And the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us
(and we saw his glory, the glory as it were
of the only begotten of the Father),
full of grace and truth.
To fully understand human corporeality, we must turn to the person of Jesus, the God-Man who lived and died and rose again in first-century Palestine. As Paul Griffiths writes: “it is a central claim of Christianity that the Word, the second person of the Trinity, became exactly that, became enfleshed and lived and died as a person with human flesh” (Decreation, p. 151). Throughout the entirety of his human existence, the Word perfects the possibilities of flesh. This does not mean that everything that may be said about Jesus “can be thought to belong to human flesh generically; some of what happened to his flesh is proper only to the flesh of a human creature who is also the LORD.” The challenge of discriminating between the two is exacerbated by the fact that the only flesh known to us in our daily experience is devastated flesh. If the world had never fallen from grace, perhaps every human being would have the ability to walk on water or still derechos—alas, such is not the case. Hence we cannot rule out in advance possible differences between Jesus’ flesh and our flesh (even deified flesh), precisely because Jesus enjoyed, and enjoys, a two-natured existence and we do not:
Ours is human flesh, corrupted by our own sin and damaged by the devastated world into which it is conceived and born; his, like ours, is born into a devastated world and therefore responsive to and affected by the violence and death and damage that characterize such a world, though without the deepening of that damage produced by further sin of his own. Jesus’ flesh shows, therefore, both differences from and similarities to our own. Some of the difference are because his flesh belong to a sinless person; others are due to the transfigurative effects on human flesh of union with the LORD, which is to say that they’re due to the fact that the anointed one is a double-natured person. The similarities between his flesh and ours are those that belong to human flesh as such, those without which flesh could not be human. (Christian Flesh, p. 28)
Griffiths identifies three stages of the Lord’s flesh: his natal flesh, his resurrected flesh, and his ascended flesh. Of special interest is his discussion of Christ’s possible immunity to illness and invulnerability to physical injury during his historical existence. Could Jesus have suffered cardiac arrest or developed a terminal disease like cancer? Banally put, could he have come down with the common cold? We probably want to answer no to the first and maybe or yes to the second; but on what rational basis?
That Jesus shares in the fragility and mortality of human flesh is evident from the New Testament accounts of his passion and death: he is whipped, tortured, crucified, and finally suffers the separation of soul and body that we call death. “It is clear, and abundantly so,” writes Griffiths, that Scripture represents Jesus’ flesh as capable of sustaining damage by human action, including actions that uses weapons or other instruments of violence” (p. 36). Nothing controversial so far—who but the docetists have thought otherwise? Our Catholic theologian continues:
But it is much less clear that Jesus’ flesh can be damaged by occurrences that don’t involve human agency. Such might include: illness produced by nonhuman agents (bacteria, viruses) acting from without on his flesh; fleshly damage effected by the violence of the inanimate world (fire, flood); damage brought about by the decay of the flesh without the action of external agents (loss of hair, of muscle tone, of eyesight). About the first and third of these, Scripture has nothing to say one way or another. Jesus is there depicted neither as subject to nor immune from illness; the same is true of the fleshly effects of aging—though in that case it is suggestive that Scripture depicts Jesus as dying before he was of an age (according to the norms of the time; our norms are different) to show any such effects, and the later tradition has made a good deal of this point. But about the second of these, fleshly damage produced by the violence of the inanimate world, there are some suggestive scriptural passages. (p. 36)
Now things are getting interesting. Arguments from silence are notoriously difficult to assess, and this is certainly the case regarding the New Testament’s silence about Jesus’ good or ill health. That the evangelical tradition did not preserve memories of Jesus’ dysentery on his journey through Samaria or his bout with the flu while staying in Capernaaum makes perfect sense. Why record it? It’s hardly sensational news. Not even the Jerusalem Enquirer would pay good money for the story. On the other hand, it is notable that the evangelical tradition did not invoke Jesus’ immunity from illness in defense of his messianic or divine identity. Apparently, it never occurred to the Apostles to remark on the Lord’s remarkable good heath. Even more problematic is Griffith’s suggestion that the biblical silence on the dominical aging process is itself suggestive. Jesus was killed before he could suffer the corruptive effects of aging—that is the factual given. What was important to the Apostles is that he died in fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy. The counter-factual “Would Jesus have suffered pattern baldness if he lived into his fifties or sixties?” does not appear to have crossed anybody’s mind. As I said, arguments from silence are notoriously difficult to assess.
Griffiths directs us to a passage in the Gospel of Luke that may hint at Jesus’ invulnerability to damage from the inanimate world—the story of the Lord sleeping in the boat when a violent storm arises. The disciples awaken Jesus, who immediately orders the wind and waves to calm.
He then says to his follower, ubi est fides vestra?, implying that if they’d only had faith they wouldn’t have worried. They’d have been like him in this respect: certain that the water couldn’t harm them. Those in the boat are astonished, saying to one another, quis puts hic est, quia et ventris imperat et aqua, et oboediunt ei?—who do you think this, who commands wind and water and gets obedience. Among the points made by the story is the thought that the flesh of Jesus is immune to damage unless he permits it. These things are under his control. He is their imperator because he is the LORD, and they must hear him and do what he says. The text suggests that Jesus’ flesh is not subject to damage against his will from nonhuman agents; and, further, that he doesn’t in fact permit such damage to occur. Scripture, at any rate, records no instances. This clearly differentiates fleshly damage caused by nonhuman agents from that caused by humans. Scripture records many instances of Jesus permitting the latter, and none of the former. (pp. 36-37)
My use above of the word invulnerability may mislead. Griffiths is not suggesting (at least I don’t think he is) that Jesus’ body was invulnerable in the way that Superman’s body is invulnerable. The rays of the yellow sun change Superman at the molecular level, making his body incredibly dense and therefore impervious to most objects (the radioactivity of kryptonite being the famous exception). The Nazarene’s invulnerability, on the other hand, seems to lie in his providential omnipotence. Because he is the sovereign Creator and rules all happenings, Jesus is safe from harm from his inanimate creation—either because he can prevent dangerous situations from happening, or when they do, he can command them to change their behavior. Christ’s relation to the inanimate world is one of authority. Injuries cannot happen to him except by his permission. Supermanlike invulnerability is not therefore excluded—Jesus is, after all, the Creator and may command his body—I just don’t see it hinted at in the story. Griffiths analyses the wilderness hunger of Jesus in similar fashion. Even after a forty day fast, Jesus does not turn the stones into bread because he did not need to do so in order to survive. He assented to extreme hunger specifically for his trial with Satan. Griffiths concludes: “Those things can damage his natal flesh only to the extent that he permits; and this in turn means that the double-natured person didn’t need to eat as we do. He ate, certainly, in his natal flesh and after; but not doing so would not have killed him, and doing so served a particular, providential purpose” (pp. 37-38).
In the above scenario the Lord’s vulnerability to injury occurs on a case-by-case basis. Readers may recall a similar thesis advanced by Emmanuel Hatzidakis. In my critique I suggested that the thesis intimates a kind of docetism. Griffiths denies the charge. The Incarnation does not exclude the Word’s enfleshment in paradisial flesh:
Jesus, according to the view just set down, really is enfleshed; his flesh really is fleshly, really is human flesh, conceived in a woman’s womb and born in the ordinary way. But it’s human flesh undamaged by sin in any of its forms, whether actively committed by Jesus, which is an impossibility according to the grammar of orthodox Catholicism, even if not so clearly for that of non-Catholic Christianity. If death and its servants—illness and aging—are effects of the fall, brought about, therefore, exactly as damage to something—flesh—to which they are properly extrinsic, then the fact that Jesus’ flesh is exempt from them doesn’t show it not to be flesh, It shows, rather, that his flesh is human flesh undamaged, like (in this respect, though not all others) Eve’s and Adam’s, and like ours as it will be after the resurrection. The view, therefore, isn’t docetism; it’s exactly and properly incarnational, exactly and properly what it would be for the LORD to take flesh. But yes, the view entertained here does amount to the assertion of Jesus’ invulnerability. He cannot be damaged in the flesh unless he assents to that damage, and he is in this respect deeply unlike us. (pp. 38-39)
But Griffiths acknowledges that an alternative interpretation of Jesus’ immunity to damage is possible:
It’s the view that Jesus’s providential permission for damage to his flesh isn’t occasional, as Scripture’s depiction suggests, but rather generic. That is, it isn’t that Jesus gives case-by-case providential permission—permission for damage by this fast, that whip, those nails—but rather that the consent to incarnation carried with it permission for any and all such things to damage Jesus’s flesh, just as they would any human flesh, post lapsum. Such a permission, were it to have belonged to the incarnation, would have meant that Jesus’s flesh would have been damaged from time to time by viruses, falls, fights, and so on, as human flesh ordinarily is. This view makes Jesus’s flesh less like Superman’s, and more like ours. (p. 39)
This kenotic construal of the Incarnation is the dominant position in contemporary theology. Not only does it seem more plausible to us moderns than the more traditional view, but it makes it easier for us to identify with Jesus and his sufferings. The difference between the positions, however, is one of emphasis, not contradiction. In both genuine enfleshment of God occurs; in both divine permission is required to explain the incarnate Son’s vulnerability to damage and death.