Paul asks the Corinthians, “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God?” (1 Cor 6:19). This language may sound metaphorical, but the apostle has something more concrete in mind. To excavate Paul’s imagery, modern readers must understand how ancient people related to their gods through physical images—what the Bible calls “idols.” Most ancient cultures believed that divine beings entered artisan-made statues through which worshippers could interact with their gods. Conversely, Paul tells the Corinthians that they are living, breathing images of a God whose Spirit resides inside of them.
According to much ancient Near Eastern theology, the purpose of sacred statues was to provide a place for gods to reside on earth. In the Memphite Theology of ancient Egypt, the creator god Ptah makes graven images that the other gods can inhabit: “He established [the gods’] shrines, he made their bodies according to their wishes. Thus, the gods entered their bodies of every wood, every stone, every clay” (AEL 1.59-60). The ancient Mesopotamians would perform a pit pi, or “mouth-opening” ritual after their idols were made to provide an orifice for the incoming deity to enter and animate the image. One of these ritualized incantations reads, “Without its mouth opened, this statue cannot smell incense, cannot eat food, nor drink water” (STT 200.43-44). Once the gods embodied their images, the idol was placed in a temple to become a conduit for the earthly adoration of heavenly beings.
Most Bible readers know that Israel reviled such images. Before the Israelites encounter the Canaanites, for instance, God tells Moses that his people must “destroy all their molten images” (Numbers 33:52). The Hebrew word for “image” is צלם (tselem) and, usually, the term refers to an idol created for other gods (e.g., 2 Kgs 11:18; Ezek 7:20; 16:17; 23:14; Amos 5:26; cf. 1 Sam 6:5-11). Yet, the God of Israel does something a bit different with the divine image. Instead of commanding the Israelites to cast images, the Lord decides to create human beings in the divine image, saying, “Let us create humanity in our image (צלם; tselem) and according to our likeness” (Gen 1:26). Whereas other gods dwelled in statues that were placed in temples, the Lord fashioned humans as the living images whose very bodies exist in the temple abode of God. This is how God’s Spirit “entered into” Ezekiel (Ezek 2:2; 3:24) and why Paul speaks of “the Holy Spirit within you” (1 Cor 6:19): believers’ bodies are sacred spaces in which the divine Spirit resides in a temple image.