Let’s start our exploration by considering the scant information Genesis contains on what it took to be a human being “in the beginning.”
Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals,and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”
So God created mankind in his own image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.
God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”Genesis 1:26-28, NIV.
These few words are what distinguish “theological mankind” from the rest of creation. Now, although much work has been done over the centuries to define what is meant by “in our image, in our likeness,” it is obvious that the ultimate referent has always been “us.” Our question has always been, “What does it mean that we descendants of Adam are created in God’s image and likeness?”
But if we’re currently considering whether, and how, the description might apply to “early hominins” then we must necessarily take a more fundamental and dispassionate approach, since “they” are self-evidently not “us” in every respect. In the last few decades, since the recognition of the Genesis creation count as a “temple inauguration text” has become mainstream, a vocational (as opposed to ontological) view of “God’s image” has gained ground, and rightly so, in my view.
In the context of the Ancient Near East and its thought-forms, a couple of strong analogies exist. The first is that of the image of a deity representing and embodying the deity in every pagan temple. The earthly tabernacle of Yahweh in Exodus pointedly contains no image of him, for “You saw no form of any kind the day the LORD spoke to you at Horeb out of the fire.” (Deuteronomy 4:15). Likewise the cosmic temple of God in Genesis 1, as Richard Middleton in particular has pointed out, has no account of God’s glory filling it, and instead the only representative image of him on earth is mankind. The high status of man is one profound difference between divine religion and human religion.
The second analogy is that of the king of an empire, whose rule over distant provinces could be represented by an official image of himself. Given that mankind is granted rulership of the earth in the text, as it were on God’s behalf, this kind of imagery too would be highly appropriate.
Now in both these cases, we need to think ourselves back into the ancient concepts of “participation” and “representation.” Rather than being, like a portrait of Queen Victoria in the Indian Raj, merely a reminder to the colonials that there was a powerful state out there that could if necessary enforce her rule, the ancients saw the image as actually invoking the presence of the god or ruler in some concrete way. And thus although Zeus was living on Mount Olympus, the worshippers at the temple of Olympian Zeus in Athens had no problems experiencing the awe of his presence in the gold and ivory statue. Such fear of a wood or stone idol was frequently mocked by the Hebrew prophets, not only aware that such materials were not gods, but that unlike mankind, God’s true image on earth, they weren’t even alive. Still, the strong meaning of “representation” was ubiquitous in the ancient world – to the Hebrews it was inherent in the concept of the “Name” of God dwelling in the Jerusalem temple even though God himself fills the highest heaven.
And so the imago dei primarily appears to denote the rule given to mankind over the other creatures in Genesis 1. But as I pointed out in Generations of Heaven and Earth humanity’s ontological nature must necessarily reflect that function. Sea anenomes cannot subdue the earth. Man must be strong enough to rule and subdue, in some way analogously to God. Given man’s animal nature, we can see that such rule is partly exercised by the command to “be fruitful and increase in number” – our strength, unlike God’s, is in our numbers. In any case, we must not forget that mankind is created in God’s “likeness” as well as in his “image.” What can that mean?
Clearly rulership itself reflects God’s nature. But I think we have to encompass New Testament teaching to give the best account of the rest. The fundamental role of the eternal Son in creation is amply set forth in passages like John 1 and Colossians 1. And in Hebrews 1 he is described as the “express image” of the Father, a fact that resonates strongly with Genesis 1. If all things were created “by and through the Son,” the exact image of God, then there is a particular significance in the creation of mankind as God’s image too. As Philip Edgcumbe-Hughes puts it in The True Image, humanity is formed “in the image of the Image.” There is therefore something deeply appropriate in Christ taking human form at the Incarnation.
Yet clearly the “likeness” between God and man cannot be physical: God is Spirit, and has no form, and that surely includes the pre-incarnate Son. God’s theophanies in the Old Testament took human form only for the sake of people, not because he actually possesses human anatomy. At this stage I can think of three ways in which human nature reflects that of the Triune God, and for which we might therefore look to identify whether early hominins were “human” in the Genesis sense. Two of them are inextricably connected.
The first is plurality. God imparts his nature to a humanity expressly described as “male and female,” and it is in that complementary dualism that we should expect to find the image of God in Trinity expressed. There is plenty to discuss there in the way that the male-female couple is the foundation for the pluraility of the race, but not much that is likely to be visible to archaeology, so I have dealt with it only briefly.
The second and third come from the description of the Son in John 1 as “the Word” or λογος. This concept, given John’s allusions to the Genesis 1 account, includes the idea of God’s word of power, the creative words by which he speaks Creation into being. The Son himself is that Word. But λογος also encompasses the concept of the mind formulating the ideas behind spoken words. The Son is both the “idea” itself, and the verbal expression bringing it into existence.
This is hardly a new insight – Aquinas used it when he defined man as “rational animal.” We need to understand that by “reason” Aquinas meant something broader than the “logical deduction” we tend to mean nowadays. Aquinas’s “reason” included the imagination, knowledge gained from the senses, and the will – in effect, all that we might understand by “mind.” Minds do not fossilise, but their works may well do so. It seems reasonable, then, that to find evidence of conscious thought in ancient hominins is to find biblical humanity, mankind created in God’s image.
But there’s more. Not only is speech the outward expression of mind, of rationality, but it is arguably the means by which minds can alone exist. I explored this in a blog post nearly a decade ago. There I argue that it is only through the ability to use internally the same speech that we use to communicate with others that we can think anything beyond the most basic and transient thoughts. Most thought is speech.
Anthropologists sometimes wonder if certain artifacts and activities attributable to ancient mankind entail the existence of language, or only of intelligence before language existed. I would suggest that such evidence of intelligence – given that in the archaeological record it must also be evidence of sustained culture – is in itself evidence of language. And to that extent I would offer that the clearest diagnostic sign of “God’s image,” and therefore of true humanity, is the existence of language. It is speech that most closely imitates the character of the Son in whose image mankind is created. To have speech is to be rational, and to lack it is to be incapable of reason. As I always like to quote from Roger Scruton:
Communities are not formed through the fusion or agreement of rational individuals; it is rational individuals who are formed through communities.
The unspoken truth in that is that communities, and rational individuals, are formed through spoken language. There is a beautiful chicken-and-egg circularity there which we may return to in considering the question of the “evolution” of human speech. But note that in the context of Genesis 1 and John 1, the λογος expresses himself through creation. God’s thought and speech give rise to Creation, and so we would expect the human likeness of mind to be creative in a creaturely way. That is to say that, just as the existence of God may be demonstrated to the undeceived mind by what he has made (Romans 1), so the rationality of early hominins ought to be capable of deduction from their remaining artifacts – subject to the fact that most of their artifacts will not have been preserved, whether because made of perishable materials, or because they were human performances like songs or dances.
These considerations, I think, give us the toolbox by which we may search the archeological record for evidence of theological, as opposed to biological, humanity. Of course we may well find that the two coincide.