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Disability Studies

Disability studies are an interdisciplinary approach to the experiences, portrayals, and social treatment of persons with disabilities. “Disability” as a phenomenon is a social, cultural, and political construction and experience, rather than solely a medical or diagnostic issue to be fixed or treated. Impairment as an occurrence of physical or cognitive traits considered nonnormative from a biological/medical viewpoint becomes “disability” when social or structural discrimination against persons with impairments is experienced.

There is no single method for studying disability within the field of biblical interpretation. Understandings of impairment and conceptualizations of “disability” vary widely across contexts and are adaptable to various methodologies employed within biblical studies. The perspectives and theories provided by disability studies are a valuable analytical tool for investigations into social constructions of bodily differences and their meanings in ancient religious, political, cultural, and social contexts.

Theory and Models of Disability Studies in Biblical Interpretation.

Disability studies and theories present a flexible mode of critical inquiry. Hence there is no specific “disability methodology,” but rather a disability studies lens or interest that may be taken up by scholars of various disciplines and used within a discipline’s jargon and styles of inquiry. Disability scholars have identified various models through which disability has been regarded or analyzed.

Medical model.

The medical model of understanding disability charts deviations from a presumed ideal “normal” body, and lists impairments (such as deafness, blindness) or diagnosis (multiple sclerosis, autism) when referring to “disability.” Before disability studies emerged on the academic scene in the 1980s, historical critical biblical scholarship employed this model to medically diagnose biblical characters, presuming it is possible to identify conditions described in ancient texts with modern medical categories. This kind of inquiry tends to ignore the different and changing cultural values attached to certain conditions. Biblical and related ancient literatures rarely make a distinction between medical and religious practices, but rather subsume medicine—like politics, economics, and education—under religious practices. Generally, medical conditions are not the concern of biblical texts in terms of diagnosis, but rather are presented within theological frameworks.

Moral/religious model of disability.

The moral or religious model is perhaps the most pertinent within studies of biblical or other ancient literatures. Through this lens, disability or other physical differences are read as divine punishment or reward, curse or blessing, connected to the demonic or the divine, caused by sin and/or remedied by divine intervention. Physical or mental impairments are aligned with moral value and thus may lead to disablement. This critical lens highlights how disability is rarely, if ever, perceived and engaged as a neutral category or in an impartial manner. Biblical representations of impairment/disability are complex. Hebrew biblical texts most commonly (though not always) connect impairment/disability to sin, and New Testament representations continue such textual associations. In most cases impairment/disability is presented more negatively than positively, including descriptions of disability as punishment for sin or an opportunity to test one’s faith, to inspire others, or to demonstrate God’s healing power or mysterious action.

Social and cultural models of disability.

Informed by critical theories of race, gender, and sexuality, the social model of disability focuses on the constructed dimensions and culturally shaped perceptions of variations in mental and physical embodiment. It posits the distinction between impairment as physical or cognitive traits considered to be medically or biologically nonnormative and disability as the social and structural discrimination against persons with impairments. The issues to be analyzed and addressed are not located in the individual but in the social, political, and cultural spaces, processes, and attitudes that take a “normal” body as the ideal for architecture, environment, social interaction, and access and that stigmatize what is perceived as deviation from normal embodiment. Closely related is the cultural model, which does not strictly divide between disability and impairment and focuses on larger sociocultural structures. This model, which largely underpins North American biblical scholarship on disability, serves as an analytical tool for investigating how embodied differences are used to organize, explain, narrate, and interpret within a cultural world. Descriptions of impairment/disability are analyzed for their role in creating, shaping, and maintaining culture and its hierarchies, processes, values, etc., especially in regard to establishing the (arbitrary and changing) “normal.”

Minority and limits model.

The minority model of disability focuses on people with disabilities as an excluded or oppressed group, experiencing discrimination and prejudice based on conceptions of “normal.” As such, ableism functions similarly to sexism or racism, and it directs the focus of inquiry toward social barriers and biases. Analyses from this perspective focus on addressing prevailing prejudices and biases regarding “disability.” The limits model does not posit disability in opposition to normalcy but frames it as a normal part of human existence. Insisting that all human existence is at most temporarily able-bodied, this model highlights that all human experience includes interdependence, and “disability” (while not ignoring the real, concrete range of embodied experiences) remains an unstable category. These models, along with the social and cultural models, underpin theological work influenced by disability studies, insisting that theological constructions need to reject hierarchical and binary divisions based on “normal” (e.g., Betcher, 2007; Creamer, 2009).

Disability Perspectives as Methodology in Biblical Interpretation.

The categorical and methodological nuances of disability studies have sparked a renewed interested in the study of disabilities in biblical studies, noting historical diversity in thought structure, value system, narrative aim, and linguistic options and devices. Biblical literatures rarely depict actual lived experiences of impairment/disability. Ideologically charged disability imagery and terminology are representations with sociopolitical function in audiences past and present, shaping patterns of thought and interpretation. The study of textual representations of impairment/disability aids in understanding respective ancient worlds, their cultural and linguistic productions, and the creation and shaping of social categories and differentiation via disability as a narrative trope. Normative identities are constructed via creations of the “problem” of disability. “Normal,” “healthy,” and “pure” emerge by defining, naming, classifying, and mapping out variation and by constructing it as different/deviant (Davis, 2002).

Biblical scholarship engaging disability studies considers depictions of illness or embodied difference in particular biblical texts within historical, ideological, and theological contexts of identity construction. What are the values and expectations of a society communicated within a text? How do depictions of physical and mental conditions communicate or impact these expectations? How do representations of impairment/disability function as a stock feature of characterization and as an opportunistic metaphorical device, as “narrative prosthesis” of a story? In other words, how does disability serve as a means to distinguish a character from the norm while at the same time performing a metaphorical function to connect the narrative to a more abstract concept (Mitchell and Snyder, 2000)?

Disability Studies and Intersections with Gender Studies in the Hebrew Bible.

Biblical Hebrew has no single term that groups physical, cognitive, emotional, and social impairments the way modern English terms do. Notions of disability were in operation in Hebrew and ancient Near Eastern texts, and conceptual groupings of terms demonstrate that “disability” functioned socially and abstractly, albeit structured by different subcategories than we find in modern understandings. Hebrew Bible texts posit ethical obligations to treat persons with disabilities fairly, though the persons addressed are the assumed able-bodied who are to be charitable, with little agency understood in those to be pitied. Textual presentations of physical and mental conditions show nuanced variations and changing groupings and associations, and meanings and ideological significances associated with conceptual categories need to be extracted. For example, cultic demand for bodily wholeness and social regulation of access for defective/mutilated bodies may negatively depict impairments (e.g., blindness as a curse, Deut 28:28–29). Some physical differences are categorized as defects, while others are socially and ritually enabling.

Representations of impairment/disability may occur in pairings such as whole/defective, clean/unclean, holy/common, honored/shamed, blessed/cursed, loved/hated, and beautiful/ugly, establishing inclusion or exclusion, value or stigma, and classifying persons into unequal social groupings in the evaluative discursive context at hand. Impairment/disability as identifying marker may be associated with the poor, the widow, and the alien, or with the weak, the ignorant, the corrupt, or those experiencing divine rejection and contempt (Exod 23, Deut 16, Isa 56).

Groupings of impairment/disability tend to follow distinctions of mental or physical conditions, appearance, bodily vulnerability, and the occurrence of disease. The types of impairment/disability may be distinguished by class and gender, animality and humanity, visibility and invisibility, and permanence. The social, economic, and religious consequences of categories of difference might, but do not have to, lead to exclusion, depending on representation and narrated power relations. It is denigrating when comparative mechanisms are deployed, associating certain differences with negative value, affirming the weakness or vulnerability of certain conditions, or connecting idols with disability language and therefore with the persons associated with the condition (Abrams, 1998; Olyan, 2008).

Defect/blemish and impurity.

The Hebrew mûm (blemish or defect) and tumah (impurity) are terms covering conditions that modern readers might associate with impairment and disability, dividing up skin anomalies, body leaks, and things cut/uncut into differently valued types. What exactly qualified as a blemish differs in various texts and depends on the specific sociocultural location. Among animals, a determination of defect as visual deviation from normal works well. For human bodies, most (though not all) defects are visible to the eye, long-lasting or permanent, distinguished by physical dysfunction, and often come embodied as asymmetry. Word associations, for example with divine curse and punishment or with the poor, the afflicted, the dependent, and the sufferers, may group words indicating defective body parts, such as humpbacked, deaf, blind, lame, or mute (Deut 28:28–29; Ps 146; Zeph 1:17; Job 29:12–16).

While deafness, muteness, certain skin blemishes, genital flows, or menstruation are not blemishes, they could be paired with conditions that were classified as such (Lev 19:14; Isa 29:18, 35:5, 43:8). Asymmetry might characterize a defect (e.g., a limp, an improperly set broken leg, loss of an eye or tooth) but is also a feature of nondefective skin disease (Lev 12:12–17; Num 12:12). Blemishes may interact with categories of beauty and perfection, but without perfect overlap. Mobility, speed, height, clear skin, and strength qualify a man’s beauty (1 Sam 10:23–24, 17:42; Song 2:9–9, 2:17, 8:14). Women’s beauty is constructed similarly, though with the addition of features like symmetrical teeth and breasts (Gen 39:6; Song 4:1–5, 6:6). For both genders, beauty is often associated with lack of defects (Dan 1:4; Song 4:7, 6:9). A person with blemishes might be described as ugly, yet while perfection is required to be beautiful, not all free from blemish are beautiful; for instance, a person might be sighted but not beautiful (Gen 29:17). Many if not most blemishes have somatic dysfunctional qualities, though there are some impairments/disabilities, such as deafness and muteness, which are nondefective (Olyan, 2008).

Priestly regulations.

Levitical holiness codes for the male priestly cast do not associate blemishes or illness with punishment for sin as non-Priestly narratives tend to do (e.g., in the case of ẓara’at, “skin disease,” Num 12; 2 Sam 3:2; 2 Chr 26:16–21). Rather, priestly laws in Leviticus 12–15 represent certain conditions as naturally occurring impurities, originating with the LORD and imbued with cultic and ritual implications, but not connected to moral guilt. Disability in this context then may refer to specific physical differences that would lead to stigmatization via exclusion from specific priestly tasks, but not necessarily to social marginalization.

Priestly and Deuteronomic texts present an ideal “normal” body for the context of ritual service. This sanctifiable “pure” body is defined via the “abnormal” that is imagined as separate and displaced from the former (Deut 7:15, 24:8; Num 5:1–5, 12:14–15; 2 Chron 26:21). Defects on a priestly body would disqualify, and thus (temporarily) exclude, the afflicted priest from carrying out duties. Priests were only fit to officiate in the liminal space of the sanctuary, within the symmetry of heaven and earth, if they were unblemished, of pure lineage, and ritually pure (untouched by the taint of death or dysfunction), for fear that a priestly defect would profane the sanctuary. Regular Israelites who were blind and/or lame were excluded from the temple (possibly because of an association with pollution) and thus socially disabled (2 Sam 5:8). Priests with such impairments, excluded from performing (Lev 21:16–23) the highest priestly functions, still maintained their status if ritually pure (e.g., they could still eat ritual offerings).

The exact construction of bodily wholeness as “normal” versus blemish as disqualifying is unclear, though appearance and visible markers are major considerations in Leviticus. Visual and spatial dimensions may be significant considerations in priestly regulations, with priests serving as visual representatives of the unseen perfect body of God in sacred spaces and thus requiring symmetrical and orderly bodies. Deafness, mental disability, or inability to speak does not disqualify. Visible blemishes such as eczema or leaking sores could be a defect yet pure; other scaly, dry skin diseases were not a blemish but impure. Those blemishes covered by clothing or not visible to the eye (certain skin blemishes or deafness) do not disqualify or disable. For example, while blind persons cannot serve as priests, they can eat the sacred donations. Priests who are deaf can serve and eat, but priests with scale disease may do neither (Lev 21:21–23).

The meaning of blemish and associated disability shifts with changing religious ideologies and practices. For example, after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E., rabbinic laws and practices emerge as oral culture, turning from concerns regarding visible blemishes to stigmatization of impaired ability to discern, understand, and transmit, such as deafness, speech impairment, and intellectual disabilities (Abrams, 1998, 2007; Baden and Moss, 2011; Olyan, 2008; Raphael, 2008; Stewart, 2011; Watts Belser, 2011).

Genital flows and parturition.

Genital flow of reproductive fluids and parturition causes ritual impurity. These conditions are connected to fertility for both genders and are not necessarily disabling. As temporary conditions they might be stigmatizing and lead to limitations in social and cultic life, but they are cast in terms of pollution rather than defect. Priestly laws align genital discharge and childbirth with unavoidable human activity rendering a person ritually impure. In these texts, neither menstruation nor parturition are associated with divine curses, with marginal groups (the poor) or marginalized characteristics (weakness, dependence, ignorance), or with defectiveness (deafness, muteness, other impure genital flows). Yet while women with menstrual flows or in childbirth are associated with pollution and therefore restricted in their contact with others, males as regular emitters of semen are not subject to such stigmatization, being only associated with minor impurities (Lev 15:16–18) (Baden and Moss, 2011; Olyan, 2008; Stewart, 2011).

Male genital damage.

The average and normative Israelite is constructed as able-bodied male (e.g., in terms of call for warfare; 1 Sam 11:1–11), and men with defects or blemishes may be feminized through association with women or groups cast as vulnerable and dependent (Job 29, Ps 146). Impairment/disability can establish and maintain gendered categories and hierarchies of inclusion and exclusion. Men with genital damage are prohibited from entering the temple sphere in Deuteronomy 23:2, an exclusion presented within a larger context of denying entrance to males descending from Ammonite and Moabite immigrants. This prohibition may be connected to ideological concerns regarding reproduction (Isa 56:3), stigmatizing men due to fertility concerns (rather than the concern with profanation in 2 Sam 5:8).

Some representations use gendered impairment/disability to prophetically reorder social structures. Isaiah 56 proclaims that devout eunuchs, though infertile and stigmatized via associations of weakness, immobility, and dependency (Jer 31:7–9; Isa 33:17–24), may take up a central place in the LORD’s temple and thus be fully included in the cultic community because of the LORD’s intervention. In the utopian future of Isaiah 56, men with damaged testicles may hold positions of authority, in some ways becoming superior to unblemished, fertile men. While the narrative use of eunuch imagery might stigmatize, historical evidence supports eunuch employment in Israelite monarchies, hinting at complex multiple identity negotiations—social, ritual, political, and gendered—in their respective contexts (Olyan, 2008; Lemos, 2011).

Circumcision, as intentionally caused bodily alteration, is not considered a blemish warranting exclusion from the community as cutting off other naturally occurring skin and exposing body parts underneath (e.g., lip or eyelid) could be. Rather, the presence of the foreskin itself is the defect; circumcision is the very sign of inclusion in the ritual and sociopolitical community, an act of physical alteration that renders the male body complete. It may be interpreted as the ritualized removal of a gendered defect, a sign constructing gendered social inclusion and gendered lived experience via male (social and physical) ability (Gen 34:14; Exod 12:48; Jos 5:9). Circumcision as enabling impairment is such a significant social ability that it may metaphorically extend to other body parts and by implication to women. For example, dysfunctional ears and lips, those that do not hear/listen/speak pleasingly to the LORD, are referred to as uncircumcised (Jer 6:10), and obedience to the LORD is effected through circumcision of the heart (Deut 10:16; Jer 4:4; 9:25). Biblical texts also report circumcision as a tactic of revenge for Dinah’s rape, and David took 200 Philistine foreskins to satisfy a bride price (Gen 34; 1 Sam 18:25–27) (Olyan, 2008).

Female fertility and barrenness.

Gender and gendered bodily abilities signify power relations and construct social norms and hierarchies. Divine commands and social anxieties around reproduction as well as ritual purity construct “woman” in terms of childbearing, mothering, and menstruating. Menstruation and parturition may effect and symbolize marginalization of women, but biblical texts need to be examined for textual distinctions in regard to devaluing physical and mental conditions. Most narratives conceptualize female infertility as a narrative device, presenting it as a disabling condition, associated with divine punishment or disfavor, and social exclusion or decline in status. The barren or miscarrying woman as motif represents childlessness from all causes as disability, stigmatized through mockery, depression, and condemnation (Num 5:11–31; Exod 23:26; Judg 13:2–3; 1 Sam 1:11; Isa 54:1). There is a spectrum of representation evident in biblical texts, referring to barrenness as a divine curse or natural affliction, describing individuals or communities. The central commonality of barrenness is its rhetorical employment for theological ends to demonstrate the LORD’s power, though with varying rhetorical means (Baden, 2011).

In Jeremiah, body images and rhetoric promote a particular view of proper religious observance, with disabled bodies representing condemned forms of religiosity. Gendered impairment may signal a misfit between a given body and an expected social performance. Because female infertility excluded infertile women from the expected and valued roles for women in a patriarchal society (also notable in the mostly female associated usage of the key term 'akar “barren”), infertility was a gendered disabling experience in ancient Israel. In Jeremiah 3–4, unapproved female sexuality is represented as a cause of female disability, and as a complex metaphor connecting sexual infidelity with barrenness and childlessness, linking religious infidelity with unnaturalness and inappropriate human religious performance. Yet most of the disability tropes in Jeremiah are attributed to male figures, with hearing/deafness as a sorting mechanism for the implied abled (obedient) or disabled (disobedient) audience. Vision and mobility impairment occur together, signifying religious fidelity and proper/failed moral-intellectual insight (Raphael, 2008; 2011).

Disability as narrative trope in identity constructions.

As literary and cultural device, disability tropes may connect to moral or ethical conditions of person or group. Impairments per se are not good or bad, and as staples of prophetic rhetoric are employed with variations and nuances. Literal or metaphorical, representational uses of disability include its valuation in a representational economy, often used by, about, and addressed to an implied able-bodied audience and with able-bodied narrative trajectories. Disability tropes need to be contextualized, as status hierarchies and status oppositions other than e.g., whole/blemished may mitigate or exacerbate the impact of the latter, depending on social context or narrative use.

Not always effecting stigmatization and exclusion, representations of impairment/disability in some narratives serve to underscore special interest and divine care for those marginalized, or emphasize divine agency through a main character. In the Isaac story, Isaac was blind and yet a powerful patriarch. It is blindness that leads to Isaac falling for a trick, but his blindness is part of the character driving the divine drama in the story of the patriarchs. Divine power is also made known in Sarai, Rachel, and Rebekah, whose transformed infertility is the site for divine promise and intervention. As they are the wives of patriarchs, these women’s bodies become the site of fertility and nation building, but through demonstrated divine intervention only. Samson’s blinding puts a narrative focus on his weakness and ineffectuality, and his blindness serves as narrative support to underscore divine power and agency.

Disability and masculinity.

Leprosy as disability is the narrative hinge upon which religious identity and male power depend in the story of Naaman, as he is healed and converted and therefore normalized as one who serves and worships the LORD. The Deuteronomy narrative is driven by the struggle against idolatry, centralization of the cult, monotheism, and the observance of the law in allegiance to the covenant. The removal of Naaman’s leprosy/disability constructs his masculinity, albeit still inferior in a hierarchy of male power, as he appears now with the skin of a “little boy” ((2 Kings 5:3, 14). Other male characters (Gehazi and the king of Aram), though able-bodied, but greedy and not loyal to the LORD, are struck with or depicted with disability (leprosy or death) to signal the lowest position within the male hierarchy in this story (Strimple and Creangă, 2010).

Complex identity constructions of kingship, masculinity, and disability are at work in the Mephibosheth narrative (2 Sam 16; 1 Kgs 2). Here, the physical impairment/disability remains a permanent trait of Mephibosheth, and the clusters of meaning emerging through the disability motif within the narrative are connected to complex constructions of national identity (e.g., in differentiating Saul and David) and shifting dynamics of belonging inside/outside of Israel (Schipper, 2006).

Sin and disability in the suffering servant.

Isaiah’s suffering servant (Isa 52:13–53:5) links disabilities, sin, suffering, and atonement. The metaphorical blindness and deafness of people who should see and hear is judged and punished, yet the prophet’s disabling conditions (being wounded and cut off from the group) are precisely what enable him to perceive and follow through on the prophetic mission. Disability here serves as the device to describe and narrate the relation between parties in communication, and the value ascribed depends on the various and shifting associations of the impairment with other factors (the characters in the plot, the intentional or involuntary mode of acquisition of the impairment, acceptable or inacceptable use of it, or the metaphorical use referring to an inner or outer condition). Like the disloyalty in Deuteronomy 28 that brings about physical and mental illness, Israel’s metaphorical characterization as a person with disability serves to link physical disability to moral disability. Israel’s immorality is symbolized by physical disabilities, willfully brought upon by Israel itself (Isa 42:18–20). The vision of the messiah of the Talmudic sages is associated with a disabled person, physically blemished, ritually impure, excluded from society, yet the one bringing about redemption (Abrams, 2007; Raphael, 2008).

Disability Studies and Intersections with Gender Studies in New Testament Scholarship.

Few New Testament scholars have explicitly taken up disability studies, though in the twenty-first century much attention has been paid to “the body” in topics such as healing, medicine, miracles, or concepts of femininity/masculinity or health. While some intersectional work connecting these interests with disability studies is beginning to emerge, disability and its representations in New Testament texts has been explored more within theological scholarship, with Nancy L. Eiesland’s The Disabled God (1994) marking the emergence of disability theologies. Eiesland reconstructs the divine/Christ as a broken, disabled body, repositioning the disabled person at the center of theological knowledge. From here, disability theologies developed a variety of ways to deconstruct disabilities in biblical texts, and reconstruct, where possible embracing disability through theological imaginations—for example, the Interdependent God (Black, 1996), the Accessible God (Block, 2002), the Deaf God (Lewis, 2007; Morris, 2008), or biblical-theological anthropologies engaging experiences of disability, e.g., autism (Gillibrand, 2010; Reynolds, 2008), Down syndrome (Yong, 2007), or profound intellectual disability (Haslam, 2012; Reinders, 2008).

Representations of disability in New Testament literature most commonly center on interests of embodiment and healing. Similar to Jewish cultures, Greeks or Romans had no linguistic equivalent to “disability.” Though they had descriptive and diagnostic vocabulary for curable diseases, terminology for permanent conditions were more generic and meaningful in context only (e.g., “ugly,” “maimed,” “weak”). Discourses in antiquity regarding bodily functioning were pervasively dualistic, relegating those believed to perform bodily functions improperly to the margins of social life along dualisms of sick/healthy, abnormal/normal, unnatural/natural, weak/strong, imbalanced/balanced, porous/impermeable. The Hippocratic corpus posits abnormal bodies versus wise bodies; the writings of Galen present weak bodies versus functioning bodies; the Asclepius cult of the Greco-Roman world demonstrates a distinction between unnatural states of bodily dysfunction and divinely offered health/bodily function. Depending on the worldview framing concepts of the body and bodily conditions, disease could be an effect of an uncontrolled, imbalanced body or of one that was porous and permeable (Moss, 2010).

Sin and healing.

Sin and retribution/redemption are conceptual dynamics found in New Testament narratives in which impairments occur, connected to sin-illness causalities found in Hebrew scriptures. The healing accounts of New Testament Gospels and Acts display narrative dualistic mechanisms of exclusion and return to community through messianic intervention, for example the ostracized bodies of the blind, lame, and leprous; the bedridden and paralyzed; the mute and those deformed by demons/spirits (Mark 2:1–12, 3:1–6 PAR., 7:31–37, 8:22–26, 10:46–52 PAR.; Matt 9:27–31, 20:29–34; Luke 7:1–10, 14:1–6; John 5:1–13, 9:1–41; Acts 3:1–10, 8:7, 9:32–43, 14:8–19). The narrative trope of healing the blemished and disabled serves to support the messianic storyline of Jesus fulfilling Jewish prophecies, mandating his authority, and bearing good news to the poor.

Sometimes healing narratives dismantle the causality between sin and illness, challenging the views of purity and impurity in Jesus’s time by physically including the disabled and sick, especially on the Sabbath (e.g., Luke 5:12–26, 6:6–11). Sometimes authors associate impairments/disabilities with sin (Mark 2:10); other authors refute this connection and assert it as willed by God to promote God’s works (John 9:1–4); others point to ethical/moral failings that effect disablement or cause the body to give into weakness and illness (Luke 1:20,64; 1 Cor 11:29–30). Metaphorically, disabilities such as blindness and deafness (failure to understand) serve to underscore healing acts as salvific (Mark 4:12; Matt 15:14; Luke 6:39; John 9:39–41; Acts 28:26), connecting healing of the body with healing of the soul, and implying a certain restorative trajectory toward able-bodied-ness.

Disability, gender, and healing.

Parallel to concepts of healthy and sick bodies in the ancient world are gender constructions, with the masculine body characterized as strong, balanced, hard, impermeable, and the female body as weak, uncontrolled, soft, and porous. In narratives such as the healing of the woman with the flow of blood, the woman’s body is doubly effeminate: weak and leaky, and unnaturally so. In Mark’s account of healing the woman with the flow of blood (Mark 5:25–34), her body comes to resemble the healthy masculine ideal, hardened and dry. Jesus, on the other hand, as the source of healing, is described in feminine terms also, with the healing power leaking out of his body, drawn out by the woman and uncontrolled by Jesus. While this subverts conceptualizations of masculinity and purity, it is also a narrative layer of identity construction, porosity not necessarily being negative, but possibly suggesting divinity via an epiphany motif (divine leaking through the boundaries of the human form concealing the deity) (Moss, 2010).

Disability, gender, and divine presence.

Similar to the use of images of the Suffering Servant in Isaiah, Paul reenvisions the ideal of unblemished masculinity, divine presence, and divine action with suffering and disability in/through broken-bodied-ness. Paul represents divinity and divine reign through Jesus’s stigmatized body (Gal 4:13–15, 5:6). The crucified body as symbol of ultimate stigmatization, emasculated (crucifixion as penalty for slaves or other-lower status persons) and victimized, stands in to signify divine wisdom and power (1 Cor 1:23–24). Satan, as God’s agent, is described as the cause of Paul’s impairment to keep him humble (2 Cor 12:5). The precise nature of Paul’s condition remains unclear, though it signals some sort of functional impairment and experiences of disability. The alternative discursive practices in Paul’s letters parallel the centrality of Jesus’s suffering and bodily weakness that becomes the site of positive/liberatory identity formation (Albl, 2007; Henning, 2011).

Disability and resurrection.

Understandings of disability and the body as identity markers come into play in early Christian conceptualizations of the resurrection. Jesus became disabled in death, and the signs of his bodily impairment and suffering did not disappear after resurrection, nor did they disqualify him from leadership (his place in the masculine hierarchy was preserved, and even glorified to an extent). The bodily wounds are the primary identity marker by which Jesus is recognized (Luke 24; John 20). While Jesus is the archetype for the resurrection of the dead, impairment/disability do not necessarily continue after death in early Christian concepts. When Christian identity is worked out through conceptions of the resurrection, it is not the disabled divine Christ that serves as prototype of identity. Rather, the rhetoric of restoration and healing in resurrection continue attitudes toward disability and construct bodily continuity after death in conjunction with eschatological healing. Concepts of completed salvation and restoration with God require the transformation of disabled bodies into “normal” bodies in order to signal one’s identity as part of the Christian community. In the emerging doctrine of resurrection, scarred martyrs will retain their bodily marks as part of their honored identity, yet their bodies will be proportionate and intact. Augustine for example posits that gendered bodily functions or aesthetics will be restored, such as signs of fertility, beards, or seeing eyes (Moss, 2011).


As the work of intersecting disability studies with scholarship in religious studies continues to gain greater acceptance and academic traction, more biblical scholarship is expected to emerge out of publications such as the Journal of Religion, Disability, and Health, and from groups like the Healthcare and Disability in the Ancient World program unit of the Society of Biblical Literatures, including explorations of new angles on gender and sexuality, disability and imperial power, and other complex sociopolitical identity negotiations (e.g., Moss and Schipper, 2011). In order to counter habitually deployed oppressive ableist interpretations today, disability tropes in biblical narratives warrant careful consideration. Contextual identity constructions may be unpacked without replicating ableist biases in religious discourses, preventing oversimplified tracing of discrimination against people with impairment to monolithically and anachronistically read texts.




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Heike Peckruhn

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