Candida R. Moss is a graduate of Oxford and Yale universities, and she specialises in the study of the New Testament and martyrdom in early Christianity. Moss currently works as the Edward Cadbury Professor of Theology in the Department of Theology and Religion at the University of Birmingham. She is the author of several other books; The Other Christs: Imitating Jesus in Ancient Christian Ideologies of Martyrdom, Ancient Christian Martyrdom: Diverse Practices, Ideologies, and Traditions, The Myth of Persecution: How Early Christians Invented a Story of Martyrdom, Reconceiving Infertility: Biblical Perspectives on Procreation and Childlessness, and Bible Nation: The United States of Hobby Lobby.
Introduction: The missing piece
Dr Moss begins her book by revealing how the topic at hand leads to dozens of questions about life, death and the afterlife. What is essential to our identity? If I am resurrected, to what age in my life will my resurrected body return? Is my current outward appearance tied to my identity and therefore, essential to my resurrected body? Is my identity tied to my relationships and things I currently possess in life? These are all questions she describes as “anxieties about identity, nature and continuity of the self. Moss reminds her readers that at the heart of our understanding of the resurrection is the Easter story. Christ is the paradigm through which we are told we should understand our future resurrection. She continues in her introduction to suggest that the resurrection is a competing idea with the doctrine of the immortality of the soul. Here the competition plays itself out between what Christians believe historically happened in the Biblical narrative and intellectual and philosophical arguments for the immortality of the soul. Moss states that her book is not about ontology or origins. Instead, she says the “book is about the intersection of identity and the body.” The goal of the book, she says, “is to disentangle Pauline-fed hermeneutical assumptions about what a resurrected body must be like from our reading of other descriptions of the resurrection of the body in the New Testament.”
In the introduction, she eloquently lays some of the foundations of what has historically been understood on the topic by the Essenes, Pharisees and Sadducees. She reveals that even within the Biblical text, there can appear to be conflict. For instance, Paul and Jesus seem to come down on opposite sides of the coin in regards to whether or not flesh and blood can inherit the kingdom of God. The struggle it seems is that “neither the human spirit nor the human soul are said to survive death, and yet somehow, we are continuous with our earthy selves” when it comes to the bodily resurrection. In this first chapter of her book, Moss presents her readers with several probing questions that she suggests we should be asking in regards to the resurrected body and our identity as human beings.
Chapter 1: Identity
In the first chapter, Moss begins by observing that “across time and place, identity is tied to specific body parts”. Culturally this is how we define people and give labels to one another as we create linguistic categories and definitions. Moss notes that after Jesus resurrection, there seems to be both a continuity and discontinuity in regards to the form of Jesus resurrected body. While his scars help to identity his risen body as the one that was crucified, we also have texts that seem to indicate that Jesus takes on different forms. The scars of Jesus help validify Jesus claim of identity and validate his prophecy that his body or temple could be destroyed and it would be raised three days later.
Moss goes on to show how Jesus physical body stands in contrast to surrounding literature like the Iliad that speaks of psuche as a vapour or the way Homer describes a psuche as a shadow-like being. In fact, Jesus affirms he is flesh and bone and not a pneuma in Luke 24:39. With the support of other Biblical texts, she suggests that maybe God is polymorphic and that this idea certainly is supported elsewhere within the ancient world. In closing the chapter, Moss says, “what is interesting, for our purposes, is the ways in which these texts reject the idea that continuity of form is intrinsic to continued identity.” In retrospect, this thought also sheds light on how Jesus could take on flesh and become incarnate while still maintaining his identity. His form changed, but his identity remained intact. Chapter one then is an interesting exploration of identity as we are invited to ask the question ‘what is it about me that makes me, me.’
Chapter 2: Integrity
As a result of the conclusions of the previous chapters, Moss goes on to explore the idea that to be a human means to be in a constant state of flux. It is a process of both death and life in one body. A person is continually shedding cells and making new ones. And yet despite this reality, there seems to be what she calls a “fluidity of the human person over time.” Continuing this train of thought, she then goes on to explore the punishment of amputation in the ANE cultures. In the medical field, she says “amputation may have had risks, but it was preferable to certain death.” Amputation can be both a punitive action taken in punishment for a crime and a defensive measure taken against sickness or disease. These ideas lead us to questions like, ‘will a person born blind, receive sight in their resurrected body’? Or, will things like blindness, loss of limbs, and other ailments all be restored? If a person’s identity is tied to their physical abilities or limits will their identity change if their body was to be restored and healed after the resurrection? In chapter two, Moss invites us to explore the intersection of identity with embodied-ness.
Chapter 3: Functionality
Next, Moss turns to the idea of the functionality of different body parts. She asks, “why have genitals in heaven or limbs or a digestive system if they no longer have a purpose?” It is here that the conversation then revisits the classical Greek philosophers who disagree with what a soul is. For Plato, the soul is not contingent upon the body for preservation. His student Aristotle disagreed, however, holding that “the soul is not separable from the parts of the body that it has by nature. So, for Plato, he could say, I am my body, but I am also more than my body. Aristotle, on the other hand, would say that I am my body and cannot exist without my body. Depending on which philosopher one agrees with, one will be led to numerous different conclusions in regards to the afterlife and a proposed intermediate state. In the discussion of amputation and proposed resurrected body parts or lack thereof, Moss closes by saying “the removal of body parts is not only problematic because of the issues of form; it is problematic because the results might be disfiguring.”
Chapter 4: Aesthetics
In the fourth chapter, Moss turns to the idea of beauty and explores how it is often culturally agreed-upon construct. As a result, differing cultures can have opposing views on how they define what is ideal or beautiful concerning human bodied. One culture can find white or pale skin attractive and pursue it as the ideal, while another may seek for an ideal of tan or bronzed skin colour. Along with the notion of human beauty, Moss explores the influence of subjects such as cleanliness, purity, and attire as it relates to the perfect and beautiful, especially as it relates to eschatology. Moss describes how beauty is connected to virtue and action. From an aesthetic standpoint, beauty can often be used to hide vice and propose artificial virtue. She says “when the aesthetics of the resurrection correspond to the bodies and attire of the rich, salvation becomes a process of enrichment that never deconstructs the social hierarchy that it wants to challenge.” Moss’s fourth chapter in the book encourages the reader to explore questions of how we construct a social paradigm of beauty and how that may play a role in how we understand ourselves and the afterlife.
Conclusion: Imagining beauty and remembering ourselves
In her concluding remarks, Moss asks if the bodily ability is necessary for identity. If it is, we might say that a proposed intermediate state where a soul exists without a body is also, in a sense, a loss of identity. Someone like Descartes suggests that “the survival of the person after death involves only the continued preservation of consciousness and memory.” In this case, consciousness and memory become the core of identity and do not need the body to exist. Moss suggests there is truth to this statement which is observable in Alzheimer patients who lose their memory which in turn affects their personhood. Moss concludes by stating that “it is only when we press against traditional readings of scriptural texts that the strangeness of the resurrection returns and forces us to think about why resurrected bodies matter and who we really are.
Dr Moss does a great job of reminding the Christian community that our central hope is in the bodily resurrection of the dead that we celebrate each Easter. If Jesus is the paradigm through which we are to understand God and our hope for the future, we must remind ourselves that our eschatology should be guided by Jesus bodily resurrection. Using specific scripture texts for guidance, the book explores issues of identity and how personhood is related to being embodied. It also explores the questions of continuity of self through time. Moss explores ideas of functionality and how being embodied relates to our identity and ability. She also helps us question our normalised understanding of what we call beautiful and hold as ideal. While this book may raise more questions than it gives answers to, I highly recommend reading it. Sometimes the questions are more important than the answers, and the journey is more important than the destination.