle.” The word “flesh” emphatically does not mean “sinful nature” or “humanity under judgment” or “fallen flesh.” In fact,

it just means ‘flesh,’ in the bluntly physical sense, and it often has a negative connotation because flesh is essentially a bad condition to be in; belonging to the realm of mutability and mortality, it can form only a body of death. Hence, according to Paul, the body of the resurrection is not one of flesh and blood animated by ‘soul,’ but is rather a new reality altogether, an entirely spiritual body beyond comprehension or dissolution. And this is how his language would have been understood by his contemporaries.

Hart leaves us to wonder how he himself is able to “listen with antique ears” and to divine what the interpretive minds of Paul’s contemporaries “would have” understood. He provides no evidence for it. Missing is any exploration of “the implications, physical and metaphysical, that such words had in the age of the early church.” He doesn’t mention, much less cite, any extant work of anyone in the early post-apostolic church. He simply announces that the reason anyone might bristle at his suggestion is because he or she is captive to “the Cartesian picture of things.” You see, “spiritual” does not mean something lacking all extension or consistency, as we imagine. On the contrary, the spiritual in the ancient world is something of ultimate substance; it represents a “kind of life not bound to death or to the irrational faculties of brute nature, inherently indestructible and incorruptible, and not confined to any single cosmic sphere.” And so it is “stronger, more vital, more glorious than the worldly elements of a coarse corruptible body compounded of earthly soul and material flesh.” He has poetic flair, to be sure.

After all, Hart observes, Paul himself says that “flesh and blood cannot inherit the Kingdom of God; neither does perishability inherit imperishability.” Thus, the resurrection involves “nothing less than the transformation of the psychical composite into spiritual complex—the metamorphosis of the mortal fleshly body that belongs to soul into the immortal fleshless body that belongs to spirit.” In sum, in the resurrection the “flesh” (and, he says, possibly the soul) is left behind. There is no “reanimation” of our fleshly body, with its blood and bones. This is true, he argues, of Christ himself, who was able to journey to hidden regions, walk through doors, and so forth “precisely because he was no longer hindered by a carnal frame, but instead now possessed the boundless liberty of spirit.”

Hart criticizes those who refuse to hear the “plain meaning” of Paul’s words: “No matter how clear Paul’s pronouncements are, the plain meaning of his words still seems so terribly ‘pagan’ or ‘Platonic’ or ‘semi-gnostic’ to modern Christian ears, and of course all of those things are usually regarded as being very bad.” And this is why people still cling to the idea that resurrection is “something along the lines of a reconstruction and reanimation of the earthly body.”

Here is what we have thus far: because of modern “Protestant” biblical studies, people refuse to enter the real conceptual world of the ancients (archons, emanations, spiritual hierarchies, etc.) and thus fail to understand the terms. We do not understand that “spirit,” “soul,” and “flesh” describe three distinct and separable principles of human life, arranged in a specific hierarchy from lowest (flesh) to highest (spirit). Indeed, we insist on the “utter twaddle” of reading Paul’s “flesh” as “mortal flesh in its sinful condition” because we refuse to see it as it intrinsically is: lower, base, corruptible, and temporary. Moreover, because we come to the question with invisible “Cartesian” commitments we assume the resurrection involves the reanimation of our fleshly bodies: blood, bones, and all. We just don’t “get” that the resurrection involves an entirely new body—one of spiritual, “heavenly,” “angelic” substance.

Reflecting on John’s language of πνευμα (“spirit”) in John 3, Hart writes: “[T]his much is certain: it was widely believed in late antiquity that, in human beings, flesh and soul and spirit were all present in some degree; ‘spirit’ was merely the element that was imperishable by nature and constitution.” The rest is perishable, and thus destined to perish even in the resurrection.

There is one thing we should concede: there were, in fact, ancients who understood these words precisely as Hart insists they must be understood. Most—if not all—of these ancients were gnostics of the Valentinian variety, which means he is quite mistaken when he says “it was widely believed.” These were the very outer fringes of the nominally Christian community, and in the course of time were excluded from that community altogether.

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