On the Hunt for Jesus in the Old Testament

The manufactured prophecy miracle

Religious folks have a vested interest in managing expectations about miracles. Taking them at their word, that God is powerful and good—and has our wellbeing in mind—secularists can suggest miracles that should have happened. A year before the Sandy Hook School massacre, Richard Carrier wrote this:

“A man approaches a school with a loaded assault rifle, intent on mass slaughter. A loving person speaks to him, attempts to help him resolve his problems or to persuade him to stop, and failing that, punches him right in the kisser, and takes away his gun. And a loving person with godlike powers could simply turn his bullets into popcorn as they left the gun, or heal with a touch whatever insanity or madness (or by teaching him cure whatever ignorance) led the man to contemplate the crime. But God does nothing.” (Why I Am Not a Christian: Four Conclusive Reasons to Reject the Faith, p. 21)

To avert the Sandy Hook massacre, a minor miracle would have sufficed, if God had been paying attention. Perhaps arrange for the gunman’s car to be rear-ended on his way to the school—violĂ , the weapons in the trunk are discovered by the police. Or a loving god could work in more mysterious ways—as theologians are so sure he does—e.g., as Carrier suggests, “touch whatever insanity or madness” had disturbed his mind. Surely that is not beyond the power of the God who supposedly inspired a thousand pages of Bible—that, to be sure, is major manipulation of human minds. If God could do that, I have often wondered, why in the world didn’t he get inside Adolph Hitler’s head to cancel his fanatical hatred of Jews?

There are so many such miracles that should have happened; the incoherence of Christian theism is exposed by divine negligence: the god projected and protected by the theologians underperforms by any standard. This problem is compounded by manufactured miracles—faux miracles that are exposed on close examination of Bible texts.

Perhaps it is a major miracle that priests and preachers have convinced their flocks that the Bible is the Word of God, and at the same time blunted their curiosity about it. How many of the folks in the pews dive into the Bible in full study mode, burning with curiosity? Priests and preachers are relieved that they don’t. Careful study of the Bible is just as likely to undermine faith as to strengthen it.

There is one huge Christian claim that falls to pieces upon close examination, and this is explained in detail in Robert J. Miller’s essay, “How New Testament Writers Helped Jesus Fulfill Prophecy,” in John Loftus’ most recent anthology, The Case Against Miracles. In the minds of so many Christians, the status of Jesus is secure because he was present with God at creation (John 1), and because his coming—and his status as God’s chosen—was predicted, in detail, in the Old Testament. Through the unfolding of history, God has been subtly engineering outcomes for our salvation; he had the messiah in mind for centuries—and dropped hints.

Hence the gospel writers knew that they could dig through the Old Testament and find texts about Jesus. At the opening of his essay, Miller explains their motivation:

• “Making that connection was essential in a time and culture that regarded old sacred writings with reverence and anything new in religion with suspicion." (p. 255)

• “The early followers of Jesus thus cultivated an identity as the new people of God, the heirs of God’s promises to Israel.” (p. 255)
• “…Christian apologists argued that Jesus fulfilled the prophecies of the Old Testament in such numbers and with such specificity that they amounted to a miracle and thus were evidence of the unique truth of Christianity.” (pp. 255-256)

We can assume that a high percentage of Christians today endorse this theology—which is precisely why they could benefit by approaching the Bible in full study mode. We can discount the role of God in prophecy, because the evidence points to a human phenomenon. As Miller puts it, “…the ‘miracle’ of fulfilled prophecy is an artifact of the ingenuity of Christian writers.” (p. 258) Which is a polite way of saying that they made it up.

It’s hardly a wonder that Christians have been high on prophecy since “…Matthew loads five fulfillment scenes in his first two chapters. The opening pages of the New Testament are thus dense with prophecy.” (p. 258) But careful readers can figure out pretty quickly what Matthew was up to.

Miller provides details on several of Mathew’s “proofs” that Old Testament authors had Jesus in mind. No doubt the most famous quote is found in the cherished Christmas story in Matthew’s first chapter. Christians seem to have built a wall around this story, with a warning posted: No Questions Allowed! There are clues that this is fantasy literature: An angel has a speaking role and Joseph gets a message from God in a dream. Does God really operate that way? But Christians who are awed by Matthew 1:23,

“Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,”

should want to check this out; after all, it was written hundreds of years before Jesus. Who was the prophet? What was the context that prompted him to say this? What are the clues that he had Jesus in mind? Curiosity will be rewarded, of course, and the Christmas story takes a hit. Miller makes the point, in reference to Matthew’s five initial proofs, that “…the most likely reason why no one other than Matthew identified them as prophecy fulfillment is that the prophecies Matthew quotes have no clear connection to the stories that allegedly fulfill them.” (p. 259)

Even devout Christian scholars have acknowledged that Matthew didn’t get it right, at all; it’s a bogus prophecy. His verse 23 was lifted from Isaiah 7, which refers to a political/military situation that had nothing whatever to do with messianic expectations. It was a poetic, short-term prediction, as we see in 7:16: “For before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted.” Matthew had spotted the word virgin in the Greek version of the Old Testament—in Hebrew it is simply young woman—but he ran with the Greek translation.

After surveying five fulfillments cited by Matthew (in chapters 1, 4, 8, 12 & 13), Miller notes that there is a fit “only in a vague or tangential way, sometimes in contradiction to what Matthew elsewhere reports about Jesus and sometimes in contradiction to what the prophecy means in its own context.” (p. 260)

“A number of the prophecies Matthew identifies as fulfilled in his narrative are quoted out of context that distort their original meaning. By context here I do not mean historical context, which Matthew always ignores, as do all other ancient authors interested in hidden meanings of prophecy. Here I have in mind the immediate literary contexts of the lines Matthew quotes.” (pp. 260-261)

Miller mentions Matthew 2:13-15, in which the author says that Joseph and Mary fled to Egypt with the baby Jesus to get him out of harm’s way (i.e., Herod)—but then returned when it was safe: “This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt I have called my son.’” This is the second line of Hosea 11:1, but Matthew skipped the first line, “When Israel was a child I loved him…”

Miller points out that “the half-verse from Hosea that Matthew quotes is not a prediction. It refers to the Exodus, an event that occurred (if at all) more than five hundred years in Hosea’s past. Moreover, in Exodus Egypt is the place of slavery and death, whereas in Matthew’s story Egypt is the place of safety.” (p. 260)

Moreover, the famous “flight to Egypt” episode is contrived. It is mentioned nowhere else in the New Testament, and cannot be reconciled with Luke’s infancy stories. It looks very much like that Matthew invented the story in order to make use of Hosea 11:1. But this defies common sense. If it had been necessary for Joseph and Mary to hide Jesus, there would have been much easier ways to do it. Herod didn’t have a database for tracking peasant families—and no, the census claimed by Luke doesn’t provide that—so the parents with their newborn could have disappeared among thousands of other peasant families, rather than making a trek to Egypt, of all places.

One especially silly “fulfillment” is Matthew 26:31 (copied from Mark 14:27), quoting Zechariah 13:7, as Miller makes clear:

“Jesus tells his disciples after the Last Supper that they will all desert him, ‘for it is written, ‘I will strike the shepherd and the sheep will be scattered’… This one line is expertly quoted out of context, for in Zechariah 13:7-9, the sentence expresses God’s determination to punish a worthless shepherd and to kill most of his sheep, a meaning completely contradictory to the one the gospels give it.” (pp. 262-263)

I suggest readers give careful attention especially to the sections of this essay titled, “Fabricating Prophecies,” and “Retrofitting Prophecy,” in which Miller discusses techniques employed by the gospel writers that

“…would not be acceptable today. Making farfetched connections between prophecies and their alleged fulfillments would simply not be persuasive and would raise questions about the strength of your evidence…fabricating quotations or rewriting them to get them to mean what want them to mean would be rightly condemned as intellectual dishonesty.” (p. 276)

But it’s complicated: “…the textual techniques by which the NT writers helped Jesus fulfill prophecy were in common use among ancient Jewish intellectuals…the Christian authors were not violating what we would call the professional standards of their day. That was then, this is now. Any argument today that was shown to employ the techniques used by NT authors for manipulating texts would fail to convince the open-minded.” (pp. 276-277)

“…we might well admire their literary skill, but we can see the alleged miracle for what it really is, an expression of religious faith rather than evidence for it.” (p. 277)

Nothing—absolutely nothing—that Richard Miller has written in this essay comes as a surprise or a shock to Christian scholars. The more conservative among them work hard to give a spiritual spin to it all—to make it all come out right. They can be sure that the laity aren’t paying that much attention anyway. Beyond hearing Bible texts read from the pulpit, what are the levels of “Bible involvement” for most of the folks in the pews? Of course, some do read it privately, often on the chapter-a-day plan. But when they run into the rough patches—“Gee, how can that make sense?”— they just file them away under God’s mysteries.

There are lay people who take part in Bible study classes offered by the clergy, who are armed with defenses and excuses to deflect curiosity about the awful stuff in scripture, e.g., “It’s a metaphor,” “It has a deeper spiritual meaning.” But the problem of the “prophecy” texts can’t be eliminated so simplistically.

From this essay we can see that the Bible got it just plain wrong. Come on, if the Old Testament prophets really has a knack for prophecy, why not get it right? Be consistent and correct. This would have been a stunning prophecy, especially if proclaimed, word for word, by several prophets tuned in to God’s plan:

“And it shall come to pass that a mighty nation, more terrible than Babylon, will rise up from beyond the Western Sea, and will be called Rome. Even as the nations suffer under its yoke, a messiah, Joshua ben Joseph, will be called by God from Galilee, will display wonders and work miracles, and will announce the arrival of God’s Kingdom to vanquish the Romans.”

Of course, even Joshua ben Joseph got that last part wrong. So what does that tell you about prophecy?

David Madison was a pastor in the Methodist Church for nine years, and has a PhD in Biblical Studies from Boston University. His book, Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: a Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith, was published in 2016 by Tellectual Press. It was reissued in 2018 with a new Foreword by John Loftus.

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