The question “What is humanity?” dates far back into pre-Hellenistic antiquity. As early as the ancient civilizations of Mesopotamia and Egypt, humans have thought about themselves, their position in the world, and their relationship to the gods without systematically recording and depicting these thoughts. The same applies to Greek literature, which has Homer, Plato, and Aristotle as protagonists of anthropological thought (Vernant, 1993) but does not understand the question regarding the nature of humanity either independently or as a discipline of philosophy. Only with the humanism of the Italian Renaissance (Pico della Mirandola) and the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century (J. G. Herder, I. Kant, etc.) does anthropology become a philosophical discipline. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, it becomes the basis of the differentiation into a variety of anthropological disciplines, from a medical focus on the psychological to social anthropology (Marquard, 1971; Thies, 2011), of which the “concept of a person as a body-bound cultural being” (Lehmann, 2013, p. 57) is the foundation.

Since the last decade of the twentieth century there has been a renewed interest in anthropological questions in the field of biblical studies, following the classical project of Wolff in 1973 (Wolff, 2010), as the Old Testament in particular is a major source for Western anthropology. The present article first outlines Wolff’s Anthropologie des Alten Testaments and subsequently formulates prospects for a new approach. At the end, some considerations follow about the connection between the world of the text and the world of life, which is of particular importance for biblical anthropology.

Wolff’s Anthropologie as the Starting Point.

In contrast to the projects of F. Delitzsch, J. Koeberle, J. Pedersen, and others (Wolff, 2010, p. 23; Bester, 2007, pp. 6–23; Schmitt, 2010), Wolff posed a comprehensive question about Old Testament anthropology and developed it under three aspects: anthropological theory of language, biographical anthropology, and sociological anthropology.

Theological anthropology.

Wolff introduces an anthropological theory of language in which he analyzes first the basic anthropological terms nepeš (“liveliness, vitality”), bāśār (“flesh”), rûaḥ (“breath, wind, spirit”), and lēb/lēbāb (“heart”) and then the anthropological subjects “the life of the body,” “the interior of the body,” “the form of the body,” and “the essence of the person” (seeing and hearing, ear, mouth, tongue). This is followed by a biographical anthropology in which various concepts about time and creation, the basic rhythms, are described: creation and birth, life and death, youth and aging, waking and work, sleep and rest, illness and healing, and hope and expectation. In the third part, sociological anthropology, Wolff approaches the world of humanity to speak about the role(s) of the individuals in the community (and of the individual as “image of God”): man and woman, parents and children, friends and foes, masters and servants, wise and fools.

The conclusion provides a discussion about the destiny of the person in relation to God, to others, and to the created world. Here is the goal of Wolff’s Anthropologie. The person is, then, (1) “destined to live and not to become a subject to death” (Wolff, 2010, p. 311) and (2) “destined to love and to overcome all hate” (p. 313); (3) “the human destiny among the non-human creation is indisputable: govern” (p. 314); and (4) “the person is destined to praise God” (p. 316). In praising God “is found the meaning of humanity’s life in the world; the love of fellow persons and the governance over non-human creation is humanity’s true fulfillment. Otherwise, the individual as his/her own idol is a tyrant or loses freedom in the silence of speechlessness” (p. 319).

In spite of critical questions, the intent of Wolff’s Anthropologie is to conduct a comprehensive analysis of humanity that is in many ways convincing. This clearly is what the title of the second chapter, “nepeš the Needy Person” (Wolff, 2010, pp. 33–55), is about. In it he attempts to overcome and replace the regional image of a person, under the influence of Greek thought, dichotomous or trichotomous (body and soul or body, soul, and mind), with a more appropriate construction. Thus, Wolff develops the importance of the fundamental anthropological concept nepeš (Janowski, 2013a) on the basis of an analysis of the linguistic contexts, which describe the correlation of organs of the body and emotional or cognitive processes or characteristics. If some organs of the body, such as the heart (lēb/lēbāb) and the kidneys (kĕlāyôt), are connected with emotional or cognitive processes such as “happiness” or “joy” (cf. Ps 16:7–9; Prov 23:16) and if, conversely, social or psychological conflicts such as “hostility” or “resentment” affect certain organs of the body including the heart and the kidneys (cf. Ps 73:21), then the person is viewed as a singular whole in terms of body and psychological or cognitive aspects and functions.

Although on the basis of the correlation between the organs of the body and bodily function there is “no devaluation of the body, no dualism of mind/soul and body” (Albertz, 1992, p. 466) and the personality is not separate from the body, the Old Testament provides no basis for a unified anthropology. This does not need to be a disadvantage. The lack of a unified image of humanity is offset, for Wolff, by the “dialogue-character” (Wolff, 2010, p. 24), which is a central feature of anthropological texts. The purpose of a biblical anthropology as “the theological understanding of anthropological phenomena” (p. 24ff.) comes to the fore, as Wolff outlines:

"Biblical anthropology as a scientific task will search for [the texts] use where it is apparent that the people asked the questions within the text itself. The whole span of the context is to be called upon to compile the specific answers. It will be shown that the contributions have a dialogue-character and that the consensus in the testimony about humanity throughout all the linguistic changes is amazing. Especially in the conversation with God, humanity sees itself questioned and explored and, therefore, much less established and rather called to something new. Humanity is, so much as it is anything, far from the measure of things.(Wolff, 2010, p. 24)"

According to Wolff, the purpose of biblical anthropology is to ask of the texts and their contexts about the self-interpretation of humanity. Significant for this is a text such as Psalm 8. Its central question, “What is a person?” (v. 5), leads to the core of any biblical anthropology:

Call to worship1a Yahweh, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!Hymnic Praise of Yahweh I1b You have placed [given] your glory in the sky.2  Out of the mouths of children and infants, you have established power because of your enemies, to bring to the end enemy and avenger.Hymnic Praise of Yahweh II3 When I see your heavens, the work of your fingers,[the] moon and [the] stars that you have fastened—4 What is humanity, that you are mindful of them,and the single person, that you [attentively] watch after him?5 You have made them a little lower than God,and with honor and glory, you have crowned them.6 You have set them as sovereign over the work of your hands;Everything you have set under their feet:7 Sheep and oxen, all of them,and also the (wild) beasts of the fields,8 the birds of the air and the fish of the sea,Whatsoever goes through the paths of the sea.Call to Worship9 Yahweh, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth! (Ps 8; author’s translation)

Humanity is humanity because God considers them and looks after them benevolently (cf. Ps 144:3) or because, as Job 7:17–18 repeats, the idea of the thoughtful attention of God directs the condition of their hearts to God (see Janowski, 2013a, p. 8n24). That which is a suitable intentional orientation of the verb zākar, “to remember,” is also characteristic for the parallel pāqad, which expresses Yahweh’s care in the sense of a benevolent interest in the fortune of humanity (“looking after,” “to inspect closely”). Yahweh leaving people in situations of acute need is not true to Yahweh’s self; instead, Yahweh is “he who is always with sympathy and benevolent devotion, so that he attentively looks after them and gleans what they need” (Schnieringer, 2004, p. 31; cf. Neumann-Gorsolke, 2004, pp. 72–79). This attentiveness of God applies to all people, and, as verse 4 makes clear with its reference to the majestic height and width of the nightly sky and its stars (moon and stars), it applies to people in their smallness and frailty. Thus, it emphasizes the greatness of the Creator of heaven and earth (vv. 2A, 10), and “the grace that consists in this is that so great a God draws close to such small and fragile humanity” (Schnieringer, 2004, p. 233).

Only God can say what humanity is, according to Psalm 8. Only from this definition do humanity and humanity’s ability to observe its place in the world (vv. 6–9) grow, as the wisdom question-and-answer context of verses 4–9 illustrates. So the basic question of all anthropology—“What is humanity?”—finds in Psalm 8 an answer that is characteristic of the biblical picture of humanity. The statement that God “remembers” (zākar) humanity and God “[attentively] watches after them” (pāqad) does not indicate that God remembers a selective thing and forgets another but rather that “in the contexts of creaturely life, a reality is created that is not sufficiently captured by such dual abstractions” (Schüle, 2002, p. 269). In Psalm 8, humanity exists not for its own sake or as a self-reference but rather for the purpose of the relationship between Creator and creation and the position of humanity in the Creator-created world (Wolff, 2010, pp. 316–317, cf. 232–233). This perspective also defines the reception of Psalm 8 in New Testament Christology (Matt 21:16; 1 Cor 15:27; Eph 1:22; Heb 2:6–8; see Brünenberg, 2009, pp. 135–239).

Critical questions.

Wolff’s Anthropologie des Alten Testaments, without a doubt, is among the classics of biblical scholarship. However, criticism soon followed, which the author addressed in the epilogue of the third edition in 1977 (Wolff, 2010, pp. 351–353). Other critiques that have appeared will be briefly mentioned. Schroer and Staubli (2005, p. 12ff.) recognize the merits of Wolff’s Anthropologie specifically regarding the treatment of the ideas about the body but criticize certain distortions or restrictions that they attribute to systematic bias. In particular, Wolff continues to assume a prevalence of hearing over seeing, a preference for the male over the female, and an adherence to an ingrained anti-Canaanite treatment on the topic of sexuality.

Even more fundamental is the critique of Wagner (2009b), who argues against the establishment of the so-called fundamental anthropological concepts nepeš (“liveliness, vitality”), bāśār (“flesh”), rûaḥ (“breath, wind, spirit”), and lēb/lēbāb (“heart”). According to Wagner, this amounts to a “reduction of life” because the limitation to four fundamental concepts cannot be justified. Concepts such as yād (“hand”), ʾayin (“eye”), and peh (“mouth”) that occur more often than the four “fundamental concepts” are as important for Old Testament anthropology. However, this means that “The human is … in the Old Testament, viewed through different perspectives without there being a discernible clear hierarchy of the different aspects” (Wagner, 2009a, p. 198). Humanity, according to the Old Testament, contains “an abundance of these aspects that ideally should be treated in the fullness of their worth” (Wagner, 2009a, p. 199).

Finally, a step beyond either Schroer and Staubli or Wagner is Schmitt (2010), who explicitly names Wolff’s work Theological Anthropology of the Old Testament, making an accusation that there is a commitment to word-of-God theology (pp. 180–181 185, 187). According to Schmitt, the problem of this theology is “in the definition of the image of humanity [as] that which is judged to be in line with the ‘Word of God Theology’ in the context of a gospel which calls for a decision” (p. 185). He also argues that it is necessary to overcome this and to replace it with a decidedly cultural studies perspective. Although Schmitt does not want to question the fundamental importance of a specifically theological anthropology, he calls for “a more ethnological image of humanity that must also factor in elements of the history of mindsets founded in socio-history” (p. 187).

Schmitt runs with this admonition, through an open door, along with other anthologies published from 2009 to 2012 (Janowski and Liess, 2009; Wagner, 2009b; Frevel, 2010a; Janowski, 2012a; Berlejung et al., 2012; Hilgert and Wink, 2012). To continue with this imagery, in the large house of biblical anthropology the windows and doors now stand wide open. However, one must not make the mistake of being overzealous to throw out the window everything that appears like theology. Instead, there is a need for an attempt to design intentionally a biblical anthropology rather than to just make a new attempt.

Perspectives for a New Approach.

Much of the criticism put forward against Wolff’s Anthropologie is justified and has been heeded in the research since. Some, however, is overblown (Schmitt, 2010) or unhelpful (Oorschot, 2010, pp. 8–13; see also the criticism of Janowski, 2010, pp. 398–400). In any case, the situation in the study of the Old Testament has clearly changed since the period to which Wolff belongs. Thus, an Old Testament anthropology can no longer be written without consideration of the culture of ancient Egypt, the ancient Near East (Mesopotamia, Asia Minor, Syria, Palestine, and Iran), and the ancient Mediterranean including Greece. Also included within this changing situation are the impetuses from historical anthropology, historical psychology, gender studies, as well as the cultural and cognitive sciences.

Such classifications within an anthropology, for which there are prominent examples (Wolff, 2010; Westermann, 2000; Frevel and Wischmeyer, 2003, pp. 9–60), would have to consider the following aspects:

  • 1. The specific circumstances of the life of people in ancient Israel, how they came into their native living conditions and came to express their cultural forms of life.
  • 2. The literary contexts of the Old Testament in which these living conditions found their linguistic expression.
  • 3. The anthropological constants that encompass and shape the varying images of humanity in the Old Testament beyond the concrete social and literary-historical terms.

Between the specific circumstances of life (1) and the biblical texts (2) there are constant interactions that advance the construction of the social world (society) and make the place of an individual within it comprehensible. One should not dismiss out of hand the idea that there are also anthropological constants (3). Were it otherwise, the past would be utterly unattainable (Lévi-Strauss, 2012, p. 15ff.; cf. Lévi-Strauss and Eribon, 1989, p. 180). On the other hand, it is not easily accessible because our connection with it is broken by the nasty trench of history. The task, to understand the foreign and past, stands under a double difficulty, which Dilthey pointed out in his work Der Aufbau der geschichtlichen Welt in den Geisteswissenschaften as follows:

"Interpretation would be impossible if the observations of life were completely foreign. It would be unnecessary if nothing in them were strange. Between these two extremes is the truth. It is necessary everywhere that there is something foreign that the art of understanding should affect the understanding of our own situations.(Dilthey, 1968, p. 225)"

The task of biblical anthropology consists in describing and understanding both how far from and how near to the people of ancient Israel is current society. How this can be approached will be outlined below.

The specific circumstances of life.

For the “question about the core statements of biblical anthropology and their kerygmatic content, which shine forth within the specific circumstances of life” (Schroer and Zimmermann, 2009, p. 368), one must first pay attention to the specific circumstances in which people lived in ancient Israel. Among the specific circumstances that affected life are the following:

  • • The natural living conditions, such as the geographical area of Palestine/Israel with its plant and animal life
  • • The cultural forms of life, such as the social nature of people and the specific concept of the body that developed in this environment
  • • The system of religious symbols by which the people of ancient Israel confronted and interpreted their world

All three aspects must be understood and portrayed in their mutual dependence. Human life always takes place in specific, defined spaces that belong to the levels of the natural (the cardinal points, the rhythm of day and night, geographical conditions), the social (the four-room house, village, city, gate, palace, temple, grave), and the symbolic (festivals, the border between life and death, afterlife) (Janowski, 2008). Since each of these levels is subject to historical changes, each also changes the nature of human perception (historical anthropology). In other words, the environment constructed through the mediation of the human body is not one of an absolutely fixed size but rather is subject to the requirements of spatial self-substantiations and significations in time.

Natural living conditions.

The integration of people in their natural environment can be illustrated by many examples. The people of ancient Israel do “not face the spatial and temporal effects at a distance but experience it firsthand” (Weippert, 2006, p. 184). Whether it is the experience of the day/night rhythm with its “change from the larger world of humanity during the day to the smaller world of the night” (Weippert, 2006, p. 183) or the seasonal rhythm with its change from summer to winter pasture and from seed to harvest, people always experienced space and time as something elemental and for everyone. Genesis 8:21–23, the epilogue of the nonpriestly Flood account, makes clear through poetic language that these rhythms belong together and are the foundation of order (Keel et al., 1984, pp. 38–53):

So Yahweh smelled the pleasing aroma,and he said to his heart [=to himself]:“I will not again destroy the ground because of humanity.And I will not again beat all living things, as I have done.As long as the earth remains:Sowing and harvestand cold and heatand summer and winter,day and night will not cease.”

(Gen 8:21–22; author’s translation)

The rhythms of social life and experience were created by God and maintained by space-time as this text shows how closely together they are intertwined. The Gezer Calendar (tenth century B.C.E.), which begins in September–October and arranges the yearly cycle ideally, proves this close connection of the seasons of the year with the world of life and work in Palestine/Israel:

1 Two months of it (are) fruit harvest September/October
Two months of it sowing November/December
2 Two months late sowing January/February
3 One month flax harvest March
4 One month barley harvest April
5 One month grain harvest and measuring May
6 Two months pruning June/July
7 One month summer fruit harvest August
(Renz and Röllig, 1995, pp. 34–37; cf. Borowski, 1987, pp. 31–44)

Natural living conditions also include the geographical space with its climate zones and soil composition (Weippert, 1988, pp. 3–24). Palestine/Israel was (and is) a small country, the length of which from north to south amounts to about 250 kilometers; and the width of it varies because of the irregular profile of the Mediterranean coast from north to south and is between 50 kilometers (Bay of Acre/Sea of Galilee) and 150 kilometers (southern Judah/Dead Sea). The geographic character of this region is distinctive and can be divided into four zones (the narrow sea shore, the West Jordanian hills, the Jordan Valley, and the Transjordan Highlands). Based on the Judean and Transjordan Highlands, it has been termed a “small chambered land” (Weippert and Weippert, 1991, p. 366).

Regarding climate zones, the year can be divided according to the subtropical location of Palestine/Israel into two approximately equal seasons of four and a half months (the rain-free summer and the winter rainy season) between which lay six-week periods of transition, with the country having early rains in September–October and late rains in April–May (Keel et al., 1984, pp. 38–53). Palestine/Israel, which has only a few lakes, perennial rivers, and brooks, was a contrast to the great river cultures of Mesopotamia and Egypt with their irrigation systems (canals, Nile flooding). The area was dependent upon the frequency and distribution of the yearly precipitation and the use of wells and cisterns. Clearly, this dependence was also such that it would have taught the people of ancient Israel to perceive just how strongly they were dependent on the power of their natural world and environment (Keel et al., 1984, p. 52ff.).

The landscape, the climate, and the soil composition cause the typical threefold division of land in Palestine/Israel: cultivated land, grass plains, and desert. The cultivated region, having a Mediterranean climate and sufficient precipitation, provided the conditions for settled life in villages and cities. In contrast, the desert, with a lack of water or fertile soil, prevented the development of fixed settlements. The border between these two forms of landscape formed the steppe belt, which was, depending on the water storage and water distribution, sometimes more similar to the cultivated land and sometimes to the desert. Accordingly, these natural conditions formed “the typical Palestinian population triad, consisting of the city-dwellers, villagers, and the nomadic herders” (Weippert, 1988, p. 24). However, the transitions between these three groups were fluid and their consistency always depended on climatic, economic, or political circumstances (Weippert, 1988, p. 24).

Such conflicts and their management are repeatedly and particularly addressed within the narratives, legal texts, prayers, and proverbs of the Old Testament (see for an example the disputes about wells in the patriarchal narratives of Gen 12–36). For an anthropology of the Old Testament, this is of direct relevance.

Cultural forms of life.

In the space of the natural living conditions in Palestine/Israel emerged the cultural forms of life that are characteristic for the coexistence of the people of ancient Israel. If one includes under the term “culture” the totality of the relationships that preserve the people of a particular society in connection with the world or nature and among each other (see Lévi-Strauss, 2012, p. 89), then the interdependence of individual and community counts as the core of the cultural forms of life. Social relationships begin at birth, are shaped by life together at home and in public, and find their end or fulfillment in old age. The arc of life for the individual is thereby simultaneously linear and cyclical: linear by the sequence of the years of life and cyclical by the periodical events in nature (seasons) and society (festivals and rituals) in which the life of the individual is fixed. This means that the individual is not a self-contained unit but rather a social animal. This sociality is the place where the humanity and the inhumanity of people are proven, as the individual psalms do not tire of stressing (Pss 1:1–2; 35:11–16; 36:3–5) (Klein, 2009, pp. 430–436).

The sociality of people, that is, each individual’s involvement in social connections and roles, is a fundamental characteristic of Old Testament anthropology. However, that does not mean that the individual who is actively conforming to his or her role had no freedom for action or for training his or her individuality. The French classicist Vernant, although focused on ancient Greece, formulated that

"Involvement in the community … the progress of individualization has a completely different face. It happens in social spaces in which the gradually evolving individual does not act as a renouncement of guises but rather as a subject of law, political actor, and private person in the family or circle of friends.(Vernant, 2012, p. 157)"

Something analogous can be determined about the image of humanity in the Old Testament according to the behavior of the individual in relation to the social context. Humanity—individual men and women, parents and children, old and young, friends and foes, farmers and warriors, officials and merchants, kings and judges, masters and servants, priests and prophets, sages and fools, natives and foreigners, or dying and dead—is a constellation bound to the nature of the social community. The concept of constellation brings with it complex expressions of reciprocally oriented relationships: God/humanity, the individual/fellow persons, humanity/animals, and humanity/the world (environment) (Janowski, 2009; 2013a, pp. 43, 50, 110; cf. Schüle, 2006, pp. 95–96; 2011, pp. 404–409; Frevel, 2006). In these relationships, what is referred to as the personal identity of an individual becomes concrete. Even in Psalms 42, 43, and 51:5–8 or certain texts in Ezekiel (18:20; 33:10–20) about the inner person, in which the self-reference stands in the foreground, such self-thematization never happens at the cost of the social external dimension. The self-awareness that these texts show does not create in the person a solipsistic absorption in the inner life but rather a focus on the interaction with God and with his or her fellow persons. This aspect requires further analysis.

In its concept of personal identity, the Old Testament goes with the integrative concept of the whole person, as the correlation of the image of the body with the social structure makes clear (Janowski, 2012b, pp. 9–12; 2012c; 2013a, pp. 43–44). What appears in the bodily sphere as illness versus health or sorrow versus joy will be experienced in the social sphere as shame versus honor or as a need for legal remedy versus justice/vindication (Janowski, 2013b, p. 50ff.; for honor/shame see Dietrich, 2012). The concept and perception of the human body are, therefore, always conveyed socially; or in other words, the person is a body-bound cultural creature (see Schüle, 2011, p. 406). These interrelations can be described by the concept of a constellative person, namely, in the double sense of a concept of the human body as a complex and differentiated whole (comprised of limbs and organs) and the embeddedness of the person in social relationships and roles. Di Vito has characterized this premodern concept of personal identity on the basis of four identity markers:

"The subject is (1) deeply embedded in his or her social identity or closely associated with it. It is (2) comparatively de-centered and undefined in the view of the limits of the individual person. It is (3) relatively transparent in that it is integrated into the social life and therein embodied (in other words, it lacks all that is meant by “inner depths”). Finally, it is (4) “authentic” in the individual’s heteronomy, in obedience and dependence on others.(di Vito, 2009a, p. 217; cf. 2009b)"

Thus, the individual in ancient Israel is defined through “a network of predetermined relations from which one cannot detach oneself, but within which opens a definitive space of formations for him/her” (Schüle, 2006, p. 94), in which the individual communicates or interacts with others. The Old Testament reduces individuals to neither their bodies nor their social roles but rather perceives them in both their physical and social contexts, while the text sometimes brings to the foreground one aspect or the other. An open question is, therefore, whether there is a control center, something like a heart (lēb) that is responsible for the coherence of the whole (Schüle, 2011, pp. 404, 413–414; Newsom, 2012, pp. 10–11).

A look at ancient Egypt, the anthropology of which is not dependent on the Old Testament, can illustrate the problem. Within this system, the view of the human body as a complex and differentiated wholeness (a composite of limbs and organs) is best understood, according to Brunner-Traut, with the concept of aspectivity (1992, p. 72).

The concept of aspectivity does not perceive the human body as an organic unity but rather as parsed down to its component parts (limbs). It places the principle of connectivity that asks for the whole in which the component parts are connected as well as the level of the image of the body where it emerges in “fragmentation” and “assemblage” on the same page as the social structure where it is expressed as “isolation” and “integration,” as Assmann (2001, pp. 34–39) has shown in continuing the approach of Brunner-Traut. The interface between the bodily sphere and the social sphere is the heart that causes and guarantees the personal identity of the individual. Whether according to the understanding of the Old Testament the human heart is the organ that represents the unifying and all-connecting energy must be shown by further analysis (see FIG. 1).


Fig. 1: The heart in Egyptian anthropology.

view larger image

System of religious symbols.

In addition to the natural living conditions and the cultural forms of life, the system of religious symbols forms a third level of that which is of fundamental importance for the anthropology of the Old Testament. In contrast to animals, humanity lives “no longer in a merely physical universe but rather in a symbolic one” (Cassirer, 1990, p. 50); and, in the performance of life, humanity repeatedly makes the step from sensory impression to symbolic expression. Cassirer has, therefore, designated the human being as a “symbolic animal” (1990, p. 50). This symbolic activity of humanity is of elementary importance for the understanding of religion.

To clarify the term “system of religious symbols,” the approach of Geertz is helpful. Geertz understands religion as a cultural system of signs, that is, as a system of meanings that appear in symbolic form and assist people to communicate, maintain, and develop their life settings.

"The function of the ethos of a people—style, character and quality of life, their ethic, aesthetic orientation, and temper—along with their understanding of the world, the image they have of things in their natural state, is to link their ideas of order in the broadest sense.(Geertz, 1983, p. 47)"

The system of religious symbols normalizes compliance between a particular lifestyle (ethos) and a particular idea of order (worldview) by supporting each of the two sides with the authority of the other side. A religion, as defined by Geertz, is

"(1) a symbol system that aims (2) to create strong, comprehensive, and lasting tempers and motives in the people, (3) by formulating concepts of a general sense of being and (4) surrounding these concepts with an aura of factuality that (5) completely correlates the tempers and motives to reality.(Geertz, 1983, p. 48)"

If these parameters are translated into the system of symbols of the theology of the Jerusalem Temple, based on the recurrence of the primary Yahweh-king idea (Janowski, 2012b, pp. 377–380), which surfaces especially in the psalms that celebrate Yahweh as king, the Zion psalms, the psalms of creation, the pilgrimage psalms, and with anthropological intensification, the individual psalms of complaint and thanksgiving (Pss 3–14, 27, 36), then the following relationships are revealed:

Understanding of Yahweh as the “God-king of Zion”as the central concept of the theology of the Jerusalem Temple↓↑Verbal and visual expressions of this understandingby elements of the system of religious symbols:Place: height/depth (vertical view of the world), center/periphery (horizontal view of the world), Temple as an “original hill”/mountain/palace/throne/house, etc.Time: primeval (throne/kingdom of the “original world”), sacred/secular history (exodus, exile), present time (cyclic/linear), etc.Rites: festivals (in fall/in spring), offerings (meal, thanksgiving, purification/atonement), pilgrimage, etc.Icons: animals: cherubim, seraphim, lions, cattle, etc; plants: palms, lotus blossoms, pomegranates, (God’s) trees, etc.Texts: psalms of Zion, Yahweh as king psalms, coronation psalms, psalms of creation, pilgrimage psalms; individual psalms of complaint and thanksgiving, etc.↓↑Belief in the “God-king of Zion”and living accordingly (ethos)

A text such as Isaiah 6:1–5 (see Janowski, 2003, pp. 35–45) can illustrate these relationships:

In the year that King Uzziah diedI saw the LORDsitting upon a high and lofty throneand the hem of the robe filling up the room of the  Temple.Seraphim stood above him:each one had six wings:with two they covered their faceand with two they covered their feetand with two they flew (constantly).And one called to anotherand said:“Holy, holy, holy is Yahweh Sabaoth,the fullness of the whole world is his glory!”Then the pivots of the thresholds shook at the voice of the one who called,and the house of the temple was filled with smoke.Then I said:“Woe is me!for I am obliterated/lost!For I am a man of unclean lipsand I dwell in the midst of a people of  unclean lips;because my eyes have seen King Yahweh  Sabaoth!” (author’s translation)

In verses 1–5, there are only two predicates for the subject of God (Yahweh): the action of God, “sitting upon a high and lofty throne” (v. 1Aβ), and the spoken declaration in verse 3B that proclaims the glory of the God-king Yahweh Sabaoth over the whole world. While with this proclamation a horizontal dimension comes into view—the whole earth is filled with the glory of Yahweh Sabaoth—the subject of the throne expresses a vertical dimension. Together with a note about the room of the Temple under the figure of Yahweh being filled full (v. 1B), the text reveals the tendency to separate the cultic ideas from the throne of Yahweh so that the “high and lofty throne” symbolizes the universal majesty of the enthroned God-king.

Additionally, the dominance of the vertical axis emerges from the description of the effect that the call of the seraphim triggered in verse 4. It is clear that the shaking of the thresholds is a quaking of the whole temple building and, because this represents the axis mundi, implies the cosmos. That this quake of the temple thresholds (located below) is a reaction to the presence of the enthroned God-king (in the height) and the Trisagion of the seraphim, it follows that in the worldview of the theology of the Jerusalem Temple of the (middle or late) monarchy the vertical axis is dominant, to which is added a related horizontal dimension of the “whole earth” (v. 3B). Isaiah’s vision in the Jerusalem Temple of the presence of Yahweh on a “high and lofty throne” (v. 1Aβ) correlates with the aura of the powerful presence of the God-king in the “whole earth” (v. 3B), that is to the periphery of the center (Temple/city); and the presence of the God-king there is the organization of the whole world. These relationships can be represented schematically (see FIG. 2).


Fig. 2: The system of symbols of the theology of the Jerusalem Temple.

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The idea of the Kingdom of Yahweh (with its motifs “the throne of Yahweh,” “height,” etc.) is then to be understood as the basic statement of the (preexilic) Zion tradition/theology of the Jerusalem Temple that is developed in the foundational texts of Isaiah 6:1–5, Psalms 93, 46:2–8, 48, etc. according to their vertical (height/depth) and horizontal (center/periphery) dimensions. These should not be treated as mutually exclusive concepts but rather as variants of a foundational idea. In the moving of each aspect—the vertical or the horizontal—to the foreground the other is not simply hidden (Janowski, 2003, pp. 60–62).

As the statement on the system of religious symbols shows, a religion consists of a certain number of linguistic (texts) and visual (icons) signs that, because of their connection, form “a specific pattern, a fabric” and, like the rules of a language, are based on an internal coherence that has a kind of grammar and syntax (Keel and Uehlinger, 2010, p. 14).

The central topic of this sign system, the idea of the God-king of Zion, imparts stability, fertility, and justice to Jerusalem and its inhabitants. This idea is formed by a manageable number of symbols like “the throne of God” (stability), “the power of God” (fertility), and “the countenance of Yahweh” (justice; Janowski, 2012b, pp. 384–389) and so is fastened in the collective memory of Israel. The act of symbolization that accomplishes this is central, therefore, because in it is a connection of the concrete with the abstract and, conversely, the abstract with the concrete; and thus, the dimension of idea and experience remain preserved (see FIG. 3).


Fig. 3: The process of symbolization.

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The system of religious symbols that came about in this way—and its inventory would be expanded and differentiated—has a phenomenological and a semiotic dimension like any symbolic perception of reality. Both forms of perception combine spoken cognition with a “theory of mind” (Theissen, 2007, p. 126).

  • • By the phenomenological perception—for example, “the countenance of Yahweh”—emotional reactions such as security and gratitude are engendered, because the petitioner is vindicated by the turning of the godly countenance and by its aversion the petitioner is abandoned to the foe or death (see Ps 13:2).
  • • By the semiotic perception—for example, “the throne of God”—the individual experiences the “world as sensible as a text which says something to him” (Theissen, 2007, p. 126). This speaks especially to humanity’s cognitive abilities, in that it gives to things and events sign values beyond their immediate existence. The “throne of God” in the center of the Jerusalem world (axis mundi motif) is the sign and the guarantor of its stability.

Thus, both forms of perception, each in its own way, offer to the people in ancient Israel orientations for everyday life and help them, through recognizable patterns, to resolve and overcome the tension between the perceived order of the world and the factual circumstances in which elements of order and disorder are always with one another.

The literary context.

An anthropology of the Old Testament must not only make clear statements about the system of religious symbols; it must also develop the anthropological statements in terms of the language of the Old Testament, that is, in narrative, prescriptive, poetic, and didactic forms. Wolff has this in view when he speaks of the texts and contexts that “were apparent to the people who asked” (2010, p. 24, cf. Frevel, 2010a, p. 54). With respect to the different literary forms and contexts—narratives, legal texts, rituals, hymns, prayers, proverbs, etc.—it is a characteristic of the Old Testament that it does not contain a single image of humanity but rather a variety of images of humanity that come from different areas of experience (family, tribe, state, education, cult, law, economy, politics, etc.). In each image, one of these areas of experience corresponds with the view of the people or directs the eyes of the people.

Nevertheless, there are thematic difficulties in the particular traditions of the Old Testament. In the priestly and nonpriestly primeval history (Gen 1–11), humanity is ambivalently depicted as both from the image of God (imago Dei) and fallible (“sin”). The prophetic texts present humanity through the theme of Homo socialis in the tension between righteousness and sin/sacrilege. While humanity exists, according to the individual psalms of complaint and praise and the psalms of petition and thanksgiving, for salvation from death “for God” (coram Deo), the wisdom texts reflect mainly the relationship or lack of relationship of doing and faring and thus the iustitia connective or absence thereof. Also, in individual books and compositions there are specific anthropological statements and perspectives, such as in the Joseph novella; in the ascent and succession histories of David; in the books of Ezekiel, Jonah, Job, and Qoheleth; and in the Song of Songs. Indeed, “the question of the image of God and the image of humanity [can] be posed fundamentally to any biblical text and literary genre” (Irsigler, 2010, p. 351n5).

All of this shows that there is no single Old Testament image of humanity but rather only “complementary and also partly contrasting aspects” (Frevel, 2006, p. 1; cf. Schüle, 2011, pp. 401, 407). Instead of “the” anthropology of the Old (and New) Testament, it would be more accurate to speak about the “anthropologies” or the “anthropological drafts” of the Old (and New) Testament (cf. Frevel and Wischmeyer, 2003, pp. 121–126). Like the understanding of God and worldview, ancient Israel’s image of humanity also changed over time and, accordingly, so did the characterization of the statements about humanity in the texts (Hartenstein, 2012). How these changes are described is a little asked, much less answered, question. What are the main stages of development from the preexilic period through the exile to the postexilic or even late postexilic period? Can it be shown that essential impetuses of the preexilic prophets and older wisdom literature (eighth century B.C.E.) are the origin of key impressions of Yahweh-only monotheism that happen through the seventh and sixth centuries B.C.E. and the lasting forms that are tangible in the postexilic prophets, the (late) psalms, and the late wisdom literature?

The anthropological constants.

Finally, what role in Old Testament anthropology does the question of anthropological constants play (Schüle speaks, on the other hand, of “thematic centering which can be identified throughout the book” [2011, p. 413])? This question also sets the stage for one to ask “whether there are anthropological universals or only particular types” (Bohlken and Thies, 2009, p. 6), whether an Old Testament anthropology should adhere to a pure descriptive method, or if it may or must also include normative aspects.

The problem of anthropological constants is also discussed in scholarly literature. In his essay “Zur Begriffsgeschichte von ‘Mensch’ ” the Romance-linguist Raible (2005) has made a “sketch of a cognitive map” and marked on this map four corners. He ranks first the “The axis of God—humanity—animal arising from the dual opposition (God/humanity, humanity/animal) in which humanity stands” (p. 171). Second is the differentiation of humanity into man and woman and the issue of human reproduction that “leads to child, family, kinship, genealogy” (p. 172). Third is the idea that the human body is “a very important center of orientation for the designation of the individual person and his/her orientation in space as well as the designation of other persons” (p. 173). Fourth is the concept of roles—sexual, communicative, social—that provide for the differentiation in a society with a division of labor and preserve that society’s members from becoming outsiders. These four aspects are, according to Raible, equally constant for constituting the idea of humanity; but they are realized differently in each culture.

Also in the Old Testament there are anthropological constants that encompass and shape the different images of humanity beyond the social and literary historical realities. Thus, even an Old Testament anthropology cannot abandon common ideas such as “body,” “gender,” “community,” “life,” or “death,” which “pertain to this side of serious evolutionary changes to areas of experience that all people share with one another” (Bohlken and Thies, 2009, p. 6) and which also apply to the people of Israel. This includes universalities in the area of communication and language such as “narratives,” “prayers,” and “music.”

What is the standing of the specific biblical terms “creatureliness” (versus “self-constitution”), “justice” (versus “sin”), and “finite” (versus “immortality”)? Should these also be counted among anthropological constants? One must answer the question by adhering to the guiding anthropological principles of Genesis 2:7, Micah 6:8, or Psalm 8:5 and their quasi-definitional forms (Janowski, 2009). These, however, make clear how fundamentally the Old Testament reflected on the human condition and how central the axiom of creatureliness, the principle of justice, and the experience of finitude are for the view(s) of humanity. These three aspects are the corners of biblical anthropology.

World of the Text and World of Life.

An anthropology that judiciously embraces the discussed aspects—the specific living conditions, the literary contexts, and the anthropological constants—and that, with an integrated approach in mind, relates them to one another still needs to be written. “Integrated approach” means one that avoids the previous anthropological foundations of metaphysical-speculative provenance as well as the one-sided approach that is too closely caught up in historical anthropology. Additionally, it holds to the multidimensionality of the image(s) of humanity in the Bible, leaving room for particular features (specific living conditions, literary contexts) as well as for the universal characteristics (anthropological constants).

How, thereby, to determine the relationship of biblical anthropology to accurate philosophical and historical anthropologies (Janowski, 2010) remains a problem yet to be solved. For now, the following similarities and differences can be noted:

  • • The context of philosophical anthropology remains of lasting relevance for the question of anthropological constants. The difference here is that this question for Old Testament anthropology will be answered as reckoned by a theological anthropology “with God’s orienting presence in this world” (Klein, 2009, p. 444) and that humanity will principally be seen as “people of God” (Härle, 2001) and therefore as a creature.
  • • The context of historical anthropology is such that, like Old Testament anthropology, the question about the nature of humanity is essentially not answered (see Bohlken and Thies, 2009, p. 4). The difference is that the axiom of human life together and its ambivalences divides historical anthropology, but it trusts that sub specie Dei is able to deal with these ambivalences in a life-conducive manner (Klein, 2009, p. 444).

If the power, therefore, of historical anthropology is to sharpen the awareness of the historical nature of humanity, then biblical anthropology can be tied to it. At the same time, it goes beyond that reflected in the axiom of creatureliness, the principle of justice, and the experience of finitude; and thereby, the constants of a genuine theological anthropology are made applicable (Frevel, 2010a, p. 53). It does this on the basis of the biblical texts and their own literary, social, traditional, and religious history profile; and it does so without regard to the specific living conditions, such as those made accessible from archaeology and iconography of Palestine/Israel (Schroer and Keel, 2005; 2008; 2011).

The presentation of biblical anthropology is based not only on the insight that “anthropological problems … cannot be resolved by the dimming of theology but rather only in all openness for the witness of God in the Bible” (Wolff, 2010, p. 24, cf. 353). It is also based on the attention and explication of the correlation of the world of the text and the world of life, which at the same time is a trouble spot. It is indeed the question of how “contained within the text are historical, experience based statements about the people with theological imagination” (Schüle, 2011, p. 409), how the real world of life and the world of the literary text, which always attributes certain meanings to the world of life, are related to each other. The planned anthropology of the Old Testament will show, if it succeeds, these connections to be appropriate.




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Bernd Janowski Translated from the German by Sandy Rogers