Freedom had been hunted round the globe; reason was considered as rebellion; and the slavery of fear had made men afraid to think. But such is the irresistible nature of truth, that all it asks, and all it wants, is the liberty of appearing.
~ Thomas Paine, Rights of Man, 1791 ~

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Why prophecy fails to convince people

I think that of all the reasons why Christadelphians believe that the Bible is the inspired word of God, prophecy is always near the top. It makes sense. No human could accurately predict the future (except that they often do), so if we had a book that did just that, we'd have something on our hands that demanded an explanation.

In the case of the Bible, the book itself claims that a god revealed these things to a prophet, and that is how the future could be foretold so accurately. Apparently this god had knowledge of the future, or otherwise had the means to make a prediction and then ensure that it came to pass.

But let's rewind a bit.

The explanation given in the Bible is that the god of the Israelites revealed the prophecies. But do we have to just accept that explanation on face value merely because the book said so? Suppose the explanation given in the Bible was instead that the ancient Israelites had access to a time machine. I think most of us would be quite skeptical. I am no less skeptical of claims about divine revelation, especially since such divine beings appear to be every bit as elusive as time machines when it comes to finding actual evidence for them.

Natural vs Supernatural

But what if there was another explanation? One that didn't require belief in things that otherwise lacked any tangible evidence. I think that changes the situation. If it turned out that there actually was a natural explanation for the prophecies in the Bible seemingly being fulfilled, I think they would lose their force as evidence for divine inspiration, or indeed the existence of a divine being.

Of course, so long as it was still possible for believers to maintain their belief in divine inspiration, many of them would probably go on believing. But they'd have a very difficult time convincing others.

Consider someone trying to convince you that the flu was caused by evil spirits. We know that the flu is caused by viruses, and we know a lot about viruses and how they work. I suppose it's always possible that evil spirits are behind it, and that viruses are just their tools of choice, but that kind of explanation just seems redundant, as well as highly unlikely. The same logic also applies to prophecy explanations.

Natural explanations are always preferred over supernatural ones. If you disagree, perhaps you'd be interested in buying insurance against evil spirits? I could probably get you a really good price!

So let's have a look at the various natural explanations for Bible Prophecy claims.

1. The "prediction" was written after the event

Probably the most obvious and oft-cited one is where the prophecy was actually written after the event, while claiming to have predicted it.

An obvious example would be the book of Daniel. Although many apologists want to claim that it was written by an Israelite of the same name, in the 6th century BCE, the scholarly consensus is that the book was instead written in the 2nd century BCE.
Traditionally ascribed to Daniel himself, modern scholarly consensus considers the book pseudonymous, the stories of the first half legendary in origin, and the visions of the second the product of anonymous authors in the Maccabean period (2nd century BC).
It is common for apologists to complain that these scholars are merely biased against prophecy, but perhaps it is the apologists who are biased towards it.

After all, if such a natural explanation is available, it is to be preferred over a supernatural one - as we've already discussed. What is more likely, that a human wrote down a fake "prediction" after the fact, or that a miracle occurred? If you insist on going with the miracle, then the offer of evil spirit insurance still stands. Perhaps you should go for demon cover as well, just to be safe...

There are good reasons why the book of Daniel is considered to have been written in the 2nd century:
Whenever critical scholars point out that Daniel's purported predictions were written after the fact, Christian believers routinely retort that they are merely showing a philosophical prejudice against the possibility of supernatural prophecy. Actually, it is not a question of philosophical presuppositions, but a question of hard evidence and inference to the best explanation. Daniel's "predictions" of events up to the desecration of the Temple in 167 BC and the beginning of the Maccabean revolt substantially came true--yet its predictions of a new invasion of Egypt by Antiochus and the Resurrection of the Dead soon thereafter totally failed. The author correctly "predicted" the rise of Alexander the Great, and the history of the Seleucid and Ptolemaic kings, but he fared far worse in his predictions that God would supernaturally slay Antiochus Epiphanes, raise the dead, and inaugurate the messianic age in 163 BC. The most likely explanation of this strange pattern is that these prophecies were first composed just before the time they started to fail by an author who had no genuine talent for predicting the future. 
To cite a parallel example, the Book of Mormon prophets, who purportedly flourished between 600 BC and 400 AD, supposedly gave explicit predictions about Jesus Christ's career in first-century Palestine (Helaman 14 et passim), Christopher Columbus' discovery of America (1 Nephi 13:10-12), the Revolutionary War (1 Nephi 13:15-19), and Joseph Smith's prophetic career in nineteenth-century America (2 Nephi 3). However, the book is totally silent about events after 1830, the year the book was first printed. The most likely explanation is that the book was Smith's own composition, and a heavy burden of proof lies on Mormon apologists to prove otherwise. And the exact same reasoning applies to the prophecies of Daniel.
If you cannot prove that your prophecy was written before the events it supposedly foretold, then your claim will fail to convince people. If you disagree, then I must assume you accept all of the prophecies in the Book of Mormon.

2. The event was written to fit the prediction

The converse of the above is where a Biblical writer has essentially either invented a prophecy fulfilment, or has described an event in such a way as to make it seem to fit an earlier prediction.

The gospels are full of such, especially the gospel of Matthew. The writer even spells it out for us, but perhaps gives away a bit too much information.

For example, in the gospel of Matthew, the writer has Jesus and his family fleeing from Judea and going to Egypt.

When he arose, he took the young child and his mother by night, and departed into Egypt:
And was there until the death of Herod: that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying, Out of Egypt have I called my son.
Matthew 2:14-15 KJV (emphasis mine)
The other gospels don't mention anything about this, and nor do they mention anything about Herod's attempt to kill all of the infants aged 2 and under in Bethlehem and the surrounding regions. Josephus likewise is silent on this.
The Roman Jewish historian Josephus does not mention it in his history, Antiquities of the Jews (c. 94 AD), which reports many of Herod's misdeeds, including murdering three of his own sons,[8] his mother-in-law (Antiquities 15:247-251; LCL 8:117-119), and his second wife (Antiquities 15:222-236; LCL 8:107-113).
The simplest explanation is that Matthew invented the story in order to have Jesus fulfilling a prophecy.

Further, the event is supposedly a fulfilment of Hosea 11:1, which reads:
When Israel was a child, then I loved him, and called my son out of Egypt.
Hosea 11:1 KJV
The problem is immediately obvious. Not only does Hosea explicitly say he is referring to the nation of Israel, not a single individual, but the verse isn't even a prophecy!

In the following verses Matthew claims another prophecy fulfilment, this time from Jeremiah 31:15:
Then was fulfilled that which was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet, saying,
In Rama was there a voice heard, lamentation, and weeping, and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children, and would not be comforted, because they are not.
Matthew 2:17-18 KJV
But once again we have Matthew quoting from something that wasn't a prophecy at all. In fact the context of that verse simply doesn't make any sense here.

It is thought that Matthew may have been trying to draw a parallel between the birth of Jesus and the birth of Moses. I tend to agree. I think it is almost certain the verses have a literary basis rather than a historical one.

The take-home message is that unless you can prove that both the prediction and its claimed fulfilment really did happen, and in the manner reported, your prophecy claim will fail to convince people.

3. The prophecy wasn't

There are times, again especially in the gospel of Matthew, where the writer claims that a prophecy has been fulfilled, but it turns out they either misquoted or misapplied the prophecy, or it was never intended as a prophecy at all.

We've already seen two examples of this above, but let's use another example from Matthew:
And he came and dwelt in a city called Nazareth: that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophets, He shall be called a Nazarene.
Matthew 2:23 KJV
If such a prophecy was ever made, we don't have a copy of it.

There are other cases where Matthew quotes a so-called "prophet", only the verse he quotes was not a prophecy, for example:
And they crucified him, and parted his garments, casting lots: that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet, They parted my garments among them, and upon my vesture did they cast lots.
Matthew 27:35 KJV
The "prophet" he is quoting is none other than David, except that in Psalm 22 where this quotation comes from, David is recounting his own experiences and not making a prediction. This psalm is often claimed to be a "messianic" psalm, yet the connection is in the eye of the beholder. Nowhere in the psalm is there any hint of a prophecy. What we're most likely seeing instead is yet another example of the Old Testament being written into the account of Jesus's life by the gospel writers (natural explanation number 2).

This is also almost always the case for all so-called "messianic" prophecies. But as Bart Ehrman explains, the verses they cite almost never mention the word 'messiah':
You can go through virtually all the alleged messianic prophecies that point to Jesus and show the same things: either the “prophecies” were not actually predictions of the future messiah (and were never taken that way before Christians came along) or the facts of Jesus’ life that are said to have fulfilled these predictions are not actually facts of Jesus’ life.
That is, we're seeing a case of explanation 2 or explanation 3.

4. The prediction only vaguely matched the event
(and probably would have matched other kinds of events as well)

This one probably applies more to the prophecy claims relating to modern times, or at least the more common ones cited in Christadelphian lectures.

I've already written articles about the prophecies against Tyre and Egypt.

But what many people may not know is that this also applies to the prophecies about the return of Israel as well.

For example, in Ezekiel 37 we see the following prediction:
Say unto them, Thus saith the Lord God; Behold, I will take the stick of Joseph, which is in the hand of Ephraim, and the tribes of Israel his fellows, and will put them with him, even with the stick of Judah, and make them one stick, and they shall be one in mine hand.
And the sticks whereon thou writest shall be in thine hand before their eyes.
And say unto them, Thus saith the Lord God; Behold, I will take the children of Israel from among the heathen, whither they be gone, and will gather them on every side, and bring them into their own land:
And I will make them one nation in the land upon the mountains of Israel; and one king shall be king to them all: and they shall be no more two nations, neither shall they be divided into two kingdoms any more at all.
Ezekiel 37:19-22 KJV
These verses are often used along with references to the revival of the state of Israel in 1948, and various events after that.

But note that it explicitly talks about the recombination of Israel and Judah. "Israel" in this context refers to the northern 10 tribes, who were taken into captivity by the Assyrians in 721BCE. As far as we can reliably tell, those tribes never returned, but eventually assimilated into the surrounding nations.
Following the conquest of the northern kingdom by the Assyrians in 721 bc, the 10 tribes were gradually assimilated by other peoples and thus disappeared from history.
Therefore, such a reunion of the northern 10 tribes with the tribe of Judah (from whom modern Jews are claimed to descend) is now impossible since the northern tribes no longer exist. Some apologists still contend that this part will happen after Jesus returns. I presume they think he will cause some random selection of people from around the world to move to Israel, and we'd all just have to take his word for it that those people were descendants of the northern tribes. Good luck using that to convince people. By then it's too late anyway, so not much use as a prophecy to be honest.

We see a similar prediction in Jeremiah 30:3 (note it says "Israel and Judah"):
For, lo, the days come, saith the Lord, that I will bring again the captivity of my people Israel and Judah, saith the Lord: and I will cause them to return to the land that I gave to their fathers, and they shall possess it.
Jeremiah 30:3 KJV
Well, 50% isn't bad I guess.

For almost all of the source texts used to claim that the return of the jews to Israel was a fulfilment of prophecy, the details simply don't match up. The prophecies only work if you zoom right out and look at an extremely vague summary of events. Take a closer look at the details of the prophecy and the events surrounding the claimed fulfilment, and the cracks start to show.

Further, in almost all cases the prophecy goes on to claim that Israel would return to serving God just like in old times, and God would again "be their god". In some instances it even has Israel dwelling in peace. No matter which way you slice it, apologists are forced to see these parts as "still future".

Of course, it's still pretty amazing that there is even some correlation, albeit vague, between predictions in the Bible and modern events. But is there evidence of divine causation? In my opinion, the answer is no, but this is probably quite subjective. Again, it's unlikely that you'd be able to use this to convince people. It's not the undeniable evidence you'd hope to see if you're being asked to devote your life to it.

But there's a much deeper problem with all of this. One that apologists never seem to take into account.

Why would someone writing in the iron age have been at all interested in making predictions about an event ~2500 years in the future?!

Such an interpretation is obviously anachronistic, and is focussing too much (in my opinion) on the concerns of the modern reader and not enough on the concerns of the author. When an ancient Israelite author wrote about some event involving named tribes or nations, they were almost certainly referring to the nations and places of their own day. Perhaps not their own lifetime necessarily, but they would have thought that their words were applicable to their primary audience, who were alive at the time. It seems nonsensical to imagine that ancient authors wrote messages to their audiences warning them of events thousands of years in the future. The simplest explanation is that they were concerned with events in their own "future". In order to claim a modern-day fulfilment, this view must first be disproved.

You may respond that the true author was God, and that these things were written for people from all time periods to read and believe. But isn't the point of prophecy to prove divine inspiration? If you have to assume divine inspiration ahead of time in order to make it work, what's the point?


In all of this, a few common themes stand out. In order to prove that a prophecy has been fulfilled, you need to do the following:

  1. Demonstrate that the prediction was written before the event
  2. Demonstrate that the event actually happened as predicted
  3. Demonstrate that the prophecy was not so vague it would match similar events
  4. Demonstrate that the fulfilment accurately matched the prophecy in all details
  5. Demonstrate that the claimed fulfilment was actually what the original author intended

I don't believe this can be done with any Bible prophecy, which leaves the door wide open for a far more natural explanation, which is that people are simply seeing patterns where none exist. Either the prediction wasn't a prediction, the event never happened, or any correlation between prediction and event requires a good deal of literary contortion and credulity.

But suppose something did meet all of the above criteria.

Well, that still wouldn't prove divine causation. It just means we have something we cannot readily explain. You are free to believe in divine causation, but that's a matter of faith.

But even if you could prove it was divine causation, what would it even mean? The Bible isn't a single book. It's a library of books, written by different authors at different times. There's even good evidence of editing over time as well. If a prediction came true, at best we might conclude that the author was divinely inspired that day. At worst we could say it was a lucky coincidence. But at no point could we conclude that all other books were also divinely inspired. They'd have to be assessed independently. You'd still have all of your work cut out for you.

Hopefully you are starting to see why prophecy fails as a tool for convincing people that the Bible was divinely inspired.

Prophecy seems to only convince those who already believe, which is interesting, because the Biblical authors who wrote them were also writing to their own people. So if prophecy helps to strengthen your existing faith in God, well, that's probably what they were written for.