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Jury Chapter 9 by Robert Price is truly enigmatic to those of us who have followed the progress of Jury in general and Robert Price in particular. How so?
- It offers us a very much "decaffienated" version of Robert Price. Aside from a clever title ("Did Top Psychics Predict Jesus?") and a couple of other remarks, there is not the slightest hint of the Robert Price in Chapters 6 and 8.
- It is a significantly shorter piece of work -- much shorter than Price's other efforts.
- Finally, it contains substantially little that I can disagree with. I have already said that prophecy, especially Messianic prophecy, has little apologetic value in our skeptical age. We all know the standard Skeptical charges that the NT writers took material from its true context and misapplied it to Jesus; Price clearly understands that the NT writers were doing nothing that other Jews did not do with the OT text. Indeed, Matthew is mentioned as apparently "shar[ing] the hermeneutical assumptions of the scribes of the Dead Sea Scrolls Habakkuk Commentary."
Of course he doubts the relevance of their efforts, but that is a proper attitude within a Skeptical paradigm.
Price knows what true students of Biblical prophecy (those outside the Hal Lindsey/Grant Jeffrey/Tim LaHaye grouping) have always known: That the "[OT] texts, very few of them prophecies at all, contain potent mythemes which recur in the Hellenistic Jewish milieu of early Christianity: the divine king, the dying and rising savior, the atoning suffering of the innocent on behalf of the guilty who blame him, etc...It is by no means necessary to posit divine prediction in one or the other to explain the correspondences." The Christian of course supposes that more than mere mythemes reside behind the correspondences; nevertheless, Price is ahead of the game in understanding this issue.
I agree with Price, for the most part, that Biblical messianic prophecy was not in line with "the traditional Christian notion that reading publicly, literally understood predictions should have lead any Bible reader to faith in Jesus as Messiah, since anyone could have seen that he fulfilled them, e.g., by being born in the right place." I think a few passages could fit in this category, notably the 70 weeks prophecy of Daniel, but the overwhelming majority are more in line with an event in the NT repeating a theme found in the OT.
I do not agree with Price, however, that "old texts took on a new layer of meaning which hitherto, before the 'prophesied' fact and before one accepted faith in Jesus, could never have been recognized as a prophecy in the first place..." This is of course the expected Skeptical line, and a quite proper argument from that perspective, but we would maintain that the "new layer of meaning" was indeed there all along...for what little that might be worth in a modern, rational, apologetic context. I give no quarter to Mormons who make this sort of apology, and Christians cannot expect any better.
"Though I have never run across an apologist (certainly there may be some) who is even aware of the original contexts and meanings of the passages I have reviewed above," Price says, "I can imagine the strategy of such an apologist would be to charge that scholars have just invented all these clever categories ('birth oracles,' 'lament psalms,' etc.) to evade the force of messianic prophecy. Why anyone would do that is beyond me."
It is beyond me, too--I fully respect the original contexts of the "prophetic" passages, and I have no patience for the Hal Lindseys and Josh McDowells who read the Bible as if it were written yesterday and for them personally. We are indeed better off recognizing that messianic prophecy is an apologetic tool has generally outlived its usefulness.
This is not to say it won't work in some contexts, and with some prophecies. But we must understand that the writers of the Bible lived within a different thoughtframe that allowed them to perceive history as full of recurring themes that acted as mile markers for God's work in the world. We have lost that frame of thought (I daresay for the worse) thanks to rationalistic thinking which perceives man as a mere wheel in an impersonal cosmic machine.
"Did [Jesus] ride a donkey into Jerusalem? Yes, like thousands of other people."
Thousands? Perhaps, but how many were attended by a crowd shouting Hosanna? We maintain that Jesus fulfilled this prophecy intentionally, knowing that those around him would recognize it as a messianic claim. "Thousands," if they did exist, did not all have a previous history of preaching and healing and a following that went with it. What would be the point of what he did otherwise?
"Was the Messiah to be born in Bethlehem? One might read Micah 5 that way, as some Jews did, but it is not necessary."
From a strictly rational perspective, no, it is not "necessary" to read Micah that way--but how does "necessity" fit into the picture? Price is free to speculate that the Gospel record is wrong, of course, but that is an issue we have covered elsewhere. The point is that the difference in our opinions goes back to the same difference in presuppositions.
I believe in a God that has created themes which may be repeated and observed throughout history. Perhaps Price does not. We both agree, however, that the issue cannot be made a subject of evidence demanding a verdict--at least not in this rationalistic age.
"There is something inherently grotesque," Price says, "about the very idea of seeking verification by appeal to clairvoyant predictions. Verification of what? What on earth would such proof, even if possible, have to do with, for example, the contents of the Sermon on the Mount? Is one's conscience likely to take such sayings more seriously if one can prove their author to have been predicted in advance by ancient seers?"
In a sense, this is a quite proper attitude (if missing that "conscience" as we know it did not yet exist in the Biblical period, and still does not for most of the world; see link below). One who recognizes the inherent worth of the moral teachings of Jesus may recognize from them alone that he is "more than a carpenter." Some may even recognize his divinity from these teachings, although according to what Price told us in Chapter 8 of Jury, it isn't a sufficient sign at all.
But Price's attitude, at the same time, holds a hint of what C. S. Lewis called "chronological snobbery". The Jews regarded miracles (which would include prophetic fulfillment) as a verification that God was (or might be) at work. A prophet carried his own resume' by virtue of the accuracy of his record. John the Baptist was questioned by the Jewish religious leaders for this very reason.
Price says that we don't need prophecy to verify the "self-evident power of the spiritual truths at issue." Perhaps not, in retrospect, but a false prophet would not be beyond inserting some self-evident spiritual truths to gain a following. Even Jim Jones had to say a few truly "self-evident truths". Prophecy would serve well once the supposed prophet got beyond what was self-evident and got into that which was not so evident.
Let us indeed avoid, as Price says, "a crass hankering after signs and wonders." But let us also not assume that our Western rationalism offers the only way to achieve understanding.