Since starting this blog, a number of people have pointed me toward fulfilled prophecy as evidence of a divine element to the Bible. A link to 353 Prophecies Fulfilled in Jesus Christ here, a pamphlet on 100 Prophecies Fulfilled by Jesus there, and here and there and there. It is the implied assertion that such levels of foresight can be best explained by supernatural intervention.
In my senior year of high school, I memorized the book (yes, the whole thing) of Matthew. I recognized that this particular gospel was clearly written with the express purpose of convincing a Jewish audience that Jesus was the messiah they were waiting for. It is littered with sentence fragments quotations from the Old Testament that mirror or parallel some aspect of the story. Even though I devoutly believed all of it, I remember looking up some of the passages in the footnotes and thinking “that’s quite a stretch”. It was one thing to squint skeptically at the Bible Code folks, but who was I to question the connections made by authors of the scripture?
Last fall, I had the chance to hear and meet Matt Dillahunty, who recently laid out criteria by which prophecy could be objectively evaluated. To be considered a falsifiable prediction, Dillahunty suggests it must be…
- made clearly and demonstrably prior to the events predicted
- intended to be a prediction
- an extraordinary, non-mundane, claim
- answerable by a single clear occurrence
- not open to interpretation
- not something people are actively working to fulfill
This is a good place to start when considering the relevancy of the entries in the left-hand column of any prophecy-fulfillment table.
As I intend to stay primarily within the confines of the claims of prophecies fulfilled by Jesus, I’m willing to concede that all of the proposed predictions found in the Old Testament were made before the time of the New Testament.
However, if we were talking about the prophecies of the book of Daniel, as but one example, we would need to look at the scholarly evidence that the book was produced after-the-fact or ex eventu. Perhaps another entry for another time.
When my high school self would raise an eyebrow to the legitimacy of a prophecy, it was generally on the grounds that the original context seemed like anything but a prediction.
For example, John 19:24 claims that the casting lots for Jesus’ garments “happened that the scripture might be fulfilled that said, ‘They divided my clothes among them and cast lots for my garment.'” The author quotes Psalm 22:18, and that chapter is David’s lament about his own personal circumstances, with no future-looking language. Verse 17, immediately prior, says “all my bones are on display”. Is the lack of Jesus’ skeleton presentation a failed prophecy?
It gets even more dubious when one looks at the longer lists that have been compiled. One claims that routine instruction about body disposal is a crucifixion prophecy, that a Passover meal recipe indicates that Jesus would suffer no broken bones, and that a prediction of Jesus being killed outside of a city comes from sacrifice regulations that insist “hides, flesh and intestines are to be burned up” in the very same sentence. Was Jesus set on fire?
Just this morning, I saw an article predicting that Apple would come out with an iPhone 7 in 2016 with improved hardware and unspecified new features. But as Apple has followed this pattern for years, should we by surprised by this analyst’s insight?
I could (and do) proclaim that the Unites States will one day elect a woman as president. This has never happened before, so it must be extraordinary, right? But as my prediction is open-ended, it does not require success for Hillary. It seems inevitable that such a thing will eventually happen in the remaining few decades of the U.S.A.’s existence. (Now there’s an ominous and more specific prophecy.)
Christians like to point to “wars and rumors of wars” (Matthew 24:6) as evidence that end times are nigh. But in what year, day or hour of history has there been an absence of war and rumors of war? (Though, research suggests “we may be living in the most peaceable era in human existence“, which doesn’t help those looking over their shoulder for an imminent second coming.)
Single Fulfillment and Interpretation
In order to be clear and compelling, a prophecy would need to be uniquely fulfilled by one-and-only-one person or event, and without being subject to interpretation.
Most of the fulfilled Jesus prophecy lists I investigated actually included “born of a woman“. That applies to literally every human in history, so is the most egregious example. But other claims like being Jewish and having sibling rivalry don’t narrow things down much either.
Other passages require significant interpretation by the reader to evaluate, as the claims are obfuscated. For example, Isaiah 8:14 predicts “for both Israel and Judah he will be a stone that causes people to stumble and a rock that makes them fall. And for the people of Jerusalem he will be a trap and a snare.” Did Jesus actually fulfill this? How? Can anyone say for sure as a compelling proof?
It’s interesting to me that the best literature about why Jesus is not a fulfillment of these Jewish prophecies comes from devout Jews. Interpretation is everything.
But Were They Actually Even Fulfilled?
While my devout younger self was concerned only about the legitimacy of the alleged predictions, the more recent version of me is much more interested in the claims of fulfillment.
Few Christians I know would attempt to make a case for prophecy fulfillment on the strength of any one prediction or another. Rather, it is the convergence of so many fulfillments that is meant to be compelling as evidence of the supernatural. There’s a reason these lists are so long and reserve a spot for “born of a woman”.
Allow me, for a moment, to reminisce about one of my favorite movies, Back to the Future (BTTF). If you’ve seen it, you’ll recall the dramatic ending when all is shown to be well with the now-rich-and-happy McFly family, but the celebration is cut short when the DeLorean pulls into the driveway and a yellow-clad Doc jumps out. He insists that Jennifer and Marty must help him intercede in lives of their future children. Written in 1983, how could the first BTTF have possibly predicted that 1989’s BTTF2 would show exactly that?? Marty had to travel to 2015 where his son was about to get in big trouble with the law. But the predictions didn’t stop there as BTTF2 showed how a second Marty was actually at the Enchantment Under the Sea dance all along, dipping and hiding in a way exactly consistent with the first film. There are simply too many connections to call it a coincidence. Either the writers of BTTF1 had help from a divine power, or perhaps they actually had a working time machine to see the future movies.
Or remember in The Empire Strikes Back when Lando told Luke that they would rendezvous on Tatooine, and then they DID in Return of the Jedi? And Boba Fett was already there, having delivered Han Solo to Jabba the Hutt just like he said he would. And there was another hope, Princess Leia, just like Obi-Wan said in the previous movie. How could the writers of Empire possibly have made such accurate predictions about movies that hadn’t been created yet?
But wait, you say… the writers of Return of the Jedi had seen The Empire Strikes Back when they wrote it, and would have wanted to answer any questions posed in the earlier work in their sequel. And the creators of BTTF2 could watch and rewatch every minute detail of BTTF1 to orchestrate the events of the follow-up movie to make it joyously seamless. They were even famously begrudging that the first movie ending forced them to visit the future, but keeping the established continuity gave them no choice.
And so it was with the writers of the gospels, creating sequels to the incredibly popular Old Testament. Some forty years after the death of Jesus, the writer of Mark sat down to write the first gospel. He wasn’t overly concerned with prophecy. He didn’t include a single word about Jesus’ prophecy-fulfilling birth, rather starting the story with the Savior’s baptism as an adult. (The author of the original Mark manuscript didn’t mention a resurrected Jesus either. Oopsie.)
When, decades later, the writer of Matthew wanted to punch-up Mark for a Jewish audience, he knew he’d need to address the established messiah canon. Matthew’s Jesus would need to be from the line of David, born in Bethlehem, called out of Egypt as a child and yet be from Nazareth.
The writer of Matthew solved the lineage by opening with a selective genealogy weaving from Abraham through David to Jesus’ step-dad, Joseph. (Full disclosure… I didn’t memorize that part.) Then in the next scene, Jesus’ parents were somehow just living their lives in Bethlehem for the prophetical birth. In order to check off the Egypt box, the writer created a massacre of infants by Herod (such a horrific event is not hinted at in any other secular or Biblical record) to send the protagonists into hiding in the land of grain-silo pyramids. After some time there, the family could be sent to Nazareth to line up with Mark’s account. And just like that, the author wired in prophecies fulfilled.
Unfortunately, the writer of Luke was also independently trying to connect some prophetical dots with his rewrite of Mark. After an all-new scene introducing baby John the Baptist, the writer fabricated a census (see my previous post) as an excuse to maneuver Joseph’s family from Nazareth to Bethlehem. But then the three simply go back to Nazareth when the census ends. I guess Luke didn’t remember that Egypt prophecy. Lucasfilm has continuity editors for this kind of thing.
As the gospel writers spoke Greek and the Old Testament was written in Hebrew, it is actually a Greek translation — called the Septuagint — that they referenced and quoted, not the original. Quirks in the translation can reveal places the gospel writers were changing events to match prophecy as they misunderstood it.
In Matthew 21, the writer had Jesus precociously and ridiculously riding in to Jerusalem straddling two donkeys in order to fulfill the prophecy, “your king comes to you, gentle and riding on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey” from Zechariah 9:9. But the original Hebrew version doesn’t say “and on a colt” to reference two beasts, it uses just “on a colt” to further describe the single donkey. John 12 corrected this error.
More controversially, the doctrine of virgin birth may well have been fabricated whole cloth after mistranslating Isaiah 7:14 to read “the virgin will conceive and give birth” when the Hebrew is more naturally “the young woman will conceive and give birth”. (Compare all the English translations for yourself, for degrees of honesty in deference to tradition.)
In each call-back instance, one has to ask… is it more likely that the Old Testament divinely predicted the New, or that the New is a human-contrived sequel to the Old?
Enough for Now
For all of the reasons above, and more, I do not find the argument that Jesus was the fulfillment of dozens or hundreds of prophecies to be compelling. But even if I am fully wrong on this point, it would do little to prove the supernatural claims of the Bible.
Do you disagree? Do you find the prophetical claims to be convincing? What am I missing? Please let me know why in the comments.