The Fabulous Prophecies Of The Messiah
This text copyright (c) 1993 by Jim Lippard, 2930 E. 1st St., Tucson, AZ 85716 (email@example.com).
Permission is granted to redistribute this file electronically provided this notice is retained.
"The Old Testament ... contains several hundred references to the Messiah. All of these were
fulfilled in Christ and they establish a solid confirmation of his credentials as the Messiah." --
Josh McDowell (1972), p. 147
"I have examined all the passages in the New Testament quoted from the Old, and so-called
prophecies concerning Jesus Christ, and I find no such thing as a prophecy of any such
person, and I deny there are any." -- Thomas Paine (1925), p. 206
These two quotations express diametrically opposed views about whether or not the life of Jesus as
described by the New Testament gospels fulfills prophecies of the Jewish Messiah found in the Hebrew
scriptures. Josh McDowell's view is the standard evangelical Christian view, found in countless Christian
apologetic works. The view expressed by Thomas Paine, however, is much less widely known. This is
unfortunate, because Paine is correct. Every case of alleged fulfillment of messianic prophecy suffers from
one of the following failings: (1) the alleged Old Testament prophecy is not a messianic prophecy or not a
prophecy at all, (2) the prophecy has not been fulfilled by Jesus, or (3) the prophecy is so vague as to be
unconvincing in its application to Jesus.
The Significance of Messianic Prophecy
Before examining specific claims of fulfilled messianic prophecy, some remarks should be made about its
significance. The fulfillment of biblical prophecy is a central pillar in evangelical Christian apologetic
arguments for the truth and accuracy of the Bible. The Bible contains many statements about future
events which are intended to be prophetic--the books of the prophets, such as those of Isaiah and
Jeremiah, are full of them. Of these statements, many are about actual historical events of the past. Given
our present knowledge of the chronology of the Bible's writing, however, in most cases it cannot be
demonstrated that the prophetic statements do not post-date the events being predicted. In the case of
the Old Testament prophecies of the Messiah, however, we have documents (e.g., the Dead Sea Scrolls)
which do predate the time at which the historical Jesus is believed to have lived. If numerous specific and
detailed prophecies in the Old Testament were found to match the life of an historical Jesus, this would
provide considerable evidence in support of the Christian faith. This is just what Christian apologists claim
to be the case.
On the other hand, if it were found that there are no such specific prophecies fulfilled by Jesus, or that
there are specific messianic prophecies which were not fulfilled by Jesus, this would be evidence against the
truth of Christianity. Since Christianity claims accuracy and truth of both the Old and New Testaments, it is
bound by the biblical standards for a true prophet of God set forth in the Hebrew scriptures. The book of
Deuteronomy puts forth these standards when it says that Moses, speaking on behalf of God in chapter
18, verse 22, proclaimed that "When a prophet speaks in the name of the Lord, if the thing does not
come about or come true, that is the thing which the Lord has not spoken. The prophet has spoken it
presumptuously; you shall not be afraid of him." In verse 20, he says that "... the prophet who shall speak
a word presumptuously in my name which I have not commanded him to speak, or which he shall speak in
the name of other gods, that prophet shall die." In other words, any prophecy from God is guaranteed to
be accurate, and any prophecy which is not from God but given in his name shall guarantee the death of
While these standards require that prophecies from God are accurate, truth of a prophecy does not
guarantee that it comes from God. Deuteronomy 13:1-5 points out that false prophets may also be
accurate, but true prophets will never lead Jews astray from their religion, under penalty of death.
If, as I will show, there are messianic prophecies which are not fulfilled by Jesus (and which will not be
fulfilled in the future), then these standards entail that either Jesus was not the Messiah or the prophecies
in question were not made by a true prophet of God. Both horns of the dilemma have the consequence
that any form of Christianity which maintains biblical inerrancy is false.
There are a number of alleged messianic prophecies about Jesus' birth: prophecies about the location,
manner, and time of his birth, about his genealogy, and about events which were to occur at the time of
his birth. Probably the most famous of these prophecies is the prophecy that Jesus would be born of a
virgin. The gospels of Matthew (1:18-25) and Luke (1:26-35) both claim that Jesus was born of a virgin,
but only Matthew (1:23) appeals to the Hebrew scriptures as an explanation for why this should be the
case. The verse appealed to is Isaiah 7:14, which reads: "Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign:
Behold, a virgin will be with child and bear a son, and she will call his name Immanuel."
There are a number of difficulties with this passage. As many have noted, the Hebrew word translated as
"virgin" in this verse is "almah," which is more accurately translated simply as "young woman." The Hebrew
word "bethulah" means "virgin." In the book of Isaiah, "bethulah" appears four times (23:12, 37:22, 47:1,
62:5), so its author was aware of the word. In the New American Standard translation of the Bible, all
other appearances of "almah" are translated simply as "girl," "maid," or "maiden" (viz: Genesis 24:43,
Exodus 2:8, Psalms 68:25, Proverbs 30:19, Song of Solomon 1:3, 6:8). Thus the claimed fulfillment adds
a biologically impossible condition which is not even present in the original prophecy.
Another problem is that nowhere in the New Testament does Mary, Jesus' mother, refer to him as
"Immanuel." Thus we have no evidence that one of the conditions of the prophecy was ever fulfilled.
But the most serious problem with this alleged messianic prophecy is that it has been taken out of
context. Looking at the entire seventh chapter of Isaiah, it becomes clear that the child in question is to
be born as a sign to Ahaz, King of Judah, that he will not be defeated in battle by Rezin, King of Syria, and
Pekah, son of the King of Israel. Jesus' birth was some seven centuries late to be such a sign. In Isaiah
8:3-4, a prophetess gives birth to a son--Maher-shalal-hash-baz--who is clearly described as the
fulfillment of the prophecy in Isaiah 7:14.
J. Edward Barrett (1988, p. 14) points out evidence that early Christians rejected the virgin birth. One
piece of Barrett's evidence is that in 1 Timothy 1:3-4, the writer (who may or may not be the apostle Paul)
advises that his audience "instruct certain men not to teach strange doctrines, nor to pay attention to
myths and endless genealogies, which give rise to mere speculation rather than furthering the
administration of God which is by faith." The earliest gospel, Mark, lacks an account of Jesus' birth, as
does John, the latest gospel. Virgin birth is obviously quite relevant to genealogy, and both Matthew and
Luke present Jesus' genealogy in close proximity to the story.
A second claimed birth prophecy is that Jesus would be born in the city of Bethlehem, cited in Matthew
(2:1-6), Luke (2:4-7), and John's (7:42) gospels. Of these, Matthew and John specifically refer to
prophecy in the Hebrew scriptures. The passage referred to is Micah 5:2, which reads: "But as for you,
Bethlehem Ephrathah, too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you one will go forth for me to be
ruler in Israel. His goings forth are from long ago, from the days of eternity." "Ephrathah" is the ancient
name of Bethlehem (Genesis 35:19, Ruth 4:11) but, to confuse matters, "Bethlehem Ephrathah" is also
the name of a person: Bethlehem the son (or grandson) of Ephrathah (1 Chronicles 4:4, 2:50-51). This
prophecy could therefore refer to either a native of the town or to a descendent of the person. If the
latter, Jesus does not qualify since neither of his alleged genealogies (more on these below) list either
Bethlehem or Ephrathah. If the former (more likely since Bethlehem was the birthplace of King David, from
whom the Messiah is supposed to be descended), then Jesus qualifies by birthplace but fails to meet
the condition of being "ruler in Israel." Christians claim that this is a prophecy which will be fulfilled at the
There are various alleged genealogical prophecies about the ancestry of the Messiah. It is claimed that
Genesis 22:18 and 12:2-3 are prophecies that the Messiah will be a descendent of Abraham, but these
verses say nothing about the Messiah. They say simply that the descendents of Abraham will be blessed.
Other claimed prophecies about the Messiah's ancestry are that he will be of the tribe of Judah (Genesis
49:10, Micah 5:2), of the family line of Jesse (Isaiah 11:1, 10), and of the house of David (Jeremiah 23:5,
2 Samuel 7:12-16, Psalms 132:11). Some of these do appear to be genuine messianic prophecies, but
others simply seem to refer to future kings. All of these verses refer to kings--and thus none have been
fulfilled by Jesus.
But the problems for these prophecies run even deeper. Is Jesus actually of the tribe of Judah, the family
line of Jesse, and the house of David? The sole evidence for this is two sets of genealogies for Jesus, in
Matthew 1:1-17 and Luke 3:23-38. Both of these trace Jesus' lineage through his father, Joseph. If the
virgin birth story is taken seriously, then Jesus lacks the proper ancestry. On the other hand, if the
genealogy in Matthew is taken seriously, then Jesus has as an ancestor Jeconiah (Matthew 1:12), of whom
the prophet Jeremiah said, "Write this man down as childless, a man who will not prosper in his days, for
no man of his descendants will prosper sitting on the throne of David or ruling again in Judah." (Jeremiah
22:30) The genealogy in Luke suffers from the same problem, since it includes Shealtiel and Zerubbabel,
both of whom were descendents of Jeconiah.
A final oft-noted problem is that the genealogies in Matthew and Luke contradict each other and the
Hebrew scriptures. Was Jesus' grandfather on Joseph's side Jacob (Matthew 1:16) or Eli (Luke 3:23)? Was
Shealtiel's father Jeconiah (1 Chronicles 3:17, Matthew 1:12) or Neri (Luke 3:27)? Matthew 1:11 omits
Jehoiakim (who in Jeremiah 36:29-30 suffers a curse similar to that of his son, Jeconiah) between Josiah
and Jeconiah (1 Chronicles 3:15) and Matthew 1:4 omits Admin between Ram and Amminadab (Luke
3:33). Finally, Matthew 1:13 says that Abiud is the son of Zerubbabel, Luke 3:27 says that Rhesa is the
son of Zerubbabel, but 1 Chronicles 3:19-20 lists neither as sons of Zerubbabel.
Another prophecy related to the birth of Jesus is the claim that the Messiah would be born at a time when
King Herod was killing children. Only the gospel of Matthew (2:16-18) makes this claim, quoting a
prophecy of Jeremiah (31:15) which states that "A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and great
mourning, Rachel weeping for her children; and she refused to be comforted, because they were no more."
There are two problems with this alleged messianic prophecy: it is not a prophecy about children being
killed and it is quite doubtful that there ever was such a slaughter of innocents by Herod. "Rachel weeping
for her children" refers to the mother of Joseph and Benjamin (and wife of Jacob) weeping about her
children taken captive to Egypt. In context, the verse is about the Babylonian captivity, which its author
witnessed. Subsequent verses speak of the children being returned, and thus it refers to captivity rather
than murder. The slaughter by Herod is also in doubt because the writer of Matthew is the only person
who has noted such an event. Flavius Josephus, who carefully chronicled Herod's abuses, makes no
mention of it.
Matthew goes on to claim that to evade Herod's murders, Jesus was taken as a child to Egypt. This is
done, according to Matthew 2:15, in order "that what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet might
be fulfilled, saying, 'Out of Egypt did I call my son.'" This is a reference to Hosea 11:1, which is not a
messianic prophecy at all. It is a reference to the Exodus of the Jews from Egypt.
At the end of the same chapter of Matthew (2:23), its author writes that Mary, Joseph, and the child Jesus
settled in Nazareth, in order "... that what was spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, 'He shall be
called a Nazarene.'" There is no such prophecy in the Hebrew scriptures, though some claim this refers to
Judges 13:5. This verse describes an angel speaking to the mother of Samson, telling her that her son
"shall be a Nazirite." This is not only not a messianic prophecy, it can't be what Matthew is referring to. A
Nazirite is quite different from a Nazarene. A Nazarene is an inhabitant of Nazareth, but a Nazirite is a Jew
who has taken special vows to abstain from all wine and grapes, not to cut his hair, and to perform special
sacrifices (see Leviticus 6:1-21). Jesus drank wine (Matthew 26:29, Mark 14:25, Luke 22:18), and so could
not have been a Nazirite.
A prophecy relating to the time of the Messiah which many evangelical Christians find extremely convincing
is found in the book of Daniel. It is probably no exaggeration to say that this prophecy, more than any
other, convinces Christians that Jesus was the Messiah. Daniel 9:24-27 says:
"Seventy weeks have been decreed for your people and your holy city, to finish the
transgression, to make an end of sin, to bring in everlasting righteousness, to seal up vision
and prophecy, and to anoint the most holy place.
"So you are to know and discern that from the issuing of a decree to restore and rebuild
Jerusalem until Messiah the Prince there will be seven weeks and sixty-two weeks; it will be built
again, with plaza and moat, even in times of distress.
"Then after the sixty-two weeks the Messiah will be cut off and have nothing, and the people of
the prince who is to come will destroy the city and the sanctuary. And its end will come with a
flood; even to the end there will be war; desolations are determined.
"And he will make a firm covenant with the many for one week, but in the middle of the week he
will put a stop to sacrifice and grain offering; and on the wing of abominations will come one
who makes desolate, even until a complete destruction, one that is decreed, is poured out on
the one who makes desolate."
The word translated in these verses as "weeks" is a form of the Hebrew word for "sevens," and is
interpreted by Christians to mean seven years rather than seven days. Thus "seventy weeks" in verse 24
is interpreted to mean seventy periods of seven years, or 490 years, "seven weeks" in verse 25 is
interpreted to mean 49 years, "sixty-two weeks" in verses 25 and 26 is interpreted to mean 434 years,
and "one week" in verse 27 is interpreted to mean seven years.
The starting point of the prophecy is the "issuing of a decree to restore and rebuild Jerusalem." A decree
described in the Bible to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem is found in 2 Chronicles 36:22-23 and Ezra 1:1-4.
These verses describe the decree issued by Cyrus, king of Persia and contemporary of Daniel, in 538
B.C.E. "Seven weeks and sixty-two weeks," or 483 years, after this decree would be 55 B.C.E., many
years too soon for Jesus.
So Christians must reject the equation of the decree in verse 25 with that of Cyrus, and they do. What
other decrees are available? Josh McDowell (1972, p. 180) offers three alternatives: a decree of Darius
described in the book of Ezra, a decree of Artaxerxes described in Ezra, and a decree of Artaxerxes
described in Nehemiah. The decree of Darius, described in Ezra 6:1-9, was to conduct a search of the
archives to find the text of the decree of Cyrus, and then to resume the construction of the temple at
Jerusalem using tax money. This occurred around 522 B.C.E. (see Ezra 4:24), which would put the coming
of the Messiah at 39 B.C.E.--still too early for Jesus.
The decree of Artaxerxes to Ezra described in Ezra 7:11-28 allows for the people of Israel to return to
Jerusalem, taking with them various support from the royal treasury. This decree was issued in 458 B.C.E.
(see Ezra 7:7), which would put the coming of the Messiah at 26 C.E. This works fairly well if you take the
end of the "sixty-two weeks" to be the beginning of Jesus' ministry, though most Christians take the end
point to be the crucifixion due to the reference in verse 26 of the Daniel prophecy to the Messiah being
"cut off." Most Christians reject this decree, as well as those of Cyrus and Darius, as being the appropriate
starting point for the prophecy. One exception is Gleason Archer. Archer (1982, pp. 290-291) argues that
Ezra 9:9 implies that Ezra was given permission by Artaxerxes to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem, despite
the fact that they were not rebuilt until the time of Nehemiah (see Nehemiah 1:3). Ezra 9:9 states that
God has not forsaken the Jews but has given them a chance "to raise up the house of our God, to restore
its ruins, and to give us a wall in Judah and Jerusalem." In defense of the end point of the "sixty-two
weeks" being the beginning of Jesus' ministry rather than his crucifixion, Archer points out that verse 26
of the prophecy says only that the Messiah's being "cut off" occurs after that time period, not necessarily
immediately after it.
The decree of Artaxerxes to Nehemiah described in Nehemiah 2:1-6 is really no decree at all. Rather,
Artaxerxes gives Nehemiah letters of safe conduct for travel to Judah and to obtain timber to rebuild the
gates of the temple and the walls of Jerusalem. This occurred in 445 B.C.E., putting the time of the
Messiah at 39 C.E., too late for Jesus, who is believed to have been crucified some time between 29 and
33 C.E. Despite these flaws, most evangelical Christians adopt this as the appropriate decree because
Nehemiah rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem. In order to make the 445 B.C.E. starting point result in an ending
point 483 years later that is either at the beginning of Jesus' ministry or at the time of the crucifixion,
something other than a 365-day year must be used. The most popular such calculation, due to Sir Robert
Anderson and promoted by Josh McDowell, is to adopt a "360- day prophetic year"--an invention of
Anderson based on his reading of Revelation 11:23, where he equates 42 months with 1260 days, giving
30 days per month. Using "prophetic years" puts the end of the 483-year period at 32 C.E., believed by
many to be the year of the crucifixion. Robert Newman (1990, pp. 112-114) points out several flaws in
this calculation scheme which together are fatal to it: (1) Revelation 11:23 does not justify the invention of
the "prophetic year," because there is no indication that 1260 days is said to be exactly 42 months (it
could be 41.5 rounded up), (2) a 360-day year would get out of synch with the seasons, and the Jews
added an extra lunar month every two or three years to their 354- day lunar year, giving them an average
year length of about 365 days, and (3) the present consensus on the date of the crucifixion is 30 C.E.
rather than 32 C.E.
Newman offers his own alternative: the use of sabbatical years, which do have biblical justification (Exodus
23:10-11 and Leviticus 25:3-7,18-22). Every seventh year is a sabbatical year. Newman uses information
from the first book of Maccabees, which has reference to an observance of a sabbatical year, to calculate
that 163-162 B.C.E. was a sabbatical year and therefore 445 B.C.E., the starting point of the Daniel
prophecy, falls in the seven-year sabbatical cycle 449-442 B.C.E. If this is the first sabbatical cycle in the
count, the sixty-ninth is 28-35 C.E., a time period that the crucifixion falls in. In response to the criticism
that the prophecy says that the Messiah will be "cut off" after sixty-two weeks, Newman says that in
conventional Jewish idiom "after" means "after the beginning of."
There are further problems for all of the above interpretations, which Gerald Sigal (1981, pp. 109-122)
points out. Foremost among Sigal's criticisms is that the Masoretic punctuation of the Hebrew Bible places
a division between the "seven weeks and sixty-two weeks," meaning that rather than stating that the
Messiah will come after the combined time periods, he will come after the "seven weeks" alone. Another
criticism Sigal makes is that the Hebrew text does not put a definite article in front of the word "Messiah"
(or "anointed one"). The Revised Standard Version of the Bible is translated with these facts in mind, and
it gives the Daniel 9:24-27 as follows:
Seventy weeks of years are decreed concerning your people and your holy city, to finish the
transgression, to put an end to sin, and to atone for iniquity, to bring in everlasting
righteousness, to seal both vision and prophet, and to anoint a most holy place. Know
therefore and understand that from the going forth of the word to restore and build Jerusalem
to the coming of an anointed one, a prince, there shall be seven weeks. Then for sixty-two
weeks it shall be built again with squares and moat, but in a troubled time. And after the
sixty-two weeks, an anointed one shall be cut off, and shall have nothing; and the people of
the prince who is to come shall destroy the city and the sanctuary. Its end shall come with a
flood, and to the end there shall be war; desolations are decreed. And he shall make a strong
covenant with many for one week; and for half of the week he shall cause sacrifice and offering
to cease; and upon the wing of abominations shall come one who makes desolate, until the
decreed end is poured out on the desolator.
Using the Masoretic punctuation, the "sixty-two weeks" goes with the rebuilding of the city rather than
with the coming of the Messiah. This interpretation explains why "seven weeks and sixty- two weeks" are
given separately, rather than simply stating "sixty-nine weeks." Most apologists are either unaware of or
ignore the Masoretic punctuation, but Robert Newman (1990, p. 116) rejects it on the grounds that "such
punctuation may not date back before the ninth or tenth century AD" and that the structure of the verses
as a whole favor his interpretation.
The result of all this? The Daniel prophecy is not nearly so convincing as it might initially appear to
someone presented only with one of the interpretations that "works." It is not surprising that with four
choices for beginning points (the decrees of Cyrus, Darius, and Artaxerxes, plus the letters of Artaxerxes
for Nehemiah), several possible choices for end points (the birth, ministry, and crucifixion of Jesus), and at
least three ways of counting (ordinary years, "prophetic years," and sabbatical cycles) calculations have
been found for which Jesus fits the prophecy. There are good reasons to reject each of these
interpretations. The first two choices for beginning points don't work for any offered interpretations. The
Artaxerxes decree works for ordinary years with the ministry of Jesus as the end point, but says nothing
about rebuilding Jerusalem. The Artaxerxes letters work for sabbatical cycles with the crucifixion as an end
point, but they are not a decree to rebuild the city of Jerusalem. Rather, they gave Nehemiah safe conduct
to Judah and permission to use lumber from the royal forests. Finally, none of them take into
consideration the Masoretic punctuation, which, if not itself in error, eliminates all of them as possible
interpretations of the text.
Alleged prophecies about Jesus' life and ministry claim that he would be preceded by a messenger (i.e.,
John the Baptist), that he would have a ministry in Galilee, that he would perform miracles, and that he
would have a triumphant entry into the city of Jerusalem on a donkey. The first of these, that he would be
preceded by a messenger, refers to Isaiah 40:3, which reads, "A voice is calling, 'clear the way for the Lord
in the wilderness; make smooth in the desert a highway for our God.'" This verse speaks not of a
messenger for the Messiah, but of the Jews being released from the Babylonian captivity. Another verse
claimed to offer the same prophecy is Malachi 3:1, which says "Behold, I am going to send my messenger,
and he will clear the way before me. ..." This may be plausibly taken as a messianic prophecy. But did John
the Baptist actually "clear the way" as a messenger for Jesus? The historian Flavius Josephus writes about
John the Baptist, but makes no link of his name with that of Jesus (Antiquities of the Jews, 18.5.2;
Josephus (1985), p. 382). The earliest of Christian writings, the letters of Paul, make no mention of John
the Baptist. The gospels (and the book of Acts, written by the author of Luke) are the only real evidence
of a link. But the gospel evidence does not hold up. The gospel of John shows John the Baptist explicitly
recognizing Jesus as the Messiah (John 1:25-34) before being cast into prison by Herod (John 3:23-24).
But the gospels of Matthew (11:2-3) and Luke (7:18-22) depict John the Baptist, in prison, sending his
disciples to Jesus to ask if he claims to be the Messiah. If the story in John were true, John the Baptist
would have had no reason to ask this question. (For more on John the Baptist and his relation to Jesus,
see Miosi (1993).)
Christian apologists claim that Jesus' Galilean ministry is prophesied by Isaiah 9:1, which says, "... in earlier
times he [God] treated the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali with contempt, but later on he shall
make it glorious, by the way of the sea, on the other side of Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles." All this verse
says is that God will make the area "glorious"--it says nothing of ministry by the Messiah. The subsequent
verses (Isaiah 9:6-7) speak of a child to be born who will be king, whose "name will be called Wonderful
Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace." Jewish tradition says that this refers to King
Hezekiah, not the Messiah (Sigal 1981, pp. 29-32). Isaiah 9:7, if applied to Jesus, is unfulfilled since it
speaks of his kingship.
Prophecy of Jesus' miraculous healings are purported to be found in Isaiah 35:5-6 and Isaiah 32:3-4. The
latter does not speak of healing, but says that "the eyes of those who see will not be blinded, and the
ears of those who hear will listen. And the mind of the hasty will discern the truth, and the tongue of the
stammerers will hasten to speak clearly." It is further stated that this will occur during the reign of a king
(Isaiah 32:1), which did not occur in Israel during Jesus' ministry. The former verse, on the other hand,
describes people being healed ("the eyes of the blind will be opened, and the ears of the deaf will be
unstopped") but also, in verses 7-8, describes land being "healed." There is no clear indication here that
these healings have anything to do with the Messiah, rather, it is God himself doing the healing. The
gospels contain no account of Jesus healing land.
A final prophecy dealing with Jesus' life and ministry is Zechariah 9:9, which says "Behold, your king is
coming to you ... humble, and mounted on a donkey, even on a colt, the foal of a donkey." Again, Jesus
was not king, so that aspect of the prophecy remains unfulfilled. The alleged fulfillment of this prophecy is
also problematic. According to Mark (10:11-19), Luke (19:28-38), and John (12:12-19), Jesus entered
Jerusalem riding on a donkey. But Matthew 21:1-11 has Jesus riding on both a donkey and a colt,
indicating his misunderstanding of the prophecy.
A number of alleged prophecies relate to Jesus' betrayal by Judas. These include prophecies that Jesus
would be betrayed by a friend for thirty pieces of silver and that this money would be thrown into the
temple and used to buy a potter's field. Two verses taken as prophecies of betrayal by a friend are Psalms
41:9 and Psalms 55:12-14, the former of which reads, "Even my close friend, in whom I trusted, who ate
my bread, has lifted up his heel against me." Both are psalms which speak of feelings of pain from being
betrayed by a close and trusted friend. Yet Jesus already had foreknowledge of his betrayal by Judas (John
13:21-26), and so must not have trusted him. When the gospel of John (13:18) quotes from Psalm 41:9,
it tacitly admits this problem by omitting the phrase "in whom I trusted." Neither verse from the Hebrew
scriptures gives any indication of being intended as prophetic.
Matthew 26:14-15 states that Judas Iscariot was paid thirty pieces of silver by the Jewish priests as
payment for his betrayal. Matthew 27:9-10 claims that this is done to fulfill a prophecy of Jeremiah:
Then that which was spoken through Jeremiah the prophet was fulfilled, saying, "And they took
the thirty pieces of silver for the price of the one whose price had been set by the sons of
Israel; and they gave them for the potter's field, as the Lord directed me."
The problem here is that the quoted verse appears nowhere in the book of Jeremiah. There is a verse
which is quite similar in the book of Zechariah, but there the prophet Zechariah is speaking about himself
and no betrayal is involved. Christian apologist Gleason Archer (1982, p. 345) tries to resolve this problem
by citing various verses in Jeremiah which refer to "the prophet purchasing a field in Anathoth for a certain
number of shekels" (32:6-9), "the prophet as watching a potter fashioning earthenware vessels in his
house" (18:2), "a potter near the temple" (19:2), and God saying "Even so I will break this people and this
city as one breaks a potter's vessel" (19:11). Why does Archer write "a certain number of shekels" instead
of giving the number specified in Jeremiah? Because Jeremiah 32:9 says seventeen shekels, not thirty.
What Archer has done here is simply look for the words "potter," "shekel," and "field" in an attempt to
argue that Matthew really was referring to Jeremiah rather than Zechariah. But there is really no question
that Matthew meant to refer to Zechariah rather than Jeremiah. Compare Zechariah 11:12-13:
And I said to them, "If it is good in your sight, give me my wages; but if not, never mind!" So
they weighed out thirty shekels of silver as my wages. Then the Lord said to me, "Throw it to
the potter, that magnificent price at which I was valued by them." So I took the thirty shekels
of silver and threw them to the potter in the house of the Lord.
Again, this is Zechariah speaking of his own experience rather than a messianic prophecy. But Matthew
27:5-7 tries to fulfill this non-prophecy by telling a story of Judas Iscariot throwing his payment into the
temple before committing suicide, after which the priests use the money to buy a potter's field. This story
does not appear in the other gospels (though Acts 1:18-19 says that Judas himself, rather than the
priests, bought a field with the (unspecified amount of) money earned by his betrayal).
Another problem with this alleged prophecy is that in the earliest (Syriac) manuscripts of Zechariah, verse
13 does not even contain the word "potter"--instead, it says "treasury," which makes more sense but
further damages its credibility as prophecy. (The Revised Standard Version gives the verse as "Cast it into
the treasury," with the "to the potter" translation relegated to a footnote.)
Christian apologists are perhaps most impressed by a number of alleged prophecies relating to Jesus'
crucifixion. They claim that the Hebrew scriptures contain prophecies that Jesus would be crucified, that his
garments would be divided by the casting of lots, that he would be given wine mixed with gall or myrrh,
that he would cry out about being forsaken, and that none of his bones would be broken. There are
several verses taken to refer to crucifixion: Psalms 22:16, Zechariah 12:10, and Zechariah 13:6 are typical
examples. Psalms 22:16 reads, "For dogs have surrounded me; a band of evildoers has encompassed me;
they pierced my hands and my feet." This is a psalm of David which gives no indication of being prophetic
and which describes the speaker being hunted down and killed rather than being crucified. Gerald Sigal
(1981, p. 98) argues that the Hebrew word translated here as "pierced" is "ariy," which means "lion," and
so a more accurate translation would be "like a lion [they are gnawing at] my hands and feet." Gleason
Archer (1982, p. 37), however, argues that "they pierced" is correct, based on the Septuagint's
translation and other considerations.
Zechariah 12:10 says "they will look on me whom they have pierced; and they will mourn for him, as one
mourns for an only son ...." The gospel of John (19:37) takes this as prophecy fulfilled by Jesus'
crucifixion, but there is no indication that this speaks of crucifixion. Further, the "him" being mourned for
is not the "me" that is being pierced. The Jewish interpretation of this verse is that God is speaking of the
people of Israel being "pierced" or attacked (Sigal 1981, pp. 80-82).
Zechariah 13:6 speaks of "these wounds between your arms," spoken of one who claims not to be a
prophet and to have been sold as a slave in his youth (Zechariah 13:5). Wounds between one's arms are
not characteristic of crucifixion, and Jesus was neither sold as a slave nor claimed not to be a prophet.
Only the gospel of John speaks of Jesus' garments being divided among the soldiers and their casting of
lots for his tunic (John 19:23-24), and he cites Psalms 22:18 as the prophecy which is thereby fulfilled.
This latter verse reads, "They divide my garments among them, and for my clothing they cast lots." This
verse tells of one event--clothing being divided by the casting of lots. But John transforms it into two
events: first the division of Jesus' clothing apart from his tunic (John 19:23) and then casting of lots for
his tunic (John 19:24). It appears that John created a story in an attempt to provide a fulfillment for his
misunderstanding of a verse which gives no indication of being a prophecy in the first place.
Matthew (27:34) speaks of Jesus being given "wine to drink mingled with gall" and Mark (15:23) says he
was offered "wine mixed with myrrh." These are both taken to be references to Psalms 69:21, which says
"they gave me gall for my food, and for my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink." The Hebrew word here
translated as "gall" is "rosh," meaning poison or gall, and referring to some poisonous plant. The verse
says that poison is being put into food, which does not apply to the crucifixion. Myrrh, which is not
poisonous, is referred to by the Hebrew word "mor," which does not appear in Psalms 69:21. This psalm,
which speaks repeatedly of flood waters, gives no indication of being either prophetic or of applying to
The gospels of Matthew (27:46) and Mark (15:34) give Jesus' last words as "My God, my God, why hast
thou forsaken me," a quotation of Psalms 22:1. Luke (23:46) gives "Father, into thy hands I commit my
spirit" as Jesus' final words, while John (19:30) has Jesus say "It is finished." Only the first of these is
claimed to be fulfillment of prophecy, yet it is hardly miraculous that Jesus would make such a statement.
Presumably Jesus was familiar with the Hebrew scriptures. Such a remark, however, is inconsistent with
Christian theology. Why would Jesus, supposed to be God incarnate, speak of being forsaken by himself
at all, let alone at the culmination of his plan for human salvation? It is also not apparent that Psalms 22 is
either prophetic or applicable to Jesus (see Sigal 1981, pp. 95-99).
A final prophecy I wish to examine relating to the crucifixion is that Jesus' bones would not be broken. It is
only the gospel of John (19:32-36) which tells of soldiers breaking the legs of the crucifixion victims to
hasten their deaths, yet sparing Jesus because he was already dead. John 19:36 cites Psalms 34:20, "He
keeps all his bones; not one of them is broken," as the prophecy which is thereby fulfilled. There is no
indication that Psalms 34 is intended as prophetic, nor that it applies to Jesus. The intent in the gospel of
John is to represent Jesus as a sacrifice, specifically corresponding to the paschal lamb (e.g., John 1:29,
36). A requirement of the paschal lamb is that none of its bones be broken (Exodus 12:46, Numbers
9:12). But this analogy fails for several reasons: the paschal lamb was not for the atonement of sin, and
Jewish sacrifices were required to be completely without blemish, sore, or injury (Leviticus 22:20-25) while
Jesus was scourged and mutilated (John 19:1; Sigal 1981, pp. 265-268).
It is worth briefly examining some conclusions regarding messianic prophecies quite contrary to mine
presented by Peter Stoner (1952) (and repeated in McDowell (1972)). Stoner calculates the probability of
just eight messianic prophecies being fulfilled as 1 in 10^21 (McDowell (1972), citing a more recent
edition of Stoner's book, gives the probability as 1 in 10^17. Jeffrey (1990, pp. 17-20) gives a list of
eleven messianic prophecies and a probability of 1 in 10^19.) There are a number of problems with
Stoner's calculations. The probability of each prophecy being fulfilled by chance was arrived at by getting
an estimate from "a class in Christian Evidences" at Pasadena City College sponsored by Inter-Varsity
Christian Fellowship (Stoner 1952, p. 71). These estimates did not consider any of the above objections
to these prophecies, nor did they consider the possibility of intentional fulfillment. (For example, a Messiah
claimant might hire a John-the-Baptist-style messenger to precede him, or intentionally ride a donkey into
the city of Jerusalem.) Another problem with this method is that such probability estimates are notoriously
unreliable. Of these problems, the most serious is Stoner's failure to consider the objections I have
offered above, and it alone is sufficient to invalidate his calculations.
I have examined more than two dozen alleged messianic prophecies which Christian apologists claim are
fulfilled by Jesus. Although there are many more claimed such prophecies (e.g., McDowell (1972) lists 61 in
some detail and refers to numerous additional verses without details), these are by far the best examples,
by the apologists' own reckoning. This examination shows that none stands up as a specific, detailed,
and accurate prediction of an event which came to occur in the life of Jesus. Instead, the purported
prophecies appear to be the result of deliberate attempts by the gospel writers and Christian apologists to
find post hoc similarities between events described in the New Testament and the Hebrew scriptures.
Messianic prophecies, contrary to apologists, do not provide evidence for Christian faith.
 It could be argued (and has been argued by Jews at least since the third century) that Jesus led Jews
astray from their religion and was therefore a false prophet. See Sanhedrin 43a in the Babylonian Talmud
(Epstein 1935, p. 281).
 It should be noted that some Christian apologists claim that "virgin" is meant because the Jewish
translators of the Old Testament into its Greek form (the Septuagint) used the Greek word "parthenos"
("virgin") for "almah" in translating this verse. This probably indicates, rather, that Matthew used the
Septuagint. Gerald Sigal (1981, p. 24) points out a case (Genesis 34:3) where the Septuagint uses
"parthenos" for the Hebrew word "na'arah" ("girl") when the woman in question is most definitely not a
virgin (see Genesis 34:2). Nahigian (1993, p. 13) also points out that later Greek translations of Isaiah, by
Aquila, Theodocion, Lucian, and others did not use "parthenos" to translate "almah" in Isaiah 7:14.
 The usual Christian response is to invoke a doctrine of "double fulfillment" of prophecy. Note that this,
combined with the Christian view that "almah" means "virgin," means that the Christian must accept two
 The gospel of John says nothing about Jesus being from Bethlehem, but instead says that he is from
Nazareth in Galilee. See John 1:45-46 and 7:41-42,52.
 There are two common attempts made to resolve these contradictions. The most common among
evangelical Christians is to claim that Luke's genealogy is that of Mary, not Joseph. This fails to explain the
repeated convergence followed by divergence as you trace the ancestry backward. It also fails to explain
why the Luke genealogy contains almost twice as many ancestors as Matthew's in the same time period.
Yet another problem is that this explanation conflicts with the Catholic tradition which says that Mary's
parents were Joachim and Anna. A second explanation, favored by Catholics, is that each case of
divergence is the result of Levirate marriage. That is, the discrepant fathers are brothers of each other,
and when one died the other married his brother's wife (see Deuteronomy 25:5). This explanation also
fails to explain the difference in number of ancestors.
 Micah 5:2 (born in Bethlehem), Malachi 3:1 (preceded by a messenger), Zechariah 9:9 (enters
Jerusalem on a donkey), Zechariah 13:6 (betrayed by a friend, wounded in hands), Zechariah 11:12
(betrayed for thirty silver pieces), Zechariah 11:13 (silver thrown in temple and used to purchase potter's
field), Isaiah 53:7 (remains silent before accusers), and Psalms 22:16 (hands and feet pierced). All of these
except the Isaiah verse have been examined above (see note 9).
 Jeffrey gives the same eight as Stoner and McDowell (substituting Isaiah 40:3 for "preceded by a
messenger" and Psalms 41:9 for "betrayed by a friend") and adds Isaiah 53:5 (wounded and whipped by
enemies), Isaiah 50:6 (spit upon and beaten), and Isaiah 53:12 (crucified with thieves). These latter three
verses are not addressed in this article; see note 9.
 See Kahneman, Slovic, and Tversky (1982) and Falk (1982).
 Prophecies I have not dealt with include Isaiah's writings about the "Suffering Servant," which are dealt
with by Sigal (1981, pp. 35-68) and in issue 30 (June 1985) of Biblical Errancy.
Thanks to Ed Babinski, who recommended Gerald Sigal's book, and to Robert Sheaffer
(firstname.lastname@example.org) for his helpful comments on an early draft of this article, and to David Wood
(email@example.com) for pointing out the RSV translation of Zechariah 11:13.
All Bible quotations, except where otherwise noted, are from the New American Standard translation.
Archer, Gleason (1982) Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan Publishing
Barrett, J. Edward (1988) "Can Scholars Take the Virgin Birth Seriously?", Bible Review, October, pp.
Epstein, Rabbi Dr. I., editor (1935) The Babylonian Talmud: Sanhedrin. London: The Soncino Press.
Falk, Ruma (1982) "On Coincidences," Skeptical Inquirer 6(Winter 1981-82):18-31.
Jeffrey, Grant R. (1990) Armageddon: Appointment with Destiny. N.Y.: Bantam.
Josephus, Flavius (1985) The Works of Josephus. Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers. Translated by
Kahneman, Daniel, Slovic, Paul, and Tversky, Amos (1982) Judgment Under Uncertainty: Heuristics and
Biases. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
McDowell, Josh (1972) Evidence That Demands A Verdict. San Bernardino, Calif.: Here's Life Publishers.
Miosi, Frank T. (1993) "Who Was John the Baptist?" Free Inquiry 13(2, Spring):38-45.
Nahigian, Kenneth E. (1993) "A Virgin-Birth Prophecy?" The Skeptical Review 4(2, Spring):13-14, 16.
Newman, Robert C. (1990) "The Time of the Messiah." In Robert C. Newman, editor, The Evidence of
Prophecy, second printing with corrections. Hatfield, Penn.: Interdisciplinary Biblical Research Institute, pp.
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Works of Thomas Paine, volume IX. New Rochelle, N.Y.: Thomas Paine National Historical Association, pp.
Sigal, Gerald (1981) The Jew and the Christian Missionary: A Jewish Response To Missionary Christianity.
N.Y.: Ktav Publishing House, Inc.
Stoner, Peter W. (1952) Science Speaks: An Evaluation of Certain Christian Evidences. Wheaton, Ill.: Van
Kampen Press, Inc.Browse all articles.