A Glorious, Yet Often Misunderstood and Mistranslated, Picture of Christ
This article is posted as a 2-part series. You can find Part 2 here.
The phrases “Root of Jesse” and “Root of David” in Scripture are often misunderstood to refer to the Messiah as a descendant of David and his father Jesse. However, a closer look reveals that the term “root” in Scripture, when used in a genealogical or chronological context, refers to ancestors, predecessors, origin, source, or cause, rather than descendants, successors, or result. While Scripture is quite clear that the Messiah certainly is the “Shoot,” the “Branch,” the “Offspring,” or the “Son” of David and Jesse (all terms for a descendant), the image of the Messiah as the “Root” points us to the contrasting, even paradoxical, truth that the Messiah is not only descended from David and Jesse, but is also their very origin and source—namely, God Himself. Misunderstanding on this point has led to widespread mistranslation of the phrases “Root of Jesse” and “Root of David.”
Part 1 of this two-part paper seeks to demonstrate the biblical meaning of these phrases. Part 2 will trace out various mistranslations that fail to properly include the contrast between Jesus as the “Root” of David versus Jesus as the “Offspring” of David in Revelation 22:16, and will recommend revision of translations and exegetical notes used by translators in order to preserve the beautiful contrasting truth present in these images.
1. Jesus is the “Shoot”
Isaiah 11:1 prophesies of the Messiah:
Then a branch will come from the stump of Jesse, and a shoot from his roots will bear fruit.
וְיָצָ֥א חֹ֖טֶר מִגֵּ֣זַע יִשָׁ֑י וְנֵ֖צֶר מִשָּׁרָשָׁ֥יו יִפְרֶֽה
Jesse here is the ancestor, pictured as a stump with roots. His descendant—that is, the Messiah, a king in the line of David—is pictured as a “shoot” (נֵ֖צֶר nêtser1The word nêtser may be related to the name Nazareth, and may be what Matthew had in mind when he wrote that the Messiah “would be called a Nazarene” (Matthew 2:23). See, for example, Rainer Riesner, “The Nazareth of Jesus,” in The Earliest Perceptions of Jesus in Context: Essays in Honor of John Nolland, ed. Aaron White, David Wenham, and Craig A. Evans (London: Bloomsbury, 2018), 11.) or “branch” (חֹ֖טֶר choter) rising up from the stump of Jesse to reign with justice and faithfulness. The picture of the Messiah as a “branch” or “shoot” from the family line of David and Jesse is also found in several other passages (e.g. Jeremiah 23:5, 33:15, and Zechariah 3:8-9, where the word צֶ֣מַח tsemach “branch” is used). These botanical images connect with the description of the Messiah as the “Son” of David. So the words “branch,” “shoot,” and “son” are all different ways of indicating a descendant, and are all used of the Messiah in relation to Jesse and David.
2. Jesus is the “Root” of Jesse and David
A few verses later, Isaiah writes:
And on that day the Root of Jesse will come, who will stand as a sign to the peoples; the nations will rally to him, and his resting place will be glorious. (Isaiah 11:10)
וְהָיָה֙ בַּיֹּ֣ום הַה֔וּא שֹׁ֣רֶשׁ יִשַׁ֗י אֲשֶׁ֤ר עֹמֵד֙ לְנֵ֣ס עַמִּ֔ים אֵלָ֖יו גֹּויִ֣ם יִדְרֹ֑שׁוּ וְהָיְתָ֥ה מְנֻחָתֹ֖ו כָּבֹֽוד
The phrase “the Root of Jesse” (Hebrew שֹׁ֣רֶשׁ יִשַׁ֗י shoresh Yishay) hearkens back to verse 1, where the Messiah, pictured as a “shoot,” comes up from “his roots” (that is, the roots of Jesse). Clearly a family line is in view somehow—the role of Jesse in the Bible is mainly tied to him being the father of King David, the origin of David’s royal line.
Paul, speaking of Jesus the Messiah, quotes this verse in Romans 15:12:
And again Isaiah says, “The Root of Jesse will come, who will rise to rule the nations;2On the theologically rich difference between Paul’s words “rise to rule” here and the Masoretic text of Isaiah 11:10, which reads “stand as a sign,” see Vitrano-Wilson, “Standing as a Sign, Rising to Rule,” Journal of Biblical Missiology (2020), https://biblicalmissiology.org/2020/12/28/standing-as-a-sign-rising-to-rule/. the nations will hope in Him.”
Similarly, in Revelation, Jesus is twice described as the “Root of David”:
“Look! The Lion from the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has triumphed!” (Revelation 5:5)
“I am the Root and the Offspring of David” (Revelation 22:16)
But what does it mean that Jesus is called the “Root of Jesse” and the “Root of David”? Is “root” here a synonym with the “shoot” and “branch” terms, or does it contrast? Or to put it another way, does “root” here look forward in time (descendant), or back in time (ancestor)? Let us consider the usage of the Hebrew word shoresh “root” elsewhere in Scripture to help find the answer.
3. Use of “Root” in Scripture
The word shoresh “root,” along with its Greek counterpart ῥίζα rhiza, often refers to:
- the root of an actual plant, sometimes embedded in a larger metaphor (Job 14:8, 30:4; Matthew 3:10; Mark 11:20)
- an indication of something being solid and established, “rooted” (Job 8:17, 2 Kings 19:30, Proverbs 12:3, Isaiah 37:31, Ezekiel 17:6; Matthew 13:6)
- an indication of vitality or growth (Job 29:19, Psalm 80:9, Isaiah 5:24, Isaiah 14:30, Jeremiah 17:8, Ezekiel 31:7, Hosea 14:5, Amos 2:9, Malachi 4:1; Matthew 13:6, 21)
(The word is also used to refer to the “soles” of one’s feet, the “foot” of a mountain, or the “depths” of the sea, but these are clearly not the usages relevant to the meaning of “Root of Jesse.”)
None of these provide an obvious answer to the meaning of “Root of Jesse/David.” Yet one more common usage remains:
- the origin, source, ancestor, or cause of something (Job 19:28; Isaiah 11:1, 14:29; Daniel 11:7; Romans 11:16-18; 1 Timothy 6:10)
This final category is central in the phrases “Root of Jesse/David,” as a careful look will illustrate.
Clue #1: Romans 11:16-18
One passage that is especially relevant is Romans 11:16-18. Here, Paul uses “root” to refer to the earlier people of Israel (probably the patriarchs) as predecessors, while the “branches” are the people of Israel in Paul’s day and later:
If the firstfruits are holy, the lump is also; and if the root is holy, the branches are too. But if some of the branches were broken off, and you, being a wild olive tree, were grafted in among them and became partaker with them of the rich root of the olive tree, do not be arrogant toward the branches; but if you are arrogant, remember that it is not you who supports the root, but the root supports you. (Romans 11:16-18)
In Paul’s usage here, the “root” comes before the “branches” in time. Paul uses “root” (rhiza) in parallel with “firstfruit” (ἀπαρχὴ aparchē), related to ἀρχή archē “beginning.” Just as the firstfruits precede the later harvest, the roots precede the branches in time. In this case, therefore, “root” clearly looks back in time, not forward, and is used in contrast to branches, not as a synonym.
Clue #2: 1 Timothy 6:10
Another relevant passage is 1 Timothy 6:10, where Paul says:
For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.
Here, “root” indicates a source or cause. The “root” of loving money comes first, and leads to all kinds of evil as a result. So again, “root” here looks back in time, not forward.
Clue #3: Job 19:28
From the Old Testament we have a similar example, where Job says:
If you say, “Let us persecute him, since the root of the matter lies with him,” …
Again, “root” here (this time the Hebrew shoresh) is used to indicate the cause or source, and looks back in time, not forward.
Clue #4: Isaiah 11:1
Let’s take a closer look at Isaiah 11:1:
Then a branch will come up from the stump of Jesse, and a shoot from his roots will bear fruit.
Earlier in Isaiah 9 and 10, the LORD’s judgment against Israel is described as the destruction of trees by fire and chopping down, which leaves “only a remnant” (10:22). This judgment extends to David’s house, leaving only a “stump.” Yet from this “stump of Jesse,” from Jesse’s “roots,” comes a “branch” and a “shoot” that will bear fruit.
Poetically, Isaiah places “stump” and “roots” in parallel as the source of what comes, and the “branch” and “shoot” in parallel as the later results. Just as Jesse precedes David and his royal line, Jesse’s “roots” precede the Messianic “branch” that sprouts from Jesse. This matches what we have seen elsewhere (such as Romans 11), where “root” and “branch” contrast rather than act as synonyms, and where “root” looks back in time, not forward. There is clearly a genealogical picture in mind here, where “root” is being used in a way that is synonymous with “ancestor,” while “shoot” and “branch” indicate descendant.
This conclusion is especially significant for understanding the meaning of “Root of Jesse” just a few verse later in Isaiah 11:10.
Clue #5: Daniel 11:7
Just as Isaiah 11:1 uses “root” to indicate ancestry or origin, Daniel 11:7 likewise uses “root” for “ancestor.” Here the heavenly messenger prophesies about the “daughter of the king of the South”:
But from a branch of her roots one shall arise in his place. (Daniel 11:7a, NKJV)
וְעָמַ֛ד מִנֵּ֥צֶר שָׁרָשֶׁ֖יהָ כַּנֹּ֑ו
Here, like in Isaiah 11:1, we see “branch” (נֵּ֥צֶר nêtser) referring to descendants, and “roots” referring to ancestry.
Clue #6: Isaiah 14:29
Similarly, in Isaiah 14:29, Philistia is warned:
Don’t rejoice, all of you in Philistia, because the rod of the one who struck you is broken. For from a snake’s root, a viper will come forth, and its fruit will be a flying serpent. (Isaiah 14:29)
אַֽל־תִּשְׂמְחִ֤י פְלֶ֙שֶׁת֙ כֻּלֵּ֔ךְ כִּ֥י נִשְׁבַּ֖ר שֵׁ֣בֶט מַכֵּ֑ךְ כִּֽי־מִשֹּׁ֤רֶשׁ נָחָשׁ֙ יֵ֣צֵא צֶ֔פַע וּפִרְיֹ֖ו שָׂרָ֥ף מְעֹופֵֽף
Here we see a viper “coming forth” from a snake’s “root.” The snake is the source or “parent” of the viper that comes forth from it. Again, the “root” looks back in time at the source or “ancestor,” while here the “fruit” is what results.
In all of these cases so far, it is either unambiguous or highly likely that “root” is being used to look backward in time at the source, origin, ancestor, or cause of something.
Botanically, of course, roots are not the first part of the plant to grow. Instead, both the “shoot” and the “root” come from the germinating seed. We see this picture of a growing plant in Isaiah 53:2:
He grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground.
וַיַּ֨עַל כַּיֹּונֵ֜ק לְפָנָ֗יו וְכַשֹּׁ֙רֶשׁ֙ מֵאֶ֣רֶץ צִיָּ֔ה
Both the terms “root” (שֹּׁ֙רֶשׁ֙ shoresh) and “young plant” (יֹּונֵ֜ק yonêq) are used. Since the text refers to “a root out of dry ground,” presumably with the verb “grew up” still applying, many have argued that in this verse, “root” is acting metonymically to refer to the shoot that comes up from the root. This is certainly plausible, although not certain. It could instead be referring to a frail young root that is unable to penetrate the dry ground and therefore comes up out of the ground. In this case, the imagery would suggest frailty and the difficulty of circumstances for this young plant.
In either case, and crucially, the text does not speak of the “root of” someone, as in Isaiah 11:10, but simply “a root” (that is, it is in absolute form, not construct form). In other words, there is no “ancestor” or descendant in view, and no genealogical or chronological context that would lead us to treat this case as analagous to Isaiah 11.
On the other hand, Hosea 9:16 does speak of Ephraim’s “root,” and does occur in a more genealogical context:
Ephraim is struck down, their root is dried up; they will bear no fruit. Even if they bear children, I will put to death the precious ones of their womb.
הֻכָּ֣ה אֶפְרַ֔יִם שָׁרְשָׁ֥ם יָבֵ֖שׁ פְּרִ֣י בְלִי יַעֲשׂ֑וּן גַּ֚ם כִּ֣י יֵֽלֵד֔וּן וְהֵמַתִּ֖י מַחֲמַדֵּ֥י בִטְנָֽם
Most directly, the statement that Ephraim will bear no “fruit” (a play on words, since “Ephraim” means “twice fruitful”) connects with “bearing children” and the “precious ones of their womb,” since “fruit” (Hebrew פְּרִ֣י pəri) can mean “progeny” or “offspring.” Does “root” here also carry the meaning of “descendants”? Possibly, but there is no reason to think it must. As mentioned above, the word “root” is often used as a symbol of vitality and growth, so Ephraim’s root “drying up” would be a natural way to express judgment against Ephraim in general. Instead, the word “fruit” would connect both to the botanical image of “root” as well as to the idea of offspring. If so, “fruit” is a pivot from “root” toward the meaning of “offspring,” rather than “root” itself carrying the meaning of “offspring.”
We see a similar dynamic in Job 18:16-19:
His roots below dry up, and his branches above wither away.
Memory of him perishes from the earth, and he has no name in the land.
He is driven from light into darkness, and is banished from the world.
He has no progeny or posterity among his people, and there are no survivors where he lived.
מִ֭תַּחַת שָֽׁרָשָׁ֣יו יִבָ֑שׁוּ וּ֝מִמַּ֗עַל יִמַּ֥ל קְצִירֹֽו׃
זִֽכְרֹו־אָ֭בַד מִנִּי־אָ֑רֶץ וְלֹא־שֵׁ֥ם לֹ֝֗ו עַל־פְּנֵי־חֽוּץ׃
יֶ֭הְדְּפֻהוּ מֵאֹ֣ור אֶל־חֹ֑שֶׁךְ וּֽמִתֵּבֵ֥ל יְנִדֻּֽהוּ׃
לֹ֘א נִ֤ין לֹ֣ו וְלֹא־נֶ֣כֶד בְּעַמֹּ֑ו וְאֵ֥ין רִ֗יד בִּמְגוּרָֽיו׃
The idea of “roots” here may conceivably be connected to “progeny,” “posterity,” etc., but more probably it is simply a metaphor of withering and death as a punishment, and that this punishment also includes the loss of his descendants, name, and memory. Just as with “fruit” in the example above, “branches” may be acting as a pivot from a botanical image to the idea of descedants.
Finally, Revelation 5:5 reads:
“Look! The Lion from the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has triumphed!”
ἰδοὺ ἐνίκησεν ὁ λέων ὁ ἐκ τῆς φυλῆς Ἰούδα, ἡ ῥίζα Δαυίδ
Here, the “Lion from the tribe of Judah” clearly has in mind genealogical descent from Judah. Does “Root of David” carry this same meaning, or a related but contrasting meaning of Jesus being the “source” or “origin” of David? A meaning of descent could have been more explicit had a preposition like ἐκ “from, out of” been used, as in the phrase “from (ἐκ) the tribe of Judah,” but its absence from the phrase “Root of David” does not answer this question in any definitive way. The surrounding context of Revelation 5, meanwhile, gives us little indication of its meaning. Most likely, the phrase is simply being used as a Messianic title here, the meaning of which is not explained in this passage.
In summary, while shoresh “root” is clearly used in many places in the Bible to look back in time by referring to source, origin, ancestry or cause, there are no instances in Scripture where it clearly looks forward in time or refers to descendants.3There are a few instances where such a meaning may be present in Hebrew in sources outside the Bible, or in related languages such as Ugaritic or Aramaic, but overall in Hebrew, shoresh is far more likely to carry the meaning of “source” or “origin” than “descendant.” Moreover, the usage within the Bible and the local context strongly suggests a meaning of “source” or “origin” for shoresh in Isaiah 11:10 rather than “descendant,” for which terms like “branch” (צֶ֣מַח tsemach or חֹ֖טֶר choter) or “shoot” (נֵ֖צֶר nêtser) are used instead. The same applies to the use of ῥίζα rhiza “root” in Greek. Moreover, since shoresh in Isaiah 11:10 is found in close proximity to its use in 11:1, we should assume that the same meaning is present in the phrase “Root of Jesse.” Since the Messiah is not the literal “ancestor” of Jesse, we should instead understand the phrase “Root of Jesse” to indicate the source or origin of Jesse, although some genealogical meaning may be metaphorically present.
4. A Final Clue: Revelation 22:13-16
Revelation 22:13-16 may be the most important clue in helping us unlock the meaning of “Root of Jesse” and “Root of David.” In verse 16, Jesus says:
“I am the Root and the Offspring of David”
ἐγώ εἰμι ἡ ῥίζα καὶ τὸ γένος Δαυίδ
The word γένος genos, here translated “offspring,” has various meanings. It can mean “type” or “kind” (e.g. Matthew 13:47, 17:21), as well as “nationality, ethnicity” (e.g. Mark 7:26; Acts 4:36, 18:2) or “kindred” (e.g. Acts 4:6, 7:13, 7:19, 13:26; 2 Corinthians 11:26; Galatians 1:14). Metaphorically, it refers to God’s “offspring” in Acts 17:28:
“For we are also his offspring.”
‘Τοῦ γὰρ καὶ γένος ἐσμέν.’
This usage in Acts 17:28 (and also 17:29) is the closest parallel both in grammar and meaning to what we see in Revelation 22:16. Jesus as the genos of David means that Jesus comes from David, as we all come from God.
If genos here means “offspring” or “descendant,” is “root” (ῥίζα rhiza) here parallel to, or contrasting with, the idea of descent? The context of Revelation 22 gives us an important clue. Jesus says in verse 12 and 13:
“Look! I am coming soon!…I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End.” (Revelation 22:12-13)
Ἰδοὺ ἔρχομαι ταχύ…ἐγὼ τὸ Ἄλφα καὶ τὸ Ὦ, ὁ πρῶτος καὶ ὁ ἔσχατος, ἡ ἀρχὴ καὶ τὸ τέλος.
Here we see a series of contrasting yet complementary images: Jesus is the “Alpha,” but He is also the “Omega.” He is the “First,” but also the “Last;” the “Beginning,” yet also the “End.” Together, these images speak of Jesus’ glorious eternality. In particular, the phrase “the First and the Last” ties into the identity of the Lord (YHWH) Himself, who says in Isaiah:
Who has performed and done this, calling the generations from the beginning? I am the Lord, the first and with the last—I am he. (Isaiah 41:4, CSB)
מִֽי־פָעַ֣ל וְעָשָׂ֔ה קֹרֵ֥א הַדֹּרֹ֖ות מֵרֹ֑אשׁ אֲנִ֤י יְהוָה֙ רִאשֹׁ֔ון וְאֶת־אַחֲרֹנִ֖ים אֲנִי־הֽוּא
Thus says the Lord, the King of Israel and his Redeemer, the Lord of hosts: “I am the first and I am the last; besides me there is no god. (Isaiah 44:6, ESV)
כֹּֽה־אָמַ֨ר יְהוָ֧ה מֶֽלֶךְ־יִשְׂרָאֵ֛ל וְגֹאֲלֹ֖ו יְהוָ֣ה צְבָאֹ֑ות אֲנִ֤י רִאשֹׁון֙ וַאֲנִ֣י אַחֲרֹ֔ון וּמִבַּלְעָדַ֖י אֵ֥ין אֱלֹהִֽים
Listen to me, Jacob, and Israel, the one called by me: I am he; I am the first, I am also the last. (Isaiah 48:12, CSB)
שְׁמַ֤ע אֵלַי֙ יַֽעֲקֹ֔ב וְיִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל מְקֹרָאִ֑י אֲנִי־הוּא֙ אֲנִ֣י רִאשֹׁ֔ון אַ֖ף אֲנִ֥י אַחֲרֹֽון
This repeated theme of the Lord being both the “First” and the “Last” occurs in some of the most highly monotheistic passages of Scripture—and in Revelation 22:13, Jesus applies this title to Himself! This phrase, along with the similar phrases “Beginning and the End” and “Alpha and Omega,” are used throughout Revelation for both God the Father and Jesus (Rev 1:8, 1:17, 2:8, 21:6). In summary, in Revelation 22:13—just three verses before Jesus calls Himself the “Root and the Offspring of David”—Jesus uses a set of three complementary yet contrasting images that strongly identify Him as YHWH, the one true, eternal God of all creation.
The contrasting pairs of Revelation 22:13 shed crucial light on our understanding of what Jesus means when He calls Himself the “Root and the Offspring of David” three verses later. Unless we have clear reasons to do otherwise, we should approach these two images with the mindset that they, too, are likely to be complementary yet contrasting images, possibly also linking together Jesus with God the Father. Is that what we see?
Yes! As we discussed, genos “offspring” speaks of Jesus’ descent from David. Meanwhile, the biblical usage strongly suggests a meaning of “source” or “origin” when the word “root” is used in chronological or genealogical contexts—which certainly includes the phrase “Root of David.” But what would it mean that Jesus is the “source” or “origin” of David? Clearly Jesus is not the “ancestor” of David in any literal sense, but the Scriptures clearly teach that Jesus is the very source of David’s existence—indeed, of the existence of all things! (See, for example, John 1:3, Colossians 1:16, Hebrews 1:2.)
Therefore, when Jesus says, “I am the Root and the Offspring of David,” he is giving a contrasting pair with high Christology, just as we saw in verse 13 with the phrases “First and the Last,” etc. The context in verse 13 supports and reinforces the evidence we have already seen regarding the usage of “root” in Scripture. Jesus is truly the offspring, branch, and Son of David, yet He is also the origin of David and Jesse’s existence—God Himself.
6. Appreciating the Paradox
From a purely genealogical point of view, Jesus is Jesse and David’s descendant, not ancestor. This simple fact accounts for much of why some scholars and translators have understood “Root of Jesse” and “Root of David” as referring to genealogical descent.
However, as we have seen, “root” in both Hebrew and Greek need not refer only to physical ancestry, but can also indicate predecessor, source, origin, or cause. This usage fits well with other theologically rich descriptions of Jesus in Scripture.
For example, Micah 5:2 says of the Messiah that His “origins are from of old, from days long ago.”4 Or “from days of eternity” (Hebrew מִימֵ֥י עֹולָֽם mime ‘olam). John the Baptist says paradoxically of his younger relative Jesus, “He who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me” (John 1:15). Jesus Himself makes this even clearer: when Jewish skeptics rhetorically ask Jesus, “Are you greater than our father Abraham?” (John 8:53)—with the implication that Jesus cannot possibly be greater than his own ancestor—Jesus replies, “Before Abraham was, I am [he]!” (John 8:58).5In Greek ἐγὼ εἰμί ego eimi. This phrase is popularly understood to be a reference to YHWH’s self-declaration to Moses, “I am who I am” (אֶֽהְיֶ֖ה אֲשֶׁ֣ר אֶֽהְיֶ֑ה). This could very well be the case, although perhaps a more straightforward argument can be made that it primarily hearkens back to the key repeated phrase “I am he” (Hebrew אֲנִי־הֽוּא ani hu, or sometimes אָנֹכִ֨י אָנֹכִ֥י ה֛וּא anoki, anoki hu), found especially in Isaiah 40-52 but also in Deuteronomy 32:39. (This phrase is often used in conjunction with the phrase “the first and the last” that we explored earlier—a fact that strengthens the divine implications of both phrases in these contexts, as well as the phrase “the First and the Last” in Revelation 22:13.) When used in an absolute sense by YHWH in these passages, the phrase ani hu is consistently translated ego eimi in the Greek Septuagint, and is strongly associated with the uniqueness of YHWH, His role as creator and savior, and His existence from eternity to eternity. For Jesus to say it of Himself in the context of John 8:58 therefore ties His identity unmistakably with the unique identity of Israel’s one true God. For a detailed treatment, see Catrin H. Williams, I am He: The Interpretation of A̓nî Hû ̓ in Jewish and Early Christian Literature, WUNT 2. Reihe 113 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2000). Paradoxically, Jesus is the predecessor of His own ancestor! Jesus’ listeners rightly understand this to be a reference to His divinity (particularly the “I am [he]” statement), and try to stone him for blasphemy.
Echoes of this truth may also be present in Isaiah 9:6, which says:
For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. (NIV)
Here again we see a paradox, where the “son” born is called “Father,” and also “Mighty God.”
Jesus’ own genealogy also points subtly to this truth. Luke says that Jesus was “the son—so it was thought—of Joseph, [son] of Heli…[son] of Adam, [son] of God” (Luke 3:23-38). The beginning of the genealogy, the “Root” of Jesus’ family tree, is God Himself. So we can say, in a sense, that Jesus, who is the “Beginning and the End,” is Himself both the Beginning (archē) and the End (telos) of David’s family line.
Finally, the idea that Jesus being the “Root” and the “Offspring” or “Shoot” involves a paradoxical yet complementary contrast is strengthened by Jesus’ own surprising exegesis of the identity of the Messiah in His debates with the Pharisees. Jesus asks the Pharisees:
“What do you think about the Messiah? Whose son is he?”
“David’s,” they told him. (Matthew 22:42)6This story is also found in Mark 12:35-37 and Luke 20:41-44.
The Pharisees are not wrong, of course, that the Messiah is the descendant of David. But Jesus shows them they are missing the most important piece of the puzzle by quoting from the famous Messianic text of Psalm 110:1:
He asked them, “How is it then that David, in the Spirit, calls him ‘Lord’:
‘The Lord declared to my Lord, “Sit at My right hand until I put your enemies under your feet”’?
“If David calls Him ‘Lord,’ how then can the Messiah be his Son?” (Matthew 22:43-45)
The Messiah, then, is not just David’s “Son,” but his Lord. Who could be the “Lord” of David—the king of God’s chosen people, the Lord’s anointed, the highest human authority on earth?
Jesus leaves this question intriguingly unanswered here, but all of these pieces tie together into one beautiful truth: Jesus is not just the “shoot” or “offspring” from Jesse and David’s line. He certainly is that, as one who is truly human, but He is much more.
In summary, given the fact that:
- “Root” is used clearly in both the Old and New Testaments to refer to a source, origin, predecessor or cause, and never clearly to refer to the opposite;
- “Root of Jesse” in Isaiah 11:10 comes right after “root” is used to refer to Jesse as the Messiah’s ancestor in verse 1;
- Jesus’ self-description as “the Root and the Offspring of David” come very soon after the three clearly laid out pairs of contrasting yet complementary images in Revelation 22:13 with extremely high Christology;
we can see a strong case for understanding “Root of David” and “Root of Jesse” both in the same way, as referring to Jesus being the One from whom David and Jesse—and indeed, all creation—has its being: God Himself. David, in the Spirit, rightly calls Him “Lord.”
Understanding “Root of David” and “Root of Jesse” this way beautifully integrates these terms with the other contrasting pairs in Revelation 22 that Jesus uses to describe Himself. He is David’s Root and David’s Offspring, David’s Son and David’s Lord, the “Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End” (Revelation 22:13). What beautiful and precious truth!
Having seen the strength of the case for “Root of David” and “Root of Jesse” indicating the very One from whom David and Jesse’s existence comes, and the weakness of the case for these terms indicating descendant, let us now turn in Part 2 to how this phrase has been translated in various languages.
Watch a video presentation on this topic by the author here.
- 1The word nêtser may be related to the name Nazareth, and may be what Matthew had in mind when he wrote that the Messiah “would be called a Nazarene” (Matthew 2:23). See, for example, Rainer Riesner, “The Nazareth of Jesus,” in The Earliest Perceptions of Jesus in Context: Essays in Honor of John Nolland, ed. Aaron White, David Wenham, and Craig A. Evans (London: Bloomsbury, 2018), 11.
- 2On the theologically rich difference between Paul’s words “rise to rule” here and the Masoretic text of Isaiah 11:10, which reads “stand as a sign,” see Vitrano-Wilson, “Standing as a Sign, Rising to Rule,” Journal of Biblical Missiology (2020), https://biblicalmissiology.org/2020/12/28/standing-as-a-sign-rising-to-rule/.
- 3There are a few instances where such a meaning may be present in Hebrew in sources outside the Bible, or in related languages such as Ugaritic or Aramaic, but overall in Hebrew, shoresh is far more likely to carry the meaning of “source” or “origin” than “descendant.” Moreover, the usage within the Bible and the local context strongly suggests a meaning of “source” or “origin” for shoresh in Isaiah 11:10 rather than “descendant,” for which terms like “branch” (צֶ֣מַח tsemach or חֹ֖טֶר choter) or “shoot” (נֵ֖צֶר nêtser) are used instead. The same applies to the use of ῥίζα rhiza “root” in Greek.
- 4Or “from days of eternity” (Hebrew מִימֵ֥י עֹולָֽם mime ‘olam).
- 5In Greek ἐγὼ εἰμί ego eimi. This phrase is popularly understood to be a reference to YHWH’s self-declaration to Moses, “I am who I am” (אֶֽהְיֶ֖ה אֲשֶׁ֣ר אֶֽהְיֶ֑ה). This could very well be the case, although perhaps a more straightforward argument can be made that it primarily hearkens back to the key repeated phrase “I am he” (Hebrew אֲנִי־הֽוּא ani hu, or sometimes אָנֹכִ֨י אָנֹכִ֥י ה֛וּא anoki, anoki hu), found especially in Isaiah 40-52 but also in Deuteronomy 32:39. (This phrase is often used in conjunction with the phrase “the first and the last” that we explored earlier—a fact that strengthens the divine implications of both phrases in these contexts, as well as the phrase “the First and the Last” in Revelation 22:13.) When used in an absolute sense by YHWH in these passages, the phrase ani hu is consistently translated ego eimi in the Greek Septuagint, and is strongly associated with the uniqueness of YHWH, His role as creator and savior, and His existence from eternity to eternity. For Jesus to say it of Himself in the context of John 8:58 therefore ties His identity unmistakably with the unique identity of Israel’s one true God. For a detailed treatment, see Catrin H. Williams, I am He: The Interpretation of A̓nî Hû ̓ in Jewish and Early Christian Literature, WUNT 2. Reihe 113 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2000).
- 6This story is also found in Mark 12:35-37 and Luke 20:41-44.