People have been wondering about Jesus and whether he was who he said he was (the Messiah), and did what he said he did (died for us, and rose again, to put us right with God), for more than two thousand years now – and millions have attempted to answer.
So how are we supposed to know? Well, I’m leading at this weeks women’s home group, and we’re looking at the prophesies that Jesus fulfilled, starting with the ones relating to Christmas.
For me, faith-wise Christmas has never been as important to me as Easter, I mean, the rituals associated with an English Christmas are fabulous, but my faith does not hinge on the virgin birth and birth location of Bethlehem in the same way that it does on the crucifixion and resurrection.
And as a student of history and literature, I’m always sceptical about the accuracy of documents and the possibility of retrofitting to gloss over inconvenient details that don’t quite fit. Can we trust the source material?*
So looking at the Messiah prophesies for Christmas is a genuine journey of discovery, and not something I intend to just blindly accept.
However, after quite a lot of research I owe a great deal of thanks to “Answers to Tough Questions Skeptics Ask About the Christian Faith” by Josh McDowell and Don Stewart (Tyndale House Publishers, 1980) as well as the various largely anonymous internet evangelists of all faiths and none.
Prophecy means a revelation from God, or “prediction of the future, made under divine inspiration”. There are about 300 prophesies in the Old Testament, written between 1450 BC and 430 BC, relating to an anointed one (the Hebrew word is Messiah). According to Clarifying Christianity, readers of the texts in the ancient world knew that the Messiah:
would arrive in their future. The Messiah would “deliver” or “save” all the Jewish people, bringing them to paradise or heaven. These prophecies also stated that the Messiah would save all the other people in the world “through the Jews.” For this reason, people who are not Jewish need to learn about the Messiah, too”.
It’s worth noting that not everyone believes that the prohpesies were fulfilled by Jesus. In fact, the religious leaders at the time said “woe to us, for the sceptre has been removed and the Messiah has not come!” (from the Talmud of the Babylon, Sanhedrin).
But the specific predictions that seem to relate to Jesus include the timing of his birth (before the Jewish people lost their sovereign power to the Romans when Archelaus took the throne of Israel; that he would be born in Bethlehem (a little insignificant place according to Micah 5:2) and that he would be born to a virgin. Eve was told that her descendant’s heel would be bitten by the serpent but that the serpent’s head would be crushed (Genesis 3:15). A child would be born “to us”: a wonderful counsellor, mighty God, eternal father, prince of peace (Isaiah 7: 10-16) – the now familiar words which must surely have seemed blasphemous. He would be born in Bethlehem to be a ruler in Israel, and to be the Ancient of Days (Micah 5:2) – a figure from the book of Daniel (Daniel 7:9, 13). His coming would cause a massacre of Bethlehem’s children (Jeremiah 31:15). He would travel to Egypt (Hosea 11:1), would live in Galilee (Isaiah 9:1) and Nazareth (Isaiah 11:1), he would be from the family of Israel’s great King David (2 Samuel 7:12-16, Psalms 89:3-4, Isaiah 9: 6-7); he would be announced by a herald (Isaiah 40:3, Malachi 3:1, 4:5), that his mission would include the gentiles (Isaiah 42: 1-4) and that his ministry would be one of healing (Isaiah 53:4).
I’m going to look particularly at Isaiah 7:14-16, Isaiah 9:1-8, Isaiah 40: 1-10 and Micah 5:2.
1) Born of a virgin (Isaiah 7: 13-16)
Isaiah was a prophet who lived between about 742BC and 722BC, in the kingdom of Judah, the southern part of Israel. This was his first prophecy. The kingdom was under threat of invasion by the Assyrians (Rezin, King of Aram) and northern Israel had already signed an alliance to protect itself (King Pekah choosing to attack Judah in preference to being defeated by Assyria). Isaiah’s message was that King Ahaz should avoid all entanglements with foreign powers, but the King did not want to hear it, nor would he agree to put God to the test. He did not want to see God’s advice on what to do because he was afraid of the answer he might hear. Despite all this, Isaiah delivered a message of comfort, reassurance, and of hope to come – any immediate ruination would eventually be undone, and nothing would be left of their attackers in just 65 years.
At first glance, there seems to be two key points of this passage: the virgin being with child, and that her son will be called “Immanuel”.
God was giving the sign King Ahaz needed, but not just for him but for all his descendants too. And while some people thought that Isaiah’s own second son who was born soon afterwards would be the child to fulfil the prophecy, he was not virgin-born, nor did Isaiah name him Immanuel.
But that’s not Jesus’s name either (and actually Jesus appears to be a corruption of the name Yeshua!) Immanuel means God with us – his nature and role rather than his specific name. He is described as having to learn to take the good and refuse the evil – something Jesus clearly does in the desert…
But a virgin birth? Protestant Christians and Muslims believe that this means a birth without male involvement – Roman Catholics and some Orthodox Christians believe this means that Mary remained a virgin even after giving birth. The virgin birth appears in both the gospels of Matthew and Luke. There are a number of interesting questions – did Isaiah’s prophesy mean “young woman” or “woman who has never had sex” (NB both of these terms are used to describe Rebecca in the Old Testament)? Was the birth of Jesus as written down based on the attestation of Mary and Joseph, or added by the authors of the gospels who were already aware of the Messiah prophesies? Is it an allegory, comparable to that of God and Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden? Is it simply following the pattern in the Old Testament of having miraculous births for prophets – just like the Pharaohs and Gods of the ancient world? Were there anti-Jesus stories questioning his parentage at around the time that Matthew and Luke were written that they were addressing? Paul’s writings can be interpreted as supporting either case.
According to “Answers to Tough Questions Skeptics Ask About the Christian Faith“:
The Bible teaches that the Word who became flesh was with God from the beginning (John 1:1). The fact of the pre-existence of Christ is testified many times in the New Testament (John 8:58, Philipians 2:5–11, Colossians 1:15, 16).
When Jesus came into the world, he was not a newly created individual such as we are, but was the eternal Son of God. To be born into this world of the virgin Mary required divine intervention, and this is exactly what the Gospels record.
Another reason why Jesus needed to be virgin-born was because of His sinless nature. A basic New Testament teaching is that from the day He was born until the day He died, Jesus was without sin. To be a perfect sacrifice, He must Himself be perfect — without sin. Since our race is contaminated with sin, a miraculous entrance into the world would be required, hence the virgin birth.Moreover, if Jesus had been sired by Joseph, He would not have been able to claim legal rights to the throne of David. According to the prophecy of Jeremiah 22:28–30, there could be no king in Israel who was a descendant of King Jeconiah, and Matthew 1:12 relates that Joseph was from the line of Jeconiah. If Jesus had been fathered by Joseph, He could not rightly inherit the throne of David, since he was a relative of the cursed line.
2) Unto us a child is born (Isaiah 9:1-8)
So familiar from the Eleven Lessons and Carols “the people that walk in darkness have seen a great light”.
The prohetic language muddles the past, present and future.
The people referred to were two of the twelve tribes of Israel, but were only singled out as they had received the worst treatment from the Jewish inhabitants of the lands ruled by the king of Assyria (Israel and Judah), who was initially tolerant, but then rooted them out,and by Shalmaneser who captured Somalia and carried Israel into captivity. But hope was coming – in Galilee (which included a Gentile area in its north). The people had done nothing specific to bring this complete change of situation – it was to be God’s free gift.
Darkness means all the bad things they did as well as the misfortune in which they lived, as well as the feeling of being prisoners in a foreign land.
The multiplied nation was both Jews and Gentiles. A yoke was a heavy wooden frame to help carry a burden, the staff and the rod were for enforcing the burden carrying – God destroyed the weight of the burden through the Messiah, and in the fires, as effectively as he’d destroyed the Midianites with just 300 men. The biggest positive was that God appointed Gideon (a very unlikely hero) to free them (Isaiah seems to have been very affected by this and mentions it twice more!).
The child “born to us” that Isaiah speaks of, for Christians is clearly Jesus. Being born as a child illustrates the humanity of the son of God. But Jewish people at the time of Isaiah and Micah said that the description referred to Hezekiah, the then King of Israel. Although known as great and good, it seems odd that “Mighty God” could be ascribed to Hezekiah without claims of blasphemy! God promised David the throne forever, but while Hezekiah managed it for about 29 years, in Jesus that is fulfilled.
3) Comfort for God’s people (Isaiah 40:1-10)
This passage seems to foreshadow John the Baptist. John the Baptist was in the wilderness, like the ancient custom of princes to send who sent pioneers to prepare the way that they were to go (actually we still do this now).
“Comfort, O comfort My people,” says your God…. that (their) iniquity has been removed…” (Isaiah 40:1,2). God is holy, pure and righteous. There must be payment made for our sin or we are lost. Jesus sacrificed Himself to atone for our sins. He became “the way” back to the Father (John 14:6). God forgives on His terms, not ours. To reject the gospel is to reject God’s forgiveness. Man may try to reinvent a God who forgives through other means than faith in Christ, but in truth there is no other way (Acts 4:12; Acts 3:37,38).
4) Being born in Bethlehem (Micah 5:2)
So why Bethlehem? Why not Jerusalem, the holy city?
The location of the messiah’s birth was prophesied by Micah. Like Isaiah, Micah was a prophet during the reigns of Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, roughly 737–690 BC. He’s considered one of the minor prophets, speaking out against the greed of the wealthy classes who grew rich by breaking the Jewish people’s Covenant with God. He prophesied the return of the great ruler from Bethlehem and the peace that would come from this.
Matthew has the star (Numbers 24:17) stop in Bethlehem – not possible given the distance of the stars, but possible if the sky worked like the ancients believed, with a firmament in which the stars hung.
Luke has a census require Joseph take his heavily pregnant wife hundreds of miles to register, at the Emperor Augustus’s request, in the town of his ancestor – possibly a misunderstanding of the scale or nature of census taking before 74AD by Vespasian and Titus. But he was a historian – it seems unlikely he’d’ve mentioned a journey to Bethlehem unless something else had also mentioned it.
But while the line of David would be of no interest to the Romans, but the Romans would have left it up to the leadership of the regions to carry out the census. It is clear from various verses that Jewish customs were taken seriously when conducting Roman affairs. Pontious Pilate released a prisoner on the Passover, Herod was king & was an Edomite (from Esau) and did many things to please the Romans and the Jews to get what he wanted, there was still Jewish currency for temple and Roman currency for tax (e.g. Jewish currency wasn’t completely outlawed). So, although the Romans wouldn’t have cared about the line of David, the leadership would have probably used their knowledge of Jewish customs and culture to help run things as smoothly as possible.
By contrast, Matthew just seems to have the holy family living in Bethlehem for a bit.
Ultimately, as someone put it to me “it doesn’t matter whether the snake talked, it’s what it said that matters”.
There are lots of people who claimed to be the Messiah or prophets – Jesus himself points this out (Matthew 7:15; Matthew 24:11; Matthew 24:23-25; Mark 13:21-23). But none of them fulfil even a fraction of the prophecies that Jesus did.
Fulfilling many of the prophecies is not something that an individual that can arrange for themselves, in advance.
And when neither John (the last gospel) nor Mark (the first gospel) mention the birth of Jesus at all – his mission and death being the main issues for believers and entirely in keeping with both Jewish traditional scripture style and explanation of the Jewish Messiah via the Greco-Roman tradition.
A merry Christmas to you all.
When it comes to dating the New Testament books (our primary source of information about Christ), there are differences between conservative and liberal scholars but only in terms of decades, not centuries. For example, the conservative dating for the Gospel of Mark is between A.D. 50-60, with more liberal scholars placing it around A.D. 70. This is remarkable, when you consider that Jesus died somewhere around the year A.D. 30; these are authentic eyewitness accounts. Generally speaking, Paul’s letters were written between A.D. 50-66, the gospels between A.D. 50-70, with John’s gospel being written sometime around A.D. 80-90. If you can believe it, we actually have a fragment of John’s gospel dated just after the end of the first century.To discover the accuracy of copying for the New Testament material and see whether or not it has been “changed,” you have to look at two factors: One, the number of manuscripts existing today; and two, the time period between the original document and the earliest manuscripts still in existence today. The more manuscripts we have and the closer the manuscripts are to the original, the more we are able to determine where copyist errors happened and which copies reflect the original.
For example, the book Natural History, written by Pliny Secundus, has 7 manuscript copies with a 750-year gap between the earliest copy and the original text. The number two book in all of history in manuscript authority is The Iliad, written by Homer, which has 643 copies with a 400-year gap.
Now this is a little startling: the New Testament has currently 24,970 manuscript copies, completely towering over all other works of antiquity. In addition, we have one fragment of the New Testament (NT) with only a 50-year gap from the original, whole books with only a 100-year gap, and the whole NT with only a 225-250-year gap. I don’t think there is any question from all of these early copies that we know exactly what the original documents said.