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Prophecy Fulfillment: An Unprovable Claim
by Farrell Till


1996 / January-February



Just a superficial reading of Dr. Ross's article about the application of probabilities to biblical prophecy fulfillment is enough to see that it is just another attempt to shore up a discredited apologetic argument. Biblical inerrantists have repeatedly tried to prove the divine origin of the Bible through various prophecy-fulfillment claims, but the truth is that no one has ever been able to verify a single example of biblical prophecy fulfillment. I have read many such attempts, and Dr. Ross's effort differs only in that it is, in my opinion, not nearly as good as some I have seen.

What is really ludicrous about Dr. Ross's article is his arbitrary probability figures. They are reminiscent of the ridiculous probability arguments that creationists bandy about to "prove" that life could not have happened without divine creation. Before anyone can determine the probability of any event, he must know all of the factors that would be involved in the occurrence of the event, and this is where the absurdities begin in most creationist and prophecy-fulfillment probability arguments. No one knows how many factors would be involved in the formation of life, and nobody knows how many factors would be involved in the occurrence of a specific event years in the future. Yet biblicists constantly yak about how the probability of such-and-such happening would be one in so many millions or billions or trillions. It's all too ridiculous to deserve serious comment, but because so many fundamentalists use such arguments to impress the gullible, we, unfortunately, have to comment on their "arguments" from time to time.

In order to prove--and I mean *prove*, not just surmise--prophecy fulfillment, one would have to establish four things: (1) the claimant of a prophecy fulfillment is properly interpreting whatever text he is basing his claim on, (2) the prophecy was made *before* and not after the event that allegedly fulfills the prophecy, (3) the prophecy was made not just *before* an event but far enough in advance of it to make educated guesswork impossible, and (4) the event that allegedly fulfilled the prophecy did in fact happen. When Dr. Ross's claims of prophecy fulfillment are examined in terms of these four characteristics of valid prophecy, we will see that none of his alleged prophecy fulfillments can pass muster.

In a continuing series of articles, I will examine all thirteen of Ross's claims but not necessarily in the order he presented them. Let's begin, then, with number two: the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem fulfilled a prophecy about where the Messiah would be born (Micah 5:2). Ross said that "(t)he fulfillment of this prophecy is one of the most widely known and widely celebrated facts in history," but is it? I say that this prophecy-fulfillment claim fails tests 1 and 4 in the list above.

Did Micah unquestionably predict that the Messiah would be born in the town of Bethlehem? That's what most biblicists believe, but it is certainly not something that they can prove definitively enough to claim that they have an unquestionable prophecy fulfillment in the place of Jesus's birth. To evaluate the claim, let's first look at the statement that Ross alleges was a prophecy of the Messiah:

"But you Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of you shall come forth to Me the One to be Ruler in Israel, Whose goings forth are from of old, from everlasting (Micah 5:2, NKJV).

In the context of the passage in which Micah made this statement, he was speaking of "many nations [that] have gathered against you [Israel]" (4:11). Inparticular, there seemed to be concern about "the Assyrian com[ing] into our land" (5:5), so it makes good sense to assume that Micah, rather than predicting the coming of a Messiah in the distant future, was talking about a "ruler" who would arise to help Israel during the present threat to its national security. There is serious doubt, then, that Micah even intended his statement to be a Messianic prophecy beyond the sense of someone arising to lead Israel through its present crisis.

For the sake of argument, however, let's just assume that Micah did intend this to be a prophecy of the long-awaited Jewish Messiah. Even if this were so, there would still be serious problems to overcome before Ross or anyone could prove that a birth in the town of Bethlehem fulfilled this prophecy. First, it is questionable that Micah 5:2 was even referring to the *town* of Bethlehem. Several translations suggest that he meant a tribal clan and not a town. Many people who cite Micah 5:2 as a case of amazing prophecy fulfillment don't realize that a person named Bethlehem was an Old Testament character who had descended from Caleb through Hur, the firstborn son of Caleb's second wife, Ephrathah ( 1 Chron. 2:18; 2:50- 52; 4:4). Young's Analytical Concordance, p. 92, identifies Bethlehem as the name of this person as well as the name of two different villages.

The NIV translates the relevant part of Micah 5:2 like this: "But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the *clans* of Judah...." A clan, of course, is not a town, so if this translation is accurate, the prophet was speaking not of a place but a tribal family that would give rise to a ruler. The RSV, NRSV, NAS, NAB, NEB, REB, the Amplified Bible, the Jerusalem Bible, and others give similar renditions that agree that Micah was referring to a family clan rather than a town.

Young's Literal Translation of the Holy Bible refers to the Bethlehem Ephrathah in this passage as something that is "little to be among the chiefs of Judah," another implication that the prophet was speaking of a person or clan, but even more damaging to Matthew's attempt to apply this statement to the town of Bethlehem is the Septuagint translation of the passage:

"And thou, Bethlehem, *house of Ephrathah*, art few in number to be reckoned among the thousands of Judah: yet out of thee shall one come forth to me, to be a ruler of Israel "(Brenton Translation).

Three statements in this version are significant. First it was said that Bethlehem was "few in number to be reckoned among the thousands of Judah." If this was a reference to the town of Bethlehem, then indeed it would have been "few in number." *One* is about as "few" as you can get. Secondly, this Bethlehem was too few to be "reckoned among the thousands of Judah. The towns in Judah could not have been reckoned in terms of thousands; the country was just too small to have "thousands" of towns. The statement, however, makes sense if interpreted as a reference to the family clans in Judah. Finally--and this is the clincher--this Bethlehem was described as the "house of Ephrathah." When we encounter expressions like "house of David" or "house of Levi" in the Bible, we immediately recognize them as references to family clans, not towns or cities, and we should do the same here. Matthew obviously distorted Micah 5:2 to try to make it a reference to the town of Bethlehem, and this becomes more apparent when we consider that Matthew usually quoted the Septuagint version when he referred to the Old Testament. But he didn't here, possibly because the Septuagint shows too clearly that Micah 5:2 was referring to a family group or clan.

Again, for the sake of argument, let's just assume that Micah was indeed referring to the town of Bethlehem in his famous "prophecy." Dr. Ross still would not have a verifiable case of prophecy fulfillment, because neither he nor anyone else can prove that Jesus of Nazareth was born in Bethlehem. As noted earlier, Ross said that "the fulfillment of this prophecy [the birth of the Messiah in Bethlehem] is one of the most widely known and widely celebrated facts of history." Now if he had said that the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem was one of the most widely known and widely celebrated "claims" or "traditions," I would have no quarrel with him, but to say that it is a widely known and celebrated "fact of history" that Jesus was born in Bethlehem is to make an assertion that cannot be established as fact.

Ross has simply assumed that the New Testament records are historically accurate; therefore, if they say that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, it is a historical fact that he was born in Bethlehem. Unfortunately for his probability argument on this point, he has no way of proving that Jesus was actually born in Bethlehem. There are no contemporary documents or records of any kind to corroborate the New Testament claim that Jesus was born in Bethlehem. As "The Historicity of Jesus" (The Skeptical Review, Autumn 1995, p. 1) pointed out, despite the New Testament claims that Jesus was so popular that great multitudes followed him and even brought the sick and the lame to him from as far away as Syrian to be cured by his miraculous powers, no contemporary writers even mentioned the man. He was known only in the New Testament documents and some apocryphal writings that even Christianity has rejected. Since the gospel writers were obviously biased in their zealous attempts to sell Jesus as the Messiah, how do we know that Matthew and Luke didn't just say that he was born in Bethlehem in order to give the appearance that even his birth had fulfilled Old Testament prophecy? So if Ross wants to talk about probabilities, I could ask him to calculate what the odds would be that a writer like "Matthew" could make up details about the birth of Jesus to make it appear that he had fulfilled prophecy by being born in the town of Bethlehem. I would say that the odds for that would be about one in one.

From this point on, I would urge readers to keep in mind that most of Ross's arguments assume the historical accuracy of the Bible, and that is certainly an improper way to argue for prophecy fulfillment. One would have to be incredibly ignorant of the Bible not to know that it contains numerous examples of both prophecy and prophecy-fulfillment claims. So whether the Bible *claims* prophecy fulfillment is a point not relevant to this debate, because it certainly does contain such claims. What Dr. Ross must do to sustain his position is prove that the Bible's many claims of prophecy-fulfillment are true, and that is something he won't find as easy as formulating arbitrary probability figures.

In his third example of prophecy-fulfillment, Dr. Ross claims that Judas's betrayal of Jesus for 30 pieces of silver was predicted by Zechariah, a prophet who lived in the 5th century B. C. Of all of his prophecy-fulfillment claims, this is undoubtedly Dr. Ross's most disingenuous, because he failed to inform his readers that the only New Testament claim that prophecy was fulfilled when Judas was paid 30 pieces of silver for betraying Jesus was made by Matthew, and he alleged that the payment fulfilled a prophecy that was made by Jeremiah, not Zechariah (27:9). I have to wonder why Dr. Ross kept this controversial point from his readers.

Zechariah did make a reference to 30 pieces of silver, but it was clearly not the statement that Matthew in his inimitable way tried to quote. To see this, we have only to look at the two statements together:

Matthew 27:9--Then was fulfilled what was spoken by *Jeremiah* the prophet, saying, "*And they took the thirty pieces of silver, the value of Him who was priced,* whom they of the children of Israel priced, *and gave them for the potter's field, as the LORD directed me"* (Italics inserted as used in the NKJV).
Zechariah 11:12-13- -Then I said to them, "If it is agreeable to you, give me my wages; and if not, refrain." So they weighed out for my wages thirty pieces of silver. Yahweh said to me, "Throw it to the potter"--that princely price they set on me. So I took the thirty pieces of silver and threw them into the house of Yahweh for the potter."

One has to stretch imagination to assume that Matthew was actually quoting this passage from Zechariah, but even if he was, Dr. Ross will have to explain why God's inspired writer said that this was something Jeremiah had predicted. If Ross wants to think in terms of probabilities, perhaps he can do a little figuring and let us know what would be the probability that a writer who was verbally inspired by an omniscient, omnipotent deity would attribute to Jeremiah a prophecy that had really been made by Zechariah. I would think that the odds against this happening would be so astronomical that even the universe itself couldn't contain all the zeroes that would follow the number. So the fact that Matthew made such an error (as Ross has tacitly admitted by correcting Matthew's statement) is more than reasonable evidence that he wasn't divinely inspired. To say the least, the mistake doesn't give readers much confidence to believe that Matthew knew what he was talking about when he made this prophecy-fulfillment claim.

Examination of the context in which Zechariah's statement was made also shows that it obviously referred to a contemporary situation rather than an event that would happen five centuries later. Zechariah was a prophet at the time that the repatriates from Babylonian captivity were rebuilding Jerusalem under the leadership of Ezra and Nehemiah. The first half of the book consists of "visions" that Zechariah had about the restoration of Jerusalem, but the second half is an apocalyptic, doom-and-gloom/ day-of-the-Lord work, which many scholars believe is a later redaction to Zechariah's optimistic predictions that Yahweh would lead his people to restore Jerusalem to its former glory. Whether this view of the last part of the book is correct or not, the passage that Dr. Ross alluded to is found in the apocalyptic section of the book.

In the chapter where reference was made to 30 pieces of silver, Yahweh had commanded Zechariah to "feed the flock for slaughter," because Yahweh would "no longer pity the inhabitants of the land" (12:4-6). In other words, Yahweh was ticked off at his people again, and so someone was going to have to pay a price. After a period of feeding the flock, Zechariah found the work so disagreeable that he quit and demanded that the leaders pay him wages for his work. The 30 pieces of silver were weighed out in payment to him, and Yahweh then told him to throw them "into the house of Yahweh for the potter." The meaning of the word translated *potter* in this statement is controversial, and it is translated *treasury* in some versions (RSV, NRSV, NEB, NAB, GNB, JB, etc.). The context of the passage suggests that Zechariah was ordered by Yahweh to "feed his flock" and that the leaders of "the flock" had considered this work worth only 30 pieces of silver. This price was considered so insulting that Yahweh ordered Zechariah to throw the money back into the treasury, apparently as a gesture of contempt, and this is the passage that Ross sees as a prophecy of Judas's betrayal of Jesus. Of course, whether Matthew saw it this way or not is debatable, because he made no reference to Zechariah. At any rate, to see prophecy in a statement as vague and uncertain as this only shows how desperate biblicists are for evidence to support their claim that the Bible was divinely inspired.

Once again, however, let's suppose for the sake of argument that Dr. Ross is right and that Zechariah did intend this statement to be a prophecy that someone would betray the Messiah for 30 pieces of silver. That would not prove that it was fulfilled by Judas, because we have only Matthew's word that Judas was paid 30 pieces of silver to betray Jesus and then afterwards brought the money back and cast it down in the sanctuary. To argue that this one account, by a biased disciple of Jesus, is reliable enough that we can know an Old Testament prophecy was fulfilled is, again, to assume the complete historical accuracy of the New Testament documents. At the very least, Dr. Ross will have to produce contemporary records to corroborate Matthew's account. I don't think he will be able to do that, although he said in his article that "Bible writers *and secular historians* both record thirty pieces of silver as the sum paid to Judas Iscariot for betraying Jesus." Now he may have meant by this that secular historians have uncritically accepted Matthew's word that this happened and have recorded it as historical fact, but he won't be able to find any secular historians who recorded it from nonbibical sources such as Roman archives or temple records. *It is an unverifiable story, and that is bad news for Dr. Ross's prophecy-fulfillment claim.* An unverifiable event simply cannot be considered a fulfillment of prophecy.

Dr. Ross's fourth claim of prophecy fulfillment alleges that "King David and the prophet Zechariah described the Messiah's death in words that perfectly depict that mode of execution." Although Ross didn't specify any specific statements in Psalm 22 that he considered prophetic in terms of describing the death of Jesus, he undoubtedly meant verses 16 and 18, which allude to pierced hands and feet and the casting of lots for garments. The gospels all claim that Jesus was crucified, an act that would have required the piercing of his hands, and that the Roman soldiers cast lots for his garments ( Matt. 27:35; Mark 15:24; Luke 23:34), but John (19:23-24) specifically said that the casting of lots was done "that the scripture might be fulfilled that says, `They divided My garments among them, and for My clothing they cast lots.'" Very obviously, then, John was alleging that the casting of lots for Jesus's garments was a fulfillment of a prophecy in Psalm 22:18.

So is this proof that prophecy was fulfilled when the hands of Jesus were pierced during his crucifixion and when lots were cast for his garments? Not at all! To so argue is again to assume the historical accuracy of the New Testament documents. There are absolutely no contemporary nonbiblical records of the crucifixion of Jesus, so to accept as absolute fact everything reported in the gospels, which flagrantly admit that they were written for propaganda purposes to further the belief that Jesus was the son of God (John 20:30), is certainly an uncritical approach to proving a claim as extraordinary as prophecy fulfillment. The gospel writers all claim that lots were cast for Jesus's garments, but how do we know that this actually happened? Dr. Ross can find no nonbiblical contemporary records to confirm that any such incident as this happened, so to claim a prophecy fulfillment solely on the basis of what the gospel accounts say about this is to assume that they are unbiased, reliable, accurate historical records. This claim completely ignores the possibility that disciples of Jesus, desperately wanting the world to believe he was the son of God, could sit down and write biographies of Jesus that would deliberately try to leave the impression that certain events happened in his life that were fulfillments of prophecy. After all, how difficult would it have been for a writer to see a statement in Psalm 22:18 about lots being cast for the psalmist's garments and then to put such an incident into the life of the central character in his book in order to claim prophecy fulfillment? Again, I would say that the odds that this could happen would be about one in one. Therefore, Dr. Ross's claim that prophecy was fulfilled when Roman soldiers cast lots for the garments of Jesus fails test #4 in our list of rules governing valid prophecy fulfillment: he cannot prove that this event even happened.

If Jesus was crucified, then quite probably his hands and feet were pierced, because this was standard procedure during crucifixion. However, that is no proof that the reference in Psalm 22:16 to pierced hands and feet was a prophecy of the crucifixion of Jesus. Contextually, there is nothing in this psalm to indicate that the writer intended the statement to be so understood. An objective reading of the psalm should be enough for any reasonable person to see that the writer was referring to himself and certain abuses that he was suffering at the hands of his enemies.

"Many bulls have surrounded Me," the psalmist said in verses 12 and 13. "Strong bulls of Bashan have encircled Me. They gape at Me with their mouths, like a raging and roaring lion." Was this some kind of prophecy of the suffering that Jesus would endure or was it a reference to some personal abuse that the psalmist felt he was experiencing in his present condition? Not even the overly imaginative mind of the writer of Matthew in his endless quest for prophecy fulfillments tried to relate this statement to the life of Jesus, yet the gospel writers took the reference to pierced hands and feet just three verses later and exclaimed, "Aha, prophecy fulfillment!" What is the rationale for distorting the scriptures so flagrantly? Well, the answer, of course, is obvious: the gospel writers were desperate to prove that their man Jesus was the Messiah who had been promised in the Old Testament. Since there really were no prophecies of a virgin-born, crucified, resurrected Messiah in the Old Testament, they had to twist and distort to give the appearance that Jesus was the long-awaited one.

Absurdity in the claim that the reference to pierced hands and feet in this psalm was a prophecy about Jesus becomes even more evident when the obscurity of the statement is considered. A footnote in many reference Bibles will point out that use of the word *pierce* in Psalm 22:16 follows the Septuagint, Syriac, and Vulgate versions but that the original word is pointed in the Hebrew Masoretic text to read *lion*, and despite the loss of an important prophecy-fulfillment text some English translations recognize the uncertainty of the text. The REB and NEB, for example, render the statement like this: "Hounds are all about me; a band of ruffians rings me round, and they have bound me hand and foot." The GNB says, "A gang of evil men is around me; like a pack of dogs they close in on me; they tear at my hands and feet." This translation has a footnote to point out that the last statement in the Hebrew reads, "Like a lion, they tear at my hands and feet." Some reference Bibles also have footnotes to indicate that the latter statement may mean, "They tie my hands and feet," as the REB and NEB actually translate it.

The point is that the original text is very uncertain in its meaning, and on the basis of the Septuagint translation of a controversial word, the gospel writers have twisted this statement into a prophecy of the crucifixion of Jesus. What Dr. Ross is actually claiming, then, is that the odds are 1 in 10^13 that a controversial, uncertain text in a psalm about the writer's personal suffering was a prophecy of the crucifixion of Jesus. It is just such nonsense as this that biblicists must resort to in their desperate search for something--*anything*--to support their irrational belief that the Bible is the "inspired word of God."

The same objections can be applied to Ross's claim that Psalm 34:20 and Zechariah 12:10 were prophecies of the manner in which Jesus would die. When both passages are examined in context, it is clear that the writers had contemporary situations in mind and not events far in the future. Let's look first at Psalm 34:19-20:

Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but Yahweh delivers him out of them all. He guards all his bones; not one of them is broken."

The key statement in the text is the final sentence: "Not one of them [bones] is broken." The writer of John claimed that when the Roman soldiers were breaking the legs of the three who had been crucified, they saw that Jesus was already dead, and so they didn't break his legs. According to "John," this was done, of course, "that the scripture should be fulfilled, `*Not one of his bones shall be broken*.'" This is recognized in most footnoted Bibles as a reference to Psalm 34:20, so, of course, this is enough to convince Dr. Ross that we have an amazing example of prophecy fulfillment.

Let's notice, however, that the statement about no bones being broken was preceded by an assurance that Yahweh will deliver the righteous out of all his "many afflictions." So by what rule of logic would the last part of this text be a prophecy but the first part wouldn't? I would certainly think that someone "who committed no sin nor was deceit found in His mouth" (1 Peter 2:22) would be a "righteous" person, and I would further think that nailing such a person to a cross would be an affliction. So if the writer of this psalm was really prophesying about the Messiah, why wasn't the sinless Jesus delivered from his affliction as the "prophecy" promised? He wasn't, because nothing in the context of this passage was intended as a prophecy of a Messiah's death. It is just another example of desperation to find something to shore up an untenable belief.

Even if we assume that Psalm 34:20 was intended as a prophecy, Dr. Ross cannot prove that it was fulfilled in the death of Jesus, because there is nothing in contemporary records, including even the other gospel accounts, to corroborate John's claim that the legs of Jesus were not broken on the cross. As I have already pointed out, it would have been very simple for a disciple of Jesus to search the Old Testament for statements like Psalm 34:20 and then write a biography that intentionally included events that never happened just to make it appear that (1) vague statements in the scriptures were actually prophecies, and (2) the life of Jesus had fulfilled them. So Dr. Ross is actually claiming in this case that an unverifiable event fulfilled an unverifiable prophecy.

There is no need to analyze Zechariah 12:10 with the same detail I have applied to the other alleged prophecies in this section. When the passage is examined in context, the objective reader will clearly see that the prophet was apocalyptically referring to a contemporary situation. In verse 9, for example, just before the reference to looking upon "me whom they have pierced," Yahweh declared that he would "destroy all the nations that come against Jerusalem." At the time of Jesus's crucifixion, the land of Judah was under foreign domination, and just a few years later Roman legions devastated the city. Certainly, Yahweh did not destroy all the the nations that came against Jerusalem at the time that Jesus was "pierced." How then can any sensible person consider Zechariah 12:10 to be a prophecy of the crucifixion of Jesus? We are simply seeing desperation theology at work in a futile attempt to prove the discredited belief that the Bible is "God's Word."

Dr. Ross's other claims of prophecy-fulfillment will be examined in subsequent issues of TSR. If he wishes to reply to this or any of the other articles, we will publish his response.
 



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