Bodies marked by power

The story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch has, quite reasonably, received a great deal of attention from those interested in gender and theology. It is a strongly positive portrayal of a person whose gender was non-standard, and who would have been perceived as deviant and threatening by the dominant cultures of their time; a person who is, in the narrative, shown to be uncommonly intelligent, inquiring, and able to be received rapidly into the new Christian community. (Note that I will generally use the pronoun “they” for eunuchs in this essay; though most or all would have used “he” pronouns in their lives, it seems appropriate to indicate their non-standard gender.)

There is no need for me to duplicate the work done by Austen Hartke (Transforming: The Bible and the lives of transgender Christians, Westminster John Knox Press, 2018) in examining the figure of the eunuch in scripture, and the value of these passages in thinking about trans bodies and trans experiences. Hartke avoids any easy elision of the eunuch with the contemporary trans body, while at the same time speaking eloquently of the meaning he, and other trans Christians, have found in passages like the story of the Ethiopian eunuch’s reception into the church, or the inclusion of the eunuch in God’s promise of restoration in Isaiah 56.

The issue I want to pursue in more detail, however, is the idea of the “marked body” and its several possible meanings, and in particular how we think about bodies overtly marked by power. For one of the most significant facts about the Ethiopian eunuch is that they were a slave. Clearly, they were a high-ranking slave, a well-educated treasury official serving the sister of the king of Kush, living in a context of some material luxury; but for all that, a slave still, a possession, someone whose body had been subjected to a life-changing, identity-defining intervention which they had not chosen, someone who is not even given a name in the narrative. As Hester notes, eunuchs were “luxury goods,” and could hold elite positions, but they were still, almost always, goods, objects of possession.

Brooke Holmes’ essay “Marked Bodies: Gender, race, class, disability and disease” (A Cultural History of the Human Body in Antiquity, ed Daniel H. Garrison. Bloomsbury, 2012) is helpful in distinguishing the two overlapping meanings of the “marked body”, which can be a body physically marked – tattooed, castrated, scarred – but can also indicate, in an analogy with linguistics, the body which deviates from the “unmarked term”, the assumed normative body, which was, in the ancient world, “free, male, leisured, in the prime of life, healthy, and native to the geographical zones whose climates uniquely foster Greekness and Romanness.” (The contemporary unmarked body is not greatly different except in detail – white, male, healthy, affluent). Part of the overlap was, of course, precisely that free, male bodies could rarely be physically marked against their will, whereas others, especially slave bodies, were physically marked as a matter of routine. And yet the unmarked body is a site of intense anxiety, one which must be constantly maintained. Holmes discusses the felt instability of the unmarked, dominant body, especially in the area of gender; classical writers express constant fear of men becoming “feminized”, by practices including removing body hair and, indeed, having too much sex with women.

The physically marked body then, whether castrated, tattooed, or scarred by whipping, is not only a visible deviation from the dominant free male body, it is also an implicit threat, able to endanger the dominant body’s unmarked status. Eunuchs, though they did not control their own body transformation, were regarded as sexually deviant, reputed to be promiscuous with both men and women (see J. David Hester, “Queers on Account of the Kingdom of Heaven: Rhetorical constructions of the eunuch body”, Scriptura 90, 2005). Tattooes marked slaves and criminals, or sometimes identified members of “barbarian” tribes, whose destiny was to be colonized by Rome. Marked bodies, in general, indicated persons who were directly subject to power, and were forcible indications of the limits of their autonomy, even the autonomy to make choices about their own bodily integrity. The hierarchies of imperial power, built on chattel slavery, were inscribed upon them.

Economics, of course, marks bodies in many less direct ways as well; this is one of the more subtle, and often overlooked, distinctions between marked and unmarked bodies. Poverty means poor nutrition, possibly restricted growth, earlier and more severe dental problems, weaker bones; physical labour under punishing conditions may create scars, broken bones, strains and motion limitations. A multitude of physical diseases are linked with poverty and poor living and working conditions, and people who are very poor are less able to access medical care. While details may vary between societies, bodies marked by extreme poverty are generally recognizable, though rarely openly indentified.

Holmes notes that “Christianity, with its claim to break down oppositions between Jew and Greek, slave and freeman, male and female, provides considerable resources for challenges,” although “the active male subject remains a remarkably stable model into late antiquity and beyond.” On the one hand, it is observably true that Christianity has, for most of its history, maintained the “active male subject” as the dominant body, but on the other, I believe the resources for challenge are quite deep, and that those subversive resources have never been wholly forgotten.

The attitude to marked bodies in scripture is actually quite complex. On the one hand, the Hebrew scriptures contain a number of boundary-policing regulations, including prohibitions on men with bodily mutiltations serving in religious rituals, and bans on some or all tattooes — there is debate as to exactly what is being prohibited in Leviticus 19:28, but it is possibly related to the association between tattooes and slavery, and likely also aimed at certain pagan religious practices, perhaps including marking the name of a god on the body to indicate devotion (either the devotion of the individual, or the master marking devotion on the body of a slave). On the other hand, the bodily marking of circumcision was the defining entry into the community.

And the prophetic texts, especially the later Isaiah writings, also contain some powerful subversions of the policed boundaries of body marking. Austen Hartke notes how meaningful it was for him to read Isaiah 56:3, a passage in which God promises inclusion for the foreign and despised, including the liminal and excluded eunuch bodies: “Let not the eunuch say, ‘I am just a dry tree’ … I will give, in my house and within my walls, a monument and a name, better than sons and daughters.” As Hartke notes (p 95-98), Israel’s return from exile in Babylon involved, in many ways, a strict emphasis on purity laws and strict boundaries, along with a strong emphasis on biological reproduction. But “God remedied this situation by presenting the eunuch with a gift which embraced their identity as a eunuch while also presenting them with a key back into Israelite society … By giving the eunuchs the same kind of gifts given to Abraham and Sarah – a name, legacy, family, acceptance, and blessing – God was consciously associating the two stories in the minds of the people.”

A differently marked body appears, of course, in the probably earlier, exilic “suffering servant” passages, with their multiple intepretive challenges and enduring power, which depict a body subjected to the physical markings and humiliations of slavery or powerlessness, and designate this body as a special site of God’s honour. It is one of these passages, according to the author of Acts, which the Ethiopian eunuch is reading and contemplating, and their question, “Of whom does the prophet say this?” is more than only an opening for Philip to outline the Christian interpretation of the passage – it also hints at a personal identification with this figure whose body is undergoing coercive and shameful marking without consent, and suggests that it is this, specifically, which draws them to desire baptism.

There is also a very striking pairing of Isaiah 44:5 and Isaiah 49:16. In the first passage, the prophet speaks of a day when people “will write on the hand ‘the Lord’s’” — that is, in the day of redemption and the pouring out of God’s spirit, the despised pagan practice of marking devotion on the body of the worshipper will be reclaimed by God and God’s people. But this is followed by an astonishing inversion just a few chapters later, when God proclaims: “Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Even these might forget, yet I will not forget you. See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands.” God as a nurturing mother is interesting enough, but this leads into the remarkable image of God marking God’s own body as a token of devotion.

Although the Revelation to St John is the last book in the Christian canon to be written, it draws very heavily on the Hebrew prophetic tradition, and so it makes a certain sense to discuss the body-marking imagery in that book first. What is principally striking and unusual about that imagery is the economic dimension, discussed in more detail earlier, and the most famous body-marking in Revelation, the “mark of the beast”, is specifically linked to engagement with the Imperial money economy. But there is a counter-mark – those who, through their resistance to engagement with idolatry and the Imperial economy (which are intimately linked in the writer’s mind) earn the Mark of the Lamb on their foreheads, and are “purchased from among mankind” to follow the Lamb into the New Jerusalem. While Revelation lacks the dramatic reversals of either Isaiah or the gospel writers, this overtly economic interpretation of marking is not without significance.

The gospels, it is worth noting, take place in a world almost entirely made up of bodies marked either in a literal or a figurative sense – the majority of individuals with whom Jesus is shown to associate are women, slaves, ill, disabled, or some combination of these. Of course, it is not particularly surprising that the writers, wanting to stress Jesus’s healing powers, would include many characters with illnesses or disabilities. At least one of these characters, though, brings a more complicated set of images into play. Early in Mark’s gospel – which was probably the first gospel, so this is one of the first stories about Jesus to be recorded in written narrative – we meet the Gerasene demoniac. Mark includes two very significant details which are omitted by Matthew and Luke. First, the man is specifically described as self-harming, constantly cutting himself with stones – marking his own body, compulsively, pathologically, and in a way which would have reinforced his unclean status. Second, when Jesus challenges the demon possessing the man to identify itself, it gives its name as “Legion.” This is surely a term meant to recall the Roman legions occupying the region, the man’s violence and self-mutilation an echo of imperial military violence. The body of “the man with the legion” is both victim and aggressor, marked as a visible signifier of the suffering of the land and the people; he is controlled by an entity both singular and plural, personal and abstract, the ambiguous face of coercive power, and he is then further subjected to coercion by his own people, who drive him out to the place of the dead, attempt to chain and shackle him. He is a body wholly subject. Even when he is restored by Jesus to his “right mind’, and given back some degree of autonomy over self, his body presumably continues to bear the physical scars, and he is, like some of the other recipients of healing miracles, not fully welcome back to his community, where his healing seems to inspire almost as much fear as his initial state.

Matthew and Luke omit both the self-mutilation and the name “legion” (Matthew also, in a typical move, makes him into two demoniacs), making the story far less layered, much more a straightfoward exorcism; but Mark’s fuller story still stands, near the beginning of “the beginning of the good news,” the story of a visibly and fearfully marked and battered body, which is a sign and outward working of the violence of power, and Jesus’s intervention of restoration.

Jesus spent his public ministry primarily around people who were poor or destitute, and a few of the stories in the gospel draw specific attention to the relationship between bodies and economics. Most obviously, there is the story, not about Jesus but told by Jesus, of the rich man and the beggar Lazarus, which appears only in Luke’s gospel. The body of the poor man Lazarus is overtly marked by sores – this may be the condition which has made him a beggar, or the result of homelessness, hunger, and material deprivation — and yet, nevertheless, he is invisible to the rich man at whose gate he lives. The narrative is, of course, built around the reversal in which the poor man, after death, is carried by angels to the side of Abraham, while the rich man suffers in Hades. The reversal, the privileging of the marked and suffering body, is clear, though it is a somewhat problematic story, reliant as it is on the poor being comforted only after death, in a folk-tale sort of afterlife not evoked anywhere else, and strangely lacking in any mention of God.

Quite a few of the people healed by Jesus from chronic disabilities are, at the point of encounter, living as beggars. In general, the link between their conditions and their status is not explicitly made, but seemed so natural to all the gospel writers that it could be taken for granted – physical disability would almost inevitably result in extreme material poverty. One story, though, does make this link more directly, and in interesting ways. Immediately after the healing of the Gerasene demoniac in all three Synoptics, Jesus is summoned to the house of Jairus, a “leader of the synagogue”, whom we can assume is at least relatively privileged, but on the way there, he is interrupted by a woman with a continuous flow of blood, a condition which would have been highly visible, humiliating, disabing to some degree, overtly gendered, and which, Mark in particular informs us, had impoverished her as she fruitlessly sought medical help. (In comparison, Jairus’s daughter is described rather as if she had the kind of discreet illness popular in movies, where pretty young women simply get more pale and thin, and eventually quietly die). The close, socially created, link between illness and poverty, obvious in reality but frequently elided in narrative, is clearly made. The woman with the flow of blood tries to remain invisible, as she pushes through the crowd to grasp at Jesus’s clothing, but Jesus calls her to the attention of the crowd, marks her out with his attention, and not only notes her healing but praises her action in public, and calls her “daughter”, marking her membership in the community in which she has become marginalized – again a contrast with Jairus’s daughter, who is raised back to life in a private room, with Jesus giving the bystanders instructions to keep silent about what has happened.

But perhaps restoration, return to a prior, unmarked (or at least less marked) state is not always the goal. It is, of course, the end point of all the healing miracles (although the stories of the man born blind, whose healing is only a preface to his main story, and the man who initially sees people “like trees walking”, at least vary the formula a bit). But return to a prior state is not available to many marked bodies, and not desirable for all.

Of particular interest in this regard is the somewhat mysterious Matthew 19:12, “For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.” On the most straightforward reading, those “born eunuchs” are probably people who are visibly intersex, and those who are “made eunuchs” are those, almost all slaves, coercively modified by the more powerful. Those who “make themselves eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven” are more difficult to identify, but do seem to be a category of self-marked bodies which are not in need of restoration or return.

This passage has been read for many centuries as praise of celibacy; however, Hester points out that eunuchs were, commonly, seen as perversely oversexed, which makes it an awkward metaphor. He tends to believe that the passage reflects a practice of literal self-castration in the early church, but there is not much evidence for this beyond a very few isolated cases. I would suggest that, given what seems to have been Jesus’s consistent interest in undermining family and inheritance systems, it may be that the real point is not the avoidance of sex, as such, but the avoidance of reproduction, and the replication of conventional family structures. Certainly for Isaiah, the main issue for the eunuch is the inability to reproduce (“a dry tree”), and this fits both with the preoccupation through much of scripture with bodily reproduction, and with Jesus’s resistance to this, as well as the context of this saying in a discussion of marriage and divorce and family structures. (While it is true that, if avoiding producing children is the aim, celibacy is the most reliable way to achieve it, it is also true that technologies to avoid reproduction, though not entirely reliable until the modern era, have always existed. Most first century Palestinian men would probably have known little or nothing about this, but Jesus seems to have spent an unusual amount of time with women, including possibly professional sex workers, so some degree of knowledge even on the part of Jesus in his humanity cannot be ruled out.)

In any case, what we have here is a passage in which Jesus speaks in a positive and affirming way of bodies which are marked in some of the most stigmatizing fashions – socially outcast bodies in the case of those “born eunuchs”, forcibly altered slave bodies in the case of those “made eunuchs”, and in all cases bodies which fall outside the simple binary gender system, whether by birth, by coercion, or by deliberate identification. He does not suggest that any of these bodies need “fixing”, but rather that they all stand as particular signs of the Kingdom.

But the ultimate body marked by power in the gospels is, of course, Jesus himself. While the gospel accounts obviously differ in detail, all record that Jesus was beaten by Roman soldiers prior to his crucifixion. John’s account, by far the most lengthy, is a series of bodily humiliations and markings – flagellation, a crown of thorns, costuming and display to the crowd. All the accounts, of course, include Jesus being nailed to the cross, and John adds that a spear was driven into his side (though he notes specifically that his legs were not broken). It is worth noting that John, who includes the most graphic descriptions of bodily suffering, is also the gospel writer with the highest theology of incarnation; that is is very fair to say, in this case, that we are witnessing the body of the incarnate Word of God willingly being subjected to torture and shameful public spectacle for the love of the world. In Isaiah, God marks God’s own body as a sign of devotion to humanity; now God, for love, permits the structures of human power to mark, display, and break God’s body.

Even more strikingly, the resurrection body is a body which continues to bear the scars of execution. This is not restoration to a prior, unmarked state. The abuse of the body by power is not forgotten or concealed; rather, this body invites all victims of power and violence, all broken and stigmatized bodies, fully into the life of God, without erasing any part of their history or reality. Christ – a free male by birth, though a member of a non-dominant culture – becomes, in death and in resurrection, a fully marked body, anomalously gendered (as I discussed earlier), scarred and wounded like the body of a slave, bearing the marks of a particularly shameful form of execution. And all Christians are invited, according to the theology expressed in several of Paul’s letters, to become a part of this body, to reject the dominant body as the measure of truth.

Paul himself, understandably in his circumstances, is mostly preoccupied with the bodily marking which was circumcision, and the struggle over whether or not it was required of Gentile converts to Christianity. In this context, and trying to encourage an attitude of indifference to that particular body-marking practice, he twice produced versions of a formula noted by Holmes — “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28); “there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all” (Colossians 3:11). These passages may, as Holmes suggests, be quite revolutionary in asserting the equality of marked and stigmatized bodies, and, historically, they have inspired marginalized populations – the fact that Galatians 3:28 was strategically omitted from the censored Bible given to slaves in the British West Indies shows that its potential can be feared. On the other hand, there is risk of the fallacy of “colour-blindness”, the spiritualizing or erasure of difference, which can mean that the marked, “lesser”, bodies are simply subsumed into the dominant model, without any significant change in actual social conditions.

This is quite evident in the hagiographies of many female martyrs, who are frequently described as becoming, in effect, male through their courage in affliction, even when there is no indication that they themselves felt any particular male identification. (There are more interesting instances — the martyr Perpetua’s dream of herself as a male gladiator is a bit different, if only because she evokes both male and female bodily imagery so vividly, at different times, that the overall effect is of something far more complex than a simple elision of femaleness; Gregory of Nyssa creates deliberate grammatical confusion in order to maintain both genders in play when he speaks of his sibling Macrina.)

It may also be what is going on in the particularly jarring moment in Revelation 14:4, when those who enter the New Jerusalem are described as being exclusively “men who have not defiled themselves with women,” leaving unclear what kind of fate women, or indeed married men, might expect (I think it is safe to assume that the author also imagines this elite group as universally able-bodied, and that queer identity does not enter into his imagination). The author may not even be thinking precisely about what he is saying, but insofar as he is, he is probably assuming that any person fit to enter the kingdom is spiritually, and in effect, a celibate male.

To say that there is neither slave nor free, while people are still permitted the literal ownership of other people, is not really a very powerful statement; nor yet to say that there is neither male nor female, while society is still built on binary and hierachical constructions of gender. And Galatians and Colossians have been used to reassure the oppressed that they can and should accept their position because they are “equal” in some spiritualized sense, and perhaps, like Lazarus, in some sort of afterlife. But marked bodies are not the same as unmarked bodies, and not all marked bodies, as we discussed above, desire to enter an unmarked state – queer bodies, Black bodies, many disabled bodies need to be affirmed specifically in their difference from the dominant body. The scars of the resurrected Christ contain this meaning.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s