Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Christocentrism in the OT

Today in my scriptures class, I am discussing three or four passages that are usually read Christocentrically by many Christians. That is, these passages are said to be "about" Christ, even though the author did not know of Christ.  Recently the blog at Undeception has posted his views on this topic.

The passages that we are covering in class today are Jeremiah's prophecy of a "new covenant" in Jeremiah 31, and Isaiah's servant songs (Isaiah 42, 43, 49, 53).  It is certainly true that these passages are referred to in the New Testament as prophesying about Jesus, but were they meant to be about Jesus in their original contexts. 

My hard and fast rule for reading any scripture is that it should be read in its own historical context.  Therefore, for Old Testament texts, that context is a historical Jewish context. What did these texts mean to the Jews at the time of writing?  What do they mean for the Jews now?  From a Jewish perspective today, these texts certainly weren't referring to Christ. 

A second problem arises in saying that these texts were specifically written about Jesus, whether or not the author knew what he was writing, and that is that these texts do not line up perfectly with what the New Testament says about Christ.  For example, if Jeremiah's "New Covenant" was fulfilled in Christ, then why doesn't everyone "know the Lord?" For Jeremiah states,
No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the LORD,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the LORD (Jer 31:34).
Or again, if Jesus is the servant from Isaiah 49, how does Isaiah say this,
And he said to me, “You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified.” 
It seems clear that the servant in this passage is "Israel," not Jesus.

Finally, the big one, Isaiah 52:13-53:12.  Both Matthew and I Peter quote 53:4 and tie it to the work of Jesus.  Yet, not everything in this passage works with what the New Testament says about Jesus. I find this section of Isaiah 53:10 difficult, especially in the Old Testament context:
he shall see his offspring, and shall prolong his days;
In the original OT context, seeing his offspring and having prolonged days would refer not to some spiritual reality, but rather to this leader having children, which the New Testament says nothing about and which the church utterly rejects (remember the uprising about the Davinci Code).

Now, the picture of Jesus as conforming to some of these Old Testament passages is compelling.  There seem to be only three options, 1) these passages were written about Jesus whether or not the author of the passage knew it, i.e., the typical Christocentric reading; 2) These passage were not about Jesus in their original context but the authors of the New Testament made their portrait of Jesus conform to some of these Old Testament passages; or 3) These passages have nothing whatsoever to do with Jesus and all similarities between them and the story of Jesus in the New Testament is mere coincidence.  What say you?


  1. I think the authors of the Old Testament did not know about God's plan through Jesus when they were writing, but God did know and the writings were inspired by God. Many of the Old Testament authors were instructed by God, and although the authors did not know their writings had double meanings for the future, it was God's intricate way of showing the people today that everything has been planned out from the beginning.

  2. I agree completely with Sarah's response however, I believe the Jews have failed to realize that Jesus was the fulfillment of this prophesy. As for Jeremiah 31:34, I consider this to be a separate passage referring to the return of Christ and the inevitable knowledge of His existence. Isaiah 49 could either be referring to Israel as the predecessor to Jesus, in whom God will be glorified or referring to Jesus through the name Israel as His forefather. 53:10 may be citing Jesus' works on earth as His offspring or human beings as His children, the sons and daughters of God created in His image.

  3. I daresay there are reasons the Jews have "failed to realize that Jesus was the fulfillment": as Keith points out, there are some unignorable discontinuities between the life of Jesus and many of the classic "Messianic" texts! The only reason to put the effort into reconciling these passages as references to Jesus as Reid tried to do in his comment is because the NT cites those passages: that may be enough for you, but given the tendency of the NT writers to rip OT verses out of context in ways that most modern Christians are certainly not willing to do (N.B. "Out of Egypt I have called my son"!), I find such citations less than compelling.

    IMO, the NT writers were struggling to explain Jesus' obvious importance and did so using interesting but not authoritative allusions to their Scriptures. These allusions cited as fulfilled prophecies tell us, for instance, that the author of Matthew saw and painted Jesus as the new Israel (hence the "out of Egypt" citation), but it does not mean that the OT passages adduced to demonstrate these understandings of Jesus' importance were ever intended to be "about" Jesus. For that matter, we could say that any story in any culture throughout time that fits a pattern somehow similar to Jesus is really meant (by God at least) to describe Jesus. And in the sense that God knew that their patterns do coincidentally match Jesus by whom all things consist, "fulfillment" is not such a bad word.

    Of course, those who expect full concord between the understandings of the authors of Scripture and reality will be unsatisfied by these ramblings of mine. But for me, allowing each passage of Scripture to speak for itself within its own historical context, rather than overlaying a "higher meaning" of Christocentrism in places it clearly cannot do so without gymnastics that would have been foreign to the authors, is the best way of going about interpreting it faithfully.

    My 2 cents. :-)

  4. I believe that the Old Testament does foreshadow the works of Jesus. If God spoke through the prophets, then wouldn't God correctly portray the future works of Jesus accurately through the Old Testament? Obviously we can not take the entire Old Testament literally but there are sections that do reflect the future works of Jesus.

  5. I appreciate this discussion. I however believe it is a little over the top to say that Peter or Paul misinterpreted/misapplied OT passages to Christ. This would seem to undermine their prophetic authority given to them by Christ. I as well am hesitant to say that the OT authors did not understand what they were writing, or that it had more than one meaning. Again, I appreciate the discussion as I am trying to process these matters for myself. Thank you.