January 9: Baptism (Acts 2:38 etc)

Baptism in the Name of Jesus

Having considered the command by Jesus to disciples to baptize in the “Great Commission at the close of the Gospel of Matthew (Matt 28:18-20, cf. the previous note), it is worth looking a bit more closely at the references to baptism being performed “in the name of Jesus”, as this represents a unique early Christian development of the dunking/washing ritual. There are five such references in the book of Acts—2:38; 8:16; 10:48; 19:5; 22:16.

The Name

Ancient Near Eastern cultures treated names and naming in a quite different manner than modern Western society. The name had a dynamic, magical quality, effectively embodying the character and essence of the person. This was all the more true with regard to religious belief—to “call upon” or to invoke the name of a deity was fundamental to ancient religious practice and identity (Gen 4:26b, etc). The invocation and use of a divine name also had to be done with great care—there was considerable power involved, and danger if handled improperly; this is the situation which underlies the famous command regarding the name of YHWH/Yahweh (Exod 20:7; Deut 5:11). In addition to its use in religious ritual, the divine name would be invoked in oaths, treaties and other agreements—both for the purpose of guaranteeing truthfulness and fidelity, and also to bind the oath or agreement, etc, under the power of the god. There would be divine blessing for the one who fulfills and agreement, but divine curse or punishment for the one who violates it. Indeed, there was believed to be theurgic power and efficacy in the name, which could be invoked over just about any area of daily life.

The Name of Jesus

For early Christians, it was specifically the name of Yeshua (Jesus) which was central to religious belief and practice. Already in the earliest layers of Christian tradition, the belief in Jesus’ deity—as the Son of God who is now seated in glory at the right hand of God the Father (YHWH)—was well-established. All aspects of Christian religious life took place according to the name of Jesus. This is expressed clearly in the book of Acts; note the following examples:

In the Gospels, there are number of sayings and teachings by Jesus where he refers to “my name”—Mark 9:37-39; 13:6 pars; [16:17]; Matthew 18:20; also Luke 24:47. Especially significant is the teaching in the Discourses of John, cf. Jn 14:13-14, 26; 15:16, 21; 16:23-26; also 3:18. The emphasis there is on believers requesting of God the Father in Jesus’ name. Also important is the related idea that Jesus himself has come—i.e. speaks, works and acts—in the name of the Father (Jn 5:43; 10:3, 25; 12:28; 17:6, 11-12, 26; cf. also Mk 9:37; 11:9 pars; Matt 23:39 par).

Baptism in Jesus’ Name

The central, intiatory act of baptism, marking one’s conversion and entry into the Community of believers, in the early Christian period was performed specifically “in the name of Jesus”. Given the religious importance and significance of this (divine) name (cf. above), this is hardly surprising. However, it is important to note that is especially prominent in the earlier Christian tradition (as recorded in the book of Acts), and is less commonly attested in later periods. Here are the key passages, where baptism is said to be:

    • Acts 2:38—”upon [e)pi/] the name of Yeshua into/unto a change-of-mind [i.e. repentance]” (Note: some MSS read “in” [e)n] instead of “upon”). This follows precisely the formula in Luke 24:47.
    • Acts 8:16—”into [ei)$] the name of the Lord Yeshua”, after which they receive the Holy Spirit (v. 17)
    • Acts 10:48—”in [e)n] the name of Yeshua (the) Anointed”, after having received the Spirit prior (vv. 44ff)
    • Acts 19:5—”into [ei)$] the name of the Lord Yeshua”, parallel to believers trusting in(to) [ei)$] Jesus (v. 4)
    • Cf. also 1 Cor 1:13, 15—”into the name of…”

Acts 2:38; 19:5; 22:16

We can see how this detail expands the meaning of baptism by considering three of the references in Acts. In each instance, we find a distinct development from the earlier/original context of the dunkings performed by John. First, consider the wording by Peter in 2:38:

“You must change your mind(set) [i.e. repent, metanoh/sate] and be dunked [baptisqh/tw], each (one) of you, upon the name of Yeshua (the) Anointed, unto (the) release of your sins…”

If we were to omit the italicized phrase, the wording would be virtually identical to the description of John’s baptisms in Mark 1:4 par. The dunking/baptism signified a “release” (a&fesi$) of sins, when accompanied by repentance (lit. a “change of mind”). How this would would function, in the new early Christian setting, is indicated by the prescriptive language in 22:16:

“And now, (for) what [i.e. why] are you (waiting) about to (act)? Standing up, you must be dunked [ba/ptisai] and wash your sins (away) from (you), calling upon his name.”

Here, it is expected that the believer would “call upon Jesus [i.e. his name]” while he/she was being dunked in the water, providing one of the only indications in the New Testament of how the early ritual would have been performed. Also, more clearly expressed is how the dunking effects the “release” (or putting away) of sins—the water “washes away” a person’s sins, bringing cleansing. Thus, in its basic form and significance, early Christian baptism differed little from the baptisms by John; this helps to explain the narrative detail in Acts 19:1-7, where baptism serves to distinguish believers in Jesus Christ from the followers of John. There are in fact two key points of difference: (1) that baptism is performed “in the name of Jesus”, and (2) that it involves the presence and work of the Holy Spirit. The second point is what is being emphasized in 19:2-6 (and will be discussed in the next daily note); however, the first is also and important part of the contrast that the narrative establishes:

“And Paul said, ‘Yohanan dunked with a dunking [ba/ptisma] of a change-of-mind [i.e. repentance], saying to the people that they should trust in the (one) coming after him—that is, in Yeshua’. And (hav)ing heard (this), they were dunked in the name of Yeshua.” (vv. 4-5)

Thus, the dunking still signifies a repentance and cleansing from sin, but now it is joined with a confession of one’s trust (pi/sti$) in Jesus as the Messiah. The point of the contrast between Jesus and John is Messianic, with the key title “the one coming” (o( e)rxo/meno$, cf. my earlier note) being applied to Jesus, not John.

The early Christian Development

These references in Acts demonstrate how important the name of Jesus was to the early Christian understanding of baptism, and that it fundamentally signified belief in [ei)$] Jesus. Matthew 28:19 uses the same idiom of baptism “into [ei)$] the name of…”. It was also said of John’s baptism that it was “into [ei)$] a change-of mind [i.e. repentance]” (Matt 3:11, cf. Lk 24:47; Acts 2:38), where the preposition ei)$ indicates purpose or result. Elsewhere in Gospel tradition, John’s baptizing is described as being “of [i.e. for, leading to] repentance” and “into [ei)$] release [i.e. forgiveness]” (Mk 1:4; Lk 3:3; Acts 13:24; 19:4), i.e. for the purpose of (and resulting in) the forgiveness of sins. There are two key aspects of the use of ei)$ (“into”) with regard to baptism:

    1. It reflects trust/faith in(to) JesusMatt 18:6 par; Acts 10:43; 19:4-5; 20:21; 24:24; 26:18. The idiom is especially frequent in the Gospel of John: Jn 2:11; 3:16, 18, 36; 4:39; 6:29, 40; 7:31, 38-39; 8:30; 9:35-36; 10:42; 11:25-26, 45, 48; 12:36-37, 44, 46; 14:1, 12; 16:9; 17:20. The parallel use of e)n (“in”) at Jn 3:15; 8:31 strongly suggests that the expressions “trust in” and “trust into” are virtually equivalent (cf. Mk 1:15; Acts 18:8). Also generally synonymous is the phrase “trust upon [e)pi] (the Lord) Jesus”, cf. Acts 3:16; 9:42; 11:17; 16:31.
    2. It signifies entrance into the Community and spiritual/symbolic union with Jesus. This theme is developed considerably by Paul in several of his letters, where we find the phrase “dunked/baptized into (the) Anointed {Christ}”. The key verse is Galatians 3:27—”as many of you (as) have been dunked into (the) Anointed, you have sunk in(to the) Anointed [i.e. put him on as a garment]”. The emphasis is no longer on the name of Jesus, even though Paul still uses this language (cf. 1 Cor 1:2, 10ff; 5:4; 6:11; Col 3:17; 2 Thess 1:12; 3:6, etc); rather, it is on the person of Christ. In Romans 6:3-4, baptism is interpreted as symbolizing the believer’s participation in the death (and resurrection) of Jesus (cf. Col 2:12). Cf. also 1 Cor 10:2; 12:13—the latter reference specifically emphasizing baptism into one body (the Community as the body of Christ) and in one Spirit (Eph 4:4-5).

On the first point, early Christians were careful to ensure that the baptism ritual was tied to a confession of faith in Jesus; this explains the interpolation at Acts 8:36, with verse 37 being added by copyists (and preserved in a number of manuscripts and versions) to avoid any misunderstanding. The second point is more closely related to association of baptism with the Holy Spirit, and it is this aspect of the ritual that we will examine in the next note.

Birth of the Messiah: Micah 5:2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hebrew (MT) [5:1]

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

LXX

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

Matthew 2:6

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

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

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

Messianic Interpretation of Micah 5:1 [2]

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

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

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

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

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

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.

December 26: Acts 13:33

Jesus as the Son of God: The Resurrection and Exaltation of Christ

If we are to ask: how did the earliest Christians understand Jesus’ identity as the Son of God? The answer may be somewhat surprising. The orthodox Christology, as enshrined in the 4th century Nicene Creed, affirms Jesus Christ as the eternal, pre-existent Son of God the Father. However, Christians did not come to such a fully developed belief immediately. Indeed, there is actually little evidence, clear and direct, for the pre-existent deity of Jesus in much of the New Testament. For the earliest believers, Jesus’ divine Sonship was understood and expressed almost entirely in terms of the resurrection. And, while this did not remain the limit of the New Testament Christology, it is very much where the Christology began.

This can be illustrated by an examination of the preaching in the book of Acts. While commentators debate the extent to which the sermon-speeches in Acts genuinely reflect the earliest preaching, there appear to be enough unusual or archaic details in them to affirm, on entirely objective grounds, that the speeches preserve, in substance, authentic Gospel preaching from the time of the first apostles. For more on this, cf. the articles in my series “The Speeches of Acts”.

When one looks as the Gospel preaching in Acts, one is struck by the absence of a ‘high’ Christology, with virtually no suggestion of Jesus’ pre-existent deity. In the earliest years, still flush from the experience of the resurrection, the first preachers and missionaries presented their proclamation (kerygma) of the Gospel squarely in terms of the resurrection and exaltation of Jesus. With the resurrection, Jesus was exalted to a divine status and position, to be seated at the right hand of God. This was the result of the resurrection, and there is no real indication that he had this position prior to his life and ministry on earth. Of all the sermon-speeches in Acts, those by Peter and Paul, in Acts 2 and 13 respectively, are primary, encapsulating the essence of the earliest preaching. In each of these speeches, the deity of Jesus is clearly expressed in relation to the resurrection; note, for example, Peter’s declaration:

“This Yeshua God made to stand up (out of the dead), of which we all are witnesses; so (then), having been lifted high to the giving [i.e. right] (hand) of God, and receiving the message about (what will be done by way) of the holy Spirit (from) alongside the Father, he poured this out… So (then), all the house of Yisrael must know, without fail, that God made him (to be) even Lord and Anointed (One), this Yeshua whom you put to the stake!” (2:32-33, 36)

The passage clearly states that Jesus was made (vb poie/w) Lord and Christ as a result of the resurrection. This sort of language would be problematic for later Christians, since, according to the orthodox Christology, Jesus was already Lord (as the pre-existent Son) long before he was raised from the dead. While Peter’s speech does not mention the motif of sonship, it is part of Paul’s great speech at Antioch in chapter 13; it is worth devoting some attention to the statement in verse 33.

Acts 13:33

The two great sermon-speeches by Peter and Paul (in Acts 2 and 13) have a similar structure, style, and points of emphasis. In both speeches there are key Scripture passages (from the Psalms) that are expounded as part of the Gospel proclamation (kerygma), so as to demonstrate (to the Jewish audience) that Jesus is the Anointed One (Messiah), the end-time ruler and redeemer from the line of David. As it happens, both speeches make use of Psalm 16:8-11, as a (Messianic) prophecy of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead (2:25-31; 13:34-37). Along with this Scripture passage, another Psalm verse is included as a Messianic prophecy. In Acts 2, it is Psalm 110:1 (vv. 34-35), while in Acts 13 it is Psalm 2:7 (vv. 32-33). These happen to be the two Old Testament verses which exerted the most influence on early Christians, both in terms of Jesus’ identity as the Messiah and his divine status. With Psalm 110:1, this involves the title Lord (ku/rio$), while in Ps 2:7 it is the Messiah’s identity as God’s Son. The Gospel proclamation in Acts relates both of these to Jesus in his resurrection and exaltation (not as pre-existent titles). Here is Paul’s use of Psalm 2:7 in verses 32-33:

“And we bring th(is) good message to you: the message about (what God will do), (hav)ing come to be toward the fathers, (it is) this that God has fulfilled for us th[eir] offspring, (by) making Yeshua stand up (out of the dead), even as it has been written in the second Psalm— ‘You are my son; today I have caused you to be (born)’.”

The point could not be any clearer: Jesus’ ‘birth’ as God’s Son occurred as a result of his resurrection. The author of Hebrews makes similar use of Psalm 2:7 , but with a major difference—the traditional context of Jesus’ resurrection (5:5) has been expanded to include the idea of his eternal pre-existence (1:5). This is a proper development in early Christian thought, but it is a development which, by all accounts, had not yet occurred in the earliest period. It is generally absent from the Synoptic Gospels and Acts; the earliest evidence for a belief in Jesus’ pre-existent deity appears to be the Christ-hymn in Phil 2:6-11, probably some time around 60 A.D. (or a few years prior). There are other possible allusions in Paul’s letters (cf. below), but few if any clear references earlier than the Christ-hymn.

The only other reference to Jesus as the Son of God in the book of Acts is 9:20, where Paul again is the focus of the narrative. It summarizes his Gospel preaching among Jews (in the synagogues):

“And straightway, in the (place)s (where people) are brought together [i.e. synagogues], he proclaimed Yeshua, (saying) that this (one) is the Son of God.”

This narrative statement is generally synonymous with the one that follows in verse 22: “…he poured out (his teaching) together (among) the Yehudeans {Jews}…driving together (the point) that this (one) is the Anointed (of God).” By bringing the two statements together, we obtain a snapshot of the apostolic message, and specifically that emphasized by Paul. Jesus is the Anointed One (Messiah) expected by the people, and more—through his resurrection and exaltation to heaven, he also is truly “the Son of God”.

Thus, when the earliest Christians spoke of Jesus’ birth, they did not immediately have in mind his physical birth as a human being, but, rather, his “birth” as the Son of God that resulted from his resurrection from the dead. Being exalted to heaven, and seated as the right hand of God the Father, he is very much the Son. How was this idea expressed and how did it develop in the earliest Christian writings?

The best evidence we have for Christian belief in the period c. 45-60 A.D. comes from the Pauline letters, especially those where authorship is undisputed (1 Thessalonians, 1-2 Corinthians, Galatians, Romans, Philippians, etc). In the next note, we will look at some key references to Jesus as God’s Son in these letters, with special attention being paid to the declaration in Romans 1:4.

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.

Conclusion

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 15: Revelation 19:17-21

Revelation 19:17-21

This is the third of the three visions of chapter 19. It follows upon the vision of the exalted Jesus’ return to earth as a conquering warrior (vv. 11-16), an Anointed (Messianic) ruler leading the heavenly army into battle. Here the end-time Judgment is cast in terms of the defeat of the nations, with the destruction of their kings and armies. It picks up on the unresolved sixth bowl-vision (16:12-16), where the kings of the earth gather for battle on the plain of “Megiddo” (the Har-Megiddo[n], Grk  (Armagedw/n, cf. Zech 12:11). This is the ancient “Day of YHWH” motif from Old Testament Prophetic tradition, as best epitomized by the Judgment-scene in Joel 3. In the sixth bowl-vision, the defeat of the nations is implied but never realized; this occurs here in verses 17-21, an echo of the earlier grape-harvest vision of 14:17-20.

Revelation 19:17-18

“And I saw one Messenger having stood in the sun, and he cried out [in] a great voice, saying to all (the) birds taking wing [i.e. flying] in the middle of (the) heaven(s): ‘Come here! you must be brought together unto the great dinner of God, so that you might eat (the) flesh of kings and (the) flesh of chiefs of a thousand, and (the) flesh of strong (one)s and (the) flesh of horses and the (one)s sitting upon them, and (the) flesh of all free (person)s and also slaves, and of little (one)s and great (one)s (alike)!'”

According to the ancient religious worldview, divine beings were closely associated with the natural phenomena of the universe, and so it is with the heavenly Messengers (Angels) in Old Testament and Jewish tradition. Throughout the book of Revelation, Angels are depicted as controlling the forces of nature, including the elements (fire and water, etc) as well as the specific parts of the cosmos (seas and rivers, the dry land, the sun, etc). At various points, these Messengers are seen standing in connection or contact with the natural features or cosmic regions (7:1; 10:5); here, one particular Messenger is standing “in/on the sun” (e)n tw=| h(li/w|). This makes for a most dramatic and brilliant appearance, as is fitting for such a climactic moment, similar to the Messenger who announces the fall of the Great City in 18:1-2.

The heavenly Messengers are often seen standing or flying in the heavens, giving them much in common with the birds of the sky; indeed, the two ‘heavenly’ motifs were joined together previously in 8:13 (cp. 14:6). Now the Messenger speaks directly to all the birds flying in the heavens, inviting them to come to feast on the flesh of the great multitudes who will be slain in battle. This image echoes 18:2, where it is announced that the Great City (“Babylon”) will become the haunting place for scavenging birds and wild animals—the implication being, in part, that they will be able to feed off of the dead bodies in the desolate and destroyed City. The actual language here in vv. 17-18 alludes to Ezekiel 39:17-18, part of what is surely the most elaborate “Day of YHWH” oracle in the Old Testament Prophets, depicting the Judgment against the Nations (and their defeat in battle) on the grandest scale. This is the so-called “Gog and Magog” prophecy in Ezek 38-39, and reflects an extensive development of the Judgment scene in Joel 3, where a vast confederation of nations comes together for battle against God and His People. Imagery and symbolism from this same oracle will continue into the visions of chapter 20.

Here, a multitude even more vast is indicated—the nation’s armies being made up from every part of society: free and slave, small and great, alike. Thus, the scene truly represents God’s Judgment against the nations as a whole, not just their leaders.

Revelation 19:19

“And I saw the wild animal, and the kings of the earth and their (group)s (of) armed soldiers, having been brought together to make war with the (one) sitting upon the (white) horse and with his (own group of) armed soldiers.”

This “wild animal” (qh/rion) is the same Sea-creature of chapter 13, whose presence has remained all through the visions of chap. 14, the bowl-visions of chaps. 15-16, and on into the climactic visions of chaps. 19-20. In the sixth-bowl vision (16:12-16), the Sea-creature (along with his evil ally, the Earth-creature or ‘False Prophet’) drew all the kings of the earth to this location, in order to do battle. What was implied there is now made explicit: their purpose is to make war with God’s Anointed (Jesus) and the People of God (Believers). This was already stated clearly enough in the visions of chapters 12 and 13 (see esp. 13:7), but now it is expressed in terms of the Last Judgment itself, through the image of a great battle.

It was a basic principle of Apocalyptic tradition that the nations, in their wickedness, were influenced and guided, in a very real sense, by the forces of evil. In many Jewish writings of the time, these evil forces were personified in the figure of Belial—a figure largely synonymous (but not necessarily identical) with the Satan/Devil. The demonic powers, led by Belial, join with the wicked human forces of the nations, much as the holy Angels join together with the People of God (the righteous/Elect). This is perhaps best expressed in the famous Qumran War Scroll (1QM, and related texts), anticipating a great end-time war between “the sons of light” and “the sons of darkness” (cf. 1QM 1:1-7; 11:6-7; 13:10; 15:2; 17:6-7, etc). The idea of an end-time attack by the nations and their armies, with their subsequent defeat by the Messiah, was a staple of Jewish eschatology (e.g. 2 Baruch 70:2-10; 72:1-6; 2/4 Esdras 13:5-11; Sibylline Oracles 3:657-68; for an earlier manifestation, cf. Psalms of Solomon 17-18). It was, of course preceded by Ezekiel 38-39 and other nation-oracle passages in the Prophets. For these and other references, cf. Koester, p. 760.

Revelation 19:20

“And the wild animal was seized, and with him the ‘False Foreteller’, the (one) (hav)ing done the signs in his sight, (and) in which he led astray the (one)s (hav)ing received the engraved (mark) of the wild animal and the (one)s kissing toward [i.e. worshiping] his image—the(se) two were thrown, (still) living, into the lake of fire, the (place of) burning in sulphur.”

While all of the human beings are slain (v. 21), the two figures representing or embodying the forces of evil—the Sea-creature and Earth-creature (called False Prophet)—are captured alive. Since these two are symbolic of evil demonic powers, their fate belongs to the Judgment in its heavenly, not earthly, aspect. The heavenly aspect of the Judgment was alluded to, though only briefly, in 14:9-11; it will come into focus only in the visions of chapter 20. There, too, mention was made specifically of the heavenly punishment that awaits those who worshiped the Sea-creature and received its engraved mark (xa/ragma), indicating that such persons belong to the creature. The motif of the “lake of fire” as a punishment will be discussed in the upcoming notes on 20:7-14. There I will also summarize again the symbolism of the Sea-creature within the overall context of the book of Revelation.

Revelation 19:21

“And the (one)s remaining were killed off in [i.e. by] the sword of the (one) sitting upon the (white) horse, the (sword hav)ing come out of his mouth, and the birds fed (as they would on green grass) out of their flesh.”

In verses 20-21, the figure of the conquering warrior (Jesus) is referenced simply as “the (one) sitting upon the (white) horse”, the emphasis thus being on the victorious power he possesses (the white horse signifying victory). It is by the sword (r(omfai/a) coming out of the exalted Jesus’ mouth that the people are slain. As discussed in the previous note, this “sword” is best understood as the Word of God, which is also to be identified with the Spirit of God (cf. the LXX of Isa 11:4). The exalted Jesus, as God’s representative (Anointed One and Son of God), himself possesses this Word, so that he even may be called “the Word of God” (v. 13).

As in the oracle of Ezek 38-39, the result of the great battle is a scene of total destruction and carnage. Ordinarily birds would come down onto the green grass to feed; now, these scavenging birds of prey come down onto the battlefield to feed on the flesh of the dead bodies. The verb xorta/zw alludes, literally, to animals grazing on lush green grass (xo/rto$); this came to be a common idiom for eating (or enjoying oneself) so as to be fully satisfied. Here the idiom (taken rather more literally), creates a grimly ironic scene—birds flocking to enjoy themselves on the flesh of slain human beings. There is irony in another sense as well: in verse 17, the Messenger called the birds to gather to a great dinner (dei=pnon) of God. This same word was used earlier in verse 9 for the dinner celebrating the marriage of believers (the bride) with the Lamb (the groom, Jesus). There, heavenly beings (human and angelic) were invited to a great feast signifying salvation; here, the birds are invited to a similar feast signifying judgment.

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December 14: Revelation 19:14-16

Revelation 19:11-16, continued

In the previous note, we examined the first portion of this vision of the exalted Jesus’ end-time appearance, in the form of a conquering warrior, a ruler on horseback, corresponding to the traditional Messianic figure of the Davidic Ruler type, who will defeat and subdue the nations. Verses 14-16 bring out this military aspect more clearly, in preparation for the battle imagery in the vision of vv. 17-21.

Revelation 19:14

“And the armed soldiers in the heaven(s) followed him upon white horses, having been sunk in(to) [i.e. clothed in] clean white (fine) linen (garments).”

Here both aspects of the white color-symbolism are combined: (1) victory, and (2) purity/holiness. It also draws clearly upon the first vision in vv. 1-10, of the pure and exalted believers who join the heavenly multitude to form the People of God in their fullness. The fine white linen garments, while generally representing heavenly garb, were specifically applied to believers (as the “bride” of the Lamb) in verse 8. Thus, however incongruous it may seem, here believers are part of the heavenly army (“armed soldiers in the heaven”) that the exalted Jesus leads. That they also ride white horses indicates that they are part of the same victorious power that the exalted Jesus possesses. The motif of “following” Jesus (the Lamb) may be a specific allusion to the beautiful image in 14:4.

While not emphasized in the New Testament, the idea that Angels and the Elect of Israel might join forces together in the end-time judgment (and battle) against the wicked was part of Jewish eschatological and apocalyptic tradition (e.g., Ascension of Isaiah 4:14-17, and see esp. the Qumran War Scroll [1QM, and related documents]). Military imagery is applied to believers in the New Testament, but in a different (ethical and spiritual) sense, though still not without eschatological implications (1 Thess 5:8; Eph 6:10-17, etc).

Revelation 19:15

“And out of his mouth travels out a sharp sword, (so) that in [i.e. with] it he should hit the nations (hard), and he shall herd them (together) in [i.e. with] an iron staff, and (it is) he (that) treads the trough of the wine of the impulse of the anger of God the All-mighty…”

Three different strands of eschatological and Messianic tradition are combined here, drawing upon three principal Scripture passages:

    • Isaiah 11:1-4 (v. 4)—As indicated in the previous note (on verse 11), this is one of the key passages viewed as a prophecy of the (Davidic) Messiah’s defeat of the nations. Naturally, such military imagery was ill-suited to Jesus’ earthly career, but it was an established part of Jewish Messianic tradition (Psalms of Solomon 17:24, 35; 4Q161 8-10 iii, 15-19ff; 1 Enoch 62:2; 2/4 Esdras 13:9-11, 37-38). The “rod” or “sword” that comes out of the Messiah’s mouth was reinterpreted as his “word” (parallel to his “breath”) that slays the wicked (on the LXX reading, cf. below); this may relate to the identification of the returning Jesus as the word of God. A similar eschatological use of Isa 11:4 can be found in 2 Thess 2:8.
    • Psalm 2 (v. 9)—The “iron staff” is derived from Psalm 2:9, an even more famous Messianic passage, and one used more frequently by early Christians. This rod/staff blends together with the “rod” of Isa 11:4, creating a second motif of a tool or weapon by which the Messiah subdues the nations. Kings in the ancient Near East were often referred to with Shepherd symbolism, and no more so than a ruler from the line of David (the shepherd). The 17th of the so-called Psalms of Solomon is probably the best-known Jewish text that combines Psalm 2 and Isa 11:1-4 within a Messianic interpretation (cf. 17:21-35ff, note also 18:6-8). The rod or staff indicates the authority of the ruler, both in the sense of (a) guiding the herd or flock, and (b) protecting it from predators (i.e. enemies).
    • Isaiah 63:1-3 (v. 3, cf. also Joel 3:13)—This is a classic description of the “day of YHWH” (the “day of vengeance” <q*n` <oy, v. 4), presented in terms similar to that in Joel 3:11-13—the judgment of the nations depicted by the imagery of the grape harvest (v. 13). Here it is God’s Anointed representative (Messiah) who comes in His place, as a Messenger of the Judgment. The enemies of God are “trampled” underfoot, just as the grapes are trodden down after the harvest to produce the wine (cf. Isa 25:10; Zech 10:5; Lam 1:15). The flowing red juice was a natural symbol for blood, as in Rev 14:17-20. It is only in Isa 63:1-3 that this imagery is tied to God (or His representative) in the figure of a conquering warrior; the description in our passage generally follows that of Isaiah—(1) his splendid apparel (v. 1), its red color, stained with blood (vv. 2-3), and (3) the act of defeating/punishing the wicked by “trampling the (grapes in the) wine-trough” (v. 3). The extended expression “the wine of the impulse [qu/mo$] of the anger of God” builds on earlier usage in chaps. 14-18.
Revelation 19:16

“And he holds upon his garment and upon his thigh a name having been written: King of kings and Lord of lords.”

The final detail of the visionary description is another name—the third in the passage and the second name that is written. The significance of the thigh (mhro/$) is that is the area of the clothing where the sword would be located. However, since the conquering figure’s sword comes out of his mouth, it is not located in the normal position on the thigh; instead, a name is written in that place. It is unquestionably a divine title, since God (YHWH) was called both “King of kings” (2 Macc 13:4; 3 Macc 5:35) and “Lord of lords” (Deut 10:17; Ps 136:3), and these could also be combined (Dan 4:37 LXX; 11:36; 1 Enoch 9:4; 63:2ff). These titles were previously used of the exalted Jesus (the Lamb) in 17:14 (cf. also 1:5). Rulers in both the ancient Near East and the Greco-Roman world could be called “King of kings”, as the Scriptures themselves attest (Ezra 7:12; Ezek 26:7; Dan 2:37); like YHWH, Zeus also could be called by this title (Dio Chrysostom Oration 2.75). With regard to the motif of a name written on the thigh, it is worth nothing that there were statues in the Greek world that could be inscribed on the thigh with the dedication “To Zeus, king of the gods”, or something similar (Pausanias Description of Greece 5.27.12). For references, see Koester, p. 759.

The significance of these titles, as applied to the exalted Jesus, is well expressed by the notice in 1:5, which contains imagery foreshadowing that of 19:11-16:

    • “the trust(worthy) witness” —in 19:11 he is also called “trust(worthy)” (pisto/$), and the designation “word/account (lo/go$) of God” very much suggests his role as God’s witness (ma/rtu$), one who speaks on God’s behalf, communicating His word and will.
    • “the first-produced of the dead” —this emphasizes that Jesus’ exalted (and divine) status is understood primarily through his resurrection, by which God raised him to the exalted position at His right hand; there is likewise an allusion to harvest imagery (i.e. Jesus as the ‘first fruits’).
    • “the chief (ruler) [a&rxwn] of the kings of the earth” —here the exalted Jesus is accorded a position above all earthly rulers and kings, because he is God’s Anointed, ruling in heaven at His right hand. At the end-time Judgment, this authority he possesses will be realized and demonstrated, in concrete terms, over all the kingdoms on earth.
    • “the (one) washing us…in his blood” —this is one aspect of the motif in v. 13 of Jesus’ garment “dipped in blood”; similarly, believers who remain faithful are said to have washed their own garments in his blood (7:14).

Given the bloody carnage that will come upon the nations in battle (vv. 17-21, to be discussed in the next note), we might well envision a traditional military conflict, especially with the heavenly army that accompanies the exalted Jesus. However, there can be no doubt that the defeat of the nations is accomplished, not with physical force of arms, but by the sword that comes out of the Messiah’s mouth. As noted above, this image comes primarily from Isaiah 11:4:

“And he will judge the low(ly one)s with justice,
and will make (the) decision in a straight way for the oppressed of the earth;
and he will strike the earth with the staff [fb#v#] of his mouth,
and with the breath of his lips he will put the wicked to death.”

Here is the same combination of trustworthy judgment and punishment/defeat of the wicked. In the original Hebrew, it is a staff (fb#v#) that comes out of the ruler’s mouth; however, in the Greek version (LXX) it is a word (lo/go$): “…and he will strike the earth with the word of his mouth”. In the fragmentary Qumran commentary (pesher) on Isaiah, discussing 11:1-3, it is stated that the Messiah (“Branch of David”) would judge all the peoples with his sword (4Q161 fr. 8-10, col iii. line 22). Thus there is some precedent for interpreting the “rod” out of the Messiah’s mouth as a sword, which is the more natural weapon for slaying an enemy. For Christians, a more spiritual interpretation was readily at hand, which would depict the Word of God or the Spirit of God as a sword. Note, for example, the statement in Hebrews 4:12:

“For the Word [lo/go$] of God (is) living, and (has power) at work in (it) and (is) able to cut over [i.e. more than] every two-mouthed [i.e. two-edged] sword, reaching through even to (the) parting of soul and spirit…”

In Rev 1:16 (and 2:12, 16) it is similarly a “two-edged” sword that comes out of the exalted Jesus’ mouth, indicating that this “sword” is the Word of God. Note also the famous reference in Ephesians 6:17: “…and the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God”. This statement is misread and misunderstood by many Christians, reversing the word order to make the equation that the Word of God (identified as the Bible) is the sword. A careful reading of the actual Greek shows something quite different. The relative pronoun is neuter, which matches pneu=ma (“Spirit”), not ma/xaira (“sword”)—which is to say that the Spirit is identified as the Word of God. Moreover the Spirit (not Scripture) is the sword, just as salvation is the helmet, etc. In any case, all of this gives added meaning to the identification of the conquering figure in Rev 19 (the exalted Jesus) as the Word of God. He himself possesses that Word, which comes as a sword out of his own mouth, according to the imagery of Isa 11:4 LXX. Similarly, in 2 Thess 2:8, Jesus at his return will slay (lit. “take up”, “take away”) the wicked “Lawless One” with the Spirit (pneu=ma) coming out of his mouth (another allusion to Isa 11:4, “the breath of his lips”). Thus the conquering power is spiritual, and the sword that slays the wicked is the Word/Spirit of God.

In conclusion, I would suggest that the expression “Word of God” in verse 13 has three basic levels or aspects of meaning:

    • The exalted Jesus functions as God’s witness, speaking on God the Father’s behalf, communicating His word and will to believers.
    • The idea that believers in Christ are victorious over the forces of evil through their own witness (following that of Jesus himself). This is expressed precisely in 12:11 (“and they were victorious over him [i.e. the Dragon/Satan] through the blood of the Lamb and through the word [lo/go$] of their witness”), but is implicit throughout the entire book as well.
    • It is also through the Word of God that Jesus achieves the final victory over the wicked and the forces of evil; the exalted Jesus himself functions as that Word, wielding it (as a sword) out of his own mouth.

References marked “Koester” in these notes are to Craig R. Koester, Revelation, Anchor Bible [AB] Vol. 38A (Yale: 2014).

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December 13: Revelation 19:11-13

Revelation 19:11-16

I previously noted how chapters 14 and 19 have the same basic three-part structure, with a sequence of three visions that follow a common outline:

    • Vision of the People of God (believers), alluding to their faithfulness during the period of distress; they give praise to God and/or the exalted Jesus (the Lamb), and anticipate the final establishment of the Kingdom of God on earth.
    • Vision of the end-time coming (return) of the Exalted Jesus, as a conquering warrior, drawing upon Messianic imagery.
    • Vision of the Judgment of the Nations, their defeat and destruction in a bloody battle.

The first of these visions in chapter 19 occurred in verses 1-10, discussed in the previous notes. The second vision, of the return of Jesus to earth, is presented in verses 11-16. It is rather interesting that the return of Jesus, so central to early Christian eschatology, is so rarely referenced directly in the book of Revelation, being described only briefly in the visions of 14:14-16 and here in 19:11-16 (cf. also 1:7). By comparison, the end-time period of distress and the great Judgment upon the earth are given extensive and detailed treatment across the three major vision-cycles, along with other intervening visions. The simple sequence in chapters 14 and 19 more accurately reflects the basic eschatological outlook of early Christians, with a very simple chronology:

    • The period of distress (qli/yi$), during which believers were already living, and which would continue, becoming much more intense and severe, for an indeterminate (but relatively short) length of time.
    • The return of Jesus, as the Anointed One of God, to deliver the righteous (believers) and usher in the Judgment
    • The Judgment upon the wicked and the nations of earth
Revelation 19:11

“And I saw the heaven having been opened, and see—! a white horse, and the (one) sitting upon it [being called] trust(worthy) and true, and in justice he judges and makes war.”

The primary image here is of a conquering warrior—a ruler on horseback leading his army into battle. The color white, though it may also represent purity and holiness in the book of Revelation, here more properly signifies victory, as in the white horse of the seal-visions (6:2). There the rider on the white horse was a negative image, depicting the suffering associated with the period of distress; here, it is a positive image of the exalted Jesus’ return. In Greco-Roman tradition, victorious military leaders sometimes rode white horses (Herodotus 7.40; 9.63; Dio Cassius 43.14.3; Koester, p. 753).

This conquering-warrior imagery is joined to the idea of God judging the world. As His Anointed One (Messiah), Jesus acts as God’s representative, inaugurating the end-time Judgment and overseeing it. He acts according to God’s own justice, and does so faithfully; this is why he is called “trustworthy and true” (pisto\$ kai\ a)lhqino/$, also in 3:14), it reflects his character as God’s Anointed representative. The main Messianic aspect here involves the Davidic Ruler figure-type (on which, cf. Parts 68 of the series “Yeshua the Anointed”). The description alludes specifically to Isaiah 11:1-4, a key passage for the tradition of the defeat of the nations by God’s Messiah, functioning as a conquering military hero. This is an aspect of the Davidic Messiah which Jesus clearly did not fulfill in his lifetime, and could only be realized upon his return to earth at the end-time.

The visionary detail of the heaven “having been opened” foreshadows the action of God in bringing the Judgment, a sign that it was about to begin (cf. 11:19; 15:5; Isa 64:1; 3 Macc 6:18-19); moreover, the manifestation of ‘armies’ marching in heaven (its sound, etc) was traditionally viewed as a sign of corresponding conflict that would take place on earth (Josephus, War 6.298-9; Tacitus Histories 5.13, etc; Koester, p. 752).

Revelation 19:12-13

“And his eyes (were) [as] a flame of fire, and upon his head (were) many strips bound around, holding a name having been written (on them) that no one has seen, if not he (him)self, and having thrown about (him) a garment having been dipped in blood, and his name has been called: The Lo/go$ of God.”

The features of this conquering figure represent a combination of Divine and Messianic/Christological details:

    • “eyes as a flame of fire” —a symbol of divine, heavenly power (e.g. Dan 10:6), which also was an attribute of the exalted Jesus in the introductory vision (1:14)
    • “many strips bound round (his head)” —these diadh/mata were honorific strips of cloth, worn around the head by kings and rulers (a common feature in the Greco-Roman tradition).
      • “holding a name having been written (on them)” —i.e., the name is written on the cloth bands; there is a clear parallel with the Dragon and Sea-Creature of the chapter 12-13 visions, who also had diadems or crowns on their heads/horns, along with names insulting to God (12:3; 13:1).
    • “a garment thrown about him having been dipped in blood” —royal figures often wore purple-dyed garments, but the garment of this ruler was been dyed with blood (like the reddish purple ‘blood’ of grapes). Here the symbolism is two-fold: (1) the blood refers to Jesus’ sacrificial death (as well as the death of believers who follow his example), and (2) it prefigures the blood of those to be slain in the coming Judgment. Both aspects are emphasized throughout the book of Revelation (1:5; 5:9; 6:10-12; 7:14; 12:11; 16:3-6, etc), but the immediate reference is to the vision of 14:17-20, where the Judgment on the Nations is symbolized by the ‘blood’ of the grape-harvest (cf. Joel 3:13; Isa 63:1-3).

Of special interest are the two names mentioned in these verses:

    • The first name was, apparently, written on the bands (diadems) around his head; the syntax is unclear, and it is possible that the name was written in a different (unspecified) location, but throughout the book of Revelation we find the motif of a name written on the (fore)head. It is said that no one has seen (or known) this name, except for this ruler (Jesus) himself. There is a long (and ancient) religious tradition involving hidden or secret names—including hidden names of God. Just as the Sea-creature held names insulting to God on his head(s) (13:1), so the exalted Jesus holds a name honoring to God, which is itself a Divine name, indicating his divine status and position. In the Johannine Last Discourse (the great Prayer-Discourse of chap. 17), Jesus is the one who makes the name of the Father known to humankind (believers), and he, the Son, is the only one who knows it (17:6, 11-12, 25-26). Closer to the sense of our passage here is the Christ-Hymn of Philippians 2:6-11, where the exalted Jesus is given “the name th(at is) over every name” (v. 9).
    • The second name is not written, but called—i.e. it is spoken, or said, of the exalted Jesus. Here this name is stated: “the Lo/go$ of God”. The noun lo/go$ is notoriously difficult to translate consistently in English, especially when applied in a Christological context (“word” fits as good as anything). The usage in the Gospel of John (esp. 1:1, 14) could be seen as confirming the traditional Johannine character of the book of Revelation (i.e., in relation to the Gospel and Letters). Here, lo/go$ is unquestionably used as a divine title. I would suggest that its significance must be understood in the context of the book, where, as outlined especially in the opening verses (1:1-2), we have the important idea of Jesus as God’s witness. He speaks on God the Father’s behalf, as His representative, and thus embodies God’s word, the prophetic account (lo/go$) of the Divine will and purpose which is given out to the People of God. It may also signify the word of God’s judgment.

The remainder of this vision (vv. 14-16) will be discussed in the next daily note.

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Prophecy & Eschatology in the New Testament: Messianic Expectation

Messianic Interpretation and Expectation in the New Testament

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

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

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

The Key Passages

Deuteronomy 18:15-20

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

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

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

Malachi 3:1ff; 4:5-6

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

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

Psalm 2 (esp. verse 7-9)

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

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

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

Psalm 110:1-4

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

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

Psalm 118:26

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

Isaiah 9:1-6

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

Micah 5:2-4

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

Amos 9:11

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

Zechariah 9:9-10

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

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

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

The Servant Songs of Isaiah

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

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

Isaiah 42:1-9

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Isaiah 49:1-6

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other Passages

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

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

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

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

Isaiah 61:1ff

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

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

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

Isaiah 40:1-5

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

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

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