(Book: First Apology, by Justin Martyr, courtesy of The Christian Classics Ethereal Library.)
We come at last to Chapter 30 of Justin’s First Apology, and when you read it, you’ll see why I say “at last!”
But lest any one should meet us with the question, What should prevent that He whom we call Christ, being a man born of men, performed what we call His mighty works by magical art, and by this appeared to be the Son of God? we will now offer proof, not trusting mere assertions, but being of necessity persuaded by those who prophesied before these things came to pass, for with our own eyes we behold things that have happened and are happening just as they were predicted; and this will, we think appear even to you the strongest and truest evidence.
In other words, Justin is going to give us something we’ve been looking for since 29AD: conclusive, objective, verifiable proof that Jesus is not just some ordinary Joe doing ordinary magic tricks, but is in fact the veritable Son of God (whatever that means).
Perhaps you noticed that Justin’s proof is based on declaring that Jesus is the fulfilment of Old Testament prophecy. You may have raised your eyebrows, knowing how often prophetic “fulfilments” turn out to be exercises in interpretation and rationalization on the part of the interpreter. If you’re skeptical enough to suspect that Justin’s proofs might be a tad biased and inaccurate, I hate to say it, but you might be overly optimistic. First, though, Justin takes us on a detour.
There were, then, … prophets of God, through whom the prophetic Spirit published beforehand things that were to come to pass… And … the kings who happened to be reigning among the Jews … carefully preserved [them] in their possession, when they had been arranged in books by the prophets themselves in their own Hebrew language. And when Ptolemy king of Egypt formed a library… he heard also of these prophets, and sent to Herod…, requesting that the books of the prophets be sent to him. And Herod the king did indeed send them… And when their contents were found to be unintelligible to the Egyptians, he … requested that men … translate them into the Greek language. And when this was done, the books remained with the Egyptians, where they are until now.
Justin is recounting here the history of the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament made in Alexandria starting in the 3rd century BC. Or at least, he’s giving us the popular version of that history, which modern historians now view as more pseudepigraphal/legendary. Interestingly, a footnote in the CCEL translation informs us that Justin even got the popular story wrong: Ptolemy allegedly obtained the Hebrew manuscripts from Eleazer the High Priest, not Herod the King. Then again, maybe this was a deliberate substitution: back in those days, Christians like Justin didn’t want to give the Jewish priesthood any more authority than strictly necessary.
Indeed, Justin tells us that the Jews do not understand their own Scriptures, and that “though they read, [they] do not understand what is said, but count us [Christians as] foes and enemies; and, like yourselves, they kill and punish us whenever they have the power, as you can well believe.” But Justin, of course, understands the prophecies, and he even knows what year each one was written.
In these books, then, of the prophets we found Jesus our Christ foretold as coming, born of a virgin, growing up to man’s estate, and healing every disease and every sickness, and raising the dead, and being hated, and unrecognised, and crucified, and dying, and rising again, and ascending into heaven, and being, and being called, the Son of God. We find it also predicted that certain persons should be sent by Him into every nation to publish these things, and that rather among the Gentiles men should believe on Him. And He was predicted before He appeared, first 5000 years before, and again 3000, then 2000, then 1000, and yet again 800; for in the succession of generations prophets after prophets arose.
So, know we know what Justin’s proof is going to consist of: we can tell whether or not Jesus is the Son of God by checking whether prophecies were made, according to Justin’s timetable, that correctly and accurately predicted all the things Justin says they did. So let’s move on to the next chapter and see how well he delivers on his promise.
Here’s the first prophecy:
Moses then, who was the first of the prophets, spoke in these very words: “The sceptre shall not depart from Judah, nor a lawgiver from between his feet, until He come for whom it is reserved; and He shall be the desire of the nations, binding His foal to the vine, washing His robe in the blood of the grape.”
This, according to Justin, is supposed to be a prophecy given by Moses, announcing the timing of the arrival of the Messiah.
It is yours to make accurate inquiry, and ascertain up to whose time the Jews had a lawgiver and king of their own. Up to the time of Jesus Christ, who taught us, and interpreted the prophecies which were not yet understood, as was foretold by the holy and divine Spirit of prophecy through Moses, “that a ruler would not fail the Jews until He should come for whom the kingdom was reserved” (for Judah was the forefather of the Jews, from whom also they have their name of Jews); and after He (i.e., Christ) appeared, you began to rule the Jews, and gained possession of all their territory.
Amazing, isn’t it? 2,000 years before Jesus, Moses predicted that the Messiah would appear just before the Romans came in and conquered the land of the Jews. Or at least, that’s how Justin reads it. But let’s step back just a minute, and look at that verse again, in context.
Then Jacob summoned his sons and said, “Assemble yourselves that I may tell you what will befall you in the days to come.
Gather together and hear, O sons of Jacob;
And listen to Israel your father.
Reuben, you are my firstborn;
My might and the beginning of my strength,
Preeminent in dignity and preeminent in power.
Uncontrolled as water, you shall not have preeminence…
Simeon and Levi are brothers;
Their swords are implements of violence…
I will disperse them in Jacob,
And scatter them in Israel.
Judah, your brothers shall praise you;
Your hand shall be on the neck of your enemies;
Your father’s sons shall bow down to you…
The scepter shall not depart from Judah,
Nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet,
Until Shiloh comes,
And to him shall be the obedience of the peoples…
Zebulun will dwell at the seashore…
And so on and so on. How many things did Justin have to get wrong in order to try and turn this into a prophecy of Messiah being born just before the Romans conquered the Jews? Quite a few, really. Justin wants Caesar and the rest of us to think that a couple millennia before Jesus was born, Moses stood up and said, “Hey, guys, God wants you to know that the Messiah will be born just before the Jews are conquered and made subject to the rule of foreigners.” The actual story is almost, but not quite, entirely unlike anything Justin claims it is.
First of all, this is technically not a prophecy, but a patriarchal blessing (which admittedly was supposed to have quasi-prophetic qualities). It was issued not by Moses “the first prophet,” but (allegedly) by Jacob/Israel, as he was approaching death from old age. Moses allegedly recorded it as part of the book of Genesis, but it’s still Jacob’s prophecy/blessing, not Moses’. And notice, the scope of this prophecy is not about Israel as a self-ruling nation, but rather is about the relationship between the tribe of Judah and the other 11 tribes, and specifically about the submission of the other 11 tribes to the superior authority and blessing of Judah.
In other words, this is not a prediction of any Messiah: Jacob is issuing an official declaration that the other tribes of Israel are to be subordinate to the tribe of Judah, at least until “Shiloh” comes—whatever “Shiloh” means. Church tradition treats it as a Messianic title meaning something along the lines “He To Whom It Is Due,” but they have to stretch a bit to take it that far. It might not even be a name at all—it could be a word that got garbled in the transmission, or some ancient term that has since been forgotten.
The main point is that Shiloh does not mean anything like “Messiah,” and the only reason anyone today interprets it as having that meaning is because early Christians like Justin appropriated this one verse, out of context, as an allegedly Messianic prophecy. Jacob did not predict the coming of any Messiah, but rather Christians went back and retroactively converted his words into something they could use, by exploiting the ambiguity of one obscure word. By that same token, of course, you could make this into a prophecy of whatever you like, from the coming of Moses to the coming of Joseph Smith to—hey, I just realized, this verse is a prediction of the coming of Deacon Duncan!
I know what you’re going to say: it can’t be predicting my own birth because the history doesn’t fit, right? But so what? The history doesn’t fit the birth of Jesus either. What does it say? According to the blessing, the scepter is not supposed to depart from the tribe of Judah until Shiloh comes. Jacob is very clearly giving Judah the right and authority to be the tribe from which the true rulers of Israel are supposed to be drawn, and that’s supposed to be an unbroken line of authority from the time of Jacob until the time of Shiloh. That’s what it means that the scepter “shall not depart.” Yet the Bible very clearly declares that the first real king of Israel, chosen by God and anointed by the prophet Samuel, was Saul, who wasn’t from the tribe of Judah at all.
Now a day before Saul’s coming, the Lord had revealed this to Samuel saying, “About this time tomorrow I will send you a man from the land of Benjamin, and you shall anoint him to be prince over My people Israel; and he will deliver My people from the hand of the Philistines. For I have regarded My people, because their cry has come to Me.” When Samuel saw Saul, the Lord said to him, “ Behold, the man of whom I spoke to you! This one shall rule over My people.”
King Saul was a Benjaminite, from the tribe of Benjamin, and not Judah. Even if Jacob’s blessing were intended as a prophecy, it failed long before Jesus was born, because the scepter departed from Judah to Benjamin at the time of the first real king.
Yeah, history sucks when you’re a prophet. But there’s an even bigger problem here, which is that the whole Jacob-blessing-the-12-tribes story is fiction. Ancient Egypt never had a nation of some two million Jewish slaves who subsequently abandoned the nation, taking much of the wealth, and leaving both the economy and the Egyptian army in ruins. That whole story is a complete myth, which is why you cannot identify, today, who the Pharoah of Exodus was supposed to be. Israel was never there; Jacob’s “prophecy” was just good old-fashioned politico-religious propaganda, concocted centuries later, to give King David, of the tribe of Judah, some kind of legitimate claim to the throne after overthrowing “God’s anointed.”
As if that weren’t enough of a problem, Judah’s “prophesied” dominance over the other 11 tribes didn’t even last past David’s grandson. Ten of the original twelve tribes rebelled successfully against Judah’s authority, under Solomon’s son and heir, Rehoboam, just a few decades after David claimed the crown. Judah was left with only one other tribe to rule over (ironically, the tribe of Benjamin). And even that didn’t last long enough to give Justin grounds for claiming that Judah retained the “ruler’s staff” (aka, “Lawgiver”) until the birth of Jesus, because first the Assyrians and then the Babylonians came in and annexed first parts of Judea and then all of Palestine as a part of their empire, just like the Romans did later on. And that’s not even mentioning all the lesser nations that conquered and subjugated the Jews in the book of Judges.
So here’s the net score: the verse Justin quotes, as a prophecy predicting the timing of the birth of Jesus, is a verse that contains exactly one ambiguous and/or garbled word that you could choose to interpret as being an obscure name for any person, place, or thing you like, including a Messiah, if you’re so inclined. Every other detail about this “prophecy” is wrong. He got the name of the prophet wrong, he got the circumstances of the “prophecy” wrong, he got the nature of the expected fulfilment wrong, he got the scope of the fulfilment wrong, he got the timing of the fulfilment wrong, and he got the history of the fulfilment wrong. He got everything wrong except the one word that was too vague to have any substantive and verifiable meaning.
To me, this falls well short of being the “strongest and truest evidence” that Justin promised us. In fact, it’s kind of an insult to our intelligence and integrity that Justin would expect us to accept this as valid evidence at all, let alone being convinced by it. The only thing Genesis 49 tells us about Messianic prophecy is how far believers are willing to distort the facts in order to justify a Messianic conclusion. And the sad thing is that Christians today still perpetuate the same warped and misleading “prophecies” as proof of Jesus’ deity. In 2,000 years, they’ve never found anything better to take its place.