Terracotta votives; marble finger (S 1492), from excavation at Asklepieion by unknown artists

Unknown artists

Terracotta votives; marble finger (S 1492), from excavation at Asklepieion, 1931 (excavated), Photograph, American School of Classical Studies, Athens, bw 2917, © American School of Classical Studies at Athens, Corinth Excavations; Photo: Petros Dellatolas, Courtesy of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens, Corinth Excavations

Close Close
Zoom in Zoom in
Zoom out Zoom out
Reset image Reset image

Individually Members

Eyes and ears, hands and feet, breasts and genitals. Such a clamour of body parts would have greeted visitors to many ancient healing temples, suspended from walls and ceilings and lining the floor. About five centuries before Paul wrote his letter to the Corinthians, locals worshipped at the shrine of Asclepios, an ancient god of medicine, leaving offerings of terracotta body parts in thanks for successful cures.

These examples from Corinth were buried sometime in the fourth century BCE so would not have been seen by St Paul when he visited the city in the late first century CE. However, he probably saw similar examples elsewhere, perhaps in Ephesus where he wrote his first letter to the Corinthians.

The origins of the bodily imagery in 1 Corinthians 12 have been much discussed. In the ancient world the body was a popular metaphor for harmonious government, but the sacrifice of Christ’s body on the cross and his subsequent resurrection gave it added significance for Paul. The Incarnation, and God’s role in anatomical arrangement, blesses the human body as the post-ascension instrument of Christ in the world: ‘Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it’ (v.27).

Among the terracotta offerings unearthed at Corinth, two examples are gilded, presumably as a mark of honour: an eye and a set of male genitalia. The latter of these is identified by Paul as a ‘less honourable’ part (exposed genitals are an object of shame in the Old Testament (Genesis 9:22; Habakkuk 2:15)). Yet he complicates the hierarchy of bodily members he has inherited by arguing that such ‘inferior’ parts are—paradoxically—due ‘a greater honour’, just as those individuals within Christ’s body who seem weaker are to be the focus of special care (v.25) and rejoicing (v.26). 

Paradoxically, in the honour he bestows on the genitals, Paul seems close to those pagans who celebrated the phallus (as the gilded Corinthian terracotta genitalia show). But here he challenges and reverses a different set of assumptions—those of his contemporary Hellenistic context—for the honour he advocates is not a celebration of, say, sexual potency, but a bestowal of dignity on what would otherwise be an object of shame.

We are reminded not to assume that our expectations accord with those of other cultures, or with God’s, and that things we might consider lowly may be exalted in God’s sight.

 

References

Fee, Gordon. 1987. The First Epistle to the Corinthians, NICNT (Michigan: Eerdmans), pp. 582ff.

Hill, Andrew E. 1980. ‘The Temple of Asclepius: An Alternative Source for Paul’s Body Theology?’, Journal of Biblical Literature 99.3: 437–39

Hughes, Jessica. 2017. Votive Body Parts in Greek and Roman Religion (Cambridge: CUP)

Oster, Richard E. 1992. ‘Use, Misuse and Neglect of Archaeological evidence in Some Modern Works on 1 Corinthians (1Cor 7,1-5; 8,10; 11,2-16; 12,14-26)’, Zeitschrift Für Die Neutestamentliche Wissenschaft Und Die Kunde Der Älteren Kirche 83, 1–2: 52–73

Roebuck, Carl. 1951. Corinth: Volume XIV The Asklepieion and Lerna (Princeton: American School of Classical Studies at Athens)

Wedderburn, A. J. M. 1971. ‘The Body of Christ and Related Concepts in 1 Corinthians’, Scottish Journal of Theology, 24.1: 74–96


Read next commentary