(Book: On Guard, by William Lane Craig. Chapter 8: “Who Was Jesus?”)
Last week, we saw William Lane Craig use his 6 criteria of authentic history to try claim that Jesus really did call himself Messiah. As evidence, Craig cited a number of passages in which Jesus did not, in fact, call himself Messiah. Craig cites stories about other people calling Jesus Messiah, and about Jesus allegedly working miracles allegedly associated with Messiah, but having announced that he was going to show that Jesus claimed to be Messiah, he “met” his burden of proof by providing merely what he calls “good evidence that Jesus did…think he was the Messiah.”
That pretty much sums up Craig’s approach to “authentic” history. He “proves” that Jesus claimed to be Messiah by making guesses about what Jesus might have been thinking. Not surprisingly, his guess is that Jesus must have been thinking exactly what modern-day Christians wish he were thinking. And in Craig’s book, that means it’s a historic fact that Jesus claimed to be Messiah. (You see now why I was a tad skeptical when he introduced the criterion about a claim being coherent with “facts” already established about Jesus.)
In today’s installment, Craig takes his mindreading act a step further: he’s going to tell us what Jesus meant by the the things he (Jesus) might have been thinking.
Before we look at what Craig thinks is the meaning of what Craig thinks Jesus thinks, let’s review for a moment why he (Craig) argues for the primacy of the New Testament documents in determining the authentic history of Jesus.
The church chose only the earliest sources, which were closest to Jesus and the original disciples, to include in the New Testament and left out the later, secondary accounts like the forged apocryphal gospels, which everyone knew were fakes.
Historians and theologians refer to these false writings as “pseudepigrapha,” from the Greek for “falsely attributed.” In other words, these are books attributed to some famous Biblical character, that were actually frauds. They’re not “inspired.” They’re not authentic. They’re fakes, designed to deceive the superstitious and gullible. Nor were pseudepigraphal documents a New-Testament-only phenomenon. Dozens of bogus prophecies and scriptures arose around the periphery of the Old Testament books as well, and were identified as frauds by pre-Christian Jews.
But enough of this tangent. The main thing to remember is that Craig thinks historians should give first place to the New Testament documents, and not to outright frauds. So let’s get back on topic and see how Craig supports his claims for what he thinks Jesus must have meant by the things he didn’t say but must possibly have been thinking.
In claiming to be the Messiah, Jesus has not necessarily said anything superhuman. Scholars typically take the Messiah to be just a human figure. But it must be said that the picture of the Messiah in several pre-Christian Jewish documents is of an extraordinarily exalted figure. In the extrabiblical Psalms of Solomon he is called “the Lord Messiah,” who “will strike the earth with the word of his mouth forever… And he himself [will be] free from sin… and he will not weaken in his days” (17:32-37).
Yup, his first witness is an appeal to Jewish pseudepigrapha. Saw that one coming, did you? But fine, ok, sure, we know this book is one of the fakes Craig warned us about, and that it wasn’t written by Solomon, or anywhere near the time of Solomon. But can’t you see how this passage supports the conclusion Craig wants to reach? Isn’t it obvious that the Spirit of God could move the writers of fake Scriptures, such that here and there individual passages might actually reflect the genuine, true prophecies of God?
Craig’s approach is fairly fascinating because it shows how some Christians—even brilliant and well-educated believers—go about determining historical authenticity for the things that they read. It’s not based on academic, objectively neutral criteria of authenticity. It’s based on how well it reflects what Christians see as being the truth. It’s not a question of “if the shoe fits, wear it.” Any shoe that fits is at least potentially the “right” shoe.
Now think for a moment how careful the church councils were to select canonical Scriptures based on the “authenticity” of the writings. See the problem?
Craig thinks he’s being a good scholar by basing his argument on extrabiblical sources, but what he’s actually revealing is a serious problem in Christian scholarship. He’s documenting how closely the Christian narrative follows uninspired, fraudulent mythologies that were popular among the superstitious and ignorant in the years immediately preceding the rise of Christianity. The unknown authors of the Psalms of Solomon weren’t legitimate prophets, even by generous Judeo-Christian standards. They weren’t inspired. Their writings weren’t Scripture. And yet, they’re a prior source of the legend of “The Messiah.” Jesus the Messiah is the fulfilment of false prophecy. Wow.
Craig doesn’t stop there, though. His next appeal is to Isaiah 9:6.
For a child will be born to us, a son will be given to us;
And the government will rest on His shoulders;
And His name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Eternal Father, Prince of Peace.
In context, this passage is about Israel breaking the “rod of the oppressor” and of a Jewish king setting up an eternal reign of peace and prosperity on the throne of David—a prediction, by the way, that was never fulfilled, since David’s throne failed many centuries ago without producing any eternal Davidic kingdom. In context, it’s a really poor fit for the story of the New Testament gospels (unless you’re the kind of scholar who likes to take things out of context and then cherry-pick only the bits that fit your agenda). But back up a second and look at that verse again. Who exactly is Isaiah expecting?
And His name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Eternal Father, Prince of Peace.
Isaiah 9 isn’t about just any great Messiah arising in “Galilee of the Gentiles.” Isaiah tells us His name: “Almighty God, Eternal Father.” By Trinitarian standards, this is heresy. To fulfil this prophecy, Jesus has to claim to be, not the son of God, but God the Father. And “Counselor” is arguably a reasonable equivalent for the Greek title “paraclete,” which Jesus gave to the Holy Spirit. Seen in this light, it’s quite clear that Isaiah is predicting the incarnation of a non-triune God who is the Son (by virtue of being born), the Spirit (by virtue of his role as “Wonderful Counselor”), and the Father (by explicit name). Three gods, one person.
Is that taking the text beyond what it was meant to say? No more so than Craig’s interpretation. And, contrary to Craig’s fanciful assumptions about what Isaiah might have meant, Isaiah explicitly tells us that the name of the person he’s talking about is “Almighty God, Eternal Father.” As applied to Jesus, that’s emphatically not Trinitarian. And we’re still only on the second paragraph of Craig’s argument for what he thinks Jesus must have meant by the things Jesus might have been thinking about his own Messiahship. The third paragraph takes us back to the pseudepigrapha again.
In the first-century extrabiblical Similitudes of Enoch the Messiah is portrayed as a godlike figure who has existed with the Lord “prior to the creation of the world and for eternity” (1 Enoch 48:6).
Again, Craig gives us historical evidence that Christian doctrine about the Messiah is strongly correlated with popular, uninspired legends. Much like Harold Camping’s followers popularized the idea that the world was going to end in 2011, there was widespread popular belief in a specific sort of Messiah figure tailor-made to the circumstances of the day. And much like Camping and his followers went back to the Scriptures and cherry-picked whatever verses sounded amenable to their agenda, Craig and other Christians go back and cherry-pick whatever passages or fragments of verses seem suitable to Messianic interpretations.
In Matthew 11:10 and Luke 7:27, Jesus Himself identifies John the Baptist as the messenger of Malachi 3:1. So who is to come after the messenger, according to these prophecies? It is the Lord, God Himself!
Let’s go back and check our references here, starting with Matthew 11 and Luke 7.
|Matthew 11||Luke 7|
|10This is the one about whom it is written,‘BEHOLD, I SEND MY MESSENGER AHEAD OF YOU,
WHO WILL PREPARE YOUR WAY BEFORE YOU.’11 Truly I say to you, among those born of women there has not arisen anyone greater than John the Baptist! Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. 12 From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and violent men take it by force. 13 For all the prophets and the Law prophesied until John. 14 And if you are willing to accept it, John himself is Elijah who was to come. 15 He who has ears to hear, let him hear.
|27This is the one about whom it is written,‘BEHOLD, I SEND MY MESSENGER AHEAD OF YOU,
WHO WILL PREPARE YOUR WAY BEFORE YOU.’28 I say to you, among those born of women there is no one greater than John; yet he who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.”
Matthew’s account ends with the curious disclaimer: “If you are willing to accept it…” One might almost think Jesus had some kind of metaphor in mind, rather than a fulfilment of prophecy, especially considering the theological implications of having Jesus call John the reincarnation of Elijah. But let’s look at these two passages anyway, as Jesus applies the prophecy to John the Baptist. Notice, John is supposed to be the messenger sent ahead of “you.” So who’s “you” in this prophecy? It’s not God, because it’s supposed to be God that’s speaking. Craig’s interpretation of this passage, though, is that “you” refers to God. Perhaps he’s ascribing some kind of anachronistic Trinitarian intention to Malachi? Let’s go back and look up the prophecy in context and see what it says,
“Behold, I am going to send My messenger, and he will clear the way before Me. And the Lord, whom you seek, will suddenly come to His temple; and the messenger of the covenant, in whom you delight, behold, He is coming,” says the LORD of hosts. “But who can endure the day of His coming? And who can stand when He appears? For He is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap. He will sit as a smelter and purifier of silver, and He will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, so that they may present to the LORD offerings in righteousness. Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the LORD as in the days of old and as in former years.
“Then I will draw near to you for judgment; and I will be a swift witness against the sorcerers and against the adulterers and against those who swear falsely, and against those who oppress the wage earner in his wages, the widow and theorphan, and those who turn aside the alien and do not fear Me,” says the LORD of hosts. “For I, the LORD, do not change; therefore you, O sons of Jacob, are not consumed.
Holy crap, the Lord is a member of Occupy Wall Street! Well, Occupy Jerusalem anyway. And defending foreigners and welfare recipients? Who knew the Lord was a goddamn liberal?
Sorry, tangent. Let’s look at the first part of this prophecy. Right away, we notice that Jesus changed the pronouns. Malachi has the Lord saying “prepare the way for ME,” but Jesus changes that from first person to second person, “prepare the way for YOU.” It’s as though Jesus saw that applying Malachi 3:1 to John would impute divinity to himself, and so he actually changed the text of the Scripture in order to avoid deifying himself—the exact opposite of the conclusion Craig wants to reach. (And in case you’re wondering, no the pronoun swap did not happen in the LXX version of Malachi either).
More importantly, look at what the prophecy actually predicts. The messenger in verse 1 is preparing the way for the LORD to come in judgment. Verse 1 specifically says that the LORD and the messenger will come to the Temple (which Jesus and John the Baptist did not do). Verse 2 goes on to describe what it will be like when the LORD comes: He will purify the priesthood, with a smelter’s fire, so that the pure remnant can offer pure sacrifices in the Temple. Ever see Christian priests offering animal sacrifices in the Temple that are “pleasing to the LORD as in the days of old and as in former years?” The NT teaching is that Jesus did away with Levitical sacrifices and offerings, not that he restored and purified them.
Even if you postpone the fulfilment of Malachi 3 to some end-times restored-Temple scenario, the fact remains that in the first century, Jesus did not meet the prophetic description of the one who was supposed to come after the messenger. If John the Baptist is the messenger in the first century, and then the Temple is destroyed without ever being purified the way Malachi predicted, and then thousands of years later God somehow builds another Temple and then purges that one (but why would it need purging if God was re-making it?), then that’s fine, but it has nothing whatsoever to do with Jesus being “the Lord” in the first century.
And that’s it. That’s Craig’s argument for what he thinks Jesus meant by the thoughts Jesus might have had (but never actually spoke out loud) about being some kind of Messiah. It’s pure speculation, drawn from popular, non-scriptural messianic legends plus cherry-picked excerpts yanked out of ancient prophecies that really had nothing at all to do with the “fulfilments” Christians attribute to them.
And this counts as valid Christian scholarship, in the exalted theological hallways roamed by such as William Lane Craig. Says something, doesn’t it?