Making Prophecy Work

Recycled image and still no second coming

Never one to belabour a point, Don Camp has responded to my posts and comments about prophecy over on his own blog, Biblical Musing. This is a modified version of my response to that post.

What you seem to be saying, Don, is ‘leave a selected prophecy long enough and eventually it’ll appear to come true’. Perhaps, but then, if you take any selection of predictions from any source and you’ll find this to be the case. Why? Because:

1) You’ll have cherry-picked from the start so only those ‘prophecies’ that are vague enough or appear to have been fulfilled already will make up the bulk of your selection.

2) The vagueness of many that are chosen will make it relatively easy to scout around and alight on circumstances that seem to demonstrate some sort of fulfilment. You may even invent some that do, like the synoptic gospel writers do.

3) Some prophecies will indeed come true, but at no greater rate than chance allows. A prophecy you cite may say a particular city state will fall and return to the wilderness from which it was built. To claim that when, centuries later, it does so is not a fulfilment of this prophecy; it is a happy coincidence (for you and your so-called prophet, not so much for the denizens of the city state.) Just look at the number of ancient cities to which this has happened, without there being a preceding ‘prophecy’. It just happens.

4) You’ll ignore your own failure rate, or explain it away: i) discounting those prophecies that have never come to pass, even after millennia; ii) insisting ‘they could still occur! With God a day is like a thousand years!’; iii) reinterpreting them: ‘they’re metaphorical’ etc.

5) You invoke the get-out clause; the god says ‘if you don’t do ‘x’ then I’ll make ‘y’ happen.’ “Well, praise the god, everyone did ‘x’ and the calamity was averted! It’s a miracle!” This then counts, somehow or other, as a win for the ‘prophecy’.

These are your strategies, Don. You use them in combination to demonstrate the ‘fulfilment’ of biblical prophecy. You work really hard at nullifying your own cognitive dissonance, desperately attempting to demonstrate the truth of ancient fantasies. You conclude your post by saying Jesus will return as King soon. No, he won’t. You need to apply every one of your strategies to believe this is ever going to happen.

Prophecy: The Bible’s Track Record

In earlier posts we saw how the authors of Mark and Matthew’s gospels rooted around in the scriptures for anything that might be passed off as a prophecy. They then turned what they found into stories about Jesus.

What though about passages in scripture that actually declare themselves to be prophecy? How do these fair in the fulfilment stakes? As you might guess, not well. There are many failed prophecies in both Testaments; here I’ll take a select few, just to give you a flavour of how hopeless they are:

In Exodus 23:27, YHWH declares that all of Israel’s enemies will run from them:

I will send my terror ahead of you and throw into confusion every nation you encounter. I will make all your enemies turn their backs and run.

Oops! The scriptures themselves are replete with examples of the Israelites’ defeat at the hands of their enemies.

In Ezekiel 29:8-12, the Lord proclaims his intentions towards the hated Egyptians:

The Nile is mine; I made it, therefore I am against you and against your streams, and I will make the land of Egypt a ruin and a desolate waste from Migdol to Aswan, as far as the border of Cush. The foot of neither man nor beast will pass through it; no one will live there for forty years. I will make the land of Egypt desolate among devastated lands, and her cities will lie desolate forty years among ruined cities. And I will disperse the Egyptians among the nations and scatter them through the countries.

None of this ever happened.

Isaiah has it in for Egypt too. In 19:1-8 the Lord promises:

The waters of the river will dry up, and the riverbed will be parched and dry. The canals will stink; the streams of Egypt will dwindle and dry up. The reeds and rushes will wither, also the plants along the Nile, at the mouth of the river. Every sown field along the Nile will become parched, will blow away and be no more. The fishermen will groan and lament, all who cast hooks into the Nile; those who throw nets on the water will pine away.

The Nile has never dried up.

In 2 Samuel 7:13-16, the Lord promises that the descendants of David will rule forever:

(David) is the one who will build a house for my Name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever… Your house and your kingdom will endure forever before me; your throne will be established forever.

The Davidic line ended with King Zedekiah in about 586BC. Much is made in the New Testament of Jesus’ descent from David on his father’s side (while also insisting he didn’t have a human father!) and this prophecy is altered in Acts 2:29-31 to make it fit Jesus’ supposed kingship. This is neither what it says nor means in its original context.

The deranged Zephaniah, writing in the 7th century BC, prophesies that the end of the world is imminent:

The great day of the Lord is near – near and coming quickly. The cry on the day of the Lord is bitter; the Mighty Warrior shouts his battle cry. That day will be a day of wrath – a day of distress and anguish, a day of trouble and ruin, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and blackness – a day of trumpet and battle cry against the fortified cities and against the corner towers.

Another failure, unless you’re prepared to consider 2600+ years and counting as being ‘near and coming quickly’.

The earliest prediction we have of the Christ’s appearance on Earth is from Paul, in 1 Thessalonians 1-8. You’ll note how he says how everything he describes will happen soon to the people he is writing to:

Now, brothers and sisters, about times and dates we do not need to write to you, for you know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. While people are saying, “Peace and safety,” destruction will come on them suddenly, as labour pains on a pregnant woman, and they will not escape. But you, brothers and sisters, are not in darkness so that this day should surprise you like a thief. You are all children of the light and children of the day. We do not belong to the night or to the darkness. So then, let us not be like others, who are asleep, but let us be awake and sober… For God did not appoint us to suffer wrath but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ. He died for us so that, whether we are awake or asleep, we may live together with him.

Notch that up as another non-event.

How about the prediction in 2 Thessalonians 2:1-4, thought to have been written circa AD50, that the Christ will not appear from heaven until ‘the man of lawlessness’ takes up residence in the Temple?

Concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered to him, we ask you, brothers and sisters, not to become easily unsettled or alarmed by the teaching allegedly from us – whether by a prophecy or by word of mouth or by letter – asserting that the day of the Lord has already come. Don’t let anyone deceive you in any way, for that day will not come until the rebellion occurs and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the man doomed to destruction. He will oppose and will exalt himself over everything that is called God or is worshiped, so that he sets himself up in God’s temple, proclaiming himself to be God.

The Temple was destroyed by the Romans in AD70 before the man of lawlessness could make his appearance. Unsurprisingly, not a single prophet foresaw the catastrophe. (No, not even Jesus. It is generally agreed that Mark’s gospel was written around AD70 and that Jesus’ ‘prophecy’ about the temple’s destruction was composed after it had happened.)

And then, finally, prophecies about the end times, whether from the scriptures or from Paul, are inserted into the synoptic gospels so, miraculously, they become the words of Jesus:

‘the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from the sky, and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.’ (a quote from Isaiah 13:10; 34:4.) At that time people will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. And he will send his angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of the heavens. Now learn this lesson from the fig tree: As soon as its twigs get tender and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near. Even so, when you see these things happening, you know that it is near, right at the door. Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away (Mark 13.34).

And thus, Jesus is likewise made into a false prophet.

Then again, what other sort is there? Prophets are zealots who believe they’ve been granted special access to the Lord’s plans. There are still fantasists today who believe the Lord speaks to them with portents of future disaster. It would be generous to say that all of them – those in the Bible and their modern descendants – are wrong far more often than they are right. In fact, they are always wrong; it is impossible to know the future. Meanwhile, so-called interpreters of prophecy, like Matthew, Mark, Luke and their equivalents today, alter ‘prophecy’ and unrelated statements to suit their needs, shaping their stories to create the illusion they have been miraculously ‘fulfilled’.  

More Matthew Make-Believe

Don Camp and other Christians contest that Matthew’s gospel was constructed by snippets from the Old Testament. Those snippets, they say, however unrelated to the use to which Matthew puts them, are prophecies about Jesus, written centuries before his birth. This is the direction of travel: from ancient text to fulfilment in the first century. They refuse to see that for random verses in the scriptures to foreshadow later events involves significant amounts of magic.

Don talks about the bible authors’ use of foreshadowing, which is a recognised technique in literature. A single author in control of their text from start to finish can plant hints early in the narrative that only come to fruition much later on. Don cites Neil Gaiman’s use of the technique, but then equates the use of foreshadowing by a single author over the restricted amount of time it takes to complete a novel, to its apparent use in the bible. But there’s no equivalence. Yes, the bible is largely fiction too, but that’s where similarities end. In the case of the bible, we have to believe that over many, many years, multiple authors set about planting clues – prophecies – for events that would not occur until centuries later. But this just doesn’t work; not without a controlling agent, like a single author who creates and manages the entire narrative. Of course, Don believes that as far as the bible is concerned, that single author is YHWH. He’s not alone in this wishful thinking; there is a whole industry dedicated to arguing that God controlled the subconscious of everyone who contributed to the biblical texts.

But this scenario makes no sense. In the first instance because many of the so called prophecies are nothing of the sort. As we’ve seen, some are random lines in a story about something else entirely. Lets’ look at another example of that, again from Matthew’s gospel:   

In Hosea 11.1 YHWH is being made to boast about how he rescued the Israelites from Egypt:

When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.

God’s ‘son’ in context and as plainly stated, is Israel (note the use of parallelism again.) All the verse is saying is that YHWH brought his son, Israel, out of captivity of Egypt, which is itself a fiction. Nothing more; nothing about the future. Yet years later, Matthew (2.16-18) rewrote the verse as an event in the young Jesus’ life:

So (Joseph) got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt,  where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.”

Matthew expects us to believe that what the Hosea verse really means is that the baby Jesus would flee to Egypt and would be ‘called out’ again only when it was safe. That is, after Herod stopped massacring baby boys, another event that never happened but is itself a rewrite of Exodus 1.22. Only Matthew has this preposterous Egypt story, because only Matthew invented it. Luke simply has Mary & Joseph returning to their home in Nazareth.

Matthew is dishonest on two counts. He knows the original line is not a prophecy and he also knows his fable about the family’s escape to and return from Egypt is not a fulfilment of prophecy. And he knows this because it didn’t happen. He made it up.

Secondly, even if we grant that the bible contains what appear to be more precise prophecies, a God who has engineered their inclusion is mere speculation. One cannot offer up fulfilled prophecy as evidence of that God’s existence and then argue that prophecy comes to be fulfilled only because God is its controlling agent. That is circular reasoning. In any case, most, if not all, of these less indistinct predictions are the very ones that have never been fulfilled. We’ll take a look at some of these next time.

So, which is more likely? A supernatural entity who controls the entire narrative of a collection of books written over centuries, who hides unlikely clues to the future in a select number of verses, or a first century author who plunders ancient scriptures to find snippets that he thinks might parallel his hero, and then rewrites them to furnish his narrative?

An interfering but non-existent God looking forward or a duplicitous author looking back? Even Don knows which it is.

The Meaning Of Matthew’s Mistakes

So Matthew likes quite a lot of what he finds in Mark. Likes it so much he decides to lift over 90% of it into his own Jesus story. Of course he’ll tweak it a bit because, disappointingly, Mark hasn’t emphasised Jesus’ Jewishness enough. That definitely needs bumping up; it’s what his readers will expect. And Mark has missed a trick or two: he starts his story with Jesus’ baptism, when, as everyone knows, every godman needs a magical origin. Just look at Tammuz, Horus, Romulus and, according to some, the Jewish high priest Melchizedek. So Matthew sets about scouring the scriptures for a prophecy or fable, anything really, that hints that the Messiah would have a miraculous birth. And he comes across this in Isaiah (7.14):

Therefore, the Lord, of His own, shall give you a sign; behold, a virgin is with child, and she shall bear a son, and she shall call his name Immanuel.

It’s not really a prophecy about the Messiah as the context makes clear, but that’s okay. There’s enough of a hint that it could be about a future Messiah that it’ll do. So Matthew sets about creating a birth narrative for his godman based on this verse, yanked from its context. His godman is going to have a virgin birth too.

What Matthew doesn’t realise, however, is that he’s made a mistake. He’s picked up the verse in the Septuagint, a Greek translation of the scriptures. If he’d checked, or even been able to read the original Hebrew, he would have soon seen that the verse actually reads:

Therefore, the Lord, of His own, shall give you a sign; behold, the young woman is with child, and she shall bear a son, and she shall call his name Immanuel.

The Hebrew word for ‘young woman’ is alma and that is the word used in Isaiah 7.14. The word for virgin is betulah. It does not appear. The use of it in the Septuagint is a mistake, a mistake that Matthew is not aware of. So he misappropriates the mistranslated verse to create a miraculous birth for Jesus and the myth of his virgin birth is born.

But Matthew hasn’t finished scouring the scriptures for prophecies that appear to be about Jesus. This time he alights on Zechariah 9:9:

Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion! Shout Daughter Jerusalem! See your king comes to you, righteous and victorious, lowly and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.

Incredibly, this time Matthew has stumbled upon a prophecy about the Jewish Messiah! According to Zechariah, the Messiah-King’s victorious entry into Jerusalem will follow the defeat of his enemies and the establishment of universal peace. Matthew likes the sound of this. If he can shoehorn an episode into his story where Jesus rides into Jerusalem on a donkey, this will show his readers that Jesus really is the long-awaited Messiah-King. Never mind that the Jesus version bears little resemblance to the scenario predicted by Zechariah: Jesus is not an anointed king, he has not recently defeated his enemies nor has he just established universal peace. The only thing the original prophecy and Matthew’s version have in common is that the two principle figures, Zechariah’s Messiah-King and Jesus, ride into Jerusalem on a donkey.

Oh, no, wait. That’s wrong. According to Matthew Jesus approaches on two donkeys; a mother and her colt. He’s made another mistake. He doesn’t know that the use of ‘donkey’ and ‘colt’ in the prophecy refers to the same animal. He thinks there has to be two: a larger one and a smaller one. He is not familiar with the practice of parallelism, common in Jewish writing to emphasise a point by repeating it  but using alternative terminology. There aren’t two animals on which Jesus sits lop-sidedly, there’s one: a donkey, otherwise known as a colt which, to state the bleedin’ obvious, is also the foal of a donkey. Matthew misses all of this and places Jesus precariously on two mismatched animals.

What does this tell us? That Matthew is not describing an actual event. He has, rather, created a story based on a prophecy, designed to illustrate to his readers that Jesus is the Messiah-King prophesied by Zechariah. There is nothing historical about this story; it is an actualisation-in-fiction of a prophecy. A prophecy,  which, incidentally, still has not been fulfilled.

So Matthew is caught out at least twice. There are more examples in his gospel of his forcing an episode from the scriptures into his Jesus fable: other aspects of his birth narrative are clearly based on elements of Moses’ story; Judas’ thirty pieces of silver are based on a story from Zechariah 11, which has no relevance at all to the use he makes of it. There is also evidence that Matthew invented prophecy that he could then show Jesus ‘fulfilling’ (Matthew 2.23, for example.)

What all of this demonstrates is not that Jesus was foreshadowed in the Jewish scriptures, (foreshadowing being a technique beloved of some authors who use it to hint at future events in their fiction) but rather that many aspects of the Jesus story are literary re-imaginings of ‘prophecies’ and often unrelated episodes from the scriptures.

And if some, why not all?

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.

 

In Which Don Gets It All Back To Front

Let’s take a look at one of Don Camp’s latest contributions regarding the authenticity of the Jesus story and how it was all prophesied beforehand and explained after the fact:

Don: You mean all the Old Testament prophecies that spoke of the eternal continuance of the Messiah king were mistaken?

What prophecies, Don? You mean all those tenuously connected Old Testament stories that the gospel writers, especially Matthew, pressed into service to construct their Jesus stories? That this is how it happened is the scholarly consensus and once we exclude the possibility of magic, the only way ‘prophecy’ can later be ‘fulfilled’.

Don: “After he has suffered he will see the light of life and be satisfied; (Isaiah 53:11).

Which proves my point. You think this is a prophecy? It could mean anything about anyone!

Don: The prophecy about him not seeing corruption as a dead body was mistaken?

And again. Not mistaken: lifted from the OT around which to build the resurrection story.

Don: The words of Jesus as he repeatedly told his disciples of his resurrection were mistaken?

He didn’t. The stories were written long after Jesus supposedly lived. Those who created his story gave him this ‘foreknowledge’ long after the event.

Don: Paul made nothing up; his simply explained what it all meant.

Oh come on, Don. Why would God leave it to someone who’d never met Jesus, and appears to know nothing about him, to explain ‘simply’ what he was all about? Of course Paul made it all up, after he had some sort of vision, in his head, from which he developed a fanciful theology, one that was very much at odds with that put in Jesus’ mouth years later. Hence Paul’s disputes with the ‘pillars of the church’ whom he held in such disdain.

I know you’ll have some convoluted explanation about how everyone else has got it wrong, Don, but it’s you who’s got it all back to front!

Goodbye, Jesus

The Jesus narrative is a made-up story, originally created by a member of one of the many branches of a first century cult centred on a supernatural being experienced in visions. We call this cult member ‘Mark’. His ‘gospel’ was not written to convert anyone – I doubt any of them were – it was written as a ‘what if?’ story for fellow cult members: ‘what if our celestial saviour had lived on Earth?’ It is made up of St Paul’s teaching, Old Testament mythology, and ideas taken from pagan dying-god myths (probably in that order). It amalgamates the cult’s rules with what cultists believed about the end of the age: that their celestial saviour would very soon be coming down to Earth to save them and annihilate their enemies.

Ten or fifteen years later, another writer took Mark’s fiction and rewrote much of it for his branch of the cult. This was a group who saw themselves as still firmly within Judaism, so ‘Matthew’ toned down Paul’s teaching, eliminating a good deal of it. He heightened Jewish teaching for his co-religionists, and created a Jesus who was a manifestation of prophecy, as he saw it, from the Jewish scriptures. This construct had no time for any magic salvation-formula; like the cult who created him, he taught obedience to Jewish Law and believed that serving others was the way to eternal life.

A few years on and a third sect found Mark and Matthew’s stories weren’t entirely to their liking. They didn’t quite get Jesus right. So they took them and altered them again. Their scribe, known now as Luke, created a third Jesus. It’s possible this sect didn’t realise the original story was fiction. There’s some evidence Luke thought Jesus had really existed, 50 years or so before he remodelled him.

Later still, the creators (plural) of a fourth gospel created a Christ totally unlike the other three. This branch of the cult had ceased to believe, perhaps because it hadn’t happened when earlier believers said it would, that the saviour would be coming through the clouds at any minute to set up God’s kingdom on Earth. That part of the original idea was dropped; this Jesus is made to preach an internalised salvation, and everlasting life in heaven is beginning to be hinted at.

And that’s it. The adventures of Jesus on Earth began as a ‘what if?’ story created for existing cult members. Other branches of the cult took it and reshaped its central character so that he suited their needs and beliefs. A real Jesus was not necessary for any of this to happen. Just as it was for Paul, whether one existed or not is immaterial,. Even if he did, we can know nothing about him. The Jesuses created by each sect is a product of what they imagined their saviour to be, just like the various Christs that are worshipped today.

So, I’m saying a final goodbye to Jesus – or rather to all the Jesuses, Christs and made-up Messiahs spawned by the visions, fantasies and fan-fiction of the first century. I don’t need them, and neither do you.

This blog will be taking a new direction in the new year. Next time, though, I hope you’ll read one of my Christmas stories, as featured on the BBC.

Stay safe. 

Demons, demons everywhere…

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I wonder if any Christians out there can help me understand something. I know that not all of you believe in demons; some of you are far too rational to believe in non-existent supernatural beings! I know too that when the bible mentions demons, as it does often, you know it’s as a metaphor, for sin perhaps, or as the personification of evil. Presumably, you reach this conclusion with the help of the Holy Spirit (you do believe in him, don’t you?)

And yet other, lesser brethren are led by that same Spirit to see demons as 100% real.

Take this guy, Jeremiah Johnson, a preacher/prophet/author from Florida who recently had a real live conversation with a demon:

On the night of May 30th, while praying and pacing over the United States in my home around 2 am, a demonic entity appeared right before me in an open vision. This type of encounter has only ever happened one other time while I was ministering in a foreign country in 2015. I have always engaged in this type of spiritual warfare while asleep and dreaming prophetically, but rarely if ever to this degree while awake.

This demonic entity had a visible and deep scar underneath its right eye, but it also had the ability to mutate or rather change forms. I watched this “being” morph several times right in front of me, yet the gash below its right eye remained.

As I see it, there are three options here. Either –

a) This really happened, or

b) Jeremiah made it up, or

c) It happened but entirely within Jeremiah’s disturbed mind

Can you advise me which it is? I’m leaning towards b) or c). I say ‘leaning’ when what I mean is I rule out a) entirely, though I’d be interested to know which conclusion the Holy Spirit is leading you to. (Actually, reading the comments following Jeremiah’s posting of his ‘Urgent Prophetic Alert and Warning’ on Facebook, I already know what 4 thousand of you think: you fall for this crapola hook, line and sinker.)

Of course, not all supernatural encounters are with demons. Sometimes your fellow believers have encounters with angels, or dead people from the bible. Here’s an example of that:

I kneeled down, and prayed, saying, ‘O Lord, what Church shall I join?’ Directly I saw a light, and then a glorious Personage in the light, and then another personage, and the first personage said [of] the second, ‘Behold this is my beloved Son, hear him’” 

Wow, that sounds amazing, doesn’t it? Joseph Smith recounting his first ‘vision’.

Again, you’ve got three options:

Either:

a) This really happened, or

b) Joseph made it up, or

c) It happened but entirely within Joseph’s disturbed mind.

If you’re a Mormon, the Holy Ghost will have led you to embrace option a). I lean myself towards b), possibly c). If you’re an evangelical Christian, however, you probably think Smith’s vision was demonically inspired. Can I ask you why you think this? Is it because that’s what your version of the Holy Ghost tells you? Ain’t it amazing how ‘he’ always confirms what you already believe?

With that in mind, let’s look at one final example:

When Jesus stepped out of the boat, a man out of the tombs with an unclean spirit met him. He lived among the tombs; and no one could restrain him any more, even with a chain; for he had often been restrained with shackles and chains, but the chains he wrenched apart, and the shackles he broke in pieces; and no one had the strength to subdue him. Night and day among the tombs and on the mountains he was always howling and bruising himself with stones. 

When he saw Jesus from a distance, he ran and bowed down before him; and he shouted at the top of his voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I adjure you by God, do not torment me.” For he had said to him, “Come out of the man, you unclean spirit!”  Then Jesus asked him, “What is your name?” He replied, “My name is Legion; for we are many.”  He begged him earnestly not to send them out of the country. Now there on the hillside a great herd of swine was feeding; and the unclean spirits begged him, “Send us into the swine; let us enter them.” So he gave them permission. And the unclean spirits came out and entered the swine; and the herd, numbering about two thousand, rushed down the steep bank into the sea, and were drowned in the sea. (Mark 5.1-20)

Either:

a) This really happened, or

b) Mark made it up, or

c) Mark made it up but it’s a metaphor for something or other.

I’m guessing most of you, including those who regard yourselves as rational Christians, opted for a): you think this really happened in some form. Why? Because this time it’s your hero, Jesus, who’s involved.

However, and this is my point, Jesus’ encounter with a demon – and it’s not the only one in the gospels – is no different in kind from Jeremiah Johnson’s or Joseph Smith’s. If you believe one really happened – the Jesus one – you really haven’t any reason not to believe the other two. And yet, my Christian friends, you reject at least one of the other two, don’t you. You dismiss Smith’s encounter with God and Jesus as, at best, a delusion and at worst, a fiction intended to dupe others. You may, as I’ve suggested, see it as demonically inspired (even though no actual demons appear, unlike in the Jesus and Johnson accounts.)

You may also, if you’ve half a brain, dismiss Johnson’s ridiculous story too. I hope so. So why persist in believing that Jesus met with demons? It’s not the Holy Spirit who convinces you that this story is the only plausible one of the three. The Holy Spirit is only as real as Johnson’s morphing demon. No, the only reason you give Jesus a free pass, but not Smith or Johnson (possibly), is that the Jesus story is in the bible.

So, what’s the answer to the question at the top of this post: which of those men, Jeremiah Johnson, Joseph Smith and Mark’s Jesus, is deluded? The answer is… all of them. And at least two of them are frauds.

Myself, I’m leaning towards all three.

 

According to the Scriptures (not)

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Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures. He was buried (and) was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures…

This is Paul’s claim in 1 Corinthians 15.3-4, where he is probably quoting an early Christian creed. He uses the phrase ‘according to the scriptures’ twice, meaning that what he’s claiming fulfils prophecy from the Jewish scriptures. He is not referring to the gospel accounts of Jesus’ death and resurrection as these ‘scriptures’ had yet to be written at the time of 1 Corinthians (circa 54/55AD.) Mark’s gospel was still fifteen or so years away.

So where in the Jewish scriptures – the Christian Old Testament – is there any prophecy that the Messiah would die for the sins of the people? Where the prediction that he would rise from the dead on the third day?

As Michael J. Alter notes, there is no prophecy either that the Messiah would die for the sins of the people nor that he would then rise from the dead. Not one. Passages that are pressed into service by Christians ancient and modern to demonstrate that Jesus’ death and resurrection were presaged in the Old Testament are either not prophecy or they don’t have any bearing on either Jesus’ death or supposed resurrection.

Let’s look at a couple:

In Matthew 12.40, Jesus is made to equate his time in the grave – three days and three nights – with the time Jonah spent in the belly of a great fish. But the Jonah story has nothing to do with events hundreds of years later. It is an ancient fable, not a prophecy delivered by one of the Old Testament’s recognised prophets. In any case, in the story Jonah is being disobedient and is running away from his God-given mission. Jesus, according the gospels, doesn’t do either of these things. Moreover, Jonah does not have to die to spend three days in a fish. He does not resurrect when the fish spews him out. The only aspect the two stories have in common is the period of three days and nights, which as we have seen, bear little relation to how long Jesus was actually in the tomb. Matthew has press-ganged an irrelevant story into service, in an attempt to show that Jesus really was the Messiah. Why does he do this? Because he can’t find any ‘scripture’ that points incontrovertibly to the Messiah dying and resurrecting. Jonah is literally the best he can do.

Modern Christians like to tell us that Isaiah 53 is a prophecy that Jesus would die as a sacrifice for sin. Significantly, none of the New Testament writers attempt to make Isaiah’s ‘suffering servant’ narrative fit Jesus. This is because the suffering servant it describes is the beleaguered Jewish nation; earlier chapters say so several times. To insist that Isaiah 53 describes Jesus’ death and resurrection is to render it incompatible with all the Old Testament prophecies that are actually about the Messiah. For those who created these scriptures, this figure was a warrior, a human who would route the enemies of Israel and usher in the Messianic age. Isaiah 53 is about how the rulers of the kingdoms of this world will stand in awe of this feat. Jesus does not fulfil this role; he was not a warrior, he did not redeem the Jewish nation, he did not route its enemies, he did not bring about the Messianic age. Jesus died an ignoble death and was ‘seen’ afterwards in visions; he was as far from the anticipated Messiah as could be envisaged.

Jesus’ death and resurrection did not happen ‘according to the scriptures’. There are no prophecies in the Old Testament that pertain to Jesus, no foreshadowing of what happened to him. Christian can try to retrofit selected scriptures as much as they like to make it seem as if there are, but none hold up under scrutiny.

Why Jesus can’t possibly have known he’d ‘rise from the dead’.

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I said at the start of this series of posts about the date of Jesus’ crucifixion that the gospel writers perhaps felt unable to exclude Jesus’ predictions about rising from the grave after three days because these were too well-known. On reflection, it seems more likely that Jesus didn’t make any such prophecies. It is more probable that the gospel writers introduced them into their stories about him decades later.

I’ve written before about how the Resurrection appearances were nothing more than visions and dreams. Paul’s experience of the risen Jesus most certainly was – he says so himself – and Mary’s encounter with angels, telling her Jesus was no longer in his tomb, is described as ‘a vision’ in Luke 24.23. The subsequent accounts of Jesus’ post-mortem appearances also bear all the hallmarks of hallucinations; he disappears at will; passes through closed doors; isn’t always recognisable, drifts up into the sky and so on.

These mystical experiences, those that really happened anyway (it’s safe to say some – the Emmaus story, for example – are complete inventions: see Alter, pp536-8) quickly became a conviction among Jesus’ early followers that he had somehow risen from the grave. By the time of Luke’s and John’s gospel, 50 to 70 years later, this idea had evolved into a full-blown bodily resurrection.

The question is, did Jesus know that this was what was going to happen? Could he have had foreknowledge that he would be seen again after his death? Could he, during his life, have predicted he would rise bodily from the grave?

Christians will tell you that as God or God’s Son, Jesus was omniscient and therefore of course he knew these things in advance. There are, however, several good reasons why we can be sure he didn’t:

  • According to Paul, it was the resurrection that elevated Jesus to his god-like status, not his divinity that enabled the resurrection. Christians who argue that Jesus rose from the dead because he was divine have it back to front. Paul says clearly that Jesus ‘was appointed the Son of God in power by his resurrection from the dead‘ (Romans 1.4; my italics). Without the resurrection, Jesus was, Paul argues, of no great significance (1 Corinthians 12.15-19). However, the only ‘evidence’ for the resurrection is the contradictory, incompatible accounts offered by only three of the gospel writers and by Paul himself. So implausible is this evidence that we can safely conclude, with Michael J. Alter, that there was no such event. How, then, could Jesus possibly ‘know’ he’d rise from the dead when in fact he didn’t?
  • While he suffered from the delusion that he was going to rule God’s imminent Kingdom, it is unlikely Jesus thought he would have to die and be resurrected in order to do so. There was nothing in the Jewish scriptures to suggest either the Son of Man (a figure from Daniel with whom Jesus appears to have claimed some affinity) or the Messiah would be put to death only to rise again. This wasn’t what these characters were about and it wouldn’t have been how Jesus thought.
  • The Kingdom of God did not come about in the way Jesus believed. His death therefore did not bring about the apocalypse, judgement and rule of God he predicted and anticipated. In fact, his death took his cult off in a completely different direction, thanks mainly to Paul’s intervention. Jesus, and to a significant degree, the synoptic writers appear to have little awareness of this seismic shift. The Jesus they portray has little cognisance of events following his demise. Any suggestion he foresaw the creation of the Church is anachronistic, written back retrospectively into the accounts of his life. This was not what his ‘good news’ was about.

  • From their reactions preserved in the gospels, Jesus’ execution evidently came as a shock to both himself and his followers. None of them appear to have been expecting anything like a resurrection. Immediately following his death and burial, not a single one of his followers recalled his supposed predictions of his resurrection, nor did they express the sure and certain hope he would be returning. Even the discovery of the empty tomb (if it happened at all) failed to elicit such an expectation, nor any recollection of his words. The gospels say all those who witnessed the empty tomb were ‘frightened’, ‘astonished’ or ‘amazed’ that the body was missing, but not that they believed he must have risen from the dead. All those who witnessed the empty tomb behaved as if they’d never heard Jesus’ predictions that he’d be returning – probably because they hadn’t

  • It wasn’t until the ‘visions’ started that some of them began to consider the possibility that Jesus had ‘risen’. Not all were convinced, however. Matthew 28.16 notes how a number ‘doubted’ that the apparition they were seeing was Jesus. Significantly, at no point do any of those who think they’re seeing the risen Jesus say, ‘I remember him predicting this would happen.’ On every occasion, either angels or the risen Jesus himself has to explain it to them. (Of course, it’s the gospel writers doing the explaining for those hearing these stories decades later.)

All of this points to the fact that, while he was alive, Jesus didn’t make any predictions about rising from the grave on the third day, after three days, or after three days and nights; these prophecies, incompatible with each other and with the synoptic timeline, were created later, probably much later, after belief in the resurrection had become a central plank – the central plank – of the new cult. They were subsequently written back into the gospels, and placed on Jesus’ lips on the basis to show that of course he knew he’d rise again and knowing would have spoken about it.

The circle was thus complete; his early followers created the myth of Jesus’ return while later ones invented the ‘prophecies’ to bolster the belief that Jesus must have known he would. He said so, didn’t he?