The significance of god’s image in man gerald Bray Introduction

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Tyndale Bulletin 42.2 (Nov. 1991) 195-225.

Gerald Bray

It is now nearly a quarter of a century since David Clines gave his 1967 Tyndale Old Testament lecture ‘The image of God in Man’.1 Since that time, the flood of articles and books dealing with the image and likeness of God in man has multiplied a good deal, and the theological climate has changed considerably.2 Whereas Clines’ radical repudiation of theological tradition went hand in hand with a most generous readiness to accept Ancient Near Eastern influences of all kinds, scholars now tend to insist that the question of the image must be addressed in theological terms, even though most of them continue to be unhappy with the way in which the classical tradition actually developed.3

This article outlines (i) the current state of exegesis; (ii) the problems connected with the traditional theological interpretation of Genesis 1:26; (iii) the newly recognised importance of intertestamental Judaism for a Christian doctrine of the image of God; (iv) an extended commentary on the relevant New Testament passages; and (v) a new theological reconstruction of the doctrine based on the evidence which the New Testament provides.

I. The Current State of Exegesis
The semantic range of the main terms, tselem and d’muth is now broadly agreed. The former refers primarily to a concrete image, a definite shape; the latter is more abstract—a resemblance, or a likeness.4 The big question raised by comparative usage elsewhere is whether tselem can ever be held to have a metaphorical sense. Everyone agrees that the Genesis accounts refer to man being made in the image of an invisible God, and that the thrust of the passage precludes worship of the human being as God’s representative on earth. What is not clear is whether man is the tselem of God in body as well as in ‘soul’ (or however one is going to describe the non-physical part of the human constitution), or whether tselem has any link to Israelite prohibitions against idolatry.

The high-water mark of the belief that tselem must always imply a physical image is generally said to have been the influential article written in 1940 by P. Humbert.5 For a time this view dominated Old Testament scholarship, and it was endorsed, with some minor reservations, by Clines.6 However, even in 1967 the tide was receding, and he also records some strong denials of Humbert’s position.7 Today those denials sound more convincing, especially since the frequent metaphorical use of tselem and its Akkadian cognate tsalmu, which Clines also recognises,8 has become more widely appreciated.9

It must now be concluded that tselem does not by itself imply that the human body bears some resemblance to God (still less that God has a body like man’s), and therefore that the nature of the body’s involvement in the concept of the image must be decided on other grounds. As far as prohibitions against idolatry are concerned, it must be said that there is no obvious link between Genesis 1:26 and Exodus 20:4, which is the passage most often

cited in this connection. The vocabulary is different, and the Exodus passage does not give the creation of man in God’s image as a reason for prohibiting idolatry, which one would certainly expect if the two passages were directly connected. We must therefore conclude that there is no exegetical evidence which compels us to believe that the Genesis passages were composed as part of a campaign against the worship of idols.

A related issue, and one which by its very nature is far harder to resolve satisfactorily, is the question of Egyptian and/or Babylonian influence on the composition of the Genesis texts. Tsalmu is found in Akkadian to refer to an image set up to commemorate royal authority and dominion, and it was long thought that this meaning must also lie behind Genesis. It is of course true that the idea of dominion is present in Genesis 1:26, but, as Westermann points out10, if this idea were borrowed from the royal ideology it would mean that every single human being was an image representing the rule of God. While this is not completely impossible, it hardly sits well with the concept of a Chosen People who were called to fulfil the Law of God in a special way and therefore it is most improbable that it could be the work of P. At most there may be faint echoes of a royal ideology which would strike the hearer as an enormous contrast to the Israelite conception of the image of God. That there was such a contrast is agreed by everyone; whether it was deliberately intended or not remains unknown, and probably unknowable. In any case, it is also generally agreed that the concept of dominion, however important in itself, is merely an attribute of the tselem and does not constitute part of its essence.11

A more awkward question is raised by the use of the plural in Genesis 1:26, implying as it does that man, as the image of God, somehow reflects a plurality in God. Here, there is no unanimity among interpreters. All are agreed that the Israelite God is One, and that the use of the plural here cannot imply polytheism. The suggestion that it may reflect an earlier, pre-Israelite polytheism, which was not edited out when the account was compiled, seems to

be highly unlikely, if only because this is just the sort of thing a convinced monotheist would be on the look-out for. More probable is the idea that God is here speaking to the heavenly hosts, though this raises such questions as whether angels are also created in the image of God, whether angels took part in the work of man’s creation, and even whether man is created in the image of angels.12 The further suggestion that this is a royal ‘we’ is now generally rejected on the ground that the Bible does not use the royal ‘we’ of God, though it is sometimes argued that the plural is a form of self-encouragement, rather as we might say, ‘let’s see, I wonder whether. . .’.13

The role of angels in the creation of man has been debated for a long time. That the Israelites were conscious of an ontological hierarchy is known from Psalm 8:5-6, where we are told that God created man a little lower than the angels, and gave him dominion over creation. This hierarchy is confirmed in Hebrews, where the Psalm is quoted (2:7) and it is important to recall that the writer felt obliged to discuss the question of Christ’s relationship to angels at some length. His argument is that by becoming man, the Son of God, who is by nature far above any angel, elevated the elect, who have become His brothers by adoption, to a position higher than that of the angels, a status confirmed by Paul when he says that we shall judge them (1 Cor. 6:3).

But this judgment will presumably take place at the realisation of the eschaton. Meanwhile, the created hierarchy remains, and man must show deference to the angelic hosts (1 Cor. 11:10), though not to the point of obeying them if they should somehow interfere with the teaching of the Gospel (Gal. 1:8). The message seems to be that whilst we are lower than angels by virtue of our creation, our relationship to God is not dependent on them. As there is nothing in the Bible to suggest that we are created in their image, or that they participated in our creation, it is probably best to leave these questions out of the discussion altogether. On the other hand, there are similarities between angels and men

which cannot be overlooked, especially since they would appear to be shared by God as well, and these may provide some basis for deciding whether angels are also created in the image of God.14

To return to the problem of the plural in Genesis 1:26, the most likely answer is that God is speaking to other beings who share whatever it is He is about to give to man, but that the actual work of creation is His alone.15 This impression is reinforced by Genesis 3:22, where God says ‘Behold, the man has now become like one of us’, a use of the plural which clearly excludes any form of inflated singular. Who these other beings are is not stated in the text, leaving a great deal of room for speculation. Christians have often argued that the reference is to the Trinity, although there is no suggestion of this either, in spite of the plea made by Karl Barth.16 His argument for a plurality in God is not without some foundation, but the texts he uses to support it come, as indeed they must, from the New Testament, which speaks of Christ the Son as having taken part in the work of Creation (Jn. 1:3; Col. 1:15-16).

Colossians 1:15 offers the most convincing evidence for a Trinitarian interpretation, because Christ the Creator is there described as the eikôn tou Theou tou aoratou (‘image of the invisible God’), but it should be noticed that although this passage is quite specific about the relationship of the Son of God to the Father, it does not say anything about the creation of man, either in the image of the Trinity or in the image of Christ. This question arises from a comparative study of Pauline texts, especially those which refer to Christ as a new Adam, but there is no evidence that the two concepts were directly linked in the Apostle’s mind.17

Working from the text of Genesis 1 itself, Clines suggested that God might here be addressing His Spirit, which would

introduce a slightly different twist to the Trinitarian interpretation. He points out the role of the Spirit in creation (Gen. 1:2) and cites other Old Testament passages in which the idea of a Creator Spirit appears. But he does not press the point, it has not been taken up by other exegetes, and we must conclude that the text offers no evidence to support it.

In the LXX, tselem is regularly, though not always or exclusively, translated as eikôn. The Greek word conveyed the same idea of ‘concrete image’ and was doubtless therefore regarded as a suitable rendering for tselem. It should be borne in mind though, that eikôn was first widely used by Plato to refer not to an idol or a copy of some other reality, but to a thing which has a genuine share in the reality depicted, to the point where it may even be identified with that reality. According to Plato (Timaeus 30b), the world is created in the image of God, and man, or at least the human soul, is a replica of the world (ibid. 43a). But in his scheme, man is altogether inferior to the world, which is perfectly animate and rational, being a true eikôn of God, which man is not. The belief that man is a mikros kosmos, or as we would say, a microcosm of the image, is of a much later date and does not appear in Greek thought until after the influence of Philo and the Early Christians had introduced the Hebraic notion of man as the image of God.18 Thus we may safely assume that the translators of the LXX did not borrow Greek ideas when they used eikôn for tselem, but merely found the word most suitable for their purposes and adapted it as necessary.

The translation of d’muth is much less straightforward than that of tselem. In Genesis 1:26, the Greek word used is homoiôsis, an unusual form which can also be traced back to Plato in the sense of ‘likeness, resemblance’. But in Genesis 5:3, d’muth is translated as idea and in Genesis 9:6 as eikôn! Even if we allow that the last of these may have been a slip of the pen, it is obvious that d’muth did not have anything like the same shape about it as did tselem. The Greek words used to translate it emphasise visual, and

therefore essentially superficial, resemblance, adding weight to the consensus of Old Testament exegesis that the d’muth cannot be regarded as a distinct entity in its own right. This only confirms the persistence of the Hebraic concept into Hellenistic times, and makes the later development of homoiôsis into a thing paralleling eikôn all the more inexcusable.
II. The Problems of Traditional Theology
Old Testament scholars have long noted that the history of Christian exegesis had gone astray, particularly in the development of the concept of homoiôsis, and argued that it could therefore be disregarded. It was often remarked that both the phrase ‘image (and likeness) of God’, and clear allusions to it are so rare in the Old Testament as to make it questionable whether the concept had any real significance for Israel.19 According to this line of reasoning, the early Church, almost certainly under Hellenistic influence, moved far away from its Old Testament roots and developed an idea which had only the most slender basis in the original text. This might have been understandable in the days when ‘proof-texting’ was an acceptable method of doing theology, but it could hardly be sustained in the era of scientific Biblical study!

Nowadays it is more generally accepted that in deciding how important the concept of the image and likeness of God is (or was) in Old Testament theology, the greatest caution is required. The image of God in man does not occur often, but it comes at significant moments—the crowning of creation, the beginning of the genealogies and the prohibition of murder, which clearly distinguishes human from merely animal life. It also reappears in the New Testament, having been the object of considerable speculation during the intertestamental period. We might also add that the vast amount of attention paid to it both by Christian tradition and by modern scholarship (sometimes in the interests of demonstrating its insignificance!) shows that the concept cannot simply be dismissed as a matter of little or no real importance.

The theological question cannot be ignored, but how it

should be posed remains a major divide between traditional and modern ways of thinking. The modern scholar, deeply rooted in exegesis, tends to look within that discipline for clues which will point him in the direction of a coherent theology. This would be a laudable endeavour were it not for the fact that the exegetical tradition is vitiated by certain weaknesses in method which make the whole enterprise questionable. The first of these weaknesses is the over-reliance placed on lexical study as the key to meaning. This has been amply demonstrated and criticised by Professor James Barr.20

A second problem with an exegetically-based theology is that exegesis is still very much in thrall to the Documentary Hypothesis of the Pentateuch, in spite of the many revisions which the latter has undergone since the days of Wellhausen. Because of this, we are asked to consider not the theology of Genesis but of P, a shadowy figure whose precise date and purpose in writing (or compiling earlier sources) remains obscure. Unfortunately, everything depends on finding answers to these questions, and this can only be done by making certain assumptions about the meaning of the text. The result is a circular argument which depends for its validity on the belief that one hypothesis can reliably be built on another.

If we assume that there was a P, we must then assume that he had a particular theological outlook which is reflected in his documents. But deciding which documents are his depends on isolating a particular theological strand in the Pentateuch! If we agree that P was a later author who was concerned to emphasise the uniqueness and importance of the Israelite cult, we will be inclined to take Genesis 1:26 and related verses as reinforcing prohibitions against idolatry. But as we have already indicated, there is nothing in the actual texts which suggests this, and much which points in a very different direction. It is hard to believe that a monotheistic writer of the exilic period would have left the plural for God unaltered and unexplained; hard too, to believe that his main purpose was to demythologise pagan beliefs. Would a

contemporary of Jeremiah really have been as subtle a denouncer of idolatry as this?

The Genesis texts are universalistic in scope, and not obviously interested in cultic matters; it is never suggested that man was created in God’s image so as to be able to worship Him, for instance.21 The express statement that women as well as men are created in God’s image hardly fits an all-male priesthood which discriminated against women, nor does it sit well with genealogies which mention only males.22 Even the dominion which man has been given over creation is hard to tie in with animal sacrifices, which were supposedly of enormous significance for P. After all, how could a mere animal be a substitute for a being created in the image and likeness of God?

Things are not made any easier by the fact that Genesis 1:26 appears to have closer links with the so-called J material in Genesis 3 than with the rest of P! It is symptomatic that both Karl Barth and Wolfhart Pannenberg have confused the two sources in their interpretation of the image, not because they are unaware of them but because it seemed to them to fit the overall argument best.23 But once the divide between J and P breaks down, is there any point in trying to maintain that there is such a thing as a theology of P?24
III. The Importance of Intertestamental Judaism
One of the most remarkable developments of modern times has been the renewed demonstration by scholars that the most fruitful period of theological speculation about the image of God in man was the so-called ‘intertestamental period’, a time which is of special importance to Christians because of its influence on the New Testament. It is a curious fact that almost all the ideas about the image which were later to be developed by the Christian Church appeared during this period, and are reflected in the speculations of the rabbis and others.

Intertestamental Judaism was the first to speculate about the use of the plural in Genesis 1:26, and it is there that we find the two most popular solutions already being propounded, viz. the idea that God was communing with Himself25 and the idea that He was speaking to angels.26 From this period too, come the first hints that the image was diminished after the Fall of man. The Old Testament never suggests anything of this kind, and modern scholars agree that Genesis 9:6 points to man’s retention of the image after the Fall.27 It is true that at first the rabbis did not generally identify the loss or corruption of the image with the Fall itself;28 as far as they were concerned, Adam continued to be the full image of God until the day of his death. What happened, they maintained, was that after Adam’s time, the image gradually diminished, not by the inheritance of Adam’s guilt, but because of the sins of individual men.29 According to Abba Kohen, the divine image disappeared after the time of Enoch,30 and there is a legend that Rabbi Banaah was allowed to see the grave of Abraham because he was the likeness of the divine image, but not that of Adam, who was the divine image itself.31

The idea that the image implied dominion over the Creation was a popular theme, already found in Psalm 8, and repeated in Sirach 17:3. But to this traditional statement, Sirach adds that man was also able to distinguish between good and evil, thereby introducing a moral dimension into the concept of the image (17:6-10). This in turn leads to the statement that man is able to know

God by keeping the Law (17:13), a view which was to become increasingly popular as Judaism evolved.32 The significance of this evolution is that the concept of the image subtly changes from being seen primarily as a relationship established between God and man and becomes instead a gift enabling man to achieve a closer union with God.33

The introduction of the moral issue had fateful consequences for the interpretation of the image, and these too, are still very much with us. In particular, the idea that the image was lost after the Fall became much more prominent than it had been before. Admittedly, there was a school of thought which insisted that the image cannot have been lost at the Fall, since if it had been, man would not now be able to keep the Law.34 But although this tendency never disappeared, it was gradually supplemented by the view that God’s justice demanded punishment, and that as a consequence of this, the glory of God was withdrawn from man after the Fall. Only with the gift of the Law and the Covenant did it become possible for man to attain to the glory of God once more.35 Here it must be noted that the term preferred by the rabbis was glory (kabod; doxa) not image, and this too, is significant for future developments. Gradually the picture emerged of an image deprived of God’s glory, a concept which Christians identified with His likeness, and the classical idea of a two-part image was born.36

It is with Philo that the influence of Greek ideas becomes apparent, and his impact on later Christian thought was enormous. For Philo, there were images of God in Heaven, which he

identified with Wisdom37 and Mind (nous).38 The human mind, though vastly inferior to the heavenly Nous, is nevertheless modelled on it, the Logos being regarded as the archetypos idea. The Logos is frequently referred to as the image of God, and the immortal soul is fashioned according to it.39 This view was to have an illustrious future, becoming the foundation of most Patristic and mediaeval thought on the subject. Its great weakness is that it tends to exalt human rationality to a place denied it in Scripture (cf. e.g. 1 Cor. 1:18-2:16). Today, however, even the strongest supporters of the classical tradition usually feel obliged to reject this aspect of it.40

Of utmost importance for Philo is the belief that man is the image of God at one remove, being created in the likeness of an archetype, which is not the world, as in Plato, but the Logos. Genesis 1:26 describes the creation of a ‘heavenly man’, who lacks any element of mortality or earthiness, and who therefore does not have a human body.41 The creation of the ‘earthly man,’ whose soul is also made according to the archetype, but who has a physical body which bears no resemblance to God, is described in Genesis 2:7.42 Philo’s refusal to countenance the idea that the body could have been created in the image of God is often cited as a clear instance of Platonic influence on his thought, though it should be borne in mind that Judaism had long rejected crude anthropomorphism and would not have accepted the idea that God has a physical shape resembling that of a man.43 On the other hand, it did not make the kind of separation between body and soul which we find in Philo. For example, his contemporary, the great Rabbi Hillel taught that bathing was a way of caring for the divine image in man, thereby associating the image with the physical body.44 It is interesting to note that in developing his idea, Philo

was the first to come up with the hint that there were two creation accounts in Genesis, though of course he did not express this in the language of modern scholarship. He was also responsible for introducing the body/soul distinction into the discussion about the image of God, an idea which would be readily accepted by the Early Christians and which has been so strongly denied in modern times.45 Of more immediate significance to the Early Church was the identification of the Logos with the archetype according to which the image of God in man was created: it was this, and not the ‘heavenly man’ of Genesis 1:26 which the Church identified with Christ, in whose image man was then said to have been made.

When we look at these ideas in the light of the Old Testament, we are astonished at how little they have to do with the text. Nowhere in Genesis is there any suggestion that the image declined after the time of Adam, or that it had anything to do with keeping the Law. Nowhere is it stated that the image is either related to, or unconnected with, the physical form of the human body. Nowhere is it suggested that man was created after an archetype other than the Divine Being Himself, though Gordon Wenham has recently proposed a parallel text which might legitimate such a view.46 It is all pure speculation, either totally unrelated to the text, or using it, as Philo did, in a curious and exegetically unacceptable way. Yet it was to be almost entirely from these ideas that traditional Christian teaching, including that of the Reformers, was to derive its content, if not its direct inspiration!

Most seriously of all, the idea that the image of God in man conferred moral awareness is directly contradicted by the narrative in Genesis itself. It is extraordinary that this was never recognized, yet it is plain for all to see that Adam, though he was created in the image of God, was not allowed to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. When he did so, God said ‘Behold, the man has become like one of us’, implying that in this particular at least, there had been an important dissimilarity between Himself and His

human creature. What is more, God determined to put a stop to man’s adventure by blocking the way to the tree of life, the fruit of which would have given him the other divine quality which he had previously lacked - immortality. Yet in spite of the obvious clarity of the Genesis narrative, generations of theologians have imagined that Adam in Eden was not only a moral being but immortal as well, and these two misconceptions continue to find their way into textbooks of Christian doctrine.

Oddly enough, had the rabbis recognised that the prelapsarian Adam did not possess moral awareness, they could have gone on to develop the idea that the image was originally designed to progress from glory to glory, as man got progressively nearer to God. Why was it that nobody seemed to notice that the ‘Fall’ was not a departure from the presence of God but a drawing nearer to Him? Man sinned because he succumbed to the temptation to be like God, and he was granted his wish. What is more, this gift was not revoked as part of man’s punishment: nothing could be further from the truth than the suggestion that salvation consisted of being restored to the image of God as this had existed in the Garden of Eden.47 The whole thrust of the Biblical narrative leads away from the innocence of the Garden, so much so that when the tree of life reappears in the book of Revelation, it is sited in the midst of the City, that great sign of human rebellion against God.48

The key to the rabbis’ failure, or unwillingness, to perceive these things must lie in the role which they assigned to the Law. It is hard to see how the Law could have been an instrument of salvation if man had no way of keeping it, and so some point of contact with the Divine standard of behaviour had to be preserved. The moral component which was subsequently read into the image became a necessity in this scheme of things, for without it the plan of salvation could not have been realised.

What is incomprehensible, and indeed tragic, is that the

Christian Church was unable to see that once salvation by the Law was rejected, the moral character of the image had no more role to play. By preserving the concept of a morally responsible image, the Fathers of the Early Church opened the way for every shade of what would later be known, and condemned, as ‘Pelagianism’.49 Even the Reformers, failed to perceive that the image of God in man was not supplied with moral awareness, with the result that they were obliged to say that it had been more or less completely lost at the Fall.50 This non-Biblical doctrine became necessary, not because they had a false view of the effects of sin, but because they failed to understand what Adam was like before he succumbed to temptation. The first error made the second inevitable, and it has coloured theological study ever since.51

Directory: tynbul -> library
library -> Tyndale Bulletin 50. 2 (1999) 299-305. Angel of the lord: messenger or euphemism?
library -> Tyndale Bulletin 46. 1 (1995) 151-168. The Achaean Federal Cult Part I: pseudo-julian, letters 198 1
library -> Tyndale Bulletin 44. 2 (1993) 323-337. In search of the social elite in the corinthian church
library -> Tyndale Bulletin 51. 2 (2000) 285-294. The ‘new’ roman wife and 1 timothy 2: 9-15: the search for a sitz im leben
library -> Tyndale Bulletin 48. 2 (1997) 219-243. Dionysus against the Crucified: Nietzsche contra Christianity, Part 1
library -> Tyndale Bulletin 52. 1 (2001) 83-100. Innocent suffering in egypt
library -> Tyndale Bulletin 51. 2 (2000) 193-214. Innocent suffering in mesopotamia
library -> Tyndale Bulletin 45. 2 (1994) 213-243. The epistle to the galatians and classical rhetoric: part 3
library -> Thetyndalehousebulleti n issued twice yearly by the Tyndale Fellowship for Biblical Research, Tyndale House, Selwyn Gardens, Cambridge

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