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Are the Prophecies Being Fulfilled?

The Christians knew growing up had a very different understanding of “prophecy” in the Bible from the view adopted by professional biblical scholars.  (I have been thinking about this because of my posts on Amos.)  My sense is that most evangelical and fundamentalist Christians (certainly the latter) continue to have this non-academic view.   It is that the prophets of the Bible – Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, Amos, Zechariah, and so on (there are seventeen prophets in the English Bible) – were principally interested in what was going to be happening in our day.

At the time when I became familiar with this view, that meant that prophets were interested in what would happen in the 1970s and 1980s.   Today, of course, it would mean that they were principally interested in what would happen in the 2010s.   That in itself should give us pause.  Do you mean they were *not* mainly interested in the 1970s and 80s?

The same can be said, obviously – far more so! – for Christian understandings of the book of Revelation, the one book of prophecy that is always, every generation, every decade, every year, every day, is being interpreted as predicting things happening, finally, NOW!!!  Christians have read Revelation that way since, well, since the book of Revelation was written.  It is talking about what is happening to us NOW, in the 14th century!  Or NOW, in the 19th century!  Or NOW, in the 20th century!  Or NOW, in 2016.

I should stress that the NOW is not the one and only interpretive point of reference for the Hebrew Bible prophets for the conservative Christians who take this particular approach.  The other point of reference is…

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Background to Apocalypticism: The Maccabean Revolt
Amos as a Representative Prophet

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    herculodge  January 13, 2016

    I’m re-reading Elaine Pagels’ Revelations and her interpretation supports your view that John of Patmos was making “prophecies” based on what was going on between the Romans and the Jewish people at that time and that John of Patmos was angry at the Pauline Christians who split from the Jews who kept Jewish law and followed Jesus as their Messiah. I find that prophecies make far more sense when they are examined in the time they are written rather than as warnings for whatever narcissistic generation thinks those prophecies are relevant to them.

  2. Avatar
    Stephen  January 13, 2016

    Frank Kermode, in his classic literary study, THE SENSE OF AN ENDING, thinks we hold on to this prophetic, apocalyptic view of reality because it gives us a way to impose a meaningful structure on what would otherwise be perceived as chaos. Every generation becomes special when they perceive themselves as living in the ‘end times’ and the troubles they encounter can be chalked up to the decadence and corruption before the inevitable salvation to come. Kermode thought this view so persuasive in our culture that even non-religious people have absorbed it and what makes it seemingly impervious to the disconfirmation of failed prophecies.

  3. Avatar
    Travis  January 13, 2016

    Growing up in a fundamentalist home in the 70’s, bombarded with strict views of Christianity, I remember facing each day with an overwhelming fear of the rapture. I vividly remember arriving home from school one day (7 or 8 years old) expecting to find my mother in the kitchen preparing lunch. Instead, I found an empty home. I fell to my knees and started crying, knowing that Jesus had come to take my family and that I (a lowly sinner!) had been left behind. A few moments later, my mother emerged from the back yard where she had been hanging laundry.

    There was even an old reel-to-reel movie shown regularly in our church with a song that said, “I wish we’d all been ready.”

    My point is, I agree. Each generation seems to consume itself with that idea that THEY are the chosen generation. Although it’s not a unique tactic, it’s unfortunate that the idea of the end times is used to leverage religious views.

    • Avatar
      randal  January 20, 2016

      Wow! I had the same experiences back then. I was tormented by the rapture as a child. Looking back now it all seems cultish and pschologically damaging to children (and maybe adults too). I’m thankful ever day for Dr. Ehrmam and other modern scholars that have allowed me escape the fundamentalist chains.

      • Avatar
        Rogers  January 25, 2016

        And that’s precisely why I for one think Bart should be nominated for sainthood – he is doing the world a lot of good in that his life’s work is defusing a great deal of very damaging human psychology. 🙂

  4. Avatar
    godspell  January 13, 2016

    This doesn’t just happen with the Old Testament–Revelation was also primarily about events and people in the author’s lifetime, and things he expected to happen in the near future. Nostradamus was writing veiled poetic metaphors of European politics, not predictions of distant future events in lands he couldn’t imagine. But because they were so vague, so poetic, it’s easy to pick out things that correspond with our times–just as you can with works of unabashed fiction written long ago. People don’t change. What was true then is true always. Just the external details vary.

    For what it’s worth, the New Testament is full of warnings against false prophets. Pity more Christians don’t heed those warnings.

  5. Avatar
    Jen  January 13, 2016

    Excellent, Bart!

  6. Avatar
    Wilusa  January 13, 2016

    OT, but I just got to wondering about this.

    Think of Jews in Jesus’s time and shortly before, who expected a coming Messiah, but *didn’t* believe in “God’s Kingdom on Earth,” with its “general resurrection.” Nor did they believe the Messiah would be the Son of Man, coming in the clouds. They believed he’d be either a great warrior King or a remarkable High Priest.

    Given that, they certainly wouldn’t have expected him to die *as part of fulfilling his Messianic role*. But would they have thought he’d have a long reign as King or tenure as High Priest, but age like other people, and *eventually* die? Or would they have thought he’d be taken up bodily into the heavens, and made semi-divine?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 15, 2016

      The mainly thought he would die as an old and very successful king.

  7. TracyCramer
    TracyCramer  January 13, 2016

    Or, as I sure you have heard it said before: “Text with context is pretext!”

  8. Garrett20
    Garrett20  January 13, 2016

    Great point! As an Evangelical, I agree with this post. I ignore the “prophecies being fulfilled now” books (especially in regards to the minor and major prophets in the Old Testament; they tend to stretch things and get ridiculous at times). It is more common among Fundamentalists it seems. Luckily, I was not taught that the prophets were speaking of our day, but to put their text into context. In regards to the Book of Revelation, I have been leaning more towards Amillennialism in recent years, however that could change as my studies progress. I am interested to see your post on Messianic prophecies in the OT prophets as I obviously believe there were prophecies concerning Jesus. In regards to the prophetic books, when do you date Daniel? I lean towards an earlier date, but I’ve read some lean more towards a later date.

  9. tasteslikecorn
    tasteslikecorn  January 13, 2016

    Posts like this one are what make this blog so enjoyable. I shared this post with my wife, who is a mathematician and not nearly as interested in CIA as I am, and she must have said “my God, that’s so true!” five times. So enjoy it when you share your scholarship as though you were frustrated with a fundamentalist at a dinner party.

  10. Avatar
    falter  January 13, 2016

    Hello Dr. Ehrman:

    Interesting!

    One point that I would like to add. You included “Daniel” in your list of prophets. The rabbis have debated this issue. For example one source [excerpts] mentions the following points.

    “On the one hand, the Talmud does explicitly state that Daniel was not a prophet. On the other hand, when the Talmud states that only “48 prophets and 7 prophetesses prophesied to Israel,” the sages disagree as to whether Daniel is included in that list or not.”

    Daniel, however, used the language of “visions” to describe his experiences, even after he saw angels and received knowledge through them, as we can see from the following verses from the Book of Daniel:

    “Then the secret was revealed to Daniel in the vision of the night” (2:19).
    “In the first year of Belshazzar, the king of Babylon, Daniel saw a dream . . .” (7:1).
    “. . . and the visions of my mind terrified me” (7:15).

    So while it is true that Daniel had visions, they were on the level of ruach ha-kodesh, divine inspiration. Therefore, the book of Daniel was made part of the biblical section of Ketuvim, the Writings or Hagiographa, and not the Neviim, Prophets.

    Maimonides, in his Guide for the Perplexed discusses this issue [prophecy/prophets] in greater detail.

    Thank you for your thoughtful blog.

    Michael Alter

    • Bart
      Bart  January 15, 2016

      Yes, Daniel is not included among the “Prophets” (Nebi’im) in the Hebrew Bible; it is only considered a “prophet” in Christian Old Testaments.

  11. Avatar
    ffg  January 13, 2016

    Thanks, Dr Ehrman. Makes absolute sense. Two questions
    1. What are your views on the book of revelation in this context. I understand it is not in the same category as the OT prophets but it is still used by evangelicals as in some ways being linked to prophets like Daniel etc and speaking to events soon to occur
    2. Why in your view are people in ministry (at least the ones I have been exposed to) using the books of prophecy so as to suggest that they speak to our day.

    • Bart
      Bart  January 15, 2016

      1. Revelation is also speaking to events of its own day 2. Preachers often say otherwise because they believe that all history is coming to a climax with us, in our own time, since these are the days all history was looking forward to.

    • Avatar
      VirtualAlex  January 16, 2016

      I guess they desperately want the bible to be relevant to their lives, when really it’s not.

  12. Avatar
    Jim  January 13, 2016

    I think John of Patmos did foresee future events and probably could have gotten a Golden Globe future prophecy award, but his Greek was pretty bad and so maybe it just came out all wrong in his wording. He came pretty close on some future predictions (minus a few minor fuzzy vision discrepancies) like the one about a nasty seven-hill city being in the “to be destroyed” memo from above, but instead ending up morphing into the “major center of Christianity” a few centuries later. Also, my guess is that this resulting orthodoxy lady probably didn’t look quite as hot as the beast-riding woman John saw in his Rev 17 vision, but other than that …

    Just goes to show that you can’t totally rely on perfect accuracy from those Mediterranean Island “shrooms”.

  13. awgonnerman
    awgonnerman  January 13, 2016

    Once in high school a classmate talked about how, as a child, she’d had nightmares about Jesus returning. Worldwide destruction, rolling dark clouds, lightening and a fiery abyss. I couldn’t imagine someone’s faith bringing them that much fear.

    Somehow I managed to avoid this nonsense throughout my life as a Christian. Raised Catholic, I had no exposure to end times theologies that found great details in the Hebrew prophets about our day. My evangelical connections throughout my adult life were almost all amillienial, as was my undergraduate Bible education.

    Good for me.

    • Avatar
      mdt4302  January 16, 2016

      I had plenty of these as well when I was young, what I will call Tribulation nightmares.

    • Avatar
      randal  January 20, 2016

      If you’d been raised Southern Baptist like I was your childhood would have been total hell on earth. You’d been exposed to rapture movies at church, rapture preaching, weeklong nightly Bible studies of Revelation and Daniel and on and on. You’d been on pins and needles all the time wondering if you’d be left behind and doomed for 7 years of tribulation and then an eternity in hell.

  14. talmoore
    talmoore  January 13, 2016

    Dr. Ehrman, how much of this do you think has to do with our need to find–as statisticians like to say–the signal in the noise? In other words, went we are handed conveniently ambiguous documents from a seemingly more enlightened golden age, do you notice that many people feel compelled to squeeze every drop of juice from that lemon as possible? For instance, look at how people do this with the so-called prophecies of Nostradamus or the so-called Bible Code that were so popular a while back. It wasn’t enough that the Torah had an explicit meaning within the text itself (the Peshat of the text, as Jewish exegetes call it). No, it also had to have some hidden meaning, buried within some esoteric code (the Sod of the exegetes). Human beings hate not knowing, to the point where they even look to anachronistic ancient prophecies for answers. Add to that the fact that we have a naturally myopic view of our own time, projecting onto it an exeggerated sense of importance within the historical scheme of things and you have the resulting projections of ancient prophecies onto modern times.

  15. Avatar
    alienvoodoo  January 14, 2016

    any text taken out of context is a pretext to error…

  16. Avatar
    Alfred  January 14, 2016

    Another fascinating post. But I am not sure about the use of the term narcissistic. Not only is it the most difficult English word to spell, it implies that something out of the normal range of human experience is going on – something pathological. I would put the tendency of people to read themselves into prophecy within the universal human practice of reading themselves not everything. We (falsely) see ourselves as ‘more developed’ than other species, and as the ‘point’ of evolution. We read poetry at our weddings and funerals as if Yeats, or Milton, or David Bowie (may he rest in peace) had been talking about us. Human use of shared literature, oral and written, to find personal relevance is so widespread in human culture that it should be named and described. As far as I know it does not have a name, but if it did Bart, you would be able to categorise the response to prophecy as a subset of a wider phenomena. In my own country, indigenous prophets have made extensive and spine-tingling use of the old Testement to find relevance to their own experiences. It is a wonderful experience to read their responses to prophecy, and see the way it was used to bring hope to dispossessed people. This of course does not make the interpretations ‘true’, but indicates rather the universal human understandings that the original writers were able to express. Imagne writing something which nired people thousands of years later, in a place then undiscovered, and in a language not yet developed!

    • Bart
      Bart  January 15, 2016

      Yes, I would agree it’s part of a larger human tendency. But I also think humans tend toward narcissism!! 🙂

  17. Avatar
    SidDhartha1953  January 14, 2016

    I see a somewhat different, but to me equally absurd, approach to the Old Testament in Orthodox Christian writings: that the true meaning of the Old Testament can only be found in a proper understanding of the New Testament. How would you answer the Orthodox commentator who does not claim that the prophets predicted specific events per se, but that their meaning can only be understood in a Christian context?

  18. Avatar
    dragonfly  January 14, 2016

    “Everything was leading up to the time that really matters, the one I myself am experiencing. All events since the creation till now have been pointing to my day. Now is the time it is all coming to realization. MINE is the generation that matters.”

    “Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened.”

    Jesus was a narcissist.

    • Avatar
      Boltonian  January 15, 2016

      Or more likely the author and, perhaps, his audience.

  19. Avatar
    Britt  January 14, 2016

    Reading the Bible only in terms of what we think the authors might have meant in their own day and age strikes me as the same approach that today’s judicial originalists use when reading the U.S. Constitution: it can’t mean anything except exactly it meant the day it was written. Since many strongly disagree regarding what the authors meant just 230 years ago (with all kinds of historical records written in English), how can we pretend to understand what the authors meant in obscure texts written in ancient languages thousands of years ago? Is the Constitution a living document open to contemporary interpretation (based on today’s world) or are we ruled from the grave by men long dead? Likewise, can Biblical scriptures only mean what they meant when they were written ages ago, or are they living documents where prophecy and sayings are open to contemporary interpretation based on today’s events? Perhaps God might use the scriptures (even fulfill them) in ways the authors never foresaw?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 15, 2016

      I think old documents can still be meaningful for people today, absolutely! But I don’t think that means that the authors were writing specifically to reveal secrets of our own day (rather than being concerned with their own times)

      • Avatar
        Britt  January 16, 2016

        My point is that from a prophet’s perspective, maybe he was talking about events in his own day. However, unbeknown to the prophet, perhaps God means the prophecy for both that day and the future, i.e. a double meaning.

  20. John4
    John4  January 14, 2016

    Wonderful Bart! 🙂

    You write: “That’s the same level of respect we should give to the writings of ancient authors as well. We should read them in context.”

    I of course agree with you that there are many advantages to reading the prophets in *their* context rather than in ours. And, I completely understand your frustration with those who would impute intention to an ancient author in utter disregard for his context. Still, I think, Bart, that in your earnestness you occasionally get carried away on this sort of thing. Despite the many and notorious excesses of too many “presentist” interpreters, there remain many good souls who do read scripture for devotional purposes and who apply the word to their present situation with little or no concern for or understanding of the situation addressed by the original author. Although this sort of “presentism” may offend the sensibilities of the historian, we need not therefore lump all such “presentist” interpretation in with the excesses of the Hal Lindsey’s of our fallen world. And, for the life of me, I can’t see an *a priori* reason to rule such modest devotional “presentist” readings out of bounds morally as you seem to do here with your unqualified “should’s”.

    As for the narcissism, well, yes, many of us do feel a poignant need for attention to *our* anxieties, it’s true. Not all of us are as secure in our egos as the great and the learned, Bart:

    https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=BYd7rPe7Eqs

    Many thanks for your consideration, my friend! 🙂

    • Bart
      Bart  January 15, 2016

      Yes, I don’t object to people finding old writings highly meaningful to the present! Quite the contrary!!

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