Friday, 22 May 2009

Psalm 24 in early Christian exegesis (in commemoration of Ascension Day)

Yesterday was Ascension Day, and as promised in my post on Resurrection Day, I will here give an outline of the reception of a Psalm that has, traditionally, had a special place in this festival. My source is E. Kähler's excellent Studien zum Te Deum und zur Geschichte des 24 Psalmes in der Alten Kirche (Göttingen: Vandenhoek & Ruprecht, 1958).

The oldest undeniable reference to Psalm 24 (Kähler wonders whether it lies behind 1 Corinthians 2:8) is in the Apocalypse of Peter, in which Peter, during the Transfiguration and the appearance Moses and Elijah (Matt 17), asks Jesus where the other righteous are. As answer, he receives a vision of Paradise filled with believers. In this vision, the righteous—who are identified with the righteous of Ps 24:6— are kept in a kind of “pre-Heaven” as prisoners. A dramatic scene then enfolds, in which Jesus and the two prophets ascend first into this “First Heaven” and then take the righteous further upwards into the true Heaven, the Second Heaven, in order to consumate their salvation. This ascension creates “great fear and horror,” implying that some kind of celestial resistance needs to be overcome. This occurs with the calling out of Ps 24:7: “Open wide the Gates, you princes.”

Here is the relevant text, with allusion to Ps 24 underlined:

And behold, suddenly a voice came from Heaven and said: “This is my dear son, with whom I am pleased, and my commandments …” And an extremely large and sparkling white cloud came over our head and took up our Lord and Moses and Elijah. And I quaked and was horrified. And we looked upwards and Heaven opened up and we saw people in the flesh, and they came and greeted our Lord and Moses and Elijah and ascended into the Second Heaven. Then the word of scripture was fulfilled: “This generation seeks him and seeks the face of the God of Jacob.” And great fear and horror occurred in Heaven. The angels grouped together so that the word of Scripture would be fulfilled: “Open wide the Gates, you princes.” Following this, the Heaven which had been opened was closed again.”[*]
This understanding of the Psalm remained incredibly fruitful throughout the history of the early church, within all the major theological centres (Palestine, Alexandria, Carthage, South Gaul, Rome, Asia Minor). For the sake of space, I will simply list the main variations and emphases as found amongst the major theologians of these schools in this period:

  • For Justin, in his dialogue with the Jew Trypho, our Psalm functioned as a prophecy of Jesus' ascension. He read it in connection with the other major Christian proof texts: Isaiah 53 and Daniel 7:13. The Isaiah passage seems to have furnished him with the answer to the question as to why Jesus experienced resistance before the gates of heaven. He arose in the from of the suffering servant, as so was not recognised by the keepers of the gate.

  • For Irenaeus, Jesus is not recognised because he was “in the flesh.” He also interprets the dialogue between gate keeper and those requesting access as being between angels of the lower realms and angels of the upper realms.

  • Tertullian is the first to categorise the Lord demanding entrance as homo (“man”).

  • Hippolytus is the first to categorise the Lord as soter (saviour), a term with ecclesiological and political overtones.

  • Interestingly, the Gnostics also had a similar interpretation, which in itself is not un-Christian. They identified the identity of the Lord with Psalm 22:6: “But I am a worm and not a man, scorned by mankind and despised by the people”

  • Origin applies the standard Christian eschatological interpretation to his allegorical interpretation of Jesus' entrance into Jerusalem, understood as his entrance into the “true” Jerusalem. The city is astounded at his entrance and asks, “Who is this?” Again, the confusion is due to Jesus' incarnation.

  • In the time of Athanasius, this standard interpretation had become so established that he could simply assume it when interpreting other texts, e.g. the motif of incarnation and exultation in Phil. 2:5-11. For Athanasius and those like him, the Psalm had become “a means of making events which would have otherwise been impossible to know about both conceivable and tellable.”

  • Later Church Fathers added their own interpretations. Augustine interpreted the mythological language ethically, while Ambrosius talked of the Lord's entrance into the human soul. Nevertheless, the basic schema remained the same.

  • As far as I can see, one Church Father who took an innovative but later popular route is Gregory of Nyssa, for whom the Psalm was a supplement to the written gospels themselves, reporting events not contained therein. In a sermon on the Psalm, Gregory understands the two-fold questioning (vv. 7 and 10) as representing two different events, and two different locations. The first concerns Christ's descent to earth, where he went on to conquer the gates of Hell (hence his identification as “mighty warrior”). The second refers to the gates of heaven, where he returns, having completed his mission. In order to access to the first, he became incarnate. On his return journey, however, he remained incarnate, thus the inability of the angels to recognise him on his return.

  • This “Harrowing of Hell” motif finds its most significant development in the Gospel of Nicodemus (as I posted on here, thanks to Vox Stefani). According to this account, two righteous Jews who had been resurrected from the dead shortly after Jesus' own resurrection give eyewitness reports on how their resurrection actually took place. In short, Jesus entered Hell and there was a call to open the gates. Satan responded by locking them in fear. The enslaved saints inside cried out again for the doors to be opened. Satan's partner, inferus, asks “Who is the king of glory?” King David, in his function as prophet, answers with Ps. 24:8 and repeats the demand to open the door. Inferus binds Satan and, so it seems, lets Jesus in. Jesus enters, establishes his “war trophy” (Siegeszeichen), which is the cross, and then takes all the saints to Heaven.

[*] My translation, based on the German translation by E. Hennecke, Neutestamentliche Apokryphen (1924). Cited in Kähler, Te Deum, 54.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thank you for investigating Ps. 24. I would like any bibliographical references from the fathers that you have cited here. Currently, I'm working on a project on the ascension of Jesus, and would like to refer to these.

In Christ,
Rev. Robert Mayes
Beemer, Nebraska (USA)