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Body and Character in Luke and Acts

The Subversion of Physiognomy in Early Christianity

Mikeal C. Parsons

Publication Year: 2010

Early Christianity developed in a world where moral significance was often judged based upon physical appearance alone. Exploring the manifestations of this ancient “science” of physiognomy, Parsons rightly shows how Greco-Roman society, and by consequence the author of Luke and Acts, was steeped in this tradition. Luke, however, employs these principles in his writings in order to subvert the paradigm. Using as examples the bent woman (Luke 13), Zacchaeus (Luke 18), the lame man (Acts 3-4), and the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8), Parsons shows that the Christian community—both early and present-day—is established only in the image of Jesus Christ.

Published by: Baylor University Press


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Title Page

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p. 3


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pp. 7-8


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pp. 9-10

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pp. 11-16

At the beginning of Jeffrey Ford’s 1997 novel, The Physiognomy, the protagonist, Physiognomist First Class Cley, is on his way out of the Well-Built City on an assignment for his master, Drachton Below. He muses over his career as a physiognomist: After all my years of sweeping open the calipers to find the “soul,” skin deep...

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1 Soul and Body React on Each Other: Body and Character in Greek and Roman Literature

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pp. 17-38

In the ancient Greek and Roman world it was commonplace to associate outer physical characteristics with inner qualities. The study of the relationship between the physical and the moral was known as physiognomics and was widely practiced in late antiquity by philosophers, astrologers, and physicians...

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2 The Movement of the Body Is a Voice of the Soul: Body and Character in Early Jewish and Christian Literature

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pp. 39-66

Early Jewish and Christian writings demonstrate awareness—but not uncritical acceptance—of physiognomic ideas. We turn now to the evidence. Physiognomy is not a dominant theme in ancient Judaism, but one does see an interest in how inner qualities are reflected in outer characteristics, beginning with the scriptures of Israel. Several examples are found in the Deuteronomistic History...

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3 Your Eye Is the Lamp of Your Body: Luke and the Body-Soul Relationship

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pp. 67-82

It is tempting in a study such as this one, once a line of approach has been established, to search for evidence in every textual nook and cranny. By doing so, one can almost always find what one is looking for. As we search for evidence of ancient physiognomy in the Lukan writings, we will do well to make a crucial distinction between topics...

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4 Ought Not This Daughter of Abraham Be Set Free?: Getting the Story of the Bent Woman Straight

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pp. 83-96

Who belongs in this new family of God? Who qualifies as a child of Abraham? Luke begins his case for the inclusiveness of the Abrahamic covenant community with the story of the so-called bent woman. The Bent Woman Ignored and Interpreted. Until recently, the story of the bent woman has largely been ignored in the scholarly literature...

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5 Short in Stature, Son of Abraham: The Height of Hospitality in the Story of Zacchaeus

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pp. 97-108

The story of Zacchaeus is one of the best-known and best-loved biblical narratives. Many of us learned the story as children, and the little ditty that accompanied it: “Zacchaeus was a wee little man . . .” The children’s song derives, of course, from Luke 19:3, where Zacchaeus is described as “small in stature”...

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6 His Feet and Ankles Were Made Strong: Signs of Character in the Man Lame from Birth

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pp. 109-122

One important purpose of the healing of the lame man in Acts 3–4 is to show that the physical disability of being lame, however much it was despised in antiquity, does not disqualify one from membership in the eschatological community of the Way. Whatever the historical value of the episode, as it now stands the story of the lame man joins the other examples from the Gospel of Luke...

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7 What Is to Prevent Me?: Ambiguity, Acceptance, and the Ethiopian Eunuch

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pp. 123-142

In the previous three chapters the Abrahamic covenant was front and center. The bent woman and Zacchaeus were a daughter and a son of Abraham, respectively. In the course of explaining the significance of the lame man’s healing, Peter quotes the Abrahamic blessing (Acts 3:25; cf. Gen. 12:2–3, 22:18, 26:4). Although explicit reference to Abraham is missing in Acts 8:26–40,..

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pp. 143-146

When my father, John Quincy Parsons, was twelve years old, he lost his right arm in a hunting accident. In his adult years he ran a sawmill, prompting casual acquaintances to assume he lost his arm in an industrial accident. In public he always wore a prosthesis with a hook—covered by a long-sleeved shirt (even in the middle of a hot North Carolina summer), which served no functional purpose...

Appendix - Illustrations from the Progymnasmata of Libanius

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pp. 147-152


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pp. 153-158


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pp. 159-170

Name Index

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pp. 171-174

Index of Ancient Sources

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pp. 175-184

Index of Greek Words

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pp. 185-186

Subject Index

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pp. 187-191

E-ISBN-13: 9781602584433
E-ISBN-10: 1602584435
Print-ISBN-13: 9781602583801
Print-ISBN-10: 1602583803

Page Count: 192
Publication Year: 2010

Edition: 1st

OCLC Number: 769189752
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Body and Character in Luke and Acts

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Subject Headings

  • Bible. N.T. Acts -- Criticism, interpretation, etc.
  • Physiognomy -- Religious aspects -- History of doctrines.
  • Bible. N.T. Luke -- Criticism, interpretation, etc.
  • Physiognomy -- Biblical teaching.
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