A long time ago I read a book which (primarily) examined a bunch of Biblical prophecies which had come true in verifiable history, and attempted to estimate the mathematical probability of this happening by guesswork. The book was Science Speaks, by Peter Stoner, a college professor of mathematics and astronomy, and I have just found it is now available on the internet.
Of course the study found that it was quite implausible that these correct prophecies could have been made by chance, and I remember being very impressed at the time. But the argument for the truth of the Bible from fulfilled prophecy has since fallen on hard times.
Criticisms of the argument include:
- Some events in the life of Jesus are said to be in fulfillment of prophecy, but the original Old Testament passage was not, it is argued, a prophecy at all.
- It is often disputed whether a prophecy was actually fulfilled in history. In some cases believers and sceptics use the same example but make different assessments of it. Some prophecies are fuzzy enough to make their fulfillment a matter of interpretation.
- Some prophecies have not yet been fulfilled, apparently, but may still be in the future. This make sit hard to assess the overall picture.
- To make a fair assessment would require assessing every prophecy in the Bible for its probability, and comparing the cumulative probability of the ‘successes’ with that of the apparent failures.
Typical arguments against fulfilled prophecy can be found on the Secular Web here and here.
But some people think the argument still has legs. For example John Bloom, a university professor of physics, has written Is Fulfilled Prophecy of Value for Scholarly Apologetics?, in which he argues that fulfilled prophecy can be used to support the supernatural origin of the Bible. He illustrates this with a discussion of Ezekiel’s prophecy regarding the city of Tyre, which he believes has been remarkably fulfilled. Yet sceptics (such as in the Secular Web articles referenced above) use this same example to argue that Ezekiel’s prophecies were mistaken.
ezekiel and tyre
Tyre is an ancient Phoenician seaport on the Mediterranean coast just north of Israel, probably established in the third millennium BCE. It was located on an off-shore island and on the adjacent mainland. It was attacked many times in Biblical times, and captured more than once. In 586-573 BCE Babylonian king Nebuchadrezzar attacked Tyre and razed the mainland section to the ground but was unable to capture the island city despite a 13 year siege, because his land-based army had no ships.
In 332 BCE Alexander the Great captured Tyre, and as part of the assault built a causeway to the island using rubble from the remains of the old mainland city. (With the build-up of marine sediment, the former island is now an isthmus.) In 1291 CE, Muslims conquered the city and left it in ruins. It remained a small fishing village for centuries, then began to be re-established in the 18th century. It is now Lebanon’s fourth largest city at 60,000 people.
The prophet Ezekiel prophesied against Tyre:
- The original oracle in Ezekiel 26:3-14 says: “I will bring many nations against you …. They will destroy the walls of Tyre and pull down her towers; I will scrape away her rubble and make her a bare rock …. her settlements on the mainland will be ravaged by the sword…. Nebuchadrezzar king of Babylon …. will direct the shock of his battering rams against your walls, and with his axes he will break down your towers. …. With the hoofs of his horses he will trample all your streets …. they will break down your walls and destroy your pleasant houses; your stones and timber and soil they will cast into the midst of the waters…. You will never be rebuilt”
- But a later oracle in Ezekiel 29:17-19 says: “Nebuchadrezzar king of Babylon made his army labor hard against Tyre…. yet neither he nor his army got anything from Tyre to pay for the labor that he had performed against it.”
interpretations of ezekiel’s oracles
I searched on the internet, and found lots of discussion of the Tyre prophecy, and came up with many more references on both sides:
Believers: Tektonics, 100prophecies and Apologetics Press.
Sceptics: Bible Verses Rarely Read on Sunday, The Skeptical Review Online and Dave Matson.
There is no doubt that some matters predicted by Ezekiel came to pass – the attacks on Tyre, the razing of the mainland city, the scraping of its rubble into the sea, and the overall downfall of the once-powerful city. But other matters are arguable, and Ezekiel himself, in his second oracle, seems to accept that the first had not been fulfilled completely. The main factual disagreements between the two interpretations seem to be:
- Whether Ezekiel’s prophecy requires the destruction of Tyre to be accomplished by Nebuchadrezzar (which didn’t happen) or whether it allows for the “many nations” mentioned by Ezekiel to participate (which can then include Alexander). This question is problematic, as prophecies tend not to be absolutely clear, but since some of the oracle is in plural, whereas that part specifically naming Nebuchadrezzar is in the singular, we may give the biblical apologists the benefit of the doubt here.
- The exact location of the city of Tyre then and now, and whether it has been rebuilt in the same location. It seems clear here that the sceptics are correct, and Ezekiel’s prophecy has not been fulfilled to the letter. Many christians argue, however, that Ezekiel was using prophetic hyperbole, and that Tyre certainly met its doom and has never risen to its former prominence. This is probably a reasonable view, but nevertheless makes it harder to use this as an example of literally fulfilled prophecy.
a middle view
It seems that neither side can win this argument – there are some fulfilled prophecies in Ezekiel’s oracles, and some unfulfilled. But there is a middle view,
represented by this balanced discussion by christian scholar Robert Bratcher. He concludes that some of Ezekiel’s prophecies were wrong but that:
- Prophecy is not so much about precise prediction of future events as about God warning or encouraging his people. (And as other commentators have said, prophecy is often a warning and may or may not come true depending on how people respond.)
- Ezekiel’s overall message of God’s judgment on Israel through the Babylonians was confirmed by history, even though some oracles were not fulfilled in detail.
- The Jewish community which preserved the oracles of Ezekiel was not apparently concerned about the details, and faithfully preserved the oracles regardless – which is testimony to their integrity and their (apparently) different view of prophecy to modern believers and unbelievers alike.
what may we conclude?
- Scholars have long recognised that the essence of prophecy is not so much prediction as a message of warning or encouragement. We misrepresent prophecy if we forget this.
- Even when prophecy is predictive, it generally takes a long term perspective (fulfillment may occur in stages) and is more interested in God’s message than the details. It is notable that when Jesus and the New Testament writers quote Old Testament prophecy, they do not always take a literalist view.
- Ezekiel’s prophecies concerning Tyre were loosely fulfilled, but only partly fulfilled literally. We need to be careful in using them to make claims they do not necessarily support.
- By the same reasoning, we need to be very sure of our historical ground before we use any argument from prophecy. But if we do our history well, I think a useful argument may perhaps be constructed.
prophecies concerning jesus
These are a special case, and I will look at them in a later post.