Prophecy and History

by Luke Muehlhauser on December 3, 2009 in Bible,Reviews

I’m blogging my way through Sense and Goodness Without God, Richard Carrier’s handy worldview-in-a-box for atheists. (See the post index for all sections.) Last time, in Miracles and Historical Method, we examined the historical difficulties for any defense of miracles. Today we examine Prophecy and History.

A prophecy claim is a special kind of miracle claim. In the case of prophecy, the event itself is not miraculous. Instead, what is miraculous is that an ordinary statement refers to an ordinary event that occurs later but could not have been predicted.

Some good criteria for qualifying a prophecy as a supernatural miracle are:

  1. The prophetic text clearly envisions the sort of event alleged to be the fulfillment. (The prediction should not be so vague that a wide range of events would “fit” the prediction.)
  2. The prophecy was made well in advance of the event predicted.
  3. The event actually happened.
  4. The event predicted could not have been staged by mere humans.
  5. The event should be so unusual that its apparent fulfillment could not be explained as a good guess, and could not have been inevitable.
  6. The source of the prophecy should not have been edited to produce a selection bias. (That is, we should be fairly confident that compilers didn’t just make a hundred predictions and throw away their 99 documents which made false predictions and keep the one that came true.)

That list is adapted from a list provided by Christian apologist Robert Newman in “Fulfilled Prophecy as Miracle” in In Defense of Miracles.

One prediction by the prophet Ezekiel is frequently cited as one of the best examples of a miraculous prophecy in the Bible. In Ezekiel 26:3-15 the prophet declares that the city of Tyre will be attacked by many nations, its walls demolished and the rubble cleared away, leaving only bare rock. Then “out in the sea she will become a place to spread fishnets” and will never be rebuilt. Ezekiel specifically predicts that Nebuchadnezzar will do this, and that his army will throw stones, timber and rubble into the sea.

Is this a miraculous prophecy?

First, let’s examine the source:

Ezekiel was a Jew held captive by Nebuchadnezzar since the sack of Jerusalem in 597 B.C. Already we some important problems. It is all too likely that Ezekiel is issuing propaganda flattering his captor to get on his good side, while wishing ill on an old enemy of the Jews. Moreover, Ezekiel could easily have intelligence about the king’s plans since he would see the preparations. His prophecy about Tyre was issued [only one year before] Nebuchadnezzar began his siege of Tyre… So this fails Point (5).

Tyre resisted his every attack for over a decade, and finally came to terms with Nebuchadnezzar in 573. He did not sack the city after all – forcing Ezekiel to retract his prediction in verse 29:18, and instead predict a victory against Egypt, after Nebuchadnezzar had already turned against that country… So this even fails Point (3).

So what does an apologist like Newman do in the face of these failures? He makes shit up. He says that Nebuchadnezzar “took” the city in 573 B.C.E., though we have no evidence of that. In fact, since Tyre was a major trade center with two important naval ports, a conqueror would be stupid to destroy it.

Newman’s answer to this is to make up more bullshit. He tells a story, told in no ancient source, that Tyre’s inhabitants resettled inland during the siege, forcing Nebuchadnezzar to “settle for very little plunder.” Not only is this false, it is highly implausible that people would resist Nebuchadnezzar by leaving a well-fortified island city with massive walls and moving to a mainland city with no defenses.

But Newman isn’t done yet. Even though Ezekiel claims that Nebuchadnezzar will sack Tyre with chariots, Newman says the prophecy was fulfilled by Alexander the Great centuries later, by which time chariots were no longer used. Moreover, Alexander never sacked Tyre. He sacked Ushu, the nearby mainland city, and actually built up Tyre so that it would continue to be a powerful naval and merchant port. Tyre has never been bare rock, and currently is the 4th largest city in Lebanon.

But wait, there’s more! Newman doesn’t mention that in 26:19 the prophet predicts that Tyre would be covered by the sea, and two verses later says it will never be found. Because even Newman can’t tell that big of a lie – that the whole city of Tyre has disappeared beneath the sea and we don’t know where it is.

Welcome to the world of Christian apologetics, folks! Lies, damned lies, bad arguments, and more lies.

This is but one example. I highly recommend you apply Newman’s own criteria to the other claims of miraculous prophecy made by Christian apologists.

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{ 20 comments… read them below or add one }

Haukur December 3, 2009 at 6:14 am

My favorite prophecy is this one, made in 1996:

In the City of God there will be a great thunder, Two brothers torn apart by Chaos, while the fortress endures

This was produced as a deliberate example of a prophecy so vague that given a bit of time it could easily come to fit a particular event. And indeed, in 2001 people felt it fit the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon very well.

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Reginald Selkirk December 3, 2009 at 6:44 am

Prophecies for Dummies
by Allan Glenn (aka WinAce) (PBUH)

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lukeprog December 3, 2009 at 7:36 am

Lol, that’s great Haukur.

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atimetorend December 3, 2009 at 10:38 am

Obviously you do not view Newman or apologetics in general as reasonable, but what kind of apologist is Newman? Or maybe a better question would be, how scholarly and thought out are his apologetics compared to other apologists?

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Reginald Selkirk December 3, 2009 at 1:20 pm

Haukur: My favorite prophecy is this one, made in 1996:In the City of God there will be a great thunder, Two brothers torn apart by Chaos, while the fortress enduresThis was produced as a deliberate example of a prophecy so vague that given a bit of time it could easily come to fit a particular event. And indeed, in 2001 people felt it fit the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon very well.  

Uh, so New York City is “the city of God”?

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Haukur December 3, 2009 at 1:23 pm

Reginald Selkirk: Uh, so New York City is “the city of God”?

Yep, who knew?

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Rhys Wilkins December 3, 2009 at 3:20 pm

I wanna know how people like Newman live with themselves. He must know at some level that he is deliberately distorting the facts themselves to fit his worldview, and he goes ahead and does it anyway. The senator from Religulous rightly said “faith has a way of softening people”. Damn right, faith softens the brain, and dampens the critical thinking skills like nothing else can hope to. There is no meme like faith.

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Thomas Reid December 3, 2009 at 4:36 pm

Rhys Wilkins:
The senator from Religulous rightly said “faith has a way of softening people”.Damn right, faith softens the brain, and dampens the critical thinking skills like nothing else can hope to.There is no meme like faith.  

Oy vey, nowadays there’s no meme like “meme”. So what’s the harm Rhys, it’s just natural selection, right? :)

No comment on the original post.

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Lee A. P. December 3, 2009 at 6:36 pm

There is not one single, solitary example of miraculous, unbeknownst “prophecy” in the bible. None. Not one. Not in the entire goddamned book.

The OT is CLEARLY not talking about some dude named “Jesus”.

The OT does not talk about a trinitarian God! It doesn’t! that shit came later! Crazy! What a revelation! Oh, BTW, Revelation was about ROME! Its not a goddamned prediction about the future end of all civilization!

I wear Christians are the ULTIMATE CONPIRACY THEORISTS!

They take vague shit way out of context in order to force it to mean crazy shit that they insist it means. And they isist propechy exists where it doesn’t. They also believe that they have almost ALL of the answers to ALL the ultimate questions about universal origins and purpose.

Can we all move past this horeshit please?

No? Didn’t think so.

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Jeff H December 3, 2009 at 8:14 pm

Lee A. P.: I [s]wear Christians are the ULTIMATE CONPIRACY THEORISTS!

Yeah, I’ve actually made that observation myself. It came to me when I watched Expelled…that posits the view that a loosely collected group of individualistic scientists around the world are somehow collaborating just to keep Intelligent Design out of scientific journals and destroy the reputation of ID scientists. I was only surprised that the movie didn’t assume the Illuminati were behind it.

It’s an unfortunate side effect of believing a book to be absolute truth. And not in any exaggerated way at all. If reality doesn’t fit what the book says, reality must be reinterpreted. Or if that just doesn’t work at all, it’s just chalked up to “mystery”. It’s impressive, really. Sad, but impressive.

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Summa December 3, 2009 at 10:13 pm

Intelligent design is very interesting. Only a fool would completely write it off–especially with factoids like this one:

The odds of the human eye evolving to its current state without divine intervention can be equated to the probability of a monkey randomly pressing keys of a typewriter to write Shakespeare’s Hamlet in its entirety—not once, but FOUR QUADRILLION times. But it gets better. The entire universe is not large enough to hold the number of waste baskets it would take to hold all of the monkey’s failed attempts.

And you thought the lotto was a long shot.

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lukeprog December 3, 2009 at 10:22 pm

Summa,

Interestingly, the same is true of almost anything you could choose at random.

The odds of Mount Everest coming to be shaped exactly as it is today without divine intervention can be equated to the probability of a monkey randomly pressing keys of a typewriter to write Shakespeare’s Hamlet in its entirely four quadrillion times.

Therefore, God exists.

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Summa December 3, 2009 at 11:40 pm

Lukeprog, first of all your statement is not technically true whereas mine is; secondly, if you truly think a rock formation is an analogy homogeneous to a discussion about the evolution of the human body (particularly the human eye, which has more connections than the entire world’s labyrinth of cables and wires), you sir have a mountain of discovery still ahead of you.

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Summa December 3, 2009 at 11:45 pm

“The odds of Mount Everest coming to be shaped exactly as it is today without divine intervention can be equated to the probability of a monkey randomly pressing keys of a typewriter to write Shakespeare’s Hamlet in its entirely four quadrillion times. Therefore, God exists”

Welcome to the world of atheist apologetics, folks! Lies, damned lies, bad arguments, and more lies.

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tom December 4, 2009 at 3:29 am

You’re missing the point, Summa.
Here’s another analogy: if you flipped a coin 1000 times, the odds of your getting that particular series of results was 1/(2^1000). Yet somehow you managed to get that particular series. Whoop-dee doo.

Luke’s example highlights this point – that its just trivially true that the odds of anything being a particular way and not some other are mathematically extremely low – by substituting “human eye” with “Mt. Everest”.

The exact number (4 quadrillion…) doesn’t actually matter, and no fair reader would call Luke dishonest for his use of that number. He was obviously just substituting an analagous case into the example you use. To think that your example is superior because it’s “technically true” (is it?) is just silly, and missing the forest for the trees.

Finally, you criticize him for thinking the human eye is analogous to Mt. Everest. But they ARE analogous in the only sense that matters for this discussion: they both satisfy the criterion you specify in your first post, namely that the probability that either would be exactly as they are and not some other way is extremely low.

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Lee A. P. December 4, 2009 at 7:20 am

There already exists explanations for the evolution of the human eye. Stop pulling out that old canard.

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Jeff H December 4, 2009 at 9:03 am

Summa,

I’d like to know how those odds were calculated. Could you please lay out the equation or algorithm used to calculate it?

Didn’t think so.

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Reginald Selkirk December 4, 2009 at 2:30 pm

Summa: Lukeprog, first of all your statement is not technically true whereas mine is;

No it’s not. Yours is an argument from misunderstanding probability.

Try two experiments:

1) Take 100 coins. Flip them en masse. What are the odds that all of them will land heads up?

2) Take 100 coins. For each coin: Flip the coin.
a) If it comes up tails, flip it again. Repeat as necessary.
b) If it comes up heads, move on to the next coin.
What are the odds that all 100 coins will end up showing heads?

The first experiment considers each coin flip to be random and independent; i.e. it is pure chance. The second experiment includes a selective force, the instruction about re-flipping tails. This is a better model for evolution by means of natural selection. Hopefully you can understand that the probabilities for experiment 1 and 2 are vastly different.

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Reginald Selkirk December 4, 2009 at 2:37 pm

A pessimistic estimate of the time required for an eye to evolve

Dan-E. Nilsson and Susanne Pelger,
Proceedings: Biological Sciences, Vol. 256, No. 1345 (Apr. 22, 1994), pp. 53-58
Published by: The Royal Society

SUMMARY
Theoretical considerations of eye design allow us to find routes along which the optical structures of eyes may have evolved. If selection favours an increase in the amount of detectable spatial information, a light-sensitive patch will gradually turn into a focused lens eye through continuous small improvements of design. An upper limit for the number of generations required for the complete transformation can be calculated with a minimum of assumptions. Even with a consistently pessimistic approach the time required becomes amazingly short: only a few hundred thousand years.

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Eric December 26, 2011 at 8:39 am

If interested, to see a review of the Carrier book, see here: http://www.answeringinfidels.com/index.php?option=content&task=view&id=86

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