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The 1901 Jewish Encyclopedia

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Psychological Genesis.

The ascription to the Deity of human forms or modes and of human feelings or moods, respectively. Such ascription is as old as religion. If, as Zeller correctly observes ("Philosophie der Griechen," 2d ed., 3:306), every conception concerning the Deity is in its final application, dependent upon a posteriori evidence—that is, upon an inference from events and effects, or from things as they occur and exist, to their absolute ground or reason—and if anymore precise specification or definition of this Absolute can be derived only from the conscious contents of soul-experience and world-knowledge, then the origin of the ascription of human characteristics to the Deity finds an easy explanation; for nothing means so much, nothing is so important, as our own conscious possessions, as, for instance, our faculties of sensation, emotion, thought. Accordingly, in our search for and discovery of the Author of all things, we attribute to Him the most valuable traits we are aware of; namely, those possessed by ourselves incompletely, in mere segments of a circle, as it were, but possessed by Him in perfect measure, in the completed circle. With regard to primitive religions the well-known epigram is certainly true, that "men created gods in their own image." Anthropomorphism is, of course, met with among all the peoples of antiquity, not excluding the most advanced. Even Jahvism, before the great reformation by the Prophets, was not free from Anthropomorphism. It is unquestionably true that the Biblical expressions of an anthropomorphic nature, such as the hand of God, His arm, foot, mouth, ear, or eye, or His speaking, walking, and laughing, merely describe in naive fashion the activity of God as living and working after the manner of human beings. But such expressions would never have come into use had there not been a time when people actually had a sensuous conception of Deity. That this period of naive utterance was not limited to the pre-Jahvistic age is shown by numerous Biblical expressions, such as that He walked in the garden in the cool of the day (Genesis 3:8); He ate with Abraham (Genesis 18:8); He wrote with His own hand upon the tables of stone (Exodus 31:18), and the like. Nevertheless, this very anthropomorphic view, or, to be more exact, this anthropopathic attitude—this conception of the Deity as a being with affections similar to those of a human being—contained the germs for the development of the conception of YHWH as being a mere tribal deity into a universal, ethical Being.

Stages of Development.

It was just this conception of YHWH as a personality to whom neither wrath nor mercy nor love nor hate—to whom, indeed, "nothing human is alien"—that, when deepened and ennobled, led necessarily to the prophetic view of God; to the doctrine of a holy, spiritual Being, who, on the one hand, influences and actively maintains the orderly structure, organization, and system of the universe; and whose relationship to the individual and to the mass, on the other hand, is not conditioned by arbitrariness or momentary emotion, but is the outcome of eternal, divine law. This higher conception of Deity on the part of the Prophets determined also their attitude toward Anthropomorphism and Anthropopathism. Many passages of Hosea, one of the oldest Prophets who committed their prophecies to writing, will serve to illustrate this attitude. "The work of craftsmen," "the calf of Samaria," are some of the epithets which this prophet applies to the effigies on images of YHWH, held sacred by the people (Hosea, 8:4,6; 10:5; 13:2). Again, when the people, under the influence of their delusions, deemed it impossible that YHWH should withhold His pity from His people, he proclaimed in the name of YHWH: "But I am God, and not man" (Hosea, 11:9). Thus YHWH is so exalted above everything earthly that He should not be represented by an effigy or image lest He be dragged down into the sphere of the sensuous. Besides this, His very spiritual constitution is so intrinsically different in its essence from that of man that no comparison can be made. Man may be overcome by a sympathetic heart or a censuring conscience; the character of YHWH is firmer: "for he is not a man that he should repent" (1 Samuel 15:29).

Beginning of Anti-anthropomorphism.

Isaiah was more practically successful in his efforts against the worship of sensuous representations of the Deity. He induced Hezekiah to destroy the brazen serpent, which may have dated back to the days of Moses (2 Kings, 18:4). But before the Prophets, even David, "a man after God's own heart," as well as Laban of old, had teraphim (small household idols in human form, used as domestic oracles) in his house (1 Samuel 19:13,16; Genesis 31:34). The lofty and novel conception by the Prophets of the essential characteristic of YHWH as ethical—through which ethical nature, despite His sublimity and incomprehensibility, He has something in common with man—became a matter of fundamental importance in the development of the Jewish religion. With the prevalence of legalism the immediateness of the relation between God and man ceased; in other words, the "Law" made the transcendent nature of God a postulate. Hence there may be noticed, in a few books of the Old Testament, a certain aversion to bringing the Creator into direct relations with His creatures. To the people God was no longer visible in person—as described in the most vivid colors by the older sources—but He was visible in "majesty" and "glory" instead (Exodus 16:7,10, 34 et seq.; Leviticus 9:23; Numbers 14:10, 16:19). It was no longer the actual personality of YHWH that dwelt in the Tabernacle, but the mental image called up by His "Name" () that there abode (Deuteronomy 12:5,11; 16:2,6,11; 26:2); so likewise in the Temple dwells His name (2 Kings, 23:27; 2 Chronicles 20:9, 33:7). See Ginsburger, "Anthropomorphismen," pp. 262 et seq.

It is evident, therefore, that the theological problem regarding Anthropomorphism—that is, the endeavor to interpret the sensuous statements concerning God in the Bible so as to give them a spiritual meaning—is coeval with Jewish theology itself. For it is obvious that there is a definite method and purpose in the consistent efforts of the nomistic writers to substitute new terms for those found in the ancient authorities, or to remodel entire accounts. Such revision is to be seen, for example, in the so-called "priestly code" where all theophanies are consistently omitted, and "the word" or "the presence of God" substituted for them. This reluctance to offend the Deity by anthropomorphic utterances concerning His person grew stronger with time, so that the use of the name YHWH, which was felt to be a proper name, in contradistinction to the other appellations of the Deity in the Bible, was thereafter avoided (see see ADONAI).

Men of the Great Synagogue.

A version to Anthropomorphism exercised a great influence upon the men of the "Great Synagogue," who undertook to establish a sacred canon. For the more the belief in the letter increased, the more zealously did the leading spirits of Israel endeavor to bring the Scripture into harmony with their purer religious and ethical views. Quite unobjectionable as it had seemed to the old, naive Judaism that God should say, "I will dwell in your midst," in a later age, when the idea of the transcendence of God had become the prevalent one, and the ancient simplicity of thought had disappeared, offense was taken at such an expression, and the phrase "I shall cause you to dwell" was substituted for it. A favorite phrase of the ancientBiblical writers is "to behold the face of God." By means of a slight vowel-change (yiraeh in place of yireh) this became "to appear before God."

This and similar emendations of the Scribes (see Geiger, "Urschrift," pp. 318 et seq.) show that the endeavor of the "Soferim" was to hold the Deity aloof from all contact with the merely human, and thus to avoid attributing human qualities to God even in interpreting the language of the Bible. Nevertheless, Anthropomorphism and even Anthropopathism, when not too gross and flagrant, did not appear to them seriously objectionable. Among the eighteen "Tiḳḳune Soferim," (emendations of the Scribes) in the Mek. (Exodus 15:7, ed. Friedmann, 39a), which is the oldest source, not a single example of the changing of a real anthropomorphic expression is found. The older Targumim adduce a principle similar to the "Soferim." They always speak of the MEMRA ("word" of God)—if in the Hebrew text God is represented as speaking—but they retain in their translations such expressions as the hand, finger, or eye of God. The present text shows only traces of this tendency, but they are unmistakable, as Ginsburger has shown (c. p. 265). Ginsburger (p. 270) is accordingly right when he deduces the following rule for the employment of memra in the older Targumim: "Whenever a relation is predicated of God, through which His spiritual presence in an earthly being must be assumed, the paraphrase with memra is employed."


The "fathers" of the Septuagint went much further than the "Soferim" or the "Meturgemanim" in their employment of interpretative expressions, by paraphrasing or spiritualizing (rendering less worldly or gross) the anthropomorphic or anthropopathic phrases of the Bible. The "image of God" becomes in the Septuagint "the glory of the Lord" (δόζα κυρίου); "the mouth of God," "the voice of the Lord" (φωνα κυρίου). Even human emotions are excluded from Deity. Repentance, wrath, and pity are suggested in such a manner that nothing human is stated of God. The customary assumption that this aversion to the predication of anything corporeal, or indeed human, of God is due to the influence of Greek philosophy is far from certain. Frankel, in his "Vorstudien," was the first to deny that any traces of Greek influence can be discovered in the Septuagint; and Freudenthal has fully demonstrated the correctness of this assertion. According to the latter's argument ("Jew. Quart. Rev." 1890, pp. 206 et seq.), no other traces of the alleged influence of Greek philosophy can be noticed in the Septuagint; and consequently the avoidance of anthropomorphisms and anthropopathisms in the Septuagint must be looked upon as a refinement of religious ideas which had its origin upon Jewish soil. Nor must it be forgotten that many anthropomorphic phrases are simply untranslatable into Greek; for instance, "by God" (literally, "by the mouth of God"). Although the Septuagint, and later the Targumim, Onkelos and Yerushalmi, to the Prophets avoid anthropomorphisms and anthropopathisms, whenever the Biblical expressions seem such, no fixed rule for the avoidance of these phrases can be shown to have existed, as the same Targum sometimes renders an Anthropomorphism literally, and again, in another place, quite freely. (The elaborate rules which Maybaum sets up for Onkelos seem too complicated. Besides, Onkelos, despite its present uniform character, contains many originally extraneous elements.)

Earlier Rabbinical Literature.

In the older rabbinical literature there also occur a number of utterances which show a tendency to suppress low and sensuous conceptions of God by means of a new hermeneutics. Referring to the fanciful and figurative expressions of the Prophets, an old rabbinical saying remarks: "The Prophets show great daring in likening the Creator to the creature," (Gen. R. 27:1). Rabbi Akiba sought a different interpretation of those passages in the Bible that seem to identify God and the angels. God, in His sublimity, must in His very essence differ from His holy angels. Compare Mek., Beshallaḥ, 6, where Akiba declares as heretical the certainly ancient explanation of the words "like one of us" (Genesis 3:22) as referring to the angels. Compare his Christian contemporary Justin Martyr, who declares the interpretation Akiba rejected to be "Jewish heresy" ("Dialogus cum Tryphone," 62) Whenever actions similar to those of a human being are predicated of God, the older rabbis employed the term ("as though it were possible"); intending by this term to say that these expressions are not to be taken literally, but only as a mode of speech accommodated to the average intellect (Mek., Yithro, 4).

An entirely different tendency from the one just described in the treatment of anthropomorphisms and anthropopathisms is apparent as soon as philosophical speculation concerns itself with Jewish monotheism as a factor in determining the interpretation of the Scripture. Such a result was quite inevitable; for, as Frankel ("Vorstudien," p. 174) remarks, the ordinary intellect often regards what appears to the speculative reasoner as anthropomorphic, as a notion inseparable from the concept of God.

Aristobulus and Philo.

The manner in which Aristobulus, 150 B.C., endeavors to remove the anthropomorphic designations of God is, accordingly, no longer the same, nor is it even similar to the procedure of the Palestinians, as the existing fragments of his work show. The "resting" of God, of which the Bible speaks, means, according to Aristobulus, that He instituted a permanent self-maintaining order in the world. So God's "coming down" is not to be conceived as a bodily descent into space, but only as a vision or mental picture (see Siegfried, "Philo," p. 198). From this it is evident that Aristobulus stands with only one foot on the base of traditional Judaism; and of his successor Philo not even that much can be asserted. The God of Philo, owing to the influence of Platonism, is not only essentially different from man and the world—an idea which also coincides with the teaching of the Pharisees of this period—but He is entirely devoid of attributes. Philo opposes not only the literal understanding of the anthropomorphic and anthropopathic passages in the Bible, but also the doctrine of God as an active worker, inasmuch as activity can not be predicated of a Being devoid of attributes. This was the impelling motive of Philo's doctrine of the "Logos," which doctrine later on became a chief pillar of Christianity.

Alexandrianism had no material influence upon the development of Judaism, so that a long time passed before the experiment was repeated of reading the Bible with philosophical scrutiny. The antipathy of the Palestinian Jews to the Greeks and everything Grecian involved this consequence, that rabbinical literature shows no development whatever in the treatment of Anthropomorphism. Ḥanina, an amora of the third century, when rebuking a cantor for unduly multiplying the attributes of God in his prayers (Ber. 25a), added that he himself would use no attributes in praying, if it were not that some are employed in the Bible. But the example he gives to illustrate his point shows that hisremark was not the outcome of philosophic reflection, but was based upon the old prophetic view of the Deity. It was, he said, like praising a Crœsus by saying "he has a few coins"; better no praise than inadequate epithets; against "Moreh," 1:59.

Saadia and the Medieval Philosophers.

The question became a matter for lively discussion in the various schools when, for a second time, there was forced upon the Jew the problem of reconciling prophecy and philosophy—by the latter term meaning Aristotelianism, the only philosophical system which prevailed among the Arabs, and therefore also with the Jews living among Moslems. It is interesting to notice how this second attempt to harmonize Judaism and Hellenism led to the same result. Judaism was in danger of being so intellectualized as to be no longer recognizable as a religion. The development of Jewish thought during the period from Saadia to Maimonides presents an exact parallel to that connecting the Septuagint and Philo; and this is most strikingly brought out by the changed attitude toward the Biblical Anthropomorphism and Anthropopathism. As regards Anthropomorphism Saadia is in full harmony with rabbinical Judaism when he maintains that the corporeality of God is contrary both to reason and Scripture—at least in so far as tradition would have it (see "Kitab al-Amanat wal' Itiqadat," ed. Landauer, p. 93, 10 et seq., Leyden, 1881—2:2 of the Hebrew translation of the work). Following the Targum of Onkelos—which he esteems very highly—he sets up the following rules, according to which the ten anthropomorphic designations which occur in Scripture are to be explained: God's "head" indicates sublimity; "eye," providence; "face," favor or disfavor; "ear," heeding; "mouth" and "lip," command and instruction; "hand," power; "heart," insight; "bowels," compassion; and "foot," the act of conquering or subduing, conquest. But his treatment of the subject of Anthropopathism is dictated more by Greek philosophy than by Judaism, and is not remotely connected with his views on God's attributes (ATTRIBUTES).

Baḥya and Judah ha-Levi.

Baḥya, the next Jewish philosopher after Saadia—he wrote his "Ḥobotha-Lebabot" probably in the year 1040—mentions his great predecessor in a few words (chap. , § 10) and accepts, in its entirety, his explanation of the Biblical anthropomorphisms. He lays more stress, however, than Saadia upon the negative character of the divine attributes, so that, had he been consistent, he would have arrived at the standpoint of Maimonides. But Baḥya did not possess a clear conception of the nature of negative attributes; for, while he taught that God is absolute unity, he also claimed that this fact involved the attributes both of being and eternity (see Kaufmann, "Die Theologie des Bachya ibn Pakuda," Vienna, 1874; and "Attributenlehre," p. 153).

Judah ha-Levi—not to mention Ibn Gabirol, whose views scarcely possess any Jewish characteristics—was far more consistent than Baḥya, and was the first Jewish philosopher to reject completely the doctrine of essential attributes, insisting on the fact that it is impossible to predicate anything of God. But his approach to Neoplatonism—the doctrine of God as "pure existence"—is after all not a real approach.

When uninfluenced by philosophic speculation Judah ha-Levi maintains a position nearer to traditional Judaism than any other religious philosopher. His pious convictions are not based upon speculative philosophy, but on historical facts, on revelation and prophecy, the representatives of which comprehended and recognized the higher world as clearly and distinctly as ordinary mortals do this mundane sphere. This philosophic mysticism determined also his attitude toward Anthropomorphism. While opposed to the conception of the corporeality of God, as contrary to Scripture, he would nevertheless consider it wrong to reject completely the sensuous concepts of Anthropomorphism—even the fantastic measurements of the physical dimensions of Deity ()—as there is something in these ideas which fills the human soul with awe of God.

Maimonides and His Influence.

But this rather opportunist and indulgent attitude toward Anthropomorphism found, almost during the lifetime of Judah ha-Levi (died about 1150), a determined opponent in the person of Maimonides—the greatest of Jewish philosophers. Maimonides was the first Rabbinite Jew to set up the incorporeality of God as a dogma, and to place any person who denied this doctrine upon a level with an idolater. While his predecessors had contented themselves with rejecting Anthropomorphism as contrary to reason—treating it as a purely theoretic matter—Maimonides declared it a heresy that would deprive any one holding the doctrine of a share in the world to come ("Yad ha-Ḥazaḳah, Hilkot Teshubah," 3:7). The first part of his religio-philosophical work (the "Moreh Nebukim") practically constitutes a treatise on Hebrew synonyms, the object of which is to explain away the anthropomorphisms in the Bible. But Maimonides was not content to restrict himself to opposing Anthropomorphism. Philosophy being to him not the handmaid, but the mistress, of theology, he pursued his thought until he arrived at the concept of God as a metaphysical being, withdrawn in cold sublimity and isolation from His creatures—with whose weal or wo He could no longer concern Himself—and void of a free will; a being, in short, to whom no attributes could be ascribed except those of a negative character. Thus Maimonides was confronted with a difficulty similar to that which Philo encountered when he propounded his doctrine of the "Logos": the question, namely, how to establish a communication between a God devoid of attributes and the material universe. In fact, his lack of success was as complete as that of Philo, at least as far as Judaism is concerned.

Despite the high esteem enjoyed by Maimonides among the great body of Jews, he was unable to achieve any success with his "intellectualization" of the notion of God. Only one of his teachings—that of the incorporeality of God—found favor in the eyes of his coreligionists, was accepted in all sincerity, and was even adopted in the ritual of the Synagogue; a proof that in this doctrine he had caught the true spirit of Judaism. That his warfare against Anthropomorphism was a matter of serious concern to the Jews is shown by the comment of Abraham ben David of Posquières—the only one who could rival Maimonides in rabbinical scholarship—on the passage in the "Yad ha-Ḥazaḳah," referred to above: "Greater and better men than he—Maimonides—have held this opinion."

It is difficult to determine whence the Jews of southern France—who bitterly opposed Maimonides —derived their antianthropomorphic views. (See Kaufmann, "Attributenlehre," p. 485. Even in northern France at an earlier date, Rashi on Mak. 12a remarks that the angels are not composed of flesh and blood, which, in philosophic phraseology, means the "angels are incorporeal.") The Jews of Provence were possibly influenced by the mystical literature in which the "measurements of the dimensions" of God play a great part, although this literature did not enjoy universal authority, even when,in later times, the Cabala had come to prevail among a great section of the Jews. Abraham ben David probably intended to suggest that the French Jews, with their belief in the literal meaning of Bible and Talmud, were led to anthropomorphic views by the fantastic descriptions which some of the Haggadot give of God and His actions. Compare, for instance, the remark (Sanh. 98) that the Almighty will shear off the beard of the king of Assyria, or the passage (Ket. 7b) where the Biblical expression (image of God) is enlarged to (the image of the likeness of His form); for according to Maimonides, "Moreh," 1:3, signifies "mathematical form."

Mention must also be made of Ḥasdai Crescas—the greatest Jewish philosopher after Maimonides—not only because he opposed the latter's doctrine of negative attributes, by asserting that it is possible to ascribe many attributes to Deity without injury to the idea of His unity, but because he exerted influence upon Spinoza, the greatest of all opponents of Anthropomorphism. Spinoza's views upon this subject, however, no longer belong to Jewish philosophy, but to philosophy in general. For the Karaitic views on the subject, see Aaron ben Elijah the Younger; the chief works specifically written by Karaites on Anthropomorphism are: Aaron b. Joseph, "Ez ha-Ḥayyim," ed. Delitzsch, and Judah Hadassi, "Eshkolha-Kofer."

  • S. D. Luzzatto, Oheb Ger, pp. 1-25, Vienna, 1830;
  • Z. Frankel, Einiges zu den Targumim, in Zeit.f. d. Religiosen Interesse d. Judenthums, 1846, pp. 110-120;
  • idem, Ueber den Einfluss der Palaest. Exegese auf die Alexandr. Hermeneutik, §§ 7, 9, Leipsic, 1851;
  • idem, Vorstudien zu der Septuaginta, 1841, pp. 174-179;
  • A. Geiger, Urschrift und Uebersetzungen der Bibel, pp. 310 et seq., 384 et seq., Breslau, 1857;
  • S. Maybaum, Die Anthropomorphien und Anthropopathien bei Onkelos, Breslau, 1870;
  • C. Siegfried, Philo von Alexandria (see index), Jena, 1875;
  • M. Ginsburger, Die Anthropomorphismen in den Targumim, in Zeit. f. Prot. Theologie, 1891.
L. G.
Bibliography Information
Singer, Isidore, Ph.D, Projector and Managing Editor. Entry for 'Anthropomorphism'. 1901 The Jewish Encyclopedia. https://www.studylight.org/​encyclopedias/​eng/​tje/​a/anthropomorphism.html. 1901.
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