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”.