Holy Nostradamus! Why those Biblical prophecies are meaningless

Bible CandlelightThere 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.
(Psalm 22:16-18)

Puppies

Dogs like this?

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.

Whale

Apparently, Hubbard was killed by a harpoon

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.)

Images courtesy of doc_, dani_gi and bschwehn, used with permission

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About Recovering Agnostic

I'm Christian by upbringing, agnostic by belief, cynical by temperament, broadly scientific in approach, and looking for answers. My main interest at the moment is in turning my current disengaged shrug into at least a working hypothesis.

7 responses to “Holy Nostradamus! Why those Biblical prophecies are meaningless”

  1. chialphagirl says :

    Most theologians, and the author of the gospel of Matthew, employ a technique called a double prophecy. This is where they take a statement made about a different situation and apply it to a new situation. They claim it was a prophecy about BOTH things. I’m not sure I really buy this. It does seem like cherry picking to me.

  2. markedfrombirth says :

    I think it is also worth pointing out that up until the death of Jesus, no Jew would have understood the concept of a messiah that “died for the sins of the world” and then subsequently resurrects himself to ascend to heaven. Not even Jesus.

    The Jewish messiah was supposed to bring about the Kingdom of Heaven on earth while alive. That is what Jesus believed, so if Jesus does come back, he would likely be joining the current Jews in waiting for the messiah…which would leave Christians with some explaining to do about this whole New Testament thing.

  3. Karin says :

    The biographia of Jesus were written to show that Jesus was even greater than the Roman Emperors who were each ‘a son of god’ and had amazing things credited to them in their biographia. Matthew may have read the Jewish Scriptures only in the Greek Septuagint, where the Hebrew word for young woman was translated by the Greek word for virgin. Matthew wanted to show that Jesus was a new Moses and composed his biographia to fit this scenario. The one thing the gospels are not, it 100% gospel truth, but if you compare them, and especially the synoptic gospels (Mark, Matthew and Luke) and perhaps also the gospel of Thomas you can get an idea of what the real Jesus might have said. He was clearly concerned with God’s Way of doing things to be done here on Earth and for him that meant a better life for the poor and a total change of their ways for the rich who exploited the poor and treated them with disdain and contempt.

    If we ignore the dubious birth stories and resurrection stories, neither of which occurred in the original versions of the first gospel to be written, the gospel of Mark, these do not occur, although he still arranges his material carefully, because like the other gospel writers, he is also writing a biographia and is also reflecting the views of his community who had been devastated by the very recent destruction of Jerusalem and its great temple, the centre of their faith, for they were still Jews and they believed that Jesus had come to renew the faith of Israel.

    Like the Old Testament, the New is written for a people struggling to know what to belief and for a sense of common identity, at first they were Jews, but when Judaism finally rejected Jesus they were joined by god-fearing Gentiles from all over the Roman Empire and perhaps beyond.

    For me, understanding these things helps with finding the good bits, that are still very relevant for today, like the struggle against injustice of the persistent widow and the need to find the strength to persist, which can be found when we enter into conversation/discussion (aka prayer) with our God, whether God is seated somewhere in the heavens or within our hearts (or both).

  4. Luke says :

    Just found this site; good stuff!

    Two things: one, you ask that a prophesy be clear and unambiguous. I would direct you to Isaiah 9:6- which I find distinctly less hazy than your Nostradamus example. And what independent verification would you accept that Jesus was human and divine at the same time and in the same respect, as the prophecy claims?

    Two, Matthew 2:23 says that the prophesy about Nazareth was spoken, not written. They knew scripture inside and out, as did their readers. Had they claimed it to be written they would have been easily refuted.

    • Recovering Agnostic says :

      So, Isaiah 9:6 – “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” I don’t see that this is at all specific. You could read a lot of things into it, and people have, but you could also argue that he was called these things precisely because of this passage, and point to some very interesting doctrine which appears to identify Jesus with all three members of the Trinity at once. My standards for verification aren’t that high, but as there’s no independent source at all, it’s a moot point.

      As for Matt 2:23, congratulations. I thought I’d heard every answer to that point, but this is a new one on me. So you think it was prophesied by some itinerant prophet(s) and no one bothered to record it at all, but the author of Matthew happened to know about it? I think that’s a pretty unorthodox explanation, and believe me, I’ve heard some.

    • Karin says :

      Surely the prophesy in I saiah was meant to prophesy the birth of a prince at that time – was it Josiah? I’m afraid I’m too tired to look it up. Also it was a retrospective prophesy as far as I am aware, according to Bible scholars.

      When Matthew’s gospel says ‘spoken’ rather than ‘written’, I think that may well be because he was referring to Midrash rather than Scripture, but it is well known that Matthew took ‘prophecies’ and made them support the way he wanted to portray the good news about Jesus of Nazareth, which is not to say there is no truth in what he wrote, just that you can’t take it all literally or that it is entirely historically accurate.

  5. Luke says :

    Sorry, I meant Jesus “is”, not “was”…!

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