Last week I got a call from my brother who lives in Florida. He had stumbled upon a website apparently done by Jewish scholars and meant to serve the Jewish community that was experiencing in-roads by evangelists from Christianity. Some were ethnic Jews who had come to trust that Jesus is the Messiah promised to Israel and have now gone back to their Jewish communities proclaiming the message that Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah that was prophesied. These Jews make their case much like the early Jewish followers of Jesus did. They use the Hebrew Scriptures and show how prophecies about the Messiah were fulfilled by Jesus of Nazareth.
As my brother Dave was reading through this website, it was clear that they were trying to make the case that Jesus of Nazareth was not the Messiah and the characterizations of the nearly 300 prophecies that many people say have been fulfilled in the life of Christ are inaccurate. They put what might be called a “Jewish spin” on those Hebrew prophecies to show that Jesus was not the one who fulfilled them and, therefore, Jesus of Nazareth was not the Messiah and Christianity is just wrong.
My brother’s response was somewhat like mine is when I stumble upon things like this. Of course, I’m interested in what they have to say but, like a lot of people when you find a website that apparently has a lot of smart guys involved in giving a rebuttal to Christian claims, it makes me a little nervous. I think, “Gee, I wonder what they’ve got? I wonder what they know that I don’t know?”
Proverbs says, “The first person who pleads his case seems just until another comes and examines him.” The first guy to come along and explain what happened is going to explain it from his own perspective and convictions. When Christians explain that prophecies have been fulfilled in Christ, they’re going to give it the best possible explanation because they think they were fulfilled in Jesus of Nazareth. They sound convincing. But don’t you sometimes ask yourself the question, “Gee, what if someone from another perspective asks these same questions? What if they were confronting these verses, what would they say about our case?”
It’s a good question to ask. It’s always fair to say, “Okay that sounds good. But what would someone who doesn’t hold your view say about those passages?” You want to see what the other guy thinks so you can get more of a balanced perspective. It might be that we’re fudging a little bit because these are the things that we hold to be true.
This is true in any circumstance. Somebody has been wronged. You talk to the first person, and they’re going to tell you their side, and it’s going to make a lot of sense. In fact, if you took it at face value you’d think this person is in the right, the other person is in the wrong. That’s why Proverbs says, “The first person who pleads his case seems just until another comes and examines him.” Now you have a hostile witness. You have a cross-examination situation and that helps you get to the truth.
Sometimes we don’t want to examine both sides because we’re nervous about what we may find out. Some Christians shy away from things like Skeptic magazine or Sam Harris’s books because we don’t want our faith shaken. They might hear something they can’t deal with. In fact, when my brother Dave went to this website he found some pretty persuasive things.
One of them was Numbers 23 (and other places) where it clearly says a prophet that is meant to prophesy against Israel can’t do it if God doesn’t allow him to. And God isn’t allowing him, and God’s not going to change His mind because “God is not a man that He should lie nor son of man that He should repent.” But Christians say God is a man in Jesus, right? So Christians say God is a man while Hebrew Scripture makes it clear God is not man. Therefore, Christianity must be false.
This question can be answered quite simply, I think. First, we need to be more careful about what we mean when we say that God became a man in Jesus because, in fact, to be precise God did not become a man. Nothing in the divine nature of God changed. Rather humanity was added to the person of Jesus Christ. So you have one person, two natures, the Chalcedonian formula. Precision in our understanding helps us to overcome that problem.
The larger point is that people see things in websites and books that trouble them. I want to offer guidelines for dealing with things like this. I didn’t know what Dave was going to ask me about any of the over 300 Biblical prophecies that were allegedly fulfilled in the life of Jesus of Nazareth. I’m not an Old Testament scholar. That’s not my expertise. I’m certainly not into prophecy much, even prophecy of the First Coming, and much less prophecy of the Second Coming. I’m more of a generalist. So though I can’t always deal with those specific things, I have strategies that will help me deal with challenges from a more general perspective that you can use, too.
Here are the guidelines I offered to my brother:
First: No Jew has privileged insight into any passage of Scripture in the Hebrew Old Testament simply in virtue of the fact that he’s Jewish. I know there’s a tendency to think that because Jewish people must really know what the Hebrew Scripture means, but nothing about Jewishness gives any insight into the meanings of Jewish prophecies made two to four thousand years ago. Being Jewish may give someone some insight into what it means to be a Jew in the 21st century, but it gives him no special insight into the Scriptures that were originally written by Jews.
How does he know what those passages mean? The same way anyone of any ethnicity knows what they mean. He has to study language and history. Now if he has done his study and knows Hebrew and history, then he may have some insight but it’s in virtue of his knowledge of the language and the text from his academic studies, but not because of his Jewishness. I, as a Gentile, or someone else could master Hebrew and do the academic work that pertains to these prophecies from long ago just as well. You have to look at someone’s point of view based on their scholarship alone and not on their ethnicity. It’s kind of a reverse genetic fallacy (finding fault simply based on its origins). This is the flip side of it where you credit something simply based on its origins.
Second: Keep in mind when you deal with any particular challenge that is brought to bear on the question of whether the Christian worldview is correct—including the messiahship of Jesus—that our case as followers of Christ, believing that Jesus and the Bible got it right, does not depend on any one thing for its truthfulness.
I’m not saying that there aren’t some things that if found to be false would undermine the whole enterprise. If Jesus never rose from the dead, for example, then that’s it for Christianity. What I’m saying is that as followers of Christ we have a massive amount of information from which we can make a cumulative case in favor of our views. We have evidence for the existence of God through intelligent design, using a cosmological or design argument. We have arguments based on morality, history, and the Scripture itself. What do we make of this collection of 66 books called the Bible? We have prophecies fulfilled in the life of Jesus. We have historical details that relate to Jesus and His miraculous works. We have arguments about the resurrection. These all work together to build a strong, persuasive case for the truthfulness of Christianity.
The case for Christianity doesn’t just rely on Messianic prophecy. We’ve got the whole historical case for the events of the life of Jesus and the resurrection.
If I have good evidence for the historical reliability of the Gospels and, therefore, His claims, His miracles, and His resurrection, then that evidence bears on this question of Messianic prophecy because Jesus was the one who claimed some of these things to be prophetic that some scholars think are not. So whom do we believe? The interpretation of scholars now 2,000 years removed or the interpretation of Jesus who was in that milieu itself—2,000 years ago—and performed miracles demonstrating that He is actually the one who He claims to be?
That changes it a bit. It adds another wrinkle. Maybe I can’t refute these critics, but Jesus can. Even if I can’t answer all their challenges, we still have to contend with Jesus. There’s a whole lot more than fulfilled prophecies in the case for Christianity.
Finally, I don’t promote the idea that more than 300 prophecies were fulfilled in the life of Jesus. That may be the case, but it can seem like an overstatement since many of those prophecies are vague and unspecific. In fact, when you see some of the prophecies stated to be fulfilled in the New Testament and go back to the Hebrew Scriptures you wonder how they got one out of the other. Not all of the prophecies are like that some are very clear and specific—but there are enough vague ones in the 300 that people will start scratching their heads if you start quoting some of these vague ones. That’s exactly what happened on this website. They say, “Look at all these 300. They’re not as clear as many Christians claim they are.” And because the 300 claim is now questionable, the whole case from prophecy appears weak.
If I were going to make the case in Biblical prophecy, and I think there is legitimacy to it, I’m going to stick with those prophecies that seem to be most clearly tied in with the life of Jesus of Nazareth: Isaiah 53, Psalm 22, and Daniel 9, for example. These are powerful testimonies that seem to be clearly fulfilled in Jesus. We know these prophecies antedated Jesus’ advent on earth because we have the Dead Sea Scrolls that show the prophecies came before Jesus. These are specific and clear. So to strengthen our case we don’t have to go for all 300. If we can point to four or five that are really specific and clear, and then tie Jesus of Nazareth to the Old Testament prophecies that preceded Him, we have a much stronger case. It’s not necessary to use a large, impressive number to make a compelling appeal to prophecy. Even just a few strong examples create a compelling case.
Sometimes you are faced with a challenge to Christianity that you don’t know how to respond to specifically. You don’t always need to. Take a step back and evaluate the strength of the objection, especially weighed against the entire case for Christianity.