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Hail thou unexpected Jesus

18 December 2020

The birth of Christ was by prophets long foretold. Not exactly, says John Barton


Antonio Ciseri: Ecce Homo (1871): Pontius Pilate presents the scourged Jesus to the crowd

Antonio Ciseri: Ecce Homo (1871): Pontius Pilate presents the scourged Jesus to the crowd

AT CHRISTMAS, we encounter traditional Christian thinking about Messianic prophecy and its fulfilment.

According to Christian tradition, the Old Testament contains a number of predictions of the Messiah. The story of Jesus in the Gospels shows that he corresponds to these predictions.

They occur mainly in the books of the prophets, and a number of them are read at Christmas carol services: Isaiah’s Immanuel prophecy; Micah’s promotion of the status of “little Bethlehem”; Jeremiah’s foreseeing the new king, who will be called “The Lord is our righteousness”. The fact that Jesus fulfils them, point by point, shows, in the traditional view, that he is, indeed, the promised one.

Problems arise as soon as biblical scholars get their hands on this tidy scheme. We point out that many of the predictions were not originally Messianic prophecies at all. That is true, for example, of the evocative passage in Isaiah 52-53 that we read on Good Friday about the suffering servant of the Lord who was “despised and rejected, yet he never opened his mouth”: in Judaism in the first century, few people thought that was a prophecy of the Messiah.


SOME of the prophecies that are Messianic do not, in fact, correspond to Jesus, anyway. Isaiah foretold that the child to be born would be called Immanuel — “God with us” in Hebrew — but in fact he was called Jesus or Yeshua, a version of the Old Testament name Joshua.

And some of the alleged prophecies are very far-fetched, or even non-existent: Matthew’s Gospel tells us that Joseph settled in Nazareth to fulfil the prophecy “He shall be called a Nazarene”, but no such prophecy can be found anywhere in the Old Testament.

So, it is not at all surprising that Jews reject the so-called “argument from prophecy”, saying that the texts have many other possible applications, and that Jesus falls far short of fulfilling them. Biblical scholars tend to agree, and to think many had a more immediate application.

Immanuel, for example, was probably meant to be the name given to a child of one of the kings during whose reign Isaiah was prophesying. In any case, prophecy in ancient Israel was not to do with predicting the remote future, but with foretelling imminent events. Even the messianic oracles that there are — and they are few — are normally grounded in the belief that the Messiah, the new great King, will come very soon, not that he will do so in several centuries’ time, as the prophets would have to have meant if they were predicting the coming of Jesus.


IF JESUS was the Messiah, he was, as the title of a book by the Dutch Dominican Lucas Grollenberg puts it, an Unexpected Messiah. With hindsight, his followers were able to find passages in the Old Testament which seemed, often to an uncanny degree, to fit his case. The “suffering servant” passage is an extraordinary example, and it’s open to Christians to believe that its presence in the Old Testament is providential.

The same may be said of Psalm 22, which Jesus quoted on the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”, which goes on to say, “They parted my garments among them, and cast lots for my clothing,” though some scholars think the corresponding incident in John’s Passion story was made up to fulfil the prophecy — a possibility that injects an uneasy note into our discussion, but one that can’t be ignored.

But it is, in any case, hindsight that discovers the passages in question. No one before Jesus thought that these passages added up to create a coherent profile of what the Messiah would be like. They are passages culled from here and there by Christians who already believed that Jesus was the promised one. They are not a syllabus of texts that were already perceived beforehand as a prescription for who the Messiah would be.


WHERE there are clear outlines to what the Messiah would be, Jesus mostly seems to have been the opposite. One absolutely clear feature of most expectations of the Messiah was that he would be a new King David — the person to whom, in the Old Testament, the term “anointed one” (in Hebrew, mashiach; in English, “Messiah”) originally applied.

But Jesus was not a king. To recognise him none the less as the Messiah is to change the meaning of “Messiah”. Jesus was not the Messiah anyone was expecting.

AlamyType of the Messiah in a print from c.1868. “The old interpretative framework will no longer contain the new data,” suggests Professor Barton

But once we have encountered him, we can say, as Christians, that he is the Messiah people ought to have expected: the person God sent because he knew better than we did what it was that we actually needed. Once we have him, we can look back and see dim prefigurements within the Old Testament — and perhaps elsewhere in the history of human culture — of the kind of person he was; and Isaiah’s servant is probably a better candidate for that than is the Messianic king of some of the other prophetic texts.

But no one predicted Jesus. If he pulls threads together, they aren’t threads anyone could have foreseen being pulled together in quite that way.

As Jesus, according to John’s Gospel, told Pilate, he was not the kind of king whose servants would fight to establish his kingdom. He was a wholly new kind of king who, to all external appearances, did not look or behave like a king at all.

It’s no wonder that few of his contemporaries recognised in him the Messiah whom they were looking for. They can hardly be blamed — though that didn’t stop many early Christians from blaming them, and the subsequent Church from falling into vile anti-Semitism.

Jesus systematically disappointed more or less all the expectations that people had of the Messiah: he didn’t get involved in an armed struggle to defeat the Romans; he didn’t have followers who could plausibly administer a new kingdom; and he didn’t claim royal power or privileges.

In fact, if a traditional Messiah was what you were expecting, Jesus was about the last person you would identify as that Messiah: an artisan living very modestly (though not in actual poverty), associating with highly unsuitable people, and finally being executed as a criminal.

People in the Roman Empire often regarded Christianity as a religion fit only for slaves, and that, of course, is exactly what it was: it was a religion that in principle turned the world upside down, which (as the Magnificat puts it) “cast down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted the humble and meek”.

If we define the Messiah by the expectations that many people had at the time, then it would be fair to say that Jesus was not the Messiah. From a Christian perspective, we might, rather, put it by saying that Jesus redefined what the Messiah was. He is the answer to the question that we didn’t have the wit to ask. He is something so new that it doesn’t fit the old categories. He is what in the history of science is now often called a paradigm shift, where the old interpretative framework will no longer contain the new data.


WHAT does it mean in practical terms to recognise, in Jesus, the Messiah? It means accepting that the values that Jesus stood for are those that are truly crucial in the world as God sees it. If we read the Gospels, we see all our expectations of what constitutes power being overturned, as we recognise in the teaching and life of this man a new set of values — congruent with the Hebrew Bible and with first-century Judaism, and yet developing them further.

The Christian gospel as proclaimed by Jesus reverses normal social pressures and offers us a redefinition of how life ought to be lived. This was put well more than than 35 years ago by Gerd Theissen in his book Biblical Faith: “Social pressure means internalising family, people and state as authorities imposing obligations. But Jesus requires of his followers that they should break with their families; he presents foreigners . . . as exemplary models and makes a sharp distinction between the demands of the emperor and those of God.

“Social pressure means internalising tradition and its rules governing conduct. But Jesus measures tradition by his insight into God’s will, and disregards social norms if they go against elementary ethical demands.

“Social pressure means sanctions to the point of exterminating those whose conduct deviates from the norm. But Jesus calls for facing up to social pressure to the point of sacrificing one’s own life — and he himself was an example of that.”


IF WE recognise Jesus as humanity’s Messiah, we are accepting that these values are to be our values, and that we will work to try to see them implemented in our world. That involves personal dedication, and it may also require political action. But in no way may we seek to implement these values by methods that contradict the values themselves; for that is to drop back into the kind of activity from which Jesus came to set the human race free.

So the fulfilment of prophecy turns out to mean the way in which Jesus — and we as his followers — remain true to the pattern of living which God wills for humankind, “for the Jew first, but also for the Gentile”, as Paul puts it.

For Christians, to call Jesus the Messiah is to say that for us he is the perfect example of this pattern, combining the best of the teaching of the law and the prophets, which he did not seek to abrogate, as well as the best insights of the human race in its other scriptures and wise teachings.

He provides the guiding thread with which we can trace the hand of God in all that went before him, giving us knowledge of the real questions to which we need God’s answers.


John Barton is an Anglican priest, Emeritus Oriel and Laing Professor of the Interpretation of Holy Scripture in the University of Oxford, and a Senior Research Fellow of Campion Hall. He is the author of A History of the Bible: The book and its faiths (Allen Lane/Penguin, 2019).

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