God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

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.”

“Proof Text”

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).

Summary

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.

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October 19, 2010 - Posted by | translation practice, translation theory | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

20 Comments »

  1. [...] A lot of times, it’s more a matter of “filled (with fresh relevance)” than “fulfilled,” as Joel Hoffman explains today at God Didn’t Say That. [...]

    Pingback by “Fulfilled Prophecy” in the New Testament | Dr. Platypus | October 19, 2010 | Reply

  2. In the following example, I think it is clear that John uses the expression to indicate a “fulfillment” as we are prone to use the word these days:

    John 18:32 That the saying of Jesus might be fulfilled, which he spake, signifying what death he should die.

    I’m inclined to understand the NT authors as suggesting that these scriptures actually were speaking of Jesus and that the events described were coming to pass as foretold, but it is only possible to accept that in either ignorance, blind faith, or both. For the ignorant or the complacently accepting believer, the stories then are vindicated as having a divine stamp. I’m reminded of the Catholic relics.

    More cynical scholars suggest that the events were made up in order to tie the new faith to the accepted canon. Ie: that this story of healing was concocted to “fulfill” the Isaiah passage:

    Matthew 8:
    16 When the even was come, they brought unto him many that were possessed with devils: and he cast out the spirits with his word, and healed all that were sick:
    17 That it might be fulfilled which was spoken by Esaias the prophet, saying, Himself took our infirmities, and bare our sicknesses.

    But what is he quoting? The KJV of Isaiah actually says is:

    Isaiah 53:4 Surely he hath borne our **griefs**, and carried our **sorrows**: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted.

    Brenton’s LXX has:

    Isaiah 53:4 He bears our sins, and is pained for us: yet we accounted him to be in trouble, and in suffering, and in affliction.

    As best as I can interpret the Hebrew, I think the idea is that he is afflicted *by* the Jews, not “for” them!

    So I think we are safe to see this all as half baked polemic.

    I’m reminded also of how readily the ancients would author a text in the name of some famous person and not blush about being a forger.

    As Joel has hinted, what counted to the NT authors was only “how compelling will this text be for the Cause” rather than worrying about “facts” as the modern critic is wont to do.

    I just realized that the author of 1 John doesn’t seem to make any appeals to anything earlier than the NT. He is the only NT authors I can think of that doesn’t feel compelled to validate his writings from the Jewish scriptures.

    But the others want the OT to give weight to everything that they write, so they constantly appeal to those texts.

    Comment by WoundedEgo | October 19, 2010 | Reply

  3. Thank you for this post, Joel. If you come out with a second edition of And God Said, I hope you would footnote a hyperlink to this post with reference to Matthew 1’s use of Isaiah.

    Scripture is not just something that happened, as far as the NT authors are concerned; it sets a pattern for life, for us to reflect on and live out. Part of that may include prooftexting (with some caution, of course).

    I sometimes serenade girls with the song “Pretty Woman” by Roy Orbison [my version on youtube here. This includes the line “come with me baby, be mine tonight.” Although it is asking for [at least] a one-night stand, I sing it to Christian women with the obvious intent of a date, or just for the fun of serenading. I am obviously violating authorial intent when I do this, but nobody looks at me awkwardly for it. No; people look at me awkwardly for the growl.

    Comment by Gary Simmons | October 21, 2010 | Reply

  4. >>>…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…

    While I love the way the scriptures employ “intertextuality” (which is an often delightful and intricate, often obscure use of allusion and restatement, I personally find the Matthew approach to be clumsy and boring. It is disappointing to look up his alleged “fulfillment” and “source text” and find it so vapid and meaningless. I’m not sure that I would have found his blog to be a non-starter, but we might have “passed words” on some of his posts!

    Imagine if someone came into your assembly and said “The Bible predicted that Jesus would visit Ur, to fulfill what was written:

    Genesis 15:7 And he said unto him, I am the LORD that brought thee out of Ur of the Chaldees, to give thee this land to inherit it.

    You would stone him! So would I! (But I would not be qualified to cast the first stone!)

    So, keep the intertextuality and, IMHO, tune out Matt when he says “to fulfill…”

    Comment by WoundedEgo | October 21, 2010 | Reply

  5. I personally find the Matthew approach to be clumsy and boring. It is disappointing to look up his alleged “fulfillment” and “source text” and find it so vapid and meaningless.

    Imagine if someone came into your assembly and said “The Bible predicted that Jesus would visit Ur, to fulfill what was written:

    Genesis 15:7 And he said unto him, I am the LORD that brought thee out of Ur of the Chaldees, to give thee this land to inherit it.

    I think that’s precisely because the “proof-text” approach is so foreign to most people now.

    Rhymes play a similar function in modern society, so they can help us understand the general nature of proof texts. Even when rationality is supposed to be involved, rhymes increase the potency of an argument.

    Johnnie Cochran famously said, “if it doesn’t fit, you must acquit.” It rhymed, and so it resonated with the jury.

    Proof texts worked the same way.

    Comment by Joel H. | October 24, 2010 | Reply

  6. Should we consider it his intent that we equate Jesus with Israel?

    Comment by WoundedEgo | October 24, 2010 | Reply

    • I think the best answer is that the text doesn’t point in this direction. So even if he was comparing Israel and Jesus, we don’t see it here.

      The point of a proof text (and it seems to me that a more in depth discussion of this might be in order) is simply to use the words of Scripture in furtherance of an idea. Using the words in context — or even with their original meaning — isn’t necessary.

      In this case, the point is to use the Hebrew mi-mitzrayim. Those words (written, as it happens, as one word in Hebrew) mean either “since [the time of] Egypt” or “from Egypt.” In their original OT context, they (probably) have the former meaning. In the Matthew 2, they assume the latter meaning.

      To modern, scientific readers (which nearly all of us are), this seems like cheating. But to the ancient reader, it was well written rhetoric.

      Comment by Joel H. | October 24, 2010 | Reply

  7. >>>…In this case, the point is to use the Hebrew mi-mitzrayim…

    The NT writers don’t seem to concern themselves with the Hebrew text.

    >>>…But to the ancient reader, it was well written rhetoric.

    Apparently to some ancient readers (and modern readers) but it is extremely hard to measure meaningfully. But it really sticks in my craw.

    Comment by WoundedEgo | October 24, 2010 | Reply

  8. [...] recently posted some thoughts about prophecies (and why they don’t “come true” in the NT). Along [...]

    Pingback by On Style « God Didn't Say That | October 25, 2010 | Reply

  9. If “fulfill” isn’t right, perhaps “sync” or “parallel” works better.

    Comment by Gary Simmons | November 26, 2010 | Reply

  10. I know that in Matt 5:17, the meaning is “restore to integrity” (as it is used in contrast to “parsing into ‘keep these’ but ‘don’t worry about these'”. Perhaps the usage in relation to the prophecies is “to make complete.”

    Comment by WoundedEgo | November 26, 2010 | Reply

  11. [...] Lord had said through the prophet [Isaiah]“), better is “match,” as I describe here (“What Happens to Prophecies in the New Testament?”). I won’t go through the [...]

    Pingback by Who are you calling a virgin? « God Didn't Say That | March 23, 2011 | Reply

  12. [...] a different picture from a more nuanced look at how the NT quotes the OT, for example, as I explore here (“What happens to prophecies in the New Testament?“). In particular, we see that [...]

    Pingback by If not by bread alone then by what? « God Didn't Say That | March 29, 2011 | Reply

  13. The proof text thing is really interesting. I always wondered about the Gospel writer’s nonsensical and haphazard quoting, and “fulfill” certainly connotes something differently than “match.”

    In John 19:24, the KJV says:
    “They said therefore among themselves, Let us not rend it, but cast lots for it, whose it shall be: that the scripture might be fulfilled, which saith, They parted my raiment among them, and for my vesture they did cast lots. These things therefore the soldiers did.”

    If you replace “fulfilled” with “match” (or a synonym of it), the text could be read as: “they cast lots for his clothes as opposed to tearing them up so that it would be in accordance with the scripture that says…..so on and so on.” Personally, I think it makes a lot more sense than “fulfilled” since it’s not the point of the proof text to explain in detail or give an interpretation, but to show that the events coincide with what is written; that there is purpose.

    Definitely an eye-opening article.

    Comment by George M | August 12, 2012 | Reply

  14. [...] pointed out before (here: “What Happens to Prophecies in the New Testament?“) that, in spite of common [...]

    Pingback by The Case of Mistaken Piercing in Zechariah 12:10 and John 19:37 « God Didn't Say That | November 20, 2012 | Reply

  15. [...] doesn’t. And she’s right that the authors of the Gospels were using the OT as “proof texts,” which is why Matthew quotes [...]

    Pingback by BBC: “Virgin Birth a Mistranslation” « God Didn't Say That | December 24, 2012 | Reply

  16. […] Joel M. Hoffman also points out this fact on his blog, GodDidntSayThat. Also, Jesse Morrell points this fact out on his blog, […]

    Pingback by failed prophecies in matthew | reality is not optional | August 6, 2013 | Reply

  17. […] See also, Hebrew scholar Dr. Joel M. Hoffman. […]

    Pingback by white refuted – opening statement | reality is not optional | July 24, 2014 | Reply

  18. […] See also, Hebrew scholar Dr. Joel M. Hoffman. […]

    Pingback by Apologetics Thrusday – Fisher Refutes White | God is Open | August 28, 2014 | Reply


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