Religious tyranny attempts to chain men by setting up an Authority which must be accepted without question, or lose one’s eternal soul. In Christianity, particularly the fundamentalist variety (which considers itself the only TRUE Christianity), that Authority is the Bible, which is presented to us as “the Word of God” (and the only such Word) written without error, and completely infallible. But because there are so many varying and contradictory interpretations of the Bible, sometimes a particular man is exalted to the status of being an infallible Bible interpreter. In the Roman Catholic Church, of course, that ‘infallible authority’ is the Pope, who is said to be without error when speaking officially (‘ex cathedra’). [Not all modern Catholics accept this, though. ‘Liberal’ and ‘moderately liberal’ Catholics will join with Protestants in pointing out that one only has to spend a few minutes reading Papal pronouncements to realize the error of that notion.] Protestant churches do not recognize any absolutely infallible interpreter, though ‘lay’ members of churches frequently (for all practical purposes) think of their pastors, Bishops, Archbishops, etc. as virtually infallible.
Since the infallibility of interpreters can be disproved just by comparing their statements with each other – and the Bible is itself the basic Authority of which all others are subsets – I will ‘put my soul at risk’ by exposing the fallibility of the Bible and its authors. I cannot be exhaustive in this blog, of course. For more thorough presentations, one may refer to the Skeptic’s Annotated Bible or Thomas Paine’s Age of Reason (just a couple among many possible references). These authors are of course no more infallible in their analyses of the Bible, than are the Bible authors and interpreters themselves. As the aim of this blog is to try to set people free of bondage to other people’s opinions, I certainly am not suggesting that you accept any other person as an infallible authority.
First, then, the Gospel of Matthew quotes, as a prediction of the birth of Jesus, the well known and beloved statement in Isa. 7:14 (RSV) – “Behold, a young woman shall conceive and shall bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel…” (a) Let it be noted that the translation “young woman” is correct; the Hebrew word is general, and does not specify whether or not the woman is married, and whether or not she is still a ‘virgin’. The N.T. writers used the Greek Septuagint translation, which used a word which is more properly translated ‘virgin’, but even it is capable (I am told) of simply meaning ‘young woman’. Why the Septuagint translators used the word ‘virgin’ is unknown, but it was not the meaning of the word in the Hebrew. (b) The expression “shall conceive” may also be translated “IS with child” – there is apparently an ambiguity in the Hebrew here. (c) The main point, though, is that this prophecy about the child Immanuel who was to be born is explicitly in the context of Ahaz’ fear concerning the united attack of Syria and Israel, and which Isaiah had said Ahaz should not fear. Isaiah told Ahaz to ask God for a sign concerning this prophecy (that the attack would come to naught), but Ahaz, in pretended humility, refused to ask for a sign. Isaiah said God was going to give him a sign anyway, and the child Immanuel was to be that sign. Verse 16: “For before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted. (17) The Lord will bring upon you and upon your people and upon your father’s house such days as have not come since the day that Ephraim departed from Judah – the king of Assyria”. The ‘sign’ is unequivocally related to the situation Ahaz and Isaiah were facing, and there is absolutely not even a hint that Isaiah was giving a sign that wouldn’t materialize for several hundred years. In fact if the Immanuel child had not been born shortly following the prophecy, the ‘sign’ would not have been a ‘sign’ to Ahaz at all! The child is undoubtedly one of Isaiah’s own children, whom he said (in the next chapter, verse 18) the Lord had given to him as signs and portents to Israel. In fact, Immanuel is actually addressed in 8:8 when Isaiah prophesied that the River (Euphrates) would overflow its banks and flood Judah -meaning the king of Assyria and his army- because Ahaz had “refused the waters of Shiloh that flow gently” and feared Rezin and Pekah, the son of Remaliah. Assyria’s army “will fill the breadth of your land, O Immanuel”. Matthew (or whoever wrote that Gospel) was simply mistaken, and over zealous in his attempts to make Jesus the fulfillment of Hebrew prophecy.
Second, there is the verse already alluded to (8:18) in which Isaiah said – “Behold, I and the children whom the Lord has given me are signs and portents in Israel from the Lord of hosts, who dwells in Mount Zion.” Isaiah says clearly that he is talking about himself and his children. His children were given symbolic names as signs for Israel: in 7:3 there is “Shearjashub” which means “a remnant shall return”; in 7:14 and 8:8 there is “Immanuel” which means “God is with us”; and in 8:3 there is Mahershalalhashbaz which means “the spoil speeds, the prey hastens” or “haste, haste to the spoil”. Yet the writer of Hebrews says this is Jesus speaking, talking about God’s children who are his brothers (Heb 2:13)! Anyone who will do like the ‘noble Bereans’ in Acts 17, and ‘search the Scriptures daily to see if these things were true” would see immediately that they are NOT true! Again, the writer of Hebrews is plainly mistaken, over zealous in his attempt to find in Jesus the fulfillment of Hebrew prophecy.
Third, and this will be the last one I refer to in today’s post, there is Matt. 2:15 where Matthew says that the baby Jesus being taken into Egypt fulfilled Hosea 11:1 – “out of Egypt I called my son”. Yet when I actually read what Hosea said, he was not predicting a future event, but was referring to Israel’s past: “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. The more I called them, the more they went from me; they kept sacrificing to the Baals, and offering incense to idols.” Obviously, within its context, that statement refers to the nation of Israel, whom Exodus 4:22 refers to as the Lord’s firstborn son. Surely it is not Jesus who is referred to in Hosea 11:2 – “they kept sacrificing to the Baals”! Where is there even the slightest hint that Hosea is predicting a future baby named Jesus who would be taken by his parents for a brief stay in Egypt? It’s simply not there, and whoever wrote Matthew just totally abused Hosea to try to find prophetic predictions about Jesus. When a writer today abuses verses like that, he is properly castigated for ‘ripping a verse out of its context’; and that accusation is no less true because a Bible writer did it.
But what about ‘double fulfillments’? Couldn’t these ‘Old Testament’ prophecies have had a ‘partial fulfillment’ in Old Testament times, but their ‘complete fulfillment’ in Jesus? It is my contention that ‘double fulfillments’ are just ‘special pleading’. It is an invented idea to try to salvage a notion about prophetic fulfillment that has failed under scrutiny. One might contend that there are two types of fulfillment: one ‘literal’ and the other ‘spiritual’ (involving metaphorical and allegorical meanings for the text). For instance, in the prophecy concerning Immanuel in Isaiah 7:14, one might say the ‘spiritual’ fulfillment involves God being ‘born’ within each of us so that we can overcome the evil forces within ourselves represented by Syria and the northern kingdom of Israel – or some similar method of ‘spiritualizing’ the prophecy. There may be some truth to that kind of interpretation (“first the natural, then the spiritual”). But that is not what the fundamentalists’ “double fulfillments” are about. If they do recognize a literal ‘partial fulfillment’ in the ‘Old Testament’, the main fulfillment they see in Jesus is just another literal and natural fulfillment which in fact has nothing at all to do with the original prophecy. That is a manifestly bad way of treating the words of the prophets, and would be laughable (in my estimation) if the fundamentalists weren’t so serious about it. And as pointed out, the statement by Hosea wasn’t even a prediction, but a reference to a past event. Neither was Isaiah’s statement about himself and his children a prediction. So far as I can determine, the fundamentalists’ “double fulfillments” are not natural and spiritual, but natural and unnatural!
So what I have shown so far is that these Biblical writers were just men who were as capable of bad interpretations of their ‘scriptures’ as any interpreter in Church history. There is absolutely no reason to bow in unquestioning acceptance of their statements, and one’s eternal soul can’t be in danger for not believing something which is manifestly in error. Let’s break those chains, and shake them off, so that we can live as free men!