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“At, or In, God’s Right Hand”: A Further Suggestion

January 30, 2017

I’ve got another possible factor for the curious preference of NT authors in the way they refer to the exalted Jesus as “at God’s right hand.”  I’ve noted this matter in previous postings (e.g., here), and in a forthcoming essay I return to the question.  In a recent seminar in Oxford where I presented the paper, this topic generated some encouraging discussion.

To recoup:  When NT authors cite Psalm 110:1, they preserve the Greek phrasing of the LXX here:  εκ δεξιων.  But in a number of other instances, across various NT writings, when the authors simply make a statement about Jesus’ exalted status (e.g., Romans 8:34), they seem to prefer the construction εν δεξιᾳ.  English translations of the NT typically don’t distinguish between the two expressions, but they are different.  (Apologies to readers without Greek, but the question is about the use of two different Greek phrases.)

So, why this pattern?  And the basis for the question is that there is this pattern.  It’s not willy-nilly, and it’s not confined to one author.  Note, for example, that the author of Hebrews prefers the latter expression when making his own statements about Jesus’ exalted status (1:3; 8:1; 10:12; 12:2), but gives the correct wording of Psalm 110:1 (LXX 109:1) when he cites the text in Heb 1:13.  He knows the wording of the Psalm, but seems to prefer the phrasing εν δεξιᾳ when he has the freedom to do so.

In an earlier discussion, I wondered if this phrasing connoted a more intimate relation, and so was preferred.  In the LXX, for example, the phrase typically refers to something or someone “in the right hand” of someone, whereas εκ δεξιων refers to something/someone positioned “on the right” of someone.  (The pre-publication version of that essay, in which I give details of references is on this blog site here).

Continuing to ponder the matter, I now wonder if there is another factor that could lend further support, another OT text that may have contributed to the preference for referring to Jesus as εν δεξιᾳ in relation to God.  Specifically, I point to Psalm 16 (LXX Psalm 15).  We know that it was read early on in light of Jesus’ resurrection (as, e.g., Acts 2:23-36).  Is it relevant that the final statement of this Psalm refers to the manifold benefits “in your [God’s] right hand for ever” (εν τη δεξιᾳ σου εις τελος), these words taken as predictive and reflective of Jesus’ exaltation?

Specifically, did this statement in the Psalm help to generate the use of εν δεξιᾳ in early Christian confessional statements?  Note the contrast in this Psalm between the phrasing used to describe God as “at the right hand” of the human speaker (v. 8), εκ δεξιων μου, and the phrase in v. 11, εν δεξιᾳ σου.  So, did the phrasing of Psalm 16:11 help to express better the early Christian conviction that the exalted Jesus was very intimately connected with God, “in God’s right hand”?

The evidence of contemporary Greek writers shows that both expressions were in use in Koine Greek.  So, it’s not a case of one becoming obsolete.  So, I repeat, why the apparent pattern of preference across various NT authors?

The other typical explanation is that these two Greek expressions were simply the remnants of early and varying translations of Psalm 110:1.  Maybe.  But why, then, is the phrasing εκ δεξιων consistently found in any citation of that text, whereas NT authors seem to prefer the other expression in making confessional statements?

Also worth noting, the LXX translators didn’t render the various Hebrew prepositional phrases willy-nilly.  They preferred εκ δεξιων for certain Hebrew prepositional constructions, and εν δεξιᾳ for others.  (For details, see my earlier posting here.)

(For a somewhat similar/supporting view on the possible influence of LXX Psalm 15:11, see now Michael Cover, Lifting the Veil: 2 Corinthians 3:7-18 in Light of Jewish Homiletic and Commentary Traditions (BZAW 210; Berlin: De Gruyter, 2015), 170-74, whose discussion of ἐν δεξιᾷ is confined to its use in Peter’s speech in Acts 2. On early Christian reading of the Psalms as the voice of Jesus, see Richard B. Hays, “Christ Prays the Psalms: Paul’s Use of an Early Christian Exegetical Convention,” in The Future of Christology: Essays in Honor of Leander E. Keck, ed. A. J. Malherbe and W. A. Meeks (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993), 122-36, re-published as “Christ Prays the Psalms: Israel’s Psalter as Matrix of Early Christology,” in R. B. Hays, The Conversion of the Imagination: Paul as Interpreter of Israel’s Scripture (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), 101-18.)


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  1. Donald Jacobs permalink

    The quotation itself is imperative, whereas the statements outside quotations are declarative.

    • Donald: True, the statement in Psalm 110:1 is an invitation/imperative . . . and irrelevant. The NT statements are all declarative.

      • Donald Jacobs permalink

        Thanks professor Hurtado. I thought it might be relevant, in as much as an imperative involves action, and a preposition implying movement (such as “at”) may make more sense. Whereas in a declarative statement a preposition denoting position without movement (such as “in”) may be more natural. See the handy diagram of prepositions on this page that shows in Greek “at” implies movement whereas “in” shows position.

      • Donald: It’s not that simple/wooden, when it comes to language. And anyway, it’s just as easy to command someone to be “in” and it is to be “at”. In any case, we don’t start from wooden grammar, but from inductive analysis of how actual phrases are used in actual texts.

  2. Perhaps when Greek writers directly quoted (translated) Psalm 110:1, they quoted it as closely as they could to the Hebrew writing/meaning. When the same Greek writers made reference to Christ’s exalted position as a more conversational topic in their writings (not directly quoting Psalm 110:1), they used the phrase that would be more commonly used and understood by readers in their current Greek language culture. (And maybe some of the writers simply didn’t give a hoot.)

    Here’s an example that could represent a similar method of translation – explaining the meaning of “christ.” We often read that the word “christ” in Greek means “anointed one.” We know that an exact translation means “anointed.” Yet in Modern English, we use “anointed one” because it’s not common (in the English language) to use the word “anointed” as a noun. So, translators translate (or explain) the Greek word “christ” in a way that is the most easily understood by a majority of readers – “anointed one.”

    Perhaps in Greek (at the time of the writings), it made more sense in Greek language culture to write that Christ was “in the right of God,” rather than “at the right hand of God.”

    As we all know, idiomatic phrases don’t always translate well from language to language – when a few thousand years are added into the mix – expressions definitely get “lost in translation.”

    • Giddalti: Please. Such unfounded speculation doesn’t serve any purpose. As I show in my study of the matter, there is a clear pattern to NT usage of the two expressions that requires some account for it. Moreover, there is also a clear pattern to the translation of Hebrew phrases in the LXX. So, it’s not the hap-hazard thing you speculate. And the two Greek phrases were both in current use, so it’s not a case of one being better or more current or more idiomatic than the other.
      I repeat: There is a clear pattern of translation in the LXX and a clear pattern of usage in the NT. We have the data. We don’t need your “perhaps”, which seem to rest on a lack of acquaintance with the data.

      • I think you misunderstood me. I did not mean that the writers were haphazard. I meant that they were more likely to quote the passage using the Hebrew phraseology when directly quoting the scripture. But, when the writers were using the terminology in their writings (not directly quoting the scripture), they seemed more inclined to use what may have been a more acceptable usage in their current Greek language.

        Did you not write that the writers used one term more frequently when directly quoting the scripture? Maybe I misunderstood you. That’s what I thought you were implying.

        I was seeking a reason as to “why” the writers might have used the two terms when they did. I was not questioning or debating the established patterns of how the writers used the two phraseologies.

        I don’t claim to have your knowledge regarding Ancient Greek. I am only a lowly student of scriptures. If I am to be rebuked for only seeking to share in the conversation, I will make no more statements.

        I am a teacher also; I don’t whack students when they (who have less knowledge than I do) make a statement that is “beneath my knowledge.” I encourage them to be brave enough to share their thoughts. So what if they are wrong? At least they are seeking and participating.

        You might have the greatest knowledge on earth regarding Greek, but if you can’t share with kindness and a spirit of nurturing, what does it profit you … or, anyone else?

      • Giddalti: I don’t rebuke anyone for asking questions if they aren’t informed in the subject. But I do find it annoying when people who haven’t invested the work involved in understanding what the data are try to pose solutions to problems. It’s not useful. It’s not promoting learning.
        You still don’t get the fact that this preference for “en dexia” extends across VARIOUS NT authors, and is not simply a preference of this or that one. But this and other data were all given in my postings. You see the basis of my impatience? If a student of mine showed up without having done the relevant reading for a class and then tried to wing it with illfounded speculation, you bet your life he’d get a rebuke!

  3. (Richard Bauckham says he had trouble sending the following comment to my posting, so I provide it below. LWH. This is HIS statement, thus.)
    In Acts 2:25-28, Ps 16(15):8-11 is quoted but the quotation stops just short of the phrase about the right hand. This is clearly because at this point in the sermon Peter is dealing only with the resurrection and does not get to the exaltation until v 33. There he uses τη δεξιᾳ (no preposition) and goes on to quote Ps 119(110):1 in v 34. I think this is an example of hidden or implicit gezera sheva. In other words, as often in Jewish exegesis, two texts are brought together because they share a common phrase or notable word, but the common phrase is not actually present in what is explicitly quoted from either or both texts.

    I am still inclined to think that ἐν δεξιᾷ in NT usage is just an example of Christian Greek. Christians were talking about the exaltation of Jesus to God’s right hand from a very early stage – and in Jerusalem some of them would be doing so in Greek. They knew the Hebrew text and were not obliged to use the phrase as it is in LXX. So this version of the phrase got to be standard in Christian Greek usage when not actually quoting the psalm. It might even have been used in an early credal summary, as it was later.

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