How Prophecy Works

Like many evangelicals and others afflicted by Christianity, Don Camp believes that the Old Testament is jam-packed with prophecies about Jesus; his origin, background, mission, teaching, sacrifice and resurrection. He quotes a couple in one of his recent comments, which we’ll get to soon, and thinks that the general direction of travel is from ancient prophecy to later fulfilment in Jesus. Don and those like him will not entertain the possibility that this is an illusion created by those who constructed the Jesus’ stories.

Here’s how the illusion was created: the gospel writers, and Paul too, looked back at the Old Testament (‘the scriptures’) and found there what Don describes as ‘indistinct’ references to events they believed had happened in their own time. From these and other sources, they built their stories about Jesus. More often than not, these scriptural references were not in themselves prophecies or predictions of Jesus’ life, death or resurrection. We know this by a) reading them in their original context, b) recognising that the Jewish scriptures as a whole never speak of a Messiah who must die an ignoble death for his people, and c) noting the number of times these ‘indistinct’ statements have to be altered by the gospel writers and others, to make them ‘fit’ their conception of their God-man.

Let’s start with one of Don’s picks, from Isaiah 53:11:

After he has suffered, he will see the light of life.

It has to be conceded that all of Isaiah 53 does indeed look like it’s a prophecy of Jesus’ suffering, death and resurrection. In context, however, the suffering servant it describes is Israel itself, as surrounding chapters make clear. Furthermore, on closer inspection, some of it doesn’t seem to apply to Jesus at all. Verses 2&3 really don’t describe a man followed around by multitudes and later worshipped by millions:

He grew up before him like a tender shoot, and like a root out of dry ground. He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain. Like one from whom people hide their faces he was despised, and we held him in low esteem.

Unsurprisingly, Don doesn’t quote these verses. Sure, it’s possible to make them fit; to say that these verses 2-3 describe Jesus on trial with the crowd baying for his blood; but it’s a stretch. We’ll come back to Isaiah 53 shortly.

Don then refers to ‘the prophecy about (Jesus) not seeing corruption as a dead body’. This is actually Psalm 16:10:

You (YHWH) will not abandon me to the realm of the dead, nor will you let your faithful one see decay.

And, my, yes it does seem to fit Jesus once again, if we believe he died and rose again before his body could deteriorate. But it isn’t about him. It’s about the writer of the psalm, traditionally David, expressing his belief that his God will preserve him. Plucked out of context, it can sound like it’s Jesus being described, just as any number of other verses can be said to be about future events when they’re not. For example, some Christians, including Pat Robertson, are currently claiming that Ezekiel 38:1-2 is a prophecy of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine:

Son of man, set your face against Gog, of the land of Magog, the prince of Rosh, Meshech, and Tubal, and prophesy against him.

That works, don’t you think?

No. Me, neither. Such nebulous statements can easily be applied to much later events on which they have no actual bearing.

Which brings us neatly to the gospels. These claim that the events they describe were foretold by the prophets of old (Luke 24:44). It would be truly remarkable if, as Don believes, all of the prophecies about Jesus in the scriptures were actually fulfilled by him. Some Christian sources claim there are as many as 300. But, as we’ve seen, some of these are so vague they can be made to apply when in fact they don’t.

And this is how the Jesus story came about; it is structured around many of these indistinct prophecies. The authors of the gospels, and Paul too, knew their scriptures and built up a story about the Messiah using them. Like Paul, Mark had little knowledge of the circumstances of his Messiah’s earthly life, so he set about creating a biography for him using ‘prophecies’, scenarios and statements from the scriptures. We might ask here why he should do this if Jesus was as remarkable as early cultists claimed. There is no need to invent stories about a remarkable figure if that figure has already lived an amazing life that is widely known about. Be that as it may, Mark and the other gospel writers set about creating an elaborate life for their hero, largely based on ancient scriptures.

Mark quotes Isaiah 53 directly in 15:38 and makes extensive use of the chapter in his account of Jesus’ passion. Let me stress: Isaiah 53 is not a prophecy of the passion, it is the blueprint for it. Mark’s account is Isaiah 53, down to Jesus’ silence at his trial and his being buried ‘with the rich’.

Matthew and Luke later embellished Mark’s efforts by doing more of the same thing, adding fresh episodes to Mark’s core gospel. Most of these embellishments  are based on ‘prophecies’ that Mark somehow missed. None of them necessarily happened – I’m persuaded they didn’t – but are ‘actualisations’ of parts of ancient scripture. We know this because of mistakes Matthew made in expanding the story, using the additional ‘prophecies’ he ‘discovered’ in scripture. We’ll get to these mistakes next time.

 

38 thoughts on “How Prophecy Works

  1. Poor Don! It’s hard not to feel sorry for him to be the gullible fool he apparently is but this is the history of Christianity in a nut shell! The clergy; priest, monks, bishops, popes, etc. purposely frame phrases out of the Hebrew Bible – short, bursts of scripture – and them go on to explain how it’s about Jesus, which it NEVER is! Not a single word of the Hebrew scripture has anything to do whatsoever with Jesus. Why do you think they fought tooth and nail to keep scripture from being translated in the vulgar tongues? Yes, exactly, so the layman couldn’t t read it! That‘s a fact but Don absolutely refuses to see this and so, what did PT Barnum say?

    Oh, yeah.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Well done, Neil!!

    BTW, in my book, I outlined some scriptures in Ezekiel that “reportedly” deal with Satan … when in actuality they are about the king of Tyre. But Christians soak up what they’re told by their oh-so-knowledgeable leaders and RARELY bother to do the research. Instead they simply parrot what they’ve been told.

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    • Go back and look at Ezekiel 28 again. Both a “ruler” or prince ( צֹר ) and king ( מֶלֶךְ ) are mentioned. Their descriptions are entirely different. The prince is obviously the human ruler of Tyre. The king is obviously the supernatural king behind the throne.

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      • Correction: I copied and pasted the name of the city instead of the word for ruler. Here it is ( נָגִיד ) The difference between king and prince is that a prince rules under a king.

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      • That makes it all clear. Just so long as you’re not taking Ezekiel 28 at face value, Don, but are instead imposing your own perspective.

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      • I don’t know how well you have read the Bible, but it is full of literary tropes. It is, in fact, very sophisticated literature. There are parables, allegories, metaphors, hyperboles, personifications, etc. and etc. Almost every kind of figurative langue is found both in the poetry and in the prose. By genre, Ezekiel 28 is poetry. (The Bible is also rich in the variety of genres we find there.) The parallelism that is a signature of Hebrew poetry is indisputable. Given that, we should expect that this is not going to be written in simple informative language. If that is what you mean by “face value.”

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      • And Professor Camp subjects me yet again to literature class 101. Don, in a former life I was a University English lecturer, my MA thesis was on biblical typology in the works of D.H. Lawrence and I spent (wasted?) the best years of my life as a Christian, studying the bible. In other words, I know this stuff.
        Please stop presuming that we here are not as clever as you.

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      • I assume you know literature. Perhaps some of the others so also, though it is my experience that few really do. It is something they forgot from high school. I don’t assume you know the Bible. Few Christians read the Bible on the level we have been discussing it. They read devotionally – – or out of habit. I am just explaining how I put literature together with the Bible.

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      • The king is obviously the supernatural king behind the throne. Oh OBVIOUSLY!!!!!!! How in “heaven’s name” could I possibly have missed that??!?!

        Maybe it’s because I looked at it as any normal reader would do … one that has not been indoctrinated by church teachings. Pshaw! Surely not.

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      • While I agree with you, Don, that the Bible is a very sophisticated piece of literature full of all sorts of figurative language, why not apply that assumption to Ezekiel 28:11 – 19?

        Maybe King is a variant term for prince in the same way I might use different terms (leader, king, dictator) for the same personage in the same piece of writing. The reference to the Garden of Eden is figurative language in which the Garden is being presented as a type of perfect place and being used to compare Tyre before God’s judgement. The king is being compared to a Cherub rather than being a reference to a literal angel.

        In other words, you’re choosing when you want to apply figurative language and when you want to take things more literally.

        Don’t get me wrong. Not everything is figurative and some parts should be read literally, but with the passages you have in mind there is a very good case to take the elements I mentioned figuratively particularly based on the context of the previous passages all of which are addressed to the ruler of Tyre.

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      • Your reading of Ezekiel 28 is one of the several that do a good job of interpreting the passage. And I appreciate the literary critical principles you apply. I differ somewhat. But in end, it is a message of God’s judgment regarding the Ruler/King of Tyre for his arrogance and pride that resulted in his exploitation of others in his quest for wealth.

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  3. This is the problem with belief. It allows you to hunt for selective phrases and backdate to support your belief while ignoring others. Whistling past the graveyard, so to speak.

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    • I read your post but unable to comment there. Here’s what I attempted—
      Hello Don. I have been following your conversation with Neil.
      This is the same tactic used with Nostradamus’ writing. Non specific commentary about human nature that is bound to score bullseyes with believers, but really could apply to anyone.
      He grew up before him like a tender shoot, and like a root out of dry ground. He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain. Like one from whom people hide their faces he was despised, and we held him in low esteem.”. Is this written about me, Charles Manson, or countless others? If at all possible, do you think you could even for a minute scrutinize your own belief as easily as you would the Mormons, or the Muslims? It is very easy at every level, yet they believe as much as you believe. It is belief that is the problem here. It doesn’t really matter who or what kind, but belief is it’s very own obstacle. The key to seeing this is unbelief.

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      • It is believing with evidence. In my research of Mormonism there is very little evidence for the claims they make. And interestingly, they really ask you to believe until you feel a burning i your bosom, which is the ultimate proof. I have not examined Islam in as much depth, so I can’t comment.

        As far as the Isaiah passage is concerned, you need to read the whole passage in Isaiah 52 and 53 and then read far enough back to get the context of Isaiah’s use of the word “servant.” That should eliminate most of the options, especially Charles Manson and you. It really narrows it to being either Israel or someone else who fits the entire picture.

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      • ”It is believing with evidence. In my research of Christianity there is very little evidence for the claims they make.
        It is belief that is the evidence for your claims, and I’d bet you dollars to donuts the belief came first, then the hairsplitting explanations to justify it.
        Really the evidence is clear; Christianity has never produced the desired results. Throughout history those who claimed this higher light and knowledge were on the wrong side of nearly every atrocity. Just seems like with such powerful knowledge and insights from god they would know better—and then they do. About 2 or three generations after a secular change. Like clockwork

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      • I was fourteen when I became a Christain, Jim. That was too young to have been aware of much evidence. But I found myself quite early in my college years faced with challenges to mt faith from aberrant religious groups, from pretty aggressive atheists who promoted atheism in their classes and books, and from science.

        I was seriously challenged at times and drifted into skepticism. But I determined to follow the facts and eventually worked through to a rational faith. No hairsplitting explanations that I am aware of. Simply facts. The most important were the facts of science. The next was my study of literature.

        To put it very simply as I have to my students over the years, I look out my window at a beautiful green world of great variety. I ask how did this happen? Did it come from nothing by itself? The answer, instinctive as well as the studied for almost everyone: NOPE. No conceivable way. The evidence is too strong against that and for a cosmos that has design and purpose. And for a Designer.

        From literature I learned about the construction of stories. As I read the Bible it seemed that what I was reading was a story, a story that had been written by more than twenty different authors over a period of 1000 years. Yet it had a plot with introduction, antagonist, protagonist, conflict, resolution and denouement in the same way every story has, a consistent theme or themes, and coherence. Is that possible? The answer, both instinctive and thoughtful: NOPE.. No conceivable way. The evidence for a single author whose hand in the unfolding of the story is too strong is too strong.

        Has Christianity produced the desired results? It has in me and in many I know. We have been radically changed. And strill are being changed. To the praise of him who called us to LIFE.

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      • Don, you ask … Did it come from nothing by itself? Why not? Can you or anyone (including scientists) offer pure proof that it didn’t?

        We all believe what we want to believe.

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      • That is right Nan; we all believe what we want to believe. We all choose.

        The absence of proof that everything came from nothing by itself is deafening.

        There have been numerous speculations – with no pure scientific proof or anything close to it – that everything came from either a prior universe in an almost infinite multiverse or from fluctuations in quantum energy waves.

        A multiverse is far from proven in any way, though even if it were to be, it would only push the question back a level. Quantum energy waves are not nothing. So that is where science is stalled. And science is not likely to do better than that.

        Logically, since we live in a universe in which everything functions on causes and effects, we cannot imagine in the natural realm an effect without as cause. It is logically absurd. Even Maria in “The Sound of Music” knows that nothing comes from nothing.

        On the other hand, we know that everything exhibits complexity. Even the fundamental laws or forces that govern the universe are complex in their relationship to one another – finely-tuned is what we call it. We know that there is design everywhere in everything from the fine-tuning of the fundamental forces to the DNA in your cells. What scientists don’t know is how to account for that in an scenario of natural origins. So they resort to chance. It just happened, and we are lucky to be the beneficiaries of that roll of the dice.

        On every level that is an absurd solution.

        The only solution that makes sense is that everything is the result of a mind that purposed and created. A mind that is itself not part of the natural world nor any prior universes. Such a mind could design what we see in everything in the universe and either create whole cloth everything or create systems that would evolve into everything we see.

        We have evidence of minds doing that in our own minds. We can imagine something that does not exist and create that something according to the design we have in our minds. Novelists do that all the time; they create universes that have no material reality full of complexity and life and people. Why not a mind magnitudes greater than ours doing that?

        We choose what to believe, and on the basis of science and logic I choose to believe in such a mind.

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      • The only solution that makes sense is that everything is the result of a mind that purposed and created.

        And surprise!!! Don calls that mind “God”! But not just ANY god. No, this god is the god of the bible … which in itself is a bit shaky, but hey! Why quibble?

        Why indeed.

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      • Call it what you will, Nan. I don’t care. The only expectation that I have of a mind capable of doing what we see done in the universe is that it be logical consistency. A capricious mind is unlikely to have been able to create the universe as it is. A capricious human mind cannot create anything with logical consistency.

        If that is the starting point, our fundamental assumption, then I find that the God who is revealed in the Bible is the only candidate for the Creator.

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      • Logically, since we live in a universe in which everything functions on causes and effects, we cannot imagine in the natural realm an effect without as cause. It is logically absurd”. Is it? We have one universe which is one event. We are not separated from that event. There is no cause and event, but a continuous happening.
        It’s not so hard to imagine not being able to explain how you grow your hair, or your fingernails. Do you cause that to happen? You do it but don’t know how you do it.
        Since matter is an illusion made of little packets of energy, it is more likely this is one complex dream where you are not only the dreamed but the dreamer. There is no created stuff at the center of it all. There is simply quanta. It is maya, or deception. No thing is what it seems to be—and the real “good news” never made it into Christianity, which was a method to realize it, not a belief.

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      • Hmm. Not really Don. You want to believe in creation but at its core there is still nothing.
        If you really wanted evidence from the Bible, Jesus was more Hindu than Christian. “That you may be one, even as the father and I are one”. It was a method to be taught. Many many passages support this, yet the Roman religion could not stand for that type of power, the realization of the self.
        Can I ask you a serious question? Why do you suppose consciousness and the identification of god has proven so difficult? Why do you think so much of everything has to be believed in?

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  4. That is kind of a lame question, Jim. Even if we witness an event ourselves or prove a hypothesis by lab testing, we must believe the conclusion. We cannot continually be second guessing. What we believe may turn out to be not so – as it does regularly in every area of science and even our own experience, but we cannot sit on the fence and wait. Life demands we act on what seems true at the moment. But pretty much 99% of life is nowhere near as certain as a lab test or a personal observation. We must believe people we trust. We believe what is reported to us by reliable sources. If we did not believe we would make no progress in any field of endeavor.

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    • “We must believe people we trust. We believe what is reported to us by reliable sources.” This is the fatal flaw in your belief system Don. Why would you trust the gospel writers when a) they have never identified themselves, for some strange reason, b) they don’t even appear to be first hand witnesses, in fact, we know they are not, c) almost the entirety of the Synoptics came from the first writer, “Mark” and, d) we know that the gospels are NOT reliable historical sources.

      Yet you base your entire belief system on these assumptions. The reason science advances is that it questions itself continuously; always testing, experimenting, recalculating, etc. TRYING to prove itself wrong! That is how sciences advances, not by blindly trusting data that has as many holes as your average colander. At some point you have to STOP the blind trust game and get some definitive answers which, unfortunately, the gospels do NOT provide.

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      • From reading your post I assume you think trust (faith and belief) must be blind and unquestioning. If you were right, then I would agree with you. But you are not.

        You put science forth as the example of the proper approach to discovering the TRUTH. Why? because it is continuously testing recalculating and trying to prove itself wrong. I agree that this method is a good approach to discovering the truth about how the world works. What you overlook is that there is a TRUTH. It is not forever elusive and uncertain. And we can trust those who have arrived at the TRUTH.

        Take something simple. Water boils at 100 degrees C. at sea level. There are some conditions that affect that slightly, such as barometric pressure and so on. But we can live our lives quite comfortably with the 100 degrees at sea level TRUTH. We can be quite confident that further testing and calculating is not going to change that TRUTH to any significant degree. We can bake our cakes following the instruction in the recipe based on the TRUTH. And when we do, viola! we have a cake.

        Most things are more complicated of course. History is one of those. But there, too, we can be reasonably certain about most things. We can be confident that there was a national election for president of the United States in November 2020 and that Joe Biden won. Despite the claims by Trump that the results were rigged. We can be reasonably certain because in this case the election was carefully scrutinized and recalculated.

        The history of Jesus has been examined and reexamined far more carefully than the election. That has been done from the first century to the present. The issues of Mark, for example, have been pondered turned over and pondered again ad infinitum. And we find that, despite all the details we have discovered, the historic conclusions about Mark and Jesus revealed in Mark still bake the cake.

        That kind of repeated scrutiny or in your words “testing” continues regarding every detail of the gospels. Some like yourself camp out on a few details that are still puzzles. You grow them into mountains that you can’t climb over. That is your problem. For most over the centuries (I am one of them) who have examined the gospels in great detail, the rather small corrections we have made to how we see them are not mountains. They are like an insignificant fraction of a degree from 100 C. for the boiling point of water. If you are not aware of that testing process, you haven’t been paying attention. But when all is said and done, we are confident that there is a TRUTH and that what has been the historic conviction about the historicity of the gospels stands the tests. It still bakes the cake.

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      • ‘Still bakes the cake’? What’s that supposed to mean? I see too you’re still suggesting, Don, that if we’d studied the bible as much as you have, we too would be convinced of its culinary qualities. Well, we have and the resulting cake has come out of the oven flat and lifeless.

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      • “if we’d studied the bible as much as you … Well, we have ”

        I don’t think the word “studied” quite captures the idea. It didn’t for me. I think Micah 6:8 comes closer: “walk humbly with your God.”

        I have known men and women who have “studied” the Bible far more intently than I have and have degrees to prove it, yet who have left me with the sense that it is all in their head. They know ABOUT God but their PERSONAL ACQUAINTANCE with God is in its infancy. Many of the harsh and rigid teachers and pastors you know probably fall into that category. Many I know are in that category. Not one in ten of the men I’ve known have had a deep life of walking with God or appear to have from their humble wisdom and actions.

        I know a number of atheists who have degrees in advance of mine and who have been pastors and teachers. When I have asked them about their prayer life they either did not reply or they talked about how much they prayed for God to satisfy their doubts. I know what that is like. I spent far too many years walking in their shoes: All talk and no listening. And for many years, not much talk.

        So, yes, I have had years “studying” but that is not the essential part. All that study did not click until I began walking with God. Even so, many are ahead of me on that path. I am but a neophyte. I follow those ahead of me.

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      • Hmmm … walking with god. Is that anything like walking with Sasquatch as one person has claimed he does? Seems to me one is about as “real” as the other.

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  5. Jim: Why has identification of god been so difficult?

    On one level it has not been difficult at all. I would guess that close to 90% of the world up to the point where atheism became institutionalized was convinced that there is a God. You mention Hindus in the post above, I spent a year living in India and knew a lot of Hindus. A billion Indian Hindus believe in god, or gods, for sure. Muslims, nearly two billion of them, believe in God. Put them in with Christians and others and we account for 80% of the world today, according to Wikipedia. Human beings are pretty much a religious species.

    Why? Well, of course, we are taught that there is a God, or gods. But most agree with what they have been taught because their instinct is that there must be a God. So, what they have been taught makes sense to them, at least at that point.

    But identifying God is a little different. Why isn’t there broad agreement about who that God is? The answer that Muslims and Christians give is that there is resistance to the God who is. That’s odd, of course. How can so many believe that God is obvious yet believe most of the rest of the world refuses to recognize this God. Probably because we recognize a resistance to God in ourselves. While we believe God is obvious and we agree to a large extent on what that God is like, we don’t like what that implies for us. It has been like that through all human history, even before there were Christians or Muslims. We humans have always felt that God was against us and we had to do something to appease or otherwise get along with God.

    (Probably that is what drives atheists as well.)

    So, we all who believe in God are also uneasy about God. We tend because of that to spin God into someone we can manipulate or in some way get along with. That god is of our creation and not the real God. That god takes many forms, thus the disagreement about what God is like.

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