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The Myth of Prophecy Fulfillment
by Farrell Till


1993 / May-June



At The Skeptical Review, we consider articles like the foregoing one to be an excellent source of materials detrimental to the biblical inerrancy cause. They are incredibly superficial, naively simplistic, and consistently illogical. We reprint them as often as we do in order to give our readers a sampling of the best that fundamentalists have to offer in defense of their belief that the Bible is "the inspired word of God."

Bobby Liddell, the author of the article, is also the editor of Defender, the monthly paper in which it appeared as an editorial. I receive Defender indirectly through a friend who passes it along to me, because Mr. Liddell refuses to let me subscribe to it. In the past, I have challenged Liddell and many of the contributors to his paper to defend the inerrancy doctrine in public forum, but none has accepted. Liddell, in fact, has been the only one who responded to my letters, and his reply was merely to tell me that he would no longer send me Defender and that he didn't want to receive The Skeptical Review anymore.

None of this, of course, is relevant to what Liddell said about prophecy in his article, but it does give one pause to wonder. In nearly every issue of Defender, a central, guardian-of-the-faith theme dominates. The men who write for this paper openly boast that they have the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth on their side, yet they are not at all enthusiastic about defending that "truth" in any kind of forum that would allow cross-examination of their beliefs by an informed opposition. They seem to prefer the security of partisan audiences that gullibly accept just about everything they say.

In Liddell's article, for example, he parroted the old fundamentalist claim that prophecy fulfillment confirms that the Bible is God's inspired word, a claim that neither Liddell nor any other Bible fundamentalist can ever prove. As quoted in "An Example of 'Prophecy Fulfillment,'" (TSR, Spring 1993, p. 4), Liddell's comrade in arms, Wayne Jackson, has cited three criteria of valid prophecy: (1) proper timing, (2) specific details, and (3) exact fulfillment. When all of these are applied to the examples of prophecy fulfillment that Liddell cited in his article, they all fall short of satisfying the criteria.

Liddell referred to Daniel's prophecy of "kingdoms and peoples then unknown and unable to be known to him or any other man by ordinary knowledge." Well, just what was this prophecy that has so fired Liddell's enthusiasm? According to the story, Daniel was called into the royal court to interpret a dream in which Nebuchadnezzar had seen a "great image" whose head was of fine gold, the breast and arms of silver, the belly and thighs of brass, the legs of iron, and the feet partly of iron and partly of clay. In the dream, the king had also seen a stone that "was cut out without hands," which struck the image and broke it into pieces. The pieces became like chaff and were carried away by the wind, but the stone that broke the image into pieces grew into a great mountain and filled all the earth (Dan. 2:31-35 ).

It sounds just like another typically obscure biblical vision, but not to worry, because Daniel was on the scene to give us a divinely inspired interpretation. He explained that the image represented four kingdoms. Nebuchadnezzar was the head of gold, but after the demise of the Babylonian empire would arise an inferior kingdom, represented by the breasts and arms of silver; then after that would appear a third kingdom symbolized by the belly and thighs of brass; and finally would come a fourth kingdom of iron that would be "partly strong and partly broken," as symbolized by the feet that were part iron and part clay. This fourth kingdom would break in pieces and be divided (2:36-43 ).

Daniel concluded his interpretation by prophesying that "in the days of these kings [of the kingdoms arising from the fragmented kingdom of iron] shall the God of heaven set up a kingdom, which shall never be destroyed: and the kingdom shall not be left to other people, but it shall break in pieces and consume all these kingdoms, and it shall stand forever" (v:44 ). To Bible fundamentalists, of course, this kingdom was the church, so they have had to force an interpretation of Daniel's dream interpretation to make it appear that an amazing prophecy fulfillment occurred in the birth of Christianity.

Here is how fundamentalists have tried to mold history into fitting Daniel's interpretation of the dream. The Babylonian Empire was the head of gold (which I won't argue with, because Daniel made this much of his interpretation quite clear); the Medo-Persian Empire was the breast and arms of silver; the Grecian Empire under Alexander the Great was the belly and thighs of brass; the Roman Empire was the legs of iron with the feet part iron and part clay. "So, aha!" fundamentalists rhapsodize. "The kingdom of God was established in the days of the Roman Empire, just as Daniel had prophesied."

Well, excuse me, but just where did Daniel say that the kingdom of God would be established in the days of the Roman Empire? He simply said that it would be established in the days of "these kings" [of the fragmented kingdom of iron]. Wayne Jackson's second criterion of "valid prophecy" is specific details, so if Daniel was prophesying by the guidance of an omniscient, omnipotent deity, why didn't he specifically say that after Nebuchadnezzar would arise the Medo-Persian Empire, after which would come the Grecian Empire under a ruler named Alexander the Great, after which would arise the Roman Empire? Then he could have told us that "in the days of the kings of the Roman Empire the God of heaven shall set up a kingdom that will never be destroyed." Armed with that kind of specificity, the fundamentalists really would have had something to crow about, but, as it is, they have nothing but speculation to go by in determining that these were the specific kingdoms that Daniel meant.

In reality, history has left Christian fundamentalists with too many empires for Daniel's prophecy to fit the mold that they want to cast it in, so they have had to restructure empires to fit their need. Actually, the empires and kingdoms that existed between Nebuchadnezzar and the Roman Empire were so unstable and factional that it is difficult to determine when one ended and another began. The Median Empire overlapped the Neo-Babylonian Empire that Nebuchadnezzar II ruled, and they were both absorbed by the conquests of Cyrus the Great, which gave rise to the Achaemenid or Persian Empire. The conquests of Alexander the Great, however, absorbed the Achaemenid Empire and gave rise to a worldwide (in terms of the then known world) Hellenistic Empire. So if the Median and Achaemenid (Persian) Empires are considered separate entities, as actually they were and (as we will see) Daniel apparently considered them, then the Hellenistic Empire of Alexander the Great should have been the fourth or iron kingdom of Nebuchadnezzar's dream. Fundamentalists can't have this, however, because it doesn't make Daniel's interpretation fit the mold they need, so they conveniently consolidate these two and call them the "Medo-Persian Empire." That way, the Hellenistic Empire becomes the brass kingdom so that the Roman Empire can be the iron kingdom. Then, presto, just like that, they have an amazing prophecy fulfillment in Daniel's interpretation of Nebuchadnezzar's dream.

A flaw in this interpretation is the obvious fact that the writer of Daniel considered the Median and Persian kingdoms to be separate empires, because he had the Neo-Babylonian empire falling to "Darius the Mede" (5:30-31 ). This is historically inaccurate (just one of many historical inaccuracies in the book of Daniel), because reliable records of the time indicate that Cyrus the Great captured Babylon and ended the Neo-Babylonian kingdom. Nevertheless, the writer of Daniel told of a reign under "Darius the Mede" that preceded the reign of the Persian king, Cyrus the Great (6:28 ; 10:1 ). So if the writer believed that the Neo-Babylonian Empire fell to the Medes and then the Medes fell to the Persians, then the fourth kingdom in Daniel's interpretation would have been Alexander's Hellenistic empire.

This is exactly how reputable Bible scholars interpret Daniel's interpretation of Nebuchadnezzar's dream. Certain clues, which I will have to discuss later in a separate article, indicate that the book was written around the middle of the second century during the Maccabean wars chronicled in the apocryphal books of 1 and 2 Maccabees. These wars occurred after the disintegration of Alexander's Empire into four separate kingdoms, so if the scholars are right in the dating of Daniel, this gives reason to believe that the writer intended the Hellenistic Empire to be the kingdom of iron, whose instability was symbolized in the dream by the feet made partly of iron and partly of clay.

In 323 B.C., Alexander the Great died in Babylon at the age of 33, only seven years after he had conquered the Persian Empire. Almost immediately, his empire fragmented into separate political entities that were ruled by Alexander's generals. From 312 to 64 B.C., the Seleucids, a dynasty established by the Macedonian general Seleucus, ruled a kingdom that extended from India to the Mediterranean Sea with its capital in Antioch of Syria. In opposition to Seleucid rule, the Greco-Bactrian kingdom arose in the far eastern sector of the old Hellenistic empire. The rule of the Ptolemies arose in Egypt and other southwestern territories of the old empire. By the third century B. C., nomadic Iranian tribes had begun to intrude on territory in the Seleucid kingdom. These intrusions began in the province of Parthia under the leadership of a chieftain named Arsaces, and slowly but surely new territories were gained from both Seleucia and Bactria, as well as remnants of the old Median Empire, until a distinctive Parthian Empire emerged under the leadership of king Mithradates. Eventually, the Parthian kingdom fell to Roman conquests from the west.

Daniel's interpretation of Nebuchadnezzar's dream, however, recognized only two kingdoms between the head of gold (Babylon) and the legs and feet of iron, but when recognition is given to the existence of the kingdoms that arose from the fragmented Hellenistic Empire, we find that there were at least six separate kingdoms (Persian, Hellenistic, Seleucid, Bactrian, Ptolemaic and Parthian) between the Neo-Babylonian and the Roman Empires. Obviously, Liddell's application of Daniel's interpretation conveniently ignores a huge slice of ancient history so that he can have a "prophecy fulfillment" that will fit a pet theory of his.

Daniel's interpretation of the dream depicted the iron kingdom as one that would "crush and shatter all these [prior kingdoms]" but would itself become "a divided kingdom" (2:40-41 ) as symbolized by the feet that were part clay and part iron. In this sense, the Hellenistic Empire fits the description of the iron kingdom much more exactly than does the Roman Empire. Alexander the Great absorbed into his empire all of the territories in the Neo-Babylonian, Median, and Achaemenid (Persian) Empires, but the Roman Empire came nowhere close to doing so. The Hellenistic Empire reached as far east as China, but the Roman Empire, whose territory was more western, fell far short of crushing and shattering all sectors of its predecessor empires. Furthermore, the rapidity with which Alexander's empire fragmented into the kingdoms mentioned above fits the description of the brittle feet of iron and clay much better than the Roman Empire whose disintegration was much slower.

This is exactly the way responsible scholars, who have no cherished fundamentalist beliefs to defend, interpret the book of Daniel. They see it as the effort of a second-century author to instill optimism in beleaguered Maccabean forces by making it appear that a sixth-century prophet had predicted that their struggle would eventually bring about the establishment of the long-awaited messianic kingdom.

So this brings us to the factor of "proper timing" in Jackson's criteria of valid prophecy. Bible fundamentalists like to think that Daniel was written in the sixth century B. C., shortly after the events that the book closes with during the reign of Cyrus the Great, who had conquered Babylon in 539 B. C. Few reputable Bible scholars, however, would fix the date that early, because the book exhibits signs of a much later authorship. Scholars cite the writer's obvious confusion about political events of the time that a contemporary author would have surely been familiar with, the linguistic style (especially the section written in Aramaic), and other factors too numerous to discuss in detail as evidence that the book was written at the extreme end of the Old Testament period (no sooner than the second century). If this is so, then the author would have known about the rise of empires that succeeded Nebuchadnezzar's. Since, in fact, the book even told of Babylon's absorption into the Persian Empire, there can be no doubt that the writer had first-hand knowledge of the emergence of a second kingdom after the demise of the Neo-Babylonian Empire. If scholarship is right about a probable second-century B. C. authorship of the book, then the writer would also have known about the rise and disintegration of Alexander's Hellenistic kingdom. If that is so, then certainly the writer did not speak of "kingdoms and peoples then unknown and unable to be known to him or any other man by ordinary knowledge" as Liddell alleged in his editorial. In fact, there would be a high degree of probability that the writer was just another second-century believer in the imminent fulfillment of longstanding messianic promises, and so he was trying to put words into a sixth-century prophet's mouth to make it appear that the messianic fulfillment that the writer expected to happen shortly had been foreseen by the prophet. There is certainly nothing in this likely scenario to get excited about.

Kenneth Nahigian's article "A Virgin-Birth Prophecy?" (Spring 1993, pp. 13-14, 16) adequately refutes Liddell's claim that Isaiah had foretold the "virgin-birth" of Jesus seven centuries before it happened, so there is no need for additional comment on Isaiah 7:14 , except to note that Isaiah made the statement to king Ahaz as a sign that the Syro-Ephraimite alliance against Judah would not succeed, but even that part of the "prophecy" failed. Second Chronicles 28 reports that Pekah of Ephraim attacked Judah and killed 120,000 in one day and carried away to Samaria 200,000 "women, sons, and daughters" as captives (vv:5-8 ). One has to wonder just how many men of Judah would have been killed and how many women, sons, and daughters would have been taken captive had Isaiah prophesied to king Ahaz that the Syro-Ephraimite alliance would succeed. So much for another amazing "prophecy fulfillment."

"In an obvious Messianic prophecy," Liddell said, "Zechariah noted the price of Christ's betrayal, thirty pieces of silver, which was later used to buy the potter's field." Oh? Well, let's just take a close look at Zechariah's "obvious Messianic prophecy":

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. And 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 (Zech. 11:12-13 , NKJV with Yahweh substituted for the LORD).

One has to stretch imagination to the limits to see any connection between this and the payment of 30 pieces of silver to Judas to betray Jesus. The only similarities at all are the amount of money involved. One can't even argue that the "potter's field," which the chief priests and elders bought with the 30 pieces of silver that Judas cast back to them, is a similarity, because in the original statement no field was purchased with the money. Yahweh simply told Zechariah to throw the money "to the potter," and Zecha- riah threw the pieces into the house of Yahweh "for the potter."A potter is not a potter's field, so, if Matthew was indeed referring to this statement in Zechariah, it is simply another case of a New Testament writer straining to find something in the Old Testament that he could in some far-fetched way relate to a contemporary event and call it prophecy fulfillment.

An even more contemptible thing about Liddell's claim that Matthew 27:9-10 "declares these actions to be the specific and accurate fulfillment of prophecy" is that Matthew didn't even mention Zechariah in the verses Liddell cited. What Matthew actually said was that Judas's act of casting the pieces of silver down in the sanctuary had "fulfilled that which was spoken through JEREMIAH the prophet." Jeremiah was not Zechariah, so how could Judas's act be a fulfillment of what Jeremiah had said if Jeremiah was not the prophet who had said it? Matthew said that Jeremiah had said; "And they took the thirty pieces of silver, the price of him that was priced, whom certain of the children of Israel did price, and they gave them for the potter's field, as the Lord appointed me" (27:9-10 ), but where did Jeremiah say this? There is no record that he ever said it, and the statement that Matthew attributed to Jeremiah is only remotely similar to the passage in Zechariah. How then could it be a "specific and accurate fulfillment of prophecy"?

Liddell spewed out a long list of alleged prophecy fulfillments in a single paragraph that space will not permit me to reply to, but they all rest on evidence entirely as flimsy as that which I have examined in the paragraphs above. Liddell can say all that he wants to that "Biblical prophecy was not written after the fact, ambiguous, artificially fulfilled, nor [sic] just a phenomenon common to all religions and peoples," but saying is not the same as proving. If he expects rational people to accept his claim of wonderful prophecy fulfillment in biblical events, then he is going to have to do more than just assert. He is going to have to prove.

If he would like to try his hand at proving that the birth, rejection, mockery, and crucifixion of Jesus, as he claimed in his editorial, were prophesied in the Old Testament, we will publish his article simultaneously with our response. I am going to prophesy that this will never happen.
 



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