Did “Top Psychics” Predict Jesus? (1999)
Robert M. Price
For many centuries, indeed from the first century on, Christians have urged as proof of their faith that certain aspects of the life of Jesus corresponded to the predictions of ancient prophets in such a way as to rule out either coincidence or human design. Critical study of the Bible has both made such an apologetic highly implausible for many and at the same time provided a floodlight of new clarity on the texts involved. The result is ironic: those who want nothing more than a more accurate grasp of the biblical text rejoice in the great advances in understanding both Old and New Testaments, while those who profess to love the Bible most while merely using it as a prooftext for a particular theological position have been deprived of one of their chief rhetorical tools. As I will try to show in this article, defenders of the fundamentalist Christian faith, like Josh McDowell, have in fact lost the luxury of an easy appeal to fulfilled prophecy even if they remain stubbornly oblivious of the advances of modern biblical scholarship; this is because biblical scholarship has thrown their appeals to the “proof from prophecy” so seriously into question that their task is now to defend it, no longer to use it as a powerful defense for something else, i.e., the true messiahship of Jesus. Any appeal to “proof from prophecy” today only lengthens the line of defense rather than shortening it.
We must begin our task by reframing McDowell’s question. Rather than accepting his question-begging query “Did Jesus fulfill all these Messianic prophecies?” we have to go back and ask first what was a messianic prophecy. As we will see, a great number of the texts McDowell (with the historic tradition of apologetics) deems messianic predictions are actually passages taken completely out of context and matched up with gospel events by means of fortuitous word-associations. These Old Testament texts, in other words, become messianic prophecies only in the New Testament, not in the Old. This is a vital point simply because the “proof from prophecy” presupposes that Jesus managed the humanly impossible task of meeting the requirements of messianic prophecy already established and long recognized. It would be quite a different thing, though by no means a bad one, if he had instead created, or prompted the creation of, a whole new way of viewing old texts, which is what I think he did. But in this event, there can be no question of evidence and proof.
It appears that the hope of a “messiah,” or anointed king, appeared first in ancient Judah (not Israel, for which we lack evidence, given the Judean bias of the eventual compilers of the Bible), after the destruction of the Davidic monarchy by the Babylonian conquerors in 586 B.C.E. Jeremiah made this crisis understandable by announcing that the conquest was the result of God punishing his people for their failure to live up to Josiah’s Deuteronomic Covenant. No, the people continued to worship the Baals and reneged on their pledges to free their slaves. Such disobedience would cost them their independence. While most Jews remained in their homeland, their aristocracy and priesthood were deported to Babylon. King Zedekiah lived under house arrest in the Babylonian court. For centuries Jews, whether under foreign rule in their own land, or among the Diaspora, longed for the return of national sovereignty. Since, unlike the North (the Kingdom of Israel), their monarchy was restricted to Davidic rulers, a return to national sovereignty meant a return to Davidic rule. 2 Samuel 2:11-16, repeated in Jeremiah 33:14-18, served as the dynastic charter for the house of David.
In the cold dawn of the Babylonian conquest, the hope for a restored dynasty of David began to express itself in prophecies like that in Isaiah 10:33-12:6, in which Yahve is said to have taken an ax to the roots of the Davidic monarchy, but hope is nonetheless expressed that eventually he will relent and allow a tender shoot of new life to emerge from the old, apparently dead stump of the royal family tree: a new Davidic heir. “The stump of Jesse” (Isaiah 11:1) refers to the moribund monarchy of David, Jesse being David’s father. Some scholars have suggested that the point of the prophecy is to abandon David’s lineal descendants (perhaps because they might all have been eradicated in a purge) and claim credentials for a related, collateral line also descending from the same clan; hence the reference to Jesse rather than David. In this case, the prophet would be picking up the pieces, saying that God would go back to the same source. The interpretation has much to be said for it, but who knows? The reference to Jesse rather than to David himself may merely be a piece of metonymy, allowing the source to stand for the product, father for son.
It may be significant that down in 11:10, the beginning of a prose section (the preceding portion being verse, hence a different source), we read of the “root of Jesse,” a metaphor lacking the crucial element implied by the “shoot and stump” metaphor, namely the idea of restoration of a failed dynasty, a resumption after a severing of the thread. In other words, this part of the Isaiah text may have referred originally to the projected glories of a reigning, not a future, king.
Another text apparently treating of a future restoration of the monarchy of David is Micah 5:2-4, which speaks of a future ruler with ancient origins, “from of old,” namely from Bethlehem, the town of David. While early Christians took this verse to mean the messiah would be born literally in Bethlehem, it may well be another piece of metonymy, this time using David’s hometown rather than his father as a metonymic substitute for his name. The point would be that God would return to the same place for a Judean king, not, as in Israel to the north, beginning again with a new dynasty. It seemed important to point this out because of the status 2 Samuel 7 enjoyed as a prophetic guarantee of the rights of David’s line (witness the problems that arose centuries later when the Levitical Hasmonean dynasty took over after winning independence for Judah).
A third “messianic” text would be Zechariah 9:9, where we are told that the monarchy will reinaugurated in peace time, denoted by the conveyance of the donkey, rather than a stallion appropriate to triumph in war. The point would seem to be to make the hoped-for restoration a providential gift of God rather than the hard-won product of bloody conflict.
Ezekiel 34:22-24; 37:24 has in view the return of the leaders of Judah from the Babylonian exile, and, again, it envisions a restoration of the Davidic monarchy. Whereas Isaiah 11 uses the apparent metonym “Jesse” and Micah uses the metonym “Bethlehem,” Ezekiel uses the name of “David” himself to stand for the restored monarchy. Then again, can we rule out a literal belief on Ezekiel’s part that David himself would return, just as Malachi seems to have predicted a literal return of Elijah? We cannot say for certain.
It is crucial to note that in all these cases, what we read of is an expectation, a promise, of the resumption of Judean independence under the Davidic dynasty. What we do not read of is the coming of one immortal, divine man who will reign forever. This element will eventually appear in later Judaism, e.g., in 4 Ezra 7:28-29, where we read that the Messiah will reign for four centuries. But we are interested not so much in the history of messianic speculation as we are in what the Old Testament prophets actually say concerning a Davidic messiah.
To understand some of the language of the relevant texts we need to acquaint ourselves with what some scholars call the “royal ideology” of the Davidic monarchy. Sigmund Mowinkel’s He That Cometh: The Messiah Concept in the Old Testament and Later Judaism (1954) is the classic treatment. As all Bible students know, the very institution of the monarchy was simply lifted from the surrounding nations, replacing an earlier, much looser tribal confederation (1 Samuel 8:4-5). It should come as no surprise then, that the accoutrements of the institution were borrowed, too, lock, stock and barrel (which is what the warnings against monarchy in 1 Samuel 8:10-18 and Deuteronomy 17:14-20 were concerned with). Among these were an ideology exalting the king’s authority to that of a god on earth. The propaganda value of this is obvious: what would Richard Nixon not have given for such an aura of, or legitimation for, absolute power? This is why the king could actually be addressed as God (Psalm 45:6-7, a royal wedding song) or as the earthly son of God (Psalm 2:7, a birth oracle or coronation song–see below)–just like the Egyptian Pharaohs, whose names denoted their divine parentage: Thutmose (Son of Thoth), Ramses (Son of Ra). When each new king was crowned, he came into possession of his divine status or nature, and hopes were expressed for a reign of perfect righteousness, universal justice and amnesty to prisoners, even peace among animals. We find the same pattern attested for the sacred kings of ancient Iran. Finally, we ought to note that all Judean kings were “messiahs,” anointed with oil as a symbol of consecration to their office.
Now we are in a position to recognize that several passages which were reinterpreted by New Testament writers as predictions of a messiah were first intended as birth or enthronement oracles, or as coronation anthems. The “messiah” and “son” of Yahve in Psalm 2 is every new king of Judah, as the song was ritually performed by king and levitical singer each time a new king came to the throne. Psalm 110 makes pro forma predictions for military victories by the new sovereign and secures for him the hereditary prerogatives of the old Melchizedek priesthood (taken over by David when he annexed Jebusite [Jeru-]Salem and made it his capital). It (110:3) also makes him, like the king of Babylon (Isaiah 14:12), the son of the Semitic dawn goddess Shahar (translated incorrectly as a common noun, “dawn,” in most Bibles). Isaiah 9:2-7 is either a coronation oracle or a birth oracle in honor of a newborn heir to the throne, depending on whether “unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given” (verse 6) refers to the literal birth or the adoption as Yahve’s “son” on the day of coronation (“this day I have begotten thee,” Psalm 2:7). The epithets bestowed on the king in Isaiah 9:6, “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father [cf., 1 Kings 1:31: “May my lord King David live forever!”], Prince of Peace,” are the divine titles of Pharaoh and have been borrowed directly from Egyptian court rhetoric.
Isaiah 61:1-4 is apparently yet another piece of inauguration liturgy, much like the inaugural oath sworn by the President of the United States, hand on Bible, pledging universal justice and amnesty to prisoners (which may or may not have actually have been granted!).
Isaiah 7:14 may perhaps have been a similar birth oracle, casting the newly conceived or newborn royal heir in the role of the son of the virgin goddess Anath (equivalent to Shahar as in Psalm 110), though if so, it has been reapplied by the writer/redactor of Isaiah 7 as a reference to one of Isaiah’s own sons, whom he named after his prophecies so as to remind people of his words once they came to pass (as if he had named his son Mark, to stand for “Mark my words!”), as he also does in Isaiah 8:1-4, similar in other important details to 7:14 as well.
It now becomes easy to recognize two other pieces of supposed “messianic prophecy” as birth/coronation oracles of this type, and thus as ornamental court rhetoric, not as genuine predictive prophecies at all, or at least not predictions of distant events. The first of these is Jeremiah 33:14-18, where the “righteous branch” (notice: nothing about a cut-off stump this time) seems certainly to be Zedekiah (“Yahve is Righteous”), the Judean king carried off into exile, whose ignominious fate thus belied the early hopes expressed on his behalf. If this optimistic appraisal of Zedekiah seems little to comport with Jeremiah’s dim view of this king expressed elsewhere in the book (contrast also 33:18 with 7:22; 8:8), it may come as no surprise to find that these verses do not appear in the Septuagint version of Jeremiah and thus may be later interpolations.
The other possible birth/coronation oracle is Isaiah 11:1-9, to which we have already given some attention. Now let us consider the possibility that in this case an old birth/coronation oracle has been reapplied as a prediction of an eventual restoration of the monarchy. All that would have been necessary is the alteration of a reference to a branch of Jesse’s line to a shoot from Jesse’s stump. Remember that 11:10 speaks of the “root” of Jesse, implying perhaps that the reference is to a currently reigning king, not some future successor. If this alteration has occurred, it would be a very instructive one, for it would be the beginning of the otherwise post-Old Testament tendency to reinterpret royal texts as future-restoration texts, i.e., messianic texts in the traditional sense.
By my reckoning there remain a pair of other messianic texts in the Old Testament, but these, too, are more in the nature of enthronement oracles, royal propaganda. They are Haggai 2:20-23 and Zechariah chapter 4 and 6:9-13a, which are post-Exilic and presuppose civil war in the Persian Empire, which these prophets supposed would lead to the fall of Persia and the restoration of Jewish sovereignty. Haggai and Zechariah were great champions of Zerubbabel and Joshua, the former a Davidic descendant appointed governor of Judea by the Persian overlords, the latter the current high priest. These two had seen to the rebuilding of the Temple, and for this Haggai and Zechariah decided they must both be anointed, messiahs, one royal, the other priestly. (Here we can observe the beginning of the two-messiah doctrine traceable through the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, and the Rabbinic expectation of Messiah ben-David and Messiah ben-Joseph.)
Haggai and Zechariah, then, do not so much predict the future coming of some Davidic successor; they are already unstoppering the anointing oil! They have a candidate in mind! For them, Zerubbabel was the Davidic messiah. Sadly, they were a bit premature. And this casts a somewhat different light on the business in Zechariah 9:9 about the messianic entry into Jerusalem: is this even a predictive prophecy if the point was to call attention to the supposed messianic advent of a contemporary figure?
We might as well consider Isaiah 52:13-15; 53:1-12 here; nothing in the text suggests any connection with the hope of a coming messiah, and it seems to have had nothing to do with birth or coronation oracles, it does represent an aspect of the royal ideology of the ancient Judean god-king, again, derived from the adjacent civilizations. This time, as Helmer Ringgren shows at considerable length (The Messiah in the Old Testament, 1956) we are dealing with a fossil of the ancient New Year’s Festival, which, like its prototype in Babylon, renewed the heavenly mandate of the monarchy by having the king undergo, in ritual drama, the fate of the ancient gods whose kingship he represented on earth. Psalm 74 and 89 preserve substantial fragments of the myth of Yahve’s primordial combat with the dragons Leviathan, Behemoth, Rahab and Tiamat, as well as the ensuing creation of the world and ascension of the young warrior god to kingship among his brethren, the sons of El Elyon. Like his analogues in Babylon and elsewhere, the king of Judah must have annually renewed his divine right to rule by ritually reenacting this combat. It is to such continued ritual use that we owe their preservation of such mythemes in the biblical canon at all.
In the same way, the kings of Babylon, Iran, etc., as part of the same ritual, would re-enact the death and resurrection of a god (Tammuz, Baal. etc.), a drama in which the king ritually assumed the burden of the fertility of the land and the sins of his people. Sometimes this entailed a mock death, sometimes the actual death of a poor surrogate chosen by lot, sometimes a mere ritual humiliation, as when the Babylonian high priest publicly removed the king’s crown, tweaked his ears, and slapped his face. Protesting his innocence, the king would don his robe and crown again and rise to full power once more, redeeming his people in a ritual atonement in which he himself had played the role of scapegoat. Isaiah 52:13-15; 53:1-12 seems to reflect the Hebrew version of the same liturgy, which gave way after the Exile (with no king on the throne any more) to the familiar Yom Kippur ritual. Another surviving vestige of the worship of Tammuz and his divine consort Ishtar Shalmith (“the Shulamite”) is the Song of Songs. Remember that Ezekiel attests explicitly the continuation of the worship of Tammuz in Jerusalem in Ezekiel 8:14.
But what is the function of the text in its present context, the announcement of glad tidings of the impending return of the Exilic community of aristocrats and priests to the Holy Land? The old text has been updated, reapplied to a new situation. As Morna Hooker (Jesus and the Servant, 1959), argues, the text as we now read it functions as part of an apologetic for the returning exiles who sought to enhance their position in the eyes of their contemporaries who had remained in the homeland all this time and had ascribed the deportation of their leaders to the leaders’ sinfulness, not their own. The so-called Servant Song of Isaiah 52-53 attempts to turn the tables by insisting that it was the innocent minority (or righteous remnant) which was taken away to punishment not because of their own sins but in the place of those who actually did the sinning, the reprobate who remained behind! Thus did they think to theologize the privilege accorded them by their royal Persian patrons. We are not surprised to learn in Ezra and Nehemiah of severe tensions between the newly-returned leaders, with heir arrogant “take-charge” attitude, and the people of the land who had never left. So Isaiah 52-53 in its present context represents a secondary reinterpretation where by the returning exiles are the suffering servant of Yahve, once mistakenly blamed for their own punishment when, from their own viewpoint, they were taking it on behalf of the very upstarts who contemned them as sinners. It is they who, having suffered on behalf of sinners, will be exalted to the glory due them (in their own estimation, anyway).
Some (Ivan Engnell, Studies in Divine Kingship, 1943, followed by Helmer Ringgren, The Messiah in the Old Testament, 1956) would see Psalm 22 as part of the same royal-divine humiliation liturgy, seeing that various of the Psalms (all of which had a ritual setting in the Temple–none were private lyric poems) are written just for the king’s use and that the Psalm does share Isaiah 52-53’s pattern of shameful suffering giving way to final (if only implied) vindication. That may be, but I tend rather to go with Hermann Gunkel (The Psalms, 1967) and Sigmund Mowinkel (The Psalms in Israel’s Worship, 1962) in seeing Psalm 22 as simply a member of the larger category of Lament Psalms. For examples, see Psalms 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 17, 25, 26, 28, 31, 35.
These were essentially scripts of suffering and prayers for vindication, pledging to return to the Temple to present a sacrificial feast to which the poor should be invited, to celebrate Yahve’s deliverance. On that occasion, “a new song,” one of the Thank-offering Psalms (e.g., 9, 30, 32, 33, 34), would be sung instead of the present gloomy lament. The “Everyman” character of the Lament Psalm is evident from the vagueness and symbolism with which the envisioned trials and tribulations are described: wild dogs nipping at one’s heels, strong bulls and lions, rising waters up to one’s neck. Fill in the blanks as appropriate. “They have pierced my hands and feet” (22:16b), cited by apologists as a reference to the nail-wounds of crucifixion, make more sense in context as bite- and claw-wounds incurred by the sufferer as he tries to fend off the wild animals snapping at him (22:16a), the symbols of his real-life dilemmas. What/who were these? Creditors? Political enemies? Romantic rivals? Vendetta avengers? Legal plaintiffs?
Psalm 22, any more than any other lament psalm, is no prophecy of any kind, no prediction of anything, much less of the crucifixion of Jesus. One can, on the other hand, easily imagine Jesus taking such a psalm as a fitting prayer in his hour of desperation, as Mark seems to imply he is doing, by having him quoting the first lines of it, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”
When we see what sort of ancient meaning-contexts gave rise to the several texts that Christian apologists claim as messianic prophecies, we can readily see many points of correspondence between the ancient texts and the Gospel story of Jesus. But the connection is not as the apologists imagine, that Old Testament prophets made predictions and Jesus fulfilled them. Rather, the texts, very few of them prophecies at all, contain potent mythemes which recur in the Hellenistic Jewish milieu of early Christianity: the divine king, the dying and rising savior, the atoning suffering of the innocent on behalf of the guilty who blame him, etc. So the New and the Old Testament texts share common roots: the rich mulch of religious and mythical ideas of the ancient Mediterranean world. It is by no means necessary to posit divine prediction in one or the other to explain the correspondences.
We have seen that the apologists’ notion of messianic prophecy has precious little to do with the apparent intentions of the Old Testament scriptures they cite. Now we shall see how little their notion of the fulfillment of messianic prophecy has to do with the New Testament concept of fulfillment. First, what do the apologists seem to have in mind? They seem to mean that there was a raft of predictions of things that would happen to God’s anointed one, things no mortal could engineer on his own initiative. The predictions, supposedly, were there on the books for anyone to read, much like the legend of the sword in the stone: He who draws the sword shall be king of all England. Many try to dislodge the blade Excalibur, but all fail till young Arthur tries and succeeds. Thus, there was a publicly understood prophecy functioning as a credential or condition for a coming king, and someone met that condition, proving himself the rightful king. A similar story is told of Alexander the Great cutting the Gordian Knot (“He who undoes the knot shall be ruler of all Asia”). But is this what the New Testament writers meant when they affirmed that Jesus had fulfilled Old Testament prophecy? I think not. Of all the New Testament writers, Matthew provides us with the clearest idea of what such an early Christian appeal to prophecy meant.
Matthew appears to have shared the hermeneutical assumption of the scribes of the Dead Sea Scrolls Habakkuk Commentary, namely that old texts were full of hitherto-hidden cipher-allusions to recent events transpiring in the life of his particular sect. The idea was that specific predictions had long ago been “smuggled in” by divine inspiration below any discernible straightforward reading of the text. One could most certainly not have read the Old Testament texts to determine beforehand what would happen. Rather, it was only in retrospect, once the secretly predicted events had come to pass, that the initiated reader could, by means of striking, punlike verbal associations, tune in to the esoteric meaning of the text. In this manner, the Dead Sea Scrolls sectarians read any reference to “the righteous” as predicting some aspect of the life and work of their guru, the Righteous Teacher. For an excellent discussion of this “pesher” technique and its use by the New Testament writers see Biblical Exegesis in the Apostolic Period (1975) by Richard Longenecker, a veteran Evangelical New Testament scholar.
Such an approach to “fulfilled prophecy” was the very opposite of the traditional Christian notion that reading publicly, literally understood predictions should have lead any Bible reader to faith in Jesus as Messiah, since anyone could have seen that he fulfilled them, e.g., by being born in the right place. The idea was not that the publicly discernible correspondence between predictions and events in the life of Jesus would lead one to faith (the apologists’ own aim to “demand a verdict”), but rather that, once one had Christian faith, old texts took on a new layer of meaning which hitherto, before the “prophesied” fact and before one accepted faith in Jesus, could never have been recognized as a prophecy in the first place! It was not that if you refused to hear the voice of prophecy you weren’t entitled to be part of Jesus flock. Rather, you could only hear the voice of prophecy if you were already part of that flock. Faith provided a new and esoteric hermeneutical perspective. Exoteric, publicly available exegesis did not lead to faith. You came to faith in Jesus first on other grounds, the simple preaching of the gospel, and then Christ began to open the scriptures to your wondering eyes. Only then did your heart begin to burn within you.
As I say, Matthew appears to have been operating with this sort of understanding. His programmatic statement is to be found in Matthew 13:52, where we read of the distinctive role and prerogative of the Christian exegete, the “scribe trained for the kingdom of heaven.” He is like a householder who is able to display out of the store-house treasures old and new. The treasury of a scribe is certainly the scriptures. The old goods he brings forth from there are the literal, conventional interpretations, while the new items are new readings made possible by the new esoteric key he possesses as a Christian, thanks to the charismatic illumination of the Holy Spirit. This understanding is borne out by Matthew’s treatment of Old Testament scripture throughout the rest of his Gospel, notably the series of “formula quotations” (see Krister Stendahl, The School of St. Matthew and Its Use of the Old Testament, 1954). Matthew has a number of stories which he announces as having happened in order that the word of the Lord through the prophet might be fulfilled. In virtually every case, the fulfillment works only if one completely disregards the Old Testament context.
One example would be Isaiah 7:14, which Matthew sees as predicting the birth of Jesus. Yet, as a simple reading of the whole chapter of Isaiah makes unmistakably clear, that prophecy of Isaiah dealt with contemporary events many centuries before: the birth of a child who would not be old enough to spit out food he didn’t like by the time the threatening coalition of Israel and Syria had been wiped off the map by the Assyrian Empire. The original, literal relevance of the passage was long ago exhausted, save as a testimonial to God’s faithfulness to Judah. Matthew certainly knew this; no one could miss it. By the same token, he could never have invoked the Isaiah passage as a proof in the manner of subsequent apologists, i.e., as a straightforward prediction of Jesus’ birth, as any skeptics would immediately dismiss the citation, understood literally. Matthew would only be inviting ridicule.
Similarly, when he cited Hosea 11:1, “Out of Egypt I have called my son,” and refers it to the return of the Holy Family from Egypt after the death of Herod the Great, he just cannot have thought he was reproducing the literal, historical intent of Hosea, which has rather to do with the Exodus. No reader of Hosea could possibly think it meant anything else. Nor could Matthew have expected him to. In both cases (and in many others), it seems much more likely that Matthew was interpreting scriptural passages as the Qumran sectarians did. The references to events in King Ahaz’s day and the time of the Exodus were the exoteric, universally recognized “old treasures” available to any reader, to the old scribe and the new, while the references perceived in these verses to the nativity of Jesus are examples of the new goods available only to the scribe trained for the kingdom of heaven by means of esoteric exegesis. Matthew gives no sign of rejecting the old, conventional interpretations; he merely adds new levels of meaning newly available to the eye of Christian faith.
In all this, there is nothing of the apologetical appeal to public, long-standing messianic claims. Matthew was not aiming at the same thing subsequent Christian apologists were. Why the change? Why did apologists, ancient (I would include Luke) and modern, shift over to an incredible appeal to Old Testament proof texts as if the Christian reinterpretation represented the original intentions of the prophets to predict Jesus? I think it is because very shortly, the vast majority of Christians, and Christian scholars, were Greek-speaking Gentiles who were accustomed to reading only the Greek Septuagint and reading it with only a Christian application in mind. They viewed the Old Testament dispensation simply as the time of waiting for the Christ, and the Old Testament characters as pretty much “Christians before Christ” (to borrow Justin Martyr’s term for Socrates and other Greek spokesmen for the Logos). They read the Old Testament anachronistically, made it into a Christian book, and began to suppose that Isaiah had nothing in mind other than predicting Jesus Christ. Here and there one catches an early Christian voice protesting that the Old Testament author could not have had Jesus in mind, e.g., Marcion of Pontus, Theodore of Mopsuestia, who held out for a literal, non-messianic reading of most or all of the Old Testament, but these, obviously, are the exceptions that prove the rule.
Even if most did read the Old Testament as a Christian document even on the surface, Christian hermeneutics did not theoretically demand this. Most exegetes held in common with Origen some sort of multi-sense hermeneutic, whereby the surface, literal sense was often not even the most important one. One could still find the messianic sense in one of these esoteric levels of meaning, and many of the supposed “messianic” predictions that Hal Lindsay and others today seem to take as the surface meaning were relegated to secondary, non-literal interpretations by the ancients. Where the crisis really came was at the time of the Protestant Reformation, when to rule out Catholic appeals to non-literal meanings on behalf of the papacy or the sale of indulgences, Martin Luther rejected, on principle, any but the straightforward, surface sense of any text as recoverable by means of the grammatico-historical method. At the same time, it did not occur to him to break with traditional appeals to Old Testament prophecy to prove that Christians were right and Jews were wrong about Jesus. This is what created the intolerable bind in which fundamentalist apologists find themselves in today (though they seem oblivious to the difficulty, one suspects because they share the same merely opportunistic interest that ancient Christians had in the Old Testament as a source of Christian proof texts).
If you do not believe there is a secret zone of subtle, esoteric meaning in Scripture, placed there (or placed in the mind of the Christian reader) by the Holy Spirit, if you insist that what the Bible says, it can say only by grammatico-historical interpretation, and you are hell-bent on finding Jesus in the Old Testament, you are inevitably going to assume that all of Matthew’s Old Testament citations represent the literal, authorial intention of the Old Testament writers. And since any straightforward reading of the Old Testament texts in question makes it apparent that no such reference to Jesus was in view, the appeal to prophecy becomes something quite different from what it was either for Matthew (who sought to prove nothing by it) or for ancient and medieval apologists who had completely lost sight of the historic meaning of the Old Testament texts or were more interested in imaginary “deeper” levels of meaning. Now you had the spectacle of exegetes who insisted on the literal, grammatico-historical meaning of Old Testament text as well as New Testament text– and had their work cut out for them since the two seldom seemed to agree. This means, in short, that the appeal to prophecy had passed from the offensive to the defensive: to square the Old Testament “prediction” with the New Testament “fulfillment,” you had to try to show they agreed despite appearances. In other words, the proof from prophecy had become but another case of harmonizing apparent contradictions in the text.
And harmonized contradictions can never be the basis of appeal for assertions as dubious as they. You cannot get very far appealing to something as evidence which you have just admitted does not look like evidence but may be read that way if you try hard enough.
Though I have never run across an apologist (certainly there may be some) who is even aware of the original contexts and meanings of the passages I have reviewed above, I can imagine the strategy of such an apologist would be to charge that scholars have just invented all these clever categories (“birth oracles,” “lament psalms,” etc.) to evade the force of messianic prophecy. Why anyone would do that is beyond me. In any case, such a desperate suggestion has to come to grips with the wider utility of the categories. That is, if these form-critical categories are mere exegetical phantoms invented to make mischief for apologetics, why do they, how can they, make so much sense in illuminating the sense of many other similar Old Testament texts which are irrelevant to the apologetics debate? The categories in which I have placed most of the major “messianic” texts do not exist for the sake of denying the texts to apologetical use. They exist as an interpretive tool for a much broader selection of texts in their own right.
But we can recognize a familiar style of apologetical argumentation here: to argue for the uniqueness of an item the apologist wants, for dogmatic reasons, to privilege. In the same way, Creationists go to any imaginable lengths to deny that humans evolved from ape-like ancestors despite the fact that the two seem so much alike. The strong, apparently “family” resemblances between reptiles and amphibians, etc., would seem to imply a common descent, but, no, the fundamentalist wants to have it that God simply made a lot of similar things discretely at different times, that he just happened to like the basic design and kept repeating parts of it. If ancient myths of dying and rising gods, of miracle-working divine men, of world-drenching floods and saints walking on water seem so close to biblical stories as to imply a common membership in a body of myth and folklore, the fundamentalist will insist that the resemblances are illusory, or that in the particular case he has a vested interest in, “myth became fact.” Tillich saw the urgency here: religion never easily allows itself to be subsumed as one of a larger species under a larger category, for this takes away the uniqueness, the ultimacy, and the absolute explanatory power religion likes to claim as a divine revelation discontinuous with mere human speculation and therefore superior to it. The Grand Inquisitor never wants his divine truth to be revealed as being no less a human creation than that of the rivals he persecutes. The Wizard of Oz never wants to have anyone pay attention to the man behind the curtain.
I mentioned that there were a small number of genuine predictions of a coming messiah, a king who would be the first in a renewed series of David heirs. Does Jesus fulfill these modest predictions? By this time it almost seems moot even to ask. Did he ride a donkey into Jerusalem? Yes, like thousands of other people. The claim that he fulfilled this prophecy fails to understand the point of prediction, namely that the messianic king would not have to fight his way to the throne since, in the providence of God who shakes the thrones of kingdoms, the Persian Empire would shortly collapse under its own weight, leaving Jews free to reassert their national sovereignty as, say, little Moldova did after the fall of the Soviet Union. And since the Triumphal Entry stories do not issue in Jesus being inaugurated as king of an earthly kingdom, the question of how he came to that throne, violently or peacefully, does not even arise. And besides, as we have seen, to ask if he fulfilled the prophecy is moot since Zechariah had someone else in mind: his contemporary Zerubbabel. It is like modern fundamentalist efforts to decode 666 as Henry Kissinger or the Universal Product Code: save your breath; it was already Nero (Neron Kaisar = 666).
Was the Messiah to be born in Bethlehem? One might read Micah 5 that way, as some Jews did, but it is not necessary. And even if it was, the Gospel accounts of the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem notoriously contradict each other. And there will never be any way of proving that early Christians did not simply begin from the assumption that, being the messiah, Jesus must have been born in Bethlehem. Mere assertion of the contrary will not make it so, will not win any arguments, if that’s what we want to do.
But suppose Jesus was born in Bethlehem. The 17th century messianic claimant Sabbatai Sevi was born on the 9th of Av (or so our sources tell us), the date that later messianic speculation stipulated for Messiah’s nativity. Does that mean he was the messiah? In both cases we might simply have a coincidence that helped fuel the fire of speculation that eventually elevated two possible candidates to messiahship in the eyes of their followers. Stranger things have happened.
But, really, what does it matter? There is something inherently grotesque about the very idea of seeking verification by appeal to clairvoyant predictions. Verification of what? What on earth would such proof, even if possible, have to do with, for example, the contents of the Sermon on the Mount? Is one’s conscience likely to take such sayings more seriously if one can prove their author to have been predicted in advance by ancient seers? Does not the felt need to secure such “verification” demote and demean the self-evident power of the spiritual truths at issue? We do not need miraculous proofs to force us to take the truths of the Gospel seriously, nor can we be taking those truths very seriously if we still feel the need to seek afar off for some supernatural warrant for heeding them. The teaching of scripture does not need and will not be helped by proofs from miracle. The continued insistence on such paranormal props only invites the suspicion that for fundamentalism, moral and spiritual wisdom is not enough, that religion has gone off track and degenerated, like the modern New Age movement, with its pyramids and channelers, into a crass hankering after signs and wonders. Let us learn instead from the Old Testament prophets that all else is a snare and a delusion save for doing justly and walking humbly with a clear conscience.
Ivan Engnell, Studies in Divine Kingship (Uppsala: University of Uppsala Press, 1943)
Hermann Gunkel, The Psalms: A Form-Critical Introduction (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1967) Facet Books, Biblical Series no. 19.
Morna Hooker, Jesus and the Servant: The Influence of the Servant Concept of Deutero-Isaiah in the New Testament (London: SPCK 1959)
Richard Longenecker, Biblical Exegesis in the Apostolic Period (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Inc., 1975)
Sigmund Mowinckel, He That Cometh: The Messiah Concept in the Old Testament and Later Judaism (Nashville: Abingdon, 1954)
Sigmund Mowinckel, The Psalms in Israel’s Worship (Nashville: Abingdon, 1962)
Helmer Ringgren, The Messiah in the Old Testament (London: SCM Press, 1956) Studies in Biblical Theology no. 18.
Krister Stendahl, The School of St. Matthew and Its Use of the Old Testament (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1954)
Links to various essays which address the errancy of the Bible.
A Less Outrageous Price (n.d.) by James Patrick Holding (Off Site)
Holding’s rebuttal to this essay. (Holding refuses to link to this essay.)