The fulfilment of Old Testament prophecy

The back half of the Old Testament comprises the writings of 16 prophets. While most of their writings were either condemnations of the religious and social practices of the people of Israel and Judah, or encouragement to them in times of distress, there are a number of predictions about future events in the surrounding nations.

Some christians have used these prophecies, and their fulfillments, as an argument that the Bible is divinely inspired. However this argument has gone out of fashion. Criticisms of the argument include:

  • Some events in the life of Jesus are said to be in fulfillment of prophecy, but the original Old Testament passage was not, it is argued, a prophecy at all.
  • It is often disputed whether a prophecy was actually fulfilled in history. In some cases believers and sceptics use the same example but make different assessments of it. Some prophecies are fuzzy enough to make their fulfillment a matter of interpretation.
  • Some prophecies have not yet been fulfilled, apparently, but may still be in the future. This makes it hard to assess the overall picture.
  • To make a fair assessment would require assessing every prophecy in the Bible for its probability, and comparing the cumulative probability of the ‘successes’ with that of the apparent failures.

Typical arguments against fulfilled prophecy can be found on the Secular Web here and here.

On this page I examine some of these claims and counter claims, to see how they stack up against the historical evidence. if the prophecies were indeed fulfilled, then an argument for the truth of the bible may be fairly developed, but if the claims cannot be sustained, then it is dishonest for christians to use them

Conclusions so far

I have only examined two prophecies so far and I think the jury is still out. The two prophecies are broadly correct, but not accurate in the details. This may indicate some special insight by the prophets, but some claims of fulfilment are over-stated.

  1. Scholars have long recognised that the essence of prophecy is not so much prediction as a message of warning or encouragement. We misrepresent prophecy if we forget this.
  2. Even when prophecy is predictive, it generally takes a long term perspective (fulfillment may occur in stages) and is more interested in God’s message than the details. It is notable that when Jesus and the New Testament writers quote Old Testament prophecy, they do not always take a literalist view.
  3. Ezekiel’s prophecies concerning Tyre and Isaiah’s and Jeremiah’s prophecies against Babylon were loosely fulfilled, but only partly fulfilled literally. We need to be careful in using them to make claims (either for or against prophecy) they do not necessarily support.
  4. Thus christians need to be very sure of our historical ground before we use any argument from prophecy. But if we do our history well, I think a useful argument may perhaps be constructed.

Case studies

Ezekiel and Tyre

The Medes destroy Babylon?

Ezekiel and Tyre

This is one of the most commonly discussed examples. For example John Bloom, a university professor of physics, has written Is Fulfilled Prophecy of Value for Scholarly Apologetics?, in which he argues that fulfilled prophecy can be used to support the supernatural origin of the Bible and illustrates this with a discussion this prophecy, which he believes has been remarkably fulfilled. Yet sceptics use this same example to argue that Ezekiel’s prophecies were mistaken.

Background

Tyre is an ancient Phoenician seaport on the Mediterranean coast just north of Israel, probably established in the third millennium BCE. It was located on an off-shore island and on the adjacent mainland. It was attacked many times in Biblical times, and captured more than once. In 586-573 BCE Babylonian king Nebuchadrezzar attacked Tyre and razed the mainland section to the ground but was unable to capture the island city despite a 13 year siege, because his land-based army had no ships.

In 332 BCE Alexander the Great captured Tyre, and as part of the assault built a causeway to the island using rubble from the remains of the old mainland city. (With the build-up of marine sediment, the former island is now an isthmus.) In 1291 CE, Muslims conquered the city and left it in ruins. It remained a small fishing village for centuries, then began to be re-established in the 18th century. It is now Lebanon’s fourth largest city at 60,000 people.

The prophet Ezekiel prophesied against Tyre:

  • The original oracle in Ezekiel 26:3-14 says: “I will bring many nations against you …. They will destroy the walls of Tyre and pull down her towers; I will scrape away her rubble and make her a bare rock …. her settlements on the mainland will be ravaged by the sword…. Nebuchadrezzar king of Babylon …. will direct the shock of his battering rams against your walls, and with his axes he will break down your towers. …. With the hoofs of his horses he will trample all your streets …. they will break down your walls and destroy your pleasant houses; your stones and timber and soil they will cast into the midst of the waters…. You will never be rebuilt”
  • But a later oracle in Ezekiel 29:17-19 says: “Nebuchadrezzar king of Babylon made his army labor hard against Tyre…. yet neither he nor his army got anything from Tyre to pay for the labor that he had performed against it.”

Interpretations of Ezekiel’s oracles

Interpretations of this prophecy are very polarised, as these references show:

There is no doubt that some matters predicted by Ezekiel came to pass – the attacks on Tyre, the razing of the mainland city, the scraping of its rubble into the sea, and the overall downfall of the once-powerful city. But other matters are arguable, and Ezekiel himself, in his second oracle, seems to accept that the first had not been fulfilled completely. The main factual disagreements between the two interpretations seem to be:

  • Whether Ezekiel’s prophecy requires the destruction of Tyre to be accomplished by Nebuchadrezzar (which didn’t happen) or whether it allows for the “many nations” mentioned by Ezekiel to participate (which can then include Alexander). This question is problematic, as prophecies tend not to be absolutely clear. But since some of the oracle is in plural, whereas that part specifically naming Nebuchadrezzar is in the singular, we may give Ezekiel the benefit of the doubt here, and say that his overall picture is correct.
  • The exact location of the city of Tyre then and now, and whether it has been rebuilt in the same location. It seems clear here that the sceptics are correct, and Ezekiel’s prophecy has not been fulfilled to the letter. Many christians argue, however, that Ezekiel was using prophetic hyperbole, and that Tyre certainly met its doom and has never risen to its former prominence. This is probably a reasonable view, but nevertheless makes it harder to use this as an example of literally fulfilled prophecy.

A middle view

It seems that neither side can win this argument – there are some fulfilled prophecies in Ezekiel’s oracles, and some unfulfilled. But there is a middle view, represented by this balanced discussion by christian scholar Robert Bratcher. He concludes that some of Ezekiel’s prophecies were wrong but that:

  1. Prophecy is not so much about precise prediction of future events as about God warning or encouraging his people. (And as other commentators have said, prophecy is often a warning and may or may not come true depending on how people respond.)
  2. Ezekiel’s overall message of God’s judgment on Israel through the Babylonians was confirmed by history, even though some oracles were not fulfilled in detail.
  3. The Jewish community which preserved the oracles of Ezekiel was not apparently concerned about the details, and faithfully preserved the oracles regardless – which is testimony to their integrity and their (apparently) different view of prophecy to modern believers and unbelievers alike.

Conclusion

We can conclude that while Ezekiel correctly predicted the downfall of the powerful city of Tyre and some of the details of its fate, many of the details are at best unclear, and at worst unfulfilled. Thus his prophecy is problematic for the purpose of making an argument for divine authorship.

The Medes destroy Babylon?

Both Isaiah (13:17-19) and Jeremiah (51:11-12) predict that God will cause the overthrow of Babylon, and suggest that this will happen via the Medes. (To be strictly fair, they don’t say explicitly that the Medes will conquer Babylon. Isaiah says the Medes will attack Babylon, but only infers they will destroy it; Jeremiah’s prophecy only says the Medes will be “stirred up”, and again their role in Babylon’s destruction is only inferred. But most commentators think the connection is clearly inferred.)

The historical sequence of events concerning Babylon is complex:

c 700 Isaiah’s prophecy about the Medes and Babylon.
689 Babylon rebels against Assyria and the city is destroyed, but is later re-built.
612-605 Media and Babylon gain freedom from Assyria. Media extends its kingdom, which now includes “Persia”.
c 600 Jeremiah’s prophecy about the Medes and Babylon.
550 Cyrus, the Persian king (and grandson of the Median king), rebels against Media, the Median nobles join him, and he takes over Media.
539 Cyrus captures the city of Babylon without a battle and takes over the Babylonian empire. The Achaemenid (or Medo-Persian or First Persian) Empire becomes the largest ever seen (44% of the world’s population).
482 Xerxes (a Persian king) destroys much of Babylon.
275 Babylon is depopulated and no longer functions as a city.
Assessment

Clearly Babylon fell from power and was destroyed as an empire and a functioning city, but it was not destroyed in battle (except by the Assyrians, and then re-built), it is problematic whether the Medes can be considered responsible for this.

Babylon was captured by Cyrus, who was grandchild of the Median king, his Achaemenid or Persian Empire is sometimes referred to as the Medo-Persian Empire, Medes had a strong part in the government of the Empire and some Greek historians referred to it as the Median Empire. So while Media and Persia were closely related, it was actually a Persian Empire. And Babylon was not captured by fighting.

So the prophecies are not strictly accurate. They were broadly fulfilled, but not in detail.

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6 thoughts on “The fulfilment of Old Testament prophecy

  1. ChazIng says:

    unkleE, as for Bratcher’s 5 listed points:

    1. Present day mainland Tyre is not the same merchant city so it has not been built again to its former glory. Rather, it serves a much less flattering function as attractive rubble (tourism) with available fishing (and nets).
    2. Eze 26:3 clearly states “many nations” thus it is expected that Babylon would not have been fully successful.
    3. Irrelevant as per point 2.
    4. Conjecture.
    5. There is nothing limiting prophecy from being long-term. Since one man’s curse can last for 4 generations (Ex 34:7) and Eze 26 is a prophetic ethno-familial curse, the destruction by the Greeks some 250 years later is within said time limit (4 x 70 = 280 yrs).

    You also refer to Bratcher as a scholar. What scholarly monographs has he published to be deemed worthy of said title?

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  2. unkleE says:

    Thanks for your interest Chaz. I didn’t reference Bratcher as an authority but as a representative of a particular viewpoint, just as I referenced others from other viewpoints. On this matter I simply compared the text of Ezekiel with history, and found that neither the “christian apologist” view or the sceptical view fairly represented the facts, whereas Bratcher’s view seemed to me to be closer.

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  3. ChazIng says:

    Well unkleE, your conclusion seems to rest more on the work of Bratcher which I consider tenuous. However, even if this specific case was a slam dunk prophetic fulfillment, it would only constitute a part of a larger argument for divine authenticity. I doubt anyone argues that prophetic fulfillment alone equates with divine authorship.

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  4. unkleE says:

    Hi Chaz, no it is just as I said. I read the Bible, I read up on the history, and I tried to form an unbiased conclusion. I referenced Bratcher as an example of that conclusion, just as I referenced others with different conclusions.

    My main purpose was not to argue for or against the idea of prophecy as proof of divine authorship, and I agree with you that prophecy is only a part of any such argument. The catalyst for writing was atheist claims that Ezekiel’s prophecy about Tyre was almost totally unfulfilled, and I felt that was just as far from the truth (or further) than the inerrantist claims that everything came true.

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  5. nonsupernaturalist says:

    What is a layperson/non-Bible scholar to do??

    Here is our dilemma: Every Christian Old Testament Bible scholar, apologist, pastor, and priest on the planet says that the Old Testament prophesies the birth and death of Jesus of Nazareth as the Jewish Messiah (ben David). However, every (non-messianic) Jewish “Old Testament” scholar and rabbi adamantly states that there is not one single prophecy in the Hebrew Bible about Jesus.

    So who are we poor ignorant saps to believe?

    In lieu of spending the next 10 years becoming a fluent Hebrew-speaking Old Testament scholar yourself, I would suggest using some good ol’ common sense. Who is more likely to be correct:

    1.) Jewish sages and rabbis who have spent their entire lives immersed in Jewish culture, the Jewish Faith, the Hebrew language, and the Hebrew Bible—for the last 2,000 years…or… 2.) seminary graduates from Christian Bible colleges in Dallas, Texas and Lynchburg, Virginia?

    Sorry, Christian scholars, but using good ol’ common sense, I have to go with the Jewish scholars. And Jewish scholars say that Christian translators deliberately mistranslated and distorted the Hebrew Bible to say things in the Christian Bible that is never said in the original Hebrew—for the purpose of inventing prophesies into which they could “shoehorn” Jesus!

    I recommend that every Christian read the bombshell book, “Twenty-Six Reasons Why Jews Don’t Believe in Jesus” by orthodox Jewish author, Asher Norman. You will be blown away by the evidence that this Jewish author presents that confirms why Jews have said the following for the last two thousand years: “Jesus of Nazareth was NOT the Messiah.”

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  6. unkleE says:

    Hi NS (if you’ll forgive the abbreviation), thanks for making your comment on what I regard as a very important question. You say:

    “Every Christian Old Testament Bible scholar, apologist, pastor, and priest on the planet says that the Old Testament prophesies the birth and death of Jesus of Nazareth as the Jewish Messiah (ben David)”

    But I think you have been a little unfortunate in your choice of scholars, and I hope I can give you some good news. As a christian, I became aware a long time ago that the New Testament writers, and Jesus, sometimes applied Old Testament verses out of their original context, and so made some things that were not prophecies apply to Jesus. I wondered why this was so, and I came across two (and there are others) christian scholars who explained it.

    Richard Longenecker explained that Second Temple Judaism often used non-literal interpretations, two of which he labelled Midrashic and Pesher, and these are used in the New Testament too.

    Then Peter Enns addressed the same issue, giving examples of how Jewish teachers did the same thing.

    So I don’t think the matter is as clear cut as you fear. First century Jews and Christians alike used non-literal interpretation, and this included so-called prophecies like Isaiah 7:14, which they applied to Jesus even though the context was referring to something different. So if this is a “bad” practice (I don’t think it is) then both groups are “guilty”.

    It is therefore not true that “all” christian scholars think the same about prophecy. Peter Enns even wrote several blog posts opposing the viewpoint you think all christians hold – for example this one about Jesus’ birth.

    Hopefully that puts your mind at rest a little. Things aren’t as bad as you thought.

    May I enquire what you believe please? Your nom-de-plume suggests an atheist but your comments suggest a Jew. Are you an atheistic Jew? That would be a first on my comments, and I’d be interested to hear more from you. Thanks.

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