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Showing posts with label Origen. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Origen. Show all posts

Monday, 9 May 2022

Reading Isaiah like an Early Christian (3): "It was no ambassador or angel but the Lord himself that saved them" (Isaiah 63:9)

Continuing our series on Christological texts in Isaiah, we turn to the rich and fascinating text that is Isaiah 63:9. We will first look at the text in its context in the Hebrew Bible and its translation in the Septuagint. We will then look at its reception in the New Testament before surveying its interpretation in the early Church.

Isaiah 63:9 in Context 

Isaiah 63:1-6 is a "divine warrior scene" in which a figure comes from Edom and "marches toward Zion wearing red garments, which at first glance appear regal (63:1) but actually are covered with the blood of the nations (63:3)."1 Although the figure is not explicitly identified, the lofty language used of the figure and the connection with the earlier divine warrior scene in Isaiah 59:15b-21 (where the Warrior is explicitly YHWH) leaves no doubt as to his identity.2 The Divine Warrior comes to save his people and to destroy their enemies.

The Divine Warrior scene ends at 63:6 and gives way to a "communal lament" that runs from 63:7-64:11. The lament "begins in hymnic style in verse 7 by urging the people to commemorate YHWH's glorious deeds," an appeal followed by "two historical reflections in verses 8-10 and vv. 11-14."3 63:7-14 as a whole establishes "the covenantal nature of the human-divine relationship," strains in which are lamented in vv. 15-19a, eliciting a petition for God to visit Israel anew as he had once done at Sinai.4 Despite the shift from divine warrior scene in 63:1-6 to communal lament from 63:7-64:11, there are obvious connections between the two passages. Above all, "theophanic themes" involving YHWH's deliverance and judgment, past and present, are evident throughout.5

Isaiah 63:9 is a verse with significant textual difficulties in the Hebrew text. As Bogdan G. Bucur explains, the textual variations hinge on two short words, לא and ער:
In the former case, the question is whether to choose the ketiv לא ('not') or the qere, the homophone לו ('to him'). As for צר, the question is whether to accept the MT vocalization of צַר ('constraint,' 'distress,' 'affliction') or to vocalize it as צִיר, which would yield 'messenger.'6
Depending on the textual decision one makes and how one reads the syntax, one arrives at one of two quite different renderings:7
8 [...] and he became their savior. 9 In all their affliction he was afflicted, and the angel of his presence saved them; in his love and in his pity he redeemed them; he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old. (RSV)

8 [...] and he became their savior 9 in all their affliction. It was no messenger or angel but his presence that saved them; in his love and in his pity he redeemed them; he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old. (NRSV)
The second of the above readings was followed by the Septuagint translators:
8 [...] And he became to them salvation out of all affliction. It was no ambassador or angel but the Lord himself that saved them, because he loved them and spared them; he himself ransomed them and took them up and lifted them up all the days of old.8
The idea is similar to that in Isaiah 35:4 LXX, the text we looked at in the previous article: "God...himself will come and save us." There is a notable difference, in that Isaiah 35:4 is a prophecy of the future whereas Isaiah 63:9 recalls past events—probably, above all, those of the Exodus. However, given the prominence of New Exodus language in Isaiah, the wider idea in this communal lament is that what God had done in the past, he will do in the future: "O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence" (64:1 NRSV).

What is particularly significant about the second reading of Isaiah 63:9 above—the one that the Septuagint followed and that was therefore dominant in early Christianity—is that it contrasts God's direct saving activity with the notion of his working through an agent such as a messenger or an angel. Bucur notes that this contrast also features in rabbinic Jewish exegesis of the Exodus story, with several rabbis insisting that it was the Holy One himself and no agent who undertook certain key acts of deliverance.9

Isaiah 63 in Revelation 19

Isaiah 63:9 is never quoted in the New Testament. The Divine Warrior Scene that shortly precedes it, however, is alluded to in Revelation 19. Interestingly, while the Divine Warrior in Isaiah 63:1-6 is undoubtedly God, Revelation 19 applies this imagery to Christ:
11 Then I saw heaven opened, and there was a white horse! Its rider is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he judges and wages war. 12 His eyes are like a flame of fire, and on his head are many diadems, and he has a name inscribed that no one knows but himself. 13 He is clothed in a robe dipped in blood, and his name is called The Word of God. 14 And the armies of heaven, wearing fine linen, white and pure, were following him on white horses. 15 From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will rule them with a scepter of iron; he will tread the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty. 16 On his robe and on his thigh he has a name inscribed, “King of kings and Lord of lords.” (Revelation 19:11-16 NRSV)
There is no mistaking that this figure wearing a robe dipped in blood and treading the winepress of the wrath of God is the figure described in Isaiah 63:2-3. And yet Isaiah 63:3-5 contains language similar to 63:9 about God working alone rather than through an agent or messenger: "I have trodden the winepress alone, and from the peoples no one was with me... I looked, but there was no helper; I was abandoned, and there was no one to sustain me, so my own arm brought me victory". It is difficult to understand how Revelation could identify the Divine Warrior of Isaiah 63:1-6 as someone other than God—unless there is someone other than God who is also fully divine, as the names "the Word of God" and "King of kings and Lord of lords" already suggest.10

Isaiah 63:9 in the Early Church

Irenaeus of Lyons, writing c. 180-185 C.E., comments thus on our passage: 
And Isaias says that those who served God are in the end to be saved through His name… And that He was Himself to bring about these blessings in person, Isaias declared in the words: Not an intercessor, nor an angel, but the Lord Himself hath given them life, because He loves them and has pity on them; He Himself redeemed them. (Proof of the Apostolic Preaching 88).11
In his better-known work, Against Heresies, Irenaeus offers a similar interpretation: 
So again, that He who was to save us would not be purely a man, nor a being without flesh—for angels have no flesh—Isaiah announced by saying: "It is not an elder, nor an angel, but the Lord himself who will save them; because he loves them and spares them, himself will deliver them." (Adv. Haer. 3.20.4)12
The anonymous Epistle to Diognetus, usually grouped among the Apostolic Fathers but dated to c. 200 A.D., does not quote Isaiah 63:9 but probably alludes to it in the following words:
But the truly all-powerful God himself, creator of all and invisible, set up and established in their hearts the truth and the holy word from heaven, which cannot be comprehended by humans. To do so, he did not, as one might suppose, send them one of his servants or an angel or a ruler or any of those who administer earthly activities or who are entrusted with heavenly affairs, but he sent the craftsman and maker of all things himself, by whom he created the heavens, by whom he enclosed the sea within its own boundaries, whose mysteries all the elements of creation guard faithfully, from whom the sun was appointed to guard the courses that it runs during the day, whom the moon obeys when he commands it to shine at night, whom the stars obey by following the course of the moon, by whom all things are set in order and arranged and put into subjection, the heavens and the things in the heavens, the earth and the things in the earth, the sea and the things in the sea, fire, air, the abyss, creatures in the heights, creatures in the depths, creatures in between—this is the one he sent to them. (Ep. Diognetus 7.2)13
In his work On the Flesh of Christ, Tertullian, writing in the early third century, seeks to refute those who say that Christ was clothed with an angel. At the conclusion of his argument, he writes, "What more do we need, when we hear Isaiah crying out, 'Not an angel nor a delegate, but the Lord himself hath saved them?'" (De Carne Christi 14.6)14

Origen, the great Alexandrian exegete, quotes the passage a few decades later in his commentary on the Song of Songs. He regards the woman's longing for her lover as signifying the Church's longing for Christ himself and no mere minister: 
This is the content of the actual story, presented in dramatic form. But let us see if the inner meaning can also be fittingly supplied along these lines. Let it be the Church who longs for union with Christ… [after the Law] But, since the age is almost ended and His own presence is not granted me, and I see only His ministers ascending and descending upon me, because of this I pour out my petition to Thee, the Father of my Spouse, beseeching Thee to have compassion at last upon my love, and to send Him, that He may now no longer speak to me only but by His servants the angels and the prophets, but may come Himself directly and kiss me with the kisses of His mouth—that is to say, may pour the words of His mouth into mine, that I may hear Him speak Himself, and see Him teaching. The kisses are Christ’s, which He bestowed on His Church when at His coming, being present in the flesh, He in His own person spoke to her the words of faith and love and peace, according to the promise of Isaias who, when sent beforehand to the Bride, had said: Not a messenger, nor an angel, but the Lord Himself shall save  us. (Commentary on Song of Songs 1.1)15

Highlighting the similarity between Isaiah 35:4 (discussed in the previous article) and 63:9, Cyprian of Carthage—a contemporary of Origen—quotes the two texts in immediate succession in his list of proof texts supporting the proposition "That Christ our God should come as the Enlightener and Saviour of the human race" (Ad Quirinum 2.7).16

Conclusion

Isaiah 63:1-6 is a divine warrior scene that depicts YHWH's theophanic deliverance of Israel and wrathful judgment of her enemies. Following on that, Isaiah 63:7-64:11 is a communal lament that petitions God to make just such a theophanic intervention. It recalls how God has done this in the past, and one possible reconstruction of the text of Isaiah 63:9—which the Septuagint follows—emphasises that it was God himself and no mere agent (messenger or angel) who intervened.

Already in the Book of Revelation, the Divine Warrior of Isaiah 63:1-6—who had emphasised that he worked alone, because there was no helper—is interpreted as Jesus, the Word of God. In like manner, the Church Fathers of the second and third centuries consistently interpret the language of 63:9 ("It was no ambassador or angel but the Lord himself that saved them") as a reference to the Incarnation, in which the divine Son of God personally came in human flesh to save humanity from their enemies.
  • 1 Matthew J. Lynch,  "Zion's Warrior and the Nations: Isaiah 59:15b-63:6 in Isaiah's Zion Traditions," Catholic Biblical Quarterly 70 (2008): 245, 256.
  • 2 These two divine warrior scenes "form an inclusio around and are textually joined to chaps. 60-62," which speak of Zion's restoration (Lynch, "Zion's Warrior," 245).
  • 3 Judith Gärtner, "'...Why Do You Let Us Stray from Your Paths...' (Isa 63:17): The Concept of Guilt in the Communal Lament Isa 63:7-64:11," in M. J. Boda, D. K. Falk & R. A. Werline (eds.), Seeking the Favor of God. Volume 1: The Origins of Penitential Prayer in Second Temple Judaism (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2006), 146.
  • 4 Richard J. Bautsch, "Lament Regained in Trito-Isaiah's Penitential Prayer," in Boda, Falk & Werline, Seeking the Favor of God, 87.
  • 5 Lynch, "Zion's Warrior," 259.
  • 6 Bogdan G. Bucur, "The Lord Himself, One Lord, One Power: Jewish and Christian Perspectives on Isaiah 63:9 and Daniel 7:13," in Jewish Roots of Eastern Christian Mysticism, ed. Andrei A. Orlov (Leiden: Brill, 2020), 241-42. The ketiv refers to the orthographic consonantal text of the Hebrew Bible, and the qere to the suggested vocalisation of the Masoretic Text.
  • 7 In fact two further renderings are possible; see Bucur, "The Lord Himself," 242 for the details.
  • 8 Moisés Silva, "Esaias," in New English Translation of the Septuagint, ed. Albert Pietersma and Benjamin G. Wright (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 872. The Greek text reads: 8 [...] καὶ ἐγένετο αὐτοῖς εἰς σωτηρίαν 9 ἐκ πάσης θλίψεως. οὐ πρέσβυς οὐδὲ ἄγγελος, ἀλλʼ αὐτὸς κύριος ἔσωσεν αὐτούς διὰ τὸ ἀγαπᾶν αὐτοὺς καὶ φείδεσθαι αὐτῶν· αὐτὸς ἐλυτρώσατο αὐτοὺς καὶ ἀνέλαβεν αὐτοὺς καὶ ὕψωσεν αὐτοὺς πάσας τὰς ἡμέρας τοῦ αἰῶνος. (Septuaginta, ed. Joseph Ziegler [Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1983], 14:355.)
  • 9 See Bucur, "The Lord Himself," 243-54.
  • 10 On the latter title, see my article, "Lord of lords" and "King of kings" as Hebraic Superlatives.
  • 11 Trans. Joseph P. Smith, S.J., St. Irenaeus: Proof of the Apostlic Preaching (Westminster, MD: The Newman Press, 1952), 102.
  • 12 This is my translation of the French translation by Adélin Rousseau: "De même encore, que Celui qui devait nous sauver ne serait ni purement un homme, ni un être sans chair - car les anges n'ont pas de chair -, Isaïe l'a annoncé en disant: «Ce n'est pas un ancien, ni un ange, mais le Seigneur lui-même qui les sauvera, parce qu'il les aime et qu'il les épargne, lui-même les délivrera.»" (Adelin Rousseau, Irénée de Lyon: Contre les hérésies [Paris: Cerf, 2001]).
  • 13 Trans. Bart D. Ehrman, The Apostolic Fathers (2 vols.; Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003), 2:145.
  • 14 Trans. Ernest Evans, Tertullian's Treatise on the Incarnation (London: SPCK, 1956), 53.
  • 15 Trans. R. P. Lawson, Origen, The Song of Songs: Commentary and Homilies (New York: Newman, 1956), 59-60.
  • 16 Trans. A Library of the Fathers of the Holy Catholic Church (Oxford: John Henry Parker, 1840), 3:37.

Sunday, 17 April 2022

Reading Isaiah like an Early Christian (1): "The Lord has sent me and his Spirit" (Isaiah 48:16)



This is the first part of a series of posts in which I hope to explore the Christological significance of certain passages in Isaiah.1 Early Christians drew extensively on the Jewish Scriptures to form their understanding of the person and mission of Jesus Christ, and few books influenced them more in this respect than Isaiah. Some of this influence is attested through direct quotations of Isaiah in the New Testament. For example, all four Gospels quote from Isaiah 40:3 to explicate John the Baptist's role in the divine purpose.2 However, the New Testament (NT) does not contain a verse-by-verse commentary on the Old Testament (OT); indeed, the NT only provides us with an Christological interpretation for a relatively small number of OT texts.

Should we conclude that only those OT texts that are explicitly quoted in the NT are legitimate Messianic texts? Or when we read that Jesus "interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures" (Luke 24:27) and that Apollos "powerfully refuted the Jews in public, showing by the scriptures that the Messiah is Jesus" (Acts 18:28), should we suppose that these Scriptures are strictly those cited elsewhere in the NT? Of course not. The OT, when read with the light of Christ, is saturated with Christological significance, and explicit NT quotations only scratch the surface of this.

In this article, we will examine Isaiah 48:16, an OT text that is never quoted in the NT but that (it will be argued) has enormous Christological significance. But before we turn to this passage, we need to ask a question: how can we know that an OT text is Messianic if the NT doesn't say it is? Are we not then merely imposing our own subjective opinions onto the text? Well, not quite. There are at least three lines of evidence by which such a claim can be evaluated objectively

These are: (i) mysterious or enigmatic features in the text; (ii) literary or conceptual echoes of the text in the NT; (iii) the witness of early Christian writers. First, the text may contain enigmas that point the reader toward some deeper significance. An NT example of this phenomenon can be seen in Acts 8:26ff. The Ethiopian eunuch is puzzled about the identity of the Servant figure as he reads Isaiah 53. The mysterious character of the text becomes an opening for the Spirit, speaking through Philip, to reveal the text's Christological significance. Second, even if a text is not explicitly quoted in the NT, there may be allusions or faint echoes that suggest that it had influenced the NT writer's ideas about Christ. Third, early post-apostolic Christian literature testify to how the early Church interpreted OT texts, and in some instances these writers are likely reporting traditional interpretations handed down to them from previous generations of believers. Thus, the temporal and linguistic proximity of these writers to the NT make their witness far more weighty than your or my private opinion.

One last thing needs to be said before we turn to Isaiah 48:16. To assert that a particular OT passage has a Messianic application is not to assert that this is its only meaning. Au contraire, there are arguably very few texts in the Jewish Scriptures that refer at the grammatical-historical level of meaning to the eschatological Messiah—and arguably none that refer to Jesus of Nazareth!3 Rather, Christological meaning, if present, operates as sensus plenior—a subtler spiritual, moral, or eschatological sense that may have been lost on the human author but was intended by the Divine Author. This distinction between grammatical-historical and theological interpretation must be borne in mind or misunderstandings are inevitable.4 One cannot accept the NT as Sacred Scripture and yet insist that the grammatical-historical sense is the only valid meaning of the text, because this is not how the NT writers interpret the OT.5


Isaiah 48:16 occurs in the middle of an oracle in which Yahweh addresses Israel concerning the people's disobedience and his divine mercy and redemptive purpose. It is clear that Yahweh is speaking in the first person:
12 Listen to me, O Jacob, 
      and Israel, whom I called:
     I am He; I am the first,
     and I am the last. 
13 My hand laid the foundation of the earth,
    and my right hand spread out the heavens; 
    when I summon them, 
    they stand at attention.6
The first-person address continues in v. 15: "I, even I, have spoken and called him..." and again v. 17 opens with "Thus says Yahweh..." But in v. 16 we have this:
Draw near to me, hear this!
From the beginning I have not spoken in secret,
from the time it came to be I have been there.
And now the Lord Yahweh has sent me and his spirit.
Considering only the first three lines, there is nothing to suggest that the speaker is other than Yahweh, who has been speaking throughout this oracle. Yahweh has been making calls to "Hear" and "See" throughout the oracle (vv. 1, 6, 12, 14). Yahweh emphasises throughout this and other oracles in Isaiah 40-55 that he has existed and declared things from the beginning (vv. 3, 5, 12-14),7 and has not spoken in secret (45:19). Yet the speaker of the last line is obviously distinct from Yahweh, as he says he has been sent by Yahweh.

Who then is the speaker? Even according to the grammatical-historical sense, this question has proven puzzling for biblical scholars; there is no consensus as to its answer. John N. Oswalt summarises the problem and the scholarly positions:
The first three cola of the verse are clear enough, as has just been explained; but the last two constitute a problem that, in turn, raises problems about the first three. The difficulty is in identifying the speaker. It clearly cannot be God, yet there is no indication of a change. Does this mean that the speaker in the first part of the verse is, despite initial impressions, not God? Four basic positions have been taken. (1) The subject of the entire verse is the prophet... (2) the subject of the first three cola is God, and the subject of the last bicolon is the prophet... (3) the subject of the last bicolon is the Messiah... (4) the last bicolon is disarranged from some other place, either accidentally or on purpose...8
According to Claus Westermann, "Editors are unanimous" that the words of v. 16c ("But now, the Lord Yahweh has sent me and his spirit") "cannot possibly be explained in their present context"; he concludes that this fragment is a late addition to the text.9

The Septuagint (LXX) Greek translation of Isaiah, which dates to perhaps the second century B.C.,10 follows the Hebrew Masoretic Text (MT) closely.11 A translation of the Septuagint Greek is:
Draw near to me, and hear these things! 
From the beginning I have not spoken in secret; 
when it happened I was there, 
and now the Lord has sent me and his spirit.12
The Septuagint text proves that, if the last line of Isaiah 48:16 MT is due to a textual disturbance, this disturbance was established by the second century B.C. and was thus almost certainly part of the Scriptures as known to Jesus and the earliest Christians. If it is a corruption, it is a canonical corruption and thus its significance for Christian theology cannot be dismissed.

One question that arises from the last line of Isaiah 48:16 is whether the Spirit is the subject or object: is it "the Lord and his Spirit sent me" or "the Lord sent me and his Spirit"? It happens that the syntax is ambiguous in both the Hebrew and the Greek, but as Oswalt notes, "While the former is grammatically possible, it is unlikely, both syntactically and theologically. See 11:2; 32:15; 44:3; 59:21; 61:1, where in all cases the Spirit is the one sent."13

Thus, to summarise, both the Hebrew and Greek versions of Isaiah 48:16, as they were known at the time of Jesus, contain an enigmatic line in the midst of speech by God where an unidentified speaker said that he and the Spirit have been sent by the Lord.


We have already mentioned that Isaiah 48:16 is never quoted directly in the NT. However, in this section I will argue that echoes of Isaiah 48:16 can be heard in the Gospel of John, and that these echoes indicate that this Evangelist interpreted the unidentified speaker—not only of the last line but of the entire verse—to be the preexistent Logos, the divine Son.

We will observe that there are echoes in John of all four lines of Isaiah 48:16.

Draw near to me and hear these things.

Just as the speaker of Isaiah 48:16 calls on Israel to "Draw near to me" (πρός με in LXX), so Jesus in John calls on people to "come to me" (πρός με, John 5:40; 6:35, 37, 44, 45, 65; 7:37). Likewise, just as the speaker of Isaiah 48:16 calls on Israel to "Hear this,"14 so in John it is by "hearing" Jesus that people may have eternal life (John 5:24, 25; 10:3, 16, 27; 18:37). Now someone may object that there is no striking parallel here since coming near to and hearing are generic, commonplace ideas. But let us go on.

From the beginning I have not spoken in secret.

The speaker of Isaiah 48:16 declares that he has spoken from the beginning and not in secret (οὐκ ἀπʼ ἀρχῆς ἐν κρυφῇ ἐλάλησα). At his trial, according to John, Jesus tells the high priest that "I have spoken openly to the world; I have always taught in synagogues and in the temple, where all the Jews come together. I have said nothing in secret (καὶ ἐν κρυπτῷ ἐλάλησα οὐδέν.)" (John 18:20). Moreover, Jesus in John is one who has spoken from the beginning: he is the Word who was in the beginning (John 1:1), and when asked, "Who are you?" he gives the enigmatic reply, "What I have told you from the beginning" (John 8:25).15 Jesus also tells his disciples that he did not tell them something from the beginning (John 16:4), which implies that he did tell them other things.

When it happened I was there.

The speaker of Isaiah 48:16 declares, "At the time when it happened (or, came into existence), there I was."16 This statement very closely parallels the language about the Logos in John 1:1-3, though it is only apparent from the Greek. In Isaiah 48:16 LXX, the line is ἡνίκα ἐγένετο, ἐκεῖ ἤμην. The verb ἐγένετο is an aorist of γίνομαι, which has a broad range of meaning including "come into existence" and "happen."17 Notably, ἐγένετο is used frequently in Genesis 1 LXX to describe the happenings of the creation story.

The verb ἤμην, meanwhile, is an imperfect of εἰμί, meaning "be." Now here is the fascinating bit: just as in Isaiah 48:16 the aorist ἐγένετο is juxtaposed with an imperfect of εἰμί, so also in John 1:1-3. Here we read that the Word "was" (ἦν, third-person imperfect of εἱμί) in the beginning with God and that all things "came to be" (ἐγένετο) through him. The shift in verb and tense implies a contrast: while everything else came into existence or happened, the Word simply was. The same contrast is found in Isaiah 48:16: when it came into existence or happened, there I was. The imperfect probably has a durative sense in both cases: things happened, but the Logos/I was there throughout.18

There are other Johannine texts similar to this line from Isaiah 48:16 in John 1:15, 30,19 John 8:58,20 and John 17:5,21 all of which contrast Jesus' primeval and continuous existence with the coming into being of some finite reality.

And now the Lord has sent me and his Spirit.

The theme of Jesus as the one sent by the Father is mentioned many times in the Gospel of John, and significantly, Jesus draws a parallel between the Father's sending of him and the sending of the Holy Spirit:
...the word that you hear is not mine, but is from the Father who sent me... the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. (John 14:24, 26) 

But now I am going to him who sent me... Nevertheless I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. (John 16:5, 7)
Isaiah 48:16 is, in fact, the only text in the entire OT that speaks of God sending two figures, one of whom is his Spirit. The order is also striking. In other texts, God sends his Spirit upon people, who then prophesy;22 but here the speaker is sent before the Spirit, just as the Son is in John.

To summarise, then, all four lines of Isaiah 48:16 are closely paralleled in the Fourth Gospel's depiction of Jesus. He is the one who calls people to come to him and hear him. He is the one who has not spoken in secret from the beginning. He is the one who "was" there when things "came to be." He is the one who is sent before God's Spirit. It is not a stretch to say that Isaiah 48:16 functions as a program statement for John's Christology, and has influenced John's view that Christ is both God and distinct from God (John 1:1, 18).


The earliest extant quotations from Isaiah 48:16 in Christian literature are found in the writings of Origen. In his work Contra Celsum, the great Alexandrian exegete writes:
Since, however, it is a Jew who raises difficulties in the story of the Holy Spirit's descent in the form of a dove to Jesus, I would say to him: My good man, who is the speaker in Isaiah that says 'And now the Lord sent me and his spirit'? In this text although it is doubtful whether it means that the Father and the Holy Spirit sent Jesus or that the Father sent Christ and the Holy Spirit, it is the second interpretation which is right. After the Saviour had been sent, then the Holy Spirit was sent, in order that the prophet's saying might be fulfilled (1.46).23 
In a briefer comment in his Commentary on Matthew (13.32), Origen follows the same interpretation (the Father sent the Son and the Spirit). In his Commentary on John, however, he takes the opposite view on the "doubtful" issue mentioned above:
How is the Spirit honored, as it were, above the Christ in some Scriptures? In Isaias, Christ admits that he has not been sent by the Father alone, but also by the Holy Spirit (for he says, 'And now the Lord has sent me, and his Spirit')... And if our Lord says, according to Isaias, that he has been sent by the Father and the Spirit, it is possible even there to allege of the Spirit which sent the Christ, that he does not excel him in nature, but that the Savior was made less than him because of the plan of the incarnation of the Son of God which was taking place. (2.79, 81)24
For Origen, therefore, it is clear that the speaker of Isaiah 48:16 is Christ. A few decades later, the same interpretation is attested in the writings of Eusebius of Caesarea, who comments on the passage both in his Eclogae Propheticae ("Prophetic Extracts") and in his Proof of the Gospel, both of which are ante-Nicene works.25 Some of Eusebius' statements sound very Arian, and he would in fact defend Arius during the Arian controversy but ultimately accepted the creedal formula and anathemas of the Council of Nicaea.26

No English-language translation of the Eclogae Propheticae has yet been published, but—with some assistance from Dr. Logan Williams, for which I am most grateful—I have attempted a translation of the relevant passage below:
‘Draw near to me, and hear these things: from the beginning I have not spoken in secret; when it came to be, I was there. And now the Lord, the Lord has sent me and his spirit.’27 Seeing as the person who is speaking these things is one, now who else might be the Lord ‘who created heaven and established it, and made the earth firm,’28 who says, ‘I am the first, and I am forever,’29 and sets things in order, according to all those having interpreted the divine Scripture, ‘and now the Lord God has sent me, and his spirit,’ or [might it be] the sacred Word of God, the first God named after the uncreated beginning of all created things, about whom also it is written elsewhere, ‘he sent his word and healed them,’30 for he is the one ‘through whom all things came into being,’31 even ‘things in heaven and things on earth, whether visible or invisible,’32 whom also the Lord God the Father sent—and with him also the Holy Spirit—so that he will steward the salvation of men? 
But it may be that what is stated is adapted toward the Jews, teaching that the other is the Lord who crafted all things with the God of all, by whom he confesses to having been sent, saying, ‘And now the Lord has sent me,’ and it may be he by whom the Father commanded nature, [saying] ‘Let there be light,’33 at the creation of the world, and ‘Let there be some things and other things,’ and, ‘Let us make man according to our image,’34 for this also in Psalms is inscribed, ‘He spoke and they came into being, he commanded and they were created.’35 For it is evident that the one commanding and saying something commands and orders another besides himself. Indeed really, to examine each word of the passage does not belong to the present undertaking. (Eclogae Propheticae 4.23)36
Eusebius later offers a similar interpretation in his Proof of the Gospel.37

Thus, both extant Christian interpretations of Isaiah 48:16 from the ante-Nicene period hold that the speaker of this scriptural text is Christ, the pre-existent Word. One might object that two witnesses does not constitute overwhelming evidence. Perhaps not, but on the other hand there is zero evidence for any non-Christological interpretation of this text in the early Church.


We have seen that there are three lines of evidence supporting a Messianic interpretation of Isaiah 48:16: (i) the enigmatic character of this text in the original Hebrew; (ii) the echoes of this text in the Gospel of John; and (iii) the testimony of two early Church Fathers, namely Origen of Alexandria and Eusebius of Caesarea. If we accept that Christ is the speaker in the sensus plenior of this passage, what are the Christological implications? Firstly, the text implies Christ's pre-existence, not only because he is able to speak through the words of an OT prophet who prophesied long before his birth, but also because he expressly declares that he has been speaking from the beginning—meaning, in the Isaianic context, the beginning of creation. Secondly, the text implies Christ's divinity, because—apart from the last line about being sent—the speaker of this text claims prerogatives that deutero-Isaiah elsewhere says are exclusively God's. Thirdly, Christ does not make himself God in a Sabellian sense (as though he is the Father himself), but distinguishes himself from God and his Spirit. Just as the Gospel of John says, he is God but also sent by God. In fact, what we have here is an explicit mention of all three Trinitarian persons together, in the Old Testament!
  • 1 See my previous article on Isaiah in John for some background on the Book of Isaiah and "deutero-Isaiah" in particular.
  • 2 Matt. 3:3; Mark 1:3; Luke 3:4-6; John 1:23.
  • 3 By grammatical-historical meaning, I mean the sense that the human author of the text intended to convey to his contemporary readers.
  • 4 See the Introduction to my article on Genesis 1:26 for a case in point.
  • 5 For two obvious examples, see Matthew's interpretation of Hosea 11:1 in Matthew 2:15 and Paul's interpretation of Deuteronomy 25:4 in 1 Corinthians 9:9-10.
  • 6 Bible quotations are from the NRSV unless otherwise indicated, with the exception that "LORD" is substituted with Yahweh for linguistic clarity.
  • 7 Cf. similar statements in Isaiah 40:21, 41:4, 41:26-27, 43:10-13, 45:18-19, 45:21, 46:9-10.
  • 8 The Book of Isaiah, Chapters 40-66 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 278. Oswalt's own view is that the oddity results from "the close identity between God and the prophet"; the prophet switches temporarily from speaking Yahweh's words to speaking in his own person.
  • 9 Isaiah 40-66: A Commentary (Philadelphia: Westminster John Knox, 1969), 202-203.
  • 10 Rodrigo F. De Sousa observes that the translator understands "Tarshish" in Isaiah 23 to refer to Carthage. This may indicate that the destruction of Carthage by the Romans in 146 B.C. was regarded as a fulfilment of this prophecy, in which case the translation must be no earlier than 146 ("Isaiah," in The Oxford Handbook of the Septuagint, ed. Alison Salvesen and Michael Timothy Law [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2021], 249).
  • 11 One difference is that, while אדני and יהוה are each usually rendered by κύριος in the Septuagint, אדני יהוה is here translated with a single κύριος rather than κύριος κύριος. Interestingly, the Greek text known to Eusebius of Caesarea (discussed below) does have a double κύριος, and Eusebius sees great theological significance in this, as highlighting the superiority of the Father's Lordship to the Word's: "And yet though the Word of God is Himself proclaimed divine by the word ‘Lord,’ He still calls One Higher and Greater His Father and Lord, using with beautiful reverence the word Lord twice in speaking of Him, so as to differentiate His title. For He says here, ‘The Lord, the Lord has sent me,’ as if the Almighty God were in a special sense first and true Lord both of His Only-begotten Word and of all begotten things after Him, in relation to which the Word of God has received dominion and power from the Father, as His true and Only-begotten Son, and therefore Himself holds the title of Lord in a secondary sense" (Proof of the Gospel 5.6, trans. W. J. Ferrar, The Proof of the Gospel, Being the Demonstratio Evangelica of Eusebius of Caesarea [2 vols.; London: SPCK, 1920], 1:251).
  • 12 Moisés Silva, "Esaias," in New English Translation of the Septuagint, ed. Albert Pietersma and Benjamin G. Wright (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 861-62. The Greek text is as follows: προσαγάγετε πρός με καὶ ἀκούσατε ταῦτα· οὐκ ἀπʼ ἀρχῆς ἐν κρυφῇ ἐλάλησα· ἡνίκα ἐγένετο, ἐκεῖ ἤμην, καὶ νῦν κύριος ἀπέσταλκέ με καὶ τὸ πνεῦμα αὐτοῦ. (Septuaginta, ed. Joseph Ziegler [Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1983], vol. 14.)
  • 13 Book of Isaiah, 274 n. 61.
  • 14 In the MT the verb is שמע, used famously in Deuteronomy 6:4, the Shema.
  • 15 This translation occurs in a footnote in the NRSV; the main translation is, "Why do I speak to you at all?" The Greek of Jesus' reply, τὴν ἀρχὴν ὅ τι καὶ λαλῶ ὑμῖν, is notoriously difficult; see my comments here, where I argued that "What I told you at the beginning" is a plausible translation.
  • 16 The adverb ἡνίκα has the sense "at the time when" (BDAG 439).
  • 17 Here, it translates a form of היה, the Hebrew verb meaning "be" (but which, like γίνομαι, can also mean "happen"). Incidentally, the divine name Yahweh is etymologically related to the verb היה, as is evident from Exodus 3:14.
  • 18 The Greek imperfect conveys the incompleteness of the action, and often indicates duration over time. For instance, in Job 29:5 LXX, Job reminisces about former days "when I was (ἤμην) very much a person of substance and my children were around me" (NETS).
  • 19 Here, John the Baptist—who is first introduced in the Gospel with the verb ἐγένετο in 1:6 (literally, "there came into existence a man")—says that the one coming after him has surpassed him, because "he was (ἦν, imperfect) before me."
  • 20 Here, Jesus declares, "Before Abraham was (γενέσθαι, aorist infinitive), I am (εἰμί, present tense)." I have commented in more detail on this text here.
  • 21 Here, Jesus petitions the Father to glorify him "with the glory that I had (εἶχον, imperfect) in your presence before the world existed (εἶναι, present infinitive)."
  • 22 See, e.g., Num. 11:29; 3 Kgdms 10:6; 2 Chr. 20:14-15; Isa. 59:21.
  • 23 Trans. Henry Chadwick, Contra Celsum: Translated with an Introduction and Notes (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1965), 42.
  • 24 Trans. Ronald E. Heine, Origen: Commentary on the Gospel according to John, Books 1-10 (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1989), 114-15.
  • 25 According to Aaron P. Johnson, the former work (which is the surviving part of Eusebius' General Elementary Introduction) was written before Eusebius became Bishop of Caesarea in 313, while the Proof of the Gospel was written during the period 314-324 ("Narrating the Council: Eusebius on Nicaea," in The Cambridge Companion to the Council of Nicaea, ed. Young Kim [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2021], 203). W. J. Ferrar dates the Proof of the Gospel to 314-318, reasoning that some of theological language is too "unguarded" to have been written after the Arian controversy erupted c. 319 (The Proof of the Gospel, 1:xiii).
  • 26 Eusebius has sometimes been accused of selling out on his theological convictions at the Council of Nicaea, but Johnson ("Narrating the Council") argues that the Council's language was in fact compatible with Eusebius' theology.
  • 27 Isaiah 48:16. Eusebius actually quotes Isaiah 48:12-16 but for sake of brevity my translation begins from v. 16.
  • 28 Isaiah 42:5.
  • 29 Isaiah 48:12.
  • 30 Psalm 106:20 LXX.
  • 31 Cf. John 1:3, 10.
  • 32 Colossians 1:16.
  • 33 Genesis 1:3.
  • 34 Genesis 1:26.
  • 35 Psalm 32:9; 148:5 LXX.
  • 36 Greek text in Thomas Gaisford, Eusebii Pamphili, Episcopi Caesariensis: Eclogae Propheticae [Oxonii: E Typographeo Academico, 1842], 205-206.
  • 37 "See now how He that says, ‘I am the first, and I am the last. He that established the earth and the heaven,’ clearly confesses that He was sent by ‘the Lord, the Lord,’ calling the Father Lord twice, and you will have undeniable evidence of what we seek. And He says that He is first among beings begotten in all reverence since He allots Being, original, unbegotten, and beyond the first, to the Father. For the customary meaning of first in the sense of ‘first of a greater number,’ superior in honour and order, would not be applicable to the Father. For the Almighty God of course is not the first of created things, since the idea of Him does not admit of a beginning. He must be beyond and above the first, as Himself generating and establishing the First, and the Divine Word alone is to be called the First of all begotten things. So if we ask with reference to the words, ‘He spake and they were made, he commanded and they were created,’ to which of the begotten beings He gave the command to create, we see now clearly that it was given to Him, Who said, ‘My hand has laid the foundation of the earth, and my right hand has made the heaven strong’: Who also confesses that He was sent by One greater than Himself, when He says: ‘Now the Lord, the Lord has sent me, and his Spirit.’ And it must be the Word of God Who said also, ‘By the word of the Lord were the heavens made firm,’ if we compare the Psalm. And yet though the Word of God is Himself proclaimed divine by the word ‘Lord,’ He still calls One Higher and Greater His Father and Lord, using with beautiful reverence the word Lord twice in speaking of Him, so as to differentiate His title. For He says here, ‘The Lord, the Lord has sent me,’ as if the Almighty God were in a special sense first and true Lord both of His Only-begotten Word and of all begotten things after Him, in relation to which the Word of God has received dominion and power from the Father, as His true and Only-begotten Son, and therefore Himself holds the title of Lord in a secondary sense" (Proof of the Gospel 5.6.1-7, trans. Ferrar, Proof of the Gospel, 1:250-51); "You have here the Lord sent and the Lord sending, that is to say the Father and God of the Universe, entitled Lord twice as was usual" (Proof of the Gospel 6.22, trans. Ferrar, Proof of the Gospel, 2:43-44).

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
Again,
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.

Footnotes

  • 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.