Hungering and Thirsting for Resurrection: Origen’s "On First Principles" and the Realities of Food Scarcity in Antiquity

The issue of a general resurrection was, in second and third century Christianity, a source of intense debate. Proponents of bodily resurrection struggled to describe the nature, appearance, and function of the resurrected body—a body that would be the same as it was during life and also different, defined simultaneously by undeniable continuity and profound transformation. What would such a body look like? What would it be able to do? What, if anything, would it need to do? Since the hypothetical resurrection body would be unrestrained by the limitations of mortality, early Christians were free to answer these questions in whatever ways they saw fit. Questions concerning the role of food and drink in the resurrection provoked a uniquely diverse and charged set of responses: Some literary sources insist that eating and drinking will be unnecessary and even impossible for the resurrected body, while others describe a resurrection characterized by lavish feasting. The persuasive projects that underlie these responses, however, are arguably indicative of the elite nature of our sources: the resurrected body’s relationship to food is constructed and deployed in discourses around necessary and natural desires, the formation of the self, Christ’s resurrected body, millenarianism, and Christian participation in Roman burial practices, among others. One topic seems conspicuously absent: nowhere in the extant literature is the question of nutrition in the resurrection explicitly used to think about hunger. Is it possible to reconstruct a greater diversity of ancient imaginaries concerning the resurrection body? Origen’s "On First Principles" polemicizes against (supposedly) unintelligent and lustful Christians who insist that they will eat in the resurrection, using this position as a foil against which to argue for his own, less fleshly understanding of the resurrected body. As Origen tells it, these Christians justify their position through overly literal interpretations of scripture. In this paper, I explore the ways in which this “simplistic” hermeneutical approach is, throughout Origen’s corpus, associated with a distinct rhetorical category of persons: the level at which one interprets scripture often seems to correlate not only with intellectual capacity but also with socio-economic status. "Against Celsus", for example, describes Christians incapable of allegorical readings as “country bumpkins” (hoi agroikoi) and those mired in poverty. I then turn to contemporaneous evidence for regular food shortages among non-elite persons in the Roman Empire. Galen’s "On the Properties of Foodstuffs" provides what claim to be eyewitness accounts of the culinary habits of hoi agroikoi as a way of defining the limits of a civilized diet: In situations of economic vulnerability, where are the boundaries of what is acceptable to eat, and what are the somatic effects of these questionable foods? I argue that, based on evidence from Origen’s larger corpus and from contemporaneous sources, we should understand his invective against those who hope for an eating, drinking resurrected body in the context of chronic food scarcity. For at least some Christians in the second and third centuries, resurrection may have represented access to food and drink not attainable during life.