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The Body Metaphor in Paul: Familiar and yet unique

Posted by on Oct 12, 2012 in books, community, scripture | 4 comments

Like I’ve mentioned in my last few posts, I’ve been re-reading one of my favorite academic books on the church: Paul’s Idea of Community by Robert Banks (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2004). So far, I’ve discussed Banks’ examination of Paul’s idea of salvation as freedom (“For Paul, freedom means independence, dependence, and interdependence“), Paul’s use the term ekklesia to refer to groups of believers who actually gather together (“The ekklesia that actually gathers in a location“), and Paul’s use of the term ekklesia to refer to our heavenly reality of being raised and seated together with God in Christ (“The ekklesia as a heavenly reality“). (By the way, this will be my last post on this book for now. Although, this topic has inspired me to study the “body” metaphor in Paul’s writings. That study will probably result in a series of blog posts, perhaps to be published next week.)

In the next couple of chapters, Banks looks at Paul’s use of family language and his use of the “body” metaphor. For each of those, he found some vague parallels in other religions and philosophical societies. However, in each case, Paul’s use of the language and metaphors was different from what he found in other writings and communities.

For example, consider this summary about Paul’s use of the “body” metaphor in relation to other religions and societies:

How original is Paul’s use of the “body” metaphor? It has no exact parallels in Jewish literature. Although the notion of “corporate personality” is present in the Hebrew Bible, it was the Greek translation of the OT that introduced the term “body” into Jewish thought for the first time (e.g., Lev 14:9; Prov 11:17). Yet neither here nor in the literature of the intertestimental period was the term used in any metaphorical way…

Gnostic thought recognizes the idea of the saved community as the body of the heavenly redeemer but only in writings that are later than the NT. In any case, Paul’s initial use of the metaphor, in which the community is represented by the whole body and the emphasis is upon the interdependence of its members, has no parallel in Gnostic sources.

In Stoic literature prior to the NT, we do find the cosmos (including humanity) depicted as the body of the divine world-soul and society as a body in which each member has a different part to play. But Paul refuses to portray the universe as Christ’s body and rejects any idea of a member’s wider society having priority over the Christian community. Individual and community are equally objects of his concern; neither is given priority over the other…

While none of these usages yields an exact parallel to [Paul’s] ideas, they do indicate the extent to which the metaphor was “in the air” in Hellenistic circles. While the term “body” did not originate with him, Paul was apparently the first to apply it to a community within the larger community of society and to the personal responsibilities of people for one another rather than their civic duties. We see again how a quite “secular” term is used by Paul to illuminate what Christian community is all about. (pp 65-66)

There is a great lesson for us in Banks’ comments. As we read ancient documents (and modern writings for that matter), we often find similar terms, phrases, metaphors, and illustrations. But, the fact that a person or community uses similar language does not mean that it is used in the same way. We must look at each usage in context to determine what the author intends to communicate.

While this is true in comparing Paul’s writings (and other NT writings) to nonChristian writings, we also must compare different usages of terms and phrases within Paul’s writings. Why? Because he could use the same terms, phrases, and especially the same metaphors for different reasons.

(By the way, this last statement is the reason that I’m planning to study Paul’s use of the “body” metaphor in each of his usages.)


Comments are closed. If you would like to discuss this post, send an email to alan [at] alanknox [dot] net.

  1. 10-12-2012
  2. 10-12-2012


    I agree that the “body” metaphor – and other metaphors in Scripture applied to the church – can help us examine how we are living among one another.


  3. 10-13-2012

    Hi Alan, I’ve been reading your blog for a while. I don’t think I’ve commented before though.

    Anyway, I’ve used chapter 6 of Banks’ book as a source for my article entitled “Kephalē and Proto-Gnosticism in Paul’s Letters”.

    Just thought I’d mention it.

  4. 10-13-2012


    Thank you for the link.