Birth of the Messiah: Early Christian Tradition

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

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

Revelation 12 and Early Christian Eschatology

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Protevangelium and other early Infancy narratives

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

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

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

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

Second Century Debates with Judaism

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

Justin Martyr’s Dialogue with Trypho

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

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

Origen’s Against Celsus

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

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

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

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

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

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

Birth of the Messiah: Qumran and Pseudepigrapha

This series on the theme of the Birth of the Messiah concludes with a pair of articles. The first will examine (in more detail) the passages in Jewish writings of the first centuries B.C./A.D. referring in some way to the Messiah’s “birth” as God’s Son. The second will deal with the early Christian evidence, outside of the Matthean/Lukan Infancy narratives, insofar as it may relate to the wider (Jewish) traditions regarding the Messiah. I begin here with the Jewish writings—passages in both the Qumran texts and several other writings of the period. Some of these have been touched upon in the previous articles, but is worth given them a more extensive treatment. The Qumran texts will serve as the starting point.

1Q28a [1QSa]

The text 1QSa [28a] is one of the key Rule documents for the Qumran Community, and should be studied in connection with the more famous Community Rule (1QS). It is referred to as the “Rule of the Congregation”, and also sometimes as the “Messianic Rule”, in light of the passage that is to be discussed here. What survives of this text is comprised of a lengthy fragment in two columns. It is clearly eschatological in orientation, with column 1 beginning “This is the rule of all the congregation of Israel in the final days…”. As such, it is certainly Messianic in significance as well, and not simply because of the wording in 2.11-12 (cf. below). The Community of the Qumran texts saw itself as the true Israel and people of God, the faithful remnant of the last days, and their Messianic expectations were centered around their own Community life and organization. The regulations in 1QSa reflect the organization of the Community, in its ideal form, in preparation for the end-time action by God, to be realized through the mediation and leadership of several different Messianic figures. I discuss these figure-types in the earlier series “Yeshua the Anointed”; they include an Anointed Priest in addition to the more familiar Anointed Ruler/Prince from the line of David.

The Qumran Community appear to have expected that it would be joined (and led) by these two Anointed figures (Messiahs), sometimes specified in the Rule texts as “the Anointed (Ones) of Aaron and Israel” (1QS 9:11; CD/QD 12:23-13:1; 14:19; 19:11; 20:1; 1QS 9:11). This is the case in 1QSa as well, though only one figure called “Anointed” (jyvm) is named as such—the “Anointed of Israel”, i.e. the Davidic Ruler. He is mentioned in lines 11-21 of column 2, beginning as follows:

“In a s[it]ting of (the) men of the name, (the) [ones called] (to the) appointed (meeting) for (the) council of the Community, when [God] gives birth to the Anointed (One) with them, the head Priest of all the congregation of Yisra’el will come…” (lines 11-12)

The italicized words in Hebrew are generally recognized as jyvmh [t]a [la] d[yl]wy; however, the reading of the verb form dylwy (“he causes to be born, he gives birth”) has been disputed by some scholars, due to the fragmentary (and faded) condition of the manuscript. Some prefer the restoration iylwy (“he brings/leads”), while dyuwy (something like, “he makes [them] meet at the appointed [place]”) has also been suggested. Probably the majority of commentators, especially those who have (re)examined the original photographs (when the leather was in better condition), today accept the reading dylwy. But what does it mean to say that God “causes the Anointed (One) to be born”?

Certainly, the context does not suggest anything like an actual human birth, such as is described of Jesus in the Gospel Infancy narratives. Instead, the “birth” must be understood in a more symbolic sense, and the best guide for this is Psalm 2:7 (discussed in an earlier article), where the verb dl^y` is similarly used of the “Anointed One” (j^yv!m*, v. 2). In the original context of Psalm 2, this “birth” refers to the inauguration (coronation and/or enthronement) of the Israelite/Judean king. In the Messianic setting of the Qumran texts, this has to be translated in terms of the Anointed One beginning his period of rule (i.e. over the Community). Here, the Messiah (“the Anointed One of Israel“) has a subordinate position to the “head Priest” (2.13-14, 40), which suggests that this is a priestly Messiah (i.e., “the Anointed One of Aaron“). By all accounts, both Messianic figures were human beings (not supernatural/Angelic beings), who were specially appointed by God to serve in those end-time roles of leadership. Their positions reflect a two-fold division of the Community, at least in terms of their end-time assemblies—(1) the “men of the name”, led by the Priest, and (2) the “thousands of Israel”, led by the Davidic ruler, the Anointed One of Israel.

This sense of the Messiah’s “birth”, with its allusion to Psalm 2:7, provides an interesting parallel with the baptism of Jesus in the Gospel Tradition. Jesus’ baptism marks the beginning of his earthly ministry, just as here the “birth” of the Messiah signifies the beginning of his period of rule over the Community. The divine voice from heaven (Mark 1:11 par) at the baptism alludes to Psalm 2:7, and, indeed, in some manuscripts and versions of Luke 3:22 it is a direct quotation (“You are my Son, today I have caused you to be born”).


I have discussed the remarkable Aramaic text in earlier studies (including an article in the “Dead Sea Scrolls Spotlight” feature). According to the scenario in the two columns of the extensive surviving fragment, a king is troubled by a vision he has experienced, and a seer approaches the throne and offers to provide an interpretation similar to that of the vision in Daniel 7 (7:15-18ff): great distress upon the earth, with nations fighting each other, etc. The climactic portion of column I reads:

7 [Then shall arise a king, and he shall be] great upon the earth.
8 [All peoples sh]all make [peace with him]; they shall all serve
9 [him. Son of the gr]eat [king] he shall be called, and by his name he shall be designated
Reconstruction & translation from Fitzmyer (1993/2000) and Zimmerman (1998) [see below]

Column II then begins:

1 Son of God he will be hailed, and Son of the Most High they will call him. …

A major point of dispute among commentators is whether the figure called “Son of God” and “Son of the Most High” is a positive (Messianic) figure, or a negative figure, i.e. a ruler who takes/accepts these divine titles wickedly for himself. The majority of scholarly opinion today favors the Messianic interpretation. Scholars have found very little Jewish evidence (particularly in the pre-Christian period) for titles such as “Son of God” or “Son of the Most High” being used of enemy kings (such as Alexander Balas, Antiochus IV, Roman emperors, etc [cf. Jos. War II.184]), whereas the anointed (Davidic) king is already referred to as God’s “son” in the Old Testament (Psalm 2:7; 2 Sam 7:14). It is in early Christianity, with the development of the “antichrist” concept (partly in reaction to the Roman Imperial cult), that divine names and honors are shown being appropriated or claimed falsely by evil/satanic figures (cf. 2 Thess 2:3-4; Rev 13, 17; and esp. Didache 16:4). Therefore, it is most likely that a ‘Messianic’, divinely favored (or appointed) figure is meant in I.9-II.2ff. The correlation between “Son of God” and “People of God” may be drawing specifically upon the parallel in Daniel 7, where one “like a Son of Man” comes to receive an everlasting rule and kingdom (7:13-14) and the “people of the Most High” receive the sovereignty and kingdom of God (7:27). By the mid-late 1st century A.D., “Son of God” and “Son of Man” are both titles which come to be applied to heavenly Messiah-figures of the end-time who will judge/defeat the nations and restore/deliver Israel (cf. below, and Part 12 of the series “Yeshua the Anointed”).

A Messianic interpretation would also seem to be confirmed by the extraordinary parallels with the Annunciation scene in the Lukan Infancy narrative (1:32, 35):

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

The application of the title “Son of God” to this Messianic figure likely reflects the same general influence of the royal theology (in Psalm 2:7) discussed above; only in this sense can we speak of the Messiah’s “birth” in this text.


This highly fragmentary text is almost certainly another apocalyptic work, with similarities to other Jewish pseudepigrapha of the period. An ancient ancestor of Israel (Enosh has been suggested) prophecies the Israelite history, from the earliest period down to the end-time (i.e. the current time of the author/audience). Thus, like all such apocalyptic works, the emphasis is eschatological, presenting the future hopes and expectations (including Messianic expectation) of people as the sure fulfillment of ancient prophecy. The context of the work is established in column 1 of fragment 1, including a genealogy of the ancestors through Enoch. In column 2, it would seem that there is a prophecy of the establishment of the Israelite kingdom (at Jerusalem) and the Davidic line; the language used reflects Judean royal theology, and almost certainly has Messianic significance in such a context:

“…your Name. You allotted his portion to cause your Name to dwell there […] It is the glory of your earthly land. And on it dw[ell your people …] your eye is on it, and your glory will be seen there fo[rever …] to his seed for their generations an eternal possession. And al[l …] and you have made clear to him your good judgments […] in eternal light. And you made him a first-bo[rn] son to you […] like him for a prince and ruler in all your earthly land [… …the] cr[own of the] heavens and the glory of the clouds [you] have set [on him … …] and the angel of your peace among his assembly. And h[e … gave] to him righteous statutes, as a father to [his s]on [… …] his love your soul cleaves to for[ever. …] because by them [you established] your glory […]”
Translation by Craig A. Evans, Qumran-Messianism, p. 147.

It is noteworthy how heavenly/Angelic attributes are combined with the royal/Davidic motifs and traditions, very much suggesting that a Messianic figure is in view. The idea of the Messiah as God’s “first-born son” (rwkb /b) would be a development of the tradition of the faithful (Davidic) king as God’s son in Psalm 2:7; 2 Sam 7:14. The images of “eternal light” and the “glory of the clouds” are vaguely reminiscent of the scene of Jesus’ baptism, as also of his exaltation to heaven; in both contexts Psalm 2:7 was applied to Jesus, identifying him as both the Anointed One (Messiah) and God’s Son. Possibly, the Messianic/ruler figure in 4Q369 1 col. 2 is similarly understood to be “born” as God’s son through a dramatic heavenly manifestation that confirms his kingship.

The remaining fragments of the text (2-4), while tantalizing, are too small for much meaningful interpretation or reconstruction of the work as a whole.


Another fascinating (and, unfortunately, highly fragmentary) text is 4Q534, an Aramaic word sometimes called the “Elect of God” text, due to the striking description in lines 8-11 of column 1 of the surviving fragment:

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

It has been suggested that, in the literary context of the work, this is a prophecy of Noah’s birth (the Flood is apparently mentioned in column 2, line 14). The language certainly indicates a special figure, with a status and place in the world that has been established by God. These are characteristics that could apply just as well to a Messianic figure, and it is possible that such an association is intended. The expression “the spirit of his breath” may allude to Isa 11:4, a popular passage that influenced the Messianic Davidic ruler figure-type in Jewish writings of the period. There is a gap in the text presumably where something would have been stated regarding the birth of this person, and conceivably could have read “his birth and the spirit of his breath [are of God]”, or something similar (Evans, Qumran-Messianism, p. 145 [citing J. A. Fitzmyer]). If more of the text had survived, we might be able to determine if there is genuinely Messianic significance to this passage, or if the similarities are coincidental.

There are even fewer references to the Messiah’s “birth” as God’s Son in other Jewish writings in the first centuries B.C./A.D. Indeed, I am only aware of two passages which can reasonably be cited, and neither refers to the Messiah’s birth per se.

Psalms of Solomon 17-18

The 17th and 18th of the so-called Psalms of Solomon represent the earliest depiction of the Messiah (that is, the Davidic rule figure-type) in any detail. These hymns are usually dated to the mid-1st century B.C. (sometime after 63 B.C.). There is no specific mention of the Davidic Messiah as God’s Son, but there are several references, in close proximity, which illustrate how such traditional birth/sonship motifs could come together and be applied within the same Messianic context.

In 17:21, God is called on to “raise up” this king, whose Davidic origins are clear in the reference to him as “the son of David”; he is to be revealed to the world, and to God’s people, in the time known only to God. This manifestation of the Messiah, could, in similar contexts, be referred to as his “birth” (cf. above, on 1QSa 2.11-12). Moreover, an allusion to Psalm 2 follows in verse 23, which suggests that Ps 2:7 (and the Messiah’s “birth”) may also be in mind when referring to his end-time appearance. The Messiah’s unique relationship to God’s people at the end-time is also emphasized in vv. 26ff, with the traditional identification of the faithful ones of God’s people as His “sons” or “children”; this association is made in v. 27b:

“For he [i.e. the Messiah] shall know them, that they all are (the) sons of their God.”

If the faithful ones who obey the Messiah are sons/children of God, then it certainly follows that he is God’s “son” as well. The close (filial) relationship between the Anointed king (Messiah) and God is developed in vv. 31b-34: he is righteous, will be taught by God, will be called Lord and Anointed One (Lord Messiah), and God (the Lord) Himself is the Messiah’s own king.

Psalm 2 is again in view in Ps Sol 18, where the people will be shepherded under the rod of the Messiah (v. 6). This “rod” is also expressed in terms of the discipline shown by a father (God) to his son (Israel); indeed, in v. 4, Israel is described as a “firstborn son, an only child”. Again, if the people can be called God’s (firstborn) son, then surely this applies to their king Messiah as well (cf. above on 4Q369).

2/4 Esdras 13

The writing known as 2 (or 4) Esdras, like many of the surviving Jewish pseudepigrapha, was preserved and edited by Christians, but is ultimately based on Jewish materials. Indeed, the core of this work (chapters 3-14), the portion typically referred to as “4 Ezra”, is thoroughly Jewish and dates from the latter part of the 1st century A.D.—thus making it contemporary with much of the New Testament. The work is apocalyptic, presented as a prophecy of things which are to occur at the end-time. As an eschatological Jewish writing, it thus evinces a strong Messianic orientation, especially of the Davidic ruler figure-type who will appear to deliver God’s people and usher in the Judgment on the nations. In chapter 13, there is a vision of a man arising out of the sea (vv. 5ff); in the explanation of this vision that follows in vv. 25-38, a divine/heavenly voice tells the seer (Ezra) about the coming deliverance. Prior to the coming of the Messiah, there will be a period of intense suffering and distress, including wars among the nations (vv. 30-31); then it is related that:

“when these things come to pass and the signs occur which I showed you before, then my Son will be revealed, whom you saw as a man coming up from the sea.” (v. 32)

According to the Messianic traditions studied above, based primarily on Psalm 2:7, this revealing of God’s Son, his rising up “out of the sea”, could properly be referred to as his “birth”, though that particular wording is not used here. The conflict with the nations and their Judgment certainly corresponds to the traditional Messianic interpretation of Psalm 2. In verses 33-34 it is describes how the nations ultimately gather together with the intent of conquering the Son, but the result is that

“he will stand on the top of Mount Zion. And Zion will come and be made manifest to all people… And he, my Son, will reprove the assembled nations for their ungodliness…and will reproach them to their face with their evil thoughts…and he will destroy them without effort by the law (which was symbolized by the fire)” (vv. 35-37, ellipses mine)

Again the revelation of God’s Son is mentioned in verse 52: “no one on earth can see my Son or those who are with him, except in the time of his day”.

Translations and references above marked “Martínez-Tigchelaar” are to Florentino García Martínez and Eibert J. C. Tigchelaar, The Dead Sea Scrolls Study Edition, Brill/Eerdmans: 1997-8.
Those marked “Qumran-Messiasm” are to Qumran-Messianism: Studies on the Messianic Expectations in the Dead Sea Scrolls, ed. by James H. Charlesworth, Hermann Lichtenberger, and Gerbern S. Oegema (Mohr Siebeck: 1998). “Zimmerman” is the article by Johannes Zimmermann, “Observations on 4Q246 – The ‘Son of God’, pp. 175-190; the article by Craig A. Evans is “Are the ‘Son’ Texts at Qumran ‘Messianic’? Reflections on 4Q369 and Related Scrolls”, pp. 135-153.
“Fitzmyer” refers to Joseph A. Fitzmyer, The Dead Sea Scrolls and Christian Origins (Eerdmans: 2000).
The translation of 2/4 Esdras is that of Bruce M. Metzger in The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, ed. James H. Charlesworth, Anchor Bible Reference Library [ABRL] (1983).

Birth of the Messiah: Micah 5:2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hebrew (MT) [5:1]

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


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

Matthew 2:6

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

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

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

Messianic Interpretation of Micah 5:1 [2]

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

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

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

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

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

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).

Birth of the Messiah: Psalm 2:7

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

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

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

Messianic Use and Interpretation of Psalm 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Theological Terminology Applied to the Idealized Davidic Ruler

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

    • In the time of David and Solomon, a specific royal (Judean) theology grew up around the kingship, expressed and preserved in specific Psalms which would have enormous influence on subsequent Jewish (and Christian) thought. Two Psalms in particular—Psalm 2 and 110—set around the enthronement/coronation/inauguration of the (new) king, draw upon ancient Near Eastern language and symbolism, depicting the reigning king as God’s appointed, chosen representative (figuratively, his “son” [Ps 2:7])
    • This same theology crystalized in the Scriptural narrative, associated with a particular oracle by Nathan the prophet, regarding the future of the Davidic dynasty (2 Samuel 7:8-16). The critical and interpretive difficulties regarding this section are considerable, and cannot be delved into here. The prayer of David following in 2 Sam 7:18-29 must be read in context, along with the parallel(s) in Psalm 89 (cf. also 2 Sam 22:44-51 / Ps 18:44-51).
    • The so-called Deuteronomic history (Judges–Kings) uses an ethical and narrative framework, comparing the good and wicked kings, according to the extent to which they followed the way of the Lord—defined, in part, in terms of the example of David (“as David his Father did”, 1 Kings 9:4; 11:4-6, 33-34, etc). David thus serves, in many ways, as the model/ideal ruler. Historical circumstances clearly showed that the promise regarding the Davidic dynasty was conditional—his descendants would maintain rule only so far as they remained faithful and obedient to God (cf. 1 Kings 11:9-13, 31-39). Thus the oracle of Nathan would be (re)interpreted to allow for a (temporary) end to Davidic kingship.
    • The Davidic promise is given new form in the oracles of the prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel, in the historical context of the fall of Judah and the Babylonian exile. Jer 23:5ff declares that God will raise for David “a righteous sprout [qyD!x* jm^x#]” who will rule as king. The same expression and message is found in Jer 33:14-16ff. That these prophecies point to the future, in contrast to the historical circumstances in the prophet’s own time, is indicated by the surrounding context (cf. Jer 22:30; 33:19-26). In Ezekiel 34:23-24, there is a similar promise that God would raise up for Israel “one shepherd, my servant David”; cf. also Ezek 37:24-25.
    • In the early post-Exilic period, Zerubbabel appears to have been seen as a fulfillment of the restoration of Davidic rule (Haggai 2:21-24; Zechariah 4:6-14, cf. also 3:8; 6:11-14). Ultimately, of course, the true fulfillment had to wait for a future coming King, as indicated in the (later) oracle Zech 9:9-10ff.

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

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

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

A Pattern for the Judgment of the Nations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This will be considered again further below.

Early Christian Application to Jesus as the Messiah

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

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

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

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

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

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

(and, also in v. 35b:)

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

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

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

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

Psalm 2:7 in Jewish and Christian Tradition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Birth of the Messiah: Exodus 2:1-10

Moses’ Birth in Exodus 2:1-10:
A Pattern for the Birth of the Messiah

This is the first in a series of articles to run between Christmas and Epiphany. Each article will explore Scripture passages and traditions related to the Birth of the Messiah. As such, it is not a study of the birth of Jesus, except insofar as his birth is connected with Messianic traditions, and, in particular, traditions regarding the Messiah’s birth. It should be admitted from the outset that this study is made difficult by two factors: (1) the paucity of references to the Messiah’s birth, especially of traditions which may be plausibly dated as early as the first centuries B.C./A.D., and (2) the fact that there were a number of different Messianic figure-types in Judaism at the time. I have discussed the second point at length in the series “Yeshua the Anointed”. In addition to the more commonly recognized Davidic ruler figure-type, there were several Anointed Prophet types, Messianic Priest-figures, and Heavenly-deliverer types, all attested variously in the writings of the period. Different traditions may be associated with each of these figure-types.

We begin with what could be considered the earliest Scriptural tradition related to the birth of the Messiah: the birth of Moses, as narrated in Exodus 2:1-10. The Messianic aspect of this narrative may not be immediately apparent; it can be established, at least for early Christians, on the basis of two pieces of evidence: (1) the association of Jesus with Moses in early tradition, and (2) the fact that the Matthean Infancy narrative was influenced by the Moses narratives in the early chapters of Exodus.

These two areas of study will structure this article; here is the outline I follow:

    • Jesus and Moses: The Messianic Prophet to Come
    • Similarities between the (Matthean) Infancy Narrative and Moses Narratives
    • Parallels with contemporary Jewish versions of the Exodus tradition
    • Exodus 2:1-10 and the Archetypal Narrative

Jesus and Moses: The Prophet to Come

As I have already dealt with this subject extensively in Parts 2 and 3 of the series “Yeshua the Anointed”, I will here summarize the results of that study with the following discussion. Christians are not accustomed to thinking of Jesus as a Prophet, but in the Gospel tradition—at least in terms of his time of ministry (prior to the final journey to Jerusalem)—this is the ‘Messianic’ designation that best applies to him. In the Synoptic narrative, which divides neatly between Jesus’ ministry [in Galilee and the surrounding regions] (Mark 1-9 par) and the time in Jerusalem (Mark 11-16 par), there are virtually no references to Jesus as a Davidic ruler or ‘Messianic’ king (cf. Matt 9:27) during the period of ministry. Even references to “the Anointed One” [o( xristo/$] are quite rare, and almost non-existent prior to Peter’s confession (“you are the Anointed One…”, Mk 8:29 par). There are considerably more references to Jesus as “the Anointed One” in the Gospel of John (Jn 1:41; 3:28; 4:25, 29; 7:26-27, 31, 41-42; 10:24; 11:27), but, apart from the explicit identification in Jn 7:42, it is by no means clear that “Anointed One” in these passages always refers to a ‘Messiah’ of the Davidic-ruler type. There is actually better evidence for Jesus as a Messianic Prophet, though it takes a bit of detective work to see the extent of this:

It should be noted that the idea of Jesus as a Prophet is entirely based on early Gospel tradition, and is really only found in the Gospel narratives themselves. Apart from Acts 3:18-24 (cf. also 7:37), it does not occur anywhere else in the New Testament, and is virtually non-existent in early Christian doctrine and theology as well. All of this is strong evidence for the historical veracity of the Gospel references, on entirely objective grounds—the identification of Jesus as a Prophet is not something the early Church would have invented.

The specific identification of Jesus with Moses—that is, an Anointed Prophet according to the type of Moses—is derived from the tradition that a “Prophet like Moses” will appear (at the end-time), who will instruct the faithful just as Moses did. This tradition clearly comes from Deuteronomy 18:15-20 (cf. also Deut 34:10-12).

In the Old Testament, especially in Deuteronomic tradition, Moses is viewed as a Prophet—indeed as the ideal and greatest Prophet (Deut 34:10-12). In Deuteronomy 18:15ff we find the famous prediction that another Prophet will (eventually) arise who is like Moses and who will take his place. In the same manner, Elisha took the place of Elijah, being anointed by his predecessor (1 Kings 19:16) and possessing his spirit and character (2 Kings 2:9, 15). Eventually, this prediction was given a future, eschatological interpretation—at the end-time, a Prophet-like-Moses would arise to instruct the faithful of Israel. This expectation probably underlies the notice in 1 Maccabees 14:41 (“…until a trustworthy Prophet should arise”), as well as the reference to “the unique Prophet” in Testament of Benjamin 9:2. In the Qumran texts, Moses was clearly regarded as a Prophet, as in the “Apocryphon of Moses/Pentateuch” writings—cf. especially 4Q375 column 1 (in line 7 the phrase “trustworthy prophet” appears); in 4Q377 column 2, line 5, Moses is referred to as God’s “Anointed (One)” [jyvm]. Deut 18:18-19 is cited in 4QTestimonia [4Q175] lines 5-8, in what is likely an eschatological/Messianic context. The expected Prophet of 1QS 9:11 (“…until the coming of the Prophet and the Anointed [Ones] of Aaron and Israel”) presumably draws upon this Moses tradition as well.

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

    • Parallels with the birth of Moses (and the Exodus) in the Matthean Infancy narrative (Matt 2:1-21, cf. below)
    • Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness (Matt 4:2 par) just as Moses was on Sinai for 40 days (Exod 24:18); in the arrangement of Matthew’s narrative, Jesus likewise returns to deliver/expound the Law/Torah (Matt 5:17ff)
    • The association with Moses in the Transfiguration scene (on this, cf. below)
    • In various ways, Jesus’ words and actions followed the type/pattern of Moses:
      • Cf. the detailed summary of Moses’ life in Stephen’s speech (Acts 7:17-44) and its parallel to Jesus (7:45-53)—cp. “this Moses” (7:35, 37, 40) with the frequent use of “this Jesus” in Acts (1:11; 2:23, 32, 36; 4:11; 6:14 etc)
      • Moses and the ‘bronze serpent’ as a pattern of Jesus’ death (and exaltation), Jn 3:14
      • Moses and the manna (Jesus as the “bread from heaven”), Jn 6:32ff
      • Moses and the rock in the wilderness (Christ as the rock), 1 Cor 10:2-5

Elsewhere in the New Testament, we also find a juxtaposition contrasting Jesus and Moses—e.g., John 1:17; 5:45-46 (cf. Lk 16:29-31); 9:28-29; 2 Cor 3:13ff; Heb 3:2-5. Interestingly, these points of contrast are still based on a similarity between Jesus and Moses, the emphasis being on Jesus’ superiority or on how he fulfills/completes the “Old Covenant” represented by Moses.

Finally, in the Transfiguration episode in the Synoptic Gospels (also mentioned in 2 Peter 1:16-18)—Jesus is associated directly (and at the same time) with both Moses and Elijah. It is customary and popular for Christians to interpret Moses and Elijah here as representing “the Law and the Prophets”—that is, Jesus as the fulfillment of Scripture. However, this does not seem to be correct. For one thing, Elijah is not an especially appropriate figure to represent the written books of the Prophets, since he apparently wrote nothing, and did not utter any ‘Messianic’ prophecies that might be fulfilled by Jesus. At the same time, Moses, in addition to his connection with the Law (Torah), was viewed as perhaps the greatest of Prophets (cf. above)—indeed, Moses and Elijah together represent: (a) the two great Prophet figures of Israel’s history, and (b) each served as the type of a end-time Prophet-to-Come. Secondarily, perhaps, one might note that Moses and Elijah each experienced a special manifestation of God (theophany) on Mt. Sinai/Horeb, and that there are clear echoes and allusions to the Sinai theophany in the Gospel narrative of the Transfiguration (esp. in Luke’s version).

The Matthean Infancy Narrative and the Moses Narratives

There are clear similarities between the Matthean Infancy narrative (chaps. 1-2) and the Moses narratives in the early chapters of Exodus (1-4), as can be seen even by a casual reading and comparison of the two. Whatever this may say about the historicity of the events recorded in the Gospel narrative, there can be little doubt that the Exodus traditions have shaped the literary narrative in Matthew. One must be careful not to confuse or confound the historical and literary aspects of any Scripture passage. And, from a literary standpoint, there is every reason to think that the Gospel writer has consciously shaped his narrative in light of the earlier story of Moses birth, etc. The similarities between Exodus and the Infancy narratives are:

    • Pharaoh and the people of Egypt come to fear Israel and the threat it poses; Moses is among the many children being born to the Israelites (Exod 1:9-12)
      Herod and the people of Jerusalem were frightened at the prophetic news of the Messiah’s birth (Matt 2:2)
    • The king’s plan to thwart their strength by putting the male infants to death when they are born (Exod 1:15-16ff, 22)
      Herod’s attempt to thwart the Messiah by putting the male infants to death (Matt 2:8, 13ff, 16-20)
    • Moses is born of a Levite woman (Exod 2:1)
      While not specified in Matthew, the Lukan narrative suggests Mary is also from the line of Levi (Lk 1:5, 36)
    • Reference to the conception and birth by the woman (Exod 2:2; Matt 1:20, 25)
    • Saving the child from being put to death by the wicked king (Exod 2:2b-3ff; Matt 2:13-15ff)
    • Moses’ flight and return, par. to that of Jesus and his parents (Exod 2:15, 23; 4:19-20; Matt 2:14-15, 19-20ff)

Perhaps the clearest example of literary dependence on the Moses narratives is how closely the wording in Matt 2:20 resembles that of Exod 4:19 LXX:

“And after those many days, the king of Egypt completed (his life) [i.e. died], and the Lord said toward Moshe in Midian, ‘You must walk (and) go (away) from (here) into Egypt, for all the (one)s seeking your soul have died‘. And Moshe took up his wife and the children…” (Exod 4:19-20)
“And (with) Herod (hav)ing completed (his life) [i.e. died], see! a Messenger of the Lord appeared by a dream to Yosef in Egypt, saying, ‘Rising…you must travel into the land of Yisrael, for all the (one)s seeking the soul of the child have died. And, rising, he took along the child and his mother…” (Matt 2:19-21)

The italicized words above are nearly identical:

teqnh/kasin ga\r pa/nte$ oi( zhtou=nte/$ sou th\n yuxh/n
“for all the (one)s seeking your soul have died”
teqnh/kasin ga\r pa/nte$ oi( zhtou=nte$ th\n yuxh/n tou= paidi/ou
“for all the (one)s seeking the soul of the child have died”

Moreover, in both narratives we have the common location of Egypt—traveling into and out of the land, though in different directions.

Contemporary Versions of the Exodus Tradition

The similarities between the Matthean Infancy narrative and the Moses story are even closer when one considers the developed Jewish versions of the story that would have been in circulation around the time that the Gospel of Matthew was written. Two versions, in particular may be noted—those found in the Antiquities of Josephus, and the Biblical Antiquites of Pseudo-Philo—both likely composed c. 70 A.D., roughly the same time as Matthew’s Gospel.

Josephus’ Antiquities

The portion in the Antiquities corresponding to Exod 2:1-10 is book 2 sections 205-237. A considerable amount of legendary material has been added to the Scriptural narrative, most of which is likely traditional, rather than being simply the invention of Josephus. Here are the most noteworthy details, in relation to the Matthean Infancy narrative (cf. also Brown, pp. 114-6):

    • A prophecy of Moses’ birth, forewarning that a Deliverer of the people Israel would be born; in particular, it was the king’s sacred scribes that made this known to Pharaoh (2.205, 234-5)
    • In a subsequent development to the tradition, those who advise Pharaoh are specifically designated as Magi-astrologers—Babylonian Talmud, b. Sotah 12b, Sanhedrin 101a; Exodus Rabbah 1.18 (on Exod 1:22); cf. also Philo Life of Moses I.92.
    • Pharaoh’s alarm at this news (2.206, 215)
    • God appears to Amram, the child’s father, in a dream, warning him (2.212, 215-6)
    • Note also the reference to Moses’ growth (2.230-1) which resembles, in some of its basic thought and vocabulary, the notice in Luke 2:47, 52.
Pseudo-Philo, Biblical Antiquities

The expanded version of Old Testament/Israelite history in Pseudo-Philo likewise contains much additional information and legendary detail. The portion corresponding to Exod 2:1-10 is in chapter 9. The parallels with the Gospel Infancy narratives are:

    • Emphasis on Amram (the father)’s prophetic foresight and action (9:3ff)
    • God’s declaration of the special status of Moses as His servant (9:7-8), suggestive of a Messianic character
    • There is an Angelic appearance to Miriam similar to the Lukan annunciation to Mary (9:9-10; cp. Lk 1:26-38); it also involves the Spirit of God coming upon her; “Miriam” and “Mary”, of course, are essentially the same name (Grk Maria/m)
    • The Angel’s announcement includes a declaration of Moses as one who will save his people (9:10, cp. Matt 1:21); also, the statement that he will have a position of “leadership always” may remind one of Lk 1:32-33

The Archetypal Narrative

Beyond the specifics of the Scriptural narrative itself, the Moses traditions follow an archetypal story-pattern which would naturally apply to the Messianic figure-types. It may be referred to as the “abandoned hero” motif. There are many stories worldwide involving a chosen (and/or divine) hero who, upon his birth, was threatened by an authority figure who attempted to kill the child, or, under similar circumstances, the infant was left helpless amid the forces of nature (e.g., on a mountain top, in a river, etc). In most versions of these stories, the ‘abandoned’ child was rescued and reared/adopted by good or noble parents.

For western readers, perhaps the best known versions are the Greek hero-myths surrounding figures such as Hercules, Perseus, and Oedipus. A bit closer in detail to the Moses narrative is the Roman tale of Romulus and Remus, legendary founders of the city of Rome. After being thrown into the river Tiber by a wicked usurper to the kingship, the twin babes washed ashore, eventually to be discovered by the royal herdsman who raised them as his own. From far-off India, similar colorful tales surround the deity-hero Krishna. It was prophesied to the wicked ruler Kansa that he would be slain by a child born from his female relative (Devaki); as a result of attempts to kill both the mother and all her children, the infant Krishna ended up being raised by the herdsman Nanda and his wife.

Most Old Testament scholars (and many students) are aware of the birth legend of Sargon, famous king of Akkad and founder of the early Akkadian dynasty (c. 2300 B.C.) in Mesopotamia. It is presented as an autobiography, but the text as we have it likely does not come from Sargon himself. It is preserved in much later documents, four tablets from the Assyrian and Neo-Babylonian imperial periods; the lack of evidence makes it very difficult to determine how old the underlying traditions might be. It is a Semitic tale, sharing certain key details with the Moses birth narrative in Exod 2:1-10. The portion dealing with Sargon’s origin and birth is in lines 1-11 (of tablet K.3401); I give the translation here, from Joan Goodnick Westenholz, Legends of the Kings of Akkade (Eisenbrauns: 1997), pp. 38-41:

“Sargon, the mighty king, king of Akkade, am I.
My mother was an en-priestess(?), my father I never knew.
My father’s brother inhabits the highlands.
My city is Azupiranu, which lies on the banks of the Euphrates.
She conceived me, my en-priestess mother, in concealment she gave me birth,
She set me in a wicker basket, with bitumen she made by opening water-tight,
She cast me down into the river from which I could not ascend.
The river bore me, to Aqqi the water-drawer it brought me.
Aqqi the water-drawer, when lowering his bucket, did lift me up,
Aqqi the water-drawer did raise me as his adopted son,

The close similarity with the details in Exod 2:2-3ff hardly requires comment.

It is not entirely clear why the infant Sargon is hidden away and then put into the river in a basket. Perhaps it has to do with his apparently illegitimate birth; while this detail is foreign to the Moses narrative, it has an interesting sort of parallel with the story of Jesus’ birth. The notice in Matthew 1:19 alludes to the irregular character of Jesus’ birth, and the tension/conflict it would have produced in Israelite society. There may have been rumors of illegitimacy surrounding his birth; while there is little or no mention of them in the New Testament itself, they seem to have been preserved, to some extent, in Jewish tradition (for example, b. Sabbath 104b, Sanhedrin 67a; t. Hullin 2.22-23; j. Aboda Zara 40d, Sabbath 14d; cf. Brown, p. 536), and Christians felt it necessary to address them on occasion (e.g., Origen Against Celsus 1.28, 32, 69; Tertullian De Spectaculis 30:6).

Another story worth mentioning is told of Cyrus, founder of the Achaemenid Persian Empire. His grandfather king Astyages of the Medes was warned via dreams that his grandson Cyrus would eventually take over his throne. The wicked king thus sought to have the child put to death, ultimately to be abandoned on a mountain and left to die; however, the herdsman Mithradates rescued the infant , taking it home to raise as his own son. Cf. Sarna, p. 267.

Since Jesus, in the Matthean Infancy narrative, is always with his parents, there is no abandonment-motif; however, the motif of the wicked tyrant who wishes to kill the chosen/prophesied child is very much present—at least that much of the archetypal story-pattern applies to the birth of Jesus. To avoid misunderstanding, I feel it necessary to repeat here that the fulfillment of an archetypal pattern, in and of itself, says nothing about the historical reliability of the Gospel narrative; it merely indicates that the historical tradition has been shaped by the story pattern. The critical point is literary, not historical.


There are thus three primary factors which indicate that the Gospel Infancy narrative (esp. the Matthean narrative) is specifically meant to record the Birth of the Messiah, and that the Moses birth-narrative influenced how this story was told. Beyond any instance of historical verisimilitude, we can be sure of this literary influence because of these three factors:

    • The Messianic association between Jesus and Moses in the Gospel (and early Christian) tradition
    • The many clear parallels between the Matthean narrative and Exodus 2:1-10, as well as developed forms of the Moses story in contemporary Jewish tradition—these later versions bring the Moses birth story into closer alignment with Messianic tradition and the archetypal hero-myth pattern
    • The archetypal story-pattern of the threatened/abandoned hero is fitting for the Messiah, especially for the Davidic ruler and Heavenly deliverer figure-types; the Moses narrative happens to be the most immediate (and relevant) example from Old Testament and Jewish tradition

Interestingly, while there is a clear parallel between Jesus and Moses in the Matthean Infancy narrative, the emphasis is not on Jesus as an Anointed Prophet (cp. John the Baptist in the Lukan narrative), nor even on the Prophet-to-Come like Moses. Instead, the Scriptures cited (Isa 7:14 and Micah 5:2 / 2 Samuel 5:2) clearly identify Jesus as a royal Messiah—i.e. an Anointed end-time ruler from the line of David—just as he is in the Lukan Infancy narrative. The association with Moses primarily has to do with Jesus as a savior, one who will deliver his people from bondage, even as Moses did for the Israelites in Egypt.

References above marked “Brown” are to Raymond E. Brown, The Birth of the Messiah: A Commentary on the Infancy Narratives in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, Anchor Bible Reference Library [ABRL] (1977, 1993). Those marked “Sarna” are to The JPS Torah Commentary: Exodus twm?, Commentary by Nahum Sarna (Jewish Publication Society: 1991).

December 23: Revelation 20:11-15

Revelation 20:11-15

This is the last of the four scenes in chapter 20; like the second scene (vv. 4-6, cf. the prior note), it is centered on the throne of God in heaven, and refers to the heavenly aspect of the great Judgment.

Revelation 20:11

“And I saw a great white ruling-seat [qro/no$], and the (one) sitting upon it, from whose face the earth and the heaven(s) fled (away), and a place was not found for them (any longer).”

The color white, as a divine symbol, indicating both purity/holiness and victory, has been used repeatedly in the book of Revelation (4:4; 6:11; 7:9ff; 19:11, 14, etc). Here it specifically characterizes the qro/no$, or ruling-seat of God in heaven, which features prominently in the visions of chapters 4 and 5, as elsewhere in the book (1:4; 6:16; 7:9-17; 8:3; 12:5, etc). Since the exalted Jesus (the Lamb) rules alongside God the Father (at His right hand), he shares this same throne, and the People of God in heaven—i.e. the raised/exalted believers, and symbolized by the 24 Elders—also sit upon heavenly thrones (4:4; 11:16; 20:4), in the presence of God and Christ.

The reference to the earth and sky (“heaven[s]”) fleeing from God’s face is a traditional apocalyptic motif, indicating that creation itself cannot stand before the manifest presence and power of God. Moreover, here it alludes to the dissolution of the ko/smo$ and the end of the Age. Various upheavals in the natural order would already have taken place during the end-time period of distress, and more so with the return of Jesus and beginning of the Judgment, as depicted vividly in the sixth seal-vision (6:12-17) and all throughout the trumpet- and bowl-vision cycles (chaps. 8-9, 15-16). This corresponds to the more concise reference to the events surrounding the coming of the Son of Man in the Eschatological Discourse of Jesus—Mark 13:24-25ff par, drawing upon Old Testament passages such as Isa 13:10; 24:23; 34:4; Ezek 32:7; Joel 2:10, 31; 3:15. This “Day of YHWH” imagery (cf. Amos 5:20; 8:9; Zeph 1:15, etc) has ancient roots in Near Eastern and Israelite tradition. The difference is that here, as in other apocalyptic Jewish writings of the period, the imagery is unquestionably eschatological—it refers to the end of the current Age (and to the end of the world/universe as we know it).

Revelation 20:12

“And I saw the dead—the great (one)s and small (one)s (alike)—having stood in the sight of the ruling-seat. And the paper-rolls were opened (up), and another paper-roll was (also) opened, which is the (roll) of life, and the dead (one)s were judged out of the (thing)s having been written in the paper-rolls, according to their works.”

This is the heavenly Judgment—that is, the end-time Judgment in its heavenly aspect—which is itself a reflection of the more ancient afterlife Judgment scene, widespread in religious thought throughout the ancient Near East (and in other cultures). Here the afterlife setting is preserved, since it clearly refers to the dead. Presumably it involves all human beings, though believers have already been set aside, having passed through the Judgment, as is indicated by the passing reference to the “roll of life” (3:5; 13:8; 17:8). The idea of election/predestination is strong in the book of Revelation, though this does not preclude the need for believers to remain faithful, nor negate the real danger of being led astray by the evil/wickedness in the world. These bi/blia, or scrolls (lit. paper-rolls), draw upon two lines of tradition: (1) a record of a person’s deeds which will be used in the (afterlife) Judgment, and (2) rolls of citizenship, in which the names of those belonging to a particular city or locale are recorded. The visions in Revelation make use of both images, which are also attested elsewhere in Scripture (Exod 32:32; Psalm 69:28; Isa 4:3; Dan 7:10; 12:1; Mal 3:16; Luke 10:20; Phil 3:20-4:3). Here the former tradition—the record of a persons deeds (e&rga, “works”)—is emphasized.

Revelation 20:13

“And the Sea gave (up) the dead th(at are) in it, and Death and the Unseen realm gave (up) the dead th(at are) in them, and they were judged, each (person), according to their works.”

In the book of Revelation “the sea” (h( qa/lassa) is primarily a symbol, signifying the dark and chaotic domain of evil, especially as it exerts influence over the peoples of the earth (the nations). For more on the ancient roots of this symbolism, cf. my recent article in the “Ancient Parallels” series. Here the “Sea” is fittingly paired with Death and the realm of the dead (the “unseen” realm, a%|dh$, hades). This generally indicates that we are dealing with the Judgment of the wicked, the heavenly Judgment against the nations. While elsewhere in Scripture, believers are also said to have their works judged (Rom 2:15-16; 1 Cor 3:13-15; 4:5; 2 Cor 5:10, etc), here it is primarily, if not exclusively, the wicked (unbelievers) who are being judged by their works.

Revelation 20:14

“And Death and the Unseen realm (of the dead) were thrown into the lake of fire—this is the second death, the lake of fire.”

The fact that Death and Hades (= Hebrew Sheol) are thrown into the lake of fire, just as the Satan was (v. 10), suggests a mythic personification of Death—i.e. Death as a person, ruler over the realm of the dead. This is well-established in Biblical tradition, even if the authors of Scripture did not necessarily take the personification in a literal, concrete sense (cf. Rom 5:14ff; 6:9; 1 Cor 15:26, 54-56; Rev 1:18; 6:8). The idea of a second death reflects the distinction between earthly and heavenly Judgment, especially as it pertains to the wicked—the earthly Judgment results in physical death (19:21, etc), while the heavenly Judgment ends in a final death of the soul. All human beings (including believers) must endure the physical death of the body, but believers are saved from the second death (2:11). Fire is a primary motif of judgment, and especially of the heavenly Judgment (cf. the previous note). While the specific image of a lake (or river) of fire is traditional, stemming from ancient conceptions of death and the underworld, it is possible that, in the book of Revelation, it alludes to the visionary symbolism associated with the Sea.

Revelation 20:15

“And if any (one) was not found (with his name) having been written in the paper-roll of life, he (also) was thrown into the lake of fire.”

This statement is a simple and traditional description of the fate of the wicked in the heavenly (afterlife) Judgment. It serves as a fitting conclusion to the entire complex of visions that depict the end-time Judgment, particularly those spanning chapters 15-20 (cf. also 6:12-17; chaps. 8-9; 11:13ff; 14:6-20).

The final two chapters of the book of Revelation deal specifically with the New Age, the blessed and eternal life of believers, the People of God, in heaven. Before proceeding with a study of chaps. 21-22, it is necessary to attempt a summary of the book’s eschatology, as it pertains to the Last Judgment, and to give further consideration to the traditional background (and meaning) of the “thousand years” in chap. 20, the so-called Millennium. This will be done via a pair of supplemental articles.

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December 22: Revelation 20:7-10

Revelation 20:7-10

This the third of the four visionary scenes in chapter 20; it is parallel to the first scene (vv. 1-3, cf. the earlier note), with its emphasis on Satan and the “thousand years”, as representing the period during which he is bound in prison. Within the structure of the vision-sequence, the heavenly throne scene occurs between these two episodes (vv. 4-6, cf. the previous note).

Revelation 20:7-8

“And when the thousand years are completed, the Satan will be loosed out of his (prison) guard, and he will go out to lead astray the nations th(at) are in the four corners of the earth—Gog and Magog—to bring them together into the war, of whom their number (is) as the sand of the sea.”

This is perhaps the most unusual and difficult portion of the chapter to explain. If we are to view chap. 20 as a continuation of the Judgment visions in chap. 19, then this episode is totally unexpected. After all, the nations have been defeated and judged, Satan bound, and the People of God (believers) ruling alongside the exalted Jesus (in heaven). This would seem to have settled the matter; yet now, apparently, there is another rebellion by the nations and a second Judgment? Here is where viewing chapter 20 as a separate vision sequence, parallel to that of chap. 19, may make better sense of the eschatological framework. With this approach, the assembling of the nations to battle in 20:7-8ff would be seen as a separate depiction of the same event—the Judgment of the Nations—in 19:17-21.

Let us briefly consider each detail in vv. 7-8, depending on whether chap. 20 is viewed as continuous or parallel with chap. 19 (and the earlier visions):

“when the thousand years were completed” —While the actual number of a thousand is certainly symbolic (indicating completeness, etc, 10 x 100), the idea of a period of time that it represents can be understood several ways; limiting this to the immediate interpretive approach (cf. above), there are two possibilities:

    • (Parallel): The “thousand years”, encompassing the defeat/binding of Satan and the rule of believers alongside Christ, reflects the current Age, specifically the time between the exaltation of Jesus and the end-time Judgment.
    • (Continuous): The thousand years, taken in a more literal sense (as a lengthy period of time), represents the Age to Come on earth; that is to say, the current Age has come to an end, and the “thousand years” marks the New Age.

“the Satan will be loosed out of his (prison) guard” —This of course refers to the binding and imprisonment of Satan in vv. 1-3. Ideally, the release of a prisoner should lead to gratitude and obedience in response (cf. Tacitus Annals 12.37; Josephus Antiquities 10.40; Koester, p. 776), but here the Satan continues to rebel against God instead. Keeping with the same dual line of interpretation, there are again two possibilities:

    • (Parallel): The defeat and binding of Satan (vv. 1-3) corresponds with the scene in 12:7-12, and is related to the work of Jesus that culminates in his death and resurrection (vv. 5, 10-11; cf. also Lk 11:17; 1 Jn 3:8, etc). The “loosing” of Satan then would refer to the end-time period of distress, otherwise referenced in the book of Revelation by the symbolic designation of 3½ years; cp. 12:12 with 20:3.
    • (Continuous): Just as there is a brief but intense period of activity by Satan at the end of the current Age, so there will also be at the end of the Age to Come (the “thousand years”). Satan is bound following the Judgment at the end of the current Age, and will be punished again at the end of the Age to Come.

“and he will go out to lead astray the nations th(at are) in the four corners of the earth” —This draws upon the eschatological tradition of the Judgment of the Nations (collectively), which requires that they assemble together so they can all be judged in one place (Joel 3). A development of this motif has the nations gathering together to make war against God and His People (Israel)—cf. especially Zechariah 12:1-9 and Ezekiel 38-39 (discussed below). The nations were similarly gathered together for battle, by Satan (or his representatives), in 16:12-14; 19:17-21 (cf. also 14:17-20). Interpreting this in v. 7 as parallel with 19:19 is obvious; while a continuous interpretation would mean that the same sort of gathering of the nations (along with their subsequent judgment/defeat) is going to take place at the end of the Age to Come (the “thousand years”).

“Gog and Magog” —These two names, presumably derived from the eschatological oracle in Ezekiel 38-39, here represent “the nations in the four corners of the earth”. In the original oracle “Magog” (gogm*) is a territory north of Israel, possibly to be identified with parts of Anatolia (Cappadocia, Scythia) or Armenia and beyond the Caucasus mountains. The name likewise appears as the name of the eponymous ancestor of this (same?) region in Gen 10:2, but its derivation is otherwise quite unknown. “Gog” (goG) is the ruler or commander of the land of Magog, and could conceivably correspond to the Akkadian gûgu (there was an Anatolian [Lydian] ruler with this name in the 7th century B.C.). Probably “Gog” is simply taken from “Magog”, by assonance/wordplay, etc, to create a specially colorful and ominous combination.

“to bring them together into the war” —Here in the book of Revelation, “Gog and Magog” serve as a kind of shorthand for the entire scenario in Ezek 38-39—i.e., of the collection of distant nations who assemble together to attack Israel (cf. also Zech 12:1-9). The same oracle was in view in 19:17-21 (cf. Ezek 39:17-20), which tends to confirm the interpretive view (cf. above) that chaps. 19 and 20 are parallel accounts of the same basic Judgment scene. The Qumran War Scroll also associates Gog and Magog with the wicked nations who are to be defeated in the great end-time battle (1QM 11:6, 16-18; cf. also 4Q161 fr. 8-10 col. iii. 10-21). Now, “the war” takes on more cosmic significance, being waged against God and the People of God (exalted in heaven); it is quite literally the climax of the conflict between God and the forces of evil (cf. below).

“of whom their number (is) as the sand of the sea” —On the one hand, this is simply a picturesque idiom to describe a great multitude, especially when used of an army assembled for battle (Josh 11:4; Judg 7:12; 1 Sam 13:5). However, the association with the sea in the book of Revelation suggests perhaps a deeper allusion—recall that in 12:18, just prior to the rise of the evil Sea-creature, the Dragon (Satan) was standing there “upon the sand of the sea”.

Revelation 20:9

“And they stepped up upon the wide space of the earth and encircled the (gathering) of the holy (one)s (that had) thrown (down) alongside (each other), and (also) the city having been loved, and fire stepped down out of heaven and ate them down.”

The noun parembolh/, difficult to translate literally in English, refers to the idea of military troops thrown together alongside each other, i.e. as in rows or arranged in a camp. It is very much a military battle that is envisioned, with the forces of “Gog and Magog” encircling the group of “holy ones”, as well as the city designated by the perfect participle “having been loved” (vb a)gapa/w). Here “the city” is Jerusalem, or, more properly, the portion of the city where the Temple was located—the old Canaanite fortified hill-site known in tradition as the “City of David” or “Zion” (cf. Psalm 78:68; 87:1-2, etc). This is scarcely the earthly Jerusalem, in its ordinary sense, in spite of the traditions drawn on from Zech 12:1-9, etc. In the book of Revelation, the earthly Jerusalem is not depicted in a positive light, having been overrun by the wicked nations (11:2, 7-10). Only the Temple sanctuary, figuratively speaking, where the faithful ones (believers) gather, truly represents the holy city. Similarly, believers gather around the Lamb on “Zion” in the vision of 14:1-5. The realization of Jerusalem as the true holy city (“the new Jerusalem”) must wait until the visions of chaps. 21-22 (to be discussed).

The punishment and defeat of “Gog and Magog” is accomplished via supernatural means, much as the nations are defeated by the “sword” that comes out of the exalted Jesus’ mouth in the earlier Judgment vision (19:15ff). The image of “fire coming down out of heaven” is a traditional motif of Divine Judgment, on cities and peoples, cf. Gen 19:24; 1 Kings 18:39; 2 Kings 1:10-12; Luke 9:54), which here is used in the eschatological context of the Last Judgment (cp. Luke 10:12 par; 17:29; 2 Pet 2:6; Jude 7; Rev 11:9). Elsewhere in the book of Revelation fire comes down on the nations as a sign of the great Judgment—8:5, 7-11; 11:5; 15:8; 16:8; 17:16; 18:9; cp. 14:10-11; 19:3. The same imagery was used in the oracle of Ezek 38-39 which inspired this scene (38:22; 39:6).

The imagery of Gog and Magog “stepping up” onto the broad surface of the earth, presumably from somewhere ‘below’, suggests that these are not normal human armies—on this, cf. the notice below.

Revelation 20:10

“And the (One) casting (evil) throughout [dia/bolo$], the (one) leading them (all) astray, he was cast into the lake of fire and sulphur, where also the wild animal and the false foreteller [i.e. False Prophet] (were cast), and they shall be tested (painfully with fire) day and night, into the Ages of Ages.”

This represents the final defeat of the forces of evil, parallel with what was described in 19:20. The idea of the Devil (o( dia/bolo$), or Belial, being punished and devoured by fire is found elsewhere in Jewish tradition (e.g., 1Q13 iii. 7; Testament of Judah 25:3). As for the expression “lake of fire”, it draws upon the more general imagery of fire as a sign (and form) of Divine punishment (cf. above, and note in Isa 30:33; 66:24). The fiery end of the Sea- and Earth-creatures (“wild animal” and “false prophet”) resembles that of the fourth ‘beast’ in Daniel 7:11. The wicked/rebellious Angels could likewise be depicted as being thrown into a fiery abyss (1 Enoch 10:6ff; 21:7-10). The specific combination of fire and a lake probably is derived from common underworld imagery; on such rivers, etc, of fire, see, for example, Plato Phaedo 113ab; Virgil Aeneid 6.550-51). For these and other references, cf. Koester, pp. 761, 779.

The difficulties in explaining the scenario of vv. 7-10 have been noted above, including the wider interpretative question of whether the visions of chap. 20 are best understood as a continuation of chap. 19, or as a separate sequence parallel to it. Complicating the situation is the use of “Gog and Magog” as a symbol. There is some indication that it does not refer simply to the ordinary nations known to readers (such as those of the Roman Empire, etc), but should be regarded as a mythic figure-type for peoples from beyond the recognized boundaries of the earth (“the four corners”). This would make “Gog and Magog” akin to the Sea- and Earth-creatures of chaps. 13ff, who serve as figures of the forces of evil at work in the world. In support of this, I would note:

    • The location of “Gog and Magog” as “in the four corners of the earth”. In the original oracle of Ezekiel 38-39, Gog and Magog are said to come from the remotest parts of the north (38:6, 15); now this conceptual delimitation is given wider cosmic significance. It is a basic point of human religious and cultural psychology, that the boundaries of the known world tend to be regarded as the domain of frightening alien beings.
    • Here Gog and Magog “step up” onto the broad space of the earth’s surface, suggesting that they come up from a location below the earth, much like the hybrid-demon beings in the fifth and sixth trumpet-visions of chapter 9.
    • These strange ‘nations’ are described as a vast multitude, numbering “as the sand of the sea”; the demonic ‘armies’ in 9:16-19 are similarly vast. Moreover, the descriptive expression here likely alludes to the earlier scene of the Dragon standing “upon the sand of the sea” (12:18).
    • The fate of theses ‘nations’ is to be consumed by heavenly fire, just like the Sea- and Earth-creatures, and Satan himself.

Even so, there is clearly an intentional parallel between the Judgment scenes in 19:17-21 and 20:7-10, reflecting, if you will, two stages in the end-time Judgment and final defeat of evil:

    • The immediate nations, influenced by the Sea-creature are defeated and slain in battle
      • The Sea-creature (and his ally) are thrown into the lake of fire
    • The distant nations, influenced by the Satan/Devil himself, are defeated and slain in battle
      • The Satan/Devil is thrown into the lake of fire

These two episodes bracket the scene of the “thousand years”, signifying the resurrection/exaltation of believers, who now rule alongside Jesus—parallel to his own resurrection/exaltation. This may be outlined as:

    • The Judgment in its earthly aspect—the human nations on earth (16:12-16ff; 19:17-21)
    • The Thousand Years—the resurrection/exaltation of believers (20:1-6)
    • The Judgment in its heavenly aspect—the distant nations of the earth, signifying more clearly the forces of evil (20:7-10ff)
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December 21: Revelation 20:4-6

Revelation 20:4-6

This is the second of the four visionary episodes in chapter 20 (on the first episode, vv. 1-3, cf. the previous note). As I indicated, these visions alternate between two distinct, but related, themes: (1) a thousand-year period during which Satan is imprisoned (vv. 1-3, 7-10), and (2) the heavenly judgment before the throne of God (vv. 4-6, 11-15). Moreover, the visionary scenes of chap. 20 can be understood in two different ways: (a) as the continuation/climax of chap. 19 (and the earlier Judgment-visions), or (b) as a separate/parallel cycle of visions depicting the eschatological scenario from the exaltation of Jesus to the final Judgment.

Revelation 20:4

“And I saw seats of rule [qro/noi], and they sat down upon them and judgment was given to them, and the souls of the (ones) having been struck with an axe [i.e. beheaded] through [i.e. because of] the witness of Yeshua and through the word/account of God, the (one)s who did not kiss toward [i.e. worship] the wild animal and did not (worship) its image, and (also) did not receive the engraved (mark) upon the (space) between (their) eyes and upon their hands—and they (all) lived and ruled as king with the Anointed (One for) a thousand years.”

The ambiguity of the syntax in this description at several points creates some difficulty for interpretation. The first is that the referent for the initial pronoun “they/them” is unclear. There are several possibilities:

    • It refers to the twenty-four Elders (4:4, 10; 11:6, etc), representing the People of God in their heavenly aspect, who pronounce judgment on behalf of the faithful ones (believers) who have come through the period of distress.
    • It anticipates the slain believers (martyrs) mentioned in the next phrases—i.e., the ruling-seats are reserved for them and they sit down on them.
    • It is a general and comprehensive reference to believers as a whole, of whom those slain during the period of distress are especially deserving of mention.

Secondly the precise meaning of the phrase kri/ma e)do/qh au)toi=$ (“judgment was given to them”) is disputed; it could mean either (a) that judgment was given for them (i.e. on their behalf), or (b) that they were given the power to render judgment. The idea of believers serving as judges in heaven (and/or in the Age to Come) is expressed at several points in early Christian tradition (Matt 19:28; par Luke 22:30; 1 Cor 6:1-2); however, in the book of Revelation, judgment is consistently reserved for God and the exalted Jesus (14:7; 16:5, 7; 19:11; 20:12-13). Yet here, if those on the thrones rule together with Jesus, then it is reasonable to assume that they have the power to render judgment along with him as well. I find it difficult to decide which aspect of the phrase is being emphasized, yet I would probably interpret the setting of verse 4 as follows:

The ruling-seats, or thrones, are reserved for all true believers, who, in their exalted status, become part of the People of God in its heavenly aspect. Those who remained faithful during the period of distress are true believers, though they are not the only such ones; the reason why they are mentioned here is two-fold:

(1) they are the focus of the visions of Revelation (esp. chapters 13ff), and
(2) they relate most immediately to the original audience of the book, since, based on the imminent eschatology of early Christians, it was expected that the majority of those first readers would go through the period of distress described in the visions, with many of them suffering and being put to death.

If believers occupy a place of rule along with Jesus, then they also have the power to judge, the phrase kri/ma e)do/qh au)toi=$ probably meaning that this authority for judgment was given to them. Believers are said to rule with Jesus for a “thousand years” (a symbolic number), but it is by no means clear that this is a kingdom on earth (cf. below).

Revelation 20:5

“And the (one)s remaining of the dead did not live (again) until the thousand years were completed, (since) this is the first standing up [i.e. resurrection] (out of the dead).”

Again, there is some uncertainty regarding this scenario: does the “remainder of the dead” refer to (1) all other believers, or (2) all non-believers, or a combination of the two? Most likely this is a roundabout way of making a distinction between the resurrection of dead believers, and all other human beings (non-believers). References to the end-time resurrection are surprisingly rare in the book of Revelation, as are descriptions of the return of Jesus. However, almost certainly, there is an allusion to both in 14:14-16, where the harvest imagery refers to the gathering of believers to Jesus at his end-time return, which would include the resurrection of those who have died (cf. 1 Thess 4:14-17 and the harvest imagery in 1 Cor 15:20-23, 36ff). Thus the “first” resurrection is that of believers, at Jesus’ return, while the rest of humankind is raised at a ‘later’ point (or stage) to face the Judgment in heaven. Here the visionary scene depicts the two events occurring at the beginning and end of a symbolic “thousand year” period. The use of the verb za/w (“live”) in vv. 4-5 has the special connotation of living or coming to life again.

Revelation 20:6

“Happy and holy is the (one) holding a part in the first standing up [i.e. resurrection]—upon these the second death does not hold (any) e)cousi/a [i.e. authority/power], but they will be sacred (servant)s of God and of the Anointed (One), and they will rule as kings with him (for) [the] thousand years.”

The opening adjective maka/rio$ (“happy”) marks this as another beatitude (or macarism) in the book of Revelation (1:3; 14:13; 16:15; 19:9; also 22:7, 14). The background of the beatitude form is fundamentally eschatological, originally relating to the idea of the judgment-scene in the afterlife. Those who pass through the judgment (after death) will be worthy of entering into the blessed and divine life (in heaven). Eschatological tradition shifts the focus of the Judgment from the afterlife to the end-time, but the basic concepts and imagery are the same. Here the afterlife setting is retained, since the visionary portrait relates to the resurrection of believers who have died.

There are two aspects for the second adjective, a%gio$ (“holy”)—(1) it indicates the purity of the believers who have remained faithful, especially during the end-time period of distress (cf. 13:7, 10; 14:12), and (2) it signifies their exalted status, sharing in the holiness of God and Christ (3:7; 4:8; 6:10). The designation of believers as priests (i(erei=$, “sacred officials”) and kings, echoes ancient Old Testament tradition regarding Israel as the People of God (Exod 19:6; Isa 61:6, etc). This same language was applied to believers generally in the New Testament (1 Pet 2:5, 9), but its takes on special significance in the book of Revelation, which ultimately depicts the very exaltation of believers, realizing their status as the People of God in heaven, that is anticipated elsewhere in early Christian tradition (cf. 1:6; 5:10).

The expression “the second death” will be discussed in the note on vv. 11-15. Just as there are two resurrections, so there are also two deaths—one related primarily to believers, the other reserved for non-believers. This distinction also runs parallel to the two aspects of the Judgment-setting—earthly and heavenly. The earthly Judgment leads to physical death for the wicked (19:21), while the heavenly Judgment ends in the final death of the soul (20:14).

Does the scene in vv. 4-6 take place on earth or in heaven? Is the thousand year period, etc, symbolic of the blessed life in heaven, or is it meant to depict a span of actual time on earth? The answer to this question depends on how the book of Revelation envisions the Age to Come. It is not a simple answer, since the imagery and symbolism in visions of chapters 20-22, like that elsewhere in the book, is complex and multi-faceted. Moreover, within Jewish tradition there were several different ways of understanding the Age to Come; these generally can be distilled into two main constructs: (1) an idealized form of the current life on earth, emphasizing health and prosperity, long life and security, etc, and (2) the blessed life in heaven with God. These are not incompatible, but it can be difficult to harmonize them. As we proceed through the remaining visions of chaps. 20-22, we should be able to gain a clearer sense of how this is to be understood in the book of Revelation.

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Prophecy & Eschatology in the New Testament: Romans (Part 2)

Romans 8:18-25

Verses 18-25 are part of the wider section spanning chapter 8, the fourth, and final, major section of the probatio of Romans (Rom 1:18-8:39). The first three sections were:

    • Rom 1:18-3:20: Announcement of God’s (impending) judgment, according to the Law (of God)
    • Rom 3:21-5:21: Announcement of God’s justice/righteousness (in Christ), apart from the Law (Torah)
    • Rom 6:1-7:25: Announcement of Freedom from the Law and Sin

This last section (chapter 8) I would divide as follows (for more on this outline, cf. the article in the series “Paul’s View of the Law”):

    • Rom 8:1-30: Announcement of Life in the Spirit (Exhortation)
      8:1-11: The conflict (for believers) between the Spirit and the Flesh
      8:12-17: Believers are sons (of God) and heirs (with Christ) through the Spirit
      8:18-25: Believers have the hope of future glory (new creation) through the Spirit
      8:26-30: Believers experience the work of salvation through the Spirit
    • Rom 8:31-39: Doxology: The Love of God (in Christ)

As indicated above, the primary theme of chapter 8 is the new life in the Spirit that believers experience, representing the culmination of the “salvation history” or “order of salvation” that Paul lays out in the probatio of Romans.

In verses 12-17, believers are identified as the children (“sons”) of God, an identity that is realized through the Spirit (cp. Gal 4:6). In verse 18, this discussion shifts to the future aspect of our Christian identity, comparing the situation for believers currently (whether understood as Paul’s time or our own) in the world, with what awaits the faithful in the Age to Come. Thus, Rom 8:18-25 is fundamentally eschatological, marking the climax of this last division of the salvation history, at the point in time where believers are positioned—i.e., living at the end of the current Age.

Verse 18

“For I count [i.e. consider] that the sufferings of th(is) moment now (are) not brought up (as equal) toward the honor [do/ca] (be)ing about to be uncovered unto us.”

The noun pa/qhma has the basic meaning “suffering, misfortune”, something negative which happens to a person. Paul uses it (always in the plural, 9 times) in two primary contexts: (1) the sufferings in the flesh, i.e. the impulse toward sin which resides in the flesh (even for believers), along with the suffering this causes (Rom 7:25; Gal 5:24), and (2) the sufferings which believers endure (from non-believers, especially) for the sake of Christ and the Gospel (2 Cor 1:5-7, etc). Both aspects are rightly considered as part of the suffering faced by believers in the present Age, which Paul (and his readers) saw as swiftly coming to a close. Here, the contrast is between the present suffering of believers, and the future honor/glory that waits for them. The present suffering, no matter how severe, does not measure up to the greatness of this future glory. The adjective a&cio$ draws upon the idiom of weighing—i.e. the weight of something which brings up the beam of the scales into balance. The implication is that the future glory far outweighs the present suffering (cp. 2 Cor 4:17).

The use of the auxiliary verb me/llw, indicating that something is about to occur, is another sign that for Paul this eschatological expectation was imminent. He fully expected that those believers to whom he was writing would soon be experiencing this do/ca— “about to be uncovered unto us”.

Verse 19

“For the (stretch)ing of the head of the (thing) formed (by God) looks out to receive th(is) uncovering of the sons of God.”

The statement is almost impossible to translate literally in English, with its wordplay involving the compound noun a)pokaradoki/a and verb a)pekde/xomai. Both compounds are based on the verbal root de/xomai, which denotes a person receiving something. The noun connotes an eager expectation, literally signifying the stretching of the head out (or up), i.e. in anticipation of something coming. The word kti/si$ means something (or someone) that has been formed, i.e. by God; it is used by Paul 5 times in chapter 8, emphasizing the nature of human beings as part of the current order of creation. In other words, believers are living in this (current) created order—that is, in the present Age—all the while waiting for, and expecting, the uncovering of the future glory. Note again the identification of believers as “sons (i.e. children) of God”. Moreover, Paul speaks as though creation itself, taken as a whole, shares in this expectation (cf. below on vv. 20ff); thus there is an inherent ambiguity in the word kti/si$—does it refer comprehensively to all that God has created, or simply to the created nature of human beings?

Verses 20-21

“For the (thing) formed was set under an (arranged) order, in futility, (and) not willingly (so), but through the (one) setting (it) under the (arranged) order—upon hope—(in) that even the (thing) formed it(self) will be set free from the slavery of th(is) decay into the freedom of the honor of the offspring of God.”

Paul’s syntax here is notoriously difficult to interpret with precision, though the basic idea is clear enough. Several strands of theological language and religious tradition are brought together:

    • A continuation of the slavery/freedom motif that has been developed throughout Romans. Human beings have been enslaved under the power of sin since the time of the first human (Adam), when sin (and the idea of sin) was introduced into the world (see chapters 5 and 7). Through trust in the person and work of Jesus Christ, believers are freed from this bondage.
    • Metaphysical dualism—Related to the slavery/bondage theme is the idea that the current created order has ‘fallen’ into a condition dominated by death and decay (fqora/); as a result, human beings are trapped within this fallen order, needing rescue/deliverance by God (through Christ). In this regard, Paul shares much in common with many “Gnostics”, but differs from them fundamentally by his emphasis that the goal is not simply escape from the material condition, but that the material world itself would be transformed.
    • The Adam/Christ parallel—This was the main organizing principle for Paul’s line of argument in chapter 5, and it is likely that he is alluding to it again here. It is the mythic-narrative corollary to the slavery vs. bondage contrast, defining it according to the narratives surrounding two contrasting persons—one introducing sin into the world, the other delivering the world from sin.

The difficult syntax of vv. 20-21, can, I think, be clarified by considering the thematic structure of the phrases as a chiasm:

    • Creation set under an arranged order of things—in futility
      • It is set under this arranged order through Adam’s sin (implied)
        • Yet this arrangement is based upon an underlying hope
      • It will be set free from this order, through Christ’s saving work (implied)
    • Creation will be freed into a new order of things—out of slavery/decay

According to this line of interpretation, the subject of the participle u(pota/canta is Adam (representing all of humankind). By refusing to put himself under God’s order (cp. use of the vb u(pota/ssw in 8:7; 10:3), he effectively placed the world under a ‘fallen’ order (with the introduction of the enslaving power of sin). Many commentators would see God as the implied subject of u(pota/canta, influenced perhaps by the language in 1 Cor 15:27-28 and the tradition of God (YHWH) cursing the ground, etc, in Genesis 3. While theologically correct, this is unlikely in the rhetorical context here, given the emphasis on the nature of the bondage that Paul describes throughout Romans, and the specific Adam/Christ parallel in chapter 5. Closer to the thought in Romans (and Galatians) would be the idea that the Law subjected creation to the bondage under sin (Rom 7:7-13; Gal 3:22ff). Chapters 5 and 7 present two ways of viewing and explaining the same dynamic—of how humankind came to be enslaved to the power of sin.

The honor (do/ca) that awaits for believers is to be understood primarily in terms of the coming resurrection, as Paul makes clear in the following verses. It is established here by the formal parallel between do/ca and fqora/ (“decay”), the latter indicating the mortality of the created order, in bondage under the power of death.

Verses 22-23

“For we have seen that all th(at has been) formed groans together and is in pain together, until th(is moment) now; and not only (this), but also (our)selves, holding the beginning (fruit) from (the harvest) of the Spirit, even we (our)selves groan in ourselves, looking out to receive (our) [placement as sons], (and) the loosing of our body from (bondage).”

Two different images are employed here, both of which were traditionally used in an eschatological context: (1) the pain of giving birth, and (2) harvest imagery. Both images refer to the climax of a period (of growth and labor, etc), thus serving as suitable figure-types for the end of the current Age. The birth-pain imagery was used especially in reference to the end-time period of distress (cf. Mark 13:9, 17 par; Luke 23:28-29ff, etc), while the harvest tended to prefigure the end-time Judgment (Matt 3:12 par; 13:39-43; Mark 4:29; Rev 14:15ff; cf. also Luke 10:2; Jn 4:35). This judgment-motif involved the separation of the righteous from the wicked (i.e. the grain from the chaff), which was understood in terms of the gathering of believers to Jesus at the moment of his end-time return (Mk 13:26-27 par; Rev 14:15-16). Paul, at least, specifically included the resurrection of dead believers in this gathering (1 Thess 4:14-17), and clearly made use of harvest-imagery in his discussion on the resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15 (vv. 20-23, 36ff). Jesus himself was the “beginning (fruit) from (the harvest)” (a)parxh/), and believers share this same status, through the Spirit, possessing the same life-giving power that raised Jesus from the dead. This is what Paul means when he says that as believers we hold “the beginning (fruit) from (the harvest) of the Spirit“; elsewhere the Spirit is described as a kind of deposit (2 Cor 1:22; 5:5), guaranteeing for us the promise of resurrection.

Because believers continue to live in the world, in the current created order, as human beings, we groan suffering along with all of creation, since our bodies (our “flesh”) remain under the old bondage to sin and death. We must still confront the impulse to sin in our flesh, and we all face the reality of physical death. Our deliverance from this bondage will not be complete until the transformation of our bodies, as stated here by Paul— “the loosing of our body from (bondage)”, using the noun a)polu/trwsi$. His temporal expression a&xri tou= nu=n is a shorthand for the tou= nu=n kairou= (“of the moment now”) in verse 18, another indication of the imminence of Paul’s eschatology—that is, it was about to happen now.

There is some textual uncertainty regarding the noun ui(oqesi/a (“placement as son[s]”) in verse 23, as it is omitted in a number of key manuscripts (Ë46 D F G 614). If secondary, then the text originally would have read: “…looking out to receive the loosing of our body from (bondage)” —i.e., the reference would be entirely to the resurrection, without any mention of the ‘adoption’ motif. However, as the sonship-theme was central to vv. 12-17, as also the expression “sons of God” in v. 19, the use of ui(oqesi/a would be entirely fitting here in v. 23. The resurrection serves to complete the realization of believers as the sons (children) of God.

Verses 24-25

“For in hope we are saved; but hope being looked at is not hope, for who hopes (after) that which he (can) look at? But if we hope (for) that which we do not look at, (then) we look to receive (it) through (our) remaining under.”

This “hope” (e)lpi/$, and related verb e)lpi/zw) is the same as that mentioned by Paul at the center of vv. 20-21, where the fallen created order, currently in bondage to sin and death, is said to be based upon an underlying hope (“upon hope”, e)f’ e)lpi/di). Now this hope is defined as the salvation of humankind—believers—with their/our identity as sons/children of God. This ultimate deliverance is not something that can be looked at or seen clearly in the material world, for two reasons: (1) salvation is primarily eschatological, realized only at the end of the current Age, and (2) it is currently experienced only through the presence of the Spirit, which is not objectively visible to people at large. With trust and patience, believers endure suffering in the present Age—the temptation of the flesh and persecution by the world—captured by the word u(pomonh/, which literally means “remaining under”, i.e. under obedience to God and Christ. This is the attitude we are to have while waiting for the final salvation—the resurrection and transformation of our bodies.