Jesus’ View of the Authority of Scripture: The Prophets
In our brief study on Jesus’ view of the authority of the (Old Testament) Scriptures, we are following the two-fold categorization of the Scriptures in terms of “the Law and the Prophets”, with the Psalms being included in the second category. The previous study focused on the Law (Torah/Pentateuch), now we turn to consider the Prophets (Isaiah-Malachi, and the Psalms).
For early Christians, the authority of the Prophets (as Scripture) lay primarily in their relation to Messianic expectation. That is to say, the emphasis was on those passages (in the Prophets and Psalms) which were understood as prophesying the coming of the Messiah—the term (“Anointed [One]”) encompassing a number of different Messianic figure-types. These figure-types are discussed at length in the series “Yeshua the Anointed”, each type identified as being fulfilled by Jesus; the main figure-type is the Davidic Ruler type (Parts 6-8), but there were also several Messianic Prophet figures (Parts 2-3), a heavenly Deliverer figure (Part 10), and possibly others. The Messianic interpretation of key passages in the Prophetic books builds upon Old Testament and Jewish tradition, being applied to the person of Jesus by early Christians. However, there is also evidence from within the Gospels (and the Gospel Tradition) that this Messianic application was begun by Jesus himself. A number of sayings by Jesus in the Gospels cite or reference the Prophets (incl. the Psalms) in terms of a Messianic self-identification.
The most difficult aspect of the identification of Jesus as the Messiah, for early Christians, was the fact of his suffering and death, which did not in any way square with Messianic expectations in the first centuries B.C./A.D. Christians were forced to confront this difficulty, and to find Scripture passages—spec. Messianic prophecies—which could be understood as predicting the suffering and death of Jesus. Indeed, this tends to be the focus of the references to the Prophets in the Gospels, going back to the sayings of Jesus. It is notable that a number of these references to the Prophets (as Scripture) occur in the context of Jesus’ Passion. The key Synoptic references in this regard are Mark 14:49 and Matt 26:54-56 (cf. also Luke 22:37), in which Jesus clearly indicates that his suffering and death (beginning with his arrest) were prophesied in the Scriptures. There are similar references in the Johannine tradition (Jn 13:18; 17:12; cf. also 19:24, 28, 36-37).
The Gospel of Luke presents most clearly this aspect of prophetic fulfillment, as rooted in the words of Jesus himself. This theme is introduced at the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry (4:21), and again toward the end of his public ministry—in the Lukan version of the third Passion-prediction by Jesus (18:31):
“See, we (are about to) step up to Yerushalaim, and all the (thing)s having been written through the Foretellers [i.e. Prophets] will be completed for the Son of Man…”
This Lukan theme comes even more clearly into view at the close of the Gospel, following the resurrection of Jesus, as Jesus begins to instruct his disciples that all of things that took place (spec. his suffering and death) were prophesied beforehand in the Scriptures (24:25, 27, 32, 44-45). This becomes an important aspect of the Lukan narrative of the early Christian mission in the book of Acts (1:16; 3:18ff; 8:28ff; 13:27; 17:2; 18:28, etc).
We do not know for certain which Prophetic Scripture passages Jesus pointed out for his disciples, but I present a survey of possible candidates in the earlier article “He opened to us the Scriptures”. Several of these references from the Prophets and Psalms are specifically emphasized elsewhere in the New Testament and early Christian tradition (see, for example, the use of Isa 52:13-53:12 in Acts 8:28ff).
Mark 12:35-37 / Matt 22:41-46 / Luke 20:41-44
An interesting example of Jesus citing the Prophets (here, the Psalms) occurs in Mark 12:35-37 par. On purely objective grounds, the authenticity of this tradition is accepted by virtually all commentators, though some may debate to what extent Jesus, at the historical level, is referencing the passage as a Messianic prophecy per se.
In this Synoptic episode (set during Passion week in Jerusalem), Jesus himself raises a question regarding the relationship between the “Anointed (One)” and the “Son of David”, based on an exposition of Psalm 110:1. The precise meaning and intent of Jesus’ argument continues to be debated by commentators. Only traces survive of the historical setting—it appears to be part of a scholarly discussion between Jesus and certain authorities on Scripture (Scribes/Pharisees), a context that is best preserved in Matthew’s account (Matt 22:41-43ff) which records at least part of an exchange. In Mark and Luke, this is framed as a pair of (rhetorical) questions by Jesus:
The second question is based on the common-place idea that the son would call his father “Lord” (“Master, Sir”), not the other way around. The first question assumes that the “Anointed (One)” —here the future Anointed King/Ruler—would be a descendant of David, which is attested in Jewish writings of the period, as well as in the New Testament (cf. the Parts 6–8 of the series “Yeshua the Anointed”). The identification is derived from Scriptures such as 2 Sam 7:11-16; Psalm 132:10-12, etc. It is in this context that Jesus cites another Scripture—Psalm 110:1 (Lk 20:42-43 par), and the way he uses it would indicate that it was commonly understood in a Messianic sense; however, there does not appear to be any other surviving evidence for such an interpretation in Judaism at the time of Jesus.
As in the case of the Torah, the authority of the Prophets (here, the Psalms) is realized for believers, in the teaching of Jesus, through his interpretation. The meaning of the text itself can be debated (which the very point of the scholarly discussion in this episode), and so an authoritative interpretation is required. Indeed, in this instance, Jesus plays on a certain difficulty and ambiguity in the text of Psalm 110:1, which may be summarized as follows.
Central to the episode is Jesus’ citation of Psalm 110:1, which in the Greek version (LXX) begins:
ei@pen o( ku/rio$ tw=| kuri/w|
eípen ho kúrios tœ kuríœ
“The Lord said to my Lord…”
The dual use of ku/rio$ (“lord”) at first glance is confusing, and is due to specific circumstances surrounding the recitation (and translation) of the Divine Name hwhy (YHWH, Yahweh). The original Hebrew reads,
yn]d)al^ hw`hy+ <a%n+
n®°¥m YHWH la°dœnî
“Utterance of YHWH to my Lord:…”
Early on in Jewish tradition, the Tetragrammaton hwhy (YHWH) was replaced with “(my) Lord” (ynda) when the text was recited; this, in turn, generally led to the common practice of translating hwhy with Ku/rio$ (“Lord”) in Greek, and to the double-use of ku/rio$ in LXX Psalm 110:1. A similar wordplay could be attested for Aramaic—ya!r=m*l= ar@m* rm^a& °¦mar m¹r¢° l®m¹r°î .
In the original context of the Psalm, the Lord (YHWH) speaks to “my Lord” (the king). Most scholars would hold that the setting (as in Psalm 2) involves the enthronement or inauguration of the (new) king, a time at which nobles and vassals might choose to rebel or to gain power and independence for themselves (Ps 2:1-3; 110:1). God gives to the king assurance of His protection and support, including victory over all enemies, i.e. the surrounding nations (Ps 2:4-11; 110:2-3, 5-7). Much like Psalm 2, this Psalm refers to the king in exalted, ‘divine’ language, very much in keeping with ancient (Near Eastern) ideas of kingship.
I would divide the Psalm as follows:
- Declaration (utterance/oracle) of YHWH— “Sit at my right-hand…” (verse 1)
- Promise by YHWH of (divine) power/victory over the king’s enemies (verses 2-3)
- Declaration (oath) of YHWH— “You are a priest…” (verse 4)
- Promise of the king’s power/victory over the peoples, in terms of YHWH’s judgment against the nations (verses 5-6)
- Concluding declaration of YHWH’s establishment of the king’s rule (verse 7)
- Declaration (utterance/oracle) of YHWH— “Sit at my right-hand…” (verse 1)
It should be noted that much of the vocabulary and syntax of this Psalm remains obscure, with verses 4 and 7 being especially difficult to interpret.
Psalm 2 was interpreted and applied to the coming/future Anointed King (from the line of David) in a number of Jewish writings of the period (such as the 17th Psalm of Solomon). However, apart from its use in the New Testament, there is little evidence for a similar Messianic interpretation of Psalm 110 at the time of Jesus. In one text from Qumran (11QMelch [11Q13]), Melchizedek (Ps 110:4) appears as a Divine/Heavenly figure who functions as Judge against the wicked (Belial), but this scenario (col ii, lines 9-13) is derived from Psalm 82:1-2 rather than 110:1. His appearance (as Judge and Deliverer) is also connected with the Anointed One of Daniel 9:25 and the Messenger of Isa 52:7 who brings the good news of salvation (col ii, lines 15-25). A similar paradigm may underlie the “Elect/Righteous One” and “Son of Man” figure in the Similitudes of Enoch (1 Enoch 37-71), which many scholars hold to be roughly contemporary with Jesus and the early New Testament writings.
In any case, Jesus cites Psalm 110:1 as though a Messianic interpretation were understood, but he shifts the meaning of “Anointed One” (o( xristo/$, Christ/Messiah) away from the royal Davidic figure-type and toward a different reference point—a Divine/Heavenly figure, closer, perhaps, to the “Son of Man” of 1 Enoch and Jesus’ own sayings (cf. Mark 8:38; 13:26; 14:62 pars; Luke 12:8, 40; 17:22, 24, 26, 30; 18:8, and pars in Matthew; also John 1:51; 3:13; 5:27; 6:62). Certainly, it was understood this way in early Christian tradition, associated specifically with the resurrection and exaltation of Jesus to the right hand of God in Acts 2:34-36 (cf. also Mark 16:19; Acts 2:33; 5:31; 7:55-56; Rom 8:34; Col 3:1; 1 Pet 3:22, etc). In the Synoptic saying of Jesus in Mark 14:62 par, he identifies himself (as “the Son of Man”) who will appear at the right hand of God, in connection with the coming/end-time Judgment (Mk 13:26 par). Thus Jesus may be identifying himself with a pre-existent Heavenly/Divine figure akin to that in 1 Enoch 37-71. In Hebrews 1:13, Psalm 110:1 is cited in the context of belief in the pre-existent deity of Jesus, though in Heb 5:6 an association with the resurrection (and exaltation) seems to be more in mind.
In my view, Jesus uses Psalm 110:1 as a clever way to shift the meaning of “the Anointed (One)” from the Davidic King figure-type over to a different reference point—that of a coming Divine/Heavenly figure, generally referred to elsewhere by Jesus as “the Son of Man” (from Daniel 7:13).
Another important instance where Jesus cites from the Prophets (spec. the Psalms), treating and an implicit Messianic prophecy, which he applies to himself, is his quotation of Psalm 118:21-22 in Matt 21:42 par, part of the Synoptic episode (also set in the context of Jesus’ Passion) in Mark 12:1-12 par. For the use of Psalm 118 in the Gospel Tradition, cf. the discussion in my earlier article (spec. on Psalm 118:26).