What Jesus’ Fulfillment of Prophecies Tells us about Biblical Literalism

As my dear readers have come to understand, one of my biggest assertions in my theology is against any purely literal or uncomplicated reading of the Biblical text. In this post, I want to demonstrate how a number of interpretations of Jesus’ fulfillment of Old Testament prophetic scripture requires the insertion of metaphor and a rejection of purely literal reading.

This is, of course, not to say that there aren’t parts of the Bible that are intended to be taken literally. There are. But determining which scriptures those are is not a matter of blind acceptance; it is a matter of using all the analytical tools God has given us to separate the wheat from the dross. That extremely complex and difficult task is a discussion for another time (and a long one at that). For now, I just want to look at how certain prophecies generally (but not universally) accepted by Christians as applying to Jesus require us to leave behind the literal meaning of the text or, more commonly, to allow one of Chesterton’s “furious paradoxes” in seeing both an immediate (more literal)  prophecy and one (more metaphorical) that looks toward fulfillment in Jesus.

Let’s start with Isaiah 7:13-17. Verse fourteen is often translated “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.” It’s rather easy to see how this might be applied–retrospectively–to be a prophecy of Jesus. But that requires ignoring the context. The word often translated as “virgin” does not necessarily mean “virgin;” it could also fairly be translated to indicate a “newly married woman” or a “young woman (of marriageable age).”

The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary I happen to have at hand at the moment of writing states that calling the (soon-to-be-born-in-Isaiah) child “Immanuel” should not be equated with a claim that the child so-named is God in human form as we believe Jesus would later be. Instead, the commentary argues that the prophecy simply means that the coming of the king of Assyria would occur before a child to be born to a woman present at the time the prophecy is uttered reaches the “age of accountability” (held by Jewish custom to be 13 but not explicitly named in the Bible).

Indeed, Ahaz calls upon Tiglath-Pileser III of Assyria (against Isaiah’s warnings) for assistance; Tiglath-Pileser captures Galilea and later Samaria for himself. Jerusalem itself is besieged by Sennecharib in 701 BCE (though Hezekiah is king at this time).

So, on a literal reading of the prophecy, we should only apply it to 8th Century Israel and Judah, not to the coming of Christ seven centuries later. But the metaphor still seems so clear as to be unavoidable. That’s the problem with well-constructed prophecy, isn’t it? It seems in retrospect so easy to find a successful prediction and yet we like to think of that link as inevitable. Which makes it suspicious and susceptible to reasonable questioning, as the human predilection for inserting patterns into chaos is well documented.

Much ink has been spilt on the topic of the Christianization of Old Testament scriptures like this one, and I’ll defer to the scholars on that discussion. For this post, I’ll limit the topic to the fact that, right or wrong, to see Isaiah 7:13-17 as a prediction of the Messiah requires us to leave the literal text behind. I don’t at all believe that that is wrong, but I do think we need to acknowledge what we’re doing when we make that argument.

Likewise, Isaiah 9:1-7 (From verse 6):

“For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called, Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the greatness of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever. The zeal of the LORD Almighty will accomplish this.”

The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary again warns: “Christians have used some aspects of the passage to help them understand the significance of Christ, but the passage as a whole does not directly apply to Christ and the NT does not so apply it.”

While conceding that “Verse 7 does express what Christ will yet do,” the commentary goes on to describe how the passage represents an imminent deliverance from Assyria of the Israelite people by Yahweh.

Again, it is easy to see, looking back from the Gospels, how readily this passage might be applied to Jesus as the Messiah, but that is an ex post facto interpolation. That doesn’t necessarily mean that God didn’t intend for Isaiah’s prophecy to have both an immediate meaning and a cosmic one–I think that’s a fair interpretation for the Christian to make. But, in doing so, we must maintain the honest position that neither Isaiah 7 and 9 do not prove the coming of Christ through Old Testament prophecies.

Rather, we ought to formulate the statement as something like: “As a believer in Jesus as the Son of God and in the Gospel message, I believe that the God, speaking through the prophets in the Old Testament, gave the Israelites double-pronged prophecies that had immediate and literal importance to the hearers while also containing a metaphorical cosmic prediction of God’s action through Jesus Christ, though the prophets and hearers of the time would not have considered or looked for this second, metaphorical meaning.”

Again, the specifics of our interpretation of these passages are not the point of my thoughts here. We’re instead focusing on the need to resort to metaphor and non-literal thinking to make the popular Christian interpretation of these scriptures the least bit functional.

Some more examples:

Isaiah 52-53: Like Isaiah 7 and 9, there is a very strong metaphorical relationship between this text and the life of Jesus Christ. But we must also conveniently overlook some inconsistencies between the description of the “suffering servant” and Jesus or again assume that this text had both a more immediate interpretation and more metaphorical applicability to Jesus.

Psalm 2:7: “I will proclaim the LORD’s decree: He said to me, ‘You are my son; today I have become your father.” This cannot be a literal reference to Jesus if you are a Trinitarian Christian, as such an interpretation would result in the heresy of “adoptionism.”

Zechariah 12:10: The passage about “the one they have pierced” and those that follow certainly seem to have correspondence with the Crucifixion–you might have read this passage during Good Friday services. As I have above, I’m not asserting that this passage doesn’t have anything to do with the Gospels. However, if we look at the first verses of Chapter 12, I think we have to consider that this passage is not literally referring to Jesus’ on the Cross and that our (probably correct) temptation to read that relationship relies on a metaphorical relationship.

As I’ve tried to indicate in the preceding paragraphs, I’m going to accept the applicability of the Old Testament passages cited above to Jesus. There are many more examples to be given, but I’m going to try to keep this post short(ish).

To accept that we should assign Christian meaning to those OT scriptures and maintain some semblance of logic and intellectual honesty, we must acknowledge that metaphor is sometimes required in the “proper” interpretation of the scriptures.

If we do that, we cannot hold both that these passages point to the Messiah and that the Bible should only be read literally and without layers of indirect meaning and complex interpretation. Interesting, n’est pas?