Isaiah 53: Genuine Prophecy?
From A Bona Fide Prophet?
I'm am confused about Isaiah 53 because it looks somewhat like the death of Jesus. I know that most other claims by New Testament writers that Jesus was prophesied in the Old Testament are bogus (like Isaiah 7:14 ). But chapter 53 looks a bit confusing.
Can you explain?
From: "Positive Atheism" <email@example.com>
To: "James Mathew"
Subject: Re: Isaiah 53
Date: December 24, 2001 4:24 AM
I am not at all confused about the tales of the death of Jesus: they plainly appear to have been contrived to "fulfill" Isaiah 53 and Psalm 22 and several other passages. Do you think soldiers really gambled for Jesus's robe? or was this tale devised later, in order to make it appear to a Roman reader that Scripture had been "fulfilled"?
Remember: before there was a New Testament, the followers of Jesus were convinced that his entire story -- every detail -- had been anticipated in Hebrew Scripture and other writings no longer considered Scripture by anybody (Matthew 2:23, anyone?). As these tales grew and became refined, some of them got written down. After the first ones got published, people noticed discrepancies and places that could use improvement. Thus we have an explanation for why one Gospel account tells it this way while another tells it that way: the competing sects tried to replace rather than augment what their neighboring sects had written and published.
Did Jesus ride one donkey or two? The Hebrew Scripture is clearly a parallelism, "riding an ass ... the foal of an ass" -- one animal. Matthew, however, being unfamiliar with this technique of Hebrew poetry, has Jesus "fulfilling" this Scripture by riding two animals! The others who mention it, mention only one animal. Hmmmm. And besides, where did they get all these palm branches in early springtime? Ought not this tale have been told in autumn, to "fulfill" the Feast of Booths? or did that story get supplanted for the much more effective "Passover" angle, though they forgot to clean out all the details from the previously popular "Feast of Booths" angle, the manuscript detailing which is no longer extant?
Four Very Revealing Bible Studies
1. Find all the places where the Hebrew Scripture is allegedly quoted in the New Testament (or "fulfilled" or the like). (And use one of the older translations such as the RSV or the King James -- one that was published before it became popular to alter the translation for the purpose of covering up what have for centuries been known to be discrepancies in the text -- that is, one that was published before the 1960s.) See how different they are from what we now know as the Hebrew Scripture. What they quoted from was a different collection of manuscripts entirely from what is used today.
2. Find all the different accounts of the same incident and compare them. This is tricky because some of them have been revised so drastically from the others that many commentators insist that there were two incidents (e.g. the feeding of the various-thousands -- do you think that started out as more than a single incident?). My personal favorite is the one where the scribe has Jesus saying, "Why callest thou me good? There is none good but God!" In Mark, the scribe is nice and cordial. As time goes by (between publications of subsequently written Gospels), the Scribe in the story becomes more and more hostile toward Jesus, until he is portrayed as outright vicious! Could this be a clue as to where modern anti-Semitism comes from?
3. Map out the basic trends of bias in the Gospel accounts: Jews (particularly the Pharisees) portrayed as hostile; Jesus portrayed as powerful; Romans portrayed as readily understanding Jesus's message whereas the Jews, particularly the disciples, portrayed as knuckleheads when it comes to Jesus's purpose -- even after he spells it out to them! (And remember that these were written for a Roman audience, after Jerusalem had been destroyed and there were really no Jews left, to speak of, to dispute or correct what was being written and published.) Then, find those special places where something happens that goes against these biases: a Pharisee being nice to Jesus; a Roman thwarting Jesus (hint: they're still very apologetic about having no choice but to do this); a disciple understanding what Jesus was up to.
4. Using only the undisputed letters of Paul (let's be liberal about this and eliminate only the Pastorals), reconstruct a detailed "Life of Christ according to Paul." Tell us when Jesus was born, where he was raised, when he died, how long ago he had lived, things that he did while alive, and things that he said while alive. And remember, Paul's epistles were extant long before any Gospel accounts that we know of existed, so the excuse that the Gospel writers had covered these things will not do. Hint: The closest you'll come is the description of Cephas having seen the resurrected Christ -- which still tells us nothing about when he lived other than "some time in the past."
The Scapegoat as Common Religious Symbol
As for Isaiah 53, the concept of the "scapegoat" was common in that part of the world. The most striking parallel between the Jesus myth and other mythology comes from comparing it with the Mithraism, which originated -- in Persia, of all places. So common is this comparison made that the Catholic Encyclopedia admits, "Of late the researches of Cumont have brought it [Mithraism] into prominence mainly because of its supposed similarity to Christianity." A stronger parallel, to me, would be that between the Mithraism of the latter Roman world compared to the workings of the Enlightenment-Era Masons. Now, where were the Hebrews immediately before and during the alleged writing of Isaiah? being held captive in Babylon, soon to be rescued by the Persians. In fact, Cyrus, the Persian king, was allegedly "prophesied" by name in both Isaiah (23 and 45) and Daniel (1, 6, and 10).
Nevertheless, the idea of the "scapegoat" existed even in the Levitical sacrifices attributed to Moses. Thus, it does not surprise me to see devotional poetry meditating upon the function of the scapegoat in personal and cultural life.
Prophecy: What Is the Bottom Line?
Crucial to your question is what it means to prophesy something. The bottom line is this: to show this (or anything) to be a prophecy, you must show that a prediction was made before the event and that the event occurred the way it is alleged to have taken place.
First, you must prove that a detailed prediction was made, and that it was represented as such. You cannot take the cryptic poetry of Nostradamus or the Book of Revelation and try to make modern events try to fit the imagery of the poetic writings -- especially if you cannot show that the writer thought they were prophesies. (Can you imagine a prophet not knowing he's reciting the words of God?) This proves nothing. If your goal is to showcase the supernatural ability to predict the future, you will not get very far using the Nostradamus trick: very few will be convinced. But, if someone had, for example, predicted that 19 men would hijack planes and that three of them would hit their targets but the fourth attempt would be foiled by passengers, and that the targets would be the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and had this been published, say, in the "Personals" classified section of an alternative weekly tabloid in a California coastal town for the week of August 19-25, 2001, we'd have a pretty good example of what I'm calling a prophecy. But to say "Two brothers torn apart by Chaos, while the fortress endures" means nothing when attempting to validate somebody's claim to have predicted the future -- particularly since this doubly bogus quatrain is allegedly dated 88 years after Nostradamus died! Ah, but this one could be covered up quite easily, and by the time our generation dies off and a new government is installed and a new language spoken by the people, someone might be able to make a credible case that Nostradamus did say this and did predict the attack!
Secondly, you must show that the prophecy was made before the event in question. Yes, we now have copies of Isaiah 53 that predate Jesus, but this was not always the case (though the likelihood that Isaiah 53 predates Jesus has never been questioned). In the classic example of a fraud gone awry, bogus "psychic" Tamara Rand, producer Dick Maurice, and talk show host Gary Grecco tried to deceive their viewers by asserting that a taped episode of "The Dick Maurice Show," was produced on January 6, 1981. On this episode, Rand, the featured guest, "predicted" the assassination attempt by John Hinkley on Ronald Reagan. Actually, this episode was taped on March 31, 1981, a day after Hinkley shot Reagan.
Thirdly, you must show that the event predicted did, in fact, take place as predicted. We'd have no trouble verifying the WTC attack had somebody predicted it although with the tens of thousands of spiritualists in New York City alone, nobody saw this coming. Here is where I have problems with the Gospel accounts. Most of the Gospel stories seem too much as if they were written with a list of "Messianic Prophesies" in hand. Perhaps a leader gathered a bunch of these "predicted events" and wrote them down in a list, and then handed this list to a writer and said, "Here are the basic facts, fill in the details to construct a 'Life of Jesus' with these." The more I've studied the Messianic Prophesies the more convinced I become that this is what happened. The stories such as the donkeys and the palm leaves and the gambling for the coat and many, many others seem so contrived that I can no longer give them a serious reading. I cannot read this stuff without laughing, it's that transparent.
Most psychics go through some earth-shattering experiences though they had no clue what was about to happen to them until after the events had already occurred (except in the case of death, where you don't know nothin' after the fact!). When Psychic Friends Network, America's then-leading 900-number psychic hotline service, filed for bankruptcy protection in early 1998, nobody saw this coming. The sudden death of famed astrologer Jeanne Dixon caught many by surprise; Dixon herself used to write her column a year in advance, knowing that in the event of her death the syndication service would discontinue the column the day she died.
Was Isaiah 53 Even a Prophecy?
Be very careful with this stuff. Isaiah 53 is very tricky because it is such a tough one to crack. However, keep in mind that almost all the others are relatively simple. And the apparent "success" of Isaiah 53 would in no way make up for the monumental failures of the others. Isaiah 53 is a failure, to be sure, once you examine the nature of prophecy and see that it is not a prophecy at all and was never intended to be one: you must twist this thing all out of context to turn it into a prophecy. However, at first glance, Isaiah 53 looks pretty good! Remember, though, Isaiah 53 is just one passage out of 39 (currently canonized) books of Hebrew Scripture, and it says some things that have nothing to do with Jesus, and also omits some important elements of the Jesus story that you'd expect to see in something alleging to be a prediction about him.
The most crucial omission is even a hint -- a suggestion -- that this is intended to be a prophecy at all! It isn't a prophecy. At all. It has none of the elements of the classic Ezekiel "Thus Saith The Lord" if you don't do this, then such and so will happen. Isaiah even contains a prophecy just so we'll know what one looks like (assuming both sections were written by the same man). I shall retell the story based upon the famous commentary by United States Founder Thomas Paine: In Isaiah 7:14, the famous "Virgin shall conceive" passage is actually about Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz -- not Jesus -- and Isaiah gives this prophecy as a sign to Ahaz, the king of Judah, that he'd win the upcoming battle when Pekah, king of Israel would join himself to Rezin, king of Syria, to make war against Ahaz. In other words, the birth of this child would prove to him that these two kings should not succeed against him! And so, in order to "fulfill" the "birth of the child" section of this prophecy, what does Isaiah do? In 13:2, Isaiah says, "I went in unto the Prophetess, and she conceived and bear a son." Ah, okay! Well, there's a self-fulfilling prophecy if I ever heard one! In verse 18 he reiterates: "Behold I and the children whom the Lord hath given me are for signs and for wonders in Israel."
Was Isaiah Even a Prophet of God?
Oh, but even Isaiah is not fool enough to carry us through to the finish of this story. Another chronicler, one who was not working in league with Isaiah (and perhaps was unaware of this "prophecy"), tells us what became of this upcoming battle. In II Chronicles 28:1, the chronicler tells us, about Ahaz: "Ahaz was twenty years old when he began to reign. and he reigned sixteen years in Jerusalem, but he did not that which was right in the sight of the Lord." Okay, so we have a different picture: Instead of the Lord giving the king signs as a trusted servant, here he is disobedient and about to be punished.
But look very closely at the precise nature of this punishment, described in verse 5: "Wherefore the Lord his God delivered him into the hand of the king of Syria, and they smate him, and carried away a great multitude of them captive and brought them to Damascus; and he was also delivered into the hand of the king, of Israel, who smote him with a great slaughter." So, instead of things going according to the prophecy of Isaiah, they ended up happening in the exact reverse of what Isaiah is said to have prophesied!
You don't need to try to verify this one from outside sources, the whole thing is contained right here in the Bible itself. Also, the Deuteronomy 18 gives us a test to determine whether we're dealing with a false prophet:
 But the prophet, which shall presume to speak a word in my name, which I have not commanded him to speak, or that shall speak in the name of other gods, even that prophet shall die.
If the prophet makes a single mistake -- if the prophet predicts one thing that does not come to pass, then that prophet has not spoken with God. So, since the Bible god botched this one, we don't have to believe a word that the Bible god says, right? Well, no, it's a bit more complicated than that -- but we've at least nullified Isaiah's claim to having been a prophet of God! According to the Bible, Isaiah was a false prophet, and ought to have been put to death. Do not pay attention to what Isaiah 53 says, no matter how impressive it sounds.
Positive Atheism Magazine
Six years of service to
people with no reason to believe
Material by Cliff Walker (including unsigned editorial commentary) is copyright ©1995-2006 by Cliff Walker. Each submission is copyrighted by its writer, who retains control of the work except that by submitting it to Positive Atheism, permission has been granted to use the material or an edited version: (1) on the Positive Atheism web site; (2) in Positive Atheism Magazine; (3) in subsequent works controlled by Cliff Walker or Positive Atheism Magazine (including published or posted compilations). Excerpts not exceeding 500 words are allowed provided the proper copyright notice is affixed. Other use requires permission; Positive Atheism will work to protect the rights of all who submit their writings to us.