Preacher Math: Prophetic Probabilities (Part III)

In Part I we looked at the basic criteria for any prophecy, and in Part II we made the requirements a little more strict to differentiate the impressive prophecies from the mundane.

Today we will examine a single popular prophecy that Jesus is said to have fulfilled, and we will start with the passage describing the event in Matthew 21.

Matthew 21:1-7 (New King James Version)

1 Now when they drew near Jerusalem, and came to Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, then Jesus sent two disciples, 2 saying to them, “Go into the village opposite you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her. Loose them and bring them to Me. 3 And if anyone says anything to you, you shall say, ‘The Lord has need of them,’ and immediately he will send them.”

4 All this was done that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet, saying:
5 “Tell the daughter of Zion, ‘Behold, your King is coming to you, Lowly, and sitting on a donkey, A colt, the foal of a donkey.’”

6 So the disciples went and did as Jesus commanded them. 7 They brought the donkey and the colt, laid their clothes on them, and set Him on them.

First we should examine verse 5 which is a quote from Zechariah 9:9. Taken in context, this appears to be about the coming of a military king who would rule “from sea to sea”. This is often interpreted as talking about a future kingdom after Jesus returns to Earth, but the text does not appear to be a prophecy of Jesus riding into Jerusalem, dying, and then coming back to rule a kingdom thousands of years later. This prophecy is already on shaky ground and we’ve barely even started.

Next let’s examine the alleged fulfillment of the prophecy. It is told both in John 12 and Matthew 21, but there are several important differences between the two accounts:

  1. The author of Matthew makes a big deal of saying that this was all done not for any normal reason, like Jesus was already riding a donkey when he got to Jerusalem, but specifically to fulfill a prophecy (Matthew 21:4).

    For the skeptical reader, this verse is very telling. A prophecy (at least a good one) should not be foretelling something that will be done simply to fulfill the prophecy, as the author clearly states this was.

    Furthermore if the author says that this was done just to fulfill the prophecy, and we have no evidence that it ever happened, why should we not think it at least as likely that it was simply written to satisfy the prophecy and not done at all?

    The author of John is a little more subtle, tying his description back to the prophecy with a partial quote (John 12:15) and a description of people cheering as the prophecy said they would (John 12:13). The disciples are oblivious to the significance of this event until later though (John 12:16), which is itself strange if this were a famous prophecy about a coming Messiah and any of Jesus’s followers had any idea that he might be the Messiah.

  2. In John, Jesus looks for and finds a young donkey, then he sits on it and rides into Jerusalem. This makes sense.

    In Matthew on the other hand, having just arrived from another city and not having entered Jerusalem yet, Jesus already knows where a donkey and her colt are tied up. He tells his disciples to go get both of them for him, and when they bring the donkeys back they lay their clothes over them and put Jesus on both of them. He rides two donkeys into Jerusalem. This makes a lot less sense.

  3. As we saw above in Matthew 21:7, the author is so concerned with fulfilling the prophecy using a very literalistic reading of Zechariah 9:9 that he actually has Jesus ride into Jerusalem on not just one young donkey but 2 donkeys, the mother and its colt at the same time!

    One wonders how this might be done…perhaps something like waterskiing, standing with one foot up on the mother and the other down lower on the colt? Unless Jesus also had superhuman balance, he would have to be holding onto long sets of reins for each animal and comically swaying and jerking as they jostled him through the gate into Jerusalem?

    Maybe Jesus was flexible enough to ride into Jerusalem doing a straddle split? Perhaps they used the slightly less comical method of draping him over them like a sack of potatoes? Or maybe there is a more reasonable way. He could have ridden the mother sidesaddle while using the colt as a furry ottoman, but that may be stretching Matthew’s reading of the prophecy too far.

    John takes a more reasonable approach, simply putting Jesus “on a donkey’s colt” (John 12:14), but for those who take the Bible to be inerrant, this discrepancy is still a problem.

Throughout the gospels there are numerous passages where the authors have tried hard to fulfill a very literalistic reading of various prophecies along with passages they may have thought were prophecies but which actually were not.

The authors are even kind enough to pinpoint when they do this by stating that an action was taken “that the scriptures of the prophets might be fulfilled” or other similar language. They certainly draw attention to the supposed prophecy fulfillments, but they also show clearly that the authors were very aware of and concerned with the perfect fulfillment of these “prophecies”. The Biblical record of these events may smell like victory to the faithful, but a skeptic is likely to smell a rat.

If we ignore the discrepancies between these two accounts of the same event, and even ignore the fact that it is questionable whether or not the original prophecy could have been referring to Jesus as he is described in the gospels, we are left with yet more problems.

Let’s go through the criteria we set out in Parts I and II of the article, point by point, starting with the 3 most basic requirements:

  1. The prophecy was made before the event happened.

    The exact dating of this prophecy is not known, but it is known to have existed before the time of Jesus.

  2. The event actually did happen, in the manner specified, and at the time specified (if such was given).

    We have absolutely no evidence of this outside of the accounts in the Bible, and as we have seen they are highly questionable, particularly when you consider that they were written with the intent of convincing people to believe in Jesus as the Messiah.

  3. The supposed prophecy was actually intended to be a prophecy of this future event.

    Zechariah 9:9 does appear to be foretelling a future event, but does Jesus sound like the warrior king ruling a physical kingdom “from sea to sea” that this passage seems to be foretelling when read in context?

Using the most basic of criteria, already it fails on 1 or 2 of the 3 points! We need not go further to dismiss this as unproven, but while we’re at it we may as well examine it a little more using our stricter criteria:

  1. It must be specific.

    This prophecy is specific (a little too specific for the author of Matthew, apparently).

  2. The person who made the prophecy should not have made a large amount of failed prophecies along with the accurate one(s).

    Since we do not have exact dating for the book of Zechariah, because it can be difficult to pick out what is and is not intended as a prophecy, and because it is much more difficult to verify the events in most cases, we do not know exactly how accurate or inaccurate the prophecies in this book are.

    The fact that we only have to look a single verse away (Zechariah 9:8) to see a clear failure (saying that the Israelites would never be oppressed again) does not inspire much confidence though.

  3. The event should be something that a person reading and intending to fulfill the prophecy could not just decide to do to fulfill the prophecy.

    As Matthew 12:4 clearly states, this was not the case at all. Not only was it trivially easy to fulfill, but it says that it actually was done specifically to fulfill the prophecy.

Another 1 or 2 out of 3 criteria failed. This is quite an unimpressive showing for one of the most popular prophecies about Jesus!

If we simply take it on faith that Jesus fulfilled hundreds of prophecies as many claim, or even just the 48 that Stoner used to get his 10157:1 odds, it sounds very impressive. If we break it down to the level of individual prophecy and examine each one though, we begin to see how hollow this claim actually is.

In Part IV we will wrap up and attempt to draw some conclusions about the supposed extreme improbability of these “accurate” prophecies.

Skip to: Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV.

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About Kazz

My name is Shawn Esplin and I am an advocate of Free Thought and general good sense and thought in general. To that end, I encourage people to seriously question the things that they have been taught, especially as children, because many of these things - religious and secular - are taken on faith until we actively choose to seriously examine them for ourselves.

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