3. BIBLICAL PROPHECIES
“The Bible has several prophecies that were fulfilled. Most are about Jesus, revealed centuries before his birth and fulfilled in his person.”
This is indeed one of the strongest arguments for biblical inerrancy. I remember I was astonished when I read verses of Isaiah 53 predicting things that happened with Jesus in apparently the exact way. But of course, I later found out the truth is much more disturbing than it seems.
I see 4 major problems with the prophecies argument:
1st Problem – Are the stories of the fulfillment of prophecies true?
The first problem of prophecies about the Messiah is that they are fulfilled in the Bible itself. Speaking bluntly, nobody knows whether these fulfillments happened or not, all we know is that the authors of the gospels wrote them as if they happened.
Many of these prophecies are minor events, like Jesus being given vinegar to drink or his tunic being ripped into four pieces. Eyewitnesses would hardly have noticed if minor details like these happened or not. So the writers wouldn’t be so afraid to make up stories in order to make it look like these prophecies had been fulfilled. In fact, it would be difficult that the writers would have to face many of the eyewitnesses of Jesus. This is because the followers of Jesus were poor Aramaic speakers who lived in Galilee, while the Gospels were written in Greek, for Greek speakers, in nowadays Syria or Turkey, at least 40 years after Jesus’ death.
Prophecy fulfillments like Jesus being born in Bethlehem and being descended from King David seem clearly invented, since according to the gospels everybody knew Jesus as a commoner born in Nazareth (what explains the contradictory narratives of his Bethlehem birth and genealogies). Another interesting passage is that of Matthew 21, that says Jesus rode two animals, a donkey and a colt, while entering Jerusalem. All the other gospels mention only one animal. Here Matthew was apparently making Jesus fulfill the prophecy of Zechariah 9, that predicts the Messiah would “enter Jerusalem on a donkey, that is, a colt”. But as Matthew’s Hebrew was not so good, he understood it as “on a donkey AND a colt”. As a result, he created a narrative with Jesus riding two animals at the same time. Differences like these show the authors DID make up stories in order to “fulfill” prophecies.
2nd Problem – Are the prophecies specific enough?
When I started to read the Old Testament prophecies in context, I realized they are very far from being specific, especially the messianic ones. There is no explicit mention of a messiah as we imagine it. The later prophets, in face of the Assyrian and Babylonian invasions, predicted a time of suffering for the Israelites, but out of their faith in Yahweh, also foresaw a later time of restoration, when Israel would be made great again and exalted by the nations. It is this time that was understood by some as the coming of a Messiah, a king who would restore the Davidic dynasty.
Perhaps the Book of Isaiah is one of the only to actually mention such a king. It also has several Servant Songs, where it seems to refer to Israel metaphorically as a servant, but which Christians interpret as Jesus. That is the case with chapters 52 and 53, in which the servant is stricken by a disease but will eventually triumph, live long and see his offspring (which sounds more like an analogy of the predicted restoration of Israel). The fact is that as the texts are poetic many different meanings can be attributed symbolically to them, that’s what early jews did, and that’s apparently what the Gospel writers did, but in a different way. [see Christine Hayes’ lecture]
3rd Problem – Are the Old Testament prophecies clear about the messiahship of Jesus?
The most striking fact is that there is NO specific prophecy about Jesus in the Old Testament. The most important aspects of Christ – his death on a cross, his resurrection, his ascension to heaven and his second coming – are not mentioned at all.
The closest thing we have to a crucifixion prophecy is Psalm 22, but it is actually not a prophecy, but a song by David, where he recalls a moment when he was surrounded by enemies who hurt his hands and feet. Christians translate “hurt” as “pierced”, so it sounds kind of like a crucifixion, but the original Hebrew doesn’t necessarily mean that.
Isaiah 6 also is told to talk about Jesus’ virgin birth, but it was a prophecy to King Ahaz about a boy to be born from a young woman in his lifetime, called Immanuel. Matthew, however, ignored all of that, translated young woman as virgin, and said the prophecy was about Jesus.
4th Problem – Were all the prophecies really revealed before the events they predicted?
There are a few prophecies about historical events. In most of them the writer apparently writes the prophecy after the event happened, but pretends to be writing from the past. The ones in the book of Daniel are quite famous, that seem to predict the fall of the Babylonian, Median, Persian and Greek (Seleucid) Empires. Nevertheless, its style and language suggests it was written in the 2nd century, after most of these things had happened.
4. THE WORLD’S BEST SELLER
“The Bible is the top-selling book in all the world, so it shows it was sent by God.”
That’s a phrase I’ve heard sometimes. Early on I thought it had some sense, but if you stop to think about it, it doesn’t really mean that much. The fact so many people buy the Bible is because so many people are Christian. Christianism is the largest religion in the world nowadays, which might sound inspiring, but if I were born some centuries ago, using this same logic I would conclude the true religion is Islamism and the word of God is the Quran. Christianism is the largest religion now, but it was restricted to a very limited part of the world for most of the time, and nothing guarantees it will be the largest religion some centuries from now. In addition, its recent expansion was largely because it was the religion of the European colonizers who influenced, and in places as Latin America even coerced, people to convert. By the way, this discussion launches the question: If God really wanted to provide humanity with a so crucial spiritual guidebook (as the Bible is regarded), why would he limit its access to a so tiny percentage of the human population that ever lived?