So-called “Prophecies” in the Bible

Usually there is one or more ways so-called “prophecies” in the Bible can be explained…

(1) The prophecy is vague enough that you can read whatever you want into it (e.g.: “a three-headed lion will appear in the east”). One person may claim it means one thing, and someone else may claim it means another.

(2) It’s a “prophecy” about things that happen all the time, so there’s nothing special about it. For example, “There will be wars and rumors of wars in those days,” floods and earthquakes, etc.

(3) It isn’t a prophecy in the first place, or it isn’t a prophecy about what it’s claimed to be about. A closer reading of the passage in context will usually expose these types of “prophecies.”

(4) If the prophecy is known, then someone who knows it might be motivated to fulfill it. For example, if I know that the hero is supposed to ride a white horse–and I want to appear to be the hero—then I could start looking for a white horse to ride.

(5) The prophecy is manufactured after-the-fact to fit what happened. If I say, “so-and-so happened to fulfill such-and-such a prophecy,” I might be making up the prophecy.

(6) The story is manufactured after-the-fact to fit the prophecy. If I’m writing a story about someone’s life and know about some prophecy that should apply to that person, I can just make up a story that it happened, even if it didn’t.

Let me take the so-called “prophecy” about Jesus from Zechariah 9:9 as it was relayed by Matthew to use as a general example (where more than one of the above may apply)….

Here is the text, “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout in triumph, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your king is coming to you; He is just and endowed with salvation, Humble, and mounted on a donkey, Even on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” First, it’s fairly vague. It doesn’t specify who the “king” is or when he will come exactly. And how many people probably rode into Jerusalem on a donkey every day? Obviously, not everyone riding in on a donkey would be the king, so there’s nothing here to link Jesus specifically with this passage (and he wasn’t a “king” in the way intended anyway). So, it’s vague, it cites something that happened all the time (humble people riding donkeys into the city), and it may not be a prophecy about what it’s claimed to be about (since a different type of “king” was probably intended than the one Christians claim Jesus was). That covers 1-3 above.

If Jesus was aware of this “prophecy,” then he could have easily acquired a donkey to ride in on (if he was trying to “sell” himself as the “king” Zechariah mentions), so there would be nothing amazing about that. Finally, Matthew clearly misreads the “prophecy” and has Jesus riding into Jerusalem on TWO donkeys! [The passage is saying the donkey is a colt, not that there were two different donkeys.] So Matthew is pretty clearly manufacturing a story after-the-fact to fit the prophecy as he misunderstood it. His mistake revels he was making stuff up. So, that now also covers 4 & 6 above. Note: of all the Gospels, Matthew seems to go to greater lengths to manufacture stories to fit “prophecies” than the other three.

I think all of the so-called “prophecies” in the Bible can be explained by one or more of the ways I listed above. It’s just a matter of looking into any of them more closely with these possibilities in mind.

A Side Note

Some Christian apologetics make the argument that “any prophecy made about the Messiah that was not fulfilled in Jesus simply refers to his second coming.” This is how some respond when confronted with what was actually prophesied a “Messiah” was going to accomplish that Jesus didn’t accomplish.

There’s a book I read in 1998 called “The Mythmaker – Paul and the Invention of Christianity” by a Talmudic scholar Hyam Maccoby which addresses some of this from the Jewish point-of-view. Maccoby argues that Jesus regarded himself as the Messiah in the normal Jewish sense of the term, i.e. “A human leader who would restore the Jewish monarchy, drive out the Roman invaders, set up an independent Jewish state, and inaugurate an era of peace, justice and prosperity,” and that “Jesus believed himself to be the figure prophesied in the Hebrew Bible who would do all these things.” And prophecies like these are exactly what Jesus didn’t accomplish, which is why Jews don’t recognize Jesus as a Messiah.

He says Jesus believed that God would perform a great miracle that would take place on the Mount of Olives, as prophesied in the book of Zechariah. He says that “When this miracle did not occur, his mission had failed. He had no intention of being crucified in order to save mankind from eternal damnation by his sacrifice. He never regarded himself as a divine being, and would have regarded such an idea as pagan and idolatrous, an infringement of the first of the Ten Commandments.”

He says that the phrases “Son of Man” and “Son of God” were things that any Jew might say about himself because they all considered God their “Father,” and Jesus wasn’t making any special claim for himself by referring to himself that way. It was something any Jew might do.

As you may know, ‘Christ’ was the Greek alternative for the word ‘Messiah’ and Maccoby argues that the terms didn’t imply someone divine aspect (he says, “every Jewish king of the Davidic dynasty had this title”), but it was Paul who was the person who made it into something more than what the term originally meant, or what Jesus might have considered it to mean. Maccoby claims Jesus would have been shocked by what Paul did.

Jesus’ Existence

I personally think Jesus was probably based on a person that really existed, but I think how much we might be able to say about him historically is questionable on almost every level.

1- There’s not any non-Christian historical evidence for Jesus, and Jewish historians of the time he was supposed to have lived do not mention him in any known text. Jesus isn’t credited with writing anything himself and there are no contemporary accounts.

2- No one knows who wrote the Gospels (the traditional names were assigned later). They were written anywhere from 30-70+ years after the supposed death of Jesus and they were not written by eye-witnesses. Mark is considered by most scholars as being the earliest and John the last.

3- It is obvious that some of the stories relayed in the Gospels were fabricated because they do not match with the available historical evidence (this is most especially true regarding the birth stories — as just one example: Romans conducting a census where people had to go to the birthplace of their ancestors to register is not historical or even rational). Many scholars consider the whole birth account to be a later invention. The Gospels also disagree on key details (e.g.: did Jesus and his family flee to Egypt for a period of time or not?). I could write a book about all the problems with the Gospels (without even considering the supposed miracles), but I’ll pass over it for now.

4- There are only about 8 books in the NT which were probably written by the person claiming to have written them, most of the rest are very highly debatable or are considered obvious forgeries. Someone named John (a common name) wrote Revelations, which is not a book we can use for history (considering it is “vision” of the future). The other 7 books were all written by Paul. These are really the earliest accounts we have of an “historical” Jesus, but they were written beginning roughly 15 years after Jesus was supposed to have died by a person that never met Jesus while he was supposed to have lived (he only claims he saw him in a vision). In his writings, Paul doesn’t reveal any knowledge of Jesus’ birth, or much of his life or his ministry, so he isn’t a good source for an historical Jesus. Paul does claim to have met with some of Jesus’ disciples, but had serious disagreements with them.

5- There were many other “books” about Jesus (most – if not all – written even later than the Gospels), but none of them were included in the Bible (so even the “Christians” that ended up dominating the movement rejected them as spurious, and we can probably reject them as not having much historical value).

6- The first scraps we have of the “books” of the Bible are from decades after they were written, with the first complete books coming centuries after that. There are more discrepancies between the oldest versions of these books than there are words in the New Testament. Many discrepancies are the result of obvious copying errors, but some are more significant. It is also evident that certain passages were added on later (since they don’t appear in the oldest versions). If we can see things being added after the oldest copies we have, we might assume that some things might have been added before the oldest copies we have as well.

Considering that many of these books were written decades after the fact to begin with, and were probably passed down orally before they were written down, you might wonder how many changes they went through before they were written down (have you ever played telephone?).

7- Consider two things about the people passing them down orally in the beginning: they may not have been well educated and they might have had an agenda (they were probably not objective). Also consider the people writing them down later may have been attempting to “sell” others (for example: there is a lot of evidence that events were added to the account to prove what they thought was a prophecy — the evidence for this is that they made mistakes trying).

8- Most of the “key” elements of Jesus’ life found in the Bible match elements of at least 16 other mythological god-men that predate Jesus. This suggests the very real possibility that these elements were copied (imitated) and might be considered to be highly questionable historically.

9- The stories all include accounts of miracles and events that defy known laws of physics, biology, cosmology, etc., which would be considered mythological coming from almost any other source.

Someone like a Julius Caesar can be established to have existed with much greater reliability. Even someone like Socrates can be better established (there were contemporary accounts by people who knew him, his student Plato wrote about him, there weren’t any claims of him violating the laws of nature, etc.).


Bible Notes #2

Wherein I briefly expand on a couple of the Gospels from the first set of notes (see: HERE) and try to very briefly review the growth of the resurrection myth….

I could write a book of fiction about events taking place in today’s world, referring to real places and real surrounding events. For example, I could write a story about an imaginary person living in Washington, DC, visiting the Capitol or Washington Monument and advising President Obama. Just because someone might dig up evidence for the Capitol, the Washington Monument, or Obama at some point in the future, doesn’t do much to establish the reality of the imaginary person I wrote about. I admit it might be better than if they never found evidence of anything in my story, but it wouldn’t be much to establish the reality of the imaginary person. Let’s say that I give the imaginary person I write about the ability to fly. Digging up a piece of the Washington Monument isn’t going to do anything to give evidence of that.

Anybody can write that people rose from the dead, there were 500 witnesses, or whatever nonsense they like, but until you can establish that the person writing is trustworthy that is all meaningless. Even if you believe in the earliest dates for the Gospels and that these authors are generally reliable (and the documents we have are fair copies of the originals, etc. etc.), you have to admit that every step of the way you are choosing to accept the most favorable viewpoint to confirm your belief.

It might not be as big of a deal if we were talking about whether some sheep farmer lived 2,000 years ago that herded sheep. That would be much easier to believe than some son of god performing miracles.

“Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence,” and there is just too much debatable stuff here to be convincing (esp. when it sounds like many other myths). Even if we had some empirical evidence for the miracles, that wouldn’t prove that this was the Son of God (e.g.: it could be some supernatural demon trying to deceive us, or it could be a more intelligent and advanced being from another planet, or it could be an alien that had technology much greater than ours).

Matthew & Some Mark

Boy! I could really get into it here if we wanted to go through the whole book: the genealogy that doesn’t match Luke’s version to try to prove some prophecy that becomes irrelevant once the virgin birth myth comes in; the fact that “Matthew” wouldn’t have anyone’s word for it (other than Mary’s?) about the virgin birth thing anyway, or what angels might have said to Joseph or Mary; the problems with the indicated year of his birth; the absurdity of people going to the city of their birth to register for a census (which would have been a bureaucratic nightmare and which there is no external historical evidence for); the ‘slaughter of the innocents’ story (which there is no external historical evidence for); the quick trip to Egypt (which is yet another of many poor attempts “Matthew” makes to sell readers on the idea that Jesus fulfilled prophecies that he doesn’t understand and gets wrong when he makes up stuff, the biggest blunder of that type occurring when he has Jesus riding two donkeys into Jerusalem at the same time because he misread Zechariah 9:9!), and so on and on, but I’ll try to repress myself and skip to the end.

As we get into some of the other details, it seems that “Matthew” wasn’t even there at all (nor does it seem any of his speculative “eyewitness” sources might have been). He talks about 30 pieces of silver being weighed out, when they didn’t “weigh out” pieces of silver during that time and place (coins were minted) and “pieces of silver” weren’t used as currency, but I’ll pass over that as an instance of poetic license to get to one of my favorite parts: the zombies that came out of the broken tombs after the earthquake!!!

Wow! You would think that there would have been some external historical account about something as odd and significant as that, but it didn’t seem to be something significant enough for even the other gospel writers to relay. Dead people coming out of their graves and going into Jerusalem appearing “to many” yet only Matthew seems to bother to record this amazing event.

I can see how this could get very long even though I’m skipping over so much. I will pass over all the conflicting details between gospels regarding the time and day of crucifixion, the conflicting reports of how he behaved or what he said (and other minor things like the fact Romans didn’t crucify robbers, which Mark and Matthew say Jesus was crucified between, for example). For now, I’ll even pass over the differing reports between gospels about who came to see Jesus in the tomb and what they saw once they arrived. I’m sure some would say that is exactly what you would expect from different eyewitness accounts. [This is why eyewitness accounts aren’t considered reliable testimony.]

Matthew narrates the book in the third person and tells about things he wouldn’t have any direct knowledge about.

For example, the whole story about Jesus going into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. This account (like the rest of the book) is written like someone would write a fiction novel.

If this happened, who else would be there but Jesus and the devil? So where would Matthew have gotten this story from? Jesus or the devil (or was there was some unnamed person spying on them to serve as the eyewitness)? So, where did “Matthew” get this from? Was it something he heard Jesus tell about? Was it something that he heard from someone who said they heard it from Jesus or the devil? Do you think “Matthew” decided to tell the story because he was inspired by God? How reliable would you take this story to be?

This is the way all the gospels are written. Time after time when I read through them, I come across passages where I wonder how anyone could have gotten that information. Like who checked Mary out to make sure she was a virgin, or did someone just take her word for it? It seems more likely that someone made it up – Paul doesn’t seem to know that story (or many of the other fascinating things relayed in the gospel stories). At least he doesn’t mention them, even if it could help him make a point. It looks to me that a lot of this stuff was added to the story (made up) after the fact. “Matthew” tries too hard to sell Jesus, to the point he gets prophecies wrong over and over. If there is no external evidence whatsoever of things like people going to the city of their birth to register for a census (which doesn’t even make logical sense) or the ‘slaughter of the innocents’ story (which you would expect there would be) it seems you would start to wonder at how much of this stuff was made up to try to satisfy some prophecies (esp. when mistakes are made like Jesus riding two donkeys, or when he tries to bring in things that weren’t prophecies about a Messiah at all).

Unlike Mark, but like Matthew, Luke gets into the genealogy, but it is almost entirely different (as are a lot of the other details). Like the others, this one gets into relaying events you wonder how the author came to know, like a conversation between Mary and her cousin Elisabeth near the beginning of the book.


Now let’s look at the resurrection story and see how the myth developed over time….

In Mark (the probable oldest gospel), you have an empty tomb and a young man in a white robe to tell what has happened, saying Jesus would be seen in Galilee. In Matthew there is an earthquake and the young man has turned into an angel blazing like lightening, flying down from above to zap a couple of guards and roll away the stone to the tomb with one hand, then saying Jesus would be seen in Galilee (but instead, he shows on up right away and repeats what the angel said). In Luke, the one boy is now two men in dazzling raiment (and you have the extra drama of Peter rushing in to see the empty death shroud), but rather than Galilee, the place to see the visions has become Jerusalem. Then some more time goes by and we get to the story of John (the last gospel) where the boy in Mark has become two angels!! and Jerusalem is again the place to see visions.

Also, as the myth grows, we see Jesus go to more and more trouble to prove that he has a physical body. In Mark, he isn’t there; in Matthew, they grab at his feet; in Luke, he asks his disciples to touch him and eats some fish; in John, he shows his wounds, breathes on people, and lets Thomas put his fingers into the wounds themselves.

It is as if the authors have more and more they want to try to prove about the resurrection, so they keep adding more details and taking it further and further.

Was the tomb open or closed? Who did the women see? How many women were there? Were they supposed to go to Jerusalem or Galilee? I could go on and on here…

But that’s enough Bible notes for now.

Bible Notes #1

The Gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John

Estimated dates they were written and approx. dates of the earliest fragments we have of them…

Matthew: written (70-110) / first fragment (150-200)

Mark: written (66-70) / first fragment (350)

Luke: written (80-100) / first fragment (175-250)

John: written (90-110) / first fragment (125-160)

General information about the source material

All of the authors wrote about events decades after the fact, allowing time for legends to grow in the telling before they were written. None of the authors were likely eyewitnesses to the events they report, and all the authors are anonymous.

The first fragments we have for Luke and Matthew are almost 100 years after they were written (more or less), for Mark it is almost 300 years. There is a shorter time for John, but that account is different and later (as far as when it was written) than the others, and is probably the least reliable (aside being further removed from the events when it was written, as well as different than the earlier ones, it appears significant sections were added because they don’t appear in the earliest copies).

Remember we are talking about the earliest fragments, not the earliest complete copies, and fragments are just that, a small piece of a page in many cases. The first complete copies don’t come until the 4th century, allowing plenty of time for copying mistakes and alterations.


It seems most Biblical textual scholars think that the anonymous author of Matthew lived in a Jewish-Christian community in Roman Syria, and there is evidence to indicate he wrote his book after the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem in 70 AD.

The author of Matthew doesn’t identify himself. Toward the end of the second century, a tradition arose that it was written by Matthew the tax collector. This tradition may have originated from comments made by Papias of Hierapolis (approx. 100-140 AD) about someone named Matthew (who he doesn’t identify beyond that) collecting Hebrew sayings and translating them “as best he could” (but he doesn’t relate this directly to what people refer to the Book of Matthew today). The Gospel of Matthew doesn’t show any signs of translation from another language, and most Biblical textual scholars think there were three sources: Mark, a hypothetical earlier source that is lost to us which is referred to as “Q,” and his own sources (or imagination).


Mark is considered to the oldest gospel by most scholars.

As with Matthew, the author of Mark doesn’t identify himself, and, once again, we have Papias of Hierapolis (writing in the early 2nd century) to thank for crediting it to someone. He credits it to John Mark, a companion of Peter. It seems that odds of association may be somewhat greater here than it was with Matthew, and the more traditional scholars still accept this view. Most modern scholars don’t however (partly because of the author’s use of varied sources), and they consider this book to be of anonymous authorship written in Syria around 66 AD. It does appear to be a major source for both Matthew and Luke.

Everything after Mark 16:8 seems to be highly questionable. Either the story ends with the empty tomb and a young man in a white robe telling Mary Magdalene, Mary (the mother of James), and Salome that Jesus has risen and is “going ahead of you to Galilee” (at which point it says that they “neither said they any thing to any man; for they were afraid” and that’s where it ends), or the original ending is lost. There are four different endings (additional text after 16:8) found in later transcripts, but there isn’t very good evidence any were original. They seem to be in a different style and use different words than the rest of Mark. It seems to be a question whether the ending at 16:8 is intentional or not, but it appears that some people had a problem with it ending there and decided to add something else on.


Once again, there isn’t enough evidence to say for sure who wrote Luke, so it must also be considered anonymous. Tradition is that it was written by Luke (the companion of Paul, or the sometime companion of Paul), who was not an eyewitness (and neither was Paul). Whoever wrote it also may have written the Acts of the Apostles, but this can become an argument against it being written by Luke the companion of Paul, since the Book of Acts contradicts the letters of Paul on several points. The sources seem to be Mark and the hypothetical Q source, as well as some sources of his own.


Like the others, the authorship of John is anonymous. The author claims to be the “disciple whom Jesus loved,” which could be intended to mean either Peter or John. Most modern scholars today don’t believe either John, Peter, or any other eyewitness wrote it. It appears to have been written in 2-3 different stages over time (possibly by more than one author), being completed around 90-95 AD (or later). It is very different than the first three gospels and shows how the myth grew. Most scholars think it is the least historically reliable and furthest removed in time from the events (the last gospel written), however it appears the version we have today may be the closest of all the gospels to the original document.