September 6: Revelation 1:1-2

This is the first in a series of daily notes on the Book of Revelation, which is to run concurrent with the Study Series “Prophecy and Eschatology in the New Testament”. Each note will focus on a short section or pericope, examining individual words, phrases and images carefully. The focus is critical and exegetical, but will, as necessary, also address wider theological issues and questions of interpretation. As a point of method, I should state up front that I do not assume any particular (traditional) approach to the book, nor any specific system of eschatology. My goal is to elucidate the text itself and the historical background of the language and imagery that the author/visionary uses. Such an approach should, at the very least, eliminate the more implausible and far-fetched interpretations which have been proposed over the years. At the same time, it should also have the positive effect of giving greater clarity as to what the images and symbols likely would have meant to the author and his original audience at the time.

Questions of authorship and dating for the book will be addressed at various points in the series. For a survey, you may consult any reputable critical commentary; one of the more thorough modern works is the volume (38A) by Craig R. Koester in the Anchor Bible commentary set (Yale: 2014). I have found this volume most helpful, especially for locating passages from Greco-Roman literature which are relevant for explaining the background of the text. References marked “Koester” in the notes are to this work.

Revelation 1:1-3

The book of Revelation is usually regarded as having characteristics of a mixed genre. While it certainly shares many features of “Apocalyptic” literature (which will be discussed), it also follows an epistolary format. Indeed, the overall framework of the book may fairly be described as that of a letter, or epistle. Indeed, the first six verses serve as the epistolary prescript. Verses 1-3 are the superscription, establishing the author’s place and identity, while verses 4-6 are the author’s greeting to his audience. It is important to keep this framework in mind while studying the book.

Verses 1-2

“(An) uncovering of [i.e. by] Yeshua (the) Anointed which God gave to him, to show to his slaves the (thing)s which are necessary to come to be in (all) speed [i.e. swiftly], and he signified (this) sending it forth through his Messenger to his slave Yohanan, who gave witness of the word of God and the witness of Yeshua (the) Anointed—as many (thing)s as he saw.”

a)poka/luyi$ (“uncovering”)—The verb a)pokalu/ptw literally means “take the cover (away) from”, i.e. “uncover”, often in the figurative sense of “reveal”—making known something which has previously been hidden. The verb occurs 26 times in the New Testament, primarily in the Pauline writings (Rom 1:17-18; 8:18; 1 Cor 2:10; 3:13; 14:30; Gal 1:16, et al). The noun occurs 18 times, again mainly in Paul (Rom 2:5; 8:19; 16:25; 1 Cor 1:7; 14:6, 26; 2 Cor 12:1, 7; Gal 1:12; 2:2; 2 Thess 1:7; also Eph 1:17; 3:3; and, elsewhere, in Luke 2:32 [vb. 2:35]; 1 Pet 1:7, 13; 4:13). The noun is largely absent from the Greek Old Testament (LXX), but the verb is used more than 100 times; its occurrence in Daniel ([Theodotion] 2:19, 22, 28, 30, 47; 10:1) is surely significant for the book of Revelation.

 )Ihsou= Xristou= (“of Yeshua [the] Anointed”)—This should be understood as a subjective genitive, i.e. Jesus Christ is the one doing the uncovering (cf. further below). The centrality of Jesus (here the title “Anointed” functions as a second name) in the visions which follow is made clear in the very first words of the book. On the title “Anointed (One)”, consult my series “Yeshua the Anointed”.

h^n e&dwken au)tw=| o( qeo/$ (“which God gave to him”)—That is, God the Father gives the revelation to Jesus (the Son), who, in turn, gives it to the visionary (John). This chain of relation is fundamental to most early Christian thought, and certainly features prominently in the Johannine writings. In the Gospel, especially, Jesus repeatedly emphasizes that what he gives to believers was given to him by the Father (3:34-35; 5:26, etc); moreover, as a faithful and dutiful Son, he says and does only what he hears/sees the Father saying and doing.

dei=cai toi=$ dou/loi$ au)tou= (“to show to his slaves”)—The word dou=lo$ properly means a “slave”, though this can be somewhat misleading in terms of modern ideas and perceptions of slavery, which often imply oppression and lack of human dignity. The word, as applied figuratively among Christians, emphasizes the idea of belonging to a master. Christians are referred to as “slaves” of God/Christ numerous times in the New Testament (Acts 4:29; 16:17; 1 Cor 7:22; 1 Pet 2:16, etc); Paul and other ministers specifically refer to themselves this way (Rom 1:1; 2 Cor 4:5; Gal 1:10; Phil 1:1; Col 4:12; 2 Tim 2:24; Tit 1:1; James 1:1; 2 Pet 1:1; Jude 1). Both positive and negative aspects (cf. Rom 6:16-20) of the word are utilized in the book of Revelation.

a^ dei= gene/sqai (“the [thing]s which are necessary to come to be”)—The plural pronoun (“the [thing]s which”) functions as a collective subject in the phrase “it [sg.] is necessary” (dei=); frequently in the New Testament, this verb refers to the will and/or command of God, as expressed in the Scriptures, or by way of prophetic revelation, etc. In the Gospel tradition, Jesus applies it to his death and resurrection (Mark 8:31 par; Luke 17:25; 22:37; 24:7, 26, 44). Here it specifically relates to the foretelling of future events. The verb of being/becoming, gi/nomai, emphasizes that the things made known in these visions will truly come to pass.

e)n ta/xei (“in [all] speed”)—The word ta/xo$, along with the related noun taxu/[$], is used a number of times in the book (2:16; 3:11; 11:14; 22:6-7, 12, 20), stressing two aspects or characteristics of the visions: (1) the events will happen soon, and (2) their appearance/fulfillment will be sudden and abrupt. In the New Testament, ta/xo$ (“speed, swift[ness]”) only appears in the expression e)n ta/xei, which means “in [i.e. with] (all) speed”, i.e., quickly, right away (cf. Luke 18:8; Acts 12:7; 22:18; Rom 16:20, etc). This expresses the early Christian belief that the end of the current Age, accompanied by Jesus’ return and God’s Judgment upon the world, was imminent. For more on this, see the next daily note (on verse 3).

kai\ e)sh/manen (“and he signified”)—This verbal expression is parallel to the earlier “God gave…”, and reinforced the chain of relationship mentioned above. As God gives the revelation to Jesus, so Jesus, in turn, communicates it to the prophet. The verb (shmai/nw) is related to the word sh=ma, “mark, sign”, and indicates that the message is communicated by way of signs—both language and images (on other occurrences of the verb in this sense, cf. Dan 2:45 LXX; John 12:33; 18:32; Acts 11:28). This stresses the symbolic character of the book, which has proven so difficult for interpreters over the centuries, but which also is the source of its enduring beauty and power.

a)postei/la$ dia\ tou= a)gge/lou au)tou= (“sending [it] forth through his Messenger”)—Jesus communicates the revelation through a heavenly Messenger (‘Angel’); cf. the wording in Malachi 1:1. Frequently in Apocalyptic writings, the message or vision comes by way of an Angel (Ezek 40:3-4; Zech 1:7-6:5; Dan 7:16; 8:15; 1 Enoch 21:5; 22:3; 2 Baruch 55:3, etc; Koester, p. 212). Though the initial vision (vv. 10-18) comes directly from the risen Christ, the remainder of the visions in the book are conveyed by heavenly Messengers; the transition from Jesus to the Messengers occurs in vv. 19-20 and continues throughout the “letters” of chapters 2-3. The verb a)poste/llw conveys the concrete sense of something (or someone, i.e. a messenger) being sent (“set [forth]”) from (a)po/) another—i.e. the revelation comes from Jesus, and is conveyed by his representative.

tw=| dou/lw| au)tou=  )Iwa/nnh| (“to his slave Yohanan”)—On the figurative use of dou=lo$ (“slave”), and its use as a self-designation by early Christian ministers, cf. above. For the name Yohanan (‘John’), cf. the note in my earlier Advent/Christmas series “And you shall call his name…”. The identity of this “John” will be discussed in the notes on verses 4 and 9.

o^$ e)martu/rhsen (“who gave witness [of]”)—The verb marture/w, along with the related nouns marturi/a and martu/$, is used frequently in the New Testament, and conveys the important concept of giving witness. The apostles and early missionaries acted as witnesses of Jesus and his resurrection, and this idea was carried out more generally to the Gospel message and Christian life as whole. Jesus himself was a witness of God the Father, making the Father known to believers; this is a key theme in the Gospel and Letters of John (Jn 3:11; 5:31ff; 8:14ff; 10:25; 18:37, etc), and continues as a (Johannine) theme in the book of Revelation.

to\n lo/gon tou= qeou= (“the word/account of God”)—The object of John’s witness is expressed here by two parallel expressions. The first is “the lo/go$ of God”. The Greek noun lo/go$, as I have noted before, is extremely difficult to translate, consistently, in English. Properly, it is best rendered as “account”, and this is appropriate when it refers to the Gospel message, etc, as it frequently does in the New Testament (Acts 4:31; 6:2; 8:14; 1 Thess 2:13, etc). However, when it refers specifically to communication by God (to a prophet, etc), then it is generally better to use the conventional translation “word”. Both here, and in the next expression, the genitive (“of God”, “of Yeshua”) should be understood as subjective (i.e. the word comes from God) rather than objective (a message about God). It is a standard expression in Prophetic and visionary writings (Isa 1:10; Hos 1:1; Joel 1:1; Jer 1:2; Ezek 1:3, etc).

kai\ th\n marturi/an  )Ihsou= Xristou= (“and the witness of Yeshua [the] Anointed”)—An objective genitive here would mean that it is a witness about Jesus, i.e. the believer is acting as a witness of Christ. This idea certainly features prominently in the book; however, the overall context of these verses argues strongly in favor of a subjective genitive. Again, the chain of relationship, so familiar in the Johannine writings, is emphasized:

    • God speaks, giving the message to Jesus
      • Jesus bears witness to this message, communicating it to believers
        • The believer (here, a chosen prophet), in turn, bears witness of the message to others

o%sa ei@den (“as many [thing]s as he saw”)—This expression qualifies John’s witness, defining and explaining it in terms of the visions recorded in the book. The message is primarily conveyed visually, through images, which the seer (and/or author of the book) translate into written language. This relates back to the verb shmai/nw, “signify”, i.e. make known by signs.

Because of the distinctive (beatitude) form of verse 3, it will be given separate treatment, in the next daily note.

Prophecy & Eschatology in the New Testament: Messianic Expectation

Messianic Interpretation and Expectation in the New Testament

The very name and title Christ (Xristo/$), “Anointed”, signifies the fundamental Christian belief that Jesus is the “Anointed One”, the Messiah (Heb. j^yv!m*). Early Christians generally followed Jewish tradition in their expectation of Messianic figures (Prophet, Davidic Ruler, Heavenly Deliverer), adopting many Scripture passages, which had been interpreted in a Messianic sense, and applying them to Jesus. We see this throughout the New Testament, and I have discussed the subject in considerable detail in my earlier series “Yeshua the Anointed”. The process, in fact, goes back to the earliest layers of Gospel Tradition and the words of Jesus himself.

However, Christians today, in considering the “Messianic” passages and prophecies in the Old Testament, tend not to view them as eschatological. This is due to the time (nearly 2,000 years, and counting) which has passed since Jesus’ death and resurrection. The various Scripture passages may be seen as prophecies of Jesus (his birth, death, resurrection, etc), but it is difficult to regard them as referring to the End Time per se. The situation was quite different for the earliest believers, for whom Messianic and Eschatological expectation were closely connected. According to the Jewish belief and tradition at the time, the coming of the Anointed One—any/all of the Messianic figure-types—was linked to the end of the current Age. Early Christians generally retained this outlook, though adapting it in several key ways due to the unique circumstances of Jesus’ life, and, especially, his death, resurrection, and departure to God the Father in heaven. As he did not fulfill many of the traditional Messianic roles during his lifetime, these would have to wait until his subsequent return, which was felt would take place very soon, and could occur at any time.

In order, then, to understand the eschatology of the New Testament, it is important to include, and emphasize, the Messianic expectation of early Christians. This will be discussed at various points in this series, but it will be helpful to begin with a survey of the Scripture passages which had been interpreted in a Messianic sense during the first centuries B.C./A.D., and which were applied to Jesus by early believers. As most of these have been examined in some detail in the series “Yeshua the Anointed”, I will address them only briefly here. There are, of course, many other passages which were understood as prophecies concerning Jesus, but I include here only those which clearly were regarded as Messianic by at least some Israelites and Jews of the time.

The Key Passages

Deuteronomy 18:15-20

In the Old Testament, especially in Deuteronomic tradition, Moses is viewed as a Prophet—indeed as the ideal and greatest Prophet (Deut 34:10-12). In Deuteronomy 18:15ff we find the famous prediction that another Prophet will (eventually) arise who is like Moses and who will take his place. In the same manner, Elisha took the place of Elijah, being anointed by his predecessor (1 Kings 19:16) and possessing his spirit and character (2 Kings 2:9, 15). Eventually, this prediction was given a future, eschatological interpretation—at the end-time, a Prophet-like-Moses would arise to instruct the faithful of Israel.

This expectation probably underlies the notice in 1 Maccabees 14:41 (“…until a trustworthy Prophet should arise”), as well as the reference to “the unique Prophet” in Testament of Benjamin 9:2. In the Qumran texts, Moses was clearly regarded as a Prophet, as in the “Apocryphon of Moses/Pentateuch” writings—cf. especially 4Q375 column 1 (in line 7 the phrase “trustworthy prophet” appears); in 4Q377 column 2, line 5, Moses is referred to as God’s “Anointed (One)” [jyvm]. Deut 18:18-19 is cited in 4QTestimonia [4Q175] lines 5-8, in what is likely an eschatological/Messianic context. The expected Prophet of 1QS 9:11 (“…until the coming of the Prophet and the Anointed [Ones] of Aaron and Israel”) presumably draws upon this Moses tradition as well.

The same may be said of passages in the New Testament which contain a reference to “the Prophet” (Jn 1:21, 25; 6:14; 7:40; Luke 7:16, 36 v.l. etc); in Jn 1:21-25, “the Prophet” seems to be understood as a separate figure from “Elijah”, possibly an indication that the Moses-tradition is involved. John the Baptist explicitly denies being “the Prophet” (Jn 1:21), but that Jesus was thought to be so by people on numerous occasions is indicated by several of the references above. In Acts 3:18-24 (sermon-speech of Peter), Jesus is identified specifically with the coming “Prophet like Moses” of Deut 18:15ff (cf. also Acts 7:37). Within early Christian tradition, Jesus is identified or associated with Moses in a number of ways. For more on this, cf. Parts 2 and 3 of the series “Yeshua the Anointed”.

Malachi 3:1ff; 4:5-6

The Messianic “Elijah tradition” derives from Malachi 3:1, combined with the explanatory interpretation of Mal 4:5-6 [Hebrew 3:23-24] which many scholars consider to be a (later) editorial gloss (see my supplementary note on the original context of Mal 3:1). In any case, already by the time of the completion of Malachi (and, presumably, the collection of the Twelve Prophets [Hosea–Malachi] as a whole), the “Messenger” [Ea*l=m^] of Mal 3:1 was identified as Elijah, who will (re)appear just prior to the “Day of YHWH” to bring repentance to people before the Judgment. Over time, this belief was given greater eschatological emphasis—”Elijah” would appear at the end-time, prior to the last Judgment—expressed already in Sirach 48:10 (early-mid 2nd century B.C.). Somewhat surprisingly, perhaps, evidence for this belief at Qumran is rather slight, though it is attested in the fragmentary 4Q558 (fragment 1), but is perhaps reflected more prominently in a text such as 4Q521 (cf. below). Evidence for this tradition is found specifically in Mark 9:11-13 (Matt 17:10-12), the citations and allusions to Mal 3:1; 4:5-6 in Mark 1:2; Luke 7:27; Matt 11:10-14, and may be inferred from other references listed below. Also worth noting is Sibylline Oracles 2:187ff (Christian expansion/adaptation of earlier Jewish material).

While Christians came to apply this Messianic figure to John the Baptist, there is some evidence in the earlier strands of Gospel Tradition that people also identified Jesus with the Prophetic figure-type. Indeed, Jesus is connected with Elijah in various ways in the Gospels. For a discussion of this subject, again cf. “Yeshua the Anointed” (Parts 2 and 3).

Psalm 2 (esp. verse 7-9)

This Psalm, drawing upon the ancient religious symbolism of the king as God’s “son” (vv. 7ff), was applied to Jesus at a very early stage of Christian belief. There are allusions to it in the account of Jesus’ baptism (Mark 1:11 par), and the voice from heaven actually quotes it in some manuscripts of Luke 3:22. More commonly, it was associated with Jesus’ resurrection (and exaltation) in early Christian preaching (Acts 13:33, cf. Rom 1:4 etc); the author of Hebrews continues to use it this way (1:5; 5:5), though, by this point, the idea of Jesus’ pre-existence and eternal Sonship was also in view. The overall context of the Psalm (vv. 1-2ff) fit the Messianic portrait, and was applied to Jesus as well (Acts 4:25-28, cf. also Luke 22:66-23:25).

2 Samuel 7:8-16 (cf. also 2 Sam 22:44-51 / Ps 18:44-51, and Psalm 89:3-4, 9-37ff)

The narrative in 2 Samuel 7, with the oracle by the prophet Nathan, is the primary Scripture passage which established the Messianic association with David—i.e., a ruler from the line of David who would appear at the end-time. Together with Psalm 2 (cf. above), it allowed the idea of the Messianic ruler-figure to be identified as “Son of God”. In Jewish tradition, this is best exhibited in the so-called Florilegium (4Q174) from Qumran, which blends together Psalm 2:7 and 2 Sam 7:14 (along with other passages) in what is clearly both a Messianic and eschatological context. Another key Qumran text is the Aramaic 4Q246 (i. 9, ii. 1) with its striking parallels to Luke 1:32-35. There would seem to be references to Psalm 89 in 4Q252, and also (possibly) the fragmentary 4Q458. Important allusions are also to be found in the 17th of the so-called Psalms of Solomon (mid-1st century B.C.). For more on the Davidic ruler figure-type, and the title “Son of God”, cf. Parts 68 and 12 of the series “Yeshua the Anointed”.

Psalm 110:1-4

The opening verse(s) of this Psalm were central to early Christian understanding of Jesus as both the Messianic (Davidic) ruler and “Son of God”. It also was enormously influential in establishing the title “Lord” (ku/rio$), in a divine sense, for Jesus. As in the case of the title “Son of God” in Psalm 2:7, verse 1 of Psalm 110 was associated primarily with the resurrection of Jesus, following which he was exalted to the right hand of God the Father in heaven. The verse is quoted specifically in this context in Acts 2:34-35, but there are certainly allusions to it throughout the New Testament (Mark 14:62 par; [16:19]; Acts 2:25; 5:31; 7:55-56; Rom 8:34; Col 3:1; Eph 1:20; 1 Pet 3:22, etc). The author of Hebrews quotes it, along with Psalm 2:7 (vv. 5ff), in 1:13, where the idea of divine pre-existence is also present (cf. also 1:3; 8:1; 10:12; 12:2).

Jesus quotes Psalm 110:1 in a definite Messianic context (Mark 12:36ff par), making it all but certain that Jews at the time were interpreting it this way. However, contemporary evidence for this is slight indeed. The Qumran text 11QMelchizedek [11Q13], drawing upon traditions regarding Melchizedek (in a Messianic context), would suggest some dependence on Psalm 110, but there are no specific quotations or allusions in the surviving fragments. The interpretation of the figure Melchizedek in Hebrews 7, relying heavily upon Psalm 110, also suggests that there were significant interpretative traditions, perhaps Messianic in nature, which might have been familiar to Jews and Christians of the time. It is also possible that Psalm 110 was influential in shaping the distinctive Messianic tradition, best seen in certain of the Qumran texts, of an Anointed Priestly figure, with a blending of royal and priestly characteristics.

Psalm 118:26

The fact that this verse is quoted both by Jesus (Matt 23:39; Luke 13:35), and by the crowds at his “Triumphal Entry” into Jerusalem (Mark 11:9 par), suggests that it was understood in a Messianic sense by Jews at the time. However, corresponding contemporary evidence outside of the New Testament is extremely slight. It would have related to the same (Davidic) royal figure-type discussed above.

Isaiah 9:1-6

This passage, along with 7:10-14ff (cf. Matt 1:22-23), came to be interpreted as a prophecy of Jesus’ birth (cf. Luke 2:11). Matthew specifically quotes Isa 9:1-2 as a way of introducing the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry (4:14-16). The characteristics of a special royal birth, as well as the message of (future) promise, made Isa 9:1-6 a natural candidate for Messianic interpretation; however, there is little evidence for this in contemporary Jewish writings. Perhaps the closest example is the allusion to verse 6 in the Qumran Hymn 1QH 3. Cf. my earlier Advent/Christmas season study on 9:5-6.

Micah 5:2-4

Likewise, there is little contemporary evidence for a Messianic interpretation of Micah 5:2-4, though it is an obvious candidate. The context of Matthew 2:1-6ff makes no real sense if a Messianic understanding of this passage were not in existence among Jews in the 1st century B.C./A.D.

Amos 9:11

This verse is given a Messianic interpretation in both the Damascus Document (CD 7:14-21) and the Qumran Florilegium (4Q174 3-4). This helps to establish the background of its use in the speech of James (Acts 15:15-18), where it is quoted in very different sense, though still retaining something of a traditional Messianic (and eschatological) context.

Zechariah 9:9-10

The use of this passage, with its royal symbolism and eschatological orientation, in the Gospels, at the “Triumphal Entry” of Jesus (Mark 11:2-10 par, with a specific citation in Matt 21:4-5 and John 12:14-15), would indicate that it may have been understood as a traditional Messianic passage. However, there is little or no contemporary Jewish evidence to support this. Moreover, the singular importance which Zech 9-14 holds in the Gospel Tradition, and the influence it had on shaping the (Passion) narrative, increases the likelihood that this is a uniquely Christian interpretation. This will be addressed a bit further in the upcoming articles.

Daniel 7:13-14; 9:24-27

These important eschatological (and Messianic) passages, so influential for Jews and early Christians both, will be discussed in detail in the upcoming articles.

The Servant Songs of Isaiah

Special attention must be given to the “Servant Songs” in the book of Isaiah (so-called “Deutero-Isaiah”), usually delineated by four passages: Isa 42:1-9; 49:1-6; 50:4-9; 52:13-53:12. Only the first and last of these played a central role in early Christian belief. However, it is worth noting that the Isaian “Servant” figure came to be understood and interpreted in a Messianic (or quasi-Messianic) sense by Jews in the first centuries B.C./A.D. The extent of this is indicated, not only by the many (and various) allusions (in the Dead Sea texts, etc), but by the way in which the thought and language of these passages has shaped and colored the texts themselves.

A good example of this may be found in the Qumran Hymns (1QH), especially those which are often attributed to the “Teacher of Righteousness”, an historical (but at least partly Messianic) figure with certain parallels to Jesus (cf. Part 4 of “Yeshua the Anointed”). In these hymns, the speaker repeatedly refers to himself as God’s servant (db#u#)—cf. Hymns IV. 11, 23ff; V. 24; VI. 8, 11, 25; VIII. 19, 21, 23ff; XIII. 15, 28; XV. 16; XVII. 11; XVIII. 29; XIX. 27, 30, 33; XXII. 16; XXIII. 6, 10 (Blenkinsopp, pp. 270-2). There are numerous allusions to the Servant songs, and related Isaian passages, throughout (cf. below).

Isaiah 42:1-9

It is verse 1 which has been most influential for Messianic thought:

“See, my servant—I hold on(to) him, my chosen (one whom) my soul favors; I have given my Spirit upon him, (and) he shall cause justice/judgment to come forth for the nations.”

The words in italics are particularly noteworthy. First, the substantive adjective yr!yj!B= (“my chosen [one]”), rendered in Greek as o( e)klekto/$ mou. This title is parallel, in many ways, with “my anointed [j^yv!m*] (one)”, and can serve as similar Messianic title, as is clear from texts such as the (fragmentary) Qumran 4Q534. There is unquestionably an allusion to Isa 42:1 in the words spoken by the voice from heaven in the Baptism and Transfiguration scenes (Mark 1:11 par; Matt 17:5 par). In the Lukan version of the latter (according to the best manuscript evidence) we read:

“This is my Son, the (one) gathered out [e)klelegme/no$, i.e. chosen]…” (9:35)

Similarly, in the Johannine description of the Baptism, we have the Baptist’s declaration (corresponding to the heavenly voice in the Synoptics):

“…this is the Son of God” (1:34)
though in some MSS the reading is:
“…this is the (one) gathered out [e)klekto/$, i.e. chosen one] of God”

In the New Testament, both the verb e)kle/gw (“gather out”) and the related noun e)klekto/$ are typically used in reference to believers, not Jesus. This suggests that the Gospel usage in such passages where it is applied to Jesus (cf. Luke 23:35) reflects early (Messianic) tradition.

On the second italicized portion above, cf. the discussion on Isa 61:1ff further below.

Isaiah 49:1-6

This Servant Song appears to have influenced Messianic thought and expression at two points: (1) the idea of a sword coming out of the Servant’s mouth (v. 2), and (2) the twin themes of restoration and salvation in v. 6. On the first point, the idea of the sword from the mouth overlaps with the (Messianic) portrait in Isa 11:4 (cf. below); there is an apparent allusion to this in Revelation 1:16 (cf. also Heb 4:12). It is possible that there is a general (Messianic) reference to verse 2 in the Qumran text 1QSb (5:23f).

The theme of the restoration of Israel in verse 6 certainly fits the main contours of traditional Jewish eschatological (and Messianic) thought, even though it is difficult to find contemporary use of the verse to support this. Early Christians, however, understood it in this light, including the second half of the verse, indicating that the Servant will be made “a light to the nations” (cf. Luke 2:32; Acts 13:47).

Isaiah 50:4-9; 52:13-53:12

These two songs introduce the theme of the Servant’s suffering, which early on was interpreted by believers as referring to the suffering and death of Jesus. The famous “Suffering Servant” passage in 52:13-53:12 is central to episode recorded in Acts 8:32-35 (and note the interesting critical question by the Ethiopian official in v. 34). In the Gospels, it is cited directly only at Matt 8:17, in the context of Jesus’ healing miracles, not his death. However, the passage likely influenced the way that the Passion narrative was told and understood, corresponding (rather clearly) in certain details to Isa 53:3-9. The identity of this Servant figure in Isaiah, in terms of its original context, continues to be debated by scholars and commentators.

There is relatively little evidence for the use of Isa 52:13-53:12 at Qumran; unfortunately, the surviving portions of the Commentary (pesher) on Isaiah do not cover 52:13-53:12. Nor would there seem to be any evidence for these Scriptures being interpreted in a Messianic sense prior to their use in the New Testament. The closest we find to a Messianic interpretation would appear be an allusion to Isa 53:3-5, 11-12 in the Qumran text 4Q491c (line 9), which is thought to be related to the Hodayot hymns (1QH) in some way (cf. 1QH 7:10; 8:26-27, 35-36; 9; Blenkinsopp, pp. 278-9ff). There is also an allusion to Isa 52:7 in 11QMelchizedek [11Q13] 2.16, where there is a connection with a Messianic interpretation of Isa 61:1ff, etc (cf. below).

In many ways, the emphasis on the suffering of the Messiah is uniquely applicable to Jesus. Early Christians had to explain how, and why, the Messiah would endure such suffering and the shameful death of crucifixion. This came to be an important point of emphasis in the Gospel Tradition (Mark 14:21, 49 par; Luke 18:31; 22:37; 24:25-26, 44-46), and the earliest (Jewish) Christian missionaries (such as Paul) would have to work hard to establish a sound Scriptural basis for such an idea (cf. Acts 5:42; 9:22; 13:26ff; 17:3; 18:5, 28, etc). Isaiah 52:13-53:12 is one of the only passages in the Old Testament which could be cited in this regard. For more on the idea of the suffering and death of Jesus, in a Messianic context, cf. Part 11 of the series “Yeshua the Anointed”, as well as a supplementary article on the subject.

Other Passages

There are several key Messianic passages which are surprisingly absent from the New Testament; two of these are—Genesis 49:10, part of the blessing of Jacob over his sons (Judah, vv. 8-12), and Numbers 24:17-19, in Balaam’s fourth oracle (vv. 15-24). Both of these passages use the word tb#v@ (“stick, staff”), as a symbol of rule (i.e. “scepter”), and this came to be an important Messianic motif, in texts such as the Damascus Document (CD) 7:19-20 (= 4Q266 3 iv.9), and 1QSb 5:27-28; 1QM 11:6-7; 4Q161 ii 19; 4Q521 2 iii. 6, etc, at Qumran. Numbers 24:17 was especially prominent as a Messianic prophecy in the Qumran texts, with both “star” and “staff” serving as key symbols (CD 7:19-20; 4Q175 12, etc). Yet, this Scripture is not cited in the New Testament, though it may, possibly, form part of the background of the Star/Magi episode in Matthew 2. Somewhat later in time, but presumably reflecting older traditions, Num 24:17ff does appear as a Messianic prophecy in the Targums (Onkelos, Jonathan), and was famously applied to the quasi-Messianic revolutionary leader Ben-Kosiba (“Bar-Kokhba” = “Son of the Star”), cf. j. Ta’anit 68d.

The relative absence of Isaiah 11:1-9 in the New Testament is also a bit surprising, since this passage, along with Psalm 2, would be extremely influential in the development of the Davidic Ruler figure-type. The prophecy begins with the declaration “A branch [rf#j)] will go out from the stem of Jesse, a fresh/green (sprout) [rx#n@] will grow (out) from his roots”. These words and phrases became foundational motifs for beliefs regarding the coming Davidic ruler in Messianic thought. In particular, this passage associated the Davidic ruler with the defeat/subjugation of the nations and the end-time Judgment. Here also we find the idea of Judgment (vv. 3-4) followed by a new Age of peace (vv. 6-9), common to much Messianic thought.

Among the many texts in the 1st centuries B.C./A.D. which draw upon Isa 11:1ff, we may note the Qumran (pesher) commentary on Isaiah (4QpIsaa [4Q161] 11-12), as well as 1QSb 5:23ff, and important allusions in 4Q285 and 4Q534. The classic portrait of the militant Davidic ruler is found in the 17th of the so-called Psalms of Solomon (mid-1st cent. B.C.), and also features prominently in the 13th chapter of 2/4 Esdras (mid-late 1st cent. A.D.). It is perhaps this militant character of the Messiah which kept it from being applied to Jesus by early Christians; Paul does allude to verse 4b in 2 Thess 2:8, in a clear eschatological context. In relation to Jesus, more appropriate to the Gospel portrait, we may note the reference to the Spirit of YHWH resting upon him (v. 2a, cf. Isa 61:1, below).

The Davidic promise is given new form in the oracles of the prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel, in the historical context of the fall of Judah and the Babylonian exile. Jer 23:5ff declares that God will raise for David “a righteous sprout [qyD!x* jm^x#]” who will rule as king. The same expression and message is found in Jer 33:14-16ff. That these prophecies point to the future, in contrast to the historical circumstances in the prophet’s own time, is indicated by the surrounding context (cf. Jer 22:30; 33:19-26). In Ezekiel 34:23-24, there is a similar promise that God raise up for Israel “one shepherd, my servant David”; cf. also Ezek 37:24-25. In the early post-Exilic period, Zerubbabel appears to have been seen as a fulfillment of the restoration of Davidic rule (Haggai 2:21-24; Zechariah 4:6-14, cf. also 3:8; 6:11-14). Ultimately, of course, the true fulfillment had to wait for a future coming King, as indicated in the (later) oracle Zech 9:9-10ff. All of these passages formed part of the fabric of Messianic thought in the first centuries B.C./A.D.

Isaiah 61:1ff

Of all the Messianic passages, regarded as such at the time, it is perhaps that of Isaiah 61:1ff which best fits the Gospel portrait of Jesus, especially during the time of his earthly ministry. In Luke 4:17-21, Jesus quotes vv. 1-2, and alludes to them again in 7:22 (“Q” par Matt 11:5). Thus, during his ministry (in Galilee), the Messianic figure with whom Jesus specifically identifies himself is the anointed Prophet/Herald of Isa 61. Luke’s positioning of the episode at Nazareth, at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, almost certainly is meant to draw a connection between the Spirit-anointing of Isa 61:1 and the descent of the Spirit at Jesus’ baptism (3:22 par). Following the baptism, Jesus moves about in the guidance and power of the Spirit (4:1, 14).

The phrase “in the power of the Spirit” is probably meant to indicate Jesus’ own Prophetic status (cf. Lk 1:17; Acts 10:38)—specifically as an Anointed Prophet. Even though the noun jyv!m* [m¹šîaµ] / xristo/$ [christós], is not used in Isa 61:1 (rather it is the verb jv^m* / e&xrisen), this verse does seem to have been extremely influential toward the idea of a Messianic Prophet. The figure in Isa 61:1ff certainly does not appear to be a king or ruler of the Davidic mold, nor a priest, but rather a prophet like Isaiah himself. It describes a herald who announces a message of good tidings (in Hebrew, literally “fresh” tidings) to the poor and oppressed.

By the time of Jesus’ ministry, there is evidence that Isa 61:1ff was already being understood in an eschatological sense, with the anointed figure of verse 1 identified as a Prophet-Messiah. This is seen most clearly in the Qumran text 4Q521, where in fragment 2 (column ii, line 1) we read: “…[the heav]ens and the earth will listen to [i.e. obey] his Anointed (One)”. What follows in lines 2-14 etc is a blending of Isa 61:1ff and Psalm 146; but the idea of heaven and earth obeying God’s Anointed is suggestive of a Prophet in the manner of Elijah who “shut up the heavens” so that it would not rain and brought down fire from heaven (1 Kings 17:1ff; Sirach 48:2-3; James 5:17); Jesus of course exhibited a similar authority over the elements (Mark 5:35-41; 8:45-52 pars). Moreover, in column iii of fragment there is an allusion to Mal 4:5-6 and the (end-time) role of Elijah in bringing people to repentance.

Isaiah 40:1-5

Finally, we should note the famous prophecy in Isa 40:1-5 (esp. verses 3ff), which was foundational for the religious self-identity of both the Qumran Community and the earliest Christians. For the Community of the Qumran texts, the key passage is in the Community Rule (1QS) 8:14-15f, where Isa 40:3 is cited and applied to the Community. The association of the same verse with John the Baptist and his ministry (Mark 1:2-3 par; Matt 11:10 par; John 1:23; cf. also Luke 1:17, 76 and the connection with Mal 3:1ff) has, among other factors, led a number of scholars to posit some sort of relationship between John and the Qumran Community. For early Christians, it is likely that Isa 40:3 influenced the use of “(followers of) the Way” as a self-designation (cf. Acts 9:2; 19:9, 23; 22:4; 24:14, 22).

It should be noted that the use of Isa 40:3-5 in the Gospel Tradition, and among early Christians, is Messianic only in a special, qualified sense. For the most part, early believers identified the herald (“one crying out [in the desert]”), like the Messenger of Mal 3:1ff, with John the Baptist, rather than Jesus. And, while it is likely that some Jews at the time regarded John as a Messianic figure (Jn 1:19-27; 3:26-30, etc), the issue quickly disappeared from Christian thought. The twin passages of Isa 40:3-5 and Mal 3:1ff were interpreted, not in the original context of a chosen (Messianic) Prophet/Herald appearing before the coming of the Lord (YHWH), but in terms of John the Baptist preparing the way before the coming of the Lord (Jesus).

References above marked “Blenkinsopp” are to Joseph Blenkinsopp, Opening the Sealed Book: Interpretations of the Book of Isaiah in Late Antiquity (Eerdmans: 2006).