Jesus or Santa: Who gives the Better Christmas Story?

Christmas has traditionally been about celebrating the birth of Jesus. The Gospel accounts of a virgin birth, angels appearing to shepherds, and wise men traveling from afar to see the baby Jesus in a manger provided a story that was convincing for our great-grandparents. That generation added symbols such as manger scenes, Christmas trees, lights, music and drama (ex. Dickens’ Christmas Carol) to give Christmas the festive foundation so it would become the juggernaut of celebrations that it is today.

But since then, perhaps because of our increasing secularization and modern doubt over the Christmas story (C’mon – a virgin birth – Really?!), we have culturally swapped that story for Santa and his mission to give gifts to boys and girls who have managed to stay off the naughty list. It is a great story for kids, and it can safely be discarded when we get older since it never claims to be true – just safely fun. It seems a better story in our modern world when we can take a needed break from the harsh realities of real life and experience, with our kids, a fun story. So Santa dominates our radio and television and ‘Happy Holidays’ is becoming the Christmas greeting of choice. It is safer for a modern world steeped in doubt, anxious to avoid offending, and happy to have a season to pretend.

I have always loved good stories. Whether mythical (like The Lord of the Rings), sci-fi (like Star Wars), or historical (like Braveheart), a story with an insurmountable challenge or threat, an authentic hero, and a plot that sees the hero vanquish the villain, but in an astonishing way.  Through a drama with a large scope, good stories have always absorbed my attention.

It was when I looked again at the Biblical Christmas story, to before the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ birth that I started to see that it also was a great story, with a plot and a depth that rival all classics. Even taken purely as story, the Biblical Christmas story beats the Santa replacement story just about any way you look at it. But to see this, you need to grasp the Biblical Christmas story as it was meant to be understood – as one chapter in a long epic, spanning the entire universe and enveloping the entire human race.

The Bible Christmas Story from its Beginning

This Christmas story really begins with a Creator. He makes everything that exists, including a Being of immense power, intelligence and beauty whom the Creator refers to as Day Star or Lucifer. Lucifer sets himself up as the Adversary of the Creator – and a universal showdown is on the table. The Creator has also made mankind in His Image so that they are emotional, intellectual and have the power to make choice. The Adversary scores first in their head-to-head by setting in motion a chain of events that results in the corruption of humans, so that they no longer function emotionally, mentally and volitionally as they did originally. Like a computer virus wreaking havoc in your computer, there is now a virus loose in mankind which causes sin – a missing of the target – creating the havoc we see in the world today.

So what would the Creator do? Use his infinite power to annihilate humans, or to imprison the Adversary? Here the plot takes an astonishing twist. Instead of responding with force and power like some cosmic Superman, the Creator makes a promise that He sets out in the form of a Riddle. The Creator’s riddle speaks mysteriously of ‘the woman’ and ‘an offspring’ which is described as a ‘he’. This ‘he’ would crush the ‘head’ of the Adversary. And that was it!  Who the ‘he’ was, or the ‘woman’, exactly how this would unfold – and when – was not clearly stated. The Adversary was now left pondering his next move and the first humans wondering how, and if, this Riddle would develop.

The unfolding Story – through a man and a nation

The drama continues when centuries later another riddle is given, this time to a traveler. This riddle was unique in that it promised a blessing to ‘all nations’.  Like Santa on Christmas Eve this promise was to travel to all the nations of the world – of which you and I are a part. Then, departing from the verbal format, a bizarre drama was acted out on a remote mountain top. Like a play, this drama looked forward to something that ‘will’ happen on the then remote mountain. But the what, when, how and with whom, was not directly stated. Those details remained a mystery. About 500 years later an equally bizarre drama with this same man’s descendants, now in another country, inaugurated a calendar that is still in effect today which contained pregnant markers in its yearly cycle.

Royalty enters the Story

After a further 500 years another chapter in this epic opens up. A certain title – from which we derive the world Christmas today – was inaugurated to a Royal Dynasty. Though spanning generations like today’s British monarchy, the title in this dynasty pointed to a coming specific person who would have worldwide significance.

Unfortunately, this Royal Dynasty, though it began with such promise, was destroyed. Like a tree that is severed from its root, this dynasty was smashed so that only a dead stump remained. Well, the stump was only mostly dead. In fact, through another riddle, it was promised that a Branch would one day shoot up from this seemingly dead stump.

Signs of the Unique Christmas Person

With that severing of the dynasty, the flow of promises, each equally mysterious, began to flow more rapidly through a group of diverse men living in different social strata, countries and cultures. The timing of the budding of the Branch was given, even a name was announced, though somewhat shrouded in imagery. What was not mysterious however was the peculiar ‘sign’ which would accompany it. The crystal clear sign was:

Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel. (Isaiah 7:14 ca. 750 B.C.)

Though that promise seemed understandable (and seemingly impossible), what was not immediately clear was why such a sign was needed. Why was it necessary to circumvent a human father? Was the Creator against sex? In explaining the effect of this birth the riddle pointed back to the virus of sin running amok in our human race. A re-boot of the human species was going to be attempted to stamp out the virus.

But this only deepened the mystery because right after the Virgin birth announcement, the same seer continued with further bizarre predictions by stating that the arrival of this son would:

…In the future he will honor Galilee of the nations, by the Way of the Sea, beyond the Jordan—

The people walking in darkness
have seen a great light …
For to us a child is born, to us a son is given,
and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. (Isaiah 9: 1-2, 6)

How could it be that this ‘son’ would be called and identified with the Creator, the One who was utterly remote from mankind? Would God really become one of us? Before that perplexing question could even be entertained a gruesome ending to this whole saga was given in a funeral song. Or was it an ending?

The drama, riddles and puzzles were all inked and set down thousands of years ago. If you can read Hebrew you can read them all in the most ancient preserved writings of the ancient world – the Dead Sea Scrolls – only unearthed from their storage from deep antiquity a few decades ago. With the last message written there was then a long and expectant wait. Would the drama unfold as it had been written? In fact, was it even possible that all these strands of riddles could ever be simultaneously fulfilled?  Both the learned and unlearned pondered over these riddles as the centuries moved on.

If you skip all this and only start the Biblical Christmas story with Jesus, shepherds and wise men, then you miss the drama, the suspense and development of plot. You do not see the cosmic story. You probably will only see it as an antiquated tradition of your great-grandmother.  But really, the birth of Jesus was the start of a fulfillment of riddles that had spanned centuries.  The riddles kept the Adversary guessing and people living in hopeful expectation.

A Free & Verified Christmas Gift

But if you understand everything from the beginning you get a great story. Better yet, you and I get the opportunity to become characters written into this unfolding and continuing story. As Christmas is just as much about receiving gifts from loved ones as giving them, this story culminates in the offer of a gift to you and me. Receiving this gift does require trust in the Giver, the same kind of trust that Abraham had when he was offered a gift.

Better still, there is plenty of evidence that this is a facts-on-the-ground true story. Unlike Santa Claus, for whom we do not even try to seek verification in the North Pole, or on his sleigh in the sky, or find witnesses who have seen him stuck in a chimney, there is historical corroboration for Jesus – even the virgin birth part of the story. Roman and Jewish historians outside of the Bible refer to him. The places where all the riddles were spelled out and where Jesus walked are terra firma real. There is a Bethlehem, Jerusalem and Mount Moriah. Since we have the story written out for us before it happened we have evidence that there is one Author in this story. The fact that Abraham, Moses, Isaiah, Daniel and the others could specify hundreds of years beforehand the events of Jesus’ birth, life and death is evidence that the Creator – who alone knows the future – has authored this Story, as an invitation for you and me to join Him in it.

If you make no effort you will probably only see and hear variant Santa stories this Christmas.  But, even for just the sake of a good story, I recommend the Biblical Christmas story.  It is much better.  Here is the story from the gospels of Matthew and Luke arranged chronologically.  It is less than 1300 words and will take 5 minutes to read.  You can follow the links therein to see how the account is built upon a deeper drama.  It is worth knowing better.

May it give you a Merry Christmas.

The Feast of Tabernacles: layered like an onion … with meaning

… (and pointing to a future climax?)

Every autumn a somewhat obscure 8-day festival, with a 3500 year history, is celebrated around the world by a rather extraordinary people.  The festival I am referring to is the Jewish Feast of Tabernacles, also known as Sukkot or Feast of Booths.  Since it follows the Jewish lunar calendar it moves from year to year in our calendar (like Easter does), but it is  always celebrated sometime in September-October.  In 2018 it will be celebrated from Sept 23 – Sept 30.

This festival was instituted by Moses to commemorate the years that the Israelites wandered in the desert after their Exodus departure from Egypt.  Therefore, Jews today celebrate the festival by living outdoors in booths or tents through the festive period.  It is thus a festival of cultural and historical meaning.

But the Jews have had a long history, and for much of the Bible period they had a Temple in Jerusalem.  During this period they celebrated the Festival by going on a pilgrimage to the Temple in Jerusalem.  Therefore it also has great ritualistic meaning.

The Feast of Tabernacles (Sukkot) was one of several annual festivals established by Moses which were interspersed through the Jewish year.  Though interesting on their own account, the meaning of these festivals becomes positively intriguing when viewed through the person and career of Jesus.  Because he was a Jew, and since he lived in the Temple period, he celebrated these festivals along with his countrymen.  But on top of that, his person and life seemed to fulfill them.  From that perspective the meaning of these Festivals goes deeper still, like another layer in an onion.  For example, Jesus was crucified and died on Passover, one of these festivals.  The very day instituted by Moses to remember how lamb’s blood saved the early Israelites from death was the day his blood was shed.  This is why today Easter and Passover occur together every year.  I explored the significance of this remarkable timing here.  The coming of the Holy Spirit and the birth of what would become church occurred 50 days after Easter Sunday – exactly on the same day of another Festival started by Moses – the Feast of Weeks (or Pentecost).  I explored the significance of that here, but even without delving into the details, the fact that pivotal historical events landed on multiple festival days that were started over one thousand years beforehand is exclusive to Jewish history.  In fact, all three springtime Jewish Festivals have an exact day-to-day match to a major event in later history.

Jesus at the Feast of Tabernacles

Sukkot, being part of the Jewish autumn festivals does not have a day-to-day match with a New Testament event.  Nonetheless the parallels are striking in a different, perhaps deeper, manner still.  The Gospel of John records Jesus participating in this same Feast of Tabernacles.  But the account records Jesus doing something curious.  It says

37 On the last and greatest day of the festival, Jesus stood and said in a loud voice, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink. 38 Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them.” 39 By this he meant the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were later to receive. Up to that time the Spirit had not been given, since Jesus had not yet been glorified. (John 7:37-39)

 Jewish Feast of Tabernacles festivities in the Temple period

To appreciate the full significance of what he said we need to know how the Jews in Bible times celebrated the Feast of Tabernacles.  Jewish history and their sacred rituals are well documented in the Old Testament and in other sources like the Talmud and Mishna.  The Jewish website http://www.templeinstitute.org/sukkot.htm explains from these sources:

At the foothills of Mount Moriah, down below in the City of David, flows a natural spring called Shiloach. This spring is ancient, and as it is located literally in the shadow of the Holy Temple, it has always had spiritual significance for Israel. It is the original source of Jerusalem’s water.

Every day of the festival [i.e. of Taberncales], the priests descended down to the Shiloach, accompanied by all the congregation assembled in the Temple. There, they filled a golden flask … of the pure water. Ascending back up, carrying the flask with song … the gathering entered back into the Temple through the Water Gate, one of the gates on the southern side of the court (it received its name on account of this event (Shekalim 6, 3). As they entered the gate, their steps were greeted by the sound of trumpets and shofar-blasts, …

Once in the Temple, the priest who had the honor of performing this service now carries the golden flask up the altar ramp. … which took place on exculsively on Sukkot.

“With joy you shall draw water out of the wells of salvation” (Isaiah 12:3).

Based on this verse, the drawing of water from the Shiloach spring and its libation upon the altar of G-d was accompanied by great rejoicing and celebration in the Holy Temple. In fact, this joy was so immense, and the celebrations so uplifting, that the sages of Israel emphatically stated:

“Whoever has never seen the celebrations of the Festival of the Water Libation-has never experienced true joy in his life” (ibid. 5, 1).

But what was the cause of such great happiness, to the extent that this statement was recorded for all posterity? Indeed, what could be so moving about the simple act of gathering up some water, and pouring it onto the altar? …

museum model of Water Gate for Feast of Tabernacles to carry water to the Temple
museum model of Jerusalem Water Gate used in Feast of Tabernacles to carry water to the Temple

So Jesus used the context of the joyful ceremonial gathering of pure water poured on the altar in the Temple during the Feast of Tabernacles to point to himself as likewise giving ‘living water’ to anyone who is ‘thirsty’.  His self-portrait was made vivid in that context to his hearers.

The curious response of Jesus’ hearers

steps leading to Water Gate for Festival of Tabernacles
Photo of the steps leading to Jerusalem Water Gate for Festival of Tabernacles. Jesus would have walked them along with other pilgrims in his day

But still, the response of his hearers seems perhaps a bit excessive.  When they heard his declaration their response was:

40 On hearing his words, some of the people said, “Surely this man is the Prophet.”

41 Others said, “He is the Messiah.”

 

How did Jesus’ hearers go from Jesus’ statement of ‘living water’ to think ‘Messiah’?  At first glance there seems to be no natural connection.

Ancient Jerusalem Water Gate outline can be seen, but it is now sealed
Ancient Jerusalem Water Gate outline can be seen, but it is now sealed

However, there is one key Old Testament passage describing the Feast of Tabernacles and ‘living water’.  But I have to warn you now – it is so apocalyptic that it may not be pleasant to unpack.

Zechariah, Living Water & the Feast of Tabernacles

Zechariah in timeline
Zechariah in Historical timeline

Zechariah wrote of a coming day when:

A day of the Lord is coming, Jerusalem, when … I will gather all the nations to Jerusalem to fight against it … Then the Lord will go out and fight against those nations, as he fights on a day of battle. On that day his feet will stand on the Mount of Olives, east of Jerusalem, and the Mount of Olives will be split in two from east to west, forming a great valley, with half of the mountain moving north and half moving south…

On that day there will be neither sunlight nor cold, frosty darkness. It will be a unique day—a day known only to the Lord—with no distinction between day and night. When evening comes, there will be light.

On that day living water will flow out from Jerusalem, half of it east to the Dead Sea and half of it west to the Mediterranean Sea, in summer and in winter.

The Lord will be king over the whole earth. On that day there will be one Lord, and his name the only name.

16 Then the survivors from all the nations that have attacked Jerusalem will go up year after year to worship the King, the Lord Almighty, and to celebrate the Festival of Tabernacles. 17 If any of the peoples of the earth do not go up to Jerusalem to worship the King, the Lord Almighty, they will have no rain.19 This will be … the punishment of all the nations that do not go up to celebrate the Festival of Tabernacles. (Zechariah 14: 1 – 19)

Here we have a convergence of ‘living water’, the ‘Feast of Tabernacles’ and ‘all the nations’ along with Someone who is ‘King’ and ‘Lord’.  If we understand where the term ‘Messiah’ (= Christ) comes from we will see that this Someone was the Messiah.  This is an Old Testament messianic prophecy.  Hearing Jesus talking about ‘Living Water’ at the Feast of Tabernacles would have reminded his Jewish audience of this very passage and so they would have thought ‘Messiah’.  Hence their response to his Feast of Tabernacles cry.  It is just that Zechariah does not seem to describe Jesus to our modern-day minds.

Zechariah and the ‘one they have pierced’

But that is because I started the quote of Zechariah partway through his prophecy.  It actually begins two chapters earlier.  If we start at that beginning the meaning goes deeper still;

A prophecy: The word of the Lord concerning Israel.

The Lord, who stretches out the heavens, who lays the foundation of the earth, and who forms the human spirit within a person, declares: “I am going to make Jerusalem a cup that sends all the surrounding peoples reeling. Judah will be besieged as well as Jerusalem. On that day, when all the nations of the earth are gathered against her, I will make Jerusalem an immovable rock for all the nations. On that day the Lord will shield those who live in Jerusalem…. On that day I will set out to destroy all the nations that attack Jerusalem.

Mourning for the One They Pierced

10 “And I will pour out on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of grace and supplication. They will look on me, the one they have pierced, and they will mourn for him as one mourns for an only child, and grieve bitterly for him as one grieves for a firstborn son… 

On that day a fountain will be opened to the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, to cleanse them from sin and impurity.  (Zechariah 12:1 – 13:1)

Whether one believes in the Biblical prophets or not, it is clear that in this passage the speaker (the ‘I’) is God, since he “stretches out the heavens … who forms the human spirit within a person” (v. 1).  He is warning of a future day, a terrible day when nations will be destroyed.  But paradoxically the mourning and grief will not center in those nations facing destruction, but rather in Jerusalem, being rescued from destruction by a ‘one they have pierced’.  Who would that be?  Let the descriptions by Isaiah and the Psalmist of one being ‘pierced’ help you answer that question.  Zechariah himself predicted his name.  Yet the pierced one is still, by using the pronoun ‘me’, the same ‘I’ who stretched the heavens and forms the human spirit in a person.  Pretty heady stuff.

Feast of Tabernacles, Hallel prayer & Jesus

This takes us full circle back to the Feast of Tabernacles.  The website describing the Sukkot celebration in Bible times details the prayers that were sung by the pilgrims back then.  It explains

The hallel prayer, a collection of songs of thanksgiving and praise to the Almighty, is one of the oldest and most original examples of traditional Jewish liturgy. It consists of the following chapters from the book of Psalms: 113-118

Therefore, the ending of the hallel prayer which pilgrims (including Jesus) sang on that Feast of Tabernacles when Jesus cried out about ‘Living Water’ was the following from Psalm 118

The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; (Psalm 118: 22)

The Feast of Tabernacles hallel prayer uncannily predicted the career and legacy of Jesus.  Jesus used this very phrase to describe himself when challenged by the Jewish leaders just before his ‘piercing’.  He saw himself as the stone rejected that would become the cornerstone.  And it was sung every Feast of Tabernacles by devout Jewish pilgrims.  Zechariah predicted that complete recognition of this would be accompanied by cataclysmic, even apocalyptic, events.

The ancient 3500 year old Feast of Tabernacles opens many layers of meaning, spanning history and theology, when considered through the person of Jesus Christ.

 

A Funny Gaffe – fit for a Good Friday

The puzzle of Psalm 22

Jesus on crossA few years ago a friend and work colleague, J, wandered over to my desk. J was smart and educated – and definitely not a believer in the gospel. He was skeptical but somewhat curious which gave rise to some warm and open conversations between us. He had never really looked at the Bible so I encouraged him now and then to give it a go.

One day he came into my office with a Bible to show me that he was indeed taking a look. He had opened it randomly in the middle. I asked him what he was reading. I remember our conversation going something like this.

“I am reading in Psalm chapter 22”, he said (pronouncing the ‘P’ in Psalm).

“Really”, I said. “It is pronounced salm – without the ‘p’. Any idea what you are reading about?”

“I guess I am reading about the crucifixion of Jesus”, J replied.

“That’s a good guess”, I laughed. “But you are about one thousand years off. Psalm 22 was written by David around 1000 BC. Jesus’ crucifixion was in 30’s CE.”

J was not familiar with the books in the Bible and did not realize that the Psalms were not the accounts of Jesus’ life by his contemporaries. He had only heard some stories about Jesus, including his crucifixion, and randomly opening his Bible he stumbled on something that, from his perspective, seemed to describe the crucifixion, and not knowing any better, he just assumed it was the story of the crucifixion. He had made a little gaffe – an error- in his first Bible reading exercise. We had a chuckle over his first mis-step in Bible exegesis.

Then I asked J what he saw in Psalm 22 that made him think he was reading about the crucifixion of Jesus. Thus began our little on-the-spot investigative study. I invite you to consider some of the similarities we noticed by placing the passages side-by-side in a table. To help I have color matched the texts that are similar.

Comparison of Gospel accounts of the Crucifixion with the details in Psalm 22

Crucifixion details from the GospelsPsalm 22 – written 1000 BC
(Matthew 27: 31-48) ..Then they led him (Jesus) away to crucify him…. 39 Those who passed by hurled insults at him, shaking their heads 40 and saying, “… save yourself! Come down from the cross, if you are the Son of God!” 41 In the same way the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the elders mocked him. 42 “He saved others,” they said, “but he can’t save himself! He’s the king of Israel! Let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him. 43 He trusts in God. Let God rescue him now if he wants him,…About the ninth hour Jesus cried…“My God, My God, Why have you forsaken me?” …48 Immediately one of them ran and got a sponge. He filled it with wine vinegar, put it on a staff, and offered it to Jesus to drink.Mark 15: 16-2016 The soldiers led Jesus away… They put a purple robe on him, then twisted together a crown of thorns and set it on him. 18 And they began to call out to him, “Hail, king of the Jews!” 19 Again and again they struck him on the head with a staff and spit on him. Falling on their knees, they paid homage to him. 20 And when they had mocked him, they took off the purple robe and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him out to crucify him…37 With a loud cry, Jesus breathed his last.(JOHN 19:34) they did not break his legs..., pierced Jesus’ side with a spear, bringing a sudden flow of blood and water.…they crucified him… (JOHN 20:25) [Thomas] unless I see the nail marks in his hands ,…”…JOHN 20:23-24 When the soldiers crucified Jesus, they took his clothes, dividing them into four shares, one for each of them, with the undergarment remaining…Let’s not tear it”, they said,”Let’s decide by lot who gets it”My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from saving me,
so far from my cries of anguish?
My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer,
by night, but I find no rest…All who see me mock me;
they hurl insults, shaking their heads.
“He trusts in the Lord,” they say,
“let the Lord rescue him.
Let him deliver him,
since he delights in him.”Yet you brought me out of the womb;
you made me trust in you, even at my mother’s breast.
10 From birth I was cast on you;
from my mother’s womb you have been my God.11 Do not be far from me,
for trouble is near
and there is no one to help.12 Many bulls surround me;
strong bulls of Bashan encircle me.
13 Roaring lions that tear their prey
open their mouths wide against me.
14 I am poured out like water,
and all my bones are out of joint.
My heart has turned to wax;
it has melted within me.
15 My mouth is dried up like a potsherd,
and my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth;
you lay me in the dust of death.16 Dogs surround me,
a pack of villains encircles me;
they pierce my hands and my feet.
17 All my bones are on display;
people stare and gloat over me.
18 They divide my clothes among them
and cast lots for my garment.

The fact that J, being astute but not familiar with the Bible, made the logical but wrong conclusion that Psalm 22 was an eye-witness account of the Good Friday crucifixion, should make us ask a question. How do we explain the similarity between these accounts? Can we write it off to chance coincidence that the details can match so precisely as to include that the clothes would BOTH be divided (the clothes with seams were split along the seams and passed out among the soldiers) AND have lots cast (the garment without the seam would be ruined by tearing it so they threw dice for it). Psalm 22 was written before crucifixion was invented but it uncannily describes its various details (piercing of hands and feet, bones being out of joint – by being stretched as the victim hangs). In addition, the Gospel of John states that blood and water flowed out when the spear was thrust in Jesus’ side, indicating a fluid buildup in the pericardium cavity around the heart. Jesus thus died of a heart attack.  This matches the Psalm 22 description of ‘my heart has turned to wax’. The Hebrew word in Psalm 22 which is translated ‘pierced’ literally means ‘like a lion’. In other words the hand and feet were mutilated and mauled as they were pierced. So, what to make of all this?

Jesus, through the pens of the Gospel writers, argued that these similarities were prophetic. God inspired Old Testament prophets hundreds of years prior to Jesus’ life to predict details of his life and death so that we can know that this was all in the plan of God. Prophetic fulfillment is like having a Divine signature on these events of Good Friday since no human can know the future like this.

Bart Ehrman’s explanation

Bart Ehrman, renowned Bible scholar and arch Gospel critic, counters that the prophetic credentials of Psalm 22 are suspect because the whole thrust of the Gospel story was that the ‘Messiah’ or Christ was the one that was supposed to be sacrificed and Psalm 22 says nothing of the victim being the ‘Messiah’. As he states it

“But what to do with the fact that there were no Jewish prophecies that the Messiah would suffer and die?” (Bart Ehrman, Jesus Interrupted. p. 234)

But this raises another issue. It is not that there is just one prophecy (like Psalm 22) that Jesus was to fulfill, but there are scores of them. These are testable predictions by different authors in different time periods and social strata through the Old Testament. So, to take Ehrman at his challenge, Daniel, living in exile in Babylon around 550 BC had a vision in which he was told the following prophetic riddle:

“Know and understand this: From the issuing of the decree to restore and rebuild Jerusalem until the Anointed One, the ruler comes, there will be seven ‘sevens’ and sixty-two ‘sevens’. It will be rebuilt with streets and a trench, but in times of trouble. After the sixty-two ‘sevens’ the Anointed One will be cut off and will have nothing… ” (Daniel 9:25-26)

Hmm. My deepest respects to the New Testament scholar but he missed this in the Old Testament. Here, exactly as he challenged, is a prophecy that the ‘Anointed One’ (= Christ = Messiah) would be ‘cut off’. The timing of this and the details of ‘cut off’, which foresaw the meaning of Jesus’ death, flatly refutes Ehrman’s assertion that there is no Old Testament prophecy where the ‘Christ’ was to suffer and die.

Spong’s explanation

Others, like Shelby Spong (in That Hebrew Lord), argue that the similarity of Psalm 22 with the events of crucifixion of Good Friday are simply due to the fact that the Gospel writers made the events up to ‘fit’ the prophecy. His detailed verse-by-verse analysis showing the similarities between Psalm 22 and Jesus’ crucifixion in the Gospel accounts is data to support his theory that the Gospel writers made up the crucifixion events, taking the details from Psalm 22. At the very least, Spong’s theory means that he thinks the similarities demand an explanation. But his explanation totally ignores the testimony of historians from that time outside of the Bible. Josephus and Tacitus respectively tell us that:

“At this time there was a wise man … Jesus. … good, and … virtuous. And many people from among the Jews and the other nations became his disciples. Pilate condemned Him to be crucified and to die.” (Josephus. 90AD. Antiquities xviii. 33   Josephus was a Jewish Historian)

“Christus, the founder of the name, was put to death by Pontius Pilate, procurator of Judea in the reign of Tiberius” (Tacitus. 117 AD. Annals XV. 44.  Tacitus was a Roman Historian)

Their testimony agrees in broad-brush strokes with the gospels that Jesus was indeed crucified. This is important because many of the details in Psalm 22 are simply particulars of the act of being crucified. If the gospel writers were going to make up or grossly distort the actual events to make them ‘fit’ Psalm 22 then they would basically have had to make up the whole crucifixion, yet no one denies his crucifixion, and Josephus explicitly states that this is how he was executed.

Psalm 22 and Jesus’ legacy

But Psalm 22 does not end at v18 in the table above – it continues seamlessly on. Note here how triumphant the mood is at the end –after the person is dead!

26 The poor will eat and be satisfied; they who seek the LORD will praise him— may your hearts live forever!

27 All the ends of the earth will remember and turn to the LORD,
and all the families of the nations will bow down before him,

28 for dominion belongs to the LORD and he rules over the nations.

29 All the rich of the earth will feast and worship; all who go down to the dust will kneel before him— those who cannot keep themselves alive.

30 Posterity will serve him; future generations will be told about the Lord.

31 They will proclaim his righteousness to a people yet unborn— for he has done it. (Psalm 22:26-31)

Notice that this is not talking at all about details of the events of this person’s death. That was dealt with in the first section of the Psalm. The psalmist is now addressing the impact of that person’s death on ‘posterity’ and ‘future generations’ (v.30). That is us living 2000 years later.  He tells us that  ‘posterity’ which follows this ‘pierced’ man who died such a horrible death will ‘serve’ him and be ‘told about him’.  Verse 27 predicts the geographic scope of the impact – it will go to the ‘ends of the earth’ and among ‘all families of nations’ and cause them to ‘turn to the LORD’. Verse 29 indicates how ‘those who cannot keep themselves alive’ (since we all die would that not be all of us?) will one day kneel before him. The righteousness of this man will be proclaimed to people who were not yet alive (the ‘yet unborn’) at the time of his death.

One could not make a better prediction of the subsequent legacy of the death of Jesus than Psalm 22 does. Two thousand years after Jesus amid global Good Friday celebrations this week highlight the worldwide impact of Jesus’ death, fulfilling the conclusion of Psalm 22 as uncannily as the earlier verses predicted the details of his death. Who else in world history can even make a claim that details of his death as well as the legacy of his life into the distant future would be predicted 1000 years before he lived?

The conclusion in Psalm 22 has nothing to do with whether the gospel accounts borrowed from it or not because it is now dealing with much later events – those of our time. The gospel writers, in the 1st century could not make up the impact of the death of Jesus into our time. How does Spong incorporate this fact in his explanation? He doesn’t. He ignores this latter part of Psalm 22.

Perhaps, like my friend J, you will take the opportunity this Good Friday to consider Psalm 22 in light of Jesus’ crucifixion. It will take more mental effort than if you just coasted through Good Friday. And you may make some gaffes as you engage with the text like J did. But don’t let that stop you. As you can see, even the most well-known of scholars make gaffes over Psalm 22. The reward is worth the risk because the man whom I believe Psalm 22 is referring to promised:

I have come that they may have life and have it to the full

That would make this Easter fulfilling indeed.  Here is the full Psalm 22, and the crucifixion account according to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.  May you experience some of that not only this Good Friday but through the year as well.