By Deutsch: Kodros-Maler English: Kodros Painter Français : Peintre de Codros (User:Bibi Saint-Pol, own work, 2008-02-16) , via Wikimedia Commons
In his presentation “Helping Jesus Fulfill Prophecy,” at the Westar Institute’s Spring 2017 national meeting, Robert J. Miller of Juniata College gave an entertaining explanation of how ancient Hebrews and Greeks thought of prophecy in order to show how New Testament authors came to treat scripture as a malleable source of authority on Jesus. Ancient Jews and ancient Christians developed sophisticated methods to help prophets speak to their time.
In his book Helping Jesus Fulfill Prophecy, Miller set out to understand what these ancient texts meant to their ancient audiences. This is a strictly academic approach that doesn’t necessarily ask how such texts concern the present; it certainly doesn’t care about any plan of God as revealed in scripture, though the latter continues to be a common approach to scripture today. Academic study of the Bible doesn’t exist to help preachers do their job but to understand the Bible in the context in which it was written. “When you study the prophets, it’s not about us but about them,” Miller explained. “If we want to, once we do our best to understand what they meant to themselves, then we can do what we wish. … It’s in that gap between what they said and what it means to us is the hermeneutical challenge for ministers and others. Not understanding how to do this is a roadblock that in fact was connected to why Westar was founded.”
Prophecy deals with the in-between space between present and future. Hebrew prophets wanted to change a behavior of their audience, meaning their emphasis was on the near future. If the prophets were really speaking about events hundreds of years after their time, it would not motivate their audience. If one reads the prophets in detail, they intend the meaning of their prophecies to be clear. For example, Jeremiah 7 threatens that the temple will be destroyed due to the people’s failure to obey. The problem is not lack of understanding but lack of obedience. In other instance, Isaiah is actually told to “make their hearts dull” because otherwise “they would repent and then I would have to heal them.” Here God instructs the prophet to make sure the people don’t understand, which presupposes that the people normally do understand and Isaiah has to make a special effort to obscure it.
Greek prophecy is a different kind of phenomenon than Israel. It is oriented around oracles. The oracle would respond to specific questions only after entering an altered state of consciousness, taken over by the gods, which meant the oracle acted more or less like a puppet with no sense of what was said. In this model, prophets don’t know the meaning of what they say. That difference, combined with the Greek belief that Fate is more powerful than the gods, guaranteed that prophecies were always fulfilled no matter what humans did to outwit them, often in ways that were totally unpredictable. The classic example of this is Oedipus Rex. The meaning of prophecies only becomes clear after they are fulfilled.
Greek culture spread through the Middle East with the armies of Alexander the Great and became dominant. In terms of prophecy, think of what the Greek approach could do when it touched upon the Hebrew prophecies: suddenly the Hebrew people could read their prophecies in a new way. If prophets are oracles who spoke obscure prophecies, with clarity arriving only after fulfillment, suddenly the prophets can be made relevant to the present and Jews can think of their religion in a way that makes it valuable. Jews who were willing to integrate Greek ideas into their ways of thinking were able to find some pride at a time when they were under political and cultural pressure to give in to Greek popular culture. The story of the Maccabees shows the extremes of people who were wedded to the old ways (portrayed as martyrs) and the ones who adapted (portrayed as heretics).Fast forward a little further into the future, and it becomes apparent that New Testament authors employed the same and similar strategies when it came to Jesus. Retrofitting is a word used to describe something built for one purpose is redesigned for another. Prophecy passages often work this way in the New Testament. They are strategically rewritten in order that Jesus might better fulfill them. By changing a few things here and there, a story can function in a way it was never designed to. Such work can be done with great literary effort and skill. It required access to texts and knowledge that wasn’t available to everyone. Yet the authors are, in their own minds, helping these texts to say what they really mean; the meaning is more important than the wording in the ancient mind.
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New Testament writers did not say, “Jesus fulfilled prophecy and therefore he’s the messiah predicted by the prophets.” Instead, they said, “Jesus is the messiah. The messiah was predicted by prophets. So Jesus must have fulfilled prophecy.” The gospels tell us this themselves—they weren’t necessarily being sneaky about it! Some writers admit that they only noticed the fulfillment of prophecy after the fact, e.g. John 2:13–22 or several passages in Luke 24. Disciples “remember” or have to have it explained to them to believe both Jesus’ word and the connection to scripture. “All along he was fulfilling it, and now we can see how.” Their lack of understanding at the time is typical of the adopted Greek model of prophecy.
When the model works, the prophecy is supposed to have instantaneous effect, such as a person being baptized on the spot, but in reality most Jewish people were not persuaded and did not do this, so early on the theme of Jesus fulfilling prophecy took on an anti-Jewish tone. Disbelief was treated as repeated, persistent, revealing how New Testament authors thought about this. They saw it as willful ignorance of truth, without being willing to see the situation as a matter of honest people simply not being convinced by attempted persuasion. Again, it is normal according to the Greek attitude toward prophecy for people not to understand a prophecy being fulfilled in the moment. Ignorance of prophecy is further proof of the prophecy—conveniently, you can’t lose!
The painful effect of these historical developments, which we can now see in retrospect, has been the transformation of prophecy from the tool of a marginalized group (ancient Jews and Christians in the Roman Empire) to a tool used against a new vulnerable group (modern Jews, in anti-Semitic rhetoric and action). “The argument from prophecy outlived its usefulness long ago,” Miller concluded. “It is long past time for thoughtful Christians to retire the argument from prophecy … not to denounce or condemn but to put it out of service.”
Cassandra Farrin joined Westar in 2010 and currently serves as the Marketing Director of Westar and Editor of Polebridge Press. Her poetic retelling of the Nag Hammadi text "On the Origin of the World" is forthcoming in Gender Violence, Rape Culture, and Religion (Palgrave McMillan). A US-UK Fulbright Scholar with more than ten years' experience with cross-cultural and interfaith engagement, she has an M.A. in Religious Studies from Lancaster University (England) and a B.A. in Religious Studies from Willamette University.
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