The pattern of prophetic fulfillment

(Book: First Apology, by Justin Martyr, courtesy of The Christian Classics Ethereal Library.)

Back when my wife and I were looking for a new house, we found a place that seemed rather nice, on a large rural property, for a fairly reasonable price. We were interested enough to have a home inspector come out and take a look at it, and were shocked by the report: while it was obviously older and a little run down, it looked like a pretty good house. Underneath, though, there were termites and dry rot and a whole bunch of nasty stuff. Needless to say, we looked elsewhere.

Justin Martyr seems to be giving us the same sort of insights into the origins of the Christian faith. From his privileged vantage point in the early days of the church, he’s shining the light of history on the foundations of Christian doctrine, and exposing its weaknesses. There’s a pattern to the prophecies the early Christians built their faith on, and the fulfilments they saw for these prophecies. Unfortunately, the pattern is that they’re taking any passage they can find, ripping it completely out of context, and then applying it by sheer free association without regard for accuracy or even common sense. In other words, it’s simply bullshit.

Now, one or two far-fetched and out-of-context “fulfilments” might be an accident, or simple carelessness. Justin, however, is making these bogus “miracles” the whole focus of his argument before Caesar. And it’s not just one or two instances of a misquoted scripture. As we’ll see today, virtually all of the prophetic “proofs” used by Justin and others follow the same pattern of misquotation, misinterpretation, and misapplication.

In chapter 34, Justin claims that Micah foretold the place where Jesus would be born.

And hear what part of earth He was to be born in, as another prophet, Micah, foretold. He spoke thus: “And thou, Bethlehem, the land of Judah, art not the least among the princes of Judah; for out of thee shall come forth a Governor, who shall feed My people.”

That’s a quote from Micah 5, where Micah predicts the birth of a ruler who will lead the armies of Judah, aided by “seven shepherds and eight leaders of men” in a glorious battle against the Assyrian Empire, destroying their chariots and their cities, and cutting down their idols. That’s a prophecy that never came true, by the way—the Assyrian Empire is long gone, chariots have been surpassed as cutting-edge military technology, and the people who live in that part of the world no longer worship idols, having converted to Islam.

Nevertheless, Micah happens to mention a “prince” being born in Bethlehem, and popular legend says that Jesus was born in Bethlehem during the reign of Herod the Great, at the time of the census under Quirinius the governor of Syria. Given Justin’s free-association style of prophetic interpretation, that’s more than enough for him to claim that Micah predicted both that Jesus would be born in Bethlehem and that he would be a great prince. There’s just one problem: Herod died ten years before Quirinius became governor of Syria and conducted the census. The legend of Jesus’ birth, as reported in the Gospels, is simply untrue.

Thus, it’s less likely that Jesus’ birth fulfilled, even accidentally, the birth that Micah was predicting. It’s possible that Jesus might have been born in Bethlehem anyway, but it’s a lot more likely that the legend of Jesus’ birth was an amalgam of bits and pieces of various memorable events, and that the prophecy itself, out of context as it was, was the inspiration for choosing Bethlehem as the city where Jesus was born. Either way, if you read Micah 5, it states fairly clearly that Micah is predicting the birth of a captain and fifteen lieutenants who will lead Judah to victory over Assyria, and not predicting the birth of any crucified Messiah.

The prophetic “fulfilments” Justin has cited so far are, believe it or not, the good ones. There are no limits to how far Justin is willing to stretch in order to claim that Jesus somehow fulfilled prophecy.

There are the following predictions:—“Unto us a child is born, and unto us a young man is given, and the government shall be upon His shoulders;” which is significant of the power of the cross, for to it, when He was crucified, He applied His shoulders, as shall be more clearly made out in the ensuing discourse. And again the same prophet Isaiah, being inspired by the prophetic Spirit, said, “I have spread out my hands to a disobedient and gainsaying people, to those who walk in a way that is not good. They now ask of me judgment, and dare to draw near to God.” And again in other words, through another prophet, He says, “They pierced My hands and My feet, and for My vesture they cast lots.” And indeed David, the king and prophet, who uttered these things, suffered none of them; but Jesus Christ stretched forth His hands, being crucified by the Jews speaking against Him, and denying that He was the Christ. And as the prophet spoke, they tormented Him, and set Him on the judgment-seat, and said, Judge us. And the expression, “They pierced my hands and my feet,” was used in reference to the nails of the cross which were fixed in His hands and feet. And after He was crucified they cast lots upon His vesture, and they that crucified Him parted it among them. And that these things did happen, you can ascertain from the Acts of Pontius Pilate.

Justin makes the familiar appeal to Psalm 22, which sounds eerily like a crucifixion (at least to Christian ears), and we’ll get to that shortly, but first have a look at the other arguments he’s making: Isaiah says “the government shall be upon His shoulders,” and that’s a prediction of the crucifixion because when Jesus was crucified, his shoulders were touching the cross. ZOMG, amazing! How could Isaiah have possible foreseen that with such pinpoint accuracy? It must be a miracle!

Or this: Isaiah says “I have spread out My hands to a disobedient and gainsaying people,” (literally, “I have stretched out My hands…” i.e. pleading, with His arms out in front of Him), and when Jesus was crucified, they spread out his arms so they could nail him to the crossbeam. ZOMG again! The reference to God stretching out both arms in front of Him was really a prophecy about how Jesus would have his arms stretched out to either side, because, you know, like, stretched, man. It’s the same word. That makes it a fulfilment.

The first part of that quote, by the way, is from Isaiah 65, but the sentence after that, about “they ask me for judgment and dare to draw near to God,” is apparently a rough paraphrase of a verse from a completely different chapter in Isaiah, tacked on to create an image of God pleading with disobedient sinners who ask Him for judgment, so he can claim that Jesus fulfilled this “prophecy” through the apocryphal story of Jesus being forced to sit on the judgment seat as though he were passing judgment on his persecutors. (That story never made it into the Bible, and appears to be part of that oral history of Jesus that supposedly didn’t exist back then.)

You see why I say there’s no limit to how far Justin will stretch things in order to cook up some kind of contrived fulfilment? He takes verses out of context, puts them together to create new contexts, and then claims fulfilment on the basis of hearsay, all in the name of “proof.” And not only is he completely unrepentant about it, but he actually expects Caesar himself to be convinced by “evidence” of this sort.

Unsurprisingly, most of these arguments have fallen into disuse. They may be part of the historical foundation of the Christian faith, but they’re too obviously bogus, and modern apologists have moved on to other arguments that are a bit less obvious. Justin’s basic approach is still part of Christian apologetics, though, as we can see by looking at Psalm 22. Like Justin, modern apologists still point to Psalm 22 and claim that the details of individual verses are a striking fulfilment of a detailed prediction that was made by David, even though it was not a literally accurate description of his own experiences at the time. If we read these verses in their original context, though, we can see that the sufferings were not, in fact, the sufferings of a crucified man at all, and specifically not a description of Jesus’ suffering on the cross.

My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?
Far from my deliverance are the words of my groaning.
O my God, I cry by day, but You do not answer;
And by night, but I have no rest.

Notice, the suffering servant is crying to God day and night, and receiving no answer. According to the legend, Jesus never spent any nights on the cross—he died long enough before sundown that his disciples had time to send someone to Pilate for permission to remove the body, to take it down, and to place it, unprepared, in a nearby tomb. Contrast with the suffering that David describes, which goes on night and day (i.e. each night and each day) for quite some time. No believer worth his salt would count himself as having been “abandoned” by God just because he failed to get overnight delivery! David is talking about extended suffering.

For dogs have surrounded me;
A band of evildoers has encompassed me;
They pierced my hands and my feet.
I can count all my bones.
They look, they stare at me;
They divide my garments among them,
And for my clothing they cast lots.

Here’s another passage, from farther down the psalm, and notice, again, that we’re dealing with extended privations here. The bones of a properly-nourished person are hidden beneath layers of fat and muscle, but when someone is badly starved, you can count all their bones. Christians today use a mental sleight-of-hand to substitute the idea of “unbroken” for “countable,” (which is silly, because if someone has 3 broken bones after an accident, obviously you can still count them when they’re broken), but the original imagery is of advanced starvation, which again takes a lot more time than a one-day death-by-crucifixion affords.

Obviously, David is being poetic here—he doesn’t mean that literal dogs are doing this to him or that literal bulls of Bashan are bellowing at him. He’s speaking in exaggerated, poetic terms about his sufferings and his fears and his perceived inability either to fight (with wounded hands) or to flee (with wounded feet). And notice, his hands and feet aren’t nailed to anything, they’re just stabbed. He’s not crucified, he’s just setting up a scenario where God is his only possible hope, because he can do absolutely nothing for himself, either to defend himself or to escape. What’s more, though he describes himself as having been laid “in the dust of death,” he still expects God to save him from his enemies.

But You, O Lord, be not far off;
O You my help, hasten to my assistance.
Deliver my soul from the sword,
My only life from the power of the dog.
Save me from the lion’s mouth;
From the horns of the wild oxen You answer me.

I will tell of Your name to my brethren;
In the midst of the assembly I will praise You.

He expects deliverance, not from death or from the power of death, but simply from his enemies—from the sword, from the power of the dog, from the lion’s mouth, and from the horns of the wild oxen. That’s not the gospel narrative at all. In the gospels, the sword fell, the dog bit, the lion smote, the horns gored, and the messiah died. God subsequently delivered him for a vastly different power, the power of death itself, but not from the sword, dog, lion and ox.

Of course, delivery from death is a much bigger deal than the ordinary, mundane sort of rescue that David predicts he’ll be able to boast about. Delivery from death itself is a fundamental reversal of the power of death, a promise of eternal life. That’s a huge deal, and it means a lot to believers. And yet none of that appears in David’s psalm at all. David, as far as we know, didn’t even believe in a resurrection, because that’s a post-Exilic idea from many centuries after David. Despite superficial similarities between Psalm 22 and the Gospels (which might, after all, have been edited specifically to conform to the Psalm), there’s nothing in the psalm itself to indicate that David had any intention at all of predicting anything about any future Messiah. He was too busy worrying about his own well being, and how he could get God to take an equal interest.

This is the hard-core stuff. This is the kind of foundation that modern Christianity is based on to this day. And it’s still nothing more than Justin’s free-association approach to prophetic interpretation. You key in on one or two words or phrases, which you associate with some event that supposedly took place in Jesus’ life, and voilà, fulfilled prophecy. Once in a while you get lucky and find multiple exploitable keywords in the same passage (which is not too surprising statistically, but is enough to wow the unwary). But you’re taking passages out of context and applying them arbitrarily, to produce a wholly contrived “fulfilment.”

That’s just the way prophecy works. It’s not a question of bad interpretations and good ones, it’s bad interpretations and even worse ones. The ones that are merely bad, like the Psalm 22 interpretation, hang around because there’s nothing better to take their place. And the really bad ones, like “the government shall be upon his shoulders” as a prediction of the cross, tend to fall into disuse because, well, after all, really. You can’t fool all of the people all of the time. But there’s some as will give it a good try, and others, sadly, who will go out of their way to believe them.

4 Responses to “The pattern of prophetic fulfillment”

  1. Yousif Masih Says:

    This writer is a having a bullshit mind set. he is doomed for eternal death in hell. By The grace of God The ever lasting truth.
    In Jesus name.Amin

  2. chewbacca-stylist Says:

    A small point about the shoulders thing? Justin says, “when He was crucified, He applied His shoulders, as shall be more clearly made out in the ensuing discourse.” Could this be a reference to Jesus being made to carry his own cross? That would be a bit more relevant “fulfillment” of “the government shall be upon His shoulders.” I don’t feel like looking ahead to the ensuing discourse to see if he makes that clear.

  3. Ed-M Says:

    Chewbacca-stylist, All well and good, except except the prophet was thinking about something completely different than the crossarm of a typical Roman execution pole, which according to the self-same Justin, had a ‘horn’ in the middle: on which ‘rode’ those who were crucified. (Dialog. w. Tryho 91)

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