The Antichrist Tradition: Part 1

As this series on “Prophecy and Eschatology in the New Testament” begins to come to a close, it is necessary to examine one of the most complicated (and controversial) components of early Christian eschatology—the Antichrist Tradition, which may be defined as follows:

The expectation that an evil world ruler would arise at the end-time, prior to Jesus’ return, the climax of a period of increasing wickedness and corruption. He will be opposed to God and to Christ, and will openly persecute true believers in Jesus; he will deceive people, leading them astray, through supernatural power and influence that may resemble Jesus’ own, a wicked imitation of Christ himself. He is commonly referred to by the title “Antichrist”.

This tradition was reasonably well-established in Christianity by the end of the 2nd century A.D., and continues, with certain variations, into the present day. Many Christians today simply read this tradition into various eschatological passages in the New Testament; to do so, however, is highly problematic, for it assumes that the tradition outlined above had already taken shape, and was widespread, during the first century. As we shall see, the evidence for this is extremely slight. At the same time, there can be no doubt that the seeds of the later tradition are present in at least several of the New Testament writings. We can go back even further—for the roots of the Antichrist tradition can be found in key passages in the Old Testament Prophets, establishing a number of apocalyptic and eschatological motifs which would be developed in Jewish writings of the first centuries B.C./A.D., contemporary with, and prior to, the New Testament texts.

This study will explore the development of the Antichrist Tradition. There have been a number of fine critical studies along this line, going back to Wilhelm Bousset’s landmark Der Antichrist in der Überlieferung des Judentums, des Neuen Testaments, und der alten Kirche (1895, published in English translation as “The Antichrist Legend: A Chapter in Jewish Folklore”). One I have found especially useful is by L. J. Lietaert Peerbolte, The Antecedents of Antichrist: A Traditio-Historical Study of the Earliest Christian Views on Eschatological Opponents, vol. 49 in the “Supplements to the Journal for the Study of Judaism” (Brill: 1996). This work will be cited as “Peerbolte, Antecedents,” followed by page number.

Part 1 of this study will begin with a brief examination of the word a)nti/xristo$—its meaning and significance, etc—followed by a survey of the main Old Testament references and passages that were influential in the formation of the Antichrist Tradition.

anti/xristo$

“Antichrist” in English comes from a transliteration of the Greek word a)nti/xristo$ (antíchristos). It is a compound noun which means, literally, “against the anointed (one)”. There is no evidence that the word was ever used, prior to its adoption by Christians in the mid/late-first century A.D., nor is there any known contemporary usage by non-Christians. Since the “Anointed” (xristo/$, christós) essentially refers to the Jewish Messiah (or Messianic figure-type), anti/xristo$ conceivably could have been applicable in a Jewish context, referring to someone or something that was “against the Messiah”, or to a false Messiah. However, there is no real evidence for this, and, in all likelihood, the word was coined by early Christians, with the specific understanding of Jesus as the “Anointed One” (xristo/$)—on this, cf. my series “Yeshua the Anointed”.

As coined by first-century Christians, the word follows the pattern of similar descriptive titles with the prefixed preposition a)nti/ (antí), cf. Moulton-Milligan s.v., p. 49:

    • a)ntistra/thgo$ (antistrát¢gos), i.e. the leader of the opposing army (used by Thucydides, etc)
    • a)ntisu/gklhto$ (antisýngkl¢tos), an opposing assembly (i.e. senate, su/gklhto$, those “called together”)
    • a)ntixo/rhgo$ (antichór¢gos), an opposing ‘chorus’ leader, i.e. of voices

Perhaps closer in formal meaning to the Christian use of a)nti/xristo$ is the word a)nti/qeo$ (antítheos), when used in the (admittedly rare) sense of a rival God (qeo/$) or something imitating the Deity. The fundamental meaning of the preposition a)nti/ is “against”, but it can also mean “in place of”, and both of these aspects apply to the Antichrist Tradition as it was developed.

Old Testament Background

The background of the Antichrist Tradition is located in the Old Testament Prophetic writings—especially within the specific genre of the nation-oracle, i.e. oracles of judgment against specific nations (and their rulers). This genre has a long history, from virtually the earliest writings as they have come down to us (8th century B.C.), through to the exile and post-exilic periods. Indeed, most of the canonical Prophetic Scriptures contain some form of nation-oracle, the most notable being those in Amos, Nahum, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel. Initially these oracles were not eschatological, but referred to the judgment God would bring on a particular nation in the immediate or near future. The genre did not apply only to the surrounding (pagan, non-Israelite) nations—the Prophets regularly gave specific messages of impending judgment for the kingdoms of Israel and Judah which followed a similar pattern.

From the prophetic standpoint, a nation (and its people) was represented by its king, and, occasionally, a nation-oracle would be directed specifically at its ruler. While this symbolized the wickedness of the people as a whole, it had the practical effect of focusing attention on the king as a wicked/corrupt ruler. And, the larger and more powerful the nation, the more conspicuous the ruler is in his worldly ambition, arrogance, and corrupt/brutal use of power. We may call this motif, such as it is highlighted in several key Prophetic passages, that of the “Wicked Tyrant”.

The “Wicked Tyrant” Motif

This motif goes back to at least the late-8th century and the figure of the Assyrian king Sennacherib (r. 704-681 B.C.). At the time, Assyria was the pre-eminent national power in the Near East, having expanded, through brutal conquest, to form an extensive regional empire. After the northern Israelite kingdom had fallen to Assyria (722-721), it was Sennacherib who led a successful invasion of Syria-Palestine, including an expedition against the southern kingdom, in 701. Dozens of cities were captured or destroyed, but Jerusalem survived, in spite of the siege laid against it. The relevant Scriptural accounts of these events are found in 2 Kings 18:13-19:37; 2 Chron 32:1-23; and Isaiah 36-37. In 2 Kings 19:22ff (= Isa 37:23ff) there is a prophetic denunciation (and taunt) against Sennacherib, which may be seen as the earliest instance of the “wicked tyrant” motif. The poetic description emphasizes the arrogance and ambition of the ruler, who, by his actions and attitude, foolishly sought to challenge YHWH Himself:

“Whom have you treated with scorn and attacked (with words)?
And against whom did you raise (your) voice high
and lift up your eyes (to the) high place?
(Was it not) against the Holy (One) of Yisrael?
By the hand of your messengers you treated the Lord with scorn,
and said: ‘With the great number of my riders [i.e. chariots]
I have gone up (to the) high place of the mountains,
(to the) sides of the (snow)-white peaks (of Lebanon),
and I cut (down) the standing cedars (and) chosen fir-trees!
I came to the lodging-place (at) his (farthest) borders,
(to) the thick (forest) of his planted garden!'” (vv. 22-23)

The wording at the close of v. 23 suggests that Sennacherib essentially boasts that he has ascended (and/or is able to ascend) all the way to the Garden of God, according to its traditional/mythic location at the top of the great Mountain. Through his earthly power—by brute strength (i.e. military might) and force of will—he cut his way (using the motif of felling trees) to this highest point. In spite of the ruler’s great boast, his ambitions have been curbed by God (i.e. he has been turned back militarily), leading to his abject humiliation (vv. 21, 27-28).

There are two especially noteworthy examples of this “wicked tyrant” motif in the nation-oracles of the Prophets—(1) the oracle against Babylon in Isaiah 14:3-23, and (2) the oracle against the city-state of Tyre in Ezekiel 28:1-19. Each of these emphasizes the arrogance and ambition of the king, who would dare to put himself in the position of God (on earth), essentially appropriating the divine authority for himself. This follows the basic seminal pattern of the oracle against Sennacherib (above); however, the imagery in these (later) oracles is expanded considerably, no doubt reflecting a significant development in the tradition.

Isaiah 14:3-23: The King of Babylon

This two-part oracle is closer in tone and style to the poem against Sennacherib; indeed, as an Isaian oracle, it may have been originally directed against Assyria. The specific king and nation being addressed is not indicated within the oracle itself, and the target of Assyria is much more appropriate to the overall context (and historical setting) of the first half of the book (chaps. 1-39). It is a bit difficult to explain the sudden shift to Babylon in 13:1-14:23 (at 14:24 the focus is back on Assyria) on historical grounds, and many critical commentators believe that an earlier Isaian oracle has been applied to a later Babylonian setting (i.e. the Neo-Babylonian empire). However, the introduction to the oracle (14:3-4) clearly has it being addressed to the king of Babylon; the oracles in chaps. 13-14 presumably refer to the fall of the city (to the Persians) in 539 B.C.

The oracle itself appears to be comprised of two distinct poems—one, a more realistic description of the king (and city)’s fall (vv. 4b-11), and the other, a more figurative version of the same (vv. 12-21), drawing upon mythological traditions. The second poem is more relevant to our study, and, in its opening lines, we can see how some of the same motifs and themes of the oracle against Sennacherib (cf. above) have been developed:

“How you have fallen from the heavens,
(you) shining (one), son of the Dawn!
You have been hacked (down) to the earth,
(the one) bringing (the same) lowness upon the nations!
Indeed, you said in your heart:
‘I will go up to the heavens!
From the place above the stars of the Mighty (One)
I will raise high my covered seat [i.e. throne];
and I will sit (myself) on the Mountain appointed (for the Mighty)
(there) on the sides of (its) secluded (peak) [‚¹¸ôn]!
I will go up upon the heights of (the) dark cloud(s),
(and so) will I be likened to (the) Highest (myself)!’
(But) how you were brought down to Š§°ôl (instead),
to the side [i.e. bottom] of (the deepest) pit!”
… (vv. 12-15)

As in the Sennacherib-oracle, there is the idea of the king thinking he could ascend all the way to the Mountain where God dwells. This is associated with snow-capped peaks of the Lebanon range (verse 8; cp. 37:24), drawing upon ancient Syrian (i.e. northern Canaanite / Ugaritic) tradition. One such designated mountain was Mt. Casius (Jebel el-Aqra±), but different local sites could serve as a representation of the Mountain of God in religious traditions. Indeed, it is the place “appointed” (du@om) for the divine/heavenly beings to gather, but only those related to the Mighty One (la@, °E~l)—otherwise, it was entirely inaccessible to human beings. This helps to explain the significance of the name /opx* (‚¹¸ôn), essentially referring to a distant and secluded (i.e. inaccessible and fortified) location; directionally, it came to indicate the distant north.

While ascending to the Mountain peak, or so he imagines, the king cuts his way there, felling the tall trees (v. 8; 37:24 par). The cutting down of trees was a suitable representation for the worldly ambitions and grandiose exploits of a king, seen in ancient Near Eastern tradition at least as early as the Sumerian Gilgamesh legends of the late-3rd millennium B.C. (preserved subsequently in the Gilgamesh Epic, Tablets 3-5); and, the “cedars of Lebanon” were among the most valuable and choicest trees a king could acquire. The motif also serves as a figure for military conquest—the ‘cutting down’ of people and cities (vv. 6ff). Ultimately, however, it is the king himself who is “hacked” (vb ud^G`) down to the ground (v. 12). Indeed, instead of ascending all the way to Heaven, he is brought down to the deep pit of Sheol (loav=)—that is, to the underworld, the realm of Death and the grave. In all likelihood this is meant to signify the actual death of the king, as well as the fall/conquest of his city (and empire); as noted above, Babylon was conquered by the Persians in 539 B.C.

Clearly, the oracle is satirical—the claims, etc, of the king are ultimately doomed to failure, and, in the end, his ambitions are foolish, and his fate is appropriately the opposite of what he imagined for himself. To some extent, these divine pretensions merely reflect the ancient beliefs and traditions surrounding kingship. Frequently, in the ancient Near East, divine titles and attributes are applied to the ruler; this was true even in Israel (especially in the Judean royal theology associated with David and his descendants), but never to the extent that we see in the surrounding nations. The symbolism and iconography was, of course, strongest where nations and city-states expanded to the level of a regional empire; the king could virtually be considered a deity himself (cf. especially the Egyptian Pharaonic theology at its peak).

Thus, the declaration in verse 12, calling the king of Babylon “(the) shining (one), son of the Dawn”, plays on this tendency of identifying kings with deity—especially the celestial/heavenly manifestation of deity. The terms ll@yh@ (“shining [one]”) and rj^v* (“dawn”, i.e. the rising of the sun/light) are, in essence, both attested as divine titles (or names) in Semitic/Canaanite tradition. It is also possible that there is here an allusion to a mythological religious (and/or cosmological) tradition involving the disobedience (and fall) of a heavenly being, which has been applied to an earthly ruler. For more on this, cf. below.

Ezekiel 28:1-19

The oracle against Tyre in Ezekiel 28:1-19 is even more complex, part of a series of oracles spanning chapters 26-28. If the Babylonian empire signified military power, the city-state of Tyre embodied commercial power. The product of centuries of Phoenician colonization and trade, the port-city of Tyre, with its fortified island location, was indeed a commercial power, with ambitions to become the center of world trade. Though threatened by the Babylonians, including a lengthy siege by Nebuchadnezzar (c. 585-572?), the city avoided destruction, presumably by way of a surrender treaty or similar agreement. This contrast with the fate of Jerusalem helps to explain Ezekiel’s emphasis on Tyre, devoting several oracles to the city’s expected and impending destruction. As it was envisioned, it would seem that this destruction never did occur, which may be one of the reasons that the book of Revelation chose to use these prophecies for the fate of the end-time “Babylon” (chaps. 17-18), where they could truly find fulfillment.

In this oracle, also in two parts (vv. 1-10, 11-19), many of the same basic themes are repeated, including the overweening ambition (and divine pretensions) of the king, along with his ultimate fate of being cast down into Sheol (here, tj^v^, the place of decay/destruction, v. 8). The arrogance of the king is stated more bluntly, and blatantly, in verse 2:

“…your heart has raised (itself) high, and you said, ‘I am (a) Mighty (one) [°E~l], (on the) seat of (the) Mightiest [°E_lœhîm] I sit, in the heart of (the) seas!’ And (yet) you (are) a man, and not a Mighty (one) [°E~l], and (yet) you give your heart (to be) like (the) heart of (the) Mightiest [°E_lœhîm]!”

This idea of the wicked ruler daring to sit in the very seat of God would play a significant role in the subsequent Antichrist tradition. On the meaning of the titles El and Elohim, and how I translate them, consult the corresponding articles. Even more significant is how this ruler sets his heart to be like the heart of God—this marks his ambition and desire for power in a deeper and more essential way. The Greek term anti/qeo$ (antítheos) could be applied to this attitude, of wishing to function “in the place of God”, or “in imitation of God”; on the parallel between anti/qeo$ and anti/xristo$ (antíchristos), cf. above.

The poem in verses 11-19, like that of Isa 14:12-21, is more figurative in nature, drawing heavily on mythological tradition. We have again the idea of the Garden of God (v. 13), located at the top of the great Mountain (the Mountain of God, v. 14). This Garden-setting was only alluded to in 2 Kings 19:23 (par Isa 37:24), but it is described here in considerably more detail, referring to ancient traditions regarding the primeval ±E~den (/d#u@), the luxuriant locale mentioned in the Genesis Creation narratives (2:8, 10, 15; 3:23-24), containing a garden (/G~)—here called the “Garden of God” (“garden of the Mightiest”, <yh!ýa$-/G~).

The satire, too, is much more expansive, depicting the Tyrian king as a k§rû» (bWrK=), a word of uncertain derivation, but typically referring to a divine or heavenly being, presumably with wings, as in the conventional image of an Angel (cf. Exod 25:20, etc). The richness of the divine Garden, with its jewels (precious stones), reflects the wealth and commercial aspirations of Tyre; moreover, the kerub’s wings provide covering (vb Ek^s*), which may allude to the protected position of the city (as an island-fortress). In spite of Tyre’s privileged position (provided to it by God, “I set you on the holy mountain…”, v. 14), it became arrogant and acted wickedly, corrupting its beauty and desecrating its space. As a result, God declares that it will be cast down and destroyed by fire (v. 18), a suitable image for the destruction of a city by military attack.

Here, more so than in Isa 14:12ff, we are likely dealing with an ancient tradition, regard the sin and punishment of a divine/heavenly being, that is being applied to an earthly king. One can only speculate on the details of such a tradition, as well as its possible relation to the sin and fall of Adam in Genesis 2-3. The idea that these oracles refer to the rebellion of Satan and the fallen Angels surely reads far too much into the text, though many today would accept such an interpretation, albeit rather uncritically. Conflict among deities features in many cosmological and religious myths, including aspects of the fall and punishment of certain divine beings; it is only natural that similar tales and traditions were current in Israel, though only fragments have survived within the Old Testament Scriptures themselves. Ezekiel appears to make rather more use of colorful, extra-Scriptural traditions, than do the other Prophets, but similar instances can be cited in the book of Isaiah and elsewhere. Such use of traditions is no bar whatsoever against the inspiration of these writings.

The Book of Daniel

The book of Daniel had an immense influence on Jewish and early Christian eschatology, a subject which will be dealt with more in Parts 2 and 3 of this study. Here space will only allow for a relatively brief survey of the passages most directly relevant to the development of the Antichrist Tradition. To some extent, the precise nature of the book’s influence depends on how one dates the text as it has come down to us. Most critical scholars would date the book (as certainly chapters 7-12) to the mid-2nd century B.C., placing it fairly close in time with other Apocalyptic writings, and even contemporary with some the earlier Qumran texts and parts of the book of Enoch, etc. This would allow the possibility that the book of Daniel is part of a wider apocalyptic tradition. On the other hand, if one takes the book at face value, as coming ostensibly from Daniel’s own time (in the early-mid 6th century), then it is much more likely that it is the primary source of the later lines of tradition.

The book of Daniel was certainly important to the Community of the Qumran texts, as is indicated by the number of manuscript copies, but also by the various “Pseudo-Daniel” writings that have survived. Among these may be considered the famous Aramaic “Son of God” text (4Q246), on which see my earlier article; I will touch on the Qumran texts in Part 2 of this study. A brief survey of the Pseudo-Daniel writings can be found in the article on “New Testament eschatology and the book of Daniel”.

There can be no doubt that much of early Christian eschatology was inspired by the book of Daniel. Of the many signs of this influence (cf. the aforementioned article), the following may be noted especially:

    • The idea of the end-time appearance of the “Son of Man” (Dan 7:13-14), best known from Jesus’ statements in Mark 13:26-27 par; 14:62 par, and the other eschatological “Son of Man” sayings.
    • The tradition regarding the “disgusting thing of desolation” (Dan 9:27; cf. also 11:31; 12:11), as interpreted in Mark 13:14 par, and likely alluded to elsewhere; this will be discussed further in Part 3.
    • The early Christian concept of the end-time period of distress (qli/yi$) appears to have been shaped significantly by Dan 12:1ff [LXX]; cf. Mark 13:19 par; Rev 7:14, etc.

Many of the prophecies in the second half of Daniel (chapters 7-12) build upon the same “wicked tyrant” tradition found in other Prophetic nation-oracles (cf. the discussion above). It appears prominently in three main sections (cf. also the survey in Peerbolte, Antecedents, pp. 226-37):

1. Daniel 7—The Horn of the Fourth “Beast”

Chapter 7 is built around a vision of four “beasts” (lit. “living [creature]s”, Aram. /w`yj@) that come up out of the sea, each with fabulous, hybrid animal attributes (vv. 1-8). The fourth of these was the most deadly and terrifying in appearance (v. 7), with ten horns, among which another smaller horn arose (v. 8). This latter horn is described as having eyes “like the eyes of a man”, and also a mouth, which was speaking “great things”. These specific attributes indicate the shrewdness and bold ambition of this “horn”, whose very rise suggests violence—with three of the previous horns being “pulled (up) by the roots”.

Following a theophanic vision of God (the “Ancient of Days”) and the heavenly “Son of Man” (“[one] like a son of man”) in vv. 9-14, an explanation of the vision of the four creatures is given (vv. 15-27). As in the vision of the statue (chap. 2), these four beasts symbolize a sequence of four great kingdoms, the last of which will be the fiercest and most powerful, a conquering empire that shall “devour all the earth and trample it and crush it (to pieces)” (v. 23). As befitting the motif of the horn (symbol of strength and power), each of the ten horns is a king who will rule over the empire. The horn that comes after them is described more extensively, in verses 24-26, prophesying his character and actions; it is in verse 25 that we find the “wicked tyrant” motif:

“And (thing)s spoken against the High (One) will he speak,
and he will wear out the holy (one)s of the Highest;
and he will think to change (the) appointed (time)s and decrees,
and they will be delivered in(to) his hand
until a (set) time, and times, and a division [i.e. half] of a time.”

Each of these lines reflect a key theme or motif that would help shape the Antichrist tradition:

    • Opposing, attacking, or insulting God, especially by the things he says—i.e. boastful, arrogant, and impious words
    • Persecution of the righteous/believers (“he will wear out the holy ones”, also v. 21 “he made war on the holy ones”)
    • Replacement of true religion with false/wicked practices
    • He will be allowed to attack God’s people and institute false religious practice, i.e. he will have the power to do so, and God will permit it
    • This will last for a relatively brief period of time— “a time, times, and half a time”, usually understood as a symbolic period of 3 ½ years.

The wicked rule of this king will be cut short by God’s Judgment, when both the kingdom (the beast) and its king (the horn) will be destroyed (vv. 11f, 26). In its place there will be an eternal kingdom, that of God himself, a kingdom belonging to the holy ones (i.e., the people of God). The “Son of Man” figure is central to this dominion, and features in the vision as a singular figure that is parallel to the collective people of God (vv. 14, 22, 27).

2. Daniel 8—The Horn of the He-Goat

There is a similar vision in chapter 8, of a horned ram, followed by a male goat (he-goat) with a series of horns (vv. 1-14). A single great horn is broken, replaced by four others (v. 8), among which a smaller horn rises up (v. 9). The horn-symbolism is identical, only here the actions of the “little horn” are narrated in much greater detail (vv. 10-15), reflecting both the historical events associated with this king, and the wickedness and arrogance of his conduct. An interpretation of the vision follows in vv. 15-26. This expanded prophetic description means that the “wicked tyrant” motif is also given a significant development, in verses 10-12:

“And it became great, until (it reached the) army of heaven,
and it made to fall (down) to earth (some) from (the) army,
and from (the) stars, and he tread them (down);
even until (reaching) the prince of the army did he grow great,
and from him the continual (offering) was lifted (away),
and the established place of his holiness was thrown down;
and an army was given against the continual (offering), in rebellion,
and it threw down truth (itself) to the earth—
and it did (this), and pushed ahead (with success).”

The elements of the “wicked tyrant” motif are applied to a specific action—an attack against the Temple and its sacrifice. Additional aspects are brought out in the subsequent interpretation of the vision (vv. 23-25); these may seen by highlighting the particular expressions and phrases:

    • “a king strong of face”, i.e. of a harsh and fierce countenance
    • “understanding (the tying of) knots”, reflecting his shrewdness, skill in political intrigue, etc.
    • “his strength shall be mighty (indeed)”; the MT includes the phrase “but not by his own strength”, i.e. his wicked power is allowed/permitted by God, who represents the true source of strength.
    • “he shall do wondrous things (that) bring ruin” —the phrase is a bit uncertain textually, and in terms of its meaning
    • “he shall bring the mighty ones to ruin”, presumably his military conquests
    • “his cleverness (will be) against the holy ones”, i.e. his plans to attack (“make war” against) the righteous; this translation follows a reconstruction of v. 24-25, based in part on the LXX.
    • “deceit will (be) push(ed) forward in his hand”, i.e. he will act with deceit and will promote the use of deception
    • “he shall become great in his (own) heart”, reflecting his ambition and self-delusion, implying pretensions to deity, etc.
    • “with (a sense of) security he will bring many to ruin”, i.e. he will destroy them when they feel themselves safe and secure
    • “he shall take a stand against the Prince of princes”, that is, against God and his heavenly representative(s), esp. the prince of the heavenly army Michael
    • “by the end of a hand [i.e. without use of a hand] he will be broken (to pieces)”, this difficult idiom indicates Divine Judgment, without use of any human intermediary (“without a [human] hand”)
3. Daniel 11:21-45—The Rise of a Wicked Ruler (Antiochus IV)

Nearly all commentators are agreed that the “horn” of chapters 7-8, the wicked ruler who will appear, refers primarily (if not exclusively) to the Seleucid king Antiochus IV Epiphanes (r. 175-164 B.C.). The details and context of the visions of chaps. 7-8 seem to bear this out, but the historical scenario becomes much more precise, and specific, in the great vision of chapter 11. Even traditional-conservative commentators generally recognize that these are prophecies relating to Antiochus IV, while allowing for the possibility of a secondary application to a wicked ruler in the more distant future. The wicked ruler described in verses 21-45 of chapter 11 is unquestionably Antiochus IV—his military exploits, political intrigues, and persecution of the people of God (the faithful ones of Israel/Judah). Special attention is given to his desecration of the Jerusalem Temple—including the elimination of the daily sacrifice, and the setting up of “the disgusting thing [JWQv!] bringing devastation [<m@v)m=]” (v. 31, also 9:27; 12:11) in the sanctuary.

This ruler’s self-exaltation, impiety, and opposition to God is described vividly in verses 36-39, providing the most developed form of the “wicked tyrant” motif in the Old Testament, a portrait that would exert an enormous influence on subsequent eschatological and apocalyptic tradition.

The Judgment of the Nations

A separate line of tradition, within the Prophetic nation-oracles, involves the idea of the Judgment of the Nations, collectively. While the nation-oracles normally focused on one specific nation, and the judgment that was expected to come against it in the near future, these collections of prophecies (against different nations) led to the image of all the nations being judged, together, in a setting that was more properly focused on the end-time—that is to say, eschatological.

The idea of the hostility and opposition of the surrounding nations was a basic component of Old Testament tradition and ancient Israelite theology, deriving fundamentally from the distinction of Israel as God’s chosen people, in contrast to all other peoples. The very nature of God’s Covenant with Israel, and the binding terms of this agreement (the Torah regulations), drew a sharp line demarcating the holy from the profane, pure from impure, true worship of God and false, which corresponded closely to the ethnic distinction (i.e. Israel vs. the Nations). This sense of opposition only sharpened within the contours of the Israelite/Judean royal theology, expressed and preserved primarily in the Scriptural Psalms, with their repeated references to the protagonist being surrounded by enemies; often these enemies are more or less equated with the “wicked” and the “nations”. The royal context of this motif is perhaps clearest in Psalm 2, which depicts the new king as being surrounded by potentially rebellious vassals, as well as rulers from the nearby nations, eager to gain greater power and freedom for themselves. The portrait of these wicked/rebellious rulers in vv. 1-3 is justly famous:

“For what [i.e. why] do the nations throng together,
and for (what) do the peoples mutter empty (threats)?
The kings of the earth set themselves,
and the honored (one)s are set (firmly),
against YHWH and against his Anointed.
‘We shall pull off their (cord)s binding (us)
and we shall throw away their ropes from (off of) us!'”

For more, cf. my earlier study on Psalm 2.

From the standpoint of the Prophetic nation-oracles, the theme of the collective Judgment of the nations, by God, finds its earliest form in the oracle of Joel 3. While not strictly eschatological, the oracle does envision a future time when Israel (Judah and Jerusalem) has been restored (vv. 1), and this restoration follows the great Judgment of the nations (vv. 17-21). The Judgment is depicted as taking place in a great valley, where all the nations have been gathered together (v. 2)—it is the valley where they will be “judged by YHWH” (fp*v*ohy+, Y®hôš¹¸¹‰).

While there is a definite military aspect to this imagery (vv. 9-11), there is no clear sense that the nations are actually engaged in battle. In light of the traditional motif of the hostility of the nations (to Israel), and their opposition to God, it is no great surprise that this scene of the gathering of the nations for Judgment would eventually develop into a gathering for battle—and that they would seek to make war against the people of God (Israel/Judah, and Jerusalem). This is expressed in two primary visions—the closing vision of Zechariah (chap. 14), and the great vision-set of Ezekiel 38-39. In both visionary scenes, the nations gather to make war against Israel, advancing on the city of Jerusalem, before they are defeated through the power and intervention of YHWH.

These Judgment-visions and oracles are not directly related to the Antichrist tradition, as such; however, they are relevant (and worth noting here) for several reasons:

    • The hostility/opposition of the nations (and their kings) to God and His people is placed within a clear eschatological setting—in the context of the Judgment (but prior to it) and the ultimate restoration of God’s people; indeed, their salvation is expressed in terms of deliverance from the wickedness and violence of the nations.
    • The wickedness of the nations (and their rulers), in this Judgment setting, has been expanded in scope, now depicted on a worldwide and cosmic scale; this has significance for the development of the Antichrist tradition.
    • The Ezekiel vision, in particular, has the coalition of nations being effectively led by a great king named “Gog” (goG), and, while this specific detail is only marginally related to the Antichrist tradition, it does provide an Old Testament parallel for the concept of wicked world-ruler—a menacing figure who exercises rule over all the nations, in opposition to God.

In Part 2, we will focus on the subsequent development of these lines of tradition in Jewish eschatological and apocalyptic writings of the first centuries B.C./A.D.

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).

Gnosis and the New Testament, supplement: Luke 2:29-32

Luke 2:29-32

An interesting passage which connects salvation with knowledge and revelation is the “Song of Simeon” in Luke 2:29-32. Like the hymn of Zechariah (the Benedictus, Lk 1:67-79), it functions in the narrative as a prophetic oracle. There are actually two oracles uttered by Simeon, the other being addressed to Mary in vv. 34-35. All of the canticles, or hymns, in the Lukan Infancy narrative, draw heavily upon the Old Testament Scriptures, quoting or alluding to various passages in nearly every line. The very poetry, and the underlying mode of expression, has assimilated the language of the Old Testament Songs, Psalms and poetic oracles of the Prophets. The Song of Simeon is comprised of four lines. In the first line (v. 29), Simeon addresses himself to God:

“Now you (can) loose your slave from (his bonds), O Master, according to your utterance, in peace”

The second line (v. 30), in the context of the narrative, relates to Simeon’s revelatory experience of seeing the child Jesus:

“(in) that [i.e. because] my eyes saw your salvation”

The third line (v. 31) connects this revelation back to the prophecies and promises in the Old Testament, the (old) covenant between God and his people:

“which you made ready down upon the face [i.e. in the presence] of all the people”

The fourth line (v. 32) indicates the goal and purpose of this revelation:

“a light unto the uncovering of the nations, and (the) honor/splendor of your people Yisrael”

The theme of salvation is emphasized in the first two lines:

“Now you (can) loose your slave from (his bonds), O Master, according to your utterance, in peace,
(in) that [i.e. because] my eyes saw your salvation [swthri/a]”

The narrative context would associate the words a)polu/w (“loose from [bondage]”) and dou=lo$ (“slave”) with Simeon’s earthly life, lived in service to God (YHWH) as his Lord/Master (despo/th$), that is, the lord/master of the house who is the owner of the slave. However, the hymn itself can (and should) also be read more generally in terms of salvation from slavery to sin, etc, which is otherwise associated with the birth of Jesus in Lk 1:77, and more directly in Matt 1:21. The mention of peace [ei)rh/nh] also well fits the idea of salvation.

In the last two lines the theme of revelation is emphasized:

“which you made ready down upon the face [i.e. in the presence] of all the people:
a light unto the uncovering of the nations, and (the) honor/splendor of your people Yisrael”

This is already suggested by the use of ei&dw (“see”) and o)fqalmoi/ (“eyes”) in v. 30; the verb ei&dw (oi@da) in Greek is essentially interchangeable with ginw/skw (“know”) and often indicates knowing as well as seeing. The expression kata\ pro/swpon (“down on the face”, “against the face”, i.e. “before the face”) also suggests something that is seen; the word translated “face” (pro/swpon) literally means “toward the eye”, i.e. before one’s eyes, facing, and so the face or “appearance” of a person, etc. For the words fw=$ (“light”) and a)poka/luyi$ (“taking the cover from”, “uncovering”) used for revelation, cf. Part 2 of the series “Gnosis and the New Testament”. The noun do/ca refers to the esteem or honor which a person receives, or which is due to that person (especially God), often described in terms of visual splendor (light-imagery, etc); it is frequently associated with divine revelation in the New Testament. For more on the connection between salvation and revelation, cf. Part 3 in “Gnosis and the New Testament”.

I discuss the Song of Simeon elsewhere, examining each verse (each line) in considerable detail.

As my translation above is an extremely literal (glossed) rendering, the rhythm and feel of the poetry has been obscured; here below, in closing, is a more poetic rendering:

“Now, Master, you can release your slave, according to your word, in peace,
(now) that my eyes have seen your salvation
which you prepared before the face of all (the) people—
a light to uncover (for) the nations,
and (the) splendor of your people Israel.”

August 29: 1 Corinthians 2:16

[This series of notes is on 1 Corinthians 1:18-2:16; the previous note dealt with 2:14-15]

1 Corinthians 2:16

Today’s note examines the concluding verse of the section, which brings together the strands of the contrastive argument into a rhetorically charged Scripture citation followed by a decisive (positive) declaration. The first part of the verse contains a quotation from Isaiah 40:13, an abridgment of the LXX version:

“Who knew the mind of the Lord, th(e one) who will bring (things) together (to instruct) him?”

The verb sumbiba/zw means “bring (or put) together” sometimes in the (logical) sense of bringing things together for the purpose of instruction. The LXX also uses the related noun su/mboulo$, which typically refers to a person who gives instruction (or counsel, advice, etc). Conventionally, the LXX would be translated:

Who knew the mind of the Lord, and who became His instructor/advisor that will instruct/advise Him?”
ti/$ e&gnw nou=n kuri/ou kai\ ti/$ au)tou= su/mboulo$ e)ge/neto o^$ sumbiba=| au)to/n;

The portion cited by Paul (with only slight variation) is indicated by italics and bold above. The taunting rhetorical question is centered in the idea of the greatness of God (YHWH the Creator) and the insignificance of (created) human beings by comparison. Paul retains the thrust of this rhetoric and applies the question to his own line of argument comparing worldy/human wisdom with the wisdom of God. The ‘abridged’ citation is, in certain formal respects, closer to the tone and feel of the original Hebrew; the Masoretic text (MT) reads:

“Who has measured the spirit of YHWH and (is) a man of his counsel/plan [i.e. his counselor] (who) causes him to know?”

An English translation tends to obscure the relatively simple, 3:3 poetic rhythm of the Hebrew:

hwhy j^WrÁta# /K@T!Áym!
WDu#yd!oy otx*u& vya!w+

Each line involves a related concept:

(a) “measuring” the spirit of YHWH—on the meaning and context of the verb /kt, cf. below.
(b) functioning as a counsellor/advisor (lit. “man of his counsel”) who instructs/advises YHWH (“causes him to know”)

The first (a) essentially implies probing and estimating the depths of God’s own “spirit” (j^Wr rûaµ), much as Paul describes the Spirit (pneu=ma) doing in 1 Cor 2:10. No human being is capable of comprehending the depths (“deep things”) of God. The second (b) touches on the idea that a human being might serve as God’s counselor or advisor; but, of course, God, who knows all things, cannot be informed about anything by a mortal being. The LXX renders Hebrew j^Wr (“spirit/breath”) with nou=$ (“mind”). More often, it is translated by pneu=ma, which corresponds closely to the Hebrew term; however, the use of nou=$ in Greek offers a distinctive interpretation of the verse. It is useful to consider the basic meaning of this word.

Greek nou=$ (or no/o$) fundamentally refers to sensual perception or recognition (i.e. by the senses), but eventually the act of perception came to dominate the meaning, along with the inner/inward faculties of a human being to enable recognition of something—primarily as intellectual faculty (i.e. “mind”), though often there may be an emotional or (deeper) “spiritual” component involved. In addition to an internal faculty (or ability), nou=$ also came to refer to an attitude (or disposition, etc), as well as the result of one’s ability (knowledge, understanding, insight, etc). Generally, this corresponds to the English word “mind”, which can be used, more or less accurately (and consistently) to translate nou=$. It is the third of three primary Greek terms used to describe the invisible, inner aspect of the human person—yuxh/ (“soul”), pneu=ma (“spirit”), nou=$ (“mind”). The first two have already been used by Paul in 1 Cor 1:18-2:16 (cf. the prior notes), and now he introduces the third. Actually, the word was already used in the main proposition (propositio) of the letter in 1:10, a verse that is worth citing here:

“And (so) I call you alongside, brothers, through the name of our Lord Yeshua (the) Anointed, that you should all give the same account and (that) there should not be (any) tears [i.e. divisions] in you, but (that) you should be joined (completely) in the same mind and in the same (way of) knowing.”

The emphasis is clear: in contrast to the divisions among the Corinthians, there should be a unity of mind for believers in Christ. Paul uses a dual formula to express this:

    • “in the self(same) mind” (e)n tw=| au)tw=| noi+/)
    • “in the self(same) knowing” (e)n th=| au)th=| gnw/mh|)

The word gnw/mh (related to the verb ginw/skw, “[to] know”) more properly refers to a way or manner of knowing; there is no English word which corresponds precisely, and it is translated variously as “opinion, judgment, decision”, etc. As will become even more clear when one looks at what follows in 3:1ff, the divisions (“rips/tears”) in Corinth are the result of believers thinking and acting in a human manner (i.e. through worldly/human ‘wisdom’) rather than according to the “mind” (wisdom) of God and Christ. This is the very point Paul makes in the second half of verse 16:

“…and (yet) we (do) hold the mind of (the) Anointed [i.e. of Christ]”

The reading xristou= (“of [the] Anointed”) is found in a number of key MSS (Ë46 a A C Y al), and probably should be considered original; however, many other witnesses read kuri/ou (“of [the] Lord”), matching the earlier citation of Isa 40:13. For early Christians, of course, the word ku/rio$ (“lord”, i.e. “the Lord”) had a double-meaning—it can refer to God the Father (YHWH) or to Jesus Christ, almost interchangeably:

“the mind of Christ” –> “the mind of the Lord (Jesus)” –> “the mind of the Lord (YHWH)”

The pronoun “we” (h(mei=$) is in emphatic position—”and (yet) we (do) hold the mind of Christ”. As often in Paul’s letters, there is some ambiguity as to just whom “we” refers. This is rather important for a correct interpretation of this verse (and the passage as a whole), and will be discussed briefly in the next daily note.

The two rhetorical questions of Isa 40:12-13:

Verses 12 and 13 each pose a question beginning with the interrogative particle ym! (“who”). The first (v. 12) asks who has “measured” out the various elements and aspects of the created world. The answer is as obvious as it is unstated: God (YHWH) alone—no other being, let alone a mere human being. The question itself is asked by way of a series of verbal phrases, governed by four verbs, each of which indicates some form of measuring:

    • dd^m*—stretching (a line, etc) to measure out—the waters (<y]m^) in the hollow (lu^v)) of His hand
    • /k^T*—regulating or fitting (according to a standard [measure])—the heavens (<y]m^v*) with the spread/span (tr#z#) of His hand
    • lWK—containing (i.e. filling/fitting a measuring-vessel)—the dust of the earth in a mere vyl!v* (“third part”?), a (small) unit of measure
    • lq^v*—weighing out—the mountains and the hills in a pair of scales or balances (cl#P#//z@am))

The second question (v. 13) asks who, besides YHWH, could know even how any of this is done, let alone offer YHWH any advice or instruction in such matters. The verb /k^T* is repeated, indicating the impossibility of “measuring” the Spirit (j^Wr) of YHWH, in the basic sense, it would seem, of “fitting” or “setting” a standard of measure. There is no way of doing this when one is dealing with the Spirit/Wisdom/Mind of God. The LXX understands the verb in intellectual terms—of a (human) being’s ability (or rather, inability) to comprehend (“know”) the Mind (nou=$) of God—which is quite appropriate for Paul’s theme of wisdom in 1 Corinthians.

August 15: Mark 4:10-12 (Isa 6:9-10)

The use of Isaiah 6:9-10 in Mark 4:10-12 par

For a detailed study of the saying of Jesus in Mark 4:11 (par Matt 13:11; Luke 8:10), see the previous two daily notes (Aug 13 & 14). Today I will look the Old Testament passage (Isa 6:9-10) used there in the context of the Synoptic narrative.

Isaiah 6:1-13 serves as the introduction for the division of the book spanning chapters 6-12, and, in particular, the context of the Syro-Ephraemite War in chs. 6-8. It may also be intended to represent the visionary experience of Isaiah the Prophet. The section can be outlined as follows:

    • Vv. 1-7—The vision of God (YHWH) on his throne
      • v. 1: Setting and statement of the vision
      • vv. 2-4: Description of the Divine manifestation (Theophany)
      • vv. 5-7: Isaiah’s response culminating in a symbolic purification of the Prophet
    • Vv. 8-13—Commission of Isaiah and the Prophetic message
      • v. 8: Statement/narration of the commission—God’s request and Isaiah’s response
      • vv. 9-10: Description of the Message (Divine oracle)
      • vv. 11-13: Isaiah’s response culminating in a message regarding the ‘purification’ of the land and its people (through judgment)

There is a similarity in outline (and content) to the visionary experience of the Prophet Micaiah, described in 1 Kings 22:19-23:

    • A vision of God (YHWH) on his throne, surrounded by heavenly beings—1 Ki 22:19 / Isa 6:1-4
    • God’s request for a Messenger to be sent forth—1 Ki 22:20 / Isa 6:8
    • A Messenger volunteers:
      Heavenly messenger (“I will [go out]…”)—1Ki 22:21-22a
      Human messenger (“See, I [am here], send me”)—Isa 6:8b
    • At God’s command, the messenger is to obscure the understanding of human beings:
      To be a lying/enticing spirit for Ahab—1 Ki 22:21-23a
      To thicken/harden the hearts and minds of the people—Isa 6:9-10
    • The purpose is to bring about God’s Judgment on the land and its people—1 Ki 22:23 / Isa 6:11-13

The tendency has been for readers and commentators to focus on the positive part of Isaiah’s vision and commission (in verses 1-8), rather the negative portion of the message he is to speak (vv. 9-13). The most troubling aspect is the way that God seems to express the wish (or, at least, the purpose) that the Prophet, through his message, should harden the hearts and minds of the people so that they might not repent—at least not until the ordained Judgment comes (by way of the Assyrian invasions/conquests during the years 734-701 B.C.). In this regard, it is important to study closely the Hebrew text of verses 9-10, which I give here in a rather literal rendering:

“Go!—and you shall say to this people:
‘Hearing you must hear, and (yet do) not understand!
and seeing you must see, and (yet do) not (come to) know!’
Make fat(ty) the heart of this people—
their ears make heavy, and their eyes smear shut—
lest they see with their eyes,
and with their ears hear
and with their heart distinguish,
and there be turning and healing for (the)m!”

In some ways the key expression is found in the particle Á/P#, typically translated “lest” (for lack of a better option in English); however, the basic idea is something like “so as to avoid/remove (the possibility) that…”—i.e., “so that they do not see with their eyes,” etc. This combined with the causative (Hiphil) verb forms in v. 10—”make fat(ty)”, “make heavy”, “smear/glue (them) shut”—clearly indicates God’s intention regarding the effect of the Prophet’s message on the people. I regard only the portion marked by single quote marks (in v. 9) to represent the actual message; the remainder (v. 10) describes what the result of the preaching will (and should) be. This way of understanding human events and decisions as being foreordained and determined by God, according to his will and purpose, is generally foreign to our way of thinking today; however, it was quite common (and fundamental) to ancient (religious) thought. If a people suffered some disaster—plague, earthquake, invasion, etc—this was brought about by the divine powers; and, similarly, if people refused to repent or change their behavior, this too was the result of divine influence. It is really only in recent centuries that this basic worldview has undergone considerable change; and now the question of divine sovereignty vs. human freedom creates enormous difficulty and challenges for thoughtful persons, including believers in Christ. The problem was only generally (and vaguely) sensed by people in the time of Jesus; this, perhaps, may be glimpsed in the way that Isa 6:9-10 was rendered into Greek. Here is the LXX version:

“Go/travel (forth) and say to this people:
‘Hearing you will hear, and (yet) you should not put (it) together [i.e. understand]!
Looking you will look, and (yet) you should not (come to) see [i.e. know]!’
The heart of this people will be made thick/fat,
and they hear heavily in their ears, and close shut their eyes,
(that) they should not ever see with th(eir) eyes
and hear with th(eir) ears
and put (it) together [i.e. understand] with th(eir) heart,
and turn (back) upon (me), and I will heal them.”

The Greek wording, in verse 10, has altered the tone and tenor somewhat. First, the Hiphil imperatives have been changed into indicative forms, simply stating what has been (or will be) occurring; it also seems to put the responsibility on the people themselves. Second, the subjunctive forms make it at least possible that the people might (yet) see/hear/understand. The Greek particle mh/pote (“not ever, never”), corresponding to Hebrew /P# (see above), governing the subjunctive, could (conceivably) be read as a conditional statement—i.e., “unless they should see…” The last verb in v. 10 has also been changed into a first person future (indicative) form, where God says “I will heal them”. There are two ways v. 10 can be understood (in the LXX):

(a) “so that they might never see… and turn back (to me) and I would heal them [i.e. if they had turned to me, which they will not]”
(b) “unless they should see… and (then) turn back (to me) and I will heal them [i.e. if they do turn to me]”

The second of these is really not tenable, grammatically; for those readers who would like to shift the emphasis away from God’s purpose and over to the people’s response, it is necessary to infer a particle of result (rather than purpose)—”…they close shut their eyes so that [i.e. as a result] they won’t ever see…and turn back (to me), and (if they did turn) I would heal them”.

Matthew 13:14-15 cites the LXX rather closely; in Mark’s version, Jesus’ quotation is an abridgement (cf. the portion in italics above), with a few differences (marked by italics below):

“Looking they should look, and (yet) they should not see!
Hearing they should hear, and (yet) they should not put (it) together [i.e. understand]!
(that) they should not ever | turn (back) upon (me), and it be released [i.e. forgiven] for them”

The use of the third person (instead of the second) fits the application of the passage in context—i.e. as a fulfillment of the message God gave Isaiah to speak in Isa 6:9; and the use of the subjunctive throughout also fits the context, as an action/condition which eventually will be fulfilled. Here also the use of mh/pote + the subjunctive indicates more clearly a negative purpose—”so that…not ever…” Luke’s version has omitted any reference to verse 10, including just a (simplified) form of the Prophet’s message of v. 9: “Seeing they should not see, and hearing they should not understand” (Lk 8:10b). However, the author clearly realized the significance of the entire passage, since it is cited (by Paul) at the end of the book of Acts (Acts 28:26-27). In that context, its use holds somewhat closer to the original Old Testament setting, as an explanation (based on prophecy) for why many Jews refused to accept the Gospel. All through the second half of the book of Acts (chapters 1326), Paul experienced considerable Jewish opposition to his missionary work, in the midst of which he began to turn to the Gentiles (13:46-47; 18:6; 28:28). The tone of divine judgment, central to Isa 6:9ff, would not have been lost on Paul (cf. 1 Thess 2:14-16). The failure (and/or unwillingness) by many of his fellow Jews to accept Christ was an issue dear to his heart, and one which he ultimately gave considerable attention to in Romans 9-11. There the basic theme of Isa 6:9-10 is developed and expounded—God has (temporarily) blinded/hardened Israel so that the Gentiles might come to salvation; when this has fully come to pass, Israelites and Jews will come to faith in Christ and be saved as well.

A similar use of Isa 6:9-10 (close in form to that in Mark 4:12) is found in John 12:40. There it relates more directly than in the Synoptics to the lack of trust/belief in Christ by the people (v. 37), influenced, it is stated, by the fear of persecution, etc., from the religious authorities (vv. 42-43). That section in John is bracketed by two powerful and provocative statements, which, according to the creative logic of the Gospel, are certainly related:

    • “Yeshua {Jesus} spoke these (thing)s and, going away from (there), hid (himself) from them” (v. 36b)
    • “For they loved the esteem/glory of men, more than the esteem/glory of God” (v. 43, alluding to the “glory” of God in Isaiah’s vision [v. 41; Isa 6:1-4])

This “hiding” of Jesus is connected, generally speaking, to the idea of the “secret” of his identity (as Messiah and Son of God), and, as I have argued in the prior notes, to the “secret(s) of the kingdom of God” of which he speaks in Mk 4:11 par. However, it must be admitted that the use of Isa 6:9-10 in the Synoptic context, is really only connected directly with the parables by which Jesus expresses the secret [musth/rion] of the Kingdom. Here, contrary to conventional opinion (and interpretation), the clear implication is that parables are used to hide the secret of the Kingdom from people at large; only to his disciples does Jesus explain the meaning and significance of the illustrations. Through Jesus’ parables, as with the preaching of Isaiah, God blinds/hardens the minds and hearts of the people—what they see and hear is a simple illustration based on everyday life details; but what they miss (and what many continue to miss today) is the profound depth of spiritual meaning that underlies the illustration. There are few clear examples of this in the Synoptics, but it comes to be a prominent theme in the Gospel of John. Over and over again, Jesus’ audience (including the disciples) hears his words in a superficial manner, and misunderstands or misconstrues their real, deeper meaning. Often this takes place through a simple play on words, as in John 3:3-8—the word a&nwqen fundamentally means “from above”, but also is commonly used in the sense of “from the first,” i.e., “as at first, again“; Nicodemus hears Jesus say “you must come to be (born) from above [or ‘again’]”, that is, by the Spirit, and misunderstands this to mean that one must be born a second time (naturally) from the mother’s womb.

That Jesus’ closest disciples failed to understand the meaning of his words, at least initially, is indicated numerous places in the Gospels. One especially interesting example, with similarities to the language in Isa 6:9-10, comes from the Lukan version of the second and third Passion predictions by Jesus (Lk 9:43b-45; 18:31-34). On both occasions, it is stated that the disciples did not understand; but note the wording:

“But the (disciples) did not know [i.e. understand] this utterance (by Jesus), and it was covered along (away) from them (so) that they should not perceive/discern it [i.e. its meaning]…” (9:45)
“And they put together [i.e. understood] nothing of these (word)s, and this utterance was hidden from them, and they did not (even) know the (thing)s being said/related (by Jesus)” (18:34)

The passive verb forms are examples of the so-called “divine passive”—i.e. indicating action (effectively) performed by God. The truth of Jesus’ words was (intentionally) covered/hidden from the disciples (by God), at least until after the crucifixion and resurrection had taken place (according to what may be inferred from the Gospels).

Jesus and the Gospel Tradition: The Baptism, Pt 1 (Isa 40:3, continued)

Isaiah 40:3 (continued)

Having briefly discussed the key passage of Isa 40:3ff in the previous note, it remains to explore further the association with John the Baptist in Gospel tradition. To understand the original context and background of this association, it is helpful to turn to the texts from the Qumran Community (the Dead Sea Scrolls). I will be discussing here two principal aspects which shed light on the establishment of the early Christian tradition regarding John the Baptist (and his relationship with Jesus):

    1. The Eschatological interpretation of Isa 40:3, as evidenced in the Qumran texts, and
    2. The possible relationship between John the Baptist and the Qumran Community

1. The Eschatological Interpretation of Isa 40:3

While the original setting of Isa 40 would appear to be the promise of the restoration of Judah and the return from exile, certain features of the prophecy, like many in (Deutero-)Isaiah, came to be viewed from an eschatological standpoint—as a promise of what God would do for his people in the future, at the end-time. Interpreted in this light, the herald (or “voice”) of vv. 3ff is calling on people to prepare the way for the coming of the Lord (YHWH) at the end-time, when he will rescue/deliver his people and bring Judgment upon the world. This eschatological orientation is reflected strongly in the Community of the Qumran texts, written primarily between the period of 150 B.C. and the first years of the common era (A.D.). Many of these writings evince a belief that the end was near, and that the Community, as the faithful ones (or “remnant”) of Israel, held a central place in the work of God that was about to take place. This is expressed most clearly in two central documents which shape and define the history and character of the Community—the “Community Rule” [1QS, etc] and the so-called Damascus Document [CD/QD]. The importance of Isaiah 40:3 in terms of the Community’s self-identity is seen in the Community Rule [1QS] 8:12-16; 9:19-20:

“And when these have become /a community/ in Israel /in compliance with these arrangements/, they are to be segregated from within the dwelling of the men of sin, to walk to the desert in order to open there His path. As it is written: ‘In the desert, prepare the way of [YHWH], straighten in the steppe a roadway for our God’. This is the study of the Law which he commanded through the hand of Moses, in order to act in compliance with all that has been revealed from age to age, and according to what the prophets have revealed through His holy Spirit.” (8:12-16a)

“This is the time for making ready the path to the desert, and he will teach them about all that has been discovered, so that they can carry it out in this moment…” (9:19-20)

The Community of these texts has separated from all other people, living apart together in the desert (presumably at the site of Khirbet Qumrân, among others[?]), devoting themselves to a strict communal lifestyle centered on the study and exposition/interpretation of the Law and Prophets. This Way (Heb. Er#D#) in the desert is a “way of holiness” (cf. Isa 35:8ff; 57:14), which also draws upon several important images and ideas from Israelite history and the oracles of the Prophets (esp. Deutero-Isaiah):

    • The return of exiles to the Land—defined in terms of the the coming of salvation from God (Isa 62:10-11)
    • This is parallel to the way of the Israelites through the wilderness (i.e. the Exodus traditions) into the Promised Land (Isa 11:16; 48:21; 51:10-11)
    • This same salvation is also understood more properly in an eschatological sense, in terms of the coming Judgment (Isa 1:27-31, etc)

These aspects play on the dual meaning of the verb bWv (šû», “turn, return”)—i.e., (1) the return from exile and the restoration of Israel, and (2) a return to God, that is, a turning back away from sin. The Qumran Community refers to itself at times as <yb!v* (š¹»îm), “ones turning/returning”, in two qualified senses:

    • The š¹»ê Yi´r¹°¢l—the faithful ones or “converts” of Israel, i.e. those who have joined the Community (CD 4:2-3; 6:3-7)
    • The š¹»ê peša±—the ones who have turned away (i.e. repented) from sin (CD 2:5; 20:17; 1QS 1:17; 10:20; 1QHa VI.24; X.9; XIV. 6); the expression is likely derived from Isaiah 59:20f.

By turning from sin and the wickedness/faithlessness of the world, and joining the Community, one follows the “way of holiness” and prepares for the end-time Judgment and the salvation God will bring for his faithful ones.

2. John and the Qumran Community

There are a number of similarities between the ministry of John the Baptist and the Community of the Qumran texts:

  • The desert location. Based on the evidence from the Gospels, as well as subsequent Christian tradition, much of John’s ministry would have taken place in the Judean desert, not all that far from the site of Qumrân.
  • The central importance of Isa 40:3 (cf. above). In Jn 1:23, it is John himself who makes the identification with Isa 40:3.
  • The practice of ritual washing/cleansing. For the importance of this for the Qumran Community, see esp. 1QS 2:25-3:12; 4:20-22; 5:8-23. Ritual washing marked the person’s entrance into the Community; in addition, there were regular washings for various times or occasions.
  • An eschatological emphasis. Warning of the coming Judgment (or anger/wrath) of God was a significant element in both the Qumran texts and in the preaching of John (according to the Gospels). For the Qumran evidence, see e.g., CD 1:5; 10:9; 1QHa VII.17; XI. 28; XXII.5; 1QpHab i.12; 4Q169 1-2.
  • The importance of repentance. Cf. the Qumran references cited directed above, as well as the self-identification based on the verb bWv (šû») listed earlier above. The related Hebrew word hb*WvT= (t®šû»â) generally corresponds to the Greek meta/noia (Mk 1:4 par, etc).
  • Opposition to Pharisees and other (religious) leaders. This is attested only indirectly in the Qumran texts, such as the pesher (commentary) on Nahum (4QpNah [4Q169] fragments 3-4); cf. also CD 5:13-14; 6:11-14, etc. In the Gospels, note Matt 3:7ff par, and Jn 1:19ff.
  • Fire and Spirit. The Baptist’s saying in Mk 1:8; Matt 3:11 par regarding cleansing/purification by fire and the (holy) Spirit has an interesting parallel, too, in the Community Rule (1QS 4:20-21):
    “the time appointed for Judgment… Then God will refine, with his truth, all men’s deeds, and will purify for himself the structure of man… and cleansing him with the spirit of holiness from every wicked deed. He will sprinkle over him the spirit of truth like lustral water (in order to cleanse him) from all… defilement”

These points of similarity have prompted many commentators to allow at least the possibility that John the Baptist had some contact with the Qumran Community (usually identified, in various ways, with the Essenes). Josephus, according to his own testimony, had spent time with the Essenes, and describes an ascetic figure similar in certain respects to John (Life §§11-12). Moreover, Josephus also refers to the Essene practice of ‘adopting’ children and raising them according to their own teachings and practices (Jewish War 2.120, for more on the Essenes, cf. throughout 2.119-161). If one accepts the biographical details of the Lukan Infancy narrative, John came from a priestly family, and his parents, presumably, would have died when he was quite young. This would have made him a strong candidate, perhaps, for joining the Essenes (and/or the Qumran Community) as a youth. All of these factors make this at least a plausible scenario.

Summary

Whether or not John the Baptist had any real contact with the Qumran Community, if he identified himself with Isa 40:3 (cf. Jn 1:23), such as they did, then we are immediately transported beyond a specific Christian interpretation of the passage. At the earliest (historical) level of Gospel tradition, John would have viewed himself as fulfilling the role of the Isaian herald, and, through his preaching and ministry, he was preparing “the Way of the Lord”—that is, preparing God’s people for His end-time appearance and the coming Judgment on humankind. It is important to keep this possibility in mind as we explore the way that the earliest traditions were interpreted and developed within the Gospel heritage.

Translations of the Qumran texts given above (adapted slightly) are from The Dead Sea Scrolls Study Edition, ed. by Florentino García Martínez & Eibert J. C. Tigchelaar (Brill/Eerdmans: 1997-8 & 2000).

Jesus and the Gospel Tradition: The Baptism, Pt 1 (Isa 40:3)

The central element to the portrait of John the Baptist in Gospel tradition is his association with Isaiah 40:3, which, in its original prophetic context, stands at the beginning of the second half of the book of Isaiah (so-called Deutero-Isaiah). It is generally understood to reflect a promise of restoration and return (from exile) for Judah. This is the message of comfort/consolation in verse 1, as well as the “good news” (rC@b^m=) in v. 9a (cf. the recent note on the background of the eu)aggel- word group). The message of the herald in vv. 9ff is preceded by two brief oracles (vv. 3-5, 6-8) which reference a voice (loq) that “cries/calls” out (arq)—the voice of a prophet uttering the word/message given to him by God. Luke’s account is the only one of the Gospels that applies this specific prophetic element to John (Lk 3:2b, cf. also 1:76). The original Hebrew of Isa 40:3, given in literal translation, reads:

“A voice (is) calling (out) in the wide open [i.e. remote/desert] (land): ‘Turn (your) face (to) the way/path of YHWH! Make straight in the (desert) plain a place (to walk) up for our God!'”

The verb hn`P* (p¹nâ), lit. “turn (your) face (to)”, often means “turn your attention to, give attention to”, in the sense of working at or preparing something. The noun Er#D# (derek) is typically translated “way” or “path”, but specifically means something trodden/trampled, i.e. where a person steps or walks. The parallel noun hL*s=m! (mislâ), from the verb lls, refers to a place that has been built or raised up—such as a ramp or staircase, and is often rendered as “highway”. The nouns rB*d=m! (mi¼b¹r) and hb*r*u& (±¦r¹»â) each refer to an open, remote area (i.e. desert, wilderness, pasture-land, etc), but with a slightly different nuance.

The Greek (LXX) translation is reasonably accurate, but interprets the Hebrew somewhat:

fwnh\ bow=nto$ e)n th=| e)rh/mw| e(toima/sate th\n o(do\n kuri/ou eu)qei/a$ poiei=te ta\$ tri/bou$ tou= qeou= h(mw=n
“(The) voice of (one) crying in the desolate (land): ‘(Make) ready the way of the Lord, make straight the broken (track)s of [i.e. for] our God!'”

Several of these differences resulted in making the verse more amenable for being applied to John the Baptist (and Jesus):

  • The opening construction—”voice of (one) crying”—points more directly to a particular person or figure (i.e. John).
  • The Greek word order allows the phrase “in the desert” to be associated with the voice crying (i.e., “voice crying in the desert”), rather than the location of the work (“make ready in the desert”).
  • The conventional rendering of the Divine name YHWH (hwhy, Yahweh) with Ku/rio$ (“Lord”) allowed Christians to interpret the passage as a reference to the coming of Jesus.
  • Instead of the idea of building up a ramp or pathway over the rough ground, the Greek conveys more the sense of smoothing out or leveling the rough places on road, etc., which better suits the image of John’s ministry urging people to repent of their sins.

All three Synoptic Gospels follow the LXX, except for the substitution of au)tou= (“his”) in place of tou= qeou= h(mw=n (“of our God”), which may have been an intentional (Christian) modification; in any case, it helps to make the passage apply to Jesus, rather than God the Father (YHWH).

One may understand the early Christian use and application of Isa 40:3 three ways, or on three distinct levels:

    1. At the historical level—i.e. what John said about himself, or how he was viewed by people at the time
    2. In an eschatological or Messianic sense—John as the herald who prepares people for the coming of God (and His Judgment) at the end-time, and
    3. In relationship to Christ—as the forerunner who prepares people for the appearance of Jesus

It is easy to conflate these and to jump immediately to the specifically Christian (or Christological) interpretation. This, of course, would have been the understanding of the Gospel writers; however, I am not so certain that it properly explains how the association of John with Isa 40:3 came to be established in the Gospel tradition in the first place. This will be discussed further in the next note.

February 20: Luke 4:16-30 (continued)

The narrative of Jesus in the Synagogue at Nazareth (Luke 4:16-30), with its central Scripture passage (Isaiah 61:1-2) was introduced in the previous note. Today, I will be examining the significance of the passage from Isaiah. This can be understood from two primary aspects:

First, in terms of the themes and motifs of Isa 40-66 (so-called deutero- and trito-Isaiah), especially those related to the restoration of Israel and the return of God’s people from exile. In an earlier note, I discussed the allusions to a number of Isaian passages in Lk 2:25-38—that is, in the context of devout Jews who are waiting (to receive) the “consolation [para/klhsi$] of Israel” (v. 25) and the “redemption [lu/trwsi$] of Jerusalem” (v. 38). These passages are thus to be understood in a “Messianic” context, broadly speaking—by the first century B.C./A.D., the idea of the “restoration” of Israel (and its kingdom), was closely tied to the coming of a new (Anointed) Ruler who would re-establish the Davidic covenant (cf. 2 Sam 7/Psalm 89, etc).

Second, Isaiah 61:1ff specifically as a Messianic passage. That the passage was understood this way in Jesus’ own time is indicated by the Qumran text 4Q521. This text survives only in several fragments, the largest of which (frag. 2 [col. ii]) reads as follows:

…[for the heav]ens and the earth will listen to his Anointed One [i.e. Messiah jyvm], 2[and all th]at is in them will not turn away from the precepts of the holy ones. 3Strengthen yourselves, you who are seeking the Lord, in his service! {blank} 4Will you not in this encounter the Lord, all those who hope in their heart? 5For the Lord will consider the pious, and call the righteous by name, 6and his Spirit will hover upon the poor, and he will renew the faithful with his strength. 7For he will honor the pious upon the throne of an eternal kingdom, 8freeing prisoners, giving sight to the blind, straightening out the twis[ted]. 9And for[e]ver shall I cling [to those who h]ope, and in his mercy […] 10and the fru[it of …] will not be delayed. 11And the Lord will perform marvellous acts such as have not existed, just as he sa[id], 12[for] he will heal the wounded and will make the dead live, he will proclaim good news to the poor 13and […] … […] he will lead the […] … and enrich the hungry. 14 […] and all … […]
(translation, with slight modification, from Florentino García Martínez & Eibert J. C. Tigchelaar, eds., The Dead Sea Scrolls Study Edition, 1997-8, 2000 Brill/Eerdmans, Vol. 2, p. 1045)

This section contains a blending of several Old Testament passages, primarily Psalm 146 and Isaiah 61:1-2 (for a somewhat similar use of Isa 61:1f cf. also 11QMelchizedek [11Q13]). The role of the Messiah (line 1) in what follows is not entirely clear, but it is possible that he is the agent through whom God will perform “marvellous acts” (line 11ff). It is hard to be certain, but the remaining fragments (especially frag. 2 col iii with its allusion to Mal 4:5-6) suggest the Anointed One (see also pl. “Anointed Ones” in frag. 8) should be understood as a prophetic figure, in the manner of Elijah. This will be discussed further below.

Isa 61:1, in its original context, referred to the prophet himself (trad. Isaiah)—the Spirit of Yahweh was upon him and anointed him to bring good news to the poor and oppressed; vv. 2-11 describe and promise the restoration of Israel, including a (new) covenant with God (v. 8) and (new) righteousness that will be manifest to all nations (vv. 9-11). Once the full sense of this “restoration” was transferred to the future, the speaker came to be identified with an Anointed eschatological (end-time) Prophet. Admittedly, prophets are not usually referred to as “anointed” in the Old Testament, but in later Judaism it became more common, and in the Qumran texts the word is used a number of times (especially in the plural) for the Prophets of Israel. At various points in its history, the Qumran Community (as reflected in the texts) seems to have expected three different Anointed (Messiah) figures—(1) a (royal) Messiah of Israel (sometimes with the title “Branch of David” or “Prince of the Congregation”), (2) a (priestly) Messiah of Aaron (perhaps identified with the “Interpreter of the Law”), and (3) a Prophet. It just so happens, of course, that these represent the three traditional “offices” of Christ (King, Priest, Prophet).

The concept of a “Messianic” (eschatological) Prophet derives from two main Old Testament passages:

    • Deuteronomy 18:15-19—The “Prophet like Moses” whom God will raise up.
    • Malachi 3:1-2—The Messenger, identified in Mal 4:5-6 [Hebrew 3:23-24] with Elijah, who will prepare the way of the Lord before His coming.

Both are attested as “Messianic” passages at Qumran and in the New Testament—for Deut 18:15-19 cf. 4Q175; 1QS 9:11; Acts 3:22-23; 7:37 (and see below); for Mal 3:1-2; 4:5-6 cf. 4Q521 frag. 2.iii; 4Q558(?); Mark 1:2; Matt 11:10ff; Luke 1:76. Elijah was the more popular figure, either as a type for the end-time Prophet or as Elijah redivivus (Elijah himself returning)—cf. Sirach 48:10-11; 4Q558; Mark 9:11-12 par.; Mishnah Sotah 9 (the Beraita), B. Metsia 1:8, 3:4, Eduyyot 8:7, and numerous passages in the Talmud (j. Sheqalim 3:3; b. Berakoth 35a, Shabbat 118a, Erubin 43b, Pesachim 13a, Chagigah 25a, Sotah 49b, B. Metsia 3a, Sanhedrin 48a, Menachot 45a, etc.). He was associated especially with the end-time judgment (cf. the Rabbinic invocation of his return in relation to resolving disputes), and with the resurrection (in addition to the talmudic references above, cf. j. Ketubot 12:3; Pes. de R. Kahana 76a; also 4 Ezra [2/4 Esdras] 7, for a connection between the Messiah and the resurrection).

Beyond the traditions indicated in these texts, the Lukan passage under discussion itself provides evidence for interpreting Isa 61:1-2 as referring to Jesus as an Anointed Prophet according to the type of Elijah:

    • Jesus’ saying in Lk 4:24 (par.) effectively identifies him as a prophet
    • The two Scriptural illustrations in vv. 25-27 are all from the Elijah/Elisha narratives in 1 Kings 17:1-18:1; 2 Kings 5 (these are the only OT Prophets mentioned in the context of anointing, cf. 1 Kings 19:16).

Indeed, I would argue that Jesus, at the earliest levels of Gospel tradition, was primarily thought of in terms of an Anointed (Messianic) Prophet, more so than as the Anointed (Davidic) King. It is hard to find an Old Testament passage more applicable to the ministry of Jesus (as recorded in the Synoptics) than Isa 61:1-2; and Jesus himself cites very similar language in response to the Baptist’s question (“Are you the Coming One?”), Luke 7:18-23/Matt 11:2-6. By the “One (Who Is) Coming” probably the eschatological Prophet is meant (Deut 18:15-19), and Jesus is explicitly identified with the “Prophet like Moses” in Acts 3:22-23; 7:37. The Gospel of John perhaps preserves something of this tradition of Jesus as “the Prophet” in Jn 1:21, 25; 6:14; 7:40; 9:17[?] (cf. also Luke 7:39 v.l.).

The association of Jesus with Elijah in Gospel tradition is more complicated. The use of Isa 61:1-2 would seem to suggest it, but the Synoptic Gospels, at least, identify John the Baptist with Elijah (Mark 1:2; 9:12-13 par. [saying of Jesus]; Matt 11:10-14 [saying of Jesus]; Luke 1:17). However, in Jn 1:20-21, the Baptist denies, in turn, that he is “the Anointed One [Messiah]”, “Elijah”, and “the Prophet”—apparently, these are to be understood as three different figures—and, since, Jesus would seem to fulfill the first and third, presumably he would the second (Elijah) as well. Certainly, the traditional association of Elijah with the end-time Judgment and the Resurrection, applies prominently to Jesus. For more on this, see Part 3 of the series “Yeshua the Anointed”.

In the Transfiguration scene (Mark 9:2-8; Matt 17:1-8; Luke 9:28-36), Moses and Elijah appear with Jesus (traditionally they are depicted on either side of him). It is customary to interpret Moses and Elijah as representing the Law (Torah) and Prophets respectively; however, given the evidence above, I think that the original import of the scene may have been to confirm, symbolically, Jesus as the Anointed Prophet-to-Come (fulling the typology of both Moses and Elijah). In Jewish thought, both figures play an important eschatological role, and an early tradition along these lines would seem to underlie Revelation 11:1-13. It is noteworthy, that in the Synoptic tradition, following the Transfiguration, Jesus again identifies John the Baptist with Elijah redivivus (Mark 9:9-13 par. [but not in Luke]). Clearly, then, Elijah is distinguished from both the (Davidic?) Messiah and the coming Prophet. In later Jewish tradition, Elijah precedes and announces (even anoints?) the Messiah (appar. the Jew Trypho in Justin’s Dialogue 8, 49; Targum Ps-Jon. on Deut 30:4; and b. Erubin 43b). This idea may have already been current in Jesus’ time.

In the Gospel tradition as it has come down to us (most clearly in the Synoptics), Jesus as the Anointed One [Messiah] is presented in a two-fold aspect:

  1. As the Prophet (to Come)—limited essentially to the Galilean ministry, and with the role of “Elijah” reserved for John the Baptist.
  2. As the King (“Son of David”)—this is associated with the ministry in Jerusalem, beginning with the Triumphal Entry and continuing into the Passion and Resurrection narratives.

(The discussion on Luke 4:16-30 will conclude in the next day’s note, with an examination of the people’s reaction to Jesus.)

February 19: Luke 14:16-30

Over the next few days I will be looking at the Lukan narrative of Jesus in the Synagogue at Nazareth (Lk 4:16-30), focusing on two areas: (1) the Scripture quotation (Isa 61:1-2), and (2) the reaction of the townspeople to Jesus’ words.

This episode is part of the common Gospel Tradition shared by the Synoptics, though in the Gospel of Luke it has been expanded considerably, and placed at a different point in the ministry (compare Mark 6:16; Matt 13:54-58). The chronological position, along with other apparent differences, have led some traditional-conservative commentators to posit two separate incidents. This is rather unlikely; the accounts in Luke and Mark-Matthew are close enough in outline that we should regard them as deriving from a single historical tradition. Were it not for a pious interest in harmonizing the chronologies, I doubt that anyone would have thought that two different episodes were involved. The Gospel writer (trad. Luke) has recorded the Nazareth event here (directly following the Baptism and Temptation), to mark the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. It holds a similar position as the narrative summary in Matthew 4:13-16—both passages contain a ‘Messianic’ Scripture (Isa 9:1-2 in Matt 4:15-16), and look backward to the Infancy Narrative while looking forward to the start of Jesus’ public ministry. Here, indeed, there are several points of contact with the Luke Infancy narrative(s) (1:5-2:52):

    • The Nazareth setting “where he had been nourished/nurtured [i.e. brought up]” (v. 16)
    • The Isaian Scripture passage—cf. especially the allusions to deutero-/trito-Isaiah (Isa 40-55, 56-66) in 2:25-38 (discussed in an earlier Christmas season note).
    • Here Jesus is filled with the (power of the) Spirit (4:1, 14) just as the young Jesus grew and was filled with wisdom, with the favor of God being upon him (2:40)—these two motifs are reflected in the opening words of Isa 61:1 (“the Spirit of the Lord is upon me…”).
    • We may also see here a reflection of the wisdom and favor Jesus has with/before [lit. alongside] men (2:52)—cf. 4:15, 22.
    • The reaction of the people to Jesus (v. 22ff) may be understood as illustrative of Simeon’s prophecy in 2:34-35 (for more on this, cf. the next days’ notes).
    • A parallel may also be intended between (the boy) Jesus in the Temple (2:41-51) and (the adult) Jesus in the Synagogue.

Before discussing the Scripture passage (Isaiah 61:1-2) specifically, it is worth noting the way Luke joins the narrative here to that of the Baptism/Temptation (3:21-22; 4:1-13):

  • “And Yeshua turned back [i.e. returned] in the power of the Spirit into the Galîl {Galilee}” (4:14a)
    • “and (the) talk/report went out down (through) all the surrounding area about him” (4:14b)
    • “and he taught in their (places-of-)bringing-together {synagogues}” (4:15a)
  • “and being (highly) esteemed [i.e. honored/glorified] by all” (4:15b)

The ‘outer’ phrases (v. 14a, 15b) could be said to reflect the wisdom/favor Jesus has with God and men, respectively (two aspects, cf. 2:52). The ‘inner’ phrases perhaps illustrate two aspects of Jesus’ public ministry: (a) his teaching among the people (v. 15a), and (b) the reaction of the people to him (v. 14b). In particular, the emphasis on the Spirit is most important, and is especially characteristic of Luke-Acts (cf. the earlier references in Lk 1:15, 35, 41, 67; 2:25-27; 3:16, 22; 4:1).

The Scripture Passage: Isaiah 61:1-2

Luke indicates that the Scripture Jesus recites in the Synagogue is from Isaiah 61:1-2. It is not clear whether this was an assigned reading (haphtarah) from the Prophets (connected with a particular section [parashah] of the Torah), or if Jesus selected it himself. A comparison between the Hebrew, Septuagint (LXX) and Luke is instructive:

Hebrew (MT)

1The Spirit of my Lord YHWH (is) upon me,
because YHWH has anointed me—
He has sent me to bring (a good) message (to) the poor/lowly (ones),
to wrap up (the pieces) for the (ones) broken of heart,
to call (out) ‘freedom’ for the captives
and ‘open wide’ for the (ones) who are bound,
2to call (out) ‘a year of acceptance for YHWH’
and ‘a day of vengeance for our God’,
to bring comfort (for) all mourners.

Septuagint (LXX)

1(The) Spirit of the Lord (is) upon me,
on account of which He anointed me
to bring (a) good message to the poor (ones);
He has sent me to heal the (ones) crushed together in the heart,
to proclaim ‘release’ to the (ones) taken by spear-point [i.e. prisoners]
and ‘seeing again’ to the (ones who are) blind,
2to call ‘an acceptable year of the Lord’
and ‘a day of giving (back) in return’,
to call alongside [i.e. help/comfort] the (ones) mourning.

Luke 4:18-19

18(The) Spirit of the Lord (is) upon me,
on account of which he anointed me
to bring (a) good message to the poor (ones);
He has sent me
{some MSS include the line here corresponding to the LXX}
to proclaim ‘release’ to the (ones) taken by spear-point [i.e. prisoners]
and ‘seeing again’ to the (ones who are) blind,
to set forth in release [i.e. freedom] the (ones who) have been crushed,
19to proclaim ‘an acceptable year of the Lord’.

The LXX translates the Hebrew fairly accurately, the main difference being the rendering of the somewhat obscure phrase j^oqÁjq^P= <yr!Wsa&l^w+ at the end of v. 1 (the LXX understands it as “opening [wide]” the eyes of the blind, but cf. a similar interpretation in 4Q521 frag. 2.ii line 8). The citation in Lk 4:18-19 follows the LXX, with several differences:

    • The phrase i)a/sasqai tou\$ suntetrimme/nou$ th=| kardi/a| (“to heal the ones crushed together in the heart”) is omitted (though it is retained/restored in some MSS).
    • A line, apparently taken from Isa 58:6 (LXX), is added at the end of v. 1.
    • V. 2 repeats khru/cai (“to proclaim”) instead of LXX kale/sai (“to call”)—this may simply match the consistent use of ar)q=l! in both verses, or may be meant to emphasize the idea of (Christian) proclamation (of the Word/Gospel).
    • Only the first part of v. 2 is cited, noticeably omitting the reference to “a day of vengeance/payback”; only the positive side of the proclamation is included (“an acceptable year”).

These facts would seem to indicate that the Scripture, as it is recorded here in Luke, does not represent exactly what Jesus would have spoken (at the historical level), but rather is a literary presentation of it (at the level of the Gospel writer).

Much more important is the significance of the passage, which will be examined in the next day’s note.

The “Messianic Apocalypse” (4Q521)

For students of the New Testament, and other interested Christians  today, the Dead Sea Scrolls from Qumran provide many examples which shine a light on the religious world and thought inherited by early Christians from the Judaism of the time. Two texts, in particular, are tantalizing in the mode of Messianic thought expressed, and their possible relation to the understanding of Jesus as the Messiah in the New Testament and early Christian tradition. The first of these texts, which I discuss here in this article, is labeled 4Q521.

The customary title, “Messianic Apocalypse”, was applied by the editor Émile Puech—’Une apocalypse messianique (4Q521), Revue de Qumrân 15 (1992), pp. 475-519—who also prepared the critical edition published in Discoveries in the Judean Desert (DJD) Vol. XXV, 1-38, pls. I-III. The title is rather misleading, though the thrust of the surviving fragments certainly appears to be eschatological and Messianic. The handwriting is recognized as being from the Hasmonean period, and the text itself was likely written at the beginning of the 1st century B.C. (or perhaps late in the 2nd century). Like nearly all of the Qumran texts, 4Q521 is highly fragmentary; the intelligible surviving portions are represented by five principal fragments, of which the most substantial are numbers 2 and 7. Even so, there are many gaps, and no way of knowing (or even guessing) the extent of the work as a whole, nor where precisely these fragments fit into its outline and structure.

Overall, the fragments suggest a work of exhortation and instruction (for members of the Community) in light of coming end-time events. This may be glimpsed in the surviving pieces of fragment 1 (col. 1), where the importance of listening to wisdom/instruction, the need for repentance from sin, remaining in the fear of God and love, etc, appears to be in view. More practical instruction is indicated in fragment 5 (col. 1 + 6): “…do not serve with those [… with] his frie[nd] and with [his] neighbor […] good to you and fortify the [po]wer […] sustenance, the faithful ones will grow…” (transl. García Martínez & Tigchelaar).
Note: in these translations, square brackets indicate reconstructions, square brackets with ellipsis mark lacunae (gaps) in the text.

It is the larger fragment 2 (cols. 2 & 3) which has most intrigued scholars. The surviving portion of column 2 begins (lines 1-2):

“[for the heav]ens and the earth will hear {i.e. listen} to his anointed (one), [and all wh]ich (is) in them will not turn (away) from the commands of his holy (one)s.”

At first glance the use of j^yv!m* (“anointed”) need not refer to anything beyond the priest (or prophet) who instructs the people (i.e. the Community). The plural <yv!odq= (“holy [one]s”) could refer to the Prophets of old, but, more properly, to the faithful ones in Israel, i.e. the members of the Community, who hold to the tox=m! (commands/precepts of the Torah) and teach them to others. The ancient idea of the universe (heavens and earth) obeying God’s word has joined the religious-ethical concept of faithfulness to the Torah (and to the Community)—both are aspects of a single dynamic which is about to come more clearly into view at the end-time. Indeed, the context suggests an eschatological orientation, and that the “anointed (one)” is a Messianic figure who is (about) to appear. This is confirmed by a careful reading of the remainder of the fragment.

Following the exhortation in lines 3-4, the remaining lines (5-14) record a promise of what God will do for his people, inspired by the beginning of the famous oracle in Isaiah 61, blended with a citation of Psalm 146:7-8, and allusions to eschatological/Messianic passages such as Daniel 7. In applying this chain of Scripture passages, it is clear that the “poor” and suffering ones are synonymous with the pious and devout ones (<yd!ys!j&)—the faithful Community in the midst of the wicked and corrupt world. It is they who receive the “good news” proclaimed by the Anointed herald of Isa 61:1ff. Note how these associations are worked out in the wording of the text here:

“For my Lord will consider the devout (one)s and will call the righteous/faithful (one)s by name, and his Spirit will hover upon the poor/afflicted (one)s, and he will renew with his strength the (one)s firm (in trust). For he will give weight to {i.e. honor} the devout (one)s (by putting them) upon the seat of a kingdom unto (the Ages)…” (lines 5-7)

Four different plural nouns are used to describe the people who will be thus blessed by God: (1) <yd!y!sj&, µ¦sîdîm [“devout/faithful ones”], (2) <yq!yd!x~, ƒadîqîm [“righteous/loyal ones”], (3) <yw]n`u&, ±¦n¹wîm [“poor/afflicted ones”], (4) <yn]Wma$, °§mûnîm [“trustworthy ones”]. What follows in lines 8-9 echoes Psalm 146:7-8, referring to the freeing of prisoners, opening eyes, straightening the twisted, etc. Unfortunately there is a gap in line 10, but it indicates an imminent eschatological expectation: God is about to “do weighty (thing)s which have not (yet) been” (line 11). These deeds of deliverance will, it seems, be performed by an Anointed representative, such as is mentioned in line 1, identified with the herald of Isa 61:

“…according to that which he spoke, [for] he will heal the wounded (one)s, and will make (one)s dead to live (again), and will bring (good) news for the poor/afflicted (one)s…” (lines 11-12)

To this, in the badly preserved third column of same fragment, is added an allusion to Malachi 4:5-6 [Hebrew 3:23-24] and the end-time role of “Elijah” as the Messenger who prepares things for God’s appearance on earth to bring the Judgment (3:1ff). Thus, we find here two key passages—Isa 61:1 and Mal 4:5-6—understood in an eschatological and Messianic sense, referring to the coming Judgment and deliverance of the faithful. The eschatological/Judgment context is even clearer in fragment 7, despite the many gaps in the text; lines 4-15 appear to be a portrait of the Last Judgment, sharing features with apocalyptic works such as 1 Enoch, with its description of the heavenly geography, the role of the Angels, etc.

Isaiah 61:1 and Mal 3:1; 4:5-6 also feature prominently in the Gospel Tradition, relating to the identity of Jesus as the Anointed One (Messiah). Both passages came to be understood in Jewish tradition as referring to Messianic Prophet figure-types—”Elijah” and the herald of Isa 61. Both figure-types were applied to Jesus in the earliest Gospel tradition, though eventually the role of “Elijah” was seen as being fulfilled by John the Baptist. Jesus identifies himself specifically with the Anointed herald of Isaiah 61:1 in two distinct lines of tradition (Lk 7:22 par [“Q”] and Lk 4:18ff). I discuss these matters in considerable detail in Parts 2 & 3 of the series “Yeshua the Anointed”. An especially interesting point in common between the Gospel tradition and 4Q521 is that the Isaian oracle has been adapted to include a reference to raising the dead (line 12, Matt 11:5b par), which, in Jewish tradition, came to be associated particularly with Elijah (cf. 1 Kings 17:17-24; Sirach 48:5, [11]; m. Sota 9; j. Sheqalim 3:3; Pesikta de R. Kahana 76a). By the end of the 1st century A.D., resurrection came to be connected with the appearance of the Messiah generally (2 Baruch 30:2; 2/4 Esdras 7) [cf. Collins, pp. 119-20].

The Qumran text 4Q521 demonstrates that similar Messianic associations were already being made early in the 1st century B.C., whereby an Anointed figure was expected to appear at the end-time, a divinely-appointed representative who would act on God’s behalf, able to work miracles, control/alter the natural order, and who would bring aid and deliverance to the faithful ones among God’s people.

References above marked “Garcia Martinez & Tigchelaar” are to Florentino García Martínez and Eibert J. C. Tigchelaar, The Dead Sea Scrolls Study Edition (Brill / Eerdmans: 1997-8).
References marked “Collins” are to John J. Collins, The Scepter and the Star: The Messiahs of the Dead Sea Scrolls and Other Ancient Literature, Anchor Bible Reference Library [ABRL] (Doubleday: 1995).