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Newman on Prophecy as Miracle

(1999, 2005)

[Part 4D of a larger Review of In Defense of Miracles.]

When is Prophecy Miraculous?

Robert Newman contributes a chapter on Old Testament prophecy, with the general idea that certain predictions found there are so uncanny that they are in themselves miracles. He begins by outlining the usual criticisms of this idea and then presents four criteria that establish a prophecy as miraculous (215): there must be good evidence that…

  • (1) “the text clearly envisions the sort of event alleged to be the fulfillment”
  • (2) “the prophecy was made well in advance of the event predicted”
  • (3) “the event actually came true”
  • (4) “the event predicted could not have been staged by anyone but God”
  • (5) and the “evidence is enhanced” if “the event itself is so unusual that the apparent fulfillment cannot be plausibly explained as a good guess”

This is a structurally sound approach, and would nearly work if any prophecy actually met all these conditions. But despite his attempt to argue the contrary, none do. And to be thorough, there is something Newman misses here which would also have to be eliminated: if a prophet was likely to say some particular thing for cultural or traditional reasons, then any “hits” (outcomes that match what was said) cannot be distinguished from accidents. This is not addressed by his “good guess” axiom, because this is not a guess, but an accidental correspondence. For example, if I was liable to say over and over again that a bird will land on my head, because it was a chant I inherited from my father, and then a bird landed on my head, it cannot be said that I predicted this. It cannot even be said that I guessed it. My reason for issuing this prediction had an entirely separate cause, and because it is always repeated, its success can have nothing to do with my prescience. We see this phenomenon in Judaic prophetic tradition, when the doom of the Jews or their enemies (the “punishment” of God) is constantly proclaimed for cultural reasons (it is a threat aimed at encouraging piety and morality, etc.), and thus when it comes true it cannot, by itself, be counted as a prediction.

Another concern is retrofitting: if a prediction is suitably vague, then any future event which can be made to fit the prediction can then be claimed as a success. This is a common trick well known to those who investigate psychics. Newman escapes this with his first axiom, but he does not properly apply his own method, and falls victim to the retrofitting bug himself. In effect, if any event that will fulfill the prediction is likely to happen anyway, then it cannot be called a miraculous prediction–even if it was neither staged nor a guess. For example, if I said that Zimbabwe would suffer under an evil ruler who would start a war with a great nation, that would never become a miraculous prediction, since that might happen anyway. Since I have not specified a time, even if Zimbabwe’s history meets with such an event in the next two or three thousand years I can claim I predicted it–but given thousands of years, who would be surprised? And even if the event were to happen tomorrow my prediction would not be miraculous, since I allowed that it might happen any time, meaning that my prediction was deliberately loose enough that I could claim any such event at any time as a success. We will see how all these problems return to haunt Newman as he proposes three examples of miraculous prophecy: Hosea 3:4-5, four “twin cities” prophecies (Tyre and Sidon, Babylon and Nineveh, Memphis and Thebes, and Ekron and Ashkelon), and two messianic prophecies (Isaiah 40-56 and the “seventy sevens” of Daniel 9:24-6).[1] Also key to Newman’s failure is his astonishing incompetence as an historian, as we will eventually see.[2]


Hosea 3:4-5 predicts that Israel will live “many days” without a king, prince, sacrifices, sacred stones, ephod, or idols. As Newman says, “it is astonishing that this brief description accurately portrays the condition of the Jewish people for nearly two thousand years, from the time of Jesus until the present” (216). But is it astonishing? The first thing that should be clear is that it is too vague–it does not “clearly” envision the event, because it does not say how many “days” Israel would suffer this way, and since these sorts of doom-and-wrath predictions for Israel are the bread and butter of the prophets, not only are we able to retrofit any fulfillment of this prediction, but the prediction was also guaranteed to be made even if it never came true (it is like the bird landing on my head example above).

Newman thinks all the details make it a “clear” envisionment, but he needs to brush up on his analytic logic: since any conquest of Isreal would entail the loss of kings, princes, sacrifices, sacred stones, ephods, and idols, these details do not add anything to what amounts to nothing more than a prediction that “Israel will be conquered and oppressed for many days” which is as vague as any prediction can get–not to mention almost certain to frequently happen, given the belligerent nature of the Israelite nation, and its small size and fertile and strategic location at a major nexus of two major ocean trade routes, between several superpowers. This prediction thus fails to be miraculous.

Newman shows three other classic signs of the retrofitting fallacy: first, Jewish holy men had been on a campaign against idolatry for ages–thus the claim that idols would vanish is hardly any more a prediction than a plan. Second, Newman dismisses the age of Maccabean Kings with the argument that “these puppet kings lacked the full regal splendor to which Israel had been accustomed in Hosea’s day” (216). But where is that in the prediction? The prediction only says “without kings,” so Newman is taking liberties of interpretation–but that allows any excuse for a missing king to be a success. Newman just happens to find “lack of splendour” as an excuse to make this event equivalent to a missing king, but we could find any other metaphor that suited the facts and thus retrofit almost any outcome to the prediction. With this methodology, it would be amazing if this prediction did not succeed in describing something. Third, Newman thinks the prediction is only fulfilled if Israel never gets these things back, but again Hosea does not say that–even if Israel had been without these things only for a month (“many days”), that would count as a success, and this means that almost any event at any time in the future could be claimed a success. This does not establish the prediction as a marvel.

If Hosea had said that in twenty-five centuries the Israelites would have communities in a land across a great sea that lies past the mouth of the Mediterranean, that they would build a weapon that flies through the air and lays waste to entire kingdoms, and that the people of Britain would help them reclaim their Holy Land against a people who pray to only one God, that would have been miraculous. But we do not get predictions anywhere near that good or precise (and this hypothetical example isn’t even all that good or precise itself).

The Twin Cities

Newman borrows from John Bloom four “twin cities” prophecies, concerning Tyre and Sidon, Babylon and Nineveh, Memphis and Thebes, and Ekron and Ashkelon (218).[3] The approach aims at countering the argument that “nearly every city will be destroyed eventually” with the reasoning that “if we could interchange the names of the two cities without affecting their fulfillment” then no miracle would exist, but “if a real difference results, then this is concrete evidence of fulfilled prediction.” He uses the analogy of an experimental control group. Too bad he did not think this through, because a control must have all things the same except the variable to be tested–otherwise, differences of outcome could be the result of some other difference that has nothing to do with the tested variable. In other words, prophecies about different cities will always be different from each other because all cities will have different locations, politics, history, and topography, and so predictions about them can be expected to differ even before we examine those predictions for their accuracy. Thus, the control group analogy fails here.

Indeed, this method is entirely unsound. Compare it with pundit predictions of the actions of political candidates: by Newman’s (or Bloom’s) reasoning, if we could interchange the names of two candidates (say, a Republican and a Democrat contender for office) without affecting the fulfillment of predictions made about them, then no miracle would exist, but if a real difference results, then this is concrete evidence of fulfilled prediction. But wait–is that true? Won’t predictions about a Republican often be different than those about a Democrat? Newman thinks these differences will validate the predictions made about them, when in fact the differences have nothing to do with the accuracy of the predictions, but have to do with immediately obvious differences in the candidates being second-guessed. Worse, the cities he pairs are not always naturally paired in the text, and this allows the tactic of data-mining, i.e. only choosing examples that fit your expectations. Thus, Newman is supposed to stick to the original five-point plan he started with, and show that the predictions were clearly envisioned, made well in advance, actually came true, could not have been staged, and cannot be a good guess (and cannot be an inevitable accident, nor retrofitted). If he cannot meet those requirements, then this city-pairing plan will not save him.

Tyre and Sidon

An improved version of the following discussion of Newman’s treatment of the Tyre prophecy can be found in my book Sense and Goodness without God (2005), § IV.1.2.7, pp. 247-52.

Ezekiel issues the most vague of predictions about Sidon (28:22-3) which could never be counted as miraculous. That a city should be sacked and its people slaughtered in antiquity is already a highly likely event, and that a prophet should declare such a doom upon a city is likewise commonplace, so that the one is certain to follow the other by chance alone. On the other hand, Ezekiel 26:3-14 predicts that Tyre will be attacked by many nations, its walls torn down and its rubble cleared away, and it will be a bare rock. Then “out in the sea she will become a place to spread fishnets” and will never be rebuilt. The passage specifically predicts that Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon (26:7) will do this, and his army will throw the stones, timber and rubble into the sea–and there can be no mistake here, since Ezekiel says he will break into the city, not someone else: every verb from 26:7 to 11 is in the 3rd person singular, and the use of the 3rd person plural in 26:12 clearly refers to the troops–the “horsemen” (parash) and “charioteers” (rekeb), i.e. the “men entering the city”–in verses 10 and 11 which Nebuchadnezzar leads into the city. They are the first available plural antecedent of the verb in 26:12, and the whole passage is clearly about this invasion.[4] Note as well that 26:10 includes chariots in the invading force–but Alexander (whom Newman claims fulfilled the prophecy) did not use chariots. They ceased to be used by Greeks and Macedonians after the 6th century B.C.

Ezekiel was a captive of Nebuchadnezzar since the sack of Jerusalem in 597 B.C. and this explains the prediction: he is issuing propaganda favoring his captor, no doubt to get on his good side, and Ezekiel could easily have intelligence about the king’s plans since he would see the preparations. While Ezekiel died sometime after 571 B.C. (the year of his last prophecy, cf. 40:1) and his book was edited shortly after that, the Tyrian prophecy was made, so Ezekiel claims, in 586 B.C. (26:1). As it happens, Nebuchadnezzar began the siege of Tyre a year later. Tyre came to terms with him in 573 and he did not sack the city after all–forcing Ezekiel to retract his prediction (29:18) and instead predict a victory against Egypt after Nebuchadnezzar turned against that country. So what do we have here? We have a man who sees the world’s most powerful army besieging a city and then predicts it will be taken and destroyed–hardly something he could not guess would happen. Yet even his guess failed, and so did the prediction! A failed prediction can hardly be a miracle.

What is Newman thinking? He obviously has never picked up a history book. He claims that Nebuchadnezzar “took” the city in 573 B.C., but we have no evidence of that. As far as we know, the city submitted to Babylonian rule without being sacked. Indeed, since it was a trade powerhouse with two outstanding naval ports, a conqueror would be a fool to destroy it (even Alexander’s successors rebuilt it for that purpose). So Nebuchadnezzar surely got a sweet deal. Then Newman says that the inhabitants resettled inland during the siege, forcing Nebuchadnezzar to “settle for very little plunder” (219)–evidently his explanation for Ezekiel’s retraction, although Newman never mentions this. Not only is this false (there had been a mainland suburb since before 800 B.C., and it was not called Tyre but Ushu), it is absurd: people are supposed to defeat Nebuchadnezzar by leaving an island city, with a huge wall, to resettle, with no fortifications, on the mainland, in open ground and with no port, while the Babylonian army apparently twiddles their thumbs? Newman is clearly the worst historian I’ve ever seen. Never mind that he has absolutely no basis for this claim–it is already extraordinarily absurd!

Newman goes on to claim that Alexander the Great’s use of the mainland city’s rubble to cross the strait fulfills the prophecy, but as I’ve already noted Ezekiel leaves no doubt that he means Nebuchadnezzar’s men will do this, not some other guy centuries later.[5] This is a classic case of retrofitting–indeed, it is worse than that, since the prophecy as stated actually forbids attributing this event to anyone else but Nebuchadnezzar. We might as well call the Israeli rocket attack on the ruins in the war of 1981 as a “fulfillment.” Newman then says the mainland site was “scraped clean” by Alexander and has “never been restored” while “parts of the former island are used even today for spreading fishnets.” This is all irrelevant. First, Ezekiel specifically says the nets and scraping will happen not on the mainland but “in the midst of the sea” (26:5, vs. 26:6, 8). Indeed, the mainland site was Ushu, not Tyre. The mainland site Ezekiel always refers to as among the “daughters” of Tyre, never as Tyre itself. And that is to be expected. Ushu was neither rich nor powerful, since it had no ports–unlike Tyre, which had two ports situated to allow annual sorties, making it one of the most powerful military and trade cities in the world at that time. It would be silly to make elaborate claims about the fall of “mighty” Ushu. Second, fishnets have no doubt always been stretched over bare rocks in every city with a fishing industry since the invention of the net, and they were no doubt stretched across the rocks of Tyre long before Ezekiel was even born. Finally, the city of Tyre was rebuilt immediately after Alexander’s attack, and remained a powerhouse of trade for the next two thousand years. Was it ever a “bare rock”? I doubt it–and we have no evidence that it was.

What we see here is that Newman is so entirely wrong it is astonishing that his colleagues even let this inept chapter remain in the book. Was Tyre ever destroyed? No. It prospered under the successors of Alexander and under Roman rule and then under Islamic rule. The ruins, abandoned (but not destroyed, contrary to Ezekiel’s predictions) in the Middle Ages, were badly damaged during Arab-Israeli Warfare in 1982, but the core of the city still had a population in 1991 of 70,000 (almost twice the population in Alexander’s day), and the ruined sections are actually threatened by thriving urban growth. It is still there today, and it is still a major Lebanese financial center.

Ruins of the famous hot springs and a Roman arena at Tyre, with the modern city in the background (image from the Archivo Iconográfico).

As the picture above shows, Newman is full of it. This hardly looks like a “bare rock” to me, and the populated section of the city can be seen in the background, dispelling any notion that only a small fishing village remains. The 1999 Encyclopedia Britannica paints the true picture: “Excavations of the ruins have uncovered remains of the Greco-Roman, Crusader, Arab, and Byzantine civilizations, but most of the remains of the Phoenician period lie beneath the present town.” Not only that, but among these ruins is one of the largest Roman hippodromes ever discovered–built in the 2nd century A.D., it seated 20,000. In other words, the city thrived under all these periods, and only became abandoned after the Arab conquest. Yet the majority of the original city is still heavily populated. So Ezekiel got it way wrong. Indeed, Ezekiel actually went on to predict that Tyre would be covered by the sea (26:19), and would never be found (26:21), two more incredibly false predictions. There is definitely no miracle here!

Babylon and Nineveh

Since the doom of a city is a highly likely event, I will not count any claims of predicted ruin (at some undisclosed future time) as miraculous–we know that claims of doom were always made, and sometimes turned out to be false, as in the case of Tyre. On the other hand, Newman calls attention to predicted details like “no rock will be taken” from Babylon (Jeremaiah 51:26). As proof of fulfillment, he tells us that today Babylon is quarried for brick, not stone. What he does not tell us is that Babylon was never quarried for stone, because there is no stone there. All the rock used in construction at Babylon was taken from distant mountains, and the vast majority of buildings, especially on the periphery, were made of brick, making this a much more available and portable commodity for modern looters. It is not very surprising that Jeremaiah’s exaggerated threats of doom should happen to correspond to facts known even in his own time. Moreover, the date is wrong, for Jeremaiah predicts that Babylon will be desolated in the conquest by the Medes (51:11), as does Isaiah (13:17), but Babylon remained mighty even through the conquest of Alexander the Great centuries later, and only began to decline in the reign of Seleucus Nicator in 312 B.C. He and later kings could no longer afford to maintain the expensive irrigation system needed for the city’s water supply, so the population was deliberately transferred in 275 to the new city of Seleucia on the Tigris. Babylon was never destroyed by war, even though Jeremaiah and Isaiah (13:3-8) both said it would be. This therefore cannot count as a miraculous prediction. It is shoddy guessing at best.

Newman then recounts a prophecy of Nineveh’s demise made by Zephaniah, but Zephaniah wrote in the reign of King Josiah of Judah (1:1), who ruled from 640 to 609 B.C., and Nineveh was destroyed in 612. Although some of Zephaniah refers to events in Josiah’s reign before 623 B.C., we have no way of knowing that Zephaniah did not add the “prediction” of Nineveh’s demise after the fact. He could also have predicted it as an intelligent guess when, after the death of Ashurbanipal in 627, Assyria was quickly attacked from all sides by a coalition of hostile nations. There is thus no miracle here. Newman tries to play up details like the prediction that sheep would graze over Nineveh (but not Babylon), even though it would have been obvious, even to the prophets of the time, that Babylon, entirely dependent upon an artificial irrigation-based economy, would never be suitable for grazing once desolate, whereas Nineveh lies right on the highlands of the Tigris along a major grazing circuit. There is nothing amazing, then, about this prediction–it follows automatically from any assumption of ruin.

Newman tries desperately to make a mountain out of this molehill, saying that Babylon has never been restored, whereas Nineveh “is now in the suburbs of the city of Mosul” (220), but this is moot, since Zephaniah did not predict that Nineveh would be populated again, so this does not count as a prediction (indeed, it is closer to a miss, since Zephaniah gives the impression that the desolation will be permanent). It is also wrong, for Mosul is on the other side of the Tigris. No part of ancient Nineveh is populated today. Although there are signs of Seleucid and Greek habitation, and of a rise to momentary prosperity under Arab control in the 13th century, the site ceased to be inhabited after the 16th century, and this accounts for the remarkable condition of the entire city after extensive excavation. It is presently a government archaeological preserve, so occupation is illegal–one of the few worthwhile things Saddam Hussein did for scholars.

Memphis and Thebes

All Newman cites for Memphis is a prediction that the idols and images would be destroyed in Memphis (Ezekiel 30:13), and that “the hordes of Thebes” will be “cut off” (30:14-15). How he thinks either of these constitutes a “clear envisioning” of the events being predicted is beyond me. Certainly, there is no prediction here about Thebes–this is a generic, vague declaration of doom. In the case of Memphis, he claims that the 10th century Islamic relocation of the population from Memphis to Cairo is a fulfillment of the first prediction, and “as a result the pagan idols of Memphis were recycled to become building materials” and “only a handful of statues have been found on or near the modern site” (220), although he also tries to assert the opposite (221), that Memphis is a “suburb” of Cairo (when in fact it is not populated at all, and Cairo is 25 miles away).

First of all, Newman has to reach over a thousand years into the future to find a fulfillment, yet Ezekiel is clear on the date–the prediction was for Nebuchadnazzar (30:10-11)–so this is disallowed. Moreover, Ezekiel predicts that the Nile canals will become dry (30:12), which never happened. Worse, his prophecy about Memphis includes the prediction that Egypt will “no longer” have a prince, a word which Newman earlier asserts was equivalent to “any ruler or government official” (216),[6] so this is a definite failure, too–Egypt has never been without officials. It didn’t even lack pharaohs until the Roman conquest, five centuries after Ezekiel.

Worst of all, when Newman claims that “only a handful of statues have been found on or near the modern site” of Memphis, he is flat wrong: the Memphis suburbs are the location of the greatest pyramid ranges, those of Gizeh and Saqqarah, to name the best-known, and numerous temples and palaces have been excavated right in the city center, including the great temple of Ptah, the palace of Merneptah, and a small temple of Ramses II. There are droves of statues there, not a “handful” as Newman claims, clearly refuting any chance this had of being a fulfilled prediction.

Ekron and Ashkelon

Zephaniah again predicted that Ekron “will be uprooted” and in Ashkelon “none will be left” but “shepherds and sheep pens” and the latter city will belong to Jews (2:4-7). Of course, this prophecy begins, even as quoted by Newman, by asserting that “Gaza will be abandoned” but Gaza has been continuously inhabited for 3000 years, a clear and palpable failure for this prediction. In the case of Ekron, this is a vague, generic prediction of doom, and thus not a prediction at all, especially since it was never “uprooted” but merely abandoned, and then only in the Middle Ages, over a thousand years after the prediction, an easy case of retrofitting. In the case of Ashkelon, that city actually lies inside Israel, so there can be nothing miraculous about predicting that Jews would occupy the site. Zephaniah is, again, not describing a prediction, but a plan.

Moreover, Newman’s claim that its port was ruined by debris cast into it by Crusaders, and that it then became a grazing area, does not fit the fact that it is today a wealthy resort town with a huge textile industry, and remains a major Israeli oil port, as oil from the Red Sea is pumped to Ashkelon and then shipped West across the Mediterranean. Whether it was ever a grazing area is beyond me. I can find no sources that state this, but I do know that Herod the Great lavished the city with buildings, and this does not fit the idea of a pastoral economy. Newman’s other claim (that Crusaders deliberately ruined the port) is also probably false, for they actually used the port until the Muslim Saladin sacked the city, which marked the beginning of its desertion in 1191. Newman, of course, cites no sources, but the Biblical Archaeology Review reports that the debris scattered in the Ashkelon bay was dumped into the sea when the modern marina was constructed.[7] This leaves little room for Newman’s claim that it became a grazing area after the port was destroyed by the debris.

This concludes Newman’s pathetic foray into miraculous prophecies involving pairs of cities. It should be quite clear by now that he has not presented a single prophecy that qualifies as miraculous, even by his own standards.

Salvation to the World

Isaiah 40-56 is the first messianic passage that Newman thinks is “miraculous.” The only thing he points to as amazing is the prediction that the anointed will become “a light to the Gentiles” (42:6 and 49:6) and bring “salvation to the ends of the earth” (49:7). But this is merely a longed-for dream: not only will Israel be redeemed, she will become the center of glory. It is a wish for the exact opposite of the present reality. This is already likely for a prophet to declare, even without any concern for whether it was certain to come true. It simply says that Israel will redeem herself and, instead of being despised by all nations (49:7), she will become a model of justice for all other nations to emulate, and all roads will lead to Israel and people of all nations will go there (49:11-12). To “reinterpret” this so loosely as to make it apply to Christianity is to allow any metaphorical reinterpretation, so this is retrofitting once again.

Moreover, it is precisely this kind of Jewish ideal that Jesus sought to encourage, and he or his disciples reinterpreted this concept of salvation into the Christian meaning. Christianity is thus a human creation inspired by just such passages. In other words, that Christianity should be at all like what this passage longs for is actually inspired and therefore caused by this passage, and causation is not prediction. This is like predicting that there will be world peace, and then people inspired by your prediction fight for world peace and declare you a prophet when they succeed. But it actually does not follow in such a case that you had a divine premonition–it only shows that you had a plan. So this passage in Isaiah cannot be regarded as a miracle–it is too vague, it is too much like what a prophet would say no matter what (because it is a universal human hope, just as everyone says they want world peace), and it is too causally related to Christianity to be regarded as a prediction rather than a cause.

On the other hand, Newman also thinks Isaiah 49:7 means that the savior would be abhorred by Israel, such that this would be fulfilled in the Jewish rejection of Jesus as the messiah, but that is taking a lot of liberty with the text. The whole chapter tells of the nation of Israel being despised now but in the future will be looked up to and bowed down to–there is nothing here about a permanent rejection of the messiah, but rather a prediction that the messiah will at first be despised but then will be bowed to, which would allow any peasant reformer to “retrofit” the passage to support his own program.

The key passage here says, “The Lord, the one redeeming Israel and the Holy One, says to him whom man despises and nation abhors, to a servant of rulers, ‘Kings will see and arise, princes will worship, because the LORD is faithful and the Holy One of Israel, and he shall choose you.” The language here is so vague that it does not even entail that Israel will abhor the holy one. Just as “man” is used in the collective singular, it follows that “nation” is probably a collective singular, in order to preserve poetic symmetry, in which case it means “nations” in general, not Israel in particular. That would make this a passage spoken to the despised Israelites (not to the messiah), promising that they will be bowed to some day. On the other hand, even if “nation” means Israel, the passage is clearly going from the past tense (“despised”) to the future tense (“Kings will see and arise”), and thus definitely does not predict a lasting Jewish rejection of the messiah, but the reverse: the inevitable acceptance of the messiah by Israel. Thus, this prophecy does not “clearly envision” the event supposedly being predicted, so it fails to meet Newman’s own criteria for a miraculous prediction.

Seventy Sevens

Last but not least is the ever-popular seventy-sevens prophecy in Daniel (9:24-27).[8] This did indeed spawn “savior fever” in Palestine, and Josephus records the numerous “messiahs” who rose up, claiming to be this predicted savior of the world (see my essay Kooks and Quacks of the Roman Empire for some of the examples), and in fact he partly blames the Jewish War on messianic hopes of victory caused by this very prophecy.[9] Josephus eventually became a privileged member of Vespasian’s entourage precisely when the imperium of Rome was fortuitously up for grabs, and he is no doubt responsible for the notion that this prophecy predicted Vespasian’s ascension to king of the world (as it was conceived at the time), a fitting thing to claim of someone who has a real chance of winning and who can then bestow favors on those who supported him. There is one obvious conclusion to be had here: since there were so many people using this prophecy to justify attempts at claiming and “becoming” the messiah, the fact that one of them should succeed is no longer surprising enough to be regarded as miraculous. In other words, this is another case of a self-fulfilling prophecy, which caused the rise of Christianity rather than “predicting” it. This makes it a poor candidate for a miracle.

Nevertheless, Newman trudges on with his own view, although he admits it is open to numerous interpretations (224). What is clear is that Daniel predicts that the anointed will be “cut off” 69 “sevens” after the decree to rebuild Jerusalem is issued. Newman reasonably concludes that this “69” starts from the decree to build the walls of Jerusalem, which occurred in the 20th year of Artaxerxes, or 445 B.C. (Nehemiah 2:1-9), and that it measures the “seven-year sabbatical cycle for land use” so that 7×69 produces 483 years, bringing the prediction to an exact year of 38 A.D. For an unexplained reason, Newman thinks it is a hit if it falls anywhere within the 69th “seven” and thus any ‘cut-off anointed-one’ between 31 and 38 A.D. counts as a fulfillment (actually, he says 28 and 35 A.D., but he must have made an error in his arithmetic, for I cannot see how he gets that result). But the prophecy very specifically says that the anointed will be cut off after the 69 “sevens” have passed, not before, so Newman’s attempt to salvage the prediction fails to fit what the prophet actually said. According to Newman’s own interpretation, Jesus would have to have been crucified in or after 38 A.D. in order to fulfill the prediction, but since Pontius Pilate was deposed in 36 A.D., Jesus could not have been crucified by Pilate in 38. So Newman fails to show us a miraculous prophecy even here.[10]

In fact, this is the end of his chapter–so he has failed to show us any miraculous prophecies whatsoever. “Next!”

Return to this review’s Table of Contents to read more detailed critiques of specific chapters in In Defense of Miracles.

[1] Another problem peculiar to this book, which I won’t need to mention in the main text, is that Purtill has established that something is only a miracle if we can show that God was a necessary cause of the event (see my discussion of Purtill’s Chapter). But since amazing predictions could be the result of some sort of human psychic power, one must prove somehow that God is a better explanation. This is something Clark should have done (see my discussion of Clark’s Chapter), since psychic premonitions and healing and other powers are a validating component of New Age religion, a major competitor to Christianity in America–indeed, the competitor, with more adherents and influence than naturalism or any other religion. For example, see the polemic of James Herrick, The Making of the New Spirituality: The Eclipse of the Western Religious Tradition (2003).

[2] Newman cites absolutely no sources for any of his historical claims. It is a testament to the shoddiness of his research that all of the facts that I cite here and below (unless otherwise stated) are taken from the Encyclopedia Britannica and thus constitute general knowledge available to anyone. Newman failed even to examine these resources. As long as he refuses to argue for a different conclusion than is established by the mainstream facts available in a current academic encyclopedia, I see no obligation to look any further than this myself.

[3] “Truth via Prophecy,” Evidence for Faith: Deciding the God Question ed. John Montgomery (1991), pp. 173-92. This is similar to material in Josh McDowell’s Evidence That Demands a Verdict (1972), pp. 267-319, for which see The Jury is In: Chapter 11–Prophecy Fulfilled in History. Also, see the Secular Web collection of essays on Prophecy.

[4] Some apologists ignorant of Hebrew think, incorrectly, that these words refer to horses and chariots only–in fact, they often mean the men riding them (i.e. the meanings are interchangeable), as can be ascertained by anyone with a Hebrew dictionary or a Strong’s concordance.

[5] Josh McDowell (op. cit.) and others explain this as fulfilling Ezekiel’s prediction that “many nations” will come against Tyre. Never mind that this is too vague to count as a “clear envisioning” of the event being predicted–it is already explained by the Babylonian attack. For Nebuchadnezzar is described by Ezekiel as a “king of kings,” with good reason: he is leading “many nations” against Tyre (the armies of the defeated Assyrians and his allies the Medes, among others). Indeed, Ezekiel had already observed the Egyptian siege of Tyre no more than three years earlier (Georges Roux, Ancient Iraq, 3rd ed., 1992, p. 379). But the language is not even that precise, since rab gowy can mean “many nations” or “many people” or “great swarms.” Either way, the context is clear: they are the many under the command of Nebuchadnezzar.

        As further proof, observe the logical format of this passage: 26:1-2, introduction of the prophecy; 26:3-6, summary of what will happen; 26:7-14, elaboration and details. Note how the third section draws on the second: compare vv. 3 “many nations” or “great swarms” and 7 “king of kings” and “great army”; vv. 6 “your daughters slain” and vv. 8 “slay your daughters”; vv. 4 there will be a siege resulting in a bare rock, vv. 8-14 description of a siege resulting in a bare rock; vv. 5 “nets will be spread” and 14 “spreading of nets”; vv. 5 “spoil for nations” and 12 “they will despoil.” Clearly, the logical connection at 26:7 is transferring thought from the summary to the specific proof of the siege of Nebuchadnezzar. How, then, does it make sense to suddenly drop out of this logical sequence at verse 12 and attribute the rest to some other event that Ezekiel does not bother to specify? Why specify Nebuchadnezzar’s role, begin an elaboration of that role, but give no hint that the subject has changed at verse 12? This makes no sense. It cannot be what Ezekiel intended, unless he was a very poor author. If he had wanted to say this, he would have used a logical transition phrase, at the very least, to signify a change of scene, or even named the second attacker (which, if he were truly foretelling the future, he should have been able to do).

[6] The two words are different, but have nearly identical meanings. In Hosea, it is sar or “one who keeps or is in charge, an overseer” and in Ezekiel it is nasi or “one lifted up, a leader,” and both are as generic as can possibly be.

[7] “Just Dive In: Underwater Parks to Feature Antiquities,” Biblical Archaeology Review 25.4 (1999), p. 16.

[8] Daniel is a forgery, which undermines any pretense it could have to being an honest book of prophecy. It claims to have been written by a man who lived in the Babylonian Exile of the 6th century B.C., but was in fact written under Antiochus IV Epiphanes between 175 and 163 B.C. This is especially clear because it gets historical facts wrong that could not have been gotten wrong if it was written when, and by whom, it claimed to be written. For instance, Daniel dates the fall of Jerusalem to the 1st or 2nd year of the reign of Nebuchadnezzar (1:1-6, 2:1), but in fact he did not capture the city (and King Jehoiakim) until 597 B.C., in the 8th year of his reign. Daniel claims that Belshazzar was king, and was the son of Nebuchadrezzar (5:2, 10, 11, 22, etc.), but he was actually the son of Nabonidus (though he may have been the grandson of Nebuchadrezzar, through his mother) and was never actually king, only regent. Daniel says that Darius is the son of Xerxes and a Mede (9:1), but he was actually a Persian (Persians come from some distance south of Babylon, Medes from some distance north), and was the son of Hystaspes, and the father of Xerxes (not the other way around). Daniel also says that Darius succeeded Belshazzar (5:30) and was followed by Cyrus (8:1 vs. 10:1), when in fact Darius followed Cyrus, as well as Cambyses, the son of Cyrus, whom Daniel completely fails to mention. On the other hand, Daniel accurately “predicts” many events in the reign of Antiochus up until 11:39, at which point he gets everything wrong, suggesting that the book was completed around this time [for more, see Revealing Daniel by Curt van den Heuvel].

[9] The main reason the Jews made war on Rome, he says, “was an ambiguous prophecy found in their sacred writings, announcing that at that time someone from their country would become ruler of the world,” Josephus, Jewish War 6.312-16. This same prophecy is alluded to by Suetonius in Life of Vespasian 4 (“an ancient superstition was current in the East, that out of Judaea at this time would come the rulers of the world”) and Tacitus in Histories 5.13 (“in most there was a firm persuasion, that in the ancient records of their priests was contained a prediction of how at this very time the East was to grow powerful, and rulers, coming from Judaea, were to acquire universal empire” and “these mysterious prophecies had pointed to Vespasian and Titus, but the common people, with the usual blindness of ambition, had interpreted these mighty destinies of themselves, and could not be brought even by disasters to believe the truth”). The prophecy’s interpretation as anticipating Christ’s death in 30 A.D. is attested by Julius Africanus, a Christian chronologer who laid it out two centuries later (§ 18.2, preserved by George Syncellus). Clearly, everyone was retrofitting this prophecy to fit whichever “ruler” they wanted, and so there can be nothing miraculous in Jesus being one of them.

[10] The more usual interpretation is that of Julius Africanus, a Christian chronologer who laid it out in the early 220’s A.D., quoted here (from section 18.2 of the works of Africanus as preserved by George Syncellus):

From Artaxerxes 70 weeks are reckoned up to the time of Christ, according to the numeration of the Jews. For from Nehemiah, who was sent…in the 20th year of Artaxerxes (445 B.C.)…to the 16th year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar (30 A.D.), there are given 475 years, which make 490 Hebrew years, since they measure the years by the lunar month…the annual period according to the sun consisting of 365 and 1/4 days, while the lunar period of 12 months has 11 and 1/4 days less. For which reason the Greeks and the Jews insert three intercalary months every eight years. For 8 times 11 and 1/4 days make 3 months [of 30 days]. The 475 years, therefore, contain 59 periods of 8 years and three months over: thus, the three intercalary months for every 8 years being added, we get 15 years [i.e. 14 years and 9 months], and these together with the 475 years make 70 weeks.

This entails a predicted date of the crucifixion of 30 A.D. But there is a problem here. Daniel says the anointed is cut off after 69 weeks, not 70. But 69 weeks of Jewish years would be 483 instead of 490, or roughly 468 solar years, for a date of 23 A.D., which is now too early–for Pontius Pilate was not in Judaea until 26 A.D., so 23 cannot be the date of the crucifixion of Christ. Thus, the seventy weeks prophecy fails to be a prediction of the death of Christ even according to Africanus.

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