In an interview with Progressive Spirit titled, “Christian Argument from Prophecy Debunked,” religious scholar, Robert J. Miller, who is Rosenberger Professor of Religious Studies and Christian Thought at Juniata College in Pennsylvania, says that it is time for Christians to retire the argument from prophecy. Professor Miller is also the author of a recent book titled Helping Jesus Fulfill Prophecy .
The interview starts at the 6-minute mark, after a long musical introduction. Professor Miller makes a number of telling points during the interview, but I’d like to focus on two quotes which sum up the gist of his thinking. In the first quote, which begins at 49:00, he distinguishes between the belief that Jesus fulfills Old Testament prophecies from the argument that Jesus fulfills these prophecies. The former, he regards as entirely legitimate; the latter, in the Professor’s view, is simply bunk:
…[I]t really is a quite different thing for me to say, “I believe that Jesus fulfills prophecy,” versus “Jesus fulfills prophecy, and here’s the evidence and proof for how that happened.” If I say, “I believe it,” what I’m doing is: I’m giving a testimony to my commitment to a certain way of understanding Jesus and his relationship to Scripture. If I give an argument, what I’m in fact saying is that anybody who’s smart enough to know all the evidence and has a functioning, logical system in their head, will draw the same conclusion that I do… I think that the problems, and the poison, comes in the argument from prophecy, not the belief. I think it’s totally legitimate for a follower of Jesus, at any time in history, or today, to say something like this: "Because of my belief in Jesus, I’m able to read certain parts of the Old Testament and to see in them a hidden and deeper dimension of truth than is otherwise apparent in those stories.That’s a declaration of one’s faith, and I think has to be met with respect. But if someone says, “Jesus really is the one prophesied by Scripture, and here’s the evidence for it,” then one expects the person you’re talking to to agree with you, and if you don’t, your conclusion is simply that they are wrong… Given the horrific result of this kind of thinking throughout history for Jewish people, I think it really is time for Christians to just give up the Argument from Prophecy. And I think we’re still entitled to our belief, but the argument is the one, I think, that causes all the trouble, and that’s really the basis on which I have written this book, to analyze how the Argument from Prophecy falls short, time and time and time again, when judged against simple things like looking these things up in context, or just comparing what the Old Testament actually says to the sometimes different ways in which the Old Testament prophecy is quoted, or misquoted, in the New Testament.
So, exactly how does the Argument from Prophecy fall short? Well, you’ll have to listen to the rest of Professor Miller’s talk to find out. I would invite readers to listen with an open mind, and draw their own conclusions.
My second quote from Professor Miller’s talk starts at 53:13. Here, Professor Miller accuses proponents of the Argument from Prophecy of arguing in a circle:
…[I]f you say, "The Old Testament says this, and Jesus fulfills it, and we know he fulfills it because the New Testament said he did, you’re already presupposing that the New Testament is telling you the truth about what Jesus said and did, as a fulfillment of prophecy. So if you already believe [in] what the New Testament says, why the need to prove it? [But] if you don’t believe what the New Testament says, then the Argument from Prophecy is going to land like a big thud, [it’s] not going to go anywhere. So it’s an example of what critical thinkers call circular reasoning, in which you assume the truth of that which you want to prove as part of the argument that the thing you want to prove is true. All you’ve done really is simply state your initial belief in a different way.
Is Professor Miller right here? What do you think?
I’d like to close by examining what is perhaps the most impressive-sounding prophecy of Jesus in the Old Testament: the Suffering Servant prophecy in Isaiah 52 and 53. I think it’s fair to say that if the Argument from Prophecy doesn’t work for these verses, it probably won’t work for any others in the Bible. What I’d like to do is quote a few excerpts from the ESV translation, and highlight the difficulties which a non-believer might raise:
As many were astonished at you—
his appearance was so marred, beyond human semblance,
and his form beyond that of the children of mankind—
so shall he sprinkle [or startle] many nations.
Kings shall shut their mouths because of him,
for that which has not been told them they see,
and that which they have not heard they understand.
At this point, a non-believer might well ask: does this sound like Jesus? Where does the New Testament declare that Jesus was “marred, beyond human semblance”? Indeed, Luke 4:22 seems to indicate the opposite: it says that “all spoke well of him” when he read from the scroll in the synagogue, suggesting that he must have created a favorable impression, and been reasonably handsome. (Had Jesus been deformed, he would never have been invited to read from the scroll in the first place.) A Christian might reply that the passage in Isaiah actually refers to Jesus’ brutal scourging at the hands of the Romans, which would surely have marred his appearance, but the non-believer would point out that people propounding this interpretation are guilty of reading into the passage something which it does not say. And (the non-believer would continue) when did Jesus appear before kings (note the plural)? Certainly, Luke tells us that Jesus appeared before Herod Antipas on Good Friday, but Herod did not “stand speechless before him,” and in fact, he never held the title of king. And finally, what on earth does “that which they have not heard they understand” mean?
But he was pierced for our transgressions;
he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
and with his wounds we are healed.
Jesus was pierced, assuming that the account in John 19:34 is historical, but when was he crushed? And is there anything in this passage which unambiguously refers to crucifixion? To a non-believer, this would sound like a very vague prophecy.
And they made his grave with the wicked
and with a rich man in his death,
although he had done no violence,
and there was no deceit in his mouth.
A non-believer might grant that the rich man in the prophecy could be Joseph of Arimathea - although it’s worth noting that Mark and Luke don’t actually say he was rich. However, Jesus, according to the New Testament, did not share a grave with the wicked: rather, he was buried in a tomb wherein no man had been laid before.
Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him;
he has put him to grief [or he has made him sick]
when his soul makes an offering for guilt [or when you make his soul an offering for guilt],
he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days;
the will of the Lord shall prosper in his hand.
The alternative readings highlighted in the ESV point to the inherent ambiguity of this passage. And what about the passage, “he shall see his offspring”? Jesus had none - unless one wants to construe the passage as referring to spiritual offspring (i.e. Christian believers). But to a non-believer, that would sound like special pleading.
Certainly for a Christian, it is difficult to Isaiah 52 and 53 and not be reminded of Jesus. But it is another thing entirely to expect even an open-minded non-believer to read the passage through the same lens. In short: the Argument from Prophecy doesn’t fare well, in the 21st century. It convinces no-one. I believe Professor Miller is right: it deserves to be retired.
But don’t take my word for it: listen to the man yourself. And now, over to you.