For those of you who read comments what follows will be familiar. I’ve been chatting back-and-forth with someone named John Loftus, who is an atheist and has a blog called debunking Christianity. One of the issues upon which John focused was what he perceives as either deliberate or inept use of the Old Testament by New Testament writers when it comes to “messianic prophecy.” In briefest terms, his contention was that the interpretations that NT writers give to OT passages are contrived or just plain wrong; that is, we’d never come up with their interpretations using modern interpretive methods (the “grammatical historical” method). I actually agree in many instances, but I think judging the NT authors in this way is pointless and misguided. That said, in my view evangelicals tend to assume the same sorts of things John does about how messianic prophecy “worked.” That those assumptions are misguided is why some of the “fulfillment” NT writers come up with look so strained and, in some cases, sucked out of their thumbs. At the urging of several readers to do so, I’ll share my thoughts as to what I mean.
So what do I mean about the common way of parsing messianic prophecy being misguided? Well, let me first explain what I see as common. It seems to me that the vast majority of lay people and pastors make one or more of the assumptions below. (And between us, a lot of scholars do as well).
1. A New Testament messianic “fulfillment” that references an OT passage does so because the OT passage quoted was intended as messianic.
2. That NT messianic “fulfillment” have a literal 1:1 connection with an OT passage. That is, the statement we read in the NT must have a near identical counterpart statement in the OT passage.
3. That, when the above two items don’t seem to work, it’s okay to say the NT writer was inspired to change the OT meaning.
4. If # 3 is uncomfortable, then the NT messianic application of an OT prophecy that doesn’t really jive with the OT meaning (without basically mangling the latter or making it stand on its head) must be an instance of “multiple fulfillment” or a warm-up fulfillment to the “real” fulfillment coming down the line.
As a test example for all of these, consider Matthew 2:13-15 –
13 Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you, for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him. 14 And he rose and took the child and his mother by night and departed to Egypt 15 and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, Out of Egypt I called my son.
In verse 15, Matthew quotes Hosea 11:1.
When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.
This interaction doesn’t conform at all to #1 above. Hosea 11:1 isn’t even a prophecy – it’s looking BACKWARD into Israel’s history at the exodus, where God’s son (the nation of Israel – cf. Exod 4:22) left Egypt. It has nothing to do (on any face-value reading) with the coming messiah. While it is a direct quotation (see #2 in my list), the fact that there is no messianic telegraphing (or even future perspective) in Hosea makes the directness of the quotation little comfort. The fact that Hosea 11:1 looks backward and not forward also rules out # 4 in my list. It simply isn’t forward-looking. Option # 3 is all that’s left, and that is where Mr. Loftus has you by your hermeneutic and will make you pay. He would charge the NT writer with sucking the interpretation out of his thumb, violating the original text and its intent in the process. This about the place where most will appeal to mystery and say God could put any new thought into the head of the writer whether it conformed to the original intent or not. If I were John Loftus and you did that, I’d tell you that you have just forfeited your right to ever talk to me about interpreting the Bible in context or its original intent again. Worse, I’d ask you why God couldn’t see the future clearly enough to NOT have to supply the NT writer with something new down the line. I thought he was omniscient!
Hope you get the picture and appreciate the problem. But then again, I don’t see a problem since I don’t assume any of the assumptions listed above. I think messianic prophecy operates in an entirely different way (yeah, I know; you’re not surprised).
So what’s going on?
First, I don’t believe the Jews of the 2nd temple period and first century (the NT era) were working from a grocery list of OT passages for which they planned to check off “fulfillments” when it came to the messiah. Frankly, “messiah” (mashiach) is not a common word. Here are the search results for the term. You’ll notice a few things right away: (1) some of the most important messianic “prophecies” don’t even contain the word (e.g., Isa 7:14; Isa 53); (2) there are only two passages that even get used by NT authors as though they were prophetic statements about messiah (Psa 2:2 – referenced in Acts 4:25-26; Rev 19:19; Psa 89:51 – a faint allusion in 1 Pet 4:14). Pretty slim pickings.
What this tells us (or should — and I include Mr. Loftus here) is that since the data inform us that the NT writers did not even have a list to go by, then must have been thinking about messiah in a different way. They weren’t thinking “the messiah will say or do XYZ when he gets here because I have these verses that tell me what he’ll say and do.” From two verses? Come on. Consequently, my response to John Loftus was that he is wrong to criticize the methods of the NT writers. They can’t be abusing a method that they never intended to use (his – and our – grammatical historical approach). That’s like criticizing your dog for not being a cat. Pointless. But understandable nonetheless. You basically have to say you know better than they did (in which case you have forfeited the coherence of the claim that you are evaluating them in context — in favor of doing so out of context).
Second, my view is that Second Temple / first century Jews instead had what I’d call a “mental mosaic” of what messiah would be like and do, rather than a checklist of verses for him to “fulfill.” Rather than asking themselves, “does this guy fulfill all these passages / prophecies?” they were asking “does this guy fit the profile?” The profile of which I speak was a mosaic of motifs and symbols that arise from the OT and its ancient Near Eastern culture (i.e., the OT in its own context). For the Israelite and later Jew, the mental mosaic had many pieces – i.e., motifs and symbols concerning kingship, priesthood, shepherding, sonship, servanthood, divinity, warfare, etc. All of these converged into a picture, and the pieces came from items (a word or phrase, literal or symbolic or both) in a wide network of passages. When the NT writer wrote about Jesus the question often was not “Are we sure Jesus did and said that line in XYZ text?” but “do I see messiah when I watch and listen to him?” Does he fit the profile?
Let’s apply this to Hosea 11:1 – “out of Egypt I called my son.” Why would Matthew take this as messianic — and what does he mean by “fulfilled”?
Well, Matthew would have to be an inept reader to think that Hosea 11:1 looked forward. He wasn’t a doofus, so he wasn’t looking at it that way. But he knew the profile. Here are some obvious mosaic pieces that Matthew would have known (they are transparent from the text):
1. Messiah would be a descendant of David, who was a descendant of Abraham.
2. Descendants of Abraham were Israelites.
3. Israelites were referred to as God’s son (corporately) in the OT.
4. Israel was in bondage in Egypt.
5. God delivered Israel from Egypt.
All of this very obvious information was floating around in Matthew’s head when one day (we don’t know how, but I’m betting Mary told the story often enough) he heard about Jesus, whom he believed the [individual] son of God, had to flee to Egypt until God told his parents in a dream to bring him out of Egypt and back to Judea. And so the lights went on in Matthew’s head; he saw an amazing analogy. He decided it was one that was worth recording. It’s safe to say he believed God brought to his attention and that God had ordered the events of Jesus’ life in such as way as to have the analogy exist for him to see. That’s why he’d use a word like “fulfilled” – but not in the 1:1 correspondence way we imagine it needing to work.
Now, when you look at that, we have to admit it isn’t rocket science. There’s nothing that isn’t readily apparent. But we also have to admit we have the benefit of hindsight. I don’t want readers to get the impression that the Holy Spirit / God had nothing to do with the NT authors seeing how Jesus fit the profile. But a lot of it isn’t that hard to see unless you’re locked in to one way of thinking about prophecy and fulfillment. I think the tougher task for the disciples and NT writers was knowing the text so well that the mosaic became discernible. They weren’t scholars (except for Paul). They had to learn and think and connect the dots / match the profile. That took time. I think we can all identify.
By the way, it isn’t just messianic prophecy that works this way, either. This is how to look at many things with respect to biblical theology. I refer you to the third bullet point on Heiser’s laws for Bible Study: “Patterns in the text are more important than word studies.”