The Embodied God: Seeing the Divine in Luke-Acts and the Early Church

Written by Brittany E. Wilson Reviewed By Steve Walton

Brittany Wilson is a fine Luke-Acts scholar, presently associate professor of New Testament at Duke Divinity School. She here provides us with an interesting, thoughtful and provocative argument. Her first book, Unmanly Men: Refigurations of Masculinity in Luke-Acts (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015), gave us a fresh look at some key men in Luke-Acts through the lens of Graeco-Roman expectations of elite masculinity, arguing cogently that the nature of being a man was reshaped by Luke’s portraits of Jesus, Paul, Zechariah, and the Ethiopian eunuch. This book turns to God and argues that traditional Christian understanding of God as invisible and immaterial in not found in Luke-Acts (or wider in the NT, for that matter). Moreover, Luke’s understanding reflects the view Dr Wilson detects in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament.

As Wilson notes, the embodied nature of God has recently become a topic of discussion in OT Studies, notably in the work of Benjamin Sommer, Esther Hamori, and Mark Smith. The most controversial of these works, Francesca Stavrakopolou’s God: An Anatomy (New York: Knopf, 2021), appeared soon after Wilson’s work was complete.

The argument falls into two parts: the first three chapters consider the portrait of God in the OT and Luke-Acts, arguing that God is understood to be both visible and embodied; the later three chapters focus on Luke’s portrait of Jesus, arguing that Luke portrays Jesus as one way in which God becomes physically manifest, in human flesh.

The introduction helpfully sketches the philosophical background to regarding God as invisible and immaterial before turning to discuss what Wilson means by “seeing God.” She notes, importantly, that she is studying textual representations of God’s body rather than material remains (for example). She clarifies that her study is of God as bodily in relation to human bodies rather than (for example) animal bodies. Notably, she makes clear that she is not suggesting that God has a body like human bodies: she is clear that God has a tangible and visible form, but argues that the sources are not clear on the nature of this form. Indeed, she notes that at times the scriptural witness does not portray God’s “body” as “material”; her particular focus is on sight and how humans “see” God.

The first chapter then engages with the biblical prohibition of images of God, persuasively showing that this prohibition is predicated on the danger of idolatry rather than on God’s lack of bodily form. The second considers times when God is visibly manifest in visions and theophanies, and argues that there is some overlap in the OT and in Luke-Acts between these events and the appearances of angels, the Spirit, and Jesus.

The third chapter, the crucial part of the argument, presses the discussion further by seeking to show that Luke-Acts is part of a biblical tradition of God’s “fluidity,” by which she means that God can appear in multiple forms, some of which involve bodies. She enters the debate on whether intermediary figures such as the angel of the Lord stretch the boundaries of monotheism, agreeing with those who claim “Jewish affirmations of God’s ‘oneness’ were held alongside more complex apprehensions of the deity” (p. 103), against scholars such as Hurtado and Bauckham, who see a strong boundary between God and any creature, including intermediary figures. Here I found myself wanting to see clearer evidence of this “inclusive” view. The argument goes on to study divine attributes (wisdom, glory, God’s name, power, the Spirit) that are in some sense personalized, angels (conceding that they are nowhere called “divine,” p. 114), and exalted humans (e.g., Adam, Enoch, Moses and Elijah—although the texts she cites in this regard are extra-canonical). The last part of the chapter goes on to consider divine attributes, angels, and exalted humans in Luke-Acts, applying conclusions from her study of the OT to Luke’s writings. Here I would have liked more persuasive evidence; in a number of places I wrote dissenting notes in the margin to her exegesis.

The second part of the book is less controversial, as Wilson engages with Luke’s witness to Jesus. The fourth chapter contains a thoughtful section-by-section study of Luke’s Gospel, noticing epiphanic encounters with Jesus in the birth narratives, Jesus’s ministry, and the resurrection narratives. Jesus’s body is not stable, but can be altered—note the transfiguration, and the nature of his resurrection body. The fifth considers Jesus’s humanity and fleshly form in Luke-Acts, and tracks these themes through the birth narratives, Jesus’s ministry, the crucifixion, and the resurrection narratives. She argues cogently that Luke portrays Jesus as fully and really human, and as “the most concrete site—and sight—in which God becomes embodied” p. (230).

The sixth chapter considers Christophanies and the embodied form of Jesus in heaven post-ascension. A study of Luke’s ascension narratives shows that Jesus’ exalted life is bodily—he ascends as an exalted human. Visions and Christophanies in Acts resemble divine appearances mapped in the OT (ch. 2). Wilson carefully observes how much language of sight there is in these appearances, by contrast with much scholarship’s focus on speech and word. The exalted Jesus is a human and is corporeal. A brief conclusion helpfully reviews the overall argument, and bibliography, and indices of ancient sources and modern authors follow (I’d have also liked a topical index).

This is a book which should provoke discussion and debate, for Wilson is highlighting features of the portraits of God and Jesus that have been neglected. She gives reason to think that the bodily language used of God in the OT is not “mere metaphor,” while being clear that God’s embodiedness is not of the same kind as humans’. She provides a cogent and well-argued case for Luke’s portrait of Jesus as both divine and human, but from this fresh angle of considering embodiedness. This is a book that libraries will want to have, and one that those studying Luke’s understanding of God, and of Jesus, will want to read. Let’s hope for the day when the publishers make a paperback available at a price mere mortals can afford.

One small note on Greek accents: in a number of places the final accent of a Greek phrase (or just one word) is a grave. This is impossible, for such an accent is only found where there is a following Greek word, and the convention I would expect is to change it to an acute. Am I just rather old-fashioned in this regard?

Steve Walton

Steve Walton
Trinity College
Bristol, England, UK

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