dianoigo blog
Showing posts with label Paul. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Paul. Show all posts

Saturday 30 January 2021

The Church as Spiritual Israel (2): Abraham's Seed, Jerusalem Above, and the Israel of God in Galatians

Paul the Apostle was the first great Christian theologian. A Jew schooled in his ancestral traditions (Gal. 1:14; Phil. 3:5) and "the apostle to the Gentiles" (Rom. 11:13), his work played a crucial role in defining Christian identity in relation to its Jewish roots. Unsurprisingly, therefore, most of the key New Testament texts relevant to the question raised in the first part of this series—whether the Church can be thought of as "spiritual Israel"—occur in his letters. In this article, we begin our study of these texts with the Letter to the Galatians. This is generally regarded as the second earliest of Paul's letters and thus one of the earliest extant Christian texts.1 The letter seeks to combat an idea that certain "disturbers" were spreading in the Galatian churches (Gal. 1:7), according to which Gentile Christians needed to live according to the Jewish law (including circumcision) to gain the full status in the elect community of Israel, the seed of Abraham. Although Paul clearly presupposes the ethnic distinction between the "Jews"/"circumcised" and the "Gentiles"/"uncircumcised" (Gal. 2:7-8, 12-15), and describes himself and Cephas (Simon Peter) as "by nature Jews" (phusei Ioudaioi), he asserts that in Christ, "There is neither Jew nor Greek"(Gal. 3:28). 

The Seed of Abraham (Galatians 3:6-29)

Paul begins his main argument by asking the Galatians on what basis they had received the Spirit from God: on the basis of "works of the law," or faith (Gal. 3:2-5)? At this point Paul introduces Abraham into the argument, quoting Genesis 15:6 and inferring that "those who believe are the descendants of Abraham" (3:7 NRSV). He adduces Genesis 12:3 ("All the Gentiles shall be blessed in you") as direct evidence for the extension of the "blessing of Abraham" to the Gentiles (Gal. 3:8-9, 14). However, his claim is not merely that Gentile believers are blessed alongside Abraham's children or seed, but that they are blessed as Abraham's children or seed: "And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring [sperma, literally "seed"], heirs according to the promise" (Gal. 3:29). This is a very bold assertion, since "seed of Abraham" is, in the Jewish Scriptures, a term synonymous with Israel's status as God's chosen people.2 We do not have space here to analyse the elaborate biblical argument by which Paul defends this claim, which is primarily Christological.3 However, we have in this chapter a clear spiritualisation of the term "seed of Abraham" to include all Gentile believers in Christ.4 Thus, while the term "Israel" does not occur, there does seem to be an implicit spiritualisation of the concept.

Running parallel to "seed of Abraham" is the notion that Christ-followers (Gentiles included) are "sons of God" (Gal. 3:26; 4:4-7).5 This term is not used frequently of humans in the Jewish Scriptures, but what is fascinating is that two passages where the term "sons" is used conspicuously of God's people—Isaiah 54 and Hosea 2—are quoted by Paul precisely in connection with the spiritualisation of "Israel."6

The Two Jerusalems (Galatians 4:21-31)

A second passage within Galatians that demands our attention is Paul's allegorical commentary on Sarah and Hagar (cf. Genesis 16, 21) in 4:21-31. This passage is deeply interesting for its approach to biblical interpretation, given that such allegorical readings would become a mainstay of patristic exegesis. However, our concern here is with the the further spiritualisation of "Abraham's sons" that occurs here. It is possible that Paul's opponents had used this passage allegorically to paint non-Torah observing Gentile Christians as children of Hagar the slave woman rather than of Sarah (and thus as second-class citizens in the divine economy).7 If so, Paul turns the argument on its head. In any case, he does assert that the story of Abraham's two sons is an allegory. One (Ishmael) was born of a slave woman, Hagar, "according to the flesh" (kata sarka), while the other (Isaac) was born of a free woman, Sarah, "through a promise." The flesh/promise contrast is not strictly antithetical, of course, since Isaac—though his birth required divine intervention—was a natural born son of Abraham and Sarah. Paul asserts that "These woman are two covenants" (4:24). Hagar corresponds to the covenant from Mount Sinai, and furthermore "corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children" (4:25). By contrast, "the other woman [i.e. Sarah] corresponds to the Jerusalem above; she is free, and she is our mother." Paul continues,

28 Now you, my friends, are children of the promise, like Isaac. 29 But just as at that time the child who was born according to the flesh [Greek: kata sarka] persecuted the child who was born according to the Spirit [Greek: kata pneuma], so it is now also. 30 But what does the scripture say? “Drive out the slave and her child; for the child of the slave will not share the inheritance with the child of the free woman.” 31 So then, friends, we are children, not of the slave but of the free woman. 1 For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. (Gal. 4:28-5:1, NRSV)

Paul's allegorical interpretation does not merely entail the two women as two covenants, but also as two Jerusalems. There is a combined temporal/spatial contrast between them: "the present Jerusalem" (a temporal term) is contrasted with "the Jerusalem above" (a spatial term).8 The point is that the first Jerusalem belongs merely to the "present evil age" (Gal. 1:4). The second Jerusalem is not called "the Jerusalem to come," because it already exists ("she is free and is our mother"); it is instead called "the Jerusalem above" to emphasise its transcendence. Commentators note that, in antiquity, to call a city one's mother was to describe oneself as a citizen of that city; thus Paul describes himself as a citizen of Jerusalem above (compare Phil. 3:20: "But our citizenship is in heaven").9 The allegory has thus progressed beyond "two covenants" to encompass two orders of things. The present Jerusalem, where the Temple still stood in Paul's lifetime, was the locus of the Sinaitic covenant, one of "slavery," while the new covenant of promise, of the Spirit, of freedom, had heaven itself as its locus.

The allegory is not limited to the two women, however, but extends to their respective children. Paul makes it clear that he and his predominantly Gentile addressees are the allegorical equivalent of Isaac: "children of promise," "[the son] according to the Spirit," "children of the freeborn woman," in contrast to another group that are the allegorical equivalent of Ishmael: "the son of the slave woman...according to the flesh," children of "the present Jerusalem." If the first group refers to those whose identity comes from the faith of Christ and not from Torah-observance, who are the second group? Their association with "the present Jerusalem" makes clear that they are Torah-observant Jews. But are they Paul's Jewish Christian opponents specifically, or (non-Christ-believing) Jews more generally? The decisive clue to their identity is given in v. 29, which indicates that the second group "now" persecutes the Church.10 While it is conceivable that Paul might have thought of the disturbance his Galatian charges faced from Torahizing Jewish Christians as "persecution," he never says as much. By contrast, the letter's two prior references to persecution of the Church are to Paul's own persecuting activity before he came to Christ (1:13, 23). Moreover, near the end of the letter Paul insinuates that the false teachers' motive in compelling Gentile believers to be circumcised is to avoid persecution "for the cross of Christ" (6:12; cf. 5:11). Thus, the children according to the flesh who now persecute the children according to the Spirit are Jewish adherents of the Mosaic covenant in general.11 This assertion runs parallel to that in 1 Thessalonians 2:14-16, which states that "the Jews" have persecuted the churches in Judaea.12

We have, then, in Galatians the idea that the Christian faithful—Gentiles included—are Abraham's seed "according to the Spirit" or "through the promise" in Christ, adopted children of God, and free citizens of the heavenly Jerusalem. This is a "spiritual Israel" concept in all but name. Not only that, but there is a foil standing in contrast to this group, Abraham's seed "according to the flesh," living in slavery and belonging only to "the present Jerusalem." Paul therefore not only moves to include Gentiles in his concept of the true Israel, but also demotes Jews who put their trust in Torah rather than Christ to a secondary status.

The Israel of God (Galatians 6:16)

There remains one more passage in Galatians to discuss: the only occurrence of the word "Israel" in the letter.
15 For neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything; but a new creation is everything! 16 As for those who will follow this rule—peace be upon them, and mercy, and upon the Israel of God. (Galatians 6:15-16 NRSV)
What Paul means by "the Israel of God" here has been a subject of intense debate among biblical scholars, and there are three main views.13 The most popular view is that "the Israel of God" refers to the Church.14 In this case the passage provides ample basis for viewing the Church as "spiritual Israel," with the qualifier of God meaning something similar to "according to the Spirit." The second view understands "the Israel of God" to refer to Jewish Christians. In this case, of God identifies a subset of Israel who belong to God, because they have believed in his Son. The third view identifies "the Israel of God" as ethnic Israel—in other words, "the Israel of God" is simply Israel in the ordinary use of the term.15 The qualifier of God then merely emphasises Israel's special elect status.
Arguments for the second and/or third meanings include the following: (i) the conjunction kai usually has a copulative meaning ("and") and only rarely has an explicative meaning ("even"). The statistically more likely reading "and upon the Israel of God" would thus suggest that "the Israel of God" is a different entity than "those who follow this rule" (i.e., those obedient to Paul's gospel). (ii) "Israel" consistently refers to the ethnic/national entity, throughout the Jewish Scriptures and the rest of the New Testament. (iii) A blessing upon Israel parallel to this one occurs in the Babylonian recension of the Shemoneh Esreh (the central prayer of the Jewish liturgy). (iv) The appeal to divine mercy, which is unparalleled in other Pauline benedictions, makes sense if "the Israel of God" is an entity currently under divine displeasure for disobedience. (v) This interpretation fits the wider Galatian context, which highlights that Christianity has a Jewish nucleus before ever broaching the issue of the Gentiles inclusion (Gal. 2:9-10).

These arguments are, however, not convincing. (i) The conjunction kai may have a copulative sense most frequently, but it can also have an explicative sense, and it is context rather than a general appeal to statistical frequency that must be decisive. Beale points out a close parallel to this text in Psalm 84:9(85:8) LXX:16
I will hear what the Lord God will speak with me,
because he will speak peace to his people
and to his devout
and to those who turn to him their heart. (NETS)
In this text, "his people," "his devout," and "those who turn to him their heart" are separated by the conjunction kai but are obviously three ways of describing the same group. Thus, "the Israel of God" may be an additional way that Paul wants to describe those who follow his rule.

Argument (ii) is also not persuasive, because we have seen striking cases earlier in the letter where Paul takes terminology normally reserved for ethnic Israel—"seed of Abraham" and citizenship of Jerusalem—and applies it to the Church, inclusive of uncircumcised Gentiles. It would be consistent with this earlier exceptional usage of terms for Paul to apply the term "Israel" to the Church inclusive of Gentiles here. (In subsequent installments in this series, we will look at other passages where Paul implies that the term "Israel" conveys more than ethnicity, such as 1 Corinthians 10:18 and Romans 9:6). Moreover, the exact term "Israel of God" never occurs in the Jewish Scriptures, which may signal that Paul means something different than what the term "Israel" ordinarily means. (iii) The Palestinian recension of the Shemoneh Esreh, which is regarded as earlier than the Babylonian, lacks the crucial word "mercy," which ruins the parallel with Galatians 6:16.17 (iv) The call for mercy on the Church would be unique in Paul's letters,18 but Paul's tone toward his addressees is also more severe than in any other letter. He believes the Galatians are "foolish[ly]" "deserting the one who called you" (1:6; 3:1), so a prayer for mercy is warranted. (v) The thrust of Paul's argument in Galatians has been that Gentiles who believe in Christ enjoy the same privileged status before God as Jewish believers. To make this point, he has included them among "the seed of Abraham," "the sons of God," and [citizens of] "the Jerusalem above." It would be very odd, therefore, at the conclusion of the letter for Paul to use the lofty term "Israel of God" to refer to a group that excludes his Gentile addressees.

One final point is that, elsewhere in Paul's letters, when the genitive theou ("of God") is attached to a noun referring to a group of people, it is always an ecclesiological term that explicitly or implicitly includes Gentile believers ("church of God," 1 Cor. 1:12, etc.; "elect of God," Rom. 8:33; "sons/heirs/children of God," Gal. 3:26, Rom. 8:14-21; "temple of God," 1 Cor. 3:16-17, 2 Cor. 6:16; "field/building of God," 1 Cor. 3:9). Thus, the theou attached to "Israel" in Galatians 6:16 implies that this too is an ecclesiological term inclusive of Gentile believers. All things considered, the arguments for the "Israel of God = Church" reading are decisive.


Already in one of his earliest letters, Paul lays the foundation for an ecclesiology that identifies the Church with "spiritual Israel." If the Church can legitimately be called "spiritual Israel," however, where does that leave the Jews, particularly non-Christian Jews? Paul's contrast between the Abraham's children kata sarka and Abraham's children kata pneuma seems to paint ethnic Israel in an unfavourable light, as related to Abraham merely by carnal descent and "enslaved" by a devotion to law-observance rather than to Christ. It might appear, therefore, from Galatians that Paul is proposing a doctrine of supersessionism (as that term was defined in the previous article). However, we must bear in mind that in Galatians Paul is reacting against a "Judaizing" heresy and defending the status of uncircumcised Gentile believers in Christ. It would suit his rhetorical purposes to emphasise the privileged status of the Church (inclusive of Gentiles) vis-à-vis Israel. If we want to gain a fuller, more nuanced picture of how the Church and ethnic Israel relate to God and to each other, we will need to look at Paul's other writings that have a less polemical purpose. Above all, this will take us to Romans 9-11. However, before we go there, the next article will look at some other passages in Paul's letters that suggest a "spiritual Israel" concept—namely, 1 Corinthians 10:18, Philippians 3:3, and Romans 2:28-29.

  • 1 "[T]he consensus view of Pauline chronology places 1 Thessalonians as Paul's first letter written in the late 40s and Galatians as the second written around 49 or 50" (Robert James Mason, "Galatians 3:28: An Aspect of Eschatological Asceticism in Paul," in David Lertis Matson & K.C. Richardson (eds.), One in Christ Jesus: Essays on Early Christianity and "All That Jazz," in Honor of S. Scott Bartchy [Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2014], 234). This would make these two letters the earliest extant Christian texts unless, as some scholars believe, the Letter of James was written earlier.
  • 2 "Remember the wonderful things which he did, his miracles and the judgments of his mouth, O offspring [sperma] of Abraam, his slaves, sons of Iakob, his chosen" (Ps. 104[105]:6 LXX); "Are you not the Lord who utterly destroyed the inhabitants of this land from before your people Israel and gave it forever to the seed [sperma] of Abraham, your beloved?" (2 Chr. 20:7 LXX); "But you, Israel, my servant, Iakob, whom I have chosen, the offspring [sperma] of Abraam, whom I have loved... do not fear, for I am with you; do not wander off, for I am your God who has strengthened you, and I have helped you, and I have made you secure with my righteous right hand." (Isa. 41:8-10 LXX); cf. Ex. 3:15-16. Translations from the LXX herein are, unless otherwise indicated, taken from the New English Translation of the Septuagint.
  • 3 Paul asserts that the singular word "seed" referred to in the promises to Abraham (e.g., Gen. 12:7) is not a collective noun (as it appears to be) but is a literal singular noun referring to Christ personally. Those who become associated with "faith of Christ Jesus" in baptism (Gal. 3:22, 26-27) become heirs, sharers in the promise made to him (Gal. 3:29-4:7).
  • 4 Of course, Jews in Paul's day also had a proselytisation process by which Gentiles could enter the covenant and become part of Abraham's seed, and a similar process (including circumcision and Torah observance) seems to be what Paul's opponents had in mind. Thus, it is not the extension of "seed of Abraham" to include non-physical descendants that makes Pauline Christianity distinctive. It is the Christocentric rather than Torah-centric focus of the procedure, its relative ease (no physical pain required for males), and its eventual popularity such that the Church became predominantly Gentile.
  • 5 I am translating the Greek term literally, while recognising that it should be interpreted as gender-inclusive in contemporary application.
  • 6 Isaiah 54:1 (which, admittedly, does not use the term "sons of God") is quoted by Paul in Galatians 4:27 within the Sarah-Hagar allegory to be discussed below. Hosea 2:1 (1:10 LXX) foretells that the sons of Israel would be called "sons of a living God." This text is quoted by Paul in Romans 9:25-26, to be discussed in a subsequent article. The same passage (albeit without the "sons of the living God" part) is quoted in 1 Peter 2:10. Both writers appear to apply Hosea's oracle at least partly to Gentile believers. Other places where God's people Israel are referred to as God's son(s) include Psalm 28(29):1 LXX and Hosea 11:1, the latter of which is cited Christologically in Matthew 2:15.
  • 7 So Frank J. Matera, Galatians (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1992), 177.
  • 8 "What [Paul] has actually done, however, is to mingle the two forms, the temporal and the spatial, in such a way as to indicate that the Jerusalem that is to come has already arrived (note the twice-repeated 'is') in the form of a heavenly, spiritual Jerusalem" (Ronald Y. K. Fung, The Epistle to the Galatians [2nd edn; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988], 210).
  • 9 "Claiming a city as a mother is a declaration of citizenship, as Paul expresses more explicitly in Philippians: 'Our citizenship is in heaven' (Phil 3:20). This is the land that the spiritual descendants of Abraham will inherit (cf. Gal 5:21) in line with God's promise that he would provide them with territory" (David A. deSilva, The Letter to the Galatians [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2018], 400).
  • 10 The verse also implies that Ishmael persecuted Isaac. This is not explicitly stated in Genesis, but the idea arose in later Jewish tradition that is here assumed by Paul.
  • 11 "L'apôtre fait-il allusion à une persécution des chrétiens par les légalistes (Sieffert, Zahn, Burton, Lagrange) ou par les juifs (Schlier, Oepke, etc)? Il faut peut-être préférer cette seconde interprétation" (Pierre Bonard, L'Épître de Saint Paul aux Galates [2nd edn; Neuchâtel: Delachaux & Niestlé, 1972], 99); "Paul regards certain Jewish-Christian parties as particularly hostile to himself (Gal 2:3-5) and might even have begun to regard their activity as persecution. However, the other four explicit references to persecution in Galatians point more directly toward non-Christian Jewish opposition to the Christian movement. Paul twice refers to his own former activity as persecuting the church while still 'in bondage' himself (Gal 1:13, 23). He also refers to the persecution that he alleges the rival teachers to be avoiding by promoting circumcision, which Paul could have hoped to avoid were he to do likewise, but does not (Gal 5:11). Such persecution is more likely to be coming from the moderately empowered non-Christian Jewish community, which had a certain authority over its own and used this authority to restrain deviance (see Acts 9:1-2; 2 Cor 11:24; 1 Thess 2:13-16). This persecution targets most directly the Jewish Christians who appear to go beyond the pale of Torah or speak against the central pillars of the Mosaic covenant, but makes itself felt among gentile Christians as well" (deSilva, Letter to the Galatians, 403).
  • 12 "For you, brothers and sisters, became imitators of the churches of God in Christ Jesus that are in Judea, for you suffered the same things from your own compatriots as they did from the Jews, who killed both the Lord Jesus and the prophets, and drove us out; they displease God and oppose everyone by hindering us from speaking to the Gentiles so that they may be saved" (NRSV). Incidentally, the anti-Jewish rhetoric of this passage is so strong that some scholars have proposed that it is a non-Pauline interpolation! See Markus Bockmuehl, "1 Thessalonians 2:14-16 and the Church in Jerusalem," Tyndale Bulletin, 52(1) (2001): 1-31. Frank D. Gilliard describes the comma used after "Jews" in most translations of v. 14 as anti-Semitic: note the difference between "the Jews, who killed" and "the Jews who killed." ("The Problem of the Antisemitic Comma between 1 Thessalonians 2.14 and 15," New Testament Studies, 35(4) [1989]: 481-502).
  • 13 For a description of these three interpretations, see S. Lewis Johnson, Jr., "Paul and ‘The Israel of God’: An Exegetical and Eschatological Case-Study," The Master’s Seminary Journal, 20(1) (2009): 44-47.
  • 14 "in Gal 6.16, Israel, qualified importantly as ‘the Israel of God’, usually is identified as the church as a whole, or as some portion thereof" (Susan Grove Eastman, "Israel and the Mercy of God: A Re-reading of Galatians 6.16 and Romans 9-11," New Testament Studies 56(3) [2010]: 367-95, here 369). For arguments in favour of the ecclesiological interpretation, see G. K. Beale, "Peace and Mercy upon the Israel of God: The Old Testament Background of Galatians 6,16b," Biblica 80(2) (1999): 204-223; Andreas J. Köstenberger, "The Identity of the ἸΣΡΑΗΛ ΤΟΥ ΘΕΟΥ (Israel of God) in Galatians 6:16," Faith and Mission 19(1) (2001): 1-16; Matera, Galatians; Richard H. Bell, The Irrevocable Call of God: An Inquiry into Paul’s Theology of Israel (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2005); Christopher W. Cowan, "Context is everything: ‘The Israel of God’ in Galatians 6.16," Southern Baptist Journal of Theology, 14(3) (2010): 78-85; G. Walter Hansen, Abraham in Galatians: Epistolary and Rhetorical Contexts (London: Bloomsbury, 2015).
  • 15 For arguments in support of the second and/or third views (which have some overlap), see Peter Richardson, Israel in the Apostolic Church (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969); Johnson, "Paul and 'The Israel of God'"; Michael Bachmann, Anti-Judaism in Galatians? Exegetical Studies on a Polemical Letter and on Paul’s Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009); Eastman, "Israel and the Mercy of God"; Andy Cheung, "Who is the ‘Israel’ of Romans 11:26?" in The Jews, Modern Israel and the New Supersessionism, ed. Calvin L. Smith (rev. ed.; Broadstairs: King's Divinity Press, 2013), 119-138; Lionel J. Windsor, Paul and the Vocation of Israel: How Paul's Jewish Identity Informs his Apostolic Ministry, with Special Reference to Romans (Berlin: de Gruyter, 2014).
  • 16 Beale, "Peace and Mercy upon the Israel of God," 209-210.
  • 17 So Beale, "Peace and Mercy upon the Israel of God," 207-208.
  • 18 The only other occurrences of the word eleos ("mercy") in the letters undisputedly attributed to Paul are in Romans 9:23, 11:30-31, and 15:9. In 9:23, those whom God has called, both Jews and Gentiles, are referred to as "the vessels of mercy." In 11:30-31, Paul relates how both Gentiles and Jews disobeyed in turn, "For God delivered all to disobedience, that he might have mercy on all." In 15:9, Paul describes Christ as a "minister of the circumcised" to the end "that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy."

Sunday 21 July 2019

Humanae Vitae, Pope Paul VI, and Paul the Apostle (Part 2)

Yesterday, Americans and others around the world waxed nostalgic about the Apollo 11 lunar landings that took place 50 years ago. One of the world leaders who sent greetings (and blessings) to the astronauts on the moon was Pope Paul VI. A year earlier, the Pope had issued an encyclical letter called Humanae Vitae that, while far less well-known than the moon mission, was also of great historical significance. It was in this document that the Pope set out the Church's teaching that artificial birth control, defined as 'any action which either before, at the moment of, or after sexual intercourse, is specifically intended to prevent procreation—whether as an end or as a means,' is morally unacceptable. The theological basis for this papal ruling was the principle, 'based on the natural law as illuminated and enriched by divine Revelation,' that sex has two essential qualities: one procreative (the generation of new life) and the other unitive (uniting husband and wife in the closest intimacy), and that sexual acts must not be isolated from either of these.

In the first article in this two-part series, we looked at how the teaching of Humanae Vitae is anticipated in Paul's Letter to the Romans. In particular, just as Humanae Vitae declares based on natural law that the sex act must not be sundered from its procreative purpose, so Paul in Romans 1:26-27 condemned sex acts that abandon the 'natural function' of sex and are 'against nature.' Since Paul believes that unnatural sex acts follow from a failure to acknowledge God's creatorship, and since the terms he uses for 'male' and 'female' recall the creation account in Genesis 1:27-28, it follows (we argued) that for Paul the procreative aspect is essential to the 'natural function' of sex. This was borne out by setting Paul's argument in the context of other Hellenistic Jewish writers of his time (e.g., Philo, Josephus, and Pseudo-Phocylides), who also ground sexual morality in 'nature' (phusis), referring explicitly to the procreative aspect.

In this second article, we look at Paul's teachings about sexuality in 1 Corinthians. In this case, the relevant material spans much of three chapters (5 to 7) rather than just two verses, so we will not be able to reconstruct Paul's whole argument but only to make a few select observations. Paul comments extensively on the problem of 'sexual immorality' (Greek: porneia), first giving instructions regarding a case of incest in the Corinthian church (5:1-13) and then, having included certain sexual sins in a vice list (6:9-10), he makes a more general comment about porneia (6:12-19). These latter remarks presuppose that some Corinthian church members are using the services of prostitutes. Finally, in chapter 7, Paul offers detailed instructions concerning marriage and virginity.

The Basis for Paul's Sexual Morality

Paul's instructions concerning the case of incest at Corinth make it clear that he regards the Torah as an authoritative source on sexual morality. Paul instructs the Corinthian church to expel a man who 'has his father's wife' (1 Cor. 5:1). This language is borrowed directly from Lev. 18:8 and 20:11 LXX. It is quite possible that this man's sexual partner was his stepmother and not a blood relative, and furthermore that his father was deceased. Paul nevertheless regards it as 'sexual immorality' (porneia) of a kind 'not even found among the Gentiles.' This last remark implicitly reinforces the Jewish notion, already seen in Romans 1, that sexual immorality is stereotypical Gentile behaviour due to the Gentiles' idolatry and ignorance of God (including in this case the Torah). Paul again invokes the Torah in the expulsion formula he uses in 1 Corinthians 5:13: 'Purge the evil person from your midst' (see Deut. 13:6; 17:7; 19:19; 21:21; 22:21, 24; 24:7 LXX). An indirect appeal to the Torah is also likely in Paul's use of the term arsenokoitai in his vice list in 1 Corinthians 6:9. The meaning of this term—of which Paul's is the earliest extant usage—is disputed among scholars but most likely refers to males who penetrate other males,1 and the term was probably coined (whether by Paul or another Hellenistic Jew) from the words arsenos ('male') and koitēn ('bed') in Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 LXX.

In Romans 1, we found that Paul's ideas on sexual (im)morality were grounded in his understanding of creation, for which his source was of course the creation narratives in Genesis 1-2 (also part of the Torah). This dependency is again evident in 1 Corinthians 6:16, where Paul quotes from Genesis 2:24 LXX: '"For the two," it says, "shall become one flesh".' This Genesis text stresses the unitive aspect of the sexual act, while Genesis 1:27 stresses the procreative aspect (by describing the gendered creation of humanity as 'male and female,' followed immediately by the imperative to procreate in v. 28). It is noteworthy that these two creation texts (Gen. 1:27 and 2:24) are precisely those quoted by Jesus in the Gospels (Mark 10:6; Matt. 19:4) to justify his teachings on marriage and divorce. That Paul's sexual morality in Romans and 1 Corinthians is grounded in the same two creation texts is probably not coincidental, but suggests his familiarity with the Jesus tradition later preserved by Mark.

Sex and Nature

We saw in the previous article that, in Romans 1, Paul's decisive criterion for determining sexual acts to be moral or otherwise was the 'natural function.' In 1 Corinthians 6, Paul anticipates and refutes an argument from 'natural function' that can be—and often has been—used to undermine the unitive aspect of the sexual act, that is, its exclusive use in the intimacy of a monogamous marital bond. The argument is conveyed in the aphorism, 'Food for the belly and the belly for food' (1 Cor. 6:13). It is not clear whether some Corinthians were actually using this line to justify going to prostitutes, or whether Paul is manufacturing a hypothetical justification in order to strike it down. However, the implicit argument is one of analogy: food and the belly are made for each other; thus, when we are hungry, we are justified in satisfying our appetite. In the same way, sex and the sexual organs are made for each other; thus we are equally justified in satisfying our sexual appetites (even if that means going to a prostitute).2

Notice that this argument takes a page out of Paul's book; it is an argument from nature and the created order, just like Paul's argument concerning sexual (im)morality in Romans 1. It is thus quite ingenious, and indeed does not violate the 'natural' procreative function of sex. However, as Paul goes on to explain, sex that is had only to satisfy an appetite, for instance with a prostitute, violates the unitive aspect of sex, which is not merely natural but spiritual. Paul therefore turns to the more transcendent purposes of creation: 'The body...is not for immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord is for the body...your body is a temple of the holy Spirit within you...you are not your own' (1 Cor. 6:13, 19). Paul alludes to the way that the marital union decreed in Gen. 2:24 signifies the union between Christ and the Church (1 Cor. 6:16-17)—an idea that will be elaborated on in Ephesians 5:23-32. Paul warns the Corinthians that 'anyone who joins himself to a prostitute becomes one body with her.' There is a unitive, spiritual dimension to the sexual act and there are thus untold spiritual implications for those who debase sex by, for instance, going to a prostitute.

The Importance of Sexual Morality for Paul

Christians today who take a traditional, conservative position on issues of sexual morality are often portrayed, including by other Christians, as prudish or petty. 'Millions of people are starving but all you're worried about is sex,' so the argument goes. Why be so preoccupied with sexual sin while turning a blind eye to far more grievous sins committed against social justice? This criticism is justified: if a preoccupation with sexual morality causes us to de-emphasise social justice more generally, then we are indeed in serious trouble. However, the solution is not to disregard or downplay the demands of sexual morality in favour of social justice. Our approach should be both/and, not either/or.

There are a number of ways in which Paul's teachings in 1 Corinthians 5-6 show that he understood sexual morality to be a very important aspect of the Christian life. Firstly, we have Paul's aforementioned instructions concerning the reported case of maternal or step-maternal incest in Corinth: expulsion from the congregation ('Purge the evil person from your midst'). Numerous scholars interpret 2 Corinthians 2:5-11 to be a 'happy ending' to this story: the man had repented and was to be restored to his place in the church. Secondly, we have Paul's remark that 'the unjust will not inherit the kingdom of God' (1 Cor. 6:9-10), with 'unjust' by no means limited to sexual sins but inclusive of them. Forgiveness of sins and a new, chaste identity is available in Christ (1 Cor. 6:11), but to continue unrepentant in sexual immorality would be to forfeit one's eternal destiny. Thirdly, Paul explicitly says that sexual immorality is distinct from other sins in its gravity: 'Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the sexually immoral person (ho porneuōn) sins against his own body' (1 Cor. 6:18). Fourthly, Paul's whole instructions concerning sexual morality could be summarised in the command, 'Avoid sexual immorality' (pheugete tēn porneian, 1 Cor. 6:18). Paul's choice of verb could hardly be more emphatic: the literal meaning of pheugō is 'flee,' as from moral danger (cf. Mark 14:50; John 10:12).

Anyone who says that the Church needs to relax its teachings on sexual morality cannot cite Paul in support. It is certainly true that some conservative Christians make sexual morality their hobby horse to the exclusion of other important moral issues, especially concerning social justice. However, the critique of such people should not be, 'Focus on social justice and stop going on about sexual sin' (which rests on a false dichotomy), but, 'These you should have done, without neglecting the others' (cf. Matt. 23:23).

Paul and Abstinence

In 1 Corinthians 7, Paul has a lot to say about abstinence. Paul says that temporary abstinence within marriage is morally acceptable (1 Cor. 7:5), which anticipates the teaching of Humanae Vitae, which also approves of temporary abstinence and states that it is the only acceptable method of birth control. However, more prominent in this chapter is Paul's emphasis that total abstinence, lifelong virginity, is a good and noble calling. This is arguably the most radical feature of Paul's sexual morality within his Second Temple Jewish context. The author of Pseudo-Phocylides gives the prevailing Jewish view at the time: 'Remain not unmarried, lest you perish nameless. And give something to nature yourself: beget in turn as you were begotten'3 These instructions are directed at men; women did not even have a choice in the matter, as a woman's marriage was a transaction between her father and her husband-to-be. This moral obligation to marry and procreate stands in stark contrast to Paul's statements in 1 Corinthians 7. Paul expresses a wish for 'everyone to be as I am' (i.e. celibate), while acknowledging that celibacy is a 'gift from God' that not all possess (1 Cor. 7:7). Thus it is 'a good thing for [the unmarried and widows] to remain as they are' (1 Cor. 7:8), provided that they have the required self-control. Paul's instructions about 'virgins' in 1 Corinthians 7:25-40 concern both females and males, though the term itself is syntactically feminine.4 Paul makes it clear that, at least in the case of a widow, she is free to decide whom to marry and whether to marry (1 Cor. 7:39-40).

Paul thus takes an important step toward liberating women to determine their own vocation, whether it be marriage or virginity, and anticipates the Christian rite of consecrated virginity (e.g., nuns) and the celibacy of priests.5


Careful study of material in Romans and 1 Corinthians shows that, for Paul, the sexual act has a 'natural function' tied to its procreative potential, and has a unitive, spiritual function that explains why it is permissible only in the monogamous intimacy of the marital union. Paul's teachings thus anticipate those of Pope Paul VI nineteen centuries later in Humanae Vitae. Paul's letters show that he understood sexual morality to be vitally important to the Christian life, undermining those in his day and ours who regard the Church as prudish and petty when it speaks out against sexual immorality. Finally, Paul's teachings on abstinence and virginity in 1 Corinthians 7 anticipate the teaching of Humanae Vitae that temporary abstinence is an acceptable method of birth control, and also underlie the historic Christian practices of consecrated virginity and priestly celibacy.


  • 1 See, most recently, the detailed philological arguments of John Granger Cook, 'μαλακοί and ἀρσενοκοῖται: In Defence of Tertullian’s Translation,' New Testament Studies 65 (2019): 332-352. Paul himself uses arsēn in his description of homoerotic sex acts in Rom. 1:27, and also uses koitē in the sense of 'sexual promiscuity' in Rom. 13:13. Cook establishes a semantic field consisting of other compound nouns formed from either arsēn or koitē (or similar elements) and finds a general pattern by which 'a male has sex with the person (or animal) referred to by the nominal form that appears first in the construction (e.g. μητροκοίτης means "one who penetrates a mother".' This, together with usage of arsenokoitēin other texts from the second century C.E. onward, supports the meaning of 'one who penetrates a male' as most likely. However, numerous scholars have defended other meanings of arsenokoitai (and malakoi), arguing that they have more specialised connotations relating to, e.g., sexual violence, pederasty, or cultic prostitution. For further exegetical observations on the acts referred to in Romans 1:26-27, see the footnotes in my previous article.
  • 2 David E. Garland points out that the verb koilia ('belly') is occasionally used in the LXX as a euphemism for sexual organs (2 Kgdms 7:12; 16:11; Ps. 131:11; Sir. 23:6), which may have facilitated the food-belly/sex-genitals analogy (1 Corinthians [Grand Rapids: Baker Academic], 230).
  • 3 Pseudo-Phocylides, Sentences 175-76 (trans. Walter T. Wilson, The Sentences of Pseudo-Phocylides [Berlin: de Gruyter, 2005], 187).
  • 4 The definite article preceding the word parthenos ('virgin') in 1 Corinthians 7:28, 34 is  (feminine). Thus, although the word parthenos can be used of males (cf. Rev. 14:4), Paul probably uses it exclusively for female virgins here. Nevertheless, it is clear from Paul's remarks in 1 Corinthians 7:27-28, 32-33, 36-38 that he has in mind the possibility of a celibate life both for men (like himself) and women.
  • 5 Of course, the notion that virginity is a holy and venerable calling would have been rooted in the life of Jesus himself, and also finds support in the saying of Jesus in Matthew 19:12 (cf. Isa. 56:3-5).

Thursday 11 July 2019

Humanae Vitae, Pope Paul VI, and Paul the Apostle (Part 1)

51 years ago, in July 1968, Pope Paul VI published an encyclical letter called Humanae Vitae ('Human Life') that is one of the most counter-cultural documents ever produced by the Catholic Church. In 1968, the Sexual Revolution was in full swing in the West, and social norms (and legal codes) concerning sexual behaviour were rapidly changing or would change in the future as a result. Specifically, sexual and related behaviours that were becoming or would become increasingly normalised in society included artificial contraception (especially the Pill), abortion, pornography, masturbation, premarital sex, casual sex, and homosexual sex. The common denominator to all of these items is the driving of a wedge between sex and procreation. The only essential purpose of sex is enjoyment (including relational bonding, for the more conservatively and monogamously minded); pregnancy is an incidental side effect that can be welcomed, avoided, or terminated as desired.

Against this background—and against the advice of some of his theological advisers—Pope Paul VI authoritatively taught in Humanae Vitae that the sexual act has two essential purposes, namely unitive and procreative. The unitive purpose is to unite married couples in mutual love, thus strengthening the marital bond. The procreative purpose is to produce offspring and thus perpetuate the human race. These purposes are intimately related in that a strong marital union contributes to a healthy setting for raising children. By declaring both of these purposes to be essential to the sexual act, the Pontiff implicitly reinforced the Church's long-standing prohibition on non-procreative sexual acts (e.g., masturbation, oral sex, anal sex) and explicitly forbade the use of contraception: 'any action which either before, at the moment of, or after sexual intercourse, is specifically intended to prevent procreation' is excluded. The only family planning method that is permitted is periodic abstinence, i.e. to 'take advantage of the natural cycles immanent in the reproductive system and engage in marital intercourse only during those times that are infertile.' In effect, the Pope ruled all the 'fruits' of the Sexual Revolution off-limits. This was a radical stand to make, as by this time most of the Protestant world had embraced contraception as an acceptable family planning method, and many observers—Catholic and non-Catholic—assumed that the Pope would follow suit.

Humanae Vitae does not quote any Scripture, since it is intended more as a pastoral instruction than a theological treatise. Nevertheless, my recent study of the letters of St. Paul have led me to marvel at how aptly Pope Paul VI was named; for his teachings in Humanae Vitae are anticipated in the writings of his namesake apostle. (This is true despite the fact that Paul (and Scripture generally) offers no direct teaching on contraception.) In what follows I will briefly comment on Paul's ideas on sexuality and marriage based on passages in Romans and 1 Corinthians, and compare them to Humanae Vitae.

Injunctions against sexual immorality (porneia) are a common feature of the Pauline and deutero-Pauline1 epistles (1 Cor. 6:9-10; 2 Cor. 12:21; Gal. 5:19-21; 1 Thess. 4:3-5; Eph. 5:3-5; Col. 3:5-9; 1 Tim. 1:9-10). However, these are generally brief warnings and 'vice lists' that offer little insight into the theological grounding of Paul's sexual ethic. We do observe that sexual immorality is of 'the flesh,' the morally compromised aspect of human nature (Gal. 5:19), and that it correlates with idolatry and 'the Gentiles who do not know God' (1 Thess. 4:5; Eph. 5:5). The material that gives us greater insight into Paul's sexual ethic is found in Romans 1:18-32 and in 1 Corinthians 5-7.

Romans 1:18-32 is a section of the letter that contributes to a wider argument. Paul here effectively assumes the guise or role of a scrupulously law-observant Jew or Jewish Christian in order to indignantly condemn Gentiles for their idolatry and resulting loose morals. By v. 32 his Judaeo-centric readers are cheering him on as he unloads on the 'Gentile sinners' (for this phrase see Gal. 2:15). However, it is all a setup: beginning in 2:1 he turns the tables on self-righteous fellow Jews in order to eventually conclude that 'all, both Jews and Gentiles, are under sin' and in need of the redemption that is in Christ Jesus (Rom. 3:9, 24). The point is not that Gentiles are actually good and Jews are bad, but that everyone is bad. Therefore, Paul's attack on Gentile sin in Romans 1:18-32, although a clever rhetorical device, does represent his actual views.

The main thrust of Romans 1:18-32 is that the Gentiles are culpably ignorant of God and idolatrous, and that as a result God has 'given them up' to their human fallenness ('the lusts of the hearts,' 1:24; 'degrading passions,' 1:26; 'their undiscerning mind,' 1:28), resulting in all kinds of wicked behaviour enumerated in vv. 29-31. However, in vv. 25-27 Paul singles out certain immoral sexual behaviour for special censure:
25 They exchanged the truth of God for a lie and revered and worshiped the creature rather than the creator, who is blessed forever. Amen. 26 Therefore, God handed them over to degrading passions. Their females exchanged natural relations for unnatural, 27 and the males likewise gave up natural relations with females and burned with lust for one another. Males did shameful things with males and thus received in their own persons the due penalty for their perversity. (NABRE)
Now, Romans 1:26-27 is one of what LGBT Christians refer to as 'the clobber passages' that are used as proof texts (often without any nuance) to oppose same-sex relationships/marriage, or simply to make gay people feel unwelcome. My intention is certainly not to 'clobber' anyone but only to carefully examine Paul's contextual meaning. Notice that the immoral sexual behaviour described in vv. 26-27 results from denying God's creatorship.2 This implies that, for Paul, sexual morality is grounded in God's creative design, i.e., in nature. This is confirmed when Paul describes the illicit behaviour as an exchange or abandonment of 'the natural function' or 'the natural relations' (Greek: tēn phusikēn chrēsin) and as 'contrary to nature' (para phusin). By referring here to humans in their sexuality as 'male' (arsēn) and 'female' (thēlus) (terms Paul rarely uses),3 Paul alludes to the Genesis creation story ('he made them male [arsēn] and female [thēlus],' Gen. 1:27 LXX) and so grounds his understanding of 'the natural function' in the sexual complementarity of creation and the accompanying responsibility to procreate (Gen. 1:28). This reading of Paul's intent is supported by evidence from his historical context in Hellenistic Judaism.4

In Humanae Vitae, Pope Paul VI follows in his namesake's footsteps, emphasising that the Church's teaching on marriage 'is based on the natural law as illuminated and enriched by divine Revelation'. The Church acknowledges and defers to God's 'wisely ordered laws of nature,' including the natural phenomenon of sexual procreation. While Paul in Romans 1:26 probably refers to female-female homoerotic acts,5 just as 1:27 clearly refers to male-male homoerotic acts,6 it would be consistent with Paul's reasoning to regard as 'contrary to nature' and thus immoral any sexual act that involves a departure from 'the natural function' of sex, which includes its procreative purpose. Thus, in prohibiting measures intended to 'obstruct the natural development of the generative process,' Pope Paul VI in Humanae Vitae drew a conclusion that had been anticipated by Paul the Apostle in Romans 1:26.

The second part of this article will look at Paul's teaching on sex and marriage in 1 Corinthians 5-7, and how this too anticipates the teaching of Pope Paul VI in Humanae Vitae.


  • 1 The deutero-Pauline epistles are those that claim to have been written by Paul but that many modern scholars believe were written by someone else in his name, even after his death. The deutero-Pauline letters mentioned here are Ephesians, Colossians, and 1 Timothy. Romans, 1-2 Corinthians, Galatians, and 1 Thessalonians were all indisputably written by Paul himself.
  • 2 The link that Paul identifies between idolatry and sexual immorality is causal: the one leads to the other. Of course, in making this connection Paul would have been well aware of the sexual debauchery and prostitution that often accompanied idolatrous worship. However, this does not mean that Paul condemns sexually immoral acts only when practiced as part of idolatrous worship. The text is clear that he condemns such acts because they are intrinsically contrary to the natural order.
  • 3 Neither of these words occurs elsewhere in Paul's letters apart from Gal. 3:28, where the gendering of humans is again the point at issue. In the entire rest of the New Testament, the words arsēn and thēlus occur together only in Matt. 19:4 and Mark 10:6, both quotations from the creation story of Gen. 1:27 made to ground Jesus' teaching on marriage.
  • 4 For example, Paul's contemporary Philo of Alexandria describes homoerotic acts as 'contrary to nature' (para phusin, the same phrase Paul uses in Rom. 1:26) and condemns pederasty not only because of the damage it does to the violated young men but because the pederast disregards his responsibility to procreate (Special Laws 3.37-39). Elsewhere, he condemns the men of Sodom for discarding 'the law of nature' regarding sexuality (On Abraham 133-136). Josephus, Paul's younger contemporary, explains that Jewish laws allow no sexual intercourse except that 'according to nature' (kata phusin), namely of a man with his wife, and that only for procreation (Against Apion 2.199). He later condemns the Elean and Theban Greeks for doing 'that contrary-to-nature (para phusin, again same phrase as Rom. 1:26) and licentious thing of intercourse with males,' adding that they attribute such practices to their gods in order to justify their 'improper and contrary-to-nature (para phusin) pleasures' (Against Apion 2.273-275). The Sentences of Pseudo-Phocylides (first century B.C.E./first century C.E.) makes it obligatory to marry and procreate to 'give something to nature' (phusei, 175-76) and to 'Go not beyond natural (phuseōs) sexual unions for illicit passion' (190) (text and translations from Walter T. Wilson, The Sentences of Pseudo-Phocylides [Berlin: de Gruyter, 2005]). The same general moral principle that God's laws follow from the created order of nature is apparent in 4 Maccabees (late first century C.E.): 'Therefore we do not eat defiling food, for, believing that the law is divine, we know that the Creator of the world shows us sympathy by imposing a law that is in accordance with nature (kata phusin)' (4 Macc. 5.25-26 NETS). Finally, Wisdom of Solomon 14 identifies idolatry as the origin of sexual immorality (porneia, v. 12) and more specifically of 'inversion of procreation' (geneseōs enallagē, v. 26). The similarities between this passage and Romans 1:18-32 are so striking that numerous scholars have argued for some sort of literary dependence.
  • 5 It is also possible, though less likely, that the sexual acts 'contrary to nature' involving females that Paul has in mind here are heterosexual oral and/or anal sex. The former is condemned in one other early Christian text, the Epistle of Barnabas (cf. 10.8). What makes female-female homoerotic acts the most likely meaning is that only females are mentioned as the actors and that the male-male acts in v. 27 are likened to those in v. 26 using the word 'likewise' (homoiōs).
  • 6 Most English translations, for understandable reasons, neglect to convey the sexual explicitness of the Greek text. The phrase translated 'Males did shameful things with males' in the NABRE renders arsenes en arsesin tēn aschēmosunēn katergazomenoi. Aschēmosunē does literally mean 'disgrace' but is used as a euphemism for genitals in the Septuagint (Ex. 20:26; Lev. 18:6; Deut. 23:14) as well as in Rev. 16:15 (cf. BDAG 147). Given the sexual context of Rom. 1:27 it is best understood in this sense here, and so a literal translation of this phrase would be, 'Males working the member in males,' an obvious reference to male-male sexual intercourse.

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.