Amongst the proofs offered for the truth of the Christian Faith throughout history, it had been common for apologists to point to Christ’s fulfilment of various Old Testament prophecies and prophetic images. I cannot place when this stopped being a common facet of Christian apologetics (though would hazard a guess that it began at roughly the same time that the assumptions of philosophical materialism became part of the biblical critics’ toolkit), but nowadays it is certainly very rare to hear anyone pointing to these fulfilments as part of their ‘case’ for Christianity. And yet, unless the person that one is making the case to is unduly wedded to a materialist worldview, it seems to me that the argument from fulfilled prophecy remains a powerful one.
Another reason that this argument is seldom used is perhaps because we have become so used to the idea that Christ fulfils the promises of the Old Testament that we have taken it for granted – as is often the case in a ‘post-Christian’ age, we have received so many odds and ends about the Faith in our cultural inheritance that we assume we know it all already, and therefore do not take the time to examine in more detail quite what the claims being made constitute and just how bold they actually are. Many people have a vague sense that because the prophecies in question are in the Bible, then of course Jesus would have fulfilled them. The Bible is something that comes as part of our cultural inheritance, and because of this its actual origins and nature are rarely examined.
Given then that it seems for many people today prophecy is either an uncritical assumption or something that doesn’t fit into their worldview, it is understandable that the fulfilment of prophecy is not something commonly employed as part of most contemporary Christian apologetics. However, even if someone denies things like miracle and prophecy as a priori impossibilities, it seems to me that the argument from Our Lord’s fulfilment of the Old Covenant prophecies remains a powerful one, not least because He used it Himself as a way of showing to people who He really was (c.f.; Mark 12:35-37), and the New Testament (particularly Matthew and Hebrews) appeals to this fulfilment for proof of Jesus’ divine and messianic character.
An important thing to note first though, is that the biblical prophecies are not of the same type as (for example) the visions of Nostradamus, which are intentionally vague and open to any number of interpretations. The prophecies of the Old Testament are highly specific, dealing with particular events and places. Two good examples of this are the prophecies invoked by Saint Matthew at the beginning of his Gospel. One of these is his appeal to the prophecy of Micah, which says of Bethlehem that ‘from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days’ (5:2), indicating a future ruler coming either from the ancient Davidic line, or being of divine origin.
Micah prophesied during the reigns of Jotham (750-735 BC), Ahaz (735-715 BC) and Hezekiah (715-687 BC), which places him a good deal later than David and his immediate heirs, and much earlier than the time of Christ. It is notable that until this latter time, Micah’s prophecy had not been invoked, and furthermore, Matthew’s appeal to this text (2:5-6) cannot be explained simply by wishful thinking – i.e.; by his picking out an obscure scriptural text and then fabricating the story of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem to fit the text:
‘As far as the birth of Jesus is concerned, the only sources we have are the infancy narratives of Matthew and Luke. The two evidently belong to quite distinct narrative traditions. They are marked by different theological visions, just as their historical details are in some respects different.
Matthew apparently did not know that Joseph and Mary were both originally from Nazareth. Hence, on returning from Egypt, Joseph initially wants to go to Bethlehem, and it is only the news that a son of Herod is reigning in Judea that causes him to travel to Galilee instead.’
Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives (2012), p.65, Bloomsbury.
What Pope Benedict is saying here is that, based on the internal logic of Matthew’s Gospel itself, we can see he did not know of any other location for the Holy Family than Bethlehem (if he did, surely he would have mentioned it) – therefore his appeal to the City of David must be due to the fact that this is what he knew from tradition, as opposed to apologetic reasons. The information available to him is that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, and it is with this knowledge that the prophecy of Micah leaps out at him, not the other way around.
Also, we have the prophecy of Isaiah 7:14, that ‘a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanu-el’, which Saint Matthew (1:22-23) sees as being fulfilled by what the angel tells Joseph (1:20-21) in his dream (‘do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit; she will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins’) and the events that, for Saint Joseph and for us all, made this a reality. As Isaiah was writing at the same time as Micah, some have seen Ahaz’s son Hezekiah as being the immediate fulfilment of this prophecy, but this would at best be only a partial fulfilment, given the specific terms of the prophecy and of the exalted language used in Isaiah 9:6-7.
After having weighed up these (and other) alternative applications of Isaiah’s prophecy, and found immediate or even distant messianic interpretation lacking, based on the circumstances of the time, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI concludes that the traditional Christian interpretation is the only truly satisfactory one:
‘So what are we to say? The passage about the virgin who gives birth to Emmanuel, like the great Suffering Servant song in Is 53, is a word in waiting. There is nothing in its own historical context to correspond to it. So it remains an open question: it is addressed not merely to Ahaz. Nor is it addressed merely to Israel. It is addressed to humanity. The sign that God himself announces is given not for a specific political situation, but it concerns the whole history of humanity…
…Emmanuel has come. Marius Reiser has summed up the way Christian readers have experienced this passage as follows: “The prophet’s prediction is like a miraculously formed keyhole, into which the key of Christ fits perfectly.” (Bibelkritik, p.328).
Indeed, I believe that in our own day, after all the efforts of critical exegesis, we can share anew this sense of astonishment at the fact that a saying from the year 733 BC, incomprehensible for so long, came true at the moment of the conception of Jesus Christ – that God did indeed give us a great sign intended for the whole world.’
It is this sense of fittingness that characterises so many of the prophecies fulfilled by Christ – not just an imprecise or general sense of correspondence with what was written of old, but an unmistakable fit that makes sense of what, without the coming of Our Lord, would remain a mystery. The fact that Isaiah most likely did not have a clear sense himself of what he was prophesying does not matter, and only serves to support what we already know about God’s Providence – that God, living in the Eternal Present, and so knowing the ‘whole story’, should provide glimpses and pointers to what will come later, and which will only be explicable when the later revelation comes to us, should be no surprise.
A good example of where something was fulfilled by Christ with astonishing accuracy but where the author of the text could not possibly have known what they were writing about, comes in Psalm 22. The Psalms are filled with passages that, in light of Christ, are given clearer meaning and a deeper significance, and they were often used by Our Lord to describe His mission and Person. Psalm 22 stands out though, as being particularly prescient (and is also cited by Saint Matthew in Chapter 27, vv. 35, 39, 43 and 46; the first line in particular gives uninhibited expression to Our Lord’s sense of abandonment upon the Cross and provides us with a vivid feeling of His sense of this psalm’s prophetic nature).
Regardless of when one dates the Psalms (a collection of texts, probably edited over a long period, the individual psalms seem to range anywhere from the 15th Century to the 6th Century BC) what is being described in Psalm 22 has no parallel with any form of punishment or ritual during any of those periods – what is being described is uncannily reminiscent of crucifixion, and yet this form of execution was not used by any peoples until, at the very earliest, the beginning of the 5th Century BC, with the first description of it coming from Herodotus in 479. It certainly was not common until the time of the Carthagenians and the Romans, and this psalm’s description of what we now know their practice to have been is remarkably similar.
There are many other examples that could be provided here, but the ones I have mentioned go to show that a strong case can be made in support of Christian revelation on the basis of its fulfilment of Old Testament prophecy. Careful, unprejudiced examination of the context in which the prophecies were made, and comparison with what actually occurred in the life of Christ, shows us that the New Testament writers were not picking pieces out of Scripture at random and then making up history to fit their arbitrarily selected proof-texts, but were reading the Old Testament carefully in the light of what had occurred in Jesus Christ. When they did, they found previously inexplicable texts were able to be made sense of, and the whole narrative came alive with meaning for them.
The same should be the case for us today, as the God that was revealed in Jesus Christ was the same One who inspired the words of the Old Testament, and we should therefore not be surprised that the patterns, narratives, and even specific predictions of the latter should find their true meaning in the former. An unprejudiced reading of the prophetic texts and the connections made with them in the New Testament should give even the sceptic pause for thought; but for the Christian, reading Sacred Scripture in the light of Christ gives us a window onto the Eternal Present of God from which all these treasures flow, and should impress upon us even more the greatness of His glory and the depth of His providential wisdom.