When it comes to understanding the Old Testament, there are three mutually-reinforcing maxims that are followed to the letter in many evangelical circles. They are rarely challenged. Everyone just knows them.
Trouble is they’re not true. Certainly not in the way that they’re asserted.
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.”
It’s something we all know. Because it’s a myth that’s been repeated so often. Yet… which chapter of Hezekiah is it in again? I forget.
Now think. Why would we assume that the prophets were ignorant in the first place? Why shouldn’t we presume that the prophets at least knew what they were talking about? Wouldn’t that be the most natural assumption?
Why would we think that Isaiah was ignorant of his own message? I mean, apart from a Darwinian belief in ‘progress’. Apart from what CS Lewis called ‘chronological snobbery’. But really, where have we got the idea that prophets – those whose job it is to enlighten the people – are themselves in the dark? Does the bible ever teach this “extreme dictation” model of prophecy?
Well, once. Caiaphas. The murderer of Jesus makes an unwitting prophecy in John 11:51. But is this one-off pronouncement our model for Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel? That’s a very long bow to draw.
Yet the myth persists: ‘they spoke better than they knew.’ The myth is deployed selectively to be sure. Prophets are allowed to have certain levels of knowledge. But anything too … er… prophetic; anything properly christological gets referred to the “unwitting prophecy” category and we move on quickly.
The myth is so pervasive we manage to “find” it in verses that teach the very opposite. Whenever I challenge someone who’s asserted this myth to justify it, more often than not they’ll point to 1 Peter 1:10-12. It says:
Concerning this salvation, the prophets, who spoke of the grace that was to come to you, searched intently and with the greatest care, trying to find out the time and circumstances to which the Spirit of Christ in them was pointing when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the glories that would follow. It was revealed to them that they were not serving themselves but you, when they spoke of the things that have now been told you by those who have preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven.
Here we have Spirit-filled prophets eagerly searching for the suffering then glorified Christ. Notice that they aren’t looking for two Christs (one suffering, one glorious) – that will be important for myth #2. They know that the Messiah will come, suffer and be glorified. What don’t they know? They don’t know the time or circumstances.
All the prophets are like Eve who, having given birth to her first offspring, predicts him to be the Offspring – the LORD-Man (Genesis 4:1). She got the time and circumstances wrong, but where was she fixing her hope? On the Divine Offspring who would suffer (be struck) even as He would gloriously triumph (crushing Satan’s head) – Genesis 3:15.
In all this, I’m not denying that there are many details which the prophets did not know. Many aspects of the incarnation’s ‘time and circumstances’ were not yet revealed in the OT (why would they be?). But what they did know is what we all must know: they had an eager expectation of Christ and of His saving sufferings and glory. Whenever an OT prophet speaks in such terms, they are not speaking better than they knew. They are articulating their own Christ-focussed faith.
Myth #2 – No-one expected the kind of Messiah that Jesus was
This myth is very common at a popular level. Right now there’s a bible study somewhere in the world in which someone is opining: “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. Show me the verse that says an Israelite was in any sense justified in reading the OT that way.
Peter, as we’ve seen above, was adamant that the Spirit-filled prophets looked forward to Christ’s suffering then glory. Jesus, in Luke 24, was insistent that the Scriptures proclaimed suffering then glory, and that the disciples should have understood this (v25,46). Paul, on trial before Agrippa, maintains that the Hebrew Scriptures clearly portray a suffering then glorified Christ (Acts 26:23). Someone might counter (and they usually do) that this is an apostolic re-reading of the Scriptures – but I’ll deal with that when we get to myth #3.
For now, it seems to me like myth #2 is punching way above its weight relative to any supporting Scriptural evidence. 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. Massive ones, 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. The Spirit did a good job of authoring God’s word and preparing God’s people. There was no good excuse for misunderstanding. Jesus (and later the apostles) never countenanced any other true reading of the OT. God’s word has always held forth a theology of the cross. And the faithful among those 1st century Israelites (like Simeon and Anna) grasped this.
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 the system. Myth #3 is deployed whenever a New Testament text threatens the system. If you quote from the NT a verse about the OT’s explicit, conscious Messianic focus, myth #3 is rapidly asserted:
“Ah yes, but Paul had apostolic warrant to reinterpret OT texts in ways not intended by the author.”
This is a very difficult myth to engage. Not just because of the lack of Scriptural support for it, but because it actually insulates the whole position from Scriptural critique. It simply doesn’t matter how many times Jesus or an Apostle says that ‘Abraham rejoiced in Jesus’, or ‘Moses wrote about Jesus’ or ‘Isaiah saw Jesus’ glory and wrote about it’, or ‘Jesus saved the people out of Egypt’, or ‘That Rock was Christ,’ or ‘Moses embraced disgrace for the sake of Christ,’ etc, etc – at every point we’re told that this isn’t actually a statement about Abraham’s, Moses’ or Isaiah’s actual faith. All these statements are re-readings of the OT text which, in their own context, would not have been recognised by Abraham and Moses, etc. In their own context Moses and the Prophets had quite limited hopes and dreams but Jesus and the Apostles re-interpret them through “New Testament eyes.” Somehow Jesus has retrospectively given Abraham an anticipation of His day – even though Abraham, if you’d asked him at the time, would have articulated a different hope (in land and progeny, or something).
It all sounds so strange. And it flies in the face of Paul’s plain words:
I am saying nothing beyond what the prophets and Moses said would happen— that the Christ would suffer and, as the first to rise from the dead, would proclaim light to his own people and to the Gentiles. (Acts 26:22-23)
Think of the context in Acts. Paul was engaged in debating Jews on an almost daily basis. Nowhere do we hear him trying to give Moses a new meaning. If he did, he would have won none of the Jews. As it was, Paul was concerned to teach his people “what Moses said would happen.”
If myth #3 was true you would expect it to be taught explicitly in the New Testament. But it isn’t. There are three occasions when Paul speaks of “the mystery” kept hidden in the OT (Romans 16:25; Ephesians 3:9; Colossians 1:26) but this mystery is clearly taught as the administration of Gentile inclusion in the people of God (see here for more). This “mystery” is not a miscellaneous category into which we can throw every gospel truth we wish to preclude from OT consciousness. It’s about Gentiles coming into the covenant community and how that inclusion should happen. This Gentile issue is the controversy of the New Testament. No-one in the New Testament seems to have much trouble with trinity, incarnation, atonement, union with Christ – everyone struggles with the issue of Gentiles. This is what is new about the New Testament.
So, yes, in a limited sense, there are new truths to be revealed about how Israel will go global. There was no need to reveal the administration of this inclusion in the OT. But to imagine that the Apostles are re-reading the OT is something that is never taught. If it were, shouldn’t there also be a mountain of verses telling us not to follow the Apostles in their exegesis? Yet there are no warnings for us about their unrepeatable apostolic hermeneutic. Instead – surely – we ought to follow them, just as they follow Christ.
Again, if we take a step back from these myths, wouldn’t it be a lot simpler to take the Apostles’ words at face value? When they read the OT as proclamations of gospel truth, wouldn’t it be simplest to think to ourselves “Paul models proper handling of the Scriptures.” If his handling of the text seems odd to us, wouldn’t it be the humble option to consider our intuitions wrong and his to be right? Since “sub-Christian” exegesis is never practiced by the Apostles – not even as a preliminary stage – wouldn’t it be best if we followed them and abandoned that sub-Christian ‘first step’ we’re always inserting?
When the Apostles seek to express the faith of OT saints, isn’t the most straightforward approach to take them at their word? If Hebrews 11 attributes Moses’ actions to “faith in Christ” (v26) wouldn’t it save us a lot of headaches if we abandoned the attempt to retrospectively award Moses a faith in Christ he never had in the first place? Why don’t we just take the Apostles to be correct interpreters of the mind of Moses and the Spirit by whom he wrote?
I can’t help thinking that the pressure to believe myth #3 is like the pressure to believe myth #1: it come not from biblical arguments but from the need to protect against biblical arguments. Given the OT statements of messianic faith and the NT statements about OT faith, I suggest that these myths are deployed as a last resort against the bible’s teaching.
Here’s my closing challenge. It might sound melodramatic, but I stand by it: If we abandon these myths and read the bible from Genesis to Revelation as explicitly and consciously Christian Scripture, the bible will come alive in our hands, Jesus will take on the epic proportions proper to His divine Person and our faith will grow from strength to strength. If we embrace these myths, the Scriptures will be fitted into a straitjacket, principles and promises (not Christ Himself) will take centre-stage and our joy in Jesus will be diminished.