Keeping It Real: The Image of God in the New Testament

Article excerpt

The image of God in the New Testament represents a mix of traditions from the Hebrew Bible, early Judaism, and Hellenistic popular philosophy. Throughout these traditions the theme is integrally connected to the search for meaning in human existence. The Priestly Writer, Philo, and Paul understood the image of God as a means of both affirming God's sovereign authority over all creation and addressing the challenges of competing authorities in the world. Study of the theme provides a window into early Christian experience and how such experience emboldened Christians to follow Jesus in the proclamation of the Kingdom of God.

"Bring me a denarius and let me see it." And they brought one. Then he said to them, "Whose head is this, and whose title?" And they answered, "The emperor's." Jesus said to them, "Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor's and to God the things that are God's." And they were utterly amazed at him.

Mark 12:15b-17


Say what you will about the composed Johannine Jesus or the forceful apocalyptic Jesus, I have always been most compelled by Jesus the sage who disarms everyone with wit and wisdom. The quintessential example of Jesus' wisdom in the synoptic gospel tradition is the episode in Mark 12:13-17 and particularly where Jesus is confronted by a group of antagonists (posing as friends) who challenge him about whether it is lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not. In response to their question, Jesus asks to see a coin. In recording this sign-act, the gospel writers portray Jesus as deeply engaging in a socio-political-economic matter, and yet soaring above all that embedded particularity, Jesus delivers a pronounement about ultimate things. When Jesus asks whose image (eikdn) and inscription are on the coin, he strides confidently beyond the territory of paying taxes and into the territory of ultimate existence. The coin with Caesar's image attests to the reality and power of Caesar. It belongs to his empire and his world. Caesar may put his image on certain things, Jesus says, but the things that are God's, namely all things in creation, belong to God. Those who seek to trap Jesus hope to engage him in a legal dispute between Torah and empire, but Jesus' response moves the question to theological ground. His response is that of a philosopher raising questions of existence. In whose image are we made? To whom do we belong? What is reality? I have always imagined this Jesus ending the scene by flipping the coin back to its owner with a wink and the quip "for the troops." In the midst of the fray, Jesus remains centered in what is true about reality and what is ultimately important. No wonder, as the gospel writers record, his opponents were amazed at him.


Jesus' wisdom with the coin stands in the midst of a complex mix of traditions within the Hebrew Bible, Early Judaism, and Hellenistic popular philosophy about the image of God. For Jews and Greeks, the question of God's image in relation to God's creation of humankind and the world was an important concern. In the Hebrew Bible, the Priestly writer articulates this concern in his story of the creation in Genesis 1:26-27. In the Greek philosophical tradition, perhaps not too distant from the historical period of the Priestly writer, Plato (4th century B.C.E.) engages the questions of creation and the relation of matter to its maker. In the Timaeus (92c), Plato describes the relationship between the ultimate cause of matter (God) and creation as the relationship of "image" (eikdn, 92c).' For Plato it is dear that the created world bears the image of its creator. In the popular philosophical traditions of early Jewish scriptural exegesis, Philo of Alexandria interpreted Genesis 1-2 in his treatises De opifido mundi and Legum allegoriae through the lens of Middle Platonic thought.2 Not surprisingly, his examination of the relationship between God and humans focuses on the notion of image (eikon) and how the relationship between God and humans is to be precisely understood (e. …