Psalm 2: Is the Messiah the Son of God?
A central difference between Judaism and Christianity is the Christian belief in Jesus of Nazareth as both messiah and “the only begotten” son of God. Jews, in contrast, not only deny that Jesus is the messiah, but, more fundamentally, view the very concept of a divine “son of God” as contradicting the core principle of monotheism.
To support their claim, early followers of Jesus adduced Psalm 2:7, where YHWH addresses his “anointed” (mashiach) with: בְּנִי אַתָּה אֲנִי הַיּוֹם יְלִדְתִּיךָ, “You are my son; today I have begotten you.” By extension, they found in the rest of the psalm predictions of the opposition Jesus and his followers would face as well as the ultimate defeat of Jesus’s enemies. Jewish interpreters, of course, read the verse, and the psalm as a whole, differently.
Before discussing the broader reception of the verse in Judaism and Christianity, we begin with the original context of the psalm.
The Original Context
Psalm 2 is a royal psalm that focuses on YHWH’s support of Judah’s king against his enemies:
תהלים ב:א לָ֭מָּה רָגְשׁ֣וּ גוֹיִ֑ם וּ֜לְאֻמִּ֗ים יֶהְגּוּ־רִֽיק׃ ב:ב יִ֥תְיַצְּב֙וּ׀ מַלְכֵי־אֶ֗רֶץ וְרוֹזְנִ֥ים נֽוֹסְדוּ־יָ֑חַד עַל־יְ֜הוָה וְעַל־מְשִׁיחֽוֹ׃
Ps 2:1 Why do the nations conspire, and the peoples plot in vain? 2:2 The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against YHWH and his anointed. (NRSV with adjustments)
The first two verses set the foreign kings against YHWH’s משׁיח, “anointed one,” a term that means the king who was anointed (מ.שׁ.ח) with oil upon coronation. The reference is to the king of Judah (and not of [Northern] Israel), as verse 6 indicates by its geographical specification:
תהלים ב:ו וַ֭אֲנִי נָסַ֣כְתִּי מַלְכִּ֑י עַל־צִ֝יּ֗וֹן הַר־קׇדְשִֽׁי׃
Ps. 2:6 I have set my king on Zion, my holy hill.
Using military imagery, the psalmist expresses his confidence in the Davidic king’s victory:
תהלים ב:ט תְּ֭רֹעֵם בְּשֵׁ֣בֶט בַּרְזֶ֑ל כִּכְלִ֖י יוֹצֵ֣ר תְּנַפְּצֵֽם׃
Ps 2:9 You shall break them with a rod of iron, and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.
Subsequent verses (10–12) warn foreign kings to be prudent, serve YHWH, and pay homage.
The psalm’s likely Sitz-im-Leben, i.e., its real-life setting, was the coronation of a new king. This context is suggested not only by the term מְשִׁיחוֹ, “His anointed one” (v. 2), which calls attention to the act of anointing a king, but also by the oracle’s reference to the “day” on which the change to the king’s status is conferred:
תהלים ב:ז אֲסַפְּרָ֗ה אֶֽ֫ל חֹ֥ק יְֽ־הוָ֗ה אָמַ֘ר אֵלַ֥י בְּנִ֥י אַ֑תָּה אֲ֝נִ֗י הַיּ֥וֹם יְלִדְתִּֽיךָ׃
Ps 2:7 I will tell of the decree of YHWH: He said to me, “You are my son; today I have begotten you.”
Determining the setting then raises another question: Why should YHWH call the king “my son” during the coronation?
Possibility 1: The King Becomes YHWH’s Son and so Becomes Divine
While several Hebrew Bible texts suggest the possibility of divine beings fathering children with human women, this meaning does not fit the context of the psalm. Yet, a more modest claim, that the king becomes YHWH’s divine son upon accession to the throne, does make sense here. Such a transformation follows Egyptian models, where upon assuming the throne, Pharaoh also becomes the “son of Ra” (one of Pharaoh’s royal names).
While we know little about either Judahite coronation rituals or how the king may have been perceived in the First Temple period, the notion that the Davidic king was viewed as divine is explicit in Psalm 45, a royal marriage hymn, where the Davidic king is called אֱלֹהִים, “God”:
תהלים מה:ז כִּסְאֲךָ֣ אֱ֭לֹהִים עוֹלָ֣ם וָעֶ֑ד שֵׁ֥בֶט מִ֝ישֹׁ֗ר שֵׁ֣בֶט מַלְכוּתֶֽךָ׃
45:7 (or 6) Your throne, O God is everlasting; your royal scepter is a scepter of equity.
If this conception stands behind Psalm 2, then YHWH is telling the new king in v. 7 that he is now YHWH’s son, and it is as if YHWH has just birthed him—“today I have begotten you.”
Possibility 2: YHWH’s Metaphorical Son
Alternatively, Psalm 2 is speaking metaphorically. Much biblical language about YHWH is metaphorical: He is, e.g., king, shepherd, warrior, etc.
An instructive example of such a metaphorical depiction is YHWH’s self-description in Deutero-Isaiah as a woman in childbirth:
ישעיה מב:יד הֶחֱשֵׁ֙יתִי֙ מֵֽעוֹלָ֔ם אַחֲרִ֖ישׁ אֶתְאַפָּ֑ק כַּיּוֹלֵדָ֣ה אֶפְעֶ֔ה אֶשֹּׁ֥ם וְאֶשְׁאַ֖ף יָֽחַד׃
Isa 42:14 I have kept silent far too long, kept still and restrained Myself; now I will scream like a woman in labor, I will pant and I will gasp.
The prophet is not asserting that YHWH is anatomically female, and experiences real childbirth pain. Instead, the verse expresses graphically how YHWH’s coming actions will suddenly but inexorably burst forth. Similarly, Psalm 2 expresses the boundless paternal support the Davidic king should expect from his God by having YHWH refer to him metaphorically as His son.
This interpretation fits with two intertwined biblical metaphors: YHWH is the father of Israel, and Israel is the son of YHWH. Although this father/son metaphorical relationship is not as common in the Hebrew Bible as it is in early Judaism and Christianity, it appears in texts such as:
שמות ד:כב כֹּ֚ה אָמַ֣ר יְ־הוָ֔ה בְּנִ֥י בְכֹרִ֖י יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃
Exod 4:22 Thus says YHWH: “Israel is My first-born son.”
דברים לב:ו הֲלוֹא־הוּא֙ אָבִ֣יךָ קָּנֶ֔ךָ ה֥וּא עָֽשְׂךָ֖ וַֽיְכֹנְנֶֽךָ׃
Deut 32:6 Is not He the Father who created you, fashioned you and made you endure!
Thus, Psalm 2 would be utilizing the same father-son metaphor elsewhere used in reference to Israel to describe the intimate relationship between the Davidic king and Judah’s God.
A Royal Oracle
By describing the message as a חֹק יְ־הוָה, “decree of YHWH,” the psalmist gives the impression of quoting or paraphrasing a pre-existing divine oracle. Alternately, it may reflect a new prophecy received by a Temple functionary (a cultic prophet) on the occasion of the war/rebellion the psalm describes (v. 3).
The oracle may be reworking the prophet Nathan’s message from YHWH to David as recorded in 2 Samuel 7:14:
שמואל ב ז:יד אֲנִי֙ אֶהְיֶה־לּ֣וֹ לְאָ֔ב וְה֖וּא יִהְיֶה־לִּ֣י לְבֵ֑ן אֲשֶׁר֙ בְּהַ֣עֲוֹת֔וֹ וְהֹֽכַחְתִּיו֙ בְּשֵׁ֣בֶט אֲנָשִׁ֔ים וּבְנִגְעֵ֖י בְּנֵ֥י אָדָֽם׃
2 Sam 7:14 I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me. When he commits iniquity, I will punish him with a rod such as mortals use, with blows inflicted by human beings.
While the oracle in the psalm and Nathan’s oracle share the same father/son metaphor, they differ in their entailments (i.e., the feature focused on in the metaphor). Nathan focuses on the father’s role in disciplining his son, and Psalm 2 focuses on the father’s support for his son in difficult situations. The psalm assures the king that he need not worry about the surrounding monarchs since YHWH, his father, will defend him and quash his enemies.
We find a similar use of this father-son metaphor and another likely allusion to 2 Samuel 7 in Psalm 89:
תהלים פט:כז ה֣וּא יִ֭קְרָאֵנִי אָ֣בִי אָ֑תָּה אֵ֝לִ֗י וְצ֣וּר יְשׁוּעָתִֽי׃ פט:כח אַף־אָ֭נִי בְּכ֣וֹר אֶתְּנֵ֑הוּ עֶ֝לְי֗וֹן לְמַלְכֵי־אָֽרֶץ׃
Ps 89:27 He shall say to Me, “You are my father, my God, the rock of my deliverance.” 89:28 I will appoint him first-born, highest of the kings of the earth.
As a result of being God’s metaphorical first-born son, the Judahite king is elevated above all other earthly kings.
A Future Davidic King: Second Temple Interpretation
The Davidic monarchy ended with the destruction of Judah and the First Temple in 586 B.C.E. As time passed, readers began to find alternative meanings for Psalm 2:7.
Originally about celebrating the royal coronation of a reigning king, the psalm was later repurposed as a prophecy of the eschatological age under the rulership of a future Davidic king, who in post-biblical texts is called the “messiah” (mashiach). This reading was sparked in 63 B.C.E. when, after nearly a century of independent Jewish rule under the Hasmoneans, the Roman general Pompey conquered Jerusalem, and Judea found itself under Roman rule.
The eschatological, messianic reading of Psalm 2 appears in the Psalms of Solomon (17:23–24), composed in response to Pompey’s conquest, and his entry into the Jerusalem Temple’s Holy of Holies. These psalms quote Psalm 2:9 in relation to a future Davidic king, who will “smash and shatter” Israel’s enemies:
Ps Solomon 17:21 See, O Lord, and raise up for them their king, the son of David, at the time which you chose, O God, to rule over Israel your servant. 17:22 And gird him with strength to shatter in pieces unrighteous rulers, to purify Jerusalem from nations that trample her down in destruction, 17:23 in wisdom of righteousness, to drive out sinners from the inheritance, to smash the arrogance of the sinner like a potter’s vessel, 17:24 to shatter all their substance with an iron rod, to destroy the lawless nations by the word of his mouth. (NETS trans. with adjustments)
A Dead Sea Scroll text (4Q174), likely composed during the time of Herod, reads Psalm 2 as an eschatological prophecy. After quoting its opening verses (“Why do the nations conspire, and the peoples plot in vain…”), the text explains:
[פ]שׄר הׄדבר[ אשר יתיצבו גו]יׄיׄם וה[גו ריק על ]בחירי ישראל באחרית הימים.
[The Inter]pretation of the matter: Nat[ions will stand up] and pl[ot idly against] the elect of Israel at the end of days.
The reinterpretation of Psalm 2 as an eschatological prophecy sets the stage for its reception by Jesus’s early followers.
Jesus as God’s Son in the New Testament
As James L. Mays correctly observed, Psalm 2 “is the only text in the Old Testament that speaks of God’s king, messiah, and son in one place, the titles so important for the presentation of Jesus in the Gospels.” By the first century C.E., the Hebrew term mashiach/Greek christos, “anointed,” comes to mean not only anointed with oil at a coronation, but specifically “messiah,” an eschatological agent—a meaning it does not have in the Hebrew Bible. This change in the word’s usage is crucial for understanding the New Testament, which has few direct quotes from Psalm 2, but allusions to it permeate its books.
The Gospel of Mark
Mark, the earliest Gospel, likely dating to the 70s C.E., opens with the line, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (Mark 1:1). The title finds a partial antecedent in Psalm 2, but it is also Mark’s counter to Roman imperial propaganda which identified Caesar as divi filia, the “divine son” or “son of a god.”
The Gospel’s first scene, Jesus’s baptism in the Jordan River, depicts how he comes to be associated with this title:
Mark 1:10 And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 1:11 And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
Mark has no story of Jesus’s divine conception. Consequently, this voice from heaven—what the rabbis call a bat qol (literally, “daughter of a voice”)—signals that at the moment of baptism, the “today” of Psalm 2, Jesus of Nazareth becomes God’s son. As Richard Hays puts it, his baptism could be seen as a “disguised royal anointing.”
Although Jesus’s preferred self-designation is “Son of Man,” the title “Son of God” resurfaces several times, most often in the case of supernatural revelation. In Mark 3:11 and again in 5:7, “unclean spirits” and other malevolent supernatural beings address Jesus with this title. In a scene known as the Transfiguration, where Jesus becomes radiant with glory, a voice announces, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” (Mark 9:7).
The title “Son of God” makes one final appearance, in the scene following Jesus’s death, this time in the mouth of a Roman army officer:
Mark 15:39 Now when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, “Truly this man was God’s Son!”
With this comment, Mark signals once again that Jesus, not Caesar, is the divine son who deserves worship.
While Mark sees Jesus as having become God’s son at the baptism, other gospels see Jesus as always having been God’s literal son. The Gospels of Matthew and Luke each open with birth stories, offering variant versions of Jesus’s divine conception, and the Gospel of John also proclaims that Jesus is both God and God’s only begotten son. These texts may allude to Psalm 2:7, but this is uncertain, though the influence of this Psalm on the New Testament is explicit in other texts.
Acts and Hebrews: Psalm 2:7 as a Prooftext
The Acts of the Apostles, written by the same author as the Gospel of Luke, narrates the activities of Peter and Paul as well as other early followers of Jesus. In Acts 13, Paul makes a speech in the synagogue of Pisidian Antioch, after the reading of the Torah. He addresses the congregation as “Israelites, and others who fear God” (vv. 16, 26), a reference to gentiles welcomed by the synagogue to participate in worship.
The long speech begins by surveying Israel’s history, and its mention of David leads Paul to Jesus who, he claims, is from David’s line. Acts regards Jesus as the fulfillment of the promises to David, including an everlasting throne in Zion. Paul states:
Acts 13:32 And we bring you the good news (euangelion) that what God promised to our ancestors 13:33 he has fulfilled for us, their children, by raising Jesus; as also it is written in the second psalm, “You are my Son; today I have begotten you.” (NRSV)
Paul understands the psalm to be about the messiah, with verse 7 literally claiming that this messiah will be the son of God.
Hebrews, a long sermon addressed to Jesus’s followers, quotes Psalm 2:7 near its opening, as one of the author’s proofs that Jesus is superior to and qualitatively different from the angels:
Hebrews 1:5 For to which of the angels did God ever say, “You are my Son; today I have begotten you”? Or again, “I will be his Father, and he will be my Son”?
Hebrews cites the verse again, this time in relation to Jesus’s humility in becoming a high priest:
Hebrews 5:5 So also Christ did not glorify himself in becoming a high priest, but was appointed by the one who said to him, “You are my Son, today I have begotten you.”
Jesus’s Opponents are Psalm 2’s “Kings of the Earth” (Luke-Acts)
For Jesus’s followers who saw in him the divine son of Psalm 2, the son’s opponents in the psalm must be the persecutors of Jesus and his church. This understanding appears in Acts 4, according to which the apostles John (son of Zebedee) and Peter are arrested for proclaiming Jesus’s resurrection (v. 2). Upon their release, John and Peter report to the congregation what happened, and they respond in what looks like an extemporaneous prayer, including a quote of the opening verses of Psalm 2:
Acts 4:24 When they heard it, they raised their voices together to God and said, “Sovereign Lord, who made the heaven and the earth, the sea, and everything in them, 4:25 it is you who said by the Holy Spirit through our ancestor David, your servant (Ps 2:1-2): ‘Why did the Gentiles rage, and the peoples imagine vain things? 4:26 The kings of the earth took their stand, and the rulers have gathered together against the Lord and against his Messiah.’ 4:27 For in this city, in fact, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, 4:28 to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place.”
As Richard Hays argues, Acts is engaging in a “virtual pesher style” of reading Psalm 2, namely a style attested in some Dead Sea scrolls, where the ancient biblical text is understood to be actualized in the author’s own time. This reading takes “the Lord and his messiah/anointed” as Jesus and the “rulers gathered together” as Herod Antipas and Pontius Pilate, both of whom refused to set Jesus free, despite finding him innocent of the charges leveled against him as Luke narrated earlier, in his Gospel (Luke 23:1–25).
Psalm 2 became, for Christian interpreters, a source both to support the idea of God’s anointed being also his son, as well as to explain the persecution of Jesus and his followers. The Book of Revelation, the last book in the Christian canon, even alludes to Psalm 2 with phrases such as “the kings of the earth” and “a rod of iron” to predict the eschatological triumph of Jesus at his second coming.
Rabbinic Interpretation of Psalm 2:7—The Messiah
Classical rabbinic texts from the third to seventh centuries on Psalm 2 are typically not polemical. They understand Psalm 2 as about the future war of Gog and Magog (Ezek 38–39) and about the future messiah. Thus, these rabbinic readings represent a continuity with what we saw in late Second Temple texts, including, to some extent, the New Testament.
One reason for this lack of polemic is that many of the rabbinic texts were written either before Christianity became a state-sponsored religion (under Constantine in 313), or they were composed in the East (including Babylonia), where Christianity was not the official religion. In both cases, there was little need to polemicize vigorously against the Christian interpretation.
This is also true, in part, for the post-Talmudic Midrash Shocher Tov (=Midrash Tehillim), a homiletic commentary on Psalms, which interprets much of Psalm 2 in relation to the war of Gog and Magog. Yet, this work does include one explicit polemic against the Christian reading of this messiah as Jesus and the son of God:
דבר אחר: בני אתה. מכאן תשובה לאומרים יש לו בן. ואת מותיב להון בן לי אתה אינו אומר אלא בני אתה כעבד שעושה לו רבו קורת רוח ואומר לו אנא מחבב לך כברי.
An alternative interpretation: “You are my son”—from here a rejoinder can be derived against those who say God has a son. You can confront them with “it does not say ‘you are a son to me’ but ‘you are my son.’ This is like a slave, whose master wishes to give him peace of mind, says to him, ‘I love you like my own son.’”
To disprove the Christian reading, Midrash Shocher Tov invokes the metaphorical interpretation of the phrase discussed in the first section.
Medieval Jewish Interpretation
In the medieval period, Jews in Muslim lands follow the Talmud and understand the king mentioned in Psalm 2 as the messiah. Saadiah Gaon, for instance, states that the psalm “refers particularly to those who will rise up against the anointed of the Lord on earth.”
In contrast, Jewish interpreters in Christian lands not only generally avoid this interpretation, but also often explicitly polemicize against it, probably because it is too close to the Christian interpretation. Abraham ibn Ezra, who lived in both Muslim and Christian lands, offers both a messianic and a non-messianic interpretation of the psalm!
The response to Christianity is evident in Rashi’s commentary on the psalm, one of his only two explicit glosses against Christians in this commentary:
רבותינו דרשו את העניין על מלך המשיח. ולפי משמעו ולתשובת המינין נכון לפותרו על עצמו.
Our rabbis interpreted the subject of the chapter as a reference to the King Messiah. However, according to its basic meaning and for a refutation of the Christians it is correct to interpret it as a reference to David himself.
Rashi interprets the psalm’s first part by appeal to the historical context about David provided in 2 Samuel. Most later commentators living in Christian lands follow Rashi in interpreting the psalm in light of David’s biographical details, though some turn up polemical heat.
Among the polemicists, Radak (Rabbi David Kimchi, 1160-1235), who lived in Narbonne in Provence during a time of increasing Christian missionizing, was especially combative. Radak first follows Rashi in interpreting Psalm 2 in relation to David’s anointing and understands 2:7 as a metaphor:
י״י אמר אלי בני אתה – וממנו באה לי המלוכה; ולכן אל יערער שום אדם עליה, כי י״י לקחני לבן...
“The LORD said to me, ‘You are my son’”—and my (=David’s) kingship derives from that. Therefore, no one can dispute it, for YHWH has taken me as a son….
Radak then explains his preference for this interpretation, as opposed to the Sages’ traditional messianic interpretation:
ויש מפרשים זה המזמור על גוג ומגוג, והמשיח הוא מלך המשיח... אבל הקרוב הוא כי אמרו דוד על עצמו כמו שפרשנו.
Some explicate this in reference to Gog and Magog, and the “anointed one” is the Royal Messiah… But it makes more sense to me that David said it about himself, as we explained [above, in the verse-by-verse commentary].
In sharp departure from previous commentators, Radak concludes his gloss on Psalm 2 with a long coda or screed (approximately 400 words) against the literal reading of v. 7 as describing God having an actual son:
והנוצרים מפרשים אותו על ישו, והפסוק אשר מביאים ראיה ממנו ועושין בו סמך לטעותם הוא להם למכשול; והוא: י״י אמר אלי בני אתה.
The Christians interpret it concerning Jesus, and the verse that is their main proof, and is the basis for their error—it is a stumbling block for them—is: “The LORD said to me, 'You are my son.'”
Radak continues by attempting to refute the Christian reading by using logic:
כי אם יאמרו לך הוא היה בן האל, אמור להם: כי לא יתכן לומר בן האל על בשר ודם, כי הבן הוא ממין האב. כי לא יתכן שתאמר הסוס הזה בן ראובן; אם כן מי שאמר לו י״י: בני אתה צריך שיהיה ממינו ויהיה אלהים כמוהו. ועוד שאמר: אני היום ילדתיך, והילוד הוא ממין היולד.
If they say to you that he [Jesus] was the son of God, say to them: It is inappropriate to use the term “son of God” concerning a being of flesh and blood, because a son must be of the same species as the father. Surely you cannot say that this horse is the son of Reuben! If so, anyone to whom God says, “You are my son,” has to be of his same species, and has to be a God just like him. Similarly it says: “I fathered you this day”—the one born has to be of the same species of the one who gives birth.
Thus Radak argues that Jesus cannot have a human aspect to him since his father is divine.
ואמור להם כי לא יתכן באלהות אב ובן, כי האלהות לא תפרד כי אינה גוף שתפרד, אלא האל אחד הוא בכל צד אחדות לא ירבה ולא ימעט ולא יחלק.
Further say to them that you cannot have a father and son both as a godhead, for a godhead is indivisible, for it is not a corporeal entity that can be divided into parts. Rather God is total unity—he cannot be made larger or made smaller or divided.
Here Radak follows the Maimonidean principal of God’s unity, one of the bases for the claim that people can only have negative knowledge of God (i.e., humans can know what God isn’t, not what God is). He continues with a related point:
ואם יאמרו: שלא יתכן לומר בן האל על דבר שאנו ממין האלהות, אמור להם: כי לא נוכל לדבר על האל יתברך אלא על דרך משל, כמו שנאמר עליו: פי י״י, עיני י״י, אזני י״י והדומה להם. וידוע הוא שאינו אלא על דרך משל.
And if they say: It makes no sense to call something that is not divine the son of God, say to them: We can only speak of God, may He be blessed, through metaphorical language—after all, it says of Him: “the mouth of the LORD,” “the eyes of the LORD,” “the ears of the LORD,” etc. It is well known that these are metaphorical.
וכן הוא על דרך משל כשאמר: בן אלהים, בני אלהים; כי מי שעושה מצותיו ושליחתו קוראים לו בן כמו שהבן עושה מצות האב...
Similarly, we should understand as metaphorical “son of God” and “sons of God.” Whoever fulfills someone’s commandments and acts as his proper emissary is called “son”—just as the son heeds what his father commands.
וכן האדם בעבור רוח העליונה שבו כשעושה האדם מצות האל בסבת הנשמה החכמה שתורהו קורא לו בן ולפיכך אמר: בני אתה אני היום ילדתיך...
And so too a person, because of the heavenly spirit within him, when he performs the command of God on account of the wise spirit that guides him, [God] calls him “son.” And that is why [the psalm] says: “You are my son, today I have given birth to you.”…
Radak then moves to the son’s apparent lack of omnipotence in the psalm:
ועוד אמור להם: האלוה שאתם אומרים האב אמר לבן: שאל ממני ואתנה גוים נחלתך; איך ישאל הבן מהאב, והלא הוא אלוה כמוהו ויש לו כח בגוים ובאפסי ארץ כמוהו? ועוד: קודם השאלה לא היו גם כן גוים נחלתו, אם כן קצר כח האלוה מתחלתו ואחר כך גדל כחו? וזה לא יאמר באלוה.
Further say to them: Concerning the deity—when you say the father says to son (v. 8): “Ask it of Me, and I will make the nations your domain”—why would the son ask this of his father—is he not a deity just like him, with the strength to subdue the nations to the ends of the earth as well! Moreover, [this implies that] before asking this question the nations were not yet his inheritance—does this suggest that that he was a weak deity beforehand and only later gained strength? That makes no sense of a deity!
Feeling that he has the Christians on the defensive, Radak goes on to coach his readers on how to respond were Christians to invoke Jesus’s unique role as a deity who became enfleshed:
ואם יאמרו לך: כנגד הבשר יאמר אחר שלקחה האלהות הבשר, ואמר לבשר שישאל ממנו ויתן גוים נחלתו: לא היה זה, כי הבשר לא היה לו מלכות ולא שום שולטנות על גוי מהגוים.
And if they say to you: this is referring to the enfleshed deity—after the deity took a human form [as the earthly Jesus], and He told the one of flesh to ask Him [God the father] to give him nations as his inheritance—this cannot be, for the enfleshed one [Jesus] never had a kingdom and no authority over any of the nations.
Finally, Radak addresses Christian faith:
ואם יאמרו לך: כי על האמונה אמר שתקֻבל: הנה רוב הגוים, בין יהודים בין ישמעאלים, שלא קבלו אמונתו.
And if they say to you: We must accept this as a matter of faith—most of the nations, whether Jews or Moslems, do not accept him on faith.
After his exhaustive argument, Radak summarizes his strategic point:
הנה הוריתיך מה שתשיב להם בזה המזמור; ואתה תוסיף מדעתך כפי אלה הדברים. ואם ישאלו ממך פרושו תפרשנו על אחד משני הפנים אתה תבחר: או על דוד, או על מלך המשיח, כמו שפרשתי לך.
I just instructed you what you should answer them concerning this psalm; you should add your own answers along this line. And if they ask you what the psalm means, you should choose to explicate it in one of these two ways: concerning David, or [the future] the King Messiah, as I explained to you [above].
Such lengthy, vituperative polemic is atypical for medieval Jewish Bible commentary. Radak’s combative response likely reflects his specific setting, when Jews were forced to hear missionizing sermons.
From David to Messiah Back to David
The interpretive arc for Psalm 2 was strongly influenced by historical context. The psalm begins as a royal coronation hymn in which the deity promises the anointed Davidic king dominance over his enemies by expressing this promise in terms of the king becoming his (real or metaphorical) son.
Jews in the late Second Temple period, with the monarchy a distant memory, reinterpreted the psalm as a prophecy and promise. God would eventually anoint a new leader, the messiah, and he would save them from their oppressors (namely, Romans). This became the standard interpretation for Jewish readers.
Early Christians adopted this messianic interpretation, since the psalm calls the messiah (Greek: christos) “son of God.” In reaction to this appropriation, medieval Jewish commentators, living in Christian countries, started rejecting the traditional messianic interpretation of the Second Temple period. They chose to read the psalm as about David himself, almost going full circle back to the psalm’s contextual meaning.
Thus we see the importance of historical context not only in understanding the psalm itself, but in understanding the psalm’s reception among different religious groups throughout its long history.
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Prof. Marc Zvi Brettler is Bernice & Morton Lerner Distinguished Professor of Judaic Studies at Duke University, and Dora Golding Professor of Biblical Studies (Emeritus) at Brandeis University. He is author, most recently, of How to Read the Jewish Bible (also published in Hebrew), co-editor of The Jewish Study Bible and The Jewish Annotated New Testament (with Amy-Jill Levine), and co-author of The Bible and the Believer (with Peter Enns and Daniel J. Harrington), and The Bible With and Without Jesus: How Jews and Christians Read the Same Stories Differently (with Amy-Jill Levine). Brettler is cofounder of Project TABS (Torah and Biblical Scholarship) – TheTorah.com.
Prof. Amy-Jill Levine is University Professor of New Testament and Jewish Studies and Mary Jane Werthan Professor of Jewish Studies at Vanderbilt Divinity School and Program in Jewish Studies. She holds a B.A. from Smith, and an M.A. and Ph.D. from Duke. Her thirty books include The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus and Short Stories by Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi; four children’s books (with Sandy Sasso); The Gospel of Luke (with Ben Witherington III); and The Jewish Annotated New Testament (co-edited with Marc Z. Brettler), and co-author of The Bible With and Without Jesus: How Jews and Christians Read the Same Stories Differently (with Marc Zvi Brettler). In 2019 she became the first Jew to teach New Testament at Rome’s Pontifical Biblical Institute.
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