The Passion, prophecy, the pedigree of proof-texting, and a podcast

Mark Goodacre’s latest NT Pod discusses the high concentration of “according to the Scriptures” tags in the Gospels’ Passion narratives and asks whether the Passion narratives are prophecies historicized (as argued by Crossan) or tradition scripturalized. The specific context of his discussion is the Passion narratives, but the principle that will explain it goes for all the Gospel material that cites details of Jesus’ life as prophetic fulfillments.

In the first view, the Scriptures were mined for information about what should have been true about the Messiah, prophecies the NT authors thought would yield some information to fill in their hazy knowledge of the historical details about Jesus. One of the problems with this sort of thinking is that it seems to lean heavily on the assumption that the passages now typically viewed by Christians as messianic had been conceived of as such before the Gospels were written. Easily the weakest evidence for Jesus’ importance presented by Lee Strobel in his Case for Christ material is the claim that Jesus bafflingly fulfilled four dozen OT prophecies, all centuries after the fact. What we can’t forget (and Strobel’s “experts” apparently have) is that we have very little evidence that many of those so-called “messianic prophecies” were considered messianic before the authors of the Gospels cited them as “fulfilled” in Jesus.

I have little doubt that there are instances of the historicization of prophecy in the Gospels, but the idea that all the details of the Passion narratives were extracted by poring over the OT is not particularly compelling. In the podcast, Goodacre points out some good reasons that the model falls short and ends up arguing for something that I agree is more likely: that early believers found in the details of the Passion, which they knew from their traditions, parallels to the Old Testament that were so striking that they sounded like they might have been prophecies. These early believers, particularly the Jewish ones, were so steeped both in Scripture and in their conviction of Jesus’ importance that they looked at Jesus and saw the OT made flesh and walking among them. They also needed an explanation as to how both their cherished Scriptures could be reconciled with this new figure, and so they essentially padded Jesus’ messianic credentials by revising a job description tailor-made around the details they knew of Jesus. They obviously already thought of him as messianic or otherwise eschatologically important (or else why bother?), so they looked to their Scriptures and, using the fluid interpretive methods of the day, found lots of material that buttressed their beliefs.

A very similar way of reading the Bible is amazingly popular even among modern Christians. It’s behind the christological, often called christocentric, readings of the OT, which in practice come off as the reverse process: we see Jesus in the OT more than we see the OT in Jesus because we’re not as steeped in the OT and do not feel the same need they did to justify their new beliefs at the expense of their Scripture’s sole authority. Nowadays we take New Testament theology as our authority and think we have to find reasons to justify keeping the OT around. So when we see a fourth person in the fire with the three Hebrew children, it’s Jesus; when we read of the ram in the thicket, it’s Jesus. And trying to prove a reading of one passage by citing another passage in a completely different biblical context is not at all unlike the NT authors’ attempts to show that their old authority, the Tanakh, affirmed their shift of allegiance toward a new authority by anticipating him through prophecy.

Preachers and inspirational/devotional writers make whole bales of hay out of this sort of typology and similarly anachronistic readings of the OT: our congregations are led to believe that there is christological, or at very least explicitly Christian, significance to be found in seemingly every nook and cranny of the OT. If the “tradition scripturalized” position is correct, this has a very good pedigree in Christian belief. But of course, a parallel’s existence doesn’t at all imply its divine intentionality. We should keep around the Old Testament not because of an erroneous assumption that it is crypto-Christian, but precisely because it’s a testimony of what faith in God looked like before Christ. Reading the Old Testament makes me glad I’m a Christian.

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  • Steve, you are not being true to the NT text. For if you were, you would acknowledge that it was not written as a testament vis-a-vis the OT or any other testament. These 27 documents were written essentially as commentary on the personally witnessed fulfillment of the OT. That is, whenever the NT authors speak of “the text,” as it were, they speak of the OT – not the NT at all (except on rare occasion). Were you to tell them that you look to the NT to learn about Christ and only to the OT to find out what faith was like before Christ they would think you’d been mistrained and had never read their writings for yourself.

  • Pfiorilla

    Steve, I mostly agree with you, although I think that there are clear instances where the NT authors made up events in an effort to retroactively claim prophecies fulfilled. For example, Matthew saying that Jesus rose into Jerusalem on a donkey and an ass at the same time.

    The last comment was drivel. I doubt he even understands what he wrote.

    • Thanks, Pfiorilla. As I noted in the post, I do agree that there are almost undoubtedly cases of historicizing prophecy within the Gospels, the one you mentioned being a good candidate. The issue there again, though, is that we have to have evidence that a particular passage was already viewed as messianic prophecy in order for that to work, and as far as I’ve seen, there are far more “fulfilled prophecies” in the Gospels than there are passages in the OT that were considered prophecies.