Holy Nostradamus! Why those Biblical prophecies are meaningless
There are two parts to a prophecy that need to be fulfilled in order to be considered successful: the prediction and the outcome. The prediction needs to be clear and unambiguous, while the outcome needs to be independently verifiable. By a remarkable coincidence, there are two things lacking in Jesus’s supposed fulfilment of Old Testament prophecies. I wonder if you can guess what they are?
The first problem isn’t difficult to identify – the “prophecies” invariably come in the middle of a passage which appears to be talking about something entirely different, and are unfortunately rather short on useful details. Apologists tend to focus on the age of these passages (which is entirely irrelevant), or their number, but not their specificity. Here are a couple of oft-quoted examples, annotated with my comments:
Therefore the Lord himself will give you1 a sign: The2 virgin3 will conceive and give birth to a son4, and will call him Immanuel5 (Isaiah 7:14)
1 Who? This was originally addressed to King Ahaz of Judah, and was written well over 500 years BC
2 Which one? Any chance of narrowing it down?
3 Strictly, this should be “young woman”. The virginity is a gratuitous and inaccurate addition/mistranslation motivated by ideology.
4 Which makes this even less remarkable as a prediction.
5 Not Jesus, then? Hmm.
This passage, about a sign that Aram and Ephraim will be defeated, also goes on to say that even at a young age, this foretold son will destroy them both (a nifty trick, seeing that they’d vanished even before the book of Isaiah was completed), and that this would be accompanied by swarms of flies and bees. Taken as a whole, there’s no way of applying this to Jesus without enough cherry-picking to earn an honorary degree from agricultural college. So how about this:
Dogs1 surround me, a pack of villains2 encircles me;
they pierce my hands and my feet3.
All my bones are on display4;
people stare and gloat over me5.
They divide my clothes among them
and cast lots for my garment6.
1 Are these dogs literal or metaphorical?
2 Who are these villains?
3 When do they pierce your hands and feet? Does this include wrists and ankles?
4 What form does this display of bones take? Are you highly emaciated, or is this an indication of massively deep flesh wounds?
5 Speaking of which, who are you exactly? Where’s the indication that this isn’t either happening to, or being imagined by, David who wrote the psalm?
6 Interesting, but see below
So far, so Nostradamus, and these are so useless that they don’t even look like predictions. Even a Nostradamus-style prediction like “A man will come out of the East, and he will overthrow great powers and establish a new kingdom” would be more use. At least that’s clearly recognisable as a prediction, however hazy the detail and however much the events are only recognisable in hindsight.
Actually, Nostradamus is significantly more credible than the Bible prophecies, as the events which supposedly fulfilled his prophecies are genuine events, multiply attested by independent authorities, even if the connection to the original predictions is dubious at best. By contrast, the only evidence that Jesus fulfilled any prophecies at all comes from people who followed him, were aware of the supposed prophecies (often drawing attention to them), and weren’t above twisting the facts to make these connections, like the “virgin” in Isaiah or the non-existent prophecy that Jesus would be a Nazarene mentioned in Matthew 2:23.
So it’s far from clear that the initial “predictions” were intended as such, seeing that they’re snippets taken from writings with an apparently different purpose, and the events which are claimed to fulfil them were recorded with full knowledge of those previous writings, by people who wanted to promote that claim. There is no independent evidence for these events actually happening, and reason to suspect that the stories have grown in the telling.
Imagine if something similar happened today – maybe a group of Scientologists claiming without supporting evidence that L Ron Hubbard invented a technique called the Memory Hole as part of his promotion of dianetics, fulfilling the “prophecy” in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and proving that Hubbard (and by extension, Scientologists) were right. How seriously would you take this claim? What about if they also drew tenuous links to The Canterbury Tales, Moby Dick and The US Constitution?
It doesn’t matter how many supposed prophecies like this you point to – even 365, as at this site (although some are hilariously mundane) – because they demonstrate nothing. Give me a single genuine prediction whose fulfilment is independently attested, and I’ll be interested. At least that would be something that was worth considering.
(While I was working on this post, I discovered several of the sites I visited to check on notable claimed prophecies were also enthusiastic about the comprehensively-debunked Bible Code providing evidence for their beliefs. If that isn’t a warning sign, I don’t know what is.)