To be a good reader and to dive into the theological depth of the Bible, we need to learn about the concept of prosopology. Now, prosopology is simply a technical word, which refers to the act of defining the person who speaks in a text. The Greek word prospon, from which get prosopology, can take the meaning of “person.” Prosopology, thus, studies the person speaking in a text.
At this point, we might be tempted to roll our eyes at this jargon because of how obvious the point is: of course, we read books and recognize who speakers are. Yet as seasoned readers of the Bible will note, sometimes it is not clear who is speaking in biblical texts. And so It takes some effort to determine the identity of a voice in a text.
At this point, we need to look at a couple of illustrations lest the point become so esoteric that we miss how practical it really is.
Example 1: Who is she?
Here is a simple example of how prosopology helps us to understand the biblical text. In Lamentations 1:16, text says:
For these things I weep;
my eyes flow with tears;
for a comforter is far from me,
one to revive my spirit;
my children are desolate,
for the enemy has prevailed.
Here’s a question: who is the “I” who weeps? To add to the difficulty, in Hebrew “I weep” refers to a woman and not a man (עַל־אֵ֣לֶּה׀ אֲנִ֣י בוֹכִיָּ֗ה). Since women did not usually write works at this time in history, this could be an exceptional case of a female prophet who wrote.
But there is another option. If we look back to the prior verse, the lamenter speaks of “the virgin daughter Judah” (לִבְתוּלַ֖ת בַּת־יְהוּדָֽה). Likely, then the lamenter (who hypothetically could still be a woman) writes in the voice of the virgin daughter Judah. We hear the virgin’s voice through the pen of the lamenter.
And while this might seem like a small payout, once we see how biblical author writes in the voice of another person, it will transform the way we read the Bible. It will grow us into skilled readers who can rightly divide the word of truth. And it will also have theological payoffs.
Example 2: Overhearing trinitarian conversations
When Jesus asked the Pharisees “What do you think about the Christ? Whose son is he?” They said to him, “The son of David” (Matt 22:43). In response, Jesus says:
“How is it then that David, in the Spirit, calls him Lord, saying,
“‘The Lord said to my Lord,
“Sit at my right hand,
until I put your enemies under your feet”’?
If then David calls him Lord, how is he his son?” (Matt 22:43-45)
The Pharisees responded in silence: “And no one was able to answer him a word, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions” (Matt 22:46).
What exactly happened here?
Jesus asks about the Christ and the identity of his father.
The Pharisees respond, “Well, Christ’s father is David. Christ descends from David’s line after all.”
Jesus answers, “Not so fast. Do you remember Psalm 110? In this psalm, David by the Holy Spirit records a conversation where one Lord speaks to David’s Lord, to ‘my Lord’ to quote David directly. So if David calls Christ his lord, then David cannot father Christ. Something else is at play here.
“And here is what it is: By the Spirit, David overheard YHWH, the LORD, speaking to the Christ, David’s Lord. And this means that the Christ somehow precedes David and communes with God. And you don’t even have to take my word for it, because David says this at the behest of the Holy Spirit in Scripture.”
The Pharisees had no answer. It was plain to them. The Christ, who Jesus was, communed with God. Christ talked with divinity and would be exalted by divinity. Thus, he is unlike the prophets. And he thus is no mere descendant of David. He is David’s lord in a similar way that Adonai is David’s lord.
Here is what is going on: By the Spirit, David heard the Father speaking to the Son as part of a prophetic revelation. David heard two trinitarian persons speaking to one another, and so can we when we read Psalm 110.
And such examples fill the pages of Scripture (e.g., Isa 55 and Ps 16).
Here is the real payout of prosopology. It reveals God to us in his triune splendour.
It’s no mere academic jargon. It helps us to know, savour, and hear the triune God as he enjoys loving communion with himself.
I think it would help to clarify at least some of the persons being alluded to if the word LORD (YHWH) was used in appropriate places to distinguish it from Lord (Heb. adonai). Thanks.
I apretiate what you unveiled
Conrad Bhekile Ndimande says
Thanks for your explanation of the term and very good examples.
Ian Vaillancourt says
Small correction: in verse 1 it is YHWH who speaks to David’s lord (not Adonai, as you say in the article). Adonai comes into play in v. 5. Also, neither of the texts you cite are overly controversial. What about the author of Hebrews’s use of the Psalms as he identifies the speaker. That is where we need to dig deeply. Would love to chat about these things.
I’ll fix that! Thanks.