The myth of carrying a dead man on your back- “the body of death”

A local Church Pastor/Pastrix recently preached a sermon which incorporated part of Romans 7 into it. Usually, merely saying “Romans 7” is usually sufficient in Christian circles to bring to mind the struggle with sin. As Paul describes the thoughts and impulses that war within him, he comes to verse 24 and says,

“Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?”

This individual did use that exact text, and they told a familiar story. Like many preachers who have come before them, they recounted the story of  how in ancient Rome there was a form of capital punishment which was gruesome and terrifying. The idea was that if you murdered someone, your victim’s corpse was then chained to your back. As the sun beat down on you and as days and weeks passed, rancid odours would nauseate you as the body rotted and decayed. Infection quickly set in as it seeped into your own body and killed you. Its a familiar story.  Some pastors, desiring to go a step further, would add that it was only possible to be freed from the horrors of this punishment if someone else chose to carry the body in the place of the murderer, carrying it to his death.  We are told that this is what the term “body of death” meant, and that Paul used this terminology and phraseology to bring to the mind precisely this well-known form of punishment- that it was a brilliant illustration on Paul’s part and a powerful allusion for us today on how to understand our sin and the effects it has on us.

The only problem is that this is extremely suspect if not outright false. The only mention of this practice  comes from Virgil’s Aeneid, a Latin epic poem that recounts the deeds and mythology of Aeneas. Originally published some 80 years before the Epistle or Roman , its possible that Paul and his readers would have heard of it, there is no indication that he actually did. To recount the pertinent part in Book VII;

Not far from here is the site of Argylla’s city,
built of ancient stone, where the Lydian race,
famous in war, once settled the Etruscan heights.
For many years it flourished, until King Mezentius
ruled it with arrogant power, and savage weaponry.
Why recount the tyrant’s wicked murders and vicious acts?
May the gods reserve such for his life and race!
He even tied corpses to living bodies, as a means
of torture, placing hand on hand and face against face,
so killing by a lingering death, in that wretched
embrace, that ooze of disease and decomposition.
But the weary citizens at last armed themselves
surrounded the atrocious madman in his palace,
mowed down his supporters, and fired the roof.

Does this prove anything? Not at all. Though the story may be based on true events, the poem itself is Greco-Roman mythology.  It is largely fictional and describes what took place prior to the founding of Rome. If Virgil was alluding to a common practice of his day, there is nothing to show it. From the context before and after the bold section, it appears this kind of punishment was not acceptable  [at least to Virgil], since he uses it as an example of King Mezentius’ “wicked murders and vicious acts” for which the people rose up against him.

There is no indication that this practice of tying murderers to dead men,  if it even happened, was called “the body of death”.  It also cannot be said that this was a Roman custom/ law as all we have is one isolated reference to one king’s unacceptable barbaric practice that pre-dated the Romans. There are certainly no primary Roman sources where this punishment has been codified into law or even mentioned as a legitimate form of execution. In terms of what the punishment was for, there is no specific crime listed in the Aeneid.  The victims of this punishment were not identified as murderers and the corpses were not identified as murder victims. On that note,  who would consent to having their murdered loved one chained to the murderer and left to rot instead of receiving a decent burial? In terms of the dead men being carried on the murderers back, in the story the victim was bound “hand on hand, face against face.” This description does not suggest any mobility afforded to the victim. Lastly there is no such reprieve mentioned. This part was made up to strengthen the allusion to Christ who bore our punishment for us.  There is absolutely nothing about someone taking their place, though at least the concept of getting sick and dying from the presence of putrefying flesh was accurate.

In terms of where drawing that parallel  first originated, the earliest records I could find of it all come  from the late 17th century works and 18th century commentaries. Attempting to find something earlier,  I’ve read commentaries and homilies from such early Church fathers, theologians and preachers as  Augustine, Origen, Chrystosom, Clement of Alexandria, Cyril, Erasmus, Aquinas, Hillary, Ambrose, even Pelagius, and none of them mention it in their sermons and writing concerning Romans 7. To say that this is what Paul had in mind when he spoke of the body of death is pure mythos, even as the salient details are wrong.

In short, in our present day many pastors and lay persons have not only changed an extra-biblical illustration into an embedded allusion , but some would suggest that the story of Mezentius is an interpretive key to understanding the passage in Romans 7. Its not. This particular pastor, while sincere in their efforts, was wrong to preach this story as central and specific to the exegesis.

14 thoughts on “The myth of carrying a dead man on your back- “the body of death”

  1. Hmm. I’ve never heard that one before. I would have to call BS on that the moment the pastor said it. It doesn’t even sound feasible or like something that *actually* happened. It definitely seems like one of those convenient sermon illustrations of dubious heritage.

  2. IF THIS PRACTICE TODAY WAS ENACTED IT WOULD STOP ONE FROM WANTING TO MURDER OR DETOURING ONES MINDSET FROM THE VERY ACT SOUNDS LIKE AENEAS WAS NT SO CRAZY AFTER ALL I WOULD LIKE TO STUDY THE AFFECTS OF SEEING THIS AND THE OUTCOME ON THE MURDERER PHYSICALLY AND MENTALLY AS HE DEALT WITH IT SOUNDS LIKE A LIVING HELL AND THEN YOU DIE A TERRIBLE DEATH LONG DRAWN OUT AND AGONIZING AND AFTER SEEING THIS PRACTICE OTHERS WOULD NOT WANT TO FOLLOW THE MURDERERS PATH OF CHOICE.

  3. not to mention the lack of practicality. i literally just heard this in a sermon last week. and i remember thinking, “why wouldn’t the murder just leave town and ‘take the body apart’ to remove it from his chains, and then just wander into the next town?” the possibility of actually pulling off this punishment just seems unlikely

  4. I seldom comment, however i did a few searching and wound
    up here The myth of carrying a dead man on your back- the
    body of death | The Paperthin Hymn. And I do have
    a couple of questions for you if you don’t mind. Could it be simply me or does it give the impression like a few of the comments appear like they are written by brain dead folks? :-P And, if you are posting at additional online sites, I would like to follow everything new you have to post. Would you list of the complete urls of all your community pages like your twitter feed, Facebook page or linkedin profile?

  5. Before last night i knew nothing about any of this. I had a dream that i had arrived somewhere, not sure where, but there were a few people who had been told that they, like me, will be suffering for various sins in very particular ways. Mine being, carrying a dead rotting human carcass in a sack over my shoulder. I find it strange that i found a similar story online, including this one.. It tells me that what I had dreampt was not just jumbled nonsense.. It might have actually been something that happened.. Explain this phenomena for me, if you will please.

  6. It is clear that Paul was speaking metaphorically about the condition human nature vs. spiritual, and not attempting to chronicle a specific type of punishment; therefore it is of little consequence whether or not the alleged original practice was true or mythical. However, it is also unlikely that Paul or any educated person in that part of the world would have never read the Aeneid, authored by one of the most outstanding Poets of Rome, whose fame even lives on today. Given the large body of information available to us now, and given the two millennia gap, it is excusable for the likes of us to be unfamiliar with the cruelties of Mezentius. It would not only be reasonable, however, for Paul to know about him, but rather strange, that one could endure a formal education in those days without being familiar with this most heinous form of torture espoused by Rome’s prize poet just a generation prior. And what better analogy could you expect than to describe the sinful flesh as the rotting corpse of Mezentius’ alleged victims. While I agree that many pastors have expounded wrongly on the method referred to, and have wrongly implicated Roman legal practices, I doubt that any were intending a “take home” of a point about the veracity or mythological nature of Mezentius or the acceptance of certain roman punishments. The point is that living in a body that experiences temptation to sin is horrible. While we cannot say conclusively that Paul was thinking of this particular torture when he penned “the body of death”, there is no more likely reference than that of Virgil’s to which he might have been referring.

    • It is highly possible that Paul knew of Virgil’s work. F.F. Bruce, a noted New Testament scholar, called Paul a “Hellenist of Hellenists” (alluding to the Bible’s reference to Paul as a Hebrew of Hebrews). Paul was raised and well educated within a Roman culture (Tarsus). He was not only aware of Roman poetic form. He used that form repeatedly throughout his writings. Whether or not he is accessing Virgil’s work as a metaphor in Romans 7 cannot be known, but it cannot be easily dismissed either.

  7. btw… thank you for quoting the original text of Virgil in such an accessible translation. I believe that many of the errors committed by pastors in relation to this would have been averted if they had done so as well.

  8. Paul makes clear what he means in the book of Romans.
    We have our sinful nature until we die.
    We are freed from our sinful natures corrupting power so long as we continue to submit ourselves to the risen Christ and His Spirit within us.
    Again, we see someone who attempts to sift out a nat whole swallowing a camel.

  9. I was wondering if you ever considered changing the layout of your
    website? Its very well written; I love what youve got to say.
    But maybe you could a little more in the way of content so people
    could connect with it better. Youve got an awful
    lot of text for only having 1 or 2 images. Maybe you could space it out better?

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