How you, too, can be a prophet

December 29, 2007 | By | 11 Replies More

In a previous post (here), I described how the god-of-the-Bible can be shown to be entirely the result of self-fulfilling expectations and how such expectations could be applied to any ordinary person to create the appearance that the person is a god; in other words, how you, too, could be a “god.” In this post, I describe how you, too could be a prophet.

Let’s imagine you want to be regarded as a prophet. How might you do it? One easy way would be to write your predictions after they have already happened, so you could be certain your “prophecies” would be accurate. Another way would be to have many people read your predictions and then behave in ways that cause your predictions to come true — the aptly named self-fulfilling prophecy. A third way would be to predict things that are likely to happen anyway, and then claim credit when they do. A fourth way would be to write your predictions in vague language, without any expiration dates, and then simply wait until future events can be creatively interpreted to “fulfill” your vague prophecies. Yet another way would be to selectively interpret past events to support your “predictions,” a process known as revisionist history. (This last method is popular with rebel governments eager to portray their founders as “freedom fighters” instead of as “traitors.”) A sixth, and very powerful, way to be regarded as a “prophet” would be to write a wide range of predictions, and then simply publicize only the ones that come true, while quietly burying the ones that don’t. These are just a few of the many ways in which any ordinary person could make himself appear prophetic.

Now, let’s consider Christianity. Most devout Believers claim that prophecy is what distinguishes the Bible from all other holy texts; i.e., that the Bible is full of all sorts of prophecies that demonstrate the Bible’s validity. But are Bible prophecies trustworthy, or do they bear the marks of potential fraud like those mentioned above?

Well, we know, for example, that the four Gospels (and probably the rest of the New Testament books) were not written until many decades after the death of Jesus — plenty of time for “prophecies” to be revised to fit historical events and for any inaccurate “prophecies” to be expunged. Bible “prophecies” also have no expiration dates and are written in exceedingly vague language — so vague, for example, that the Second Coming of Christ has been predicted dozens of times, always without result. Many Bible “prophecies” also relate to likely events — for example, that wars will eventually occur between hostile nations; that powerful nations will eventually decline; that oppressed nations will eventually rise up; that droughts will eventually occur in desert regions; that plagues, fires, floods, etc., will eventually ravage communities and kill many people; etc. One of my favorite Bible “prophecies” is the “prediction” that believers in Jesus will be persecuted, as if this were somehow not self-evident. Indeed, I continue to be amazed at how often evangelical preachers successfully innoculate their followers by warning them to not allow their faith to be weakened by the ridicule of non-Believers — because, after all, the Bible “predicts” that Believers will be persecuted. Gosh, what an amazing “prediction”!

Likewise, many Bible prophecies could easily have been self-fulfilled — for example, the many Old Testament prophecies that Jesus supposedly satisfied. Obviously, Jesus and his followers were well-versed in OT prophecies (as were most other Jews of the time), so we should not be too surprised that some of their behaviors conformed to those prophecies. If the OT predicted that the messiah would ride into town on an ass, and Jesus (like a lot of other people) rode into town on an ass, was this a fulfillment of scripture, or was it merely a case of Jesus doing what the well-known OT prophecy said the messiah must do?

And what about Christian revisionist history? Well, we know that the Bible is the end result of careful editing by the early Catholic Church many centuries after Jesus’ death, and that the Church excluded many gospels it considered “blasphemous,” thus effectively burying many books that did not support their desired doctrine. If we consider who changed the Bible and why, we find ample opportunities for revisionist history.

In sum, when we examine the Bible “prophecies” that Believers point to as the foundation of their faith, we are hard-pressed to find any that are trustworthy. And if they all could have been easily faked — such as by enthusiasts in the early church eager to gain supporters, or by well-meaning but gullible Believers eager to defend their faith against a world of doubters — then what credence should we give to arguments based on these “prophecies?” This is not to say the Bible is completely untrustworthy (some of its descriptions of earthly historical events might well be accurate), just that assertions of the Bible’s supernatural validity cannot legitimately rest on recitations of its “prophecies.” The “prophecies” described in the Bible were simply too easy to fake.

Moreover, why doesn’t the Bible contain any verifiable scientific prophesies; i.e., scientific facts that was unknown when the Bible was written but that could have been conclusively confirmed later? For example: the distance to the nearest star; the mass of the electron; the formula for converting mass to energy in an atomic reaction; the formula for orbital rotation; the atomic number for a carbon atom; the universal gravitational constant; the fact that the brain, not the heart, is the organ of emotion; the fact that there was an undiscovered continent in the far western Atlantic Ocean; etc.? Or, what about information that would have been hugely beneficial to public health, such as: the germ theory of disease; the fact that water could be made safe by boiling; the fact that scurvy could be prevented by eating citrus fruit; etc.? God might have avoided an awful lot of human suffering if His “Word” had disclosed the formula for quinine, or penicilin, or anesthesia, or aspirin; instead, we had to wait two millenia for humans to discover these cures ourselves. Indeed, for more than a thousand years after the time of Jesus, Christian doctrine taught that our planet was the center of the universe, that our Moon was an unblemished sphere, and that the other planets in our solar system revolved in perfect circles around the Earth. With so many teachings that were utter nonsense, why do so many Believers rest so much of their faith on the Bible’s alleged “prophecies?”

Well, if we turn back the calendar two thousand years to a time when science as we know it did not exist, we find people who relied, instead, on myth and superstition…dreams and visions…miracles and “prophecies”…to understand the world around them. Christianity, and virtually all other major religions on our planet today, germinated in such a world. It was a world in which people were apparently easy to fool — a world in which you, too, could have been a prophet.

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About the Author ()

Grumpypilgrim is a writer and management consultant living in Madison, WI. He has several scientific degrees, including a recent master’s degree from MIT. He has also held several professional career positions, none of which has been in a field in which he ever took a university course. Grumps is an avid cyclist and, for many years now, has traveled more annual miles by bicycle than by car…and he wishes more people (for the health of both themselves and our planet) would do the same. Grumps is an enthusiastic advocate of life-long learning, healthy living and political awareness. He is single, and provides a loving home for abused and abandoned bicycles. Grumpy’s email: grumpypilgrim(AT)@gmail(DOT).com [Erich’s note: Grumpy asked that his email be encrypted this way to deter spam. If you want to write to him, drop out the parentheticals in the above address].

Comments (11)

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  1. Vicki Baker says:

    Grumpy, you fail to recognize how many of the OT prophets were not making predictions as much as critiquing their own society, much as writers in the sci-fi genre critique our society in their utopias and dystopias.

    The verses most quoted in the civil rights struggle and the peace and justice movement are from the books of prophecy:

    They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore. Micah 4:3

  2. grumpypilgrim says:

    Vicki, you have me puzzled. If the OT prophets were not making predictions, then why were they called prophets?

  3. Vicki Baker says:

    Grumpy:

    from the Cambridge Dictionary Online:

    prophet

    noun [C]

    1 a person who is believed to have a special power which allows them to say what a god wishes to tell people, especially about things that will happen in the future:

    an Old Testament prophet

    Let us hear the words of the prophet Isaiah on the coming of the Prince of Peace.

    2 a person who supports a new system of beliefs and principles:

    Rousseau, that great prophet of the modern age

  4. Vicki Baker says:

    Also, consider the literary genre of the jeremiad, named after the prophet Jeremiah. Wikipedia defines jeremiad as: "a long literary work, usually in prose, but sometimes in poetry, in which the author bitterly laments the state of society and its morals in a serious tone of sustained invective, " I believe I may have read one or two Jeremiads here at DI.

    It's not that your idea of a prophet is wrong or that christians don't selectively interpret certain OT texts as predictions of Christ's birth, etc. It's just not the whole story. The other dimension of the prophet persona in the Jewish tradition was of a person who went out to the wilderness, deliberately isolating himself from traditional power structures in order to gain status as a holy man. He could then use that status to speak truth to power and influence society while still remaining outside the priestly/kingly power structure.

  5. Martin says:

    Some years ago I had a debate with an art Professor about the definition of art. His basic position was that art is the stuff produced by artists. So I asked him, "then what is an artist?" and he said that an artist is anyone who produces art. This struck me then and will probably strike most readers of this website as being a circular argument. The art Professor's point was that this was not intended to be either an argument or a definition; it is simply the truth.

    We think of some of the plays of Shakespeare as being comedies. The Shakespeare who wrote them is considered a comedian not because he has an inexhaustible supply of really funny jokes, but because he wrote comedies.

    In the bible, some books are called Prophesy. A prophet then is someone who wrote a book of Prophesy. This may not have anything whatsoever to do with predicting the future.

    For a fuller understanding of the role of prophets in biblical times you might try reading a book by Robin Lane Fox, called The Unauthorized Version, Truth and Fiction in the Bible. Chapter 18, called Back To The Future, deals exclusively with Prophets and clearly explains that the importance to a society or culture of their Prophets is not determined by the truth of their prophecies. One example: In an age before mass media, and even before most people could read or write, prophets served as a reminder that actions have consequences, and that your actions can have consequences for people you may never meet. The prophet's job is not necessarily to predict the particular consequence of your action but to remind you of the words later made famous by Donne; no man is an island.

    Incidentally, I have not been able to locate your "favourite" biblical prophesy, that believers will be persecuted. Could you please provide a reference for this?

  6. grumpypilgrim says:

    Further to Vicki's comment, my use of the term 'prophet' was limited to the aspect of foretelling future events because that was the usage I was writing about: namely, Believers who point to Biblical prophecy as their basis for declaring that Jesus was The Messiah, that Jesus was the Son of God, etc. That there might be other uses of the word is thus not germane to my post.

    To answer Martin's question: I cannot point to my 'favorite' Biblical prophecy, because that particular example comes not from my own reading of the Bible, but from various televangelist sermons I have heard. I didn't research the source myself because I've heard this statement from more than one preacher and, thus, assumed it came from somewhere in the Bible.

    In an effort to keep comments more on-point, let me remind readers that my post was about the use of Bible 'prophecies' to support the allegedly divine nature of Jesus, when in fact Bible 'prophecies' are so conspicuously untrustworthy that they cannot reliably support such claims. When 'prophecies' are written after the fact, when they are vague and open-ended, when they relate to events that almost anyone could predict, etc., they lose their claim to divine providence and become nothing more than convenient fiction. Accordingly, when Believers cite such 'prophecies' as their primary basis for asserting the Bible's authority, such claims must be discounted or, at the very least, questioned.

  7. Is that something like, "Ceci n'est pas un prophétie?"

  8. Vicki Baker says:

    Well, if we turn back the calendar two thousand years to a time when science as we know it did not exist, we find people who relied, instead, on myth and superstition…dreams and visions…miracles and “prophecies”…to understand the world around them. Christianity, and virtually all other major religions on our planet today, germinated in such a world. It was a world in which people were apparently easy to fool — a world in which you, too, could have been a prophet.

    It was this bit that moved me to add some more historical perspective. It's not like this is some arcane theological trivia either, I heard an African-American commentator on NPR use the term "prophetic tradition" in just the sense I described just the other day.

    Mlle. Projektleiterin: Comment? Ceci n’est pas une pipe: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Treachery_Of_Ima

    My great-grandfather supposedly was able to predict the weather with uncanny accuracy, but according to my father he always disclaimed, "I'm no prophet, but I watch the wind and the clouds."

  9. Vicki, it looks like a prophecy, walks like a prophecy and quacks like a prophecy, but it's not one. 😀

  10. grumpypilgrim says:

    "My great-grandfather supposedly was able to predict the weather with uncanny accuracy, but according to my father he always disclaimed, 'I’m no prophet, but I watch the wind and the clouds.'"

    Vicki's comment points to yet another type of false prophecy — those based on specialized knowledge known to only a few people. No doubt more than a few ancient astronomers were able to enhance their social standing by being able to predict things such as eclipses, not because they received special divine revelation, but because they knew more than their contemporaries did about the motions of the planets.

    Speaking of which, there has been considerable discussion this past week about the Star of Bethlehem and how it guided the Three Wise Men to Jesus' birthplace. What no one mentioned was that among the various prophecies about the Star was that it supposedly rose in the east. However, since *all* stars rise in the east, this prophecy, like so many in the Bible, can hardly be considered divinely inspired. Moreover, since stars move across the sky as our planet rotates about its axis, there is no fixed point on our planet (excluding the North and South Poles) that can be considered "underneath" a given star. Accordingly, the notion that a star "guided" the Wise Men to a specific location (longitude and latitude) in a specific town (namely, Jesus' manger) is simply ridiculous. Indeed, the "longitude problem" — the ability to navigate to a given longitude based on celestial observation — was not solved until the 18th century.

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