David Bentley Hart, Cultural Context, and Exegesis

David Bentley Hart has lately written a piece in the Church Life Journal with the somewhat unwieldy title of “The Spiritual Was More Substantial Than the Material for the Ancients”. Like everything Dr. Hart writes it is worth reading. His piece gets no further than five words when he names Bishop N.T. Wright as his main antagonist, though he admits that Wright “functions here only as emblematic of a larger historical tendency in New Testament scholarship. I can think of no other popular writer on the early church these days whose picture of Judaism in the Roman Hellenistic world seems better to exemplify what I regard as a dangerous triumph of theological predispositions over historical fact in biblical studies”. Hardened cynic that I am, I cannot believe that his choice of antagonist can be unrelated to the very public tussle (as one publication termed it) which Hart had with Wright over the topic of Hart’s recent New Testament translation. I could not help but think of the line in a Dylan song which said, “He was takin’ the whole thing personal”.

Observing the Hart-Wright tussle reminded me of what happens when giants fight: the resultant noise is certainly exciting, but they tend to break a lot of furniture unnecessarily.   For example, Hart pours scorn on Wright’s translation in 1 Corinthians 15 of σῶμα ψυχικόν and σῶμα πνευματικόν as “embodiment of ordinary nature” and “embodiment of the spirit”.  Given the admitted difficulties of rendering this highly-nuanced Greek into immediately-accessible English, the scorn seems a little overdone. It is true that Wright’s translation lacks some of the precision found in the original. That is why one needs commentaries and sermons as well as translations. But translation is an art, not a science, and differing audiences require differing translations with differing levels of precision and literality. Take for example the Good News Bible (sometimes derisively called, “Good News for Dick and Jane”, after the set of kindergarten books featuring children of those names). The Good News Bible was produced for young people and those for whom English was not their mother tongue, and therefore uses a simplified vocabulary. For this audience a literal translation would be worse than useless. This version therefore translates above Greek terms as “a physical body” and “a spiritual body”, precisely in the way which so infuriates Dr. Hart. But given the target audience of the translators, the inevitable imprecision must be somehow endured.

Whatever the broken furniture and whatever the inner motivation, Dr. Hart in his article has some much needed reminders about the worldview of the ancients which contemporary exegetes would do well to remember. For example, Hart points that the ancients viewed “spirit” in a way which contained an element of corporality as well, rather than as the purely disembodied reality we imagine by that term today. As Hart well says, “If any reality was bodiless in the absolute sense, it could be only God or the highest divine principle. Everything else, even spirits, had some kind of body, because all of them were irreducibly local realities. The bodies of spirits may have been at once both more invincible and more mercurial than those with an animal constitution, but they were also, if in a peculiarly exalted sense, still physical… In fact, it was a central tenet of the most influential angelology of the age, derived as it was from the Noachic books of the intertestamental period, that angels had actually sired children—the monstrous nefilim—on human women.”

The corporality of spirits—more subtle than our human corporality to be sure, but still corporeal—should not come as a news-flash to anyone who has read up on the ancient world. St. John of Damascus, in the chapter on angels in his Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, writes that the Creator “alone knows the form and limitation of [an angel’s] essence. But all that we can understand is that it is incorporeal and immaterial. For all that is compared with God who alone is incomparable we find to be dense and material. For in reality only the Deity is immaterial and incorporeal”. Even moderns such as C. S. Lewis knew this. In his A Preface to Paradise Lost he informs his readers that Milton regarded angels as in some way corporeal, and in this Milton was simply continuing down the long road before him. In his Preface Lewis quotes Henry More as another along this road who, in his letter to Descartes, wrote, “I was always disposed to agree with the Platonists, the ancient Fathers, and almost all the magicians, in recognizing that all souls and genii, whether good or evil, are plainly corporeal, and accordingly have sense experience in the strict sense; i.e. by the mediation of a body.”

All this flies in the face of our modern dichotomies, going back to Aquinas, of bodily vs. spiritual, physical vs. mental, tangible vs. intangible. Hart’s point is that if we are to understand the New Testament we must free ourselves from the unspoken presuppositions of our own age and not impose these presuppositions upon the New Testament text. We tend to think of the idea of “soul” (Greek ψυχή) as more or less interchangeable with that of “spirit” or “mind”, and of both as being necessarily incorporeal. That is why Paul’s description of our present body as a σῶμα ψυχικόν (rendered in my own commentary with deliberate literality as a “soulish body”) causes us to blink, as if Paul were uttering a contradiction in terms. For isn’t a soul more or less the opposite of a body? How then could one have a “soulish body”? Hart does us the service of reminding us that a ψυχή was “chiefly the life-principle proper to the realm of generation and decay, the ‘psychical’ or ‘animal’ substance that endows sublunary organisms with the power of self-movement and growth, though only for a short time”.

In other words (to quote Hart again), Paul “[uses] terms in ways that were very much part of the philosophical and scientific lingua franca of his age”. To exegete a passage properly we must begin by asking what its original hearers would have understood by it, whether the passage be found in Paul or—come to that—in the early chapters of Genesis. One may legitimately go on from there and bring out deeper meanings of the passage (as the Fathers did), but we must at least begin there. Otherwise we are not performing exegesis, but indulging in eisegesis, reading into the text meanings possibly foreign to it. And I feel sure that Bishop Wright would not disagree.

Those who have read this blog for some time will attest that though I have enjoyed many of Dr. Hart’s books (such as his wonderful Atheist Delusions), I cannot number myself among his fans. Though often appreciative of his content I cannot warm to his tone which often seems to lack sufficient graciousness and courtesy. He treads very heavily. Yet in most of his essay “The Spiritual Was More Substantial Than the Material for the Ancients”, I can only echo the words which (according to the film Lawrence of Arabia) Prince Faisal said to a British officer who spoke to him bluntly: “You tread heavily, but you speak the truth”.





  1. Wow.
    Thank you Fr. Lawrence. That made a lot of sense. I grew up Protestant and was not taught this.
    I am currently Orthodox and I am learning, even if at times it does seem excruciatingly slow.

  2. As for angels being in some way corporeal, I remember coming across a reference to angels having relations with women in one of Chrysostom’s sermons, I think. Is that kind of thing something the Church really believed? There are all kinds of problems and questions that arise from it. Why would God make angels with viable “sperm?” Humans are of a different “kind” than angels, so they shouldn’t be interfertile. If they don’t have seed, do they have a creative power of their own to form a hybrid offspring? Odd “gift” for angels to have. Also, if it happened then, why couldn’t it happen now or at any time? The human germ line would never really be safe from dark angelic meddling. If there is some kind of grace present to protect humans today, where was it eons ago? I remember first hearing about this in the Evangelical/Dispensationalist framework and it seems to be fairly widely accepted among them that the Nephilim were angel/human hybrids and that they interpret “Sons of God” in Genesis as angels and not Adam’s righteous descendants. It’s kind of ironic, in a way, that they could believe in angel/human hybrids, but have problems with miracle-working icons and relics.

    1. The problematic passage, of course, is Genesis 6:1-4, which speaks of the “sons of God” taking wives from the daughters of men. Faced with the difficulties you mention, other interpretations have been offered, such as the sons of God being not angels, but dynastic rulers, an early aristocracy, or as being the godly line of Seth, rather than the ungodly line of Cain. The rest of the NT seems to presuppose the first interpretation (thus 2 Peter 2:4 and Jude 6), in common with the inter-testamental literature such as the Book of Enoch quoted by Hart. The level of difficulty is determined by how literally or mythologically (that dreaded word) one takes the passage. If one takes it literally, then the difficulties you mention must somehow be accepted.

      1. Note that in Genesis 4:1 we are told that Eve “got a man with the Lord.” The immediate context is the promise of the Seed that will crush the serpent, thus the words used in Luke where the Spirit overshadows the Virgin to conceive the Son of God. This provides a contextual precedent for an interpretation that is not biological in nature. My view is that we are looking at some kind of ritual wherein a child was formally consecrated to the service of a false god and possessed by him, thus granting supernatural strength and superhuman abilities, something known from documented cases of possession. My friend Chris Kou has a great paper looking at ancient evidence for precisely such a ritual.

  3. Thanks for pointing us to this essay by D.B. Hart Fr. Lawrence. I too wish he was not so darn cranky. I would blame it on his tentious dialogue with N.T. Wright, but if your familiar with Hart at all you know that this same combative tone is used with whoever he is in dialogue with – even when the partner is not a person but a philosophy or history, such as the Calvinistic heritage of the west.

    I REALLY appreciate the central thesis, and while I have not read N.T. Wright’s translation the quoted parts really do seem to suffer from the Cartesian assumptions that Hart accuses him of. The ancient idea of the spiritual being more solid/substantial than the flesh is something C.S. Lewis tried to get across in Great Divorce, a book that should be read every Christian sooner rather than later. That said, I wonder if Hart realizes that “at the end of the day” his emphasis is not as important as he seems to think. Perhaps it would be better to say that it is “necessary” but not “sufficient”. For example he says:

    “It seems quite clear from that phrase “μήτε ἄγγελον μήτε πνεῦμα” that the concept of resurrection described here is, like Paul’s, that of an exchange of the “animated” or “psychical” body of this life for the sort of bodily existence proper to a “spirit” or an “angel….”

    Notice that Hart says “an exchange” here. What is the mechanics of this “exchange” (i.e. the metaphysics – the what/how/when), to say nothing of the *meaning*, of that which is exchanged, namely the Person or “hypostasis” (ὑπόστασις) that carries through in this exchange? What are the spiritual acts of God, His Christ (“anointed”) and how do they matter and what are we to do about all this? That “at the end of the day” is what really matters.

    Soon, very soon after Paul wrote his letters the various interpretations of this exchange blossomed forth and you have the Orginistic Problematic which is the result of certain “(neo)Platonic” emphasises of the very philosophical/religious presuppositions of the intellectual climate/cultural that St. Paul wrote in. You of course had the counter school(s) (Antioch, etc.) and it’s off to the races of early Church dogmatic and exegetical history and synthesis.

    The Church then is the place, the Body where this “dialogue” of exegesis takes place – the flow of St. Paul’s language, presuppositions, thought forms both conscious and unconscious, “dialoguing” with later Fathers and on up through today’s believer. I say all this to emphasis that while I take Hart’s point, it is “at the end of the day” only a beginning and he comes across as too confident and comfortable in the Platonism of the language of St. Paul in my opinion. In any case, we as members of the Body can not remain there, as we have to take the dogmatic and exegetical work of the Church (i.e. the Tradition of prayer, liturgy, Fathers, counciliar dogma, etc.) as a whole.

    Christopher Encapera

  4. I am not a theologian. So I wonder,were the Corinthians who were reading this letter of St Paul philosophers and theologians?
    It seems to me that the religious atmosphere of the Hellenistic Empire and Rome included real veneration of sacred objects.. like the Diana of the Ephesians .. a stone which could be carried in two hands of a priest.. but only by a special priest and very rarely while the people adored , and most people did not indulge in philosophical musings. They had sacred groves and trees and springs , rivers all of which required worship or bad things would happen to those who slighted them. Superstitions we would call them. So did St Paul write for people like this or for doctors of philosophy?
    They could understand the resurrection body being a real solid body, I expect. Nowadays we know that what we think of as solid is composed of atoms which are mostly electrons with negative charges which whirl around the nuclei with a great deal of space between the nuclei and the orbits of the electrons. Nothing really solid there. A resurrection body may be of similar make up but different arrangements of the constituents of atoms, for all we know now .

  5. I apologize but Hart’s article flies in the face of what most understand to be a Christian distinctive: this this material, cosmic world including our “sarx” flesh and worldly “psyche” soul are still ultimately good and will have great import in the anastasis/apocatastasis. The spiritual realm being more substantial (and therefore Jesus saying “God is spirit” in John’s gospel) doesn’t negate this. Hart’s ideas on the flesh/physical/soulical body sound more Hindu than Christian…that this plane of existence isn’t really “me” and because of its corruptibility isn’t even real compared to the “spirt body”. If this is the case then why the sacraments and the painstaking steps the church (east and west) has taken over the centuries to negate platonism and bolster/incorporate the corruptible material world into Christian spirituality? The implications of this chip away at the very foundations of what the Church has stood for (and against) for millenia.

    1. I don’t think that Hart is denying the goodness of creation and its importance in the final resurrection, nor is he suggesting that a body isn’t real because it is corruptible. None of this follows from his pointing out that angels were considered as in some measure corporeal and that a psyche or soul is part of the corruptible and mortal world. I think you are misreading his text.

  6. Everyone really ought to get a copy of Dr. Michael Heiser’s Unseen Realm. He is an evangelical of sorts (although you’d probably never get to peg him down categorically) who has written a magnificent book on these subjects. You begin to see why Jesus, the Apostles, and the Fathers viewed the Old Testament they way they did. In the end though, his writings end up being an Old Testament apologetic for Orthodoxy.

    One quick example to get people interested: At Babel, after their sin, the nations were disinherited. Next you have the call of Abraham. Until Christ, the Gentiles were locked out of the covenant. In Genesis you get a list of those nations. And in Acts those nations are mentioned in the same order from east to west as the places to go and reclaim now that Messiah had triggered the end. Paul’s goal was to get to Spain, Tarshish, – the furthest on the list – because he did not know the world was any bigger than the “known world”. By connecting Paul with his view of the Old Testament you understand in a much bigger way what the Gospel and Kingdom meant to him – and why the Kingdom is like yeast, hasn’t come in fulness yet, why the Antichrist has not appeared, why the delay of the Parousia, etc. It’s all in the Old Testament view of the world.

    One thing really interesting about the transfiguration is that it occurs on the same mountain where the Genesis 6 incident took place – Mount Bashan/Mount Hermon. Jesus was aware of the Watcher story from Enoch and it was part of his mission to undo it.

  7. This whole piece also lacks any mention of the intelligible-sensible dichotomy that pervades much ancient and early medieval thought. It’s not an anachronism to speak of pure spirit, or a purely immaterial soul, in the ancient world. Whether or not this is Pauline is another question. But you can’t appeal to “the ancient world” on this one.

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