Currently, I am trying to find out when the plural of majesty became a known Hebrew concept or if it even WAS a known Hebrew literary device. As far as I can see the words “We” and “Us” are commonly used within the Old Testament yet, I find evidence of the Plural of Majesty only being used after the Old Testament was written at about 200 AD and is never used in scripture.
I found this quote out of the commentary “Genesis” by Rabbah, VIII. 8, p. 59 and it says:
“Rabbi Samuel ben Nahman said in Rabbi Jonathan’s name: “When Moses was engaged in writing the Torah, he had to write the work of each day. When he came to the verse, AND GOD SAID; LET US MAKE MAN, etc., he said: ‘Sovereign of the Universe! Why dost Thou furnish an excuse to heretics?’ (for maintaining a plurality of deity). ‘Write,’ replied He; ‘whoever wishes to err may err.’”12 And again, Rabbi Simlai said: “Wherever you find a point supporting the heretics [e.g., Trinitarians], you find the refutation at its side.” They asked him again: “What is meant by, AND GOD SAID: LET US MAKE MAN?” “Read what follows,” replied he: “Not, ‘and gods created man’ is written here, but ‘And God created (Gen. 7).’”
Another Professor of Semitic languages Dr. Gleason Archer wrote: “This first-person plural can hardly be a mere editorial or royal plural that refers to the speaker alone, for no such usage is demonstrable anywhere else in biblical Hebrew. Therefore, we must face the question of who is included in this “us” and “our.” It could hardly include the angels in consultation with God, for nowhere is it ever stated that man was created in the image of angels, only of God. Verse 27 then affirms: “And God [Elohim] created man in His own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female He created them” (NASB). God–the same God who spoke of Himself in the plural–now states that He created man in His image. In other words, the plural equals the singular. This can only be understood in terms of the Trinitarian nature of God. The one true God subsists in three Persons, Persons who are able to confer with one another and carry their plans into action together–without ceasing to be one God.” (Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties, Gleason Archer, p.359, commenting on whether Gen 1:26 is a “plural of majesty”)
I am also trying to find a few old testament Rabbinic scholars to see what they are saying and here are their five cents worth:
“Everyone who is acquainted with the rudiments of the Hebrew and Chaldee languages must know that God, in the holy Writings, very often spoke of Himself in the plural. The passages are numerous, in which, instead of a grammatical agreement between the subject and predicate, we meet with construction, which some modern grammarians, who possess more of the so-called philosophical than of the real knowledge of the Oriental languages, call a pluralism excellentiae. This helps them out of every apparent difficulty. Such a pluralism excellentiae was, however, a thing unknown to Moses and the prophets. Pharaoh, Nebuchadnezzar, David, and all the other kings, throughout TeNaKh (the Law, the Prophets, and the Hagiographa) speak in the singular, and not as modern kings in the plural. They do not say we, but I, command; as in Gen. xli. 41; Dan. iii. 29; Ezra i. 2, etc.”
(Rabbi Tzvi Nassi, Oxford University professor, The Great Mystery, 1970, p6, )
In my research so far I have come to the conclusion that the majestic plurality is a poetic device that was started to be used in the 4th century. Other cultures that lived during the time of Moses never used the plural “Elohim”, the way the Bible does but instead used the simple singular “el”. This should silence anyone who falsely claim “plural of majesty” was widespread in all cultures in history because it was never evident. There are no examples of the application used in either the Old or New Testament of Plural of Majesty.
Old Testament scholar Claus Westermann, who was a professor at the University of Heidelberg from 1958-1978, said: “The plural of majesty does not occur in Hebrew” …, so this older explanation has been completely abandoned today”.
(Westermann, Genesis 1-11: A Commentary (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1994), 145
Further, Professor of the Old Testament, Gerhard F. Hasel of Andrews University, stated: .. “there are no certain examples of plurals of majesty with either verbs or pronouns … the verb used in Gn 1:26 (‘āśāh) is never used with a plural of majesty. There is no linguistic or grammatical basis upon which the ‘us’ can be considered to be a plural of majesty.”
(Hasel, “The Meaning of ‘Let Us’ in Gn 1:26,” Andrews University Seminary Studies 13 (1975), 63-64)
I’m reading all the material above and not one is speaking about the historical origins of the “principle” of plurality of majesty; but rather the “use” of “principle” of the majesty of plurality. The above also mention the plurality found in the word Elohim. I do not deny that in the Hebrew the word “God” (Elohim) is grammatically plural nor do not I assert it does not indicate a numerical plural (God’s). Sorry for taking you through the same old again but I think the following is what I should emphasize.
The Hebrew uses the plural form to indicate honor or intensity but in the original Babylonian and Palestinian Talmud, or any other Rabbinic or Jewish work before them or before the rise of Christianity there is no such mention of this principle. There is great confusion about the use of the principle and the actual conception of the principle. And I don’t want you to confuse principle with usage. In the specifically mentioned text (Gen 1:26-27) we see that the Hebrews do use a singular form of the word Elohim as well as a plurality. But again nowhere do the original texts use the “plurality of majesty”; it is a principle that does not predate even the 4th Century. Thereby I need to be honest with the original text and not interpret any principle that predates its conception. Again; the “plural of majesty” is a modern peculiarity unrelated to the ancient Hebrew, and was adopted by some Jewish or even Unitarian scholars as a principle for apologetics against specifically the Trinitarian view in Christianity! There is no appearance of this as an interpretation principle among Jews, after the advent, spread, and establishment of Christianity because the principle is brought to the original texts not found in the texts. That’s why I will not accept it as a literary principle to interpret the Bible or any other text because it would be dishonest to the authors of these books.
Something else to ponder is that there is no example in the writings of Moses where royalty uses this convention of speech. Why? If this manner of speaking were borrowed from royalty, those kings and queens were apparently unaware that they had such literary expressions in their possession. Also, note that “Kings” were introduced only much later in the Hebrew concept rather than specifically in Moses’s time? If you use this to explain the concept you have to make good the assumed claim to know the customs of ancient kings better than Moses did! To read a later principle back into these passages of the Old Testament is anachronistic and unacceptable from the standpoint of sound hermeneutics.
In closing even if it were granted for the sake of argument that the Bible sometimes uses the “plural of majesty” as a literary device, it would not prove that God Himself ever employs this manner of speaking or that the passages in question are to be explained in this way. It would have to be demonstrated, not just asserted, that God employs such rhetoric and that He was doing so here. Just what evidence is there that God “mimics the manner and pomp of earthly royalty,” as Martin Luther once quipped? And if God does sometimes imitate earthly royalty, what proof is there that He is doing that on this occasion?
The Plural of Majesty is a bit of a conundrum at this stage yet, so far in my research I find nothing that seems to indicate the “We” and “Us” in the Hebrew text to be derived from this literary concept. If you have any additional info please let me know?
Rudolph P. Boshoff.