A Son Is Born for Us

Isaiah 9.6-7

For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace. His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onwards and forevermore. The zeal of Yahweh of Armies will do this.

Isaiah 9.6-7 is traditionally interpreted by Christians as a prophecy about Jesus, quoted in sermons every Christmas. It follows on the heels of Isaiah 7.14, which is applied to Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew. As with Isaiah 7.14, however, the original context prevents this view.

Overview: The Book of Isaiah

The First Major Prophet

If the Book of Ezekiel was fairly straightforward, and Jeremiah was a tangled web, then Isaiah is the most confusing of the three to work through.

Where the Book of Jeremiah had a handful of later additions, the Book of Isaiah is a composite text coming from at least four different authors, across a span of about three or four centuries. We call the three main contributors to the book Proto-Isaiah, Deutero-Isaiah, and Trito-Isaiah. Somewhat similar to the Psalms, the Book of Isaiah is the result of a core collection of prophecies, with later prophecies added on in stages with careful intent.

Six Hundred Sixty-Six

Revelation 13.16-18

This calls for wisdom: let anyone with understanding calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a man. Its number is six hundred and sixty-six.

Every decade or so, end-times hysteria grips American evangelicals. Justified or not, a new scapegoat is found and said to be 'the beast' of John's Revelation. Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, Bill Gates, George W. Bush, Saddam Hussein, Barack Obama, and the World Wide Web have been contenders in the past.

Readers invent an interpretive system that enables them to make the connection they 'always knew' was right. Ronald Wilson Reagan was identified because his full name consists of three six-letter names. Barcodes were implicated because someone badly misunderstood how they work, and erroneously determined the guard bars in every barcode (the slightly taller lines on the sides and in the center) were actually three sixes, hidden in plain sight.

No one seeking to identify a present or future villain with 'the beast' will ever succeed, because John expected his original readers to be able to do it.

Babylon, Destroyer of the Temple

Revelation 14,16-19

In the Book of the Revelation, the author John identifies one of the chief antagonists of his visions as a 'great city' which he calls 'Babylon'. Given the immense symbolism of the book, it seems evident that he is using the name 'Babylon' as some sort of metaphor. While many various guesses are based on pure whim, the simple fact is that the true identity of 'Babylon' would have been obvious to any reader with a Judean background (as John's original, contemporary audience was at least partly comprised of Judean followers of Jesus).

In 587 BC, the historical kingdom of Babylon, under the rule of King Nebuchadnezzar, conquered the kingdom of Judah, occupied their capital Jerusalem, and destroyed the city's temple. Many of the Judeans (particularly the nobility and 'upper class') were deported back to the land of their conquerors. When this Babylonian Exile came to an end, the Judeans returned to their homeland and began a reconstruction of Jerusalem. This included building a second temple.

Parallels: The Prophet Balaam

Numbers 22

A friend of mine, Justin, once followed a Bible In A Year reading plan. Such plans are excellent in helping readers familiarize themselves with the bible outside of the few popular stories we all know.

The plan also helps readers notice peculiarities in the biblical texts which would otherwise go unnoticed. Justin immediately noticed a thematic and verbal parallel between the stories of Ruth and Elisha: they both attached themselves to a mentor, who told them to 'go return'; Ruth and Elisha each refuse to 'return from following', objecting that they 'will not leave you'.

However, some of these peculiarities are more confusing than enlightening. Justin came to the famous story of Balaam and his donkey in Numbers 22. In this passage, the Israelites are in the land of Moab. The Moabites are worried that the Israeites will be overrun by the Israeites. So, Moab sends for a famous prophet, Balaam, to come to them. Balaam rides on his donkey to Moab, who hire him to prophesy a curse over Israel.

Justin didn't make it very far into the story before he ran across this puzzle:

Traditions of a ‘New Jerusalem’

Israel's Idealized Future

A century and a half earlier, the Northern Kingdom of Israel had been crushed by Assyria. Now, in 587 BC, the forces of Babylon conquered the Southern Kingdom of Judah. Jerusalem was broken, its temple destroyed, and many people were taken into exile back to Babylon.

For the next fifty years the exiled Judeans began to compile many of the revered scrolls and traditions that survived the destruction of their homeland. Their myths, legends, folk tales, histories, and law codes, were weaved into an overarching narrative, supplemented by books of prophecy, poetry, lamentation, and wisdom. By making this growing collection of holy texts the center of their identity, the Judeans began to organize their religious expectations in a way unseen before.

Some of their prophecies warned that Israel and Judah would face such exile. Allusions to the fall of their kingdoms were retroactively inserted into history and law code. This was not the end of their society, though. Their prophecies, history, and law code also talked about a return from exile. The people of Israel would come back from their collective ‘death’ and rebuild.

Jerusalem was an important center of religious activity before the fall, but in the future it would become paradise.

Paul & the Roman Empire

Romans 13.1–7

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God.

In previous articles I've talked about New Testament pseudepigrapha, texts falsely attributed to their namesake authors. Scholarship largely agrees on six letters being pseudepigraphical, with a few others still under debate. For example, it is essentially unanimous that the so-called ‘Pastoral Epistles’ — 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, and Titus — were not written by Paul: they do not match his writing style, they barely reflect his theology, their historical context far more fits the turn of the century (circa AD 90–110) than the period of Paul's career (c 40–65), and in several ways they actually contradict Paul's values as expressed in his authentic letters.

A similar problem to pseudepigraphical books are interpolations. These are shorter passages of text written by anonymous Christians, but now simply inserted into an authentic book. Because these are embedded into Paul's letters, interpolations can be difficult to spot; they're designed to blend in. While some interpolations have been discovered thanks to a critical examination of manuscript copies and a book's internal context, they are harder to find if they were added at such an early date that all existing copies of a book contain the fraudulent addition.

In the present case, I want to look at the evidence that Romans 13.1–7 may be an interpolation. While it is not a majority position of scholarship, there are several reasons given that cast doubt on this passage's authenticity.