Published by Worldview Publications
Prequel 2000.12 

Since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us . . . fix our eyes on Jesus, . . . who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. — Hebrews 12:1, 2, NIV.

Corporate Personality in Ancient Israel


H. Wheeler Robinson, Corporate Personality in Ancient Israel (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1981).1

. . . [The Roman Christian philosopher, Boethius (ca. 500 CE), who translated Aristotle, declared that a] human being . . . is an individual substance of a rational nature. ‘Substance’ is a key Aristotelian category: something is what it is but also has some ‘accidental’ configurations. . . . The human self is an autonomous self; it first exists and then enters into relationships. The relationships may change, but the individual, autonomous self remains fundamentally the same self. Accordingly, the philosophical category of ‘relation’ is a philosophical ‘accidental’ . . . Further, when Boethius defines a human being as an individual substance of a rational nature, he reflects the judgment that rationality is . . . what it means to be human. Reason is the seat of [individual] human personhood.

. . . [On the other hand, t]he ancient Hebrew social sense of self contrasts so deeply with our more individualized sense of self that we have to work very hard indeed to sympathize into the experience of corporate personality . . . [But t]oday’s world surely needs a deepened . . . sense of our corporate existence in a world that is either ours together or perhaps not at all. . . . [I]n the Hebrew cultural . . . story, the corporate or social aspect of reality has a primacy over the individual aspect . . . [T]he notion of individuality is set upon social and corporate moorings and thus . . . [contrasts] significantly with the Greek model. . . . [In Hebraic thinking] the relational web is the perpetual womb of our becoming. The umbilical connection between individual and community is never severed. But unlike the womb metaphor, individuals in their turn birth society. It is a reciprocal parent-child creation.

. . . [Thus,] the Hebrew ‘model of’ and ‘model for’ what it means to be human lays a heavy stress upon the primacy of social and relational considerations . . . [Hebrew anthropology also] locates the psychic center in human affect [rather than in rationality]. Because of the central role of affect . . . , ‘the heart’ is a recurring theme in the earlier scriptures (and in Paul as well as in the later scriptures). . . .

Corporate Personality and Individuality

“The notion of corporate personality is clearest in Hebrew history before the axial period [800-200 BCE] of human civilization. [In this pre-exilic era] Yahweh makes a covenant with a body of persons, not with individuals. Even the king is a figure through whom Yahweh’s promises and guarantees are directed to his people. The king is called Yahweh’s son, but Yahweh’s son is also what the nation is called in Hosea 11:1. The relation of individuals to Yahweh is mediated through the corporate personality of the nation. The relation of Yahweh to individuals is mediated through the corporate personality of the nation.

“ . . . [In later Jewish history] the Hebrew sense of individuality . . . [developed] as a product, in great part, of the experience of individuality that emerged in the prophets themselves, especially Jeremiah. As the pained and tearful prophet sees himself over and against the people to whom he proclaims Yahweh’s new covenant, his own awareness of self is strengthened. . . . The notion of corporate personality is modified but not surrendered. Individuals have their own moral centers and assume individual responsibilities, yet one people has a single heart, and even in death there are tribal gatherings in Sheol. . . .

. . . [Today, however, it is exceedingly difficult to] relate to the notion of corporate personality. The nearest analogy . . . is with ecology. The root word is the Greek oikos, which means home or dwelling. Literally, ecology is the science of our common home . . . [W]e are so organically linked together that whatever happens to any part reverberates throughout the entire system to every single other part. And any slightest change in the system itself has effects upon every tiniest part. What you do to even the smallest, you do to me and to everyone else as well. There is no such thing as a purely private destiny, no purely private sin or purely private virtue, no purely private love or purely private hate; there is no purely private relationship with God, no purely personal spirituality. And my individual subjectivity is not any less real for it. Only it is not an autonomous self with accidental relationships. It is an individual reality whose actuality is an emergent from the relational web. We do not awake some morning and then decide to walk into the oikos. The oikos, our common home, is what we come out of. We have a communal home address before we ever wake up with consciousness.”3


  1. H. Wheeler Robinson, Corporate Personality in Ancient Israel, is available from Barnes & Noble at (go back)
  2. Bernard J. Lee, Jesus and the Metaphors of God: The Christs of the New Testament (New York: Paulist Press, 1993), pp. 57-66. (go back)
  3. See note 2. (go back)

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