Monday, January 30, 2012

Three Prophesies About Christ That Couldn't Have Been Made Up

In the New Testament, Jesus is depicted as fulfilling numerous Old Testament Messianic prophesies.  These prophesies provide objective verification that He is Who He claims to be.  But how can we know that these things really happened?  In other words, how do we know that the New Testament writers didn't just make up these details, to make Jesus look like the Messiah?

I want to suggest three sets of prophesies that the New Testament writers couldn't have manipulated, because they were outside of their control.


(1) Israel Would Be Under Roman Control 

Julius Caesar
In Daniel 2, the prophet Daniel interprets a dream that the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar had.  In the interpretation, Daniel prophesies that there will be four succeeding kingdoms (starting with the Babylonians).  In the fourth of these, “the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that will never be destroyed, nor will it be left to another people” (Dan. 2:44).  Historically, we can say that the four kingdoms to rule over Israel are Babylon, Persia, Greece, and Rome.

Rome, the fourth kingdom, rules Jewish Israel from 64 B.C. until about 70 A.D.(when the Jews are sent into Diaspora, and Israel is crushed).  That's a fairly tiny window for the Messiah to arrive, yet Christ lived, died, and was resurrected during this span.  Now, obviously, the New Testament writers couldn't have controlled whether or not the Romans controlled Israel during this period.  More on that here.

(2) The Christ Would Die from Crucifixion

Callisto Piazza,
Nailing of Christ to the Cross (1538)
Psalm 22 is one of the Messianic Psalms, and the one that we're told that Christ quoted on the Cross (Mark 15:34, quoting Ps. 22:1).  The Psalm was written centuries before the advent of crucifixion.  Yet a Crucifixion scene seems to be vividly depicted.  In Ps. 22:16-18, the Speaker cries out,
 Dogs surround me,a pack of villains encircles me; they pierce my hands and my feet.  All my bones are on display; people stare and gloat over me.  They divide my clothes among themand cast lots for my garment.
That sounds a lot like Crucifixion: after all, how many other forms of capital punishment involve being stripped, having your hands and feet pierced. and being put on public display?  What's more remarkable is that we know that the Romans relied heavily upon crucifixion in the first century.

So Psalm 22 appears to predict a form of capital punishment that wouldn't exist for centuries, this form of capital punishment was used by the Romans in the first century, and would certainly have been used upon Christ for His alleged crimes.  None of these are facts that the New Testament writers could have controlled.  Put another way, had the Death of Christ taken place at virtually any other time or place, it's hard to imagine a scenario in which His Death would have fit Psalm 22 so believably.

Matthias Grünewald, The Crucifixion (1515) (detail)
Nor is it just Psalm 22: one of the constant themes of the New Testament is that Jesus is the sinless Lamb of God (John 1:36; Revelation 7:17), prefigured by the Passover lamb (Exodus 12; 1 Corinthians 5:7).  Yet one of the requirements of the Passover Lamb is that none of its bones could be broken -- this symbolized its perfection (Ex. 12:46).  The Apostle John tells us that Jesus fulfilled even this detail at the Crucifixion (John 19:36).  And with a Crucifixion, that's quite believable. But what other form of execution would have so neatly fit all of these prophesies?

Here, the evidence is so strong that it was once thought that the evidence was forged.  Psalm 22:16 literally says that “they dug my hands and my feet,” a very graphic image of being nailed to the Cross.   Skeptics used to think that Christian forgers had changed the Hebrew (from ka’ari, “like a lion,” to ka’aru, “they dug”) to make this sound prophetic.  Today, we know that isn't true: a first-century parchment was found, proving that the passage wasn't some later forgery.

(3) The Second Temple Would Still Be Standing


The Dome of the Rock (background) and the Wailing Wall (foreground)
The Old Testament contains a number of prophesies about the Second Temple.  The most important of the prophesies are these two:

  • Haggai 2:1-9 promises that, while smaller in size than its predecessor, the Second Temple would exceed the First Temple in glory.
  • Malachi 3:1 tells us that the reason for this is that “the Lord you are seeking will come to His Temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come.
We're told in the New Testament that Christ fulfills this, entering the Temple, driving out the money-lenders, and declaring it His House, and a House of prayer (Matthew 21:12-13).  Again, the fulfillment is perfect: He is both the Message and the Messenger, and He's the only possible Messiah who could call the Second Temple His Temple, since it was created for Him (and at His command).

But the Second Temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 A.D.  All that remains is the Wailing wall, what used to be the western wall of the Temple.  So if the Messiah didn't come by 70, it seems these prophesies were wrong.  Once again, whether the Temple stood or fell was outside of the New Testament authors' control.  But we again see a clear Messianic window: if the Messiah didn't come by 70, He wasn't coming.

Conclusion

This is just the tip of the iceberg.  Plenty of other prophetic passages pointing to the same time period (Dr. Taylor Marshall mentions another: the 490 years from King Artaxerxes to Christ prophesied in Dan. 9:24-27).  If the New Testament authors were con men, they were insanely lucky con men, since the stars aligned just perfectly for them to convincingly claim that Jesus fulfilled the Old Testament prophesies.  To be sure, we can't go back and verify that each of the events that they're describing occurred.  But the events which we do know -- for example, that the Old Testament predates the time of Christ, that Someone named Jesus lived in the early first century, that the Romans used crucifixion to punish certain crimes, that the Temple was destroyed in 70 A.D., etc. -- all match up perfectly. 

My challenge, to anyone who thinks that the Gospel accounts are mythologies, and that Jesus is simply a fictional character created to fulfill these events, duplicate it.  Who else in history (either real historical figures, or someone imaginary) fits these prophesies, and the innumerable other Old Testament Messianic prophesies? 

16 comments:

  1. Yes, but why are all the prophecies so vague and hard to decipher? If an omniscient God is behind the prophecies, why would He not make the prophecies clear and unmistakable, e.g. by giving an exact biography of Jesus years before it happened? This sounds snarky, but I think it gets at a serious issue and I mean it as a serious question.

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  2. That's a very fair question. I suspect that there are a few good reasons.

    1) Many of the prophetic parts of the Old Testament are more than prophetic. They're often allegorical and historical as well. For example, the Passover Lamb wasn't just a Christological prediction (that the Messiah would be sinless, and wouldn't have His Bones broken). It was also a timeless Christological allegory (like the lion in Narnia), and a historical custom.

    This is similar to the reason Jesus
    spoke in parables. It was recently pointed out to me that with parables, the depths of meaning are much deeper. Prayerful meditations on the Scripture can unfold additional meanings to passages you may have read a hundred times before. A plainly literal statement generally can't pack those kinds of layers of meaning.

    This helps prevent us from falling into the mindset that if we just memorize a list of factoids, we'll know what there is to know about God. He's much Bigger than that.

    2) A set of objective criteria that the Messiah would meet would almost certainly have resulted in a flurry of false Messiahs warping Scripture, and using them to mislead people. For example, Christ's claim to be "Son of Man" was warped by Charles Manson (who claimed that's what his last name meant).

    So if the Old Testament said that the Messiah would be born in the first century, named Jesus, and 6 feet tall, you can bet that by the time the first century rolled around, there would be a lot of young men named Jesus, many of whom were 6 feet tall, and with serious Messianic complexes. Here, I'll point back to the butterfly effect. Who knows what would have happened if there was an incredibly detailed, explicit prophesy of Christ? What would the journey to the Cross have looked like, if everyone around Him was terrified that He might be the One?

    3) God is an Artist. When we try to turn Him into a no-frills Businessman, we miss the point. Think of the prophesies and their fulfillment as a series of orchestral leitmotifs suddenly brought together into one glorious crescendo on the Cross.

    4) Faith matters. We're always given enough evidence to believe, but enough room that we still need to believe.

    5) Having said all that, there are some pretty clear prophesies, like the Destruction of the Temple. And how do modern skeptics wave this away? By assuming that they're "postdictions," written after 70 A.D. Never mind how implausible that would be. It suggests to me that even if the sort of exact biography you're talking about was given in the Old Testament, skeptics would either claim that the predictions were actually made after Christ, or that Christ was a mythical figure based upon these really clear predictions.

    As it is, God set up the Scriptural prophesies so that once Jesus arrived, we could see how He fit the prophesies like a key in a lock. Even things that seemed irrelevant and non-prophetic (like Adam and Eve, or the Passover Lamb) end up making an appearance. It's a brilliant artist technique (think about how particularly clever comedies and mysteries often rely on the same technique -- then consider that God revealed this slowly, over the span of thousands of years, in dozens of Books, written in at least two different languages).

    I.X.,

    Joe

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  3. I was reading Ps 22 carefully a few years ago and came upon something very interesting that totally discredits the "like a lion" translation:

    12Many BULL have surrounded me;Strong bulls of Bashan have encircled me.
    13They open wide their mouth at me,As a ravening and a roaring LION.
    14I am poured out like water,
    And all my bones are out of joint;My heart is like wax;
    It is melted within me.
    15My strength is dried up like a potsherd,
    And my tongue cleaves to my jaws;And You lay me in the dust of death.
    16For DOGS have surrounded me; A band of evildoers has encompassed me;
    They PIERCED my hands and my feet.
    17I can count all my bones.They look, they stare at me;
    18They divide my garments among them,
    And for my clothing they cast lots.
    19But You, O LORD, be not far off;
    O You my help, hasten to my assistance.
    20Deliver my soul from the SWORD,
    My only life from the power of the DOG.
    21Save me from the LION's mouth;
    From the horns of the wild OXEN You answer me.

    Notice how there is a parallel going: Bull-Lion-Dog-Unknown-Sword-Dog-Lion-Bull/Ox
    Clearly, "pierced" corresponds to "the Sword", which maintains the parallel and the fact "lion" is already mentioned.

    Also, as the NAB points out in the footnote (yes, not every footnote is bad), the "like a lion" reading "hardly makes any sense".

    The best explanation is that this so clearly prophecies of Christ that some Jews early on tampered with the text. Indeed, the stakes are high because they claim Christians tampered with the text.

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  4. Nick,

    I think there's an even easier explanation: it was probably a scribal error, since the words look nearly identical in Hebrew.

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  5. Have you ever read "Wheel of Time" series?

    It has very good examples of "false dragons" who claim to fulfil very specific prophecies, but none of them are the real deal.

    When the real "dragon" arrives, some texts are revealed to be prophetic when no-one had considered them such before.

    I thought it was a very well-written allegory regarding the Messianic prophecies of the Old Testament.

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  6. What is the history of the Wailing Wall? I thought no stone would be left upon another. Yet, here's a whole wall of the Temple still standing. Can this wall really be part of the Temple?

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  7. Vince, it is the western wall of the temple enclosure, not actually the wall of the temple.

    I have to disagree with your interpretation of Daniel 2, the Roman empire was a unified whole at the time of Christ, not split into warring kingdoms so that it wasn't "in the days of those kings".

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  8. John,

    The Roman Empire at the time of Christ already contained various kings.  See, e.g., King Herod (Mt. 2:1), who Luke 1:5 describes as the "king of Judea."  It didn't contain warring kings, but then, Daniel 2 doesn't say anything about that.  Re-read Dan. 2:40-43, and tell me if there's anything there that wasn't true of the 1st century Roman Empire.

    The interpretation that I laid out of Daniel 2 (called "the Roman theory") was the one that appears to have been universally accepted until the Reformation.  Luther himself is said to have put it this way: "in this interpretation and opinion all the world are agreed, and history and fact abundantly establish it."

    Besides that, your interpretation would seem to suggest that Christ's Kingdom didn't arrive until after the Roman Empire fell, which is plainly wrong.  More on that here.

    I.X.,

    Joe

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  9. Both of these:

    "the kingdom shall be divided"

    and

    "so the kingdom shall be partly strong, and partly broken."

    Happened well after the first century AD.

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  10. prodigalnomore-

    Tradition holds that Peter died at the hand of Nero; The year of four emperors happened after the death of Nero and is the only time in that century where anything remotely like a civil war happened in the Roman Empire, and even that can't be considered a division of the empire.

    Check Wikipedia or any reliable source.

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  11. John,

    The fact that Rome's internal divisions got progressively worse after Christ doesn't strike me as relevant. Or rather, it only shows what Daniel 2 describes: while each of the first three Empires was destroyed by some successive Empire, Rome crumbled from within. That's what the image means: "so the people will be a mixture and will not remain united, any more than iron mixes with clay."

    And that's exactly what we see going on in the Roman Empire at the time of Christ. Not only do we have kings besides Caesar (Mt. 2:1), but we also have the people who are trying to break free from Roman rule. This includes everyone from the Zealots (Mt. 10:4) to the Roman general Quintus Sertorius, who turned against the Empire, and held on to Hispania (modern Spain) for quite a while, several decades before Christ.

    All of that is a long way of saying that the Roman Empire (before, during, and after the time of Christ) is a dead lock for the Kingdom of Iron described in Daniel 2. It's also the fourth kingdom to rule Israel from the time of Daniel, so that's an even more obvious proof. After all, Daniel 2 prophesies which Kingdom the Messiah will come in, not which exact moment.

    I.X.,

    Joe

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  12. I see what you are saying;

    I happen to disagree on a few points, I believe that the prophecy is about when the Kingdom of Heaven was established, not when the Messiah came (though I am sure you see those as the same thing). I also believe that the prophecy details precisely when that happened, after both the eastern and western empires were broken up into successor states that still had kings and claimed authority by way of Rome, but no longer claimed to be continuous with Rome. Of course, to accept my interpretation would require accepting my interpretation of a whole slew of other scriptures. I considered writing a response on where you take apart the Seventh Day Adventist position but doing so wouldn't get anywhere without knowing some other things.

    What is the Catholic understanding of 2 Thessalonians 2:3-4, Isaiah 24:5, Revelation 14:6, Romans 11:23-24, and Acts 3:21? Basically, how are those scriptures viewed in light of this: "God of heaven set up a kingdom, which shall never be destroyed: and the kingdom shall not be left to other people, but it shall break in pieces and consume all these kingdoms, and it shall stand for ever."? My understanding of those scriptures (and how one of them was explained to me by a Catholic recently) is where the severe disconnect is coming from, more than any discussion of history. If you don't want to get into it then I can assume you have a consistent explanation of everything and I had one of those explained to me poorly recently and we leave it at that.

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  13. John,

    Those verses (or at least most of them) refer to the eschaton. But Daniel 2 is pretty clearly about the First Advent of Christ, not the Second. Scripture makes clear that in Christ, the Kingdom of God enters history (see here for plenty of passages on point).  Matthew 13 is all about the Church as the Kingdom of God on Earth.

    Certainly, the Kingdom doesn't come to the fullness of glory until the end of time, but to imagine that a prophesy (like Daniel 2) about the establishment of the Kingdom in history would just skip over the life, death, and Resurrection of Christ, as well as the establishment of the Church strikes me as untenable.

    Out of curiosity, where are you coming from on all of this?  What's your religious affiliation, how do you read Daniel 2, and how do you read the passages that you cited to me before?  Also, what weight (if any) do you give to hermeneutical traditions on these issues?   I mean, if all early Christians took one view of a certain passage of Scripture, does that matter to you?

    I.X.,

    Joe

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  14. I am LDS.

    Daniel 2 refers to the restoration of the Church of Christ, or the Kingdom of God, and the beginning of the establishment of the Kingdom of Heaven, both of which have already happened. It is not a reference to either Advent of Christ, in my opinion.

    The scriptures cited show that there had to be (or there was the possibility of) a falling away from the true faith and that it was to be restored. Hence, the problem with Daniel where the Kingdom will never fall, never be given to the branches of Israel that were cut off, and the everlasting covenant never broken.

    Extremely little weight to hermeneutical traditions on this or any other issue (obviously). By the time there is sufficient writings (by Christians) to definitely say what the opinion is there had already been a loss of authority. Also, not everything was necessarily known by everyone.

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