Sunday, January 8, 2017

The Evidential Value of Messianic Prophecy

Image result for hebrew scripturesOne of the great lynch pins among the evidences for the truth of Christianity is the argument from Messianic prophecies -- that is, the fulfillment, climax and culmination of Old Testament Scripture in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. We read in the gospel that, following the resurrection, Jesus appeared to two Jewish men on the road to Emmaus, "And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself," (Luke 24:27). Along with the resurrection, the argument from Messianic prophecy was the central apologetic of the early church. For example, it is said of Apollos that he, while in Ephesus, "powerfully refuted the Jews in public, showing by the Scriptures that the Christ was Jesus," (Acts 18:28).

Unfortunately, Messianic prophecy has been frequently misunderstood by many a contemporary apologist. When studying Messianic prophecy, one must bear in mind the distinction between a Greco-Roman conception of prophecy and a Hebrew understanding of prophecy. For the Greco-Roman world, a prophecy consists of a one-to-one correspondence of prediction and fulfillment. On the other hand, the Hebrew concept of prophecy was rather broader than that. While it is undeniable that there are Messianic prophecies of this category in the Hebrew Scriptures (e.g. Isaiah 52:13-53:12), more often prophecies consist of foreshadows and typologies. It is, therefore, a misguided approach to attempt to quantify the number of Messianic prophecies (I have seen some estimates of more than 300!) and mathematically compute the probability of all of those prophecies being fulfilled in one man.

To illustrate the fallacy of this approach, let's consider an example of how prophecy is used by Matthew. In Matthew 2:13-15,
13 When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.” 14 So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, 15 where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.”
The Old Testament text being quoted here is taken from Hosea 11:1. An inspection of the first two verses of Hosea 11, however, reveals that the context is not Messianic at all! Here's what we read:
When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. 2 But the more they were called, the more they went away from me. They sacrificed to the Baals and they burned incense to images.
The context, therefore, concerns God having called the nation of Israel out of Egypt during the Exodus. It is not a prophecy about Jesus in the sense that we would normally use that word. Nor was it ever understood to be by the Jews before the time of Christ.

What is going on here, one might ask? Is Matthew attempting to pull the wool over our eyes and dupe us into thinking that this is a prediction of the Messiah, earnestly hoping that his readers will not take the trouble to look up the text for themselves? Of course not. Rather, Matthew takes this text to be fulfilled typologically. For Matthew, Jesus is the perfect Israelite, or the greater Israel, if you will.

Matthew similarly portrays Jesus as the greater David. There is nothing, for instance, in the immediate context of Psalm 22 which would lead us to conclude it is Messianic. Indeed, it would only be interpreted as Messianic through the lens of the New Testament. Yet it is intimately weaved into the fabric of Matthew's passion narrative, including the soldiers casting lots for his clothing (Matthew 27:35; Psalm 22:18); people wagging their heads at him (Matthew 27:39; Psalm 22:7); people mocking saying "He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he desires him," (Matthew 27:43; Psalm 22:8); and Jesus' cry from the cross, "my God, my God why have you forsaken me?" (Matthew 27:46; Psalm 22:1).

What, then, for us as Christian apologists, is the evidential value of Messianic prophecy? Surely, you might think, to rely on a Messianic prophecy, which can only be understood as such through the lens of the New Testament, is an exercise in circular reasoning.

The first point to recognize is the numerous 'coincidences' surrounding the ministry and passion of our Lord, as reported by the gospels. Jesus, according to all four gospels, is slain at the time of Passover, an annual Jewish commemorative feast when the people of Israel would remember the final plague upon the Egyptians (the slaying of the firstborn son of each household), and the deliverance of all those households who smeared the blood of a slaughtered lamb on their doorpost (see my blog post here for more info). Another coincidence is that mount Calvary, where Jesus was reportedly crucified, just so happens to be one of the mountains in the region of Moriah where Abraham was instructed to offer up his son Isaac in Genesis 22 (see my blog post here for more info). We know this because 2 Chronicles 3:1 informs us that Solomon built his temple in the Moriah region.

I will not give further examples of such 'coincidences' here. Suffice it to say that there are many more which could be given. My purpose here is rather to outline what is, in my opinion, the best and most effective way of framing the argument based on them.

The second point that we need to note is that there are three hypotheses for the origins of Christianity. These are:

(1) The gospel authors deliberately set out to deceive and mislead people into believing their accounts to be recalling real history.

(2) The gospel authors were themselves honestly mistaken.

(3) Christianity is true, and the gospels report genuine history concerning the life of Jesus.

The numerous typological 'coincidences', of which but a few examples are briefly described above, militates strongly against hypothesis (2). The occurrence of so many correspondences between Jesus' life as reported by the gospels and the Hebrew Scriptures surely can only either be the product of divine orchestration, or human design in the telling of the stories.

Once option 2 is removed from our consideration, one only has to provide evidence for the sincerity of the gospel authors -- i.e. that they were not deliberately setting out to deceive, and genuinely believed their accounts to be recalling real history. Multiple lines of evidence can be drawn on to support this conclusion. One could also show that the gospel accounts exhibit certain patterns which are unlikely to be the work of a forger -- such as the criterion of undesignedness, the criterion of embarrassment, the frequency of names relative to external contemporary sources, etc etc.

To conclude, then, what may we say is the evidential value of Messianic prophecy? In my opinion, the strongest way to present the argument is to use Messianic prophecy to undermine the hypothesis that the gospel authors were honestly mistaken. One's focus may then be directed toward the task of eliminating hypothesis (1) -- namely, that the gospel authors deliberately set out to deceive. Having refuted both competing hypotheses, one is left with yet another powerful argument in support of the truth of the Christian worldview.

2 comments:

Ed Atkinson said...

Dear Jonathan, this is an interesting one for me and I have a few points that I hope will help you tighten your argument.

First, I think you need to appeal to texts other than the NT to show that there is “the distinction between a Greco-Roman conception of prophecy and a Hebrew understanding of prophecy.” If the typology approach is only taken by Christian authors then it is not “a Hebrew understanding of prophecy” but it is a Christian apologetic approach.

Second, I feel you have to deal with Matthew in particular who both loves prophecy fulfilment and is often seemingly very clumsy over it. Two notable ones are 2:23 where Matthew tries to use ‘he would be called a Nazarene’ where that is not at all what the OT meant, and 21:7 where Matthew fails to understand the repetition nature of Hebrew poetry and seems to have Jesus riding two animals together: ‘They brought the donkey and the colt and placed their cloaks on them for Jesus to sit on.’ It looks like Matthew was writing the account to make it fit the prophecy. Together with Matthew’s mis-use of ‘virgin’ because he does not have (or read) the Hebrew OT, we get a picture that this fast-and-loose prophecy fitting may well just be a gospel thing and not “a Hebrew understanding of prophecy”.

Another instance is the way the birth narratives solve the problem that Jesus was from Nazareth but prophecy meant he had to be from Bethlehem. Luke and Matthew solve it in completely different ways: in Luke the family start in Nazareth and return, in Matthew they only choose Nazareth due to the warning in a dream.

Lastly I don’t think your 2 options of ‘deliberately set out to deceive’ vs ‘honestly mistaken’ describe what non-conservative NT scholars consider happened. (But it seems that Matthew in particular did over-egg his prophecy fulfilment and I would say it does just about extend to deception by him or his sources.) More generally the normal human processes where we tend to believe what we want to as ‘urban legends’ grow is likely to be responsible for much of the prophecy fulfilment in the gospels. From the earliest creed (1Cor15) we have the ‘according to the scriptures’ expectation and so any telling of the story is likely to collect prophecy fulfilment aspects even when they didn’t happen. Eg the Ps-22-inspired casting of lots. Do you categorise this ‘urban legend’ growth as (1) or (2) in your analysis?

So I’d say you need to separate out the fulfilments like the ‘mountains in the region of Moriah’ material from the rest. Matthew did not seem to be aware of it as he would have made a point of noting it, so it is the kind of material that really does build a case. What are the prophecy fulfilments in that category? What are the misses as well as the hits? (Eg Jesus dies on the wrong day in the synoptics, the day after Passover. It is only John with his Lamb of God theme that makes it just right, even moving the crucifixion to the afternoon).

Andrew said...

Great stuff. Jonathan. Thanks for explaining "I called my son out of Egypt". Tovia Singer loves to use this as an axe against Matthew's Gospel.