Key Christological Texts: Psalm 110 & Isaiah 45:23-25
In an earlier posting (July) I mentioned participating in a well-organized symposium sponsored by Trinity Theological College in Perth (Australia) entitled “All That the Prophets Have Written,” and focused on ways in which the OT scriptures are used in the NT. My own commissioned essay was on key OT texts in NT Christological beliefs, and I chose to focus on two as case-studies: Psalm 110 and Isaiah 45:23-25.
These texts share several interesting features. Both are reflected in our earliest NT texts (undisputed letters of Paul), which take us back to the 50s of the first century. Moreover, these texts are drawn upon in passages that are commonly (and rightly) judged by scholars to incorporate earlier confessional statements, which means we’re taken back further still chronologically. In short, all indications are that these two texts were among the very earliest OT passages mined by earliest believers in their efforts to understand and express their experiences and convictions about Jesus and God.
Secondly, although both of these OT texts were important in earliest Christian circles, it is a curious fact that neither seems to have been particularly prominent in “pre-Christian” Jewish tradition. In the case of Psalm 110, this is all the more curious, for it is the single most-frequently cited and alluded OT text in the NT. There have been a few suggestions that Psalm 110 may be reflected in a couple of Jewish texts (other than the NT, the Qumran text 11Q Melchizedek, and possibly the Similitudes of Enoch), but these are not necessarily persuasive; and in any case, these are only a couple of possible allusions. As for Isaiah 45:23-25, although it’s unsurpassed as an expression of the uniqueness and supremacy of the God of the OT, and would have been noted in the course of reading Isaiah, there is no evidence of it being particularly used.
Thirdly, each of these OT texts receives a remarkable and highly innovative interpretation/usage in the NT texts. In the case of Psalm 110, the opening verse was taken in early Christian circles as signifying the heavenly exaltation of Jesus to share divine rule. Psalm 110:1 is the only place in the OT where a figure is portrayed as “at the right hand” of God, and so all of the confessional statements in the NT about Jesus “at the right hand” of God likely reflect this early reading of the text.
As for Isaiah 45:23-25, it is widely recognized as drawn upon in the climactic statements of the much-studied Philippians 2:6-11 about “every knee” bowing and “every tongue” confessing. In an astonishing reading, in vv. 9-11 the OT text is drawn on to portray a universal submission to Jesus as Kyrios, thereby bringing glory to the one God (the Father). That is, an OT passage that emphatically declares the sole supremacy of the one God is drawn on to declare a dyadic obeisance, to Jesus and to God. Also, with a number of other exegetes, I understand Romans 14:11-12 as reflecting a similar dyadic reading of the Isaiah passage quoted there, with Jesus the “Lord” and also God mentioned.
So, what could have prompted these radically innovative readings of these OT texts in earliest Christian circles? It seems to me that an (perhaps the) essential factor was the influence of powerful religious experiences that re-ordered the outlook of these early Jewish believers, driving them to their scriptures to try to comprehend things. Reports of these experiences include experiences of the risen and exalted Jesus, visions of him in heavenly glory, prophetic oracles declaring his glorification, etc.
Believing that their scriptures held the secrets of God’s purposes, they mined these texts fervently, looking for any light that could help them come to terms with things. And in such OT texts as those I’ve cited here they found these resources. These texts seemed to open up to them in new ways, and they saw things in these texts that were new and that provided them with ways of expressing their convictions and with the confidence that their experiences were valid.
We should probably picture circles of early believers poring over their scriptures in prayer and expectation, and in an atmosphere alive with what they took to be the revelatory activity of God’s Spirit. In this sort of setting something like prophetic insights emerged and were embraced. Thereafter such OT texts were also then used in proclamation and defence of their faith-claims to fellow Jews and then to gentiles also.
There are also a few other curiosities that I discovered in the process of working on this essay, but I’ll need some more time to nail down the necessary data before I can discuss them with adequate basis. But what I’ve summarized here are the main things that make early Christian use of the these OT texts truly remarkable.