"How the New Testament Writers Used Prophecy," An Excerpt from "Why I Became an Atheist" pp. 353-59.

"How the New Testament Writers Used Prophecy" by John W. Loftus. 

One of the major things claimed by the New Testament in support of Jesus’ life and mission is that Jesus fulfilled Old Testament prophecy (Luke 24:26–27; Acts 3:17–24). If God cannot predict the future as time moves farther and farther into the distance, as I questioned earlier, then neither can any prophet who claims to speak for God. As we will see with regard to the virgin birth of Jesus, none of the Old Testament passages in the original Hebrew prophetically applied singularly and specifically to Jesus. [In chapter 18, "Was Jesus Born of a Virgin in Bethlehem?"]. Early Christian preachers simply went into the Old Testament looking for verses that would support their view of Jesus. They took these Old Testament verses out of context and applied them to Jesus in order to support their views of his life and mission.9

In an important work on this subject Catholic scholar Joseph A. Fitzmyer did an exhaustive study of how the Messiah was understood by the Jews in the Old Testament. Fitzmyer claims that “one cannot foist a later Christian meaning on a passage that was supposed to have a distinctive religious sense in guiding the Jewish people of old.”10  So when examining every potentially prophetic Messianic passage in the  Old Testament, except perhaps for a couple of passages in the book of Daniel (a book which was “finally redacted c.a. 165 BC”), Fitzmyer rightly argues that the Christian writers interpreted these passages anachronistically due to hindsight understandings of who they concluded Jesus to be.

Many of the claimed prophecies came from the book of Psalms, believed by Christians to be “Messianic” (i.e., Psalms 2, 8, 16, 22, 34, 35, 40, 41, 45, 68, 69, 89, 102, 109, 110, and 118). But in their original contexts these Psalms are simply devotional prayers. Among other things we find prayers for help in distress, for forgiveness, and for wisdom, and so on. They declare praise to God, and they express hope that their enemies will be defeated. There is nothing about them, when reading them devotionally, that indicates they are predicting anything at all! For there to be a prediction there must be a prophecy, and there are none in the Psalms. With no prediction comes no fulfillment. Yet the New Testament writers quoted from them and claimed they predicted several things in the life, death, and resurrection of their Messiah, Jesus.

Consider Psalm 2:

1 Why do the nations conspire,
and the peoples plot in vain?
The kings of the earth set themselves,
    and the rulers take counsel together,
    against the Lord and his anointed, saying,
“Let us burst their bonds asunder,
    and cast their cords from us.”

He who sits in the heavens laughs;
    the Lord has them in derision.
Then he will speak to them in his wrath,
    and terrify them in his fury, saying,
“I have set my king
    on Zion, my holy hill.”

I will tell of the decree of the Lord:
He said to me, “You are my son,
    today I have begotten you.
Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage,
    and the ends of the earth your possession.
You shall break them with a rod of iron,
    and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.”

10 Now therefore, O kings, be wise;
    be warned, O rulers of the earth.
11 Serve the Lord with fear,
    with trembling 12 kiss his feet,
lest he be angry, and you perish in the way;
    for his wrath is quickly kindled.
12 Blessed are all who take refuge in him.

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; Heb. 1:5; 5:5; Rev. 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 this Psalm 2 is generally understood as an address to the king to reassure him in the face of enemy attack.”11  In it Yahweh declares the king as his “son.” Kings were regularly thought to be sons of God who dispense God’s justice. Why should this be a problem? Marshall goes on to tell us that “by the time the psalms were gathered together as a collection, this and similar references to ‘the Anointed One’ were seen as referring to the future ruler of Israel, the Messiah, and not to ordinary kings.”12 Fine, but what he’s doing is allowing subsequent misinterpretations of this text to determine what the text originally said, as is done with many of these so-called prophecies. No one would allow that in today’s world if it came from Nostradamus, so why is there this double standard when it comes to the Bible? The same exegetical skills are required. Why should we take seriously what subsequent generations thought when the original context is as Marshall admitted? Even so, any Jew writing about his hope for a future Messiah could have said these same hopeful things. A hope is not a prediction. Fitzmyer concludes, “Psalm 2 is not ‘messianic’ in any sense. . . . There is not even a hint of a ‘messianic’ connotation of the term or of a remote future, when a Messiah might appear.”13

 Consider Psalm 110:

1 Yahweh says to my lord: “Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet.”

2 Yahweh will extend your mighty scepter from Zion, saying, “Rule in the midst of your enemies!”

3 Your troops will be willing on your day of battle. Arrayed in holy splendor, your young men will come to you like dew from the morning’s womb.

4 Yahweh has sworn and will not change his mind:
“You are a priest forever,
in the order of Melchizedek.”

5 The Lord is at your right hand;
he will crush kings on the day of his wrath.

6 He will judge the nations, heaping up the dead
and crushing the rulers of the whole earth.

7 He will drink from a brook along the way,
and so he will lift his head high.

This Psalm is the Old Testament passage most quoted in the New Testament, where it’s claimed Yahweh is speaking to David’s Lord, Jesus, who is to sit at Yahweh’s right hand until his enemies are made as a footstool for his feet (Mark 12:36; Matt. 22:44; Acts 2:34–35; Heb. 1:3; 10:13). Evangelical scholar Craig Blomberg opines, “Despite many who would disagree, this seems to be a case of straightforward prediction and fulfillment.”14

But let’s look closer. Jesus said this Psalm was written by David, but then Jesus also misunderstood who wrote the Pentateuch, as I argued in chapter 14 of this book. So should that settle it? I think not. Psalms 2 and 110 were most likely to be read at the coronation of Jewish kings. They expressed hopes that any king might have had with regard to overcoming his enemies. If David did write it, it’s obvious he would have done so upon the coronation of his son Solomon, whom he subsequently called his “lord.” He would have said this because of Solomon’s new status, which placed him as a ruler even above the aged David himself. But David probably didn’t write this Psalm, if we’re to believe he was on his deathbed when Solomon was crowned his successor (1 Kings 1–2:12). Given that he was bedridden and that pseudonymity is so common in the Bible, it’s more likely that someone else wrote it later. In no other place does David hope for a Messiah. All Messianic hopes and dreams were based upon David and a restored dynasty after the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians!

This Psalm clearly speaks of troops on the day of battle and the crushing of kings and nations. In this context it’s clearly speaking about going to war with other nations, literally. Most every nation wanted to rule the known world, so why not express these hopes and dreams for Solomon the new king? Did Jesus literally go to battle against other nations? Since he didn’t, Psalm 110 does not refer to him. Subsequent generations of readers, who were looking for the restoration of Israel in all her Davidic glory after the destruction of Jerusalem, believed it was a Messianic Psalm. And self-appointed Messiahs were almost a dime a dozen, so they would have claimed this Psalm applied to them. As S. E. Gillingham tells us regarding this Psalm, “Within the religio-political context it could hardly refer to any eschatological ideal in the distant future.”15

The other so-called Messianic Psalms do not predict anything at all. They are prayers to be interpreted within the range of the writers’ experiences alone. Any extrapolation of them to Jesus is reading Jesus into the text, which is not justified by the text itself. That’s considered eisegesis, not exegesis. After discussing several of the key “Messianic Psalms,” Fitzmyer concludes, “The attempt to interpret these Psalms anachronistically in a ‘messianic’ sense is misguided.”16

It is more probable that the New Testament writers were influenced by the Old Testament in the construction of their stories about Jesus. In other words, they shaped their stories about Jesus by making his life fit some of these details. That explains Luke’s concoction of a census in order to get Mary to Bethlehem so Jesus could be born there according to “prophecy” (Mic. 5:2; Matt. 2:6), as we will see later.

When it comes to the “Suffering Servant” of Isaiah 53, in the context of Post-Exilic Judaism, the servant was not a redeemer Messianic king at all. The suffering servant is identified with the people of Israel themselves (see Isa. 41:8–9; 42:18–24; 43:10; 44:1–2, 21; 45:4; 48:20; and especially 49:3), who had suffered through the horrifying destruction of the northern kingdom by the Assyrians in 722 BCE and the southern kingdom by the Babylonians in 587 BCE. So Fitzmyer correctly argues there is no room here to see a Messiah as a ruler of the age of salvation. In fact, he tells us, “there is no passage in the book of Isaiah that mentions a ‘Messiah’ in the narrow sense, and all attempts to speak of Isaiah’s ‘messianic prophecies’ are stillborn.”17 He claims that the Servant Song of Isaiah 53 “has no messianic connotation” per se.18 He goes on to say: “The idea of a suffering Messiah . . . is found nowhere in the Old Testament or in any Jewish literature prior to or contemporaneous with the New Testament. It is a Christian conception that goes beyond the Jewish messianic tradition.”19 So even according to Christian scholarship in the Anchor Bible Dictionary, Isaiah’s servant is “almost certainly to be identified with Israel.”20 The identification of Isaiah’s servant with Jesus was based upon the Christian recasting of Isaiah 52–53 in light of the apocryphal book The Wisdom of Solomon (chapters 1–6).

For a specific look at how the New Testament writers wrote their stories based upon the Old Testament, notice that Matthew 21:2 has Jesus requesting both a donkey and also a colt to ride into Jerusalem, based upon a misunderstanding of Zechariah 9:9, which reads: “Rejoice . . . your king comes to you . . . gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” Zechariah’s prophecy is an example of Hebraic parallelism in which the second line retells the point of the first line. There is only one animal in Zechariah, but Matthew thinks he means there is a donkey and also a colt, so he wrote his story based upon this misunderstanding in order to fit prophecy. The Gospels of Mark (11:1) and Luke (19:30) both say it was a “colt.” John’s Gospel (12:14–15) says it was a “donkey,” and then he misquoted Zechariah 9:9 as saying, “your king is coming, seated on a donkey’s colt.” This surely looks like an example where the Gospel writers tried to construct a story in the life of Jesus based on this Old Testament text. The problem is that they messed up because they couldn’t get it straight. How many others did they mess up? Why should we trust them after noticing something like this? In speaking of Matthew’s handling of this “incident,” biblical scholar Robert Miller warns us that it should “raise a serious question about Matthew’s competence as an interpreter of Hebrew scripture.”21

How Matthew’s Gospel uses the Old Testament is a case in point for us. Since we’ll discuss some examples in later chapters, let’s just look at three of them. First, after the birth of Jesus, Matthew 2:14–15 tells us: “Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt I have called my son.’” According to the conservative Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures: “This is a reference to Hosea 11:1, which does not seem to be a prophecy in the sense of a prediction. Hosea was writing of God’s calling Israel out of Egypt into the Exodus. Matthew, however, gave new understanding to these words. Matthew viewed this experience as the Messiah being identified with the nation.”22 Okay then, with no prediction comes no fulfillment. We can therefore disregard Matthew’s “new understanding” of Hosea 11:1. Craig Blomberg simply calls this “an example of pure typology.”23 But typology is all in the eyes of the beholder. Contextually, there is simply no way on grammatical-historical lines that Hosea 11:1 could be used as evidence of the nature or mission of Jesus in Matthew 2:15. It just isn’t there. Matthew uses the verse so loosely that it would show evidence of nothing at all to us today were we the ones weighing the claims of another Messiah.

Second, Matthew 2:17–18 sees Jeremiah 31:15 as fulfilled when Herod the king ordered all boys in Bethlehem two years old and younger to be killed. Then we read that what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled: “A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.” But Jeremiah’s mourning is for those who will be cast into Babylonian captivity. The claim in Matthew 2:17–18 that Jeremiah’ s words apply to Herod’s killing young boys under the age of two is simply, well, fraudulent. Craig Blomberg also calls this an example of “typology,” saying: “The text in Jeremiah is not a prediction, nor does it even use the future tense.”24 So once again, with no prediction comes no fulfillment.

Third, after Joseph was warned in a dream to leave Bethlehem, Matthew 2:22–23 tells us that, “Joseph left for the regions of Galilee, and came and lived in a city called Nazareth. This was to fulfill what was spoken through the prophets: ‘He [Jesus] shall be called a Nazarene.’” The Bible Knowledge Commentary tells us:

“The words ‘He will be called a Nazarene,’ were not directly spoken by any Old Testament prophet, though several prophecies come close to this expression. Isaiah said the Messiah would be ‘from [Jesse’s] roots’ like ‘a Branch’ (Isa. 11:1). ‘Branch’ is the Hebrew word nezer, which has consonants like those in the word ‘Nazarene’ and which carry the idea of having an insignificant beginning.”25

Blomberg disagrees by telling us that “no Old Testament text ever declares that anyone will be called a Nazarene! Nor does any known apocryphal or pseudepigraphal text include such a statement. . . . It is also difficult to imagine Matthew thinking of Jesus as a Nazarite even figuratively, since his ministry was otherwise so far removed from the asceticism of the literal Nazarite.”26 So it’s hard to understand if there was a prophecy and what it might have meant. It certainly didn’t specifically say that the Messiah would be from the town of Nazareth. That’s a clear misreading of the text. So again, with no prediction comes no fulfillment. Even if the Messiah was to be a “branch” from David, to the Old Testament reader this would have meant he would be from David’s bloodline, not that he would live in Nazareth, and there were plenty of people from David’s bloodline by then.

James D. G. Dunn informs us that Matthew’s use of the sayings of Jesus is similar to the way he used the Old Testament in that “the texts used were often significantly different in sense from the original. It was evidently quite an acceptable procedure in Matthew’s time to incorporate the interpretation into the saying itself by modifying the form of the saying.”27

After analyzing the infancy prophecies in Matthew’s Gospel, Robert Miller sums up what we find: (1) “He attributes meanings to the prophets that they did not intend”; (2) “He interprets their words in ways that are impossible in their own contexts”; (3) “He relates prophecies to events that never happened”; and (4) “He invents a prophecy that did not exist.”28

No wonder professor C. F. D. Moule argues that Matthew’s use of the Old Testament “to our critical eyes, [is] manifestly forced and artificial and unconvincing.”29 And if this is the case, then with S. V. McCastland we can legitimately ask how Matthew distorts his other sources when writing his Gospel: “What we have observed about the liberties Matthew took with passages of Scripture he quoted suggests that he may have done the same thing with his more contemporary sources of the life and saying of Jesus.”30 Why not then be skeptical of his whole Gospel? Randel Helms agrees that the way the New Testament writers used the Old Testament “involved interpretive methods that to modern ears seem bizarre.”31

Today we think this way of interpreting the Old Testament is wrong. Evangelical scholar Richard N. Longenecker argues that “Christians today are committed to the apostolic faith and doctrine of the New Testament, but not necessarily to the apostolic exegetical practices as detailed for us in the New Testament.”32 Paul Copan admits this: “We should not seek to imitate the Jewish methods of interpretation” (midrash, pesher, and allegory) common within first century Judaism. Otherwise we open ourselves to an arbitrary approach that has no controls to guide it.”33 Of course we shouldn’t! But the question is why Christians accept the results of the New Testament writers when they also must reject their hermeneutical method? If we were to judge their hermeneutics by ours, they wouldn’t measure up—that is, we would be laughed at by our contemporaries if we employed the same methods in scholarly studies—try it and see! 

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.34

On the nature of Old Testament fulfilled prophecy, one option for Christians is that God foreknew what methods of interpretation would exist at the time of Jesus, so when God prophesied of Jesus, he knew in advance which hermeneutical principles would force people of that day to the conclusion that Jesus was the Messiah. A particularly problematic New Testament interpretation might be incorrect based upon the grammatical-historical method yet still be a confirmation that Jesus was its intended object for New Testament–era people. But I’ve already philosophically argued against this. We don’t have a clue how God could foreknow these things. My claim is far more reasonable, that the New Testament writers were simply wrong in many of their interpretations. Hence, the Messiah hasn’t come yet, or no Messiah exists at all.  


9. Randel McCraw Helms shows some of what I’m writing about in The Bible against Itself: Why the Bible Seems to Contradict Itself (Altadena, CA: Millennium Press, 2006), pp. 81–99.

10. Joseph A. Fitzmyer, The One Who Is to Come (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007), p. ix.

11. I. Howard Marshall, “Acts,” in Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, ed. G.K. Beale and D. A. Carson (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2007), p. 552.

12. Ibid.

13. Fitzmyer, The One Who Is to Come, p. 20.

14. Craig L. Blomberg, “Matthew” in Beale and Carson, eds. Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, p. 84.

15. S. E. Gillingham, “The Messiah in the Psalms,” King and Messiah in Israel and the Ancient Near East, ed. John Day (Sheffield, UK: Sheffield Academic Press, 1998) pp. 22–23.

16. Fitzmyer, The One Who is to Come, p. 25.

17. Ibid., pp. 42–43.

18. Ibid., p. 141.

19. Ibid., p. 142.

20. John R. Miles, “Lamb,” in The Anchor Bible Dictionary, ed. David Noel Freedman (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 4:132.

21. Robert J. Miller, Born Divine: The Births of Jesus and Other Sons of God (Santa Rosa: CA: Poleridge Press, 2002), p. 160.

22. John F. Zuck and Roy B. Walvoord, eds., The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1985), see Matthew 2:14–15.

23. Craig L. Blomberg, “Matthew,” p. 8.

24. Ibid., p. 10.

25. Zuck and Walvoord, The Bible Knowledge Commentary, see Matthew 2:22–23.

26. Blomberg, “Matthew,” p. 10. Blomberg basically says he can’t say for sure one way or another about this text.

27. James D. G. Dunn, The Living Word (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1987), pp. 115–22.

28. Miller, Born Divine, p. 173.

29. C. F. D. Moule, The Origin of Christology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977), p. 129.

30. S. V. McCasland, “Matthew Twists the Scriptures,” in The Right Doctrine from the Wrong Texts? ed. G. K. Beale (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1994), p. 149.

31. Randel Helms, Gospel Fictions (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1988), p.131.

32. Richard N. Longenecker, quoted in Beale, The Right Doctrine from the Wrong Text?, p. 385. G. K. Beale disagrees. He claims the proposal that “the New Testament’s exegetical approach to the Old Testament is characteristically non-contextual is a substantial overstatement.” He is furthermore convinced that “there are no clear examples where they [the NT writers] have developed a meaning from the Old Testament which is inconsistent or contradictory to some aspect of the original Old Testament application” (p. 398). Even granting with Beale that there will be some “enigmatic passages,” most scholars disagree, and he has yet to prove his case.

33. Paul Copan, That’s Just Your Interpretation: Responding to Skeptics Who Challenge Your Faith (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 2001), p. 194.

34. To see Christians argue about this and what it means for their faith, see Beale, The Right Doctrine from the Wrong Text? Phillip Barton Payne, for instance, claims it’s a fallacy to equate meaning with the human author’s intention, since ultimately “God is the author of Scripture” (p. 70). Hence, “our primary task is to understand God’s intention, not fundamentally the human author’s. After all, the Bible is God’s word” (p. 81). But that assumption is the one I’m testing and finding a lack of evidence for in this book. See  what George Bethune English (1787–1828) wrote about Old Testament prophecies in The Grounds of Christianity Examined by Comparing The New Testament with the Old, available for free online at http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/15968 (accessed December 28, 2011) [EDIT: See  "Case in Point Two: Why Should We Believe If the Jews Didn't?].