Messianic Prophecies?


Born in Bethlehem - Micah 5:2
Born of a Virgin - Isaiah 7:14
Called out of Egypt - Hosea 11:1
Ministry in Galilee - Isaiah 9:1
Enters Jerusalem on a Donkey - Zechariah 9:9
The Time of his Coming - Daniel 9:24-26
The Suffering Servant - Isaiah 53
Crucifixion - Psalm 22
Bones not Broken - Psalm 34:20

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The existence of fulfilled prophecy in the Bible is often touted by apologists as one of the best proofs of the divine inspiration of the book. If it were true that the Bible does in fact contain predictive prophecy that was fulfilled centuries later, this would indeed be a good indication that the book had a supernatural origin. But, does the Bible really contain such prophecies? This section will examine in detail some of the prophecies that were said to have been fulfilled by Jesus Christ.

Whenever we examine a prophecy, two facts will be scrutinized. First, the prophecy itself must be examined in its historical context in order to verify that the author did indeed intend it to be a Messianic prophecy. Generally, we will find that this is not the case. Of course, many apologists are aware of this problem, and so have invented the rule of "double fulfillment". This states that a prophecy often has dual application - one in the immediate future, and another that refers to the Messiah, at a time far distant. It should be obvious that this principle is in no way supported by the text itself, and that it exists solely to explain the problem that the prophecies do not always appear to refer to the Messiah when closely examined.

Secondly, we need to establish that the prophecy was fulfilled in exactly the manner stated. This will present some problems for apologists, for it will become evident that in many cases, the only document that records the fulfillment of the alleged prophecy is the New Testament itself. We therefore run the risk of a circular argument, since it is entirely possible that the New Testament writers were aware of the Old Testament prophecies, and adjusted their histories of Jesus in order to make them fit.

The general attitude to take when approaching the subject of prophecy is one of skepticism. Basically, this position asserts that a prophecy (or, indeed, any miraculous or supernatural event) is, in a sense, guilty until proven innocent. The reason for this approach is simple: it is far easier to be mistaken, deluded, or simply dishonest, than it is for a supernatural event to occur. This means that we must first eliminate these ordinary possibilities before we can conclude that an extraordinary event has taken place. Applied to the subject of Biblical prophecy, we arrive at the following general rules.

First, it is very easy to take a vague statement and turn it into a detailed prophecy. In this category, we find the prophecies of such luminaries as Edgar Cayce and Nostradamus. By and large, these prophecies are so vague and thin on detail that it is very easy to apply them to just about any situation.

Second, it is very easy to take a statement out of its intended context and turn it into a prophecy of an event which the author never envisaged. As we shall see, this problem afflicts many of the Messianic prophecies. A large number of them are statements made in an entirely different context from that to which they are later applied. The onus is then on the believer to demonstrate that the author had exactly this fulfillment in mind.

Third, it is very easy to read details into a statement with the benefit of hindsight. Thus, a prophecy may look far more accurate than it actually is, because we tend to unconsciously fill in the missing details. An excellent example of this phenomenon is the "prophecy" of the Crucifixion found in Psalm 22. A Christian who reads this Psalm will note details such as the phrase "they pierced my hands and feet", and "they cast lots for my clothes", and "they laugh me to scorn", and apply all these statements to the Crucifixion of Jesus. However, if we actually examine the text closely, we find that it is missing many of the most important details that we would expect if it were indeed supposed to be a prophecy of the Crucifixion. For one thing, there is no mention of a cross, nor even of nails. The believer tends to concentrate on the details that fit (the "hits") without consciously realizing that there are many details which don't fit (the "misses"). This is, in fact, a feature of the human psyche in general, and it takes a conscious effort of will to even realize that one is prone to it.

Finally, we note that it is very easy to make up history in order to deliberately "fulfill" a prophecy. As an example, the Evangelists were aware that some Jews believed that the Messiah would be born n Bethlehem, based on a reading of Micah 5:2. They may therefore have "modified" their biographies of Jesus in order for him to "fulfill" this particular prophecy. The fact that the two birth narratives of Matthew and Luke are so very divergent tends to lend credence to this theory. Thus, before we can accept a prophecy and fulfillment as genuine, we must first ask for objective proof that the "fulfilling" event has indeed taken place as stated.

Born in Bethlehem - Micah 5:2

Micah 5:2 But thou, Bethlehem Ephratah, though thou be little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of thee shall he come forth unto me that is to be ruler in Israel; whose goings forth have been from of old, from everlasting.

Matthew 2:4-6 And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he demanded of them where Christ should be born. And they said unto him, In Bethlehem of Judaea: for thus it is written by the prophet, And thou Bethlehem, in the land of Juda, art not the least among the princes of Juda: for out of thee shall come a Governor, that shall rule my people Israel.

John 7:42 Hath not the scripture said, That Christ cometh of the seed of David, and out of the town of Bethlehem, where David was?

The New Testament claims that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, in fulfillment of Micah 5:2. In order to judge the accuracy of this claim, we need to establish two facts. First, is this in fact what Micah prophesied, and secondly, was Jesus actually born in Bethlehem?

In order to answer the first question, we need to take a closer look at the context of Micah 5:2. The book of Micah claims that it was written in the days of Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah, kings of Judah (1:1), that is, about 742 to 687 BCE. This seems to fit the general tone of chapters 1-3, which speak of a coming destruction of Samaria and Jerusalem in somewhat vague terms. The style and theme of chapters 4-5, however, is markedly different, and has led many scholars to conclude that these chapters were written by a much later author. In chapters 4-5, the place of Exile is said to be Babylon (4:10). Like second Isaiah, Micah 4-5 is structured around the theme of restoration. These chapters are in fact a commentary and expansion on Isaiah 2:2-5, which is quoted almost verbatim at the start of chapter 4.

Like Isaiah, Micah looks forward to a time when the kingdom will be restored and unified. Of necessity, this will require the restoration of the Davidic line of kings (4:9). With this in mind, we can turn once again to the start of Micah 5, and see if we can figure out what Micah is trying to say.

Who is the subject of these verses? The Messianic interpretation is partly correct: Micah sees a king once more on the throne of Israel, a king, moreover, descended from the line of David. And it is this that gives us a clue to the interpretation of 5:2. The phrase "Bethlehem Ephratah" is a reference not only to the town of Bethlehem, but also to the clan of Ephratah which originated in that town. It is thus quite likely that Micah 5:2 refers backwards, to the origins of the Davidic line, which the prophet then sees stretching forward into eternity. The Bible makes it quite clear that it was David himself who was born in Bethlehem, of the clan of Ephratah.

I Samuel 17:12 Now David was the son of that Ephrathite of Bethlehemjudah, whose name was Jesse...

A second, but related possibility is that Micah was referring not to the town of Bethlehem, but rather to the man Bethlehem, the grandson of Caleb by his wife Ephratah.

I Chronicles 2:50-51 These were the sons of Caleb the son of Hur, the firstborn of Ephratah...Salma the father of Bethlehem...

In this context, the phrase "Bethlehem Ephratah" refers to the clan from which David sprang, not specifically a geographic location. This interpretation receives support from the Septuagint, which reads "...Bethlehem, house of Ephratah...". In addition, the word translated "thousands" in the KJV rendering of Micah 5:2 is elsewhere used in the sense of "clans" (Joshua 22:30). Most modern versions translate this phrase in Micah as "...though you are little among the clans of Judah...".

It seems that Matthew was not above misquoting the Old Testament in order to support his views. Note that he dropped the word "Ephratah" from his quote of Micah (Matthew 2:6).

That Micah had David in mind seems to be supported by his turn of phrase in 5:4, where the ideal King is said to "...shepherd his flock in the strength of Yahweh...". This recalls the words that Samuel spoke to David, when he was anointed King over the united Kingdom in Hebron.

II Samuel 5:2 (NIV) ...And the Lord said to you, `You will shepherd my people Israel, and you will become their ruler.'"

If we assume that Micah was in fact referring to David as the originator of the Royal line, how are we to understand the phrase "...whose origins are from of old, from ancient times..."? This is most likely a reference to the fact that the Davidic house was established centuries in the past, from the perspective of the author. (The KJV has "from everlasting" in this verse, but the Hebrew word olam can also mean "ancient times", as in Deuteronomy 32:7, where it is translated "days of old".)

Micah may also be referring to the fact that the Jews understood the Davidic line to be the fulfillment of several promises made by God to the Patriarchs.

Genesis 49:10 (NIV) The scepter will not depart from Judah, nor the ruler's staff from between his feet, until he comes to whom it belongs and the obedience of the nations is his.

Numbers 24:17 (NIV) "I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near. A star will come out of Jacob; a scepter will rise out of Israel. He will crush the foreheads of Moab, the skulls of all the sons of Sheth.

So, it seems that Micah 5:2 is in fact a prediction of the restoration of the Royal Davidic line, the line which originated in Bethlehem, of the clan of Ephratah. If, as many claim, this is in fact a prophecy of Jesus, it has to be asked at what time Jesus was a "ruler in Israel"? Obviously, he never was a ruler in his lifetime. Christians tend to claim that this part of the verse has yet to be fulfilled, and will come to pass in the future kingdom of God, when Christ rules over all the world.

The logical flaw present in this reasoning is that claiming a future fulfillment automatically invalidates the prophecy, since, obviously, it has not yet come to pass, and there is no assurance that it will. Micah 5:2 therefore remains an unfulfilled prediction, from the Christian point of view.

The same problem presents itself in 5:3, where the prophet speaks of the re-unification of Israel. The phrase "rest of his brothers" is probably a reference to the Northern tribes, who were lost in the Assyrian conquest during the eighth century BCE. Obviously, Jesus never reunited Judah with the Northern tribes, and it now seems that he never will. These tribes are long extinct, having been assimilated into the Assyrian race thousands of years ago.

The second point that needs to be established is whether Jesus was in fact born in Bethlehem. This may seem a very strange question to a Christian, to whom the answer is self-evident, but it is in fact a valid concern. Of all the books of the New Testament, only two, the gospels of Matthew and Luke, record the fact that Jesus was born in Bethlehem. Paul never once refers to this fact, even though it would have strengthened his claim that Jesus was a descendant of David (Romans 1:3). The gospels of Mark and John also never record that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, and John seems to indicate that those who knew Jesus and his family thought that he was born in Galilee.

John 7:27-28 (NIV) But we know where this man is from; when the Christ comes, no one will know where he is from." Then Jesus, still teaching in the temple courts, cried out, "Yes, you know me, and you know where I am from..."
John 7:41-42 (NIV) Others said, "He is the Christ." Still others asked, "How can the Christ come from Galilee? Does not the Scripture say that the Christ will come from David's family and from Bethlehem, the town where David lived?"

Christians will often counter that these people were simply mistaken in their belief that Jesus was born in Galilee. However, it seems strange that John never corrected their perception for the benefit of his readers. Further, Jesus himself confirmed in 7:28 that their knowledge of his origin was correct.

What about the birth narratives of Matthew and Luke? A cursory examination of these two stories will quickly reveal that they are completely different. Matthew begins with Joseph and Mary living in a house in Bethlehem, were Jesus was born (2:1 and 2:11). Following the threats of Herod, Joseph fled to Egypt with his family (2:13-14), and remained there until Herod died (2:15). Upon learning that Herod's son reigned in his place, Joseph decided not to return to Bethlehem (2:22), but instead took his family to Nazareth (2:23).

Luke, on the other hand, begins his story with Mary and Joseph living in Nazareth. In order to comply with a Roman census, Joseph takes the pregnant Mary to Bethlehem (2:4-5), where Jesus was born in a barn, as there was no room at the local inn (2:6-7). Following the birth, Joseph took his family to the Temple in Jerusalem (2:22) and then returned to his home in Nazareth (2:39).

It should be obvious that the only point that these two stories have in common is that they both claim that Jesus was born in Bethlehem. Aside from that, all the characters and events in these two stories are completely different. They are even set ten years apart in chronology. This raises the suspicion that these birth narratives were in fact concocted simply to bolster the claim that Jesus was the promised Messiah, in accordance with the Christian understanding of Micah 5:2.

To summarize therefore, this prophecy fails on two counts: we cannot be sure that Micah intended his prediction to mean that a future king would be born in Bethlehem, and we also cannot be certain that Jesus was born in Bethlehem. We have further seen that parts of Micah 5:2 remain unfulfilled, according to the Christian interpretation.

Born of a Virgin - Isaiah 7:14

Isaiah 7:14 Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.

Matthew 1:22-23 Now all this was done, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying, Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us.

This is a fairly famous prophecy, which the New Testament claims was fulfilled in the birth of Jesus to Mary, a virgin. In fact, a cursory examination of the context of Isaiah 7:14 will quickly reveal that it was not intended to a Messianic prophecy at all.

The first point to note is that Isaiah did not use the word "virgin" in his prophecy. He actually used the Hebrew word almah, which simply indicates a young women. Had Isaiah intended to unambiguously designate the woman as sexually pure, he could have used the word bethulah, which does denote a sexually pure woman. In fact, Isaiah did use this word in 23:12, where he refers to the "virgin daughter of Zidon". To verify that bethulah properly denotes a virgin, compare it's use in passages such as Genesis 24:16 and Judges 21:12. A longer passage from Deuteronomy will show that bethulah had the narrow sense of "virgin", which Christians claim for almah. (This passage uses the word bethulim, the masculine form of bethulah to denote the adjective "virginity").

Deuteronomy 22:13-21 (NIV) If a man takes a wife and, after lying with her, dislikes her and slanders her and gives her a bad name, saying, "I married this woman, but when I approached her, I did not find proof of her virginity [bethulim] ," then the girl's father and mother shall bring proof that she was a virgin [bethulim] to the town elders at the gate. The girl's father will say to the elders, "I gave my daughter in marriage to this man, but he dislikes her. Now he has slandered her and said, `I did not find your daughter to be a virgin [bethulim].' But here is the proof of my daughter's virginity [bethulim]." Then her parents shall display the cloth before the elders of the town, and the elders shall take the man and punish him. They shall fine him a hundred shekels of silver and give them to the girl's father, because this man has given an Israelite virgin [bethulah] a bad name. She shall continue to be his wife; he must not divorce her as long as he lives. If, however, the charge is true and no proof of the girl's virginity [bethulim] can be found, she shall be brought to the door of her father's house and there the men of her town shall stone her to death. She has done a disgraceful thing in Israel by being promiscuous while still in her father's house. You must purge the evil from among you.

(As an aside, this whole episode clearly shows how the Israelite laws were intended to protect the mysoginistic patriarchal society. Note that if the man is found to be false, he receives a public whipping and a fine, to be paid to the girl's father, while the wife receives death if she is found to be dissembling).

There is one possible case where almah is used in a sense that probably does not denote virginity. This is in Proverbs 30:19.

Proverbs 30:19 ...the way of an eagle in the sky, the way of a snake on a rock, the way of a ship on the high seas, and the way of a man with a maiden [almah].

Whatever the exact meaning of this phrase, it should be clear that the "way of a man with a maiden" is not completely compatible with the concept of sexual purity. This is further corroborated by the fact that the very next verse goes on to speak about an adulteress.

The RSV correctly translates Isaiah 7:14 as "Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, a young woman shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanu-el."

The New Jerusalem Bible translates Isaiah 7:14 as "The Lord will give you a sign in any case: It is this: the young woman is with child and will give birth to a son whom she will call Immanuel."

The Greek translation of the Old Testament, the Septuagint, mistranslated Isaiah 7:14 with the Greek word parthenos, which does denote a virgin. Since Matthew probably used the Greek scriptures, this may have been the source of his error.

If Isaiah did not refer to a virgin, then what was the "sign" of his prophecy? As Isaiah himself explains, the sign was the child who was to be born. This was a favorite literary device of Isaiah. He would introduce a child into his story, and then use the name of the child to elaborate upon his theme. In chapter 8, Isaiah introduces a child with the unlikely name of Maher-shalal-hash-baz. (Some commentators note that this child may in fact be the same as Immanuel of 7:14, but this point is debatable). Loosely translated, the name means "speed the spoil, hasten the booty" in Hebrew, and Isaiah uses it to pronounce his prophecy of impending doom upon Damascus and Samaria at the hands of the Assyrians (8:4). In chapter 9, Isaiah introduces another child with an even longer name (9:6), which is translated "God is wonderful, a counselor, mighty, the father of eternity, the prince of peace". Isaiah uses this name to introduce his theme of the eventual restoration of the Davidic kingdom (9:7).

And so it is in chapter 7 that Isaiah introduces a child with the name of Immanuel. This name means "God is with us", and Isaiah used it in the sense of "God is on our side" to predict that the alliance between Syria and Israel formed against Judah (7:1) would fail. In fact, Isaiah even put a time limit on his prophecy. In verse 16, he states that "...before the child shall know to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land that you dread will be forsaken by both her kings." The Jews put the age of accountability at about eight years, so we may therefore assume that Isaiah expected his prediction to be fulfilled within this time limit. (It is also not clear that Isaiah's prophecy came true. II Chronicles 28 seems to indicate that Azah was indeed defeated by the kings of Israel and Syria).

To summarize: Isaiah does not refer to a virgin, nor does he expect his prophecy to be fulfilled centuries in the future. He gave his sign at a specific time for a specific purpose. That epoch had long since passed by the time that Matthew thought to use Isaiah out of context to lend credibility to his Messiah.

Further reading:
Dual Prophecy and the Virgin Birth - by Rabbi Singer

Called out of Egypt - Hosea 11:1

Hosea 11:1 When Israel was a child, then I loved him, and called my son out of Egypt.

Matthew 2:14-15 When he arose, he took the young child and his mother by night, and departed into Egypt: And was 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.

Matthew is the only Evangelist to use Hosea 11:1 as a Messianic prophecy, and with good reason: it is hard to find a more blatant misuse of an Old Testament passage anywhere in the Christian Bible. The very verse quoted by Matthew quickly establishes that Hosea never intended this verse as a Messianic prophecy. It is, in fact, a remembrance of the time when Israel was rescued out of Egypt by God. It has nothing whatsoever to do with a coming Messiah.

It also has not been established that Jesus ever spent any time in Egypt. Matthew is the only New Testament writer to record this incident, and his chronology contradicts that of Luke, who states that Joseph took his family back to Nazareth no more than fifty days after Jesus was born, and never mentions any Egyptian sojourn. It appears that we have here one more example of Matthew making up events in Jesus' life to conform to his own perception of Old Testament prophecy.

Ministry in Galilee - Isaiah 9:1

Isaiah 9:1-2 Nevertheless the dimness shall not be such as was in her vexation, when at the first he lightly afflicted the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, and afterward did more grievously afflict her by the way of the sea, beyond Jordan, in Galilee of the nations. The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light: they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined.

Matthew 4:12-16 Now when Jesus had heard that John was cast into prison, he departed into Galilee; And leaving Nazareth, he came and dwelt in Capernaum, which is upon the sea coast, in the borders of Zabulon and Nephthalim: That it might be fulfilled which was spoken by Esaias the prophet, saying, The land of Zabulon, and the land of Nephthalim, by the way of the sea, beyond Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles; The people which sat in darkness saw great light; and to them which sat in the region and shadow of death light is sprung up.

In order to judge the accuracy of this prophecy, we must once again look at the source passage in its historical context. Isaiah places this prophecy in the days of king Ahaz of Judah and king Pekah of Israel (7:1), which would have been between 732 and 734 BCE. At this time, the Assyrian king Tiglath-pileser attacked the outlying Northern cities of Israel, and took captives back to Assyria.

II Kings 15:29 In the days of Pekah king of Israel came Tiglathpileser king of Assyria, and took Ijon, and Abelbethmaachah, and Janoah, and Kedesh, and Hazor, and Gilead, and Galilee, all the land of Naphtali, and carried them captive to Assyria.

With this background in mind, it is not difficult to see what Isaiah was talking about in chapter 9. The first section of this chapter predicts a reunification of the Davidic kingdom. Isaiah foresees the restoration of the outlying parts of Israel to the kingdom (9:4), and the re-establishment of the royal line of David over the united kingdom (9:7). Isaiah speaks of this ideal king in 9:6, another passage that is a favorite of Christian apologists, although it was never used as such by any of the New Testament writers. (Some commentaries suggest that Isaiah may have had Ahaz's son, Hezekiah, in mind. This point is debatable. What is true is that the titles applied to the ideal king in 9:6 are similar to honorific titles of the Egyptian kings).

Although Isaiah did not give a time limit to this prophecy, we should note that no king of the line of David has ever ruled over a united Israel since the days of Solomon. If this passage does in fact apply to Jesus, as Christians insist, we might ask at what point he restored Galilee to the Davidic kingdom?

Enters Jerusalem on a Donkey - Zechariah 9:9

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.

Matthew 21:4-5 All this was done, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet, saying, 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.

Unlike the other so-called Messianic prophecies, Zechariah 9:9 may be one of the few that were indeed intended to refer to the coming Messiah. Chapters 9 to 12 of Zechariah present many problems for the interpreter. They differ markedly in style and theme from the previous eight chapters, and most scholars tend to regard this section as the work of a later, unknown author. It is also very hard to pin down a consistent theme in this section of Zechariah, since the author tends to flit from one subject to another with no obvious purpose in mind.

However, most commentators agree that these chapters do indeed concern the coming Messiah, and thus 9:9 may indeed be a valid prophecy.

That it was fulfilled by Jesus is also fairly certain. All four of the gospels record the event with only minor discrepancies (Matthew has Jesus riding on two animals - evidently, he misread the Septuagint version of Zechariah 9:9). Thus, if we assume that the gospels are accurate, we can be fairly confident that this prophecy was in fact fulfilled by Jesus.

It should be noted, however, that by its very nature, this prophecy could also be deliberately fulfilled with relative ease. The fact that Jesus orchestrated the entire event, and that Matthew refers back to Zechariah seems to endorse this view. Thus, even if Zechariah 9:9 is a legitimate prophecy, and even if Jesus did fulfill the prophecy, it doesn't really have any great significance.

The Time of his Coming - Daniel 9:24-26

Daniel 9:24-26 Seventy weeks are determined upon thy people and upon thy holy city, to finish the transgression, and to make an end of sins, and to make reconciliation for iniquity, and to bring in everlasting righteousness, and to seal up the vision and prophecy, and to anoint the most Holy. Know therefore and understand, that from the going forth of the commandment to restore and to build Jerusalem unto the Messiah the Prince shall be seven weeks, and threescore and two weeks: the street shall be built again, and the wall, even in troublous times. And after threescore and two weeks shall Messiah be cut off, but not for himself: and the people of the prince that shall come shall destroy the city and the sanctuary; and the end thereof shall be with a flood, and unto the end of the war desolations are determined.

The seventy weeks of Daniel has long been a source of much speculation among Biblical interpreters. Sir Robert Anderson, in his book "The Coming Prince", published in 1894, gave an interpretation of this passage that is still very popular with conservative Christians.

It is generally agreed by scholars that the seventy weeks refer to seventy weeks of years, or 490 years. Thus, Daniel appears to be saying that the Messiah would come sixty-nine weeks (483 years) after the "commandment to restore and build Jerusalem". Anderson started by trying to locate this decree that Daniel referred to in verse 25. There are four such decrees recorded in the Bible - the decree of Cyrus to rebuild the Temple, given in 538 BCE (Ezra 1:1), a decree of Darius I to allow work to continue on the Temple, given in 517 BCE (Ezra 6:6-12), a decree of Artaxerxes I to allow some of the Jews in his kingdom to return to Jerusalem to assist with the rebuilding of the Temple, given in 458 BCE (Ezra 7:11-26), and finally, another decree of Artaxerxes I to allow Nehemiah to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the city itself, given in 445 BCE (Nehemiah 2:1-8).

Of these, Anderson reasoned, only the fourth actually mentions the city itself, as required by Daniel 9:25. This then becomes the starting point of Daniel's sixty-nine weeks. From 445 BCE, 483 years takes us to about 37 CE, which seems a little late for Jesus. In order to get around this problem, Anderson noted that the Jews used a lunar calendar of twelve months by thirty days, or 360 days. This view seems to be reinforced by Revelation 11:2-3, where forty-two months is said to be 1,260 days. Using a year of 360 days, the sixty-nine weeks come out to 32 CE, which, says Anderson, corresponds to the year that Jesus was crucified.

There are several problems with this approach. To begin with, the Jews did not simply use a lunar year of 360 days. Such a calendar would quickly get out of sync with the solar year, leading to severe problems for farmers. To counter this, an extra lunar month was added every two or three years to arrive at an average year of 365 days.

Another problem relates to the choice of the decree of Artaxerxes I given in 445 BCE. A close reading of Nehemiah 2:1-8 will fail to turn up any reference to such a decree. All we find is that Artaxerxes gave Nehemiah letters of safe conduct, and permission to use lumber from the royal forests to assist in the rebuilding project that was already underway.

To what, then, does Daniel's seventy weeks actually refer? The answer to this question is not easily found, for several reasons. Among these are the fact that the Hebrew text of Daniel 9 appears to be corrupt. The Jerusalem Bible, for example, notes that one or more words seem to be missing from verse 26, making translation very difficult. To compound this problem, Daniel seems to display some confusion about the Persian period. For example, he claims in chapter 11 that there would be four Persian kings before the coming of Alexander the Great. In fact, there were nine. Since this period makes up part of Daniel's seventy weeks, it is not possible to determine how long Daniel though the Persian period was.

If we look at Daniel 9 in context, however, we can make an educated guess as to its intended meaning. We should note first of all, for reasons that are given elsewhere, that internal and external evidence points to a date of the late second century BCE for the book of Daniel. More specifically, the book of Daniel was written in about 164 BCE, in response to the persecutions visited upon the Jews by the Seleucid king Antiochus IV Epiphanes. The actions of the "prince that shall come" in Daniel 9:26 match the atrocities of Antiochus.

A further problem is raised by the fact that Christians tend to read this passage with a pre-conceived bias. When they see the word "Messiah", they automatically assume that Daniel must have been referring to Jesus. This is not so. The word "Messiah" simply means an anointed one, and can refer either to a king or to a priest. It should further not be assumed that Daniel was referring to the same person in verses 25 and 26. He may have been stating that seven weeks would result in "an anointed one, a prince" (9:25), and sixty-two weeks would result in "an anointed one" who shall be "cut off" (9:26). There is no reason to assume that these two Messiahs are the same person.

The KJV translation of verse 25 has further confused the issue. The word that the King James committee chose to translate "commandment" in fact simply means "word", and it is the same noun that Daniel used in 9:2 when he refers to the "word of the Lord" that came to Jeremiah. And it is this fact that gives us a clue to the meaning of the seventy weeks.

Daniel says that he was reading the book of Jeremiah, specifically the part where Jeremiah predicted that the Israelites would be in bondage for seventy years (Jeremiah 25:11-12). To a Jew living at the time that the Babylonian exile ended, this might have seemed plausible. However, to a Jew living during the Hellenistic period, as the author of Daniel was, Jeremiah's prophecy seemed like a bitter irony. The decree of Cyrus to allow the captives to return to Jerusalem had not resulted in independence for the Jews. The Persians maintained a firm hold on Palestine for the next two centuries, as did the Greeks after them. How then was Daniel to understand Jeremiah's prophecy?

Daniel re-interprets the prophecy to be seventy weeks of years, or 490 years of servitude (9:24). The starting point of this period was the "word" that came to Jeremiah concerning the rebuilding of Jerusalem (Jeremiah 30:17-18). The first seven weeks was the approximately forty-nine years that the Jews spent in Babylon (587 to 536 BCE). The first "anointed one" was probably Cyrus, who is called the Lord's Messiah by second Isaiah (44:28). It is not clear from verses 25 and 26 whether the next sixty-two weeks were to follow the seven, or to start at the same time as the first seven. Given Daniel's confusion about the Persian period, it is not really possible to answer this question. In any case, it appears that Daniel intended the next sixty-two weeks to end in his own time, with the murder of the high priest Onias III in 171 BCE. The final seven weeks would result in the defeat and death of Antiochus, from 171 to 164 BCE. As it happens, Daniel was almost right. Antiochus died in Persia in 163 BCE, and Judea gained a temporary period of independence under the Hasmonean dynasty until the coming of the Romans in 63 BCE.

So, to sum up, there is no good reason to assume that Daniel 9 is a prophecy of Jesus. In order to do so, one has to ignore the separation of the sixty-nine weeks into seven and sixty-two (some scholars claim that the seven weeks saw the end of prophecy with the book of Malachi, but this view is generally rejected by most commentators), and further insert a gap of unspecified duration between the sixty-ninth and the seventieth week, since it is clear that the crucifixion of Jesus was not followed by the end of the world, as the Christian reading of Daniel 9 would indicate.

Further Reading:
Revealing Daniel


The Suffering Servant - Isaiah 53

Isaiah 53:3-5 He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed.

Acts 8:32-35 The place of the scripture which he read was this, He was led as a sheep to the slaughter; and like a lamb dumb before his shearer, so opened he not his mouth: In his humiliation his judgment was taken away: and who shall declare his generation? for his life is taken from the earth. And the eunuch answered Philip, and said, I pray thee, of whom speaketh the prophet this? of himself, or of some other man? Then Philip opened his mouth, and began at the same scripture, and preached unto him Jesus.

John 12:37-38 But though he had done so many miracles before them, yet they believed not on him: That the saying of Esaias the prophet might be fulfilled, which he spake, Lord, who hath believed our report? and to whom hath the arm of the Lord been revealed?

The Song of the Servant, the fifty-third chapter of Isaiah is probably the passage most often presented as startling proof of the inspiration of the Bible, and of the Messiahship of Jesus. And, at first blush, the passage does seem to be remarkably accurate. It speaks of a servant who was "despised, and rejected of men" (53:3), who has "borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows" (53:4), who was "wounded for our transgressions", "bruised for our iniquities" (53:5) and "the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all" (53:6). We are further told that he "made his grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death" (53:9), and the Lord will "make his soul an offering for sin" (53:10). All this seems like an extremely prescient synopsis of Jesus' earthly career. But is it really so clear? We have to ask why so many Jewish people down through the centuries have rejected Jesus as the Messiah, if their own scriptures testify of him so clearly? Is there perhaps another interpretation of this passage?

In order to correctly divine the meaning of this passage, we have to take note of the historical context in which it appears. The second part of Isaiah, from chapter 40 to 55, is generally thought to be the work of a later author, commonly designated deutero-Isaiah. The reasons for this designation are far too complex to go into here, but it should be noted that the name "Isaiah" does not appear anywhere in this section. Nor is this section thematically related to the first thirty-nine chapters of Isaiah. Whereas proto-Isaiah saw the destruction of Israel as imminent, and the restoration in the future, deutero-Isaiah speaks of the destruction in the past (42:24-25), and the restoration as imminent (43:1-9). (Notice, for example, the change in temporal perspective from 39:6-7, where the Babylonian Captivity is cast far in the future, to 43:14, where the Israelites are spoken of as already in Babylon). For this, and other reasons, scholars generally date this second part of Isaiah to about 536 BCE, when Cyrus the Persian first gave permission for the Jews to return back to Israel (Ezra 1:1, Isaiah 44:28, 45:1).

The theme of second Isaiah is jubilation, a song of celebration at the imminent end of the Babylonian Captivity (42:9-10). It is in this setting that we find the Song of the Servant, chapter fifty-three. (In fact, chapter 53 is actually the fourth of a quartet of "servant songs". The others are 42:1-9, 49:1-6 and 50:4-9). Who, then, was this servant of whom deutero-Isaiah speaks? It is evident that the word is used in two different ways. First, it is used by deutero-Isaiah to apply to himself, as the servant of God (49:5). The word is used overwhelmingly, however, by the poet to refer to the nation Israel itself.

Isaiah 41:8-9 But thou, Israel, art my servant, Jacob whom I have chosen, the seed of Abraham my friend. Thou whom I have taken from the ends of the earth, and called thee from the chief men thereof, and said unto thee, Thou art my servant; I have chosen thee, and not cast thee away.
Isaiah 44:1 Yet now hear, O Jacob my servant; and Israel, whom I have chosen...Thus saith the Lord that made thee, and formed thee from the womb, which will help thee; Fear not, O Jacob, my servant...
Isaiah 44:21 Remember these, O Jacob and Israel; for thou art my servant: I have formed thee; thou art my servant: O Israel, thou shalt not be forgotten of me.
Isaiah 49:3 ...Thou art my servant, O Israel, in whom I will be glorified.

It should be abundantly clear, then, that the servant is the nation Israel. When we combine these two facts, the fact that the theme of second Isaiah is the restoration of of Israel after Exile, and the fact that the servant is the nation Israel itself, we then find that the meaning of the Song of the Servant, in chapter 53, becomes clear.

Why Isaiah chose to use the third person is not immediately obvious. Some have suggested that the Song is written from the perspective of the gentile nations. This is certainly the case in 52:15 (the fourth Song of the Servant actually starts at 52:13). Here, the nations are said to be astonished at the restoration of Israel. Another interpretation is that deutero-Isaiah is speaking of the generation that went into Exile so many years ago as "him", and the generation that is now returning to Israel as "us". In this sense, the poet casts the former generation in the role of a sin-offering (53:10), who were punished for the sins of the nation (53:5-6) so that the later generation could be forgiven and restored (53:11).

This interpretation, while not without its flaws, is still better than the Christian view, which does not fit the context of Isaiah 52-54, and further is not supported by some statements in the Song itself. For example, verse 10 states that the Servant will live a long life, and have many children. It should be fairly obvious that Jesus died at a young age, and never had any children. Christian apologists often claim that this verse is symbolic, that it refers to Jesus' resurrection, and the establishment of the Christian Church. It has not been explained why we are required to take the rest of Isaiah 53 literally, but this one verse as allegorical.

Further reading:
Did Jesus have a long life? - from Rabbi Singer

Crucifixion - Psalm 22

Psalm 22:1 My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? why art thou so far from helping me, and from the words of my roaring?
Psalm 22:7-8 All they that see me laugh me to scorn: they shoot out the lip, they shake the head, saying, He trusted on the Lord that he would deliver him: let him deliver him, seeing he delighted in him.
Psalm 22:16,18 For dogs have compassed me: the assembly of the wicked have inclosed me: they pierced my hands and my feet...They part my garments among them, and cast lots upon my vesture.

Mark 15:24 And when they had crucified him, they parted his garments, casting lots upon them, what every man should take.
Mark 15:29-31 And they that passed by railed on him, wagging their heads, and saying, Ah, thou that destroyest the temple, and buildest it in three days, Save thyself, and come down from the cross. Likewise also the chief priests mocking said among themselves with the scribes, He saved others; himself he cannot save.
Mark 15:34 And at the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, saying, Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani? which is, being interpreted, My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?

Psalm 22 is another favorite passage that apologists will often point to as a fulfillment of prophecy. This is a little curious, however, because nowhere in this psalm does the poet give any indication at all that he is predicting the future. On the face of it, this psalm is another prayer for deliverance, like psalm 28, 30, 35 etc. As with most of David's deliverance psalms, this song follows the same structure. First, the poet recounts his present distress, and pleads for divine help (1-21). The psalm then ends with a song of rejoicing and praise to God (22-31).

What can we say about the Christian interpretation of this psalm as a prophecy of Jesus' crucifixion? First, we should note that the psalm nowhere actually mentions the act of crucifixion. This is not too surprising, since this form of execution was probably unknown in David's time (assuming he was the author - this point is disputed by some scholars). The closest that we can come is verse 16, which states that they "..pierced my hands and feet...". This phrase actually still does not necessarily refer to crucifixion. There is no mention, for example, of nails or a cross. Since the poet mentioned dogs in this same verse, he may have been referring to animal bites. Some commentators speculate that this verse is a reference to demonic creatures of pagan mythology who brought disease to men, such as the Seven Udugs of Sumerian literature (probably the same myth that is reflected in Psalm 91:5-6). This explanation is bolstered by the fact that verses 14 and 15 obviously refer to a fever.

The interpretation of verse 16 is further complicated by the fact that the Hebrew text appears to be corrupt at this point. Most Hebrew manuscripts have the word "lion" in place of "pierced", which does not seem to make any sense in the context. The New Jerusalem Bible translates verse 16 as "...a gang of villains closing in on me, as if to hack off my hands and feet...". The footnote reads "Hebr. ka'ari 'as a lion', unintelligible; Gk 'they have dug into'; Syr. 'they have wounded'." The NIV note at this verse reads "Some Hebrew manuscripts, Septuagint and Syriac; most Hebrew manuscripts like the lion...".

A further point is that it seems strange that none of the Evangelists quoted this verse as being fulfilled by Jesus. John quoted verse 18 in reference to Jesus' clothes, and quoted Zechariah 12:10 in reference to Jesus' side being pierced by a sword, but never quoted Psalm 22:16 with regard to Jesus' crucifixion. Nor do any of the other gospels quote this verse. It seems likely that the Old Testament version that the Evangelists used did not have this particular rendering.

What about the parting of the clothes (verse 18)? In fact, this was actually standard practice for an executed criminal. The psalmist is no doubt telling us that his enemies already considered him dead. That Jesus was executed as a criminal is also stated in the gospels. We should not therefore be too surprised that his executioners divided his clothes among themselves. They probably did the same with the other two thieves that were crucified with him.

If the Christian interpretation is to hold, one wonders how verse 10 is to be resolved. The psalmist here states that God was with him from the moment of his birth. This makes sense for a purely human protagonist, but it is hard to reconcile with the notion of a pre-existent, divine Messiah.

To sum up, then, we have several problems: first, there is no indication that this psalm was intended to be prophetic. It follows the theme and structure of a number of David's other Songs of Deliverance. Second, the psalm does not unambiguously refer to crucifixion. There are other interpretations, which better fit the context of the poem. Finally, there are elements of the psalm that cannot easily be applied to Jesus. The bottom line is that this is simply one more Old Testament passage that was abused by the New Testament writers.

Bones not Broken - Psalm 34:20

Psalm 34:20 He keepeth all his bones: not one of them is broken.

John 19:33,36 But when they came to Jesus, and saw that he was dead already, they brake not his legs...For these things were done, that the scripture should be fulfilled, A bone of him shall not be broken.

The first point to note about this particular prophecy is that it does not actually fit the quotation of Psalm 34:20. At best, it can be said to be a paraphrase of this verse. The possibility exists that John was appealing to a prophecy that is not preserved in the Hebrew Bible. As strange as it sounds, this is not the first time that John did such a thing. In John 7:38, we find Jesus quoting a scripture which has no counterpart in the Old Testament.

Nevertheless, for the purposes of this analysis, we will assume that John was indeed referring to Psalm 34:20. If this is the case, a quick look at the context will be enough to dispel any illusions of a Messianic prophecy.

Psalm 34 contrasts two groups of people - the righteous (34:7) and the wicked (34:16). It is in this context that verse 20 appears, as one of the benefits of being righteous.

Psalm 34:17-20 The righteous cry, and the Lord heareth, and delivereth them out of all their troubles. The Lord is nigh unto them that are of a broken heart; and saveth such as be of a contrite spirit. Many are the afflictions of the righteous: but the Lord delivereth him out of them all. He keepeth all his bones: not one of them is broken.

It should therefore be obvious that verse 20 is not directed to one individual, but is in fact directed to a group of people - the righteous. There is no indication at all in this Psalm that the author is talking about the Messiah, who was to come many centuries hence. If Christians insist that verse 20 is a Messianic prophecy, they must also concede that there must be many Messiahs, according to the context of this psalm.

In summary then, we find no reason to believe that Psalm 34 is intended to be a Messianic prophecy. In contrast, we find that the Psalm talks about the righteous in general terms - it does not single out one particular individual.

Links to Skeptical Sites

Prophecies: Imaginary and Unfulfilled
The Fabulous Prophecies of the Messiah

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