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.
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
12 For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. 13For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit.
14 For the body does not consist of one member but of many. 15If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. 16And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. 17If the whole body were an eye, where would be the hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell? 18But as it is, God arranged the organs in the body, each one of them, as he chose. 19If all were a single organ, where would the body be? 20As it is, there are many parts, yet one body. 21The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” 22On the contrary, the parts of the body which seem to be weaker are indispensable, 23and those parts of the body which we think less honorable we invest with the greater honor, and our unpresentable parts are treated with greater modesty, 24which our more presentable parts do not require. But God has so composed the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior part, 25that there may be no discord in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. 26If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.
27 Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. 28And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then workers of miracles, then healers, helpers, administrators, speakers in various kinds of tongues. 29Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? 30Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak with tongues? Do all interpret? 31But earnestly desire the higher gifts.
And I will show you a still more excellent way.