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Jesus and Messianic Prophecy: Avoidance in John

January 6, 2014

To start off this article I wanted to see how many Old Testament Messianic prophecies there are that people believe were fulfilled by Jesus.  Getting a hard and fast number is difficult because the lists of prophecies vary widely1 but several sites have lists that are several hundred items long.  Several sites (and hardcopy tracts) calculate the probability that any one person could fulfill that many prophecies accidentally and often cite Dr. Peter Stoner’s calculation that the odds of accidentally fulfilling a short list of these prophecies is 1 in 100,000,000,000,000,000.  It’s fair to say that Old Testament prophecies about Jesus are a favored proof for Jesus’ Messianic status in evangelical circles.

The focus on Old Testament prophecy as proof that Jesus is the Christ is not a new phenomenon.  Matthew frequently references Old Testament prophecy to explain what Jesus is doing (although not always in the straight-forward manner that some modern readers assume).  John, however, is a different story.  Not only does John as narrator tend to avoid citing Messianic prophecies in his comments about Jesus but John records several conversations in which it would make a great deal of sense for Jesus to reference Old Testament prophecies concerning himself and yet he does not.

The first conversation I wish to mention is a brief discussion in John 1:44-51, where Nathanael dismisses the prospect that Philip has found the Messiah on the basis of Jesus’ origin in Nazareth.  I bring this up because Nathanael’s concern foreshadows much clearer concerns about the Messiah’s origin but Jesus’ response is not to address the issue but to circumvent it through a display of apparently supernatural knowledge.

In the bread of life discourse (John 6:25-59) Jesus’ audience complains that he cannot have come down from heaven because they know his family.  Again this is not a direct citation of Old Testament prophecy but one would think that Jesus might make a lot of headway by referencing some texts, describing his early years, and showing that while they thought he was ordinary he actually matched a very specific set of prophetic conditions.

John 7:25-44 brings the issue of Messianic prophecy to a head.  In two occasions in this excerpt people object that Jesus’ origin is wrong, the first by saying that when the Messiah comes people will not know where he is from but Jesus’ origin is known and the second time by stating that the Messiah will be in David’s line and from Bethlehem while Jesus is from Galilee.  Now, these complaints are problematically at odds – will the Messiah’s origin be unknown or in Bethlehem from a specific group of families?  I am unsure whether we are supposed to think the crowds themselves are confused or whether we should read the first complaint as “the Messiah will not be someone we’ve grown up around but Jesus is”.  However, it is quite clear that at least one of these complaints comes from the same Scriptures that Christians now use to support Jesus’ Messianic status and that Jesus makes no effort to address the mismatch between the Old Testament Messianic prophecies and his perceived life history.

If Messianic prophecy were the primary way to recognize Jesus or one of the very important ones then why does Jesus not address at least the very clear complaints that he does not match known Messianic criteria?  “Hey guys, I was actually born in Bethlehem but grew up in Nazareth” would seem to suffice.  Moreover, one’s birthplace is one of the few Messianic prophecies that one does not have control over.  In John 12 Jesus does finally directly act to fulfill a Messianic prophecy by riding a donkey into Jerusalem.  The problem with this as prophecy is that Jesus knows the prophecy and arranges to find a donkey – he deliberately enacts the prophecy.

Perhaps one reason that Jesus seems to ignore the crowd’s apparently legitimate questions about how he lines up with the Old Testament is just this issue of faking fulfillment.  One reason that non-Christians are generally not blown away by the 1 in 100,000,000,000,000,000 odds of Jesus fulfilling a short list of prophecies is that they simply don’t believe that he did fulfill them.  While the odds are extremely impressive (you could have been stacking items at a rate of 1 million per second without a break since the Iron Age and not yet have stacked 100,000,000,000,000,000 items) the documents that verify the odds are the same ones that propagandize for the odds-fulfiller.  (Of course they do – you could not have a set of documents that verified that the Messiah had come which did not come out of a group of people who believed that the Messiah had come.)  Similarly, Jesus’ own statements about his birthplace would be suspect because they came from him.

I actually think the reason Jesus avoids engaging with these specific points is for an entirely different reason.  If all he wanted to do was let his audience believe in him free and clear of scholarly scruples then he could have mentioned being born in Bethlehem.  It wouldn’t have convinced a lot of people but it would have been an answer to the issue.  However, in the book of John Jesus is focused on something else entirely: signs.  In John 9:29-33 a dispute arises between the Pharisees and a man Jesus has healed of blindness which again mentions Jesus’ origin.  The Pharisees say that they don’t even know where Jesus comes from (again it is unclear to me whether they are being stupid or making a statement about him not coming from the right kind of place) and the man born blind responds that this is a bit of an oversight.  If God listens to this man’s (Jesus’s) prayers and opens the eyes of the blind he’s obviously a big deal.  Similarly, Jesus is asked directly whether he is the Messiah in John 10:27-30.  He responds that he has already told his audience who he is.  “The works I do in my Father’s name testify about me, but you do not believe because you are not my sheep.”

I believe this is the key to Jesus’ reticence to answer “scholarly” questions about how he fits into Messianic prophecy.  Jesus2 is interested in doing a number of interesting things with Messianic expectations, not the least of which is to transform them.  Running down a checklist of prophecies might confirm that he is the Messiah but it wouldn’t make anyone think about what that means.  Introducing the cognitive dissonance of proving that he must be the Messiah through his miracles while leaving open a number of “scholarly” questions about how he fits into prior prophecy does force people to think and perhaps then to see more clearly.

So what do we do with this?  Actually, one of the things I’m doing with this is writing a follow-up article that will more fully answer the “what do we do with this” question.  But one thing it does do for us is allow us to live with some tension.  Jesus isn’t interested in giving simple answers in John – almost every answer he gives to anyone makes them think.  At this juncture where we intersect one of evangelicalism’s great modernist projects, statistics to bludgeon people into the Kingdom of God, it might be worth remembering that Jesus seemed not to be interested in fast-tracking people into the Kingdom of God with simple answers.

[1] There are both good and bad reasons for this.  Good reasons include issues with deciding how to count prophecies – if Isaiah and Jeremiah say basically the same thing is that one prophecy or two?  If a particular passage has more than one claim does the passage count as one prophecy or does each claim count separately?  As long as one counts consistently and tells people how one is counting almost any counting method will be fine.  There are also bad reasons to have differing counts, like wildly different standards for what counts as prophecy or its fulfillment.

[2] Jesus in John, at least.  How much you think that means Jesus and how much you think that means John is a different question.  However, it’s hard to deny that John’s presentation of the gospel is very different than Matthew’s, Mark’s, or Luke’s.

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