Terminology Tuesday: Corporate Personality
CORPORATE PERSONALITY (Part 2) “Corporate personality” is a term used in English law. It refers to the fact that a group or body can be regarded legally as an individual, possessing the rights and duties of an individual. The membership of such a group may change through the death of members or the recruitment of new ones, without affecting the rights and duties of the group as a whole.Although Wheeler Robinson in 1907 had alluded to the concept in his commentary on Joshua, it wasn’t until 1911 that he introduced the term “corporate personality” into biblical interpretation. He believed that it helped to explain features of the OT that were puzzling to modern readers. For example, in Joshua 7, the whole household of Achan was destroyed, even though Achan alone had disobeyed the divine command not to take spoil from Jericho. If Achan’s household was a corporate personality, the whole group was culpable, even though only one of its members had offended. Again, in some of the psalms (e.g., 44:5–9—Eng 44:4–8), the language switches abruptly from “I” to “we.” If the psalmist belonged to a corporate personality, he could think of himself (“I”) as embodying the whole group; yet his sense of solidarity with the group allowed him also to employ “we” language.
According to Rogerson (1980), Robinson employed “corporate personality” in at least two different senses: (a) corporate responsibility (e.g., the Achan punishment) and (b) corporate representation (e.g., the corporate “I” of the psalms). Like many scholars of his day, Robinson believed that ancient Hebrew thought was similar to that of “primitive” societies and was impressed by the work of anthropologists on this “primitive” mentality, especially that of Lévy-Bruhl. He believed that the Hebrews analyzed the relation between the individual and the group in ways very different from those of modern man. For example, the Hebrews did not place limits on their individuality but felt themselves to belong to a group in such a way that an individual could be or become the group. Again, a remote ancestor, although dead, could embody the group in such a way that a living member of it could feel the closest identity, even identification, with the ancestor.
Although Robinson took the idea of corporate personality from English law, he applied it to the OT in an imprecise fashion. In English law a corporate personality cannot be punished for the misdemeanor of one of its members. If, however, the offender acted as an authorized representative of the group, then the group as such could be indicted. Furthermore, the idea of a bond of consciousness or identity between individual and group, such as is presupposed in explaining the corporate “I” of the psalms, is foreign to the legal notion adopted by Robinson in order to describe what he believed to be a basic and primitive characteristic of Hebrew thought, one to which modern thought had no parallel.
Since the 1930s many OT scholars believed that Robinson had discovered an important way of avoiding reading modern Western notions of individuality into the OT. Many also believed his work to be confirmed by Pedersen’s (1926) mystical account of how Israelites experienced the world. Corporate personality was thus used to explain the individual and collective traits of the servant in the four Servant Songs of Isaiah 42–53 (Robinson 1955; Eissfeldt 1933), the phenomenon of pseudonymity in apocalyptic literature (Russell 1964), the identity between a messenger and the person who sent him (Johnson 1961: 28), and the close affinity between saga characters and Israelite readers of the sagas (Koch 1969). However, the anthropological theories on which Robinson based his notion of Hebrew mentality have since been largely abandoned by anthropologists.
Robinson must be credited, nevertheless, with focusing attention upon an important question: did the Israelites regard a group as a collection of individuals or as a body with various members? In some cases the answer seems to be that a group is regarded primarily as a body whose members are so bound together that they must share a common fate. In Gen 19:22–32, the alternatives are that either Sodom will be destroyed or it will be reprieved should it contain ten righteous persons; that the righteous should be spared and the wicked destroyed is not an option. The city is dealt with as a collective whole.
However, care should be taken not to press this principle into service without careful thought. In the Achan incident there is clear indication of individual responsibility. Achan is identified as the culprit, and, although the people as a whole had been punished by defeat at Ai, it is only Achan’s household that is put to death. This punishment need not depend upon corporate personality; it has been explained in terms of the need to execute all those who were defiled by contact with spoil devoted wholly to God (Porter 1965). It has also been seen as an instance of ruler punishment.The classic instance of ruler punishment (Daube 1947) is 2 Sam 24:1–17, where David’s punishment for holding a census results in the death of 70,000 men. Here again, the idea of individual responsibility is clear: David erred, but his punishment falls upon his property, the 70,000 men.
The above examples should serve as a warning against those who attempt to fit OT texts into simplistic categories. In OT law the principle of individual responsibility was fundamental from the earliest times. Yet some individuals held power over others that might cause them, although innocent, to be punished for the actions of the head. In OT religion the fear of defilement of the whole people by the presence within it of a group or individual that had violated the boundary separating the sacred from the profane was strong enough to require the execution of those responsible. Again, the OT employs the devices of personification and synechdoche: Israel can be described as a virgin girl (Amos 5:2), or a king can represent the whole of his people (Ezek 28:2, 12).
It would be wrong to assume without further investigation that Israelites perceived the relation between the individual and society in exactly the same way as modern scholars. It is equally wrong to suppose that the OT can only be understood by positing a special Hebrew mentality, radically different from that of modern Westerners. Even in modern society, where individualism is a more dominating concept than in the OT, there exist experiences and resources which can be used sensitively to explain features of OT narrative that are at first sight puzzling and alien.
BibliographyA full bibliography on corporate personality is provided in H. Wheeler Robinson 1964: 61–64, and footnotes to the text. To this bibliography should be added:
Daube, D. 1947. Studies in Biblical Law. Cambridge. Repr. New York, 1969. Eissfeldt, O. 1933. The Ebed-Jahweh in Isaiah xl–lv. ExpTim 44: 261–68. Gordis, R. 1971. Poets, Prophets and Sagas. Bloomington, IN. Johnson, A. R. 1961. The One and the Many in the Israelite Conception of God. Cardiff. ———. 1979. The Cultic Prophet and Israel’s Psalmody. Cardiff. Joyce, P. 1983. The Individual and the Communities. Pp. 74–89 in Beginning Old Testament Study, ed. J. Rogerson. Philadelphia. Koch, K. 1969. The Growth of the Biblical Tradition. London. Pedersen, J. 1926. Israel: Its Life and Culture. 2 vols. London and Copenhagen. Porter, J. R. 1965. The Legal Aspects of Corporate Personality in the Old Testament. VT 15: 361–68. Robinson, H. W. 1911. The Christian Doctrine of Man. Edinburgh. ———. 1955. The Cross in the Old Testament. London. ———. 1964. Corporate Personality in Ancient Israel. Philadelphia. Rogerson, J. W. 1980. The Hebrew Conception of Corporate Personality. JTS 21: 1–16 = pp. 43–59 in Anthropological Approaches to the Old Testament, ed. B. Lang. Philadelphia. 1985. Russell, D. S. 1964. The Method and Message of Jewish Apocalyptic. London.
Rogerson, J. W. (1992). Corporate Personality. In D. N. Freedman (Ed.), The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary (Vol. 1, pp. 1156–1157). New York: Doubleday.
(Part 1 Can Be Found Here: https://apologetics315.com/2020/04/terminology-tuesday-corporate-personality/)