Whatever Happened to the Argument From Fulfilment of Prophecy?

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.

ibid, pp.50-51.

            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.


8 thoughts on “Whatever Happened to the Argument From Fulfilment of Prophecy?

  1. Excellent post. I remember reading somewhere that someone sat down and tried to do the math figuring out the odds of any one person fulfilling every prophecy in the Old Testament. I forget what the number was that they came up with but it was astronomical to say the least. It’s so easy in hindsight to say well of course Jesus fulfilled these. But to imagine what the thoughts of those present at the time of Christ would have been is astounding. To have all these requirements of various prophecies and to see one man, growing up so humble and seemingly ordinary, fulfill them all…how wondrous!

    • Thank you! It really is amazing to consider isn’t it – I like to imagine the Apostles looking back through the Scriptures after Easter and Pentecost and just being dazzled at how everything Our Lord had taught them about Himself was right there in the pages they had heard read at services throughout their lives. It is one thing to fulfil one or two prophecies, but to have someone fulfil so many, and not just specific prophecies but the whole grand narrative of Scripture, is really amazing!

      It’s so easy to fall into that ‘well of course He fulfilled them’ trap though – I find myself doing it over and over again. That’s why the liturgical year is such a blessing – it helps us to enter into the marvel of the events of salvation history again and again, often brining new things to light and reminding us just how momentous those events were.

  2. Hi mkenny,

    The New Testament writers interpreted the life of Jesus in terms of their religious texts, which is just what we would expect them to do.

    Psalm 22 is, as you mention, a good example of this. However it is salutary to note that psalm 22 caused no puzzlement whatsoever before the time of Jesus, and continues to not puzzle it’s Jewish readers to this day. It does not require a Roman crucifixion to clarify it’s meaning, although it can be utilized to express the meaning of the death of Jesus.

    what is being described is clearly a crucifixion, and yet this form of execution was not used by any peoples until, at the very earliest, the time of Alexander the Great (498-454 BC)

    The very minor point in response to this is that your dates for Alexander are off by more than a century. The less minor point is that crucifixion and variants thereof was not a 5th century BC innovation.

    More significantly, your thinking is fundamentally anachronistic. You say 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. Of course they weren’t picking random pieces! They responded to the trauma of the crucifixion by turning to one of the most central texts in their tradition. And when they retold the story that told it in terms of that (and other texts). There was nothing random about it.

    Psalm 22 doesn’t “predict” — but that doesn’t mean the New Testament writers picked it at “random” and “made up history”. — Both of those alternatives are anachronistic. —

    • Hi Tom,

      Thanks for your comment. There are some interesting points here, but it would be good if you could back up some of what you’ve said here. Firstly though, thank you for pointing out the not-quite-minor error of Alexander the Great’s life. To be honest, I cannot remember where I pulled those dates from, and it is rather embarrassing that I’d included them, as they are indeed way off! 🙂

      Nevertheless, I would be grateful if you could tell me which cultures used crucifixion before the 5th Century BC, and just how far back it goes. I am well aware that (for example) the Persians used impaling as a form of execution, and that this goes back quite a long way, but was not aware of crucifixion as such going back any further than the 5th Century, or that it was particularly common until later on.

      Also, could you back up what you say about Psalm 22 causing no puzzlement for the Jews before the time of Christ (it is not surprising that interpretations have developed since, given what Christians have claimed about it)? It (as a psalm attributed to David) bears no relation to anything that has been recorded about David’s life, and the idea that it may have been a description of a ritual royal humiliation (such as occurred in Babylon) has very little, if any, support. It could well have been understood simply as David creating a vivid account of someone suffering execution, perhaps based on something he witnessed, or even purely as a product of his imagination. Even on this account though, the high degree of descriptive detail would seem to make the psalm less than completely explicable for Jews who had not witnessed crucifixion (and unless you are right that these took place a lot earlier than I think they did, then they would not have witnessed such a thing).

      I don’t doubt that this psalm was accepted and read prayerfully, and that some attempts were made to interpret the specificities of it, but the question of whether these explanations were satisfactory (or whether some degree of puzzlement remained regarding this psalm) is one that I suggest would more than likely be answered in the negative. I would be very interested to see what support you have for your contention that no such puzzlement existed amongst the Jews (e.g.; commentaries on or liturgical use of the psalm).

      As for my thinking being anachronistic, I (not surprisingly!) don’t agree. Perhaps I didn’t make this clear in my post, but I did write that Psalm 22 was an 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’ – i.e.; that this was not simply a ‘prediction’ but an example of how the Old Testament texts speak of Christ in and beyond the original intention of the authors. In fact, reading back what I wrote, I deliberately set this in the context of the early Christians reading through Scripture and finding there precisely what Our Lord said, that ‘everything written about me in the law of Moses and the prophets and the psalms must be fulfilled’, as well as His applying these texts to Himself during His lifetime.

      Seeing as I also wrote that the early Church ‘were reading the Old Testament carefully in the light of what had occurred in Jesus Christ’, I am slightly surprised at your criticisms in this area. The mention of randomly picking proof-texts was (if you go back and read the beginning of my post) a counter to those who see Christians’ pointing to Christ’s fulfillment of the Old Covenant as precisely such an arbitrary and anachronistic process. Overall, I am not really sure that your criticisms in this area have any foundation in what I’ve written, but if you’d like to elaborate I’d be more than happy to respond.

      • Hi mkenny,

        Thanks for your reply. A few points to clarify where we differ:

        I certainly agree that Christ is the fulfillment of the meaning of the Old Covenant, and that the Old Testament can only be fully understood in the light of Christ. (The clearest example being the strand of messianic hope in the Old Testament). Psalm 22 and Isaiah 53 are certainly prophetic in the sense that their full meaning (like so much in the Old Testament) is only apparent after Christ. I’m sure we don’t differ on any of this.

        However in your discussion of Psalm 22 you cross over into a quite different use of prophecy which I think is unwarranted. A short quote:

        Psalm 22 has no parallel with any form of punishment or ritual during any of those periods – what is being described is clearly a crucifixion, and yet this form of execution was not used by any peoples until, at the very earliest….

        A fair reading of this passage (and its context) is that you are implying that Psalm 22 contains a specific historical fact about the death of Jesus (the specific execution method) which has been inserted (assumedly by inspiration) despite the fact that the author couldn’t have known it (in the human sense). Which is to say that the psalm predicts in the “strong” sense. In other words you are not just talking about prophecy at the level of fulfilled meaning here, but at the level of predicted historical nugget. I find hunting for divinely inserted “proofs” such as this to be a very very unhelpful way of reading the Old Testament

        To demonstrate this strong claim convincingly you need to show that the reference in the psalm is so specific that a.) it cannot be reasonably read as referring to something within the experience of the psalmist, and b.) it specifically and without ambiguity describes a particular first century crucifixion.

        The general setting of the psalm (a cry to God from a position of suffering humiliation) is common to any century. The specific reference to manner of suffering is:

        a company of evildoers encircle me;
        they have pierced[b] my hands and feet—
        I can count all my bones—

        The burden of reasonable proof is entirely on the person who argues that this is a specific prophecy to meet the criteria a.) and b.) above. That is, you’d need to demonstrate that this line HAS to refer to a specific type of crucifixion, and that the psalmist COULDN’T be familiar with what is described.

        It is by no means obvious from these brief lines exactly what is being referred to. (It’s perfectly consistent with someone suffering spear wounds from attempting to flee or defend themselves).

        Crucifixion first enters the record in the 5th/6th Centuries carried out en masse in the near east. The sources give no suggestion that it is a radically new punishment, it appears to be a less work intensive alternative to Assyrian impalement. The point is that crucifixion was not unknown in the ancient near east, and for your argument to be compelling you need to demonstrate that the psalmist COULDN’T (not might not have) known of it.

        So I find your assertion completely unsupported.

        As to the Jewish reading of psalm 22, my point is that it can be, and demonstrably is, read with no reference to Jesus to this day. — Which is another way of saying that nothing about psalm 22 necessitates it containing a specific historical prophecy.

        • Hi Tom,

          Thanks again for your comments. I am though, I have to admit, starting to wonder where your real disagreement lies. You say that ‘Psalm 22 and Isaiah 53 are certainly prophetic in the sense that their full meaning (like so much in the Old Testament) is only apparent after Christ’, which is precisely what I have claimed in my post. A fair reading of the quote you mention (in which I have now changed ‘clearly a crucifixion’ to ‘uncannily reminiscent of crucifixion’ – hope that helps), when everything else I had written before and after this passage does not suggest that the historical fact of Christ’s crucifixion was ‘inserted’ into an Old Testament context, is not what you have presented. I agree that what you are critiquing is an unhelpful way of reading the OT, which is precisely why I did not intend to appeal to that method.

          What I was pointing to was that the description in Psalm 22 is uncannily similar to what goes on in a crucifixion, and that it would not have been able to be satisfactorily understood in its own time – it may well have been able to made sense of up to a point, but I am arguing that any such explanations would have been incomplete.

          Seeing as I am not making the ‘strong’ claim that you think I am, I therefore do not need to show that Psalm 22 ‘specifically and without ambiguity describes a particular first century crucifixion’, only that it is very similar to that experience, which it is. As to whether it could be reasonably read as something within the experience of the psalmist, this is precisely one of the points at issue – you think it can be, I don’t think it can. Again, seeing as I am not making the ‘strong’ claim you think, I do not need to demonstrate that the psalmist absolutely could not have had another type of experience that would satisfy the details of the psalm; only that it is highly unlikely given what we know and what is being described. In this case it is not (to turn to your example) perfectly consistent with someone suffering spear wounds from attempting to flee or defend themselves, as:

          1. The sufferer is being publicly exhibited in some way, mocked by observers of his suffering, which is not consistent with someone simply recovering from battle wounds.
          2. His hands and feet have been pierced – hardly consistent with the sort of wounds one would expect in any combat situation, but very consistent with deliberate piercing for punitive purposes.
          3. He speaks of people dividing his garments and casting lots for them – again suggesting some sort of organised public humiliation as opposed to someone recovering from injury.

          It is by no means obvious what these descriptions are referring to, but it does some clear that it is not easy to reconcile them with anything that might reasonably be thought to have occurred to the psalmist, especially given that crucifixion did not exist at the time of the psalm’s writing. Which leads me on to your other point…

          You claim that crucifixion is first recorded in the 5th/6th centuries. I have already cited Herodotus as recording its first instance in the 5th Century BC – it would be helpful if you could back up your claim of a 6th Century record with some evidence. That it most likely developed from Assyrian impaling is beside the point – we are discussing when the thing itself emerged, not what it may have come from, and it is ironic that you say that you find my assertion completely unsupported, when you have countered it with what is an unsupported assertion itself. Furthermore, even if crucifixion had existed this early, it would still require a very late date of the psalm for it to be possible that the psalmist was simply recording an instance of such a thing – something which I do not personally see as being tenable (but until you provide some evidence that crucifixion was used as early as you claim, this doesn’t matter so much).

          Similarly, you have failed to provide any evidence for your claim that the details of Psalm 22 were satisfactorily accounted for in the ages before Christ. That it is read with no reference to Jesus since then, and is today, is obvious – it would be highly surprising if Judaism did admit such an interpretation! – but this says nothing about how it was read prior to Christ’s coming, nor whether AD interpretations satisfactorily account for all its details.

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