While contemplating the subject for the latest post in the Bible category, I wrote the following question in my idea log: “Does it matter if you do not find Jesus in the Old Testament?” For those in the field of Religion, whether it is on the academic side or in ministry, this question comes loaded. As a student of the Hebrew Bible, I encounter this question constantly, especially in the context of teaching. Therefore, I decided to address this issue, from my own perspective of course. However, this topic is too massive and complex for a single post, therefore this will be the first in a three-part series addressing the question. If this topic offends you in some way or you find my reasoning flawed, I ask that you read all three parts before passing complete judgment. As always, I welcome feedback and comments.
My main premise in this article is as follows: The notion of Jesus the Messiah as foretold in the Old Testament is inaccurate, as the evidence used is constructed from various texts in order to create a composite prophecy. The Old Testament existed before the time of Christ and presents the religious history of the people of Israel, a history that existed within its own setting. Therefore, I will demonstrate that so-called Messianic prophecies are explained within a historical context, without pointing towards the figure of Christ in the New Testament.
For the faithful Christian, the purpose of the Old Testament (Hebrew Bible) is typically relegated to a series of difficult names to pronounce, involving difficult events to comprehend, with an angry wrathful God, and a myriad of passages pointing the way to Jesus. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but these descriptions could not be further from the truth (although I will admit Semitic names and words can be difficult without proper guidance).
One does not need to find signs pointing to Jesus in the Old Testament because the cultural milieu presented in that canon provides the religious background for Jesus. In other words, one can trace the religious realities of Roman Empire, 1st century CE, diaspora Judaism back through the intertestamental period, and to the return from Exile in Ezra.
Examining every passage appropriated for Jesus is not within the realm of reality for this post, thus I will use one popular example. The Book of Isaiah is typically thought to contain numerous prophecies of the future as well as the prediction of the coming Messiah. This is true, however when read in the proper historical context, it is clear that the Messiah of Isaiah is Cyrus of Persia. Even the beginning of chapter 45, “כֹּה־אָמַ֣ר יְהוָה֮ לִמְשִׁיחֹו֮ לְכֹ֣ורֶשׁ” which translates to “Thus said Yahweh to his anointed one/Messiah, to Cyrus,” explicitly refers to Cyrus as the Messiah. This portion of Isaiah (modern scholars identify no less than three schools of thought in Isaiah, but that is another post) does not look forward to a coming Messiah, but rather sees one in the foreign king that, according to the Bible, allowed the exiled Israelites to return home to Jerusalem.
This is echoed in the Book of Ezra’s account of the returning exiles as chapter one presents the reader with the “Cyrus edict,” a likely constructed document on the part of Israel, which claimed to be a written command from Cyrus himself, allowing the Israelites to return home and rebuild the temple. The writer also makes it clear in the first four verses that Cyrus is the answer to Jeremiah’s prophecy regarding the promise to return Israel to the land.
My final analysis of Isaiah is a look at one of the most famous passages that is linked to the New Testament. Isaiah 7:14 says, “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel” (Isaiah 7:14, NRSV). This passage was picked up by the writer of the Gospel of Matthew and used as a prophecy for the virgin birth of Christ. Again, with any text, context is the key factor. The overall chapter is a discussion regarding King Ahaz, with this statement likely referring to his son, King Hezekiah, or possibly even Isaiah’s son. Furthering the problem of viewing this as a prophecy for Jesus is the fact that the verbs in the sentence, “to bear (a son)” and “to name,” are not in the imperfect tense, which is the future tense for Biblical Hebrew. Therefore the following, more conservative translation: “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel” (Isaiah 7:14, NIV) is grammatically incorrect as the forms do not indicate a future tense, but rather a past, completed action. We therefore do not need to think of the Isaiah as looking forward hundreds of years to a figure that will call himself the Christ (Messiah), but rather look at the historical realities surrounding the Hebrew Bible itself.
Other factors remain concerning the term “virgin,” both as it applies to the Isaiah passage and its usage in the New Testament. Join me for part two of this three-part discussion.
Image at top: Isaiah by Michelangelo
Featured Image: Stone relief of Cyrus the Great