Christian Deceptions 4: The Retrospective Prophesy


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    Beware of false prophets....
    Matthew 7:15


    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 examples.

    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 read:

    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. Matthew 2:15

    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.

    This 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 earlier.

    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 an ass.

    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 Testament.

    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.

    Saint ChristopherIncidentally, 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 away.



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    § The other three canonical gospels, which are less concerned with fulfilling prophecy, have Jesus riding on only one animal. See Mark 11:7, Luke 19:35 and John 12:14.

    §. Alternatively, the Matthew author might have misrepresented Isaiah 1:11, which talks about a shoot. In Hebrew the word for a shoot is N-Tz-R. By supplying his own vowel sounds the author could contort it into Nazarene. See Wells, Religious Postures, pp 236-7, note 17 citing Howard C. Kee, Miracle in the Early Christian World, Yale University Press (New Haven and London, 1983), p 186n.

    §. John William Gott was convicted in 1921, the last man to be imprisoned for blasphemy in Britain. A man in his sixties when he was sent to prison, he died soon after completing his sentence.

    §. St Augustine, City of God, 16, 26.

    §. “Thomas Paine, The Age of Reason" in The Life and Works of Thomas Paine, ed. William M. Van der Weyde, vol. 8, The Age of Reason (New Rochelle, New York: Thomas Paine National Historical Association, 1925,) 6.

    §. The best that churchmen could find was Hosea 6:2 "After two days he will revive us: in the third day he will raise us up, and we shall live in his sight". But the raising up has nothing to do with death. What it is really saying is that God will restore Israel — a meaning which is perfectly clear from the text.

    §. Matthew 12:40 cf. Jonah 1:17.

    §. 2 Kings 1:8.

    §. 1 Samuel 17:5.

    §. Joshua 22:27.

    §. Leviticus 15:9.

    §. Judges 5:10.

    §. Psalm 92:4.

    §. Leviticus 14:16.

    §. 1 Samuel 10:1, tense changed.

    §. Nahum 3:2.

    §. Isaiah 23:1.

    §. 1 Kings 7:14, actually referring to the city of Tyre.

    §. Daniel 8:9, tense changed.

    §. Isaiah 58:8.

    §. Genesis 29:27.

    §. 2 Chronicles 24:12.

    §. Isaiah 30:16.

    §. Ezekiel 1:15.

    §. Jeremiah 46:4.

    §. Ecclesiastes 9:11.

    §. Robin Lane Fox, The Unauthorised Version, 339-340.

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