Response to...

"The Fabulous Prophecies of the Messiah"

Part VIII - John the Baptist as the Forerunner

Ministry Prophecies

Alleged prophecies about Jesus' life and ministry claim that he would be preceded by a messenger (i.e., John the Baptist), that he would have a ministry in Galilee, that he would perform miracles, and that he would have a triumphant entry into the city of Jerusalem on a donkey. The first of these, that he would be preceded by a messenger, refers to Isaiah 40:3, which reads, "A voice is calling, 'clear the way for the Lord in the wilderness; make smooth in the desert a highway for our God.'" This verse speaks not of a messenger for the Messiah, but of the Jews being released from the Babylonian captivity.

To answer this part of Jim's objection we will need to verify that Is 40.3 WAS considered messianic in the time of Jesus. If it can be demonstrated that it WAS so understood (esp. by non-Christians) AND if we can make a case that the TEXT ITSELF was 'messianic' (implying the 1st century non-Christian interpretations were not 'too far off'), then Jim's objection vaporizes.

So, how will we need to proceed?

  1. we will check the text itself for any clues as to how it was to be understood
  2. then we check out the NEAR context
  3. then we check out the FAR context
  4. we will need to check the EXTERNAL data-any 1st century Palestinian references to it--Dead Sea Scrolls, early rabbinix stuff, etc.

First, what elements in the text count FOR a messianic, and which count FOR a strictly "return from Babylonian captivity" meaning?

(Well, we IMMEDIATELY run into a methodological problem here. For, even IF we show it applies to the return from exile, we have ALREADY shown how this was interpreted typologically in ancient Israel AND in 1st century 'rabbinical' Judaism, and therefore we would have a messianic passage ANYWAY!)

But, let's look at the text anyway...what observations can we make from the 40.3 passage?

So, at first blush, it looks TOTALLY MESSIANIC...there seems to be NOTHING AT ALL in there about the exiles...But, we need to see the NEAR and FAR context.

The NEAR context is roughly the chapter from 40.1 to .11 (vs 12 starts a major section on "God the incomparable").


The passage seems to fit together like this:

This NEAR context would suggest that our passage fits into the promises of Restoration (but we have already seen that this is a 'type' of the coming of the Messiah, so it would still be appropriate to see it messianically.)

What about the FAR context? The Far context in this case would be those passages that were 'linked' to it by keywords, such as 'desert', 'highway', 'voice', 'wilderness' etc.

The main passages that are associated with this are Is 35.1-10, Hosea 2.14, Mal 3.1, Ex 23.20.

In Is 35.1-10, we have the same basic elements as in 40.1-10 (desert-v.1,6, wilderness-v.1,6, the glory of YHWH-v.2, He will save-v.4, highway-v.8, the return-v.10, speaking words of comfort-v. 4).

But this passage goes WAY BEYOND a simple Restoration--it has elements of the Paradise-state in it (desert blooming; healing of the blind, deaf, lame; steams in the desert; no dangerous beasts; only the redeemed are there). This 'heightening' is EXACTLY what creates a high-visibility TYPE. Cf. Goppelt, in TYPOS:39:

God prepares a way through the wilderness for his redeemed people. As in the first Exodus, God will lead them through the wilderness and give them water from the rock to drink. From the rock the paradisaical water will flow. The introduction of features from paradise produces the typological heightening; they make the new appear to be a state of perfection.
[The smaller passage Hosea 2.14 refers to 'desert' and 'exodus', tightening the link.]

The Exodus 23.20 passage ("'See, I am sending an angel ahead of you to guard you along the way and to bring you to the place I have prepared."), with its promise of a 'messenger' to lead the way in the FIRST Exodus, was EXPRESSLY linked to the messenger of Malachi 3.1 by the rabbis (Exodus R 23.20)-in a messianic context. [They also said, in that passage, that the messenger was Elijah, identifying the 'voice' also with Mal 4.5f.]

In the Malachi 3.1 passage, Malachi builds on the imagery of Is 40.3, using the 'prepare the way' motif. The 'prepare the way' motif was tightly connected with Isaiah's views of the Restoration AND the Messianic age. [We noted the Is 40.3-5 passage that portrayed YHWH Himself as traveling on the road; another passage linking the 'preparation of the highway' with the Advent of YHWH is Is 62.10ff:

Pass through, pass through the gates! Prepare the way for the people. Build up, build up the highway! Remove the stones. Raise a banner for the nations. The LORD has made proclamation to the ends of the earth: "Say to the Daughter of Zion, `See, your Savior comes! See, his reward is with him, and his recompense accompanies him.'"
[Note: 'prepare the way' for the 'Savior'! Other passages with overlapping imagery are 57.14, 11.15-16, 43.19, 49.11; 61.1f, 62.10f]

To try to summarize this data:

1. the First Exodus was preceded by a messenger, who was typologically linked to the messenger of Mal 3.1 by the rabbis;
2. Is 40.1-10 described the same events as did Is 35.1-12--the Restoration from Babylon, but with the heightening that 'tips us off' to typological content;
3. Malachi builds on the imagery of Is 40.3, using the 'prepare the way' motif.

So, what we end up with are passages in Isaiah that have STRONG typological content about the Messianic age, and a tight link between Mal 3.1 (a 'pure' messianic passage; not typological) and the "voice crying 'prepare'" in Is 40.3. (We also have a link between Mal 3.1, 4.5 and Ex 23.20).

What this nets out to is that the INTERNAL data tends to support a 'messianic' (via typology) interpretation of the Is 40.3 passage.

Now, do we have any EXTERNAL confirmation that Is 40.3 was understood messianically by non-Christians before Jesus?

VERY DEFINITELY--both at Qumran and in the Rabbinical literature.

The Qumran community specifically understood Is 40.3 in this sense. There are two references to Is 40.3 in the Manual of Discipline:

When these men [Qumran elders] exist in Israel, these are the provisions whereby they are to be kept apart from any consort with froward men, to the end that they may indeed 'go into the wilderness to prepare the way', i.e. do what Scripture enjoins when it says, 'Prepare in the wilderness the way...make straight in the desert a highway for our God' [MD 8.12-16]
The purpose of such discussions is to guide the minds of the members of the community to give them insight into God's inscrutable wonders and truth, and to bring them to walk blamelessly each with his neighbor in harmony with all that has been revealed to them. For this is the time when 'the way is being prepared in the wilderness', and it behooves them to understand all that is happening. [MD 9.118-20]
These quotes indicate both that the Qumran community understood the verse messianically, but also that they saw it fulfilled in THEM:
Isaiah 40.3 was used by the community of Qumran as a rationale for leading a separated life in the desert, where they believed they were preparing the way of the Lord by means of constant reading of the Law (1QS 8.12-16; 9.19-20). [Liefeld, EBC: Luke 3.4-6]

Qumran saw itself literally fulfilling Isaiah's prophecy by its life of study and torah-observance situated precisely in the desert of Judea...[MJ:2.87]

When we turn to the Rabbinic material, we find a couple of references that cite Is 40.3 messianically, as well.

First, we have a passage in the Midrash on Lamentations 1:2, in which Is 40.3 is cited as one of the blessings upon Israel in the messianic age;

Second, we have a later passage in the Talmud by Tanhuma, citing 40.3 messianically in the comments on Deut 1.1 (it is ALSO associated with Is 35.1 in this passage--a link we noted earlier)

Third, the Targum on 40.9, renders the phrase 'Behold your God' with 'The Kingdom of your God shall be manifested'--remarkably similar to the preaching of John the Baptist and Jesus.

So, the rabbinic literature ALSO witnesses to a messianic understanding of Is 40.3.

This data demonstrates quite clearly that Is 40.3 was understood messianically in the time of Jesus.

Summary: Both the INTERNAL data and the 'hard' EXTERNAL data support the understanding of Is 40.3 messianically.

Another verse claimed to offer the same prophecy is Malachi 3:1, which says "Behold, I am going to send my messenger, and he will clear the way before me. ..." This may be plausibly taken as a messianic prophecy. But did John the Baptist actually "clear the way" as a messenger for Jesus? The historian Flavius Josephus writes about John the Baptist, but makes no link of his name with that of Jesus (Antiquities of the Jews, 18.5.2; Josephus (1985), p. 382).

This is hardly surprising, given the context of the passage in Josephus. He is explaining why the Jews thought that the destruction of Herod's army was a judgment by God (for having J the B killed). In Section one, he describes the occasion of the surprising destruction of H's army--his treachery against the daughter of Aretas. The battle between the two resulted in H's army being totally destroyed. In Section Two, Josephus explains why the Jews believed it was a judgment on him. The story goes that suspicious Herod killed John the Baptist because of his fear of his potential to create an insurrection. H knew that J the B was VERY popular with the Jews--WHICH popularity was explained by Josephus as due to Jewish pleasure at John's preaching of virtue. [THE FACT OF HIS LINK WITH JESUS WOULD HARDLY HAVE BEEN A CAUSE FOR JOHN'S POPULARITY WITH THE JEWS!--the whole point of this passage.]

To what extent Josephus mentally linked the Baptist with Jesus is unknown; what IS known is that it would have made NO SENSE WHATSOEVER to make that connection IN THIS PASSAGE on John's popularity.

So, the silence of Josephus, in this one passage, can hardly be construed as an argument against the Baptist's role as forerunner.

The earliest of Christian writings, the letters of Paul, make no mention of John the Baptist.

I am not sure we should expect Paul's letters (all to Gentiles) to talk about the 'messenger to the Jews'. John the Baptist describes his mission SPECIFICALLY in terms of the Jews, in John 1.31:

I myself did not know him, but the reason I came baptizing with water was that he might be revealed to Israel."

But, at the same time, the main focus of apostolic preaching was the life, words, death, and resurrection of Jesus. We see very little material on his birth, early life, confrontation with the Jewish oligarchy, etc. in the epistles--they stay focused on the central message of Who Jesus was (The God-man messiah), What Jesus did (unleashed the Kingdom power by His willing sacrificial death on the Cross for us, and subsequent resurrection), and Why He Did it (because of His love, compassion, and commitment to us). [It is only later that the material about these other items become important, and hence get recorded in the Gospels.]

We DO know that Paul KNEW about John the Baptist and his message. In Acts 19 we have a record of an encounter between Paul and some of John's disciples:

While Apollos was at Corinth, Paul took the road through the interior and arrived at Ephesus. There he found some disciples 2 and asked them, "Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?" They answered, "No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit." 3 So Paul asked, "Then what baptism did you receive?" "John's baptism," they replied. 4 Paul said, "John's baptism was a baptism of repentance. He told the people to believe in the one coming after him, that is, in Jesus." 5 On hearing this, they were baptized into the name of the Lord Jesus.

What Paul simply does is to follow the teaching of John to its designed conclusion--which pointed to Jesus. John was the forerunner; Jesus the entering Savior (Is 62)--it is the King who is celebrated, not the herald who runs before the King!

So, we shouldn't be surprised that Paul doesn't expound on John's ministry (there is nothing about Jesus' mother either).

The gospels (and the book of Acts, written by the author of Luke) are the only real evidence of a link. But the gospel evidence does not hold up. The gospel of John shows John the Baptist explicitly recognizing Jesus as the Messiah (John 1:25-34) before being cast into prison by Herod (John 3:23-24). But the gospels of Matthew (11:2-3) and Luke (7:18-22) depict John the Baptist, in prison, sending his disciples to Jesus to ask if he claims to be the Messiah. If the story in John were true, John the Baptist would have had no reason to ask this question.

If I understand Jim's argument here, he is saying that John the Baptist was not allowed to have any doubts in prison! What we have in this story of John is NOT a 'discrepancy' but a realistic picture of a crisis of understanding.

Consider the setting:

Thus, there are not adequate grounds (at least not in these passages) to reject the gospel accounts (indeed, they make perfect sense in the context of John's message), and thus the gospel evidence 'does hold up'.
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