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...