Corporate Personality Transcript


Ray Mayhew

The next segment is on the subject of corporate personality. For some time I have been perplexed by the lack of emphasis on going to heaven in the Old Testament, which is so central to our presentation of the gospel today. One can simply decide that is a matter of progressive revelation. But recently I have come to realize that it is probably connected to the Hebrew concept of corporate personality.

The corporate personality of Israel was the essential unit of life, rather than individual personality. Colin Morris asserts that the emergence of the person as an “individual” in the more autonomous modern sense was unknown before about 1200 AD. and of course the radically autonomous “self” that we are so familiar with emerged at a much more recent date. By way of contrast, one’s identity in Israel and the ancient world was tied up with one’s father, “ben” (“son of”) often being integrated into one’s name, as in Judah-ben-Hur, etc.

Corporate personality was so strong in Israel (and many other cultures) that personal immortality was simply not a burning question. The important thing was that one contributed to the movement of God (Israel which had been raised up to redeem the nations) while one was alive (by obedience, morality, having children, prayer, keeping the Torah, stewarding the land, and contributing to the community, etc.).

One then “lived on” in this community as it progressed into the future. God’s promise to Abraham was not about going to heaven, but about establishing an ongoing community (through his descendants) that would heal the wound of the world by birthing the Messiah. This was far more exciting to them than speculating on the afterlife.

Unfortunately we have the tendency to “look up” (a focus on going to heaven, kind of like “beam me up, Scotty”) while the Jews had the tendency to “look forward” (a focus on the reign of God being established on the earth, in real time and space through the covenant community).

One’s personal status after death was not clearly defined in the OT. They simply believed that the Lord of life was also the Lord of death and he would see to it that “all would be well” in some unspecified way.

The Sadducees went even further and denied that there was any afterlife—either embodied as in resurrection, or disembodied as in an immortal soul. They said that as the afterlife was not taught in the Pentateuch they did not believe in it.

While the Pharisees strongly disagreed, having a strong doctrine of resurrection, it is interesting that a conservative branch of Judaism like the Sadducees with a high view of scripture (although we believe they were wrong) would have no interest in the afterlife whatsoever [Tom Wright points out that there may have been some political reasons for this denial, but we won’t go into that here] At the moment I simply want to make the point that life, being caught up in the redemptive purposes of God, was more important to them than afterlife.

In Judaism in general, the sense of community was stronger than the sense of individuality. Personhood was defined more by the corporate that by the “individual self”. Because this is so foreign to us in a day of radial individualism we have a hard time understanding many biblical truths, for instance:

Adam as a “corporate person”. The very name “Adam” means “man” or mankind, and is both a personal name and a description of humankind in general (as when we say “man is sinful” in Hebrew this would read Adam, mankind, is sinful).

Our focus on radial individualism also hinders us from understanding Christ as a corporate person When Paul uses phrases like “one died for all, and therefore all died” he is building on the truth of corporate personality. But this is not easy for us to grasp.

Jacob as being both an individual and a nation (and of course, just as the nation was initiated by one man, Jacob (or Israel), it was consummated by one man, Jesus). This again builds on the concept of corporate personality.

Levi being “in the loins of Abraham” (even though he would not be born for well over 100 years). The author of Hebrews understanding corporate personality has no hesitation in stating this. That Levi was in the loins of Abraham, even though for most of us, sounds rather bizarre.

David as being a representative warrior in his contest with Goliath (which is also picked up in the NT as Jesus is our representative warrior in his battle with Satan, sin, and death on the cross).

The Servant Songs in Isaiah, when it is hard to know if the prophet is speaking about the Messiah (singular) or the nation as Yahweh’s suffering servant (plural). The overlap is seemingly at least in one or two of the Servant Songs, intentional in the mind of the author. Corporate personality does not make the hard-edged distinctions as we do.

The concept of corporate personality continues in the narrative of Israel. Perhaps a few more examples will help:

The tragedy of being barren in Israel (this meant that you could not contribute to the continuation of the community by having children, it was not primarily a denial of personal satisfaction of motherhood. In this, one’s sense being barren, one’s sense of “immortality” was reduced, by having no offspring to walk on your behalf into God’s redemptive future.

The same would be true of the Levirate laws where one had to marry one’s sister-in-law (even if you were married already) if she had no children, so that your brother’s name would not die out in Israel. We would simply see the brother as having gone to heaven—but something important is lost in this kind of simply assumption, which I will mention later.

The horror of the Holocaust was not simply the number that died. The end of the race (genocide) would be the end of “me”; I would not live on in the community, as there would no longer be any community left.

The phrase “cut off from Israel”, Gordon Wenham says this probably refers to death or excommunication (it is impossible to know which with any certainty). But both are equally tragic punishments. Both mean we do not “live on” in the community of faith.

Arranged marriages, while foreign to us with our radical concept of the individual, were normal in Israel because marriage was not simply a contract between two individuals, the individuals were persons embedded in a community, and the community (particularly the parents) were involved as marriage meant the fusion of two families, the enlargement and reconfiguration of the community.

The following are quotes from Ray Anderson’s book, Theology, Death, and Dying (Professor Anderson teaches at Fuller) which are helpful in clarifying the concept of corporate personality as central to putting the afterlife in perspective in Israel.

“For the [contemporary] Jew [he is speaking of modern mainstream Judaism—not the ultra conservatives], continuity of history itself through the projection of the race constitutes the only ‘redemption’ from death. Death is the end of the individual person, but the corporate personality of the Jew continues. Death is thus an inevitability for the individual Jew which does not and must not break the continuity of history itself” (Ray Anderson, Theology, Death and Dying, p.126)

“If life [for the modern Jew] is a continuation of history with God though continued dialogue with God, then death cannot destroy this life, even though the individual perishes. Death cannot destroy the Jew, in this view, as long as there are Jews to die” (which is why the Holocaust, which would have meant the end of the race, was such an unthinkable event).

“While the individual might perish…one’s existence is continued in the corporate identity of the tribe and clan” (Anderson, p.40)

“While there is a theme of immortality as a promise to human persons in Israel’s theology, this is often vague and related to the promise of having sons as a guarantee of a future posterity. One can see this quite explicitly in the covenant promise to Abraham, for example (Genesis 12:1–3; 15; 1–6) [where there is no promise of personal immortality to Abraham, it simply does not appears to be a burning question] The establishing and continuation of the community raised up to ‘heal the wound of the world through the Messiah’ is what counts.”

“The theme of immortality is not [necessarily] connected to the theme of resurrection from the dead. In fact, the concept of resurrection as redemption from death is at best only dimly perceived.” (Anderson, p.42) Tom Wright would probably disagree with Anderson here. In his new book, The Resurrection of the Son of God, Tom Wright argues that in the second temple period, a developed theme of bodily resurrection arises in the intertestamental literature. Perhaps Anderson is referring to the earlier biblical period, and if so, his remarks would be accurate.

“If there can be said to be an expectation of redemption from death, it is only hinted at. Even the few passages which seem to speak of this redemption do not seem to promise resurrection from

the dead for the individual.” (Anderson, p.42 for OT references and comments on specific verses). Again Tom Wright would argue that while passages like Ezekiel 37 [The dry bones coming together and the army coming to life] was at first a metaphorical picture of the nation entering into resurrection as they returned from exile (the return from exile was like the resurrection of the race), more and more this was also seen in the second temple period as also referring to physical resurrection (building on passages like Daniel 12, etc.). So it would seem here that Ray Anderson is describing early biblical Judaism, whereas, Tom Wright is speaking more of the intertestamental literature that immerged

These reflections on life after death, accurate or inaccurate, illustrate how powerful the concept of corporate personality was in Israel. The question of me as an individual going to heaven was not the burning issue. The issue was my commitment to the covenant people of God while I am alive so that God’s purposes for the whole human race, the redemption of mankind in the cosmos could be achieved. The creator of creation would indeed see to it that I would not perish in death. Mean while he wanted me to be totally integrated into his covenant family so that his redemptive purposes could be worked out in the earth. That his kingdom would come and his will would be done.

Now having said all that from this basis of corporate personality we can make some other important applications:

1. To many people in other cultures similar to Israel, the isolation and alienation of many in the West from family and friends (many having no relatives or close community) is the ultimate sadness and poverty. Mother Teresa said that the loneliness caused by alienation in the West was as great that caused by hunger and disease in the Third World. This is in part a result of the enlightenment view of the autonomous individual.

2. This rich concept of the person only existing in relationship, and being more than an isolated singularity will help us as the personal nature of God is revealed as being a complex singularity in the NT. The assertion the God is a tri-unity rather than a simple singularity should not surprise us since the foundations of such an understanding of personhood have already been laid in the OT

3. It has been well said that Israel forgot their purpose but never forgot they were a people. We suffer from the opposite problem. We have not forgotten our purpose, to go out and preach the gospel to all nations, but we have forgotten that we are a people (a corporate person, the body of Christ). Wesley said it well when he remarked that solitary saints were as unbiblical as holy adulterers. In other words you can’t be holy and be an adulterer and neither could you be a saint and be solitary.

4. We have gone too far in encouraging people to discover “my passion, my vision, my dream, my destiny”. We need to get back to the biblical vision of conversion being that which grafts me into God’s purposes for the whole creation which he has delegated to his people (plural), not to a person (singular). Justification is being grafted into the covenant community that God has raised up to fulfill his salvation purposes in the earth.

5. Caring for the poor was so strong in Israel simply because of the truth of corporate personality meant that this was caring for my own flesh. With the rise of the autonomous individual our care for the poor has declined because I no long see him as my own flesh.

6. I am reminded of the motto used by Alcoholic Anonymous “you alone can do it, but you cannot do it alone”, and of the African proverb, “if you want to run fast, run alone; if you want to run far, run together. There is wisdom here for us in a day of radical individualism. Somebody has said that koinos has suffered at the hands of idious. You know the two Greek words: koinos, which we get, koinonia, fellowship. Koinos is that which is corporate, participatory, plural, public, and this is being the people of God together, in koinonia, fellowship. That is koinos. Idios, from which we get the word individual, or idiosyncratic, is that which is private personal and singular. However, if we emphasize idious at the expense of koinos we become idiots. That’s where we get the word idiot. So the word idios, (nothing wrong with idios) the individual, private, personal, the singular, but if we put idios too far at the expense of koinos we become idiots. But if koinos does not suffer at the hands of idious we need to recover the truth of corporate personality.

7. The legacy of corporate personality laid down in the scriptures helps us to break our fixation on personal immortality. The gospel is not about going to heaven (although we will), but of bringing the kingdom of God into the earth. We have to stop “looking up” and recover the Hebraic vision of “looking forward” to the victory of God in the earth and the renewal of creation. This has been the mandate of God’s people both under the old and new covenants.

This could all be taken much further, but I find the whole concept very illuminating. If you have more insights, please let me know