Human Body: Eastern Christian Concept

2. Eastern Christian Theology on the Human Body

We can see two kinds of thought in the Eastern concept. On the one side, we have the Greek concept of the human body and on the other side, we find the Syriac notion which is closer to the Hebrew idea of the body. The Greek Fathers have taken the Platonic and the Aristotelian concept of the human body, which we will analyze in the forthcoming section.

2.1. The Platonic Concept of the Human Body among the Greek Fathers

The first successful effort to give the Christian world-view a thoroughly Greco-Roman expression is what we may call the Platonic Christian theology. This anthropology is dominated by the view that the human person is a spiritual soul which uses a body but is not substantially identified with it. The Alexandrian school of Clement (d. before 216), Origen (d. 253) and St. Athanasius (d. 373) played the leading role in developing Platonic Christian theology.51

Origen observes that "all fallen souls, perhaps only after many reincarnations and purgatories after death, will eventually return to God (apokatastasis). Obviously the great difficulty of this scheme is to fit the Resurrection into it in any really meaningful way."52 Moreover, in his book, the Peri Archôn (On First Principles) he takes the opportunity to lay bare the assumptions about the position of human beings in the universe that had underlined his personal alchemy as an exegete and guide of souls.53 Origen points out the word psyche, for 'soul.'54

For Origen, the fall of each individual spirit into a particular body had not been in any way a cataclysm; to be placed in a body was to experience a positive act of divine mercy. He distanced himself from many of his contemporaries by insisting that the body was necessary for the slow healing of the soul.55 Thus, far from regarding the body as a prison of the soul, Origen arrived at an unexpected familiarity with the body.

St. Athanasius of Alexandria, at the Council of Nicaea (325) took the decisive step of meeting the problem which both Gnosticism and this early Platonized theology had raised about the incarnation by defining the divinity (i. e the equality of the son with the Father) of Christ. He is against every Gnostic tendency.56 For Athanasius, soma is that

which is contingent, mutable and fallible, and is mortal and corruptible; it is that which binds a particular thing or person to other things or persons which share these qualities. Yet such a definition of soma is, for Athanasius, not the primary definition: first and foremost, soma is that which is created ex nihilo, and as a consequence it is not self-sufficient.57

Besides, the body is not denigrated in Athanasius' thinking, but is good and noble (De Incarnatione 41-42). It is not surprising to see it as existing properly with its soul. The soul was pre-existent and immortal. It is related to the divine and spiritual realm, and was only trapped in the material world by its associations with the body.58

We can then define the body in the Athanasian corpus as that which can signify the whole person, but with which an individual is not to be materially equated. Man/woman is seen as a unity of parts. It is not a monadic unity.59

Moreover, the full development of the Platonic Christian theology in its earlier phase is seen more in the Cappadocian Fathers: Gregory Nazianzen (d.c. 390), Basil the Great (d. 379) and his brother Gregory of Nyssa (d. 394).60 The Cappadocians were able to develop a magnificent cosmology and anthropology, especially in Basil's Hexameron or commentary on Genesis I and the completion of the work by Gregory of Nyssa in his The Making of Man.

Further, Basil maintains that the fundamental ontological division is between creator and creature. This duality is reflected in the created world by the division between the intelligible realm of light, and the sensible world created in the image of the realm of light yet subject to the darkness of sin and corruption. Basil presents that "the human person is a microcosm sharing in both worlds, but destined ultimately for life with God."61 Therefore, his dualism is not one of opposition, but of dynamic unity in which the lower realities reflect the higher.

Gregory of Nyssa in The Making of Man had furnished Basil's scheme with a more detailed and philosophically subtitle anthropology.62 He states that "God's creative act is beyond time, and the six days of creation are only symbolic. First God created Adam as part of the intelligible world of spirits in the second heaven. Adam then had a body of pure light which in no way dimmed his simple unity as an image of the One God."63 He says that it is in union with God that soul is deified, yet it remains distinct from God whose essence is absolutely inaccessible to created minds.64

Gregory of Nyssa also writes in his work on the Creation of Man: "Everyone learns from observing himself the exact structure of his body, through sight, through living, and feeling; in this one's own nature is one's teacher. Ancient man is always intimately acquainted with his own body; that one must have such a precise knowledge of oneself in self-evident to him."65 In short, Cappadocian anthropology retains the doctrine of the original goodness of the body and strongly affirms its resurrection, but it seems that it conceives this body not as our terrestrial body but as a body of pure light pertaining to the first creation.66

The development of Platonic theology did not end with the Cappadocians. We find it in anthropology of Pseudo-Dionysis and St. Maximus. The Christian Neo-Platonists always struggled to find ways to reconcile Aristotle with Plato. In the work of Nemesius, Bishop of Emessa, On the Nature of Man (c. 400), significant elements of Aristotelianism were introduced into Christian anthropology.67

The contribution of the Pseudo-Dionysius to an understanding of our bodily existence is to be found chiefly in two themes present in the writings of Gregory of Nyssa. Psudo-Dionysius depicts a much more systematic form.68 The first concept of it reads as follows:

...the human being as the microcosm or midpoint of an immense cosmic hierarchy (the world was introduced by Dionysius) in which all the perfection of any substantial being are contained more perfectly and in more unified form in its immediate superior on up to the Absolute One in whom all being and perfection is unified....Dionysius elaborates this hierarchical scheme by a speculative angelology and an ecclesiology in which the earthly hierarchy of the Church images the linear hierarchy of the angelic kingdom. In this hierarchy matter is simply the manifestation of remoteness from the One, the dispersion of Being like light scattering in the darkness. Thus the human body reflects the imperfect unity of the human soul which requires to be reunified through contemplation- what has been scattered must be recollected.69

In the second of these contributions Dionysius' try to explain the dynamism of this cosmic hierarchy through its relation to the 'One above all Being and Non-Being.' According to Dionysius,

...Humanity as a microcosm and midpoint of the hierarchy tends to move toward the One by reason of its spirituality, but toward nothingness by reason of its corporeality. The human body is good to the degree that its beauty and order through contemplative recollection; but evil to the degree that it becomes a burden to this return by drawing the spirit downward in pursuit of transitory things.70

More substantial was the reworking of this whole tradition by St. Maximus the Confessor (d. 662). He developed what is today more and more recognized as the most balanced and classic version of eastern theology.71 St. Maximus makes full use of this Dionysian system, but strives to correct its dangerous tendencies. Maximus writes that "composition of the human person from body and soul is not transitory, but permanently necessary for human completeness."72

Likewise, Maximus defended the positive reality of the human body distinct from the soul and complementary to it, thus opposing the Neo-Platonic tendency to describe the body chiefly in negative terms as a sign of the distance of the human composite. According to him, "the reason the human soul has a body is only that the Creator has so willed it."73

The one severe crisis within eastern theology in the middle ages was the controversy over the views of St. Gregory Palamas (d.1359), great Athonite monk, fourteenth-century Archbishop of Thessalonica, and one of the greatest theologians of the Orthodox Church. He sought to defend the great tradition of eastern mysticism against attacks by the first Byzantines to become acquainted with Latin theology as developed in the medieval universities of the west.74 The proper understanding of the Christian view of the human body provides both anthropology and christology. The traditional patristic and Orthodox doctrine of human person is rooted on the biblical understanding of creation and salvation. We have already seen that in the early Christian formation of the doctrine there were two trends simultaneously impacting human thought, namely classical philosophy and the Hebrew biblical tradition.75

The Christian understanding of man/woman as body and soul is deeply rooted in biblical anthropology as it evolved in the Hebrew Old Testament. As in the Old Testament, New Testament Orthodox Christianity teaches that the whole man, body and soul, was created immortal. The Orthodox Christian doctrine of man as body and soul is also clearly pointed in the prayer book, where prayers are offered both for the healing of the soul and body.76

Using both Hellenic and Hebraic sources Saint Gregory Palamas and Barlaam the Calabrian debated the issue in fourteenth-century Byzantium. Palamas described the biblical Orthodox Christian doctrine that man/woman is composed of body and soul. It opposes the classical Greek philosophical view that the body is evil. He makes his argument clear and uses biblical and patristic thought as evidence to support his position.77 But, Barlaam argues that Greek philosophy had equal importance to revelation in the theological doctrines of the Church. So he argued in a Platonic way that the body does not participate in ascendance toward God. The soul and mind is that which prays and is affected by prayer because the soul is immaterial. Perfect prayer for Barlaam means perfect liberation from matter. The participation of the body with the soul in the gifts of the Holy Spirit is absolutely unacceptable for him. Whatever detracts the soul from ascending, and attaches it to the body darkens the soul and prevents it from coming closer to God.78

Palamas, in answering to the Barlaamite from an Orthodox perspective, begins with the sacred Scriptures and also uses patristic and church tradition. Palamas refuted the philosophical approach of Barlaam and articulated the Orthodox doctrine of the human body on the basis of biblical presupposition.79 Palamas observes:

man as God's image is body and soul and that they interact and ascend towards God. He rejects the philosophical view that the body is a "tomb" or a "prison" of the soul. The body as well as the soul are created by God ex nihilo to attain the ultimate theosis in paradise. The coming of Christ to the world included the redemption of the body and ultimate resurrection of both body and soul.80

Palamas makes clear that the sacred Scriptures refer to man/woman as a unique being which consists of body and soul. In short, we can say that Palamas rejects the idea that man is only a soul. As we understood today, this is the tradition of the Church. It is also evident from the reference made to Fathers. Palamas says: "The whole man consists of soul and body by nature, and the whole man becomes divine, both soul and body, through divine grace."81 This is the core of his idea about the human person. In brief, we find the platonic influence in the writings of the Greeks Fathers. But at the same time Fathers argue that there is no separation of body and soul in human beings, especially in the teachings of Palamas.

2.2. The Aristotelian Concept of the Human Body among the Greek Fathers

Aristotelian Christian theology was an alternative to Platonic dualism in Christian theology. But its value was long unrecognized. In the Greek church, the works of Aristotle was better known while in the Latin church it was only partially known.

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Orthodox theologians began to see how Aristotle's method, when employed with moderation, might be very helpful for clarifying the confusions that produced heresies. This we can see in the work of so thorough a Platonist as St. Gregory of Nyssa.

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In Eastern theology the typical doctrines of Aristotelianism never played a dominant role, including its conception of the relation of soul to body. When the university of Constantinople was re-established in the ninth century by Caesar Bardas, the great scholar Photius (d. 897) gave to its studies not so much a philosophical but a humanist and antiquarian emphasis. Again when this university undergone a further renewal in the eleventh century its leading philosopher Michael Psellus (d. after 1078) regarded Aristotle's works only as a subject of study subsidiary to that of Plato.84

2.3. Teachings of the Syriac Fathers on Human Body

In the previous section, we had rather detailed discussion on the Greek conception of human body. In this section we will discuss the Syriac concept of human body. The Syriac concept is closer to the Hebrew idea of the human body. A Syriac work of the fourth century the Didascalia of Apostles, based upon a third-century Greek text, states that "because Christ assumed a body and raised that body from death nothing can make the body impure, not even menstrual or birth blood or semen or the decay of death."85 Aphraaht and Ephraim, the two great Syrian writers, are relevant to our discussion here.

Aphraates, the Persian sage, gives us a general survey of Syriac theology of the body.86 He notes that "the body is corrupted and wastes away, you ought to be instructed by the parable of the seed, that as the seed, when it is cast into the earth, decays and is corrupted, and from the decay it produces and buds and bears fruit."87 Aphraates views resurrection as fertility, which is the redemption process. Furthermore, he argues that the body is buried in animal wise, and rises again in spiritual wise. Whatever man, who receives the spirit from the water (of baptism) and grieves it, from him departs the spirit until he dies, and returning according to its nature to Christ.88

When one comes to St. Ephrem, he is not influenced by Platonic or dualistic tendencies, which were the characteristic of certain trends of early Christianity that sought to denigrate the value of the body.89 The starting point for his own positive attitude is the fact that body is part of God's creation and so should not be despised. But Ephrem has three further important considerations.90

First is the evidence of Scripture itself: commenting on 1Corintians 6: 19, "Do you not know that your bodies are a temple of the Holy Spirit who dwells within you." Ephrem points to the honour which God himself pays to the body by making it a dwelling place and habitation of the Trinity (Commentary on the Pauline epistles, p. 62- p. 59; he goes on to quote John 14: 23). Later on, commenting on 2 Corinthians 5, he writes 'Just as our bodies became worthy to be the dwelling of his Spirit, so he makes them worthy at the end to put on eternal glory (Commentary on the Pauline Epistles, p. 96 - p. 96). Ephrem elsewhere speaks of the human body as having become God's new temple, replacing the Temple on the Mount Sion (Heresies 42: 4).91

Secondly, According to Ephrem, the very fact that God 'put on a body' (Nativity 9:2 and often elsewhere) indicates that there is nothing unclean or unworthy about the body. Finally, the Eucharist provides Ephrem with similar evidence of the worth of the body; in the following extract he is arguing against a group of Christians who considered body to be impure while accepting the Eucharist:

If our Lord had despised the body as something unclean or hateful and foul, then the Bread and the cup of Salvation should also be something hateful and unclean to these heretics; for how could Christ have despised the body yet clothed himself in the Bread, seeing that bread is related to that feeble body. And if he was pleased with dumb bread, how much more so with the body endowed with speech and reason? (Heresies 47:2)

Exactly the same thing is indicated by the fact that God allows the Holy Mysteries, his own Body and Blood, to be consumed by human bodies: "God would not have mingled his Mysteries in the body had it originated from the Evil One (Heresies 43: 3)."92 Body and soul are thus equally important in Ephrem's eyes. They have different roles to play: "The body gives thanks to You because You created it as an abode for Yourself, the soul worships You because You betrothed it at Your coming. (Hersies 17: 5)"93 Moreover, Ephrem designed an apt use of the story of Peter's ear from Luke 22.51 to stress the restoration of every organ.

For, if the divine one bent down and took the ear that was cut off from Simon and thrown away, and attached it again so that nothing was lost, how much more will he then at the resurrection search for every bit so that nothing of their dust remains behind. And as in the fiery furnace not a hair of their head perished (Luke 21, 18), so he makes known the care he will practice at the resurrection.94

Further, we can see that in the Syrian tradition the purity of the body was not similar to the Greek tradition, especially in the approach of Athanasius and Gregory of Nyssa. In the Syrian tradition, spiritual and physical lived side by side.95 In short, in the Syriac tradition, we can say that man/woman is a unity of both soul and body, which is very much related to the Hebrew concept.


Coming to the conclusion of this article, we have presented that there are two kinds of concept of human body such as Greek and Hebrew. This we can find in the tradition of the Catholic church. The Greek and Hebrew influence are seen in the writings of both the Greek and the Latin Fathers. But among the Syriac Fathers one can find the Hebrew ideologies. The Greek influence is given the superiority of soul while body is seen as inferior. There is also separation of soul and body. On the contrary the Hebrew understanding expresses the unity of body and soul. Similarly, the human body retrieved from the Scripture describes that human person is consisted of body and soul. But due to the overemphasis of Greek philosophy this concept was not taken fully in the history of the church. Sometimes body is considered low, while soul is high. Even body is considered as evil. Hebrew concept gives a proper understanding of human body, which we find the writings of the syriac fathers. Human person is a unified whole (both body and spirit), and it expresses the image of God are the some of main concept of the eastern Christians, which is very relevant in the present context.

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