Jesus and Illeism


by Doug Ward

Today we often find it amusing when people refer to themselves in the third person. The technical term for this practice is "illeism." We tend to think of illeism as either a sign that a person is childlike-similar to Elmo on Sesame Street or Dobby the elf in the Harry Potter stories-or engaging in self-promotion, as some celebrities do.


Illeism has a long history. In particular, it appears frequently in the Bible.1 We see it first in the proud declaration of Lamech in Genesis 4:23-24. On the other hand, in situations where people are humbling themselves before God or a person in authority, they may refer to themselves as "your servant" (e.g., Ge 44:18, 32-33; Nu 11:11; Dt 3:24).


Several divine statements in the Hebrew Scriptures include illeism (e.g., Ge 9:6,16; Nu 32:11-12; Dt 1:36). In these statements illeism can emphasize the identity and authority of the speaker as the God of Israel, or give a reminder that the Temple is his house (Jer 17:26; Hos 8:1).


In the Gospels Jesus often speaks of himself in the third person as "the Son of Man," a designation that highlights both his humanity and his divine status. At times he uses this illeism to talk about his human life and his upcoming suffering and death (Mt 8:20; 12:40; 17:9,12,22; 20:18,28; 26:2,24,45). In these cases, "Son of Man" connotes the frailty of mortal humans, as in Psalm 8:4 and the prophecies of Ezekiel.


Elsewhere he speaks of "the Son of Man" in reference to Daniel's vision recorded in Daniel 7:13-14. In that vision "one like a son of man" comes "with the clouds of heaven" to the Ancient of Days and is given dominion over all nations. Jesus identifies himself as this divine figure when he states that the Son of Man will come in the clouds with his angels to rule from a glorious throne (Mt 13:41; 16:27; 19:28; 24:30; 25:31; 26:63-64).


The Question about Fasting

These Son of Man examples are clearly illeistic. However, the situation is not so clear-cut for some other sayings of Jesus that are often interpreted as illeisms.


A prime example, recorded in all three Synoptic Gospels, is Jesus' answer to a question about fasting. When asked why his disciples did not fast as often as the disciples of John the Baptist and the Pharisees, Jesus replied, "Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast" (Mt 9:15).


In reading this passage, we tend to assume that Jesus is referring to himself as "the bridegroom" and saying that his disciples will fast more frequently after his ascension, when he is no longer with them physically. In favor of this assumption is the fact that in his parables, Jesus compares the kingdom of heaven to a wedding banquet, with himself as the bridegroom (Mt 22:1-2; 25:1). Moreover, John the Baptist had previously presented himself as a friend of Jesus the bridegroom (Jn 3:29), and the first Christians would see themselves as the Bride of the Messiah (2 Co 11:2; Eph 5:23-32; Rev 19:6-9).


This wedding banquet and bridegroom imagery is rooted in the teachings of Israel's prophets, who looked ahead to a future restoration of Israel, when God's marriage relationship with his people would be renewed and celebrated with feasting (Isa 25:6-8; 55:1-3; 62:4-5). With the coming of Jesus, the kingdom of heaven had arrived and the time to celebrate had begun.2


With regard to Jesus' answer in Matthew 9:15, though, we should look more closely at first-century fasting practices. Fasting was a familiar practice for all Jews in that era, including the disciples of Jesus (see Mt 6:16-18). In John the Baptist's ministry, there was a special emphasis on calling the Jewish people and their leaders to repentance in anticipation of a coming divine judgment (Mt 3:4-12). The additional fasting of John's disciples may have sprung from a desire to pray about these issues.


Jesus shared John's concern for the spiritual state of Jerusalem (Lk 13:34-45; 19:41-44; 23:28-29), but his ministry had a different focus. This difference between the disciples of Jesus and the disciples of John (Mt 11:17-19) probably continued after Jesus' ascension, but both groups would have mourned about a later event-the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in 70 AD.


It was this later event that Jesus may have had in mind in Matthew 9:15. The phrase "the days will come" reminds us of the words of the prophets (e.g., Isa 39:6; Jer 7:32; Am 8:11). When Jesus used this phrase, he often looked ahead to the destruction of Jerusalem (Lk 19:41-44; 23:28-29). For the prophet Jeremiah, the time "when the bridegroom is taken away" was the time when the Babylonians conquered Judah and leveled the first Temple (Jer 7:34; 16:9; 25:10). Jesus may have used this phrase to refer to the coming destruction of the Second Temple.3


This interpretation of Matthew 9:15 finds additional support in an event that occurred in 63 AD. During the celebration of the Feast of Tabernacles in Jerusalem that year, a man named Jesus son of Ananias alluded to Jeremiah's words in a prophecy against Jerusalem and the Temple. This prophet declared himself to be "a voice against the bridegroom and the bride" (Josephus, Jewish War 6:300-309).


Was Jesus calling himself "the bridegroom" in Matthew 9:15? It is inviting to think so, since he often used illeism and identified himself closely with Yahweh, Israel's bridegroom. Before jumping to that conclusion, however, we should examine Jesus' words more closely in their cultural and scriptural context. Such study leads to a more accurate understanding of God's Word.


1See Andrew S. Malone, "God the Illeist: Third Person Self-Reference and Trinitarian Hints in the Old Testament," Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 52 (2009), 499-518.

2Philip J. Long develops these connections in Jesus the Bridegroom: The Origin of the Eschatological Feast as a Wedding Banquet in the Synoptic Gospels, Pickwick Publications, 2013.

3See R. Steven Notley, "Luke 5:35: `When the Bridegroom is Taken Away'-Anticipation of the Destruction of the Second Temple," The Gospels in First Century Judaea, Brill, 2016, pp. 107-121.

Issue 37


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