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Key Christological Texts: Psalm 110 & Isaiah 45:23-25

September 11, 2013

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.

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41 Comments
  1. John Moles permalink

    Impossible to pursue this here properly, of course, but here are a few things:

    (1) Isaiah 45.3-4 is interested in names.

    (2) Cyrus in 45 is God’s ‘christos’ and achieves world conquests, which to some extent presage God’s (and in Philippians Jesus’) own universal dominion.

    (3) There must be punning interaction between ‘kurios’ and ‘Kyros’.

    (4) From an early Christian point of view, then, Cyrus (pagan, unacklowledger of God) is a very imperfect paradigm for the true Christos, Jesus.

    (5) The Philippians hymn picks up on the notion of names.

    (6) Given that the early Christian environment is to some extent bilingual (Peter must have had some Greek, Andrew and Philip did, Jesus’ brothers must have), some very early Christians must have known that Gk. Iesous = Hebrew Joshua meant ‘saviour’ (Yah-saves) (cf. also Paul and Matthew).

    Seems to me therefore that early Christians would have been extraordinarily linguistically insensitive if they hadn’t found the name of Jesus prophetically encoded in ‘soter’ (etc.) in Isaiah 45.

    None of this invalidates your thesis. But it seems to support it and it also seems important in its own right.

  2. John Moles permalink

    Don’t understand the logic. Matthew 1.21 (and of course many other NT and Patristic passages) shows some Christians knew that ‘Iesous’ in Greek meant ‘saviour’ (also ‘healer’ but that’s another story, though a related one). So if the earliest Christians are applying Isaiah 45 to Jesus, as according to you they are and in that passage there is talk of a ‘name’, and the Philippians hymn also has ‘the name of Jesus’, how could they not connect the Isaiah passage with its ‘soter’ allusions, to ‘Jesus’? If they didn’t, their Greek would have been quite spectacularly poor.

    • John,
      I may be missing it, but I don’t see any mention of “name” in Isaiah 45:22-25 (or in the preceding verses either, at least from v. 18 onward). So I take it that your suggestion is that reference in v. 22 (in the Greek) to “turn to me and be saved [σωθησεσθε]” may have played some role in suggesting to earliest believers a reference to Jesus. Anything is possible, but I don’t see how this solves the crucial question about the use of Isaiah 45:22-25, which is how on earth two figures were seen here, when on the face of it the passage appears to emphasize the exclusivity of the one deity.
      As I’ve indicated in my analysis of the Philippians 2:6-11 passage, in my book, How on Earth did Jesus Become a God? (Eerdmans, 2005, pp. 83-107), I think that Nagata was correct in proposing that believers took the references to “the Lord” and “God” as reflecting two figures, both of whom were to be given universal obeisance. (Takeshi Nagata, “Philippians 2:5-11. A Case Study in the Contextual Shaping of Early Christology” [PhD., Princeton Theological Seminary, 1981].)

  3. John Moles permalink

    Larry,

    Do you think an additional impetus to use of the Isaiah passage might be the reference to ‘deliverance’ x2, which could be read as prophesising ‘Jesus’ -‘Yah saves’, given that etymological name play in the Gospels and Paul?

    • John, The word-play that you refer to is possible only in Hebrew, and the text as cited in Paul is the Greek translation, where no such word-play works. Of course, it is a valid question whether this bold reading of the Isaiah passage first erupted in inspection of the Hebrew or the Greek text.

  4. Geoff Hudson permalink

    Larry

    I would dispute that these two letters (Philippians and Romans) are “undisputed letters of Paul”. They reflect a development from an earlier form.

    • Well, Geoff, you’ll have to make your case and do it the way scholars do so: Work up your case, submit it to a refereed journal or publisher, and see what other scholars make of it. Until you do so, these letters remain (per the overwhelming majority of scholars in the field) “undisputed letters of Paul.”

      • Geoff Hudson permalink

        I do not know Greek. And I am not an academic in the technical sense. But that does not bar me from having an opinion. So I think that the route that you recommend will not be for me.

      • Fine, Geoff. Than be careful about your claims to knowledge of things that require precisely the sort of capabilities that I describe and the process that I portray. Fair’s fair.

  5. Ali Hussain permalink

    Professor Hurtado , Hi sir .

    My question is ….since the early Christians ascribed Psalms 110 to Christ , is it then not a convincing evidence to show that they had never thought him as divine . Jews has been applying it to Abraham , Melchizedek and David , would the Jews apply the Psalm to them had it any divine connotations ?

    • Ali, First, the actual evidence of how pre-Christian Jewish tradition might have read Psalm 110 is sparse. We don’t in fact know with confidence much about this.
      Second, the fresh developments in the early Christian use of Psalm 110 are these: (1) designation of the “kyrios” invited to sit at God’s right hand to a real figure of recent history (not some biblical/legendary worthy such as Melchizedek); and (2) the understanding of this sitting at God’s right hand as literal, Jesus seen as literally enthroned with God in heavenly glory. (Cf. the notion of the Elect one of the Similitudes of Enoch, who sits on an earthly throne, albeit of divine authority, to receive the submission of the earthly rulers.)
      The key indications that the risen Jesus was regarded as in some sense “divine” are the devotional actions that I’ve laid out for some 25 years now, beginning with my book, One God, one Lord (1988).

      • Ali Hussain permalink

        Thank you for your scholarly insights sir . Prof. Hurtado , please direct me to some scholarly books on Enoch , thanks in advance.

      • Ali, On 1 Enoch, the following:
        –George W. E. Nickelsburg, 1 Enoch 1: A Commentary on the Book of 1 Enoch, Chapters 1-36; 81-108, Hermeneia (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001); Gerorge W. E. Nickelsburg and James C. VanderKam, 1 Enoch 2: A Commentary on the Book of 1 Enoch, Chapters 37-82, Hermeneia (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2011).
        –Matthew Black, ed., The Book of Enoch or 1 Enoch. A New English Edition with Commentary and Textual Notes (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1985).
        –And for a very recent treatment of the Similitudes/Parables: Darrell D. Hannah, “The Elect Son of Man of the Parables of Enoch,” in ‘Who Is This Son of Man?’ The Latest Scholarship on a Puzzling Expression of the Historical Jesus, ed. Larry W. Hurtado and Paul L. Owen (London: T&T Clark, 2011), 130-58.

  6. Deane permalink

    “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.”

    Just to tease out what you man by “re-ordered” – do you mean that all of the elements of the distinctively Christian proclamation (including resurrection, exaltation, prophecies of an eschatological Messiah, the role of an eschatological heavenly judge, etc) were already present in the minds of the earliest Christians, and were simply reconfigured in relation to Jesus? Or do you mean that the “powerful religious experience” added something entirely new to their minds? Or…?

    • Much/most of these ideas were in the air in 2nd temple Jewish tradition, as is evident from the extant sources from that period. One thing that seems to have been new was the notion that Messiah would undergo violent death as part of his messianic calling.
      But the more radical development was the notion that God now required the inclusion of the exalted Messiah as virtually the co-recipient of worship. This is all laid out in my book, One God, One Lord, published way back in 1988.

  7. An excellent article, Professor Hurtado. The story of the meeting of disciples with Christ on The Road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35) is an attempt to describe the disciples coming to terms with the resurrection and their growing understanding of the scriptures?

    I noticed reference to your post on another blog which criticised your post, though apparently the author of the criticism lacks the courage to post his views on your own blog:

    http://vridar.org/2013/09/11/scholarly-preaching/

    I guess it’s easier for those who lack the courage of their convictions to criticise from afar?

    • Mick, Yes, I regard the Luke 24 scenes where the risen Jesus opens the OT scriptures for disciples to dramatize the sort of experiences I have in mind. Whatever one makes of the narrative details, the core is experiences of new insights into the scriptures in the “post-Easter” setting, and experienced as revelations.

  8. Doug Bridges permalink

    Thanks for your insight, and for your books and all the work you do. I love your How on Earth…..

  9. JGoodrich permalink

    I myself have been thinking through and planning a project on intertextuality that includes Paul’s use of Psalm 110:1 in 1 Cor 15:25. I have just started searching for secondary literature on that passage. If you have an suggested places to begin, please do share. I know of David Hay’s SBLDS volume on Psalm 110 in early Christianity, though it seems quite dated now. Thanks!

    • On the use of Psa 110 in the NT, the following key studies:
      –David M. Hay, Glory At the Right Hand: Psalm 110 in Early Christianity (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1973)
      –William R. G. Loader, “Christ At the Right Hand–Ps. CX.1 in the New Testament,” New Testament Studies 24 (1978): 199-217
      –Martin Hengel, “Psalm 110 und die Erhöhung des Auferstandenen zur Rechten Gottes,” in
      Anfänge der Christologie: Festschrift für Ferdinand Hahn zum 65. Geburtstag, ed. Cilliers Breytenbach and Henning Paulsen (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1991), 43-73.
      –Michel Gourgues, A la Droite de Dieu. Résurrection de Jésus et actualisations du Psaume 110,1 dans le Nouveau Tesetament (Paris: J. Gabalda, 1978)
      –Martin Hengel, “Setze dich zu meiner Rechten!”, in Studien zur Christologie: Kleine Schriften IV (WUNT 201; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2006), 281-368, originally, in Le Trône de Dieu, ed. Marc Philonenko (WUNT 69, 1993), 108-94, English trans. “‘Sit At My Right Hand!’ The Enthronement of Christ At the Right Hand of God and Psalm 110:1,” in Hengel, Studies in Early Christology (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1995), 119-225

      • JGoodrich permalink

        Thanks, Larry! This is very helpful.

  10. fascination picture of believers huddled in a circle poring over the scriptures. will be pondering that for some time.

  11. Hi Professor Larry,

    Other than Acts 15, are there any places you see “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”?

    You almost make it sound like they were a group of seminary students together studying. Even in Acts 15 after debate of the group, it was individual apostles who applied O.T. scripture. As far as Ps.110, it was Jesus who applied this verse to Himself initially.

    Dyadic use, to me, agrees with what Jesus said: “I and my Father are one.” I fail to see a huge problem unless it is back to the comprehension of the Trinity.

    • Mr. Squeky: First, can we all observe the policy of this site to use real names? It’s just polite. You know who I am. Now to your questions:
      –The ubiquitous mode of earliest Christian life was the gathered ekklesia: see e.g., Acts 1:14; 2:1; 2:42-47; et al. Note also Paul’s snapshot of what went on in 1 Cor 14:26-32, which includes “revelations” and prophecies, “lessons”, etc.
      –I don’t get your final sentence. But my meaning of “dyadic” is that there are two named and distinguishable figures in earliest Christian devotion: “God” (the Father) and Jesus (the “Lord”). “Trinity” doctrine comes later, and is another matter. But one of the major driving forces in that discussion was the early “dyadic” devotional pattern that I emphasize.

      • Yes, the early Christians’ meetings you mentioned featured revelations, maybe lessons, but not new scripture. In the post you seem to refer to production of scripture (NT text). Though “prophecies” occurred, they must have been localized and time-sensitive such as Agabus with his belt binding to refer to Paul’s upcoming imprisonment.

        The Christian formative period of first century devotion was driven by the apostles individually. All NT text production was by individuals and not committees.

        You mentioned the dyadic pattern and that the trinity doctrine came later. The doctrinal development of Christian thought seems only to me as a little profitable area of study. The Doctrine of the Trinity is fairly revealed in the first two chapters of Genesis in a somewhat veiled form and is abundantly revealed throughout the Hebrew OT. That the trinity was not recognized by pre-Christian Jews is not significant compared to their greater needs as delineated throughout the Gospels. After all the scribal class knew that love encapsulated the law yet these same folks didn’t apply their knowledge when they conspired in the murder of Jesus.

        Alex Krause

      • Alex (nice to have a name): You seem frightfully confident of all your statements, even though they are all historically debatable, which suggests that you’re positing them either on an ill-informed basis or on the basis of some prior (non academic) premise. If the latter, then perhaps nothing could shift you. If the former, consider the following brief notes.
        –In my own posting I said nothing about new “scripture”. But the revelations that I mentioned did obviously help generate writings that became scripture, e.g., the letters of Paul, which he says express the revelations that he received.
        –The prophecies that I referred to include the sorts of things that Paul himself claimed, which certainly went beyond “local” and temporary things such as the prophecies ascribed to Agabus. John 14–16 indicates that new/further revelations of Jesus were to come to disciples in the post-easter period. In 2 Cor 3 Paul refers to revelations of the “Lord” (Jesus).
        –As for the doctrine of the Trinity, with the overwhelming body of biblical scholars, I see no indications of any such idea in the OT or in “pre-Christian” Jewish tradition. For 25 yrs I have probed the innovation involved in the early conviction that God now shares his glory with the exalted Jesus, which was a radical new development. The history of how this early “dyadic” devotional pattern helped to generate the developed doctrine of God in Christian tradition is, in fact, fascinating in my view.

        But, as I say, if you’ve no interest in engaging scholarly work, and prefer to cling to your own firm convictions, that’s your choice.

      • Geoff Hudson permalink

        Larry

        The name Jesus does not appear with the Christianos inscription from Pompeii.

        Jesus also does not appear with the Chi Rho from the Hinton St Mary mosaic held in the British museum. I believe this is one of the earliest forms with the Chi Rho behind the man’s head as though it was controlling him. Romans believed they were controlled by spirits. The mosaic should be in the Dorset County Museum near to where it was found. The image of the man is dressed as a Roman, perhaps the owner of the villa in Dorset. He has two pomegranites, one on each side of his head, probably symbolic of the fruit of the Spirit. The Chi Rho, meaning Lord, meant that he had adopted the Jewish religion of the prophets who regarded the Spirit of God as Lord or master of their lives. The Spirit was to be obeyed. To them the Spirit was God. This was in contrast to the Jewish religion of the priests who said that the law was to be obeyed.

      • Geoff: First, that “christianoi” MAY appear in the Pompeii inscription (it is incompletely preserved), and that “Jesus” doesn’t is . . . quite irrelevant to any point under discussion (which, in fact, is the early use of OT texts to expression Christological beliefs).
        Second, the Hinton St. Mary mosaic is soooo late (4th century CE) that it too is rather irrelevant for anything to do with the origins of Christianity. I’m talking about the first few decades.
        Finally, the Chi-Rho device was pre-Christian, functioning mainly as an abbreviation for “chiliarch” (military commander) and “chrestos” (“useful”, a notation sometimes added by readers to their copies of texts). The Christians appropriated the device and filled it with new meaning, as it comprises the first two letters of “Christos”.
        Your forceful assertion of your ill-informed views is not wise, Geoff. Since you express yourself so forcefully, I presume that you can take it too: Learn a great deal more before you try to instruct others.

      • If the Hinton St Mary mosaic is 4th century, don’t you think it remarkable that Jesus is not mentioned?

        How old is the earliest NT manuscript that mentions Jesus?

        In Berry’s book, the writing does appear to be CHRISTIANOS ending with an elongated S as found in other wall graffiti.

      • Geoff: The Hinton St. Mary mosaic is dated 4th century as per the British Museum. There’s no “if” about it. And, no, I don’t think it strange that Jesus isn’t mentioned: No figure is named in that mosaic, just as it’s unusual to have names of any figures in Roman mosaics. And Berry’s book has been criticized on a number of counts, as I’ve indicated in earlier comments (to you, I think). On the item, far more authoritative is Peter Lampe, From Paul to Valentinus: Christians At Rome in the First Two Centuries, trans. Michael G. Steinhauser (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003), esp. 7-9. The inscription no longer is extant, and it was never clear if it was a Christian one, or one about Christians, or . . . .?? Not much to rest claims on there, Geoff. See the scholarly literature cited by Lampe on whether there were Christians in Pompeii and vicinity.
        Oh, and we have references to Jesus in writers from the first century (NT texts abundantly), copies of them dating to the second/third century CE.

      • Forgive me for shifting the focus of the post. This shift (from human reception to God’s disclosure) is what caused the misunderstandings and is off topic, again forgive me.

        Overall, to me, I am amazed at the continuity between the testaments and notice only a few innovations as a result of the Christ event that won human redemption. Obviously, I need to spend more time looking at the data before commenting on your post which claims this specific innovation.

  12. Dr. Hurtado,

    Thanks for posting this! I’m interested in the use of Isa. 45:23-25 in the NT. Do you have any recommended areas to begin reading? Of course I’ll take a look at Beale & Carson and check the bibliography there, but I was just wondering if there were any journal articles or monograph-length studies that you considered excellent.

    Thanks,

    Bob

    • Bob: A few items that you may already know about (in addition to commentaries on Philippians and Romans, the NT writings that feature clear use of the Isaiah passage):
      –David B. Capes, Old Testament Yahweh Texts in Paul’s Christology, WUNT, no. 2/47 (Tübingen: J. C. B. Mohr (Paul Siebeck), 1992)
      –Takeshi Nagata, “Philippians 2:5-11. A Case Study in the Contextual Shaping of Early Christology” (PhD., Princeton Theological Seminary, 1981)

      LWH

  13. The ‘Christ hymn’ of Colossians 1:15-20 is regarded by some to be an early Christian hymn that Paul appropriated. In that hymn is an allusion to Psalm 89:27.

    • Craig: Leaving aside the issues of authorship and what may be the source of Col 1:15-20, I presume that you’re referring to the use of “prototokos” (“firstborn”) in Col. 1:15, a word that also appears in Psa 88:28 (LXX; 89:27 Heb text). The use of this one word is a rather slim basis for positing an allusion to the Psalm, which is probably why no such allusion is cited in the Nestle-Aland text. “Prototokos” is used in a number of LXX passages, including notably Exod 4:22, for example. A case would have to be made (and please, not here) for your assertion.

      • Larry,

        Yes the use of prototokos in v 15 and v 18 is what I had in mind for the basis for the allusion to Ps 89:27 (LXX) as per F.F. Bruce (in Peter T. O’Brien’s WBC p 44 {Bruce, 194, 195}), based on a reference to Christ as both the Messiah of David’s line and the Wisdom of God. See also J.D.G. Dunn (NIGTC, pp 90-91, 97-99, esp 98-99, though Dunn does not cite Ps 89:27 explicitly). Also, NIV Study Bibles note Ps 89:27 in the margin.

      • Yes. Possible (but in the LXX it’s Psa 88). But, as to proper method, it is dodgy to base such a claim on a single word, and one that is used much in the LXX. If a given word is highly unusual, then the argument is a bit stronger.

  14. Jody permalink

    Many thanks for this posting professor Hurtado, I think you have hit the nail on the head. I have also argued along these lines with reference to Heb 1:5-13 in my book on The Mysticism of Hebrews. There is a nice illustration of the kind of thing you are describing in b. Berachot 56b:

    Rabbi Joshua b. Levi said: If one sees a river in his dreams, he should rise early and say: Behold I will extend peace to her like a river [Isa 66:12], before another verse occurs to him, viz., for distress will come in like a river [Isa 59:19]. If one dreams of a bird he should rise early and say: As birds hovering, so will the Lord of Hosts protect [Isa 31:5], before another verse occurs to him, viz., As a bird that wandereth from her nest, so is a man that wandereth from his place [Prov 27:8] . . .

    I know it is much later, but it is a fitting and overt example of experience (in this case, dreams) giving rise to the use of scripture. The scriptural text is utilized to explain (and spin) a prior religious experience, which is akin to kind of thing you are noting here, is it not? I look forward to hearing more from you on this.

    • Jody: The rabbinic text doesn’t seem to me to refer to quite the same thing. I’m referring to religious experiences that strike recipients with the force of new revelation, requiring a major re-configuration of their prior beliefs.

      • Jody permalink

        True, I agree, it is not the same. I just think that it is akin insofar as the experience comes first followed by the use of a scriptural text, and that the use of scripture is better described as an attempt to articulate and elucidate an experience, rather than, for example, an attempt to provide a contextually sensitive exegesis of the text (not that the two are necessarily mutually exclusive of course).

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