The Birth of the Trinity: Jesus, God, and Spirit in New Testament and Early Christian Interpretations of the Old Testament Reprint Edition
Use the Amazon App to scan ISBNs and compare prices.
Enter your mobile number or email address below and we'll send you a link to download the free Kindle App. Then you can start reading Kindle books on your smartphone, tablet, or computer - no Kindle device required.
To get the free app, enter your mobile phone number.
Frequently bought together
What other items do customers buy after viewing this item?
"The Birth of the Trinity is a stunningly important book that defies easy categorization. Is it exegetical? Is it theological? Is it historical? The resounding answer to each of these questions: 'Yes, and much more!' Setting aside widespread and long-held views about Christological development or adoptionism, or about Trinitarian theology as an intrusion into biblical faith from Hellenistic philosophy, Bates urges that early high Christology and Christian understanding of the Trinity itself were cultivated through dramatic reading of Israel's Scriptures. For biblical and theological studies alike, this is a compelling game changer." --Joel B. Green, Professor of New Testament Interpretation, Fuller Theological Seminary
"This is a bold and ambitious book that cuts across disciplinary lines as typically perceived, and will certainly (and reasonably) generate debate on a number of the points argued in it. But Bates makes an important contribution in underscoring how early Christians perceived the voice and person of Jesus in their ('Old Testament') scriptures, and in contending that this constituted an important mode of theological reflection along the route to the doctrine of the Trinity." --Larry W. Hurtado, Emeritus Professor of New Testament Language, Literature & Theology, University of Edinburgh
"In this fascinating new study Matthew W. Bates mines a stream of early Trinitarian thinking that has all too often been forgotten. Of particular importance is his attention to the continuities between the New Testament writers own ways of attending to the divine agents at which Israel's Scriptures already hinted, and also to the modes of Trinitarian exegesis that remained central throughout the early Christian period." --Lewis Ayres, Professor of Catholic and Historical Theology, Durham University
"In this bold and erudite study, Matthew W. Bates argues that it was not least by reading the Scriptures (the 'Old Testament') theodramatically, or prosopologically, that Jesus and his followers came very early on to Trinitarian conclusions. Scholars and students will find here a new and exciting way of investigating Christian origins. A landmark book." --Matthew Levering, Perry Family Foundation Professor of Theology, Mundelein Seminary
"On the dust jacket Joel Green calls this book a 'game changer', and it certainly is that." --Heythrop Journal
"Ambitious." --Expository Times
"Whatever the final verdict on Bates's overall claims about the role of prosopological exegesis in the development of Trinitarian theology, his approach opens up beautiful, rich Trinitarian readings." --First Things
"...[A] fresh approach to Christian trinitarian interpretation..." --Euangelion Blog, via Patheos
About the Author
There was a problem filtering reviews right now. Please try again later.
The question that has to arise in the minds of any historically knowledgeable Christian is "Where did the idea of a Trinitarian God come from?" Consider the oddity in a radically monotheistic culture - a culture defined by its commitment to One God who is one God alone and transcendent - spinning off a daughter religion that announces out of the blue that in fact this One God is composed of three persons, i.e. a Trinity. As a practical matter, how does that splinter make that leap of understanding?
Author Matthew Bates tackles this question by looking at what the earliest Christians did when they tackled the question of “who is God?” by looking at how they read the sacred texts. He finds, illustrates and demonstrates that they practiced a reading technique that he calls “prosopological exegesis” [“PE”] whereby apparent dialogues in the Old Testament, particularly Psalms, were assigned to different speakers. This technique seemed to clear up conundrums of interpretation. For example, in Psalm 110:1, the psalmist says “The Lord said to my Lord, ‘Sit at my right hand until I place your enemies as a footstool for your feet’” [Ps. 109: 1 LXX]. The conundrum is “who is the second “Lord” (aka “my Lord.” Jesus pointed out that it cannot be David since David himself calls him “Lord.” (Mark 12: 35–7; cf. Matt. 22: 41–6; Luke 20: 41–4)
Bates argues that the question is answered by assigning “persons” to the speakers of this dialogue. The speaking Lord is God (the Father). David is recounting the dialogue. So, the second Lord (“my Lord”) is another person. In the context of other passages, the second person would be identified as the divine Son of the divine Father.
This kind of exegesis is not something we see today. Given the general reaction we tend to see against anything that doesn’t involve a simple effort to translate the words in the text, this kind of exegesis would be viewed with a great deal of suspicion in the modern Christian world. But this kind of exegesis was extremely common in pre-Christian Judaism and the early Christian church. Bates offers numerous examples of Christian writers. For example, he writes:
“Justin Martyr in Dialogue 56. 14–15 argues that there are passages in the Old Testament where someone is called “God” or “Lord” alongside the Creator of the universe, a fact attested not only in passages such as Genesis 19: 24 (e.g. “The Lord rained upon Sodom brimstone and fire from the Lord out of heaven”) but also by David in Psalm 109: 1 LXX (“The Lord said to my Lord”). Like Justin, Irenaeus (Epid. 47) and the author of Hebrews (1: 8–9) believed that two distinct persons are described as God in Psalm 44: 7–8 LXX, in which a coronation is described. Accordingly, the author of Hebrews states: But about the Son he says, “Your throne, O God, is forever and ever and the scepter of justice is the scepter of your kingdom. You have loved righteousness and hated lawlessness; on account of this, O God, your God has anointed you with the oil of gladness beyond your companions.” (Heb. 1: 8–9 citing Ps. 44: 7–8 LXX)15 A person designated “God” is directly addressed in the psalm. This person possesses the royal scepter, rules with justice, and most crucially has been anointed by a second person called “your God” in the text. Since the person designated “your God” anoints the other person called “God,” and the action is not reflexive, two persons both called “God” are necessarily present in the text. Moreover, the verbal action of anointing (echrisen), which the one labeled “your God””
Bates calls this a “prosopological” exegesis or “reading technique” because it seeks to personify the apparent speakers of a text. Merriam Websters defines “prosopopoeia” as “1: a figure of speech in which an imaginary or absent person is represented as speaking or acting 2: PERSONIFICATION.” Bates’s short definition of PE is:
“in short this technique—prosopological exegesis—involved assigning dramatic characters to otherwise ambivalent speeches in inspired texts as an explanatory method.”
By engaging in this kind of reading technique, Christians “baked in” the understanding of God as involving “persons” that were in a “personal dialogue” with each other. However, it was not just the Christians who did this. The idea of a personal dialogue was “baked in” with Jewish exegesis, which recognized God as a “personal God” and also used PE in reading the sacred text. Bates writes:
“So, in speaking of the “birth of the Trinity” I do not want to suggest that real and complex theological issues were not still under intense negotiation and vital development in the third and fourth centuries (and beyond). Nor am I claiming that nomenclature to express the Trinity had attained stability—anyone who is even remotely acquainted with the literature will immediately recognize that, on the contrary, nothing could be further from the truth. Yet, I do want to assert in a forceful way that the die had been cast long prior—in the first two centuries of the Christian era—because “God” had already been read dialogically and prosopologically in the ancient Jewish Scripture, and hence the foundational conceptual decision to privilege the “person” metaphor in considering internal distinctions within the one God had already been made via scriptural interpretation. Even if a minority might desire to retrench (the Monarchians and the like), and many would dispute how to best express the inherited person metaphor in light of the scriptural testimony to the interrelatedness of Father, Son, and Spirit, the prosopological interpretative precedent had already shown to the satisfaction of most of the early church that the one God could successfully be read in the ancient Jewish Scripture as multiple “persons.” So the Trinity emerged conceptually to a large degree through interpretative reading of the Old Testament, especially through a specific technique, prosopological exegesis.”
This seems to be in line with Daniel Boyarin’s “The Jewish Gospels.” Bates notes and commends Boyarin’s work, but places it in a different argumentative category from PE, which he feels needs supplementation.
This is obviously very mind warping for the conventional mindset. But, wait! There’s more.
A key part of PE is what Bates calls “theodrama.” Essentially, when we have these interpersonal dialogues we are witnessing something that happened at an earlier time presaging something that will happen at a later time. In essence, when the Psalmist wrote the verse about “the Lord said to my Lord,” the Psalmist was a prophet channeling something that had happened long before, perhaps at the beginning of time, which would not come to fruition, or which might not be said, until after the life of the prophet.
This is illuminated by the words spoken with respect to the baptism of Jesus that “You are my son. Today, I have begotten you.” It is not hard to see this as an Adoptionist text; namely, Jesus did not become the Son of God until he was adopted at the baptism. That interpretation is rejected by PE:
“As portrayed by the Evangelists, when Jesus was baptized in the Jordan by John, the heavens were opened, the Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus in the form of a dove, and a voice came from heaven, saying: “You are my Son, the beloved one, with you I am well pleased” (Mark 1: 11; Luke 3: 22; Western text of Matt. 3: 17) or less directly, “This is my Son, the beloved one, with whom I am well pleased” (Matt. 3: 17).46 The allusion to Psalm 2: 7 LXX is quite obvious—it is widely recognized by current biblical scholarship—not least because the allusion is made emphatic in some portions of the textual tradition and the early reception history, which turn the words into a direct quote of Psalm 2: 7 LXX: “You are my Son, today I have begotten you.”47
Yet, what the bulk of biblical scholarship misses is that, unless we are to suggest their exegeses were idiosyncratic vis-à-vis the rest of the earliest church, the Gospel writers would have sought the meaning of this allusion by reflecting on Psalm 2: 7 through a person-centered exegetical process.48 More specifically, previous New Testament scholarship pertaining to this allusion at the baptism and transfiguration has tended to see it merely as a direct speech made by God to Jesus that evokes Psalm 2: 7 in accordance with the surface narrative in the Gospels, but has neglected an absolutely crucial datum.49 As will be shown, for the earliest Christians Psalm 2: 7 was consistently regarded not merely as a direct speech made by the Father to the Son, but rather it was taken as a speech within a speech that was originally spoken by the Son, who was reporting the words the Father had spoken to him at an earlier time, all of which has critical implications for how Christology and Trinitarian dogma developed.”
Bates breaks this down as follows:
“God (speaking to Jesus at the baptism): You are my Son…
Jesus (thinking to Himself): Those are the words that the person—the “me”—in the second psalm reported that the Father had spoken previously to him. Seemingly, God is hereby indicating that I correspond to the “me,” the addressee. But exactly who is this addressee according to the psalm?
Jesus (thinking to Himself): During the time of David, this addressee was able to report a previous conversation between God and himself, “The Lord God said to me, ‘You are my Son, today I have begotten you,’” so this “me” was begotten as Son before the time of the speech if David is able to report it in this fashion.”
Obviously, none of this is apparent on the surface of the text to us today, who might view this as ad hoc and bafflegab, but it was the way that the text was read in the formative years of Christianity, and, thus, it is not only normative, but Christianity becomes largely incoherent without it.
Bates points out that PE is flexible enough to be used by heretics, such as the Gnostics. In fact, the Gnostics were quite willing to personify different texts to different other persons, such Ialdabaoth and the Demiurge. So what could be done to keep PE properly reined in?
The answer was to remain within Christian tradition as taught by apostolic succession. According to Bates:
“Quite succinctly, Sextus Empiricus says that when used in the literary sense, it refers to “the peripeteia, (or ‘argument’ or ‘plot’) of a drama.”19 For Irenaeus the hypothesis of the Scripture taken as whole is the Rule of Truth (kanōn tēs alētheias), which Irenaeus himself claims to have received in an unbroken line from the apostles.”
Bates lays out some guidelines for the proper deployment of PE, so as to stay away from Gnostic nonsense. These guidelines can properly be boiled down to “read the text with the mind of the Church,” or always stay oriented to Holy Tradition:
“Thus, the “literal sense” of these Old Testament prophetic texts must be sought within the bounds of the entire divine economy, including the apostolic proclamation about Jesus, even though the apostolic proclamation is not, strictly speaking, found in the Old Testament itself.”
Now, Bates is a Protestant, so one wonders where that leaves Sola Scriptura.
But that is a question for another day.
Everything Bates writes is thoroughly focused and impressively complete on the topic of divine dialogue between Father and Son, as evidenced in the ancient Jewish Scripture, i.e., the Old Testament.
As he demonstrates the early concept of Trinity, Bates closely examines and dissects biblical passages from the Old Testament that evidence speaker shifts, or dialogue, between the Divine Persons. Then, just as thoroughly, he reviews the literary reception history of these passages that is found in the pages of the New Testament (by Jesus, Peter, Paul, Luke, the author of Hebrews, and others) and in extra-biblical, coeval literature by authors such as Irenaeus, Justin Martyr, Tertullian, and Origen. By these methods, he demonstrates that the Trinitarian God has “an unremitting personal concern for one another” (204) and that “the Christology of our earliest Christian sources is as high as that of our later sources.” (ibid.)
Negatively, Bates falls short on tracing out the presence of the Holy Spirit in the quotations from the ancient Jewish Bible. As a member of the Trinity, his part is downplayed in a book with this title. Also, his discussion of Psalm 102 is not as thorough as it could be, since there is a body of extant literature that recognizes Father/Son dialogue within this psalm. These are relatively small concerns, however, concerning the value of the book as a whole.
As concerns the topic of divine dialogue within Scripture, Bates performs the inestimably valuable service of structuring a framework of analysis, introducing a vocabulary (prosopological exegesis), and proposing a methodology for any reader to recognize and critically test such biblical speech. This book is a scholar’s prayer come true on the topic of divine dialogue in Scripture.