As we approach Easter, I continue to read and react to Carolyn Walker Bynum’s The Resurrection of the Body in Western Christianity, 200-1336. Her book is not a biblical study but a study of the history of thought about a biblical idea. Paul’s exposition of the resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15 is a touchstone that she keeps coming back to. Paul said that burial of the dead is like planting a seed in the ground, and resurrection is like the seed sprouting as something quite different from the seed that the farmer planted.
Bynum shows how Christian thinkers and Christian art from the 5th through the 14th century struggled with this idea. They mostly did not follow up on Paul’s seed analogy. They mostly wanted more identity between the buried body and the risen body than Paul’s analogy implied. Thus, the idea that the exact matter, parts and organs that were buried rose again usually prevailed.
As I mentioned before, this became entwined with the use of relics, sacred remains that had healing properties and gave prestige–and often financial return–to religious institutions that possessed them. The relic cult led to the practice of splitting up bodies and divvying them up between monasteries and churches. Just how creepy this got comes out in this paragraph:
“Enthusiasm for bodily partition affected not just the saints. By 1200, especially north of the Alps, the bodies of prominent ecclesiastics or nobles were often eviscerated, boned, or boiled after death, and the resulting parts were buried in several places near several saints. . . Between 1151 and 1573 the cloister of Ebrach in Oberfranken, for example, held the hearts of thirty-three deceased bishops of Wurtzburg while their bones rested in the church, and their intestines in the castle chapel. A collegiate church in Magdeburg had a special ‘tripe chapel’ where the bowels of canons were buried” (p. 203).
Hebrew thought, except for the story about Elisha’s bones causing a resurrection, held that contact with dead bodies made one ceremonially unclean, and Jews used bones to defile, not sanctify, holy places (2 Kings 23:14-16). Also the Romans had strong taboos about messing with the integrity of dead bodies. The church had trouble completely discarding these heritages. So even though the practices Bynum describes went on, she also shows how contemporaries sometimes mocked or repudiated them.
The culture seemed to hold two conflicting attitudes. On the one hand, the culture drew back from the decay and putrification of corpses. On the other hand, the exact material of the corpse was holy and destined to rise again. Some writers seemed to affirm that something of the body, beyond appearances, could not suffer decay.
The revival of Aristotle’s thought by Thomas Aquinas (1224-1274) and others gave the church a new way to think about identity. After Aquinas’s death, a student put together from lecture notes his commentary on 1 Corinthians 15. The resurrection, for Aquinas, was the reuniting of the body and the soul. So Paul’s seed metaphor isn’t so literal as to imply that there is a power to transform within the seed (body) that gets buried. It depends upon God reuniting body and soul. But Aquinas comes up with new and suggestive metaphors that bypass the older attempts to tie a person’s identity to the precise material bits that was buried.
“As Aquinas says, a city remains a city even if the population turns over through birth, death, and migration; a fire remains a fire if one keeps feeding it logs, even if all the logs are consumed. It does not remain the same city if it is razed or the same fire if it is allowed to go out and then relit” (p. 239).
This seems to me to keep one of the essential points of 1 Corinthians 15. I can’t imagine what I will be in the resurrection, but I will be me. There is great discontinuity. Paul says the wheat stalk differs from the planted kernel of wheat. But there is also continuity. The stalk develops from the seed. It isn’t a completely new creation. Aquinas understood that being in process, going through change, does not necessarily obliterate one’s identity.