Creed as Critical Theory: Psalm 68 v. Ephesians 4

Ephesians 4:8 v. Psalm 68:18

In Ephesians 4:8, Paul seems to quote Psalm 68. “When he ascended on high, he led captive a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men” (NASB). This phrase is the foundation for Paul’s argument that Christians receive gifts from God “for the equipping of the saints” (v. 11). There is nothing unusual about a first-century Jew, who was trained as a Pharisee, quoting a Psalm to support his claims. But what are we to think if this first-century theologian revises the Psalm for a new use?

In Psalm 68, the phrase reads this way: “You have ascended on high, You have led captive Your captives; You have received gifts among men” (v. 18, NASB). In the Psalm, the subject is a second-person “you,” rather than the masculine third-person singular in Ephesians. But, more importantly, the subject is the recipient of gifts. When Paul references the phrase to progress his argument that God gives Christians spiritual gifts, he changes the verb from received to gave, which changes the recipient from God to Christians.

I bring this variance to the reader’s attention because I intend to offer a resolution. But, first, I owe the kind folks at Westminster John Knox a review of the book that has helped me make some sense of how to work with Ephesians 4:8. This review will consist of two parts: first, a brief summary of the late Robert Jenson’s Canon and Creed (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2007) so the reader might know the structure of the book and, second, a reading of Ephesians 4:8 that takes one of the key ideas in Canon and Creed and puts it to work.



In Canon and Creed, Jenson offers an introductory overview of how canon and creed relate to one another and what import these two “notions” have on reading Scripture today. The book is divided into three parts. First, Jenson approaches the notions of canon and creed, including the complexities of development and inter-canonical relationship (i.e. what does it mean for Israel’s Scripture to be a part of the Christian canon?). Second, Jenson addresses questions of reception, the role of dogma, and a discussion of the episcopacy. Third, Jenson puts things together. Where do the preceding chapters lead? Wittily adopting the language of the academy, Jenson postulates using the creed as a “critical theory” for interpreting Scripture. The book concludes with three interpretive case-studies, wherein Jenson provides examples of creed-critical reading. The book is an important and happily-received addition to WJK’s impressive Interpretation series. The questions asked in the book are the same ones, as I perceive them, that necessitated the series in the first place. Inspired by Jenson’s work, I turn now to read Ephesians 4:8 with the creed as critical theory.


The generally accepted explanation for why Paul, or whoever wrote Ephesians, varies from the Psalm’s original verbiage (both LXX and MT) supposes Paul borrowed someone else’s idea. The explanation suggests that a variant reading, similar to Paul’s phrasing in Ephesians, was well-known in Paul’s own era. Tenets of this argument lean heavily upon this 5th-century Aramaic Targum:

You ascended to the expanse, o prophet Moses, you led captivity captive, you taught the words of the Law, you gave gifts to the sons of men.[1]

Though this particular Targum is dated much later, it is possible that its existence reveals an earlier tradition of reading the Psalm in this way, namely, with the verb “gave” instead of “received.” Some even go so far as to say that the Psalm and the variant have basically the same meaning – which is, in my mind, quite a leap. Generally speaking, I presume Paul draws deeply from his own Jewish traditions. Yet, in this instance, I am not so certain.

As I’ve seen it presented, there are several problematic gaps in this explanation. First, this explanation requires Paul to have known of and recalled the variant reading, which is plausible but not by any means certain. Second, this explanation doesn’t address why Paul heavily edited the variant which he is supposedly quoting. Third, this explanation doesn’t account for the contradiction between Paul’s explanation of his phrase (4:9-10) and the variant reading’s movement. Fourth, this explanation fails to account for the author’s use of the introductory clause διὸ λέγει

I’d like to suggest that Paul is not quoting a variant reading from Jewish literature, but is referencing an early Christian creed, hymn, or prayer that revises the Psalm according to theological concerns. Here is why.

  1. Paul was well aware of and made use of hymns, creeds, and prayers in his writings (i.e. 1 Cor. 15:3-5). It is more likely that Paul would reference communal literature that was recited during worship than a variant reading from an Aramaic Targum.
  2. If Paul is quoting from a hymn or creed, then there is no substantial verbal differences that need to be reconciled. It is a much smaller, easier step from the phrase syntax in Psalm 68 to Ephesians 4 than from the syntax in Psalm 68, to the Aramaic Targum, to Ephesians 4.
  3. In Ephesians 4:9-10, Paul comments on 4:8. The most likely variant reading describes Moses (1) ascending Mount Sinai before (2) descending to the Israelites with the gift of the Law. In Paul’s explanation of what “he ascended” means, Jesus is said to have (1) “descended into the lower earthly regions” before (2) he “ascended higher than all the heavens, in order to fill the whole universe.” The movement of the variant and the movement of Paul’s explanation are reversed.[2] Paul’s comments reveal that what he’s quoting in Ephesians 4:8 has its own logic that is decidedly Christological rather than typological (i.e. Moses = Jesus).
  4. Finally, when Paul quotes Scripture, his go-to introductory phrase is γέγραπται γάρ (“for it is written”). In Ephesians 4:8, Paul introduces the quote with διὸ λέγει. This phrase occurs elsewhere only once in the Pauline corpus, relatively nearby, in Ephesians 5:14, where Paul is (almost) undoubtedly introducing an early Christian creed or hymn. If this is a genuine Pauline letter, then you would presume he wouldn’t diverge from his common Scriptural introduction. If Paul is not the author, then we may still acknowledge that the author of Ephesians presumes whatever “it” is in 4:8 is of similar quality to whatever “it” is in Ephesians 5:14.

The case for Paul using an early ecclesiastical resource has solid textual grounding. Using the creed as critical theory, however, seals this reading for me. The creed confesses that Christ ascended to the right hand of God. Only afterward do we hear of the Holy Spirit or the holy catholic church. The creed’s own ordering helps bring Paul’s logic into focus. I do not suggest here that Paul had a copy of the Apostle’s Creed in hand when he wrote Ephesians. But I do suppose that Paul permitted what would become creedal logic to authorize the use of this revised Psalm in his own writing and in his churches’ worship services.

More importantly, we do not need to discover the “source” of Ephesians 4:8 as if the integrity of Scripture depends upon it. The relationship of the canon is such that Psalm 68:18 is not annulled by the adapted form of the Psalm in Ephesians 4:8. Instead, reading the two together allows for a Trinitarian interpretation more fitting of the creed than could be said of either one individually. Read in the “Christological plain sense,” a phrase Jenson borrows from Jason Byassee, Psalm 68:18 is a reference to the ascension of humanity into God’s presence as the Son’s gift to the Father. “You received gifts from men.” The plural “men” is appropriate, because in Christ dwells the entire human race. Ephesians 4:8 is the consequence of Psalm 68:18. God receiving the gift of humanity through Christ’s ascent results in the Ascended One giving gifts to humanity. “He gave gifts to men.” The singular “he” is appropriate because the giving of gifts is ascribable to Christ alone. And, of course, the Spirit dwells as the love that holds these movements together, the one through whom gifts are given. In my estimation, this is the most satisfactory explanation we have for why Paul would adapt or use an adapted form of Psalm 68 in Ephesians 4.

Paul didn’t need a Aramaic variant when he had the creative, revisionist hermeneutic available to him in the confessional life of the church. The question is, are we permitted to do likewise?

[1] Taylor, Richard A. 1991. “The use of Psalm 68:18 in Ephesians 4:8 in light of the ancient versions.” Bibliotheca Sacra 148, no. 591: 319-336. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed December 6, 2017).

[2] Dunne and Lunde show that Paul’s use in v. 8 and interpretation in v. 9-10 follows Psalm 68’s own logic, rather than the reversed logic of the later Targum. Lunde, Jonathan M., and John Anthony Dunne. “Paul’s Creative and Contextual Use of Psalm 68 in Ephesians 4:8.” Westminster Theological Journal 74, no. 1 (Spring2012 2012): 99-117. Academic Search Alumni Edition, EBSCOhost (accessed December 7, 2017).


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