Tag Archives: prophecy

Did Matthew Botch Christmas? (…. Or How World Cup Soccer Helps to Better Understand Bible Prophecy)

It is the season of Advent, which means it is time for critics of Christianity to try to poke holes in the Christmas story, as people scramble to put up what is left of their Christmas decorations, fill their Amazon cart with last minute gifts, and believers in Jesus prepare for the celebration of the Incarnation of the Son of God.

Dr. Bart Ehrman, professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, New York Times bestseller author, and perhaps the most well-known public skeptic of Christianity, has been making the rounds on various atheist YouTube channels, promoting a new seminar regarding “Other Virgin Births in Antiquity,” just in time for the holidays.

Croatia beats Brazil at the 2022 World Cup, after a dramatic penalty shootout. Do you think penalty shootouts have nothing to teach us about Bible prophecy?…. Think again.

In one particular promotional video, on the atheist Paulogia channel, Paulogia asks Dr. Ehrman to interact with a video by Dr. Michael Heiser, an evangelical expert in Semitic languages, and perhaps my favorite Old Testament scholar. I posted a blog article asking “Is the Virgin Birth Prophecy a Mistranslation?,” back in 2016, which at the end featured the full-length video of Dr. Heiser’s lecture.

In the recent 20-minute video, Paulogia states in the subtitle: “Dr Bart Ehrman joins us to determine if [Dr. Michael Heiser’s] work is scholarly… or just more Christian apologetics.” Of course, this assumes Dr. Ehrman’s work is purely scholarly with no biased apologetics of his own….  NEWSFLASH: Every scholar has their biases, using their own style of apologetics to defend their views, including Bart Ehrman.

However, if you are interested, the recent 20-minute Paulogia interview with Dr. Ehrman, critiquing the Heiser video can be viewed here. You could just read on for now, and come back to it at a later time:

 

The Virgin Birth Prophecy…. Did Matthew Botch the Whole Thing?

To my knowledge, this is the only YouTube presentation where Dr. Ehrman interacts with Dr. Heiser’s material. I only want to highlight the main controversy here, as it has to do with the famous Virgin Birth prophecy found in Matthew 1:23, which quotes Isaiah 7:14, indicating that the birth of Jesus fulfills this prophecy, made about 700 years earlier.

The English Standard Version (ESV) translation, starting in Matthew 1:22, reads as follows to describe the very first Christmas:

All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet:

“Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall call his name Immanuel”

This closely mirrors what the ESV has in Isaiah 7:14. However, compare the same passage in something like the New Revised Standard Version, Updated Edition (NRSVue), for Isaiah 7:14:

Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son and shall name him Immanuel.

The highlighted portion demonstrates the controversy. Both Dr. Ehrman and Dr. Heiser agree that the NRSVue rendering is the accurate translation of the original Hebrew. The Hebrew has the word “almah,” which generally means “young woman,” or “young maiden.” However, these two scholars then begin to differ.

Bart Ehrman argues that treating the Hebrew word “almah” to mean “virgin” is a mistranslation. The Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, produced a few centuries before Jesus, by a group of Jewish scholars near Alexandria, Egypt, then carried this “mistranslation” into that Greek text, which Matthew borrows and places in his Gospel.

Michael Heiser argues otherwise. For the term “almah” is actually a rather ambiguous word in the Hebrew lexicon. Yes, it does generally mean “young woman.” However, an “almah” might also be considered to be a “virgin,” depending on the context. The concept of “virgin” is more restrictive, in the sense that it could refer to a “young woman” who has not yet experienced sexual relations. In other words, you simply can not rule out the idea that “almah” could mean “virgin.”

What the Paulogia video neglects to tell viewers is that there is a clear instance in the Bible when “almah” does mean “virgin,a translation which Dr. Heiser explains in a separate article, that I will summarize here: In Song of Songs 6:8, the ESV reads:

There are sixty queens and eighty concubines,
    and virgins without number.

This verse is talking about the women in the king’s harem, where the Scripture writer delineates three different classes of women. You can ignore the obvious moral difficulty of a king having a number of women at his disposal to focus on these three classes. A “queen” would be a wife of the king. A “concubine” would be a “secondary wife” or “slave woman.”  That last category, “virgin” corresponds to that Hebrew word “almah,” for reasons that the Orthodox Jewish Bible gives in a footnote:

….the word means explicitly or implicitly “virgin” and where “young woman” is not an adequate rendering, in this case, since the King was hardly interested in only young women in his harem, but demanded “virgins”; the older Jewish translations like Harkavy’s so translated the word as “virgin” in this verse until it became politically incorrect to do so in later, more liberal Jewish translations into English].

I like to use the online StepBible as a great tool for exploring such a word study, as in how the Hebrew word “almah” is translated throughout the whole Bible, to see this for myself. While Matthew’s method of Old Testament prophecy interpretation may sound weird to us, he was far from being careless or clumsy.

…..So much for Dr. Ehrman’s critique against Dr. Heiser on this point….

The Flight Into Egypt, by Vittore Carpacccio (1466-1525). Based on Matthew’s interpretation of prophecy in Hosea being fulfilled through his Virgin Birth narrative. The Gospel of Matthew takes a lot of heat from critics who think that Matthew was “making things up” as prophecy fulfillment in his Virgin Birth narrative. In this blog we tackle one of those criticisms, namely Matthew’s use of Isaiah 7:14 to announce the Virgin Birth.

 

On the Nature of Bible Prophecy: Why the “300+ Prophecies of Jesus” Can Be Misleading

Nevertheless, it is important to recognize that Bart Ehrman does raise an important issue that is often neglected: There is a specific Hebrew word for “virgin” found in the Old Testament: “betulah.” If the prophet Isaiah really meant “virgin” to be the word here in Isaiah 7:14, why did he choose the ambiguous word “almah” and not the more specific word “betulah?”

To answer that question you have to think more deeply about the nature of biblical prophecy. Both Dr. Heiser and Dr. Ehrman agree in the video that it would have been completely absurd for Isaiah to have one and only one meaning in mind regarding Isaiah 7:14, looking hundreds of years into the future, simply based on the original context of the passage.

A closer look at the whole chapter, in Isaiah 7, demonstrates what is going on. In the 8th century B.C.E., King Ahaz of Judah is being threatened by two kings from the land to the north. Verse 2 even says that Ahaz was “shaking” in fear. Would the God of Israel deliver Ahaz from this military threat?

Ahaz says that he will not test the Lord in this moment, but the prophet Isaiah is not buying into Ahaz’s fake piety. Isaiah then makes his famous prophecy, but then in verses 15-16, Isaiah says that before the promised child is old enough to know the difference between right and wrong, those two northern kings will no longer be a threat to Ahaz.

Just think about it. If Isaiah was only prophesying the coming of Jesus, would that have really made any sense to Ahaz? Imagine such a conversation that Isaiah would have had with Ahaz, if this indeed was the case:

“King Ahaz!  I have great news for you. Seven hundred years from now, a child will be born, and before that child reaches an age of moral maturity, those two kings that are causing you to shake in your boots now will no longer be a threat to you!”

Huh???

What type of comfort would that really give to Ahaz? He would be long dead before the prophecy would have any meaning for him.

Unfortunately, there are many Christians who never really think about this problem at all…. and it is a real problem. I had been a Christian for nearly several decades before I realized that this was indeed a problem. It does not help that there are a handful of evangelical scholars who perpetuate this idea that Isaiah 7:14 is solely a messianic prophecy, whose only purpose is to predict the coming of Jesus, at the first Christmas, nearly 700 years after Isaiah and Ahaz were living.

I presume they mean well, but I do not understand the full thinking process used by such scholars who promote this “single messianic prophecy” view. Assigning a prophecy to have a purely future, single meaning to it is attractive, in that it is simple to understand: Isaiah predicts the birth of Jesus… end of story.

But it comes across as a kind of wishful thinking approach to biblical prophecy. While there is not anything necessarily harmful in wanting something to be true, it becomes a serious problem when the evidence is either completely lacking or leads to nonsense, or far worse, the available evidence contradicts with the proposition that we want to believe to be true.

Many Christians familiar with at least some form of Christian apologetics are often told that at least some 300 prophecies in the Old Testament have been fulfilled by Jesus. In fact, several friends of mine have told me that they became believers in Jesus because of those 300+ prophecies. Understandably, many Christians want to see how Jesus fulfills centuries of Old Testament prophecies, hundreds of years into the future. But the story is more complicated than what you get in a typical Sunday morning sermon, particular during the season of Advent…. and frankly, the story is far more rich and profound.

Many imagine Jesus was probably walking around at some point in his life with clipboard underneath his tunic, checking off things to make sure they were being fulfilled: “Born in Bethlehem…. CHECK…. Born of a Virgin…. CHECK…. Avoiding the wrath of Herod by escaping to Egypt with Joseph and Mary and then returning…. GOT THAT, TOO!

Well, it just is not that simple. While there are some prophecies that have a single, direct fulfillment in view, such as most probably with Micah 5:2’s prediction that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem, the weight of the evidence overall points to something more nuanced.

More often than not, both Second Temple-period Jewish and early Christian interpreters used a particular form of Bible interpretation to understand how prophecy works: typology. A typological interpretation of prophecy suggests that there is a “type” or pattern of prophecy fulfillment or partial fulfillment that anticipates a later, full fulfillment of the prophecy, or the “real thing” being prophesied. Some scholars refer to this as a “double-fulfillment” view of prophecy, but the terminology of “typology” is a theologically richer way of thinking about it.

Perhaps the best example is in Roman 5:14, when the Apostle Paul describes Adam as the type of the one who was to come, namely Jesus. In this example, Adam is the “type” while Jesus is the “real thing.” Or to put it another way, Jesus is the “Second Adam.” The curious thing about a lot of typology is that it is typically not that easy to figure out how a particular statement in the Old Testament anticipates its New Testament fulfillment, just by reading the Old Testament itself.

Most Jews today associate Isaiah 7:14 with a more near-term fulfillment of the prophecy, namely in the birth of Ahaz’ son, Hezekiah, the future king who would live beyond the deaths of those two northern kings who threatened Ahaz. When the Jew Trypho had his famous 2nd century C.E. debate with the Christian apologist Justin Martyr, Trypho made the case that Isaiah 7:14 prophesied the coming of Hezekiah, whereas Justin argued that it was Jesus who was prophesied.

However, many scholars have since argued that the prophesy initially referred to the birth of Isaiah’s own son, described in Isaiah 8, who actually receives the name of “Immanuel” in Isaiah 8:8-10.

Furthermore, there is nothing specific in the Old Testament that links Isaiah 7:14 to any particular, future messianic expectation. Also, we have no demonstrable pre-Christian Jewish texts after Isaiah that associate Isaiah 7:14 with a future coming Messiah, according to Beale and Carson’s Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament. 

However, when the Septuagint translators translated “young woman” into “virgin,” this might indeed suggest that at least some Jews eventually began to think that there was something more to the Isaiah 7:14 prophecy, as a future son having some type of supernatural conception, centuries beyond the days of Isaiah, Ahaz, or Hezekiah. It is difficult to know for sure.

Nevertheless, Matthew in the New Testament ultimately settles the matter by linking the “virgin” to Jesus’ mother, Mary. For in Matthew’s mind, Jesus does more than simply deliver two northern kings from threatening King Ahaz, back around the 8th century B.CE. Instead, Jesus delivers the whole world from the deadly grip of sin, from Satan, and other powers of darkness.

World Cup 2022 Penalty Shootouts : a match of wits and skill.

 

The Cryptic Nature of Bible Prophecy: A Lesson from World Cup Soccer

Back to the discussion by Bart Ehrman that raises an important question: Why so cryptic?

Why is it that the prophecy in Isaiah 7:14 is so ambiguous? If the whole point of Isaiah 7:14 was to point to Jesus, why did Isaiah not settle the matter himself and use the word “betulah” to describe the mother of the promised child?

The answer is found here: … think about World Cup penalty shootouts.

As I am writing this, the 2022 FIFA World Cup tournament in Qatar is wrapping up. Once you get into the semi-final and final rounds, games where the score is tied is settled by a penalty shootout. Each team brings up a shooter against the other team’s goalie. The standoff is almost all mental. Both the shooter and the goalie has to somehow anticipate what the other is going to do. Will the shooter feign a shot to the right, when the shot is really meant to go into the left side of the goal? Will the goalkeeper dive to his right, anticipating that the shooter will try to put the ball in that side of the net? Will the shot come low and straight-on, or will it go high and up to a corner?

It is all a battle of wits and skill, trying to read what the other player plans on doing.

In other words, the key to success in a penalty shootout in the World Cup is in trying to be as cryptic as possible, regarding what one intends to do.

The lesson of World Cup penalty shootout strategy can help us to understand why Bible prophecy is so cryptic: The key to understanding it is not by saying that Isaiah 7:14 was mistranslated, or that Matthew misused Isaiah’s prophesy. Instead, it is to recognize that the cryptic nature of the prophecy was cryptic by design. It was not some “mistake” that crept into our Bibles, sneaking under the radar of the early church fathers who affirmed the New Testament canon of Scripture. Instead, Matthew does what he does on purpose, to make a theological point. The Apostle Paul explains why this was the case in 1 Corinthians 2:6-10 (ESV):

Yet among the mature we do impart wisdom, although it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to pass away. But we impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. None of the rulers of this age understood this, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. But, as it is written,

“What no eye has seen, nor ear heard,
    nor the heart of man imagined,
what God has prepared for those who love him”—

these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit. For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God.

The big clue here is the meaning of “the rulers of this age.” Some suggest that these are political rulers in Paul’s day, but Paul is thinking of a bigger, supernatural picture here. In Michael Heiser’s The Unseen Realm these “rulers of this age” are supernatural beings that seek to challenge the authority of the God of Israel, and who wish to derail God’s program to reveal the messiah to the world through the person of Jesus of Nazareth (Kindle location 2134).

In order to thwart these dark powers who wish to thwart the one True God’s plan to bring about the redemption of humanity, God veils his plan in the Old Testament to reveal Jesus as the Christ in such a way that these “rulers of this age” would not be able to figure out what God was up to, until after the fact. By then, the “rulers of this age” would be powerless and too late to stop God’s redemption plan. The only way you would then be able to discern what God was doing was through hindsight.  This was what Matthew was doing by understanding in hindsight what the prophet Isaiah was getting at with Isaiah 7:14, whether Isaiah himself was fully aware of this added typological dimension or not.

In other words, the powers of darkness thought that God would strike the ball hard and low to the right side of the net, but instead, God feigned a move and then cranked the ball into the upper left hand side of the net.

Game over.

While this way of interpreting Isaiah 7:14 may not be as exhilarating as the “single messianic prophecy” view propagated by some Christians, it is still a defensible position to hold, given the available evidence. The “single messianic prophecy” view faces the onslaught of critics, like a Bart Ehrman, who can tear down such a indefensible thesis into shreds, which he manages to do in the Paulogia video.

On the other hand, a more nuanced, typological reading of Isaiah 7:14 is supported by the weight of evidence that undergirds it, and it can withstand the volley of criticisms  that skeptics might throw against it. Plus, it makes sense of the broader contour of the Bible’s story, of how God has sought to reveal his plan of redemption through the history of Israel, despite the opposition of the powers of darkness.

SO… back to the question in this blog article title, “Did Matthew Botch Christmas?” Hopefully the case has been made that the answer is “NO.”

At Christmas, the light of Christ breaks through the darkness to show to a hopeless world that there is still hope, and that Jesus himself is the living incarnate expression of that very hope.  The powers of darkness, intent on destroying God’s plan, were caught off guard, unaware of the deeper reality of God’s plan of redemption. Recipients of God’s mercy and grace instead benefit from that Good News. With that truth in mind, we have a wonderful reason to celebrate a Merry Christmas!

If you want a deep dive look at this, consider Dr. Michael Heiser’s full presentation regarding Isaiah’s Virgin Birth prophesy, as opposed to Paulogia’s heavily edited version with Bart Ehrman above. While I am not saying that the truth of Christianity rises and falls on the Virgin Birth story, I am saying that Christianity makes more sense with the Virgin Birth than without it. For that reason, I would consider the Virgin Birth to be an essential doctrine of the Christian faith, a hallmark of orthodox faith and belief. However, I would also add that Christians should learn that there are defensible ways of upholding the Virgin Birth, that we should consider, and let go of certain wishful thinking fantasies that simply can not be defended…… But before you check out the Dr. Heiser video, you can re-live the moment when Argentina beat the defending champions, France, in a World Cup penalty shootout in the 2022 Final!


Bad Blood Moon Rising?

End-times prophecy fascinates many Christians. This is understandable. The Bible talks quite a lot about the fulfillment of prophecy.

Popular American preacher and Christian Zionist, John Hagee, has been recently promoting the idea that we are on the verge of seeing some “world shaking event”, a type of prophecy fulfilled corresponding to a rather unusual astronomical occurrence. Starting in April 2014 through 2015, observers on planet earth will be able to witness four “blood moons” in a relatively short period of time,  according to researchers at NASA and other astronomers. A “blood moon” is simply an informal expression for a lunar eclipse, when the moon will appear the color of a blood red. In the following clip promoting a recent book, John Hagee summarizes his ideas:

Hagee derived his ideas from fellow dispensationalist pastor, Mark Biltz. Biltz is a leading figure in the Hebrew Roots Movement, a rather provocative teaching that urges Gentile Christians to stay more faithful to the Bible by adopting more traditionally Old Testament Jewish practices in terms of a calendar of worship. Highlighted before here on Veracity, Biltz’s Hebrew Roots teaching has proven very controversial.

In this latest turn in the analysis of biblical prophecy, Biltz suggests that the rare events of having four blood moons, a tetrad, happening so close together in time has been historically associated with major events in Jewish history. In 1492, the Jews were expelled from Spain, followed within a couple of years by one of these four blood moon events. In 1948, the modern nation-state of Israel was founded, followed again within a few years by a series of four blood moon events. In 1967, Israel fought the Six Day War, gaining full control of the old city of Jerusalem. Oh yes, soon after that, there were four blood moon events.

What does the upcoming blood moon events in 2014 and 2015 signify? Well, Biltz and Hagee continually reiterate that they are not “setting dates.” However, Biltz says that something major will happen regarding Israel. Hagee goes a little stronger and states that something big will happen somehow related to Christ’s second coming… Mmmm….. While both preachers seek to distance themselves from the rather boldly absurd claims made by Harold Camping a few years ago, their pronouncements are unsettling and should cause believers to pause to reconsider the historical and biblical grounding for such teachings. Now, I am sure that many Christians have benefited positively from the teaching ministries of  Biltz and Hagee. However, both preachers, notably Hagee, have made curious statements suggesting that Jewish people do not need conversion to Christ, which if the reports are true, is a deeply disturbing situation in terms of sound Christian doctrine (per the Christian Research Institute).

A number of biblically informed Christians are not enthusiastic about the blood moon teachings associated with Biltz and Hagee. I do not always agree with Gary Demar, but I would urge those who are drawn to the teachings of Biltz and Hagee to at least soberly ponder over what the founder of American Vision has to say.

Demar argues that the speculation over the future fulfillment of prophecy actually has a negative impact on the witness of the Christian church. From Hal Lindsey to Harold Camping, and to somewhat a lesser extent in the late Chuck Smith, those who are tempted to focus too much on future biblical prophecy have historically been wrong, wrong, wrong pretty much most of the time. When people have tried to nail down the exact date of Jesus’ return, their attempts have proven 100% incorrect. If it turns out that no spectacular “something” happens within the next couple of years regarding Israel, will the integrity of Christian witness in the eyes of a skeptical world be damaged?

If we as Christians repeatedly pay too much attention to even vague attempts at the “date-setting” of nebulous prophecies, will our non-believing neighbors trust us when we try to tell them about the prophecies that have been fulfilled already in Jesus Christ 2000 years ago?

What do you think? Is there a bad “blood” moon rising?

Additional Resources:

For you science-geeks out there, the first total lunar eclipse in the tetrad sequence will be visible early, early the morning of April 15, 2014 on the U.S. East Coast.

Some experienced students of the Bible might object that Gary Demar is a partial preterist, and therefore not trusted with respect to Biblical prophecy. Okay, how about this:  for another dispensational, futurist perspective that objects to Hagee’s and Biltz’s understanding of the Bible, you might want to view the following 13-minute critique of the Four Blood Moon theory.  The bottom-line: do not simply swallow everything some television preacher says. Check it out against reliable history and the truth of God’s Word:


A Harbinger of Typology Gone Awry?

The Harbinger.  Popular New York Times Bestseller by pastor Jonathan Cahn.  Fact or fiction?

The Harbinger. Popular New York Times Bestseller by pastor Jonathan Cahn. Fact or fiction?

Have you read The Harbinger?” The wife of the elderly couple in the restaurant asked me with great curiosity and concern. “I am not sure what to think of all of it, but it sounds like a prophetic warning for America!

Sometimes going out to lunch can get you into trouble. As we were finishing up a meal with some friends and getting ready to leave, this couple at another table wanted to have a “conversation” with me. Well, it was more like a monologue than a dialogue. I was thinking that this would be brief, as my wife and friends had already left the restaurant, but this couple just kept going on and on about this “Harbinger” book, among other topics. I needed a rescue but there was none to be had. My wife was understandably upset, by this time waiting on her crutches outside the restaurant. After I finally left the couple as they were still in mid-sentence, I was sorely rebuked by my wife for leaving her stranded in the parking lot, after she had recently undergone foot surgery. Ouch. I had messed up. Boy, was I in trouble!

But I was not the only one in trouble. As I did a little more research later into The Harbinger, I realized that there are probably a lot more folks in trouble!

You see, I do not have cable TV, so I’m am pretty clueless about what passes for pop culture and the round-the-clock news cycle these days. But apparently, a Messianic Jewish pastor, Jonathan Cahn, has written a blockbuster novel, The Harbinger: the Ancient Mystery that holds the secret of America’s Future. As of late June, 2013, after 75 weeks on the New York Times Best Seller list under the paperback trade fiction category, The Harbinger, sat at #19. That is quite remarkable for a book written by an evangelical Christian author.

Now, the book may indeed be a great story if you like that particular genre, mixing non-fiction into primarily a fictional story. The problem is that it is sometimes hard to figure out the line where the non-fiction ends and where the fiction begins.
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Son of Man: In Search of That Missing Prophecy

Is this Jonah being swallowed by the big fish, or is this how I felt at a Bible study the other night when I was stumped by a really good question?

Jonah and the big fish… or small group Bible study leader stumped by a really good question?

So, we had a “mini-crisis” in our small group Bible study recently. We were looking at the question of how Jesus fulfills prophecy in the New Testament. Someone read from Luke 24:45-46:

Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead”(ESV)

Then, the question came: “Does anyone have a reference for this prophecy given in the Old Testament?”

Pages started to rattle. Folks were hunting for a cross-reference. Someone looks around the room for a concordance. Others were pulling out their iPhones to ask the “Almighty All-Knowning Google” for the answer. Whew, boy. I was in trouble.

You see, I’m like, uh, the small group leader. Not only that. I got a seminary degree. Yet, I was completely stumped. All that theological mumbo-jumbo and graduate school $$$  and I was busted.  I tried to mutter something spiritual and intelligent sounding. It was not really working. Folks were looking at me like, “Nice try, no dice, buddy”. I was thinking that Professor Hagner back in seminary was watching, peering over the top of his glasses down at me.  Sweat was pouring down my brow. The room was uncomfortably warm. I was glad I had my day job. Perhaps I could have tried to sneak out the backdoor…. Whoops. That would not have been good…. We were meeting at our house.

😉

OK. I am exaggerating quite a bit. We have a wonderful small group, after all. But it is a great question: Where in the Old Testament do you find the prophecy where Jesus says He will rise again from the dead on the third day? Well, unfortunately, you might be searching a long, long, long time for a specific verse…..
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