17 August 2008

Open Question for NT Scholars #1

Posted by at 11:45 AM Read our previous post
I'm going to start a new feature on this blog, in which I will ask some of the questions that are the most problematic for me as a student of the materials relevant to the study of the historical origins of Christianity.

They will be asked in all seriousness and I would greatly appreciate any and all responses that are given in earnest by anyone who might have some insight on any of these questions.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Open question #1: Jesus on Psalm 110 (c.f. Mark 12:35–37 & Matt 22:41–46 & Luke 20:41–44)

These verses, where Jesus is described as citing Psalm 110 in defense of the validity of his messiahship (along with the Isaiah servant song that begins at chapter 52 and into 53) are seen as "the" slam-dunk passages by a certain kind of fideist missionary to "prove" that the Hebrew scriptures "prophesize" the coming of Jesus in the future.

After discussing them one day with a street evangelist here in my town (whose name was, ironically enough, Mark), I became interested in this Psalm. This guy was sure that after studying the matter, I could only concede the "fact" of this fulfillment. For a brief moment, I thought he might have something here. If these passages really could be seen as referring to Jesus, then I could understand why so many people could believe that Hebrew prophecy predicted J's messianic role in history. I try to not just dismiss things out of hand. When confronted with such challenges, I take them seriously; I resign myself to examine them to the best of my abilities.

The problem in this case, though, was that while I have a rudimentary grounding in the Greek language and can usually work my way through Greek NT texts (with the aid of my textbooks and a handy Grammar), I am completely hopeless in the Hebrew language.

What to do?
Answer: What I always do in such cases when I can't access the texts myself—consult an expert!

So I scheduled a meeting (which turned into two—so engrossed was I with this Psalm) with a local rabbi. These meetings turned out to be one of the most significant episodes in my search for answers regarding the origins of Christianity so far. They have influenced my thought on these matters more than you can imagine.

The King James reads:
"The Lord said unto my Lord, sit thou at my right hand until I make thine enemies thy footstool."

Pretty straight forward, right? Both instances of the word "Lord" are capitalized, highlighting the odd anomaly of David calling a future descendant "Lord," implying that "Christ," the son of David, is greater than David. This is pretty deep stuff, right?

When I spoke my concerns about this to the rabbi, he smiled gently and brought forth from his shelf an interlinear Tanach (English/Hebrew), opened it, and said, "You don't know a lick of Hebrew, do you?"

"No, I don't; that's why I came."

"Let me show you something," he said, holding the book in front of me with one hand and pointing at the relevant passage with the other. "Here's the first occurence of the word "Lord." I looked and sure enough there was the familiar Tetragammaton which I had seen before and which I recognized as the traditional name for God: "YHVH." I nodded my recognition. He then said, "now, here's the second instance of the word 'lord', " and he pointed again, only this time I had no idea what the word was. But it wasn't the same word at all. He told me that the word in this case was "l'adoni."

To make a long story short (we spoke for over an hour that day) he pointed out the difference between "Adonai" and "l'adoni."

Here's the gist:
"Adonai" denotes the God of Israel. It is attested about 450 times in the Tanach.
"L’adoni", however, is never used in the Hebrew scriptures as a divine reference. It instead denotes a human superior. It basically serves a similar function as the English analogue "my lord" in the royal sense.

When I told him that I saw the difference but was still confused as to what the passage might mean in this case, he imparted to me the most important lesson regarding the study of the Hebrew scriptures that I have had in my life. Sublime in its simplicity, it's one that I will find useful for as long as I keep studying this stuff.
Namely, he taught me that when trying to determine the meaning of any passage, the question we must always keep in mind is . . . .

"Who is speaking here??"

After some reflection, I told him that I didn't really know who is speaking here . . . "David . . . right?"

He smiled once more and said, "No."
He went on to give me some background on the form and function of the Psalms as a literary genre. In a nutshell:
David, though he was one of the most beloved kings of Israel, was denied the task of building the Temple (which he had always longed to do) because he had blood on his hands (even "just war" was enough to disqualify him for the task—such purity was required by God to build his house of worship). God however promised him that his son would be the one to build it. Undismayed and undaunted, though David wasn't to build the temple, he made all manner of preparation for the future building of the Temple (by Solomon): by gathering construction materials, composing liturgies and songs to be read by the levi'im (priests). The Psalms were thus composed to be sung from a platform long after the death of David by these levi'im to the people gathered below.

It all suddenly made sense to me.

Who was speaking here?

The Levite priests.

"The Lord (God) said unto my lord (no capitalization—David) , sit down at my right hand until I make thy enemies into thy footstool."

This was a moment of catharsis for me. This was not some strange convoluted veiled reference to a future messiah at all!

So, when I went back to re-read the evangelist passages with this citation, I suddenly realized a few things . . .
first - that the use of this Psalm in the gospels reveals some theologically-tinged partisan exegetical sleight-of-hand on the part of the respective authors . . . . and
second - that the episode where J challenges the Pharisees with this enigma never actually happened as a historical event.

I can assert this last point with a reasonably high degree of certainty for a couple of reasons:
  1. Jesus, reported to have been a highly devout Jew who was versed in the Hebrew language and scriptures, would have known better than to say such a thing.
  2. Had he said such a thing, the Pharisees whom he said it to— fanatical in their study of the scriptures, and prone to long midrash on this and all other Psalms— would have immediately corrected his mistake on the spot. Anyone with a perfunctory understanding of Hebrew could have. Yet, in this gospel narrative, his mere citing of this Psalm is enough to make them all speechless and mute in astonishment. In reality, this would never happen in the world of rabbinic discourse.
Here I am reminded of an old Jesus film that I once saw, in which the scene of the woman caught in adultery is depicted in a similarly unfeasible, untenable way.
The mob, about to stone the woman, become suddenly submissive and awestruck and drops their stones at once at Jesus' mere "cast the first stone" statement. Jesus speaks and the whole universe falls on its knees, like E.F. Hutton.


Only a naive and pious need to "believe" could convince one to think that the human psychological tendency to correct an error (religious errors in particular) could be suspended so easily by the rabbis that Jesus addresses. Jesus could have won an argument with his detractors, for all we know, but an argument must have ensued. This simplistic depiction of instant pharisaic submission is completely unrealistic. It's a cartoon.

Anyway . . .
I realized after my meeting that any insistence that this Psalm is a reference to either a messiah generally, or to Jesus specifically, could only be based on theological needs and motives.

And if I may project this further, I must confess that not only do I see exegetical error here, I also see the faint outline of guile and deliberate obsfucation in the telling of this story—either that or a complete misunderstanding of the Judaic context of the citation. The insistence on the capitalization of both "lord"s in the psalm is a red flag to me, as is the sudden silence of the Pharisees in the gospel narrative; they are stumped by something that would have been easily refuted by any literate Jew.

These verses set my mind to thinking . . . .




No comments:

Post a Comment

Comments left anonymously may or may not be posted.

© quixotic infidel (the) is powered by Blogger - Template designed by Stramaxon - Best SEO Template