Beware of false prophets....
Vaticinia ex eventu retrospective prophecy
is an ancient technique for gaining credibility. It involves
generating a prediction that appears to predate the event that
it foretells. The event therefore appears to confirm the miraculous
prediction. The trick can be done in several ways. One way is
to fabricate a document purportedly written in the past that
foretells later events. Biblical scholars generally accept that
the Old Testament book of Daniel is an example of this type,
written centuries after it was purported to have been written.
Another way is to take a genuine old text and look for passages
that can be interpreted as foretelling aspects of later times,
tweaking facts about later times, up to the present, as required.
It was a fundamental belief of Jews at the time of Jesus that
no important event could come to pass unless the scriptures
had foretold it. Early followers of Jesus were therefore keen
to prove that the main events of his life, or what they believed
about his life, had been predicted. If the Old Testament genuinely
foretold events in the New, then we might expect that the prophecies
would have been clearly acknowledged as prophecies, and in view
of their divine provenance they would be free from error. On
the other hand, if books of the New Testament were edited to
make them appear consistent with supposed Old Testament prophecies,
then we might expect a range of human errors. For example, Old
Testament passages might be referred to that were not prophetic,
or passages might be misquoted, or quoted out of context, or
even invented. Again, genuine predictions concerning the life
of Jesus would not have been fulfilled already before his time.
Since New Testament authors were familiar with the Jewish writings
only in Greek translation, anyone fabricating retrospective
prophecies might not realise that their Old Testament texts
contained mistranslations. Also, since the canon of the Old
Testament was not yet fixed, we might find prophecies being
quoted from texts that turned out not to be canonical. To see
which pattern best matches the facts let's look at some
It seems that it was widely known during his lifetime that
Jesus came from Nazareth, in Galilee. This was unfortunate because
there was no suitable prophecy in the scriptures about a messiah,
or a king, or even a prophet coming from Nazareth. Indeed Nazareth
is never even mentioned in the Old Testament. On one occasion,
according to the New Testament, the Jews say explicitly that
Jesus cannot be the Messiah because he comes from Galilee rather
than Bethlehem (John 7:41-2 ). Biblical authors seem to have
known that Bethlehem was the correct place for a messiah to
come from because of a passage in the Old Testament:
But thou, Bethlehem Ephratah, though thou be little among
the thousands of Judah, yet out of thee shall come forth unto
me that is to be ruler in Israel; whose goings forth have
been from of old, from everlasting. Micah 5:2
This probably explains why the authors of Matthew and Luke
constructed (contradictory) stories to explain how Jesus of
Nazareth came to be born not in Nazareth but in Bethlehem. For
many Jews it would be unthinkable that God would have neglected
to mention Jesus of Nazareth more explicitly in the scriptures
if he was indeed who he claimed to be. The Matthew author remedied
God's omission by inventing his own prophecy. He relates
that Jesus went to live in Nazareth " ...that it might
be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophets, He shall be called
a Nazarene" (Matthew 2:23). There is no such prophecy in
any Jewish scripture but, as the writer must have known, it
would be almost impossible for his readers to disprove his assertion
that there was*. Even those
who could read did not have access to the scriptures, because
they were not available for public reference. Other purported
prophecies do not exist either. For example Mark 14:49 and Matthew
26:56 refer to a prophecy concerning Jesus" arrest, but
no such prophecy exists.
Early writers were keen to match New Testament events with
Old Testament prophecies. This is especially true of the author
of Matthew, who was writing for a Jewish audience. He frequently
notes that Jesus did things in order to fulfil the scriptures.
The fact that he wrote in Greek also provided scope for errors.
The Greek version of the Old
Testament (the Septuagint) contained errors of translation that
could be picked up and incorporated into the New Testament by
anyone arranging events to match prophecies. The story of the
Virgin Birth, found in Matthew 1:23, as we shall see later,
depends upon a mistranslation of Isaiah 7:14. The passage should
Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold,
a young woman shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call
his name Immanuel
But in the Septuagint the word for "young woman"
is mistranslated as "virgin", and this Greek mistranslation
has been picked up in creating a retrospective gospel prophecy.
Incidentally there was another difficulty with this prophecy.
Mary named her child not Immanuel, as required by the
prophecy, but Jesus. Not to be discouraged, Christians
sometimes refer to Jesus as Immanuel anyway, especially
at Christmas time when the passage from Isaiah is quoted, providing
another good example of how events can be manipulated to give
the impression that a prophecy has been fulfilled. There is
no reason to suppose that if the prophecy had been about someone
called Darren, then Christians could be referring to Jesus as
Darren with equal facility each Christmas.
In fact Isaiah's original prophecy had been made to King
Ahaz of Judah when he was having some local difficulties with
the neighbouring kingdoms of Syria and Israel. What it means
is that before a newly conceived child called Immanuel
(a name meaning "God is with us") is old enough to
distinguish right from wrong, the King's troubles will
be over. Sure enough within a few years the Assyrians conquered
the kingdoms of Damascus and northern Israel, thus relieving
King Ahaz of his difficulties. The prophecy was thus fulfilled
some 732 years before the birth of Jesus.
The familiar line " ...Unto us a child is born, unto us
a son is given ...", recited at Christmas services
each year is a quotation from Isaiah 9:6 and refers not to Jesus
but to Maher-shalal-hash-baz, a child born in the previous chapter.
Again, the author of the Matthew
gospel explains that the flight to Egypt fulfils a prophecy.
.... that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord
by the prophet, saying, Out of Egypt have I called my son.
The prophecy is to be found in Hosea 11:1:
When Israel was a child, then I loved him, and called my
son out of Egypt.
prophecy does not refer to the Lord, or to any individual. Moreover,
it is phrased in the past tense, and the citation is clearly
selective. In fact, the original text refers to the Exodus from
Egypt led by Moses, an event that had already happened centuries
When Jesus entered Jerusalem for the last time he made a point
of riding on an ass or a colt. The authors of Matthew and John
point out that he did this in fulfilment of a prophecy, which
Matthew 21:5 gives as:
Tell ye the daughter of Sion, Behold, thy King cometh unto
thee, meek, and sitting upon an ass, and a colt the foal of
This is a reference to Zechariah 9:9:
Rejoice greatly O daughter of Zion; shout, O daughter of
Jerusalem: behold thy King cometh unto thee: he is just, and
having salvation; lowly, and riding upon an ass, and upon
a colt the foal of an ass.
As usual the Matthew author is the most keen to match events
to a prophecy, even to the extent that he describes Jesus riding
two animals, an ass and a colt. (This passage later led to the
observation that Jesus had entered Jerusalem "like a circus
clown on the back of two donkeys", an observation that
earned its author nine months" hard labour in 1921-2*.)
The circus act seems to have arisen because whoever wrote the
book of Matthew followed the Greek version of the scriptures
too literally. The original Jewish text employed parallelism,
a poetic technique using repetition. In other words, the original
Hebrew text envisaged only one animal. The Matthew author is
thus caught in the act of arranging New Testament events to
match his faulty understanding of the Old Testament.
Another important point here is that the prophecy concerns not
the heavenly Christ, but an earthly King of the Jews. Also,
as usual, the Matthew author's quotation is not exact.
The author of the John gospel was also keen to match events
to prophecies. According to John (13:18) Jesus chooses Judas
to betray him because of a prophecy:
I speak not of you all: I know whom I have chosen: but that
the scripture may be fulfilled, He that eateth bread with
me hath lifted up his heel against me.
This is a reference to Psalm 41:9:
Yea mine own familiar friend, in whom I trusted, which did
eat of my bread, hath lifted up his heel against me.
Interestingly the John gospel continues an error in the original.
As modern translations acknowledge, the words "lifted up
his heel against" are wrong and should read "betrayed"
or "rebelled against". In Hebrew there is a difference
of only one letter, and the mistake may well have been due to
a scribal error. It seems odd that Jesus should not have noticed
or corrected an error in divine writ.
John (19:33-36) says that the soldiers at the crucifixion did
not break Jesus" legs, as they did the legs of the two
others who were crucified with him. The author presents this
as a fulfilment of a prophecy:
For these things were done, that the scripture should be
fulfilled, A bone of him shall not be broken.
This is a reference to Psalm 34:20:
He keepeth all his bones: not one of them is broken
Unfortunately however the psalm is not referring to the Messiah
but to righteous men, as the rest of the psalm clearly shows.
All four canonical gospels refer to Jesus" garments being
divided amongst the soldiers. Matthew 27:35 says:
And they crucified him, and parted his garments, casting
lots: that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the
prophet, They parted my garments among them, and upon my vesture
did they cast lots.
The words in italicised text are not found in all manuscripts,
only in a few late ones. Someone was clearly trying to embellish
the story by adding text, retrospectively citing a "prophecy"
from Psalm 22:18. Many New Testament events are matched with
this psalm, though with great selectivity. The psalm incidentally
is not intended to be prophetic, but is an account of David's sufferings.
It is relatively easy to select Old Testament passages that
seem to predict current events. In fact with the benefit of
hindsight it is trivially easy. Theologians developed an intricate
web of links between the Old and New Testaments, purportedly
showing that the Old prefigured the New: "The Old Testament
is nothing but the New covered with a veil, and the New is nothing
but the Old unveiled"*.
Thus King David prefigured Jesus, the parting of the Red Sea
prefigured baptism, Noah's ark prefigured the Christian
Church, and so on. Every event was read as prefiguring some
aspect of Christianity, and as one commentator has put it, the
Old Testament became a book of riddles to which in each case
the correct answer was Jesus the Messiah*
All this was possible when the answer was already known with
absolute certainty, but the correct answer was far from obvious
to anyone who did not know what the correct answer had to be.
No one, given only the Old Testament, could conceivably predict
any of the events of the New except with hindsight and
even with hindsight commentators sometimes experienced difficulty
in finding a match. Sometimes the retrospective prefigurations
verge on the bizarre. For example the early Church was embarrassed
by the fact that there was no prophecy concerning the Resurrection.
How could such a central event not have been prefigured? Apart
from a dubious passage in Hosea*,
and some desperate casting around in apocryphal writings, the
only other passage from the Old Testament that could be pressed
into service came from the book of Jonah, since Jonah spent
three days in the belly of a great fish*.
So it was that Christians came to regard Jonah's sojourn
in the belly of a fish as prefiguring the Resurrection, simply
on the strength that it lasted three days.
To illustrate how easy it is to adapt Old Testament passages,
the following paragraphs tell a modern day story with reference
to scriptural prophecies. A short perusal of the Old Testament
has provided suitable quotations. As in the New Testament, no
apologies are made for taking passages out of context, and the
use of capital letters is no more misleading than that in English
translations of the Bible. The subject matter of this little
story, a motorcyclist, is deliberately chosen to make the point
that although the quotations fit well enough they could not
really have been intended to refer to motorcycling. The quotations
are from the Authorised Version:
And it came to pass that Kevin took his motorbike,
a Swift, to the local garage to have it serviced. Kevin
arrived according to the scriptures "an hairy man,
and girt with a girdle of leather"*
and "he had an helmet of brass upon his head"*.
He said to the chief mechanic that he wanted a good
job doing, and the mechanic answered, saying that he
could watch the work. He cited the prophets "be
a witness ... that we might do the service"*.
The mechanic was learned in the scriptures and, seeing
the state of Kevin's dirty trousers, he pointed
to them and quoted from the writings of Moses "what
saddle soever he rideth upon ... shall be unclean"*.
But Kevin rebuked him with words of scripture "speak,
ye that ride on white asses"*.
Kevin beheld an old Triumph motorcycle being refitted
in the garage. The chief mechanic told him that it fulfilled
the words of scripture that there should be a "Triumph
in the works"*.
The mechanic, and his apprentice, Sam, then turned to
Kevin's Swift. Sam asked the chief mechanic how
he should know if there was enough oil in the engine
and again the mechanic answered in the words of scripture
that he should "dip his right finger in the oil"*.
Then the apprentice did as he was bid and, seeing that
the oil was too low he topped it up. And the chief mechanic
said that it was well, for it was written that Samuel
should "take a vial of oil and pour it"*.
Kevin said his motorbike fulfilled the words of the
prophet who had spoken of "the noise of the rattling
of the wheels"*.
Then the chief mechanic looked at the wheels of the
motorbike, and he saw that new tyres were needed. The
apprentice brought forth a large pile of new tyres.
Another mechanic said this must be the "burden
of tyre" of which Isaiah spoke*.
The chief mechanic answered saying that the apprentice
was familiar with tyres because, as the scriptures said
"his father was a man of Tyre"*.
Kevin now pointed out that the horn did not work and
a new one was needed. A mechanic looked in several drawers
and found a small one. Again the chief mechanic said
that it was well because the prophets had written "out
of one of them shall come forth a little horn"*.
And Kevin mentioned that the headlight did not work,
so a mechanic put in a new bulb saying to Kevin, in
the words of the prophet, that when it was switched
on "then shall thy light break forth as the morning"*.
Then said the chief mechanic that all was accomplished.
And Kevin asked of him a bill of reckoning. And when
he saw it he was much astonished. But the mechanic justified
it in the words of scripture "thou knowest my service
which I have done thee"*.
So Kevin got some money out of his wallet and "gave
it to such as did the work of the service" in fulfilment
of the scriptures*.
Kevin departed from that place, and he gave Sam a lift
saying that it was written by the prophet "We will
ride on the Swift"*.
And as they rode they were seen by men in blue who
were versed in the scriptures and quoted "Behold,
one wheel upon the earth"*.
And Kevin accelerated away that the men in blue might
not catch them. And it came to pass that the men in
blue did catch them and they stopped them. The men in
blue greeted them thrice. And they spoke in the words
of the prophets, saying "Get up .... .... and stand
forth with your helmets"*.
Sam said that their being stopped was in fulfilment
of the scriptures, for it is written that "the
race is not to the Swift"*.
All of these quotations are genuine, which is more than can
be said of the New Testament quotations. Quotation marks are
used to show exactly which words are being quoted, as is the
practice in modern translations. In a couple of cases, identified
in footnotes, tenses have been changed but otherwise the wording
is accurate, which again is more than can be said of the New
Clearly, in retrospect, the gospel authors could have justified
whatever they liked by reference to scripture, simply by taking
passages out of context, as above. There is little doubt among
biblical scholars that that is precisely what they did. As most
now acknowledge, the writers of the New Testament found references
to Jesus where none was intended. They copied passages out of
context, contradicted their plain meaning, and altered the wording
to produce the result they wanted. Not a single prophecy cited
in the New Testament is a genuine prophecy quoted in context.
Indeed the New Testament authors and interpreters were far from
accurate or honest. As Robin Lane Fox put it:
When Christians quoted those old prophecies, they used Greek
translations which were untrue to the Hebrew originals: they
ran separate bits of text into one; they twisted the sense
and reference of the nouns (Paul, at Galatians 3:8, is a spectacular
example); they mistook the speakers and the uses of personal
pronouns (John 19:37 or Matthew 27:9); they thought that David
or Isaiah had written what they never wrote (Acts 2 or Acts
8:26); they muddled Jeremiah with Zechariah (Matthew 27:9);
they reread the literal sense and found non-existent allegory
(Paul, to the Galatians at 4:21-3). There are vintage errors
in the famous speech which Acts" author gives to Peter
at Pentecost: Peter tortures bits of Psalms 16 and 132, mistakes
their meaning and context, and quotes them in a poor Greek
translation, although Greek was not the historical Peter's mother tongue and most of his supposed audience would not
have understood a word of it*.
The fact is that the New Testament stories purporting to fulfil
Old Testament prophecies fail every test of their veracity.
the retrospective prophecy is not restricted to biblical texts.
We have already mentioned the Sibylline Oracles, which were
retrospectively edited to make them appear to predict the coming
of Christianity, and many other works were tampered with in
a similar way and for similar motives. Fanciful stories of saints"
lives in books such as the Golden Legend are often
engineered in such a way as to fulfil a prophecy. To take a
simple example: a saint's name, according to the Golden
Legend, almost invariably has an etymology that prophesises
the future of the saint (for example, Christopher =
"christ-bearer"). This was often cited as evidence
of God having arranged the appropriate naming of the infant
saint. Unfortunately, the stated etymologies in the Golden
Legend are almost all factually wrong. They are also often
inconsistent. Different etymologies are often given for different
saints who share the same name, which rather gives the game