(This post is part 7 of the series entitled “Contesting Christianity.” Please see the index for the other posts in this series.)
One of the arguments that Christians use to prove that Jesus was who he said he was is that he fulfilled all of the Messianic prophecies in the Old Testament. As the argument goes, there are hundreds of prophecies that foretell of the Messiah and what he would do, and many of these were even prophecies that Jesus had no control over. He might have been able to control whether he rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, but he couldn’t control where he was to be born! Usually the argument then states that the likelihood of one man fulfilling all these prophecies perfectly is extremely unlikely:
The following probabilities are taken from Peter Stoner in Science Speaks (Moody Press, 1963) to show that coincidence is ruled out by the science of probability. Stoner says that by using the modern science of probability in reference to [just] eight prophecies, “we find that the chance that any man might have lived down to the present time and fulfilled all eight prophecies is 1 in 1017.” That would be 1 in 100,000,000,000,000,000. In order to help us comprehend this staggering probability, Stoner illustrates it by supposing that “we take 1017silver dollars and lay them on the face of Texas. They will cover all of the state two feet deep.
“Now mark one of these silver dollars and stir the whole mass thoroughly, all over the state. Blindfold a man and tell him that he can travel as far as he wishes, but he must pick up one silver dollar and say that this is the right one. What chance would he have of getting the right one? Just the same chance that the prophets would have had of writing these eight prophecies and having them all come true in any one man.” (source)
Of course, because there are more than eight prophecies, the probability is increased, and so we have the argument that Jesus could not possibly have fulfilled all of them by chance.
I am going to take a look at some of the most common Bible passages claimed to be “prophetic” and examine whether they truly do lead us to conclude that Jesus was the Messiah. First, let me be clear that the number of prophecies said to be in the Bible varies depending on who you ask. So I am well aware that I won’t be dealing with all of the passages that people have claimed are prophetic. But I will deal with most of the major ones, and I think that the principles I am using cover the rest pretty well.
“Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the virgin is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.” (Isaiah 7:14)
This is a commonly used prophecy that Christians say foretells the virgin birth. However, there are several difficulties with this interpretation. For starters, although Matthew references this verse to indicate that the prophecy had been fulfilled with Jesus (Matthew 1:23), he was working with the Greek translation of the Scriptures, and this passage is likely improperly translated. In the Hebrew, the word translated here as “virgin” is “ha-almah”, which actually just means “young woman” or “maiden”. It has no specific connotations of virginity. When specifically wanting to refer to a virgin, the Hebrew word is “betulah”. However, when the passage was translated into Greek, the word “parthenos” was used, which does have connotations of virginity. Thus, what is likely a more accurate translation is, “Look, the young woman is with child…”
However, with that issue set aside, the prophecy is also clearly not intended to be a Messianic prophecy anyway. Reading the context of the passage reveals this. At the time it was spoken, King Ahaz, the king of Judah, had the kings of Aram and Israel breathing down his neck. They wanted to attack and destroy Jerusalem, and Ahaz was frightened that they would. Isaiah then comes to Ahaz and tells him that it won’t happen, and that the sign that this prophecy will come true will be a young woman bearing a son and naming him Immanuel. Scholars disagree as to just who the “young woman” was; it might be Ahaz’ wife, or Isaiah’s wife, or some other member of the royal family. But the point is that the child being born was intended to be a sign that the two kings would not succeed. What good would it have done Ahaz if the sign wasn’t to come for another 700 years? Jewish tradition has never considered this passage to be a Messianic prophecy, and it seems clear that reading the actual context makes it a prophecy for that time and place.
As a final point, it’s not clear that Jesus even fits this description anyway. Nowhere in the Bible is it ever indicated that he was called “Immanuel”, and the passage goes on to say, “For before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted” (Isaiah 7:16). If Jesus is the son of God and therefore perfect, what does it mean for him to have learned how to “refuse the evil and choose the good”? One would think he might already know how to do that.
“But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days.” (Micah 5:2)
This prophecy from Micah is used to show that the Messiah was supposed to come from the town of Bethlehem. However, the passage here is most likely not talking about the town of Bethlehem, but the person named Bethlehem. This Bethlehem character was the son of Caleb and his wife, Ephrathah (1 Chronicles 2:50-51). And this passage in Micah indicates that the ruler would come from his clan. Now, perhaps the clan of Bethlehem lived in the town of Bethlehem. It makes sense, but I really don’t know. However, neither Matthew nor Luke mention Jesus as being from the clan of Bethlehem in their genealogies (Matthew 1; Luke 3). Moreover, Jesus never “ruled in Israel”, so it seems the prophecy wouldn’t fit him anyway.
Prophecies of Suffering
“But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed.” (Isaiah 53:5)
This is one of the most well-known prophecies of Jesus, foretelling his death in what seems like eerie detail. It mentions this “servant of God” being wounded, taking on transgressions, being silent before those hurting him, and bearing the sin of many. How could this prophecy be referring to anyone else?
Well, to be honest, this passage is actually quite vague. There are no names, dates, or places mentioned, and words like “wounded” and “afflicted” are pretty ambiguous. If one read this without any knowledge of Jesus, one would get no details like the crucifixion, crown of thorns, etc. It’s only when one already has previous knowledge of the events of Jesus’ death that one can “see” it referring to him. But let’s take a look at some of the details that are there. He is “acquainted with infirmity/grief” (v. 3), a word which is probably more accurate translated as “sickness” or “disease” (see here for details). Verse 4 explicitly mentions that he has “carried our diseases”. Does this sound like Jesus? Did Jesus have a disease like leprosy or something (and if he did, couldn’t he have healed himself)? Verse 7 mentions that “he was afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth.” But we have verses which tell us that Jesus did speak during his trial (Matthew 26:64, for example). Verse 9 says that “they made his grave with the wicked and his tomb with the rich”, but Matthew tells us that Jesus was buried in a “new tomb” (Matthew 27:60), and Luke tells us that it was a tomb “where no one had ever been laid” (Luke 23:53). It is hard to be buried with the wicked or the rich if he was buried with no one at all. Finally, verse 10 tells us that the suffering servant would “see his offspring, and shall prolong his days”. We have no indication that Jesus ever had children, and dying on a cross at around the age of 33 is hardly having one’s days “prolonged”.
So if this passage is not referring to Jesus, who is it referring to? Well, the most obvious answer can be found by reading the rest of Isaiah. Several times, Isaiah refers to Israel (or Jacob) as God’s servant (see, for example, 41:8, 43:1-10, 44:1-2, 44:21, 45:4, 48:20, 49:3). Most likely, then, the servant referenced in chapter 53 is also referring to the nation of Israel—who, indeed, suffered for their sins. I have also read explanations by people who interpret it as being a description of King Uzziah, who was king of Judah right before Isaiah became a prophet. Uzziah at one point angered God and thus he contracted leprosy, and lived out the rest of his life in quarantine. It may be that Isaiah was drawing a parallel between the life of Uzziah and the nation of Israel, and saw the suffering of Uzziah as a punishment for Israel’s sins. This interpretation would explain some of the elements that do not seem to fit the life of Jesus.
“[T]hey pierce my hands and my feet. All my bones are on display; people stare and gloat over me. They divide my clothes among them and cast lots for my garment.” (Psalm 22:16-18)
Another very common Messianic prophecy is Psalm 22. It is said that this provides a very detailed description of Jesus’ death. However, the problem with this (and with all the other prophecies as well) is that the gospel writers had access to these passages when writing their accounts. Nowhere in Psalm 22 is it even indicated that it is intended to be a prophecy. It is very clearly a poem written by (or at least about) David. He suffered for many years, and so he wrote poems about his suffering. But eventually, passages like Isaiah 53 and Psalm 22 came to be seen as archetypes of the “suffering righteous man”. Jews took these passages and would allude to them when describing other individuals, much like we might say that something was a “Herculean task” or that someone was a “Good Samaritan”. So, since the gospel writers were well aware of these passages, it would have been simple enough to include specific references to them when describing the events of Jesus.
It’s not that the gospel writers were lying; they saw Jesus as a righteous man who had suffered and been persecuted, and so they may have added details to make this connection more concrete. Such a desire would explain why Mark puts Psalm 22:1 in Jesus’ mouth: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” It explains why it is mentioned that Jesus’ clothes had lots cast for them (22:18), that his bones were not broken (34:20), and that he was given vinegar to drink (69:21). Sure, okay, it might be the case that the gospel writers wrote every detail down with perfect accuracy and that these details were supernaturally foretold within the life of David as well, but we simply cannot know. We know for sure that the gospel writers had access to the scriptures, and we certainly know that David was a very important figure in Jewish history. Thus it is certainly not a stretch to say that they might have added in a few details here and there, in order to help others make that comparison just as they did.
One final note about this passage is that the reference to “piercing my hands and my feet” (v. 16) is not a certain translation whatsoever. In fact, the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) translates this as, “My hands and feet have shrivelled”, with a note that the “meaning of the Hebrew is uncertain”. The notes for the New International Version (NIV) say that some translations mention something about a lion. Neither one of those have quite the same parallel to Jesus’ death, though, do they?
“Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” (Zechariah 9:9)
This, indeed, is a Messianic prophecy, although it’s one that Jesus could have certainly fulfilled intentionally. That in itself makes it fairly weak evidence, as does the fact that this Messiah was supposed to create “peace to the nations” and a dominion from “sea to sea” (v. 10). Jesus never did these things, although the obvious Christian retort is that he will do so on his second coming.1 Very well; however, that means, then, that Jesus has not truly fulfilled this prophecy yet. All he’s done is ride on a donkey—not an impressive feat when donkeys were the main form of transportation back then.
However, I mostly bring up this prophecy in order to point out an amusing mistake in the gospel of Matthew. Hebrew poetry often uses repetition to convey emphasis; in this passage in Zechariah, it is mentioned that the Messiah will ride on “a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” Zechariah emphasizes the riding on a colt by repeating it in two slightly different ways. However, when Matthew wrote his gospel, he understood it to mean that Jesus rode on a donkey and a colt. Take a look: “The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them” (Matthew 21:6). If one needs more proof of what I said above, about the gospel writers altering the story to make Jesus fit with the Old Testament scriptures, one need look no further. One wonders how Jesus rode on both a donkey and a colt. Did he straddle both? Or did he put one foot on each and stand on them? And we can be reasonably sure it was a mistake of Matthew and not what actually happened, since neither Mark (11:1-10), Luke (19:29-38), nor John (12:12-15) mention two donkeys. Evidently Matthew put Jesus into a bizarre situation in order to fulfill the prophecy as he (mis)read it.
As I’ve gone through each of these major prophecies, I have shown that they typically fall into one or more of the following categories:
- They are not actually Messianic prophecies;
- They are not actually prophecies at all;
- They have been reinterpreted to fit the story of Jesus; or
- They have been used to shape the story of Jesus.
Of course, if you are already of the opinion that the Bible must be inerrant and that Jesus must have fulfilled all the prophecies about him, than these explanations will mean nothing to you. But that is a backwards way of going about things. When reading passages in the Bible, it is important to try and understand what the author originally intended to say. If David was not writing prophecy, then it is ridiculous to interpret his writings as if they were prophecies. Readers are free to do that, of course, but only if they recognize that they have moved from accurately understanding Scripture to confirming their own preconceived beliefs. I think it is telling that most of the prophecies Christians point to as ones that Jesus fulfilled are not actually Messianic prophecies, and the passages that actually are clear Messianic prophecies (such as the ones about bringing everlasting peace and a lasting Jewish nation) are ones that they simply say Jesus will fulfill during his second coming. If Jesus didn’t fulfill any (or very few) of the real prophecies and only fulfilled some passages that have been selectively reinterpreted as prophecies, what does that say about him? What it suggests to me is that perhaps, just perhaps, he isn’t the Messiah that Christians say he is.
- Jesus and Messianic prophecy – A Wikipedia page listing and describing many of the prophecies said to be fulfilled by Jesus.
- Forer effect – A Wikipedia page describing how vague, generic descriptions can be seen as specifically written about a certain person.
- Examination of the Prophecies – An essay by Thomas Paine, one of the founding fathers of the United States, critiquing the Messianic prophecies that are mentioned by the gospel writers.
- Jesus as the Messiah – A Jewish perspective on the prophecies claimed to be about Jesus, by Rabbi Shraga Simmons.
- Of course, some might claim that Jesus did do these things, but in a metaphorical sense. However, such a claim seems to misrepresent the original intention of the author, who is in the middle of a long tirade against the enemies of Judah and how they will be destroyed. To take this passage metaphorically does not seem to do justice to the overall theme of the book, nor to broader Jewish theology about the Messiah as a literal king and conqueror. [↩]