Joseph Fitzmyer has published a book on messianic prophecy.1 Oddly enough, this is published by a nominally Protestant publisher rather than a Catholic publisher. Was no Catholic publishing house prepared to go to press with his work? Is the assumption that only Protestant readers would take an interest in messianic prophecy?
The work is what we’ve come to expect of Fitzmyer. Fitzmyer is a learned liberal with a magisterial command of the primary sources. He has also made an effort, in this work, to acquaint himself with some of the conservative Evangelical scholarship on messianic prophecy. Unfortunately, he overlooks the best evangelical writers on the subject.2
In certain respects, the book is useful as a supplementary study to messianic prophecy. At times it is helpful for its philological analysis, survey of the Biblical and extrabiblical literature (e.g. Intertestamental, Talmudic), as well as comparative analysis of the MT and LXX.
However, the work suffers from a number of basic methodological flaws which severely and arbitrarily muzzle the OT witness to the messianic expectation.
- Perhaps the most fundamental methodological flaw in his analysis is his myopic focus on the occurrence of the word Messiah (in Hebrew and its Greek translational counterparts in the LXX and NT).
The basic problem here is that he is confounding the meaning of a word with the meaning of a concept. But the Messiah is a complex theological construct, involving many different attributes and lines of evidence. The Messiah is a generic title to denote an individual with a variety of traits and prerogatives. The messianic concept is by no means exhausted by the usage of the word or title.
Now, in fairness to Fitzmyer, this is not an unconscious oversight on his part. His restriction is quite deliberate:
Mowinckel himself admits at the outset that “’Messiah,’ ‘the Anointed One,’ as a title or technical term for the king of the final age, does not even occur in the Old Testament,” but then he goes on to use it in a broader sense at times, which creates difficulty. In doing so, Mowinckel claims to be adopting “early Church” usage, but he then anachronistically reads back into certain Old Testament passages Christian “messianic” meanings. Thus, he fails to respect the history of ideas and the proper delineation of how the notion of a promised Coming One, even an Anointed One, gradually developed into that of a Messiah as an expected anointed “King of the final age.” As a result, the terms “Messiah,” “messianic,” and “messianism” have been given a rubber-band comprehension, so that even “the Servant of the Lord” and “the Son of Man” are said to be “messianic” figures in Judaism.3
Let it be said at the outset that I have no difficulty in imitating “early Church” usage and in seeing Jesus of Nazareth as “the Son of Man,” “the Servant of the Lord,” and even as “the suffering Messiah,” because New Testament writers have predicated all these titles of him, sometimes distinctively and sometimes in conjunction with others, so that they all become titles of him who is for Christians “the Messiah.” Hence, in Christian usage, “Son of Man,” “Son of God,” and “Servant of the Lord” can be called messianic titles. The problem, however, is whether such titles were used in a “messianic” sense in pre-Christian Judaism, in the Old Testament or in other pre-Christian Jewish writings.4
One has to respect, however, the historical development within the Old Testament itself and not anachronistically use the later term to describe passages that may only be building toward such an emergence. One cannot foist a later Christian meaning on a passage that was supposed to have a distinctive religious sense in guiding the Jewish people of old.5
A Christian interpreter of the Old Testament should be able to agree with a contemporary Jewish interpreter of the Hebrew Scriptures on the literal meaning of a given passage, even one mentioning masiah, or one related to such a concept, before the Christian invokes his or her canonical meaning…For the Christian canonical sense of the Old Testament is a “plus,” a sense added to the literal meaning of the Old Testament.6
It is important, however, to note this meaning of the terms “Messiah” and “messianic,” since in the rest of my discussion it will be used in this strict and narrow sense, of an awaited for future anointed agent of God. I emphasize this narrow meaning because there have been and are many attempts to use “Messiah” and “messianic” in a broad sense, which enables one to use diverse promises of a coming or eschatological salvation, redemption, or deliverance of people in the Old Testament as part of its messianic teaching. The broad sense is found at times even in the writings of other Jewish scholars.7
All of this reveals, however, how in modern discussions “messianism” or “the messianic idea” has become a “rubber-band concept” that is made to embrace far more than “Messiah” was ever meant to denote when it first emerged and gradually developed in Palestinian Judaism in pre-Christian times…this extension is often made by Christian writers, who may begin with the correct understanding of Jesus of Nazareth as the Messiah but, in using hindsight, impose, perhaps subconsciously, on various passages of their Old Testament a meaning that has developed only with the emergence of Christianity and its way of reading the Hebrew Scriptures.8
Here he’s raising intricate and perennial issues over the apostolic exegesis, the interrelation of the Testaments, and the meaning of meaning. But his own position is, in many respects, intellectually confused, contradictory, and hermeneutically naïve.
It is quite true that we need to guard against anachronistic interpretations. But what, exactly, does that mean?
- Ordinarily, an author writes to be understood by his audience. So, as a rule, we should avoid an interpretation that runs contrary to what the target audience or implied reader could have understood. A classic case would be an interpretation that relies on later knowledge unavailable to the original audience.
However, we must also make allowance for the literary genre of the writing or speech-act. For example, the OT punctuated by oracles of judgment and salvation.
Now, in the nature of the case, a prophecy is future-oriented. Its fulfillment lies in the future, not the present. Although the timing of the utterance is contemporaneous with the immediate audience, the timing of the fulfillment lies in the future—even the distant future. Its realization may not occur until long after the original audience is dead. So the present perspective of the original audience is inadequate to supply the complete, interpretive framework.
Therefore, the interpretation of a prophecy as fulfilled prophecy is inherently dependent on future information. On information which may well be inaccessible to the author or his target audience.
So given that the genre of prophecy and typology is, by definition, future-oriented, it is not anachronistic to interpret a prophecy with the benefit of hindsight. The fulfillment completes the prophecy, for the prophecy involves an internal relation between the past and the future. Although prophecy is prospective, the interpretation of prophecy is—of necessity—retrospective, since the fulfillment is after the fact.
- Pace Fitzmyer, this doesn’t mean that we read a surplus meaning into the oracle. In principle, the oracle, as originally framed, gives us enough information to recognize its fulfillment. The fulfillment doesn’t add to the meaning. Rather, fulfillment adds the concrete, historical referent.
In general, a prophet doesn’t know how, when, or by whom a prophecy will be fulfilled. What a prophet gives us is a partial job description.
- What would be anachronistic? It would be anachronistic to invest earlier, ordinary, generic usage with a later, more developed, technical or specialized import. This is a question of lexical semantics. The meaning of words.
It would also be anachronistic to read the entire messianic concept back into any particular, OT type or prophecy. For example, in OT expectation the Messiah plays more than one role. He is both a suffering servant and a conquering hero. One wouldn’t read the warrior motif into passages dealing with the suffering motif or vice versa. Each passage is allowed to make its distinctive contribution to the constellation of messianic attributes.
But although we don’t read the whole messianic construct back into any particular verse or passage, there’s nothing wrong in reading those verses with a view to where they’re heading. Of how they contribute to the whole.
Indeed, it’s unclear from Fitzmyer’s atomistic approach how it would even be possible to trace or retrace the thematic unfolding and eventual convergence of various messianic motifs as they culminate in the NT. He methodology compartmentalized that it would be difficult if not impossible to chart a trajectory or trend.
- Moreover, there are many messianic candidates who might seem to fulfill a particular messianic motif. What would distinguish the true heir to the messianic promises from the pretenders is precisely the degree to which all of the messianic promises are fulfilled in his person and work. So the complete theological construct is directly germane to the true identity and historic arrival of the Messiah. That is how you know when The One Who Is to Come is The One Who Has Come.
- Furthermore, typology is an intra-Testamental feature as well as an inter-Testamental feature. For example, you already have a new Eden motif as well as a new Exodus motif in the later OT writers. So it’s not as if NT typology is alien to the OT perspective.
- Fitzmyer also sidesteps the question of context. Where does the context begin and end?
For example, do we construe each verse in isolation, or do we treat the Bible, or subsections thereof, as a literary unit? Put another way, are certain verses forward-looking—as well as backward-looking? Clearly, many of the later OT passages—as well as NT passages—allude to earlier OT passages. But does this process also work in reverse? Are some early verses written with later verses in mind?
Take the famous oracle in Isa 7:14. Should we construe this text in splendid isolation? Or should we view this through the telescopic lens of a larger literary unit, comprising Isa 7:1-11:16?9
Likewise, do we treat Gen 3:15 in isolation, or do we treat the Pentateuch as a literary unit, and therefore construe Gen 3:15 as the first step in a seminal theme that threads its way through the patriarchal period and beyond?10
This is not a value-free question. For it’s bound up with higher critical questions regarding inspiration and authorship. An atheist will give a different answer than a Christian. But from the viewpoint of the OT writers, prophecy and providence were genuine phenomena. It would not be anachronistic, from their perspective, to view later events with the benefit of hindsight. God makes promises, and God keeps promises.
Ironically, it’s liberals like Fitzmyer, with their secular historiography, who easily succumb to anachronistic interpretations. Because they don’t believe in genuine prophecy or typology, they reinterpret the Bible consistent with their closed-system viewpoint. Even if they don’t subscribe to metaphysical naturalism, they operate with methodological naturalism in their version of Biblical hermeneutics, following the lead of Troeltsch.11
- Fitzmyer also erects an artificial disjunction between “Christian” and “Jewish” interpretation. For him, the NT interpretation of the OT represents a Christian interpretation as over against a Jewish interpretation, and—by his yardstick—that makes the NT interpretation of the OT anachronistic. Needless to say, this also squelches a major witness to the content and character of the messianic expectation.
But what is actually anachronistic is his classification scheme. Clearly the NT writers didn’t perceives themselves anything other than Jews. Indeed, they regarded their interpretation of the OT as more authentically Jewish than the religious establishment, when it seditiously repudiated the messianic claims of Jesus.
- Fitzmyer’s review of Intertestamental is useful in filling in, to some degree, the pre-Christian Jewish expectation. At the same time, this material is rather spotty.
- But the citation of this material can also be misleading. For the implication is that any interpretation of OT messianism at variance with traditional assumptions and expectations is anachronistic and tendentious.
And yet modern commentators don’t believe that they are bound to construe the OT the way Philo, Josephus or the Talmud interpret the OT.
This is even true of modern Jewish scholars. Modern Jewish scholars make use of Bible archaeology. Jewish scholars like Frank Kermode, Robert Alter, and Meir Sternberg apply the techniques of secular literary criticism to the narrative theology of the OT.
So even if a Christian scholar were to find more messianism in the OT than one can document from extrabiblical Jewish sources of that period, this doesn’t necessarily mean that he is foisting a Christian gloss onto the OT. To the contrary, he is doing nothing in principle which modern scholars don’t do as a matter of routine, since it’s quite possible for a modern scholar to understand parts of the OT better than a 1C rabbi.
- It is also quite blinkered of Fitzmyer to insist that:
a Christian interpreter of the Old Testament should be able to agree with a contemporary Jewish interpreter of the Hebrew Scriptures on the literal meaning of a given passage, even one mentioning masiah, or one related to such a concept.
For that begs the question of whether an OT passage is open to the NT, or self-contained within the enclosure of the OT. Is the OT going anywhere? Does an OT passage have any directionality?
If, indeed, various OT passages are prepositioned to terminate on the advent of Jesus, then a Christian interpreter cannot agree with a Jewish interpreter on the overall meaning of various OT passages inasmuch the historical referent is supplied by the NT. If these passages are forward-leaning, and if they find their terminus in the person and work of Jesus, then the Jewish interpretation will misinterpret the passages in question by short-circuiting their historical aim.
- Another artificial disjunction lies in his dichotomy between Jewish and Christian interpreters. But this leaves out of account modern Messianic Jews like Michael Brown.12
- There are also times when his commitment to the historical-critical method predetermines the conclusion. When he dates Daniel to the 2C rather than the 6C, then, by definition, this is a late witness to OT messianism. But that conclusion is an artifact of his liberal dating scheme—as well as his narrow definition of messianism.
In general, though, his liberalism makes less difference to his analysis than you might anticipate, for the reason he rules out so many messianic prophecies, traditionally considered, is not due to his dating scheme, but to his truncated definition of what constitutes a messianic prophecy. Put another way, it has less to do with the definition of a messianic prophecy, than with a messianic prophecy. The sample group is largely confined to that particular word-group.
1 The One Who Is to Come (Eerdmans 2007).
2 Cf. T. D. Alexander, “Messianic Ideology in the Book of Genesis,” P., E. Satterthwaite et al. eds. The Lord’s Anointed: Interpretation of Old Testament Texts (Baker 1995), 19-39; The Servant King (Regent College 2003); J. A. Motyer, Look to the Rock (Kregel 2004); “Messiah,” The Illustrated Bible Dictionary, 2:987-94; J. Sailhamer, The Pentateuch as Narrative (Zondervan 1992); http://www.etsjets.org/jets/journal/44/44-1/44-1-PP005-024_JETS.pdf
3 Ibid. viii.
4 Ibid. viii.
5 Ibid. viii-ix.
6 Ibid. ix.
7 Ibid. 4. In which connection, he mentions Joseph Klausner’s The Messianic Idea in Israel.
8 Ibid. 6.
9 J. A. Motyer, The Context and Content in the Interpretation of Isaiah 7:14,” TynB 21 (1970), 118-25.
10 T. D. Alexander, Genealogies, Seed and the Compositional Unity of Genesis,” TynB 44 (1993), 255-70; Further Observations on the Term “Seed” in Genesis,” TynB 48.2 (1997), 363-68.
11 Cf. I. Provan, “In the Stable with the Dwarves: “Testimony, Interpretation, Faith, and the History of Israel,” V. Long et al. eds. Windows into Old Testament History (Eerdmans 2002), 161-97.
12 M. L. Brown, Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus (Baker 2000-2007); cf. E. V. Snow, A Zeal For God Not According to Knowledge (iUniverse, Inc, 2005).