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10 February 2011

The Argument from Prophecy

I get a fair bit of email, and while I read it all (and respond to most of it), I don't always have time to give it my full attention. This recent email, however, piqued my interest:

Hi Mr Newman, I'd just like to mention that I much enjoy your blog (which I saw profiled in the Freep). This however obviously isn't my only reason for emailing you. I recently had a brief discussion with two Mennonites, each of whom originated in Mexico and now living near Steinbach. I am uncertain if you are very familiar with the history of the Mexican-Mennonites (Senator Giffords' thesis was on this culture) but let it suffice to say that this group of Mennonites left Manitoba in the 1920s after rejecting provincial pressure to modify their parochial school curriculim and that education has taken a backseat to unflinching [theology] ever since.

So when my buddies adamently stated that the Holy Bible is literally true I wasn't perturbed. But their "clinching" proof is the 1947 discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls proved conclusively that the Old Testament prophecies of the coming of the Messiah weren't written after the event and that everything about Jesus Christ, from his predicted arrival to his described departure, fits the bill. Help!!! I am unskilled in this debate... Any clues? In the meantime I'll keep surfing...

Thanks, [REDACTED]

I have previously touched on prophecy briefly, when I summarised our trip to Winnipeg's Creation Museum, but this claim is different enough that I think it warrants special attention.

So here's my reply!


Ah, the argument from prophecy. That's a classic!

First, some background.

The Dead Sea Scrolls is the name given to a group of texts found in a series of caves on the shore of the Dead Sea in the late 1940s. Most date from between 150 BCE and 70 CE. The writings are generally attributed to the Essenes, and they contain passages from the Hebrew Bible, sectarian doctrinal documents, and apocryphal manuscripts, in roughly equal parts. Among the scrolls, several passages of Daniel, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel were indeed found, and these books are widely recognised as being prophetic in intent.

So clearly your friends are correct in stating that these documents contained messianic prophecies, which many Christians believe that Jesus fulfilled. So where do we go from here?

Well, the argument from prophecy is a slippery one. While a fulfilled prophecy may indeed be evidence the existence of an unusual and unexplained property of the universe, this evidence would not constitute "proof" of any theological claims.

And do we even have a fulfilled prophecy? Iron Chariots (my favourite counter-apologetics wiki) lays out several good requirements for a fulfilled prophecy, which I will quote here:

  • It must actually be a prophecy. Not a documentation of events that is misinterpreted as a prophecy after a similar event occurs later.
  • It must be written before the events that it predicts.
  • It must not predict a likely event.
  • It must not be self-fulfilling.
  • It must not be overly vague.
  • The predicted events must actually occur.
  • The prediction must be both falsifiable and verifiable.

Note that in order to accept the argument from prophecy, all of these criteria must be met, not just some of them. There are actually numerous separate prophecies in these books, which do not really form a coherent narrative, but we'll deal with them en masse for the sake of simplicity and concision. Let's go through our requirements quickly.

Requirement: It must actually be a prophecy. Not a documentation of events that is misinterpreted as a prophecy after a similar event occurs later.

We're looking good, here. Scholars are generally in agreement that many of these texts were intended to be taken prophetically. (Contrast this, for example, with the various interpretations of the Book of Revelation.)

That's not to say that all of the supposed prophecies fulfilled in the life of Jesus were meant prophetically at the time they were written. (For example, Jeremiah 31:15, supposedly prophesying the slaughter of the innocents, was probably not meant prophetically, and doesn't really fit the bill as far as the "actual" events in Matthew are concerned anyway.)

Requirement: It must be written before the events that it predicts.

Again, a hit, as your Mennonite friends maintain. Moving on.

Requirement: It must not predict a likely event.

This one is actually fairly difficult to assess. If you want to pick and choose, it's actually fairly like that we'll see messianic figures popping up here and there. Indeed, Jesus was only one of many itinerant preachers wandering about first-century Judea making messianic claims. Sure, they didn't all fulfil every prophecy, but not even our beloved Jeshua did that!

Requirement: It must not be self-fulfilling.

We're getting into dangerous territory, here. Worldwide, people have made messianic claims for as long as there have been prophetic texts. If there's a prophecy, someone will be trying to fulfil it, for fun and profit!

Requirement: It must not be overly vague.

Let's take a look at one prophecy in particular:

And the LORD said unto me, Cast it unto the potter: a goodly price that I was prised at of them. And I took the thirty pieces of silver, and cast them to the potter in the house of the LORD. (Zechariah 11:13)

This passage (according to Matthew 27:9) apparently prophecies that Judas will betray Jesus for 30 pieces of silver. (Although Matthew says it's in Jeremiah, which is amusingly incorrect.)

Let's contrast that prophecy with one a little less vague:

For example, suppose the New Testament somewhere contained the following passage: "Before two millennia shall pass since the birth of our Lord, a man will stand on another world within the firmament and he will smite a tiny orb with his staff such that it will fly from sight." Obviously no mere mortal in Jesus' day could have anticipated that in two thousand years men would walk on the moon. Nor would he be expected to know anything about golf.
—Vic Stenger,
in God: The Failed Hypothesis

See the difference? Even if the prophecies predated Jesus, the prophecies were quite vague, making it easy to retrofit the facts to the earlier texts.

Requirement: The predicted events must actually occur.

Uh-oh. The New Testament claims that these events occurred—but what good is that?

Requirement: The prediction must be both falsifiable and verifiable.

Oh, and we were so close!

The fact of the matter is this: the contemporary, extrabibilical evidence for the very existence of Jesus is weak, verging on nonexistent. That's not to say that Jesus did not exist—I personally think that he did probably did (although I have no reason to believe that he had magic powers)—but the evidence is not good.

We have no reason to believe that Jesus actually fulfilled any messianic prophecy.

The Bottom Line

The most important thing to take away from this (aside from the fact that arguments from prophecy are generally worthless) is that your friends actually get the argument backward: generally speaking, critics of Biblical prophecy don't argue that messianic Old Testament writings were written (or modified) after the New Testament was complete; they argue that New Testament accounts of Jesus were almost certainly written specifically to show that Jesus fits the Old Testament mould.

The nativity story is notoriously inconsistent between gospels, and contradicts known history. Not only that, it is a transparent attempt to place the birth of Jesus (apparently a Nazarene) in Bethlehem (in accordance with Micah 5).

Jesus' lineage is described in both Luke and Matthew, both attempting to cast him as a descendent of King David (in accordance with prophecies in Isaiah and Daniel). Problematically, these genealogies contradict each other, and there is some contention as to whether the lines pass through Joseph (troublesome for those who assert that Joseph was not the father of Jesus) or Mary (again a problem, as following the Babylonian exile, the Davidic line was traced through the father).

These are simply two among many examples to be found in New Testament texts. Iron Chariots also sums up some of the problems with the prophecies related to Jesus' birth quite well. It's also pertinent to note that while these messianic prophecies are Jewish in origin, the Jews do not consider Jesus to have fulfilled them. For a Jewish perspective on the matter (and for several more examples of failed prophecy), I recommend reading Rabbi Simmons' account of the matter on

The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in this argument is simply a red herring: it's irrelevant, and meant to distract you from the fact that they're making one giant straw man argument. They're not addressing the actual, substantive criticisms made of arguments from prophecy.

If you're interested in further reading on the topic, I highly recommend the Misquoting Jesus, by Bart Ehrman, and The Incredible Shrinking Son of Man, by Bob Price.

I hope that this helps. All the best.



  1. If there's a prophecy, someone will be trying to fulfil it, for fun and prophet!


  2. Yeah. I intentionally left that one out. Thanks for bringing down the level of the whole conversation. ;)

  3. I am curious why you chose the definition of prophecy that you used. It struck me as a little arbitrary and perhaps based on in-house arguments as opposed to a larger conversation on the issue.

  4. I assume that you are referring to the criteria that I provided for a fulfilled prophecy? Perhaps I should have been more clear, but these are not meant to define what a prophecy is, but rather they are meant to indicate whether a particular "fulfilled" prophecy is persuasive (i.e., should be taken as evidence for some sort of supernatural or otherwise unexplained property of the universe).

  5. As I read over the post again I suppose your premise and definition make sense in the context as both people (alluded to in the e-mail) apparently agree on what the term 'proof' refers to. I have just started reading some of your posts so the whole genre here seems a bit strange to me . . . so I will likely need a bit of patience to orientate myself.

  6. Sure. Let me know if you have any more questions. If you're curious about what I find persuasive and what I don't, I recommend reading this post, describing how best to apply skepticism to claims of any sort. (Caution: It may fall into TL; DR territory.)

  7. The problem with debating holy text with people who claim the text is literal is you have to study the text and find EVERY possible interpretation of the passages and avoid offending them. Offending is SO easy to achieve and SO hard to work around.

    I find this facade exhausting to maintain. I am trying a new approach in the future. Instead of debating my points, I force the hand of my opponent by baiting them into defeating their own claims. How I do this is a combination of thee key concepts; reading body language, prompting analytical thinking about the opponents own claims, and reversal of questioning.

    Now, I need to find someone other than the door to door JW to debate with. Your reader is lucky to have the opportunity to engage receptive fanatics (the word ”fanatics” is used with respect).


  8. The Socratic Method is very useful. I try to stay away from reading body language, because I find that I'm not very good at it.