On Biblical Prophecy

Is Biblical prophecy one of the foundations upon which one can claim that the Bible is the Inerrant and Inspired Word of God?  Judaism and Christianity are both religions of revelation. Prophecy, in early Biblical history, is claimed to be on of the important ways that God communicated revelations to His people. For Christians, many of the New Testament’s claims of authority are based upon on a belief in the accurately of Old Testament prophecy fulfilled hundreds of years into the future.

To begin, we cannot just accept that the truth of Biblical prophecy is axiomatic. Neither can we accept that of prophecies recorded in the Bible as are true simply because the Bible has recorded the act of making prophecy and the reported the “history” of its fulfillment.  Such an argument is clearly a circular one because it is self-referential; it reduces to the following nonsensical statement, “the Bible is true if its fulfilled prophecies are true and its fulfilled prophecies are true if the Bible says they are.

There are many reasons why we should question whether prophecy represents legitimate evidence of God’s revelations to mankind. The first problem that we encounter with prophecy is how to interpret what it means. Prophets often wrote ambiguity into their prophecies so that more than one historical outcome could be made to fit it. Successful prophesy guaranteed a prophet’s longevity; unsuccessful prophesy often did not.

An example of prophetic ambiguity can be found in Isaiah 7:14. Christians interpret this Old Testament passage as a prophecy foretelling the coming of Christ while Jews, not surprisingly, do not.  Christians rely on the Septuagint (Hebrew Bible translated into Greek in the 3rd Century BCE) for their belief while Jew refer to the original Hebrew text that reports of Isaiah’s prophecy some 600 years before the birth of Jesus.  At issue is the fact that the Septuagint introduced two important errors: 1) the hebrew “young woman” was mistranslated as a “young virgin” and 2) the hebrew is written ” a young woman is with child ” while the later translation became  “a young virgin will be with child”.

Reading the Hebrew text in the context of the historical circumstances existing when it was written gets you the Jewish interpretation. And one my be guided here by the rule that “a text out of context is a pretext.”

The second problem we have with prophecy is that we cannot know for sure whether or not the prophecy was recorded ex post facto. How can we confirm that scriptural chroniclers were witnesses to the making of a prophecy before the history of its fulfillment and not the other way around? We might be persuaded to view prophecy in a more favorable light if the Biblical prophecies were recorded in other historical records of the time. But alas there are few if any that corroborate the Biblical accounts.

The third problem we have with prophecy is that we have no way to tell a true prophet from a false prophet. How can we know for sure that God, in fact, communicated anything to anyone? We have no way to test that someone claiming himself to be a prophet has indeed received a divine inspiration from God

The fourth problem we have with prophecy is that it is always revealed through a human being and therefore its integrity is subject to the human condition. We have no way of confirming that the prophet has told the prophecy without introducing errors either intentionally or unintentionally. The argument that God insures its integrity does not solve the problem either. It simply moves the venue of our investigation from authenticating the Prophet to authenticating the assertion that his integrity is protected by God.

The fifth problem we have is that some of the important prophecies were made while Jewish history was still being passed between generations by oral, not written, tradition. It is beyond the pale of reason to expect that a prophecy retold successively as oral tradition from one generation to the next could, over the course of time, survive without alteration.

The sixth problem we have involves prophesying methodologies used by the ancient prophets. We know, in some cases from the prophets themselves and in other cases from historical records of the time, that there were many methods used. None of these methods would be considered reliable in our enlightened world view of today and this point could not be more poignant than when one examines the ancient’s methods that are listed below:

Necromancy – consulting the dead by pouring wine or oil into a hole in the ground and interpreting the patterns in the liquid (this has been misunderstood historically because of a translation error appearing in 1 Samuel 28:8 of the KJV.)

Astrology – Interpreting meaning into celestial star patterns and planetary positions (examples: Isaiah 47:13 and the Matthew 2:7)

Hepatoscopy – The reading of liver omens (Near Eastern divinatory practice)

Casting Lots – The odd or even outcome of a roll of the die had interpretive meaning

Dreams – Interpreting the meaning of natural dreams to discover divine messages hidden there (examples: David).

Ecstasy Prophecy – Interpreting the meaning of dreams or hallucinations stemming from an artificial dream state called “ecstatic possession” usually induced by psychedelic drugs, sleep depravation, dehydration or hunger. (example:Jesus fasts for 40 days and nights, Matthew 4: 1 – 11)

Why should we consider these methods reliable in ancient days but regard them with disdain today? We shouldn’t. They are beliefs of a culture that lacked scientific knowledge of the world they lived in.  Moreover, the post-exilic period, dictated the abandonment of prophecy as a tool of Kings. Prophetic argument threatened to undermined political stability and thus it gave way to the emerging philosophies of dualism  apocalypticism and wisdom literature; Old Testament prophets, as a result, became pariahs (Zechariah 13:2-5).

Bill Benson – 2013 (updated)