Does the Old Testament predict Easter? (No. Actually, it does more.)

Does the Old Testament predict Easter? (No. Actually, it does more.) April 6, 2015
Picture: Classic Media
Picture: Classic Media

In my course on Genesis this spring at Eastern, we are reading an article by Gary Anderson (Notre Dame), “Joseph and the Passion of Our Lord” (pp. 198-215 in The Art of Reading Scripture).

It’s a perfect fit for my class, not only because the article coincides with the Lent/Easter season but because it models how Jesus may be “found” in the Old Testament.

I don’t think that Jesus is hiding here and there in a few so-called “messianic prophecies”–and to find him we need to play an ancient version of Where’s Waldo with the Old Testament.

No doubt we see messianic hope expressed in the Old Testament–but that is not at all what we might think of as “predictions” of Jesus of Nazareth being a suffering, dying, and rising messiah.

Anderson models an approach that is not as commonly known among every-day Christian Bible readers.

For the early Christians, i.e., those who did not yet possess a “New” Testament,

the claim of Paul that Jesus died and was raised “in accordance with the scriptures” (1 Cor 15:4) was not just a simple affirmation of faith. It was a challenge to them to pore over the old texts afresh with the goal of laying bare just how and why this is so. (my emphasis, p. 199)

The early Christians were driven to read the Old Testament in a “figural sense.”

Genesis already hints at a figural reading when we see that Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph all anticipate Israel’s national drama. (Anderson doesn’t go into detail here, but an example is Abraham’s sojourn into and back out of Egypt in chapter 12, which previews Israel’s later journey.)

As an example, Anderson mentions that Israel is God’s “firstborn son” in Exodus 4:21-23, which invited Christian readers so see what sorts of lines can be drawn between that statement concerning Israel and Jesus as the “firstborn of all creation” and “firstborn from the dead” (Colossians 1:15, 18).

The “connection” here between Old and New Testaments can’t be rightly called “prediction.” And if predictions are all we are looking for, we might miss the–what shall we call it?–echo of this earlier idea in the gospel.

The same holds for Abrahams’s near sacrifice of Isaac –Abrahams beloved and only begotten son–and how that episode (Genesis 22, referred to in Judaism as the Akedah, “binding”) can be seen as echoed in the New Testament in the sacrifice of God’s beloved and only begotten son, Jesus.

Thinking of Exodus 4 or Genesis 22 “predicting” Jesus sells them short.

These stories have deep meaning in their own right. But what we do see is “patterns” in the Old Testament that the New Testament writers, and (at least some of) the early church writers after them, drew on to talk about Jesus and his significance.

Jesus fulfills “patterns” not “predictions.”

In other words, rather than thinking “Here is where the Old Testament clearly predicts Jesus of Nazareth,” think, “Who Jesus was and what he did was described by these early Christian writers by calling upon Old Testament ‘patterns’ that they believed reached their fullest and final expressions in Jesus.”

So when Paul says that Jesus died and was raised “in accordance with the scriptures,” he is not suggesting we play Where’s Waldo with the Old Testament to look for some verses that speak of Jesus in a predictive way. He is saying “look for these patterns of God’s dealings with his people of old and then see what happens with them in Jesus.”

Which brings us back to Anderson’s article and Easter.

Anderson makes the following point about the Akedah: the election of Abraham as the father of what would eventually become Israel comes at a cost.

Election does not mean living a life of unending blessings; it means being chosen to give up one’s all for God, even what one holds most dear. (p. 204)

This pattern is picked up, of course, in the gospel: not our giving to God what is most dear to us, but God first giving up what is most dear to him–his son–for us.

The New Testament picks up on this Old Testament story and transposes it–even reverses it. If one only looks for “predictions” of Jesus, then “figurative” readings like this will be missed.

Anderson is building up to the main point of this article, which is the story of Joseph–a story of death and resurrection.

Joseph’s jealous brothers thrown him down into a “pit” (a dry well), then taken down to Egypt, and then thrown down into prison–down, down, down, only to be “raised” and made Pharaoh’s right hand man.

Jacob, Joseph’s father, thinks Joseph is dead–since the brothers tricked him by covering Joseph’s robe in goat blood. For Jacob, when he sees Joseph again, it will be like a resurrection.

The same holds for Jacob’s beloved, youngest son, Benjamin. Jacob willingly but with despair surrenders Benjamin (as Abraham had done with Isaac) to his other sons so they can all go back to Egypt and bring back another son, Simeon, whom Joseph has kept for ransom.

As far as Jacob is concerned, he is handing Benjamin over to almost certain death. But in time, Benjamin and Simeon will be restored to him (as Isaac was to Abraham).

When Joseph finally reveals his identity to his brothers, they come back to Jacob in Canaan to give him the incredible news. Remember, as far as Jacob was concerned, Joseph was a dead as dead can be–he saw the bloodied robe. And now that sadness is compounded by not knowing if Benjamin will be restored to him.

But the brothers come back not only with Benjamin with with news of Joseph. They tell Jacob, “Joseph is still (Hebrew `od) alive! He is even ruler over all the land of Egypt.”

That is the NRSV translation, but Anderson plays off of another meaning of `od and translates it “Joseph is again alive!”

The loss of Joseph is a type of death; his return, as ruler of Egypt, a type of resurrection in glory. Like the apostles, Jacob is dumbfounded (p. 208).

Joseph’s story is a story of death and resurrection, which itself echoes the binding of Isaac episode. Life from death is a pattern in genesis.

Here is the point I want to stress:

The Joseph story is not a “prediction” of Jesus’s crucifixion and resurrection in any sense of the word. And to limit how we see the connection between this story and the gospel as “prediction” is really to under-read the “patterns” in the Bible.

From the point of view of the Old Testament writers, and in my opinion, these stories of Israel’s patriarchs were written from the point of view of Israel’s later experience of going into their own “pit/death”  of exile in Babylon–returning home was a kind of “national resurrection.”

In other words, Israel’s later realities were scripted into their ancient stories.

The gospel writers and Paul follow on this theme by portraying Jesus as returning his people from “exile” (see previously link again), thus being raised from the dead. Jesus’s own physical resurrection is an embodiment (pun intended) and therefore fuller expression of the Old Testament nationalistic ideal.

Anyway, Anderson’s article is quite readable and some of you might enjoy it. If you want to read otheranderson things by Anderson, there’s a lot, but one of my favorites is The Genesis of Perfection: Adam and Eve in Jewish and Christian Imagination. I read this about 20 years ago and it was one of those “scales falling off the eyes” aha moments for me.

What I value in Anderson, too (as I do in Jon Levenson whom Anderson draws on a bit in this article) is his respect for the Bible’s theological dimensions while also working with–not against–historical critical biblical criticism. The two worlds, often desperately kept separate by others, are conversation partners in contemporary theology, as they need to be.

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  • Thanks for sharing this. The Art of Reading Scripture has always been a favorite of mine … I’ll have to go back and re-read Anderson’s essay since it’s been a while.

  • Election does not mean living a life of unending blessings; it means being chosen to give up one’s all for God, even what one holds most dear. (p. 204)

    Does one have to “give up”, or attach to God most strongly, such that if this attachment conflicts with other attachments, they give way? The difference between these two seems extremely important. A wrong notion of “give up” violates the truth that the body raised from the seed planted in 1 Cor 15:35–49 resembles the seed. What I see as extremely dangerous here is the idea that God wants to completely reprogram us. No, no, no! He wishes to redeem us. That which is corrupted is not going to be erased, it is going to be sanctified. A careful reading of 1 Cor 3:10–15 and 2 Pe 3:8–12 will yield this, but a naive reading can support the “flatten and reinstall” method, whereby what we were before conversion is crushed and destroyed.

    Anderson may get the above in context; I only had that sentence and what you said to go on.

  • Paul says that Christ rose on the third day according to the Scriptures. Other than the Jonah typology, the only OT passage that talks about rising again on the third day is Hosea 6:1-2, which describes the “national resurrection” of a repentant Israel.

    It is this concept I believe Jesus has in mind when speaking to Nicodemus about the necessity of “you all” needing to be born again to enter the kingdom of heaven, and why he is bemused that Nicodemus is a teacher of Israel and doesn’t know what he’s talking about.

    The whole “I’m gonna overlay a past event over this event to communicate something about this event” scheme of typology works well for me, but there are a few passages where it doesn’t seem to work out so nice and neat.

  • Simon Hall

    Have you read Richard Hays’ ‘Reading Backwards’? He makes a strong (and accessible) case for a figural reading, and uses it to suggest that the gospel writers already had a very high Christology..

  • mark

    I enjoyed your blog this morning–including the Waldo theme. 🙂

    Some years ago (in 2008, to be precise) I wrote a blog re a review by Gary Anderson of Joseph Fitzmyer’s The One Who Is To Come, in which Anderson addresses issues similar to the ones you address. If you’re interested, I’ve pasted that somewhat long blog in below (you get an honorable mention).

    My overall point, as I developed it later, is that even the idea of Jesus fulfilling “patterns” rather than “predictions” fails to get at the heart of what Jesus was all about. After all, it fails to address Paul’s trenchant critique: it doesn’t matter what Jesus fulfilled–patterns or predictions–if Jesus didn’t rise. Paul’s critique addresses ultimately all figurative or typological readings of scripture.

    I prefer to understand Paul within a Johannine approach, in which Jesus is God’s self revelation, revealing God’s identity in the sense that (I believe) Mark S. Smith is suggesting. IOW, Jesus is not simply fulfilling but completing the process by which Israel came to a fairly radical new understanding of God’s identity. This identity as revealed in Jesus is in continuity with the past but is a development beyond that past–it is, in fact, new. The Trinitarian God of Christian faith is not simply YHWH. I should add that this understanding of revelation involves more that simply ancient books (again, as you would know from Smith’s work), although obviously those books are prime sources.

    My blog can be found at:

    The One Who Is To Come

  • Daniel Fisher

    Very nice. The “Where’s Waldo” illustration is spot-on, perfect for the way that so many evangelicals use the OT as a series of isolated, sporadic “predictions” hidden in the rest ‘crowd’ of irrelevant OT verses. I just preached something similar – I wish you had posted this a week ago because I would have totally borrowed your Waldo illustration.

    This is of course not foreign to at least some of us (hopefully more sophisticated) inerrantists. My professors at RTS similarly inveighed against this same simplistic quest for isolated “predictions,” one of my professors calling it “leprechaun Christology” – seeking those hidden, isolated, rarely appearing but quasi-magical verses that ‘predicted’ Jesus. (a nice image, but I like your “Waldo” one better.)

    The only point where I might depart, if I read you rightly, is that I would ultimately understand Christ’s work as the “original”. It sounds like you’re saying that the connections originated strictly in the minds of the NT authors when they noticed commonalities and perceived Jesus “echoing” earlier concepts and events…. Rather, I understand that *they* believed that the OT pattens themselves are the “copies” or “echos.” The author of Hebrews in particular emphasizes this – he talks about Christ fulfilling OT patterns to be sure, but in way that clearly perceives the OT patterns themselves as having been given to “serve as a copy and a shadow of the heavenly things,” whereas Jesus is a minister “in the true tent that the Lord set up, not man.” To him, Jesus’ ministry is clearly the original template and the OT worship clearly the “echo.”

    In other words, I understand the NT as portraying Jesus as the lamb of God not because ancient Israelites just (randomly) happened to sacrifice lambs, and the Christians appropriated that as a useful image to explain Christ – but rather, God in his providence established the ancient Israelite sacrifice of lambs specificaly to reflect and “echo” *THE* lamb that had (already) been slain from the foundation of the world.

    • But Jesus isn’t a lamb. Calling him a lamb only makes sense in light of things like Passover, sacrifices, etc. If those things didn’t use lambs, calling Jesus a lamb would be nonsensical. He’s not ontologically a lamb, therefore the OT systems used lambs.

      • Daniel Fisher

        And lambs aren’t ontologically people… Of COURSE we’re talking about a metaphor, else it would be nonsensical in either direction… 😉 Point is that the lambs reflect the true and original reality in Christ, not vice-versa. Or, as per the author of Hebrews, the earthly tabermacle was a reflection of the “reality” of Christ’s actual ministry, not vice versa.

        • It isn’t nonsensical in either direction, though. It makes perfect sense going forward. You have Passover. You have a sacrificial system. So, when John announces that Jesus is the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, you know what he means because of the symbolic precedents.

          It does not work the other direction. Lambs, Temples – these symbols in the Old Testament economy supply meaning for when these same symbols are used to describe Jesus. They don’t make any sense going back the other way. The only reason anyone would ever call Jesus a lamb is because of the use of lambs in the OT.

          This would be like saying the profession of shepherd was an echo of the Good Shepherd or that vines are an echo of the True Vine. These things can be used as meaningful overlays to Jesus because of the meanings they come prepackaged with. It’s not like someone observed the crucifixion and went, “Oh, so THAT’S why we use lambs in sacrifices.”

          The author of Hebrews does not say, for instance, that the Temple and its furnishings are copies of Jesus. He says they are copies of heavenly things. Jesus enters the heavenly Temple purified by his own blood. I think we sometimes get so carried away with our Christocentrism that nothing has any independent meaning apart from Jesus, but it’s those independent meanings that make the fulfillment so rich.

          It’s because there is an earthly Temple reflective of a heavenly Temple that when Jesus describes his body as the Temple that will be raised in three days, it has meaning.

          • Daniel Fisher

            We may be talking past each other, I hear what you’re saying and I generally agree. Of course John and others called Jesus e lamb of God as, from their vantage point, they were looking back n the original sheep. I’m talking about the whole larger sacrificial system (which, I suppose, could (and did) have been used with all manner of animals.) the substitutionary sacrifice of an animal was reflective of Jesus ministry.

            Other examples…. I don’t see God being called the “Father” of Jesus because God looked down, saw fathers and sons, and said to himself, “wow, what a perfect way to illustrate my relationship with Christ…” Rather, human fathers and sons are reflective of the original father/son relationship in the trinity. Similarly marriage… Not like Christ looked at human marriage and said, “wow, that would be a great way to illustrate my relationship with my church…” Rather, that relationship is the original, and human husbands and wives are the reflection.

            And I agree that in one very real sense the sacrificial system for Israel was replete wi meaning in and of itself…. But that this system was instituted by The same God who had already established what he was going to do in Christ, which by all accounts was the “real” event for which the sacrifices ultimately proved to be mere shadows.

          • When you say “by all accounts,” what accounts do you have in mind? That might help us move forward.

            I do think the title of God as Father is derivative of human fathers. I don’t think God designed human reproduction around the principle of the relationship of the first and second persons of the Trinity (who is the mother in this setup, incidentally?). God is also depicted as a mighty warrior. This makes sense to the recipients because they have seen mighty warriors. Mighty warriors do not exist as a pale reflection of the true mighty warrior.

            Similarly, marriage. The covenant of the redeemer to the redeemed is portrayed poetically as a marriage in the Old Testament referring to Yahweh and Israel. This is overlaid on Christ and the Church to show a new development of these concepts – Christ redeems the Church and enters into covenant with her, and this is portrayed as a marriage. Genesis tells us that marriage came into being because it was not good for man to be alone and a suitable helper/rescuer could not be found anywhere else. This is prior to the introduction of sin. There is no redemptive component to this relationship. There is just love and covenant.

            After the Fall, marriages get all screwed up, and it’s entirely appropriate for Paul to instruct husbands to realign their tyrannical, abusive behaviors according to how Christ treats the Church in that covenant. But even this shouldn’t be extended too far. A husband is not king over his wife in the same way Christ is king over the church. There are analogies, but not equivalencies.

            I guess my thing is that all the symbols and typology work out smoothly just via an organic, historical reading, watching how these concepts grow, develop, and flourish as God provides more revelation. In order to make a statement like, “These things existed as a lesser copy of what God would do in Christ,” I guess I’d need a strong referent for that.

            I think you see the OT as like a flight simulator and God’s work in Christ as an actual airplane, whereas I see it more like the OT is a Cessna and God’s work in Christ as a 747. Or maybe the OT is the takeoff and Jesus is the landing. I’m not so great with analogies, sometimes. Maybe that’s my trouble, here.

          • Daniel Fisher

            Phil, thanks for the thoughts, and sorry for the late response…

            It may help if I start somewhere a bit less disputed. Take the concept of “love.” I think most people would acknowledge that the very concept, emotion, or whatever “love” is started within God’s character – God “is” love.

            I cannot conceive of any scenario wherein our human relationships of love were somehow “original,” and God and/or the writers of the Bible thought, “wow, that is a good image, let’s describe God as loving in a way that is reflective/derivative of human love. I imagine you would agree with me here at least, that love started with(in) God, and that human love is derivative. The question then is whether specific outworkings of that original “blueprint” of love (fathers & sons, marriage) is similarly derivative from God’s original being, or something that started in the human realm which were applied to God.

            If fathers and sons, or marriage, was a strictly human invention, not part of God’s original intent or design, and then that idea was applied to God, then I could see where you’re going (thought I’d still likely disagree). But these very ideas, as I understand them, originated in the mind of God himself. To argue that God’s fatherhood is derivative of human fatherhood seems to require believing that human biblical authors came up with an idea that God had never noticed before, namely, the similarities/comparable nature between human fathers and sons and that between “the” Father and ‘the’ son. Or, in other words, it seems it would require us to believe that God, in creating human families with fathers and sons, was completely oblivious to the correlation such relationships had with those within his very being; and was taken by surprise when humans started applying that idea to God.

            Either the idea never entered God’s mind when he was making us (making the very idea very suspect if we are applying ideas to God that he would never come up with himself), or the very pattern of Fathers and Sons in some way began within his own being…. I myself can’t logically see any other alternative, though as always I am very open to hearing further your thoughts.

            On another topic, I love your airplane metaphor – though if forced to choose between them I would go with your cessna/747 illustration…. I would completely reject the idea that the faith of the OT saints was nothing more than an illusiory/fake image….

            A third option, and a better illustration of my view: I would compare the OT to my child flying a real, working, model airplane, and Christ’s work to the fully working 747. The working model is “real”, actually flies, actually uses all principles of aerodynamics and powered flight, and to my child is fully working and enjoyable… nothing ‘fake’ about it…. but nonetheless in a different way is merely a reflection, shadow, or model of the real thing. That seems to be consistent with how the NT (especially the author of Hebrews) understands the relation of the OT/NT.

          • Hi Dan,

            Sorry for the double-comment, but this morning as I was getting my shoes on, I thought of a scenario that, if you could walk me through it in light of where you’re coming from, could help me understand you better.

            In Acts 1:20, Luke writes that the selection of Matthias “fulfilled” a couple of Psalms (69 and 109, respectively). Psalm 69 has the passage in the context of God delivering the Psalmist from those who would seek to dishonor him, and 109 focuses more on retribution for someone who is slandering and backstabbing the Psalmist.

            The Acts passage is interesting to me because it seems we have an instance, here, where OT passages were not fulfilled by Jesus, but rather his apostles. I think you would probably agree that the selection of Matthias was not a primal reality cast back into the Psalms. So, how would you describe this fitting in?

          • Daniel Fisher

            This is a great question getting to the heart of everything – and very much relates to Peter’s original point in this post….

            First, to be clear, when i talk of New Testament realities having their primal reality in the Old, I do not mean simply everything (or even necessarily any specific historical item) that happened to have happened in the NT times… I mean eternal, everlasting, uncreated, timeless truths about God, his nature, being, and eternal work that happened to have been *revealed* during the time of (and in the pages of) the NT. That may clarify part of our discussion.

            Secondly, and more to Peter’s point in this post (and to borrow his language), I don’t see the Apostles here on a “Where’s Waldo” style hunt to look for a few sporadic OT passages that happened to predict stuff that they would do or witness. Rather, seeing the situation they found themselves in, they looked to the OT for “precedent,” not unlike modern judicial case law. That is, in their dealing with Judas’ betrayal, and their response to it in electing a successor, they were attempting to follow OT precedent and experiences, citing cases that similarly dealt with betrayal and replacement of the guilty official.

    • Andrew Dowling

      So God instituted animal sacrifices so the early Christians could have good metaphors?

    • Occam Razor

      Daniel, why didn’t God sacrifice his son at the beginning of human history instead of going through two centuries of the Israelite story and then changing gears? Wouldn’t that have made a lot more sense and precluded all this confusion?

      Why did god have to kill somebody in order to forgive others? Why didn’t he just forgive? We don’t kill things in order to forgive. Do we really believe, as it says in Genesis, that he is satiated by the odor or burning flesh? Doesn’t he like that smell anymore?

      It makes a lot more sense that people tried to make sense of things based on their culture and what they knew at the time. As the situation changed, the theology changed.

  • Thanks for your post. I think that the Bible itself tells us that “patterns” are what we should be looking for when God says that he communicates with prophets in dreams, visions and dark sayings. (Numbers 12:6) The prophets themselves did not get the future spelled out in exact predictions of date, time and place. In their mind’s eye, they envisioned perplexing images with multiple levels of meaning. We really shouldn’t expect to read the Bible as if its a newspaper that fell out of a time machine.

  • Gary

    Friday night, I went to a local Anglican Good Friday service with my family. It was rather unique in that it was a joint service with another church. I just looked at the other church’s website and statement of faith and I don’t believe they have any denominational affiliation. The Anglican priest celebrated. The other pastor preached. Part of the sermon tied together some various Old Testament and Holy Week symbolisms. One example was thorny plants.

    Sunday, I went to a local non-denominational service with my family. One of the symbolisms tied between the Old Testament and the Crucifixion was the tree, specifically the Tree of Life with the Cross of Calvary. I couldn’t help but think of some ancient iconic symbolism but also, in the spirit of say a Jung or a Campbell, what you have called “patterns.”

    “Patterns” get to rich intertextual references. The homage paid to the reference gets compare and contrast (at least when well done). Prophecy seems to be not just flat predictive fulfillment but also rich reinterpretation when compared in to the text in its prior context of author and audience. Essentially, in a written revealed religion, I can’t help but be draw into the text by the craft of literary analysis.

    So… all of that is for this (and I am a rather ignorant lay person about these things)…

    How are clergy trained in both a) mythology and symbols and b) literary analysis? When one goes to seminary, are there classes that cover these skills? I’m only aware of these things through curious self study. However, my experience has been that the clergy I interact with don’t seem fluent in these perspectives. Is this just the clergy I interact with or is it broader?

  • Mark K

    This is a very helpful post for me, so thank you. While I must do some more reading and thinking about the meat of the post before I could add anything productive, the almost casual add-on at the end resonates immediately: theological interpretation and historical-critical methodology in conversation. I like that a lot.

  • One of these days, I’m going to write a book called Reading the Bible Forwards.

  • John Mark N. Reynolds

    I enjoyed this a great deal. Good piece.

  • David

    very interesting. But aren’t there BOTH Predictions and Patterns about Jesus’ death in the Old testament?

  • Jeff Y

    Great observations and well said. I think this is dead on. Thanks. I have long loved that article in Art of Scripture. Several great pieces in that work (my favorites are by Ellen Davis and Richard Bauckham). And, I think that’s a big part of the early chapters in Matthew where he portrays Jesus as the true Israel (and the true Moses). The story of Israel points to Jesus (both in its parallels and contrasts – e.g., where Israel failed and Jesus did not).

  • Pete C

    Yes thank you for a very interesting post. There is one conversation that happened in scripture which I feel would have been very interesting & enlightening to this blog.
    Luke 24:27 (NASB)
    27 Then beginning with Moses and with all the prophets, He explained to them the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures.

    I would imagine that after that conversation, “Waldo” would have front & centre in much of what that couple read ffrom that point on.

    In my untrained reading I have often been told that “prophecy” is pattern to the Jew & prediction to the Greek mind.

  • Mark

    I’m glad I read this one. I’ve always gotten aggravated at people who use the Hebrew scriptures as “prediction” of Jesus’ coming and his actions. Your (and Anderson’s) explanation of “patterns” makes much better sense. Thanks!