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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
    Applesauce  January 14, 2016

    “This narcissistic reading of texts seems to escape the notice of those who use this interpretive technique, but seems completely obvious to those who take a different approach. Here’s the reality. It is NOT all about us.”
    This is not really a question, just an observation. I agree with you that Christians don’t really read the Bible: they tend to look in it for answers to their problems.
    Fundamentalist or evangelical Christians insist that the Bible be accepted as literally true: a historical record of events. Yet they have a mythic interpretation of the Bible, in the first or primary definition of the word.
    I’ve read some of the posts about your refutation of “mythicist” ideas.
    Myths address human emotional and psychological needs, and have meaning, but are not “literally” true. (Though, Schliemann found Troy by reading the Iliad and the Odyssey.)
    Fundamentalists treat the Bible in a mythic way, as the agency of a supernatural entity, yet insist that it’s literally true, but, at the same time, don’t really want it examined as a historical record.

    Shakespeare’s plays have meaning, and we wouldn’t say they are “lies” or that Mark Anthony in Julius Caesar was not a “real” person or didn’t exist in history, though the words of his eulogy of Caesar in the play are not “literally true.” Or, because the “myth” or story of Jesus might have born some faint resemblance to pagan myths (or, not) it doesn’t follow that, therefore, the New Testament has no “truth” in it, no meaning.

    When believers see “meanings” in the Bible, such as prophecies about present events, they are treating the Bible as an oracle. Of course, this isn’t rational or logical. For them, the oracle is speaking to us, and it is “all about us.”

  2. Avatar
    dragonfly  January 14, 2016

    More thoughts…
    This is all well good for the traditional prophets, but when we get to Daniel, it’s not so simple. My understanding is that it was written in the second century BC. It is also talking about things happening in the author’s own time, but the reader is made to believe it was written during the babylonian exile. So for someone reading it during the author’s own time, they have no choice but to accept that a prophet 400 years ago actually was predicting things that were clearly happening now. Surely that would make people more open to the idea that a prophet could be looking into the distant future. Once people get into this kind of mindset, all the scriptures would be ripe for re-interpreting.

  3. Avatar
    Kent  January 14, 2016

    Excellent point about narcissism, Dr. Ehrman. Fundamentalists exhibit narcissism on such a grand scale and rarely ever see it. Much is seen as being all about themselves. You made a supporting point about this in your brief essay, here on the forum, regarding suffering.
    On the occasions in which I’ve pointed this out to a proclaimer who holds similar thinking, the either ‘blank’ or ‘shocked’ look reveals that they’d never encountered the idea that what is being preached or proffered is troublingly narcissistic.

  4. Avatar
    plparker  January 14, 2016

    In the most recent issue of the Atlantic there is a story about apocalypse in the context of the termination of massive, online multi-player video games.

    http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2016/01/when-a-video-game-world-ends/423360/

    For example, there is this statement about what an apocalypse means in our culture:

    “…The third is what the Greeks intended apocalypse to mean: the revelation of knowledge through profound disruption, which is why the final book of the New Testament is called “Revelations” (composed, it is thought, to reassure Christians during their widespread persecution by the Roman emperor, Domitian). In other words, the apocalypse either is the end, looks like the end, or helps us understand the end.”

    There are also some interesting accounts of the actual termination of particular video games when those who were still in the online group of players watched as it ended.

    How do you react to this? Do video games have something to teach us about thinking about the apocalypse and why it has been such a mesmerizing idea to Jews and Christians over the centuries?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 15, 2016

      Some games are certainly manifestations of the apocalyptic views of the modern period!

  5. Avatar
    JUMA  January 15, 2016

    Thanks for clarity and making “good” common sense. I have always said prophecy is is for profit, if you write about it; you will profit! Still awaiting the rapture…

  6. Avatar
    JSTMaria  January 15, 2016

    I think this is a great point! I’m currently reading an analysis of Revelation by Elaine Pagels and it seems pretty obvious that the debacle described is reflective of the Roman Empire on Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple and NOT anything about 1980, 2010, etc. All I see when I read Revelation, however, is pretty much the book of Joshua being re-written in more modern times (with themes of Exodus and Genesis playing out of course)…as if the author was deliberately making the story of Joshua a prophetic story about HIS modern day experience! Is he to be believed? He is describing a visionary experience “in the spirit,” but it looks an awful lot like a re-packaged book. Arrogance or spirituality? What do you think?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 15, 2016

      Well, there is certainly a lot of war and destruction in both books! But I don’t think the author of Revelation was trying to write an update of Joshua per se, in a new idiom. His closest connections are to other Jewish apocalytpic literature of the time.

      • Avatar
        JSTMaria  January 15, 2016

        I think what I’m trying to say is that the actual chronology of events (regardless of where the imagery comes from) looks a lot like Joshua, up to and including the language surrounding Gog and Magog (they were numbered as “sands of the sea”) as well as the lake of fire for Hazor, the *leader* of all the enemy kings at the end. I’m just wondering if prophets were simply repeating the same stories over and over again, but with increasingly more recent imagery? And if so, how does that make them prophets? It’s interesting to me because Jesus said he was the completion of the Law and the Prophets. Maybe Revelation is considered prophetic because it has to repeat itself yet again cause there isn’t a “new” story to tell anymore?

        • Bart
          Bart  January 16, 2016

          Well, stories of war and enemies and suffering and ultimate triumph all do, at heart, tend to look very much the same….

  7. Avatar
    shakespeare66  January 15, 2016

    All of your points about the prophets are well taken, but the point about reading the prophets in context is the most important. I am constantly told by my brother that these prophets are talking about our own day, especially the beloved Book of Revelation. Were it not ever written!! If I missed the point of how these early prophets affected late apocalypticism, then I apologize. Were they just precludes to the idea that God will bring doom on humanity for their sins?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 15, 2016

      They were the ideological matrix out of which apocalypticism emerged, as it altered some of the prophets’ basic views of the world and its relation to God. I’ll try to explain in future posts.

  8. Pattycake1974
    Pattycake1974  January 15, 2016

    I understand that the prophets weren’t writing about a distant future, but the nature of the books were about foretelling events. Do you agree with that?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 15, 2016

      To *some* extent, but the events were in their own immediate future, and the prophets were far more interested in the present than the future.

  9. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  January 15, 2016

    Great post especially the idea about a “narcissistic” reading of texts. As you and your readers know, many Christians jerk Old Testament sentences out of context and contend that they apply to Jesus. Thomas Paine, in his “The Age of Reason” makes these points about this:

    1. These prophecies may be about something else, for example the nation of Israel, other than Jesus.
    2. These prophecies don’t ever mention the word “Messiah,” but usually refer to pronouns, such as “he” or “my,” or to common nouns, like “son,” and it is not clear to whom these pronouns and common nouns actually refer.

    I might add that reading these prophecies in their context is quite a challenge and they are anything but clear, at least, to me. To read them as prophecies about Jesus takes some desire to see them that way.

  10. Avatar
    JSTMaria  January 15, 2016

    Dr. Ehrman,

    The apocalyptic concept of a millenium seems to be pretty popular these days as well. Can you speak to where this comes from–beyond the one-liner in Revelation? The early church fathers seemed to go back and forth on it, but Catholicism and Orthodoxy have ultimately landed in a position where the millenium is now–or the church age. Is it true that the expression “a thousand years” scripturally just refers to a really really really long time?

  11. Avatar
    smitch2010  January 17, 2016

    Dr. Ehrman, excellent post!
    Regarding the narcissistic part -I grew up with a religious group who think since 1874 the words of Jesus in Matt. 24 and 25 along with the prophets speaking end times belong to them and teach it as absolute doctrine. Thanks to the internet their doctrine has develop possibly destructive building cracks to who know where it will lead.

    In regard to Revelation for people to say that it applies only to Rome and the Jews, I can’t help but go back to Rev. 20 that seem to speak beyond that. Unless it is all symbolic it seems to speak about 1,000 years in the future no matter what generation we belong to.

    Since most of today’s religions are based on proof text ideas and that the bible is our inerrant guide book in 2016, I really wish Dr. Ehrman (if you don’t have it already) you had a book that goes into depth about the historic facts of the development of biblical prophecies as it evolved through time and history to see if it does prove if the bible is in fact inerrant as a book directed by YHWH.

  12. Avatar
    Kazibwe Edris  February 8, 2016

    doctor Ehrman

    have you done posts on jesus’ claim “this generation will not pass till all …”
    “truly i tell you some standing here will not taste death until…”

    have you done any books on jesus’ eschatology / have you covered jesus’ future predictions on this blog?
    if yes, can you tell me what to search under?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 8, 2016

      Try looking up “apocalyptic” and “apocalypticism” on the blog.

  13. Avatar
    Theonedue  February 8, 2016

    Bart, are the Pharisees having perfect understanding of the 3rd day the main problem with accepting the guard story in Mathew as historical?

    Do you believe the story of the guards was a lie that a Christian came up with in order to give evidence as to why the apostles could not have stolen the body of Jesus?

    If it was a legend and not a lie, how do you think it’s evolution as a legend came about? I’m thinking that after the Pharisees claimed that the Apostles stole the body of Jesus, sometime afterwards a Christian thought “Wouldn’t Pilate have put guards there?”. He then told other about this, and another Christian came in a heard the “..pilate have put guards there part, and thought guards were there, after a while embellishments came and went with that and after some time we have the story as we have it today? What do you think of this theory?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 9, 2016

      I don’t think legendary accounts necessarily start out as lies. It’s hard to say *where* rumors start. But they start all the time without anyone necessarily trying to be deceptive.

  14. Avatar
    geshtu  February 16, 2016

    What are your thoughts regarding prophecies from Ezekiel and Jeremiah, regarding the destruction of Tyre and also the destruction of Egypt?

    I know Christians who believe that although some details don’t line up exactly (depending on one’s interpretation), nonetheless these writers did indeed foretell that Nebuchadnezzar would attack Tyre and Egypt, and both with some measure of success (Tyre survived but paid tribute, while Egypt suffered a defeat around 586BCE according to Josephus). They say that each prediction contains hyperbole, which is why some of the details don’t match up. Yet they claim that just predicting the general events themselves is miraculous, and evidence of divine inspiration.

    My personal opinion is that this severely “weakens” the predictions, such that they sound more like predicting who will win the next football grand final. Not a particularly impossible feat on human terms. I also wonder what these Christians would have said had the details of the prophecies matched history exactly…

    What are your thoughts on these two prophecies? (Ezek 26 & 29 mainly, although I think the Egypt one is referred to by Jeremiah as well, not sure which chapter)

    Even if we only consider that they were predicting events in their own day, were their predictions in any way fulfilled? What do you make of it?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 17, 2016

      It’s always impossible to know if these are predictions written before the fact or postdictions written after the fact (meant to be read as pre-dictions).

  15. acircharo
    acircharo  March 1, 2016

    I’m probably missing something here but weren’t most of the prophets written AFTER the fact? Writing in the 4th century BCE about something that occurred 200 years earlier, isn’t that how the writers tried to demonstrate that their “prophecies” are divinely inspired, etc.? The Ancients have done this forever, Homer, Virgil, etc., right down to the verbiage put into the mouths of their main characters.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 1, 2016

      Yes, that’ the ocmmon view among critical scholars.

      • Avatar
        Elisabeth  March 18, 2016

        While I was raised in an Evangelical church and family that put little to no stock in apocalypticism (the rapture, movie or concept, was considered unbiblical and few if any prophecies were interpreted as being about our day), *very* much stock was put in Biblical prophets having successfully prophesied about the coming centuries of their own nations.

        As one beloved Sunday School teacher put it when trying to prove to us that the Bible was indeed the word of God, “the chances of all the OT prophecies coming true are about as likely as if you filled the entire state of Texas 4 feet deep in Oreos, and took ONE Oreo out of the entire lot, removed the cream, and buried it back in, then gave someone one chance to guess where it is.” (Apparently the needle in the haystack analogy wasn’t drastic enough – this one sure stuck with me all these years.)

        So in short, I guess my question is how accurate is the dating method used for OT prophetic texts/how certain are we that many (all?) were written after the fact? I’d like to think it would be incontrovertible evidence for churches like my former one that the Bible isn’t as divine as all that, though given their track record , I’m sure they’d argue their way out of it somehow.

        • Bart
          Bart  March 19, 2016

          The problem isn’t (just) the dating of OT prophetic texts; the problem is that hte people writing (and, earlier, telling) stories of Jesus were doing so fully aware of what the OT prophetic texts said. If you know that the savior is to come from Bethlehem and then you tell a story that Jesus was born in Bethlehem… well, your knowledge may have affected how you told your story (as can actually be demonstrated — e.g. with Bethlehem!)

      • TWood
        TWood  December 16, 2016

        I agree… but what’s your sense on what the following passages were actually referring to?

        1. What events are in view in Ezek 38 & 39? (Rev 20:8 seems to draw from it… but I assume it’s not referring to the same event Ezekiel was).

        2. In Daniel 12:4, when is the “sealed time of the end” supposed to be? It’s written to imply it’ll be after Daniel’s time… was it referring to the actual time Daniel was written (2nd century BCE) as opposed to when it was supposed to have been written (6th century BCE)? In other words… something like “Daniel predicted these current 2nd century events four centuries ago”… This verse is used by fundies to justify their novel ideas… but I know Irenaeus shows it was used by second century gnostics too…

        3. Revelation is unsealed (Rev 22:10)… is this proof that the early Christians saw Daniel as also unsealed by Jesus’ arrival (cf. Heb. 1:2, etc.)?

        4. I hear the claim that 2/3 of the bible is prophecy (predictive)… is there any truth to this?

        • Bart
          Bart  December 16, 2016

          I’m out of town and so don’t have any books with me, so I can’t really answer these detailed questions 1-3. Do you have a good annotated Bible? These kinds of questions are almost always answered there. I’d suggest using hte HarperCollins Study Bible. On pt 4, no that is defnitely no where near being true.

          • TWood
            TWood  December 16, 2016

            Thanks. I don’t have that one, but I just ordered it on Amazon—so I will have it soon. Is that one better than the Anchor Bible?

          • Bart
            Bart  December 18, 2016

            The Anchor Bible is a series of commentaries; it is not an edition of the Bible with annotations. But it is far superior when it comes to giving in depth exposition of all the major issues, verse by verse.

  16. Avatar
    drussell60  April 3, 2016

    I remember asking one of my dispensationalism-driven professors (back in the early 80s) how the people Jesus was addressing in Matthew 24 (if these even are the actual words of Jesus) could find comfort in an event that would take place 2000 plus years later. His answer, best as I can recall (there’s that memory issue thing again), was that these followers of Jesus took comfort on future believer’s behalf. In other words, they were unselfishly happy for rapture-eager believers today. Oh, that’s right, it is about them after all. I quickly learned I was burning up good money for pseudo-intellectual scholarship. I was also told that Jesus’ statement in Matthew 24:34, “Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place,” was pointing to whatever generation it would be when Jesus returned. By the way, if anyone happens to run into a High Priest in Jerusalem somewhere still waiting for Jesus’ “coming with the clouds of heaven,” tell him he can take comfort as there is a great book by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins titled, “Perhaps Today: Living Every Day in the Light of Christ’s Return.”

  17. TWood
    TWood  June 7, 2016

    My favorite one of all time is Jack Van Impe quoting Nahum 2:4… because after all, this clearly is being fulfilled in the busy streets of Los Angeles.

  18. Avatar
    usmanrahmati  October 16, 2017

    Jeremiah 29:11″ For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”
    One of my friends think that this verse is referring to her. What can i say to her to give her a wake-up call?

  19. Avatar
    Marko071291  November 29, 2019

    Hi Bart,

    I m wondering how did early Christians overcome the fact that Jesus didn’t return in their lifetime. How did Christianity continued to spread in the face of that fact? Hope you can recommend a book or an article on that subject. Thanks!

    • Bart
      Bart  December 1, 2019

      Lots and lots written on that. One very intriguing book is John Gager, Kingdom and Community. He argues that cognitive dissonance made the Christians *more* missionary once the anticipated end didn’t come.

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