Farside School giftedThere are three surprising ways in which the New Testament applies Psalm 8 through quotations and allusions:

  • Individual: Rather than mankind in general (Ps 8:4), the NT applies it to Christ (e.g. Eph 1:22).
  • Eschatological: Rather than the original creation (allusions to Gen 1 in Ps 8), the NT applies it to the yet-future new creation (e.g. 1 Cor 15:24-26; Heb 2:8).
  • Exaltational: Rather than mankind being a little lower than the angels (Ps 8:5), the NT applies it to Christ’s being raised above the angels (e.g. Eph 1:20-22).

How can these things be reconciled? Is the New Testament consistently misreading the Psalm? Or have we misread the Psalm? Or is there another solution?

Psalm 8

I just read a (free) dissertation on Psalm 8 by Mark Kinzer entitled All Things Under His Feet: Psalm 8 in the New Testament and Other Jewish Literature of Late Antiquity, where he argues that to properly understand the NT reading of Psalm 8, we must understand Jewish tradition regarding Ps 8 from the time period surrounding the New Testament.

According to Kinzer, and he substantiates this with significant number of texts, there is precedent for each of the above points in contemporary Jewish interpretation of the Psalm. In other words, aside from some (very!) important differences such as Jesus being the fulfillment, the NT authors are reading Psalm 8 similarly to other Jews of the time. Kinzer establishes the following points from Jewish literature of the time.

  1. Ps 8 was interpreted in light of Gen 1-3, and applied specifically to Adam and his pre-fall status.
  2. Adam was originally exalted not only above all the animals but also above the angels. This is due to Ps 8:6’s “works of your hands” seen as including the heavens, that is, heavenly beings (“the works of your fingers”, Ps 8:3)
  3. Some Jews read Ps 8:4-9 as recording the words of an angel (or angels) jealous of Adam’s pre-fall status! God’s intention with Adam was met with critical questioning: “what is man that you are mindful of him?” These Jews probably saw these antagonistic angels in the references to conflict in Ps 8:3, 7.
  4. When Adam was tempted and fell, he, and mankind with him, lost his original state of glory (Rom 3:23). This means that Ps 8 describes a lost state of glory that has not been regained.
  5. Adam’s status and vocation was renewed in other individuals, which resulted in the Psalm being applied to them. It was applied to Abel, Enoch, Abraham, Isaac, and Moses in various literature, in light of their varied exaltation and glory. In some instances, these individuals acted on behalf of others.

The precedent of the individual use of Psalm 8 is seen in all the points above, particularly in reapplication of the Psalm to individuals who were seen to achieve an Adam-like state of glory. Points 2, 4, and 5 above set the precedent for an eschatological reading of the Psalm, as mankind’s glorious status in Psalm 8 was lost or marred. The exaltational use of Psalm 8 is clearly seen in points 2, 5 and even 3; God intended for mankind to rule over the angels.

Kinzer’s arguments are fascinating and largely compelling. It sheds light on passages such as 1 Cor 6:3 and adds support to the Divine Council worldview as argued by Michael Heiser and others.

Lingering Questions

Though I agree with the overall argument, I have some lingering questions that I hope to resolve!

What is the relevance of the near identical lines in Ps 8:4 and Ps 144:3? Does this play any relevant part in the discussion?

Is the Jewish literature misreading Psalm 8? The question still remains whether the Jewish literature read Psalm 8 legitimately. Kinzer shows that it is possible to read the Psalm in similar ways to these Jewish traditions. That there were numerous similar interpretations in antiquity, perhaps there are inherent qualities to the Psalm that provoked such conclusions.

Perhaps the following ideas are part of the answer:

  • The Psalm was read redemptive-historically. That is, the Psalm was read in light of the fall. Mankind lost this glorious position, but it must be regained. So the details of the Psalm were read in light of the OT storyline.
  • The Psalm was read prosopologically. Kinzer shows that for many Jews, verses Ps 8:4-9 were in fact spoken not by David, but by angelic beings in their jealousy of Adam’s creation status. This builds some support for the idea of exaltation over the angels in Ps 8. But is this simply reading theology (whether right or wrong) into a text, aka. prooftexting?
  • The Psalm was read canonically. Perhaps the Psalm was read in light of its placement in the Psalter. The surrounding context speaks of David’s enemies (3-7) but also worldwide judgment on God’s enemies (9-13). Could this Psalm be seen in light of God’s future judgment of all enemies, especially fallen heavenly beings? What’s more, the fact that it is the 8th Psalm is provocative to me. We know that some other Psalms are numbered in an intentional and logical way, and 8 is the number associated with new creation. Could this really be a coincidence?

How do we resolve this idea of Adam’s exaltation above the angels with Psalm 8:5 clearly stating mankind was created a lower than the angels? This is the biggest question for me. It seems insurmountable at first, but the that this didn’t seem to faze Jewish interpreters makes me wonder. If resolved, it would establish the three ways the NT read the Psalm. Kinzer is well aware of this problem, and offers three options for resolving it:

  1. Mankind is created a little lower than God, not angels. The Hebrew word behind angels/God is elohim, which legitimately could go either way. Both options are seen in English translations. In support of the translation God is the fact that many Jews considered that Adam’s creation in the image of God (Gen 1:26) exalted him above the angels. Psalm 8 would simply be reiterating this point. Against this view is that other Jewish texts read elohim as angels, including the Greek translation of the OT. What’s more, the NT reads the verse as about angels (Heb 2:5-6), an important factor!
  2. Mankind is created a little younger than angels. Some have argued that “less than the angels” could be translated “a little younger than the angels”. That is, this verse doesn’t say that mankind was lower than the angels, but that they were created more recently than angels. This caused envy on the part of the angels, since mankind was raised to a higher level, despite being “the younger child”, so to speak.
  3. Mankind is under the angels for a little while. Hebrews 2:7 interprets the inferiority to angels as only temporary. The NT interpretation is a strong argument in favor of this view. However, against this view is that it appears that no Jewish literature of the period translated the Psalm this way. Though they the Psalm eschatologically, none seem to base it on this reading of Ps 8:5. Also, it’s unclear to me whether “little while” is a legitimate translation of “a little lower” in Ps 8:5.

All in all, Kinzer’s dissertation was fascinating and provocative. Though I am still unsure as to how this is a faithful reading (let alone the best) of the Psalm in its context, Kinzer certainly establishes that the NT reading didn’t appear out of nowhere. This was his goal, and he certainly succeeded. I do not believe the NT would misread the OT, and though Kinzer’s dissertation helped resolve 99% of the issues, I am still wondering how Ps 8:5 and Heb 2:7 works.

Download Kinzer’s dissertation here.