Prophecies of Jesus
The New Testament claims that Jesus fulfilled many Old Testament prophecies, which apologists are quick to use as proof that he is the Jewish Messiah sent by God. However, as I pointed out in my previous post, many Jews don’t accept these prophecies. I have my doubts about them too. So how do they stack up?
The importance of Old Testament prophecy
Gospel Jesus appealed to the Old Testament when he commissioned his followers to go out and preach:
Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.Luke 24:44 - 48 (ESV)
Christian apologists continue to rely heavily on these prophecies. Consider Lee Strobel in The Case for Christ:
In the Jewish Scriptures, which Christians call the Old Testament, there are several dozen major prophecies about the coming of the Messiah, who would be sent by God to redeem his people. In effect, these predictions formed a figurative fingerprint that only the Anointed One would be able to match. This way, the Israelites could rule out any impostors and validate the credentials of the authentic Messiah. The Greek word for “Messiah” is Christ. But was Jesus really the Christ? Did he miraculously fulfill these predictions that were written hundreds of years before he was born? And how do we know he was the only individual throughout history who fit the prophetic fingerprint?
Though Christians don’t always distinguish clearly, there are at least two different audiences here:
Jews that accept the Old Testament Apologists want them to accept that Christianity is the logical conclusion of Judaism. This was probably the original audience for the many references to prophecy in the New Testament.
Unbelievers (like me) that accept neither Testament: Yes, I’m in the middle of a lengthy series about why I don’t think Christianity is the logical conclusion of Judaism. But even if I thought the Old Testament pointed to Christianity, why should I accept Christianity when I don’t accept the Old Testament? To us, apologists claim that this kind of accurate prophecy in advance is so unlikely that it must involve divine intervention.
Like so often, I think the apologists spend a lot of effort rebutting a few weak objections, and then use Sherlock Holmes to conclude that the only remaining option is divine intervention. However, they miss important objections because they are so used to taking them on faith. For example, there is a lot of effort to demonstrate that the OT predictions pre-dated Jesus (thanks, Dead Sea Scrolls!) and that it would be exceedingly unlikely for someone to accidentally fulfil them. But they’ve failed to consider fundamental questions like “Did the New Testament correctly interpret the Old Testament scriptures?” and “Did the prophesied events recorded in the New Testament actually happen?”
The Bethlehem connection
Last year I wrote about how I don’t think Jesus was born in Bethlehem. This is pretty important, since it’s one of the key prophecies apologists rely on. I’m particularly critical of some of the other prophecies Matthew uses in the infancy narrative (it’s not just Bethlehem): In summary:
- A virgin birth is predicted by Isaiah (taking the passage out of context and interpreting it differently from Jews).
- The prophesied son of the virgin is to be called Immanuel - but only a couple of verses later Jesus is called Jesus, and the name “Immanuel” never comes up again. Matthew claims the real significance is that Immanuel means “God with us”, but can we accept this?
- Infant Jesus is taken to Egypt, which is claimed to fulfil the prophecy “Out of Egypt I called my son”. However, as the context in Hosea makes clear, that “child” was actually the nation of Israel, and had nothing whatever to do with the Messiah.
- “A voice crying in Ramah” is taken to be talking about a slaughter of children in Bethlehem - even though the original passage was talking about exiled Jews, not slaughtered babies.
Why should a Jew accept this misapplication of their sacred text? Why should I accept it? Matthew’s account is driven by prophecies and doesn’t match well with Luke’s: Could it have been invented from the prophecies rather than the prophecies predicting the story?
Apologists love the Bethlehem prophecy because it was a prophecy that Jesus couldn’t have chosen to fulfil. However, I think they miss the fact that his biographers could choose to have him born in Bethlehem in “fulfillment” of “prophecy”. Which would explain why two of the gospels have almost completely incompatible accounts of how Jesus came to be born in Bethlehem: both of them were looking to fulfil the same prophecy.
So if it truly is important that the Messiah be born in Bethlehem, then I can already conclude Jesus probably wasn’t the Messiah (and I’ve hardly started!) So much for the infallible witness of prophecy.
Was that passage meant to be a prophecy?
The New Testament writers frequently claim that a particular event happened in fulfilment of a particular prophecy. But how did they know the text was meant to be taken as a prophecy? How could they be sure they weren’t just taking it out of context because it seemed to say what they wanted it to say?
As a Christian, my answer was pretty much “These passages must be prophetic because the inspired New Testament authors say they are prophetic”. But I wasn’t completely happy with this, because I knew some of the references were strained. After all, the New Testament authors used reasoning that I was quite happy to reject from our (non-inspired) speakers.
This answer also becomes circular - we need to accept the New Testament interpretation of the Old Testament before we can verify the Old Testament predicted the New Testament message. Why should anyone not already invested in the New Testament accept that?
Some Messianic Psalms
A few years back I led a class on “Jesus in the Psalms” where I gave attendees a list of passages from the Psalms and asked whether they were Messianic. Some were directly quoted in the New Testament. Others were from different sections of Psalms that were quoted in the New Testament. And still others weren’t quoted in the New Testament at all, but might have sounded a bit like Jesus. It was much harder doing it without inspired interpreters to prompt us, and I found it really interesting how much it showed our preconceptions of what we were looking for.
For example, I picked a couple of passages that seemed to show the author calling on God for vengeance. Attendees didn’t want to apply these to Jesus - and yet I took them from Psalms that are considered Messianic. Can you really decide that one or two verses from a Psalm are a prophecy of the Messiah while the rest have nothing to do with him?
In another case, there was a passage that talked about the author rising up again. Sound good? Unfortunately, this was the author recovering from sickness, not a prediction of the resurrection of the Messiah.
Many of the so-called Messianic Psalms appear to be prayers to God during times of trouble in the author’s own life (for example, Psalm 22 and Psalm 69 fit this mould). But then one or other of the New Testament writers claims a verse or two from the Psalm was fulfilled at some point in Jesus’ life, and suddenly they are amazingly accurate “prophecies”. Did the Jews know in advance that these were meant to be taken as prophecies? I doubt it.
Then there are the Psalms that we might apply to Jesus which are never quoted in the New Testament. Take for example this one:
He shall cry to me, ‘You are my Father,
my God, and the Rock of my salvation.’
And I will make him the firstborn,
the highest of the kings of the earth.Psalms 89:26 - 27 (ESV)
If I had seen that passage in isolation, I would have assumed that it had to be Messianic, but the psalm clearly applies this to David. In the same way, Psalm 45 was probably written for the marriage of a long-dead king, but is claimed by Hebrews to refer to Jesus. And Psalm 72 was probably written for the reign of Solomon, but is typically taken as a prediction of the kingdom.
The Psalms have heart-felt poetic language, not prophecy. Don’t fall into the trap of trying to take them too literally.
The multiple-donkey-riding Messiah
Zechariah has a prophecy which does seem to be Messianic:
Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion!
Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem!
behold, your king is coming to you;
righteous and having salvation is he,
humble and mounted on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
I will cut off the chariot from Ephraim
and the war horse from Jerusalem;
and the battle bow shall be cut off,
and he shall speak peace to the nations;
his rule shall be from sea to sea,
and from the River to the ends of the earth.Zechariah 9:9 - 10 (ESV)
The gospel writers claim that some of this was fulfilled in the Triumphal Entry, where Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey. Since this is one of the rare events that is covered by all four gospels, it’s instructive to look at the differences between them. Mark and Luke have Jesus riding in on a colt, and make no mention of this being a fulfillment of prophecy. John presents a version of the prophecy which has the king coming on a colt.
But the fun one is Matthew. Note that the prophecy above talked about both “a donkey” and “a colt, the foal of a donkey”. I look at this and see Hebrew parallelism. Matthew looks at it and says “I guess I need two donkeys…”. As a result, the disciples find a donkey with her colt, bring both to Jesus, and it seems Jesus then rides both of them. At once. Somehow.
How anyone can think Matthew is a reliable interpreter of OT prophecy when he makes rookie mistakes like this, I don’t know. But there it is - it seems to me that he has added a fantastical element to his story so he can better fulfil a prophecy he didn’t properly understand. If you don’t think that sounds like a ringing endorsement - it’s not.
But even without Matthew’s blunder, I think there’s a bigger issue here: The verse has been wrenched from its context. Yes, it appears to be Messianic, but not in the way the gospel authors used it. Zechariah was predicting a triumphant king who would save his people and then establish a peaceful rule over all the nations. That hasn’t happened. He did not predict a humble teacher who would be crucified and then rise from the dead.
What about the unfulfilled prophecies?
This raises another important issue: Christian apologists make a big deal about how many prophecies they claim to be fulfilled. What about the ones that weren’t? Do they prove that Jesus wasn’t the Messiah? When dealing with a big book of prophecies, it shouldn’t be a surprise that a few taken out of context can appear to be fulfilled. But does it match the overall picture?
As a believer, the standard answer I gave was “Yes, they haven’t yet been fulfilled - but they will be fulfilled at Jesus’ second coming (any day now, right?)” Unfortunately, this quickly became circular, since I would also typically say “This must be a prophecy about the second coming, because it hasn’t been fulfilled by the first coming.” That left no room to consider unfulfilled prophecies. However, given Jesus and his followers expected a soon return that still hasn’t come 2,000 years later, when can we call it a failed prophecy?
Basically, deferring unfulfilled prophecies to the promised second coming is like trusting the New Testament prophets to use prophecy accuracy. Sure, you’re welcome to believe it, but don’t expect anyone else to agree with you. And definitely don’t expect fulfilled prophecy to be a persuasive outreach tool if your underlying preconceptions deny the possibility of failed prophecies.
What do Jews expect of their Messiah?
I think too many Christians assume that Jews reject Jesus as their Messiah out of ignorance. They don’t even consider that Jews might have different expectations of that promised Messiah. Yes, they use the same scriptures - but that doesn’t mean they have to interpret those scriptures the same.
For example, one Christian asked Jews on Yahoo Answers whether their rabbis ever teach about the prophecies in the Tanakh that Jesus of Nazareth fulfilled (while also trying to distinguish between “first coming” and “second coming”). And the answers on this thread point out some of the problems with the Christian position.
One answer pointed to a list of scriptural requirements for the Messiah, none of which involve a suffering Messiah. I think most Christians would agree that Jesus fulfilled few, if any, of those requirements (they are the things we would have considered “second coming”). The list also contained some other interesting points, like requiring the Messiah to be a direct descendant of David through Solomon, and interpreting Isaiah 53 completely differently from Christians.
Of course, that’s just one list - I don’t guarantee it includes every passage considered a Messianic prophecy by any religious Jew. But I think it shows clearly why many Jews reject Jesus as their Messiah. Like it or not, he just doesn’t fulfil their requirements for the Messiah.
Isaiah’s servant songs
Many Christians like Isaiah 53, believing it to be such a clear prophecy of Jesus that Jews and skeptics alike must be unaware of it. In Acts this passage is used as the jumping off point for explaining the good news about Jesus to a high-ranking Ethiopian official. The official asks Philip whether the “sheep led to the slaughter” was Isaiah, or someone else. And learns that the clear answer is Jesus, leading the official to the kind of insta-conversion that made Christadelphians uncomfortable with Acts.
But it’s not so simple. This passage is just a small section of Isaiah’s “servant songs”, talking about the salvation of God’s chosen nation Israel from exile. Since some of those songs explicitly talk about “my servant Israel”, many Jews interpret Isaiah 53 to also refer to Israel:
Despite strong objections from conservative Christian apologists, the prevailing rabbinic interpretation of Isaiah 53 ascribes the “servant” to the nation of Israel who silently endured unimaginable suffering at the hands of its gentile oppressors. The speakers, in this most-debated chapter, are the stunned kings of nations who will bear witness to the messianic age and the final vindication of the Jewish people following their long and bitter exile. (Source)
And I don’t think the other references to this passage in the New Testament fare much better. Consider how the first verse is quoted by John:
Though he had done so many signs before them, they still did not believe in him, so that the word spoken by the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled:
“Lord, who has believed what he heard from us,
and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?”John 12:37 - 38 (ESV)
What a high bar! The sign of a true Messiah is that they won’t be recognised as the Messiah in spite of miraculous signs. How we can distinguish this from a would-be Messiah who was rejected because he failed to fulfil prophecy is left as an exercise for the reader.
Talking about miracles, Matthew quotes verse 4 thus:
That evening they brought to him many who were oppressed by demons, and he cast out the spirits with a word and healed all who were sick. This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah: “He took our illnesses and bore our diseases.”Matthew 8:16 - 17 (ESV)
Since the legend of Jesus had grown to include miraculous healings by casting out demons, it’s not surprising Matthew wanted to find a prophecy for it. However, looking back at the original text from Isaiah, it talks about the servant bearing “griefs” and “sorrows”, not “diseases”. Some argue that the original text could really mean diseases, but it’s not clear to me whether they argue that because it’s really true or just because the New Testament uses it.
Then Luke gets into the act by quoting the final verse (no, I don’t know why each writer picked a different part of the chapter as the prophetic bit to quote):
He said to them, “But now let the one who has a moneybag take it, and likewise a knapsack. And let the one who has no sword sell his cloak and buy one. For I tell you that this Scripture must be fulfilled in me: ‘And he was numbered with the transgressors.’ For what is written about me has its fulfillment.” And they said, “Look, Lord, here are two swords.” And he said to them, “It is enough.”Luke 22:36 - 38 (ESV)
Seriously? This Messiah has to cast his own followers as transgressors by suggesting they take up arms. And all this to fulfil a prophecy. It seems a little unnecessary, since he was already slated to be crucified alongside criminals (surely part of the gospel’s great redemptive plan). But I’m a bit over worrying about how oddly the NT authors use the OT prophecies.
Of course, Christians take the entire passage as prophetic, particularly seizing on the idea of their Messiah being punished for their sins. However, though I know that idea is present in the New Testament, I couldn’t find explicit citations of Isaiah 53 claiming it was prophecy fulfilled.
Assessing Christian use of prophecies
Objections to the Christian use of OT prophecies are not new. As in the previous post, we can easily go back to Trypho the Jew from Justin Martyr:
And when I ceased, Trypho said, “All the words of the prophecy you repeat, sir, are ambiguous, and have no force in proving what you wish to prove.”
A little more recently, Thomas Paine makes the following judgement in his Examination of the Prophecies:
I have now, reader, gone through and examined all the passages which the four books of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, quote from the Old Testament and call them prophecies of Jesus Christ. When I first sat down to this examination, I expected to find cause for some censure, but little did I expect to find them so utterly destitute of truth, and of all pretensions to it, as I have shown them to be.
The practice which the writers of these books employ is not more false than it is absurd. They state some trifling case of the person they call Jesus Christ, and then cut out a sentence from some passage of the Old Testament and call it a prophecy of that case. But when the words thus cut out are restored to the place they are taken from, and read with the words before and after them, they give the lie to the New Testament.
I have not personally re-examined every single alleged prophecy in the New Testament, but I will agree with him that when I have examined particular prophecies I have invariably been disappointed.
Unlike me, he was a deist, so he also commented:
He that believes in the story of Christ is an infidel to God.
Food for thought, perhaps? As I’ve previously discussed, even if you believe in a god it’s a big leap from there to belief in the Christian God.
Christian apologists sometimes present the prophecies of Jesus as an infallible argument for Christianity (for example, Lee Strobel’s “fingerprint” analogy). But to me it doesn’t take much analysis to see it as an embarrassing mess (after all, I already knew many of these problems as a believer). In my opinion, Christianity has twisted the Jewish texts so badly that it cannot gain legitimacy from Judaism. Instead of the prophecies supporting the faith, Christians really need to explain how badly their writers are misusing the original texts.
Yes, I’m happy to acknowledge some of the OT prophecies predated Jesus. But that doesn’t tell us much about their predictive power. I think there are clear signs that many of those prophecies have been misinterpreted, and that some of the incidents in Jesus’ life were invented by the gospel writers to “fulfil” particular prophecies. And even then plenty of prophecies remain unfulfilled, because the Jesus of the gospels is a very different Messiah from the one the Jews expected.
So hopefully next up I can get to the thing that annoyed me most about the whole business: the contempt shown in the New Testament texts for the very religious tradition they appropriated before twisting.