Saturday, May 24, 2014

Markschies on God's Body

As I was sitting, waiting for the beginning of the first plenary lecture at this year's NAPS meeting a couple days ago in Chicago, the title of Christoph Markschies' lecture "God's Body: A Neglected Dimension of Ancient Christian Religion and Theology" reminded me of something that I couldn't put my finger on. I had recently heard about this very topic. Of course, I've read Benjamin Sommer's book The Bodies of God, and I've read Matthew Thiessen's recent article on the wandering rock as Christ's body (1 Cor 10), but recently I had heard about a patristics scholar who was going to be publishing a book on God's body. Who was it? Oh, yes, it was Christoph Markschies, in this MRB interview with T.M. Law. So, in this lecture, we NAPS-ters got a preview of the book that he says will be published next year in German, and perhaps the year after that in English.

In the first part of the lecture he talked about the Hebrew Bible and offered some summary of Sommer's book and Hartenstein's Das Angesicht JHWHs. Then he spoke about pagan philosophy, and emphasized that Plato and his followers were somewhat unique in imagining that God (or the gods) were incorporeal. The Stoics, for example, thought that anything incorporeal was necessarily non-existent, so any true gods must have bodies. (Caveat lector: I'd advise you not to trust completely my hazy remembrance of Markschies' summary of pagan philosophy.)

Then to Christianity. He pointed to the very beginning of book 1 of Origen's On First Principles where he is arguing against Christians who think that God has a body because he is spirit and fire. Apparently Tertullian says quite explicitly that God is corporeal (though I can't remember where). According to Origen, Melito of Sardis wrote a treatise called περὶ τοῦ ἐνσώματον εἶναι τὸν θεόν (see the notes here on pp. 203-4).

Then to Jewish literature, where he discussed mostly Shi'ur Qomah. I had not encountered this text before so it was pretty fun. Can't remember everything he said about it, but there was one bit he read about measuring all of God's body parts (nose, ears, feet, cranium, etc.) by the measurement of a parasang. But the literature defines the parasang not as the normal parasang, but says (something like) a parasang = 3 miles, and each mile = 1000 cubits, and each cubit = 2 spans, and each span is measured in accordance with God's span, which is the distance across the universe.

There was a fifth section, but I can't remember what it covered.

It was an excellent presentation. Not just fascinating material, though certainly that, but also Markschies did a great job of presenting it. I look forward to the book.

UPDATE (29 May 2014): For a recent article on the Shiur Qomah by Marvin Sweeney, see here (HT Nathan Daily).

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