Friday, November 30, 2012

The Paradoxical Son of David

While Jesus was teaching in the Temple courtyard, several members of the religious elite had tried to harass Jesus and get Him into trouble with tough questions. They asked Him about paying taxes to Caesar and about the seemingly contradictory nuances regarding Resurrection. They also asked what was the greatest commandment, to which Jesus gave them both the first (love God) and second (love your neighbor) greatest commandments (Matthew 22:34-40, Mark 12:28-34). Then Jesus had a question of His own to ask...

The Paradoxical Son of David
Jesus, being both man and God, creates some theological issues, to say the least. It is no small feat to bind the infinite within the finite. Theologians, and fools like myself, like to pointlessly ponder the degrees in how you could be both omniscient and ignorant, both omnipotent and feeble, both holy and common, etc.. But there are matters in more dire need of discernment, as they are matters of what the Messianic prophesies say and how Jesus could possibly fulfill them; matters with which even Jesus struggled.

In Matthew 22:41-46, Mark 12:35-37, and Luke 20:41-44, we find essentially the same anecdote where Jesus apparently clarifies an issue of prophesy. There was a common belief that the Messiah (a.k.a. the Christ) would be born from King David's lineage, but there is a fundamental problem with Jesus being just another child born in David's lineage because, well, Jesus is God! Also, calling someone a "son of David" applies a greater reverence to David than to that so-called person, but clearly Jesus is supposed to be more honorable than David.

And so, in Luke 20:41-44, we see:
Then Jesus said to them, "How is it that they say the Christ [a.k.a. the Messiah] is the son of David? David himself declares in the Book of Psalms:
'The Lord said to my Lord: "Sit at My right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet." ' David calls him 'Lord.' How then can he be his son?" NIV
Jesus has quoted Psalm 110:1 here. Psalm 110 is a short, somewhat ambiguous seven verse song which is mostly about God providing military victory and judgement over many nations, heaping up dead bodies along the way. If you want to dig into the details of its ambiguity and why it may not be the way that Jesus said it was, read the "Psalm 110 in Deep Detail" section below. That section should also be helpful if you are having trouble sleeping at night. ;-) Anyway...

Yeah, what is the deal with people saying that the Messiah is the son of David? Now, they do not mean the literal son of David, given that David had long been dead by Jesus' time, but rather someone from David's lineage. You know, like you see referenced in Matthew 1:1, Matthew 1:6-16, Matthew 1:20, Matthew 9:27, Matthew 12:23, Matthew 15:22, Matthew 20:30-31, Matthew 21:9, Matthew 21:15, Mark 10:47-48, Mark 11:10, Luke 1:27, Luke 1:32, Luke 1:69, Luke 2:4, Luke 3:23-31, Luke 18:38-39, and John 7:42.

Now if you study through those references to the "son of David," you will find that most of them are what generic people are saying about Jesus, and therefore are not to be taken as inherently being true. Mark and John contain only these types of hearsay comments, and thus are not in any conflict with Jesus' sentiment here. However, Matthew and Luke are not on that same page. For example, in Matthew 1:1 the Gospel writer opens his tale of "truth" with:
This is the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah the son of David, the son of Abraham: NIV
How is it that Matthew could say that Jesus was the son of David? Well, Matthew 1:6-16 goes on to explicitly make that connection in lineage, and further emphasizes that family connection through Joseph in Matthew 1:20.

Now Luke was a better editor than Matthew was. He was too clever to fall into that trap of conflicting with Jesus' own words on genealogy. So when Luke 3:23-31 provides a connection from Jesus to David in genealogy, in Luke 3:23 he starts off with a disclaimer:
Now Jesus Himself was about thirty years old when He began his ministry. He was the son, so it was thought, of Joseph, the son of Heli,... NIV
With the phrase "so it was thought," Luke permits us to believe that really God was Jesus' father, not Joseph, and so there is no conflict with Jesus' later words. Thereafter in Luke, you only find those generic declarations noted above.

However, while Luke was smart, he was not brilliant, and he was prone to error just like any of us. So when he wrote the story of Jesus' birth, he was far too excited, or too distracted with writing fulfilled prophesy, to notice that he did slip up on this issue. In Luke 1:27, he also emphasized Joseph's connection to David, and in Luke 1:32, we have the angel pronouncing to Mary that:
[Jesus] will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David,... NIV
It was not only Matthew and (sort of) Luke, who claimed Jesus to be a son of David, but in Romans 1:3 and 2 Timothy 2:8 Saul/Paul also claims that Jesus was a descendent of David. John, the author of Revelation, claimed that an elder told him that Jesus was of the "root" of David (Revelation 5:5-6). And last, but certainly not least, in Revelation 22:16 we see:
I, Jesus, have sent My angel to give you this testimony for the churches. I am the Root and the Offspring of David, and the bright Morning Star.” NIV
So there you have it. Jesus has contradicted Himself. Again.

And there is a very good reason why this family connection was made. The prophesies about the Messiah often claimed that he would come from David's lineage, as you can see in Isaiah 16:5, Jeremiah 23:5, and Jeremiah 33:15, among other places. But this becomes a paradox, because Jesus was not Joseph's son, but rather God's Son, and so there is no bloodline connection to David, and thus these prophesies cannot really be fulfilled by Jesus. It is no wonder why so many Jews had rejected the story of Jesus: it is not what God had promised.

Psalm 110 in Deep Detail
Jesus claimed that Psalm 110 is prophetic, and that David called Jesus "Lord," or specifically "my Lord" as the case is here. Is that a valid interpretation? This is a tough matter to discern, for sure, so let us take a moment to look at it deeper.

The phrase "The Lord said to my Lord" is made up of only three Hebrew words, and those words are in a slightly different order. They are "declared Yahweh lords," or "neum Yhvh ladonay" in the transliterated Hebrew, where "ladonay" is a variant of "adonay." You have to fill in the missing articles and prepositions yourself. If you look at how "ladonay" is typically translated, you will find that it is often "the Lord," and often combined with prepositions; "of", "for", "by", and "to" the Lord. The word "my" never occurs in Bible translation for "ladonay" other than Psalm 110:1, but in common Hebrew speech, adonay (or adonai, yet another variant) is literally translated as "my lords/owners/masters," where the pluralization is done to show extra respect due to a singular, distinguished being. You find the combination "adonay Yhvh," or "the Lord Yahweh," 290 times in the Bible, but Psalm 110:1 is the only case in the Bible where you find the reverse order of "Yhvh ladonay," so we have no other verses to directly compare. With all of that in mind, it appears that the "The Lord said to my Lord" interpretation Jesus used is valid, but you could also make the case that "Declared Yahweh of/to/for/by the Lord" and "Declared Yahweh, the Lord" (similar to "Declared the Lord, Yahweh" we see in Isaiah 3:15, Jeremiah 2:19, Ezekiel 5:11, and 70+ more times) are equally valid translations. That latter option works well, unless you are looking to make a connection to Jesus. ;-)

So as you can see, the interpretation is arguable, but let us consider that it is properly "The Lord [Yahweh] said to my Lord." Who then is "my Lord?" Is it Jesus, as He is claiming? Well, as noted above, the "my" is subjectively added and could easily be other things. If David really did mean "my Lord," it would be awkward for him to be referring to himself, but is that enough to prove that this is about Jesus?

Context is key, but the context here is ambiguously awkward for Jesus as well. For example, Psalm 110:2 has God (Yahweh) saying that He will help extend the power of this "Lord" such that he will rule among his enemies. That seems more like what happens when conquering hostile nations than what Jesus has promised. There is talk of troops being ready for war in Psalm 110:3, but God will not need troops at all in the final battle per Revelation 20:9. In Psalm 110:4, God swears an oath to this Lord, but God swearing an oath to Himself (as Jesus) is a strange concept; yet it makes perfect sense for God to swear to a man to give him some assurance of the promise. In Psalm 110:5-6 we do find references to a day of God's wrath when judgement takes place, but it is hard to say that it is meant to be THE Judgement Day, given that there are other, generic days of wrath and judgement referred to in the Bible, such as Job 21:27-30, Isaiah 3:14, Jeremiah 1:16, and Ezekiel 22:24.

The Psalm is a little less ambiguously awkward if we consider it to be referring to King David himself. David did have several military conquests of enemy nations, many of which are summarized in 2 Samuel 8:1-14, matching very well with the war references within the Psalm. As 2 Samuel 8:6 and 2 Samuel 8:14 indicate, these victories were given to him by God.

In Psalm 110:4, God swore to make this Lord a priest after the order of Melchizedek. It is interesting to note that Melchizedek was the king and God's priest in Salem (Genesis 14:18). Salem would later become Jeru-salem. So David was the king of the same city. There were noted priests at the time of David: Zadok and Abiathar were priests; and Ira was David's priest. However, no one was classified as the High Priest. It is arguable that David acted as the High Priest (the scenes in 1 Chronicles 24:31, 2 Chronicles 8:14, 2 Chronicles 23:18 certainly suggests so), but David was never explicitly called a priest (unless you can count Psalm 110:4). David's sons may have also acted as priests (2 Samuel 8:18), which also suggests David having priestly role, given that priesthood was usually dictated by family lineage.

Now what about the part of being a priest "forever?" I think that this was God effectively saying that He was granting David the title of "priest," and that title would never be stripped from him. He would be a priest as long as he lived. I do not think that the eternal promise of priesthood necessarily extended to his progeny. So, just like Melchizedek died, and no one speaks of priests from his lineage, so too was to be the case with David. David's progeny were not promised an eternal priesthood.

Add to that the references of Melchizedek and David literally ruling the same city and acting as priest, and David's God-helped military conquests, and you have at least a reasonable case that this Psalm is about David, not Jesus. Reasonable, but not "rock" solid. ;-)


  1. It's definitely an interesting question, Jesus is supposed to be a descendant of David through Joseph, and yet Joseph isn't his father. What's funny to me is that I had never thought about this until it came up earlier this year on my blog. It's not something I had ever considered when I was a Christian. I guess it's not too huge of a surprise, I was certainly not paying attention when genealogy stuff came up.

    Do you know if there is a standard Christian response to this?

    1. If anyone else is interested in my question, reddit people directed me here

  2. Thanks Hausdorff!

    Yeah, I think that for the Christian, the lineage information seems superfluous compared to all of the other "proofs" of Jesus being the Messiah, so I doubt many have looked at the matter or considered it deeply. But for the Jews, it would have been of the utmost importance because of the prophesies. Within their Law, inheritance was based on paternal bloodline lineage, with the exception of if a man died before he and his wife had a child. In that case, the man's brother would marry the widowed wife, and the first male child from that union would count for the dead man's lineage (Deuteronomy 25:5-10).

    I do not know the standard Christian response in this case. I think most of them would simply do a little hand-waving; just saying something like "well, the Bible says that Joseph's lineage counts, so obviously God considers it to count too," and maybe adding on one of those mystic "His ways are not our ways" too. Me; I would press them to "show their work" on how exactly it counts. ;-) Counting or not, though, it does not get past the contradiction in Jesus' own words.

    I tackled the contradictions in the actually given lineages in a post called Get in Line with Jesus, where I lambasted the Luke's-is-Mary's-Lineage fallacy, among other things. :-)

  3. Hausdorff, I just checked Gill's commentary, and he has got a semi-plausible explanation. It does not seem to work as well with either Mark's or Luke's version, but the way that Matthew 22:41-46 is phrased provides a little more breathing room. Gill suggests that Jesus was asking them this question, not to deny that He was the son of David, but rather to spur on their thinking so that they would realize that He was not only the son of David. He was much more.

    Given that there is ample evidence that Matthew sourced much of his material for his Gospel from Mark, Mark's version should take some precedence over Matthew's in determining which is more likely to have happened (if this snippet is based on history at all). But we also know that people make mistakes, so it is also within the real of possibility that Matthew was making a correction to be more accurate (though I highly doubt that).

    1. It seems that the claim was that Jesus was the son of David AND more. But we are having issues establishing that Jesus was the son of david at all.

      I guess what you are saying, is that some people would try to use matthew 22:41-46 as evidence that Jesus was NOT son of David, and Gill is fighting against that idea. So perhaps Gill makes an argument that we can't use that verse as evidence for our side, but it still doesn't explain how Jesus is the son of David.

      *I might be missing something here, my brain is fairly fuzzy this morning*

    2. You have got it perfectly, Hausdorff, at least as far as I understand it! ;-) Sorry I was a bit cryptic there.

      This is a case of redirection/misdirection, because, as you aptly note, it does not make the bloodline inheritance link between David and Jesus. It is just assumed to be a valid link by Christian resources, despite there being no bloodline from Joseph contributed, and despite this apparent statement to the contrary.

      Just one of the many mysteries in Christianity! :-)

  4. I dealt with this in a general way on my blog today actually. . .if you haven't read the series I've been writing as of late, it makes a very interesting hypothesis, IMO.

  5. I have seen some of it Angela, but pressing demands of the season have not allowed me to see it all. It sure is interesting.

    1. Yes, the Bible says that Jesus is the Son of David through his earthly father (not biological) Joseph's bloodline. The Bible teaches us about the importance of covenant marriage and that God Himself is the One who joins a husband and wife together as one, never to be twain again. Mary took on Josephs' name when she became his wife and it stands to reason that Jesus' geneology would be described as that of Joseph, from the house of David. Through the covenant of marriage of Mary to Joseph, Jesus became the son of Joseph, hence the descendant of David. This shows us how important one flesh (not sexual consummation) marriage is, being joined to be one flesh with your spouse, by an invisible act of God, upon declaring your mutual vows before witnesses. We should not underestimate marriage as God has ordained it. And yes, I know this discussion is not about marriage at all. But, this is the only explanation that makes sense to me, no-one seems to be able to come up with an explanation that eliminate all the speculations. Jesus is the descendant of David through Joseph's marriage to Mary. We all know how important (the value God places on Covenant - lots of evidence of this in the Bible) Covenant is to God. So we could also say that Jesus became the descendant (Son)of David through the covenant (marriage is a covenant) which His mother Mary made before God) with Joseph, Son of David. Jesus and Joseph are the only two people in the new Testament who are both addressed as son of David. So the link is between them, the two of them. Most people are looking for a natural (physical) explanation but I think in this instance the spiritual supercedes the natural way of thinking.

    2. Thanks for your comment, Elizabeth. That is an interesting perspective, and, at first glance, it appears very reasonable. However, the unifying bond of marriage is not as Biblically absolute as you suggest here.

      For example, according to Exodus 21:4-6 for a slave who is married by someone his master selects for him, the wife and all of the children from that union belong to the slave master. Also refer to Deuteronomy 25:5-6, where if a married man dies without an heir, the man's brother is to marry the widow, but the firstborn male from that subsequent marriage will be considered to be of the deceased man's lineage.

      So while you have provided a good explanation here, unfortunately, according to the Bible, it does not have as solid a foundation as you have assumed.