OK, the title of this post is a bit too provocative – perhaps I really do need to forego blogging until I’m feeling better. But Rob Reid posted on the topic of Messianic prophecies, challenging those who claim that there are “hundreds of predictions about Jesus in the Old Testament” to show precisely what was predicted and where.
It seems to me that most or all of the alleged predictions will fall into certain categories.
First, there are texts which had nothing to do with Jesus or the Messiah in their original context. The classic example is Hosea 11:1, “out of Egypt I called my son”, quoted in Matthew’s Gospel, but in its original context the reference was to Israel. I don’t think Matthew was necessarily “pulling a fast one” here. Presumably both the author and original readers knew what the text in Hosea was about, and so this was an instance of typology rather than prediction. It may be that the view of these as predictions is the fault of modern readers who don’t know what the texts quoted in the New Testament said in their original context and never bother to look them up.
In this category presumably we can also place Isaiah 53. This section of Isaiah is particularly interesting, since it does make a “prediction” about the Messiah – Cyrus! It also explicitly names the Servant – Israel! (See Isaiah 45:1,4). Presumably the servant who is Israel and yet suffers in Israel’s place is the righteous remnant, carried off into exile and bearing the punishment of the nation as a whole. But even though this is probably a clear instance of a text that in its original context is neither Messianic nor predictive, it is perhaps slightly different inasmuch as it offers a generic depiction of suffering for the sake of another in a manner that is redemptive. And so it is not surprising that Christians eventually applied Isaiah 53 to Jesus. But it has no specifics related to Jesus – it doesn’t mention his name, crucifixion, the Romans, or anything else. All it offers is a theological interpretation of redemptive suffering, which Christians then used to interpret and make sense of Jesus’ death.
The next clear category are texts that were indeed about an anointed one (or Messiah), presumably originally referring to the Davidic king or Aaronic priest in general, or in some cases to one specific king or high priest. After these institutions were disrupted, such texts were applied to figures whom God would raise up in the future to restore the institutions of the kingship and priesthood. In some cases, we do in fact have predictions of such a restoration.
The latter are the only genuine “Messianic predictions” among the texts mentioned so far, and they are the reason for my giving this post a controversial title. From the perspective of Jewish expectations about the restoration of the kingship, Jesus simply did not do in any obvious or publicly observable way the things that were predicted. He doesn’t defeat Israel’s enemies. He doesn’t take David’s throne back and reign on it in any earthly, physical sense. He doesn’t restore unity between the northern and southern kingdoms, bring back exiles or reunite scattered tribes. At best, most Jews would have viewed Jesus as simply having failed to fulfill their expectations. But in some cases, when they considered that Jesus instead of conquering the nation’s foreign overlords was instead executed by them, they might have concluded that Jesus was not merely a poor fit for the role of Messiah as traditionally understood. They might have viewed him as the antithesis of what the Messiah should be.
For some, this might seem like a strong argument against Christianity, but for me, this is one of the reasons I am a Christian. The early Christian movement, rather than abandon the view that Jesus was the Messiah, instead rethought the whole category of Messiah, and redefined it in terms of suffering, of conquering not through force but through sacrifice. And it is that very reinterpretation which, even if it means that we can’t claim that Jesus “fulfills hundreds of prophecies”, also gives Christianity its life-transforming power.