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Paul, the Stoics, and the Body of Christ

Paul, the Stoics, and the Body of Christ

by Michelle V. Lee

At first glance, Paul's words to the Corinthians about being the body of Christ seem simple and straightforward. He compares them with a human body so that they may be encouraged to work together, each member contributing to the good of the whole according to his or her special gift. However, the passage raises several critical questions which point to its deeper


At first glance, Paul's words to the Corinthians about being the body of Christ seem simple and straightforward. He compares them with a human body so that they may be encouraged to work together, each member contributing to the good of the whole according to his or her special gift. However, the passage raises several critical questions which point to its deeper implications. Does Paul mean that the community is 'like' a body or is he saying that they are in some sense a real body? What is the significance of being specifically the body of Christ? Is the primary purpose of the passage to instruct on the correct use of spiritual gifts or is Paul making a statement about the identity of the Christian community? Michelle Lee examines Paul's instructions in 1 Corinthians 12-14 against the backdrop of Hellenistic moral philosophy, and especially Stoicism.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"The book is fluid and accessible...Lee's comparison of the Stoic teaching on the 'mind' and the unity of universal humanity with Paul's exhortation to take on the 'mind of Christ' as a call for unity in 'a new humanity' is a worthwhile contribution."
Barry N. Danylak, Journal of Evangelical Theological Society

Product Details

Cambridge University Press
Publication date:
Society for New Testament Studies Monograph Series , #137
Edition description:
New Edition
Product dimensions:
5.51(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.55(d)

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Paul, the Stoics, and the Body of Christ

Cambridge University Press
0521864542 - Paul, the Stoics, and the Body of Christ - by MICHELLE V. LEE


At first glance, Paul᾽s words to the Corinthians about their being the body of Christ in 1 Cor. 12 seem simple and straightforward. He compares them with a human body so that they may be encouraged to work together, each member contributing to the good of the whole according to his or her special gift. However, the passage raises several critical questions which point to its deeper implications. Does Paul mean that the community is only “like” a body or is he saying that they are in some sense a real body? What is the significance of being specifically the body of Christ? Is the primary purpose of the passage to instruct on the correct use of spiritual gifts or is Paul also making a statement about the identity of the Christian community? The goal of this work is to present fresh answers to these questions by examining more closely the evidence from others who also spoke about the importance of being a body, specifically the Stoics, and how their conception of bodily unity was critical for social ethics. In doing so, I hope to shed new light on both the content and the purpose of Paul᾽s description of the body of Christ in 1 Cor. 12 and also as it relates to the rest of his instructions in 1 Cor. 13 and 14.

Key issues

The body of Christ: physical body or metaphor?
One of the key questions is whether Paul was speaking of a literal or a figurative body, a question represented in the exchange between J. A. T. Robinson and Robert Gundry. Robinson contends that Paul was referring to Christ᾽s actual physical body; he argues that the term must be understood in light of Paul᾽s “Christology” instead of linguistic sources.1 The church is “in literal fact the risen organism of Christ᾽s person in all its concrete reality” and the individuals are members of Christ᾽s person.2 Although this constitutes a “very violent use of language,” Paul intended it to be so. Robinson explains that it was meant to be “offensive” and “It is almost impossible to exaggerate the materialism and crudity of Paul᾽s doctrine of the Church as literally now the resurrection body of Christ.”3 However, the difficulty for Robinson is that he is not able to give a satisfactory explanation of how this “real” connection could exist.

Gundry rightly objects to the equation of believers with the physical body of the risen Christ. He explains, “To equate the present physical body of Christ with believers wreaks havoc with the temporal distinction Paul carefully makes between the pastness of Christ᾽s resurrection and the futurity of believers᾽ resurrection.”4 However, he does not deny some sort of equation between Christ and the believers, for he also states, “On the other side, not to equate believers with a body of Christ, merely to attach them sacramentally and mystically, would fail to do justice to Paul᾽s statement . . . that the Church is the Body of Christ and that individual believers make up the specific organs and limbs.”5 He only denies that the church can be identified with Christ᾽s glorious and risen body.6

Furthermore, Gundry notes that the “body of Christ” image appears solely in paraenetic passages for the purpose of exhortation and deals primarily with the working relationships among the Christians. The ethical nature of the passage implies that the phrase is not to be taken physically.7 The ecclesiastical body is metaphorical because it equates members with the eyes, and the like, in only a figurative way.8 Gundry asserts that Robinson emphasizes the “extreme violence and crudity” of the expression because Robinson himself recognized “the impossibility of its making good literal sense.”9

But if the primary purpose of the metaphor is comparative, why did Paul use the phrase “body of Christ”? It would have been easier for him to discuss the “body of the church.” We come to the significance of naming the church the body of Christ. To say the phrase is “metaphorical” or the passage is “paraenetic” does not fully answer these questions, and perhaps the answer lies in finding an alternative way of explaining how the church can be Christ᾽s body in other than the literal physical sense.

Some within the Roman Catholic tradition have attempted to preserve the real connection between Christ and the church through the use of terms such as “supernatural” and “mystical.” For many of these scholars, the Spirit᾽s role has led them to search for new ways of defining the union beyond “physical,” “figurative,” and “metaphorical.”

For example, Alfred Wikenhauser asserted that the reception of the Spirit brought the believers into the “mystischen Einheit.”10 In this way the church becomes the “mystical” body of Christ. L. Cerfaux sought to modify this definition so that it was not so much a “mystical body,” but a “mystical theory of life in Christ.”11 For Cerfaux, Christians were still a “spiritual organism . . . mystically identified with the body of Christ”12 although not a “mystical body” as a collective person forming the church.13

In the end, the use of terms such as “mystical” prove not very illuminating in terms of how Paul actually conceived of this relationship.14 A historical explanation for the content of this relationship is needed. Indeed, part of the problem may lie in the limitations of contemporary definitions of what it means to be a body.

Albert Schweitzer᾽s work highlighted this problem. He emphasized the importance of bodily union with Christ in The Mysticism of Paul the Apostle.15 He even stated that “shared corporeity” between Christ and the church was the central idea of Paul᾽s thought.16 While stated most explicitly in ch. 12, this “shared corporeity” was also the best way to explain such passages as 1 Cor. 6.

Schweitzer pointed out that the explicit nature of the church as Christ᾽s body was a significant part of Paul᾽s beliefs and ethics, even though it is difficult to conceptualize this type of bodily unity. Paul᾽s language virtually demands a corporeal relationship between Christ and the church, even if it is not at all clear how this relationship could exist.

Jewett calls Schweitzer᾽s work “extraordinary” because it “accepts and makes sense out of the Pauline understanding of the body in a way which no earlier interpretation could match.”17 Although Schweitzer could not explain the content of this bodily unity, he did point to the possibility that Paul may have intended a literal corporeal relationship which went beyond the intellectual categories available to him in the twentieth century. As Jewett summarizes, “modern man does not appear to possess the philosophical assumptions to grasp such ideas of somatic unity.”18

Dale Martin specifically argues that modern readers have been misled by a Cartesian construction of a body–soul dualism as an ontological dualism which cannot adequately accommodate the ancient conception of corporeality. For example, whereas Descartes distinguished the body as material and the soul as immaterial, Aristotle viewed the soul as incorporeal but not as what the modern reader would call “immaterial.”19 As a result of the differences in conceptual categories, Martin asserts that interpreters need to “wipe clean our slate of corporeal vocabulary” and “take an imaginative leap into the past” in order to reconstruct how the ancients understood corporeality.20 A goal of this study is to yield some of these categories with which to understand the image by examining the significance of being called a “body” in Paul᾽s culture.

I will attempt to show that the Stoics provide the means for understanding Paul᾽s concept of bodily unity, including how this affects his ethics. I will attempt to show that Schweitzer was correct, and that the main part that was missing from his solution was a historical and philosophical explanation for the content of “somatic union.”

Naming the body: the body of Christ as a statement of identity

In addition to understanding Paul᾽s use of “body,” it is necessary to consider the significance of Paul᾽s naming the Corinthians as Christ᾽s body specifically. According to Käsemann, the phrase “body of Christ” is primarily a statement of identity and the stress lies on the genitive.21 Paul does not simply say that the church is a body but that it is so “in Christ.” His argument is ultimately a “Christological one.”22

Like Gundry and others, Käsemann notes that Paul uses the body of Christ in a paraenetic context. However, he makes a more explicit connection between “theology” (or Christology) and “ethics” when he says that the passage gives the “theological reason” for unity in the midst of diversity.23 He asserts that one must go beyond comparison to understand the significance of the very real “body of Christ.” Since the church was baptized into one body by the Spirit, the phrase is not a metaphor but rather reflects the transformation that occurs at baptism “in which the old man dies and a new creature comes to life.”24 Thus, the comparative aspect must be understood in the perspective of the entire exhortation with the result that “the comparison brings out the reality which is intended through the concrete application of the statement of identity to the life of the Christian community.”25 A critical part of Paul᾽s argument is his identification of the church as the specific body of Christ and how this provides a foundational element in his exhortation.26

The relationship between identification and exhortation in Paul᾽s method has been noted by other commentators, especially those who describe it as “indicative-imperative.”27 Paul᾽s ethics are inseparably related to the content of his preaching, in particular what it means to be “in Christ” and to “belong” to him. Victor Furnish states,

The study of the Pauline ethic, therefore, is not the study of his ethical theory, for he had none, nor of his code for Christian living, for he gave none. It is the study, first of all, of the theological convictions which underlie Paul᾽s concrete exhortations and instructions and, secondly, of the way those convictions shape his responses to practical questions of conduct.28

In a somewhat similar manner, I will argue that we must understand the convictions underlying Paul᾽s “indicative” in ch. 12 before we can understand how they shape his “imperative” in what follows. Specifically, Paul᾽s method of linking community identity as a body and corporate ethical exhortation is similar to what is found in Stoic paraenesis. This identification sheds light both on Paul᾽s ethical method and on how he conceives of the nature of the eschatological community.

Methodological considerations

Theological interests have often influenced the contours of the discussion about the body of Christ. For example, Jewett notes the tendency to read a church tradition back into the text. Referring to a portion of the Roman Catholic debate, he observes, “There appears to be a minimum of wrestling with the historical intention of (Paul); instead one scheme is set up against the other with the claim that it provides a more satisfactory compromise between the text and the theological tradition.”29 Gundry᾽s denial that the believers are attached “sacramentally and mystically” to the body of Christ reflects a different aspect of the theological debate, specifically the arguments against the “mystical” body of Christ. The present inquiry will, as much as possible, approach the text from the standpoint of the ancient philosophers and not from a concern to support a specific contemporary theological position. The hope is to discover new categories for thinking about both the content and function of “body” language in 1 Corinthians.

Identifying the “source” of the metaphor: potential and problems

One of the key issues for scholars has been the “source” for Paul᾽s use of the “body of Christ” phrase. The proposals are numerous,30 including the Jewish concept of corporate personality,31 the gnostic Redeemer myth,32 the body of Adam from rabbinic Judaism,33 and the temple of Asclepius in Corinth.34 Some scholars have looked to Paul᾽s own experience to provide the explanation. The Damascus Road theory35 and the Eucharist36 have been proposed as ideas for the bodily unity between Christ and his church.

None of these ideas, however, has gained a scholarly consensus. Numerous scholars have also suggested a combination of theories rather than a single “source.”37 This work will not attempt to examine all of the possible “sources,” but rather will focus upon the potential of Stoic philosophy as a backdrop.

Probably the most enduring “source” is the political/philosophical image of the cosmos or state as a body.38 The image was widespread in antiquity, with its best-known form that of the Menenius Agrippa fable, in which Agrippa persuaded the plebeians to cease their rebellion against the senate by arguing that since the state, like a body, is made up of a number of diverse parts, all of the parts perform a necessary function, including the senators, for the good of the whole.39 Conzelmann notes, “[The figure of the body as an organism] was to begin with a popular figure; it was then taken over by philosophy, especially by the Stoa.”40

Perhaps the most thorough application of this theory is the important study by Margaret Mitchell in Paul and the Rhetoric of Reconciliation.41 Her overall thesis is that the entire epistle is an example of deliberative rhetoric, specifically, a “concord” speech in which Paul is arguing for unity. 1 Cor. 12 then forms a significant section of his overall argument.

She documents how the metaphor was used for the society or state in ancient political literature to show the need for cooperation among all the parts or members of society. It was specifically used to combat factionalism, such as that which is evident in 1 Corinthians, beginning with the thesis statement in 1:10. Thus, the metaphor in 1 Cor. 12 is a primary part of Paul᾽s argument for the community to end their factionalism by working for the “common good.” Mitchell further supports her claims by showing that the similarities extend beyond the thematic connection to include specific terms and motifs. These include the appeal to cooperation for the “common good” (συμϕέρον) as well as details such as specific body parts (e.g. eyes and ears), the reference to “necessary” parts (ἀναγκαι ̑α), and even the personification of body parts.42

Mitchell᾽s identification of the political background is significant not only because of her close identification of the image and its “source” but also because she moves beyond “source” to examine closely its function. In light of the preceding discussion on the various issues which interpreters encounter in analyzing the “body of Christ,” it seems that a proper methodology would need to take into account the integration of the “source” and its function. A full understanding of 1 Cor. 12 must link the identification of the community as the body of Christ (content), and its paraenetic purpose (ethics).

In spite of Mitchell᾽s detailed study, however, an understanding of the body as a metaphor for the political organism could be greatly enhanced by a deeper knowledge of the philosophical background to the image. Conzelmann notes the relationship of the metaphor to politics, while also noting its close association with the Stoics.43 Barrett compares Paul᾽s metaphor to the Menenius Agrippa fable with its political purpose, but also sees a connection with Stoic speculation on the nature of the universe as a body.44

© Cambridge University Press

Meet the Author

Michelle V. Lee is Assistant Professor of Biblical Studies and Theology at Biola University.

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