Supporters of Biblical prophecy assert that the events were correctly predicted beforehand. This is used to bolster claims of the Bible’s authenticity and divine authorship.
The most readily apparent problem is that of a source claiming to be its own confirmation. If a contemporary seer produced writings with specific references to 9/11, Michael Jackson’s date of death, and the Russian invasion of Ukraine, then claimed to have penned all this in 1995, the unsubstantiated nature of this assertion would be obvious. By contrast, if he made a public pronouncement of all this in 1995, and multiple sources were there to document him doing so, this would be substantial proof of his ability.
With the Bible, it is very difficult to determine precisely when its different chapters were written, so it requires a great accommodation to credit prophecies with having been made before the event. But even if the dates could be verified, the nature of Biblical prophecies makes declaring them valid problematic. Correctly predicting the future is an extraordinary claim, so giving credence to this ability requires that the prophecies be precise and about something improbable or unknowable. “A great king shall rise in the east,” is far too vague, while “There will be wars and droughts” describes the history of the world so far, and thus predicting that those calamities will continue requires no special talent.
Several Old Testament prophecies failed to come true, but I will charitably overlook some of these since they COULD still happen. For instance, Egypt could become a barren wasteland, the Nile could still dry up, and Egyptians may eventually adopt the Canaanite language. As an aside, Egyptians take such a beating in the Bible that it’s no wonder they worshipped cats instead.
While the events in these Egyptian-centered prophecies could still be fulfilled, other future visions centered on people who died without the events happening. In the 26th chapter of Ezekiel, God promised Nebuchadnezzar that his raid on Tyre will be so complete that the city will be flattened and forever wiped out. However, Nebuchadnezzar and Tyre reached a compromise after a 13-year war, and the city still stands in Lebanon.
Then In Isaiah 7, God tells the king of Judah he will be protected from his enemies, yet the king suffers harm from them in II Chronicles 28:1-8. When Abram entered Canaan, God promised him in Genesis 12:7 that he would bless his offspring with the land. However, per Hebrews 11:13, they were never given this inheritance. God also told David that Solomon’s descendants will rule in Judah forever (II Samuel 7:13-16). Yet this line ended when the Babylonians overthrew King Zedekiah.
OK, so Biblical writers whiffed on these, but what about the ones that came true? Some sources claim over 300 prophecies have been fulfilled. And they have been, as long as one has an extremely flexible definition of fulfilled and some highly-creative interpretation skills.
For instance, God said of Cyrus in Isaiah 45:1, “whose right hand I have holden, to subdue nations before him I will loose the loins of kings, to open before him the two leaved gates; and the gates shall not be shut.” Some interpret this to refer to Persia invading Babylon, even though neither country is mentioned in this passage, nor is a time frame offered. Accompanying this claim is a second assertion that the prophecy was made 140 years before the attack. However, there is no way to determine this, as Isaiah was written over a period of several decades, including some years in which the tensions between Persia and Babylon were beginning to bubble. In this sense, even a correct prophecy would be no more chilling than an observer predicting the German invasion of Poland in 1937.
Here’s why all this happened. The New Testament authors, particularly of the gospels and Acts, were attempting to market their upstart religion. They were competing against established brands such as Baal, Ra, and Horus. They needed to be distinctive, so they lifted ancient scriptures and twisted them completely out of context and tried to cram it into contemporary events.
The most energetic of these writers was Matthew, who in his shoehorning attempts often got sloppy with the original text. For instance, he alleges that Jesus being born in Bethlehem fulfills Micah 5:2. But that passage reads, “Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel.” So this refers to the Bethlehem Ephrathah clan, not the Israeli city.
Then Matthew 2:15 cites Jesus’ return from Egypt as being the fulfillment of this prophecy: “And there until the death of Herod: that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying, Out of Egypt have I called my son.” This quotes Hosea 1:1, but the entire verse reads, “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.” So Hosea 1:1 is not a prophecy of Jesus leaving Egypt, but a reference to the Israeli exodus.
Next, let’s consider the claim in John 19:37 that Jesus being pierced during his execution fulfilled Zechariah 12:10, which reads, “They shall look on him whom they pierced.” Look, however, at the entire verse: “And I will pour upon the house of David, and upon the inhabitants of Jerusalem, the spirit of grace and of supplications: and they shall look upon me whom they have pierced, and they shall mourn for him, as one mourns for his only son, and shall be in bitterness for him, as one that is in bitterness for his firstborn.” When John cites this verse, he leaves out the word “me.” So this would require the prophecy to have been made by Jesus hundreds of years before his birth, a miracle indeed. Moreover, Zechariah 12 is a tale of an invading Army. No one reading the account at the time it was written would have taken it to be portending a messiah’s flesh wound.
In the second and 13th chapters of Acts, Luke cites Psalms 16:8-10 as evidence of the resurrection. The psalmist had written, “I have set Yahweh always before me: Because He is at my right hand, I shall not be moved. Therefore my heart is glad, and my glory rejoices; My flesh also will rest in hope. For You will not leave my soul in Sheol, Nor will You allow Your Holy One to see corruption.”
This was a first-hand account of a writer’s concern over his current state. There is nothing to indicate it was a prophecy about a man rising again to sit beside God, nor even a suggestion anyone has died.
We see more of this extreme pretzel logic in Matthew 2:18, where the author claims Herod’s order to slaughter all boys two and under was presaged in this verse from Jeremiah: “A voice was heard in Ramah, Lamentation, weeping, and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children, refusing to be comforted, Because they are no more.” Yet, this passage was addressing the Jewish dispersion brought on by the Babylonian occupation, not predicting a mass killing of toddlers. Jeremiah goes onto guarantee the return of these children, eliminating any chance it was referring to murder victims. Matthew was the precursor to Jack Van Impe, as he tried to make any contemporary event fit, no matter how far removed it was from the original context.
Perhaps the most frequently cited prophecy stems from Matthew 1:23, with the claim that Isaiah 7:13-14 foreshadowed the birth of Jesus. However, this verse involved Isaiah talking with King Ahaz about an alliance formed against him by Syria and Israel. (The dude who pulled that off gets my vote for Diplomat of the Millennium).
Isaiah reassures Ahaz that the alliance will fail: “Yahweh Himself will give you a sign: Behold, the virgin shall conceive, and bear a Son, and shall call his name Immanuel.” This stipulated that a baby named Immanuel, born in Ahaz’s time, would be a good luck sign for the king. It is absurd to deduce that this refers to a baby named Jesus born seven centuries later and intended to be good luck for all humanity.
As to the seemingly more relevant virgin birth reference, this is the result of a transcribing error. The Hebrew word for “young woman” was mistranslated as “virgin” when being copied into Greek.
I only found one alleged prophecy that was specific, unknowable beforehand, and which definitely occurred: The assassination of Sennacherib in II Kings. The substantial trouble is that there is no way to determine when it was written. There are some references in II Kings to events that took place after the assassination, so there’s no way to tell if this was a genuine prophecy or a writing made after the fact to make it look like such. As mentioned earlier in the post, there is a glaring problem with a book claiming to be its own confirmation.