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Since the very beginning of the Christianity, Christians have claimed that Jesus is the Jewish Messiah. Today, it has become common to find Christian sources claiming that Jesus fulfilled over 300 Messianic prophecies in the Old Testament (for example, see- http://www1.cbn.com/biblestudy/biblical-prophecies-fulfilled-by-jesus ).
Skeptics have long since mocked such claims, pointing to various Jewish Anti-missionaries and rabbis who claim that the alleged “Messianic prophecies” used by Christians are in fact nothing of the sort; they claim Christians twist or confuse the Scripture in order to make it fit the life and death of Jesus.
As such, I want to write a series of blogs on the topic of Messianic prophecy and even try to establish an argument that it could even be used as a potential “G-Belief Authenticating Event” (thus, I will be putting myself out there and try to establish a positive claim to see what can be established in that regard).
Clarifying The Argument
Now, I must confess up front that I will not be able to establish an argument from prophecy directly, not in the same way I think I can establish the “Vindication Prediction Argument” as advanced in a previous Podcast (via Dembski’s specified complexity criteria). There are just too many complex variables at play to establish (or prove) a clear prior prediction and actual fulfillment which would be convincing to a skeptic’s and/or liberal Jew/Christian who allow for biblical errancy. Various interpretations of the specific details of the predictions and their fulfillment abound in such cases- the use of interpretational devices such as Messianic typology vs. prophecy proper, double fulfillment, prophetic telescoping, etc. can make any such argument appear strained from a non-believer’s perspective.
That said, I do think there are some Messianic prophecies in the OT which can be used to prove that from an inerrancy perspective, either Jesus is the Jewish Messiah or no one can be. Thus, using the biblical prophecies, I intend to argue that, under an inerrantist perspective, Jesus Christ is the only possible Messianic candidate available and if one denies Jesus as the Jewish Messiah, then they are left with no possible biblical Jewish Messiah candidate at all. Thus, given this unique circumstantial evidence alone, I think one could see this as a circumstantial argument as being “extraordinary” in its own right and hence could be said to constitute a “sign” from God (i.e. a “G-Belief Authenticating Event”).
Establishing The Argument- Jesus Or Bust Part 1
Be aware, this is a cumulative case argument and as such no one prophetic example is meant to be sufficient on its own merit; it will probably take at least 3-4 parts to establish this argument and so I would ask skeptics to wait until the entire argument has been presented before making any final judgements on the argument as a whole. That said, cumulative cases are built one evidential building block at a time and so we shall now turn to the first set of Messianic prophecies in our case.
Messianic Prophecy #1- Isaiah 7:14
The Gospel of Matthew, records that Jesus was born of a “virgin” (Gk. parthenos) in order to fulfill what the Lord had predicted in the OT book of Isaiah 7:14, which says, “Therefore, the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel” (meaning “God with us”). Skeptics have often derided Christians for misunderstanding the Hebrew text since the Hebrew word almah translated as “virgin” probably should actually read “young woman of marriageable age”; skeptics chide Christians claiming that had the Hebrew author wanted to say “virgin” he would have used the word betulah instead.
However, the skeptic is not entirely correct here, it is true that the word almah does not mean virgin, yet it is also demonstrably true that neither does betulah, nonetheless it is consistent with a “virgin” reading of the text. Unfortunately, the Hebrew is not clear enough to adjudicate one way or another, as there was no clear term that always and unambiguously meant “virgin” in ancient Hebrew; however, we do have a Greek translation of Isaiah known as the LXX or Septuagint written by Jews some 250 years or so before Jesus was ever born and it uses the same Greek word that Matthew does in his translation of this prophecy- it uses the Gk. word “parthenos” which is typically translated as “virgin” in English.
While one may make a positive case for the proper translation of the Hebrew to be “virgin” based on the Greek translation here, one must admit that even this Greek terminology can be said to be somewhat controversial in its use in certain cases and so even here it is not conclusive. Thus, I don’t think we can dogmatically make any judgements one way or the other based on word use alone, it could very well mean a “virgin” or it could simply mean a young women of marriageable age, in either case Matthew was correct since Mary was both a young women of marriageable age and a virgin as per the story of the Incarnation; the two are not mutually exclusive.
What can be said positively, is that Isaiah 7 is the start of multiple Messianic predictions which culminate with Isaiah 9 and 11 and ends with a song in chapter 12. Upon reading the entire context of Isaiah 7-12, one immediately recognizes that the Messianic line of King David is under threat as Israel wishes to depose King Ahaz from the thrown of Jerusalem (born in the line of King David- God’s divinely ordained dynasty) and replace him with one of their own. Terrified, King Ahaz rejects God’s offer to give him a supernatural “sign” (from the depths of Sheol to the heights of heaven) which would have proven that he should place his faith in God as opposed to seeking an alliance with Assyria for protection. As such, God then addresses the House of David (plural) rather than King Ahaz personally and pronounces that the birth of a royal child named Immanuel through a young woman (possibly one that was a virgin) will serve as a supernatural sign of God provided to the House of David.
While skeptics offer various interpretations of this verse and as to who this royal child was (some scholars think it referred past tense to Hezekiah, others to some other yet to be born son as in Isaiah 8, etc.), nevertheless it seems clear from the overall context that something went wrong and the child prophesied in these chapters of Isaiah did not arrive as expected (clearly neither Hezekiah nor any other known figure from that time could be argued to have had their birth serve as the equivalent of a supernatural sign “from the depths of Sheol to the heights of heaven”.
Despite any confusions about the specific timing of the birth, the context clearly says that a royal child in the line of David, would be born of a young woman (possibly a virgin) and this would serve as a supernatural sign to the House of David in general (not necessarily to Ahaz or his generation)- this child would be called Immanuel (meaning “God with us”). How many Jewish Messianic candidates could claim that their births served as an everlasting supernatural sign for the reign of God’s kingdom here on Earth- that’s right, only Jesus makes that claim via the virgin birth/Incarnation- God becoming flesh and being born of a virgin certainly qualifies as a supernatural sign that God is with us, that much is obvious!
Sources For Further Research– See http://christianthinktank.com/fabprof2.html OR YOUTUBE VIDEOS here =Isaiah 7:14 = https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eI15ExvNzvM (approx. 14 mins) & Isaiah 9:6 (Divine Messiah based on Names of the child born) = https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kqB7gkaGjFI (approx. 10 mins).
Messianic Prophecy #2- Micah 5:2;
This Messianic prophecy is less involved than the “virgin birth” prophecy in Isaiah, very few biblical scholars (including Jewish ones) would deny that this text speaks of a Davidic king (aka. the Messiah) or that he would have his origins and/or birth in the tiny town of Bethlehem. However, it is interesting to note that there is also a potential hint (just as there is in Isaiah 9:5), that the Messiah will be associated with the divine nature having his origin from the days of olam (meaning “eternity”). Jews try to translate the word here as meaning the days of ancient times, indicating that the Messiah will have his origin in King David who was born in Bethlehem some three centuries prior to when the prophet Micah made his pronouncement. However, the context clearly supports the typical Christian understanding as the same word is used elsewhere in Micah (Micah 2:9; 4:5,7) as even Jewish translations attest.
Thus, while a little ambiguous, I think we can be somewhat confident that, at minimum, this Messianic prophecy foretells the coming of the Messiah having his origins/birth in Bethlehem from eternity past. Jesus is claimed to have been born in Bethlehem, to have descended from the line of King David and via his divine nature can also be said to have his origins in eternity. I would imagine that few other Messianic candidates have made such claims.
Sources For Further Research– See https://www.toughquestionsanswered.org/2016/04/18/does-micah-52-indicate-that-the-messiah-is-divine/ and a skeptical Jewish source = https://jewsforjudaism.org/knowledge/articles/will-messiah-will-be-born-in-bethlehem/ .
In closing, thus far we have seen that the Jewish Messiah will be a royal son of the House of David (in the Davidic line of descent), having his origins in Bethlehem from eternity, and his birth would serve as a supernatural sign to the House of David that “God is with us” (Immanuel- God was with the House of David). The case for our more nuanced circumstantial argument based on Messianic prophecies in the OT is just beginning to take shape, we start here with some prophecies about the Messiah’s birth and origin, next time we shall turn to look at a couple prophecies related to what his mission would entail.
The Many Problems with Prophecy (Skeptic’s View)
Since Dale is making a cumulative case, it puts me in a difficult position. I can’t really argue against his case until he makes it. By his own admission, that might take a while. So my responses will either be dismissive or delayed until further information is presented.
I am on record as not liking cumulative cases. All that means is a person does not have any convincing evidence. So they take a bunch of unconvincing evidences and pile them up into a tall enough heap so that what their argument lacks in strength, it makes up for in sheer volume. It is like a tone-deaf singer who tries to compensate by singing louder.
This week, Dale would have us evaluate birth prophecies. I admit that I am not well-versed enough in Hebrew literature to argue about what the passages in question really mean. Then again, neither is Dale. The difference is I’m the only one of us willing to admit it. While he pretends it is a clear-cut case. It is not.
Even actual Hebrew scholars are not clear on what these passages meant. They argue amongst themselves with no clear resolution in sight. There is certainly a branch of Christian scholars who say they are about Jesus. But I know of no Orthodox Jewish scholars who believe that.
This would be the first problem with prophecy in general: No one knows what the original prophecies even meant, let alone whether they came true. It is all a matter of interpretation. There is not a single current event that cannot be couched as fulfilled prophecy. You can always find some vaguely worded ancient text in a language you can’t accurately translate and claim it was all about whatever you want to prove. Here are a few other problems.
When was Jesus ever called Emanuel? It wasn’t his name nor his nickname. He is never referred either formally or informally as Emanuel. So this one has always been a head-scratcher to me. The only thing Christians can say is that Jesus fit the meaning of the word. But then again, so did a lot of people and things.
The tabernacle was god with us. The ark of the covenant was god with us. Moses was god with us. Every king in the Davidic line was god with us, even messiah: the anointed of god. As for the “I AM” statements, those are only in John, and are hotly disputed, even by some Christian scholars. Many Christian scholars don’t believe that Jesus referred to himself as god with us. So if “Emanuel” is the kind of drenched log Dale hopes to pile up, this fire is never going to start.
Born of Woman
Was Jesus born of a young woman or born of a virgin? What did the prophets say? Dale admits the word is likely young woman, but could go either way. He also admits that better words for virgin were available if that is what the writer wanted to say. I cannot speak as a scholar. But I can speak as a writer. One of my main jobs as a writer is to make word choices that leave my intended meaning clear.
If I am trying to suggest that something miraculous is going to occur, I will use words that highlight the miraculous, completely eliminating mundane interpretations. There is no Old Testament text that makes it clear Jesus was to be born outside of the natural order. Because it is a part of the Christian story, Christians have to read it back into the text. I don’t believe that is an honest way to read the text, finding miraculous language where only mundane language exists.
Even Paul does not seem to know that Jesus was supposed to have been born outside of the natural order. Paul also describes the birth of Jesus as nothing special. He was born of woman and rejected by men.
Thus, we encounter the second general problem with prophecy. Almost all prophetic language is vague, and easily fits into multiple interpretations. It is never as clear as tomorrow’s lottery numbers. Until it is, we have very little to talk about.
Finally, it is interesting that it is the Christians discovering the Jewish messiah and not the Jews themselves. What Christians have done is stage a hostile takeover of Judaism. Christians have told the Jews who their god was, what their god wanted, what he was planning, what their holy book really says and means, and who their savior would be. The Jews, on the other hand, disagree on all those things.
In order to define Christianity, Christians have had to redefine Judaism. Christians don’t ask Jews what they think about the messiah based on their own scriptures. Christians don’t care. Christians have a narrative of their own which they impose on everyone else.
Dale might argue that the first Christians were Jews interpreting their own scriptures. I will grant him this. But they were a small band of Jews who were well outside of orthodoxy. It would be like an atheist defining Christianity based on a small cult. No Christian would stand for that.
This is where we come to the third problem with prophecy. It is only ever “properly understood” by a small handful of people who usually rest outside of orthodoxy. This seems like an ineffective way for a god to communicate. He gives the vaguest possible message under the most questionable circumstances to the smallest number of outsiders. And that is how he has conveyed some important truth about the world.
There are more problems with prophecy. And I will give a few more of them as Dale comes closer to making something that resembles a point.
And that’s the view from the skeptic.