Thursday, July 28, 2005

The Significance of Prophecy

Prophecy is a neglected field in apologetics. It's not neglected in the sense of not being mentioned. It is mentioned often. But it's neglected in the sense that it isn't often addressed in much depth. It's common for Christians to make vague references to hundreds of Old Testament passages Jesus supposedly fulfilled, for example, without differentiating between different types of prophecy and without addressing many of the critical objections to the Christian use of these passages. Some Christian scholars, such as Robert Newman and John Bloom, have taken up this issue and given it the sort of treatment it deserves. (See, for example, the article by Robert Newman, John Bloom, and Hugh Gauch, Jr. here.) But, in general, Christian apologists haven't developed the apologetic use of prophecy as well as they could and should. This is disappointing given the evidential weight of prophecy, its prominence in scripture, and its prominence among the earliest patristic apologists.

In a recent blog entry, James White quoted John Crossan commenting:

"The Hebrew prophets did not predict the events of Jesus' last week; rather, many of those Christian stories were created to fit the ancient prophecies in order to show that Jesus, despite his execution, was still and always held in the hands of God."

I don't own the book by Crossan that James White is quoting, and I don't know the details of the context. But the general sentiments expressed in Crossan's comments above are common among critics of Christianity. Crossan is addressing the events surrounding Jesus' death, but his argument is a popular response to Biblical prophecy in general.

Despite the suggestion that the early Christians fabricated stories to make it seem as if Jesus fulfilled prophecy, it's doubtful that they would have had any such prophetic expectation to begin with. There were many views of what the Messiah would be, and nobody was expecting all of the details that we see asserted in the New Testament record. Craig Keener comments that “It is unlikely that a specific suffering-Messiah view existed in the first century.” (The Gospel of John: A Commentary, Vol. 1 [Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 2003], p. 288) To whatever extent the Messiah was expected to possibly suffer, we have no reason to think that anything close to the New Testament account of Jesus' life was expected. Critics could argue that the details of Jesus' life were fabricated anyway, but then we would have to ask what reason we have to reach that conclusion, and the answer is that we have no reason for it.

Some of the prophecy fulfillments would be out of Jesus' control from a naturalistic standpoint. He couldn't have determined the timing of His life (Daniel 9:24-27), His birthplace (Micah 5:2), how Gentile rulers would respond to Him (Isaiah 52:15), etc. How would He arrange to have His enemies take decisive action during a particular year or a particular seven-year time span, in line with Daniel's 70 weeks prophecy? How would He be sure that His enemies would respond to Him by executing Him in a way consistent with Daniel 9:26, Isaiah’s Suffering Servant prophecy, etc.? What if His enemies chose, instead, to just speak out against Him or arrange for something else other than execution? How could David, in writing Psalm 22, have naturalistically described a crucifixion scene that includes such unusual details? (For a defense of the Christian rendering of the most controversial detail, see here.) How would Jesus arrange for a widespread belief that He was unusually righteous (Isaiah 53:9), convince so many people that His death made atonement for sin (Isaiah 53:6, Daniel 9:24), and make sure that Jerusalem and the temple would be destroyed afterward (Daniel 9:26), for example? It wouldn’t have been possible for a merely human Jesus to arrange all of these things. And the fact that He could have arranged some of these things naturalistically doesn’t make it probable that He did. Many of the prophecies of the Bible, such as the predictions about nations, empires, and non-Jewish and non-Christian individuals, either would be too complicated for fulfillment by naturalistic arrangement or involved people who wouldn’t have had any motive to make such an arrangement.

We ought to be as critical of skeptical attempts to dismiss Biblical prophecy as we are of the prophecies themselves. I remember reading a web site that addressed Daniel's 70 weeks prophecy at length, attempting to give an explanation of the passage that didn't involve Jesus fulfilling it. Of course, putting forward a second candidate for fulfillment lessens the significance of Jesus' fulfillment, but doesn't eliminate its significance. If a few individuals could plausibly be said to fulfill Daniel's prophecy rather than just one person fulfilling it, the fact would remain that the prophecy is detailed enough to single out only a few individuals. But the web site I'm referring to wasn't even able to make a plausible case for anybody other than Jesus fulfilling the prophecy. What this web site did was to define the "sevens" in Daniel's prophecy as numerals rather than time spans. So, after 177 years passed, two more sevens would be fulfilled, since the number 177 contains two numeral 7's. But if you read the text of Daniel 9 carefully, you see that Daniel refers to an event happening in the midst of a seven (Daniel 9:27). Events don't happen in the midst of numerals. Daniel is referring to time spans, not numerals.

Over the years, I've seen many examples of critics being willing to put forward that sort of errant alternative interpretation, often relying on highly implausible translations, when the traditional Christian interpretation is far more plausible. The intent seems to be to reach the best naturalistic explanation of the data, not the best explanation without the "naturalistic" qualifier.

Even when an alleged prophecy fulfillment could possibly be explained naturalistically, we ought to ask whether a naturalistic explanation is the best one. For example, would it be possible for the earliest Christians to refer to Jesus as sinless without Him being sinless? Yes, but how likely would it be?

The early Christians came from a Jewish background and held a high view of the Old Testament scriptures. The Old Testament is emphatic about the universal sinfulness of mankind (1 Kings 8:46, Psalm 14:3, 130:3, 143:2, Proverbs 20:9, Ecclesiastes 7:20, Isaiah 64:6). Even a righteous man such as Isaiah or Daniel is referred to as a sinner (Isaiah 6:5, Daniel 9:20). Craig Keener writes:

“Because most early Jewish circles acknowledged that everyone, occasionally barring at most some extremely rare saints like one of the patriarchs, had sinned, Jesus’ claim [in John 8:46] would appear remarkable….normally even the patriarchs were not thought completely sinless” (Ibid., p. 763 and n. 601)

We know that the early Christians agreed with the Old Testament emphasis on universal sinfulness (Romans 3:9-23, Galatians 3:22, James 3:2, 1 John 1:8-10). Any Jewish people alive at the time of Jesus’ earthly life who didn’t hold such a view would have been few and far between.

Jesus made His sinlessness an issue, even to the point of challenging His opponents about it (Matthew 3:15, John 7:18, 8:29, 8:46, 15:10, Revelation 3:7). His Messianic claims and the early Christian association of Jesus with Isaiah's Suffering Servant would have raised expectations for Jesus' behavior (Isaiah 53:9). His enemies would have had motivation to look for sin in His life. We know that Jesus went through many circumstances that would have tempted Him or any other human to sin. He was frequently in public, and He had people near Him who "stood by Me in My trials" (Luke 22:28), not just in good times. One of them was Peter. He not only was with Jesus often, including when He was being led to crucifixion (John 18:3-27), but also was a cause of difficulty for Jesus and saw how Jesus responded (Matthew 16:22-23, Luke 22:61). He refers to Jesus as sinless, repeatedly and emphatically (1 Peter 1:19, 2:22, 3:18), even citing Jesus as an example of how to undergo suffering without sin (1 Peter 2:21-25). Matthew also was a disciple of Jesus who was with Him under many circumstances. He refers to Jesus "fulfilling all righteousness" (Matthew 3:15) and refers to Him as Yahweh incarnate (Matthew 18:20, 28:20). The apostle Paul had been a high-ranking enemy of Christianity, so he would have known of any plausible Jewish arguments about Jesus sinning, yet he refers to Jesus as sinless (2 Corinthians 5:21). It's easy for critics to make vague references to the early Christians fabricating a doctrine of Jesus' sinlessness, but anybody looking at the details of the historical data would have to conclude that the early Christian belief in Jesus' sinlessness isn't so easy to explain.

In addition to Old Testament prophecies Jesus fulfilled, what about the prophecies made by Jesus Himself? For example, what about His prediction of Peter's triple denial, something that would be highly unlikely to have been done naturalistically? The account is included in all four gospels. Two of those gospels were written by eyewitnesses who heard Jesus give the prophecy (Matthew and John), one of the gospels was written by a disciple who got his information primarily from Peter himself (Mark), and the other gospel was written by a demonstrably reliable historian (Luke). The prophecy has details unlikely to be fabricated (it embarrasses Peter, a person who makes Peter deny Christ is a girl, etc.), and other gospel material assumes the historicity of the account (John 21:15-17). Most likely, Jesus did make this detailed prophecy, and most likely it was fulfilled.

So many other examples could be discussed, but I would encourage every Christian to make more of an effort to develop the use of prophecy in apologetics. Just giving people a list of Old Testament passages, without differentiating between a passage like Micah 5:2 and a passage like Hosea 11:1, isn't going to withstand much scrutiny. We have far better evidence to offer than most Christians are presenting.

"And according to Paul's custom, he went to them, and for three Sabbaths reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and giving evidence that the Christ had to suffer and rise again from the dead, and saying, 'This Jesus whom I am proclaiming to you is the Christ.'...he [Apollos] powerfully refuted the Jews in public, demonstrating by the Scriptures that Jesus was the Christ." (Acts 17:2-3, 18:28)