The Resurrection of the Body in Western Christianity, 200-1336
By Caroline Walker Bynum
Columbia University Press. 368 pages, $29.95

In canto fourteen of the Paradiso , Dante writes,

When, glorified and sanctified, the flesh is once again our dress, our persons shall in being all complete, please all the more; therefore, whatever light gra-tuitous the Highest Good gives us will be enhanced -the light that will allow us to see Him that light will cause our vision to increase.

The vision of God, the end toward which all human life tends, will be more radiant, “enhanced,” when the soul is rejoined with flesh “which the earth now covers up.” Like coals that burn with a more intense glow than an immaterial flame, our bodies will bring the vision of God to perfection.

As in many passages, especially in the Paradiso , Dante’s verse steps surefootedly through a complex theological idea with little hint to the casual reader of what lies behind his carefully chosen words. In this passage Dante sets out his own view on a large and perplexing question at the heart of Christian hope, whether the resurrected body will add anything to the vision of God enjoyed by the souls of the saints in the interim between death and resurrection. Dante believes it will.

In Dante’s day the question had not been settled and his view is all the more interesting for that reason. Indeed ten years later, in the fall of 1331, Pope John XXII preached a series of sermons on the vision of God granted to the saints before the Resurrection. In these sermons the Pope said that the souls of the saints now rest “under the altar” (Revelation 6:9) contemplating Christ’s humanity, but at the final judgment they will be raised above the altar to the more perfect joy of the visio Dei. With the resumption of flesh the saints will see God more fully.

The growing popularity of the doctrine of purgatory, and with it speculation on the state of the souls of the dead (good as well as bad), led many to think that the beatific vision could come to the saints before the final resurrection, i.e., whenever they were fully cleansed. Hence the Pope’s sermons, according to several medieval chroniclers, “scandalized many,” because he seemed to teach that the soul, when it is separated from the body, is incapable of seeing God “face to face.” The full beatific vision is not now granted to the saints who rest from their labors.

The Pope found little support for his views, and after extended debate among theologians in Paris and Oxford he was forced to modify his opinions. A mediating position was reached that defended the idea of an immediate vision of God but allowed for a more perfect vision after the Resurrection. On his deathbed in 1334 Pope John reformulated (though not without equivocation) his teaching to say the “holy souls” see God face to face “as clearly as their condition as souls separated from their bodies allows.” Two years later, however, his successor Benedict XII (who, as the distinguished theologian Cardinal Jacques Fournier, was one of his critics) issued the encyclical Benedictus Deus to assert that pure souls see the divine essence face to face before the Resurrection.

The debate over the visio Dei was not simply a dispute among scholastic theologians and bishops. It touched on the most personal and existential questions of human life and hope, for what really was at issue in these debates was whether the body was part of the definition of the self. The fourteenth-century controversy over the visio Dei was only a small part of a grand conversation that had been going on among Christian thinkers since Paul composed his triumphant, and enigmatic, conclusion to First Corinthians on the resurrected body. Paul asked, “With what kind of body do they come . . . ? What you sow is not the body which is to be but a bare kernel, perhaps of wheat or some other grain. But God gives it a body as he has chosen, and to each kind of seed its own body . . . . It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body.” What did St. Paul mean by these mysterious words? The metaphor of seed implies continuity, but that which sprouts from the earth is not the same as the seed that was buried in the earth. Did Paul really mean that one would be raised with the same body, or with a body that was as transformed as the seed is changed into a stalk of grain? Is the “spiritual body” that will be raised composed of the same stuff as the one that was buried?

These are the kind of questions discussed in wondrous detail in this learned, illuminating, and provocative book by Caroline Bynum, professor of history at Columbia University. Bynum is known to many readers from her earlier works on medieval spirituality, Jesus as Mother and Holy Feast and Holy Fast . But here she sets for herself a more ambitious task. Her new book, as the title suggests, is a series of studies of Christian thinking about the resurrected body in Christian thought in the patristic period and in the Western Middle Ages.

But this is not a conventional account of how one idea follows on another. Bynum does not simply report, she is very much in conversation with the texts-weighing, measuring, comparing, criticizing, and evaluating ideas and arguments, just as her sources were analyzing and evaluating thinkers who had gone before. At one point she cites Otto of Friesing’s spirited comment on reading St. Augustine’s discussion of seeing God in Heaven in Book 22 of the City of God . Augustine, says Otto, “says many things in a nonauthoritative manner.”

Bynum’s sources are too varied and her reasoning too intricate to yield to easy summary, but one theme persists: in Christian tradition the self is by definition embodied. It is not soul, but soul and body that define the human person. Without the body the soul is not a person. Yet, as the debate over the visio Dei indicates, how one is to understand the relation of body and soul remains vexed.

The issues were posed early in Christian history, in part because pagan critics thought the whole idea of bodily resurrection absurd, in part because Christian hope required cogent exposition, and in part because it was hard to reconcile the various biblical statements about the life to come. The bodily resurrection of Jesus was of course a matter of biblical history, and the resurrection of the flesh a matter of faith. Yet in the Gospel of John the body of Jesus seems to pass through walls (20:26), and in Luke Jesus’ disciples do not at first recognize him after the Resurrection (24:16). Texts such as 2 Corinthians 5 (“away from the body and at home with the Lord”) seemed to suggest that one had to discard the body to be with God, whereas Job 19:26 says “in my flesh I shall see God” (Vulgate).

And there was of course that puzzling chapter in 1 Corinthians 15. Origin of Alexandria had interpreted Paul’s words to mean that the body in Heaven was a spiritual and luminous body retaining the body’s “form” but not its matter. Others thought this implied the resurrected body was not the body of the one who had died but another similar to it. St. Augustine was uneasy with the implications of the Pauline metaphor of seed; he preferred to speak of restoration of bodily wholeness, not transformation, and his metaphor was that of a reassembled statue. But whatever the metaphor (and there were many: flowering of a tree in spring, hatching of an egg, smelting of ore, etc.), the underlying question remained the same: What is it that insures not only continuity but identity between the person who died and the body that is raised? The easy answer would be soul, but that seemed contrary to the Church’s teaching.

One cannot appreciate the force of this question until one begins to reflect, as the medievals did, on the specific questions that exercised Christian thinkers. The other day I found myself walking behind two small children being followed by their grandparents. The little girl, perhaps five years old, was rhythmically hopping across the mall, delighting in the quickness and flexibility of her body, oblivious to what was around; the grandparents were healthy able folk, not elderly, yet they moved deliberately, prudently looking down lest they slip. Later in the day I watched a very elderly man with a walker shuffle in to a hardware store, tiny step by tiny step, each made with a great act of will. Thinking medieval thoughts I wondered: Which body-that of the child, those of the middle-aged couple, or that of the man with the walker-will be raised in the resurrection? The medievals asked, Will there be differentiation by sex in heaven? Will we all be the same age? If so, what age? (Some said thirty!) Will limbs that were crippled or amputated be restored? What of those born with deformities? Will we have internal as well as external organs? Will a child that dies in infancy be raised as an adult? Will aborted fetuses rise?

Our bodies, as our experience shows, are always changing. The body of a ten year old is not the body of a twenty-five year old, and the body of a fifty year old is different from the body of someone who is eighty. The changes that we experience in our bodies through aging are largely negative. And there is of course the inevitability of death and the reality of decay and dissolution. If the body is always in flux how can it be raised to incorruption (meaning no further change) and eternal life? Conversely, how can human identity that is yoked to body survive the loss of bodily structure? The temptation was very great to define human beings by something that is immaterial and unchanging-namely, the soul. And in the late medieval period Christian thinkers, as reflected in the visio Dei controversy, came very close to suggesting that the soul is the guarantee of what we mean by self. Yet, as Bynum shows, in spite of the philosophical problems presented by bodily resurrection, Christian thinkers insisted on the unity of body and soul. A complete human being was body as well as soul.

In late medieval theology, hagiography, poetry, and art, the body was seen as even more integral to the self. Again a passage from Dante illustrates the point. “One and the other choir seemed to me / so quick and keen to say ‘Amen’ that they / showed clearly how they longed for their dead bodies.” The arresting phrase here is “longed for” (or desired) their dead bodies. The word “desire” comes from Augustine who had asked, “Why must the spirits of the departed be reunited with their bodies in the resurrection, if they can be admitted to the supreme beatitude without their bodies? . . . [For] some mysterious reason the soul possesses a kind of natural desire for managing the body. Because of this desire it is somehow hindered from going on with all its force to the highest heaven, so long as it is not joined with the body, for it is in managing the body that this desire is satisfied . . . . Only when the soul . . . again receives this body . . . will it have the perfect measure of its being.”

Though this text was cited in theological handbooks, notably in the Sentences of Peter Lombard, Christian thinkers had given little attention to it. But gradually the term “desire” began to find its way into discussions of the relation between the soul and the resurrected body. St. Bernard, for example, said that even though the body is “foul and fetid flesh,” souls crave the body because only the body can bring full happiness and perfection. For Mechthild of Magdenburg (ca. 1282), a member of a semi-monastic German religious community, the body is the means of access to God. Though her body was a source of pain, she could not bear the thought of being free of her body. For it was in the body that she had come to know God: “The love of God lies on me . . . . And when I think that my body will be lost in death and I shall no longer be able to suffer for Jesus or to praise him, this is so heavy to me that I long, if it were possible, to live until Judgment Day. My love forces me to this.”

Admittedly, the language of Mechthild of Magdeburg and other mystics and poets was bolder than that of the theologians, but they were working with ideas and language like Augustine’s “desire” that were deeply rooted in Christian tradition. And that, finally, is Bynum’s point. The Christian doctrine of the resurrection led Christian thinkers to make the body an essential element in defining the self.

Of course all this talk about the body has a decidedly modern ring to it, as Bynum recognizes. We moderns, she writes, “find it difficult to think that any survival that really counts could entail loss of those markers the body bears: sex, race, personal appearance, and so forth.” Consequently she argues that our modern conceptions of human persons are not as “modern” as we sometimes imagine; they are formed by hundreds of years of discussion of the resumption of bodies at the Resurrection. “The doctrine of the resurrection has been of enormous consequence in shaping assumptions we still hold concerning personhood and survival. Much about our current Western notions of the individual has taproots in medieval discussions of the ontological significance of the body.” The legacy of Christian tradition is not, as some suppose, Gnosticism or shame over the body or otherworldliness, but the psychosomatic unity of the human being. Reading this book alongside of Charles Taylor’s Sources of the Self (with its argument about the influence of Augustine’s ideas of interiority in shaping modern ideas of the self), one wonders whether there is anything we moderns have learned about ourselves that does not have its roots in Christian (and Jewish) tradition.

No less significant are Bynum’s acute observations about the popular view, associated with the New Testament scholar Oscar Cullman, that Christian thinkers abandoned biblical ideas of the person in favor of Greek notions that define the human being as soul. Oscar Cullman argued, with enormous success but spotty erudition, that in early Christian thinking a form of Greek dualism triumphed over the biblical understanding of the person. His facile theories are here laid to rest. The belief in the resurrection of the body insured that the body remained at the center of Christian thinking about the human person even in the face of formidable philosophical arguments to the contrary.

At one point Bynum says that the promises of the bodily resurrection remained an “oxymoron.” She speaks of the “incoherence” and “self-contradiction” of the doctrine of the resurrection of the body. It is clear what she means: the doctrine of the resurrection of the body presented intractable philosophical problems. But I wonder whether putting things that way misses the distinctive feature of medieval thought. For medieval Christian thinkers, the resurrection of Jesus was a historical fact recorded in the Scriptures and a present reality in the consecrated bread and wine of the Eucharist. What had happened in history and what was known to be true in human experience might be a mystery but it was not incoherent or self-contradictory. Christian reasoning began with these “facts,” as Etienne Gilson observed in his Gifford lectures on medieval philosophy: “Now it is a fact that between ourselves and the Greeks the Christian revelation has intervened, and has profoundly modified the conditions under which reason has to work.” What is at work in the myriad of texts in this book is not so much the discussion of a set of ideas or images, but an effort to comprehend a reality given in revelation.

Perhaps this turns Bynum’s book into an essay in theology and not simply a study in intellectual history. In her final paragraph she seems to take a step in that direction. There she invites the reader to focus not on the method she has used, nor the relevance of the ideas she has discussed, but “the notion of bodily resurrection itself.” She writes: “For however absurd it seems-and some of the greatest theologians of the Western tradition have grappled with that absurdity-it is a concept of sublime courage and optimism. It locates redemption where ultimate horror also resides-in pain, mutilation, death, and decay . . . . It was [the] stench and fragmentation they saw lifted to glory in resurrection.” The Resurrection of the Body is a profound and rewarding book.

Robert L. Wilken is the William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of the History of Christianity at the University of Virginia and author, most recently, of Remembering the Christian Past (Eerdmans).