Monday, March 30, 2020

A Father’s Two Children

According to the Synoptic Gospels the voiceprint of Jesus was characterized by the aphorism and the short narrative. The synoptic evangelists dubbed these short narratives "parables" because they found them enigmatic; that is to say they could not easily get a religious meaning out of them by reading them as the fictional stories they were. Hence they assumed that the stories were, for the most part, figurative1 and that enabled the evangelists to get a religious meaning from them that suited their own idiosyncratic theology. There is a residue of only 43 short narratives preserved in early Christian literature attributed to Jesus.2

One of the shortest and least studied of these brief narratives, titled by its first line, is "A Father's Two Children."  A synopsis of the story is as follows: the narrative depicts the different responses of two children to their father's instructions to go and work in the family vineyard (Matt 21:28b-30). The general subject of the story is obedience/respect, as Matthew rightly understood (21:31). It is an enigmatic story and two versions of it exist among the various manuscripts of Matthew's Gospel.

Here are translations of the two versions of the story excluding the literary context (21:31-32), which in my view constitutes the evangelist's interpretive strategy. Version one:

A man had two children [tekna,3 not uios], and coming to the first he said "child, go today; work in the vineyard." But answering s/he said, "I don't want to." Later, however, having second thoughts, s/he went. And coming to the other, he said the same. Answering s/he said "I am [going],4 Sir; yet s/he did not go.

Version Two:

A man had two children [tekna,3 not uios], and coming to the first he said, "child, go today; work in the vineyard." Answering s/he said "I am [going], Sir; yet s/he did not go. And coming to the other, he said the same. But answering s/he said, "I don't want to." Later, however, having second thoughts, s/he went.

The answers of the children are reversed in version one and version two.

            Basically the story compares and contrasts the responses of the children and by that contrast invites the reader's judgment on their responses, particularly in view of the fact that the story has no conclusion. The lack of a conclusion seems to be the design of Jesus' stories5 and makes Matthew's introduction to the narrative ("What do you think, 21:28?") plausible as an introduction to the story.

Matthew's interpretation (21:30-32) describes the conflict between the chief priests and elders of the people (Matt 21:23), the antecedents of "they" in Matt 21:31. Their response to Jesus' question in Matt 21:31 ("the first") only works with the first version of the story, where the youth later did as instructed; in the manuscripts several answers are given by Jesus' interlocutors—the last, the second, the latter, depending on the sequence of the children's answer and actions. These answers do not work with the version chosen by text critics to whom we owe the credit for the version that generally appears in your translation.6

Would you attach a religious meaning to the story? If you would, why would you do so?

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1Some stories they read as examples such as An Injured Man on the Jericho Road (Luke 10:30-35).
2Hedrick, Wisdom of Jesus, 121. That is not to say that Jesus originated all of the stories. See Meier, Probing the Authenticity of the Parables (Yale: 2016).
3Teknon is a Greek neuter noun which is translated by the English "Child" with no emphasis on gender. Uios is a masculine noun and is translated "son." In Luke (2:48, 15:31), however, uses the term child as an affectionate parental title for a son. Interestingly the only way that the reader knows that the parent is male is by the use of the Greek kurie, "Sir," which is vocative of address for the masculine noun kurios.
4A later manuscript adds after "I am" (egō) the Greek upagō (going). For the use of the Greek egō alone to mean "I am going" see Judges 13:11 LXX.
5See for example the analysis of The Unjust Judge and The Pharisee and Toll Collector in Hedrick, Parables as Poetic Fictions (Hendrickson, 1994), 187-235.
6See Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament (UBS, 4th ed., 2000), 44-46.

Sunday, March 15, 2020

A Brief Essay about Nothing

Why is it not the case that nothing exists—no rivers, grass, trees, rocks, animals, people, stars, empty space, etc.? In short, why is there nothing at all? My question is about cosmogony, that is, about the genesis of the ordered universe. The Judeo-Christian answer to the question, learned in religious schools, is the myth of creation.1 The first account of Creation (Gen 1:1-31) begins as follows:2

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters. And God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. And God saw the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness (Gen 1:1-4 RSV).

From this account God is depicted as initially calling into being, or generating from nothing, an amorphous watery mass without firmament into a dark void (Gen 1:6-10). God brought order to this chaos, and then filled the earth with life.

Does one need God to explain the genesis of an ordered world? If so, then the explanation for the genesis of everything is based on religious belief, but sectarian religious belief will not satisfy some as an explanation for there are other Gods and other cosmogonies competing with the Genesis narrative.3 The objection to using theology to explain the genesis of an ordered world is that there is absolutely no verifiable evidence that anything preceded the universe as we know it.

Modern evolutionary theories for the genesis of the universe do not address the originating cause (if cause there be). Theories are of three types:

a universe which starts from a point origin at a finite time in the past and expands continuously to become infinitely large after an infinite time;

a universe whose radius has a certain value at the initial moment of time, and thence expands to become infinite after an infinite time;

a universe which expands from zero radius to a certain maximum and then collapses to zero again; this process of oscillation being capable of indefinite repetition. Within each of these main categories a large number of possible models can be constructed differing in various points of detail.4

The competitor to these evolutionary types is the steady-state or continuous theory of creation.

The steady-state model is an alternative to the Big Bang Theory of the evolution of the universe just above. In the steady-state model, the density of matter in the expanding universe remains unchanged due to a continuous creation of matter, thus adhering to the perfect cosmological principle, a principle that asserts that the observable universe is basically the same at any time as well as at any place.5 The history of the universe on the steady-state model extends to an indefinite time in the past and future.6

While the steady-state model enjoyed some minority support in the scientific mainstream until the mid-20th century, it is now rejected by the vast majority of cosmologists, astrophysicists, and astronomers, as the observational evidence points to a hot Big Bang cosmogony with a finite age of the universe, which the steady-state model does not predict.7 The theory of a steady-state universe is seriously challenged by the evidence that the universe is expanding. This demonstrated reality makes the “Big Bang” theory of the genesis of the universe far more plausible, and raises in an urgent way the question of what generated the “Big Bang”—unless we decide that the question is unanswerable.

            The question “what generated the universe” or put another way “why is there nothing at all” I personally find to be unanswerable, but for me it is an important question. It makes me more confident in the proposition that “God” is. “God” in this case, however, is not the personal God of Judeo-Christian faith, but rather the nonexistent point of origin whence all began.8 What do you think?

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1Virtually every society has a myth of creation to explain the origin of everything. See J. E. Wright, “Cosmogony, Cosmology” in NIDB 1:755-763.
2The second account is Gen 2:4-3:24.
3See for example the short collection of myths of the world before creation from the Pacific basin: Carl Sagan, Cosmos (Wings, 1980), 256-60.
4Young, Exploring the Universe (Oxford, 1971), 419-20.
6Young, Exploring the Universe, 411.
7https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Steady-state_model ; Young, Exploring the Universe, 380-81.
8Hedrick, Unmasking Biblical Faiths (Cascade, 2019): “Matter and Spirit: Making Sense of it All,” 174-77; and also for an earlier version: http://blog.charleshedrick.com/2015/08/matter-and-spirit-making-sense-of-it-all.html

Sunday, March 1, 2020

Suicide

Suicide is enough of a problem in this country that we have a national suicide prevention call center (1-800-273-8255).1 Nevertheless, America does not have the highest rates of suicide worldwide.2 On a recent TV show a character committed suicide for no reason that was apparent to investigators. The investigators later discovered that the man had inoperable brain cancer, and they concluded that he committed suicide rather than face the suffering he would experience in his last days. The show prompted the question: why do people commit suicide? The leading explanation for suicide seems to be depression, but there are many possible reasons.3 One possibility is that someone decides everything they care about has passed away so they simply make plans for them to go as well. In this regard one might immediately recall the movie Soylent Green and the suicide of the scholar who remembered how to read books (played by Edward G. Robinson).4

            There are several examples of suicide in the Bible but they are not condemned by the biblical narrator. On the contrary, some of those people might even be said to have died nobly.5 In short, suicide is not condemned either in the Old or New Testaments, as is, for example, murder (1 John 3:15; Exodus 20:13 [usually translated “You shall not kill unjustifiably]). Josephus, on the one hand, calls suicide “an impious act against God our creator” (War III.viii.5), but on the other he writes approvingly of acts of suicide by a large body of Jews (War VII.viii.6-7).6

Prior to the Christian period Greeks and Romans had different attitudes about suicide. For example, Socrates committed suicide rather than be exiled from Athens. Some Roman authors (for example, Cicero and Seneca) at times seem to glorify suicide but they grant “the act greater complexity on other occasions.”7

In the early Christian period (second century) the solicitation of martyrdom as a positive act on the part of Christians blurs the distinction between suicide and martyrdom so that even martyrdom might be viewed as suicide, as the legendary Martyrdom of Perpetua and Felicitas clearly shows.8

In the fifth century, St Augustine wrote the book, The City of God, in it making Christianity's first overall condemnation of suicide. His biblical justification for this was the interpretation of the commandment, "Thou shalt not kill," as he sees the omission of ‘thy neighbor,’ which is included in ‘Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor,’ to mean that the killing of oneself is not allowed either…

In the sixth century AD, suicide became a secular crime and began to be viewed as sinful. In 1533, those who died by suicide, while accused of a crime, were denied a Christian burial. In 1562, all suicides were punished in this way. In 1693, even attempted suicide became an ecclesiastical crime, which could be punished by excommunication, with civil consequences following. In the 13th century, Thomas Aquinas denounced suicide as an act against God and as a sin for which one could not repent. Civil and criminal laws were enacted to discourage suicide, and as well as degrading the body rather than permitting a normal burial; property and possessions of the suicides and their families were confiscated.9

From this very brief schematic history of attitudes about suicide in Western civilization it does not appear that the prohibition against suicide in modern society is to be tracked to an early Christian consciousness of the sacredness of life, but it grows out of a later ecclesiastical development that condemns suicide as usurping God’s prerogative to give and take life (Job 1:21). Prohibitions against suicide do not rest on concerns for the welfare of the individual as much as they rest on it being an offense against God. Modern attitudes about suicide, however, seem to be motivated by humanitarian concerns for the welfare of the individual. In my view, if suicide involves an offense at all, it is not against God (if God there be), but against Being, since it is an unnecessary diminishment of all existence.

“My personal view of this situation is that being conscious even with pain, is better than being insentient; or put another way, life lived with physical difficulties and pain is better than a death that instantly banishes all pain—for as long as there is life there is hope…But I cannot fault those who might choose a quick death over an inevitable painful lingering death.”10

How do you see it?

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

6Young, “Suicide,” IDB 4.453-54
8Droge, “Suicide” ABD 6.230-31.
10Hedrick, Wry Thoughts about Religion: “End-of-Life Issues” Tuesday March 15, 2016: http://blog.charleshedrick.com/search?q=End-of-life+Issues

Sunday, February 16, 2020

Transcendent Truth and the Early Christian Gospels

In my last essay I suggested that the Gospel of John described what appeared to be an abstract transcendent spiritual reality1 to which the author of John referred with the phrase "the Spirit of Truth."2 If "Truth" in this phrase is an abstract principle, it is an idea that the author shared with the ancient Greek philosopher Plato. It would not be unusual that the author of John was influenced by Platonic thought because Platonism is described as "the single greatest outside intellectual influence on Christianity in its formative stages."3

Basic to Platonic thought is Plato's theory of Forms (or Ideas, or Ideals). This theory argues that virtues or concepts that we know, such as love, truth, beauty, or goodness are only shadows of an archetype (original pattern) existing in an invisible transcendent world. Our ability to recognize that something in our physical world resembles the archetype is due to "an innate recollection of knowledge of the divine Forms acquired by the immortal soul before it 'fell' from its celestial origin toward the world of sensible delights and became incarnated into a physical body."4 Hence, the concept "truth" in our visible world of change is merely a shadow that mimics the archetype, which is an eternal abstract Truth.5

According to the Greek philosophers Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle,6 the truth or falsity of a representation in our visible world is determined by how our representations relate to the things we are describing— that is, by whether or not it is an accurate description.7

            The Gospel of John may share Plato's idea of an abstract metaphysical Truth in how it describes Truth.8 In John Truth is integral to the invisible world of the divine Father and is associated with the divine Father in the Judeo-Christian tradition (Isa 65:16; John 1:14, 3:33, 4:23-24, 8:26, 14:16-17, 17:17; 2 John 3; Rom 3:7), as is love (1 John 2:15; 3:1; 4:7-8; 4:16 ) and light (1 John 1:5). Truth "proceeds from" the Father, who is Spirit (John 4:24), by means of Spirit, which John terms the Spirit of Truth (John 15:26). In other words both Truth and the Spirit of Truth are native to the invisible world and are not indigenous to the visible world that we know (John 14:16-17). The Spirit (i.e., of Truth), who comes from the divine Father, knows complete Truth (John 16:13, 14:26), rather than the partial mundane truths we know in the visible world of change where truths change over time and with each individual.9

            The synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) reflect no knowledge of a transcendent Truth or even a Spirit of Truth. They do describe a metaphysical/supernatural Spirit associated with the divine world (e.g., Mark 1:10, 3:29; Matt 3:16, 10:20; Luke 10:21, 11:13), but they do not describe this Holy Spirit or Spirit of the Father as the Spirit of Truth, a designation that is only found in Johnnine literature. In the synoptic gospels "truth (alētheia)" is used only in prepositional phrases (e.g. "in truth," Matt 22:16) having a meaning of something like "of a truth" or "truly" (Matt 22:16; Mark 12:14, 12:32; Luke 4:25, 20:21, 22:59). It appears once in Mark as a noun (5:33) to describe a woman telling her "whole truth." Does it matter that the synoptic gospels reflect no knowledge of what appears to be an abstract Truth or its Spirit that proceeds from the Father? Does it matter that the author of John's Gospel may well have been influenced by Platonic thinking? How does it seem to you?

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1"Truth" in the phrase "the Spirit of Truth" is the abstract principle by which all specific instances of supposed truth are to be measured.
2Hedrick, "Truth is an Idea," Wry Thoughts about Religion, Jan 31, 2020: http://blog.charleshedrick.com/2020/01/truth-is-idea.html
3John M. Dillon, "Platonism" in The Anchor Bible Dictionary 5:381.
4John Turner, "Plato, Platonism" in The New Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible 4:546.
8Hedrick, "Truth is an Idea."
9A later writer claimed that his community shared the knowledge of the Spirit of Truth that comes from the Father. This writer claimed to sort out truth from error on the basis of those who disagreed with the writer's ideas (1 John 4:6); those who disagreed do not know the Spirit of Truth.

Friday, January 31, 2020

Truth is an Idea

Truth in the abstract I will define as “a transcendent metaphysical or spiritual reality.” That there is such an overarching “principle,” however, is specifically denied by the poet Wallace Stevens. He put it this way: “There is no such thing as the truth.”1 Nevertheless, contrary to Stevens we persist in thinking that there is an ideal truth of which our mundane truths (if true) are an integral part. But once again Stevens challenges our thinking; to quote Stevens once more: “There are many truths,/ But they are not parts of a truth.”2

Truth, as we are familiar with it, is an idea rather than an abstract transcendent principle; yet it is not merely an idea. Truth is more than a mental image or mental formulation of something seen or known, or imagined. The Truth is a mental formulation driven by the force or conviction that a particular ideation of truth is right in all circumstances.

Truth is not exclusively singular (i.e., the Truth) but manifold (i.e., independent truths), for many hold in mind ideas they claim are true, yet they often contradict the “true” ideas of others. For example, part of Baptist truth is that the act of baptism is merely a symbol (Rom 6:1-4) and not essential for salvation. Catholic truth, however, holds that baptism is a sacrament, one of the seven means of conferring the grace of God,3 and hence is essential for salvation. In other words these two contradictory truths (Baptist and Catholic) are not part of a single metaphysical truth. There are only contradictory mundane truths that are held as ideations in different minds. In this competition between two contemporary giants of religion, we are left with the disturbing question: “What is the truth about baptism?”

Some of these mundane truths we hold in mind are deceitful or downright lies, like the ideal political truth “that all men are created equal.”4 This statement in the U. S. Constitution is sexist (“all men”) and a religious confession to boot (i.e., “created” implies a creator), but, most important, it is simply untrue; for people (much less all men) are not born equal either in native abilities, social status, or physical prowess. Some truths that people live by can qualify as being “evil,” like the truth of racial superiority and its handmaid anti-Semitism.5 Racial superiority was the driving force of the Nazi party (National Socialism) in Germany in the 1930s, a truth that produced extermination camps across Europe in World War II.6

            If, on the other hand, there is an abstract transcendent or spiritual reality called Truth, it is not what people live by. We live by our mundane ideas about what we think is the transcendent or spiritual principle (if such there be), since we are always once removed from apprehending the transcendent principle. If there were an abstract transcendent Truth, it would still enter our minds only as an idea about some particular mundane truth. For example, lying is bad (but soldiers lie to deceive the enemy and receive medals for doing so); being kind to one another is good (but kindness in time of war is chargeable as giving aid and comfort to the enemy). Usually we learn ideas about what is true from others and we invest those inherited ideas with authority over our lives.

            The author of John portrays Jesus as describing what I take to be an example of transcendent truth, called “the spirit of truth” (John 14:16-17; 15:26; 16:13; 18:37; see also 1 John 4:6; 5:7) of which Jesus’ claim to be “the truth” (John 14:6; 1:17) is one part. But the evangelist leaves his readers with this issue unresolved. During the exchange between Jesus and Pilate (John 18:33-38), Jesus claims to have come into the world to bear witness to the truth (18:37). The evangelist, however, allows Pilate the final unanswered word in the dialogue. “What is truth?” (18:38), Pilate asks. Jesus has no answer. Pilate’s probative question continues to echo in readers’ minds to the end of the Gospel—it turns out to be the final word about “truth” in the gospel.7 Is this a deliberate literary strategy of the author? Is there a transcendent or metaphysical Truth of which all our mundane “truths” are a part, or is truth, like beauty, only what one thinks it is? How does it seem to you?

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1“On the Road Home” in The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens (Knopf, 1961), 203.
2Stevens, Collected Poems, 203.
3Catholics see baptism in this way: “Through baptism we are freed from sin and reborn as sons of God”: https://www.vatican.va/archive/ccc_css/archive/catechism/p2s2c1a1.htm
4From a “Declaration by the Representatives of the United States of America in General Congress Assembled July 4, 1776” of the U. S. Constitution.
7John 19:35 and 21:24-25 use the adjective “true” and in literary form are narrative asides that may belong to a later editing of John. See Charles W. Hedrick, “Authorial Presence and Narrator in John: Commentary and Story” in Goehring, Hedrick, Sanders, and Betts, Gospel Origins and Christian Beginnings (Sonoma, CA: Polebridge, 1990), 74-93.

Friday, January 17, 2020

Do Deceased Believers Sleep until the Resurrection?

To judge from 1 Cor 7:1-40 Paul believed in the imminent appearing of the Lord and that the final resurrection would occur within his own lifetime. Otherwise he likely would not have made such unreasonable demands on believers.1 Paul seemed to think that believers alive in his day would live to see the final resurrection (1 Thess 4:13-18).2 But what of those who had died earlier? It is a question that still plagues pious believers and systematic theologians.

If one thinks that Paul and other early believers had some insight into answering this question, one might be led to believe that the soul of a believer who dies is immediately translated into the presence of the Lord (2 Cor 5:6-10; Phil 1:21-23; Luke 23:39-43; Rev 6:9-11, 7:13-17). But Paul’s comments in 1 Thess 4:13-18 suggest that such may not be the case. Paul’s final words in this passage (i.e., “and so we shall always be with the Lord”) raise the question of where dead believers were before they were resurrected if they were not at that moment with the Lord? Shouldn’t deceased Christians have gone to be with the Lord as soon as they died? If Paul was right in 2 Cor 5:6-9 dead believers should have been accompanying the Lord on his return. As Paul said to living believers in 1 Thess 3:13: may the Lord establish your hearts unblameable in holiness before our God and Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints. Paul’s statement in 1 Thess 3:13 seems to be in direct contradiction to 1 Thess 4:13-17. Apparently one can make either argument from the Bible: the souls of believers sleep till the resurrection or they go directly to be with the Lord.

            This kind of dissonance in the New Testament has led some to project an intermediate state between a believer’s death and the resurrection, which some refer to as “soul sleeping.”3 In other words when believers die, their bodies decay but their souls sleep (1 Thess 4:14) until they are awakened at the resurrection by the Lord’s cry of command, the archangel’s call and the sounding of God’s trumpet (1 Thess 4:16).

The theory of soul sleeping may have evolved out of the similarity that biblical writers find between sleep and death. For example when Stephen was killed, he is quoted as saying: “Lord do not hold this sin against them.” And the author of Acts adds: “And when he had said this he fell asleep. And Saul was consenting to his death” (Acts 7:59-8:1; see also, Mark 5:39-40; John 11:11-15; Dan 12:2; 1 Cor 11:30; 15:6, 20; Jer 51:39, 57: Ps 13:3). Indeed, the states of sleep and death resemble one another so closely that at a certain point even today one cannot immediately tell one state from the other.4

The truth of the matter is, however, that no one, not even the biblical writers, knows for certain what happens when life leaves the body. What we think we know is based on our faith or lack of it. At least one author of a biblical book apparently agrees that knowledge of what happens when we die is known to no one. The author of Ecclesiastes writes: “All go to one place; all are from the dust, and all return to dust again. Who knows whether the spirit of man goes upward and the spirit of the beast goes down to the earth” (Eccl 3:20-21 RSV; compare 9:10).5

How do you see it?

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1That he recognized the demands to be unreasonable is suggested by 1 Cor 7:20-21, where he was willing to suspend his rule in all the churches of remaining as you are and allowed slaves to gain their freedom.
2As he put it to his readers: “The dead in Christ will rise first, then we who are alive…”(1 Thess 4:17).
3See the discussion in Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christian_mortalism
5In the epilogue Eccl 12:7 must be read in the light of Eccl 3:19-21 and 9:10.

Friday, January 3, 2020

Of Prophets and Prophecies

In the biblical tradition a prophet is believed to be an individual God has selected as spokesperson to deliver a particular message in a particular ancient context. The prophet can be male or female (Exod 15:20-21; Jdg 4:4; 2 Kgs 22:14; 2 Chron 34:22; Neh 6:14; Isa 8:3; Luke 2:36; 1 Cor 11:4-5). The God of biblical faith apparently did not practice gender discrimination in selecting people for the responsible role of prophet (as New Testament writers did: 1 Tim 2:8-15). A prophecy is believed to be a communication originating with God/the spirit of God that is directly transmitted through the prophet (Deut 18:18;1 Sam 10:10; 2 Chron 18:10-11; Jer 14:13-16, 26:12; Ez 37:1-10, 38:14-23; Amos 7:12-17, 8:1-14; 2 Pet 1:21): the voice is the voice of the prophet but the words are believed to be the words/Word of God (Jdg 6:7-10; 2 Kgs 21:10-12, 24:2; Zech 7:7-12; Luke 1: 67-79; Heb 1:1). Prophecies take various forms. For example, a prophecy may be a doxology (Exod 15:20-21), a psalm (Luke 1:67-79), a rebuke (Jer 26:12-13), a prediction (John 11:49-52), or even an act of a prophet (Jer 13:1-11).

            Nevertheless believing that God was speaking through the prophet did not ensure that God actually was speaking through the prophet, which raised questions about the source of the prophecy (1 Kgs 22:5-20). This in turn led to the recognition that not all prophets were sent by God, but some were false prophets (Matt 7:15; 2 Pet 2:1: 1 John 4:1). And apparently some believed that God even sent forth lying spirits to deceive the prophets (1 Kgs 22:20-23). How should one then distinguish between true prophets, false prophets, and deceived prophets? It is not unlike a problem that contemporary church folk have: how does one identify an authentic word from God (if such there be) amidst all the contradictory religious teachings of today’s religious groups both Christian and other than Christian?

The answer that the ancient Israelites came up with was the following: if the word does not come to pass or come true then it is not a word that the Lord has spoken” (Deut 18:15-22). That only works, however, with predictions, and there were some predictions that the biblical texts represent as true sayings of God that did not come true—as, for example, the prophecy that there would always be a descendant of David ruling Israel (2 Sam 7:1-13; Jer 33:17-18). Today, however, Israel is no longer a monarchy, and its leaders do not claim descent from David! Here is a second failed prophecy: Ezekiel prophesied that the ancient city of Tyre would be utterly destroyed and no longer inhabited (Ezek 26:15-21), but today Tyre is a thriving city in Lebanon.

Early Christians co-opted some of the “Old Testament” prophecies to prove that the founding events of their faith had been foreseen by the prophets. The theory behind this way of reading the “Old” Testament must have gone something like this: We are in a new situation and the old covenants obviously no longer apply to the new people of God (Jer 31:31-34; Heb 8:8-13). For the new people of God everything is new (2 Cor 5:17). But on the other hand they also believed that the Word of the Lord would live forever (Isaiah 40:8; 1 Pet 1:24-25). They reasoned that it is simply not possible that a word of the Lord could be rendered obsolete after being spoken in its original context. What the prophet spoke lives on to apply to future contexts as well. Therefore the word of the Lord can also apply to the early Christians in their new situation. From that perspective Matthew read Isaiah in the light of the new people of God (Matt 1:18-23).

For example, Matthew took the prophecy that Isaiah made to King Ahaz of Judah during a political crises in the eighth century BCE. The birth of a peasant child to a nameless young woman, Isaiah said, prophesied God’s presence with his people and the survival of the Kingdom of Judah (Isa 7:1-25) in that ancient context. The prophecy came true; Judah did survive. Matthew, however, focused on only one verse in the passage (Isa 7:14) and ignored the ancient context and the fact that the prophecy was fulfilled in Isaiah’s day. He asserted that the prophecy also related to the birth of Jesus (Matt 1:18-23). “Hooks” in the verse written by Isaiah making Matthew’s explanation of Isaiah 7:14 seem plausible are the words “virgin” and “Immanuel.”1 On the basis of only two words Matthew ignores the plain meaning of Isaiah’s fulfilled prophecy and finds a deeper spiritual level to the passage, by reading it in the light of later Christian faith.2

In my view, however, Matthew has simply misused Isaiah in an attempt to justify early Christian belief. The kindest thing one can say about such an approach is that it simply is not a cogent reading of Isaiah—particularly in the light of Paul’s comment that prophecies are imperfect (1 Cor 13:9) and will pass away (1 Cor 13:8). In other words, Isa 7:14 related only to Judah in the political crisis of the eighth century BCE.

How does it seem to you?

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1The word virgin (parthenos) only appears in the Septuagint (Greek version of Hebrew Bible). The Hebrew reads ‘almah, a young woman (of marriageable age).
2See Hedrick, “Prophecy Fulfilled or simply Creative Reading,” Wry Thoughts about Religion, Friday February 14, 2014: http://blog.charleshedrick.com/search?q=prophecy