Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Messianic Prophecy - Part 9

In Chapter 3 of Science Speaks, Peter Stoner discusses an alleged prophecy from Malachi:

2. "Behold, I will send my messenger, and he shall prepare the way before me" (Mal. 3:1).

Our question here is: Of the men who have been born in Bethlehem, one man in how many has had a forerunner to prepare his way? John the Baptist, of course, was the forerunner of Christ. But since there appears to be no material difference between the people born in Bethlehem and those born any other place in the world, the question can just as well be general: One man in how many, the world over, has had a forerunner to prepare his way?

The students said that the prophecy apparently referred to a special messenger of God, whose one duty was to prepare the way for the work of Christ, so there is a further restriction added. The students finally agreed on one in 1,000 as being extremely conservative. Most of the members thought the estimate should be much larger. We will use the estimate as 1 in 103.

According to Peter Stoner, Malachi 3:1 should be interpreted as making the following prediction:

(2) A special messenger of God will prepare the way for the Messiah.

This interpretation will not work, however, because there is no objective and reliable test for determining whether a given person is a special messenger of God.  Even if John the Baptist had performed amazing miracles, and there is no reason to believe that he performed any miracles, one could still raise reasonable doubts about whether John the Baptist was a special messenger of God (or any sort of messenger from God).  First of all, one can reasonably doubt whether there is any God in the first place, and second, one might attribute alleged miracles either to deception, or magic, or to demonic power.  It would beg the question to assume that John the Baptist was indeed a special messenger of God, so in order to have any chance of using Malachi 3:1 as evidence for Jesus being the Messiah, one must first come up with a more neutral and objective prediction based on this passage.

Here is a more objective  and testable prediction that is close in meaning to Stoner's interpretation:

(2a) Someone claiming to be a special messenger of God will prepare the way for the Messiah.

One difficulty here is that anyone (who can speak or write or communicate in sentences) can claim to be 'a special messenger of God'.  So, it is easy for anyone who wishes to to satisfy this condition.  If John the Baptist wanted to fulfil this prophecy and to thus provide 'evidence' that Jesus was the Messiah, then all John had to do was to claim to be 'a special messenger of God' and to proclaim that Jesus was the Messiah.  Thus, this prediction is easy for anyone to intentionally fulfill.

A second diffuculty is that the phrase 'prepare the way for X' is vague, leaving many possible ways for this prophecy to be fulfilled.   Think about the following question:

Has anybody prepared the way for me?

I can think of many different people who have 'prepared the way' for me. 

As a teenager I was a very devout Evangelical Christian believer.  I carried a Bible with me to school every school day, and I led Bible Studies during lunch period at high school.  Did anyone 'prepare the way' for me to become a devout Christian?  Yes.  My parents made me go to Sunday school when I was a child, and that provided me with a background about the Bible and basic Christian beliefs. So, my parents and Sunday school teachers 'prepared the way' for my teenage Christian faith.

Although as a child I unthinkingly accepted belief in God and belief in the Bible as God's primary communication to mankind, I did not become a devout follower of Jesus and the Bible as a child.  I had a conversion experience as a teenager that resulted in a decade of life as a devout follower of Jesus and the Bible. 

Did anyone 'prepare the way' for this conversion (besides my parents and Sunday school teachers)?  Yes.  I was invited to attend various prayer meetings and Bible studies led by Charismatic 'Jesus People' when I was a young teenager, and the leaders and others at these meetings influenced me and persuaded me to become a dedicated follower of Jesus and the Bible.  I can think of three or four individual people who were leaders or enthusiastic followers in these meetings, who 'prepared the way' for my conversion experience.  So, we are now up to around eight people who directly and personally 'prepared the way' for the decade of my life in which I was a devout follower of Jesus.

Of course, I could not have been a devout follower of Jesus, if there had not been a Jesus to follow, or at least stories about Jesus and written teachings allegedly from Jesus for me to read.  Where did these stories and writings come from?  The authors of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John (whoever they might have been) are clearly among those who 'prepared the way' for my years as a devout follower of Jesus.  Furthermore, many scribes worked diligently for centuries to preserve the Gospel texts by manually copying these texts, so all of those scribes 'prepared the way' for my teenage conversion. 

Also, I was not a textual scholar nor could I read ancient Greek as a teenager, so many NT textual scholars and translators also 'prepared the way' for my teenage conversion to Christianity.  In addition, I would not have been able to read the English translation of the Gospels had I not been taught how to read English, so I must also acknowledge that my elementary school teachers had also 'prepared the way' for me to read the Gospels in English.

The Gospels have not always been available in translations into commonly used languages.  Some people had to fight and to die for the sake of the practice of translating the NT from Greek to commonly used languages like English, French, and German.  So, among others William Tyndale also 'prepared the way' for my conversion to Christianity.  There would have been no English translation of the Bible by Tyndale apart from the influence of Martin Luther and Desiderius Erasmus, so those men also 'prepared the way' for my conversion. 

The early NT manuscripts probably would not have survived for two thousand years if Christianity had not spread quickly and widely through the Roman empire in the first and second centuries.  But this would not have happened apart from the missionary effort of Peter and Paul and other early preachers of faith in Jesus.  So, Peter, Paul, and other early Christian leaders also 'prepared the way' for my faith in Jesus.

It appears that, with a little bit of effort, I could identify hundreds of people who played a significant role in 'preparing the way' for my conversion experience as a teenager.  Furthermore, this conversion experience represents only one particular aspect of my life.  Another important aspect of my life is that I became a student of philosophy, critical thinking, and skepticism.  Again, it would be fairly easy to identify hundreds of people who played a significant role in 'preparing the way' for me to become deeply involved in philosophy, critical thinking, and skepticism.  There are, of course, still other important aspects of my life: my musical interests, my political views, my marriage and family, my health and physical activities, my career and financial status, etc.

In conclusion, with a little bit of thought and effort, I could generate a list of thousands of people who have 'prepared the way' for various important aspects of my life. 

Another way of looking at this is that everything has a history. Cups and silverware have a history.  Cups and silverware have not always existed.  They were invented, and they developed over the centuries.  Nearly every artifact has such a deep history.  Natural objects and natural activities also have a history.  The universe has a history; the Milky Way has a history; our solar system has a history; the Earth and life on Earth has a history.  Human values, beliefs, and practices all have histories, and the histories of human values, beliefs, and practices typically include many people who played a significant role in either creating or developing that idea or practice.

To be continued...

Friday, March 30, 2012

Messianic Prophecy - Part 8

According to Peter Stoner, Micah 5:2 should be interpreted as making the following prediction:

(1) The Messiah will be born in Bethlehem.

There are three parts to this interpretation:

(a) The Messiah
(b) X will be born in Y
(c) Bethlehem

I have previously argued that there are reasonable doubts about the subject of the passage being 'The Messiah', because the term 'the Messiah' does not occur anywhere in Micah, and only occurs in one single passage in the entire Old Testament.  I have also previously argued that there are reasonable doubts about the form of the predicate being 'X will be born in Y'. The passage does not use the term 'born' and there are other ways that one can be 'from' a specific town or city besides having been born in that town or city.

There is also reasonable doubt about the third component of Stoner's interpretation.  The passage does explicitly refer to "Bethlehem of Ephratha", but it is not clear whether this is a reference to the town of Bethlehem.

Some background information will be helfpful here.  Consider the word 'Israel'. To what does this Old Testament word refer?  You don't have to have a Bible dictionary to answer this question. An ordinary dictionary will do the trick (from my old American Heritage Dictionary):

Israel1. A republic, founded in 1948…  2. The kingdom of ten tribes founded in northern Palestine by Jeroboam in 933 B.C. and destroyed by the Assyrians in 721 B.C.

Israel1. The decendants of Jacob.  2. The whole Hebrew people, past, present, and future, regarded as the chosen people of Jehovah by virtue of the covenant of Jacob.  3. The Christian church, regarded as...

IsraelA name of the patriarch Jacob.

Some of the definitions are obviously not relevant to the Old Testament (i.e. "A republic founded in 1948"  and "The Christian church"). But we can see that there are three or four different meanings that are relevant.  The word 'Israel' can refer to a specific person (Jacob), a collection of people (the decendants of Jacob or the Hebrew people), or to a kingdom or territory.  According to the Old Testament, a man named Jacob was re-named 'Israel' and his decendants became the Hebrew people (the nation of Israel) which took possession of cities and land in Palestine, part of which became the Kingdom of Israel, for about 200 years.

A similar ambiguity exists with several other proper nouns in the Old Testament.  For example, the word 'Judah' has a similar ambiguity:

JudahSon of Jacob and Leah; ancestor of one of the twelve tribes of Israel.

JudahThe tribe of Israel decended from Judah.

JudahAn ancient kingdom in southern Palestine, occupied by the tribes of Judah and Benjamin and governed by the decendants of Solomon.

The proper noun 'Judah' can refer to a person, a tribe, or a kingdom/territory.

Because proper names in the Old Testament can have multiple references, to people, tribes, kingdoms, and places, we need to be aware of the possibility that the phrase "Bethlehem of Ephrathah" might also be ambiguous and have more than one referent.  Obviously, one plausible interpretation is that this phrase refers to the town of Bethlehem.  But one can reasonably ask whether there might be some other intended referent.

A parenthetical phrase that follows the words "Bethlehem of Ephrathah" strongly suggests that the author was not referring to a town or place:

But you, O Bethlehem of
Ephrathah,
who are one of the little clans
of Judah,
from you shall come forth for me...

In the parenthetical phrase, 'Bethlehem of Ephrathah' is referred to as a 'clan' not as a city or town.  A clan is a subdivision of a tribe.  The people of Israel were made up of twelve tribes, and each tribe was subdivided into clans.  A 'clan' is thus something like an extended family, as in "We are having a family reunion".  So, the parenthetical comment implies that the referent of the phrase 'Bethlehem of Ephrathah' is a group of people who are part of an extended family, a part of a subdivision of a tribe of people.  The specific tribe is mentioned explicitly: Judah (unless 'Judah' here means the person Judah, but in that case since the tribe of Judah consists of the descendants of the person Judah, there is at least an implied reference to the tribe of Judah, to the people who descended from the person Judah, or who are considered to be descendants of the person Judah).

The tribe of Judah is of special significance because it is the tribe from which the king David came.  The town of Bethlehem is also known for being the town from which king David came, and it was the town of his ancestors (for example, his grandmother Ruth lived in Bethlehem).
'Bethlehem' is the name of a person, as well as the name of a town.  The same is true of the proper noun 'Ephrathah' :

Ephrathah...(PERSON)
Another name for Ephrath, the wife of Caleb (1 Chr. 2:24; 4:4).

Ephrathah...(PLACE)
A place name used in reference to Bethlehem and the surrounding region (Ruth 4:11; Mic. 5:2).  Jesse, the father of David, is called an Ephrathite of Bethlehem (1 Sam. 17:12), as are Naomi, her husband, and their sons (Ruth 1:2).  The LXX includes Ephrathah in the list of places near Bethlehem which it inserts after Joshua 15:59.


Ephrathah also appears as the name of a woman (1 Chr. 2:19) who is identified as an ancenstor (eponymous) of Bethlehem, Tekoa, Beth-gader, and Kiriath-jearim (1 Chr. 2:24, 50-51; 4:4-5), well-known towns in northern Judah.  It is unclear whether the kinship group associated with this territory took its name from such a person or whether the name is merely a personification of the territory for genealogical purposes. ...
(Eerdman's Dictionary of the Bible, p.417)

Clearly, the words 'Bethlehem of Ephrathah' have the same sort of ambiguity as the word 'Israel" and the word 'Judah'.  And since the parenthetical comment implies that Bethlehem is a 'clan',  it is doubtful that the phrase 'Bethlehem of Ephrathah' is simply a reference to a place or town.   Rather, given that king David's father Jesse was an 'Ephrathite of Bethlehem', it seems more likely that Micah 5:2 is talking about the tribe and clan that the 'one who will rule in Israel' is to come from, namely from the same tribe and clan as king David.  One can come from that tribe and clan without having been born in a specific town, such as Bethlehem.

So, there are at least three different plausible interpretations of Micah 5:2:

1.  The one who is to rule in Israel will be born in the town of Bethlehem.
2. The one who is to rule in Israel will come from the town of Bethlehem.
3. The one who is to rule in Israel will come from the same clan as king David.

Because of the parenthetical comment that implies 'Bethlehem of Ephrathah' to be a 'clan', I believe that interpretation (3) is most likely to be correct, and because the word 'born' does not occur in Micah 5:2, interpretation (2) is more likely to be correct than interpretation (1).   I believe it is very likely that one of these three is the correct interpretation, so I will assume that the probabilities of these interpretations will add up to a total of 1.0. 

Here are my probability estimates:

P(Interpreation 3 is correct) = .5
P(Interpretation 2 is correct) = .3
P(Interpretation 1 is correct) = .2

Because the concept of 'The Messiah' arose after the Old Testament was completed, Peter Stoner's interpretation of Micah 5:2 is almost certainly incorrect.  However, there was a hope in the Old Testament that a new king or ruler would arise and bring back the golden age of the Kingdom of Israel under king David.  So, interpretation 1 is fairly close to Stoner's interpretation.

If we take the correctness of interpretation 1 to be good enough to say that Stoner's intepretation was correct, then we can calculate the probability that Stoner's conjunctive claim about Micah 5:2 is correct:

Interpretation (1) is correct AND Jesus was born in Bethlehem.

Each of the conjuncts has a probability of about .2 (two chances in ten) of being true, and we can reasonably assume that there is no significant causal influence between the truth or falsity of the two conjuncts, so we can use the simple multiplication rule here:

.2 x .2 = .04

The probability that Stoner's conjunctive claim about Micah 5:2 is correct is less than .1 (less than one chance in ten).

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Messianic Prophecy - Part 7

According to Peter Stoner, Micah 5:2 should be interpreted as making the following prediction:

(1) The Messiah will be born in Bethlehem.

There are three parts to this interpretation:

(a) The Messiah
(b) X will be born in Y
(c) Bethlehem

I have previously pointed out that the word 'Messiah' does not appear anywhere in Micah, and it only appears in one passage in one book of the Old Testament, in certain translations.  Thus, the subject of the interpretation by Stoner (i.e. 'The Messiah') is a matter of inference which can be questioned, and is subject to reasonable doubt.

The general form of the interpretation is also subject to reasonable doubt.  The idea that
'X will be born in Y' is not stated in Micah 5:2.  The word 'born' does not appear in Micah 5:2.  What it states is this:

But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days.
(Michah 5:2, NRSV, emphasis added)

One can be from a city or town without being born in that town.  I am from Healdsburg, California, because that is where I grew up.  But I was born in Santa Monica, California.  I am also from Cambria, California, because that is where I attended High School.  I am from Santa Rosa, California, because that is where I got my first real job, and where I lived when I was first married.  I am from Santa Barbara, California, because that is where I lived for many years while my wife and I attended UCSB.  I am from Kirkland, Washington, because that is where I have lived for the past decade.  Most of us can be said to be from many different towns and cities, because we have lived in a number of different towns and cities over the course of a lifetime.  But each of us was born in only one location.

Micah 5:2 does not specify that the Messiah will be born in a certain town; it states that 'one who is to rule in Israel' will be from Bethlehem of Ephrathah.  The author of Micah might have had in mind the birth of the Messiah, but since he did not say this explicitly, we cannot be sure that is what was intended. 


It doen't matter much what probabilities we assign to these two interpretations, because the only way that Jesus would have been 'from' the town of Bethlehem is by having been born there, which probably was not the case.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Messianic Prophecy - Part 6

According to Peter Stoner, Micah 5:2 should be interpreted as making the following prediction:

(1) The Messiah will be born in Bethlehem.

There are three parts to this interpretation:

(a) The Messiah
(b)  X  will be born in Y
(c) Bethlehem

There are reasonable grounds, as we shall see, for doubt about each of the three parts of this interpretation of Micah 5:2.  I have already pointed out that the passage does not explicitly specify that "The Messiah" would be born in Bethlehem, because the term "The Messiah" cannot be found anywhere in the book of Micah, nor does it occur anywhere in the Old Testament, with the possible exception of one passage in the book of Daniel.

I'm not saying that Peter Stoner's interpretation is wrong.  It might be the best interpretation available, or one of the best interpretations.  However, there are other possible interpretations which have some degree of plausibility.  So, I suspect that in the end, a rational person will conclude that the interpretation proposed by Stoner has some significant degree of probability of being correct, but also some significant degree of probability of being incorrect, and that some alternative interpretations will have some significant degree of probability of being correct.

So, when all is said and done, we are likely to end up with a matrix of probabilities that consists of a set of various probabilities assigned to alternative interpretations, some being more likely to be the correct interpretation than others, plus a set of various probabilities of it being the case that Jesus actually fulfilled the alleged prediction, the probability of fulfillment varying with the interpretation of the prediction.

Suppose there are four different plausible interpretations of Micah 5:2, and suppose that Stoner's interpretation was the most likely of the four to be correct.  We might end up with a set of probabilities like this:

  • Interpretation A has a probability of .4 of being the correct interpretation of Micah 5:2.
  • Interpretation B has a probability of .3 of being the correct interpretation of Micah 5:2. 
  • Interpretation C has a probability of .2 of being the correct interpretation of Micah 5:2.
  • Interpretation D has a probability of .1 of being the correct interpretation of Micah 5:2.
The probability of each interpretation would need to be multiplied by the probability that Jesus actually fulfilled that interpretation.  So, if interpretation A was Stoner's interpretation, namely that "The Messiah will be born in Bethlehem", then, based on my previous estimate, there is a probability of .2 that Jesus was in fact born in Bethlehem, and we would multiply the probability of the correctness of interpretation A times the probability that Jesus fulfilled that prediction, to obtain the probability of the following conjunctive claim:

(4) The correct interpretation of Micah 5:2 is that it predicts that 'The Messiah will be born in Bethlehem' AND Jesus was in fact born in Bethlehem.

Based on the above suppositions, the probability of this claim would be calculated using the simple multiplication rule:

P(4) = .4 x .2 = .08

I have not claimed or argued that the probability of Stoner's interpretation being correct is in fact .4, so this is only an illustration of how the reasoning will work, once we have determined what interpretations of Micah 5:2 a plausible, and which interpretations are most probably correct.  But it seems to me that a matrix of these two kinds of probability judgments, one for the correctness of alternative interpretations, and one for the correctness of historical claims about Jesus, is how a rational person ought to approach Messianic prophecy in the Old Testament.  Furthermore, it looks to me like such an approach will take a good deal of the wind out of Peter Stoner's sails.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Messianic Prophecy - Part 5

According to Peter Stoner, Micah 5:2 makes the following prediction:

(1) The Messiah will be born in Bethlehem.

If this interpretation is correct, then Stoner has given us a good reason to believe that Jesus was not the Messiah, because it is probably the case that Jesus was not born in Bethlehem:


(1) The Messiah will be born in Bethlehem.
(2) Jesus was not born in Bethlehem.
Therefore:
(3) Jesus was not the Messiah.

Before we can conclude that Jesus was not the Messiah, we need to determine whether Stoner’s interpretation of Micah 5:2 is correct.

The first thing to note about Micah 5:2, is that it does not specifically state that “The Messiah will be born in Bethlehem”. Consider the New Revised Standard Version translation of this verse:

But you, O Bethlehem of
Ephrathah,
who are one of the little clans
of Judah,
from you shall come forth for me
one who is to rule in Israel,
whose origin is from of old,
from ancient days.

Note that the word “Messiah” does not appear in the verse. Nor does the synonym “Christ” appear in this verse. In fact, the word “Messiah” and the word “Christ” do not occur anywhere in the book of Micah.

Furthermore, the word “Christ” and the word “Messiah” do not occur anywhere in the entire Old Testament in the New Revised Standard Version, nor in the Old Testament of the Revised Standard Version, nor in the OT of: the English Standard Version, the New International Version, nor the Contemporary English Version.

In order to find the word “Messiah” in the Old Testament, you will need to look in either the New American Standard Bible or the King James Version. The word “Christ” does not appear anywhere in the entire Old Testament of either of those versions, but the word “Messiah” does occur in just one passage in the Old Testament, in the book of Daniel, the last book of the Old Testament to be written (see Daniel 9:25 & 9:26).

According to Stoner the Old Testament contains hundreds of Messianic prophecies:

More than three hundred prophecies from the Old Testament which deal with the first advent of Christ have been listed. Every one of them was completely fulfilled by Jesus Christ.
(Science Speaks, Chapter 3)

If there are three hundred prophecies in the Old Testament about Christ then why does the word “Christ” never appear in the Old Testament? and why does the word “Messiah” appear in only one passage of the Old Testament (and in only a few translations of that passage)?

You will not find the statement that “Christ will be born in Bethlehem” anywhere in the Old Testament, because the word “Christ” does not appear anywhere in the Old Testament! Nor will you find the statement that “The Messiah will be born in Bethlehem” anywhere in the Old Testament, because the word “Messiah” is either never used in the Old Testament, or is used only in one single passage (Daniel 9:25-26), which does not talk about where the Messiah will be born.

We see here one fundamental problem with alleged “Messianic Prophecies” in the Old Testament. The Old Testament never clearly and explicitly makes a prediction about “Christ” or the “Messiah”, with the possible exception of Daniel 9:25-26. So, in at least 299 of the 300 alleged prophecies about Christ, one must make inferences in order to interpret the passage as one that is making a prediction about the Messiah.

This means that the door is opened wide for the problem of confirmation bias.

Experiments have repeatedly found that people tend to test hypotheses in a one-sided way, by searching for evidence consistent with the hypothesis they hold at a given time. Rather than searching through all the relevant evidence, they ask questions that are phrased so that an affirmative answer supports their hypothesis. They look for the consequences that they would expect if their hypothesis were true, rather than what would happen if it were false.
(From the Wikipedia acticle “Confirmation bias”, viewed 3/17/12:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Confirmation_bias )

One can search through the Old Testament looking for predictions that fit with the life of Jesus, and then, upon finding such passages, work at interpreting the passage to be a prediction about the Messiah, whether or not that was the actual intention of the author of that passage. The lack of clarity of the Old Testament on this matter makes it difficult to determine which passages are talking about Christ and which are not.

If an omniscient deity wanted to communicate specific detailed predictions about Christ or the Messiah through the Old Testament prophets, then we would expect to find many (perhaps hundreds) of Old Testament passages that clearly make statements about Christ or the Messiah by using the word “Christ” or “the Messiah”. The fact that there is (at most) one single passage in the entire Old Testament that specifically refers to “the Messiah” indicates that it is NOT the case that an omniscient deity was trying to communicate numerous detailed predictions about Christ.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Messianic Prophecy - Part 4

We have seen that a couple of leading NT and Jesus scholars, E.P. Sanders and James Dunn, have serious doubts about the claim that Jesus was born in Bethlehem. 

Another leading Jesus scholar, John Meier, has recently published a series of volumes on the life of Jesus, and Volume 1 offers a thorough discussion of the birth stories in Matthew and Luke (see A Marginal Jew, Vol. 1 , p.208-216).  Meier also arrives at a skeptical conclusion:

While Jesus' birth in Bethlehem cannot be positively ruled out (one can rarely "prove a negative" in ancient history), we must accept the fact that the predominant view in the Gospels and Acts is that Jesus came from Nazareth and--apart from Chapters 1-2 of Matthew and Luke--only from Nazareth.  The somewhat contorted or suspect ways in which Matthew and Luke reconcile the dominant Nazareth tradition with the special Bethlehem  tradition of their Infancy Narratives may indicate that Jesus' birth at Bethlehem is to be taken not as a historical fact but as a theologoumenon, i.e. as a theological affirmation (e.g., Jesus is the true Son of David, the prophesied royal Messiah) put into the form of an apparently historical narrative. (A Marginal Jew, Vol. 1, p.216)

We do not know for certain that Jesus was born in Nazareth, nor do we know for certain that Jesus was not born in Behtlehem.  But the currently available evidence points strongly towards the view that Jesus was born in Nazareth (or somewhere in Galilee) and away from the view that Jesus was born in Bethlehem.  Like Stoner, we should try to think in terms of probability here:

1. Jesus was born in Nazareth.  (Probability = .4)
2. Jesus was born in Galilee, somewhere other than in Nazareth. (Probability = .3)
3. Jesus was born in Bethlehem. (Probability = .2)
4. Jesus was born in Judea, somewhere other than in Bethlehem (Probability = .1) 

There are other possibilities besides these four, but it is almost certain that Jesus was born in one of these four towns/areas.  My estimate is thus that the probability that Jesus was born in Bethlehem is .2 (= two chances in ten), and the probability that Jesus was not born in Bethlehem is .8 (= eight chances in ten).  Based on this estimate, we can conclude that it is very likely (eight chances in ten) that Jesus was not the Messiah.

This, of course, assumes that Micah 5:2 is a Messianic prophecy, and that Stoner has correctly interpreted that passage.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Messianic Prophecy - Part 3

From Chapter 3 of Science Speaks by Peter Stoner:

1. "But thou, Bethlehem Ephratah, though thou be little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of thee shall he come forth unto me that is to be ruler in Israel; whose goings forth have been from of old, from everlasting" (Micah 5:2).


This prophecy predicts that the Christ is to be born in Bethlehem. Since this is the first prophecy to be considered there are no previously set restrictions, so our question is: One man in how many, the world over, has been born in Bethlehem?


This very first example of Messianic prophecy provides us not with a good reason to believe that Jesus was the Messiah, but with a good reason to believe that Jesus was NOT the Messiah. Someone can be the Messiah only if he (or she) fulfills ALL of the predictions of the Old Testament about the Messiah (or has fulfilled most of them so far, and it is reasonable to believe that he or she will eventually fulfill all of them).

Assuming that Stoner is correct that this is a prediction by an OT prophet about the Messiah, and assuming that Stoner's interpretation of the prediction is correct, then the following is true:

(1) The Messiah will be born in Bethlehem.

I, for example, cannot be the Messiah, because I was not born in Bethlehem. If Jesus was born in Bethlehem, then Jesus satisfies this necessary condition for being the Messiah, and that would make him at least a candidate for being the Messiah. Since many people have been born in Behtlehem over the centuries, and since there is supposed to be only one Messiah, being born in Bethlehem is not a sufficient condition of being the Messiah, just a necessary condition.

On the other hand, if Jesus was not born in Bethlehem, then, just like me, he could not be the Messiah, for he would fail to satisfy this necessary condition of being the Messiah.

According to Stoner, Jesus was born in Bethlehem. But Stoner is not an historian, nor is he a New Testament scholar. He is not an expert on the historical Jesus, so his assertion that Jesus was born in Bethlehem doesn't carry much weight.

If you read what leading NT scholars and Jesus scholars have to say about the birth-of-Jesus stories in Matthew and Luke, you will find out that most scholars conclude that it is unlikely that the historical Jesus was actually born in Bethlehem. If these scholars are correct, then we have good reason to believe that Jesus was NOT the Messiah:

(1) The Messiah will be born in Bethlehem.
(2) Jesus was not born in Bethlehem.
Therefore,
(3) Jesus was not the Messiah.

This argument does not prove that Jesus is not the Messiah, because we don't know for sure where Jesus was born. It is possible that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, but the currently available evidence goes against that claim, making it probable that premise (2) is true, which, other things being equal, makes it probable that (3) is also true. Thus, contrary to his own intentions, Stoner has provided us with a good reason to believe that Jesus was not the Messiah.

E.P. Sanders is a leading NT and Jesus scholar. In his book The Historical Figure of Jesus, he has an extended discussion of the birth stories in Matthew and Luke (see p. 80-91). His conclusion is that...

It is not possible for both these stories to be accurate. It is improbable that either is. They agree on only two sets of 'facts': in real history, Jesus was from Nazareth; in salvation history, he must have been born in Bethlehem. They disagree on which town was originally the family's home, and they also have completely different devices for moving it from one place to another. (HFOJ, p.86)

In any case, Luke's real source for the view that Jesus was born in Bethlehem was almost certainly the conviction that Jesus fulfilled a hope that someday a descendant of David would arise to save Israel. Zechariah had predicted that God would 'raise up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David' (quoted in Luke 1:69); Jesus was this 'horn of salvation' ; therefore Jesus was born in David's city. (HFOJ, p.87)

The birth narratives constitute an extreme case. Matthew and Luke used them to place Jesus in salvation history. It seems that they had very little historical information about Jesus' birth (historical in our sense), and so they went to one of their other sources, Jewish scripture. There is no other substantial part of the gospels that depends so heavily on the theory that information about David and Moses may simply be transferred to the story of Jesus. (HFOJ, p.88)

Since it is improbable that either Luke's birth story or Matthew's birth story is historically accurate, and since they apparently had 'very little historical information about Jesus' birth', and since the idea that Jesus was born in Bethlehem was probably derived from theological beliefs about Jesus and inferences from Old Testament passages, and since the historical Jesus grew up in Nazareth, not Bethlehem, it is probably not the case that Jesus was born in Bethlehem. Premise (2) is probably correct.

James Dunn is another leading NT and Jesus scholar, and in his book Christianity in the Making, Volume 1, he also discusses the birth stories, and comes to a skeptical conclusion:

Are there, then, no historical facts concerning Jesus' birth to be gleaned from the birth narratives? The prospects are not good. (CITM, Vol. 1, p.343)

Most disturbing for Christian pilgrim piety is the outcome that Jesus' birth in Bethlehem has to be left in question. Was the story to that effect contrived simply because of the Micah prophecy: 'And you Bethlehem, ...from you shall come forth a ruler, who will shepherd my people Israel' (Mic. 5:2, cited by Matt. 2.5-6)? It is presumably significant that nothing more is made of Bethlehem outside the birth narratives. Elsewhere it is simply assumed that Jesus is 'from Nazareth', that he is 'the Nazarene'. (CITM, vol. 1, p.344-345).

To be continued...

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Messianic Prophecy - Part 2

In Chapter 3 of Science Speaks, Peter Stoner focuses on eight alleged messianic prophecies, which he claims were fulfilled by Jesus.

You can read this chapter for yourself on the web:
http://sciencespeaks.dstoner.net/Christ_of_Prophecy.html#c9

Stoner's conclusion:

Now these prophecies were either given by inspiration of God or the prophets just wrote them as they thought they should be. In such a case the prophets had just one chance in 1017 of having them come true in any man, but they all came true in Christ.


This means that the fulfillment of these eight prophecies alone proves that God inspired the writing of those prophecies to a definiteness which lacks only one chance in 1017 of being absolute.

Stoner uses these messianic prophecies as an argument for the inspiration of the Bible, but if he is correct, then these prophecies can also be used as an argument for the conclusion that Jesus was sent by God to be the Messiah or the Christ. Stoner also draws a conclusion about Jesus:

Sometimes we weigh our chances in the business world, and say if an investment has nine chances in ten of being profitable, and only one chance in ten of being a failure, it is safe enough for us to make the investment. Whoever heard of an investment that had only one chance in 1017 of failure? The business world has no conception of such an investment. Yet we are offered this investment by God. By the acceptance of Jesus Christ as our Savior we know, from only these eight prophecies which lack only 1 chance in 1017 of being an absolute proof, that that investment will yield the wonderful dividend of eternal life with Christ.

What Stoner does not realize is that it only takes one instance of a messianic prophecy failing to apply to Jesus to prove that Jesus is NOT the Messiah. According to the Bible, when a prophet has been inspired by God, the predictions he makes as a prophet or messenger of God will be 100% reliable. God does not make mistakes, even when predicting minute details about people and events hundreds of years into the future. Thus, every additional alleged messianic prophecy is yet one more opportunity for a skeptic, like myself, to prove that Jesus was not the Messiah.

A review of the eight messianic prophecies put forward by Stoner shows that, contrary to Stoner's claims, Jesus does NOT fulfill all eight prophecies, and therefore Stoner has actually provided evidence showing that Jesus was NOT the Messiah.

Stoner sometimes uses bad translations of some of the OT passages that he claims make predictions about the Messiah, and sometimes Stoner provides mistaken interpretations of the passage, even though the translation is OK. Sometimes the relevant passage is just too unclear to be taken as a specific prediction, either because the Hebrew text is problematic, or because the expression of the ideas is vague or unclear. In some cases Stoner fails to take into account how the fulfilment of one prediction impacts the probability of the fulfilment of some other prediction, and thus messes up the probability calculation.

In this series of posts, I will walk through Stoner's interpretations and calculations, and argue that Jesus is disqualified from being the Messiah on the basis of some of the predictions Stoner claims to have been made by inspired prophets in the Old Testament, and that Jesus is disqualified from being the Messiah on the basis of some of the predictions made by those OT prophets, given a proper translation and interpretation of the passages quoted by Stoner.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Messianic Prophecy - Part 1

In 2011, I focused my blogging efforts over at The Secular Outpost:

http://secularoutpost.infidels.org/

Currently, I'm on Part 17 of a series called "An Argument Against the Resurrection of Jesus":

http://secularoutpost.infidels.org/2012/03/argument-against-resurrection-of-jesus.html

But I have more to say about Jesus, and The Secular Outpost is focused more on atheism and naturalism, than on criticism of Christian beliefs, so I will try to start posting on my own web again for 2012.

First up, will be a series on Messianic prophecy, focusing on Peter Stoner's often re-printed book Science Speaks, which you can read for yourself online:

http://sciencespeaks.dstoner.net/

See, in particular, Chapter 3: "The Christ of Prophecy":

http://sciencespeaks.dstoner.net/Christ_of_Prophecy.html#c9

I did a brief critique of Stoner's reasoning in a post on The Secular Outpost:

http://secularoutpost.infidels.org/2012/02/skepticism-and-multiplication-of_17.html

(see especially, the comments that I make on this post).

I intend to go into more depth and detail over here on my own blog.