Tuesday, August 08, 2006

The Lost Sheep of the House of Israel

The title of the dissertation I successfully defended at Cambridge recently is "Matthew's Messianic Shepherd-King: In Search of the 'Lost Sheep of the House of Israel'". Here is a synopsis of the thesis.

Unique to the First Gospel are two sayings of Jesus that have proved controversial. As many of you will know, the controversy arises not least because of the exclusivity of their contents. In two places in the Gospel (Matt 10:5b-6; 15:24) the Messianic mission of Jesus and the mission of his disciples are limited to a group that Jesus himself calls 'the lost sheep of the house of Israel'. My study investigated these logia in order to determine the identity of the group.

In light of Matthew's intense interest in Jesus' Davidic Messiahship (e.g., 1:1), I argued that the way forward in ascertaining the meaning of the logia is within the trajectory of the Jewish Shepherd-King traditions surrounding King David.

The research approach I followed can be illustrated as a series of concentric circles. The study divided into three parts with each serving as a circle of context within which the others were viewed, ultimately illuminating the logia.

The outer circle considered the Messianic Shepherd-King motif in its native Jewish milieu. This involved first a consideration of the origin of the tradition in the historical and the prophetic literature of the Jewish Scriptures. Then, following this trajectory, relevant literature of the Second Temple period was considered. While not a widely used motif in the Second Temple period (this came as a surprise to me), the Messianic Shepherd-King motif did function significantly for at least one sectarian Jewish community in first century Palestine, namely, the community who composed and edited the Psalms of Solomon. This motif functioned as a vehicle of hope for a political-national restoration of the kingdom of Israel; vital to the motif is a belief in the territorial restoration of the Land of Israel.

The next circle of the interpretation focused on the Matthean use of the Messianic Shepherd-King motif. Three passages were studied ( Matthew 2:6, 9:36 and 26:31) in order to establish the presence of the motif in Matthew and show its continuity with the Jewish background highlighted in the previous section. I argued, in line with both the Scriptures and the Psalms of Solomon, that Matthew maintains a hope for the restoration of Israel not only spiritually, but also politically and territorially (this of course is completely outside mainstream Matthean scholarship). Within this circle I also wrote a chapter defending the claim that Matthew maintained an abiding hope for territorial restoration (again controversial).

[A side note: I presented the chapter on territorial restoration in Matthew at the Tyndale Fellowship Conf. last year. After I finished the paper Donald Hagner asked me the first question and he wanted to know if I was a dispensationalist -- Thanks! Only dispensationalists I guess would pursue a research interest as crazy as this. To which I responded something like: "On this issue I guess I could be a dispensationalist to the extent that dispensationalism accurately reflects first-century Jewish thinking." Honestly, I don't think I am a dispensationalist anymore; but that is for another posting.]

In the final circle of the study, Matthew 10:6 and 15:24 were specifically studied. Read against the background of a concrete expectation for the restoration of Israel, my thesis is the 'lost sheep of the house of Israel' refers to remnants of the former Northern Kingdom of Israel who continued to reside in the northern region of the ideal Land of Israel. Thus, the Matthean Jesus' earthly missional scope was limited geographically and ethnically to those who were residing in the northern region of the Land.

What are your thoughts on this bizarre hypothesis??


slaveofone said...

Then I suppose you wrote about the religious and political implications of Yeshua's actions and words in Judah in comparison... If he is gathering the sheep of the North, would this be seen in contrast to his Jerusalem activity to be scattering the sheep in the South?

Your thesis might help explain why Yeshua refers to those in his homeland not accepting him and questioning who he is... If he is going there specifically for their benefit and they reject him, this has a much weightier impact than if he simply were offering the same thing to all and sundry and group A over there turned him down.

Anonymous said...


How you deal with the concept that the Northern kingdom became future Christianity? “… and they shall be one in My hand.” (Ezekiel 37:19). In Hosea 1:9, Yahweh rejected the Northern Kingdom (house of Israel) and explicitly stated that “They're not his people,” "Lo-Ami" and would have no mercy, "Lo-ruhamah" (Hosea 1:6) upon them. Nonetheless, if they would repent, (teshuvah) (Jeremiah 3:5, 12-13)) they would be called his people ( Hosea 1:10). Some people construe that the prophetic message in Jeremiah 3:5 & 12:13 came to pass in 1 Peter 2:5-6, 9:10.

Eddie Chummney, Restoring Two Houses of Israel, 43-44

tony siew said...

Congratulations Joel on your successful defense of your thesis! I look forward to reading it when it is published.

I take note that you mentioned that the Shepherd-king theme is not a major one in Second Temple Judaism. I am sure you are aware that Zechariah speaks a great deal about the Messiah-Shepherd-king theme. In chapter 9:9, the king riding on a colt can be seen as a shepherd (king being shepherd in Hebrew thought)in the light of subsequent passages. Zech 9:16 has Yhwh will save them as the flock of His people, again a kind of king-shepherd imagery perhaps related to 9:9.

God's anger against the shepherds of Israel [kings] (10:3) is perhaps written as judgement in anticipation that Israel will have a king-shepherd (9:9)that will not be the kind of shepherds that fail in their role to look after his people since they (kings) detested God(11:4-17; cf. 13:7-9). I think the messiah-king-shepherd theme is a major one in Zech 9-13 and as such exercises a significant influence on the Gospels (esp. Matthew and John).

BTW, good to know that you believe in the restoration of the land of Israel like good old dispensationalists.

Dispensationalists are partly right except maybe for the pre-tribulation rapture thing which put people off (me included). Thanks so much for your insights in the book of Matthew.

tony siew said...

Joel I just want to add that your thesis is spot on. Jesus recalled his disciples to Galilee (northern region) for the Great Commission in that if the northern region is restored (Zebulon and Naphtali as well) it will be a base for world evangelization (Galilee of the nations)Mat 4:15.

Anonymous said...

I see Jesus' work in Jerusalem to be the culmination of his earthly activity. According to Matthew it appears the atoning death of Jesus was the means by which both the land, which had been polluted by the shedding of innocent blood and the people were to be cleansed prepared for the coming of the eschatological kingdom. The striking of the shepherd and the subsequent scattering, as in Zech, was for the ulitmate redemption of Israel (Zech 14).

celucien joseph:
I am not familiar with the idea that the northern kingdom of Israel became future Christianity. Perhaps you could state that differently. I am sympathetic to the idea that the statement in 1 Peter is referring to Diaspora Jews and Peter is not applying this to Gentile Christians. I have stated this recently--although it is very much a minority opinion, if you could even call one or two people a minority.

tony siew:
the motif is used little in post-biblical Jewish literature; you are right of course that Zech makes use of the motif and Matthew takes it up in 26:31-32; thanks for your encouragement

meggan said...

I wrote a paper for rik watts at Regent College on the use of the shepard motif in Matthew, in his life of Jesus course. All kinds of interesting things going on in Zechariah and the OT in general in terms of Shepards. Any chance the the shepard of Zechariah 13 is actually an evil shepard and that the removal of him will lead to the restoration the faithful? If this is true then how is it that Jesus quotes it of himself? Perhaps he was aware that he was percieved as one who was leading the people astray by other factions within Israel and it is a kind of ironic reading of Zechariah. I'm not sure, but it was an interestion paper to write. Glad to see someone is looking at this, it was hard to find much to interact with on the topic. Congrats on your doctorate.

Eric Judge

exegetical fallacy said...

Joel, were you able to slip in the word 'missional' into your dissertation? This would clearly show that you ARE more post-modern than Bird!


driver9 said...

Any news on when/by whom your thesis will be published?

Jim Hamilton said...

Dr. Willits (that has a great ring to it!),

Congrats again on the completion of your thesis and program!

My question is this: what's the payoff? In other words, it sounds like you're saying Jesus came proclaiming a restoration that included geo-political realities. Do I have you right here?

If that's the case, then he either (a) accomplished what he was after, (b) failed to accomplish what he was after, or (c) had what he was after deferred to some future territorial restoration.

Since I don't think Jesus ever fails, and since it doesn't look like what he proclaimed got fulfilled during his life, I'm inclined to option c, that what Jesus was after was deferred to a future fulfillment (looks like a millenium, smells like a millenium. . .).

Or, do you think the geo-political proclamation got spiritualized so that the restoration went from "delivering real political freight" [:)] to being concerned with spiritual realities?



J. B. Hood said...


Really interesting stuff, loads of it intriguing. I have to say I'm initially skeptical that only 'northern' tribes are at issue here, to the exclusion of south. Even if the two instances you cite are focused on the north, how do we move from that to exclusion of south? The whole shepherd motif smacks of failure of Judah/Jerusalem and their shepherds (kings, Pharisees, priests), including various Herods. It gets amplified precisely as Jesus approaches and enters Jerusalem (see the use of Zechariah in Matthew; Clay Alan Ham's monograph from Sheffield Phoenix last year).

Additionally, are things like palingenesia in 19:28 and eretz in Matthew 5:5 to be taken as physical territorial restoration with no cosmic, universal implications? Seems this would run against the OT prophets (and Matt's use of the same), who insist that Isrl's restoration will have massive cosmic significance.


On land/territory, let me make the case (per my series at my blog) on the universalization of promise of Land in early Xianity, in line with what we see in Isaiah 65-66 et al. I'd start with Romans 4:13: Paul says Abraham was promised the cosmos, implying at the very least a view that sees the implications of the promise of Land territorially expanded (1) on a global scale and (2) to the ethne, not just to Israel. Inheritance language in Romans 8 and elsewhere also heads in this direction, as again we see 'cosmic' significance in place of strictly Jewish/Palestine. Same with Hebrews: Abraham is not looking for earthly Jerusalem, but heavenly Jerusalem; and we will all participate in that (per end of Heb 11, Revelation).

This isn't ever merely about spiritual realities--it also will encompass physical, geopolitical realities--but not just in Eretz Israel. Jesus authority--which at the end of Matt is comprehensive--is being realized, and will culminate in restoration not just of Israel, but of all things, in line with the universal implications suggested by Scripture.

If I can complicate your a-b-c options, how about this: Jesus' mission was to do both a and b, though because (a) what he wanted to accomplish was precisely (b), according to the Scriptures. When we see (c) in the NT, it's never only Israel though they are certainly included (just as 19:28 and 5:5 probably carry universal implications in Matt--though even if someone disagrees there, universalism runs throughout rest of NT). What do you think?

Jim Hamilton said...

J. B.,

Thanks for your comment. You may be onto something, and I think I agree with all you said.

I'm not sure it fits exactly what Joel argues, however, because if I remember correctly (from reading his thesis) he stresses the ethnic, territorial, political dimensions of what Jesus said during his earthly ministry.

Maybe I got the wrong impression from him, and maybe he would agree wholeheartedly with what you wrote, but as I read his work I kept asking when he thought this was going to find fulfillment.

I think Romans 11:26-27 and a premillenial understanding of Revelation 20 fit nicely with what Joel argues, and I'm interested to know whether he agrees!

Thanks for your comments!


Anonymous said...

Jim & J.B.

Jim, to state my view very forthrightly, I think Matthew has an inaugurated eschatology. I believe that he thinks that at the end of the age, at the palingenesia (19:28), the territorial kingdom of Messiah will be set up in geo-political terms. Although whether this empire will only be for a 1000 years (a millenium) is hard for me to determine. The prophets don't seem to envisage and end of this Messianic kingdom for some 'final state', perhaps nor should we.

This of course has cosmic and universal implications because Messiah's reign will encompass all of the earth—Messiah's hegemony will extend over the whole earth. It is precisely in the Davidic covenant (2 Sam 7—the most under-appreciated OT idea in NT studies) that heaven and earth meet and it will be here—on the Davidic throne—where the universal reign of God will adjudicated in real time and space—this is even implied in Second Temple Judaism (see Pss. Sol. 17).

The territorial restoration of Israel has great implications for the nations as is revealed in the prophets. The Great Commission in my view is the Great Implication (see the 'oun').

J.B. you are right that the Shepherd-King motif goes into the passion narrative with the reference to Zech 13:7 in 26:31. And that the seat of leadership is Jerusalem from the very beginning of the Gospel with Herod and all of Jerusalem at the beginning and the leaders influencing the crowds to say “his blood be on our heads”. The Shepherd-King according to Matthew indeed was struck down and in the striking a purification of both people and place is implied in Matthew. The restoration of the future kingdom of Israel will be the result of the atoning death of the Shepherd-king.

I would like to discuss the points you make about Paul's interpretation in Rom 4, but here I wish only to state that in my study of 2nd temple texts, in even the most unversial and cosmic contemplations of Alexandrian Jews, the universal was never untethered from Eretz Israel as the centre and starting point. A restored Land is always assumed (see Davies).

I could say more, but that is all for now.

Scot McKnight said...

Just in case you didn't see it, but I "tagged" you on my blog. Time for you to list those questions and tell us what you think.