Are Christians committing Idolatry and Violating the 2nd Commandant in the worship of Jesus?



[Draft: Nov 27/2010]

I got this question/objection about idolatry and the worship of Jesus:


Hi, Mr. Miller, I have a friend who is an orthodox Jew who tells me that worshiping Jesus is Idolatry. He says that going to a Church with images of Jesus, etc is against the Ten commandments. He also has said that He could see that Jesus was the messiah, but to worship a human person is Idolatry since God is Immaterial, and has no Form.


First, I commend your friend for his commitment to Torah (i.e. it absolutely IS idolatry to worship a human being) and to his acceptance or openness to the Messianic claims of Jesus.

Secondly, we should note that there are a couple of separate-but-related points in here: (1) is the worship of Jesus idolatry since it is (allegedly) worship of a human; (2) are images of the body of Jesus in a church a violation of the commandment against making images/representations of God--especially human images (3) is God immaterial and without a Form.

Let me address the issues in this order: worship of Jesus as worship of a human; God as immaterial and without Form; uses of images in worship spaces (e.g. churches, synagogues, Temple); and finally Jesus as Word/Expression and as "Image of God".


First of all, Christians do not worship the humanity of Jesus -- they worship God incarnate in Jesus. God 'dwelt' in Jesus, in a way analogous to how He 'dwelt' in the Tabernacle and Solomonic Temple. His presence and His Name were 'in' them.

Although the theology can get complicated--a consequence of trying to describe the relationship between God and His creation!--the overall concept is that God dwelt among us and manifested His glory to us in the person and life of Jesus. The Son of God Jesus had a human body, but Christians do not worship His body in any way. His flesh was like the curtains of the Tabernacle or like the stone walls of the Temple. Israelites did not worship the cloth of the curtains, nor the stone and timber of the Temple--they worshipped the God who 'dwelt' inside those.

When GOD first appeared to Moses in the burning bush, the locale was made sacred by the temporary presence of God, but Moses would not have worshipped the leaves or branches of the bush!

So also Jesus is described as a 'temple' and as the 'tabernacle' and the 'dwelling' of God's presence and glory:


One. Jesus as Temple ( John 2.18ff):

So the Jews said to him, “What sign do you show us for doing these things?” 19 Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” 20 The Jews then said, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will you raise it up in three days?” 21 But he was speaking about the temple of his body. 22 When therefore he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this, and they believed the Scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.

This was a reference to the dwelling place of God:

"The distinction in the words translated “temple” in vv. 14 and 19–21 is worth noting. In v. 14 the word is ἱερόν (hieron), which refers to a “shrine” or “holy building.” This usage is consistent throughout the NT. The word ναός (naos) appears in vv. 19–21 and signifies the “dwelling place” of deity. [EBC]



Two. Jesus as Tabernacle (John 1.14, with Jesus as Word/Memra of God):

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth

The word 'dwelt' in that passage is a reference to the 'tent' (Tabernacle) of the wilderness, in which the LORD revealed His character/nature as "full of grace and truth" (in Hebrew bible = loyal love and faithfulness)

"the Word … made his home (Greek skēnoō, “pitched his tent”) among us: This Greek word is related to the word used for the OT Tabernacle (Greek skēnē, “tent, tabernacle”), the tent in the wilderness where the Lord’s glory resided and where Israel came to worship (Exod 25:8–9). The Father’s glory in the Tabernacle (Exod 40:34–38) was now present in Jesus Christ (2:11; 12:23–28, 41; 17:1–5). • Jesus offered God’s unfailing love and faithfulness (or grace and truth).. [New Living Translation Study Bible. 2008 (Study notes at Jn 1:14). Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.]

"Into that condition of human weakness the Logos “pitched his tent” (ἐσκήνωσεν, from σκηνή, “tent”) and revealed his glory (cf. shekinah, having the same consonants as the Greek σκηνή). The language is evocative of the revelation of God’s glory in the Exodus—by the Red Sea, on Mount Sinai, and at the tent of meeting by Israel’s camp (especially the last; see Exod 33:7–11; for the glory in and upon the Tabernacle cf. Exod 40:34–38). The Exodus associations are intentional, and are part of the theme of the revelation and redemption of the Logos-Christ as fulfilling the hope of a second Exodus. [WBC]

"became flesh. “Flesh” stands for the whole man. It is interesting that even in the unsophisticated christological terminology of the 1st century it is not said that the Word became a man, but equivalently that the Word became man. made his dwelling. Skēnoun, related to skēnē, “tent,” is literally “to pitch a tent.” … Verse 14b and the succeeding lines show that, if the Word has become flesh, he has not ceased to be God. In 14b this is given expression in the verb skēnoun (“make a dwelling; pitch a tent”) which has important OT associations. The theme of “tenting” is found in Exod 25:8–9 where Israel is told to make a tent (the Tabernacle—skēnē) so that God can dwell among His people; the Tabernacle became the site of God’s localized presence on earth. It was promised that in the ideal days to come this tenting among men would be especially impressive. Joel 3:17 says, “You will know that I am the Lord your God who makes his dwelling [kataskēnoun] in Zion.” At the time of the return from the Babylonian Exile Zech 2:10 proclaims: “Sing and rejoice, O daughter of Zion, for look, I come and will make my dwelling [kataskēnoun] in your midst.” In the ideal Temple described by Ezekiel (43:7) God will make His dwelling in the midst of His people forever, or as the LXX has it: “My name shall dwell in the midst of the house of Israel forever.” (The latter is interesting in view of the Johannine interest in the name.) When the Prologue proclaims that the Word made his dwelling among men, we are being told that the flesh of Jesus Christ is the new localization of God’s presence on earth, and that Jesus is the replacement of the ancient Tabernacle. The Gospel will present Jesus as the replacement of the Temple (2:19–22), which is a variation of the same theme. In Rev 7:15 the verb skēnoun is used of God’s presence in heaven, while in 21:3 the great vision of the heavenly Jerusalem echoes the promise of the prophets, “He will dwell [skēnoun] with them, and they shall be His people.” Thus, in dwelling among men, the Word anticipates the divine presence which according to Revelation will be visible to men in the last days. As an intermediary between the pentateuchal and prophetic use of “tenting” and the use of “tenting” in the Prologue we may call attention to passages in the Wisdom Literature where Wisdom is said to tent or make her dwelling among men. In the hymn of Sir 24, Wisdom sings: “The Creator of all … chose the spot for my tent, saying, ‘In Jacob make your dwelling [kataskēnoun], in Israel your inheritance.’ ” Thus, in making his dwelling among men, the Word is acting in the manner of Wisdom. There is another aspect of the divine presence suggested in vs. 14b. The radicals skn which underlie the Greek verb “to tent” resemble the Hebrew root škn which also means “to dwell” and from which the noun shekinah is derived. In rabbinic theology shekinah was a technical term for God’s presence dwelling among His people. For instance, in Exod 25:8 where God says, “Let them make me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them,” the Targum or Aramaic translation has, “I shall cause my shekinah to reside among them.” Like the use of memra discussed in App. II, the use of shekinah as a surrogate for Yahweh in His dealings with men was a way of preserving God’s transcendence. The Targum of Deut 12:5 has God’s shekinah dwell in the sanctuary rather than His name. The threat in Hos 5:6 that Yahweh will withdraw from Israel becomes in the Targum a threat that He will cause His shekinah to ascend to heaven and depart from men. Even the omnipresence of God which no sanctuary can compass is called His shekinah in the Talmud. Though some of these works stem from a period later than the 1st century A.D., the theology of the shekinah was known at that time; and it is quite possible that in the use of skēnoun the Prologue is reflecting the idea that Jesus is now the shekinah of God, the locus of contact between the Father and those men among whom it is His delight to be. The thought of the divine presence in Jesus who now serves as the Tabernacle and perhaps as the shekinah overflows into vs. 14c: “We have seen his glory.” In the OT the glory of God (Heb. kābôd; Gr. doxa—see App. I) implies a visible and powerful manifestation of God to men. In the Targums “glory” also became a surrogate, like memra and shekinah, for the visible presence of God among men, although its use was not as frequent as that of the other surrogates. (If in Exod 24:10 we are told that Moses and the elders saw the God of Israel, in Targum Onkelos we hear that they “saw the glory [Aram. yeqar] of the God of Israel.”) However, what we are primarily interested in is the constant connection of the glory of God with His presence in the Tabernacle and the Temple. When Moses went up Mount Sinai (Exod 24:15–16), we are told that a cloud covered the mountain and the glory of God settled there while God told Moses how to build the Tabernacle. When the Tabernacle was erected, the cloud covered it and the glory of God filled it (Exod 40:34). The same phenomenon is reported when Solomon’s Temple was dedicated (1 Kings 8:10–11). Just before the destruction of the Temple by the Babylonians, Ezek 11:23 tells us that the glory of God left the city; but in the vision of the restored Temple Ezekiel saw the glory of God once more filling the building (44:4). Thus, it is quite appropriate that, after the description of how the Word set up a Tabernacle among men in the flesh of Jesus, the Prologue should mention that his glory became visible. [Brown, R. E., S.S. (2008). The Gospel according to John (I-XII): Introduction, translation, and notes (32–34). New Haven; London: Yale University Press.]



Three. Jesus as Dwelling place for God's fullness/presence (Col 1.19 and 2.9):

For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell … For in Him all the fullness of Deity dwells in bodily form

"The reason for this primacy is spelled out: Jesus Christ is ‘the place’ in whom God in all his fullness was pleased to take up residence. All God’s qualities and activities—his Spirit, word, wisdom and glory—are perfectly displayed in Christ. Further, this indwelling in Christ ‘in bodily form’ (cf. 2:9) is not temporary but permanent. [Carson, D. A. (1994). New Bible commentary : 21st century edition (4th ed.) (Col 1:18–20). Leicester, England; Downers Grove, Ill., USA: Inter-Varsity Press.]

"Katoikeō (to dwell), when used in reference to God, has a special echo from the LXX: it is used to describe the presence of God upon the earth, in the temple, on Mt. Zion, etc. We have especially close parallels to Col 1:19 in Ps 67[68]:17; Targ Ps 68:17; and Targ 1 Kgs 8:27, where the declaration about the dwelling place of God, specifically about his shekinah, is tied in with the use of the verb eudokeō. … What is true of the verb “to dwell” is also true of the concepts of “fullness” (plēroō, to fill; plērēs, full; pimplēmi, to fill) as OT descriptions of the presence of God. Even though plērōma (fullness) in this sense occurs neither in the LXX, nor in the NT, it still seems more appropriate to interpret the substantive from the LXX because of the contextual OT terminology and conceptualization rather than from Gnostic or stoic expressions. … Plērōma (fullness) in this context, then, much as in Col 2:9, is the fullness of God (in the active sense), filling Jesus, and is thus the depiction of the presence of God in his Son and thereby in the world. In contrast to statements which speak of God “dwelling” on Mt. Sinai, Mt. Zion, etc., or more specifically of the fact that God or his magnificence “fills” these places, Col 1:19 proclaims that the presence of God exists now, and now only in Christ (therefore pan to plērōma; all the fullness). [Barth, M., Blanke, H., & Beck, A. B. (2008). Colossians: A new translation with introduction and commentary (212–213). New Haven; London: Yale University Press.]

"God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him (1:19). The term “fullness” (plērōma) echoes the many places in the Old Testament where the essence, power, and glory of God inhabit the place he has chosen to dwell. The prophet Ezekiel exclaimed, “I looked and saw the glory of the LORD filling the temple” (Ezek. 44:4). [Arnold, C. E. (2002). Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary Volume 3: Romans to Philemon. (380). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.]


There is much more to be said about this (and we will return to this theme when we talk about Christ as the Word), but let me close here with a quote about the Tabernacle and Temple again -- as noted in the passage from the Gospel of John:

"If John simply wrote, “God became a human being,” that would have given a false impression, leading one to think that the Lord was no longer filling the universe or reigning in heaven, having abandoned his throne to take up residence here. Instead, John tells us that it was the divine Word that became a human being, and through the Word we know God personally.

You may say, “All of this is a little difficult to understand.” Maybe so, but the Rabbinic concepts of the memraʾ, Shekhina, and Sefirot are a little difficult to understand too. The fact is, as we keep emphasizing, God cannot be put into a little box. But this much is sure. Objections such as “Your god wore diapers” are as worthless as they sound and completely miss the point. So let’s get back to John 1. Things will keep getting clearer as we go along.

We pointed to the important expression in John 1:14: “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.” The Greek verb for “made his dwelling” literally means “lived in a tent,” and to carry out the imagery here, we could say that God pitched his tent among us and temporarily settled in our midst through Jesus the Messiah.

Let’s examine this in more depth. When Solomon dedicated the Temple of the Lord he said, “The LORD has said that he would dwell in a dark cloud; I have built a magnificent temple for you, a place for you to dwell forever” (2 Chron. 6:1–2). Solomon had constructed a gorgeous, physical building for God to dwell in, an earthly “house” for the Lord. (In Hebrew, the Temple is often referred to as a “house.”) Of course, Solomon understood the limitations of such a building: “But will God really dwell on earth with men? The heavens, even the highest heavens, cannot contain you. How much less this temple [Hebrew, house] I have built!” (2 Chron. 6:18).

Still, he knew the promise God had given to Israel through Moses: “Then have them make a sanctuary for me, and I will dwell among them” (Exod. 25:8). The God whom the heavens could not contain would dwell in the midst of his people in the Tabernacle and Temple. How? He would “pitch his tent” among them. (Remember that the Tabernacle was literally an elaborate tent.) That’s exactly how the Septuagint put it in 2 Chronicles 6:1–2. It translated the words dwell in both verses with the Greek verb “to pitch a tent”—the very word that John used in 1:14!

So just as God “pitched his tent” in the midst of his people Israel through the Tabernacle and Temple—while remaining God in heaven and filling the universe with his presence—so he pitched his tent among us through his Son—while remaining God in heaven and filling the universe with his presence. As one Catholic scholar put it, Jesus is the replacement of the ancient Tabernacle.

This is the ultimate answer to the question of the Talmudic rabbis, Jewish philosophers, and medieval mystics as to how Almighty God could dwell in our midst: He came to us through his Word, Yeshua the Son of God. In a very real sense, God was in his Temple, and in a very real sense, God was in his Son. The glory of God filled them both, and the glory of God was manifested in both.

When the Tabernacle of Moses was completed, the Torah says, “Then the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle. Moses could not enter the Tent of Meeting because the cloud had settled upon it, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle” (Exod. 40:34–35). When the Temple of Solomon was completed, the Scripture says, “When Solomon finished praying, fire came down from heaven and consumed the burnt offering and the sacrifices, and the glory of the LORD filled the temple. The priests could not enter the temple of the LORD because the glory of the LORD filled it” (2 Chron. 7:1–2). And when Jesus the Messiah walked the earth, John records, “We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth” (1:14). [Brown, M. L. (2000). Answering Jewish objections to Jesus, Volume 2: Theological objections (22–24). Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books.]



As I mentioned at first, the theology of how this divine-human intersection occurred is complicated at best and incomprehensible at worst, but the early Church--in keeping with its tenacious commitment to monotheism --was helped by the Jewish concepts of memra/word, Temple/tabernacle, and shekinah/dwelling. Even as they struggled to find a way to describe the relationship between God the Father and the Son of God, they did not actually see a conflict--approaching it from a Jewish (and not pagan polytheistic) perspective:

The first Christians--all Jewish--worshipped Jesus because of His identification with God the Father, not because He participated in our humanity too. The early church debated how this could occur often and feverishly, but in the end of the day our understanding is that Christ is the incarnation (en-flesh-ment) of God's presence, not simply a human in which God dwelt:

"Finally, the worship of Jesus again played a part as a christological principle in the christological debate which led to the Council of Chalcedon. It was the principle continually invoked by the Alexandrians, especially Cyril, against an extreme Antiochene Christology. If Jesus Christ is a man indwelt by God, a human subject alongside a divine subject in a relationship of grace, then the worship of Jesus is the worship of a man alongside the Logos (see Cyr. Nest. 2; and the 8th of the Twelve Anathemas in Cyr. Nest. 3, later adopted, in expanded form, as the 9th anathema of the Second Council of Constantinople in 553). Only if Jesus is the divine Logos incarnate is the worship of Jesus not idolatry but the worship of God incarnate. So the Council of Ephesus (431) decided. [Freedman, D. N. (1996). Vol. 3: The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary (819). New York: Doubleday.]


This, of course, is what the followers of Jesus/Yeshua experienced--God's presence living in a human body. Worship of Jesus was worship of Israel's God--there was really no distinction between the two, at the practical level of our human experience:

"How could Jewish monotheism accommodate the worship of Jesus? It seems clear, from what we know of popular Christianity in the first three centuries, that for most Christians this was not a real problem. Worship of Jesus was worship of God. Jesus was not an alternative, competitive object of worship alongside the Father. His worship was included within the worship of the One God. In this way popular Christianity combined the exclusive monotheism of its parent religion with the worship of Jesus that the central datum of Christian faith and experience—the divine function of Jesus—required. However, in order to maintain and safeguard this position, it was necessary for reflective theology to reach a doctrinal understanding of the being of God and the being of Christ which could do justice to the two propositions: that only God may be worshipped, and that Jesus is such that he must be worshipped. The search for such an understanding, within the intellectual context of the time, occupied Christian thinkers for the whole of the patristic period. The worship of Jesus was a major factor determining the result. By means of a necessary oversimplification, we can identify two important trends in ante-Nicene Christianity’s reflection on the relation of Jesus to God. One trend remained close to the worshipping life of the church and to Jewish monotheism; it reflects very faithfully the evidence just surveyed for the worship of Jesus and for the retention, in Christian witness, of exclusive monotheistic worship against the polytheistic worship of paganism. It is easy to see how this combination might lead in the direction of modalism, in which the distinction between the Father and the Son was simply denied. As we have already remarked in connection with the apocryphal Acts, by no means everything that, taken in isolation, sounds modalistic really is. But the danger was present. If only God may be worshipped and if Jesus may be worshipped, then the conclusion could be drawn that there can be no real distinction between God the Father and God as incarnate in Jesus. … Such a proposition was not likely to succeed in the long run. It neglected too much in the witness of the Bible and the tradition to the personal distinction between Jesus and his Father, and while doing justice to the worship of Jesus, abolished his mediatorial role, which was equally strong in the tradition, not least in the liturgy. But it is easy to see why it made an immediate appeal and was at first tolerated by the early 3d-century bishops of Rome.. [Freedman, D. N. (1996). Vol. 3: The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary (817–818). New York: Doubleday.]

"As we have seen, the worship of Jesus was central to the character of early Christianity throughout the early centuries, beginning in the early Palestinian Christian movement. At the same time as a worshipping response to Jesus was integral to Christian faith, the early church also clung tenaciously to the Jewish understanding of monotheism, according to which belief in the one God was defined in religious practice by the exclusive worship of the one God. In time it became clear that the practice of the worship of Jesus in the context of Jewish monotheism constituted both a christological principle - that Jesus is such that he can be worshipped - and a theological (Trinitarian) principle - that God is such that Jesus can be worshipped. These were the principles that governed the development of the Nicene and Chalcedonian dogmas, and they constitute the fundamental continuity of these dogmas with the faith of the first Christians in the God and Father of the Lord Jesus Christ." [NT:JAGI:151]

"In God Crucified [God Crucified: Monotheism and Christology in the New Testament, Paternoster/ Eerdmans:1998], I take current scholarly discussion about the nature of Jewish monotheism in the Second Temple period and attempts to find Jewish precedents for early Christology as my starting points, and argue that recently popular trends to find a model for Christology in semi-divine intermediary figures in early Judaism are largely mistaken. Working with the key category of the identity of the God of Israel - which appropriately focuses on who God is rather than what divinity is - I show that early Judaism had clear and consistent ways of characterizing the unique identity of the one God and, thus, distinguishing the one God absolutely from all other reality. When New Testament Christology is read with this Jewish theological context in mind, it becomes clear that, from the earliest post-Easter beginnings of Christology onwards, early Christians included Jesus, precisely and unambiguously, within the unique identity of the one God of Israel. They did so by including Jesus in the unique, defining characteristics by which Jewish monotheism identified God as unique. They did not have to break with Jewish monotheism in order to do this, since monotheism, as Second Temple Judaism understood it, was structurally open to the development of the christological monotheism that we find in the New Testament texts. … The earliest Christology was already the highest Christology. I call it a Christology of divine identity, proposing this as a way beyond the standard distinction between 'functional' and 'ontic' Christology, a distinction which does not correspond to early Jewish thinking about God and has, therefore, seriously distorted our understanding of New Testament Christology. When we think in terms of divine identity, rather than divine essence or nature, which are not the primary categories for Jewish theology, we can see that the so-called divine functions which Jesus exercises are intrinsic to who God is. This Christology of divine identity is not a mere stage on the way to the patristic development of ontological Christology in the context of a Trinitarian theology. It is already a fully divine Christology, maintaining that Jesus Christ is intrinsic to the unique and eternal identity of God. [NT:JAGI, ix-x]


The gospel of John in the New Testament--written by a Palestinian Jewish Christian--shows us some of the elements in the life of Jesus that made such an impression upon His Jewish followers, and shows us some of the ways in which they understood this data--in light of their (and His) explicit commitment to monotheism and anti-idolatry stances. In a section entitled "Christ-devotion and exclusivist Jewish monotheism", the work of Hurtado is highlighted and a summary of the data from John's Gospel is given [NT:FSS, 41-43]:

"In his work Lord Jesus Christ, Larry Hurtado argues three basic interrelated theses: (1) 'devotion to Jesus emerges phenomenally early in circles of his followers, and cannot be restricted to a secondary stage of religious development or explained as the product of extraneous forces'; (2) 'devotion to Jesus was exhibited in an unparalleled intensity and diversity of expression, for which we have no true analogy in the religious environment of the time'; and (3) 'this intense devotion to Jesus, which includes reverencing him as divine, was offered and articulated characteristically within a firm stance of exclusivist monotheism, particularly in the circles of early Christians that . . . helped to establish what became mainstream . . . Christianity'.

"According to Hurtado, 'the exclusivist monotheism of ancient Judaism is the crucial religious context in which to view early Christ-devotion', and this monotheism helped shape Christ-devotion 'especially in those Christian circles concerned to maintain a fidelity to the biblical tradition of the one God'. Central to this exclusive monotheism is a sharp distinction between legitimate and illegitimate recipients of worship: 'Jesus is not reverenced as another deity of any independent origin or significance; instead, his divine significance is characteristically expressed in terms of his relationship to the one God.' Hence Jesus-devotion was binitarian (worshipping both God and Jesus), but not ditheistic.

"John's claim that Jesus is 'Christ' and 'Son of God' amounts to more than asserting that Jesus is Israel's rightful king. Rather, these designations express the belief that Jesus was also divine and of heavenly origin. Other than in the Synoptics, where the charge of blasphemy surfaces only at the trial of Jesus, in John's Gospel Jesus is charged with blasphemy throughout his ministry (cf. 5:18; 8:59; 10:31-33). John's adaptation of the Isaianic 'I am' formula and of the 'glory' and 'lifted up' motifs also intimately associate Jesus with God in a way unparalleled by any other Jewish tradition of the period. Remarkably, Jesus is given 'glory' by God (e.g. 17:5, 24) despite the fact that God does not share his glory with another (Isa. 42:8; 48:11).

"On the basis of the identification of Jesus with Isaiah's suffering Servant, which is doubtless grounded in Jesus' own self-understanding (e.g. Luke 4:18), John read Isaiah 40-55 as referring, not to one, but to two divine figures, God on the one hand and the suffering Servant on the other. In Isaiah, John found warrant for seeing Jesus as a figure properly identified with the 'I am' of Isaiah and the exodus (cf. Exod. 3:14) and sharing the glory of God as the one who bore the transgressions of many and who was 'lifted up' and exalted by God. Indeed, the Gospel's portrayal of Jesus as the Word sent by God, which, once it has accomplished its purpose, returns to the one who sent it, derives directly from Isaiah 55:11.

"Other startling attributions of divinity in John's Gospel are entailed by its emphasis on Jesus being given God's name (e.g. 17:11-12), the requirement of believing in Jesus' name (e.g. 1:12) and by the frequent references to prayer being rendered in Jesus' name (e.g. 14:13-14). At the same time, Jesus is portrayed by John as both obedient to the Father and yet equal to him (compare 14:28 with 10:30); and as both human and divine (compare 4:9 or 11:35 with 8:58 or 17:5). Jesus is a historical, earthly, human figure who is primarily perceived by his contemporaries as a rabbi, a Jewish religious teacher, though, at the same time, he is also the Son of God.

"Jesus' humanity (his 'flesh', 1:14) is required particularly for the efficacy of his redemptive cross-death (e.g. 6:51—58). Significantly, the fourth evangelist bears witness to Jesus' full humanity at the cross (19:34-35). Jesus is also shown to be endowed with the Spirit (1:32— 33; 3:34) and as performing a series of startling signs confirming his messianic identity (e.g. 2:11). The Spirit's role as 'other helping presence' and as sent by both God and Jesus ties him intricately to Jesus the Son. The triunity of Father, Son and Spirit forms the paradigm and basis for the love and unity among Jesus' followers and for their mission to the world as they re-present his message and follow their Lord (20:21; cf. 17:18).


Again, all of this was experienced and articulated by Jews of the 1st century--and not particularly 'innovative' ones at that! But they were honest to the data of the earthly life of Jesus and were persuaded further by the post-resurrection experiences of the Risen and Glorified Jesus:

"We have noted that the binitarian cultic devotion of early Christianity was a unique and completely remarkable innovation in comparison with all else that we know of Jewish religious traditional practices of the time. This innovation did not, however, emerge in slow stages but seems already robustly underway and taken for granted in the letters of Paul, which date from scarcely more than twenty years into the Christian movement. Moreover, the innovation seems to have emerged among Jewish Christians — not later under the imagined influence of pagan converts less sensitive to the exclusivist monotheistic scruples of Jewish tradition. In light of all this, again, the most reasonable view is that those who initiated this innovation in cultic practice must have done so under a profound sense of divine mandate. I see no evidence that any other Jewish religious movement of the period took any equivalent step in their devotional practice. There is no evidence of Jewish experimentation with cultic practices comparable to those we find reflected in the earliest New Testament writings. … To return to the key question, under what circumstances, then, could devout people from the ancient Jewish tradition have come to believe that God wished them to offer such cultic reverence to Jesus and, thus, to initiate this major innovation in traditional Jewish cultic practice? On the basis of the New Testament evidence we have surveyed, and on the basis of the studies of the connections between religious innovations and revelatory experiences summarized earlier, I submit that the most likely explanation is as follows. Within the early Christian circles of the first few years (perhaps even the first few weeks), individuals had powerful revelatory experiences that they understood to be encounters with the glorified Jesus. Some also had experiences that they took to be visions of the exalted Jesus in heavenly glory, being reverenced in cultic actions by the transcendent beings traditionally identified as charged with fulfilling the heavenly liturgy (e.g., angels, the "living creatures," and so on). Some received prophetic inspirations to announce the exaltation of Jesus to God's right hand and to summon the elect in God's name to register in cultic actions their acceptance of God's will that Jesus be reverenced. Through such revelatory experiences, Christological convictions and corresponding cultic practices were born that amounted to a unique "mutation" in what was acceptable Jewish monotheistic devotional practice of the Greco-Roman period." [HI:HOED, 202f]


So, both the earliest Jewish-only, earliest Jewish-mostly, and then earliest Gentile-mostly Christians did NOT worship the humanity/body/flesh of Jesus. Rather, they (as we do today) worship God who 'dwelt' in Christ, and in so doing 'walked among us'.

……………………… ………………………

Next, on the immateriality of God and the inadequacy of images to represent Him, let's start with a long statement by Jewish scholar Jacob Neusner, on 'Idolatry in Judaism', and make some notes:

"The worship of a physical representation of a deity was a central aspect of Mesopotamian and Egyptian religions in the period of the emergence of the religion of Israel, detailed in the Hebrew Scriptures. In light of the prevailing practices of the peoples around them, practices that we refer to as idolatry, the official religion of the Israelites was striking. In contrast to those religions, the Israelite doctrine took as its fundamental precept the prohibition against creating and worshipping any representation of the Israelites’ own God, let alone of the gods of other peoples. Exod. 20:4–5 makes this point clear:

You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them or serve them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me.

"The heart of the covenant between God and the people of Israel was the exclusive relationship between these two parties. God took Israel alone as his people and, in recognition of this exclusive bond, the Israelites were obligated to worship God alone. In the setting of the covenant, the prohibition against worship of other gods meant more than that the Israelites could not create images consciously conceived to be deities. Rather, insofar as any icon might be thought to represent a god, the people of Israel were prohibited from making images or likenesses of anything.

"The Israelites’ comprehension of God as invisible derives from the fact that God almost always appears to the people without physical form. The implication of this, as Deut. 4:12–18 makes clear, is that God cannot accurately be depicted by an icon:

Then the Lord spoke to you out of the midst of the fire; you heard the sound of words, but saw no form; there was only a voice. And he declared to you his covenant, which he commanded you to perform, that is, the ten commandments; and he wrote them upon two tables of stone. And the Lord commanded me at that time to teach you statutes and ordinances, that you might do them in the land which you are going over to possess. Therefore take good heed to yourselves. Since you saw no form on the day that the Lord spoke to you at Horeb out of the midst of the fire, beware lest you act corruptly by making a graven image for yourselves, in the form of any figure, the likeness of male or female, the likeness of any beast that is on the earth, the likeness of any winged bird that flies in the air, the likeness of anything that creeps on the ground, the likeness of any fish that is in the water under the earth.

"The point is not that God may not, on occasion, be manifest in a visible image. To the contrary, Scripture itself on occasion describes God as taking a physical form. At Exod. 33:20–23, for instance, when Moses demands to be allowed to see God, he is shown God’s back. God has a face, but Moses may not see it, since “man shall not see me and live.” Accordingly God instructs Moses:

Behold, there is a place by me where you shall stand upon the rock; and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by; then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen.


"Similarly, at Exod. 24:10–11 the elders of Israel have the opportunity to look upon God:

[A]nd they saw the God of Israel; and there was under his feet as it were a pavement of sapphire stone, like the very heaven for clearness. And he did not lay his hand on the chief men of the people of Israel; they beheld God, and ate and drank.


"Scripture’s point in prohibiting icons accordingly is not that God does not have or might never take a corporeal form. Rather, the prohibition against the creation and worship of images is based upon the fact that God has chosen to make himself manifest to the people of Israel only through verbal revelation. For this reason, the people are to conceive of and worship their deity without the use of any image. But in stating this requirement, even the Bible itself recognizes the contrast between the people’s experience and that of Moses. Moses sees and speaks to God directly. All others, including other prophets, do not have this opportunity. The point is explicit at Num. 12:6–8, where God questions how anyone among the people of Israel can challenge Moses’ authority:

Hear my words: If there is a prophet among you, I the Lord make myself known to him in a vision, I speak with him in a dream. Not so with my servant Moses; he is entrusted with all my house. With him I speak mouth to mouth, clearly, and not in dark speech; and he beholds the form of the Lord. Why then were you not afraid to speak against my servant Moses?


"The point again is not that God has no physical image or does not, at least on occasion, assume a corporeal form. Rather, it is that Moses alone has been allowed to see this image and so is different from all other Israelite prophets, let alone from all other Israelites. To all people other than Moses, God makes himself known in a vision or dream but not in a material image.

"The people’s experience at Sinai of a God who speaks but is not seen is paradigmatic of the way in which God was always to be known to the people: through a revelation in words rather than in a corporeal form or image. The logical development of this conception that God does not appear in a physical image appears at Is. 40:18–25. Here we are told not simply that God should not be depicted with an image but, more than this, that God is so great and incomparable that he cannot be depicted, insofar as no image can satisfactorily portray him:

To whom then will you liken God, or what likeness compare with him? The idol! a workman casts it, and a goldsmith overlays it with gold, and casts for it silver chains. He who is impoverished chooses for an offering wood that will not rot; he seeks out a skillful craftsman to set up an image that will not move. Have you not known? Have you not heard? Has it not been told you from the beginning? Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth? It is he who sits above the circle of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers; who stretches out the heavens like a curtain, and spreads them like a tent to dwell in; who brings princes to nought, and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing. Scarcely are they planted, scarcely sown, scarcely has their stem taken root in the earth, when he blows upon them, and they wither, and the tempest carries them off like stubble. To whom then will you compare me, that I should be like him? says the Holy One.


"From the ideology of Exodus, which holds that God may not be depicted graphically because God has chosen to appear to the Israelites without corporeal form, we move to the more developed prophetic ideology, which holds that God is incomparable and therefore cannot adequately be depicted. The result is that Israelites are forbidden not only from engaging in idolatry, that is, in the worship of foreign gods. They are, rather, also prohibited from iconolatry, that is, the use of images even in the worship of their own God.

"One result of its view that God cannot be accurately depicted and so is to be experienced only through verbal revelation is that Israelite religion comes to express contempt for all idols and their worship. Among many such passages, this perspective is explicit at Jer. 10:2–5:

Thus says the Lord: “Learn not the way of the nations, nor be dismayed at the signs of the heavens because the nations are dismayed at them, for the customs of the peoples are false. A tree from the forest is cut down, and worked with an ax by the hands of a craftsman. Men deck it with silver and gold; they fasten it with hammer and nails so that it cannot move. Their idols are like scarecrows in a cucumber field, and they cannot speak; they have to be carried, for they cannot walk. Be not afraid of them, for they cannot do evil, neither is it in them to do good.”


"In passages such as this, the Israelite attitude towards images of gods reaches its logical conclusion. The point is not simply that Israelites are forbidden from worshipping idols, though, of course, they are. More important, they are to recognize that such images are not deities at all but only the products of human hands. Unlike the Israelite God, they have no power either to hurt or to help those who worship them. This means that idol worship is not simply a violation of the covenant with God. Rather, since idols are powerless, worshipping them is folly. [Neusner, J., Neusner, J., Avery-Peck, A. J., Green, W. S., & Museum of Jewish Heritage (New York, N. Y. (2000). Vol. 1–5: The encyclopedia of Judaism (435–2153). Brill.]


A couple of quick observations on Neusner's article here:



To these points by Neusner, we might also add that:



Now, when we turn to Jesus and the early church, we see continuity with this--and even a tighter delineation of God's uniqueness.


Jesus/Yeshua, of course, was a monotheist and pointed out in one of his debates with his critics that they had never seen the form of God:

I can do nothing on my own. As I hear, I judge, and my judgment is just, because I seek not my own will but the will of him who sent me. 31 If I alone bear witness about myself, my testimony is not deemed true. 32 There is another who bears witness about me, and I know that the testimony that he bears about me is true. 33 You sent to John, and he has borne witness to the truth. 34 Not that the testimony that I receive is from man, but I say these things so that you may be saved. 35 He was a burning and shining lamp, and you were willing to rejoice for a while in his light. 36 But the testimony that I have is greater than that of John. For the works that the Father has given me to accomplish, the very works that I am doing, bear witness about me that the Father has sent me. 37 And the Father who sent me has himself borne witness about me. His voice you have never heard, his form you have never seen, 38 and you do not have his word abiding in you, for you do not believe the one whom he has sent. 39 You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, 40 yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life. 41 I do not receive glory from people. 42 But I know that you do not have the love of God within you. 43 I have come in my Father’s name, and you do not receive me. If another comes in his own name, you will receive him. 44 How can you believe, when you receive glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the only God? 45 Do not think that I will accuse you to the Father. There is one who accuses you: Moses, on whom you have set your hope. 46 For if you believed Moses, you would believe me; for he wrote of me. 47 But if you do not believe his writings, how will you believe my words? [Jn 5:30–47]


Jesus and all of the authors of the New Testament writings were good, Torah-observant Jews (except the gentile Luke, of course). They all affirmed biblical monotheism:

Jesus (Mark 12.28ff): “One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?” “The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.' The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.” “Well said, teacher,” the man replied. “You are right in saying that God is one and there is no other but him. To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.” When Jesus saw that he had answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” And from then on no one dared ask him any more questions.

James (James 2.19): “You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.

Paul (1 Cor 8.4ff): “So then, about eating food sacrificed to idols: We know that an idol is nothing at all in the world and that there is no God but one. For even if there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth (as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”), yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live.”

Paul (1 Tim 2.3f): “This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. For there is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all men—the testimony given in its proper time.


And God's immateriality is stated simply by Jesus/Yeshua and presumed by other Jewish authors of the New Testament:

Jesus speaking to the Samaritan woman in John 4.22ff: Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe Me, an hour is coming when neither in this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But an hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for such people the Father seeks to be His worshipers. God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.”

"God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth” carries one of the four descriptions of God found in the New Testament. The other three are “God is light” (1 John 1:5), “God is love” (1 John 4:8, 16), and “God is a consuming fire” (Heb 12:29). Jesus was endeavoring to convey to the woman that God cannot be confined to one place nor conceived of as a material being. He cannot be represented adequately by an abstract concept, which is intrinsically impersonal, nor can any idol depict his likeness since he is not material. Only “the Word become flesh” could represent him adequately.[EBC]


And, unlike the Tanach/OT (with the possible exception of Job 9.11), the New Testament explicitly affirms that God is invisible (at a 'practical' level, though). The Tanach/OT only affirms that no man-made representation of God would be 'adequate' to represent the glorious God. As noted above, Neuser pointed this out:

"The logical development of this conception that God does not appear in a physical image appears at Is. 40:18–25. Here we are told not simply that God should not be depicted with an image but, more than this, that God is so great and incomparable that he cannot be depicted, insofar as no image can satisfactorily portray him." [ Neusner, J., Neusner, J., Avery-Peck, A. J., Green, W. S., & Museum of Jewish Heritage (New York, N. Y. (2000). Vol. 1–5: The encyclopedia of Judaism (435–2153). Brill.]

"Although the assumption that God cannot be seen, and that it is unsafe to attempt to see him, is pervasive in Scripture (e.g., Exod 33:18–23; Deut 4:12; Ps 97:2; cf. Jos., Ant. 4.346), God is never described in the LXX as ὁ ἀόρατος, “the invisible One.” In educated circles in Judaism and early Christianity, however, the adjective ἀόρατος, “invisible,” was broadly applied to God as one of his attributes (e.g., Philo, On Abraham 183; cf. Rom 1:20; Col 1:15; 1 Tim 1:17); Philo, for example, uses it more than a hundred times. [WBC, at Heb 11.27]


But in the New Testament, the Apostle Paul/Rabbi Saul of Tarsus affirms that the Only God is also invisible--as implied by your Orthodox friend's use of the word immaterial:

Paul's doxologies of God are filled with rich biblical content. One of these passages uses the 'not seen/cannot see' biblical terminology and another one of these actually uses the 'invisible' word:

The first of these is in the First Letter to Timothy, 6:15-16:

[T]he blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords, 16 who alone has immortality, who dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see. To him be honor and eternal dominion. Amen.

"The last part of v. 15 and all of v. 16 form a doxology, such as we often find in Paul’s Epistles (cf. 1:17; 2 Tim 4:18). Much of the language is derived from the OT. God is first described as “the blessed and only Ruler.” The last word is dynastēs (cf. “dynasty”). Elsewhere in the NT it is found only in Luke 1:52 (“rulers”) and Acts 8:27 (“important official”). BAG translates it here as “Sovereign.” It indicates a “possessor of power” (Cremer, Lexicon, p. 221). The next two titles, “King of kings and Lord of lords,” are applied to Christ twice in Revelation (17:14; 19:16). They are used for God in the OT (Dan 4:34, LXX; cf. Deut 10:17; Ps 136:3). God alone is “immortal”—literally, “the only one having immortality” (athanasia, only here and 1 Cor 15:53, 54). The Greek word comes from a-negative and thanatos, “death.” So it means “not subject to death.” … The idea of immortality is not clearly expressed in the OT. But the NT teaching is that God alone has inherent immortality; ours is derived from him. It is in the resurrection that the true believer receives an immortal body (1 Cor 15:53), so that the whole man, body and soul, becomes immortal. … We are next told that God lives in light “unapproachable” (aprositon, only here in the NT). Philo uses this adjective for Mount Sinai when it was covered with God’s glory (de Vita Mosis iii.2). Josephus, like Paul, applies it to God (Antiq. iii.5.1). The declaration is added here that no person has ever seen God or can see him. This truth is stated in the OT (Exod 33:20) and repeated in the New (John 1:18). … The doxology ends with the ascription: “To him be honor and might forever. Amen.”. [Earle, R. (1981). 1 Timothy. In F. E. Gaebelein (Ed.), The Expositor's Bible Commentary, Volume 11: Ephesians through Philemon (F. E. Gaebelein, Ed.) (387). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House.]


And the Greek word aoratou ('invisible') is used of God earlier in that letter, in 1:17:

To the King of ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.

"This contemplation of God’s grace as seen in Paul’s case prompted him to one of his typical doxologies. It is filled with awe and adoration of the Lord. King eternal (lit., “King of the Ages”) emphasizes God’s sovereignty over all the ebb and flow of human history. Immortal and invisible speak of two of the central attributes of God: His eternality and His spiritual essence. The only God emphasizes His uniqueness in a typical Jewish monotheistic fashion. To this God alone must all honor and glory be ascribed, eternally. Amen (cf. 6:16). [BKC at 1 Ti 1:17]


The anonymous author of the Book of Hebrews connects the endurance of Moses with the 'invisible' (aorato) God:

By faith he [Moses] left Egypt, not being afraid of the anger of the king, for he endured as seeing him who is invisible. (Heb 11:27).

"As for Moses’ endurance, “seeing the Invisible One,” this need not be taken as a specific allusion to the burning bush, but to the fact that Moses paid more attention to the invisible King of kings than to the king of Egypt. If faith is “a conviction regarding things not seen,” it is first and foremost a conviction regarding the unseen God, as has been emphasized already in the affirmation that he who comes to God must believe that he is (v. 6). Our author probably means that Moses’ lifelong vision of God was the secret of his faith and perseverance. Philo describes Moses as the 'beholder of that world of nature which cannot be seen,' [Change of Names 7 ] by contrast with Pharaoh, who 'did not acknowledge any deity that could be discerned by the mind alone, or any apart from those that could be seen.' [Life of Moses 1.88]” [NICOT]


Another passage is Colossians 1:15 -- which we will look at later -- which uses the 'invisible' word in describing God.


We should note, however, that the biblical witness of the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament is not necessarily of an 'absolute invisibility' but of a 'practical invisibility', as noted in the commentaries:

"Aoratos is usually translated as “invisible.” But the verbal adjective in the biblical Greek not only designates a possibility or impossibility, but is also used in a factual and pragmatic sense: the agnostos theos in Acts 17:23 is the “unknown God,” not the “unrecognizable” one; as also the aniptoi cheires (Matt 15:20) are the “unwashed hands,” not the “unwashable” ones. It is recommendable in Col 1:15 to translate aoratos in this pragmatic sense. This corresponds to the OT usage because there is no Hebrew equivalent of aoratos with the meaning of “invisible.” According to the proclamation of the OT, God is not invisible [footnote says "Ex 3:6; 24:9–11; Isa 6:5; com. Judg 6:22f.; 13:22; and others."]; it is simply not within the capacity of human beings to see Yahweh. And without his protection, sight of Yahweh is feared to result in the imminent death of the human who had dared to see him [footnote says: "Ex 33:18ff.; comp. Gen 16:13; 32:30f.; Ex 19:21, 24; Lev 16:2; Num 4:20; Judg 6:22f.; 13:22"]. We find this same anxiety in the rabbinic literature; where the inability of man to see God is compared to his inability to look at the sun, for example [footnote says: "In a declaration by R. Jehoshua b. Chananja (about 90 C.E.)"] It is unlikely that Paul fostered different notions and cannot be demonstrated. In 1 Cor 13:12, he speaks of a “time” when we will no longer look as though through a mirror, but rather “from face to face.” Obviously, he does not presuppose an “invisible God.” He also speaks of an “eschatological” vision of God at the end of time, although only in a few places. [Barth, M., Blanke, H., & Beck, A. B. (2008). Colossians: A new translation with introduction and commentary (194–196). New Haven; London: Yale University Press.]


The New Testament authors thus held to the Jewish belief in the immateriality of the one God and even went further in describing Him as 'invisible' to mortal humans.

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Thirdly, on the uses of images in worship spaces (e.g. churches, synagogues, Temple) we will trace the issue of form/images from Biblical Judaism through to the early church. The early church maintained a strong anti-idolatry stance (and even anti-image stance at first), so we will need to see how the Messiah fit into its theological 'version' of Biblical Judaism.

Now, when we turn to the actual/historical worship settings in the biblical and post-biblical Jewish world (to see how the 2nd Commandment injunction against images was understood and/or carried out by Israel), we see that some images were allowed on-site, even though during the biblical period they were clearly NOT intended to be representations of God. [In post-biblical Judaism, this last point was not always clear as we shall see in the data from actual synagogues.]


Looking first at the biblical period, we see that in the tabernacle and temple precincts several images were actually mandated by God, specifically pictures and sculptures of the cherubim (which had human and animal features).

Then make the Ark’s cover—the place of atonement—from pure gold. It must be 45 inches long and 27 inches wide. 18 Then make two cherubim from hammered gold, and place them on the two ends of the atonement cover. 19 Mold the cherubim on each end of the atonement cover, making it all of one piece of gold. 20 The cherubim will face each other and look down on the atonement cover. With their wings spread above it, they will protect it. 21 Place inside the Ark the stone tablets inscribed with the terms of the covenant, which I will give to you. Then put the atonement cover on top of the Ark. 22 I will meet with you there and talk to you from above the atonement cover between the gold cherubim that hover over the Ark of the Covenant. From there I will give you my commands for the people of Israel. [New Living Translation. (2nd ed.) (Ex 25:17–22)]


Jewish sources describe the cherubim as composite creations (traditionally understood with the face of young child; Rashi on Suk 5b), and sometimes show sensitivity to this apparent exception to the use of images in YHWH's sacred space:

"25.17-22: The Ark cover. The Ark is to be covered with a lid made of gold hammered into the shape of two cherubs standing on a base. Cherubs are not the chubby, naked, winged boys known from medieval art, but winged composite creatures (cf. Ezek. 1.6-11; 10.14-22). Various types of such creatures are known from ancient Near Eastern art, such as winged sphinxes, with lions' bodies, eagles' wings, and human faces (sometimes with a second, animal face), and winged anthropoids with eagles' wings and birds' heads. Such creatures, frequently in pairs, often serve as protective spirits for kings, their palaces and thrones. Images of royal thrones with cherubs sculpted on their sides, several of which were found in Canaan and ancient Israel, are consistent with v. 22, which indicates that God would be present between the cherubs. They suggest that the Ark cover represented God's throne (cf. 1 Sam. 4.4; 2 Sam. 6.2; 2 Kings 19.15; Pss. 80.2; 99.1) and the Ark itself His footstool. The symbolism thus represents God as King and the Holy of Holies as the literal seat of divine government. This symbolism is consistent with the fact that architecturally the Tabernacle resembles a royal residence, particularly the royal tent in Egyptian military camps. It also is similar in structure to temples of surrounding nations. 20: Unlike the cherubs flanking royal thrones, and the free-standing cherubs in Solomon's Temple (1 Kings 6.23-27), the Tabernacle cherubs face each other. [Jewish Study Bible, OxfordUP]

"At either end of the kapporet a cherub was hammered out. The two cherubim faced each other, with their heads bent slightly downward. Their fully outstretched wings were turned upward, sheltering the main body of the lid and the Ark below it. Verse 22 as well as Numbers 7:89 make clear that the divine voice was thought to issue from the space above the lid and between the two cherubim. Therefore, just as the Ark may poetically be the footstool, the kapporet with its cherubim would support the invisible throne of God. This explains a frequently employed epithet of God as the One who is “Enthroned on the Cherubim.” [1 Sam. 4:4; 2 Sam. 6:2 = 1 Chron. 13:6; 2 Kings 19:15 = Isa. 37:16; Pss. 80:2; 99:1.] It is also said that “He mounted a cherub and flew.” [2 Sam. 22:11 = Ps. 18:11.] The outstretched wings of the cherubim also signify flight and mobility. … As noted above, the biblical references, in assuming prior familiarity with the cherubim, suggest a connection with an existing tradition. Closest is the Akkadian term kuribu, a protective genius fashioned for the entrances of temples and palaces in Mesopotamia. These creatures are composites of human, animal, and avian features. Hybrids of this kind have turned up over a wide area of the ancient Near East and the Mediterranean lands, including Canaan. Such representations are highly reminiscent of the description of the cherubim in Ezekiel 1:6–11 and 10:14–22. However, a comparison of the non-Israelite creatures with the cherubim of the Tabernacle and with Ezekiel 41:18–19 shows considerable variation in the artistic theme. … Whatever the original inspiration, the cherubim of the Tabernacle certainly communicate some concepts of God that are fundamental to the religion of Israel. As bearers of the celestial throne, they evoke belief in divine, transcendent sovereignty. Their permanent place above the Ark expresses God’s immanence—His enduring presence in the covenanted community of Israel. Their outstretched wings represent the idea of consummate mobility, that is, of God’s omnipresence. [Sarna, N. M. (1991). Exodus. The JPS Torah commentary (161). At Ex 25:17, Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society.]


"The Cherubim The text does not describe the two in­tended figures in detail; it merely states that they have wings and faces, and it does so in a manner which suggests that cherubim were well fixed in the reader's imagination. Most likely they were conceived as having the body of an animal, such as a bull or lion, and the head of a human. Figures like cherubim (karibu in Akkadian) were estab­lished in ancient Mesopotamian folklore as creatures that mediated between man and his god, bringing prayers before the deity and guarding holy places. The Egyptian sphinx seems to be of a similar order as the cherub; it had the body of a lion and a human face. In the Torah cherubim are said to guard the ark and the Garden of Eden from un­authorized intruders (Gen. 3.24). In Ezekiel's famous vision (Ezek. 1:5 ff.; 10:i ff.) they were creatures with four faces, of man, lion, ox, and eagle, similar to the four winds upon which God was poetically said to ride:

Mounted on a cherub, He flew, gliding on the wings of the wind. (Ps. 18:11)

The cherubim and the ark cover (kapporet) were of one piece, and the latter was de­scribed by Ezekiel as well as in I Chron. 28:18 as God's chariot (merkavah). Above this chariot Ezekiel saw the likeness of the divine throne and doubtlessly he meant by this that he saw the cherubim. So also elsewhere in the Bible are they conceived as His throne: "The Lord of Hosts is enthroned on the cherubim" (I Sam. 4:4). This then seems to have been their function on the cover of the ark: to symbolize both the empty throne of the unseen God, with the kapporet as His footstool, and at the same time their guard­ianship of the ark. Like human beings the cherubim look downward, averting their eyes from the Divine Presence, perhaps, as in Isaiah's vision of the seraphim (6:2), shielding them with their wings. The question how images of this kind could have had a place in an otherwise strictly imageless cult has often been asked and has not been satisfactorily answered. Apparently the cherubim belonged to an old mytho­logical tradition that could not be dislodged, and by hiding them away in a place totally inaccessible to the people at large the danger of their adoration was minimized, and in­deed the Bible makes no mention of such adoration ever having become a problem. [a footnote here contrasts this with the bronze serpent of Numbers.] One must therefore simply conclude that the cherubim were permitted or perhaps merely tolerated images, while all others were pro­hibited. With the destruction of the First Temple they disappeared and were not reconstructed when the Second Temple was built. Thereafter, Jewish law rejected even a hint of imagery that could conceivably lead to idol worship, inside or outside sacred settings. [The Torah--A Modern Commentary. WG Plaut (ed). Union of American Hebrew Congregations:1981; at Ex 25; but note that the statement about later Jewish avoidance of images will be contradicted by the archeological data presented below.]


In addition to these statues, cherubim were represented in 2D in engravings and in embroidery in the sacred precincts:

"From a graphic perspective, the biblical description of cherubim can be divided into two major groups: those that were two-dimensional, as they appeared woven into textiles, or in low relief; and those that were free-standing either as modeled, three-dimensional forms or as living, moving creatures. … The two-dimensional or low-relief images of cherubim were those found in the sacred structure of ancient Israel. In the tabernacle, the inner curtains and the veil that closed off the inner sanctum or holy of holies were adorned with cherubim (Exod 26:1, 31; 36:8, 35). These decorated fabrics, made of a woolen-linen mixture and crafted in special (ḥ̃šēb) workmanship, were part of the innermost and holiest part of the tabernacle complex. The Jerusalem temple, which was constructed of walls and not hangings, featured carved cherubim, covered with gold, on the corresponding elements: the sanctuary walls (1 Kgs 6:29; cf. 2 Chr 3:7 and Ezek 41:18–20) and on the doors separating the internal chambers (1 Kgs 7:32, 35; cf. Ezek 41:25). In addition, the temple had cherubim carved into panels that formed the base and part of the top of the stands for the lavers (1 Kgs 7:28, 36). … Three-dimensional cherubim were also part of the holiest elements of both tabernacle and temple. Two golden cherubim with wings extended were part of the covering of the ark, within the holy of holies of the tabernacle (Exod 25:18–22; 37:7–9). In the Jerusalem temple, two enormous olivewood cherubim, overlaid with gold, virtually filled the innermost chamber (1 Kgs 6:23–28) as a covering for the ark (1 Kgs 8:6–7). In both these instances, the cherubim apparently constituted a resting place, or throne, for God’s invisible presence or glory (e.g., 2 Kgs 19:15 = Isa 32:16; 1 Sam 4:4; 2 Sam 6:2). As part of the cultic furniture for God in the divine dwelling place on earth (see Haran 1978: 254–59), these cherubim are to be related to figures attested in several biblical texts which envisage God riding upon living composite beasts (e.g., Ps 18:10 = 2 Sam 22:11) or in which God’s glory rests upon the creatures (Ezekiel 10). Finally, the close connection between God and cherubim is present in their appearance as guardians of the garden of Eden (Gen 3:24). … The many variations of cherubim represented in the Bible—examples with one or more faces; with human, leonine, bovine, or aquiline faces; with two or four legs—correspond to various forms of composite beasts depicted in ANE art, particularly the art of Assyria (TWAT 4: 330–34). In ancient Israel and its contemporary world, cherubim were characterized by mobility, since they all had wings. By virtue of their combining features of different creatures or having more of such features than real animals or persons, they were unnatural. These characteristics made them apt symbols for divine presence, since deities moved where humans could not and were something other than either animals or humans. The cherubim of the Bible are hardly the round-faced infant cherubim known in Western art. [Freedman, D. N. (1996). Vol. 1: The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary (899–900). New York: Doubleday.]

"Winged creatures mentioned occasionally in Scripture (“cherubim” is the plural form of the Hebrew “cherub”). They belong to a supernatural created order along with the seraphim and angels. Some scholars have argued that the term “cherub” had its origin in the karibu (“intercessor”) of Akkadian mythological texts, commonly represented in Mesopotamian art as a griffin (a creature half lion and half eagle) or as a winged human. The sphinx also appears to go back to this concept. The biblical evidence, however, does not seem to support that identification. … The prophet Ezekiel described four “living creatures,” each with four faces and four wings (Ez 1:5–24); those creatures corresponded to cherubim (Ez 10:2–22). The splendor of Ezekiel’s vision was recaptured more modestly in his description of the king of Tyre, who in the midst of his own prosperity seemed to be playing the part of a towering or guardian cherub before being dispossessed (Ez 28:13–16). That passage has been interpreted by some as a description of Satan’s “fall from grace” after he had once been in the service of God as a ranking member of a high celestial order. … Despite Ezekiel’s elaborate visionary descriptions, it is difficult to be certain about the form in which cherubim appeared. Thus in Ezekiel 41:18 the cherubim that were to decorate Ezekiel’s ideal temple had only two faces, a man’s and a young lion’s, in contrast to the four-faced creatures of the earlier visions. The four faces of Ezekiel 1:10 were those of a man, a lion, an ox, and an eagle, whereas in Ezekiel 10:14 the cherub had its own face (“the face of the cherub”), along with the faces of a man, a lion, and an eagle. If the cherub’s face corresponded to that of an ox, that might account for the fact that cherubim in Near Eastern art were represented as four-footed creatures, though frequently different otherwise from biblical cherubim. In addition to their wings, the cherubim of Ezekiel’s vision had stiff, unbending legs and feet with soles like those of a calf (Ez 1:7). … That complex description has led scholars to try to identify cherubim in the statues and carvings of non-Israelite peoples. The throne of Ahiram, king of Byblos, was flanked by sphinxes, which some have judged to be cherubim. The sphinx, however, seems to have been a popular decorative motif, as evidenced by an ivory box from Megiddo and ivories from Samaria, Nimrud, and elsewhere. Other decorative creatures have various combinations of human and animal bodies, with wings generally prominent. None of them adequately represents the OT descriptions of cherubim. … The four living creatures of the Book of Revelation were similar to the cherubim of Ezekiel but lacked their whirling wheels (Rv 4:6–9). Subsequent references to the creatures in Revelation (5:6–14; 6:1–8; 7:1–11; 14:3; 15:7; 19:4) add nothing to the initial description. … The cherubim of Genesis 3:24 acted as guardians or custodians. Supernatural guardians seem to have been common in Near Eastern thought. In Ezekiel 10 the cherubim were also executors of divine judgment, spreading burning coals over a city (Ez 10:2, 7). … In early Israelite thought the cherubim stretched out their wings and provided God with a throne (1 Sm 4:4; 2 Sm 6:2; etc.). God spoke to Moses from such a throne on the cover of the ark of the covenant (Ex 25:22). In Ezekiel’s vision (Ez 1:26; 10:1) God was seated in a four-wheeled chariot moved by the cherubim and borne aloft by their wings. In Hebrew poetry God was portrayed as employing clouds for his chariot (Ps 104:3; cf. Is 19:1) or riding on a cherub in flight (2 Sm 22:11; Ps 18:10). The idea of cherubim furnishing a seat or platform for the invisible deity found expression in Near Eastern art, where the pagan gods stood on the backs of animals. … In Israel cherubim were carved on the covenantal ark (Ex 25:18–20; 37:7–9), and representations of them were also embroidered on the curtains of the tabernacle and the veil that screened the innermost sanctuary in which the ark rested. … The Most Holy Place of Solomon’s temple was adorned by two large representations of cherubim, made of olive wood and covered with gold leaf. When placed side by side with outstretched wings they spanned the entire width of the inner sanctuary. Smaller cherubim and palms were carved on the temple’s wooden panels and some of the doors, and were also represented on the sides of the laver stands (1 Kgs 7:29, 36). Cherubim alternating with palm trees formed part of the decor of Ezekiel’s visionary temple (Ez 41:17–20). [Elwell, W. A., & Beitzel, B. J. (1988). Baker encyclopedia of the Bible (428). Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House.]


This apparent exception to the use of images in sacred space is noteworthy--if only because it was under the explicit command of God and because the creature so described was supernatural (but composed of natural elements--we will return to this theme in a minute).


In addition to the cherubim, of course, are the additional animal figures used in Solomon's temple and buildings (i.e., the lions around his throne , the twelve oxen supporting the large basin in the Temple courtyard, and the calf on his throne) and both types of images were used in engraved panels for the bronze stands .

Then he made the sea of cast metal. It was round, ten cubits from brim to brim, and five cubits high, and a line of thirty cubits measured its circumference. 24 Under its brim were gourds, for ten cubits, compassing the sea all around. The gourds were in two rows, cast with it when it was cast. 25 It stood on twelve oxen, three facing north, three facing west, three facing south, and three facing east. The sea was set on them, and all their rear parts were inward. 26 Its thickness was a handbreadth, and its brim was made like the brim of a cup, like the flower of a lily. It held two thousand baths. 27 He also made the ten stands of bronze. Each stand was four cubits long, four cubits wide, and three cubits high. 28 This was the construction of the stands: they had panels, and the panels were set in the frames, 29 and on the panels that were set in the frames were lions, oxen, and cherubim. On the frames, both above and below the lions and oxen, there were wreaths of beveled work. 30 Moreover, each stand had four bronze wheels and axles of bronze, and at the four corners were supports for a basin. The supports were cast with wreaths at the side of each. 31 Its opening was within a crown that projected upward one cubit. Its opening was round, as a pedestal is made, a cubit and a half deep. At its opening there were carvings, and its panels were square, not round. 32 And the four wheels were underneath the panels. The axles of the wheels were of one piece with the stands, and the height of a wheel was a cubit and a half. 33 The wheels were made like a chariot wheel; their axles, their rims, their spokes, and their hubs were all cast. 34 There were four supports at the four corners of each stand. The supports were of one piece with the stands. 35 And on the top of the stand there was a round band half a cubit high; and on the top of the stand its stays and its panels were of one piece with it. 36 And on the surfaces of its stays and on its panels, he carved cherubim, lions, and palm trees, according to the space of each, with wreaths all around. 37 After this manner he made the ten stands. All of them were cast alike, of the same measure and the same form. (1 Ki 7:23–37)

The king also made a great ivory throne and overlaid it with the finest gold. 19 The throne had six steps, and at the back of the throne was a calf’s head, and on each side of the seat were armrests and two lions standing beside the armrests, 20 while twelve lions stood there, one on each end of a step on the six steps. The like of it was never made in any kingdom. (1 Ki 10:18–20).


To these we can add the Mosaic figure of the Brazen Serpent--a figure explicitly ordered to be created and used by God Himself (reminding us that--as in the case of the cherubim--that God has the authority to create all the images, icons, symbols, representations He pleases!). This figure was kept and later became a problem of idolatry within the Temple courtyard under Hezekiah (2 Kings 18.4):

"Then the LORD sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died. 7 And the people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned, for we have spoken against the LORD and against you. Pray to the LORD, that he take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. 8 And the LORD said to Moses, “Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.” 9 So Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on a pole. And if a serpent bit anyone, he would look at the bronze serpent and live. (Nu 21:6–9).

"seraph figure A winged snake similar to the winged Egyptian uraeus (cobra). Its image, engraved on a bronze bowl inscribed with a Hebrew name, was found in the excavation of the royal palace of Nineveh, dating to the end of the eighth century. It was believed that looking at it would generate its homeopathic healing. Yet the question needs to be asked: Why did not God simply remove the plague as He removed all the plagues of Egypt? The answer given by tradition is that He resorted to this means in order to test Israel’s obedience; only those who heeded His command to look at the snake would recover. This is precisely how Targum Jonathan understands it: “If he [the victim] directed his heart to the Name of the Memra’ of the Lord, he would live”; or as expressed in the Wisdom of Solomon (first half of the first century C.E.): “Only for a while were they thrown into disarray as a warning, possessing as they did a symbol of Your salvation to remind them of the commandment of Your law. For whoever turned towards it was saved not by the sight beheld, but through You, the savior of all” (Wisdom of Sol. 16:6–7). [Milgrom, J. (1990). Numbers. The JPS Torah commentary (174). Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society.]


We do not have any actual hard data about the decorations in the pre-Herodian temple of Zerubbabel , but since the visions of Ezekiel are roughly contemporaneous with it (and since cherubim featured in that future/visionary temple), there is no reason to doubt that internal decorative motifs were in keeping with the Mosaic Tabernacle, the Solomonic temple, and Ezekiel's future temple. However, the present of non-sanctioned images (judged as abominations) are described in Ezekiel's vision in Chapter 8:

And he brought me to the entrance of the court; I looked, and there was a hole in the wall. 8 Then he said to me, “Mortal, dig through the wall”; and when I dug through the wall, there was an entrance. 9 He said to me, “Go in, and see the vile abominations that they are committing here.” 10 So I went in and looked; there, portrayed on the wall all around, were all kinds of creeping things, and loathsome animals, and all the idols of the house of Israel. 11 Before them stood seventy of the elders of the house of Israel, with Jaazaniah son of Shaphan standing among them. Each had his censer in his hand, and the fragrant cloud of incense was ascending. 12 Then he said to me, “Mortal, have you seen what the elders of the house of Israel are doing in the dark, each in his room of images? For they say, ‘The LORD does not see us, the LORD has forsaken the land.’ ” 13 He said also to me, “You will see still greater abominations that they are committing.” (Eze 8:7–13).


Yet even with this background of abuse of images/icons, God could still prescribe Cherubim (with human and lion faces) for the visionary/future/ideal temple in Ezekiel:

The nave of the temple and the inner room and the outer vestibule 16 were paneled, and, all around, all three had windows with recessed frames. Facing the threshold the temple was paneled with wood all around, from the floor up to the windows (now the windows were covered), 17 to the space above the door, even to the inner room, and on the outside. And on all the walls all around in the inner room and the nave there was a pattern. 18 It was formed of cherubim and palm trees, a palm tree between cherub and cherub. Each cherub had two faces: 19 a human face turned toward the palm tree on the one side, and the face of a young lion turned toward the palm tree on the other side. They were carved on the whole temple all around; 20 from the floor to the area above the door, cherubim and palm trees were carved on the wall. (Eze 41:15–20).


The data on the Herodian temple's continuity with biblical architecture/art is mixed. There was a general anti-iconic movement which developed in the period immediately before, during the Hasmonean period and continuing on until the destruction of the Temple by the Romans, but Herod was also scrupulous in trying to follow the traditional design of the temple:

"Herod had an exalted view of his constituency. His building schemes, especially for the Temple, were geared towards three distinct groups whose support, respect, and admiration he sought. He saw himself as king of the Jews—not only the local traditional Palestinian Jews, but also the patrician Jews living both in Judea and in the Hellenistic Diaspora. He hoped to serve the concerns of the former group by upholding traditional Jewish religious practices and especially, in terms of his building projects, by restoring the Temple, which had suffered the ravages of the previous centuries of strife. In setting out to have a new building constructed, he was careful to adhere to authoritative specifications in the canonical texts. Thus he was limited in the size of the building he could construct. …Yet the standards of the Hellenistic Jews, living in cosmopolitan cities of the classical world such as Corinth, Alexandria, Antioch, and Rome, and accustomed to seeing sacred architecture on a more massive scale than that recorded for the First Temple, also had to be met. The same might be said for the third group in Herod’s purview: the Roman authorities upon whose favor his right to rule in Palestine depended. By making Jerusalem a spectacular metropolis carrying out its international business in the shadow of a shrine that legitimized the full political and economic range of the city’s activities, Herod would retain the favor of Rome. The scope of a much-enlarged Jerusalem and the classical tastes of the imperial power to the West both mandated a temple larger than those of comparable eastern cities. Just as David and Solomon planned, in accord with the international status of Jerusalem, a temple grander in size and decoration than those of the nations with which the Israelite empire was interacting, so too would Herod have to commission a building that would be preeminent in its day. The inherent tension between the size limitations of the canonical blueprint and the more massive standards of Hellenistic-Roman architecture was resolved by Herod and his architects with a bold plan. While the Temple itself would have to have the same dimensions as its predecessors, the Temple Mount was not restricted in its potential size. Herod would expand and raise the temple platform, thus creating an unparalleled and truly monumental temple precinct containing the sanctuary, courts, gates, a fortress (Antonia), approaches, porticoes, and subsidiary buildings. So incredible were the dimensions of this project, as recorded in Josephus and, with some variations, in Mishnah Middot, that many scholars suspected Josephus of gross exaggerations. … Although Herod did not tamper with the dimensions of the Temple proper, nor, it seems, with its internal furnishings, he did choose to outdo Solomon in golden embellishments of the building’s exterior and in the scale of the courtyard furnishings. The result was an awesome structure. According to Josephus, the outside of the Temple was adorned with so much gold that, when the sun shone upon it, it virtually blinded those who looked at it. The grandeur of the whole complex of courts, buildings, and porticoes led rabbinic sources to proclaim that “No one has seen a truly beautiful building unless he has seen the Temple” (Sukk. 51:2). … The task of building the Temple, its platform, and all its attendant structures began in the eighteenth year of Herod’s reign (20 B.C.E.). Elaborate preparations and planning preceded the actual work and the dismantling of the existing Second Temple. Careful not to offend the religious sensibilities of the local populace and their concerns about the purity and holiness of the site, he arranged for a large workforce (1,000 men, according to Josephus) of priests to supplement the much larger labor pool, estimated at tens of thousands of workers. The priests were specially trained in construction work and masonry so that they could carry out the work on the sacred areas where the general public could not tread. [Freedman, D. N. (1996). Vol. 6: The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary, s.v. "Temple, Jerusalem". New York: Doubleday.]


What we do NOT know from this is whether the Herodian temple was faithful to the Solomonic/biblical use of images of cherubim. We know there was a Veil separating the inner sanctum from the other, but we do not know if it had the Solomonic cherubim on it or not. Josephus is our most reliable and detailed witness to the details of this building, but he is silent on the issue--perhaps reflecting the 'embarrassment' of the strict 'no images allowed' persuasion:

"He [Josephus] is also keen to avoid any idea that the veil may have portrayed living creatures, contrary to the commandment of Exod. 20:4; Deut. 5:8. His account of the veil before the Holy of Holies in Solomon's Temple (Ant IV.72) is derived from 2 Chr. 3:14; Exod. 26:31, but carefully omits their reference to embroidered cherubim. Prominent in Solomon's Temple, the cherubim prove embarrassing for Josephus, who says that no one knew what they were like (Ant VIII. 73)." [HI:JTANS, 145]


In fact, Josephus sidesteps the cherubim-as-image issue (for both the Mosaic tabernacle and the Solomonic temple), but he cannot avoid the issue of the 12-oxen supporting the "Sea". He literally accuses Solomon of senility!

"The consistency of Josephus's approach led him to condemn even King Solomon. Regarding the brazen laver of the Temple and the decoration of Solomon's throne, Josephus wrote [Ant 8.194f]:

'As he advanced in age, and his reason became in time too feeble to oppose to these the memory of his own country's practices, he showed still greater disrespect for his own God and continued to honor those whom his wives had introduced. But even before this there had been an occasion on which he sinned and went astray in respect of the observance of the laws, namely when he made the images of the bronze bulls underneath the sea which he had set up as an offering, and those of the lions around his own throne, for in making them he committed an impious act.

"In Scripture, Solomon's throne and the brazen laver are reported with great pride and no tinge of a negative evaluation. For Josephus, however, the sin of illicit imagery is the ultimate offense of Solomon's old age. Significantly, in the Biblical account Solomon's sin was not iconographic, but rested in the construction of idolatrous high places for the Moabite god Chemosh and for Molech, the Ammonite god. Louis Feldman argues that Josephus used the charge of illicit imagery as a cover, protecting "the wisest of all men" from the far more abhorrent charge of out-and-out idolatry. [HI:AJGRW,80]


But post-biblical Judaism went way beyond these biblically-sanctioned images in its construction of synagogues in the ancient world. Synagogues have been found with all manner of images--including the Zodiac and representations of Tanach/OT theophanies.

We have very little archeological data about this issue during the Second Temple period, but we have extensive data on synagogue art beginning in the late 2nd century AD and throughout the Talmudic period.

There seems to be an anti-image sentiment in force until shortly after the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple. At that point, Jewish use of art, images, and 3D relief works proliferate wildly.


Consider some of the data:

"Astrology in the ancient synagogue. The rabbis’ ambivalence towards astrology—their knowledge of and participation in it even as they denied its relevance—belies the place of astrological figures as a central motif of the synagogue of the Talmudic period. The prevalence of the zodiac in synagogue art is described by Bernard Goldman in his discussion of the fifth or sixth century C.E. mosaic zodiac preserved in the Beth Alpha synagogue: "The badly preserved mosaic floor of the synagogue at Yafia contains an animal circle, similar to that of Beth Alpha, but it is not clear whether it represents the zodiac or the Twelve Tribes. The synagogue of ‘Ain Doug (Na’arah) contains an elaborately decorated mosaic floor with the wheel of the zodiac holding the center of the tripartite panel, much as at Beth Alpha; but, at ‘Ain Doug an interlocking pattern containing animal and floral vignettes replaces the Akedah. In 1930, another historiated synagogue mosaic containing the zodiac was uncovered on Mt. Carmel at the village of ‘Isfiya (‘Esfia). Also, some of the relief decoration from the synagogue at Beth She’arim may have composed a zodiac design. The most recently discovered zodiac floor mosaic is one near Tiberias that also repeats the Beth Alpha format but, in style, is far closer to its Classical art sources…. There are several other probable references to the zodiac in synagogue architectural decorations; for example it is found on a fragmentary carved screen from er-Rafid. There is no question but that future excavations will bring to light additional examples." The recurrence of the zodiac in synagogue after synagogue suggests its importance as more than a decorative or ornamental device. Rather, as the Talmudic sources make clear and as the continued appearance of the zodiac in later European Jewish art shows, the use of the zodiac in the synagogue of the Rabbinic period was consonant with its symbolic importance, an importance that extended from non-Jewish into Jewish metaphysics. In classical sources, the zodiac symbolized the heavens. Through the image of the zodiac, “The artist transformed the starry path into a canopy, dome, arch, and frame to express the cosmic dimensions of the icon and ritual it enclosed” (Goldman, p. 61). Expressing this meaning, the zodiac had a natural place as a focal point of Jewish worship and ritual, as a “symbol of the heavens and constellations under whose aegis the destinies of nations and of men were ordered” (p. 64). Prayers for divine protection, for God’s mercy and forgiveness from sin, for the coming of salvation appropriately were recited in a setting that depicted the divine and heavenly forces that could answer those prayers. Astrological symbols thus functioned in ancient synagogue not as mere ornamentation but as vivid representations of the Hellenized Jews’ perception of the cosmic order. At the center of the representation of the zodiac at Beth Alpha, as in the fourth century floor at Hamat Tiberias, and elsewhere, stood the sun-god Helios and his chariot. Despite the firm biblical, post-biblical, and Rabbinic literary traditions against the creation of images of what is on earth, let alone of foreign deities or of the invisible God of the Israelites, it seems almost certain that those who worshipped in these synagogues knew exactly what this portrayal of Helios symbolized. As E.R. Goodenough states, in their eyes this was “the divine charioteer of Hellenized Judaism, God himself,” the God at whom all prayer and supplication was aimed. The medium of astrology and the symbols of the zodiac thus portrayed for the common Jew of the Talmudic period the cosmic order and the deity who had created that order and, with it, the entire world. This was the true God who responded to human prayer, controlling and shaping in the manner that astrology describes all that happens on earth. [Neusner, J., Neusner, J., Avery-Peck, A. J., Green, W. S., & Museum of Jewish Heritage (New York, N. Y. (2000). Vol. 2: The encyclopedia of Judaism (842–843). Brill.]

"Art. In contrast to Second Temple–period art which was aniconic and devoid of any figurative designs, a major change occurred at the end of the 2d century and even more so during the 3d century when representational art began to flourish. It was at this time that the barriers within which Judaism protected itself against foreign influences were being shattered. During this period the Jews acquired some of the customs and decorative elements from surrounding cultures; despite the traditional prohibition of such art contained in the Second Commandment (Exod 20:4–5; Deut 5:8–9), Jews began to develop their own figurative and representational art, using pagan motifs, figures, and animals, both for synogogal and for funerary art. … Symbolic and figurative art became possible for several reasons. First, the attitude of the rabbis became more tolerant. Such changes, reflected in Talmudic literature, were the result of political, economic, and social circumstances (Urbach 1959). Second, the influence of the surrounding cultures, from which certain pagan and mythological motifs were taken, became much stronger. Third, Jewish literature, legends, and Midrashim began to influence artistic traditions. … Judaism had no tradition of figurative art, and consequently the Jews were influenced by Hellenistic figurative art, using contemporary pattern books as well as creating their own. The Jewish attitude that developed with respect to art was basically to regard it as decorative—something to add beauty and ornamentation to buildings. Even mythological scenes found their way into Jewish buildings (such as the House of Leontis) as did many other pagan motifs (e.g., funerary art of Beth Shearim and synagogal architectural decoration and pavements). Jews of this period were unafraid of idolatry, and indeed felt that they were allowed to depict religious subjects. Judaism seems to have been indifferent to pictures and did not ascribe to them any sanctity. Therefore, for example, there was no reason to prevent the depiction of representations on pavements which were trodden upon; furthermore, walking upon pavements with such depictions insured that no sanctity or sacred quality would be attached to the scenes. Such a depiction was not considered to be a “graven image” such as those prohibited by the law. This might have been the reason why even pagan elements such as the zodiac were used. Judaism instead attached much more importance to the written word; this may be inferred from the iconoclastic destruction of the Na˓aran synagogue pavement, in which the letters, however, were preserved, or from the synagogues at Rehov and En Gedi, where floors paved with long inscriptions were left untouched Biblical Scenes. Biblical themes on synagogue mosaics were selected from a relatively small number of familiar biblical stories: the Sacrifice of Isaac, Noah’s Ark, Daniel in the Lions’ Den, the Twelve Tribes, and King David. Noteworthy is the recurrence of biblical scenes in more than one synagogue mosaic pavement within Palestine and on mosaics and frescoes in the Diaspora: The Offering of Isaac at Beth ˒Alpha and Dura Europos; Noah’s Ark at Gerassa and Misis-Mopsuestia in Cilicia; Daniel in the Lions’ Den at Na˓aran and Susiya; and David (= Orpheus) at Gaza and Dura Europos, and with Goliath’s weapons at Marous. They were depicted in simple narratives, although some of the scenes as a whole may have had symbolic meanings. The scenes had in common the illustration of the theme of salvation and were associated with prayers offered in time of drought. The choice of themes was derived from the religiocultural climate of the period and meant to be a reminder of and reference to traditional historical events; there was no intention of using these themes for symbolic or didactic purposes, as suggested by some scholars (Goodenough 1953, 1: 253 ff.). [Freedman, D. N. (1996). Vol. 1: The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary (450–451) [s.v. Early Jewish Art and Architecture]. New York: Doubleday.]

"Synagogue art. The facades of some synagogues were lavishly decorated with geometric or floral carvings in relief, carvings in the round, sometimes of lions and eagles, incised designs, sometimes repeating what was carved in relief, or carved and incised inscriptions on lintels. The finest examples of such decoration are from Capernaum and Chorazin, both near the north and west shores of the Sea of Galilee. Lintels might be decorated with garlands, palms, palm fronds, flowers, nikes or genii, birds, and other artistic motifs. Usually the stones of the facade, though not necessarily all of the building, were very carefully chiseled to present a finished face to approaching worshippers. For example the facade of the synagogue at Gush Halav in Upper Galilee is very finely cut across the entire front and for an additional 2.6 m. around the southeast corner, that is, on the east side. The remainder of the building presents well-fitted and trimmed field stones to the worshipper but does not present ashlars. Floors of these prayer halls are about equally divided between those paved with stone slabs and those paved with mosaics. Suffice to say here that mosaics sometimes depict biblical scenes, but often also animals, the zodiac and four seasons, menorahs with a Holy Ark, and other such motifs . [ Neusner, J., Neusner, J., Avery-Peck, A. J., Green, W. S., & Museum of Jewish Heritage (New York, N. Y. (2000). Vol. 3: The encyclopedia of Judaism (1381–1382). Brill.]

CHORAZIN A Jewish town in Upper Galilee, 3 miles north of Capernaum, named with Bethsaida as one of the cities reproached by Jesus (Matt. 11:20–4) and in Jewish literature in connection with the supply of grain to the Temple for ritual use. Eusebius (Onom. 174, 23 ff.) knew it as a deserted site. The synagogue of Chorazin was discovered as early as 1869 in the survey of the Palestine Exploration Fund. It was excavated in 1905–7… The synagogue, of the Galilean type, is situated in the center of the town, at its highest point, in the midst of some large buildings. The building, of local black basalt, is about 70 feet by 50 feet and its walls are largely preserved. … The outer walls of the building were decorated with pilasters with Ionic bases and Corinthian capitals. Above the pilasters, and probably also along the walls of the upper story, were carved friezes. The decoration consists of rich floral designs encircling human and animal figures, among them men pressing grapes, a lion attacking a centaur, an animal suckling a cub, a lion devouring another animal and so on. Most of these images, except for a Medusa which was preserved intact, were damaged in antiquity, probably by Jewish iconoclasts. Among the finds in the synagogue was a basalt throne, decorated with a rosette on the back support. This is the ‘Throne of Moses’, which was used during the reading of the Torah. [Negev, A. (1996). The Archaeological encyclopedia of the Holy Land (3rd ed.). New York: Prentice Hall Press.]

"NAARAN; NEARA A Jewish village of the Roman and Byzantine periods. The earliest mention of the site is in the account by Josephus (Antiq. XVII, 340) of how Archelaus, Herod’s son and heir, diverted half the water of Neara in order to irrigate a palm grove near his newly built town of Archelais. It was known to Eusebius (Onom. 136, 24) as a Jewish village about 5 miles from Jericho, in the territory of Ephraim. … in an excellent state of preservation the mosaic pavement of a synagogue… The aisles and the space between the columns were decorated with a multicolored mosaic pavement made up of floral and geometric patterns arranged in larger and smaller carpet-like panels. Facing the main entrance are two gazelles, beautifully portrayed. Then comes a dedicatory inscription: ‘Let be remembered for good Halifou, daughter of Rabbi Safra, who donated for this holy place. Amen!’ The northern half of the nave is decorated with octagons in which animals, birds in cages and baskets with birds were once depicted. Among the birds were a peacock, a chick and a cockerel, among the animals a bison, a lion and a fox. The birds and animals had been deliberately destroyed but care had been taken not to do any unnecessary damage, so that the cages and the baskets had not been touched at all. It seems that this destruction was done by Jewish iconoclasts at a period of strong religious orthodoxy. Next, on the south, comes a large panel in which the zodiacal circle is depicted with Helios driving the chariot of the sun in the center. Here, too, all the figures had been destroyed, but care had been taken not to touch the names of the signs of the zodiac, which were written in Hebrew. The southern part of the floor is occupied by the Torah Shrine flanked by two seven-branched candlesticks (Menorah), on the arms of which large lamps are poised. Below the Torah Shrine stood a man, his hands raised, between two lions. This section was also severely damaged, and were it not for the inscription ‘Daniel, shalom’ it would be impossible to identify it as Daniel in the lions’ den. The area above the candlesticks and the biblical scene is full of dedicatory inscriptions; these show that the synagogue was built with donations from many members of the community. The excavator dated the synagogue to the 3rd century AD, but this date was not accepted by scholars and it was redated to the 6th century AD. Now, with the discovery of the synagogue of Hammath, near Tiberias, an earlier date for this synagogue does seem possible. [Negev, A. (1996). The Archaeological encyclopedia of the Holy Land (3rd ed.). New York: Prentice Hall Press.]

SUSIYA (KHIRBET) This site, situated some 8 miles south of Hebron, was hitherto known only from archaeological surveys and excavations…. The synagogue is of the broadhouse type (27 feet by 48 feet). It is preceded on the east by an atrium surrounded by porticoes. A monumental staircase leads up to a narthex from which three portals lead to the prayer hall. Benches extend along the southern and western walls. At the north wall, facing Jerusalem, is a raised bema with a niche for the Torah Shrine and an additional platform to its east for the reading of the Law. The bema and platform were faced with marble; there was also a beautifully-made marble screen, inscribed with Aramaic dedications and carvings. Additional rooms were built south of the prayer hall. The atrium and the prayer hall were paved with mosaics, of which two phases were distinguished. The mosaics of the first phase apparently contained the symbols of the zodiac. The mosaics of the second phase were mainly geometric, but at the western end there was a scene which probably depicted Daniel in the lion’s den. In front of the platform is a Torah Shrine flanked by two menorahs, a shofar and a lulab between two animals. Traces of iconoclastic activities, which apparently followed the Arab conquest, are evident. [Negev, A. (1996). The Archaeological encyclopedia of the Holy Land (3rd ed.). New York: Prentice Hall Press.]

"The only ornamentation was on the floor, which was paved with mosaics. Artistically the floors range from work of high quality, such as the mosaic pavement at Hammath (Tiberias), which was most probably executed by foreign artists, to those of Beth-Alpha and Beth-Shean, made by two local artists, a father and son. They can be classified into several groups, ranging as they do from simple geometric patterns, scenes of rural and animal life, to the most elaborate decoration in which Jewish religious symbols and images appear alongside pagan symbols. The more elaborate type of decoration has certain constant elements: a dedicatory inscription close to the entrance, flanked by two lions or other animals; a biblical scene, usually symbolizing salvation, such as Noah’s Ark (Gerasa) or the sacrifice of Isaac (Beth-Alpha) or Daniel in the lions’ den (Naaran); a central panel in which Helius is depicted riding in the celestial chariot; and around this a larger circle in which the 12 signs of the zodiac, each with its name in Hebrew, are depicted. In the corners of the enclosing square are the four seasons of the year, depicted as maidens holding the fruits of the season; the Torah Shrine flanked by two menorahs (Menorah), accompanied by the other symbols of the religious festivals, the ram’s horn, the palm branch, the citron and the incense shovel. Most synagogues have numerous dedicatory inscriptions in Aramaic and Greek; these indicate that they were built with contributions from the whole congregation, and sometimes even with donations from neighboring communities. … In studying synagogue art we may note the fight put up by extremists who attempted to abide by the second commandment: ‘Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth’ (Exod. 20:4). Although carvings and reliefs abound in the early type of synagogue, statuary in the round is in fact rare (Chorazin, Kefar Niboraya). The obliteration of human faces in the synagogue at Capernaum is attributed to Jewish iconoclasts, while the careful destruction of all human and animal likeness in the mosaic floor of the synagogue of Naaran is thought to be the work of a later iconoclastic movement. …. A unique discovery is the mosaic pavement in a small synagogue at Beth-Shean in which a scene from the Odyssey is portrayed. [Negev, A. (1996). The Archaeological encyclopedia of the Holy Land (3rd ed.). New York: Prentice Hall Press.]


This change in attitudes by Rabbinic/Talmudic Judaism is documented in the historical literature as well:

"In fact, these verses [Second commandent in Ex 20:4-5] are open to interpretation. It may be read strictly as a prohibition against all images. Alternatively, the Second Commandment may be seen as restricting images when there is fear that "you shall not bow down to them or serve them." Other sorts of images, then, may be permitted. These two interpretations set the contours of Jewish attitudes toward art from antiquity into the modern period.

Jewish art of the latter Second Temple, for example, seems to have functioned under a strict and widely held interpretation of the Second Commandment. Artistic creations from this period are characterized by their focus upon geometric and floral patterns. This phenomenon is well reflected in Nachman Avigad's excavations of aristocratic villas in what is today the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem, where the only image of a living creature is a single bird in a fresco. This bird is the image that proves the rule, for throughout Jerusalem no other such images have been found. In fact, the only images known from outside Jerusalem are birds alighted upon vines that were discovered in the "Goliath" family tomb in Jericho.

The situation is radically different in Jewish art of the third century and onward. A broad repertoire of images appear within Jewish contexts, including both Jewish symbols and blatantly pagan images. Discovery of the synagogues of Naaran, Beth Alpha, the necropolis of Beth Shearim, and, most important, the synagogue of Dura Kuropos in Syria has provided evidence that Jews during late antiquity often interpreted the Second Commandment in a more liberal manner…. A consensus has developed that the appearance of art among Jews is reflective of the overall accommodation with Hellenism that Judaism made during the later Roman and Byzantine periods. Many Jews seem to have interpreted the Second Commandment rather loosely, apparently not considering images to be idolatrous. This attitude is expressed in an Aramaic paraphrase in Targum Pseudo-Jonathan of Leviticus 26:1, which modifies the Bible's stern prohibition against making and bowing down to "carved stone":

. . . nor shall you place a figured stone in your land to bow down upon it. But a pavement figured with images and likenesses you may make on the floor of your synagogue. And do not bow down [idolatrously] to it, for I am the Lord your God.

Attitudes within the Rabbinic community were mixed in regard to art. Some Sages were vehemently against art, even refusing to look upon the image of the emperor on a coin. Others considered it to be relatively harmless. A statement in the Jerusalem Talmud that was preserved in its entirety only in a manuscript discovered in the Cairo Geniza reflects a more tolerant (if somewhat ambivalent) position: "In the days of Rabbi Johanan they permitted images [tzayirin] on its walls, and he did not stop them. In the days of R. Abun they permitted images on mosaics and he did not stop them.' (Avodah Zarah 3:3, 42d)" [Rachel Hachlili, "Synagogues in the Land of Israel: The Art and Architecture of Late Antique Synagogues" in HI:SRESAW, pp 113ff]


A relevant specific image was that of the Temple itself (where the presence and Name of God Himself dwelled, in OT/Tanach thought):

"As a visual object that endured for nearly a thousand years in physical reality, it has persisted for another two thousand years in artistic conceptualizations. Graphic representations of the Temple began to proliferate almost from the moment it was reduced to ruins. Representations of the temple building and of its furnishings were used to adorn mosaic floors, bronze and silver coins, ceramic lamps, stone sarcophagi, tomb paintings, gilded glassware—practically every available artistic medium of antiquity. [Freedman, D. N. (1996). Vol. 6: The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary (368); s.v. "Temple, Jerusalem". New York: Doubleday.]


Finally--although not in the form of an 'image' per se--would be synagogue inscriptions of words from the Tanach/OT. Although these are predictably few (since the Torah scrolls were kept in a model of the Ark inside the synagogue), they are nonetheless relevant to our question here:

"The central place of Scripture in the ancient synagogue is also expressed in extant synagogue art and inscriptions. On the lintel at Merot, for example, is engraved a verse from Deuteronomy (28:6): "Blessed are you when you come and blessed are you when you go." To this, the Midrash Tanhuma interprets: "Blessed are you when you come" to the synagogues and study houses "and blessed are you when you go" from the synagogues and study houses. [Ki-Tavo 4]

In numerous inscriptions, including one from a synagogue in Jericho , we find Psalm 125:5 (and parallels): "Peace unto Israel." Of particular interest are images of biblical episodes that appear in floor mosaics. The story of the Binding of Isaac appears in the sixth-century synagogue mosaic from Beth Alpha. In this image all of the central characters of the story appear: Abraham, Isaac, the two lads who accompanied Abraham and Isaac, the ram caught in the thicket, and a manifestation of God Himself, a hand extended from heaven calling on Abraham not to harm Isaac. The mosaic also depicts Abraham holding the knife in his hand, Isaac held aloft above the altar, and the fire burning on the altar. Labels drawn from the biblical narrative identify Isaac and Abraham. The biblical phrases "Do not raise [your hand]" (Gen. 22:12) and "here is the ram" (Gen. 22:13) appear as labels for the relevant scenes. The decision to illustrate the mosaic floor with this picture undoubtedly stems from the centrality of the Binding of Isaac in Jewish thought and piety. … In 1966 the image of a young man playing a harp while surrounded by animals was discovered in Gaza. The figure, appearing to be the god Orpheus, bears a label in Hebrew that reads "David." The image of the youthful David, "sweet singer of Israel," graced the floor of a sixth-century synagogue in Gaza. In a synagogue discovered in Gerasa, in modern Jordan, remains of a mosaic bearing Noah's ark can be seen. A dove bearing a branch in its mouth and other animals survived antiquity, as did the names of Noah's sons, Shem and Jafeth. At Naaran, Daniel in the lion's den is portrayed. Alongside that mosaic is preserved the fragmentary inscription that apparently should be read as "Danie[l]." All of these themes are well known from the literature of the synagogue." (Avigdor Shinan, "Synagogues in the Land of Israel: The Literature of the Ancient Synagogue and Synagogue Archaeology" in [HI:SRESAW, 134f])


So, post-biblical Judaism quickly moved to a position of 'images are OK, as long as you do not bow down and worship them' position. In addition to animal images (which were never intended to represent the Lord), there were occasional visual representations of the Lord (e.g., Helios the sun, the lead angel in the visit to Abraham, the hand reaching down to stop the sacrifice of Isaac) and visual representations of the Lord's 'indwelling' in the biblical tabernacle/temple buildings. All of this use of images however did NOT constitute idolatry, nor was it universally considered to be a violation of the 2nd commandment.


The Judaism of our post-biblical period was therefore mixed in its interpretation of images and idolatry, and iconoclastic views only triumphed in the 8th century:

"While we know from rabbinic sources that the patriarchs [tn: the Nasi] exercised supervision over synagogue personnel, the evidence drawn from inscriptions and Roman law indicates that they were authoritative also with regard to the buildings. In the synagogue of Hammath-Tiberias the mosaic depicting Sol Invictus is accompanied by a Greek inscription which refers to Severus, the disciple of the 'most illustrious patriarchs.' In the synagogue of Stobi in Macedonia an inscription tells of Tiberius Polycharmus, the founder, who reserved for himself and his posterity full authority over any future modifications in the structure of the synagogue. Anyone who violated this proviso was subject to a fine of 250,000 denarii payable to the patriarch. It is not certain, however, whether this refers to the Palestinian patriarch or to some local synagogue official who bore this title. In any case, the Code of Theodosius indicates that the appointment of synagogue officials, the collection of funds, as well as the construction of new synagogues, were under the jurisdiction of the 'illustrious patriarchs,' i.e. the nesi'im in Palestine. The role of the nasi in the sponsorship of synagogues is dramatically illustrated by the imperial decree of 415 CE by which Gamaliel VI, the last of the patriarchs, was deprived of the prefecture and ordered 'hereafter not to build any more synagogues.'

We have already noted the receptive attitude at the patriarchal court towards Greek culture. It is noteworthy that the patriarchal traditions were liberal with regard to representational art. The fact that Rabban Gamaliel used visual aids in interrogating witnesses about the new moon gave rise to much discussion among the Amoraim. Rabbi Hanina son of Gamaliel reported that faces were commonly depicted on seals used in his father's home. Thus, wealthy donors who were already inclined to introduce into their synagogues imagery borrowed from the Hellenistic world could expect little opposition to their building projects from the patriarchal court.

We have seen that there existed among the Palestinian Amoraim of the third and fourth centuries diverse views concerning the ornamentation of synagogues. While some purists counseled avoiding any sort of representational art, the more lenient halakhic position of Rabbi Yohanan and Rabbi Abun permitted the introduction of murals and mosaics. This position evolved from combining a maximal estimate of the importance of communal prayer with a minimal concern for the hazards of idolatry. The rabbis did not, however, initiate syncretistic trends. The driving impulse came from wealthy Jewish patrons, close to the patriarchal family, who viewed the synagogue not only as a source of salvation but as a means of displaying their acculturation in the Hellenistic world. When the decorative motifs they commissioned came to bear symbolic religious significance for them is a moot question. It is undeniable that they wished the synagogue as a public building to perpetuate their names and be comprehensible to pagan as well as Jewish viewers. They were willing to underwrite the large sums involved in their bid for perpetuity.

This tendency toward the 'externalization' of the synagogue was sharply criticized by other Amoraim. It diverted funds which could be used more fruitfully in promoting scholarship. Moreover, this permissiveness over the introduction of images was condemned as encouraging a drift toward idolatry. Possibly strengthened by Islam's rigid iconoclasm after the eighth century, this latter view triumphed. As the subsequent history of synagogue architecture indicates, however, the impulse for the adornment of the synagogue by wealthy patrons was to make its reappearance again and again, wherever external circumstances were favorable. [HI:JCPAS, 81f]


So, there really IS NO consensus on 'how much' imagery can be used, because the Jewish attitudes to such usage varied back and forth between the biblical period 'openness' and Hasmonean-period type aniconism. Levine makes this point in this (long) quote from his work on the ancient synagoge [HI:TAS, 225-230]:

"Today, we can safely conclude that Jews in the biblical and early Second Temple periods did, in fact, make use of a variety of figural representations. Examples from the biblical period include the cherubs over the holy ark, the cherubs and animal figures used by Solomon in his Temple and palace decorations, and the twelve oxen supporting the large basin in the Temple courtyard. In addition, the bronze serpent attributed to Moses, the golden calves in the northern sanctuaries of Dan and Beth-el, and innumerable figurines and seal engravings (e.g., of lions, horses, gazelles, cocks, snakes, and monkeys) found at Israelite sites and dating primarily to the eighth and seventh centuries B.C.E. all point to a generally permissive attitude toward this art form in the First Temple era. Even as late as the Persian and early Hellenistic eras, the "Yehud" coins minted in Jerusalem feature a wide variety of figural representations, including owls, eagles, a winged leaping animal, a Persian king, a divine figure sitting on a winged wheel, a warrior, a governor, a high priest, and depictions of Ptolemy, Berenice, and Athena . At the turn of the second century B.C.E., the Tobiad Hyrcanus used a variety of carved animal reliefs when building his estate east of the Jordan River.

"However, beginning in the later Hellenistic (i.e., Hasmonean) period, the pendulum swung sharply in the opposite direction. Strict avoidance of animal and human depictions became the norm in Jewish society for some three hundred years or so, commencing with the rise of the Hasmoneans and lasting until the aftermath of the Bar-Kokhba revolt (ca. 150 B.C.E.-150 C.E.). The reasons for this radical about-face with respect to figural representation are not entirely clear, and a variety of suggestions has been put forth…

"Thus, the reintroduction of figural representation beginning in the late second and third centuries C.E., and first evidenced on Galilean urban coins and at Bet She'arim, is far from exceptional in the wider perspective of Jewish history. It reflects yet another shift of the pendulum with regard to Jewish attitudes toward figural representation owing to internal needs and in response to the wider cultural, social, and political contexts in which the Jews found themselves. Here, too, a number of suggestions (not necessarily mutually exclusive) have been offered to explain the reintroduction of figural art…

"Whatever the reason(s), the exigencies of the time were ultimately the determining factors in this last-noted shift. While we do not know why and how this happened within Jewish society generally, as reflected in the many opinions cited above, we do have some evidence of this shift within rabbinic, and more specifically Patriarchal, circles. Flexibility among the sages often derived from a creative use of hermeneutics, which itself was driven by historical necessity and, at times, ideological convictions. This was certainly the case with the Patriarchate, the leading communal office among Jews from the second to fifth centuries C.E., and was dramatically expressed in a story regarding Rabban Gamaliel II (flourished ca. 90-120 C.E.):

Proklos, the son of Philosophos, asked [a question of] Rabban Gamaliel while the latter was bathing in the bath of Aphrodite in Acre, saying to him: "It is written in your Torah, 'and there shall not cleave to you any of the devoted [i.e., forbidden] thing' [Deut. 13:18]. Why do you thus bathe in the bath of Aphrodite?" He answered: "One may not give an answer in the bath." And when he came out he said: "(i) I did not come into her [Aphrodite's] area [lit., boundary], she came into mine. People do not say, 'Let us make a bath for Aphrodite,' but rather, 'Let us make a [statue of] Aphrodite as an adornment for the bath'; (2) moreover, even if they would offer you much money, you would not enter your place of worship [lit., idolatry] naked and suffering pollution and urinate in front of her [i.e., Aphrodite]. But she stands at the edge of the gutter, and everyone urinates in front of her; (3) the verse only refers to 'their gods'; that which they treat as a god is forbidden and that which they do not treat as a god is permitted." [M 'Avodah Zarah 3,4]

"The response attributed to Rabban Gamaliel is as fascinating as it is far reaching. He is quoted as offering three reasons for frequenting a pagan-ornamented bathhouse. The first deals with the definition of the building's function: Was it built to serve as a pagan sanctuary or a bath? Was the statue of Aphrodite inherent to the building's function, or was it merely an ornamentation? Rabban Gamaliel's answer was that the statue was meant to be purely decorative, as the building itself was intended to fulfill a "secular" purpose. Secondly, the nature of a facility should also be judged by what people actually do there. When one walks around naked and urinates with no regard to the presence of a statue of a deity, the statue is clearly of no real consequence for those in attendance. Thus, the bathhouse was not to be regarded as something sacred or specifically pagan. The third claim, however, is the most far reaching. One should view a place or an object as idolatrous only if it is so regarded by the pagans themselves; if it is not considered idolatrous, but only decorative, it ought to allow for a more permissive attitude and behavior. This last response is the most revolutionary precisely because it is cast as a general principle. Nothing, not even a statue, is inherently forbidden; everything depends on its function and on the intention of those who placed it there.

"The transition from a rigid aniconic posture in the late Second Temple period to a less restrictive stance in Late Antiquity was not always easy or smooth. Differences of opinion might often be sharp and even bitter, and this was true within rabbinic circles as well. However, it is only for Byzantine Palestine that our diverse sources furnish us with a detailed and nuanced picture of the varied attitudes toward figural art within Jewish society. The use of animal and human figures had become, on the one hand, quite acceptable in many communities, although some were clearly more daring than others. "



I know I have already belabored this point, but let me close with one more (lengthy) quote from specialist Steven Fine, in his recent revision of his excellent book on Jewish art. He gives a 'tale of two synagogues' in 20th century New York, in which the 'flexibility' in synagogue art is vividly--and surprisingly!--illustrated:

"The late 1920s witnessed an unprecedented construction boom among American Jews of all ideological bents, expressing new levels of optimism and creativity. Two of the most significant of these projects were moving toward completion in Manhattan: the grand neo-Romanesque home of Congregation Emanu-El on Fifth Avenue, the "mother synagogue" of classical Reform Judaism in twentieth-century America, which was completed in 1930; and the campus of Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary and Yeshiva College at 185th Street and Amsterdam Avenue, the first phase of which was completed in 1928 but which was discontinued because of the Great Depression. These building projects may appear to be an odd place to begin this introduction to the revised edition of Art and Judaism in the Greco-Roman World. In fact, they epitomize many of the core issues that I discuss in this book - and in my personal life beyond the written word.

"On January 5, 1927, Louis Marshall, the president of Congregation Emanu-El and the unquestioned leader of American Jewry of his age, sent the following question to the preeminent academic Talmudist in his office at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, Professor Louis Ginzberg:

'A question has arisen in connection with the construction of the new house of worship of Emanu-El Congregation as to the limitations upon decoration imposed by the practices of traditional Judaism. There is a desire to establish memorial windows. Questions have arisen as to the carving upon stone and wood. I have assumed that the "Lion of Judah" is an entirely permissible decoration, but that they represent a human figure or of any other figures which may be suggestive of ancient idolatrous practices, or of certain symbols which have a non-Jewish connotation, is forbidden.

'I would greatly appreciate your views upon this subject. It is our desire to avoid the use of any decoration which would offend the sensibilities of the most orthodox.

"Ginzberg's approach was unequivocal. He legislated that

1. No designs in bas relief are to be used.

2. Representations of animals would be limited to the lion.

3. Representations of the heavenly bodies would be excluded entirely.

4. The walls and windows of the synagogue should not contain any figure whatsoever.


"Readers familiar with the history of Jewish law should be struck by the Maimonidean stringency of Ginzberg's pronouncement, especially in light of the great variety of opinions in rabbinic sources, ancient and modern. Ginzberg continues in a philosophical mode, arguing that "the leading philosophers of religion of our time have aptly remarked, as a religion becomes more spiritual, the place of art in the culture falls in the background." He goes on to hold up Protestantism, the religion of those self-same "leading philosophers" - referring explicitly to Hegel as "the one truly great religious reform of our time." Ginzberg held a rather stern and Protestant-influenced attitude toward art as the appropriate model for Jewish behavior, melding it with a strict rabbinic approach formed in the shadow of Islam and widespread among the Lithuanian rabbinic elite of his time - especially as rabbis struggled against the secularizing influence of Art (with a capital "A"). He asserts a rigor common among Protestants and, hence, contemporaneous Reform Jews (and under Ginzberg's guidance, Conservative Jews), garbing it in classical rabbinic authority. The assumptions and ideological blendings that Ginzberg asserted in this responsum were to have long-term significance, both for his religious community as it Americanized and for the history of scholarship.

"A very different approach was taken on Amsterdam Avenue at 185th Street, at New York's premier Lithuanian yeshiva. In constructing the first building on a projected campus of buildings blending a historicized neo-moresque/art-deco idiom in then-suburban Washington Heights, the planners of the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary and its new Yeshiva College placed a zodiac floor in the entrance foyer of the classroom building. More interesting, the zodiac contained images of humans - including a nude Virgo and mythological creatures and animals — all by definition "heavenly bodies." In other words, whereas the classically Reform Congregation Emanu-El was strict in observing Ginzberg's legal decision, the Orthodox seminary uptown was decorating its space in ways that might have horrified Ginzberg as the posek, the legal decisor of Conservative Judaism.

"What accounts for Yeshiva University's seeming "liberalism" regarding "graven images," and particularly the image of the zodiac? As this volume argues, rabbinic attitudes toward "graven images" were far more elastic than Ginzberg had let it be known to his Reform questioner. Beyond that, zodiac symbolism is common in rabbinic literature, and images of the zodiac — and even nudes — were well known within Jewish liturgical texts and in synagogue decoration from late antiquity onward. Zodiacs appeared in illustrated manuscripts during the high Middle Ages, and eventually in printed books, decorating ritual objects and in synagogue decorations. Numerous Orthodox synagogues in Poland, Ukraine, and eventually America were painted with images of the zodiac, including some in New York. The Yeshiva University zodiac was unique in that it was set in the floor, and it was distinctly "modern" — reminiscent more of Rockefeller Center than Bialystok. This fit the Jewish—American-Lithuanian-Orthodox-Zionist educational culture (Bildung) of the first president of Yeshiva College, Bernard Revel, who sought above all else "harmony" between traditional rabbinic culture and the modern world — as epitomized, he believed, in academic Jewish studies (Wissenschaft des Judentums). The discovery in 1919 of a synagogue mosaic with a large and impressive zodiac near Jericho in Palestine at a place called Ein Duq in Arabic and Na'aran in Hebrew, and the fact that Nahum Slouschz, the first "Hebrew archaeologist" and director of the Jewish Palestine Exploration Society, had been the first professor of Jewish History at Yeshiva, may certainly have determined the choice to pave the Yeshiva College foyer with a zodiac. An early promotional pamphlet asserts that the campus "of the college and the general character of the architecture, which is a development of early Jewish art, [are] the result of research and study made by the Department of Archeology and Ancient Art of the first Jewish College of America."

"The prohibition against images expressed by Ginzberg at Congregation Emanu-El and the presence of the zodiac at Yeshiva College is at first sight jolting. We may have expected — based on trajectories in our own world — a more "liberal" attitude toward art in the most important synagogue of the liberal German Jews than among the newly Americanizing Eastern European Orthodox Jews who built Yeshiva University. My research for this volume points in a different direction. Historically, Jewish attitudes toward art were far more complex than modern scholarship has imagined. [Steven Fine, Art & Judaism in the Greco-Roman World: Towards a New Jewish Archaeology. Revised Edition. CambridgeUP:2010, pages xv-xviii]


And this diversity-across-a-single-city (New York) could be just as easily seen in the city of Jericho during the Talmudic and Byzantine periods:

"Even in the Jericho area there seem to have been striking differences between neighboring synagogues. One local sixth-century synagogue had demonstrably aniconic decorations, featuring geometric patterns and a stylized ark. Yet, several kilometers away and at about the same time, Na'aran boasted a zodiac design, a representation of the biblical Daniel, and an assortment of animal depictions. Both synagogues, however, contains only Aramaic or Hebrew inscriptions; Greek was not in evidence. The Golan synagogues also reflect a variety of attitudes toward figural art, as do Galilean-type buildings. [HI:TAS, 221, Lee Levine]


……….. ……………………………………………………….


Now, when we turn to early Christianity, we notice something immediately: the official (and preached) position was strongly anti-idolatry, in full continuity with the Judaism of that period.


With its nature as Messianic Judaism, the apostles, New Testament, and primitive church repudiated religious images and fervently denounced idolatry:


Here is a prophetic message given by the Apostle Paul/Rabbi Saul to the pagan populace at Athens:

So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. 23 For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, ‘To the unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. 24 The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, 25 nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. 26 And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, 27 that they should seek God, in the hope that they might feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, 28 for

   “ ‘In him we live and move and have our being’;

as even some of your own poets have said,

“ ‘For we are indeed his offspring.’

29 Being then God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man. 30 The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, 31 because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.” (Ac 17:22–31)


And Paul's letters to partially-Gentile churches continues to take the strong anti-idolatry stance of his Jewish background and Jewish-Christian theology:

"The fullest discussion in the NT on idolatry and idol worship is found in what is now known as Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. Earlier, in a letter no longer extant, Paul had told the Corinthians not to associate with those who called themselves believers, but who were still practicing idolatry (cf. 1 Cor 5:9–11). In the Corinthians’ reply to him about this command they must have put up some resistance to it, or at least asked for clarification about it, for beginning at 1 Corinthians 8:1 and continuing through 11:1 Paul devotes his attention to the topic of idolatry using the vocabulary of the LXX, e.g., eidōlothyton (“food sacrificed to idols,” 1 Cor 8:1, 4, 7, 10; 10:19; cf. also hierothytos, “meat offered in sacrifice,” 1 Cor 10:28), eidōla (“idols,” 1 Cor 12:2) and eidōleion (“the temple of an idol,” 1 Cor 8:10) and vocabulary not found in the LXX, such as eidōlolatria (“idolatry,” 1 Cor 10:14) and eidōlolatrēs (“idolater,” 1 Cor 10:7). … One of the sins that Paul condemned at Corinth and which he was concerned to correct involved those Christians who had turned away from idols (1 Cor 12:2) to serve “the living and true God” (see 1 Thess 1:9, which may echo early missionary preaching, cf. Acts 14:15). In spite of this conversion, they continued to go back to the idol temples (which, in a city like Corinth, could evidently function as a sort of restaurant) and there eat the food that had been sacrificed to the idol. Apparently the Corinthian believers were able to do this in good conscience because they had come to “know” that “no idol in the world really exists” and “there is no God but one” (1 Cor 8:4 NRSV). … There are no other deities, and what appear to be deities are but a part of the created order in rebellion: they are demons (Wright; the view that idols are demons was well known in Judaism, see Str-B 3.48–60; cf. Deut 32:17; Bar 4:7). [Hawthorne, G. F., Martin, R. P., & Reid, D. G. (1993). Dictionary of Paul and his letters (425). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.]

"In Romans 1:18–32, a passage which may reflect Hellenistic-Jewish polemic against idolatry (cf. Wis 11–15), Paul traces sexual immorality and every other kind of sin, great or small, ultimately back to idolatry. The Gentiles, who should have known that God existed from observing the handiwork of God in creation, nevertheless failed to honor God as God, and instead exchanged the immortal, invisible God for mortal, visible images (idols). Because of this, God gave them up and allowed them to go their own way and do the filthy things their hearts desired (Rom 1:24 TEV). Thus Paul included idolaters among those evil people who will not inherit the kingdom of God (1 Cor 6:9). [Hawthorne, G. F., Martin, R. P., & Reid, D. G. (1993). Dictionary of Paul and his letters (426). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.]


The primitive church (of the first couple of centuries after the resurrection of Jesus) maintained complete continuity with Jewish aniconic and anti-idolatry beliefs:

"Representations of God were obviously just as objectionable to early Christianity as to Judaism. Yet it must be remembered that, so far as we can see, the question of depicting God or even man or animal never arose at all in the NT, whether from the positive or the negative standpoint. It never entered the head of any early believers to hand down a picture of Jesus or the apostles, let alone to set up a cultic image. The complete lack of interest in this regard marks off the young religion from the syncretistic religions in the surrounding world. The cultic image of Mithras is an integral part of the whole cult; the image of Serapis was created with the rise of this religion; there could be no worship of the emperors without statues. In the religion of the Christians, however, the important thing is not worshipping an image and considering the myth thereby depicted, but listening to the Word. Only in the 1st and 2nd centuries do we have a development in the catacombs, via religious decoration, to the painting of Christian symbols and symbolic figures, especially the Good Shepherd, and then to the depiction of Christ and the apostles and other biblical subjects. A model and impulse for this development might have been provided by the newly discovered, pre-Christian biblical paintings of the Jews, especially in relation to OT scenes. [TDNT, s.v. 'icon']

"The prohibition of idol worship and manufacture occurred early in Israel’s history and remained an important concern, often occupying a central place in the prophetic literature. These prohibitions were continued in the primitive Church, and after the conversion of large numbers of Gentiles, the Apostolic Council issued a written admonition to the gentile churches prohibiting any association with idols and idolatry (Acts 15:20–29). … Jewish monotheism and antipathy to idols were affirmed in the primitive Church (1 Cor. 8:4). Paul taught that pagan sacrifices were an offering “to demons” (1 Cor. 10:20; cf. Dt. 32:17). John likewise urged Christians to “keep yourselves from idols” (1 Jn. 5:20). [Bromiley, G. W. (1988; 2002). The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Revised (2:796). Wm. B. Eerdmans.]

"Intertestamental Period. What finally established the Jewish people in immovable opposition to idolatry is told in the Apocrypha (1 Macc. 2:1–48) and in Josephus (Ant. xii.5.4 [248–256]). The issue between Antiochus Epiphanes and the Jewish people in the time of the early Maccabees was idolatry. Antiochus demanded that as a pledge of political allegiance to his sovereignty, Jews make a sacrifice at an altar dedicated to the Olympian Zeus, perhaps before his statue (2 Macc. 6:2). Refusal resulted in execution. The Hasmoneans, Mattathias and his sons, and their followers, the Hasideans, defied the king’s decree. They raised a guerilla army and fought a three-year civil war. With much heroism, they succeeded in obtaining from the state freedom to follow their own religious practices. Never again were Jews to take idolatry seriously. Rather, idol worship became for them a matter of semi-humorous satire and ridicule (cf. Bel and the Dragon). NT Period …Idolatry was prevalent in the NT world. Idols were venerated in temples dedicated to the traditional gentile gods, in popular magic and superstition, as well as in the mystery religions and in emperor worship (Mk. 12:16 par; Rev. 13:14f). The subject is scarcely mentioned in the Gospels but receives attention in Paul’s letters due to the circumstances of his mission (cf. Luke’s comment that Athens was a “city full of idols,” Acts 17:16; AV “wholly given to idolatry”). … Reflecting his Jewish background, Paul stated plainly, “We [Christians] know that an idol has no real existence” (1 Cor. 8:4). Idolatry is “earthly” (Col. 3:5; Phil. 3:19). The idolaters are “immoral men,” with whom Christians are not to associate (1 Cor. 5:10f), who will not inherit the kingdom of God (1 Cor. 6:10; Gal. 5:21; Eph. 5:5). Cf. “Little children, keep yourselves from idols,” 1 Jn. 5:21; “abstain from the pollution of idols,” Acts 15:20. Rev. 21:8 states that idolaters are doomed to be destroyed by fire; the new Jerusalem has no place for idolaters who love and practice falsehood (Rev. 22:15). In Rom. 1:18–32, Paul taught that sexual laxness and social disorder among Gentiles were ultimately traceable to their idolatry, which he described as exchanging “the glory of the immortal God for images.” The wrath of God is against all such ungodliness and wickedness (v 18). God’s decree is that idolaters deserve to die (v 32). At Ephesus Paul was accused of successfully persuading a considerable company of people “that gods made with hands are no gods” (Acts 19:26). [Bromiley, G. W. (1988; 2002). The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Revised (2:799-800). Wm. B. Eerdmans.]

"In the Bible and the history of the Christian church, ‘image’ is closely associated with ‘idol’ and ‘idolatry’. The Ephesians worshipped the goddess Diana, whose image was supposed to have fallen from heaven. The preaching of the gospel, with its message that God is not like anything formed by human contrivance, threatened this worship and provoked a violent reaction from the artisans (who made their living from carving images of Diana) and from the Ephesian populace, who were whipped up into a frenzy in defence of their false worship (Acts 19:23–41). The second commandment clearly forbids idolatry: ‘You shall not make for yourself an idol … You shall not bow down to them or worship them …’ (Ex. 20:4–5). We see this commandment more clearly if we examine it in its extended or, better, its root meaning. According to biblical revelation, understanding God and man depends on a proper understanding of the relation of the creator to the creature. God, the creator, is not to be confused with anything that is created. Significantly, the commandment prohibiting idolatry follows upon that prohibiting having any other gods before God’s face. Giving anything the worship and service that belong to God alone is idolatry; it is, in effect, serving the creature rather than the creator (Rom. 1:23, 25). [Ferguson, S. B., & Packer, J. (2000, c1988). New dictionary of theology (electronic ed.) (329). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.]

"Christianity; 3.1. Early Period: Up to the end of the second century neither literary nor archaeological sources give any evidence of the existence of Christian art. The NT says nothing about the use of images. One may infer from this silence a lack of interest due to many causes. One was that primitive Christianity lived in tense expectation of the parousia. Another was that in the struggle against paganism, images were regarded as idolatrous and magical signs. Finally, the small number of Christians, and their lowly social status, prevented them from building their own places of worship, which might have functioned as centers of Christian art. Furthermore, the church, which saw itself as the new and true Israel, viewed the OT commandment as binding.The oldest record of the existence of an image of Christ comes from Irenaeus (d. ca. 200), who tells us that the Gnostic sect of the Carpocratians set up and venerated an image of Christ, along with the images they maintained of great philosophers (Adv. haer. 1.25.6). In nonheretical churches voices against images increased toward the end of the second century, from which we may infer that such images were now present. Tertullian (d. ca. 225) denounced all images, but Clement of Alexandria (d. ca. 215) thought that neutral motifs might be used on seal rings. Origen (d. ca. 254) rejected images on the ground that they are a hindrance to spiritual knowledge. The Council of Elvira (ca. 306) decisively condemned images in the church. … Since, in spite of these negative voices of the theologians, we find Christian images at the latest by 220 (in the catacombs in Rome and in the Dura-Europos → house church), we may assume that in assimilation to pagan customs, Christians had images in defiance of official church teaching." [Fahlbusch, E., & Bromiley, G. W. (1999-2003). Vol. 2: The encyclopedia of Christianity (658–660). Grand Rapids, Mich.; Leiden, Netherlands: Wm. B. Eerdmans; Brill.]

"Early Christianity inherited its stance toward idols from Judaism. The Second Commandment prohibited making a likeness and worshiping it (Ex 20:4–5). When the tempter ( Satan) urged Jesus to do obeisance, Jesus refused with indignation (Mt 4:10; cf. Lk 4:8). For a Christian to embrace idols is impossible: “don’t be idolaters,” “flee idolatry!” (1 Cor 10:7, 14; cf. 1 Jn 5:21; Did. 3.4). The Christian Eucharist and the feasts of the gods, God’s temple and idols, have nothing in common (1 Cor 10:21; 2 Cor 6:16). Idolatry brings excommunication (1 Cor 5:11); indeed it excludes one from God’s kingdom (1 Cor 6:9–10; 8:11; Gal 5:20–21; Rev 21:8; 22:15; Did. 5.1; Barn. 20.1). [Martin, R. P., & Davids, P. H. (2000). Dictionary of the later New Testament and its developments (electronic ed.). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.]

"A keynote of the Christian mission to pagans was a call to turn “to God from idols” (1 Thess 1:9; cf. Acts 14:11–18; 17:16–31). Christians’ rhetoric may have included ridicule: the gods have no divine nature (Gal 4:8–9); unlike God, idols are or dwell in temples “made with hands” (Acts 7:41, 48; 17:24; 19:26); idols are useless (Acts 14:15), speechless (1 Cor 12:2) senseless and deaf (Diogn. 3.3) and nothing short of dead (implied by 1 Thess 1:9; Did. 6.3). [Martin, R. P., & Davids, P. H. (2000). Dictionary of the later New Testament and its developments (electronic ed.). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.]

"There was clear Jewish antagonism to idolatry in Palestine (1 Macc 2:23–28; Ant. 12.344; Ag. Ap. 1.193), and there is some evidence that when a Jewish community was relatively strong they might attack pagan shrines (1 Macc 5:68; 10:84; Jos. Ag. Ap. 1.248–50; cf. Bel 1:1–22). One basis for a Jewish denunciation of pagan idolatry was presumably the tradition of the “Noachic laws,” which Jews believed were incumbent on all Gentiles, who, like the Jews, were descendants of Noah (they may be reflected in Acts 15:19–21, 28–29). The earliest form of these laws occurs in a section of the Tosepta called ˓Aboda Zara, “alien worship,” where seven Noachic requirements are discussed: (1) setting up courts of justice, (2) idolatry, (3) blasphemy, (4) fornication, (5) bloodshed, (6) thievery, and (7) limbs cut from living animals (t. ˓Abod. Zar. 8.4–6). However, there are other strands of Hellenistic Judaism that, though they might denounce gentile homosexuality, are soft on idolatry (Testament of Abraham; Ps.-Phocylides Sententiae). Prophetic critiques of idolatry are particularly frequent in Deutero-Isaiah, reflecting internal conflicts in the post-exilic Jewish community (Isa 40:18–20; 42:17; 44:9–20; 45:16, 20; cf. Jer 10:1–16; Ps 115:3–8). … Antagonism to idolatry is also expressed in the NT (1 Cor 14:15), and critiques of idolatry (often borrowing from Hellenistic Jewish apologetic) are also found among the early Christian apologists (Tatian Oratio 4.2; Theophilus Ad Autolycum 1.9–10; 2.2). Celsus charged that Christians cannot bear to see temples, altars, and images (Origen Contra Cels. 7.62). [Aune, D. E. (2002). Vol. 52B: Word Biblical Commentary : Revelation 6-16. Word Biblical Commentary (543–544). Dallas: Word, Incorporated.]

"Idolatry and Three Monotheistic Faiths. The three historic monotheistic faiths, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, are heirs of the OT polemic against idolatry. In the Talmud, an early first millennium collection of Jewish law and tradition, the rabbis consider incest, murder, and idolatry as the three cardinal sins. For these, the faithful must suffer martyrdom rather than to transgress. The rabbis said, “He who denies idols is called a Jew,” and “He who recognizes idols denies the whole Torah” (EJ, 8:1227–1238). … In Islam’s holy book, the Koran, Abraham is the prototype of monotheism; he smashed the idols of his countrymen. For Muslims, idolatry is an insult to God because it likens creation to the Creator. This emphasis suppressed all mediation between God and the faithful. … Justin Martyr was the earliest of the church fathers to write against idolatry. These early fathers believed that idols were fragments of creation and were not to be worshiped in place of the Creator. Tertullian saw idolatry as the worst of all sins, encompassing all others. [Lind, M. (1996). Ezekiel. Believers church Bible commentary (66–67). Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press.]


Just as later Judaism had its arguments on the use of images in religious life, so too did the Christian community--even though it was often colored by factors unrelated to the worship of God (like we saw in the Hellenistic synagogue art developments). The modern church has groups that accept images (as long as they are merely 'reverenced' and not 'worshipped') and those that prohibit them:

"Some, e.g. Lutherans and Anglicans, believe that they can avoid imaging God himself while using images of creaturely beings in worship. Appeal is made particularly to the implications of the visible incarnation of God in Christ. Thus, in contrast to the complete prohibition of images, as in the Reformed tradition, there has been the use of fully rounded figures of bas-relief icons. A distinction has been made between the worship that is due to God alone and the reverence that may be given to images. In responding to this, one must remember that the invisible God and his power are tangible only as he himself has established. [Ferguson, S. B., & Packer, J. (2000, c1988). New dictionary of theology (electronic ed.) (329). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.]

"The Image Commandment. This commandment has had a stormy and controversial history. It formed the primary biblical warrant for the various “iconoclastic controversies” throughout church history, contention over the use of images (sculptures, paintings, crucifixes, etc.) in churches and in worship. The debate over this issue extended through the patristic era, until it was settled in the Second Council of Nicaea (A.D. 787). This council allowed the display of images in churches, but emphasized the distinction between true worship (due only to God) and veneration or reverence that could be bestowed on images (Van der Leeuw: 322). This has essentially remained the Catholic position, although different nuances were added by Thomas Aquinas and others. … One recurrent argument in favor of images was their educational value; they were, people claimed, the “books” of simple, illiterate people. Controversies flared up repeatedly after Nicaea, however. In the Reformation era, the different parties varied in their pace of reform (Steinmetz: 256–66). Luther remained closest to the Catholic position, taking a firm stand against Carlstadt and other iconoclasts. Calvin, and especially Zwingli, tended in the opposite direction, although Calvin was not opposed to all religious visual art. … Most participants in these debates recognized that the primary thrust of the Image Commandment was directed against idolatry, and not against all art as such. Yet the visual arts remained suspect in many circles, as among the Puritans. The Anabaptist-Mennonite churches, with the exception of the Dutch Mennonites, shared in the Zwinglian-Calvinist reserve towards visual art. … How, then, shall we regard this subject today? We should certainly distinguish between making and/or using idols—images to be worshiped, or in danger of being worshiped—and artistic expression generally. Since words too are images, as are musical compositions, we can hardly abstain from their use, whether in worship or in life generally. This very fact, however, should warn us that idolatry can not be eradicated by the avoidance of one form of art; it is as readily available in verbal or musical images as in visual images. [Janzen, W. (2000). Exodus. Believers church Bible commentary (281–282). Waterloo, Ont.; Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press.]

"adoration. In strict terminology the expression, from the Lat. adoratio, is equivalent to the Greek theological term λατρεία, designating an act of worship due to God alone. If used more loosely, however, it also covers the Greek προσκύνησις which, in early times, was used for adoration of God as well as for veneration such as is paid to persons or objects of sacred character. In this second sense it was frequently used among E. peoples and also in the Bible, e.g. in the narrative of Joseph and his brethren (Gen. 43:26), whereas in the first sense it is used, e.g., in the Second Commandment. The Lord inculcates that adoration (προσκύνησις) is due to God alone (Mt. 4:10). He Himself is frequently adored (e.g. Jn. 9:38), whereas, on the other hand, St Peter refuses the adoration of Cornelius (Acts 10:25 f.). The Divine prerogative of adoration was emphasized esp. by the early Christian martyrs, who refused to ‘adore’ the statues of the Emperor…. Until the 5th cent. Christians seem not to have distinguished between λατρεία and προσκύνησις. But the increasing veneration of images and the ensuing Iconoclastic Controversy necessitated a stricter terminology. The Second Council of Nicaea (787) reserved the term λατρεία to the worship of God alone (including God incarnate), whereas προσκύνησις might be applied also to the cult of creatures. [Cross, F. L., & Livingstone, E. A. (2005). The Oxford dictionary of the Christian Church (3rd ed. rev.) (20). Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press.

"One may ask why the representations of cherubim (winged sphinxes) in the tabernacle and Solomon’s temple did not also lead to idolatry. The answer must be that these figures did not have the same insidious association with a long-established idolatrous and immediately present Canaanite cult. The Hebrews viewed them as representing heavenly creatures whose purpose it was to enhance the majesty of Yahweh. As kings of the day were often enthroned between such creatures, so the sovereignty of Yahweh was thus asserted. Not only in visual arts but also in poetry, the Hebrews did not hesitate so to represent their sole God as one who “mounted the cherubim” (2 Sam. 22:11) or is enthroned between them (2 Ki. 19:15). … The church has repeatedly faced the problem of idolatry versus iconoclasm. Postbiblical JUDAISM sought to solve the problem by severely restricting artistic expression. The iconoclastic controversy raged in the Byzantine wing of the church. After the Reformation, the Puritans stripped their churches of every adornment. It appears that the Bible itself indulges in neither of these extremes but reckons with idolatry as that which comes out of the sinful heart of man when he willfully chooses to glorify the creature more than the Creator (Rom. 1:21–23). The psalmist expresses this truth succinctly in Ps. 106:19–21: “At Horeb they made a calf / and worshiped an idol cast from metal. / They exchanged their Glory / for an image of a bull, which eats grass. / They forgot the God who saved them, / who had done great things in Egypt.” [Silva, M., & Tenney, M. C. (2009). The Zondervan Encyclopedia of the Bible, Volume 1, A-C (Revised, Full-Color Edition) (716–717). Grand Rapids, MI: The Zondervan Corporation.]

"The use of images in worship became a burning issue during the Iconoclastic Controversy in the Eastern Church. Those who opposed icons appealed to the prohibition against graven images in the second commandment. Those who defended their use pointed out that God’s blueprint for the tabernacle called for many symbolical elements including representations of the cherubim. In 787 the Second Council of Nicea allowed the use of images in worship, distinguishing their proper Christian usage from pagan idolatry. They also appealed to the doctrine of the Incarnation for support of this decision. Because the Word was made flesh, they reasoned, images of Christ can be used in worship as a witness to the creative and redeeming work of God. … These arguments surfaced again during the Reformation as Anabaptists, Zwinglians, and certain Puritans smashed images, whitewashed churches, and ripped out organs and other musical instruments. We can appreciate the concerns of Reformation iconoclasts. In their day the pure preaching and teaching of God’s Word had indeed become obscured by the visual fantasies and elaborate rituals of medieval Catholicism. [Southern Baptist Journal of Theology Volume 2. 1998 (4) (60). Lousville, KY: Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.]


So, both post-biblical Judaism and post-New Testament Christianity have wrestled with this issue. Within Christianity, images are used (with the distinction made between veneration and worship) in the Eastern Orthodox branch of the church (although statues are not allowed), and images are allowed/used in Catholic churches and in the quasi-related groups of Anglicanism and some sub-groups within Lutheranism. Within evangelical Protestantism, however, images are not often used in worship services--with the Cross (without a human figure on it) being the general exception. [Of course, it 'functions' much like a menorah or representation of the Ark in synagogue design.]

…….. …….. …..

Let's summarize what we've seen so far, before turning to the special case of Jesus as Word, Reveler, and Image of God.

  1. God prohibited Israel from making an image of Himself.

  2. God is never said to be 'without form' in the Hebrew Bible.

  3. God did not reveal Himself in a 'form' to his people Israel in the Hebrew bible.

  4. God did reveal Himself using a form in at least three occasions (often to Moses, to the elders at Sinai, and to Abraham at the announcement of the promise of Isaac)

  5. God is not said to be invisible in the Hebrew bible, but this is said of Him in the New Testament.

  6. God's chosen method of revelation is not visual, it is verbal--He chooses to reveal Himself in His words.

  7. No created form is adequate to express God's being.

  8. God does reveal Himself in human/angelic forms in prophetic visions and in verbal images (e.g. riding on a cloud).

  9. God's presence was in the Cloud/Shekinah, and although it glowed with light, no form was visible inside the Cloud.

  10. God's presence was somehow 'inside' the Angel of the Lord in the Hebrew Bible, so much so that the Angel is often identified as God by the Israelites (and speaks as God) even though the Angel is 'sent from' God as well. [God and the Angel are 'identified' as being the same Divine Authority or Being somehow.]

  11. God commanded the creation and use of certain images in the original tabernacle (specifically cherubim), during the wilderness experience (the bronze serpent), in the designs for Solomon's temple--given from God through David to Solomon (cherubim, lions, calf, oxen), and in the plans for Ezekiel's temple.

  12. None of these authorized images were representations of God.

  13. God can authorize such images, but humanity cannot!

  14. Later aniconic Judaism was 'embarrassed' by God's use of these images! (e.g. Josephus)

  15. The Second Commandant has been interpreted strictly and loosely at different times in the history of Judaism, with images being allowed sometimes and not allowed other times. Acceptance also could vary by locale.

  16. Synagogue art (as a subset of general Jewish art) shows this variance in interpretation, with ancient synagogues sometimes including animal/human images, mythic/pagan images, representations of God, and/or aniconic designs (e.g. floral, geometric).

  17. After the destruction of Herod's Temple, the synagogues took on more 'temple-like' elements, with representations of the Ark being prominent.

  18. Dominant visual themes in post-Temple early synagogues were the Temple/Ark, the Menorah, and Torah.

  19. New Testament Christianity was fully Jewish: monotheism, invisibility of God, anti-idolatry, emptiness of religious images.

  20. The post-New Testament church originally was aniconic (even condemning early images of Jesus), but experienced the same pendulum swings that early Judaism experienced on the acceptance/rejection of religious images.

  21. Modern evangelical Protestant groups are probably closest to the Orthodox position of your friend: they do NOT use images in churches (except the empty Cross, functioning as a community identification symbol like a Menorah does), and their focus is on the written/spoken revealed Word of God (Hebrew Bible, New Testament).


This should address the issues your friend raised, and hopefully will help us all to appreciate the Jewish 'God among us' promises of the LORD in the Hebrew Bible, and how far the passion of God will go in communicating His good-heart and saving actions to us.

………………………………. …………………………………………


Finally, I want to make some comments on the issue of Jesus as Word, revealer, and Adamic-Image


The first thing we should point out is the any image of Jesus in a church would be an image of His human body only and it would not be able to convey any aspect of his deity/oneness with the Father. As such it would be akin to an image of the ancient Tabernacle or Temple. Just as a drawing of the Temple could not possibly portray the actual presence of the Living and Invisible God inside it, so too a drawing of the human body of Messiah Jesus could not possibly portray the 'fullness of God' dwelling in Him.


Synagogues (or museums or schools or any building for that matter) with any type of representation of the ancient tabernacle or Temple (even stylized) in a mosaic, on a wall or façade, 3D model, or even in an illustrated scroll would be comparable to a church with an artist's rendering of Jesus's body in a window, painting, sculpture, or illustrated book of liturgy. The principle is the same. Neither of these would be (attempted) representations of the Invisible God, and as such, would not be violations of the 2nd commandant per se.


Historically, btw, the original tabernacle was considered to be a model/representation ITSELF--by earliest Christianity and by early/rabbinic Judaism--of the heavenly tabernacle! The passage in the New Testament Book of Hebrews (8.5) simply states what was commonly held:

For when Moses was about to erect the tent, he was instructed by God, saying, “See that you make everything according to the pattern that was shown you on the mountain.

"For the earthly sanctuary from the outset was designed to be nothing more than a “copy and shadow” of the heavenly reality. This is how our author understands the divine injunction to Moses, regarding the details of the tabernacle in the wilderness: “And see that you make them after the pattern for them, which is being shown you on the mountain” (Ex. 25:40). This “pattern” (referred to also in Ex. 25:9; 26:30; 27:8) was something visible; it did not consist merely of the verbal directions of Ex. 25–30. It may have been a model for which the verbal directions served as a commentary; it may have been the heavenly dwelling-place of God which Moses was permitted to see. The tabernacle was intended to serve as a dwelling-place for God in the midst of his people on earth, and it would be completely in keeping with current practice that such an earthly dwelling-place should be a replica of God’s heavenly dwelling-place. This, of course, is how our author understands the situation. [NICNT]

"The notion that the earthly temple is constructed according to a heavenly pattern is an ancient Semitic one. It underlies the accounts of the construction of the desert tabernacle and the Jerusalem temple and is probably involved in poetic texts of the Old Testament that speak of heaven itself as God’s temple. Whether those texts presume a heavenly archetype of the earthly temple is unclear. Such an understanding of a heavenly temple is more clearly expressed in Jewish literature, both apocalyptic and sapiential, of the Persian and Hellenistic eras. In the heavenly journey of 1 Enoch, the visionary sees a heavenly “house,” or rather a complex of two houses, an outer and inner. In the latter he finds the throne on which the “Great Glory” is seated. Although not explicitly described as a temple, the structure of this heavenly dwelling corresponds to that of the earthly temple and the environment of the divine throne is traditionally the locus of heavenly worship. A similar, but even more explicit, scheme is described in the Testament of Levi. There the patriarch, during a heavenly journey in which he obtains the priesthood, learns of the distinction between the lower heavens where various angels are arranged and the uppermost heaven, the Holy of Holies, where the throne of God, styled the “Great Glory,” is situated and the angelic priests conduct their liturgy [3.2-4]. Yet more complex descriptions of heavenly sanctuaries are found at Qumran [4QSirolat Has-sabbat]. Somewhat later, the heavenly sanctuary may even find pictorial representation in the synagogue mosaics of Dura Europus. Such ideas about the heavenly temple no doubt underlie the laconic references in the Wisdom of Solomon and some Jewish pseudepigrapha [Wis 9.8; 2 Bar 4:4] The image is massively deployed in the New Testament in Revelation. Later rabbinic literature gives abundant attestation to the theme, emphasizing the close correspondence between the earthly and heavenly sanctuaries [b. Hag. 12b; Gen. Rab. 55.7; Midr. Cant. 4.4]." [Attridge, H. W., & Koester, H. (1989). The Epistle to the Hebrews : A commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews. Hermeneia--a critical and historical commentary on the Bible (222). Philadelphia: Fortress Press.]

"The Tabernacle and its furnishings are conceived either as earthly replicas of celestial archetypes or as constructions based upon divinely given blueprints and pictorial representations [footnote says "Exod. 25:40; 26:30; 27:8; Num. 8:4. Heb. tavnit, “pattern,” usually refers to the imitative reproduction of a material entity that exists in reality; cf. Deut. 4:16–18; Josh. 22:28; 2 Kings 16:10; Isa. 44:13; Ezek. 8:3, 10; 10:8; Pss. 106:20; 144:12. But tavnit here could be understood as an archetypal model"]. Both notions are found elsewhere in the Bible. According to the Chronicler’s account of the building of Solomon’s Temple (1 Chron. 28:11–19), David had received the specifications from God. Ezekiel's detailed vision of the reconstructed Temple in Jerusalem is likewise said to have been received by the prophet while standing on “a very high mountain,” as is told in Ezekiel 40:2. The notion of a celestial temple, a sort of cosmic sanctuary, is clearly conveyed in the vision of Isaiah 6:1–8. It is explicit in Micah 1:2–3, which foresees the Lord coming down from “His holy abode,” from “His dwelling-place” to “stride upon the heights of the earth.” The psalmist, too, declares that “the LORD is in His holy palace; the LORD—His throne is in heaven” (Ps. 11:4). [Sarna, N. M. (1991). Exodus. The JPS Torah commentary (159). Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society.]


But there is something else we need to look at before closing: the passages that specially mention (apparently?) Christ as an image-like representative or reveler of God.

[Of course, even if these passages somehow say that Jesus is a 'graven image' of God--in apparent conflict with the 2nd Commandment--we have to face up to the fact that it is GOD doing the 'image making' or 'image installing' in the incarnation. It is not a work of 'human hands' or 'human tools' or 'human imagination' that could do such a thing. We cannot 'play Josephus' and 'edit out' parts of God's revelation! God created verbal versions of poetic visual images (e.g. in the Psalms, with God as riding on clouds) and even verbal versions of visual images of Himself on the heavenly throne (e.g. in the Throne-room visions of the prophets), so God could create a verbal-in-flesh or verbal-in-a-narrative revelation should He choose to. And this is what Jesus claimed to be…]

Jesus/Yeshua had already made the audacious claims that "whoever has seen Me has seen the Father" (John 14.9) ; that "If you knew Me, you would know my Father also" (John 8.19); and that "Those who believe in me do not believe in me only, but in the one who sent me. When they look at me, they see the one who sent me" (John 12.44f).

There are two main such passages--using words like 'image'-- in the New Testament, one written to a largely Jewish-Christian audience and one written to a mixed Jewish-Christian and Gentile-Christian audience. But--in keeping with the overall aniconic stance of the apostolic church--these 'images' are actually not VISUAL or about 'Form'. In fact, these passages also use terms which were ascribed to various other 'representations' or 'manifestations' of God by both earlier and contemporary Jewish writers (e.g. Memra, Wisdom, Logos, and Torah by the later rabbis).

Let's look at them:


The former eikon-like passage is in Hebrews 1:

Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, 2 but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. 3 He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high


This passage does not use the actual 'image' word eikon, but the word translated 'imprint' in the English translation above (charakter) is close enough for our discussion.

"Jewish authors writing in Greek often said that divine Wisdom was the exact “image” (so KJV here) of God, the prototypical stamp by which he “imprinted” (cf. NRSV here) the seal of his image on the rest of creation (the way an image was stamped on coins). [Keener, C. S., & InterVarsity Press. (1993). The IVP Bible background commentary : New Testament (Heb 1:3). Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press.]

"The first image of the verse, that Christ is the ἀπαύγασμα of God’s glory, ultimately derives from a specific source in the wisdom tradition, Wis 7:26, where Sophia (Wisdom) is said to be an “ἀπαύγασμα of the glory of the Almighty.” … In Wisdom, the remark that Sophia is an ἀπαύγασμα follows other emanationist language, but immediately precedes the description of Sophia as an “unblemished mirror” and “image.” Philo uses ἀπαύγασμα both of the human mind and of the world…. In such poetic language complete precision is not to be expected. The image, in whatever sense it may be taken, serves, like the following, to affirm the intimate relationship between the Father and the pre-existent Son, through whom redemption is effected. … “Glory” (δόξα) as a designation of the divine reality or of the heavenly state is a commonplace in the Old Testament, post-biblical Judaism, and early Christianity. Glory in Hebrews is also a characteristic of the exalted Son and is the eschatological goal of the people he leads. … The Son is also the imprint or stamp (χαρακτήρ) of the divine reality. Here again the language and conceptuality of the wisdom tradition, as that developed among Hellenized Jews and their Christian heirs, comes clearly to expression. Christ is here depicted in terms similar to those used in Philo of the Logos, which as the image of God, functions as a seal (σφραγίς). As a seal, the Logos has the imprint, of the divine which it reproduces in the human mind. The interest of Hebrews, as in most other early Christian adaptations of this theme, is not to develop an anthropological or cosmogonic theory, but to express once again the conviction that the Son is the fully adequate representation of the divine. [Attridge, H. W., & Koester, H. (1989). The Epistle to the Hebrews : A commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews. Hermeneia--a critical and historical commentary on the Bible (42–44). Philadelphia: Fortress Press.]

"χαρακτήρ had already acquired a meaning corresponding to the modern “character” (e.g. in Menander’s proverb, ἀνδρὸς χαρακτὴρ ἐκ λόγου γνωρίζεται, Heauton Timoroumenos, 11). The idea of χαρακτήρ as replica is further illustrated by the Bereschith rabba, 52. 3 (on Gn 21:2): “hence we learn that he (Isaac) was the splendour of his (father’s) face, as like as possible to him.” … An early explanation of this conception is given by Lactantius (diuin. instit. iv. ), viz. that “the Father is as it were an overflowing fountain, the Son like a stream flowing from it; the Father like the sun, the Son as it were a ray extended from the sun (radius ex sole porrectus). Since he is faithful (cp. He 3:2) and dear to the most High Father, he is not separated from him, any more than the stream is from the fountain or the ray from the sun; for the water of the fountain is in the stream, and the sun’s light in the ray.” But our author is content to throw out his figurative expressions. How the Son could express the character of God, is a problem which he does not discuss; it is felt by the author of the Fourth Gospel, who suggests the moral and spiritual affinities that lie behind such a function of Jesus Christ, by hinting that the Son on earth taught what he had heard from the Father and lived out the life he had himself experienced and witnessed with the unseen Father. This latter thought is present to the mind of Seneca in Epp. 6:5, 6, where he observes that “Cleanthes could never have exactly reproduced Zeno, if he had simply listened to him; he shared the life of Zeno, he saw into his secret purposes” (vitae eius interfuit, secreta perspexit). The author of Hebrews, like Paul in Col 1:15–17, contents himself with asserting the vital community of nature between the Son and God, in virtue of which (φέρων τε) the Son holds his position in the universe. [Moffatt, J. J. (1924). A critical and exegetical commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews (7). Edinburgh: T&T Clark International.]

"He is the very image of the essence of God—the impress of his being. Just as the image and superscription on a coin exactly correspond to the device on the die, so the Son of God “bears the very stamp of his nature” (RSV). The Greek word charaktēr, occurring here only in the New Testament, expresses this truth even more emphatically than eikōn, which is used elsewhere to denote Christ as the “image” of God (2 Cor. 4:4; Col. 1:15). Just as the glory is really in the effulgence, so the being (Gk. hypostasis) of God is really in Christ, who is its impress, its exact representation and embodiment. What God essentially is, is made manifest in Christ. To see Christ is to see what the Father is like. [Bruce, F. F. (1990). The Epistle to the Hebrews (Rev. ed.). The New International Commentary on the New Testament (48). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.]

The exact representation of his being (1:3). The word translated “representation” (charaktēr), used only here in the New Testament, originally was used for an engraving tool or an engraver, a stamp, or even a branding iron. It also came to be used of the image, impress, or mark made, for example on coins or seals. Metaphorically the word developed the meaning of a distinguishing mark on a person or thing by which it is distinguished from other persons or things. Thus, the term denotes features of an object or person by which one is able to identify it. Philo of Alexandria uses the word fifty-one times in his works, and it is possible that the author of Hebrews has picked up the term in interaction with Philo’s works. Yet, as William Lane points out, our author employs the word to make his point for Christian theology. The idea that the Son is the “exact representation of [God’s] being” means that he gives a clear picture of the nature of God. This echoes other New Testament texts that speak of Jesus as the “form,” “likeness,” or “image” of the Father. [Arnold, C. E. (2002). Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary Volume 4: Hebrews to Revelation. (12). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.]

"More important is that the text does not deal primarily with God’s relationship to the Son, but with the way God communicates through the Son. The Son is the one through whom God’s power and presence are brought into the realm of human experience. … of his glory. Glory has to do with what God reveals of himself to human beings (Lev 9:23; Num 14:21–22; Isa 40:5). The OT ascribes to glory a luminous quality consistent with the idea of “radiance” (cf. Exod 24:16–17; 40:34–35; 1 Kgs 8:11). References to glory that “shines” around people is consonant with this revelatory quality (Isa 60:1–2; 2 Cor 4:6). … and the impress. This suggestive term (charactēr) functions as a metaphor parallel to “radiance.” The term was often used for the image on a coin (LSJ 1977) or the impression left by a seal (Philo, Drunkenness 133). Two aspects should be noted: (a) Congruence. Calling the Son an impress emphasizes that God and the Son are congruent without explaining how they are alike. A statue was an impress that bore the characteristics of the person after whom it was patterned (MM, 683), and a child had the impress or charactēr of the parent (4 Macc 15:4). Jesus had a physical body whereas God does not. God was “without charactēr” in a physical sense (Philo, Unchangeable 55; cf. Exod 20:4; Isa 44:9–20). (b) Perceptibility. An impress was used for that which created an impression (Philo, Planter 18–20) and for the traits that enabled people to distinguish one person from another (Posterity 110; Special Laws 4.110). The word is similar to “image” (eikōn), which can be used for the way that Christ makes God known (2 Cor 4:4–6; Col 1:15). Jesus is God’s “impress” because he reveals God’s power, presence, and faithfulness. … Like other early Christian writers, the author of Hebrews drew some of the elevated language for Christ from Israel’s wisdom traditions. Wisdom was sometimes said to have lived on earth (Bar 3:37), to have been exalted to heaven (1 Enoch 42:1–2), to be seated beside God’s throne (Wis 9:4), and to be the radiance of eternal light (Wis 7:25–26). Philo utilized these traditions when he spoke of the logos or “word” as the power by which God fashioned the world, sometimes calling the logos God’s “firstborn,” “high priest” (Dreams 1.215), and “image” or eikōn (Creation 25; Alleg. Interp. 3.96). The logos could function as God’s seal by making the imprint of the divine upon the human soul (Planter 18), and it was the helmsman guiding all things on their course (Migration 6). [Koester, C. R. (2008). Hebrews: A new translation with introduction and commentary (in loc). New Haven; London: Yale University Press.]

"Each of these christological affirmations echoes declarations concerning the role of divine Wisdom in the Wisdom of Solomon (cf. Wis 7:21–27). Once the categories of divine Wisdom were applied to Jesus, his association with the creative activity of God was strengthened (cf. Prov 8:22–31; Wis 7:22; 9:2, 9). [Lane, W. L. (2002). Vol. 47A: Word Biblical Commentary : Hebrews 1-8. Word Biblical Commentary (12). Dallas: Word, Incorporated.]


The point is that the exact representation (charakter) is about revelation from God, not about worship of God. God spoke through the Son--though His words, life, values, teachings, actions, ministry, and sacrificial death. The emphasis is not on visually experiencing Jesus, but on experiencing God's glory in the actions, words, and heart of Jesus. [Paul can describe this revelation from God about Himself in this way (2 Cor 4.6): "For God, who said, 'Let light shine out of darkness,' has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. "]. And the seal aspect of the imprint word--as a sign of ownership and as a sign of contractual commitment--reveals God's faithfulness to His promises. Christ was the 'yes' to God's promises.

"What is new is that God addressed the author and his contemporaries, not by prophets, but “by a Son” (1:2)…. The content of what God said may have included the message that Jesus preached, but that is not the point here. If the prophets conveyed God’s word by what they said, the Son conveyed God’s word by who he was and what he did. God “speaks” by sending his Son to share in human blood, flesh, and death (2:14–18; 10:5; 13:12), and by exalting the Son to glory so that he might be a source of salvation for others (5:8–9; 7:25…). … Another dimension emerges when we ask what the metaphor conveys about God’s way of addressing people through the Son. “Impress” suggests that the Son is God’s identifying mark, and “substance” suggests not only being but the inner resolve that undergirds one’s actions. If the Son is the impress of God’s substance, then he is the one in whom God’s inner resolve or faithfulness is displayed. God promised to make a new covenant, and he inaugurated it through Christ’s death (Jer 31:31–34; Heb 8:8–12; 9:15); God promised that one he called “lord” would sit at his right hand to serve as a priest forever, and he accomplished this through Jesus’ exaltation (Ps 110:1, 4; Heb 1:13; 7:15–17). Because of the substance or faithfulness that God reveals through Christ, listeners can exhibit “substance” in their faith (3:14; 11:1). [Koester, C. R. (2008). Hebrews: A new translation with introduction and commentary (184–185). New Haven; London: Yale University Press.]


This is very close in content, of course, to the term 'Word' that is used in the Prologue of the Gospel of John (1:1-18). Jesus--in His teaching and actions--is a 'verbal image' of God the Father, revealing His character and His will to redeem us.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. … He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. 12 But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God… And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. … No one has ever seen God; the only God [or 'Son'], who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known.


This is the revelation of God that is both verbal AND personal. It is both verbal/aural (i.e. Word, and 'He has declared/exegeted him'--verse 18) and personal/experienced ('we have seen his glory'--verse 14) in the same sense that the Exodus generation 'saw' the glory of the LORD. God-in-Christ is the final intensity of God's reaching down to His people and to the nations.

"Furthermore, the Son has made … known (exēgēsato, whence the Eng. “exegeted”) the Father. The Son is the “exegete” of the Father, and as a result of His work the nature of the invisible Father (cf. 4:24) is displayed in the Son (cf. 6:46). [BKC]


The characteristics ascribed to the Word in this passage (as in the Book of Hebrews passage we looked at above, and as in the Colossians passage we will look at in a minute) were ascribed by contemporary Hellenistic and Rabbinic Judaism to various quasi-intermediary figures or terms (e.g. Wisdom, Memra, Torah, Shekinah). All of these concepts--with the possible exception of Shekinah--were revelatory in focus. They were an extension of the 'hearing the Word' method that God used in biblical Israel to reveal Himself (as opposed to visual images).

We have already noted above the similarities between the Word/Jesus and Wisdom, so I will just add one more quote on the connection, and then turn to the data on Memra and on Torah here.


First, Wisdom:

"More to the point here is the importance in Hellenistic Judaism of the thought of divine Wisdom as the “image of God” (particularly Wis. 7:26; Philo, Legum allegoriae 1:43); also of the divine Logos in Philo (De confusione linguarum 97, 147; De fuga et inventione 101; De somnis 1.239; 2.45; Eltester 110). The invisible God makes himself visible in and through his wisdom (…). The importance of this in Hellenistic Judaism was that “image” could thus bridge the otherwise unbridgeable gulf between the invisible world and God on the one side and visible creation and humanity on the other — denoting both that which produces the divine image and the image thus produced. In Jewish theology Wisdom and Logos (the two are often equivalent) thus become ways of safeguarding the unknowability of God by providing a mode of speaking of the invisible God’s self-revelatory action (his “image/likeness” being stamped, his “word” spoken) by means of which he may nevertheless be known (“the knowledge of God”…). The Wisdom and Logos of God could thus function in effective Jewish apologetic within a wider Hellenistic milieu, where other similarly functioning terms were less suitable (“glory of God” too Jewish, “Spirit of God” too nonrational). This means also that Wisdom (and Logos) should not be understood in simplistic or mechanical terms as “intermediaries” between God and his world. Nor is a term like “hypostasis” appropriate, since only in later centuries did it gain the distinctive meaning that was necessary for it to function in resolving otherwise intractable problems for the Christian understanding of God. Rather, these terms have to be understood as ways of speaking of God’s own outreach to and interaction with his world and his people, ways, in other words, of speaking of God’s immanence while safeguarding his transcendence — in a word, “personifications” of God’s wisdom rather than “intermediaries” or “hypostases” (…). The character and effectiveness of this divine Wisdom become clear in wider Jewish usage, both in the affirmation of its unknowability, unless God takes the initiative (Job 28; Bar. 3:28–36), and in the claim that God has expressed his wisdom most clearly in the Torah (Sir. 24:23; Bar. 3:36–4:1). … As the sequence of parallels with motifs characteristically used of Jewish Wisdom in these verses [in Colossians] will confirm, the writer here is taking over language used of divine Wisdom and reusing it to express the significance of Christ, if not, indeed, taking over a pre-Christian hymn to Wisdom. That is to say, he is identifying this divine Wisdom with Christ, just as ben Sira and Baruch identified divine Wisdom with the Torah (so also Heb. 1:3 …). The effect is the same: not to predicate the actual (pre)existence of either Torah or Christ prior to and in creation itself, but to affirm that Torah and Christ are to be understood as the climactic manifestations of the preexistent divine wisdom, by which the world was created. It is Christ in his revelatory and redemptive significance who is the subject of praise here; “the description is revelatory, more than ontological” (Martin, Colossians and Philemon 57). And the praise is that his redemptive work (1:14: “in whom we have the redemption”) is entirely continuous and of a piece with God’s work in creation. It is the same God who comes to expression in creation and definitively in Christ; “he who speaks of Christ speaks of God” (Gnilka, Kolosserbrief 61). In short, there is no dualism here. Quite the contrary: this is christology set within Jewish monotheism and predicated on the Jewish theological axiom that the one God has chosen to reveal himself in and through his creative power ... [Dunn, J. D. G. (1996). The Epistles to the Colossians and to Philemon : A commentary on the Greek text (88–89). Grand Rapids, Mich.; Carlisle: William B. Eerdmans Publishing; Paternoster Press.]


Second, Memra ('word', 'command') varied between a purely stylistic periphrasis for God to something more like a personal theophany:

"But within Judaism it was becoming clear that the revelation of God’s mind and will could not be complete through things (nature) or through sounds made by others (words). God is personal, and only through some quasi-personal intermediary could personality be fully known. So later Judaism had been working slowly toward the idea of a personal mediator (other than fallible human priests) between the transcendent God and the created world. Creative wisdom was spoken of in personal terms (Prv 8:12–31) that seem to go beyond poetry. And in the Targums as in rabbinic writings, a new term emerged, Memra (Aramaic for “Word”) to indicate an intermediate agent between God and man. Thus the divine Memra created the world, appeared to Adam, Abraham, Moses, wrestled with Jacob, brought Israel from Egypt, and worked miracles. [Elwell, W. A., & Beitzel, B. J. (1988). Baker encyclopedia of the Bible (2160–2161). Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House.]

"The Targumic use of Memra. When John cites Scripture, as we have seen, sometimes the citation is taken from neither the Hebrew nor LXX, but from the Targums or Aramaic translations. In these Targums, memra, Aramaic for “word,” has a special function. (The cautions expressed by G. F. Moore in “Intermediaries in Jewish Theology,” HTR 15 [1922], especially pp. 41–55, are still important.) The Memra of the Lord in the Targums is not simply a translation of what we have spoken of as “the word of the Lord”; rather it is a surrogate for God Himself. If in Exod 3:12 God says, “I will be with you,” in the Targum Onkelos God says, “My Memra will be your support.” If in Exod 19:17 we are told that Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet God, in Targum Onkelos we are told that they were brought to the Memra of God. If Gen 28:21 says, “Yahweh shall be my God,” Targum Onkelos speaks of the Memra of Yahweh. This is not a personification, but the use of Memra serves as a buffer for divine transcendence. If the Aramaic expression for “word” was used in the Targums as a paraphrase for God in His dealings with men, the author of the Prologue hymn may have seen fit to use this title for Jesus who pre-eminently incorporated God’s presence among men. The personification of the Word would, of course, be part of the Christian theological innovation. [Brown, R. E., S.S. (2008). The Gospel according to John (I-XII): Introduction, translation, and notes (523–524). New Haven; London: Yale University Press.]

"The name “Memra” (lit. speech or voice) was one of the ways the intertestamental Jews spoke of God appearing on earth. Martin McNamara points out in his introduction to Targum Neofiti: 'The designation for God most characteristic of all the Targums is “the Memra of the Lord.” This is found 314 times in NF and 636 in Nfmg; in Frag. Tgs. about 99 times; in Ctg text 97 times in texts published by Kahle; in Onq 178 times and 322 Ps. J.' … The “Memra of the Lord” is described in the Targums as doing the same things that the New Testament describes Jesus as the “Word of God” doing. For example, just as the Targums on Genesis 1:1 say that the Memra created the world, John 1:1–3 says that the Word created the world. Just as the Targums attribute the theophanies to appearances of the Memra in human form (see the Targums on Gen. 3:8; 18; 19:24; 32:30, etc.), the New Testament attributes the theophanies to the pre-existent Word of God (John 12:38–41). [Morey, R. A. (1996). The Trinity : Evidence and Issues (219). Iowa Falls, IA.: World Pub.]

"The opening verses of the Johannine prolog reflect midrashic interpretation at many points. We are told that the Word [logos] existed with God from the beginning, that all things were made through the Word and that the Word was the source of light and illumination (esp. Jn 1:1, 4–5, 9). All of these ideas are found in the midrashim and Targums: “You find that at the very beginning of the creation of the world, the King Messiah had already come into being” (Pesiq. R. 33:6); “By my Word [memra] I have perfected the heavens” (Tg. Isa. 48:13; cf. 45:12); “And the Word of the Lord said, ‘Let there be light’ ” (Frg. Tg. Gen. 1:3); “The earth was void and empty and darkness was spread over the face of the abyss. And the Word of the Lord was the light and it shone …” (Tg. Neof. Exod. 12:42; cf. Gen. Rab. 1:6 [on Gen 1:1]). [Green, J. B., McKnight, S., & Marshall, I. H. (1992). Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels (547). Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press.]


Finally, Torah/Law:

"Possibly more important for understanding the development of Johannine doctrine is rabbinical Torah theology, by which the OT “word” became increasingly interpreted as the Law, described in elevated terms as pre-existent and the life of the world; sometimes Torah is personified as the daughter of Yahweh (see Hoskyns and Davey, p. 155; Schnackenburg, I, 484f). [ISBE]

"Jewish speculation on the Law (Torah). See G. F. Moore, Judaism (Harvard, 1927), I, pp. 264–69; StB, II, pp. 353–58; Boismard, Prologue, pp. 97–98. In later rabbinical writings the Law is pictured as having been created before all things and as having served as the pattern on which God created the world. The “in the beginning” of Gen 1:1 was interpreted to mean “in the Torah.” This idealization of the Law probably had its beginning in the last pre-Christian centuries. Sir 24:23 ff. gives evidence of the identification of Wisdom with the Torah. Bar 4:1, having spoken of personified Wisdom, says: “This is the book of the commandments of God, and the Law that will endure forever.” In many instances Torah and “the word of the Lord” are almost interchangeable, e.g., in the parallelism of Isa 2:3, “Out of Zion shall go forth the Law, and out of Jerusalem the word of the Lord.” Thus, the speculation on the Law has much in common with the other themes that we have cited as background for the Prologue’s use of “the Word.” … In particular, we may note the following parallels with the Prologue. Prov 6:23 says that the Torah is a light. The passage in Ps 119:105 which says that God’s word is a light is set in the context of praise of the Law; and indeed some LXX manuscripts read “Law” in place of “word.” Testament of Levi xiv 4, in a passage very much like John 1:9, speaks of “the Law which was given to enlighten every man.” (There are Christian interpolations in Testament of Levi, however.) While the Prologue says that the Word was the source of life, the rabbis maintained that the study of the Law would bring one to the life of the age to come (Pirqe Aboth vi 7). While the Prologue stresses that Jesus Christ is the unique example of God’s enduring love (ḥesed and ʾemet), the rabbis taught that the Law was the supreme example (Dodd, Interpretation, p. 82). [Brown, R. E., S.S. (2008). The Gospel according to John (I-XII): Introduction, translation, and notes (523–524). New Haven; London: Yale University Press.]


Thus, the functions of the Word in the Prologue of the Gospel of John were thoroughly Jewish in background (reflecting various strains of Hellenistic, Palestinian, and proto-Rabbinic Jewish themes). God had incarnated His word, His wisdom, and His values (law) in the final (last days) 'speaking' through His Son:

"In sum, it seems that the Prologue’s description of the Word is far closer to biblical and Jewish strains of thought than it is to anything purely Hellenistic. In the mind of the theologian of the Prologue the creative word of God, the word of the Lord that came to the prophets, has become personal in Jesus who is the embodiment of divine revelation. Jesus is divine Wisdom, pre-existent, but now come among men to teach them and give them life. Not the Torah but Jesus Christ is the creator and source of light and life. He is the Memra, God’s presence among men. And yet, even though all these strands are woven into the Johannine concept of the Word, this concept remains a unique contribution of Christianity. It is beyond all that has gone before, even as Jesus is beyond all who have gone before." [Brown, R. E., S.S. (2008). The Gospel according to John (I-XII): Introduction, translation, and notes (523–524). New Haven; London: Yale University Press.]


So the focus of both the Hebrews 'character' motif and John's 'Word' motif is still non-visual. It is still 'hearing the Word of the Lord'. It is still a theology of the dynamic and living voice of God, instead of a static and 'frozen' visual image of the invisible God.


The latter eikon-like passage is in Colossians 1.15 (which actually uses the eikon word):

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. 16 For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. 17 And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. 19 For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross. (Col 1:15–20)


As noted immediately above, most of these attributes of Christ are the same as those ascribed to Wisdom and Memra (Word) in early Palestinian Judaism and ascribed to the Torah by later rabbis.

It should be obvious from the juxtaposition of 'image' and 'invisible' that Paul is NOT talking about some kind of physical or material representation--the concept is contradictory without even having to think about it. [EBC: " In interpreting this statement, we must not understand the apostle to be teaching that Christ is the image of God in a material or physical sense. The true meaning must be sought on a level deeper than this. "]

In fact, this use of eikon actually has nothing to do either with worship or with revelation. It is about God's ruling over the universe through His delegate-authority. Adam was created in the 'image of God' and was mandated to rule, shepherd, and develop the earth/creation. Adam failed in this responsibility (through rebellion and negligence) and so God has placed a New Adam--in His image--over the cosmos.

That is the basic thrust of the Colossians passage, and it has to do with the image of God as ruler, and NOT as revealer. It is Christ as representative and not as representation. [Of course, the perfect ruler will rule the cosmos in perfect accordance with the heart and will of God, so the process of dominion will itself be revelatory--but that is not really in focus here in the passage.]


This usage of 'image' can be seen from its close connection to 'firstborn' in the same verse:

"Prōtótokos (first-born) occurs in extra-biblical Greek only rarely, in contrast to its active form prōtotókos (bearing for the first time). In the LXX, however, the word occurs frequently (ca. 130 times). “These latter references are still older than the earliest references for extra-biblical examples of prōtótokos.” There, it is used in reference to humans and animals (Ex 13:2 and elsewhere). While in statements such as Ex 13:2; Num 8:16; 18:17; Deut 15:19, the components of “first” and “to bear” are inherent in the concept of “first-born,” in other instances they recede almost completely (cf. for example LXX Ex 4:22; Ps 88[89]:28; Sir 36:11). Neither the notion of procreation, nor birth, nor temporal priority is present; rather, “first-born” designates a position of preference or predominance. The concept then carries the meaning of “chosen” or “beloved.” This use corresponds to the frequently used extra-biblical word prōtogonos, which also means “first-born” and can also designate the first one in priority. … Eikōn in common Greek terminology means “image” in different perspectives. For one, in the sense of a true pictorial representation, it means a painting, a statue, a mirror image, or a representation impressed upon a coin. Eikōn also carries the meaning not of a figurative representation, in which we are dealing with the exterior form of a person or thing, but rather with the “depiction” of its being or essence. Thus we can translate the word as “manifestation,” “embodiment,” or “representation.” However, more can be intended by eikōn than only a medium which brings the essence of a person or thing into cognizance. In fact, the concept incorporates a “radiance, a visible revelation of the being with substantial participation (metochē) of the object.” … The proclamation would be that Christ reveals the invisible God and that he himself has a part in his being. This explanation, however, does not suffice for the statement in Col 1:15. Christ is not called an “image” because he reveals God or has a part in his being; rather, he bears this title as the “first-born over all of creation”. This indicates that eikōn does not primarily express his relationship to God but rather to all of creation. … The close relationship of the two honorifics, “first-born” and “image,” leads to the question as to how the designation of Christ as “image” aligns itself with the interpretation of “first-born”… Unlike Plato, for example, who comprehends the cosmos as the perceptible image of an intelligible god, in Col 1:15 the same person is called the “image of God” who stands in opposition to the cosmos because the world has been created by him. … There is still another possibility for interpretation without having to introduce the Platonic tradition by way of Philo into the hymn and without having to speculate about the essence and meaning of the term “image” when it is used as a title of Christ. It is possible, and made probable by the context, that “image” as in Gen 1:26–28 denotes a function, namely the divine mandate to dominate the earth. This interpretation is supported in 2 Cor 4:4f., which together with Col 1:15 is the only place in the Pauline corpus which discusses the divine image of Christ: the gospel of the glory of Christ who is the image of God preaches Jesus Christ “that he is Lord, but that we are your servants for Jesus’ sake.” It thus becomes probable that “image” as well as “first-born” both proclaim the supreme position of the Son in the cosmos. … The attribute “image of God who is not seen” does not contradict the above statement. At first glimpse, the combination of the Christ designation as “image” with the fact that God is not seen by human eyes (aoratos) seems to demand that in v 15a Christ means primarily agent or paragon of God’s revelation. But aside from the fact that such an interpretation would fit into the context only with great difficulty, this inference is not compelling. If we consider the expression “of God who is not seen” in light of the OT, then it becomes clear that we are not dealing primarily with the “invisibility” of God and therefore not with the attempt to make him visible. Rather, the emphasis lies on the glory including the power of God which no human eye and no living person could withstand unless God himself provided special protection. Col 1:15 proclaims the greatness of God’s glory and power, as well as his inaccessibility and sovereignty. … When we interpret “image” as title for a royal ruler, then the infinitive “of God” in Col 1:15 refers to God who has enthroned his Son as Lord over all things (cf. Phil 2:10–11). The addition of “who is not seen” indicates the glory and power not only of God but also of him who is installed by the Father. Jesus is legitimatized by God as “image” and “first-born,” namely as ruler and king of all creation [Barth, M., Blanke, H., & Beck, A. B. (2008). Colossians: A new translation with introduction and commentary (194-196, 248–250). New Haven; London: Yale University Press.]

"An Adamic Background for the Portrayal of Christ: “Τhe Image of God.” A number of commentators rightly understand that the reference to Christ as the “image of the invisible God” is, at least in part, an allusion to Gen. 1:27: “God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him”; LXX: “God made man according to the image of God” (…). Paul’s language here is virtually identical with his reference elsewhere to “man” being in “the image and glory of God” (1 Cor. 11:7, where clear allusion is made to Gen. 1:27). Paul’s thought here may have been led to this reference, not only because of the repeated allusion to Gen. 1:28 in the preceding context (1:6, 10), but also because of the mention of “son” in 1:13 (the relative pronoun hos in 1:15, like hō in 1:14, has its antecedent in “the son of his love” in 1:13). “Sonship,” as we noted, is inextricably linked to the Gen. 1 notion of God’s “image.” For example, Gen. 5:1–4 implies that Adam’s being in God’s “image” means that Adam was God’s “son,” since when Adam’s son was born, Adam was said be the “father of [a son] in his own likeness, according to his image.” Early Judaism also closely associated the notions of Adam’s sonship and his being in God’s image, sometimes even referring to his being the image of the “invisible” God. The Life of Adam and Eve (ca. 100 AD) refers to God as Adam’s “unseen Father” because “he is your image” (L.A.E. 35). Philo (Planting 18–19) also underscores that Adam was created “to be a genuine coinage of that dread Spirit, the Divine and Invisible One,” and that he “has been made after the image of God, not however after the image of anything created” (likewise, Philo [Worse 86–87] says that “the invisible Deity stamped on the invisible soul the impress of itself, to the end that not even the terrestrial region should be without a share in the image of God”). Noah, as a second-Adam figure, is viewed by Philo (Moses 2.65) as being given the original Adamic commission from Gen. 1:28 and, accordingly, is said to be “born to be the likeness of God’s power and visible image of the invisible [eikōn tēs aoratou] nature” of God (cf. Col. 1:15: eikōn tou theou tou aoratou, which Lightfoot [1961: 144–46] sees as partly linked to Philo’s similar uses). … Paul either independently interprets the OT notion of the Adamic image along the same lines as does Judaism or he follows the interpretive trajectory begun in earlier Judaism. Either way, he sees that Christ was in the image of God before creation and is still in God’s image, though now this has been functionally enhanced in a redemptive-historical manner: Christ has come in human form and accomplished that which the first Adam did not; consequently, as divine and ideal human, Christ reflects the image that Adam and others should have reflected but did not. … An Adamic Background for the Portrayal of Christ: “The Firstborn.” The directly following reference in the second line of 1:15 to Christ as the “firstborn [prōtotokos] of all creation” highlights further the idea that he was an Adamic figure and “son” of God. The OT repeatedly asserts that the “firstborn” of every Israelite family gained authority by virtue of being given the inheritance rights. This notion was projected back upon the first Adam by early Judaism, since Adam was the “firstborn” of all human creation (see, e.g., Midr. Rab. Num. 4:8, where the reason that “firstborn” Israelites were redeemed by Levites and received the “birthright” is that “Adam was the world’s firstborn” who served as a priest, as did his representative progeny until the Levites were established). By a similar application, Christ is the last Adam, who is the “firstborn,” not only of all humanity in the new creation, but also of “all [things in the old] creation.” [Beale, G. K., & Carson, D. A. (2007). Commentary on the New Testament use of the Old Testament (853). Grand Rapids, MI; Nottingham, UK: Baker Academic; Apollos.]


So, the only real use of the word 'eikon' in the New Testament about Christ (along with the same Adamic idea in 2 Cor 4.4) is not about Jesus as devotional image or revelatory image, but is about a functional responsibility of His before the Father and toward the creation.


[Just FWIW: one of the Greek words for 'form'--morphe--is also used of Jesus in Philippians 2, but this is never taken to mean the same as 'eikon' in that passage. It is understood to mean 'substance' or 'nature', so it was not discussed in this article.]


Thus these three passages (i.e. Prologue in Book of Hebrews, Prologue in the Gospel of John, the Christ Hymn in Colossians), do not present Christ as a 'graven image' of any kind. He is the 'Word' and living disclosure of the Covenant-keeping LORD of the Hebrew Bible. He IS the revealer of God's innermost character and will, but this is expressed in good Jewish terms as a living 'verbal revelation'. God spoke to us 'in His Son'.


………………….


Concluding/summary remarks…




In the face of God breaking into history in this most intimate way (in the person of the Son) one can only be amazed at God's love and at His faithfulness to His promises in the Hebrew Bible, in sending His Son to 'save his people from their sins' and to bless all the nations of the world through the Descendent of Abraham…

For God so loved the world, that he gave His absolutely unique Son, that whoever placed their trust in Him should not perish but gain God-granted immortality

I hope this helps…

Glenn, Nov/2010


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