A Plain and Precious Part Restored: An Essay Based on Matthew W. Bates's The Birth of the Trinity: Jesus, God, and Spirit in New Testament and Early Christian Interpretations of the Old Testament

A Plain and Precious Part Restored: An Essay Based on Matthew W. Bates’s The Birth of the Trinity: Jesus, God, and Spirit in New Testament and Early Christian Interpretations of the Old Testament
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A Plain and Precious Part Restored: An Essay Based on Matthew W. Bates's The Birth of the Trinity: Jesus, God, and Spirit in New Testament and Early Christian Interpretations of the Old Testament

Author Paul Y. Hoskisson

A "prosopological exegesis," which Matthew Bates uses in his book The Birth of the Trinity, presupposes that ancient texts contain conversations between different persons. When understood in this manner, some Old Testament passages read like lines from a play, with different actors playing various parts. Bates argues that a prosopological reading of the Old Testament led early Christians to find three distinct persons in the Godhead. This essay explains Bates's novel yet ancient exegetical approach and then applies that exegesis to Psalm 110:1–4 to gain insights of particular relevance to Latter-day Saints, particularly regarding the nature of Christ.


Once every ten or twenty years, it seems, a book happens on the scene that promises to dislodge a long-held and often beloved paradigm. It is not that the old paradigm is necessarily abandoned, but rather it makes room for a different, equally valid one. The subtitle of The Birth of the Trinity1 announced such a shift and to my utmost delight delivered on that promise.

Matthew W. Bates is a contemporary Christian theologian who does not shy away from letting his belief in God, the mission of Jesus Christ, and the Bible as the inspired word of God shine through the technical and academic language in this monograph. Bates openly proclaims, “I write as a confessing Christian, who as a trained scholar of Second ­Temple Judaism and Christian origins, has chafed at the frustrating, artificial divide between biblical studies and theology” (9).2 That this monograph is a fine example of faith-filled academic writing is reason enough for me to recommend it.

This essay, rather than giving a systematic summary or critique in the manner usually found in book reviews, explains Bates’s novel yet ancient exegetical approach in The Birth of the Trinity and then applies that exegesis to Psalm 110:1–4 to gain insights of particular relevance to Latter-day Saints. Though not a traditional academic review, I hope this essay will still entice the reader to personally engage with Bates’s monograph.

Before proceeding, I offer a caveat. Unlike Bates, I am not “a trained scholar” in “Second Temple Judaism and Christian origins.” Many of Bates’s arguments are based on his close readings of the Christian Fathers, the Septuagint (the Greek version of the Old Testament that was used by the earliest Christians), the Greek New Testament itself, and even the Greek language. Though I cannot comment on the aptness of his readings of these Greek texts, I do read the Hebrew Bible through the lens of the Restoration and have always had an interest in Christian theology. Based on Bates’s book, this essay will express the views of one who loves the subject matter at hand but is not a professional Christian theologian.

Part of the charm of Bates’s writing is that his academic discussion does not mask his commitment as an evangelical Christian. Bates thus assumes the reader is familiar with standard, traditional Christian beliefs. As such, his short definition of the doctrine of the Trinity may not be sufficient for those schooled in traditional Christian theology, but it is sufficient for the purposes of his book and also for this essay. In fact, Bates confesses, “I find myself even more warmly affirming the Trinitarian dogma as traditionally described in the Niceno-­Constantinopolitan creedal synthesis: there is one God who subsists as three distinct persons—uncaused Father, eternally begotten Son, and sent-forth Spirit” (11).3

Though this simple statement summarizes volumes of theological treatises about traditional Christian understandings of the Godhead, it belies the wide diversity of opinions on the topic found in the earliest sources of the first centuries of Christianity. It also does not address more recent discussions among Christian theologians and scholars.4

Bates’s basic argument consists of two parts: First, the early Christians, particularly in the second century, more than a hundred years before the First Council of Nicaea, read the Old Testament, at least in part, prosopologically (defined below). And second, this type of exegesis of the Old Testament provided substance for the development of the doctrine of the Trinity. His second thesis treats the emergent development of the Trinity, which for an LDS audience will probably be interesting to only those few who enjoy learning about the early history of traditional Christian theology.

I begin by briefly discussing the second thesis of this book, the birth of the Trinity. After that short excursus, I will then discuss his first and, for Latter-day Saints, much more interesting thesis, namely, that a prosopological reading of the Old Testament led early Christians to find three distinct persons in the Godhead. Through such a reading, Latter-day Saints will find a surprising amount of validation for their own long-held belief in the continuity of the theology of the Old Testament with the Christianity of the New Testament.

Early Development of the Trinity

Contrary to many standard explanations of the origin of the doctrine of the Trinity, Bates asserts, “The doctrine of the Trinity did not emerge as a late philosophical imposition predicated on Hellenistic assumptions” (3). In other words, the concept of the Trinity did not have its beginnings in any of the classical philosophical schools of the early Christian era. This is not to say that Greek ideas did not taint early Christian theology.5 Rather, according to Bates, the origin of the doctrine of the Trinity took place before the influence of the different Greek schools began to creep into Christian expressions of faith and doctrine. When viewed from this perspective, Bates claims that “what emerges is not a philosophically defined Godhead internally differentiated by procession or subordination, such as is portrayed by scholarly models dependent on the late patristic era, but rather a Father, Son, and Spirit who are characterized by relentless affection and concern for one another” (7). There is no hint here of an emotionless, inexorable, and immutable God, an observation that is more fully developed in Bates’s discussion of early Christian prosopological reading of the Old Testament.

Early Christian Prosopological Reading of the Old Testament

Bates claims that what he calls “prosopological exegesis” is not new. He describes this exegetical methodology, providing Christian and non-Christian examples from antiquity.6 Essentially, this methodology presupposes that many ancient texts, not just the Old Testament, contain conversations between different persons, prosopon in Greek—thus prosopological. When understood in this manner, some Old Testament passages read more like lines from a play, with different actors playing various parts.

Prosopological exegesis is not to be confused with reading the Old Testament typologically. For example, typologically 2 Samuel 7:14 has been read by Christians to mean that David is a type of the Messiah, or Christ: just as God “will be [David’s] father, and [David] shall be [God’s] son,” so shall the Messiah be God’s Son and God will be His Father. Indeed, Christians, including Latter-day Saints, often see in the Old Testament many types of Christ. And Latter-day Saints may often be more eager than most Christians to see types of Christ everywhere, an approach that the Book of Mormon wholly and explicitly endorses. For example, Alma 33:19 says that “behold a type [of Christ] was raised up in the wilderness,” and Alma 25:15 declares that “the law of Moses was a type of his [Christ’s] coming.” Reading the Old Testament typologically is certainly valid, productive, and rewarding.

However, a prosopological reading of 2 Samuel 7:14 brings to the fore a different perspective. Bates would see in this passage God speaking to David about the Messiah, who would be a descendent of David. In Bates’s own words:

When reading 2 Samuel 7:14–16 prosopologically, I would construct the following eisegesis: God spoke through the Holy Spirit to David, saying that He, God, would be father to the Messiah, and the Messiah would be His son. If guilt be upon the Messiah because of Sin, God would chasten the Messiah through mortals and through the beatings of the children of men. But God’s mercy shall not depart away from the Messiah, as I took it from Saul, whom I, God, put away before thee. And the house of the Messiah and the kingdom shall be established for ever before the Messiah; His throne shall be established for ever.

In this reading, David is not a type of the Messiah, but rather, David is the recipient of a revelation concerning who the Messiah will be.

Applying this prosopological methodology to 1 Chronicles 17:13–14 (the parallel passage to 2 Samuel 7:14), I would read the passage similarly: “I [God the Father] will be the Messiah’s Father, and the Messiah shall be my Son: and I will not take my mercy away from the Messiah, as I took it from Saul that was before thee, David: But I will settle the Messiah in mine house and in my kingdom for ever: and the throne of the Messiah shall be established for evermore.” In this reading, God, as prosopon, speaks to David, the audience, about the Messiah, God’s Son.

As evidence that this is how at least some early Christians read the Old Testament, Bates points to Hebrews 1:5. This passage paraphrases the verses in Samuel and Chronicles and applies them to Christ: “For unto which of the angels said he at any time, Thou art my Son, this day have I begotten thee? And again, I will be to him a Father, and he shall be to me a Son?” For Bates, such New Testament passages illustrate that through the Holy Spirit the Father revealed to David who the Messiah is, namely, God’s son. And thus, the three persons of the Godhead—Father, Son, and Holy Ghost—appear for New Testament Christians in the script of the Old Testament.

Bates’s conclusion that Psalm 2:6–7 contains a reference to the Godhead will resonate with Latter-day Saints. Bates, in discussing this passage, quotes from the Greek version of Psalms, but for my purposes I quote the King James translation: “Yet have I set my king upon my holy hill of Zion. I will declare the decree: the LORD hath said unto me, Thou art my Son; this day have I begotten thee.” Biblical scholars generally agree that these words were probably spoken as part of a coronation ceremony for King David. Believing Christians additionally read this passage as suggesting that David somehow represents, or is a type of, the Messiah. Read typologically, Jehovah is speaking to King David as a type of the Messiah.

Bates departs from this traditional typological Christian reading by applying a prosopological reading, which shifts who is speaking to whom and the setting in which the speech was delivered. Bates observes, “With respect to the enthronement, the earliest church, at least to the degree it reveals its interpretative posture, consistently attests that these words were spoken between the Father and the Son in the time before time began,” meaning before the creation of the world (79). To restate Bates’s conclusion in my own words and in LDS terms: God the Father, before the creation of time—that is, before the earth was created—declared that His Son had been enthroned as king on His “holy hill of Zion.”7 As surprising as this may seem, given that pre-Creation accounts are practically nonexistent in traditional Christian understanding, it is clear in this prosopological exegesis that before the act of Creation that begins the book of Genesis, God the Father had chosen Christ, His Son, to be king in Zion. Thus, through an early Christian exegesis, Bates broaches anew the idea of a preexistent8 Christ.

If, based on their prosopological reading of the Old Testament, Bates sees the early Christians as believing that Christ was chosen and enthroned before the earth and time were created, then it should come as no surprise that Bates takes the next step and asserts that Christ was also identified by these same Christians as the God of the Old Testament. As Bates states, “Moreover, it is very clear that often this conflation of Jesus and Yahweh via Old Testament citation is quite intentional in the early church, which is very suggestive as many others agree, for how New Testament and other early Christian authors invite us to conceptualize the relationship between the Father and the Son. It would seem that the Evangelists and other Christians felt quite comfortable conflating Jesus and Yahweh via Old Testament citation, both here and elsewhere, as if Jesus is coterminous with Yahweh” (91). It would be premature at this point for LDS readers to see this as a validation of their beliefs, as I will demonstrate shortly.

Though Bates’s monograph cites other examples of this fresh, contemporary, yet genuinely ancient, approach to reading the Old Testament, it is time to turn to an LDS application of prosopological exegesis. Before doing so, however, LDS readers need to understand how the titles Elohim and Jehovah are used in the Hebrew Old Testament.9

Usage of Elohim and Jehovah

Today, Latter-day Saints use the title Elohim to designate God the Father and the term Jehovah to denote Christ the Son. As I have written elsewhere, these contemporary understandings are not consistently reflected in nineteenth-century LDS literature.10 A quick reading of D&C 109 will confirm the seeming inconsistent usage of terms referring to members of the Godhead. Though Elohim and Jehovah do appear in some mid-nineteenth-century LDS literature to refer to God the Father and God the Son, respectively, the terms were not applied systematically or consistently until near the end of the century. Today’s contemporary LDS definitions were solidified in the 1912 and 1916 First Presidency statements that appeared in Church publications.11 A key factor in developing a more precise LDS usage of these terms was the construction and dedication of temples in the second half of the nineteenth century, thereby expanding the availability of temple ordinances, which specifically refer to God the Father as Elohim and Jesus Christ as Jehovah.

The variable usage of Elohim and Jehovah in nineteenth-century LDS literature closely mirrors how the Hebrew forms of these terms are used in the Hebrew Bible. In the Hebrew Bible specifically, and in the Christian literature of the nineteenth century generally, ʾělôhîm (the Hebrew behind Elohim) and yhwh (the Hebrew behind Jehovah) were used interchangeably for the traditional (monotheistic) God of the Old Testament.

In the Hebrew Bible, ʾělôhîm is a generic term for divinity and is employed for a multitude of purposes. The term appears about 2,250 times in the Hebrew Bible,12 but it is never transliterated as Elohim in the King James Bible; it is always translated.13 Additionally, though the term ʾělôhîm takes the form of a plural, masculine noun, it is used in the Hebrew text with both plural and singular verbs and with both singular and plural attributives. While used to denote the God of Israel, it is also used to designate both singular and plural non-Israelite gods. It is even used once for a non-Israelite female deity.14 Additionally, it is used as an adjective to describe something as godly and as an abstract for godliness.15

The title yhwh (often called the tetragrammaton, meaning “of four letters”), on the other hand, never designates any deity other than the God of Israel. It occurs over six thousand times in the Hebrew Bible but is transliterated in the King James Bible as Jehovah only four times.16 Normally, yhwh is rendered in the King James Bible as “LORD” or as “GOD,” with the first letter capitalized and the rest of the word in small caps. Of particular interest is the Hebrew combination yhwh ʾělôhîm (Jehovah Elohim), usually translated in the King James Bible as “LORD God” (see Genesis 2:4, for example) to designate the God who created the world and who is the God of Israel.17 To summarize, in the Hebrew Bible neither yhwh nor ʾělôhîm denote with any consistency the Son or the Father, respectively. To simplify the matter, yhwh and ʾělôhîm are titles with often disputed etymologies and denotations.

This variable usage of Elohim and Jehovah (at least when compared with contemporary LDS usage) also appears in the Book of Mormon. If we compare a few Book of Mormon passages from the brass plates (that is, the Old Testament that Lehi brought to the New World from Jerusalem) with the Hebrew text of those same biblical passages, we can discern the same pattern that exists in the Hebrew Bible. Simply put, in a few cases where the Hebrew text has yhwh (Jehovah), the Book of Mormon has Father. For example, Isaiah 52:8–9 in the King James translation reads, “Thy watchmen shall lift up the voice; with the voice together shall they sing: for they shall see eye to eye, when the LORD shall bring again Zion. Break forth into joy, sing together, ye waste places of Jerusalem: for the LORD hath comforted his people, he hath redeemed Jerusalem.” In each instance where the King James has “LORD,” the Hebrew text has yhwh (Jehovah). Based on current LDS parlance, we would be tempted to read Jehovah as “the Son.” However, when this Isaiah passage is paraphrased by Christ in 3 Nephi 20:33–34, it is not “the LORD” (Jehovah, “the Son”) acting to redeem Israel, but “the Father”: “Then will the Father gather them together again, and give unto them Jerusalem for the land of their inheritance. Then shall they break forth into joy—Sing together, ye waste places of Jerusalem; for the Father hath comforted his people, he hath redeemed Jerusalem.”

Some may object, arguing that Father in this passage is a title that denotes Christ the Son, as it does in Mosiah 15:3 and in other passages in the Book of Mormon.18 However, as Steven L. Olsen has stated, the overwhelming majority of the appearances of Father in the Book of Mormon refer to God the Father (nearly two hundred times) and only occasionally to God the Son (less than two dozen times).19

Not to belabor the point too heavily, I offer only one more example of the Hebrew title yhwh (Jehovah) being replaced in the Book of Mormon by “the Father.” Micah 5:10 reads in the King James translation, “And it shall come to pass in that day, saith the LORD [yhwh], that I will cut off thy horses out of the midst of thee, and I will destroy thy chariots.” In the Book of Mormon, when Christ quotes this Micah passage for the Nephites in 3 Nephi 21:14, “the LORD” is replaced with “the Father”: “for it shall come to pass in that day, saith the Father, that I will cut off thy horses out of the midst of thee, and I will destroy thy chariots.”20

The usage of yhwh and ʾělôhîm in the Hebrew Bible, along with Book of Mormon rendering of Old Testament passages, demonstrates that the terms Jehovah and Elohim are not uniformly consonant with current LDS usage. For LDS readers, knowledge of this Old Testament usage helps open up new insights on the Old Testament, especially when conducting a prosopological exegesis, à la Bates.

A Prosopological Reading of Psalm 110:1–4

The inconsistent usage of the terms for deity brings me to the crux of this review essay on The Birth of the Trinity—an LDS prosopological reading of Psalm 110:1–4. (I freely admit that my LDS take is dependent in many aspects on Bates’s own exegesis of this psalm.) I will begin first with a short discussion of why Christ quoted Psalm 110:1 to the Pharisees in Matthew 22, why they could not answer his questions, and how Christ was trying to instruct them. I will then draw additional LDS meanings from this psalm, meanings that are dependent on the prosopological exegesis.

In Matthew 22:42–46, the Savior attempted to teach the Pharisees about the Messiah by posing them a question, based on Psalm 110:1, one which “no man was able to answer.” The King James translation reads:

What think ye of Christ? whose son is he?
They say unto him, The Son of David.
He saith unto them, How then doth David in spirit call him Lord, saying,
The LORD said unto my Lord, Sit thou on my right hand, till I make thine enemies thy footstool?
If David then call him Lord, how is he his son?
And no man was able to answer him a word.

The Pharisees could not directly answer Christ because their faulty conception of who the Messiah would be did not allow them to frame an acceptable answer. The Hebrew of Psalm 110:1 reads literally, “Yhwh said to my lord, ‘Sit at my right until I have made your enemies your footstool.’” The Pharisees believed that the Messiah would be a descendent of David, as they admit in Matthew 22:43. In an attempt to teach them more about the Messiah, Christ then asked them, How it is possible that David referred to his descendent, the Messiah, as “my lord,” when it is customary that the son (read “descendant”) call his father (read “ancestor”) “my lord”? In other words, Christ asked the Pharisees why David would refer to his descendant, the Messiah, as “my lord.”

The point Christ was trying to make with this group of Pharisees was that when David called the Messiah “my lord,” David was tacitly admitting that his offspring would be superior to himself. That is, the Messiah would be more than just a biological descendent of David; in some fashion, the Messiah, as the son of David, would eclipse his father, David. For the Messiah to be greater than the archetypal Israelite king, the Pharisees involved would have been forced to confess that the Messiah must be more than a mere mortal. Because the Pharisees did not believe the Messiah to come would be divine, this would have been more than they could admit, at least publically. In posing the question, Christ was attempting to teach the Pharisees an even deeper doctrine concerning the Messiah than whose son He was. In fact, the Pharisees might have refused to answer Christ because they would have been familiar with the content of the next three verses, Psalm 110:2–4.

Just what Christ wanted to teach the Pharisees and what they would not articulate can be illustrated through an LDS prosopological exegesis of Psalm 110:1–4. The key element is only found in the Greek rendering of this psalm, the translation of the Hebrew text into Greek that was made between 300 and 200 BC. (The King James translation is based on the Hebrew text, commonly called the Masoretic text, which dates from several centuries after the birth of Christ.) The difference between the earlier Greek text, commonly called the Septuagint, and the later Masoretic Hebrew text results in a different tenor and meaning of the psalm and explains, at least partially, why the Pharisees found it difficult to answer Christ.21 When the Greek New Testament quotes from the Old Testament, it generally quotes from the Greek text (the Septuagint)22 and not from the Hebrew (Masoretic) version. Therefore, I will quote from a translation (provided by a friend and colleague) of the Greek text of Psalm 110:1–4 (Psalm 109:1–4 of the Septuagint):

1. A Psalm of David. The Lord said to my lord, “Sit on my right until I make your enemies your footstool for your feet.”

2. The Lord will send forth a rod of your power from Zion and (say) “Rule in the midst of your enemies.”

3. With you is rule on the day of your power amongst the splendors of the holy ones. From the womb, before the morning star, I begot you.

4. The Lord swore and will not change his mind, “You are a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek.”23

By slightly restructuring these verses to facilitate a prosopological reading, which focuses on the dialogue of individuals, and by substituting a few of the Hebrew terms for the Greek nouns (appearing in square brackets), the following reading is possible:

A Psalm of David:

1. Yahweh [the God of Israel] said to [David’s] lord [the Messiah],
“Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies your footstool for your feet.

2. Yahweh will send from Zion the staff of your power,
Rule in the midst of your enemies!

3. With you is dominion24 on the day of your power amongst the splendors of holiness.
From the womb, before the morning star, I begot you.”

4. Yahweh [the God of Israel] has sworn and will not change his mind:
“You are a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek.”25

In this prosopological reading, David is reporting the speech that Jehovah, the God of Israel, gave to the Messiah, David’s lord. If I resist the tendency as a Latter-day Saint to interpret the title yhwh (Jehovah) as “Son” and accept instead the Hebrew Old Testament usage of yhwh as referring on occasion to God the Father, an interesting additional reading emerges. In the following I emphasize an LDS eisegesis by liberally paraphrasing and augmenting the Greek version of this text:

A Psalm of David:

1. God the Father said to the Messiah,
“Sit at my right hand [in the place of honor] until I subdue your enemies under your feet.26

2. I God will bring forth from Zion the scepter of your power.
Rule in the midst of your enemies!

3. You will also have the power to rule in the courts of holiness on high.
Before [you were in] the womb, before even the morning star [was created], I begot you.”

4. God has sworn and will not change his mind,
“You, O Messiah, are a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek.”

For Psalm 110:1–4, the most important divergence in the Greek text from the King James translation, and thus also a significant variation from the reading of the Hebrew text, is in verse 3:

From the womb of the morning: thou hast the dew of thy youth. (KJV/Masoretic)

Before the womb, before even the morning star, I begot you. (Greek/Septuagint)

The main divergence between the King James/Masoretic reading and the Greek/Septuagint reading in the second half of verse three depends on the voweling of the final word, yldtyk, in the unpointed Hebrew text.27 Depending on the vowels that are supplied when reading the text, this word can be read in at least two different ways. The voweling of the Masoretic text creates the reading yaldûteykā, which means, “thy youth,” and thus the King James translation, “thou hast the dew of thy youth,” which does not make a great deal of sense in English.28 However, as Bates points out, the Greek translation of Psalm 110:3 reads quite differently: it is as if the Hebrew vorlage used when translating into Greek had been voweled yĕlidtîkā, meaning “I begot you.”29

Reading this psalm in the Greek text suggests that the Pharisees were reluctant to answer Jesus because they were aware of the “I begot you” in the Greek translation, which obviously elevates the Messiah, son of David, to the Son of God, a status several magnitudes above His illustrious forefather. If the Pharisees had been expecting a mere mortal messiah to deliver them from foreign political domination, it would have been practically unthinkable to believe that the Son of the God of Israel had come but had not freed them from Roman bondage. And if the divine Messiah had not come to deliver them from political bondage, from what would He deliver them? They probably were not expecting an other-worldly emancipation.

Two astonishing ideas that emerge from this reading strike me as a Latter-day Saint. First, as Bates suggests, the Messiah, Christ, was begotten, not created (79).30 This interpretation more than suggests an ontological relationship between the Father and the Son. That is, Christ is literally the Son of the Father. For Latter-day Saints, this is not a new idea, but finding this idea so unequivocally stated in the Old Testament is new, at least to me.

The second point to be gleaned from a prosopological exegesis of Psalm 110 is that the Messiah was begotten before the creation of this world, thus more precisely identifying when the “begetting” took place. This point applies not only here but also in Psalm 2:7 (and thus in Hebrews 1:5). There can be no question that in this prosopological reading, the Son of God became the Messiah before the beginning of the Creation narrative in Genesis 1 and was at that time, before mortal time was created, given the title Melchizedek, as verse 4 states.

The idea that Christ was begotten in an existence before this world was created is also not a new concept for Latter-day Saints, since the notion appears in Restoration scripture, particularly the book of Abraham. But this is the first time I have seen the Old Testament Psalms as a source for corroborating this doctrine. Additionally, this prosopological reading reveals that Psalm 110:1–4 is the only passage in LDS scripture that clearly states that Melchizedek is first and foremost Christ’s title that God the Father bestowed on Him in the preexistence. In Hebrew, the title Melchizedek means “King of Righteousness,”31 an appropriate title for the Son of God and analogous to one of the titles for the Son found in Malachi 4:2: “Sun of Righteousness.”32

This understanding also undoes a Gordian knot that has interested me for years, namely, why the higher priesthood appeared to be named after a mortal—the man named Melchizedek in Genesis 14:18–20. The Doctrine and Covenants declares that the high priesthood is called the Melchizedek Priesthood “out of respect or reverence to the name of the Supreme Being,” that is “to avoid the too frequent repetition of his name, they, the church, in ancient days, called that priesthood after Melchizedek, or the Melchizedek Priesthood” (D&C 107:4; see also verses 18, 73, and 76). Without the information contained in Psalm 110:1–4, it is easy to see why many Latter-day Saints assume that the higher priesthood is named after the mortal to whom Abraham paid tithes, though no scripture explicitly states that. In fact, Doctrine and Covenants 124 hints that the higher priesthood was not named after a mortal when it states that the higher priesthood “is after the order of Melchizedek, which is after the order of mine Only Begotten Son” (D&C 124:123).

Melchizedek, the pre-Mosaic prophet, likely received his name in accordance with a fairly common naming practice in Hebrew, in which an individual was given as a personal name one of the titles of the God whom they (or their parents) reverenced—in this case a title belonging to the Son of God.33 Therefore, the higher priesthood is not named after the mortal to whom Abraham paid tithes. Rather, both the mortal and the higher priesthood bear one of Christ’s titles, Melchizedek. Indeed, what could be a better name for the higher priesthood, which is the authority to act in the name Christ, than one of His titles?

In sum, an LDS prosopological exegesis of Psalm 110:1–4 yields several insights that corroborate Restoration ideas and contributes to a better understanding of Restoration scripture. Most importantly, that Christ was begotten in the premortal realms is clear. As expressed in a statement by the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve in 1916, “Jesus Christ is the Son of Elohim both as spiritual and bodily offspring; that is to say, Elohim is literally the Father of the spirit of Jesus Christ and also of the body in which Jesus Christ performed His mission in the flesh.” Furthermore, “God the Eternal Father, whom we designate by the exalted name-title ‘Elohim,’ is the literal Parent of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, and of the spirits of the human race. Elohim is the Father in every sense in which Jesus Christ is so designated.”34

Additionally, Psalm 110:1–4 proclaims that God the Father begat Christ before the world was created; that God gave the Messiah, Christ, the scepter of Zion before the earth existed; that Christ would subdue all enemies under His feet; that Christ will be given authority to reign in the eternal worlds; and that one of the titles bestowed on Him in the preexistence was “Melchizedek,” meaning “King of Righteousness.” Thus, the priesthood authority to perform ordinances in His name carries one of His titles, Melchizedek.

I conclude this essay with Bates’s own words: “At this time prosopological exegesis remains largely unknown, even in circles traversed by seasoned biblical scholars and theologians. . . . To the best of my knowledge no one has ever systematically explored Trinitarian inner dynamics or Christology in the New Testament and second-century Christianity from this angle. Accordingly, [the approach I suggest in] this book seeks to provide a panoramic view of the relationship between Father, Son, and Spirit as it was conceptualized through a specific mode of interpreting Old Testament dialogues in the earliest church” (2). If prosopological exegesis promises to be a fruitful approach for a traditional Christian reading of the Old Testament, then I can only hope that LDS scholars will find such an exegesis (or eisegesis) an even more productive approach for understanding the Old Testament. Which leads me to one final thought: As prosopological exegesis promises to become another tool in our LDS toolbox, and as we continue to employ all the tools at hand, it is easy to see that the dispensation in which we live, the dispensation of the fullness of times, will “bring to light the things that have been revealed in all former dispensations.”35 Perhaps when we stand back and gaze at such larger pictures from our present perspective, we will joyfully exclaim, “There is [in the Restoration] no new thing under the sun” (Eccl. 1:9) that was not already available in Old Testament times.


Paul Y. Hoskisson, professor emeritus of religious education at BYU, received his PhD from Brandeis University in ancient Near Eastern studies, specializing in Babylonia. He taught cuneiform in Switzerland before being hired by the Department of Ancient Scripture at BYU. He retired from BYU in 2014 after teaching for thirty-three years.


1. Matthew W. Bates, The Birth of the Trinity: Jesus, God, and Spirit in New Testament and Early Christian Interpretations of the Old Testament (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015).

2. All page numbers in this review refer to the pages numbers in the Kindle edition of this book.

3. The doctrine of the Trinity holds that the Godhead consists of three distinct persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, who share the same essence—in Greek this is called being homoousios. Latter-day Saints would most likely contend that the Father and Son are homoiousios, that is, they share a like essence.

4. For an LDS perspective on traditional Christian understandings of the Trinity and the more recent discussions among contemporary Christians on the topic, I highly recommend Daniel Peterson’s “Notes on Mormonism and the Trinity,” in To Seek the Law of the Lord: Essays in Honor of John W. Welch, ed. Paul Y. Hoskisson and Daniel C. Peterson (Orem, Utah: Interpreter Foundation, 2017), 267–315.

5. Edwin Hatch demonstrated this point many years ago in his still useful book The Influence of Greek Ideas on Christianity (New York: Harper and Row, 1966).

6. If this were a traditional scholarly book review, I might take exception to his use of exegesis to describe the prosopological approach. In my mind, eisegesis, a reading that imposes meaning into the text (a term he does use occasionally), would be a more accurate term for his approach rather than exegesis, a reading that draws meaning out of the text. But I will adhere to his terminology.

7. “Holy hill of Zion” is no doubt an allusion to the temple in Zion.

8. I deliberately use the older terms preexistence and preexistent found in earlier LDS literature rather than the currently more fashionable terms premortality and premortal because preexistence etymologically means “before-placement.” It is a more precise and descriptive term of humans’ first estate because it means “before being placed on the earth.” Bates would probably not be comfortable with a premortal existence for humans, but he certainly accepts it for Christ.

9. The title Elohim does not appear in the King James Bible. The Hebrew term yhwh is rendered in the King James Bible as “Jehovah” only four times.

10. See Paul Y. Hoskisson, “Usage of the Title Elohim,Religious Educator 14, no. 1 (2013):109–27 (slightly revised reprint of “Usage of the Title Elohim in the Hebrew Bible and Early Latter-day Saint Literature,” in Bountiful Harvest: Essays in Honor of S. Kent Brown, ed. Andrew Skinner, Morgan Davis, and Carl Griffin [Provo, Utah: Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, 2011], 113–35), wherein I trace the path that led to and confirmed the 1916 First Presidency statement that began to solidify in LDS literature and in the popular mind the usage of Elohim and Jehovah as we now employ the terms.

11. For the history of this development, see “Usage of the Title.” For the definitive statement dated June 30, 1916, see “The Father and the Son: A Doctrinal Exposition by the First Presidency and the Twelve,” Improvement Era 19 (August 1916): 934. See also “Only One God to Worship,” Improvement Era 15 (April 1912): 483–85.

12. See the entry for אלוה in Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament, ed. Ludwig Koehler, Walter Baumgartner, and Johann Jakob Stamm (Leiden: Brill, 2001), hereafter cited as HALOT.

13. Nor does Elohim occur in any of the LDS standard scriptures.

14. The Hebrew behind 1 Kings 11:5, “Ashtoreth the goddess of the Zidonians,” is “Ashtoreth, ʾělôhîm of the Zidonians.”

15. See “Usage of the Title” for the details. For an excellent discussion of the use of Late Bronze Age and Iron Age Semitic plurals for abstract nouns and adjectives, especially in Hebrew, with an emphasis on ʾělôhîm, see Joel S. Burnett, A Reassessment of Biblical Elohim (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2001), 1–53.

16. Once in Exodus 6:3, once in Psalm 83:18, and twice—in Isaiah 12:2 and 26:4, respectively—in an attempt to render the Hebrew words yāh yhwh as the English noun chain “LORD JEHOVAH.”

17. Reading yhwh as a Hebrew hiphil causative of the verb “to be,” the combination yhwh ʾělôhîm can be translated as “he causes the gods to be.”

18. See Paul Y. Hoskisson, “The Fatherhood of Christ and the Atonement,” Religious Educator 1 (Spring 2000): 71–80.

19. Steven L. Olsen, “The Covenant of Christ’s Gospel in the Book of Mormon,” in To Seek the Law of the Lord: Essays in Honor of John W. Welch, ed. Paul Y. Hoskisson and Daniel C. Peterson (Orem, Utah: Interpreter Foundation, 2017), 229.

20. Here again, the case could be made that “the Father” is a title for “the Son,” as in Mormon 5:17: “they had Christ for their shepherd; yea, they were led even by God the Father.” But even the wording here in Mormon 5:17 seems to support my thesis that the Old Testament terms for deity are used inconsistently.

21. It would appear that Psalm 110 is not found among the Dead Sea Scrolls.

22. When Matthew 27:46 quotes Christ’s anguished words on the cross, “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani,” the language is an Aramaic version of Psalm 22:1. It is possible that the Greek New Testament preserves the Aramaic words rather than the Greek of the Septuagint because Christ on the cross actually spoke the words in Aramaic rather than in Hebrew or Greek.

23. I am indebted to Lincoln Blummel of Brigham Young University, who sent me this excellent translation in a private email on May 22, 2017.

24. The term dominion is translated from the Greek word ἠ ἀρχὴ, which usually means the rule. However, the word in the Masoretic text is נדבת, the construct state of the noun נדבה, which denotes a “freewill offering.” (For example in Numbers 15:3, נדבה is rendered “freewill offering” in the King James translation.) When this Hebrew term is used in place of the Greek term, Psalm 110:3a could be translated, “With you is a freewill offering on the day of your power amongst the splendors of holiness.”

25. An equally interesting translation of verse 4—“The Lord has sworn and will not relent, ‘You are a priest forever, a rightful king by My decree’”—can be found in The Jewish Study Bible, ed. Adele Berlin and Marc Zvi Brettler, Jewish Publication Society Tanakh Translation (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005).

26. See also the reading in Hebrews 1:13: “Sit on my right hand, until I make thine enemies thy footstool.”

27. The “unpointed” text refers the pre-Masoretic text that did not include any vowels (except for occasional matres lectionis). In fact, most West Semitic language texts consist of only consonants. The reader is supposed to supply the vowels while reading. This is usually not a problem for native speakers because they know what the words are. Around AD 600 a Jewish group, called the Masoretes, began “vowel pointing” the Hebrew text—a process of indicating the vowels as they were pronounced at that time—thus preserving the correct sounds for their posterity. The result was the Masoretic text (containing both consonants and vowels), the standard Hebrew version of the Old Testament.

28. As Margaret Barker states, “the Hebrew of v. 3 is impossible.” Margaret Barker, The Great High Priest: The Temple Roots of Christian Liturgy (New York: T&T Clark, 2003), 127. The Jewish Study Bible, in a footnote to this verse, states, “Meaning of the Heb[rew] uncertain.”

29. The translation from Hebrew into Greek was completed in Egypt long before the birth of Christ, and therefore could not have been corrupted by Christian machinations. Note also that such a Hebrew vorlage would not have been voweled; the (pre-Christian) Jewish translators knew what the vowels should be and chose the correct Greek translation.

30. This, by the way, is exactly what the Nicean Creed declares, though the creed fudges on what that means by adding (in Bates’s words) “eternally begotten” (11).

31. It is possible that the name can be translated “my king is righteousness,” if the Hebrew hiriq is read as the first-person possessive pronoun. In my view, however, the hiriq is more likely to be a hiriq compagines, which is a helping vowel and therefore serves no grammatical function. Thus, I translate the name as it is translated in Hebrews 7:2, as “King of Righteousness.”

32. When Malachi 4:2 is quoted in the Book of Mormon, the title appears as “Son of Righteousness” (see 3 Ne. 25:2), suggesting that Righteousness is a title of God the Father, making Son of Righteousness a title of God the Son.

33. Most personal names in the Old Testament are theophoric, that is, they contain the name or title of deity as part of the name. For example, Joshua comes from the Hebrew personal name meaning “Jehovah is help.” See HALOT, s.v. “Joshua.” Besides being common in Hebrew, names in the ancient Near East in general are overwhelmingly theophoric.

34. “Father and the Son,” 934–35.

35. B. H. Roberts, A Comprehensive History of Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-­day Saints, Century One, 6 vols. (Provo, Utah: Corporation of the President, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1965), 2:92. See also page 364: “It is called the Dispensation of the Fulness of Times. Into it flow all the former dispensations; in it are revealed all knowledge of the principles to be believed, and the ordinances to be obeyed; all keys of authority and all powers held by former prophets and men of God.”

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