dianoigo blog

Thursday, 2 November 2017

Early Christian Interpretation of the "Us" of Genesis 1:26

1. Introduction
2. Christological Interpretations
 2.1. First Century
  2.1.1. Pauline Epistles
  2.1.2. The Letter to the Hebrews
  2.1.3. 1 Clement
 2.2. Second Century
  2.2.1. The Letter of Barnabas
  2.2.2. The Epistula Apostolorum
  2.2.3. Justin Martyr
  2.2.4. Tatian
  2.2.5. Melito of Sardis
  2.2.6. Theophilus of Antioch
  2.2.7. Irenaeus of Lyons
  2.2.8. Clement of Alexandria
 2.3. Third Century
  2.3.1. Tertullian
  2.3.2. Origen
  2.3.3. Novatian
  2.3.4. The Letter of the Six Bishops to Paul of Samosata
3. Non-Christological Interpretations
 3.1. Pseudo-Clementine Homilies
 3.2. Saturnilus (via Hippolytus)
 3.3. An alternative interpretation mentioned by Origen
4. Summary and Conclusion

1. Introduction

One of the most striking statements in the creation narrative of Genesis 1 occurs in verses 26-27:
26 Then God said: Let us make human beings in our image, after our likeness. Let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, the tame animals, all the wild animals, and all the creatures that crawl on the earth. 27 God created mankind in his image; in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. (Gen. 1:26-27 NABRE)
The problem of what it means for humans to be made in imago Dei has occupied exegetes and theologians from antiquity up to the present. Another problem that has vexed interpreters is the significance of the plural jussive verb and pronominal suffix here: whom is God addressing as "us" and "our" as he prepares to create humans?

One encounters two main lines of interpretation in contemporary scholarly literature on Genesis. The first option has God addressing other celestial beings. These could be other gods, in which case the author of Genesis may be editing polytheistic source material and has not eliminated all vestiges of polytheistic language. Or God could be addressing the heavenly council, understood in a more monotheistic direction as consisting of "sons of God" or angels, that is, beings subordinate to God (cf. Job 1:6; 38:7). The second option has God addressing himself. This could entail a plural of majesty (akin to the "royal we"), a plural of deliberation (roughly comparable to a person who says to himself, "Let's see then..." when pondering a course of action) or a plural of fullness (implying some kind of complexity within God, perhaps involving God and his Spirit mentioned in v. 2).1

For many Christian readers, when they see plural terms applied to God they immediately think of the Trinity and suppose that the "us" is the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Since the doctrine of the Trinity did not yet exist at the time Genesis was written, biblical scholars are quick to point out that this interpretation is anachronistic: it cannot be what the author of Genesis had in mind. On the other hand, Collins avers that "if there is a place for any kind of sensus plenior ('fuller sense'), this is it.2 Sensus plenior refers to a fuller, theological meaning of a text that the Holy Spirit intends but that even the human author of the text may not have grasped. For Christians the notion of sensus plenior in biblical interpretation is inescapable, since the New Testament writers frequently offer interpretations of Old Testament passages that are clearly not the grammatical-historical meaning. Examples include the interpretation of Hos. 11:1 in Matt. 2:15 (where Hosea clearly intends "my son" to be Israel, but Matthew reads it as a Messianic prophecy), or the interpretation of Ps. 102:25 in Heb. 1:10 (where the psalmist addresses God but the writer of Hebrews understands these words as addressed by God to Christ), or the interpretation of Deut. 25:4 in 1 Cor. 9:9-10 (where the law clearly pertains to treatment of literal oxen, but Paul asserts that it was written "for our sake" to make a point about the rights of Christian ministers).

Thus, when Christian readers see a veiled reference to the Trinity in Genesis 1:26, their interpretation is problematic at the grammatical-historical level but reasonable in terms of the kind of theological interpretation found in the New Testament. Indeed, while no New Testament writer comments on the meaning of the plural in Gen. 1:26a, there is a rich tradition in early Christian literature of reading this text Christologically. The purpose of this article is to survey that tradition up to the end of the third century A.D.

2. Christological Interpretations

 2.1. First Century

  2.1.1. Pauline Epistles

As mentioned, no New Testament writer explicitly comments on the meaning of "us/our" in Gen. 1:26. The imago Dei concept features prominently in the Pauline epistles, and Paul undoubtedly had an opinion on the matter. Unfortunately, we cannot reconstruct his view with certainty, but there are some clues suggesting that he understood Christ as the addressee in Gen. 1:26.

In 1 Cor. 15:46-49, in an eschatological context (discussing the resurrection body), Paul contrasts the first man, Adam, who was from the earth, with the second man, the last Adam (Christ), who was "from heaven." He goes on to say, "Just as we have borne the image of the earthly one, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly one." The notion of humans bearing the image of Adam comes from Gen. 5:3, which describes Seth as "a son in [Adam's] likeness, after his image". The phrase "after his image," in Hebrew and in the Greek Septuagint, is identical to that of Gen. 1:26 apart from the difference in person and number. This suggests a link between the two passages. Is Paul saying only that we will bear the image of the heavenly man, Christ, because he is a new Adam (thus drawing entirely on Gen. 5:3)? Or is he also saying that we will bear the image of the heavenly man because this was God's will from the beginning, as expressed by God to the Son in Gen. 1:26? The language of Gen. 5:3 itself depends on Gen. 1:26, so it is difficult to imagine that Paul does not have Gen. 1:26 in mind. The rabbinic hermeneutical principle of gezerah shavah would have prompted him to read Gen. 1:26 and 5:3 together.

In 2 Cor. 3:18, Paul somewhat enigmatically speaks of believers as "being transformed into the same image from glory to glory," an idea linked to his statement that "the Lord is the Spirit." Shortly thereafter, Paul avers that Christ "is the image of God" (2 Cor. 4:4). Indeed, "the glory of the Lord," a common OT expression (e.g., Num. 14:21) is here implicitly identified as the glory of Christ (2 Cor. 4:4-5). Christ is not merely made according to God's image; he is God's image, definitively. If we ask from what biblical text Paul drew the idea that Christ is the definitive image of God, a Christological reading of the "our image" of Gen. 1:26 seems the most plausible source.

In Rom. 8:29, Paul writes, "For those he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, so that he might be the firstborn among many brothers." Again, if we were to ask Paul for biblical evidence that God predestined people to be conformed to the image of his Son, he might well point us to Gen. 1:26, interpreted eschatologically (i.e. not only with reference to the original creation of humanity but to the new creation). Moreover, the language of being transformed into and conformed to the image of the Son calls to mind Phil. 2:6, which describes Christ as "in the form of God" already prior to his resurrection, and arguably prior to his birth!

Paul never explicitly gives us his interpretation of the plural language in Gen. 1:26, and a case can be made that Adam Christology accounts for his language about Christ as the prototypical image of God in the above texts. However, while Adam Christology is undoubtedly present (most clearly in 1 Cor. 15), it seems unable to fully account for the imago Dei language of 2 Cor. 3-4 and Rom. 8:29.

Paul unambiguously describes the Lord Jesus Christ as God's agent in creation in 1 Cor. 8:6 and in Col. 1:16, using the preposition dia with a genitive noun, which denotes direct agency or instrumentality, not indirect agency or purpose. Thus, these texts say of the Lord Jesus Christ, "through whom are all things" and "all things were created through him," not merely "on account of whom." What is striking about Col. 1:16 is that the verse before describes Christ as "the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation" (v. 15). The hymn in Col. 1:15-20 as a whole is both protological (referring to primeval events) and eschatological: Christ is the one through whom and for whom all things in heaven and earth were created (v. 16),3 and is also "the head of the body, the church...the beginning, the firstborn from the dead" (v. 18). If one asks after Paul's biblical source for the notion that Christ, as the definitive image of God, was the agent and goal of creation, "Let us make humankind in our image" is the most likely choice.

  2.1.2. The Letter to the Hebrews

The author of Hebrews uses an expression for Christ that sounds like an elaboration of the imago Dei concept: "who is the refulgence of his glory, the very imprint of his being" (Heb. 1:3 NABRE). This calls to mind a passage in Wisdom of Solomon that calls Wisdom "a pure emanation of the glory of the Almighty...the reflection of eternal light, the spotless mirror of the power of God, the image of his goodness" (Wis. 7:25-26 NABRE). An allusion to this passage in Heb. 1:3 is likely, given that these are the only instances in the LXX and NT where the word apaugasma occurs. As Paul does in Colossians, the author of Hebrews describes the Son as God's image in the immediate context of giving him an active role in the creation of heaven and earth (Heb. 1:2, 10-12). It therefore seems likely that the writer is drawing on a tradition that identified Wisdom as the addressee of Gen. 1:26, but is modifying that tradition to replace Wisdom with Christ, who is Wisdom personified.4 This hermeneutical strategy is also likely employed in Colossians, where Paul says that "all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge" are hidden in Christ (Col. 2:3).

  2.1.3. 1 Clement

The letter from the Roman church to the Corinthian church known as 1 Clement, dating from the late first century, is the earliest Christian text to quote Gen. 1:26. In 1 Clem. 33, exhorting the Corinthians not to lose their zeal, the writer reminds them of the greatness of God and his creation. In vv. 4-5 he states,
And with his holy and perfect hands he formed the one who was preeminent and superior in intelligence to all, the human, stamped with his own image. For as God says, 'Let us make a human according to our own image and likeness. And God made the human; male and female he made them.'5
Although this writer quotes Gen. 1:26, he does not provide his interpretation of the "us." His focus in this passage is entirely on God's creative acts and the privileged status of humans within creation, and not on Christology. However, when he next introduces Christology, in chapter 36, he says of Jesus Christ that "through this one we see the reflection of his perfect and superior countenance... He is the radiance of his magnificence" (1 Clem. 36.3-4). The writer uses the same rare word apaugasma used in Heb. 1:3 and Wis. 7:26, and in the immediate context he quotes three of the Old Testament passages quoted in the catena of Heb. 1:5-13 (Ps. 104:4; Ps. 2:7-8; Ps. 110:1). It is highly likely, then, that there is either literary dependence between 1 Clement and Hebrews or use of a shared exegetical tradition. The connections between 1 Clem. 33 and 36 and between 1 Clement and Hebrews make it likely that this tradition saw Gen. 1:26 as affirming both that Christ shares definitively in God's image and that Christ was God's agent in creation.

 2.2. Second Century

  2.2.1. The Letter of Barnabas

The next Christian text to cite Gen. 1:26 is the Letter of Barnabas, probably written in the 130s. This text is the first to explicitly offer a Christological interpretation of the "us":
Consider this, my brothers: if the Lord allowed himself to suffer for our sake, even though he was the Lord of the entire world, the one to whom God said at the foundation of the world, 'Let us make a human according to our image and likeness,' how then did he allow himself to suffer by the hand of humans? (Barn. 5.5)6
Since, then, he renewed us through the forgiveness of our sins, he made us into a different type of person, that we might have the soul of children, as if he were indeed forming us all over again. For the Scripture speaks about us when he says to the Son, 'Let us make humans according to our image and likeness, and let them rule over the wild beasts of the land and the birds of the sky and the fish of the sea.' Once the Lord saw our beautiful form, he said 'Increase and multiply and fill the earth.' He said these things to the Son. (Barn. 6.11-12)7
This writer presupposes without argument, as though uncontroversial, that the words of Gen. 1:26 were spoken by God to the Son at the foundation of the world. Pre-existence Christology is not the writer's main concern throughout this passage; he seems able to presuppose that his readers shared this belief. Moreover, as we saw in Colossians, there is an interplay between the protological and the eschatological, since the writer also sees Gen. 1:26 as "speaking about us," i.e. foretelling the creation of the eschatological community.

  2.2.2. The Epistula Apostolorum

Written also c. 150 A.D., the Epistula Apostolorum ("Epistle of the Apostles") is an apocryphal letter purported to be written by the twelve apostles. Its intention is clearly to combat Gnosticism. The text alludes to Gen. 1:26-27 in the midst of a long Christological statement:

We know this: our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ (is) God, Son of God who was sent from God, the ruler of the entire world, the maker and creator of what is named with every name, who is over all authority (as) Lord of lords and King of kings, the ruler of the rulers, the heavenly one who is over the Cherubim and Seraphim and sits at the right hand of the throne of the Father, who by his word commanded the heavens and built the earth and all that is in it… who has created man according to his image and likeness... (Ep. Ap. 3)8
This passage does not explicitly interpret the "us" of Gen. 1:26. However, by attributing to the Son the activity of creating man according to his image and likeness, the text implicitly includes him within the scope of the verse, and may therefore rely on a Christological interpretation of the "us."

  2.2.3. Justin Martyr

Justin Martyr wrote his Dialogue with Trypho probably in the 150s. Persuading a Jewish interlocutor of Christian claims about Christ is a major focus of this massive work. At one point, Justin declares, "So, my friends... I shall now show from the Scriptures that God has begotten of himself a certain rational power as a beginning before all creatures. The Holy Spirit indicates this power by various titles, sometimes the Glory of the Lord, at other times Son, or Wisdom, or Angel, or God, or Lord, or Word." (Dial. 61.1).9 One of his proof texts for this claim is Gen. 1:26:
'My friends,' I continued, 'the Word of God, through Moses, stated exactly the same thing, when it revealed to us that at the creation of man God spoke of him (who was pointed out by Moses) in the same sense. Here is the text [quotes Gen. 1:26-28]... Lest you distort the meaning of these words by repeating what your teachers say—either that God said to himself, Let us make, just as we, when on the verge of doing something, say to ourselves, Let us make; or that God said Let us make to the elements, that is, to the earth or other similar substances of which we think man was composed—I wish again to quote Moses to prove beyond all doubt that he spoke with one endowed with reason and numerically distinct from himself. These are the words: And God said: Behold Adam has become as one of Us, knowing good and evil. Now the words as one of Us clearly show that there were a number of persons together, numbering at least two. I do not consider true that teaching which is asserted by what you call a heretical sect of your religion, nor can the proponents of that heresy prove that he spoke those words to angels, or that the human body was the result of the angel's work. But this offspring, who was really begotten of the Father, was with the Father and the Father talked with him before all creation... (Dial. 62.1-4)10 
Justin shows an awareness of several contemporaneous Jewish interpretations of the "us" in Gen. 1:26, but rejects these and insists that God was addressing the Son.

  2.2.4. Tatian

Tatian, a pupil of Justin's, wrote his Address to the Greeks c. 165 A.D.
For the heavenly Logos, a spirit emanating from the Father and a Logos from the Logos-power, in imitation of the Father who begat Him made man an image of immortality, so that, as incorruption is with God, in like manner, man, sharing in a part of God, might have the immortal principle also. (Address to the Greeks 7)11
Although Tatian never explicitly identifies the Logos as the Son—indeed, his Address never explicitly refers to Christ—it seems plain enough that, like his teacher Justin, he would have made this identification. Tatian does not directly cite or interpret Gen. 1:26, but his description of the Logos as having made man an image of immortality in imitation of the Father calls to mind the "us" language of Gen. 1:26.

  2.2.5. Melito of Sardis

Melito, bishop of Sardis, wrote his Passover homily in the second half of the second century A.D. Melito describes the creation of humanity thus:

In the beginning God made heaven and earth and everything in them. He formed man from the earth by his word and communicated the breath of life to this form. (On the Pascha 47)12
After narrating the Fall, Melito sums up its consequences:
What had come from dust to dust returned, and the creation of God was imprisoned in Hades. There was a sundering of what had been fairly joined, for man was dissolved into his parts by Death. A new disaster and terrible captivity enchained him. He was then taken captive by the shadows of Death. The image of the Father lay alone and abandoned. (On the Pascha 55-56)13
Melito thus regards humanity as the image of the Father, whom God created "by his word." Is there any reason to think that Melito read "his word" Christologically? There is: further along, emphasising the magnitude of Israel's unbelief in Christ, he writes:
you have failed, Israel, to recognise that this is the first-born of God who was begotten before the morning star, who made the light to rise, and the day resplendent; who separated the darkness, who set up the first limits, who fixed the earth in its place, and dried up the abyss, and spread out the firmament, and set in order the universe; who disposed the stars in the sky, who made the lights to shine, who created the heavenly angels, who placed there the thrones, who fashioned man for himself on earth. (On the Pascha 82-83)14
Melito never quotes Gen. 1:26, but he understands the Son of God to have created mankind, and thus implicitly to have been "the word" through whom the Father created man in his image. It is thus highly likely that Melito understood the Son to have been the addressee in Gen. 1:26.

  2.2.6. Theophilus of Antioch

The late second-century bishop Theophilus of Antioch, in his apologetic work written to one Autocylus, comments thus on Gen. 1:26:
But as to what relates to the creation of man, his own creation cannot be explained by man, though it is a succinct account of it which holy Scripture gives. For when God said, Let Us make man in Our image, after Our likeness, He first intimates the dignity of man. For God having made all things by His Word, and having reckoned them all mere bye-works, reckons the creation of man to be the only work worthy of His own hands. Moreover, God is found, as if needing help, to say, Let Us make man in Our image, after Our likeness. But to no one else than to His own Word and wisdom did He say, Let Us make. And when He had made and blessed him, that he might increase and replenish the earth, He put all things under his dominion, and at his service; and He appointed from the first that he should find nutriment from the fruits of the earth, and from seeds, and herbs, and acorns, having at the same time appointed that the animals be of habits similar to man's, that they also might eat of the seeds of the earth. (Ad Autolycus 2.18)
Theophilus clearly understands God to have spoken to his Word and Wisdom. But what or whom is this Word and Wisdom according to Theophilus? He clarifies later when discussing Gen. 3:8 (about God walking in the garden):
You will say, then, to me: You said that God ought not to be contained in a place, and how do you now say that He walked in Paradise? Hear what I say. The God and Father, indeed, of all cannot be contained, and is not found in a place, for there is no place of His rest; but His Word, through whom He made all things, being His power and His wisdom, assuming the person of the Father and Lord of all, went to the garden in the person of God, and conversed with Adam. For the divine writing itself teaches us that Adam said that he had heard the voice. But what else is this voice but the Word of God, who is also His Son? (Ad Autolycus 2.22)
  2.2.7. Irenaeus of Lyons

Irenaeus of Lyons, writing c. 180-185 A.D., explicitly interprets the Son as the addressee in Gen. 1:26 in a comment on Isa. 9:6:
He calls Him Wonderful Counsellor, meaning of the Father: whereby it is declared that the Father works all things together with Him; as is contained in the first book of Moses which is entitled Genesis: And God said, "Let us make man after our image and likeness." For there is seen in this place the Father speaking to the Son, the Wonderful Counsellor of the Father. (Demonstration 55)
Irenaeus had earlier commented,
For He made man the image of God; and the image of God is the Son, after whose image man was made: and for this cause He appeared in the end of the times that He might show the image (to be) like unto Himself. (Demonstration 22)
  2.2.8. Clement of Alexandria

Clement has a lot to say in his writings about the imago Dei. He never directly states that God the Father was addressing the Word or the Son in the words of Gen. 1:26, but the following excerpts show that this was almost certainly his understanding of the verse:
as the Son sees the goodness of the Father, God the Saviour works, being called the first principle of all things, which was imaged forth from the invisible God first, and before the ages, and which fashioned all things which came into being after itself (Stromata 5.6)
Wherefore also man is said to have been made in [God's] image and likeness. For the image of God is the divine and royal Word, the impassible man; and the image of the image is the human mind. (Stromata 5.14)
Now, it is incumbent on us to return His love, who lovingly guides us to that life which is best; and to live in accordance with the injunctions of His will, not only fulfilling what is commanded, or guarding against what is forbidden, but turning away from some examples, and imitating others as much as we can, and thus to perform the works of the Master according to His similitude, and so fulfil what Scripture says as to our being made in His image and likeness. (Paedagogus 1.2-3) 
The view I take is, that [Christ] Himself formed man of the dust, and regenerated him by water; and made him grow by his Spirit; and trained him by His word to adoption and salvation, directing him by sacred precepts; in order that, transforming earth-born man into a holy and heavenly being by His advent, He might fulfil to the utmost that divine utterance, "Let Us make man in Our own image and likeness." And, in truth, Christ became the perfect realization of what God spoke; and the rest of humanity is conceived as being created merely in His image. (Paedagogus 1.12)
 2.3. Third Century

  2.3.1. Tertullian

In one place, Tertullian follows the usual Christological interpretation of Gen. 1:26:
Imagine God wholly employed and absorbed in it— in His hand, His eye, His labour, His purpose, His wisdom, His providence, and above all, in His love, which was dictating the lineaments (of this creature). For, whatever was the form and expression which was then given to the clay (by the Creator) Christ was in His thoughts as one day to become man, because the Word, too, was to be both clay and flesh, even as the earth was then. For so did the Father previously say to the Son: "Let us make man in our own image, after our likeness." And God made man, that is to say, the creature which He moulded and fashioned; after the image of God (in other words, of Christ) did He make him. (On the Resurrection of the Flesh 6.4)
Elsewhere, however, Tertullian extends the interpretation to include the Spirit as a co-addressee alongside the Son, thus becoming the earliest extant Christian writer to adopt a Trinitarian reading of Gen. 1:26-27:
If the number of the Trinity also offends you, as if it were not connected in the simple Unity, I ask you how it is possible for a Being who is merely and absolutely One and Singular, to speak in plural phrase, saying, "Let us make man in our own image, and after our own likeness"; whereas He ought to have said, "Let me make man in my own image, and after my own likeness," as being a unique and singular Being? In the following passage, however, "Behold the man has become as one of us," He is either deceiving or amusing us in speaking plurally, if He is One only and singular. Or was it to the angels that He spoke, as the Jews interpret the passage, because these also acknowledge not the Son? Or was it because He was at once the Father, the Son, and the Spirit, that He spoke to Himself in plural terms, making Himself plural on that very account? Nay, it was because He had already His Son close at His side, as a second Person, His own Word, and a third Person also, the Spirit in the Word, that He purposely adopted the plural phrase, "Let us make"; and, "in our image"; and, "become as one of us." For with whom did He make man? And to whom did He make him like? (The answer must be), the Son on the one hand, who was one day to put on human nature; and the Spirit on the other, who was to sanctify man. With these did He then speak, in the Unity of the Trinity, as with His ministers and witnesses. In the following text also He distinguishes among the Persons: "So God created man in His own image; in the image of God created He him." Why say image of God? Why not "His own image" merely, if He was only one who was the Maker, and if there was not also One in whose image He made man? But there was One in whose image God was making man, that is to say, Christ's image, who, being one day about to become Man (more surely and more truly so), had already caused the man to be called His image, who was then going to be formed of clay— the image and similitude of the true and perfect Man. (Against Praxeas 12)
  2.3.2. Origen

Origen, too, insists that the Son was the addressee of the words of Gen. 1:26:
But to bring back a soul which had gone out, so that it came out of the grave when already stinking and passing the fourth day, was the work of no other than Him who heard the word of the Father, "Let us make man after our image and likeness." But also to command the winds and to make the violence of the sea cease at a word, was the work of no other than Him through whom all things, both the sea itself and the winds, have come into being. (Commentary on Matthew 12.2)
We therefore charge the Jews with not acknowledging Him to be God, to whom testimony was borne in many passages by the prophets, to the effect that He was a mighty power, and a God next to the God and Father of all things. For we assert that it was to Him the Father gave the command, when in the Mosaic account of the creation He uttered the words, Let there be light, and Let there be a firmament, and gave the injunctions with regard to those other creative acts which were performed; and that to Him also were addressed the words, "Let Us make man in Our own image and likeness"; and that the Logos, when commanded, obeyed all the Father's will. (Contra Celsum 2.9; see also 5.37)
On one occasion, Origen mentions a non-Christological interpretation that he does not endorse but is not willing to dismiss either (see below).

  2.3.3. Novatian

In his work On the Trinity, Novatian cited Gen. 1:26 against a modalistic Christology that identified Christ as God the Father, using it to prove that the Son and the Father are distinct persons:
But from this occasion of Christ being proved from the sacred authority of the divine writings not man only, but God also, other heretics, breaking forth, contrive to impair the religious position in Christ; by this very fact wishing to show that Christ is God the Father, in that He is asserted to be not man only, but also is declared to be God. For thus say they, If it is asserted that God is one, and Christ is God, then say they, If the Father and Christ be one God, Christ will be called the Father. Wherein they are proved to be in error, not knowing Christ, but following the sound of a name; for they are not willing that He should be the second person after the Father, but the Father Himself. And since these things are easily answered, few words shall be said. For who does not acknowledge that the person of the Son is second after the Father, when he reads that it was said by the Father, consequently to the Son, "Let us make man in our image and our likeness"; and that after this it was related, "And God made man, in the image of God made He him?" (de Trinitate 26)
  2.3.4. The Letter of the Six Bishops to Paul of Samosata

In 268-69 A.D., a synod deposed Paul of Samosata, bishop of Antioch, partly due to his denial of Christ's Incarnation.15

A letter survives addressed to Paul by six other bishops, of whom Hymenaeus of Jerusalem is named first. This letter is known as the Letter of the Six Bishops or the Letter of Hymenaeus.16 An English translation is hard to track down, so my own translation of the relevant Greek passage follows:
And all the divinely inspired writings declare the Son of God to be God; these we now undertake to cite at length. We believe him, who was always with the Father, to have fulfilled the paternal purpose by the creation of all things. For "he spoke and they were made; he commanded and they were created." Now one who commands something, commands someone; which "someone," we are convinced, is none other than God the only begotten Son of God, to whom he said, "Let us make man according to our image and likeness."17
3. Non-Christological Interpretations

We have already cited the non-Christological interpretations of Gen. 1:26 that Justin Martyr attributed to the Jews of his day. One would not, of course, expect non-Christian Jews to read the Jewish Scriptures with a Christological hermeneutic. There is also evidence of non-Christological interpretations of Gen. 1:26 among professing Christians, though the earliest such evidence I found is in literature from the third century A.D.

 3.1. Pseudo-Clementine Homilies

The Pseudo-Clementine Homilies date from the late third century but are thought to preserve older Jewish Christian traditions. The Homilies depict Christ as pre-existent but as an archangel rather than as God.18 The author appears at one point to refute a Christological interpretation of Gen. 1:26 in favour of a non-Christological "Wisdom" interpretation. The context is a dialogue between Simon the Magician (representing, in the author's view, a heretical perspective) and Peter (representing, in the author's view, the true perspective):
And Simon said: Since I see that you frequently speak of the God who created you, learn from me how you are impious even to him. For there are evidently two who created, as the Scripture says: 'And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.' Now 'let us make,' implies two or more; certainly not one only. 
And Peter answered: One is He who said to His Wisdom, 'Let us make a man.' But His Wisdom was that with which He Himself always rejoiced as with His own spirit. It is united as soul to God, but it is extended by Him, as hand, fashioning the universe. On this account, also, one man was made, and from him went forth also the female. And being a unity generically, it is yet a duality, for by expansion and contraction the unity is thought to be a duality. So that I act rightly in offering up all the honour to one God as to parents. (Homilies 16.11-12)19
 3.2. Saturnilus (via Hippolytus)

In his Refutation of All Heresies, Hippolytus refers to a heretic named Saturnilus who understood the words of Gen. 1:26a to be a conversation among angels:
But one Saturnilus, who flourished about the same period with Basilides, but spent his time in Antioch, (a city) of Syria, propounded opinions akin to whatever (tenets) Menander (advanced). He asserts that there is one Father, unknown to all— He who had made angels, archangels, principalities, (and) powers; and that by certain angels, seven (in number), the world was made, and all things that are in it. And (Saturnilus affirms) that man was a work of angels. There had appeared above from (the Being of) absolute sway, a brilliant image; and when (the angels) were not able to detain this, on account of its immediately, he says, returning with rapidity upwards, they exhorted one another, saying, "Let us make man in our likeness and image." (Refutation 7.16) 

In his Commentary on John, Origen suggests the possibility that God has committed to angels the task of forming each new human soul in the womb. He then goes on to suggest that, rather than referring only to the original creation of the first human pair, the words of Gen. 1:26 pertain also to the creation of each new human in the womb, and that therefore God addresses the words of Gen. 1:26 to the angels who have been appointed to sow souls in bodies. Nevertheless, Origen is unwilling to commit himself to this interpretation:
This explanation will take the command, 'Let us make man according to our image and our likeness,' in a more ingenious manner. God says this of all men and initiates the work which is later [performed] by others to whom the command comes in relation to the appointed portion. It is to these that God says, 'Let us make man.' It is to these also that he says in the confounding of the dialects, 'Come and let us go down and confound there their tongue.' Now we do not offer this as our opinion, for matters of such magnitude need to be thoroughly examined to see if they are so or not. On the other hand, such an interpretation must not be dismissed contemptuously. (Commentary on John 13.331-32)20

In the first through third centuries A.D., Christian writers consistently interpreted the plural terms in "Let us make man in our image" (Gen. 1:26) as the Father addressing the Son. This Christological interpretation is explicitly followed by the author of the Letter of Barnabas, Justin Martyr, Theophilus of Antioch, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, Origen, Novatian and the six bishops who wrote to Paul of Samosata. The same interpretation is arguably also presupposed by Paul, the authors of Hebrews, 1 Clement and the Epistula Apostolorum, Tatian and Melito of Sardis. Alternative, non-Christological interpretations of the passage are found in the Pseudo-Clementine Homilies, the heretic Saturnilus (as reported by Hippolytus) and a suggestion made (but not endorsed) by Origen.

Overall, then, we can say that the Christological reading was the dominant and consistent early Christian interpretation of the plural syntax of Gen. 1:26—at least in those writings that have been preserved. Following the lead of their Lord (Luke 24:27) and his apostles, the early church read the Jewish Scriptures through Christ-coloured lenses. In so doing they found a confirmation in early Genesis of Christ's pre-existence, deity and participation in the Father's creative work.


  • 1 See Victor P. Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, Chapters 1-17 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990), 132-34; C. John Collins, Genesis 1–4: A Linguistic, Literary, and Theological Commentary (Phillipsburg: P&R, 2006), 59-61.
  • 2 In context, Collins argues that Gen. 1:26 most likely depicts God as "deliberating with himself". He then adds, "Does this lead us to the Trinity? No, not of itself. But if there is a place for any kind of sensus plenior (‘fuller sense’), this is it. The kind of sensus plenior that I can accept occurs when a later passage amplifies an earlier one in a way consistent with the intent of the earlier one. If the Christian doctrine of the Trinity is true, then the referent was present in Genesis 1. This is not the same as claiming that the author or a pious Israelite reader must have been able to see it, only that the narration allows it. As mentioned, the Spirit of God in Genesis 1:2 is closely associated with God himself in the Old Testament. The Christian doctrine allows us to make good sense of all the elements in the text, as well as of the elements of other texts (those which speak of Christ as the one through whom the world was made)" (Collins, Genesis 1-4, 61). Hamilton similarly comments, "It is one thing to say that the author of Gen. 1 was not schooled in the intricacies of Christian dogma. It is another to say he was theologically too primitive or naïve to handle such ideas as plurality within unity. What we often so blithely dismiss as ‘foreign to the thought of the OT’ may be nothing of the sort. True, the concept may not be etched on every page of Scripture, but hints and clues and dropped enticingly here and there, and such hints await their full understanding ‘at the correct time’ (Gal. 4:4)" (Book of Genesis, 134).
  • 3 These "all things" are specifically qualified to include even the highest angelic orders ("thrones or dominions or principalities or powers"), perhaps to clearly elevate Christ above the angels, given that "worship of angels" was an issue at Colosse (Col. 2:18).
  • 4 See below on the Pseudo-Clementine Homilies, which seem to follow a non-Christological "Wisdom" interpretation of Gen. 1:26.
  • 5 Trans. Bart D. Ehrman, The Apostolic Fathers, 2 vols. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003), 1:93-95.
  • 6 Trans. Ehrman, Apostolic Fathers, 2:27
  • 7 Trans. Ehrman, Apostolic Fathers, 2:33.
  • 8 Trans. in John K. Elliott, The Apocryphal New Testament (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), 558-59.
  • 9 Thomas P. Halton, St. Justin Martyr: Dialogue with Trypho, ed. Michael Slusser, trans. Thomas B. Falls (Washington: Catholic University of America Press, 2003), 93-94.
  • 10 Halton, St. Justin Martyr, 95-96.
  • 11 Where a translation or text is not explicitly cited, I am following the public domain translation linked to, which is usually that hosted at newadvent.org. These translations are old and not based on the latest critical texts.
  • 12 Trans. Thomas Halton, "Paschal Homily: Melito of Sardis," The Furrow 19 (1968): 215.
  • 13 Trans. Halton, "Paschal Homily," 216.
  • 14 Trans. Halton, "Paschal Homily," 219.
  • 15 "Paul rejects the idea that the Logos should be composed (σύνθετος) with a human body, for this would be equivalent to a kind of mingling which is contrary to his dignity or rank as the Son of God… Malchion insists that Jesus Christ is one, composed out of two simple elements, the God-Logos and the human body, which is from the seed of David. The charge laid on Paul is that his rejection of such a model of ‘composition’ implies a denial of the substantial union of the Son of God with the human body. It is insinuated that he conceives of the union in Christ as a participation, presumably of the man Jesus, in the divine Wisdom, who is said to dwell in the former. According to Malchion, Paul’s doctrine of the inhabitation of divine Wisdom is motivated by the intention to protect the Son of God from the humiliating consequences of his kenosis, i.e. from suffering the cost or loss (dispendium) of his being united with a human body." (U. M. Lang, "The Christological Controversy at the Synod of Antioch in 268/9," Journal of Theological Studies 51 (2000): 66-67.
  • 16 Lang states that de Riedmatten has argued convincingly in favour of its authenticity ("Christological Controversy," 71).
  • 17 Greek text in Martin Josephus Routh, Reliquiae Sacrae, 5 vols. (Oxford: Typographeo academico, 1846-48), 3:292.
  • 18 Charles A. Gieschen,Angelomorphic Christology: Antecedents and Early Evidence (Leiden: Brill, 1998), 209-213.
  • 19 Cf. Recognitions 2.39-40, where Simon offers a more elaborate argument; Peter does not there specifically address the meaning of Gen. 1:26.
  • 20 Trans. Ronald E. Heine, Origen: Commentary on the Gospel according to John Books 13-32 (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1993), 139.