Yeshua the Anointed, Part 6: The Davidic King (Overview and Background)

With this article, we will begin exploring the Messianic figure-type of Anointed King, which is probably what most people think of when they hear the term “Messiah”—a future ruler from the line of David who will “restore the kingdom to Israel” (Acts 1:6). However, as I have already discussed and demonstrated at length, Messianic thought and belief at the time of Jesus cannot be limited to this particular figure-type. When we see the term “Anointed (One)” (xristo/$, christós) in the Gospels, we ought not to assume that it necessarily means a Davidic King, though in subsequent Jewish tradition it did come to carry this meaning almost exclusively. Even by the time of the New Testament, however, the expectation of such an end-time Anointed Ruler was relatively widespread, and, by the end of the 1st-century A.D. was probably the dominant Messianic figure-type, with other traditions having merged into it. Because of the scope and complexity of the subject, it will be necessary to spread it out over three parts:

    • Part 1: Overview and Background
    • Part 2: Detailed Analysis, examining specific passages from Jewish writings and the New Testament
    • Part 3: “Son of David”—the use of the title in the Gospels and its application to Jesus in early Christian belief

Old Testament Background

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

Even in the Old Testament itself, we see the promise of a future Davidic ruler, and its development can generally be outlined as follows:

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

There are several other Scripture passages which would play a key role in the development of Messianic expectation:

  • Genesis 49:10—part of the blessing of Jacob over his sons, specifically for Judah (vv. 8-12), where it is stated:
    “The (ruling) staff will not turn aside from Judah, nor the engraved rod from between his feet, until the (time/point) which shîloh comes, and the obedience of the peoples will be(long) to him.”
    The exact meaning of hýyv! (šîlœ, shiloh) remains uncertain and problematic. Among many commentators today, the element yv is read as a relative particle attached to a suffixed preposition (i.e. “…until he comes to whom it [i.e. the staff] belongs”). The JPS Torah Commentary (N. Sarna on Genesis [1989], pp. 336-7), following earlier Rabbinic interpretation, reads it as the noun yv^ (šay, “gift, homage, tribute”) attached to the preposition, resulting in the attractive poetic line “…until tribute comes to him, and the homage/obedience of the peoples be(long) to him”. However, by the time of Jesus, shiloh had already come to be understood as a Messianic title, as seen in the (pesher) Commentary on Genesis from Qumran (4Q252 frag. 1, col. 5); and so it would often be interpreted subsequently in the Targums as well as in Jewish (and Christian) tradition.
  • Numbers 24:17-19—in the fourth oracle of Balaam (Num 24:15-24), we find the famous line: “…a star will march/tread (forth) from Jacob, and staff will stand (up) [i.e. rise] from Israel” (v. 17). The first verb (Er^D*) can also be understood in terms of (exercising) dominion; that the seer speaks of a conquering/ruling king is clear from the following verses (“and from Jacob he will [come and] tread [them down]”, v. 19a). Verse 17a ambiguously sets this prophecy in the future: “I see him/it, but not (yet) now; I observe him/it, but not (yet) near”. This passage was understood as a Messianic prophecy by the time of Jesus (cf. the references below), as well as in the Targums (Onkelos, Jonathan); famously it was applied to the quasi-Messianic revolutionary leader Ben-Kosiba (“Bar-Kokhba” = “Son of the Star”), cf. j. Ta’anit 68d.
  • Isaiah 11:1-9—the prophecy begins with the declaration “A branch will go out from the stem of Jesse, a fresh/green (sprout) will grow (out) from his roots”. This passage, along with Psalm 2, would be extremely influential in associating the coming Davidic ruler with the defeat/subjugation of the nations and the end-time Judgment. Here also we find the idea of Judgment (vv. 3-4) followed by a new Age of peace (vv. 6-9), common to much Messianic thought. In relation to Jesus, we may note the reference to the Holy Spirit resting upon him (cf. Isa 61:1 / Lk 4:18ff; and the description of his Baptism, Mk 1:10 par).
  • Amos 9:11-15—a promise for the (future) restoration of Israel/Judah, which begins with God declaring: “On that day I will make stand up (again) [i.e. raise] the hut of David th(at) has fallen…” Here the ‘hut’ (i.e. a covering, presumably woven with branches) represents the “house of David”, his kingdom/dynasty. By the time of Jesus, this passage had come to be understood in a Messianic sense, as indicated by the Qumran text 4QFlorilegium [4Q174]; cf. also in the Damascus Document [CD 7, manuscript A] and the citation in Acts 15:16-18.
  • Micah 5:2-5 [Hebrew 5:1-4]—famous from Matthew 2:1-12, this prophecy refers to a coming (Davidic) ruler, who will restore/reunite the kingdom of Israel (cf. also Mic 4:8), establishing a reign of peace and security.
  • Zech 3:8; 6:12-13—references to the “sprout” or “branch” [jm^x#] (cf. above).
  • Daniel 9:25-26—the famous and controversial reference to an “Anointed leader/ruler [dyg]n` j^yv!m*]”, set in the context of the prophecy of Seventy Weeks (cf. Jer 25:11-12; 29:10; Dan 9:2). The exact identity of this Anointed figure, in the original historical/literary context, remains much debated. The term dyg]n` generally refers to a prominent leader/ruler, etc.—often specifically of a military commander, but it can also be used of religious leaders (i.e. priests) and various kinds of dignitaries. This passage will be discussed, by way of a supplementary note, in a subsequent article.

The Messiah-King figure in Judaism

Here it is best to begin with a survey of references from the Qumran (and related) texts, most of which can be dated from sometime in the 1st century B.C.

j^yv!m* (m¹šîaµ), “Anointed”

We find the specific expression “the Anointed (One) of Israel” in the Damascus Document (CD 12:23-13:1; 14:19 [= 4Q266 10 i 12]; 19:10-11; 20:1), as well as the Qumran 1QS 9:11 (passage apparently missing from 4Q259 1 iii 6); 1QSa 2:14-15, 20-21; and also 4Q382 16 2. In most of these passages it is the role as future leader of the Community that is emphasized, though the end-time Judgment on the wicked is also implied. Several of these references are to “the Anointed (One)s of Aaron and Israel“, indicating the expectation of an Anointed Priest-figure (to be discussed in an upcoming article). Though not specified, “Anointed (One) of Israel” presumably refers to a (Davidic) Ruler (cf. below); the simple “Anointed (One)” in 1QSa 2:11-12; 4Q381 15 7; 4Q458 2 ii 6 probably refers to the same figure. In 4Q252 5:3-4, the “Anointed (One) of Righteousness” is identified as the “branch [jm^x#] of David”.

ayc!n` (n¹´î°), “Prince/Leader”

The term ayc!n` literally means “(one who is) lifted up”, i.e. raised/lifted over the other people as ruler or leader, often translated “Prince”. In the Qumran texts, it appears to be used often in a Messianic sense, likely inspired by Ezek 34:24; 37:25. Presumably it refers to a (Davidic) ruler-figure also called “the Anointed of Israel” (above, cf. 4Q496 10 3-4). The texts generally mention him in the context of his role as leader/commander over the Community, expressed especially by the larger expression “Prince of (all) the congregation” (hduh [lk] aycn)—CD 7:19-20; 1QSb 5:20; 1QM 5:1; 4Q161 2-6 ii 19; 4Q266 3 iii 21; 4Q285 4 2, 6; 5 4; 6 2; 4Q376 1 iii 1. In CD 7:19-20, he is identified as the ruler’s staff [fbv] that will arise from Israel in Num 24:17 (cf. above), and with the “branch of David” in 4Q285 5 4. In the War Rule [1QM] he participates in the defeat and judgment of the nations (cf. also 4Q285 4 6).

dyw]d` jm^x# (ƒemaµ D¹wîd), “Branch of David”

This expression is derived from Jer 23:5; 33:15 (also Isa 11:1; Zech 3:8; 6:12, cf. above), and clearly refers to a coming Davidic ruler. His end-time appearance is interpreted as a fulfillment of several of the Old Testament Scriptures outlined above. The expression is found in the following Qumran texts: 4Q161 7-10 iii 22; 4Q174 1-3 i 11 (on 2 Sam 7:14); 4Q252 5:3-4 (on Gen 49:10); and 4Q285 5 3,4 (executing judgment on the wicked/nations).

Other references in the Qumran texts

In light of the Messianic interpretation of the “staff” [fbv] from Gen 49:10 and Num 24:17 (in CD 7:19-20 [4Q266 3 iv 9]; 1QM 11:6-7 and 4Q175 12), we might also mention the occurrence of the word in the fragmentary texts 4Q161 2-6 ii 19 [restored] and 4Q521 2 iii 6.

Also, given the association of the Anointed (Davidic) ruler as God’s “Son” (/B#) in 2 Sam 7:14; Psalm 2:7 and related tradition (cf. the interpretation of 2 Sam 7:14 in 4Q174), we should also mention 4Q246, referenced in previous notes and articles, which refers to the future rising of a (Messianic?) King who is given the titles “son of God” and “Son of the Most High” (col. 2, line 1, cf. Luke 1:32, 35). Note also the apparent reference to a particular figure as God’s “firstborn [rwkb] (son)” in the uncertain fragments 4Q369 1 ii 6; 4Q458 15 1.

Other Jewish Writings from the 1st centuries B.C./A.D.

Several of these passages will be discussed in more detail in the next article; I list the most relevant references here, in summary/outline form:

  • Sirach 47:11, which mentions the exaltation of David’s horn (by contrast, cf. 45:25; 49:4-5); note also the Hebrew prayer following Sir 51:12 (8th line)—”give thanks to him who makes a horn to sprout for the house of David…” [NRSV translation].
  • The 17th and 18th of the so-called Psalms of Solomon, especially the reference to David in Ps Sol 17:21, to the “Anointed” of God in Ps Sol 17:32[36]; 18:5, 7, and the influence of Psalm 2 and Isa 11:4ff throughout (cf. 17:21-25ff; 18:6-8).
  • The Apocalypse of Baruch (2 Baruch) 29:3; 30:1; 39:7; 40:1; 70:9; 72:2 [Syriac]; and note esp. the context of chs. 72-74, which describe the coming Messiah, judgment of the nations, and the establishment of the (Messianic) Kingdom of God on earth.
  • 2/4 Esdras (4 Ezra)—the core of the book (chapters 4-13, esp. 7, 11-12, 13:3-14:9) assumes an eschatological framework similar that of 2 Baruch (both books are typically dated from the end of the 1st century A.D.). The “Messiah” is specifically referred to in 7:28-29 (called God’s “Son”) and 12:32 (identified as the offspring of David).
  • The prophecy by Balaam (Num 24:17) is given a Messianic interpretation in the Testament of Levi 18:3ff and Testament of Judah 24:1-6. The Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs as we have them are Christian (2nd cent. A.D.?) expansions/adaptations of earlier Jewish material, such as we seen in the Aramaic Levi text [4QTLevi] from Qumran.

The Similitudes of Enoch (1 Enoch 37-71) make mention numerous times of the “Righteous/Elect One” and “Son of Man”—a heavenly figure who functions as judge and ruler over the nations, and is presumably the one called God’s “Anointed” in 1 Enoch 48:10; 52:4—however the promise of the restoration of Davidic rule plays little or no part in the book. Nor does the idea of a Davidic Messiah-figure have any importance in the writings of Josephus and Philo. The quasi-Messianic figures described in Antiquities 18.85-87, 20.97-8, 169-72 and Wars 7.437ff seem to represent end-time wonder-working Prophets according to the type of Elijah or Moses, rather than a Davidic king. However, Josephus claims that the war against Rome (66-70 A.D.) was fueled by a prophecy (perhaps the oracle of Balaam, Num 24:15-29 [cf. above]) that one coming from Judea would rule the world (Wars 6.312f, cf. also Tacitus Hist. 5.13.2; Suetonius Vespasian 4.5). Somewhat later, such an interpretation (of Num 24:17) certainly played a role in the Bar-Kokhba rebellion (132-135 A.D.), and Messianic expectation perhaps influenced the revolt of 115-117 A.D. in Egypt and Cyrenaica as well.

For a convenient collection of many of the Qumran references cited above, I have found most useful the article by Martin G. Abegg and Craig A. Evans, “Messianic Passages in the Dead Sea Scrolls” in Qumran Messianism: Studies on the Messianic Expectations in the Dead Sea Scrolls, eds. James H. Charlesworth, Hermann Lichtenberger, and Gerbern S. Oegema (Mohr Siebeck: 1998), pages 191-203.

4Q541

In discussing the Qumran text 11QMelchizedek mention was made of the Messianic Priest figure-type (on this, cf. Part 9 of the series Yeshua the Anointed). Another important text which gives evidence of this line of Messianic thought at Qumran is 4Q541, variously called 4QTLevi (d) and 4QAaron (A), according to the analysis of two different editors (Émile Puech and Jean Starcky). The text is made up of 24 fragments, of which most are two small to be intelligible; only fragments 1-2, 4, 7, 9 and 24 are intact enough to provide readable content. The largest fragment (9) provides almost the entire context for the surviving document; the parallels with the Testament of Levi (18:2-5 [see below]) explain Puech’s identification of it as related to Test. Levi. In point of fact, while a priestly figure is clearly in view in fragment 9, neither Levi nor Aaron is mentioned by name in 4Q541.

In general, the text would seem to be part of a series of apocalyptic pseudepigrapha dealing with the Patriarchs, and of Levi (and his lineage) in particular (4Q537-549). The Levitical priestly line would culminate with Amram, Moses and Aaron, from whom the Aaronid priesthood would arise. The priestly emphasis in the Qumran texts is to be explained by the fact that many in the Community were priests, including the leading/founding figure known as the “Teacher of Righteousness”. A major point of contention with the Hasmonean rulers in the 2nd and early/mid-1st century had been their appropriation of priestly duties and privileges, even though they were not from the line of Levi/Aaron. In this regard, the Hasmoneans were following the royal theology expressed in Psalm 110, symbolized by the person of Melchizedek, a priest-king who served God (and was honored by Abraham) long before the Aaronid priesthood was established; on such basis, a king could also function as priest. For the Qumran Community, however, the significance of Melchizedek was almost certainly the opposite—a priest who served as king.

The Qumran Community thus gave strong emphasis to the priesthood in their Messianic and eschatological thought. The only other Jewish writing from the first centuries B.C./A.D. to reflect this is the Testament of Levi, a pseudepigraphic work known in Hebrew from the Cairo Geniza remains, and in a Greek form in the Jewish/Christian Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs. As it happens, this work is also known, in an older (Aramaic) form, preserved in a number of the scroll fragments at Qumran. This “Aramaic Levi Document” is represented by 1Q21, and the scrolls/fragments 4Q213-214. Only small portions survive, but 1Q21 makes the important declaration that “the kingdom of priesthood [atwnhk] is greater that the kingdom of…”.

Fragment 9 of 4Q541 is the central, principal surviving fragment. Column 1, as we have it, begins as follows:

“[…] the sons of his generation […] his [wi]sdom. And he will cover [i.e. atone, rpk] over all the sons of his generation, and he will be sent to all the sons of his [people]. His utterance is like the utterance of the heavens, and his teaching (is) according to the will of God. His eternal sun will shine, and his fire will burn in all the ends of the earth, and over the darkness it will shine.” (lines 1-4)

The words in line 2 may be compared with the statement in 11Q13 that the “tenth Jubilee” (i.e. the end of the current Age) will correspond with the Day of Atonement, and will be the time in which “to cover [i.e. atone, rpk] over all the sons of light and the men of the lot of Melchizedek” (lines 7-8). Here priestly sacrificial imagery (associated with the Day of Atonement) is used to express the end-time deliverance brought about by Melchizedek. At this time, the true Israel, the faithful remnant (i.e. the Qumran Community) will be delivered from the dominion of Belial, and returned according to their true identity as “sons of light” belonging to Melchizedek (the “Prince of Light”). In 4Q541, it would seem that sacrificial language (using the verb rpk, “cover, wipe away”) is also used to express something beyond the sacrificial ritual. The emphasis in fragment 9 is rather on the priestly role of teaching, of bringing revelation and enlightenment to God’s people. Even though the ritual detail of sacrifice still holds an important place in the thought of the Community (cf. 4Q214 and 214b), because of their separation from the Temple cultus, it came to take on a wider (and specialized) symbolic meaning, much as it did for early Christians. It is through the teaching and revelation of God’s word that the eschatological/Messianic priest-figure of 4Q541 atones for “the children of his generation”.

Some scholars, reading a bit too much into the references of opposition to the priest and his work in the remainder of fragment 9 (lines 6-7), have suggested that this figure has something of the character of the Isaian “Suffering Servant”, who atones for his people through his suffering, bringing him more closely into parallel with the early Christian understanding of Jesus as the Messiah. This would seem to take fragment quite out of context. It is clear that the priest-figure makes atonement through his speaking [rmam], teaching and proclaiming the word and will of God.

Like Melchizedek, this figure stands and speaks in God’s place, with such powerful effect that “darkness will vanish from the earth and cloudiness from the dry land” (figuratively speaking). Yet, at the same time, unlike Melchizedek, this figure does not bring about the final redemption; rather, things in the world will actually get worse in his time, i.e. the current time of the Community which continues to exist as the faithful remnant during the dominion of Belial (the “Prince of Darkness”). Darkness vanishes for the Community, the true Israel, but not for the rest of humankind who “will go astray in his days and will be bewildered”. This is similar to what Jesus declares in his “Eschatological Discourse” (Mark 13 par)—that things will grow increasingly worse on earth, with a period of intense distress, before the end finally comes. Much the same idea is expressed elsewhere in the Qumran texts, notably in the Commentary (Pesher) on Habakkuk; there, commenting on Hab 1:5, we read:

“[… The interpretation of the word concerns] the traitors with the Man of the Lie, since they do not [believe in the words of] the Teacher of Righteousness from the mouth of God; and (it concerns) the traito[rs of the] new [covenant] si[n]ce they did not believe in the covenant of God [and dishonored] his holy na[me]. Likewise: [ ] The interpretation of the word [concerns the trai]tors in the last days. They are violator[s of the coven]ant who will not believe when they hear all that is going [to happen t]o the final generation, from the mouth of the Priest whom God has placed wi[thin the Commun]ity, to foretell the fulfillment of all the words of his servants, the prophets, [by] means of whom God has declared all that is going to happen to his people Is[rael].” (1QpHab ii. 1-10, translation García Martínez & Tigchelaar)

Fragment 24 of 4Q541, which may well represent the close of the work (or very near to it), has gained prominence due to the obscurity of lines 4-5, which have been variously translated; I offer two disparate examples (main differences in italics):

“Examine and seek and ask what the dove (or Jonah?) sought (?) and do not afflict the weak by wasting or hanging… [Let] not the nail approach him.” (Collins, p. 125)

“Examine, ask and know what the dove has asked; and do not punish it by the sea-mew and […] do not bring the night-hawk near it.” (García Martínez & Tigchelaar, 2:1081)

The translation of the word axx as “nail” (based on the Syriac) has suggested that it is a reference to crucifixion; based on what survives of fragment 24 as a whole, this seems rather unlikely. The context indicates that this is a concluding exhortation, either for characters in the pseudepigraphon, the readers of the work , or (most likely) both. Line 5 continues: “And you will establish for your father a name of joy, and for your brothers you will make a [tested] foundation rise. You will see and rejoice in eternal light. And you will not be of the enemy.” (translation García Martínez & Tigchelaar). From the standpoint of the Community, this serves as an exhortation to continue in faithful obedience—to the Torah, the message of the Prophets, and the inspired teaching of the Community—even during this current age of wickedness. Ultimately it will lead to salvation at the end-time (“eternal light”), even as now the faithful Community walks according to the light of the true teaching and revelation.

Testament of Levi 18:2-5

Above, I noted certain similarities (in thought and wording) between 4Q541 fragment 9 and Testament of Levi 18:2-5. I conclude here with a translation of these verses:

And then the Lord will raise up a new priest
to whom all the words of the Lord will be revealed.
He shall effect the judgment of truth over the earth for many days.
And his star shall rise in heaven like a king;
kindling the light of knowledge as day is illumined by the sun.
And he shall be extolled by the whole inhabited world.
This one will shine forth like the sun in the earth;
he shall take away all darkness from under heaven,
and there shall be peace in all the earth.
The heavens shall greatly rejoice in his days
and the earth shall be glad;
the clouds will be filled with joy
and the knowledge of the Lord will be poured out on the earth like the water of the seas.
And the angels of glory of the Lord’s presence will be made glad by him.
(translation by H. C. Kee, OTP 1:794)

In producing the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, as we have them, Christian scribes appear to have edited and adapted earlier Jewish material. We have the clearest evidence for this in the case of the Testament of Levi, due the parallel material in the Levi text from the Cairo Geniza and the Aramaic Levi document fragments from Qumran (cf. above). Christians appear to have been attracted to the Messianic thought expressed in these pseudepigrapha and sought to apply it to the person of Jesus.

References above marked “García Martínez & Tigchelaar” are to Florentino García Martínez and Eibert J. C. Tigchelaar, The Dead Sea Scrolls Study Edition, 2 volumes (Brill / Eerdmans: 1997-8).
References marked “Collins” are to John J. Collins, The Scepter and the Star: The Messiahs of the Dead Sea Scrolls and Other Ancient Literature, Anchor Bible Reference Library [ABRL] (Doubleday: 1995).
References marked “OTP” are to The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, 2 volumes, edited by James H. Charlesworth. Anchor Bible Reference Library [ABRL] (Doubleday: 1983).

The Birth of Jesus and the Odes of Solomon

There are some notable and important (extra-canonical) early Christian works which have come down to us from the period 90-150 A.D. (the so-called ‘Apostolic Fathers’); however, in my view, most of them pale in comparison beside the mysterious Odes of Solomon. This collection of 42 poems (or hymns) survives nearly complete in two Syriac manuscripts (N and H), with five of the Odes also preserved in Coptic, and one (Ode 11) as well in Greek. Early on, they came to be ascribed to Solomon and are usually grouped together with the Psalms of Solomon (a separate, unrelated Jewish text)—an example of the pseudepigraphy that often attends many works which are otherwise anonymous. There is a range of opinion regarding the date (mid-1st century to late 3rd century), original language (Greek or Aramaic/Syriac) and provenance (Jewish, Jewish-Christian, Syrian-Christian, Gnostic) of these poems. With regard to the date, there is now a general consensus that they were produced sometime between 100 and 125 A.D.; as for the original language, scholars and specialists are divided, with current opinion perhaps favoring Greek. The Odes can probably best be described as Jewish-Christian, having most likely been composed in Syria (perhaps in the region of Antioch).

Given the tremendous beauty and power of these poems, it is somewhat surprising that they are not cited or mentioned more often in Christian literature and in the manuscript tradition. There is no definite citation of them prior to Lactantius (c. 300 A.D.), and not much thereafter; and, as indicated above, they survive in just four manuscripts. However, they appear in at least two canonical lists (6th-9th century), paired with the Psalms of Solomon, under the category of “disputed” books (antilegomena); so it is likely that they were regarded as authoritative Scripture, for a time at least, in parts of the Church. Their association with “Gnostic”-sounding language and ideas is probably the main reason for their relative disappearance from Church history. So-called Gnostics almost certainly did value and use the Odes, but the label “Gnostic” is anachronistic—for the Odes have at least as much, if not more, in common with the Gospel of John and the letters of Ignatius. They also reflect Jewish thought from the 1st century B.C./A.D., such as we find in the Qumran texts (especially the Thanksgiving Hymns [Hodayot, 1QH] and the Manual of Discipline [1QS]), and in apocalyptic literature of the period. The “Gnosticism” of the Odes is still relatively close to the orthodox “Gnosis” of the Johannine writings and 2nd-century Church Fathers such as Ignatius and Clement of Alexandria.

Although the Odes do not cite the New Testament explicitly, quotations and allusions abound. With regard to the birth of Jesus, the clearest reference can be found in Ode 19. As these intense, almost mystical poems can be extremely difficult to translate in places, I here present three standard English versions:

Harris-Mingana (1916)

1 A cup of milk was offered to me;
And I drank it in the sweetness of the delight of the Lord.

2 The Son is the cup,
And He who was milked is the Father;
And He who milked Him is the Holy Spirit.

3 Because His breasts were full;
And it was not desirable that His milk should be spilt to no purpose.

4 And the Holy Spirit opened His bosom
And mingled the milk of the two breasts of the Father,

5 And gave the mixture to the world without their knowing:
And those who take (it) are in the fulness of the right hand.

6 The womb of the Virgin took (it)
And she received conception and brought forth:

7 And the Virgin became a mother with great mercy;

8a And she travailed and brought forth a Son without incurring pain:
8b For it did not happen without purpose;

9 And she had not required a midwife,
For He delivered her.

10 And she brought forth, as a man, by (God’s) will:
And she brought (Him) forth with demonstration
And acquired (Him) with great dignity;

11 And loved (Him) in redemption;
And guarded (Him) kindly;
And showed (Him) in majesty.

Hallelujah.

Charlesworth (1977)

1 A cup of milk was offered to me,
And I drank it in the sweetness of the Lord’s kindness.

2 The Son is the cup,
And the Father is He who was milked;
And the Holy Spirit is She who milked Him;

3 Because His breasts were full,
And it was undesirable that His milk should be ineffectually released.

4 The Holy Spirit opened Her bosom,
And mixed the milk of the two breasts of the Father.

5 Then She gave the mixture to the generation without their knowing,
And those who have received it are in the perfection of the right hand.

6 The womb of the Virgin took it,
And she received conception and gave birth.

7 So the Virgin became a mother with great mercies.

8 And she labored and bore the Son but without pain,
Because it did not occur without purpose.

9 And she did not require a midwife,
Because He caused her to give life.

10 She brought forth like a strong man with desire,
And she bore according to the manifestation,
And she acquired according to the Great Power.

11 And she loved with redemption,
And guarded with kindness,
And declared with grandeur.

Hallelujah.

Lattke (2009)
translated from the German

1a A cup of milk was offered to me,
1b and I drank it in the sweetness of the Lord’s kindness.
2a The Son is the cup,
2b and he who was milked, the Father,
2c and [the one] whoa milked him, the Spirit of holiness.

3a Because his breasts were full
3b and it was not desirable that his milk should be poured out/discharged for no reason/uselessly,
4a the Spirit of holiness opened his [viz., the Father’s] bosom
4b and mixed the milk of the two breasts of the Father.
5a And she/it gave the mixture to the world, while they did not know,
5b and those who receive [it] are in the pl¢rœma of the right [hand].

6a The womb of the Virgin caught [it],
6b and she conceived and gave birth.
7a And the Virgin became a mother in great compassion
7ba and she was in labor and bore a son.

7bb And she felt no pains/grief,
8 because it was not useless/for no reason.
9a And she did not require a midwife,
9b|10aa because he [viz., God] kept her alive | like a man.

10ab She brought forth by/in the will [of God]
10b and brought forth by/in [his] manifestation
10c and acquired by/in [his] great power
11a and loved by/in [his] salvation
11b and guarded by/in [his] kindness
11c and made known by/in [his] greatness.

Hallelujah.

This remarkable poem can be divided into two main parts:

  • Vv. 1-5: The Father “gives birth”, i.e. pours out the Son (by means of the Spirit)
  • Vv. 6-11: The Virgin mother receives (the Son) and gives birth

The first part contains the unusual, almost shocking, image of God the Father as a female being milked by the Holy Spirit (lit. Spirit of Holiness). His two breasts are full and the mixture of the milk (from the two breasts) is poured in to the ‘cup’ of the Son and given to the world. Verse 5 seems to echo something of the Johannine Prologue (John 1:1-18, cf. especially vv. 9-13).

It is possible that Odes 19:1-5 and 6-11 represent two separate poems that have been joined together; if so, this connection is clearly seen in v. 5b-6a:

5b: those [i.e. believers] who receive it [i.e. the milk/cup]
6a: the Virgin received/caught it [and conceived…]

One may also see here a conscious parallel being drawn:

  • God the Father brings forth the Son like a woman (vv. 1-5)
  • The Virgin mother brings forth the Son like a man (vv. 6-11)

This may seem strange, but it rather reflects the oft-repeated (theological) dictum that Jesus was begotten in eternity by the Father (without a mother), and was born on earth by a mother (without a father).  We can, I think, qualify the parallel:

  • In bringing forth the Son, God is both Father and Mother (the Spirit [fem.] only assists the milking), even to the point having ‘full breasts’
  • The Virgin experiences none of the normal pain and travail of childbirth, as this is all governed according to the will and power of God

There can be no doubt that the traditional Virgin Birth is assumed here, though applied in a spiritual-symbolic, rather than biological-historical, sense.

Verses 6-7 of this Ode were quoted by Lactantius (Institutes 4:12), though the Latin differs noticeably in the translation of the first two verbs in v. 6.

For other passages which either allude to the birth of Jesus, or use language drawn from the Lukan Infancy narrative, see Odes 28:1-2, 17; 29:11; 32:3; 41:10, 13ff

The Birth of Jesus and the Sibylline Oracles

Early Christians, having found evidence for Jesus Christ in any number of Old Testament passages (see prior Advent notes and articles), began to look toward other writings—Jewish and pagan—for signs which foretold the coming of Christ. As Christianity spread throughout the Roman empire, more such material became increasingly known and made available. A large portion of this Jewish literature comes under the umbrella term “Pseudepigrapha”—a rather unfortunate label which has nonetheless been almost universally adopted (for more on the meaning and use of this term, see the explanatory article on Pseudepigraphy and Pseudonymity).  These writings draw heavily upon the Old Testament books (thereby the qualifier Old Testament Pseudepigrapha), but are typically kept distinct from other writings of the period which also rely upon the OT Scriptures, namely: (a) the Dead Sea Scrolls, (b) works of Jewish philosophers and historians (such as Philo and Josephus), (c) the New Testament books, (d) similar works which draw upon the NT (in imitation of OT Pseudepigrapha), and (e) works of Rabbinic Judaism (Mishnah, Talmud and Midrashim). The Pseudepigrapha are primarily the product of Hellenistic and Greco-Roman Judaism, most being written in Greek (with some originally in Hebrew or Aramaic). They cover a wide range of material, with dates spanning from the 3rd century B.C. to the 7th century A.D. (or later). The standard critical collection (in English) is the 2-volume set edited by J. H. Charlesworth (1983), originally published as part of the Anchor Bible Reference Library.

It is mainly due to the efforts of Christian scribes (whatever their intentions), that the Pseudepigrapha have come down to us today. This fact of transmission and preservation has created additional complications for analyzing these writings. With regard to their relationship to Christianity, one may outline four distinct situations—works which are:

  1. Entirely Jewish (or very nearly so)
  2. Primarily Jewish, but which contain significant passages considered to be Christian interpolations
  3. Primarily Christian, but which are most likely built upon earlier Jewish material
  4. Entirely Christian, composed in imitation of Jewish models

In terms of Pseudepigraphal works which provide (apparent) prophecies of Christ, including prophecies of his birth, the so-called Sibylline Oracles are perhaps the most noteworthy. The Sibyls were ancient prophetesses described in Greco-Roman literature; already in the Classical-period (5th-4th centuries B.C.) they were shrouded in legend, and it is difficult to say to what extent they represent real historical persons. However, their purported oracles were widely consulted and referenced, and a number of collections were drawn up over the centuries, the most notable being the official collection kept in Rome (lost in a fire 83 B.C.). The set of fourteen ‘books’ of the surviving Sibylline Oracles is itself a mixture of pagan, Jewish and Christian material, dating variously between the 2nd century B.C. and sometime after 500 A.D. The following oracles (or books) are generally regarded as Christian productions or adaptations:

  • Book 6: A short hymn to Christ of 28 lines, cited by Lactantius (c. 300 A.D.) in the 4th book of his Divine Institutes.
  • Book 7: A set of oracles touching upon world history and prophesying the coming Judgment (lines 29-39, 64-75 explicitly speak of Christ); also cited by Lactantius.
  • Books 1 (and 2): A Christian expansion/adaptation of a Jewish oracle spanning Biblical history (see below)
  • Book 8: An extensive Christian expansion upon a (Jewish?) anti-Roman oracle. In addition to the famous acrostic (lines 217-50), there are two lengthy sections on the life of Christ (see below); this oracle is cited by Lactantius (Institutes bk 7, etc), and the acrostic poem in Augustine’s City of God (18:23).

The principle passages (abridged) which speak of the birth (or incarnation) of Christ are:

1.324ff:

Then indeed the son of the great God will come,
incarnate, likened to mortal men on earth….
331Christ, the son of the most high, immortal God….
334Priests will bring gifts to him, bringing forward gold,
myrrh, and incense….

8.255ff:

The one who has believed in him will have eternal life.
For he will come to creation not in glory, but as a man,
pitiable, without honor or form, so that he might give hope to the faithless,
and he will fashion the original man,….
269Mindful therefore of this resolution, he will come to creation
bearing a corresponding copy to the holy virgin,….

8.456ff:

In the last times he changed the earth and, coming late
as a new light, he rose from the womb of the Virgin Mary.
Coming from heaven, he put on a mortal form…
469….A word flew to her womb.
In time it was made flesh and came to life in the womb,
and was fashioned in mortal form and became a boy
by virgin birth. For this is a great wonder to men,
but nothing is a great wonder for God the Father and God the Son.
The joyful earth fluttered to the child at its birth.
The heavenly throne laughed and the world rejoiced.
A wondrous, new-shining star was venerated by Magi.
The newborn child was revealed in a manger to those who obey God:
cowherds and goatherds and shepherds of sheep.
And Bethlehem was said to be the divinely named homeland of the Word.

Besides the Sibylline Oracles, one should also note the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs: a Jewish collection of prophecies, patterned after Genesis 49, composed for the most part sometime during the late (?) 2nd century B.C. (there are fragments of similar ‘Testaments’ among the Qumran texts, most notably 4QTLevi ar). The work as a whole underwent a Christian redaction at some point, for there are a dozen or so passages which would seem to be Christian modifications or interpolations. Since the Jewish material already contained a number of ‘Messianic’ passages, it is somewhat difficult to determine definitively all of the Christian changes. In terms of prophecies of the birth of Jesus, the most significant passages are (in abridged form):

Testament of Levi 18:

2And then the Lord will raise up a new priest….
3And his star shall rise in heaven like a king;
kindling the light of knowledge as day is illumined by the sun.
And he shall be extolled by the whole inhabited world.
This one will shine forth like the sun in the earth;
he shall take away all darkness from under heaven,
and there shall be peace in all the earth.

Testament of Joseph 19:8-12:

And I saw that a virgin was born from Judah, wearing a linen stole; and from her was born a spotless lamb….
9And the angels and mankind and all the earth rejoiced over him…
11….will arise the Lamb of God who will take away the sin of the world, and will save all the nations, as well as Israel.
For his kingdom is an everlasting kingdom which will not pass away…

Other passages from the Pseudepigrapha which describe in some fashion the birth or coming of Christ:

Ascension of Isaiah 11; Testament of Isaac 3:18; Testament of Adam 3:3; Testament of Solomon 23:20; Ladder of Jacob 7; Treatise of Shem; 2 Enoch 71 (J); 4 Baruch 9:15ff; History of the Rechabites 12:9a ff; note also Apocalypse of Adam 7:9ff.
See also Pseudo-Philo (Biblical Antiquities) 9:9ff (on the birth of Moses), 42 (on the birth of Samson); Lives of the Prophets 2:8ff.

Translations above of the Sibylline Oracles are by J. J Collins, those of the Testaments are by H. C. Kee (both from the Charlesworth edition V.1, pp. 318ff and 776ff).

The Sibylline Oracles will be discussed in more detail in an upcoming “Ancient Parallels” article.

The acrostic poem from the Sibylline Oracles 8:217-50, cited by Augustine in the City of God (18:23), made its way into the Christian liturgy as the “Song of the Sibyl” (better known by its Latin title Iudicii signum). Accompanied by a pseudo-Augustinian homily, the Song became part of a lesson chanted in the night office (matins) for Christmas (eve), until it was eventually banned as part of the Council of Trent’s liturgical reforms. It continues to be performed today, especially in the popular Catalan version. A reference to the Sibyl remains in the Dies Irae: the “day of wrath”, which was prophesied by both “David and the Sybil” (teste David cum Sibylla), a reflection of that interest in pagan lore—side by side with Christianity—which, having first appeared in the early Church, resurfaced powerfully during the Renaissance.

Pseudepigraphy and Pseudonymity

Pseudepigraphy refers to written works “falsely ascribed” to an author. Pseudonymity refers to works “falsely named” by an author. I prefer to regard pseudonymity as a type of pseudepigraphy. For works generally considered “pseudepigraphic”, one may distinguish several types, broadly speaking:

  1. Pseudonymous works—that is, works in which the (true) author has written under the guise of a more famous figure. Such writings today are often referred to as literary “forgeries”.
  2. Works which are anonymous, or where the authorship is otherwise unknown or uncertain. In the process of transmission and preservation, scribes and editors would occasionally ascribe such writings to a presumed author; sometimes the attribution simply developed as part of a wider tradition.
  3. Works which are written as representing the words of a main character (usually a central, and famous figure). This is distinct from pseudonymity, though related to it in some ways.
  4. Works which present additional events and exploits of a famous character as authentic historical or biographical material. In other words, these are narrated from the point of view of an eyewitness, as opposed to legendary accounts or “historical fiction” in the modern sense.

While these criteria can be applied to any writing, they relate specifically (and primarily) to discussions of ancient and medieval literature. Things are further complicated by the fact that the term “Pseudepigrapha” tends to be used in a very definite sense: referring to a collection of Jewish (and Christian) writings (c. 300 B.C. to 700 A.D.) which draw heavily upon the Old Testament (hence the qualifying label “Old Testament Pseudepigrapha”). These writings are centered on the Patriarchs of Israel, the Prophets, David and Solomon, and so forth, often purporting to be (or at least written as they are) their authentic words. Much of this literature can be classified as apocalyptic—as meant to convey special revelation of future events; in such instances the Old Testament personage is really a literary device to couch the prophecies within the context of biblical (and/or world) history.

However there is much pseudepigraphic material (Jewish and Christian) beyond the “Pseudepigrapha” proper, including: (a) portions of the so-called (Old Testament) “Apocrypha”; (b) a good number of Dead Sea texts from Qumran; (c) New Testament “Apocryphal” books, many written in imitation of Jewish pseudepigrapha; and (d) a number of prominent Rabbinic works.

Especially sensitive is the question as to whether, or to what extent, pseudepigraphy and pseudonymity occur in the canonical Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments. The traditional-conservative view is reluctant to admit any such occurrence, but many scholars (and most critical commentators) believe that it applies to a good many books. A few examples (the number indicates the type of pseudepigraphy, 1-4, listed above):

  • The Pentateuch (Genesis–Deuteronomy) is essentially anonymous, but authorship has been traditionally attributed to Moses (#2), and Moses is the speaker of nearly all of Deuteronomy (#3).
  • Again all the books of the Prophets (Isaiah–Malachi) are technically anonymous, but clearly claim to represent almost entirely the words of the Prophets whose names are indicated in the opening verses (#3, possibly #2 to a lesser degree).
  • The Psalms are attributed to various authors in the superscriptions, the accuracy (and even inspiration) of which is debated (#2).
  • The Proverbs (much of it), Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs are attributed to Solomon in the text (though the opening verse of the Song does not as clearly indicate authorship); nearly all critical scholars hold that Ecclesiastes and the Song, particularly, were written considerably later (#3, perhaps a bit of #4).
  • The four Gospels, Acts and the Johannine epistles are all anonymous, but the traditional authorship was ascribed to them very early on (early-mid 2nd century at the very latest in the case of the Gospels); it is impossible to judge objectively whether they were applied at the original publication (#2).
  • Critical scholars are nearly unanimous in the view that the Pastoral Epistles (1-2 Timothy, Titus) and 2 Peter are pseudonymous; many hold the same opinion regarding Ephesians and 2 Thessalonians (#1).

It remains an open question as to whether pseudonymity is, in fact, entirely incompatible with a sound, reaonable doctrine of inspiration. Early Church fathers and officials generally condemned the practice; but it certainly took place, for we have examples of both ‘orthodox’ and ‘heretical’ works from the early centuries which are almost certainly pseudonymous. A famous example from the early middle Ages is the writing of so-called Pseudo-Dionysius—a heady mixture of Christian mysticism and Greek ascetic philosophy, which many later Fathers viewed as authoritative to some degree, due to its apparent authorship by the Pauline disciple Dionysius the Areopagite. If they had ever thought it was a pseudonymous work (a “pious fraud”), orthodox theologians such as Thomas Aquinas would not have tried so hard to make it fit into their system of belief. Subsequent centuries have viewed pseudonymity even more harshly, as an attempt to deceive readers or appropriate another author’s prestige. If seen in this light, pseudonymity would seem to create an ethical problem for any writing purported to be divinely-inspired. However, it is worth asking, to what extent is the pejorative and negative value judgment attending such descriptions as “false”, “fraud”, “forgery”, etc., actually warranted? Should authorship be viewed in terms of literary device or historical fact? These are important questions as we seek to study carefully the text of Scripture with both clear mind and open heart.