The Body of Jesus

Piero della Francesaca,  The  Resurrection. Museo Civico de Sansepolcro, c. 1467-68.

Piero della Francesaca, The Resurrection. Museo Civico de Sansepolcro, c. 1467-68.

When studying the historical Jesus, it becomes clear that much of the efficacy of that most famous of itinerant preachers was directly related to his physical body. Most historically important was the manner in which Jesus of Nazareth collapsed the symbolic and real precisely through his body. It begins with his birth, no less than an impossible event in the annals of monotheism. Jesus was the incarnate God, the messiah, the son of God made flesh, something that was technically blasphemous by traditional Jewish standards (he would be charged with this offence at his trial). The Incarnation would become the definitive distinction between Christianity and the other main monotheistic religions. Judaism and Islam continue to view Jesus as a great prophet, teacher, rabbi, but certainly not the son of God incarnate. Jesus’ genealogical divinity is precisely made real through his bodily carnality, something that the gospel writers and the early Church fathers will never tire of reiterating. The synthesis between symbolic and real is no more evident than in Jesus’ so-called miracles. Jesus’ miraculous transformations of the sick and crippled were no less that living embodiments of the symbolic and real at work, literally. What would later be called speech-acts is here anticipated as touch-acts. Healing through semiotic touching is what Jesus did. Invariably Jesus touched the blind, the cripple, the lepers. These physical acts of touching were the real healing powers given that by laying his hands on these untouchables,[1]Jesus was symbolically, and thus actually, removing from them the semiotic, and simultaneously, the real stigma that they carried: when Jesus touches the leper he literally transformed him from a sinner, dirty, cursed vermin, into human beings.[2]The crucial role of Jesus’ body is crystallized in the most famous meal in human history when Jesus instructs his disciples to “Eat this, all of you. This is my body,”[3] which makes perfect sense if one understands human phagological principles: eating something essentially transmits the object’s power to whomever consumes it.  

Of course, the ultimate identification of Christians with Jesus’s body is the resurrection itself. According to Christian doctrine, all Christians will be resurrected, in the flesh, as Jesus was on Easter morning. It will be in all their bodily glory that Christians will be saved, in the end, for real. 


[1] It should be remembered that in ancient times, what today we consider disabled individuals or persons with disease were often believed to be sinful and cursed people. Their miasmic pollution was therefore considered contagious (even through sight in some cultures, as was the case in Palestine during Jesus’ lifetime). 

[2] For the reality of Jesus’ miracles as real semiotic events, see John Dominic Crossan, The Birth of Christianity(New York, 1998). 

[3] By the way, Jesus’ words (in the koine Greek of the New Testament) were not “this is a symbol of my body,” etc., but he uses the third-person indicative of “to be,” esti “this is.”