Body and Soul, Purity and Impurity: Parallel Material

PhiloIt is important to compare what you have seen in the scrolls with parallel material in the other Second Temple texts, New Testament and rabbinic literature.  (Meyer)


Philo seems to display two closely related approaches.  The first is a type of anthropological dualism.  In this approach, Philo generally takes a negative view of flesh (Greek sarks).  It is the seat of characteristics that essentially enslave the spirit.  Bodily desire is what led Eve to transgression. In the same way, the passions of men are kindled by, thus causing sin.  The soul also can give rise to evil, although only when the flesh has power over it.  But because of his Judaism, Philo maintains the concept of free will including the will to choose between good and evil.  He emphasizes that human beings may not use their physical constitution as an excuse for transgression.  But he also has a second approach, a type of cosmic dualism, in which God is a understood as a non-fleshly, non-corporeal being.  Hence, only that which fits the same non-physical category, that is, the soul, can truly know God.  In this approach, the body or the flesh is a burden for the soul.  Hence, the body must in some way be dispelled to allow the soul to unify with God.  In this approach, the flesh is the physical part of humanity that prevents the flight of the soul to God and the growth of wisdom.  Thus, one who wants to attain wisdom must separate from that which is physical.  This is a necessary precondition of spiritual ecstasy.  Otherwise the nonmaterial soul cannot soar up to the heavenly heights.  In this approach, flesh is no longer the total human being as in the Bible or the Dead Sea Scrolls, but only its physical constitution.


At this point, we turn to Paul in his writings we find a much greater emphasis on the division of body and soul. (Theological dictionary of the New Testament, page 125 “Paul”)

Paul uses the Greek term sarkh, technically the muscular part of the human body, to refer to the body as a whole, a usage familiar also from classical Greek sources. In Paul, the “body” can denote the whole of a person’s physical existence. While this usage has no negative connotation, the physical is by its nature limited and temporary. In this usage, there is no better part or worse part.

Paul also uses sarkh  to refer to the earthly aspect, as opposed to the heavenly. Here, the body is still neutral, although it is susceptible to corruption. The body becomes negative when used improperly, when a person boasts, puts too much confidence in his or her body, or is self- righteousness. This is the reason that circumcision was negative because it was an earthly sign of the covenant (see p. 130). Putting too much reliance on the body gives heed only to the earthly existence and disregards God’s will.  One must constantly orient oneself to the spiritual although life is lived on the earthly level. Sin is the over reliance on the flesh as opposed to the spirit. The earthly concerns of the body shape humans and cause them to seek power on earth. Humanity then becomes a prisoner of these forces: sexual sins, eating and drinking, hate and strife. Paul rejects the legalism of the Pharisees as well as the excesses of the pagans. Both are ways in which man becomes servile to the body. Security and fame may rest on man’s self righteousness, and Paul characterizes the earthly body as a force that entices people away from the true values in life—those that are inherent in the spirit of God. In this context, English translations often render sarkh as “flesh.” Only the spirit of God can free a person and can determine his or her destiny beyond life on earth. The corporeality of Jesus was crucified, and what remained was God. (p. 133) Pre-Christian man cannot attain the spiritual life because, as much as he tries, he is bound to do things that are contrary to God. (see p. 130). Pharisees want to be obedient to God, but they fall into a legalism and self righteousness which is a sin. The believer crucifies him or herself with Christ, that is, he or she rids him or herself of the influence of corporeality to live in the spirit. Such a person crucifies his or her body. But this is not an act of self-negation or asceticism. The body is not something that a person can deny. Rather, he or she lives a life of faith in emulation of Jesus. (see p. 130).  So one’s essence becomes defined by one’s relation to God, certainly not by one’s physical body.

Rabbinic Literature

In rabbinic literature, as in the Dead Sea Scrolls as well, flesh may designate humanity as a collective or an individual person.  Often, the term “flesh and blood” may be used to designate the human body, often in contrast to “the Holy One blessed the He.”  However, often the term guf  (Hebrew “body”) is used instead.  In the context of our discussion of embodiment, it is worth noting that this term does not appear in the Dead Sea Scrolls corpus. Hebrew geviyah denotes a dead body. The usage of flesh and blood (Hebrew basar ve-dam) appears in Ben Sira. The rabbis use the term “flesh and blood” to indicate the corruptible nature of man, in contrast to God.  Often God is contrasted with a “King of flesh and blood.”

It is extremely important to note that the term guf totally replaces the use of basar, “flesh,” in rabbinic literature.  This is a postbiblical term, since the Hebrew Bible only uses gufah, “corpse.”  This substitution of terminology is most probably a result of the fact that around this time the Hellenistic sense of the division of body and soul made its way into rabbinic thought.  With this development, the sense of the corporate human being gave way to what we might call the divided self.  It is true that aspects of this concept are adumbrated already in biblical literature. However, the biblical soul was part of the corporate personality whereas in the Hellenistic and rabbinic concepts the body could be blamed for transgression that the soul would normally resist. Nonetheless, the negative view of the physical human being does occur once in a while in rabbinic literature, and occasionally negative aspects are attributed to human procreation, as when we are reminded that humans come originally from a “fetid drop.”

The soul is understood to derive from heaven and the body from birth.  Humanity, therefore, belongs to both the heavenly and earthly spheres and, depending on which element is dominant, can resemble in behavior the lower creatures or God in whose image humans were created.  Essentially, then, there is an antithesis between the two, the heavenly soul and the body.  Nonetheless, we do not observe here a consistent dualism.  Throughout rabbinic literature we find scattered traditional unitary thinking of the corporate biblical personality.  In general, if we compare the thinking of the scrolls community to that of the Talmudic rabbis we cannot but be struck by the positive attitude that the Rabbis took to the physical part of human life that contrasts sharply with the negative views of the sectarians.

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