views updated May 11 2018


ANTHROPOMORPHISM , from the Greek anthrōpos ("human being") and morphē ("form"), is a modern term, attested since the eighteenth century, denoting the practically universal tendency to form religious concepts and ideas and, on a more basic level, to experience the divine, or the "numinous" (the term is used here as a convenient shorthand, without necessarily implying commitment to Rudolf Otto's theories), in the categories and shapes most readily available to human thinkingnamely, the human ones. The idea has a long history in Western thought. Ancient Greek, including patristic, literature referred (contemptuously) to "anthropomorphites," meaning people holding anthropomorphic ideas of the divine. This term was also used in Latin by Augustine to refer to those who because of their "carnal thought imagine God in the image of corruptible man" (Patrologia Latina 42.39), and, under his influence, it continued to be used by authors as late as Leibniz in the seventeenth century.

Definitions and Distinctions

In a more general sense, anthropomorphism can be defined as the description of nonmaterial, "spiritual" entities in physical, and specifically human, form. The idea of human form is an essential part of the definition, since otherwise one would have to deal with representations and manifestations of the divine in all possible material forms. Of course, sharp distinctions are often arbitrary and even misleading, especially since in many religious cultures, the gods often assume, both in mythology and in iconography, animal form (which is, strictly speaking, theriomorphism); mixed, hybrid, semianimal-semihuman form (which is, strictly speaking, therianthropism); or "unrealistic," wildly imaginative, or even grotesque forms. Deities may be conceived as wholly or partly animal, as were Hathor and Anubis, the cow goddess and jackal god in ancient Egyptian religion, or they may have animal avatāras, as does Viu, who appears as fish, tortoise, man-lion, and boar. Gods and goddesses may have multiple heads or arms, as does Brahma; goddesses may be many-breasted, as was the great goddess of Ephesus (Artemis); or they may be represented with ferociously "demonic" forms of face or figure and with nonnatural combinations of body parts, as are androgynes and some tricksters. Indian and ancient Egyptian religions, among others, provide a plethora of examples. Resorting once more to Otto's terminology, one could argue that it is precisely the nonhuman quality of theriomorphic or therianthropic representations that enables them to function as symbols of the numinous as the "wholly other."

While the phenomenon of anthropomorphism proper has been a central problem in the history of religions, theology, and religious philosophy (in terms of criticism of religion as well as of religion's internal struggles for a better self-understanding of its own symbolism), the transition from theriomorphism to anthropomorphism (according to the evolutionary view current until some decades ago) has often been viewed as marking a definite progress. Thus Hegel, in Lectures on the Philosophy of History, praised Greek religion because its anthropomorphism signified that "man, as that which is truly spiritual, constitutes that which is genuinely true in the Greek gods." Elsewhere, in Lectures on Aesthetics, Hegel adds that Christianity is superior to Greek religion because it has taken anthropomorphism a decisive step farther: God is not merely the humanly shaped ideal of beauty and art but a "real, singular, individual, wholly God and wholly man, that has entered into the totality of the conditions of existence." This stands in marked contrast to the views of the German poet Schiller (17591805), who considered Christianity as inferior to Greek religion: "When the gods were more human, men were more divine" (The Gods of Greece). One hardly need add that in medieval polemics both Islam and Judaism condemned Christianity not only for its "polytheism" (meaning the doctrine of the Trinity) but also for its anthropomorphism.

A distinction is frequently made between physical anthropomorphism (anthropomorphism proper) and mental or psychological anthropomorphism, also called anthropopathism (i.e., not human form or shape but human feelings: love, hate, desire, anger, etc.). Thus, while there are only faint traces of anthropomorphism proper in the Hebrew scriptures (Old Testament), God is described as loving, taking pity, forgiving, being angry and wroth (at sinners and evildoers), and avenging himself upon his enemies. Even when theological thinking progressively divests the deity of the "cruder" forms of physical and mental anthropomorphism, some irreducible elements remain. For example, certain types of theology of history (Heilsgeschichte ) imply that God "has a plan" for his creation or for humankind. In fact, religion is often expressed in terms of humanity's duty to serve the achievement of this divine plan and purpose. The ultimate residual anthropomorphism, however, is the theistic notion of God as personal, in contrast to an impersonal conception of the divine. Also, verbal imagery, no matter how metaphorical it is supposed to be, preserves this basic anthropomorphism: God is father, mother, lover, king, shepherd, judge. Verbal and iconic imagery can be very different things even when both are anthropomorphic. Thus Buddhism is an essentially metaphysical religion, yet Buddhist temples (Theravada no less than Mahayana) can be full to the bursting point with anthropomorphic images. Shinto mythology, on the other hand, is as anthropomorphic as can be, but a Shinto shrine (at least if uncontaminated by Buddhist influence) is as empty of statues and images as a mosque or a synagogue.

Another important distinction has to be made between what may be called primary and secondary anthropomorphism. The former reflects a simple, naive, uncritical (or precritical) level of immediate, concrete, "massive," and mythological imagination. The latter is more dogmatic and deliberate. It is fundamentalist in the sense that anthropomorphic assertions are made and defended not because they reflect the immediate level of religious consciousness but because they reflect a dogmatic position: holy scriptures or canonical traditions use anthropological language, hence this language has to be literally accepted and believed in. Many discussions in the history of Muslim theology have to be seen in the light of this distinction.

Theological and Philosophical Implications

A survey of all the instances of anthropomorphism in the world's religions would be tantamount to a survey of the mythologies and religious iconography of the world. This article will be limited to a brief review of the theological and philosophical implications of anthropomorphism, and even these will be surveyed mainly in the history of Western thought, not because analogous developments are lacking elsewhere, but because in the history of Western thought the problem has been dealt with more systematically and consistently. Western religious history also exhibits a very interesting special case, namely Christianity (cf. the dictum of Hegel cited above), since Christ is considered as more than just another divine avatāra, or manifestation, and hence the doctrine of the incarnation poses the problem of anthropology in its widest sensethat is, the doctrine of the nature of man and its relation to the divineand in a very special way. But even aside from incarnation, the "personalist" element in theistic religion remains, as has been seen, an irreducible anthropomorphism. This situation was well defined by the German Old Testament scholar and theologian Bernhard Duhm when he said that the real problem for biblical religion was how to get rid not of anthropomorphism but "physiomorphism" in its representation of God.

Most religions start with straightforward and naive anthropomorphic ideas of the divine (gods, goddesses) and even in their more highly developed stages do not greatly mind that the simple folk maintain their "primitive" ideas, although the spiritual élite may consider anthropological imagery crude and substitute for it a more sophisticated language. Physical and anthropomorphic imagery is then explained (or explained away) as a symbolic reference to certain qualities of the divine that, in their turn, may later have to be further transcended by an even more spiritual understanding.

Anthropomorphism and the Criticism of Religion

The expression "criticism of religion" has to be understood on several levels. It need not necessarily be atheistic or irreligious. The expression merely signifies that religious representations and statements (whether primitive, popular, traditional, or otherwise normative) are criticized because of their allegedly crude and, at times, immoral character. This criticism can come from the outsidefrom philosophy, for exampleor from insidethat is, when religious consciousness becomes more sophisticated, refined, and self-critical (often under the impact of philosophy from outside). Among the earliest and best-known examples of this tendency is the Greek author Xenophanes (fifth century bce), of whose writings only fragments have been preserved. He ironically notes that Ethiopians represent the gods as black, Thracians depict them as blue-eyed and red-haired, and "if oxen and horses had hands and could paint," their images of gods would depict oxen and horses. Xenophanes thus anticipates the modern atheistic inversion of the Old Testament account of creation, to the effect that men create gods in their own image. He also attacks anthropopathism: "Homer and Hesiod attribute to the gods what among men would be considered reprehensible: stealing, adultery, and deceit." Yet Xenophanes was far from irreligious. He speaks of one God "who neither in shape nor in thought" resembles anything human. He has no eyes and no ears, but himself is "wholly eye, wholly spirit, wholly ear."

Plato, too, objects to the all too human conception of the gods. For this reason he would also ban traditional Homeric mythology from his ideal republic, "no matter whether [these stories have] a hidden sense or not" (Republic 377378). But the fact that Plato mentions the possibility of a hidden sense indicates one of the roads that religious thinking and apologetic would take in response to the critical challenge. This critical challenge, it must be reiterated, is not antireligious; it is, rather, a religious trend toward self-purification by purging itself of elements considered to be primitive and crude. The same tendency is in evidence in many parts of the Old Testament, and not only in the second of the Ten Commandments. It gathers strength, under the influence of Hellenistic philosophy, in, for example, the Targums (the Aramaic translations of the Old Testament), which, in their wish to eliminate all anthropomorphism, substitute for Hebrew phrases meaning "and God appeared unto," "God spoke," "God saw," "the hand of God," and so on such alternative phrases as "the glory of God appeared," "the power of God," and the like.

This "first purgation," however, does not solve the problem of mental anthropomorphism. When the sixteenth-century French essayist Montaigne wrote that "we may use words like Power, Truth, Justice, but we cannot conceive the thing itself. None of our qualities can be attributed to the Divine Being without tainting it with our imperfection" (Essais 2.12), he merely summed up what Muslim, Jewish, and Christian philosophers had already discussed in the Middle Ages. Their problem, like Montaigne's, was not the objectionable character of physical and of certain moral attributes, but the admissibility of attributes as such. The great twelfth-century Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides (Mosheh ben Maimon), like the Muslim philosophers who had preceded him, taught with uncompromising radicalism that no positive attributes whatever can be predicated of God. It should come as no surprise that most of the efforts of Maimonides, who besides being a great philosopher was also a leading rabbinic authority, should be devoted to explaining away the many anthropomorphisms in the Bible. Once one embarks on this radical road, the next question becomes inevitable: is not "being" or "existence" also a human concept, and is not the definition of God as pure or absolute being also an anthropromorphism, although perhaps a very rarefied one?

Two main tendencies can be distinguished in response to this challenge. The one leads to a cessation of speech ("mystical silence"); the other to a more sophisticated theology based on an analysis of human consciousness.


The most radical method that religious consciousness can adopt to purge itself of anthropomorphism is the assertion that no adequate statements about the divine are possible in human language. In the West this tradition goes back to the Neoplatonic mystical theologian known as Dionysius the Areopagite (fifth century ce), who introduced into Christian terminology the "hidden godhead" and the "divine darkness." This tradition was transmitted to the Latin West by John Scottus Eriugena (ninth century ce), from whom it passed to Eckhart and the Rhineland mystics and to such English figures as Walter Hilton and the author of The Cloud of Unknowing, and influenced later mystics (Jakob Boehme, Angelus Silesius) and even nonmystical, "mainline" theologians. Thomas Aquinas gave a place in his system to this theologia negativa, and Martin Luther thought highly of the mystical tract known as the Theologia Deutsch.

The challenge of anthropomorphism, or to be more precise, the critical reflection as to how to meet this challenge, thus turns out to be an important factor in the development of mysticism. But this radical mystical "purging" of language ultimately links up with agnostic and even nonreligious criticism. The central text in this respect is David Hume's Dialogues concerning Natural Religion (1779), written in the form of a conversation between three interlocutors: a skeptic, a Christian close to the mystical tradition, and a theist. The Christian mystic asserts that the divine essence, attributes, and manner of existence are a mystery to humans. The skeptic agrees, but admits the legitimacy of anthropological attributes (wisdom, thought, intention), because human beings simply do not have at their disposal any other form of expression. He merely warns against the mistake of assuming any similarity between one's words and the divine qualities. In other words, the mystical and the skeptical, even agnostic, criticisms of anthropomorphism tend to converge. The theist speaker is not slow to seize on this point. His theism is of a more sophisticated kind; it has absorbed and integrated the anti-anthropomorphic critique. But if all ideas about the divine are by definition totally incorrect and misleading, then religion and theology necessarily and automatically cease to be of any interest whatever. A spiritual being of which nothing can be predicated (no will, no emotion, no love) is, in actual fact, no spirit at all. Hume's argument that mysticism (including pantheism) and atheism ultimately converge has had far-reaching influence. Nineteenth-century philosophical atheism took up Hume's argument and used the critique of anthropomorphism as well as the dead end to which it leads as leverage for the shift from theology to anthropology: the essence of God is, in fact, nothing but one's projection, on a celestial screen, of the essence of human. Thus concluded, for example, Ludwig Feuerbach (18041872).

Other Attitudes toward Anthropomorphism

Aside from mysticism, Christian thought has responded in two ways to criticisms of anthropomorphism. The traditional, standard form of theistic theology tries on the one hand to purge from religion the kind of anthropomorphism that invites facile criticism and strives on the other hand to avoid the kind of radical "purging" that leads either to mystical silence or to atheism. The alternative is to speak of God, unapologetically and with a certain robust courage, knowing full well that such speech is valid "by analogy" only. The subject is one of the most complex in the history of theology. For the purpose of this article, it must suffice to point to the existence of this middle way, without going into technical details or analyzing the different types of "theology of analogy": analogy of attribution, mainly known in the form of "analogy of being" (analogia entis ), a central concept in official Roman Catholic theology; analogy of proportionality; analogy of faith (opposed by the Protestant theologian Karl Barth to the Roman Catholic concept of analogia entis ); analogy of relation; and so on. The theology of analogy uses a distinction made by the Muslim Aristotelian philospher Ibn Rushd (Averroës) between univocal, equivocal, and analogous predication. The former two were rejected by the Fourth Lateran Council (1215) of the Roman Catholic church, which espoused "analogy."

Another, and typically modern, method of evading the problem of anthropomorphism is the view that holds all religious statements to be statements about one's religious consciousness. The father of this theory, in the history of Western thought, is the nineteenth-century German Protestant theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher. In the last resort, this view, too, represents a shift from theology to anthropology (as Feuerbach was quick to point out), with the difference that for Schleiermacher this shift serves religious understanding, whereas for Feuerbach it serves the radical critique of religion as such. Schleiermacher's insights are still operative in Rudolf Bultmann's program of "demythologizing" the gospel. According to Bultmann, all statements about God's concrete acts should be interpreted "existentially," except the notion of God acting (i.e., his saving intervention in human existence). The non-Bultmannian will, of course, ask why one should stop short at this particular anthropomorphism. This theology of religious consciousness has been condemned as heretical by both the Roman Catholic church (see the papal encyclical Pascendi, 1907) and Protestant orthodoxy (e.g., Karl Barth).


This article, although it focuses on the history of Western thought, is intended to give a coherent picture of the kind of problems generated by anthropomorphism. Similar phenomena, though less systematically elaborated, can be found in other religious traditions, for example, in the Vedantic impersonalist conception of the Absolute, which considers personalist theism and bhakti devotion as a lower form of religion. Mahāyāna Buddhism possesses a highly developed anthropomorphic and semianthropomorphic pantheon, but these figures are symbolic images to be transcended on the higher levels of meditation. Altogether, Eastern religions make greater allowance for differences in the levels of religious understanding between different kinds and conditions of humans. Some medieval Muslim theologians too advocated the (near-heretical) doctrine of "double truth," reminiscent of the Indian distinction between samvrti (conventional truth) and paramartha satya (absolute truth). Similarly, a more simple language and imagery, adapted to the capacities of the less mature and less advanced, is justified by Buddhists as upāya ("skillful means" for teaching the truth). Even Zen Buddhists in their daily practice worship statues of Buddhas and bodhisattvas, although theoretically they aspire to absolute nothingness and are taught to "kill the Buddha" if they encounter him as an obstacle on the way. A Hindu analogy would be the distinction between saguna and nirguna (i.e., the "qualified" versus the "unqualified" Absolute). The Upaniadic neti, neti, or Nāgārjuna's "eightfold negation" could be adduced as Indian instances of a "negative theology." The religious, as distinct from the philosophical, problem could be summarized in the simple question: Can one pray to a nonanthropomorphic deity?

See Also

Animals; Therianthropism.


Jevons, Frank B. "Anthropomorphism." In Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics, edited by James Hastings, vol. 1. Edinburgh, 1908.

Jevons, Frank B. "Anthropomorphismus." In Reallexikon für Antike und Christentum, vol. 1. Stuttgart, 1950.

Leeuw, Gerardus van der. Religion in Essence and Manifestation (1938). 2 vols. Gloucester, Mass., 1967. See the index, s. v. Anthropomorphism.

Zimmer, Heinrich. Myths and Symbols in Indian Art and Civilization. Edited by Joseph Campbell. New York, 1946.

For articles related to anthropomorphism in Islam, see "Tashbih" and "Muʿtazila" in The Encyclopaedia of Islam (Leiden, 19131938) and "Hashwiyya," "Karramiyya," "Ibn Hazm," and "Ibn Tamiyya" in The Encyclopaedia of Islam, new ed. (Leiden, 1960).

New Sources

Barnhart, Joe E. "Anthropomorphism." In Modern Spiritualities: An Inquiry, edited by Laurence Brown, Bernard C. Farr, and R. Joseph Hoffmann. pp. 171178. Amherst, N.Y., 1997.

Bekoff, Marc. "The Evolution of Animal Play, Emotions, and Social Morality: On Science, Theology, Spirituality, Personhood, and Love." Zygon 36, no. 4 (2001): 615655.

Ferré, Frederick. "In Praise of Anthropomorphism." International Journal for Philosophy of Religion 16 no. 3, (1984): 203212.

Guthrie, Stewart Elliott. Faces in the Clouds: A New Theory of Religion. New York, 1993.

Insole, Christopher J. "Anthropomorphism and the Apophatic God." Modern Theology 17, no. 4 (2001): 475483.

Schoen, Edward L. "Anthropomorphic Concepts of God." Religious Studies 26 (1990): 123139.

Yonan, Edward A. "Religion as Anthropomorphism: A New Theory that Invites Definitional and Epistemic Scrutiny." Religion 25 (1995): 3134.

R. J. Zwi Werblowsky (1987)

Revised Bibliography


views updated Jun 08 2018


ANTHROPOMORPHISM , the attribution to God of human physical form or psychological characteristics. Anthropomorphism is a normal phenomenon in all primitive and ancient polytheistic religions. In Jewish literary sources from the Bible to the aggadah and Midrashim, the use of anthropomorphic descriptions and expressions (both physical and psychical) is also widespread. Yet at the same time it is accepted as a major axiom of Judaism, from the biblical period onward, that no material representation of the Deity is possible or permissible. The resolution of this apparent contradiction requires consideration and understanding of virtually every anthropomorphic expression. In every instance it should be asked whether the expression is an actual, naively concrete personification of God, or a fresh and vital form of religious awareness resorting to corporeal imagery, or an allegorical expression, in which the anthropomorphism is not merely an aesthetic means for the shaping of a particular perception or utterance, but is rather a conscious method of artificially clothing spiritual contents in concrete imagery.

The evolutionary approach to the study of religion, which mainly developed in the 19th century, suggested a line of development beginning with anthropomorphic concepts and leading up to a more purified spiritual faith. It argued, among other things, that corporeal representations of the Deity were more commonly found in the older portions of the Bible than in its later books. This view does not distinguish between the different possible explanations for anthropomorphic terms. It especially fails to account for the phenomenon common in the history of all cultures, that sometimes a later period can be more primitive than an earlier one. In fact, both personifications of the Deity as well as attempts to avoid them are found side by side in all parts of the Bible. The paucity of anthropomorphisms in certain works is not necessarily proof of any development in religion, but may well be due to the literary characteristics and intentions of certain biblical narratives, e.g., the narratives designed to express the growing distance between God and man through describing His relationship to Adam, the patriarchs, and the early and late prophets, etc.

In The Bible

An obviously anthropomorphic expression is found in Genesis: ẓelem Elohim ("the image of God"), and there are references to actually "seeing" God (Ex. 24:10–12; Num. 12:8). The limbs of the human body frequently serve as allegorical descriptions of the acts of God as perceived by man. Thus divine providence is referred to as "the eyes of the Lord" and "the ears of the Lord" (very common in Prophets and Psalms); "the mouth of the Lord" speaks to the prophets (both in Torah and Prophets); the heavens are the work of His fingers (Ps. 8:4), and the tablets of the covenant are written by the finger of God (Ex. 31:18). Striking figurative expressions are af ("nose"; i.e., "the wrath of the Lord"), "His countenance" (which He causes to shine or, alternatively, hides), yad, ("hand," "His right hand," "His arm," "His sword"). At times the personification is startlingly extreme: God (or His voice) "walks about in the garden" (Gen. 3:8); He "goes down" in order to see what is being done on the earth (Gen. 11:5; 18:21) or in order to reveal Himself there (Ex. 19:18; 34:5), and He "goes up again" (Gen. 17:22; 35:13); He goes through the land of Egypt and passes over the houses of the Israelites (Ex. 12:12–13); He sits on a throne (Isa. 6:1), causes His voice to be heard among the cherubim who are over the ark of the tabernacle (Num. 7:89), dwells in Zion and in Jerusalem (Ps. 132:13; 135:21); the hair of His head is as wool (Dan. 7:9); Moses sees "His back" (Ex. 33:23). Anthropomorphic expressions abound in the song at the Red Sea (Ex. 15) and in the song of David (ii Sam. 22; Ps. 18).

More important from a theological perspective are the anthropopathisms, or psychical personifications of the Deity. Scripture attributes to God love and hate, joy and delight, regret and sadness, pity and compassion, disgust, anger, revenge, and other feelings. Even if one explains these terms as being nothing but picturesque expressions, intended to awaken within man a sense of the real presence of God and His works, nonetheless they remain personifications. The basis for such terms is the conception of God as a Being who wills in a personal (though not exactly in a human) way. This personalized conception of the Deity, in conjunction with the axiomatic belief in His absolute transcendence, leads to unusual boldness in the use of anthropomorphic imagery.

Ultimately, every religious expression is caught in the dilemma between, on the one hand, the theological desire to emphasize the absolute and transcendental nature of the Divine, thereby relinquishing its vitality and immediate reality and relevance, and on the other hand, the religious need to conceive of the Deity and man's contact with Him in some vital and meaningful way. Jewish tradition has usually shown preference for the second tendency, and there is a marked readiness to speak of God in a very concrete and vital manner and not to recoil from the dangers involved in the use of apparent anthropomorphisms.

However, this anthropomorphic style is frequently accompanied by mitigating expressions indicating reservations. The basic opposition to all such personifications is decisively formulated in the Decalogue. In addition, it finds expression in many verses which maintain that nothing can be compared to God, who has no form or shape, cannot be seen, is eternal and without end (very frequent in the Pentateuch, Former and Latter Prophets, Psalms, Job, and Chronicles). Yet, many of these verses appear to contradict others which describe God in corporeal terms (for example, Ex. 20:4; Deut. 4:15, as against Gen. 1:26; Num. 23:19 and i Sam. 15:29 as against Gen. 6:6; i Kings 8:27 as against Ex. 25:8, and other such examples). These verses emphasize the transcendent nature of the Divine, not in philosophical abstractions but in vivid descriptive expressions. In other places one finds attempts to avoid such personifications and to substitute less daring imagery; if it is said, on the one hand, that the Lord dwells in His sanctuary (Ex. 35:8), and also appears in the cloud over the cover of the ark (Lev. 16:2), on the other hand there are verses which speak instead of God's kavod ("glory") or Shemo ("His name"; Ex. 24:16–17; Lev. 9:23; Num. 14:10; Deut. 12:5, 11; 16:2, 6; i Kings 8:11). Some scholars (S.D. Luzzatto and Geiger) argued that the present vocalization of Exodus 34:24 "to appear before the Lord" was emended by the masoretes from original לִרְאוֹת (lirot; "to see") to לֵרָאוֹת (lera'ot; "to be seen"), to avoid an objectionable anthropomorphism.

There is no evidence of any physical representation of God in Jewish history (in contradistinction to the worship of Canaanite and other foreign gods by Israelites). Even the golden calves of Jeroboam represented, according to the view of most scholars, only a footstool for the invisible God. In archaeological excavations no images of the God of Israel have been unearthed. Biblical Hebrew is the only fully developed language which has no specific term for the notion "goddess."

The Targumim

The method of mitigating offensive anthropomorphisms by means of small emendations, described by the tannaim as "biblical modifications of expression," is also prevalent in the early translations of Scripture. *Onkelos often renders the name of the Lord in such substitutes as "the glory of the Lord," "the Word of the Lord," and "fear of the Lord." Similarly, he translates "He saw" or "He knew," referring to the Deity as "it was revealed before Him"; "He went down" becomes "He revealed Himself"; "He heard" becomes "it was heard before Him," and other similar examples. If the same verb is used in the Bible to describe an action of God and of man, Onkelos uses two different words in order to distinguish clearly between the Divine and the human (Gen. 32:29; 40:8; Ex. 14:31; and others). He is less hesitant, however, about attributing man's psychical qualities to God, and he translates such expressions as hatred, love, anger, and the like without making any changes except for those words which indicate regret and sadness on the part of God (for example, Gen. 6:6). Yet Onkelos is not consistent in his treatment of anthropomorphism as Maimonides already observed (Guide of the Perplexed 2:33), and it has been suggested that he prepared his translation with the simple worshiper in mind: expressions whose metaphorical meaning was obvious, were translated literally; where misunderstanding and error were likely, his translation circumvents the anthropomorphism by a paraphrase. The other Aramaic translators follow a similar course, although the Targum known as "Yerushalmi" goes even further in avoiding anthropomorphisms than do Onkelos and the Targum Jonathan to the Prophets.

The same generally applies to the Greek translations. For instance, temunah ("likeness") is always translated in the Septuagint as μορΦή ("form") or ὸμοίωμα ("likeness"), and, if it refers to the Deity (Num. 12:8), it is rendered δόξα ("that which appears"). The Septuagint is extremely careful with God's "wrath," "anger," and similar terms, which the Aramaic Targumim never hesitate to translate literally. Yet even within the Septuagint one finds no consistency in handling anthropomorphisms. Among the other Greek translations, of which only fragments are extant, Symmachus is the most consistent in avoiding personifications of the Deity. For example, in Genesis 1:27, he separates the terms "in the image of God," reading instead: "in the image – God created him" (the Targum Yerushalmi attributed to Jonathan treats this verse similarly).

Hellenistic Philosophy

Aristobulus deals in a systematic way with the "true" (that is, the allegorical) interpretation of anthropomorphic verses in Scripture, basing himself on Greek thinkers and poets. The consistent avoidance of any personification of God led Philo of Alexandria to the concept of a Deity who neither acts nor creates, who is without attributes or qualities and hence no kind of positive relationship to this world could be attributed to him. At the same time Philo could not be unaware of the dynamic vitality and activity of God as portrayed in the Bible. This contradiction caused him to posit an intermediate being between God and the world. His biblical exegesis is an allegorization of Scripture in this direction. Hence the memra ("word") of Onkelos and the logos of Philo, despite their terminological similarity cannot be equated.

Aggadic Literature

Rabbinical aggadah essentially follows the biblical manner of boldly using anthropomorphic imagery, while at the same time qualifying it. The number of substitute terms for God increases. To the memra of the Targum are now added other names and circumlocutions, such as gevurah ("strength"), shamayim ("heaven"), makom ("place"), etc. Sentences in which personifications occur are softened by means of the qualifying term kivyakhol ("so to speak," "as it were") or by means of sayings such as "if it were not written in Scripture, it would be impossible to utter it." Occasionally, anthropomorphic personifications of God are justified for didactic reasons and by the need to make divine truth accessible to human understanding: "The Torah speaks in the language of men." At times the rabbis resort to anthropomorphic language in order to drive home a moral lesson. Thus God's "descent" on Mount Sinai is used for the following exhortation: "Let a man always learn from his Creator, for here the Holy One blessed be He forsook all of the mountains and high hills and caused His presence to rest on the lowly Mt. Sinai" (Sot. 5a). Similarly, on the third day after the circumcision of Abraham, "the Holy One blessed be He said to the ministering angels: Let us go down and visit the sick man."

However, definite attempts to qualify anthropomorphic tendencies are evident in other homilies on the revelation at Sinai: "The Divine Presence never descended, nor did Moses and Elijah ever ascend to heaven" (Suk. 5a; Mekh. Ha-Ḥodesh 4). The commandment to cleave to the Lord is explained in the Talmud in this way: "As He is compassionate, so should you be compassionate; as He visits the sick, so should you visit the sick" (Shab. 133b; Sot. 14a). But the original version of the Midrash read: "As He is called compassionate and gracious, so you be compassionate and gracious," thereby avoiding the potential personification involved (Sif. Deut. 11:22). The rabbis did not recoil from such terms whenever they thought them useful to impress man with an awareness of the existence of God, His love and His fear, and, hence, aggadic literature abounds in statements to the effect that the Holy-One-blessed-be-He studies the law (Ḥag. 15b), puts on tefillin (Ber. 6a), weeps over the destruction of the Temple, and the like.

In the Middle Ages

The proper explanation of the anthropomorphic passages in biblical and aggadic texts became a major problem in Jewish theological thought. Generally one may discern three main trends of thought, although there are no clear lines of demarcation, and the number of intermediate positions is considerable: (1) Allegorization: every anthropomorphic description of the Deity is explained simply as a metaphor. This approach developed chiefly through the influence of Greek and Arabic philosophy. (2) Talmudic orthodoxy: a well-nigh literal understanding of the sayings of the rabbis. Philosophical, i.e., allegorical, exegesis was considered a danger to religion, since the whole biblical, halakhic, and aggadic tradition might easily evaporate into allegorical ideas. (3) The mystical view: there are intermediate beings between God and the world (or stages of God's self-manifestation), and all anthropomorphic expressions refer to these emanations from the Deity. Further support for this line of thought is found in the Targumim and aggadah, which make frequent use of such names as Shekhinah ("Divine Presence").


The medieval Jewish philosophers aimed at purifying the concept of the Deity of any trace of anthropomorphism. *Saadiah Gaon held that all corporeal references to God refer to noncorporeal matters, and that strictly speaking only the attribute of existence could be ascribed to God. The forms which the prophets saw in their visions were not actually the Deity but His Shekhinah ("Presence") – viz. the divine light or kavod ("glory") created by Him. Later thinkers developed Saadiah's views, although many of them defended the unlettered, simple believers who were intellectually incapable of properly understanding Scripture and approaching God without material notions (Joseph b. Ẓaddik, Baḥya ibn Paquda; Abraham b. David of Posquières' gloss to Maimonides' Yad, Teshuvah 3:7). Judah Halevi even saw a logical justification and a didactic value in such anthropomorphisms (compare his comment on the golden calf episode (Kuzari 1:97)). Discussion of the problem reached its zenith in the philosophical work of Maimonides, who insisted upon a nonliteral, allegorical understanding of all anthropomorphic expressions, both physical and psychical, and ruled that every anthropomorphism was outright heresy.

The violence of Maimonides' polemic against anthropomorphic beliefs and doctrines suggests that these were fairly widespread, and that a great many people were affected by "the aggadot ("homilies") which confuse one's mind" (so Abraham b. David of Posquières, loc. cit.). The influence of Maimonides, however, was both powerful and lasting. Even against the vehement opposition of more conservative thinkers of his day, his "Guide" determined what was to become the Orthodox concept of God within Judaism for a long time. There is evidence (Jedaiah ha-Penini of the 13th century, Moses Alashkar of the 15th) to show that it was the writings of Maimonides which finally did away with all anthropomorphic notions among Jews. Whereas in his lifetime Maimonides' orthodoxy was suspected because of his opposition to anthropomorphic beliefs, Spinoza was equally strongly denounced in the 17th century for his rejection of Maimonides' principles of exegesis and for his contention that scriptural anthropomorphisms were originally meant to be taken literally.

[R.J. Zwi Werblowsky]

In the Kabbalah

The talmudic *Merkabah (the heavenly throne-chariot) mysticism taught the ascent of the ecstatic soul into the realm of the divine throne. A description of the revelation of the divine majesty in the form of a human figure (following Ezekiel 1:26) became the focal point of this vision. This description is found in fragments of a tract called Shi'ur Komah, literally "the measure of the body," i.e., the body of God as He appears, revealing Himself in this form. The text, attributed to the two mishnaic rabbis R. *Ishmael and R. *Akiva, gives enormous figures for the measurement of each organ of that divine primordial man on the throne. Such measurements are preserved, for example, of God's right and left eyes, of His lips, and other parts. The description of God's organs is designedly linked with the description of the beloved one in the Song of Songs 5:11–15, and it is certainly connected with some esoteric doctrine about the Song of Songs as a mystical text. It constitutes a major piece of theosophy, no longer clear, evolved precisely within the circle of strict rabbinical Orthodoxy. The age of these fragments, which were forcefully attacked by the *Karaites as a profanation and degradation of the religious concepts about God, was long debated. Some philosophic apologists of the Middle Ages, for whom the existence of these doctrines was a source of embarrassment, tried to explain them away as late forgeries. Judah Halevi justified the Shi'ur Komah "because it brings the fear of God into the souls of men" (Kuzari 4:3). Later Maimonides ruled that it was unquestionably an idolatrous work and should be destroyed (Teshuvot Rambam, ed. Freimann, nos. 373, 694). Scholars like *Graetz assumed that they were due to the influence of an anthropomorphic school in early Islam. These opinions are no longer tenable. The term Shi'ur Komah appears as the keyword of an esoteric doctrine connected with the Song of Songs in the hymns of Eleazar ha-Kallir, which are pre-Islamic. The existence of an esoteric doctrine about the Song of Songs is attested in the third century by the church father Origen who lived at Caesarea. By this he cannot have meant the openly accepted allegorization of the Song of Songs as the relationship between God and Israel, but rather as a doctrine about the appearance of God in the form of the beloved one, such as is taught by the Shi'ur Komah. Saul *Lieberman has shown that in the earlier aggadah the revelation of God on His Merkabah at the exodus from Egypt and the revelation on Mount Sinai are in fact attested in a manner which fits into the traditions of the Shi'ur Komah. However it is clear from the extant fragments that this extreme form of anthropomorphism was not really meant to describe the Divine Being as corporeal. The description here is of a visionary apparition, however exotic, but not the appearance of God Himself. In kabbalistic literature, Shi'ur Komah was interpreted as a symbol for the revelation of the Divinity in the Sefirot (Divine Emanations) and therefore it was favorably appraised. Important parts of the *Zohar, in particular the Great and Small Idras, represent a kind of kabbalistic adaptation or imitation of the Shi'ur Komah. In them, the theosophic beliefs of the kabbalists are quite consciously expostulated in the form of concrete descriptions of the features of the head of the Divinity, in order to doubly stress their symbolic character. Parallels to the Shi'ur Komah are also found in the second century in the *gnostic literature of Christian heretics who had a knowledge of Aramaic, such as Marcion. His description of the "Body of Truth" comes particularly close to the traditions of the Shi'ur Komah.

[Gershom Scholem]

In Jewish Art

Although Jews have speculated on the anthropomorphic nature of God, visible representation of the Deity was clearly forbidden by the Mosaic law. In spite of this injunction, the Deity has sometimes been represented in Jewish art. In the synagogue frescoes of *Dura Europos (third century c.e.), there are representations of the Hand of God stretching forth from heaven. In certain cases where they depict the visions of Ezekiel the representations might be justified as an illustration of a biblical text (e.g., the prophet said, "the hand of the Lord was upon me"; Ezek. 37:1). No such justification, however, can be used to explain the fact that at Dura Europos and at *Bet Alfa there are representations (as in contemporary Christian art) of the Divine Hand extending from heaven to prevent Abraham from sacrificing his son (it is specifically stated in the Bible that the patriarch was restrained by the voice of an angel). The anthropomorphic tradition was continued in medieval Jewish illuminated manuscripts. In the Sarajevo Haggadah there is a figure of a man in repose which according to one opinion illustrates God taking rest after the labor of creation. Later, the theme was taken up in documents and printed books. One of the vignettes to *Jacob b. Asher'sArba'ah Turim published by Ḥayyim Schwarz (with his son and son-in-law) in Augsburg in 1540 shows the Deity engaged in the work of the sixth day of creation and in the creation of Eve. The Deity was also depicted in small vignettes of scenes from the Vision of Ezekiel on the engraved title page of the Minḥat Shai (Mantua, 1742); on the engraved border of an Italian *ketubbah of the 17th century; and in a representation of the Vision of Jacob at Bethel on the title page of the Ir Binyamin by Benjamin Ze'ev Wolf Romaner (Frankfurt on the Oder, 1698). There is a depiction in relief of God appearing to the infant Samuel (i Sam. 3:10) on the gravestone of Samuel Senior Texeira in the Oudekerk cemetery of the Sephardi Jewish community in Amsterdam (1717). This is especially remarkable in view of the biblical prohibition of graven images. The accumulated evidence shows that it is even possible that the cast figure of Jupiter Fulgur, incorporated in the perpetual lamp of at least two 18th-century German synagogues, was also intended to represent the Deity. It is clear that the prevalent idea that medieval Jewish art would not brook anthropomorphism is certainly incorrect.

[Cecil Roth]


in kabbalah: M. Gaster, Studies and Texts in Folk-lore… 2 (1960), 1130–53; A. Schmiedl, Studien ueber juedische, insbesondere juedisch-arabische Religionsphilosophie (1869), 239–58; G. Scholem, Jewish Gnosticism… (1960), 36–42, 118–26 (appendix by S. Lieberman); idem, Von der mystischen Gestalt der Gottheit (1962), 7–48 (On the Mystical Shape of the Godhead (1991), 15–55); Scholem, Mysticism, 63–67; S. Mussayoff (ed.), Merkavah Shelemah (1921), 30a–44b (for the time being the best available texts of the Shi'ur Komah fragments). in art: A. Grabar, in: Cahiers Archéologiques, 16 (1964), 245–8; Morton Smith, in: bjrl, 40 (1957–58), 473–572. add. bibliography: in kabbalah: D. Abrams, "The Dimensions of the Creator – Contradiction or Paradox? Corruptions or Accretions to the Manuscript Witness," in: Kabbalah, 5 (2000), 35–53; The Shi'ur Qomah: Texts and Recensions, ed. Martin Samuel Cohen (1985); J. Dan, "The Concept of Knowledge in the "Shi'ur Qomah," in: Studies in Jewish Religious and Intellectual History in Honor of A. Altmann (1979), 67–73; A. Farber-Ginat, "Inquiries in Shi'ur Qomah," in: M.l Oron and A. Goldreich (eds.), Massu'ot, Studies in Kabbalistic Literature and Jewish Philosophy in Memory of Prof. Ephraim Gottlieb (1994), 361–94, Heb.; M. Idel, "Une figure d'homme au-dessus des sefirot (A propos de la doctrine des "eclats" de R. David ben Yehouda he-Hassid et ses developments)," in: Pardes, 8 (1988), 131–50; idem, "The World of Angels in Human Shape," in jsjt (Jerusalem Studies in Jewish Thought) = J. Dan and J. Hacker (eds.), Studies in Jewish Mysticism, Philosophy and Ethical Literature Presented to Isaiah Tishby (1986), 1–66; Y. Lorberbaum, "Nahmanides' Kabbalah on the Creation of Man in the Image of God," in: Kabbalah, 5 (2000), 287–325 (Hebrew); Ch. Mopsik, "La datation du Chi'our Qomah d'apres un texte neotestamentaire," in: Revue des Sciences Religieuses, no. 2 (April 1994), 131–44; E. Wolfson, "Anthropomorphic Imagery and Letter Symbolism in the Zohar," in: jsjt (Jerusalem Studies in Jewish Thought), 8 (1989), 161–63; idem, "Metatron and Shi'ur Qomah in the Writings of Haside Ashkenaz," in: K.-E. Groezinger and J. Dan (eds.), Mysticism, Magic and Kabbalah in Ashkenazi Judaism, (1995), 60–92.


views updated May 23 2018


The representation of God or gods under human form and with human attributes. In a broader sense it may be applied to the practice of assigning human characteristics or attributes to nonhuman beings or objects. It is a common phenomenon in primitive religion and has a practically worldwide distribution. The two forms of anthropomorphism are well illustrated by Greek and early Roman religion, respectively.

In Greek religion, the sky and earth are represented as gods, 'Oυρανός and Γαîα, and creation as a generation and a birth (cf. Hesiod, Theog. ). The Greeks always sought to get closer to their gods or to bring their gods closer to themselves. However, when Homer calls Zeus "father of gods and men," he does not mean necessarily that he considers the two races identical. The distinction is clear, e.g., in the Iliad 5.441442, where Apollo in addressing Diomedes says: "since in no wise of the same kind is the race of immortal gods and that of men who walk upon the earth." Pindar uses almost identical language: "One is the race of men, one is the race of gods" (Nem. 6.1). Divine power is especially manifest in Apollo, but most of the other gods in Homer are almost too human to be gods in a strict sense. This "humanization" of the gods made man familiar with them. The Greek, accordingly, was without fear of his gods, and opposed to any magical conception of terror or restraint; he was able to study the nature and order of the world and to create science.

But "humanization" had other results also. In its extreme form, it set up a contrast between the gods fashioned in the image of man, with all their weaknesses and even their crimes, and the sublimity and omnipotence attributed to them by earlier faith. This contrast was exploited by the comic poets, and, in particular, by Aristophanes (Clouds, Birds, Frogs ), yet he remained strongly attached to traditional beliefs. The logic of anthropomorphism finally worked against religion. The philosophers repeatedly protested against such a gross anthropomorphic conception of the gods; e.g., Xenophon of Colophon in the 6th century, the philosopher and dramatist Euripides in the 5th, and Plato in the 4th century.

Animism, the second form of anthropomorphism, peopled all nature with numina (powers) or daemones (spirits). A formula, although one too brief perhaps, has been proposed for the religion of the Greeks, namely, that it was the resultant of a clash between two attitudes or outlooks: the dynamic animism of the Indo-Europeans, which might be defined as "anthropopsychic," and the "Aegean" and subsequent Hellenic demand for divine generating presences, which was anthropomorphism proper.

If this formula is applied to the Romans, it must be recognized that "anthropopsychism" lasted much longer among them than among the Greeks. In fact, it left marked traces of its vitality in the course of an evolution spread over 1,000 years and exercised an influence on the concept of the anthropomorphic gods themselves. The history of Vesta is a case in point. She was not given anthropomorphic form until late in Roman religion.

Anthropomorphism did not spare the basic cult of the Mother-Goddess and her male companion, whether husband or son. Even in the case of Mithras, who personified Heaven, and later the sun and light, personification signified the progress of anthropomorphism at the same time, for Mithras thus becomes an intermediary (μεσíτη) between man and the Supreme Being.

See Also: greek religion; roman religion.

Bibliography: f. b. jevons, j. hastings, ed., Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, 13 v. (Edinburgh 190827) 1:573578. g. van der leeuw, "Anthropomorphismus, nichtchristlich," Reallexikon für Antike und Christentum, ed. t. klauser [Stuttgart 1941 (1950) ] 1:446448. g. mensching, Die Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart, 7 v. (3d ed. Tübingen 195765) 1:424. k. prÜmm, Religionsgeschichtliches Handbuch für den Raum der altchristlichen Umwelt (2d ed. Rome 1954), esp. 4246. c. bailey, "Roman Religion," The Cambridge Ancient History, 12 v. (London and New York 192339) 8:423453. j. bayet, Histoire politique et psychologique de la religion romaine (Paris 1957).

[É. des places]


views updated May 11 2018

anthropomorphism Anthropomorphism can refer to the representation of the gods in human form or, more generally, to the attribution of human characteristics to animals or to inanimate objects. In both cases it can be seen as a statement of human superiority — everything else that there is must be just like us — or as an attempt to understand that to which we have no direct cognitive access, by imagining it to behave just like us.

The gods of many ancient societies were thoroughly anthropomorphized, both in their form and in their familial and social relationships; for example, as presented in the Homeric poems which were familiar throughout the ancient Mediterranean world, they get drunk, marry, quarrel, and make up just like people. The Greeks solved the problem of how, in this case, the gods are any different from us by attributing to them alone the features of being ‘immortal and ageless’. Either the cause or the effect of these two (usually related) features lies in a different diet: the diet of the gods consists of nectar and ‘ambrosia’, which literally means ‘immortal’, and this leads to a different fluid flowing in their bodies. The Greeks called this fluid ichor. In classical myth, the anthropomorphic nature of the gods meant that gods and mortals were thought to be fully capable of interbreeding, although the gods could also take on forms other than their human ones by metamorphosis. However, immortality and agelessness continued to be the prerogative of the gods; neither the children of mixed unions, nor mortals who were especially precious to the gods, could share them. For example, the mortal Tithonos was loved by Eos, goddess of dawn, and was granted the power to ask for anything he wanted. He asked for immortality, but forgot to mention agelessness, so that he grew older and older until all that was left of his physical self was his voice.

The body of a god may function sexually just like a mortal body, and Greek mythology included the difficult labour of the female Titan, Leto, in which she gave birth to the twin deities Apollo and Artemis — the first-born child Artemis helping to deliver her own brother.

One consequence of imagining the gods in human form, so that in art the only way to tell which figures are divine may be their representation on a larger scale, is that it can make it easier to believe that some humans may really be gods. This was a feature of the Mediterranean world before Alexander the Great decided that his mother's stories of having been impregnated by a god in the form of a snake conveyed divine status on him. The idea that a man could show himself to be a god by achieving something which was impossible for a mere mortal, such as conquest of a large proportion of the known world, meant that subsequent great generals could hint at such a status for themselves. From the third century bc, there was increased contact with Egypt, where for many centuries anthropomorphic representations of the gods had existed alongside the belief in the divinity of the ruler. This fuelled belief in the possession of divinity by certain humans, culminating in the cult of the living emperor in the Roman world.

Christianity, in common with the Islamic and Jewish traditions, generally avoids anthropomorphism, but still proposes that connections between the divine world and the human world can result in the birth of a child who is divine, as well as representing God the Father in art as a benign patriarch.

The attribution of human — particularly emotional or mental — characteristics to animals, or even to inanimate objects, has a long history, from Aesop's fables to fairy tales such as ‘Goldilocks and the three bears’ and on to Beatrix Potter. Pleading with one's computer or cajoling one's temperamental car can be variations on this theme. The whole animal kingdom can be anthropomorphized, with the lion as ‘King of the beasts’, or the hive as a ‘Queen’ bee running her obedient ‘workers’. The ‘politics’ of such an animal world then act as a commentary on our own, with the animal representing the ‘natural’ way of acting. Additionally, individual species — such as the ‘wily’ fox — can be given a dominant anthropomorphic character trait; this enables different valuations to be placed on each species, and on each trait, within a given social context.

Helen King

See also Greeks; metamorphosis; reproduction myths; Titan.


views updated May 29 2018

Anthropomorphism (Gk., ‘of human form’). The attribution of human qualities to the divine, as also to other items in the environment, hence the conceiving of God or the gods, or of natural features, in human form. The status of such language and descriptions has been a matter of fierce debate in those religions which rely on revelations which describe God in terms of human qualities—e.g. sitting on a throne (in Islam, see TANZĪH). In general the limitations of analogical language and of symbols led in the direction of the via negativa. That is true even of Hinduism, but in that case the prevailing sense of God underlying all appearance makes the occurrence of anthropomorphism deceptive: there is a real presence through the image, and thus through sound and language (see e.g. ŚABDA; MANTRA; MAṆḌALA).


views updated May 14 2018

an·thro·po·mor·phism / ˌan[unvoicedth]rəpəˈmôrˌfizəm/ • n. the attribution of human characteristics or behavior to a god, animal, or object.DERIVATIVES: an·thro·po·mor·phize / -ˌfīz/ v.


views updated May 29 2018

anthropomorphism Attribution of human characteristics to that which is not human. The most commonly cited sociological illustration of this phenomenon is the tendency, often found in early functionalist sociology, to push the organic (or biological) analogy too far—to the point at which societies are reified and given the characteristics of self-conscious human actors.


views updated Jun 27 2018

anthropomorphism The attribution of human characteristics to non-human animals, most commonly by supposing non-human behaviour to be motivated by a human emotion that might motivate superficially similar human behaviour.


views updated May 23 2018

anthropomorphism The attribution of human characteristics to non-human animals, most commonly by supposing non-human behaviour to be motivated by a human emotion that might motivate superficially similar human behaviour.

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