Prophecy and Inerrancy

I apologize for the lack of posting of late. I have plenty to write about, but school's been taking up a lot of my time. They're making me write essays, if you can believe it.

I'm taking a Religious Studies course on Jesus, and I've been doing a little research on the infant narratives in Matthew and Luke. Here's what my textbook (Howard Clark Kee: Jesus in History) has to say about Matthew's version of events:

Each of these "historical" moves was ultimately dictated... by the divine plan laid down in Scripture. The return from Egypt is said to be the fulfillment of Hosea 11:1. The grief of the mothers whose children were slain by Herod is seen as predicted in Jeremiah 31:15. The move to Nazareth is said to accord with "what was spoken by the prophets": "He shall be called a Nazarene" (Matt. 2:23). There is no text corresponding to this declaration, but it is likely a reference to Isaiah 11:1, as noted below.

Matthew has no interest in the actual historical events in biblical times out of which the prophets spoke these words, nor does he make any attempt to show a direct correlation between the historical events in biblical times and the situation in the time of Jesus. Hosea was describing the Exodus from Egypt, when God delivered his people ("my son") and led them into the land of Palestine. Jeremiah's words probably refer to the fall of the northern kingdom of Israel in 722 B.C.E., some 100 years before his own time. Jeremiah's prophecies come from the last quarter of the seventh century B.C.E., shortly before Judah, the southern kingdom, likewise fell.

The word Nazarene does not occur in the Hebrew Bible, but is probably traced to Isaiah 11:1, where the shoot (nester) from the stump of Jesse is mentioned as God's agent in establishing his just rule on earth. The metaphor in Isaiah is that of a tree cut down, which signifies the end of the Davidic dynasty. The prophet foresees the appearance, from the seemingly lifeless stump, of a shoot that will both signal and effect the reestablishment of the Kingdom. Conceivably, Mathew could have found in this prophetic word a prediction pointing to the kingly role that was assigned by Christians to Jesus. Instead, Matthew used the Isaiah 11 passage to prove that it was ordained in Scripture that Jesus' residence should be in Nazareth. (The Hebrew letters would be n-ts-r; the language was written in consonants, and the reader supplied the vowels; hence, Na-TSa-Rene.)

The writer of Matthew did not ask what Isaiah intended by his words; he was interested in finding what they might mean to him and his readers. Since the Bible was held to be divinely inspired, its sacred letters were subject to multiple interpretations, limited only by the talent and ingenuity of the interpreter. The discovery of obscure meanings in Scripture was regarded as a tribute to its divine origin, not a falsification of the intention of the biblical writer. The question of the Old Testament writers' intentions was for Matthew as well as for Jewish interpreters of his age an irrelevant one, because they believed that the God who had spoken through the prophets in the past was still in control of human affairs and was shaping them in accord with his own purpose, which the skillful interpreter of scripture could discern in the present and correlate with the writings from the ancient past. What was significant was continuity of divine purpose, not precision of historical knowledge.
(Links and paragraphs added.)

I noticed years ago that Matthew's Old Testament "prophecies" often don't say what he claims they do. (The famous "virgin" birth prophecy is another good example.) At first I though Matthew is simply lying. From a modern western perspective, Matthew's creative exegesis looks like an effort to dupe ill-informed readers into the conviction that Jesus fulfilled Messianic credentials laid down centuries before.

But of course, Matthew was neither modern nor western, and he wrote according to the the literary and scholarly conventions of his own time and culture. As strange as it seems to us, his complete disregard for the intended meaning of the texts he quotes would have been quite legitimate in the eyes of his Jewish contemporaries.

Part of the problem is that Matthew's understanding of words like "prophecy" and "fulfill" are somewhat different from our own. His account of Jesus' birth and early years is designed to recall that of the nation of Israel (a dreamer named Joseph, the journey to Egypt and back again, escape from a fearful king who kills baby boys) and establish Jesus as both the Messianic King and a sort of new Moses. Matthew quotes from the scriptures in order to underline these similarities, and would have understood them more as prefigurations of Jesus than as predictions.

This is why I think the doctrine of inerrancy (at least in its popular form) misses the point: it assumes that the Bible conforms to modern logic and literary conventions that were completely unfamiliar to its authors and intended readers. If we want to assess (or assert) the truth of an ancient document, we must consider the way it was intended to be true, not the way we would like it to be true.

Of course, this isn't easy to determine. Like anything thousands of years old, we don't have a precise understanding of ancient Hebrew culture, logic, or literary genres. It's unclear exactly what sort of apparent errors or untruths (from a modern perspective) might have been acceptable to the various intended readers of the scriptures. Chronological adjustments? Misleading prophecies? Historical inaccuracies? Embellishments and extrapolations? Theological discrepancies? (I may deal with some of these points in subsequent posts.) Whatever conclusions we may reach, it's clear that a good dose of humility is required.

But whether or not the Bible is true in the ways that the authors intended it to be, or (still more difficult to discern) in the ways that God intended it to be, this much is clear: it was not written with our modern assumptions and expectations in mind.

9 comments:

Filth- Man said...

Wow... Really good post.

I was suprised to learn recently that many of the early church fathers favored "metaphorical" understandings of portions of scripture. I'd always thought that "fundamentalism" was the standard church view until recenly, but I was way off.

Jacob said...

Ya, fundamentalists tend not to know or care much about church history. It's not my strong suit either, but my understanding is that Christian fundamentalism, as we understand it, is a fairly recent phenomenon.

Anonymous said...

You might want to have a look at Karen Armstrong's "The Battle for God", which describes the various developments in fundamentalism in Christian, Jewish and Islamic groups.

Fundamentalism usually develops when a group feels that the world is chnaging in a way that they do not like or do not want to deal with. It usually represents an attempt to "circle the wagons" to keep out people who don't agree with "us".

In the present American case, fundamentalism as a reactionary force only really got its strength after the Scopes "monkey" trial, which, BTW, the fundies actually won in the legal sense. But they were portrayed as a bunch of ignorant hicks who couldn't keep up with the modern world, so successfully that they retreated into an "I don't care what they all say" mode, and never came back out. The "fundamentals" had been written up about 50 years earlier and actually energized a huge spiritual revival that sent missionaries out all over the world, particularly into China - but, after Scopes, the movement retreated into self-pity and never recovered.

Horseman Bree, from RLP

Jacob said...

Thanks Horseman. Armstrong's "A History of God" is on my reading list; maybe I'll pick that one up next.

Mike said...

Hey, I like what you wrote about the danger of using 21st century logic to deduct truth from the bible. I'm just curious how the virgin birth wasn't a prophesy from Isaiah 7, that one seemed to fit to me.

Jacob said...

From the rest of the prophecy (v.14-25) it is evident that Isaiah is speaking about current events - the rise and fall of contemporary kings. The "you" to which the sign is given is Judah's King Ahaz. Clearly the prophecy as a whole doesn't fit Jesus.

So what other virgin birth might Isaiah be talking about? Actually, the primary meaning of the Hebrew word alma which Christian translators generally render as "virgin" is "young woman". If Isaiah had meant "virgin", he probably would have used the word betula, which appears much more frequently in the OT (including Isaiah 23:12, 37:22, and 47:1).

Curiously, the Septuagint (pre-NT Greek translation of the OT) renders alma as parthenos - virgin. Matthew was probably familiar with the original Hebrew, but quotes from the Greek text, which supports his interpretation.

The prophecy may in fact refer to a woman who was currently a virgin, but who would later conceive in the conventional way (perhaps Isaiah's betrothed - cf. 8:3). Or it's simply a young married woman.

The name Immanuel ("God is with us") is meant to assure the king that God would not abandon Judah to its enemies, not to suggest that the child himself would be divine.

This prophecy was never considered Messianic by the Jews. Immaculate conception, divine incarnation and multiple persons of the godhead have nothing to do with the Messianic hope (or Judaism in general) although these elements would have been familiar enough from Gentile religions. Matthew, the most Jewish of the Gospel writers, uses passages such as this one to bolster Jesus' credibility as the Jewish Messiah.

Mike said...

I like your post and comment, the gospel writers definetly had a specific attituded of readers towards which they were writing. One that was not filled with todays logic and reason. I'm just wondering if this section in Isaiah is perhaps what I've heard called a 'double' prophecy, where it outlines something that was soon to come, and forshadowed also the live of Jesus. Or would you consider other old testament prophesies as more strongly pointing towards the Messianic Jesus?

Jacob said...

Ya, it can be interpreted that way, as long as you read only the very beginning of the prophecy and ignore the context. Certainly, Matthew and his contemporaries believed a single prophecy could be "fulfilled" twice (or several times). It seems unlikely that Isaiah had more than one meaning in mind, but who knows?

Other well-known prophecies applied to Jesus (e.g. Psalm 22, Isaiah's servant songs) fit much better, but were never considered Messianic by the Jews. The list of accepted Messianic prophecies fulfilled by Jesus is quite short.

But I have some respect for Matthew's point here: the story of Jesus (as he tells it) has many parallels in the OT. Who am I to say that Matthew is wrong to apply Isaiah 7:14 to Jesus?

I have no trouble with people who see a parallel here, or even believe that in some sense this verse predicts Jesus' virgin birth. As long as they don't think it says right there in Isaiah, plain as day, that a virgin would conceive a divine child.

Dave said...

Often the passages from the "prophets" quoted in the Gospels are not considered fulfilled prophecies by the Gospel writers, but typological references. In other words, the prophets did not write some of those Gospel-quoted passages with the Messiah in mind, but the Gospel writers thought of those passages when they wrote about Jesus, for He was a "type" (a resemblance) of those passages. This helps to explain some of the subtle (and not so subtle) differences in the citations.