Reviews of

Embodied God

In Bodies of God, Brittany E. WILSON, Luke-Acts, Matthew Sharp, Oxford University Press on March 14, 2022 at 1:57 pm

2022.03.03 | Brittany E. Wilson, The Embodied God: Seeing the Divine in Luke-Acts and the Early Church. New York: Oxford University Press, 2021. pp. xvi + 333. ISBN: 9780190080822. 

Review by Matthew Sharp, University of St Andrews.

God’s body (or bodies) has proved a fruitful and fascinating area of research for over a decade now, occupying scholars of the Hebrew Bible, ancient Near East, Graeco-Roman religion, and the religions of late antiquity. With this book Brittany Wilson adds the New Testament to this conversation as she seeks to dismantle modern Christian-Platonic notions of an invisible incorporeal God and argues forcefully for a portrayal of God in Luke-Acts that is visible, bodily, and capable of a variety of corporeal manifestations.

Part I (“Seeing God”) begins by examining the biblical prohibition against idols. It is commonly assumed that images of God were prohibited because the Jewish God has no form to image. Wilson problematises this link and points out that Luke never explicitly makes this connection. Instead, he consistently combines polemic against idol-worship with anthropomorphic language for God (e.g., Acts 7:39–56). This anthropomorphic language involves both physical body parts (hands, feet, face, heart, arm, finger), as well as human emotions and actions (seeing, hearing, speaking, desiring). This form never directly appears in Luke-Acts; rather, it exists at the level of “linguistic representation” (p. 49), which creates a mental image of God that is anthropomorphic.

While God’s anthropomorphic body is never clearly seen in Luke-Acts, characters still catch glimpses of God in various forms. In chapter two Wilson traces theophanies from the Hebrew Bible through to Second Temple Judaism (including the New Testament) and notes the tensions and contradictions concerning whether God can be seen. Even in texts that do narrate an appearance of God, there is generally a reticence at describing what that form looks like. This same tension or elusiveness is present in Luke-Acts where Stephen, and before him the shepherds, witness not God as such, but his glory (δόξα). God’s spirit takes the bodily form of a dove at Jesus’s baptism, and tongues of fire at Pentecost. God’s form is hidden within a cloud from which his voice speaks at the transfiguration.

The third chapter explores in more detail the variety of things that could function as a manifestation of God. Drawing on Benjamin Sommer’s work, Wilson argues God’s body was not fixed but fluid and could take many different forms, ranging from more abstract attributes (wisdom, word, glory, name, power, spirit) to more concrete angels and exalted human figures who share in God’s divinity. These figures complicate a rigid definition of monotheism in the ancient Jewish world and point to a variety of ways in which the one God of Israel can become materially manifest or “embodied.” Wilson acknowledges that many of these figures (especially in the Second Temple period) are distinguishable divine entities but emphasises the places where they appear to overlap with the titles or functions of God himself so that they can be viewed as embodiments of God.

The presence of God in divinely exalted human beings forms a transition to part II (“Seeing Jesus”) in which Wilson focuses on the divine embodiment of the person of Jesus. Contrary to those who claim Luke’s Jesus only becomes divine at his resurrection or ascension, chapter four argues that Jesus has an “epiphanic form,” which is glimpsed throughout his earthly life. That is, his body is presented in ways that evoke divine epiphanies. In addition to passages that focus on his bodily form, Wilson also includes Jesus’s miracles in this category. These miracles garner reactions from those present that are reminiscent of reactions to epiphanies, and they portray Jesus’s body as a (sometimes unstable) conduit of divine power. This visual experience of Jesus’s divine body, Wilson argues, links him to God, who is similarly experienced through visual epiphanies. 

Lest we should start to think that Luke’s Jesus is purely a divine being, chapter five turns our attention to the verifiable humanity of Jesus’s bodily form. Placing her reading in the context of anti-docetic interpretations of Luke, Wilson balances Jesus’s epiphanic form of the previous chapter with his visibly fleshy form. That Jesus’s human body was visible may not seem like something that needs extensive demonstration, but Wilson takes this opportunity to draw out the importance Luke attaches to sight in general as an integral aspect of belief in Jesus. Luke’s emphasis on Jesus’s flesh and bones after his resurrection also goes further than most New Testament texts in emphasising the continuing humanity of Jesus’s body so that Wilson concludes, “Jesus becomes the most concrete site—and sight—in which God becomes embodied” (p. 230).

The final chapter continues this scrutiny of Jesus’s body as it appears post-ascension throughout Acts. Here Jesus’s appearances are more consistently “epiphanic” since, Wilson argues, Jesus has moved his primary location to heaven and appears on earth by extending his fluid body, like God, in the forms of his “name,” “word,” and “glory.” At the same time, this fluid body that is in heaven is still a fleshly human body. Luke’s account aligns with ancient stories of heavenly ascent in which a person’s body, not just their soul, ascends. Unlike most other ancient accounts, however, Luke does not indicate any bodily transformation that needs to occur for this to happen. Rather, Jesus ascends with his flesh. This is one of the book’s most compelling chapters that showcases Wilson’s closest comparative work, and attentiveness to the nuances of various ancient cosmologies and anthropologies. 

As Wilson acknowledges in the conclusion, the bodies of God that emerge from this study are “fraught with ambiguity and contradictions” (p. 271), and I was certainly left with questions. If God’s body is endlessly flexible, is any one form or embodiment most truly God? Or does talk of God becoming embodied suggest that God himself is not a body, but something more fluid and separable that can become embodied? How is Jesus a fleshly embodiment of God while also being endlessly flexible himself when he is in heaven? Wilson positions such ambiguities as inherent to the nature of religious language, which is undoubtedly true, but further clarity may also be found by reframing our categories and comparative lenses. 

Wilson frames the general argument of the book as an unveiling of “inherently Jewish” views of God from underneath the baggage of philosophical, especially Platonic, frameworks. While she shows great sensitivity and nuance in the introduction by problematising exclusive definitions of categories such as “Jewish,” “Graeco-Roman,” or “Platonic,” she ultimately adopts definitions for these categories that reinforce the boundaries between them. Platonism, the negative foil throughout the book, is only vaguely defined, and it is often hard to tell whether the main target is Plato himself, the Platonic tradition as it would have been available to NT authors, or (as most often seems the case) a modern, post-Cartesian philosophical and theological sensibility. Relevant Jewish comparanda, on the other hand, are restricted to those texts and traditions that do not consider the divine in “metaphysical or philosophically fraught terms” (p. 13), skewing comparison from the start.

First-century Platonists certainly believed in an immaterial first principle they identified with God. But they also affirmed a cosmos full of embodied gods, daimons, and souls, not to mention more abstract potencies (word, power, spirit) that could have proved rich and illuminating sources of comparison. Luke’s “imaginal body” of God that encodes anthropomorphism at the linguistic level is also strikingly similar to Plato’s divine craftsman of the Timaeus who speaks, desires, rejoices, and engages in physical activities such as mixing and crafting materials. This suggests that future work will need to unpick some of the dichotomies Wilson sets up and look for insight and clarity from a broader range of ancient comparanda.Wilson’s conclusion makes clear that this book is not intended to deliver the final word on this topic, but to open fresh avenues of research, and in this she has undoubtedly been successful. The questions she raises are compelling and productive. Thanks to Wilson, no one should now be able to write on God in the New Testament and early Christianity without pondering questions of embodiment.

Matthew Sharp
University of St Andrews
mts21 [at] st-andrews.ac.uk

  1. […] Matthew Sharp wrote a review of Brittany Wilson’s Embodied God: Seeing the Divine in Luke-Act…. I’ve not read Wilson’s work but after reading Sharp’s review that might have to change! […]

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