Thursday, July 13, 2006

The Evidence Of Prophecy

In an earlier post responding to Sam Harris, Steve Hays made a good point about Biblical prophecy:

"If a prophecy were too specific, it’s fulfillment could be thwarted. It would give people enough advance knowledge to frustrate the terms of fulfillment by doing something else—like tipping off a drug dealer that the cops are about to stage a raid on his base of operations."

I would add that God could also have a variety of other reasons for making prophecies more or less detailed, depending on how the details would influence people, how He wanted the events to be perceived, etc. There's no way for us to know what all of the reasons would be for the degree of detail we're given, so our primary concern in evaluating the evidential significance of these prophecies should be whether the prophecies are sufficient to suggest foreknowledge, not whether they're exhaustive. If there is no credible naturalistic explanation for a prophecy with five details, then objecting that there aren't eight or ten details instead isn't enough to overcome the evidential significance of the prophecy.

Books like Isaiah and Daniel, or portions of the books, are dated late largely in an attempt to explain the fulfillment of highly detailed prophecies contained in those books. Critics have long acknowledged that the prophecies are detailed enough to suggest the supernatural. But the arguments for dating the books late are highly speculative, and we have better evidence for dating the books early. See, for example, here, here, and here on the book of Daniel.

Some of the prophecies can't be dated at or past the time of their purported fulfillment, so critics have attempted to dismiss these prophecies as taken out of context or not detailed enough, for example. The prophecies most often discussed in this context are the ones associated with Jesus, partly because there's agreement that Jesus was born after the prophecies in question were written. While many of the prophecies associated with Jesus are of a typological nature, and so they aren't of much evidential value individually, there are others that are non-typological. There's nothing unclear about the prediction that the Messiah would be a descendant of David, for example, and it isn't difficult to discern whether Jesus was perceived as a descendant of David by His contemporaries and whether evidence about His ancestry was available to those early sources. Much the same can be said about Micah 5 and Bethlehem, for example.

Even with prophecies that are more open to a variety of interpretations, such as Daniel's 70 weeks prophecy, there are limits to that variety. The city Daniel names is Jerusalem. That's not vague. He refers to the city and the temple being destroyed, something that could have been avoided, and the city could have been overtaken without the destruction of the temple, for example. He gives specific timeframes. Even if people disagree over whether the years in question consist of 360 or 365 days, for example, there are only so many plausible candidates for the number of days in a year. Nobody is going to be able to credibly argue that a year lasts 5 days or 820 days, for example. While some elements of the prophecy are flexible, the flexibility is highly limited by the details that are given. Jesus would have to fit into a narrow window in order to fulfill the passage. Objecting that the window could have been made even narrower by giving more detail doesn't change the fact that the window is narrow without such additional details or the fact that Jesus fulfills it. (See here for a discussion of the fulfillment.)

The implausibility of the critical position on some of these prophecies can be seen in the attempts critics make to find some fulfillment of these passages outside of Jesus. On Isaiah’s Suffering Servant prophecy, John Oswalt writes:

"Despite myriad attempts to find a figure in the sixth century B.C. who might be the referent in this passage, none has been successful. By contrast, the congruence with Jesus' life is remarkable...The most concerted recent attempt to do so [find a sixth century B.C. referent for Isaiah 52-53] was by R.N. Whybray in his Thanksgiving for a Liberated Prophet. But the fact that he has to go to great lengths to show that the apparent meaning of the text is not correct suggests that the undertaking is a futile one." (The NIV Application Commentary: Isaiah [Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2003], pp. 587-588)

The Suffering Servant prophecy tells us that the figure in question will die in a way that significantly disfigures his body rather than by some other means (Isaiah 53:14); tells us that this figure will be a Jew (53:2), yet will be highly influential among not only Gentiles, but even Gentile rulers (52:15); tells us that he’ll have an ordinary appearance (Isaiah 53:2); tells us that he’ll be rejected by his own people (Isaiah 53:3); tells us that he’ll die an atoning death (Isaiah 53:6); tells us that he’ll remain silent at an important time before those who condemn him (Isaiah 53:7); tells us that he would be associated with the rich in his death (Isaiah 53:9); tells us that he’ll be unusually righteous (Isaiah 53:9); tells us that his life will be prolonged, in the context of discussing his physical death, thus suggesting a physical resurrection (Isaiah 53:11); tells us that his atoning death was deliberate (Isaiah 53:12); etc. To say that the Suffering Servant prophecy isn’t detailed enough to be of much evidential significance is absurd. How many people in world history, even if we don't limit ourselves to the Jewish people, have been perceived as deliberately giving their lives to make atonement for the sin of others? That one element of the prophecy is enough to eliminate almost every human from consideration, and the window for fulfillment narrows even further when the other details are added. If the prophecy is detailed enough to single out one human being among the billions who have lived, how can specificity that singles out one among billions be considered insufficient specificity?

Many skeptics of Biblical prophecy have a mindset similar to that of Celsus, a second century critic of Christianity:

"Christians claimed that the facts of Jesus' life were proclaimed beforehand in the Jewish prophecies, but [according to Celsus] in fact the 'prophecies could be applied to thousands of others far more plausibly than to Jesus' ([Origen’s Against Celsus] 2.28)." (Robert Wilken, The Christians as the Romans Saw Them [New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1984], p. 115)

As Origen explained in response to Celsus, the claim that "thousands" could fulfill the prophecies better than Jesus is absurd. It’s the sort of vague and unthinking objection that you would expect from somebody more interested in avoiding the truth than in finding it. Nobody other than Jesus has ever come close to fulfilling a passage like Isaiah 52-53 or Daniel 9. Jesus not only has fulfilled these passages, but also has fulfilled many others. Even some of the more vague prophecies, such as His being both a king and a priest (Psalm 110) and His causing the Gentile nations to follow the God of Israel (Isaiah 49:6, 52:15) are unusual and significant. In contrast to the irrational mindset of Celsus, Theophilus of Antioch, a Christian contemporary of Celsus, gives us a more truthful assessment:

"The Egyptian or Chaldaean prophets, and the other writers, should have been able accurately to tell, if at least they spoke by a divine and pure spirit, and spoke truth in all that was uttered by them; and they should have announced not only things past or present, but also those that were to come upon the world. And therefore it is proved that all others have been in error; and that we Christians alone have possessed the truth, in as much as we are taught by the Holy Spirit, who spoke in the holy prophets, and foretold all things. And, for the rest, would that in a kindly spirit you would investigate divine things - I mean the things that are spoken by the prophets - in order that, by comparing what is said by us with the utterances of the others, you may be able to discover the truth." (To Autolycus, 2:33-34)


  1. See here which has never received a response from you (as far as I know).

  2. John,

    Whether Calvinism makes God the author of sin is a generic objection to Reformed theology which my colleagues and I have often dealt with at Triablogue.

    Therefore, we don't need to tailor a special response to your post.

    In addition, to bring up your old post in the context of Jason's new post is a diversionary tactic.

    While it may be worthwhile to discuss the preconditions of prophecy, you've done nothing to directly overturn Jason's case. These are two separate issues.