Monday, November 27, 2017

Legitimate Usage

Here and there in my daily browsings I stumble across atheists in the process of diligently constructing monuments to unbelief. These often take the form of websites attempting to debunk Bible prophecy.

Two totally unscientific observations: (1) the preferred strategy of many atheists is to throw every conceivable objection at the proverbial wall in hope that one or two will stick; and (2) most such objections arise from unfamiliarity with the text.

But not all.

A Recurring Complaint

From time to time I even find myself sympathizing with one of their most frequently recurring complaints, which is that the writers of the New Testament use the Old Testament in ways that are not legitimate.

If I put myself in their shoes, I can sort of see their point. After all, there’s no shortage of believers who, in preaching the gospel, attempt to use fulfilled prophecy as compelling evidence the Bible is true. If you’ve ever done that for any length of time with even a modicum of attention to the results, you’ve probably concluded, as I have, that fulfilled prophecy is a surprisingly ineffective evangelical tool … ineffective along the lines of tossing one’s prized orbs of oyster nacre to herds of peckish porkers.

But ineffectiveness as an evangelical tool doesn’t make New Testament quotations from Isaiah or Jeremiah illegitimate, of course. It just means we need to reevaluate the purpose of saying things like “that it might be fulfilled” over and over again — and perhaps ask ourselves what precisely is meant by “fulfilled”.

Matthew and ‘Fulfillment’

Let’s take Matthew as an example, since Bible prophecies are far too numerous to consider exhaustively. Besides, Matthew’s is the gospel in which we most often find the word “fulfilled”; he’s the writer who appeals to Old Testament sources most frequently; and his is the gospel most often attacked for this sort of liberty of usage.

I know what atheists think “fulfilled” means. They think it ought to mean that a prophet said something specific, unambiguous and even highly unlikely, and that the event prophesied later unfolded with mathematical exactitude. Christians often use the word the same way, so perhaps we are very slightly responsible for their befuddlement. But when we do this, we are imposing a modern’s mindset on an ancient text.

Don’t get me wrong, once in a while this very specific sort of fulfillment really does take place. For instance, Matthew 4:14 quotes Isaiah 9, a passage that is unarguably messianic. Isaiah tells us of a child to be called “Wonderful Counselor” and “Mighty God” who will make the land beyond the Jordan glorious. So Matthew points out that Jesus lived and ministered in that very region, working miracle after miracle to testify to the truth of his words. Pretty straightforward.

Our Griefs and Our Sorrows

Another example, also from Isaiah: “Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows.” Again, there can be no question that the prophet is foretelling the work of Messiah, God’s chosen servant. About Jesus’ healing of the sick and the driving out of demons Matthew says, “This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah: ‘He took our illnesses and bore our diseases.’ ”

No argument there. Might be nice if they were all like that.

But they’re not, and that’s not the fault of Matthew. He’s not writing his gospel for modern rationalists looking to pick at every potential nit, but for fellow Jews steeped in the Old Testament eagerly waiting for a man sent from God whose earthly experience would be consistent with the words of the prophets. He’s not putting together a scientific argument for the hardened skeptic; he’s among fellow seekers of truth saying something more like “Have a look at this. Isn’t it curious? What are the chances of that occurring naturally?”

Slim Chances

The chances are pretty slim, even when Matthew appears (and only appears, I would stress) to play fast and loose with the words of the prophets. For instance, Hosea says, “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.” It’s not impossible the prophet was referring to the nation in the first line and Messiah in the second, but that’s not how we’d naturally read it. Matthew recounts how Joseph took Mary and her child to Egypt after being warned by an angel of King Herod’s murderous intentions, and he finishes by saying, “This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt I called my son.’ ”

Let’s leave aside what Hosea intended, because as Peter tells us, the prophets, carried along by the Spirit of Christ, often weren’t 100% sure how their own words applied. It seems to me Matthew is simply saying, “Look at the parallel here. God calls both his ‘sons’ out of Egypt. There’s a pattern. Isn’t that interesting?”

Then Was Fulfilled What Was Spoken

Again, Jeremiah says this about the few Israelites left in their land when the Assyrians took their sons and daughters captive:
“Thus says the Lord: ‘A voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping. Rachel is weeping for her children; she refuses to be comforted for her children, because they are no more.’ ”
But Matthew appropriates these words to describe the impact of Herod’s massacre of male children in Bethlehem just after Jesus was born, and says, “Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah.”

Literalism and Beyond

Bear in mind that Matthew’s not being dishonest here. His immediate audience was Jewish. That matters. Historically, Jews have interpreted their scripture on five different levels, which you can read about here if you’re interested. The first or most literal level is called pshat, and is the closest we can come to our Western mode of interpretation. Any use we make of scripture beyond the literal meaning is usually referred to as application rather than interpretation.

But Jews view these other levels of exegesis as perfectly valid, and that makes them open to readings of the text we would not generally accept, provided they are acceptable to the rabbis. Who’s right? Well, let me just suggest that the answer to that may not be quite so cut and dried as we might think.

Anyway, my point is this: Matthew wrote for people who knew exactly what passages he was quoting from and had contemplated their original meaning (as they understand “meaning”) in great detail. If there was something inappropriate, illegitimate or even slightly unusual about the way he was repurposing the words of Jeremiah, his initial readers would surely have squawked up a storm and his gospel would have been a complete failure.

Instead, two thousand years later it’s still convincing men and women that Jesus Christ is God’s Messiah, despite persistent, sometimes near-pathological opposition.

The Same Sort of Thing

Peter does this same sort of thing at Pentecost when explaining the miraculous tongues-speaking to his Jewish audience: he says, “This is what was uttered through the prophet Joel.”

Now, if you take the time to look back at what Joel actually said in context, it’s evident Joel was not speaking of Pentecost at all, but rather of the aftermath to Armageddon. But Peter is not saying, “This is the end times!” He’s saying basically, “See this tongues business? It’s the same sort of thing spoken of by the prophet Joel. It is consistent with what the prophets have foretold. It’s the kind of phenomenon we can safely attribute to the Spirit of God because he’s already promised to do it elsewhere.”

If Peter’s learned Jewish audience had been modern rationalists, they would probably have replied something like, “That’s not technically correct! You can’t do that with Joel’s words.” But he could, and he did, and “those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls.”

It seems extremely unlikely to me that the Spirit of God miraculously bypassed three thousand intellects. These men believed because they found Peter’s handling of the Old Testament legitimate, compelling and consistent with the sort of “fulfillment” they were culturally prepared to accept, and NOT because they understood the original text poorly, but because they understood it better than most moderns. Matthew’s usage of “fulfilled” is equally reasonable.

Using Prophecy Like a First Century Jew

So ... IF we are going to use fulfilled prophecy in preaching the gospel, we need to start by using words like “fulfilled” the way a first century Jew did, not least because no other usage is really correct. Further, the sort of people most likely to be convinced by such arguments today will probably be the same sort who were convinced by them in the first century: religious people very familiar with the Old Testament.

For other audiences, there is surely an effective case for faith in Christ to be made from the word of God that will meet each need without resorting to semantic tricks or appearing to misuse scripture.

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