Monday, December 24, 2012

The birth of Jesus the Messiah

If you haven't read the book of Acts recently, it would be a great New Testament book to re-read. There are so many things to enjoy in it and to notice. Here's one of them: The Apostle Paul is a driven man. One might almost say obsessed. Part of what he is obsessed by is the fact that Jesus is the Christ. As I don't need to tell Extra Thoughts readers, "Christ" isn't Jesus' last name. Paul keeps talking and talking and talking to the Jews about the fact that Jesus is the Messiah. He keeps reasoning with them about it, arguing from "the Scriptures," meaning what we would call the Old Testament. Here's just one such passage.
And Paul, as his manner was, went in unto them, and three sabbath days reasoned with them out of the scriptures, opening and alleging, that Christ must needs have suffered and risen again from the dead; and that this Jesus, whom I preach unto you, is Christ. (Acts 17:2-3)
Jesus said it Himself: "Search the Scriptures. For in them ye think ye have eternal life, and they are they which testify of me." (John 5:39)

Here is the Apostle Peter on the same topic:
Of which salvation the prophets have enquired and searched diligently, who prophesied of the grace that should come unto you. Searching what, or what manner of time the Spirit of Christ which was in them did signify, when it testified beforehand the sufferings of Christ, and the glory that should follow. Unto whom it was revealed, that not unto themselves, but unto us they did minister the things, which are now reported unto you by them that have preached the gospel unto you with the Holy Ghost sent down from heaven; which things the angels desire to look into. (1 Peter 1:11-12)
Again, the epistle to the Hebrews says that the Old Testament saints, all those great-greats celebrated in the chapter of faith, Hebrews 11, were "made complete" by the believers who have been given the fuller knowledge of Jesus Christ:
And these all, having obtained a good report through faith, received not the promise. God having provided some better thing for us, that they without us should not be made perfect. (Hebrews 11:39-40)
There is no getting around the fact that when most of us read the Old Testament, we don't spontaneously "see Jesus on every page," and when some expository preachers try to do it, they sometimes sound a bit strained. But the apostles themselves were constantly talking about the fact that the Old Testament Scriptures spoke of Jesus, and Peter even says that the prophets themselves, at least some of them, realized that the Christ would come later and that they were ministering to a later generation who would actually know him.

Paul refers in Galatians to the idea that Jesus is the hinge of history and the fulfillment of all that had gone before:
But when the fullness of the time was come, God sent forth his Son, made of a woman, made under the law, to redeem them that were under the law, that we might receive the adoption of sons. (Galatians 4:4-5)
When Paul discusses the fact that the Old Testament Scriptures were written "for our admonition," he uses this striking phrase to describe the believers of his own generation: They, and by extension, we, are the ones "upon whom the ends of the ages have come." (I Cor. 10:11) It's the same idea as Galatians. Time and again Paul is saying, "To think that we are the generation to know the Christ, to know who he is! To think that the Christ has been born and lived and died in our time, and that we know the fulfillment of God's plan, which was known in times past only by prophecy!"

One can say that Paul was convinced that Jesus was the Christ because of his experience on the road to Damascus, and that is indeed true. But Paul also obviously believed that he could convince other Jews of the same conclusion even though they had not had his experience, and convince them not merely by reference to that experience but from their own Scriptures.

What all of this means is that the argument from prophecy was a big part of the apostolic and especially the Pauline apologetics. Yet it has gone very much out of fashion now, perhaps because we are seldom doing apologetics to an audience who already grants that there has been genuine prophecy in the past of a Messiah and that we should be attempting to find out who that Messiah might be. Or maybe, even more, the higher criticism and other -isms of the 19th century and early 20th century have made the argument go out of style without conspicuously good reason.

I have an article accepted for this special issue of Philosophia Christi on the argument from a small number of prophecies of the Messiah's death--specifically, Psalm 22 and Isaiah 53. The above references show the importance of Isaiah 53 in the apostles' thought, going back to Jesus' teaching on the road to Emmaus--that the Christ must suffer. (Luke 24:25-26)

But since it is now not Passiontide but Christmas time (even though I'm not going to wait to hit "publish" until after sundown), I will instead leave you with this: Professor Hugh Gauch, in a paper presented to the Evangelical Theological Society in 2010 (not available on-line) estimates the Bayes factor--that is, the evidential force--of the fact that Jesus, a first-century Jew, was born in Bethlehem for the conclusion that Jesus was indeed the promised Messiah to be about 1/12,000. He bases this on estimates of the population of Jews around the time of Jesus and of the much smaller population of Jews in Bethlehem.

That's just one messianic prophecy. And it is a prophecy only mentioned in Matthew and not even stressed in the extant writings of the Apostle Paul. But I have little doubt he was aware of it and that it formed part of the cumulative case that he made to the Jews when he reasoned with them in the synagogues. Paul's message? This is indeed the Christ!

Alleluia! O come, let us adore Him, Christ the Lord!

Merry Christmas!


William Luse said...

Merry Christmas to you and all the McGrews. Tell 'youngest daughter' that I think she's a character.

William Luse said...

Also, I hope to be able to read that article when it comes out.

Lydia McGrew said...

Thank you, Bill! Merry Christmas to you! She is indeed a character, and I shall pass on your message.


I will send you a preprint copy of the article. It was fun.

Gyan said...

How significant would be the descent from King David?
Surely, by the 42nd generation, a lot of people might claim descent from David?
Or was the line of Joseph the only extant line of David's descent?

Lydia McGrew said...

I don't know what percentage of the Jewish males born around the time of Jesus were descended from the lineage of David. I have no reason to think that Joseph's and Mary's lines were the only ones. However, if you look at it from the perspective of how likely this would have been to happen by chance, then I think we can be pretty sure that the male descendants of David born around that time were not, say, approximately half of all Jewish births but were something much less than that. In that case, the Bayes factor would be positive, though not massively so.

Prophetic fulfillments are an excellent opportunity to look at a cumulative case. Some babies besides Jesus obviously were born in Bethlehem, so it's not like it's staggeringly improbable all by itself that Jesus was born in Bethlehem. Some baby boys were descended from David's line, so that wasn't staggeringly improbable by itself. Some Jewish men were crucified, so that wasn't staggeringly improbable by itself. And so forth. But they add up.

Gauch also discusses the seventy weeks in Daniel. I myself consider that prophecy cryptic enough that I'm not quite willing to narrow down the time of the death of the Messiah quite as much as it is narrowed by his calculations, and I've seen other ways of calculating it which narrow it differently. But even if one narrows it by way of the prophecy in Daniel to something like a 100 year period, that is yet another brick in the cumulative case: Along with everything else, this person must die within this window of time.

John said...


Though a few days late, I rejoice with you in Jesus and hope your holiday was all that you wanted and needed.

Frederick Dale Bruner notes the more recent view of prophecy, in which the real skill is less in the prophets as incredible predicters and more in Jesus as an incredible fulfuller.

Besides the many incidental prophecies, like the time and place of the Messiah's birth, it is most noteworthy the way Jesus is able to take the starting points of the Bible narrative (the fall into sin, the fracturing of society at Babel, and the promises to Abraham to bless all families of the earth) and so complete the "program" that even the apostle Paul is at a loss of words to capture the wonder (though Ephesians seems his best effort).

Here sat the apostle in a church in which Jew and Gentile sat as brothers and sisters, and it was all owed to the incredible Fulfiller of Israel's prophets.

Lydia McGrew said...

John, you aren't late! It's Christmas until January 6. :-)

Hmm, it may make me outdated, but I'm still inclined to emphasize the prophets as incredible predictors. Obviously, the evidential value lies in the co-incidence of prophecy and fulfillment. Many of the fulfillments were things that happened over which Jesus (in human terms) had no control. For example, the burial of his body in a rich man's tomb, per Isaiah 53, or the dicing for his clothes, per Psalm 22, were things that *happened to* him, not things that he fulfilled in any active sense. The remarkable resemblance of David's description of the speaker's death in Psalm 22 with crucifixion, which it is overwhelmingly unlikely that David had ever witnessed or knew about in any natural way, is another example.

The evidence, then, is that the prophets were divinely inspired and would not and could not have made these accurate predictions had that not been the case.

Your point about Ephesians is a good one. I was just reading Paul's discussion in Ephesians about what he calls "the mystery"--namely, the full union of the Gentiles with the Jews in the church. Paul makes it clear that this is something only fully revealed in his own time, even though in other passages he will quote Old Testament prophecies such as "The Gentile shall come to thy light" and so forth. Yet he has a clear sense that this, in particular, is in another sense a genuinely new revelation and one not understood until, e.g., the vision of Peter about Cornelius.