8  The biblical crystal ball

Forecasting is my area of expertise. I am Editor-in-Chief of the International Journal of Forecasting and I have written several textbooks on statistical forecasting. I spend many hours every week thinking about the probabilities associated with future events. So prophecy, which is closely related to forecasting, has always been of particular interest to me.

When I was a believer, my favourite fulfilled prophecies were

  1. the return of Israel to their land;
  2. Daniel’s prophecies of four empires;
  3. the destruction of Tyre; and
  4. the crucifixion of Jesus.

I will discuss each of these in turn.

The return of Israel

There are several prophecies of the return of Israel to their land, primarily in Deuteronomy, Jeremiah and Ezekiel. For example,

10 So I, the Lord, tell you not to be afraid,
you descendants of Jacob, my servants.
Do not be terrified, people of Israel.
For I will rescue you and your descendants
from a faraway land where you are captives.
The descendants of Jacob will return to their land and enjoy peace.
They will be secure and no one will terrify them.
11 For I, the Lord, affirm that
I will be with you and will rescue you.
I will completely destroy all the nations where I scattered you.
But I will not completely destroy you.
I will indeed discipline you, but only in due measure.
I will not allow you to go entirely unpunished. (Jeremiah 30:10–11)

I first doubted that these were genuine prophecies of twentieth century events when I realized that all of the prophecies concerning the return of Israel were written during the time of the Babylonian captivity. Jeremiah was writing from Jerusalem while Judah was in Babylon; Ezekiel was writing as a captive in Babylon; and Deuteronomy is also thought to have been written around the same time, or even later.1 So at the time the prophecies were first written, Judah was in captivity in Babylon, and Israel had been taken captive by the Assyrians. To the people at the time, the original recipients of these prophecies, the clear meaning was that they would return to the land from which they were taken. Jeremiah and Ezekiel appear to have been writing to encourage the people to remain hopeful and optimistic — better times were around the corner, the Messiah was coming, and Israel would be powerful and prosperous. Of course, while the people did return to their land, along with all other ethnic groups living in captivity when the Persians came to power, the Messiah did not come and the promised power and prosperity did not occur.

Even if we take the prophecies as having two fulfilments, and allow for a later 20th century application of these prophecies as well as a partial initial fulfilment in the return from captivity, the details do not fit any better. There is no hint in the prophecies that they referred to a much later time and a much later captivity. We only read them with that perspective in hindsight. Moreover, they describe a time of peace, a return to Yahweh worship, and a Messiah, none of which is true for the last 70 years.

It is perhaps surprising that the prophecies can be made to fit 20th century events as well as they do. Yet there is also an element of circularity here. It appears that the encouragement provided by Jeremiah and Ezekiel to their exiled people was appropriated by Zionists in the 20th century. Some of the early Zionists thought to return to Israel because of the prophecies, not necessarily because they believed they were inspired or prophetic, but because they saw them as an historical precedent. The first Israeli prime-minister, David Ben Gurion, wrote of the Tanach (the Hebrew Bible):2

Ever since I came to the land, I was shaped by Tanach, since only here could I begin to fully grasp its rich depth; it influenced me more than any other book or literature, Jewish and non-Jewish …

The establishment of the state and the war of independence shone a new light on the Tanach, … [particularly] the stories of the fathers, the coming out of Egypt, the conquest followed by living on the land,…

without knowing the Tanach, we cannot have … an understanding of our origin, our spirit, our life-mission and our future.

The current prime minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, has said3

In our time the Biblical prophecies are being realized. As the prophet Amos said, they shall rebuild ruined cities and inhabit them. They shall plant vineyards and drink their wine. They shall till gardens and eat their fruit. And I will plant them upon their soil never to be uprooted again. Ladies and gentlemen, the people of Israel have come home never to be uprooted again.

So the apparent “fit” of 20th century events to some aspects of the biblical prophecies is not quite the coincidence that it might seem.

In any case, the prophecies only fit the events of the last 70 years superficially. If the 20th century fulfilment is to be convincing, the details must also be correct. This is where the prophecies as evidence fail, because there are many details that are simply untrue. As 1948 (when modern Israel was founded) fades from memory, so does the credibility of the alleged “prophecy”. For example, the prophecies repeatedly emphasise that the return of Israel would be followed by a time of peace and security. Patently, that has not happened. When challenged, believers will say that the times of peace and security are coming when the Messiah returns. In that way, all unfulfilled prophecies are neatly assigned to the future, and the prophecies become unfalsifiable.

All that remains is an interesting historical parallel, whereby a small part of the total Jewish population has returned to their ancient homeland, just as they did over 2,500 years ago. But nothing else in the prophecies has been fulfilled in either return: the Jews do not enjoy peace and security; the nations in which they lived have not been destroyed; the Messiah has not returned.

Daniel’s prophecies of four empires

Nebuchadnezzar’s dream of a giant statue representing four major empires is an apparently impressive example of history foretold in advance. The golden head represented Babylon, the chest and arms of silver represented the Medes and Persians, the belly and thighs of bronze represented the Greeks, while the iron legs were representative of the Roman empire. Finally, the feet of iron and clay represented the mixed nations at the time of the second coming of Jesus.

There are a few problems with this vision that are often skipped over. For example, the empire after Babylon was Persian, not Medo-Persian. The Medes were conquered by the Persians in 550 BC by Cyrus the Great. It makes as much sense to call the empire “Medo-Persian” as it does to call it “Babylo-Persian”. But if we just called it the Persian empire, then it wouldn’t fit the two arms of the image.

The image is also completely out of proportion chronologically. The Roman empire petered out some time after AD 400. So, by this interpretation, the “mixed nations” of the feet occupy a longer time than rest of the image combined, which seems a stretch of credibility as well as anatomy. One attempt to avoid this problem is to only consider the time when Israel actually occupied the land, thereby conveniently removing the period from AD 70 to 1948. However, this will not do either, as it would also require the image to be headless, as Israel was removed from their land during the Babylonian period.

A further problem is that the supposed “major empires” do not include the most powerful or the largest empires in human history. In terms of size, the British empire, French empire, Russian empire, Ottoman empire, Spanish empire, Portuguese empire, Mongol empire, Qing dynasty, and Yuan dynasty are all larger than any of those assumed to be predicted by Daniel. If it is suggested that the empires in Daniel’s prophecy are only those that controlled Israel’s land, then it should include at least the British and the Ottoman empires.

But probably the most devastating problem concerns the date of Daniel. There is good evidence that Daniel was written during the time of Antiochus Epiphanes in the 2nd century BC, and not by some captive in Babylon in the 6th century BC. For example:

  1. Daniel is not part of the group of prophets in the Hebrew Bible; it is found in the section known as “Writings” instead. This suggests that it appeared after the canon for the prophetic books had closed (usually considered to be around 200 BC).

  2. The apocryphal book known as the Wisdom of Sirach dates from about 180 BC, and does not quote Daniel, although it does quote almost every other book of the Old Testament. On the other hand, copies of Daniel have been found at Qumran, and it is cited by later second century BC documents such as the Sibylline Oracles4. Again, this suggests a second century date for Daniel.

  3. Daniel 11 strongly suggests that the book was written around the time of Antiochus Epiphanes. It is a “prophecy” that describes in detail the history of the Seleucids from about 300 to 165 BC. This section accurately corresponds to what is known from Greek historical writings of the period. But then, from about Daniel 11:40, the historical details stop and nothing described from that point on has occurred. There is no gap in the narrative to suggest that there is a large time gap; instead, the prophecy continues to describe the same king (Antiochus Epiphanes) as in the previous verses. Despite describing the kings up to Antiochus Epiphanes accurately, and describing the early part of the reign of Antiochus Epiphanes, the prophecy fails to mention the most significant events of his reign — namely the recapture of Jerusalem by the Maccabees and the rededication of the temple. Thus, it is highly likely that this chapter was written in 165 BC, during the reign of Antiochus Epiphanes but before the Maccabean uprising.

  4. There are historical inaccuracies about the Babylonian period: Belshazzar is described as the son of Nebuchadnezzar rather than Nabonidus (Dan 5:11); Darius the Mede is regarded as responsible for the conquest of Babylon rather than Cyrus the Persian (Dan 5:31; 6:28); and so on.

  5. There are many Persian and Greek loan-words that would have been unknown to someone writing in the Babylonian period.

It seems inescapable that the book of Daniel is not what it purports to be. It is written as if it is a prophecy penned by Daniel, a Jewish exile in captivity in Babylon, but all the evidence suggests that at least part of it was written around 165 BC by an unknown Jew after the temple had been desecrated by Antiochus Epiphanes.

This also explains why the prophecy of four beasts in Daniel 7 is accurate for the first three beasts, but the fourth “terrible” beast does not accurately describe the Roman empire. It was easy for the writer of Daniel 7 to describe the history of the Babylonian, Persian and Greek empires, because they had already happened. The terrible fourth empire was most likely intended to refer to Antiochus Epiphanes, and the purpose of the prophecy was to encourage the Jews by promising divine salvation from the oppression they were enduring. Instead, Judas Maccabeus led a revolt against Antiochus and his Seleucid army — something the writer did not expect.

The great prophecies of Daniel are only impressive evidence for the inspiration of the Bible if they were written before the events they describe, and that seems extremely unlikely. The book is accurate about recent history (300–165 BC), muddled about earlier history (the Babylonian and Persian periods), and completely wrong about what would happen next (the Maccabean revolt). That is what you would expect from something written by a human being. It is not what you would expect if God had anything to do with it.

The destruction of Tyre

Another famous prophecy that is often used as evidence for the divine origin of the Bible is Ezekiel’s description of the overthrow of Tyre in chapter 26. It describes the complete destruction of the city of Tyre.

7 “For this is what the sovereign Lord  says: Take note that I am about to bring King Nebuchadrezzar of Babylon, king of kings, against Tyre from the north, with horses, chariots, and horsemen, an army and hordes of people. 8 He will kill your daughters in the field with the sword. He will build a siege wall against you, erect a siege ramp against you, and raise a great shield against you. 9 He will direct the blows of his battering rams against your walls and tear down your towers with his weapons. 10 He will cover you with the dust kicked up by his many horses. Your walls will shake from the noise of the horsemen, wheels, and chariots when he enters your gates like those who invade through a city’s broken walls. 11 With his horses’ hoofs he will trample all your streets. He will kill your people with the sword, and your strong pillars will tumble down to the ground. 12 They will steal your wealth and loot your merchandise. They will tear down your walls and destroy your luxurious homes. Your stones, your trees, and your soil he will throw into the water. 13 I will silence the noise of your songs; the sound of your harps will be heard no more. 14 I will make you a bare rock; you will be a place where fishing nets are spread. You will never be built again, for I, the Lord, have spoken, declares the sovereign Lord. (Ezekiel 26:7-14)

I have used this prophecy in several talks I’ve given on Bible inspiration. This is how I used to explain it.

There were two cities called “Tyre”, one on the mainland and one on a small island about 500m off the coast. Between 585 and 573 BC, Nebuchadnezzar undertook a 13-year siege of Tyre and succeeded in capturing the mainland city. Two hundred and fifty years later, Alexander the Great used the rubble from the ruins of mainland Tyre to construct a causeway to the island. After a 7-month siege, he succeeded in capturing the island city. Mainland Tyre was never rebuilt and fishermen today use the site to spread their nets.

But that is not actually what was predicted, and some of the details are not even true.

  • The mainland settlement was called Ushu, not Tyre. Only the island was called Tyre.
  • Nebuchadnezzar did not defeat Tyre. His 13-year siege against the island ended in failure.
  • The prophecy carefully distinguishes the “daughters on the mainland” from Tyre itself; so it is incorrect to claim that the first part of the prophecy is about the mainland city rather than the island city.
  • Tyre itself (the island) was never scraped clean and the rock is far beneath many strata of settlement.
  • Alexander’s conquest did not wipe out the population of Tyre, and Alexander even allowed a man of Tyre to become its new king (Diodorus 17.47.1–6).
  • Seventeen years later, Tyre had recovered sufficiently to resist a siege by Antigonus, one of Alexander’s generals for 15 months. He established his own garrison there.
  • Modern Tyre is a thriving city, the fourth largest in Lebanon, and is far from silent.
  • The mainland site of Ushu has traditionally been identified with a small unexcavated mound about four kilometres south of Tyre known as Tel Rachidiyeh. The much larger settlement mound of Tel el-Mashouk has also been proposed.5 Neither site is a “bare rock” and neither is used for spreading fishing nets.

Further, Ezekiel himself admitted that this prophecy did not come true:

Son of man, Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon made his army labor hard against Tyre. Every head was made bald, and every shoulder was rubbed bare, yet neither he nor his army got anything from Tyre to pay for the labor that he had performed against her. (Ezekiel 29:18)

As with many believers who use prophecy to support the inspiration of the Bible, I was so keen to have a clear fulfilment that I fudged the facts a little to make them fit. I’m sorry to have misled people in this way.

Prophecies about Jesus

Several Old Testament prophecies about Jesus seem remarkably prescient.

Isaiah 7 refers to a virgin birth:

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

Psalm 22 appears to predict his crucifixion:

14 My strength drains away like water;
all my bones are dislocated;
my heart is like wax;
it melts away inside me.
15 The roof of my mouth is as dry as a piece of pottery;
my tongue sticks to my gums.
You set me in the dust of death.
16 Yes, wild dogs surround me—
a gang of evil men crowd around me;
like a lion they pin my hands and feet.
17 I can count all my bones;
my enemies are gloating over me in triumph.
18 They are dividing up my clothes among themselves;
they are rolling dice for my garments. (Psalm 22:14–18)

Isaiah 53 describes his atoning death:

5 He was wounded because of our rebellious deeds,
crushed because of our sins;
he endured punishment that made us well;
because of his wounds we have been healed.
6 All of us had wandered off like sheep;
each of us had strayed off on his own path,
but the Lord caused the sin of all of us to attack him.
7 He was treated harshly and afflicted,
but he did not even open his mouth.
Like a lamb led to the slaughtering block,
like a sheep silent before her shearers,
he did not even open his mouth.
8 He was led away after an unjust trial—
but who even cared?
Indeed, he was cut off from the land of the living;
because of the rebellion of his own people he was wounded.
9 They intended to bury him with criminals,
but he ended up in a rich man’s tomb,
because he had committed no violent deeds,
nor had he spoken deceitfully. (Isaiah 53:5–9)

There is no doubt that these words were written before Jesus was born as they have been found on manuscripts in the caves of Qumran amongst the Dead Sea Scrolls.

The problem here is that the prophets who wrote these words were not thinking about a Messiah at all. For example, the virgin birth prophecy is clearly about contemporary events concerning King Ahaz. The next two verses after v14 quoted above are:

15 He shall eat curds and honey when he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. 16 For before the boy knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land whose two kings you dread will be deserted. (Isaiah 7:15–16)

Even the word translated “virgin” in v14 probably referred to a young woman rather than specifically to a virgin, and it is translated that way in some modern versions (e.g., NET, RSV, NRSV).

Psalm 22 and Isaiah 53 both describe a suffering servant of God, persecuted and apparently killed by his enemies. There is nothing in these passages to suggest that they were referring to the Messiah or the Son of God. It is only after reading the New Testament that they appear to be prophecies of Jesus.

The writers of the New Testament were attempting to establish the credentials of Jesus as a legitimate Messiah. So finding Old Testament passages that fitted his life was a useful strategy. In places (e.g., Matthew 2:15), non-prophecies have clearly been elevated to prophetic status, just so they can be “fulfilled”.

An alternative related strategy would be to fabricate details in Jesus life so that he appeared to fulfil Old Testament prophecies. Unfortunately, we know nothing about Jesus apart from what is in the gospels, so there are no independent corroborating witnesses. It is hard to say which parts of these quotations (and others like them) were prophetic, and which parts of the Jesus story were back-crafted to match prophetic-sounding words from the Old Testament. In fact, many of the apparent contradictions between the Gospels regarding the nativity stories, genealogies, and some other events, seem to clash specifically because the authors were trying to ‘fulfill’ different (and incompatible) prophecies.

We can choose to take on face-value what the gospel writers wrote, but then we are taking a leap of faith rather than finding evidence.

Probabilities and prophecies

Sometimes people try to assign probabilities to prophecies, and arrive at a tiny number which is then claimed to be evidence for the prophecy being divinely inspired. I have never used this argument because there are serious mathematical problems with it. First, you have to be able to quantify the probability of each aspect of the prophecy. Second, you must then assume that all elements of the prophecy are independent of each other. Both steps are problematic.

It is almost never possible to quantify the probability of a discrete prophetic event. For example, what is the probability that Alexander the Great would create a causeway to the island of Tyre from the mainland rubble? Even if we assume that the prophecy of Ezekiel intended to refer to this event (which I doubt, as previously explained), it is not possible to assign a number to the probability. Is it 20%, or 5%, or 83%? In this context, a probability refers to the proportion of times something would happen if the circumstances were repeated a large number of times. But as we have only one occurrence of it, we can only guess what would have happened if the circumstances arose again at some other identical island in another location. Since Alexander the Great did it the first time, a reasonable suggestion is that he would have done it again in identical circumstances, and then the probability would be 100%.

Once numbers are allocated to the various components of a prophecy, they are then multiplied together to give the probability of the complete prophecy. This works for coin tosses — the probability of three heads in three tosses is 0.5 × 0.5 × 0.5 = 0.125. But it assumes that the components are independent — that is that the outcome of each component has no bearing on the other components. For coin tosses, that is true: the first head does not affect whether the second or third coin toss will be a head. But it is not true for prophecies. Alexander the Great could not have thrown the rubble into the sea if Nebuchadnezzar had not created the rubble in the first place. So it is incorrect to multiply the probability of Nebuchadnezzar destroying the mainland settlement by the probability of Alexander throwing the rubble into the sea. One event affects the next event, and so the probability of the two events together is not simply obtained by multiplying the probabilities of each event.

I once saw some Bible course notes that used this probabilistic argument for prophecy. So I raised the above objections and asked that the offending section of notes be removed. I was told that the argument should be retained because it was impressive, even if it was wrong, and that the people attending the course would not know the argument made no mathematical sense in any case. I was shocked that believers would knowingly lie for the sake of conversion. Sadly, the notes are still in use, and the argument is still being used.

Unfulfilled prophecies

When a biblical prophet says “Thus says the Lord …” it seems reasonable to assume that the message comes directly from God and that it should be true and accurate in every respect. So what should we make of unfulfilled prophecies? Many of these are explained away as “not yet fulfilled” although that cannot apply to all of them.

One of the most famous unfulfilled prophecies is from Ezekiel who describes Egypt becoming “a desolation and waste” (Ezekiel 29:9; 30:7) and being uninhabited for forty years (Ezekiel 29:11,13). There is a clay tablet in the British Museum6 that states

In the 37th year of Nebuchadrezzar, King of Babylon, he went to Mizraim [Egypt] to make war. AMASIS, King of Mizraim, collected [his army] and marched and spread abroad.

However, it is not specified whether the armies actually engaged in battle, and if they did, who won. Further, there is plenty of Egyptian evidence of ongoing activity in the following years, suggesting that they were far from desolate. We know the names of all of the Pharaohs during this period, and have inscriptions about them. Herodotus7 describes Egypt during the reign of Amasis II (570–526 BC) as wealthy and prosperous. Whether Herodotus can be trusted or not, it seems impossible that Egypt was uninhabited for any period of time, let alone forty years.

There are many more prophecies whose alleged fulfillment is only recorded in the Bible, so there is no corroborating evidence. Without external evidence, a “fulfilled” prophecy contributes nothing to the case for or against the Bible.

If prophecies are evidence, why do I still need faith?

There are many other “prophecies” that are frequently cited as evidence for the Bible’s inspiration, but the examples covered here are usually regarded as the clearest examples, and these are sufficient to show the main problems. The prophecies can all be explained in at least one of the following ways:

  • they were written after the alleged fulfillment;
  • they are being taken out of context;
  • they were not fulfilled as stated;
  • the apparent fulfillment has been fabricated;
  • there is no corroborating evidence for the apparent fulfillment;
  • they have never been fulfilled.

In every case, the alleged prophecies fail to provide evidence for the Bible’s inspiration.

People have told me that I should have faith that the prophecies will be fulfilled or have been fulfilled. But it is not possible to have it both ways — either they are evidence, or I need faith. Something cannot function as evidence for the faith needed to believe it.

  1. See J. Pakkala (2009). The date of the oldest edition of Deuteronomy. Zeitschrift für die Alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 121(3), 388–401.↩︎

  2. David Ben-Gurion (1969) “The Tanach and the Jewish People”. In: David Ben-Gurion, Biblical Reflections. Am Oved Publication, pp.219–225.↩︎

  3. The concluding words to a speech given on 1 October 2013 to the United Nations General Assembly in New York. goo.gl/E2y96n. The quote is taken from Amos 9:14–15.↩︎

  4. The Sibylline Oracles 2.306, 3.830–836.↩︎

  5. G. E. Markoe (2000). Phoenicians. Berkeley, California, USA: University of California Press, pp.197–198.↩︎

  6. Babylonian Chronicle BM 33041↩︎

  7. Herodotus 2.161ff.↩︎