It is precisely in antiquity that the cult of the body became widespread, but this euphoria concealed a deep nostalgia. The body was disparaged as the enemy of the soul. In the Bible, however, the body indicated the person in his key states: the state of nature and of sin, consecration to Christ, life in glory. While the OT uses the same term basar for both flesh and body, the Greek of the NT uses two different terms: sa,rx and swma, a distinction which acquires its full value in the light of faith. The confrontation in this area between the Bible and philosophical thought was not easy: traces of dualism persist longer in anthropology than in cosmology. The orthodox reaction against the dualism of the heretics was decisive for the historical development of the conception of the body. For the gnostics, says Irenaeus, since the body was derived from the earth, it is impossible for it to be saved Adv. haer. V, 27,9: SC 153, 112. But such a condemnation of the body implies a misunderstanding of the compexity of the Christian mystery: creation, incarnation, redemption. And the Fathers, while leaning heavily on Plato, clearly maintain that the body is an integral part of human nature.
It is capable of being immortal, says Irenaeus in his reply to the gnostics ibid., V, 12,4,154. But at the same time the patterns of Greek thought raised many problems for the spiritual life, such as the relation between soul and body, which in the last analysis derived from the idea that the heteronomous beingessence was mysteriously united by divine wisdom. After the fall, this union acquired an essentially dialectical character: it was an opposition which grew or diminished according to the person’s degree of spirituality. In the severe ascesis of the monks, expressions that could indicate the Christian experience of the lust of the flesh, which struggled against the spirit and had to be dominated, were mingled, in a proportion hard to determine, with a radical mistrust of the body, in which we would be tempted to see the influence of Platonism.
One thing is certain: in this field, expressions can never be understood outside of their context, since their value depends on the author, the circumstances in which they were pronounced, their purpose, their audience, whether they were an exposition of the Christian faith or an exhortation to renunciation. More frequently than in systematic treatises, the Fathers express their thought in maxims, often non-Christian in origin, which found their justification in the context. The most frequent were the following: the body is a prison, a tomb of the soul; the soul must be wrested from the chains of the flesh, from bondage to a corpse; the flesh is like a mire in which the soul can only be defiled and degraded; the body is a coat of skin, a horrid mask; the body is not the same as my essence, but it is my first good; we must despise, maltreat, kill the body; we must distrust this ungrateful friend who weaves snares. Positive aphorisms are more rare: the body is the instrument of the spirit, like the flute under the flutist’s fingers, the soul’s companion in work.
Although the theory of the human body may seem complex, in practice spiritual authors were fully aware of the two imperatives so well emphasized by Gregory of Nazianzus Or. 2,17: PG 35, 425ff.: we must fight temptation, the demon in the body, but at the same time we must spiritualize the body and through it the whole visible cosmos. DSp 2, 2338-2378; 7, 496-514; J. Danilou, Les tuniques de peau chez Grgoire de Nysse in Glaube, Geist, Geschichte. Festschr. f¼r Ernst Benz, Leiden 1967, 355-367; T. pidlk, L’ascesi nella Chiesa Orientale: Rivista di vita spirituale 31 1977 496-514; and in Ascesi cristiana, ed. E. Ancilli, Rome 1977, 163-181; Id., La spiritualit de l’Orient chrtien. Manuel systmatique: OCA 206, Rome 1978, 111ff., 358ff. bibl.; E. Bellini, Il corpo e la salvezza dell’uomo nella riflessione dei Padri: Communio 54 1980 18- 26; F. Bottomley, Attitudes to the Body in Western Christendom, London 1979; J. Fantino, L’homme image de Dieu chez saint Irene de Lyon, Paris 1986; P. Brown, The Body and Society, New York 1988 It. tr., Il corpo e la societ , Turin 1992; E. Musatto, Il problema del corpo in S. Agostino, Rome 1990; D.B. Martin, The Christian Body, New Haven 1995; D. Montserrat, Changing Bodies, Changing Meaning: Studies of the Human Body in Antiquity, London 1998; Cultura e promozione umana. La cura del corpo e dello spirito nell’antichit classica e nei primi secoli cristiani. Un messaggio ancora attuale?, eds. E. Dal Covolo – I. Giannetto, Rome 1998.