Here are three assertions that trip off evangelical tongues, almost without a second thought. They are the air we breathe. Almost never challenged. And almost never justified in any Scriptural sense. Everyone just knows them.
Trouble is they’re not true.
Myth #1 – The prophets spoke better than they knew.
Take any text from, say, Handel’s Messiah. Try to use it as justification for Messianic faith in the OT and count the seconds before someone counters “Ah, but they spoke better than they knew.”
What chapter of Hezekiah is that in again? I forget.
Just pause for a second. Why on earth should we think that? Why shouldn’t we assume that “the prophets knew what they were talking about?” Wouldn’t that be the most obvious assumption?
Why would we doubt that Isaiah knew what he was talking about? Apart from a Darwinian belief in progress. Apart from what CS Lewis called chronological snobbery. Seriously, where have we got the idea that prophets – those whose job it is to enlighten the people – are actually so thick they can’t understand their own prophecies. I mean that would be a really odd model of prophecy wouldn’t it? But, you know, I’m willing to go with it – if the bible teaches it. But where does the bible teach such a model of prophecy?
Caiaphas? The murderer of Jesus? His one off pronouncement is our model for Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel?
And yet the myth persists. It is asserted very strongly and very often. And it needs to be if pop-biblical-theology is to avoid imploding under the massive weight of OT evidence to the contrary.
But the thing is, it’s not true.
Myth #2 – No-one expected the kind of Messiah that Jesus was
I don’t think I’ve ever been in a home group bible study in my life where this myth was not mentioned at least once in the night. “Well, of course, the people all expected the Christ to come on a war horse and overturn the Romans.” Well it’s a decent guess that some Israelites might have been of that persuasion. But show me the verse that says all Israel conceived of the Messiah only in such terms.
It seems like, relative to any supporting Scriptural evidence, this assertion is punching way above its weight in terms of its general acceptance among bible believers.
And in fact, there’s lots of Scriptural evidence that the people were well able to comprehend the kind of Messiah Jesus was. At Christmas we remember Simeon holding the baby Jesus and rejoicing that he’d therefore seen salvation. The kings from the east bowed to a child and the songs like the Magnificat are Scripture-full acknowledgements of what an upside down kind of king the Christ is. Read on in John chapter 1 and you have Simon, Andrew, Philip and Nathanael perfectly able to comprehend that this carpenter was Messiah, King of Israel and Son of God.
Absolutely there were comprehension issues among the disciples – especially as the way of the cross was set before them (same with us right?). But it’s just not the case that first century Israelites were unprepared for the kind of Messiah Jesus would be. They were very prepared. And the faithful among them (like Simeon and Anna) understood it very well.
Myth #3 – The Apostles read Messianic meaning into Hebrew texts that weren’t intended by the original authors.
Myth #1 is deployed whenever an Old Testament text threatens pop-biblical-theology TM. Myth #3 is deployed whenever a New Testament text threatens the system:
“Ah yes, but Paul had apostolic warrant to reinterpret OT texts in ways not intended by the author.”
How very odd. And to think Paul was able to reason in synagogues with Jews and win some over when apparently his claim is that he’s not giving Moses’ meaning but a new one!
Strange indeed, but ok, I’m willing to go with the weirdness because I imagine there must be explicit biblical warrant for it. There must be a mountain of verses telling me about the apostolic re-reading of Hebrew texts. Right? And married to that, there’d have to be loads of verses telling us not to follow the Apostles in their exegesis because they were authorized to do weird stuff.
But, hmm. Where are these verses?
And Paul even explicitly says “I am saying nothing beyond what the prophets and Moses said would happen, that Christ would suffer and rise and bring light to the Gentiles.” (Acts 26:22f).
So then, what’s driving this myth?
Could it be that the pressure to believe Myth 3 comes not from biblical arguments but from the need to protect against biblical arguments?? Could it be that Myth 3 is required as the only escape route pop-biblical-theology has from the mountain of NT verses stacked against it?
I’ll let you decide.
You might not think this is a very Christmassy theme. Well think of it as answering this question: “Did Israel really sing ‘O Come O Come Immanuel’ or can we only put that song on their lips after the fact?”