Spiritual Bodies and the Afterlives of Ancient Democracy in Early Paulinism

Steven T Payne, Fordham University


“Spiritual Bodies and the Afterlives of Ancient Democracy in Early Paulinism” illuminates a nexus of particularly perplexing second- and third-century elaborations of Paul’s teaching on the resurrected “spiritual body,” or “pneumatic body,” of 1 Corinthians 15. It does so specifically by reading interpretations of Paul’s writings in the context of the contemporary decline of Greek democracy. Regardless of whether Paul himself intended to invoke the storied legacy of democracy with such classically democratic catchwords as ekklēsia, parrhēsia, or eleutheria, this dissertation argues that some of his earliest readers began to attend to the ancient democratic sonority of his corpus and that they were able to do so precisely because of the very slipperiness of the idea of a pneumatic body. This study suggests that it was the unspoken capacity of the pneumatic body to elicit these more democratic valences in Paul’s writings that particularly worried the early and most vocal partisans of fleshly resurrection, even if unconsciously. Thus, in these early exegetical debates over 1 Corinthians 15, “flesh” and “pneuma” became partial and perhaps inadvertent ciphers for the careful maintenance of a contingent regime of social distinction, on the one hand, and the potential upsetting of it, on the other. This interpretive controversy absorbed such social gravity when it did — that is, during the second half of the second century and first half of the third — because this was the time frame in which Greek democracy itself began to suffer irrecoverable setbacks due to the exponential growth in the eastern Mediterranean of large senatorial estates exempt from municipal taxation. Although ancient democracy soon disappeared and the idea of fleshly resurrection eventually triumphed, this study concludes that the pneumatic body provided some of Paul’s earliest readers with unique conceptual resources that allowed them variously to register, mourn, survive, or even contest the contemporary decline of democracy. To advance this argument, Part 1 of this dissertation engages in an extensive assessment of the livelihood of Greek democracy during the Principate. Chapter 1 reviews scholarship on Greek democracy during the Hellenistic and Roman eras and critically analyzes the various assumptions at play within it. It concludes by providing a constructive historiographical framework to make sense of the data for post-classical Greek democracy. Chapter 2 scrutinizes dozens of inscriptions commissioned by the popular Assembly, the main governing and deliberative organ of Greek democracy, during the first two and a half centuries ce and highlights the vital role that this institution still played in many poleis throughout the eastern Mediterranean in this period. In chapter 3, this study formulates a hypothesis as to why such evidence almost completely disappears after the middle of the third century. This sharp drop-off, it contends, is not a mere accident of the data but is more widely indicative of the rapid erosion of Greek democratic institutions caused by social and economic shifts in the eastern Mediterranean that began in the second half of the second century and picked up momentum in the third. Having set this historical backdrop, Part 2 of this dissertation focuses on early interpretations of Paul and performs close readings of three texts as test cases for its thesis about the relationship between the pneumatic body and ancient democracy. Chapter 4 examines the ways in which Tripartite Tractate (NH I, 5) deploys the notion of a collective pneumatic body — a pneumatic Assembly — to essay various more or less egalitarian models of community in the divine, celestial, and earthly spheres. Chapter 5 turns to Hypostasis of the Archons (NH II, 4) and teases out the text’s conceptualization of the pneumatic body as a mode of embodiment particularly suited to free speech. Chapter 6 analyzes Origen’s counter-intuitive exegesis of Romans 13:1–7 and highlights the ways in which his association of pneumatic bodies with freedom makes his against-the-grain reading of this passage possible. The epilogue invokes Walter Benjamin’s conception of history in “Über den Begriff der Geschichte” and aligns these nearly forgotten moments of past struggle with current sites of popular resistance to global capital.

Subject Area

Classical Studies|Theology|Ancient history

Recommended Citation

Payne, Steven T, "Spiritual Bodies and the Afterlives of Ancient Democracy in Early Paulinism" (2019). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI13879245.