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July 19, 2012
Biblical Prophecy and the Modern Mind
The early Followers of Jesus and what later became Christianity in the fourth century believed that the Hebrew Bible foretold aspects of their beliefs about Jesus of Nazareth. His miraculous birth, for example, was prophesied by the prophet Isaiah (7:14), who also indicated the circumstances of his death (Isaiah 53:1-9). They knew full well that these passages in Isaiah had a simple or surface meaning that was different from what they found in them. Let’s designate these different views as Level 1 (simple or obvious meaning) and Level 2 (interpretive or “deeper meaning”). Isaiah 53, one of the suffering servant hymns, at Level 1 was describing the suffering of Israel (44:1); Isaiah 7:14, the birth of a child to a young peasant woman (which they read as “virgin”) was a sign to Israel in a political crisis that God’s deliverance was imminent (7:15-16). Christians believed, however, that the Hebrew Scriptures were multi-layered. For those who read with the eyes of faith there was a deeper meaning; at Level 2 each of these passages was really about God’s Messiah.
The fact that the passages had a different significance to Isaiah and the people to whom he was writing raises a number of questions. For example, was Isaiah even aware of “deeper meanings” that later followers of Jesus and still later Christians found in his writing, or is it the case that these later users of Isaiah were simply reading their own pious interpretations into the text? If it cannot be shown that Isaiah was at least aware of “deeper meanings,” which some later find in the text, then Level 2 readings are seriously in question. If Level 2 readings cannot be shown to derive from the author, they are simply a stratagem of the later reader.
Is it really possible that Isaiah could have been so accurate with the details of the prophecy? People who predict shifts in the stock market and other such things, for example, do so in the near term and in generalities, and then only with solid information about the circumstances of the situation, as appertains to Level 1 prophecies in Hebrew Bible, and even then some of them get their prophecy wrong. At this point, believers in Level 2 “biblical prophecy” appeal to a supernatural endowing of the prophet, who is guided either with or without his awareness, to produce a text sympathetic to a later Level 2 Christian reading. In other words, Level 2 prophetic readings are really valid, but only if the Jewish Scriptures are surreptitiously Christian!
There is another possibility of course: that early Christians themselves shaped the circumstances of the career of Jesus by their Level 2 “prophetic readings” of the Hebrew Bible. In that case the early Christian gospels are not really first-century historical biography (even in a broad sense), but rather they constitute a haggadic reading of the public career of Jesus—that is to say, the gospels are devotional or romantic narrative about Jesus of Nazareth.
Even the biblical prophets sometimes get their Level 1prophecies wrong. Two such failed prophecies are well known, one in Hebrew Bible and the other in New Testament. In the sixth century B.C. Ezekiel predicted that the ancient city of Tyre would be destroyed by Nebuchadrezzar of Babylon (Ezekiel 26:1-28:19). But, alas, it never happened as Ezekiel predicted. Tyre fell approximately three hundred years later in 332 B.C to Alexander the Great of Greece.
Jesus himself predicted the utter destruction of the Second Jewish Temple, extensively renovated by Herod the Great in 19/20 B. C.: “Do you see these great building [of the temple]? There will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down” (Mark 13:2). True, the temple was destroyed some 30 years or so later in 70 A. D., but the temple foundation still remains today “one stone upon another,” and is known today as the “wailing wall,” one of the holiest sites in Judaism, where many Jews lamented the loss of the Jerusalem sanctuary and their homeland. The temple was destroyed but stones still stand “one upon the other.” Hence, the Level 1 prophecy came true, in part, but Jesus was mistaken in the details. If indeed, it was a prophecy by Jesus and not by the evangelist Mark, who put the prophecy on the lips of Jesus.
Failed Level 1 prophecies raise the following question: If the prophet himself in full control of his faculties can get even Level 1 prophecies wrong, why would anyone be willing to assume the reliability of Level 2 prophetic readings of the Bible, including those Level 2 prophecies by modern “prophets,” who use the Bible to paint sweeping vistas of modern world events leading to the world’s imminent end?
If Level 2 prophetic readings of the Bible are only available to people of the right kind of faith, and cannot be quantified in some way at Level 1, they are subject to the following criticism: they only exist in the mind of whoever finds the Level 2 prophecy; in short, it is a figment of his/her imagination. The reason is that they are not part of the author’s own Level 1 strategy. This brings me to a restatement of the two Levels. Level 1 is what the author says; Level 2 is what the reader infers, and has no basis in the text except through the reader’s imagination.
A modern mind is justifiably skeptical of those who peer into crystal balls, with or without so-called biblical support. And I have not even addressed the issue of Yahweh’s lying prophets (2 Chronicles 18:18-22).
Charles W. Hedrick
Posted by Charles Hedrick at 11:01am
I would ask when the books became “holy.” Were they originally meant to be “holy,” or were they expressions of one person or one community’s expression of their beliefs, later deemed holy? (In what nature would the canonical gospels be any more or less “holy” than, for instance, The Apocryphon of John or Dialogue of the Savior? Who made them more “holy?”)