Thursday, January 15, 2015

Prophecies in the Holy Scriptures: Word of God or Folly of Man? - Part II

Prophecies in the Holy Scriptures: Word of God or Folly of Man?
Part II – Prophecies in the New Testament

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“For prophecy never had its origin in the human will, but prophets, though human, spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.”

     -         2 Peter 1:21    

This article is a continuation of our series “Prophecies in the Holy Scriptures: Word of God or Folly of Man?”  In Part I, we examined five well-known prophecies in the Hebrew Bible (Tanakh).[1]  Using the same methodology outlined in that article, we will now examine prophecies from the New Testament which, along with the Tanakh, makes up part of the Christian Bible.[2]

Prophecies in the New Testament

            The prophecies that will be examined comprise a small sample of New Testament passages that discuss future events.  But as with our selection method in Part I, in this article, we have again only selected prophecies that were affiliated with events that can be historically verified.    

1.       Mark 13:2 – 

“Do you see all these great buildings?” replied Jesus. “Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.”

Discussion: In this prophecy, Jesus (peace be upon him) allegedly stated that the great Temple in Jerusalem would be destroyed and it is indeed a well-known fact that in 70 CE (some 40 years after), the Romans did destroy Jerusalem and the Temple.  Hence, assuming that the prophecy was actually made by Jesus (peace be upon him),[3] it certainly came true.  However, it only partially came true since the prophecy stated that “not one stone here will be left on another”, an obvious exaggeration which never happened.  One need only look at pictures of the Wailing Wall to see that there are many stones from the original temple that were left on each other.[4]  So, perhaps a later editor simply assumed that the Temple had been completely destroyed and expected the Romans to leave no stone unturned.  Indeed, the late Biblical scholar Geza Vermes observed that the prophecy reflected the views of the Christians who lived in the time of the Roman-Jewish war:

“…the Discourse reflects the situation prevailing some forty years after the death of Jesus, and the evangelists voice the later ideas of the apostolic church.”[5]

Hence, while the temple was destroyed as it was prophesied, the extent of the destruction was not as described.  Some stones were indeed left unturned and were left on each other.  An entire wall was left by the Romans, and it is this wall that has become the holiest site for modern-day Jews.

Status: Partially fulfilled[6]

2.  Mark 13:9-10 – 

“You must be on your guard. You will be handed over to the local councils and flogged in the synagogues. On account of me you will stand before governors and kings as witnesses to them.  And the gospel must first be preached to all nations.”

Discussion: This prophecy foretold that the disciples would face persecution for their beliefs.  According to Christian sources, this indeed happened, as most of the disciples were martyred by Roman and Jewish officials.[7]  However, while scholars recognize that some persecution of Christians did occur, in reality it was sporadic and usually short-lived.  Of course, that does not necessarily mean that the prophecy actually came true, since the Gospel of Mark was written sometime in the 60s of the first century, possibly after the first Roman and Jewish acts of persecutions would have already started.[8]  But let us assume that this was a genuine prophecy that was made before the events actually occurred, and that it was fulfilled during the apostolic age (c. 35 CE to 90 CE).[9]  Even with this generous assumption, the next part of the prophecy suffers from complications.

Status: Fulfilled[10]

3.      Mark 13:11 -  

“Whenever you are arrested and brought to trial, do not worry beforehand about what to say. Just say whatever is given you at the time, for it is not you speaking, but the Holy Spirit.”

Discussion:  According to the second part of the prophecy found in Mark 13, the disciples were instructed that they would not need to defend themselves when they were brought before a tribunal, since the “Holy Spirit” would speak through them.  In other words, the “Holy Spirit”, which is supposed to be the all-knowing “Spirit of God”,[11] would inspire the disciples on what to say.  Hence, the prophecy stated that the persecuted Christians would have the Holy Spirit to guide them, which implies that they would be unable to make false statements.  Yet, we find a curious case in the New Testament itself where this was clearly not the case.  

Acts 7 describes the trial and stoning of Stephen by the Sanhedrin, as well as Stephen’s impassioned speech before his death.  In previous articles, we have noted the Bible’s erroneous usage of the Egyptian title “Pharaoh”, which had not been used to refer to the king of Egypt before the reign of Tuthmose III, who reigned from 1504 – 1492 BCE.[12]  The Bible, however, uses the word consistently to refer to the rulers of Egypt even during the time of Abraham (peace be upon him), even though it would not have been used in that sense.[13]  And the author of Acts 7 has Stephen repeat the erroneous passage from the book of Genesis, obviously not realizing that it was an anachronism.  Yet if the Holy Spirit is supposed to be “all-knowing”, then surely it should have been able to inspire Stephen to correct this anachronism, which it did not.  Therefore, we must conclude that Stephen, if he actually did give his famous speech before the Sanhedrin,[14] was not being guided by the Holy Spirit, and thus, the prophecy from the Gospel of Mark is false.  It is also possible that the entire event was made-up by the author of Acts.    

Status: Failed

4.      Mark 13:12-13 – 

“Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child. Children will rebel against their parents and have them put to death.  Everyone will hate you because of me, but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved.”[15]

Discussion: This prophecy foretold that the disciples would be hated even by their own families for following Jesus (peace be upon him).  While there is no evidence that the disciples faced persecution from their own families, it is safe to assume that it has been fulfilled throughout Christian history.[16]  But even if the disciples did indeed suffer these things, it simply cannot be demonstrated that the prophecy was made beforehand.  The best we can do is to say that it is plausible.[17]  On the other hand, it is also plausible that the “prophecy” was the product of a 2nd-century editor, as Vermes observed:

“General hatred for Christians points to a late (second-century AD) date in the New Testament age.  […]

Encouragement to perseverance is a recurrent feature in societies motivated for an extended period by eschatological expectation.”[18]

If this is true, then it is not a prophecy at all, but rather an after-the-fact observation. And even if we accept that it was a genuine prophecy (which is another generous assumption), it does not protect it from being proven at least partially false since the second part clearly failed, as we will see next in the case of Matthew 10:23.[19]

Status: Fulfilled

5.      Matthew 10:23 - 

“When you are persecuted in one place, flee to another. Truly I tell you, you will not finish going through the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes.”

Discussion: In the second part, it was prophesied that Jesus (peace be upon him), who was identified as the “Son of Man”, would return before the disciples had gone to every city in Judea.[20]  In other words, the second coming was supposed to occur during the lifetimes of the disciples, which of course did not happen.[21]  Some apologists have tried to deny this clear fact by making the baseless and preposterous assumption that the coming of the “Son of Man” was a reference not to the second coming of Jesus (peace be upon him) but to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE by the Romans.  For example, Barnes claimed the following:

“By "the coming of the Son of Man," that is, of "Christ," is probably meant the destruction of Jerusalem, which happened about thirty years after this was spoken. The words are often used in this sense.”

Of course, he presented no evidence in support of this claim, besides quoting verses from the other Gospels, which ironically constitute no proof at all.  Instead, like most apologists, Barnes was obviously unwilling to accept the facts and was rather content with resorting to mental gymnastics.  If the prophecy was actually talking about the destruction of Jerusalem, then why didn’t it just say so?  Why would the phrase “the coming of the Son of Man” not refer to the coming of Jesus (peace be upon him)?  Christians go to great lengths to explain this clear false prophecy, but it would be prudent to just accept the plain truth.  As the late Biblical scholar Walter Wink observed:

“Exegetical gymnastics aimed at circumventing the clear intent of these statements are simply attempts to avoid the embarrassment of having to admit that the Bible was wrong.”[22]

On a side note, the Gospel of Matthew states elsewhere that the end would not come until the “gospel” had been preached throughout the world:

“And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.”[23]

This verse seemingly contradicts the prophecy in Matthew 10:23, for it states that the gospel would have to be preached to “all nations”.  However, when we consider that the context is again referring to the apostolic age, it is actually not contradictory at all.  It is, however, still a false prophecy since the gospel was hardly preached to “all nations” during the apostolic age.[24]  

Status: Failed

6.      Mark 13:14 – 

“When you see ‘the abomination that causes desolation’ standing where it does not belong—let the reader understand—then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains.”

Discussion: This is perhaps the most disturbing prophecy found in the Gospels (at least among those which can be historically verified).  It speaks of the “abomination that causes desolation”, a phrase used three times in the Book of Daniel:

“He will confirm a covenant with many for one ‘seven.’  In the middle of the ‘seven’ he will put an end to sacrifice and offering. And at the temple he will set up an abomination that causes desolation, until the end that is decreed is poured out on him.”[25]

“His armed forces will rise up to desecrate the temple fortress and will abolish the daily sacrifice. Then they will set up the abomination that causes desolation.”[26]

“From the time that the daily sacrifice is abolished and the abomination that causes desolation is set up, there will be 1,290 days.”[27]

In all three cases, the “abomination” is a reference to a pagan idol that was placed within the Temple grounds.[28]  We know of at least two historical instances when such an abomination was indeed placed at the site of the Temple.  The first occurred during the reign of the Seleucid king Antiochus IV Epiphanes, who persecuted the Jews and installed an idol of the Greek god Zeus in Jerusalem in 167 BCE.[29]  The second occurred after the Romans destroyed the temple in 70 CE, and the legionnaires of the Roman army installed a pagan altar and made sacrifices in the Temple court.[30]
 
            In the case of the Daniel prophecies, scholars are in agreement that they were written in the context of the Jewish struggle against Seleucid tyranny, which would place its authorship in the 2nd-century BCE, and not during the Babylonian exile, as is traditionally claimed.[31]  But if, as stated in the Gospel of Mark, the “abomination” was a reference to an altogether different event which would occur in the future, we must examine whether it has yet to be fulfilled (as Christian apologists would maintain) or if it actually was referring to events in the apostolic age.  It seems quite obvious, given our discussion in #5 above, that the latter scenario is preferred.  The New Testament books were in complete agreement that the end would occur within the time frame of the apostolic age, as stated in Mark 13:30:

“Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened.”

So while the “abomination that causes desolation” could perhaps have been fulfilled in the Roman desecration of the Temple in 70 CE, if we assume that the prophecy was not a later addition,[32] then the rest of the prophecy clearly failed.  The “Son of Man” did not descend as promised (Mark 13:26).  

Status: Partially Fulfilled[33]

Conclusion 
In this article, we have examined six prophetic statements in the Gospels.  Unlike the Tanakhic prophecies examined in Part I, all of which were shown to have failed, the prophecies studied in this article have produced mixed results.  Some appear to have been genuine prophecies which were fulfilled, while others were dismal and clear failures.  However, regarding the former, it must again be emphasized that they may have been genuine prophecies, but that this conclusion is only possible if we make a few generous assumptions, as previously discussed.

But if we assume that these were genuine prophecies, how do we reconcile them with the false prophecies and what ramifications do they have regarding the Gospels?  The answer, in the opinion of the author, is that perhaps it is the long history of editing that the Gospels have undergone (like the books of the Tanakh) that is the reason that these books have some (apparent) truth as well as some clear falsehoods.  The corruption of the message of Jesus (peace be upon him) by later Christians may be to blame for the presence of false prophecies alongside seemingly fulfilled prophecies. 

            One thing is clear, however.  The presence of the false prophecies will not impress anyone sincerely searching for truth and salvation.  Only those who already believe will accept the claim that the New Testament contains prophecies which could only have been the product of an All-Knowing and Supreme Being.  To those who accept the evidence, the only reasonable conclusion is that the New Testament (or at least significant portions of it) is the product of fallible human beings who worked with the limited knowledge they had.  So, in contrast to the words of 2 Peter 1:21, the false prophecies of the New Testament do indeed have their origin in the “human will” and are not from God.  In other words, they are the folly of man.  And Allah knows best!



[2] All translations are again from the NIV.

[3] Regarding the date of the authorship of the Gospel of Mark, see note #8.

[5] Geza Vermes, The Authentic Gospel of Jesus (London: Penguin Books, 2003), p. 291.

[6] It seems likely that the Prophet Jesus (peace be upon him) did genuinely prophesy the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple, but that when the Gospels were written, the authors exaggerated the destruction, which explains the phrase “[n]ot one stone here will be left on another”.  However, it could also be that he made no such prophecy and that it was the product of later editors who added it after they witnessed or heard about the destruction of the Temple.  Interestingly, it appears that the Q Gospel did mention the prophecy in the form of the “lament over Jerusalem” (http://earlychristianwritings.com/q-contents.html). 
    
[7] For example, Peter is said to have died during the persecution of the Roman emperor Nero in the 60s CE.  

[8] Raymond E. Brown, The Virginal Conception and Bodily Resurrection of Jesus (New York: Paulist Press, 1973), p. 16.

Brown stated regarding the authorship of the Gospel of Mark:

“I accept the common scholarly opinion that Mark was the first of our written Gospels (composed in the 60’s?).”
 
However, this fails to prove that the prophecy was made before the events in question, since the persecution of Christians under Nero began in the year 64 CE.  Also, the 1st-century Jewish historian Flavius Josephus mentioned that James was brought before the Sanhedrin and stoned to death around 62 CE (see note #14 for more).  In all likelihood, the gospel was written after the events in question.  Hence, in the absence of direct evidence that the Gospel of Mark was written before the persecution began, it cannot be used as evidence for the authenticity of the prophecy. 
 
In addition, not all scholars are of the view that the Gospel of Mark was written in the 60s, but rather sometime after the destruction of the temple in 70 CE.  According to Reza Aslan: 
 
“...in triumphant Rome, a short while after the Temple of the Lord had been desecrated, the Jewish nation scattered to the winds, and the religion made a pariah, tradition says a Jew named John Mark took up his quill and composed the first words to the first gospel written about the messiah known as Jesus of Nazareth...” (Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth (New York: Random House, 2013), pp. 69-70).


[10] This is only with the generous assumption that the prophecy was made beforehand and not after, as discussed in note #8.

[11] 1 Corinthians 2:11.

[13] Genesis 12:15ff.    

[14] It seems at least plausible that Stephen and the other disciples could have been brought before the Sanhedrin, since Josephus mentions that James and “some others” were put on trial and stoned for being “breakers of the law” (Antiquities of the Jews, 20:9).
However, scholars generally accept that Stephen's speech is  most likely the invention of the author of the Book of Acts (who was probably Luke) and also has other errors, in addition to the incorrect usage of the word "Pharaoh".  As Reza Aslan states:

“The speech, which is obviously Luke's creation, is riddled with the most basic errors: it misidentifies the burial site of the great patriarch Jacob, and it inexplicably claims that an angel gave the law to Moses when even the most uneducated Jew in Palestine would have known it was God himself who gave Moses the law” (Aslan, op. cit., p. 168).

[15] See also Matthew 10:21-22.

[16] The context of the prophecy shows that it was made with regard to the disciples, so it is another generous assumption to apply it to Christians in general. 

[17] In his well-known commentary on the Bible, the 19th-century theologian Albert Barnes stated the following regarding the prophecy:

“Were there no evidence that this had been done, it would scarcely be ‘credible’” (http://biblehub.com/commentaries/barnes/matthew/10.htm).

In other words, Barnes admitted that there was no extant evidence to prove that the prophecy came true, but that it must have existed at some point.  However, even if this was true, it would still fail to prove that the “evidence” was present after the “prophecy” was actually made.  Hence, the truth of the prophecy still remains “plausible” at best.

[18] Vermes, op. cit., p. 295.

[19] The next portion of the prophecy is not found in Mark, but only in Matthew.

[20] See Barnes’ commentary on verse 23.

[21] See also Matthew 16:28, Mark 9:1 and 13:30, Luke 9:27 and 21:32 and John 1:51.  In John 1:51, Jesus (peace be upon him) allegedly told his disciple Nathaniel (or all of the disciples) that:

“…you will see ‘heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.’”

[22] Walter Wink, The Human Being: Jesus and the Enigma of the Son of Man (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2002), p. 171.

[23] Matthew 24:14.  See also Mark 13:10.

[24] When we consider that in the 1st century CE it was not known just how vast the earth was, we can understand the context of the prophecy.  People did not know that there were other continents and civilizations still waiting to be discovered.  It was not until the “Age of Exploration” more than 1500 years later that the “New World” was even discovered.  Hence, if we keep the historical context in mind, the reference to “all nations” is not to the whole “earth”, but to the “earth” that was known at the time. 

This fact is clearly demonstrated when we read Paul’s letter to the Romans.  In Romans 10, Paul criticized the “Israelites” for failing to believe in the “message” of Jesus (peace be upon him), despite the fact that the message had been preached throughout the earth (!):

“But not all the Israelites accepted the good news. For Isaiah says, ‘Lord, who has believed our message?’ Consequently, faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word about Christ. But I ask: Did they not hear? Of course they did: ‘Their voice has gone out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world.’” (Romans 10:16-18)

If Paul believed that the message had already “gone out into all the earth”, then he could not have possibly meant that the gospel had been preached in North America or Australia, since those continents had not yet been discovered!  Hence, he must have meant that the gospel had been preached throughout the earth as he knew and understood it, which was nothing like the earth that actually was.

It is also clear from other passages that Paul was convinced (as were other Christians) that the end would occur within his lifetime.  In Romans 13:11-12, he stated:

“The hour has already come for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed. The night is nearly over; the day is almost here. So let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light.”

Also, in his letter to the Corinthians, Paul was clear that “the time is short”, when answering questions regarding the issue of marriage:

What I mean, brothers and sisters, is that the time is short. From now on those who have wives should live as if they do not; those who mourn, as if they did not; those who are happy, as if they were not; those who buy something, as if it were not theirs to keep; those who use the things of the world, as if not engrossed in them. For this world in its present form is passing away.” (1 Corinthians 7:29-31)

It is clear from this passage that Paul was convinced that the end was near.  His answer to the question of marriage was that Christians could get married, but that since “the time [was] short”, it was probably better not to.  Why would he have said that if he was not convinced that the end was near?  Surely, he was not speaking to Christians 2,000 years later, who are still waiting for the end to come!

Finally, 1 John 2:18 was even more crystal-clear that the end-times were here:

Dear children, this is the last hour; and as you have heard that the antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have come. This is how we know it is the last hour.

The author did not say that the “last hour” was coming.  He said it was already here.  In other words, as Paul said it, time was short indeed.

This is one of the few issues on which the various New Testament books are in total agreement.  They all agreed that the end would occur in the "apostolic age", not thousands of years later.

[25] Daniel 9:27.

[26] Daniel 11:31.

[27] Daniel 12:11.

[29] Vermes, op. cit., p. 297.

[30] Ibid., p. 298.

[31] Even if apologists could sufficiently prove that the book was written during the Babylonian exile, they cannot deny that it has irreconcilable chronological errors.  Even the Catholic scholar Raymond E. Brown acknowledged these errors:

“…the discovery of the Neo-Babylonian chronicles made it lucidly clear that the dates assigned to various Babylonian interventions in Daniel were wrong; no longer could exegetes say that those dates might be true because of our ignorance of Babylonian chronology.  One may very well answer that the author of Daniel was not writing history, but surely he used those dates because he thought they were correct” (The Critical Meaning of the Bible: How a Modern Reading of the Bible Challenges Christians, the Church, and the Churches (Mahwah: Paulist Press, 1981), p. 16).

Furthermore, even if we allow for the traditionalist assumptions, it only produces yet another difficulty for the apologists, since the author would have then made a false prophecy regarding the demise of the tyrannical ruler who would erect the “abomination that causes desolation”.  It is accepted even by Jewish and Christian scholars that this ruler was Antiochus IV.  Rashi stated in his commentary on Daniel 11:17:

I say that he is Antiochus, the king of Greece, who issued decrees against Israel, and he commanded his general, Phillip, to kill whoever identified himself as a Jew… (http://www.chabad.org/library/bible_cdo/aid/16494#showrashi=true).

Similarly, Albert Barnes stated regarding Daniel 11:21-45:

“There can be no doubt that this portion of the chapter refers to Antiochus, and it contains a full detail of his character and of his doings. The account here, though without naming him, is just such as would have been given by one who should have written after the events had occurred, and there is no more difficulty in applying the description in this chapter to him now than there would have been in such a historical narrative” (http://biblehub.com/commentaries/barnes/daniel/11.htm).

Yet, Daniel 12 clearly states that the tyrant would meet his doom when God would intervene and send the archangel Michael to destroy his kingdom (Daniel 12:1), after which the dead would rise to be judged (Daniel 12:2).  This, of course, did not happen.  Antiochus died from an illness, and the Hasmonean dynasty (founded by the Maccabees) ruled the Holy Land for the next century, minus the Messiah.  As the skeptic Chris Sandoval (a pseudonym) states:

“In real history, the Messianic Kingdom never appeared as predicted. Antiochus fell ill and died in 164 BC while he was looting the treasuries of the temples in the Persian territories of his empire (1 Maccabees 6:1-17; 2 Maccabees 1:11-17; 9).[63] The Maccabee family (also known as the Hasmoneans) surprised everybody by driving out the Seleucid armies and eventually setting up an independent Jewish state under their rule that was to last for over a century” (http://infidels.org/library/modern/chris_sandoval/daniel.html#unfulfilled).

[32] See note #6.

[33] This is the best case scenario, if we allow for the assumption that the destruction of the Temple was a genuine prophecy.

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