Jesus the Substitute King
excerpted from Ezekiel to Jesus by Preston Kavanagh & Simo Parpola
The Nineveh records discussed in the last three chapters show without a doubt that under Assarbanipal, the last Assyrian monarch, the Assyrians killed substitutes in Babylonia and maintained the priestly bureaucracy and observation systems needed to sustain that process. But did the Neo-Babylonians continue to seat substitutes for their kings? We have no archaeological records to prove it, but plenty of Scripture (much of which we have reviewed) testifies that they did. In addition, the Babylonians worshipped the same gods as the Assyrians, and entrenched beliefs and bureaucracies would not have been easily abandoned.
But here is the most convincing proof that the Neo-Babylonians sacrificed substitute kings: As Parpola proves, the Assyrians used substitute kings before the Neo-Babylonians, and the Persians used substitutes after the Neo-Babylonians. Surely the Neo-Babylonians also practiced substitution.
Now we are ready to move from the sixth century BCE to the first century CE. As we shall see, the gospel of Mark goes into detail to portray that Jesus, the second Son of Man, died like a substitute king, just as Ezekiel had. But did Jesus himself grasp the nature of this role? If he understood the inner meanings of Scripture’s Suffering Servant texts, then he also knew what lay ahead for him. Jesus was a master of Hebrew Scripture. He devoted time to schooling his disciples in it and also in debating the Scriptures with critics.
As we traced in an earlier chapter, there was a pipeline of scriptural interpretation that reached over the centuries between the Exile and the opening century of our era. That pipeline extended from Isaiah 52 through the Dead Sea Scrolls. Was Jesus himself aware of the references to how Ezekiel had met his end centuries before? We think so. The Suffering Servant and the Jesus stories met and were combined in Mark’s gospel. And we should not assume that Mark was the first to reach this conclusion. Jesus himself must have made the connection. He deeply understood Scripture, and would have been the very first to grasp the similarities between his own mission and the mission (and fate) of the first Son of Man.
Consider New Testament Scriptures. Jesus “was teaching his disciples . . . ‘the Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again’” (Mark 9:31). A direct hit upon Ezekiel’s substitution! This next passage from Matthew also refers to the Hebrew Scriptures. After the priests arrested him, Jesus told his resisting followers to put away their swords, since Scripture had forecast that he would be seized in that manner. Then Jesus added, “All this had taken place, so that the Scriptures of the prophets may be fulfilled” (Matt 26:54, 56). Which prophets? Start with Ezekiel and the concealed references to the Jerusalem uprising, and proceed to Isaiah 53 with its account of the Suffering Servant. And if Jesus understood Isaiah 53, he almost certainly knew the substitute king secret.
Jesus says it best in Luke’s gospel. After his death, on the road to Emmaus Jesus appeared to two disciples: “Beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them all the things about himself in all the Scriptures” (Luke 24:27, emphasis added). At greater length, he told them, “‘everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.’ Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and he said to them, ‘Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem’” (Luke 24:45–47). The disciples reflected, “Were not our hearts burning within us . . . while he was opening the Scriptures to us?” (Luke 24:32).
Reading Luke, then, we propose that Jesus (or his disciples) decided that substitute kingship well described the Son of Man’s death and resurrection, and that they passed these secrets along to those who were to write the synoptic gospels. What followed is that the gospel writers framed their narratives to portray Jesus as a substitute king! The synoptic writers drew heavily on the substitute king motif, particularly for their passion accounts. Mark provided the bulk of the items, but Q, Luke, and Matthew also contributed. These authors braided together in the New Testament many strands of the substitute king tradition.
After the failed Jerusalem uprising, in addition to Ezekiel, Babylonian authorities sacrificed as substitutes at least Asaiah, Jehoiachin, and Daniel. Quite likely there also were other Jewish martyrs whose deaths might have inspired different Scriptures. The substitute king motif within the gospels has more aspects than one can now identify, but here is a start.
Jesus King of the Jews
These are kingly parallels. The devil took Jesus to “a very high mountain” to tempt him with the world’s kingdoms (Matt 4:8). Ezekiel received a similar offer—to rule Babylon’s splendid empire. And as icing, by using “a very high mountain,” Matthew implied a reference to the Tower of Babel—a ziggurat that was termed “The Mountain” in a drama performed during Babylon’s New Year’s Festival.
In another parallel, Jesus asked how it benefited a man to gain the world and forfeit his life (Mark 8:36). Ezekiel paid with his life after gaining one of the world’s most magnificent kingdoms. Before the high priest, Jesus quoted Daniel 7: “You will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the Power” (Mark 14:62). The next morning, when taken before the Roman authorities, Pilate asked Jesus directly, “Are you the King of the Jews?” And Jesus made the nonanswer, “You say so.” (Mark 15:2–3). (Centuries earlier, Ezekiel, too, had at first refused to assume kingship.) Pilate next asked the crowd, “Do you want me to release to you the King of the Jews?” Hearing no good answer, Pilate asked the crowd what it wished him to do with “the King of the Jews.” When they answered “crucify him,” Pilate surrendered Jesus to the Roman soldiers, who repeated the charge “King of the Jews” as they beat him (Mark 15:9–15).
The Babylonians put royal robes on the first Son of Man, and gave him a crown and a scepter. Soldiers attired Jesus in a purple cloak and crown of thorns (Mark 15:17), to which Matthew’s account added a mock scepter (Matt 27:29). LAS 134 to Assyrian king Esarhaddon said, “As regards the substitute king of Akkad [Babylon], order should be given to enthrone him. As regards the clothes of the king, my lord, and the garments of the statue of the substitute king, as regards the necklace of gold, the scepter and the throne break . . . ”
Ezekiel’s crime was that he was king of Babylon and, as a result, had scores of soldiers watching him. Parpola’s Excursus, reference 6a, reports on tablets detailing wine rations to an Assyrian substitute’s court. The issues of wine per person served 320, one-third of whom were bodyguards.
When Jesus was before the whole cohort of soldiers, they “began saluting him, ‘Hail, King of the Jews!’” (Mark 15:18). When they crucified him, “the charge against him read, ‘The King of the Jews’” (Mark 15:25). Mark works that memorable title into his crucifixion narrative five times (Matthew has three and Luke two). Reading Mark 15, one could wonder why he so often used that phrase. Also, the author never again reverted to “Son of Man.” In Mark’s gospel, Son of Man had given way to the new substitute, King of the Jews, though that term was always put in the mouths of others.
There are additional substitute king signals. Jesus asked, “The wedding guests cannot mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them, can they?” (Matt 9:15). Matthew’s use of “mourn” emphasized the short time between the marriage and death. Ezekiel became a bridegroom when authorities compelled him to marry a substitute queen, and days later they put him to death.
The substitute king motif continued. Ezekiel and Jesus both bore the title Son of Man. Ninety-three repetitions of the title were credited to the prophet in the book of Ezekiel, with just ten fewer to Jesus in the New Testament books. These are amazing totals. Further, authorities anointed Ezekiel as a king, and centuries later Peter declared Jesus to be the Christ, the anointed one (Mark 8:29). Ezekiel would have led a coronation parade through Babylon and, disabled by torture, might well have been mounted on an ass. The parallel is that Jesus rode a colt during his regal Palm Sunday entrance into Jerusalem (Mark 11:7, 9). Moreover, Luke’s version of the procession inserted “the King” into a line from Psalms. According to him the crowd shouted, “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the LORD!” (Luke 19:38, emphasis added; compare Ps 118:26). Very likely, to present Jesus as a potential king, the gospel writers were evoking the coronation traditions of Judah (see 1 Kgs 1:32–40 and 2 Kgs 11). If anything, however, these served as further camouflage for the deeper substitute king secret.
Another parallel is that as Babylon’s temporary king, Ezekiel had to host sumptuous banquets, while Jesus hosted the Last Supper (Mark 14:17–26). At other times, Jesus was accused of being a glutton and a drunkard (Matt 11:19). Moreover, the first Son of Man—Ezekiel—sat upon a throne, and it was said of Jesus that when the second “‘Son of Man comes in his glory . . . he will sit on the throne of his glory’” (Matt 25:31).
Jesus Redeems Rebels
Previous chapters touched upon Ezekiel’s disgust with Cyrus and the mess that Judah’s rebellions against Babylon had made. Despite the prophet’s innocence, the Babylonians apparently thought him a rebel, for Isaiah 53 mentions rebellion frequently. The Suffering Servant was wounded for rebellions, stricken for rebellions, and numbered with rebels (Isa 53:5, 8, 12). The synoptic gospel writers took pains to picture Jesus in the same way. Jesus directed his followers to buy swords so that he himself might be “‘counted among the lawless [rebels]’” (Luke 22:36–37). Also, authorities used weapons to seize Jesus as though taking “a bandit” (Mark 14:48). And of course a supporter of Jesus struck the high priest’s slave (Mark 14:47). Jesus freed the rebel Barabbas (Mark 15:15), just as Ezekiel freed the rebel captives. Likewise, Jesus’s mission included proclaiming release to captives (Luke 4:18), and Ezekiel freed imprisoned Judeans. Finally, at the end, Jesus hung between two outlaws (Mark 15:27).
As a substitute king, Ezekiel had to endure a lengthy cursing ceremony. In parallel, Jesus faced numerous charges, and was as silent in the face of them (Mark 15:4–5) as Ezekiel had been (Isa 53:7). Jesus questioned whether his disciples were able to drink the cup that he was to drink (Mark 10:38), and later asked God to “‘remove this cup from me’” (Mark 14:36). According to a Nineveh letter, substitute kings were “treated” with wine before their enthronement ceremonies. In addition, the ancients may have dispatched their substitute kings with poison (though the Babylonians probably beheaded Ezekiel). Both Jesus (Mark 15:15) and Ezekiel (Isa 53:5) endured flogging and, like Ezekiel, Jesus was handed to foreigners to die (Mark 10:33). On the cross, the chief priests mocked Jesus: “‘He saved others; he cannot save himself ’” (Mark 15:31), while Ezekiel gave himself up to save others. When Jesus died, tombs were opened (Matt 27:52); in parallel, the Suffering Servant agreed to die so that prisons could be opened. The substitute king took sins to the nether world, and Jesus had authority to forgive sins (Mark 2:10).
And this is especially interesting: Disciples asked Jesus why the scribes said that Elijah’s coming would precede that of the messiah (Mark 9:11). The scribes seemed to know that a solar eclipse preceded the Suffering Servant’s coming. The two words “Elijah” and “sun” in Greek have almost identical spellings, and the book of Malachi has the two words close together. In the Septuagint, Mal 4:2 has “sun [helios] of righteousness,” and verse 4:5 says, “I will send you the prophet Elijah [Helias] before the great and terrible day of the LORD comes.” Closely related to this, a midday eclipse found Jesus on the cross (Mark 15:33), and an eclipse at that very same hour led to Ezekiel’s death.
In Assyria (and surely in Babylon) officials burned a dead substitute’s regal symbols of office, but not his clothes. Probably Ezekiel’s guards split his royal wardrobe among themselves, and they well may have thrown dice for it. Psalm 22:18 said, “They divide my clothes among themselves, and for my clothing they cast lots.” As for Jesus, soldiers gambled for his garments (Mark 15:24).
Substitute kings had royal burials. “We prepared the burial chamber,” an official reported to the king of Assyria, and went on to describe the ceremony, which included spices and embalming. Thus, Ezekiel was buried with royalty. Isaiah 53:9 described it this way: “They made his grave with the wicked and with a rich man in his death.” According to Mark’s gospel, Joseph of Arimathea donated his new tomb for burial (Mark 15:43). Joseph, though probably well off, was a follower of Jesus, and therefore certainly not wicked. Matthew’s gospel solved half the problem by calling Joseph rich (Matt 27:57).
Other burial practices in the gospels seem to have substitute traditions as their source. Three women brought embalming spices to treat Jesus (Mark 16:1). The parallel was that Ezekiel’s body was treated with spices. Jesus’s body was laid in a new tomb (Matt 27:60), while Mesopotamian substitutes went to a royal “burial chamber.” In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus spoke of “the coming of the Son of Man.” Then he continued, “Wherever the corpse is, there the vultures will gather” (Matt 24:27–28). But what can the Son of Man have to do with vultures around a body? A lot, if Jesus referred to the funeral of the original Son of Man. For burial of his mother, one Babylonian king assembled “people from far-off provinces, he summoned even kings, princes and governors.” When kings and governors flocked to bury Ezekiel, they came like vultures to a corpse. More-over, in Greek Scripture, the words “son,” “and,” “man,” and “vulture” occurred together only twice—in Ezek 17:2–3 and in Matt 24:28 (the vulture passage). Both contained these very words, making a Word Link. The Ezekiel passage even included the prophet’s title, “son of man.” The author of Matthew was making a parallel for knowing readers between Jesus and Ezekiel the substitute, whose body had drawn the dignitary-vultures. The symbol for burial chamber was E KI.MAH. The E added “house” to the word for tomb or grave. The term frequently occurred with royalty, such as the burials for King Assurbanipal and for the wife of King Esarhaddon.
Finally, Ezekiel’s death voided curses upon king and people alike. An Assyrian reported to King Essarhaddon in 670 that Damqȋ died “as a substitute for the king, my lord, and for the sake of the life of the prince Šamaš-šumu-ukīn. He went to his destiny for their ransom” (emphasis added). Compare this to the words of Jesus in Mark 10:45: “‘For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many’” (emphasis also added).
Had the Jesus Seminar scholars heard of these things when they were evaluating New Testament texts? No, they had not. We first drew the New Testament implications from the events outlined above more than a decade after Funk’s The Five Gospels reached publication. That book briefly highlighted Jesus’s use of Son of Man (Five Gospels used “Adam”). The book said, “The confusion in how this phrase is to be understood owes to the fact that the Christian community tended to understand the phrase messianically or apocalyptically. The original senses derived from the Hebrew Bible were lost or suppressed.” The renowned Jesus Seminar scholars of course evaluated and scored every quote and phrase in each gospel. In the end, they judged that 82 percent of the words ascribed to Jesus in the gospels were not actually spoken by him. However, at the time, scholars did not know that Ezekiel, the original Son of Man, was the subject of Isaiah 53, let alone that the prophet died as a substitute king.
Eighty-two percent, carefully considered by such a company, is difficult to argue with, especially when combined with the differences in wording between the synoptic gospels, and the fact that our earliest manuscript fragments date a century or more after Jesus’s death. On top of these considerations comes another even more recent discovery. According to John Shelby Spong, Mark (and later the gospels of Matthew and Luke) was developed within the synagogue, and both chronology and content were tailored to fit the sequence of Scripture used within the Jewish liturgical year. This is a finding of first importance. Spong writes that during synagogue services, “Followers of Jesus would stand and recall their memories of Jesus as the readings for that Sabbath elicited such memories . . . this clearly was the context in which stories of Jesus were passed on during the oral period.” And Spong continues, “Sabbath by Sabbath, year by year, in synagogue after synagogue the stories of Jesus were related to the Jewish Scriptures read in worship, and this was the process in which the gospels were formed, orally at first, but later written down . . . ”
Spong’s findings, plus the scholarly offerings of the Jesus Seminar, plus manuscript dating and differences, bring into question the extent to which the New Testament can tell us who Jesus was or what he did. To this perplexing stew please add my own discoveries. These include a Son-of-Man connection between Ezekiel and Jesus, which no other scholar now imagines. The prophet, the first Son of Man, forced Nebuchadnezzar to free the captive Jews who filled Babylon’s prisons and holding pens. Ezekiel’s death was thus redemptive, and when Jesus assumed the Son-of-Man title, he claimed to be like Ezekiel, with redemptive death followed by rising from the dead ahead of him. As Mark’s gospel states, “He began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again” (Mark 8:31). That is, Jesus taught his disciples that his life experience was to be very like Ezekiel’s, the Son of Man who first died as a substitute king. Mark, Matthew, and Luke drew upon the Son-of-Man secret to frame their passion narratives. This became a hinge of Scripture, upon which the synoptic gospels turned.
Quoting the Jesus Seminar scholars again, “The original senses [of the term “Son of Man”] derived from the Hebrew Bible were lost or suppressed.” Lost they may have been, but found they now are. In view of the fresh information in this book, we ask that scholars reevaluate why Jesus called himself the Son of Man.