DH 11: Dating Prophetic Texts

DH 11: Dating Prophetic Texts April 13, 2014

The principles I outlined earlier in DH 9 and 10 on dating ancient texts face a serious methodological problem when it comes to dating texts that claim to be prophecies.  It has become almost an axiom among secular biblical scholars that if a text accurately prophesies of a future event, that text must have been written after the prophesied event.  This argument of course begs the question of whether God can know the future, and reveal it to humans.  All ancient biblical authors believed the existence of true prophecies, although they certainly recognized that not all claimed prophecies were true prophecies.  Secular scholars, on the other hand, reject that possibility.  If they are wrong in that rejection it creates a serious methodological problem when secular scholars try to date prophetic texts.  If their assumption is wrong, they will necessarily get the dates wrong too.

But let’s assume for the moment that the secularists are right, and there is no possibility of God-inspired predictive prophecy.  That really doesn’t preclude someone accurately predicting the future based purely on human reason or pure speculation.  We call it “guessing,” and we see it all the time from pundits on television.  Take the case of Jeremiah for example.  In chapter 28, Jeremiah prophesies that Babylon will defeat Jerusalem and place it under a yoke.  Hananiah “the prophet” (28:5, 15, 17), on the other hand, prophesies that Babylon will be defeated within two years (28:10).  Inevitably, one of the two prophets prophesying opposite things would have to be right.  As it turns out, Jeremiah was right and Jerusalem fell.  But if Hananiah had been right, and Babylon had been defeated, the Bible would contain the book of Hananiah rather than the book of Jeremiah.

I discussed another example of this in my article “The Most Misunderstood Book,” 78-79 from which the following discussion is a summary.  The main reason consistently given for dating the Gospels to after AD 70 is that Jesus accurately prophesied the destruction of the temple of Jerusalem (Matthew 23:37–39; 24:1–2, 15–22; Mark 13:1–2, 14–20; Luke 13:34–35; 21:5–6, 20–24).  Since Jesus predicted the destruction of the temple—and, as atheists assure us, since there is no such thing as real prophecy—the Gospels must have been written after that destruction occurred, in other words, after AD 70.  Let’s assume for the sake of argument that in fact Jesus was an ordinary mortal who merely believed that he was a prophet. It is nonetheless quite possible that he could simply have looked at the social unrest and rebellion brewing in Judea and have correctly guessed that there would eventually be a revolt against Rome that would culminate in Roman victory and in the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple.  Indeed, there is ample evidence that similar prophecies of the destruction of the temple were rather commonplace around the time of Christ. (Y. Eliav, “Prediction of the Destruction of the Herodian Temple in the Pseudepigrapha, Qumran Scrolls, and Related Texts,” Journal for the Study of the Pseudepigrapha 10 (1992): 89–147; see also C. Evans, “Opposition to the Temple: Jesus and the Dead Sea Scrolls,” in Jesus and the Dead Sea Scrolls, ed. James H. Charlesworth (New York: Doubleday, 1995), 235–53.)

Political pundits today do this type of thing all the time on TV, occasionally accurately predicting (guessing?) elections, wars, future economic activity, and so on. Of course, many are wrong in their predictions, but some, perhaps if only by chance, get it right.  But no one would argue that those pundits who correctly guessed the winner of an election must have made their guess after the election was over.  In an ancient context, Jesus’ correct prediction would have been viewed by his followers as a true prophecy. When Jerusalem was indeed destroyed, its destruction would have been seen by Christians as proof that Jesus was truly the Messiah.  Indeed an accurate prophecy would help explain the success of early Christianity.  Properly understood in its ancient context, the presence of a prophecy of the destruction of the temple is insufficient grounds for dating the Gospels to after AD 70, even if one believes that Jesus was an ordinary mortal.


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