The Argument From Prophecy and Bayes Theorem (Part 1): How to Express the Evidence of Prophetic Fulfillment

Fulfilled predictive prophecy is a category of evidence that the Scriptures themselves commend to our use. Indeed, it was the criterion that was used by the Hebrews to determine whether someone who claimed to be a prophet truly spoke from God, or whether he spoke presumptuously. Being a false prophet was something that was taken very seriously in ancient Israel, and according to the Jewish law false prophets were to be sentenced to death. We read in Deuteronomy 18:21-22,

21 And if you say in your heart, ‘How may we know the word that the Lord has not spoken?’— 22 when a prophet speaks in the name of the Lord, if the word does not come to pass or come true, that is a word that the Lord has not spoken; the prophet has spoken it presumptuously. You need not be afraid of him.

Revelation concerning future events was also used to set apart the one true God of Israel from the idols who claimed to be deities. In fact, God regularly challenged the idolaters to present evidences that the idols whom they call “gods” are gods at all, by demonstrating their ability to predict the future in the same way that the God of Israel could. For example, in Isaiah 41:21-23, we read,

21 Set forth your case, says the Lord; bring your proofs, says the King of Jacob. 22 Let them bring them, and tell us what is to happen. Tell us the former things, what they are, that we may consider them, that we may know their outcome; or declare to us the things to come. 23 Tell us what is to come hereafter, that we may know that you are gods; do good, or do harm, that we may be dismayed and terrified. 24 Behold, you are nothing, and your work is less than nothing; an abomination is he who chooses you.

Predictive prophecy, then, is an evidence for divine inspiration that is commended to our use by the Scriptures themselves. Gleason Archer estimates that [1], 

Throughout the pages of the Old Testament, approximately, 200 Scripture texts (not individual verses) are predictive, many of which explicitly foretell with astounding accuracy major events such as the fall of the Northern Kingdom to Assyria in 722 B.C., the fall of Jerusalem and deportation of the Jews under Nebuchadnezzar in 586 B.C., and most prominently, the coming of Messiah, along with details of His life, ministry, death, and resurrection.

Of those approximately 200 Scripture texts, a majority of them are short-range predictions (i.e. prophecies which were fulfilled within the same generation as the one to whom the prophecy was uttered. Those were of evidential value to the original hearers who had to adjudicate and discern whether or not a prophet truly spoke from God. For them, a prophecy fulfilled hundreds of years later would not have been of much benefit. However, there is a smaller number of prophetic passages which contain long-range predictions. Of those, a portion are cases where the prophetic text contains not only a long-range prediction but also we can confirm with high confidence that the prophecy is not ex eventu. That is to say, we can corroborate that the prophecy was not written after the fact. Those are the cases that are of most evidential value to us in the twenty-first century.

Sadly, not many contemporary apologists make use of the argument from prophecy and, of the few that do, not many of them use it well. It is not uncommon for an apologist to exaggerate the weight of the case from a single example or to not engage at all with the atheist literature which offers objections to those argument and even documents alleged examples of failed predictive prophecy in the Bible. In this two-part series, I will show how, in my judgment, the argument from predictive prophecy is best made, as well as how to nuance it in such a way that the argument is maximally robust, and how to fairly account for alleged instances of failed prophecy within the overall case.

In this first part of this series, I lay out a case study concerning Ezekiel’s prophecy against Tyre; in will then respond to atheistic objections to this prophecy; and finally I will show how the argument, in my opinion, ought to be modeled probabilistically. In part 2 I will also address examples of alleged failed instances of prophecy.

Ezekiel’s Prophecy Against Tyre

As background to what I am about to share, it is important to realize that Ezekiel was an exilic prophet whose prophetic ministry spanned from the fifth year of the first deportation to Babylon in 592 B.C. until 570 B.C. I will not dwell in this article upon the evidence that supports the internal dating of Ezekiel. For readers who are interested in the evidence that has convinced the majority of scholars that Ezekiel was indeed writing when he claims to have been, I refer you to Freedy and Redford’s academic paper on “The dates in Ezekiel in relation to Biblical, Babylonian and Egyptian sources” [2].

Ezekiel 26 concerns God’s oracle of judgment against the city of Tyre, the capitol of the Phoenician empire, the most powerful city-state in the empire, and the city of trade and commerce of the ancient world. The Phoenicians were famous for their powerful navy, and Tyre was known as the “queen of the seas.” The city of Tyre had been continusouly occupied for 2000 years, and was considered to be impregnable.

It is important to note for clarity that there was a distinction between the mainland city of Tyre (“Old Tyre”) and the island city of Tyre, located half a mile off the coast.

Let us now turn to Ezekiel’s prophecy against Tyre. We read in Ezekiel 26:1-14,

In the eleventh year, on the first day of the month, the word of the Lord came to me: 2 “Son of man, because Tyre said concerning Jerusalem, ‘Aha, the gate of the peoples is broken; it has swung open to me. I shall be replenished, now that she is laid waste,’ 3 therefore thus says the Lord God: Behold, I am against you, O Tyre, and will bring up many nations against you, as the sea brings up its waves. 4 They shall destroy the walls of Tyre and break down her towers, and I will scrape her soil from her and make her a bare rock. 5 She shall be in the midst of the sea a place for the spreading of nets, for I have spoken, declares the Lord God. And she shall become plunder for the nations, 6 and her daughters on the mainland shall be killed by the sword. Then they will know that I am the Lord. 7 “For thus says the Lord God: Behold, I will bring against Tyre from the north Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, king of kings, with horses and chariots, and with horsemen and a host of many soldiers. 8 He will kill with the sword your daughters on the mainland. He will set up a siege wall against you and throw up a mound against you, and raise a roof of shields against you. 9 He will direct the shock of his battering rams against your walls, and with his axes he will break down your towers. 10 His horses will be so many that their dust will cover you. Your walls will shake at the noise of the horsemen and wagons and chariots, when he enters your gates as men enter a city that has been breached. 11 With the hoofs of his horses he will trample all your streets. He will kill your people with the sword, and your mighty pillars will fall to the ground. 12 They will plunder your riches and loot your merchandise. They will break down your walls and destroy your pleasant houses. Your stones and timber and soil they will cast into the midst of the waters. 13 And I will stop the music of your songs, and the sound of your lyres shall be heard no more. 14 I will make you a bare rock. You shall be a place for the spreading of nets. You shall never be rebuilt, for I am the Lord; I have spoken, declares the Lord God.

God indicates that He is going to bring up against Tyre “many nations” who are to come up “as the sea brings up its waves”, that is, in successive bouts. Note that God indicates that He is going to “scrape her soil from her and make her a bare rock.” In other words, the rubble of Tyre will be thrown into the water. Furthermore, “She shall be in the midst of the sea a place for the spreading of nets.” That is, the city of Tyre will be from henceforth underwater and therefore will be a “place for the spreading of nets.”

The first nation to come up against Tyre is the Babylonians, led by King Nebuchadnezzar, only months after Ezekiel’s prophecy. He came up against mainland Tyre and laid siege to the city for 13 years (586–573 BC). The first century Jewish historian Flavius Josephus (37-100 C.E.), quoting “the records of the Phoenicians,” indicates that Nebuchadnezzar “besieged Tyre for thirteen years in the days of Ithobal, their king” (Against Apion, 1.21). The people of Tyre, however, retreated to the island city of Tyre, half a mile off the coast. Although Nebuchadnezzar finally managed to breach the walls of Tyre in 573 B.C. He never succeeded, however, in taking the island city of Tyre, the seat of Tyrian grandeur.

Ezekiel 29:18-20 alludes to Nebuchadnezzar’s disappointment at receiving little plunder from Tyre:

18 “Son of man, Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon made his army labor hard against Tyre. Every head was made bald, and every shoulder was rubbed bare, yet neither he nor his army got anything from Tyre to pay for the labor that he had performed against her. 19 Therefore thus says the Lord God: Behold, I will give the land of Egypt to Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon; and he shall carry off its wealth and despoil it and plunder it; and it shall be the wages for his army. 20 I have given him the land of Egypt as his payment for which he labored, because they worked for me, declares the Lord God.

Of course, however, the text in Ezekiel 26 had indicated that “many nations” were to be the vehicles of God’s judgment against the city of Tyre. Notice the highlighted instances in Ezekiel 26:7-14 of the masculine singular pronouns “he” and “his.” In verse 12, there is a shift from the singular pronoun “he” to the plural pronoun “they.” I would argue that this is alluding back to the many nations that are to come up against Tyre as the sea brings up it waves, spoken of at the beginning of the oracle. Observe in particular how the job description of the “many nations” (verses 1-6) parallels that of “them” (verses 12-14). That is, they were to be the vehicles by which God was to cast the stones, timber and soil from Tyre into the midst of the ocean. Furthermore, notice the coupling of the pronouns “they” and “I” in verses 1-6 and verses 12-14, which also links the two sections.

In 332 B.C., Alexander the Great marched against Tyre. His conquest is documented by the ancient historian Diodorus Siculus (80-20 B.C)., who wrote extensively of Alexander’s conquest on Tyre. In The Library of History 9.39.7-8, Diodorus Siculus writes,

“The king [Alexander] saw that the city could hardly be taken by sea because of the engines mounted along its walls and the fleet that it possessed, while from the land it was almost unassailable… Immediately, he demolished what was called Old Tyre and set many tens of thousands of men to work carrying stones to construct a mole [causeway] two plethora [200ft] in width. He drafted into service the entire population of the neighbouring cities and the project advanced rapidly because the workers were numerous.”

Alexander the Great, therefore, built a causeway from the Old City of Tyre to the New, Island City of Tyre. He did so by demolishing Old Tyre and setting countless men to work carrying stones to build a causeway 200 feet in width. That is to say, he literally dumped the rubble of Tyre into the midst of the water, thus, in a remarkable way, fulfilling very specific aspects of Ezekiel’s prophecy.

Responding to Objections

Probably the most frequent objection that has been raised against the argument stated above is that modern day Tyre has a population of 200,000 inhabitants, despite the prophecy stating that Tyre was never to be rebuilt (Ezekiel 26:14). However, in response to this I would note that Phoenician Tyre was forever destroyed. Furthermore, Tyre never had it’s place restored as the center of trade and commerce in the Mediterranean or as the most prominent city in the region. It was never returned to its former glory. In any case, verses 5 and 14 indicate that people would indeed inhabit the area again, for the text says that “She shall be in the midst of the sea a place for the spreading of nets.”

A prominent critic of the argument from Biblical prophecy is an Assyriologist by the name of Josh Bowen, who has a YouTube channel called Digital Hammurabi. You can find his website here. He has produced thoughtful responses to the argument concerning the oracle of Ezekiel 26 (e.g. see his interview on the subject with Aron Ra here). Josh Bowen wrote an essay specifically interacting with the prophecy, which you can download hereBowen and other critics argue that the “many nations” referred to in Ezekiel 26:3 allude only to Nebuchadnezzar’s multinational army. However, outside of this chapter the term “many nations” and “the nations” never is used to allude to Nebuchadnezzar’s army, despite the fact that his army is mentioned sufficiently frequently that we might expect to see the phrase used of his army if it were a routine or natural way for Ezekiel to speak of Nebuchadnezzar’s forces. In fact, the only other time that the term “many nations” is used in proximity to this context it is used in the normal sense of a literal multitude of nations (Ezekiel 27:33). Furthermore, Ezekiel 26:3 implies that the “many nations” are to come in successive bouts, “as the sea brings up its waves.” Critics sometimes bring up the Septuagint translation of Ezekiel 26:7, in which we read,

For thus says the Lord; Behold I will bring up against you, O Tyre, Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon from the north: he is a king of kings, with horses, and chariots, and horsemen, and a concourse of very many nations.

However, this is probably the work of a later scribe who erroneously assumed that it was Nebuchadnezzar’s army in view and attempted to clarify the text. It is probable that the Masoretic Hebrew text more closely reflects the original, since the Masoretic text in this instance contains the harder reading. Scribal copyists are most likely to simplify and attempt to smooth over a text, which is why in the field of textual criticism the more difficult and shorter reading is usually viewed as the most probably original. In this case, the Masoretic text is both the more difficult and the shorter reading.

One may also object that the Babylonians and Macedonians represent only two nations, whereas our text spoke of “many nations.” However, in addition to the Macedonian forces of Alexander, volunteers from various nations participated in the siege of Tyre. The ancient historian Arrian of Nicomedia (86-160 C.E.) wrote in the Anabasis of Alexander 19,

[Support came from] Aradus… Byblus… Rhodes… Sidonian triremes [from Sidon],… From Soli and Mallus… from Lycia… Not long after, too, the kings of Cyprus put into Sidon with about one hundred and twenty ships, since they had heard of the defeat of Darius at Issus, and were terrified.

These submissive city-states were making a gesture to gain favor with Alexander and would have, given the opportunity, turned on him. Tyre would have viewed Lycia, Sidon, Cyprus and the other nations as a multitude of nations, which attacked from various angles. To quote Arrian of Nicomedia again (Anabasis of Alexander 18):

The Cyprians also sailed into the other harbour looking towards Sidon, …and made a speedy capture of the city on that side.

Josh Bowen also argues that Ezekiel 26 is prophesying the destruction of the island city of Tyre, not the mainland city. However, this seems unlikely given that the text emphasizes the use of instruments of war which are only consistent with a land siege. These include the allusions to “horses,” “chariots”, “horsemen”, “siege walls”, “battering rams”, “roof of shields”, “wagons” , “multitude of his horses, the dust raised by them will cover you.”, “strong pillars”, etc. Furthermore, the only conceivable way to attack the island would be by sea, and yet there is no mention of naval vessels of war in the text. Nebuchadnezzar also had no navy and Ezekiel, being a contemporary of Nebuchadnezzar, would surely have known this.

Josh Bowen also claims that Ezekiel himself admitted that his prophecy had failed. I already quoted earlier from Ezekiel 29:18-20, in which we read,

18 “Son of man, Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon made his army labor hard against Tyre. Every head was made bald, and every shoulder was rubbed bare, yet neither he nor his army got anything from Tyre to pay for the labor that he had performed against her. 19 Therefore thus says the Lord God: Behold, I will give the land of Egypt to Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon; and he shall carry off its wealth[a] and despoil it and plunder it; and it shall be the wages for his army. 20 I have given him the land of Egypt as his payment for which he labored, because they worked for me, declares the Lord God.

However, the Torah states regarding claimed prophets who prophecy incorrectly that they are to be disregarded as a true spokesperson for God and is to be put to death  since he has spoken presumptuously (Deuteronomy 18:20). We thus have grounds to think that if the Jewish people had thought Ezekiel had admitted his prophecy to be a failure then Ezekiel would have not been considered to be a true prophet and it seems that the book of Ezekiel would have had a difficult time being canonized as part of the Jewish Scriptures.

There is, however, a yet further reason to think that the oracle concerning Tyre looked forward to a future event beyond the siege of Nebuchadnezzar. Indeed, the prophet Zechariah, writing shortly after the return from exile, wrote (Zechariah 9:1-4):

The oracle of the word of the Lord is against the land of Hadrach and Damascus is its resting place. For the Lord has an eye on mankind and on all the tribes of Israel, 2 and on Hamath also, which borders on it, Tyre and Sidon, though they are very wise. 3 Tyre has built herself a rampart and heaped up silver like dust, and fine gold like the mud of the streets. 4 But behold, the Lord will strip her of her possessions and strike down her power on the sea, and she shall be devoured by fire.

Zechariah thus prophecies that the city of Tyre was to be devoured by fire, which indeed it was by Alexander the Great in 332 B.C. But when exactly was Zechariah writing this prophecy? For the answer, we can turn to Zechariah 7:1, which gives the time of the prophecy as the fourth year of King Darius, that is, 525 B.C. But Nebuchadnezzar’s siege was over by then, since it had finished in 573 B.C. Thus, Zechariah looked forward to a destruction of Tyre well beyond the siege by Nebuchadnezzar.

Probabilistic Modeling

One feature of the argument from prophecy, often over-looked, is that one does not need to have 100% certainty (or even anything close to it) of one’s interpretation of the Biblical text in order for prophetic fulfillment to have evidential value. As I have argued many times before, the best way to think about evidence is in terms of a ratio of the probability of the evidence given the truth of the hypothesis against the probability of the evidence given the falsehood of the hypothesis. The probability of the evidence given your hypothesis does not need to be high for your data to carry evidential value. Rather, it only needs to be higher on the assumption that your hypothesis is correct than on the assumption that it is false.

Let us assume for the sake of argument that my interpretation of Ezekiel 26 has only a probability of 0.1 (or 10%) of being correct. That in turn means that the probability of the rubble of Tyre literally being dumped into the ocean on the hypothesis of inspiration is 0.1. Let us also suppose, conservatively, I think, that the probability of the rubble of Tyre literally being dumped into the ocean is 1 in 1000, or 0.001. That still leaves us with a Bayes Factor of 100 in favor of inspiration. That would multiply our cumulative Bayes Factor by 100 times. Thus, the probability of the correctness of my interpretation does not need to be close to 1 in order for a prophecy to have evidential value.

Conclusion

To conclude, I think apologists who wield the argument from prophecy often do themselves a disservice by overstating the strength of a single example. By making more modest claims (as I have done above) one can make, in my opinion, a much more robust and rigorous cumulative case for the divine inspiration of Scripture.

In part 2, I will discuss the subject of alleged failed prophecies that are raised in atheist literature and show how, in my opinion, these can be accommodated within the argument from prophecy.

Literature Cited

[1] Gleason Archer, Jr., A Survey of Old Testament Introduction, 3rd edition (Chicago: Moody Press, 1994), 563. 

[2] K.S. Freedy and D.B. Redford, “The Dates in Ezekiel in Relation to Biblical, Babylonian and Egyptian Sources.” Journal of the American Oriental Society 90, no. 3 (Jul. – Sep., 1970): 462-485.

1 thought on “The Argument From Prophecy and Bayes Theorem (Part 1): How to Express the Evidence of Prophetic Fulfillment”

  1. Pingback: The Argument From Prophecy and Bayes Theorem (Part 2): Failed Biblical Prophecy? - Jonathan McLatchie | Writer, Speaker, Scholar

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