The Spirit and the Birth of Jesus: Part 2 (Luke 1:15-17)

The Spirit in the Lukan Infancy Narrative

The Holy Spirit features more prominently in the Lukan Infancy narrative, which, in large part, reflects the greater role of the Spirit in Luke-Acts as a whole. The lines of tradition, regarding the Spirit, discussed in Part 1 are also reflected in the Lukan narrative. Special importance is placed on the identification of Jesus as the Messiah, and his role in ushering in the New Age, in which the Spirit will be manifest in a new way among God’s people. This Messianic identity is primarily expressed according to two distinct thematic structures in the Lukan Infancy narrative:

    • The superiority of Jesus in comparison with John the Baptist (John being viewed as a Messianic prophet-figure)
    • Jesus as the Royal Messiah from the line of David

As an organizing device within the narrative, the Jesus-John comparison is more significant. The birth narratives of John and Jesus are essentially presented side-by-side, following a similar pattern, being intercut (and interrelated). In terms of the Messianic identity of the two children, there are two main points of comparison: (1) the parallel Angelic announcements, and (2) the two inspired oracles by John’s parents (Elizabeth / Zechariah). In each of these literary structures, the Holy Spirit plays a significant role and must be examined in some detail. Let us begin with the first of these.

The Angelic Announcements

The parallelism of the John and Jesus narratives, establishing the John-Jesus comparison, begins with the annunciation scenes, which follow one after the other, from John (1:5-25) to Jesus (1:26-38). For a discussion of the literary and thematic aspects of the John annunciation scene, see the earlier article in the series “The Old Testament and the Birth of Jesus” (cf. also the entry in last year’s Saturday Series Christmas studies).

Luke 1:15-17

“For he will be great in the sight of [the] Lord, and wine and liquor he shall (surely) not drink,
and he will be filled (with the) holy Spirit, even (coming) out of (the) belly of his mother.” (v. 15)

This contains the first two declarations made by the heavenly Messenger (Gabriel) to Zechariah, announcing the conception (and coming birth) of John. The statements are made with verbs in the future tense: (i) “he will be…” (e&stai), (ii) “he will be filled…” (plhsqh/setai). They announce both John’s birth and his future destiny. He will be a chosen servant of God, a role that has genuine Messianic significance, within the context of the Gospel Tradition. This is the primary meaning of the statement “he will be great in the sight of the Lord”. It is also said of Jesus that he will be “great” (me/ga$, v. 32), but in a way that surpasses the greatness of John the Baptist, an absolute attribution that would normally be predicated of God (YHWH).

The second declaration involves the Holy Spirit:

“and he will be filled (with the) holy Spirit, even (coming) out of (the) belly of his mother”

Before examining the significance of John being “filled” by the Spirit, let us consider the final two declarations (in vv. 16-17):

“and he will turn many of the sons of Yisrael (back) upon the Lord their God,
and he will go before in the sight of Him, in (the) spirit and power of ‘Eliyyahu, to turn (the) hearts of fathers (back) upon (their) offspring, and (the) unpersuaded (one)s in the mind-set of (the) righteous, to make ready for (the) Lord a people having been fully prepared.”

These statements describe (and define) the Messianic role of John the Baptist—certainly as it was understood in the early Gospel Tradition. It can be summarized by the expression “in the spirit and power of Elijah”. In order to gain a proper understanding of the place of the Spirit in this passage, we must join together these two aspects of the annunciation, where the noun pneu=ma is used:

    • “(filled) by the holy Spirit”
    • “in the spirit…of Elijah”

The principal association is between the Spirit and prophecy. John will be among the greatest of prophets (7:26-28 par), fulfilling the role of the end-time (Messianic) Prophet, according to the figure-type of Elijah (for more on this, cf. Part 3 of the series “Yeshua the Anointed”). More than this, he may be regarded as the last of the prophets of the old covenant (16:16 par), standing on the threshold of the new covenant. This sense of continuity between the old and new covenants is especially important in terms of how this passage fits in with the Lukan view of the Spirit.

This is the first occurrence of two distinct modes, in the Lukan narratives, whereby the Spirit is present and active. The first mode involves the idea of filling—i.e., being filled by the Spirit. Here the verb plh/qw is used. The idiom occurs numerous times in the book of Acts, but in the Gospel only within the Infancy narratives (1:41, 67) and the Lukan description of the beginning of Jesus’ ministry (4:1).

The second mode involves being (and walking) in the Spirit. Here it is said that John will go about in the spirit of Elijah, which is a very specific way of referring to the spirit of prophecy—which, in turn, is brought about by the presence of God’s own Spirit. The expression “the spirit of Elijah” can be understood two ways, as it relates to the person of John the Baptist: (1) the same Spirit (of God) that inspired Elijah also is present in John; or (2) that John is essentially a new manifestation of Elijah himself, inspired by the distinctive prophetic spirit that Elijah possessed (and which he gave to Elisha, 2 Kings 2:9-12).

Either way, the “spirit of Elijah” involves the presence of the Spirit, so we may fairly claim that the wording here in v. 17 is an example of the Lukan motif of persons going about “in (or by) the Spirit” (2:27; 4:1, 14; 10:21).

If we are to isolate the main Lukan themes that are introduced here, they would be as follows:

    • The association of the Spirit with prophecy—John is the last of the prophets of the Old Covenant; with Jesus and his disciples (believers), the time of the New Covenant begins, and, with it, a new understanding of the nature of prophecy.
    • The Messianic role of John as “Elijah”, who will appear prior to the end-time Judgment (Mal 3:1ff; 4:5-6)—this reflects the fundamental eschatological understanding of early Christians, which Luke develops powerfully in his 2-volume work, emphasizing the eschatological dimension of the early Christian mission.
    • The person of John as a transitional figure, emphasizing the continuity between the Old and New Covenant—he embodies the prophetic Spirit of the Old and, at the same time, points toward the manifestation of the Spirit in the New.

Another minor theme could also be mentioned, which is as much traditional as anything distinctly Lukan. In v. 15 the Spirit is associated with John the Baptist’s ascetic behavior (cf. Mk 1:6 par; Lk 7:33 par), but reflecting specifically the religious vow of the Nazirite (cf. Num 6:3). This detail may have been influenced by the Samuel and Samson narratives (Judg 13:4; 1 Sam 1:11, 22 [v.l.]), but there is no reason that it could not also be an authentic historical detail in the case of John. The principal idea here is twofold: (a) purity/holiness, and (b) consecration to God. Both of these motifs are central to the idea of the presence and activity of God’s Spirit (the holy Spirit, Spirit of holiness), are emphasized, to varying degrees, in the Lukan narratives. On the Nazirite motif, in association with the birth of Jesus himself, cf. my earlier note on Matthew 2:23 (in the series “The Old Testament and the Birth of Jesus”).

The Old Testament in the Gospel Tradition: Zechariah 9-14

Zechariah 9-14

There can be no doubt that Zechariah 9-14 exerted a considerable influence on the Gospel Tradition—the Passion narratives in particular. This influence cannot be limited to a single passage; rather, there are more than half a dozen references from within these chapters which we can see reflected in the Gospel narrative.

Chapters 9-14 are sometimes referred to as “Deutero-Zechariah”, in a manner similar to the designation of Isa 40-66 [or 40-55] as “Deutero-Isaiah”. The prevailing critical view is that chaps. 9-14 are later, and come from a different hand (or hands), than chaps. 1-8. The reference to Greece/Greeks (/w`y`) in 9:13 has led some commentators to date chaps. 9-14 to the Hellenistic period (late 4th or 3rd century B.C.), or even later in the Maccabean period. However, critical scholars today tend to view these chapters as the product of the 5th century B.C., probably some time before the work of Nehemiah (445 and after). This would make Zech 9-14 more or less contemporary with the so-called Trito-Isaian poems (chaps. 56-66), according to the common critical view; both works seem to share a similar eschatological vision.

Indeed, Zech 9-14 has a strong eschatological orientation, envisioning the coming of a New Age for God’s people (Israel/Judah). This restoration of the Kingdom is related to the Judgment of YHWH against the surrounding nations, after which they will submit to the rule of YHWH and His Kingdom (centered at Jerusalem). This prophetic eschatology is very much in keeping with that of the other Prophets from the exilic and post-exilic periods (i.e., Joel, Deutero-Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Zech 1-8; cf. also the ‘Isaian Apocalypse’, chaps. 24-27). Its message reflects the same basic line of prophetic eschatological tradition, sometimes characterized as “early apocalyptic” or “proto-apocalyptic”.

The primary literary structure of Zech 9-14 is marked by the formula in 9:1 and 12:1:

hw`hy+ rb^d= aCm^
“A lifting up, (the) word of YHWH”

The specific term aC*m^ (lit. “lifting [up]”), used frequently in the Prophets to introduce a prophetic oracle or vision, is to be understood in the sense of something “taken up” by the prophet, an inspired message (from YHWH) that has been placed (like a weight) upon him. When a message of judgment is involved, it can truly seem like a “burden” to the messenger.

The same phrase occurs at Malachi 1:1, a book which, like Zech 9-11 and 12-14, contains three chapters. Indeed, those three sections are roughly equal in length; that, along with the identical opening words, have led some scholars recently to posit an original work, comprised of Zech 9-Mal 3, which was later re-edited within the context of the ‘Book of the Twelve’. It is a reasonably compelling argument, for certainly the opening expression in Zech 9:1, 12:1, and Mal 1:1 represents a common redacting device. It is distinctive of these chapters, and unique to them, occurring nowhere else in the Old Testament.

It is equally certain, however, that chapters 9-14 are related, thematically and by the use of keywords, etc, to the earlier (c. 520) oracles and visions of chaps. 1-8. Depending on how early in the 5th century chap. 9-14 were composed, Zechariah the prophet could still have been alive, or, at the very least, his colleagues and successors could have been continuing his work. In any case, these later chapters are clearly inspired, in various ways, by visionary messages of chaps. 1-8.

One of the key themes that runs throughout chapters 9-14 is the contrast between the rule of YHWH, as Shepherd of His people, and the failed (and/or corrupt) leadership of the ‘false shepherds’. It is an important theme, both in terms of the Messianic interpretation of these chapters, and in the way that the New Testament, in particular, applied this to the person and work of Jesus.

The best approach to analyzing this material, in terms of its influence on the Gospel Tradition (and Passion Narrative), is to look at the key references, examining (1) their background, and (2) their application within the Gospel.

Zechariah 9:9

“Spin (with) great (joy), daughter of ‚iyyôn!
Make a (great) noise, daughter of Yerushalaim!
See, your king comes to you,
righteous and bearing salvation (is) he,
bent low and riding upon a donkey,
even upon an ass, son of a she-donkey.”

These lines, so famous from their use in the Triumphal Entry scene (cf. below), need to be understood in the context of Zechariah 9. The chapter is comprised of three different oracular sections:

    • Vv. 1-8: A judgment-oracle against the nations at the borders of Israel’s traditional territory; YHWH moves from Aram-Damascus in the north all the way to Jerusalem (His “house”), where He ‘sets up camp’.
    • Vv. 9-10: Announcement of a new king entering Jerusalem to begin his rule.
    • Vv. 11-17: YHWH establishes a new era of peace and security for His people, with a Kingdom centered in Judah and Jerusalem.

The principal actor is YHWH—it is He who subdues the nations, removing their capacity to make war, and restoring to Israel/Judah the extent of their Promised Land. It is not entirely clear what role the king, mentioned in vv. 9-10, plays in this scenario. The wording in verse 10 certainly emphasizes his connection with the New Age of peace; and yet it is God who acts:

“And I will cut off (the chariot-)ride from Ephraim
and (the war-)horse from Yerushalaim,
and it will be cut off, the bow of battle”

It is only after YHWH has pacified the land that the king fulfills his role—not through military action, but through speech:

“and he shall speak wholeness to the nations,
and his rule (shall be) from sea unto sea,
and from (the) River to (the) ends of (the) earth.”

The word <olv* I have translated in its fundamental sense as “wholeness” (or “fullness, completion”). The conventional translation “peace” indicates just one aspect of meaning; the significance of the noun is rooted in the ancient covenant idea—of a binding agreement that is completed between two parties, providing protection and security (and peace), etc. The speech-aspect emphasized here suggests a two-fold significance: (1) the king establishes a period of law and order, and (2) he specifically promulgates, by word and example, the Law (Torah) of YHWH.

This is important for a correct understanding of the description of the king in verse 9. Let us briefly consider each detail:

    • “righteous” (qyD!x^)—the adjective qyD!x^ fundamentally means “right, straight, just”, often in an ethical or religious sense (i.e., righteous); it can also connote someone who is faithful and loyal, and also someone who has been proven right (i.e. vindicated).
    • “bearing salvation” (uv*on)—this Niphal (passive-reflexive) participle (of the verb uv^y`) literally means “being saved”, but the precise idea here is difficult to bring across in English; the king is protected and given victory (i.e. is saved) through the power and faithfulness of YHWH, and yet he also carries and conveys this salvation to the people as a whole.
    • “bent low” (yn]u*)—this adjective often means “oppressed, afflicted,” but here the more basic meaning of “bent low” is preferable; it is used in a figurative sense, i.e., for the lowliness of the king; he does not present an impressive figure, and can scarcely be regarded as a mighty warrior; what victory, etc, he achieves comes through YHWH’s might.
    • “riding upon a donkey” (romj& lu^ bk@r))—while less majestic than the horse, a donkey can still be a fitting animal for royalty to ride (cf. Gen 49:10-11; 2 Sam 16:2); the main significance here is that the militaristic aspects (of the horse, etc) often associated with kingship have been removed.

The Gospel Tradition makes clear that early Christians saw Zech 9:9f as a prophecy/prefiguring of Jesus’ Entry into Jerusalem. This is well-established in the Synoptic tradition (Mark 11:1-10 par), even if the Scripture is cited directly only in Matthew (21:5). Jesus’ own detailed instructions to his disciples, as recorded in the Synoptic narrative (Mk 11:2-3ff par), if accepted as authentic, may indicate that he himself had this passage in mind. In any case, the fact that Zech 9:9 is also cited in the Johannine version of the Entry (12:12-19, v. 15) demonstrates how readily early Christians made the connection.

From the standpoint of the Gospel narrative, the Entry scene establishes Jesus as the royal Messiah from the line of David. The use of Zech 9:9-10, coupled with the exclamation by the crowds—citing Psalm 118:26, adapted according to a distinct Messianic interpretation (cf. the discussion in the previous article)—makes this abundantly clear.

And yet, from the Passion narrative that follows, the Gospels express the realization that Jesus’ Messianic identity would be very different from had been expected by the crowds. In this regard, the abandonment of traditional militaristic imagery, such as normally would have been associated with ancient kingship, is significant. For Jesus would not function as a great warrior, achieving victory over his enemies and establishing a kingdom in Jerusalem through military means. Instead, his attributes are those very characteristics given to the coming king in Zech 9:9-10: (i) “righteous”, (ii) “bearing (God’s) salvation”, (iii) “lowly”. Given the suffering and death he would endure in Jerusalem, it would perhaps be better to understand the adjective yn]u* in the more negative sense of “oppressed, afflicted”. However, in Matthew’s citation, this is translated as prau+/$ (“meek, gentle”), following the LXX; it is the only one of the three attributes (above) that Matthew retains in his citation.

Zechariah 9:11

“And also you, by (the) blood of your binding (agreement),
I have sent (out) your bound (captive)s from (the) pit in which there is no water.”

These words open final oracle-section of chapter 9 (vv. 11-17), and immediately follow the announcement of the coming king (vv. 9-10). The expression “blood of your binding (agreement) [tyr!B=]” refers to the ancient covenant, between YHWH and Israel, that was established (and ratified) at Sinai (Exodus 24, vv. 6-8). The reference here follows in the tradition of the exilic and post-exilic Prophets, by which the restoration of Israel in the New Age is defined in terms of a new covenant between YHWH and His people (Jer 31:31-34, et al). Ultimately, however, this ‘new’ covenant represents the true fulfillment of the original covenant at Sinai, one that is re-established (never again to be broken) in the New Age.

Given the influence of Zech 9-14 on the Gospel Tradition, and the close connection with 9:9-10, it seems possible that the reference to the covenant in v. 11 informs the wording of the Last Supper tradition: “this is my blood of the covenant” (Mk 14:24 par). However, it must be said, that the original tradition in Exod 24:8 is unquestionably the primary point of reference (“See, [the] blood of the binding [agreement] which YHWH has cut with you”). The subject will be discussed further in the next article in this series.

Zechariah 9:16, etc

At the close of the oracle in 9:11-17, the sheep/shepherd theme is introduced (v. 16), one which will be of tremendous importance throughout the whole of Zech 9-14, and which dominates the remainder of chapters 10-11.

“And YHWH their Mighty (One) [i.e. God] will save them in that day, as (the) flock of His people,
for (like) stones of a sacred (crown), they are sparkling upon His land.” (9:16)

The wording of the second line seems to echo the announcement of the coming king (vv. 9-10, cf. above) and suggests that, at least in part, the royal figure in those verses may be understood in a collective sense—that is, as representing the kingship of the people as a whole.

In any case, it is clear that YHWH is the shepherd, and this is most important for understanding the shepherd-theme as it is developed in chapters 10-11 (and again in 13:7-9). The true shepherd (YHWH) is contrasted with a variety of false shepherds (human leaders of various types). Unfortunately, the complexity of this theme in chaps. 10-11 (esp. the ‘Shepherd narrative’ in 11:4-16) requires a more extensive treatment than the space here allows. But I will touch on the matter a bit further when discussing 13:7-9 (below), and in a separate note on 11:12-13 (cf. below).

The true/false Shepherd imagery is most prominent in the ‘Good Shepherd’ discourse of Jesus in John 10:1-18, 25-30. Though this is not part of the Passion narrative as such, the idea of Jesus’ death and resurrection is central to the discourse (see vv. 11, 15, 17-18).

Zechariah 11:12-13

These verses are famously applied to the Passion narrative (the betrayal by Judas) in the Gospel of Matthew (27:3-10). They are part of the true/false shepherd theme of chaps. 10-11. However, since they are contained in one of the difficult sections of the entire book (some would say of the entire Old Testament)—the ‘Shepherd narrative’ of 11:4-16—and are only marginally related to the Gospel Tradition, I have decided to discuss them in a separate note.

Zechariah 12:10

This (12:10) is another difficult reference which is deserving of a separate note (upcoming). That it was applied by early Christians to the crucifixion of Jesus is confirmed by independent quotations in John 19:37 and Rev 1:7.

Zechariah 13:7

“Rouse (yourself), sword, upon my (shep)herd and upon (the) strong (one) my companion
—utterance of YHWH of (the heavenly) armies.
Strike the (one) herding [i.e. shepherd] and the flock will be broken apart,
and I will turn my hand upon the little (one)s.”

Verse 7b is cited by Jesus as a Passion prediction (Mk 14:17). Vv. 7-9 echo the problematic ‘Shepherd narrative’ of 11:4-16, and need to be discussed in that context. The action that YHWH commands against the shepherd is part of a wider judgment against the people. This judgment will result in widespread destruction, with only a third of the people surviving; but this surviving remnant will be purified and made holy.

The remnant-motif follows in a well-established line of prophetic tradition, but is here given a new meaning in the eschatological context of Zech 9-14. The judgment-context is realized through a great war between Israel and the nations (12:1-9; 14:1-14), in which the nations are defeated entirely through the power and greatness of YHWH.

These chapters exercised a tremendous influence on the visions in the book of Revelation, but it is important to remember that the death and resurrection of Jesus also was understood, fundamentally, in an eschatological sense by early Christians. Jesus’ Passion marked the beginning of period of darkness and distress for the world; there are allusions to this throughout the Passion narrative (e.g., Mk 14:38; 15:33 pars; Lk 22:53), and note the clear relationship between Jesus’ Passion (Mk 14:62 par, etc) and the events in the Eschatological Discourse (chap. 13 par).

Thus, we may see how the striking of Jesus (the Good Shepherd) fits into the pattern of God’s end-time Judgment. It marks the beginning of a time of great distress for the people of Israel, but also of persecution for the disciples of Jesus (believers). The flock of God’s people will indeed be “broken apart” (scattered), at least for a time. But this dispersion will also serve a greater purpose, in terms of the wider mission of believers, proclaiming the Gospel into the surrounding nations (cf. Acts 8:1ff).

Zechariah 13:1; 14:8

Following the eschatological war with the nations, there will truly, and at last, be realized a New Age of peace and blessing for God’s people. One of the motifs for expressing this is a fountain of “living water” that springs up, bringing cleansing and life to the people. The primary association is with the cleansing power of water:

“In that day there will be a fountain (dug), being opened up for (the) house of David and for (the one)s dwelling (in) Yerushalaim, for (cleansing of) sin and filth.” (13:1)

The fountain will turn into a great river that flows, not only in Jerusalem, but outward into the surrounding nations (‘from sea to sea’):

“And it shall be (that), in that day, living waters will go forth from Yerushalaim, half to the preceding [i.e. eastern] sea, and half to the following [i.e. western] sea” (14:8)

This imagery seems to have been influential on early Christians, in a number of ways. Apart from explicit references or allusions in the book of Revelation (e.g., 22:1-2), there is the obvious connection with baptism, and with the traditional association between water and the Spirit.

One likely passage that alludes to Zech 13:1 and 14:8 is the discourse of Jesus in John 7-8 (esp. 7:37-39). The Sukkot/Tabernacles setting pervades these chapters, and the same festival plays a small but significant role in Zech 9-14 as well (14:16-19, and cf. also the request for rain in 10:1).

Zechariah 14:20-21

Finally, mention should be made of Zech 14:20-21, as these verses would seem to provide the background for Jesus’ cleansing of the Temple (see esp. Mark 12:15-18)—the episode that immediately follows his Triumphal Entry in the Synoptic narrative, and which helps to set the stage for his impending Passion. The associated Temple-saying in Jn 2:19 is understood explicitly in terms of Jesus’ death (and resurrection, vv. 21-22), and it seems to have played a role in the interrogation of Jesus before the Jerusalem Council (Mk 14:58 par).

The original context of Zech 14:20-21, coming at the close of oracles of chaps. 9-14, suggests that the role and place of the Temple will be transformed in the New Age, imbued with a greater sense of holiness and purpose in the worship of YHWH. Early Christians drew upon similar eschatological ideas as their own religious identity, in relation to the Torah and the Temple ritual, developed. The Temple (and its sacrifices) came to take on an entirely new meaning, the ritual aspects replaced by a spiritual dimension. There is strong evidence that these spiritualizing tendencies have their roots in authentic Gospel tradition and the teachings of Jesus himself. For more on this subject, see my earlier article in the series “Jesus and the Law”.

March 30: Mark 8:31

For the daily notes leading up to Holy Week, I will be presenting an in-depth exegetical and expository study of the Synoptic Passion-predictions by Jesus. These three predictions are part of the “Triple Tradition” —that is, sayings and narrative episodes found in all three of the Synoptic Gospels.

The starting point for this study will be the Gospel of Mark. That is to say, I will be focusing on the Gospel of Mark as representing the core Synoptic Tradition. It is the Markan version of the Passion predictions that will form the basis for these notes, to be supplemented by the significant variations and differences in the Matthean and Lukan versions.

Mark 8:31

The first of the Passion predictions occurs at Mark 8:31, immediately following the episode of Peter’s confession (8:27-30). In my view, this represents a clear transition point between the first and second halves of the Synoptic narrative. This division is best expressed in the Gospel of Mark, where the first half of the narrative (the Galilean period of Jesus’ ministry) and the second half (the Judean/Jerusalem period) are roughly equal in length. This narrative structure has been distorted in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, effected by the inclusion of a significant amount of additional material. In particular, the journey to Jerusalem, covered by a single chapter in Mark (chap. 10), has been greatly expanded in Luke to the point where it effectively spans more than ten full chapters (9:51-19:27).

“And he began to teach them…”
Kai\ h&rcato dida/skein au)tou\$

The second half of the Markan Gospel begins with these words (8:31). It follows directly upon the climactic moment of the first half—the confession by Peter regarding the Messianic identity of Jesus (vv. 29-30):

“And he inquired of them, ‘But who do you count [i.e. consider] me to be?’ The Rock {Peter} gave forth (an answer): ‘You are the Anointed (One)’. And he laid a charge upon them, that they should recount [i.e. tell] (this) about him to no one.”

The entire Galilean period of Jesus’ ministry (i.e., the first half of the Synoptic narrative) has led to this dramatic moment—the revelation (by Peter) of Jesus’ identity as the Messiah (“Anointed [One]”). As I have discussed at length in prior notes and articles, in the Galilean period, Jesus’ Messianic identity relates primarily to the Prophetic figure-types: Moses, Elijah, and the Anointed Herald of Isa 61:1ff (cf. Parts 23 of the series “Yeshua the Anointed”). However, by the time the Gospels were written, the specific title “Anointed (One)” (Xristo/$), as it is applied to Jesus, had come to be defined largely by the Davidic Ruler figure-type. And it is this figure-type—the royal Messiah from the line of David (cf. Parts 6-8 of “Yeshua the Anointed”)—that dominates the second half of the Synoptic narrative.

What precisely does Peter mean by the title in the original tradition (as expressed in Mk 8:29)? Most likely he would have in mind the Davidic Ruler figure-type; indeed, this would help to explain his reaction in v. 32. It was definitely not expected that a Messiah would suffer and die, and certainly not the Messianic Ruler of the kingdom that was to be established (on earth) in the New Age. The Lukan form (9:20) of Peter’s confession (a slightly expanded version) may be intended to convey a more precise identification with this royal figure-type: “(You are) the Anointed (One) of God” (to\n xristo\n tou= qeou=). This echoes the wording from the Infancy narrative (“the Anointed [One] of the Lord,” to\n xristo\n kuri/ou, 2:26), where  the royal/Davidic associations are abundantly clear. The Matthean form of the confession is even more expansive, reflecting, it seems, an attempt by the Gospel writer to expound the statement more squarely in terms of the early Christian understanding of Jesus’ identity: “You are the Anointed (One), the Son of the living God” (16:16; cp. the Johannine confession [by Martha] in 11:27).

“And he began to teach —This marks the beginning of the second half of the narrative. So also in the first half (the Galilean period), Jesus’ ministry begins with teaching, as summarized by three traditional components:

    • His proclamation of the coming of the Kingdom of God (Mk 1:14-15 par)
    • His call of the first disciples (lit. “learners,” those whom he would teach, Mk 1:16-20 par)
    • His practice of teaching in the Synagogues of Galilee (Mk 1:21ff par; cp. Lk 4:14-16ff)

Now, however, his teaching (vb dida/skw) is directed at his close disciples, and the message deals specifically with his impending suffering and death in Jerusalem. In the context of the Gospel narrative, it must also be seen as a response to Peter’s confession. Indeed, he is the Anointed One of God, but this is not to be manifested in the way that Peter and the disciples (and other Jews of the time) would have anticipated. The Davidic Messiah was expected to subdue and judge the nations, not to suffer and die at their hands. Peter’s reaction in verse 32f demonstrates rather clearly how incongruous this idea was in terms of the Messianic expectation. Jesus’ teaching is meant to prepare his disciples for the fact that his Messianic identity (as the coming Davidic Ruler) would be realized in a very different way.

The Matthean version (at 16:21) generally follows Mark at this point, and essentially preserves the dividing line between the two ‘halves’ of the Gospel narrative. The wording does, however, differ slightly:

“From then (on), Yeshua began to show [vb deiknu/w] to his learners [i.e. disciples]…”

Luke, by contrast, has blurred this division, making the Passion prediction (syntactically) part of the same tradition-unit as Peter’s confession:

“…'(You are) the Anointed (One) of God.’ And, laying a charge upon them, he gave along (the) message (that they are) to recount (this) to no one, saying that ‘It is necessary for the Son of Man to suffer many (thing)s…’ ” (9:20-22)

In the next note, we will begin examining the Passion prediction itself.

The Old Testament in the Gospel Tradition: Isaiah 61:1-3

Isaiah 61:1-3

Having discussed Isaiah 42:1ff in the previous article, we now turn to Isa 61:1-3. These two passages have a good deal in common, both in terms of the Messianic interpretation that was given to them, and how they were applied to Jesus in the earliest strands of the Gospel Tradition. Indeed, a strong argument can be made that they are rooted in the actual historical tradition much more than in the early Christian interpretation of that tradition. This is especially so in the case of Isa 61:1ff, as we consider how this passage may have been applied by Jesus to himself, in ways that scarcely continued at all in subsequent Christian thought.

While Isa 40:3 and 42:1ff are part of so-called Deutero-Isaiah (chaps. 4055), 61:1-3 is part of the following chapters (5666) that many scholars regard as a separate (and later) work, customarily referred to as Trito-Isaiah (“Third Isaiah”). Because the message of these poems tends to assume a post-exilic setting, focusing on the future destiny of Judah/Jerusalem following the restoration/return of the people to the Land, Trito-Isaiah is usually dated to the (early) post-exilic period (i.e., the 5th [or late 6th] century B.C.). Even if this critical assessment is correct, the poems in chaps. 56-66 clearly draw upon (and develop) many Isaian (and Deutero-Isaian) themes. In particular, there are many points in common between chapters 40-55 and 56-66.

If we treat chapters 56-66 as a distinct work (or division within the larger Isaian corpus), then chaps. 60-62 are at the heart of that work. Indeed, it would seem that 61:1-3 lies at the very center of the Trito-Isaian poems (cf. Blenkinsopp, pp. ). Chapters 60 and 62 each present a prophetic vision of the glorious destiny for Judah and Jerusalem in the coming New Age. As the people continue to return from exile (60:4ff, 9), so also the surrounding nations will bring tribute and pay homage to the new kingdom. God’s people, centered in Jerusalem, will experience a blessing and prosperity greater than anything before.

However, as chapter 61 makes clear, this glorious New Age had not yet been fully realized in the post-exilic period. Much of the territory (of Judah and Jerusalem) still lay in ruins and needs to be rebuilt (v. 4), a scenario which accords well with a mid-5th century setting, prior to the work inaugurated by Nehemiah (after 445 B.C.). Moreover, the context of vv. 1-3 and 8-9 suggests that there was considerable poverty, as well as widespread injustice and oppression in the land at the time. Again, this fits the vivid portrait in Nehemiah 5:1-5 (cf. Blenkinsopp, p. 224). In the glorious New Age of Israel’s restoration, there is no place for such poverty and injustice.

If we are to consider the structure of chapter 61, it may be treated as a poem with two strophes; each strophe has two parts: (1) announcement of the prophet’s role in establishing the ‘new covenant’ (vv. 1-3, 8-9), and (2) a prophetic hymn-like declaration of the glorious destiny of Judah/Jerusalem (vv. 4-7, 10-11). Each strophe presents a different aspect of these themes. In vv. 1-3, the focus is on the Spirit-empowered prophet, while the ‘new covenant’ itself is only mentioned directly in vv. 8-9. It is specifically referred to as an “eternal covenant” —literally, a “binding agreement (into the) distant (future)” (<l*ou tyr!B=). Technically, this means that the agreement is perpetual and does not require any future ratification or renewal.

The connection between the Spirit-inspired prophet and the covenant is made explicit in 59:21, the verse immediately preceding chaps. 60-62:

“And (for) me [i.e. for my part], this (is) my binding (agreement) [tyr!B=] with them, says YHWH: my Spirit that is upon you, and my words that I have set in your mouth, shall not depart from your mouth, and from (the) mouth of your seed, and from (the) mouth of (the) seed of your seed, (so) says YHWH, from now until (the) distant (future).”

The promise is that there will be a continuous line of inspired prophets, lasting into the far distant future (<l*ou), and this promise is an essential part of the new covenant (“binding [agreement]”) between YHWH and His people. The scope of this prophetic dynasty, taken together with the passages promising the ‘pouring out’ of the Spirit upon the entire people (cf. 32:15; 44:3, etc), strongly suggests what may be referred to as a ‘democratization’ of the ancient prophetic principle. If Moses is the primary prophetic figure-type in view (cf. below), then is it too much to imagine that Moses’ expressed wish in Numbers 11:29 (that all of God’s people would be prophets) finds its fulfillment in the New Age?

In our previous discussion on Isa 42:1ff (see the article and supplemental note), I mentioned that there are two plausible ways of understanding the “servant”, based on the Deutero-Isaian context and the traditions involved:

    • The collective interpretation: the “servant” is the people of Israel/Judah in the New Age of restoration; the Spirit is poured out upon the entire people (cf. above), who function as the inspired messenger(s) of YHWH to the other nations.
    • The figure-type of Moses: the “servant” is a specially-appointed prophet patterned after Moses (Deut 18:15-19), who leads God’s people out of exile and serves as mediator of the (new) covenant.

Sound arguments can be made for both lines of interpretation, at least in regard to the “servant” of 42:1ff. In the case of the anointed prophet-figure in 61:1ff, however, it does seem that a specific individual is in view. Certain evidence suggests that here, too, it is a prophet following in the pattern of Moses. The wording of 59:21 (cf. above), which is unquestionably related to 61:1, resembles that of Deut 18:18, in which YHWH declares that “I will give [i.e. put] my words in his mouth”. We find the same Deuteronomic phrasing applied to the prophet Jeremiah (in 1:9), and the idea that God’s word will not “depart” (vb vWm) from the prophet’s mouth may be an echo of Joshua 1:8, with the declaration that the Instruction (Torah) of YHWH will not “depart” (same verb) from Joshua’s mouth.

Moses was the supreme Prophet in Israel’s history, due to his role in receiving the Torah from YHWH, and then communicating it to the people. In so doing, he functioned as the mediator of the covenant, especially in the period following the Golden Calf incident (cf. the complex narrative in Exodus 19-34). For more on the original context and setting of Isaiah 61:1-3, consult the supplemental daily notes on the passage.

Jewish Interpretation of Isaiah 61:1-3

By all accounts, the prophecies in chapters 60-62, regarding the glorious destiny of Judah/Jerusalem, were never fulfilled in the early post-exilic period (nor in the centuries to follow). It was thus natural that these prophetic poems would be given a Messianic interpretation by Israelites and Jews in the first centuries B.C./A.D. According to this line of interpretation, the promises would finally be realized in the time of the Messiah. The primary Messianic figure-type was the royal Davidic ruler—that is, a future ruler from the line of David, who will serve as God’s representative in establishing a restored Israelite Kingdom (centered at Jerusalem) and in judging/subduing the surrounding nations. On this figure-type, cp. Parts 68 of my earlier series “Yeshua the Anointed”.

However, the “anointed” figure in Isa 61:1ff is not a king, but a prophet—one who brings a message (from YHWH) to the people. The “servant” in 42:1ff exercises a judicial and law-giving function that would be more fitting of a ruler, and yet there too the emphasis is prophetic, rather than royal. The personage of Moses embraces both aspects—judge/lawgiver and prophet—and, as I have discussed, the prophetic figure-type in view may be the “prophet like Moses” promised in Deut 18:15-19.

If we turn to the Jewish writings of the first centuries B.C./A.D., specific references or allusions to Isa 61:1ff are actually quite rare. However, there are at least two Qumran texts which give us some indication of how the passage may have been understood by Jews at the time. The first text is 4Q521, sometimes referred to as the “Messianic Apocalypse”. It is the reasonably well-preserved fragment 2 (cols. 2 & 3) which has most intrigued scholars. The surviving portion of column 2 begins (lines 1-2):

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

The ancient idea of the universe (heavens and earth) obeying God’s word has joined the religious-ethical concept of faithfulness to the Torah (and to the Community)—both are aspects of a single dynamic which is about to come more clearly into view at the end-time. Indeed, the context suggests an eschatological orientation, and that the “anointed (one)” is a Messianic figure who is (about) to appear. This is confirmed by a careful reading of the remainder of the fragment.

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

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

What follows in lines 8-9 echoes Psalm 146:7-8, referring to the freeing of prisoners, opening eyes, straightening the twisted, etc. Unfortunately there is a gap in line 10, but it indicates an imminent eschatological expectation: God is about to “do weighty (thing)s which have not (yet) been” (line 11). These deeds of deliverance will, it seems, be performed by an Anointed representative, such as is mentioned in line 1, identified with the herald of Isa 61:

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

To this, in the badly preserved third column of same fragment, is added an allusion to Malachi 4:5-6 [Hebrew 3:23-24] and the end-time role of “Elijah” as the Messenger who prepares things for God’s appearance on earth to bring the Judgment (3:1ff). This suggests that the Anointed herald of Isa 61:1ff is being interpreted according to the figure-type of Elijah, rather than Moses (cf. above). The miracle-working power accords better with the Elijah-traditions, especially the association with raising the dead (col. 2, line 12)—a connection that continues throughout Jewish tradition (cf. 1 Kings 17:17-24; Sirach 48:5, [11]; m. Sota 9; j. Sheqalim 3:3; Pesikta de R. Kahana 76a). By the end of the 1st century A.D., resurrection came to be connected with the appearance of the Messiah generally (2 Baruch 30:2; 2/4 Esdras 7).

The second text is 11QMelchizedek [11Q13], another fragmentary work with eschatological and Messianic significance. There appear to be two Messianic figures who feature in this text. The first is Melchizedek, understood as a heavenly deliverer, perhaps to be identified with the angel Michael, who will defeat the forces of evil, and thus free God’s people from the power of Belial (col. 2, lines 1-14, 25; col. 3 + frags. 5 & 7). The second figure is an anointed herald who announces the good news of this salvation (col. 2, lines 15-20ff).

The chief Scripture reference is Isa 52:7, but filtered through the framework of Isa 61:1ff (along with a citation of Dan 9:25). The herald is a Messiah, and specifically one who is “anointed of the Spirit”. The Hebrew term for this prophetic herald is the verbal noun rC@b^m=, from the root rc^B* (cf. above), literally “(one) bringing (good) news”. This word occurs in 11QMelchizedek col. 2, line 18—

“and the (one) bringing (good) news i[s] (the) Anointed of the Spir[it]”

where, as noted above, the herald may be understood as an end-time prophet according to the figure-type of Elijah. However, in 4Q377 (frag. 2, col. 2, line 11), the prophetic herald (rcbm) is specifically identified with Moses.

Isaiah 61:1-3 in the Gospel Tradition

Luke 4:16-30

Isaiah 61:1ff features prominently in the Lukan version (4:16-30) of the episode at Nazareth (Mk 6:1-6a; Matt 13:53-58). Because Luke’s version contains details not found in Mark-Matthew, and because it is located at a different point in the Synoptic narrative (at the very beginning of Jesus’ public ministry), some commentators have posited that there were two such (historical) episodes at Nazareth. However, this is extremely unlikely. The Gospels know of only one such episode, the basic outline of which is consistent. Moreover, Luke’s version (v. 23) essentially confirms that the location of the episode in Mark-Matthew is correct; Jesus has been working in Galilee (centered at Capernaum) long enough for his deeds to have become well known in Nazareth.

This suggests that Luke has changed the location of the episode, setting it at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, for a distinct literary (and theological) purpose. Several factors may explain the change. First, moving the episode to this earlier point facilitates a natural connection with the Nazareth setting of the Infancy narrative (chaps. 1-2). Second, the episode vividly illustrates Jesus’ practice of visiting the synagogues and teaching the people there (v. 15); the main Synoptic narrative uses a different episode for this purpose (Mk 1:21-28 par), which Luke includes as well, immediately following the Nazareth scene (vv. 31-37). Third, if the citation of Isa 61:1-2 is an authentic part of the historical tradition received by Luke, then it would have been natural for him to include it at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, following the baptism and temptation scenes.

On this point, Luke clearly connects the Spirit-anointing of the Herald in Isa 61:1 with the descent of the Spirit at Jesus’ baptism (3:22 par). Luke’s Gospel gives special emphasis to the role of the Spirit in Jesus’ ministry, part of a thematic focus that relates to the central place of the Spirit in the narratives of Acts. In Jesus’ public ministry, he provides the type-pattern and example for the apostles, walking about under the guidance of the Spirit, and ministering under its power. There are key references to this in 4:1 (cp. Mk 1:12), and again following the Temptation scene (and immediately prior to the Nazareth episode), in 4:14. The Isaian “anointing” by the Spirit thus applies most fittingly to the ministry of Jesus.

If we accept the historical authenticity of the Lukan version of the episode (with its citation of Isa 61:1-2), then it must be admitted that Jesus specifically identified himself as the anointed Herald of Isa 61:1ff. The Scripture as Luke presents it does not match the Hebrew text that Jesus would have read out loud (at the historical level, vv. 17ff). It follows the LXX, but in an adapted form, omitting two phrases, and interpolating part of 58:6 between verses 1 and 2. This is best understood as an interpretive literary adaptation on the part of the Gospel writer. Even so, it may be seen as accurately representing the manner in which Jesus fulfills the prophecy. Indeed, the adapted LXX version found in vv. 18-19 of the Lukan episode provides a much better fit to the reality of Jesus’ Galilean ministry than does the Hebrew text. The distinctive features of this version may be summarized as follows:

    • the phrase “to bind (the wounds) of (the one)s broken of heart” (bl@-yr@B=v=n]l= vb)j&l^, LXX i)a/sqai tou\$ tou\$ suntetrimme/nou$ th=| kardi/a|) has been omitted
    • the Greek reads tufloi=$ a)na/bleyin (“seeing again [i.e. new sight] for [the] blind”) instead of the Hebrew “opening up for (the one)s bound (in prison)” (j^oq-jq^P* <yr!Wsa&l)
    • the phrase a)postei=lai teqrausme/nou$ e)n a)fe/sei (“to send forth in release (the one)s having been broken” comes from Isa 58:6d (LXX), though it generally matches the thought in 61:1 as well
    • the citation has left out the phrase “and a day of vengeance for our God” (LXX kai\ h(me/ran a)ntapodo/sew$), which provides the (negative) judgment-parallel to the (positive) “year of favor for YHWH” (LXX “year of the Lord [favorably] received”, e)niauto\n kuri/ou dekto\n).

These changes emphasize certain aspects of Jesus’ ministry:

    • Jesus’ proclamation stresses the coming of salvation (“year of the Lord’s favor”), giving this aspect of the end-time message priority over that of judgment (“day of God’s vengeance”)
    • The double-use of the term a&fesi$ (“release”) brings out the idea of release (same word, a&fesi$) from the bondage of sin (i.e., forgiveness from sin), which was so important in Jesus’ teaching
    • The LXX reference to giving sight to the blind (cf. also Isa 35:5 and Psalm 146:7-8) allows the passage to be applied to the healing miracles performed by Jesus (cf. below).

The Lukan context clearly understands the anointed Herald of Isa 61:1ff as a Messianic prophet, and one, it seems, that is generally patterned after the figure of Elijah (cf. the discussion above, esp. as related to the Qumran text 4Q521). Jesus certainly identifies himself as a prophet in verse 24 (cp. Mk 6:4 par), and the Scripture examples he cites in vv. 25-27 come from the Elijah and Elisha narratives (1 Kings 17:9-10; 18:1; 2 Kings 7:3-10). As it happens, Elisha is the only Old Testament prophet who is anointed—a ritual action which represents his inheritance of the prophetic spirit of Elijah (1 Kings 19:16; 2 Kings 2:9-10ff), much as happened in the case of Moses’ prophetic spirit in Numbers 11:16-17ff.

Luke 7:18-23 par

Jesus identifies himself with the Herald of Isa 61:1ff in a second passage—the “Q” tradition of Matt 11:2-6 / Lk 7:18-23. Again the Scripture is cited in relation to the Galilean ministry of Jesus, demonstrating that his work was the fulfillment of Messianic prophecies. However, here, instead of a more or less direct quotation of Isa 61:1ff, Jesus provides a loose application of different Isaian texts: along with Isa 61:1, there are allusions to Isa 26:19 and 35:5.

The historical and narrative context of this episode also relates more directly to the Messianic identity of Jesus. John the Baptist sends messengers to Jesus, to ask him if he is “the (one who is) coming” (o( e)rxo/meno$). That participial expression is tied to the earlier saying by the Baptist regarding the “(one who) comes” (3:16 par). The Lukan wording of this saying generally follows Mark (1:7); however, in Matthew the substantive participle (o( e)rxo/meno$, “the [one] coming”) is used, as also in John 1:15, 27. It must be regarded essentially as a Messianic title, most likely referring to the coming Messenger of Malachi 3:1ff, understood in an eschatological (and Messianic) sense. For more on this, cf. my earlier article in the series “Yeshua the Anointed”.

While in prison, John the Baptist apparently had developed some doubt as to whether Jesus truly was the fulfillment of this coming eschatological/Messianic figure. Jesus does not answer the Baptist’s question directly; in a manner that seems to have been typical of his approach, Jesus neither affirms nor denies the identification per se, but rather redirects the questioner to a deeper understanding of the situation (compare his response to the disciples’ question in Acts 1:6-7). It is as if he is saying: observe and judge for yourselves, based on what you see taking place in my ministry (vv. 21-22a). And Jesus summarizes his ministry work (verse 22) by alluding to Isa 61:1ff (along with other Isaian texts):

    • “blind (person)s see again” [Isa 61:1 LXX; 35:5; cf. also Psalm 146:7-8]
    • “(those) limping walk about (again)”
    • lepers are cleansed”
    • “deaf (person)s hear (again)” [Isa 35:5]
    • “(the) dead are raised” [Isa 26:19 LXX]
    • “(the) poor are given the good message” [Isa 61:1]

The primary focus is on the healing miracles performed by Jesus (verse 21), including raising the dead (the episode immediately preceding, in vv. 10-17). No such miracles are mentioned in the original Hebrew of Isa 61:1-3, but (as noted above) the LXX of verse 1 includes the idea of the blind receiving sight again. Interestingly, in the Qumran text 4Q521 (see above), Isa 61:1-2 is similarly connected with the blind receiving sight (cf. Psalm 146:7-8), and also with the raising of the dead. This text, along with the Gospel tradition here, strongly suggests that, by the first century A.D., the anointed Herald of Isa 61:1ff was being interpreted as a Messianic prophet according to the figure type of the “Elijah who is to come” (Mal 3:1ff; 4:5-6; cf. Mk 9:11-13 par; Lk 9:8; Jn 1:21ff). This pattern of the Spirit-empowered, miracle-working Prophet certainly fits the Galilean ministry of Jesus, as recorded in the Synoptic Gospels. Indeed, there are many signs that, during this period, Jesus was identified (and identified himself) as a Messianic Prophet according to the Elijah figure-type.

At the same time, there are other passages in the Gospel tradition where this Elijah-role is explicitly given to John the Baptist (including by Jesus in the Matthean version of this “Q” material, 11:14). The historical and traditional aspects of this Messianic question are complex, and I discuss them at length in other notes and articles; cf. especially Part 3 of the series “Yeshua the Anointed”. The identity of Jesus as a Messianic Prophet, according to the types of Moses and Elijah both, will be discussed further on in this series, when we come to the Transfiguration episode.

The Old Testament in the Gospel Tradition: Isaiah 42:1

Isaiah 42:1

The next Old Testament reference to examine in this series is the opening verse of the poem in Isaiah 42:1-9, one of the Deutero-Isaian poems (the “Servant Songs”) which came to be interpreted in a Messianic sense by Jews (and early Christians) in the first centuries B.C./A.D. That it was so applied to Jesus is clear from the direct citation (of vv. 1-3) in Matthew 12:18-20. However, verse 1 is also integral to the Baptism episode in the early Gospel Tradition.

This study will proceed in three parts:

    • A brief examination of the original meaning and context of Isa 42:1
    • Allusions to Isa 42:1 in connection with the Baptism of Jesus, and
    • The citation in Matthew 12:18-20

Isaiah 42:1 in Its Original Context

A literal rendering of the Hebrew text of verse 1 is:

“See, my servant, on (who)m I grab hold,
my chosen (one whom) my soul favors;
I have given my Spirit upon him,
(and) he will bring out judgment for the nations.”

Traditionally this marks the first of the ‘Servant Songs’ in Deutero-Isaiah, with the specific mention of “my servant” (yD!b=a^). However, the servant-motif was introduced already in 41:8ff, and, in certain respects, can be seen as rooted in the opening poem of 40:1-3ff (cf. my recent notes on this passage, in connection with the first study [on Isa 40:3] in this series). Therefore, it is necessary to consider 42:1-4 in its wider context of the initial Deutero-Isaian poems. These poems introduce a number of key themes that will be built upon and developed subsequently:

    • The message of good news for God’s people (spec. the inhabitants of Judah and Jerusalem), regarding the promise of their (imminent) restoration and return from Exile.
    • A corresponding announcement of the coming Judgment against the Nations.
    • This Judgment-message is centered on the contrast between God (YHWH) and the peoples of earth, a contrast which involves humankind’s worship of false deities (= idols) in place of YHWH.

A similar judgment had already been leveled against the people of Israel/Judah, fulfilled through the Assyrian/Babylonian conquests and exile. Now, this penalty has been paid, and the time of exile has come to an end. God’s people will be restored, and it is time for the day of YHWH’s Judgment to turn to the other nations.

All of these themes run through the poems of chapters 40 and 41. Some commentators would treat chapter 40 as a Prologue, with the main Deutero-Isaian work beginning with chap. 41. There is some validity to this division of the text. In any case, as one examines the opening sections of chapter 41, we find a clear juxtaposition between an impending judgment against the nations (“islands”, vv. 1-5a), primarily due to their foolishness in worshiping other deities (dismissively designation as mere ‘images’, vv. 5b-7), and the restoration of God’s own people Israel/Judah (vv. 8-10ff).

The wording in 41:8-9 is significant, and has a bearing on a correct understanding of 42:1ff; it reads (inclusive of v. 10a):

“But you, Yisrael, my servant,
Ya’aqob, you whom I have chosen,
seed of Abraham my (be)loved,
you whom I have grasped from (the) ends of the earth,
and you (whom) I have called from her extreme (border)s,
and said to you, ‘You (are) my servant,
I have chosen you and will not reject you’
do not be afraid, for I (am) with you,
do not look away, for I (am) your Mighty (One)…”

Clearly, the wording of verse 8 resembles that of 42:1, identifying the people of Israel, collectively, as the “servant”, “chosen one”, and beloved of God. One might well take for granted that the “servant” in 42:1, otherwise unnamed, is still to be understood as Israel. The LXX makes this explicit, by including reference to Jacob and Israel, after the pattern in 41:8. In all of the other references to God’s “servant” (db#u#) and chosen one, in chapters 41-45 (42:19; 43:10; 44:1-2, 21; 45:4), this figure is identified with the people of Israel (in a collective sense).

Another set of themes that run through chapters  41-45 involves the role of Cyrus, the Persian ruler. He is called the “anointed (one) [j^yv!m*]” of YHWH, and, in his own way, function’s as God’s servant. He will be the one, at the practical historical level, who will enable the Judean people to return from their Exile. His conquests of the Babylonian empire (see chaps. 46-47ff) make it possible for God’s people to return. The Persian conquests thus mark the beginning of God’s Judgment against the nations (cf. above), but they also signify the inauguration of a New Eranot only for Israel/Judah, but for the other nations as well. The nations have the opportunity to turn to YHWH (and away from their false deities/idols), joining the restored Israel/Judah in worshiping the one true God.

Some have felt that Cyrus is the “servant” in 42:1ff, but this is unlikely. A much stronger argument can be made that the figure of Moses, as Prophet and the one who leads the people out of their exile, is in view. I discuss this at length in a supplemental note on this passage.

There are, in fact, two main lines of interpretation which can possibly serve as a valid explanation for the identity of the “servant” here. The first is that it refers to a prophet in the pattern of Moses—a “new Moses,” if you will. This figure will function as a judge and lawgiver for the nations, establishing a new era of order and justice that properly reflects the rule of YHWH, Creator and Sovereign over the world. His activity as judge and lawgiver is described in vv. 1-4. He represents the new covenant between God and the people (Israel), a binding agreement that restores the original Sinai covenant, and is characterized by a renewed adherence to the Torah (i.e., the Law of Moses). At the same time, he serves as a “light” to the nations, conveying to them the same Law and Truth of God.

The second possibility is that the “servant” is, as in the other references (cf. above), the people of Israel, in a collective sense. Only here it refers to the time after the people have been restored, and are residing once again in the Land, with a new covenant in place between them and YHWH. As a sign of this ‘new covenant,’ the people have received God’s Spirit, just as we see described in 44:1-5 (cf. my earlier note on 44:3). According to this line of interpretation, the “people” (<u*) in verse 6 must represent the peoples of the earth (taken collectively), parallel with the “nations”. Restored Israel embodies the covenant for the other nations/people, functioning as a “light” that shines the truth of God’s Torah to them as well.

Isa 42:1 and the Baptism of Jesus

It seems most likely that there is an allusion to Isa 42:1 in the Gospel tradition of Jesus’ Baptism. This is clearest in the Synoptic narrative (Mk 1:9-11 par), where we find two components that relate quite strongly to Isa 42:1:

    • The coming of the Spirit upon Jesus, and
    • The wording of the heavenly Voice

Here is the heavenly declaration in Mk 1:11 par:

“You are my Son, the (one) loved (by me); in you I think well [i.e., think well of you]”
su\ ei@ o( ui(o/$ mou o( a)gaphto/$ e)n soi eu)do/khsa

The other Synoptic accounts generally follow the Markan version, though Matthew (3:17) does formulate the declaration differently:

“This is my Son, the (one) loved (by me), in whom I think well”
ou!to/$ e)stin o( ui(o/$ mou o( a)gaphto/$ e)n w!| eu)do/khsa

Luke’s version (3:22) is identical with Mark’s, except that in a small number of textual witnesses, the Voice quotes Psalm 2:7b [LXX] instead.

The LXX of Isa 42:1 indicates how the Baptismal declaration is more closely related to our verse than might seem at first glance. For Hebrew yD!b=u^ (“my servant”), the Greek reads o( pai=$ mou (“my child“), since pai=$ can also refer to a (young) servant. Clearly, it is not too far a step from “my child [pai=$]” to “my son [ui(o/$]”, especially if Psalm 2:7 was also in view. The second part of the verse is perhaps closer to the Baptismal declaration in the original Hebrew yv!p=n~ ht*x=r* (“[whom] my soul favors”), rather  than the Greek (“my soul has received [i.e. accepted] him”). However, the similarity of thought seems clear enough.

An allusion to Isa 42:1 finds definite confirmation in the Johannine version (1:34), in which John the Baptist makes the declaration, substantially at the same point where the heavenly Voice speaks in the Synoptic version. There is, however, a text-critical question here, with two variant readings, and strong arguments can be made for each of them. The reading in the majority of textual witnesses is:

“And I have seen, and have given witness, that this (one) is the Son of God [o( ui(o\$ tou= qeou=]”

However, in other manuscripts and versions (Ë5vid a* b e ff2 etc), the reading instead is:

“…that this (one) is the (one) gathered out (by) God [o( e)klekto\$ tou= qeou=, i.e., the chosen one of God]”

A few other versions have the conflate reading “…that this is the chosen Son of God”. Whatever the original reading, it is most likely that the expression o( e)klekto/$ (“the [one] gathered out”, the chosen one) relates to Isa 42:1, since the LXX translates yr!yj!B= (“my chosen [one]”) specifically as o( e)klekto/$ mou.

How was Isa 42:1 understood as applied to Jesus? Almost certainly, it reflects a Messianic interpretation of the verse. That is to say, the “servant” is a Messianic figure, one who was anointed, like the ancient kings and prophets, with the Spirit of God. There are two Messianic figure-types that may be in view here, both of which were applied to Jesus by the earliest Christians. The first is the anointed Prophet figure-type, one of which was patterned according to the figure of Moses (cf. above), while the other was patterned after Elijah. For more on this, cf. Part 3 of my earlier series “Yeshua the Anointed”.

The other Messianic figure was the royal Messiah from the line of David (i.e., the Davidic Rule figure-type, Parts 68 of “Yeshua the Anointed”). The application of Psalm 2:7 to Jesus was well-established (Acts 13:33; Heb 1:5; 5:5; cf. also Rom 1:4; Rev 2:27; 12:5; 19:15). As discussed above, there was probably an allusion to it in Mk 1:11 par (it is explicitly quoted in Lk 3:22 v.l.). The role of the “servant” in bringing judgment and justice to the nations (vv. 1-4ff) better fits the Davidic ruler type; however, the emphasis on the presence of the Spirit, and the parallels with Moses (cf. the supplemental note), rather suggest a Messianic Prophet figure. During the period of his Galilean ministry, Jesus was identified as a prophetic Messiah, much more than as a royal/Davidic Messiah. This will be discussed further in the next study.

The Quotation of Isa 42:1ff in Matthew

Isa 42:1 is quoted directly only in Matthew’s Gospel, at 12:18-20, where the Gospel writer cites verses 1-3. It is worth noting the context of this citation in the Matthean narrative. At the place where it occurs, it serves as a kind of summary of Jesus’ early ministry work in Galilee. It covers the Synoptic material in Mark 1:14-3:19 par, but also a considerable amount of other traditional material (such as the Sermon on the Mount, chapters 5-7), much of which is shared by Luke (and customarily designated as “Q” material).

Of special importance are the healing miracles performed by Jesus, which were done with the power of God’s Spirit. The conflict episode that follows in 12:22-32 deals specifically with the question of the source of Jesus’ healing power. Isa 42:1ff may have been quoted primarily as prophetic proof of his empowerment by the Spirit. But other Gospel themes are alluded to in the passage as well. Perhaps most notable, in light of the healing miracles, is the idea that the servant will provide justice and relief for the oppressed (v. 20a): “a bruised reed he will not break down, and smoking flax he will not quench”.

Of great significance to early Christians, especially during and following the early mission to the Gentiles, is the repeated emphasis on bringing judgment (and justice) to the nations (vv. 18b, 20b). Though this theme is not especially prominent in Matthew (compared with Luke-Acts), the Gospel writer very much had it in view, referencing it both in the Infancy narrative (2:1-12), and in the closing words of the Gospel (28:18-20). The quotation of Isa 42:1-3 sets very near the midpoint of the Matthean Gospel.

In closing, we may say that Isaiah 42:1ff exerted an influence on the Gospel Tradition that was many-faceted, reflecting a Messianic interpretation of the passage, as well as the range of Messianic beliefs that were current in the first centuries B.C./A.D. As I discuss at length in the series “Yeshua the Anointed,” virtually all of these Messianic traditions were applied to the person of Jesus by early Christians. Evidence for this can be seen throughout the New Testament, but a number of important strands were already present (and relatively well-fixed) in the early Gospel Tradition. It is significant that several of these were established in the Tradition at the very beginning of Jesus’ public ministry.


Supplemental Note on Isaiah 42:1-4

Isaiah 42:1-4

This note is supplemental to the article on Isaiah 42:1ff in the series “The Old Testament in the Gospel Tradition”. Here I will explore in more detail the identity of the “servant” in this passage, and its significance in the context of chapters 41-45.

The principal theme and subject of the poems in these chapters is the restoration/return of the Judean people from their exile in the Babylonian Empire. This will come about through the military and political actions of Cyrus the Great, whose conquests will bring the fall of the Babylonian Empire (see chapters 46-47ff), and allow the Judean exiles to return to their land.

There is a wider theme at work as well: God’s Judgment against the nations for their wickedness—in particular, their worship of false deities (characterized by the images used to represent them, i.e., as ‘idols’). This Judgment begins with the Persian conquests under Cyrus. At the same time, the restoration of Israel/Judah marks the beginning of a New Era, and a new ‘world order’ established by YHWH in His Sovereignty. The nations have the opportunity to turn away from their false deities and to join Israel in worshiping the one true God. This idea, anticipating the theme of the (future) salvation of the nations, is established in the opening verse of chapter 41. The declaration of the impending conquests by Cyrus follows in vv. 2-3, even though the Persian ruler is not yet mentioned by name. The main point is that YHWH, the Creator and Sovereign of the universe, is the one truly in control; Cyrus is only an instrument to carry out His will (v. 4).

Within this dramatic prophetic framework, there are three figures who feature prominently in chapters 41-45 (apart from YHWH Himself):

    • The people of Israel/Judah, who are collectively referred to as the “servant” (db#u#) and “chosen (one)” (ryj!B*, vb rj^B*) of YHWH (41:8-9; 42:19; 43:10; 44:1-2, 21; 45:4)
    • A messenger, sent by YHWH to Israel/Judah, serving as His spokesperson (prophet), but also representing the people, speaking and acting on their behalf (41:27ff; 42:19; 44:26, cf. also 40:6-8, 9ff)
    • Cyrus, the Persian king, mentioned by name in 45:1.

In all the other references to God’s “servant” (db#u#) and chosen one, these titles are applied to the people of Israel/Judah specifically (41:8-9; 42:19; 43:10; 44:1-2, 21; 45:4). The context relates to YHWH leading His chosen people out of their exile. The formula is established in 41:8-9:

“But you, Yisrael, my servant [yD!b=u^],
you, Ya’aqob, whom I have chosen,
seed of Abraham my loved (one),
you whom I have seized from (the) ends of the earth,
and called from her corners,
you to (whom) I have said
‘You (are) my servant,
I have chosen you and will not reject you,’
—do not be afraid, for I (am) with you…”

The same basic formula is used in 42:1, only there Israel is not specifically identified as the “servant” (except in the LXX):

“See, my servant, on (who)m I grab hold,
my chosen (one whom) my soul favors;
I have given my Spirit upon him,
(and) he will bring out judgment for the nations.”

Moreover, the role of this servant is different than in the other references: he is appointed by YHWH to bring judgment and justice to the nations, establishing a new era of law and order, according to the Rule of God. But if this figure does not refer to the people of Israel/Judah, then who is this servant?

Some commentators would identify him with Cyrus. Thematically, such an identification would make sense, in the context of chapters 41-45. YHWH refers to Cyrus as his “anointed (one)” (j^yv!m*), and the Persian ruler clearly functions as God’s ‘servant,’ carrying out His will—both in enabling the Judean people to return from exile, and in bringing judgment upon the nations (esp. the Babylonian empire). The motif of rendering judgment and establishing justice among the nations would seem to apply to a ruler such as Cyrus. However, the term db#u# (“servant”) is never used of him, even implicitly. Indeed, after YHWH address to Cyrus in 45:1ff, db#u# is again applied to Israel/Jacob, not Cyrus (v. 4).

More probable is that the term in 42:1ff refers to a messenger of YHWH, either a heavenly (angelic) or human (prophetic) figure. The Judgment-aspect would perhaps suggest a heavenly/angelic Messenger; however, the mention of YHWH giving His Spirit to the servant makes it all but certain that we are dealing with a human being—and that the presence of God’s Spirit is realized in terms of the prophetic spirit (for a detailed discussion on this, cf. my recent series of notes on “The Spirit in the Old Testament”).

A relatively strong argument can be made that the figure of Moses is particularly in view. There are a number of points that can be made in favor of this theory:

    • Moses is specifically referred to as God’s “servant” on a number of occasions in Old Testament tradition: Exod 4:10; 14:31; Num 12:7-8; Deut 34:5; Josh 1:2, 7; 18:7; 1 Kings 8:53, 56; Psalm 105:26; Isa 63:11; Dan 9:11; Mal 4:4 [3:22]; Bar 2:28; cf. also Heb 3:5; Rev 15:3.
    • Moses was the pre-eminent Prophet and leader for the people of Israel, and possessed the spirit of prophecy (i.e., God’s Spirit); on this line of tradition, see my study on Numbers 11:10-30.
    • Moses led the people out of exile in Egypt, even as they are now to be led out their exile within the Babylonian empire; the return of the Exiles is clearly understood in the Deutero-Isaian poems as a ‘new Exodus’ (in chaps. 41-45, cf. especially 43:1-2, 16-17ff).
    • The role of bringing judgment to the nations, in the context of Israel’s release/return, would fit the archetypal pattern of Moses in his encounters with Pharaoh and the rulers of Egypt.
    • The servant functions as a judge and law-giver, which well fits the historical and traditional portrait of Moses.
    • The wording in verse 4 (“he shall not be dim/weak [vb hh*K*]”) may contain an allusion to Deut 34:7, referring to Moses (the servant of YHWH, v. 5) whose eye “had not dimmed/weakened” even at the end of his long life.

If an identification with Moses is correct, how is this to be understood? Is the language figurative, or is a specific historical personage expected to arise who will function as a ‘new Moses’ (in the context of this ‘new Exodus’ for Israel)? On the one hand, a figurative interpretation would better fit the Deutero-Isaian theme of Israel’s restoration, which involves a new covenant and a renewed adherence to the Torah, echoing the ancient Moses/Exodus traditions (the Sinai covenant and the giving of the Law, cf. Exod 19-34). Subsequent Isaian poems and oracles (i.e., from chapters 56-66, so-called Trito-Isaiah) give special emphasis to the theme of the Law going out from Jerusalem, as a light to the nations (cf. below on vv. 5-9).

On the other hand, Deuteronomy 18:15-19 records a prophecy regarding a “prophet like Moses” who will arise in Israel, essentially taking Moses’ place and functioning as a ‘new Moses’. By the 1st century B.C./A.D., this had developed into a clear belief in a Messianic prophetic figure, according to the figure-type of Moses, who would appear at the end-time, prior to the great Judgment. Jesus was identified explicitly with this figure in Acts 3:22 (also 7:37), and there are other implicit references to “(the) Prophet” which likely have this same (Messianic) figure-type in mind (Jn 1:21, 25; 6:14; 7:40). For more on this subject, and on the identification of Jesus with Moses, cf. Part 3 of the series “Yeshua the Anointed”.

It is possible that an early version of this basic line of tradition had already been established by the 6th century B.C. If so, then it is conceivable, given the Moses parallels listed above, that the “servant” of Isa 42:1ff is understood to be a “prophet like Moses”, who was to arise (as an eschatological figure) to lead the people of Israel again.

While the arguments for identifying the “servant” here with Moses are compelling, the overall context of chapters 41-45 may ultimately favor a somewhat different interpretation. It rests upon the fact that the “servant” (db#u#) is repeatedly identified with the people of Israel throughout these chapters. It can thus be argued fairly enough that the term db#u# and “chosen one” (ryj!B*) should be understood the same way here. The difference in role reflects the condition of the people after they have received the Spirit of God. This implies a setting after they have been restored and have returned to the Land, and YHWH has established His new covenant with them. Such is very much the context of the reference to the Spirit in the servant-passage of 44:1-5 (cf. my earlier study on 44:3).

In this regard, one should also note the declaration of a new role for restored Israel earlier in 41:14-16. Though but a mere “worm” when rescued from exile by YHWH, they will become a sharp-toothed “threshing-sledge”. This threshing/harvesting imagery suggests that the restored people will come to play a role in the judgment that YHWH will bring against the nations. This generally fits the context of 42:1ff as well. According to this particular line of interpretation, Israel becomes a messenger to the nations, establishing the law and justice of God among them.

The theme of law and justice is clear enough in vv. 1-4, but it takes on an even deeper theological meaning in verses 5-9, in which YHWH states that he gave it to the servant to be “a binding (agreement) [tyr!B=, i.e. covenant]” for the people, and a “light” [roa] for the nations (v. 6). The idea that Israel, bound in a new covenant with YHWH, would serve as a light (of God’s Law and Truth) to the nations, is fully in keeping with the Deutero-Isaian theology.

However, who are the “people” (<u*) here in v. 6? Normally, this singular term, juxtaposed with the plural “nations” (<y]oG), would indicate a contrastive parallel between the people Israel and the other nations. If so here, then the “servant” could not be the people Israel, but would have to be a separate figure who functions in a prophetic/leadership role—most likely according to the figure-type of Moses (cf. above).

If, on the other hand, <u* is here used collectively for the peoples of the earth (i.e., humankind), then it would still be possible to view restored Israel as the “servant”. The role of God’s people, sanctified and empowered by His Spirit (cp. 44:3), is of a missionary nature—that is, their mission is to bring other peoples and nations into the covenant with YHWH, bringing to them the light of God’s Law. The dual-motif of the Law going forth out of Jerusalem, leading to the conversion/salvation of people from the other nations, was an important Isaian theme that takes on special prominence in the Trito-Isaian poems (chaps. 56-66). It came to be a key component of Jewish eschatology and Messianic thought in the first centuries B.C./A.D., and early Christians adopted the same line of tradition, applying it to their mission to the Gentiles.

January 19: John 1:34 (continued)

John 1:34, continued

In order to gain a better understanding of the declaration by John the Baptist in verse 34 (and the important text-critical question in the verse, cf. the previous note), it is necessary to examine the narrative context of vv. 19-51. As previously discussed, verses 29-34 make up one of four sections in the narrative, which are joined together using the literary device of setting the four episodes on four successive days. This may be outlined, again, as follows:

    • Day 1—The testimony of John the Baptist regarding his own identity (1:19-28)
    • Day 2—The testimony of John regarding the identity of Jesus (1:29-34)
    • Day 3—Disciples follow/encounter Jesus as the result of John’s witness (1:35-42)
    • Day 4—Disciples follow/encounter Jesus as the result of his (and other disciples’) witness (1:43-51)

The first “Day” involves the question of John the Baptist’s identity. He specifically denies any identification with three figures or titles— “the Anointed One” (i.e. Messiah), “Elijah”, and “the Prophet”. The last two relate to a Messianic Prophet figure-type, drawn from the Old Testament figures of Elijah and Moses (Deut 18:15-20); this subject is discussed further in the series “Yeshua the Anointed” (Part 3). It is not entirely clear whether “the Anointed One” refers to a Messiah generally, a Messianic Prophet, or the traditional Messianic ruler from the line of David; based on the overall context of vv. 29-51, the latter is more likely.

The second and third “Days” follow a similar pattern; each begin with John the Baptist’s identification of Jesus as “the Lamb of God” (vv. 29, 36). Each ends with a distinct declaration regarding Jesus’ identity. The declaration of the second day is that of verse 34; that of the third day again involves the title Messiah— “We have found the Messiah!” (v. 41), where the Hebrew word j^yv!m* is transliterated as Messi/a$ (before being translated, “Anointed One” [Xristo/$]).

This common Messianic theme, running through the narrative episodes, would perhaps suggest that the reading “Chosen/Elect One” is to be preferred, since this title (presumably derived from Isa 42:1) is more directly Messianic than is “Son of God”. This is certainly the case with its use in Lk 9:35 and 23:35, the only other occurrences in the New Testament where the title is applied to Jesus.

However, a careful examination of the fourth “Day” (vv. 43-51) points in the opposite direction. Here the declaration regarding Jesus’ identity, made by Nathanael (v. 49), is two-fold:

“You are the the Son of God, you are the King of Israel

The thematic and narrative structure suggests that these two titles are parallel to those in the declarations of the 2nd and 3rd days:

    • “Son of God” = “<Chosen | Son> of God” (v. 34)
    • “King of Israel” = “Messiah” (v. 41)

The parallelism would tend to favor “Son” in v. 34, if only slightly. This, along with the overwhelming external manuscript evidence (in favor of “Son”), makes it the preferred reading. Still, the matter is far from decisive, and it is worth keeping the variant “Elect/Chosen One” well in mind whenever you read this passage. Consider how the two titles (and concepts) are closely intertwined in Luke’s version of the Transfiguration scene, in which the voice from Heaven declares (according to the best manuscripts):

“This is my Son, the Elect/Chosen One [o( e)klelegme/no$]…” (9:35)

The title “Elect/Chosen (One)” here takes the form of a substantive (perfect) participle of the verb e)kle/gomai (“gather out”), from which the adjective e)klekto/$ is derived. Literally, it would be translated “the (one) having been gathered out” (o( e)klelegme/no$), but it is essentially identical in meaning to o( e)klekto/$. The latter occurs as a title of Jesus, albeit delivered mockingly to him, in Lk 23:35, and is clearly used in a Messianic sense (“the Anointed [One], the Elect/Chosen [One] of God”). There can be no real doubt that the same significance is to be found in its usage in the Lukan Transfiguration scene.

The Transfiguration scene, of course, parallels the earlier Baptism scene in the Synoptic Gospels, in which the voice from Heaven makes a similar declaration (in Matthew they are identical). Now, the Gospel of John only narrates the Baptism indirectly (vv. 29-34), through the testimony of John the Baptist, who witnesses the visionary phenomena. His declaration is in the same climactic position as the Divine/Heavenly voice in the Synoptics:

Yet consider, too, a comparison with the variant reading from John—

    • “You are My Son…” / “This is My Son…”
    • “This is the Chosen One of God” (Jn 1:34 v.l.)

which matches the words of the heavenly voice in Lk 9:35:

“You are my Son, the Chosen One”

This declaration, in turn, is an echo of Isaiah 42:1, where God speaks of “My Servant [db#u#]…my Chosen (One) [ryj!B^]…”. In Greek, db#u# is translated by pai=$, which can also mean “child” — “my Child” is obviously close in meaning to “my Son“. At the same time, ryj!B^ is translated by  e)klekto/$, the same word used in Jn 1:34 v.l. (and related to that in Lk 9:35).

It may be helpful at this point to summarize three important aspects of the Johannine tradition in vv. 19-51:

    • The narrative, despite its adapation of the early Gospel tradition into the Johannine idiom, preserves authentic historical tradition. For more on this, cf. the articles dealing with Jn 1:19-51 in my earlier series “Jesus and the Gospel Tradition” (The Baptism of Jesus).
    • This early tradition specifically relates to the identity of Jesus as the “Anointed One” (Messiah), and particularly so in terms of the Messianic Prophet figure-type(s). It is the Anointed herald of the (Deutero-)Isaian oracles (e.g., 42:1ff; 61:1ff) that is most clearly in view, and is the figure with which Jesus was identified in the earliest strands of the Tradition. Cf. Parts 2 and 3 of the series “Yeshua the Anointed”.
    • Again, in the earliest tradition, the title “Son of God” was fundamentally Messianic in significance. Even though the Gospel of John clearly understands the title in terms of a pre-existence Christology, it still retains the older, traditional meaning as well.

None of this is sufficient to decide the text-critical question of which title— “Son of God” or “Elect/Chosen One of God” —was the original reading. Both titles are appropriate to the Messianic context of vv. 19-51, and, in a sense, can be seen as interchangeable (or, at least, complementary). As noted above, the overwhelming manuscript support, as well as the Johannine usage, favors the reading “Son of God” (o( ui(o\$ tou= qeou=), and I am inclined to adopt it, by a narrow margin. The Baptist’s declaration would then read:

“And I have seen and have witnessed that this (one) is the Son of God

In so doing, John is the first to give witness to Jesus’ identity as God’s Son. In the context of the Gospel Prologue, this refers to his identity as the pre-existent Son; however, in the immediate context of the narrative (vv. 19-51), and in terms of the early Gospel tradition, the title is to be understood in a Messianic sense (i.e., “Anointed One” = “Elect/Chosen One”). Both aspects are fundamental to the Johannine theology, and must be taken into account when summarizing the Christological portrait in the Gospel. No better summary can be found than the confessional statement by Martha in 11:27:

“I have trusted that you are the Anointed (One), the Son of God…”

This confession holds roughly the same place in the Gospel of John as Peter’s confession does in the Synoptics (Mk 8:29 par). It also is close in form and sense to the Baptist’s declaration in 1:34, especially if we were to combine the two variant readings:

“I have seen…that this (one) is the Elect/Chosen (One), the Son of God”

An even more precise confessional formula is used by the author in his conclusion to the Gospel:

“I have written these (thing)s (so) that you would trust that Yeshua is the Anointed (One), the Son of God…” (20:31)

The uniqueness of the Johannine Gospel lies in the way that the earlier Gospel tradition, which understood the title “Son (of God)” primarily in a Messianic sense, has been adapted and developed to give a deeper theological (and Christological) meaning to the traditional manner of expression. Jesus is still the Anointed One, exalted by God the Father through his death and resurrection; but he is also something more: the incarnation of the pre-existent Logos, who was, even in the very beginning, the Son resting together with God the Father in the bond of His eternal love and power.

January 15: John 1:31

John 1:31

Verse 31 goes hand-in-hand with the saying by the Baptist in verse 30 (examined in the previous note). One of the critical aspects of these verses involves the intriguing Johannine repetitions and ‘doublets’ that we see here in the narrative. There are two different sets of repetitions: one that occurs within vv. 29-31, and another which relates to the earlier episode in vv. 19-28. This has led critical commentators to posit a number of theories regarding the composition of these two scenes, and the distinct source material that might have been used in the process.

Let us consider, first, the parallel between vv. 26-27 and 30-31. Note the similarities—in each pair of verses there is:

    • A comparative saying by the Baptist regarding the superiority of Jesus
    • A statement on how Jesus has not been seen/known (i.e. recognized) as the Messiah
    • A reference by John to his baptizing people in water

These elements occur in a different order, in vv. 26-27 and 30-31 respectively; I present them here together as a chiasm:

    • Reference to baptizing in water (v. 26)
      • Statement on not having known/recognized Jesus (v. 26)
        • Saying by the Baptist on the superiority of Jesus (v. 27)
        • Saying by the Baptist on the superiority of Jesus (v. 30)
      • Statement on not having known/recognized Jesus (v. 31a)
    • Reference to baptizing in water (v. 31b)

This cannot be coincidental. Consider the ‘outer’ parallel—the mention by John of his baptizing in water:

    • “I dunk [i.e. baptize] in water [e)n u%dati]…” (v. 26)
    • “…I came dunking in water [e)n u%dati]” (v. 31)

The reference to baptizing in water is certainly to be understood as part of the comparison, between John and Jesus, in vv. 27/30. Though implicit here, the point of contrast is specified in the Synoptic tradition (Mark 1:7 par):

“I dunked you in water, but he will dunk you in (the) holy Spirit”

The phrase in v. 26 (above) reads like an abbreviated version of this saying. Instead of the contrastive point “but he will dunk you in the holy Spirit,” here the Baptist completes the statement with the curious declaration: “(but) in your midst has stood (one) whom you have not seen [i.e. known]”. Instead of the idea of Jesus (“the one coming,” i.e., the Prophetic Messiah) baptizing people with the Holy Spirit, we have what some commentators have called the concept of a “hidden Messiah” —that is, an Anointed One who remains unknown until the moment he is revealed (by God) on earth.

Here is the phrase in v. 26, along with the parallel in v. 31 (cf. the chiastic arrangement above):

    • “…in your midst has stood (one) whom you have not seen [i.e. known]” (v. 26)
    • “…and I had not seen [i.e. known] him, but (so) that he should be made to shine forth to Yisrael…” (v. 31)

On the concept of the Messiah’s hiddenness, this is a theme attested, to some degree, in a number of passages in Jewish writings from the first centuries B.C. through the early Rabbinic period. Trypho, in Justin’s Dialogue (8.4; 110.1), written in mid-2nd century A.D., expresses what would seem to be a common or accepted Jewish position: “the Messiah, even if he be born and actually exist somewhere, is unknown” (cf. Brown, p. 53). On the Rabbinic references to this basic tradition we may note, e.g., Sanh. 97a; b. Pes. 54a; b. Ned. 39a; Midrash Rabbah on Exod. 25:16. It is possible that an early form of this tradition underlies, to some extent, the so-called “Messianic Secret” passages in the Synoptic Gospels, most notably in the Gospel of Mark (1:43; 4:11-12; 5:43; 7:36; 8:30; 9:9).

If the Johannine Gospel here is referencing a tradition regarding the “hiddenness” of the Messiah, it is possible the author is alluding to the specific idea of the Messiah having dwelt in heaven prior to his appearance on earth. This would certainly fit the pre-existence Christology of the Gospel (esp. in the Prologue), but suggests a Messianic ‘heavenly deliverer’ figure-type (cf. Part 10 of the series “Yeshua the Anointed”), rather than the Prophetic or Davidic Messiah. The Johannine Christological portrait of Jesus (as the pre-existent Son of God) may be compared with the heavenly “Son of Man” in 1 Enoch (cf. 46:1-3; 62:7-9, etc). By the Rabbinic period, a heavenly dwelling (or pre-existence) may have been attributed more generally to the Messiah—as one who was “hidden in the clouds” until the time came for him to appear on earth.

Turning to the central parallel in vv. 26-27 and 30-31—the saying by the Baptist on the superiority of Jesus—the statement in v. 27 corresponds more or less with the Synoptic saying in Mark 1:7 par, and clearly derives from a common historical tradition. Here is the Markan version of the Synoptic tradition:

the (one) stronger than me comes in back of me, of whom I am not fit, (hav)ing bent (down), to loosen the straps of (the thong)s bound under his (feet)

Interestingly, the two parts, indicated by bold and italics, respectively, have been separated out in the Johannine tradition. On the other hand, it may be that the Synoptic version represents a conflation of two originally distinct sayings, and that John’s Gospel accurately presents these as separate statements by the Baptist. In any case, the saying in v. 27 corresponds to the italicized part of Mk 1:7 par:

“…of whom I am not worthy that I should loosen the straps of (the thong)s bound under his (feet)”
“…of whom I am not fit…to loosen the straps of (the thong)s bound under his (feet)” [Mk 1:7]

These statements are quite close. John uses the adjective a&cio$, instead of i(kano/$ in Mark, but the basic meaning and emphasis is the same.

The saying in v. 30 corresponds with the bold portion of Mk 1:7 (above). The Matthean and Lukan versions each differ slightly from Mark. In Luke 3:16, the wording is identical, except for the omission of the expression “in back of me” (o)pi/sw mou). Matthew’s version (3:11), which uses the participle e)rxo/meno$ (“coming”) instead of the indicative e&rxetai (“comes”), is actually closer in form to the Johannine version of the saying in verse 15:

the (one) coming in back of me is greater than me” [Matthew]
the (one) coming in back of me has come to be in front of me…” [John, v. 15]

The saying in v. 30 is compares better with the Markan version of the Synoptic saying:

“the (one) stronger than me comes in back of me” [Mark]
“a man comes in back of me who has come to be in front of me…” [John, v. 30]

The main difference between the Johannine and Synoptic versions is that, instead of the straightforward comparison “stronger than me”, John has the rather awkward “has come to be in front of me”. We may rightly ask whether the Johannine version represents a modification of the Synoptic version, or reflects a separate Gospel tradition. The distinctive Johannine theological vocabulary present in v. 15/30 (cf. the previous note) suggests the former. However, one cannot rule out the possibility that both versions represent variations of the original historical tradition. This would be explained in terms of the Aramaic of the original saying of Jesus having been translated two different ways. Black (Aramaic Approach, pp. 107-8) suggests an original Aramaic of awh ymdq, which could be understood as “he is superior to me”, but also “he was before me”.

This discussion will be continued in the next daily note (on v. 32).

References marked “Brown” above are to Raymond E. Brown, S.S., The Gospel According to John (I-XII), Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 29 (1966).
References marked “Black” are to Matthew Black, An Aramaic Approach to the Gospels and Acts, Second Edition (Oxford: 1946, 1954).

SS Christmas Studies: Matthew 2:13-23

Matthew 2:13-23

This study looks at the third (and final) section of the Matthean Infancy narrative—2:13-23. It has a clear structure comprised of three episodes:

    • Angelic Appearance—Call to go into Egypt (vv. 13-15)
      —Joseph’s Response
      —Scripture (Hos 11:1)
    • Slaughter of the Children by Herod (vv. 16-18)
      —Scripture (Jer 31:15)
    • Angelic Appearance—Call to come out of Egypt (vv. 19-23)
      —Joseph’s Response—with added detail
      —Scripture (Isa 4:3 ?)

(On the use of the Angelic appearances and Scripture citations to structure the Infancy narrative as a whole, see the outline in the previous study.)

The section is framed by the two Angelic appearances to Joseph, each narrated in nearly identical wording, and parallel to the earlier appearance in 1:18-25. As in the first appearance scene, Joseph’s faithfulness is indicated by his obedience to the Angel’s message (v. 24). Here, however, this is enhanced by having the description of Joseph’s act match precisely the words of the Angel (2:14-15a, 21f).

Each of the episodes in this section contain a Scripture quotation illustrating how the events were the fulfillment of prophecy. Both of the Angelic appearances relate most directly to the first Scripture cited (Hos 11:1; v. 15)—that is, both episodes, taken together, fulfill the prophecy. The historical and narrative context is established in the central scene, involving the danger posed by Herod (v. 13b) which continues into the last scene in the person of Herod’s son (v. 22).

The narrative itself is clearly patterned after, and corresponds to, the story of Israel’s entry into Egypt (Joseph Narratives) and Exodus out of it (Moses Narratives). The events narrated fulfill Scripture, not only through the specific passages cited, but in their typology and correspondence with the Old Testament narratives. Note the essential structure:

    • Israel goes down into Egypt—Joseph Narratives, with the motif of communication/revelation through dreams
    • Slaughter of the children by the wicked King—Moses’ childhood (Infancy Narrative: Exod 1:15-2:10)
    • Israel comes up out of Egypt—the Exodus under Moses’ leadership

The central Scripture narrative is prominent—the birth of Moses parallel with the birth of Jesus. The correspondence is even more definite and closer if we take into consideration details from later Jewish tradition (cf. Josephus, Antiquities 2.205-223). Beyond this, it is also possible to glimpse in the Matthean episodes three additional scenes from Israel’s history, indicated by the specific Scriptures cited in each:

    • The Exodus—Hos 11:1
    • The Exile—Jer 31:15
    • The Messianic Age and redemption for the faithful Remnant—Isa 4:3 (?), etc

The first theme can be further divided into two main lines of tradition, parallels that are at work in relation to Matthew 2:13-23:

    1. The Birth and early Life of Moses
    2. The theme of the Exodus
1. The Birth and early Life of Moses

Three elements from the narratives in Exodus 1-4 (and related Jewish tradition) can be isolated, each of which relates to the three sections in Matt 2:13-23 and help to define the structure of the passage:

    • A wicked king who seeks to destroy a divine/chosen child who is prophecied to become ruler/savior, and the rescue/escape of the child (vv. 13-15, also vv. 1-9)
    • Newborn children killed by the wicked king (vv. 16-18)
    • Death of the wicked king, which allows the chosen child to return (vv. 19-21[23])

As should be clear from the points above, this narrative structure not only draws from the Exodus stories but reflects an archetypal narrative found in traditional tales (myth/folklore) around the world. This has caused many commentators naturally to question the historicity of the narrative in Matthew. In passing, it may be helpful here to summarize the basic positions which have been taken (in relation to the Exodus/Matthew parallels):

1) They reflect a special historical synchronicity between (entirely factual) events
2) Historical events (in general) have been shaped (by the author or earlier tradition) under the influence of the Exodus stories (in literary detail)
3) The Gospel writer records/adapts an original tradition (of uncertain/questionable historicity) which draws from the Exodus stories
4) The Gospel writer has essentially created an episode of historical fiction, in imitation of the Exodus stories (and related traditions)

Many traditional-conservative scholars would opt for #1, while at least some critical scholars suspect #4; the majority of moderate commentators (on all sides) probably would adopt some form of #2 or 3. On purely objective grounds, #2 would seem the most plausible, but I will leave it to thoughtful and informed readers (believers) in humility to judge the matter for themselves.

a. The Wicked King and Chosen Child (Matt 2:13-15, and vv. 1-9)

Exodus 1:8-22 records that the new Pharaoh feared the increasing Israelite population and eventually sought to cut down their numbers by killing the newborn males (attempts are made by two different means, vv. 15-19 and 20-22). On the face of it, this does not seem to be an especially close parallel to Matthew’s narrative; however, at the time of the New Testament, several details had been added to the Exodus story within Jewish tradition (attested earliest by Josephus):

    • Pharaoh is warned by his “(sacred) scribes” that a child was about to be born who would deliver Israel and bring low the kingdom of Egypt (see Josephus Antiquities II.205)—in subsequent Rabbinic tradition, astrologers advise Pharaoh to drown the Hebrew children (Midrash Rabbah on Exodus I.18, cf. also b.Sanh. 101a); also in some versions of the story, the warning/prophecy is foreseen by Pharaoh’s ‘magicians’ (see b.Sotah 12b), or in a dream which they interpret.
    • The prophecy of this child caused fear and dread for Pharaoh and the Egyptians (Jos. Ant. II.206, 215), a possible parallel to Matt. 2:3. See a second attempt to kill the child Moses, instigated by Pharaoh’s scribes in Ant. II.234ff (cf. also II.255).
    • There is also a legend of a light which appeared at Moses’ birth (Midrash Rabbah on Exodus I.20), and that the stars above gave homage to the ‘light’ of Moses’ birth (cf. Sefer ha-Yashar [67]).

These details bring the Exodus story closer to Matthew’s narrative, and may have been familiar to the Gospel writer and/or its original audience. For more on the Moses story, see my article on the passage in the series “The Birth of the Messiah”.

The escape/rescue of the child (vv. 13-15)—This is narrated in Exodus 2:1-4ff, but note the version as recorded in Josephus (Ant. II.212-216, 219ff), whereby Moses’ father (Amram) is warned and encouraged by God in a dream, after which he takes steps to protect the child (in Ex 2:2-3, Moses’ mother initiates the hiding); all of this, again, brings the story closer to Matthew.

There is a second “escape” of Moses (as an adult) recorded in Exodus 2:15. Note in particular the phrase “he [Pharaoh] sought [ez¢¡tei] to take away [i.e. kill] Moses” (LXX), compared with the angel’s message to Joseph: “Herod is seeking [z¢teín] the child to destroy it” (v. 13). Again Josephus’ narrative is a bit closer overall to that of Matthew, cf. Ant. II.255-256.

b. Newborn children killed by the wicked king (vv. 16-18)

There is here only a general parallel between v. 16 and Exodus 2:22; the lack of corresponding detail could be seen as confirmation of the historicity of vv. 16-18. There is conceivably a faint correspondence between Pharaoh being ‘tricked’ as it were by the midwives (Ex 2:17ff) and Herod provoked to anger at being ‘tricked’ [lit. played with] by the Magi (v. 16). The narrative here is so brief (a single verse) that it is difficult to make a meaningful comparison.

c. Death of the wicked king (vv. 19-21[23])

This provides perhaps the closest parallel between the Exodus and Matthean narratives (precise or close verbal and syntactical parallels are indicated with italics):

Exodus 4:19-20 (LXX)

19But with [i.e. after] these many days the king of Egypt was finished [e)teleu/thsen], and (the) Lord said to Moses in Midan: “Walk! Go from (here) into Egypt! For all the (ones) seeking your soul have died“.

Matthew 2:19-21

19But (at) Herod’s being finished [teleuth/santo$ i.e. having died], see—a Messenger of the Lord shone forth [i.e. appeared] by a dream to Joseph in Egypt 20saying: “Rising, take along the child and his mother and travel into (the) land of Israel, for the (ones) seeking the soul of the child have died.”

20And taking up the woman and the child, Moses put them up upon a (beast) under-yoke [i.e. beast-of-burden] and turned about [i.e. returned] into Egypt… 21And rising, the (man) [i.e. Joseph] took along the child and his mother and came into (the) land of Israel.

Especially noteworthy is the virtually identical Greek phrase in Ex 4:19/Matt 2:20: “for the ones seeking the soul” … “have died” (see below).

2. The theme of the Exodus

This is applied very simply to the narrative of Matt 2:13-23, interwoven through the Moses/Pharaoh paradigm, as can be illustrated by the following chiastic outline:

    • The wicked king seeks to destroy the chosen child (divine announcement [in a dream]), and the rescue/escape of the child—v. 13
      • Entrance into Egypt—v. 14-15
        • Newborn children killed by the wicked king—v. 16-18
      • Return (Exodus) from Egypt—v. 21ff
    • Death of the wicked king (divine announcement [in a dream]), allowing the return of the child—v. 19-20

To emphasize the symmetry here, I have taken the liberty of reversing vv. 19-20 and 21ff above.

It should be noted, of course, that the Exodus theme appears specifically in the Scripture citation in verse 15; indeed, the original context of Hosea 11:1 is simply a reference to the Exodus, with Israel as God’s “son” (in a symbolic/covenantal sense). A common idiom for the Israelites (people of Israel) is “sons of Israel” —almost certainly we should understand a correspondence here between the child Jesus and the sons [children] of Israel (as much as between Jesus and Moses) in the Gospel narrative. For more on this Scripture as it is used here in the Infancy narrative, see my earlier article in the series “The Old Testament and the Birth of Jesus”.

The Slaughter of the Children (Exile theme)

The central scene in this episode (vv. 16-18), the second Herod scene of the narrative (the first being in vv. 1-12, cf. the previous study), deals with an historical tradition—the slaughter of the children in Bethlehem—that many critical commentators have questioned. Their skepticism is based on two points: (a) the lack of any other reference (in Josephus, etc) to the event, and (b) the obvious parallel with the Moses Infancy narrative (see above). There can be no denying the literary parallel, the type-scene of which can be found in literature and folklore worldwide. For more on this subject, and for an examination of the Moses narrative itself, see my earlier article in the series “The Birth of the Messiah”.

At the root of the scene, in the context of the Matthean narrative, is the conflict between the child Jesus as the “King of the Jews” and Herod (the reigning king). This is part of the wider theme of Jesus’ Messianic identity (i.e., as the royal Messiah from the line of David), which I have discussed at length in the earlier studies (cf. the previous study on vv. 1-12).

The Scripture citation for this episode (see above) is Jeremiah 31:15. In applying this Scripture to events surrounding the birth of Jesus, the Gospel writer (as in the case of Isa 7:14, etc) has taken the passage out of its original context. While Matthew treats it as a prophecy of future events, the original passage is an evocation of the prophet’s own time. It is part of a larger section (30:1-33:26) promising future restoration for the people of Israel, with messages specifically directed at the exiled Northern tribes (“Ephraim”) in 30:1-31:40. Even in these two chapters one also finds the message being applied to the Southern kingdom (Judah), by Jeremiah himself or a later (exilic) editor. In any event, the theme of a reunited Israel is prominent, culminating in the famous passage of Jer 31:31-34, where God promises to make a new covenant with “the house of Israel and the house of Judah”.

Rachel, as the mother of Benjamin and Joseph (Ephraim/Manasseh), represents the Northern tribes (closest to Judah); her weeping and mourning is a dramatic and evocative depiction of the (Assyrian) Exile, but it may be an echo (or foreshadowing) of the (Babylonian) exile of Judah (cf. the association of “Ramah” in Jer 40:1). According to Gen 35:16, Rachel died somewhere between Bethel and Ephrath and Jacob set up a pillar at that location, which is confirmed by the reference to “Rachel’s tomb” in 1 Sam 10:2-3. Gen 35:20 has a parenthetical statement (presumably an editor’s gloss) that “Ephrath” is (near) Bethlehem, representing either an scribal mistake or a competing tradition. The Gospel writer clearly identifies this Ramah with Bethlehem.

Rachel’s weeping is actually just the opening setting of this oracle of hope, for vv. 16-17 exhort the mother to cease weeping—her sons will return to their own land. There is no indication that the Gospel writer means to infer the wider context of the prophecy; he rather narrowly applies it to the “massacre” of the newborn males in Bethlehem.

However, it should be noted that he does narrate a return—that of the infant Jesus and his parents out of Egypt back into their own land (2:14-15, 19-21, see below). Consider also the quotation of Isaiah 9:1-2 [8:23-9:1] in Matt 4:14-16: the original prophecy offers the promise of deliverance to the people of the Northern kingdom, now being fulfilled in the person of Jesus. Isaiah 9:6-7 [5-6] are the concluding words of the section 6:1-9:7, and, traditionally, one of the most famous ‘Messianic prophecies’ applied to the birth of Jesus.
(For a text-critical examination of the use of Jer 31:15 in context, see my earlier article in the series “The Old Testament and the Birth of Jesus”.)

The Return from Egypt—the Messianic Age and Redemption

The final scene of the narrative (vv. 19-23)—the third (and final) Angelic appearance to Joseph—draws upon both of the earlier themes noted above (Exodus and Exile), combining them into a narration of Jesus’ return from Egypt.

The parallels with the Moses Infancy narrative have been noted above. 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. Verses 22-23 serve as an additional climactic notice to the return from Egypt:

22but having heard that “‘Chief-of-the-People’ {Archelaus} is king against [i.e. in place of] Herod his father”, he [i.e. Joseph] was afraid to go from (where he was and return) there; but being advised (in the matter) by a dream, he made space again [i.e. turned away/aside] into the parts of Galîl {Galilee}, 23and having come (there) he put down house [i.e. dwelt] in a city counted as [i.e. called/named] Nazaret, so that the (word) uttered by the foretellers might be fulfilled that “he will be called a ‘Nazarean'”.

The Scripture Citation

The quotation “he will be called a ‘Nazarean'” is problematic, in terms of the Scripture-citation pattern of the narrative, since it does not correspond precisely to any specific verse in the Prophets (or the rest of the Old Testament for that matter). This being the case, there are several possibilities:

    • The author (or his source) is citing from a book or passage otherwise unknown to us today. While this is conceivable, it is not especially likely, and should be considered only as a last resort.
    • He is citing a specific (canonical) passage, but in a form quite different from any surviving (Hebrew or Greek) version. Certainly there are a number of quotations in the New Testament (even in Matthew, see Micah 5:2/Matt 2:6) where the wording departs significantly from any known version.
    • It is a free citation, combining more than one passage. Again, this is fairly common in the New Testament, and could be suggested by use of the plural “foretellers [i.e. prophets]”. The references need not be limited to the Prophetic books as we understand them, for conventionally the Psalms and Historical books could come under the general label “Prophets”.
    • The citation is taken from a compendium of ‘Messianic’ prophetic passages (drawn up by early Christians), which the author accepted, but which does not correspond to any specific Scripture. Again, this ought to be considered only as a last resort.

The third option is, I think, fairly close to the mark. The Gospel writer (or an earlier source) has taken a particular verse (probably Isaiah 4:3) and, it would seem, adapted it by means of some subtle and clever wordplay. For detailed discussion of the matter, consult my earlier article in the series “The Old Testament and the Birth of Jesus” and another in the series “And You Shall Call His Name…”.

Given the importance of the theme of Jesus’ Messianic identity, throughout the narrative (and continuing in 4:12-17), it seems likely that there is an intentional wordplay here, relating the place-name designation (“Nazorean/Nazareth”) with similar word-forms. Two, in particular, are worth noting:

    •  n¹zîr (ryz]n`)—The Hebrew means “[one] dedicated/set-apart”, and is often transliterated in English (as a technical term), “Nazirite” —that is, one dedicated or set apart [nzr] to God by a vow [related word ndr]. The legal prescription and details of the Nazirite vow are recorded in Numbers 6:1-21. The most famous Nazirites in the Old Testament are Samuel (1 Sam 1:11) and Samson (Judg 13:4-14), so dedicated from birth; according the Gospel of Luke (Lk 1:15), John the Baptist also seems to have been a Nazirite (from birth).
      The Greek adjective hágios (“holy”) generally corresponds to the Hebrew; and the phrase hágios kl¢th¢¡setai (“he will be called holy”, Isa 4:3, see above) could be given an interpretive translation back into Hebrew as “he will be called a holy (one) [n¹zîr]”. Moreover, n¹zîr could also be transliterated in Greek by Naziraíos, and thus the phrase in question as Naziraíos kl¢th¢¡setai (“he will be called a Nazirite” ), which is reasonably close in form to “he will be called a Nazorean“.

    • n¢ƒer (rx#n@)— “[new] shoot, sprout” (also rendered “root”, “branch”), a word partly synonymous with ƒemaµ (jm^x#, in Isa 4:3, see above). Now n¢ƒer came to be a designation for the Messiah, largely due to Isaiah 11:1ff, which begins: “and a (small) branch will come forth from the stump of Jesse, and a (new) shoot [n¢ƒer] will grow [lit. bear fruit] from his roots; and the spirit of YHWH will rest upon him…”.
      Isaiah 11:1ff was one of several key Messianic passages current in Jewish literature at the time the New Testament was written—see especially the Qumran texts 4QpIsaa, 4Q252, 4Q285, 1QSb 5; cf. also Psalms of Solomon 17-18, Testament of Levi 18, and 4 Ezra [2/4 Esdras] 13. The shoot/branch of Isa 11:1 was closely identified with the expression “branch [ƒemaµ] of David” (see esp. Jer 23:5-6; Zech 3:8), a key Messianic designation. It is an intriguing parallel, but it is hard to say whether (or to what extent) the Gospel writer may have had this in mind.

Note—beginning next week, the Saturday Series will return to its weekly (Saturday) format.

SS Christmas Studies: Matthew 2:1-12

Matthew 2:1-12

The second episode in the Matthean Infancy narrative—2:1-12—records the visit of the Magoi (ma/goi, i.e. “Magi, Wise Men”) and the homage they pay to the newborn child in Bethlehem. We examined the first episode (1:18-25) in the initial study of this series. The source-critical question was considered, regarding the nature and origin of the Matthean material—whether or not one or more source documents were used. In my view, dependence on written documents is highly questionable. However, a number of commentators have put forth more (or less) plausible theories regarding a ‘pre-Matthean’ narrative that the Gospel writer has developed (see Brown, Birth, pp. 96-119).

I am more inclined to see the Matthean narrative as an original composition, drawing upon several key lines of historical and narrative tradition. There are a range of historical traditions that may be isolated, especially here in the episode of 2:1-12, all of which have been subject to penetrating historical criticism by scholars over the years. We may note:

    • The Star (vv. 2, 7, 9-10). Various attempts have been made to identify this detail which an actual, observable astronomical phenomenon (cf. Brown, Birth, pp. 170-3); one possibility, which would well fit the timeframe of the narrative (i.e., the end of Herod’s reign), is a planetary conjunction (of Jupiter and Saturn), in 7-6 B.C., which may have appeared even brighter to due the passing of a third planet (Mars)
    • The Magi (mágoi). Who are they, and from whence did they come? Again, there have been a number of theories, which I discuss briefly in an earlier article. Many commentators have questioned the historicity of the Magi, but there is nothing particularly implausible in the scene of oriental dignitaries visiting a king such as Herod (cf. Brown, Birth, pp. 167-70).
    • The Role of Herod. The historical veracity of both episodes in chapter 2, in terms of Herod’s presence and role in these events, has been questioned/doubted by commentators. Josephus writes extensively on Herod’s reign, but gives no hint of such notable events in chapter 2 as having occurred. However, as scholars have pointed out, the events here in the Matthean narrative do represent things that easily could have taken place during Herod’s reign, given what we know of his rule and his personal conduct/behavior as king.
    • The reason why Joseph and Mary are in Bethlehem. Contrary to the Lukan narrative, Joseph and Mary, it seems, were already living in Bethlehem when Jesus was born, and only came to reside in Nazareth after their return from Egypt. This apparent discrepancy is only significant for those who wish to harmonize the Matthean and Lukan accounts.

While these historical-critical issues are of genuine interest, of far greater importance for an understanding of the passage is a study of how the particular historical traditions have been developed by the Gospel writer. This is the literary-critical aspect at the heart of our study.

We begin with the two primary features that define the structure of the Matthean Infancy narrative:

    • The Angelic appearances to Joseph
    • The Scripture citations that punctuate each scene

A simple outline shows how these two elements structure the narrative:

Two episodes involving king Herod are interwoven between a series of three Angelic appearances to Joseph. A featured Scripture citation follows each scene, demonstrating how the (historical) events were foretold by the Old Testament Prophets, and now find their (true) fulfillment in Jesus. Joseph responds in perfect obedience each time the Angel appears to him (in a dream), a fact indicated by the way that the narration (describing Joseph’s action) very nearly repeats verbatim the words of the Angel.

The theme of Jesus’ Messianic identity (that is, the royal Messiah from the line of David) runs through the entire narrative, but it takes on special prominence in the two Herod scenes, of which the first occurs here in 2:1-12. As king of Judea, Herod would naturally feel threatened by the idea of another royal figure (called by the title “King of the Jews,” see below), one whose coming had been prophesied in the sacred Writings, and who might very well come to supplant his rule. This point of conflict gives to the narrative its literary power and strength, and has resulted in a pair of truly memorable scenes, read and visualized every Christmas season.

The Messianic motif is expressed through two important names, or titles, in this episode, which are the subject of two questions—each centered on the basic question “where?” (poú), i.e. “where will we find…?”:

    • By the Magoi: “Where is the one brought forth (as) king of the Yehudeans [i.e. Jews]?” (v. 2)
    • By Herod: “Where (is) the Anointed (one) coming to be (born)?” (v. 4)

“King of the Jews” —In the historical-cultural context of Greek and Roman control over Syria-Palestine, there was a strong nationalistic aspect and significance to the use of this title—as, for example, by the Hasmonean rulers (priest-kings) of the 2nd and 1st centuries B.C. (Josephus, Antiquities 14.36, etc). As a semi-independent ruler, under Roman oversight, Herod himself was known by this title (Antiquities 16.311, etc). By the time of Jesus, the Messianic sense of this title would have been recognized and emphasized; consider these two basic elements of its meaning:

    • David‘s kingdom centered in Judah (Jerusalem)
    • The Jewish character of the Messianic king/ruler figure-type—rule centered in Judah/Jerusalem, and spreading/extending to all of Israel and the surrounding nations

This conceptual framework is central to the narrative (in Luke-Acts) of the early Christian mission (cf. Luke 24:46-49ff; Acts 1:4, 8, 12ff; 2:1-12ff, and the overall structure of the book of Acts). There are two passages quoted (or alluded to) in this section (Matt 2:1-12) which were unquestionably given a Messianic interpretation by the time of Jesus and the Gospels:

    • Micah 5:2ff—cited within the action of the narrative (cf. my earlier article for more detail); three main points are brought out in this passage:
      • a ruler is to come out of Bethlehem
      • he will rule over (all) Judah
      • he will shepherd the people of Israel (cf. 2 Sam 5:2)
    • Numbers 24:17—the image of the star and the rod/sceptre (of rule) that will come out of Jacob/Israel. For the use of the star image in Matt 2:1-12 (vv. 2, 7, 9-10), see my detailed discussion in the earlier series “The Old Testament and the Birth of Jesus” and also below. It is interesting that Philo (Life of Moses I.276) refers to Balaam as a Magos (mágos).

The presence of the Magoi offering gifts and coming to Jerusalem to find the “King” may also reflect Psalm 72:10f and Isa 60:6, whereby the wealth of the nations comes to Jerusalem as homage to God (and his Anointed Ruler).

“The Anointed (One)” —This was already featured as the name/title of Jesus in Matt 1:1, 18, very much reflecting the common early Christian usage. I discuss the important title [ho] Christós (“Anointed [One]”)—its background, interpretation and application to Jesus—at considerable length in the series “Yeshua the Anointed”. See also on Luke 2:11 in the prior study.

The star/sceptre in Num 24:17 was especially prominent as a Messianic symbol (and prophecy) at the time of Jesus. This is best seen in the Qumran texts (CD 7:18-20; 1QM 11:5-7; 1QSb 5:27, etc), but also in other literature of the period, such as the Jewish (or Jewish/Christian) Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs (Levi 18, Judah 24). Mention should also be made of the early-2nd century A.D. Jewish revolutionary ben Kosiba, who was known as bar Kochba (“son of the Star”)—cf. Justin, First Apology 31.6; j. Ta’anit 4:8, etc—as well as the Aramaic versions (Targums) of the Old Testament (Onkelos, Neofiti I, pseudo-Jonathan, Jerusalem II). Even though Num 24:17 is not cited as such in the New Testament, it is likely that early (Jewish) Christians would have recognized an allusion to it in Matt 2:1-12.

The two titles— “King of the Jews” and “Anointed (One)” —are combined again, at the end of Jesus’ life, during the episodes of his “trial” and death. In the Gospel of Matthew, the references are Matt 26:63; 27:11, 17, 22, 29, 37 (also 42), but there are parallels in all of the Synoptic Gospels, as well as the Gospel of John. These titles, taken together, identify Jesus in no uncertain terms as the Davidic-ruler figure type, otherwise expressed in Gospel tradition by the separate title “Son of David” (cf. Matt 1:1, 20, also 12:23; 21:9, 15; 22:42, etc & par).

The Setting of Bethlehem

The Messianic significance of Bethlehem relates to its association with David, as the “city of David”. This title normally applies to the original citadel of Jerusalem, as taken over and developed by David and his successors; however, in the New Testament, it refers to Bethlehem as David’s hometown (Lk 2:4; cf. Ruth 4:11; 1 Sam 17:12ff). The tradition of Bethlehem as the Messiah’s birthplace, presumably based on a similar interpretation of Micah 5:2ff as in Matt 2:4-6, is attested in John 7:40-42, where certain people express doubt that Jesus, coming out of Galilee, could be the Messiah:

“Does not the (sacred) Writing say that (it is) out of the seed of David, and from Bethlehem the town where David was, (that) the Anointed (One) comes?” (v. 42)

Matt 2:4-6ff sets the stage for the dramatic scene of the slaughter of the children (vv. 16-18) which functions as a parallel to the Moses Infancy narrative (to be discussed in the next study). The connection is much more obvious when we consider elements added to the Exodus narrative (1:8-22) in later Jewish tradition. In Josephus’ Antiquities (2.205) the scribes make known to Pharaoh a prophecy regarding an Israelite leader/deliverer who was about to be born:

“One of those sacred scribes, who are very sagacious in foretelling future events, truly told the king, that about this time there would be born a child to the Israelites, who, if he were reared, would bring the Egyptian dominion low, and would raise the Israelites; that he would excel all men in virtue, and obtain a glory that would be remembered through all ages” [LOEB translation]

In Matthew’s version of the Micah quotation, the Messianic implications are heightened by every one of the changes made to the text:

    • “land of Judah” instead of “Ephrathah” —this second reference to Judah widens the scope of the scene to the (entire) territory of Judah/Judea; David’s kingdom was centered in Judah and Jerusalem, from which it extended its influence and authority. The coming Messianic rule would follow a similar pattern.
    • “not in one thing least among” instead of “(too) small to be among” —as noted above, the reference to Bethlehem’s ‘smallness’ has been eliminated; the adaptation (or reading) instead emphasizes Bethlehem’s greatness
    • “among the leaders of Judah” instead of “among the clans/thousands of Judah” —the comparison has shifted from clan and territory to the ruler of the territory. The ruler who comes from Bethlehem (i.e. the Davidic Messiah) will be greater than the other rulers of Judah.
    • “who will shepherd by people Israel” —this citation from 2 Sam 5:2 brings in another Messianic association with David: that of shepherd. David had been a shepherd, and, in the ancient Near East, kings and rulers were often referred to as a shepherd over the people, along with relevant symbolism (cf. Isa 44:28, etc). These two elements come together in passages such as Jer 23:1-6; Ezek 34 (esp. vv. 23-24); 37:24ff, which were influential in the development of Messianic thought.

In emphasizing the connection with Judah, one is reminded of the title earlier in v. 2 (“King of the Jews”). We are clearly dealing with the Messianic figure-type of a future ruler from the line of David. Let us consider how this has been brought out in the Matthean Infancy narrative:

    • The genealogy of Joseph (1:1-17), who is descended from David—vv. 1, 5-6, 17. In verse 20, the Angel addresses Joseph as “Son of David”, a (Messianic) title which would be applied to Jesus during his ministry.
      It occurs much more frequently in Matthew than the other Gospels (cf. Matt 9:27; 12:23; 15:22; 20:30-31; 21:9, 15; 22:42). That this is an authentic historical (Gospel) tradition is confirmed by the fact that the title appears nowhere else in the New Testament outside of the Synoptic Gospels. For the earliest (Messianic) use of the title, cf. Psalms of Solomon 17:23(21) (mid-1st century B.C.)
    • Joseph is established as Jesus’ (legal) father. This occurs through the completion of the marriage and his naming of the child (vv. 18, 20-21, 24-25). As a result, Joseph’s genealogy becomes that of Jesus as well (vv. 1, 16).
    • The birth in Bethlehem (2:1, cf. above)
    • Jesus’ identification as “King of the Jews” (v. 2) and “Anointed One” (v. 4)
    • The Star marking his birth (vv. 2, 7, 9-10)

For more on this Messianic figure-type, and the title “Son of David”, as related to Jesus, cf. Parts 68 of my earlier series “Yeshua the Anointed”.

References above marked “Brown, Birth” are to R. 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).