Comments on The Messiah in the Old Testament – Opening Remarks
In the 1720’s Anthony Collins published two works in which he attempted to show that “the literal meaning of certain messianic proof-texts from the OT could not support the messianic interpretation placed on them by the NT. … The so-called ‘complete’ or ‘spiritual’ fulfillment of these OT texts that many were applying to Jesus, Collins concluded, could be no more than an illustration” (Kaiser, p.14). The eighteenth century scholar Collins felt that there was no proof that Jesus had been anticipated as ‘messiah.’
Kaiser then lists 7 methods of interpretation of prophecy used to overcome the challenge posed by Collins.
1. Dual meaning. There might be an original meaning of a text, say from Isaiah’s time, and that meaning stood in Isaiah’s day. This prophecy had a later, fuller meaning, to which messianic interpretation and application could be attached. This method came from Thomas Sherlock in 1732. The problem with this is the loss of predictive value. The prophecy said something in Isaiah’s day, but they did not ‘predict’ something else, a future ‘anointed one’ of the Lord.
2. Single meaning. This view from J.G. Herder and J.G. Eichhorn declared the only meaning of prophecy to be its original meaning. There was no secondary application. Eichhorn was convinced that the last three decades of the 1700’s completely erased the idea that the OT prophets predicted anything. The Bible reader had to discern the individual prophet’s life in order to glean hope for the future. I have to say, I have real trouble understanding this method based on the brief description. To me it seems like a reiteration of Collins’ original thought.
3. New Testament meaning. From 1828-1858, E.W. von Hengstenberg published and re-published a 3-volume work on prophecy. In it, he gave final arbitration to New Testament authors. For him, they determined how to understand the OT texts considered ‘messianic.’ His critics said his reading was dogmatic and ignored the historical context of Jeremiah or Hosea or whatever prophet was in question.
4. Developmental meaning. Nineteenth century scholar Franz Delitzsch could see that there were pericopes[i] used to support the idea of messianic prediction, but these passage simply did not provide that support. They clearly contained different meaning (Kaiser does not provide an example on p.21 where this method is described). So, he took a tact different than Hengstenberg. Delitzsch saw the meaning of such passages developing. The prophecies did not contain an absolute prediction but there was more to their meaning than the original OT understanding yielded. The full development of the meaning was seen in later doctrine and Christian experience. As I write this, I am conscious of the fact that I do not clearly see the distinction Kaiser is drawing between Hengstenberg and Delitzsch.
5. Goal Meaning. A.F. Kirkpatrick, in 1897, proposed that Jesus was the ethical and moral goal of what the OT prophets had in mind. He did not fulfill specific and detailed promises. He united all the lines of prophecy by filling them with new meaning. Of course this rendered each individual pericope of Isaiah or Zechariah vague and void of specific significance.
6. Relecture Meaning. This is a process of reading old prophecies in a new way so that they have new meaning (without removing their original meaning). This process appears encouraging (for Christians who want Jesus to be the fulfillment of the OT), but it is too subjective. It cannot be sustained and it cannot have any sort of precision in identifying the history of a passage.
7. Theological Meaning. Whether or not Jesus fulfilled the words of OT prophets historically, theologically, what the prophets aimed for was the Messiah who was Jesus (even if the prophets themselves were not fully away of this). H.G.A. Ewald said the history of Israel would find consummation and its final stage of growth in the Christian church. I have talked to many Jews and read works by many others; they would nearly all be thoroughly offended by Ewald’s suggestion.
These seven meanings applied to prophecies considered potentially messianic are not necessarily Kaiser’s thought. Rather, he summarized them on pages 19-22 in order to trace the history of how readers have tried to tie the OT to the NT. Where does he come down in this conversation?
He thinks all seven procedures are self-defeating (p. 27) essentially because they are not comprehensive enough. Each approach zeroes in on specific OT passages and in one way or another tries to draw a line to a NT idea. But Bible verses or even entire passages cannot be ripped out of the Bible. They must be read within the story. The story shows that God has a single, unified plan.
Prophecies made within the course of the story are based on a relationship with the God who makes the promise. Those prophecies, some of which might be categorized as ‘messianic,’ are not predictions the way we understand the notion of prediction.
It is not like saying “Detroit will beat Green Bay 18-16.” Would that prediction be right if Detroit beat Green Bay 21-7? Or would it be right if Green Bay beat Detroit 18-16? This is not what is happening in the OT words we have in the Bible in Amos and Joel and the Psalms and Ezekiel and the rest. The words in the Bible come in the flow of people who are in relationship with the God of promise. The prophetic words are seeds full of God’s promise.
We only see the fullness of the potential of the seed as it blooms. It is alive and growing along the way. Isaiah’s words in chapter 45-55 spoke to Israelites in exile in Babylon in the late 6th century BC. But when that era passed, Isaiah’s words did not stop speaking. Rather, his words that have become scripture were infused with the wisdom and inspiration of the Holy Spirit. As time went out, the message grew and “filled out” as a flower does. The full bloom is seen in Christ. He said as much (Matthew 5:17).
Here is what Kaiser has to say. “We conclude, therefore, that the messianic doctrine is located in God’s single, unified plan, called in the NT his ‘promise,’ which is eternal in its fulfillment but climactic in its final accomplishments, while being built up by historical fulfillments that are part and parcel of that single ongoing plan as it moved toward its final plateau. Thus what began simply as a ‘word’ about who God was and what he was going to do for a select group of people became a word that was intended from the start to be cosmopolitan in its effects, for it announced simultaneously who God was and what he was going to do for all the other nations on earth through this one group” (p.31).
After this introduction, Kaiser goes to a place that surprised me. The title of chapter 2 is “The Messiah in the Pentateuch.”[ii] I did not expect to find words pointing to Messiah in those first five books. I think that is part of Kaiser’s point about the unity of the Biblical story. I should have expected to find the Messiah there. In my next post, I’ll share how Kaiser does that.