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Prosopon[a] is a theological term[4] used in Christian theology as designation for the concept of a divine person.[5] The term has a particular significance in Christian triadology (study of the Trinity), and also in Christology.[6][7]

In English language, the form prosopon is used mainly in scholarly works, related to theology, philosophy or history of religion, while it is also commonly translated as person, both in scholarly or non-scholarly writings. The term prosopon should not be confused with the term hypostasis, which is related to similar theological concepts, but differs in meaning.

The greek term for prosopon, traditionally used in Western Christianity, and from which the English term person is derived, is persona.


In Ancient Greek, the term prosopon originally designated one's "face" or "mask". In that sense, it was used in Greek theatre, since actors wore specific masks on stage, in order to reveal their character and emotional state to the audience.[8]

The term prosopon was important in the development of the Doctrine of the Trinity. It was the subject of many theological debates and disputes, particularly through early centuries of Christian history.[9] It was an important issue in the Meletian Schism; a dispute between two pro-Nicene groups.

“The doctrinal difference between the Meletians and the old Nicenes consisted chiefly in this: that the latter acknowledged three hypostases in the divine trinity, the former only three prosopa; the one laying the stress on the triplicity of the divine essence, the other on its unity.” (Philip Schaff)

While prosopon can mean hypostasis, it can also indicate a role played in a theatre. Applied to the Trinity, it can indicate different roles played by a single Person. For that reason, the Sabellians accepted the term[10] but Basil of Caesarea rejected it. Basil, insisted that each Person (Father, Son, and Spirit) must be described as a hypostasis. He wrote:

"It is not enough to count differences in the Persons (prosōpa). It is necessary also to confess that each Person (prosōpon) exists in a true hypostasis. The mirage of persons (prosōpa) without hypostaseis is not denied even by Sabellius, who said that the same God, though he is one subject, is transformed according to the need of each occasion and is thus spoken of now as Father, now as Son, and now as Holy Spirit.”[11][12]

As another example of the distinction, Jerome, writing in Latin, strongly opposed Basil's three hypostaseis and explained "the tri-unity as ‘one substance, three persons' (una substantia, tres personae)."[13] In other words, for Jerome, there was a real and important distinction between hypostasis and prosopon (Greek)/persona (Latin).

Paul the Apostle uses the term when speaking of his direct apprehension in the heart of the face (prosopon) of Christ (2 Corinthians 4:6).

Prosopon in Christian triadology[edit]

Cretan School icon representing three persons of the Trinity, Venice (16th century)

In Christian triadology, the study of the Trinity, three specific theological concepts have emerged throughout history, in reference to number and mutual relations of divine persons:

  • monoprosopic concept advocates that God has only one person;[14]
  • dyoprosopic concept advocates that God has two persons (Father and Son);
  • triprosopic concept advocates that God has three persons (Father, Son and the Holy Spirit).

The most notable example of monoprosopic views is represented in ancient Sabellianism and its later variants, including teachings of some modern Christian denominations, like those of Oneness Pentecostalism.[15]

Prosopon in Christology[edit]

Within Christology, two specific theological concepts have emerged throughout history, in reference to the Person of Christ:

  • monoprosopic concept (in Christology) advocates that Christ has only one person;
  • dyoprosopic concept (in Christology) advocates that Christ has two persons (divine and human).[16]

During the first half of the 5th century, some Antiochene theologians, including Theodore of Mopsuestia, and his disciple Nestorius, questioned the concept of hypostatic union of the two natures (divine and human) of Jesus, but accepted a more loosely defined concept of the prosopic union. Since their views on hypostatic union were seen as controversial, additional questions arose regarding their teachings on the prosopic union.[17]

Theodore believed that incarnation of Jesus represents an indwelling of God different from the indwelling experienced by the Old Testament prophets or New Testament apostles. Jesus was viewed as a human being who shared the divine sonship of the Logos; the Logos united itself to Jesus from the moment of Jesus' conception. After the resurrection, the human Jesus and the Logos reveal that they have always been one prosopon.[18]

Theodore addresses the prosopic union in applying prosopon to Christ the Logos. He accounts for two expressions of Christ – human and divine. Yet, he does not mean Christ achieved a unity of the two expressions through the formation of a third prosopon, but that one prosopon is produced by the Logos giving his own countenance to the assured man.[19] He interprets the unity of God and man in Christ along the lines of the body-soul unity. Prosopon plays a special part in his interpretation of Christ. He rejected the Hypostasis concept – believing it to be a contradiction of Christ's true nature. He espoused that, in Christ, both body and soul had to be assumed. Christ assumed a soul and by the grace of God brought it to immutability and to a full dominion over the sufferings of the body.[20]

Nestorius furthered Theodore's views on the prosopic union, claiming that prosopon is the "appearance" of the ousia (essence), and stating: "the prosopon makes known the ousia".[21] On several instances, he emphasized the relation of each of the two natures (divine and human) with their respective appearances, using the term prosopon both in plural forms, and also as a singular designation for the prosopic union.[22] Such terminological complexities and inconsistencies proved to be challenging not only for his contemporary critiques or followers, but also for later commentators and scholars.[23]

The very suggestion of prosopic duality was challenging enough to cause heated debates among Christian theologians in the first half of the 5th century, resulting in official condemnation of such views. The Council of Ephesus of 431 affirmed the teaching of "One Person" of Jesus Christ, condemning all other teachings. The Council of Chalcedon in 451 reaffirmed the notion of One Person of Jesus Christ, formulating the famous Chalcedonian Definition with its "monoprosopic" (having one person) clauses, and in the same time explicitly denying the validity of "dyoprosopic" (having two persons) views.[24]

In Mandaeism[edit]

In the Mandaean scripture of the Ginza Rabba (in Right Ginza books 1 and 2.1), the face or countenance of Hayyi Rabbi is referred to as the "Great Countenance of Glory" (Classical Mandaic: ࡐࡀࡓࡑࡅࡐࡀ ࡓࡁࡀ ࡖࡏࡒࡀࡓࡀ, romanized: parṣupa rba ḏ-ʿqara; pronounced parṣufa in Modern Mandaic; also cognate with Classical Syriac: ܦܪܨܘܦܐ, romanized: prṣupa, lit.'countenance', attested in the Peshitta including in Matthew 17:2[25]).[26] This Aramaic term is a borrowing from the Greek word prosopon.[27]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ UK: /ˈprɒsəpɒn/,[1][2] US: /prəˈs-/;[3] from Ancient Greek: πρόσωπον prósōpon; plural: πρόσωπα prósōpa


  1. ^ "Prosopon". Lexico UK English Dictionary. Oxford University Press. Archived from the original on 2021-01-20.
  2. ^ "Prosopon". Oxford English Dictionary (Online ed.). Oxford University Press. (Subscription or participating institution membership required.)
  3. ^ "prosopon". Merriam-Webster Dictionary.
  4. ^ González 2005, p. 142.
  5. ^ Daley 2009, p. 342–345.
  6. ^ Grillmeier 1975, p. 501-519.
  7. ^ Meyendorff 1989, p. 173, 190-192, 198, 287, 338.
  8. ^ Meyendorff 1989, p. 191.
  9. ^ Meyendorff 1989.
  10. ^ “The use of prosopon which was not characteristic of Marcellus but was apparently used by Sabellius …” (Hanson, The Search ... p. 328)
  11. ^ Epistle 210.5.36–41
  12. ^ “Basil treats hypostasis and πρόσωπον (prosopon) as synonymous, but he also sees πρόσωπον as less appropriate, too close to Sabellianism.” (Ayres, p. 210)
  13. ^ Jerome, Epistle 15.4.
  14. ^ Ramelli 2011, p. 474.
  15. ^ Reed 2014, p. 52–70.
  16. ^ Spoerl 1994, p. 545-568.
  17. ^ Grillmeier 1975, p. 432, 463.
  18. ^ Norris 1980, p. 25.
  19. ^ Grillmeier 1975, p. 432.
  20. ^ Grillmeier 1975, p. 424-427.
  21. ^ Grillmeier 1975, p. 510.
  22. ^ Grillmeier 1975, p. 463.
  23. ^ Chesnut 1978, p. 392–409.
  24. ^ Meyendorff 1989, p. 177-178.
  25. ^ "Dukhrana Analytical Lexicon of the Syriac New Testament". Dukhrana Biblical Research. 2021-02-13. Retrieved 2023-12-10.
  26. ^ Gelbert, Carlos (2011). Ginza Rba. Sydney: Living Water Books. ISBN 9780958034630.
  27. ^ Häberl, Charles (2021-09-19). "Mandaic and the Palestinian Question". Journal of the American Oriental Society. 141 (1). doi:10.7817/jameroriesoci.141.1.0171. ISSN 2169-2289.