Ancient Perspectives on the “Image of God”

The concept of the “image of God” has been interpreted and understood differently across various ancient perspectives and religious traditions. Here are just some examples of ancient perspectives on the “image of God” from different cultural and religious contexts:

  1. Ancient Near East: In ancient Mesopotamia, specifically in Babylonian and Assyrian beliefs, kings were often considered representatives of the gods and were considered to possess the “image of God.” They were seen as rulers who acted on behalf of the gods and maintained order in society.
  2. Judaism: In the Hebrew Bible, the Book of Genesis states that humans were created in the “image of God” (Genesis 1:26-27). While there is no explicit explanation of what this image entails, some Jewish scholars and philosophers have interpreted it to mean that humans possess rationality, morality, free will, and the capacity to establish a relationship with God.
  3. Christianity: Christian theology understands the “image of God” primarily through the teachings of Jesus Christ. In the New Testament, it is believed that Jesus, as the Son of God, perfectly embodies the image of God, and humans are called to imitate Christ and conform to His likeness. This perspective emphasizes qualities such as love, compassion, righteousness, and spiritual growth.
  4. Ancient Greece: In ancient Greek philosophy, particularly in the works of Plato, the concept of the “image of God” can be associated with the idea of the soul. Plato argued that humans possess a divine element within them, the soul, which reflects the divine realm and is immortal. The soul’s rationality and its pursuit of truth are seen as reflecting the divine nature.

S. Joshua Swamidass, a Christian theologian and scientist, suggests that the concept of being made in the image of God can be grouped into three main approaches: substantive, relational, and functional views. The substantive view highlights specific attributes, such as rationality and creativity, that reflect God’s nature. The relational view emphasizes the idea of humans participating in a unique relationship with God and other human beings. Meanwhile, the functional view sees humans fulfilling a specific purpose or function in God’s creation.

John H. Walton, an Old Testament scholar, argues that understanding the ancient Near Eastern context is crucial in comprehending the concept of being made in the image of God. He notes that the ancient Israelites believed that physical idols represented a god’s power and authority. Thus, the image of God would have been understood in this context as a representation of God’s authority and power. The ancient Israelites would have understood that being made in God’s image meant they had a mandate to serve as stewards of God’s creation.

Gregory Beale, a New Testament scholar, frames idolatry and image bearing in terms of the human tendency to reflect the values and priorities of what we worship. Beale posits that when humans turn away from God and worship idols, they become conformed to the image of the idol and its values instead of reflecting God’s image. In this sense, idolatry involves a distortion of the image of God within us.

Understanding the concept of being made in the image of God is crucial for Christians and non-Christians alike. As we grapple with what it means to reflect God’s image in the world, we must seek to embody His values and priorities and fulfill our mandate as stewards of His creation.