When prophecy mostly didn’t fail

Matthew Hartke posted a couple of pages from Robert Carroll’s book When Prophecy Failed: Cognitive Dissonance in the Prophetic Traditions of the Old Testament on Twitter last week. It got me fretting. The argument of the book is that there is evidence in the Old Testament of how Israel sought to mitigate the failure of prophecy either by revising prophecy or by revising history, and that cognitive dissonance theory helps us to understand the psychological or sociological processes underlying the accommodation. The thesis gets at the heart of Hartke’s own rejection of Christianity, which he states very well:

I couldn’t help reaching the conclusion that Christianity itself, in all its various iterations, was the product of our widely attested tendency to cling to our deeply held beliefs when they come into conflict with reality, rationalizing away the conflict instead of letting go.

When prophecy failed

The two pages presented in the tweet are from the conclusion of the book and touch briefly on some implications for our reading of the New Testament. The early Christian communities, it is argued, wanted to believe that Jesus was the fulfilment of biblical prophecy and that they were themselves “participants in the eschaton.” Their reality, however, fell a long way short of Old Testament expectation, so if prophecy was to be sustained, it had to be quite drastically reinterpreted.

Carroll lists a number of shortcomings: there was no unequivocal public fulfilment of prophecy; no son of David occupied the throne of Israel; there was no dramatic transformation of nature or of the nations: “the enemies of Israel had not been destroyed, universal peace and prosperity had not set in nor was the temple the focus for international worship.”

Carroll claims that the community managed the dissonance by emptying the original prophetic language of its content and then reapplying it to a very different set of circumstances. Unfortunately, no specific examples are given either in the section that Hartke quotes or in Carroll’s ZAW article “Prophecy and Dissonance: A Theoretical Approach to the Prophetic Tradition,” which looks like a summary of the book.1 Only the standard problem of the delay of the parousia is mentioned, which is not in my view a problem.

So there we are. Not much to go on. But it prompts me to share some provisional thoughts in defence of the use and development of Old Testament prophecy in the New Testament.

Fundamentalist and historical hermeneutics

At heart, this has to do with how we read prophecy and the interpretation of prophecy in the Bible. What are our expectations? What are our assumptions? Perhaps the most important distinction to make is between what I will label a fundamentalist hermeneutic and a historical or narrative-historical hermeneutic.

The fundamentalist approach treats prophecy as infallible divine pronouncement which must find exact fulfilment, either within the frame of the canon of scripture or in subsequent world history. In a narrative-historical hermeneutic, prophecy is understood more as reflection on and interpretation of historical experience within a coherent political-religious tradition.

In the fundamentalist hermeneutic, prophecy precedes history, and history must be found or made to fit prophecy. Prophecy is deterministic, and ultimately is an important means by which the gospel about Jesus is validated.

In the narrative-historical perspective, history precedes both prophecy and the interpretation of prophecy. Prophecy may still be predictive, but futures are re-imagined in response to historical developments. Prophecy is a way of making sense of history in the light of the tradition and in order to maintain the tradition under changing circumstances. It is, therefore, historical experience that is “determinative,” not the prophetic text, and we should expect a significant degree of contingency and correction. Too much contingency and correction, of course, means that the tradition itself breaks down, but the tradition is made for the historical community, not the historical community for the tradition.

So the debate over the failure of prophecy hangs, to a large extent, on whether a fundamentalist or a historical hermeneutic is presupposed. Carroll’s work is nuanced and scholarly, and judging by the reviews criticism focuses on whether “cognitive dissonance” adds anything useful to the analysis and whether the Old Testament is itself troubled by the need to revise prophecy. But at a popular level the failed prophecy / failed parousia argument, promulgated very often by ex-fundamentalists, continues to trip people up, it seems.

There are plenty of good reasons not to believe in the New Testament account of Christian origins, but this one still seems to me to miss the point. In fact, I would argue that the central prophetic messages, read as a continuation of Jewish belief, are the most convincing parts of the preaching of Jesus and the apostles.

What first century Jews might have been hoping for

It’s hazardous to attempt to summarise Old Testament prophetic expectation, but it’s probably fair to say that at least from the exile onwards the hope began to take shape that the longstanding asymmetrical relationship between Israel and the prevailing regional superpower would be turned on its head.

The salvation of Israel from the devastating consequences of its failure to keep the commandments would entail the rebuilding of Jerusalem and the temple; the re-establishment of an enduring Torah-based righteousness in Israel, now written on the hearts of God’s people and not merely on tablets of stone; perhaps the installation of a Davidic king; certainly the subjugation of Israel’s enemies, bringing regional conflict to an end; the elevation of Jerusalem above the surrounding nations; and the pilgrimage of the Gentiles to bring tribute to enrich Jerusalem, to worship and pray to the one true living God, who dwelt only in Israel, and to learn his ways.

In other words, the great pagan civilisations would be converted, and the political-religious centre of gravity would shift from Babylon or Rome to Jerusalem. It was always a historical vision. It did not require the final abolition of sin or death or the transformation of the cosmos or a new ontology. And because history never stands still, the vision needed constantly to be updated.

Jesus’ announcement that the kingdom of God was at hand presumably evoked just this sort of recentering of the ancient world in the minds of his Jewish hearers. When the disciples ask, after the resurrection, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6), it is likely that they are thinking of something along these lines.

The failure of prophecy argument would then be that the Old Testament vision doesn’t materialise and a wholesale reinterpretation of Old Testament prophecy is required in order to maintain a spurious continuity. Is this right? Is prophecy being saved or is experience being explained?

What happens in the New Testament

In the first place, we are not led to think that the fulfilment of Old Testament prophecy had already come about. The disciples assume that the risen Jesus has the authority to restore the kingdom to Israel in accordance with traditional expectations, but they understand it hasn’t happened yet. Jesus’ response is that they do not need to know exactly when it will happen; their job is to be witnesses to his new status and authority from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:7-8). The prophetic horizon in view at this point is the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple and the “coming” of the Son of Man to be publicly vindicated with his followers (Lk. 21:25-28; Acts 3:19-21). So their patience and fortitude will be tested.

That Israel’s messiah would have to suffer and be raised from the dead is not part of mainstream Jewish expectation, but neither is the thought entirely alien to the tradition. From the exile onwards, the belief gains momentum that it will be through Israel’s weakness and suffering that transformation will come about, not through rigorous Torah observance or political-military action. It’s a minority view, but it’s by no means eccentric. Jesus and his disciples could quite reasonably appeal to Isaiah’s suffering servant or Daniel’s “one like a son of man,” and perhaps implicitly to wisdom and martyr traditions, in order to account for this unexpected turn of events.

The suffering, death, resurrection, and exaltation of Jesus, then, are the pivotal moment in the early church’s reappraisal of the tradition. But it’s not the appeal to scripture or tradition that will validate the proclamation regarding a crucified messiah. The witness is always forward-looking; and in keeping with Jewish hope, the confirmation will come in two stages, with two major historical developments that will shake the powers of heaven. The first horizon is the catastrophe of the war against Rome. The second is the final historical realisation of the vision articulated, for example, in Isaiah 45: the conversion of the idol-worshipping peoples of the dominant pagan world to the worship of YHWH, who created the heavens and formed the earth. If these events do not happen, then the claims made by the early followers of Jesus will be proved false.

The first horizon

Jesus’ controversial mission to Israel will be vindicated within a generation by the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple. This is presented not as the pre-determined fulfilment of prophecy but as a more or less inevitable historical outcome. It will happen because Israel is obdurate and rebellious, not because it was predicted in the scriptures.

What prophecy furnishes is a language and rationale for the event that will keep it as part of the evolving narrative. Jesus is Jeremiah sent to the temple to denounce the lawlessness and hypocrisy of his people and to warn of impending destruction as the outworking of the wrath of God (Jer. 7:1-15). But he is also the Isaianic servant who has been anointed with the Spirit of God to bring good news to the poor in Israel, who are waiting for YHWH to redress injustices and redeem his people from their captivity (Is. 42:1; 61:1).

There is nothing forced about these “interpretations.” Jesus knows that Jeremiah and Isaiah spoke about events centuries earlier, but his own prophetic insight was that history is about to repeat itself, and as an insider with unquestionable charismatic and moral authority he is entitled to drive the tradition in a somewhat different direction, though of course at personal cost.

He accounts for the sharp downward turn in his own prophetic career by evoking Daniel’s vision of one like a Son of Man—a figure who embodied a righteous community of Jews suffering hostility and persecution both from the pagan oppressor and apostate Israel. The vision actually fits the circumstances in first century Israel rather well, but by linking it to a more or less realistic account of the foreseen war against Rome, which takes us beyond Daniel’s narrative, Jesus sets up the possibility that he will be vindicated by the historical outcome. When Jerusalem and the temple are destroyed, with not one stone left standing on another, Israel will see that kingdom, etc.—management of the derelict vineyard—has been transferred to the suffering community of the Son of Man.

None of this was prophesied, as such, in the Old Testament. Jesus brings something fundamentally new into the storyline, but he and his biographers go out of their way to work the novelty into the tradition. It is a creative process, and if we take a fundamentalist view of prophecy, we are confronted with all sorts of hermeneutical problems. But if we prioritise the experience of the early church—conviction regarding the person and teaching of Jesus, the resurrection appearances, the reception of the gift of prophecy the Spirit of prophecy—then I think we are presented with a very plausible development of the tradition.

The second horizon

The apostolic mission westwards will be vindicated within a less specific period of time by the conversion of the Greek-Roman world to worship of the God of Israel. The prophetic significance of this development again derives, in the first place, from the historical experience of the early church. To the surprise and frustration (cf. Rom. 9:1-3) of the Jewish apostles, it soon becomes apparent that the message about what the God of Israel was up to has greater appeal to Gentiles than to Jews, who suddenly become zealous for the Law when their monopoly on God is threatened (cf. Acts 13:45).

Paul at least remains hopeful that if not before then after judgment the Jews will repent in large numbers and confess Jesus as Lord, and so all Israel will be saved (Rom. 11:26-27). In this section of Romans he addresses quite transparently the tension between divine promise and historical reality. I think he probably keeps an open mind—he did not live to see how the Jews would react to the catastrophe of the war against Rome. But he finds in the tradition sufficient evidence of the deeply troubled relationship between Israel and YHWH to be able to contemplate the “final” exclusion of his people as a people from the promises made to the patriarchs.

In any case, by this stage Paul is convinced that the supreme eschatological end is in sight. The God of Israel is also the God of the nations (Rom. 3:29), and he can now see how this theological conviction may become a historical reality.

Carroll argues that there was no public fulfilment of the Old Testament eschatological vision, but this is not the case. The central faith of the early churches was not only that Jesus had been raised from the dead; it was that the significance of this controversial claim would eventually be demonstrated in two momentous historical events.

The brazen expectation that the pagan world would bow the knee to the one creator God would not be fulfilled by any of the works of second temple Judaism. Quite the opposite. Those works would bring the nation to destruction. So Jesus would thereby be proved right, in a very public fashion: not the old management of the vineyard would inherit the future but a new people. What changed things was the faith of those who joined the early Christ-honouring movement, not least the faith of those Gentiles who were beginning to believe that the “Son” of the living God—the “root of Jesse”—would eventually rule over their own world and not over a post-war people of God only (Rom. 15:12).

When prophecy went more or less according to plan

So there, I think, we have a comprehensive response to Carroll’s analysis of the reinterpretation of prophecy in the New Testament. The whole history of the next two or three hundred years was the unequivocal public fulfilment of the supreme Old Testament hope that the God of Israel would be acclaimed by the idolatrous and hostile nations. If Israel had known the things that made for peace (Lk. 19:42), it might have turned out differently. But as it was, Jesus was proved right, and eventually Paul was proved right.

The nations confessed as Lord Israel’s crucified messiah, who was understood to have been a descendant of David according to the flesh but was more importantly recognised as Son of God in power by virtue of his resurrection from the dead—heir to the nations, seated at the right hand of the Father (Rom. 1:1-4; cf. Ps. 2:7; 110:1). It’s not what the psalmist had in mind, but under the circumstances it is hardly surprising that the early Jewish church found this a compelling way to express the conviction that their vision of a transformed future would survive the intense opposition of their enemies.

The destruction of Jerusalem and the devastation of the land meant that this king must reign from a heavenly Jerusalem. That couldn’t be helped. But the pilgrimage of the kings and peoples of the nations found an entirely realistic fulfilment in the emergence of Christendom. Of course, it took longer than people hoped; there was a problem of the delay of the revelation of Jesus to the nations. But the point to stress is that it happened within the historical horizon of the apostolic mission, within a foreseeable future. The pagan world that Paul addressed in Athens, according to Luke’s story, was the pagan world that eventually repudiated its idolatrous practices and turned to serve the living God.

Finally, there is no Old Testament expectation that this “eschaton” would be marked by a fundamental repristination of the natural order, and the New Testament does not attempt to paint it in such terms. Christ will continue to rule in the midst of his enemies until the last enemy, death, has been destroyed (1 Cor. 15:24-28). Kingdom is a historical category, and history is always messy, unpredictable, and subject to re-narration.

  • 1Carroll, Robert P. “Prophecy and Dissonance: A Theoretical Approach to the Prophetic Tradition.” Zeitschrift für die Alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 92.1 (1980) 108-119.

“In a narrative-historical hermeneutic, prophecy is understood more as reflection on and interpretation of historical experience within a coherent political-religious tradition.

In the narrative-historical perspective, history precedes both prophecy and the interpretation of prophecy. Prophecy may still be predictive, but futures are re-imagined in response to historical developments. Prophecy is a way of making sense of history in the light of the tradition and in order to maintain the tradition under changing circumstances.”

Hi Andrew,

please excuse my ignorance. Are there any other authors that have similar hermeneutic as yours that you can recommend. Thanks.

I always struggle with this question. The hermeneutical and exegetical basis for treating prophecy as a mode of historical reflection, subject to certain historical constraints, is widely determined in the critical literature. My argument about the second horizon of the conversion of the Greek-Roman world is not so well supported, but there are a number of scholars whose work seems to me to lean in this direction—I’m thinking of Adela Yarbro Collins, David Litwa, Paula Fredriksen off the top of my head. What I don’t often see is any serious attempt by New Testament scholars to explore the practical or missional implications of the historical perspective for the life, ministry, and mission of the church.

Conversely, when pastors and missiologists and the like look to the New Testament, what they tend to find is a largely ahistorical basis for predetermined theological commitments—either personal salvation or, more recently perhaps, redemption of the cosmos. See, for example, “Greg Beale’s multi-storied new-creational kingdom theology.”

For a more sane biblical hermeneutic you might consider Pete Enns’ work, or Kenton Sparks’ “God’s Word in Human Words: An Evangelical Appropriation of Critical Biblical Scholarship.”

I don’t think I would recommend Goetz’s take on Christian Futurism. He allows that prophecy may be conditional, but it seems to me fundamentally unhistorical to project the bulk of New Testament apocalyptic expectation beyond the horizons of the early church.

Thanks for this one, Andrew. My question is the same as Jo’s. I have one book (unread) that might be relevant: Conditional Futurism: New perspectives on end-time prophecy by James Goetz.