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
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
I'm thinking that all indications seem to be that to an early follower of Jesus it was important to be a Jew, to be identified by others as Jewish. There seemed to be little interest in being identified as something brand new. Jesus was simply an incredibly compelling Jew and he didn't demand that his followers be anything but good Jews. He did raise the values bar for Jews by insisting that they love enemies as well as neighbors, but that had nothing to do with past prophecies. Perhaps later, when others demanded that the followers justify their resurrection views, it was then that the Jewish traditions were combed for prediction material and the opposite of the sought for result occurred; instead of finding convincing evidence that would solidify the new group with the Jewish community, their claims and findings resulted in ever greater conflict and mutual rejection.
Sort of like political parties examining the constitution for common ground and each finding a projection of its own prejudices, biases, hopes, and fears.
Please share your notions of those earliest times.
I can’t help but notice how the use of “fulfilled prophecy” in Matthew reminds me of some of the pesher in the Dead Sea Scrolls texts, in which they used the scriptures to explain “current events.” An intense example is the Commentary on Habakkuk, where the antagonists are interpreted as the Kittim, the Romans, and every verse in the first two chapters is used. The Commentary on Nahum interprets it to say it was about the invasion of Demetrius and complicity by the “Flattery Seekers” (Pharisees). The Commentary on Psalm 37 relate this poem apparently to the “wicked” Pharisees and Sadducees of their time and how their sect will overcome and inherit the land. With that in mind, it doesn’t surprise me that the author of Matt would take passages and use them to define a new “take.” The Damascus Document tends to wander from biblical scroll to scroll, showing the relevance of ancient literature to their times. I tend to think that, instead of being “dishonest” or a misuse, it was simply a way to show ancient myth as “timeless,” thus relevant. Matthew’s use of Isaiah in that “prediction” came under fire rather early by those who had studied the scriptures.
In the case of Matthew’s use of Isaiah 7, apparently that was an issue in the middle of the second century, as seen in a response of “Trypho” in Justin’s Dialogue. From chapter 57, one reads, “And Trypho answered, "The Scripture has not, 'Behold, the virgin shall conceive, and bear a son,' but, 'Behold, the young woman shall conceive, and bear a son,' and so on, as you quoted. But the whole prophecy refers to Hezekiah, and it is proved that it was fulfilled in him, according to the terms of this prophecy. Moreover, in the fables of those who are called Greeks, it is written that Perseus was begotten of Danae, who was a virgin; he who was called among them Zeus having descended on her in the form of a golden shower. And you ought to feel ashamed when you make assertions similar to theirs, and rather[should] say that this Jesus was born man of men. And if you prove from the Scriptures that He is the Christ, and that on account of having led a life conformed to the law, and perfect, He deserved the honour of being elected to be Christ,[it is well]; but do not venture to tell monstrous phenomena, lest you be convicted of talking foolishly like the Greeks." Apparently, not only “parthenos” was questioned, but the idea that the prophecy was about Jesus was contested fairly early on by some. (Celsus, wrote also wrote in the second century, accused Jesus of being illegitimate, according to Origen.)
Dennis Dean Carpenter
Augh! I was a key off when typing. That was meant to be chapter 67, not 57 of Trypho. I apparently hit the wrong key.
Good Morning Gene,
The earliest followers of Jesus were Jews. Gentiles were not added until later when the Gospel moved into the Greco-Roman world. The presence of gentiles in the communities caused a crisis and problems. Compare Gal3:27 (which Steve Patterson regards as the earliest Confession of the proto church). See also Rom 11:1-36 where Paul is struggling to explain how it is that Jews are not Christians. The transition from Jewish followers to proto Christians was a very difficult time socially and theologically.
Good Morning Dennis,
Thanks for filling in some of the background. Your observations should be made available in a larger venue. Write it up.
You are correct at what they were trying to do, but at the same time it misused egregiously what Isaiah himself was about.
Agreeing with the other comments. Great subject. You mentioned the failed prophecy in Ezekiel 26, but even more interesting to me is God’s own explicit acknowledgment (in Ezekiel 29) that this particular prophecy had indeed failed to materialize. This and other similar cases in the OT suggest that the framers of the Hebrew Bible valued the truth of the prophets’ messages on a broader basis than whether all of their predictions came true.
You argue that Matthew’s use of Isaiah is misuse because it is not a cogent reading of Isaiah. But from ancient sources Jewish contemporary to Matthew, such as the pesharim from the Dead Seas Scrolls, we know that what counted as cogent reading of scripture among ancient interpreters did not always align with our notions. Ancient interpretations of prophecy were typically crafted as expressions of faith, not reasons for faith. As such they would not necessarily strike us now as rationally persuasive reasons for why one should believe in Jesus.
This is so true, I conclude that the sort of manipulation of scripture you point out in Matthew was not aimed at persuading anyone who was not already a believer. Rather, Matthew sought to reinforce the self-perception of already-Christian-readers that all of Jewish history had been building up to Jesus, and thus up to them. There is little reason to suppose that Jesus’ contemporaries, on their own, would have recognized the he was fulfilling prophecy.
Jesus himself certainly did go around making that claim, at least not in Matthew’s gospel, where Matthews inserts his prophetic quotations into the narrative by using his own quotation formulas, all of which are direct address by between Matthew to his readers.
But you are right: in subsequent reception of his gospel, Matthew’s efforts to support faith in Jesus have been taken as God’s efforts to establish faith by reading Matthew’s meaning back into Isaiah’s. Yet Isaiah’s own intended meaning was already under debate before the book bearing his name even took its final shape. And remains so to this day, modern conservative claims of fulfilled prophecy notwithstanding.
Huntington Beach, CA
Good Evening Charlie!
First let me respond to your last reply on the previous blog... The things you listed as being far worse concepts than "burning in hell" didn't trigger me at all. Funny how the mind and emotions work- those things you listed are not even on my radar. I've never given them much thought... It is amazing how different we all are! I'm glad you shared those concepts, and it explains how we both view church leaders and propaganda so differently... The human psyche is really fascinating, so thank you for your stream of consciousness list. Who knows why we fear what we fear and what triggers those negative associations?? Maybe it goes back to childhood.
I've enjoyed reading the comments by everyone else with regard to this current blog. Your topic at hand is very timely! What a coincidence that that was what you had planned to discuss in light of what I shared earlier... Anyway, Isaiah 7:14 has been a bugaboo of mine for a long time and I've mentioned it before... I learned about its mistranslation from Rabbi Skobac and Rabbi Singer. As you know, the law of best evidence is always the original language in which a document is written, and I think a rabbi has the moral high ground when it comes to interpreting the Hebrew scriptures.
I do have a question about the Virgin Birth being a sign from God... How did that work? How can a virgin conceiving a child be recognized by the public at large? Did she wear a sign on her forehead saying "I am a virgin?" Her pregnancy was supposed to be a sign from God. Isn't a sign from God supposed to be obvious? What stood out about that pregnancy that made it an obvious sign? Do signs and wonders need to be explained? How would the Virgin Mary walking around pregnant be an obvious sign to anyone? Does that make any sense to you? Many thanks as usual! Elizabeth
Good Morning Bill,
Thanks for weighing in on this issue. We are fortunate to have someone with your expertise in Hebrew Bible to join the discussion. And in particular thanks for calling my attention to Ezekiel 29:17-20 where Tyre is acknowledged by God as being still active in spite of God's earlier terrible prophecy against it.
Good Morning Elizabeth,
As Professor Yarkin said: Matthew's interpretation of Isaiah's prophecy was not for the general public but rather for believers. And the sign is obvious to believers--just ask a devout Christian in today's church. Matthew's interpretation of Isaiah is allegorical--recognizing that the text says one thing but treating it as though it means something entirely different.
One more question Charlie: What about miracles- aren't those also associated with prophets such as Elijah? Some prophets had special powers to perform signs and wonders... this gave credibility to their words from God. What is your understanding about why God no longer gives prophecies to prophets today... In other words, what does your church teach about why God quit using prophets to communicate his words directly to his people? Some churches (as you know) still believe there are modern day prophets. What do you think the bible teaches with regard to God continuing to speak to his people through the gift of prophecy, even today? Or is the bible silent on that subject? (sorry that's more than one question) Many thanks as always! Elizabeth
Good icy, snowy morning Elizabeth,
1. My understanding of why God no longer speaks through prophets today? Well, like everything else in religion it depends on who you speak to; some people believe God still speaks through prophets. Hence the better question is did God ever speak through prophets?
2 What does my church say? Southern Baptists and perhaps Baptists in general do not have prophets as an "office" in the church. I have always been told that the reason for that is that things like miracles and prophecies in Christianity belonged to the Apostolic Age of the church. Such divine gifts stopped after the end of the Apostolic Age, which, roughly, ended with the time of the initial founders of the faith. But that does not explain why such divine gifts are to be found in ancient Israelite faith and in ancient Greek religion.
3. What does the Bible teach with regard to prophecy? Prophecy is clearly a part of Israelite faith and the faith of the writers of the NT period. Prophets were an "office" in Paul's gathering of saints at Corinth for example (1 Cor 12:28-50; 14:37-39). Paul would likely be surprised at the make up of a Baptist church not having prophets, although he did apparently foresee a time that prophecy would pass away (1 Cor 13:8-9; 14:37-39). And in any case Paul regarded love as a greater gift than prophetic powers (1 Cor 13:2).
4. My view? If such a thing as prophecy ever existed the prophecies were as much the statement of the prophet as God. The question then becomes how does one sort out the voice or ideas of God from the words of the prophet? Hence I would regard every "Word" of a prophet that is touted as being directly from God with a great deal of skepticism and would not base my lifestyle on any of their pronouncements.
"If such a thing as prophecy ever existed the prophecies were as much the statement of the prophet as God. The question then becomes how does one sort out the voice or ideas of God from the words of the prophet?" Thank you, that is a great question and one I've never even thought of before. (but I will now!) Elizabeth
The following question occurred to me: Can there be prophecy without theocracy?
Theocracy - government by a God regarded as the ruling power or by priests or officials claiming divine sanction. (American Heritage Dictionary).
It would seem that with the defeat of the Maccabees, destruction of the temple, and forced dispersion by the middle of the second century C.E. Israel was no longer a theocracy.
Does "one nation under God" make the U.S. a theocracy? I guess not because we at least have in theory the separation of church and state.
Where in today's world do we hear theocracy's prophetic roar:
"The words of Amos...and he said, 'The Lord roars from Zion and utters his voice from Jerusalem...'" (1:2)
There are still prophets, people who claim that God has initiated certain natural events (tsunamis, earthquakes, hurricanes and the like) because of God’s wrath at “wicked” populations, as well as those who are healers and those who interpret events of the Bible, particularly Revelation, to mean present and future times. It’s easy to name a number who have been performing for years on television and, I assume elsewhere . They are just modern versions of the biblical characters called “prophets,” or “spokesmen” of God. Those with a modern worldview, however, generally don’t look at them seriously. Even in Jewish literature of the first century ce. “prophets” had critics. Prophecies tended and tend to work if written long after the event the prophet “forecast” had happened or if the “prophecy” was general enough to apply to a variety of situations. (In the second example, one illustration is in Josephus’ “Wars” Book 6 where he thought the omens were there. He just disagreed on what the omens meant.)
Today, our operational “prophecies” are predictions, and they come not from gods but from statistical analysis, looking at the variables and deciding whether ‘tis chance or ‘tis probably related. I just completed an 18 month statistical correlation of my health, predicting that the more I exercised, the less my blood pressure and fasting glucose would be. (I know that’s what the general knowledge is; I just wanted practice applied statistics and to see if exercise applied to my case.)
Dennis Dean Carpenter
Did exercise apply to your case?
Somebody should research the qualitative differences (if any) between the prophecy on behalf of a god of a tribal confederation or kingdom fighting for the love and obedience of his people, and the predictions of a modern "cult" leader staking out territory in the midst of a threatening world. I'm guessing that the level of self-criticism of the kingdom is far less than that found in the cult.
Charlie, yes, statistical significance on both. Blood glucose (.01 level) seemed more closely related than blood pressure (.05 level).
Gene, there might be some problems with defining and operational quantifying! (I just had some numbers and, since I ran data most of my career to see if my methods were working, it seemed like a good thing... Made a really pretty scatter chart on the glucose, not so much on the bp, since the numbers were closer.
Dennis Dean Carpenter
The last sentence says exactly the opposite of my intention. The phrase "far less" should read "far more."
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