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July 19, 2012

Biblical Prophecy and the Modern Mind

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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
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

Posted by Charles Hedrick at 11:01am

Hi Charlie:
Thanks for your insight. You referred to the notion that a person's immortal soul rides on the authority of his or her holy book. I wonder how much time most people reading the various holy books before deciding which one is superior to the rest. It seems to me that most people are raised with the world view of their parents, which means that they unwittingly entrust the decision to someone else (who, in turn, probably did the same thing regarding their own faith) and then find reasons to support it after the fact. Doesn't this seem dangerous given the risk of error?
Posted by Lee Penya on 7/23/2012 at 12:13pm
Good Morning Lee,
I agree that most of us growing up fall into our parents' way of life without thinking twice about it and don’t become reflective and critically aware about such things until much later. Of course kids rebel against parental restraints, but I don’t see that as making an objective critical assessment of values, ethics, religion, etc. Your question I read as something intended for adults., but even most adults are reluctant to challenge a religious faith that they grew up with, and never reach the point of critical reflection on the basics of their faith. It takes a brave person to do that, it seems to me—particularly if they are coming to the conclusion that what they have been taught, while good intentioned, is illogical, erroneous, and so filled with inferences that they can no longer live with it in good conscience.

But I am not sure about your word “dangerous.” I don’t think you are using it in the sense of physical violence, but rather in a philosophical sense. It is dangerous in the sense that not investigating these root documents of faith and the ideas in them, and comparing them to other religious literature could condemn one to live one’s life in ignorance following creeds that are simply, from a human point of view, bankrupt. But again it will be a rare person that will do that. The opportunity to do so is either make your way reading alone or to go to a state university where religion is taught about objectively. The church will not lead you in a critical study and there is so much stuff out there that the odds of finding your way to a critical perspective are really stacked against you. I once spoke to a Greek pediatrician in a social setting. In the course of conversation I was asked what I “did.” When I told her of my courses at the university and the approach taken to religion in the university, she immediately shut me off explaining that religion was a area of her life that was settled (Greek Orthodox faith).
Posted by Charles Hedrick on 7/24/2012 at 10:18am

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?”)
Dennis Dean Carpenter
Posted by Dennis Dean Carpenter on 7/21/2012 at 5:40pm
Good afternoon Dennis!
I will try to be brief in my response. I found 3 questions in your response to me:

1. When did the books become “holy”? Early Christians inherited the Hebrew Scriptures as the holy word of God (2 Tim 3:14-16). That hardly needs justification. They called them the Old Covenant Books and quoted them for their authority throughout the NT literature. By the second century Christians had developed their own literature that they read in the churches along with Hebrew Bible. By the middle fourth century these New Covenant books were clearly on an authoritative level with the Old Covenant book . In the Easter letter of Athanasius to the churches of Egypt he referred to them as the “springs of Salvation” and “in them is the good news of the teaching of true religion proclaimed.” These are the very scriptures that Jesus referred to when he exhorted the Jews to “search the scriptures,” Athanasius said. And in the early Bibles of the 4th and 5th centuries many of the New Testament books are included along with the Jewish Scriptures. But the earliest reference (depending on its dating) I know of to any New Testament book being inspired is to be found in the Letter to Theodore by Clement.

2. Were these books originally meant to be holy? I have no idea what their original author intended. That is a mind reading question and I am not good at that. But I can say that when they first made their appearance in the history of Western literature they were not regarded as holy.

3. What makes one book holy and others not? It is simply the faith of an individual who claims the book to be holy. There is nothing internal that would qualify any literature as holy. It is what lies in the eye of the beholder, or perhaps better in the confession of an individual's faith.
Posted by Charles Hedrick on 7/21/2012 at 3:13pm

Dr. Hedrick,
May I ask for some clarification of your statement, "My answer to your second question is this: I (as a true believer) treat my holy books as exclusively superior, because they are!" In what sense are they superior? Isn't it rather that we simply prefer the text with which we are the most familiar? Our scriptures reflect one culture's attempt at articulating their experiences and beliefs regarding the divine nature just as other cultures have produced their texts under similar motivation.

I suppose that we could evaluate texts by some agreed upon standards related to internal contradiction, community utility, accuracy of prophetic prediction, or apply Occam's Razor and choose the one that makes the fewest untestable truth claims (of course, if we did this it is likely that the teachings of Confucius would win the contest) but we have not done that.

So, as a progressive Christian who does read Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, Confucian and Zorastrian texts on occasion, wouldn't you like to edit that claim of superiority?
Roger Ray, D.Min.
Posted by Roger Ray on 7/21/2012 at 3:36pm

Hi Dr. Ray,
Nope, I will not edit that answer but I will clarify. I was adapting the role of true believer and answering as they must. It would have been clearer if I had said: The true believer (which I am not) would answer: I (the true believer—not me, Charlie) treat my holy books (I, Charlie, have no holy books) as superior because they are! And I will stick with that answer. Holiness lies in the mind of the one claiming holiness for a particular text. There is nothing internal that I know in of any piece of literature that would demonstrate its holiness. That said, however, one can make a critical argument for one piece of religious literature being of superior quality to others—by critically evaluating the ideas within them. But that will not demonstrate holiness—if indeed such a thing could be done by critical argument.
Posted by Charles Hedrick on 7/22/2012 at 3:25pm

Hi Charlie:

Thanks for this post. The questions it raises for me are: By what authority does one religious group claim that the prophecies it finds in its holy book are true, while those of another religious group's scriptures are not? Doesn't this disregard entail a certain level of superiority? If so, doesn't this contradict the Golden Rule?
Lee Penya
Posted by Lee Penya on 7/19/2012 at 4:21pm

Good afternoon Lee,
These are tough questions. I will tell you what I think and then maybe others can address them as well. Certainly for true believers (and even for the average believer as well) items of faith require certainty—after all, one’s immortal soul rides on these answers. Believers in a given religious faith cannot abide ambiguity, at least not those in missionary religions. Hence they must be able to certify their own religious truth in some way. For Christianity, Judaism, and Islam it is through their holy books that certification comes. Mormonism, for example, certifies its holy books by tracing their origin to a gift from a holy angel to their original prophet, Joseph Smith, similar to Moses receiving the ten tablets from God himself. Christians claim that God has inspired their writings in some degree through his Holy Spirit. The degree may span from: “special religious writings” to “verbally inspired writings” (including their translations). Their belief in God’s inspiration certifies the books and gives them a divine aura. In other words the religious texts that I trust have God’s imprimatur—others do not! My books must be correct for how could God speak out of two sides of his mouth (so to speak). So my answer to your first question is how could my holy books not be qualitatively superior to all others, for they come direct from my God through his agents?

My answer to your second question is this: I (as a true believer) treat my holy books as exclusively superior, because they are! Only in progressive Christian churches (and few of those, I suspect) will you find Manichean or Buddhist, etc. writings read in public worship.

My answer to your third question is this: Doesn’t this superior attitude with regard to the holy books of others break the Golden Rule (“do to others as you want done to you”)? Yes, of course it does. But you must look at the issue through the eyes of the true believer. Since the holy books of others are religiously inferior to my own, how could I as a person of conscience contribute to the benightedness of their souls putting their holy books on a level with my own? To do so would bring irreparable harm to the souls of others. Hence I do to them as I would want done to me—I try to dispel their ignorance and share the truth with them.
Posted by Charles Hedrick on 7/21/2012 at 1:01pm