“With unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, we are all being transformed into the same image [Greek: icon], from glory to glory, and this is from the Lord, the Spirit. . . . Even if our Good News is veiled, it is veiled in those who perish, as the god of this world has blinded the minds of those who do not believe, so that the light of the Good News of the glory of Christ who is the image [Greek: icon] of God should not dawn on them.” (2 Corinthians 3:18, 4:3-4, EOB)
This transformation of all believers into the likeness of Christ (cf. “the same image” [2 Corinthians 3:18] and “Christ who is the image of God [4:4] – the key word eikon is used in both places) should be understood as a further clarification of the senses in which Paul can claim that the Corinthians are a letter from Christ that can be known and read by everyone. Because they are being changed into the likeness of Christ, they manifest the life of Jesus in their mortal flesh (cf. 2 Cor. 4:11). Consequently, the deepest paradox of the passage emerges: Paul’s reading of the sacred text (Exodus 34) reveals that revelation occurs not primarily in the sacred text but in the transformed community of readers.
As St. Paul states it Jesus Christ is the image (icon) of God the Father and we believers are being transformed into that same image! We believers are becoming Christ. We are the Church (1 Corinthians 12:27), the Church is the Body of Christ (Colossians 1:18), and so we together are becoming Christ. We are being transformed by the Holy Spirit into Christ – not individually, but collectively as part of the Church which is Christ’s body. In as much as we become the image of God, in as much as we become Christ, we become the Word of God to the world. To read and understand Scripture, we need to be able to see Christ manifested in the world – we need to see the Church. The Church is to be light to the world thus fulfilling Christ’s own teaching. We are to be the fullness of Christ in the world. As Richard Hayes notes above for people to understand a passage such as Exodus 34 they need to see Christ, visible to them in His Body, the Church.
Illumine our hearts, O Lord and lover of all humanity, with the light of Your divine knowledge, and open the eyes of our understanding, so that we may comprehend the message of Your Gospel. Instill in us also reverence for your blessed commandments, so that having conquered sinful desires, we may pursue a spiritual life, thinking and doing all things that are pleasing to You.
For You are the illumination of our souls and bodies, O Christ our God, and unto You we render glory, together with Your eternal Father and Your all holy, life giving Spirit. Amen.
And he said to me, “Son of man, eat what is offered to you; eat this scroll, and go, speak to the house of Israel.” So I opened my mouth, and he gave me the scroll to eat. And he said to me, “Son of man, eat this scroll that I give you and fill your stomach with it.” Then I ate it; and it was in my mouth as sweet as honey. And he said to me, “Son of man, go, get you to the house of Israel, and speak with my words to them. (Ezekiel 3:1-4)
So I went to the angel and told him to give me the little scroll; and he said to me, “Take it and eat; it will be bitter to your stomach, but sweet as honey in your mouth.” And I took the little scroll from the hand of the angel and ate it; it was sweet as honey in my mouth, but when I had eaten it my stomach was made bitter. (Revelation 10:9-10)
Though in the Bible in a few narratives a saint is commanded to literally eat the scroll on which words are written, we have no problem understanding these commands as having a metaphorical or spiritual meaning. Indeed, we know that the Bible is for reading, and it will do us little spiritual good to tear out and eat the pages of our bibles. The Word of God which we encounter in the text of our Bibles, has to be lifted from the text in our minds and souls for us to appropriate the Word and for that Word to become written on our hearts. This cannot be accomplished by literally chewing and swallowing the paper pages of our Bibles. Literally eating the pages of the Bible would no doubt lead to John’s stomachache which he describes in the Revelation passage above.
We experience in our spiritual life the need to distinguish the Word of God from the manuscripts upon which they are written with ink. We do consume the Word, but in a spiritual manner, exactly as the Church Fathers taught. We experience in our lives how the Word of God who is Jesus Christ is different from the Bible as the written Word of God. “…God, who also made us sufficient as ministers of the new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life” (2 Corinthians 3:5-6). Christ manifests himself now beyond the text printed in the manuscripts. We encounter Christ also both hidden and revealed in the sacraments, in the liturgies and in the Church which is His body. The Scriptures bear witness to Christ, but Christ is not limited to their words and pages. We must get beyond the literal word to come to the Word of God. God’s revelation is fully there, hidden in the text, and the text is essential for our encounter with Christ, and yet as we encounter the incarnate Word of God, we move beyond the printed text not just to the virtual reality of Christ, but to The Word of God Himself.
For by means of the creation itself, the Word reveals God the Creator; and by means of the world [does He declare] the Lord the Maker of the world; and by means of the formation [of man] the Artificer who formed him; (St. Irenaeus of Lyons, Against Heresies and Fragments, Kindle Loc. 5377-79)
Not only in Scripture but the hand of God is always at work in history, in nature, in the laws of physics, in our DNA. God “writes” His Word in so many ways that become visible to us, and readable to us if we have the eyes to see. In them we can encounter God, but we have to move beyond them to truly see God and not just be aware of God’s activities.
But by the law and the prophets did the Word preach both Himself and the Father alike [to all]; and all the people heard Him alike, but all did not alike believe. (St. Irenaeus of Lyons, Against Heresies and Fragments, Kindle Loc. 5380-81)
The pre-incarnate Jesus Christ spoke to the prophets and to the people of God. The Old Testament scriptures use the very words of the pre-incarnate Christ to bear witness that Jesus Christ is Lord. We use the Scriptures as a door into the reality of the Word of God. Just like an icon is a window into heaven, so too the texts of Scripture are a door by which we pass into the heavenly realms. The Bible is an interface between God and creation, so it is essential to our knowing Truth. Yet the ink and paper cannot contain or limit God. Rather we have to move beyond them to know the living Word.
In Scripture the Logos of God is called and actually is dew (cf. Deut. 32:2), water, spring (cf. John 4:14) and river (cf. John 7:38), according to the subjective capacity of the recipient. To some He is dew because He quenches the burning energy of the passions which assails the body from without. To those seared in the depths of their being by the poison of evil He is water, not only because water through antipathy destroys its opposite but also because it bestows a vivifying power conducive to well-being. To those in whom the fountain of contemplative experience is continually active He is a spring bestowing wisdom. To those from whom flows the true teaching about salvation, He is a river copiously watering men, domestic animals, wild beasts and plants.” (St. Maximos, The Philokalia, Kindle Loc. 15358-65)
In the words of Scripture – not only through the ink and paper which record the message but also in the very metaphors, parables, images and events – we come to God the Word living in the texts. Only in moving beyond the literal words can we enter into that relationship with God.
The divine Logos of God the Father is mystically present in each of His commandments. God the Father is by nature present entirely and without division in His entire divine Logos. Thus, he who receives a divine commandment and carries it out receives the Logos of God who is in it; (St. Maximos, The Philokalia, Kindle Loc. 15397-99)
God is found by us not only in the printed word but in and through the meaning of these printed manuscripts. God has hidden Himself in the text, but in that encounter with the text, the pure in heart do come to the Giver of the Law, the Speaker of the words, to God our Father and Creator. God is mystically present in the Scriptures but our full encounter with Him takes us beyond the limits of the text, of the manuscripts, of the paper, and even beyond the metaphors and meaning of those sacred words.
“It is by means of the more lofty conceptual images that the inner principle of Holy Scripture can be stripped gradually of the complex garment of words with which it is physically draped. Then to the visionary intellect – the intellect which through the total abandonment of its natural activities is able to attain a glimpse of the simplicity that in some measure discloses this principle – it reveals itself as though in the sound of a delicate breeze.” (St Maximos the Confessor, The Philokalia, Kindle Loc. 15433-42)
It turns out that the printed text of the Scriptures are like garments, which cover us. Those garments can be beautiful. They can say something about us. But they also clothe us and hide us. They are not literally us. That is what we discover in the spiritual reading of the Scriptures. We move beyond the clothes, the coverings, and we come to the One who made the garments, to the one who is the Giver of every good and perfect gift. God.
Without natural contemplation no one can appreciate the disparity between the symbols through which the Law is expressed and the divine realities which these symbols represent. Further, if through such contemplation a man has not first discerned this disparity and, denying his sense-perception all access to the hidden realm of divine and intelligible realities, does not long to penetrate with his intellect into its beauty, he cannot be liberated completely from the external diversity to be found in the symbols. So long as he cleaves to the letter, his inner hunger for spiritual knowledge will not be satisfied; for he has condemned himself like the wily serpent to feed on the earth – that is, on the outward or literal form – of Scripture (cf. Gen. 3:14), and does not, as a true disciple of Christ, feed on heaven – that is, on the spirit and soul of Scripture, in other words, on celestial and angelic bread. I mean that he does not feed through Christ on the spiritual contemplation and knowledge of the Scriptures, which God gives unstintingly to those who love Him, in accordance with the text: ‘He gave them the bread of heaven; man ate the food of angels’ (Ps. 78:24-25. LXX).” (St. Maximos the Confessor, THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle Loc. 19610-36)
The beauty of the garments which clothe the Word are wonderful. The gifts given by the Creator are life-giving. Yet, we are able to move beyond those wonders and beyond that beauty to the Giver of the Gifts, to the One who is clothed with the garments of salvation.
“When our intellect has shaken off its many opinions about created things, then the inner principle of truth appears clearly to it, providing it with a foundation of real knowledge and removing its former preconceptions as though removing scales from the eyes, as happened in the case of St Paul (cf. Acts 9:18). For an understanding of Scripture that does not go beyond the literal meaning, and a view of the sensible world that relies exclusively on sense-perception, are indeed scales, blinding the soul’s visionary faculty and preventing access to the pure Logos of truth.” (St. Maximos, The Philokalia, Kindle Loc. 15451-56)
In Orthodox Tradition, one way we enter into a relationship with the living Word of God is through the Scriptures. Jesus Christ who is the Word of God is found hidden and then revealed in these written texts. The Word of God, Jesus Christ, then lives in us and the Word becomes written on our hearts. Because of the living nature of the Word, the Tradition of the Church has various warnings against an overly literalist reading of the Scriptures. In this post we will look at a few comments that we find in our Tradition which address the issue of biblical literalism.
“Neither in the inter-Testamental period, nor in earlier biblical times, was the recording of history as we understand it a strong point among the Jews. Chroniclers are concerned not with factual information about bygone events, but with their religious significance. In Scripture, the ‘secular’ past is viewed and interpreted by the prophets as revealing God’s pleasure or displeasure. Victory or defeat in war, peace or social unrest, abundance of harvest or famine, serve to demonstrate the virtue or sinfulness of the nation and to forecast its future destiny.“ (The Complete Dead Sea Scrolls in English, Kindle Loc. 1344-48)
The fact that Christians did not read the Scriptures first and foremost for historical/factual information is a hermeneutic already found in Judaism. Scripture is less concerned about bygone events than it is about where God is to be found today and where God is leading us. Limiting Scripture to its most basic, literal meaning, meant for the Church Fathers not comprehending the God who is outside of human history and not bound by it. So Tertullian says in the late Second Century:
First of all, in Genesis, it says: “Adam and Eve heard the voice of God walking in the garden in the cool of the evening. And Adam and his wife hid from the face of the Lord God in the midst of the trees in the garden” (Gen 3.8). To those who are unwilling to enter the treasury of the passage, who will not even knock at its door, will I put this question: can they demonstrate that the Lord God, who fills the heaven and the earth, who uses heaven as a throne (in a material sense, they must presume) and the earth as a footstool for his feet (Is 66.1), is contained by a place which, by comparison with the heaven and the earth, is so narrow, and yet that this garden (which they must suppose to be corporeal) is not filled with God but is so much greater in its size than he that it can contain him walking in it, so that the sound of his footfalls is audible?
It is yet more absurd that, on this interpretation, Adam and Eve should, out of fear of God through their transgression, hide themselves “from the face of God in the midst of the trees in the garden.” For it does not say that they simply wished to hide, but that they actually hid. How then is it, according to their view, that God speaks to Adam and asks: “Where are you?” (On The Lord’s Prayer, Kindle Loc. 3286-96)
Tertullian says even logic tells us we cannot read the Scriptures completely literally, the anthropomorphic images of God simply are inconsistent with what we know about God. We have to adjust our thinking and imagination in order to make sense of these passages. The text doesn’t make literal sense, but we can make sense of the text and accept its truthfulness when we adopt the proper interpretative framework.
St. John of Damascus considering the many passages in the Bible which ascribe to God physical body parts (the hand of God or God’s eyes) writes:
Since we find many terms used symbolically in the Scriptures concerning God which are more applicable to that which has body, we should recognize that it is quite impossible for us men clothed about with this dense covering of flesh to understand or speak of the divine and lofty and immaterial energies of the Godhead, except by the use of images and types and symbols derived from our own life. So then all the statements concerning God, that imply body, are symbols, but have a higher meaning: for the Deity is simple and formless.
Hence by God’s eyes and eyelids and sight we are to understand His power of overseeing all things and His knowledge, that nothing can escape: for in the case of us this sense makes our knowledge more complete and more full of certainty. By God’s ears and hearing is meant His readiness to be propitiated and to receive our petitions: for it is this sense that renders us also kind to suppliants, inclining our ear to them more graciously. God’s mouth and speech are His means of indicating His will; for it is by the mouth and speech that we make clear the thoughts that are in the heart: God’s food and drink are our concurrence to His will, for we, too, satisfy the necessities of our natural appetite through the sense of taste. And God’s sense of smell is His appreciation of our thoughts of and good will towards Him, for it is through this sense that we appreciate sweet fragrance. . . His anger and fury are His hatred of and aversion to all wickedness, for we, too, hate that which is contrary to our mind and become enraged thereat. His forgetfulness and sleep and slumbering are His delay in taking vengeance on His enemies and the postponement of the accustomed help to His own. And to put it shortly, all the statements made about God that imply body have some hidden meaning and teach us what is above us by means of something familiar to ourselves, with the exception of any statement concerning the bodily sojourn of the God-Word. For He for our safety took upon Himself the whole nature of man, the thinking spirit, the body, and all the properties of human nature, even the natural and blameless passions. (Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, Kindle Loc 464-74, 481-85)
For St. John of Damascus any anthropomorphizing of God – mentioning God’s body parts or human emotions – automatically tells us that text is to be read in some symbolic or mystical fashion. Those texts are referring exactly to some hidden meaning about God. The anthropomorphic images are used to help us understand God, but they in no way give us a actual portrayal of God. To read them literally would be to misunderstand the text completely. The only exception to this rule for St. John is when reading about Jesus Christ in the Gospel for there God is truly incarnate and that truth is expressed precisely in the Christ’s human body and human behavior.
When a man sticks to the mere letter of Scripture, his nature is governed by the senses alone, in this way proving his soul’s attachment to the flesh. For if the letter is not understood in a spiritual way, its significance is restricted to the level of the senses, which do not allow its full meaning to pass over into the intellect. When the letter is appropriated by his senses alone, he receives it Judaic-wise merely in the literal sense, and so lives according to the flesh, spiritually dying each day the death of sin on account of his forceful senses; for he cannot put his body’s pursuits to death by the Spirit in order to live the life of bliss in the Spirit. ‘For if you live according to the flesh, you will die,’ says St Paul, ‘but if through the Spirit you put to death the body’s pursuits, you will live’ (Rom. 8:13).” (THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle Loc. 19141-51)
For St. Maximos to read the Scriptures purely literally is to live according to the flesh, not the spirit. It is the way of death.
“Everyone who does not apply himself to the spiritual contemplation of Holy Scripture has, Judaic-wise, also rejected both the natural and the written law; and he is ignorant of the law of grace which confers deification on those who are obedient to it. He who understands the written law in a literal manner does not nourish his soul with the virtues. He who does not grasp the inner principles of created beings fails to feast his intellect on the manifold wisdom of God. And he who is ignorant of the great mystery of the new grace does not rejoice in the hope of future deification. Thus failure to contemplate the written law spiritually results in a dearth of the divine wisdom to be apprehended in the natural law; and this in its turn is followed by a complete ignorance of the deification given by grace according to the new mystery.” (THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle Loc. 19567-75)
Reading the Scriptures purely literally explains for Maximos exactly why the Jews misunderstood Christ and did not recognize him as Messiah or as God. The literal reading of Scripture fails to lead a person to Christ or the Kingdom of God.
A person who does not penetrate with his intellect towards the divine and spiritual beauty contained within the letter of the Law develops a propensity for pleasure – that is, an attachment to the world and a love of worldly things; for his knowledge derives merely from the literal expression of the Law. (St. Maximos, THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle Loc. 19489-91)
It is not only a failure to see the incarnate Word that results from an overly literal reading of Scripture. Such a literal reading of Scripture has an impact on daily life and behavior. So we see in the desert fathers this story of misreading the Scriptures because of being overly literal.
A certain brother went to Abba Poemen on the second Sunday in the Fast of Forty Days and repeated unto him his thoughts, and sighing over what the old man had told him, he said unto him, “I had almost kept myself from coming here today”; and the old man said, ” Why?” Then the brother said, ” I said in my mind, peradventure during the fast the “door will be closed against thee“; and Abba Poemen said unto him, ” We do not learn to shut a door made of wood, but to close the door of the tongue.” (The Paradise or Garden of the Holy Fathers, Kindle Loc. 80-83)
“When you read Holy Scripture, perceive its hidden meanings. ‘For whatever was written in past times was written for our instruction’ (Rom. 15:4).” (St. Mark the Ascetic, The Philokalia, Kindle Loc. 2997-98)
St. Mark, writing in the 5th Century, reflects an attitude common in the ancient Church about reading Scripture. He calls us to look for its “hidden meanings.” The obvious, literal meaning is there and is true, there was no question about that. What was also believed is that because the manuscript really contained a divine meaning, there was more to the text than its most obvious reading. God is revealing Himself to us through the Scriptures and we need to be aware of this and to look for it. The “hidden meaning” exactly would not be immediately obvious to us, but if our hearts were pure and prepared we would recognize the revelation hidden in the obvious. God is the Lord who reveals Himself to us in nature as well as in the Scriptures, but we have to have the heart ready to see in order to become aware of the revelation. The Patristic writers certainly believed that is how the authors of the New Testament read the Old Testament. They saw this, for example, in how St. Paul interprets the Jewish scriptures (see 1 Corinthians 9:9-11 or Galatians 4:21-25). As many of the Fathers understood it, the Transfiguration of Christ (Mark 9 and parallels) is about the apostles being transfigured so that they could see Christ as He always is. Christ’s divinity remained hidden in His humanity, but in that moment of the transfiguration, their eyes were opened and they saw the revelation of God which had been hidden from them. The apostle’s eyes were opened, and so can ours be as we read the Bible and move beyond the literal text to the revelation contained in them.
We have to put the effort into fully understanding the Scriptures, which also means understanding how the early Church fathers read the biblical narrative, how they interpreted the text and used them in their own explanations and argumentation. St. John of Damascus offers this:
“If we read once or twice and do not understand what we read, let us not grow weary, but let us persist, let us talk much, let us enquire. For ask thy Father, he saith, and He will shew thee: thy elders and they will tell thee (Deuteronomy 32:7). For there is not in every man that knowledge. Let us draw of the fountain of the garden perennial and purest waters springing into life eternal. Here let us luxuriate, let us revel insatiate: for the Scriptures possess inexhaustible grace. But if we are able to pluck anything profitable from outside sources, there is nothing to forbid that. Let us become tried money-dealers, heaping up the true and pure gold and discarding the spurious. Let us keep the fairest sayings but let us throw to the dogs absurd gods and strange myths: for we might prevail most mightily against them through themselves. (Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, Kindle Loc. 3199-3204)
In the above quote, I first note the use of the Deuteronomy 32:7 passage. It gives us a sense how the Fathers made use of all Scriptures sometimes very creatively using what otherwise is a text completely understandable in its original context, to further their own arguments. They saw the Scriptures as speaking to them and not just historical texts whose meaning was limited to its original use. St. John is putting into practice what he read in Romans 15:4 that the ancient scriptures were written for our instruction. The Scripture is not so much history but instruction in how we should live today. That is part of the hidden message we had to discern in the manuscript.
When we meditate wisely and: continually on the law of God, study psalms and canticles, engage-in fasting and vigils, and always bear in mind what is to come – the kingdom of heaven, the Gehenna of fire and all God’s works — our wicked thoughts diminish and find no place. (St. John Cassian, THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle Loc. 2530-32)
Cassian reveals another common thought in the Patristic mind – the Scriptures should not be read as ancient texts revealing past history. They really help prepare us for what is coming – the eschaton, the Kingdom of God and the final judgment. So to try to milk from the Scriptures ideas about how God created the world, is to read the Bible badly and for the wrong purpose. Those old texts point to Christ and to the future Kingdom of God. We should read them accordingly.
We read the Scriptures to come to know our Lord Jesus Christ, the Word of God incarnate. When we truly understand the Scriptures, God begins to write on our hearts. We become His scriptures!
“When God comes to dwell in such a heart, He honors it by engraving His own letters on it through the Holy Spirit, just as He did on the Mosaic tablets (cf. Exod. 31:18).” (Kindle Loc. 15522-24)
As St. Paul has it:
You yourselves are our letter of recommendation, written on your hearts, to be known and read by all men; and you show that you are a letter from Christ delivered by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts. (2 Corinthians 3;2-3)
St. Maximos continues:
“A pure heart is perhaps one which has no natural propulsion towards anything in any manner whatsoever. When in its extreme simplicity such a heart has become like a writing-tablet beautifully smoothed and polished. God comes to dwell in it and writes there His own laws.” (The Philokalia, Kindle Loc. 15528-30)
The Word of God comes to dwell in us and we become the living Scriptures bearing witness to Christ in us. The Word becomes written on our hearts, and the printed text of the Bible is superseded by the human fulfilling the role that God always intended for us. We are created in the image of the Word, created to bear the Word in our hearts. In the beginning, God did not write Scriptures. Rather God created us humans to be the living Scriptures. It was a role in creation which lost through sin. The written manuscripts became necessary to remind us of what we are to be.
Central to the teachings of Christ is that Moses and the Prophets wrote about Him. We have already encountered this in several of the blog posts in this series.
Jesus said: “You search the scriptures, because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness to me; yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life. . . . If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote of me. But if you do not believe his writings, how will you believe my words?” (John 5: 39-47)
In this post, we will look at several quotes from St. Irenaeus of Lyons (d. 202AD) and how he applied Christ’s own words to the Scriptures.
“For if ye had believed Moses, ye would also have believed Me; for he wrote of Me;“(John 5:46) [saying this,] no doubt, because the Son of God is implanted everywhere throughout his writings: at one time, indeed, speaking with Abraham, when about to eat with him; at another time with Noah, giving to him the dimensions [of the ark]; at another; inquiring after Adam; at another, bringing down judgment upon the Sodomites; and again, when He becomes visible, and directs Jacob on his journey, and speaks with Moses from the bush. And it would be endless to recount [the occasions] upon which the Son of God is shown forth by Moses. Of the day of His passion, too, he was not ignorant; but foretold Him, after a figurative manner, by the name given to the passover; and at that very festival, which had been proclaimed such a long time previously by Moses, did our Lord suffer, thus fulfilling the passover.” (St. Irenaeus of Lyons, Against Heresies and Fragments, Kindle Loc. 5535-41)
In the above quote, St. Irenaeus shows that in the 2nd Century Christians believed that the anthropomorphic appearances of God in the Old Testament were actually appearances of the pre-incarnate Christ. It is the Son of God who speaks to Moses from the burning bush and in every occurrence in which Moses spoke with God face to face as a man speaks to a friend (Exodus 33:11). Christ is thus hidden from us in each manifestation of God in the Old Testament if we read the Jewish Scriptures with no knowledge of the Holy Trinity. But in Christ we see in these Old Testament theophanies that Christ is appearing to the saints of the people of God. In Christ we come to realize what these holy men and women are seeing when they encounter God. The authors of the Old Testament books themselves did not fully understand what they were witnessing, but still they reported these anthropomorphic experiences. In Christ we understand more fully what they were encountering yet couldn’t fully describe. That is why the Old Testament theophanies are not able to fully explain that it was the Word of God who they encountered. Once the incarnation occurs in Christ, we are able to see Christ the Word in the Old Testament texts.
“But since the writings (litera) of Moses are the words of Christ, He does Himself declare to the Jews, as John has recorded in the Gospel: “If ye had believed Moses, ye would have believed Me: for he wrote of Me. But if ye believe not his writings, neither will ye believe My words.” He thus indicates in the clearest manner that the writings of Moses are His words. If, then, [this be the case with regard] to Moses, so also, beyond a doubt, the words of the other prophets are His [words], as I have pointed out. And again, the Lord Himself exhibits Abraham as having said to the rich man, with reference to all those who were still alive: “If they do not obey Moses and the prophets, neither, if any one were to rise from the dead and go to them, will they believe him.” (St. Irenaeus of Lyons, Against Heresies and Fragments, Kindle Loc. Loc. 5203-8)
Not only did Moses and the prophets encounter Christ the Word of God, it is Christ the Word who speaks to them and gives them the words which they record in the Scriptures. Moses and all the prophets were telling us what they heard from Christ, so that when we encounter these same words, phrases, ideas, and metaphors in the New Testament we recognize Christ in the Old Testament. Scholars speak about the New Testament being filled with echoes of Old Testament ideas and phrases – this is because in fact the Old Testament authors were hearing Christ and recording what He said. It is the Old Testament authors who are actually echoing the New Testament!
And teaching this very thing, He said to the Jews: “Your father Abraham rejoiced that he should see my day; and he saw it, and was glad” What is intended? “Abraham believed God, and it was imputed unto him for righteousness.” In the first place, [he believed] that He was the maker of heaven and earth, the only God; and in the next place, that He would make his seed as the stars of heaven. This is what is meant by Paul, [when he says,] “as lights in the world.” Righteously, therefore, having left his earthly kindred, he followed the Word of God, walking as a pilgrim with the Word, that he might [afterwards] have his abode with the Word. Righteously also the apostles, being of the race of Abraham, left the ship and their father, and followed the Word. Righteously also do we, possessing the same faith as Abraham, and taking up the cross as Isaac did the wood? follow Him. For in Abraham man had learned beforehand, and had been accustomed to follow the Word of God. For Abraham, according to his faith, followed the command of the Word of God, and with a ready mind delivered up, as a sacrifice to God, his only- begotten and beloved son, in order that God also might be pleased to offer up for all his seed His own beloved and only-begotten Son, as a sacrifice for our redemption. (St. Irenaeus of Lyons, Against Heresies and Fragments, Kindle Loc. 5320-29)
Every encounter with the Word of God by the holy men and women of the Old Testament is thus an encounter with Christ. And each encounter with Christ is also a revelation of God the Father, even as Jesus said: “He who has seen me has seen the Father; how can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father in me?” (John 14:9-10). Each theophany in the Old Testament was thus really an encounter with the pre-incarnate Word of God, but each encounter also revealed the Father to all. For Christ is the image of the Father. “He is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation; for in him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or authorities—all things were created through him and for him” (Colossians 1:15-16).
Fr. St. Irenaeus, Christ is now obvious in the Old Testament texts. He reads the Torah (Pentateuch) as a typology and preparation for the coming of Jesus the Christ. Joshua, the protégé of Moses, shares the same name as Jesus in the Old Testament. Thus everything Joshua does prefigures Christ and is thus prophecy.
“Take unto you Joshua (᾿Ιησοῦν) the son of Nun.” (Numbers 27:18) For it was proper that Moses should lead the people out of Egypt, but that Jesus (Joshua) should lead them into the inheritance. Also that Moses, as was the case with the law, should cease to be, but that Joshua (᾿Ιησοῦν), as the word, and no untrue type of the Word made flesh (ἐνυποστάτου), should be a preacher to the people. Then again, [it was fit] that Moses should give manna as food to the fathers, but Joshua wheat; as the first-fruits of life, a type of the body of Christ, as also the Scripture declares that the manna of the Lord ceased when the people had eaten wheat from the land.(Joshua 5:12)” (St. Irenaeus of Lyons, Against Heresies and Fragments, Kindle Loc. 9079-89)
The books of the Old Testament clearly witness to Christ, but do so by hiding Christ in the very text which records the events of the Old Testament as well as in the events and people of the Tanahk. Jesus Christ has fully revealed the meaning of the Old Testament. His image, found on every page of the Scriptures, is now obvious to all of those who are in Christ.
“For every prophecy, before its fulfilment, is to men [full of] enigmas and ambiguities. But when the time has arrived, and the prediction has come to pass, then the prophecies have a clear and certain exposition. And for this reason, indeed, when at this present time the law is read to the Jews, it is like a fable; for they do not possess the explanation of all things pertaining to the advent of the Son of God, which took place in human nature; but when it is read by the Christians, it is a treasure, hid indeed in a field, but brought to light by the cross of Christ, and explained, both enriching the understanding of men, and showing forth the wisdom of God and declaring His dispensations with regard to man, and forming the kingdom of Christ beforehand… ” (St. Irenaeus of Lyons, Against Heresies and Fragments, Kindle Loc. 6354-59)
“For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And before him no creature is hidden, but all are open and laid bare to the eyes of him with whom we have to do.” (Hebrews 4:12-13)
The author of the Epistle to the Hebrews gives us an insight into the Word of God which is what so many of the Church Fathers wrote about. The Word of God is living – we don’t simply read it and then read a meaning into it. Rather the Word of God discerns our thoughts and out intentions and opens our understanding of the Scriptures based upon what we are capable of receiving from Him. There is a true and living interaction between the Scriptures and the one who is reading them. Reading the Scriptures properly is to have a full relationship with the Word of God. We bring our thoughts, faith, hope and love to the Scriptures and the Word of God interacts with us, relating to us those things about Himself which we are prepared to receive. This is why the reading of the Scriptures is also combined in Orthodox Tradition with fasting and prayer. The Word of God is not print on a page, the Word of God is Jesus Christ. This is part of the mystery revealed in the incarnation.
In the previous blog we encountered how the Patristic writers saw the interaction between the Scriptures and readers of the Bible when those reading held false or distorted ideas about God. In the end, their interpretations of the Scriptures were also distorted. To have the right relationship with the Word of God, one must have right faith, and have a heart and mind committed to serving God. In this post, we will look at some other issues Orthodox teachers have noted about relating to the Word of God – not the Bible text, but to the living Word who interacts with us.
First, a comment from St. Augustine admitting that it is possible that some texts in the Bible may have had a specific meaning to the author of the text and to those to whom the text was originally written, but we no longer know, or even can know that meaning. History now separates us from those in the original discussion and we don’t know (and can’t know) all of the circumstances, meanings and nuances of those texts. Scholarship cannot uncover some things which have been lost to history. Augustine writes:
The words, “And now you know what is restraining”—i.e., you know what hindrance or cause of delay there is—“that he may be revealed in his own time” [2 Thess 2:6], show that he [St. Paul] did not make an explicit statement, since he said that they knew. But we who do not have their knowledge wish, but are unable even with great effort, to understand what the apostle referred to, especially since his meaning is made still more obscure by what he adds. For what does he mean when he says, “The mystery of lawlessness is already at work; only He who now restrains will do so until He is taken out of the way. And then the lawless one will be revealed” [2 Thess 2:7–8]? I frankly confess I do not know what he means. ” (A Patristic Treasury: Early Church Wisdom for Today, Kindle Loc. 5909-14)
St. Augustine was willing to acknowledge, what many pastors and biblical commentators today will not admit, that the meaning of a passage is beyond us. Today, many biblical commentators fear that to acknowledge there are things in the Scritpures we do not know, or even cannot know, might cast doubts on their interpretation of things. And the reason is because truthfully it is their personal interpretation of the Scriptures, rather than what the Scriptures actually say. These commentators really are saying that God is not smarter than they are, that is why they understand everything the Scriptures say. But if the Word of God is active and alive, the Word may interact with some people, some who are no longer with us, revealing His full meaning. But that meaning is no longer ours to have. It means we have to stand silent in the face of certain Scriptures. We must be humble before God and neighbor recognizing that the Scriptures really do contain the mysteries and revelation of God, yet we might not be the people to fully understand them.
Acknowledging that the Scriptures might still have hidden in them the Word of God but that we cannot access the meaning of those texts takes away from all of us the arrogant claim that we alone know the full meaning of all the Scriptures. The saints through the centuries realized there are many reasons why we might not fully understand some passages of Scripture. Just because we are able to discern the meaning of a word or name or thing in Scripture at one point in the text, means we fully understand that word or name every time it is used in the Bible. The Word is living, and consequently, the Word may have different connotations in different passages and in the minds of the different authors using the words. St Maximos the Confessor expounds:
“Not all persons and things designated in Holy Scripture by the same word are necessarily to be understood in exactly the same way. On the contrary, if we are to infer the meaning of the written text correctly, each thing mentioned must clearly be understood according to the significance that underlies its verbal form. If always understood in the same way, none of the persons, places, times, or any of the other things mentioned in Scripture, whether animate or inanimate, sensible or intelligible, will yield either the literal or spiritual sense intended. Thus he who wishes to study the divine knowledge of Scripture without floundering must respect the differences of the recorded events or sayings, and interpret each in a different way, assigning to it the appropriate spiritual sense according to the context of place and time.” (THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle Loc. 19118-26)
All scriptural texts have a context in which they were written, a context in which they were originally understood. And every reader of the text also has a context which shapes the reader’s understanding of the text before them. St. Maximos reflecting on the Gospel comments:
“Pilate is a type of the natural law; the Jewish crowd is a type of the written law. He who has not risen through faith above the two laws cannot therefore receive the truth which is beyond nature and expression. On the contrary, he invariably crucifies the Logos, for he sees the Gospel either, like a Jew, as a stumbling-block or, like a Greek, as foolishness (cf. 1 Cor. 1:23).” (The Philokalia, Loc. 14473-78)
The reader of the Bible must be as inspired as the original authors in order to comprehend the message intended in the Scriptures. St Peter of Damaskos in a more lengthy discourse gives us further insight into this living relationship between the reader of the Bible and the Word of God.
“I am not speaking here about the mere act of listening to a passage of Scripture or to some other person; for this does not by itself involve purity of intellect or divine revelation. I am speaking about the person who possesses knowledge but distrusts himself until he finds another passage from Scripture or from one of the saints that confirms his spontaneous knowledge of the scriptural passage or of some sensible or intelligible reality. And if instead of one meaning he should find many as a result of giving attention to either the divine Scriptures or the holy fathers, he should not lose faith and think that there is a contradiction. For one text or object can signify many things. Take clothing, for example: one person may say that it warms, another that it adorns, and another that it protects; yet all three are correct, since clothing is useful alike for warmth, for adornment and for protection. All three have grasped the purpose assigned by God to clothing; and Holy Scripture and the very nature of-things themselves confirm it. But if someone whose intention is to rob and pilfer should say that clothing exists in order to be stolen, he would be an utter liar, for neither the Scriptures nor the nature of things suggest that it exists for this purpose; and even the laws punish those who do steal it. The same applies to everything, whether visible or invisible, and to every word of the divine Scriptures. For the saints neither know the whole of God’s purpose with regard to every object or scriptural text, nor on the other hand do they write down once and for all everything that they do know. This is because in the first place God is beyond comprehension, and His wisdom is not limited in such a way that an angel or man can grasp it in its entirety. As St John Chrysostom says with regard to a certain point of spiritual exegesis, we say about it as much as should be said at the moment, but God, in addition to what we say, knows other unfathomable meanings as well. And, in the second place, because of men’s incapacity and weakness it is not good for even the saints themselves to say all that they know; for they might speak at too great a length, thus making themselves offensive or unintelligible because of the confusion in their reader’s mind. As St Gregory the Theologian observes, what is said should be commensurate to the capacity of those to whom it is addressed. For this reason the same saint may say one thing about a certain matter today, and another tomorrow; and yet there is no contradiction, provided the hearer has knowledge and experience of the matter under discussion. Again, one saint may say one thing and another say something different about the same passage of the Holy Scriptures, since divine grace often gives varying interpretations suited to the particular person or moment in question. The only thing required is that everything said or done should be said or done in accordance with God’s intention, and that it should be attested by the words of Scripture. For should anyone preach anything contrary to God’s intention or contrary to the nature of things, then even if he is an angel St Paul’s words, ‘Let him be accursed’ (Gal. 1:8), will apply to him. This is what St Dionysios the Areopagite, St Antony and St Maximos the Confessor affirm.” (THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle Loc. 31801-59)
How we read a text – what meaning we derive from it, is thus not merely found in scholarly research. The meaning of the text appears to us to the degree we are faithful to Christ as Lord, have a pure heart, and have entered into Church, the Body of Christ. The contemporary Orthodox theologian Andrew Louth summarizes this understanding of God’s Word this way:
“What does all this add up to? It suggests to my mind an attitude to Scripture that sees it not as some flat collection of infallible texts about religious matters, but rather as a body of witness of varying significance – some clearly crucial, as witnessing very directly to Christ, others less important (though never of no importance), as their witness to Christ is more oblique. And the criteria for importance are bound up in some way with the way the Church has taken them up into her experience. There is a hierarchy, a shape: the Gospel Book at the centre, the Apostle flanking it, and then a variety of texts from the Old Testament, generally accessed not through some volume called the Bible, but from extracts contained in the liturgical books, along with other texts: songs, passages from the Fathers and so on. The Scriptures then have a kind of shape, a shape that relates to our experience of them. (Introducing Eastern Orthodox Theology, Kindle Loc. Loc. 395-401)
As we consider the relationship between Jesus, the Word of God, and the Holy Scriptures, we recognize that Jesus is said to be both perfect God and perfect human. The written Scriptures are also said to be inerrant, and yet it is well known that in the long history of the transmission of the Scriptures scribal errors and variations did enter into the text. Modern scholars often point out these variations, but they were also well known in the ancient Patristic world.
Modern scholars sometimes try to recreate what they think might be the best or oldest version of the manuscripts making up the books of the Bible. However, to be real, we can never recreate some perfect biblical manuscript, because no such one manuscript containing all the biblical texts ever existed. There were always a number of manuscripts and variations in the texts existed from the earliest days of the transmission of texts. Some non-believers use these variations to show that a literal reading of the Bible can’t be done. This especially worries those who hold to a completely literalist reading of the text. Atheists often take advantage of this to try to lead people to lose faith since the texts aren’t perfect. But in Christian traditions which are not slaves to a literal reading of the text, the variations in the texts can create new insights into the reading of Scripture as well as help us appreciate the depths of God’s written revelation. Since it is God’s revelation which is true and inerrant, errors in the written text used to communicate the revelation are not seen as invalidating the unchanging truth of God. Even though the ancients valued and interpreted every tiny dot and letter in the manuscripts, they were amazingly calm about variations they knew existed. They had a greater faith in God than in the inerrancy of the manuscripts.
We can look at 3 instances of early church Fathers considering variations in the Scriptural texts which were well known in their day. First, St. Irenaeus of Lyons (d. 202AD), writing in the 2nd Century notes that there is a known variation in text of Revelation 13:18 in which some report the number 666 but other texts say the number is 616. St Irenaeus says:
Such, then, being the state of the case, and this number being found in all the most approved and ancient copies [of the Apocalypse], and those men who saw John face to face bearing their testimony [to it]; while reason also leads us to conclude that the number of the name of the beast, [if reckoned] according to the Greek mode of calculation by the [value of] the letters contained in it, will amount to six hundred and sixty and six; that is, the number of tens shall be equal to that of the hundreds, and the number of hundreds equal to that of the units (for that number which [expresses] the digit six being adhered to throughout, indicates the recapitulations of that apostasy, taken in its full extent, which occurred at the beginning, during the intermediate periods, and which shall take place at the end),–I do not know how it is that some have erred following the ordinary mode of speech, and have vitiated the middle number in the name, deducting the amount of fifty from it, so that instead of six decads they will have it that there is but one. [I am inclined to think that this occurred through the fault of the copyists, as is wont to happen, since numbers also are expressed by letters; so that the Greek letter which expresses the number sixty was easily expanded into the letter Iota of the Greeks.] Others then received this reading without examination; some in their simplicity, and upon their own responsibility, making use of this number expressing one decad; while some, in their inexperience, have ventured to seek out a name which should contain the erroneous and spurious number. Now, as regards those who have done this in simplicity, and without evil intent, we are at liberty to assume that pardon will be granted them by God. (Against Heresies and Fragments, Kindle Loc. 8557-69)
Irenaeus believes the number 666 is the correct reading and he assumes the number 616 occurs in some manuscripts due to a scribal error which he notes frequently happens. Amazingly he doesn’t panic over the variation and even thinks God will pardon those who did this accidentally. For Irenaeus the text does not become meaningless by this error, nor does it mean the text is no longer Scripture. He understands the letters, numbers, words and sentences of the Scriptures are the human element through which God’s truth and revelation are preserved and brought through the generations (Tradition!). The letters are subject to human error, but the meaning and purpose of God’s revelation is not altered by these human mistakes.
The second instance is found in the writings of St. John Cassian (d. 435AD) who is commenting on Matthew 5:22. Cassian shows an awareness that there are variations in manuscripts, and like any modern biblical scholar he also thinks some manuscripts are “better”, more reliable in preserving the original message, than others. Cassian believes that the less reliable manuscripts have added “without cause” to the original text, so the changed manuscript reads “who is angry without cause.” Cassian thinks this addition was made to soften Christ’s teachings. Cassian believes we are not to be angry with our Christian brothers and sisters. He thinks some found this so difficult to live by, that they changed the manuscripts to say only if the anger is without cause is it wrong, but if we are provoked by the other than the anger is justified. Cassian thinks Christ taught the much harder truth that anger is sin no matter what the cause of the anger. Anger against a fellow Christian can’t be justified in this thinking. So Cassian writes:
The Lord Himself teaches us to put aside all anger when He says: ‘Whoever is angry with his brother shall be in danger of judgment’ (Matt. 5:22). This is the text of the best manuscripts; for it is clear from the purpose of Scripture in this context that the words ‘without a cause’ were added later. The Lord’s intention is that we should remove the root of anger, its spark, so to speak, in whatever way we can, and not keep even a single pretext for anger in our hearts. Otherwise we will be stirred to anger initially for what appears to be a good reason and then find that our incensive power is totally out of control. The final cure for this sickness is to realize that we must not become angry for any reason whatsoever, whether just or unjust. When the demon of anger has darkened our mind, we are left with neither the light of discrimination, nor the assurance of true judgment, nor the guidance of righteousness, and our soul cannot become the temple of the Holy Spirit.” (THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle Loc. 2171-86)
Cassian thinks the original teaching of Christ is really shocking and intentionally so. Can humans living in community really exist without getting angry with one another? Can we really learn to live so at peace with other Christians, that we ignore their faults, foibles and sins? Cassian thinks some tried to make the teaching of Christ more manageable and doable by softening it and making it less demanding. He thinks we need to stick with Christ’s words and intentions rather than with our ideas about what is possible.
The 3rd instance of textual variation comes up on the writings of St. Augustine of Hippo (d. 430AD) who was a contemporary of St. John Cassian. Augustine is well aware that the Greek Septuagint translation of the Hebrew Scriptures sometimes differed significantly from the known Hebrew and Aramaic texts. Yet both were considered inspired, sacred Scriptures. He considers what sense we are to make of these variations and how we might know which is the correct reading of the Scriptures. Augustine offers this explanation:
“The Septuagint translators, being themselves under the guidance of the Holy Spirit in their translation, seem to have altered some passages [in the Hebrew text] with the view of directing the reader’s attention more particularly to the investigation of the spiritual sense. ” (A Patristic Treasury: Early Church Wisdom for Today, Kindle Loc. 55780-82)
Augustine believes the Jewish Septuagint translators in rendering the Hebrew texts into Greek were in fact as inspired as the original authors of the texts. He believes the same Holy Spirit was at work in the authors as in the translators. This same inspiration led the translators to try to draw out of the texts the more spiritual rather than literal meaning of the words. So they were not merely translating, they were interpreting/clarifying the texts under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. God was continuing to act in and through the Scriptures which are His living Word, not dead letters carved in stone (2 Corinthians 3:6-7). Augustine continues:
“Since we find nothing else in the Scriptures than what the Spirit of God has spoken through men, if anything is in the Hebrew copies [of the Old Testament] and is not in the version of the Seventy [the Septuagint], the Spirit of God did not choose to say it through them [the seventy translators], but only through the prophets. But whatever is in the Septuagint and not in the Hebrew copies, the same Spirit chose rather to say through the latter, thus showing that both were prophets. . . . As the one Spirit of peace was in the former when they spoke true and concordant words, so the selfsame one Spirit has appeared in the latter, when, without mutual conference, they still interpreted everything as if they had only one mouth.” (St. Augustine, A Patristic Treasury: Early Church Wisdom for Today, Kindle Loc. 5886-91)
Augustine argues that the Jewish translators were in fact inspired prophets of God. God chose to render some things only in and through the Hebrew texts and this is what the original prophets proclaimed. But God who continues to act through history also inspired those charged with preserving and translating the texts. So God added or changed the message when the Septuagint translators were at work because both the times had changed and so had the people who needed to hear the message anew. Thus even though God’s eternal Word is rendered in print, the written word does not limit or fix the possible meanings of the text nor its power in new generations of believers.
This idea will be the same truth that is understood in the incarnation of Word of God in Christ. Though Jesus is fully human, this does not in any way limit or contradict that He is fully God as well. The incarnate Jesus does not change or limit the eternal Word of God. God Himself chooses to place the limits of space and time on His divine powers in the incarnation. But this does not shackle divinity. It is a great mystery which is made obvious when the inspired and sacred Scriptures are translated into a new language. God continues to direct His revelation to the world in the living and active Word, which is not limited by the physical means used to convey the spiritual message. The power of God’s living Word was never limited to or by the stones on which it was carved.
“For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” (Hebrews 4:12)
“You have been born anew, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God; for “All flesh is like grass and all its glory like the flower of grass. The grass withers, and the flower falls, but the word of the Lord abides for ever.” That word is the good news which was preached to you.” (1 Peter 1:23-25)
A couple of years ago I read Brian Schmisek’s book, Resurrection of the Flesh or Resurrection from the Dead, which explores how the concepts mentioned in the title, resurrection of the flesh or from the dead, developed in Christian thinking. The two ideas were not always viewed as the same concept in Christian history. What will the final victory of God over death be like? How materialistic did the various Christian teachers view the resurrection for all believers in the Kingdom of God?
In this and the succeeding blog I will use excerpts from Schmisek’s book to follow his interpretation of scripture and of the church fathers as he traces the development in the Church about her understanding of the resurrection to eternal life.
Schmisek says in the Old Testament there is not the body-soul duality so characteristic of Platonism. Consequently, an understanding of what the resurrection might mean is a bit less complicated (there simply is a human being, not a body-soul dualism which opposes the two parts of a human). However, the simplicity of portrayal of a human also leads to a less clear vision about what the resurrection might imply – especially for us who understand the human of being as a complex relationship of so many organs besides a non-material dimension. How are the various organs and non-material components (i.e., soul, mind, spirit) that constitute a human affected by death and by a resurrection? The question might be made more clear by a debate raised once regarding the famous Star Trek teletransporter. If the teletransporter simply rearranges and moves the physical atoms of a person or decomposes a person to pure energy only to arrange them physically in another location, what happens to their soul/mind? If the brain is reduced to energy, what happens to the mind in that transition? Can the teletransporter reconstitute the mind/soul of the person it has transported or does it just deal with the materialism of an object? Not a question dealt with by the science fiction show but it raises the question as to whether a human is anything more than physical cells/atoms and what is the relationship of the immaterial self/ mind/ soul with the physical body? Schmisek writes:
“Rather than a single unified anthropology, the Old Testament displays varied anthropological presuppositions. Even so, we are able to say that an Old Testament anthropology generally sees the human being as a unified whole, not as Plato would have it. The unified human being had different aspects such as ‘blood,’ ‘breath,’ ‘heart,’ ‘spirit,’ ‘being,’ or ‘flesh.’ These aspects were not always clearly delineated. The term bāsār (flesh) expresses the physical aspect of human life, the human being in its weakness, and in its relation to all animal life. The term nephesh (being) formulates the living or vital aspect of a being, whereas rūh (spirit) expresses its inner disposition and ability to be moved by God. Each of these terms individually can express the human being as a whole.” (Kindle Loc. 1272-78)
Biblically speaking, the exact relationship of the self/ soul/ mind to the various body organs is not completely spelled out, though there is an assumption of the unity of all of these components in any human. Death thus affects the entire human being. The “person” deprived of their body through death is not capable of any further actions since their soul has no powers or existence apart from their body. (So in Psalms 6:5, 88:10-12 and 115:17, the dead cannot even praise God – they lack the mouth, tongue, vocal chords and lungs to do so. Sheol, the place of the dead in the Bible, is portrayed as a shadowy underworld where the dead can do nothing but wait.)
Additionally, the concept of resurrection after death raises issues as to “where” (if it is even a physical location) the resurrected would find themselves. Back on earth or in a “spiritual” location? Where in the world/ universe can we find the place of the resurrected? The concept of Paradise is part of the thinking connected to the resurrection.
“ [The]… origin of the term is of the Old Persian word pairidaěza, meaning ‘enclosed space, precinct.’ It is transliterated into Greek as paradeisos. When the word is used by the pagan Greek author Xenophon (ca. 430–354 BCE), it means ‘enclosed space, garden.’ The Septuagint uses paradeisos to translate the Hebrew term for “garden” or “enclosure” (gan) in Genesis 2:8 and 2:15 in the phrase ‘garden of Eden’ and again in Genesis 13:10, ‘the garden of the LORD.’” (Kindle Loc. 1990-94)
The New Testament accepts the anthropological premises of the Old Testament.
“For example, the New Testament, like the Old Testament, presupposes the human being as a unity rather than a composite of body and soul. So for the biblical authors, the human being is most often understood as an indivisible whole and not, as Plato would have it, divided into sōma and psychē. Yet the human being has many aspects including thoughts, feelings, desires, moral weakness, and receptivity to the action of God. Despite this biblical data, and despite our living in the modern world in which biology and scientific inquiry enhance or even replace philosophical speculation about the human body and soul, most modern Christians tend to think of the human being in terms of Platonic philosophy: mortal body and immortal soul.” (Kindle Loc. 1288-93)
So, while the Bible presents a certain anthropological vision of a unified human being, the more dualistic vision of Plato has predominated the modern human understanding of what the human is and thus how to understand the resurrection. The New Testament presents the resurrection of Christ as being something more than a mere reviving of His body. Something has happened to Him, and His resurrected Body has different properties than his body had before his death as can be noted in the post-resurrection Gospel lessons in which Christ’s body seems to have new/different characteristics than before His death.
“In sum, resurrection is the predominant metaphor among many to speak of what happened to Christ after his death. But even resurrection is a metaphor. When the New Testament authors applied the metaphor to Jesus, they meant more than the raising of Jairus’ daughter (Luke 8:54-55), the son of the widow of Nain (Luke 7:15), Lazarus (John 11:43-44; 12:1-2), or the widow’s son who was raised by Elijah (1 Kings 17:17-24). Even in the resurrection narratives, Jesus appeared ‘in another form’ (Mark 16:12; Luke 24:13-32). The risen Jesus is not merely a reanimated corpse (cf. Mark 6:14, 16). In each of the gospels, Jesus’ own resurrection was something qualitatively different. Lazarus, Jairus’s daughter, the son of the widow of Nain, and the son of the widow raised by Elijah all died at a later time. Jesus, once raised from the dead, is no longer subject to death. And as we mentioned earlier, the resurrection of Jesus transcends even the category of resurrection.” (Kindle Loc. 2044-50)
The resurrected body is St. Paul’s “spiritual body”. It’s properties have changed. As such we cannot know exactly what the world of the resurrection will be like as it is beyond our experience. Though we know what life on earth is like, we see that philosophically very different understandings existed as to what it is to be human, and what the relationship between the material organs of the body and the immaterial concepts of the human (spirit, soul, mind, self) is.
In Luke 8:5-15, the Lord Jesus Christ tells us the following parable:
“A sower went out to sow his seed; and as he sowed, some fell on the path and was trampled on, and the birds of the air ate it up. Some fell on the rock; and as it grew up, it withered for lack of moisture. Some fell among thorns, and the thorns grew with it and choked it. Some fell into good soil, and when it grew, it produced a hundredfold.” As he said this, he called out, “Let anyone with ears to hear listen!” Then his disciples asked him what this parable meant. He said, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of God; but to others I speak in parables, so that ‘looking they may not perceive, and listening they may not understand.’
“Now the parable is this: The seed is the word of God. The ones on the path are those who have heard; then the devil comes and takes away the word from their hearts, so that they may not believe and be saved. The ones on the rock are those who, when they hear the word, receive it with joy. But these have no root; they believe only for a while and in a time of testing fall away. As for what fell among the thorns, these are the ones who hear; but as they go on their way, they are choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life, and their fruit does not mature. But as for that in the good soil, these are the ones who, when they hear the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bear fruit with patient endurance.”
Jesus gives the parable an allegorical interpretation. Christians through the centuries have followed Jesus both in using parables to teach Gospel lessons and also in interpreting parables allegorically. Abba Arsenius tells the following story and then following the example of Jesus provided an interpretation of the parable:
“… while an elder was residing in his cell, a voice came to him that said: ‘Come, I will show you the works of folk.’ [The elder] got up and went out; [the voice] brought him to a place and showed him a burnt-faced-one cutting wood and making a great bundle. He attempted to carry it but could not. But instead of taking away from it, he cut some more wood then added it to the bundle – and he was doing this for a long time.
When he had gone a little further he also showed him a person standing in a lake, drawing water from it and pouring it into a receptacle with holes in it: the same water was running out into the lake.
He spoke to him again: ‘Come on, I will show you something else;’ then he saw a temple and two persons on horseback carrying a piece of wood crossways, one beside the other. They wanted to enter through the the gate but could not because the piece of wood was crossways. One would not humble himself to carry the wood lengthwise behind the other; for that reason they remained outside the gate.
‘These are they,’ he said, ‘who bear the yoke of righteousness with pride and did not humble themselves to put their house in order and to travel the humble way of Christ; so they remain outside the Kingdom of God.
The one cutting wood is a man beset by many sins; instead of repenting, he adds other transgressions on top of his sins.