Bible Review 15:2, April 1999

Our Bodies, Our Bibles

Our bodies and our biblical interpretations seem to be involved in a long-running, secret affair. The implications may be both liberating and scandalous.

By Ronald S. Hendel

Bible Review

Do our bodies have anything to do with how we interpret the Bible? Does our body image affect our religious beliefs? At first glance, the idea seems bizarre. What, after all, does Baywatch—or Weight Watchers—have to do with King David? When we read or study the Bible, we feel disembodied, spiritually intent on the words and images of the text, only occasionally distracted by our bodies when our back aches or our stomach growls. Our bodies and the Bible seem worlds apart. And yet, when we look closely, biblical interpretation may be more “embodied” than we think.

In a remarkable pair of books on Talmudic Judaism and on the apostle Paul, Daniel Boyarin has raised this issue, arguing that Judaism and Christianity in antiquity differed in their interpretation of the Bible in the same way that their concepts of the body differed.1 The varieties of figurative interpretation practiced by Christian masters such as Paul, Origen and Augustine all made a distinction between (in Paul’s terms) the spirit and the letter of Scripture. There was no question which bore the true Christian meaning: Paul proclaims, “The letter kills, but the spirit gives life” (2 Corinthians 3:6).

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