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Outlines of Dogmatic Theology
CHAPTER V: PROPHECY.
55. Subject of the Chapter. — In this chapter we shall discuss some of the Messianic prophecies found in the Old Testament, and point out the conclusive proof which they afford of the Divinity of the Christian Revelation, in spite of all the criticism to which they have been subjected.
56. Nature of the Argument. — The incapacity of man to see into the distant future with any approach to precision is one of the commonplaces of moralists. Even in a physical matter, such as the weather, the forecasts for merely a single day are vague, and are often falsified by the event; and where the action of free-will comes in, the most far-sighted statesman will not pretend to say what will be the state of public affairs a month hence, much less to foretell the actions of individuals, which are always less reducible to rule than those of masses of men. If, then, we find a case where a detailed prophecy has been committed to writing, and has received its fulfilment after the lapse of a century, we must admit that it is the effect of some power above nature: and the same tests that we mentioned in regard to miracles (n. 32) will guide us in judging whether or not this power is Divine. We shall show in this chapter that prophecies answering to these requirements have attested the Christian Revelation, whence it follows that this Revelation is Divine.
In addition to what we have already proved, we shall assume, what is not called in question, that the writings of the Old Testament existed some time before the rise of Christianity.
57. Vague expectations. — The subject may be introduced by remarking that about the time of the rise of Christianity, expectation ran high throughout the world that some great change was impending, and men's thoughts were turned to the Jewish nation as destined to produce some great man who would change the course of public events. We read this expressly in Tacitus, who was a boy at the time in question and may be said to speak from his own knowledge. Writing of the year 70, he says (Histories, 5, 13): "There was a widespread persuasion that according to the ancient books of the priests the time had come when the East should regain its strength and those should come forth from Judæa that should master the world." The expressions of Suetonius, also a contemporary, are still stronger (Vesp. 4): "A steady conviction had long been rife in the East that at this very time those should come forth from Judaea who were destined to master the world." Josephus the Jew testifies that this prophecy was found in the sacred writings of his nation (Wars of the Jews, 6, 5, 4); and he probably had this passage in his mind when he saluted Vespasian as destined to be Emperor, and thereby gained release from his bonds and the favour of the great man. (Wars, 3, 8, 9, and 3, 10, 7.)
At the very time of which these authors speak, the prophecy in question was receiving its fulfilment: a power had lately gone forth from Judæa and was mastering the world: this power was the Christian religion.
58. Daniel. — The vague expectations of which we have been speaking were not without a written basis. Whatever difference of opinion there may be as to the date when the Book of the Prophet Daniel was put into its present shape, no critics doubt that it was in existence substantially in the shape in which we now have it at least a century and a half before the Christian era. We believe that its true date is still earlier, by two hundred and fifty years, but the later date is sufficient for our purpose, and we wish for brevity's sake to avoid all historical or critical controversy, as far as possible. Now there was nothing in the situation of the Jewish people in the middle of the second century before Christ, to suggest that in any sense they were destined ever to become masters of the world, while to fix a time when the process should begin, not immediately, but after five or six generations should have passed away, was certainly a work surpassing all the possibilities of human sagacity. The history of the Jewish nation at the period in question is known in outline with perfect certainty: they had successfully resisted the Greek King Antiochus, who endeavoured to force them to abandon their ancestral religion and peculiar customs, and they had been admitted to an alliance of nominal equality and real dependence with Rome itself, as may be read in the eighth chapter of the First Book of Machabees; but although strong in their inflexibility, they had shown no signs of aggressive power, or inclination to attack their neighbours, nor had they any apostolic spirit inducing them to bring over converts to their religion; such proselytes were received if they offered themselves, but there was no activity in seeking to attract them on spiritual grounds: social and commercial considerations sometimes induced heathens to submit to circumcision, but such men were in no great esteem: there were many more who attended the Synagogue worship and professed to observe some parts of the moral law as it was understood by the Jews, but the bond attaching these "proselytes of the gate" to the nation was of the loosest description: the circumcised "proselytes of righteousness" were fully incorporated.
Now let the ninth chapter of the Book of Daniel be read, and it will be seen that in the midst of much that is obscure, it is clear that a revelation is described which "the man Gabriel," a Divine messenger, is represented as giving to the Prophet, in answer to his prayer: and according to this revelation, "Christ the Prince" would come after the lapse of a certain space of time from the going forth of the edict to build up Jerusalem again: and few critics are found to question the common belief that this space of time is expressed by weeks of years, and amounts to something less than five centuries. Further, it cannot be doubted that the "going forth of the edict," whatever it precisely meant, took place about five hundred years before the rise of Christianity, which religion at once began the work of mastering the world, which it accomplished, so far as the Roman Empire was concerned, when after the lapse of three more centuries Constantine gave civil recognition to the new religion. The minute discussion of this famous prophecy belongs to commentators upon the Book of Daniel, and they find considerable difficulty in determining the exact sense of each phrase, and the manner in which it received its accomplishment: but their doubts do not extend to more than a few years' difference in the results, and this does not affect the broad view which we have taken, and which is sufficient for our purpose. This at least stands out clearly: a writer who lived not later than a century and a half before Christ foretold within a few years the date at which a Prince would come Who should be slain, but on Whose death iniquity should be abolished. The Founder of Christianity was a Prince Who answered to this description, and came at the destined time: He was a Prince, for notwithstanding His death of shame, His followers went forth from Jerusalem and mastered the world. We have here a prophecy which plainly surpasses the natural power of man, and no one will suggest that it was diabolic; it remains, therefore, that the prediction was Divine, and that the Prince was in a special sense a messenger from God.
59. An objection answered. — Those writers who do not admit the interpretation which we have given of this passage of Daniel, generally explain it as being a "prophecy after the event," and make out that it refers to the defeat of the attempt of Antiochus to destroy the religion and national existence of the Jews. But this interpretation is open to the difficulty that the "Christ, the Prince" of the Prophet, is spoken of as a single person, while no one man stood conspicuously forward in the struggle against the Greek tyrant; the Machabean family took the leading part, but there was no one member of the family who took so leading a part as to account for his being spoken of as the Anointed Prince, to the exclusion of the rest. Moreover, there is no possibility of making the chronology suit with this explanation; there is no way of making out that seventy weeks was the interval between the appearance of the edict for the rebuilding of the city and the exploits which brought the War of Independence to a glorious termination. This interval cannot have been very different from three hundred and fifty years.
The main objection to the Messianic interpretation of the Seventy Weeks is based on the assertion that prophecy is never definite as to times and places. But this principle, as we have already pointed out, is of its own nature incapable of proof, for the whole matter depends upon the free-will of God, which man cannot discern; and if the principle means no more than that in fact no such prophecies exist, then it cannot, without a manifest petitio principii, be adduced as proving that a particular prophecy does not disclose the future in a definite manner. In fact, the Scriptures contain many prophecies which Christians assert to be perfectly definite, and to have been exactly fulfilled; the upholders of the principle that we have been speaking of must discuss each of these on its merits, and show that the words do not bear the meaning put upon them. In matters of this kind, induction is useless unless it rise to the character of perfect induction, and then it is a truism.
60. Micheas. — We proceed to the discussion of a prophecy which is definite in regard to place. It relates to the town of Bethlehem, which lies about six miles south of Jerusalem, in the territory which formerly belonged to the tribe of Juda. This town in primitive times had the name of Ephrata, as is recorded in Genesis xxxv. 19, xlviii. 7; we have no account of the circumstances that led to the change of name. There was another Bethlehem in the tribe of Zabulon (Josue xix. 15), by way of distinction from which the town near Jerusalem is spoken of as Bethlehem Ephrata, or Bethlehem of Juda. It is noticeable that the name is not found in the Hebrew text of the fifteenth chapter of the Book of Josue, where the towns of Juda are enumerated, and the omission has given some trouble to interpreters; the name is found in the Septuagint, after verse 59. In 2 Paral. xi. 6, it is mentioned among the cities of Juda which Roboam "built," or fortified, and its name occurs in connection with the family of David, who came from there. It still retains its name, and has a population of some 3,000 Christians.
This town of Bethlehem is mentioned in a passage found in the Book of the Prophet Micheas. (v. 2.) This book was certainly written long before the Birth of Christ; probably as much as seven hundred years. The Prophet has been speaking of the events that were destined to come to pass "in the last days," that is to say, at some indefinite future time. In the fourth chapter, the Jewish people are told that they shall be carried captive to Babylon, and this specification of place should be observed; but they are to be delivered, and to become strong against their enemies; after which comes the verse that we are to consider: "And thou, Bethlehem Ephrata, art a little one among the thousands of Juda; out of thee shall He come forth unto Me that is to be the ruler in Israel; and His going forth is from the beginning, from the days of eternity:" that is to say, the petty town of Bethlehem is congratulated on its destiny, that it is to be the birthplace of Him Who is to be the Captain of the people in their triumphant struggle with their enemies, and Who shares the eternity of God.
The Gospels of St. Matthew and St. John afford us proof that this prophecy was understood at the time of the Birth of the Founder of the Christian religion, and that it was fulfilled by His Birth at Bethlehem, to which place His Mother, leaving her home at Nazareth, had journeyed for a temporary purpose. We read the circumstances of the Birth in the first chapter of St. Matthew's Gospel; and in the second chapter, when King Herod asked the chief priests and scribes where Christ should be born, they answered: "In Bethlehem of Juda. For so it is written in the Prophet: And thou, Bethlehem, the land of Juda, art not the least among the princes of Juda; for out of thee shall come forth the Captain that shall rule My people Israel." And in St. John (vii. 42) we find the supposed birth of our Lord in Galilee treated as conclusive against His claim to be considered the Messiah; for, it was asked, Doth not the Scripture say, that Christ cometh "of the seed of David and from Bethlehem, the town where David was?"
That Christ was to be of the seed of David is not declared in the passage of Micheas; the popular and well founded impression on the subject to which St. John testifies, was probably derived from i Paral. xvii. 14, and Psalm cxxxi. 11.
The meaning of the prophecy as to the place of birth is so clear as not to call for explanation. In the face of it, the fact that our Lord had His ordinary residence in Nazareth, and was supposed to have been born there, was a real difficulty, but one which a little inquiry would have cleared up, for His Mother was living and accessible (St. Matt, xii. 47; St. John xix. 25); and it was probably from her that St. Matthew and St. Luke learned the particulars of the visit to Bethlehem that they have recorded. (St. Matt. ii. 1-12; St. Luke ii. 1-20.) This instance illustrates what we shall see in the Treatise on Faith (nn. 313, 314), that the motives leading men to believe in God and His Revelation are sufficient to remove all reasonable doubt, but not so evident as to force the will to a consent which would not be free, and therefore not meritorious. (See Denz. 1661.)
It will be observed that the words of the priests reported in St. Matthew's Gospel are not absolutely identical with the citation from the Prophet. The differences between the passages are quite immaterial, but there is no verbal identity. Indeed, at first sight there is a contradiction: the Prophet says that Bethlehem is little, and he is cited as saying that Bethlehem is not little; but a moment's thought will show that this contradiction is merely apparent, and that both forms of expression convey the same sense: the petty town of Bethlehem is to be ennobled by the Birth of the Saviour. The latter part of this prophecy relates to the eternal generation of the Saviour, as will be explained in our Treatise on the Blessed Trinity.
61. Fulfilments of Prophecy. — The passage of Micheas which we have been considering appears to relate to Christ in its direct and most literal sense, and to be most properly a prophecy. The same cannot be said of two other passages from the Old Testament which are quoted by St. Matthew in connection with the visit of the Magi to Bethlehem, and a few remarks upon them will be useful. The first is the passage from Osee xi. 1, quoted in St. Matt. ii. 15; the second, quoted in the 18th verse of the same chapter, is taken from Jerem. xxxi. 15.
The Prophet Osee, in this chapter, is describing the fortunes of the Israelite nation. When young, and as a child, it was brought forth from the slavery of Egypt by the power of God, and yet in its ingratitude it fell off to idolatry. All this seems to have nothing to do with the sojourn of our Lord in Egypt, and yet St. Matthew tells us that the return from that land of exile was a fulfilment of that prophecy. The apostate Emperor Julian, in the seventh book of his work against the Christians, accused the Evangelist of practising upon the simplicity of his readers, as St. Jerome tells us in the third book of his Commentary on Osee. (P.L. 25, 195.) Eusebius (Demonstr. Evang. 9, 4; P.G. 22, 665) boldly maintains that the prophecy has direct reference to Christ, and perhaps Julian had him in mind as one whom the Evangelist had deceived. But it is better to adopt the view of Jerome (I.c.), who holds that the passage primarily relates to the delivery of the Israelites from Egypt under Moses; but it regards this recall of the chosen people from the land of banishment to the land of promise as an acted prophecy of the return of Christ from Egypt to Judaea. God can foreshadow the future by events no less than by words; and He is said to use this mode of speaking by types, when His providence has so arranged the course of one event as to make it prefigure some future event, which is called the antitype.
In the passage from Jeremias quoted by St. Matthew, the case seems to be different. If we still follow the interpretation of St. Jerome, in his sixth Book on Jeremias (P.L. 24, 876), this passage of the Prophet refers exclusively to the circumstances of the captivity of the ten tribes; and the wailing of the mothers whose sons were suffering the penalty of their crimes cannot be a type of what occurred when the Holy Innocents were slaughtered. It follows that, according to this great Doctor, the Evangelist merely "accommodated" the words of the Prophet to the matter which he was describing, and did not adduce them as prophetic of the event. The case serves to illustrate the meaning of the word "accommodation," even if we hold that the Evangelist adduced the passage as directly applicable. As to this, see the matter discussed in Father Knabenbauer's Commentary on St. Matthew.
These three passages, cited by St. Matthew in w. 6, 15, 18, of his second chapter, are specimens of three ways in which the Old Testament is used in the New. In the passage of Micheas we have a direct prophecy of the event, and the Gospel calls attention to the fulfilment of this prophecy; in that from Osee, the Prophet refers to a past event, which event was typical, and therefore prophetic of that which the Gospel records; the passage from Jeremias may have been in no sense prophetic, but its words are used by the Evangelist as aptly expressing a matter which was not contemplated by the Prophet, nor if we may use the expression, by the Holy Spirit Who spoke through him. It will be observed that the form of citation is not the same in the 18th as in the 15th verse: in the earlier case we have ut adimpleretur — `ὶνα πληρὼθη — "in order that it might be fulfilled;" in the latter, tunc adimpletum est — Τὸτε ὲπληρὼθη —"then was fulfilled." But the question to which class any particular citation is to be referred cannot be settled off-hand by merely observing the words of introduction; but the judgment of interpreters must be exercised upon all the circumstances of the case, and after all there is often room left for doubt. Thus, Cornelius à Lapide follows St. Jerome in the way he understands the passage from Osee, but differs from him as to that taken from Jeremias.
62. Other Messianic Prophecies. — There are many other prophecies concerning the Messiah to be found in the Old Testament, some authors collecting as many as a hundred. We can do no more than briefly notice one or two. The name of Proto-Evangelium, or Primitive Gospel, is given to the first passage of the kind, in Genesis iii. 15, where God promises that there should be enmities between the seed of the woman and the serpent, whose head should finally be crushed: a prophecy which concerns more particularly the Blessed Mother of the Saviour. A series of passages record the promises that the Deliverer should be descended from Abraham (Genesis xii. 3), from Isaac (Genesis xxvi. 4), and from Jacob. (Genesis xxviii. 14.) The much controverted passage in Genesis xlix. 8-12, may perhaps be taken as showing that He should descend from Juda, that son of Jacob on whom his father pronounced this blessing; but it refers more particularly to the time of coming of this Redeemer, which should take place before national independence was altogether lost to the Jewish people. The same mode of indicating the date is generally thought to be also adopted by the Prophet Aggeus, whose office was to encourage the people who were engaged in erecting a second Temple at Jerusalem, in place of that which had been built by Solomon and destroyed by the Assyrians. Some of the elders, who had seen the glory of the Temple of Solomon, lamented that with all their efforts, that which they now were raising fell so short of that which they remembered; and to comfort them, Aggeus, speaking in the name of God, declared (ii. 7 10) that the time should come when the glory of the later house should be greater than that of the first; and he gives the reason which, according to the Vulgate translation, is that He Whom all nations desire should come to that house. These words cannot bear any interpretation except that which refers them to the Messiah; and since this second Temple was destroyed by Titus in A.D. 70, it follows that He has come long ago. It follows further that the passage avails in Catholic theology as a proof that this coming has now past; for, as will be shown in its proper place (n. 152), the authority of the Vulgate is such that no dogmatic error is deducible from its words. But it by no means follows that the Vulgate correctly represents what the Prophet wrote, and in the present case there is great difficulty in accepting the version, unless we suppose that the Hebrew text is corrupt. In the Hebrew the verb is in the plural, and its subject is a collective, so that the meaning is "the desirable things shall come," whether it be the things which the nations desire or which they possess; either way the verse would contain an assurance that the treasures of the nations should one day be lavished in adorning this second house; as was in fact done by the hands of Herod the Great, as described by Josephus. (Antiquities, 15, 11, 3.) The same meaning is given by the Greek of the Septuagint: but, nevertheless, the Vulgate interpretation finds defenders. See Corluy (Spicilegium, i, 520), who upholds the Latin, and Knabenbauer (Prophetæ Minores, 2, 187-199), who deserts it.
The latter part of the Book of Isaias (xlii.-Ixvi.) is full of descriptions of the rejection of Christ, His sufferings and Death; and many circumstances are alluded to by Zacharias; also the Psalms afford a large number of passages, four at least being entirely Messianic. (Psalms ii. xliv. Ixxi. and cix.)
63. Prophetic Allusions. — In the case of many of these passages the reference to Christ is so clear that it can scarcely be questioned, but there are others where the meaning cannot be demonstrated. In the case of these obscurer passages, no fair judgment can be formed concerning the allusion except by those who admit the Messianic interpretation of the clearer texts. Just as was remarked in the case of miracles (n. 32), so with prophecies; there is a family likeness among them, and those who have made acquaintance with some members of the family will easily recognize the rest; only, care must be taken that specimens of undoubted genuineness are chosen for study.
The full force of the argument for the Christian Revelation founded on the prophecies contained in the Old Testament cannot be understood without a discussion of the whole of these passages, to show their orderly sequence. Such a discussion will be found in various works devoted to the special subject, but it would carry us far beyond our limits to attempt it.
64. Recapitulation. — In the chapter on Prophecy, after stating the nature of the argument, we quoted Tacitus, Suetonius, and Josephus, to show that at the coming of Christ, a vague expectation existed throughout the world that some power, springing from Judæa would establish itself and rule. The origin of this expectation was then traced to the prophecy of Daniel, and Micheas was quoted as declaring that Bethlehem should be the birthplace of the Saviour. Various modes of the fulfilment of prophecy were explained, and a large number of Messianic prophecies were briefly indicated.