[Interested in exploring the subject of prosopological exegesis further? While I address this topic thoroughly in my scholarly monograph The Trinitarian Testimony of the Spirit, students and pastors will likely benefit from the more focused discussion in my book How the Spirit Became God, available here.]
What is it? And, more importantly, why should anyone care? Well, for one thing, it just might explain how and why Paul uses the OT in the way that he does.
Prosopological exegesis (PE) is a technique of interpreting Scripture common in the early church. As Matthew W. Bates describes it, PE “explains a text by suggesting that the author of the text identified various persons or characters (prosopa) as speakers or addressees in a pre-text, even though it is not clear from the pre-text itself that such persons are in view” (The Hermeneutics of the Apostolic Proclamation, 183). By “text,” Bates refers to “any specific instance in which a NT author, such as Paul, directly cites the scriptures” (53), while a “pre-text” means “a specific textual source that the NT author utilized” (54). Thus, when Paul cites Hab 2:4b LXX in Rom 1:17, Rom 1:17 is the text and Hab 2:4b LXX is the pre-text.
According to Bates, the first study of the use of PE in the early church was carried out by the German scholar Carl Andresen in his article “Zur Entstehung und Geschichte des trinitarischen Personbegriffes,” ZNW 52 (1961): 1-39. Andresen’s interest was piqued by Tertullian’s commentary on Gen 1:26 (“let us make man in our image”), which he understood as God the Father speaking to God the Son. Tertullian (Adv. Prax. 11-13) found evidence of various members of the Trinity addressing one another throughout the OT, even in prophecies such as Isa 45:14-15, which appears to be addressed to a generic audience and not to Christ. Thus, “Tertullian believes that the prophet can speak in this manner in the words of a persona (or prosopon) not explicitly in view in the source text” (Proclamation, 186). This was not an invention of Tertullian or even of Christians more broadly (e.g., Justin Martyr, 1 Apol. 36.1-2); instead, it was in fact somewhat common within pagan literary criticism, drama, and rhetoric (e.g., Heraclitus), as well as contemporary Jewish literature (e.g., Philo).
Surveying all of this literature, Bates comes up with the following technical definition for PE: “Prosopological exegesis is a reading technique whereby an interpreter seeks to overcome a real or perceived ambiguity regarding the identity of the speakers or addressees (or both) in the divinely inspired source text by assigning nontrivial prosopa (i.e., nontrivial vis-à-vis the “plain sense” of the text) to the speakers or addressees (or both) in order to make sense of the text” (Proclamation, 218).
Bates identifies the following four criteria for detecting PE within ancient literature (219-20):
(1) Speech/dialogue: the pre-text must involve a person who is speaking.
(2) Nontriviality of person: the speaker in the pre-text must be ambiguous or not identified.
(3) Introductory formulas or markers: the exegete usually (but not always) indicates in the text who (s)he believes the speaker to be.
(4) Intertextual evidence: especially in the case where (3) is absent, if contemporary or later texts use PE to interpret a given pre-text, it is more likely that the text under consideration is also using PE when interpreting the same pre-text. Bates seems to be particularly interested in this application of reception history.
To help us understand how PE works, let’s walk through one of Bates’ examples (The Hermeneutics of the Apostolic Proclamation, 255-69), focusing on Romans 10:16.
Rom 10:16 reads: But not all have obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, “O Lord, who has believed our audible message?” The quotation in the latter half of this verse is from Isa 53:1a. This verse fits the criteria for PE, as it involves a direct address to the Lord by a speaker, and this speaker is ambiguous (“our” cannot simply refer to Isaiah). Using the insights of PE, Bates argues that the ultimate “speaker” of Isa 53:1a is not the prophet Isaiah himself but Isaiah speaking “as” the apostles of Christ.
Bates first argues from the context: in this portion of Rom 10, Paul is concerned with the proclamation of the gospel message. Specifically, in Rom 10:15, Paul cites Isa 52:7, but makes some rather dramatic changes. Isa 52:7 reads “herald” but Rom 10:15 has “heralds,” the change from singular to plural perhaps indicative of a desire to be inclusive of the apostolic band. Paul also deletes “on the mountains,” likely to generalize the verse to speak of God’s Word being proclaimed to more than just Jerusalem. “In effect, Paul has identified himself and his coworkers as [the heralds] in Isaiah 52:7 and has deliberately universalized the location in which this message is being heard in light of the Gentile mission” (259). Irenaeus (A.H. 3.13.1) interprets this passage in precisely the same manner, lending support to this interpretation. Thus, if Paul does the same thing in the following verse (Rom 10:16), we should not be surprised. (Further, the following context of Rom 10:18 cites Ps 18:5 LXX as a fulfillment of the proclamation of the preached Word.)
Turning to Rom 10:16 itself, an explicitly PE reading of Isa 53:1a is found in Justin Martyr (Dial. 42.2) and Origen (Comm. Rom. 8.6.2). Justin, in fact, sees several shifts in speakers and addressees throughout Isa 53 (Christ is identified as the speaker of the suffering servant verses in that chapter). Justin and Irenaeus both link Isa 53:1 and Ps 18:5 with the apostolic witness; “as highly intertextually proximate post-texts, the prosopological exegesis explicitly on display in Justin and seemingly assumed by Irenaeus points strongly in favor of Paul’s prosopological exegesis of Isaiah 53:1a in Romans 10:16” (262). Thus, Bates concludes that Paul in fact identified himself and the other apostles as the “true speakers” of Isa 53:1a.
Finally, Bates argues that what is a bit odd in the pre-text (the use of the past tense “who has believed” in Isa 53:1a when Isaiah’s message had not yet gone forth) makes perfect sense (the past tense “who has believed” fits Paul’s perspective at the time when Romans was written, as the gospel message has already been thoroughly rejected by the vast majority of Jews, cf. Rom 9). “In summary, Paul believed that Isaiah was speaking in the character of the future apostles (inclusive of Paul himself) and that the dramatic setting from which this this speech was delivered was Paul’s own present, from which vantage point the apostles spoke reflectively in the past tense about how the majority of the Jews had failed to believe their apostolic proclamation” (266).
The upshot of all of this, as Bates points out, is that this interpretation of Rom 10:16 is generally absent from any of the commentaries or other literature on Romans. Paul, in the fullest possible sense, believed the rejection of his message was announced in advance in the Hebrew scriptures.
Scholars as well as thoughtful Christians devote a lot of attention to the early development of Christology. And this makes sense: Christ is the center of the Christian faith, and almost all of the early theological battles fought during the early centuries of the Christian era concerned the nature of Christ and his relationship to the Father. But the downside of this is that the Holy Spirit is all too often neglected in our discussions of Trinitarian theology, both then and now.
Matthew Bates’ book on PE focuses almost exclusively on Christological prosopological exegesis; that is, how early Christians (including Paul!) found evidence for calling Jesus “God” by looking at verses containing dialogue that could be assigned to the Father or to the Son. But Bates, and other PE authors, have comparatively little to say about what I might call Pneumatological prosopological exegesis. The question I’m currently interested in, then, is when the early Christians first assigned the Spirit a speaking role in his own right.
What’s interesting is that by the time of the apologists in the late second and early third century, the Spirit does clearly have just such a speaking role. Tertullian, for instance, makes the claim that there are many texts in the Hebrew Bible in which “the distinctiveness of the Trinity is clearly expounded: for there is the Spirit himself who makes the statement, the Father to whom he makes it, and the Son of whom he makes it. So also the rest, which are statements made sometimes by the Father concerning the Son or to the Son, sometimes by the Son concerning the Father or to the Father, sometimes by the Spirit, establish each Person as being himself and none other” (Adv. Prax. 11). This is a nice summary of what prosopological exegesis is all about, and demonstrates that he believes all three members of the Trinity can be analyzed using PE.
Regarding the “statements of the Spirit,” Tertullian furnishes three examples: Ps 110.1; Isa 45.1; and Isa 53.1 (conflated with John 12.38 and Rom 10.16). The standard view is that Tertullian is something of an anamoly in making the Spirit a speaking prosopon in his exegesis of the OT. But what strikes me as odd about this position is that Tertullian (and Justin, for that matter), who time and time again are shown to have adopted the exegetical methods and interpretations of earlier generations of Christians, would on this understanding be required to have more or less come up with this on their own. Rather, it seems much more likely that they are drawing on earlier interpretive practice (as they are no doubt doing with Christological PE, which has roots perhaps as far back as Paul). So: something of a puzzle. For full discussion, see my book How the Spirit Became God!