Friday, February 14, 2014

Prophecy Fulfilled, or Simply Creative Reading?

Last Sunday morning in Baptist Bible study the lesson for the day was a part of John's account of the crucifixion.  In the student quarterly the lesson writer pointed out several "fulfilled prophecies" in John's crucifixion story.  A fulfilled prophecy is something a New Testament (NT) writer believed happened in order to fulfill a prediction by a Hebrew Bible/Old Testament (OT) writer.  In this case the writer of John believed that certain OT writers had "foretold" (predicted) that certain events would take place during the crucifixion of Jesus.  The "prophecies" are: Psalm 22:18 (John 19:24), Psalm 69:21 (John 19:28), Exodus 12:46/ Numbers 9:12 (John 19:36), Zechariah 12:10 (John 19:37).  The version of the Bible used by the writer of John is the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures (called the Septuagint).

            I checked the purported prophecies John identified in the OT, and surprisingly discovered there was no indication in the context that the OT writers were even aware of a future event—much less that what they wrote had to do with the crucifixion of Jesus.  Nevertheless John relates these statements to the OT with the formula "in order that the scriptures might be fulfilled…" or the like.  The specific "prophecies," which John cites, are neither marked out in the OT as prophecies nor is a crucifixion mentioned in connection with the statements.  There are even inconsistencies between the supposed prophecy and John's quoting of it: Psalm 22:18 mentions an outer garment, while John specifies an inner garment; Zechariah 12:10 reads, "they shall look upon me whom they mocked (or treated despitefully)," while John reads "they shall look upon him whom they pierced."

            The OT writers seem oblivious to the idea that their statements are to be applied to some distant future situation in the life of Jesus.  On objective grounds the statements in Hebrew Bible/OT do not describe events occurring in the future life of Jesus. John seems to have arbitrarily selected statements out of their context in the OT and applied them to the crucifixion story because they are similar in language to John's story (the synoptic accounts are different).  How can the similarity in language be explained?  Under the belief that the entire OT was a book of prophecy, John adapted his narrative of the crucifixion to fit the statements in the OT; or he searched out statements in OT having similar language to support his narrative; or John was using a traditional list of early Christian prophecies concerning the Christ from which he selected appropriate "prophecies."

            If any of these alternate explanations seems plausible, how then is it possible to claim the OT statements as deliberately intended prophecy on the part of the OT writer?  The writer of the Baptist quarterly had an answer for this question and explained Psalm 22:18 (John 19:24) as a prophecy this way:  The soldiers that divided up the garments of Christ were not aware they were fulfilling prophecy when they decided to cast lots for the inner garment of Jesus.  As John was writing his Gospel, however, John knew they were prophecies.  "The Spirit led John to include a reference to Psalm 22:18, where the Psalmist foretold these very events," says the Baptist lesson writer.  Thus, although the psalmist was apparently unaware that he was foretelling a future event, what he wrote becomes prophecy at a later time due to the "inspired" reading of the OT by John.  The lesson writer described the prophecy as a revelation to John, rather than a revelation to the OT writer.  Hence the "prophetic" statements only become prophecy after the crucifixion, when John wrote about it.

            Fulfilled prophecy is frequently used in contemporary conservative circles to demonstrate the inspiration of the Bible and the divinity of Jesus. The Baptist writer of last Sunday's lesson on the crucifixion, for example, argued that because of the fulfilled prophecies "we can be assured that He [Jesus] is the Savior and worthy of our devotion."  As early as the second century, Justin Martyr had argued that the fulfillment of prophecy proves that Jesus is "the first-born of the unbegotten God."

Apart from the assertion of John that they are prophecies, the OT statements used in the crucifixion story cannot be objectively demonstrated to have first occurred in the mind of the OT writer, for the OT writers do not identify their statements as prophetic utterances!  In order to see these passages as prophecy fulfilled one must have faith that the prophecy first occurs in John's mind by revelation, and John through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit is thereby enabled to see what is generally unavailable to others—perhaps not even the OT writer was aware that he had uttered a prophetic statement.  It appears to be simply a case of "creative reading" by John; that is to say, John reads prophecy back into a text where it never existed—except in John's mind.

An assertion whose proof is ultimately based on faith is not proven true by the belief of the one who makes the assertion; the faith statement only proves that one believes the assertion.  If other purported prophecies in OT fail to reflect the specific character of a deliberate prophecy, then the arguments that prophecy proves both the inspiration of the Bible and the divinity of Jesus are seriously undermined.  Similarity of language is not enough.

What are your thoughts?

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

2 comments:

  1. My thoughts? Deep. Takes reflection. Off the top of my head --I wonder if reducing a thought to writing in some of the many discussions we all now engage in --could be successfully converted to a prophecy by a passerby wanting to make a point-- years after I've left any discussion, and the planet.

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  2. I think you are clearly correct; people believe whatever they want about most anything. The pious regularly find messages from God in the most mundane affairs of life. Here is one example from the Bible. Nehemiah believed that the words of Shemaiah (Numbers 6:10) constituted a prophecy, although not from God (Numbers 6:12). Actually what Shemaiah told him was a lie and part of a very human plot to make Nehemiah afraid so he would stop fortifying Jerusalem (Nehemiah 6:1-14). But more generally in biblical texts the belief and reliability of a prophecy is tied to the belief that the speaker is indeed a prophet--someone who was inspired by God to speak in God's behalf. For example, in 1 Peter 1:20-21 it is the prophet who is inspired and the belief that the prophet is inspired is extended to the words that are spoken by the prophet. Perhaps a case on point is John 18:9. In John 18:8 under the threat of immediate arrest Jesus requests that his companions be released. The Johannine writer, however, takes it as an oracle (a prophetic utterance) using the same formula that he used to introduce the OT prophecies.
    Charlie

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