Bible apologists love to use probability arguments, and most readers have undoubtedly encountered them in apologetic literature. Some situation perceived to prove either the existence of God (life developing from nonlife) or the inspiration of the Bible (prophecy fulfillment) is analyzed in terms of likeliness or probability. Most of these arguments, of course, are based on purely arbitrary factors selected to make the theistic or biblical position look good. I have yet to see one that can survive careful scrutiny.
At the debate in Portland, Texas, that Earle Beach referred to in the foregoing article, my opponent applied probability to the prophecy-fulfillment argument. He mentioned several times how truly amazing it was that so many Old Testament prophecies had been fulfilled precisely and exactly in the life of Jesus of Nazareth. His premise was that over 300 such prophecies were made and later fulfilled. At one point when he was under cross-examination, he stated that the probability of any 50 of these prophecies being precisely fulfilled was 11 sextillion 250 quintillion to one. The figure written out would look like this: 11,250,000,000,000,000,000,000. Since the statement was made under cross-examination, I could not respond directly to it without calling for a resumption of time, and at the moment I was pursuing a line of questioning that I wanted to continue. In reviewing the tapes, I was reminded that I forgot to return to this issue to show the absurdity of the statement, so I will do that now. If Mr. Dobbs wishes to respond to my comments, we will gladly publish his statement in the next issue. My prediction is that he won't respond. If he doesn't, I wonder what he would say the odds are that I could make a prophecy like this and have it fulfilled.
The major problem with Mr. Dobbs's argument is that it simply assumes that prophecies were both made and fulfilled, but he has no real evidence to support those assumptions. As I did point out in the debate, when these fulfillment claims are studied within their original contexts, one can easily see that most of them had nothing at all to do with the applications that New Testament writers arbitrarily gave to them. An excellent example would be the one that Earle Beach cited in his article. Jeremiah 31:15 is a statement that in the original context was referring to the Jews who had been scattered abroad during the Diaspora. Jeremiah figuratively referred to this as Rachel weeping for her children, but within the context of the statement, there was a promise in the very next verse that these children would "come back from the land of the enemy." Obviously, then, Jeremiah was in no sense talking about a brutal massacre of Jewish children, so to twist the passage and give it the application that Matthew did can only be seen as an act of desperation on the part of someone, with no real evidence on his side, trying to prove that his man Jesus had fulfilled Jewish prophecies of the coming Messiah. When we add to that the complete lack of reference in contemporary secular histories to Herod's slaughter of the innocents, we have compelling reason to believe that this event that Matthew claimed was a prophecy fulfillment never even happened.
In his article, Earle Beach mentioned that the dangerous-child myth on which this story was obviously based is a common theme in pagan religions that antedated Christianity. Space won't allow a review of all these myths, but the Hindu version is worth looking at, because it is strikingly parallel to Matthew's story. According to Hindu literature, when Krishna, the eighth incarnation of the god Vishnu, was born to the virgin Devaki, he was visited by wise men who had been guided to him by a star. Angels also announced the birth to herdsmen in the nearby countryside. When King Kansa heard about the miraculous birth of this child, he sent men to "kill all the infants in the neighboring places," but a "heavenly voice" whispered to the foster father of Krishna and warned him to take the child and flee across the Jumna river. (In this Hindu legend, we recognize many other parallels to the infancy of Jesus other than the dangerous-child element.) In Bible Myths and Their Parallels in Other Religions, author T. W. Doane cited a work by Thomas Maurice, Indian Antiquities, vol. 1, pp. 112-113, which described an "immense sculpture" in a cave-temple at Elephanta that depicts the Indian children being slaughtered while men and women apparently representing their parents are standing by pleading for the children (p. 167).
A study of pagan mythology would establish similar parallels in the stories of Zoroaster (Persian), Tammuz (Babylonian), Perseus and Adonis (Greek), Horus (Egyptian), Romulus and Remus (Roman), Gautama (the founder of Buddhism), and many others, because various elements of the dangerous-child myth can be found in the stories of all these pagan gods and prophets. All of these myths antedate, usually by many centuries, Matthew's account of the massacre of the children at Bethlehem. Krishna, for example, was a Hindu savior who allegedly lived in the sixth century B. C., so when a study of ancient world literature shows that an unusual event like the slaughter of the innocents seemed to have happened everywhere , reasonable people will realize that it probably happened nowhere or, at best, that it happened only once and was thereafter plagiarized. Since the story occurs many times before Matthew's version of it, we can only conclude that no such event happened in Bethlehem as Matthew--and only Matthew--claimed. Just like that, then, Mr. Dobbs finds one of his fifty amazing prophecy-fulfillments vaporizing right before his eyes.
If space permitted, I could easily establish that many of the other alleged prophecy fulfillments in the life of Jesus have their parallels in ancient mythology. Mr. Dobbs alleged that the miracles of Jesus had been prophesied in Isaiah 53:4-5, his crucifixion in Psalm 22:16, his resurrection in Psalm 16:10, and his ascension in Psalm 68:18. Examination of these passages in context, however, reveal the same problem that Earle Beach and I discussed above relative to Jeremiah 31:15. The statements are notoriously obscure and become prophecies only through the arbitrary claims of the New Testament writers who lifted them out of context and applied them to situations that the original writers were not referring to. So there is no way that anyone can establish that these "prophecies" were originally intended to be prophecies. All we have is the mere unsubstantiated word of the New Testament claimants that they were meant to be prophecies, and that is not a good enough foundation to build a probability argument on.
To that problem must be added the one cited above. Christianity is not the only religion to claim that its savior performed miracles, was crucified, was resurrected from the dead, and ascended into heaven. Hindu writings attributed all of these to Krishna. In fact, the lives of Jesus and Krishna, as related in the respective literatures of their followers, are so strikingly parallel that reasonable people can only conclude that the New Testament gospel writers borrowed many of their ideas from a savior mythology that had evolved long before the first century. In fact, virgin-born, crucified and resurrected saviors were as common as dirt in pagan mythology, and if that does not destroy probability arguments (as they pertain to prophecy fulfillment) in the minds of Mr. Dobbs and all others who see merit in them, then they are obviously determined to believe the folly of the Christian myth no matter how compelling the evidence to the contrary.
Another fallacy in this probability argument is that it completely discounts the possibility of deliberate contrivance. At one point when I was the cross-examiner, I pressed Mr. Dobbs to tell the audience if it would be at all possible for someone to study the Old Testament scriptures, interpret a number of obscure passages as prophecies, and then write a biography of a fictional character to make it appear that all of these "prophecies" had been fulfilled in his life. The tapes will show that Dobbs desperately evaded answering the question, even though I presented it to him three times.
In a letter to fundamentalist writer Chuck Missler, Jim Lippard very effectively addressed this same issue in commenting on a probability argument that Missler applied to prophecy fulfillments:
(Y)ou estimate the probability of a Messiah claimant entering Jerusalem on a donkey based on how many candidate Messiahs have done this, assuming (without evidence) that it is less than one in a hundred. Not only is this probably wrong, the correct question to ask is, "How many prospective Messiahs, knowing of the existence of this prophecy, would bother taking the trouble to fulfill it?" It's not as though entering Jerusalem on a donkey is beyond the capacity of a human being to intentionally fulfill. I'd assess the probability as on the order of one in one (June 8, 1993, p. 2).
My purpose in questioning Dobbs was to show that these alleged prophecy fulfillments never even happened, that the gospel writers simply went through the Old Testament looking for statements that they could construe as prophecies and then wrote the biographies of their Messiah to make it appear that all of the prophecies had been wonderfully fulfilled. Lippard's approach was to show that, even if the acts of "prophecy-fulfillment" actually did happen, they could have been done deliberately in order to give the pretending Messiah occasion to claim that he had indeed fulfilled the Jewish prophecies. Either way of looking at it, there would be nothing exceptional to claim, in this case, about a man riding into Jerusalem on a donkey. How many Jews descended from Abraham through David can we suppose rode into Jerusalem on a donkey at one time or another? Any one of them could have claimed that he had fulfilled this "prophecy."
With this background established, I can now demonstrate the absurdity of Dobbs's probability argument. I have not had an expert on probability factors check the argument to verify that the probability against the fulfillment of "any fifty" of the "more than 300" prophecies about Jesus would be over 11 sextillion to one. For the sake of argument, I will simply assume that the math is correct. If the figures are correct, all that Dobbs has accomplished is to show that the odds against his being able to prove that 50 Old Testament prophecies were fulfilled in the life of Jesus would be 11 sextillion to one.
To show why this is so, let's return to the slaughter of the innocents. The claim was made that this event was prophesied in Jeremiah 31:15, so we will let this "prophecy" be number one on the list of fifty. To begin proving his probability argument Dobbs would have to demonstrate ABSOLUTELY, beyond any question, that Jeremiah intended the statement as a prophecy of Herod's slaughter of the innocents. If there is any doubt at all that Jeremiah so intended the statement, then no fact of prophesy utterance has been established. Since I dispute that this was what Jeremiah meant and since there are hundreds, even thousands of others like me, who also dispute it, this is positive proof that Dobbs has not yet established beyond even reasonable doubt, much less absolute doubt, that Jeremiah's statement meant what it must mean in order to be a prophecy. Let's assume, however, just for the sake of argument that Dobbs could prove that Jeremiah did mean for the statement to be a prediction of the slaughter of children at some time in the prophet's future. After he has done that, Dobbs must then prove ABSOLUTELY that Herod's massacre of the children at Bethlehem can be established as a historical fact. The complete absence of any reference to such an event by any other New Testament writer or any secular historian contemporary to the times makes this an impossible task for Dobbs or anyone else. However, if an event that is allegedly a prophecy fulfillment cannot be factually established, how can any rational person contend that it was a prophecy fulfillment?
Again, for the sake of argument, let's assume that Dobbs could somehow prove that Herod's massacre of the innocents did in fact occur. At that point, all he would have accomplished is to prove that ONE--just one--prophecy was fulfilled in the life of Jesus. Now he would have to take the 49 others and go through the same process, one by one, painstakingly proving in each case that (1) the original statement was indeed intended as a prophecy of something that would happen in the life of the Messiah and that (2) the event prophesied did in fact happen to Jesus. This would necessitate taking the prophecy claims about the virgin birth of Jesus, the miracles he performed, his triumphal entry, his betrayal, his crucifixion, his treatment during the crucifixion, his resurrection, his ascension, and forty-one other alleged prophecy fulfillments and proving what was hypothetically proved about the slaughter of the innocents. No reasonable person can believe that Dobbs or anyone else could possibly do this, because the very moment that the least element of doubt arose in any one of the 49 remaining steps (after proving prophecy fulfillment in the massacre of the innocents), the entire probability argument would collapse like a house of cards.
So if Mr. Dobbs's math is correct in his calculation of
the odds against his proving that Jesus fulfilled 50 different
prophecies would be over 11 sextillion to one. So much for probability
and prophecy fulfillment!