Body and Character in Luke and Acts

Body and Character in Luke and Acts by Mikeal C. Parsons

Mikeal Parsons has illuminated ancient attitudes about the body and its relation to morality in the ancient world that are fascinating and seem to on the whole make more sense of the biblical texts he has chosen to illuminate than other conjectures such as the immediate presupposition of inauthenticity. Parsons has shown continuity with the texts being examined and Luke’s overall message convincingly, while not completely persuaded, I feel that Parsons has done a great job of bringing an orthodox view of the text as plausible back into the academic arena through a brief and scholarly study which presents alternative views of the text informed by a largely ignored area in terms of biblical scholarship.

For those who are unfamiliar with the term physiognomy, it is an ancient pseudo-science about the relation of the physical body to the perception of character, namely ideal bodies were inclined to ideal morals and disabled or deformed persons were considered to have flawed morality corresponding to their physical appearance. Parsons has shown how this consciousness was permeating the ancient world’s perception of literary characters beginning with Greek poetry, and its use in making moral judgments about literary figures. He parallels this to Luke’s presentation of the four characters he has chosen to examine in his inspection of the use and subversion of .

Parsons has chosen four pericopes to cover in his short but penetrating study, the story of the bent woman, Zacchaeus, the man lame from birth, and the Ethiopian eunuch. He provides keen insight to each of these stories, and informs us of how these characters might have been received by Luke’s audience before he turns the tables on the audience by overthrowing the general pathos which their stereotypes have taught them to adopt.

It is interesting to see the way that the “physiognomic consciousness” plays into these stories and seems a plausible way that the authorial audience would have seen the text. I don’t know what my ultimate reservation is, but I feel that my suspicion of the work might lie in its lack of theological finale. While touching on various topics I thought he might delve into more, Parsons refrains, perhaps to keep the work objective, perhaps because he works best as an expositor, but I feel that the conclusions that could be drawn from the work were not present sufficiently, and left me curious to see more. Instead I was left with a brief epilogue whose last two sentences were a wonderful conclusion yet, seemingly unfinished. Although Parsons has invited theological inquiry based on his study, which I hope to see some of soon.

The book also has great virtue though, as a work which forces us to reconsider our own biases of morality based on outward appearance, and we are reminded that the early Christian community is radical, because it includes the weak, the frail, the outcast and the judged. In the formation of theology, especially moral theology in the advent of this century, it is an important work in historical ethics of the Christian community.

I feel that what was important to my observation and inquiry in the characters presented in the stories Parsons presented was the way healing played a role in the stories, because it has different effects on the person being healed at each turn. The bent woman is obviously healed of a disease which afflicted her 18 years, and is physically healed from what has made her outcast, and the same goes for the lame man. While the connecting factor between these two is a healing and common theme of weakness and morally dubious character, which is interesting in itself, my initial concern is with Zacchaeus and the Ethiopian Eunuch.

If Parsons is right about Zacchaeus being a dwarf by congenital defect, Jesus does not restore him to the community by their standards of what a moral person looks like, which while seemingly obvious is still significant. This means that Jesus in Luke’s narrative does not see dwarfism as barrier to the kingdom of God, nor does he see it as a lack of wholeness. For someone developing a theology disability or deformity, it is highly significant that this is the case. For Luke’s Jesus is a healing Jesus, and I think it is noteworthy that Luke’s Jesus does not make Zacchaeus taller. If we look at the text with its physiognomic dimensions Jesus challenges Zacchaeus to become magnanimous in character, which would seem difficult to the people who underrated him as a person small of character due to his physical stature. Jesus also calls him a son of Abraham, Jesus sees Zacchaeus as part of the eschatological community by virtue of the choice which he has made to bring restitution to his failures. His salvation is not merely a matter of his being good now, but is a reinterpretation of his social status as well, making him equal in the community of Jesus’ followers despite his physical differences.

While to us this may seem commonplace, or to be assumed, it is highly uncharacteristic of ancient religions at large and specifically uncharacteristic of Judaism. While it is noted that deformed persons had a popular place in the Roman culture it was as objects of ridicule, collected like trophies by the emperors Domitian and Nero, and Augustus even bought a congenitally short small person as a pet for his niece.

While Jesus encounters him, he makes no move to “heal” Zaccheus as in cure him of his congenital defect, even though in other cases he does, such as the man blind from birth. This raises interesting questions.

The Eunuch as well raises some interesting questions, if he is a castrated or sexually mutilated man is not restored sexually by baptism or by extreme unction as he is brought into the community through baptism which is just as important as if he had been. While he is through Parson’s argument given a new place in the community and a new honor in Christ, he is not healed at least in the sense of a physical restoration of function, and though the audience is forced to reconsider his character, his role in the community is reinterpreted by the early Christian community as one who is ritually pure.

The Christian polemic against the temple cult and a new and radical inclusivism are only part of the whole picture of the moral formation which Luke is using through these illustrations.

It seems that in light of physiognomy early Christians reject the assumptions of morality as inherently tied to physical appearance, which was not to remain so historically as some prominent Christian leaders that Parsons notes were persuaded by physiognomic interests. It might even explain what we moderns think absurd theological considerations when we read about some church theologians and the way in which they think Christians should laugh properly in society.

In conclusion, I feel that this book is important, and should be read by anyone with an interest in the Abrahamic community, healing, or outcasts as themes in Lukan literature. I would like to see the implications these texts have for Christian healing and a theology of disability. While books on the subject of disability and theology are coming from every angle and exploding in the contemporary interest, I think it’s of great value to examine why Jesus healed the way he did and what healing might have been in Christ’s idea of His mission. It seems important to me to know whether Jesus had a particular physiognomic concern, or whether he had a moral or ontological concern for the people he healed. While it would be largely speculation, the text might provide some insights, though we must allow that it was not built in such a way as to answer that question directly. I’d like to do some more work reading Luke-Acts and commentators on the text since it is of great interest to me.

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