What Happens to Prophecies in the New Testament?
What happens to prophecies in the New Testament?
The obvious answer is that they come true, but I think a more careful look shows otherwise.
Matthew 1:18-22 / Isaiah 7:14
As an example of a prophecy apparently coming true, we might consider the first chapter of Matthew. The text starting around Matthew 1:18 deals with the virgin birth of Jesus, fulfilling the prophecy of virgin birth in Isaiah 7:14. The text even reads (Matthew 1:22; NRSV), “All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet.”
John 19:24 / Psalm 22:18
Similarly, according to John 19:24, the soldiers cast lots for Jesus’ tunic to fulfill the prophecy of Psalm 22:18, “…and for my clothing they cast lots.” (Matthew 27:35 has the same account, but not all manuscripts have the direct reference to Psalms there.)
Fulfillment of Prophecy
Both of these seem to be cases of prophecies coming true.
But the Greek word in each case is plirow. And while “fulfill” is one common translation of that verb, I don’t think it’s accurate.
James 2:23 / Genesis 15:6
We find a particularly helpful example in James 2:23, “Thus the scripture was fulfilled [plirow] that says, ‘Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,’ and he was called the friend of God” (NRSV).
The theological argument in James 2 — commonly summarized as “faith without works is dead” — is complex, but the outline of these few verses is easy enough to follow. At issue is the connection between faith (pistis) and action (ergon) as they lead to justification. James 2:21 raises the possibility that Abraham was justified though action alone, when he almost sacrificed his son Isaac. James 2:22 notes that Abraham wasn’t just acting but also having faith, and then James 2:23 quotes Genesis 15:6: “…Abraham had faith in God.”
We should be clear. Genesis 15:6 is not a prophecy. It describes the past. So it cannot come true in the future any more than “it rained yesterday” can come true in the future.
Yet we find the Greek word plirow here. And most translations therefore blindly translate “scripture was fulfilled,” even though this is not a case of a prophecy being fulfilled at all.
Rather, this is a case of using the OT more generally to demonstrate a point, as if to say, “our current point matches a text in the OT.”
Using a text in this way was so common that it now has a technical name: proof text.
A proof text is a text that is used to demonstrate a point. This isn’t “proof” in the modern, scientific sense, though. The proof text doesn’t have to prove anything. And the proof text doesn’t even have to mean the same thing as what it’s demonstrating. The point of using a proof text was that it was considered better to use words of Scripture than to invent new ones — even if the words of Scripture were taken out of context.
The whole notion of text matching and of a proof text is generally foreign to our modern way of thinking. But it was central to how texts were understood 2,000 years ago.
In James 2, the proof text is Genesis 15:6. But, quite clearly, this doesn’t mean that Genesis 15:6 predicts James 2, or even that James meant to indicate that Genesis 15:6 was a prophecy that came true. We know because Genesis 15:6 isn’t a prophecy at all. Rather, James is using a passage in the OT to demonstrate a point. He’s using a proof text. And this proof text is introduced with the Greek word plirow.
So better translations might be, “this matches Scripture” or “this accords with Scripture” or even “this complements Scripture.”
Matthew 2:14-15 / Hosea 11:1
We see the same thing in Matthew 2:14-15. Joseph “took the child and his mother … and went to Egypt … to fulfill [plirow] what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt I called my son’” (NRSV). Here Hosea 11:1 is the proof text: “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son” (NRSV).
But, again, Hosea 11:1 isn’t a prophecy. For one thing, the Hebrew probably means, “I called him [Israel] my son ever since Egypt.” The word translated “out of” is mi- — literally, “from,” and here it probably means “from the time of.” (Reflecting the difficulty of this text, the Greek has “his children” instead of “my son.”) More to the point, Hosea 11:5 reads, “he will not return to Egypt.” Clearly Hosea 11 isn’t a prophecy about going back to Egypt, but, if anything, about not going back. (Again, the Greek text differs, but it doesn’t matter, because Matthew’s quotation doesn’t match the Greek.)
Matthew’s claim is that “taking the child to Egypt” matches Hosea 11:1.
John 15:24-25 / Psalm 35:19 and Psalm 69:4
John 15:24-25 demonstrates the same pattern. The idea is to explain why, “they have seen and hated both me and my Father” (15:24; NRSV). The proof text, cited in John 15:25 ,is either Psalm 35:19 (“Do not let … those who hate me without cause wink the eye” [NRSV]) or Psalm 69:4 (“More in number than the hairs of my head are those who hate me without cause” [NRSV]). But in both Psalms the “me” crying out for help is in opposition to God, who can offer help. By contrast, we just saw that John 15:24 equated “me” with God.
Once again, this is not a prophecy coming true. It is a stylistic matching of two texts.
Matthew 1:18, Again
With this in mind, we can return to the important text of Matthew 1:18. The claim there is not that Isaiah predicts Jesus’ birth, but rather that the text of Isaiah matches. This is why Matthew had no problem juxtaposing, “…you are to name him Jesus” (1:21; NRSV) and “…they shall name him Emmanuel” (1:23; NRSV).
More generally, we see that one common style in the NT is to refer back to the text of the OT, matching words or phrases not for their truth value but for their rhetorical impact. Once you start looking for it, you’ll see it all over.