There are few single words that have engendered the controversy and misunderstanding that has long surrounded the term “body”, and at the same time suffered an equivalent lack of attention to its major New Testament uses. (Another word in the same category will follow.)
Out of the 145 occurrences of soma in the New Testament, more than half of which refer either to a lifeless corpse (25 x) or the physical body of an ordinary person (51 x), the greatest abuse has occurred by the co-opting of a single phrase which appears only one single time into a complicated “doctrine” which then takes on a life of its own. Three examples will suffice, though I am sure you can find others.
1. At least as early as medieval times, and even in some of the second and third century “church fathers”, devout people lit upon Paul’s lament in Romans 7 of a persistent problem in his own experience, as if it were an endorsement of the dualism that had pervaded eastern mysticism for millennia: the assumption that anything connected with the physical body (or any other material thing) was inherently evil. Although anyone who takes faithfulness seriously is bound to feel that way on occasion, such an assumption is directly contrary to the majority testimony of Scripture. Such folks have chosen to ignore totally Paul’s surrounding admonitions (Rom.6:6,12; 8:10) regarding the total transformation of mortal life accomplished by Jesus’ resurrection, and substituted all sorts of ascetic practices, which Paul had already summarily dismissed as worthless (Col.2:23 and elsewhere) for achieving “holiness”.
2. I Peter 2:24, a portion of a larger series of quotations from Isaiah and other ancient prophets, is the only New Testament statement directly connecting Jesus’ body with “sins” (hamartia, “failures”, not paraptoma “deliberate transgressions” – see W.S.#7). This brief quote has metastasized into a complex “doctrine” that posits a vindictive, vengeful God who demands capital punishment for every conceivable infraction or error – which notion Jesus himself actively opposed (see John 8). It is true that skillful manipulators can cherry-pick “verses” from Romans to “prove” almost anything they choose, but simple integrity demands the inclusion of the whole message. These folks choose to ignore the many more numerous statements (Heb.2:14-15, Rom.5:10-11, 21; Rom.6:4) that the glorious accomplishment of Jesus’ death – and resurrection – was to destroy both death and people’s fear of its perpetrator!
3. The repeated references to the scene at the Last Supper (Mt.26:26, Mk.14:22, Lk.22:19, I Cor.10:16-17, and 11:24-29), regarding which centuries of “theologians” have demonstrated that the political prevarications of the 1990’s regarding “what the meaning of ‘is‘ is”, are not at all original!
Jesus frequently used the same sentence structure when explaining his parables (“the seed is the Word”, “the harvest is the end of the age”, etc.) that he used when he told his disciples, “This is my Body”. In each case, “this is” functions as a simple synonym for “this represents”. Time and energy spent arguing the details of some sort of magical transformation of simple food, or its supposed supernatural power, would be much better devoted to exploring the task of becoming the Body of which he spoke!
Historically, soma was a very versatile word. In Homer, it referred exclusively to dead bodies, but later, in the 5th century BC, it was used by Pindarus as the opposite of “spirit”, and by Plato as the opposite of “shadow” (seen in Col.2:17) or “soul”, as well as an animal body as opposed to a plant – although Paul includes plants in I Cor.15 . Lysias uses it as a compilation of civil rights, or a civic assembly, and Aristotle of a mathematical proof or a three dimensional figure. In the third century BC, it was first applied to any person, and later primarily of slaves (as in Rev.18:13).
Considerable attention is devoted to the “body” in the New Testament. Jesus considered it of greater importance than food and clothing (Mt.6:25), but less than “life” (psuche) – see W.S.#28. It can be destroyed (Mt.10:28), but also redeemed (Rom.8:23) and transformed (Phil.3:21). It is to be handled with care and appropriate honor (Rom.6:8, I Cor.6), because the physical body of the faithful person, like all the rest of his life, is “for the Lord” (I Cor.6:15), and belongs to him. Indeed, it is to be offered as a “living sacrifice” to God (Rom.12:1) – and a sacrifice, regardless of its content, must be of spotless purity. Such an offering could not possibly be acceptable if the body were inherently evil!
Most significant of all, if judged by the proportion of attention accorded to it in the New Testament, is the awe-inspiring concept of the faithful as comprising the very Body of Christ! For a fuller discussion of that subject, please see chapter 7 of Citizens of the Kingdom. Paul approaches this wonder from three different angles:
– the inclusion of the faithful from all backgrounds in a single unit: “one body” (Rom.12:4,5; Eph.2:16, 4:4; Col.3:15) without distinction;
– the intended function of each member [part] of that Body for the benefit of the whole (I Cor.12:12-27, Rom.12:4-8);
– and the mutual responsibility that such unity entails (Eph.1:23, 4:4, 4:12, 4:16; Col.1:8, 1:24, 2:19), symbolized in the observance of “communion” – W.S. #8, koinonia – (I Cor.10:16-17, 11:24-29).
Do not forget that it is “in (en) one Body” (Col.3:15) that we are called. Not “into” – that would require the preposition eis, and imply the initial invitation to participation. It is we who have already accepted the invitation, and are consequently being incorporated into that one Body, who are then “called” [given further instructions – W.S.#55] , some of which follow in vv.16,17. The complicated inventions, theories, and requirements concocted by self-appointed teachers and hierarchies of every description are completely beside the point.
The only thing that matters is v.19 – “holding on to the Head [Jesus himself]. It’s from him that all the Body, supplied through its joints and ligaments, and knit together, keeps growing with the growth that comes from God!”
The task of every member of that Body (please note that every function listed in Eph.4:11 is plural) is for the purpose of “equipping God’s people” for the job of “building up the Body of Christ”! (Eph.4:12). “The purpose is that we be no longer babies, agitated and carried around by every wind of teaching, deceitfully manipulated by people who are deliberately trying to mislead us, but as we interact truthfully in love, we may grow up in every way into him who is the Head – Christ. From him, the whole Body, joined together [harmonized] and knit together by the proper function of every available ligament, according to the measured working of each individual part, makes bodily growth for building itself up in love.” (Eph.4:14-16).
Amen, Lord! May it be so!