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What does the real God of the Bible actually look like? A new book claims that centuries of Jewish and Christian piety have masked the fact that ancient worshippers viewed their God as a large, handsome, muscly deity with “a penchant for the fantastic and the monstrous.”

A 2018 study from UNC-Chapel Hill, which tested a sample of 511 Christians in the United States, revealed that political views align closely with how Americans envisaged their God: “Liberals tended to see God as more feminine, younger, and more loving than conservatives. Conservatives also saw God as more Caucasian and more powerful than liberals.”

The study’s lead author, Joshua Conrad Jackson, remarked that the society individuals want to see in the world influences how we see the divine. Such cognitive bias and projection has a long history, one that religion scholar Francesca Stavrakopoulou reconstructs in her new book, God: An Anatomy. She also reveals the form likely imagined by the earliest worshippers of a god alternately named Yhw, Yh, and Yahweh.

Sant Climent de Taüll, “The Hand of God” (ca. 1123), fresco transferred to canvas,  Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, Barcelona, Spain (image courtesy Wikimedia)

Stavrakopoulou starts at the beginning: the book of Genesis. The verse (Gen 1:26) “Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, in our likeness’” has greatly shaped depictions of God as akin to man, but the use of “our” is here also telling. Yahweh was not yet seen as the only divine being within the universe. Like every other deity, he had corporeality: head, feet, eyes, nose, mouth, and genitals. The book of Exodus records the Ten Commandments given to Moses, one of which dictates that idols depicting God should not be worshipped. The commandment doesn’t deny God had a body; it simply prohibits worshiping representations of it. Throughout the Hebrew Bible and later the New Testament, God’s body is never denied; it is just assumed.

God: An Anatomy meticulously maps the anatomy of God’s body over 20 chapters, as well as an autopsy in an epilogue. Moving part by part, Stavrakopoulou pushes back against the later theological worldview that the southern Levantine deity was always a singular, unchanging entity. He was not always viewed as a being “devoid of divine colleagues; a universal being in exclusive command of the cosmos, its course and its creatures.” Hundreds of years after the events depicted in the Hebrew Bible, within the religious movement of early Christianity, it was influential theologians like Origen who increasingly denied the corporeality of God. In Origen’s denial of God’s body, the author sees a “powerful conceptual shift away from an old-fashioned  mythological  imagination to a world in which the symbolic and the abstract were granted the highest cultural and theological status.” This was a strategic means of distancing the divine from the earthly in order to elevate God.

In late antique Roman art, Christ often became a consubstantial symbol that argued for the identical nature — in appearance and in matter — of the Trinity (Father, Son, Holy Spirit). Christ hence represented all three in one when depicted. During periods of Byzantine iconoclasm in the Eastern Mediterranean and throughout the early Middle Ages in the Western Mediterranean, images of a solo God the Father were either banned or looked unfavorably upon. It was not until the High to Late Middles Ages that the elder God with white locks — a motif based on the Ancient of Days depiction of God in the book of Daniel — began to become popularized in everything from medieval manuscripts to Michelangelo’s “Creation of Adam” (1508-1512).

Detail of the upper register of the “Dogmatic” Sarcophagus (circa 340 CE) with one of the earliest likely depictions of the Trinity (Father, Son, Holy Spirit) to the far left with God enthroned, marble relief, now in the Museo Pio Cristiano Museum, Vatican City, Italy (image courtesy Wikimedia)

The 608-page book is a sweeping and richly illustrated tour of the geography, mythology, and aesthetics of the ancient Mediterranean over thousands of years. It includes comparative examples of depictions of deities that range from the footsteps in the 3,000-year-old Syro-Hittite temple of Ain Dara in Syria, to early Christian sarcophagi depicting God next to Adam as well as the Trinity. In Stavrakopoulou’s quest to outline a silhouette of Yahweh, one with reddened skin, muscly features, and a radiant beauty, readers glimpse a God more viscerally human than we ever imagined. We also realize that now, just as ever, the divine is envisaged in a manner that often reflects our own worldviews and standards for power and beauty.

God: An Anatomy by Francesca Stavrakopoulou is published by Pan Macmillan and is available for preorder on Bookshop.

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Sarah E. Bond

Sarah E. Bond is associate professor of history at the University of Iowa. She blogs on antiquity and digital humanities, and is the author of Trade...

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