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The Fabulous Prophecies Of The Messiah

Jim Lippard
This text copyright (c) 1993 by Jim Lippard, 2930 E. 1st St., Tucson, AZ 85716 (lippard@rtd.com). Permission is granted to redistribute this file electronically provided this notice is retained.

"The Old Testament ... contains several hundred references to the Messiah. All of these were fulfilled in Christ and they establish a solid confirmation of his credentials as the Messiah." -- Josh McDowell (1972), p. 147

"I have examined all the passages in the New Testament quoted from the Old, and so-called prophecies concerning Jesus Christ, and I find no such thing as a prophecy of any such person, and I deny there are any." -- Thomas Paine (1925), p. 206

These two quotations express diametrically opposed views about whether or not the life of Jesus as described by the New Testament gospels fulfills prophecies of the Jewish Messiah found in the Hebrew scriptures. Josh McDowell's view is the standard evangelical Christian view, found in countless Christian apologetic works. The view expressed by Thomas Paine, however, is much less widely known. This is unfortunate, because Paine is correct. Every case of alleged fulfillment of messianic prophecy suffers from one of the following failings: (1) the alleged Old Testament prophecy is not a messianic prophecy or not a prophecy at all, (2) the prophecy has not been fulfilled by Jesus, or (3) the prophecy is so vague as to be unconvincing in its application to Jesus.

The Significance of Messianic Prophecy

Before examining specific claims of fulfilled messianic prophecy, some remarks should be made about its significance. The fulfillment of biblical prophecy is a central pillar in evangelical Christian apologetic arguments for the truth and accuracy of the Bible. The Bible contains many statements about future events which are intended to be prophetic--the books of the prophets, such as those of Isaiah and Jeremiah, are full of them. Of these statements, many are about actual historical events of the past. Given our present knowledge of the chronology of the Bible's writing, however, in most cases it cannot be demonstrated that the prophetic statements do not post-date the events being predicted. In the case of the Old Testament prophecies of the Messiah, however, we have documents (e.g., the Dead Sea Scrolls) which do predate the time at which the historical Jesus is believed to have lived. If numerous specific and detailed prophecies in the Old Testament were found to match the life of an historical Jesus, this would provide considerable evidence in support of the Christian faith. This is just what Christian apologists claim to be the case.

On the other hand, if it were found that there are no such specific prophecies fulfilled by Jesus, or that there are specific messianic prophecies which were not fulfilled by Jesus, this would be evidence against the truth of Christianity. Since Christianity claims accuracy and truth of both the Old and New Testaments, it is bound by the biblical standards for a true prophet of God set forth in the Hebrew scriptures. The book of Deuteronomy puts forth these standards when it says that Moses, speaking on behalf of God in chapter 18, verse 22, proclaimed that "When a prophet speaks in the name of the Lord, if the thing does not come about or come true, that is the thing which the Lord has not spoken. The prophet has spoken it presumptuously; you shall not be afraid of him." In verse 20, he says that "... the prophet who shall speak a word presumptuously in my name which I have not commanded him to speak, or which he shall speak in the name of other gods, that prophet shall die." In other words, any prophecy from God is guaranteed to be accurate, and any prophecy which is not from God but given in his name shall guarantee the death of the prophet.

While these standards require that prophecies from God are accurate, truth of a prophecy does not guarantee that it comes from God. Deuteronomy 13:1-5 points out that false prophets may also be accurate, but true prophets will never lead Jews astray from their religion, under penalty of death.[1]

If, as I will show, there are messianic prophecies which are not fulfilled by Jesus (and which will not be fulfilled in the future), then these standards entail that either Jesus was not the Messiah or the prophecies in question were not made by a true prophet of God. Both horns of the dilemma have the consequence that any form of Christianity which maintains biblical inerrancy is false.

Birth Prophecies

There are a number of alleged messianic prophecies about Jesus' birth: prophecies about the location, manner, and time of his birth, about his genealogy, and about events which were to occur at the time of his birth. Probably the most famous of these prophecies is the prophecy that Jesus would be born of a virgin. The gospels of Matthew (1:18-25) and Luke (1:26-35) both claim that Jesus was born of a virgin, but only Matthew (1:23) appeals to the Hebrew scriptures as an explanation for why this should be the case. The verse appealed to is Isaiah 7:14, which reads: "Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: Behold, a virgin will be with child and bear a son, and she will call his name Immanuel."

There are a number of difficulties with this passage. As many have noted, the Hebrew word translated as "virgin" in this verse is "almah," which is more accurately translated simply as "young woman." The Hebrew word "bethulah" means "virgin." In the book of Isaiah, "bethulah" appears four times (23:12, 37:22, 47:1, 62:5), so its author was aware of the word. In the New American Standard translation of the Bible, all other appearances of "almah" are translated simply as "girl," "maid," or "maiden" (viz: Genesis 24:43, Exodus 2:8, Psalms 68:25, Proverbs 30:19, Song of Solomon 1:3, 6:8). Thus the claimed fulfillment adds a biologically impossible condition which is not even present in the original prophecy.[2]

Another problem is that nowhere in the New Testament does Mary, Jesus' mother, refer to him as "Immanuel." Thus we have no evidence that one of the conditions of the prophecy was ever fulfilled.

But the most serious problem with this alleged messianic prophecy is that it has been taken out of context. Looking at the entire seventh chapter of Isaiah, it becomes clear that the child in question is to be born as a sign to Ahaz, King of Judah, that he will not be defeated in battle by Rezin, King of Syria, and Pekah, son of the King of Israel. Jesus' birth was some seven centuries late to be such a sign. In Isaiah 8:3-4, a prophetess gives birth to a son--Maher-shalal-hash-baz--who is clearly described as the fulfillment of the prophecy in Isaiah 7:14.[3]

J. Edward Barrett (1988, p. 14) points out evidence that early Christians rejected the virgin birth. One piece of Barrett's evidence is that in 1 Timothy 1:3-4, the writer (who may or may not be the apostle Paul) advises that his audience "instruct certain men not to teach strange doctrines, nor to pay attention to myths and endless genealogies, which give rise to mere speculation rather than furthering the administration of God which is by faith." The earliest gospel, Mark, lacks an account of Jesus' birth, as does John, the latest gospel. Virgin birth is obviously quite relevant to genealogy, and both Matthew and Luke present Jesus' genealogy in close proximity to the story.

A second claimed birth prophecy is that Jesus would be born in the city of Bethlehem, cited in Matthew (2:1-6), Luke (2:4-7), and John's (7:42) gospels. Of these, Matthew and John specifically refer to prophecy in the Hebrew scriptures. The passage referred to is Micah 5:2, which reads: "But as for you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you one will go forth for me to be ruler in Israel. His goings forth are from long ago, from the days of eternity." "Ephrathah" is the ancient name of Bethlehem (Genesis 35:19, Ruth 4:11) but, to confuse matters, "Bethlehem Ephrathah" is also the name of a person: Bethlehem the son (or grandson) of Ephrathah (1 Chronicles 4:4, 2:50-51). This prophecy could therefore refer to either a native of the town or to a descendent of the person. If the latter, Jesus does not qualify since neither of his alleged genealogies (more on these below) list either Bethlehem or Ephrathah. If the former (more likely since Bethlehem was the birthplace of King David, from whom the Messiah is supposed to be descended), then Jesus qualifies by birthplace[4] but fails to meet the condition of being "ruler in Israel." Christians claim that this is a prophecy which will be fulfilled at the Second Coming.

There are various alleged genealogical prophecies about the ancestry of the Messiah. It is claimed that Genesis 22:18 and 12:2-3 are prophecies that the Messiah will be a descendent of Abraham, but these verses say nothing about the Messiah. They say simply that the descendents of Abraham will be blessed. Other claimed prophecies about the Messiah's ancestry are that he will be of the tribe of Judah (Genesis 49:10, Micah 5:2), of the family line of Jesse (Isaiah 11:1, 10), and of the house of David (Jeremiah 23:5, 2 Samuel 7:12-16, Psalms 132:11). Some of these do appear to be genuine messianic prophecies, but others simply seem to refer to future kings. All of these verses refer to kings--and thus none have been fulfilled by Jesus.

But the problems for these prophecies run even deeper. Is Jesus actually of the tribe of Judah, the family line of Jesse, and the house of David? The sole evidence for this is two sets of genealogies for Jesus, in Matthew 1:1-17 and Luke 3:23-38. Both of these trace Jesus' lineage through his father, Joseph. If the virgin birth story is taken seriously, then Jesus lacks the proper ancestry. On the other hand, if the genealogy in Matthew is taken seriously, then Jesus has as an ancestor Jeconiah (Matthew 1:12), of whom the prophet Jeremiah said, "Write this man down as childless, a man who will not prosper in his days, for no man of his descendants will prosper sitting on the throne of David or ruling again in Judah." (Jeremiah 22:30) The genealogy in Luke suffers from the same problem, since it includes Shealtiel and Zerubbabel, both of whom were descendents of Jeconiah.

A final oft-noted problem is that the genealogies in Matthew and Luke contradict each other and the Hebrew scriptures. Was Jesus' grandfather on Joseph's side Jacob (Matthew 1:16) or Eli (Luke 3:23)? Was Shealtiel's father Jeconiah (1 Chronicles 3:17, Matthew 1:12) or Neri (Luke 3:27)? Matthew 1:11 omits Jehoiakim (who in Jeremiah 36:29-30 suffers a curse similar to that of his son, Jeconiah) between Josiah and Jeconiah (1 Chronicles 3:15) and Matthew 1:4 omits Admin between Ram and Amminadab (Luke 3:33). Finally, Matthew 1:13 says that Abiud is the son of Zerubbabel, Luke 3:27 says that Rhesa is the son of Zerubbabel, but 1 Chronicles 3:19-20 lists neither as sons of Zerubbabel.[5]

Another prophecy related to the birth of Jesus is the claim that the Messiah would be born at a time when King Herod was killing children. Only the gospel of Matthew (2:16-18) makes this claim, quoting a prophecy of Jeremiah (31:15) which states that "A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children; and she refused to be comforted, because they were no more." There are two problems with this alleged messianic prophecy: it is not a prophecy about children being killed and it is quite doubtful that there ever was such a slaughter of innocents by Herod. "Rachel weeping for her children" refers to the mother of Joseph and Benjamin (and wife of Jacob) weeping about her children taken captive to Egypt. In context, the verse is about the Babylonian captivity, which its author witnessed. Subsequent verses speak of the children being returned, and thus it refers to captivity rather than murder. The slaughter by Herod is also in doubt because the writer of Matthew is the only person who has noted such an event. Flavius Josephus, who carefully chronicled Herod's abuses, makes no mention of it.

Matthew goes on to claim that to evade Herod's murders, Jesus was taken as a child to Egypt. This is done, according to Matthew 2:15, in order "that what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet might be fulfilled, saying, 'Out of Egypt did I call my son.'" This is a reference to Hosea 11:1, which is not a messianic prophecy at all. It is a reference to the Exodus of the Jews from Egypt.

At the end of the same chapter of Matthew (2:23), its author writes that Mary, Joseph, and the child Jesus settled in Nazareth, in order "... that what was spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, 'He shall be called a Nazarene.'" There is no such prophecy in the Hebrew scriptures, though some claim this refers to Judges 13:5. This verse describes an angel speaking to the mother of Samson, telling her that her son "shall be a Nazirite." This is not only not a messianic prophecy, it can't be what Matthew is referring to. A Nazirite is quite different from a Nazarene. A Nazarene is an inhabitant of Nazareth, but a Nazirite is a Jew who has taken special vows to abstain from all wine and grapes, not to cut his hair, and to perform special sacrifices (see Leviticus 6:1-21). Jesus drank wine (Matthew 26:29, Mark 14:25, Luke 22:18), and so could not have been a Nazirite.

A prophecy relating to the time of the Messiah which many evangelical Christians find extremely convincing is found in the book of Daniel. It is probably no exaggeration to say that this prophecy, more than any other, convinces Christians that Jesus was the Messiah. Daniel 9:24-27 says:

"Seventy weeks have been decreed for your people and your holy city, to finish the transgression, to make an end of sin, to bring in everlasting righteousness, to seal up vision and prophecy, and to anoint the most holy place.

"So you are to know and discern that from the issuing of a decree to restore and rebuild Jerusalem until Messiah the Prince there will be seven weeks and sixty-two weeks; it will be built again, with plaza and moat, even in times of distress.

"Then after the sixty-two weeks the Messiah will be cut off and have nothing, and the people of the prince who is to come will destroy the city and the sanctuary. And its end will come with a flood; even to the end there will be war; desolations are determined.

"And he will make a firm covenant with the many for one week, but in the middle of the week he will put a stop to sacrifice and grain offering; and on the wing of abominations will come one who makes desolate, even until a complete destruction, one that is decreed, is poured out on the one who makes desolate."

The word translated in these verses as "weeks" is a form of the Hebrew word for "sevens," and is interpreted by Christians to mean seven years rather than seven days. Thus "seventy weeks" in verse 24 is interpreted to mean seventy periods of seven years, or 490 years, "seven weeks" in verse 25 is interpreted to mean 49 years, "sixty-two weeks" in verses 25 and 26 is interpreted to mean 434 years, and "one week" in verse 27 is interpreted to mean seven years.

The starting point of the prophecy is the "issuing of a decree to restore and rebuild Jerusalem." A decree described in the Bible to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem is found in 2 Chronicles 36:22-23 and Ezra 1:1-4. These verses describe the decree issued by Cyrus, king of Persia and contemporary of Daniel, in 538 B.C.E. "Seven weeks and sixty-two weeks," or 483 years, after this decree would be 55 B.C.E., many years too soon for Jesus.

So Christians must reject the equation of the decree in verse 25 with that of Cyrus, and they do. What other decrees are available? Josh McDowell (1972, p. 180) offers three alternatives: a decree of Darius described in the book of Ezra, a decree of Artaxerxes described in Ezra, and a decree of Artaxerxes described in Nehemiah. The decree of Darius, described in Ezra 6:1-9, was to conduct a search of the archives to find the text of the decree of Cyrus, and then to resume the construction of the temple at Jerusalem using tax money. This occurred around 522 B.C.E. (see Ezra 4:24), which would put the coming of the Messiah at 39 B.C.E.--still too early for Jesus.

The decree of Artaxerxes to Ezra described in Ezra 7:11-28 allows for the people of Israel to return to Jerusalem, taking with them various support from the royal treasury. This decree was issued in 458 B.C.E. (see Ezra 7:7), which would put the coming of the Messiah at 26 C.E. This works fairly well if you take the end of the "sixty-two weeks" to be the beginning of Jesus' ministry, though most Christians take the end point to be the crucifixion due to the reference in verse 26 of the Daniel prophecy to the Messiah being "cut off." Most Christians reject this decree, as well as those of Cyrus and Darius, as being the appropriate starting point for the prophecy. One exception is Gleason Archer. Archer (1982, pp. 290-291) argues that Ezra 9:9 implies that Ezra was given permission by Artaxerxes to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem, despite the fact that they were not rebuilt until the time of Nehemiah (see Nehemiah 1:3). Ezra 9:9 states that God has not forsaken the Jews but has given them a chance "to raise up the house of our God, to restore its ruins, and to give us a wall in Judah and Jerusalem." In defense of the end point of the "sixty-two weeks" being the beginning of Jesus' ministry rather than his crucifixion, Archer points out that verse 26 of the prophecy says only that the Messiah's being "cut off" occurs after that time period, not necessarily immediately after it.

The decree of Artaxerxes to Nehemiah described in Nehemiah 2:1-6 is really no decree at all. Rather, Artaxerxes gives Nehemiah letters of safe conduct for travel to Judah and to obtain timber to rebuild the gates of the temple and the walls of Jerusalem. This occurred in 445 B.C.E., putting the time of the Messiah at 39 C.E., too late for Jesus, who is believed to have been crucified some time between 29 and 33 C.E. Despite these flaws, most evangelical Christians adopt this as the appropriate decree because Nehemiah rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem. In order to make the 445 B.C.E. starting point result in an ending point 483 years later that is either at the beginning of Jesus' ministry or at the time of the crucifixion, something other than a 365-day year must be used. The most popular such calculation, due to Sir Robert Anderson and promoted by Josh McDowell, is to adopt a "360- day prophetic year"--an invention of Anderson based on his reading of Revelation 11:23, where he equates 42 months with 1260 days, giving 30 days per month. Using "prophetic years" puts the end of the 483-year period at 32 C.E., believed by many to be the year of the crucifixion. Robert Newman (1990, pp. 112-114) points out several flaws in this calculation scheme which together are fatal to it: (1) Revelation 11:23 does not justify the invention of the "prophetic year," because there is no indication that 1260 days is said to be exactly 42 months (it could be 41.5 rounded up), (2) a 360-day year would get out of synch with the seasons, and the Jews added an extra lunar month every two or three years to their 354- day lunar year, giving them an average year length of about 365 days, and (3) the present consensus on the date of the crucifixion is 30 C.E. rather than 32 C.E.

Newman offers his own alternative: the use of sabbatical years, which do have biblical justification (Exodus 23:10-11 and Leviticus 25:3-7,18-22). Every seventh year is a sabbatical year. Newman uses information from the first book of Maccabees, which has reference to an observance of a sabbatical year, to calculate that 163-162 B.C.E. was a sabbatical year and therefore 445 B.C.E., the starting point of the Daniel prophecy, falls in the seven-year sabbatical cycle 449-442 B.C.E. If this is the first sabbatical cycle in the count, the sixty-ninth is 28-35 C.E., a time period that the crucifixion falls in. In response to the criticism that the prophecy says that the Messiah will be "cut off" after sixty-two weeks, Newman says that in conventional Jewish idiom "after" means "after the beginning of."

There are further problems for all of the above interpretations, which Gerald Sigal (1981, pp. 109-122) points out. Foremost among Sigal's criticisms is that the Masoretic punctuation of the Hebrew Bible places a division between the "seven weeks and sixty-two weeks," meaning that rather than stating that the Messiah will come after the combined time periods, he will come after the "seven weeks" alone. Another criticism Sigal makes is that the Hebrew text does not put a definite article in front of the word "Messiah" (or "anointed one"). The Revised Standard Version of the Bible is translated with these facts in mind, and it gives the Daniel 9:24-27 as follows:

Seventy weeks of years are decreed concerning your people and your holy city, to finish the transgression, to put an end to sin, and to atone for iniquity, to bring in everlasting righteousness, to seal both vision and prophet, and to anoint a most holy place. Know therefore and understand that from the going forth of the word to restore and build Jerusalem to the coming of an anointed one, a prince, there shall be seven weeks. Then for sixty-two weeks it shall be built again with squares and moat, but in a troubled time. And after the sixty-two weeks, an anointed one shall be cut off, and shall have nothing; and the people of the prince who is to come shall destroy the city and the sanctuary. Its end shall come with a flood, and to the end there shall be war; desolations are decreed. And he shall make a strong covenant with many for one week; and for half of the week he shall cause sacrifice and offering to cease; and upon the wing of abominations shall come one who makes desolate, until the decreed end is poured out on the desolator.

Using the Masoretic punctuation, the "sixty-two weeks" goes with the rebuilding of the city rather than with the coming of the Messiah. This interpretation explains why "seven weeks and sixty- two weeks" are given separately, rather than simply stating "sixty-nine weeks." Most apologists are either unaware of or ignore the Masoretic punctuation, but Robert Newman (1990, p. 116) rejects it on the grounds that "such punctuation may not date back before the ninth or tenth century AD" and that the structure of the verses as a whole favor his interpretation.

The result of all this? The Daniel prophecy is not nearly so convincing as it might initially appear to someone presented only with one of the interpretations that "works." It is not surprising that with four choices for beginning points (the decrees of Cyrus, Darius, and Artaxerxes, plus the letters of Artaxerxes for Nehemiah), several possible choices for end points (the birth, ministry, and crucifixion of Jesus), and at least three ways of counting (ordinary years, "prophetic years," and sabbatical cycles) calculations have been found for which Jesus fits the prophecy. There are good reasons to reject each of these interpretations. The first two choices for beginning points don't work for any offered interpretations. The Artaxerxes decree works for ordinary years with the ministry of Jesus as the end point, but says nothing about rebuilding Jerusalem. The Artaxerxes letters work for sabbatical cycles with the crucifixion as an end point, but they are not a decree to rebuild the city of Jerusalem. Rather, they gave Nehemiah safe conduct to Judah and permission to use lumber from the royal forests. Finally, none of them take into consideration the Masoretic punctuation, which, if not itself in error, eliminates all of them as possible interpretations of the text.

Ministry Prophecies

Alleged prophecies about Jesus' life and ministry claim that he would be preceded by a messenger (i.e., John the Baptist), that he would have a ministry in Galilee, that he would perform miracles, and that he would have a triumphant entry into the city of Jerusalem on a donkey. The first of these, that he would be preceded by a messenger, refers to Isaiah 40:3, which reads, "A voice is calling, 'clear the way for the Lord in the wilderness; make smooth in the desert a highway for our God.'" This verse speaks not of a messenger for the Messiah, but of the Jews being released from the Babylonian captivity. Another verse claimed to offer the same prophecy is Malachi 3:1, which says "Behold, I am going to send my messenger, and he will clear the way before me. ..." This may be plausibly taken as a messianic prophecy. But did John the Baptist actually "clear the way" as a messenger for Jesus? The historian Flavius Josephus writes about John the Baptist, but makes no link of his name with that of Jesus (Antiquities of the Jews, 18.5.2; Josephus (1985), p. 382). The earliest of Christian writings, the letters of Paul, make no mention of John the Baptist. The gospels (and the book of Acts, written by the author of Luke) are the only real evidence of a link. But the gospel evidence does not hold up. The gospel of John shows John the Baptist explicitly recognizing Jesus as the Messiah (John 1:25-34) before being cast into prison by Herod (John 3:23-24). But the gospels of Matthew (11:2-3) and Luke (7:18-22) depict John the Baptist, in prison, sending his disciples to Jesus to ask if he claims to be the Messiah. If the story in John were true, John the Baptist would have had no reason to ask this question. (For more on John the Baptist and his relation to Jesus, see Miosi (1993).)

Christian apologists claim that Jesus' Galilean ministry is prophesied by Isaiah 9:1, which says, "... in earlier times he [God] treated the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali with contempt, but later on he shall make it glorious, by the way of the sea, on the other side of Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles." All this verse says is that God will make the area "glorious"--it says nothing of ministry by the Messiah. The subsequent verses (Isaiah 9:6-7) speak of a child to be born who will be king, whose "name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace." Jewish tradition says that this refers to King Hezekiah, not the Messiah (Sigal 1981, pp. 29-32). Isaiah 9:7, if applied to Jesus, is unfulfilled since it speaks of his kingship.

Prophecy of Jesus' miraculous healings are purported to be found in Isaiah 35:5-6 and Isaiah 32:3-4. The latter does not speak of healing, but says that "the eyes of those who see will not be blinded, and the ears of those who hear will listen. And the mind of the hasty will discern the truth, and the tongue of the stammerers will hasten to speak clearly." It is further stated that this will occur during the reign of a king (Isaiah 32:1), which did not occur in Israel during Jesus' ministry. The former verse, on the other hand, describes people being healed ("the eyes of the blind will be opened, and the ears of the deaf will be unstopped") but also, in verses 7-8, describes land being "healed." There is no clear indication here that these healings have anything to do with the Messiah, rather, it is God himself doing the healing. The gospels contain no account of Jesus healing land.

A final prophecy dealing with Jesus' life and ministry is Zechariah 9:9, which says "Behold, your king is coming to you ... humble, and mounted on a donkey, even on a colt, the foal of a donkey." Again, Jesus was not king, so that aspect of the prophecy remains unfulfilled. The alleged fulfillment of this prophecy is also problematic. According to Mark (10:11-19), Luke (19:28-38), and John (12:12-19), Jesus entered Jerusalem riding on a donkey. But Matthew 21:1-11 has Jesus riding on both a donkey and a colt, indicating his misunderstanding of the prophecy.

Betrayal Prophecies

A number of alleged prophecies relate to Jesus' betrayal by Judas. These include prophecies that Jesus would be betrayed by a friend for thirty pieces of silver and that this money would be thrown into the temple and used to buy a potter's field. Two verses taken as prophecies of betrayal by a friend are Psalms 41:9 and Psalms 55:12-14, the former of which reads, "Even my close friend, in whom I trusted, who ate my bread, has lifted up his heel against me." Both are psalms which speak of feelings of pain from being betrayed by a close and trusted friend. Yet Jesus already had foreknowledge of his betrayal by Judas (John 13:21-26), and so must not have trusted him. When the gospel of John (13:18) quotes from Psalm 41:9, it tacitly admits this problem by omitting the phrase "in whom I trusted." Neither verse from the Hebrew scriptures gives any indication of being intended as prophetic.

Matthew 26:14-15 states that Judas Iscariot was paid thirty pieces of silver by the Jewish priests as payment for his betrayal. Matthew 27:9-10 claims that this is done to fulfill a prophecy of Jeremiah:

Then that which was spoken through Jeremiah the prophet was fulfilled, saying, "And they took the thirty pieces of silver for the price of the one whose price had been set by the sons of Israel; and they gave them for the potter's field, as the Lord directed me."

The problem here is that the quoted verse appears nowhere in the book of Jeremiah. There is a verse which is quite similar in the book of Zechariah, but there the prophet Zechariah is speaking about himself and no betrayal is involved. Christian apologist Gleason Archer (1982, p. 345) tries to resolve this problem by citing various verses in Jeremiah which refer to "the prophet purchasing a field in Anathoth for a certain number of shekels" (32:6-9), "the prophet as watching a potter fashioning earthenware vessels in his house" (18:2), "a potter near the temple" (19:2), and God saying "Even so I will break this people and this city as one breaks a potter's vessel" (19:11). Why does Archer write "a certain number of shekels" instead of giving the number specified in Jeremiah? Because Jeremiah 32:9 says seventeen shekels, not thirty. What Archer has done here is simply look for the words "potter," "shekel," and "field" in an attempt to argue that Matthew really was referring to Jeremiah rather than Zechariah. But there is really no question that Matthew meant to refer to Zechariah rather than Jeremiah. Compare Zechariah 11:12-13:

And I said to them, "If it is good in your sight, give me my wages; but if not, never mind!" So they weighed out thirty shekels of silver as my wages. Then the Lord said to me, "Throw it to the potter, that magnificent price at which I was valued by them." So I took the thirty shekels of silver and threw them to the potter in the house of the Lord.

Again, this is Zechariah speaking of his own experience rather than a messianic prophecy. But Matthew 27:5-7 tries to fulfill this non-prophecy by telling a story of Judas Iscariot throwing his payment into the temple before committing suicide, after which the priests use the money to buy a potter's field. This story does not appear in the other gospels (though Acts 1:18-19 says that Judas himself, rather than the priests, bought a field with the (unspecified amount of) money earned by his betrayal).

Another problem with this alleged prophecy is that in the earliest (Syriac) manuscripts of Zechariah, verse 13 does not even contain the word "potter"--instead, it says "treasury," which makes more sense but further damages its credibility as prophecy. (The Revised Standard Version gives the verse as "Cast it into the treasury," with the "to the potter" translation relegated to a footnote.)

Crucifixion Prophecies

Christian apologists are perhaps most impressed by a number of alleged prophecies relating to Jesus' crucifixion. They claim that the Hebrew scriptures contain prophecies that Jesus would be crucified, that his garments would be divided by the casting of lots, that he would be given wine mixed with gall or myrrh, that he would cry out about being forsaken, and that none of his bones would be broken. There are several verses taken to refer to crucifixion: Psalms 22:16, Zechariah 12:10, and Zechariah 13:6 are typical examples. Psalms 22:16 reads, "For dogs have surrounded me; a band of evildoers has encompassed me; they pierced my hands and my feet." This is a psalm of David which gives no indication of being prophetic and which describes the speaker being hunted down and killed rather than being crucified. Gerald Sigal (1981, p. 98) argues that the Hebrew word translated here as "pierced" is "ariy," which means "lion," and so a more accurate translation would be "like a lion [they are gnawing at] my hands and feet." Gleason Archer (1982, p. 37), however, argues that "they pierced" is correct, based on the Septuagint's translation and other considerations.

Zechariah 12:10 says "they will look on me whom they have pierced; and they will mourn for him, as one mourns for an only son ...." The gospel of John (19:37) takes this as prophecy fulfilled by Jesus' crucifixion, but there is no indication that this speaks of crucifixion. Further, the "him" being mourned for is not the "me" that is being pierced. The Jewish interpretation of this verse is that God is speaking of the people of Israel being "pierced" or attacked (Sigal 1981, pp. 80-82).

Zechariah 13:6 speaks of "these wounds between your arms," spoken of one who claims not to be a prophet and to have been sold as a slave in his youth (Zechariah 13:5). Wounds between one's arms are not characteristic of crucifixion, and Jesus was neither sold as a slave nor claimed not to be a prophet.

Only the gospel of John speaks of Jesus' garments being divided among the soldiers and their casting of lots for his tunic (John 19:23-24), and he cites Psalms 22:18 as the prophecy which is thereby fulfilled. This latter verse reads, "They divide my garments among them, and for my clothing they cast lots." This verse tells of one event--clothing being divided by the casting of lots. But John transforms it into two events: first the division of Jesus' clothing apart from his tunic (John 19:23) and then casting of lots for his tunic (John 19:24). It appears that John created a story in an attempt to provide a fulfillment for his misunderstanding of a verse which gives no indication of being a prophecy in the first place.

Matthew (27:34) speaks of Jesus being given "wine to drink mingled with gall" and Mark (15:23) says he was offered "wine mixed with myrrh." These are both taken to be references to Psalms 69:21, which says "they gave me gall for my food, and for my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink." The Hebrew word here translated as "gall" is "rosh," meaning poison or gall, and referring to some poisonous plant. The verse says that poison is being put into food, which does not apply to the crucifixion. Myrrh, which is not poisonous, is referred to by the Hebrew word "mor," which does not appear in Psalms 69:21. This psalm, which speaks repeatedly of flood waters, gives no indication of being either prophetic or of applying to Jesus.

The gospels of Matthew (27:46) and Mark (15:34) give Jesus' last words as "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me," a quotation of Psalms 22:1. Luke (23:46) gives "Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit" as Jesus' final words, while John (19:30) has Jesus say "It is finished." Only the first of these is claimed to be fulfillment of prophecy, yet it is hardly miraculous that Jesus would make such a statement. Presumably Jesus was familiar with the Hebrew scriptures. Such a remark, however, is inconsistent with Christian theology. Why would Jesus, supposed to be God incarnate, speak of being forsaken by himself at all, let alone at the culmination of his plan for human salvation? It is also not apparent that Psalms 22 is either prophetic or applicable to Jesus (see Sigal 1981, pp. 95-99).

A final prophecy I wish to examine relating to the crucifixion is that Jesus' bones would not be broken. It is only the gospel of John (19:32-36) which tells of soldiers breaking the legs of the crucifixion victims to hasten their deaths, yet sparing Jesus because he was already dead. John 19:36 cites Psalms 34:20, "He keeps all his bones; not one of them is broken," as the prophecy which is thereby fulfilled. There is no indication that Psalms 34 is intended as prophetic, nor that it applies to Jesus. The intent in the gospel of John is to represent Jesus as a sacrifice, specifically corresponding to the paschal lamb (e.g., John 1:29, 36). A requirement of the paschal lamb is that none of its bones be broken (Exodus 12:46, Numbers 9:12). But this analogy fails for several reasons: the paschal lamb was not for the atonement of sin, and Jewish sacrifices were required to be completely without blemish, sore, or injury (Leviticus 22:20-25) while Jesus was scourged and mutilated (John 19:1; Sigal 1981, pp. 265-268).

Conclusions

It is worth briefly examining some conclusions regarding messianic prophecies quite contrary to mine presented by Peter Stoner (1952) (and repeated in McDowell (1972)). Stoner calculates the probability of just eight messianic prophecies[6] being fulfilled as 1 in 10^21 (McDowell (1972), citing a more recent edition of Stoner's book, gives the probability as 1 in 10^17. Jeffrey (1990, pp. 17-20) gives a list of eleven messianic prophecies[7] and a probability of 1 in 10^19.) There are a number of problems with Stoner's calculations. The probability of each prophecy being fulfilled by chance was arrived at by getting an estimate from "a class in Christian Evidences" at Pasadena City College sponsored by Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship (Stoner 1952, p. 71). These estimates did not consider any of the above objections to these prophecies, nor did they consider the possibility of intentional fulfillment. (For example, a Messiah claimant might hire a John-the-Baptist-style messenger to precede him, or intentionally ride a donkey into the city of Jerusalem.) Another problem with this method is that such probability estimates are notoriously unreliable.[8] Of these problems, the most serious is Stoner's failure to consider the objections I have offered above, and it alone is sufficient to invalidate his calculations.

I have examined more than two dozen alleged messianic prophecies which Christian apologists claim are fulfilled by Jesus. Although there are many more claimed such prophecies (e.g., McDowell (1972) lists 61 in some detail and refers to numerous additional verses without details), these are by far the best examples, by the apologists' own reckoning.[9] This examination shows that none stands up as a specific, detailed, and accurate prediction of an event which came to occur in the life of Jesus. Instead, the purported prophecies appear to be the result of deliberate attempts by the gospel writers and Christian apologists to find post hoc similarities between events described in the New Testament and the Hebrew scriptures. Messianic prophecies, contrary to apologists, do not provide evidence for Christian faith.

Notes

[1] It could be argued (and has been argued by Jews at least since the third century) that Jesus led Jews astray from their religion and was therefore a false prophet. See Sanhedrin 43a in the Babylonian Talmud (Epstein 1935, p. 281).

[2] It should be noted that some Christian apologists claim that "virgin" is meant because the Jewish translators of the Old Testament into its Greek form (the Septuagint) used the Greek word "parthenos" ("virgin") for "almah" in translating this verse. This probably indicates, rather, that Matthew used the Septuagint. Gerald Sigal (1981, p. 24) points out a case (Genesis 34:3) where the Septuagint uses "parthenos" for the Hebrew word "na'arah" ("girl") when the woman in question is most definitely not a virgin (see Genesis 34:2). Nahigian (1993, p. 13) also points out that later Greek translations of Isaiah, by Aquila, Theodocion, Lucian, and others did not use "parthenos" to translate "almah" in Isaiah 7:14.

[3] The usual Christian response is to invoke a doctrine of "double fulfillment" of prophecy. Note that this, combined with the Christian view that "almah" means "virgin," means that the Christian must accept two virgin births.

[4] The gospel of John says nothing about Jesus being from Bethlehem, but instead says that he is from Nazareth in Galilee. See John 1:45-46 and 7:41-42,52.

[5] There are two common attempts made to resolve these contradictions. The most common among evangelical Christians is to claim that Luke's genealogy is that of Mary, not Joseph. This fails to explain the repeated convergence followed by divergence as you trace the ancestry backward. It also fails to explain why the Luke genealogy contains almost twice as many ancestors as Matthew's in the same time period. Yet another problem is that this explanation conflicts with the Catholic tradition which says that Mary's parents were Joachim and Anna. A second explanation, favored by Catholics, is that each case of divergence is the result of Levirate marriage. That is, the discrepant fathers are brothers of each other, and when one died the other married his brother's wife (see Deuteronomy 25:5). This explanation also fails to explain the difference in number of ancestors.

[6] Micah 5:2 (born in Bethlehem), Malachi 3:1 (preceded by a messenger), Zechariah 9:9 (enters Jerusalem on a donkey), Zechariah 13:6 (betrayed by a friend, wounded in hands), Zechariah 11:12 (betrayed for thirty silver pieces), Zechariah 11:13 (silver thrown in temple and used to purchase potter's field), Isaiah 53:7 (remains silent before accusers), and Psalms 22:16 (hands and feet pierced). All of these except the Isaiah verse have been examined above (see note 9).

[7] Jeffrey gives the same eight as Stoner and McDowell (substituting Isaiah 40:3 for "preceded by a messenger" and Psalms 41:9 for "betrayed by a friend") and adds Isaiah 53:5 (wounded and whipped by enemies), Isaiah 50:6 (spit upon and beaten), and Isaiah 53:12 (crucified with thieves). These latter three verses are not addressed in this article; see note 9.

[8] See Kahneman, Slovic, and Tversky (1982) and Falk (1982).

[9] Prophecies I have not dealt with include Isaiah's writings about the "Suffering Servant," which are dealt with by Sigal (1981, pp. 35-68) and in issue 30 (June 1985) of Biblical Errancy.

Acknowledgements

Thanks to Ed Babinski, who recommended Gerald Sigal's book, and to Robert Sheaffer (sheaffer@netcom.com) for his helpful comments on an early draft of this article, and to David Wood (dpw@sei.cmu.edu) for pointing out the RSV translation of Zechariah 11:13.

All Bible quotations, except where otherwise noted, are from the New American Standard translation.

References

Archer, Gleason (1982) Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan Publishing House.

Barrett, J. Edward (1988) "Can Scholars Take the Virgin Birth Seriously?", Bible Review, October, pp. 10-15, 29.

Epstein, Rabbi Dr. I., editor (1935) The Babylonian Talmud: Sanhedrin. London: The Soncino Press.

Falk, Ruma (1982) "On Coincidences," Skeptical Inquirer 6(Winter 1981-82):18-31.

Jeffrey, Grant R. (1990) Armageddon: Appointment with Destiny. N.Y.: Bantam.

Josephus, Flavius (1985) The Works of Josephus. Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers. Translated by William Whiston.

Kahneman, Daniel, Slovic, Paul, and Tversky, Amos (1982) Judgment Under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

McDowell, Josh (1972) Evidence That Demands A Verdict. San Bernardino, Calif.: Here's Life Publishers.

Miosi, Frank T. (1993) "Who Was John the Baptist?" Free Inquiry 13(2, Spring):38-45.

Nahigian, Kenneth E. (1993) "A Virgin-Birth Prophecy?" The Skeptical Review 4(2, Spring):13-14, 16.

Newman, Robert C. (1990) "The Time of the Messiah." In Robert C. Newman, editor, The Evidence of Prophecy, second printing with corrections. Hatfield, Penn.: Interdisciplinary Biblical Research Institute, pp. 111-118.

Paine, Thomas (1925) "Examination of the Prophecies." In William M. Van der Weyde, editor, The Life and Works of Thomas Paine, volume IX. New Rochelle, N.Y.: Thomas Paine National Historical Association, pp. 205-292.

Sigal, Gerald (1981) The Jew and the Christian Missionary: A Jewish Response To Missionary Christianity. N.Y.: Ktav Publishing House, Inc.

Stoner, Peter W. (1952) Science Speaks: An Evaluation of Certain Christian Evidences. Wheaton, Ill.: Van Kampen Press, Inc.

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