Prophecy, a useful tool for legitimizing a new order

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by Neil Godfrey

Michelangelo's rendering of the Delphic Sibyl
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The most accurate prophecies are made after the events. What the prophecy does is bestow the event with an aura of fate, destiny, divine edict, legitimate authority.

The Gospels inform us that Jesus was the prophesied messiah. This itself is not evidence, however, that early first century Jews were generally expecting a messiah as a fulfilment of some ancient scripture.

A Roman emperor, Augustus Caesar, was lauded as a prophesied saviour. Virgil placed his own age, with the advent of Augustus, as the fulfilment of a divinely inspired prophecy, in his fourth eclogue. He again shows Augustus was prophesied from ancient times in book 8 of the Aeneid. I doubt that Romans had been generally longing for Augustus with such prophesies on their lips during the period of the civil war that preceded and led to his rise to power. But after Augustus was in power, Virgil’s poems and epic praises of him found a very receptive public audience.

I know of no evidence that Jews of the early first century were any different from Romans in their expectations and focus during punishing times — the Jews being subject to Roman rule and the Romans to civil war. When one side or group found peace (or ‘peace’ through a form of spiritual escape from reality), that peace — the new order, the new institution — was legitimized, and given comforting assurance, through timely prophecies. Christianity went overboard with this technique and hijacked a whole collection of books from the Jews, declaring their exclusive function was to prophesy of their Saviour.

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13 thoughts on “Prophecy, a useful tool for legitimizing a new order”

  1. I have come to believe that prophecy in the Hebrew Bible was not about predicting the future, but explaining God’s will in the present moment, especially the experience of various disasters. In the context of creating or editing religious works that later became scripture, prophetic material is absolutely one of the best sources for legitimizing a new order, such as the Hasmoneans. This strategy was adopted and refined by the emerging Christian Church as a tool for claiming supremacy, but it was a double-edged sword. Prophecy and charismatic practices mitigated against the authority of the emerging church as an institution, and had to be squelched. So prophecy had to be relegated to the past, which made it untouchable in the present.

    1. What particularly interests me is how this applies to the Little Apocalypse (Mark 13, Matthew 24). This is still generally interpreted as a futuristic prophecy — though N.T. Wright is an exception. This is one argument where I think I find myself siding with N.T. Wright. (Ouch!)

      Virgil’s 4th Eclogue speaks of lambs growing pre-died wool in his own day to poetically describe the “peace” that Augustus had brought with his defeat of Anthony. We know that the OT source of the Little Apocalypse was also poetic: stars falling means kingdoms like Babylon’s falling. I can’t help wondering if we are correct to switch gears and interpret the rest as a future literal event.

      1. N.T. Wright is an exception, and so is R.T. France (The Gospel of Mark: A Commentary on the Greek Text, 2002, pp. 497-540). France parts company from Wright with regard to Mark 13:32-37. According to France, a clear break and change of subject matter should be recognized at v. 32.

        Speaking of messianic expectations and the impact of the Jewish Revolt, it may be fruitful to explore how the stories of the Amoraim about the Messiah (cf. Lamentations Rabbah 1:16) might fit into the puzzle. A most interesting discussion is found in Galit Hasan-Rokem, Web of Life: Folklore and Midrash in Rabbinic Literature (trans. Batya Stein; Stanford UP, 2000), Chapter 8 (“Three Tales on Messianism”):

        “The parallels between the motifs featuring in Jesus’ birth story in the New Testament and the birth story of the Messiah Menahem in Bethlehem offer several possibilities for explaining the circumstances of Jewish folk narrative at the time. The preservation of this narrative tradition in the Palestinian Talmud and in Lamentations Rabbah suggests that the inclusion of the story in the Christian corpus did not compel its eradication from the Jewish narrative tradition, despite developments within Christianity that distanced it from its Jewish sources. At the same time, it is again worth noting that the story is not necessarily formulated as a polemic against Christianity” (pp. 156-157). The author remarks: “The widespread use of the term ‘polemic’ to denote the main mode of intergroup communication between Jews and Christians seems to me narrow, and perhaps even incorrect, as it misses dialogical modes that are not necessarily polemical.”

  2. Hey Folks,

    I notice almost all the comments on this blog are anonymous authors, and the few that do have links to any link of author site/info, point to either dead links or links that are not actually people’s site.

    I am looking to meet some others that also study early Christianity.

    For those of you without sites, or twitter, feel free to email me, and… let’s get to know each other.

    Cheers! RichGriese@gmail.com

  3. JW:
    The Christian claim of Jesus being prophesied in the Jewish Bible is essentially Magic. It is a confession that Christianity is unable to perform the Impossible. The best that can be claimed is that the Jewish Bible made claims about Jesus. Note that Christian claims of Jesus’ prophecy appear to have started with Paul who in general did not claim miracles but claimed instead finding Jesus in the Jewish Bible. Paul consistently uses words like “revelation” and “mystery” to concede that Jesus was hidden in the Jewish Bible and has to be discovered with the help of God’s spirit. An acknowledgment that Jesus was hard/impossible to find there. Through mistranslation of both Bibles (and destruction of truthsayers), Christianity gradually converted this difficulty into supposed certainty (how can you miss it?). All this supposed prophecy demonstrates though is the dishonesty of the claim.

    “PALMISTRY, n.
    The 947th method (according to Mimbleshaw’s classification) of obtaining money by false pretences. It consists in “reading character” in the wrinkles made by closing the hand. The pretence is not altogether false; character can really be read very accurately in this way, for the wrinkles in every hand submitted plainly spell the word “dupe.” The imposture consists in not reading it aloud.”


    1. Notice how at the end of Luke’s story he has Jesus explaining to the disciples all those scriptures that prophesied of him, thus teasing the readers by leaving them wondering what scriptures he discussed. The claim, as we infer from other passages, was based on allegorical readings of the OT. It’s a bit hard for an author to explain that at the end of the narrative. But what is conspicuously missing is any reference to a “prophesied messiah”. It all has to be read into the scriptures allegorically to find it.

      TAROT, n.
      I once had some fun with a Tarot reader. But it was part of a scientific test, of course! 😉

      After a Tarot reader got a fair bit right about me, I decided to try it out again but this time on my own terms and not fitting in with what I suspected had been the game of the more-or-less successful one. I gave the second Tarot reader the polker face and denied him any body language responses to his general chit-chat and polite indirect queries as he went through the cards, and about half way through it was he who was visibly floundering. He knew he was wildly guessing, and knew I knew. I was leaving him with no cues at all by my stony demeanour.

      I shared this experience with a psychologist, by informing her that the first tarot reader told me as much about myself as another psychologist had. The psychologist I was sharing this with responded that such people as tarot readers and other “psychics” probably make their living by being extra sensitive or skilful in their reading of people, and would probably make good psychologists!

      1. “Notice how at the end of Luke’s story he has Jesus explaining to the disciples all those scriptures that prophesied of him, thus teasing the readers by leaving them wondering what scriptures he discussed. The claim, as we infer from other passages, was based on allegorical readings of the OT. It’s a bit hard for an author to explain that at the end of the narrative. But what is conspicuously missing is any reference to a “prophesied messiah”. It all has to be read into the scriptures allegorically to find it.”

        Yea, plus notice that the post resurrection story in “Luke” is the most confusing. The proof-texting reference comes straight from Paul and the reference to unknown writings by L and M may refer to the original Gospel “Mark”. The confused ending of doubt/belief can be explained by a mixture of Marcion and the orthodox ending. This may be the clincher that Marcion had the original “Luke”, he just applied the same proof-texting to “Mark” that “Mark” did to the Jewish Bible. That was what they did per Paul. Claiming a source of historical witness was clearly a later creation. You also have the Christian traditions that “Mark” and “Luke” (but not “Matthew” or “John”) originally rejected Jesus but Paul converted them back. That would be some trick since “Mark” and especially “Luke” look 2nd century.


  4. Neil: “Christianity went overboard with this technique and hijacked a whole collection of books from the Jews, declaring their exclusive function was to prophesy of their Saviour.”

    This post served to remind me of a passage in a book a friend had given me around a decade ago. The book, The Bible, The Book that Bridges the Millennia, Part 2: Interpretation & Authority by Maxine Clarke Beach (M.A., Harvard Divinity School; Ph.D., Boston University) was part of my friend’s study curriculum with her United Methodist women’s group.

    The book is not without its share of apologetics, but I do wonder how the following section, “Prophecy and Interpretation”, from Chapter 1 (pp. 14-15), was received by the participants in the lay study group. Possibly they didn’t even care because my friend couldn’t remember any reaction at the time.

    (Emphasis mine.)

    The most familiar technique used by early interpreters of Jesus is the one that depicts Jesus as the fulfillment of earlier scriptural prophecy. Prophecy in Scripture is the delivery of a message from God, often predicting disaster as a result of the people’s unfaithfulness to the Covenant. A prophet’s message was validated by historical events; the accounts that became Scripture reflect prophecies that came true. For the evangelist Matthew, writing for a Jewish audience, the fulfillment of Scripture was foremost in his mind as proof that Jesus was the Messiah. Other New Testament writers also use the fulfillment of prophecy in Jesus as a validation for the claim that he is Messiah (see Matthew 12:17-21; 13:35; 15:7-9; 21; Mark 4:12, 7:6-7; Luke 24:44-48; John 7:40-42; 12:13-16, 37-41; 19:24; Acts 2:14ff; the letter to the Hebrews, etc.) Jesus is interpreted as fulfilling certain words of the prophets Joel (Acts 2:17-21 quotes Joel 2:28-32) and Isaiah (especially from chapters 40-55), as well as the Psalms of David (Mark 12:35-6 quote Ps. 110, Luke 20:17 quotes Ps. 118, Matthew 27:46 and John 19:24 quote Ps. 22; Acts 2:25-28 quotes Ps. 16,; etc.).

    The fact that the prophetic or other Scriptures were not originally written to predict Jesus is often clear from their contexts, but was evidently not a concern for the early Christian interpreters. They selectively used those texts that could be applied to Jesus, recasting them as metaphors or types for Jesus, and subordinating the rest to the authority of the new interpretation. The authority to make this interpretive shift lay in their conviction of the revelation in Christ – “the kingdom of God depends not on talk but on power” (1 Corinthians 4:20); “the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also the Greek” (Romans 1:16).

    1. The cultural blinkers! Everyone sees through this when they learn that it’s exactly how later Greek philosophers interpreted Homer’s epics. No-one thinks Homer’s gods were really inspired allegories of some other “higher” concept.

      1. Of course, we’re looking at the Christianity that survived into the mainstream today. I find it interesting to look at how other later(?) theologies, which incorporated Christian themes to some extent or other, reacted to some of these “proto-orthodox” ideas regarding this kind of prophecy.

        In The Holy Book of the Great Invisible Spirit, Jesus only makes a brief appearance. It is the incorruptible great Seth of this mythology who is the preexistent savior, and Seth puts on “the living reason-born Jesus” like “a garment.” It becomes very clear at the end that the author is distancing this theology from others, by adding that neither Israel’s prophets nor Christian apostles and heralds seem capable of understanding this truth:

        This is the book that the great Seth composed and which he placed in high mountains upon which the sun has never risen – nor can it. And from the beginning of their days, the name has never risen upon the hearts of the prophets, the apostles, or the heralds — nor could it; and their ears have not heard it.

        I’m using Bentley Layton translations.

        We see this distancing even in the fully developed Christology of Ptolemy. Again, in this mythology the anointed (Christ) is preexistent and part of the incorruptible pleroma. It’s made very clear in Ptolemy’s Version of the Gnostic Myth, as reported by Irenaeus, that there is an anointed (Christ) emitted by the demiurge, spoken through the prophets, different from the preexistent one in Ptolemy’s version:

        There are some people who say that he (the craftsman) emitted a (different) anointed (Christ), who was his own son yet was animate; and that it was about this one that he spoke through the prophets. This (they say) was the one who passed through Mary as water goes through a pipe.

        Ptolemy is very accommodating, though, (considering more conventional Christians with whom there was contact and teaching possibility), and ingeniously manages to incorporate this animate son into a new rendering of Jesus, still keeping the animate separate:

        And also it was into him at his baptism that the savior, who comes from the fullness and derives from all (the aeons), descended in the form of a dove. In him was also the spiritual seed that comes from Achamoth.

        So, they say that our lord was compounded of these four elements, maintaining the pattern of the primal, first tetraktys:

        the spiritual, from Achamoth;
        the animate, from the craftsman;
        the providential arrangement of events, which was constructed in some ineffable way;
        the savior, who was the dove that descended into him.

        By keeping this separation, when crucified, the animate Jesus suffers, while the other parts, which were spiritual, or incomprehensible and invisible, are incapable of suffering.

        Again, writes Irenaeus:

        What suffered, therefore, was what they consider to be the animate anointed (Christ), who was mysteriously constructed out of the providential arrangement of events, so that through him the mother might display a representation of the superior anointed (Christ), who had stretched out along the cross and who had formed Achamoth as a concrete formation in essence. For all these things—they say—are representations of ones in that other (realm).

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