Within the Hebrew Bible, New Testament, and related ancient literature, the human body is of prime importance. Although some modern conceptions of religion shy away from the body, these ancient texts consider life to be embodied and understand embodiment as God’s good gift. There is no denigration of the physical or the corporeal.

Much Western thought has conceived of the body as physical and fleshy, having much in common with animals or even inanimate objects, in contrast to the spirit or soul, which is a breath of life that animates the body and gives it life. In such theologies and worldviews, human life combines body and soul together into one unit. In other Western thought, body and spirit are opposed to each other, with body perceived negatively in contrast to a positive notion of spirit. This dualism is a feature of some ancient and significant modern religious thought, but it is not present in predominant biblical worldviews. The biblical assumption does not consider body and soul to be separate categories. Instead, the body is a whole that consists of many parts, including what could be called soul, spirit, or breath. This difference in definition is crucial to understanding biblical notions of the body and embodiment.

In Hebrew, the term basar, most frequently translated “flesh,” refers to the body of humans or animals, both of which are alive. The phrase “all flesh” can allude to all humanity or all living creatures. By contrast, the nephesh is the “soul” or “life force” that resides within the body, but it too is physical, not a disembodied reality that exists without flesh. Life is also symbolized by dam (“blood”) or ru’ach (“breath”) (also, “wind”), but these are also parts of the body, not something separate from flesh. In the New Testament, the Greek term sarx is similarly translated as “flesh” or “body,” but is more restricted to the human rather than the animal. The word psyche refers to “life” or “soul,” but can also refer to living creatures other than humans. The pneuma also connotes “spirit” or “breath” when it is embodied or “wind” when not connected to a body. The New Testament’s frequent term sarx can also refer to human nature, human experience, or the realm of human existence. Each of these words signifies embodied, physical life.


Ancient Israel valued the body as a whole. This meant that the ideal body was supposed to be whole, that is, to have all of its parts intact and operative. Bodies with missing or damaged parts were considered to be different or disabled. This included those with impairments of sight, hearing, walking, grasping, or sexual reproduction, as well as persons whose appearance did not match the expected (Lev 21:20). Some of these limitations were lifelong (whether genetic or prenatal conditions); others resulted from accidents, warfare, torture, malnutrition, abuse, or disease. Neither the Hebrew Bible nor the New Testament makes significant distinctions between the causes of such limits or infirmities.

Israel’s treatment of these persons was complicated. At times, these physical limitations were counted as God’s responsibility and thus outside the judgment of the human community (Exod 4:11). Some of the legal traditions treated persons with physical limitations as a protected group, and the law banned discrimination or oppression (Lev 19:14; Deut 27:18). But at the same time, the community placed social boundaries that would restrict the physically limited from full participation in matters of social opportunity or privilege, such as Temple service (Lev 21:18–20; Deut 23:1), and even expressed prejudice against such persons (Deut 28:29; 2 Sam 5:6–8; Isa 29:9). God was thought capable of healing persons with limitations to body parts, so that their bodies were fully functional (Ps 146:8; Isa 29:18, 35:5–6, 42:7). Some would argue that this expresses a prejudice that such bodies would need to be “corrected” to be “normal,” whereas others see in the promises of healing the roots of full social inclusion of all people, regardless of ability (Mic 4:6–7; Zeph 3:19).

In the New Testament, Jesus conducted many miraculous healings of persons, restoring sight (Matt 9:27–31, 20:29–34; Mark 8:22–26, 10:46–52; Luke 18:35–43; John 9:1–12), hearing (Mark 7:31–37), speech (Matt 9:32–33, 12:22, 15:30–31; Luke 11:14), agility (Matt 12:10; Mark 3:1–3; Luke 6:6–8), or mobility (Matt 9:5, 12:9–13; Mark 2:1–12, 5:42; Luke 5:17–42; John 5:1–18), as well as a bleeding woman (Matt 9:18–26; Mark 5:21–43; Luke 8:40–56) and lepers (Matt 8:1–4; Mark 1:40–45; Luke 5:12–16, 17:11–19). After Jesus, some of the disciples continued to perform similar healings (Acts 3:6–8, 9:17–18, 14:10). These miracles are presented as signs of the incoming kingdom of God; in most cases, the narrative emphasis lies on the glory of God acting through Jesus and the disciples to create a new community of inclusion, not on any assumed lack on the part of those to be healed or on any sense of divine pity for those with physical limits. Postcolonial and empire-critical studies of the New Testament now emphasize that many of the maladies experienced by subjects of the Roman Empire would have been the result of systematic injury and abuse in a militarized oppressive culture or the concomitant psychological effects of that culture. Some interpreters now would argue that Jesus’s healings do not deal with personal salvation from individual problems, but are signs of a new world order that resists the Roman Empire and its control over bodies.

Legal Regulation of Bodies.

Ancient Israel’s legal tradition included a number of restrictions to govern the use of bodies. Many modern readers have gravitated to the sexual prohibitions, which are numerous. In particular, incest is banned (Lev 18:6–20, 20:11–12, 14–17), as is bestiality (Lev 18:23, 20:15–16). Adultery is prohibited (Exod 20:14; Lev 20:10; Deut 5:18; Prov 6:32), as is sex during menstruation (Lev 18:19). Many of these laws work together to construct the Israelite household, the primary familial, social, and economic unit. In Israel, a male head of household was the leading figure within the household or family; all other persons in the household were either related to him or in a potential sexual relationship with him. Households were polygynous; that is, adult sexual bonds would exist between one man and possibly several women. This structure of the household encouraged higher fertility, so that the household would grow in numbers and gain economic advantage to enhance survivability in a precarious society living at subsistence levels. High fertility rates seem to be one of the primary social values of ancient Israelite society; thus, bodies achieved social value through their contributions to reproduction, and infertility was considered undesirable.

Households grew through reproduction, but persons could also enter into households through contract or social agreement. This often involved the transfer of a woman from one household to another, upon the agreement of the male heads of the two households. In this way, women’s bodies were treated as property to be traded between households in exchange for other goods or services, such as a dowry or a treaty. Also, households could purchase slaves (or enslave persons who were in debt to the household). Although there were some legal protections for the bodies of women, slaves, and other purchased or indentured members of the household, their bodies were usually not afforded the same degree of rights and protections as male bodies of householders.

However, ancient Israel did provide legal protections for the bodies of several highly vulnerable classes of persons. Of great interest were widows and orphans (Exod 22:22; Deut 10:18, 14:29, 16:11–14, 24:17–21, 26:12–13, 27:19; cf. Ps 10:14–18), i.e., those outside the household structures that were the primary social network for the maintenance of bodies. Likewise, resident aliens receive explicit protection under the law (Exod 22:21, 23:9; Lev 19:34; Deut 24:14). Resident aliens, along with the poor, are allowed to glean corners of fields (Lev 19:9–10, 23:22; Deut 24:21), which would provide a social safety net for these vulnerable persons. Furthermore, many of the laws can be interpreted as providing partial although not complete protections for slaves and women.

Early Christianity was not a legal authority, but most of the first Christians lived within Jewish communities that continued many aspects of Israelite social protections for bodies. The early Christian churches echoed many of the values of Israelite law, especially regarding the protection of widows and orphans (Luke 18:3–5; Acts 6:1, 9:39–41; 1 Tim 5; Jas 1:27), i.e., those whose bodies were especially vulnerable. Paul also asked for offerings to help those suffering from famine, as part of the care for vulnerable bodies (Rom 15:25–26; 1 Cor 16:3).


Bodies in ancient Israel were gendered male or female, with significant differences in the social expectations between the two genders. Family roles as well as economic and religious roles were gender restricted. Social customs would determine many of the permissible roles and functions, but women’s roles were also limited by legislation. Through the legal apparatus, women’s bodies were more confined, observed, and regulated. Women were prohibited from some religious spaces, and some laws indicate that menstruating women, because of their status as “impure” or “unclean,” were to stay outside the camp where the community dwelled (Lev 15:18–33; Num 5:2–4). Similar restrictions on activity would apply to women who had recently given birth (Lev 12:1–8). Most scholarship has focused on the ways that women’s bodies were the recipients of unnecessary and intrusive legislative control, although many scholars argue that women experienced greater equality in Israel’s early period even if the inequalities grew over time, whereas some focus on the economic power that some women may have held during Israel’s later times. Some scholars emphasize that women in Israel possessed a greater degree of rights and freedoms than in some other ancient cultures. Also, some scholars would suggest that the effect of the laws was to exempt women from certain social obligations and to place them in more protected, less vulnerable situations. In many ways, scholarship has reached a stronger consensus on the actual conditions of women’s lives in ancient Israel, but there remains a disagreement on the ethical evaluation of the restrictions.

In the Roman imperial setting of early Christianity, women had gained some additional social and economic rights, although the change was probably greater for those in the privileged classes. The gospels depict several women of means with freedom to travel (Matt 27:55; Mark 15:41); in addition, Jesus’s ministry included women alongside men (Luke 8:2, 23:27; cf. Acts 1:14, 5:14). Paul’s work also included women (Acts 9, 17:12, 18; Rom 16:7; Phil 4:3).


In ancient Israel, harsh living conditions and the nutrition of a subsistence economy made life spans short. More so than in wealthy nations in the modern age, leading causes of death would have been accidents, whether domestic or work related, or else related to poor nutrition and poverty. For urban dwellers and the elite who would have been able to minimize these risks, life spans might approach sixty or seventy years (Ps 90:10), but even that would have been more of a goal than common reality. Gray hair was a relative rarity denoting extreme age, and it appears to be limited only to the wealthy or powerful classes (Gen 42:38, 44:29–31; Deut 32:25; 1 Sam 12:2; Ps 71:18; Prov 16:31, 20:29; Is 46:4; Hos 7:9). Many other inhabitants may have experienced life spans in the twenties, thirties, or at most forties. Especially in the rural population, life would have been short and difficult. The erratic and uneven nature of the food supply would have endangered the health of most villagers and shortened the average life span.

For children, work responsibilities would need to begin early in life. Many children would begin assisting in household chores by the age of five and would have gained a level of responsibility by age ten. Adolescence, in any modern sense, did not exist, as teenagers needed to assume productive roles in society. For women, membership in a new family and pregnancy may have been expected in the mid- to late teen years. This created a significant health risk, in that perhaps as many as one-third of pregnancies would result in the mother’s death. As a result, household and family membership was in constant flux with a fast rate of change.

The Hellenistic world and the Roman Empire brought improved food systems and a more stable economy, along with medical advances, which likely improved life spans. However, the large gap between the life spans of different economic classes probably continued. Labor from children was less essential to the economy, and adolescence as a time before adult responsibilities became a cultural norm. Also, family bonds changed, as more persons would know not only parents and children but grandparents and grandchildren. Increased life spans meant an enhanced sense of the family as multigenerational.


Ancient Israel considered its corpses to be sources of uncleanness (Lev 22:4; Num 5:2; 6:6, 11; 9:6–10; 31:19). Even animals found dead for unknown reasons or dead as the result of another animal were not suitable for food (Gen 31:39; Lev 17:15, 22:8). When death of a family member was witnessed, grief was expressed through wailing, whether spontaneous or ritual (Jer 9:10; Amos 5:16; Mic 1:8–11; Esth 4:1). Burials took place within a day or two, whether in a cave or a field. It was desirable for burial to be within the lands inhabited by the ancestors or the larger clan. In later periods, urban residents could be buried in the cities themselves.

Causes of death, as already mentioned, commonly included accident, pregnancy, or malnutrition (whether as a result of famine or more systemic). Plague and pestilence were also common. Another significant factor was warfare. War could include large-scale international battles, but these were probably rare. Much of the warfare took place by siege of cities, in which an army would surround a city to cut it off from the food supply of local villages and fields. Within a period of a few years, the city’s residents would starve to death or choose to leave the city. War, however, also involved skirmishes between villages and farmers, perhaps when one village ran low on food or on labor and chose to invade its neighbor to capture goods. A raiding party might be able to steal without conflict, but if confrontation ensued, one or more persons could be injured in the battle. Given the status of medical knowledge, minor flesh wounds could become fatal if infected, and the compound fracture of a bone would almost certainly lead to death.

Life after Death.

Ancient Israel’s understanding of an afterlife contains multiple perspectives. In many parts of the Hebrew Bible, death appears to be simply the end, after which nothing endures. At other times, there are references to shades (Job 26:5; Ps 88:10; Prov 2:18; Isa 14:9, 26:14), which seem to be lingering spirits of deceased persons, who may or may not be aware of their continuing existence. Sheol is a place for these spirits to dwell. In one story, the king Saul employs a medium to raise up the spirit of the deceased Samuel to offer advice (1 Sam 28:7–25).

In a few cases, the common rule that all people die finds exception. Enoch (Gen 5:21–24) and Elijah (2 Kgs 2) do not die but are removed from the earth. Elijah brought back to life a child who had died (1 Kgs 17:8–24). In the New Testament, this miracle of resurrection was repeated by Jesus (Mark 5:21–43; Luke 7:11–17; John 11:1–44) and by Paul (Acts 20:7–12). According to the gospels and to the witness of Paul’s letters, God brought Jesus back to life after crucifixion. In this resurrected body, Jesus was visible and touchable (Luke 24:30; John 20:19–29). The resurrected Jesus did not look different from other human bodies (Luke 24:13–31; John 21:4).

In Paul’s eschatology, all Christians will be resurrected also (1 Cor 15:20–22; 1 Thess 4:13–15; 2 Tim 2:11). This is a bodily resurrection, not merely a survival of the soul in a new realm of existence, although it is not clear how people’s resurrected body will appear or function in comparison to their earthly bodies (1 Cor 15:35–44).

The Body of God and Incarnation.

The New Testament expresses an idea of incarnation, that is, God was embodied in Jesus. This became a core doctrine of early and historic Christianity, which developed philosophical explanations for the coexistence of God and Jesus. The texts of the New Testament itself express this idea in different ways. In Jesus, God is with us, as represented by the moniker “Emmanuel,” which is Hebrew for “God with us.” Jesus is called the Son of God (Matt 4:3, 16:16, 27:40; Mark 1:1, 3:11, 5:7; Luke 1:32, 1:35; John 1:34, 3:18, 5:25, 20:31; and elsewhere), and God is where Jesus is (John 14:10). The Gospel of John is explicit that Jesus is God become human flesh to live on earth (John 1:14), and Paul knew of an early tradition that, in Jesus, God took on human form (Phil 2:7–8). As a human, Jesus was God living and God dying.

Although Christian theology often considers this notion of incarnation to be a distinctive feature of Christian belief, the idea of an embodied God is present throughout the Hebrew Bible as well. God walks in the garden, with a body that has feet and hands (Gen 2—3). In the temple of Ezekiel’s vision, God lives bodily in the midst of humans forever (Ezek 43:6–7); the same is true in the city envisioned by Revelation (Rev 21:3–5). Abraham and Sarah eat breakfast with God (Gen 18). Moses sees God’s back (Exod 33:19–23). In many passages, God is present in arm and hand (Deut 4:34, 5:15, 7:19, 9:26, 11:2; 2 Chr 32:8; Job 27:11, 40:9; Ps 10:12, 48:10; Isa 40:10, 41:13, 52:10; Jer 32:17; Ezek 20:33). Although later religious tradition has downplayed the presence of God’s body, the biblical texts of both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament present God as embodied.

Incarnation is usually considered a key theological doctrine, but it also functions within biblical interpretation as a core ethical principle. Embodiment is not only a natural condition for humans, but even God is embodied throughout the biblical text. Flesh is not inherently evil nor even secondary to spirit; true humanity and true divinity dwell in bodies.

Body as Community.

The New Testament develops the idea of the “body of Christ” as not only the flesh of Jesus but also a metaphor for the community of believers. Because of this, believers are innately connected to one another and dependent upon the larger whole, just as body parts depend on the whole body (Rom 12:5; 1 Cor 6:15, 12:12, 12:27; Eph 3:6, 4:12, 5:23; Col 1:24, 3:15). For Paul, the community can symbolize this reality through partaking of the Lord’s Supper, including the representations of the body and blood of Christ (1 Cor 10:16). Thus, the presence of God is incarnate not only in the historical person of Jesus, but also in the contemporary community of believers, who are also the body of Christ and thus the body of God.

However, the physical presence of God within God’s community was not unique to the New Testament. Ancient Israel’s beliefs included the idea that God’s word or instruction (the law or Torah) could be written on human hearts (Prov 3:3, 7:3; Jer 31:33). Human feet could walk in God’s footsteps (Ps 17:5). In other ways, human bodies were marked with the signs of God’s community, through the growing of hair (Lev 19:27; Num 6; Judg 16) or through circumcision (Gen 17; Exod 12:44–48; Josh 5). Not only was circumcision of the foreskin practiced for males, but the circumcision of the heart was upheld as a religious principle (Deut 10:16, 30:6; Jer 4:4). Life with God was an embodied life and one that showed forth in the body in visible ways. This was true for individuals as well as for the whole community.




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Jon L. Berquist