Old Testament Scholar Michael Heiser and I Discuss OT Prophecy

He has been kind to discuss this issue with me even though it was an aside to a post of his on Bible study. It's hard to replicate the order of our comments since it was two different discussions, but I tried. See what you think:
John W. Loftus says:
July 19, 2011 at 3:48 AM

I defy someone to come up with one statement in the Old Testament that is specifically fulfilled in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus that can legitimately be understood as a prophecy and singularly points to Jesus as the Messiah using today’s historical-grammatical hermeneutical method. It cannot be done.
MSH says:
July 21, 2011 at 10:16 PM

this made me chuckle – how you front-loaded the question to have any answer falsified by your own standard. Nice. That isn’t scholarship. It didn’t take you long to sound arrogant. I’m trying to be nice and engage in a discussion (I can tell by your email address you’re an atheist or something), but it took you two comments to act superior. You may beat up on the lay people, but I see through such things quickly. I didn’t waste my time going to grad schools that just told me how to affirm what they wanted me to believe. I deliberately chose programs that would be hard and antagonistic toward “Bible belief.” You should be able to tell from the comments and posts on the blog that I don’t care about defending anyone’s tradition. Good (critical) scholarship has changed my mind on a number of things, but I recognize the substitution of arrogance for data pretty quickly. Forget trying to set me up. I don’t allow anything but data to frame a question, and your question was a vacuum tube in that regard.

In short, I’m not impressed.

Now my dilemma is, do I continue the conversation hoping to interact with good questions, or do I just cut you off so readers can see the comments up to this point and you’ll just look like an arrogant egotist? Decisions, decisions.

For other readers, here is what I mean about “front-loading”.

Speaking to Mr. Loftus … Let’s see if I understand what you’re asking for in this “challenge”. Taking it step-by-step…

The Old Testament = the Jewish scriptures. Got that.

The NT = A lot of first century Jews looked at the life and claims of Jesus and saw him as aligning with the messianic content of THEIR Scriptures. THEY interpreted THEIR Scriptures in such a way that this alignment was clear to them (and incidentally, critical scholars – not fundamentalist preachers – have done a lot of work establishing that the NT authors used known, time-worn interpretive methods; they weren’t idiosyncratic).

BUT, you apparently wouldn’t use THEIR methods that THEY felt comfortable using with THEIR texts.

AND, you aren’t a Jew (of any century).

YET you feel free to sit in judgment on their hermeneutic because it isn’t your hermeneutic.

is that about right?

In the academic world, that’s called bias (or some sort of hermeneutical xenophobia).

Put another way by analogy, this strikes me as demanding that modern followers of Confucious prove to you that the first generation of Confucious’ followers got Confucious right, all the while knowing that you think both the ancient and modern followers of Confucious aren’t interpreting Confucious the way you would. And since that is your standard for interpreting any responses, you never have to worry about ever having to say they’re correct.

Front-loading, pure and simple. And not even clever about it.
John W. Loftus says:
July 22, 2011 at 2:42 PM

I have three master’s degrees and Ph.D work, having studied under William Lane Craig with three published books in my name. I have spoken for the Society of Biblical Literature and a Mid-West Evangelical Philosophical Society meeting. Hector Avalos blogs with me on the #1 ranked SBL’s Biblioblogger list.

I also have read fairly extensively into the apocalyptic genre and wrote a chapter arguing Jesus was just another failed apocalyptic prophet in a book where Dale Allison wrote a blurb recommending it.
I wrote:
You seem to be a reasonable scholar. You said:

“The New Testament’s use of the Old Testament is the key to understanding how prophecy works.”

I have the massive book by Carson and Beale that you footnoted, and I read relevant parts of it. In every significant case they acknowledge the original context said one thing but that it came to be understood in the intertestamental times differently which was the basis for the NT understandings.

Now I put it to you: If the NT said one thing and Luther and Calvin could be shown to understand the text differently what would you say about that? That is, if the Reformers were wrong about the text should anyone go on what they said or the original?

That is the problem with how the NT uses the OT. It is out of context and as such cannot be considered prophetic or as evidence God predicted anything.

Think otherwise?

Just read Carson and Beale’s book closely, very closely.
MSH says:
July 17, 2011 at 8:34 PM

Well, let’s have some specific examples where Carson and Beale say the NT interpretation is utterly foreign to the OT “meaning” (better, context, since “meaning” is pretty much always multivalent – sorry for the academese – “layered” or “not isolated to one possibility). For comment readers, think of it this way: Is anything we write or that we say never subject to multiple meanings / interpretations? Ask your wife. So, John, please offer me some specifics and we’ll go from there.
John W. Loftus says:
July 19, 2011 at 3:43 AM

academese? Please don’t assume I am not conversant in this.

Psalm 2, according to Christians, expresses the hope for the Messiah, the anointed one, who was none other than Jesus whom the kings and rulers “conspired against,” according to the Apostles Peter and John (Acts 4:23-31, see also Acts 13:32; Hebrews 1:5; 5:5; Revelation 2:27; 19:15). However, this Psalm has some verbal similarities to King Hezekiah’s prayer in Isaiah 37:16-20, where Hezekiah prays for deliverance from Sennacherib, the king of Assyria, as he approaches to attack Jerusalem. New Testament scholar I. Howard Marshall admits that “in its original context the psalm…is generally understood as an address to the king to reassure him in the face of enemy attack.”

I. Howard Marshall, “Acts” in G.K. Beale and D.A. Carson, eds. Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007), p. 552.
MSH says:
July 21, 2011 at 10:14 PM

Please give me a better example. The psalms are notoriously difficult to date (read: no one knows how to date just about any of them), and so any argument based on a chronological presumption about a psalm and its relationship to another text is pie ion the sky.

And which part of Psalm 2?

At any rate, if I guess (and this may be completely off target since I need you to be more precise) — Hezekiah is viewed by most OT scholars as the “David after David” (some even think he is the referent of Isa 7:14, though I don’t share that view), and Isa 9:6 is his context. As a result, Hezekiah (like David) would be viewed as a sort of archetypal messiah figure, so if a NT author thought that way (and who would know precisely anyway) then using that Psalm for Jesus with Hezekiah in mind would make perfect sense to that writer.

But this may not be on your intended wavelength, so I will wait to hear.
John W. Loftus says:
The dating of Psalms is not the issue. The issues is that the NT treats many of them as if they were prophetic.They are most emphatically not prophesying.

I know about Hezekiah, Isaiah 7:14 and 9:6.

Zerubbabel was first named the Messiah by Zechariah and Haggai. But they were shown wrong.

At any rate, if Hezekiah is to be viewed as a sort of archetypal messiah figure then the NT authors who quote from this Psalm are wrong, which is my point.

I may not know where you’re coming from but I did hear about you some time back.
MSH says:
July 25, 2011 at 10:09 PM

This reply shows that you are really assuming certain trajectories that are wrong-headed. I’ll try to explain.

Brief version: The Jews of the first century had a mental mosaic of what messiah would be like and do — not a list of verses for him to “fulfill.” There are actually very few overt prophecies in the OT that need or anticipate a messianic fulfillment. Rather than asking “does this guy fulfill all these passages / prophecies?” they were asking “does he look like he fits the picture?” Consequently, to evaluate THEIR expectations on a list of verses WE (modern scholars, Bible-believing Christians, etc.) have delineated just isn’t going about the exercise the way they would have — and so it is unfair and the results will invariably be skewered.

Longer version:

Asking if the NT authors were “correct” in their use of the OT has two points of incoherence. I therefore see your criticism and simplistic proof-texting of many Christians in this regard in the same light.

1. NT authors weren’t thinking about 1:1 correspondences with so-called messianic prophecy. There are actually very few prophecies (or even passages) in the OT that even use the word “messiah.” And NONE of them are of the variety of “the messiah will say or do XYZ when he gets here.” As a result, it’s sophistry to criticize the NT authors on that basis. They’d look at you like you didn’t know what they (or you) were doing. They just weren’t doing what you assume they were trying to do. You criticize them for failing at something they weren’t attempting to do. How is that methodologically sound?

Lest readers misunderstand, I am not saying you are along in this mistaken trajectory. It’s news to Christians and pastors, too. I’ll repeat my statement above: There are actually very few prophecies (or even passages) in the OT that even use the word “messiah.” And NONE of them are of the variety of “the messiah will say or do XYZ when he gets here.” Don’t believe me? Below is a link to a PDF that shows the search results for all the occurrences of Hebrew mashiach (“anointed one”; “messiah”) in the OT. Read through them. There’s nothing there that says “when messiah comes he will do / say XYZ.” The proof is in the pudding. And so your criticism is quite misguided (but effective against people who don’t know better).


So, in view of all this, how did Jews have a messianic expectation with so few references to an eschatological messiah? As I noted above in the brief version, while they didn’t have a list of verses, they had a mosaic of expectations as to what their messiah would be like and what they presumed he was supposed to do. Some of these are fairly specific – e.g., they expected messiah to be from the line of David, of the tribe of Judah, born in Bethlehem – but not because any verse that has the word messiah in its says these things. It was primarily because of the (in order) the covenant with David (2 Sam 7, Psalm 89), the use of royal motifs and terms in relation to Judah (Gen 49:10; Micah 5:2). These OT passages form parts of a picture (a mosaic); they are not in and of themselves terribly specific. Even Micah 5:2 could have spoken of any ruler of Israel — there is nothing in the text that says it ONLY applies to an eschatological messiah. But you, John, would over-read passages like that and press them as though they are more specific than they are (and you’d be in Christian company – many Christians I presume would be disturbed at what I just said – Micah 5:2 need not apply to “the” messiah — but I’m just letting that text be as non-specific as it is).

2. This “mosaic” approach to OT messianism means that the “rules of interpretive engagement” in the first century often don’t conform to modern constructs like the “grammatical historical method” (born as it was of the Renaissance and Enlightenment. Why? Because we’re smart and they were dumb? That’s basically your argument. But the truth is much more simple and less egotistical. It’s because the first century Jew was thinking analogically, not as though “Text A produces Interpretation A” (i.e., as though we must tell that the former gave birth to the latter). The ancients were thinking in terms of patterns, motifs and other “hooks” that would reveal connections (a mosaic or network, not a single, linear 1:1 thought correspondence). In other words, a first century Jew looking at his Old Testament and, hearing your (our – modern “believers”) interpretive strategy and would either say “you’re dense” or “your method sucks” (in Aramaic or Hebrew, of course).

Now, how do I know I’m right in saying the above? Two short examples. First, there is Zerubbabel. He didn’t “fulfill” any direct messianic statement, but to Jews of his day, the second temple period, he looked like a candidate worthy of consideration. Why? Because he fit certain expectations that had nothing to do with proof-texting specific messianic statements (of which there are few). Zerubbabel was in the line of David and he was the political leader of the Jews returning from exile (their sin was “pardoned”) … to restore the nation of Israel (the “kingdom”). He was governor of Judah, so he could have fit Micah 5:2. Notice — back to the text here — that verse actually doesn’t say that the ruler from Judah had to be *born* in Bethlehem; rather, he had to “come forth” from that town. What does that mean? You could probably justify a lot of associations with Bethlehem to feel like a candidate fit the picture. My point here is that Zerubbabel was not disqualified from looking like a messianic candidate because he was born in Babylon, not Bethlehem, since Micah 5:2 never mentions birth as a requirement (but to be sure, a birth there would create a firm association). But I don’t imagine you or the sources you cite ever noticed that. And it’s not because you aren’t smart (you obviously are); it’s because you have accepted a caricatured expectation of messianism, brought with you in your flight from Christianity.

Anyway, what I’m trying to get to is this. To judge the NT authors by standards foreign to them is wrong-headed. To understand how the NT use of the OT is coherent you have to see the nodes of the conceptual network / the pieces of the mosaic. You have to understand how THEY were thinking (not how you wish they were thinking, or how you could have thought better, in your mind at least). The NT mosaic for messiah is composed of motifs, technical terms, concepts, symbols, etc. that derive from ancient Near Eastern concepts of royalty, kingship, priesthood, shepherding, warfare, hierarchy, etc. — as opposed to listing proof-texts. If it was as easy as proof-texting, the disciples could have just looked things up. Instead, they relied on 20/20 hindsight. As time went by, what Jesus did and said *reminded* them of aspects of the mosaic, the network.

The above is why your challenge was and is pointless. It is misguided because you’ve spent too much time shooting at a caricature, thinking you’re hitting something and scoring. You’re not. (But I’m sure you’ve buried lots of lay people and preachers whose view of all this is just as simplistic as your own).
John W. Loftus says:
Your comment is awaiting moderation.
July 26, 2011 at 5:31 AM

Thanks so much for taking the time to respond.

There is a great deal that you wrote I agree with you about, most of it actually, seen best in Joseph A. Fitzmyer’s “The One Who is to Come (Eerdmans, 2007). I just want you to connect the dots. These so-called prophetic texts cannot be considered as evidence of Jesus for us today. This is my point. There is no evidence coming from OT prophecy about Jesus. None. That is why the overwhelming numbers of Jews in Jesus’ day did not believe the early Christian kerygma.

Take the burning bush example. Jesus used it to show that it had “significance” concerning the resurrection of the dead (Mark 12:26-27). But in context the “meaning” of the text is that God was merely identifying himself to Moses.

Do you approve of that kind of exegesis in your classes?

If so, then wouldn’t you be forced to say anything goes?

John W. Loftus says:
Your comment is awaiting moderation.
July 26, 2011 at 5:44 AM

BTW, I’m sure you know that messianic expectations did not arise until after the exile.
John W. Loftus says:
July 22, 2011 at 2:54 PM

Let me say it this way then, the Jews in the days of Jesus used midrash, pesher and so on to interpret their scripture. But the overwhelming numbers of them did not see Jesus as the Messiah. If prophecy is supposed to be some sort of evidence for the truth of Christianity then where is it? They didn’t see it and neither do I.

In today’s world we wouldn’t accept typology as evidence of Jesus because this is all in the eye of the beholder. We use a different method which seeks to understand the meaning of a sentence instead of its significance. The meaning of the OT sentences in their original contexts would never allow us to think of the meaning of the OT sentencess as evidence that Jesus is the Messiah.

MSH says:
July 25, 2011 at 9:29 PM

can you give me the numbers, John? Where are the statistics of who believed and who didn’t? How do we know? Who counted? See my other reply. I follow your trajectory, but I think it’s commonly wrong-headed.
John W. Loftus says:
Your comment is awaiting moderation.
July 26, 2011 at 5:13 AM

How many Jews? This is hard to specify since numbers are generally exaggerated. The most plausible estimate of the first century Jewish population comes from a census of the Roman Empire during the reign of Claudius (48 CE) which numbered nearly 7 million Jews. If we add in the Jews outside the Roman Empire in places like Babylon, the total first century Jewish population could have been 8 million. In Palestine it’s estimated there may have been as many as 2.5 million Jews. Even if we accept the numbers of people converted as reported in Acts 4:4 at 5,000, that’s a mere drop in the bucket. It still means well over 99% of all the Jews in Palestine rejected their evidence. Since the Jews shared a similar religious faith and they lived in the same era and didn’t believe, why should we?

See “Population” Encyclopedia Judaica. Vol. 13, and Magen Broshi. “Estimating the Population of Ancient Jerusalem.” Biblical Archaeological Review. (Vol.4, No. 2, June 1978). Josephus estimates that at the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD there were over one million Jewish fatalities (The Jewish War, Book VI, 9,3), whereas in northern Galilee, if we add up his figures, there were somewhere around three million Jews (The Jewish War, Book III, 3,2). Alexandria, according to Philo, had a Jewish population of over 1,000,000 (Contra Flacum 43).
To see this discussion minus the comments of mine that have not been approved see here.