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The Fabulous Prophecies of the Messiah
By Jim Lippard
"The Old Testament ... contains several hundred references to the
Messiah. All of these were fulfilled in Christ and they establish
a solid confirmation of his credentials as the Messiah."
-- Josh McDowell (1972), p. 147
"I have examined all the passages in the New Testament quoted from
the Old, and so-called prophecies concerning Jesus Christ, and I
find no such thing as a prophecy of any such person, and I deny
there are any."
-- Thomas Paine (1925), p. 206
These two quotations express diametrically opposed views about
whether or not the life of Jesus as described by the New Testament
gospels fulfills prophecies of the Jewish Messiah found in the
Hebrew scriptures. Josh McDowell's view is the standard
evangelical Christian view, found in countless Christian
apologetic works. The view expressed by Thomas Paine, however, is
much less widely known. This is unfortunate, because Paine is
Fortunately, Jim won't be using much of Paine's material, because much of it is seriously irrelevant, incomplete, or just plain ill-informed. Paine had no background in biblical/historical studies (in fact, his education was very meager--barely extending to the basic RRR's), and the vast majority of the data that will bear on this question--archeological and linguistic-- wasn't even available in his day. To be quite frank, the educational credentials of Mr. McDowell (college and graduate school degrees in theology and biblical studies) are significantly better than Paine's. But, since this is not an exercise in evaluating ad hominum arguments, let's proceed. Jim Lippard's arguments below represent a much more cogent and reasonable articulation than Paine's (although suffering from the same general lack of background in historical, linguistic, and ANE studies.)
Every case of alleged fulfillment of messianic prophecy
suffers from one of the following failings: (1) the alleged Old
Testament prophecy is not a messianic prophecy or not a prophecy
I will show how difficult it actually is to demonstrate that a blatantly historical passage is NOT 'prophetic' (in the technical 'typological' sense). In other words, the vast majority of mainstream historical events in Israel's history (not to mention much of the other ANE cultures) WOULD HAVE BEEN TAKEN prophetically, without any explicit textual clues. (I will argue this later, when I get to passages that warrant typological treatment.)The problem for us, would curiously be the OPPOSITE problem than is presented normally. It is not 'why would we take this historical passage to be prophetic?' but rather 'are there any clues in the text/context that allow us NOT TO TAKE THIS PASSAGE prophetically?"...You can image the license and abuses that could come from such a view in today's "Television Hula-Hoop Preachers"!
(2) the prophecy has not been fulfilled by Jesus, or
The issues here will center around 'how' one understands 'fulfillment', how one proves it, how one deals with "typological escalation" (in which a historical passage refers to an obvious historical anti-type, but then begins using phrases that clearly go beyond the historical figure, to perhaps a typical figure--cf. Ezek 28:11-19; Is 14:12-14; Dan 11:29-35); and finally how one deals with 'summary' prophecies--those involving multiple events, scattered throughout time...and maybe the issue of the two advents of the messiah.
the prophecy is so vague as to be unconvincing in its application
This will be very closely linked to point #1 above.
The Significance of Messianic Prophecy
Before examining specific claims of fulfilled messianic prophecy,
some remarks should be made about its significance. The
fulfillment of biblical prophecy is a central pillar in
evangelical Christian apologetic arguments for the truth and
accuracy of the Bible. The Bible contains many statements about
future events which are intended to be prophetic--the books of the
prophets, such as those of Isaiah and Jeremiah, are full of them.
Of these statements, many are about actual historical events of
the past. Given our present knowledge of the chronology of the
Bible's writing, however, in most cases it cannot be demonstrated
that the prophetic statements do not post-date the events being
Now, in all fairness and balance, I must point out that the opposite is ALSO true. We have NO REASONS WHATSOEVER to believe that a prophecy of the OT was written AFTER the event occurred, and that it was 'fabricated' to look like a prophecy. (But this gets into the accusation of "fraud"--pious or not--which will have to be dealt with differently in the OT than in the New Testament.)
In fact, so much of the argumentation of the OT writings (and God as he plays as a character in that) HINGES on the reality of predictive prophecy (cf. Is 48), that the literary unity and even semantic intent would be incomprehensible without it. And, as Jim will point out below, the high standards of truth/accuracy of the OT (which consistently manifests its distinctly "skeptical" character) is an important framework in the Christian's commitment to the 'extra-ordinary' character of scripture.
And we do have prima facie internal evidence FOR the existence of fulfilled prophecy in the OT [e.g. Daniel's use of Jeremiah's prophecy--Dan 9.2 refto Jer 29:10f; and numerous passages in the Hysterical (oops, I mean the Historical) Books...;>) ]
In the case of the Old Testament prophecies of the
Messiah, however, we have documents (e.g., the Dead Sea Scrolls)
which do predate the time at which the historical Jesus is
believed to have lived. If numerous specific and detailed
prophecies in the Old Testament were found to match the life of an
historical Jesus, this would provide considerable evidence in
support of the Christian faith. This is just what Christian
apologists claim to be the case.
One of the main issues here will be the content of the phrase 'numerous specific and detailed'--if we both are required to USE THE CONTEXT IN WHICH THEY WERE WRITTEN as the source for criteria of fulfillment/meaning, then I heartily concur and applaud the methodological consistency. If, on the other hand, criteria alien to the cultural milieu (for example, criteria from Western, 20th century, technoid civilization are imposed on the writings--for example, in areas of precision, summary, additional documentation--then I will consign such approaches to the category of improper historical method and/or naive logic.
On the other hand, if it were found that there are no such
specific prophecies fulfilled by Jesus, or that there are specific
messianic prophecies which were not fulfilled by Jesus, this would
be evidence against the truth of Christianity. Since Christianity
claims accuracy and truth of both the Old and New Testaments, it
is bound by the biblical standards for a true prophet of God set
forth in the Hebrew scriptures. The book of Deuteronomy puts
forth these standards when it says that Moses, speaking on behalf
of God in chapter 18, verse 22, proclaimed that "When a prophet
speaks in the name of the Lord, if the thing does not come about
or come true, that is the thing which the Lord has not spoken.
The prophet has spoken it presumptuously; you shall not be afraid
of him." In verse 20, he says that "... the prophet who shall
speak a word presumptuously in my name which I have not commanded
him to speak, or which he shall speak in the name of other gods,
that prophet shall die." In other words, any prophecy from God is
guaranteed to be accurate, and any prophecy which is not from God
but given in his name shall guarantee the death of the prophet.
While these standards require that prophecies from God are
accurate, truth of a prophecy does not guarantee that it comes
from God. Deuteronomy 13:1-5 points out that false prophets may
also be accurate, but true prophets will never lead Jews astray
from their religion, under penalty of death.
Jim has given us a very balanced and fair statement of the position here. One of the difficulties of the biblical position (which he doesn't bring up here) is the difficulty of knowing WHEN a prophecy has failed.
Consider the prophet Jonah on his missionary journey to Nineveh. He walks into the city and delivers a seemingly unconditional prophecy (3. 4): "Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned." The city responds to this message with a serious turning to God (3.5-9), and God spares the city. Jonah is upset, and complains to God that he KNEW something like this would happen!
My point is simply this: the literary form of the prophecy did NOT completely reveal its character--it LOOKED UNconditional, but it WAS conditional ("if they got their act together, the judgment wouldn't fall"). The text/context dialectic MUST be considered carefully. This is a special case, with little general applicability to the messianic realm (with possible exceptions -- e.g. Matt. 11:13 "For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John. And if you are willing to accept it, he is the Elijah who was to come."). But my sole point is that we must be CAREFUL with the text and not force it onto a Procrustean bed.
If, as I will show, there are messianic prophecies which are
not fulfilled by Jesus (and which will not be fulfilled in the
future), then these standards entail that either Jesus was not the
Messiah or the prophecies in question were not made by a true
prophet of God. Both horns of the dilemma have the consequence
that any form of Christianity which maintains biblical inerrancy
This is basically true, with the caveat that we have to be as careful with 'false dilemmas' HERE as some skeptics would accuse the believer of ignoring in the "lord, liar, lunatic" phrase!