Birth of the Messiah: Early Christian Tradition

The final article of this Christmas-season series will examine traditions related to the Birth of Jesus in the late-first and second centuries, insofar as they may reflect earlier or established Jewish tradition regarding the Messiah. This short study will be divided into three sections:

    • Revelation 12 and Early Christian Eschatology
    • The Protevangelium and other early Infancy narratives
    • Justin Martyr & Origen: Second Century Debates with Judaism

Revelation 12 and Early Christian Eschatology

There are only three passages in the New Testament that refer to Jesus’ birth, outside of the Infancy narratives in Matthew and Luke. Two of these have already been discussed (Rom 1:3-4 and Gal 4:4-5); the third is the vision of the Woman giving birth in Revelation 12:1-6. I have dealt with this passage in my (ongoing) notes on the book of Revelation (cf. the earlier note). There can be no doubt that, within the context of the visionary narrative, verse 5 refers to the birth, life, and ultimate exaltation to heaven. However, the story-pattern of the vision is wider than this narrow (historical) application. It has legendary, fabulous details common to a number of myths of the time, most notably the tale involving the the Python-serpent, opponent of the god Apollo, which sought to kill his mother Leto (Hyginus, Fabulae 140; Koester, p. 545). Moreover, the brief notice of the child being taken up to heaven does not entirely fit the historical situation of Jesus’ life, which here is compressed to include only the birth and ascension (cp. Justin Martyr First Apology 54.8). This raises the likelihood that an earlier story-pattern has been applied to Jesus, relating to it only those elements of his life which fit the pattern. It is worth considering whether this story-pattern, as adopted in the vision, originally related to the Messiah.

Certainly, Rev 12:1-6 is not simply a story about the birth of Jesus, but of his identity as the Messiah—that is, the Anointed Davidic ruler figure-type. This is especially clear from the wording in verse 5:

“And she produced [e&teken] a male son, who is about to shepherd the nations in [i.e. with] an iron staff. And her offspring [te/knon] was seized/taken (up) toward God and toward His ruling-seat [i.e. throne].”

The words in italics, of course, derive from Psalm 2:9, blended with the Messianic shepherd-imagery taken from passages such as Ezek 34:23. It is possible that Micah 5:2-4 is specifically in mind here, with its combination of elements:

    • The coming forth of God’s chosen ruler (v. 2)
    • The motif of a woman in labor (v. 3)
    • The ruler as a Shepherd who will be great over all the earth (v. 4)

The use of Mic 5:2ff in the Matthean Infancy narrative (Matt 2), with its description of Herod’s attempts to kill off a new-born Messiah, certainly seems relevant as well. However, it is by no means clear that a reference to this specific Gospel tradition is intended. The narrative motif of the wicked ruler seeking to kill a chosen (male) child as soon as he is born, is found in many traditional tales and legends worldwide. It is perhaps enough to view the motif here as indicating that the ‘dragon’ wishes to destroy the child before he can exercise his chosen position of rule; the implication being that the ‘dragon’ is already (currently) exercising rule over the nations, or may have the opportunity to do so.

Is it possible that there was a tradition in existence that the Messiah, following his birth, was taken up into heaven, to be kept hidden away until the moment when he should appear at the end-time? There are, in fact, Jewish traditions suggestive of this idea, however their existence as early as the first century A.D. is quite uncertain. The work known as 2 Enoch (or Slavonic Enoch) has been dated to the late-1st century A.D. by some scholars, based on internal considerations; if correct, it would be roughly contemporary with the book of Revelation. Chapters 71-72 describe the birth of Melchizedek—a miraculous (virgin) birth from the wife of Noah’s brother. To save him from the Flood, he is taken up into God’s heavenly paradise by the angel Gabriel; eventually Melchizedek will return to become the head of all priests that are to come, and will return again (in a second form?) at the end-time. While not referred to by the title “Anointed One” (Messiah), Melchizedek certainly has Messianic characteristics and features, as he does in several of the Qumran texts (cf. the article on 11QMelchizedek), blending elements of the Priest-Messiah and Heavenly Deliverer figure-types (cp. his application to Jesus in Hebrews 5-7).

In the Jerusalem Talmud, there is a tradition regarding the birth of the Messiah (in Berakot 5a, cf. also Midrash Rabbah on Lamentations 1.51 [on Lam 1:16]), which I have previously noted. In this story, a Jewish farmer, at the time the Temple is destroyed, learns that the Messiah (Menahem ben Hezekiah) has been born in the “royal city” Bethlehem. He finds the child’s mother, who expresses her wish to kill the infant, blaming him for the suffering that has come on her people. Eventually, the child is rescued from this threat, by “strong winds” (implying a divine/heavenly source , cp. 2 Kings 2:11) that snatched him from his mother’s arms. The implication is that he will be kept (in heaven) until the time he is to be revealed. There is no way of knowing how old this tradition is. To be sure, the setting of the story is the first century (70 A.D.), but whether it is an authentic tradition from this time is doubtful.

The setting of the Talmudic story (the destruction of the Temple) for the birth of the Messiah likely has some bearing on the traditional expression “birth-pains of the Messiah” (j^yv!M*h^ yl@b=j#), referring to the period of suffering and distress which immediately precedes the Messiah’s appearance. The background for this expression is ancient, as the pain of women in childbirth often was used to symbolize suffering, typically in relation to God’s Judgment—Psalm 48:6; Mic 4:9-10; Isa 13:8; 21:3; 26:17; 42:14; Jer 4:31; 6:24; 13:21; 22:23; 30:6; 48:41; 49:22, 24; 50:43; Rom 8:22; 1 Thess 5:3. It is used notably in the Eschatological Discourse of Jesus, in the context of the destruction of the Temple, for the period of distress that precedes Jesus’ end-time appearance and the coming Judgment (Mark 13:8 par; cf. also Luke 23:28-29). The same image of childbirth can also emphasize deliverance from pain/suffering—Mic 4:10; 5:3; Isa 65:23ff; 66:7-9; cf. also John 16:21. Cf. also the childbirth motifs in Isa 7:14 and 66:7, both passages which have been given a Messianic interpretation.

Even more uncertain is the theory that chapters 11-13 of the book of Revelation were influenced by an apocalyptic writing called the Oracle of Hystaspes. This work, in existence by at least the early 2nd century A.D., is Persian—or, at least, it has a Persian setting and provenance—but also appears to contain elements of Jewish apocalyptic. Unfortunately, its contents are only known from the Institutes of Lactantius (book 7) in the early 4th century, and even then only sketchily presented. The similarities between chapters 11 & 13 of Revelation and what Lactantius provides of the Oracle are clear and striking. Like the book of Revelation, it was a fiercely anti-Roman work, directed against the Roman Empire, and expressing the people’s hopes that God would deliver them from its evil control. It is conceivable that the birth of the “great King” who is to come was part of this Oracle, corresponding to Rev 12:1-6, though no mention is made of it by Lactantius, and the connection remains highly speculative.

The Protevangelium and other early Infancy narratives

Following the composition of the Matthean and Lukan Infancy Narratives (c. 70-80 A.D.), similar works narrating the birth (and childhood) of Jesus came to be produced. For the most part, these are imaginative expansions of the earlier (canonical) Gospel narratives, but they also can include separate traditions which have come down from an early period. It is worth considering whether some of these may reflect Jewish traditions regarding the Messiah.

By far, the oldest and most important extra-canonical Infancy Narrative is that of the so-called “Proto-Gospel” (Protevangelium) of James. Composed sometime during the early 2nd century, it contains at least one significant early tradition—that the birth of Jesus took place in a cave on the desolate outskirts of Bethlehem (17:3-18:1). This detail is attested independently by Justin Martyr in the mid-2nd century (Dialogue with Trypho 78.5, cf. also Origen Against Celsus 1.51). The main additions to the Matthean/Lukan narratives in the Protevangelium involve the role of Mary as the virgin who gives birth to Jesus. Indeed, much of what relates to Jesus as the chosen one (and Messiah) of God extends to include the person of Mary as well. Her birth and childhood (chaps. 1-16), in many ways, parallels that of Jesus himself. This tendency within early Christianity is best described as a strengthening or enhancing of the Messianic and Christological traditions. The following points of emphasis may be noted:

    • The sanctification of Mary and her identity as one specially consecrated to God. This is established two ways:
      • Her association with the Temple (7:1-12:1)—this is an important emphasis in the Lukan narrative as well (1:8-11ff; 2:22-24, 25ff, 41-51)
      • Application to Mary of the traditions regarding the birth and childhood of Samuel (1 Sam 1-3), even as they are used to shape the Lukan narrative of Jesus’ birth and childhood; in the Protevangelium, Mary is raised in the Temple under the guardianship of priests, just as Samuel was.
    • Mary’s Davidic lineage—that she is a descendant of David is specified (chap. 10), leaving no question whatever as to Jesus’ Messianic pedigree as being truly from the line of David. There is no trace of this in the Matthean and Lukan narratives, where Jesus’ descent from David is legal, not biological; the genealogies (Matt 1:2-16; Lk 3:23-38) clearly belong to Joseph, not Mary (cf. also Matt 1:20; Lk 2:4). Indeed, the information in Luke 1:5, 36 indicates that Mary was from the tribe of Levi, not Judah. However, Paul’s wording in Romans 1:3 (compared with Gal 4:4), suggests a biological birth from David, and later Christian tradition followed the Protevangelium in making Mary unequivocally a descendant of David. If nothing else, Protevang. 10 shows how important the association with David remained, among early Christians, for confirming that Jesus was, indeed, the Messiah.
    • The virginal conception (and birth) of Jesus. The Protevangelium goes considerably further than the Matthean and Lukan narratives in emphasizing that Mary was a virgin (6:1; 7:2; 8:2ff; 9:1ff; 10; 11:2; 13:1-3; 15:2-3; 16; 19:3-20:4). By the time the Protevangelium was written, this had become more of a matter of Christian apologetic (cf. below), than of the (Messianic) interpretation of Isaiah 7:14 so vital to Matthew’s narrative (1:22-23). However, there are still strong echoes of Isa 7:14 as a Messianic prophecy (see esp. the wording in Protevang. 19:3)

Perhaps the most striking scene in the Protevangelium, for modern readers at least, is in 18:2, where Joseph, while walking outside in search of a midwife, sees all of nature momentarily come completely still. This supernatural intervention in the natural order corresponds with the moment of Jesus’ birth, when a theophanous cloud of glory enters the cave and fills it with light (19:2). Such phenomena are fitting to the traditional identification of Jesus as the Messiah, at his birth, following similar signs and wonders marking his Baptism and Resurrection/Exaltation as the moments when he was ‘born’ as the Messiah and Son of God (for more on this, cf. my recent notes).

Second Century Debates with Judaism

A number of the Christian authors from the second and early-third centuries, whose works have survived, are called “Apologists”, as they sought to provide a proper account or defense (a)pologi/a, “apology”) of the faith, in the face of increasing challenges from Judaism and Greco-Roman paganism alike. At least two of these works contain significant discussions regarding the birth of Jesus as the Messiah.

Justin Martyr’s Dialogue with Trypho

Justin’s Dialogue, written sometime after 155 A.D., is presented, as the title indicates, as a dialogue (that is, the literary format, used by Plato, etc) between Justin and a Jew named “Trypho”. To whatever extent this “Trypho” represents a real person, we may safely regard the words placed in his mouth as reflecting the view of Jews at the time—their objections to the Christian belief in Jesus as the Messiah, and the way that the Scriptures are interpreted in support of this belief. His Dialogue is a long and rambling work, awkward and unconvincing in detail, but valuable for the light it sheds on Christian thought (and apologetics) in this early period. The question of Jesus’ birth—and, in particular, the application of Isa 7:14 as a Messianic prophecy—is introduced in chapter/section §43, then after leaving it for a while, Justin picks up the subject again at §66. It remains the point of discussion, off and on, through to §78. The question of Isa 7:14 (and Jesus’ birth) is really part of a wider—and more important—debate regarding how the Old Testament Scriptures are to be interpreted, and whether the Christian approach, advocated by Justin, is reasonable and consistent.

Discussions of this sort, between Christians and Jews, had been going on since the original apostolic mission, as we can see from the numerous references in Luke-Acts regarding the importance of demonstrating from the Scriptures that Jesus is the Messiah (Lk 24:27, 45; Acts 5:42; 9:22; 17:2-3, 11; 18:5, 28; 26:22-23). For the earliest (Jewish) Christians, the main sticking point was the suffering and death of Jesus, since that did not at all fit the general portrait(s) regarding the Messiah, and was an obvious impediment for Jews in accepting Jesus. By Justin’s time, this had evolved into a more general apologetic, covering a wide range of Scriptures, adopted by Christians as referring to Jesus, in a way that many (if not most) Jews would find hard to accept. Isaiah 7:14, as a reference to the miraculous (virginal) birth of Jesus, was one such passage, and, here, the extended discussion about it demonstrates that it remained of considerable significance as a Messianic prophecy (about Jesus). In objecting to the Christian use of the passage, “Trypho” raises certain critical points, including how the Hebrew word hm*l=u^ is to be translated (cf. my earlier study), which Justin is not particularly well-equipped to address. Even so, the dialogue between the two remains interesting and enlightening to read, even today.

Origen’s Against Celsus

Origen’s extensive writing Against Celsus remains one of his most popular and widely-read works. Written in the early-mid 3rd century, toward the end of his life, it addresses the arguments of Celsus, who was perhaps the most formidable Greco-Roman intellectual opponent of Christianity in the second century. Origen’s lengthy apologetic response to Celsus’ book The True Account (a)lhqh\$ lo/go$) continues to be of considerable historical interest today, for several reasons. Most significant, for the purposes of this article, is the fact that The True Account, based on Origen’s references to it, was framed as a dialogue between a Christian and a Jew, and thus Celsus cleverly makes use of Jewish objections to Christianity as a starting-point for his own arguments. Some of these objections centered around Jesus’ birth, and the Christian identification of him as the Messiah (an identification which otherwise would have been of little interest to a pagan like Celsus).

Celsus’ work argued against the deity of Jesus, and made use of the (supposed) facts surrounding his birth and life as a bar against the Christian belief in Jesus’ identity as the incarnate (Son of) God. Celsus was relatively well-informed regarding Christian beliefs, and seems to have had some familiarity with Jewish traditions as well. He attacks the virgin birth as something invented by Christians (comparing it with similar details in Greek myths and legends), and the Jew in Celsus’ Dialogue brings up Jesus’ illegitimate birth (from the adulterous union between Mary and a soldier named Pantera), and his years as a lowly day-laborer in Egypt (where he also learned the magic arts), as all quite contrary to the Gospel record, and unworthy of a belief in Jesus’ deity (I. 28-29ff, 32-33, 69); the Gospel genealogies (including Jesus’ Davidic ancestry) are similarly disregarded as Christian inventions (II. 32).

As it happens, the tradition regarding Jesus’ adulterous birth (as the illegitimate son of the soldier Pantera, ben-Pantera) is known from later Jewish sources (Babylonian Talmud Sabbath 104b, Sanhedrin 67a; Tosephta Hullin 2.22-23; Jerusalem Talmud Aboda Zara 40d, Sabbath 14d, etc). Its inclusion in Celsus’ work (written sometime before 180 A.D.) demonstrates that the tradition was in circulation by the mid-2nd century A.D. Tertullian was similarly aware of the charge that Jesus was the son of a prostitute (De Spectaculis 30.6). Cf. Brown, Birth, pp. 535-6.

It is quite possible that this all traces back to the basic historical traditions, recorded in the Gospel Infancy narratives (Matt 1:18-20), of the unusual (and potentially scandalous) circumstances of Jesus’ conception and birth. Almost certainly, these rumors of illegitimacy, which coalesced in the Pantera-tradition, would have been used by Jews at the time as a strong argument against identifying Jesus as the Messiah. While Jewish sources in this period do not say much regarding how the Messiah’s birth might take place (cf. the earlier articles in this series), the details of Jesus’ birth, according to the Pantera tradition, certainly would not be considered worthy of the Messiah. Celsus develops this further to argue that it is also not worthy of one considered to be the Son of God.

In other references to Jesus’ birth, Celsus draws primarily from the Gospel narratives (i.e. the Infancy narratives of Matthew and Luke). Interestingly, though he attacks the virgin birth, Celsus apparently made no mention of the prophecy in Isa 7:14 (Matt 1:22-23), nor the Jewish critique of the Christian use of it (cf. above). Even so, Origen feels compelled to introduce the subject (I. 34), touching upon the critical question of translating the Hebrew word hm*l=u^ as parqe/no$ (“virgin”), as well as providing a rudimentary (for the time) historical-critical assessment of the passage (I. 35). While the main issue for Origen is a defense of the Christian belief in the virgin birth, his continued emphasis on Isa 7:14, following that of Justin Martyr decades earlier, illustrates the abiding force of that key Scripture as a Messianic prophecy. It also makes vividly clear the uniquely Christian development of the Messianic idea, whereby the birth of Jesus was regarded as, not only the birth of the Messiah, but also the birth of the Son of God.

“Brown, Birth” refers to Raymond E. Brown, The Birth of the Messiah: A Commentary on the Infancy Narratives in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, Anchor Bible Reference Library [ABRL] (1977, 1993).
“Koester” above refers to Craig R. Koester, Revelation, Anchor Bible [AB] Vol. 38A (Yale: 2014).

January 6: Galatians 3:27; 1 John 3:2

Believers as the “sons of God”, continued

In this short study on the “birth” of Believers as the sons/children of God, I have presented this in terms of Christian experience, as a process made up of four ‘stages’. The first two were discussed in the previous note, each with a representative Scripture verse; the last two will be examined today.

    1. Pre-existent sonship (predestination/election as sons)
    2. Sonship through trust/faith in Jesus
    3. Sonship recognized/symbolized in the ritual of Baptism
    4. Sonship realized through resurrection/exaltation
3. Sonship symbolized in Baptism (Galatians 3:26-27ff)

In the conceptual framework I have adopted, the baptism of believers corresponds, appropriately enough, with the baptism of Jesus (cf. the chiastic outline in the previous note). As Jesus was declared God’s Son at the Baptism, so the sonship of believers is recognized (and symbolized) in the ritual of baptism.

References to baptism are surprisingly rare in the New Testament, outside of the Gospels and Acts. Indeed, Paul is the only author to deal with subject (apart from 1 Peter 3:21), and he appears to have developed a distinctive interpretation of the ritual. Drawing upon a common early tradition, he has infused baptism with a deeper theological (and Christological) meaning. There were two factors which led to the association between baptism and the identity of believers as sons of God. The first of these, as noted above, is the Gospel tradition of Jesus’ own baptism. All four Gospels include the tradition of the heavenly voice (of God) declaring Jesus to be his Son. While there is some textual uncertainty regarding this declaration in John (1:34, v.l.), the Synoptic tradition is relatively fixed (Mark 1:11 par). As discussed in an earlier note, the heavenly declaration almost certainly alludes to Psalm 2:7 (in Luke 3:22 v.l. it is a direct citation), and, as such, has definite Messianic significance, though, as we have seen, Christians also came to understand the title “Son of God” (and the statement in Psalm 2:7 itself) in a deeper sense, in terms of the pre-existent deity of Christ.

The second factor involves the significance of the ritual act, as it developed among the earliest believers. From the original idea of cleansing (from sin), baptism came to represent the essential identity of the believer in Christ. This was patterned along the lines of the Lord’s Supper, as presented in the early (Gospel) tradition—as a participation in the death of Jesus, symbolically imitating his own sacrificial act. By going into the water, one dies (symbolically), participating in Jesus’ death; and, in emerging again from the water, our new life in Christ is symbolized—a “rebirth” effected by the same divine power (the Spirit) that raised Jesus from the dead. No one emphasized or expressed this participatory aspect more than Paul. It is clearly and powerfully stated in Romans 6:3-5:

“…are you without knowledge that we, as (many of us) as were dunked [i.e. baptized] into (the) Anointed Yeshua, we were dunked into his death? Then we were buried together with him through th(is) dunking into the death, (so) that, just as (the) Anointed (One) was raised out of the dead through the honor/splendor [do/ca] of the Father, (so) also we should walk about in newness of life. For if we have come to be planted together in the likeness of his death, (then) also will we be (in the likeness) of (his) standing up (out of the dead)…”

The same idea is expressed, more concisely, in Colossians 2:12, which better captures the essence of the ritual act:

“…(hav)ing been buried together with him in the dunking [i.e. baptism], in which also you rose together, through the trust (you have) of God’s working in (it), the (One hav)ing raised him out of the dead”

In Galatians, this participatory language also occurs at several points, not always in the context of baptism (see especially 2:19-21). The theme of baptism is introduced at 3:27, directly following the declaration in verse 26 regarding the identity of believers as sons of God (cf. the discussion in the previous note). The entirety of chapter 3 (indeed, all of chaps. 3-4) deals with this question of Christian identity—i.e., believers in Christ as the people of God, heirs to the covenantal promises originally given to Abraham (and Israel). The true identity of humankind as the sons of God comes through trust in Jesus, along with the presence of the Spirit—both of which are represented in the baptism ritual. Here is how Paul concludes his discussion in chapter 3:

“For all of you are sons of God through the trust (you have) in (the) Anointed Yeshua, for as (many) of you as were dunked [i.e. baptized] into (the) Anointed, you sunk yourselves into (the) Anointed (as a garment). (And) there is in (him) no Yehudean {Jew} and no Greek, there is in (him) no slave and no free (person), there is in (him) no male and female—for you all are one in (the) Anointed Yeshua! And if you are of the Anointed (One), then you are the seed of Abraham, (the one)s receiving (his) lot, according to (the) message [i.e. promise] (of God) upon (it).” (vv. 26-29)

This same sort of ritual language and imagery is used by Paul in 1 Cor 12:13 and Col 3:10-11 (cp. Eph 4:24). His use of the image of ‘putting on a garment’, with the verb e)ndu/w (literally “sink in”, i.e. into the garment), is even more widespread. It is typically used in the middle voice, that is, of believers reflexively putting on Christ (as a garment). The ‘garment’ signifies the participatory union we have with Jesus (the Son), but also the new life (and new way of life) that this union brings. It is the baptism ritual that symbolizes this new life, but it still must be realized by believers, in the present, each day. Thus, Paul uses the idiom in an ethical context, urging believers to live and walk in this newness of life, which means walking according to the guidance of the Spirit. For the verb e)ndu/w in this context, cf. 1 Thess 5:8; Romans 13:12-14; Col 3:9-12 (cp. 2:11-12); Eph 6:11, 14; and, for similar instruction specifically referring to the Spirit’s guidance, note Rom 8:4-5ff; Gal 5:16-18, 25; 6:8. That the baptismal ‘garment’ is essentially to be identified with the Spirit is clear from 1 Cor 12:13.

In 1 Cor 15:53f and 2 Cor 5:3 the verb e)ndu/w and image of putting on the (new) garment is used in an eschatological context, referring to the resurrection and future glory of believers. It is this (final) aspect of the sonship of believers that I discuss briefly below.

4. Sonship realized through Resurrection/Exaltation (1 John 3:2)

It is in Romans 8:18-25 that Paul addresses the identity of believers as the “sons of God”, as it is finally realized at the end-time, in the resurrection. I have discussed this passage earlier, as part of the series “Prophecy and Eschatology in the New Testament”, and will not repeat that study here. Instead, I turn to 1 John 3:1-3, for an expression of this eschatological aspect.

The principal thrust of First John has to do with the identity of those who are true believers in Christ. This is defined by the great dual-command of (a) trust in Jesus and (b) love for one’s fellow believers, according to Jesus’ own example (3:23-24). For the author of the letter, sin is understood primarily as violating the dual-command. The section 2:28-3:10 deals with the relationship between sin and the believer; no true believer can sin in the sense of transgressing the dual-command, only false believers will sin this way. He warns of the false believers who do not have a proper trust or belief in Jesus as the Son of God, and also do not show love (since they have separated from the Community of believers). And, in common with the Johannine theology, the true believers are identified as children of God, using the verb genna/w (“come to be [born]”), i.e. “the ones having come to be born out of God”. This is the language used in 2:29 (also 3:9; 4:7; 5:1, 4, 18), while the plural noun te/kna (“offspring, children”) occurs in 3:1-2, 10; 5:2; in the Gospel, note 1:12-13; 3:3-8. In the Johannine writings, te/kna is preferred over ui(oi/ (“sons”, except Jn 12:36 “sons of light”), with the noun ui(o/$ reserved for Jesus as the only “Son”.

The section 2:28-3:10 is given an eschatological setting, referring to the end-time coming of Jesus, in 2:28. The author clearly believed that he and his readers were living in the last days (“last hour”, 2:18), and would likely live to see the return of Jesus. The false view of Jesus is called antichrist (a)nti/xristo$, “against the Anointed”) and is a sure indication that the end is near. Thus, in 3:1-3, the identity of believers as sons/children of God has both a present and future aspect, with the future soon to be realized:

“You must see what (sort of) love the Father has given to us, that we would be called (the) offspring of God [te/kna qeou=], and (so) we are. Through [i.e. because of] this, the world does not know us, (in) that [i.e. because] it did not know Him. Loved (one)s, we are now (the) offspring of God, and yet it has not been made to shine forth what we will be. We have seen that, when it should (indeed) be made to shine forth, we will be like Him, (in) that we will look with (open) eyes (seeing) Him even as He is. And (so) every (one) holding this hope upon him makes himself pure, even as that (one) is pure.”

The key eschatological statement is verse 2 (in bold). There are four different dimensions to the believers’ identity as the “offspring of God”, and they generally correspond with the four ‘stages’ outlined in this study:

    • “we would be called” —the love and intention God has for us [Election/Predestination]
    • “we are” —our essential identity and reality as believers [Trust in Jesus]
    • “we are now” —our identity in the present, realized in the Christian life [Symbolized by Baptism, etc]
    • “we will be” —our identity fulfilled at the end-time coming of Jesus [Resurrection/Exaltation]

The syntax of vv. 1-3 poses certain problems, as the referent for the 3rd person singular verbal subject and pronoun is not always clear. Does “he/him” refer to God the Father (the immediate subject in v. 1) or to Jesus (his return, the subject in 2:28). Moreover, the verb fanerwqh=| is unclear—is the subject “what we will be”, or does it refer to the appearance of Jesus? The former is to be preferred as more natural to the syntax, and also to the point the author is making; it should be read “when it should be made to shine forth…”. As to the identity of “he/him”, in my view, it is God the Father in vv. 1-2, but then switches (back) to Jesus in v. 3. The hope of believers is “upon him”, that is, upon the return of Jesus (2:28), and the demonstrative pronoun e)kei=no$ (“that one”) refers back to Jesus. In between, 2:29-3:2, the focus is on God the Father, and our (believers’) relation to Him as His offspring. Admittedly, the syntax is a bit confusing; it requires careful attention to the nuance of the author’s line of argument.

This eschatological dimension of sonship is not that unusual; it relates to the traditional Jewish idea of the righteous as “sons of God”, an identity that will only be fully realized in the blessed afterlife, after having passed through the Judgment—e.g., Wisdom 5:5; Philo On the Confusion of Tongues §147; cp. Matt 5:9; 2 Cor 6:18. We also have the eschatological image of the faithful ones being gathered together, at the end-time, as “sons of God” (Psalms of Solomon 17:28-30; cp. John 11:52). The blessed future life for the righteous involves the vision of God, i.e. seeing God Himself, and it is this experience which fully transforms the righteous (believers) into sons/children of God who resemble their Father (cf. Matt 5:8; 1 Cor 13:12; 2 Cor 3:18; in Jewish tradition, e.g., Philo On Abraham §§57-59; Pesiqta Rabbati 46b [11.7]; Midrash on Psalm 149 [270a]). Cf. R. E. Brown, The Epistles of John, Anchor Bible [AB] Vol. 30 (1982), p. 425, and the discussion throughout pp. 378-435.

Ultimately, however, for believers, this transformation is based on our union with Jesus (the Son), through the Spirit. This builds on the familiar idea that our identity as God’s sons/children stems from Jesus’ own Sonship. Paul recognizes this throughout his discussions on the resurrection (1 Cor 15:20-23ff, 45-49; 2 Cor 4:14; Phil 3:20-21, etc), but most notably in Romans 8:18-25ff, and the climactic statement in verse 29:

“…that the (one)s whom He knew before(hand) He also marked out before(hand) together in (the) shape of the image of His Son, unto his being (the) first-produced [i.e. firstborn] among many brothers

Thus, we are to become truly God’s sons, brothers to Jesus as His Son. Much the same idea is to be found in Hebrews 2:10:

“For it was fitting for Him, through whom all (thing)s (have their purpose), and through whom all (thing)s (came to be), (in) leading many sons into honor/splendor [do/ca], (was) to make complete the chief leader of their salvation through sufferings.”

In 1 John 3:1-3, this relationship is indicated by the outer references to Jesus (2:28, 3:3) which frame the inner references to God the Father. Our sonship derives from Jesus’ own sonship, and our exaltation is similarly based on Jesus’ own exaltation. When he returns, this final aspect of our identity as sons of God will be realized.

Birth of the Messiah: Micah 5:2

Micah 5:1 [2]:
The Messianic Bethlehem Tradition

The strongest passage in the New Testament regarding the birth of the Messiah is the treatment of the Bethlehem tradition in the Matthean Infancy narrative (2:1-12)—in particular, the citation of Micah 5:1 [2] within the narrative (vv. 4-6). The tradition regarding Jesus‘ birth in Bethlehem is quite strong, on objective grounds; it is one of the few elements of the Infancy narrative shared by Matthew and Luke (though presented quite differently). Only Matthew relates it to the prophecy in Micah 5:1 [2], and in such a way as to indicate that it was regarded as a Messianic prophecy prior to its application to Jesus. Here is how the Gospel writer frames the citation:

And (hav)ing brought together all the chief sacred officials and (expert)s on the writings [i.e. scribes] of the people, he [i.e. Herod] inquired (from) alongside of them where the Anointed (One) comes to be (born). And th(ey) said to him, “In Beth-Lehem of Yehudah—for so it has been written through the Foreteller: ‘And you, Beth-lehem, land of Yehudah, not even one (bit the) least are you among the leaders of Yehudah; (for) out of [i.e. from] you will come out a leader who will shepherd my people Yisra’el'”.

The Matthean Infancy narrative in chapter 2 may be divided into two halves—the second having a tri-partite structure:

    1. The visit of the Magi (vv. 1-12)
    2. The Flight to Egypt—a triad with a Scripture citation in each part:
      • The Dream of Joseph, warning of Herod, and flight into Egypt (vv. 13-15)
        “Out of Egypt I called my son” (Hosea 11:1)
        • Herod’s killing of the infants in Bethlehem (vv. 16-18)
          “A voice was heard in Ramah…” (Jeremiah 31:15)
      • The Dream of  Joseph speaking/warning of Herod, and return from Egypt (vv. 19-21[23])
        [“He shall be called a Nazarene” (citation uncertain)]

It is also possible to separate it into two halves, each with a bi-partite structure (containing a main and secondary Scripture passage):

    • The visit of the Magi to the child Jesus in Bethlehem, in the threatening shadow of Herod (vv. 1-12)
      “And you O Bethlehem…” (Micah 5:2)
      • The Dream of Joseph and flight into Egypt (vv. 13-15)
        “Out of Egypt I called my son” (Hos 11:1)
    • Herod, ‘tricked’ by the Magi, slaughters the children in Bethlehem (vv. 16-18)
      “A voice was heard in Ramah…” (Jer 31:15)
      • The Dream of Joseph and return from Egypt (vv. 19-21[23])
        [“He shall be called a Nazarene”]

One might also add 1:18-25 to create three-part structure for the entire Infancy Narrative, each with a central Scripture passage and dream ‘visitation’:

The Scripture citations are central to the narrative, as also to the identification of Jesus as the Anointed One (Messiah) and Savior of Israel. Unlike the other citations (1:22-23; 2:15, 17-28, 23), here the Scripture is quoted by a character (priests and scribes together) in the narrative, rather than as an aside by the author. Critical scholars would still view this as a Matthean citation, little different from the others in the Gospel; however, if we are to accept the narrative at face value, along with the underlying historical tradition, then Micah 5:1 [2] would have been understood as having Messianic significance at the time of the events recorded (end of the 1st century B.C.), prior to being applied by early Christians to Jesus decades later. To be sure, the original context of the passage (cf. below) is much closer to having an actual ‘Messianic’ connotation than the other Scriptures cited by Matthew (Isa 7:14; Hos 11:1; Jer 31:15; and those underlying Matt 2:23). Even so, there is (as yet) no direct evidence for a Messianic interpretation of Micah 5:1 [2] in the first centuries B.C./A.D., outside of the New Testament itself.

If one looks honestly at the original historical context of Isa 7:14 [see the previous note and earlier articles on this passage]; Hos 11:1; Jer 31:15, etc., it must be admitted that they have little to do with a future Messiah-figure. It is conceivable that Isa 7:14 could have been understood in this way, but there is no real evidence for it in Jewish literature contemporaneous or prior to the New Testament. The case may be somewhat different for Micah 5:1 [2], based on the following factors:

    • Unlike the oracles of Isaiah 7:10-17 and 9:1-7, which are presented in a relatively precise historical context (the reigns of Ahaz and Hezekiah, the Syro-Ephraimitic crisis and impending invasion by Assyria, c. 740-701 [esp. 735-732] B.C.), Micah 5:1-6 [MT 4:14-5:5] has a rather more general setting of coming judgment (military attack implied) followed by restoration. The themes (as well as language and style) of the these oracles in Micah are quite similar to those of Isaiah, but without some of the accompanying historical detail.
    • Assyrian invasion is mentioned in 5:5[4], and is presumably the source of judgment to hit Judah and the Northern kingdom (there is no clear indication Samaria has yet fallen, 722-721 B.C.); however, there is nothing like the precise (imminent) timing found in the predictions of Isa 7:15-17; 8:4. The implication of Micah 5:5-6 would seem to be that the Davidic ruler of 5:2 will lead (Judah’s) troops against the Assyrian invasion, which will lead to the gathering in of the remnant of Jacob (the Northern kingdom?). There is thus a closer parallel to the oracle in Isa 9:1-7, which is also more plausibly ‘Messianic’ (in its original context) than Isa 7:10-17.
    • The reference in Micah 5:3 [2] that God will give Israel/Judah up to judgment “until the one giving birth has given birth” is far more general (and symbolic, cf. the reference in 4:10) than that of the virgin/woman of Isaiah 7:14 (or Isa 8:3); this fact, in and of itself, makes application of the passage to an archetypal or future ruler much more natural.
    • The reference to Bethlehem (in Judah), while possibly intended (originally) to refer to a specific coming ruler in Micah’s own time, also makes likely an archetypal reference to the Davidic line (cf. also references to the “house of David” and “throne of David”, Isa 7:13; 9:7, etc).
    • While one can consider the language in 5:2b as similar to the exalted honorific titles given to ancient Near Eastern rulers (see my notes on Isaiah 9:6-7 in this regard), there is a dynamic, almost ‘mythological’ quality to the phrasing, which, when removed from the immediate context, would certainly suggest divine origin. Once the specific ritual sense of king as God’s “son” (cf. Psalm 2) has ceased to be relevant in Israelite history, the way is paved for the idea of a future/Messianic ruler as “son of God”.

Matthew’s citation of Micah 5:2 differs in several respects from both the Hebrew (MT) and Septuagint (LXX) versions:

Hebrew (MT) [5:1]

And you, House-of-Lµm {Bethlehem} of Ephrath,
Small to be (counted) with the ‘thousands’ [i.e. clans] of Yehudah {Judah},
From you shall come forth for/to me
(One) to be ruling/ruler in Yisra°el {Israel},
And his coming forth is from ‘before’ [<d#q#]
—from (the) days of ‘long-ago’ [<l*ou]

LXX

And you, Beth-lehem, house of Ephrathah
Are little to be in/among the thousands of Yehudah;
(Yet) out of [i.e. from] you will come out for/to me
The (one) to be unto (a) chief [a)rxwn] in Yisra’el,
And his ways out are from (the) beginning [a)rxh]
—out of [i.e. from] (the) days of (the) Age

Matthew 2:6

And you, Beth-lehem, land of Yehudah,
Not even one (bit the) least are you in/among the leaders of Yehudah;
(For) out of [i.e. from] you will come out a leader
Who will shepherd my people Yisra’el

There are three major differences (and one minor) between Matthew’s citation and that of the LXX and Hebrew MT:

      • Instead of the reference to Ephrath(ah), Matthew specifies “land of Judah”; this may be an intentional alteration to avoid mention of an unfamiliar clan name (though the place name Ramah is retained in the citation of Jer 31:15 [Matt 2:18]).
      • Instead of calling Bethlehem small/little [LXX o)ligosto$], Matthew uses the expression “not even one (bit the) least” [ou)damw$ e)laxisth, i.e. ‘not at all’, ‘by no means’]—in other words, Bethlehem is actually great. Is this a variant reading (from a lost Hebrew or Greek version), or an intentional alteration (by the Gospel writer)?
      • Instead of the ‘thousands’ [or clans] of Judah, Matthew reads “leaders [h(gemwn]” of Judah. This is a relative minor difference, and may conceivably reflect a different reading of the consonantal Hebrew text; or it may be an attempt to emphasize rule (rather than the constitution) of Judah.
      • Matthew has omitted the final bicolon (“and his coming forth…”), inserting at the end of the prior line (replacing “of Israel”): “who will shepherd my people Israel”. This appears to be a quotation from 2 Samuel 5:2 (LXX): “you will shepherd my people Israel”, joined to Mic 5:2. The inclusion of this Scripture would strengthen the citation as a reference to the Davidic ruler figure-type.

Messianic Interpretation of Micah 5:1 [2]

The historical tradition in Matt 2:4-6 evinces a belief, or expectation, by Jews of the time, that the Anointed One (that is, the Davidic Messiah) would be born in Bethlehem. There can be little doubt that this underlies the core Gospel traditions in the Infancy narratives. Both the Matthean and Lukan narratives emphasize the association with David, though this is stronger and more pervasive in Luke (cf. Matt 1:1ff, 17, 20; Lk 1:27, 32-33, 69ff; 2:4, 8ff, 11). The historical detail of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem is part of this Davidic Messianic tradition. The fact that the Bethlehem tradition is presented so differently within the two narratives demonstrates that it pre-dates both of them.

Indeed, there is evidence that the Bethlehem tradition (and also Micah 5:1 [2]) had been independently applied to the Messiah, in Judea, prior to the writing of the Gospels. This can be inferred fairly from John 7:41-42:

“Others said [i.e. regarding Jesus], ‘This is the Anointed (One)’, and (yet) others said, ‘No, for the Anointed (One) does (not) come out of the Galîl {Galilee}, (does he)? (Has) not the Writing said that out of the seed of Dawid and from Beth-Lehem the Anointed (One) comes?'”

The historical context in John at this point is ambiguous enough to virtually guarantee that we are dealing with a Jewish (rather than early Christian) tradition. It could be derived simply from the historical details surrounding David’s life, but more than likely the reference in Micah 5:2 is assumed as well. The tradition of the Messiah’s birth in Bethlehem is established in the subsequent Rabbinic literature—most notably, Jerusalem Talmud Berakot 5a [2:4], and the Midrash Rabbah to Lamentations §51 (on Lam 1:16). However, these passages are considerably later than the first century, and evidence from the first centuries B.C./A.D. is scant indeed. Sadly, the surviving fragments of the Qumran Commentary (Pesher) on Micah (1Q14) do not cover the relevant portion of the book (4:14-5:5 [5:1-6]). A separate text, 4Q168, with two small fragments, may be a similar Micah pesher (the surviving portion deals with 4:8-12), but too little is preserved to provide much by way of interpretation.

According to Origen, in his work Against Celsus (1.51), Jewish scholars in his time (and prior) had removed or suppressed the Bethlehem tradition—i.e., the expectation that the (Davidic) Messiah would be born in Bethlehem—to avoid giving support for the Christian belief in Jesus as the Messiah. However accurate this bit of apologetic may (or may not) be, it could be seen as providing independent confirmation of the Bethlehem tradition by perhaps the mid-2nd century A.D. Around the same time may be dated the Aramaic Targum (Jonathan) on the Prophets, which glosses/paraphrases Micah 5:1 [2] to say specifically that the Messiah comes out of Bethlehem. Unfortunately, the Jewish evidence cannot be dated, reliably at least, any earlier than this. Even within the later Rabbinic writings, the Bethlehem tradition is not very widespread; there is, for example, no reference to Bethlehem in the Babylonian Talmud Sukkah 52a where the Messiah’s birth is alluded to. This may be partly because of the complex character of the Messianic figure-types, alternating between ordinary human and supernatural/heavenly figures, sometimes even suggesting a (re)incarnation of David or Elijah himself. In the New Testament we actually have more detail regarding the birth of Jesus as the Messiah than we typically find elsewhere in Jewish tradition regarding the Messiah.

January 5: Ephesians 1:5; Galatians 3:26

Believers as the “Sons of God”

Having examined the development of the early Christian belief regarding Jesus as the Son of God (and his “birth” as the Son), it is now time, in these Christmas season notes, to consider the second part of the paradigm—the identity of believers as the sons (or children) of God. If the first part was studied in terms of the Gospel message, the second part will be explored in terms of Christian experience. That is to say, how do we, as believers, come to experience our identity as children of God? Even as the Christology of the New Testament developed, progressively, through revelation and contemplation, so the experience of the believer in Christ is also a process. This process may be defined in four ‘stages’, which mirror those of the Christological development:

    • Jesus as the Son of God through his resurrection and exaltation
      • Recognized as Son from the point of his Baptism
        • Called the Son of God from the very time of his Birth
          • His pre-existent deity as the eternal Son
          • Our predestination/election as Sons of God
        • Our spiritual birth as God’s Children, through trust in Jesus
      • The symbolic recognition of this Sonship in the Baptism ritual
    • The final realization as Sons of God in our resurrection (and exaltation)

It is in the Johannine Writings (the Gospel and 1 John) that the central themes (the innermost pair above) of Jesus’ pre-existent deity and the pre-existent election of believers is most prominent. This was already discussed in the previous note, in considering John 1:12-14, where both themes are combined, using the same image of birth/sonship. However, in the Johannine writings, only Jesus is ever called “Son” (ui(o/$); for believers, the plural te/kna (“offspring, children”) is used instead—1:12; 11:52; 1 Jn 3:1, 10; 5:2. The plural ui(oi/ (“sons”) is used in Jn 12:36, in the specific expression “sons of light” (ui(oi\ fwto/$, also Lk 16:8, and by Paul in 1 Thess 5:5). That particular expression draws on the earlier ethical-religious idea of the righteous—i.e., the faithful ones of Israel—as God’s sons. This language is part of Israelite and Jewish wisdom traditions (e.g., Wisdom 2:13, 18; 5:5; Sirach 4:10), and is used by Jesus in his teaching (Matt 5:9, 45 [par Lk 6:35]; 13:38; Luke 16:8, etc).

Outside of the Johannine writings, it is Paul who makes most use of the birth/sonship theme, applying it to believers on numerous occasions. He also is influenced by Old Testament tradition, for example, in the way he cites Hosea 1:10 in Rom 9:26, i.e., of faithful Israelites as “sons of the living God” —he applies this specifically to the “remnant” of Israel that has trusted in Jesus (v. 27). Thus, the divine sonship of believers is tied directly to faith in Jesus (the Son). This is very much the emphasis in the Gospel and letters of John as well—believers are called the “children” (te/kna) of God, and are identified as ones “having come to be born” (perfect participle of genna/w) out of God, because they/we trust in Jesus as God’s Son. This will be discussed further below.

If we keep in mind the four ‘stages’ indicated above, the first two will be dealt with in this note, focusing on two representative verses:

    1. Pre-existent sonship (predestination/election as sons)
    2. Sonship through trust/faith in Jesus
    3. Sonship recognized/symbolized in the ritual of Baptism
    4. Sonship realized through resurrection/exaltation
1. Pre-existent Sonship (Ephesians 1:5)

The idea of believers’ pre-existent sonship—that is, of our election/predestination as the sons/children of God—is most clearly stated in Ephesians 1:4-5:

“…even as He gathered us out in him [i.e. in Christ] before the casting down [i.e. founding] of the world, (for) us to be holy and without flaw (there) in His sight, in love, (hav)ing marked us out before(hand) unto (our) placement as sons [ui(oqesi/a], through Yeshua (the) Anointed, unto Him, according to the good consideration of His will.”

Many critical commentators would question or dispute the Pauline authorship of Ephesians, but this passage very much reflects Paul’s genuine thought. In particular, he utilizes the key word ui(oqesi/a, meaning the placing (from the verb ti/qhmi) of someone as a son (ui(o/$); indeed, he is the only New Testament author to use this noun (Rom 8:15, 23; 9:4; Gal 4:5). In English, it is typically translated “adoption”, but this obscures the important etymological tie with the word son (ui(o/$). A comparison with Romans 8:14-16 is instructive:

“For as (many) as are led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God [ui(oi\ qeou=]. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery again, into fear, but (rather) you received the Spirit of placement as sons [ui(oqesi/a], in which we cry out: ‘Abba, Father!’ For the Spirit it(self) gives witness together with our spirit that we are children of God [te/kna qeou=].”

Paul’s syntax here indicates that he has in mind the sonship of believers primarily in terms of our receiving the Spirit, and that this occurred at the point when we came to trust in Jesus (cf. below). However, as he makes clear in vv. 29-30, this is part of a process which begins with the election/predestination of believers:

“(For it is) that the (ones) whom He knew before(hand), He also marked out before(hand) (in the) shape together of the image of His Son, unto his [i.e. Jesus’] being the first-formed among many brothers…”

Thus, clearly, believers are predestined by God to be His sons, though this is defined entirely in terms of Jesus’ own Sonship. On the application of the verbs proginw/skw (“know before[hand]”) and proori/zw (“mark out before[hand]”) to believers, cf. also 1 Cor 2:7; Rom 11:2; Eph 1:5, 11.

The language and imagery Paul uses in Gal 4:4-6 is similar to that of Rom 8:14-16:

“But when the fullness of time came, God sent out from (Him) His Son…(so) that he would purchase out the (one)s under the Law, (so) that we would receive from (Him) the placement as sons [ui(oqesi/a]. And, (in) that [i.e. because] you are sons, God sent out from (Him) the Spirit of His Son into our hearts, crying ‘Abba, Father!'”

It is by the Spirit that we receive sonship, and yet, even before this, believers already have the identity as sons (“because we are sons…”). This confirms again that, for Paul, the sonship of believers is comprehensive, and part of a process that is prior even to our coming to faith.

2. Sonship through trust/faith in Jesus (Gal 3:26)

It hardly needs to be pointed out the centrality of trust in Jesus for the identity of believers (as sons/children of God). This is clear enough from the passages we have already considered (above), but it is worth noting several verses where this association is made explicit. I begin with Galatians 3:26:

“For you all are sons of God through the trust in (the) Anointed Yeshua.”

It is hard to imagine a more concise and direct statement. One might, however, clarify something of the context for this statement—it has to do, again, with the traditional idea of Israel (esp. the faithful Israelites) as the sons/children of God. Fundamentally, this is based on the ancient covenant concept, as applied within the Israelite religious setting. In both Galatians and Romans, Paul radically re-interprets the covenant idea; actually this reflects a process of interpretation that goes back to Jesus’ own teaching, but Paul develops it in a unique way, making the religious identity of God’s people depend entirely on trust in Jesus. This necessitated a complete break from the earlier covenant, introduced in the time of Abraham, and for which the Law (Torah) represented the binding terms. Through Jesus there is a new agreement, and the Torah is no longer binding for believers; instead, it is trust in Jesus, along with the presence of the Spirit, which binds people to God (as His sons/children).

This explains the parallel between Gal 3:26 and the earlier statement in verse 7: “Therefore you must know that the (one)s (who are born) out of trust [i.e. in Jesus], these are the sons of Abraham”. I have filled in the expression oi( e)k pi/stew$ (“the [one]s out of trust”) with the idea of being born, as this relates to being a “son”. The proper point of reference is verse 2, where the focus is on receiving the Spirit—Paul asks the Galatians whether they received it “out of works of the Law” (i.e., by observing the Torah) or “out of the hearing of trust” (i.e., trusting in the Gospel message they heard). These two themes—receiving the Spirit and being born (as sons)—are combined most effectively in the Gospel of John, especially in the famous discourse with Nicodemus, 3:3-8. That coming to be born “out of the Spirit” is also defined in terms of trust in Jesus is clear enough from what follows in vv. 11-15ff. It is also expressed definitively in the prologue (1:12-13), as we saw in the previous note. It is worth comparing Jn 1:12 with Rom 8:14 (cf. above):

“But as (many) as received him, to them, to the (one)s trusting in his name, he gave the ability to become the children of God” (Jn 1:12)
“For as (many) as are led by the Spirit of God, these are the sons of God” (Rom 8:14)

Birth of the Messiah: Isaiah 7:14; 9:5-6

The Immanuel Prophecies in Isaiah:
A uniquely Christian adaptation of Messianic Tradition

Isaiah 7:14 is one of the most familiar verses of the Old Testament, mainly due to its association with the birth of Jesus, an application which goes back to at least the time of the composition of the Gospels (c. 70-80), if not several decades prior, for the Gospel of Matthew cites it explicitly (1:22-23). Similarly famous are the words of Isaiah 9:5-6 [EV 6-7], forever immortalized (for English speakers at least) thanks to Handel’s oratorio The Messiah, and appearing in any number of situations each Christmas season. I have dealt at length with Isaiah 7:14 in a previous four-part study, and also 9:5-6 in a two-part study; this article draws upon the results of those studies, and is divided a follows:

    • Survey of Isaiah 7:14
    • Survey of Isaiah 9:5-6 [6-7]
    • Messianic Application and Interpretation in the first centuries B.C./A.D.

The first point to note is that the verses of both passages, in being applied to the birth of Jesus, are generally taken out of their original context, as a careful study will make clear. It may be useful to outline and summarize the overall context of this material in the book of Isaiah:

    • Isa 6:1-13: The “call” and commission of Isaiah, accompanied by a vision of God in the Temple, said to have occurred the year of king Uzziah’s death (c. 740/39 B.C.). The words of commission (vv. 9-10 cited famously by Jesus [Mark 4:10-12 par.]) are harsh and foreboding: Isaiah’s preaching will only harden the people, leading to judgment, destruction and exile, but with a final promise—that which is left standing in them is “the seed of holiness” (v. 13).
    • Isa 7:1-9: The alliance of Aram-Damascus and the Northern kingdom of Israel (Ephraim), along with their attack on Jerusalem, is summarized (vv. 1-3). What follows is set in the face of the (impending) siege: Isaiah is called to meet the young king Ahaz (grandson of Uzziah), bringing along his own son (named “a remant will return”), with a message for the king not to be afraid but to trust in God, for YHWH will not allow their attack to succeed. A time indicator for the destruction of Ephraim appears in v. 8-9, but the text here may be corrupt or a later gloss. The setting of this scene would be c. 735-4 B.C.
    • Isa 7:10-17: A second scene between Isaiah and Ahaz, which may have occurred at a different time (though the same basic setting c. 735-4 B.C. is implied). This section, and especially v. 14, has been discussed extensively in the prior studies. It is a similar message: that Ahaz should trust God in the face of attack, for within 2-3 years YHWH will bring judgment on Aram and Ephraim through the king of Assyria. This prediction essentially came to pass by 732 B.C.
    • Isa 7:18-25: A separate oracle of judgment: God will ‘whistle’ for the king of Assyria to come and ‘shave’ the land in humiliating fashion. Assuming the position of the oracle in its overall context, the target is most likely the Northern Kingdom, which would suffer greatly under the advances of Tiglath-pileser III (734-2 B.C.) before being conquered and destroyed finally in 722.
    • Isa 8:1-4: A sign-oracle with some remarkable parallels to that of 7:10-17 (esp. vv. 3-4 with 7:14-17), involving: (1) conception and birth of a child [from “the prophetess” instead of “the maiden/virgin”], (2) a temporal indicator based on the early growth of the infant [i.e. within a year or two], and (3) a prophecy of judgment against Aram-Damascus involving the king of Assyria. A setting again of roughly 734 B.C. is implied.
    • Isa 8:5-10: A compact oracle with several different interlocking levels: (a) judgment against the Northern kingdom in its alliance with Aram-Damascus [v. 6], (b) warning against the leaders and people of Judah who would save themselves by submitting to Aram-Damascus [v. 6-8], (c) the destructive advance of the king of Assyria [v. 7-8], and (d) a message of hope and promise for Judah/Jerusalem [with a warning to the nations], set around the name la@ WnM*u! “God-with-us”:
      • “God-with-us” [end of v. 8]
        • O nations—”come together”, “gird yourselves” and “be shattered” [v. 9]
        • (Your) counsel will break apart, your word [i.e. plan] will not stand [v. 10]
      • For “God-with-us” [end of v. 10]
    • Isa 8:11-15: A message to Isaiah himself to trust YHWH and not to follow the fearful way of the people.
    • Isa 8:16-22: A symbolic scene, involving: (1) testimony and instruction from Isaiah which has bound/sealed for safekeeping, (2) his sons [presumably the two mentioned in 7:3; 8:1,3; but does this include “Immanuel”?], (3) a warning to trust in the message and signs given by God to Isaiah rather than various kinds of divination commonly practiced in the ancient world [vv. 18-22]. Some commentators would divide vv. 16-18 and 19-22 into separate scenes.
    • Isa 8:23-9:6: Best understood as a prosodic introduction (v. 23), followed by a poem (9:1-6), though it is also possible to treat 8:23b-9:6 as a single poetic oracle (applying 8:23a to the previous section).

Isaiah 7:14

As noted above, the original setting of Isaiah 7:14—and of the larger section 6:1-9:6—is the so-called Syro-Ephraimite crisis of 735-4 B.C.:

Threatened by Assyrian advances (under Tiglath-Pileser III), Aram-Damascus (led by king Rezin) and the Northern Kingdom of Israel (“Ephraim”, led by the usuper Pekah [“son of Remalyah”]) formed an alliance (along with the city of Tyre) in hopes of repulsing Assyria, similar to the coalition which resisted Shalmaneser III at the battle of Qarqar a century earlier. It was most likely for the purpose of forcing the Southern Kingdom of Judah (led by Aµaz) into joining the alliance, that Rezin and Pekah marched and laid siege to Jerusalem (Isaiah 7:6 indicates that they planned to set up a new king, “son of Tab±al“). Isa 7:1 states that they were “not able to do battle against” Jerusalem, perhaps in the sense of being unable to prevail/conquer in battle (so the parallel account in 2 Kings 16:5, but 2 Chronicles 28:5ff tells rather a different story).

Isaiah 7:3-9 and 10-17ff should be understood as taking place prior to the main event summarized in verse 1. Verses 10-17, in fact, need to be read in tandem with vv. 3-9, and in context with the larger section 6:1-9:6. Here is a fairly literal translation of vv. 10-17:

10And YHWH continued to speak to Aµaz, saying 11“Ask for you(rself) a sign from YHWH your God—made deep (as) Sheol or made high (as) from above [i.e. the sky]”. 12And Aµaz said, “I will not ask and will not test YHWH.” 13And he [i.e. Isaiah] said, “Hear ye, house of David: (is it) a small (thing) from you to make men weary, that you would also make weary my God? 14Thus (the) Lord himself will give for you a sign—See! the ±almâ (becoming) pregnant will bear a son and (she) will call his name ‘God-with-us‘. 15Curds and honey he will eat to (the time of) his knowing to refuse by the evil and to choose by the good; 16for by (the time) before the youth knows to refuse by the evil and choose by the good, the land, which you dread from the faces of her two kings, shall be forsaken! 17YHWH will bring upon you—and upon your people and upon the house of your father—days which have not come from [i.e. since] the day (of) Ephraim’s turning (away) from alongside Judah—the king of Assyria!”

Note that I have translated the name la@ WnM*u! (±immanû °¢l), and have temporarily left untranslated the word hm*l=u^ (±almâ). This latter word has been variously translated “virgin” or “young girl”, etc.—a point of longstanding dispute and controversy, which I have discussed (along with the identity of the ±almâ) as part of the earlier study (Parts 2 & 3). As neither “virgin” nor “young girl” quite captures the meaning of the Hebrew hm*l=u^, I have opted for “maiden” as the best solution, and one which can serve as an accurate enough translation.

Apart from the overall historical context, a number of details in the passage speak clearly against the child as a (messianic) figure coming only in the (distant) future:

    • It is meant to be a sign for the “house of David” (that is, the kings of Judah) which they, and presumably Ahaz in particular, would be able to recognize (in their lifetime)—v. 11, 13-14.
    • The use of the definite article (hm*l=u^h*, the ±almâ), would seem to indicate a woman already known to Isaiah and/or Ahaz—v. 14
    • The interjection hN@h! (“see/behold!”), as well as the construction td#l#)yw+ hr*h* (verbal adjective + Qal participle) seem to imply an immediacy (i.e. “see! the ±almâ, being pregnant, is about to bear…”)
    • The key temporal detail of the prophecy vv. 15-16, would seem to specify that within 2-3 years of the child’s birth, the main event will take place.
    • The event so indicated has a two-fold reference:
      a) The land of the ‘two kings’, which (currently) causes you dread, will be forsaken (“the land” primarily in reference to Aram-Damascus)—v. 16
      b) YHWH will bring the king of Assyria (with special reference to judgment on the Northern Kingdom [“Ephraim”])—v. 17
      This prediction was fulfilled, to large degree, in 732 B.C. (that is, within 2-3 years), with the fall of Damascus and the effective loss of much of the Northern kingdom (conquest of territory, deportations, installment of a puppet king, etc.)

What of this name “God-with-us” (la@ WnM*u! ±immanû-°¢l)? Some believers may feel that such a momentous name could only apply to a Messianic (or even Divine) figure, rather than an ‘ordinary’ human (king). However, theologically significant names were common in Hebrew, often using “God” (°El) or Yahweh (shortened or hypocoristic form “Yah[u]”). This is more or less obscured in English translations, where names are typically given an anglicized transliteration rather than translated. For example, Isaiah (Why`u=v^y+, Y§sha±y¹hu) ought to be rendered “Yah-will-save” or “May-Yah-save!”; similarly, Ahaz is probably a shortened form of Jehoahaz (zj*a*ohy+, Y§hô°¹µ¹z) and would mean something like “Yah-has-seized” or “Yah-has-grasped [hold]!”. So, a name such as “God-with-us” (la@ WnM*u!) could certainly be applied to a significant person or ruler (though at this time, Yah-names are much more common than El-names). Isaiah himself gave elaborate symbolic names for his two (other) sons: bWvy` ra*v= (Sh§°¹r-y¹shû», “[a] Remnant will return”, Isa 7:3), and zB^ vj* ll*v* rh@m^ (Mah¢r-sh¹l¹l-µ¹sh-baz, “Hurry [to] seize booty! hasten [to] take spoil!”, or something similar)—both names relating to the impending/future judgment on Israel.

In the historical context, the name “God-with-us” has a very specific meaning: Ahaz and the southern Kingdom faced an imminent attack by Aram-Damascus and the Northern Kingdom, along with the looming specter of an Assyrian invasion. From a practical political-diplomatic view, the young king had two options: submit to the Syria-Ephraim alliance, or seek aid from Assyria to fend of the attack (effectively becoming an Assyrian vassal or tributary). Judging from the account in 2 Kings 16:7ff (and the rather different parallel in 2 Chron 28:16ff), as well as the Assyrian annals (cf. ANET, 282-4), Ahaz appears to have chosen the latter. Isaiah’s counsel in chapter 7 was to trust in God, for God is with Jerusalem and his people in Judah, and within just a year or two the threat from Aram-Ephraim will be eliminated. The use of the name “God-with-us” in Isa 8:5-10 is even more dramatic and telling, for the warning (and promise) of ±Immanû °El (vv. 8, 10) extends to all the surrounding nations (even to the Assyrian Empire): “take counsel (for) counsel and it will break apart, give word (to) a word and it will not stand! For God (is) with us!”. In this final exclamation, we have moved clearly from the sign (the child) to what it signifies—that God Himself is with us. Little wonder that early Christians would have applied this name (and this passage) to the person of Jesus Christ: “and the Word [logo$] came-to-be flesh and set-up-tent [i.e. dwelt] among us…” (John 1:14a); cf. further below.

Isaiah 9:5-6 [EV 6-7]

While there are certain textual questions involving the opening of the section (8:23 [9:1], cf. below and in the earlier study), the lines of the main oracle poem (vv. 1-6 [2-7]) are relatively straightforward and may be outlined as follows:

    • V. 1: Light shines for those in darkness
    • V. 2: Joy will be increased, with two-fold motif: (a) harvest, (b) army dividing spoils
    • V. 3: Three connected symbols of oppression—yoke, cross-bar, and rod/whip—will be smashed
    • V. 4: The signs and remains of warfare and conquest (shoes, blood-caked garments) will be burned
    • V. 5: Announcement of the birth of a child (son), along with symbol(s) of government and (royal) titles
    • V. 6: A promise to establish/maintain the greatness and (eternal) rule of the Davidic kingdom

With regard to this poem, critical scholars have given various dates to it, ranging from Isaiah’s own time (c. 730-700 B.C.) down to the post-exilic period. An exilic or post-exilic date would make a Messianic orientation much more plausible (cf. below), but I find little evidence in these verses for such a setting. The closer one comes to Isaiah’s own time, the much less likely a future (Messianic) interpretation would be as the primary sense of the passage. This is particularly true if we take seriously the overall context of Isa 6:1-9:6, which is set rather securely in the period c. 740-732 B.C. Assuming this context still applies to 8:23, the regions mentioned (Zebulon, Naphtali, Transjordan [Gilead], Galilee and the northern coastal plain [“way of the sea”]) represent areas which suffered under Assyrian attack 734-732 B.C., and were effectively annexed to become Assyrian provinces. The message of 9:1-6 is directed, in part, to the Northern kingdom (“the people who walk in darkness”)—there is no indication that Samaria has fallen completely yet. Of course, Assyria still threatened the Southern kingdom of Judah, and would launch a devastating attack some years later (this will become the central event of the remainder of the first half of the book [up to ch. 39]). Here God promises (expressed in the prophetic perfect: “he has increased joy”, “he has smashed”, etc.) to deliver Israel/Judah from her enemies, bringing a renewed period of peace and prosperity.

Assuming the historical setting of Isa 6:1-9:6 to be the years leading up to 732 B.C. (and prior to 722), can we then identify the child with a particular historical figure? The grandeur of the titles in v. 5, and reference to the “throne of David” in v. 6, would require, at the very least, a king of Judah (that is, from the Davidic line). The only person from Isaiah’s own time (c. 735-700) who seems to fit is Hezekiah, son of Ahaz. The birth and/or accession of a new king could be a time of great hope and promise, but also of tremendous danger, as princes and vassals may see the moment as an opportune time for revolt (cf. Psalm 2). Following the reign of his father, Ahaz (who “did not do what was right in the eyes of YHWH”), Hezekiah is a positive figure, even under the withering judgment of the book of Kings (2 Kings 8:3ff: he finally removed the “high places”, which his ancestors failed to do). He will also become a central figure in the book of Isaiah, and focal point of the key historical moment: the Assyrian siege of Jerusalem under Sennacherib in 701 B.C.

Some scholars would identify Hezekiah also as ±Immanû-°¢l (“God-with-us”) of the prophecy in 7:10-17 (also 8:5-10, cf. above). Arguments in favor would be: (a) parallel with 9:5-6, as both prophecy the birth of portentous children containing a promise of salvation; (b) the name is suggestive of the words of 2 Kings 8:7 (“and YHWH was with him…”); (c) the subsequent use of the name/phrase in 8:8,10. Arguments against: (a) there is nothing in the two passages which specifically identifies the two children; (b) the other symbolic names in chs. 7-8 still seem to be real names applied to specific children, so Immanuel, if a real name, most likely belongs to a different child than Hezekiah; (c) Immanuel as a child of Isaiah (or even as a purely symbolic/collective name) remains a possibility. I am by no means convinced that Immanuel, even if a child of Ahaz, is the same as the (royal) child of 9:5-6. In some ways there is even a closer parallel between the child of 7:14-17 and Isaiah’s child in 8:1-4, but few (if any) commentators would equate the two.

As far as arguments against identifying Hezekiah with the child of 9:5-6, three are especially significant:

    1. The message of deliverance and restoration in vv. 1-4 was not fulfilled in Hezekiah’s reign, particularly not for the Northern kingdom (the territories mentioned in the setting of 8:23). And, while Hezekiah was a good and faithful ruler (according to the testimony of 2 Kings 8:3-7ff), achieved some military success (2 Kings 8:8), and stood against Assyria (2 Kings 8:7, 13–chap. 19 and par.), an appraisal of his reign would not seem to match the glowing language of Isa 9:6. Indeed, in 2 Kings 20:16-19 [par. Isa 39:5-8], Isaiah himself prophecies the future Babylonian captivity—there will be only limited “peace and security” (20:19, contrasted with Isa 9:6). However, these points are weakened somewhat if one considers the character of the oracle in 9:1-6, which does not seem to carry the same predictive force found earlier in chapters 7-8: there are almost no specific historical details, no time indicator, indeed no clear sign of an immediate fulfillment. The perfect verbal forms, typically understood as prophetic perfects (indicating the certainty of what God will do), could also have a gnomic sense (indicating what God always does).
    2. It has been said that the weighty titles listed in Isa 9:5 are too lofty to be applied to a human king. However, similarly lofty, theologically significant names and titles were regularly applied to rulers in the ancient Near East. The most extensive evidence comes from Egypt, and the names applied to the Pharaoh during enthronement rituals (some of which are roughly parallel to those in Isa 9:5). No similar ritual is recorded as such for kings of Israel/Judah in the Old Testament, but there are a few hints in the Psalms and elsewhere; Psalm 2 is perhaps the most striking example, a setting similar to that in the Egyptian ritual, where the Deity addresses the new ruler as His “son” (Ps 2:7). For more on this Psalm, see below.
    3. The very lack of specific historical details (see point 1 above) could be taken as a strong argument against identifying the child with Hezekiah. Certainly, it could apply at least as well to later rulers (such as Josiah) or a future Messiah. If one accepts the basic interpretation of 9:5-6 as reflecting the enthronement/accession of a new king (that is, the language and symbolism of it), it has a timeless quality which could apply to any anointed king (the same is true of Psalm 2, etc). Only the historical context of the passage (c. 730-700 B.C.) would make it apply specifically to Hezekiah.

What of the titles or names in Isaiah 9:5? There are four: the first two have nouns in juxtaposition, the second two are effectively construct forms:

    • Ju@oy al#P# (pele° yô±¢ƒ), typically translated “Wonderful Counsellor”
    • roBG] la@ (°¢l gibbôr), typically “Mighty God”

However, the English rendering is a bit misleading, as if the first words were adjectives modifying the second. The nouns juxtaposed are not related syntactically in quite this way. The noun al#P# refers to something extraordinary, i.e. a wonder, marvel, miracle, etc. The relation between the nouns is perhaps better expressed by a comma, or hyphen: “Wonder, Counsellor” or “Wonder–Counsellor”. The noun roBG] refers to a strong (man) or warrior. la@, usually translated “God” (El), has an original meaning something like “mighty” (“Mighty [one]” = “God”); the plural form <yh!l)a$ (Elohim) is probably an intensive plural, roughly “Mightiest”. “God Warrior” is a fairly accurate rendering of the second name, or, translating even more literally “Mighty One, Warrior”.

    • du^yb!a& (°¦»î±ad), familiar translation “Everlasting Father”
    • <olv*Árc^ (´ar-sh¹lôm), “Prince of Peace”

In the third name, the two words have been joined (without a maqqeph [‘hyphen’]), the second of which is difficult to translate. du^ indicates, more or less literally, the passing or advancing of time, either in the sense of (a) into the distant past, (b) into the [distant] future, or (c) in perpetuity [i.e. continually]. As such, it is roughly synonymous with the word <lou (see v. 6). “Everlasting” is not especially accurate, but it is hard to find an English word that is much better. In the context of a royal title, something along the lines of “long life” is probably implied (similar to Egyptian titles, i.e. “living forever”, “good in years”, etc). This would create a parallel with the two names: “Father of ‘Long-life'”, “Prince of Peace”—two aspects of the promised time of renewal. However, there is a sense of du^ which also indicates “ancient” or “eternal” (Hab 3:6, etc) as long as one is careful not to infuse the latter rendering with an exaggerated theological meaning.

These four titles are included under the formula: “and he/they will call [or has called] his name…” Let us also consider the prior three elements of verse 5:

    • Wnl*ÁdL^y% dl#y# yK! (“For a child has been born to/for us”)—the etymological connection of dly is lost in translation: “a (thing) born has been born”, “a (thing) brought-forth has been brought-forth”. The particle yK! clearly connects vv. 5-6 with 1-4, but in what way precisely? Is the birth of the child (or accession of the king) the means by which God will bring about the things detailed in vv. 1-4? Are 8:23-9:4 the reason for the birth? Or are the events of vv. 1-4 juxtaposed with the birth as parallel aspects of God’s action?
    • Wnl*Á/T^n] /B@ (“a son has been given to/for us”)—a point of poetic parallelism with the previous phrase.
    • omk=v!Álu^ hr*c=M!h^ yh!T=w~ (“and the rule has come to be upon his shoulder”)—the exact meaning of hr*c=m! is uncertain, it may be related to rc^ (translated “prince”, see in the fourth title at end of the verse). This phrase is parallel to the fourth: “and he has called his name [or he/they will call his name]…”—the name and the ‘rule’ (probably in the sense of symbolic emblem[s] of rule) being two ritualized aspects of sovereignty.

Messianic Interpretation

Given the importance of these Isaian passages for the early Christian understanding of Jesus as the Messiah (cf. below), we might expect to find a similar Messianic interpretation and application in other Jewish writings of the period. However, this is not the case, at least in terms of the texts that have come down to us, both from Qumran (the Dead Sea scrolls) and elsewhere. Indeed, I am aware of no direct citation or allusion to either Isa 7:14 or 9:5-6, in a Messianic context, in these writings. The situation would likely be different if the relevant portions of the Qumran Commentary (Pesher) on Isaiah had survived, but, unfortunately, this is not so. The closest we have are the highly fragmentary comments on 8:7-8ff in 4Q163 fragment 2; sadly, the text breaks off just when the commentary is being introduced (“the interpretation [pesher] of the word upon [i.e. concerning]…”). We may gain some sense of the missing interpretation by comparing the citation of Isa 8:11 in the Florilegium text (4Q174), a chain of Scriptures which are given a Messianic and eschatological interpretation—relating to the deliverance of the righteous (the Qumran Community) and the defeat/judgment of the wicked in the last days (Fragment 1, col. i, lines 15ff). The surviving fragments of the Isaiah Commentary text 4Q163 pick up again at Isa 9:11, but much of the specific interpretation of the passage, in context, remains missing.

There is an allusion to 9:5 [6] in the “Thanksgiving Hymns” (Hodayot) 1QH. In Hymn 11 [XI, formerly III], the author compares his distress to that of a woman giving birth (verse 7ff): “9and the woman expectant with a boy is racked by her pangs, for through the breakers of death she gives birth to a male, and through the pangs of Sheol there emerges, 10from the «crucible» of the pregnant woman a wonderful counsellor with his strength, and the boy is freed from the breakers”. He goes on to contrast the (righteous) birth of a boy with the (wicked) birth of a serpent (verse 12ff), a reflection of the strong ethical dualism found in many of the Qumran texts. This is not a Messianic use of the passage per se, but it may related to the eschatological tradition of the end time as a period of suffering and persecution for the righteous, prior to the great Judgment, and known in Jewish tradition as “the birth pains of the Messiah” (cp. Mark 13:8 par, and the context of Rev 12:2-6, 13-17).

The Gospel of Matthew, of course, in the Infancy narrative (Matt 1:22-23) cites Isa 7:14, applying the verse specifically to the (virgin) birth of Jesus. He also makes use of the name “God-with-us” (la@ WnM*u! ±immanû-°¢l). This application is generally Messianic, however the emphasis is more properly on the identity of Jesus as the Savior of his people (1:21). This theme of salvation is very much part of the original oracles in Isa 7-9 (cf. above). Matthew does not use Isa 7:14 to identify Jesus with the Davidic Messiah—that is achieved primarily through the quotation of Micah 5:2 (along with 2 Sam 5:2) in 2:5-6.

It is interesting to see how (and where) the Gospel writer introduces the prophecy: it follows directly after the heavenly Messenger’s announcement to Joseph. Note the similarity in language in v. 21: “she will bring forth a son and you will call his name Yeshua± [Jesus]”, which is nearly identical to that of Isa 7:14 (cf. the similar pronouncements in Gen 16:11 and Judg 13:5). Many critical scholars would hold that Matthew has shaped the angelic announcement to fit Isa 7:14; however, it is certainly possible that, seeing the similarity in language, the writer was led to include the Isaiah prophecy at this point. Indeed, this sort of “catchphrase bonding” abounds in the New Testament, and was a prime technique used by early Christians to join Scriptures and traditions together. The writer is also careful to distinguish the two passages: while “call his name Jesus” and “call his name Immanuel” are parallel, they are not identical—this is probably why the third person plural “they shall call” is used in the citation; it is a small adaptation, but it has an interesting effect. Joseph (the “you” of v. 21) calls him “Jesus” (v. 25), but “they” (people of Israel, believers, those who encounter Jesus) will call him “Immanuel”.

It is also in Matthew’s Gospel that the Isa 8:23-9:6 [9:1-7] oracle is referenced. Even though Isa 9:5-6 is not cited specifically (nor anywhere else in the New Testament), 8:23-9:1 [EV 9:1-2] are quoted in 4:15-16, at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry in Galilee; and, though not specified, an identification of Jesus with the child in 9:5-6 would seem to be implied. This is certainly how early Christians would come to understand the passage (Justin is perhaps the earliest surviving witness [c. 140-160], cf. First Apology §33 and Dialogue §76). More broadly, it would come to carry a Messianic interpretation, though there is little surviving pre-Christian Jewish evidence of this, as noted above. A comparison of Isa 9:1-6 [esp. vv. 5-6] with Psalm 2 (discussed in the previous article) is noteworthy:

    • Both passages are understood (in their original context) as relating to the enthronement/accession of a new (Davidic) king. The positive side of the event (light, joy, deliverance from [current] oppression) is stressed in Isa 9:1-6, the negative side (danger from rebellious princes/vassals/allies) in Ps 2.
    • Both speak of a birth (Isa 9:5; Ps 2:7). This may mean that the ‘birth’ in Isa 9:5 is symbolic of the king’s accession/enthronement, rather than a literal physical birth.
    • Both speak of (the king) as a son. The king as God’s son (i.e., “son of God” though the phrase is not used) is explicit in Psalm 2 (cf. also 2 Sam 7:14), while only implied, perhaps, in Isa 9:5-6.
    • Following the ‘announcement’ of birth/sonship, both passages have God’s declaration of royal inheritance and sovereignty (Isa 9:6; Ps 2:8-12)
    • Both passages came to be understood as Messianic prophecies, and were applied to Jesus by early Christians—Ps 2 (along with Ps 110) already, on several occasions, in the New Testament itself.

The Lukan Infancy narrative may allude to both Isa 7:14 and 9:5[6], by way of the wording of the Angelic announcements in 1:28 and 2:11, respectively; however, this is not entirely certain. In any case, the use of such passages is instructive for understanding how the language and imagery of the Old Testament developed over time, from the original historical context and meaning, to a broader symbolism related to the idea of the Davidic kingship and covenant; then follows the hope/promise of a restoration of Davidic rule (in the post-exilic period) under a new Anointed figure (Messiah), traditions of which are preserved and transmitted in Jewish thought and belief, until the time of Jesus Christ (Yeshua the Anointed [Messiah]).  In the light of this new (incarnate) revelation, new meanings and applications of the Scriptures were opened up to believers—it is hardly surprising that at least a few of these would appear to relate so beautifully to the marvelous birth of our Savior.

Believers, including the earliest Christians (and the inspired Gospel writer), have, for example, applied Isaiah 7:14 to the (virgin) birth of Jesus, even though the original context of the passage relates to the Syrian-Ephraimite crisis facing Ahaz and the kingdom of Judah in c. 735-4 B.C. I regard this as one of the great wonders and beauties of the sacred Writings: that prophet and people, author and hearer (or reader) alike respond to the word[s] of God and the work of the Holy Spirit as part of a profound creative process. The eternal Word, stretching from the 8th-century crisis facing the people of Israel, touching those who experience the miracle and mystery of Jesus’ birth, reaching all the way down to us today—all who are united in the Spirit of God and Christ—speaks that remakable, nearly unexplainable phrase, that one name: la@ WnM*u! “God-with-us”.

* * * * * * *

There is a rough extrabiblical parallel to the “God-with-us” prophecy of Isaiah 7:10ff, from earlier in the 8th century (c. 785): the Zakkur (or Zakir) stele. Another ruler (of Hamath in Syria [“Aram”]) is besieged by an enemy force, and the seers deliver a message from the deity to the king which reads, in part: “Do not fear, for I have made you king, and I shall stand by you and deliver you” (transl. from ANET, 501-2).

January 3: John 1:12-13, 14

John 1:12-13, 14

The prologue of the Gospel of John (1:1-18) is probably the most famous and distinctive exposition of the divine pre-existence of Jesus, and of his identity as the Son of God, anywhere in the New Testament. This familiarity belies the complexity of the passage, both from a literary and theological standpoint. Most commentators have note the poetic, hymnic character of the prologue (most of it), and many consider it to have been a Jewish-Christian hymn which the author adapted. If so, then the substance of the prologue pre-dates the Johannine Gospel itself, which is generally regarded as the latest of the four Gospels (c. 90 A.D.), though containing many earlier traditions.

The prologue differs from the Gospel proper in a number of ways, with the poetic verses (and strophes) distinguished from the several prose statements (by the Gospel writer). The main additions by the author would seem to be the two statements regarding John the Baptist (vv. 6-9, 15), which function as comments, likely in response to adherents of the Baptist who viewed him as the Messiah, etc, instead of Jesus. Nowhere in the Gospel tradition is there such a pronounced contrast between John and Jesus (1:19-34; 3:22-30ff), with the Gospel declaring the superiority of Jesus in no uncertain terms.

Verses 13 and 17-18 are probably also explanatory statements by the Gospel writer that have been added to the earlier hymn; these statements enhance the theological and Christological dimension of the poem. If, indeed, the bulk of the prologue represents a pre-existing hymn, or poem, it would seem to reflect Old Testament and Jewish Wisdom traditions that have been applied to the person of Jesus Christ. In this regard, it is similar in style and tone with two other Christological ‘hymns’ in the New Testament—Colossians 1:15-20 and Hebrews 1:1-4 (cf. the previous note)—and may have been written at about the same time (c. 60-70). In his now-classic Commentary on the Gospel of John, Raymond E. Brown, following the work of earlier scholars, divides the poetic prologue into four parts or strophes (pp. 3-4), which I have further annotated here:

    • Strophe 1 (vv. 1-2)—Pre-existence: The Son (as the Word) with God in eternity
    • Strophe 2 (vv. 3-5)—Creation by the Word of God, which is also the Light
    • Strophe 3 (vv. 10-12a)—Response of humankind to the Word/Light
    • Strophe 4 (vv. 14, 16)—The presence of the incarnate Word with humankind (believers)

According to this sequence, the third strophe (vv. 10-12a) describes the entry of the Word (lo/go$) into the world (ko/smo$). While this alludes to the incarnation of Christ, it is not limited to that historical phenomenon. Rather, the orientation is wider, reflecting traditions regarding the presence of God’s Wisdom in the world; in particular, verses 10-11 draw upon the theme of Wisdom seeking a place among human beings on earth and finding none (cf. 1 Enoch 42:2). Since Jesus is the eternal Word/Wisdom of God, this traditional language and imagery is entirely appropriate:

“He was in the world, and the world came to be through him, and (yet) the world did not know him. Unto his own (thing)s he came, and his own (people) did not receive him alongside.” (vv. 10-11)

Only a few (the wise) accept Wisdom, even as only the righteous few accept the Word of God. Within the Johannine writings, this is understood in terms of what we would call election—that is, there are those who belong to God, chosen by Him, and it is they who are able to accept the Truth. Those who belong to God the Father, and who accept His truth, will be drawn to Jesus the Son, and will accept him (cf. 3:20-21; 18:37, etc). This theology underlies the statement in v. 12a:

“But as (many) as received him, he gave to them the e)cousi/a to become offspring of God”

The Word gives to the elect (i.e. those who receive him) the ability to become the offspring, or children, of God. Again, this is only realized within the Gospel context of the ministry of Jesus and the presence/work of the Spirit. The noun e)cousi/a, difficult to translate in English, refers (literally) to something which comes out of a person’s being, i.e., something one is able to do. To give e)cousi/a thus means giving someone the ability to do something, often in the sense of authority given by a superior to one who is subordinate. Verse 12b-13, which may represent an explanatory comment by the Gospel writer, expounds the idea of believers as the children (or offspring, te/kna, lit. those produced) of God:

“…to the (one)s trusting in his name, the (one)s who, not out of blood, and not out of (the) will of (the) flesh, and not out of (the) will of man, but out of God, came to be (born).”

This is a uniquely Johannine way of describing believers (“the ones trusting”), using the verb genna/w (“come to be [born]”). In the First Letter, the verb occurs 10 times, always (with just one exception) in the special sense of believers being born out of God; especially important is the articular (perfect) participle, used to define the identity of the believer— “the (one) having come to be born out of God” (3:9; 5:1, 4, 18). Only with the aorist participle in 5:1 is it used of Jesus, as the one born out of God (i.e., the Son); that peculiar usage is presumably meant to emphasize Jesus’ Sonship as the basis for our own (as children of God). The main Gospel passage expressing this is Jn 3:3-8, where the verb occurs 8 times. Here, coming to be born “out of God” (e)k tou= qeou=) is defined two-fold as being born “from above” (a&nwqen, v. 3) and “out of the Spirit” (e)k tou= pneu/mato$, vv. 6, 8). Being born “out of the Spirit” is contrasted with an ordinary human birth (“out of water”); there is a similar (three-fold) contrast with being born “out of God” in 1:13:

    • “not out of blood [pl. bloods]” —in the Semitic idiom, the plural usually refers to “acts of blood(shed)”, but here it may indicate the more general physiological idea of “actions involving (the) blood” (i.e., menstruation, etc)
    • “not out of the will of the flesh” —the will of the flesh signifies primarily the sexual drive
    • “not out of the will of man” —i.e., the intention and activity of the parent(s)

These three, taken together, refer to the ordinary (physical/biological) birth of human beings; this is very different from the spiritual birth of believers as sons/children of God. Interestingly, the only time in the Gospel when the verb genna/w is used of Jesus (in 18:37) it generally refers to his birth as human being; this is also the sense of what follows in 1:14 (using the related verb gi/nomai):

“And the Word came to be [e)ge/neto] flesh and put down (his) tent among us, and we looked (closely) at his splendor—(the) splendor as (the) only (one) coming to be [monogenh/$] (from) alongside (the) Father, full of favor and truth.”

This is the climactic moment of the Prologue (the poem), describing the incarnation of the eternal Word, i.e. his birth as a human being. This birth is implied by the specific wording, especially the verb gi/nomai (“come to be, become”), from which also the compound adjective monogenh/$ is essentially derived. The adjective is notoriously difficult to translate in English; literally, it means “only (one) coming to be”, and, while it can refer to an only child, it more properly denotes something like “one of a kind”. Here, it refers to the incarnate Word (Jesus) as the unique Son (ui(o/$) of God. Indeed, in the Johannine writings, ui(o/$ is never used of believers; it is reserved for the one Son (Jesus), and, instead, the plural te/kna (“offspring, children”) is used when referring to believers as the sons/children of God.

The Johannine Prologue, especially with the concluding verses 14-18, represents the pinnacle of the expression of early Christian belief in Jesus as the Son of God, blending the doctrines of divine pre-existence and incarnation together in the most powerful way, within the matrix of Jewish Wisdom tradition (cp. 1:14 with Sirach 24:8ff). It is also most remarkable how the Gospel writer, in developing and expounding his traditional material, combines the idea of believers as the sons/children of God with that of Jesus as the unique Son. This is very much a Johannine emphasis (in both the Gospel and Letters), but one also shared by Paul (in his Letters), indicating that it was a part of a natural development in early Christian thought. It is this that we will explore further in the next note—how early Christians understood believers in Christ to be born as “sons of God”.

* * * * * * *

The reference to the birth of believers in 1:12-13 was apparently confusing, and/or problematic, for many readers and copyists. Some early witnesses (primarily Latin) read the singular in v. 13 instead of the plural, beginning with the relative pronoun (o%$) and including the form of the verb genna/w; thus vv. 12b-13 would be translated as follows:

“…to the (one)s trusting in his name, the (one) who, not out of blood, and not out of (the) will of (the) flesh, and not out of (the) will of man, but out of God, came to be (born).”

The entire relative clause would then refer back to the subject of “his name”, rather than to “the ones trusting”, that is, to the birth of Jesus, rather than the spiritual birth of believers. The distinction was not lost on Tertullian, who accepted the singular as original, and accused Gnostics of altering the text to eliminate the idea of Jesus’ miraculous birth, replacing it with their own ‘spiritual’ birth (as gnostics), cf. On the Flesh of Christ 19. Tertullian, however, is almost certainly mistaken on this textual point, the reading with the singular being instead an example of an “orthodox corruption” (cf. B. Ehrman, The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture [Oxford: 1993], pp. 26-27). To be sure, it is understandable how the variant reading might come to be reasonably well-establish, offering as it does support for the doctrine of the Virgin Birth, and perhaps, at the same time, reflecting a certain unease among the orthodox regarding the identification of believers as the sons/children of God. I have discussed this in more detail in earlier notes.

January 2: Hebrews 1:1-5

Jesus as the Son of God: The Pre-existent and Eternal Son

In these notes, we have been examining the development of the early Christian awareness of Jesus’ identity as the Son of God. In the earliest Gospel preaching, it was the resurrection of Jesus (and his exaltation to heaven) that marked his “birth” as God’s Son. This Christological awareness then came to extend back into Jesus’ earthly life and ministry—all the way to his baptism (marking the beginning of his ministry), and even to his very birth as a human being. Eventually, many believers came to realize that Jesus must have had an existence with God the Father even prior to his birth. Essentially this is the doctrine of the divine pre-existence of Jesus, tied to specific beliefs regarding his deity (or divine nature). There are different ways, or degrees, by which Jesus’ pre-existence may be understood, the nuances of which, I believe, tend to reflect the development of early Christology in the second half of the first century A.D. (c. 60-100).

Belief in the divine pre-existence of Jesus is hardly to be found in the Synoptic Gospels and Acts (in particular, it is absent from the early Gospel preaching preserved in the book of Acts). Paul gives evidence of a such a belief, to some extent, in his letters (late-50s and early 60s). It is expressed primarily in terms of Jesus’ role in creation, drawing upon Old Testament and Jewish Wisdom traditions (Prov 8:27; Sirach 24:1ff; Wisdom 7:12, 21; 8:4; 1 Enoch 42; cf. Attridge, p. 40), in 1 Corinthians 8:6 and Romans 11:36 (cp. John 1:3, 10). Several of Paul’s references to Jesus as the Son (of God) seem to presume a heavenly existence prior to his human birth and life (Gal 4:4; Rom 8:3, and note the opening words of Rom 1:3). This is of significance for the study being undertaken in these Christmas-season notes, exploring how early believers understood Jesus’ “birth” as the Son of God.

Of special interest is the “Christ-hymn” in Philippians 2:6-11, which joins together the idea of divine/heavenly pre-existence with the older tradition of Jesus’ resurrection/exaltation to God’s right hand. The same may be said of the hymnic section in Colossians 1:15-18, which, if genuinely Pauline, was probably written at about the same time. In neither passage is the Sonship of Jesus related to the idea of his pre-existence; however, elsewhere in the New Testament—in the letter to the Hebrews and the Gospel of John—those Christological elements are combined.

The dating of Hebrews is problematic, though it was likely written sometime between 70 and 100 A.D. Many commentators would view it as contemporary with the Gospel of John (c. 90?), though I tend to think that it may have been written somewhat earlier. In terms of its place within the development of early Christology, Hebrews seems to stand midway between Paul and the Gospel of John. Its Christology is clearly expressed in the opening (exordium) of the letter, 1:1-4.

Hebrews 1:1-4

The first four verses of Hebrews represent a single long sentence, regarded by many commentators as perhaps the finest such opening in the New Testament (from a literary and rhetorical standpoint). Here are the verses in translation:

“(With) God (hav)ing spoken (in) former (time)s to the Fathers, (in) many parts and many ways, in the Foretellers, upon these last days He spoke to us in a Son, whom He set (as the one) receiving the lot of all (thing)s, (and) through whom indeed He made (all) the Ages, (and) who, being a beam (shining) forth of the splendor (of God), and an engraving of th(at which) stands under Him, and (himself) bearing all (thing)s by the utterance of his power, (hav)ing made cleansing of sins, he sat on the giving [i.e. right] (hand) of the Greatness, in (the) high (place)s, (hav)ing come to be so much mightier than the Messengers, (even) as he has received as (his) lot a name (that) bears through (beyond what is) alongside of them.”

Not only is this masterful and majestic sentence a summary of the key themes that will be developed in the letter, it also effectively summarizes the Christian Gospel of Jesus Christ at the time the letter was written. The initial contrast is between the Old and New Covenants—between God speaking to His people (Israel) through the Prophets, and to His people (believers) through His Son (vv. 1-2a). Out of this initial statement, a complex Christological declaration is developed (vv. 2b-4). It generally follows a paradigm comparable to that in Phil 2:6-11, moving from the Son’s divine pre-existence to his exaltation (as Son) following his death and resurrection; this paradigm may be summarized:

    • Divine pre-existence as the Son
      • Incarnation (human life)
        • Sacrificial Death
      • Resurrection (restoration to life)
    • Exaltation as the Son to God’s right hand

The pre-existence (pre-incarnation) side is presented in vv. 2b-3a with a series of clauses that modify the word “Son” (ui(o/$). Each of these relates to that noun with a relative pronoun (o%$):

    • “…in a Son” (e)n ui(w=|)
      • whom He set as heir of all things”
        o^n e&qhken klhrono/mon pa/ntwn
      • through whom He even made (all) the Ages”
        di’ ou! kai\ e)poi/hsen tou\$ ai)w=na$
      • who, being…carrying…”
        o^$ w*n…fe/rwn…

The first two clauses deal with the Son’s authority over creation, both in terms of its end (“heir of all things”) and its beginning (“made the Ages”). The latter draws upon the ancient Wisdom traditions (cf. above), whereby God made the universe using Divine Wisdom (personified) as the intermediary. The Son, as the living Word (Lo/go$) and Wisdom of God, performs this same creative role. This idea is expressed famously in the Johannine prologue (1:3, 10), but Paul alludes to the same basic belief at several points in his letters (1 Cor 8:6; Rom 11:36; also Col 1:16f). The citation of Psalm 102:25-27 in vv. 10-12 repeats this (pre-existent) aspect of Jesus’ identity as the Son of God (cf. below).

The third relative clause is compound, made up of two participial phrases, each expressing the unique deity of Jesus (as the Son):

    • (the Son) “who” (o%$)
      • being…” (w&n)
        • “…a beam (shining) forth of the splendor (of God)”
          a)pau/gasma th=$ do/ch$
        • “…an engraving of th(at which) stands under Him”
          xarakth\r th=$ u(posta/sew$ au)tou=
      • “and bearing all (thing)s by the word of his power” (fe/rwn te ta\ pa/nta tw=| r(h/mati th=$ duna/mew$ au)tou=)

The first participle is the verb of being (ei)mi, “being” [w&n]), indicating what the Son truly is. Again this breaks down into a further pair of genitival phrases:

    • a)pau/gasma th=$ do/ch$—The noun a)pau/gasma (occurring only here in the New Testament) literally refers to a beam or ray (of light) coming out from a source. Here is another indication that the author is drawing upon Wisdom traditions, since in Wis 7:26 the Divine Wisdom (Sofi/a) is said to be an a)pau/gasma “of the splendor of the All-mighty” (cf. also Philo, On the Creation §146). As is typically the case, the word do/ca (“esteem”), when used of God, refers to that which makes Him worthy of our esteem and honor, expressed in a visual manner as an overriding greatness or splendor. It can also refer to the divine/heavenly state, in which God Himself dwells. To say that the Son is an a)pau/gasma means that he (himself) is a manifestation of the very glory of God, and that the ray of light he possesses, or embodies, comes from the same Divine source.
    • xarakth\r th=$ u(posta/sew$ au)tou=—The noun xarakth/r, here parallel with a)pau/gasma, literally means “engraving” or “imprint”, something cut or stamped into a surface. Sometimes the related motif of a seal (sfra/gi$) is employed, to express the idea of a Divine image (ei)kw/n) being imprinted. Again, this reflects Wisdom traditions, and Philo uses this imagery a number of times (On the Creation §25; The Worse Attacks the Better §§83, 86; On Flight and Finding §12; The Work of Planting §18), i.e. for the imprinting of the Divine image upon the mind. Like a)pau/gasma, the noun xarakth/r occurs only here in the New Testament; however, Paul uses the common noun ei)kw/n (“image”), in a similar Christological sense, in 2 Cor 4:4 and Col 1:15, the latter being closer to the thought and wording of Hebrews. The noun u(po/stasi$ (occurring 5 times in the New Testament, including 3 in Hebrews [3:14; 11:1]) literally means that which “stands under”, and is a technical philosophical and scientific term for the “substance” or “essence” of something, or that which underlies a particular phenomenon. Thus, the Son is an imprint of God’s essential nature and identity, which is very much built into the idea of the Son as reflection of the Father. Cf. Attridge, pp. 42-5.

The second participle is the verb fe/rw (“bear, carry”), and it expresses how the Son’s divine character is manifest in the world—he carries all things, meaning that he supports and sustains all of Creation. This is done “by the utterance [r(h=ma] of his power”, which blends the Wisdom/Creation traditions (cf. above) with the fundamental religious/cosmological idea of God creating the universe by His speaking a word. Both of these ideas are established more clearly in the Johannine Prologue (1:1-3ff), but they are certainly present here as well, and relate to the divine pre-existence of Jesus as the Son. The same divine power that brought the world into existence now providentially sustains it.

The remainder of vv. 3-4 more properly follows the older conception of Jesus as the Son–that is, in terms of his death, resurrection, and exaltation to the right hand of God the Father in heaven. Verse 3b summarizes this concisely:

“(hav)ing made cleansing of sins, he sat on the giving [i.e. right] (hand) of the Greatness in high (place)s”

Interestingly, the actual death and resurrection of Jesus, so central to the early Gospel preaching, is not even stated, but simply taken for granted. The author moves from the atoning/saving aspect of Jesus’ work straight to his exaltation. In some ways, this reflects the unique theological emphasis in the letter, focusing on the work of Jesus as a fulfillment of the priestly office. The closing lines in verse 4 build upon the idea of the Son’s superiority (over the Angels), again expressed in terms of his exaltation after his death. The language and thought, in this respect, is quite similar to that of the Christ-hymn in Philippians (2:9-11).

It is at this point that the author introduces the citation of Psalm 2:7 (along with 2 Sam 7:14):

“For to who among the Messengers did He ever say, ‘You are my Son, today I have caused you to be (born)’, and again: ‘I will be unto a Father for him, and he will be unto a Son for me’?” (v. 5)

In inclusion of 2 Sam 7:14 confirms the Messianic context of the birth/sonship motif in Psalm 2:7. As we have seen, this originally applied to the earthly life and ministry of Jesus, and, in particular, his death and resurrection. In this he was to be recognized as God’s Son, but still in the figurative sense that the Messianic interpretation would have entailed. Now, however, a deeper Christological meaning has been given to it, since Jesus is now seen as God’s Son from before the beginning of Creation. This also gives to all the birth and sonship images a new depth, as the author continues in verse 6:

“And, again, when He brought His first-formed (child) into the inhabited (world), He says: ‘And all the Messengers of God must kiss toward [i.e. worship] him’.”

The citation presumably comes from Deut 32:43 LXX, but it is the wording used to frame the citation that is especially significant. It refers to the Son’s incarnation, or coming into the world of human beings (cp. John 1:9ff, 14). But here the context makes quite clear two important points about Jesus as God’s Son: (1) he is God’s “firstborn” child prior to the incarnation, and (2) the citation of Psalm 2:7 (and 2 Sam 7:14) also applies to his sonship prior to the incarnation. This represents a genuine development in early Christian belief regarding the “birth” and sonship of Jesus, one quite similar with what we find in the Gospel of John. This will be examined in the next daily note (on John 1:12-13 and 14); here, it remains to consider again how the author of Hebrews frames this dual aspect of Jesus’ sonship—the ‘older’ aspect of his resurrection/exaltation, and the ‘newer’ aspect of his pre-existent deity. Chapter 1 closes with a pair of Scripture quotations (from the Psalms) applied to Jesus as the Son. It is part of the running comparison between the Son and the other heavenly beings (Angels):

“And toward the Messengers He says (v. 7)… But toward the Son (He says, v. 8)…”

The first passage, from Psalm 45:6-7, alludes to the exaltation of Jesus, of his being raised (as Son) to the throne of God; the second passage (Psalm 102:25-27), by contrast, implies the Son’s pre-existence, with its Creation-setting: “You, Lord, down at (the) beginning, set (the foundation for) the earth, and the heavens (are) the works of your hands”. In the original Psalm, of course, the “Lord” (ku/rio$) is YHWH, but here it is meant to apply more properly to Jesus, based on the common dual-use of ku/rio$ among early Christians. The final citation of Psalm 110:1 (v. 13), a Messianic passage at least as important as Psalm 2:7 (compare Acts 2:34-35 with 13:32-33), demonstrates again how the early Christian understanding of Jesus as the Son of God has been transformed in the light of the growing Christological awareness. In Acts 2, this Scripture is interpreted in terms of Jesus’ resurrection/exaltation, while here in Hebrews it has an altogether new and deeper meaning—one which combines the exaltation motif with divine pre-existence.

References above marked “Attridge” are to Harold W. Attridge, The Epistle to the Hebrews, Hermeneia Commentary series (Fortress Press: 1989).

Birth of the Messiah: Psalm 2:7

The “Birth” of the King in Psalm 2:7:
A Key Text for the Davidic Messiah Tradition

Perhaps no portion of the Old Testament exerted greater influence on Messianic thought in the first centuries B.C./A.D. than the second Psalm. It also happens to be one of the only Scriptures which relates directly to the idea of the Messiah’s birth. I have discussed Psalm 2 in detail as part of the Sunday Psalm Studies series, and will not repeat that analysis here; I would recommend you consult that study, if you are interested in learning more about the Hebrew text, the historical background and setting, etc. Here is the outline I will be following in this article:

    • The Messianic Use and Interpretation of Psalm 2
    • Early Christian application to Jesus as the Messiah
    • Psalm 2:7 in Jewish and early Christian tradition

Messianic Use and Interpretation of Psalm 2

The Messianic significance of Psalm 2 is based on several key factors:

    • The original historical setting and context, with its associated royal theology
    • The specific use of the word j^yv!m* (m¹šîaµ) in verse 2
    • The theological terminology applied to the idealized Davidic Ruler
    • The setting as a type-pattern for the future/end-time Judgment of the Nations
The Historical Setting and its Royal Theology

Most commentators are in agreement that Psalm 2 has, as its background, the inauguration (coronation and/or enthronement) of the new king. Such a time of transition provided opportunity for vassals and ambitious nobles, as well as nearby rulers, to gain independence and greater power for themselves, especially if the new king was young and inexperienced. In the Psalm, YHWH declares His support for the (new) Israelite king, promising that the rebellious vassals and other rulers among the surrounding nations, will not be able to stand against him. The royal theology of the Psalm is presumably Judean/Davidic in orientation, indicated by the mention of Zion (i.e., the ancient fortified hill-top site of Jerusalem), the “mountain” of God’s holiness, as the place where the king has been anointed and installed as ruler. For more on the background, cf. my earlier study on the Psalm.

The reference to the king as the “son” (/B@, b¢n) of YHWH is based on the ancient Near Eastern royal theology and mode of expression which was also shared by Israel and Judah. This “sonship” was largely figurative and symbolic, only occasionally signifying a more concrete metaphysical relationship (as in the high Pharaonic theology of Egypt). In late bronze Age Canaan, we have references, for example, of the epic king Kirta being called “son of El” (bnm °il, in Kirta III. col. 1, lines 10, 20); elsewhere in the same text he is called “young man of El” (²lm °il) and “servant of El” (±bd °il). Within Old Testament tradition, this sonship was recognized especially for David and his descendants (2 Sam 7:14; Psalm 89:27-28).

The Use of j^yv!m* in Psalm 2:2

In addition to the Davidic ruler as God’s son (in a symbolic sense), the title “anointed” (j^yv!m*) is applied to him in verse 2 of the Psalm—he is called YHWH’s anointed one (“His Anointed”, ojyv!m=). Kings in the Ancient Near East were consecrated through the ritual/ceremonial act of anointing (with oil). This is recorded numerous times in the Old Testament, typically with the verb jv^m* (m¹šaµ, “rub, smear, apply [paint etc]”)—Judg 9:8, 15; 1 Sam 9:16; 10:1; 15:1, 17; 16:3, et al. The noun j^yv!m* (m¹šîaµ, “anointed [one]”) is used of the reigning/ruling king in 1 Sam 2:10, 35; 16:6; Psalm 2:2; 20:7; 84:10 (also Psalm 28:8; Hab 3:13 ?), and specifically of kings such as Saul (1 Sam 24:7, 11; 26:9, 11, 16, 23; 2 Sam 1:14, 16, 21 [?], cf. also 1 Sam 12:3, 5), and especially David (and/or the Davidic line, 2 Sam 19:22; 22:51; 23:1; Psalm 18:51; 89:39, 52; 132:10, 17, including Solomon in 2 Chron 6:42). David and his son Solomon were the greatest of Israel’s kings, and under their rule the kingdom reached by far its greatest extent of territory, sovereignty (over vassal states), wealth and prestige. It is only natural that, following the decline and fall of the kingdom(s) of Israel/Judah in the 8th-6th centuries, Israelites and Jews in the Exile, and for generations thereafter, would look to David as the ideal king, especially when judged in terms of political and military power.

The Theological Terminology Applied to the Idealized Davidic Ruler

Already in the Old Testament itself, we see expressed the idea of a future Davidic ruler, whose promised coming will coincide with the restoration of the Israelite kingdom. The development of this idea can generally be outlined as follows:

    • In the time of David and Solomon, a specific royal (Judean) theology grew up around the kingship, expressed and preserved in specific Psalms which would have enormous influence on subsequent Jewish (and Christian) thought. Two Psalms in particular—Psalm 2 and 110—set around the enthronement/coronation/inauguration of the (new) king, draw upon ancient Near Eastern language and symbolism, depicting the reigning king as God’s appointed, chosen representative (figuratively, his “son” [Ps 2:7])
    • This same theology crystalized in the Scriptural narrative, associated with a particular oracle by Nathan the prophet, regarding the future of the Davidic dynasty (2 Samuel 7:8-16). The critical and interpretive difficulties regarding this section are considerable, and cannot be delved into here. The prayer of David following in 2 Sam 7:18-29 must be read in context, along with the parallel(s) in Psalm 89 (cf. also 2 Sam 22:44-51 / Ps 18:44-51).
    • The so-called Deuteronomic history (Judges–Kings) uses an ethical and narrative framework, comparing the good and wicked kings, according to the extent to which they followed the way of the Lord—defined, in part, in terms of the example of David (“as David his Father did”, 1 Kings 9:4; 11:4-6, 33-34, etc). David thus serves, in many ways, as the model/ideal ruler. Historical circumstances clearly showed that the promise regarding the Davidic dynasty was conditional—his descendants would maintain rule only so far as they remained faithful and obedient to God (cf. 1 Kings 11:9-13, 31-39). Thus the oracle of Nathan would be (re)interpreted to allow for a (temporary) end to Davidic kingship.
    • 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 would 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.

The Messianic figure of the coming Davidic-ruler type derives primarily from these Scriptural sources, and it was the principal–though not the only–Messianic figure-type found in Jewish writings and traditions of the first centuries B.C./A.D. In this period, Messianic thought had blended together with Jewish eschatological expectation, and the coming of this royal (Davidic) Messiah generally was seen as coinciding with the end of the current Age. Some notable examples in Jewish writings of the period are:

    • Sirach 47:11, which mentions the exaltation of David’s horn (by contrast, cf. 45:25; 49:4-5); note also the Hebrew prayer following Sir 51:12 (8th line)—”give thanks to him who makes a horn to sprout for the house of David…” [NRSV translation].
    • The 17th and 18th of the so-called Psalms of Solomon, especially the reference to David in Ps Sol 17:21, to the “Anointed” of God in Ps Sol 17:32[36]; 18:5, 7, and the influence of Psalm 2 and Isa 11:4ff throughout (cf. 17:21-25ff; 18:6-8). Cf. further below.
    • The Apocalypse of Baruch (2 Baruch) 29:3; 30:1; 39:7; 40:1; 70:9; 72:2 [Syriac]; and note esp. the context of chs. 72-74, which describe the coming Messiah, judgment of the nations, and the establishment of the (Messianic) Kingdom of God on earth.
    • 2/4 Esdras (4 Ezra)—the core of the book (chapters 4-13, esp. 7, 11-12, 13:3-14:9) assumes an eschatological framework similar that of 2 Baruch (both books are typically dated from the end of the 1st century A.D.). The “Messiah” is specifically referred to in 7:28-29 (called God’s “Son”) and 12:32 (identified as the offspring of David).

I discuss the subject at length in Parts 68 of the series “Yeshua the Anointed”.

A Pattern for the Judgment of the Nations

The main emphasis in Psalm 2 is the assertion of the king’s authority (with the backing and support of YHWH) over his vassals, nobles, and rulers of the surrounding nations. It is implied that the new Israelite/Judean king will defeat and subdue the “nations” and their rulers, and that it is YHWH Himself who gives the king the power and authority to do so, since he is God’s own Anointed One and “Son”. This became the type-pattern for the eschatological idea that the (wicked) nations would be judged and punished at the end-time, and that this would be done by the (Davidic) Messiah, by military and/or supernatural means. This pattern coincided with other Judgment motifs from the nation-oracles in the Prophets (e.g., Joel 3, Ezekiel 38-39, Zechariah 12:1-9), which similarly depicted the Judgment of the nations.

When we encounter the use of Psalm 2 in Jewish writings of the first centuries B.C./A.D., it is this Judgment-of-the-Nations scenario that is primarily in view.

The clearest pre-Christian expression of the traditional image of an Anointed Ruler who will defeat/subdue the nations and establish a (Messianic) Kingdom for Israel is found in the 17th and 18th of the so-called Psalms of Solomon. The Psalms are to be dated in the mid-1st century, in the Hasmonean period, presumably sometime after Pompey’s invasion (63 B.C.). Ps Sol 17 begins with an address to God as King (and the source of kingship): “Lord, you are our king forever… the kingdom of our God is forever over the nations in judgment” (vv. 1-3). The covenant with David is mentioned in verse 4 (“you chose David to be king… that his kingdom should not fail before you”), contrasted with “sinners” (presumably the Maccabean/Hasmonean line) who arose and set up their own monarchy, and so “despoiled the throne of David” (v. 6). Then came “a man alien to our race”, a “lawless one” (vv. 7, 11ff)—most likely a reference to Pompey and the Romans—who invaded and desecrated Jerusalem, scattering its people. This inaugurated an era of sin and injustice (vv. 18b-20). In verse 21-25, the call goes out to God:

“See, Lord, and raise up for them their king, the son of David, to rule over your servant Israel in the time known to you, O God…”

The actions of this Davidic ruler will be two-fold: (1) he will judge and destroy the wicked nations (vv. 22-25, using language from Psalm 2 and Isa 11:1-4 [there is a clear allusion to Ps 2:9 in vv. 23-24), and (2) he will gather/restore Israel as the people of God, establishing a new kingdom of righteousness and peace (vv. 26-32). This ruler is called “Anointed Lord” (xristo\$ kuri/ou) in verse 32, and his reign over Israel and the nations is further described throughout vv. 33-44; ultimately, however, it is God who is the true King of Israel, as stated in the concluding verse (“the Lord Himself is our king forevermore”, v. 46).

Ps Sol 18 is much briefer, but likewise offers a petition to God for cleansing, “…for the day of mercy in blessing, for the appointed day when his Anointed will reign” (v. 5). This rule will take place “under the rod of discipline of the Anointed Lord” (v. 7a).
(Translations by R. B. Wright, OTP 2:665-9, with modifications [in italics])

In the Qumran texts, there are a number of references to the Davidic ruler figure-type, most notably those using the expression dyw]d` jm^x# (ƒemaµ D¹wîd), “Branch of David”. This expression is derived from Jer 23:5; 33:15 (also Isa 11:1; Zech 3:8; 6:12, cf. above), and clearly refers to a coming Davidic ruler. His end-time appearance is interpreted as a fulfillment of several of the Old Testament Scriptures outlined above. The expression is found in the following Qumran texts: 4Q161 7-10 iii 22; 4Q174 1-3 i 11 (on 2 Sam 7:14); 4Q252 5:3-4 (on Gen 49:10); and 4Q285 5 3,4 (executing judgment on the wicked/nations). The main citation of Psalm 2 occurs in the “Florilegium” (4QFlor [174]), a midrashic commentary that brings together a number of Scriptures, giving to them a Messianic and eschatological interpretation. Psalm 2:1 is cited in Frag. 1 col. i. lines 18-19; the context is clearly the actions of the nations in the end-time, a period of wickedness against the righteous (i.e. the Qumran Community) which precedes the Judgment.

Psalm 2:7 (along with 2 Sam 7:14) is also likely a main influence on the use of “Son” (/b@) and “Son of God” as divine/Messianic titles in several texts, most notably the so-called “Son of God Text” (4Q246), which refers to the future rising of a (Messianic?) King who is given the titles “son of God” and “Son of the Most High” (col. 2, line 1, cf. Luke 1:32, 35). Note also the apparent reference to a particular figure as God’s “firstborn [rwkb] (son)” in the uncertain fragments 4Q369 1 ii 6; 4Q458 15 1. In the highly fragmentary text 4Q369, which appears to be an apocalyptic/eschatological work, there is reference to what certainly seems to be a Messianic (and presumably Davidic) figure in column ii of fragment 1:

“…for his seed according to their generations an eternal possession, and al[l…] and your good judgments you explained to him to […] in eternal light, and you made him for you a first-bo[rn] son […] like him, to (be) a prince and ruler in all /your/ inhabited world […] the c[row]n of the heavens, and the glory of the clouds you have placed [on him …] and the angel of your peace in his congregation and… […] […] for him (?) righteousness rules, as a father to [his] s[on…]” (lines 4-10) Translation Martínez-Tigchelaar, 2:731 (italics mine).

This will be considered again further below.

Early Christian Application to Jesus as the Messiah

With the identification of Jesus as the j^yv!m* (“Anointed One”, Messiah), it was natural that Psalm 2 would be applied to him (with its specific use of j^yv!m* in v. 2), and treated as a Messianic prophecy. That it was applied, rather uncharacteristically, to the death and resurrection of Jesus, is clear from the evidence in the book of Acts, reflecting the earliest Gospel preaching (i.e. the Sermon-speeches in the first half of the book). This was discussed in the earlier note on Acts 13:33, where Psalm 2:7 is cited (cf. below). Verses 1-2 were quoted in Acts 4:25-26, being interpreted in the specific context of Jesus’ Passion and Death (of all the Gospels, it is the Lukan Passion Narrative that follows this thematic framework). Verse 9, the portion of the Psalm which most readily applies to the role of the Davidic Messiah in the end-time Judgment of the Nations (cf. above), fittingly is alluded to in the book of Revelation (12:5; 19:15; also 2:27), but is otherwise absent from the New Testament.

Given the unique situation of Jesus’ death, it is not surprising that the more militant aspects of the Davidic Messiah, so common in other Jewish writings, were not emphasized by early Christians. Passages such as Psalm 2:9, Isa 11:4, Gen 49:10, etc, simply did not apply to Jesus’ earthly life and ministry; instead, those aspects related to the Judgment, and rule over the nations, etc, had to be reserved for a future appearance, his end-time coming back to earth. Even so, this was no barrier to the early Christian belief in Jesus as the Davidic Messiah. There is considerable evidence for such a Davidic association, though within the Gospel tradition it tends to be limited to the Judean ministry of Jesus in Jerusalem (cf. the detailed discussion in Parts 6, 7, 8 of the series “Yeshua the Anointed”). It is only the Infancy narratives that the identification of Jesus with the Davidic-ruler figure type is set at an earlier point in the narrative, back to the very time of his birth.

Jesus’ birth, and his identification as the Anointed Ruler (from the line of David), are set within a dense matrix of Old Testament Scriptural parallels and allusions (on this, cf. the earlier Christmas season series “The Old Testament and the Birth of Jesus“). In just four relatively short chapters, we find dozens of references, the most relevant of which are outlined here:

    • Both Infancy narratives are connected with (separate) genealogies of Jesus (Matt 1:1-17; Luke 3:23-38), which show him to be a descendant of David (Matt 1:6, 17; Lk 3:31-32). Matthew begins his genealogy (and the Gospel)  with the title: “The paper-roll [i.e. book] of the coming-to-be [ge/nesi$] of Yeshua (the) Anointed, son of David, son of Abraham” (1:1).
    • There are additional references to Joseph (Jesus’ earthly, legal father) as “son of David” (in the Angel’s address to him, Matt 1:20), as being from the “house of David” (Lk 1:27) and from the “house and paternal descent of David” (Lk 2:4). Some traditional-conservative commentators, as a way of harmonizing the apparent (and rather blatant) discrepancies between the genealogies in Matthew of Luke, have claimed that they actually reflect the lines of Joseph and Mary, respectively. This is flatly contradicted by the text itself—both genealogies belong to Joseph (Matt 1:16; Lk 3:23). However, the belief that Mary was from the line of David, and that Jesus was thus a true biological descendant of David, came to be relatively widespread in the early Church; Paul himself may have held this view (cp. Rom 1:3 and Gal 4:4).
    • Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, attested by separate (and independent) lines of tradition, is recorded in Matthew 2:1ff and Lk 2:1-20 (cf. also John 7:41-42). Bethlehem is specifically called “the city of David” in Luke 2:4-11, and connected with the (Messianic) prophecy of Micah 5:2 in Matthew 2:5ff (and cf. Jn 7:42).
    • The expectation of a future/coming Davidic Ruler (“King of the Jews”) called “the Anointed (One)” is clearly attested in Matthew 2:1-8, with the citation (and Messianic interpretation) of Micah 5:2.
    • The Angelic announcement in Luke 2:10-12 links David (“the city of David”) with “(the) Anointed (One)” and “(the) Lord”, reinforcing the royal and Messianic implications of Jesus’ birth. For the parallel between the “good news” of Jesus’ birth and the birth of Augustus in the Roman world (contemporary with Jesus), cf. my earlier Christmas season note.
    • The shepherd motif in Lk 2:8ff etc, may contain an allusion to passages such as Micah 4:8; 5:4 (cf. Matt 2:6) and Ezekiel 34:11ff (vv. 23-24)—passages both connected to David and influential on Messianic thought.
    • In the hymn or canticle of Zechariah (the Benedictus), the first strophe (Lk 1:68-69) reads:
      “He has come (to) look upon and make (a) loosing (from bondage) for his people,
      and he raised a horn of salvation for us in the house of David his child”
      This latter expression and image is derived from Scriptures such as 1 Samuel 2:10; Psalm 18:2; 132:17 and Ezekiel 29:21.
    • There are a number of other Scripture references or allusions in the Lukan hymns which should be noted—
      1 Sam 2:1-2; Psalm 35:9 (Lk 1:46-47)
      Psalm 89:10 (Lk 1:51-52)
      2 Sam 22:51 (Lk 1:55)
      1 Kings 1:48 (Lk 1:68a)
      Psalm 18:17 (Lk 1:71, 74)
      Psalm 89:3 (Lk 1:72-73)
      1 Kings 9:4-5 (Lk 1:74-75)
      {Num 24:17} (Lk 1:78)
      [On these and other references, cf. R. E. Brown, The Birth of the Messiah, Anchor Bible Reference Library (ABRL 1977, 1993), pp. 358-60, 386-9, 456-9]

Most significant of all is the Angelic annunciation to Mary in Luke 1:30-37, especially the pronouncement or prophecy in vv. 32-33:

“This one [i.e. Jesus] will be great and will be called ‘Son of the Highest’, and the Lord God will give to him the seat (of power) [i.e. throne] of David his father, and he will be king upon the house of Jacob into the Age, and there will be no completion [i.e. end] of his kingdom

(and, also in v. 35b:)

“…therefore the (child) coming to be (born) will be called holy, (the) son of God

There is no clearer instance in all the New Testament of Jesus being identified as the coming/future Ruler from the line of David (cf. further in the recent daily note on 1:32, 35). As I have noted on several occasions, there is a remarkably close parallel, in the combination of these titles and expressions, in the Aramaic text 4Q246 from Qumran (see italicized phrases above):

    • “he will be great over the earth” [column i, line 7]
    • “he will be called son of God” [column ii, line 1a]
    • “and they will call him son of the Most High” [column ii, line 1b]
    • “his kingdom will be an eternal kingdom” [column ii, line 5]
    • “his rule will be an eternal rule” [column ii, line 9]

It seems likely, in this context, that the expression “Son of God” is derived primarily from Psalm 2:7 and the Messianic interpretation of the ancient tradition of the king as God’s “Son”.

Psalm 2:7 in Jewish and Christian Tradition

If we are to look for contemporary references to Psalm 2:7 in Jewish writings, the evidence is, unfortunately, extremely slight. I am not aware of any quotations or certain allusions in writings from the first centuries B.C./A.D. The best evidence comes from the Qumran texts. In addition to the “Son of God Text” (4Q246, cf. above), there are several others which seem to refer to the Messiah (or a Messianic figure) who is “born” as God’s son. Sadly, like nearly all of the surviving texts from Qumran, these are highly fragmentary (in different ways), and there are gaps in the text, etc, which can make interpretation difficult. I would first note 4Q534 frag. 3 col. i, lines 8-11:

“[and] he will know the secrets of man. And his wisdom will reach all the peoples. And he will know the secrets of all living things. [And al]l their plans against him will come to nothing, although the opposition of all living things will be great. […] his [p]lans. Because he is the Elect of God, his birth and the spirit of his breath […] his [p]lans shall be for ever.” Translation Martínez-Tigchelaar, 2:1071 (italics mine).

It has been suggested that the lacuna in lines 10-11 be restored “his birth and the spirit of his breath [are of God…]”, which is certainly plausible and is favored by a number of scholars (Evans, Qumran-Messianism, pp. 144-5). In the highly fragmentary text 4Q369 (mentioned previously above), which appears to be an apocalyptic/eschatological work, there is reference to what certainly seems to be a Messianic (and presumably Davidic) figure in column ii of fragment 1:

“…for his seed according to their generations an eternal possession, and al[l…] and your good judgments you explained to him to […] in eternal light, and you made him for you a first-bo[rn] son […] like him, to (be) a prince and ruler in all /your/ inhabited world […] the c[row]n of the heavens, and the glory of the clouds you have placed [on him …] and the angel of your peace in his congregation and… […] […] for him (?) righteousness rules, as a father to [his] s[on…]” (lines 4-10) Translation Martínez-Tigchelaar, 2:731 (italics mine).

Unfortunately, the surviving portions are too incomplete (especially the tiny fragments 2-4) to be certain of the context. Finally, there is 1QSa [1Q28a], a Community Rule text sometimes called the “Messianic Rule”, largely because of the context of 2:11-12:

“[This is the sit]ting of the men of the name [i.e. of renown] [called] to the appointed place (of meeting) for the council of the Community, when He [i.e. God] will cause the Anointed One to be born with [i.e. among] them…”

The verb restored as “cause to be born” i.e. “beget” (d[yl]wy) has proven somewhat controversial, having been read by other scholars as “bring [forward]” (iylwy), and other restorations have also been suggested. If the verb dly is correct, then the idea presumably derives from Psalm 2:7, where the same verb occurs: “You are my Son, today I have given birth to you [;yT!d=l!y+]”. In its original context, the king is begotten/born as God’s “son” (symbolically) upon his enthronement; here it would be his installment as ruler over the Community that is the occasion of his being “born”.

A closer contemporary of the later New Testament writings (including the Infancy narratives) is the deutero-canonical 2/4 Esdras (or 4 Ezra). The introduction to this work is Christian (cf. 2 Esdr 2:42), but the core of chapters 3-14 (late 1st-century A.D.) is Jewish and shows little or no Christian influence. The Anointed One (Messiah) is called God’s “Son” in 2 Esdr 7:28-29; 13:32, 37, 52. Chapters 11-13 are clearly influenced by Daniel 7, merging together the Son of Man and Davidic Messiah traditions, much as we see in the Gospels and early Christian writings.

In the Matthean and Lukan Infancy narratives, the two references to Jesus as God’s Son (Matt 2:15 [citing Hos 11:1] and Luke 1:32, 35) have a similar Messianic significance, along with the specific idea of Jesus as the Savior of his people (cf. the recent notes on Matt 2:15 and on Lk 1:32, 35). Only in the Lukan passage is there likely an allusion to Psalm 2:7, and then only indirectly (as in 4Q246, which has similar wording). Interestingly, elsewhere in the New Testament, Psalm 2:7 is cited in very different settings, reflecting the developing awareness among early Christians of Jesus’ unique identity as the Son of God. It was used in three distinct contexts:

    • The resurrection of Jesus and his exaltation to heaven (at God’s right hand); in the earliest Gospel preaching, this is the moment when Jesus was “born” as God’s Son (Acts 13:33; cf. also Heb 5:5)
    • The baptism of Jesus, marking the beginning of his earthly ministry (Mark 1:11 par, with a direct citation of Psalm 2:7 in Luke 3:22 v.l.); this was affirmed a second time in the (Synoptic) Transfiguration episode (Mark 9:7 par)
    • The divine pre-existence of Jesus, marking his identity (and nature) as God’s eternal Son (Heb 1:5; cp. John 1:14, 18, and throughout the Johannine Gospel)

Interestingly, the letter to the Hebrews, written sometime between 70 and 100 A.D. (it is difficult to be more precise), cites Psalm 2:7 in two different contexts. In 1:5, the author cites it as part of a theological catena (chain of Scriptures). As it directly follows verses 1-4, which clearly indicates the divine pre-existence of Jesus, a similar Christological view must be seen as informing the use and interpretation of the Scriptures (including Psalm 110:1) in vv. 5-14. In many ways, this section resembles the prologue to the Gospel of John (1:1-18), with its two-fold emphasis on pre-existence and incarnation. Indeed, Hebrews and the Johannine Gospel seem to reflect the same basic point, or level, of Christological development; in all likelihood, the two works were written at about the same time (c. 90?). Even so, the citation of Psalm 2:7 in 5:5 preserves a narrower (and earlier) association with Jesus’ death and resurrection (cf. above), and with the period of his earthly ministry. This multi-faceted interpretation of the same Scripture, within just a few chapters in the same written work, demonstrates clearly the richness and diversity of early Christian thought, and the power of those formative Scriptures that exercised such a profound influence on the first believers. Psalm 2:7 is unquestionably one of those passages.

December 31: Luke 1:32, 35

This note continues our examination of the development in early Christian thought, in terms of an awareness of Jesus’ identity as the Son of God. By the time the Gospels of Matthew and Luke were written—and their Infancy narratives, in particular (c. 70-80 A.D.?)—this Christological awareness extended all the way back to Jesus’ birth as a human being, encompassing his entire life. This meant that the earlier association with his resurrection (and exaltation to heaven) was expanded to include many aspects of his earthly life and ministry, especially with regard to the salvation it brings. It is this aspect of Jesus as the Savior of his people (Matt 1:21ff) which informs the only reference to Jesus as God’s Son in the Matthean narrative (2:15, citing Hosea 11:1). This was discussed in the previous note, and now we turn to the Lukan narrative, where there is also a reference to Jesus as the Son of God—it is a two-fold reference, part of the Angelic announcement to Mary (1:32, 35).

Luke 1:32, 35

The famous annunciation scene in Luke (Lk 1:26-38) follows the basic pattern of angelic announcements in Old Testament narrative—for birth annunciations, see Genesis 16:7-13; chapters 17-18 (esp. 17:15-21; 18:10-15) and Judges 13, as well as Lk 1:11-20 and Matt 1:20-21 in the infancy narratives (for more on this, cf. the article in the series “The Old Testament and the Birth of Jesus”). There are three parts to the angel’s message, each followed by Mary’s response:

    • Verse 28—Mary is addressed by name
      • V. 29—Mary is startled by what she sees
    • Verses 30-33—The Message to Mary
      • V. 34—Mary asks “how will this be?”
    • Verses 35-37—Answer to Mary’s question, with a sign
      • V. 38—Mary responds “…may it come to be for me according to your word”

Each part has a theological/christological element:

    • v. 28b—”the Lord is with you”
    • vv. 31ff—”this one will be great and will be called Son of the Highest…”
    • v. 35a—”The Holy Spirit… power of the Highest…
      v. 35b—…(the child) will be called Holy, the Son of God”

The fundamental emphasis of these phrases is unquestionably Messianic. With the regard to the first phrase in v. 28b, it is reminiscent of the wording in the famous prophecy of Isa 7:14 (cited in the Matthean Infancy narrative), with the name Immanuel (la@ WnM*u!, ±imm¹nû °¢l)—”God with us”. The context of Isa 8:8-10 indicates that this name reflects God’s support and protection of the (righteous) king, connected with peace, prosperity, and the salvation of the land/people from enemies. In terms of the original historical context, the most reasonable identification is with Hezekiah (cf. 2 Kings 18:7). Later on, of course, the passage (along with Isa 9:1-6) came to be interpreted in a (future) Messianic sense, and was applied by Christians to the birth of Jesus (Matt 1:22-23). I discussed these verses in considerable detail in series of advent notes.

There may also be an allusion to Zeph 3:14-17 here in Lk 1:28. Apart from the formal similarity of the opening (xai=re, “be glad / rejoice!” as a greeting) and a possible parallel between Mary and “daughter of Zion” (Jerusalem/Judah personified), note the similar assurance that is offered:

Zeph 3:14-17 LXX

    • v. 15b: ku/rio$ e)n me/sw| sou (“the Lord is in the middle of you [i.e. is in your midst]”)
    • v. 17a: ku/rio$ o( qeo/$ sou e)n soi (“the Lord your God is in/among you”)

Luke 1:28b

o( ku/rio$ meta\ sou=
“the Lord is with you”

In Zeph 3:14-17 it is also a promise of protection and salvation. According to the Old Testament/Jewish background, the “Lord” (o( ku/rio$) is YHWH, God the Father; but note the use of ku/rio$ to refer to Jesus in Lk 1:43; 2:11, and the more ambiguous reference in Lk 1:76. There can be little doubt that, by the time the Gospel of Luke had been written (around 70 A.D. or a bit later), ku/rio$ was being regularly applied to Jesus in terms of his divine nature or status, connected especially with his resurrection and exaltation to the right hand of God (Acts 2:36, etc, cf. the earlier notes in this series). The expression corresponding to o( ku/rio$ meta\ sou= (“the Lord is with you” or “the Lord be with you”) appears as a pious, but ordinary, greeting in Ruth 2:4. A closer parallel to our passage is found in the angelic annunciation to Gideon in Judg 6:12, as an assurance of God’s support and care. In Lk 1:28, 30, this divine care is described in terms of God’s favor (xa/ri$)—Mary is one who has been favored (kexaritwme/nh) by God (xa/rin para\ tw=| qew=|).

The emphasis on the Messianic character and status of the child continues in vv. 31-33. To begin with, there is the announcement of the conception (“you will receive together [sullh/yh|] in the womb”) and birth (“you will produce [te/ch|]”) a son [ui(o/$] (v. 31a)—this is connected with the favor (xa/ri$) Mary receives from God (vv. 28, 30). In terms of the naming of the child (v. 31b), there may here be an echo of Isa 7:14 LXX (cf. above)—note the similar sequence “will produce” [te/cetai] followed by “will call his name” [kale/sei$ to\ o&noma au)tou]—as is made explicit in Matthew (“you will call his name Yeshua” / “they will call his name Immanuel”, Matt 1:21, 23).

Almost certainly, in this passage there are allusions to 2 Sam 7:8-16—a prophetic announcement regarding the Davidic line, which had come to be interpreted in a Messianic sense by the time the Gospels were written, cf. the Qumran text 4QFlor (174) lines 10-13. Note the following points of correspondence:

      • v. 32a—Jesus’ greatness and his name (2 Sam 7:9)
      • v. 32b—Jesus as God’s son (2 Sam 7:14)
      • v. 33—The throne of David and his kingdom, which will last forever (2 Sam 7:13, 16)

Cf. also Isa 9:5-6 (6-7) and Dan 7:14. There are two main theological/christological phrases in Lk 1:32:

e&stai me/ga$ (“he will be great”)—The absolute use of me/ga$ (“great”) in the LXX typically refers to YHWH (Psalm 48:2 [145:3]; 86:10; 135:5); it tends to be qualified when used of human beings, as of John in Lk 1:15 (“he will be great in the eyes of the Lord”)—see also 2 Sam 19:33; Sir 48:22 (cf. Fitzmyer, p. 325). The fact that the Lukan infancy narratives present the births of John and Jesus side by side—with Jesus having the more exalted status—indicates that me/ga$ here means something decidedly greater than when applied to John.

ui(o\$ u(yi/stou klhqh/setai (“he will be called Son of the Highest”)—Here, in context, klhqh/setai (“he will be called“) is parallel and generally synonymous with e&stai (“he will be“); see, for example, the parallel saying of Jesus in Matt 5:9 / Lk 6:35. In ancient (Near Eastern) thought, the name represented the essential identity and character of the person, often in a dynamic, quasi-magical sense. The giving of a name—especially when given by God—confers (and confirms) just who the child is, and what he/she will become. In this respect, it is worth noting the ‘prophetic’ nature of many naming scenes in the Old Testament (Gen 5:29 et al), and in the New Testament as well (Matt 1:21; 16:17-18, etc). Here the specific name is “son of the Highest” (ui(o\$ u(yi/stou)—u(yi/sto$, which is attested in (pagan) Greek usage (of Zeus, etc), is used in the LXX of YHWH, as a translation of Hebrew /oyl=u# ±Elyôn (Gen 14:18; Dan 4:14; cf. also Jubilees 16:18, and note 1 Enoch 9:3; 10:1; 46:7; 60:1, 22). It is used relatively often in Luke-Acts (Lk 1:35, 76; 6:35; 8:28; Acts 7:48; 16:17)—in Lk 1:76, it is said of John, “you will be called Foreteller [i.e. Prophet] of the Highest [profh/th$ u(yi/stou klhqh/sh|]”. Cf. Fitzmyer, pp. 347-8.

Luke 1:35 “…will be called Holy, the Son of God”

In this verse, the prophetic announcement and naming of the child by the angel (Gabriel) comes to a climax with the title “Son of God” (ui(o\$ qeou=). Actually, the syntax of this phrase is somewhat ambiguous, and there are at least two other ways it could be translated: (a) “…(will be) holy (and) will be called Son of God”, or (b) “the holy (child)…will be called Son of God”. It does seem better to read a%gion (as a substantive adjective) and ui(o\$ qeou= as parallel predicates which are generally apposite. As a whole, verse 35 refers to both the conception and birth of the child:

Conception (v. 35a)—with two phrases:

There is a strong poetic quality to the angel’s words and the phrases clearly are in synonymous parallelism: “Holy Spirit / Power of the Highest”, “come upon you / cast shade upon you”). The two-fold image or metaphor reflects both the presence and power of God.

Birth (v. 35b)—here there are likewise two phrases, which follow the general pattern of the announcement in v. 31:

“you will produce a son | and you will call his name Yeshua” (v. 31)
“the (child) coming to be born | will be called Holy, (the) Son of God” (v. 35)

    • “the (child) coming to be (born)” (to\ gennw/menon)—in a few MSS (C* Q f1 33), versional witnesses, and in several Church Fathers, the reading is “the (child) coming to be (born) out of you [e)k sou]”; if the addition was intentional, the purpose may have been to emphasize the full reality of Jesus’ human birth, i.e. that he genuinely partook from Mary’s flesh (contrary to the view of certain “Gnostics”)—for more on this possibility, cf. B. Ehrman, The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture (Oxford:1993), p. 139. The fundamental meaning of genna/w, like the cognate verb gi/nomai, is “come to be, become”, though often with the specific denotation of coming to be born. Subsequent notes will provide further exploration of the use of this verb in the New Testament.
    • “will be called Holy, (the) Son of God” (a%gion klhqh/setai ui(o\$ qeou=)—assuming that this is the correct way to render the syntax of this verse (cf. above), there are two names or titles given to Jesus:
      a%gion (“Holy [One]”), a neuter substantive; Jesus is not often referred to specifically as “holy” (a%gio$) in the New Testament, but there are several key passages where it is used as a substantive appellation (Luke 4:34 par; Jn 6:69; Acts 3:14 [cf. also 4:27, 30]; Rev 3:7). In Luke 1:49, it is used specifically as a name/title of God the Father (YHWH); cf. also Rev 4:8; 6:10.
      ui(o\$ qeou= (“Son of God”), used frequently of Jesus, in various forms, sometimes in the unqualified/absolute form “(the) Son” ([o(] ui(o/$). In the Gospel of John, Jesus often identifies himself as “the Son”, though, throughout the Gospels, the specific title “Son of God” is almost never spoken by Jesus (cf. Jn 5:25 and note Lk 22:70 par), the title “Son of Man” being far more common.

In conclusion, one ought to mention the extraordinary correspondence of several key elements from the annunciation which are found, together, in a text from Qumran (the Dead Sea Scrolls)—4Q246, sometimes referred to as the Aramaic “Son of God” text. The four key phrases in 1:32, 35 are indicated and compared side by side with 4Q246:

aura lu hwhl br[ ] “[he will be] great upon the earth” (I.7)
rmaty la yd hlb “Son of God he will be hailed” (II.1)
hnwrqy /wylu rbw “and Son of the Highest he will be called”
<lu twklm htwklm “his kingdom is an everlasting kingdom” (II.5)
ou!to$ e&stai me/ga$ “this (one) will be great” (Luke 1:32)
klhqh/setai ui(o\$ qeou= “he will be called | Son of God”
kai\ ui(o\$ u(yi/stou klhqh/setai “and Son of the Highest he will be called” (1:35)
kai\ th=$ basilei/a$ au)tou= ou)k e&stai te/lo$ “and of his kingdom there will not be an end” (1:33)

For more on this remarkable text, see the “Dead Sea Scrolls Spotlight” article.

In exactly what sense should we understand the expression “Son of God” as applied to Jesus in this passage? Based on both the Jewish background, parallels with the Matthean Infancy narrative, and the immediate context in Luke, the primary significance is Messianic—that is, based on the idea that the anointed king is God’s “son” (cf. Psalm 2:7), in a figurative or symbolic sense. This takes on sharper meaning in a developed Messianic interpretation, such as we see the Gospels of Matthew and Luke c.70 A.D., since the Anointed figures, who are to appear at the end-time, are God’s divinely appointed emissaries, who represent God Himself in a more concrete sense. Beyond this, the Lukan use of the title “Son of God” has an even deeper significance, based on two key factors that are present in the passage:

    • The application of the title “Lord” (ku/rio$) to Jesus, part of a dual-use of the word by early Christians—using it equally, and often interchangeably, for both God the Father (YHWH) and Jesus.
    • The presence of the Spirit of God in relation to Jesus’ conception. The wording and imagery in the Lukan annunciation (v. 35, cf. above) goes beyond the basic idea of a supernatural (virginal) conception, and even beyond the declaration regarding the Holy Spirit in Matt 1:18, 20; it alludes to the manifest presence of God (YHWH) Himself, as expressed in Old Testament tradition.

In my view there is no clear evidence for a belief in the divine pre-existence of Jesus in Luke-Acts; however, the factors mentioned above shows the Lukan form of the Gospel Tradition as pointing in that direction. It finds full-fledged expression in the Johannine Gospel, as well as at several other points in the later writings of the New Testament. This we will explore in the next daily note.

References above marked “Fitzmyer” are to J. A. Fitzmyer, The Gospel According to Luke I-IX, Anchor Bible [AB] Volume 28 [1981].

December 30: Matthew 2:15

In the previous note, we explored the development of early Christian thought regarding Jesus—how an awareness of his identity as the Son of God was extended back to his birth as a human being, covering the entire period of his earthly life. Paul alludes to Jesus’ birth several times in his letters (Galatians 4:4 and Rom 1:3-4, cf. also Rom 8:3), but otherwise there is almost no mention of it elsewhere in the New Testament (cf. Rev 12:2-5), with the notable exception of the Infancy Narratives in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. In their written form, these narratives are considerably later, it would seem, than the Pauline references, and they also show indication of being the product of a period of development—that is, the historical traditions surrounding Jesus’ birth were developed and shaped over a number of years.

The Matthean and Lukan narratives are quite different, and yet they clearly share a common historical tradition, with at least three main components: (1) the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, (2) a supernatural (virginal) conception involving the Holy Spirit, and (3) an Angelic announcement of the coming birth to the parents (Joseph/Mary). Otherwise, however, the specific historical and literary details are thoroughly different; indeed, most of the information and detail in Matthew is not found in Luke at all (or is divergent), and vice versa.

One thing the two narratives share relates to the way that the early Christian view of Jesus has been encapsulated and expressed within the context of his birth. This includes three key elements involving Jesus’ identity and (divine) origin—viz., his identity as: (1) the Anointed One (Messiah), according to the Davidic Ruler figure-type; (2) the Savior, i.e. one who will save his people; and (3) the Son of God. The first two are primary (and most prominent) in the Infancy narratives:

Jesus’ identity as the Son of God is less clearly expressed, being found in just two locations, one in each Gospel: (a) the citation of Hosea 11:1 in Matt 2:15, and (b) the Angelic declaration to Mary in Luke 1:32, 35. Let us consider each of these briefly; today’s note will focus on the first (Matt 2:15).

Matthew 2:15

(This section largely reproduces an earlier Christmas-season article; cf. also the discussion in the series “The Old Testament and the Birth of Jesus”.)

The citation of Hos 11:1b punctuates the flight into Egypt (vv. 14-15a), following the angelic appearance in a dream to Joseph, warning him (v. 13). The citation-formula follows in verse 15b:

“…(so) that it might be (ful)filled, the (thing) uttered by (the) Lord through the Foreteller [i.e. Prophet], saying ‘Out of Egypt I called my Son'”

The Gospel writer cites Hos 11:1b in a form closer to the Aquila version rather than the Septuagint (LXX), and is generally an accurate rendering of the Hebrew:

Hos 11:1b

yn]b=l! yt!ar*q* <y]r^x=M!m!W
“and from Egypt I called ‘My Son'”

Matt 2:15b

e)c Ai)gu/ptou e)ka/lesa to\n ui(o/n mou
“out of Egypt I called my Son”

The Hebrew verb ar*q*, like the Greek kale/w, can mean “call” either in the sense of summoning a person or giving a name to someone; it is possible that both meanings of arq are played on in Hosea 11:1, as I indicate above with the use of quote marks.

In considering the expression “Son of God” (ui(o\$ qeou=), as well as the plural “Sons of God” (ui(oi\ qeou=), in the New Testament, early Christians appear to have drawn upon the three primary ways it is used in the Old Testament and ancient tradition:

    1. Of divine/heavenly beings, especially in the plural (“Sons of God”)
    2. Of the king as God’s “son” in a symbolic or ritual sense
    3. Of the people of Israel (collectively) as God’s “son”

The focus here is on the third of these—Israel as the “son of God”. There are several passages in the Old Testament where Israel is referred to (collectively) as God’s son, most notably in Exod 4:22, but see also Isa 1:2f; 30:1, 9; Jer 31:9; Mal 1:6, and here in Hos 11:1. Admittedly the title “son of God” does not appear in the Hebrew Old Testament in such a context, but the Greek ui(o\$ qeou= is used of Israel in the deutero-canonical Book of Wisdom (Wis 18:13, for more on this passage cf. below). Interestingly, the Prophetic references above draw upon a basic thematic construct:

    • Israel as a disobedient son
      • Disobedience brings punishment (i.e. exile)
        • God ultimately will restore his son, bringing him (repentant/obedient) back out of exile

This is very much the context of Hos 11. A number of the oracles in Hosea are messages of judgment couched in brief and evocative summaries of Israelite history, such as we see in chapter 11:

    • Israel/Ephraim as a disobedient child (vv. 1-4), with disobedience understood primarily in terms of idolatry, involving elements of pagan Canaanite religion
    • Disobedience leads to punishment (vv. 5-7), understood as a return to “Egypt”, i.e. conquest and exile into Assyria
    • (verses 8-9, in colorful anthropomorphic terms, depict God as being torn between whether or not to proceed with the judgment)
    • God ultimately will bring his son back out of exile (vv. 10-11)

All of this, of course, is foreign to the Gospel writer’s use of the passage, except in terms of the general framework of Exodus and Return from Exile. Certainly, he would not have seen Jesus as a disobedient son, though he likely does have in mind a connection with Jesus (as Savior) and the sin of disobedient Israel (Matt 1:21, and cf. below). It would seem that the author (and/or the tradition he has inherited) really only has first verse of Hosea 11 in view, taking it more or less out of context and applying it to Jesus. There are four elements in the verse which might lead to it being used this way:

    • Israel as a child—Jesus is a child (infant)
    • The context of the Exodus narrative, especially the birth and rescue of Moses (Exod 1:15-2:10), for which there is a clear historical/literary correspondence and synchronicity with Matt 2:13-23
    • The mention of Egypt—coming out of “Egypt” is symbolic of both the Exodus and a Return from exile (in Assyria); note the exile context of Jer 31:15 as well—these themes have been applied in Matt 2:13-23 and influenced the shaping of the narrative
    • Israel as God’s son (“My Son”)

It is also possible that the birth of Israel (as God’s people, i.e. his “son”) is implied in Hos 11:1b. If we consider v. 1a as a kind of setting for the oracle—literally, “For Israel (was) a youth [ru^n~] and I loved him”, however the force of the syntax is best understood as a temporal clause: “When Israel was a youth/child, I loved him…” The context of vv. 2-4, as in Isa 1:2ff; 30:1, 9, suggests a child being raised (by God), who comes to be disobedient, unwilling to heed the guidance and authority of his Father. If so, then v. 1b could indicate the initial stages of life, i.e. the birth and naming of the child, in a metaphorical sense. Israel was “born” in Egypt (cf. Exod 4:22 and the death of the firstborn motif), passing through the waters (i.e. crossing the Sea), into life (the Exodus), being “raised” during the wilderness period and thereafter. It is in just such a context that God calls Israel “My Son”. Consider, in this regard, the naming associated with the conception/birth of Jesus in the angel’s announcement to Mary (to be discussed in the next note):

    • “he will be called ‘Son of the Highest’ [ui(o\$ u(yi/stou klhqh/setai]” (Lk 1:32)
    • “(the child)…will be called…’Son of God’ [klhqh/setai ui(o\$ qeou=]” (Lk 1:35)
    • “I called (him) ‘My Son’ [yn]b=l! yt!ar*q* e)ka/lesa to\n ui(o/n mou]” (Hos 11:1 / Matt 2:15)

There is an interesting connection here with the reference to Israel as “Son of God” (ui(o\$ qeou=) in Wisdom 18:13, mentioned above. There, too, the setting is the Exodus, and specifically the death of the firstborn motif—beginning with the rescue of Moses (v. 5a), which is set in parallel with the tenth plague, involving the Passover celebration and the death of the Egyptian firstborn, which directly precedes and initiates the Exodus (cf. Exod 11-12). This is narrated in Wisdom 18:5b-12, after which we find the statement in verse 13b:

“upon the destruction of their first(born) offspring, as one [i.e. together] they counted (your) people to be (the) son of God”

The death of the firstborn is narrated again, even more powerfully, in vv. 14-19. Somewhat surprisingly, perhaps, verses 14-15 came to be associated with the incarnation and birth of Jesus, the Latin (Vulgate) rendering of Wis 18:14f becoming part of the Roman Catholic liturgy (Introit for the Sunday in the Octave of Christmas). On the one hand, this may be the ultimate example of Christians taking a Scriptural passage out of context, since, originally these verses referred to the coming of the (Messenger of) Death out of heaven (cf. Exod 11:4; 12:29). In the Exodus narrative, it is YHWH himself who comes bringing death, traditionally understood as taking place through a Messenger (“Angel”) of Death. In Wis 18:14-15, it is the personified “Word” (lo/go$) of God that comes out of heaven, and this is certainly the main reason for its application to the person of Christ. The highly evocative midnight setting was doubtless what caused it to be associated specifically with the night-time birth of Jesus. More properly, of course, Wisdom 18:5-19 would be better applied to the episode narrated in Matt 2:13-23—the “Slaughter of the Innocents”—but only insofar as both passages deal with the “death of the firstborn” motif from Exodus. In any event, it is striking that there are three different passages which combine: (a) the Exodus setting, (b) the death of the firstborn motif, and (c) Israel as “son of God”—Exodus 4:22; Wisdom 18:13; and Hosea 11:1 (as used by Matthew).

Thus, it would seem, that the reference to Jesus as God’s Son in Matt 2:15 is to be understood primarily in terms of the idea of Jesus as the Savior of his people (Israel). The major narrative themes in the Matthean Infancy narrative all point in this direction—the Angelic pronouncement of Jesus’ role as Savior (in the context of the Isa 7:14 citation), the parallel with Moses as Israel’s deliverer, and the context of Hosea 11:1 itself, with its emphasis on the sin/disobedience and restoration of Israel. In the Lukan Infancy narrative, by contrast, we find the declaration of Jesus as “Son of God” in a way that corresponds more closely with the early Christian use of the title. It is this that we will examine in the next daily note (on Luke 1:32, 35).