Thursday, October 11, 2007

The “Problems” with Biblical Prophecy

By Nathan Busenitz @

A depiction of the prophet IsaiahRecently, I have been studying biblical prophecy from an apologetics perspective. It is a fascinating topic, and one that I have found to be very confirming.

In my studies I have come across five major objections to biblical prophecy (from critics and skeptics). Perhaps there are others, but these are the primary ones that I have found. Without going into too much detail, for the sake of space, I would like to briefly respond to each of these five objections in today’s post.

Critical Objection 1: Many biblical prophecies were written after the events they predict.

This objection is usually reserved for prophecies that were both predicted and fulfilled during Old Testament times (since it is impossible to credibly assert that the messianic prophecies of the OT post-date the life of Christ).

In response, a couple points can be made. First, very compelling cases have been made by conservative commentators for the authenticity of each of the Old Testament prophecies in question. Excellent discussions on the dating of each prophetic book, and even each individual prophecy, can be found in solid exegetical commentaries and other resources on the Old Testament.

To cite one example, after extensively studying Daniel’s prophecies (one particular hotbed among critics) from a linguistic and historical point-of-view, Gleason L. Archer concludes, “The linguistic evidence from Qumran makes the rationalistic explanation for Daniel no longer tenable [i.e., that it was written later than the events it predicts]. It is difficult to see how any scholar can defend this view and maintain intellectual respectability.” Later he notes, “There is no evading the conclusion that the prophecies of the Book of Daniel were inspired by the same God who later fulfilled them, or who will fulfill them in the last days.”[1]

Second, it is important to understand that the case for redating OT prophecies (as the critics attempt to do) is an arbitrary one—driven primarily by their antisupernatural presuppositions. But if messianic prophecies (which everyone agrees predate Jesus Christ) can be shown to have been fulfilled by Christ, then there exists an undeniable example of predictive prophecy being fulfilled. Such would directly undermine the antisupernatural presupposition that critical scholars bring to the text.

Evangelical scholar Robert C. Newman, who has written considerably on the topic of biblical prophecy, notes the failure of critical scholarship to discount the authenticity of OT prophecies: “Even when critical scholarship has done its best to redate Old Testament texts so as to avoid fulfilled prophecy, the constraints provided by the translation of the Old Testament into Greek (250–150 B.C.) and the rise of the Christian church leave a substantial residue of clear examples [of fulfilled prophecies].”[2]

Critical Objection 2: Many “fulfillments” were arbitrarily directed toward Jesus by His followers (even though the original prophecy had nothing to do with the coming Messiah).

I believe this objection is due in large part to confusion over the way that the New Testament writers speak of prophetic “fulfillments.” As Bible scholar William Varner explains:

Regarding the specific number of promises about the Messiah, there is a wide divergence of opinion. Rabbinical writings refer to 456 separate Old Testament passages used to refer to the Messiah and messianic times (Edersheim, 710-41). One Christian scholar lists 127 personal messianic prophecies (Payne, 667-68). The differences are due to the way in which the New Testament refers to the Old Testament promises. There are direct messianic prophecies (e.g., Micah 5:2; Zech. 9:9); typical messianic prophecies, utilizing an immediate referent in the prophet’s day which pointed to the ultimate referent (e.g., the sacrificial levitical system); and applications of Old Testament concepts to the Messiah (e.g., the reference Matthew 2:23 makes to the prophets saying: “He will be called a Nazarene.”) If we limit ourselves to the direct messianic prophecies just mentioned, a conservative number would be around 65.[3]

When we talk about “fulfilled prophecy” with unbelievers, I believe it is best to either explain how the New Testament speaks of fulfillment, or to focus on direct messianic prophecies. Narrowing the “prophetic field” to just the direct messianic prophecies does not diminish the apologetic value of prophecy. Rather (in our opinion) it increases the credibility of our apologetic case by removing potential confusion from the hearer.

It has been calculated that the probability of only 48 prophecies coming true in one person is 10 to the 157th power, making it a statistical impossibility.[4] The point is that the case for Christ does not get any weaker when we get more specific.

We would add also that the Jews before the time of Jesus saw key passages like Genesis 3:15; Deuteronomy 18:15, 18–19; Psalm 2; 118:22; Isaiah 7:14; 11:1–10; and 53:1–12 as messianic in nature. Jesus’ followers did not invent the messianic implications of these passages.[5] As Alfred Edersheim explains, “A careful perusal of their [the Rabbi’s] Scripture quotations shows that the main postulates of the New Testament concerning the Messiah [i.e. that Jesus Christ is the Jewish Messiah] are fully supported by Rabbinic statements.”[6]

Critical Objection 3: Many of the “fulfillments” were intentionally fulfilled by Jesus, meaning they were faked. Jesus was motivated to try and fulfill messianic prophecy, so He manipulated the circumstances to make that happen.

The answer to this objection is easy. On the one hand, there are prophecies that Jesus intentionally fulfilled. We cannot deny that He was very aware of the Father’s timing (cf. John 13:1; 17:1), and that He deliberately purposed to accomplish certain things at the proper moment (cf. Luke 9:51; 18:31).

On the other hand, Jesus fulfilled many prophecies that no mere man could accomplish in his own power, no matter how intentional he might be. The Old Testament predicts that the Messiah would be a physical descendant of Abraham (Gen. 22:18), Jacob (Num. 24:17), Judah (Gen. 49:10), Jesse (Is. 11:1), and David (Jer. 23:5), but not of Jeconiah (Jer. 22:30—making the virgin birth necessary); that He would be born in Bethlehem (Micah 5:2); that He would have a forerunner like Elijah (Mal. 3:1); that He would be able to perform miracles (Is. 35:5, 6); that He would cause a major stir among His people and eventually be rejected by them (Psalm 118:22); that He would be beaten and killed as a criminal (Is. 53:5–12); that He would be buried in a rich man’s tomb (Isaiah 53:9); that He would have His side pierced (Zech. 12:10); that He would die before the Romans destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple (Dan. 9:26); and that, in spite of His death, His days would be prolonged, implying resurrection (Is. 53:10).

This list is not exhaustive, but it makes the point because these are things that would be humanly impossible to fake or manipulate. Jesus fulfilled many prophecies that an ordinary human being could not have “orchestrated” or “pre-arranged.”

Finally, it should be noted that even if Jesus did fulfill some prophecies intentionally, this does not invalidate those predictions. The fact that Jesus fulfilled OT prophecy perfectly, intentionally or not, points convincingly to Him as the Messiah. No one else in all of history (in spite of their best efforts) can make such a claim.

To quote Newman again: “Of all the Messianic claimants that Judaism has ever had, the only one ever considered an outstanding historical figure and ethical teacher (even by atheists) is Jesus of Nazareth. And He ‘just happened’ to conduct His short public ministry and be ‘cut off’ (killed) in the period A.D. 28-35 [in fulfillment of Daniel 9]!”[7]

Critical Objection 4: Many of the “fulfillments” were invented by Jesus’ followers (as recorded in the NT gospels) and cannot be independently verified by other sources.

This objection can also be answered on several fronts. First, as we have discussed in previous articles, the New Testament gospel writers demonstrate themselves to be historically reliable sources. Second, the main points of the Jesus’ life are attested to by sources outside the Bible (see here).

Third, even Jesus enemies (in places such as the Babylonian Talmud) do acknowledge certain key aspects of Jesus life by attempting to explain them away: such as the virgin birth (prefigured in Isaiah 7:14), Jesus’ healing and other miracles (see Isaiah 35:5–6; 61:1–2), Jesus’ claim to deity (prophesied in Isaiah 9:6), His rejection by the religious leaders (foretold in Psalm 118:22); and His horrific death (predicted in Isaiah 53).[8]

Fourth, as we noted above, Daniel 9:26 predicted that the Messiah would come before the destruction of the temple (something that would have been necessary for his ancestry to be confirmed by the temple’s genealogical records). Not only would this have been completely outside of Jesus’ control, it is also clearly attested by historical fact.

It might also be added that other prophecies (regarding the nation of Israel) have also been fulfilled since the time of Christ. Following the destruction of the temple and of Jerusalem by the Romans (Daniel 9:26; cf. Luke 21:24), such prophesies include the dispersion of the Jews among the nations (Deuteronomy 28:64; cf. Ezekiel 22:14–15; Hosea 9:17), the persecution of the Jews throughout much of history (Deuteronomy 28:65–67), and the subsequent return of Israel to the land (Ezekiel 20:34; Hosea 3:4–5; Amos 9:14–15; cf. Isaiah 11:11).

Nearly two millennia after Rome destroyed Jerusalem, the Jews again established a nation in the Promised Land in 1948. As Jewish-Christian scholar Arnold Fruchtenbaum explains, “The restoration of the Jewish State is a fulfillment of those prophecies that spoke of a regathering [of the nation] in unbelief in preparation for judgment” (cf. Ezekiel 20:33–38; 22:17–22; 36:22–24; Isaiah 11:11, 12; Zephaniah 2:1, 2).[9]

Critical Objection 5: Many biblical prophesies have not come to pass.

This is easily answered by noting the difference between historical prophecies (those which spoke of events which would occur in a relatively short time after they were predicted—including messianic prophecies), and end-times prophecies (which will not be fulfilled until Jesus returns) or heavenly prophecies (those which are not fulfilled on this earth).

To quote again from Dr. Varner:

The key to understanding the role of the promised Messiah, and also the main difference between traditional Jewish and Christian messianic views, lies in recognizing His dual role of suffering and reigning. While there are many passages that describe a glorious reign for the Messiah (Jer. 23:5,6; 30:1–10; Zech. 14:3ff), there are others that describe His rejection and suffering (Psalm 22, Isa. 53, Zech. 9:9; 12:10; 13:5-7). The NT views the suffering and glory passages as fulfilled in Jesus’ first and second comings respectively (Luke 24:25-27; I Peter 1:10,11).[10]

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[1] Gleason L. Archer, Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1982), 24–26.

[2] Robert C. Newman, “Fulfilled Prophecy as Miracle,” pp. 214–225 in In Defense of Miracles, edited by Douglas Geivett and Gary R. Habermas (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1997), 224–225.

[3] William Varner, The Messiah: Revealed, Rejected, Received (Bloomington, Ind.: Author House, 2004), 7.

[4] John Ankerberg with John Weldon and Walter Kaiser, The Case for Jesus the Messiah (Eugene, Ore.: Harvest House, 1989), 21.

[5] Josh McDowell, in The New Evidence that Demands a Verdict (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1999), 169ff surveys some of the Jewish testimony to such prophecies.

[6] Alfred Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, one volume edition (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1972), 165.

[7] Robert C. Newman, “The Testimony of Messianic Prophecy” 203–214 in Evidence for Faith, edited by John Warwick Montgomery (Dallas, Tex.: Probe Books, 1991), 212.

[8] Peter Schäfer, Jesus in the Talmud (Princeton University Press, 2007) catalogues many of the references to Jesus found in Jewish writings after Christ.

[9] Arnold G. Fruchtenbaum, The Footsteps of the Messiah (San Antonio, Tex.: Ariel Press, 2003), 104.

[10] Varner, The Messiah, 7.

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