When it comes to polemical discussions about Jesus’ messiahship, Messianic Jews are often accused of taking verses from the Hebrew Bible out of context, and deliberately christianising them, so that they appear to refer to the man from Nazareth.

Ironically however, many Christians are going in the other direction, and rejecting the relevance of Hebrew Bible prophecies to Jesus’ life!

Look at this quote from Christianity’s most popular academic theologian, N.T. Wright, from God and the Authority of Scripture Today [emphasis mine]:

When he [Jesus] spoke of the scripture needing to be fulfilled (e.g., Mark 14:49), he was not simply envisaging himself doing a few scattered and random acts which corresponded to various distant and detached prophetic sayings; he was thinking of the entire storyline at last coming to fruition, and of an entire world of hints and shadows now coming to plain statement and full light.‘

N.T. Wright appears to dismiss Biblical prophecy as “distant and detached,” when placed alongside Jesus’ life.

This is huge.

N.T. Wright cannot be dismissed as a liberal Protestant theologian or a post-modernist. Rather, he is hugely popular with young evangelicals and the Emerging Church. So N.T. Wright’s writings are indicative of trends in modern evangelicalism itself, which continues to adapt to its postmodern environment without realising.

This theology developing within Christianity clashes awkwardly with the usual understanding of messianic prophecy.

Beginning with the writers of the gospels themselves, Jewish rhetoricians who believed in Jesus throughout the ages have tended to emphasise Biblical verses which match up to the life of Jesus.

So when the prophet Micah envisages a ruler from Judah whose origins are from eternity being born in Bethlehem, Messianic Jews will point to Yeshua’s birth in Bethlehem as a literal fulfilment of Biblical prophecy.

And when Isaiah and Daniel speak of a marvellous individual cut off from the land of the living, and Zechariah and King David speak of Israel’s king having pierced hands and feet, Messianic Jews will identify Yeshua as fulfilling these prophecies in his crucifixion.

Reading the Bible closely, you can find all sorts of these prophecies – some hidden and some clearer – scattered throughout the writings of the sages. The Gospel of Matthew is explicit in its attempt to link up the events of Jesus’ life with Old Testament prophetic writings.

So why would N.T. Wright play down the importance of fulfilled prophecy?

Read his quote again with a different emphasis:

When he [Jesus] spoke of the scripture needing to be fulfilled (e.g., Mark 14:49), he was not simply envisaging himself doing a few scattered and random acts which corresponded to various distant and detached prophetic sayings; he was thinking of the entire storyline at last coming to fruition, and of an entire world of hints and shadows now coming to plain statement and full light.‘

In other words, the specific details of prophetic fulfilment are less important than the ‘entire storyline’; the overarching narrative of Jesus’ messianic mission.

Whereas most Messianic Jews will instinctively turn to Isaiah 53 as the key text to understanding Jesus’ messiahship, N.T. Wright and his readers would flick to Isaiah 49, which tells the story of God’s plans for Israel to be a light for the nations.

Wright would argue that Israel was incapable of being that “light” because of sin, but Jesus realised he himself was the light for the nations, and so became the Messiah of Israel in order to be the “light” as an individual that Israel couldn’t be as a nation.

This theology is tricky to understand, and often couched in obscure language, but essentially:

Jesus takes on Israel’s story and redeems it. The Gospels tell Jesus’ story. Jesus’ story is what Israel’s story would have been if Israel was without sin. This narrative is the most important thing to understand from the Gospels. All the Jews were thinking about this narrative at the time of Jesus anyway, so that’s how Jesus came to understand his story. The details given in Scripture of Jesus’ different acts are interesting, but what’s more interesting is the entire storyline of Israel and how it comes to fruition in Jesus’ life.

But NT Wright’s position relegates prophecy to a lower role.

Different prophetic sayings appears “distant and detached”, relating to “scattered and random acts of Jesus”, and are less important than the entire storyline.

Such a dismissal of prophecy (even if not intended as such) can allow Christians to make bolder claims still.

This is what Jesse Dooley – a Progressive Christian blogger – writes this week (the blog post that prompted our article here):

Jesus may have been the fulfillment of the Hebrew Scriptures, but it was not because of magical predictions from sages centuries before. Rather, Jesus fulfilled the Hebrew Scriptures in the same manner that he became the Temple for his followers after its destruction in 70 CE: because early Christians reflecting on the Jewish religion said so. His early followers saw the best of Judaism and their Scriptures in his life. His followers said he was these things. This is the vision of Jesus they saw when they looked through the lens of the Jewish Scriptures and Tradition. These things are true about Jesus even without all the magic.

Dooley here rewords N.T. Wright’s argument, but uses even more dismissive language. Prophecy is now no longer “distant and detached”; it is relegated further to being “magical predictions.”

Like Wright’s focus on the “overarching storyline”, Dooley’s focus on the “vision of Jesus through the lens of Scripture and Tradition” blends in perfectly with postmodern understanding of the value of Subjective Narrative over Objective Truth.

Dooley spends his blog post reconsidering the concept of prophecy itself. Rather than Jesus fulfilling prophecy, his culturally-relevant followers have simply read a lot of what the Hebrew prophets said, and Jesus could build his life around that.

This position ironically is very close – if not identical – to the anti-Messianic polemics within the Orthodox Jewish world. Moshe Shulman’s satirical article on fulfilled prophecy makes a similar point to Dooley, albeit from a sardonic and unbelieving perspective.

We can draw many conclusions from this.

Most significantly:

Today, it is popular within Christian theology as well as Jewish theology to downplay the concept of fulfilled messianic prophecy, in favour of asserting a religious storyline or narrative.

As well as defending our position on fulfilled prophecy to skeptical Jewish friends, Messianic Jews also have an increasing responsibility to highlight the importance of fulfilled prophecy to Christian friends itching to espouse trendy new postmodern theology.

Ultimately, the downplaying of fulfilled prophecy is part of a wider cultural trend within some pockets of Christian thought, to dismiss the Old Testament foundations upon which the New Testament stands.

We see this in harsh anti-Zionist theology affirmed by some Christian teachers, which rubbishes God’s covenant with Israel. We see this also in Spinoza-esque Christians who believe that God cannot and will not intervene cosmically in the natural world by virtue of miracles, and therefore all the miracles in Scripture are either scientific phenomena or mythology.

The latest dimension to the erosion of the roots of Biblical Truth, is the dismissal of fulfilled prophecy itself.

I would say this places believers in Yeshua as Messiah in an impossible position, and so the most logical and moral response is for us to affirm prophecy’s importance.