Christians read the Old Testament today, understandably, in light of Christ’s fulfillment of the promises and prophecies found there. It is a simple thing to do, since the early church read the Old Testament in the context of Jesus’ incarnation and teaching and the experience of Easter and then formalized these readings and understandings in the texts of the New Testament.
But what if you were a Jew in the first century, eagerly hoping for the Messiah, a successor to David? These hopes, shared with the whole nation, had been growing since the return from Babylonian exile. As you searched through the panoply of prophecies, you began to wonder: when will these hopes be fulfilled? Who do you look for and where do you start looking? It would be like reading a mystery novel, knowing every clue, studying every sign, but seeing only in retrospect how the whole fits together.
Isaiah 61, for instance, is most often dated to the period just after the return from Babylonian exile, and the author of the passage is generally considered to be the speaker in the text. This prophetic passage emerged, therefore, some five centuries before the birth of Christ. In it the speaker says,
It also seems that the post-exilic prophet is speaking of his own role in the restoration of Jerusalem when he says, “The spirit of the Lord God is upon me.”
Yet there is also an eschatological edge to the hopes imagined, especially in the proclamation of “the year of the Lord’s favor,” an event still to come. Christians see the spiritual fulfillment of these proclamations in the person and ministry of Jesus, centuries after they were uttered. The reason is simple: Jesus himself read this passage, according to Luke 4, in the synagogue in Nazareth.
There Jesus says of the Isaian passage, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Lk 4:21). This we might identify with what Catholic biblical scholarship has called the sensus plenior, or “fuller sense,” since it does not obviate the original historical meaning and context but points to a fulfillment of which the original human author was unaware.
This is why the questioning of John the Baptist by some representatives of the Pharisees makes historical and theological sense. The Pharisees, like most Jews of this period, were awaiting the Messiah. Because of the attractiveness of John’s prophetic message of repentance to the people, he was someone who had to be examined. They asked, “Who are you?” In response, John confesses that he is not the Messiah, not Elijah, not the prophet and cites Isaiah 40:3, a passage dated to the end of the Babylonian exile: “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’” John identifies himself as the fulfillment of long-ago prophecies, not as the Messiah but as the one who prepares the way for the coming Messiah.
But the questions still remained, even for John. Who ever thought that it would happen through a young, unmarried woman, that God would look “with favor on the lowliness of his servant,” Mary? God asks that as we wait for fulfillment we be prepared for God to do new things, unexpected things, and be ready for the unlikeliest of answers.