St. Athanasius on Old Testament Prophecies of Christ5 min read

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St. Athanasius dedicated three chapters of his book On the Incarnation to refuting objections to the divinity of Christ by both Jews and Gentiles. He believes that the objections are fundamentally the same, as “in both cases, the points at issue are the ‘unfittingness’ or incongruity (as it seems to them) alike of the cross and of the Word becoming man at all.”

St. Athanasius tackles the objections of the Jews first. He argues from the prophecies in the Old Testament to reach three conclusions: that the Messiah is none other than God; that the Messiah came to die for our sins; and that the Messiah brought the knowledge of God to the world. 

Prophecies establish that the Messiah is God 

St. Athanasius references four prophecies that establish the divinity of Christ. He first points to the prophecy in Isaiah 7:14 about the miraculous birth of the Messiah from a virgin, which is unlike any other human being. He then cites the prophecy by Balaam the son of Beor at the time of Moses in Numbers 24:6–9, that the Messiah will be the King of all nations, and God will bring Him out of Egypt. He then goes on to more explicit prophecies from Isaiah 19:1, that the Messiah is God Himself, and from Hosea 11:1, that the Messiah is the Son of God.

Prophecies establish that the Messiah is going to die for our salvation  

St. Athanasius then refuted the Jewish understanding that the Messiah would be a political leader by referencing the prophecies that the Messiah is also going to die for our salvation:

“Moreover, the Scriptures are not silent even about His death. On the contrary, they refer to it with the utmost clarity. They have not feared to speak of the cause of it. He endures it, they say, not for His own sake, but for the sake of bringing immortality and salvation to all.”

He then quotes both Isaiah 53 and Psalm 22:16–18, as they describe the suffering and piercing of Christ, and Deuteronomy, as it alludes to the death of the Messiah by crucifixion: “You shall see your Life hanging before your eyes, and shall not believe.” (Deuteronomy 28:66). He also references Jeremiah, who prophesied the Messiah’s offering as a lamb: “But I was like a docile lamb brought to the slaughter; and I did not know that they had devised schemes against me, saying, “Let us destroy the tree with its fruit, and let us cut him off from the land of the living, that his name may be remembered no more.” (Jeremiah 11:19). 

St. Athanasius ended the argument of the Messiah’s death for our sins by quoting and explaining the prophecy by Daniel that the Messiah will be “cut off”, and put an end to sins, sacrifice, and the temple (Daniel 9:24–27). He comments on Daniel’s prophecy:

“Not only does it expressly mention the Anointed One, that is the Christ, it even declares that He Who is to be anointed is not man only, but the Holy One of holies! And it says that Jerusalem is to stand till His coming and that after it, prophets and vision shall cease in Israel… When did prophets and visions cease from Israel? Was it not when Christ came, the Holy One of holies?” 

Prophecies establish that the Messiah is going to bring the knowledge of God to the world  

Perhaps St. Athanasius’s favourite argument is the legacy of Jesus compared to any other human being, as he uses this argument extensively with both Jews and, later in the book, Gentiles. He highlights the spiritual and moral transformation brought by Jesus to the world, a transformation that was brought about not by the sword or worldly wisdom but by Jesus’s love, grace, and divine authority.

St. Athanasius argues that the Messiah was prophesied to bring the knowledge of God to the world, as Isaiah states: “And in that day there shall be a Root of Jesse, who shall stand as a banner to the people; for the Gentiles shall seek Him, and His resting place shall be glorious“ (Isaiah 11:10). He details observations from history and wonders when:

“Did the idols of Egypt fall down before any righteous man or king that came there? Abraham came there certainly, but idolatry prevailed just the same; and Moses was born there, but the mistaken worship was unchanged… for at no other time have the Egyptians ceased from their false worship save when the Lord of all, riding as on a cloud, came down here in the body and brought the error of idols to nothing and won over everybody to Himself and through Himself to the Father” 

St. Athanasius brings up the evidence from the prophet Isaiah that the Messiah will be God Himself and will perform extraordinary miracles: “See, our God will recompense judgement; He Himself will come and save us. Then the eyes of blind men shall be opened, and the ears of deaf men shall hear, and stammerers shall speak distinctly.” (Isaiah 35:3-6

He concludes his refutation of objections by the Jews by wondering:

“Again, they see the heathen forsaking idols and setting their hopes through Christ on the God of Israel; why do they yet deny Christ Who after the flesh was born of the root of Jesse and reigns henceforward?… if the heathen are honoring the same God Who gave the law to Moses and the promises to Abraham—the God Whose Word too the Jews dishonored, why do they not recognize or rather why do they deliberately refuse to see that the Lord of Whom the Scriptures prophesied has shone forth to the world and appeared to it in a bodily form?” 


To read more articles on objections that have been raised against Jesus Christ, click on the links below:

Did The Story of Jesus Change By The Time The Gospels Were Written?

Did Jesus Stay For Two Or Three Days And Nights In The Tomb?

Is There Historical Evidence For The Crucifixion Of Christ Outside Of The New Testament? 

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