Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Herod and the Samaritans in the Early Christian Interpretation of Isaiah 8:4

At least some people must be asking - what's with this new found interest in Herod the Great?  Well for starters I have always though that the gospel narrative had to be set in a Jubilee year.  At the very least having the birth (cf. Slavonic Josephus's account) connected with a Jubilee - even a Samaritan Jubilee - allows us to head in that direction.  But to be very honest about matters, I had never considered the possibility that Herod might not have been crowned 'king of the Jews' or that it only occurred during the reign of Augustus.

There is something unusual about the level of interest in Samaritanism in the gospel narrative.  That also never quite made sense to me.  Why have Jesus spend time talking to the 'Samaritan woman' (a member of the Dosithean sect according to Jerome no less)?  The gospel isn't simply a 'historical record'?  Like the Pentateuch it was developed because the author(s) wanted to bring certain themes that they considered important, to the fore.  The discussion with the Samaritan woman allows the evangelist to explain Jesus's ministry in terms of how it relates to the tradition rivalry between Jewish and Samaritan cultures.

But just why that would be important to a Gentile audience remains a mystery to me.  You don't need to bring up the Samaritans if you want to make the point that Judaism is about to be eclipsed by Christianity.  In my opinion there is something very old and very significant preserved in this narrative.  There had to be at least some people who felt that Christianity was a natural development from Samaritanism.

To this end, the idea that Herod the Great was originally a 'king of Samaria' and not a 'king of the Jews' is extremely significant to our understanding of the gospel narrative and its early interpretation.  Take for example Justin's explanation of Isa. 8:4, which gives the reason why the prophet should call his son Maher-shalal- hash-baz."

The verse reads: "For before the child shall have knowledge to cry 'My father' and 'My mother,' the riches of Damascus and the spoil of Samaria shall be carried away before the king of Assyria." This child, according to Justin, was Christ, and hence the passage is thought to support his doctrine of the incarnation. The fulfilment of the prophecy is found in the visit of the magi to the infant Jesus. These magi came from Arabia, and Damascus is in Arabia. The riches of Damascus and the spoil of Samaria refer to "the power of the evil demon that dwelt in Damascus." The king of Assyria is Herod, so called "on account of his ungodly and sinful character." When therefore the magi came and worshiped the infant Jesus, in that hour "the riches of Damascus and the spoil of Samaria" were "carried away before the king of Assyria."

Justin furthermore describes Herod in the following terms to his Jewish opponent - "he who then was sovereign in your land, and whom the Scripture calls king of Assyria on account of his ungodly and sinful character. For you know," continued I, "that the Holy Spirit oftentimes announces such events by parables and similitudes; just as He did towards all the people in Jerusalem, frequently saying to them, 'Thy father is an Amorite, and thy mother a Hittite."  It is not clear in what sense Justin understands Herod to have been a 'king of Assyria' as he earlier states that Herod was born in Ashkelon.

Indeed the very same interpretation has been appropriated from Justin in the parallel texts of Tertullian - Against the Jews and Against Marcion.  In the latter the explicit reference to Herod as the 'king of Assyria' is still retained:

By this same usage he described the Magi also by the appellation of Samaritans, because, as I have observed, they were despoiled of idolatry, a thing they had in common with the Samaritans. Against the king of the Assyrians you must understand to mean 'against Herod', against whom in fact the Magi then took action by not bringing him back news of Christ, whom he was seeking to destroy.

Tertullian also seems to an original interpretation held among the Jews about this passage that the messiah to come would be a 'king of Assyria' who would take away the power of Damascus and the riches of Samaria.

Nevertheless the original passage once again seems to reinforce our earliest interpretation of the material in Justin - namely that it is an allusion to the (virgin) birth of Jesus.

For before the boy knows how to say ‘My father’ or ‘My mother,’ the wealth of Damascus and the plunder of Samaria will be carried off by the king of Assyria.”

The most natural way to read the material is that Justin understood that in the very same year Jesus was born Herod 'carried off the wealth (or power) of Damascus and the plunder of Samaria.  In other words, we are dealing with something very similar to what is preserved in the Slavonic Josephus about the year the temple was built (qv).

Email with comments or questions.

Stephan Huller's Observations by Stephan Huller
is licensed under a
Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States License.