Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Does the Old Testament Prophesy the Birth of Jesus?

Forty-five years ago on December 23, 1972, Abraham Joshua Heschel, the eminent Polish-born American rabbi, passed away at the age of 65. He was one of the leading Jewish theologians/philosophers of the 20th century.
Heschel’s Brilliant Book
Although he was the author of several books, the most notable was The Prophets, published in 1962. That was when I was a financially poor seminary student. But along with Here I Stand, R. Bainton’s book on Luther, Heschel’s book was one of the very few non-textbooks that I bought. I thought then that it was a brilliant book—and I still do.
Recently I looked to see how Heschel interpreted the Old Testament prophecies of the birth of Jesus. I was quite surprised that in the 16-page “Index of Subjects and Names” there are only two brief references to Jesus—and one of those is in a footnote—and nothing listed for Messiah.
Christians, of course, see numerous Old Testament passages as prophecies of Jesus. (This website lists “353 Prophecies Fulfilled in Jesus Christ.”) But Heschel apparently didn’t think a single one of those were prophecies about Jesus. 
Heschel’s Passion for Justice
According to Heschel, one of the main characteristics of the Old Testament prophets was their passion for social justice. In the opening paragraphs of the first chapter of his book, he cites Amos 8:4-6 as an illustration of the prophets’ condemnation of injustice. Then his 11th chapter is titled simply “Justice.”
Heschel identified with the OT prophets in many ways. In the 1960s, he marched for justice with Martin Luther King, Jr., and his daughter says that he was “close friends” with Christian justice-seekers such as Daniel and Philip Berrigan as well as with William Sloan Coffin when he was the Protestant chaplain at Yale.
Sadly, though, it seems that not only did Heschel not see the birth of Jesus as having been prophesied in the Old Testament, he apparently did not even consider Jesus a Jewish prophet—although Jesus self-identified with the words of the prophet Isaiah at the beginning of his public ministry (see Luke 4:16-21).
In his book How God Became King, N.T. Wright emphasizes that the “fulfillment of Israel’s story” is “in the story of the Messiah” (p. 112). That clearly seems to have been Jesus’ understanding, and it certainly was the early church’s understanding of Jesus. But that was not something Heschel could accept or affirm.
Heschel’s Fate?
In his book Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God, which I introduced (here) earlier this year, Brian Zahnd tells about sitting with his dying father, who could no longer communicate with him. On one occasion in that situation, BZ said he was reading Heschel’s book The Prophets—which I found most interesting.
BZ makes only positive statements about Heschel—such as, “Everything I’ve ever read from Heschel has shown him to be a thoroughly God-saturated soul.”
As he was leaving the hospital that particular night in 2009, though, this question “erupted from some fundamentalist outpost” in his brain: “Is Abraham Joshua Heschel in hell?” BZ concluded that such an idea was “irredeemably ludicrous” (pp. 118-120).
Because of his worldview/faith, Rabbi Heschel could not accept the core beliefs of his Christian friends—or of others who are followers of Jesus Christ, such as BZ or me. But even though he could not acknowledge Christ or the prophecies about him, we can accept/affirm him as one who truly believed in “the God and father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Eph. 3:1).
In this Christmas season, may we all nurture a passion for justice such as Rabbi Heschel—and especially such as Jesus Christ—embraced.


  1. I presume you didn’t answer the question of your title deliberately. Or are you simply assuming the truth of the standard Christian argument that the Old Testament predicts the birth of Jesus?

    1. Thanks for your response, Anton.

      I think the answer to the question in the title is implied, but not explicit.

      For those who are Jewish, such as Rabbi Heschel, they answer must be No, the Bible (and what we Christians call the Old Testament Heschel just calls the Bible), does not prophesy the birth of Jesus.

      But it seems incontrovertible that the first followers of Jesus and the writers of the Gospels as well as the Apostle Paul would unquestionably answer, Yes, many Old Testament prophecies are certainly about Jesus and his birth.

      As a Christian I affirm the testimony of the New Testament writers and think that Wright is certainly right when he declares that the “fulfillment of Israel’s story” is “in the story of the Messiah” -- and, of course, he believes that Jesus is the Messiah.

  2. Local Thinking Friend David Nelson, who is also a good friend of Anton, sent these comments:

    "I enjoy singing 'The Messiah' and as a Lutheran pastor often reinforced the idea that Hebrew prophets were speaking of a time in the future when there would be greater peace and justice. As Christians, we can see a prediction of Jesus in their powerful words. I am not so comfortable these days to make these leaps. These Hebrew prophets were speaking to their time and their people. The 'good news' they spoke of was not just a time far in the future, but in the more immediate days 'that are coming.'

    "I hope we can allow each religion to define their own beliefs. I celebrate the mystery of incarnation and amazing claim of 'God with us in Jesus of Nazareth.'

    "I wish you and others a 'Merry Christmas.'"

    1. David, please see what I wrote to Anton above; I think my comments there are pertinent to what you wrote also.

      I certainly see any reason why Christians can't sing, or enjoy listening to "The Messiah," -- but I wouldn't expect practicing Jews to appreciate the words, although they might certainly enjoy the beautiful music.

  3. Thinking Friend Glenn Hinson in Kentucky shares these comments:

    "As I’ve said numerous times, Leroy, I only hope that before I die I know God as well as Martin Buber and Abraham Heschel did. That may shock you, but I have learned much about God from both."

    1. Dr. Hinson, I might have been a bit shocked if I had heard you say that when I was a student in your seminary class back in the spring of 1960, but I am not at all shocked now by your saying that.

      If what BZ said about Heschel is correct--that he was "a thoroughly God-saturated soul"--then we all ought to be able to learn much about God from him, as well as from Buber.

  4. Short responses: OT prophesy birth of Jesus (as Messiah)? Yes [Christian incorporation]. HB? No [It is important to me that Jesus did not have an OT]. Personal conclusion? No.

    Wherever Rabbi Heschel is, I want to go!! Buber also!! [Reminded by Glenn Hinson]

    This reminds me of how un-Christian a disciple of Jesus I have become (and continue to become).

    1. Thanks for your comments, Dick, even though short.

      But my question is, as "a disciple of Jesus" (even though an un-Christian one!?), why do you give more credence to the HB than to the NT?

    2. Short answer [on this question]: Jesus was a Jew. No NT as scripture for him. Perhaps that is a too flippant and simplistic response. Forgive me.

      As one formed in the Christian tradition I am influenced by NT understandings and the arguments of Christian tradition to use HB prophetic literature as pointing toward a hope for and in YHWH’s anointed. I do entertain the idea that God’s [even (?) YHWH’s] anointed (messiah, Christ) [by transforming HB into Christian OT] need not be a nation-liberator [nor once only for that matter].

      So I do not think HB points toward Jesus in particular [did not “prophesy the birth of Jesus”]. Perhaps it is a “too academic” distinction between HB and OT, but for me one with a difference.

      I hope that not being persuaded by parts of Christian tradition does not make me unable to be a disciple of Jesus. I do not hold HB, Christian OT, or NT as absolutes. When they are read they are always interpreted.

      I affirm the title of “Christ” for Jesus with reservations [my justifying self says “with nuance”]; probably as a result of listening to my Jewish sisters and brothers especially, and those of other faith and unfaith traditions as well.

      Thanks, Leroy, for caring.

    3. Dick, sorry to be so slow to respond to your additional comments, which are quite important--and to which I will respond only briefly.

      It is certainly true that the HB was the only Bible Jesus had. But my question, again, to you is, Why take the writings about the HB prophets as being more significant than the writings about Jesus of Nazareth (the NT), a Jewish prophet that many came to believe, for good reason I think, was the continuation/fulfillment of Israel's story found in the HB?

  5. Sometimes I have to scratch my head when one of my more conservative brothers say they find Jesus in each of the pre-Christian era biblical texts. Yet one cannot escape the theme of a redeemed remnant led by an "anointed one" that is present in so many of the prophetic books. We must use sound methods of study and interpretation in approaching these texts, but ultimately it comes to faith. If Jesus saw these texts pointing to his mission, and this was more than just the Gospel writers interpretation of his life, then we must say yes, the prophecies do point to Jesus. If we deny that, we are left with the conclusions of the Jesus Seminar in which you take what makes you comfortable in your chosen life journey and reject the rest as whatever.

    As to Rabbi Heschel's eternal destiny, I'm glad God has the final say and not I.

    1. AND: Thank you for the Christmas letter. Merry Christmas to you, June, and all the descendants! I only remember Keith and Kathy, and they were wee folks back then!

    2. Thanks, Tom, for your significant comments.

      Your reference to the remnant brought back memories of the year we first met--1959. My first research paper was for the OT class I took at SBTS that fall, and it was about the remnant concept. I don't remember in particular what my conclusion was, but I am quite sure it would have been that Jesus and his early followers were the remnant that was written about (prophesied) in the OT.

  6. Here are important comments from Thinking Friend Milton Horne, who was unable to post directly here. (I have no idea why the blogsite doesn't seem to work properly from time to time.)

    "It's a wonderfully 'freshman' question, Leroy, but complicated enough to occupy the likes of Heschel (and Buber) and all of our theological heroes. We know that framing shapes the way we read texts. Thus, it matters in the case of Mal 3:1, whether one reads only that verse alone (on the coming of a messenger to prepare the way of the LORD), or reads that verse in the context of the preceding material beginning with 2:10, which calls for judgment upon the Levites (for intermarriage with foreigners). In fact, the language and imagery of judgment follows vs. 1. It's hardly good news, unless you're one of the ones who desire the punishment of the Levites.

    "At Christmas, Christians see Jesus as, well, either the LORD or as the messenger of the LORD. He may be bringing judgment as well as good news (in this latter case, preparing the way for the LORD). Are the words of 3:1 an echo of the words and affirmative sentiment of Isa. 40:3? No way to know, but readers might read it that way, and often do.

    "In a word, prophecy exists in the minds of the readers of the texts, not in the texts. And, it's impossible without galactic leaps of speculation to know the mind of the prophet from the texts. Do you read as a Jewish person or as a Gentile? As a 1st century Palestinian person who knew the story of Jesus or as a Roman who did not? Today, do you read the words of Malachi as a male a female, rich, poor, educated, illiterate, Western, Eastern, Mid-Eastern, etc. All will frame these words from their own points of view, even knowing what little bit of history we might think we know about the 5th century BCE prophet. Mostly, I think, we read from the perspective of power and privilege. Those are the readings that are retained with influence, I'm afraid. That's why Christian readings of these Jewish texts surmount and Jewish readings do not."

    1. Milton, thanks for your substantial comments.

      I fully agree that "prophecy exists in the minds of the readers of the texts, not in the texts" themselves. Thus, the meaning of the same passages in the Hebrew Bible is different for Jewish readers than for Christian believers.

      But it seems quite clear, to me at least, that the writers of the Gospels definitely thought many passages in the Bible they had up until then did speak of the Jesus story, beginning with John the Baptist.

      It seems as though there was some "proof-texting" or using passages out of context by the writers of the Gospels. They seemingly used Scriptures in ways that are looked down upon in our day but that were apparently acceptable then.

      Thus, Malachi 3:1, to which you refer, and Isaiah 40:3 are used in Mark 1:2-3 as interpreted as referring to John the Baptist without reference to the wider context. Then, only Mal. 3:1 is cited in Luke 7:27.

      The Gospel of Luke especially is written in opposition to perspectives "of power and privilege," so I don't understand how the Jewish understanding of passages such as Malachi 3:1 is somehow more significant than the Christian one--especially if the overall message of Luke is taken seriously.

  7. I'm convinced that the writers of the Old Testament didn't have Jesus in mind while writing the text. However, I'm inclined to defend Christians finding alternative meanings. In other words the OT writers accidentally prophesied the coming of Jesus. Thus both Jewish and Christian interpretations are correct, just different. Though I'm willing to grant that the Jewish interpretation is closer to what the writers had in mind at the time of its being written.

    1. Thanks, Clif, for your comments, which I see as basically agreeing with the responses I have made above.

      I don't have a good example to mention, but I think there are 20th century books (novels) that have predicted ("prophesied") things that the authors didn't have in mind at the time of writing but which we can look back at now and see as having predicting/"prophesying" events that have come to pass.

  8. Thinking Friend Truett Baker in Arizona shares comments largely about his brother who passed away in 2011.

    "This blog has a special interest for me. As you know, my brother, Dwight, was a SBC missionary in Israel for 27 years and in India for seven years. He served the Arab population in both venues.

    "When he was home for furloughs, we discussed many times the fate of devout Jews who didn't believe in Christ. He explained to me that one of his best friends was a rabbi and the most saintly man he had ever known. Dwight would say, 'there is no way a man like this would go to hell.' He would follow with the thought, after much study, that God had made a special covenant with the Jews outside of the redemption plan for gentiles through the death of Christ.

    "Most Conservative Christians will not appreciate that point of view but it was the only way Dwight could justify such a godly man going to Heaven. I'm on my brother's side on that position although there is much I do not understand.

    "I do trust that God will redeem those who love and obey Him."

    1. Thanks so much for these personal comments, Truett.

      Thinking Friend Tom Lamkin, whom I baptized when he was a boy in 1959, ended his comments about this article with these words: "As to Rabbi Heschel's eternal destiny, I'm glad God has the final say and not I."

      I agree with Tom--and also with your brother.

  9. Here are comments from Thinking Friend Eric Dollard in Chicago:

    "Thanks, Leroy, for your comments about Rabbi Heschel.

    "I have heard of Heschel, but I must admit that I have not read any of his books. As a contextual literalist, I must also admit that I agree with Heschel that the Hebrew scriptures do not really contain any specific prophecies about Jesus. Nonetheless, I disagree with Heschel's belief that Jesus was not a Jewish prophet, although Heschel seems ironically to have modeled his life on the life of Jesus.

    "Jesus was very much a prophet in the tradition of Amos, Isaiah, and Jeremiah, but he took this tradition to a higher level by emphasizing compassion for all people, including one's enemies. Note also how Jesus interprets the Torah in the Sermon on the Mount in the Gospel of Matthew."

    1. Thanks for your pertinent comments, Eric.

      There has long been emphasis on Jesus Christ as "prophet, priest, and king." While all three "offices" are correct, I believe, I also think that perhaps "prophet" is the one that is most important.

  10. John R. King, Jr. is a Facebook friend whom I do not know personally, but he posted lengthy comments about this blog article on Facebook, and I am posting his comments here:

    "I could write for hours in response to the question, 'Does the OT Prophesy the Birth of Jesus?' I will try not to do that here, but I mention it because what I write here will not be complete and as such may not be convincing. But I write not to convince but to share in the conversation, to raise questions.

    "1. As to 'prophesy': I have given up on that name for the OT writers to which it is traditionally applied. Most people today think of that word as 'telling the future.' I do not think these writers were primarily about telling the future. They spoke to the issues and problems of their day. In that process, I think they spoke to some timeless truths and even spoke of future consequences of current behavior. But 'telling the future'? No. Personally, I now refer to them as 'Evocators.' They spoke to the people of their day, challenged them, provoked them, all with the hope of evoking a spiritual change that would drive a change of behavior that would result in a better human life.. They are the spiritual evocators of their day.

    "2. These OT evocators certainly did not predict specific future events about Jesus like where he would be born.

    "3. It is hard to know exactly what was in the heads of the people of Jesus' time when they ascribed OT passages as predictions about Jesus. First I would say that whatever people during Jesus's day may have thought about this topic, I do not think that on the very day of Jesus' birth that they thought anything about these prophecies in relation to Jesus. It was only after they had experienced Jesus as a person or learned of his life from others or heard or read about his teachings that they applied these OT verses to him. These OT verses became their interpretations of Jesus based upon the life and teachings of Jesus.

    "4. The OT Evocators spoke to truths applicable to their day but also had application in every day. These words were preserved because of the value of their words for their day but also because of the value of the words beyond their own time. Those who learned about the life and teachings of Jesus knew he was Jewish and they were Jewish too. They knew the worlds of the OT Evocators and treasured them as important truths. In Jesus' life and teachings, they saw a person that lived out the truth of their most important religious writings. In claiming a foretelling of Jesus in the words of the OT, they affirmed that in Jesus was a realization, a 'filling full' of important spiritual truths of their tradition.

    "5. Some of application of the OT to Jesus was apologist theology. To those who might say that Jesus broke the law, that he was to me rejected because he was outside the bounds of acceptable Jewish thought, the claims about Jesus in relation to the OT was a way of saying, 'No, Jesus is Jewish. Jesus is not to be rejected.' Part of the reason this was necessary was that Jesus did indeed embody truths of the Jewish faith. But, also part of the reason this was necessary was that Jesus also clashed with some popular interpretations of Jewish faith in his day. He was more generous in his understanding of Jewish law than some (This is not about some grace versus legalism argument). He was not the warrior, King that would overthrow the political oppressors of the Jews. To many Jews, Jesus was a failure and could not be the Messiah they expected because he was crucified. The use of the OT to affirm Jesus was Christian apologist theology to assert Jesus continuity with the Jewish faith."

    1. Thanks to John R. King, Jr. for his comments! Much of the substance of his commentary lies behind my short responses.

      I am especially happy to see his use of “evocators” for ‘navi’im’. My choice has been “exclaimers;” those “excited ones” who primarily “warn.” No wonder they were thought of as “mad ones!”