Q. For my money one of the most important parts of the discussion of these topics is what exactly one should make of the phrase ‘in his image and after his likeness’ something predicated of humans and no one else. I may have missed it, but if you are pressed on this issue, what do you think the author of these Genesis texts is referring to? It seems clear to me that it must have something to do with humans unique capacity for a special relationship to God, including the possibility of being God’s representative on earth, showing and leading the world on how to relate to God properly. In any case the word tselem in Hebrew is in fact the same word used for ‘idol’. We, in some sense are God’s idol on earth, his embodied living representative, and we are supposed to reflect God’s character and presumably assume some of his roles on lesser scale—being co-creators, being managers of the earth engaging in creation care and so on. When I am asked what we should look for in the fossil or archaeological record to find ancient humans I usually talk about homo religiosis, that is where we find evidence of religion, of worship, of high places and sacrifices. No other creature other than angels that I know of practice worship or religion in this sense. What do you think?
A. This is where the most interesting action might be, both now, and for quite some time to come. We are approaching a grand question. What does it mean to be human? Here is how I frame your question. The term human is multivalent. It has many definitions that are both distinct and valid. Here are some of the definitions that seem to be at play in your proposal.
1. Humans are everyone in the image of God. Of course, there is much debate about the meaning of this term too, each of which induces a different definition of human. You are hinting at one particular understanding in your question.
2. Human are those that have a capacity to worship in a human way, as you describe Homo religiosis, and connect to the image of God. You see this arise fairly recently in history, less than 15,000 years ago, but others might see evidence of worship far more ancient.
3. Human is Adam, Eve, and their descendants. This is an old definition that derives from Scripture.
4. Human is a biological taxonomical category, such as Homo sapiens, or the Homo genus. These are several of these biological definitions of human.
5. Human is a category that includes all Homo sapiens across the globe since AD 1. This is a definition that derives from the doctrine of monogenesis, and it is minimalist criteria that we expect all definitions of human to satisfy.
6. Humans are beings that have a fully human mind, by some philosophical criteria for minds. There are many different criteria used, each of which induces a different definition. These are philosophical definitions of human.
7. Human are all those that have human worth and human dignity. Separating this out gives us a way to ask key questions about what actually grounds our worth and dignity.
We can make some observations from this list of definitions. First, this list is not exhaustive; we can add to this list, and we can expand several items into multiple definitions too. Second, these are all valid definitions. Third, there are also distinct definitions. Fourth, they also are all “co-extensive” in present day. This means that everyone alive today that is human by one of these definitions is also human by all of these definitions. Fifth, it would be a mistake, however, to think that all these definitions must all be coextensive in the distant past. Instead, we need to think carefully here about the logical relationships between each definition.
Having laid this out, here is how I would state my understanding of your proposal. Perhaps you are proposing the image of God (1) is identifiable with religious beliefs in our ancestors, with Homo religiosis (2). Of course, biological humans (4) and philosophical humans (6) arose long before them. Similarly, Adam and Eve’s lineage (3) might have arisen long after Homo religiosis too, because the Image of God may not be unique to their lineage. So the humans of definitions 1 and 2 are coextensive in the distant past, humans by definition 4 and 6 come before, and Adam and Eve (and humans definition 3) come later.
This proposal is logically possible. There is no logical contradiction here. What about scientifically and theologically? Scientifically, most anthropologists will define religious behavior differently than you. Rightly or wrongly, purposeful burial of the dead is associated with belief in the afterlife, ergo “religious” behavior. And this seems to arise much farther in the past than Gobekli Tepe. But you seem to be using different criteria than them, and that’s worth clarifying. I agree with your instinct on the relationship between image of God and Adam and Eve’s lineage. I have not found good grounding for tightly linking the image of God exclusively to Adam and Eve’s lineage.
Honestly, I’m puzzled by the scholars that think otherwise. The doctrine of monogenesis is about the Fall, not the image of God. Some readings of Scripture even suggest that the people outside the Garden are in the Image of God. Could Homo religiosis have come long before Adam and Eve? I think so.
I think of Melchizedeck, the priestly king to whom Abraham tithes a tenth of his belongings. Melchizedeck has no genealogy, and just pops into the narrative. In an important way, he is a type of religion before Abraham. We cannot say if he is a descendent of Adam and Eve or not, so he is evocative of a religion before Adam and Eve too.
I also think of dispensationalism. I don’t mean rigid forms of capital “D” Dispensationalism, but the general idea that God dispenses grace differently in different eras. This idea goes back all the way to Romans, as Paul grapples with a transition between two dispensations. The era before Jesus to the era after.
Maybe there was a dispensation of grace before Adam and Eve? I would expect that there was. There may have been false pagan religions before Adam and Eve too. Your reading of Gobekli Tepe is positive, but how do we know if they were worshiping a good god or some other darker forces? Perhaps Adam and Eve came much later, and were the first that encountered the true God of all creation.
Jon Garvey, I suspect, would agree with me. Perhaps his book on The Genealogical Adam and Eve is worth exploring further. This is just my initial reaction. Maybe my instincts are wrong, of course. This is all still a mystery. But this is also the fun ahead. What precisely do you mean by these definitions of human? What are the principles, logic and evidence that ground linking these particular definitions together into co-extensive units?
Is there teaching in Scripture? Reasoning from ethics or philosophy? Do particular traditions constrain our answers or guide our instincts? These, it seems, are the key questions here for all of us to sort through together.