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Psalms in NT and Wider Jewish Context

March 30, 2016

Having prepared a paper for a symposium in Salamanca (May this year) focusing on “messianic” Psalms, I’ll pass on a couple of interesting notes for now.  Essentially, NT use of Psalms (1) reflects broad developments in the Jewish tradition about how the Psalms were viewed, and (2) also reflects some distinctive particularities in NT usage.

Those broad developments in Jewish tradition were these: (1) collecting Psalms into a “book” (although there appear to have been variant forms of what comprised the collected Psalms till perhaps the late first century CE); (2) the broad ascription of the Psalms to David, making Psalms his “book”; (3) the notion that David was prophetically endowed, which (4) made the Psalms, not simply liturgical texts, but prophetic in properties, predictive and instructive of eschatological events for those Jews who operated in an eschatological framework.

All these developments are reflected in various NT writings, showing, once again, that in its earliest phase(s) what became “Christianity” should be understood as a particular and distinctive variant-form of second-temple Jewish religion.

But there are also distinctive features in NT usage of the Psalms.  For example, compare the index of texts cited and alluded to in the Nestle-Aland Novum Testamentum Graecae (28th ed.) with the index by Armin Lange and Mattias Weigold, Biblical Quotations and Allusions in Second Temple Jewish Literature Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2011).  Among other things to note, you’ll see that the Psalms most frequently cited in one list differ from those most frequently cited in the other.  There are some overlaps, but also some striking differences.  The most striking one is Psalm 110, which is among the most frequently cited/alluded to Psalms in the NT, but has no trace of quotation or allusion elsewhere in second-temple Jewish literature.

Likewise, Psalm 2 is frequently cited and alluded to in the NT, but the Lange/Weigold index shows only three references.  In the NT, the Psalm is particularly linked to views of Jesus’ divine sonship.

So, I contend that the specific Psalms cited, and the particular interpretations placed upon them in the NT all derive from the particular convictions characteristic of earliest circles of the Jesus-movement.  Jesus’ death and the conviction that God had raised him from death and exalted him to heavenly lordship were obviously crucial factors.

  1. Ricky permalink

    Dear Dr. Hurtado,
    Am I wrong if I think that christianism is one of the different forms of judaism appeared in the second temple period and I do not see form to talk about christianism without to think that I am in front of a form of judaism???

    • What became “Christianity” originated as a movement/sect within ancient Jewish tradition, and through the first few decades at least was seen as a new/strange kind of Jewish religious group by many. They were distinguished, however, by their beliefs and devotion to the figure of Jesus, and they made acceptance of his status the criterion for participation in God’s kingdom. Also, within only a few years, the Jesus-movement became increasingly trans-ethnic, with a growing number of non-Jews, and by the end of the first century AD was beginning to be seen as a distinguishable religious movement.

  2. Donald Jacobs permalink

    Rather than “universal lordship” wouldn’t a distinction between Yahweh and Lord corroborate the subordinationist stance of passages such as 1 Cor 15 you mention?

    27 For he “has put everything under his feet.” Now when it says that “everything” has been put under him, it is clear that this does not include God himself, who put everything under Christ.
    When he has done this, then the Son himself will be made subject to him who put everything under him, so that God may be all in all.

    • Oh sure, Jesus never rivals God (“the Father”). But, excepting God, Jesus is pictured as universal ruler/lord, to whom everything (else) is to give submission. That clear enough for you?

  3. Larry,


    I suspect that Martin Hengel and Tim Eskola would dispute your statement, “The most striking one is Psalm 110, which is among the most frequently cited/alluded to Psalms in the NT, but has no trace of quotation or allusion elsewhere in second-temple Jewish literature.”

    Are there not allusions and echoes in the throne language of 1 Enoch and other Merkabah texts?

    • Mike: No. There isn’t any citation of Psalm 110:1 in 2nd temple Jewish literature, and the putative “allusions” that some (e.g., Hengel) have alleged are . . . in the eyes of the beholder, and not substantiated by any of the normal criteria for allusions (e.g., use of words, phrases, etc.). The earlier obvious usage of Psalm 110:1 is in rabbinic texts (so 6th cent CE and later), which,by the way, are likely responding to Christian use of the text. Likewise, the Merkabah texts derive from the 4th century and later, and I’m not aware of use of the Psalm in them either.

  4. Deane Galbraith permalink

    Fascinating contentions. They’ve got me pondering – not least because I have an article on a Psalm’s ‘messianic’ ‘prophecy’ (so interpreted in one Gospel) forthcoming this year in NTS.

    Yet I wonder how much of the difference is due to relative dating. Lange and Weigold’s very useful book is weighted towards the period 520 BCE to ca. 100 BCE, due to its focus on the Hebrew Bible and Dead Sea Scrolls. There are exceptions, but the weighting is much earlier than the early Christian writings. In addition, their book excludes Philo, much closer in date if not in use of scriptures. I wonder how the results would change if compared only with broadly contemporary (say 100 BCE to 200 CE) Jewish works? There’s a project for someone.

    • Philo’s use of Psalms is minimal (only ca. 20 of his 1100+ citations are Psalms), and entirely read as inspiration for spiritual life. I don’t agree that the Lange/Weigold index is weighted so early. In fact, most of the texts they cover are closer to 250BCE – 100 CE or so.

  5. Donald Jacobs permalink

    When the NT authors quoted Psalm 110 were they familiar with a text which read:

    “The Lord says to my lord…”


    “Yahweh says to my lord…”


    And what are the Christological implications of either possibility?

    • Not a whole lot of difference, Donald. Either way, it’s clear the NT authors took Psa 110:1 as = a unique heavenly exaltation of Jesus to universal lordship. A la 1 Cor 15; Heb 1

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