Mill Avenue Resistance Reports: Saturday, March 28th 2009

The Mill Avenue Resistance reports are written by Kyt Dotson as an extension of anthropological research on the population of Mill Avenue in Tempe, Arizona. Since the Resistance does their protests Friday and Saturday there are two reports a week. The supporting material not related to the Resistance reports can be found on the Under the Hills blog for Saturday, March 28th 2009.

Once again, Mill Ave is shut down due to the visitation of the Tempe Art Fair. White tents take up the center of the road, leaving the street open to all comers and passersby. The Resistance was sparse today but thick enough to entertain themselves on the preachers who came out to do some speaking. As usual, they found them set up in the middle of the intersection at 5th and Mill Ave—the diagonal between Urban Outfitters, Coffee Plantation, Hippie Gypsy, and American Apparel.

The Resistance consisted of Rocco and Gadfly, with a visitation by Kazz and Spyral.

Amazingly, the old-school core components of the Way of the Master evangelical group made it out! The preacher crew turned out to be Al, Jeremiah, Richard, and one other new individual of unknown disposition. This created an unexpected reunion of evangelical preachers who haven’t been out in a very long time. It’s been several months since either Richard or Jeremiah have been seen by the Resistance. Much to the amusement of all, Jeremiah took the stand later in the night and delivered his usual speeches—the rest didn’t really spend much time on their amps for the time people were out there to listen.

The notable event of the night didn’t involve the street preachers at all; although the night did end with Rocco and Gadfly with Jeremiah in front of the Brickyard.

It is reported that, earlier in the night, an itinerant busker took exception to one of Gadfly’s signs, set down his guitar, took it from her, tore it in half, and smacked her across the face with it. The sign in question was a rendering of the “BUTTSEX 4 JESUS” whiteboard-and-black-marker that originated at the protest against Brother Jed. He says that hitting her with the sign wasn’t intentional. This particular busker—an itinerant man, with a guitar, sporting a heavy, rounded dark beard of about an inch, usually sits between Hippy Cove and the Mill Avenue Jewelry store—has been on the Ave for possibly a little over a month. I haven’t gotten his name yet but I’ve spoken to him a few times about his guitar playing.

The evening wound down with Rocco preaching the gospel of the “Cookie-dough Dragon” at Jeremiah—and he even threw in some of his own criticism of contemporary Christian mythology and doctrine based on interpretations of their holy text, the Bible. I will try to paraphrase Rocco’s claim as I understood it:

The argument seemed to revolve around a prophecy from the Old Testament of the Bible which included a mortal patrilineal lineage for their messiah deity, Jesus. An event that wouldn’t make sense if the virgin birth also occurred, because therefore mortal Jesus would have no mortal father and therefore no possible patrilineal line to speak of.

FURTHER RESOURCES

  1. Gadfly herself has a narrative about what happened the night of Saturday, March 28th on her blog that I invite everyone to check out.

Preacher Math: Prophetic Probabilities (Part IV)

In Part I and Part II we laid out some basic requirements we should expect any real prophecy to fulfill. In Part III we examined a single prophecy, often referred to as the “Triumphal Entry”, which Christians claim is referring to Jesus. In Part IV we will attempt to draw some conclusions, not about the improbability of Jesus accurately fulfilling a long list of prophecies as Christians claim he did, but about the probability that he actually did.

Since Biblical prophecy is such a broad subject, because we have been dealing specifically with prophecies about Jesus, and because the prophecies about Jesus are the ones most often discussed by Christians, we will continue to focus on them.

Looking just at the prophecies related to Jesus, here are some of the basic things we should see before we believe that they were made and fulfilled:

What we want to see What we actually see
Prophetic manuscripts accurately dated in their current forms to some time BCE. There actually are some manuscripts of Jewish scripture dating to the 2nd century BCE.
Evidence that the events which were foretold actually occurred. We have no contemporary extra-Biblical evidence for even the existence of Jesus, let alone anything he may have done.
The prophecies should be identified as prophecies, or at least spoken by people identified as prophets. Many of the “prophecies” Jesus is said to have fulfilled actually came from non-prophetic material such as Psalms.
Furthermore we would like to see the following.
The prophecies should be clear and specific. At least some of the prophecies are reasonably specific, but many are not.
The prophet in question should have a high degree of accuracy. In the cases where a prophet is even identified, this is difficult to determine due to lack of extra-Biblical evidence for the outcomes of their prophecies.
The event should not be easy to intentionally fulfill. As we can see from our discussion of the “triumphal entry” prophecy, this is not always the case. Some events would be much more difficult to manufacture in reality, but all are trivially easy to write about whether they happened or not.

Although it is not a requirement, it would also be nice to see one or more prophets in the Bible laying out a clear and specific set of prophecies about Jesus, as they do with other subjects.

Cherry-Picking Prophecies

If all of these “prophecies” were intended as such then why are so many of them simply a single verse or small section of a larger passage that, when read in its entirety, does not seem the prophecy that it is claimed to be?

For example, Psalm 41:9 is said to be a prophecy of Jesus being betrayed by Judas. If you read the entire 13 verse Psalm though, it is one man’s song about how the Lord will aid and protect people, and verses 9-10 are asking God to have mercy and help him through if he is betrayed by a close friend so that he can “repay them.”

Unless this is supposed to be someone writing a song as Jesus long before he was born and asking God to raise him up so that he can punish Judas for betraying him, it just doesn’t make sense. The idea of Jesus asking to be raised so that he can get Judas back really doesn’t fit with his character either, and again, the Psalms are just supposed to be songs, not prophecies.

Again this prophecy fails miserably to meet even the most basic prophetic requirements.

The Bible’s “prophecies” about Jesus are unusually scattered and disjointed, and many are not prophecies to begin with. It makes little sense to scatter a verse or two, seemingly randomly at times, in the works of each of a number of prophets without clearly identifying the subject of the prophecies, but the Bible does this. It does not inspire confidence in their validity.

Conclusion

It is difficult to be precise and accurate when dealing with all prophecy in the Bible, or even when dealing with all passages identified as prophecies about Jesus, so again we must break it down to the individual prophecy level.

Looking at the “Triumphal Entry” prophecy we have already examined in Part III, we see that it fails on one of the three most basic requirements. There is no need to look further at that point because it can not be honestly viewed as a fulfilled prophecy, unless the Bible’s accuracy as a historical document is taken on faith, and this is not a defensible position. Considering the historical, geographical, temporal, prophetic and other types of inaccuracies it contains, that is far more trust than it has earned.

It is true that the Bible contains stories about many real people and places, but so do many works which we know are embellished or largely fictional. The works of Homer for example were used to find the lost, and otherwise unknown, city of Troy. Does this make the Greek gods and monsters real? Of course not.

Neither does the author of Matthew’s knowledge of Herod The Great make his description of “the massacre of the innocents” or the author of Job’s the fire-breathing sea monster Leviathan real. Pseudo-historical documents are not only possible, but common.

In future articles we will examine some of the known inaccuracies of the Bible and prove the veracity of our claim that the Bible is not inerrant.

So where does this leave us?

Sadly this leaves us with many unanswered questions, many of which may never be answered. However, we can say with confidence that supporters of Biblical prophecy have not even come close to proving the Bible is inerrant, even on the issue of prophecy alone.

Even if we take the 10157:1 chance of Jesus fulfilling 48 prophecies as an accurate measure of probability, we know that many of these “prophecies” were never meant to foretell future events, and the probability that some or all of these supposed prophecy-fulfilling events were embellished or completely made up by the authors seems to be approaching 1:1.

Unless or until prophecy proponents can produce some reliable, extra-Biblical evidence of their fulfillment, that leaves the improbability of fulfilled prophecies argument dead in the water.

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

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.

Preacher Math: Prophetic Probabilities (Part II)

In Part I we examined the basic criteria that every prophecy should meet. Today we will strengthen the requirements to a level that actually makes them impressive.

Using just the basic criteria of a prophecy, being made (with the intent of telling the future) and fulfilled, anyone can make prophecies all day long with nearly 100% accuracy. Even saying “I prophesy that within the next 10 minutes you will breathe” would meet the basic criteria, but it would also almost always be true for a living person, so it is very unimpressive. So what would make it more impressive?

To be truly amazing, after meeting the most basic criteria a prophecy would also have to meet at least three further requirements:

  1. It must be specific.

    Saying in 1920 “One day The Soviet Union will dissolve” would not have been much of a prophecy, just a statement of the overwhelmingly probable.

    On the other hand, saying in 1820 that the Soviet Union would rise in 1917, spreading from Russia through much of eastern Europe and Asia, and then it would collapse in 1991 following a failed coup against a man with a coffee-stain-like birthmark on his head, that would be much more impressive.

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

    Anyone can make hundreds or thousands of predictions about the future, and if they are trying then they are likely to get at least some of them correct. This is not impressive.

    If we assume that the Bible is actually a complete and accurate record though, it does not appear to have a huge number of failed prophecies along with the accurate ones. However, it does have failures.

    Ezekiel’s prophecies of the destruction of Tyre and Egypt by King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon for example. Despite the semantic games some apologists try to play to make them appear to have been fulfilled, they were not and can not be now that Nebuchadnezzar is dead.

    If we believe that the Bible is inerrant, as many Christians do, then it should have no failed prophecies at all, but even if we assume that the Bible is a completely accurate record of prophecies made by a series of real prophets, there are prophecies which have clearly failed, and in some cases we can see clear proof of their failures today.

    We can not know how many unrecorded prophecies were made, or whether or not they were fulfilled, but even looking only at prophecies recorded in the Bible, we can see that the Biblical prophets are not infallible.

  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.

    An example of this is the difference between prophecies of a series of plagues as depicted in Exodus, which would have been far beyond the means of a person of that time to instigate, and riding into Jerusalem on a donkey as Jesus is said to have done in John 12 (or on two donkeys as Matthew 21 claims).

    If you wanted people to believe you were the Messiah, and there was a prophecy saying that you would do something so simple, would you not do it? If a famous psychic said “The reincarnation of Elvis will ride into Graceland in a pink Cadillac.”, do you think there would not be a nearly endless parade of Elvis impersonators “fulfilling the prophecy”? And this isn’t the savior of the world, just a human celebrity!

Evidence of Jesus?

The most commonly used “evidence” of Jesus is the single passage about him in the works of Josephus (a Jewish historian born just a few years after Jesus is said to have died).

Unfortunately we do not have the original documents and in the copies we do have this passage has clearly been altered at least, or quite possibly just completely added by a later scribe.

One of the main reasons we know this is not Josephus’s original work is that the passage calls Jesus the Messiah, and since Josephus lived and died as a Jew, never converting to Christianity, this is not something he would have said.

The biggest problem we have when trying to determine the validity of Biblical prophecies is that we can not establish any of the most important elements in most cases!

It’s true, there is evidence that certain cities were destroyed at some time in the past, but proving that they were destroyed at the right time, in the right manner, and that accurate prophecies of these events were made before the events happened has proved to be much more difficult.

Jesus’s birth, miracles, death and resurrection fare worse still. Even his historical existence seems to lack any real evidence. (See Evidence of Jesus?)

It may be true that a single person accurately fulfilling dozens or hundreds of prophecies while not failing to fulfill any prophecies from “real prophets” would be a near impossibility, but we have no evidence to suggest that many (if any) of these prophecies were real.

Maybe we are looking at the wrong set of probabilities. The probability that the Bible’s authors simply wrote their stories to appear to be fulfilling prophecies is starting to seem like a much more plausible explanation.

Tomorrow in Part III we will delve further into just one of the prophecies of Jesus to see if we can determine anything about its authenticity, and then we will attempt to draw some conclusions about these probabilities.

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

Preacher Math: Prophetic Probabilities (Part I)

Have you ever heard a preacher say that the odds against Jesus accurately fulfilling so many prophecies is essentially statistically impossible? They will happily tell you about as many supposedly fulfilled prophecies as they can remember, and they will probably expect you to take them at face value.

One of the most common sources used in this argument is from Peter Stoner who claimed in “Science Speaks” in 1963 that the probability of one man (Jesus) fulfilling 48 Biblical prophecies was 1 in 10157, and they make it sound even more impressive by stating that it is more than the number of electrons in the universe (estimated at 1079).

The main reason for this astounding number is that the believers are assuming from the start that these prophecies were all made and fulfilled perfectly. When we look at them in more depth though, how accurate and amazing do the prophecies really seem?

To consider a prophecy made and fulfilled, we should first prove that it at least meets these three criteria:

  1. The prophecy was made before the event happened.

    This is a simple demand, but difficult to prove. Unless manuscripts have been found which predate the supposed fulfillment of a prophecy, we can not know that the prophecy was written before the event.

    In cases where we do not have the original manuscripts and can not absolutely date their writing, it is also insufficient evidence to prove that a prophecy was not made prior to the event, but this should not lead us to just assume greater antiquity and credibility.

    Prophecies which can not be verified to have been written before the events they foretell must be viewed as suspect.

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

    Again this can be difficult to prove or disprove in the cases of many Biblical prophecies, but the astonishing lack of evidence for even such monumental events as “the massacre of the innocents” and many other prophecy-fulfilling elements of Jesus’s life leads to the conclusion that these events are unlikely to have happened.

    If we have no evidence of the fulfillment of a prophecy other than the uncorroborated word of someone who has ulterior motives for saying that it happened, as the Bible’s authors and editors did, we are unwise to take it as definitively true.

    When there is no supporting evidence of an event, it can only be taken on faith. When evidence is expected but not found, or when contrary evidence is found, then belief in the event even pushes the limits of faith.

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

    Strangely some New Testament authors inappropriately used certain Old Testament passages as if they were prophecies when they were never intended to be. Some of the best examples are the from Psalms where at least a dozen different supposed prophecies are made and later fulfilled by Jesus.

    Psalms is a book of songs, similar to a modern hymn book, and the songs included in it were never meant to be used as prophecy. Therefore, not being prophecies at all, they could not be fulfilled and the supposed fulfillment of these non-prophecies is only more evidence to support the idea that the New Testament authors were embellishing the truth or completely making things up.

Already the probability that Biblical prophecies are true and accurate is dropping rapidly, and the foundation of the “1 in 10157” chance is looking pretty shaky.

Tomorrow in Part II we will add the basic requirements for an impressive prophecy, and then finally in Part III we will examine a specific prophecy and then attempt to draw some conclusions.

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